Camelot, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the End of Innocence

CubanMissileSplashimage1The media coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been inescapable these past few weeks. Much has been made of our nation’s loss of innocence when Camelot came tumbling down, but if I had to choose a pivotal event that triggered my disenchantment in that era, it would be the Cuban missile crisis the year before, in October of 1962, when Kennedy and Kruschev played a game of brinksmanship that brought the world close to nuclear annihilation. 

I was a junior at Barnard that fall, living in an apartment on West 110th Street a few blocks from the Columbia campus and deeply in love with the man who would later become my first husband. I didn’t own a television. With the limited programming available back then, I considered it hip to do without, and my extensive collection of jazz LPs more than sufficed for entertainment. 

But I remember spending days with my boyfriend, glued to the radio, in a panic that the world was about to be blown to smithereens. Before it did, I was desperate to get married. Why this seemed so critically important, I can’t recall – I wasn’t religious, and we’d been lovers for over a year already. After nearly two interminable weeks, the crisis passed, and we remained single for the time being, but the emotional turmoil of that time remains vivid in my memory. 

I was a senior by the time Kennedy was killed the following year. I came out of a medieval art history class, where I’d been looking at black and white slides of sarcophagi in a class taught by an elderly lady professor nicknamed “the Barnard coffin,” into the venerable marble halls of the lobby, where everyone was in an uproar about the shooting. I hurried back to my apartment; by the time I got there, he’d been declared dead.  

I was shocked and saddened, but by then my “innocence” was already lost, and the assassination didn’t have the emotional impact of the Cuban missile crisis the year before. And I still didn’t own a television. As the child of two journalists, I was loyal to the print media, and the iconic still photos of the killing and its aftermath soon found their way into the imagery of my paintings.  

World's Fair - Flushing Meadows, NY 1964

World’s Fair – Flushing Meadows, NY 1964

Actually I had never expected to live till 1963. Like the rest of my pre-Boomer generation, I grew up with school civil defense drills, where we were taught to take shelter under our puny wooden desks, and with talk of bomb shelters and nuclear holocausts. Back in the late 1950’s, when there was talk of a World’s Fair planned for 1964 in New York City, I thought the idea was absurd – we’d all be nuked into oblivion by then. But the World’s Fair came to pass, and my husband and I visited as newlyweds. 

So all this talk about the loss of Camelot innocence is nothing but doggy doo doo, in my opinion. Even so, there was a special aura about the Kennedys. Though I didn’t watch them on TV, I did see Jack Kennedy twice in person. In 1956, my mother and I were in the audience at the Democratic National Convention, because she was “Madly for Adlai” –

Jack Kennedy in Chicago, 1956

Jack Kennedy in Chicago, 1956

Stevenson, that is. JFK came very close to winning the nomination for Vice President, and his gracious concession speech made him an overnight sensation. Like so many others, my mother was instantly smitten by his eloquence and good looks, and she rightly predicted we’d be seeing a lot more of him. 

My second sighting of Kennedy occurred in the Harvard Yard when I was a sophomore at Radcliffe. By now he was President, and word got out that he was on campus for a Harvard Board of Trustees meeting. A crowd gathered near the John Harvard statue outside Memorial Hall, and we were eventually rewarded by the sight of JFK descending the steps and waving a greeting before he was spirited away.

John Harvard, by Daniel Chester French

John Harvard, by Daniel Chester French

It was a cold winter day, as I recall, sunny with snow on the ground, with a thrilling sense of optimism and potential, and although the event isn’t graven in my brain like all the horrific images that came later, I prefer to remember Jack Kennedy the way he looked that day in the Harvard Yard.

Kennedy with flag




Remembering 1979: Year of the Bee Gees, Donna Summer and Etan Patz

Julie Patz with Etan’s Missing Poster

At long last, after 33 years, they’ve arrested the alleged murderer of Etan Patz, the six-year-old boy  who went missing on his first walk to the bus stop near his home. I knew Etan and his family, and to this day, I have a vivid memory of the moment I learned he had disappeared. Like the Kennedy assassinations, the murder of John Lennon, the Challenger shuttle disaster and the fall of the towers on September 11th, the event burned permanently into my brain, and I can conjure up exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news.

Etan’s family and mine lived in the same coop loft building on Prince Street in SoHo. Our daughter Stacey played with Etan, and she spent many days in the preschool his mother Julie ran in their third-floor loft. But by May 25, 1979, the day Etan went missing, we were living in a raised ranch 90 miles upstate in Poughkeepsie. We’d rented the house four months before, after I landed a job as an art therapist at Hudson River Psychiatric Center.

We were ambivalent about leaving Manhattan, but we were becoming disenchanted with SoHo. I’d lived there for 12 years, long enough to see the grungy artists’ lofts being swallowed up by gentrification. Real estate prices were rising, and glitzy boutiques were beginning to drive out galleries. Upscale ladies from the Upper East Side and the suburbs were prowling the streets to check out the newly trendy scene, and teens camped out on the steps of the cast iron manufacturing buildings that were home to hundreds of artists.

We were no longer sure we wanted to raise our daughter in the city. In any case, I’d already confronted a harsh reality: I was a good artist, but I’d never be great, and I’d never scale the heady heights of the art world. After my daughter’s birth, I began researching professional careers that offered the promise of a steady paycheck. Art therapy won out over journalism, and by late 1978 I’d acquired an M.A. in Art Therapy from New York University.

We didn’t want to cut our ties to the city, so we unfolded a New York State map on my drafting table. Then, with a compass, we inscribed a circle centered on Times Square, with a ninety-mile radius delineating the outer boundaries of my job search. So it came to pass that in the wintry depths of February, 1979, I immersed myself forty hours a week in the alien wards of a psychiatric hospital for severely and persistently mentally ill adults.

Oh, the stories I could tell. In fact I did: working at Hudson River Psychiatric Center proved so overwhelming that later that year I began writing fiction as a way of processing my feelings. But first came disco – and specifically the double albums of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album featuring the BeeGees.

Before Poughkeepsie, absorbed in my art therapy studies, I hadn’t had the time or inclination to immerse myself in music, much less disco, but commuting to and from my work on the wards, the joyfully insistent beat blaring from the radio made me a convert. Stacey was three and a half, and we cavorted endlessly around the living room to the strains of “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” and “Night Fever.” Those songs might have remained my most indelible memory of the raised ranch on Robert Road – until we heard about Etan Patz on May 25th.

It was early evening, and I was sipping a screwdriver at the end of a long day’s work on the wards, watching the local news from New York City, when all at once Etan’s face filled the screen. He was missing, the newscasters said – walking along Prince Street to catch the bus for first grade, he’d never made it to school. The police had mounted an intensive search, but as the world came to know, they turned up nothing.

My husband and I followed the news for weeks, and as hope for Etan faded, we gradually reached a decision: we would make a decisive break with the city, sell our coop loft on Prince Street, and use the proceeds to buy a house with a few acres of land in upstate New York. And so we did – by October we were settled in a new home surrounded by 16 acres of woods and wetlands a couple of miles from the Shawangunk ridge west of New Paltz.

I can’t claim we’ve never looked back. We still visit New York City a few times a year, but we no longer feel we belong there – these days we could never afford it. We’re just tourists, like those ladies I once looked down on. Occasionally I’ve walked along Prince Street past Tri-Prince, Inc., our old cast iron coop of three connecting buildings. The Patz family name is still on the buzzer outside, but I’ve never had the courage to ring the bell, nor to phone or write. We were neighbors, not close friends, and what could I possibly say to them?

Lately the press has been full of stories about the crime. Pedro Hernandez, then a stock boy at the corner store where we bought our milk and orange juice, has confessed to killing Etan, but the physical evidence has long since disappeared. How will they ever know for sure? Stan and Julie Patz refuse to talk to reporters, and who can blame them? After long, illustrious lives, Robin Gibb and Donna Summer leave musical legacies we can enjoy forever. We can say they’ve found closure, but for Etan Patz and his family, there will never be peace.


Memorial for Donna Summer, San Francisco, 2012


Together in Joy and Creativity – Reflections on marriage and music

My husband and I celebrated our thirty-seventh wedding anniversary on May 3rd, and I’ve been thinking about what’s kept us together all these years. Paradoxically, one of those togetherness factors is separation – especially when it comes to music.

About a decade ago, when the City of Albany was building the pedestrian bridge over Route 787 that leads to the Corning Preserve adjoining the Hudson River, they offered the citizenry the opportunity to purchase an engraved paving stone. I bought one for my husband’s birthday, and it reads “Julie and (his name) together in joy and creativity.”* I love looking at it every time I cross that elegant bridge to the river’s edge, and I suspect I’ll be crossing it quite a bit this summer, since Albany’s Alive at Five concert series has the best lineup in years.

I’m virtually positive he won’t be going, though. He despises crowded, heavily amped rock and country concerts – always has, always will. One of the factors contributing to the disintegration of his first marriage was his refusal to accompany his wife to the 1969 Woodstock Festival.** He’s gone with me on occasion, but not happily. The last time I remember was a concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, maybe three years ago.

We were enjoying our annual day at the track. I’d picked a few winners with my $2 and $5 bets, and I’d placed my bets on the last race when I heard a man calling, “Anyone want two tickets to The Police and Elvis Costello at SPAC tonight?” At his side in record time, I learned he and his wife had planned to attend with another couple who couldn’t make it, and he was selling two lawn tickets for $60 each.

“That sounds great,” I said. “Let me go ask my husband.” Then I reconsidered and pounced. “Oh, what the hell. I’ll get them right now – then he won’t have a choice.”

He was fairly gracious about the surprise, but the traffic jam was so horrendous that we missed half of Elvis Costello’s first set. He was great, and The Police were fantastic – at sixty plus, Sting still has rock star charisma to burn. But the low visibility in the darkness and the crush of the crowd were a tad overpowering. My spouse swears he’ll never go back to SPAC, and I respect his wishes. That’s why I’ve got a single ticket – a reserved inside seat – to hear the Zac Brown Band there on June lst.

Don’t get me wrong – we do partake of an occasional concert together. He likes classical music, especially of the chamber variety, he’s okay with some jazz and folk, and we frequent the avant garde performance pieces at EMPAC. For the most part, though, I feed my musical Jones by ushering at The Egg and the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, occasionally springing for a big-ticket concert I can’t bear to miss, like Bruce Springsteen’s latest swing through Albany.

Oskar Kokoschka

We usually go out to dinner on our anniversary, but this time I decided I’d rather go to a benefit for the Mental Health Association of New York State, featuring music from Tom Chapin, the brother of the late Harry Chapin. As both a therapist and a consumer of mental health services, I strongly believe in the cause, but I was also lured by the prospect of the music. In general, my spouse loathes “sensitive” singer-songwriters, especially those he claims sing through their noses or as if they’re suffering from an acute digestive upset – think Bob Dylan and his descendants – but for the sake of our own harmony, he agreed to humor me. We both thoroughly enjoyed Tom Chapin.

Humoring each other, tolerating each other’s proclivities and foibles, has helped us hang in there all these years. Perhaps equally important, we’ve always heeded the words by Khalil Gibran that we read at our wedding in 1975: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” We’ve never felt the necessity to move in lockstep, or to share totally in each other’s enthusiasms. Music’s perhaps the major area where this holds true, but by no means the only one.

After all these years, we’re still “together in joy and creativity.” It’s even written in stone.

*I’m omitting his name because he prefers to remain anonymous when it comes to my blog posts, lest I say something that might reflect badly on his public persona.

**I was at the Woodstock Festival almost from start to finish – and, for the most part, alone. See my three posts about the experience elsewhere on this blog.


Am I a patient here? My mysterious ophthalmological morning

Alex Katz

Tomorrow’s the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Week Symposium in New York City. I sent in my check back in February, especially because the cocktail party that follows the day of talks and panels is limited in size, and I wanted to be sure to snag myself a reservation in plenty of time.

I’m ambivalent about going, though. If my check hadn’t already cleared, I might stay home. Instead, I’m psyching myself up to catch the Amtrak train at 5:10 am so as to make it there in time for Donald Maass’s opening talk on “Writing the Breakout Novel.” I’ve got brand-new bookmarks to pass out, but I’m ambivalent about those as well. Iconix did an excellent job and carried out my instructions exactly, but they turned out a tad busier and more lurid than I’d hoped. Oh well, live and learn.

With two self-published novels, I haven’t exactly “broken out,” but maybe Mr. Maass will inspire me to take it to the next level. Then there’s that cocktail party with the bountiful hors d’oeuvres, the open bar, and the agents and editors wearing specially colored name tags so the authors can more knowledgeably accost them. By then I hope I’ll be feeling more jazzed and sociable than I am right now.

This morning threw me badly off my stride. When I showed up for my 9:30 appointment for an ophthalmology checkup at the office I swore I’d been to before, the receptionist said they had no record of my appointment. The office looked strangely different as well.

(Note: the following saga is tangential to the topics I usually blog about, but I feel the need to vent. In case you prefer to skip the rest of the post, this is a reasonable place to stop.) Continue reading

Good grief, I never put up the Christmas tree. Am I jinxed? Not yet!

This Christmas, for the first time in 35 years, we never put up the Christmas tree. It’s not that we didn’t have one – we had three, in fact. So what happened? Did I bring down the jinx of Scrooge on my happy home? So far so good – but the holidays aren’t over yet.

Last spring at our UU congregation’s auction, I bid on a fixed-price Christmas brunch complete with a Christmas tree of my choice, fresh cut at the farm of a fellow Unitarian. Fast forward to early December, when my husband decided to rip out and reinsulate the ceiling in the sunroom where we’ve always put the tree. I begged him to postpone the renovation till after New Year’s, but to no avail – he was hell bent on increasing the R value and saving on oil this winter.

This morning the temperature stands at five degrees, and the wind chill is well below zero. Is the sunroom ceiling finished? Not even close. Standing below the exposed roof beams, I can feel the frigid draft. The white spruce tree from our friend’s farm lies forlorn on the front lawn, never having made it through the front door. By now, some efficient neighbors have already stripped and thrown out their trees, so I’m hoping that if we move this one closer to the street, it will be picked up and fed through the town chipper with no one the wiser.

 Anyway, I didn’t get to choose that tree after all. I signed up to usher at a “Sinatra Christmas” big band show at The Egg, thinking I could easily go there after leaving the brunch, but it turned out picking the tree involved a half-mile hike up a snowy road, then felling a 30 foot tree with a chain saw and cutting off the top to yield a tree of the desired size. Our host took a well-deserved brunch break just when I was all set to pick the tree, so my husband drove me home to change into my black and white ushering garb, then drove back to select and help fell the tree. We’ve fought about Christmas tree size for decades – I’ve always wanted them bigger, and I’ve always been there to make the ultimate judgment call – but I had to trust his judgment.

He did the best he could, but it’s hard to pick a Christmas tree when the part you want is 30 feet in the air. The white spruce he brought home was on the scroungy side. Worse, it was pricklier by far than the balsam or Frazier fir we usually get. True, it had dozens of cute little pine cones, but they fell off instantly at the slightest touch, and we knew the ornaments would be highly vulnerable to falling construction debris. So as Christmas came and went, the tree lay naked and neglected in the yard.

But we did enjoy two other Christmas trees. Several years ago I planted a Wichita Blue juniper in front of the house. It’s been very happy there, and it’s now over 12 feet tall, with the slender silhouette of a Van Gogh cypress. This year I festooned it with green, teal and blue lights, and it looks very elegant, though not as raucously festive as our neighbors’ multicolored cascades of lights and inflatable Santas. The most wonderful tree, though, was the one our daughter put up in her new home in Woodstock. It’s full, fragrant, and loaded with lights and ornaments, including some we passed on to her from trees we decorated when she was a child. Watching our granddaughters play with Loki, their gray tabby kitten, beneath that tree on Christmas day, we knew we were truly blessed.

Is this the beginning of a slippery slope? Are we getting too old for Christmas trees? Certainly not. I fully intend to get one next year and for many years to come. They probably won’t come from our friend’s farm, though. Instead we’ll return to one of the nearby garden centers, where I can inhale the tree’s aroma, feel the needles to make sure it’s fresh and not too prickly, spin it around and check for symmetry. And next year’s tree can be taller than ever – the sunroom will be loftier now that we’ve ripped out the old dropped ceiling with its dirty white paneling.

Moral of the story? It’s OK to break with holiday traditions now and then – the sky won’t fall. Just don’t make a habit of it. How about you? Did you break any holiday traditions this year? And how did that make you feel?

Panic in play tower and clutter overwhelm

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by panic and go into total meltdown? It happened to my granddaughter Jasper yesterday, and to me this morning. Fortunately, we both recovered in short order. I guess we have what psychologists these days are fond of calling resilience or hardiness. Mine is hard won over many decades, and often tenuous. I hope hers is more intrinsic.

At least one day a week, I drive down to Woodstock to care for my granddaughters. I usually take Jasper, a cheerful and rambunctious three -year-old, to McDonalds, where she loves playing in the enormous play tower with other kids. Yesterday, in pursuit of an older boy, she climbed up to the very top, where she’d never been before.

All at once I heard shrill screams – “Grandma, Grandma!” At first I ignored them – the majority of the adults there are grandmas – but then I realized it was Jasper. I couldn’t see her, and my first fear was that she was stuck in the purple slide tunnel – an opaque cylindrical shoot. Disastrous, if true, because I was afraid of getting stuck if I had to crawl up. But finally I spied her standing in the window of the highest plastic bubble, shrieking and sobbing uncontrollably. I waved and began calling out in what I hoped was a reassuring voice, trying to talk her down, concealing my panic at the prospect of  climbing the tower myself.

At last she managed to scramble down and make it back to the table and her unfinished Happy Meal. Regaining her composure, she said, “I want to go right now.” I tried coaxing her into staying – the old “get right back on the horse after it throws you” approach – but she was adamant. Once we were in the car, though, she presented me with an alternative: she wanted to go to Small World, an enormous outdoor playground with wooden fortresses, slides, and towers.

“But it’s raining,” Grandma Julie said. “You’ll get soaked.”

“I don’t care! I wanna go to Small World!”

“There won’t be any other kids to play with.”

“That’s okay. I wanna play by myself.”

Actually it was only drizzling slightly, so I relented, realizing she needed to prove something to herself. We spent a pleasant half hour in the warm spring mist, Jasper running and climbing the tallest towers, and me hunkered down in one of the fortresses, studying WordPress for Dummies.

Now, what about my own meltdown? I’ll give you the option to stop here or read more.

Continue reading