January 27, 2016

Pom Poms

We huddled on the floor in her room as Beth whispered, words tumbling out. Her eyes locked on mine, she tried all at once to impress and ask for approval. I knew little about the subject, it could have been car brakes instead of arousal and sex. At 13, I was still a runt, still wore an undershirt.

She told me how Adam, one of the most popular boys in our class, led her downstairs to his bedroom. After making out for a long time, he began trying to open her bra. Finally unhooking the back strap, he slid his hand around, cupping it on her breast. With his other hand, he pulled at her jeans. It was awkward. She didn’t want to seem easy by helping. Finally, he pushed his hand inside her underwear and fingered her. Paralyzed hearing such talk, I wanted to look away but couldn’t. He started asking if she wanted to do it. “DO it.”

Head bowed, Beth was practically looking at me through her eyebrows. “And he’s feeling me up, you know? And we’re, like, doing it, and I’m like...but it’s good, you know?” We both assumed she lost her virginity, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what happened. “What do you think?” she asked.

January 19, 2016

The Vow of Endurance

(Names have been changed. Rest in peace, sisters.)
I’ve always been impressed with people who can name their grade school teachers. I can’t. My father can name teachers he had 80 years ago. He sees them in his mind’s eye and recounts when they hollered and smacked kids. And when they gently buttoned little coats or taught history and ignited his imagination.

I do remember names of teachers I didn’t get. Sister Mary Katherine, an Irish, spinstery nun that kids feared. Sister Mary Ellen, a tomboy-plus-spitfire nun. For the life of me, I cannot remember the names of my Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade teachers. And I really liked Kindergarten! I know that my 1st grade teacher, a new and young nun, left our school and the Dominican order when that year ended. My 4th and 5th grade lay teachers moved out of state and onto other vocations. My 6th grade teacher, a very popular nun, left the order when I was in high school. Huh.

Mostly, school was a series of autumn-winter-springs, in plaid uniforms with neat desks that went from “I’m going to be a model student,” to so messy I couldn’t close the lid all the way.

A few teacher memories remain tattooed inside my head. Permanent marks on a kid who didn’t understand what she was seeing. They stay intact because something happened.

For many years, I wondered, “Why were they allowed to teach children?”

December 21, 2015

O Christmas Tree!

(Throwback Version)

Connie needed money after the divorce. Still in her 30s, she figured selling wallets at the mall was a good start. To nudge sales, she wore clingy wrap dresses, platform sandals, and a thin gold chain around one ankle. On slow afternoons, Mike, the young guy in appliances chatted her up. Dressed in the latest polyester suits and stacked heels from men’s apparel (20% employee discount), he’d also smoke weed to withstand eight hour shifts demonstrating vacuum cleaners.

Late one December night, they both ended up at his apartment door after a hard charging company Christmas party. Connie leaned on the wall while he fumbled keys. Blinking to reset her vision each time she started seeing double, she finally asked, “Hey, you got it?” After all, Mike just drove her clear across town from the banquet hall. Using both hands to aim each key toward the lock, he reassured, “Hold on juu-Uussss a sec.”

November 1, 2015

Farley on Halloween

Farley
Used to be, Farley would run full speed every time the doorbell rang. It'd take every ounce of training strength she had to “Sit” and “Stay” while we opened the door for guests, sales people, or trick or treaters.

Being a herder, she could easily work several children at once, keeping everyone grouped. God forbid one of our kids' playmates broke into a run during a ball game (invariably, she’d be sent inside to observe from a window).

I once watched her block a much longer-legged, 120 pound Weimaraner from entering our yard. He finally gave up and sat down on the sidewalk until she said OK. (He used to sneak out of his yard and bark at our front door for her to come outside. They loved each other.)

September 5, 2015

William

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.”

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.

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 viewing the film (emphasis mine):