And Then There Were Six….

June 28, 2015 3 comments

amlk

The pool was full. Crowded as a matter of fact. With about 170 people to choose from, what were the chances they would pick me?

Recently I was “called” to Jury Duty. I’ve never “served” before.

In part, the Jury Summons read:
Tell your employer you are summoned to serve as a juror. Call after 5pm each evening before your appearance date to learn whether or not you are to report to the Central Jury Room.

Things to know:

  • Jurors are paid $40 per day. Travel, parking and lunch, are not included.
  • There are no exemptions everyone who is eligible must serve.
  • You have a legal obligation to serve.
  • Failure to respond to the summons is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to 30 days or both.

Jurors are on-call for jury selection for one week.

I forgot to call the first night. It was Sunday, May 10th, Mother’s Day and I’d just spent a truly glorious day with my two kids picnicking and hiking at a favorite spot. I completely panicked Monday morning when I got to work and remembered to call. Luckily, the recorded message from the night before indicated that there was no jury duty that day.

In fact, each evening following, the recording repeated the same message: “no jury duty” the next day.

By the time Thursday rolled around, I assumed I had dodged-a-bullet of sorts. While it’s true I’ve always wanted to serve on a jury, this summons came at the worst possible time for me. I’m an Admissions Coordinator at a private school and with barely 4 weeks left before the end of the school year, I was wrapping up tours, and contracts and solidifying enrollment for the following year. There were day-to-day dealings that needed attention and end-of-the-year activities I needed to attend and document. And that didn’t include the fact that my own two kids had end-of-the-year events at their school as well, that required my attention or attendance, including a sports banquet and a “moving up ceremony”. To say I was busy would be an understatement.

Needless to say, I was genuinely surprised when Thursday night’s message indicated that juror numbers 2001 through 2185, were to report to the Commissioner of Jurors at 9:00am the next morning. I was juror number 2164.

Friday, May 15
The line began to form outside the Jury Building shortly before the doors opened promptly at 9:00am. In an orderly fashion, we filed into a large room filled with seats. Somewhere I had read that Wi-Fi was available in the Jury Building so I brought a book and my laptop. Fridays are my busiest days at work. I also, had it in my head that I’d just be sitting around for hours before going home and I might as well get a jump on my work if I could. After taking a seat I glanced around the room. There were about 80 of us. Sometime within the two-weeks between when we all received our summons and being seated in this room, the pool had shrunk by more than half.

On the original Summons, there’s a statement that reads:
“You may ask for a one-time postponement of up to 6 months.”

If you cannot serve, contact the Commissioner of Jurors before your date of service.

A second postponement may be requested if:

  • you have a family or medical emergency
  • serving on a jury for 5 or more days will pose severe financial hardship to you
  • you are a student currently enrolled in classes
  • you are 78 years of age or older

I took my “postponement” several years ago when my kids were little and I was their “primary care taker”. Perhaps the missing potential jurors had exercised their request for a one-time postponement or were exempt for some of the reasons listed above. Maybe they just didn’t show up. What happens if you just don’t show up? I learned later that the Commissioner of Jurors will send the Sheriff out to escort you in. At least, that’s what she said when someone asked.

The Commissioner of Jurors was a professionally dressed, pleasant, no-nonsense, middle-aged woman with short blondish-grayish hair who spoke with authority. She clearly explained to us what to expect. We were being called for a civil trial that might “take a while”, she said. The words barely left her lips when one by one, row-by-row, hands immediately sprung up and excuses as to why people couldn’t or didn’t want to be a juror began to fly through air. Some of them sounded quite legitimate, some, not so much.

  • I have no childcare.
  • I’m a college student and taking summer classes that begin next week.
  • I can’t hear very well.
  • I have a wedding to go to.
  • My daughter is graduating in another state.
  • I have no transportation to get here.
  • I own my own business and no one can take my place. etc., etc.

Swiftly and decisively the Commissioner addressed each person and their excuse. Within 10-minutes we lost about 30 more potential jurors. It was obvious she’d been down this road before. She was pro. I was impressed and told her so when the opportunity presented itself. The rest of us were asked to fill out some standard paper work and a Juror Questionnaire in carbon copy. The questionnaire was designed specifically for the type of case we were here for.  We each kept a copy and the others went to the Judge, the Plaintiffs attorney and the Defense attorney to be used during Jury Selection.

Question #14

Have you or someone close to you ever:
(among other things….)

Been the victim of a crime

Okay. I thought to myself, here’s why they’re going to let me go, for sure.

The Commissioner of Jurors then asked us to stand. She and a Court Officer escorted us to the Court House where Jury Selection would begin. Watches and bracelets were placed in small bins along with our bags and pocket items and then sent through an x-ray machine as we each walked through a body scanner to enter the building.

We were headed to the 4th floor. There’s only one small elevator in the Court Building. I, like many others, chose to take the stairs. One smiling woman and three gentlemen in suits greeted us into a courtroom directing us to take a seat in the gallery. The gallery is where “spectators” sit. This was a classic courtroom, much like the ones you see on T.V. shows. The gallery was filled with rows of beautiful, wooden pew-style benches. A bar or railing separated the gallery from the attorney’s tables, and in the front of the room stood the Bench, which is the raised desk the judge sits at, with doors on either side. Facing the gallery, the jury box was to the left of the judge’s bench. There was a separate entrance to the jury box where members of the jury sat that was also enclosed by a rail. The witness box (or stand) was a raised seat between the bench and the jury box.

court

The last time I’d been in a courtroom, the Judge had invited me into the “well” (the open space between the bench and the council tables) to read a letter I had been encouraged to write by a parole officer named Diane. As I faced the bench, Diane stood by my right side holding my arm ever so gently, in an effort to help me steady my shaking hand as I read an Impact Statement to the Court. That was about five years ago and the reason I thought I would be eliminated at some point from the pool.

As I sat in the gallery of this courtroom, I was immediately drawn to the stacks, of white cardboard boxes (the kind you might use to hold file folders in) that were placed along the inside of the railing behind the Plaintiff’s table. There had to be at least twenty of them. I couldn’t help but wonder what was in them. There was also a stack of about ten 3’ x 5’ white poster-boards leaning against a table inside the well, in front of the bench. They too captured my interest. The next thing I noticed was that there were three attorney tables. If there’s a Plaintiff and a Defendant, to whom did the third table belong to? It wasn’t long before we learned that the Plaintiffs had filed suit against “two doctors” and an “institution and its staff of nurses”. The doctors had one attorney and the institution and its nurses had a separate attorney. Two Defendants.

We were asked to come into the jury box via random selection. Juror “numbers” were randomly picked out of a clear tube with hand crank, similar to a bingo cage where the hand-crank is used to mix up the balls before they’re lifted through a latched opening and “called out” when the cylinder comes to a rest. The remaining juror numbers were typed on small pieces of paper and tumbled inside the tube before selected. The tube sat on the middle council table. If your number was called, you were asked to leave the gallery and come and sit in the jury box where the three sets of lawyers would take turns asking a variety of questions.

A civil trial requires 6 jurors and 2 alternates to be picked to “hear” the case.

The lawyers tried not to reveal too much detail about the actual case, only giving us information that was necessary and could aid in their selection process. When your number was picked, your questionnaire was pulled and a copy was given to each “side”. After the first eight potential jurors were called, some cursory, general questions were posed to the “box” and the “gallery” and again, one by one, hands shot into the air. This time, a line formed at the entrance to the courtroom and private discussions were held with all four attorneys in the hall. Some folks returned to the gallery but many, we never saw again.

  • Do you or does anyone in your immediate family work in the medical field?
  • Have you or anyone in your immediate family ever had a heart attack?
  • Have you or anyone in your immediate family ever been to Vassar Hospital?

One super-obnoxious man who felt the need to make his feelings known to us all, all-day-long, couldn’t help but make a remark after the third question was asked:

We live here. We’ve all been to Vassar!

And indeed, pretty much everyone had. So we all joined the line that began to snake around the gallery and each of us had our private huddle in the hallway. When it was my turn, the attorneys wanted to when and why I’d been to Vassar.

“I have two sports-playing, teenagers.” I said, “Aside from giving birth there, let’s just say we’ve frequented the ER more than once over the years, as recently as this past November when my son broke his collar bone in two places playing soccer and last month, when my daughter sprained her wrist at the bowling alley.”

The Plaintiffs lawyer then asked:

“Would you be inclined to favor Vassar in any way as a result of your visits there?”

“No, I said. Not necessarily.”

They all smiled and sent me back to the gallery.

This is how it went for the majority of the day. Words like policies, procedures, protocol and expert testimony were used in the questioning. Sometimes statements would be made and a brief discussion between a lawyer and the jurors in the box would ensue.

As the hours passed, the grunts and grumblings grew louder. It was frustrating and disheartening to me, not to mention distracting. I kept thinking, if I ever needed a jury, I wouldn’t want people who didn’t care or didn’t want to be there, making a judgment on my behalf. I was really trying to pay attention to the questions the attorneys were asking or discussing. I was trying to understand how this process was working or if it was working. Despite the “bad timing” — for all of us, I’m sure — I’m the cornball, who believes we’re all privileged at birth by the freedoms we have in this country and that serving on a jury is important and an honor, in addition to being our civil duty. I was taking the process very seriously (and thankfully, I wasn’t the only one.)

This is the crux of our judicial system. Isn’t it?

I wanted to believe that it was.

aneinstein

Despite the huffing and puffing about how long this was taking, the attorneys plowed through the day taking their turns asking making statements and having brief discussions. I began to formulate a sense of who they were in my own mind.

asmilingcat

The only woman attorney was one of two lawyers for the Plaintiffs. The pair came from a firm in Maryland. The woman was about 5’4, in her late 50s and had straight, brown, shoulder-length hair parted at the side. She wore black heels and a belted dress that fanned out at the bottom like an umbrella. It was chilly in the courtroom. She wore a sweater. She also wore a “permanent” smile on her face. It reminded me of the “Cheshire Cat”, not in a bad way, just as a matter of fact. She graduated with J.D. Honors Citation from George Washington University Law School, 1985 after getting her Bachelors of Arts at the University of Maryland. Maybe it was that she appeared competent or that she was the only woman attorney or both, but there was something very interesting about her, to me.

acheshire

Like the Cheshire Cat ever smiling, she silently observed everything and EVERYONE. She did not ask any questions of the potential jurors though, that was left to her partner. The older man was seemingly pleasant. He had a slight build and was not much taller than she was. He had a small, oval face and his receding hairline was met with long thinning strands of silver that swept across the middle of his head.  A 1971 graduate of the University of Maryland School of law, this man was well seasoned, well learned and well dressed. His smile exuded confidence and he was clearly comfortable in his own skin. There was an “old school” wisdom or charm about him and when he walked around the courtroom, there was a spring to his step, literally. When I looked at him Jiminy Cricket came to mind.

ajiminy

The two lawyers for the two defendants gave off a kind of “good cop – bad cop” vibe to me from the way they interacted with each other. The “good cop”, was a local attorney who represented the two doctors. He was a man in his mid-to-late 40s, of medium build, brown hair, a dad of three. He seemed like  a “nice” guy. Friendly. His “thing” I noticed, was to ask , “fair question or fair statement?” when “interviewing jurors in the box. It was as if he was establishing a level playing field or seeking your approval. He was smart. Likeable and I liked him. He was a graduate of Cornell University and went on to Washington University School of Law where he graduated in 1996 as a member of the Order of Barristers.

adad

The “bad cop” was not really a “bad cop” at all. It’s just the way the two attorneys seemed to feed off of each other, after each other that highlighted the differences in their personalities. By all accounts, the “hospital’s” lawyer was sharp, smooth. The word, “slick” comes to mind, but again, not in a bad way. More like, in a “polished” or experienced way. A handsome man in his late 50s, his crystal blue eyes sparkled right into the gallery. He was a former DA and veteran trial lawyer. He graduated from Brooklyn Law School after completing a rigorous pre-med undergrad program giving him a unique understanding of medical cases. He came from a firm about an hour south of us. He didn’t smile nearly as much as the other lawyers and when he did I noticed a slight gap between his top two middle teeth. He approached the podium in front of the jury box with thoughtfulness. You could almost “see” his mind working. He would say something and then intentionally hesitate before speaking again, planting a seed. He gave you “food for thought.” He’d build his questions slowly and then strike quickly, deliberately, like a viper. Try as I did to change the thought, I just couldn’t and from day one, I called him “The Viper.” There was no question he was there to defend and he’s a man you would want to be defending you. His message was very clear: WAIT until you hear ALL of the evidence, until the Defense has a chance to present their case before making a judgment.

I could do that.

anotherviper

The selection process was at times a little confusing. Even though the attorneys had the questionnaires of the eight people in the jury box, when they asked questions, they would often also, face the gallery. Hands would shoot up into the air, a line would form by the door and private meetings would take place in the hall. More potential jurors were “let go”. After the lunch break, the pool had dwindled to about 35. By day’s end, there were 12 of us left in the gallery with 8 still in the box.  I’d just about convinced myself that perhaps I had dodged the bullet when the attorneys nestled together near the counsels’ tables. I thought well, that was it and the 8 in the box were the ones. But after their brief, quiet discussion amongst themselves, at 4:45pm that Friday afternoon, all 20 of us were asked to return on Monday morning at 9:00am.

Admittedly, I was shocked.

Still, the whole process intrigued me. Somehow by this point, all the grunters and groaners were gone. All day long, I was interested, fascinated even, at the method of elimination and how it played out but at no point during that day, not for one second, did it ever cross my mind that what was about to unfold would become all-consuming and at times emotionally and mentally overwhelming, not to mention, a life changing event.

Note: While this is more than a blog post, it’s not quite a book however, it is a story that I feel the need to tell and although it’s not so much about the details of the trial, it is about the incredible process of our judicial system, from jury selection to verdict. So if you’re interested, stay tuned….

In Any Form

January 4, 2015 12 comments

kindness

Get up!

Get off that floor.

Can’t you see it’s filthy?

Startled by this stern command, I raised my head from where it had been resting — cradled in the palm of my hands — to see who would have the nerve to disturb my sorrow so abruptly. He was a big, brown man, dressed in green and a thousand thoughts ran through my head in the span of ten seconds or the time it took for us to “see” one another and him to push the empty gurney passed us, through the automatic doors beyond us.

Although his statement was directed toward us, he wasn’t talking directly to me. That was clear. I was in a chair. He directed his remarks toward my daughter who sat on the floor next to me. We were sitting outside of a “room” in the ER of a local hospital. A dusty, powder-blue curtain acted as a door and was pulled “closed” for privacy. Privacy from sight perhaps but certainly not from sound. I could hear the effort that was being to keep the groans faint. That’s how I knew he was in so much pain. He was trying to hide it. I’d never been in this section of the ER before. It’s where you’re brought to when an ambulance brings you in, where my 15-year NTeich2old son laid behind the curtain.

Several days earlier he’d broken his collar bone during a soccer game when an opposing player, a bigger, heavier boy known for his mean spiritedness collapsed on top of him, breaking that fine line on his left side that connects your neck to your shoulder, in two places. Both boys had been jumping in the air to head the ball. My son needed immediate surgery, pins and a metal rod were permanently inserted into his shoulder reattaching the fractured bone. We were extremely fortunate to be put in contact with the head surgeon at NYU Hospital for Joint Disease in New York City who performed the surgery himself.

A few days after his surgery the boys from my son’s soccer team posted this picture on their team Facebook page after a big win that he obviously missed and couldn’t be a part of.

GET WELL SOON NOAH

GET WELL SOON NOAH

My son was deeply touched. I, was completely overwhelmed by the gesture. Honestly. I’m humbled to be witness to such an incredibly thoughtful act of kindness displayed by teenage boys.

The whole experience had been emotional, fraught with gut-wrenching, roller-coaster moments and as if that weren’t enough excitement for one week, here we found ourselves in a hospital again.

He’d been recuperating nicely up until this night, when he suffered a setback, out of his control and was in severe pain, so much so, that on advice of the surgeon, we called an ambulance to bring him to a local hospital.

Now we sat, my daughter and I, outside the room with the flimsy, ugly, powder-blue curtain acting as a door, between us and my son and his dad, waiting. We waited and waited and waited some more for the doctor-on-call to make his way to my son’s bed.

My heart was breaking as any mother’s would for every minute that passed, for every minute he suffered in pain. Trying to respect his wishes to ‘wait outside the room, please mom’, fighting back fear and tears, anxious for help, my nerves and patience were fried. Where was that damn doctor anyway? It’s easy to lose perspective. I did.

Now this? Really? Some big, barking man, clearly on-a-mission that had nothing to do with helping my son, has the audacity to growl at us, chiding my daughter as he strides by pushing an empty bed! That’s all I needed, maybe even what I was praying for these past few hours as I cupped my head full of worry into my hands; a justification, an opportunity I immediately realized, to lash out at someone, a place to displace the anger and hurt and most of all the helplessness that was filling up inside me bursting to get out.

Thank you and God help you man, I thought.

You just barked at the wrong person at the right time. You are the conduit for me to strike through. I was ready and eager as I looked up about to unleash. I locked my bleary eyes onto his and before I could blast away he bellowed,

It’s not clean enough to sit on!

In that moment, when our eyes met, intention made itself known.

Clarity came.hope

Instantly.

Thankfully.

In the eyes of knowing, silence prevailed. This man’s growling abruptness was in reality, an act of kindness and genuine caring.

His scrubs indicated he was probably a doctor, maybe a surgeon and although he clearly lacked in bedside manner, his eyes spoke volumes. They told me his “scolding” was an expression of real concern that my daughter was sitting on this not-so-clean hospital floor. It was just the type of jarring I needed in that moment in time to pull me out of myself and become present, for myself, for my daughter who also waited in worry and for my son of course, who needed me to be there for him and not become lost in my sorrow. Gratitude grabbed hold of me. Fast.

God helped me. Thank you.

This man snapped me back, which allowed me to be where I needed to be. It also allowed me  to hear the quiet words of an older woman who’d been pacing in and out of a room, two curtains to our right. I’d mostly seen the bottom half of her legs walking in and out when I held my head side-ways but I caught a glimpse of her when I’d occasionally looked up to see if the doctor was anywhere in sight. She was older than me but younger than my mom, probably in her early 60s. Other than knowing she was there, I didn’t give her or who she was with or why much thought until it was too late. She was leaving with another woman, older than her. A nurse wheeled the older woman ahead while the younger, pacing woman trailed behind. As she passed me she said softly,

I hope it all works out for you.

I was so surprised; I barely got the words “thank you” out in time for her to know I’d heard her.

The doctor-on-call finally saw my son, treated him and released him after a few hours. His issue was fleeting in the big picture of things and although I am thankful for that, it’s the fleeting unsuspecting moments that interrupted my life in those hours of waiting that linger with me in a thought provoking way. Kindness matters. In any form.

Twice in one night I was startled by the kindness of a stranger. Two people, in two contrasting ways took notice.

Kindness can be so fleeting and even though it doesn’t always present itself in softly spoken words or a thoughtfully written sign, its effects are always the same; long lasting and profound. It makes a difference.


The Man With the Handlebar Mustache!

October 19, 2014 16 comments
Uncle Jacob 1988

©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Fall bursts with bright colors, Oktoberfests and beer, memories from my childhood and the man with the handlebar mustache.

Memories are a curious thing. They come in the form of a person’s personal perspective. Each situation, event or conversation, means something different to all those involved, and also to those not involved. We give different meanings, according to our belief systems, and how we are affected by the event. In Other words, we don’t see things as they are necessarily; we see things as we are. (http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/perspectives.htm)

The following is my perception and memories of a man who I am truly grateful to have had in my life.

The sun had set and I remember watching the glow of the red sky slowly fade to black. It had been a long day, a great day of blueberry picking but it was late now and clearly we were lost. It felt like hours since we’d left my parents. Maybe it was. Somehow, we missed where they turned. The back roads of the Catskill Mountains are endless, nameless and windy. There were no maps or street lights to guide you on these less traveled roads. I can’t recall everyone who was in that pale blue Volkswagen bus with me that evening, I think my brother was, maybe my sister too but I remember the mood perfectly: content and tired, despite being lost. I think I was seven or eight-years old. Another thing I remember for sure; I wasn’t scared. I felt safe. It was another adventure. Finally, we came upon a tavern and stopped for directions. We followed him inside the small watering hole and waited patiently, spinning ourselves on bar stools as he drank from a frosty mug, no doubt making new friends while he inquired about our whereabouts and how to get back to the Parkway.

This remains one of my earliest memories of the man with the handlebar mustache.

He wasn’t a “blood” relative but we were close like family and called him Uncle anyway. Uncle Jacob (pronounced Yahck-up) lived with his family, his wife and three sons in an affluent part of Westchester, NY, a short walk from Rye Beach and Playland Amusement Park where their famous boardwalk was featured at the end of the movie “Big”, when the “Zoltar the Magnificent” fortune teller machine returned the adult Tom Hanks to his original childhood age/state of being. As a kid I roamed that boardwalk with my siblings a million times over. My family spent lots of weekend time at the house in Rye. Uncle Jacob and my Dad were very good friends. Shortly after my Dad immigrated to this country from Germany, Uncle Jacob gave him a job as a painter’s apprentice and a place to live. That was over 50-years ago. Back then, an immigrant coming to the United Sates had to have a job and a place to live so as not to be a burden on society.

VW Bus

Trip to Niagara Falls most likely 1963 with the two families. This is actually my Dad’s VW Bus but Uncle Jacob had a very similar one. My Dad is in the driver’s seat. Tante Theresa behind him. Richard (the middle of the three sons) is in the passenger seat. ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Uncle Jacob’s wife, Tante Theresa, was an amazing cook and made the best Sunday dinners and chocolate chip cookies you ever had. For real. The three boys were older than me and my siblings. I can’t say I had a relationship with any one of them in particular but I do believe that a life-long bond that exists among family members was created between us during those years and beyond. They knew my Dad before he got married, before we were born. They were patient with us when we came over. I remember watching them and my Dad play with this huge train or racing car track that Uncle Jacob built for them. It was on a wooden board as big as a bed, in fact it retracted onto the wall just like a Murphy Bed. It was a fun, comfortable place to be in, like home and even though the neighborhood was a quiet and reserved one, Uncle Jacob’s house was anything but quiet and reserved.

Looking back I realize Uncle Jacob was the most progressive man I’ve ever known.

Still.

To. This. Day.

Uncle Jacob

L to R: Me, Uncle Jacob & My Sister ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Everything I experienced at that house was unique and unusual although it all seemed quite normal at the time. As a child, I loved Uncle Jacob but it’s only now as an adult that I truly appreciate the happy, wonderful, exciting things he introduced and exposed me to.

I think of him with the same kind of respect I have for Jean Piaget, John Dewey and Ralph Waldo Emerson and realize how amazingly lucky I was to have had this man’s influences infiltrate my childhood. My schooling occurred behind the stone cold walls of a small, strict catholic school but much of my learning occurred under the indirect tutelage of the man with the handlebar mustache. He was a natural teacher demonstrating a hands-on approach to living and learning. He was a modern day Dr. Doolittle only instead of having an English accent; his was German occasionally slurred by a happy consumption of wine or beer. Like the Pied Piper too, children and adults were drawn to him and his charismatic ways.

Let me explain.

In addition to being a house painter by trade, he was a musician and a singer. Actually, he was a party on two feet, a walking Oktoberfest, all-year-round. He played the accordion. Always and everywhere.

He was a butcher. One time he and my dad bought a pig and among other things, made sausage in his basement, letting me hold the clear, thin casing while he cranked out the ground up sausage meat into it. Another time they bought a calf. We ate veal every day in every way for about a year. I don’t eat veal as an adult.

And yet another time when my younger brother wandered into the basement and as he puts it,

One minute there was a chicken running around and the next minute Uncle Jacob laid it on the butcher block and chopped it’s head off.

Dinner.

He was a farmer, growing tomatoes and other vegetables, and berries along the perimeter of the square shaped fence that surrounded the patch of grass that was his back yard.

©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Me & my baby who I named Rabbit in Rye. ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Peter Rabbit

My younger brother, Peter w/ a rabbit in Rye. ©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

He raised rabbits. I remembering playing house with them in their living room, dressing them up and rocking them in my arms like I would a baby doll.

He was a Bee Keeper and for some time, kept his bees in boxes on the roof of his quiet little house in the affluent city of Rye. One summer, when I was 10 or 11, he gave me and my friend a job building bee hive frames. He showed us how to hammer and wire them. He treated us like we were capable. At the end of the day he paid us with jars of honey. Soon after, a neighbor complained and called the police. Uncle Jacob called the newspaper and had me come back and go up on the roof where the bees were to show them how safe it was. Eventually, they made him move the bees.

We had freedom to explore in and out and around his house. There was a small concrete swimming pool that was enclosed by a gate on the property that we swam in often, amongst the huge green lily pads and giant orange gold fish that he kept in it.

He made my brother his first fishing pole out of a stick and some twine and helped him catch his first fish with it.

He was a swimmer and swam in the Long Island Sound, probably every night. He would walk to a small alcove with his flippers in hand and his best friend, Horste, by his side. Horste was his dog, I think he was a coonhound. Sometimes we would go and watch him and Horste swim together.

Uncle Jacob and my Dad would lay in the living room on a Sunday afternoon reading the German newspaper or watching soccer, my Dad on the couch and Uncle Jacob on the floor. Uncle Jacob would call us over one by one and tell us to walk on his back to massage his weary muscles.

As I grew older and became more preoccupied with my own life and living, going to college and working, my personal contact lessened and at some point Uncle Jacob left his house in Rye to go live where his heart was, in the back woods of the Catskill Mountains. I never got to see his place there but my mom used to refer to it as Jacob’s Chutzpah! I imagined it to be a place where animals and people could dwell in an uncomplicated way. Tante Theresa remained for the most part in the house in Rye and I was told that when Uncle Jacob would come down from the mountains to visit his grandchildren he’d bring a baby chick or a bunny rabbit in his coat pocket on the train for them to see and hold and play with.

Jacob

©2014 Karen Szczuka Teich

Needless to say, not everyone he came in contact with appreciated his carefree nature and unfortunately, or fortunately, a neighbor who didn’t enjoy his unconventional ways of living (or German music maybe?) had him arrested on a DUI one night after playing at a local party. He was put in a small-town, back woods jail for a few months, to teach him a lesson. Needless to say, sitting idle in a cell didn’t sit well with Uncle Jacob. He asked for a can of paint and a paint brush. By the time his sentence was served, his cell and the whole jailhouse for that matter was left with a fresh coat of paint on its walls, compliments of the man with the handlebar mustache.

Is there someone in your life that had a huge, positive impact on you as a child?

I’d love to hear about them.

Six Degrees of Sadness

September 11, 2014 9 comments

Six Degrees of Separation

They say there are six degrees of separation.

 “Everyone is on average approximately six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person on Earth,..” ~ Wikipedia

I believe this to be true. One way or another, we’re all connected; especially when it comes to what happened on 9/11. Looking back, I’m certain that so many of us, knew somebody or knows somebody who knew somebody.

I knew somebody.

So many years later I still can’t talk about that day without becoming overwhelmed with emotion. I know I’m not alone.

Writing about it is almost as difficult.

I tried to think of something else to write about this week but the memories of that day are at the forefront of my mind and heart right now. I wouldn’t attempt to try to write about the profound loss of our sons and daughters, fathers and husbands, mothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, colleagues and friends.

I couldn’t.

All week long there’s been articles, photos, video, reports and documentaries reliving those events. I didn’t watch them.

I still can’t.

The point of contact between the planes and all three buildings is indelibly embedded in my mind.

I don’t want to see it again — ever.

There were however, a few poignant moments when I was alone that day that will linger in my mind’s eye forever; moments that caused me to pause and take notice; moments that changed my life.

I was at home with my two children; my daughter who was 6-months and my son who was 2 ½ years-old. I had the TV on, although I don’t remember what I was watching. It was interrupted by “live coverage” of the first Tower, just after it was hit by the first plane.

It seemed unlikely, odd. I couldn’t fathom the possibility of it. I was trying to make sense of what I was hearing when something surreal and horrific happened.

I watched the second plane hit the second Tower.

I remember being very confused and thinking…

“What are they doing? How are they showing something that just happened a few minutes ago?

How could somebody get this video?”

And as quickly as the thoughts passed through my mind, it hit me.

This couldn’t be video tape from the first plane because I could still see the black smoke coming from first Tower. This was live coverage. This plane was hitting the second Tower. It was a second plane crashing into the second tower and it was happening, right now!

My eyes could see the events unfolding but my mind couldn’t comprehend their reality. I could hear the reporter in the background saying with disbelief, that this was happening right now but I didn’t understand.

There were so many surreal moments that day.

Later, as I sat on our porch smoking a cigarette trying to process what I had just seen on television, I had the realization that my life, our lives as we knew them would never be the same. An overwhelming feeling of sadness slowly began to overtake the initial feelings of horror and fear that I had. Understanding of what I saw, found its way to my brain. Now, when I recall that slow, creeping feeling of sadness, I think about how Ron Weasley described the presence of the Dementors on the Hogwarts Train;

“I felt weird, like I’d never be cheerful again”.

That’s what it was like for me.  I couldn’t imagine being cheerful again.

While I sobbed uncontrollably for what happened, for what I saw and for what I felt, the deafening sound of silence surrounded itself around me. The quiet in the skies was unsettling. The more I noticed it, the louder it became. You don’t notice or really pay attention to the activity in the skies until it ceases. It gave me a sense of isolation which created a fear in me, I’ve never experienced before. I will never forget that haunting, echoing sound of nothing when no plane was allowed to fly in our otherwise free, blue skies.

On the porch that day, while my babies napped peacefully, I smoked a cigarette and mourned for the feeling of security I didn’t realize I had until I lost it, a feeling I knew my children would never know.

For weeks afterward, the winds carried the smell of death up the Hudson River. It was a smoldering, horrific stench that sat, heavy in the air. Unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before, or since, it was a foul and constant reminder of devastation and the loss our nation suffered.

Everyone I know, knows somebody or knows somebody who knows somebody.

There are six degrees of separation, they say. Six people between you and I, as strangers before an introduction. The world we live in is a small one. One way or another, we’re all connected.

I knew Somebody.

We all knew somebody.

 

Photo Credit #1: Six Degrees of Separation

Photo Credit #2: World Trade Center

Photo Credit #3: Connected

To Take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Or Not!

August 18, 2014 2 comments
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©2014 KarenSzczukaTeich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

All this hype about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, is it a good thing or not?

Well, if nothing else, it’s spreading ALS awareness across the country faster than the speed of light and, if nothing else, THAT’S A GOOD THING! But thankfully, that’s not the only thing it’s doing. Americans are a giving people. They always have been a giving people and as of today, Americans participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge phenomenon have inspired unprecedented “giving” to the ALS cause. ALS: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease is an attack of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Most people diagnosed with ALS usually die within three to five years from the onset of symptoms.

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©2014 KarenSzczukaTeich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

So, what exactly is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? The challenge is this: people make a video of themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads, post it on social media and then challenge three or four friends to do the same within 24-hours or donate $100 to ALS. Here’s the rub:  MOST PEOPLE DO BOTH! Or at least they donate some amount. Both of my teenagers took the challenge AND donated $25 each to the ALS Association. Think about that. Think about all these awesome teenagers who are just waiting to be “challenged” on social media by friends and, who might donate about $25 each, to boot!

Give them the opportunity to do good and they will. Add the likes of Jimmy Fallon, LeBron James, Bill Gates, Taylor Swift, NFL players from the NY Giants and over 300,000 NEW DONORS to the ice bucket mix, you end up with millions of dollars, well over $15 million dollars in fact, being donated to the ALS Association as a result of the Ice Bucket Challenge in less than two months! That’s about 14 million dollars more than was raised during the same time period last year.

That, is a good thing!

As a parent, this is the kind of social media craze I WANT my kids to take part in.

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©2014 KarenSzczukaTeich & TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

In effect, the concept is brilliant. Thanks to 29-year old Pete Frates and his friend Pat Quinn, both of whom have ALS and both of whom are largely responsible for turning the trend viral and into what is now, a mega fund-raiser for this disease.

That’s a good thing.

So go ahead, take the challenge! In fact, I nominate YOU! I double, triple DARE you!

Just want to donate?  You can donate on the ALS Association website:  HERE

Completely unrelated to the “Challenge” but related in a serendipitous way to this post, I mentioned Lou Gehrig’s Disease in my last post Full Circle. Goodness is perpetuated again.

Full Circle

June 29, 2014 14 comments

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I work in a small, private, progressive school. We just celebrated our 50th Anniversary. Our philosophy begins with the premise that all kids are capable. From there, we pledge to nurture each child, every day in the hopes of fostering a love of learning that will last a lifetime.

Two weeks before the last day of school, she appeared in the doorway of our office. It was a Friday afternoon, only minutes before dismissal; the calm before the bus-boarding-storm. She was chattering a-mile-a-minute when I looked up from my desk and saw her standing there. She was an older woman, maybe in her early sixties, dressed more like she was in her thirties. She had long, wavy brown hair that was graying at the roots. There was something light even comical about her tone and her appearance. Her accessories jingled and jangled as she waved her hands to emphasize her words like a conductor would at a symphony. Barely stopping to breathe, she incessantly, repeated her name, asking if myself or my co-workers knew who she was , no — not her actually, but her daughter. Did we recognize her daughter’s name because her daughter went to this school, oh, about 30-years ago. Like a leaky faucet the words trickled out into a tale that finally ended with the keeping of a promise and a story that left a profound stirring inside me.

I did not know her, her daughter or recognize their name but our (interim) Director did, which didn’t surprise me. Before standing in as Director, while we searched for a replacement, Diane was a teacher for 34-years at our school. In fact, she was this woman’s daughter’s kindergarten teacher – oh, about 30-years ago and remembered them both well.

I was going through a very hard time back then, the woman told us. I had three children, no money and was in the middle of a divorce. Eric was running the school then and the tuition was $900.

Pause.

Eric was running the school then.

Eric, was Diane’s best friend for many, many years. He was also a teacher at our school for many, many years and although we didn’t actually have a director-by-title up until recently, by all accounts, Eric was the director here, for many, many years. Eric, was a very special person and much like Diane, beloved by hundreds if not thousands of students and parents. Eric passed away about 5-years ago from a form of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Sometimes in our day-to-day dealings, when there’s a hard decision to make at school, I think to myself, what would Eric do? I know my co-worker, our office manager and Eric’s sister, does too. She said those exact words just the other day. I’d bet, Diane has thought them as well. Eric would always err on the side of compassion, trust and human kindness.

It wasn’t a surprise for the three of us to learn that Eric told this woman not to worry about the $900 tuition for kindergarten that year and to pay it when she could.

She was only in this school for one little year of her life the woman said but I credit that year and her experience here with the success that she is today and every time I pass this school in my aluminum foil car I think about that and promised myself I would repay that debt when I could.

And so she did, that day, two weeks before the last day of school. She gave us $1,000 and vowed to continue to make a small monthly donation to the school from that day forward. Indeed, she kept her promise, to herself, to Eric and to the perpetuation of the human spirit.

The encounter moved me. Profoundly. It awakened in me deep hope that in an unsuspecting, fleeting moment, faith in humankind can be restored. It’s a testament in particular to the power of an act of kindness and what happens to it long after the deed is done.

It comes full circle.

The Child Whisperer

June 12, 2014 6 comments

Karen:

In honor of the retirement of a dear friend & colleague who has touched the lives of many. Re-blogged from March, 2012.

Originally posted on Taking The World On With A Smile!:

The flip-side of last week’s post thankfully, is that there are many amazing teachers that devote their whole lives to educating children. These people influence who we are in the most positive of ways, for life. Children do not forget who they are. They too are remembered and cherished forever.

In the Spring of 2001, curiosity got the better of me. My quest to find the right preschool for my overly active, precocious, almost 3-year-old son, finally provided the opportunity for me to see what was really going on in the mysterious looking Victorian house that sits majestically upon a hill overlooking the busy-ness of Route 9D. Little did I know as I walked into the hallway that echoed with song and laughter, that in-between the walls of this house that was a school, magic happened.

We were met by the cheerful smile of a woman who greeted us…

View original 1,225 more words

Categories: Parenting
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