Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Stand With Love

We are a nation of binary opposites: on one hand, there is Donald Trump and his blatant and inexcusable misogyny and racism, spewing forth about Muslims and perfectly legitimate bodily functions as he tries literally to bully and insult his way to the White House.

Trump represents the worst of America’s rugged individualism ethos: that we can somehow return to a mythologized greatness by being ugly and vindictive.

On the other hand, kindness and compassion abound throughout our amazing and challenging country. There is the Compassion Collective, started by a group of well-known writers to raise money for the Syrian refugee crisis (http://thecompassioncollective.org/http://thecompassioncollective.org/). The Collective wants to raise $1 million to support the refugees during this tragic crisis. The maximum donation is $25.

Another philanthropic and heart-warming effort was started six years ago by my friend Bob Welch (www.bobwelch.net) when he was a columnist for the Eugene Register-Guard. Inspired by an anonymous $1000 from a reader to help those in need during the holiday season, Bob and friends seek out worthy recipients in the Eugene, Oregon area in order to not only spread some holiday cheer, but to make a bit of a difference in the lives of those struggling with bills and mental illness and homelessness and other issues.

Bob retired from being a full-time columnist, but he is still actively involved in his community, and today he posted about his latest mission of mercy (http://bobwelch.net/the-1000-christmas-giveaway/).

The Compassion Collective and Bob Welch (and friends) represents the best of humanity, people willing to stand up and say, “I need to make a difference and help,” or, in the words of the Collective, to “stand with love.”

We live in scary times, and it’s easy to lash out against enemies both real and imagine, and also find scapegoats to soothe our anxieties. But by doing so we also abdicate our basic connection to others, to everyone we meet or can assist. The choice is clear, and we can easily opt to stand with love.


Amen.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Our Hearts Are Heavy

I wish I understood how the world truly works. Yesterday, three people allegedly opened fire with assault weapons on a group celebrating at a center for developmentally disabled adults. There are reports one of the alleged gunmen may have become radicalized in Saudi Arabia, while he was on the traditional Muslim pilgrimage, and met his future bride, a woman from Pakistan.

My heart hangs heavy with profound sadness when I ponder the loss of life and the sheer terror everyone in San Bernardino experienced amid what was supposed to have been a holiday party. I don’t understand how anyone can resort to such mind-numbing violence even for a cause.

But the melancholy is even thicker today because my neighbor, Jen, died at 4:30 am this morning, after fighting a battle with tongue cancer. She leaves behind a loving husband and two young children, ages 8 and 6, as well as other family. I grieve for them, especially her two adoring and adorable children who now face life without a mommy, something with which I am quite familiar.

Last Saturday, I went outside to play with Maya, who was already at the park, on the swings, next to Jen’s six-year old daughter. They were giggling and smiling as young children often do, enjoying the crisp autumn air and the attention of one father and one grandmother.

I knew Jen’s situation was dire, and when I saw her daughter and pushed her on the swings, at one point lifting her onto Maya’s lap (facing her) so they could do a butterfly swing, legs and arms entangled, I breathed deeply and felt the sadness wash over me again. She was going to experience what Maya had and has: deep, deep loss, tears, anger, anxiety, fear, loneliness. And it didn’t seem right that a little girl, blond-brown hair, and an exuberant smile, should be plunged into such sorrow.

I know people cling to faith in times of crisis, and I admire many of them, but I can’t make sense of Jen’s death or the terror in San Bernardino in any religious or spiritual context. I know someone who once said, after a hurricane had ravaged her town but she was unharmed, “God was looking out for me.” I have seen friends post thanks to God on Facebook for answering their prayers.

But I always come back to: does that mean God did not answer the prayers of the others, such as Verna who wanted to live and grow old as her children became adults and beyond? Or sweet, sweet Jen, an amazing woman also with everything to live for? Or our other neighbor, Shauna, who died this past May from colon cancer, and had a zest for living that shone like a beacon to everyone?

Shortly after Verna died, the priest she’d personally enlisted to officiate her funeral service, said to me on the phone, “I just don’t understand when people say, ‘God wanted her more’ or ‘It was just her time’.”

I think Father Paul was saying we cannot understand why someone dies, but we should not lapse into easy answers and try to make death into some deep theological phenomenon.


But knowing that there are mysteries to the Universe that may never be satisfactorily explained to an agnostic like me does nothing for the utter despondency and helpfulness I feel today as we come to terms with the deaths in San Bernardino and in my neighborhood.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Almost 31 Days

Today marks the end of the October 2015 blog challenge where thousands of us signed on to write a post each day of the month. I hit 26 blog entries, which is pretty good considering I combined to write 24 posts from 2012-2014.

I'd love to say I learned something about myself or life or the nature of writing and the universe. But I did not. Not because I know everything, but more because the nuggets of truth were sparkling there before me for a long time.

I'd hoped that writing each day (or close to every day in the month) would motivate me to turn my focus onto the memoir, It's Not About The Breasts, I want and need to finish about our family's cancer journey. But I am at a point in my life where I sense change is on the horizon and writing may need to take a back seat a little longer.

I feel I am being called to return to teaching and the classroom, which I hope to do by next fall. I am in the process of studying for the three state exams I need to pass in order to earn my credential. So writing, writing, and writing would distract me from my more immediate goal.

The reality is that blogging is, once said a good writing friend, like a one night stand: you get the pleasure with minimal effort. But writing a book, which I have done once, is like having a long-term relationship. You need to invest time and energy and total focus. It's hard but the rewards are great.

Right now, my dream and plan are to teach middle or high school social studies, resuming a passion I stoked for 12 years after I moved to California in 1987, and enabling me some more freedom in my personal life as a single father.

I did learn something, or maybe I was just faced with the stark reality, unrelated to writing this blog. A friend for more than 35 years turned down my Facebook friend request because of my views on Israel. I can easily handle cyber-rejection, but the experience has made me wonder about the often fragile ties that bind or repel us on this complicated orb we call Planet Earth.

I am listening to Dave Davies, of the Kinks, on iTunes as I type this blog post. I saw him with a a friend last night in downtown Napa. His voice is beyond rough and gnarly, but he is a survivor, having outlasted a massive stroke in 2004. He has to use a music stand to prop up the song lyrics, songs he wrote and has performed for more than 40 years. But he perseveres and pumps joy and passion into his music.

The song that is playing? I'm Not Like Everybody Else.

Amen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Make A Wish

“Where’s my eyelash?” Maya asked last night in her bathroom before bed. “I want to make a wish.”

I was watching her as I clipped my fingernails. She’d already brushed her teeth and was ready for me to continue reading the second installment in the School for Good and Evil series.

“Oh, good, I found it,” she said moments later. “Now I can make a wish. Do you want to know what it is?”

“It won’t come true if you tell me,” I said.

“It’s not going to come true any way,” she said, and then she closed her eyes, held her index finger to her mouth, and blew the half-moon curved lash away.

“What was your wish?” I asked, certain that I already knew.

Earlier in the evening Maya had asked me for a Fitbit for Christmas.

“Can I have a Fitbit?” she asked.

“I don’t know Maya,” I said. “Why do you want one?”

“Because then I can get exercise.”

“But you don’t need a Fitbit to get exercise,” I said. “You can just go outside.”

For the record, I do not own a Fitbit nor have I ever used one. I am guessing some of her friends at school or their parents use one.

“Then I could do 12 laps around the park,” she said as if ownership of Fitbit would magically propel her out the door any more than she already runs around.

“Maya, think of something you want for Christmas that you will actually use,” I said. “I can take you rock climbing or get you special art supplies.”

“But I’ll use the Fitbit, Dad,” she said. “And I know Santa gets us everything we ask for.”


So I expected her to wish for a Fitbit knowing her Jewish father a.k.a. Santa had more or less nixed her request. But her answer startled me.

“I wished for Mommy to come back,” she said.

A wave of sadness hit me. “I wish the same thing, too, Maya. I am sorry you are sad.” Then I quickly corrected myself. “It’s OK that you are sad. I wish Mommy were here too.”

Maya went on to say that she didn’t really want to talk about missing Verna any more last night. The conversation made her more melancholy. So we climbed into her bed and I started reading about two princesses fighting the forces of evil and trying to get back to their happily ever after.

I leave notes in Maya’s lunch every day. Today’s note read: “Maya, I wish I could make all your wishes come true. I love you that much!”


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

World Serious

Rivalries and grudges often take on mythic and irrational proportions. Sports, family, and politics would be three areas where many of us have seen the boundaries of civility and decency stretched by absolute unforgivable behavior.

We understand Red Sox vs. Yankees or Giants vs. Dodgers or insert other professional or college teams where the animosity between either the players or the fans (or both) is palpable. I have a few close friends who are Yankee fans and, frankly, it doesn't matter much to me. One friend, though, never congratulated me in 2004 when the Red Sox finally won another World Series after 86 years of cursed futility.

Politics is another potent area, red vs. blue. We all know people who have un-friended or stopped speaking to someone who disagreed with their tightly held beliefs. I was holding a 'Bush Stole the Presidency' poster at a rally in Fresno in 2001 in anticipation of Bush's presence at a fundraiser, and one man, after he found out I had been a teacher, said to me, "I wouldn't want you teaching my kids."

And there are as many stories of intolerant people on the other side as well. But where does this almost maniacal hostility come from?

I didn't talk to my mother for nearly three years after she'd done something that was inexcusable. I had to defend my family against her personal attacks. We made up and all, and she apologized, but I know families today where communication is done via attorneys or where people simply just don't talk.

Sports is another arena for our internecine rivalries to fester. A few years, two Dodger fans nearly stomped Brian Stow to death outside Dodger stadium after the Dodgers played the Giants. I once witnessed several fights break out at the old Yankee stadium when the Yankees faced the Red Sox on a warm summer night in 1978.

My father and I always say we are happy as long as the Yankees lose. Recently, when the Cubs played the Mets for the National League pennant, he and I spoke on the phone about which team we were rooting for.

"I'm rooting for the Cubs," I said. "I can't forgive the Mets for 1986 (even though the errors and bungles that led to the Mets winning in seven games fell squarely on the shoulders of the Red Sox)." Plus two of Verna's cousins, her first cousin, Jim, and his wife, Jessica, are avid Cubs fans. They live here but have season tickets, and they deserve to feel the sublime joy I felt three times in recent years.

"And I'm rooting for the Mets," my father laughed, "because of Theo Epstein (the former Red Sox general manager who bolted for Chicago) and Jon Lester (the former Red Sox ace whom they courted in free agency but signed with the Cubs)."

Obviously I am only touching on this subject in a very superficial manner. Rivalries on a geopolitical and sociological scale are often deadly. The tribal warfare in the Middle East, Israeli vs. Palestinian, Shiite vs. Sunni, carries crises that seem beyond intractable. And the same goes for gang bloodshed, where wearing even the wrong color could get you killed.

But in our daily lives we often opt for the petty and mean-spirited allegiance to a team, an ideology, a point of view, or something else that in the whole scheme of life should matter very little.

I attended an amazing 20-year reunion  this past Sunday and Monday of the Association of Personal Historians, and one of my former colleagues shared this powerful quote:

"An enemy is someone's story we have not heard."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Brave New World

I plopped myself down for lunch with a bowl of miso noodle soup across from two of my work associates. Two young-enough-to-almost-be-my-grandchildren associates. One is 19, the other is 22.

“The app’s available now,” the older one said, a male. “Did you get it?

“It’s available now?” asked the younger one, a female.

“Yeah, I just downloaded it yesterday.”

“I don’t have enough memory.”

“What app are you talking about?” I asked.

“It’s the middle finger app,” said the older one.

“A middle finger app? You’re kidding me,” I said.

He handed me his phone, and stacked on the right side were about 10 different middle finger emojis, each a different hand color. It was heartwarming to know that the makers of middle finger emojis created something with diversity in mind.

I wanted to blurt out, “This is what you are talking about, what excites you, a middle finger emoji?”

Instead I felt sad and out of touch. I reared back in time and wondered what product or trend I was into that may have caused my father serious pause or concern. I know he hated rock and roll, which I listened to incessantly, but usually behind closed doors in my bedroom and rarely too loud. We both loved sports, so we had shared interests. We didn’t get the Pong video game on our TV until I was 13 or so, and my brother and I only played it on weekends.

I know he also hated my ripped jeans and longer hair. I don’t think he cared that I collected sports cards, read MAD magazine, played with my footsie toy, fought with G.I. Joe and plastic astronauts in the bathtub, or rode a banana seat bicycle.

I am not saying I once dwelled and flourished in the land of ‘things were better then’, but this screen saturation and invasion where young people have to use emojis and emoticons and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and whatever else, right away, or their heads will implode or explode, depending on which option presents a better selfie, is getting to me.

Miguel does his homework with his laptop propped against his knees, with a baseball playoff game on TV, his cell phone tucked under him. And when he gets a text or Facebook update he has to respond immediately or he will instantaneously combust.

Call me old-fashioned or just old, but I think some of our youth go overboard with their devotion to anything electronic. Just today Miguel bemoaned the fact that he hasn’t won much when he plays someone else online in FIFA soccer. This was after he criticized golfers for not being athletes. And he’s the incoming captain of the high school golf team! At least it’s outdoors even if it’s, as John Feinstein wrote, “ a good walk spoiled.”


Yes, it’s ironic that my vent, er, blog post is being created on a computer, which allows me to cut, paste, insert graphics, or use spell check, not the manual typewriter of my own youth that  clacked away through high school and college. But, hey, if you don’t like that I am also a tangle of contradictions then I have several ethnic middle finger emojis just for you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Twilight Among Us

"Slit skirts, Jeanie never wears those slit skirts
I don't ever wear no ripped shirts
Can't pretend that growing older never hurts."


~Peter Townsend

The most wistful part of working at a retirement community is not having known the residents in their primes. By the time people move into Drake Terrace in their 70s, 80s, or 90s, they are often beset with a physical malady or cognitive impairment. We missed them during the best years of their lives.

One resident, a former government administrator, once looked straight at me and said, "Don't ever get old. It's terrible."

He and his wife lived with us until they both needed more care than we could provide. He'd had repeated falls and his wife was suffering from dementia. He could no longer care for himself, let alone his wife.

But as their physical and mental deterioration increased, and there were falls and bruised faces and stroke-like seizures, it was hard to remember they'd once been so young and vibrant. They'd met inside the library at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Maybe she walked by him in the stacks, his head turning as her fragrance wafted by. Maybe she caught sight of him, gazing at his piercing blue eyes, and there was recognition. They'd seen each other in their hometown before WWII. They courted, got married, raised a family, were successful in love and life.

Their stories are ones I see playing out everyday: once healthy individuals whose bodies or minds (or both) are losing the battle of old age. I don't mean to make it out to be all gloom and doom. One man just moved out of his San Francisco home, weeks after his wife died, because he wanted to live in a retirement community. He is almost completely independent. He is also 99.

Another resident, a former minor league baseball player, moved out his North Beach apartment in San Francisco earlier this year where he'd been getting some help from a caregiver. His handshake is still firm and he carries on conversations about current events and sports as if he is much, much younger. He turned 101 last month.

But many residents are like the couple from Oregon such as Bill and Flora. When I first met Bill (not his real name), he introduced himself and said he was "SOB. Sweet Old Bill." Then a grin broke out across his face and he chuckled like a man at peace with himself. He and his wife, Flora (not her real name), even had an arrangement with their nurse and caregivers to give them time alone for a special nap on Saturday afternoons. Bill and Flora, who met just after WWII when Bill was stationed in Europe, are both in their late 80s.

I took Bill today to Macy's to get his watch repaired. Flora insisted on going with us. Both are not allowed to leave the community unassisted. Flora has a diagnosis of dementia. Bill has recently been sending money to a scam lottery back east. His son now controls Bill and Flora's finances.

As we walked into Macy's and glanced around for an elevator, I wondered if the people who designed these stores ever had older relatives. Macy's aisles, awash in every color of the rainbow, stretched across racks of shirts, pants, Christmas pajamas, stonewashed jeans, shoes, slippers, blouses, nightgowns, jewelry, and perfume, are a maze-like nightmare, a sensory overload of sight, sound, and smell.

Even I couldn't figure out where to go, so how would've Bill and Flora navigated the store without help? A frumpy and kind employee guided us to the elevator. We rode it to the second floor and the watch repair counter, past the bathrooms and near the executive offices. Flora plowed along near me, her walker gliding along the floor, while Bill shuffled at a molasses-like pace. Flora and I reached the repair counter by ourselves.

"Where is he?" she asked, a hint of exasperation in her voice.

I looked out at the racks and racks and racks and saw Bill, his head swaying from side to side, searching for someone.

"Bill," I shouted, "over here!" I repeated myself a few times. My voice is loud enough to hear several towns over. But Bill could not match my voice to my location. I started walking closer to him, but another patron intercepted him and turned him towards me. I wondered if I hadn't been there would he have gotten really lost. Flora's dementia would have been of no help in locating him.

I felt sad for Bill and Flora, married for more than 60 years and proud parents to a caring son, a son who now must exercise control over their money and mail in order to protect them, because they are declining--as we all do. Just as my Oregon couple once did before they needed skilled nursing and memory care.

I also worried that watching Bill and Flora and all the residents who struggle with physical and mental decrepitude was a mirror into my future. And who will see me and wonder who and what I was like during the best years of my life.