Monday, October 31, 2016

Red balloon

My book project seems to have stalled again; the contract hasn't shown up yet, but I'm trusting that we're still moving forward. In the meantime I've picked up an editing job. I'm diving into that this morning, as the author was prompt in signing our contract and sending payment. I believe this makes her manuscript my priority, even if the other book project was on the table before her job showed up.

Sometimes, when I look down the road, I get exhausted at the thought of year after year of trusting that the next project will show up and then I think I should just find a job somewhere, with a steady paycheck, in any field of endeavor whatsoever. This is fear talking. I'm putting it here so I can stare it down.

That was my girl before she dressed up as an ice cream cone for Halloween on Saturday. She and her friends went to hear a heavy metal band headlined by one of their crew. She says they ended up playing mini golf in the basement of the Brooklyn venue till 4 AM, in costume, a rather odd evening. I don't think her ice cream cone with its red balloon cherry headband on top scared any ghosts away, but I'd wager her smile might help temper my angsty feelings this morning.

Sunday, October 30, 2016


NPR's This American Life asked singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles to imagine what President Obama might be thinking about the rise of Trump, but cannot say out loud. The result is this haunting piece of art, performed to perfection by Leslie Odom Jr. who stars in the Broadway hit Hamilton. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Men of the hour

It's been an eventful week, including our son's graduation from the FDNY EMS Academy on Thursday, and my husband's birthday yesterday. In between I had doctor visits and work stuff, and all of it added up to not a single post last week. It was a good week, though. My son's first official day on the job was yesterday. He got the station house he wanted, the one in Chinatown where he'd been assigned during training rotations, where he already knows the other medics. They asked for him. That's my son. He works hard. He's entertaining to have around in a guy's guy kind of way. He rolls up his sleeves and doesn't trip over the small stuff. I'd want him on my team, too.

That's a picture of him, fifth from the left, doing the Count on Deck with his graduating class ("Highly motivated, truly dedicated FDNY probies, sir ... oorah! oorah! oorah!"). Later they took the Oath of Geneva, which was adopted in 1948 as a declaration of the medical community's dedication to humanitarian goals, a declaration that was deeply significant in the wake of medical crimes so recently committed by the Nazis. The words of the Oath are quite beautiful, worth setting down here.

I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the service of humanity; 
I will give to my teachers the respect and gratitude that is their due; 
will practice my profession with conscience and dignity; 
The health of my patient will be my first consideration; 
I will respect the secrets that are confided in me, even after the patient has died; 
I will maintain by all the means in my power, the honor and the noble traditions of the medical profession; 
My colleagues will be my sisters and brothers; 
I will not permit considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient; 
I will maintain the utmost respect for human life; 
I will not use my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat; 
I make these promises solemnly, freely and upon my honor.

As the class of EMTs and paramedics recited this oath, my eyes filled up. I looked at my husband and saw him swipe at the corners of his eyes, too. When they were done, the captain said to the group, "You are now among the few people in this world who can say they save lives for a living." That my son has arrived at this place he has pointed himself toward since he was ten years old still fills me with awe. Intention has power.

I didn't get many good pictures from the day. It was raining hard outside, and inside the light threw weird shadows down our faces. But as my daughter said when I lamented the lack of share worthy photos, "You were there. That's what counts."

Then on Friday night, we had an easy low-key birthday celebration, just the kids, their loves, and us, for the other man of the hour, my wonderful husband, the man my daughter thanked a week ago for being there. One of her friends was going through some heartache because her father had never been there, and our girl just wanted her dad to know how much she appreciated the fact that that she never had to worry about not having him in her corner. These October-born men named Radford, both the father and the son, they are good and honorable men to have in your corner. Happy birthday my love, my lover, my best friend. I am eternally grateful it's you.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Fully a man

Yesterday would have been my dad's ninety-third birthday. I found it fitting that it was also Family Day at the FDNY-EMS base at Fort Totten, where my son has been training since late July. He will officially graduate this week. He did it—made it through every step of the training, including the real world rotations in the rig, where he began actually treating the sick and the troubled. This is the life he chose. He is so deeply happy right now it is wonderful to see.

Yesterday was blustery, cold and rainy, but it didn't matter to the families who stood outside to watch our sons and daughters march in behind the Fire Department colors to the haunting melody of bagpipes. My husband and I, our daughter, and our son's girlfriend attended together, all of us so proud. I teared up when I saw my boy walking in, eyes straight ahead, shoulders squared. Later, the new class of EMTs and paramedics performed rescue exercises to demonstrate where they'd been and what they'd been doing for the last three-and-a-half months. I got to meet some of our son's fellow probies; it was intriguing to observe the familial closeness of people who, four months ago, did not know one another existed. They all described feeling called to this. I shouldn't be surprised. This is not a job you fall into. You only get into the department through sustained intention, fueled, I suppose, by a sense of calling. It's fascinating to meet so many others made like our boy.

The city fire commissioner opened the proceedings. He thanked the families for raising sons and daughters who had chosen to serve in this way. "Your loved ones will see some hard things in the days ahead," he said, "and we depend on you who they come home to provide them with support and love. They may not always talk about what they have seen, but it will help that you are there." On the way home, our son thanked us again and again for coming; it meant a lot to him for us to witness him as one of New York's Bravest. And this morning, as my husband was dressing for church and I lay in bed reading, there was knock on our door. Our son entered, threw himself down next to me and put his head against mine. I hugged him, my hand cupping his smoothly shaved head. "You did it," I whispered. "I did," he said. And then he hugged his dad, who also cupped his head, much as we did when he was a baby, this child of ours, now a full-grown man, his heart bursting with wonder that his long held dream is coming true.

He's going to put FDNY tags on our car, which he also uses. "That should help if the police ever stops you," he told us. Ah, there's the irony and, I suppose, a silver lining. In one way, our boy is safer walking through this world in his uniform than out of it.  I'm so proud of our son and the way he has pursued this I can't even contain it. Bear with me. My son is fully a man. Somewhere, his grandfather is smiling.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

How to enter

“Imagination is the highest form of research.” 

― Albert Einstein

The problem with high stakes is that they keep me too firmly wedded to the idea of objective truth. They hamper my willingness to take liberties with what is known, to weigh in imagination what is yet unspoken and unseen—it, too, might be true. 

I was the kid who, while in school, always did better on a test if I studied less. Because then I could allow imagination to fill in the gaps in what I knew, and the result was always more inspired that the painstaking regurgitation of conventional wisdom or passively received truth.

As I sit here, trying to find the first good sentence that will help me enter this feels-like-high-stakes project, I need to remember that nothing flows without play. I need to give myself permission to make up the truth, to imagine it anew, even in the face of grim facts, I need to mentally play. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Continuity of Hope

Saturday was the annual Farm Festival at the little progressive school that my youngest and her so called lifer-friends attended from age 4 to 14. The festival takes over the entire city block where the school is located, with farm produce stands and children's games and hayrides and a pop-up thrift shop, plus a silent auction.

The annual fundraiser is put on every year by the first grade parents, who solicit all the donations and food, rent the tables and chairs, book the bands and street performers, and set up and break down all the rides and stations. I remember when it was our class's turn to do it, how utterly exhausted we were at the end of the day. I ran the farm produce stand that year, selling five kinds of apples, pumpkins, apple pies, cider and jars of homemade preserves, most of it originating from the school farm upstate. I took such pride in making the stand attractive, and felt a healthy competition to outdo the amount raised in previous years. Every group of first grade parents drinks that Kool Aid—it's why the fundraising aspect works so well. All want to be the class that raised the most, and put on the Farm Festival where the absolute most fun was had.

I remember that day was the first time that for several hours I had not a clue where my 6-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy were. I just trusted they were on the street somewhere with their friends. At the end of the day, we broke down the stalls, restored the school to order, counted the money, located our children and limped home. We locked the front door of our apartment, left the kids to their own devices, and slept for most of the next day. We felt tremendously accomplished, but every part of our bodies ached, which is why I have sympathy every year for the harried parents who are up at bat and running the show.

The kids, of course, always have a great time, which is why young alums, and older ones too, find their way back to Farm Festival every year. It almost has the feel of a pilgrimage. I got there late this year, toward to end of the festivities, when the alumni after party had already begun. This was a landmark year in that it was the first time the Farm Festival was being held at the school's new home, a much larger renovated building on the Upper West Side. Now it is home to the experiment in social, cultural and economic diversity that began in a rather elegant townhouse on the Upper East Side during the 1960s.

This year, I arrived to find my daughter and her friends sitting on the stage of the main auditorium, sipping wine, finally old enough to do such a thing in front of their former teachers. I greeted our kids with all the happiness I usually feel when I see their familiarity and comfort together, and then I went off with my friend Leslie to look at the rest of the school, six floors in all, with a central courtyard. The architects of the new space retained the feel of the old one, especially the grand staircase leading from the first floor, and the beautiful wall of lead-glass windows. Our young alums had earlier toured the school on their own, and pronounced it an acceptable successor to their own favored place.

Saturday was also my son's gf's birthday. He and she are both born in early October, and they planned a joint party at a club downtown with their multiple groups of friends. But first there was cake at our house. My son said, "Make a wish first!" right as S got ready to cut the cake. She took this very seriously, pausing, closing her eyes, and then taking a deep breath before continuing. It was a moment. I found myself wishing that her wish comes true, because she seemed to make it with a whole heart. And then they were off to celebrate somewhere out there in the city. My daughter joined them later. Such a good time was had, I heard, that my son's gf and my daughter proposed to one another and pledged to be sisters no matter what. I am surrounded by beautiful young people. With them as the heirs to our world, I'm tempted to believe that the future might not be so dire as the 2016 election season would suggest.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Books and Bliss: Reading to Gary's first graders

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about feeling adrift, as if I had no real purpose. "Come and read a book to my first graders," my friend Gary responded in the comments. "Their lives are not always easy but those kids wear emotions and find their way back to happiness. You have so much to offer and so do they. I think it is a win-win situation." Gary teaches at the American Sign Language and English School in the city, and we met years ago through his wonderful blog, Follow Your Bliss. Gary's been a reader of my blog long enough to know about my natural introvert tendencies, but against everything that was telling me to avoid center stage, I said yes!

Oh, I am so glad I did. Gary had explained that some of his kids were non-hearing and some were the hearing children of deaf parents. Most are bilingual in ASL and English. Because some of the kids are deaf, I'd have an interpreter signing alongside me. We agreed I'd read one of my favorite books ever, Thank You, Mr. Falker, a picture book about an insightful educator who teaches a lonely, isolated student to read. The word dyslexic is never mentioned in the book. I often read the story to my own kids when they were growing up, and I never failed to tear up at the moment when all the words on the page suddenly make sense to the girl and she reads and understands whole sentences for the first time. The girl is Patricia Palacco, the author of the book. Despite once feeling dumb because all the kids teased her about not being able to read, she grew up to be a writer and illustrator of books for children. Mr. Falker changed her life. Gary thought the book would be perfect because it offered an opening for me to talk about loving books and getting your own stories down without stifling them.

When I walked in the kids lively faces immediately put me at ease. There were twenty-one of them, all sitting in a semi circle around me and the interpreter. Their faces were eager, curious, expectant. They each introduced themselves to me by signing their names. First we talked a bit about what it meant to be " a writer," and how writing is really just getting your thoughts out of your head. Then I read the book. The kids were the most generous audience, hanging on every word. The interpreter signed what I was reading "gorgeously," Gary said after. I imagine the story was that much richer, arriving in the children's' imaginations by both sight and sound.

Afterward, the kids asked me questions they'd prepared, and we had a rollicking good exchange. Some moved from siting cross legged to lying on their stomachs, chins in their palms. I loved it. I loved them. They were so open-hearted. One girl observed that the girl in the book had been bullied by the kids who called her dumb. She named it. Then she shared that she had been bullied at her previous school, which is why her mother moved her to this one. I wanted to hug that little girl. I was glad that she was now in a place where she felt safe enough and embraced enough to share so freely. I always knew my friend Gary was a special kind of teacher, but being with his first graders, I realized just how gifted and committed he is. That's Gary in the black-and-white plaid shirt below. His first graders are lucky to have their own Mr. Falker.

In the photo, I adore how one girl's hand reaches around her classmate to rest on my shoulder. After the group pictures, the kids crowded around. One said, "I want to hug you," and she did. The rest followed her lead and soon I was the beaming guest at the center of a first grader hug fest. Gary texted me later that the kids had made me thank you cards, and he wanted to send them to me. He snapped photos of some of the cards.

"One of the kids wrote, Books are great. I like books too," Gary messaged me. "Our work here is done." Thank you, Gary Wellbrock, for making this wonderful experience available to me. You're right. Your kids can lead any soul right back to joy.

(Note: The students' parents granted permission to post their kids' pictures.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Regulation blues

Things are swirling so fast I can't process it all. By the time I sit down here to write, events have moved several stages beyond. And the presidential race is just the most surreal part of that. On a much brighter note, I should report that last Friday my son passed his clinical scenarios with flying colors, and will graduate from the FDNY EMT Academy at the end of the month. I'm so proud of him, my heart is so full. I bought him a silver medallion with the likeness of St. Michael, the patron saint of firefighters and people in uniform, and their protector. I gave it to him when he came home and told me he'd passed. I knew he would. Official pictures will be taken at the graduation ceremony. In the meantime, I snapped this unofficial one of our son warming up leftovers last night because he just looks so cool in his regulation blues.

Friday, October 7, 2016

When I was a bohemian

My two are beginning to talk about moving into their own places come the new year. My daughter is salivating at the thought of making her space exactly as she wants it. She has Pinterest boards full of design ideas and color schemes. All of this makes me remember my own first apartment in New York City, a railroad flat on 120th Street with great light, and an endless hallway and two tiny rooms stacked one on top of the other. I moved in there the week before starting my first job as a reporter for Life magazine. It was my first time living alone. The refrigerator was in the living room. The kitchen sink and stove were tucked into a dip in one wall. I put shelves above them to store my few mismatched plates and glasses, and the crystal lemonade pitcher my mother had given me. My cutlery lived in painted cup. Somehow, I made the place bohemian adorable.

I obsess so much about my children's safety, yet I hardly worried about my own when I was their age. The building had long corridors with alcoves in which two doors were tucked at right angles, leading to two small apartments that had previously been one spacious one. I always thought those alcoves offered perfect cover for a person with nefarious intent. But there were no such incidents. The basement laundry room was down a long narrow cobwebby hallway with dusty low hanging water and heating pipes. I only went down there when I had to, sure the place was haunted or else I'd meet some intruder and no one would ever find me. And right next door to me, so close that our front doors almost touched, lived a drug dealer. We said hello cordially as we came and went, and I pretended not to notice his clientele banging on his door at all hours of the day and night. I never told my mother.

That apartment was where my husband and I lived when we were first married, until we moved to a larger place. If the walls of that little railroad flat could talk, I'd ask them to be quiet and keep my secrets. So much happened in those rooms. There were years I was so lonely and desperate there, and yet here I am, still standing. And this is what I want to tell my children: Gather all of life in your arms, cherish the joys and don't be afraid of the hard passages, because you will come out the other side. That's what we do. We survive.

That's me with a dear friend in my first apartment. We were footloose reporters in our twenties, traveling for weeks at a time. And when we were in town, we worked till all hours and then stayed up even later in each other's homes. Oh, the stories we could tell.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

My firstborn is 25 today


Happy birthday my darling boy. I'm so proud and happy to be your mom. I wish you the world, always. I love you so.

Photos by Ozier M.