Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Imagine all the people...celebrating more birthdays

It was days, really, between learning my friend was being sent home, cancer treatment suspended, and learning she had passed away. Sadly, the first symptom came well after the cancer had already metastasized and spread. They began intensive treatment, aggressive. It was hard on her, but she had a lot to live for: loving family, loving friends, and two beautiful children, as well as all of her work, including a book she authored for children about children on the autism spectrum. That was her: a do-er.

She was the sort of person you could picture growing older, still doing. I could even picture her forty years from now blowing out a cake full of candles. In my imagination, over her cake, her hair was still bright, as it was before she got sick. She’d do that, I knew, keep herself looking nice. She’d have a big smile, and she’d tell everyone they shouldn’t have made such a fuss, but everyone would ignore her because they knew she was deeply touched -- family and family times were everything. I wished that for her with all my heart.

When I got the message she was gone, I denied it. I didn’t believe it until I read her obituary in the paper. I left a comment on the online memorial. I spoke about what a fantastic person she was. I spoke about how heartbreaking a loss it was. I mentioned nothing of my anger.

The next day, I went for a run. My feet pounded the track in fury. The hot Texas summer sun pounded me back, just as brutal as my anger. I hate this, I thought, I hate this day. My children had been surly, uncooperative, and cranky. The day was intolerably hot and humid. The sun was relentless. I pulled myself along the straight stretch before a curve that took me along the water.

My iPod stumbled out of my pacing songs and Falling Slowly came on. I nearly clicked to the next song, but the lyrics caught and tugged at my grief. We’ve still got time…the song trilled. But my friend doesn’t, I thought, my friend hasn’t got more time. Why not? I knew how she’d feel about that, and that she’d be of two minds, and unapologetic. That’s how she was. She called it like it was. But she also called blessings for what they were too. I felt ashamed of my ingratitude: for having known her, for all the gifts I received from her, for the beautiful children she brought into the world and would not get to see grow up, for the fact that I had today, another day with my children even if they were cranky and I was grief-stricken and miserably hot.

I took the curve in the track a little slowly and I thought hard about her. She’d have loved this hot day. She’d have loved to be healthy and bickering with her children about getting ready for day camp. She would have loved having this day, I knew. And I wanted to give it to her, a late or early birthday gift, depending upon how you looked at it.

Here it is, I thought with my mind and heart, here is this day, another day, one you would have liked, one that was hot, one that was about being a mom, one that was about making a healthy choice.

I sent the experience of the day up and out, and away to her. And a little bit of grief fell away from my heart. She may not have another birthday, but I do. She may not get to celebrate another birthday with her kids, but I can. And I can send the appreciation and joy from that to her.

My friend, and all the other friends, mothers, sisters, daughters, brothers, fathers, husbands, wives – all the other people who have gone, or are still here fighting, or stand beside someone fighting cancer – are why I joined the American Cancer Society’s More Birthdays effort. I can take a page from my friend’s book and be a do-er. I can celebrate and recognize that every birthday is a blessing.

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I am a member of the American Cancer Society's Blogger Advisory Council, a small group of volunteers that advises the Society on its social media strategy. Part of our mission is to spread the word that we have power in the fight against cancer. The first step is to build awareness and engage women. Visibility equals power! So we have started a blog "chain" to spread the word among women bloggers. We call it Bloggers for More Birthdays.

You can help me!

Join Bloggers for More Birthdays by dedicating a blog post to someone you love who's been affected by cancer. Host the badge on your site to build visibility. It's a simple way to celebrate those you love. Just write a post, host our badge, and know that whatever you write, you’re raising awareness and inspiring others to join American Cancer Society in the fight against cancer.

And please, host the special Bloggers for More Birthdays badge on your blog to encourage others to join. Just visit our site for the code to grab a badge, and sample posts.

We want to spread the word, so we ask you to get others in your networks involved by sending them your posts and asking them to dedicate a post of their own. If you don't have your own space online, email a post to bloggersubmit@officialbirthdayblog.com and we'll post it for you.

You can tweet about the chain as well, please use #morebirthdays:

Examples:

dedicate a blog post to someone you love with cancer and tell their story join http://bit.ly/13kS6L for #morebirthdays

blog against cancer: join http://officialbirthdayblog.com/category/bloggers/ for #morebirthdays

Blog for #morebirthdays, less cancer join http://officialbirthdayblog.com/category/bloggers/

Happy Birthday.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The American People in their Righteous Might*

* Title from a speech by FDR immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor

Eight years ago I was so pregnant I was at that "oh no you didn't go and make me move, now I'll have to sit on you and crush you" stage.

When I woke up that morning, I lay on my side, the left, of course, with my knees slightly bent, of course, and I contemplated the floor. Was it going to be easier, I wondered, to maneuver the upper half of my body upright first, or to kick my legs hard enough to get momentum to drop them over the edge of the bed to help hurtle me into a standing position?

In the end, hunger is what really got me out of bed that day. But still, I moved at the speed of snail.

That's why I was still in my car zipping through Salem, slowing only to consider stopping for a pistachio donut at the greatest little bakery right before the historic square. In my mind, the morning is molasses slow motion and details are vivid. It was a gorgeous perfect New England fall day. Brilliant sky, crisp air with sunlit warmth. I glanced to my left as my car slowed for the curve and checked out the window display for the Salem doll lady, then swung my head to the right to drool over the gorgeous Victorians. The witch museum off the square was preparing for Halloween. Not a morning like any other, a sharper more perfect morning than any other. A day that should have been as spectacular as the weather, as the coming season with all its fun and treats and special moments.

NPR chirped the news in my ear. I turned off to Marblehead, and as I drove into my work parking lot I felt so lucky: I was pregnant, healthy, had a great job, lived in the most beautiful place in the US, had a great husband and life was good.

That's why I was so stunned, so disbelieving when the newscaster stumbled over his words and said, "This can't be right...we're getting reports that a plane has struck the World Trade Center...we don' t understand the report, we need to check, we'll keep bringing information..."

That's the moment the day started to move in fast motion blur.

I actually ran into my office building, the first office was the film guy. He had all sorts of TVs and equipment and people were crammed into his office.

"Oh my God," I said, "They're saying...planes? In New York City?"

"I know," my coworker Frank said, "We're watching..."

And the bodies parted and we turned to the television just in time to see the second plane hit. There was a long, loud audible inhale, and maybe a short scream, but what I really recall was the publisher's long low moan. "My son," she said, "My son is in that building!" She hurried from the room and it was so, so quiet until several people started murmuring oh my god.

The newscasters were talking about Boston, about threats and planes to Boston, to the Financial District where my husband worked.

I tore my eyes away from the television and hurried to my office. I called my husband, "Oh my God did you see?"

We spoke for a few minutes then he said there was a commotion outside his office. He came back a minute later, "There are military planes flying over my building," he told me, "What is happening?"

"You should leave," I said, "I heard they're shutting down the trains."

"I don't know," he said, with that reluctance of people who've been through too many false fire alarms.

A minute later I heard urgent shouting behind him. "What was that?"

"A fireman," he said, "He told us all to get out, now, not to shut anything down just go."

"Do it," I said, "Run as fast as you can to try to get space on the train. Get off at Swampscott," I said, naming a stop significantly south of us, "I'll drive to get you."

"I'll call you," he said. But cell service went out and it was the last I heard from him for hours and hours.

Nobody understood. Nobody comprehended. But urgency began penetrating the shock.

I drove to Swampscott and waited. Much later than expected, the train arrived, so full that people stood on the steps, clinging to the rail, white-faced, silent. People poured out. "There he is!" an older woman said out loud. "Oh I'm glad," I said. "Do you see your husband yet?" she asked. "No, no, not yet." Her son joined her and they lingered beside me until I burst out, "Oh thank goodness there he is!" She smiled at me and left, one happy end to one story that day.

Every architect in America who watched the news that day knew what was coming. The World Trade Center towers are standard lesson in architectural school. My husband predicted nearly to the minute when the towers would fall, and how. Later, I heard countless architects share the same story.

So much grief and anger. So much sudden comprehension. So much seeing what would happen next with deep dread. So much so unavoidable. So much anger about what could have been, or should have been, known and avoided.

My sister-in-law called. She'd been rounded up by the FBI. That's how she phrased it -- rounded up. "I stood behind him in line," she said, "The terrorist guy, the one who flew the Boston plane. He was right in front of me." She was terrified and the FBI kept questioning her. They took all her bags -- briefcase and purse -- and her car. She cried. Not from fear, but because she had nothing to tell them. She wished she had something to tell them.

We all wished we had the right words that day, the ones people wanted to hear.

I remember being so confused by my shock. "It's not like it's the first time this sort of thing has ever happened," I kept saying.
"Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounding determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God. "

--- Franklin Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor speech, December 8, 1941
The truth is, history and past events not withstanding, it was unprecedented, what happened that day.

Shock became anger, anger became action, action became war, and then the losses compounded, as did the deep divisions, and the cementing of opinions and sides.

Eight years later.

That baby is nearly eight now. My baby, I mean, not the war.

But you can't hardly think of ages without realizing that we've been at war my daughter's entire life. That children her age are missing someone. I read an essay today by a 9/11 widow. She has meticulously architected, in her mind, her husband's death, and her own life to this day.

This morning, on another 9-11 -- which remains, no matter what, not just any other day in September, not any other Friday or birthday or deadline or any event, special or mundane, Nine Eleven -- I felt sluggish as I did eight years ago. I pushed myself around the track, though, bribing myself with an episode of This American Life: "Fine Print." They interviewed an Iranian man who had been seized, imprisoned, tortured and forced into a false confession about conspiring with Western Powers. Western makes me think of cowboys, which isn't too far off if you think more deeply about how the West was won. Western makes Middle Easterners, okay, Iranians, think of 1953 and how the West won then, too. They have not forgiven or forgotten, and it lends credence to the false confessions, which are actually well-planned and profesionally delivered.

Omid Memarian's confession was well-planned and professionally delivered, despite his best attempts to surreptitiously poke sticks in the spokes.

He said that he realized, a week or so into his detainment (such a word) and torture, that he wasn't even the real target -- the perceived threat. He was merely an innocent bystander, so to speak, a tool to threaten and get at the real targets and true perceived threats. He sounded put out, and humiliated. To go through all this and just to be a tool.

Sort of like the people in the Towers, on the planes, in the field in Pennsylvania. The people lost in 2001.

Memarian falsely confessed in 2004, his country ramping up its anti-Western strategy, possibly as a direct result of US actions -- although they seem to dislike the British as intensely -- which were a result of the 9/11 attacks which were a result of...

War is a Mobius strip.

So here we all are, eight years later, continuing to feed in on ourselves, feed on ourselves.

Memarian also said that while he was being tortured he thought, "I don't want this to become that divisive moment, that defining moment, not for me, not when I'm only 30."

As a journalist, he said, explaining, you spend time with people in tragedies, and you realize that there are these moments when life becomes split into Before and After. He'd interviewed detainees and torture victims, among others, and he said they just never quite recover themselves.

The producer of the show, Nancy Updike, didn't ask him to explain what he meant. At this point, eight years later, we all comprehend what that means.

1941
1953

In 1969 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her book On Death and Dying. In 1969, a lot of people knew a lot about loss and grief. In 1969, four generations of men had fought four generations of wars. In 1969, war didn't bring about a baby boom, it brought about a baby bust. The joke is that the Baby Boomers were too busy being eternal teenagers and living selfishly to actually have children, but if you asked me straight out I'd say that's silly, straight out.

Anyway, as we all know, they waited until the first Gulf War was over to have children. Maybe we all thought war was petering out, by then. It certainly didn't have the same impact the Vietnam War had on us, culturally. Also, the Greatest Generation had already happened, so what was left to the rest of us? Lesser? Frankly that was fine by me. I didn't mind having a lesser and more comfy life. I was happy to appreciate the mettle testing the gradnparents' generation had sustained if it meant I got to miss out on a Great Depression and World War.

Anyway, though, as we all know, that wasn't to be.

2001
2009

Kubler Ross said there were five stages of grief. Have we hit number 3, Bargaining, yet? or are we stuck at 2, Anger?

You aren't supposed to rush the process.

But maybe, just maybe, it's time to let go of the second stage.

I heard that the ability or willingness to traverse the stages linked to the amount of meaning and purpose one has in life.

Here's to us finding, nationally, a new and strong meaning and purpose beyond the before and after, beyond the anger and fear.

I learned a lot more about loss and grief, personally, this summer. That's why right now it feels so important, urgent maybe even, to me to say we need to celebrate.

A short while ago, on a curve in a track by the water, I cried about a lost friend. I cried because I hated the day -- it was hot, the children had been contrary -- and she would have loved it. I cried because I was here and she was not. How I wish you were here to have this day, my heart cried. That's when it hit me: I needed to have this day and find the joy in it, and send it up to her, somehow.

Live and let live.

We need to have this day and find the joy in it and send it up, somehow.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Anger in another language

I've been subtly correcting my children lately. Persistence has anger management issues, which I realize is the definition of a four year old, but directing that from anti-social to acceptable communication is the definition of mother.

"Stomp your foot, say I feel angry! That's okay! It's not okay to hit or say hurtful things!"

If I had a dollar for every time I said that the private school tuition would be paid for.

We used to say mad. But the phrase "I'm mad" began to get under my connotation, denotation, and grammatically OCD skin.

I did not like picturing Ophelia. I did not like being put in mind of a mad bull, someone enraged; greatly provoked or irritated; angry; abnormally furious; ferocious; extremely foolish or unwise; imprudent; irrational.

Although upon reflection, perhaps mad is the right word, after all. But we've stuck with anger. Angry sounds like something you can get under control. Mad, enraged, fury does not.

Betty Draper is walking fury.

My friend Becky generously loaned me her disc collection of the first season of Mad Men. I leapt into the show a few episodes into season 2. Season 1 is a real eye-opener. It also proves that this show was completely self-actualized and brilliant from the beginning.

Yesterday I watched the episode where an ad man appealed to Betty Draper's vanity and asked her to be a model for a campaign. It was all part of a different campaign entirely -- to recruit her husband from Sterling Cooper to this other firm. When he declined, Betty's photoshoot and campaign was scrapped. Ruthlessly. Without thought for her face, or any saving of it. The next day, she went outside and began shooting at her neighbor's pigeons. It's nearly too complicated to explain why, but she had her reasons.

I think it was really because he made her little girl cry and she was just that done with men and their oppression and manipulation.

I was thinking about Betty Draper when reading (again) Isabel Allende explain how Chilean women render their men utterly dependent on them domestically, pampering them like babies, thinking they are queens of the castle, without really understanding they were royalty in name only.

It's really about trying to find comfort in any perception of power in a powerless place.

I wonder how Chilean men who can't cook for themselves and mad men who objectify women into sex and chess pieces explain the current level of pigeon-shooting anger that obscures our national vision now. Pea-soup murky hazy miasma.

Anger.
Mad.

Ira.
Furia.
Cólera.

Choler makes me realize we have a long and lethal history with anger, we people. We understand it is more than an emotion; it is also a physical and physiological thing. In horror movies, anger summons poltergeists who feed on the fury, are attracted to it.

I wonder if too many of us in the US, in the world, have become poltergeists, attracted to and feeding off of anger.

Today I told my sister I am angry about everything. For example, I told her, I am angry that some utility company or another has been digging in my backyard for nine months. Then I laughed because it is foolish to be angry about this. It's self-pity really. But I've got a hearty mad on about it.

She said she is angry too. For example, she told me, she is angry that she ordered a necessary suit for her son three weeks ago and said she needed it by today. The store said fine, then when she went today to pick it up, the angry sales clerk angered my sister by telling her she was being ridiculous: delivery trucks only come on Thursdays.

My sister called me in the first place because she is angry about something else. I am angry about that, too. We are angry because it is, and even more because there is nothing we can do about it.

Oppressed.
Manipulated.
Powerless.
Angry.

My Facebook stream and any news or blog feeders are clogged with anger.

I laughed long and hard during the moment in Mad Men when, based on an old fraternity prank, Pete and Harry decided to clog up the airwaves with Nixon and Secor laxative ads, blocking Kennedy from TV. That show. So clever. In the good way.

In a different scene, Cooper came to see Sterling, and told him to put out his cigarette, "It makes you look weak," Cooper said. He backed up his point with an anecdote about Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. Hitler planned the meeting in an old castle that forbade smoking, which cost the cigarette-addicted Chamberlain greatly. "By the end of that he would have sold his mother to Hitler for a dance," Cooper said.

"All I got from that story," Sterling said, "Was that Hitler didn't smoke."

All I got from that story is that the writers know their history. Mr. Appeasement, that's what they called former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. I've never before heard anyone blame cigarettes for his giving away of a chunk of Czechoslovakia to Germany but I have heard the logical equivalent of bipartisanship blamed.

But drinking and smoking are time-honored methods of smoothing over awkward social moments, and without either, I bet there were plenty in that meeting between Neville and Hitler. Of course later Mr. Appeasement had to resign, but he got a new job in in Churchill's War Cabinet, which I always thought was the embodiment of the old adage about working from the inside out, but now I wonder if it's the embodiment of the old adage about an angry dove, furious about being bitten, morphing into a hawk.

Outside of Mad Men, we seem to have lost sight of our history. Forgotten it. It's a big hole in our perspective. It means we are perpetually four year olds, relearning lessons each generation, over and over, about anti-social versus acceptable communication of anger.