Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My second Thanksgiving: Long lost friend, found

Heading north

I hadn’t seen my friend Myv for fifteen or twenty years. Something came between us, I don’t know what, and we lost touch with each other. Then I heard she moved away. Years and years went by. I found her on Facebook and sent a friend request that languished. More years passed.

I thought often of Myv for I was quite fond of her. We had a lot in common and we had, at a certain time in our lives, spent good times together. She read many of the same books I did, loved many of the same authors I loved, and she looked forward with relish to the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Sometimes we would have Sunday supper together and talk about the books reviewed there.

Myv told me she maintained a running list of the books she wanted to own and read. When they came out in paperback, she would purchase them and check them off the list. Her patience and her enduring passion — waiting a whole year for a book she really wanted to read — impressed me. There are few people who can converse as thoroughly and as enthusiastically about books as Myv, and this might be a source of disappointment to her. It makes sense that she reads and rereads Christopher Hitchens. He is a spiritual soul mate. She even named a pet Sports Fan in honor of Richard Ford’s book “Sportswriter.”

I saw Richard Ford at BookExpo America last spring, 
and I sent Myv this picture of him. 
He looks good and his new book, 
"Let Me Be Frank with You," came out November 4.

Myv is a wonderful cook. She is an artist who, to my amazement, can paint and watch TV at the same time. And she can fit herself into any social situation and hold her own. I used to love looking at her gorgeous journals full of notes she made in thick, black ink. She chooses wide-nibbed pens and writes in bold, block letters. I read her as daring and unabashed. I see her as incapable of holding back, as compelled to make a strong impression. Myv lives her aesthetic. She is her aesthetic.

Myv is the first friend I made when my daughter and I moved, alone and with very limited resources, to Cape Ann from New Hampshire. We met in a casual, loosely structured group of men and women gathered to discuss personal issues. I had just left a full, rich professional life, a long-term relationship and scores of good friends. I was starting over from scratch. And there was Myv, someone who caught my interest immediately.

We had a lot of fun till it all stopped.

Thanksgiving came twice this year for me. On November 27 I had a fabulous time eating, talking, joking, playing charades with good friends and family. We laughed a lot. It was as close to the ideal Thanksgiving as I have ever had though there was little tradition to it beyond all the special dishes that cleaved to the dictates of habit and preference.

And then, after driving from NYC to Rockport, after cooking all day, after washing and drying load upon load of sopping wet towels when my house sprang leaks during Wednesday’s Nor’easter, we got in the car again and drove another 170 miles. We drove north and west. We drove up into a network of snow-covered roads off the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. So utterly beautiful, this place where every pine needle was encased in snow — a high-definition moment of lasting wonder struck through with a sense of unease, of navigating on ice, of going blind into the unknown. I gasped, awestruck and unnerved. Defenseless. We drove on and the thermometer plummeted. We drove on till the road became impassable and we turned around.

Try again. Don’t give up.

This is Myv's front yard. The shed decomposing to the left 
of the picnic table is the first cabin built on this site. 
To the right is the kitchen for that cabin.

We tried another road, drove on till we found Myv, living in a semi-winterized cabin, heating with wood, smiling, welcoming us as if those twenty years had never come between us. Sometimes twenty years feels like the blink of an eye. Sometimes twenty years is nothing more than the blink of an eye.
And that’s how it often is with friends. We find each other early in life and we bond. Then we move away, pull away, go away, drift off. However it happens, we find ourselves apart. We get busy with work and kids and lovers and we lose track, not because we don’t love each other, but because we can go decades with little in common. Something triggers a reunion, be it renewed proximity or a health scare or a fierce longing for what once was. In my case, it was all of the above.

We arrive with smiles, some goodies, and anxious concern. If a dog can be a harbinger of good will, then Myv’s huge puppy, bounding and bouncing, spoke for all of us. We are so happy for this moment.

Here is Myv's cabin and, of course, 
her big and exuberant puppy, Desmond. 
Myv took this photo before the snowstorm.

We stand at Myv’s threshold and take a long breath. It’s time. We stomp our boots till the snow and ice fall away, we hand off the bag of treats and the bag of books, we hug each other hard, and then we step inside and pick up where we left off, closing the door on the dark night and the crunch and squeak of the snow and the slice of moon and the vast wilderness that holds Myv here, happy and game, as always, and keenly interested in what comes next.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Finding New York

The massive London Terrace complex, in Chelsea, 
between 9th and 10th Avenues, 
on 23rd and 24th Streets.

Since late 2006 I’ve spent time with Jim, my significant other, in NYC. His place is just north of Greenwich Village. It’s known as Chelsea or, as the New Yorker once dubbed it in jest, Gaymanistan.

Jim’s apartment is in London Terrace, a pre-war complex that takes up most of a big city block. Life runs smoothly with the help of elevators, concierges, a secure package room, valet services, laundry rooms, even doctors, physical therapists and a number of shrinks including the actress Lorraine Bracco, who once played a shrink on “Sopranos.” Tim Gunn lived here for a time and so did Sam Waterston, star of “Law and Order.”

We have a post office where I sometimes spot Wallace Shawn, from “My Dinner with Andre,” looking unkempt and sounding nasal-y as he mails off his packages. We have a deli with a great salad bar, a grocery store, a Joe’s coffee shop, a lively hairdresser and a barbershop, even a podiatrist. And if you don’t want to take an elevator to the ground floor and venture outdoors, most anything can be delivered. This is the New York City that many experience some version of, and part of why it’s heralded as great. A city block is a neighborhood with everything you could want in your day-to-day life mere seconds away. Everything else is a subway ride away, though I prefer to walk.

Jim moved here 40 years ago. 1974. It was a rough neighborhood back then, but things have evolved. Chelsea now boasts a five-star quality of life, with high rises sprouting up everywhere to take advantage of all the perks. Banks and drug stores populate many of the corner lots, the High Line is half block away, and scores of galleries draw boatloads of well-to-do people from all over the world. Chelsea Piers, a block away on the Hudson River, has a state-of-the-art athletic club that hangs out over the river. Cruise ships, always a spectacular sight, come and go. There’s a driving range, skate board park, a carousel, and yachts owned by people like Diane Von Furstenberg. Jim’s rent stabilized apartment has positioned us in a place that, while quite extraordinary, feels pre-destined: banks, luxury housing that crowds out the High Line’s sun, yet another yogurt shop. There are few surprises here.

Before our neighborhood gas station was demolished 
to make room for more luxury apartments, 
some artists erected this installation. 

I ask New Yorkers, “What do you mean when you say you love ‘the energy’ of NYC?”

Is it the honking roil of traffic, the masses crammed on street corners waiting to cross, the lines at Trader Joe’s that are so long they are delineated by workers holding up big signs that say, “Line Starts Here” or is it the palpable stress every time the monthly rent bills come in the mail?

Again: What is meant by New York City’s energy? What am I missing? Or has it come and gone?

I finally glimpsed what people are talking about. I went with Jim to an industrial section of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, to look at a window restoration job. The building is an old three-story farmhouse — a gem — hidden in the middle of hundreds, if not thousands, of run down factory buildings. Many of the buildings are empty and others are taken up with a mix of small businesses like a one-man upholstery shop, party spaces in warehouses and trades like window making. I saw a smattering of artist studios taking hold, surrounded by an exuberance of graffiti. And then, of course, this holdout farmhouse that’s about to become a gorgeous organic restaurant imagined by two young restaurateurs from Sydney, Australia.

You can feel that something about to happen and it’s that promise, that creative force amassing in this blank canvas of a neighborhood, that’s utterly thrilling. It makes you want to stake a claim — so that when we met with the young couple with the pages of dreamy architectural drawings, I said to Jim, “Let’s help them make this happen.”

Here's what we saw in Williamsburg...

A window maker's completely fetching storefront.

Three loading dock bay openings tell stories we can only guess at. 

And so much amazing graffiti it was hard to stop looking and get to the meeting on time...

 "Speak your mind" pretty much says it all!


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

 Everything and everyone adapts with age. 
Even this oak found a way to surmount a host of obstacles, 
not the least of which are the eroding cliff 
it helps to shore up 
and the hunk of rock that its root system worked around 
for our photographing pleasure.

I have to learn to bite my tongue when someone suggests we need to embrace our aging selves. This message can mean anything, of course, from loving our wrinkles to merely accepting them. It can also mean stretching them to oblivion a la Joan Rivers, whose embrace of aging was to eye it head on and take heroic counter measures.

The version of the conversation that most rankles me has to do with insisting that we like how we look as we get older.

We change but our aesthetics don't. I prefer the picture of the Rae of 1977 to the picture of Rae in 2014. Sometimes I see a current photograph of myself I find acceptable. It has a lot more to do with lighting than with me, though. And when it comes to naked sex, who doesn't love candlelight?

Aging is hard. We’re not expecting it. We don’t understand what’s happening when it starts to make itself known. And most of our loved ones who are aging do so in quiet dignity for lots of reasons. Thus, we are not privy to vital wisdom that might inform this last leg of our journey.

And it is the last leg, long and fit and handsome as it might be in this moment, it is a leg that is going to give out — most likely little by little.

This week I reviewed Boston surgeon Atul Gawande’s must-have new book, “Being Mortal.” He lays out the aging process and what he says are the inevitable infirmities to come. Part of his message is that it’s best to be informed and prepared. But it’s also best to work toward living the fullest life you can up until the last breath. He says it’s not the good death we’re after here but the good life.

So what does my good life look like? It looks like a lot of time spent staying active, fit, well nourished and engaged. As I lose muscle, which has already happened and will just continue to happen, I do what I can to counter that inevitability. I am 66 and can still jog. I don’t say that with pride but with a certain trepidation. Every run ends with a thank you prayer to the universe and to my body. I don’t want to take anything for granted. I don’t want to feel smug about what is merely a gift. I don’t want to forget my underlying vulnerability and make a misstep that will set me back weeks, months or more.

How are Gawande and facelifts related? Because anyone who has a facelift has gone through a process of evaluation and reckoning. That person is looking at aging and saying: I am looking old and I’m going to do what I can to look the way I want to look in my oldness. That person pulls off the bandages and says: Call me empowered. I am doing it my way.

Joan Rivers was uncompromising in her push to live the good life. I saw her speak at Barnes & Noble two years ago and they practically had to drag her off the stage, she was having so much fun entertaining us with her stories.

"My makeup team is nominated 
for 'Best Special Effects'." 

Rivers persisted according to her own code of conduct. Right up until her last breath. It wasn’t easy, as anyone who’s read about her or who’s seen the recent documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” knows. But she did what Gawande might have liked — she figured out how to do what made her happy in an aging body and she did it.

The Golden Rule, as some of us know, is flawed. It’s narcissistic. It’s not “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” It is: “Treat others as they would like to be treated.” 

Finally, when someone tells me to embrace my aging body, I need to stop and take a breath. What about what she’s saying am I’m not hearing?

  • Do we need to like our looks to be holistically happy?
  • If we accept aging, will we then like our appearance?
  • Is attitude subject to the same timeline as aging? Perhaps I, too, will someday like what’s before me in the mirror?
  • Is it fair to ask an old person or a fat person to celebrate their body? In other words, how independent are we from the social norms that shape us? And isn’t my aesthetic, formed long ago, still valid even if I no longer reflect my own aesthetic?

I’d love this conversation to keep going. Please respond if you’re interested.

Below is my review of "Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande:

Atul Gawande: "Our reverence for independence 
takes no account of the reality of what happens in life."

'Live for now'

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
By Atul Gawande. Metropolitan Books, New York, 2014. 282 pages. $26.

Society is slow to change. We’ve learned how to treat diseases and conditions that, in the past, killed us well before our hair turned gray. But now that we know what to do, we don’t know when to stop doing it. Medical solutions are not always the best solutions. And yet “fix it” remains the mantra even when fixing it threatens great risk to quality of life.

Boston surgeon Atul Gawande’s new and important book, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” talks about the monumental change our society is undergoing with regard to how we care for the terminally ill, the aging and the infirm. He cites studies that highlight assisted living and hospice models that focus on “a good life to the end.” These models cost less, and they yield greater quality and length of life. Yet there has been no national call to action. As Gawande shows, there are alternatives to the traditional nursing home or ICU death that work and work well.

One hopes, when contemplating this must-read book, that “Being Mortal” will spark a vigorous national discussion and produce immediate imperatives. Gawande’s earlier book, “Checklist Manifesto,” about how to curtail hospital practices that lead to infections, among other things, was such a call to action.

"The story of aging is the story of our parts."
                                  — Atul Gawande

Gawande’s parents, who immigrated to Athens, Ohio, from India, were also doctors. Yet all three of them were at a loss when confronted with his father’s end-of-life issues. In “Being Mortal,” Gawande introduces us to people who were in their declining years or who were suffering terminal diseases. He shows us how they made medical decisions, and when and how they transitioned from seeking a medical solution to finding value in their last days and weeks. While all the people he follows in this book are affecting, none is more so than his father, who discovers he has a large tumor growing in his cervical spine. Options are limited and some options had the potential to severely restrict his father’s independence with consequences like paralysis. How far are you willing to go just to be alive?

Modern medicine has the potential to bring with it “new forms of physical torture,” writes Gawande. Anyone with a dying loved one who winds up on life support in ICU understands. There are no last words in the modern deathbed scenario, just a shutting down of machinery. Through hard questions and with the help of trained professionals like hospice workers, it’s possible to consider other options.

Gawande lays out the problems and the options. In 1945 most deaths occurred at home. In the 1980s, only 17 percent of deaths occurred at home, and those were most likely due to the fact that they were sudden, like heart attacks or injuries. On the plus side, in 2010, about 45 percent of deaths occurred with some kind of hospice care. But half of Americans are likely to spend one or more of their last years in a nursing home and this option is usually devastating.

“The waning days are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions — nursing homes and intensive care units — where regimented anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life,” writes Gawande. “We have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine.”

We revere independence, regardless of our medical condition. What happens when it can’t be sustained, asks Gawande? And yet, “serious illness or infirmity will strike. It is as inevitable as sunset.”

Gawande touches on one problem I see all too often. “We feel as if we somehow have something to apologize for” when the body starts to fail. Gawande briefly describes aging. Since no one likes to talk about these things, he does us a service explaining what’s happening to us and our loved ones. Some processes can be slowed with diet and physical activity, but they can’t be stopped. Things shrink, harden, leach, calcify and shut down. Aging most likely follows the classic “wear-and-tear” model more than genetic predetermination theories.

"The mantra was: live for now."

Our priorities are terribly askew. There aren’t even enough geriatric doctors to replace the ones who will retire and yet our elderly population grows and persists. In 30 years there will be as many people under 5 as over 80. Right now there are as many 50 year olds as 5 year olds.

In many ways, geriatrician Juergen Bludau encapsulates the main message of this book: The job of any doctor is to support quality of life — freedom from the ravages of disease as much as possible and retention of enough function for active engagement in the world. 
This is precisely the mission of geriatric and hospice care.

Much of the value of its book is in its very existence. It gives us a place from which to continue the discussion. Also valuable are the many anecdotes Gawande gives us — stories of people who are making a difference, either by their own examples or in their groundbreaking entrepreneurial efforts.

Among these is Keren Brown Wilson, who started the first assisted living home in Oregon in 1980s. It caught on like wild fire, of course. And there’s Bill Thomas at the
Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New Berlin, NY. After wrangling with a lot of red tape, he brought birds, dogs, cats and a garden into the daily lives of the people in this nursing home. Harvard-trained and a “serial entrepreneur,” he “put some life” in the nursing home and people who hadn’t spoken started speaking, while others started walking. “The lights turned back on in people’s lives,” writes Gawande. It was like  “shock therapy” for everyone involved. The number of prescriptions dropped by half and deaths dropped by 15 percent. “The most important finding was that it is possible to provide [people] with reasons to live.”

"We're caught in a transitional phase."

In the United States, 25 percent of all Medicare spending goes to the 5 percent of patients in the final year of their life and most of that money goes for care in the last couple of months. Whereas the hospice mission conveys a different message: Live for now, not what may be possible with more risky surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation.

Decision-making is very difficult, with 63 percent of doctors overestimating their patients’ survival time on average 530 percent of the time. And forty percent of MDs admit to offering treatments they know are unlikely to work.

“Those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives— and they lived 25 percent longer.” It’s Zen, says Gawande. “You live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.”

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at rae.francoeur@verizon.net. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Life everlasting

Though I am taking time off from work this week, the rest of the world is busy making things. It’s easy to be awed by what I see people doing with their lives. This first day away from home has been a study for me in human creativity and industry.

We are in Vermont with special friends who recently suffered the loss of two beloved parents. The father — to ensure his family's privacy I'll call him Hann — was a master woodworker who grew up and trained in Germany. He was an electric, commanding presence who did not like holding still. My own grandfather was a woodworker from Berlin who came to Southern California to build houses. From the moment I met Hann and his family, I felt a kinship hewn from sawdust and ancestry. Though we are acutely aware of Hann's absence on this visit, we see his handsome work all about us. It will be impossible to forget him.

The woodworking patriarch loved to spend time on Spirit II
which is docked on Lake Champlain. 
Among the many pieces he made for Spirit II is this table.

Upon waking on the first bright and chilly morning of our stay in Vermont, my friend Berta, who is Hann's daughter-in-law, and I took a walk in the woods. We both routinely start our day with a little vigorous exercise outdoors. This morning a strong wind roughed up Burr Pond and sent leaves scrambling. On September 22 fall finally gave us a sobering nudge. Berta had her walking sticks and I had my iPhone camera. We plunged on and up. 

Such early morning outings in the woods or along the shore give us time to recharge. We’ve learned that undistracted time spent outdoors boosts our creativity. And, as this day has reminded me, humans are, at their core, creative beings.

Berta pointed out the many salamanders crossing the path we took. 
Soon the leaves, which are just starting to turn and fall, 
will match the salamanders’ glorious coloring.

It was so early in the morning that the pond 
we hiked to looked and sounded like it was just waking up.

Hann came to America to practice his craft and support his family. What he started, his son carries on. Erich built and periodically expands the growing plant in Rutland to produce the beautiful wood windows and doors he and his crew make for customers around the country. Often they are called upon to design windows doors that seem more like works of art than a means of access or merely conveyors of light and fresh air. I've seen groups of architects and contractors gather in Erich's shop to marvel, in awe and respect, at his feats of breathtaking design and workmanship.

Just down the street from Erich's plant is the Carving and Sculpting Center in West Rutland, site of a former marble quarry. Here carvers and other artists now gather annually to create and exhibit works made from marble, stone and found objects. The vast grounds are littered with all shades of glistening marble. Sculptural works are found throughout the property. Marble crunches underfoot when you walk. And the sculptors at work on their pieces are covered in marble dust, looking not unlike the pieces they're carving.

33-year-old Alasdair Thomson of Edinburgh, Scotland, 
carved this 2,400-pound wedding dress after a dress 
by designer Pnina Tornai. Next week he moves this piece 
to Kleinfield bridal boutique in NYC to sit among the real gowns. 
“If people in the shop don’t realize at first that it’s marble, 
then I have succeeded,” he told a newspaper reporter.

Hann started the window and door crafting company
that his son Erich now runs. They 
made these windows in the Sculpting Center, 
which is built of marble.

Rick Rothrock of Wilmington, Delaware, 
is working on this marble bench for Newburyport, Massachusetts.
It will take him another year to finish the bench.

Here’s another sculpture by Rothrock. 
It’s impossible not to run your hand 
along the silky finish of the white marble.

Here are three more sculptures (of many) that we discovered on 
the trails at the marble quarry. 
The marble undies are just one of the items on the clothesline below. 

This bittersweet trip to Vermont, spent in affection and appreciation, has been a poignant reminder of the creative drive we all nurture, rue, ignore, and sometimes milk for all it's worth. Whether carving wood or marble, words or song, a juicy roast chicken from the local farm or a classic shoulder-length bob, we all want to pause to recharge and reconsider. It's different for each of us. Hann, whose remarkable drive kindled a network of love and livelihood for many, had Spirit I and II to bring him where he needed to be. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Vacation imagination

This is where I watch the sun come up. 

So much of the pleasure of a vacation happens weeks in advance.

My upcoming three-day hiking trip to my favorite wilderness retreat — Pittsburg, New Hampshire — begins next Tuesday. But in my heart and my imagination, my nature getaway begins the minute I open Evernote and begin itemizing packing and to do lists.

  • S’mores ingredients. Check.
  • Hat and gloves. Check.
  • Running shoes. Check.
  • Walking stick. Check.
  • Travel mug. Check.

Each item on the list comes with a treasured repository of memory. There’s the hilly, chilly morning run past First Lake and on to Happy Corners restaurant for celebration pancakes. Hat and gloves a must. There’s the late-night, fire-pit roasting of marshmallows under a jewel box of radiant stars. And that steep and miserable climb up to Magalloway’s summit, where my walking stick’s a necessary appendage? Up there, breathtaking — oooh, aaaah — tempts hyperventilation it is all so beautiful.

And what about the travel mug? My daughter Ardis and I sip coffee on our before-dawn photo safaris up and down remote logging roads, where fox, bull moose and deer bound in front of us, flushed from their meanderings, as surprised as we are. Ardis, the daring one, takes our off-road vehicle places I would never go alone.

Full moon over First Connecticut Lake.

For years I have opted for Pittsburg adventures in lieu of travel to Italy or France or Greece or Spain — all places I have no personal knowledge of despite how right they seem for me. I choose nature. And it calls to me so persistently that I never fail to reserve a cabin and let myself be drawn, mile by forested mile, till I am breathing pine and peat and wood smoke. My hiking buddy Lynn called it “the Pittsburg effect.” Once I pull away from it and head home, and that is a wrenching moment, it haunts when I blink, turn my head, bring a fork to my mouth, mount a lectern to greet an audience. I know the siren call personally. And so did Lynn.

And yet, you cannot know what is to come.

I often open my iPhoto library and scroll through Pittsburg photos taken year after year, season after season. How many photos do I have of Murphy Dam? Of the moose feeding in the wallows? Of Lynn? Of Cliff? Two of my favorite hiking companions, Lynn Harnett and Cliff Post, died within a week of each other just a couple of years ago. They both look so happy in Pittsburg, with the panorama of Maine, Canada, Vermont at their backs and the solid granite summit stone at their feet. I miss them most right there and in the memory of there.

Cliff Post, left, feeling content,
at the end of the scramble
to Table Rock. Lynn Harnett, right
thrilled to have found a new trail
in nearby Vermont. 

I have packing-for-Pittsburg rituals that keep up my end of the bargain so that Pittsburg won’t disappoint. I wedge a sharp chopping knife into the middle of a roll of paper towels because my knife is a good one. I bring two-ply toilet paper because we do appreciate our creature comforts more than the lodge owners do. I have a gin-and-tonic on the deck after a long day of hiking and exploring so that, despite the chill this time of year, I suck in enough of her essence to carry me through the winter and bring me back to her next year.

As the sun sets, there's time to commune.

In the top tier of New Hampshire, where Pittsburg spreads its ever-changing woodlands and waterways like a Secret Garden, there is always something new to see and do in nature. Or, put another way, there’s always another way to bully fate.

Pittsburg doesn’t get old. It is the lover with always the new trick up her sleeve. Or the soft shale on the precipice’s tempting edge.   

All this pre-travel fantasy may psyche me for my next rendezvous with Pittsburg, but it will never prepare me. Imagination gets me only so far. I have to be there to truly know.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The end of my excellent NYC writers group

As obvious as it was, 

I didn't see the storm coming.

My NYC writers group imploded. The implosion happened in mid-June, out of nowhere, and it caught me by surprise.

Sometimes writing about something helps me understand it, or put it into perspective or, when necessary, let it go. Maybe I’ll land squarely on some nugget of truth we can all benefit from.

The breakup was ugly and wrenching, with accusations and tears and hurt feelings. Not only did our group break up, but at least one valued friendship ended. Since then, none of us has communicated. Our Thursday afternoon writers group was very good and now it’s very gone. I am still in disbelief.

Every week we listened to amazing stories — a handsome young husband’s cruel betrayal, a loving father’s midnight whiskey fogs, a single mom’s multiplying payday loans. We talked about the metaphors, the points of view, the sentences that worked and those that didn’t. We referenced other books. We brought luscious treats like chocolate chunk cookies and creamy gelatos from New York’s finest shops. Could it get any better?

We told each other how important this group was, how well it served us, how we wouldn’t know what we’d do without it and then … boom. Just like that.

Writers groups have to have rules. A few I’m familiar with are: Don’t debate another member’s critique; leave it to the author to take it or leave it. Be polite when you critique but by all means critique. Be on time. Don’t mistake the writers group for a pajama party. There’s work to be done and limited time. Yes, there are lots of rules and most long-lived groups end up adopting a few.

Sometimes you have to evict a member from your group. If you have to do it, do it right away. Better yet, have a very strict admittance protocol so that you induct only those who fit in. I’ve heard myself tell groups: This is not a democracy. She has to go.

If she doesn’t, the group will go down.

My NYC writers group evicted one of our members a year ago last spring. She was reading a very personal, powerful memoir about her life as a sex worker and her battle with acute depression and hallucinations. She was a dominant that specialized in kicking men in the testicles. She had good reasons to like this. And the men that signed up for what’s called ball busting liked it as well. Though her stories were hard to take, they were well written. I thought her book had a chance if she were to pull the various chapters together into a cohesive whole.

NYC is often called the creative capital of the world. 
It's easier to find and connect with writers here. 
But there's a volatility, too.

Our group took a retreat and spent a long night helping her produce an outline with chapter synopses. She wore us out and the next day one of our key members said she’d had enough. The schizophrenic had to go. We ousted her for being too needy and too oblivious to us. The previous afternoon, while we were in the swimming pool, the about-to-be-ousted member asked me to photograph her. I noticed that she was always aware of me, always posing, always turning herself toward me provocatively. One of her attributes was her beauty. If she was a narcissist, as some thought, she was oddly vulnerable and sweetly likable — attributes she used to her advantage.

This spring another group member got targeted as disruptive and insensitive. The complaint: She talked too much and she interrupted others to the point that some felt the quality of our critiques had suffered. The objecting member proposed a slew of rules meant to eliminate all the chitchat and keep things more orderly. In an instant we were to go from collegial and friendly to no-nonsense workshop. The transition felt undoable. The two members locked horns, laying down boundaries that essentially took both from the group.

With two of the four core members gone, that was it. Immediately prior to all this happening, I had recruited three new members who knew nothing of the dispute. I still haven’t had the heart to tell them. I’ve been hosting a virtual group with the new members this summer in hopes that all will be forgiven and that our group will miraculously reconvene this fall. This kind of protracted hoping is an example of me needing to work the serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.  

I think the clarity I’ve been looking for is starting to materialize.

There are good reasons this implosion happened. Groups need rules but rules are hard to implement after a certain critical point — specifically, when patience has dried up. Second, writers groups resemble therapy groups even if they’re not therapy groups. Lots of psychology gets revealed in the process of reading, critiquing and rewriting. In other words, we know a lot about each other. Thus, and third, trust and sensitivity are essential. Had we trusted each other, we could have brought up the issue of excessive chitchat a lot earlier and simply helped each other through the hurt feelings.

Our writers group retreat in the Hamptons 
felt like a gift till one member tried our patience. 
The rest of us planted the seeds of our eventual destruction.

I once started a writers group that functioned for years with me as host. We met in a conference room at the newspaper where I worked as an arts magazine managing editor. I invited the people. I disinvited them. Once, one of our long-term members plagiarized a short story. She put her name on another member’s story, changed the beginning slightly and got it published. When I found out, I did what I thought was the logical thing and told her to leave. I loved my writers group more than it loved me. When I took a job at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and asked if we could move the group’s starting time up 15 minutes to accommodate the train schedule, they said no and that was that.

Which proves to me that a writers group is not a family. It’s not a bunch of best buddies. It’s not therapy. And it’s not school. Its primary purpose is to help you produce good writing. If that stops happening — for any reason — expect an implosion.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

The immigrants close to home

Salvador and Enriqueta Padilla, 
my grandparents, journeyed from
Leon, Mexico, to Santa Barbara,
in stages. They battled hardships
along the way, stopping to earn money
as farmhands and railroad section hands.

My grandparents, Enriqueta and Salvador Padilla, made their way to the United States on foot and on trains during the Mexican Revolution. For part of the trip, rather than share a freight car with enemy soldiers, all thirteen family members rode on top. Danger is relative and the soldiers proved the greater threat. The story goes that my great-grandmother, Porfiria, sold the family homestead during the revolution so her family could get to safety in the United States.
As my family journeyed toward the border with the United States, Grandpa made a little money roasting pieces of meat in the earth over hot coals, and selling this food as they went. I’ve seen him butcher pigs in his backyard in downtown Santa Barbara, so I suspect he may have had held onto a few goats or other livestock to slaughter on their long trek to safety. The enterprise reminds me of a nomadic version of the taco trucks we see on city streets. Perhaps Grandma, admired for her superlative Mexican cooking, helped prepare these al fresco offerings. When they crossed the border in El Paso in 1915, they had $20 left between them.
Salvador and Enriqueta, so busy working to raise and put all twelve of their children through college, rarely sat still. I knew them hardly at all. Grandma always wore an apron and never learned English. She communicated with me in sign language, a big smile on her beautiful face. I learned how to iron and make flour tortillas by following her nonverbal instructions. Both of my grandparents went to church every morning at dawn and slept with a large and rather gruesome crucifix hanging on the wall above them. The graphic natures of Jesus’ wounds clearly did not dampen their physical love for each other.
These days my significant other, Jim, and I find some of the best Mexican food at NYC’s Union Square farmers market. Hidden between the farm trucks and tents, a handful of immigrants dish up similarly complex, aromatic Mexican dishes from a bunch of coolers, steamers and vats. I’m told they are routinely rounded up and evicted from the market. We locate them because long lines of hungry patrons point us toward these accomplished, hard-working cooks like a stem to a rare bloom. The enterprising women charge $2, a pittance, for the most delicious tamales you’re likely to eat. And I’ve had to argue to get them to take a tip.
As I read Deval Patrick’s remarks about the 50,000 homeless migrant children between 3 and 17 years of age that no one seems to know what to do with, I do so remembering that I am blessed by my grandparents’ fortitude and courage, and by the bounty of this country. My gifts — a home, an education, a daughter, friends and loved ones — were not won by me exclusively. We are all buoyed by our amazing privilege at having landed in United States, recently or generations past. Our schools, libraries, roads, systems of jurisprudence that ensure fair practices in business and in life, our neighborhoods with our town governments that oversee our safety and quality of life — these are resources I inherited by virtue of sheer good luck. Except for the Native Americans, we are all guests here and our occupancy is, indeed, quite temporary. As I see it, we are stewards with responsibilities that we now must be reminded of.
The 50,000 migrant children who risked their lives to escape dire conditions we probably cannot imagine, have become, like everything else these days, a bullet point in a political rationale for why we must do nothing. These children are but one more proof of Obama’s bad judgment, some politicians aver; therefore, they are, I fear, fatally tainted. What will become of them is anyone’s guess. Patrick and those of like kind are going to have to shed additional and copious tears to get these unfortunate children minimal resources.
According to this morning’s Boston Globe, a woman living in Bourne said the children should be sent back to their countries. “We will do anything for illegals, and we won’t do anything for Americans. I don’t have sympathy for people breaking the law.”
We don’t do anything for Americans? Just look around. Is not Bourne, on the mouth of glorious Cape Cod, a gift in and of itself? Is not your life, free of constant threat of rape and starvation and extortion, not a gift our individual tax payments could never pay for by themselves? Is not that salt air and the road that leads you home every night from your job in a nursery not a gift? Is your job, all by itself, not a gift?
These are just children, our Massachusetts governor reminds us. It bears remembering that these are children alone in a foreign land. He quotes scripture, though I hasten to insist that we don’t need religion to know right from wrong. Yes, he’s correct in framing this as a moral issue. We don’t need Cardinal Sean O’Malley to remind us of that.
But if the idea of God is going to move us closer to helping these children, then fine. Here’s what Patrick says: “Every major faith tradition on the planet charges its followers to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. I don’t know what good there is in faith if we can’t, and won’t, turn to it in moments of human need.”
We should give back, not once with an envelope dropped in saintly humility, into a basket on Sundays, but every day. We must give of ourselves. Here on Cape Ann there sits an empty school, with empty classrooms, toilets, a cafeteria, offices and grounds. This looks, from my uninformed point of view, like a perfect location to house some of these children for the four months they are to be housed in this country.
Let us lend a helping hand in the same generous way we daily receive our own gifts of love and life and freedom — won for us by others who came before and paved the way.