Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Optimism in the face of adversity

Enjoying a quiet midday moment in Central Park. Photo: JH
Wednesday, June 27, 2018. Another bright, warm (but not humid) sunny day in New York yesterday.

I went down to Michael’s to lunch with my friend John Loeb who has recently published a memoir of his life and family (the Loebs, Lewisohns, and the Lehmans).  After lunch I caught a cab home on 55th Street and Sixth Avenue. The route (Central Park Drive) from that location is to go up to Central Park South (59th Street), and enter Central Park on a winding road which first lets out on 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue. It is an efficient and faster way to get back to the Upper East Side and avoid the now horrendous gridlock of midtown. Yesterday my cabdriver informed me that this was the last day that the roads will be open to any cars. As of today (June 27th) it will be closed to all vehicles except bicycles, presumably horsedrawn carriages, runners, walkers.
Central Park Drive open for traffic in the 1890's.
Central Park was established 150 years ago when Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won a design competition to created a “Greensward” for the citizens of New York.

Because it was in the center of the island, in many areas separated the east from the west, the north from the south, roads were included in the design to make sure that the city traffic — then horse drawn vehicles — could move easily as well as accommodate the citizens for their leisure. As has been happening for the last decade an a half, use of those roads for traffic have been severely limited by the elected powers-that-be (i.e. the mayors Bloomberg and De Blasio).
Map Showing the Original Topography of the Site of the Central Park with a Diagram of the Roads and Walks under construction. January 1859. Image ID: 5190282, The New York Public Library.
The result of those limitations has meant that traffic now moves much more slowly and the ease and efficiency that Olmsted and Vaux considered in their vision of a metropolis (which New York was not at the time) made that possible for the 17 millions who move in and out and around and about the city on a week daily basis.

The upshot of these changes is that the cyclists follow NO rules, as do many others who use the Park for exercise. We are moving closer and closer to a situation of utter pedestrian chaos now that rules and natural moving courtesies are less and less applicable to those using the Park, like those using the streets and avenues. Leaving one to wonder: what are they thinking?  A sad day in the city, on this bright sunny day.

Meanwhile, a not so sad day last Thursday over at Hunter College. I received this note from Hunter College's president, Jennifer Raab: “I’m reaching out because yesterday was the Hunter College Elementary School graduation ceremony, where Larry Leeds (Class of 1941) was honored with the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award. He absolutely charmed the students and families with a funny, personal speech that included anecdotes about growing up in NYC in the 1930s and life advice that was truly authentic — he definitely made an impression on the graduates through his remarks — and of course through his professional accomplishments and generous philanthropy as well.”
Larry Leeds and Jennifer Raab with Hunter Elementary School graduates.
The Speech: Let me begin by saying how honored I am to be here today as an alumnus of this fine institution, and I want to thank Niva and Alok for that kind introduction.

I entered the 1st grade of Hunter College elementary School (or as it was called the Hunter College Model School) in 1935. As I know you are all math whizzes, you have calculated that I am 89; I actually just began my 90th year this past Sunday. How the world has changed during my lifetime.

I left Hunter after six years when the 6th Grade School ceased for the boys. It was no longer coed – but was girls only. I felt disappointed and sad when I was told I had to leave, as I really loved Hunter.

One of the vivid memories of my years at Hunter was when my mother woke me up one night at 2 a.m. We were living at 68th Street between Lexington and Park. Hunter College, both then and now, occupied the block right across from where I lived. Therefore with my eyes I witnessed a gigantic fire that totally destroyed the building which all Hunter Schools occupied.

That happened in the 2nd Grade. They moved the School’s classes to Temple Emanu-el and we remained there several years before returning to the new classrooms at the rebuilt site.

Going back to the fact that we poor boys were kicked out at the end of the sixth grade: an interesting anti-discrimination lawsuit was filed by families many years later in the 1970s claiming that such discrimination against us poor boys was illegal, and the school was forced to let its male students continue their education at Hunter.

My memories of Hunter have naturally faded, but there are few which remain:  In the 5th grade we took a course in etymology (the study of the derivation of words and the way their meanings changed over time). Our teacher’s name was Mrs. Rugrotski, and I remember our loving nickname for her was Rat-Face Rugrotski. She was a toughie, but this course was not taught in any other 5th grade n New York City, I found. The study of the origin of the English language is really amazing.

I commend my mother for making the decision during the heart of the Great Depression to enroll me in this great school. My education at Hunter has stood me in good standing. Afterward Hunter I went to 7th and 8th grades at Riverdale Country Day School, then I had four years of High School at Lawrenceville, followed by four years at Yale for my BA, and after that two years at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business for my MBA.

The study habits which I acquired at Hunter prepared me well for my future academic endeavors. You here today have all been blessed with a splendid foundation to ensure your future academic career. I urge you to continue the hard work and wonderful results which you have achieved in elementary school as you enter middle school, and for all the future years of education that lie ahead.

I hope you know that your moms and dads and families are so proud of what you have achieved that enables you to be here to day and I hope each one of you reach and tell your parents how much you appreciate their love and support. Today is an important day for you, and it is meaningful for your parents as well to rejoice in your achievements.

Your parents have high hopes for you; they believe in the you they support. In turn you are about to become teenagers. Hopefully right now you have warm, positive, and loving relationship with your parents. During the teenage years, you will find yourself separating somewhat and reducing your total dependency on your parents.

You will probably decide that you know much more than your parents -- that you are smarter than your parents, and that your parents are silly, old fashioned, and do not understand you.

This dynamic tends to lead to some extraordinarily passionate and combative discussions and arguments. Please keep in mind that your parents love and adore you, and are devoted to enhancing your well-being.

I remember well my agonies when my children battled with me, and how even though I was sure that I was right, they made me feel terrible. I urge you to keep in mind that your parents love you, and try not to talk to them in a way that really makes them unhappy. You are not the only one who has feelings. They have feelings to. It is quite devastating and painful for parents to hear their children speak poorly of them and dismiss their well-intended advice as stupid and idiotic.

Some more advice: drugs are seductive but destructive. Cocaine, Heroin, Opioids, Amphetamines are deadly. I know so many people who have died from drug use, including my own son. Even marijuana, which may soon be legalized is dangerous, and prolonged usage can adversely affect your brain. You will be exposed in the future years to friends who will tempt and pressure you to join them in imbibing or smoking these drugs.  I can only tell you that you will be a lot healthier and a more successful person by never going near them. Just say no – it is that simple!

Remember – you heard this from a father who still grieves for the loss of his son.  My son Cary was a great tennis player, who went to Collegiate and Yale, played 64 US Opens and 5 Wimbledons, and became the 12th ranked Doubles Player in the world.  He tried Crack Cocaine once, became totally addicted, lived another 20 years, and died at age 45.  His story should make you think twice before you do something that could cause you to ruin your life and that of your family.

On a different note: the world and New York City were far different when I was attending Hunter Model School. It was the middle of the Great Depression. By today’s standards, everything was unbelievably inexpensive, although there was not much money around to buy things. I remember so well that a chocolate bar, chewing gum, a bottled soft drink, a ride on the bus or subway were all one nickel.  Same was true for a small bottle of ketchup. A steak dinner at a good restaurant was usually less than $3. My childhood was very simple – can you believe sitting here today that when I was your age (twelve), there was no internet, no television, no AC, no antibiotics, no computers, very few airplanes – which were small and generally did not go very long distances – and imagine: no cellphones. Can you imagine life without your cellphone – when you actually had to talk with your friends and family face to face – not on face time?!

I think you should try to reduce the addiction so many of us have of staring at the screens of our smartphones. There are a lot of interesting apps and experiences you can find on these phones, but there is much more to life than what you see on the screen.  I tell my grandchildren when you are riding in the car, especially with me, try to stop looking at your phone and look out the window and observe all the things out there. Try not to be obsessed with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. They are all useful, but there is more to life. Observe the world through your own eyes, not just through the screen or your phone.

While life is full of challenges, obstacles, hurdles, and distractions – I remain 100% optimistic in the fact that you are going to be living in an exciting world with so many great new technological developments. Looking at an amazing future, I would be surprised if no one in this class ever visits the moon or even lives there. And before you blast off to the moon, you soon will be riding in cars with autonomous drivers and no human hands touching the steering wheels. Artificial Intelligence is going to augment and in many cases surpass your own intellectual capabilities. Medical advances will have you living longer and healthier lives. Hopefully, there will be cures for such dreadful diseases as cancer and Alzheimer’s. By the time you are in your mid-60s, hopefully life expectancy will be over 100.

Summing it up, you are indeed a fantastically lucky bunch. With this educational head start which you have received here at Hunter, you are launched into a position in which you have a strong and high probability of leading a productive career and having a happy and healthy life. 

One last thought: with the advantages you have had, think how you can help others and what contributions you can make to make this world a better place because you are here. By helping others, you will be able to share and spread the benefits that come from a Hunter education.

I admire you, I salute you, and I thank you for the opportunity to share your special day with you. Love and Congratulations.

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