Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Picture This

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you
        -Bookends Simon and Garfunkel

Yesterday, I received a letter from the parish where my late father’s funeral was held.  They celebrate a mass for all who have died in the past year.  As a tribute and as identification, they request a picture from the family to form a collage.  In fine Roman Catholic Church tradition, the obligatory donation is also requested.

I have many pictures of my father.  One even dates back to 1928, the year of his birth.  My grandmother is standing holding him as an infant with an old Jersey City tenement in the background.  My grandmother is wearing a short bob and laced up shoes as was stylish in the 1920’s. Her blue eyes beaming brightly as a lighter contrast in the black and white picture.

I have tons of other photos that chronicle his life.  A communion photo, rooftop photos,  a baseball photo, yearbook photos and his wedding photo.  There are progressive ones with just my sister as an infant, then me, then my brother. More recent ones are with his successive grandchildren, first with my sister's  boys then my girls. One showing him carving pumpkins with my girls some years ago is one of my favorites. The last photo taken was in the assisted living facility.  It is the saddest of all as it documents in full technicolor his sad decline.

But the one I chose was the most classic one of all.  It is from 1953.  It is a photo of him with a cigarette girl at the Latin Club in Manhattan at his bachelor party.  I have posted it on Facebook in the past.  It has become one of my favorites. In it, he is young, randy, impeccably dressed,  irreverent, so full of life, invincible against his smoking habit, and beaming at the very attractive cigarette girl.

Nice, Dad.

The Church didn’t much care for my irreverent joke at his mass.  I thought the old priest would have a stroke when I announced not the perfunctory “Readings from the Gospel of so and so.”  Instead I announced a  “Reading from the Book of George Carlin,” and waited for the laugh that didn't come.  Let's put it this way, good comedians know their audience.  I am clearly not a good comedian.  Despite my age, I was scolded by my aunt and frowned upon by many cousins.  

On some more shit lists yet again.

But my father would have gotten the joke.  I would have initially gotten a fist-pounding “Jesus Christ!” out of him but then a hysterical laugh. I can see him smirking as he shook his head, proud that his often irreverent style was not lost on the succeeding generation.

 I think he would get the joke of this picture too.

I sent it in this morning.

Miss you Dad.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Hail Mary Pass

A colleague and now a close friend visited me the other day.  We are planning to write a book about a subject that is near and dear to both of us. It is a book about the maternity hospital I was born in. The building, now not only shuttered but cinder blocked-up, saw over 350,000 babies born between 1931 and 1979. It also holds some of the best Art-Deco architecture the world has seen. Within its walls, ground breaking work on preeclampsia and maternal-child health was performed. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt opened the nursery in 1931. And it had one of the first African-American and female board- certified Ob/Gyne on staff who later won a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Johnson. The list goes on.

The world needs to know all this and more.

But like anything truly wonderful in that city, it was overshadowed by political greed and corruption defiling its true greatness.

 We intermixed discussions of the chapters with salacious gossip, self-confessions and many hopes.  It was a great and productive night. 

She handed them to me as she was leaving.  In that split second I thought she was just grabbing my hand to say goodbye, but I was surprised to feel there was something in her hand. 

“I know you don’t believe in these but I want you to have them.”

I couldn’t help but feel the lump in my throat as she walked her to her car, her husband waiting patiently in the driveway.

She gave me bright blue rosary beads.

Rosary Beads. I have many of them stashed in drawers from my late mother, late grandmother and aunts. There is even one giant one with wooden beads and a large crucifix that my girls call “hang gliding Jesus.”  Sarcasm is truly a second language in my household.  I am afraid I have been the one heavily influencing its continuance.

Wikipedia tells me something I should have remembered from the twelve long years of catechism:

The sequence of prayers is the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary ten times, and the Glory Be to the Father, sometimes followed by the Fatima Prayer. Each sequence is known as a decade. Five decades are prayed, after beginning with the Apostle's Creed and five initial prayers. The praying of each decade is accompanied by meditation on one of the Mysteries of the Rosary, which recall the life of Jesus Christ.

Mechanically similar strings of beads are used in other cultures; for example, the Greek kombolói, sometimes called worry beads, appear similar and are sometimes manipulated in a mechanically similar way, as if counting, but have no religious or cultural significance.

I am not one to pray.  If I had them, I would have worn out worry beads by now. The rote recitation of the rosary as a kid was enough to give me many a headache.  Many of the Catholic prayers I sat through and recited (and remember-even in French)  were just words that hopefully comforted someone because they didn’t comfort me. Besides, we were always praying for someone else anyway: the starving orphans of Africa, the astronauts of Apollo 13, flood victims, Mrs. Gizzi's many tragic operations, "Money for the Missions" (to the tune of "Pennies from Heaven"), Sr. Helen Charles' nervous condition and every other pathetic classroom, horrific national or dreadful international news item.   They might as well have been in  Latin.  In fact, I think I would have preferred the Latin since I would have learned something.

But lately I have been seeing rosaries more. It is a tradition in my family to have a rosary made of red roses hung in the caskets of deceased family members.  I saw one several weeks ago as I attended my father’s cousins’ wake.  It flooded me with memories of the far too many others I have seen in my lifetime.

But these blue ones are different. My friend has Stage 4 Breast Cancer and is doing well. In fact, I am in awe of her indomitable spirit and zest for life. Perhaps she meant them as a talisman holding some mystical powers because I can’t seem to take them out of my pocket.  Maybe that is the real  "mystery of the rosary:" a human connection for hope amid a lot of despair. I find it a bit jarring that the rosary contains fives “decades” or sets of prayers. Perhaps you have to be fifty to find meaning in these damn things? Or perhaps experience enough to actually need them? 

I have been granted the opportunity for a Hail Mary Pass in November. Details are not necessary.  Maybe with the right amount of study, a few beads, and lots of discipline, I will score.

Go team J! 

If Madonna can wear a cheer leading costume,  maybe I can too. God, Jesus, Our Lady of Fatima and the historic Apostles know, I was never the type. It has to be blue to match those beads.

Well, on second thought, maybe just blue pompoms. Like Mother Madonna, I am five decades old, after all.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Quidditch, Zoroastrianism, and the Languages of Papua-New Guinea

I am so grateful for the Internet and all its trappings. I am no longer an idiot to my children when subjects that I should have read about and remembered somewhere in my fifty years resurface in a high school assignment, a grade school composition or a college application.  I nod in agreement on whatever the subject, then sneak off to use Safari on my iPhone.  Don’t tell them.  It will dispel the myth that Mom is some kind of genius.  I’m just really curious, warding off a head slapping V-8 moment, and really embarrassed to look stupid.

It’s not my first stealthy acquisition of recovered knowledge.  Medical school and residencies were also fraught with similar schemes of one-upmanship.  Only then, our peripheral brains were carried in over sized pockets with indexes of medical tidbits, charts, equations and definitions.  Assignment clipboards had the “Wash U” manual attached as a cookbook for saving both your patient’s lives and your dumb ass.  Thank you mini-Harrison’s textbook, too.

Its enough to have Attention Deficit Disorder.  I listen to music on the radio sometimes and think “Am I singing those lyrics right?  Okay, a quick look at www.azlyrics.com at a long stoplight  and “Mad drool all the way”  becomes the correct “Mad bull has lost his way,” from Gimme Shelter. And apparently that is a reference to the cruel behavior of a Texas Sheriff during the civil rights movement. Thank you Wikipedia and 3G.

I am not the only one.  How many times do you now have to beep your horn at someone who didn’t notice that the lights had changed?  

I read the news today, oh boy….Thank you, New York Times on-line.

The sudden storm we recently experienced in the Baltimore-Washington area with gale force winds, a deluge of rain but without a hurricane warning became a “derecho,” a word I had never heard of before and still mispronounce.  Thank you, Merriam Webster on-line.  

Derecho is pronounced:  day- ray-cho.  Thank you  www.forvo.com/word/gazetteer/  

Different accents are also available. The British always sound better and more intelligent than Americans, except for that "schedule" thing.

And for those who are just curious:

Quidditch is the game played in Harry Potter but also now in over 300 universities and high schools.  Thanks, www.internationalquidditch.org.

Zoroastrianism was formerly a major religion in the world and now only practiced by approximately 190,000 followers.  Thank you, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/ataglance/.

And there are over 350 languages and dialects spoken in Papua -New Guinea. Again, what would we all do without Wikipedia.

Googlito ergo sum.

Perverse Latin for “I google therefore I am.”  

I am not the only one. Imagine that,  John Lennon (and azlyrics.com). 

And yes I googled “Google” to get the image above. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bruce, Borges and the Fountain of Youth

If youth is the period of hero-worship, so also is it true that hero-worship, more than anything else, perhaps, gives one the sense of youth. To admire, to expand one’s self, to forget the rut, to have a sense of newness and life and hope, is to feel young at any time of life.                 

                     –Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley     
I thought of the late Jorge Luis Borges, the writer, the other day.  Something popped up on Facebook that it was his 113th birthday and it amazed me that I had once been in the company of someone (besides my grandmother) who could be that old now. 

I clearly have trouble accepting this middle-age thing.

I didn’t really meet him.  I had read sections of his masterful Ficciones in college and thought it would be cool to see him at a lecture at my university. I was never really into hero worship but somehow I needed to go to that lecture.  As usual,  I went by myself, lest I be terrified to go with another student who might ask me questions that may have indicated I hadn’t read Borges’ text all that well.  Learning by terror was one way I made it through college. I don’t think I was the only one.

I still have the visual in my head. I was sitting in Cobb Hall only about 30 feet from him on the left side of the auditorium.  Borges was a very old man, seated at a table on stage, barely audible, his papery skin holding a cane with both hands. He whispered his answers to questions that I don’t even remember. I don’t think it even mattered.  It was the kind of interview that only really elderly people get.  Soft and respectful questions then mumbled answers. He spoke in Spanish, another barrier to my understanding.   But I do remember being in awe of someone who actually wrote the magically complex stories that we had studied.

I don’t go to many lectures or concerts anymore. There are the ones with my preteen daughter, but frugality tells me I can download most good music on my iPhone or iPod. Medical stuff aside, NPR now serves as my auditory education in the arts, politics, economics, sociology and the humanities. My minivan is my lecture hall.  Concerts are often a hassle, expensive, and bizarre going to alone. 

Bruce Springsteen was another must-see during college. I remember going to a record of three Springsteen concerts in one week in 1981.  My former roommate was enthralled (obsessed?) with him and although I was just a fan, her fervor was contagious.  I have to say that Mr. Springsteen put on quite a show. I would love to see if now, thirty years later,  he still has that enthusiasm. A recent Rolling Stone article about his nearly 4 hour marathon concert in Europe reported that Mr. Springsteen has not slowed down. Perhaps his fountain of youth is contagious too.

What do we really get out of being in the same room, concert hall or stadium with a famous person or act when their work can be experienced by other venues?

I confess I love biographies. I like to read that the famous and the infamous led real lives. Perhaps at the concert and lecture halls, we get the idea that these people, even with their amazing gifts, are human too.  They live, they breathe, they age, they sweat, they smell like Bengay, they take bathroom breaks, they make mistakes.  Just like us.

But I think Mr. Cooley also has a point.  We get a tiny bit of time back when we connect to those we admire. And not just the pun of the 1975 magazine cover.

Rereading Ficciones again will be easy. I still have the book. I am such a pack rat. 

Mr. Borges, I learned.  Although it seemed it was the very hard way as usual.

Now about seeing Springsteen.  He's appearing at the Meadowlands later this month.

Now that would certainly shed the years and make me forget the rut on many levels.

Logistics be damned.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Usual Suspect

Verbal [telling Detective Kujan the story of Keyser Soze]: He lets the last Hungarian go. He waits until his wife and kids are in the ground and then he goes after the rest of the mob. He kills their kids, he kills their wives, he kills their parents and their parents' friends. He burns down the houses they live in and the stores they work in, he kills people that owe them money. And like that he was gone. Underground. Nobody has ever seen him since. He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. "Rat on your pop, and Keyser Soze will get you." And no one ever really believes.
Dave Kujan: Do you believe in him, Verbal?
Verbal: Keaton always said, "I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him." Well I believe
in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.

Verbal: Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. And like that, poof. He's gone.
                                          -The Usual Suspects  1995

I tell my children stories.  I try not to embellish but sometimes it is to make a point and give them a warning.  I also try to make myself or the situation as badass as possible. Having a background in medicine makes for some cool stories sometimes. But not this time.

Are they fables?  No animals involved here. Parables? Maybe.  

All are true.
I think there is a little of Keyser Soze in all of us. 

Maybe just on the road.

I was in the airport picking up my eldest the other day.  She had finished her work in Ohio and was coming home by herself.  She's a mature 16 year old and I didn’t worry.  I hope I have set some kind of precedent in conducting themselves in any situation.

My middle daughter asked if I had ever lived in Ohio.  I was in a talkative mood so I said “No, not really.  But there was almost the time I had to spend the night in jail there.”

 I thought my daughter would fall off the airport bench.  Her eyes widened then narrowed in expressions of surprise then suspicion. 

“No, Mom, you’re kidding right?”

“No, I am not.”  

My lesson in child-rearing:  always keep them guessing. And my children have wild imaginations, thank goodness.

I proceeded to tell the story of having my Dad’s 1978 Buick Regal for the summer in Chicago and needing to drive it home for the fall.  My sister was up in Evanston and we shared the car, finally realizing it was more trouble than it was worth.  I was living in a campus fraternity for its cheap housing and became friendly with my fellow students.  A fellow student RK was also living there and he was also from NJ.  He had wanted to drive home to surprise his parents so we made the deal that he would share both the driving and the gas money.

Driving from Chicago to NJ is not a big deal.  You allow yourself an entire day, plenty of gas, money, pack some food that can fit into a cooler, hopefully some compatible music on the radio and some good conversation.  If Harry and Sally could do it, RK and I certainly could.

The trip started out fine.  Going on I80 in Indiana was quick, painless and RK fell asleep.   No problem.  He was a bit of a pain the ass anyway only I didn’t quite know the extent yet.  I found out this easy way that college men could sleep through anything and despite having the radio at a sizeable decibel, RK still slept.  God only knew what he did the night before. I really didn’t want to know. Someone that sleepy perhaps shouldn’t be behind the wheel.  Maybe that was his ploy.

I have a lead foot.  I am a very good driver and can handle speeds.  By the time Ohio came, I was anticipating the monotonous mind-numbing ride through Pennsylvania so I was speeding no doubt. 

Well, unfortunately, it caught the eye of an Ohio State trooper.

 I was stopped. Little did I know it was not just a quick review of my license, a tongue lashing, then a scribbled ticket by the always tightly-wound, perfectly-groomed State Trooper. 

No, it was a command to follow him to the nearest police station. 

He said I was going 82.  I was really going about 92.  I went with his version of the story.

RK slept all though the entire exchange. 

We got to the station.  I was not the only one stopped that September day. Me, a truck driver and a father and son team.  What a group.   I figured it was as good a time as any to wake RK up.  Talking loudly did not work.  Screaming didn’t either.  I finally had to shake him.  Incoherently he finally awoke and you can imagine his surprise when I said “Hey, R you need to wake up.  We are at a police station.”

I would have preferred a Harry in the car.

For what seemed an eternity, we all sat on the bench waiting our respective speeding sentences, Me, RK, the trucker and the father/son team.  The trucker went first, grumbled at the window and was through in about 20 minutes.  The father was next and eyed RK as he was whispering very loudly “Do you know who he is? He’s Senator AD from Illinois.”  I never followed politics that closely in college so RK could have been telling me it was Mr. Green Jeans from Captain Kangaroo for all I knew.  But as a tribute to his party, the father/senator listened to the spiel, paid his money and left without incidence.

My turn was next.  The verdict was to pay the $120 dollar fine or stay in jail to appear in court the next business day.  It was Saturday. I didn’t have all the money. I had about $50 left after paying for gas. Yikes, two days.  My parents would have a conniption.  How would I ever get into medical school with an arrest record?

I turned to RK who I knew was holding out. It turns out he had about $100 and seemed overly annoyed to part with it too.  We had already recently just stopped for gas (that I paid for) so we were good until NJ. 

“R, I need your money.” RK started to argue but when I told him (perhaps not true) we would both have to stay in jail, he relented.  A day in the car with RK was enough but two days together?  I was ready to sell some jewelry if not more.

We paid.  We got back in the car.  No bid deal.  RK fell asleep again and I drove the majority of the way. He made a pain in the ass of himself yet again in NJ by not knowing the right way to his house leading us back into some nasty streets of Philadelphia at 2am. 

So ended my story.  I should have added some more badass elements but my daughter got the overall message.

The problem is that I am not sure what the message even was.

Perhaps not to ever ride with RK.  Don’t speed. Don’t trust adolescent men. Never rely on men for money. You can do even the most stupid of things and still wind up in jail. Politicians are people too. Your mother is not a saint nor a sinner. Perhaps there is the devil in all of us. Or maybe the trick was convincing a child the devil never existed.  

And like that, poof.  

She’s gone.  

Drove away, I heard.

In a minivan, no less. 

Speeding as usual.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Butterfly

Imagine yourself a caterpillar.
There's an awful shrug and, suddenly,
You're beautiful for as long as you live.

-       from Poem For People That Are Understandably Too Busy To Read Poetry by Stephen Dunn

I noticed the butterflies first as I got out of the car.  It is August.  It is that time of year. Two butterflies, a swallowtail then a monarch, both on this roadside bush. Then mooing with the smell of cows and gasoline.  In times like this your senses are heightened and everything is perceived.

I stopped to help at a roadside accident yesterday.

My youngest and I were headed to a concert up north.  It's her favorite boy band.  We hadn’t really planned the day out.  She had woken up late and found me outside gardening.  Just me and my best helpers, the dogs. I like to work solo anyway.  I have neglected the garden for about a month and it showed. Weeds are always easier to pull when they are a foot high.  My daughter was tearful that we hadn’t gotten tickets although she said I had promised her months ago.  Thank goodness there were still some left.  Just the cheap seats and just the way I like it. One must always keep promises to children.

We left in plenty of time although that didn’t stop me from my usual speeding on this particular road.  It’s somewhat rural as you get farther from the city into Pennsylvania.  The state police seem to ignore this stretch of highway and everyone knows it.

I travelled as usual.  My iPod plugged in and singing my awful collection of 70s, 80’s and 90’s music. My daughter belted into her iPod and seatbelt too.

He came up on my right.  Not enough time for me to spot him on the right rear view mirror given the loud Suzuki warning.  Since I was going 75MPH he must have been going at least 100-110.  I can’t calculate relative velocity that quickly in my head but it was fast. Very fast. I don’t usually take notice but the white gas tank was in contrast to his bright red jacket.

I didn’t think about it for the next 5 seconds of travel time until I saw that motorcycle in two pieces by the right guardrail. 

I know CPR.  I also know ACLS.  I never bothered to learn ATLS since I don’t work in ERs and it’s only if you have equipment of that sort anyway.  

 I stopped.  Me and a guy hauling a trailer full of cattle.

At first it was hard to see him in the brush but his mangled body was there.  His head was at a funny angle to the body and his right arm turned unnaturally also. His helmet was still in place as if that really mattered now.

Silence.  Except for the butterflies, the cows mooing and the whirl of the traffic flow still going 75 MPH.

We tried until the armada of emergency people came. Just me and the cattle guy.

Despite efforts, nature reclaimed it’s own.

And this one was just a butterfly of 19.