Monday, September 15, 2014

Plot Twist

We’ve just entered the fourth quarter and last stretch of the year. It is not a spoiler to say that this has not been the best year of our lives at the Temple.

The year started with such promise! I was finishing a meaningful internship when I got a call from an agency and placed in a fantastic consulting gig. It was the dream job serving a STEM initiative for women in higher education, and I helped create their online community.

Then I took the job in Sunset Park although it was not quite what I needed or even what I really wanted. This was what had to be done to meet my basic needs, and even that was barely possible—practicing creative accounting to stay afloat isn’t easy but it keeps your brain working overtime.

It wasn’t a horror story by any means. My boss was very nice and my office mate was fun. Also, I loved the idea that I could be home in about 20 minutes. I took the bus to and from work. I also learned a couple of things (which I admit I probably will never use again).

The plan was to find a full time, permanent job while engaged there. The three-week hospital stay interrupted the search, the follow through on that campaign, and the momentum I had going.

Now that the gig in Sunset Park has come to an end I again face uncertain times. And by that I simply mean that because I did not reach my original goal of having secured a permanent position during the summer, now I find myself at a disadvantage and playing catch up, so to speak.

No more foggy mornings at the edge of the cemetery...

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is exciting to stand at the precipice of another adventure. It is also slightly nerve wreaking because time moves a lot faster when you have limited resources. The pressure grows exponentially as you move forward, but the trick is to learn to use it as fuel rather than let it drag you down.

If it were easy, it wouldn’t be interesting, would it? It’s probably better to have that tiny flame under you to jump start your journey. 

Job searching can take a lot of twists and turns, and it can be especially grueling when you don't have a steady back-up plan. Patience and perseverance are essential survival tools.

Ultimately, despite its ups and downs, there have been some great moments this year. More importantly, there are still a few months left to close out 2014, and it would be irresponsible to call it a day already: this may be the best year yet with a plot twist to end all plot twists!

Don't count me or 2014 out yet, we still have some serious fight in us to make this an exceptional year.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Just Be Kind

There has been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about mental health. This, in itself, is a healthy thing. It is imperative that we understand what constitutes mental illness, how to treat it, how to recognize it in others, things to do to help loved ones or even strangers afflicted by its maladies.

I think mental illnesses go largely ignored in big cities – we don’t see, we don’t want to see, we race from work to school to home to pick-a-chore. It is easier to gloss over it when you can isolate yourself in the cocoon that is your apartment and – in New York – never come out for air, if you choose.

My grandmother grew in a very small town, and as is true of most small towns, they took care of their mentally ill. They tolerated eccentricities but they also realized that these were not selfish whims but physical and psychological conditions that could not be easily overcome by those affected.

The decent thing to do, the kindness, was to help these folks, to protect them the way one would any defenseless creature and allow it to bloom in its own way so that they could achieve a modicum of self-reliance or even happiness.

I wish the conversation about mental illness was more focused and far reaching, but at least there is some dialog and the stigma is beginning to lift a little.

Today on the bus, a lady was sitting across the aisle from me. She sat with a  bundle on her chest. She held it lovingly and with care. The bundle was smallish, so I guessed it may be a new arrival.

I was busy chatting on Messenger with a friend, playing Words with Friends, and checking Facebook. I did not pay any attention to her beyond the initial glance. It did not occur to me until much later that I never heard the baby make a sound.

A few blocks later, I heard her say, “Do you want to ring the bell?”

At this point we were in the dead zone and I had switched to playing Angry Birds. Still, I heard her words and smiled. Kids love to ring the bell…

She stood as the bus came to a full stop and she exited.

One of the regulars, an old Brooklyn type (the Bay Ridge stereotype: big Italian/Irish mix, loud and funny and slightly intolerant but willing to accept you on an individual basis), looks at me with a devilish glint in his eye and says, “You realize she was talking to her teddy bear, right?”

I look out the window, and sure enough, she is holding a stuffed panda and as she is about to cross the street, she says to it, “This way?” and she turns it to face into the street as she points the path ahead.

Yes, it was a little funny because it was so absurd. It was also a little sad. I wanted to know more, but she was already gone. I hoped she’d be okay, but I want to believe that most people are decent enough and would give her space instead of torment her or hurt her.

But these are the provinces and far more neighborly than the city. If I walked into any street in Manhattan and started talking to my ham sandwich and switched to Spanish mid-sentence because it contains jalapeño cheese, nobody will give three damns.

Clearly, though, there was more going on there and this human being needs care and healing. It doesn’t make her any less deserving of kindness; in fact, she needs a little more than most. My grandmother taught me that very early in life.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Break Over. Not Broken.

Something the size of a marble has been wreaking havoc with my body, and my doctor's sanity.

It was well hidden and could not be easily seen – not with X-rays, not with CAT scans, and not on MRIs (which apparently are one of the few things on this earth that can reduce me to hysterical sobbing).

The elevated white cell count pointed to an infection, but I seemed to be asymptomatic to the usual suspects. Antibiotics always brought things back under control (expect for the pesky white cell count that was always a little bit on the high side).

Was it a blood disease? Could I be developing some form of cancer? Was there a chronic infection, some form of septic voodoo going on? Nobody knew!

It all came to a head when a tremendous pelvic pain almost knocked me down and a series of doctors, residents, interns, specialists (oncologists, urologists, gastro guys, surgeons, GYN folks) sprinted to put the puzzle together.
In the end, it turned out to be a tiny abscess that was throwing everything out of whack and causing more trouble than it was worth! A little bitty thing the size of a marble.

It cost me three weeks in the hospital and a whole lot of pain (there is a Blues song there somewhere).

I was sprung to freedom last Friday almost three weeks from the morning I walked into the emergency room in more pain than I have felt in my whole life and completely uncertain about my future.

As terrifying as the first part of my ordeal was, I need to say that methodical observation and examination brought clarity to the team of physicians looking after me and I am perfectly fine. I am up and about, and back to work and my life.

Being terrified half out of your wits makes it hard to be creative so I did no writing for the better part of two weeks-but some of the people might make it to fiction some day. I have to say that having access to social media made the ordeal less scary and less lonely.
It is amazing and shocking that something as small as marble could topple me, when bigger beasts have tried and failed. Who knew?

My deep gratitude goes to the staff at Lutheran Hospital for their awesome care.

I learned a few lessons, and here's one unexpected one: even if your mom was Parisian, if you are naked under one of those flimsy gowns that leave your butt exposed and have little to no mobility, you probably shouldn't criticize the grammar of the nurse's aide that is bathing you. It insults her entire cultural heritage when you tell her she is speaking her language wrong. It's also bad form. Woman, have you lost your marbles?!

And now, back to life! Sorry for the unexpected break.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Obsession is Relative

I have been obsessed with obsession lately.

Of course discussing it on social media and writing about online can be classified an obsession too!

There's a tendency towards an easy, willing and total immersion into obsession that permeates our culture. We are, as a society, obsessed with beauty, youth, sex, food, sports, politics, money, gratification – instant and otherwise.

The language of obsession makes it akin to passion (in its infancy) or to a mental disorder (in the troves of, well, obsession).

Strictly by dictionary standards, obsession is defined as a “fixation, ruling/consuming passion, mania, compulsion, preoccupation, infatuation, addiction, fetish, craze, neurosis...”

It depends on where you sit on the track of obsessive behavior. You can be a crazed fanatic, which means you are literally crazy, or be under the spell of World Cup fever (and this makes it a physical ailment that you surrender to and have absolutely no control over).

The difference, subtle in this case, is that the latter makes you an unwitting victim to the charms of the beautiful game, but the former makes you a willing conspirator in your own descent into the insane.

Norman Mailer had a practical take on it:
Obsession is the single most wasteful of human activity, because you keep coming back and back and back to the same question and never get an answer.”

Mailer had a practical but also had a cynical eye and by his philosophy obsession is useless. But is it really?

The question, I think, is whether each of these definitions we ascribe to obsession are actually synonymous? 

Most people would probably be offended at the idea that their passion is a fixation – but then, the person in question might be a stalker and, well, legally and morally, the rest of us would lean towards a more negative connotation.

And therein lies the real question, I suppose. Obsession is seen mostly as a negative, but is it always?

More often than not (and this is an opinion and not at all based on any scientific evidence), it seems to me that once you add emotion to the equation, obsession becomes a scary proposition.
My significant other right now is myself, which is what happens when you suffer from multiple personality disorder and self-obsession.” -Joaquin Phoenix
Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing. -Elie Wiesel

But an obsession with an idea is a passion that can lead to progress, to transcendence even!
I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent; curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas. -Albert Einstein
Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment. To such an extent indeed that one day, finding myself at the deathbed of a woman who had been and still was very dear to me, I caught myself in the act of focusing on her temples and automatically analyzing the succession of appropriately graded colors which death was imposing on her motionless face. -Claude Monet

Obsession builds worlds! And it also imagines the harshest of dystopiæ.
The trade of authorship is a violent, and indestructible obsession. -George Sand

Perhaps what makes an obsession acceptable is moderation. Certainly, small obsessions (like stamp collecting) are considered harmless and worthy only of slight scorn, but all-consuming fixations – even on things that are pleasurable – are less understood and we condemn what we do not understand.

I've heard obsession called “the very thing that destroyed” someone, but in labeling obsession we change its significance and the nuance of what it means.

An obsession that takes someone out of reality and allows them to fantasize about a world that is not there is dangerous, right? Unless it's Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov or Eileen Collins...

Perhaps acceptance of the condition can be measured strictly on what it ultimately contributes to society.

Certainly there are obsessions that seem completely useless – like obsession with celebrities (whether fueled by our own low-self esteem or influenced by relentless fame-whoring). 

While it has led to reality television; it nevertheless keeps thousands of production assistants, makeup people, photographers, and network executives employed and generally away from the rest of the decent folks.

Fame-whoring has created a cottage industry, therefore fame-whoring is good for the economy even if it also contributes to dumb us down and brings us closer to complete and utter moral decay.

See? It's all relative.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Ruined by Plunger

We have been fortunate for almost three decades.

This apartment, in this house we’ve called our home since the mid-1980s, was not really supposed to happen. I came along with Mom for moral support, but at that point we were both looking for a place to live independently.

The fact is that she could not afford it on her own, and I would have never considered it on my own. But once we stood in the space, and I saw the look in her eye (yearning and heartbreak commingling in one sigh), I offered to pay half of everything and urged Mom to sign the lease.

We’d have two bedrooms, a huge living room, a dining room (something I am not willing to negotiate on). The kitchen was smallish, but workable. There were closets in each room plus a bigger closet in the hallway. Eventually, after our landlady’s father had passed, I took over his old room and made it my study, and the entire second floor became ours.

In the space of time we’ve been at this place, a baby girl was born (now our acting landlady). We’ve had two dogs. Our boy has gone on to college, left the house, married and has two gorgeous little girls of his own.

We bought a new bathroom pail and filled it with things a new home needs – a plunger, toilet brush, sponges, tile scrubbers, etc… The original pail got replaced about a decade ago. The toilet brush has been replaced several times over. But the little plunger, which got minor play, has been with us since we moved in 28 years ago. Finally, the rubber cracked – probably in disuse and caused by the extreme changes in temperatures and humidity in the room.

Mom went to replace it this week and because it was one of those hot as heck days under an unforgiving sun, she ducked into the new 99-cent store and asked if they had plungers.

The young man was trying to be helpful, a relatively new arrival from China, he told her he did not know the word – and I am sure he expected her to just explain in Mandarin, but we are not that kind of Chinese. No one has spoken the old language in our gene pool for well over 100 years. Sometimes this is a confusing and visible disappointment to our neighbors who could swear we are one of them (we are, just partly).

So there was my mother and this poor young man making what must have looked like disturbingly hilarious gestures as she tried to explain and he tried to gather her meaning… And I giggled as she told me of her misadventure, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in the back of my mind, and that ridiculous scene in “Hush” when Giles was making his presentation on The Gentlemen and then Buffy . . .

well, you know. (If you don't, it'll become clear around the :08 mark.)

The point is, we have a new plunger, and it is entirely possible that Mom may have now a reputation as well.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Graduations Galore

Graduation, according to Wikipedia is the action of receiving or conferring an academic degree or the ceremony that is sometimes associated, where students become graduates. Surely most of us have participated in at least one graduation or commencement in our times.

In my time, there seemed to be less pump and circumstance as there is for current students – when even pre-school tykes get a commencement ceremony these days!

At the end of kindergartner we had a little ceremony (though not officially a graduation). It was meant to assure us that we had accomplished so very much that year: learned our ABCs, numbers, all our colors, and a few songs, made new friends, and got into the most important routine of our lives.

But more than that, the point was to ensure us that even as things would change – new teacher, new classroom, perhaps even new classmates – we were headed to the big time, to the part of the school where the Big Kids were…

We were going to play in the regular playground!

We had a sixth grade graduation, marking our advancement to junior high school. Then we had ninth grade graduation, as we prepared to embrace our teenage years and the last phase of schooling before adulthood. Finally, high school graduation marked our most awaited moment when we were almost legal.

I hated my sixth grade graduation so much and experienced commencement fatigue by ninth grade to the point I declared I’d never do another goddamned graduation for as long as I lived! (I did. I screamed it in two languages to make sure I was fully understood.)

It took some doing to convince me that high school graduation would be enjoyable and I reluctantly acquiesced.

When I was conferred my Associate, I had the unenviable choice of picking graduation or the Aruba Jazz Festival – which included a performances by Ruben Blades and Celia Cruz. I do not regret shunning the cap and gown for a bikini and flimsy evening clothes. For the first time in my life, I spent half an hour dancing to “Pedro Navaja” in public and I had the time of my life.

That’s right, I graduated from my antipathy of dancing salsa near live males (a feat harder than passing macroeconomics).

Graduating from college – an achievement that took years, blood, sweat and tears – was a welcome end to a challenging but generally exciting part of my life. I felt like a bride. I walked at Radio City Music Hall and it was spectacular, dramatic, and fabulous.

Grad school gave me the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy (the arch behind me, jumping in the fountain afterwards), I had not shared that with many when I realized it was an impossible dream. I never expected to graduate, wear gold and purple, and walk on Washington Square Park. The fact that I beat the odds was priceless, but doing it was surreal and more satisfying than I can explain here.

I had another graduation last year when I completed my PC Tech training. I don’t dismiss the time and effort required nor the substantial intellectual, moral, and emotional assistance I had during this period to accomplish it. But the best part of graduation was going out for mofongo in the Bronx with my godfather and Mom.

For the last couple of weeks and for the next week or so, I will spy kids of all ages sporting caps and gowns; some happier than others about the celebrations; and I wonder if I have another graduation in me. Do I struggle for another tassel?

Of course, it’s not the tassel or even the diploma but the journey that counts. Still, I wonder, how many graduations does one need? For that matter, shouldn’t people who really appreciate them be the ones we confer the ceremonies upon?

“Congratulations for working 80 hours this without a psychotic break or a massacre! You’ve graduated to the weekend. Well deserved. Here: have a tassel.” 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Grand Motherly Words

Mom introduced me to Maya Angelou's writing. It was essential to my Mother that I was not only literate but cultured in a multitude of ways. To that end, it was imperative to include writers of color, of different nationalities and ethnicities, and also as many women writers as possible.

Tonight, we spent a little time discussing Dr. Angelou and we both agreed that while we may not have absolutely loved every word she put forth, her facility with language and her passion for sharing it was infectious.

Rocked by a variety of vicissitudes, including inhumane violence, she was even temperate and wise. There was an old crone within that spoke eternal truths that resonated and vibrated beauty.

This does not mean she was a square or a stiff, she was very modern in her thinking. She also had a conservative side that dictated part of her demeanor – a Southern thing perhaps. Perhaps it's simpler to say she carried herself with both dignity and gentility.

I just loved to hear her speak. And the thing that always struck me was that, if they'd been given the opportunity to sit, have a cup of coffee and communicate, she and my great grandmother would have had a lovely visit. They'd be friends and neighbors and collaborators.

Having said just this, my Mother smiled and nodded in appreciation. It was perfect! And it brought up Mom's favorite quote:
When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
That blew Mom away because it reminded her of Abuelita (her grandmother). And this is a lesson that she has tried to instill in me as well. Being a Mother, of course, she is always right.

Being more than a little obstinate, I don't always listen because I do have this pathological need to do things the hard way first. It's a competitive thing, it challenges me to overcome. It's not always necessary and it is often unwarranted.

When Oprah had the conversation in which Mom heard this quote, she put it in simpler terms, “...when you are mistreated the first time, when someone shows you lack of integrity or dishonesty the first time, know that this will be followed many many other times, that will some point in life come back to haunt or hurt you. Live your life in truth. Don't pretend to be someone you are not. You will survive anything if you live your life from the point of view of truth.”

People change and some even grow. People sometimes make mistakes. Don't expect apologies or explanations because you are owed nothing, even if it makes for a lovely way to begin a dialogue about it. Forgiveness is divine when you encounter these things. Blah, blah, blah...
People rarely err on the side of compromising their integrity, not at any price. Always remember that.
Mom and I discussed the meaning of these words and what Abuelita had to say about it too. No names were mentioned but it became clear to me that my Mother is that same kind of woman, universal and eternal and wise beyond the mere mortal.

Maya Angelou did not speak until she was six and in all that time her grandmother spoke to her constantly and instilled in her all her wisdom. Not speaking gave her the distinct expertise in doing what most of us do half-assed most days: she listened.

If you really listen, no matter how many years you are separated, the voices of the wise women in your life stay deep within you and inform your path.