Monday, December 26, 2011

Pro Bono

No, I am not a big U2 fan. I am not big fan of attorneys, either. But sometimes the lawyers do get it right.  “Pro bono” is a term derived from Latin translated “for good.”   Modern thought has it that it also means "for free," since it is work done for good for free. 

It’s hard to imagine the legal profession giving me anything this holiday season, but it has given me this one thought. For the good, the better and the best gifts in life are truly free.

There is no cost of a smile, a hug to reaffirm a connection, a well-deserved compliment, a true belly laugh after a dirty joke or a good deed for a loved one.

Just a smidgen of money is needed for an unexpected phone call to an old friend, a well thought-out letter on real paper or email, a sarcastic Facebook post (okay maybe just from me) or the running of an errand for someone who can’t or won’t do it for whatever reason.

Some would argue that it all involves time and “time is money,” but we waste so much money anyway.  Just go to any store this holiday season. In fact, go to a store today and see the bargain hunters or the lines for returns.  Do we really need a salad shooter? This year’s toy?  Or anything that will end up in a garage sale in a short six months?

So as I clean up the living room floor, organize new clothes and hand-down the old ones, figure out what needs to be kept or returned, I leave you with this:

                        The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.
                                                                -Ralph Waldo Emerson

For the last two months or so I have give you my thoughts, my words and some of my hopes and fears.  The rest I do save as a return gift to the legal profession.  But most of all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson so simply but eloquently put it, I have given you myself. Pro bono.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The First Noel....

The First Noel, the Angels did say

Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay

In fields where they lay keeping their sheep

On a cold winter's night that was so deep.

There is nothing like new life to bring down sorrow, grief and an unhealthy dose of self-pity.  I just adopted a 6 month-old black labrador retriever and her name from the rescue is Noel.

A fitting name given the season.  Wikipedia, my quick yet often inadequate peripheral brain (It mirrors my own!) , tells me Noel (also spelled Nowell or Noël) is the alternate word for Christmas. The word comes from the French word Noël derived from the Old French word noël, a variant of nael. The Latin origin is the word natalis ("birth"). Ah, Mr. Kaster my old Latin professor and general sadist would be so proud.

Me, the poor shepherd needs help in keeping my sheep.

Yes,  it is time for “birth”  or perhaps the  “rebirth” I so desperately need.  We will change her name according to my girls' wishes.  They settled on the name “Darcy” meaning “dark’ in Gaelic. Our trip to Ireland in December 2008 had a certain celtic influence.  The name also conjures up a certain “Mr. Darcy” every literate female’s idea of a perfect man.  But I will keep the Noel and abbreviate her name as N. Darcy similar to my favorite romance author. 

She will of course have “Nana” as a middle name.  Someone needs to take care of me, the shepherd, after all.

Welcome N. Darcy Nana.  Good thing I waited on replacing the living room rug.  May you find peace, happiness, love and an endless supply of chew bones under my tree for many years to come.  And help keep the  flock away from all those wolves.

Joyeux Noel!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dances with Skeletons

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance."
                                    -George Bernard Shaw

 There are so many skeletons in my ethnic family closet, they are having a dance-off to the Charleston, disco, polkas, waltzes and even hip-hop.  And I am delighted by their moves.

I do genealogy.  My inner nerd is not so inner I’m afraid. I am not sure it was hidden in the first place.  I have spent hours in dusty library stacks, blinded by microfilm readers, sloshing through graveyards both here and abroad, and on-line for hours to uncover generations upon generations of Polish and Irish relatives.  Some have lived glorious lives.  Some have died homeless and had to be identified in morgues.  It is my gift to succeeding generations as both a personal history lesson and a warning.  Someday, maybe my great-great grandchildren will appreciate the efforts.

My sister and I started on this journey some 20 years ago now.  It began with us looking at an address book of my late mother.  We could not identify many of the people in that book nor their relationships to our relatively small immediate family.  We had wonderful help though.  Our aunt had a near encyclopedic memory of her large Polish family, even down to the many permutations of their ethnic surnames and even the strange nicknames they picked up along the way.  We had “Cookie” and “Junie”, “Stanley” became “Charlie," and the best story was how a very Polish surname became “Burke”.  It seemed in the Irish-controlled railroad industry of the early 1900’s, only Irish were hired.  My Polish grandfather and his brother were American-born and spoke English without accents. They also were both blond-haired and blue-eyed.  Overnight they became the “Burke Brothers," assumed new identities,gained employment and fed their families.    Their obituaries  reflected both names.  I admire their survival techniques. Without such guile, I am not sure I would be writing this today.

It's hard to tell the saints from the sinners in this vast ethnic cast of characters. Their stories could spin either way.

Ironically my Irish side were not that creative even though they arrived in the United States early in the 1870’s.  My mother often talked of “The Tombs” in New York City. "The Tombs” was the colloquial name for the Manhattan Detention Center  known for its deplorable conditions.  Little did I know that she had at least second hand experience.  I have spent hours in the NYC Municipal Archives and finally found the reason for her stories.  My great-grandfather spent many years as a guest of the NYC municipal government for petty crimes.  This side of the family had a different approach to feeding its family it seems. My great grandfather was not the only one, unfortunately.  There are very personal reasons why a fourth cousin writes gangster and espionage books. I wish that he would write that thinly-veiled roman a clef he spoke to me about sometime ago.  Or perhaps he has?

More of the cast include prominent government figures in Poland right up to the presidency, people who perished at the hands of the German occupation of Poland, Irish Jesuits priests who founded missions in Kansas,  famine victims, attorney generals and so on.  All in all, my family’s story is a very personal companion to the dry history often found in books. I delight in telling these stories to my girls. Someday I am hoping to organize it better than the messy binders in my home office. If I am really ambitious, I hope to digitalize everything.  I better live to a ripe old age because I know that will take me a lifetime.

So dance skeletons.  You don’t scare me.  Just pick a good tune from any generation. Maybe Trent Reznor's new haunting version of Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song?" I am not sure how one dances to heavy metal except head banging.  I am doing that aplenty anyway lately. Just be assured that someone is listening, watching and soon will have some digital notes. You are not truly dead if you live in the thoughts of the living.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Beautiful Strangers

Every family has them it seems.  Relatives who, for whatever reason, are estranged.  My late mother never talked to her sister in the twenty years I had with my mother.  I never met my only first cousins as a child.  It was not until I was 34 and doing some family history that I was brave enough to write a simple letter to my aunt explaining who I was, what I was doing and why I contacted her. 

We met in her house back in 1996.  She could not have been lovelier.  I met for the first time her husband, my uncle and one first cousin, who had a delightfully infectious laugh. My aunt was gracious and kind and had the same Bronx accent of my mother.  I also noticed she had some of the same eerie mannerisms of my mother: the way she drank her coffee, cleared her throat and even the way she wiped her lip with her napkin.  We shared stories of my crazy grandmother, her even crazier brothers and even my pious grandfather.  It was an amazing day.

We have had several lovely dinners together since and have become good friends. She never forgets my children’s birthdays or Christmas.  My aunt was one of the few people who called me to make sure I was okay after my father’s death.  Like a few close friends, it meant so much to me.

Why do we do this to each other?  Are our differences so great that years don’t diminish whatever silly argument started the first rift?  How can blood be thicker than water yet often can separate out like oil and water?

I have heard other families with similar stories.  Are we just too proud to admit mistakes? Are we just so intolerant of others’ ideas or lifestyles and the fact we are related make those ideas or lifestyles even more intolerable? Are we so interested in "saving face" that we become strangers?

I asked my Aunt what happened between her and my mother.  Her answer was glib and seemed to indicate that my grandmother was behind the “whole thing”.  No particulars were offered. Neither my grandmother nor mother is alive to collaborate any story.  I didn’t push. Maybe some things are best forgotten.

I will simply never really know.  But I treasure the time that I can spend with my aunt as a mother-substitute and good friend.  Next time I will bring the coffee and napkins as long as she supplies that wonderful Bronx accent.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Unoccupied Main Street

Just a minute... just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was... why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what's wrong with that? Why... here, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You... you said... what'd you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken down that they... Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you'll ever be!

-George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life

My father was a pack rat.  Digging through his papers is like a walk through time.  I found his certificate for being a crossing guard in 1939, my siblings’ immunization records, a recipe for baby formula vintage 1959 and a 1964 Tax return.  Do I have a job on my hands.

I have scouted the area for various consignment stores to unload some of the more non-collectable things.  I don’t think I have the time nor patience for Craig’s List or eBay.  What I have noticed in my scouting is such an abundance of empty storefronts.  If that is not a sign of the economic times.  Locally, an entire Mall will be demolished.  It was one of the malls where Saturday Night Live would parody the “Scotch Tape Store”.  In the boomtown 1980’s, pre-on-line shopping, these stores cropped up like mushrooms on a cloudy day.  Thirty years later we are left with the aftermath.

Going back to my father’s bountiful paper booty, I found the most curious thing.  It was a loan note for my grandparents’ first house bought in 1949.  It was not a bank note but rather a loan from the “The Sons of Polish Charter” for $5700.  It was a promissory note with full details of payment and penalties.

It made me think of both “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the bank troubles today.  We have long left a society where ethnic groups help one another. We have “progressed” to financial services that few of us understand and perhaps only 1% profit from.  There’s derivatives upon derivatives and financial “products” that seem fine on paper but try to collect on it and the mountains of paperwork are staggering. There is always some penalty or fee that diminishes the real return.  Meanwhile, the theory of ‘micro-loans” in other countries wins people Nobel prizes.

I am not a financial wizard by any stretch of the imagination, but when you take ordinary people out of the equation of savings and loans, it leads to a system of abandonment, just like those empty storefronts. We are just cattle. George Bailey knew his customers and neighbors because they were the same people.  My grandparents were members of the the Sons of the Polish Charter. You are less likely to default on your neighbor or friend.  Does Bank of America know you?

Monday, December 5, 2011


Some other parents make me crazy.  Parent meetings at various schools can be nightmares.  Parenting in 2011 seems to  involve a one-upmanship on how to be an ass.  I go to meetings and quietly sit. A lot of what I hear in conversation is what they restrict Johnny or Jane on today. I am quiet at these meetings.  I embarrass my children enough. The noes are drowning out the yeses.

“Johnnie’s on a gluten-free peanut- free sugar- free nutrition- free diet!”  We used to wonder, “What Johnny reads?”  Now I wonder what Johnny eats. Johnny, by the way, is 300 pounds.

“I limit TV to only 2 minutes on alternating Fridays when there is a new moon.” Meanwhile Jane just had a bat mitzvah and hired Justin Bieber (actually true in my daughter's school). Apparently there is no restriction on the cost of entertainment.

“Vaccinations?  I told my pediatrician that I need to have an alternative schedule that will be completed upon Johnny’s eighteenth birthday or death, whichever comes first.”  Johnny just had a case of whooping cough and infected three other restricted kids.

“I restrict the Internet to 4 minutes per day and only on educational items.”  Jane got the most out of her 4 minutes and just paid an online service to write her history paper.

With the exception of  the Justin Bieber story, these are exaggerations.  But the sentiment is there.  It’s a competition on being a more stupidly restrictive parent.  Are they getting this from some App? Available on Siri? They no longer talk of Johnny’s or Jane's accomplishments; They talk of their own unfounded boundaries like it’s a badge of honor. This is not the way iParent.

I remember being at a Christmas party about a year ago and I made a marbled chocolate cheesecake. It actually came out right for a change, no large cracks, underdone middle or funky crust. There was a toddler there happily eating some off her mother's plate.  Another parent seemed aghast at the small child eating such a treat.  "I would never let my child eat cheesecake!" she exclaimed.  The toddler's mother and I each gave each other a puzzled look as if to say: "Okay, you get the gold star for today’s limitations." Has anyone heard of moderation lately? Now what does Jane and Johnny really do?

The funny thing is that the kids are always going to be two steps ahead.  I know mine are and that’s the way it should be. I was always two steps ahead of my parents. It's not a lack of vigilance; it’s the law of nature. It's called progress.

I am a liberal parent.  I parent in the "why not" as opposed to the "why." Restrict too much, they will either go crazy when they have freedom or worse, not know how to handle stressful situations.  No,  I don’t censor.  Go ahead use the Internet. See R-rated things.  Most good movies are rated R. Better on the screen than in a real life drama. You see most of that violence on simulated video games anyway.  The sex? Well, that can be tricky. If you don’t understand something, ask.  Ask me, a teacher or someone else who might know the answer. Google it.  It will be your peripheral brain. I certainly do not have all the answers. Be curious. Go ahead and taste everything.  ( I consciously made them drink any kind of formula as babies, eat everything as toddlers and ignored the forays of eating dirt or having Purell® in a holster whipping it out every time  they touched any surface.) Have pets. Visit zoos and barnyards. Your immune system will thank me.  Please go on sleepovers, camping trips and every school outing.  If I didn't trust the other parents, teachers or counselors, you wouldn't be going. See how other people live, eat, and sleep.  You will be a more tolerant person. Trust me and I will trust you. Most of all trust yourself. Read everything you can. Including warnings, many warnings. And the consequences if you don't heed those warnings.  Make sound and educated judgments.  See the world.  Make your own decisions.  I will not be here,  nor do you want me to be here,  all your life. Most of all,  make mistakes.  That is the only way to learn.  Maybe someday it will be uParent and that better not be too soon. Remember the warnings. Yes, sex can be tricky. Sometimes the noes make the yeses even better.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Middle Ages

“I like middle age.  There’s no time for bulls**t.”
                             -famed Romance novelist Gwyn Cready

No, this is not a history lesson.  Bad history teachers in high school turned me permanently away from studying any history beyond the state required American History in senior year.  I still have nightmares that I never took a history class.  Subsequent scary stories of people camping out to get a particular history professor in college also turned me away. I was never into idol worship. I read history on the sly now.  No tests involved. No grades to be worried about. Sam Cooke was right:  "Don’t know much about history"…..Well, maybe. Just don’t test me.

No, this is about Middle Age, the time when you are numerically a bit past the mid-part of life. Think of the Roman God Janus, where the name of the month January is derived. He is two-faced, looking ahead yet also looking back.  He symbolizes transitions, doorways, and thresholds. January happens to be my birth month. What irony. My next birthday is not going to be pretty.  It’s a pivotal one.  Not for the faint-hearted.  Suddenly, I am old.  I get AARP mailings. 

I worry about the things most middle-aged women worry about.  Aging certainly has its advantages but obvious disadvantages. Two-faced Janus again.  You think more, are less judgmental, less critical and sometimes learn to keep your mouth shut.  You are open to more things. You are less tolerant of other things. But then you look at yourself.  The wrinkles stare back.  You entertain the thought of plastic surgery but fear you will end up looking worse then when you started.  I think of Priscilla Presley.  Yikes. Good thing Elvis is dead or her plastic face would have killed him by now. Your body doesn’t feel nor act the same way anymore.  Besides the menopausal nonsense, clothes don’t fit as well, shoes seem to get flatter and uglier.  Forget the “F**k-me” pumps for so, so, so many reasons. Manolo Blahniks?  Anyone who would spend greater than $400 on one pair of shoes needs to have a bridge sold to them. You dread having to shop with your teenage daughters.  Forever 21? No one stays 21 forever, my dear.

Careers start to change.  You reach a certain point and wonder if I will be doing this same thing for the next 17-20 years. Some people in my profession start to think about not recertifying in their specialty, contemplating the end of careers. Given the direction of American Medicine, I don’t blame them. It’s easy choosing that route given that recertification now requires so many steps. Ultimately, it ends with fingerprinting, photographs and now palm imprints every time you sign into the exam after breaks.  Not fun but probably necessary. Some pre-meds never grow up.

Should I have been more open to other things in college, not only history, but other subjects instead of having pre-med tunnel vision?  I took a course in economics a few years ago.  I stayed away from Econ in college.  It was a typical introduction to Macro and Micro-economics at the local state university.  I loved the courses.  I got a very satisfying A in both. Goody for me. But did I really learn to maximize my utility? 

Many people get sick, really sick.  Slowly, you hear of friends undergoing real illnesses and dying.  As a young physician, you always seemed somehow protected from illness. You studied the enemy for years, witnessed its formidable consequences and someone else's research gave you the tools to fight.  It was always them not me. Not so much anymore.  Those tables are turned now. We are the ones with the cholesterol in the 200’s, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and osteoarthritis.  We vainly try to stave off these maladies by suddenly eating right and exercising. It helps, but it's just one more minute-to minute struggle and regret of the years when we ate foolishly and sat on our asses.  The clock is ticking. You can’t drown out the noise.

Our parents are leaving us just as our children exhaust us.  Sometimes, you are no longer someone’s child anymore.  Not truly an orphan but you miss their remembrances and guidance even if it involved screaming matches and fist-pounding. You have stepped up to the front of the line whether you like it or not. If that’s not enough, you parent the next generation.  Now two sets of child-like behaviors to worry about.  There’s nothing like the ends of the driving spectrum to keep you up at night: a newly minted 16 year old driver and a 92 year old aunt who just renewed her license.  I am not sure which one is the scarier. At least my aunt doesn’t know how to text and drive.

Many marriages don’t survive this reflective time or in the ones that appear happy, there seems to be an undercurrent of self-doubt.   The old Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is?” comes to mind.  Maybe there is more out there?  Maybe there’s more in here? Maybe “just keep dancing...... and break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all, there is.”

Maybe I do know something about history Mr. Cooke.  Mine certainly. I have seen my past and it doesn’t predict the future.  I am old now. Not sure I like it yet though. Time to grow up. No more bulls**t. If that’s all there is.