Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy, Happy Day

A wish that everyone has enough food, warmth, and love today -- and always.


Monday, November 19, 2012

A Hero's Life

Well, I heard something on the radio today that made me cry -- in a good way. On our local NPR station here in Boston, I heard an interview with Benjamin Zander. Maestro Zander is a major presence in the Boston music scene (and also somewhat notorious after a lapse in judgment cost him his job leading the youth orchestra at the New England Conservatory). I don't think I'd ever heard him speak until today.

He was talking about his new venture, the Boston Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. These kids are the creme de la creme of young instrumentalists, and they gather together in the South End to make music with Zander. On the radio today he was taking them through Richard Strauss's tone poem "Ein Heldenleben," also known as “A Hero’s Life” (it's about a warrior on the battlefield). And before he let them play, Mr. Zander talked to these kids about, well, Life.

What he said was this (I'm paraphrasing): No matter how great a warrior you are, you cannot make it in life alone. We were put here with other people because we NEED each other, and together we can do great things.

That is a message I wholly believe in, and I have written about it on this blog before. No man is an island, you know?

But here's what made me cry. Zander talked about his father, a refugee from Nazi Germany. He, like so many others (my grandparents included) lost everything in that darkness: family, friends, home, homeland, identity, language, and hope.

So, after the war Zander's father went to England with his wife, and his Dad ended up in a DP camp (I believe they had separate camps fr men and women).  This camp was full of men who had also lost everything, and they did nothing all day but gaze dully at the barbed wire that contained them and the world beyond it.

But Zander's father wanted to Live, and one day he said to the others, "Let's start a university. Here, in this barb-wired camp." They had no classrooms, no textbooks, paper, pencils. They had nothing you'd need to start a university, except for one thing: a collection of learned people. It's no secret that Germany bled itself of much of its intellectual and artistic elite in the 30s and 40s. And here were a bunch of them. Defeated? Maybe, for the time being. Hollow? Probably. But they were still full of possibility if they could recover the will to thrive. And if they could work together instead of standing around, isolated and depressed, each man alone.

The elder Zander must have been as inspiring as his son, because without the physical tools of learning, they all went (or went back) to university. They simply talked about ideas. There were a bunch of "courses" running at any given time, and these men were students and professors. This was something they could only do together, and I have no doubt it kept them alive -- intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. This was a humble thing and a grand thing, all rolled into one.

When Maestro Zander told that story about his father and his fellow travelers I thought of my grandfather with the sad eyes, how he started over with nothing, a doorman in Manhattan. My grandmother working as a nanny to two little girls while relatives looked after her own little girls -- and later, sewing in a factory. They had been crushed in Germany but to a large extent they recovered -- because in New York they found a community of people who shared their goals, and who wanted each other to succeed. These people had each others' backs.

So when I heard Benjamin Zander talking about that very thing today, I shivered.

It was that beautiful.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

O Yeah!

Many readers of this blog know that I am a writer. Yesterday I sold my first piece to a multi-million circulation magazine. This is cause for celebration -- not simply because many more people will encounter my work (which of course makes me very happy), but also because it gives me a tremendous boost after a long period of feeling like I'm treading water.

It is also a very well-paying venue and that's a new experience for me. The most I've ever gotten for a short piece (story, essay) is around 50 bucks and a dollop of prestige. My Dickens book, which was published by one of the top two or three university presses in the world, probably earned me about $500 in royalties over the past 14 years. This one, short essay will earn me more than six times that. That's a credit card paid off. Or two semesters of conservatory tuition for Saskia.

Woo hoo!

The piece will be published in O, The Oprah Magazine. I don't yet know when, but I'm hoping pretty soon. I'll let you know (this may require blowing my cover -- I am still trying to make a decision on that one).

It's called "Falsies." I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Upstairs, Downstairs

I’ve been feeling nostalgic for our old house in Boston. This was a three-story, two-family, beige-clapboard-and-white-gingerbread house, tucked away on a tiny private way off a fairly busy street. Even though the house was in the city of Boston it butted up against a high, wooded slope, and we saw lots of interesting critters there, all the time. (Except, when we saw that dead rat in our dungeon basement? That was not interesting.) Wonderful snails with beige and brown and burgundy whorled shells, raccoon eyes glittering in trees at night, skunks, hummingbirds, tons of bats. Those animals couldn’t care less that they were living within the city limits. Our lot was a hospitable one. I liked that.
(NOT the actual Delaunay Manse.)

Our tenants were my brother and sister-in-law, R-- and J--. (Longtime readers of this blog might remember that we could not agree on their blog-names. Rick?? Jackie?? REALLY? they howled. So they have become, in the grandest 18th-century literary tradition, R—and J--.) R—and J—lived on the first floor, and Lars, baby Saskia, later Baby Benjy, and I lived on floors two and three.

That was an interesting house. I blogged here about the triangular cut-out at the top of the stairs, and Benjy’s first real pronouncement to the world, uttered while peering through it. Other interesting features were the stairs themselves, which I (okay, J--, because I am basically domestic-project-impaired) painted in awesome alternating colors – peach, sage green, and yellow, as I recall.  It was like walking up the stairs at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or something; I kept expecting they’d sing out notes with each footfall.

 (Musical stairs are an actual phenomenon at Children’s Hospital in Boston. One or the other of my kids and I race down those melodious stairs at least once a month, and we love them.)

Anyway, by far the most interesting things about that house were the male inhabitants of it. Namely, Lars and R--.  Now, if you include my Dad, you have the trifecta of my favorite men in the wide world. These are good peoples. But R—and Lars – and maybe Dad, too – are, uh, a little eccentric.

R—will dispute this to the death, but Lars and Dad will grinningly admit it.

All three of them are nuts. But because R—thinks he's NOT, Lars’s nuttiness seems amplified to him. He just shakes his head at Lars’s antics and says, “Geez, Anna.”

For example. As a German, Lars has a Green Gene tucked away in his DNA. They all do. (No offense, German Friends. This is a GOOD THING.) He is OBSESSED with things like recycling, composting, cleaning litter up off the street (he always comes home from dog-walks around the neighborhood clutching dripping beer cans and chip packets and stuff like that. He picks up after the neighbors.)

So in the interest of conserving water at the old house, Lars decided he might rig up a system, involving a garden hose, a skylight, and gravity, that would drain the water from our bathtub into the backyard garden, such as it was.

 “The water is soapy,” I argued.

“This is no problem,” he answered. “The plants are hardy.”

“Okay, but it’s weird,” I told him. “What will the neighbors think?”

He looked at me pityingly and went about his business.

Where this gets really funny is the part when I tell R—and J—about it. We’re hanging out at their place, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze, and I mention that Lars has had another crazy, crazy idea.

“What is it?” they ask with a smirk. They know it’s going to be a howler.

I roll my eyes. “He’s going to drain our bathwater into the garden. To water the flowers.”

J-- shrieks with laughter.  R—looks stricken. STRICKEN.  “But,” he says when he recovers, “I WALK out there. Barefoot, sometimes.”

“Yeah?” I say.

“Well,” he says delicately, “you guys have a Jacuzzi tub. Would I be wrong in assuming you, ah, get in there together sometimes?”

I see where this is headed. “We have on occasion,” I say in as blasé a manner as possible. “We just wash, though. And talk. About life.”

R— looks pained. He’s not buying it. “That,” he says sternly, “Is GROSS. Not the joint bath but the issue from that bath IN OUR BACKYARD. I can never go out there again. J--?? Don’t let the dog out there. We might have to move.”

J— says, “C’mon, Muvvy.” (That’s her nickname for R--. She nicknames everything, and the nicknames change regularly. She’s cute.) “It’s not a big deal.”

Muvvy looks like he’s about to throw up. Did I mention he’s crazy?

“Okay, look,” I say. “There’s a VERY good chance that this will never happen. You know Lars. He rarely gets around to anything.”

This seems to work. R— takes a cautious sip of his coffee. He does not throw up.

Dear Readers, I will save for another time the story about the basement flood and Lars lying on his stomach in the muddy driveway sucking water out of a hose. (Yes, hoses seem to be a recurring theme at the old manse, don’t they?)

My husband really is one of a kind.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Visit From My Good Fairy

So, a lovely thing happened today. A wonderful thing.

A letter came in the mail, and tucked in the letter, a gift. These things came from a couple who mean the world to me. Old and treasured family friends, contemporaries of my parents. I've known them since, what, ninth grade? And they are Good Folks.

How many Thanksgivings have our families celebrated together, over the years? I couldn't begin to count. My brother and I grew up with their kids. We swam in their pool. I admired them for their compassion and their civic-mindedness. I once, drowning in teenage anguish, crashed my car gently into the tree in front of their house. I wanted to die, but not really. So that was a safe tree, in case I got a little hurt. People who cared about me lived there.

I was fine, physically. My parents' car wasn't. Not sure about the poor tree but I think it's still standing.

This letter and the generous gift tucked inside make me feel a lot of feelings. Gratitude and love, most of all.

Here's the best part of all: "I have been reading your blog postings and am amazed at what you have gone through and yet there is a smile in your writing. You are (there's that word again) an amazing woman."

Thank you, my Dear DB!! I don't think I am amazing at all. I'm simply making the best of the cards we've been dealt and trying to remember that compared to a lot of other people's hands they are not too bad. A pair of deuces, maybe, or fives. Not close to a royal flush but much better than a random assortment of number cards that don't add up. Absolutely.

The Delaunay Hand

Not The Delaunay Hand

The way these friends reached out today does raise a question in my mind, which I've struggled with before: how much should I reveal in this blog? When is it just -- as Saskia and Ben would say -- TMI? I have blogged about being broke many times over the past year (and triumphed in some ingenious frugalities I've engaged in), but when people start sending checks I have to consider whether it's the right thing. Because the LAST thing I want is for anyone to read a plea in any of these revelations. I don't know anyone, really -- well, maybe just one or two people -- who are doing so well they can just cavalierly write a check to help out a friend.

But I am sure of one thing: the gift we received today was sent out of love.

Anyway, I write about our impecuniousness and other problems for a few reasons, none of which have to do with hoping for a handout:

  • Writing about my challenges is therapeutic.
  • Writing about adversity helps me locate my sense of humor about things (usually!).
  • People need to know about the costs, to families, of disability.
  • I think it helps others going through similar difficulties to see they are not alone.
  • I love it -- LOVE IT -- when folks I don't know (and those I do) connect with me via this blog.
  • And finally, as Mr. Sleary, the circus ringmaster, says so eloquently in Dickens's Hard Times, "The people mutht be entertained, Thquire!" If this blog is helping anyone procrastinate at work or at home, and maybe eliciting some smiles, then my job here is done.
So I guess I'll keep it up.

I had a visit from my good fairy today, and it made me very, very happy.

I love you, D and H!!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Larsapalooza Take II

Okay, can I just say I am married to a great guy?



Lars has been out there knocking on doors to help get out the vote for about seven hours now, with an hour lunch break. We started together but I pooped out after two hours. (Truth be told I had a tutoring client to torture into completing some boring work, but really, I'd have pooped out after two hours anyway.)

So there he goes, trudging through some VERY high-rent districts in Newton, his feet chilly in those Birkenstocks he MUST wear year-round -- especially as he happens also to be wearing socks that encourage his big toes to peep out  (look, it's true, I'm living with a hobo).

He actually finished the first round of canvassing around forty-five minutes ago. I urged him to come home for hot cider. He said, "I will. Unless they need me some more."

I replied, "Really, Lars. You have done enough."

He said, "But if they go down on their knees and beg?"

"In that case," I told him, "I'll think it over."

Of course, he just called and said he was doing another round. I reminded him we were supposed to be at an election party, like, twenty minutes ago. He said, "That can wait. This is important, voting is important. I'm making the only contribution I can today."

He said that because he is what I like to refer to as our "resident alien." He's a German citizen, not an American -- yet.

The best moment we shared today while canvassing together was when a guy came out of a gardening truck -- no one in the pricey Boston burbs seems to do their own lawn work -- and smiled broadly at us. He knew what we were up to, and for which candidates we were braving the cold.

"I voted today," he called out happily, in thickly accented English. "My first time!"

I knew what he meant. "Are you a new citizen?" I asked him, and he nodded emphatically.

"Congratulations!" we said. "Good for you!"

"I voted for Warren, and for Obama," he said. "And voting was wonderful. It meant I count."

I gave him two thumbs up. What a great moment that was! I wish we all felt that sense of counting, and being counted, at election time.

And Lars is out there still, reudging through the dark, making sure it happens for everyone.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Art of Focus

I have utterly lost my focus.

In the days leading up to Benjy's first hospitalization I was a wreck, but fairly on-task. I was still teaching college English, and once or twice a week in the month preceding his crash Ben would accompany me to class, because his school had figuratively and sometimes literally let him go, unable to handle his pervasive panic and acts of self-harm. Pale and off-kilter, with wild, curling hair, long untouched and a startling contrast to his wasted body, Ben sat in the front of my class, trying to hide his bloody fingertips from my students and playing Club Penguin.

His very palpable presence was not a great distraction to me. I covered his ears in a jokey way when the class  discussion veered toward things sexual or transgressive -- blame the text, Readers, not me!  -- and otherwise carried on. I was pained, in those days, but fairly focused.

When he went off to Westwood Lodge, his first psychiatric hospital, for a single week, something changed. I suddenly had a hard time prepping my classes. I kept thinking about Benjy instead of the readings, or my students' writing. I was also thinking about money and insurance and my devastated parents and Saskia and Lars and how the hell I was going to make my boy better. Those days I walked about campus in a trance, looking right through my students when we crossed paths (then again, they did the same to me). I was simply absent.

And I was exhausted.

After that first hospitalization, when things seemed better (but of course that was not to last) I dug back in and finished the semester in pretty good form. Got my usual excellent evaluations. My next semester's courses filled up with repeat customers. (I was either a really good teacher or an easy grader. Possibly both.)

I had not yet lost my groove.

The problem is that two more hospitalizations followed over the next two years. One lasted almost a month; I started this blog when Ben was halfway through that one. The third, which ended just a few weeks ago, lasted almost three weeks. And I never really recovered from either of them.

Over the past two years I became unable to work. I mean, between calls from the school to pick him up and a zillion medical and therapy appointments, and the two or three days a week when he could not get out of bed to face the world, I lost the ability to be an employee. Even a mediocre one. When I did make it to class I could not bring myself to give a crap about thesis statements or short stories or the art of persuasion. Because my kid was going down, and I was going down with him. And not even my beloved literature could trump that.

Even when things are going relatively well -- on days like today, when Benjy goes off willingly to school and seems alert and not depressed and has actually eaten food of some sort (though not necessarily GOOD food) -- I don't seem to get anything done.

I write a bounty of lists. Check any flat surface in my house and you will find a few of them. Most have only one or two items out of ten or so checked off. Because I find myself drawn to rest and silence. I sit on my couch and stare. I listen to music sometimes, and sometimes I watch TV. I clean my kitchen a few times a day (funny how once is never enough), and I TRY -- I really, really do -- to pay bills. I have been promising the same growing stack of medical bills for weeks now that I'd get them sorted out. But the problem with those hospital bills is they keep coming in. And I am losing my mind over them. Not only because they are bleeding us DRY -- and believe me, we were dry to begin with -- but because I have lost track of what's been paid and what hasn't. Is this a NEW $500 charge from Children's or a second (or third) reminder about an old $500 charge? Didn't I already pay for that battery of blood tests? Or was that the battery from a few months ago?

I am so damn battered from these batteries of blood tests I could scream. Since September 2010 I have had two sick children, as long-term readers of this blog will know (for newcomers, my daughter Saskia is developing lupus), and the costs are dragging us under. All I've got to do is sort through the rapidly multiplying bills (yes, the cancer metaphor was deliberate) and pay what needs to be paid. It shouldn't be that hard, apart from the empty bank account, which is a bit of an impediment.

But I have lost my focus.

When feeling kindly disposed toward myself I think, Anna, you have been in the trenches of disability and illness for ten years. Some of those years you have held down a full-time job AND the full-time jobs of running a household and serving as primary parent. (Lars is a great Dad but most of the kid stuff lands on my plate.) You are simply EXHAUSTED.

But mostly I just feel like the ultimate slacker mom. The lame Hausfrau.

Somehow, I have got to get my groove back. Beyond lots of strong coffee I have no idea what it's going to take but I'm working on it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What Happens When We Read Novels (World, I'm Talking to You)

Here's a pop quiz for a chilly Thursday morning: why should we read books, and especially novels? There was a time when novels – as far as the Brits were concerned, French novels in particular – were thought to be bad for you because they were all about frivolity. The act of reading them was frivolous and so was their content (sex, anyone?).  In the 19th century novels took over; everyone was gobbling them up. And in this century and the last, they have enjoyed a special status in Western culture.

This is a good thing.

Why? Hold on a bit. Because this is really a larger question about the world in which we live. Not just our American world, although yes, I am talking about Americans in this election season. But ALL of us.

Have you noticed that we don’t see each other as people anymore? I’m not referring to our mothers or our friends or co-workers or bosses (okay, maybe our bosses), but THE PEOPLE ON THE OTHER SIDE. Of the political spectrum. Of the tracks. Of the earth. The folks who speak differently or eat different foods than we do. (However, I WILL draw the line at understanding folks who eat fried tarantulas. I’m sorry, I just CANNOT fathom that.)

Here in America we have become so polarized – and I’m not excluding myself – that we cannot hear each other talk. We cannot converse. We can't look at each other’s faces without revulsion, or at least dismay. We are symbols to each other, and that’s about it. Symbols of that “type” who believes X. That “race” who does Y.

This, Readers, is a danger to us all. I am as guilty of it, in the political sphere, as anyone else. And it has got to stop.

You know, those folks on the Other Side (whatever side that might be) feel shivery when they are close to the person they desire, just like you and I do. They get hungry. Sometimes they are kind, and sometimes not, just like us. They have parents (if they are lucky) and kids (ditto). Maybe they love cats, or ferrets, or goldfish, or dogs. Maybe they don’t. Some of them live gentle lives, some of them do not. Just like us.

I need the reminder, just like you probably do.

The people on the Other Side don’t share our opinions. We don’t like theirs. But for Pete’s sake, if we can’t TALK to them about it instead of screaming at our TVs we are all sunk. If we can’t hear each other and – here it is, folks – EMPATHIZE with The Other, our nation and our world is going to die a painful moral death. (I use “moral” in its most liberal sense of justice and kindness and respect to all people.) And that will be ugly.

It already is ugly. Benjy knows this. And he is freaked out by the news. I listen to the relatively quiet voice of NPR in the car and even that is too much.

Ben: Turn it off! It scares me!

Me: But Ben, it’s politics. An election is happening. It’s important.

Ben: It stresses me out. PLEASE turn it off.

Me, sighing (because I am OBSESSED with this election): Oh-kay.

I find it ironic that all those shooting games he plays don’t stress him out but Nina Totenberg does. And yet, I get it. I do.  He hears the way we are yelling at each other without listening. He notices that our world does not seem to practice empathy -- at least, not so much in the public sphere. And that is a scary thing for a boy whose emotional universe is always off-kilter. Whose life is ruled by anxiety and depression at the best of times.

So, you ask. What about books?

Well, here’s what I think. I think every CEO in this world should be required to read Dickens’s Hard Times, and then read it again. And every hedge fund manager should have to read Dickens’s Little Dorrit.

And the rest of us should read, read, read, too. Because novels help us to walk in other people’s shoes. They teach us EMPATHY.

So, Readers, what books do you think we should be reading? And what should be required reading for the President, whoever he ends up being, and Congress? Comment!