Archive for December, 2011

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New Year’s Eve

December 31, 2011

So here we are again at the end of another year. Time to take stock, look back, look ahead.

2012. It seems so unreal, this combination of numbers representing the year we now enter. It is especially hard to conceive for my generation who grew up with George Orwell’s 1984 still being part of the distant future. 2012…oh, my.

Bernadette is working today, so I’m left alone, rattling around the house with my thoughts (always a dangerous thing). The needles are starting to drop from the Christmas tree, and I noticed that multitudinous spiders have taken up residence in the corners of certain walls, but I am distracted. In another place. Nostalgic. The spiders are apparently unconcerned about such matters. Maybe I’ll just take out the vacuum cleaner and show them a thing or two.

I once saw a documentary segment about nostalgia which mentioned how at one time it was considered a form of depression. One modern expert put a somewhat different spin on it. He said it is a way we can help to view ourselves relative to others who came before us. Since this is the time of year when the remembrances of those who have left this plane of existence in the year just ending are revisited, it’s a perfect opportunity to test his theory.

It is quite a procession of notable people who impacted our lives — sometimes significantly and sometimes tangentially — and to realize that they’re no longer present is always unsettling. Inevitably it leads me to think about how much some people manage to accomplish in their lifetimes. Then, a singularly provocative question: how do those of us who spend most of our allotted time seemingly just muddling by expect to stack up?

This was especially true this year for me. Two of the departed were personal heroes of mine. Neither particularly captured the public spotlight in life or death, but they had a powerful effect on me.

R. Sargent Shriver was the man most responsible for the creation of the Peace Corps in which I proudly served. He led a life of public service dedicated to the proposition that poverty was a condition unacceptable in a society where prosperity was the hallmark. Setting aside personal aspirations for what could have been a brilliant career in politics, he dedicated his time and energy in a valiant attempt to actually do something about the problem. After serving as the director of the Peace Corps, he helped create the Office of Economic Opportunity and was its first director. The array of social programs he founded is unparalleled: Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, Upward Bound, and numerous legal services for the underrepresented and dispossessed. Most people don’t realize the profound contribution of this incredible American. He fell victim to Alzheimer’s on January 18.

Milton Rogovin also focused his talents on the forgotten in our society, but as a photographer. His documentary photos of common people — the workers, the poor, the otherwise faceless masses — were done with dignity, clarity, and an honesty that conveys the often ignored humanity of his subjects. His aptly entitled documentary film, “The Rich Have Their Own Photographers,” captured his social consciousness and brought his quest to remedy social injustice to a wider audience (though not wide enough, as far as I’m conerned). He was a simple man, an optometrist by trade, but he could not ignore the wrongs he saw, and he too did something about it. And, like Sargent Shriver, he also left this earth on January 18.

There were many others I admired now gone:  civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth, Czech writer-turned-president Vaclav Havel, the incomparable marathoner Grete Waitz, actor Peter Falk (ah, Wings of Desire), and saxophone wizard Clarence Clemons, to name a few. Their achievements will stand long after their departure.

I do understand that not every human will make a mark as memorable as a select few manage to do. I recognize that, in taking stock, though most of us won’t quite measure up to the incredible levels of the finest among us, if we have made an effort to do something that has made the world better in some small way and we use their example to inspire us to perhaps do a little more, we can enter the new year with some solace or satisfaction.

So I shall be of good cheer after all. I feel as though I am still contributing with my new teaching “career” in spite  of retirement. My health, though not what it once was, is not bad. Bernadette still puts up with me. I continue to be easily amused and captivated by simple things. My life has been filled with plenty.

I therefore resolve to celebrate a more positive view of the nostalgia I’m awash in. Spiders, you have a reprieve. Bring on the dropping ball, 2012. Ready or not (well…not, but anyway), here I come.

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My Mother’s Clothes

December 28, 2011

They gave me her clothes

in a brown paper bag,

handed to me over the counter

at the police station

like groceries at the supermarket.

I brought them back to her house,

quiet now, empty,

and on the cold tile floor

of her laundry room

I took the things out:

the coat, bright red,

the darker blood stains

barely showing;

the purse filled with keys, spare change, gloves,

the photos she loved to show;

her shoes, tiny,

one with a broken heel.

I sat on the floor

not knowing what to do next.

I put them back into the bag

and left them there

on the cold tile floor.

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Oh, Tannenbaum

December 16, 2011

For many years when I was still teaching, as Christmas season approached I would present Truman Capote’s wonderful story “A Christmas Memory” to my classes. It is funny and sad and beautiful, weaving the themes of friendship, memory, and Christmas so magically together. I wanted my students to love it as much as I did; I sometimes wonder how successful I was. We would spend time talking and then writing about how certain memories are triggered by a sight or sound or smell of the season as it was for Buddy in the story, his friend each year exclaiming, “It’s fruitcake season!”  I know this well, for when December rolls around and it is time to get the traditional evergreen Christmas tree, a flood of these memories washes over me, plunging me into a period of nostalgia lasting well past New Years.

When we were young, my sister and I would go to bed Christmas Eve filled with all the Santa expectations of American childhood. Upon awakening, we would dash downstairs to discover a Christmas tree all lit up and decorated complete with presents below. We assumed, I suppose, that Santa lugged our tree in along with the toys. Later, the normal process of parental acquisition became clear, and my sister and I eventually eased our way into our roles in the operation.

One year we had a real Charlie Brown kind of tree experience. After working as a part-time seasonal janitor, my father had gotten our tree from a local school. It had been used in the classroom but was discarded when winter vacation began. He brought the tree home Christmas Eve, and it was decorated as usual. However, when we ran down Christmas morning to revel in our usual festive glory, every last needle on the tree had dropped off and lay in a pile on top of our gifts. Apparently the cumulative effect of the hot school classroom had been too much for the poor thing, and the timing was such that the mass shedding took place in our living room at the most inopportune moment.

When we were a bit older, my sister and I got to participate in the decorating. In those days, most of the decorations were made of glass and were rather delicate, so my parents would put those on after stringing the lights, no small feat back in the good old days of series wiring (one goes out, they all go out). Our main job was to put on the tinsel. For those modern souls who may not know what tinsel is, it’s strands of very fine aluminum foil made to resemble glistening icicles. It came in flat boxes, all stretched out in neat rows, ready to become the final touch on somebody’s Christmas tree.

My sister, who is two years older than I, thought that she, in the absence of my parents, was the boss, a condition shared by most older siblings. I usually accepted her self-proclaimed rule, partly because I was lost in my own world of imagination and partly because she could (and would) beat the snot out of me.

However, in this instance, there was more to it; there was a major clash of philosophies. I was of the opinion that tinsel should be painstakingly placed strand by strand on carefully selected branches. My sister, on the other hand, thought that the haphazard flinging of clumps of tinsel was the best (and fastest–she apparently had other things to do) approach. It may seem like a minor conflict, but I was stubborn despite my age, and a battle of words would always escalate into pushes, then punches, and finally the inevitable “MOMMM!!!” from whomever was getting the worst of it at the moment (usually me). Then came the ominous threat of being accused as the one to ruin Christmas.

My parents tried various methods to settle the dispute. One year they had us each decorate our own half of the tree. The result was a disaster that looked like a hurricane had struck just one side (guess whose). Another time they forced us to use each other’s method (one of those psychology-induced “learning experiences,” I suppose); that lasted about three minutes before turning into a tinsel-throwing brawl. Finally they imposed an every-other-year system on us. This worked during the decorating itself, but it didn’t prevent the continuous stream of whiney complaints and negative comments about the other’s “masterpiece” on alternate years.

Eventually the problem solved itself. My sister became involved in other activities (boys) and was content to leave the decorating to me. I actually kind of missed the battles we’d had, though I was glad to not have to look at Christmas trees buried in a disorganized avalanche of silver.

So as I put the tree in its stand this and every year and smell the scent of pine filling the room along with the sound of seasonal music, my thoughts inevitably drift back to those good old days. I remember the unbridled joys of childhood tearing open the wrapping paper in our pajamas as we sat on the floor. As I decorate, I think of my big sister and the raging tinsel wars we had. Though I no longer use tinsel, most of the decorations I do use are filled with memories as well: some of the old glass beauties I had saved from my childhood, various humorous ones received from students through my years of teaching, the gingerbread hands of my niece Emma from when she was a tot, the handmade paper and clay creations from my nephew Luke. I linger during the process, pausing often to reflect and sigh, savoring each image as it wafts up from the depths of my brain. And though I realize Christmas can never be the same as it once was, this ability to preserve and relive it in memory is perhaps the most precious gift of my Christmases.

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Attack

December 9, 2011

Back in the  70’s, comedian Redd Foxx had a recurrent routine on his sitcom “Sanford and Son” in which he would feign “having the big one” while clutching his chest during times of stress. Everyone understood what the implication of his action was. Two Saturdays ago when I clutched my own chest, I was not feigning. I thought it was “the big one.”

It began as a typical Saturday with breakfast out with my wife and a stop at the farmer’s market for some fresh produce. We then took our normal neighborhood walk on that beautiful morning, but as we arrived back at our house, I felt it, this frightening pain in my chest like nothing I’ve ever felt before. Only one thought crashed through my brain — heart attack. It felt as though a giant hand had reached inside my chest cavity and squeezed mightily.

My wife, a nurse, immediately knew something was drastically wrong. I was pale, cold, and sweating, and could not mask the fear in my eyes. She rushed to get me an aspirin and called 911. I slumped on a living room chair fearing the worst.

The ambulance arrived, and though the grip had loosened, my symptoms dictated that I be taken to the emergency room. Upon arriving, I was hastily examined and hooked up to monitoring equipment — not at all how I envisioned my Saturday morning. It seemed as though the immediate crisis had passed; however, tests needed to be done.

The next several days brought a procession of doctors: the ER attending, a young Ethiopian nephrology fellow, a female Indian endocrinologist, a Vietnamese resident, the nephrology resident, and two cardiologists, each questioning, poking, and prodding me. The blood tests were so frequent my arm felt like a pin cushion. The first major test, a “perfusion scintigraphy at rest and post-exercise,” requiring an injection of radioactive substance, twenty minutes of scanning, resting, stress testing on a treadmill, a second radioactive injection, and a second scan, proved inconclusive due to “movement caused by breathing.” One wonders how one can endure two twenty-minute scans without breathing, a point I futilely raised with the Pakistani tech. This led to the decision to do a cardiac catheterization, a rather invasive (in my opinion) procedure with risks involved, but one that would be definitive. After a day of delays, this was accomplished. Results? No heart problem of any kind.

Then what the heck was it?

“Well,” the cardiologist said, “we don’t really know what it was, but we did rule out the one thing that it wasn’t, and since that was the deadly one, we’re in good shape.” He  speculated that it was most likely something called an esophageal spasm, a physiological occurrence that mimics a heart attack but is basically innocuous (except for the fear involved).

The day following my hospital release, I went for a follow-up visit with my own doctor. He reminds me of Conan O’Brian both in looks and demeanor, which made the story he told me as I sat on his examining table all the more humorous.

After graduating medical school, he became the only doctor in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the Nevada desert as part of a deal to pay  off his government loans. One day he decided to visit Las Vegas. Being a Jersey native and having heard so much about it, this seemed like the time to go if ever he was going to. The one hundred fifty mile drive through the desert in one hundred degree heat drained him, so as he reached the outskirts of the city, he saw a welcome oasis in the form of a Mexican restaurant, and there he stopped.

He entered the cantina, plunging into the cool darkness of the air-conditioned joint. Sitting at a back table of the empty room, a large bowl of taco chips with an accompanying saucer of spicy salsa was delivered, which he devoured in short order, as he did the Margarita that followed close behind.  Suddenly, his chest felt as though a five thousand pound elephant had sat on it. He couldn’t breathe. He was sweating so profusely that it poured off his forehead and dripped on the table. There was no one around to help.

Well, he thought, either I’m going to die alone right here, or it will pass in a few minutes. Luckily, it was the latter. As he sat there, mortified at the thought of being a doctor in this situation, he concluded that the rapid temperature change and the sudden ingestion of a large amount of chips, spicy dip, and a cold drink triggered an esophageal spasm. “So,” he said in smiling camaraderie, “you’re not alone! It hadn’t happened before, and hasn’t since,” he chuckled, “but now I have a good story to tell my patients.”

He told me he had been as scared as I was, but there were no real medical repercussions. This was reassuring, and after all, I didn’t have to go all the way to Nevada to experience mine.

And now I have a story to tell, too.

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Tick, Tick, Tick

December 7, 2011

Today is December 7. It is 2011, and I fear “the day that will live in infamy” that transpired seventy years ago may be in a coma. So it is with the interminable list of other such infamous days from Cannae to Borodino to Antietam to Hiroshima.  This is a shame because, for many reasons, these are days that should not be forgotten. We should honor the fallen and acknowledge the sacrifice of all who served, but it should also be yet another reminder of the far deeper issue of war itself.

On this day in 1941, Pearl Harbor joined the list. The primary American base in the Pacific suffered a massive surprise attack by the Empire of Japan. Never before had such an attack occurred on American territory. Never before had America suffered such a loss of life and property in a foreign attack on its soil. This was the original  9/11.

And much like 9/11, the way it happened would read like a novel had it not been true. The series of fateful events that included miscues, missed opportunities, incompetence, and indecision on both sides set off a chain of events with effects that resonate until this very day. At least, for those who care to remember.

Those Americans who lost family members are no doubt aware as are those who were plunged into war as a result of this day. Their ranks are dwindling rapidly, though. Those Americans of Japanese descent are also aware, for one of the greatest breaches in American justice crashed upon them in this day’s aftermath. Their ranks are dwindling as well.

That leaves the rest of us. So why should we care? It’s history. Times have changed.

Perhaps we should be more in tune with history.

America and indeed the whole world have seen a cycle of war repeated for as long as there has been history. People have suffered devastation at the hands of other nations because of greed, power, xenophobia, misunderstanding, and fear. National, ethnic, and religious groups have been vilified to justify their oppression or destruction. The only thing that changes is the time and the place. The lessons that should have been learned from these past experiences are many. Humankind has not been a very good learner.

I realize the need to protect oneself is sometimes necessary. But the lessons are more elemental than knowing one’s enemies and keeping vigilant; the way to peace is the final realization that it is not us versus them but rather us versus us. The huge task of eradicating the artificial boundaries between the people of Earth is the critical need; how to accomplish it is the ultimate problem.

And what now? A few moments spent reading a newspaper or watching the news should answer that. How many “hot spots” do we need? How many areas of the globe on the verge or already immersed in violence must be present?

There are those who say it is in our nature as humans to do this. Maybe they are right. Others hold onto hope that the inhabitants of this small blue planet will some day come to their senses. I pray they are right. But as science and technology create more numerous and powerful weapons than have ever before existed and nationalistic or religious dogma have fanned hatred, perhaps hope is the only weapon that we have to counteract them. But this hope must turn into commitment and then to action to halt our march toward the potential annihilation of our species. It is up to us, to all of us, to make this decision. How much time do you think we have? The answer to this question is mostly ignored or avoided in fear of what it might be. That is a shame too, for the very future of the world may just be at stake.

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Remembering Charlie

December 1, 2011

Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I think of him often, but especially today during World AIDS Day. He is the personal face of this affliction to me.

Over the years AIDS has moved from the front page headlines to the back pages and now virtually out of the public eye entirely. Many have forgotten, or because of their age, never knew this frightening scourge and its wake of tragedy in the early years of its advent. It seems as though not too many people concern themselves with it anymore unless they have some personal connection. I am one of those people, for my friend Charlie was one the victims when AIDS was still a fearful and misunderstood specter haunting our country.

Charlie was my friend. He was a warm and caring person, bursting with creativity and energy. I think he felt it was his mission to make everyone else’s day brighter. Most people didn’t see the turmoil within him.

I knew Charlie well when we were in college, though I didn’t know he was gay. Perhaps he didn’t either at that time. He married another of my college friends, but eventually that union unraveled and his inevitable emergence as a gay man was complete. His new partner was an Argentinean he met in New York, but by that time I no longer saw Charlie as the paths of our lives had diverged.

For a while, our paths were one. Some of my most emotionally challenging times were shared with him. More precisely, he, acting as a self-appointed guardian angel, attempted to rescue me.

One of those occurred during a difficult time in my attempted courtship of the girl of my dreams. She had suffered a heartbreak once and was unsure about the nature of this new relationship with me. I do not blame her for that. However, I was emotionally fragile, and Charlie sought to nurture me.

His family lived in Schenectady, and on the spur of the moment,  he convinced me to join him on a long weekend trip home. No one else knew of this, so it seemed that I had disappeared from campus. During the bus trip upstate, I poured out my misery to Charlie, and he comforted me. We talked for hours, more deeply and personally than I ever had before with anyone, sharing stories of our lives and our hopes and dreams. I remember falling asleep exhausted with my head on his shoulder as he sang softly to me. The time we spent with his sister and brother-in-law proved to be a healthy diversion, and my absence, though short, was startling to my sweetheart, and a better chapter between us ensued.

Another incident I remember clearly developed out of my frequent flirtation with academic disaster. I was a diehard procrastinator, but usually could pull the fat out of the fire at the last minute by pulling an all-nighter or three. However, on this occasion I had gotten myself into an impossible jam from which I didn’t think I could extricate myself. I had two major papers due, neither of which I had even started, and one of them had already been postponed once. I knew yet another all-nighter was my only chance, but after struggling late into the evening, defeat appeared to be at hand. That’s when Charlie popped in. He listened to my plight, and without a second’s hesitation sat down to help. The term “help” hardly does justice to his effort. As I composed one paper at my typewriter, Charlie busied himself at another, asking me questions and helping me clarify my thoughts as he typed away. My dire situation had taken a turn, and there was now hope where there had been despair. We finished at dawn, and more than a few laughs were shared as Charlie helped shape my ideas into an admirable and often inspired piece of writing.

Charlie loved Leonard Cohen. His favorite song at that time was “Suzanne.” I think the dark tone that still retained the hope for beauty and love appealed to him. Charlie wrote in a similar vein. I still have his notes and poems and musings written on scraps of paper now yellowed with age. He gave me this after our Schenectady trip:

“I have come to give you the blue blue sky with my hands

and show you the dark dark dawn with its gray lands

where hot meets cold; and besides I have the time time

to spend on forever to gather the sky sky in a rhyme.

It may never be said how much I must need give you

or show you, you, sitting mournfully, weeping, you who

tried to love before and failed failed.”

When the end of college arrived, he gave me a folder with some of his illustrations and what I now understand was his letter of farewell to me. In it I also see the acknowledgment of his new path:

“But this school year is a rebirth for me; it ends in anxiety and joy. I conquered a world and I face reality. Your end-year must be very sad; I wish you the comfort of understanding but the purification of pain. Learn to smile in the face of pain and tragedy. I do it daily.”

I did not witness Charlie’s descent into the horrors of this disease. I am regretful of that because I could have taken my turn as guardian angel. In a way, though, I’m glad my memories of him were not tainted by his time of debilitation; I believe he felt the same way. I went with a few friends to a small memorial gathering on the Hudson River where we dropped flowers into the flow and shared some of the many Charlie stories we all had.

Because of AIDS, Charlie became a statistic, part of the tragic toll this disease took. But like each of the statistics, he was someone, a real person with family and friends and hopes and failures. Each left behind friends and family. Each left behind memories of whatever mark they left on the world and the people whose lives they touched.

Yes, Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I can not, and will not, forget either of those.