September 5, 2015


A dapper, 95 year-old man in the independent living complex, William always greeted me warmly. After his wife died some years ago, he started taking care of another woman, a widow. They were good friends and he became protective of her. Then she passed away, too.

Well-turned-out before leaving the apartment, he was always pressed and stylish, delivering a charming, "Hello!" to all encountered.

Recently, though, he began slipping away to inside his own head, as people do. Someone must have alerted family that he wasn’t independent any more. My mom noting, “William is so lost now.”

His belongings were pared, one last time, into a shared room down the hall from my dad in the nursing home. As I walked past his door a couple of weeks ago, he was sitting on the end of his bed, waiting for an aid to finish dressing him. Now turned out in a cardigan and easy to pull on pants.

When I arrived yesterday, he was shlumped in a wheelchair in the community room. Head down, sleeping. Or at least he had his eyes closed as the TV dribbled daytime programming. There was a rubber-handled lever, like a small silver and black baton, on the floor next to him. I brought it to the nurses’ station and told them I thought it came from his wheelchair. They nodded knowingly and set it on the counter.

Later, on my way out, he was in the exact same position.

August 24, 2015

Being Mortal: Review and Thoughts

For years, I've read and admired Atul Gawande, an accomplished surgeon-plus-staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. This morning, I finished reading his most recent book: Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014, Metropolitan Books).

Being Mortal should be required reading. Yes, the title sounds like a downer and, yes, it doesn't have that sexy summer reading ring to it. Please know, however, that Gawande is a terrific story teller and weaves medical conditions and research findings into absorbing and deceptively entertaining chapters.

Gawande isn't telling us anything we don't already (intellectually) know about our mortality rate. It's 100%. He excels, however, by briskly and expertly guiding readers through the historical trends and philosophical perspectives, as well as the medical advancements and societal responses, that undermine how we really want to live and die.

For long-time readers of  his New Yorker articles, some of the case studies will be familiar. Now, helpfully, they are part of a larger narrative regarding family dynamics and medical professionals who, while well-trained to treat, do not know when to stop and many times equate death with failure, rather than an inevitable outcome.

What do I bring to the table as a reviewer and one who recommends this book? In no particular order, first-hand experience with:

August 16, 2015

Shot by police, reflections 40 years on.

In light of recent media coverage regarding police shootings, I found myself thinking about a long-ago tragedy, from the perspective of middle-age.
- - - - - - - -

I've written dozens of stories and essays. Most sit in a file cabinet. While this young man and his family were a big part of my grade school years and exist on paper in the cabinet, I never wrote about his death. Today, I’m older than his parents were at the time and my children are older than he was when he died.

Patrick Fitzgerald had a younger brother and two younger sisters. One sister was my age and we played often at each other's homes. One summer in particular, we wrote snail mail letters back and forth, drawing flowers and stars on the envelopes. Each time I dropped a letter in the mailbox, I’d phone her on the rotary and we’d giggle excitedly about our ‘secret’ messages that took at least two days to arrive. I’d forgotten how we had to have patience.

When junior high arrived, our letters fell off and we hung out like teenagers do. Parents faded into the background and our new world orbited around boy-drama, make-up application, sneaking cigarettes, and much more. We felt a false safety in numbers and in our town.

For me, finding this article after 40 years was a bit of a shock. So matter-of-fact, so final, and so one-sided. It is at once timeless and heartbreaking:

August 15, 2015

Zen and the Art of Dying Well

As someone involved in these areas, both personally as well as serving on a municipal task force regarding seniors, I strongly recommend this thoughtful article from August 14th's New York Times:

Zen and the Art of Dying Well
credit: Wendy MacNaughton

"That’s why the project’s goal is not to increase the number of beds at the Guest House or to buy more houses, but to spread the idea of dying in this way."

June 20, 2015

Chicago Cartoons

The bullet tore into his neck and knocked him backwards. On a landing between floors, he gripped the wound and staggered down the stairs, trying to outrun what just happened. His race ended on the linoleum outside Geneva’s door.

Renting an apartment near the building’s entrance was good when carrying groceries or kids, but bad when people partied late on the stoop. She’d spent years inside providing child care. Mothers working the night shift, her bread and butter, had to put their babies someplace safe while they cleaned offices and filled catalog orders. The bedroom held three small cots for little sleepers. Geneva was known for allowing sniffles, low fevers, and an occasional extra baby, in a pinch.

Used to neighborhood gunfire after dark, tonight’s commotion sounded different.

Jumping out of bed, she pressed her ear to the only outside door. Spying through the peephole, the hallway appeared empty. Having learned a long time ago that it’s best to wait a few, she rested her forehead against the door, staring at her feet.

At first, it looked like Kool-Aid. A narrow, red line snaked inside and licked the doormat. Jolting upright, she searched through the peephole. Nothing. Silence. Silence as near as she could tell, anyway. Hard to be sure what with her heart all up in her mouth and booming. Hands shaking, she held the chain lock in place and turned the deadbolt, easing the door open enough to see clothing of some sort on the floor just outside. Pulling back til the chain got taut, there was a man and more red. His eyes were still open and his mouth, shaped in a small “o,” made him look like he didn’t understand the question. Slamming the door shut, she noticed blood spreading through her doormat. Snatching it away only increased the flow, so she pushed it back into place.

May 10, 2015

'Fresh Air' Remembers Mystery Novelist Ruth Rendell

Within 48 hours, I watched The Karman Line and listened to NPR's re-broadcasted interview by Terry Gross of the late writer Ruth Rendell.

For me, they dovetail.

The film expertly illustrates how jarring it is to grasp and finally accept what we cannot deny.

While the complete Fresh Air interview of Rendell is worth a listen, it was the excerpt below that struck me, especially coming right after the film (emphasis mine):

"GROSS: An interesting bargain she tries to make there to prove their love. What kinds of opportunities did this challenge or bargain create for you as the novelist?

RENDELL: Well, it was the crux - it is the crux of the novel. I mean, it is what the novel is about. It's what - I suppose it created for me something else very much - an opportunity for something else that very much interests me. That is that about 90 percent of our lives is illusion, so - especially, I think, in a love affair. Philip, my protagonist here, lives in illusion. And this fosters more opportunities for illusion. He becomes pretty disillusioned later on, but this gives opportunities for so much confusion and hope and despair and wonder and simply mistakes. All of those things, they're all ingredients in my fiction - confusion, bewilderment, things going wrong."

I certainly spend wide swaths of time day dreaming. Off the cuff, I haven't delved much into sources of disillusionment. What I mean is, when we become disillusioned, how much is expended on that which actually exists? How much pain, anger, or joy do we feel that others can also see and feel as we do?

Still chewing on this...

April 16, 2015

The Tree, revised

This is why I love Julia:

I looked over at the passenger seat. At the pile of my coat, purse, some papers, gloves. It took only a moment to slip my right hand inside the purse and feel around for that pen.

BOOM! A loud noise and big jolt from under the hood made my eyes shoot back up to the road. Except there was no road. Instead, there was a big parkway tree coming up fast.

Turns out I had drifted over to the right, driving up and over the curb, onto the parkway. Jerking the wheel hard left, I over-compensated.

By God’s grace, no one was in the oncoming lane. Steadying the wheel and myself, it took a few for me to get my bearings and realize what I had done.

The kids, strapped in their car seats were, thankfully, too young to rat me out.

I continued the drive to Julia’s house and, on arrival at her front door, breathlessly told her what awful thing I had done.

Without missing a beat, she replied, “Don’t you just HATE when that happens?”

April 5, 2015

The Sermon

Young families, neatly turned out, sat mixed in amongst the old folks. Preaching the story wherein Jesus restored sight to a blind man, Pastor Stanford asked, “Do you know what healing is?” While a few babies fussed, most adults tried to follow his thread.

Toward the back of the sanctuary, commotion could be heard from the parking lot. Billy Tadel, a nine year old who had to pay attention on account of his mom always quizzing him, sat up and tried to see out the stained glass windows. Ushers hurried past. “When we think we are in control, we’re actually separated from God.”

Billy slid out of the pew and got up on his tippy toes. Through the sepia-colored glass of St. Peter’s robe, he spied Mrs. Keller belly-flopped on the hood of a car! Her skirt, bunched up at the hip, revealed mommy underpants. Gripping the now bent backward windshield wipers, she tugged them around like gear sticks, shouting, “Susan? SuuUUU-SAAAN?!!”

Behind the wheel, Mr. Keller drove very slowly. He looked like he just tasted a bug. Billy imagined that, if he was driving really fast, this’d be as good as a movie. But Mrs. Keller wasn’t a cop and Mr. Keller wasn’t a bank robber. She was a Sunday school teacher and he was a little league coach. He eased the car to a stop but she stayed put, angry-faced and yelling.

The pastor, oblivious to the real reason this sermon would become memorable, intoned, “Jesus gives us what we need, not what we want.” A powerful arm yank from his mother returned Billy to their pew. Up front, Susan Stanford sat with her children, staring stock-straight ahead. She looked like she just tasted a bug, too.

March 15, 2015

The Toaster, Spoken

With apologies to voice artists and audio engineers everywhere, I recorded one of my shorts: The Toaster.