See “The Cotton Club” Encore Edition!

I don’t know how I missed it, but this old movie from 1984 is fabulous, especially if you love 1930s music and watching Gregory Hines dance! Come to think of it, I didn’t even have a TV or go see films much in the 1980s. I was busy learning Chinese and getting degrees I would never use… But this film was so much fun for me yesterday!

For me, the most interesting aspect of this movie was the way it called attention to extreme early racism in Harlem and how those with power drew the line between black and white. Opened in 1923, the Cotton Club on 142nd St & Lenox Ave in the heart of Harlem, was operated by white gangster Owney Madden. Madden used the Cotton Club as an outlet to sell his “#1 Beer” to the prohibition crowd.

The Club was decorated with the idea of creating a “stylish plantation environment” for its entirely white clientele. As with many New York City clubs of the time period, that meant the upper class of the city. The Cotton Club at first excluded all but white patrons although the entertainers and most of staff were African American. Dancers at the Cotton Club were held to strict standards; they had to be at least 5’6” tall, light skinned with only a slight tan, and under twenty-one years of age.

The oppressive segregation of the Cotton Club was reinforced by its depiction of the African American employees as exotic savages or plantation residents and the music was often orchestrated to bring to mind a jungle atmosphere. By transforming the club into this plantation atmosphere and bringing in celebrities, Owney Madden created a demand for the Cotton Club while also helping to perpetuate widely held negative stereotypes about African Americans.

This film also got a lot of relatively new actors noticed like Bob Hoskins, Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Nicholas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, and Tom Waits(!) to name a few. I loved the music, the dancing, and the story, plus I learned quite a bit about how racism worked in Harlem in the 1930s!

A personal note: I have been noticing the age difference between the romantic lead actors in older movies lately. In this case the age difference between Richard Gere and Diane Lane is 16 years! Talk about robbing the cradle…

Is our life better than previous generations?

I suppose the thought that stays with me after reading about my ancestors’ journey through life, is how difficult their lives were compared to ours, and yet so many of us struggle with our own challenges today. What has changed between previous generations and ourselves?

‘… and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Leviathan, i. xiii. 9) — Thomas Hobbes, 1651

I am certain that our lives today are so much easier in so many ways compared to my great grandmother and grandmother. In fact, let’s face it, most of us are living much better than most in human history.

I feel so lucky to be alive today! How do we appreciate these differences without undervaluing our own daily challenges?

Mom and I at my wedding in 2005

For example, I know there were members of my mother’s family who suffered from mental illness and dementia in their later years. So much was not known about these illnesses fifty or one hundred years ago, and with misunderstanding came criticism, stigma and heavy judgment. My Mom’s first cousin was sent to the Kansas Mental Hospital where he killed himself by consuming pesticide!

Dementia sent my Great Grandfather McGrew to the Kansas mental hospital at the end of his life…

Today there is counseling and many new drugs to ease our physical and mental pain. There are people like Stephen Levine to help us accept ourselves more fully instead of torturing ourselves with harsh self-judgment. I know I would not be half as healthy and happy as I am today, if I had not had some excellent counseling in my thirties. Since I suffer from a shortness of breath, I wonder what happened to others back then with lung disease. And what about head injuries?

Do you see how lucky we are to have a better education, better science education and many more options because we were born in this age? Have you seen that new TV commercial that says:

Do you know anyone with polio or smallpox? Vaccines work.

It is so hard to watch so many suffer because they refuse to believe that we HAVE MADE PROGRESS! Our lives can be better through education, science and yes, even chemistry. That some refuse to use these tools to better their lives is a travesty and a human tragedy of personal choice…

Why am I here now? Family History!

Somehow, all of the happenings in my family right now are stirring up many questions for me about my family background. The death of my father in 2020, the dementia of my Mom now and the birth of the first member of the next generation of our family has me wondering how all of this came about.

Why am I here? What and who participated in the creation of our family and why?

Top: Photo of my parents’ wedding in 1951 in Kansas City, Kansas

Luckily, my Mom spent a few years searching for the answers to these exact questions back in the early 2000s and produced a detailed family history called: Generations: Our Grandmothers for all of us to learn from. So this week I decided to sit down and read it cover to cover. It also included many family photos I had never seen before. What a gold mine of genetics and social history from a family whose roots go back to farming in eastern Kansas in the 1800s and railroad development in the Kansas City Kansas area.

Top: Great-Grandma McGrew on her wedding day in 1907

What struck me first was how large families were back then, and how “romances” developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the case of all of my great grandparents, they met because so many lived in boarding houses where family members mixed. In the case of my Great-Grandma McGrew, she was sent to live with a different farm family to help out, because her own family had too many mouths to feed. She ended up marrying the only son in her adopted family. The McGrews greatly valued education, so even though the closest high school was ten miles away, they made certain that their only daughter, my grandmother, finished high school. She taught elementary school for two years and then ventured out to the big city to expand her horizons in business school. She then secured a job as a secretary in Kansas City where she soon met my grandfather.

My Mom describes our Carter background this way: “If there is a unifying “track” to the story of the Carter family, it would be the Santa Fe Railroad and its development over time as the history of railroads was unfolding in the West.” My Grandpa Carter, his father, and most of his brothers worked on the railroad their whole life, but Grandpa was determined that his two sons would not. He also believed strongly in education as the primary path to a better life, and my Dad and uncle’s lives certainly proved that point. My dad and Uncle Bob were the first Carters to not only finish high school, but also finish college and graduate school. My dad swore by the advantages of a good education and it worked out great for him and his kids.

Developing your mind and allowing it to go wherever it wishes, opens up so many doors and windows on life! It also allows for so much freedom in determining where we go next. I cannot even imagine how different I would have been without my love of learning…

Can we let go of a lifetime of pain & suffering?

I’m now witnessing first hand a concept from psychology that I have always believed and yet still wondered about. I am observing in those near death what seems to be an endless outflowing of anger and bitterness at the end of life. Both of my parents were what I would call uptight people. My Dad was definitely an angry controlling person and both of my parents could be called obsessive about getting everything ‘right’ and keeping up appearances for others. Everything had to appear ‘proper.’

Instead I observed that my Mom took mountains of criticism from my Dad throughout their nearly 70 year marriage. She rarely got angry or even replied to this barrage of constant critique. She would drink quite a bit of wine, complain to us, and then simmer in bitterness and rage, while she continued to devote her entire life to helping him reach his goals. The tension in our home was palpable. As you might guess, his kids were collateral damage, each absorbing their share of criticism, anger and love that was always quite conditional.

“Letting go of our suffering is the hardest work we will ever do.” — Stephen Levine

Where does all of that bitterness and anger go in the long-term? Can we resolve these tension in some way before we die? I am wondering about this for my Mom, who is extremely depressed and confused at age 88, after the death of my father last year.

At this point I will yield the floor to Stephen Levine, an American poet, author and teacher, well-known for his work with the terminally ill and/or those deeply affected by loss. Stephen chose to work with this population because they were most ready and even sometimes eager to confront their own deepest misery and, by doing so, heal life-long burdens of self-disgust and punishment. Stephen found that by first acknowledging our deepest levels of pain and suffering and then confronting it with love and compassion for Self and others, most found a way to finally let it go. What a marvelous burden to release before death. In a few cases, Stephen found that this gigantic release of emotional pain was so healing that his patients found remission from their cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.

He felt that our minds fight with our hearts, fear versus love, but by accepting all our past pain and suffering, the sensation in our heart may be that it will burst.

To this Stephen responds: “Let your heart break. Let go of the suffering that keeps you back from life. Now your heart is so open and the pain right there. You are doing now just what you need to do, feel so much compassion for yourself and what you are going through…”

Stephen Levine died in 2016 just south of here. To learn much more about him and his work please consider reading his books. My favorite is “Healing Into Life and Death.” Here is a link to his webpage and his wife’s words at his death: https://levinetalks.com/

My experience has been that unless we commit to major emotional change in ourselves, all of the hostilities and suspicions we have held down within our psyche for our entire life, do come out in the end. Sometimes in some awful ways. For me, this type of emotional healing has taken some great re-parenting therapy through counseling and decades of learning and re-learning deeper levels of self-love and acceptance. This process continues as my parents leave behind their earthly presence.

Sometimes being with my Mom is too much for me, and I must respect my feelings about this. My Mom seems so lost in the contradictions of her life. Feelings of love, anger, pain and dementia confuse and overwhelm her such that she can see no way out. I just wish she could have come to some resolution and healing with Stephen by her side.

Useful lessons in love from old movies… Check out “Lydia” from 1941!

I have become a real fan of Turner Classic Movies since my most recent brain injury the end of April. Actually even with my first traumatic brain injury back in 2008, I found watching movies to be most soothing and helpful in helping me re-learn language. After that first bike accident I could barely put a sentence together immediately afterwards. Apparently I hurt the part of my brain that does language.

This week I watched a great 1941 movie called “Lydia” starring Merle Oberon. I found it rather ahead of its time in terms of sexual liberation. I have learned that in old movies when two lovers share a passionate kiss, that should be read as a sexual encounter in today’s language. Anyway, Lydia, an elderly woman who never married (a spinster in 1940s speak), is suddenly confronted with the four men she has loved in her life as a sort of review of the important transitions she went through. This in itself reminded me of a reoccurring dream I had for years before I met Mike. In my dream I’m standing in front of a room of past lovers. So what do I do? I stand up and shoot myself in the head…

MERLE OBERON & ALAN MARSHAL in ‘LYDIA’

But Lydia is quite gracious to the three past lovers she is suddenly confronted with. These three men have always loved and cared for her, but she could never truly love them because she was deeply and tragically in love with another man whom she only knew for an intense few days when she was young. This sailor named Richard, deserted her soon after they met, but kept sending passionate letters promising love in their future. After most of her past life and loves have been explained, Richard, the man she had pined for forever comes by. After a great line about them all being “old and crusty” the man Lydia loved so passionately forever looks at her and does not even recognize her! OUCH!

What a great summary of intense youthful passion! Hormones can be such a major part of early love. They most certainly color our memories of what may later seem like the best times in our lives. But then the times when love first blooms is always excitingly poignant and unforgettable. The discovery that another person who you find quite attractive actually “loves” you is better than most drugs, and yet it is best to consider that you were on a certain type of drug when it happened. You were young and so insecure and just hoping someone would come along and make your life better. You were projecting all of your greatest wants and needs on to this one person who is probably at least as messed up as you are. Later, when you realize your life is not any better, and perhaps worse with this person….oops!

There are a number of great lines in “Lydia.” One is when she describes her lustful sailor man as: “bad and wicked, and as marvelous as they come, and I am so idiotically happy I can’t think!” Pretty tough to think when you are hopelessly in love and the hormones are raging! Another great piece of advice: “Don’t give your love to a phantom!”

I could relate well to this 80-year-old movie. That’s a miracle in itself! I have had my share of ill-fated love affairs. A few asked me to marry them, but I never did, not until much later in my life. I say, try not to be too hard on yourself for the silliness of your many past bad choices…

Open your heart to those you love. Sometimes it will turn out great. Other times, not so much...

It’s high time for some optimism from an 88 and 92 year old perspective!

I’m afraid some of you misunderstood my last post about academ-idiots. It was IN NO WAY a criticism of intelligence. Intelligence is as exciting and stimulating to me as anything these days. I am afraid too many of us sit and feel helpless when we watch the news. Between Afghanistan and COVID it is easy to slip into a daze of depression. The other day I thought, “Even if I had all the power in the world I could not ‘fix” Afghanistan…” However I do believe that if all healthcare professionals refused to treat those who chose not to follow the science and get vaccinated, we could make a big dent in our nationwide COVID problem.

I spent the past few days with my 88 year old mother. She is a constant reminder to me of how much progress we have made in terms of women’s education and liberation. When she was fresh out of high school, the best life she could imagine for herself was to marry a decent and determined man who might take her to good places in her future. In return she gave birth to and raised three children, cleaned his house, made every meal for us and did a million other things to make my Dad a success in his field of botany. She did finally get a college degree the year my sister graduated from high school, and taught elementary school for two decades after that. SHE LOVES KIDS! Now, as my Mom looks back over her life, she can say she did an amazing job of the only real job open to her 70 years ago. My Dad was also more optimistic about our future than my brother and I when he died at age 91. It seems with the proper perspective of nearly a century, optimism may arrive.

If you need a kick in the butt to feel positive about our future, I can highly recommend an interview I saw today with Marty Cooper, the inventor of the cellphone. He is now 92 and living the good life. This interview is really a history of cellphone development and BTW, cellphones were first developed by someone who was trained in electronics by the Navy, like my husband Mike. Sometimes having the perspective of 92 years can help the rest of us feel good about the future!

Marty’s most important message to everyone is “KEEP LEARNING! BE CURIOUS [about EVERYTHING!]”

I know now that keeping my brain working is a full-time job for me, and nothing inspires me as much as this six minute interview with Marty Cooper on CBS Sunday Morning today. Click here! It is absolutely worth your while!