Posts Tagged ‘Gretchen Gibbs’

The Suffering Displaced

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

By Gretchen Gibbs

The United Nations estimates that there are more than 45 million displaced persons worldwide, some still living within the borders of their own country. The Western world continues to be shocked and to feel some responsibility to provide for the needs of at least some of these refugees, like the Yazidi on the mountain in Iraq. After we’ve provided tents and drinking water in a relatively safe location, however, we tend to think we’re finished.

One need we tend to ignore is the mental health problems of the displaced. We have no figures on the percentages of refugees with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following rape, viewing murder and maiming of one’s near and dear, and the hardships of flight.

PTSD is only one of the possible outcomes – there are many forms of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Lest my concern be dismissed as that of a soft-hearted psychologist, let me note that the World Bank estimates that mental health costs are of enormous importance to the world’s economy. They look at how many days of productive work are lost to the world each year through illness of all kinds, and estimate that mental illness accounts for over 8 percent of those days, more than is caused by either cancer or heart disease.

Thinking about these issues made me remember my own extremely minor experience of being displaced. I did not have to flee and neither I nor anyone in the family was ever in any kind of danger. However, in World War II, my father joined the Navy, knowing he would be drafted soon if he did not. (He was posted to Hawaii in officer’s training, a very easy war.) I, a little over 2, had been his darling draft exemption. Daddy was the affectionate parent, and I was always in his arms.

Mother and I, at that time the only child, went to live at her parents’ house, in another state. I certainly wasn’t neglected. Grandma was the most nurturing woman I’ve ever known, and I will always cherish her memory. Grandpa read me Uncle Wiggly stories from the newspaper every night, making up his own ending about how Uncle Wiggly, a rabbit, was eaten by the fox. I was enthralled.

There were some down sides. All kinds of food – sugar, butter, meat, canned fruits and vegetables – were rationed. I developed my lifetime habits of eating cereal without sugar, bread without butter and salad, when we had it, without dressing. We used margarine that came white as lard in a plastic sack with a capsule of yellow food coloring, which we had to work through the fat so that it didn’t look so disgusting.

One night I was eating my snack of graham crackers and milk, and I couldn’t finish it. Rather than simply leaving it, I was so ashamed of wasting food that I hid the bowl under the table in an orange crate we used as a stool.

With the war coming after the Depression and its impact, there was a deprivation theme to our lives. Mother’s favorite joke was this one from Sam Levenson: “We had unexpected company one day, and Ma drew each of us kids aside and told us, ‘Don’t eat any of the pork chops, as there aren’t enough to go around.’ We did as we were told, because we knew there was a delicious blueberry pie for dessert. At the end of the meal, as Ma was clearing the plates, she said, ‘Those children who didn’t eat their dinner don’t get dessert.’ ”

My aunt did a little still life water color of my toys. They were: a stuffed horse that Grandma made for me, some wooden beads on a string, and those colored wooden doughnut shapes that you fit over a stick to make a tower. She had to add some things from my cousin to have enough for the painting. Ten years later, my new brother and sister needed a chest to hold all their toys. During the war they didn’t make many toys.

I don’t think the minor deprivations affected me emotionally. It was the loss of my father that hurt. When he returned I was almost 5, a young girl who had been to kindergarten, who could read and write. I was a stranger to him, and he, in his uniform, 40 pounds heavier, was a stranger to me. We eventually reconnected, but it was never the same. It set me up for a life where I was sensitized to abandonment, and I perhaps made some bad decisions about men.

I think about all those children with the big eyes in the wan faces, living in tents, having fled gunfire, having not enough to eat, shivering at night, and having lost forever people they’ve loved.

His Father’s Son

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

 By Gretchen Gibbs

Mario and Andrew Cuomo

Mario and Andrew Cuomo

 The news that Andrew Cuomo blocked the work of his own investigation committee made me long for Mario, and wonder what their relationship is like. Looks like Andrew learned the political savvy and the ambition without the integrity. Not a new perception on my part, but this latest revelation sharpens it.

It made me ponder the relationship between my own father and my grandfather. My father learned many things from his father, like gentleness with children and the love of clocks, but a lot of his personality was formed in reaction to his father, who was blind.

Daddy was a visual type who loved to read and knew the world through his mind. His father, as a young man, loved to read as well, but while in law school he developed cataracts. A quack of a doctor removed them too early, and left him blind for life.

Grandpa liked to place me on his lap, facing away from him, and I would demand to play horsey. Horsey involved him jouncing me up and down while he recited:

“When I was a little boy, I lived by myself. All the bread and cheese I had I kept upon the shelf. The rats and the mice, they led me such a life, I had to go to Londontown to buy me a wife. The streets were so broad and the lanes were so narrow, I had to bring my wife home in the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow broke (here I go slipping through Grandpa’s knees), my wife had a fall (I slip through again) and down went the wheelbarrow, wife and all. ” (Here I am on the floor, laughing in delight.)

Every night Grandpa wound the clock, the one on my mantle now. It’s not valuable, purchased from Sears, I think, but I always regarded it with a kind of reverence because he did. I have two of my father’s clocks as well

Grandpa’s was a 24-hour clock, and every evening around six, he would approach the mantle, feel for it, feel for the latch that opened it, feel for the keys kept inside it, and then wind both the time-keeping apparatus and the chimes. All day, he counted the chimes so that he knew the time.

I asked Daddy about his father’s blindness several times and he couldn’t talk about it. I overheard a conversation between him and my mother, and the word he used was “shame.” To be sure, Grandpa had to give up law, and go into piano tuning, one of the few kinds of work that didn’t require vision.

Once, when I asked him about his childhood, Daddy said, “We were poor,” as though that said it all. Daddy had to put himself through college and graduate school with scholarships and work, while he and Mother raised us children. I was in third grade by the time Daddy got his Ph.D. He had considered law school, but decided he would do better teaching political science, which he did for most of his life at Boston University. He was ambitious and competitive, and his memoir is mostly full of details about his work successes. He became a dean and led a faction in opposition to the president of the university, John Silber.

In the conversation I overheard, Mother protested, “There was nothing to be ashamed of. It wasn’t his fault.” My father stated that in those days blindness was shameful. He could never bring anybody home from school. His mother never had friends over. They didn’t go out.

I wonder how Grandpa thought of his life, whether it felt shameful to him. I had a psychology professor who spoke of vision as the last of our senses to develop, and thought our other senses were more basic. Animals tend to have poorer vision as compared to ours, and to rely more on smell and hearing. Grandpa was forced into a more primitive kind of life. As I get older, have retired, and spend a lot of time alone, I can perhaps understand what it was like. I still use my eyes a great deal, but I find the simple pleasures of a summer breeze, the taste of ice cream, and my cat’s soft fur move me more than they used to. Grandpa loved his classical records, the radio, his root beer floats, playing with his grandchildren, his clock, and his pipe. His wife was always young and beautiful in his mind.

There’s really not much connection between the Cuomos, father and son, and my father and grandfather. My father reacted to his father’s inability to make money by trying hard for success. Andrew seems to have reacted to his father’s integrity by becoming self-serving. In my family, my grandfather was blind, my father ambitious. In the Cuomos, Andrew is the one who is blind, with ambition.

The Incivility of Any Civil War

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

By Gretchen Gibbs

A brutal civil war is being fought in Ukraine.

A brutal civil war is being fought in Ukraine.

The Ukraine people look haunted in the newspaper photos. Some want to stay with their country, some want to separate and join Russia. We tend to think of them as non-overlapping groups. My experience this past weekend on a trip to Washington, D.C., led me to think about the matter differently.

Our own Civil War divided our country in ways hard to fathom. I know little about the Civil War beyond the Ken Burns series and what I gleaned in high school and college. I have heard that books about Lincoln sell better than anything else, and given that, I am hesitant to put forward any views at all to readers who may be much more knowledgeable than I. But there must be some who don’t know all the things I learned this weekend.

First, I went to hear a concert at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington. An attractive church with great stained glass and excellent acoustics, it is pre-Civil War and housed wounded Union soldiers during the fighting. According to the historical poster outside, Washington as a whole was essentially a southern, secessionist city, and that was especially true for the area of the city around the church. Most of the members were for secession. Jefferson Davis was a member with his own pew until conflict with the minister, who was strongly pro-Union, led to his departure. The poster mentioned that Mary Todd Lincoln had a brother and three half-brothers who fought for the Confederacy. Two of them were killed and one was wounded.

The next day we (I, my brother and sister-in-law) went to Arlington National Cemetery. I’d been before, but the lines after lines of white gravestones, stretching off in all directions, still made me gasp. These dead are from all our wars, of course, not just the Civil War, but there were three quarters of a million deaths in that war, the most costly of our history.

We climbed a steep hill to the former home of Robert E. Lee. Arlington Cemetery was built on his property just over the line in Virginia. It was  confiscated by the Union early in the war as a sort of statement: “See what you’ve done.” When you look out from the front porch, you see a bridge crossing the Potomac and right at the end of the bridge, the Lincoln Memorial. The two men seem enmeshed, or at least their differences bridged. I knew from Ken Burns that Lincoln had asked Lee to head the Union Army, and with great difficulty Lee had refused.

I didn’t know that Lee had released all his own slaves five years before the Emancipation Proclamation. I didn’t know that his wife returned to the house after the war ended and died five days later, apparently of a heart attack brought on by the level of destruction. Few of the articles in the house today are original, except for furniture or dishes or pictures that have been returned by some descendant of a Union soldier who stole them. Now the site is a National Monument, and rightly so, for Lee was a remarkable man. After the war, he became president of Washington and Lee College, and tried to help heal the divisions in the country.

Another thing I learned, not this weekend but when doing research on the 1692 witch trials for The Book of Maggie Bradstreet, was that my ancestors in Massachusetts had slaves. They were called servants, but they were slaves. Tituba, who set off the whole Salem witch hysteria, was a slave from the West Indies. Northerners didn’t need slave labor the way the plantations needed it, but that didn’t prevent them from using it when they could.

It’s a kind of cliché, “brother against brother,” but the ways the Union and Confederacy were linked and divided were so complicated, they can’t possibly be reduced to “good vs. bad” or “right vs. wrong,” the way we learn in high school to think about it.

When we see the division in Ukraine, or in Syria, or earlier, in North and South Korea, and North and South Vietnam, we could reflect more on our own experience. People suffer, for such a long time and in such complicated ways, from a Civil War.


Lesser Lights

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

By Gretchen Gibbs

Ralph Kiner

Ralph Kiner

In the last few days, the Times has announced the deaths of two of my favorite public figures, Ralph Kiner, the baseball legend and long-time announcer for the New York Mets, and Maxine Kumin, Pulitzer Prize winner for her wonderful poems and the equivalent of poet laureate before we had an official designation. If you think this an odd conjunction of public figures for me to be mourning, keep in mind that Kumin was an ardent Red Sox fan, and Kiner had a relationship with Janet Leigh. People resist pigeon holing.

Did they have anything in common? For all their fame, both Kiner and Kumin received less acclaim than they deserved. Kiner was described in the Times as “vastly undersung.” He had one of the most impressive home run records in the history of the sport, but because he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, perpetually at the bottom of the standings, he wasn’t much noticed. He became an announcer for the Mets from the beginning of their franchise in 1962, because, as quoted in the Times obit, he “had a lot of experience with losing.”

In 1972, I was ill for an entire summer, not in pain, but with nothing to do but lie in bed and watch television. Daytime television in that era was six or seven channels of soap operas, with a little baseball thrown in. In those days there were many more afternoon games than there are today, and I became a Mets fan. Ralph Kiner, with Bob Murphy, and Lindsey Nelson of the florid sports coats educated me and turned me on to the glories of the sport.

Kiner, in spite of a speech problem brought on by Bell’s palsy, still announced once in a while this last season, and his comments were always intelligent and generous. I never heard him make a mean remark about anyone, regardless of their team.

Maxine Kumin certainly achieved fame as a poet, but she always existed in the shadow of her friend, Anne Sexton. Even the obituary in the Times devotes several paragraphs to Sexton. She was a gifted poet who, like Sylvia Plath, committed suicide after years of struggling with the impulse.

Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin

The two friends had an open phone line between their houses. Sexton is described, by her daughter and many others, as self-centered, narcissistic and demanding. I can’t imagine a more difficult friend.

I discovered Kumin’s poems in the New Yorker in the 70s, and was pleased to find a great poet of the everyday, who was not suicidal or difficult. “I was not influenced by women writing poetry,” Kumin is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle. “There weren’t any women to admire.” She herself became the model for many women, including me, who aspired to write.

What is to be concluded? There should be bridges to rename, but that will not happen. I’m sure that some portion of CitiField will be named Kiner’s Korner, and I’m sure there will be a Maxine Kumin prize in the literary world. Let us just remember that success does not always come with a lot of hoopla.

Pick Any Number but Make it 18,314

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

By Gretchen Gibbs

Governor Christie got himself in trouble over the traffic jam his aides created at the George Washington Bridge partly because emergency vehicles could not get through and because there was the possibility that one 90-year old woman might have died because she did not get to the hospital in time.

We take death seriously in this country. Or do we? I recently finished reading The Healing of America by H.R. Reid, which I highly recommend. I have been avoiding the debate about Obamacare because it is so complicated and so partisan. But Reid, a long-time correspondent for The Washington Post, both explains the Affordable Care Act and presents health care in a straightforward way. He went from country to country with his bad shoulder to see what different health systems would prescribe and charge. In the U.S., doctors recommended a total shoulder replacement, a procedure with many potential side effects and a cost of about $10,000. In India, however, Reid stayed at a clinic for $42 a night, including food and treatments, and found the massage and herbal remedies reduced the pain and increased the mobility of his shoulder.

Reid’s central point is that health care is a moral issue. We are the only industrialized country that does not provide universal health care and which apparently does not believe that health care is a basic human right to which all are entitled. Our constitution says that all of us have a right to life, but apparently we don’t really believe that. When people do not have health care, they can die.

Reid cites a study done in 2000 about the number of preventable deaths that occurred each year because 30 million people did not have health care. The number was 18,314. A similar study, done in 2009 when there were more than 45 million uninsured people, estimated the number to be 44,789.

To be conservative, let us use the smaller number, and let us remember it: 18,314. How should we react when we hear that 18,314 of our citizens die needlessly every year? When approximately 3,000 people were killed at Pearl Harbor, we entered World War II, with an enormous cost of money and lives. When about an equal number were killed on 9/11, we started another costly war.

So when do we begin the war on insurance companies? Our health care plans are not really so different from those in other countries, like Germany and Japan, which also have insurance companies. But rates for procedures are set by the governments of those countries. Only in America do insurance companies make profits, and of course the incentive when you are trying to maximize profits is to charge a lot for everything and to deny care rather than to offer it. Incidentally, this also makes our health care the most expensive of any developed nation as well as about the least effective. We spend 16.5 percent of our GDP on health care (vs. 8.1 percent in Japan), while, according to the World Health Organization, we rank 37th in quality and fairness of the system, behind Costa Rica. We rank 24th in the world in average life expectancy.

I have learned more about Obamacare, and I can see there are good and bad features. Some constraints on insurance companies (good), some burdens on some individuals who will see their payments increase and who have to negotiate a lot of red tape (bad). For me, the biggest plus is that by 2019, 32 million more people will have health insurance, both through Medicaid and through private insurers. Of course, the estimate is that 23 million will be uninsured. There still will be needless deaths of Americans running into the thousands, but we should be cutting down that 18,314 number.

So when are we going to be a real democracy with equal rights for all, with a moral regard for our fellow citizens, and eliminate all those deaths?

Bugs vs. Us: Guess Who Wins

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

adult mosquito

adult mosquito

By Gretchen Gibbs

One of the things I liked to do best as a young girl was to lie in the tall grass. I liked staring up at the clouds. I liked the sweet taste of the grasses when you pulled the grain awn out of its socket and sucked on the white stem. I liked to eat the buttercups and sorrel as well. The smell of red clover today is enough to make me gasp in remembrance of things past. There was the hum of insects, the song of birds in the distance, and the sense of escape from the world.

I liked lying in the grass as an adolescent as well. My boyfriend and I “didn’t have no place to go,” as Joni Mitchell put it. We went on endless walks through the local fields and forests. We tried various locales, but tall grasses were the best for keeping us hidden. The worst thing that ever happened to us was a bad case of poison ivy, which we had to keep secret from our parents because of the body parts involved. 

Nowadays I would no more dream of lying in the tall grass, especially without my clothes, than of entering a lion’s den. Ticks are everywhere, and even when I take precautions on a walk, I may find several on me when I return. My cat brings them into the house, so even there I am not completely safe. In addition to Lyme disease, there are now three or four additional kinds of illness carried by the deer tick, as well as others carried by the larger dog tick.

Both The New Yorker and The New York Times have recently published articles on chronic Lyme disease, and the difficulties in treating it. I have several friends who have had Lyme four or five times, and one friend who has the chronic variety, which she is treating with Chinese herbs. I had a patient who was referred for depression, and who turned out to have chronic Lyme, with any depression secondary to the illness.

Then of course there are mosquitoes, and what they carry: malaria, dengue fever, encephalitis, yellow fever, and other viruses, with West Nile being the most recent scare. The ubiquitous flea, with which my cat is covered despite how much toxic chemical from the vet I spread on him, also transmits many viruses dangerous to humans. These include, of course, plague, an outbreak of which occurred not long ago in the southwest.  

This year we have the 17-year cicada hordes, not disease causing, but certainly a nuisance. How about the current curse of bedbugs, such that many people are afraid to travel because they will have to open their suitcases in that hotel room frequented by who knows whom. Even libraries are having to take precautions against bedbugs. Some schools are reporting an epidemic of lice. On the other hand, our insect friends the fireflies, Monarch butterflies, and bees are on the decline.

What I am saying is that our relationship to nature has changed, and I think it is largely because of insects. It may be that we simply know more about insects – in the Middle Ages, nobody knew what caused the Black Plague. But I think it is the bugs themselves. They have existed for millions of years, adapting to whatever environment presented itself, and they seem to have got the hang of twenty first century civilization. (I am not even mentioning the insects of the Third World.) Insects have conquered us. They win. I have to stop writing now so I can put on long socks, covered by long pants, with rubber bands around the ankles, and a long sleeved shirt. I have to mow the lawn. Got to keep those grasses down.  


Back to Books

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

By Gretchen Gibbs

In the last few days, interspersed with election talk was everyone’s account of how they weathered Sandy. While mine was not a dramatic tale, living it was difficult. I had no power between Monday evening and Sunday morning around 2. That meant no heat, no water, no light, no phone, no computer. I went to bed at 7 and got up at 5.

What was most significant to me was not the cold and the dark, the isolation and the boredom, but the books. In those five and a half days, I read four books.

I used to be a reader. As a kid, I made weekly trips to the library, coming home with two or three volumes, some of them hefty. Reading took me to places outside my own constricted and sometimes difficult family. A good novel was my haven.

Now I listen to books on tape when I drive. I read the Times and a couple of magazines. I belong to a book club and try to read the monthly assignment, though I don’t always finish. Besides that, I hardly read at all.

With my electricity back, I’m trying to figure it out. Why did I stop devouring books? Partly the seduction of the computer, which takes up way too much time. Roku television is also seductive. Partly that I started writing myself and became a more critical reader. Lots of books don’t appeal anymore. But in the storm I recaptured that delightful loss of self into an alternate universe that hooked me as a kid. I don’t want to lose that.

I hope others had the same experience. I went to the Albert Wisner Library in Warwick several times during the five days, partly for warmth, partly for my email, and each time I was impressed by the crowds. All the parking spaces were taken, and the line of cars on the drive rivaled the lines at the gas stations. Inside were groups of teens chatting and giggling, others like me getting their emails, frantic families calling on their cells for a hotel to stay at (“And would you take a dog?”), people checking out stacks of DVDs, and people actually reading. Lots of people reading books.

Perhaps Sandy will not only make us more aware of global warming, but help us examine how we spend our time.

Affecting Eternity

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

By Gretchen Gibbs

Not long ago, The New York Times published an article by Elizabeth Alsop about how the media is portraying teachers, and it’s not a pretty picture. For instance, we have Walter on “Breaking Bad” making and dealing drugs, rather than the old picture of teachers inspiring students in “To Sir with Love.” The media reflects as well as influences public perceptions, and I agree with the premise of the article: Teaching has never been seen as so lowly a profession as it is today. We have only to remember the protests about teachers’ salaries in Wisconsin and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s remarks at the Republican convention about teachers’ unions.

Why should this be? Teachers actually may not be doing as good a job as they once did. As a college teacher I saw the quality of students’ writing and thinking steadily deteriorate over the span of 30 years. Reports are always showing that U.S. students are less well educated than others around the world.

There are many reasons for this decline within the training of teachers and the way schools are administered today in the United States. Finnish schools are said to excel, for instance, because teachers have to undergo rigorous entrance examinations, and are then well paid and treated with respect. They develop their own assessment techniques for students instead of using standardized tests.

I’ve been thinking, though, that part of the problem has to do with technology. Power Point and online course work dilute the impact of the teacher. Reading Tuesdays with Morrie, I realize how much more difficult it would be to develop a student-teacher relationship like that today when you have many fewer opportunities for personal interaction.

Respect for the teacher’s knowledge goes out the window when you can find out more than the teacher knows on a small device you keep in your pocket. It used to be that if you were puzzled by something in the course work, you’d have to wait till the next day, or even the next week for a college course, to consult the teacher. Now, if Wikipedia doesn’t have the answer, you’ll find it somewhere else online.

Teachers need to provide more than information. That’s one reason that “teaching to the test” is such a poor idea. The kind of things you can test for are usually not the crux of learning. Judgment and critical thinking, tolerance, how to express yourself – those are more important than historic dates or the subjunctive case, but so hard to evaluate on a paper and pencil test. In Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom quotes Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Adams wasn’t talking about teaching the ability to solve quadratic equations.

I think about my own career teaching psychology, first to undergraduates and masters students, and then to doctoral students. Both my parents were teachers, so I went into the profession with some expectation of success, only to find it much more difficult than I had imagined. I always tell students if they really want to learn a subject, teach it.

At the beginning I was so stiff. No matter how I prepared, I feared that it wouldn’t be enough to fill the fifty minutes, and sometimes it wasn’t. I was never charismatic, I never told jokes. Over time, lots of time, I think I became a pretty good teacher.

Gradually I learned to engage the class, to start with a challenging question to be explored rather than answered. That’s what I feel good about in my teaching, training students to question received wisdom. Although I’m sure I had defensive lapses, I tried to treat each student’s question or comment with respect, even when it was ignorant or critical of me. That was part of modeling tolerance. Teaching psychotherapy is more than learning techniques. I believe that the core of successful psychotherapy resides in the empathic human connection between the therapist and the client, and the successful relationship between teacher and student is not so different.

I’m sure most teachers have such recollections of success, probably different than mine depending on the individual and the subject matter. But these successes are what matters to the profession, what we need to recognize and honor in our teachers.