I am balancing myself on the sidewalk—a narrow, icy path shoveled between piles of snow along Arch Street. I forgot to change into boots at the Convention Center, so I am wearing well-worn sneakers that slip on the slush. It’s February, 1996, in the middle of what will be known as the worst blizzard ever in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My husband, Tony, is showing and marketing his handmade sterling silver tableware and jewelry at the Buyers Market of American Crafts show.  It is also the week of the Chinese New Year, and I’m one street behind the Convention Center, getting takeout.
I’ve always liked Philly’s Chinatown, a dense core of restaurants, shops, and residences covering about seven city blocks. When we first met in 1963, Tony introduced me to the South China Restaurant, which stayed open until 2 or 3 a.m. Lots of artists gathered there, not all of them choosing from Column A ($1.95), B ($2.95), or C ($3.95—a feast at that time). Besides being cheap (each meal included wonton soup, tea, and fried noodles), the waiters were no more testy than those in other places. Wesley, the jeweler and metalsmith with whom Tony was apprenticing, and Manny, who cast their wax carvings into silver and gold, would sometimes order in Cantonese, which upset the waiters even more because then they had to watch what they said around these hairy white dudes.

The 1990s have had an economic “push” for all us former flower children, and Chinatown thrives as well. People of many other Asian ethnicities (such as Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese) have spread into this area as well as into South Philly, where we live, so the question of getting “takeout” for the several people helping us is as problematic as my balance. Tony wants Singapore noodles from Lou’s Imperial Inn, while Doug (our apprentice) wants Thai spiced yellow curry rice and pork from Bangkok Cuisine. Chuckie wants only chow mein. I just want wonton soup, maybe a gallon of it, because the cold that numbs my toes is rapidly creeping upwards.

The Imperial Inn is a whole block north of me, and Bangkok Cuisine two blocks east. On every block, banners and decorations festoon the buildings, all red and gold and glittering, to welcome the New Year. Teenage boys set off firecrackers that will chase away evil spirits and guarantee good luck and fortune in the coming year. They are also having great fun scaring pedestrians and conventioneers. I suspect these same kids shoveled the paths on the sidewalks—a skinny track that you had to pick your way through one person at a time.

I am terrified of firecrackers. As a kid the blast debris of a cherry bomb hit my leg, causing scorch pockmarks that hurt like hell for a week. I need to get through this gauntlet without breaking a leg on ice while evading exploding packs of firecrackers.  And then I see it, just across the street and to the right: Mr. Wong’s  “Nine Nineteen” restaurant, the answer to my dilemma.

Mr. Wong is the epitome of a shrewd business man. His restaurant, the Nine Nineteen, is so clean that it was the only place we ate when our kids were little and needed to potty. (That was the single criterion for my choice of eatery, anywhere, for several years.) And when my youngest at two managed to flip a dish of noodles onto his head as he scrambled up to his seat, a waitress provided cloth napkins to help clean him up.

Wong thoroughly understands that his customers are Americans, not epicures, who wouldn’t know authentic Chinese food from that of a corner hot dog vendor. Nor would they want to. And as a founding member and chief of the “Chinese Benevolent Association,” no one dares to cause a problem in his restaurant. Once when, late at night, a group of rowdy bikers started to harass a young waiter, Chuckie and his brother asked: “Eh, Mr. Wong, you need help with this situation?” Even as Wong deferred, three limber, muscled Asian youths appeared at the door—Wong had already called the Benevolent Association.

Across the street then, and the entire block is shoveled and salted in front of Nine Nineteen. All the banners and dragon trims are flying, but no packs of firecrackers are exploding from the fixtures. And two fit Asian youths stand at either side of the door, discouraging teenage boys with mischief in their pockets.

Chuckie has his chow mein, Tony has General Tso’s chicken instead of Singapore noodles, and Doug has something with three stars denoting how very spicy it is. And I have my soup, my fingers curled around the paper container, tips melting with the warmth. Now if only our luck holds out in silver sales.


You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

     I discovered this song on November 9, the day that Leonard Cohen, and my hopes for the presidential election of 2016, died. It was so difficult to believe that so many people could vote for the lies, mysogny, and racism of Trump. Of course, the volumes that have been and will be written about it will slide toward infinity.

I cannot spend more time or energy thinking about it, except to say that this odd little song gives me hope. I remember seeing the movie Sansom and Delilah when I was a kid, and how, after realizing she had betrayed him, he found enough strength to pull down the palace around him. What a funny, silly movie, but Victure Mature, his muscles straining, was magnificent to my young mind. Yes, I thought. Yes.

So, even if it all falls down around us, if it all goes to shit, I can still find room to say I did my best, it wasn’t much and that is why I can stand and say Hallelujah, for myself and for those I love.

Thanks Leonarda-sansom

Am I Real?

Some physicists say that reality doesn’t exist in the sense that we all think it does. That what we perceive as real is real only while we are perceiving it. Otherwise, what we consider to be our lives–existence itself–is just an illusion.


All of this has to do with the mathematics of quantum mechanics and the methods by which scientists explore the laws of nature to explain the basic building blocks of life, matter, and energy–how we and the universe operate.


I don’t understand much about mathematics beyond some basic everyday stuff, but it is so successful in explaining and predicting how things work that it must be accurate. I wouldn’t be able to encode my ideas on my computer otherwise, or make them available to others to read.


Yet when I am confronted with a situation that demands a judgement from me, the very first thing I seem to ask myself is, “Is this real?” Is my perception of what is happening and how it affects me accurate? Especially when I anticipate expressing anger, I often doubt the veracity of my interpretation: Do I see this correctly? Do I have the right to say this? What will be the consequence?


I have believed–more often than I like to admit–other people who told me that I have completely misunderstood their words or intention. That the reality was very different from my explanation. I just didn’t know how things work.


OK. Do I live in an alternate universe, at the wrong spot of one of those strings other physicists believe are the basic elements of matter? Am I perennially stupid? Or, am I just so afraid of eliciting another person’s anger that my foremost response is to doubt myself?


My mother, unfortunately, was mentally unstable for most of my childhood and adolescence. As a person with narcisstic personality disorder, she was so self-absorbed that she rarely saw beyond her own needs or her own interpretation of what was real (i.e., normal); we lived with her persistent temper tantrums and threats to leave home. She often changed facts to fit her version of events. Yeah, she lied. And as a good Catholic-school student, the idea of a parent who lied was just not possible. It could not happen. Anymore than a nun or a priest could be wrong or tell a lie. So I grew up doubting myself. Actually, I was trained to doubt myself. To deny that what I believed I saw or heard was real.


Doubts about how I interpreted life around me translated into doubts about how I perceived myself, about what I have, or could, achieve. My chronic struggle with depression is probably based, at least partly, on those doubts.


So, physicists, please continue with your mathematics and your quest to know what makes the universe, and us, tick. It’s important. But while I am here, looking and hearing and thinking, I’m important too. I am real. I am capable. And no one can convince me otherwise.












As primates, we form hierarchies. We were classifiers long before Linnaeus and Dewey, assigning chiefs and deputies, chancellors of etiquette, shamans of shame and virtue. People with disabilities do not forgo their humanity with their function. When my husband talked of his experiences at Widener Memorial School for the Handicapped, he mentioned how they spoke of the kids in terms of their disabilities: the “polios,” the “CPs,” the “spinal cords.”* In his time there, the 50s, the polios were ascendant—ambitious, bright, bound for college.


Now when he is 70, the “polios” and the “cords” are prominent in the active disability rights community. The blind have long had their own powerhouse base, and the deaf community seems to have split itself among “deaf-culture” traditionalists who use sign language, those who read lips, and those who look to new biotechnologies to break the soundless barrier with cochlear implants. The cognitively disabled have pulled the shortest straw in this ranking; the “special olympics” are considered having as much athletic authenticity as a “feel good” TV marathon for donations.


The interface between the disabled and those not-yet-so bubbles with as many tensions as those between not-quite-pink people and brown people. A broken leg might be a disaster to a sprinter, but hardly registers a blip on the screen of a quadriplegic. The bone will heal and she will walk again, despite her acute pain and her anguish about her professional prospects. Although the cataract patient loses his sight incrementally, his options are far brighter than those of a man with macular degeneration. Perhaps these people should just “suck it up” because the disability they are experiencing is not chronic and can be treated.


Hierarchies—differentiating, and dangerous.


Does a person with tuberculosis suffer more or less than someone with influenza? Does cancer of the colon beat out cancer of the breast as more than/less than significant? If my tooth ache draws all my attention, all my energy in surviving the moment, isn’t the pain just as severe as migraines or kidney stones? Is my despair in depression less worthy than your phantom pain in amputation? Did the Nazarene feel greater pain in death than the thief crucified beside him, the woman whose uterus ruptures in childbirth, or the child who starves in Sudan?


If my pain is meaningless, isn’t your joy?



*”CP,” cerebral palsy; “spinal cords” or “cords,” persons with spinal cord injury