Between you and me

METRO photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,
Publisher

Aging has become a frequent subject in the media, perhaps propelled there by our presidential race and its elderly candidates. We are all, of course, aging, and we all want to age well. This plethora of information gives us a chance to measure our health against standard values for our age. The statistics are also comforting: we are not alone with our symptoms and infirmities. We want to be equal or better than predicted for our age.

But are we?

I accepted a delivery from the messenger at my front door and reached for my wallet to pay him the charge. But herein lies the story. 

Years ago, I gave up carrying a pocketbook because I was getting lame from carrying everything in there but the proverbial kitchen sink. My doctor, whom I had visited with complaints of an aching shoulder, and who noticed my dead weight tote, pointed out that most men don’t carry pocketbooks and they seem to do fine. Men, after all, keep everything they need for daily living in their pockets. 

He advised me to do the same.

He was right. I observed men carefully at checkout lines in supermarkets and in restaurants. They settled the bills with whatever they withdrew from their pockets and went merrily on their way. They carried their door keys in their pockets, and some even took out a comb occasionally to run through their hair. I reasoned that I could do that, too,  with my lipstick. The doctor changed my life that day. And my shoulder never again bothered me.

Since then, I have bought clothes with pockets and used them instead of a pocketbook for my routine needs unless I am wearing a gown or a bathing suit. So I was wearing shorts that day, when I paid the driver, then replaced my wallet in my pocket. 

Or so I thought.

Later, when I was getting ready to go to my annual dentist appointment, I reached into my pocket to check for my wallet and panicked. It wasn’t there. I could feel the coarse material at the bottom. The pocket was empty.

What had I done with my wallet after I paid for the package? I pivoted to look next to the still unopened box on the front hall table. Nothing. Thinking I absent-mindedly carried the wallet into the living room and put it down next to my reading chair, I entered and found only the day’s newspaper there. Concern mounting, I quickly walked around to the kitchen and scanned the empty counters.

Now I was beginning to panic. If I didn’t find my wallet quickly, I was going to be late for my appointment. It came to me in a flash. I must have brought the wallet to my bedroom. I rushed up the stairs and into the room, searching the bedside table, the thickly padded bedroom chair, the ottoman and even the bathroom. No luck. 

Then I ran downstairs and repeated all those steps, hoping I had missed something the first time around. Still nothing. Wait. Had I looked in my closet, where I had earlier pulled out my sandals? Taking flight, I charged back up the stairs and into the walk-in closet. No sight of the stupid wallet.

Overheated and gasping for air, I realized I was going to miss the dentist. I sat down in my bedroom chair, dialed his number and got his receptionist. Breathlessly I explained my predicament and that I would call for another time. She was sympathetic and told me how often that happens to her with her car keys. I wasn’t mollified. I had everything in my wallet: driver’s license, insurance card, credit cards, money.

I hung up and leaned back into the chair, only to feel a lump against my lower back. What had I left in the chair? Nothing, but there was something in the back pocket of my shorts.

There it was. I had forgotten I had back pockets in these shorts. My wallet was running around the house with me the entire time. Duh! 

Pixabay photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,
Publisher

My parents married for the second time on July 4th. That was 99 years ago, and it was the religious wedding. Three years earlier, they were married in a civil ceremony during their lunch hour in New York’s City Hall. How did that come about? 

I will tell you the story.

When my dad was 13, he was told by his father that he was now a man and should go off to the city and start his own life. So he left the dairy farm in the Catskill Mountains, where he was raised, and joined his older brother in Brooklyn at a boarding house. It was the beginning of the 20th century, and that was where renters, usually men, slept and got their meals. 

One day, his brother told him he had gotten engaged and asked if my dad would like to join him for a visit to his fiancée’s home in Queens. The two of them entered the house just as the fiancée’s younger sister was coming downstairs. To hear my dad tell it, he looked up, saw this beautiful young lady in a red dress descending the stairs and instantly fell madly in love. I can vouch for the fact that he stayed that way for all the rest of his life. She became his wife and he adored her always.

But I get ahead of myself. 

They both worked in the Wall Street area, and my father would contrive to have lunch with my mother as often as possible. One day, when she was 15 and he 17, he suggested they walk over to City Hall and get married. 

Now my father was clearly a romantic. My mother, by contrast, was a clear-headed, practical woman. She, too, must have been in love because she agreed on the spot. They overcame the obstacle of not having any witnesses by asking men who were getting their shaves in the barbershop on the block to help. Two men gallantly agreed, threw off their bibs, wiped their faces and proceeded to swear that my parents were 18 and therefore of age to marry. Their signatures on my parents’ wedding license has forever endeared them to me, though they were total strangers.

Not knowing what to do next, they went back to their jobs and then to their respective abodes.

When my mother returned home that night, she encountered a raging father. He had been reading the local evening newspaper, in which those who married that day were listed, and he was both furious and terribly hurt. Head hanging, she acknowledged her deed. When he finally calmed down, her father laid down the law.

My father, his new son-in-law, would move into their home but two floors separately from my mother. He would join the family at meals and in every other non-marital activity, and if they all agreed, there would be a “proper” religious ceremony to consecrate the marriage when my mother turned 18.

So it was decreed and so it happened. The extended family, who all lived in the three story house, came to love my father during those ensuing years, especially my mother’s aunt. She shared memories with him about the “old country” and the family that was left behind when they immigrated to America a decade earlier. He said they would sit together in front of the coal stove, in the parlor, until late in the evening, as she told her stories. That is what I am lucky enough to know about the family’s history, for he in turn enjoyed telling me.

At the assigned time, my parents married and moved out of the house to start their own family. A couple of years later, my brother was born. My parents are gone now, and with remarkable coincidence, my brother joined them, dying 64 years later on July 4th.

Wherever they are now, they must be having a great party.

METRO photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,
Publisher

Speaking of our health, which we often do with friends, there were a couple of interesting bits of news this week in that department.

Probably the most dramatic is the idea that by delaying the onset of menopause, a woman’s life and good health might be extended. The health benefits that women have before menopause lessen as we age past that mark. So current longevity research is asking if the whole picture could be slowed. And so, Dr. Jill Biden announced from the White House a new health initiative to pursue this concept, with Dr. Renee Wegrzyn steering the research.

Ovaries, which seem to play a role throughout a woman’s lifetime, not just until menopause, are the main focus. “Researchers think that prolonging their function, better aligning the length of their viability with that of other organs, could potentially alter the course of a woman’s health—and longevity research overall,” according to Tuesday’s front page story in The New York Times.

Using hormones like estrogen and progesterone, ovaries communicate with every other organ in the body. When they stop communicating, “all kinds of problems arise.” They stop when the eggs that they carry are gone, at which point risk increases for dementia, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and other age-related diseases and lifespan, according to The Times. Women whose ovaries have been prematurely removed for other health reasons are at greater risk, which suggests that even after all the eggs are gone, ovaries may still play a protective role.

All of this is subject to much further investigation. Researchers are not sure whether aging negatively affects the ovaries or if the ovaries cause other organs to age. But prolonging ovarian function in lab animals does seem to improve their health and longevity. This encourages further research into reducing the number of eggs lost by a woman during each menstrual cycle, thus preserving ovarian function. (Women shed may eggs many cycle but one ovulates). A current drug, rapamycin, which is an immunosuppressant used in organ transplants, is being studied for that role.

Anti-aging research is highly popular among scientists these days.

Another surprising article in the same issue of The Times, this one in the ScienceTimes section, has to do with our sense of smell. Though it lessens with age (and might as the result of infections, like Covid), “A diminished ability to smell is associated with worsening memory, cognition and overall well-being—as well as dementia and depression.”  The good news is that such a situation may be reversible. 

We can train our noses with smelling exercises, and our ability to smell, in turn, may improve not only depression but also help remember words faster. One explanation for this is “the areas of the brain involved in smelling are uniquely connected to parts involved in cognition, such as the prefrontal cortex.”  Further to the point, “The olfactory system is the only sensory system that has a direct superhighway projection into the memory centers and the emotional centers of your brain,” according to Professor Michael Leon of the University of California, Irvine.

So take out products from your kitchen cabinets and alternately smell cinnamon, honey, coffee, wine or others and sniff each of them at least 30 seconds at a time, once in the morning and once more at night. Small studies have indicated this not only tests one’s power to smell but also enhance cognitive abilities.

Finally for this column, I would like to quote the Times’ article on the Walking Cure for Lower Back Pain. Although those with pain may be loathe to exercise, movement can strengthen muscles that support the back and ease the pain. This is a conclusion that is supported with any number of studies over the past few years. 

“Researchers found that regular exercise combined with physical education was the most effective way to prevent lower back pain from recurring,” according to The NYT.

Walking can help strengthen the support muscles at the base of the spine. When they weaken, it can lead to pain.

So, as the song goes, “Shake, Shake, Shake Your Booty,” for good health. 

The sculpture of Borghese's Itala in Kirov, Russia. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,
Publisher

This month marks an anniversary of the Peking to Paris Road Race of 1907. Now there is a recent book to recount the adventure, “The Race to the Future,” by Kassia St. Clair. Five automobiles, so newly invented that people weren’t sure what to call them, turned out for the 9000-mile trip over unpaved deserts and mountains, rivers and forests to win the acclaim, and a magnum of Mumm champagne, that would go to the first person to reach the finish line.

More than a race, it was really a challenge to promote the use of motor cars. The Paris newspaper. “Le Matin,” on January 31, 1907 wrote the following:

“What needs to be proved today is that as long as man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Paris to Peking by automobile?”

The race actually started in the other direction, from the French embassy in Peking (now Beijing) on June 10th and came down to between two very different men, ending on August 10th.

The winner was the car carrying the imperious Italian Prince Scipione Borghese, Ettore Guizzardi, who apparently did most of the driving, and journalist Luigi Barzini, who in 1908 wrote a book about the trip, “Peking to Paris.” Frenchman Charles Godard was the raffish driver of the second car, and he had no money, begged for petrol, borrowed the Dutch Spyker for the trip, and was arrested for fraud near the end of the race. One of the other cars, the three-wheel Contal cyclecar, bccame bogged down. Godard and the journalist with him ran out of fuel in the Gobi desert and almost died. Borghese’s personal car, The Itala, was technically superior to the others.

Gasoline and provisions were carried ahead by camel and horseback, and newspapers arranged for a reporter in each car to track the progress and send back articles. Because the race followed a telegraph route, stories could be posted regularly from the stations to Paris. 

Some of the areas in Asia were so remote that people were unfamiliar with automobiles, only using horses to reach them. And St. Clair, in the book, recounts episodes like the search in the Urals for carpenters to repair the cars’ smashed wooden wheels. The direction of the book, however, is always forward, as can be guessed from the title. The decadent empires of Russia and China that the racers were traversing were fading but the adventure of the remote villages and primitive Siberian settlements must have been fantastic experiences.

The race has stimulated the imagination of many over the century, and there have been reenactments during that time. In 1908 The Great Auto Race, which went from New York west (by sea for part of the way) to Paris, tried to capture the excitement of that first race. When Russia became the USSR after the 1917 Revolution, that route was barred; only when the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1990, were racers allowed back.

Other routes for similar car races include the 1997 “Second Peking to Paris Motor Challenge” that went through Tibet, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy, a more southerly trail. And there have been others through the years.

For me, the excitement of the open road is irresistible, whether it is intercontinental or merely out east to the Hamptons. The unknown that lies beyond the next bend promises, if not rugged terrain, at least new sights, sounds and contacts. It’s not necessarily a race that beckons, only the adventure of the different and unexpected. 

For me, the challenge is not the wild terrain but merely navigating the traffic. As the houses drop away and the farms and vineyards come into view, I can feel myself physically relax and breathe in the smells of flowering fields and sod farms.

I can only imagine the thrill of crossing unchartered lands.

Trustee candidates Kyle Hill, Marie Parziale, and Xena Ugrinsky sit before the audience at the Meet the Candidates event on Tuesday, June 11. Photo by Aidan Johnson

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,
Publisher

This Tuesday, I went to a Meet the Candidates night in Port Jefferson Village. I left, some two hours later, feeling proud — proud of being an American and proud of my neighbors. 

The Village will hold its election for trustees next week, and this was an attempt by those residents who are running for office to inform the voting public about their positions and qualifications. It was jointly sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Association in the Village Center. 

There are a number of villages along the North Shore, where our newspapers service the communities, that hold local elections, and I would like to think my experience was typical of all of them. The occasion was an example of representative democracy, in which a candidates who best reflects one’s beliefs earns that person’s vote. The winner in a subsequent free and supervised election then becomes the elected official. 

That’s America.

I was also proud because the audience, of some 75 people I would guess, listened politely, applauded spontaneously if a candidate’s words touched a nerve, then broke into small groups to chat with each other at the end. In this case, there are two trustee vacancies with three residents running. And while there was mention throughout the speeches of clearly different positions with acknowledgement of much passion throughout the village, information at this forum was the order of the day. There were no invectives thrown, no voices raised or denigrating asides. The candidates smiled and shook hands at the end.

That does not mean there are no serious problems for Port Jefferson and that residents here are less caring. Quite the contrary. Problems like erosion, development, environmental sustainability, flooding, government transparency, municipal services, parking, and safety are common to villages and hamlets throughout the North Shore and Long Island. And not surprisingly, they excite passionate response, but the response does not have to be insulting or threatening if we see each other as neighbors, not colors.

We, of course, care deeply about the places in which we live. It’s not only a matter of economics, where development could impact property values, for example, but also our pride of place that comes into play during meetings. But insults and put downs are not necessary and would even be a hindrance during attempts to work together toward solutions.

And that is the key: working together. The candidates all got that.

I have great respect for neighbors who are willing to put themselves out there to run for office. Perhaps they are interested in the glory of office, but it takes an enormous amount of time and energy to stump for election. And in this day, candidates not only open themselves up for scrutiny, they bring their families to the forefront also to be evaluated. Privacy vanishes, and often, so does respect. They are fair game as targets for everyone’s freedom of speech. Libel law does not much protect candidates who become public figures.

The format of the Port Jefferson meeting was somewhat restrictive. Candidates were each given short intervals to speak—one to three minutes per question or summation. And the questions from the audience were written on 3×5 cards and passed along to a three-person panel before asked by the moderator, with an eye toward relevance and civility.

Candidates were prepped in advance, not given the actual question but with a heads up as to the likely issues to be covered. The two women and a man who were running probably knew what some of those issues were, but a little planning can help keep things calm and on track.

Did the informational meeting sway voters in any way? My guess is that most came already knowing whom they would vote for, but perhaps some were undecided. Even for those who knew, confirmation was helpful. It’s nice to see who will be the faces of the Village and how they comport themselves.

I hope, during this election season for villages and primaries, you, too, feel proud. 

METRO photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,
Publisher

A number of my relatives and friends were born in June, so that means lots of birthdays to celebrate. My dad was born in June, and so was my brother. My granddaughter’s birth, the first child of my middle son and daughter-in-law, lit up the month of June for me. She was the first girl in a long familial string of boys. Then there is my West Coast cousin and several friends who all made their appearance on Earth in the same month.

I’m not good at buying presents or mailing cards, but I do try my best to remember the dates and to extend happy wishes. I adore celebrations and the digital age has helped in that regard. I send texts and emails, and if I don’t think it will cause too much grief hearing my atonal voice, I call the person and sing a heartfelt “Happy Birthday.” 

I learned of the entitlement of birthdays when I started elementary school. Feeling left out, I watched as classmates offered cupcakes and blew out candles that their mothers brought to class, while I rued the fact that I was a summer baby: no classmates, no groups  to sing to me.

Little did I know then that my dad’s family never celebrated his or his siblings’ birthdays. Perhaps it had something to do with there being nine children and that they were dirt poor.

My unfortunate mother never knew when she was born. Her mother, who could have told her, died when she was an infant, and I guess no one else really cared. All she knew was that it was sometime during harvest season. 

Well, I changed all that.

I came home from school one day, I guess about second grade, and professed outrage at never having a birthday party. My parents, innocently trying to eat dinner, seemed at first puzzled, then embarrassed at the oversight. They asked me what a party would entail, and I explained about the cake, the candles, the guests and the presents. And when it was time for my birthday, they made amends, that year and every subsequent year until I was married.

I appreciated their response, even going so far as to assign my mother a birthday in the midst of October, which I assumed was harvest time, and which we then celebrated annually—I believe to my mother’s delight.

Did you know that birthdays are a fairly recent consideration?

According to “The Atlantic,” only in the middle of the 19th century did some middle-class Americans celebrate birthdays, and not until the early 20th century, when my parents were born, did birthday celebrations start to be a nationwide tradition. The magazine ties together birthday observances with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, during which the matter of time became more of a focus generally due to factory and labor hours.

The song, “Happy Birthday to You,” the most popular song in the English language according to the Guinness World Records, is only somewhat older than its 100th birthday.

Supposedly two American sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, composed the melody in 1893, but that’s disputed.

As the 20th century unfolded, birthdays became a time to honor ordinary individuals, usually with cakes and candles, but in some circles, with fruit. It has also become a reason for families and friends to gather, both to appreciate one of its members and to reunite, however briefly. Birthdays ending in 0’s and 5’s are particularly special.

Today, birthdays are often regarded by those experiencing them as a time for evaluating their lives. Have they met their goals? How are they doing compared to their contemporaries? Do they look their age? Are they living the lives they desire? 

It’s a day to be pampered by one’s friends and loved ones and to pamper one’s self. Some people go on trips. Others buy themselves presents that perhaps they have always wanted. 

And some, at the end of their day, breath a sigh of relief, knowing that they don’t have to face another birthday for a whole year.

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,
Publisher

Please note that we have added something new to the front page of the newspaper. In the upper right hand corner, next to our flag, is a QR code. When you open that code with your cellphone, you will immediately be transported to the home page of our website, and there you will find a button that says, “LISTEN NOW.” Click there and you will be able to hear the current week’s podcast.

Do you know about our podcast?

Each week, after the newspaper comes out, members of the editorial team sit around a table in the recording studio and chat about the week’s news for a little over half an hour. We talk about what lies behind the headlines and perhaps throw in other bits of information that may not have fit into the limited space in the paper. 

Called “Pressroom Afterhour,” our regular participants include Samantha Rutt, managing editor; Mike Vincenti, co-producer; and myself. At the other end is our audio engineer, Michael Dunaief, in California. 

Different reporters, who have contributed stories each week, join us, either in person or as a call-in, and give more depth to the stories they have written, as well as commentary on other articles. We also include sports, with our sportscasters, Bill Landon and Steve Zaitz, and a weekly round-up of the news. 

Sometimes, we invite guests, like Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich, historian Bev Tyler, estate lawyers Nancy Burner and Gail Prudenti, and SCWA Chairman Charlie Lefkowitz, when they have participated in the week’s events.

This week, beginning tomorrow, May 31, we have joining us Dr. Suzanne Fields, interim co-director of the new Center for Healthy Aging at Stony Brook Medical Center. A distinguished geriatrician, she speaks about the Center, its purpose and goals, and offers an insightful overview of the aging process. Interviewing her this week, both for the newspapers and on the podcast, is reporter Daniel Dunaief. 

The podcast is available after noon every Friday, can be heard from the car or wherever you have your cellphone, and is available throughout the ensuing week either from our website, via the QR code, the home page at www.tbrnewsmedia.com or Spotify.

Please join us for a better understanding of the local news and the fun of discussing what’s happening in our daily lives. We would welcome any comments from you, as well as suggestions for articles to be featured on future podcasts. 

This is a bit of news with a local perspective you might not get elsewhere. Ben Brown, a freshman pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, pitched seven innings of no-hit ball on Tuesday against the the Milwaukee Brewers before he was taken out of the game by the manager, after throwing 93 pitches, for fear of straining his arm. At that point, the Cubs led by the score of 1-0.

Now, Ben Brown is a graduate of Ward Melville High School in the Three Village School District. He is a hometown boy, drafted right out of high school, at the age of 17, by the Phillies, as we wrote in a comprehensive previous article a couple of months ago. Brown, 24, was traded to the Cubs and brought up from the Minors this Spring.

The reliever, after getting the first out, opened the door. The Brewers tied the game by the ninth inning.

Fortunately for the Cubs, they were able to score five runs in the top of the tenth, and although the Brewers threatened in the bottom of the inning, scoring two, the Cubs shut the door, winning 6-3. And all of the game was played by the Cubs with some of the team, including Brown, ill with a bug.

We will surely talk about this game on the podcast this week, even though neither of the major league teams is local. But Ben Brown is and is richly worth a shout-out.

This is surely a game he will never forget.

The Metropollitan Opera. Photo from Facebook

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,
Publisher

As much as I enjoy living on our beautiful Island, getting away for a quick break from the predictable routine and usual scenery is a delight. This past Saturday morning, we rode into New York City ready for adventure.

Six months earlier, we had ordered tickets for the matinee performance of the new opera at the Met, “The Hours,” a story about three women in different eras and locations, that takes place in a single day. 

Based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel and the highly regarded subsequent film, the opera had won rave reviews at its premier the previous year and offered three fabulous singers, Renee Fleming, Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O’Hara in the leading roles. We figured it would be worth the trip just to hear all three on the same stage.

It was.

The plot uses Virginia Woolf’s novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” as the thread that ties the three women together, although they don’t meet until the end. DiDonato as Woolf is writing the novel in a London suburb in 1923, O’Hara as Laura is reading it in 1949 in Los Angeles, and Fleming as Clarissa in Manhattan at the end of the century is reenacting the story.

The women have much in common. At various times, as the playbill notes, they are rapturous, fearful, desperate but always accepting. And the music carries and amplifies the story, as the times and places flow back and forth.

There was a light rain as we emerged from the opera house and found a place to eat supper. It was a leisurely meal as we marveled at what was coming next. At the time we had ordered tickets for “The Hours,” we noted that the evening performance was to be “Carmen,” which just happens to be my favorite opera.

Reasoning that we had much  cultural enrichment to make up for due to the losses forced on us by COVID-19, we splurged on tickets for that opera as well. So after we ate, we returned to the opera house for the evening attraction.

Two operas in one day!

Yes, we survived, although we were a bit woozy when it was all over, especially since Bizet’s “Carmen” is one of the longer operas. Stimulating but disappointing to us was the transfer of this classic 19th century opera set alongside a cigarette factory and a military base in Spain to a modern American truck depot in the industrial Midwest.

The plot was unchanged. “Don Jose, a naive soldier who is seduced by the wiles of the fiery gypsy Carmen, abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his military duties, yet loses Carmen’s love to the glamorous [bullfighter] Escamillo, after which Don Jose kills her in a jealous rage,” is a quick synopsis from Wikipedia.

But instead of the bullring, we have a rodeo, and conspicuously missing are the exotic settings in the mountains and especially the seductive dance on the table at the tavern serving as a hideout for the gypsy smugglers.

Nonetheless, the music, well-known even as background to Saturday morning TV cartoons for early rising youngsters, is so forceful and the story so dramatic that by the later acts, the longstanding appeal of this opera again captivated us, and we left happy.

Using our one free night from our loyalty credit card points, we had arranged to sleep at a nearby hotel in NYC. As you might imagine, after all that operatic action, we slept exceedingly well. We found a good spot for breakfast the next morning; actually it was more like brunch. 

Stopping only to pick up some NYC bagels, we returned refreshed and thrilled to be back. Our neighborhood looked newly washed and appealing. As much as it is enjoyable to have a break from our normal routines, interestingly it is even more satisfying to come home. And the magic of live music continues to play in our heads.

Pictured above, from left to right: Simons Foundation President David Spergel, Jim and Marilyn Simon, Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis and Governor Kathy Hochul. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,
Publisher

“What can I do? I’m only one person.”

How many times have we heard that lament? People excuse themselves from doing what they could, since everyone has some skills, to rectify a situation or help a cause by falling back on that one-liner. Elsewhere in these papers, we tell you about one man (and woman) who made an enormous difference in the world. Of course, it helps if you are a genius. 

Jim Simons was a genius. I knew him a little. He lived in Old Field and was a self-deprecating genius, except for the time he referred to himself during a talk he was giving to a small group as “Midas.” And he was right; he turned his understanding of mathematics into investments that made unprecedented amounts of money in much the same way King Midas, in Greek mythology, turned everything he touched into pure gold.

I remember, years ago, when I was traveling in Australia and I walked by a newsstand. Some magazines were propped up with their front pages displayed. I had to stop and stare for a moment because there was Jim’s face above the headline, “Highest income earner in the world” that year. It seems he had grossed four billion dollars, if I recall correctly. That was after he founded Renaissance Technologies in, of all places, beautiful downtown East Setauket.

If you want to make the world a better place, it helps to be a genius and to have fabulous sums of money. But that’s just the beginning of the story. 

As Jim once said, “It’s really hard giving away money…well.” He spent the last third of his adult life figuring out how and to whom he and his wife, Marilyn, should be donating funds.

The philanthropy I am most familiar with is Math for America. Being a mathematician, it’s not a surprise Jim was most concerned early on about how math was taught in the schools. Data revealed that the answer was “not very well,” or at least, not as well as it could be taught.

How to proceed?

Jim got his arms around the problem by starting with math teachers. He founded a nonprofit organization to support NYC public school teachers that eventually turned into a four-year fellowship program to increase math and science teachers’ skills.

“MfA’s role is valuing excellence in teaching and doing everything we can to keep great teachers in the classroom,” Jim explained. Part of the problem was the low pay. Math teachers often got hired away by business and industry, leaving a void in the classrooms.

He outlined the five core beliefs of his organization.

First was that teaching is a true profession, giving teachers enormous respect and financing.

Second was that great teachers are always learning. They strive to improve their depth of content knowledge, their expertise in teaching, and their ability to teach to the strengths of every student in their classroom.

Third is the necessity for deep collaboration within  a community of fellow experts to achieve ongoing growth.

Fourth is that regular evaluation of teachers is required to advance the profession.

And finally, fifth is by honoring greatness in the profession. That is achieved by celebrating, promoting and advocating for the best teachers, which raises prestige and attracts the best possible candidates to a career in the classroom.

Here are some impressive numbers that have resulted from that single organization, Math for America, founded 2004.

There are 1078 total teachers that have participated across NYC. Some 125 professional development courses have been offered by MfA in 2022-2023 that are focused on topics of equity and inclusion in the classrooms.

82 percent of MfA teachers have led professional development for their school colleagues.

400+ high quality STEM-focused courses have resulted each semester of which 75 percent have been led by MfA teachers.

60 percent of MfA teachers in NYC said they might have left teaching during 2022-2023 if not for their fellowships.

MfA has been recognized by the legislature of NYS and the U.S.Congress.

Thank you, Jim Simons.

Pixabay photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,
Publisher

When lilacs bloom, I think of my mother. That’s not only because they bloom around Mother’s Day, although that is part of the story. My mother loved lilacs, their color, their remarkable shape of many tiny flowers making one larger blossom, their incomparable smell.

My mother was born in Russia, came to New York with her family when she was four and lived in the house with her father, step-mother, two brothers, three sisters and one unmarried aunt in Corona, Queens until she married. And as she told me countless times, always smiling at the memory, the backyard was filled with lilacs.

After I moved away, I sent her armloads of lilacs on Mother’s Day. Each year, she would tell me I shouldn’t have, taking deep breaths to let me know how she loved their perfume.

Forty-one years ago, she died two days before Mother’s Day, surrounded in the hospital room by lilacs.

I wish you had known my mother. She was, to borrow from The Reader’s Digest, the most unforgettable character I have ever met. My father, who was no slouch himself, said she had enormous courage. She would go to court, representing whichever member of the family might have legal woes in connection with their businesses, and patiently explain to the judge what the problem was. She always won. 

She would have been a successful lawyer, had she been allowed to finish her studies. But when her father had a stroke in his 40s, she and her older brother were removed from school and sent out to work to support the family. She seemed not to know that she was not a lawyer as she argued her case.

Without a doubt, she was the matriarch and head of the extended family. Did I mention, she was incredibly bright…about most things? Not necessarily about me, however, As you might imagine, she had a strong personality and was accustomed to being in charge. I, on the other hand, disliked always being directed. My poor dad was habitually caught in the middle.

My father would remind me how much my mother loved me and that she was looking for what was best for me. I don’t believe that line of reasoning ever won me over, but I will say that I learned to love, and love deeply, from my mother and my father. 

Is love learned? If so, I felt how much my brother, my sister and I were loved and how my parents, if called upon, would sacrifice their welfare for us in an instant. I have tried to pass along that depth of feeling to my children.

My parents did modify their lives after my sister was born. Two years younger than I, she was  diagnosed with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. Mothers 35 and older are more prone to giving birth to children with Down’s, and my mother was 36 when my sister, Maxine, arrived.

It was my parents’ goal to help Maxine live as normal and complete a life as they were able to provide for my older brother and me. Some relatives urged them to put my sister “away” in a home for children with disabilities. My parents never considered that, instead protecting her with abiding love and care.

Both my parents accepted the challenge of raising my sister, but the larger share of that care inevitably fell to my mother. It was not common to see a child on the street with a disability of any sort in the 1940s, when my sister was born. Some people feared differences, others just stared. 

There was a social price to be paid. My parents willingly paid the social price, devoting their free time and resources to her care, happiness and well-being, making sure that my sister was properly looked after. She played the piano, loved watching baseball games in Central Park with my dad and me, and returned our love in equal measure. With infinite patience, my mother taught Maxine eventually to read and do arithmetic on a second-grade level.

My mother was a star.