Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Faster, Higher, Stronger

My son qualified for states in the pentathalon, hurdles and high jump. He competed in the pentathalon last weekend and was third in the state in high jump, 11th overall, and achieved three PRs (personal records) in high jump, shot put and 1000 meters. He equaled his PR in hurdles, but did abysmally in long jump, hence his 11th place finish. But hey, 11th place isn't half bad in a field of hundreds, so kudos, son!

He competes in states hurdles this weekend, and high jump next weekend. And his coach is sending his hurdles shuttle relay team to Penn Relays! That is huge in the track world, and doubly huge if you are a Jamaican (or of Jamaican extraction). Jamaica has a world-class track and field tradition (hello, Usain Bolt! Hello all those streaks of fast in their yellow and green track uniforms at the last summer Olympics!).

Every year in Jamaica, high schools hold island-wide track and field championships at the National Stadium, and it is a really big deal. When I was growing up, our whole school turned out to cheer for our athletes, and coaches from the U.S. were always in attendance, looking for college recruits. The winning relay acts always went to Penn Relays, and usually aquitted themselves admirably on the world stage. Imagine what that meant to a dot on the map in the Caribbean Sea. Well, we Jamaicans might be from a dot on the map but as my husband likes to point out, our egos are hardly contained by that dot. My son likes to tease by saying I made him fast and his dad slowed him down, since Antigua, where my husband is from, has no such track mojo. But our boy is doing his best with what he got! He loves athletics and may well be pursuing the perfect career for himself in his excercise science and human performance major.

This is what his last Sunday was like: He woke to play in an intramural soccer game at 7:30 am, then traveled to get to his states meet by 10:30 am. He competed in states till 4:30 pm, then went back to his dorm, slept till 7 pm, got up and studied with friends until midnight (we spoke to him during the study interlude and his dorm room was full of camped-out people, whom he maintained were all assiduously working), then he took a break at midnight to play in a club basketball game, then went to bed at 3 am. Whew!

I'm hearing a lot about athletics from our boy, but not so much about academics, so I was glad to hear some studying elbowed its way into his Sunday schedule. I hear he and his roommate have rigged up a hammock in their room, as their third roommate didn't return this semester. Okay, I didn't hear, I saw the picture on Facebook of my son in the hammock with a book in hand and a cheesy grin on his face. He seems to be having a blast. I do hope he's keeping all engines firing at the same time!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Adventure Girl

My daughter, above at age 7, contained her excitement enough to allow me to take this picture. It was the morning of her first 5-day trip with her class to her school's farm. She had just started third grade, and she was not at all nervous about leaving home for a week. You can see the embrace of adventure in her eyes.

This picture reminds me that the soon-to-be 16-year-old girl who is determinedly applying for a culinary program in Italy this summer has been a bold seeker from the start. Initially, she wanted to spend her junior year in a language immersion program in Spain. It was a year-abroad facilitated by her school, and she pleaded with us for days, showing us lists of the top notch colleges the program's graduates got into. But we said no. As her dad put it, we have two more years with her before she leaves home, and there is much we still want to say to her. We're not about to give up one of those years. But then her scholars program sent information on a summer program in Spain, bringing the opportunity back in a format we could possibly embarace. As she investigated the Spain program, she discovered that the organization offered other group travel experiences, including two culinary programs in Italy that had no language requirement.

The Italy program she's most interested in begins with a few days in Rome, then a 2-week homestay in a village called San Sebastiano, then 2 weeks at a culinary school in northern Italy, then the members of the group spend the final week in Venice sampling the city's sights and culinary delights. She had to write three 500-word essays and answer a million short answer questions for the application. But she did it. She's clearly motivated. I have my noisy-brain worries, of course, but if she is accepted into the program, we are going to let her go. Her scholars program sends 2-3 kids abroad with this outfit every summer, and they appear to be well organized and supervised. When our girl was trying to convince us to let her spend five weeks in Italy without us, she entreated, "Mooommm! I have to find out if cooking is my hobby or my life!" It was such an authentic outburst. That was the moment I said yes in my own mind, and resolved to help her convince her dad.

Today, I sign the forms that say we're okay with her traveling abroad with this program. I look at the photo above and it reminds me that our girl has been ready from day one to take on the world.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Annie, Bright and Dark

This morning, I stood in front of the bathroom sink and I couldn't remember which toothbrush was mine. None of the colors looked familiar. Hadn't I been using a green one? So why were there only blue, purple and pink brushes in the cup? I stood there with the strange sensation that I was out of time, as if I was there but not there, and then I realized that I was crying, tears were rolling down my face, and I missed her so much.

My friend Annie P died last week in Jamaica. She had throat cancer. She and I were so close in high school. I loved her so much. Even now, I marvel that it is possible to love someone as much as I loved her, and yet lose touch.

She was an artist, an astonishing pianist, and a straight-A science student. She was just gifted all around. She was a grade ahead of me, but our spirits clicked. We used to say it was because we were born on the same day, though she was a year older. We first became close in choir practices. The photograph above was taken during one of our summer choir workshops. This one was held for two weeks at a girls' boarding school in Malvern on the other side of the island from Kingston, where we lived. The school was in a very rural part of the country, and as I recall, the showers sprayed freezing cold water day and night. There was no ceiling to the concrete shower stalls. Annie and I and some of the other girls used to prefer to shower in the evenings, squealing and shrieking at how icy the water was, even as we stopped to gaze at the night sky above us, bejeweled with stars.

Annie and I laughed all the time. After school, we often took the bus up to Manor Park Plaza where we'd browse through the bookstore or the record store. We'd sit in the aisles and talk and read and giggle over the slightest thing, or we'd hole up in a record booth and listen to album after album, singing along, and the hours would pass, sublime. Suddenly we'd realize it was getting dark out, and our parents would be worried, and we'd scramble to the bus stop and head in our separate directions home.

In her final year of high school, Annie discovered that her mother hadn't given birth to her. She had overheard her aunts talking. Annie was cut to the quick. I remember we were walking along Constant Spring Road when she told me. "So guess what?" she said, her tone deceptively flippant. "My mom is not my mother and my real mother didn't want me." And then she started to cry. I tried to comfort her with all the words a 16-year-old can think to muster. And then we just walked for a long time in silence, holding hands. It turned out that her father had had an affair on a business trip to the Cayman Islands, and she was the result. He brought her back home to his wife, who took in the baby girl and raised her as her own. Annie's mom, Auntie Lulu we called her, could not have loved her more if she had issued from her own womb. And Annie did know that. But I think she never recovered from the news that everything she had known to be true about herself, was in fact not the case. I think she never again felt rooted.

Our bond slipped a little the year she had an affair with her cousin's boyfriend. We were 20 and 21 then. She was in medical school in Jamaica and I was in college in New York. I didn't know how to be excited with her about this guy, I didn't like him, and I didn't know how to caution her. I didn't know how to tell her that I thought what she was doing was wrong, that her cousin would be devastated. I want to think that I tried to tell her this, but she couldn't take it in and I didn't have the heart to push harder, to make her feel judged. Later, when the affair came to light, she and her cousin, who until then had been like her sister, became estranged. Their estrangement lasted for the rest of Annie's life.

The threads unraveled a little more in the years that followed. Annie started drinking heavily after her ill-fated affair, and she never really forgave herself for wading into those waters. Sometimes, I wonder if she was trying to understand her father and the infidelity into which she was born. She did manage to finish medical school and become a doctor, even though I have often suspected that a career in the arts would have suited her temperament much better. She married and had a son the same year that I had my daughter.

But we were never again as close as we had been in high school. It had become difficult to hold a coherent conversation with her. I still loved her. But now I always had the sense of being adrift in her presence, as if I couldn't reach her through the haze of intoxication, or maybe some of her brain cells got pickled. It didn't help that we only saw each other when I visited Jamaica once or twice a year. Over time, I settled for news of how she was doing from mutual friends, and the occasional long-distance phone call.

And then came the news that she had a tumor on her vocal chords. She had gone to a doctor to check out a dry hacking cough that wouldn't go away and the loss of her voice. The doctor in Jamaica essentially told her it was untreatable, to save her money and have a nice funeral. So she flew to New York for treatment. She arrived last July and stayed until December with a cousin in New Jersey, traveling into the city daily for chemo and radiation. Just before Thanksgiving, she told us that the tumor was gone, she had been given a clean bill of health and would be going home in two weeks. She had Thanksgiving dinner with us in our home. Her voice was back, she was laughing and talkative. She looked great.

She flew home the following week. That was in early December. No one knew she was back in the hospital until last week when someone texted Annie's cousin, the one from whom she had been estranged, and said they'd seen her there. We don't know if Annie had instructed her husband not to call anyone. The tumor, if it ever really left, was back with a vengeance. It had reached down into her lungs and circled her spinal chord. She couldn't eat, she couldn't breathe. And last week Friday at 3:30 in the afternoon, with her husband and son on another floor talking to her doctor, she left us for good.

I miss you Annie P, and selfishly, I miss us. The times I spent with you in that bookstore or at choir workshop or listening to music in the record booth or just walking aimlessly and talking, may well have been the most carefree moments of my life. So I thank you for those. My dear friend and sister in spirit, I thank you for having loved me then as I loved you. And I pray you are at peace.

Monday, February 15, 2010

My Valentine

For Valentine's Day, my daughter and I brought home flowers and treats for my husband. We bought a beautiful orchid with one of those campy plastic "Happy Valentine's Day" sticks in it.

We also found an armful of tulips in the most astonishing red. We put them out on the dining table along with red glitter valentine hearts, a strawberry shortcake and mini lemon tarts.We wanted to make of fuss over my husband. We knew he was going to cook lobster for us, as he always does on Valentine's Day, and we wanted him to know how much we love that tradition! And how much we love him.

He gave me a card with turtledoves in a nest that says "true love" on the front, and he got our daughter an impossibly soft stuffed puppy holding a pink embroidered sign that reads "hug me." She walked around with it tucked against her cheek all evening.

Dinner was steamed lobster tails, warm savory lobster salad, stir-fried onions, peppers, carrots, celery and shittake mushrooms in a teriyaki-ginger sauce, avocado with black pepper, corn on the cob, and lime-infused butter for the lobster. I cannot even describe how delicious it was!

Then for dessert, my husband had brought home chocolate covered stawberries so we each had a couple with our slices of the strawberry shortcake. The night was a dreamy. And the man who made it so is dreamiest of all.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


People say to me "How are you?" and I look at them blankly, not sure how to answer. I am so busy all the time, I don't have a spare second to look inside myself and discern how I am feeling, or to be more accurate, to come up with a socially acceptable encapsulation of what I am feeling.

I feel grim and tight-lipped, barreling through. That's how it feels now at work, where everything, it seems, hits my desk. All the sections of the magazine that others were supposed to take over when the respective editors got let go (or quit or went on maternity leave), now end up with me. The others who glibly said they'd pitch in are generally not around when their stories come through because they're part-time freelancers, or they're in meetings, or out of the office, or because they're executives who aren't really supposed to do this work anyway, and have bigger fish to fry. I don't know why they thought they could do it. I suspect deep down they always knew it would fall to me, they just couldn't say that out loud because it would have seemed insane to expect one person to cover all that. I wake up in the middle of the night, assualted by stray details: Did the art director add that call-out? Did I add that box to the end of the story? Did I fix that echo in the dek?

I'm supposed to edit the long features and top edit certain sections of the book, plus some admin and supervisory stuff. Now, in addition, I'm editing scores of department stories from early drafts through final proof. Which means the big features are about to suffer. To properly edit a big feature, you have to roll up your sleeves and wade on in. You have to mind-meld with writers, so you can understand their intention and push the piece just that much to help them achieve it. You have to hear their narrative voice in your head, hear the beat and rhythm of their sentences so you can edit within that, so you don't trample all over their story and co-opt it, making it something they no longer recognize as their own.

An editor should have great respect for the effort a writer has made. You have to approach each story with a kind of reverence, even. Even if the writer hasn't achieved what's needed, they have (with few exceptions) made a true and valiant attempt. And so you are to help them get the rest of the way there. Secretly, the story becomes as much yours as the writer's, your allegience to it is as great, you fall it love with it as if it were the child of your own mind, but you never want that to show in the edit. To properly edit a story is to be selfless when the glory is being given out. An editor of mine at Life magazine, the legendary Loudon Wainwright, told me this when I was a young reporter starting out: "When a good editor is finished with a story," he said, "the writer should read it and say, Damn I'm good."

I strive for that. I still do, all these years later. But it is hard now, to have that kind of mind-meld with a story, because as I'm weighing the words, piles of layouts keep landing on my desk, requiring my top read so they can move on to the next stage, and I keep getting called into meetings about art concepts and cover lines and schedules and on and on and I have to break concentration, again, again, again.

Deep breath. I'm about to head back into the fray. Thanks for letting me share.