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Category Archives: life

At Fourteen

So I’m watching “Criminal Minds,” which I love because of the profiling part – I would love to have a job in which I had access to everyone’s most intimate, personal business. It wouldn’t have to be killers; I would be perfectly happy plumbing the depths of gardeners, ferry boat captains or veterinarians. I like to know what makes people tick, and I am limited to my own observations because the rules of polite society prevent me from asking the questions I really want to ask.

In the episode I’m watching, the impossibly beautiful Dr. Reed explains that the music that’s popular when a person is fourteen is “their music.” It defines them, he explains, no matter what they hear before or after. Although this information is, in the context of the TV show, simply a clue in building a working profile of the Piano Man killer, to me it is huge. I Google it, and it’s a “thing” that fourteen is, according to no less than The New York Times, “a magic age for building cultural tastes.”

I am as interested in figuring out my own psyche as I am in probing the depths of everyone else’s. I look up the songs popular in my fourteenth year, 1976, and I am horrified. It was a time when disco was not a joke, but the bread and butter of Top 40 radio stations. “Disco Duck” was on the list of the most popular songs of the year. Somehow, probably because I was a very serious cellist by then, living in a house in which pop music was largely ignored, I missed “Disco Duck.” I find it on Spotify and play it, well, the beginning of it, and satisfy myself that I was probably unscathed by that particular hole in my musical history.

There are other songs, though, that bring back memories of Levis cords, Earth shoes, feathered hair and roll-on lip gloss. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and “Take it to the Limit.” I think about the Eagles, who I never liked, and about the fact that I bought an Eagles album with my own money because Steve Maltby spent his time in Algebra I drawing alternative album covers with “The Eagles” in fat, curvy letters. I imagined that if I sat in my seat and hummed “Hotel California” he would overlook my frizzy hair and acne and recognize me as his one, true soul mate.

And then, because I felt so sorry for that girl that I was, so protective of her un-pretty, un-guarded self, I wonder about the possibility of going back and fixing her. I develop this plan in which I immerse myself in the music of 1976, let the memories come, and talk to the Ann who started high school that year. As if she were my own child, a dearly beloved creature struggling upstream in a world that made no sense, I will serve as a guardian angel and cheerleader. She was so totally lost, that girl, between a blithe, indulgent childhood and a future that appeared catastrophically bleak for those without silky hair and the ability to flirt.

The music thing is complicated. I rarely listened to “popular” music, even then. I listened to classical music most of the time, or The Beatles and the moody singer-songwriters who spoke directly to my soul. Joni, James, Carly, Jackson…they were my people. I am uncertain whether one’s “own music” is the music a person actually chose at age fourteen, or the music that waspopular at that time. I put on “I Write the Songs,” by Barry Manilow. Closing my eyes, I imagine a high school dance. For some reason, I can see everyone but myself – girls with long, perfectly feathered hair and lots of eyeliner and gloss are swaying in the arms of guys in bell-bottomed cords, and everything smells like bubblegum and Jovan musk. I try “Dream Weaver,” and I’m still not in the picture.

I look back at the article in the Times, and it says this: “’Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes,’” says Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and the director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. “’Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.’” This would seem to mean that the important music for me was what I listened to over and over again in my bedroom, based on advice from the friends I knew to be kindred spirits. It is not the stuff that played at dances, or on the car radio.

I start again with “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull, “Blackbird” by The Beatles, “Court and Spark,” by Joni, and “Fire and Rain” by James. I see myself, then, sitting on the floor in my bedroom in front of the record player with a pile of jackets, records and white paper dust covers strewn around me. I have a notebook, which is not as pretty as the Chinese silk covered diary I got in my Christmas stocking, but which has much more room for actual writing. I am thinking about the boy I love, who is my friend, but who is on the other side of some incomprehensible barrier. I yearn, I jockey myself into his car when a group travels to a movie or a concert, I sit next to him in the dark of a movie theater and listen to him breathe, imagining in some vague way how it would be to have him breathing closer, or with his head on the next pillow. I am writing poems for him, filling pages with words that release the worst of the pain for a while like a hit of something powerful but temporary.

Surprisingly, I am not as ugly as I remembered; I am certainly not as ugly as I felt at the time. I have thick, glossy chestnut hair, and a faintly exotic slant to my almond-shaped eyes. I weigh too much, but I am not, as I had recalled, monstrous. I have to decide, looking at my thrawn, adolescent self as she writes love poems in a Mead notebook, whether to tell her anything at all. My regression therapy plan is dubious, at best; if I lie around listening to Joni Mitchell and bucking up my fourteen year old self, it will violate the lesson I learned from Star Trek: when you go back in time, change nothing or Hitler will win.

I look more closely at the girl with calloused fingertips on her left hand, and, dear Lord, a “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” necklace around her neck. If she does not suffer, if she does not lean into feelings as dark and endless as a moonless night, she will be a different person. If I tell her everything is really okay, that she’ll outgrow the acne and figure out her hair, that men will someday love her, she might change. She might morph into a confident, gum-snapping creature who stops writing and starts listening to disco. She might never discover Eliot Smith, “Lost in Translation,” or Colette. She might not write, might not need to write, and she might not feel compassion for those who suffer as she has suffered. She might not, after all, be me.

So I leave her there on the floor, knowing that the boy she loves is gay, knowing that her first real boyfriend will treat her badly, knowing that she will make some truly terrible choices because she hates herself with unshakeable certainty. The thing is, love her. I love her for every mistake she’s making as she rises to look in the mirror one more time, checking the constellation of pimples for signs of improvement, her eyes shiny with love for a boy who loves boys. “We Have No Secrets” starts to play after a pause and a scratch, and she sucks in her cheeks, piling her hair onto her head and then dropping her hands and releasing her face in an agony of resignation.

“I love you,” I say as I retreat, “I love you.”

Slave to (Plastic g)Love: Color My Hair Until I Die?

So I’ve been coloring my hair forever. When I was in college and it was naturally thick and auburn and pretty, I used to dye it blonde. Well, I used totry to dye it blonde in the dorm bathroom, but because it was darkish and reddish and I was incompetent, it usually came out a kind of brassy apricot. It was, however, the 80s, so it seemed kind of cool and punky. I kept coloring it for the next thirty years, having it colored at the salon when I was flush, and using a box of Cheap & Lovely when I wasn’t. I went darker and redder, I went lighter and gold-er, I had Soccer Mom Beige with Highlights, and it was all kind of fun. Honestly, I enjoyed the drama of trying something new, uncertain about whether the “reveal” would make me suicidal or ecstatic.

Recently, I’ve been pretty “natural” about everything from food to the products I use in my house and on my body. I do not require anyone else to give up their Febreze; it’s my choice, for my life. I make my own household cleaning products out of things like vinegar and baking soda, I feed my dogs garlic and Brewer’s Yeast to repel fleas, and I make my own body cream out of beeswax and olive oil (which doubles as excellent furniture polish). I still wear makeup, I still like hair schtuff, I just avoid chemicals. I save money, and I do not break out periodically in hives after using a new soap or bowl cleaner.

It came to my attention, as part of this naturama, that I was still coloring my hair with chemicals every month or so. It wasn’t really fun anymore. I wrestled with the color v. no color issue for ages, worried that a head of grey or white hair meant invisibility, desexualization and a headlong slide into frump territory. On the plus side I have a young-ish and unwrinkled face. On the other hand, I do not have the cheekbones of a Meryl or the presence of an Anna Wintour.

 I started looking at beautiful heads of grey, platinum and snowy white hair and thinking that it was really okay to have hair that was its actual color. First, being a chicken shit by nature, I just switched to the kind of color that washes out in a month or so. Three months ago, I just stopped coloring at all. These days I have a kind of salt and pepper thing going on at the top, white at the temples, and more salt and pepper with an overlayment of (dyed) reddish brown in the back. Obviously, I’d like the reddish brown part to go away so that I can get busy making my grey all sparkly.

On Saturday I’m having my hair cut, so I looked online for suggestions about cuts that might  improve the transition from Dyed to Grey; I had in mind some sort of layering dealio that would cut out some of the dyed hair and expose more of the grey. I don’t love the look of a wide, grey or white stripe at the top of the head like a snowy roof on a cedar shingled house, and I thought there might be a way to avoid that with scissors rather than chemicals. So I read a bunch of posts and articles and learned these things:

-Grey or white hair doesn’t necessarily suit your coloring even if it’s natural; it’s best suited to blue eyed people who were originally blonde.

-The best solutions are either to have all of your hair cut off and grow it out grey, or to hire a colorist to do highlights, lowlights and toning in conjunction with a series of trims so that in a year or two (!) your hair will have made the transition and you can stop coloring.

-And my favorite, from a hairstyling blog: “Most of you know you shouldn’t just let your grey hair grow out – way to [sic] scary! If you see someone using this strategy, please help them out with what you learn here. (The easiest solution you can give them is to go on a mission to find a hair colorist.) Some women have been left without answers to this question and therefore think they have no alternative but to look hideous in the growing grey hair out process.”


I was not blonde, and I do not have blue eyes. My big, Ben Franklin face would look so terribly bizarre with really short hair that I would be unable to leave the house for a year. The endless “professional” tinkering with color is a) beyond my budget, and b) defeats the whole “natural” thing. I would just be paying someone else to put chemicals on my head in order to avoid being “hideous.”

This is making me crazy. I am sitting here thinking that my only viable alternative is to go, right now, to Walgreen’s and buy a box of color. But if you give a mouse a cookie…well, we all know how that ends.

I hope that I can be strong enough to let this be, to withstand pressure from the stylist to “do just a little highlighting so it’s pretty while it grows out,” and to look at myself in the mirror and say “you are doing the right thing, you are still a living, breathing, vital woman no matter what color your hair is, and anyone who judges you because you are grey, or white, or reddish-brownish-greyish-whitish. If you are invisible to certain men, if you are judged as frumpy and unglamorous, you have to find it within yourself to know your actual worth.”

It was, however, easier to feel worthy when my hair was thick and shiny and auburn.

And that, my friends, is kind of sick.

Love’s Raging Rash: In Which I Accidentally Read a Romance Novel

I am fairly catholic in my choice of reading material; in a pinch I will read whatever is lying around. At summer houses, and in insomniac wanderings in my own house I have read everything from Zane Grey to Boethius, and I actually like things like YA series fiction and “cozy” mysteries. Historically, I have drawn only one line in the sand: I will not, under any circumstances, read a romance novel. I can swallow chick lit, although I don’t like it much, and I delight in a love story woven among the threads of a great novel, but I find the mechanical, predictable storylines and ridiculously overblown language of the average Harlequin to be unpalatable. I know that many women love them, and that’s great. My share may be distributed among all of them, neatly decreasing my suffering and increasing their joy.

Because my reading glasses are broken, and because I was reading books downloaded onto the Kindle on my iPhone, I accidentally bought a kind of supernatural bodice ripper the other night. I swear there were no identifying marks, and that it seemed to be just $2.99 worth of entertainment involving covens, fireballs and demons. (I told you I’d read almost anything). Had I bought this title in a bricks and mortar bookstore, an unlikely proposition since this is a “work” of the type that thrives only in the forgiving universe of e-books, I would have been warned off by a cover featuring a busty woman with her head tipped back in ecstasy, her long hair blowing back as she offered her neck to the cleft-chinned hunk about to kiss her…somewhere. As it was, I went in blind. Literally and figuratively.

Once I had downloaded the thing and adjusted the print size to Geezer, I started to read, and to realize what I had done. The women in the book were all incredibly and uniquely beautiful, from their “caramel” hair to their “emerald eyes.” There was much flashing of eyes and tossing of curls. I had suspected that I was not reading Henry James, but around the time “Paige studied the white blonde hair as it shagged across her forehead and noticed the hardness around her sea-blue eyes” I knew that I was in trouble.  Then Shauni met Dr. Black and there was a “shock” when their hands touched, his grey eyes clouded, and his voice became gruff with desire. He longed to touch her hair to see if it was as silky as it looked.

I had spent $2.99. Did I have to finish it, or could I just delete it? Could I just throw away money? Would I possibly find that romance wasn’t such a bad genre after all? Was I being too judge-y? Tastes do change, over time. I used to hate mushrooms, for example, and now I love them.

I persisted, and as it turns out, this book is no mushroom. I am worn out by the language, which assaults me continually with the moist, turgid, ravenous, breathlessness of everything, and the swollen lips, trailing kisses and, well, all that throbbing. These people can’t sit quietly in a chair and think without being hit by a wave of emotion. “With a deft finger, he found her throbbing center.” What, exactly, is a “throbbing center?” Is it like a chewy nougat center?!

I am also left cold by the fact that I can figure out how everything is going to happen based on the time-honored “Captain Kirk Can’t Actually Die” rule. If one of our nine (!) differently-but-equally-beautiful heroines is in danger, we know that they will not only live, but live to have at least one more thoroughly turgid exchange of fluids with a man named Cliff or Brick.

We also know that if there is shocking and flashing and breathlessness going on between a man and a woman, they are Destined to be Together and will wind up together despite all odds (they seem to have an insurmountable difference! He sees her in the embrace of another man but it’s really the groundskeeper comforting her and he’s totally in love with his crippled wife!). In what I would archly classify as a “real novel” of any quality, the sparks would fly in the direction of someone unattainable, or the sparks would be a manifestation of some more complicated emotion, or there would be no sparks at all. Boo Radley and Scout Finch never exchanged a longing glance or shot a single spark, and they remain my favorite fictional pair.

So I know that there are women all over the world who get great pleasure from the romance genre. I actually watched a pretty fine documentaryon the subject, which probably left me a little more open to my present experiment. Bottom line, though, is that I just don’t get it. If reading one of these things makes me break out in literary hives, how do people read bags, and shelves, and bookstores full of them? THEY’RE ALL THE SAME!!  (Sorry, I got a little turgid there for a minute).

There is no complexity in these stories, there are no people who aren’t beautiful, there is no subtlety and I miss the voice of a human author sending messages about life as he or she sees it. I miss the opportunity to think for myself, to decide whether a rainy day is “ominous” or “welcome” based on context. Even if I adjust my standards for the genre-est of genre fiction, a good mystery, thriller or fantasy novel can be written beautifully, have well-developed characters and make you think. I’d put Elizabeth George, John Le Carre and Ursula K. Le Guin up against authors of any genre. But I bought this thing, I’m almost done, and I’m going to finish it.

Breathless with anticipation, she moved her finger across the tiny screen, the nerve endings throbbing with the need to make contact with the cold, smooth polycarbonate. Nearly panting, she paused to tie her thinning, greying hair into a sultry knot at the back of her neck. She was so close she could feel it, flipping faster and faster, feeling the satisfaction just out of reach, and then it came, the release, THE END, the time to read a real book without guilt, knowing that she had fulfilled her destiny.

No Room for Moderates: Tales of a Community Organizer

There is no room in this politically polarized world for middle ground, even at the local, grassroots level.

Five years ago I got involved in protesting development near my house. I’m not anti-development, but this was an objectively and inherently bad plan, complete with shaky financing and a sketchy developer. I was played by people in power, I got angry, and in the end, when it became clear that I had sweated blood for nothing, I “retired” from public life.

Recently, and not surprisingly, the development scheme fell apart. There is a chance for a do-over that includes public input and transparency.

Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

“You were so good at bringing people together,” they said, and “you can represent the people who felt burned the first time around. You can heal the neighborhood.” Those last words were like chocolate wrapped in baby bunnies. I saw myself as the Mother Theresa of grass roots political action, binding up the ragged wounds of the disappointed and the disenfranchised and bringing everyone to the table (which would undoubtedly feature a Kinkeade-worthy shaft of sunlight falling on my wise and noble head).

I began attending meetings again, and sharing information. We were not, I was fiercely determined, going to have a repeat of what happened before. No one was going to find out from the newspaper that a ten story building was being erected a block from their home, or that our only green space would be dominated by high-end townhouses. I urged transparency, inclusion, and charity towards City Hall. Many of the players had changed there, and I saw no reason to assume that they were lying. We would be vigilant citizens, but we would also be open-hearted and fair.

Almost immediately, I realized that the angry voices in the community had only intensified while I was out of the game. We had been natural allies five years ago; they were angry and I was angry. We didn’t always agree about everything, but we were on the same side. The City was The Evil Empire, and we were the earnest, honest revolutionaries. I kind of romanticized them – I grew up attending lefty political rallies and watching the Watergate, and went to Oberlin where I protested apartheid and nuclear weapons. (I had a huge crush on the guy who ran all the protests. If I squinted he looked just like Che Guevara). I read about The Chicago Seven and The Weather Underground, and I wept about Oscar Romero. Two years ago, at the peak of my opposition to City Hall, I was oddly energized by the possibility that I was actually one of the Bad Rads. It was a power thing, an approval thing, exhausting, but thrilling.

This time, it is considerably less thrilling. I’m not angry, I see an opportunity for a fresh start, and I’ve had a lot of time to think. I know that we didn’t get anywhere with anger last time. I also know that I, personally, am more Dr. King than Malcolm X, more Ghandi than Abbie Hoffman. I am, by nature, a conciliator, a mediator, and slow to anger.  I am a Democrat married to someone who is not a Democrat, and a Buddhist working at a Protestant church – every day of my life I see that differences can be harmonized and that people can work together and accomplish mutual goals. The Dalai Lama gets a lot of shit done in the world, and his charter is compassion.

The folks who were once my allies are really disappointed in me. I’m not outraged, and I’m not fighting. I’m too trusting, and I’m not seeing the truly despotic nature of City staff and City Council. The City folks, to whom I would like to reach out and say “let’s try again,” still associate me with the angriest voices raised against them. The fixing of all of this, if it’s possible at all, would involve incredibly slick political machinations of which I am not capable and in which I am not interested.

Thirty years ago, if the Che Guevera Guy had asked me to throw a bottle through a window, I probably would have done it to get his approval. People like him were dynamic and informed; I acted based on silly things like feelings.  Even five years ago I was more susceptible to the notion that the people who saw corruption behind every tree were right and I was stupid and wrong. They FOIA’d, they compiled, they monitored and they knew all kinds of stuff I didn’t know. I never questioned their agendas; I simply accepted that my lazy “let’s all get along” thing paled in comparison to their vigorous, rigorous criticism of City Hall.

These days, I’m too comfortable with myself to need their endorsement. I may get nowhere this time, and I may just drop out of the whole thing and reclaim the hours to spend with my family and friends. I care what happens down the street, I care a lot, but I honestly don’t believe that my presence will tip the balance in any particular direction. I can’t “heal” anything if my time is spent fighting with the people who used to be my allies.

I bring nothing to the table but my naïveté, and my belief in human nature. I am apparently the Jimmy Carter in this story, all good intentions and not enough political capital or street smarts. I know that I lack the grit, the flint, or the stones to engage in perpetual conflict. I am soft, and called to nurture the tender green shoots of common ground. It makes me wince when hopeful new voices are cut off by the interminable drone of negativity. I really just can’t live my life on the basis that everyone is lying, scheming, stupid and venal.

There is no room for people like me on the political scene, local or national, and I’m okay with that. I’m happy here in the middle, where it’s fine to be my vulnerable, soft self.

The Olympics: Not So Much

I’m pretty ambivalent about the Olympics. I watched the opening ceremonies so that I could hear the announcer say “ceremony” the British way, and because I love a good national spectacle. I was thrilled to hear Branagh recite Shakespeare, I am always teary when I hear the opening strains of “Jerusalem,” and I admired the man-made Tor that acted as centerpiece to Danny Boyle’s history of Great Britain.

He lost me somewhere around the Industrial Revolution hand jive, and I was kind of skeeved out by the childrens’ nightmare sequence with “Tubular Bells” and a gigantic baby; taken as a whole, the idea seemed to be that children were tucked into bed at Great Ormond Street Hospital by smiling, dancing doctors and nurses and then abandoned to nightmarish characters from literature until they were all saved by a fleet of Mary Poppinses. Presumably the Marys speared Voldemort, The Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook, et al with their proper British bumbershoots and eased the minds of all of us who associate “Tubular Bells’ with Linda Blair’s green and rotating head.

But I digress. My problem with the Olympics has nothing to do with its location (a place, frankly, that I would rather be than where I actually am) and everything to do with sports-related media. If a person is interested in watching Olympic coverage during prime time, which is the only time we watch television in this house, one is necessarily watching network coverage. Network coverage is kind of like “American Idol” with contestants who swim, vault and run. Favorites are cultivated, highlighted and vignetted; we are basically fed everything we need to know about who will probably win, who we should like, and why.

This phenomenon is not unique to Olympic coverage. It’s a sports thing. Several years ago when I became a rabid fan of college basketball, I actuallywatched sports on TV for the first time. They had been on around me my whole life – I grew up in a Big Ten town – but for forty years I was just passing by the TV on my way to find my book. When I began to watch televised college basketball, I noticed that it was hard to pay attention to the game because of those people who talked CONSTANTLY from tipoff to final buzzer. In one memorable game against The University of Texas, the commentators were so smitten with a guy named Kevin Durant that our team could have shot forty consecutive three-pointers and they would have continued to talk about the life and times of “Kevin Durant, KEVIN DURANT, KEVIN DURANT!!!!!!”

Apparently this kind of thing is par for the course as color commentary, but I know that the thrill of going to a game and watching with my own eyes, making my own judgments, and having my own hopes about the outcome is infinitely preferable to having Dick Vitale tell me that my team is outmatched and totally doomed halfway through the first half.

It wasn’t always this way, either. At least the Olympics weren’t. I remember falling in love with Dwight Stones the summer I was ten. I picked him out by myself (because I was ten and he was cute) and watched coverage of Track and Field events during the 1972 Summer Olympics with religious fervor so that I could see if Dwight had an event that day, and find out how he did. I may be remembering it wrong, but it seems that there was never a touching vignette about Dwight’s personal life set to gooey pop music, and although he was a strong favorite based on his record, other competitors were not completely eclipsed in the commentary. We knew Dwight was good, we thought he’d probably win, but we could watch him run and jump without the benefit of someone telling us that he was running, jumping, favored, running well, jumping high, liked to kick back with a bag of Cheetos and drink root beer in his hometown of Los Angeles, jumping over the bar and landing, and…you get the idea.

I guess that’s part of my issue with the current setup: every single athlete at the Olympics has a story, they all sacrificed, and they can all do things physically and emotionally that most of us can’t imagine.  What effect does it have, psychologically, not to be a “favorite?” How does it feel to be on a team with someone who is charismatic, or has a great story, when you are just someone who has worked your ass off to make the Olympic team? Why should the girls on the Gymnastics team be interviewed about how excited they were to meet Michael Phelps? He is, after all, no better an athlete than any one of them. They are all American kids on American Olympic teams. He’s just a much more famous athlete than any of them because he was successful, he’s handsome, and he has an interesting backstory.

If I were a hardcore sports fan I would find a channel that streamed Olympic events as they happened, with minimal commentary. I’m not, and I won’t, although I think the Canadians do a pretty great job at that kind of thing. If I could tune in to NBC at 7:00 or 8:00 and just watch footage of the day’s main events, just be swept up and hold my breath to see if that one, cute boy I picked out was the fastest, I’d be in. As it is, I’ll probably watch reruns of “Cold Case” or read my book.

Good luck to every single athlete competing – upset the odds, flabbergast the spinmeisters, and win because you worked hard and you deserve it.


Image of SDwight Stones:

Student Loan Debt: No Way Out

This is the hardest post I’ve ever had to write, about my deepest source of shame and guilt. A quarter of a century ago I borrowed an astronomical amount of money to go to law school, and I will quite probably die owing enough money to buy a small island.

When I read this, I was so sickened by the idea that people were killing themselves over student loan debt that I decided to “come out” about my own situation. I understand the desperation that comes from having no visible means of escaping a terrible situation, and the added intensity of knowing that you brought it on yourself by making a bad decision. No one, though, shouldever think that their life is worthless because of a debt. Even a crippling one.

My story may or may not be typical, but it does prove how easily someone can get where I am today with a little lack of planning, a few unforeseen events and a tough economy. After graduating from college, I had no idea what to do, and I applied to law school. I was an unhappy, insecure person and I had a notion that practicing law was a “real” thing to do as opposed to getting a doctorate in English or trying to make it as a writer. My parents thought law school was a terrible waste of my actual talents, and my friends thought it was a terrible idea based on my temperament. Undaunted, I took the LSAT, got into several schools, and picked the most expensive school, in the most expensive city. There were loans available, and I borrowed the maximum amount for my first year – it just covered tuition, rent, food, books and a subway pass.

What was I thinking? How could I not have understood that I was taking on major debt, and that I would be able to pay it back only if I got a lucrative  law job?  The answer is that I was pretty sure that there were lots of jobs, and that whatever it was that lawyers did, I would do it for the rest of my life. I could not imagine myself ever getting married or having children; I saw myself working full tilt until I retired, or dropped dead. I’d live simply, and after a few years of repayment I’d be done.

For three years I kept borrowing money. I hated law school more and more, and I was pretty sure I was making a huge mistake, but I didn’t think I could get out of it. If I didn’t finish and pass the bar, I couldn’t get the job to pay back the loans. By the time I was welcomed to the Massachusetts Bar in 1990, I was a clueless, patently ambivalent candidate competing for jobs against people with more passion and the desperate edge that comes from having a family or a lifestyle to support. One interviewer was kind enough to tell me that I needed to be more confident in interviews or I would never get a law job

I did the right thing. I cut my losses. I moved back to Michigan, opened a solo practice, and made all my loan payments. Then I got married, got pregnant, and had to be on hospital bed rest for 2 months. With no law partner, I had to give away my case load to other firms. Within a year I couldn’t afford to keep the office open. My husband was earning good money and we decided that I could work part time from home, and mostly be a mom for as long as possible. Although it was not his debt, but he felt strongly that we should honor my obligation, and we kept paying on my loans.

Then his job changed dramatically and we had to make do on about half of our previous income with consumer debt and a mortgage based on the “old,” income. He took another job that showed great promise, but which has been severely affected by the economy. We scaled back. We stopped taking vacations, we rarely eat out, and he drives a car without air conditioning or a front bumper.

We have enough. We have a roof over our heads, enough to eat, health insurance, and cars that run, for which we are immensely grateful. What we don’t have is more than we absolutely need. It’s been years since I could afford to pay the $1,000.00+ each month owed to my student loan creditors. I defer, I forebear, I default, I “rehabilitate,” and the amount billows into an ever-larger and more terrifying obstacle.

The Reasonably Prudent Person would say, at this point in the story “that’s all very common, and life is tough, but why don’t you just get a full time job and make up the difference?” The reason is that around the time it became clear that our income wasn’t just going to “bounce back,” my parents both developed serious and chronic health problems, and I gradually became a caretaker and advocate. I still work part time, I always have, but a great deal of my time is spent taking care of my parents.

The RPP would also say this: “If you worked full time, you could pay your debt. You made a promise to pay, and the way to do that was by making sure that you were earning enough to keep that promise. It would be nice if we could all just decide not to honor contracts because ‘something came up,’ but that’s a slippery slope that would lead to financial instability and which would be totally unfair to the millions of people who do what they are supposed to do.” Even if you are not a law and order/business type, you are probably thinking that many women have to work terrible hours at terrible jobs to feed their families, and that there is no way for them to stay home with their kids, or take care of elderly relatives. To both I say, “true,” and “amen.”

I also say this: no matter how wretched and guilty I feel about my debt, and how deep my shame and despair, I have only one life, and I’ve made a choice. Every day I am sure, once again, that having the time to care for my parents is more important to me than working full time solely for the purpose of repaying my debt. We might make other arrangements. We might find someone else to do the things I do, but I can’t imagine handing them off. They are ill, they are often exhausted and demoralized, and I love them and want to take care of them.

That is a controversial choice. I get that.

I have never hidden from my creditors, or lied to them. I have been berated by collection agents, had my tax return taken, and my bank account emptied, all of which I accept as the consequence of a really bad decision. I will certainly resume making payments the minute I can; I always have. The thing is, even if I were willing to take a full time job starting tomorrow morning I would have to find something paying upwards of $50,000.00 a year to cover job-related expenses, pay people to do the things I do now, and pay enough on my loans to make a dent. In this state, in this economy, there aren’t many such opportunities for me. (And I’ve looked). Even if I found such a job, many employers now run credit checks on prospective hires, and my credit rating speaks of dishonor, irresponsibility and bad character.

I would, frankly, be better off if I had accidentally struck and killed someone while driving. I could have done my time, made profuse apologies, moved far away and started over. There is a societal cap on the amount of punishment appropriate for that kind of mistake. It ends. There is no such cap on student loan indebtedness.

The truth is that we live in a society that values money and banks over people. We also place no collective value on taking care of those in need, even if it would lead to long term social and economic benefits. Every time I intervene to make sure my parents take their meds, understand discharge orders or get to their appointments, I save Medicare the cost of ER visits and hospitalizations. If student loan debt could be meaningfully reduced for folks taking care of chronically ill family members the long-term savings would be great. (And by “meaningfully,” I do not mean the current system in which a loan can be deferred with a heavy wallop of accrued interest and an exponentially bloating balance).

We also live in a country that values consumerism over education, which is why I could discharge my considerable debt in bankruptcy if I had spent the money on shoes, travel and restaurant meals. Because I spent the money on an education, it is not dischargeable. As I said, there is no cap, and no end.

I guess I’m a deadbeat. I’m also a wife, a mother, a daughter, a neighbor, a friend, deeply flawed and totally human. I made a big mistake for which I will pay, literally and figuratively, until I die. Every day, I will balance the deep satisfaction and moments of grace that come from caring for my parents against the knowledge that I am not earning enough to pay my debt. I will certainly not commit suicide, but I will suffer deeply because of the mistakes I made half a lifetime ago.

There are few situations in our society in which a youthful mistake mandates a life sentence as an indentured servant with no way out. If we can show compassion towards people convicted of actual crimes, and believe that they are capable of rehabilitation, we would do well to show the same compassion to people whose worst mistake was being foolish about money at age 18, 20 or 25.

Nothing is going to change for me, but if there were reforms that kept even one person from shame, despair or suicide over debt, it would make this public confession worthwhile. I won’t see such a change in my lifetime, but I can hope that student loan programs might someday be restructured to allow for the entirely foreseeable exigencies of life from a “down” economy to a chronically ill family member, and that schools and lending institutions would be discouraged from lending more than a borrower can easily repay in a lifetime.

Money is never more important than human life.


Managed Care

It’s times like this that studying Buddhism comes in handy. “Stay here, now” I say to myself again and again, “be with this moment, and whatever it feels like, feel it. It’s all you really have, this moment, right here.” I am calm when I talk to my mother on the phone, and when I visit her, finding true pleasure in the fact that she will eat the milkshake I brought her after days of taking no nourishment but water and air. I am patient with the good-hearted and perky male nurse as he explains to me earnestly that they “had” to give her morphine to ease her breathing even though it is written all over her chart that she cannot ever, ever have opiates or benzos because she can’t process them with her lone, donated kidney without at least a week of delirium. I am even able to stay relatively placid when my father, not in good health himself, describes the morphine-fueled reaming he received last night when he visited her to say goodnight.

I ride the waves of anguish at the small, daily losses, and the pangs of guilt as I speak rationally about “quality of life” and the standing DNR that is at once reasonable and horrifying. I am thrilled when we have a good time, a good talk, a connection that brings my real, true mother back into the loop of my life.

I reassure myself in the grocery store that it doesn’t matter, in the long run, if my son eats vile, processed food for a week when his father is away on business and I am eating at the hospital. He is blissfully happy to have Tyson Any-tizers and other toxic sludge for one time in his life, and I understand that I have neither the time nor the energy to whip up healthy dinners that bridge my vegetarianism and his adolescent voraciousness.

I am present.

I am not anxious about what comes next, most of the time, and I can talk to my father about taking “one thing at a time” rather than spinning into a panic and wasting available energy. I tell him to nap, I make him Vichyssoise garnished with fresh dill from my garden. I find him a support group and send my son to water his plants and take out the dog. It is not a question of being particularly “good” on my part; it is a facility I have, and it’s easy for me to take care, to nurture, to soothe. I tell my husband it’s too bad I can’t get paid to do what I’m doing, but I’m not sure I could do it for people I did not love so very deeply. It is not about assuring a place in heaven, which neither my mother and I believes to be an actual destination, but about taking in every moment with all my senses, from the stale air of a hospital room to the pressure of dogs sleeping beside me when I can finally lie down to sleep.

Then there is this: I am speaking to the intern who is making rounds for my mother’s primary care practice. I ask him why anyone would give her morphine when the consequences are so well known and so awful. I ask him who, exactly, is coordinating the care of this woman as a whole person, not as a donor kidney, a waterlogged heart and a pair of exhausted lungs. He begins to repeat back what I have said, prefacing his recitation with an assurance that he “understands my concerns.” Which means that he doesn’t. Which means, actually, that he is using a technique he learned three weeks ago for handling difficult patients and family members. He is going to complete his recitation, a placeholder, and tell me why everything they are doing is reasonable.

He hears my concerns.

I snap. “I understand that you are managing me,” I say curtly, very un-Buddhist, calm only in tone. “I am asking you to do your job and answer my questions. If you can’t perhaps you could direct me to someone who can help me.” He apologizes, and I feel guilty because I have, somehow, tried to tip some of the weight I am carrying onto his shoulders. I didn’t realize that there was so much anger, so much frustration, and such bitterness in me. I apologize, too.

It will all be as it should be, because everything, ultimately is. I have no control, only the ability to immerse myself lovingly, and to let myself absorb everything from the cold metal of an IV pole to the sun-bathed green of the leaves outside. Managing life and death is an illusion. Living is not.


The Faulkner Inheritance

 Faulkner I

I’ve been okay all day, in that way that one is okay because it’s necessary. The illness and death of a parent are so banal, really – it happens to everyone, sooner or later. My mother has been sick for years, and I have been ready for her death more times than I can count. I have expected the phone call, rehearsed farewells, and tried to harden myself against the waves of grief and loss and confusion. She’s always been there, my whole life. She has been nurturer, antagonist, and, lately, friend. She’s been a good mother, part of an enviable set of parents. I have no complaints except for the fact that she seems to be leaving me when I’m not really quite ready.

So, as I said, I was okay until I moved the pile of books on the dining room table because the cat threw up. On the top of the pile was a Viking Portable Faulkner that belonged to my mother in college. I’ve been on a Faulkner kick this summer, and although I am actually reading The Sound and the Fury, I borrowed the book from her because it had a great map in the inside cover that showed where all of the stories took place. I bumped the book with my bottle of spray cleaner and it fell over, open to the inside front cover with her name written in her Palmer-perfect writing. “Leah Louis, ’57, Wellesley College.” I was lost.

Faulkner II 

I see her, with her shiny black hair, her Talbot’s skirt and her cardigan, sitting in the library reading Faulkner and taking the notes that fill the margins. She was pretty, feisty, sure of herself, dating Harvard boys on the weekend and having long conversations with her roommates. She had met her first, “starter” husband, but not my father, the love of her life. She went to hear the Boston Symphony when she could get rush tickets, and she had a crush on the poet Robert Lowell.

She is struggling with Faulkner’s stream of consciousness; I know this because we talked about it when I read him for the first time in high school. (My notes appear alongside hers in several places). At seventeen, struggling to separate myself from her bright, quick charisma I was horrible. It wasn’t hard to read, I said. I got it. She held her tongue because I needed, in that moment, to be my own bad self. It was hard to be the lumpy, insecure daughter of a woman who was good at her job, a fabulous cook, and a person capable of making things happen. It was hard to be me, and it seemed so easy to be her before I knew about the losses, the failures, and the humanity invisible to the children of conscientious parents.

I was ridiculously careful not to cry on the ink because it might smear. That smart, Midwestern Jewish girl reading Faulkner in the Wellesley library was someone I desperately wanted back, even for a minute. Well, not that girl, but the woman she had become. I needed to know that my last conversation with her, during which I talked and she didn’t seem to hear me, was not really the last one. I tried to remember what we talked about – was it about Sam’s scooter being fixed, or about meat for a Fourth of July dinner? Had I been short with her because she forgot that I don’t eat meat anymore and asked if my father should pick up a chicken breast for me?

I wept for her, and me, and because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t just buck up and understand that all of this happens to everyone. I’m ashamed that I considered sleeping with the book under my pillow tonight. Because that old, blue book belonged to that promising girl who became my mother, and who raised me to be another reader of Faulkner, another good cook, and another force to be reckoned with.

I’ll see her in the morning, and if she isn’t up to talking, I can read her a little Faulkner. Maybe it will turn some key in the parts of her mind that are closed to the rest of us these days. Maybe she’ll be doing better, and we’ll talk; I’ll have another chance at a memorable conversation, one I can look back on and say “I was a good daughter, I was kind and loving, and I said the right things.” Probably I’ll just sit in a plastic chair and listen to machines beep.

Whatever comes, I think I can handle it. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.


This is a local story about love, bullying, pride, and what happens when a courageous child comes up against a school district that behaves no better than its worst bullies. Please read, re-blog if you like, and take a minute to leave a comment of support for Lilly. She needs to know that there’s a universe of people who care about her, even if her principal and her school do not.

Originally posted on Tashmica Torok:

When I enter a conversation about bullying and I am asked if I think children should be left alone to work through it themselves, I always say the same thing.

If children were meant to fend for themselves, we would leave them on the beach like sea turtles.

Our natures, our instincts tell us something different.  As mothers, we relate more to the  lioness.  We are more like bears than salmon.  We defend.  We teach.  We support.  We nurture.  That is our existence as parents.  That is our role, our pleasure and our great responsibility.

We try not to shelter.  We try to walk the fine line between the hover and the safe distance.

My niece Lilly, has been the victim of bullying.  A few of the students at Holt High School’s 9th grade campus think that my niece walks funny.  When she ambles by, they tell her so. …

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The Fourth in Florence

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From the time I was in nursery school until I graduated from high school, I never spent a summer in my home state of Michigan. Most summers we went to Maine, but for three summers, we headed not to the rocky, Atlantic coast, but across that ocean to Europe. The middle summer when I was fifteen, we explored England, Italy and France deeply and passionately. My mother, possibly the best trip planner ever to draw breath, spent nearly a year before the trip selecting the perfect bed & breakfasts,  auberges and pensiones for us. The things we wanted to see were an odd mixture of The Things One Sees in Europe (The Coliseum, The Louvre) and things my father wanted to see (the famous “Black Madonna” of Urbino). A consummate networker long before the days of the internet, my mother communicated her charm and enthusiasm via weightless, pale blue aerogrammes that appeared in the mailbox all year, one memorably addressed to “La Famiglia Graham;” by the time we boarded the plane for Frankfort in June, deposits were made, and an assortment of feather beds, duvets and hand-embroidered pillow cases awaited our travel weary bodies.

We fell hard for Florence, so hard that my mother cancelled our reservations in Venice and booked an extra week. Our “insider” guide was a colleague of my father’s, an Italian professor named Bob (and a “real” Italian), the leader of a group of Michigan State University students studying  in Florence for the summer session. Bob had rented a villa at the top of an impossibly steep hill lined with Cypress trees to which we ascended one afternoon for bread, cheese, olives, and a plate of salami, soppressata, and prosciutto. Despite my deep, adolescent sullenness, and persistent panic about the fact that I could not get enough volts at the pensione to blow my frizzy hair straight, I felt it. I understood that the sunny, breezy top of an Umbrian hill with a full glass of red wine and a the sharp hit of good Parmesano on a piece of crusty bread was an astonishing bit of good fortune.

A day or two later, after the long, satisfying siesta that marked a dark and cool break in a summer day, Bob took us to a “little restaurant he knew” where the Tortellini en Brodo and chicken roasted with rosemary were simple and fine, and a roster of semi-retired opera singers performed arias after dinner to applause that escalated as the Vinsanto flowed. We grew accustomed to the rhythm of our Florentine life. First breakfast of an odd, dry, plastic-wrapped bun called a “Mister Mike” and a sublime cup of coffee with hot milk from a sputtering and noisy macchina, then exploration of the City, lunch of soup or pasta, a long siesta on cool sheets with closed shutters, and a late, multi-course dinner.

Every day brought revelations.  Pasta did not swim in red sauce, but was an art form appearing in forms long, short, rough, filled, tubular, miniscule, hat-like, ear-like, and having a character that made mere accessories of even the most august tomatoes, olive oil and cheese. I coveted the high heels I saw on women rushing across cobbles, up hills and stairs, and badgered my parents into buying me a pair of precipitous, stunning leather sandals only to shred my feet to a bloody pulp during a long day of walking. This might have been tragic, except that the wounds necessitated a visit to a neighborhood drugstore for bandages; I could happily have spent a month looking at the exotically named shampoos, soaps and herbal infusions to cure everything known to mankind. My brother had a sudden bloody nose on the street one afternoon, whereupon a strange woman stopped us with a raised hand, anxiously said something about “il bambino” (little boys are the unofficial royalty of Italy) and shoved a wad of something called “Stop Hemo” up his nose. It worked, and we all parted with a hail of “mille grazies” and smiles.

During that first week, amidst our days of navigating diesel-scented stradas and studying the faces in Brunelleschi’s Baptistry door, came American Independence Day. Immersed as we were in losing all traces of tourist-hood, it was a complicated thing to decide what, if anything, to do about The Fourth. As it turned out, Bob’s students wanted to recognize the day, and we joined them for a celebration at the student pensione where they were spending the summer term. We sat at a long table covered in white linen, a dilapidated American flag stuck in a vase at the center of the table. The pensione’s cook made for us what she imagined to be an American meal; small patties of chopped beef served on crusty rolls with Mozzarella, tiny potatoes roasted in olive oil, a marinated vegetable salad and gelato with macerated fruit for dessert. In addition to the usual bottles of wine and sparkling water, there was (Italian) beer. We sat together, a small band of the temporarily expatriated, on a tiny island of Americana in the midst of a bustling Florentine evening. Outside shop owners were pulling down metal grates, couples were heading out for the evening, and old men were playing Bocce; inside the run-down dormitory dining room we sang all the patriotic songs we could think of, ate our ersatz but superlative burgers, and thought of home.

No matter what we wore, ate, saw or said with a touch of sprezzatura, we were still Americans-ugly, envied, hated, fortunate, uncivilized, beloved Americans abroad. In the midst of our beautiful, illusory time as Fauxtalians there was that night when we sat together and thought of what was sacrificed so that we could live in relative freedom with a sense that we could always make things better, start fresh, light out for the territories. Oddly, the absence of flag bunting, parades, two-day sales and fireworks displays stripped patriotism to its essentials: we remembered what the party was about.

By the end of the night, when the manager of the pensione brought in a single, sputtering cherry bomb there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and Adams would have been delighted.


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