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Leah S. Dunaief

Photo from METRO

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Sunday is Father’s Day. When I think of my father, one of the most immediate memories I have of him is of his telling us stories. He loved to talk about his childhood days growing up on a dairy farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. One of nine children, he distinguished himself with his claim as “the middle child,” and made his adventures sound daring and riveting. Somehow he and his siblings always survived, always came through relatively unscathed. And the conclusions to the stories were inevitably happy ones.

For example, there was the time the six boys climbed to the peak of the hill behind their farmhouse, arranged themselves onto an oversized sled and careened down on the hard-packed snow. It was great fun until they saw a train in the distance coming along the track at the bottom of the mountain. Their oldest brother, sitting in the front, quickly calculated the speed of the sled and the speed of the train and shouted a command to those behind him: “Jump off to the left when I count to three.” They obeyed and huddled together watching, as down below the rushing train crushed the sled crossing in its path.

Then there was the day my dad and a couple of his schoolmates climbed atop the one-room schoolhouse roof and jumped down in front of their young teacher just as she was arriving for the day. She screamed, which was satisfying to his buddies, but my dad also screamed as, barefoot, he landed on a glass shard. His father, who was of necessity the “emergency room doctor” for his family, isolated as they were in the rural farmland, stitched his foot and spooked him by saying that he would bear the scar of that misadventure “all the rest of his life.” To my young father, that sounded more ominous than the pain of his sole being sewn up. If we begged, he would show us the jagged scar, evidence of his exciting youth.

What would he say about living through the present pandemic? It still feels like a dream, this novel coronavirus, from which we will shortly awake. I pinch myself, but I know I am not dreaming. For sure these times require daring just to go shopping in the supermarket, and judging by the amount of media coverage, are also riveting.

For many, sheltering in place has proven to be most difficult. Those who like to be in motion constantly are now restrained to their few rooms and a daily walk. Relationships with spouses or others sharing the house or apartment may have become strained to the breaking point. In Wuhan, China, made famous as the origin of COVID-19 for example, suits for divorce have increased appreciably compared to the preceding year. There has been an uptick in the use of alcohol and drugs in the U.S. by those feeling isolated or lonely or simply in limbo from their normal lives. Depression is an increasing complaint.

Yet others, at the same time, have found the pandemic a time for reevaluation of their lives. They have slowed down from their frenetic pace, deepened relationships with partners and children and colleagues, and if they have been fortunate enough not to have anyone fall ill, and to keep their jobs, perhaps have seen a new way occasionally to work: remotely from home or elsewhere in the world. They have probably saved some money by not venturing out to shop, dine or vacation and have maybe enjoyed some healthy home cooking.

There is a better prospect ahead. After all, we are in Phase Two now. It appears that Phase Three is on the immediate horizon. By wearing masks in public, practicing social distancing and avoiding crowded indoor settings, and by sheltering those who would be most vulnerable, we seem now to be co-existing with the virus, at least until a vaccine becomes available or sufficient herd immunity evolves.

How would my dad tell this story? I believe he would share his experience as a great adventure, even as he would hold up his scar.

Hundreds of protesters stand at the corner of Routes 112 and 347 in Port Jefferson Station Monday, June 1 to protest police violence, especially against people of color. Photo by David Luces

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

This year will be remembered in much the same way as 2001, 1968 and even 1941 are remembered. And the year is not even half over yet. Those were years when we were embroiled in conflict; we the people of the United States of America. In 1968, we experienced internal strife, with protesters taking to the streets against the Vietnam War and racism in society. The other two historic years, the strife came from outside the country. This year we have both.

It required protests in 140 cities across the nation, triggered by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to push aside the daily counts of illness and death from COVID-19 at the top of the news. And like 1968, this is a year of national elections, so throw in a heavy dose of politics into a climate of extreme political partisanship.

Peaceful demonstrations catalyzed by grief and anger at the video proof of police officers killing George Floyd, a black man in their custody, have morphed in many instances into chaotic and often deadly attacks on police as they try to control rioting, vandalism, fires and looting in the cities. 

Protesters have sometimes tried to stop looters, adding to the wrestling for control of the streets. And all of that is happening as more than 100,000 Americans have died and close to two million have been sickened, victims of the coronavirus. The possibility of a spike in the pandemic from the gathering of crowds pouring out of their sheltering-in-place homes in protest is another concern for health officials. The situation is certainly not helped by the more than 40 million people now unemployed. Disease, economic challenges and social unrest are combining to inflame our country.

Where do we go from here?

For our health problem, the answers are simpler. As our lives become more liberated by the phased openings, we must still maintain caution during our comings and goings. We need to wear masks when interacting with others, even one other. We must practice social distancing of at least 6 feet of separation when we are with others who are new to our antiviral sheltering circle. We can get tested more easily now should symptoms prompt such action. We should continue to diligently wash our hands, especially after touching any common surfaces, like doorknobs or railings. And extra resources must be given to areas with extra caseloads.

The racism problem is not so straightforward. It has been embedded in our country since before its founding, and it will take much more than words to alleviate. 

We need to work together across communities to root out discrimination and inequalities in health care, educational access, employment opportunities and policing. That starts with the birth of each baby in a safe and professional environment, and follows that child through pre-school right up through full schooling with competent teachers, administrators and resources, jobs that can pay at least a living wage and housing in a safe and pleasant neighborhood.

Is it possible for societies to do all that?

Many systems have been tried to help level the playing field. None of them has worked so far. While all people might have equal rights, not all people have equal abilities or equal good luck. Some will always be better off than others. Democracy offers vital freedoms and choices. But the will of the majority must always be accompanied by protection for the rights of minorities. Good governments can do that. Capitalism offers rewards for enterprise. But good government must control its excesses. Presumably we can all agree on these principles.

But how do we end bigotry?

Racism is bigotry based on differences of skin color. Anti-Semitism is based on differences of religion, as is anti-Catholicism and anti-Muslimism and countless other theological beliefs. People kill each other over such defining differences. At different times in human history, such bigotry seems to lessen. People intermarry, live together in diverse communities, even vote each other into office.

But bigotry doesn’t disappear. It merely slumbers, like a pandemic gone underground. If we are to survive as a species, we must first unite.   

stock photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

There are people who think sleeping is a waste of time. These people go to sleep each night with great reluctance and insist they only need three or four hours of sleep to function well. Maybe they do. There are
others who walk around chronically sleep deprived, nodding off immediately when the house lights dim at a lecture or performance, because in spite of their best intentions, they just don’t get enough sleep. 

I’m here to declare that sleeping is one of the more creative pursuits, that in addition it is enjoyable, and that the end result the next day is to enable one to leap tall buildings at a single bound.

I enjoy sleeping.

Now presumably everyone knows what sleep is. But studies have shown that sleeping is a different experience from one mortal to the next. For example, I readily acknowledge that I am one of the lucky ones (good genes) who lie down in bed and almost immediately drift off to sleep. Indeed, I run out of gas and have to go to sleep, like a child, willingly or not. I understand that some people have a terrible time falling asleep. My husband was one of these. Watching me sleep, he surely had acute sleep envy.

How does that happen? I can tell you how it is for me — a statistical sample of one. As soon as I lie back and close my eyes, something akin to a story or even a movie begins in my head and leads me into sleep. If I am interrupted before I fall entirely asleep, a different story starts up when I go back to bed, even if it’s just a couple of minutes later, and I’m off. 

I have read all sorts of suggestions for people who struggle to fall asleep, hoping to help my husband. Maybe what I’ve learned can be of help to you if that is also your problem.

I do not have distractions in my bedroom. It’s rather sparsely furnished, mostly with pictures of my family and some knickknacks I have carried home from my wanderings. It is one of the best-ventilated rooms in the house, and I like it quite cool and quiet when I sleep. I have an outrageously comfortable mattress that is turned every three months. I also enjoy colorful sheets and a comforter rather than a blanket. My pillows are neither very fluffy nor flat, and they are down-filled.  

I almost never read in bed, nor watch television. I don’t have a desk there, with lots of correspondence to answer, nor a computer. Sometimes I take a bath before bedtime, sometimes a shower, sometimes neither, and I never drink hot milk. In fact, if I have alcohol, I may fall asleep even more quickly, but I am surely going to wake up around 3 a.m., when the effect has worn off. Best of all, I find, is to drink nothing after dinner so one’s bladder is skinny.

I also sleep pretty soundly, getting up sometimes once in the night. I find it tempting, after I return to bed, to pick up a book or newspaper to see what’s happening in the world — I am a news junkie — but I resist that urge and as a result usually fall back to sleep. If I don’t, I urge myself to get up and wash the kitchen floor, and that will generally do it.

There are, of course, different internal clocks for different people. Some are perfectly happy going to bed at 11 p.m. and waking up at 7 a.m. in time to get ready for work or school. Others start whipping around at 11 p.m. and are most productive when the rest of the world quiets down. My mother and father were badly mismatched in that way. My dad was used to living on a farm, where he went to bed at 8:30 p.m. and got up in time for the 4:30 a.m. milking. My mother did her work between midnight and 4 a.m. Somehow they did get together, but it wasn’t easy.

My advice: Find a job that fits your biological clock and you’ll be a happy person.

You might wonder that I find sleep creative. If I have a problem, whether mathematical or any other kind, I will often go to sleep at night with it on my mind and wake up with the solution at hand. Sleep is such a mysterious process. The brain works during sleep, and the body feels so much the better for the respite in the morning. 

Rerun for emphasis from Oct. 19, 2006.

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

A recent article in The New York Times asked, “What is your oldest or most cherished grudge?” Everyone holds grudges, I guess, and they can range from some perceived slight or cutting remark to deep hurt or betrayal. While we all know that forgiveness is a lot healthier than anger, still there is something immutable about a deeply held grudge. However hard and sincerely you try to let go of it and go on with your life, it’s impossible to entirely discard the pain. Some people even admit to tending their grudges like a garden.

“Holding onto a grudge really is an ineffective strategy for dealing with a life situation that you haven’t been able to master,” said Dr. Frederic Luskin, founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, as reported in separate Times articles by Tim Herrera and Katherine Schulten. The psychological study suggested that “skills-based forgiveness training may prove effective in reducing anger as a coping style, reducing perceived stress and physical health symptoms, and thereby may help reduce” the stress we put on our immune and cardiovascular systems. Carrying anger into old age can result in higher levels of inflammation and chronic illness.

So how do we discard grudges? How do we forgive?

Luskin urges that we recognize three things. First that forgiveness is for you, not the offender. Second that it’s best to do it now. And finally that forgiveness is about freeing yourself.

Then to continue the process, change the story about the source of the grudge. Rather than being a victim, think of yourself as heroic. Then think of the good things in your life so as to balance the harm. And remember that life doesn’t always turn out the way we want. Luskin emphasizes that forgiveness is a learnable skill. It just takes a little practice, he advises.

Now all of the above sounds good but I have another track to suggest. To sooth a grudge, there is nothing quite as satisfying as revenge. And the best revenge? A life well lived. It’s an old adage but true.

So what makes for a life well lived? I guess there are as many answers as there are people, but I can tell you mine. Make your home a happy and comfortable place by creating a room or a corner just for yourself. All you need is a special chair with a fluffy pillow or a bedside table with your latest reading choices or music source, and of course a picture you love on the wall. Take an aromatic bath. Welcome friendship and love in your life. If all else fails, get a dog.

When the weather is glorious, take a guilt-free walk, even for five minutes. Say hello to strangers in the post office or the supermarket aisle and watch a smile appear on their faces. Make yourself something you really like to eat, and if you shouldn’t be eating it, just eat a little. Do some kind of work that is worthy of you, then take pride in the way you carry it out. Clean out just one desk drawer and feel like you have your life under control. Remember to laugh at life’s little incongruities.

Go see a good movie. Or a play. Or attend a concert. These can all be found locally. Plan a trip, even if it’s only for a Saturday afternoon to the East End. Then go on it and see how many new things there are to see. Buy a shirt or an ice cream cone. Celebrate every possible occasion and even celebrate just for the heck of it. Take a nap, if only for 20 minutes.

And for Pete’s sake, read a newspaper, preferably a hometown paper because that tends to have more good news!