Sunday, December 30, 2012

Story of Kindness at the Turning of the Year

As we turn into the new year, I want to share my tale of a random act of kindness bestowed on me that I received as a result of a moms’ story swap. It all started in the fall of 2011, when Sudi cut his leg on a piece of glass on a Saturday morning. He could not stop the bleeding and he called me from Oakland in a panic.

After determining that none of the Urgent Care options in the East Bay are open on the weekends, we realized he had to go to the emergency room. A roommate drove him to the ER of a hospital that will remain unnamed. The ER doc stitched up the wound and released him without giving him crutches or a pain reliever (not even a suggestion of a pain reliever). He could not walk and he called me the next morning to tell me he had been in such pain that he hadn’t slept that night. He had nothing at home to eat and he couldn’t drive his standard transmission car with his leg out of commission. I called an adult friend of ours in Berkeley and she drove over and picked him up and took him back to the ER where a doc gave him crutches and some ibuprofen. He used the crutches for a week until the leg calmed down and he could put weight on it. The ibuprofen did the trick for the pain. All good. He went to his classes, didn’t fall behind in school; problem solved. Almost.

Problem solved until the ER bill arrived. The ER he went to is an “out-of-network” hospital on our health insurance, which means the insurance paid for very little of his visit. We received 4 bills – 2 from the hospital for the use of the ER facility for each of the visits and 2 from the doctor who treated him on each of his visits. The doc charged us for both visits even though the second one would not have been necessary had he done his job properly the first time. I called the doc’s accounting office and managed to get the second bill removed. Our portion of the ER bill was about $1200 for the first visit and $800 for the second. That was $800 for them to hand Sudi a set of crutches and some ibuprofen! I called the accounting office at the hospital and disputed the fee for the second ER visit. When the accounting clerk informed me that the fee could not be removed, I restrained myself and did not go off on a rant at the poor shmoo who got stuck dealing with me.

That shmoo transferred me to a woman in the hospital’s accounting office who could set up a payment plan for me to pay off the $2000 in small monthly increments for the next four years. While she was putting all the information into the computer, we got to chatting. I told her the short version of the story of my son’s injury and I was so exasperated by then that I had crossed over into semi-hysteria so I had her laughing. I can’t resist an appreciative audience, so I proceeded to tell her the epic story of Akili’s broken ankle of the previous year, which she found even more hilarious because by then I had reached a level of humor only attainable by Jewish mothers. Then she shared with me the story of the car she bought for her young adult daughter and how her daughter managed to get in an accident in the car during the six hours between purchase and securing insurance coverage (car was not insured when the accident occurred). Tables turned and she had me laughing my head off. After that, I could not resist telling her the story of how the first car we bought for a teenager to drive got totaled; complete with the phone company attempting to charge us $4000 to replace a telephone pole knocked over by the car thief who made off with the car. We were soon talking about all the cars our beloved offspring had managed to destroy. And about how much our children cost us in general, dropping a cell phone into a pot of boiling spaghetti and forgetting a digital camera at the Skate Park, knocking a computer off the desk and shattering the screen, rear-ending someone on the freeway, yanking the charger to a laptop from the wall socket so it landed in the dog’s water dish. Ayeee! Grown children are astonishingly expensive.

So this accountant-mom and I were on the phone together for ages, cracking each other up and commiserating. I gave her some useful advice about helping her teenager get into a California State University (she didn’t know about the eligibility index) and I told her something creative we had done on our taxes that was perfectly legal to help our family qualify for a student loan for our son. As our conversation started to wind down, after maybe an hour, the woman said to me, “I’m going to readjust your account here so that you don’t owe quite so much for these ER visits.”

“You can do that?” I asked

“Sort of. We won’t tell anyone,” she replied. She pressed a few computer keys and cut my outstanding balance on each account almost in half!

For the past year I have made monthly payments to pay down the remainder on the account. A few days ago, I called the accounting office at the hospital to find out how much I still owed, since they don’t send me statements. They informed me that I had $130 left on one account (for one visit) and that the other account had a $20 overpayment credit (for the other visit). That woman must have gone back into my account and reduced the charge even further at some time during the past year! I don’t know her name or how to find her again in the maze of voicemail and accounting procedures for that hospital. She apparently “forgave” me over $1200 on that ER bill as a result of our mom-to-mom conversation and I have no way to thank her.

As another year turns, thinking about my ER bill saga, I am reminded that the web of relationships that we create, even with people briefly encountered, are the heart of our lives. We need to take the time to chat, to share our stories, because those stories we share, especially the ones that make us laugh together, contain a tremendous power for transformation.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The End of the World: Personal, Global

On Dec. 20, 2012, one day before the Winter Solstice, longest night of the year, the world, according to the Mayans, ended. The next morning found me still sitting here watching the rain, just as I am today. Lightening and thunder are predicted, but no meteors or Armageddon. Yet today’s rain is distinctly different from rain before the End of the World for me personally, because my world did end in a way on Thursday. And I would like to imagine that it also ended globally in a way too.

On a personal level, Thursday was the day that I realized that I am going to financially survive putting all my children through college. For many years I have wondered about this and my struggles to creatively manage challenging finances have been stressful. But on Thursday, I made the second-to-last payment on my youngest’s tuition for the spring semester and he will graduate in May. I know exactly how much tuition I still owe, it’s not much, and I know I can pay it.

On Thursday I also received a deluge of emails requesting my services as a grant writer in the coming year. There is a terrific grant for Native tribes to establish their own tribal justice systems and I secured this grant for a consortium of local tribes last year. This year, in fact this past week (as the grant was announced for 2013), I confirmed that the consortium (again) as well as three other tribes want me to write the grant for them right after the new year. Additionally, an old college friend of mine just started a new job this past year and she brought me on board with the company as a contractual grant writer. They are throwing lots of excellent work my way. Suddenly, I am in high demand and am actually turning down work because I can’t do it all. Usually this is my slow season, but not this year. The upshot is that instead of continuing to borrow money, I began to pay off my debt on Thursday. I have a long way to go in that direction, but I have picked up the shovel and started to dig out of the hole. My world ended in an incremental significant way and a new world began for me on Thursday.

That was the personal. Here is the global. I have a ceiling fan in my bedroom (stay with me here). There is a switch on the fan to change the direction in which it spins. In one direction it blows the air down. In the other direction it sucks the air up. When I flip the switch, the fan slows down to a halt and then slowly begins to spin in the other direction, picking up speed. Do you know where this is going?

I would like to imagine that on Thursday the world reached that point of stoppage and began to spin in the other direction; that in some unaccountable, imperceptible, mysterious manner, our headlong rush to destruction as humans on the planet stopped spinning in that direction and began to spin in the opposite. “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” (John Lennon) – I still believe this could happen. What if? What if  Thursday really was the End of the World and we are about to start digging out? About to enter an age of peace, reconciliation, nonviolence, respect for and sensitivity to the cultures of others, good stewardship of the planet and our natural surroundings, justice, fairness; in short, a world that allows the human spirit to shine with all the potential within it. What if.

It is not too late to change the planet. Let’s start. Do whatever small actions you can in your life to make that change begin. Envision it. Visualize it. Create it. Manifest it. Here is my thought for 2013:  Be more transformative than adaptive.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sad Saga of the Sign

During the last week of 2011, I received an email from our former neighbor at the Ranch, who is a nationally recognized fine artist. He was excited to tell us that he had an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and that the Where the Heck Are We? Sign from the Ranch* was in the exhibit. He had also included, in the SFMOMA exhibit, a photo he took of the sign in its natural habitat on the tree on the road to the Ranch. He told us that he had asked the current owners of the property for permission to borrow the sign and they granted it on the condition that he return the sign to the tree after it came back from the SFMOMA. At first, I thought the whole thing was hilarious and I wrote a blog entry entitled “I Have a Painting in the SFMOMA.” But the sequence of events surrounding the removal of the sign soon went over to the dark side.

I decided to go to the SFMOMA to view the sign. I must have had temporary amnesia because I forgot how much I dislike most modern art. I was swiftly reminded as I stood in front of a 5x5 painting that was entirely one shade of charcoal gray. The plaque next to the gray square quoted the artist as saying something like “I am fascinated by the way light plays on objects.” Since there were no objects in the painting and the light on a solid square of gray was not noteworthy, I must conclude that the artist has gotten his hands on some really good drugs. Our artist-neighbor’s work was actually lovely. I could even recognize real things in it, like trees and people. When I turned a corner and saw the Where the Heck Are We? Sign, however, my heart sunk. I felt as though I was looking at a wild lion trapped in a cage. The sign had little meaning in the context of a museum. It wasn’t even particularly funny, just vaguely clever. Seeing the sign in a museum was creepy and it made me sad. While I was staring in dismay at the sign trapped in the museum, it occurred to me that I would never have agreed to send the sign out on loan to the museum in the first place had I still lived at the Ranch and still owned the sign.

While the sign was away at the museum, our artist-neighbor made a temporary substitute sign and nailed it to the tree. Within a few days, it was stolen (he looked all over for it, thinking maybe it fell down, but no, it was gone). This development in the journey of the sign posed a new dilemma. If the substitute sign was stolen, subsequent signs might also be stolen, including the original sign when it came home from the museum. (I now understand the meaning of the Christian term “original sign.” I always wondered about that. OK, bad pun, discriminatory joke; could not resist.) After much deliberation by the family who owns the Ranch and the artist-neighbor, they decided not to chance putting the original sign back on the tree. They agreed to make and post a new substitute sign, but I have it on good authority that they have not done this as yet. So at this writing (more than one year from the removal of the original sign), there is no sign on the tree. The artist-neighbor has the original sign in his house and he emailed to say that the next time he sees me he intends to give it to me. What on earth will I do with it? Sadly, I think the original sign has lost its meaning, its mirth, and its home. Perhaps there is no longer a purpose to the sign. Perhaps the question I wrote on that sign in 1991 has been answered.

Here is a photo that my friend Jessica took of the sign at home on the tree in the 1990s.

*For those of you who don’t know the story about the sign, here’s the short version. On our first night at the Ranch in 1991, after we put the children to bed, Ron and I were in our bedroom listening to the unbelievably loud cacophony of chirping crickets. Ron, a city boy born and bred, turned to me in mock horror and asked, “Where the heck are we?” (That was not precisely what he said, but this is a family blog and the sign was a public family sign.) Of course, we loved our 17 years at the Ranch. Moving there was one of the best decisions we ever made. But Ron’s question was so hilarious that I had to paint it on a sign and post it. I nailed the sign to a tree beside the dirt road leading to our property during our first week at the Ranch. Many a first-time visitor to the Ranch told us, “We thought we were lost until we saw the sign, recognized your sense of humor, and knew we were on the right road.”

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Reversing Trauma

I am presently working on a community assessment for the Oakland Head Start (OHS) program. On Tuesday this past week I had the pleasure of participating in a community meeting held by OHS to gather input from partners and program participants (parents) about what data to collect and what areas to investigate as part of the assessment. I love the Head Start program. I worked for our local Head Start for five years and I know from firsthand experience that this program (and Early Head Start) changes people’s lives. It truly makes a difference for children and families.

Each year Head Start programs all over the country conduct either a triennial full community assessment or an interim assessment update. The community assessment is used to guide development of program goals and objectives so that they are based on the most pressing needs, concerns, interests, and challenges of families enrolled in the program.

At the meeting on Tuesday, during my few minutes to present, I told the group that I thought the most valuable contribution I could make to the conversation was my knowledge, as a grant writer who works with professionals in communities across the nation, that there is an emerging focus on providing trauma-informed services to distressed families impacted by poverty. The federal government is interested in hearing how programming in human services, health, education, and justice will address the trauma that people are experiencing.

In a nutshell, this is what I shared with the group. Research shows that children who live in violent communities manifest symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Low-income inner-city children and families live in just such communities and frequently suffer from undiagnosed and untreated PTSD. These children must be linked to therapeutic services specifically designed to deal with the trauma and reverse the affects of PTSD. It is also critical that parents who suffer from undiagnosed and untreated PTSD are linked to therapeutic services. Children’s development derives directly from their parents’ ability to function and the extent of parents’ functioning and stability derives directly from their own childhood experience. Childhood trauma is referred to in the field as “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or ACEs. ACEs include exposure to violence (as victim or witness) in the home and/or in the community, homelessness, food insecurity and hunger, loss of a parent (through abandonment, death, incarceration, or disappearance into substance abuse and/or mental illness), and other traumatic occurrences that cause fear, stress, and anxiety for children. Here are some facts about ACEs:  1) ACEs are surprisingly common; 2) ACEs still have a profound damaging effect, even 50 years later, although they become transmuted from adverse experience into organic disease, social malfunction, substance and behavioral addictions, and mental illness; 3) ACEs are the main determinant of the health and social wellbeing of communities throughout the country. People who have suffered ACEs convert the traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into physical ill health and risky/antisocial behavior later in life. People internalize the trauma and manifest it in their bodies in the form of chronic disease. Unless ACEs are addressed through trauma-informed therapeutic services (including newly emerging somatic therapies that utilize body work) specifically designed to reverse the impact of ACEs and to recognize and treat PTSD, then the ability of any service delivery program to make a permanent difference in the lives of children and their families is negligible.

So I briefly shared this with the group and when I got done speaking everyone in the room was quivering with the desire to jump in and respond. The educators and service providers in the group were practically giving off an electrical charge because my words resonated with them so strongly. A woman stood up and spoke in Spanish. She is a Head Start parent and she speaks no English. She told a story about her son, who was beaten in the street outside her home by a group of young men interested in stealing his hat. Could they just steal the hat? No, they had to beat him up first. He has had several brain surgeries since the beating and he is still struggling to recover. Tears ran down the woman’s cheeks as she spoke. She said that her family is now afraid to leave their apartment. Their life is impossible. There was more to her story, but the interpreter only gave us this much and I don’t understand Spanish so, regretfully, I did not get to hear everything the woman said. When she finished speaking, another woman, an Asian woman who is a service provider, spoke in English about a similar violent incident that occurred to a member of her family. She, too, cried as she spoke.

When the Asian woman finished telling her story, I said, “This is ground zero. What these women and their families have experienced is ground zero.” Everyone nodded in agreement. The discussion went on from there. Later, in the restroom, a woman told me that when I spoke about trauma-informed service delivery, she got goosebumps. She is a therapist and her dream is to open a trauma clinic in downtown Oakland to focus on providing trauma-informed therapy to address the impact that the epidemic of violence in Oakland has on children and families.

I rarely have the opportunity to meet in person with the people with whom I work. Although the meeting last week was emotionally wrenching, I cherish it. I was able to see the faces of many dedicated and committed educators, healers, and service providers in Oakland. Their task is huge. They have shouldered it with determination and love. I continue to try to assist them in their critical work through my gift with words. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Miriams Lost and Found

Warning:  Spoiler alert for those who have not yet read Memories from Cherry Harvest. This blog gives away a key plot feature of the book. Read no further if you have not read the book and you plan to do so!

* * *

On Thursday evening I met with a local book group that read Memories from Cherry Harvest. I was not surprised when the book group women complained about losing Miriam. Many readers have said to me that they were so upset when Miriam died. Everyone loves her. They can’t help themselves, really. I wrote her like that. She is everyone’s darling. The beautiful beloved Miriam. The book group asked if she was based on a real person. I explained that she was based on me, but me magnified to a much higher power. More vibrant, more generous, a better farmer, better able to mother all those children. (All the women in the book are me actually, some more than others.) We loved her so much, they said, we were so devastated when the Nazis killed her. And the way they killed her was so horrifyingly awful. How could you do that? How could you give her that terrible death?

This is what I told the book group, what I tell everyone:  I needed for you to fall in love with Miriam because her death needs to break your heart.

My friend Jessica emailed me while she was reading the book to tell me that if Miriam died in the war she would never speak to me again. I was sad, knowing what was to come. I received a grief-stricken email from Jessica a few days later. This semester, Jessica taught the book in her Women’s Studies Literature class at City College in San Francisco. I am scheduled to visit the class tomorrow (so looking forward to it). Last week Jessica emailed me:  The students in my class are so upset with you about Miriam.

When someone says to me, “I started your book. I love Miriam.” I always think, yes, well, love her with all your might; soon she’s going to break your heart.

In many ways the book revolves (or evolves) around the magnificent spirit of Miriam, the oppression that crushes her, how she is mourned, and the eventual resurrection of Miriam’s spirit, strong and indestructible. The readers join with the characters in their grief at the loss of Miriam, the trauma of losing her in such a horrific way, and the process of moving forward through that grief and trauma into a bright future. Thus the spiritual core of the book is the return of Miriam.

In truth, we lost thousands of Miriams in the Holocaust. We lost thousands of them in the pogroms in Russia, to the death squads in El Salvador, in the killing fields in Asia, on the plantations of the American South, during the theft of America from the Native people who lived here for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. We have prematurely lost thousands of Miriams in the wars that have swept across the globe throughout history. Millions. Billions. We have lost an incalculable number of beautiful Miriams; and even though I believe that spirits are reincarnated, that they return, often loved ones to one another; even so, isn’t it time for the violence against our beautiful Miriams of the world, our violence against all women, children, living creatures, isn’t it time for that to stop?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tradition of Giving Thanks Around the Table

Can you remember the first time you didn’t go home for Thanksgiving? In 1980 or thereabouts, I stayed in Berkeley and celebrated Thanksgiving with Ron and our friends instead of going back East to my parents. There were about 15 of us that first year and we created our own tradition that grew over time. But at that very first Thanksgiving, we filled our plates, sat down to partake, and then, before digging in, we went around the room and each of us gave our own thanks, said our own little piece, serious or humorous as the mood struck. Every year we have done the same. At one point during the years we began to take hands around the table. My children grew up with this tradition.

As the years have flown by, the Thanksgiving crew has changed, grown, shrunk, evolved. It started as a close circle of friends, extended family, that we built for ourselves. Ron and I had our babies who became children (as babies are apt to do), unruly teenagers, and, finally, adults. My parents moved to California and joined us at the Ranch Thanksgivings for 10 years before they packed up and went back East. Mom passed away in 2005. We have lost too many from our close circle over the years; lost to death, distance, life changes that prevent participation. Our dogs used to trot around the table sniffing all the yummy smells, until, with their short dog lives, they left us. When I wrote Memories from Cherry Harvest, I included a Thanksgiving dinner scene in the Rina section in celebration of the wonderful dinners we shared over the years with our family of friends.

So this year, my 21-year-old Sudi decided to spend Thanksgiving with his circle of friends in Oakland, mostly other students from California College of the Arts, where he is now in his senior year. He came home Friday to see his siblings and visit with the family. He told me about all the yummy things that he and his friends cooked for the dinner. And he said that when all the food was cooked and ready to eat, they each filled their plates, and 14 young people at his first Thanksgiving dinner away from home sat in a circle in the living room. He said they had no table, but they sat down in their circle and Sudi told them they had to go around the room and each say something. Give thanks. Blessings. Whatever. At first his friends thought he was kidding but he insisted and they soon realized he meant it. So before beginning their meal, they did it. Sudi says they went around the circle and each person spoke. Some said something humorous, others said something serious. They gave thanks, celebrating friendship, abundance, breaking bread together.

Thus the tradition continues, into the next generation:  giving thanks around the table. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Next Good Thing

It’s hard to put my head back into the old stuff when so much new stuff is rattling around in there.

This week I find myself stepping back and looking at the big picture. I had just started work on a novel when 9/11 happened and suddenly that novel just didn’t seem relevant any more after the twin towers fell. I set it aside and instead spent several years working on The Call to Shakabaz, a fantasy adventure for children that promotes nonviolent conflict resolution. It was a project that felt more timely to me. After I finished and published Shakabaz, I found myself returning to my 2001 project, entitled Penelope’s Odyssey. I completed it a couple of years ago, before turning my attention to revision and preparation of Memories from Cherry Harvest for publication.

After Cherry Harvest made its debut, a well-established, well-connected literary agent approached me to ask if I might have another novel in the works and if I might be interested in having her represent me. I spent quite a few weeks trying to figure out if I actually want to sign with an agent before deciding to explore that route to publication for Penelope. In the end, I told the agent it just so happens that I do have another novel and she asked if she could take a look at it. I learned a lot from working with my editor on Cherry Harvest and I felt that I could improve Penelope as a result. So I went back to the book and revised it again. This past week I sent it to the agent. And I dusted my hands off and thought to myself, finally I can get started on that new novel that is in my head.

My father is a mathematician. He just completed work on a revised and revamped version of a mathematics book he published many years ago. The publisher is typesetting it now and Dad will have galleys to read soon. His next project is work on the reissue of a book he published decades ago. He is beginning to work on that and the same publisher will be producing that book as well. Here’s the thing, though:  Dad told me that he has been thinking of some new mathematics ideas and he is getting impatient with rehashing all the old material when he has new and more exciting ideas percolating. I so identify with his situation.

I won’t deny that it’s a kick to talk with readers about Cherry Harvest now that it’s in print. And I won’t deny that I’m excited about Penelope and hopeful that the literary agent (who is reading the book in the next few weeks) will love the book and will place it with a good publisher for me. And I actually just spent a couple of years working on a sequel to Shakabaz, the first draft of which is presently out being read by young readers (for comment), which is cool. But all that aside, I have a new novel (for adults) in my head and it’s so much more exciting than rehashing the old stories that I know so well. Since 2005, I’ve been building what I call “a humanistic ecological post-apocalyptic sci-fi romance” in my head. Ha! Am I creating a new genre? That would be cool.

I’m with Dad. The most exciting thing is the next good thing. The emerging idea. A different direction. Horizons new. My imagination is a restless beast. It allows me no respite, no moment to catch my breath. So I have lost interest in all the words I have already written and the stories I have already told. I burn with a new tale to tell.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skeeky Thoughts

Yesterday my dear friend Jim had to put down his marvelous cat Skeeky. She was a grand dame who lived to the ripe old age of sixteen, a respectable lifespan for a well-loved feline. Skeeky’s lust for life and her ability to continue to survive quite happily in her later years, despite her reoccurring bouts with the cancer, was actually a bit inspirational. She always had a healthy appetite. In fact, she got very fat. Jim used to say, “She’s just a big-boned girl.” She had gorgeous calico coloring and enormous green eyes.

When I called Jim to give him my sympathy, my Ella was sitting in my lap. I felt guilty stroking her furry ears while talking to my friend who was saying good-bye to his beloved pet. I have had about a dozen cats during the forty years since I got my first kittens as an undergraduate in college. And for ten years I provided a home for the smartest damn Australian Shepherd you’d ever meet. It still astonishes me how much an animal can become an integral part of one’s life. If you never had a pet or if you don’t care much for animals, you no doubt have a hard time comprehending the attachment some of us humans have for our furry friends. There is no human-to-human relationship that matches the relationship of a person and a pet.

My cats, Ella and Golda, give me a category of delight in a class unto itself. My seven-year-old Ella is a black cat with green eyes and a goofy walk with her turned-out hind legs. Of all the cats I have ever owned, Ella is the smartest and she has the most character. Her face is remarkably expressive. This cat figured out how to open the screen door to the deck and she lets herself out when she pleases during the summer. She knows how the door handles work on the other doors in the house, but she’s not strong enough to open them. This does not prevent her from jumping up and batting at the door handles, an activity that gives me a good laugh except in the middle of the night. She only does this during the night when we have houseguests and she wants to get into their rooms to sleep with them. Therefore, poor Ella is banished to my study for the night whenever we have company.

I can’t help myself, I’m going to tell an Ella story. The other day I cleaned out the cats’ litter box only to discover that I had no more litter in the garage. Yikes! It was a cold rainy day so they had not been outside much, and in any case, Ella has a habit of using the litter box for serious business right after she eats her dinner. So I had already put their food in front of the sisters, emptied the box, and then discovered I had no clean litter. After eating, Ella strolled into the bathroom, looked at the empty litter box, and looked up at me in panic with those huge green eyes. “Mom, what were you thinking? What did you do to me?” she seemed to say. I told her to hang on and I raced out to the store. (My husband and children tease me mercilessly for talking to my cats.) When I returned, forty minutes later, she was standing in the utility sink in the laundry room right by the door to the garage waiting for me. I proceeded straight to the bathroom and dumped the fresh litter in the box. Ella immediately ran into the box and did her do. That cat is so well-behaved. She didn’t go elsewhere, but waited for me to come home with her litter. She trusted me to provide. Biggest smarty-pants there is! I could tell so many more Ella stories. She keeps me entertained and she’s such a cuddly sweetheart. Her sister Golda is a dumb-dumb who wants to spend her entire day shedding massive amounts of orange hair in my lap. Needless to say, her favorite time of year is football season, when she settles on top of me on the couch for hours. Now if I could only hear the football announcers over her loud purring.

I reckon my cats are of little interest to anyone else. So thanks for reading if you’ve gotten this far. As you can see, their personalities and behaviors keep me amused and delighted. I’m not sure I could call a place home without a cat in it. It is such a sad twist of nature that humans live so much longer than cats and dogs. When they go, they leave such an empty place in our lives. My heart is with Jim today, and the cold spot on his bed where Skeeky once curled up. He took terrific care of her, and there is nothing to warm the heart like a well-cared-for pet. My dad used to have a bumper sticker that said, “Oh Lord, help me be the man my dog thinks I am.” If I could be half the person my cats think I am, I would be satisfied with my life.

  Here is Jim with Skeeky. Such love.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reflections on Hurricane Sandy

The events of the past week have certainly given us pause. Every day I see new images of heartbreaking devastation caused by Sandy. I have also heard stories of extreme bravery and heroism. I read about an off-duty firefighter who swam through water five feet deep in his street to rescue several people and their family pets (dogs and parrots) from the rising flood. I have had difficulty concentrating on work and my everyday activities as images of Sandy infiltrate my consciousness.

I left NY State in 1975 and never looked back, but I still have a lot of friends and family in the Northeast. My dad lives in NJ, my brother and his family in PA. I have cousins in Brooklyn and Rochester. I have friends living in Manhattan, Hoboken, Ipswich, NY, NJ, PA, MA. My friend in Hoboken posted on Facebook that she was sitting tight in her third-floor apartment but the first floor of her building had flooded under water four feet deep. Another friend in Sudbury posted that a tree had fallen across his driveway on his cars. Others posted that they had lost power, some are still without power as the weather turns colder. Seeing the NY subway under water and cars submerged in a parking lot in NJ seems surreal. Now that the storm has receded, I have seen photos of Atlantic City and Long Beach Island that look like the photos of Japan after the tsunami last year. The tsunami in Japan was far away from me. Sandy feels as though it was in my back yard, despite the fact that I live in Cali, because so many folks near and dear to me were in the middle of it.

Here are a couple of photos my friend Helen took of the street in front of her apartment in Hoboken.

And here is a photo of my friend Larry’s driveway with the tree down on top of his cars.

As the storm rolled in, I began emailing and texting my teenage niece and nephew in PA. They live not far from the Delaware River, which floods regularly under normal winter conditions. Fortunately they are on higher ground. They had no flooding but they lost their power early on and it was out for several days. They went to a neighbor’s house in the evenings to cook dinner on a gas grill. My brother bought a small generator they used to recharge the phones and go online for a few minutes every night to send me emails. I was so grateful for the texts and emails that kept me informed of how they were doing. Also, Facebook was a godsend. I got so much news from my family/friend circle there, and I continue to follow events unfolding as the power remains off for some of my people.

Interestingly, I had a conversation with friends on Sunday night about Facebook. They hate it and prefer to avoid it. It became abundantly clear to me this past week that I get my most local news on Facebook, where I find our how the events large and small going on in the world directly impact the people in my life. I have several levels of news input. National news from my weekly Time Magazine, daily newspaper, and the online news at MSNBC and NPR. Local news I get from the newspaper and from email newsletters and announcements. My most “local” intimate news about those dear to me I get on Facebook, which truly helped me get through Sandy by keeping me in touch with my people in the Northeast.

Finally, I want to talk about the lesson from Sandy that’s sitting in the middle of the road. Obvious to me and so many others but obviously not obvious to everyone. Much as the Republicans would like to pretend that the Dems invented climate change to win votes, it just ain’t so. Climate change is for real and it caused Sandy. Fools may question the science of global warming until their houses float off into the ocean, but it won’t stop their houses from floating away. Governor Cuomo said, “Anyone who says that there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns I think is denying reality. I told the president the other day:  ‘We have a 100-year flood every 2 years now’.” The sea level has risen because of global warming. The increase in temperature is what caused the hurricane to form in the first place and what caused it to make landfall rather than dissipating out over the ocean. Global warming is what caused it to cover such an astonishingly large area. Recent warming in the Arctic played a role in the formation and movement pattern of Sandy. In short, Sandy was a manmade disaster.

So we have an election coming up on Tuesday and I think the most important question for people to ask themselves is “Who is going to fight for our survival on this planet?” I know who reads my blog. I’m preaching to the choir. I hope that some of those other people who don’t read my blog find a way to wake up before it’s too late for all of us. In parting, let me share with you the link to a short montage of images and Bloomberg’s words put together by my friend Andrea in NY and her partner Jacob. The images are photos that Jacob took in their neighborhood right after the storm. Here’s the link.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Global Classroom, Global Family, Global Community

Last week I read an article about online college classes. One of the true stories related in this article blew me away. I have to share it with you. It says so much about one of the versions of our future that I dream will come to fruition.

A company in the Silicon Valley called Udacity, co-founded by two former Stanford professors, has begun building a catalog of online college-level courses available for free, although not yet recognized for college credit. One of these classes is a college-level Physics 100 class. This basic Physics class is taught through the use of hundreds of short YouTube videos that are embedded in the Udacity website. Over 23,000 students in 125 countries worldwide were enrolled in this class in September 2012. One of these students was an 11-year-old girl in Pakistan named Khadijah Niazi.

Khadijah completed the Physics 100 course on September 17 and was in the middle of taking the final exam when a message appeared on her computer screen telling her that YouTube was no longer available. As it turned out, what rotten luck for her, the Pakistani government had just shut down access to YouTube in an effort to block the offensive anti-Muslim film trailer that had incited protests and violent incidents throughout the world. She and 215 other Pakistanis enrolled in the Physics course immediately lost access.

Khadijah posted a comment on the class discussion board about what had happened. In less than an hour, a classmate in Malaysia began posting detailed descriptions of the test questions in each of the test videos for Khadijah so that she could attempt to continue taking the exam using his descriptions. Meanwhile, a classmate in Portugal tried (unsuccessfully) to create a  way for Khadijah to view the videos without using YouTube. A 12-year-old classmate in England promised to seek help for Khadijah and he begged her not to write anything negative about her government online so that she would not get into trouble.

Later that same night, the Portuguese classmate successfully managed to download all the videos for the final exam to her computer and then uploaded them to an uncensored photo-sharing site where Khadijah could view them. It took the Portuguese woman four hours to download and then upload all the exam videos. The next day Khadijah accessed the videos and completed the final exam with high distinction, becoming the youngest girl ever to complete Udacity’s rigorous Physics 100 course. Khadijah immediately signed up for Udacity’s free online class in Computer Science, and the 12-year-old classmate in England began downloading the lesson videos for her. Khadijah aspires to attend either Oxford or Stanford in the future. I have no doubt that she will do it, too.

I don’t think I need to say more. This story speaks for itself. My gosh, I think that just knowing that this happened will help me sleep better at night. I love it. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Reprise of the Open Letter about Health

I had a very different blog post planned for today, but I have had such an astonishing response to last week’s post that I am writing again on the subject of keeping our health as we age. Although I had hoped that my words might have some positive impact, might have nudged some friends to wake up, I’m surprised and pleased by how much they were taken to heart (or taken to heart health, as it were). This reminds me that we are not always doing our friends a favor by not mentioning to them that they are letting their health deteriorate, just assuming that they know and that it’s a personal issue and we have no business speaking up about it. Surely we have no business nagging, haranguing, shaming. But perhaps we do have some business finding the words to compassionately express concern, show support, extend love.

To my delight, my words inspired people to hit the gym. Hard words to hear. Harder to take action. But it really happened. Small changes, that lead to bigger changes, that, step by step, turn around someone’s health and chances of living longer. I have had a couple of conversations with friends who know that my words were written with them in mind. They are well aware of the issues and the stakes. They just need motivation to make a change and they found some of it in my words. Hallelujah. Renews my belief in the power of words and also in the ability of people to change their lives. And change, transformation, has been much on my mind in recent months as I have been working furiously on the sequel to The Call to Shakabaz, in which change is a major theme. The title of the sequel is, in fact, Changing the Prophecy. I believe in the possibility of making changes, of thwarting seeming destiny and taking it all in a different direction.

So let me share a few thoughts that have surfaced several times for me this week as this discussion about health and aging continues to swirl around me. One thing I have said to several people is that I am battling this beast as well. I am not perfect. I struggle to eat less and maintain my exercise schedule. I am not putting myself out there as the model to measure against. Another thing is that there is no shame in being overweight. It is a challenge like any other and a lot of us must overcome it. Unfortunately, we have no way of hiding our challenge, it’s there for all to see. But that doesn’t mean we are not making an effort to deal with it. Weight control is extremely difficult and complex, and tied up with many deep psychological connections to food, sustenance, nurturing, and feeling well-cared-for. Finally, judgment does not belong in this equation. Support and encouragement matter here. This is about looking after the people we love and nurturing them with something other than high-calorie, salty, fatty food. So here I am, back to the ban on potato chips. This week, I feel more hopeful that my friends might go the distance with me down the road into old age.

If you have someone dear to you who needs to hear the words in last week’s open letter, please forward it to them. It could get someone started on the path to better health and longer life. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Open Letter to My Friends Who Are Letting the Aging Process Defeat Them

Dear Friend,

I am writing to you because I love you and I fear that you will not live many years longer if you don’t make the transition to a healthy aging lifestyle that will preserve your health. I see your health failing and it scares me. My friend Lil, who is 104 (or 103? -- I lost count at 100), says that the hardest thing about extended longevity is that your contemporaries are dead. I work hard at maintaining my health so that I can live a long time. Will you go the distance with me?

This letter is for you, my friend, and you know who you are. You are the one I love who fails to make the time to exercise, who can’t manage to stick to a diet, who is obese, and/or who is often short of breath. You are the one I love who can’t accept the truth about our aging bodies and the transition that we must make if we wish to preserve our health into old age.

You know what your health and wellness issues are. You know better than anyone, certainly better than I do, exactly how challenging it is for you to address those issues. There is nothing I can do to get you to change your habits. The change must come from within you. But I want you to know how I suffer when I see you succumb to overweight, inactivity, preventable illness. I want you to stay with me, to continue to travel this road with me. But it won’t happen if you keep sitting on the couch eating potato chips. Or bread, or pasta, or beef or bacon, or butter, ice cream, cake, cookies, or whatever happens to be your personal downfall. It won’t happen if you insist on sticking to your hectic schedule that has no place in it for the level and type of exercise that will protect your heart, your mind, and your body from deteriorating.

We all know people who lived to an advanced age despite their failure to make healthy lifestyle choices. But understand that those people are rare. The chances that you are one of them are slim. And we all know people who cared well for their bodies and died young anyway. They contracted cancer for unknown reasons or they were run over by a truck. Something happened. But please understand that if we don’t smoke, if we exercise, if we eat right, then we have a better chance of making it for the long haul. Our lives are ever subject to the whimsical wind of unknown fates. All we can do is make an effort to preserve our health. That’s what I’m asking of you.

My dear friend, please make an effort. For my sake and for all those who love you. Do the difficult thing and change your lifestyle. Make time for regular exercise. Sadly, wistfully, angrily, resentfully, however you need to feel about it, feel that way, but quit eating all that stuff you should no longer be eating. Go to a nutritionist and set up a plan. Then stick to it. Unfortunately, we need far less food as we age. So you need to go on a diet. For the rest of your life. Sorry. Don’t waste time hating it. Eat less and enjoy your smaller portion more. Eat the things you like that are OK for your health and let the others go. Look forward. If you look back you are lost. Look forward to a future with you and me in it together.

I love you, my friend. Now that I have put this out there, I will hold my peace, I won’t nag (friends are for support and encouragement, not nagging); I’ll pray for your success, your strength, your life. I will pray for you to grow old with me. We’ll laugh, we’ll sing, we’ll embrace. We won’t care anymore about potato chips because we have each other.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Closing the Summer Gardens

First weekend in October, time to close the summer gardens. The air smells like wood smoke and fallen leaves. The fruit from my trees is long gone, the last few apples tucked away in the refrigerator. The tomatoes are mostly green. The squash has stopped producing. Nights are cool. Soon there will be a frost. It’s time. It’s past time perhaps. I need to pull out the green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash, and basil to make room for the kale, collards, and winter greens. Lovely and delicious in their own right, but not as abundantly splendid or juicy as summer’s garden yield. I’ll pick the last green tomatoes and leave them on the dining room table and they’ll ripen up, but they won’t taste the same as vine-ripened. Oh, how long it will be until next July when I taste my first homegrown ripe tomato again. I can hardly stand it.

The winter greens will be delicious when they get going, and autumn brings its own delights. Even so, closing the gardens in the fall is an admission that summer has ended, that the season has turned, and that the magnificent bounty of the garden’s peak is gone.

Kind of like life, huh? It’s hard to decide that it’s time to close the summer garden and move on to autumn. It was hard for me to decide it was time to leave the Ranch, where I raised my children. To leave the home of my parenting years and the richness of life with youngsters in the house. Time to move to the comforts of the Villa and an easier life, the life of an older woman, with grown children. I begin to see the time approaching when I must decide to close up the gardens for good here at the Villa, downsize and offload, say goodbye to my fruit trees, and make the move to a smaller place that’s easier to manage, perhaps even a rental unit with no gardens possible. To leave this home and move to a home more suited to an aging woman. Each of those transitions with sad goodbye to the season fading out while welcoming whatever joys the next season will bring. Conscious effort to look forward.

And always there is the decision about when it’s time to close the garden and move on to the next season.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Football Referees Lockout

The internet was hopping after last Monday night’s football game in which the bumbling scabbing substitute referees mis-called the end of the game and cost the Packers a much-needed victory. Suddenly the lockout of the real football referees was the biggest topic of conversation on the ‘net. I noticed someone complaining on Facebook that she wished that people starving to death or being bombed or falsely imprisoned in other parts of the world could receive as much attention as the football ref situation. She was implying of course that there are much more important matters that should concern us than substitute referees in football. In fact the referee situation has broader implications that make it a serious issue, even though someone who has no interest in football might fail to see them.

The NFL locked out the professional, qualified, fully trained refs when contract negotiations broke down. Instead of working harder to resolve the situation and instead of agreeing to a compromise, the NFL brought in scab refs (the substitutes). Where I come from we call this union busting. The contract negotiations had two sticking points. One was a failure to agree about ref pensions (the NFL wants to convert the refs’ pension plans to 401Ks) and the other had to do with how refs are evaluated to decide whether or not they can keep refereeing (and how new refs are trained and hired). Serious labor bargaining issues any way you look at it.

The substitute refs are high school refs, community college refs, and refs who work in the women’s football league (affectionately nicknamed the Lingerie Football League or LFL). Some of these sub refs had actually been tossed out of prior ref jobs for incompetence. Not only were the sub refs botching calls like crazy, but they were also failing to call many penalties. The Monday Night game play in question hinged partly on a penalty call that was not made. With the sub refs letting a lot of penalties slide, many players were taking advantage of the situation and doing all kinds of things that the professional refs would have called them on because they knew they had a good chance of getting away with these illegal and unsafe moves. As a result players got hurt. For instance, more of the dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits now banned by the NFL were taking place. In my opinion, that’s exactly why the Raiders’ Darrius Heyward-Bey got knocked out cold last week. Fortunately he did not break his neck, as it at first appeared, but instead suffered a mere concussion. He is still out of the game. Lucky he wasn’t paralyzed from the illegal helmet-to-helmet butt.

The football ref lockout situation provides a cautionary tale about where Scott Walker of Wisconsin’s union busting activities will lead. Locking out the trained professionals instead of negotiating fair work conditions and benefits is a dangerous practice in many other arenas. Education. Health care. Construction trades. People fought and died for fair labor practices. The situation this past week with the football refs punched up once again the importance of honoring labor and supporting the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining. Fortunately, after the fiasco at Monday night’s game, the NFL quickly compromised with the professional refs, signed a contract, and had them back on the field by Thursday evening for the Ravens v. Browns game. And they are back on the job today and for the rest of the season.

Honestly, I love football. And the ref situation is a perfect example of why I love football. The game offers up life lessons every week. I know that I seem like an unlikely candidate to follow football; and that people can’t believe it when they find out what a fanatic I am. Well folks, get over it. One of my favorite footballisms goes like this, “It’s a game of inches.” One of the biggest football lessons that’s applicable to life.

In this image you see one scab ref calling a touchdown while the other scab ref 
calls an interception (at cross purposes for those of you who don't know football). 
Sad but also funny! A total oy vey moment.
Both of these refs completely missed a penalty that 
would have made both of these calls moot.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Republican Neighbors

Although I vote Democrat, even left of Democrat, I love my Republican neighbors and I don’t care who knows it. They are lovely, generous, thoughtful, friendly, kind people. We have a great time watching football together, eating popcorn and whooping it up when the 49ers score. They come to our parties and dance with us, share food, laugh. I wonder if they realize how deep they have wandered into liberal country when they come to our house. Like a mother hen, I keep an eye out for them when we have a get-together at our house to make sure that none of my more outspoken progressive friends corner them and harass them. I’m not sure that my political activist buddies have figured out yet that my neighbors are opposed to abortion and gay marriage and that they were thrilled to see Bush bomb the snot out of Iraq. As for me, I compartmentalize.

During the ’08 election campaign, we put an Obama/Biden sign on our front lawn. Within 48 hours our neighbors put up a McCain/Palin sign. I didn’t wish to make them feel uncomfortable, but I couldn’t very well ignore the “elephant” sprawled in the road between our two opposite signs. So I asked the wife about it. She replied that her family is Republican and has been for generations. “I’m a conservative and that’s all there is to it,” she said. She sounded apologetic, as if she hated to hurt my feelings by revealing that she disagreed with my politics. “So you think Sarah Palin would make a good vice president?” I asked her, unable to conceal my incredulity. “She’s a real bombshell,” she announced. “We love her.” The husband fought in the Viet Nam War. They have told me that they think “the topmost priority in this country is security.” I have not dug deeper to learn more about their views on the many issues that concern me. I have decided that I don’t want to know. Compartmentalization. They are my neighbors in one part of my life and my political views are in another part.

I try not to think about their political leanings. I avoid discussing politics with them at all. One time they came over for a BBQ and spent several hours eating and chatting with two of my friends who are a married lesbian couple. Much later, after they left, I revealed to my friends that these neighbors are opposed to gay marriage. When I mentioned that I never discuss politics with them, one of my lesbian friends chided me, “You should open a dialogue with them. You’re passing up a terrific opportunity to engage each other in a discussion about these issues.” She may speak truth, but I just don’t want to risk spoiling the comfortable relationship that I have with my wonderful Republican neighbors. Am I a coward? A wimp? I would like to think I’m quite simply a good neighbor.

Political candidates will come and go while my Republican neighbors and I will live across the street from one another through many elections. They’ll look after my cats when I go out of town. I’ll bring them tomatoes from my garden. They’ll bring chips and dips over and watch the Superbowl with us. I’ll call them when my plums come ripe and invite them to bring their grandkids over to pick plums. They’ll loan my husband a 4x8 sheet of plywood they have in the garage to help him with a home project. I’ll give my son’s long-abandoned bike to them for their grandson to ride when he’s in town. In short, we’ll live our lives as good neighbors and Washington can go to hell in a handbasket for all I care. I refuse to let politics insert its divisive ugly fist between me and my good neighbors. If the systems as we know them collapse, the politicians, powermongers, and leaders will be far away, and it will be me and my neighbors who will look after each other here in our little corner of the universe.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The High Price of Tailored Cancer Treatment

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. He reveals in the book that when his doctors diagnosed Jobs with cancer, he paid for an expensive and extensive analysis of his DNA to determine exactly what type of chemotherapy would correspond precisely to the variety of cancer he had. Until I read about this in the Jobs biography, I did not know about this dimension of cancer treatment. Not all cancer treatment drugs are made equal. Usually when a person receives chemo, they receive a cocktail of standard chemo drugs that attempt to cover a wide spectrum of cancer cells. This chemo blitz is hard on the body and is one of the reasons why people become so sick from the chemo itself. Every person with cancer does not receive a mix of chemo/drugs tailored to his or her unique body and specific cancer because it costs a fortune to pay for the research to identify which chemo/drug to use, based on the person’s DNA.

I recently read an article about genetic researchers in St. Louis who made a commitment to attempt to identify the gene that was causing one of their own to suffer from lymphoblastic leukemia. A beloved colleague, a young doctor who had been working on the genetic research project, was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia and the rest of the team determinedly set out to investigate the complete genetic makeup of him and his cancer. They fully sequenced the genes of both his cancer cells and his healthy cells for comparison. They also analyzed his RNA. They set aside their work on the human genome (the research project they had all been working on) and they ran a sequencing machine and a supercomputer 24/7 for six months. They found the rogue gene causing the doctor’s cancer; a gene that had gone haywire and was manufacturing large amounts of a protein that was feeding the cancer’s growth. So they treated the doctor with a selected drug that was highly likely to shut down the malfunctioning of this particular rogue gene. And it worked and now the doctor’s cancer is in remission.

I certainly rejoice that a man’s life was saved, but I also feel enraged. Even though the genetic analysis and tailored chemo program that Jobs bought did not save his life, it was more likely to have done so than any other approach. Also, the chemo Jobs underwent was the easiest on his system of any treatment he could have received because it was exactly matched to his cancer and not just a wash of chemo products thrown at the disease. The young doctor benefitted from the same type of research and the same treatment approach. It angers me that every single person who contracts cancer cannot access this state-of-the-art treatment that Jobs received, or that the young doctor in St. Louis received. Why? Only because it costs too much money. And so now we get down to it. The value of human life.

Medical researchers have confirmed that it is not the person’s tissue or organ (i.e., liver, brain, bone marrow, blood, intestine) where the cancer originates that drives a cancer but rather the person’s genes. Cancer treatment is most effective when it is tailored to the exact aberrant genes causing the disease. Thus, one woman’s breast cancer may have completely different genetic drivers from another woman’s breast cancer, and each needs to be treated with a completely different chemo/drug. This method of figuring out precisely which genes have gone whack and treating cancer based on that analysis is called “whole genome sequencing,” and it is presently not available to the everyday Joe. It is also not paid for by any insurance company. Only someone as wealthy (and well-connected) as Jobs could afford to pay for whole genome sequencing. Isaacson disclosed that it cost Jobs $100,000 for the sequencing and analysis of his genes to isolate those causing his cancer.

Medical researchers speculate that it will take at least another ten years before whole genome sequencing will be made available to most patients rather than just the wealthy few. When do you reckon that insurance companies will agree to pay for this at $100,000 a pop? Makes me wanna holler.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Juxtaposition of Events

At the beginning of last week I received an email out of the blue from a cousin with whom I have not communicated in about 35 years. I last saw him as a little boy in Ann Arbor. His younger sister was a newborn when I arrived at U. Mich. at Ann Arbor to study for my masters in English. His father (still living) is about 10 years older than I. His grandfather was my father’s first cousin. His grandfather and my grandfather both fled Poland before the Holocaust. My newfound cousin, now 40, emailed to ask if I would be willing to communicate with him and tell him more about the family. He and his sister have little knowledge of that branch of their family and they are now curious.

I spent some time this week emailing stories to this young cousin; stories about his grandfather and the relatives he has never known. I also friended him, his sister, and his mother on Facebook; and I sent a message to him along with a dozen other cousins from the Wachspress family. Many of them chimed in to say hello and welcome him back into the fold. He was delighted to make the connections. I have always remained fond of his dad, ever since I got to know him during my year at Ann Arbor. I guess his father never felt compelled to share much about the Wachspress family with his children for whatever reason.

Meanwhile, as this little flurry of communication and family connection was happening in my life, a family in our synagogue was sitting shiva (the week of mourning that Jews observe when someone dies) for their patriarch, whose name was Abraham (like the biblical patriarch). Abe was a Holocaust survivor, as is his wife Bella (who survives him). Bella was incarcerated at Auschwitz and survived. She was once put into a gas chamber but the gas chamber malfunctioned and she lived. On Thursday I went to their home for an evening service and to be with them when they said Kaddish, the prayer Jews say for the dead. Despite the horror they experienced while teenagers, Abe and Bella made a beautiful life together, with children, grandchildren, friends. Abe was 93 when he died. I did not know them very well, but I am deeply moved by their story of loss, survival, and triumph. They told their stories one year on Holocaust Remembrance Day at our synagogue. I have always loved to watch them together. Abe adored Bella and took exceptional care of her.

I have spoken often about how my father’s family was decimated by the Holocaust, and about how deeply I am affected by this family history. I wrote a book about it, for goodness’ sake. So as I sat in mourning with Bella and her family this week and then went home and responded to emails from my young cousin, I felt as though the two things were somehow connected. My cousin and I share the good fortune of having ancestors from the Wachspress family who left everything behind and came to this country to start over. By doing so they saved their lives and they brought us into the world, my cousin and I. Abe and Bella left their monstrous past behind and determinedly moved forward into a magnificent future. I am the product of people with that same courage, perseverance, and hope. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What Constitutes a Good Birthday Is What Constitutes a Good Life

This past week was a week of celebrations. I had another birthday go by quietly. I like to reflect in private on my birthday and not have a lot of hoo-hah so I keep a low profile and don’t publicize the date. I also celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary. Ron and I slipped off to the Coast for a romantic evening at an inn by the ocean, just the two of us. We could hear the ocean from our room. And also this past week was the 21st anniversary of our move from Berkeley to Mendocino County. Lots of milestones.

I had a wonderful birthday and I ask myself, why? What constitutes a good birthday? My husband Ron gave me flowers. I spoke with all of my children. Sudi came home for a visit and he and Ron took me out to eat delicious Thai food for dinner; my other children both called to wish me a happy day. My father called on his cell phone at the dinner table where he was surrounded by friends and he held the cell phone up and all of them sang happy birthday to me. So sweet. My friend Rajni, who lives half a world away from me but shares my birth date emailed me and I emailed her with greetings and a few notes about our day and our lives. My longstanding pal Linda called to fill me in on her recent trip North to visit her family. She caught salmon while fishing with her brother and she announced that her niece is expecting a baby. My brother, niece, and nephews filmed a silly and wonderful football-themed video and emailed it to me to give me a laugh.

I realize I have merely cataloged a collection of birthday greetings. Mundane. Perhaps boring. But those inconsequential greetings and communications, all put together, are what constitutes a good birthday. And they are what constitutes a good life. Family and friends. Getting on with their lives, thriving, sharing a moment of delight with me briefly on my birthday, on any day. So glad to be alive together in this time, however short it may be in the grand scheme. I am grateful for the friendship, good food, music, laughter. An exceptional slice of cheesecake. A funny video. A kiss. A flower. A story. A connection across distance. A memory made or in the making.

I live in a place of beauty yet untouched by the iron horror of war or the astonishing devastation of natural disaster. I am grateful for the gift of an ordinary day and the simple web of relationship with those I love.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Of Protecting Cyclers and Making Family When Needed

Friday was the birthday of my dear friend Elena who died five years ago, and yesterday was the annual picnic to celebrate her life. I have written about her before. Today I have some new thoughts to share in a two-direction blog post as the anniversary of this tragedy rolls around again.

The first direction. On Elena’s birthday Friday, in a spine-chilling coincidence, a prominent psychiatrist in our community was struck by a dump truck while biking to work at 8AM and he was killed. He was 56 years old. He has been described as “the heart and soul of mental health services” in our county. For most of his career he spearheaded the county mental health services program and in this capacity helped countless individuals. Just recently he left his county job and took on the role of psychiatric services provider for veterans through our local Veteran’s Administration. His name is Dr. Doug Rosoff. I did not know him, but his death has caused me to have flashbacks to the loss of Elena, also biking to work, also struck down at about 8AM, also by a dump truck, and a few weeks shy of her 56th birthday. I see articles in the newspapers regularly about cyclists struck down by motorists and killed. How long will it take for city planners, traffic planners, public officials, communities to find ways to better protect our bicyclists? My 20-year-old son Sudi cycles all over the Bay Area on his street bike (Elena would be so proud of him for it). I pray for his safety every morning when I take my walk behind the lake.

The second direction. Yesterday I saw Elena’s parents who flew to Berkeley from Chicago to join us at the picnic. Candy and David raised three children and all three died without marrying or producing grandchildren. Elena was the last of the three. They are now in their mid-80s. Since Elena’s death, many of her friends have remained in regular contact with Candy and David and have formed close relationships with them. I call them every week to chat and have become very close to them, especially Candy. I am not the only one. At least half a dozen friends of Elena my age call them weekly and another half a dozen call them at least once a month. Whenever they visit Berkeley, they are kept pretty busy visiting with one after another of Elena’s friends. And when I call them, Candy gives me all the latest news about Elena’s other friends who remain in touch with them. I think this web of relationships that we, Elena’s friends, have formed to embrace her parents is most unusual. They have become like family to us. While Elena lived, we did not know them all that well. But since Elena has died, many of us have become deeply attached to them and an integral part of their lives. It is almost as if we have become their adopted children. And we talk with each other about them the way people our age talk about our own parents. Concerned about their health. Telling funny anecdotes about them. Humoring them. Loving them. We have fallen in love with them. We have made the family we needed in Elena’s absence.

Elena and her godson Sudi (being silly).

Elena showing the love for her godson Sudi.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Seeing Our Own Stuff

One moonlit night, walking on the beach during a family vacation about ten years ago, I had a conversation with my ten-year-old son and his friend (whom I will call Lawrence). There’s something about the ocean in the moonlight that seems to inspire us to wax philosophical. The boys and I talked about the things we liked and didn’t like about ourselves. Finally, Lawrence said, “But you know it’s always hard to see your own stuff.” A good insight about human nature from a child. I have been thinking of that conversation lately and wondering how come we so easily see what’s going on with other people but have such difficulty seeing our own stuff (as Lawrence put it).

I notice things about other couples, other families, other relationships that make me wonder why these people can’t see what I find so obvious. I know a couple who is miserable together and I can see that it’s time for them to separate but they don’t see it yet. They would be so much happier if they just got a divorce, but they are not ready to go down that road. I know a family where the mom puts on a stern countenance with the children and she doesn’t even realize that she is creating a mommy-persona for herself that runs counter to the loving person she really is. I wonder why she feels compelled to behave this way in her role as a mom. It’s bizarre to me. She loves her children dearly, and yet she is evolving into a bossy and hypercritical mother. I know a young man who is narrow-minded in his vision of what he does for a living. He is unwilling to consider expanding his horizons and locks himself into a job situation that isn’t working for him. Here is a couple where one person monopolizes the conversation and the other person never speaks. There is a mother who always eats from the same plate as her small son while he is clearly anxious that she will eat up the things he wants. She doesn’t see it.

I witness other people engaging in self-destructive behaviors or going in directions that are bound to make them unhappy. Sometimes people know these things about themselves but are unable to take the necessary steps to change course or transform their lives. But oftentimes people don’t even see what they are doing, don’t even recognize the changes or transformations open to them that would improve their lives. It’s a little crazy how blind we can be to our own stuff.

What a shame that we can’t successfully or effectively help one another to see this stuff more often. I would never criticize a friend’s parenting practices for fear of offending her. It’s not my place to tell a couple that I think they should get a divorce. And even if I did do something that socially inept, why should they listen to me? I have no right to criticize or advise on certain deeply personal topics. I would be overstepping bounds. It makes me wonder what there is about me, about how I conduct my life, to which I remain blind. I wonder what I don’t see that might transform my life or improve my life. Even if someone were to be bold enough to tell me what they see about this, I doubt that I could hear it because I’m inside my own reality, my own perception. I would think they are off-base and don’t understand the complexity of the situation. And I might take offense, become angry; so then what is accomplished?

If only we were as good at seeing our own stuff as we are at seeing someone else’s.