There are different kinds of memories. Events and happenings. Climactic moments. Hallmark days, such as a wedding, a funeral, a graduation. There are other memories that run deeper. Memories of…scents…sounds…sight. Memories of emotion and feeling are perhaps the strongest. The overwhelming moment when something happened inside of you; it changed the way you thought or felt about something. Like you could almost feel your brain morphing. The light bulb went on. The “aha” moment. The door shutting – for good this time – on a path of the past, a path that had been worn down and was going nowhere, and you struggled to get out of its rut, and now you can. These moments are, as they say, more ’emblazoned in our memories’ – because they go to our core – our heart and soul – they become more memorable because we were changed in that moment, that moment that we’ll always remember. We are different going forth.
This week the President gave an interview on radio which was somewhat controversial – but he stood rock solid, with a smile to his critics. Something had changed in him. A light bulb moment. An “aha” moment. A door shutting, or perhaps opening. He put it simply when he said it: “I’m fearless now.” With that familiar jaunty full-faced smile we see more of these days.
This week I listened to a speech made by our new “fearless” President, this new Barack Obama. And as he was expected to do, but no one could have truly anticipated, he gave a rousing one. But he went beyond rousing. He made a substantive one. He used high emotion, tragedy and deliverance to talk about issues that our country has yet to solve – poverty, poor educational systems, unfair housing, gun control, mass incarceration, jobs, racism, subtle prejudice – and he couched it all in the word “grace”. Not “hope”, but “grace”.
And as natural as the gently waving program books in that church of 5,400 people – and in our homes and offices as we listened – our President began to sing. Low and deep he began. With the words, “Amazing grace. How sweet the sound…”.
I closed my eyes. I wanted to remember this day. Friday, June 26, 2015. I wanted to emblazon its memory into my mind. I wanted it to change me. I wanted to call my children to gather and listen, but I was frozen watching this all transpire. And as I thought of my children, grown and working now, I remembered Tuesday, January 20th, 2009. My daughters were 20 and 22. Just coming of age in this adult world. We sat in the living room with snacks. Dip and chips, Guacamole, Nachos, and fruit. We wore our baseball caps of red, white and blue – one for each of us – with the word “HOPE” stitched right on them. And we watched our President take the oath of office. He delivered another speech that day – and it was a rousing great one, too.
I remember thinking back to another day – September 11th, 2001. The day when hope died. When ‘future’ seemed grim and hard to imagine. My daughters were 12 and 14. I knew on that day as I watched them come home from school, that their lives had changed. Forever. 2001 began a time of war and fear in our country – faded only somewhat into the hope and change promised to us in 2009. Things seemed so bright. There was hope again.
Six years we have walked this path with the first black president in our country’s history. We have seen polarization and stagnation – and yes, we have seen change, and progress. Healthcare. Immigration. Employment. Yesterday we watched as same-sex marriage become the law of the land – and in a moment of glory and grace it became – just – “Marriage”.
We have watched our President age and turn grey. The memory of that promised hope has tinged grey, too. But he has moved beyond hope. As legacy looms in his mind and for history, he has moved the conversation along and called upon ‘grace’. He says he’s fearless now. He carries this new state of being with him, as he carries forth with a song from deep inside. He’s making new memories. With new words. Grace. Fearless. Legacy. He says he would have been a better president – today – than he was. Self-awareness is not lacking here.
But what can we learn? Have we learned that “hope and change” is not a plan? Do we need to conjure up some grace to lead ourselves along? And, if we can conjure up being fearless…think what we might do? Legacy looms closer at my age. The older-agers that 20 year olds grow weary of having around, are so important to moving hope and change along. The young-invincibles with a lifetime ahead of them, with things we need in this country – spark, energy, new ideas, and yes, hope. But fear stalks the young. It limits them. It holds them back. Fear of speaking out. Of repercussions. Of loss of friends, colleagues, or opportunities. Of career short-circuiting. Of brass-ring missing.
But with the legacy years comes a sense of fearlessness. And that is power. Yes, it’s time to perfect the chocolate chip cookies – to be remembered forever for. And to try for that hole in one. But let’s not drift away too far. Together, wrapped in hope, wrapped by grace, together, think what memories we could make. Think what legacies there could be, not just for us as people, but for these United States.
My “Bella” is a long-haired, black-and-white “Tuxedo” rescue cat. Her veterinarian, Dr. Cathy Lund, opened an all-cat practice in 1998 in Providence, RI. As her website states, she thought being an all-cat vet was just “purr-fect for her”.
I work on the fringes of healthcare, now, usually in promotions or marketing for a particular advocacy initiative or to raise funds for the cause du jour. However, I spent over 25 years engrossed in healthcare – most of it in the marketing end of a large, national nonprofit. Some of it as a communications professional for a small local hospital in an urban setting.
I spend a great deal of observation time these days looking at healthcare and its changes, improvements, and fragmentation bringing those professional perspectives to bear. A year or so back I looked at these issues from the inside, when my daughter had a short and sudden illness. But, a few times a year I look at it from the perspective of a cat. A black and white perspective, you might say. And each time I wonder, what lessons can be learned from the world of vet care to the world of human health care about a more patient-centric system.
First, I imagine how her medical record “notes” section might read:
“Bella is now in her 13th year, and is relatively healthy, though has struggled with mild obesity for most of her life. Her weight-loss attempts appear to have been exacerbated by a psychological need to overeat, perhaps as a coping mechanism resulting from post traumatic stress disorder of unknown origin, occurring early in life. Genetic traits are unknown, as Bella was taken in as a homeless stray at a few months of age. Our family accepted Bella into a home that had experienced a recent loss of two adult cats to old age. Bella’s earliest days included gender confusion, as she was first thought to be male and referred to as Mason. She was also aware of early desires to take her to a shelter and adopt her out to another home. However, these additional early traumas soon resolved themselves, and Bella acclimated well into her forever family. “
Bella, which translates to “The Beautiful One,” aptly describes the prominent place she has taken in the family.
While Bella has not had any extraordinary illness, other than a mini-surgical procedure for a five-foot long piece of string down her esophagus and the extraction of several teeth, she is not an easy patient. Her unknown past, and suspicion of being feral, has meant a delicate handling. All eyes are on prevention. Preventive care has meant regular check-ups, shots, nail clipping, and blood work. It has also meant dealing with a progressively standoffish attitude, which has deepened with age into full-blown rage at invasive examinations and the sight of any other feline. Her “mental health problem” has exacerbated the provision of her medical care. Bella does not take well to invasive procedures, yet requires regular examinations of nails, teeth, and ears. Inoculations. Blood work. Cautionary procedures include full-length protective gloves for all medical staff. Mild sedation is recommended. Experimental prescription of valium proved to be ineffective and was halted.
Throughout her years of care, reminder postcards and e-mails are received when it’s time for a check-up. Appointments are made on the phone or by request over the website. You can even request an appointment on Facebook; there’s an app for that. Waiting time is less than a week [same day if there is a crisis, and phone calls returned within an hour, if needed]. Appointments are confirmed by e-mail, and again, a few days before the appointment, there will be another e-mail and a phone call, along with any special instructions, such as nothing to eat and drink after midnight. The day of the appointment there is no waiting, and because Bella is a mild-sedation patient, a first-in appointment is always available, so the distress of not eating or drinking since midnight is not too discomforting. When she is brought in, given her mild state of a building mental health crisis, she is talked to calmly and gently by staff. They pet her paw through the gate of her carrier and she is quickly taken in.
In an attempt to take care of her quickly, due to her sedation, one can only envision the Mario Andretti racing team pit crew being called to her tableside. They swoop down and, in quick order, in less than half an hour, the care is done. Using sedation on an older cat is a concern that grows with age, so the quicker, the better. Their specialists have come together, each taken his/her turn – nails, teeth, ears, shots, blood work, a little shaving here and there, and good to go. Recovery is almost immediate as the sedation wears off. With a groggy “hisssss”, we know all is well.
There are follow-up instructions and education at the front desk. A quick checkout and then the next appointment is set. There is the constant reassurance, explanations, and calm demeanor. There is even a pat on the back for me, when I’ve needed it. We are good to go. Within a few hours of being home, City Kitty will call to see how Bella is doing and if I, her caretaker, have any questions. They refer to her by name and speak in an unhurried manner. Later that afternoon I will get an email. It asks us to submit a review: how did we do, and are there any suggestions? A few days later, there is another call. How is Bella? We’re thinking of her. Here is the result of her tests. Guess what? She is at her ideal weight! May she live long and well, and just call us with anything.
I am often struck by the quality of the “kitty care” provided to Bella – and what we could learn from it that might be applied to “health care” provided to humans.
Slow down might be a start. Look the family and the patient in the eye. Call the patient by name. Speak as if you genuinely care, because I assume you do. Don’t be afraid to touch the patient, or put your arm around a family member or caretaker. Repeat instructions. Ask if there are questions. Ask again. Provide information. And, educate and follow up, in several ways, by e-mail and again on the phone. Have a website that has a picture of the patient and their information, too, so they can see their records.
Keep good records. Have a resource link that is tailored for different types of patients and conditions. Tell us about who works there – not just their medical credentials, but a little bit of the personal, too – and perhaps show us their photo. Include a way on your website, or by e-mail or on social media, for us to ask you to call us, or to make an appointment.
Bella’s birthday is in February. She will be 14. She will receive a birthday postcard from City Kitty – and an email greeting, too – just as she has every year.
As published in the June 8th issue of ConvergenceRI
Yes, I’ve seen the movie and bought and read all the books. I am 50 Shades of Grey literate. I watched the live debut in London yesterday afternoon, on the internet, complete with the red carpet walk, and interviews with the producer and the writer who said she never dreamed she would be at a debut of a movie made from her books.
I thought the movie would not live up to the books, such as they are. Regardless of the success, or not, of the movie, the success of the books cannot be denied – if you judge success on books sold and money made. 100 million women anticipated to have read it. The formula these days seems to be in writing trilogies and in something that lends itself well to images, blogs, and social media – to hype the hype. 50 Shades has all of this. The book – as in any book – brings images to mind. Images that are as private as the image of each of us reading the book – in our easy chairs, in bed, late at night, on our computers, or ipads, hidden in our offices, or even reading on our cell phones, if we didn’t want to have the book in the house.
As the movie has come closer to opening, we hear a variety of words – anticipatory giggles, “when are you going”, “are you going with your husband”, “…with your boyfriend”, or “with the girls”? We hear angry words, mainly from women. Women talking about violence towards women, disrespect, abuse, and challenging each other to boycott the movie on behalf of the cause of feminism. Or we hear psychologists talk about the damage it will cause to young girls. We hear little from men. They say it’s a chick flick. And they don’t know what it’s about.
The Valentine’s Day opening was moved to the 13th, so ladies could go with their lady friends and still have their date nights on the 14th. Would couples attend together? Would there be giggles? Shifting in one’s seat? Sighs of mutual acknowledgement? Nods to each other when we leave the theater? Rushes to our cars? Would we post our thoughts on Facebook? Or would we be as quiet as we were in the private time when we read the book? Alone with our thoughts. With our ponderings. With a smattering of confusion.The theater was filled. Mainly women, but a few with male dates, too. We began with quiet applause, as if we had all been waiting a very long time in our lives. Popcorn at the ready, we snuggle down. Women in sweat pants and comfy clothes, no dress-up needed. There is humor in this film. Mainly it is comedic timing and natural instinct by Dakota Johnson. Jamie Dornan does not meet our expectations of Mr. Grey as neatly. How could any actor meet what each of us had imagined and created in our own minds? A little too slim. Curling up of the upper lip makes him always appear as about to giggle. Shoulders not broad enough. Though his hands are striking, and brought about an audible gasp from the audience as he clasped a table edge.
In my opinion, the movie is not about BDSM or violence against women. Or degradation. Or disrespect. It simply isn’t about any of that. It is about the fantasy. The fantasy of what women – mainly older women – might think about – sometimes. Maybe it’s even an offering of a fantastical thought, should the woman have run fresh out of them. The exploitations that may roll around in one’s mind, while the reality of acting upon any of it would equal the chagrin of a couple watching mid-core porn in a hotel room. Really, honey? But we might think about it. We might.
So, just what is the appeal of all of this experimental sex? What were the sexiest moments? Were they the riding crop, or were they by the piano listening to him play a haunting melody? Were they the necktie around her wrists, or were they taking her up on an air glider, a day completely planned by him, from beginning to end?
As I sit writing this I am listening to some “national expert” talking about the grave damage this movie will do to young girls….and I think about Bill Clinton and his declaration of “I did not have sex with that woman”. I think about how oral sex replaced intercourse by definition for young girls in an instant. And how a “goodnight, I had a nice time” with a kiss, became lost to the acceptable act of quick oral sex. One sided, I would add. How has HPV been spread exponentially? By young people – men & women – believing an STD could not be spread this way. Because this is not sex. The president said so. Talk to young women today. The sexual act, for many of them, is about their performance with their man. Not about receiving pleasure, or sexual skill of their partner. It is yet another giving act – much like making dinner, and doing the laundry. And if the money equation is tipped on the male’s side, even more.
50 Shades of Grey is fantasy. Speaking as a feminist, I believe men probably don’t get it (nor will they take the time to read or watch), so we need to tell them how we are feeling about it. It is not the black and white of sexual pleasure. It is the grey of our lives, of our minds, of our exhaustion. It is the grey of our feelings – of what might be, or could have been. It is a lifetime of fairy princesses and handsome princes, with broken promises for our lives, watched when we were very young. To be followed next by Donna Reed and Lucy and Laura & Dick Van Dyke. We have the ‘right’ to equal pay and our careers. Yet our “before” lives and responsibilities remain largely intact, too; just with more stacked upon it, very little removed or replaced. Many of us do all of this while also being the sandwiched caretakers of our aging parents. And still we hear we aren’t doing enough and that we need to “lean in” and do more. Be more.
The fantasy is freedom. It is putting our shoulders down and not worrying about what is for dinner or the buying and cooking of it, or where we will go if we go out (pick the restaurant, arrange for the babysitter, get the concert tickets, call the friends). It’s not worrying about buying our own car, or servicing it. Or paying all the bills. It’s not even thinking about what we will wear. It’s about looking good, being fit, being healthy, being taken care of. It is a fantasy of release.
But as the books and the movies are clear to reveal, the control in this fantasy is always the woman’s. She realizes it herself, half way through. Nothing is done to her she has not consented to, or actually asked for. Her inquisitiveness did take her a little too far, but sometimes that happens with a safe situation and a mind free to wander.
This movie is not for the young, and certainly not for tweens. Much damage has already been done by an ex-President, and what we watch on our televisions every day. Sex mixed with violence is power. Not sex. 50 Shades of Grey is none of those things. It is mature content, for a mature life. It is a gentle, ‘what if’. It is not a blonde princess spinning on the ice singing about her true love. It is, however, fodder for conversation between couples about that private part of their lives.
The fact that this movie is about to enjoy success at a time when the popular movies are showing some of our more famous female actresses at their worst – no makeup, abused, beaten, raped, going through physical challenges, etc. is an interesting coincidence. This time, we seem to want another fantasy. In the yin and yang of life, this time we want to be the woman offered an easier life, love, and consensually great sex (and of course we want control). But sometimes we also want to be seen as the woman who has been torn to the ground and has risen again, scathed and damaged, but alive, and the wiser for it, too. A survivor.
We are a complicated hot mess. We are not black and white. We’ve earned every one of those fifty shades of grey.
It is almost a knee jerk reaction. I hear a politician tell us “I need you to…” or “I will be asking for this in my budget…” and I’ve already had a gut reaction to the start of the sentence, such that I really don’t hear what comes after that. I imagine myself on that podium, saying that sentence. And I realize that the word I would be so hard for me to utter. In writing, yes, I can use it. But in speaking? To a group? No, I just sticks in my throat. But why?
Linguistically, there is the use of the royal “we”. First, made famous by Queen Victoria when a vulgar joke was told in her presence. When she replied, “we are not amused”, she “clearly intended to speak on behalf of the other ladies whom she knew were equally offended.” Later, used by royalty to note the collective body of a politically organized nation – most commonly used as a term of separation – them and those – we and they – the intelligentsia and the peasants.
The use of pronouns such as I and we are called functional words. When used by politicians, the choice can mean the difference between claiming authority and creating community.
There are even studies done about one’s mental state and the use of these functional words. More people who are suffering from depression use I as opposed to we or they. Kind of fascinating.
Having spent almost an entire career in the world of nonprofits, I learned quickly that the use of we was, indeed, to build community. And not at all spoken like the “royal we”. What seemed so odd, at first, became rote. “We hope you will…we ask you…we thank you.” Sometimes I felt almost like turning around to see who else was standing there with me. Never the bolder use of I. Never as though the individual, the staff member, even existed, except as a title of function, certainly not a separate person. What mattered was the greater good, the cause.
“I would like you to donate a major gift towards research.” Imagine! “I would like you to?” “We need you to donate a major gift towards research.” OK, but who is the we? The we is you – and me – and collectively, all of us.
So, staff were in the background, writing the words, designing the photo opp, poised with conductor’s baton, or wind up key, if you will. It was an adjustment – to deny one’s self – personality – personae – to become invisible. But soon I came to understand the benefit of this group-being. So, for 20 years I was on behalf of and quite content in that role. It was deemed to be a best practice of success for a nonprofit.
Today, the role of staff in a nonprofit is quite different. Today the staff member is often front and center. Someone whose life has never been touched by the disease du jour is speaking at a podium about the tragedies of some type of cancer they’ve never had. Often, the volunteers or ‘survivors’ are right there, and willing to speak, but they are not invited to do so. It is the staff member’s job now. One they may truly love and be dedicated to. But one with distance built all around it. Between community – and cause.
All this goes through my mind when I hear the word I spoken by an elected official, over and over again. What is the purpose? It must be to reinforce one’s role of power, surely not to build a sense of community – not to sing kumbaya with the people at all.
I think about the organization I worked for and how the tagline, or slogan, it used, changed over the years, reflecting part of this new word order. “We’re fighting for your life.” Outwardly focused. Inclusive. Involving. Engaging. “I’M not fighting for your life. YOU are not fighting…WE are fighting.” Kumbaya. Exponential engagement!
Today, that slogan has morphed to several others, with degrees of warm and fuzzy. “Learn and Live” (don’t listen to me and you’ll find out for yourself); “Your Life is in Your Hands” (it’s up to you, do what you want, you know what you need to do)’ and, today, “Life is Why”. (we’re tired of giving you all the reasons why – you should know why by now).
We have made today’s politicians into caricatures of themselves. The media has done that. And we expect it now. We tweet about the color of the Governor’s jacket and how her hair looked on any one day. Our obsessiveness would lead one to believe that we have relegated them to use the “royal we”, yet we have created a new level beyond that. Today politicians ask us to do things, to support things, in first person. I need you to do this. There is leadership in that, and a sense of authority, but I suggest there is no sense of community or coalition building.
If I were the speech writer I would reserve the authoritarian use of “I” for select moments of crisis. Rather, I would bring back the royal we, the friendlier we. For, “it’s all in our backyard”, isn’t it? It’s not your backyard, or my backyard, it’s ours. How might we all better respond if we brought back the use of the plural personal pronoun? Just as your mother saved the use of your middle name for “those times” when obedience meant right now, and no discussion, politicians might command a more communal sense of engagement with the use of we, forgoing the assertive first person singular pronoun for crisis and woe, for that time when “we are not amused”.
As the tragedy of the death of Eric Garner and the call for action and justice, has played out nightly with demonstrations coast to coast, and cries of “Black Matters” and “I Can’t Breathe” have entered into our cocktail chatter and business conversations, I can’t get the thought of Kitty Genovese out of my mind.
Do you remember Kitty?
Kitty was a 28 year old woman. She worked as a waitress. One night, around 2am, she was murdered – stabbed and raped – right outside of her own apartment – by a 29 year old man who said he simply went looking for a woman to kill “because they didn’t fight back”, he later revealed. Kitty fought. She screamed. It was a loud, disruptive incident. Yet – no one called or came to help Kitty. Over 37 people later said that they were aware she was being attacked. They had heard her screaming for help. Each person believed someone else was doing something. Calling for help. Rushing to her aid. Yet, no one did.
The social psychological phenomenon became known as the “bystander effect”, and, Kitty had her immortality, in the study of the “Genovese syndrome”, which continues to this day in colleges all across the country. Literally, books have been written about Kitty – and the syndrome that bears her name.
While a student at Providence College, I studied social psychology. I became rather fascinated by the development of group consciousness, group mentality, and “diffusion of responsibility”, and the “bystander effect”. How could it be that one or two people would have more probability, individually, of helping someone than a group would? How does the instinct to act become dissipated when they see themselves as members of a group?
We see this demonstrated with Kitty, yes. We also see this on our college campuses when we talk about rape and sexual assault. Often, the worst take place in fraternities or at parties, where society’s boundaries morph to the new society of the moment. Where actions one person would never think about, much less act on, become the group’s behavior, and the individual becomes but one cog in the wheel that has been set in motion, with its own outlying concepts of right and wrong, its own shady sense of rules. As but one cell of the whole, the power to pull away is exponentially difficult.
The collective brain often rules.
The study of this has led to some good things. It only took 25 years or so for CPR training groups to realize that there was a fatal flaw in step #1 – “call for help”. How many of us were first taught to shout at the downed person, “are you all right” and then to shout out into the air or the group gathered, “call 911”! Groups that were forever tweaking their CPR compressions, breaths, etc, heard about this, studied it and realized it was true that sometimes no one called for help – each thinking another member of this newly identified group had done so. New instructions were written that when you called for help you should specifically select one or two people – looking at them directly and address them with a powerful order. “You! Get help – Call 911 – now!” What did this do? It charged the specific person with a specific action. The burden to do something – to move – was extremely powerful – and effective. Some others in the group may act, too, but assuring that one person carried the full weight of that charge is now known to be crucial in a successful “chain of survival”.
How can this study – these concepts – help us better understand what happened to Eric Gardner – and offer critical retraining to our police officers?
We know his name.
Daniel Pantaleo. He is the police officer who put Eric Gardner in a fatal choke hold. But do you know who Justin Damico is? He’s one of the other officers. There were four others, too. There were also four EMTs/paramedics. All told there were 10 “first responders” engaged with Eric that day. And a score of others watching. The five police officers were given immunity to testify about the choke hold actions of Daniel Pantaleo. The EMTs were suspended for their lack of lifesaving efforts at the scene, though they were later put back into duty.
Yes, Daniel Pantaleo was the officer who performed the fatal choke hold. But there were four other officers there in that heap on top of Eric. Did anyone say, “hey, back off a little, I think you’re killing this guy?” Was that even a whisper? Or did the “diffusion of responsibility” have a powerful effect to have five officers believing that their actions were justified – there was no individual cry-out because there was no individual any longer – just ‘one of the five’. Add onto this the layer of Eric being black. Add on to this the layer of poverty – all of this was happening in a poor section of the community.
What questions and answers can the study of group phenomena bring to retraining? Another group has used this information to help stop wrong side surgeries. Collective conscious thinking has been responsible for operating room errors when there was an assumption that the surgeon was cutting into the right appendage of his or her patient – even in the face of serious doubt or question. It is a strong phenomena that makes an individual, maybe someone low on the hierarchy in the room, frozen from questioning, from saying, “wait, let’s check this again”. It is hoped that by retraining, and allowing all members of the group to have equal voice, this can change. To be effective, there must be a real promise of no repercussion, even if the person is incorrect, and all members of the group must believe that, to be so empowered.
Did those officers, did Justin, and the four others, and David – approach Eric – with individual decisions that they were going to make this day one Eric would never forget – they were going to take this guy into custody – and if he resisted, they were going to kill him. Right there, on the street, in front of groups of people, and while being film?
The overlay of race and poverty.
Did race – and bigotry – and fear – and poverty overlay these dynamics making the situation beyond salvation? Of course. Exponentially so. So, yes, we need to do our cultural education and racial education, and our retraining. We need to also restore the power of the individual to question tactics, protocols, and moments when common sense has gone haywire. Shoot to kill? Arming our police force like they were at war? Match our law enforcement to the diversity of the community? Teach individual responsibility and empowerment?
“I can’t breathe!”
There were lots of people around Eric. Lots of people cried out. But the most important ones who could have stopped it – the officers, themselves – didn’t hear. They were bonded by a powerful magnet creating one new entity, made even stronger by fear. Each, by their silence to the others, reinforced the actions – the holds, the knee into the back, the smashing of Eric’s face into the cement – the fatal choke hold growing tighter and tighter. They could no longer see with their own eyes, or hear their own thoughts – and they certainly did not the 11 cries from Eric – “I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe!
It could be a sound, a scent, a photo. Music. Memories flood. At unexpected times.
As an occasional professional fundraiser, I get acceptance into a world that I don’t live in, and I don’t come from. Yes, there are beautiful homes, and cars. Shoes to glance at. Amazing jewelry – new or heirloom – I wonder. It is a world I have great respect for. I see the dedication of time – the sacrifice it takes – to maintain that. I hear their thoughts about ‘legacy’. It usually comes when children are grown, educated, getting married. Before they become grandparents. It’s a time when ‘how will we be remembered’ is all important. A time when their contribution to a cause will be life changing for people they will almost never meet.
They depend on someone like me to make the right partnerships for their interests. Do they want a naming opportunity, where their family name will be emblazoned on a building or a brick in a wall? Sometimes they want anonymity completely. My work, moreso years ago than today, took me to meetings in beautiful lunch clubs (used to be men’s clubs), and the occasional trip for a particularly important planned giving opportunity.
Today I do little of that. But the other day, as I sat in my home office, working in slippers with my cat by my side, I saw the first flakes of snow falling. And a story about the concert series at The Rainbow Room. So attuned to sensory cues, it only took that visual, a snippet of music, and the memories flooded.
A cold winter’s night. In New York City. Early dinner. Top of the world at Rockefeller Center. The Rainbow Room. Round parquet dance floor with small dinner tables surrounding it. Floor to ceiling windows. A grand piano. We’ve stepped into a movie.
So quiet so early. I wonder if they are really open. It’s only 5 o’clock. We’re seated to one side. The candle is lit in this always dim-to-dark room. Our napkins are gingerly laid in our laps. It’s business, but we’ve let ourselves have time for enjoying a little bit of the town, as I obliged the request. “Surely we can have dinner in a nice place; and maybe Radio City?” “Thank you, whatever you like. Yes, we should have some time off.”
He selects the wine. We wait for it to be served. I feel some motion in the room and I look out the window where skyscraper tops meet my eye. I see that it’s snowing. But it wasn’t snowing on the ride over. It was cold. But not cold enough for snow. When our waiter comes back with the wine he comments on our conversation. “Yes, it’s snow. But it’s only snowing up here – on the 65th floor. If you took the elevator down right now it would not be snowing at all at ground level. The snow evaporates on its way down to the street.” Even more special, we have a private snowstorm, and I wonder if it was ordered for the occasion.
There is another couple in the distance, across the dance floor. They lean in to each other across the small cocktail table. She’s wearing winter white. He’s almost imperceptible in the dark, except for the sparkle from his cuff link, when it catches the light reflecting off the crystal chandelier.
It’s the 90s. I work too hard. Travel too infrequently. Relax in elegant settings so rarely.
My meal is selected for me. I think nothing of it. I am doing nothing; responsible for nothing. I make no decisions, or recommendations. I absorb. My shoulders come down and I settle in. I could be in Paris, or Istanbul, or Shanghai, I think. But I’m only in New York. On the 65th floor. In the snow.
While we wait, a dark man enters towards the piano. He is wearing tuxedo and tails with a white crisp shirt. His hair is as black as the black of his suit. He skillfully moves the piano bench without making a sound. He slips in front of it and does that little flourish to kick out the tails, and sits down. He has no sheet music. He simply sits. Still.
I feel a little dizzy by it all. And then I realize that the floor is rotating – the very slowest rotating floor I’ve ever seen. One that the waiter can comfortably walk across to serve the food. And I wonder if he ever loses a table. But then he just has to count “four tables to the left of the piano” and it would be right where he left it.
The piano man’s fingers are placed on the keyboard and he flutters out some pleasant notes, and then begins to play – quietly, ever so subtly. He closes his eyes. I find I’m soon closing mine, too.
I sigh, and catch myself, wondering if that was loud enough to hear. My dinner partner and I exchange looks and words as our minds compete to find the memory box first. What is the tune being played for us? Pretty soon, one of us comes up with it – it is the theme from Prince of Tides. From the movie by that name whose closing scene was filmed right where we are. I know so many versions of that music. But the piano makes me think of Lori Line. And it is so beautiful. There comes a moment when ‘something’ is called for – applause? a smile? a laugh? a tear? – we look at each other again. And he asks. Would you like to dance? I wonder if the man with the cuff link across the room can see the spark(le) from this man’s eye. Yes, yes, that would be what one should do, I think – and say.
He formally takes my hands, in proper position, and we dance. I breathe in the cologne, close to me now, the scent I’ve smelled so many times across a board room, driving to a meeting, passing me by. We dance slowly, in proper cadence and position. Until the moment when he pulls me closer and wraps his arms around me, like a woman my age might dance with a man my age. It is all right I tell myself. It is, just about, perfect, I say over and over in my mind.
The piano player plays the long form, and it goes on and on. I wonder if he’s doing that just for us. Yet, as it comes to a close, we both know that it was much too short. Much too brief. Much too quickly did the door open and close.
Our dinner is waiting for us and we notice that the waiter has quietly placed covers on our food and refilled our wine. As we walk to the table he comes by to uncover what we are here for – to eat. A quick glance up at me, a not-quite smile. He does not look at the gentleman at all. My napkin is placed once again in my lap. And I pick up my fork.
We eat quietly, as if something very special has happened here on this night of work, with a little time off for pleasure. I drink more wine and notice the couple across the floor has left. And it’s not snowing anymore. I can’t see the spires on the tops of the buildings. It’s all misty and foggy now.
The pianist has finished playing something else that was lovely, I’m sure. And taken his break. The floor no longer turns. It is only 7 o’clock.
The gentleman pays the bill though I don’t see a bill presented or payment made. We walk across the dance(d) floor. My coat is placed on my shoulders as we walk to our waiting elevator for two. My ears pop as we go slowly from 65 to ground. We say nothing. He looks down. I pull on my leather gloves. He does the same. I see the sparkle of his cufflink, and notice the lines on his face. Suddenly he looks very tired. His cologne surrounds me. I breathe it in very deeply. In a moment the doors open to a blast of cold winter air.
The Prince of Tides was released on Christmas Day in 1991
It starred Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte
The movie was based on a novel by Pat Conroy published in 1986