Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Haven't blogged in a while.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


In June of 2008 I sat in the chapel at Amherst College and listened to a talk by Mohamed ElBaradei. ElBaradei was head of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1997-2009. The US was the only country to oppose him for his second term, one more thing the thugs in the Bush administration should hang their heads in shame about. But he won the day anyhow and went on to serve a second and a third term.

He was at Amherst that graduation week to receive one of several honorary doctorates. His was certainly the most inspirational speech I heard over those two days, and probably the most inspirational I’d heard in years, perhaps even ever. The chapel was packed to the rafters, people knew how important it was to hear him.

He began by talking about his service over the years. He talked of how he considered himself a civil servant in the most honorable understanding of that term. His desire was simply to serve. To serve his country, the UN, the cause of peace, the citizens of the world. From him it did not sound hokey, he spoke with authenticity – from his heart and from his years of dedication. His translation of his job was to stand in service to people who needed dedicated and smart policy makers and administrators. A civil servant was someone who could, very simply, get the job done.

It might have been enough to hear something so humble emerge with such integrity from so essential a man. But the bulk of his talk was given over to what he considered the most important problem facing the globe. Poverty. It was poverty, he said, that fueled terrorism, poverty that fueled unrest, despotic governments, famine, disease, and syphilitic political opportunism. What courage he spoke with. Poverty is not a sexy problem. It doesn’t attract high profile donors, people don’t make careers fighting it, it seems intractable. Politicians and NGOs who want to address it usually select one tiny corner of the problem and make a lovely garden of their attempt to hold back the deluge. But no one raises it as the most important issue we really need to address, though it is, indeed, the most important issue we must address if we are to remain living on this planet. How brave it is to say this is our issue, this is the moment, this is what we must take on – knowing there is no simple way to frame it and no solution at hand.

As if he was staking his reputation on this moment, he eschewed talking about atomic profiles. Most of the questions were about atomic energy – did Iran have a bomb, how soon until they could use it, how could we extinguish the firestorm in the middle east? He answered the questions – people wanted desperately to know – but he returned again and again to his theme. I am a simple civil servant, I’ve done this all my life, and this is the real problem – the heart and soul of all other problems.

He would make a brilliant leader for Egypt. May the tide carry him there.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

shingles I

OK. I’ve been avoiding writing the story of the shingles, but it seems like I should probably diarize the recovery as its glacial pace is alarming. At first I thought I had a kidney stone – pain in the back that was clearly not muscular. After a couple of days I went to the doc in the box and they confirmed it. On the basis of pretty much nothing, just my complaint and a blood test that ruled out diverticulitis – her only other idea. She did not look at my back. She said the pain would move to the front and down to my groin. The next day when I began to feel pain in front I assumed she was right. But by that night the pain had started to diminish and I began to feel a rash on my back. What the fuck is this was all I could think. It began to feel like a bombardment of odd disease symptoms. It didn’t feel bad and decided to ignore it.

The next day – Tuesday – I was busy ignoring the rash, which was small on my back and smaller on my front. But at some point during the day I had an instant’s revelation. I had shingles. I showed them to a colleague and she confirmed it. You need to get to a doctor right away she said. I didn’t believe her, but I called my doctor anyway. When she called me back she was alarmed and prescribed an anti-viral immediately (without even wanting to see me). After some negotiating with the drug store (the first prescription had no generic equivalent and was about $220) I started on acyclovir.

At first they just tingled, and my neighbor (a nurse) was surprised that they didn’t hurt. But then the pain began. The first symptom, back when it was a kidney stone, began on December 10, two and a half weeks ago. Since that time it’s been through several phases. All of them, after that initial tingle, unrelentingly painful. And still so. This ends the introduction.

creature feature

As I walked along the back side of Sherwood Gardens in Baltimore I saw a cat sitting at the edge of a tree line. He was intently watching something and it took me a moment to realize there was another cat sitting about four feet away from him staring, leaning, into the bush. The cats did not scatter as I walked over thinking I would save whatever they were stalking. I didn’t want to be in the middle of a catfight, but just the same I didn’t want the cats to kill anything.

Under the bush a hawk the same size as the cat stared back. At first I assumed the hawk was injured. Why else would he be sitting still as two cats stalked him. But they weren’t in their stalking pose – belly close to the ground, legs moving silently forward. They were both sitting up just staring at the enormous bird. I had visions of the cats pouncing and I didn’t know how I could save the lame bird except to scare the cats away. “Hey,” I called out, and the three creatures turned to look at me. And then the bird took off. He landed on a branch about thirty feet up and sat. The cats ran off, probably irritated at me for ruining their morning.

I think the hawk was irritated too. He sat for a while on that branch then moved to another branch. When he changed branches two ravens followed and lit on a branch a few feet away from him. Each time he moved, they moved. He changed trees, they changed trees. They cawed and followed.

Perhaps he was injured and the ravens were stalking him. Had I made his situation worse? It was impossible to tell. I continued on my walk and when I came around to that spot again all the creatures were gone.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

died yesterday

I went out for a walk today for the first time in over two weeks. I’ve been sick and when I get sick I get really sick. I do not do sick well. This particular sickness feels like my body is attacking itself from the inside. Needles of pain shoot up through nerves exploding on my body’s surface in sharp pinholes. It feels like someone is dragging a hot rake across my body – following the meridian from spine to belly button. Every morning I wake up hoping the pain will be gone, but no. It’s itching now and feeling like someone has punched me in the gut and in the back from the inside. I can see why people with chronic pain contemplate suicide. It is unrelenting and I am just constantly angry.

During my power-walk I stopped for a contemplative walk in a labyrinth. I wanted to honor Chris, whom I never called and who died yesterday. I stood still at the entry to the labyrinth trying to think of something profound and lovely to say – as people have been posting profound and lovely thoughts all day to the media ecology listserv. But I just said her name out loud: “Christine,” and then “I love you,” and then I stepped onto the first slate. As my foot came down in the labyrinth the bells tolling the quarter hour started to ring. It was startling but comforting as it seemed to say she was here with me and not afraid.

I have heard that she, even in these last days, was still taking care of people – emotionally, spiritually – even as she wished she could be relieved of that. I think this is one reason why I never called her. It seemed clear to me that my calling her was for me, not for her. Even though I hate to admit that. I will miss her greatly. The world is a richer place for her having lived and an enormously poorer place for her passing. Rest in peace, Chris.

Monday, December 20, 2010


My graduate advisor is the sharpest woman I know. I met her first when as an undergraduate when she and our most famous faculty member came to an English class I was in to tell us about a new undergraduate minor they were introducing called media ecology. At that moment I knew it was my field. It was popular culture with a twist, saving the whales and bringing them cable TV, culture and technology interacting as an ecology, McLuhan as an academic program. Odd that the farther out I get from it the less I feel I understand it as a field…or even what a field is. My colleagues in the academic organization we’ve formed are so certain about who we are. I am still just interested in studying culture and symbols.

I took absolutely every class I could with Chris – undergrad classes, MA classes, and then PhD classes. By the time she was finished with me, she knew me. I could never quite tell if she liked me – although I suspect she did – but I was completely in her thrall. She was the smartest women I knew.

After I completed my final degree I went off to another city and did not keep in touch. I am a bad keeper in touch. Not because I don’t want to – I’m loyal as a cocker spaniel and try to keep all my friends close – but because I’m terrible at taking that initiative. I wasn’t sure she’d want to and I’m bad at it – a faulty combo for keeping in touch. I sent her a card when her sister (to whom she was very close) died. I saw her at the occasional conference. She is a solitary individual, not keeping many friends and I didn’t want to presume upon her big brain.

I was surprised when she retired about eight years ago. ‘Twas after that famous guy died (I sat with her at his funeral) and she seemed done with the place after he was no longer her confidant.

Then about a year ago I heard she had lung cancer. I still resisted calling – I didn’t want to be morbid and I wanted to assume she’d recover. But it became clear she would not and I sent her a card asking if we could get together. Boy, did I want to see her again. She’s the sharpest woman I know.

I met her for lunch twice and heard many bits about her life that said we were friends. I was happy to feel her embrace, and devastated I’d not gotten in touch before this. I was on my way for a third lunch but the day before it was to happen she moved a thousand miles away. She left to live out the rest of her life closer to her relatives (though she’d never actually lived there), in a place where she owned a home (though she’d never lived there), where she had a larger space for someone to come take care of her. She told me she wasn’t afraid to die. But I am afraid for her to die. I will miss not having been closer to her. I will miss getting more stories from her. I will miss having her in the world.

I want to call but I’m afraid. What will I say, how will be conduct a phone conversation across a thousand miles when she may be fading and we have only talked a few times over the last many years? How can I reconnect with someone at their very end – I don’t want to be doing it just for my own satisfaction. Every day I try to screw up my courage to call. Maybe tomorrow.

Friday, December 17, 2010


I got a phone call from my cousin Betsy who lives in Ohio a few weeks ago. We are not close, although we are far more friendly than I am with her sister who lives about 15 minutes away from me here in Baltimore. Her mother is my mother’s sister. I grew up with our families spending Thanksgiving together. And every other year my mother would make a huge batch of fruitcake and ship off half of it to their family. We knew each other well. We have not kept in touch over the years. Her mother is occasionally in Baltimore and I never make a point of going to see he. When I didn’t see her after her knee surgery my mother had a little fit (“she’s your family!”) and that’s when I realized I had stopped thinking about them as family.

Bob, the middle child of the three, died 25 years ago of leukemia. It was a terrible blow to us all. I had spent quite a lot of that summer training back and forth to Utica where he lived to spend time with him. I can still recall the feeling of raw shock I had for my young cousin dying. He’d been a marine and was driven by that caretaker gene that good marines develop. He was his sisters’ and mother’s protector. Bob was the member of that family I was closest to. When he was originally diagnosed he kept it from his family for as long as he could, telling them he was having some stomach problems. He finally had to come clean when he was on the oncology ward. That was in the spring of 1985. By the early fall he was dead.

When I answered the phone that day and heard Betsy’s voice I was surprised to hear from her, but somehow also soothed that this blast from my past would probably not be presenting a problem for me. I don’t know why I felt like this would be a safe phone call, but somehow I did. The call would not ask me to do anything, feel anything in particular, join with it in some sort of family escapade. Usually when a hardly-spoken-to family member calls it’s with some request, but I felt safe with Betsy – we speak a same language even though we do not stay in touch.

She and her mother had discovered that Bob’s cancer had been caused by exposure to benzene while he was in the marines. They’d just returned from a conference in Pittsburgh detailing large cancer clusters at Camp Lejeune. We talked for over an hour and a half, often just repeating things we’d already said. I felt as though I’d been hit in the chest with a log, that feeling amplified by my incredulousness at feeling like that. After a quarter century how could it suddenly feel so raw again? We both engaged in the dramatic – but somehow it felt not dramatic but real. He should have been here having Thanksgiving with us for the last 25 years, but instead he’s dead. Learning why he died brought his death back into hyperfocus, and it was like it happened yesterday. They were preparing to sue and, although more often than not I feel that that avenue is just a road to more pain, I said I supported them. I wanted not to feel an intense investment in the discovery, I wanted to have the revelation, feel and embrace the sorrow anew and move on. But I was unable to resist the vortex of Bob’s life reopened. My old grief was polished and shining again. His death had been….unnecessary.

The part of the phone call that shook my world the most was when I said, almost off-handedly at first, that Bob had always thought that the marines had killed him. Slowly it became apparent to me that she didn’t know this. And neither did her mother. Bob had said to me several times that he felt that he’d been exposed to something while he was in the marines that had given him this cancer. I asked him what and he had no idea, it was just a suspicion on his part. He couldn’t have known then what we know now. He couldn’t have known the connection between benzene and leukemia. He couldn’t have known that his barracks were a stone’s throw from where old fuel was dumped, containers rusted and leaking. He simply couldn’t have known. But in his gut he knew. He knew the marines had killed him.

Monday, September 27, 2010

where's my dresser?

Here’s what I hate. I hate that women’s clothing maintains an antiquated belief in a dresser. Someone who waits on you hand and foot, who helps you into your bodice, ties you into your girdle as you clutch the bedpost for dear life. Someone who lifts your laden velvet jacket over your arms and onto your shoulders as you stand with your arms outstretched. I mean really – some of our clothing closures weren’t even invented with this sort of thing was going on.

Don’t we all mostly dress ourselves these days? Even the rich? Don’t we even have a saying about it – he puts on his pants one leg at a time. I’m betting that Oprah Winfrey, although there might be a retinue in her bedroom as she prepares for the day, still gets her own blouse on and manages to get it closed up. So why. Oh why are women’s buttons still sewn on the left side of the shirt? They’re there so our dresser can easily, and right handedly, button us up. But where’s my dresser?!

Why, and this is a particular problem for the great majority of us who are right-handed, do women’s zippers still zip from the left side? My left hand is always pulling the zipper in an odd way and never getting it up on the first try. Although it might be so subtle as to go without notice, I always wind up having to raise the little nub more than once.

And every time my zipper sticks a little because of the non-smooth raising my left handed job is doing, I curse those renaissance women who had nothing better to do than stand around while someone got them dressed.