Monday, April 22, 2013

Mentoring and Remembering

I didn't think I'd get around to writing anything for a while, but I can't let this go by.  There is a remarkably beautifully written piece by Philip Roth -- In Memory of a Friend, Teacher and Mentor -- in yesterday's New York Times, which one can read on several levels.  It is a eulogy, a profound testament to the power of mentoring, insight into the fine line between literature and non-fiction, and a condemnation of "the scum in power" -- what one could call government at certain stages of American history.  Roth is referring to the McCarthy era when his former high school teacher, mentor and friend, Dr. Bob Lowenstein was "mauled in Congress’s anti-Communist crusade of the 1940s and 1950s."

The main character in Roth's I Married a Communist was shaped by his friend and Roth says "the book is, at bottom, education, tutelage, mentorship, in particular the education of an eager, earnest and impressionable adolescent in how to become — as well as how not to become — a bold and honorable and effective man."  But it is also about that era when his friend and mentor was branded as "political deviant" and lost his job as a teacher for six years: "I refer now not to a boy’s but to an adult’s education: in loss, grief and, that inescapable component of living, betrayal. Bob had iron in him and he resisted the outrage of the injustice with extraordinary courage and bravery, but he was a man, and he felt it as a man, and so he suffered too."

Being a teacher, Bob was in the position of being a mentor to many.  I had had thoughts of going into teaching instead of publishing (actually, I had no thoughts about the latter, I just needed to work when I got out of college -- I think of myself as an "accidental publisher").
Good teachers are mentors by design and I have been lucky enough to have two during my impressionable high school and college years, and remarkably we are still in touch and continue to be part of my life, my high school economics and political science teacher, Roger Brickner, and my college English teacher Martin Tucker.

But I've been a mentor too in my career (and have been mentored by others in the publishing world) and although I rarely see them, I am lucky enough to have an email relationship with several former colleagues, some of whom I've known almost from the beginning.  The last entry made an oblique reference to one who contacted me after 44 years, Mary.  Well, hat tip to her for passing on this brilliant piece of satire by Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker, which sort of ties everything up regarding this entry -- a new shameful era in our political history, the Senate having the "the courage and grit to stand up to the overwhelming wishes of the American people."

When President Obama delivered his State of the Union address, he said that the people of Newtown, Connecticut "deserve a vote" on gun control, little did he imagine that a watered down version that focuses mainly on background checks would fail -- a shameful example of NRA's control of our politicians  We got our vote.  Hopefully, all will remember when those Senators are up for reelection.

And to the city of Boston, great sighs of relief to the refrains of Sweet Caroline.....

And when I hurt,
Hurtin' runs off my shoulders

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


On several disparate topics, sort of a "catch up" posting.

First and foremost, the Boston bombings, deplorable, despicable, cowardly. The stark, almost naked vulnerability of the runners, makes it especially gruesome to me, and on Patriot's Day in Massachusetts, the symbolism of the act is unambiguous.  If it was carried out with assault weapons rather than the anonymity of trash can bombs, would it speed  national gun control legislation as Connecticut commendably passed?  I wonder, but violence in our great land is intolerable and must be dealt with through education and legislation and improved economic opportunity for all. 

Then, on a less important subject, but a continuing frustration, is the foolishness of the Florida Legislature which is actually considering massive increases for windstorm insurance coverage through its state supported "Citizens Insurance."  The unintended consequences of such an increase will destroy the nascent housing and construction recovery and, long term, turn coastline communities into ghost towns, the very communities that draw tourism, Florida's most important revenue source.  The "need" for such an increase is to buy even more reinsurance for a once in a hundred year storm but one has to wonder how much the insurance industry has cozied up to Florida legislators. 

As it is, there is a "cauldron of misconduct alleged at Citizens Property Insurance" but as a state designed and operated institution, it seems to be immune to corporate codes of ethics. The bottom line is the entire state is vulnerable to destructive weather, be it hurricanes, or tornadoes, and the state needs a plan other than a usurious tax on coastal citizens.  It could create its own reinsurance pool with a quarter of a percent sales tax increase (some of which would be paid by tourism), with, of course, still higher insurance rates for coastal homes, but not at levels that would destroy those communities.
Our friends Ray and Sue were briefly here, making a detour on their way back to Connecticut from the Abacos on their boat 'Last Dance.'  Always wonderful to see them and to learn more about their living full time on their boat as well as being part of a boating community in the Bahamas, the Royal Marsh Harbour Yacht Club -- scores of boaters doing the same thing during the winter (although most have homes to go back to in the summer). 

So Ray and Sue arrived here on Sunday and I followed them on "Spot Me" which broadcasts their position every twenty minutes or so superimposed on Google Maps.  A remarkable technology.  Here's their last leg of the trip from the Bahamas to here. 

I helped them untie their lines on our dock early this morning and they've begun their 1,200 mile trek "home" to Connecticut where we will join them on our boat later this summer.

Earlier this month, Ann took me to see my first opera since my college days, Richard Strauss' gruesome Salome, at the Kravis Theatre in West Palm Beach.  I went as much for the spectacle as I did to understand how Ann has "spent all that time" for the last decade with season's tickets.  She usually goes with her friend, Lois, and there they meet our friend Roy, who we also see at the Dramaworks functions, for a bite of lunch beforehand,.  Ann and I were photographed with characters from next year's program of operas.

I used to apologize for not liking Opera (Stephen Sondheim, however, gave me permission).  It was a epic spectacle to see Salome, the main part being sung superbly by Erika SunnegĂ„rdh and it was helpful to have the English translation in the subtitles overhead.  The music is almost oppressively beautiful, but, to me, the staging seems so wooden compared to, say, a Sondheim musical.  Perhaps it measures up to Sweeny Todd for the bloodiest musical stage production.

A notable article appeared in the April 7 New York Times by AndrĂ© Aciman, How Memoirists Mold the Truth.  It certainly hit home with me as most of what I write is indeed memoir and I know exactly what he means by the following:

Writing the past is never a neutral act.  Writing always asks the past to justify itself, to give its reasons...provided we can live with the reasons.  What we want is a narrative, not a log: a tale, not a trial. This is why most people write memoirs using the conventions not of history, but of fiction.  It's their revenge against facts that won't go away ...And maybe this is why we write.  We want a second chance, we want the other version of our life, the one that thrills us, the one that happened to the people we really are, not to those we just happened to be once.  There is a lot more to take away from this profound article, but it reminds me of the fine line I sometimes walk between fact and fiction trying on the one hand to be truthful, but sometimes circumventing facts, frequently to keep certain people anonymous, and perhaps to remember the past as I would have liked it to be (frequently being unable to distinguish it from the real past which, ironically, it really may be!). I must confess it's also a delicate balance between honesty and privacy.

But my writing has led me to places and people (although I do not have a comment section, an email address appears in my profile) and most recently I was contacted by someone I hired 44 years ago.  She had found me through my blog and wanted me to know that I served as an important mentor (unknowingly to me) to her early in her career.  Since then she has gone on to very significant accomplishments, in business, and, more importantly, in her empathic quest to make a difference in one of the great tragedies of the past decade in our economy: the high unemployment rate and its impact on individuals (statistics aside).  I might say more regarding our distant relationship over the a narrow alleyway of time, but that will have to wait. 

My blog will probably go quiet for a while as I am preparing a piano program and will be recording it at a studio, so lots of practice in the days ahead.  I'm calling it "Music Makes Us" after a quote from David Byrne's recently published How Music Works: "We don't make music; it makes us." How true. And we are sort of defined by the music we listen to. For myself, it is the Great American Songbook, music we sometimes refer to as "The Standards."  I'll have more to say about this, and the specific pieces, after I've taken this on, difficult for me, a mere amateur, but isn't that what an engaged life is all about, setting demanding goals and doing one's best to attain them?  I've used those piano skills to bring some joy to people in retirement homes and will continue to do so.  It's makes all that time and commitment that much more meaningful.  

Meanwhile, I leave with a photograph of our seasonally flowering pink Bougainvillea tree, highlighted by my lovely wife, Ann.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Anniversary, Time and Again

I started to write this entry, one which was to mark the second anniversary of my open heart surgery. It was to be an upbeat commentary, following upon a wonderful week we had just spent with our very good friends Beny and Maria visiting us from Palermo. But when I sat down to write a draft, heartbreak intruded, perversely imitating the ethos of Exit the King which we saw only a few days earlier.

Last Monday morning we received a call from Suzanne, the daughter of Ann's cousins, Sherman and Mimi, who had suddenly arrived in Florida where her parents now live. We immediately thought of her father, Ann's first cousin, Sherman, who had just been released from a prolonged hospital stay and ninety days of rehab, who can no longer walk without assistance, and has advanced dementia.  His wife of 56 years, Mimi, had been by his side every day and was now caring for him at home with the help of round-the-clock nursing aids.

But exactly on the second anniversary of my being put into a four day induced coma after open heart surgery, Ann and I rushed to the ER of a Broward hospital that Monday night, as it was not Sherman, but his caregiver, his wife Mimi, who had collapsed and was in a coma. Mimi had been like a big sister to Ann, particularly during Ann's first years in New York City when she arrived as an eighteen year old, fresh from high school graduation in her hometown, Atlanta.

They became close companions in spite of the 11 year age difference and loved living in the Big City which was Mimi's adopted town as well. They biked down to hootenannies in Washington Square park in the early 1960s, went to jazz concerts and Operas in the Village, dancing at the Latin Quarter and Roseland, enjoyed folk singing concerts, Shakespearean plays in Central Park, and took trips to Philadelphia and The Cape and Newport, RI together.  Mimi was her mentor to NY life and they became best friends.

Fast forward, closer to the present. Mimi and Sherman had moved to FL part time when Sherman retired from his long tenure (1960 - 1992) as a Physics professor at FDU.  They were happy in the community they chose in Coconut Creek, but rather recently, Sherman was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  Rather than commit him to a home, Mimi was determined to stay in their complex, selling their upstairs apartment and buying one on the ground floor for easy egress, and hiring competent home healthcare aids for her husband.  In spite of their age (83 and 85 respectively), she was determined to shelter her husband in familiar surroundings rather than consigning themselves to an independent / assisted living facility.  
Mimi was like a force of nature, self actualizing and one always thought indestructible until we got that call last Monday from her daughter, recounting the sketchy facts as she knew them at that point:  her mother had had a very severe headache, and soon thereafter passed out.  It was a severe brain hemorrhage and she was rushed to ER and when we saw her, unconscious, on a ventilator and life support systems, those memories of my own medically induced comma came flooding back.  But this was very different.

We returned to see her on Wednesday. and Friday and during that time, testing for brain activity was negative.  She was moved to ICU and she lay there looking peaceful, even healthy except for the tubing and the wiring that was basically breathing for her and keeping her hydrated.  Their son, Michael and his wife Miriam, had arrived as well and the decision was finally made to transfer Mimi to the Hospice unit of the same hospital and to disconnect her from life support.  Friday was a day of misery for all.  Suzanne and Michael, of course, carrying the brunt of the grief, we and others there trying to support them. but being deeply distraught as well.

Mimi was a special person.  Her home was open to all.  If a foreign exchange student needed room and board for a school semester or even a school year, Mimi would provide it. If there was a foster child that needed looking after, she stepped up.  She sat with friends who needed care, wrote long letters to each and every one of the hundreds of friends she made along the way, her giving knew no bounds; she was larger than life, the last person one would imagine dying so suddenly.  But she lived life with zest and a song, particularly folksongs and Broadway melodies.  Her children set up a CD player at her bedside and we listened to all her favorites while waiting, waiting, for any sign of life.  When I first entered the room, I heard "Don't Fence Me In" being sung.  When she was taken off of life support she died with the refrains of a Pete Seeger folksong in her ear.

Our hearts go out to Suzanne and Michael, such difficult decisions, but the right ones.  We all recognize that Mimi really died the moment of the massive brain hemorrhage and she only medically survived as the 911 EMT was so swift and efficient.

My own memories of Mimi go back now about 44 years, one of my favorite was a vacation the four of us took up to Lake George, enjoying Oktoberfest at a resort and even managing to get them both out on the Lake itself for a boat ride.  And how do we count all the many family gatherings as well, Mimi and Sherman and Suzanne and Michael were always there, at our home in Weston, CT or we at theirs in New City, NY. So many years, so many wonderful memories. 

As King Berenger says in Exit the King, "Why was I born if it was not forever?" Thanks to that play, I've become pretty hung up over how I "spend" my time.  (what an expression -- time as some sort of a currency, only one that you can't make any more of.  We're all born with a certain quantity in the bank, unequal ones thanks to genetics, environment, accidents, and the twists and turns of life, and choices we make.  I guess we "buy time" with medical advances -- I certainly have.)

I suppose that is one of the main reasons I write this blog.It is not only a record of where my time goes, but it also forces me to think about it.  I could more easily just go see a play or read a book, but I would surely forget about much of it and perhaps understand less of it without delving into the details with an essay.  It is of course merely my take on those matters and, to a degree, I probably remember the past here as I want to and record the present as I would like to remember it in the future. It matters little to the world, but as I've said frequently, I write this mostly for myself. 

Others live those moments on line differently.  I don't Twitter, those ephemeral little birds of thought that go out there and then get lost (or is there a database of Tweets?).  Then there is the ubiquitous Facebook which could be easily renamed "Hey, look at me!"  I guess we're all trying to be the stars of our own reality shows.  One could accuse my blog as being just one big self indulgent look-at-me exercise, but I would like to think that the differences (between this, Twitter, and Facebook) are obvious. This endeavor really does involve a lot of thought, albeit perhaps time not wisely spent, so I return basically to the beginning of this entry, anniversaries.

Given my medical history, every day since my heart surgery and comma of four days has been a "bonus" day.  Even before Mimi's ordeal, I was fully aware of the approach of this anniversary during the last few weeks. It hit home as our friends, Maria and Beny arrived for a brief stay with us from Sicily. Only two months after my operation two years ago I had flown to Sicily (where Ann already was visiting her best friend, Maria), to join everyone in the celebration of Maria's son's wedding to Mariana, and meeting Mariana's parents who were so thrilled to have their daughter marry David.  It was undeniable that the two sets of parents had become best friends and loved being together. The year following their wedding was hell as within months, Mariana's mother was diagnosed with cancer and sadly she is also now gone, a relatively young and vibrant woman just turning 60.  All of that just during the last 24 months.  

With Maria and Beny here, we were able to "spend" some quality time with them, including a day on our new boat, the 'Reprise'. Coincidentally, we planned a small trip up the Intracoastal to  Guanabanas Restaurant in Jupiter, one that we had last been to by boat with our friends Cathy and John only a week before I entered the hospital for that surgery which turned out to be much more serious than anyone could have imagined.  (In fact, as we gaily ate lunch with Cathy and John, my "widow maker" artery was already 99% blocked, of course unknown to me, and I was a candidate for a massive heart attack as I munched on my grouper.)

Arriving at Guanabanas with Maria and Beny I could not help think of the irony of being there again, precisely two years later.  How strange it all seemed, but our visit with them was wonderful, the weather finally cooperating for boating, the clear blue water near the Jupiter Lighthouse reminding us of the waters of the Bahamas.

Meanwhile, I conclude this sad anniversary entry with other photographs of Mimi and Sherman, and Ann and I, taken during that Lake George vacation more than thirty years ago.  Although scanned from faded black and white prints (I used to do my own developing in those days), they capture the essence of her personality (she's in the foreground on the right in each).  This is the way I would like to remember her.