Category - Writing

Trauma, Nostalgia and Closure 

I went back to Rumson for a few hours last week…. 

Rumson is the town near the Jersey Shore where I was a kid.  My family lived there from 1950 until 1962 – from age 0 to age 11. My childhood, pretty much. 

Over the decades since, I’ve gone back there several times.  In the fall of 1984 I went back for  two whole weeks.  I owned a house in Hawaii at the time, and could have arranged a ‘vacation home exchange’ anywhere in the world.  I could have gone to England or France; I chose instead to spend two weeks in New Jersey.  But even that was not enough to heal the psychic wounds inflicted by the way I’d left 22 years earlier. 

Prior to this most recent visit, the last time I was there was in 2002, when my sister and my brother and his wife and a couple of their kids and I granted our mother’s final wish and spread her ashes around the town where she’d spent the happiest years of her life – before our father’s untimely demise in 1958. 

Today I am publishing a pair of companion pieces that explore my departure from Rumson in 1962 – and why I keep going back:

The Summer of ’62 is about the move.  It’s a piece that I wrote as part of a memoir writing class I took in March of this year.  

Return to Brigadoon is about one of those return visits in the summer of 1969; it’s based on a poem I found when I re-opened the journals I kept during my last year of high school and first year in college. 

I’m posting these now as part of an attempt to find meaningful closure around some of what my new therapist calls “early childhood trauma.” 

For the past 8 months, I have been working with Lee Norton, a therapist in Nashville who specializes in the full spectrum of trauma, from assault-rifle-massacre-survival to the sort of catastrophic early losses like I suffered when Harvey died.  I’ve been in-and-out of therapy since I was in the third grade but this feels like the most productive therapeutic work I’ve ever done.  Please don’t ask me why it took so long.

I’m not sure what the outcome of this current course is supposed to be. My 67-year-old-self has been spending a lot of time with my 7-year-old self, who, it seems, went into hiding about the time his father died.  The kid and I are  still deliberating over who liberates who.

And while I’ve been doing that work, I’ve been spending some (but not nearly enough) time rummaging through my father’s writing and the correspondence he and my mother exchanged during World War II.  There seems to be a connection. 

I know what some of you are thinking: Why doesn’t he just get over it?  His father died, the family moved, yada yada. It was 60 years ago.  Move along… 

I’ve even heard the word “indulgent” to describe these nostalgic disquisitions. 

Yes, I am deeply conflicted about the whole proposition.  On the one hand, it feels like necessary and unfinished work, despite the half-dozen decades between me and the events I keep returning to.  On the other hand, at times the whole exercise seems like an excuse for not moving on to more constructive pursuits. 

All of this came up in a session I had with Lee Norton shortly after this last visit to my point of origin. After wondering why am the only one of three siblings that continues to be affected by these long ago events, Lee offered:

One kid tends to get hit more than the others. Regardless of what the catastrophic loss was, the usual defense mechanisms are overwhelmed.  It’s a very physiological process.  The brain doesn’t have anywhere to put it, so it accumulates and sequesters in the right hemisphere which has no sense of time.  

The brain always wants one linear, explicit storyline that it can then put away.  Until you look into a catastrophic event and do something …. the brain does not recognize it as finished and when it’s not finished then all these unconscious processes kick in and we recapitulate. We’ll have relationship or job dilemmas; it’ll show up in lots of different ways – financially, self medication (umm…that would be me). The goal is you have to get it finished... 

So I am, once again trying to get it finished.

For you, reading these things is optional.  For me, apparently, writing them is not. 

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A 180º panorama of Monmouth Avenue. It was a great neighborhood for kids and bicycles.
No helmets required.

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More From Harvey:
The 1956 Medical Trilogy, Part 1

I surmise that anybody who’s been following this revival of my father’s writing has learned by now that Harvey died of cancer in 1958 at the ripe young age of 37.  Therein lies the tragedy and the origins of the personal trauma that I’m exploring now (while undergoing a fresh round of new personal trauma right here in 2018. But we’ll get to that later…).

We don’t really know a whole lot about his illness nor his death.  It came, frankly, as a complete surprise to my siblings and me, although I was only 7 years old at the time and my sister only 4.  My brother (also currently deceased) might have had more of a grasp of it, but even he was only 10 years old at the time.

Almost everything I ever knew about his illness (which is to say, nothing), was expressed in a poem I wrote a long time ago about the Little Green Boat our family owned while we still lived near the Shrewsbury River in Rumson, New Jersey.

What I do have in the archives that I’m rummaging through now are three short essays that Harvey wrote about his experiences in the world of mid-1950s medical care.  Herewith, then, are those three essays, starting with:

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A Visit To The Mayo Clinic – December, 1956

It’s peculiar that when reading the travel and resort section of the Sunday papers that I have never noticed any ads for Rochester, Minnesota as the ideal winter vacation spot. Much is written about Miami, Palm Beach, Bermuda, and the West Indies. But who is singing the praises of this happy little village nestled peacefully in the Zumbro Valley?  (named for its discoverer Sam Zumbro, who mistakenly thought he had found the Khyber Pass.) Read More

From Harvey, ca. 1940:
“The Parker Pen Letter”

Returning now too the subject of My Father and the things that he wrote during his relatively brief time on Earth:

One of the most “famous” of my father’s works (which is to say, famous within the family) is the letter that he wrote to the Parker Pen Company while a student at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1940.

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The letter was written in 1940, but I don’t have any photos from that era handy, so here’s one from the 1950’s.

December 6, 1940

The Parker pen company
Janesville, Wisconsin

Gentlemen:

As you can see I am writing a letter to the company that makes (by its own admission) the finest pens in the world – by using a typewriter.

I do  this not because I do not have a pen., No, gentlemen right here in my left hand I have a pen. Said pen is called in one of your ads which I just happened to read, quote, a Jewel of Pendulum, unquote. However, if I were to attempt to write this letter with this pen, the pages would be so smudged up with ink that it would be totally impossible for you to read it. But allow me to explain the case a little more fully.

About two years ago (or possibly a few months less) I wandered into a bookstore on our campus – that of the University of Illinois – and purchased a Parker pen.  Since this memorable date, I have had nothing but trouble with the amazing instrument.

The trouble, to sum it up briefly, is that this pen leaks – leaks torrentially.

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My Name Is Harvey…

…as in the rabbit….

So began a letter that my father, Harvey Schatzkin, wrote to Macy’s in the winter of 1946 – four years before I was born.

He and wife Ellen were living at the time in an “inflated white house” in Milltown, New Jersey – building their lives together on the early fruits of America’s post-war prosperity.  For a vehicle, they owned a surplus Army Jeep, and as they assembled their household, they purchased a lot of stuff from Macy’s Department Store in New York City.

Problem was, Macy’s kept delivering their purchases to a factory on the other side of town.

So my father wrote Macy’s a letter.

Letter-writing was one of my father’s talents.  For decades now, I have been sitting on a trove of letters, essays and stories that he wrote.  All along I have been thinking I might one day do something with them. It seems that day has arrived.

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Time Capsule 1969:
*PIF and The Delaware Water Gap

It’s been a LONG time since I dug into that Epic Memoir I started working on like two years ago… based on the journals I started during my senior year in high school and first year of college – 1969 and ’70.

click to embiggen

But this morning I spent a little time re-learning a Phil Ochs song that I first learned… well, just a little over 50 years ago.  I know because I wrote down all all the chords and lyrics in a spiral note book.  And the date above “Power and Glory” is July 18, 1967.  I probably haven’t played the song since 1968, but I played it today.

And I think that inspired me to open the file for “Time Capsule” for the first time in a long while.

I’m still not entirely certain what this project is supposed to be.   I vacillate between concepts: Is it a book? The concept seems dated.  Could it be some kind of web-based, multi-media, interactive…. something or other?  That might actually might be interesting: availing myself more fully to all the stuff that is readily available via YouTube, etc.  Or could it a “one man show” in which I read and recite passages from the text and (finally!) get to  and perform the songs of the era that I still remember how to play and sing?

Maybe it’s all three.

But it ain’t gonna be much or anything if I don’t actually work on it.

So today I worked on it.  I opened the Scrivener file ad landed on a chapter I’d already written about my first experiences with the demon weed.  So I posted that as a new “chapter” called

*PIF and The Delaware Water Gap 

And if you’re wondering, here’s a recording of the Phil Ochs song that got me started.  It struck me as a useful reminder of what we’re actually trying to save while the institutions around us are crumbling…

Dispatches from the Outskirts of Facebookistan – Day 8

As a few friends and followers (fans?) have observed, for the past week I’ve been making a concerted effort to avoid Facebook.

This divergence from my usual routine (a word I use loosely) started last Monday, when I awoke to the news of the massacre in Las Vegas and immediately – impulsively – went to gauge the public reaction on Facebook. I pretty much knew what to expect once I got there: the same righteous indignation I found after the last such event – and the one before that and the one before that etc. etc. ad infinitum ad nauseaum.

But this time my reaction surprised me. This time, it wasn’t the triggering event that repulsed me so much as the boilerplate reactions that scrolled by on in my “news” feed. This time, something about the futility of the whole experience – not just the event but the predictable responses to it – resonated in a way that was vaguely unfamiliar. I’d seen it all before, but this time I really found myself wondering what was the point of seeing it all again?

That’s when I started “pushing in the stops.” I resolved to get some kind of handle on this digital beast, this virtual narcotic that I puff on like I used to smoke pot all day (from 1969 to 1987).

I started by removing the permanent “pin tab” for Facebook in my laptop browser, then I deleted the Facebook app from my phone.

Removing the pinned browser tab means that Facebook is not lurking in a tab at the top of my browser window when I am trying to do other things on my computer (which is pretty much where I do everything). Removing the permanently pinned tab means that an effort is now required to open Facebook on my laptop. Yes, it’s a minor effort, but it’s more of an effort than simply clicking a tab. Now I actually have to open a new tab and type. But – no surprise here – as soon as I type the letter “f”, the browser auto-fills with “facebook.com” and off I go into the oblivion of the Infinite Random Trivia Generator.

The bigger change was deleting the Facebook app altogether from my iPhone. I had come in recent weeks to be painfully aware of the extent that I would punch the blue “f” icon on my iPhone and then just vacantly scroll through whatever the display had to offer. The only way to stop that was to remove the app.

That was Monday. The following Friday was the first day I woke up and did not feel the impulse to start my day perusing Facebook.

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One thing that these behavior patterns seem to be telling me is that I am at a vacant place in my life right now. I seem to be seeking some kind of solace and gratification from the other side of this digital mirror.

I know that these habits are not mine alone. As this recent item from Wired observes,

“It’s a dirty digital habit, and it doesn’t make me happy. Maybe you can relate. Studies have repeatedly found that while social media connects us to one another, it also makes us feel bad. And yet, we do it anyway. We do it because we can’t stop.”

Or, from another item in Wired: 

43% of smartphone users check their phone within five minutes of waking up.

That presumably includes a very high percentage of Facebook checkers.

Count me in that number.

I suspect the pattern is fairly common: I post something or comment on something somebody else has posted. Then it’s only a couple of minutes – maybe less! – before I return to see if anybody has noticed how witty and profound (or just profane) I have been.

That is a habit not unlike taking a hit of pot, or a swig of whisky – getting the buzz, and then needing another one within minutes. Where alcohol and drugs are concerned, habits like that have finally come to be recognized as symptomatic of a disease. How is it any different with a “virtual drug” like Facebook? Indeed, I have too-often compared the “Facebook Habit” to “the way I felt about Scotch and Vodka in the months before I finally quit drinking…”.

I hope last Monday was the day I finally put the pipe down.

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As well as I can tell from inside my own damn head, I’m facing two issues: obsession and dissipation.

The obsession is with the medium itself.  I am referring here to that nagging impulse to scroll. To punch an icon and and scroll scroll scroll until… what?  Like there is some pot at the end of the rainbow or a rabbit at the bottom of the hole?  There is something primal going on here: the relentless need to fill some kind of vacuum, to fill an inner void, like rats in a digital cage poking for pellets. My life feels hollow, let me see if I can fill it up with… Facebook??

The notion is absurd on its face but nevertheless obsessively present. It grabs me all day long. Like when I’m driving, and I come to a stop light. I’ve got a minute, why don’t I punch the phone (which is mounted on my dashboard) and scroll Facebook? Look! Notifications! That will surely give me something that will fill this momentary pause in my info-continuum.

I listen to a lot of podcasts and books when I’m in the car. That might be the best-spent hour of every day (an hour to and from my job). But even with all that meaningful input, when the car comes to a stop, I am instantly possessed with the need to do something else, to find another form of input. To punch and scroll.

Perhaps more important than that finger-to-screen obsession, I think the constant posting and commenting and replying on Facebook has dissipated my creative energy.  Instead of thinking my way through to something substantive, I scatter my seed.  The Facebook Habit leads to the loss of concentration. The inability to focus. And I don’t think it’s just because my brain is in its seventh decade of continuous operation.

To the contrary, I think the Internet has destroyed my brain. I’ve been online since 1979, but almost constantly since wireless broadband was introduced at the start of this century. That’s 20 years of jumping from one thing to another all day long. As Nicholas Carr wrote in “The Shallows,” the medium has rewired my brain.

So instead of posting pithy links (#TMITM!) and snarky comments on Facebook, I’ve started using a new app called “Day One” – a journaling app suggested by friend Mike Lovett. Mike suggested “keep Day One open on one half of your screen, and when you see something on the web that you want to post on Facebook, or a post on Facebook that you want to comment on, put those links and comments in Day One. At the end of the day (or week), round up the most pertinent and worthy stuff and put it all in a post on your own website.”

Which is exactly what I’ve done here. Much of what I’ve just posted was gathered through the week. Some of it by dictating short snippets to Day One via the app on my Apple Watch – boy, that’s a real game changer!

Once I’ve assembled a post for CohesionArts.com (like this one), my WordPress installation automatically posts a link to my Facebook Profile and Page. Hence the notion of “lobbing it over the wall into Facebookistan.  

Otherwise, during uring the day, I have made a concerted effort to limit myself to the occasional “guerrilla strike” into the forbidden zone. Like this afternoon – while I was in a parking lot –  I got an email notifying me that my sister had mentioned me in a comment. So I opened Facebook on my iPad to see what the comment was. I clicked “like” on the comment. Then I went to the grocery store.

I don’t think that I can escape Facebookistan altogether, any more than I  expect that I will ever get my “old brain” back. But I do think that I have to make a concerted effort to figure out how this “new brain” works for me, and I’m not going to do that by impulsively, relentlessly, scrolling through the Infinite Random Trivia Generator.

In the meantime, old habits die hard.

Now then…. any notifications??

 

 

Harvey and the Lionel Trains

I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well in my youth
I think I’m returning to those days
When I was young enough to know the truth
Now there are no games to only pass the time
No more electric trains, no more trees to climb
Thinking young and growing older is no sin
And I can play the game of life to win

–– Carol King

Trains1955-op_8abelhj6h120

Harvey, Arthur, and the 736 Berkshire

For Christmas in 1955, my father bought, set up and gave to my older brother an elaborate set of Lionel trains, tracks, and accessories.  

In our family photo albums, there is  just one photo of Harvey operating the trains, my brother Arthur looking on in gleeful fascination as the cast iron 736 Berkshire electric locomotive “steams” by; Just out of the frame,  circles of chemical-pellet induced smoke are puffing out of its little smokestack.

In the 1950s, Lionel trains were the quintessential under-the-tree expression of America’s post-war prosperity.   The Lionel Corporation had found a way to flourish during the war, by retooling their assembly lines to manufacture servo motors for military equipment instead of electric motors for toy trains. Once the war ended, the company repurposed those servo motors in the first post-war generation of its marquee product.

Our family was sufficiently prosperous (the family business produced ceramic household tile at a plant in Keyport, New Jersey) that our parents could afford to give their kids the very best: that Berkshire locomotive with its smoke puffing stack and whistling coal car was top-of-the-line, but that was just the start of the layout. Arrayed within the circle of tracks were equally high-end accessories:

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