Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rainbow Superheros

A psychic once told me my daughter would be attracted to causes, that I would see her start to become passionate about things by the time she was six. Indeed, when she was six, she and her classmates marched and wrote to the president and gave interviews on ABC News to protest the bombing practice that was taking place in Vieques, Puerto Rico. When the U.S. military abandoned that test site, more because they had become strenuously engaged in Iraq than because they cared about the local children who were being poisoned by the Vieques explosions, you could not have convinced my daughter that it was not the efforts of her class that had brought about the cease fire.

True, her parents did send her to a school that would nurture that seed of activism within her. Supported thus, she and her peers marched to end the war in Iraq when she was 11; wrote and read poetry and prose at a Speak Out Against Hate rally in Central Park when she 12; donned rainbow capes and gave speeches in support of civil rights and gay rights at a march she helped organize when she was 13; painted murals and did clean-up at a camp for seriously ill children and their families when she was 14. Today, she is in New Jersey, plunging into the icy ocean to help raise money for that camp, so that children with life-threatening illnesses can spend an idyllic week in a place called Camp Sunshine.

The psychic also told me that I need not worry about whether I would be able to provide what my children needed to find their path. He said that whatever I did not offer, others would step forward to provide. Enter my friend Debbie, whose daughter and mine have been classmates and beloved friends since they were four and five. Debbie drove our daughters and two more of their friends to that oceanside town in New Jersey last night, so that they could all run into the icy sea together this morning for a worthy cause.

I'm grateful to Debbie and the Camp Sunshine crew, my daughter's elementary and middle school teachers and peers, their parents, my parents, my husband, my son, all the people who are helping to set my girl on the path to being whomever she wants to be.

Ditto all the people who are helping my son become whomever he wants to be.

For the record, I don't consult psychics anymore. It was just a phase I went through, before I realized I didn't really want to think I knew what was coming. But it strikes me still how many things those psychics got right.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Couldn't Have Said it Better

field negro says:

"I want to comment on the political cat and mouse game going on in Washington. Rethugs lost the battle to block the O man's stimulus package yesterday, and now the spinners from both sides are out in full force. Folks, let me ask you a question: If you hired a builder to build your home and he fucked it up so bad that you had to bring in a new one to tear it down and build it up again; would you allow the builder who fucked it up to tell the new one what to do? Of course you wouldn't, that's my point."

Daily Silk Paintings Blog

Check out this wonderful blog, Daily Silk Paintings by Deborah Younglao (see link on my blog roll). Beautiful, vibrant work! The longer you look at each piece, the more you see in it. This view is one my husband looked out on for two years of his life, when he attended State College in Barbados and lived with his aunt and uncle. I didn't know him then, but everything connected to him is special to me, so with thanks to Deborah Younglao, I'm sharing it here.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scorched Earth

They're firing people at my husband's job today. Men and women with 20 years of service are getting the thank-you-and-don't-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out speech. It's mostly the carpenters and lampers and maintenance and mailroom guys and some of the exhibition workers. The science people, which includes my husband, seem to have survived this round. But now they all get to find out what the world is like for the survivors, the ones who now have to plant flowers in the sorched earth, and act like the holocaust didn't even happen.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Graffiti (I Did This)


I've been trying so hard not to write about my job, to keep this blog to the subject of family, especially about the juggling act that the generation in between the mushrooming kids and waning elders must manage every day. But work is part of that, especially in this new corporate reality, where so many have been laid off. 

These days, the workplace feels like a ghost town with rows upon rows of empty white cubicles, the air unnaturally still. The younger ones who kept the place humming with their exuberance and fashion statements and not-yet-crushed ambition and romantic hopefulness, are gone. The older ones who could always calm you with a wry word or a dose of seasoned pragmatism, are gone. The ones in the middle, the ones who are your age, people you came up through the ranks with, whom you consider friends, many of them are also gone. It feels like the slow dimming of a vibrant and still-worthy enterprise, choked off by budget contingencies. 

Let me state that I'm happy to have my job. Actually, the work itself, the messing about with words, the gritty elegance of the stories, all of that I love. I have very little ego these days, yet I am obsessive by nature and my work ethic is as compulsive as it has always been. Still, it is disconcerting to walk the floor and see the dark offices and empty cubicles where so much energy used to reside. It's like the slow leak of air from the invisible pinprick in a once festive, now faded balloon.

I am home sick today, trying to fight off the flu. I am almost thankful for my sore throat, aching limbs, cotton-wool head, chills from fever. It is a guilty pleasure to climb back under my covers, a legitimate excuse to not see, for today at least, the dwindling spirit, the imperceptible spiraling down of our great dreams and imaginings. Today, I will take a break from the question that shadows everything: What now? Cold outside. Warm in here. Delicious sleep, baby.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I See This Place in My Dreams

Something about this gateway makes me imagine extravagant creative license and the restoration of everything that has been frayed or lost. I see this place in my dreams.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Child of Mine

My daughter and I went shopping today. I love these mother-daughter excursions. It is fascinating to see my girl who could never match pieces of clothing as a child, develop her sense of style. When she was little, all that mattered was how a material felt, that it was soft against her fingers. Polka dots with plaids, orange with purple, there was no sense that a match even needed to be considered. Later, when her classmates started experimenting with tween fashion, she would occasionally dip a toe into those waters. We knew this because she'd come out of her room in the morning and ask her brother (whose sense of style is inborn), "Does this match?" Usually, it didn't. If he sent her back to the drawing board too many times, she'd just forget the whole thing and wear whatever the heck was closest.

Imagine my amusement now that she is in high school, noting what her classmates are wearing, then trying to make the different looks her own. Turns out she has a real eye for artistic pieces, yet even now, nothing scratchy or stiff or bunchy. It still has to be soft against her skin.

She is so forgiving, this child. She forgives her mother's rants and foibles. My son has a gift for making friends. My daughter has a gift for making people feel chosen and loved. When she was 8 or 9, she made me a Valentine's Day card. On the outside she wrote: "Mom, you were a hard mom to get before I was born, but God let me have you!" Inside, it said, "It's true. That's why you'll always be in my heart." Beneath the words was a red-crayoned cut-out heart she had made; she had pasted it in so that when you open to card, it pops up.

I still have that card in the drawer next to where I lay my head at night. I will keep it always.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

After the Party (One More)

Okay, I know a lot of us will totally get this moment. If you do, the memory is definitely a fond one.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The President in Love

Someone posted the most perfect image of Barack and Michelle Obama on, my favorite online art project. The words pasted onto the image captured my own feeling exactly. Watching the first couple dance at the inauguration balls last night, I marveled that the leader of the free world looked like nothing so much as a guy dancing with his girl—a girl he was totally hot for, I might add.

My husband felt their heat, too. Passing through the living room, he couldn't help stopping to watch them dance at the Inaugural Balls (top photo). Barack and Michelle did that same old school, stuttery two-step they were doing all night. And yet there was something so downright sexy about them, the way Barack leaned into Michelle, teasing, clearly flirting, kissing her neck, her mischievous, almost coquettish laugh in return. My husband said, "I sure hope they can get through the events quickly so they can go home and inaugurate their new bed!" Yep, something about their energy took our minds there. And it was lovely. And when I logged onto today, and found this image (second photo), I realized other minds had gone there, too.

Okay, people, mark this down: At just after 12 noon on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States. More important, a man of stellar character became our new commander in chief. And a loving, brilliant, wholesome Black family took up residence in The White House. What a day this was for America!

I'm off to find my husband.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Moment

From top:
1. Two million people of all races, creeds and walks of life gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to watch Barack Obama sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America. What a morning! (Photo by Vincent Laforet)
2. Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, arrive for the ceremony that will make their father the most powerful man in the world. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite)
3. Barack Obama stands on the verge of history, the first African American President-elect of the United States. (Photo by Jason Reed)
4. His family around him, President Obama takes the world stage. (Photo by Richard Friedman)

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Very Opposite of a Burden

Last night, my son accused me of not telling him about a full-tuition scholarship application that he found in his room (how does he think it got in his room?). The deadline for applying had just passed, and we went back and forth, as we do—yes I told you, no you didn't, on and on—until finally I cursed and he walked away, secure in his moral superiority.

After he left, I sat alone in the living room and tears just rolled down my face. I felt a slow sad panic that I wouldn't be able to send him to college, because we couldn't afford it. WPI sent his financial package, it arrived yesterday: $28,000 in scholarship money, and I still can't afford to make up the difference of $22,000. (I keep saying I, even though it's really my husband and I who have to find the money to send our boy on to his future, but my husband at that moment was sound asleep, untroubled by my financial gloom, serene as a baby taking an evening nap.)

I just feel, in so many ways, that I have failed my son. I didn't push him to do certain things (such as take the ACTs), and did too many other things for him, and now he doesn't know whether to be mad at me for what I did, or what I didn't do.

How do families manage this, year in, year out? Hundreds of thousands of families manage to file for financial aid and secure enough in scholarships to cover college tuition. Meanwhile, we are in the pit, too employed to get the money we truly need, but not rich enough to be able to actually afford the tuition they think we should be able to afford, even for the so-called Ivy League of the SUNY's, Binghamton University. That school, my secret hope, may be harder than Harvard to get into this year since the entire nation of 17- and 18 year-olds will probably apply there, given that its tuition and expenses, even for out-of-staters, is still under $20,000. I tend to be really obsessive and on top of this sort of thing. If I don't know how to figure out this college tuition thing, who does? Would we actually have been better off if one of us had lost our job? At least we'd have been able to check the dislocated worker box on the FAFSA (federal financial aid form). I hear it helps to be unemployed. (Okay, before the universe gets wind of that, I take it back. Grateful to still have my job, God!)

Called my mom in Jamaica this morning, and she was full of hope and light. You can make up the difference, she said. Twenty-eight thousand is a wonderful award, she said. If I die, you can sell my house and use the money, she said. Don't you dare think of dying, I told her. I never want to be a burden, she said. Mom, you are not a burden, I told her. You are the very opposite of a burden. You remind me to believe that there is a way to do this—to do everything.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ripple Effects

This young man's suicide ripples out to touch everyone. How bleak the day seems. At my daughter's school, teachers wept openly, a boy broke down in Physics class, a girl recalled her friend's last phone call and wondered if maybe he was really saying goodbye. 

I want so much to know what was in his heart and mind that night, what drove him off that ledge into the darkness, but I don't actually know this child, so perhaps I will never understand. Those who did know him, clearly loved him. They say he was funny, kind, helpful, a brother to the end, but what kind of sorrow must have seeped into him? Was his final act just a rash impulse that he couldn't call back, or had he planned to do this? My son tells me gently: "Mom, get used to it. You won't ever know." And maybe he's right. So all I can do is beam prayers for healing to his parents, his brothers, his friends. Especially to his parents. Their pain is unimaginable.

I find myself hugging my children a lot. My daughter and her friend from middle school are in the kitchen baking cupcakes from scratch. Their friendship is so familiar and uncomplicated. Their chatter soothes me. My son has midterm exams this week, biochemistry and Spanish tomorrow. As usual in the evenings, he is stretched out on the living room couch dozing in front of the TV. I rub his head as I pass by, and I don't even tell him to go study.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lost Boy

An 11th grader from my daughter's school, an Asian kid who was in her Spanish class, jumped from the roof of his building last night, a suicide. The news spread through the students' Facebook/ phone text/ IM network like wildfire, with a long line of Facebook statuses saying simply "R.I.P."

I asked my daughter what this kid had been like. She said, "Quiet. He always seemed tired. He always put his head down on the desk in class. I mean, he had friends, kids liked him. But he was quiet."

Why don't we ever see tragedy in the making?

There will be psychologists and grief counselors in attendance tomorrow as the students file back into school. There's even a meeting for the parents at 6:30 p.m. None of it will bring this kid, Chris Chin was his name, I feel that I should name him, say he was here, none of it will bring heartbroken Chris Chin back from the edge of that building.

Rest in peace.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

On Paddington

Paddington Terrace is the landscape across which my stories spill like beads, scattering from the broken string of a memory, rolling, skipping, bouncing before coming to rest in the dips and curves, the stony grooves and soft green verges of that so familiar street.

It was on this street, in the city of Kingston, Jamaica, in the sprawling red and white house at number thirty-seven, that I first began to grasp just who it was that I wanted to be in the world. I was fourteen when we moved there, and I lived in that house with my parents and older brother a scant four years before I moved away for good. I went to New York City to attend college and stayed for decades. I married and had children there. I worked for magazines, wrote books, paid private school tuition, put down roots. But before my life in New York, there was Paddington Terrace.

That house sheltered everything, the experiences I shared with my family, the secret teenage infatuations, the cousins and might-as-well-be cousins who moved in with us for months at a time (so that the people across the street thought we were a boarding house), the barefoot walks with friends up and down the baking asphalt, the twilight conversations just outside the front gate, spun out as long as we could till our parents finally called us in; all of it settled in me like so many shimmering fragments of a possible life, finding at last a permanent home.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Good While it Lasted

For the past 14 years, I've worked from home 2-3 days a week. It was the reason for both my productivity and my equanimity in the face of pressure-cooker office politics and the generally low morale of my workplace, the fallout of wave after wave of layoffs. Never sure when the axe would fall on me, I just kept my head down and ploughed ahead. I had something to prove, so I worked night and day to make sure no one could ever say my schedule was getting in their way. The best part was, I could rearrange my schedule to go on my kids' school field trips when they were younger, attend their parent-teacher conferences and earnest school-day presentations, host afternoon playdates and supervise homework, then stay up past midnight if necessary to do my own work. I always made sure to get it all done.

Lately, I've needed the flexibility of those days to manage my 90-year-old aunt's affairs, to be at her home when the case manager wants to make an evaluative visit, climbing into the ambulance with her on her frequent trips to the hospital, fielding endless phone calls and fair hearings with her eldercare attorney to move the mountains and mountains of paperwork needed to secure her home care. When my uncle died in September, my cousin (the Poli Sci professor and my partner in this eldercare maze) and I were able to plan his funeral in those days at home, from finding the funeral home and getting his body picked up, to choosing the hymns, designing and printing the program, writing the eulogy, getting the death certificates, an endless accordion of tasks. Again I stayed up late to make sure my job was covered too. And last Friday, after my other cousin failed to clear and clean her father's room so the 24-hour home-care worker could sleep in it when my aunt comes home from the hospital this week, that was me, digging into the piles of his stuff, breathing in the layers of dust, separating what to keep from what to toss, archiving hundreds upon hundreds of photographs, getting things ready.

Tomorrow, all that changes. Tomorrow the social worker is coming to inspect the room as the last step in the approval process for 24-hour home care. Once that is done, my aunt can finally come home from the hospital where she has been trapped for two months. Tomorrow, I will have to depend on my alcoholic cousin with her who-knows-what-other-addictions (actually, I do know...) to show the social worker around. I hope the living situation will pass muster, that she'll be sober enough to give all the right answers. I am so exhausted from trying to control that over which I have no control. I have to be in the office tomorrow, and every day of the week after that. Yes, I'm back in the office full time. The alternative was to be laid off, as 17 of my coworkers were in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Time for my cousin to step up.

This last hospital stay has been terrible for my aunt. They treat her perfectly well, there, but she's become disoriented, exhibiting signs of paranoia and dementia. More than once, and often in the middle of the night, she's called me, begging me to come quickly and bring the police. The last such call was recorded on my voice mail on Friday afternoon. "Come at once! I'm being kidnapped! Don't listen to anything they tell you. They're tapping my phone!"

When I spoke with her a few hours later, she appeared to have no memory of having been kidnapped that afternoon.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Friday, January 2, 2009

My Brother's Wife

So my brother and his wife and their children spent Christmas with us in New York. This is my brother's second wife, and I was very close to his first, so I had never really given her a full chance. Plus, she was not one to hide whatever she was feeling, and my brother often gave her reasons to be irritable. The last time they came to New York to spend the holidays with us was more than 8 years ago, because they didn't have children then, and their oldest just turned eight. Things went very wrong the last time. I hadn't truly opened my heart to my sister-in-law; the reason I gave myself was that she never seemed warm toward me. But which came first, chicken or egg?

The night before they left, my mom had the bright idea that we should all have dinner together at Red Lobster. I had been to an accupuncturist that morning, and felt as if I was floating, flooded with a sense of well-being. I thought. At some point during dinner, my brother, a doctor, asked me how my visit to the acupuncturist went. I began to rhapsodize, at which point my sister-in-law, also a doctor, scoffed, "That is all just foolishness." My God, I was suddenly and disproportionately ENRAGED! So much for serenity. I can't recall the whole exchange now, but we went at it, back and forth, neither of us conceding an inch, me appalled at her small-mindedness as a medical professional, she appalled at my belief in such quackery, my husband, mother and brother trying in vain to intercede, to minimize the conflict, even pretend it wasn't happening by covering over our snipes with chirpy observations about the food. The trip home was lethally silent. They left the next morning with my sister-in-law and I barely acknowledging one another.

We've had occasions to be together many times since then: We spent a Christmas with them in Jamaica. We also flew home to attend their son's christening on our daughter's ninth birthday. We have both always been civil, polite, pleasant. But hardly warm. I thawed a little after my niece and nephew were born, telling myself that I could not fully support them if I did not support their mother. But it was not until last fall that my heart truly opened to her.

My own mother had fallen and cracked a rib in St. Lucia, where she lives part of the year, and my sister-in-law took it upon herself to bring it to my brother and my attention that our mom could no longer live alone. "We all get to this point if we're lucky," she told me gently over the phone. "We all get to the point where our parents have to move in with us, if we're lucky enough to have them still be here." She talked about my mom moving in with them in Jamaica, since they're both doctors; she talked about moving to a new home so that my mom wouldn't have to navigate their stairs as she got older; she talked and as she talked, I realized her care for my mom. I wanted to cry at how much I had withheld myself from her. I did cry. I had never seen her fully, never truly appreciated her no-nonsense, straightforward approach to everything, never really seen the loyal, capable, caring mother, wife, sister and daughter she was underneath the sometimes prickly demeanor.

At that moment, everything mean and petty fell away and I decided to love her. I decided to let her be just who she is, and love her for just who she is. How easy it became after that! We had a wonderful holiday together. Nothing she said or did irritated me, because when you decide to love someone, their quirks are merely their quirks, particulars of personality that make them all the more interesting and lovable. On this visit I wanted them all the have a perfect holiday. I wanted my sister-in-law to see that everything was okay, that her adorable and high-energy children, 8 and 5, could be in whatever cycle of expression they might be in, shrieking at the Wii Sports game they were playing, criticizing the mess in my kitchen, jumping all over our broken-down furniture, all of it was just fine. She could relax. She was home.

I was grateful for a second chance at our relationship. It was good to have my brother's family and my mom in our home for Christmas. This time, we created bonds and memories worth holding onto. And we're already looking ahead to next year.

Thursday, January 1, 2009