April 15, 2012 § 4 Comments
Tonight I went to see a life-changing movie. It is about someone I am happy and proud to call a friend. I met Isa last year when I went to writing group school. We were learning how to facilitate Amherst Writers and Artists writing groups. Isa was in my small group, and we got to write together a lot, and so got to know each other a bit. It was kind of like grown-up camping, that week in the woods. We were staying in a big barn that has been fashioned into dorms – and downstairs are former horse stalls made into semi-private rooms. Very-semi private. They still have the split doors. The food was outstanding, as was the writing course. Isa was clomping around on crutches so she ended up in a stall. And didn’t complain.
Isa and her identical twin sister Ana are hapa haole/half Japanese. As infants they were diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a debilitating lung disease. There is no cure for CF – most people with CF die fairly young. Those who don’t survive because of lung transplants. Isa had a double lung transplant. Ana had two double lung transplants. Her body rejected the first after six years.
Isa and Ana were clearly exceptional as children. They were in and out of hospitals throughout their childhoods. And they were full of life. They started a journal, a book, about their experiences. And they included instructions to their caregivers about how to best take care of patients. They were experts by the time they were ten. The journal even included diagrams and illustrations. How to take blood. How to install a port.
So, in spite of their illness, and in spite of the odds, both girls graduated from Stanford University. This is where they learned about organ transplants and organ donors. And participated in clinical trials. And became painfully aware that they could die at any moment.
So, as adults they continued the tradition, and wrote a book about their experiences called The Power of Two: A Twin Triumph over Cystic Fibrosis.
After Isa and Ana wrote their memoir they planned a book tour trip to Japan to discuss CF and transplants. Organ donations are very rare in Japan for any reason. And there are only 35 cases of CF in Japan right now. The life expectancy of a child with CF is 15 years. Ana and Isa have been instrumental in educating the Japanese about CF and about the gift of life that is organ donation. Laws have changed that make organ donation possible, but still, very few transplants are performed.
So Ana and Isa have spent a good part of the life that they’ve been given because of their organ donors giving back a thousand times. They are tireless crusaders for their cause. But the most important thing I think is the joy they feel at every breath they take—joy that shines in each of their smiles. Their generosity is amazing.
If you get a chance, go see the movie. It’s also called The Power of Two. It’s won 10 awards and was chosen for the Tokyo Film Festival. Fill out your donor card on your driver’s license. Tell your family that you want to donate your organs. There are 110,000 people waiting for organs right now. Many of them will die before their names pop up to the top of the list. You can make a difference, too.
It was wonderful to see two smart, kind, generous women who are not the least bit sentimental, the least bit maudlin. They have grabbed life with two hands, and everyone who comes in contact with them comes away richer and happier for the experience. Thanks, you guys. You rock.
March 16, 2012 § 3 Comments
I had lunch today with a new friend. She is a writer, too, so we had frequent moments of saying something then both saying at the same time, “That sounds like the first line of a great poem!” or, “That’s a great story. You should write that down.” It was a fun lunch.
One of the stories I told her was about how I found my best friend, my BFF. Twenty three years ago I was a student at Sac State. I was studying politics and journalism, a joint major offered there and no place else that I know about. Jan was teaching there. She was also the editor of a magazine, and she was working on her master’s. She was a busy lady. I met her because I’d won a scholarship, and the award was given at a journalism meeting that was held at her house. After that, whenever we saw each other, whenever I ran into her in the halls, she invited me to sit in on her class. She had the best guest speakers ever. She still does. Jan knows EVERYBODY. Pulitzer Prize winners, editors, name brand writers you’ve heard of, journalists. All fabulous.
When we met, I was in my last semester at Sac State before taking off for a junior year abroad in Wales with my twelve year old daughter. Jan says that I said to her one day, “If you write to me, I’ll be your best friend.” She took me up on it.
I did my junior year abroad and decided to stay on to finish my degree at the University of Wales. For the next two years, our friendship was held together by very infrequent visits, and frequent letters. The old-fashioned kind. The kind that come on blue aeropostale paper that folds itself into an envelope with postage included.
Despite the fact that I was in a journalism program, I did not consider myself a writer. I was drawn to photography rather than reporting. But when I got letters from Jan, I suddenly understood what good writing is. When I got a letter from Jan I could hear her voice. It was exactly like sitting down over a coffee and having a great long chat. And, even better, I could read them more than once. Repeat coffee date on tap.
And since I could hear Jan’s voice in her letters, I learned how to put my own voice on paper. I wrote letters to her like the other side of the conversation.
Jan has taught a lot of people how to write. Hundreds. Probably thousands. And, lucky me, I got a two-year long one-on-one personal course in writing from one of the best writers I know. Teaching is her gift. And a gift that she shares generously, with a huge heart.
And now, I get to say I’m a writer, thanks to Jan and her letters. Twenty three years later, we often communicate in writing rather than by phone. Even if we’re in the same city, which doesn’t happen all that often. It’s just how we talk to each other.
So today at lunch with my new friend, another writer taught by Jan, I told this story and she said, “That is a wonderful story! You need to write that down.” I agree. It is a wonderful story. And the reason I am able to tell it is because of the letters from Jan. Another reason to have a grateful heart. Thanks Jan.
March 14, 2012 § 4 Comments
In 1990 I came back to California from Wales. My first job was at the local PBS station. It was a temporary job; I was hired to help with the auction that raised money for the station, to organize volunteers in jobs that many of them had been doing for years.
It was just a temp job, but I had a lot of fun there. I kept myself and a couple of other people entertained with my scathing wit. Not a particularly attractive quality in me, and one that I hope I’ve improved over the years. I didn’t mean to be mean — I would just say whatever popped into my head, and often it wasn’t especially nice. But in spite of my best efforts, I made some very good friends. When I left, a couple of those friends and I decided we should get together once in a while, to keep in touch. Soon we were meeting once a month, rotating houses. For a while we had dinner and watched a movie. The movies soon fell by the wayside; our own lives had drama enough to keep us entertained.
And, as things happen, we have been getting together for 22 years now. Some of us have moved away. Some of us moved and came back. We have experienced among us weddings, funerals, adoptions, the arrival of grandbabies and the departure of parents. We’ve been victims of crimes, and builders of our communities. We’ve dealt with mental illness, clueless adolescents, alcoholism, depression, bankruptcy, and cancer. We have dealt with losses of all kinds, the common sorts of things that are the fabric of the human condition, but are uniquely painful when they happen to us. And every month, we get together. We have dinner, a glass of wine maybe, always a fabulous dessert. We do have our priorities right! And we take turns being the entertainment. Several of us have been entertainment for way too long, but we don’t really wish the task on anyone else. We rejoice in good news, commiserate in sorrow. And we love each other, these women and I. I can’t imagine the last 22 years without their support, wicked humor, tenderness, and kindness. Such a gift, to have people in my life who have known me so long, so intimately, and who love me unconditionally and who I love the same way. I’ve moved away, but we still have girlie night. Cheers, ladies. See you next month!
March 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
I remember you twirl amid a hundred flapping pigeons, eyes closed, full of joy and promise and excitement at being alive. You are 10 years old, all elbows and knees and toothy grin, spinning round and round. Only your face is in focus — everything else is slightly blurred. Your golden hair has not stopped whirling – it sticks straight out like a poofed out dandelion. Your arms reach in front of you, tightly clenched hands full of pigeon food you’ve just purchased from an old man sitting next to a rickety wooden cart. You wear a striped sweater and dark slacks against the cold gray sky. Your smile is joyous, exuberant, beatific, your eyes closed. It is the moment I hold on to in desperation some days, the image I hold in my heart of your essence, your soul, the part of you that I summon when I wonder where you’ve gone.
At the Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square in Venice, where the ocean is daily trying to reclaim the land, the ground is still wet from the flood earlier that morning, sparkling and dark. The plaza is crowded with tourists just like us, taking pictures, children chasing birds, waiting in line for entrance into museums and cafes. Around the edges of the plaza are piled high the wooden planks that are dragged out during the too frequent floods, to provide a raised walkway barely covering the waves washing over the ground.
The smell of the sea, so recently underfoot, is salty, fishy, strong. The air is fresh with rain. The pigeons coo and peck at the ground for the corn you fling into the air. Some try to catch it midair, most wait until it falls to the ground. The ground is thick with pigeons, the sky filled with bird ribbons, flying together to some unknown command before landing together to peck for more corn.
I hear you laugh when one of the birds lands on your shoulder and another lands on top of your head. You close your eyes because you’re a little nervous, a little afraid, but you don’t want to miss this experience. You run in circles after the pigeons, trying to make them fly up again into the bird ribbons, into the patterns they mysteriously form, but the most a skinny ten-year old can make them do is scoot a little, hop over to the side. The pigeons are a bit jaded, a bit over-fed, a bit too cool. But you keep trying, laughing, chasing, spinning, in the moment, full of joy and full of grace.
And do you remember that feeling, you full of joy and full of grace? We had no idea yet of the silent demons that lay dormant and invisible in your mind and soul, waiting to slowly encroach, to steal whatever they can get their claws into, bit-by-bit erasing the you that was that child? The spirits that have stolen you from us, that have stolen you from yourself. You are there, inside, the child full of joy. You are there, still, my child full of grace. I remember. I remember.
February 29, 2012 § 6 Comments
I came across a picture of our family standing on the steps of one of the monuments in Washington D.C. It’s winter 1957 and we’re all dressed up. My four-year old brother is wearing corduroy pants and a plaid wool coat buttoned up to his chubby chins. My 11-year old brother is missing – I think he’s taking the photo. My sister and I have on heavy wool coats and I am sporting a velveteen collar with a matching velveteen hat, studded with metal beads meant to look like stars. My father is in a suit, narrow tie, brimmed hat, grim expression. We’re all squinting into the sunlight. People dressed up then. It showed respect. My mother is in a suit and gloves. She told me years later it was the only thing she had left to wear because I’d thrown up on everything else. I did not travel well.
I turned six on that trip from California to Virginia. Our family birthday tradition was to make a list of everything you could ever want and give it to Nana and she’d pick one thing and give you that. She always knew that one thing you wanted most. I don’t know how she knew that, but she did. Nana was magic. I wasn’t sure how Nana would know it was my birthday, if she would remember. I was so far away.
My father worked for the military. He retired from the Army after WWII as a Lt. Colonel, and then worked for them as a civilian. In electronic communications, which was ironic. He wasn’t much of a talker. He neglected to tell my mother about one of his previous marriages. My sister and I think he might have been a Cold War Spy. He turned up in interesting places at critical times – Berlin in the early 60’s, Korea in the late 40’s. He studied languages at the Monterey Defense Language Institute — Japanese, Korean, Chinese. He spoke English too, just not very often. At least not to us.
This time he had a temporary assignment in Virginia, an assignment for three or four months, and we went with him. It was an opportunity to see the country, and a chance to see Washington DC. My sister was 13, my brother 11, so it was an educational adventure for them, I imagine. They got to go to school there. It wasn’t our first trip across country. We’d driven from California to South Carolina to visit family when I was 18-months old and my mother was pregnant with my brother. Imagine driving an un-airconditioned car with a six-year old, a four-year old a toddler and a pregnant wife. You’d have to be drunk. He probably was. I don’t know what my mother was.
So that year, I sent Nana my list of what I wanted. The year before, my sister had asked for a black bride doll. This was not a common item in 1956, but Nana had found one. I have a picture of my sister clutching it. And I had asked for a blue-haired doll, again, not a common request. I have no idea how she found these things. I have no idea how we came up with such odd requests.
I sent Nana my list. We stayed in a shabby three bedroom one bath duplex on a busy Virginia roadway, dirty snow still melting, mailboxes out by the road. I remember the mailman stopping, walking up the gravel driveway, up to our door, with a huge box wrapped in crinkly brown paper and twine. My mom took the box, read the name on the front and looked at me. She smiled. “This one is for you,” she said.
She got a knife from the kitchen and opened the box. Inside were boxes. Lots of boxes. And each one was wrapped with birthday paper and ribbon. And inside each box was one thing from my list. That year my present was everything on my list. A babydoll with dollclothes, new dresses with matching hair ribbons and books and jewelry and a jewelry box with a ballerina that danced to Swan Lake when you opened the lid. Everything.
And there was a card. I still have the card. It has a duck on the front, fuzzy and yellow, swimming on a blue pond. Inside, in my grandmother’s spidery, pale blue fountain pen ink handwriting it says, “There’s a Pepsi in the icebox, waiting for you to come home.”
February 27, 2012 § 5 Comments
- Tomorrow is Ron’s birthday. He’s still a lot older than I am, but I am catching up! Two years ago I wrote an essay for him, and I am replaying it here with some minor updates, because it still applies. And because I can’t think of a way to put it any better. Here you go, sweetie. Happy Birthday:
Tomorrow my husband turns 67. Two days after that I turn 61. He is MUCH older than I am. I call him “Poor Ron.” I call him that because it can’t be easy, married to me. Poor Ron.
He is the one who quietly sets up the chairs for the party, sweeps the patio, puts ice on the drinks, extends the table, puts on the fire and vacuums the carpet.
He is the one who quietly breaks down the party, puts away the chairs, loads the dishwasher, takes out the garbage, recycles and the bottles and vacuums the carpet. He loads the washer and changes the tablecloth.
He is the one who asked me out to dinner when I was sitting at the table at the cohousing community he helped design and build. I was draped in toddlers. Max was about to be three, Emma was two and Maggie had just turned one. I was adopting them.
“What?” I said. “Are you asking me out to dinner?”
“Yes” he said.
“Are you drunk?”
“No,” he said.
Ron adopted us all. He loves a challenge.
He was the one who owned a 5-bedroom house and didn’t have a girlfriend. Build it and they will come, I think he was thinking.
He is the one who tried to seduce me with a legal concept, “inevitable discovery.” It’s exactly what it sounds like. It worked.
He told me that he’d lived in Hawaii for 13 years, teaching at the University and studying at the East West Center. I told him that I’d gone to high school in Hawaii and lived there later for a few years. “I was there,” I said. “Did you see me?”
He is the one who defends the bad guys, those on death row. He does not want to know if they “did it.” He doesn’t care. He stays removed and yet spends years and years and years of his life providing the best defense he can find to keep them alive. He just wants to keep them alive. He can stay removed and care at the same time. I don’t know how he does that. I can’t.
Sometimes the only thing that has kept us together is inertia. Sometimes not. He is funny, smart, kind and generous. He laughs at my jokes.
He is the one who came to my hospital bed every day for a month, who waited on me when I got home, who took care of everything. He abhors the death penalty. This does not apply to cats. We took Harriet to THE vet trip together when she was 19 and could no longer walk. He took Tibalt in alone, when I couldn’t walk.
He is the one I love.
He is the one who is there. He is the one who loves me, no matter what. He is the one who cares for us all and yet stays a little removed. Except from me. From me he is not removed. Poor Ron.
February 22, 2012 § 9 Comments
I saw Foster Friess on the news the other day saying that in his day women used aspirin for birth control. They held it between their knees, he pronounced, with a smarmy smug smile. My stomach lurched. Friess and his ilk would love for us to take a nice stroll down memory lane, take us back to the good old days they remember so fondly. Here’s what I remember.
I knew people who had diptheria. And small pox. And polio. Scarlet fever and whooping cough. All of us, people my age, had chicken pox and measles and mumps. Women my grandmother’s age had lots of children and often the babies died before they reached the age of five. Men had more than one wife, because women died in childbirth.
I remember women who had to go to Mexico to get abortions. Not theoretically. I know women who had to do this. Abortions were illegal until I was 22 years old. Even if you got pregnant from a rape. Even if you got pregnant from incest. And let’s talk about that for a second. We didn’t talk about rape and incest then. But it was the woman’s fault. She dressed wrong, or she was in the wrong neighborhood, or she lead the guy on. She did something.
Birth control was a pretty new idea then, too. Not much was available, and if you were a teenager, the only place you could go was Planned Parenthood. Just like now.
Jobs were listed in the paper under Help Wanted—Men and Help Wanted—Women. The jobs under Help Wanted—Women all paid a whole lot less than the ones under Help Wanted —Men. Even if the ones under Help Wanted—Men were ones that women could do. It didn’t matter. Don’t bother to apply. Men had families to support.
There was a swimming pool near our house called the Riverside Plunge. It was glorious, the place to go swimming in the summer with a long slide into 82 degree water. It was glorious if you were white. This was in the 1950s. It was legal for black kids to go. They just weren’t allowed in. Neither were the Japanese kids or the Chinese kids or the Mexican kids. They had to sit in the park across the street. It was torn down later and replaced by a Jewish Temple. Shalom.
I remember lying in my bed one night. My mother came home and told my father that there was a gas war on. I was terrified. I’d been fed cold war disaster scenario after scenario, from Tommy the Turtle telling students to hide under their desks in the event of a nuclear war, to civil defense instructions on how to build a bomb shelter in your backyard. I was really irritated with my dad for not building one. It turns out that a gas war was a competition between gas stations to sell the cheapest gasoline, and mom had found a bargain. I had nightmares for a week.
I read somewhere that by 1900, it had taken 150 years to double all human knowledge. Today it takes only 1-2 years, and by 2020, knowledge will double every 72 days, according to estimates. And some of these folks want to dismantle the department of education. Swell. Do we want our children homeschooled by people who think that President Obama is a Muslim terrorist?
So, the cold war is over, women rarely die in childbirth, kids don’t often get really sick and when they do we’re shocked. No one will make you get an abortion but if you choose to get one you can, and you won’t die in a back alley. Job ads read Help Wanted, period. And all the kids can go swimming. Hardly perfect but neither were the good old days.
And these morons, these aspirin-between-the-knees, these let’s-demolish-the-education -department, these let’s-go-back-to-the-good-old-days-white-neocon smug smarmy bastards want to take us back to ignorance, bigotry, hatred and intolerance? When they can’t win an argument by dealing with issues or facts they just go straight to personal attack. No thanks. I vote. And so do my kids. And so do my friends. I think November is going to wipe the smug off a lot of faces. I hope so.