It was only a ball game, but what a ball game!

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From Chicago’s North Side and the banks of Lake Erie in Cleveland, the word spread. There are miracles. The impossible had happened! The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Coming from a 3-1 game deficit in the best of seven series, Chicago team swept the Cleveland Indians in the final three games both at their home of Wrigley Field but in Progressive Field, Cleveland’s home ballpark. Not only had the Cubs ended a 76 year absence from appearing in baseball’s ultimate event, they ended a 108 year famine by winning. No one alive remembers the last time the Cubs had won the World Series. Hardly anyone alive was in the stands the last time the Cubs played in the Series. And now, the dream was realized. The streak had ended; there would no longer be any “wait until next year.” Next year finally arrived! Even my wife, the ultimate non-sports fan, was talking about the game, excited by the result.

So, what now? There is the requisite ticker tape parade in the Windy City. President Obama has invited the team to the White House, even though, as a South-Sider, he admitted being a White Sox fan. The players will be adulated as heroes, since Americans seem to value sports and entertainment celebrities above all else. Salaries will be renegotiated. Endorsements will flow. There might even be a player who will be “going to Disney World.”

But what about the average fan? What does “Joe Sixpack” do when his longest existing fantasy has been realized? Another World Series victory, however significant in itself, is qualitatively different from the initial achievement. Sure, this was not the Cubs’ first World Series victory. Yet, having them more than a century apart is pretty much the same as winning the first time. No one alive remembers the first victory. Few, if any, even remember the last Series appearance.

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Is the loss in the victory bigger than we imagine? Can we dream a new “impossible dream?” as the Man of La Mancha suggests? We need collective, communal goals, fantasies to bind us together into something greater than the individual. Sports fandom has a way of building community among people who may have nothing else in common. Yet, in their mutual appreciation identification with a particular team, they have become a unified whole. Perhaps, this was never any more present than in the ever-optimistic, “wait ‘til next year” Chicago Cubs fans.

 

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How do we develop a new, yet achievable, communal fantasy? We have a Black president and are, hopefully, days away from our first female POTUS, thereby accomplishing two dreams shared by many Americans. We can desire a functional Congress but that will hardly bring tears to our eyes or joy to our hearts. We long for world peace, an end to hunger, a safe future for all our children. If any of these are achieved, we will feel gratitude and deep love, although probably not the same emotional elation as a long-awaited sports victory. Perhaps I am reading too much into this; after all it was only a baseball game.

 

 

 

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When Breath Becomes Air

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Goatsbeard (Tragopogon pratensis) seeds blowing off in the wind

 

I just finished reading When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. It is the story of a young man dying, having contracted lung cancer in his early thirties. The author, holding degrees in English, philosophy, and science, as well as being the chief resident in neurosurgery at the time of his death, is an insightful writer, a highly intelligent, if somewhat driven, human being, and, as his cancer became more and more an integral part of his daily life, a compassionate and inquisitive human being. As he states, throughout his life he was constantly driven to explore the meaning of existence, the inter-relationship between the brain and the mind, a journey which took him into both literature and the depths of medical science. From his own words, one envisions the image of a driven student and doctor, a committed healer and skilled surgeon, especially for one so young. Someone you want as your doctor, but not necessarily your friend, unless you shared the same attributes.

After his diagnosis and the reality of his dying became accepted, Kalanithi made choices to maximize the quality of his life, to return to surgery so long as he was able, and then to write and father a child — through IVF with his sperm frozen before the chemo began. He lived long enough to see his daughter Cady born and begin her life; to write much of the memoir I just read and which became a New York Times best seller; and to bring healing and comfort to patients after his return to practice.

When Breath Becomes Air does not necessarily plow any new ground in the death and dying literature. Rather it gives a first hand account of an intentional process written by a person who has the unique combination of a highly developed scientific mind (and the knowledge to support it) and an appreciation and skill with the written word. The immediacy and honesty of the writing and the story, even while knowing the outcome, grabbed me, pushing me toward the inevitable conclusion, an ending the author did not necessarily seek, but one with which he was professionally and intellectually familiar. Had he lived there is no doubt this experience would have made him a better healer and a more compassionate and personable doctor, in much the same fashion that Atul Gawande’s experience with his father, memorialized in the book Being Human, did for another medical scientist. Is there any significance to the fact that both were American-born children of parents who emigrated from the Indian sub-continent? Given the xenophobic tone of the 2016 Presidential campaign, one can only wonder.

 

Pebbles in the Water

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Today marks thirteen months since the release of my book, Learning to Float: Memoir of a Caregiver-Husband. In the memoir, I describe the challenges I faced, lessons learned, and love experienced as my wife’s caregiver while she recovers from a stroke suffered in August 2005. It is based on contemporaneous emails written to let friends and family know what was happening and as a means for me to figure out what I was experiencing and feeling.

Learning to Float

I didn’t think it would make much money, an assumption that unfortunately, has proven all too accurate. If money was the motivation, I would choose to write in a fiction genre that required considerably less emotional vulnerability, and more sales potential, than memoir. I wrote the book in the hopes might help others in similar situations.

To help spread the word, and encourage sales, I have sought out opportunities to do readings and make presentations in bookstores, community centers, libraries, service club meetings, basically any place willing to host an event. Some have been well attended; others, less so. Whether sixty people or six are in the audience, however, I experience both an excitement to be able to share my story and the hope it resonates with at least one person. I am dropping pebbles in the water, allowing the ripples to flow out in ever-increasing patterns.

 

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I feel no responsibility for the impact, if any, of my words or my book. I have hopes and desires, but what happens if people attend one of my presentations or read the book, or merely hear about it from another person is beyond my control. Similarly, while I would prefer doing presentations to large numbers of people (all of whom are potential book buyers,) I am equally gratified when any body shows up. That single person sitting alone for the presentation may be exactly the right one to hear my presentation. What I have to say may be the key to help him, or her, become a more compassionate, more effective, more loving caregiver. That person may be the means by which my message gets out to the multitude or I sell thousands of books. So, my energy, my focus is the same regardless of the size of my audience.

This is not to say I have not been disappointed when only five or seven people come to my presentation. Of course, at times I have been. At the same time, I am grateful for the opportunity afforded by the conversation with those few. I am honored they thought what I had to say was worth their time. And so, I greet them with friendship and openness, invite them into my world, and throw some more pebbles into the water.

Happy New Year

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This evening marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; literally, the head of the year, the time of the birthday (literally) of Adam and Eve (no presents, please.) It is the beginning of the most holy and sacred time of the Jewish calendar, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of At-One-Ment. Tradition has it that God determines on Rosh Hashanah who lives and who dies in the coming year, who has success and who has failures. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provides a time for a “do-over,” when repentance and prayer, not to mention a couple of good deeds, can produce a plus instead of a minus in the “Book of Life.”

When I was younger, I was taught that this time was a period when G-d sat on this magnificent throne, with a huge book in front of him. (God was always a he, since Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament was written, does not have gender neutrals. All nouns are either masculine or feminine. At the same time, the grammatical gender designation of a noun is purely linguistic and has no relationship to a noun’s gender in reality. A subtle differentiation lost in translation.)

Meanwhile, back at the royal hall, each person stands before God, who after due consideration and interrogation makes an initial determination of that person’s future in the coming year. While I don’t really believe in this imagery, it does explain how New Year’s Resolutions came into being. “Please, God. I will do better in the coming year. Look, I promise to do these things. I have learned my lesson. Just trust me for one more year; you won’t be disappointed.”

Of course ,God, like the rest of us is disappointed. And, of course, God is not really sitting in judgment; that would be too easy. We are judging ourselves — did I do everything I could last year? How can I be a better person this coming year? What can I do differently that will be of more benefit to the world? That’s what we probably should be asking ourselves rather than “how many days into the new year will it be before I break my resolutions?”  I remember one year I resolved not to get any more parking tickets.   By 10:30 on January 2, I received my first one! That was my personal best! These days, if I make resolutions, I do so on computer.  Then all I had to do, from one year to the next, is copy and paste them, changing the date, since they are almost always the same — get more exercise, lose weight, be more patient, develop more compassion.

So this evening, my wife and I will venture to the Mainland and spend the evening with our rabbi and friends, offering prayers and songs for the new year. It will be a happy time, an opportunity to offer thanks for what we have experienced and received in the past year and contemplate the new year will bring. And we will certainly enjoy being in the company of old friends, many of whom because of geography we haven’t seen since this time last year.

Most holidays, Jewish and non-Jewish, have traditional foods associated with them. Rosh Hashanah, being about new beginnings, has a tradition of sharing apples and honey, the former being fresh off the tree, and the latter, symbolizing the sweetness one wishes the year to contain. A friend sent me this somewhat sac-religious depiction of an apple in honey which, as one who drank the Steve Jobs kool-aid, I nevertheless appreciate.

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And so, as I prepare my body and my soul for the coming year, as I attempt to achieve the mental and emotional state that would allow me to maximize the experience, I wish you the traditional greeting of the time, L’shana Tovah (A Good Year.)

dove shanah tovah

It’s Sort Of An Anniversary

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NOTE: This was supposed to be posted yesterday, August 29, but the power went off right before I clicked on “publish.” So, here it is a day later. Enjoy —

“Your wife has had a stroke!”

Those six words, spoken to me by a young emergency room doctor, on August 29, 2005, exactly ten years ago today, changed Deloris’s and my life forever. We were no longer equal partners, sharing chores, decision-making, travel and other adventures.

Deloris on her 70th birthday

As days morphed into weeks, which then became months, the nature of our new life together began to take form. Deloris began to heal. She had not lost her ability to speak nor suffer any paralysis, although initially she lost temporarily awareness of the left side of her body, and experienced decreased mobility, physical energy and endurance. Then there was the impact on her short-term memory and executive functioning. As she says, “My memory is just a memory.” The ability to mentally focus, make decisions, engage in rational thought would have to be relearned. And, upon release from the hospital, she would need 24/7 care, which I was able to provide, more easily after learning to ask for and accept help from family, friends, and community.

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Now here we are, ten years later. After much hard work, Deloris is about 75% of her pre-stroke self. While no longer the productive writer she was B-S (before stroke,) when she can focus she continues to work on the draft of the novels she was writing. She reads almost as voraciously as before; she works crossword puzzles with a passion; and is almost as committed to her physical training sessions as she is to her hair appointments. She devours television news programs, although the nuances of what is happening often elude her (as they do all of us.) Her conversation skills and sense of humor are intact.

I know the deficiencies exist, as does she. We live with them on a daily basis. Her energy and endurance remain low. She would rather lie on the day bed and read a book than walk in the park. (Actually that preference was the same B-S.) She doesn’t cook and does only the minor household chores I ask her to do. She wants to do more, but does not have the endurance or ability to stand long enough to do so. She doesn’t drive, much to her dismay, as I am concerned at her coordination and reaction times. It is an ongoing discussion.

She has begun to walk around the house without Raisin, her cane, which I take as a sign of new strength and mobility. I feel comfortable leaving her alone for hours at a time, although not yet overnight, knowing she can feed herself, climb the stairs to our bedroom, and handle her own toilette, all activities she could not do several years ago. Short-term memory deficits remain, aggravated by some hearing loss; Her long-term memory remains intact and mental processing seems improved. While hyper-alert to perceived changes, I also remember we are ten years older — Deloris is 81; I am 72, going on 73. Hard to admit, but age is catching up.

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.” (Deloris earlier this year)

Equally important to me are the lessons I have learned and the changes I have undergone this past decade. Caregiving was not a career or life style choice I consciously made. It was a role I almost seamlessly and willingly assumed, since I married Deloris “in sickness and in health”.

Our mutual love and commitment has deepened over the past ten years. I treasure Deloris and our time together in qualitative ways I could not have imagined before her stroke. Even when I am frustrated, sometimes angry, and tired at what I have to do, wishing things were different, I am grateful for the gift I have been given. I have learned so much about myself, gotten in touch with a depth of compassion and love I didn’t know I had. That my life revolves around Deloris’s needs is not a burden; rather she has given me a gift, enabling me to get outside myself and be of service to another, and to do so in a real and meaningful way. When I remember doing what the woman I love needs to have done is a form of spiritual practice, I feel incredible gratitude.

I am a better person for this experience and my relationship with Deloris. What more can one ask for? As we mark this 10th anniversary, and celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary on Labor Day, I know I am, we are, blessed.

[Would you believe I can’t find a picture of the two of us at our wedding! 😦 ]

WHY WE WRITE

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Yesterday, August 8, as Board Chair of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, I had the privilege of addressing the graduates of our Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. I used this opportunity to muse on why we write, or at least why I think we should write. Below is a slightly edited version of my comments.

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    Few people, less than 8% of the population have done what you have – earned a master’s degree. Fewer, I guess, have demonstrated the creativity, artistic endeavor, and yes, word-smithing, in doing so. In your program, you have, as Pablo Picasso, so aptly put it, “learned the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

    So why did you go through all the hard work and late nights to reach this day? Certainly not for the money, although it would be nice if that happened. Then you could pay your student loans, make big contributions to your alma mater, and maybe even treat yourself and your family to a vacation. Stephen King, who has certainly figured out how to earn some money from writing, perhaps said it best. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates. . . or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well.”

    We humans are a story telling species. From the cave paintings of our prehistoric ancestors to the emojis, texts, and 140 character tweets of today, we use story to tell each other who we are, where we are, what we think, and what we feel. Some of what we say is mere verbal noise, often unnecessary or even annoying. Even then, however, we feel the urge to share.

    As writers and graduates of a Masters of Fine Arts program, you have a special responsibility – to use the power of story, in whatever genre you choose, to fulfill the mission of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, to use your writing “to frame the essential questions of existence, experiment with answers, and record the struggles of all people to understand.”

    Write to entertain us; to teach us; to provoke us. Make us think. Make us feel. Make us angry. Make us happy. Make us sad. Take us to places we have never been and perhaps do not want to go. But go we should. Make us cry. Make us laugh. Maybe especially, make us laugh. As the late William Zinsser, journalist, professor, and past executive editor of the Book of the Month Club, is reputed to have said, “I want to make people laugh, so they will see things seriously.”

    When you write, write with confidence, with pride in the skills you have honed and creativity you possess.

    It is said we teach what we want to learn. My wife, who was trained as a journalist and can therefore say in five sentences what it takes me, trained as a lawyer five pages to say, will attest what I want to leave you with is certainly a lesson I need to learn. From one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Seuss:

    It has often been said
    there’s so much to be read,
    you never can cram
    all those words in your head.

    So the writer who breeds
    more words than he needs
    is making a chore
    for the reader who reads.

    That’s why my belief is
    the briefer the brief is,
    the greater the sigh
    of the reader’s relief is.

    And that’s why your books
    have such power and strength.
    You publish with shorth!
    (Shorth is better than length.)

    Do These Pictures Make Me Look Fat?

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    In the past several weeks, I’ve had the privilege, and the pleasure, to do presentations and readings from my book, Learning to Float: Memoir of a Caregiver-Husband, in several locations around Western Washington. I have enjoyed all of them — Orcas Island; San Juan Island; Whidbey Island (do you note a pattern here?) Attendance varied in quantity but not in quality. Everybody was attentive, interested in the story, full of intriguing questions. Some books were even sold, making the bookstores happy, and the possibility of some additional dates discussed.

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    I felt really good about it all until I saw the pictures. Then, that stereotypical question of the marital sitcoms came into play — do these pictures make me look fat? Of course, I know the answer because I have weighed myself; I have seen myself nude in a bathroom mirror. My answer — absolutely yes, ,or yours (undoubtedly the same, if you were being honest,) of course, has nothing to do with the quality of my writing, the value of my presentation, or even my own self-esteem. Yet, while I discount the inquiry, I nonetheless spend time writing this post and putting it up. However much I deny it, the question ahs some juice, even though I can’t think of any value of any sort, it has So, let’s just assume I ask the question because I thought I needed some words to go along with the pictures, and this is what came to mind. (Hmm, maybe I should pay attention to what I eat and drink between now and my next presentation. . . . Naw! What fun is that!)

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    There are more opportunities in the coming weeks to determine for yourself if doing book tours makes one fat. I will be at the Jewish Family and Career Services in Louisville, KY on Monday, June 29th (jfcslouisille.org) and at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, WA on Wednesday, July 8th (thirdplacebooks.com See for yourself.. Make your own determination — did those photos make me look fat!