Archive for April, 2013

On my long drive home this past weekend, I listened on and off, between mountain ranges shrouded in fog, to an interview on NPR with New York’s Poet Laureate, Marie Howe. It turns out April is Poetry month and this was a repeat of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air program from last year. Somehow I knew she was a kindred spirit. Howe grew up in a large Irish Catholic family, and attended the Convent of the Sacred of the Heart. As my BFF Lee from the Berkshires likes to say, we went to different schools together.

“Poetry holds the knowledge that we are alive and that we know we’re going to die,” says Howe. “The most mysterious aspect of being alive might be that — and poetry knows that.”

Howe has written 3 books of poetry: What the Living Do, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and The Good Thief. She talked about teaching poetry, about describing the way water looks in a glass that has filtered sunlight streaming through it. About getting her students to bring their focus into the world of everyday things without using metaphor. Saving metaphor for much later, like a gift left under the Christmas tree. Yes, I realize I didn’t wait.

Howe’s father was an alcoholic, which she states as if this is the most common thing for a family, which of course it is. How many fathers in the 50s functioned fine enough by day, only to return home to drink and brutalize their family? There is, “A sense of retroactive dread…so many of us are afflicted with addictions,” she says. One of her brothers, Johnny, died of AIDs in the late 80s, and she memorialized him with this poem:
What the Living Do

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do.

Johnny, who ran away from his father but found his own demons, finally found AA and used to tell her that, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice.” She loved him dearly and said sometimes he would just stand in the middle of her kitchen and say, “This is it.” And she would say, “What?” He would just raise his arms, look around with a smile, and say, “This.” I was reminded of my brother Michael, who died last year. Every time I would see him, he would smile and tell me, “This is the good life.”

The Flapper would read poems aloud to my brothers and sisters from an old anthology, “101 Famous Poems.” First written in 1929, I remember its well worn blue binding, and managed to find a revised edition from 1958. Shirley, Brian, Kay, Michael, and Jimmy heard about the sea, and a cautionary tale about a spider and a fly while doing household chores. Poetry was the music that accompanied everyday life while the Flapper could only sit and read, her legs broken in so many places. As Marie Howe said, art allows the heart to break open.

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The first night in Nashville I left my book club book in the car. Not wanting to go downstairs and back outside in my nightgown, I picked up a little paperback I found on the bedside table, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. Little did I know how much I would enjoy reading about the Hmong people of Laos…currently living in California.http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/10/19/reviews/971019.19konnert.html

It’s a story about seizure disorder, and about the many ways modern medicine can fail a refugee population. Cultural dissonance is bound to happen when doctors want to order invasive tests for a baby who’s only problem is that her older sister slammed the door coming in and so an evil spirit invaded her body. For the Hmong, animal sacrifices, amulets, and strings around the wrist should cure her, but instead her parents, who speak no English, are supposed to dose her with a varied cocktail of drugs many times a day. You can see where we’re going.

But it’s not all medicine. I’m almost done with the book and I’ve had quite a history lesson on Southeast Asia. I was talking about the book to one of the Bride and Groom’s friends, an academic internist at Vanderbilt. She said it was required reading in her medical school. “Which medical school did you go to,” I asked. “Yale,” she said.

This morning, after working all night, my ER doctor asked me to read this article.

Have no fear, yes, it is about dying. Let’s face it, the spirit eventually does leave us and we all have to think about this stuff, unless of course denial works for you. It’s about a doctor who becomes an educational/documentary film maker. He makes short films that actually show people what advanced dementia (among other maladies) looks like, and he tells us to have “The Conversation” with our doctors:

“In the health-care debate, we’ve heard a lot about useless care, wasteful care, futile care. What we”—Volandes indicates himself and Davis—“have been struggling with is unwanted care. That’s far more concerning. That’s not avoidable care. That’s wrongful care. I think that’s the most urgent issue facing America today, is people getting medical interventions that, if they were more informed, they would not want. It happens all the time.”

Which made me think. Sometimes, even when you speak the same language, you still can’t communicate.

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My journey lasted all of 9 hours. Along the way I passed a church billboard that read,

“Never give up, remember Moses was a basket case,”

and I listened to Ira Glass on NPR’s This American Life. That’s right folks, no audiobook on this trip. Just when you’re ready to give up, the Bat Building appears around the bend on 40 West. Nashville was welcoming me back. Music to my ears, I could hear the Love Bug from the street; the front door was wide open and she was enjoying her dinner punctuated by boisterously loud “Ummmms,” and Arghhhhhs.” Hooray, I thought, she’s going to be a good eater…and a great talker!

Over the past year, The Bride had told me repeatedly how much she enjoyed listening to This American Life. The Groom also listened to their podcasts on his iPhone, so before my trip, I downloaded the App http://www.thisamericanlife.org/ and plugged my cell into my car’s auxiliary outlet. The first story was about 2 doctors with the same name, and it was a medical/murder mystery too, called “Dr Gilmer and Mr Hyde.”

“Benjamin (Gilmer) starts to get very curious about the murder Dr Vince Gilmer committed, so he begins asking questions and poking around. Soon he develops his own theories to explain the murder, that never came up at Vince’s trial.” You’ll just have to listen in, I’m not spoiling the suspense.

This should be a fun week. The Bride is off for most of the time and we’re planning to celebrate her first Mother’s Day a little early – Nashville style. Maybe some fried pickles along with our blueberries and avocado?
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One of the most insightful questions we might ask ourselves, when confronted with a big decision, is how would one feel afterwards. A year from now, ten years from now, would we regret that decision or be happy we made it, no matter the outcome?

It was simply serendipitous that I signed up for twitter this past week. And I had to stop looking at one point, because the things people say in the aftermath of a tragedy like the Boston bombings left me numb. And I wanted to feel for myself, think for myself, not be bombarded with everyone else’s thoughts, in real time. Plus, instead of spurting out the first thing that comes to mind, I’ve discovered, with age, that I need some time to reflect, to analyze my thoughts before putting pen to paper, or tongue to teeth…or fingers to keyboard for that matter. I realize that once dementia sets in, all bets will be off.

Only one tweet rang true to me. It had to do with our failure in the Senate to pass a meaningful background check bill that would help stem the tide of gun violence in our country, compared to locking down a city like Boston to look for a nineteen year old terrorist. Bob tells me that approximately 80 people a day die on our streets and in our homes because they could easily pick up a gun; about 2/3 of these people are suicides. On Monday 3 people died in Boston. I know, it was a cynical calculation, a malevolent ratio 80:3 – with a whiff of truth. I wondered how Americans would feel ten years from now. Sometimes it takes someone outside of our culture, to articulate a different point of view.

“After all, it’s not as if this is the first time that homicidal killers have been on the loose in a major American city. In 2002, Washington DC was terrorised by two roving snipers, who randomly shot and killed 10 people. In February, a disgruntled police officer, Christopher Dorner, murdered four people over several days in Los Angeles. In neither case was LA or DC put on lockdown mode, perhaps because neither of these sprees was branded with that magically evocative and seemingly terrifying word for Americans, terrorism.”

This week the lilacs bloomed in memory of my foster mother, Nell. There were lilacs outside my bedroom window in Victory Gardens. I always had to kiss her goodbye whenever I left the house, because she said we never knew if we’d ever return. Certainly I knew accidents could happen, I was living proof, because a drunk driver had hit the Flapper’s car a few months after my father died. At the age of 10 months, about the Love Bug’s age, I left my PA home and became a Jersey girl.

But I never thought terror could happen here, until I heard about my Jersey neighbor’s husband. He left one morning to go to his office at Cantor Fitzgerald. She didn’t wake up before dawn to say goodbye to him on that beautiful morning in September for some ridiculous reason. At another wake without a body, I saw “what ifs” playing out again and again. Someone had dropped their child at school first and was running late, another friend was on a ferry that docked at Wall Street and picked up its fill of ash-covered commuters before returning to Highlands. And I knew that asking “what if” was a futile exercise in blame.
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What happens when Gabby Giffords writes an op-ed that says it better than anything else I may think of? My post this morning is short, because it’s never a good thing to write when you are mad. The Senate chose to give the American people the finger yesterday – claiming it’s criminals who need to be controlled, not guns. Well, guess what Senators, I’d like to suggest you look for another line of work. Because your actions yesterday were criminal, and the voters will retaliate when your seat comes up for re-election.

“I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote. I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I’m asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences.” Gabby said this and more.

Democratic Senators Heitkamp, Pryor, Begich, and Baucus all voted to kill universal background checks. Shame on you. Granted we still would have needed a couple more Republicans to pass this common sense bill, and I have to think not all of them thought of the Sandy Hook parents as “props.” Here are all the Senators who voted against universal background checks, whose hands are in the pockets of the NRA.

Want to help get Washington working again? http://represent.us

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Yesterday brought me to tears, unexpectedly. I was replying to a friend on Facebook who had told me that her daughter was moving to Nashville, when I noticed a new tweet from Carol Costello of CNN about the bombing in Boston. Boston, my first foray into adulthood: attending Emerson College on Beacon Street; taking the MTA to Harvard Square for a Garbo festival; watching the swan boats in the Boston Common; walking to Filene’s Basement.

When Bob and I married, he accepted an offer in the Berkshires because I felt like a New Englander at heart. I wanted to go back, our children were born in MA. Bob was running the medical tent at the Josh Billings Memorial Run (aground) when the Bride was born. He tended to the usual ailments of elite and weekend athletes. He even entered a few marathons as well back then, when his back was cooperating. Last night as we watched an interview of yet another ER doctor, he said, “I know him.”

“From the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP)?” I asked, since he was the MA chapter president. “No,” he said, “from Shock Trauma.”

This morning I am trying to make some sense of this horror. But the reporter in me gets frustrated. There are too many news organizations swarming over those historical cobblestone streets. Everybody wants a new lead to the story. It’s so close to the WACO anniversary, so maybe it’s a domestic terrorist. They are searching an apartment in Revere of a Saudi nationalist. And always the same question, why?

Does it matter if the “reason” is domestic, anti-government terror, or jihadi fundamentalism? One racist, religious group wanting to avenge a perceived danger in the US vs another racist religious group trying to dominate the Middle East? They both think God is on their side, and there is no reasoning with someone like that. Asking why makes no sense. An 8 year old boy died yesterday because?

Today is the 6th anniversary of the VA Tech shooting. It’s a reminder that violence is a thread that runs through every state, every country. Boston, our hearts are with you as you heal from this. Sandy Hook, our souls are forever yours, and Blacksburg, we are still in mourning. Yesterday I felt helpless, in the same way I felt when the planes hit the Twin Towers and I heard there was one heading for DC where the Bride had just started her new job. Tears came spontaneously, because now we are all Americans, united in every city, on every street corner. Here is the MIT green building sitting across the Charles River last night.

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Remember when cell phones and blue tooth technology were new? You’d see people walking down the street talking to themselves and wonder, what the heck? Then you’d see that little light in their ear and realize they were not actively hallucinating.

There is currently a cute little PSA on TV with a woman in a grocery store. She is also ostensibly talking to herself…until you notice the baby in her cart. She’s explaining how to pick out fruit, or just passing the time in language. Not baby talk, but really talking to her infant, as if she could understand her. Which is good, because they can.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/the-power-of-talking-to-your-baby/?src=me&ref=general According to this article, children who are raised in a poor or disadvantaged family are actually exposed to less language – fewer numbers of words – than other children before the age of 3. And it is this disparity, that can predict future school achievement or failure.

“The disparity was staggering. Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.”

2,100 words per hour. Now I studied child psychology in college, I knew about the monkey studies, the importance of touch and bonding. I knew about Skinner and operant conditioning, to pick up your baby before they start crying, so they don’t learn to cry for attention all the time. To praise the behavior you want to continue, and ignore others or distract to avoid total tantrum meltdowns. It all seemed so simple. But no one had ever actually counted the words parents say, per hour, until now.

The lesson here is not just to increase the numbers of words you may say to your baby. Because I have a feeling, and it was not a part of this study so I’m going on instinct here, that distracted parenting may have the same effect as hearing 30 million fewer words. When I see a parent with their head in their lap, on their phone texting away, I see a baby who is adrift in the world. I see a toddler in a playground saying “Look at me,” and a parent giving a cursory nod before returning to their oh so important smart phone.

What you say, and not just the number of times you say it, matters – and it matters deeply. When people would compliment the toddler Bride on her appearance, I would always counter with “…and she’s so smart too.” Later, her Grandmother Ada would give her money for a report card that had the supposedly negative checks of “Raising your hand too much in class” or “Talking too much.” 

I will have to continue that tradition with the Love Bug. She is already saying “Mama” and “Nana.” And she is babbling up a storm. She is a lucky little lady to have very talkative parents. And also to have such a musical family. After all, I wonder how often babies are serenaded almost every night with live guitar music? Well, maybe Nashville babies?


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