Conception, Contraception Revisited

Forty years ago I wrote a young adult book entitled Conception, Contraception: A New Look. It details the miracle of conception and explores humanity’s millennia-long search to understand its mystery. The book was also meant to alert young readers to the problem of overpopulation. Though it was not a success, the book has always been one of my favorites. It was “born” at a time when the topic of birth control were considered unfit for high school students.

It was Anton von Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch inventor of the microscope, who first saw the human sperm in 1674. In 1827, another 150 years later, Karl Ernst von Baer finally identified the mammalian egg, thereby cracking a problem that, in his words, “had been discussed ad nauseum in every textbook of physiology as insoluble.”

As a medical writer I was fascinated in the science behind all that, but my aim in researching and writing the book was overpopulation. To an overwhelming extent all our troubles can be traced to the fact that there are simply too many of us to share and enjoy our beautiful earth. Thomas Malthus, an English scientist, was one of the earliest to write about it convincingly in 1798, and we are reminded daily of the accuracy of his predictions.

Agnes Gillot, my 15-year old downstairs neighbor in Brooklyn Heights, discovered the threat of overpopulation while surfing the net. Coincidentally her mother had purchased my long-forgotten book from Amazon.com. It inspired Agnes to devote her spring term paper at Saint Ann’s School to overpopulation.

Birth control and overpopulation are like the two sides of the same coin. Attempts at avoiding unwanted birth are as old as mankind itself. Egyptian papyri already recorded a few crude barrier methods and many ineffective other means. Effective contraception dates from the beginning of the twentieth century. Margaret Sanger is America’s heroine of birth control. From the time she was a child she observed that economically comfortable, happy families had fewer children, whereas poor families, like hers, had large families. Moreover, she blamed her mother’s early death on her relentless childbearing.

Sanger became a nurse. She was abhorred by the deaths resulting from illegal and self-inflicted abortion. After she watched her patient Nellie Sachs die, she resolved to teach women the then-available methods of contraception. In 1916 Sanger opened a birth control clinic in Brownville, Brooklyn. The clinic was closed and Margaret went to prison, but eventually her efforts bore fruit. Then and now abortions performed by trained practitioners became relatively safe, and today effective methods of birth control are available. At long last the number of abortions performed in the US is decreasing, as is the teen pregnancy rate.

Even so, the timing of pregnancies in the US continues to be a major problem. According to the Guttmacher Institute, half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned; four in ten resulting in abortion. There were 1.06 million abortions in 2011. The US also has the highest teen pregnancy among major developed countries. About ¾ million women between the ages of 15-19 conceive annually.

I cannot believe that a hundred years after Sanger opened her first birth control clinic we are again, or still, waging the same battles. Currently many states are severely restricting access to legal abortions. Moreover, the inclusion of the cost of birth control in medical insurance plans is under discussion. It stands to reason that, as in Margaret Sanger’s days, the rich will continue to solve their childbearing problems, whereas the poor will again struggle with problems of giving birth to children at the wrong time.

The figures to demonstrate these effects are already in. New Mexico, Mississippi, Texas, Nevada, Arkansas and Arizona, states in which abortion is an issue, have high teen pregnancy rates, whereas New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota, North Dakota and Massachusetts, states in which birth control and abortion are less of an issue, have low teen pregnancy rates.

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The Rebirth of the River Cafe

When Hurricane Sandy barreled down on New York City’s waterfront, it destroyed the River Café. After it hit the moored barge, the storm carried away the Cafe’s stash of priceless wines, plants, rattan chairs, mirrors, pots and pans. Whatever was not washed away was hopelessly damaged.

Michael (Buzzy to everyone) O’Keeffe founded the restaurant in 1977 and it rapidly acquired landmark status. It was everyone’s favorite restaurant, and I became a devotee after I moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1994. In 2012, I mourned its loss as I still mourn that of the Twin Towers’ Windows on the World restaurant, vaporized during the 9/11 terrorist attack. Both eateries capitalized on the breathtaking views of New York City, one from the ground up, the other from the sky down.

Hard work, patience, good will and millions of dollars later, the River Café is whole again. It might have been tempting to change decor, but O’Keeffe decided to restore the café to its former glory.

On our anniversary, my husband and I strolled down the hill from our apartment in Brooklyn Heights and entered an unchanged vestibule filled with massive potted plants and flowers: daisies, azaleas, and blooming branches of quince. We passed over the well-draped bridge that anchors the barge to the shore and entered the seemingly unchanged, festive dining room with its small tables sporting shaded lamps, sweetheart bouquets, gleaming glasses and dinnerware. The maître d’ greeted us as if he had seen us recently, and everybody congratulated us on our anniversary. More important even than the décor was the ambiance of the restaurant and the non-snooty attitude of the staff, eighty percent of whom returned after a forced absence of eighteen months.

The River Cafe

Returning chef Brad Steelman’s food was delicious. To start I ordered a duo of foie gras, served with toasted slices of brioche, a translucent slice of apple and quince paste. My husband opted for Kobe beef tartare that the waiter mixed at the table with the raw yolk of a quail egg and the customary finely minced scallions, mustard, and capers. For main course I choose the sea bass, roasted to perfection and paired with artichoke ravioli. My long-time spouse had the equally perfect duck breast, served with sweet potato spaetzle—an Austrian type of gnocchi. The dessert choices included the restaurant’s famous chocolate Brooklyn Bridge, though we opted for the pistachio semi-freddo served on a bed of meringue and a warm chocolate soufflé.

Perfect as the meal was, it was overshadowed by the view. When we came, the sun was still high, illuminating the Manhattan skyline, with the brave new Freedom Tower declaring that New York would not be defeated. Ferries plied the shimmering waters of the East River and gulls drifted on the wind. Looking south, Lady Liberty clutched her torch, and to the north, way above us, we saw the underbelly of the Brooklyn Bridge. As the sun set, the sky turned pink and the clouds darkened. As the evening progressed, thousands of lights pierced the now-blackened skyscrapers.

As we were creeping back up the hill we had descended so lightly three hours earlier, I wished upon the evening star for a minimum of natural and human-made catastrophes. Given the inevitability of the climate change and the constancy of rattling guns, my request may be futile.

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Degenerate Art: Exhibition at the Neue Galerie and my Family

In addition to its Jews, gypsies, mentally ill, and gays, Nazi Germany decided to rid its homeland of the “alleged horrors” perpetrated by its own writers and artists. Specially chosen “experts” plundered Germany’s museums and private collections and confiscated, sold and mostly destroyed thousands of modern and expressionist art works. To teach their minions to recognize such “abominations,” the authorities organized a mammoth exhibition of “Degenerate Art” in July 1937.

The Nazis did not succeed in silencing German Expressionists and other artists. Today their messages as well as those of the closely associated Bauhaus are venerated. In March 2014, the Neue Galerie in New York mounted a small exhibit to remind of these events. (In 1991, LACMA and the Art Institute of Chicago mounted a much more substantial exhibit.) The current exhibition at the Neue Galerie is nevertheless impressive because it integrates the paintings with philosophy of the Third Reich. Photo murals contrasting the lines of visitors to the exhibit of degenerate art are juxtaposed with Jews about to be slaughtered in Auschwitz. Elsewhere Dresden, a center for modern art, is shown before and after its firebombing.

My average upper-middle class German Jewish family was much involved with modern art in Germany. They bought the then very affordable contemporary art, and were avid clients of the Bauhaus. My uncle Otto Bamberger had a sizable collection that included a large Kneeling Woman by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, oils and hundred’s of works on paper. After his widow fled to America, hoodlums sacked his villa in Lichtenfels and most of the art has not been heard of since.

My mother too was a small art collector. I was pleased to find out that she had been savvy enough to acquire a small statue by Ernst Barlach and a pastel by Christian Rohlfs (works of both artists are included in the show at the Neue Galerie.) The Barlach, together with an enormous Georg Grosz oil, got lost in Brussels during World War II. The Rohlfs, which she bought from the artist, hangs in my Brooklyn living room.

Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, by Hermann Lismann

My favorite rescued work, however, is a large double portrait of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, whose unfortunate tale is part of Dante’s Inferno. Their story was beloved by many painters including Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Gustave Doré and Dominique Ingres. Hermann Lismann (1878-1943), a forgotten German Expressionist, painted my version in 1923. Its vivid, primary colors lighten my apartment on dark days. The work is an amazing cross between early Picasso and the flat, elongated style of Amedeo Modigliani. Lismann never made it big. He worked in Frankfurt at the university and for the municipal museum until dismissed as a Jew. He was a prolific painter, but his works were dispersed and destroyed during the Nazi era. Lismann fled to France in 1938. Arrested in 1942, he was first sent to the Gurs concentration camp in southern France—where my own father was detained from 1940-41. Two years he was murdered in Majdanek.

The story of the art lost during the Holocaust is still very much alive. The story of Hildrebrand Gurlitt and his son Cornelius surfaced in early 2014, long after the people who owned and cherished these works are gone. In honoring the painting by Hermann Lismann, I hope to pay a small tribute to his genius and the immense tragedy of his life.

The Neue Galerie exhibition continues until June 30, 2014.

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At the Mercy of Strangers: The Book That Keeps Giving

Like many teenagers, I kept a diary. In flowery prose I bemoaned my unrequited love for an older married man. I cherished leftist views of the world and a bombastic philosophy to match. I saw myself as a useless bystander of a life that was slipping past. There was nothing very special about my diary except for the circumstances under which I wrote it. I was Jewish, and during the two years that I kept the diary, I was hiding in Nazi-occupied Belgium to avoid deportation during World War II.

My cover was being a mother’s helper and governess to three families with small children. I was young and foolish enough to minimize the danger I was in, and took all kinds of chances of being unmasked. It was probably was my self-assuredness and nerve that helped me slip through German patrols and other traps.

I ignored my diary for decades. When I finally reread it, it offered me a glimpse of the teen I had been. It also offered vignettes of wartime’s daily drudgery, the fears, the nightmares, food shortages, the loss of friends, and what it means to have been torn from a warm home to live with strangers. I vividly recalled how ineffectual I felt at just saving my own skin and how I hated to be a burden and a danger to those who sheltered me.

My entries could not stand on their own, so the grown woman, now safely ensconced in America, supplied the narrative that turned the diary into a comprehensive book called: At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust.

Image

Once published, books take on a life of their own. My granddaughter Naomi teaches young and not so young adults who, for a variety of reasons, have fallen off education’s straight and narrow path, and now prepare to take their high school equivalency exam. She sometimes invites me to talk to her classes at the Turning Point Education Center. Her students confronted poor schools, English as a second language, personality disorders, dysfunctional homes, or learning disorders and probably feel as sidelined by society as I did. Though in retrospect, I considered myself an ineffectual teenager, waiting for the war to be over so that I could try to catch up with my life and my education, my readers see me as someone who succeeded in spite of incredible obstacles.

For an author the greatest joy is to have others love your writings. My memoir has repaid me in spades. I have received letters from “Strangers” who have come across my book accidentally. My granddaughter’s students take heart from my experiences; just last week one of them sent me a red velvet cupcake as a thank you. Another student said, “If she could do it, so can I.” Upon request, my niece who lives in Rome, Georgia, lent my book to her son’s teacher, who commented: “Wow! What and amazing story and what a lovely spirit your aunt has in sharing it.”

I too now know these two years of relying on myself have taught me much more than any school could have. For very few of us life is a straight path and sometimes as John Milton wrote, “They also serve who stand and wait.”

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Suzanne Loebl’s memoir, At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust, is available in hardcover and e-book from Amazon.com and bookstores near you. For signed copies visit www.SuzanneLoebl.com.

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Radiant Light: The Ancestors of Christ at the Cloisters

To help The Cloisters, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, celebrate its seventy-fifth birthday, Canterbury Cathedral, founded in 597 CE, lent it six stained glass panels from its Ancestors of Christ Cycle, dating from 1178 CE. They will be at The Cloisters until May 18th, 2014.

In Europe, a thousand-year gap existed between the glories of ancient art and its renewed blossoming during the Middle Ages when it reached its apogee with Gothic cathedrals and their accouterments, including the panes of stained glass that filled the edifices’ enormous windows. The glass used for these are jewel-toned, with blue, made with expensive lapis lazuli, and red providing the highlights. The colored glass fragments were assembled using strips of lead whose pattern contributed to the overall design as did the armature of iron bands that so far provided almost a millennium of stability.

Lamech

During the Middle Ages, the bulk of the worshipers were illiterate, and the stained glass windows were like picture books, telling Bible stories most often in several small scenes.
The masterful Ancestors of Christ Cycle windows are rare insofar that each one represents a single, almost life-size, male ancestor of Christ. Of the original 86 figures, arranged in pairs one above the other, surrounded by a rich foliate border, about half survived. At the Cloisters the images are at eye-level and it is a pleasure to study the shapes and shades of the glass, the ribbing of the lead, and the intricacy of the painted surface. Lamech, son of the legendary Methuselah, is among the six panels that crossed the Atlantic. Wearing a conical hat and sumptuous garments, Lamech is nervously twisted on his grand ivory chair, worrying about humankind’s increasing sinfulness. His son Noah, also here, looks much more confident.

Scenes from the Legend of Saint Vincent of Saragossa

The Met owns some rare stained glass treasures. A wonderful thirteenth-century window from the Lady Chapel of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres is on view at the main building. It depicts the martyrdom of the Merovingian King Childebert and his brother Clothar who retrieved a fragment of the tunic of Saint Vincent of Saragossa from Spain.

Sea Ranch Chapel

To experience the full effect of the magic of medieval stained glass windows, you don’t have to go to Europe though. On a sunny day, a visit to Riverside Church in Manhattan, whose stained glass windows consist of copies of medieval windows from and manufactured in Chartres, France, as well as American-made windows, is an exhilarating experience. Modern stained glass windows can also be breathtaking. The tiny Union Church in Pocantico Hills, with a rose window by Henri Matisse and side windows by Marc Chagall, is awe-inspiring. Stained glass pops up in unexpected places. One of them, filled with extraordinary stained glass windows, is the tiny Sea Ranch Chapel set among redwoods on California’s Sonoma Coast. Created by James T. Hubbell in 1985, the sanctuary is devoted to meditation, spiritual renewal and prayer.

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Peter’s Hat

beat up hat

I am a clotheshorse from way back. I fondly remember the smoked yellow silk dress I wore, age seven, to my cousin’s bar mitzvah. I recall a hand-me-down lace dress that did not suit my style when I was eight, and even in elementary school I insisted that my skirts skim my knees, a length I have mostly adhered to ever since, unless it was openly unfashionable. During one period of my life I consistently designed clothes in my dreams. I might have enjoyed being a couturiere, were it not that I was atrocious at sewing. For many years I had a wonderful seamstress who made my clothes. Since she disappeared I haunt fashionable boutiques, buy clothes and overstretch my budget.

Today’s approach to clothes puzzles me. Ads for garments, shoes and handbags fill glossy magazines and newspapers. Their outrageous prices could feed entire families for years. Are designer clothes another manifestation of our two-tier society? Some of these extravagant gowns are gorgeous and suitable for fairy tale princesses, but there is also an entirely different category: overpriced items embellished with tears, holes and other signs of hard wear. If I had owned them during my teens, my mother would have forbidden me wearing them.

The latest upscale fashions comingle with working-class togs. Occasionally my husband and I go to the opera, the theater or a fancy restaurant, venues that in the past would have entailed dressing up. Today the majority of our co-celebrants wear sweatshirts, jeans and the like. Clothes have a language of their own and presently the message is confusion.

All this does not prevent me from loving to get dressed up. Since, as a solitary writer, I have few occasions, I fuss for the bimonthly brown bag lunch gatherings of my Brooklyn writers’ group. Last time I went to the meeting I wore a cute hat, a fetching scarf and a chic French raincoat. I had bought the latter years ago at the annual Crafts Fair held at Lincoln Center, and it usually elicits some comments. I knew that I was dressing up solely for myself. Discovering that people stop caring about what you look like is a milestone most women have to contend with sooner or later.

Shortly before I reached my host’s brownstone I spied my colleague Peter, a fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), ascending the stoop. Peter was wearing the most beat-up, rain-soaked hat in existence and an equally beat-up, rubbed-down leather jacket. Just then a nice-looking man passed both of us. He took no notice of me but called out to Peter: “Nice hat man—and I like the jacket too.”  So much for me getting gussied up!

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The Little Prince

If you love children’s books, hurry to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York to partake in an unusual exhibit entitled The Little Prince: A New York Story. The exhibit is on view until May 27th. Bring a child. Copies are available in the exhibition and children receive a free excerpt they can color.

Many of the world’s best-loved children’s books were born by accident. A. A. Milne told his son, Christopher Robin, stories in which Winnie the Pooh and his other stuffed animals played a leading role. (The toys are now the property of the NYPL and usually are on exhibit.) Hugh Lofting served in the British Army in France during World War I. In an attempt to maintain a bond with his young children, he wrote them letters detailing the adventures of a Doctor Dolittle who had the ability to understand and talk to animals. Rudyard Kipling apparently created The Jungle Book for his daughter Josephine, who died at age six. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is no exception.

Born in France in 1900, Saint-Exupéry grew up to be a commercial aviator flying, among other assignments, a postal route in Africa. He befriended the Lindberghs, and other heroes of aviation’s childhood. Saint-Exupéry describes the romanticism of aviation in several popular books, one of which, Wind, Sand and Stars, earned a National Book Award.

After the Nazis vanquished France in June 1940, a dejected Saint-Exupéry made his way to New York. He was so depressed that some American friends suggested that he write a children’s book to cheer himself up. He did, choosing as his hero a little man - un petit bon home - with yellow hair and a yellow scarf, whose image the writer had used as a mascot for many years. The book retells the story of the friendship between the little prince and an aviator marooned in the desert, both characters obviously being Saint-Exupéry’s alter egos. The little prince lives on a tiny planet with a single magic rose, predatory baobab trees, and tiny extinct volcanoes. In the fairy tale he visits other planets, including the earth.

Saint-Exupéry is a poet and a wishful philosopher. An earthly fox that asks to be tamed particularly charms me: “My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me….I am a bit bored, but if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine, on my life.” The prince does as he is told and learns about love and loss, because both the fox and the aviator will have to part from the prince.

Writing The Little Prince occupied much of Saint-Exupéry’s time during the twenty-seven months he spent in what he considered: “unbearable inaction” in New York. Then, after much red tape, he was permitted to rejoin the Free French Forces in Africa. After some more inaction in Africa he was allowed to fly, but not for long. On July 31, 1944, his unarmed Lockheed P-38 reconnaissance plane crashed, probably shot down by the Luftwaffe. Fifty-four years later Saint-Exupéry’s identification bracelet was recovered from the Mediterranean near Marseille. (It is in the Morgan exhibit.)

In New York, editors transformed the rough, handwritten French manuscripts and charming, unprofessional drawings into the book we know today. Publication of both a French and an English translation took place in April 1943 and Saint-Exupéry could admire his masterpiece. The book became an icon. Its 260 translations, more than any other work of fiction, have delighted children and adults ever since.

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