Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Letter to George Carlin

Dear Mr. Carlin:

Or may I call you George? I know you are up there.  I figure by now, you and my Dad are yucking it up with a few cigarettes. His were always Marlboros or Lucky Strikes. Yours, perhaps a more natural kind. Say hello to my brother too.  And don’t let him bogart anything.

 I remember you were quite the wordsmith. I am just learning. Just when I got used to a “soul patch”, they snuck in “freestyle cypher” this week. Those damn kids. Now I am committed to learning the new modern language sir and just thought I would let you in on it. Please pass the message on.

Yep.  I’m cool with a freestyle cypher and the soul patch.  But once they got me in that freestyle cypher it turned into a freestyle battle and boy did I get tupac-ed.

I have learned the subtleties of twitter, live tweets,  twitpics,  twirts, tweeting-up, twitterjacking and the fine points of twittiquette although I am still a bit fuzzy on the twooks.                                                                                  

I have been photobombed leading to my own headdesking.  It especially hurt after I threaded my unibrow. There was a two for one special on that and a French , Brazilian or American wax.  Who knew pubic hair had gone global? But I relaxed with a half decaf, no soy  sugar-free half mocha tri-Venti latte without cream with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Now only my head shakes.

Just when I got 3G ringtones to work sure enough 4S arrived.  I have been 4Ded in a 3D film that I saw already in 2D in Y2K.

Thank goodness  manga never descended on my house the same way the real avian influenza might have. We would have all been planked.

Have tried down-ageing and a cool-over after a hairspiration since I want to be quintastic, but can’t stomach the idea of vampire filler or a fish pedicure. Don’t be fat-talking me!  And please no batty-riders. And the jorts just look ridiculous. Did you know I have seen both flesh tunnels and tramp stamps unfortunately on the same person? They tell me they will be called gramp stamps soon. You may be seeing them. And have you tried the new man bun? 

Politically, I wonder if the birthers have met the deathers but  I suspect they are one and the same.  It’s a whole circle of life in one misguided tea party thought down here.

I am not sure if all the fracking  is done by the thermoskeptic but I suspect it is.

I have been accused of vaguebooking and sofalising but at the same time can simultaneously LOL, FOFL, LMAO,  and ultimately I ‘m in constant FOMO.  But if I LOL and LMAO I won’t have to zumba all the time.   I have instead turned into quite the mousepotato and I hate loungefitness. 

I can’t man-up at the same time as boogie down. Tell everybody, I guess, I am on the level.

Thanks George.  Say hello to Mom too. 

Write on.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Acts of Contrition

“I’m sorry I told you that.”  I said to old friend several months ago on the telephone. “And I am sorry I called.”

The topic didn’t really matter but I could sense the head shaking even though my friend was several hundred miles away.

“You know what is wrong with your statement, “ he shot back.

I sighed. “ I know, I know, it’s the “sorry” part," I answered like a scolded child in front of a principal. Polite but contrite.   I never quite understood it, but I now realize that the Catholic school of my youth actually did do a number on me.

I see it in other woman approximately my age and from similar backgrounds:  A blogger friend of mine who grew up in the same city, people I went to school with, even my sister.

My Blogger Friend  recently wrote an entry onto a popular business site.  She is an amazing writer but like most writers who churn out material on a daily basis, every entry is not brilliant nor a masterpiece.  I read the blog and found the information clear but the language a bit stilted.  It is business information not Melville, for Godsakes. It got its message across.  End of story.  Perhaps it wasn’t just her day.

Someone left a particularly nasty comment.

She posted an apology.  Her words to me sounded just like a wounded child.  She bowed at the altar.

So I thought.

Is it a self confidence thing?  Is it a catholic school girl thing?  “I know I am right Father, but pardon me for thinking this?" I think about the whole Catholic thing of calling priests “Father.”  Why are you always a penitent child in the eyes of that Church?

My sister last year went on Jeopardy.  It was a life long dream of hers: a perfect outlet for her near encyclopedic memory.  She did well but when the final Jeopardy answer came she got it wrong and lost a whole lot of money.  It’s a game.  I was so proud of her anyway. But it was her response to Alex Trebek that made me want to slap her.  She was contrite in the most girlish way possible.  “Oh I'm sorry Mr. Trebek.”  Her body language said it too.  If I could send a kick through the TV screen I would have.    

I thought about ending this blog the other night. I felt guilty. I have written in the most personal way possible but in the most evasive one too.  I usually write these things at night in the quiet of my basement office.  Just me, the dogs and a cat or two hugging the heat of the hard drive.  I wrote in what was supposed to be my last entry that I enjoyed the writing exercise, that I have been through the wringer lately in ways I can’t really express, that most of my demons are out in blogs posted or not, and thank you for your time.  A song from Elton John/Bernie Taupin came to mind:

                        I’m sorry I took your time,
I am a poem that  doesn’t rhyme,
just turn back a page, I’ll waste away….
                                          -"Goodbye"  from "Madman Across the Water"
                                             Elton John/Bernie Taupin

I might as well cut and pasted  the “Act of Contrition.”  Bless me Father for I have sinned….

Instead, I wrote to my friend the blogger about her  “nasty” post.  In her infinite wisdom  she set me straight.  “I posted that apology, yes”  she wrote, “but the language  in the apology was such that it punted traffic to my other 3 blogs.”

In the real blogosphere, hits are money. She won after all.

Smart Girl.  I have a great teacher.

I said awhile ago I really do not care who reads this. In the words of Joan Didion, "I write entirely to find out what I am thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear." No apologies.  No acts of contrition. You can read this or not.  I don't care.  Just realize that I have to write it.  I am not sorry and I am not going anywhere.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Lady with the Purple Hair

I hadn’t noticed her arriving at the meeting but I certainly noticed her presence, thereafter.  She shone like a spotlight amongst the array of more natural hair colors in the room.

My friend has cancer.  She was recently diagnosed with Stage IV Breast Cancer.  It has invaded her liver. Weekly chemo sessions have resulted in significant hair loss.  She said she can’t accept the bald look so she decided to do something more extreme. And extreme it is.  She wore a purple wig.

She said the purple has no real significance.  She has an array of colors to match any outfit.  She favored the purple that day.  It matched her blouse. She looked radiant.

I know what she is saying without her having to explain. She wants to make a statement that her disease is as odd on the inside as it is on the outside.  That it is strange and so foreign to have something so innate take over her body, her life and her dreams. She wants to boldly fight the invader and she chose a brightly colored helmet to do it. 

She tells me that she has made a bucket list.  One of  the projects we started to discuss last year prior to my father’s death is one of them.  I am honored to be working with her so closely over the next year.  We both have our mountains to climb but mine just involve money, paperwork and the most costly of all, time.   Hills compared to her Everest.  I have to remind myself of that sometimes. No I have to kick myself.  I need extreme too.

 So if you see the lady with the purple hair, smile, laugh maybe, but please tell her how wonderful she looks.  

And that purple is definitely her color.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Jungle Love

Cleaning out my Dad’s house, I found evidence of his single life.   There’s nothing that prepares you for that.  It’s like getting hit upside the head with the reality that your parents were actual people at one time.

Hidden in the back of his closet was an old wooden box, held shut by an old and rusted latch.   Although it did not have any intricate carvings, it  reminded me of the box from "Jumanji."  Clearly this was a game of reminiscence that was full of surprises. No drum beat this time.

"There is a lesson you will learn: sometimes you must go back a turn." 

I went back a turn to the 1930's, 1940's and early 1950's. The box was full of usual papers: old diplomas,  grammar school pamphlets, and sacramental certificates.

A hunter from the darkest wild makes you feel just like a child

His birth certificate indicated he was born at home and he was over 9 pounds.  My poor grandmother. That poor midwife.  His grammar school diploma had his Polish forename. His high school report cards were fun.  How does one get a "C-"  in "deportment?" But  I think back to his many stories of running to NYC to "catch a show at ' The Paramount,'" having friends write parent notes, and his antics at local football games.  Now I realize he deserved that "C-".

At night they fly, you'd better run. These winged things are not much fun

There were even dated "Latin Quarter" programs from the famed nightclub run by Barbara Walter's father Lou Walters. Beautiful women were pictured with flowing gowns held up like wings. No,  I am sure these ladies were tons of fun though.  Tucked in that program were photos of my Dad buying cigarettes from a real "Cigarette Girl."  Yikes, Dad.  Two social blunders in one picture.  Even after your death, I still roll my eyes at your behavior.

In the jungle you must wait until the dice read five or eight.

There was an envelope also in the box.  Wrapped by a rubber band that had long turned brittle was a collection of eight wallet sized pictures of young ladies clearly from the late 1940's.  Their hair was just shy of shoulder length, permed, with similar part to the side.  Although black and white, there were clearly blondes and brunettes. All looked to be about 17 or so.  None were my mother.

They must have been old girlfriends.

Need a hand? Well you just wait. We'll help you out, we each have eight
I am not sure who all eight of the young ladies are. The pictures contain no dates nor names. There were cheerleader pictures (ugh...), a prom queen picture (lordy!) and a picture of a young lady with a book (yea!), and bathing suits.  Half had bathing suits. Jeez, Dad.  But I admit you had good taste.  But I knew that already.

No wonder after Mom died, you asked me about the fine points of, veromi, intelius, birthdatabase, zabasearch, etc.

I don't know what to do with these pictures. I already have a minivan full of "stuff" that needs to be sold or donated.  The diplomas are being kept. Sacramental certificates are being kept as well.  But to throw these pictures out? Clearly they mean nothing to me except idle curiosity and a certain assurance that my father was human after all. A randy one at that.

A law of Jumanji having been broken, you'll be set back even more than your token

 I put them in the back of my minivan and laughed.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Higher Power

A good friend called me yesterday.  It was not the usual phone call I receive on the 11th of January . She told me she was just diagnosed with Stage IV Breast Cancer.  I was at a loss for words.
Our conversation proceeded with mutual crying, reassurance on my part, my reminder to her of her wonderful and supportive husband, the far-reaching community she has around her and the great institution she chose to get her care.  The conversation quickly turned.

“Do you believe in God?” she asked. I was caught off-guard.  My mind did its usual spinning in an attempt to breakdown of the question.  What exactly did she mean by God?  Am I going to offend her with some snide remark?  Should I avoid the question by using the convenient and polite excuse to not talk about religion or politics?  Should I bring up my resentment of the Catholic Church into this simple question?  Am I going to intellectualize this and think of other religions?

“Christ (as if I needed some profane guidance), don’t ask me that,” I thought.

I simply answered,  “I don’t know.”  “So you’re an agnostic? ”she asked.  “I don’t know that either,” I replied.

My second half-century is going to be a lot harder than the first.

Before the phone call, I had just read an old colleague’s blog. A fellow physician, he writes about his ongoing battle with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.  His blogs are filled with honest observations, irony and humor. I couldn’t help but think of what he wrote when talking to my friend.

He wrote yesterday about patient autonomy. How in the course of his illness, he forfeited much of it to his own physicians even though he himself is an oncologist. I couldn’t help but think of the philosophical implications of his premise especially as it concerned my friend and her question.  

But by forfeiting autonomy in illness we turn ourselves over to external forces.  May I say a higher power? Is it science or religion? Is it a continuum?  Or does religion take over where science leaves off?  Can we purely have faith in just either? Is it a minute by minute thing or sweeping philosophy? Do both constitute a higher power and in a sense the same thing?

In college I had a wonderful professor in a course titled “Philosophy  of Medicine.”  His course was always crowded and I certainly knew why. We studied most of the great philosophers who wrote about medicine. Hippocrates with the works.  There was no one philosophy I derived from this course except that science, especially the most personal and human of all sciences, medicine, is  complicated.  There are no clear answers. Babies do not come with instructions.

Again my second half-century is going to be a lot harder than the first. 

Einstein once wrote that "Life is like a bicycle, only when balanced, can it move forward." Science is not going to save the world.  Some would argue that it might be it’s ultimate destruction (think global warming). On the other hand, faith in the unfounded is purely superstition. In medicine, maybe we need to mix the right amount of science with the right amount of faith.  Maybe we all need to surrender to a higher power of some sort to progress. What is the right amount?

I don’t know.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Pull of Chicago

“A new year brings new changes to key members of the White House leadership. Today, President Obama announced that chief of staff William Daley will be leaving the White House to spend more time with his family in Chicago. Daley will be replaced by current Office of Management and Budget director Jacob “Jack” Lew.”

“The news comes after months of speculation that Daley would leave closer to the end of the president’s first term. In fact, the president said he initially declined Daley’s resignation, telling him to instead take a few days to think about the decision.
                                                                    "But in the end, the pull of Chicago won out,” President Obama said.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
                                                                                              -Syndicated NPR broadcast, January 9, 2012 6:02pm EST

Spend any significant time in that city and you will feel the pull too.

I arrived in Chicago for the first time in September 1979.  I was starting college.  I had never seen the place before.  My parents never had the money or foresight to go on college tours.  We relied heavily on brochures and college catalogues to make that big decision. I applied, got into various places then narrowed down to two choices.  I did visit another East Coast Ivy League school prior to making a final choice but visiting after their “Spring Fling” probably wasn’t a good idea. 

“The place smells of beer and urine,” my mother cried out although not exactly in those words. Her fine urban vernacular shone through. “What do they major in here ‘drinking?’”  She bluntly asked the poor student guide.

She was not one to mince words.  The tour guide and I simultaneously rolled our eyes as if on queue.

Little did those students know that my fate rested on their careless bathroom habits.

Childhood years were spent growing up in one urban neighborhood only to be supplanted by another. I remember reading Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago’ in grammar school.  Little did I know then I would live it.
                                    Hog Butcher for the World,
                                    Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

I had smelled hog butchers in the air of Secaucus, NJ.
                   Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;

I played with railroads and freight every time I picked up my uncle on a late Friday night in Newark, NJ.

                                  And they tell me you are crooked 

Crooked?  You haven’t seen crooked until you bet with the local neighborhood bookie.

                                They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
                                  have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
                                   luring the farm boys.

I didn’t see that many painted women in my hometown, but all you had to do was take a short trip to 42nd street in New York City for that. Simple. No problem. I was in my second home. I fell in love with Chicago. 

College was a smorgasbord of new people, new ideas and new surroundings all surrounded by familiar urban turf.  From Orientation Week to see the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the Biograph, to long walks at The Point, and to lectures by Nobel Laureates, I was in heaven.  The 1000-mile distance from my parents and siblings added some much needed wings.

Long and hard years followed with a group of students that were as eclectic as they were narrow, fun as they were frustrating, argumentative as they were reflective, sloppy as they were …sloppy. There was a unique smell to that old hotel refurbished as a dorm that I could never duplicate.  I am not sure I want to either.

Back to the East Coast for Med School and then I returned to my second home. 

Residency was yet another college-type setting.  Similar hard working people. You ate with these people,  cried with them, were humiliated by them and in turn humiliated back, fell asleep on them all with the backdrop of caring for many very sick and dying patients. I would put my life in any of their hands any day.  It was very hard and exhausting work but if anyone gave me a chance to go back there, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.

Although those buildings have been torn down, I will never forget the soul of that hospital. 

Although one very urban city bore me, it was Chicago that made me grow up.  I went onto live there for more several  more years before moving onto ironically less green pastures in the farmlands of the Midwest and now the suburban east.

You are my kind of town. Such fond memories.

 Go home Mr. Daley.  Chicago beckons. And it certainly pulls. And it pulls. Hard.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Going Gandalf...

I collect old yearbooks from my hometown.  It’s mostly in the interest of genealogy but it also captures my  inner curiosity and sometimes overwhelming sentimentality. Most of  them I donate to that urban public library  in an effort to bolster its historical collection.  Years of underfunding and  neglect have taken their toll. But sometimes I keep the ones that are duplicates.

My sister was visiting recently to help me with the overwhelming contents of my late Dad’s house.  Days we spent traveling back and forth to donation sites, used furniture stores and the local recycling center to try to get rid of the material contents of his life.  No easy task and I have so much more to go.

She shares my interest in genealogy but also stealthy curiosity.  I just happened to have a yearbook of the corresponding boy’s Catholic high school to her girl’s Catholic high school.

“You knew him, “ she said as she pointed to a handsome young man who I found out later she had a crush on.  “He went out with so and so…and Mommy thought he was charming.”  Apparently my mother wasn’t the only one.  “I wonder what he looks like now.”  I had to admit the young gentleman in the book was handsome and the name was familiar too.  A cross between the late Marc Bolan and Michael Flatley of the "Lord of the Dance."  You have to be a certain age to recognize those names. “I think his sister went to my high school, “ I said as I  recalled a similar yet more feminine face and curly hair.

Curiosity got the best of us and we googled his name.  We came across a picture of the gentleman posing with his son at an alumni affair.

“Oh my God, he went Gandalf!”  She exclaimed as I recognized immediately what she meant and nearly fell off the chair with laughter.

Her high school crush had white hair and a corresponding white beard similar to the Lord of the Rings character.

Wikipedia tells me Gandalf was a Lord of the Rings character in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.  His character was a king of the Dwarfs and considered a wise mentor. Thank Goodness for Wikipedia.  I could never get through The Hobbit  nor any of the Lord of the Rings books or movies.  Fantasy that elaborate borders on delusion. Same with the Star Wars Trilogy.

Men’s facial hair was also the topic in carpool line the other day.  My daughter was describing a teacher that I hadn’t met.  “You know him Mom,” she started, “He wears jeans and a soul patch.”   “A what?” I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly.  My children think I need a hearing aide.  I think I need to just get out more. “You know, some hair on his chin.”  “You mean a goatee?” “No, no.” You know, just a small patch right here.”

I had trouble visualizing what exactly she meant.  In my circles, I am not sure I have ever seen a “soul patch.”  Again I bow to the Internet gods of Google images and the Urban Dictionary.

You cross a certain level of maturity when you start to notice men’s facial hair.  I guess my daughter was at that point. Yikes.  Same with me I guess.

Middle aged men and facial hair.  What’s the deal?

I see it with male friends who are brave enough to put their faces on Facebook.  I see it in shopping malls, supermarkets and at parent meetings. Men of a certain age who you wouldn't expect to have facial hair.

I equate it with my late father’s Members’ Only jacket ( circa 1970) with epaulets or my wearing scarves tied loosely around my neck. 

We reach a certain age, don’t really feel it but admit it nonetheless, and still want to look cool, distinguished and “with it.” Women of a certain age (hmmmm...) start with the hair dyes, the extra strength moisturizers, expensive and sparkly handbags, dark jeans with boots, or the wonderfully flashy jewelry.  We accept the age but not the reality. Too young for the “grandma” sweatshirts with embroidery and way too old for the “Forever 21” garb.

I am afraid a double standard applies.  Most men I think would look funny with hair dyes, expensive and sparkly handbags, dark jeans with boots and flashy jewelry regardless of sexual preferences.  So I guess the goatees, soul patches, beards of varying shades of dark to white are the female equivalent  of an outward mid-life crisis. A testosterone fueled later parallel to all those gentleman in college who grew their first beards. A masculine coming of age. Do I dare say a male menopause?

Sometimes we need outward signs to show how we feel.  Nature knows it well with plumage, teeth bearing, puffed up tails and fur colorations.   Socially, it's not polite to stoop to that level but those primitive feelings can't be denied. Yes, us humans are the more subtle creatures but basic instincts are there.   Let's face it we all dress to convey a certain image.  Some of us are more obsessed than others.  Even those who profess to not care about clothes convey a certain message.

So start out with “Gandalf the Grey” and then proceed with ‘Gandalf the White.”  The ladies are watching.  Don't kid yourselves the other men are too, regardless of sexual preferences.  And never underestimate outward appearances.  It’s natural, you know.

Friday, January 6, 2012

I feel like a number...

“You know there was a lottery ticket in that box,” my sister said on the car ride to my late Dad’s house.  “Wouldn’t it be funny if it won."

And, of course, our shared Polish superstitions got the best of both of us as we simultaneously started looking for that ticket the minute we flew through the door. 

It’s funny how many collective years of education among the best universities cannot undo deep-seated and irrational beliefs. Or perhaps we just weren't good students of probability.

We both tore through the house looking for the box that contained my father’s belongings from the assisted living facility.  He bought two lottery tickets two days before he died with the jackpot going off the day he died. Talk about instant karma. Perhaps Quik-Pik karma. It took about an hour, many expletives and stumbling over years of accumulated crap, but we found those two tickets.

We are all gamblers. Just in different ways.

In my urban upbringing “the numbers” was an underlying current of everyday life.  It’s now talked about as a collective past time rooting my fellow urbanites back to the unique city that bore us.  Whether it still exists, I do not know.  I found a letter from an old friend of my father recently.  She had written a short story and included it in her mailing.  What was the main idea?  The "numbers racket" that everyone played.

Through the Internet I connected with a ghostwriter/business writer from my old hometown several years ago.  I enjoyed her blogs for their keen observations and her amazing writing ability. When we finally talked on the phone, we joked about the usual misgivings of our shared urban background when she brought up her father’s source of added income.  She related a story that once her father was ill and she had to call the numbers into the local bookie. “Talk about being nervous!” she laughed.  In fact we both laughed, but at the time I am sure it was not  funny.

I also have the charming story of how my fourth grade teacher, a nun with a nervous tick, went around the room asking us what our fathers did for a living.  (Mothers were never considered). The nuns loved these lessons in one-up-manship. There was the usual parade of "fireman," "train conductor" and, of course, the ever-exciting "accountant." A friend stood up and said, “My Dad’s a bookie.”  This sent the Sister into a tizzy even beyond her unusual body language. “Oh he must love the library!” she blurted out.  She blurted out so many odds things it’s a wonder why weren’t all bald from all the head scratching.  We all knew her father wore the uniform of the local police department so I suppressed my usual curiosity until I got home.  “Mom, what’s a bookie?” I asked my mother over Oreos and milk.  “He takes the numbers, for Chrissakes!”  I knew immediately what she meant. I knew the local bookie without even recognizing his title.  My uncle, whose care I was often left with when my mother ran errands, often took me to the local “Knife Sharpening Store” about a block from my house. Who knew we had a lot of dull knives in my neighborhood?  I was only three or four at the time and was learning my alphabet and numbers.  “Pick a number” my uncle used to say to me.  “Thatta a girl” as he smiled at my new found literacy. Little did I know that I was not only getting a lesson in number identification but in local culture as well.  It served me well later as I expanded my fourth grade vocabulary. It serves me well now too as I rattle my brain to shake out topics for this blog and to lighten the load.

My sister and I didn’t win the lottery although she checked the numbers.  I took the tickets home with me.  As a new writer, I know I should always double-check my sources. Sorry, sis.

It’s that chance at luck that keeps all of us going.  We can study all the probabilities in life, sometimes at the greatest of institutions, but we still feel we can and will beat those odds.  Sometimes we pick a winner. If not, we just have to keep going, against all odds.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Private Parts

We live in a wonderful world.  We can text, email, facetime, and skype faster than ever imagined.  We are all connected someway, unless you have been under a rock in the past five years.   We gather friends on Facebook, not at parties anymore.  We all spend seemingly hours tethered to our laptops, desktops or iPhones. We twitter our lives away. We get nervous if we are not in constant touch and often bring these electronic leashes on vacations and in cars. But it gets really embarrassing hearing the toilet flush in the background. I cringe that my children IM each other down the hall.

Are we too connected?  Are we too revealed?  Is there any privacy anymore? What exactly are we revealing? How do we  show that we are interesting and thinking people yet reserve something of our privacy?  I find it ironic in a world that people “sext” and yet get anxious when their medical records are compromised. But we reveal what we want to reveal. So maybe we are not truly electronically connected at all?

All of this technology involve “screens”.  My laptop, home desktop, iPhone etc. have them.  Public bulletin boards that we paste things onto but hide behind. We can hide a lot through screening. Hell, I have never put my recent picture on Facebook and have made quite the joke about it.  I am running out of google images of funny looking old ladies. We put up what we want people to see, what we want them to hear. 

As a kid, I lived in an apartment house.  We knew everyone’s “business.” Everyone knew exactly what the other’s rent was.   We knew Mrs. Johnson next door was a kindly older lady, a retired schoolteacher in fact, who welcomed watching us children. We knew the Bernstein’s across the hall and how the mother used to yell at  her daughter Susie and cook the most awful smelling food.  We knew May on the second floor had a disabled adult daughter. We knew the couple who had a child “Martin” and how they incessantly commanded him to do the most menial tasks.  Their yelling would echo in the inside courtyard. We knew the Schluzberg's had one saint of a son but the other was a “bum”.  We knew how to communicate distaste for the noise of another neighbor through banging on pipes. We knew that  the DeMonte's were a perfect Catholic family with 6 children who lined up perfectly according to size to parade to church on Sunday. I knew how a girlfriend’s father came home every night at 5:30pm in a trench coat and wondered why he suddenly didn’t come home one day.  We unfortunately knew what that meant.

We even knew the neighborhood real “bum” "Mel” who used to canvas the trash for bottles and cans.  As kids, we always said hello to him despite the scorn of our parents. In fact we used to help him find recyclables even before it became fashionable.  He was kindly and always had a toothless grin. He sometimes traveled with a stray dog or two.  His skin was dark but with Caucasian features.  I wonder now if his coloring was secondary to longstanding liver disease. It's hard to diagnose with a forty-year retrospect. He would just smile and we would yell in unison  “Hi Mel.” And he would wave with one hand  directing a shopping cart with another.

We knew he would never hurt us. That's why we were so open to him. Always trust the instinct of children. Dogs, too.

I blog, Facebook, text but do not skype, twitter or facetime.  But what am I really revealing?  You can hide crying on carefully worded written humor. You can hide anger through someone else’s  poetry.  You can hide disgust in some snide remark.  You can’t do that on the phone or better yet in person. There’s a lot of lines between the actual lines and many things left unsaid. Real time is real time. But is there really real time online? 

I met my college roommate for lunch today.  It was great to hear her laugh again like coeds we once were on a Spring Break cross-country trip. Surprisingly there was no uncontrollable sobbing on my part. Truth be told, I hesitated agreeing to meet with her. Silly I guess. I can’t hide the aging.  I can’t hide the terrible
stories accrued over many years as I did to many friends this summer until the stories got too much to bear.
Wikipedia tells me that the word “privacy” is untranslatable in many languages. It may be translatable in English but I often wonder about its meaning.  Is anything truly private?  

Should it be?

Only from those who can really hurt you.

With the trust of a child,


Monday, January 2, 2012

What Remains...

“Though nothing can bring back the hour 
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; 
We will grieve not, rather find 
Strength in what remains behind; 
In the primal sympathy 
Which having been must ever be...” 
William Wordsworth

I inherited a mess.  My father, like me, was a packrat.  If it were only his stuff that would probably be fine, but it was my late aunt’s stuff, my late brother’s stuff and distant cousins from New Hampshire’s stuff I also have to deal with now.  He was the executor of all their wills and I have the crap to prove it.  I have spent so many weekends trying to sort stuff, ignore other stuff, but ignoring it will not make it go away. Anyone who has seen his house of late knows what a herculean task it will be.  What does one do with a vintage 1946 Hallicrafter Ham radio?  A 1920 Edison Phonograph?  Piles and piles of clothing?  Shoes?  Old papers that are somewhat nostalgic but really worthless?

I guess if I were the patient type, Ebay or a large garage sale might be the answer. An “estate sale” sounds better for marketing purposes. But how do you decide what to keep from someone who has passed on or simply throw away?

This is what remains after a normal person dies. Things.  My father was not a writer, nor artist of any sort so there is no material things to represent his work. He was not a veteran like my uncle where I have scores of records, pictures and documents.  He was an accountant, a fiddler of numbers, which after those numbers are recorded, kept for seven years for IRS purposes, thereafter,  are deemed worthless.  I ponder what will remain after my death too.  Maybe I should write more, at least a book or more articles, which might fill the void that my children or grandchildren will hopefully have.  Certainly medicine does not leave any material things.  Even your best work will not last but a generation.

Several months before he died, I did force him to go through some old client business and shred sensitive documents.  He hadn’t really worked in his profession for about seven to ten years or so, so all those papers were old.  The local paper recycler was glad to see my minivan filled to the brim with paper bags of confetti.  I still did manage to find some older tax returns from 1964 and 1968.  They are only 47 and 43 years old respectively!

But I am left with other papers and mementos that are difficult to both keep or throw away.  I have his Crossing Guard certificate dated 1939, prayer books, deeds to old properties, a promissory note from my grandparents, etc.  So many seemingly worthless papers…

Should I keep a vintage 1970’s”Members Only” jacket with epauletts that seemingly every cool father wore accompanied by a mustache and bell-bottom jeans? Do I keep the suit he wore from my medical school graduation, the baseball medallion he earned as a high school player, a 1964 tax return showing our old address?

Some things I have stored in library archival boxes.  The inner nerd librarian in me coming forth I guess. Each is labeled.  My children will know these people who meant so much to me. I have sifted so much.  I don’t wear men’s clothes or shoes.

 I do not have a box for my mother.  Her “things” she never kept or were angrily thrown away by my father when she died. (Don’t even ask what happened to her wedding dress). Even normal things that most people kept, like yearbooks, pictures or diplomas I never saw. I have next to nothing from her family either. The only pictures I have of her family were literally thrown at my father by my uncle at her funeral.  They were limited at best. My mother’s family was not a sentimental crowd.  Estranged largely and not sentimental.  I crave things from their lives but have little to show despite exhaustive genealogy or EBay searches.

These are things that make up a life.  But also things that perhaps my sister and I are the only ones who would attach any significance to.  My sister is not the sentimental nor pack rat type so her contribution to disposing of this mess is minimal.

I think of Carole Radziwell’s touching memoir of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bissete and his cousin Anthony Radizwell.  She too was left with “things” after all of their untimely deaths.  But the underlying message of her book was not the material things.  It was the memories of her loved ones that were the real tribute.

I have donated many things so far.  The clothes especially.  Homeless men in my nearby urban area will have warm jackets with vague hints of cigarette smoke, which I tried to soak then wash out to no avail.  They will have many shoes, T-shirts, pants, etc. too.  The furniture I will try to sell.  A few pieces I will keep in my already crowded house.

The material things are one thing.  What I really think my father left was his laugh, his fist pounding directed at not only his children but also his grandchildren and hopefully, through many funny stories, to their grandchildren as well ; his love of clothes; his cursing;  his urban euphemisms and malapropisms; his demands “while you’re up make me a sandwich;” his incessant efforts and bribes to get someone to clean his car (“I’ll give you two dollars!”); his whining about your demands but he always came through: (“I promised didn’t I?”); his Polish curse words and his slipping my daughters $5 with the words ‘don’t tell your mother.”

These are the things I should keep. I have talked to many friends recently who have also lost parents  and and still can not bring themselves to deal with “the things.” I figure at this point I am ahead of the game.  I will not worry so much about the boxes of tchotchkes that are piled to the brim. I’ll keep sifting. Crying and sifting. It will be a long winter. A long but strong winter...