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Between You and Me

Nancy Pelosi

By Leah Dunaief

This new year may come to be known as the Year of the Older Woman. That was my thought as I read The New York Times article by Jessica Bennett, “I am (an older) woman. Hear me roar.” The story goes on to cite Nancy Pelosi, Glenn Close and Susan Zirinsky, the newly named head of CBS News, among others, as examples of powerful women over 60 in the spotlight.

IT’S ABOUT TIME.

Pelosi survived a serious challenge to her leadership from the energetic freshmen Democratic members, to once again become speaker of the House of Representatives. That makes her the most powerful elected woman in the United States. Pelosi is 78. Long-serving Representative Maxine Waters (D-California), is the first woman, and incidentally the first African-American, to chair the Financial Services Committee. Waters is 80. Donna Shalala (D-Florida) is the oldest freshman in the House. Shalala is almost 78. 

Zirinsky, who worked at CBS in almost every conceivable news position for 40 years, is not being shunted into retirement. Instead she is now the first woman to head the prestigious news division. She is also the oldest person to hold that position. Zirinsky is 66. Glenn Close, regarded as an underdog in the best actress in a motion picture, drama category of the Golden Globes, beat out four younger women. Close, long a favorite actress of mine, is 71.

How much of this has been as a result of the #MeToo tsunami? Older men have long held power into their 70s and 80s. But some of them have been spectacularly toppled: Charlie Rose is 77 and Les Moonves, newly ousted from CBS Corporation, is 69. So age, of in itself, has not been seen as a barrier to power, but gender has. Those fallen men have vacated positions at the top that now can be filled by equally qualified women. Christiane Amanpour, who will be 61 this week, has replaced Rose on PBS. 

Gender coupled with age was always toxic for female advancement, but not in every culture. Native Americans, I believe I recall, would admit only post-menopausal women to the highest circles of power within their tribes. Slowly the rest of our country seems to be realizing the value of older, and presumably wiser, women for positions of leadership. This is most encouraging for the women over 50, of whom there are more than at any time in our U.S. history. And why shouldn’t they have the same opportunities at leadership and power as men? They are healthier, working longer and earning more than ever.

Well, in fact, it seems like they are advancing. In the words of Susan Douglas, a professor of communications at the University of Michigan, according to The Times, “a demographic revolution” is occurring. 

More women are working into their 60s and beyond, and are being appreciated for their talents and experience. In the late 1980s, some 15 percent were still working. Today it is nearly one-third of those 65-69. Those 70-74 and working have jumped from 8 percent to 18 percent. The Times article goes on to point out that working longer is more common among women with higher education and savings. Presumably some are in the workforce by choice and are valued there.

This all reminds me of an exchange that occurred shortly after we started The Village Times, our first newspaper, in 1976. I was 35-years-old, with more gray hairs than now, and hiring staff, when a man came to interview for one of the positions. 

After a positive conversation in my office, I was about to hire him when he paused, then asked, “Are you the boss?” When I told him that I supposed I was, he looked confused, then explained, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. I couldn’t work for a woman boss.” With that he stood, picked up his coat and hurried away. I didn’t even know enough then to be flabbergasted.

TBR News Media held a free screening of its first feature film, 'One Life to Give,' at the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University in June. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Leah Dunaief

By Leah Dunaief

The end of the year has snuck up on us. Have you noticed that the pace of the passing years seems to have accelerated? This is our last regular issue for 2018, and it seems fitting to take a bird’s-eye look at where we’ve been and what lies ahead.

Most immediately coming are the next two issues of special note, that of Dec. 27 and Jan. 3. The first is People of the Year, and we call it our only all-good-news issue. This is the 43rd year we are honoring outstanding residents for going that extra mile and thereby helping to make our hometowns the special places they are. In doing so, they quietly elevate the quality of our lives.

We solicit nominations for this issue from you, our readers, community leaders and neighbors. The editorial board meets with focus groups in the last quarter of the year over breakfast or lunch to discuss nominees and to further inform us of what is happening here, sometimes quietly, sometimes not so much. It is a treat for us to interact with the community on such a pleasant mission. We also get suggestions via emails, texts, phone calls and even an occasional petition; our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts are available, too.

We then take those names back to our conference room and amid lively discussions, select those whose stories we print in the People of the Year issue. Sometimes the ones that don’t fit become feature stories we run in the new year. I have been told that there are collectors who have all 43 issues. What a shelf life!

The second, the Year in Review, is new this year and is done in pictures in a kind of Life magazine treatment. It is on special white stock to help enhance the photo reproduction and is in full color. Life magazine — for whom I worked when in my early 20s and is no more — eat your heart out! A chronology of the way we were, we suspect that it, too, will have a long shelf life. 

Some special offerings of this past year certainly should include our first full-length movie, “One Life to Give,” which was screened in June at the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University to a full house of more than 1,000 viewers. The story follows the early years of the Revolutionary War, specifically through the lives of Nathan Hale and Benjamin Tallmadge, and the start of Washington’s Culper Spy Ring that was headquartered in Setauket. 

I am pleased to be able to tell you that we have filmed a sequel, called “Traitor,” that takes place four years later. It is now 1780, and with great luck the Patriots have captured British spymaster, John André. Again Tallmadge is central to the plot that reveals the discovery of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and the ultimate fate of André. It will be screened in the spring and you will all be invited.

Another first for us this past year was the Cooks, Books & Corks event at the Bates House off Main Street in Setauket. Many local authors came with their books for sale, and many local restaurants came with their specialties for tasting on a sweet summer evening. There was wine and unending good food for both the body and the mind. Our engaging headline speakers were Guy Reuge from Mirabelle Restaurant, internationally famous naturalist Carl Safina and the inspirational dean of the School of Journalism at SBU, Howard Schneider. The event raised money to fund a journalism intern next summer. In answer to the many times we have been asked, yes, we are planning to do it again.

A new print offering this past year was the sleek Washington’s Spy Trail booklet. In 1790, Washington took a slow, ceremonial coach trip along what is now 25A, from Great Neck to Port Jefferson, to honor the Setauket spies who had contributed so much to the victory of the colonists. The booklet marks the route, which this year sports road signs, with information about various points of interest along the way. We will again be publishing the story with updates.

I am running out of space, but there was a lot more that we innovated this past year with much more to come in 2019. Meanwhile thank you for your participation. We could not do any of this without you.

Evelyn Berezin

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Two exceptional people, Edmunde Stewart and Evelyn Berezin, died this past week, one day apart. The funeral for one was at Bryant Funeral Home in East Setauket on Monday, for the other at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City on Tuesday. Although quite different, they were both well known for their talents. I was privileged to know them as friends. Their deaths leave a void for the world and a hole in my heart.

The first was a Scotsman, an orthopedic surgeon who lived for many years in Old Field and whose office was in Port Jefferson. He was 80 years old, and during his half-century of medical practice, he touched the lives of thousands of people. Educated well, he came to the United States to cap off his training, fell in love with one of the first women he met at Stony Brook — and Scotland’s loss was our gain. She was there, at his bedside all those years later, when, struggling to breathe, he finally succumbed to COPD.

Edmunde Stewart

The second was born in the East Bronx and was 93. She was one of three children raised in an apartment under elevated railroad tracks. It was so small that the uncle who boarded with them, while he finished medical school, had to sleep on a mattress under the dining room table. She was bright enough to finish high school at 15 and attended Hunter College at night while she worked. Unusually tall for her generation, she lied about her age in order to get her job. Under a World War II City University program that allowed women to study calculus and other specialized subjects at an all-male school, she then transferred to Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and ultimately earned a degree in physics from NYU in 1946. Needless to say, she was in a distinct minority in her classes.

He, when not practicing medicine, and as a passionate lover of horses and riding, participated in the Smithtown Hunt for many years and on many wild rides through the neighborhoods. He cut a fine figure in his scarlet hunting jacket at the head of the pack. And he probably broke every bone in his body at least twice in his many falls, always with good humor during the phone calls as he related the latest mishap to his wife on his way to the hospital.

Evelyn Berezin

The other left NYU just shy of a doctorate in 1950 and ultimately found a job in 1951 with the Electronic Computer Corporation, a shop of engineers in Brooklyn. In between she married a tall Brit named Israel Wilenitz, who was a chemical engineer. She figured out how to design various computers including one that made range calculations for the U.S. Defense Department, another that kept accounts in business offices and one for an airline reservations system for United Airlines. She also built and marketed the world’s first computerized word processor. She went on to found her own computer company with two male colleagues, which was located in the Hauppauge Industrial Park, and eventually was bought out by Burroughs Corporation. For fun she loved attending cultural events, especially the American Ballet Theatre in New York City where she held a subscription. Recently she joined us with a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera.

Our best times together were probably on her back deck in Poquott, where she served us elaborate brunches of French toast, bagels and lox from the famous Russ & Daughters on the lower East Side of Manhattan and regaled us with historic events she had witnessed during her long life. She had something interesting to say about every subject, past and present, and was totally engaged in current events right up to the end. The last time I called her, she told me she had to get off the phone because she was watching “60 Minutes.”

He was also my orthopedist and shared with me a precious bit of wisdom: “You Americans feel that there should be a cure for every pain that you may feel. But the body isn’t like that. Pains, minor pains, are a part of life and can be borne without rushing into surgery to have them fixed, which is a risky thing to do in the first place.”

They were companions and their lives were an inspiration for me. I am diminished by the loss of my dear friends.

Stock photo

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

The conversation in a New Jersey classroom of first-graders got around to the subject of Christmas, and the substitute teacher unleashed a bombshell. She told them that Santa isn’t real, that parents just buy presents and put them under a tree. On a roll, she didn’t stop there. Reindeer can’t fly, she advised the students, elves are not real, the elf on the shelf is just a doll that parents move around, there is no tooth fairy and no Easter bunny, either. She summed up with the news that there is no magic anything and that magic doesn’t exist. Whoa!

This made the top of the news earlier this week for CBS, NBC, Fox, USA Today and other major news outlets. No one, as far as I know, has interviewed the children to get their reactions, but the school superintendent and the principal were moved to speak, as the district apologized to the parents.

Montville superintendent of schools, Rene Rovtar, was “troubled and disheartened by the incident.” Cedar Hill Elementary School principal, Michael Raj, sent home a message to the parents in which he mentioned the “poor judgment” of the teacher and asked parents to “take appropriate steps to maintain the childhood innocence of the holiday season.” At least one parent, Lisa Simek, took to Facebook, expressing dismay. She urged that Christmas magic is real and expressed through acts of kindness, love, positivity and grace — from and for loved ones and strangers. The superintendent added, “The childhood wonder associated with all holidays and traditions is something I personally hold near and dear in my own heart.”

We don’t know how the children reacted, but we certainly know how upset the adults are. And we have not been told if the teacher will be allowed to substitute again. How should we react to this?

On the one hand, we know that the idea of Santa Claus brings joy and excitement to children and therefore to the adults around them. This is hardly innocence exploited by adults but rather an opportunity for adults each to be Santa, to be their best, most generous, most loving selves. While the person of Santa is a fiction, the embodiment of all that Santa stands for most surely is not. Fictional characters can provide inspiration for the lifetime of a child as he or she grows up. Intergenerational mythmaking exists in many contexts, not only to entertain but also to inspire.

Children sooner or later catch on, especially when they see 20 Santas walking down the street together on their return from their Salvation Army posts. But on the other hand, how do children feel when they realize the adults around them have told them untruths? If they go to school expecting to believe what they are taught there, should the teacher acquiesce in mythmaking? For sure, this teacher handled the situation with poor judgment. It would have been far better for her and the children had she told them to ask their parents about the magic of Santa. For whatever reason, she did not do that.

How did you feel when, as a child, you learned that Santa was a story made up by the adults closest to you? Did you understand the greater good embodied in the concept or were you left to distrust on some level whatever those adults might subsequently tell you? Does misleading a child bring psychological questions into play?

It did not negatively affect Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked that question of her father when she was 8 years old in 1897. She said the answer inspired her for the rest of her long life. Her dad told her to write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper, and added, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” The Sun’s hard-bitten, cynical editor, Francis Pharcellus Church, wrote the answer that turned into the most reprinted editorial over the next century in the English-speaking world: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

This sounds like a fairy tale, but the latest weapon in the battle against mental illness is a bench. Yes, a brightly colored, sometimes plastic, sometimes wooden magic bench. In this particular instance, a bench can do wonders. It all started as a brainchild of psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda in the far-off country of Zimbabwe, which is just north of the Republic of South Africa.

In Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, he was treating a young woman for depression who traveled some 160 miles from her rural home each time to see him. At one point, when she couldn’t get to him, he discovered that she had taken her life. That tragedy changed his life.

Zimbabwe is a dirt poor country of some 17 million people with 12 trained psychiatrists, and they are only in Harare. Almost every person suffering with depression does not have access to evidence-based talking therapies or modern anti-depressants. There is not even a word in the Shona language for depression. The closest is “kufungisisa,” which means “thinking too much,” and is akin to “rumination” or negative thought patterns that often lie at the core of depression and anxiety. Long-term social stress, such as that brought on by unemployment, chronic disease in loved ones and abusive
relationships, is associated with depression.

In the early 1990s, nearly one quarter of adults in Zimbabwe had HIV with no meds to save them. In 2005, strongman President Robert Mugabe’s forced slum-clearance program to “drive out the rubbish,” known as Operation Murambatsvina, caused the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of homes and jobs. The consequence of such events was widespread depression.

For Chibanda, the challenge was enormous. He felt strongly that had his patient been able to see him regularly, he could have saved her. But how to get mental health care to those who cannot easily access the help? Certainly not in the private clinics that he had planned to start in the city.

As he cast around in vain for government resources, he realized that grandmothers were already functioning since the 1980s as community health workers, supporting people with HIV, TB, cholera and offering health education. They were trained by the government, lived where they worked and were trusted and highly respected. In 2006, they were asked to add depression to their list of treatable ailments.

Chibanda took on a group of 14 elderly women, taught them to ask patients 14 questions, eventually called the Shona Symptom Questionnaire, and if the answers to eight or more were “yes,” then psychological help was deemed necessary. Questions included, “Do you feel you are thinking too much?” or “Do you ever have thoughts of killing yourself?” The patients put their answers in writing, and after the first interview, the grandmothers gathered in a circle to discuss each patient and decide how to proceed. Professional help might be sought for the extreme patients, but for the most part, the service provided by these grandmothers of listening and offering wisdom acquired over their years to guide patients to their own solutions to the problems at hand proved remarkably effective.

Where to sit and listen to these patients? Rather than in overcrowded clinics, the answer was on a bench under the shade of an old tree. The benches were placed outside the clinics, in plain sight, and by sitting down on one, a patient could indicate the need for intervention. In 2007, an initial pilot was begun in a suburb of Harare, and by October 2011 the first study was published. By then, there were 24 health clinics and more than 300 grandmothers trained in an updated form of problem-solving therapy. And by 2016, a decade after the program began, the results showed a significant decrease in depressive symptoms.

The Friendship Bench project, as it is known, has spread, with evidence-based approaches, to Malawi, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Canada and the United States; Australia and New Zealand are on the wait list. There is also a program in New York City. Chibanda gave a TED talk in 2016 that has further popularized the Friendship Bench project

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