sunday salon/currently: the waiting and reading room

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Finally, some sun. Although it’s cooler than I would prefer (I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt AND a cardigan), I can’t resist the chance to sit outside on the deck after all the cloudy and damp days we’ve had this spring.  Like all good things, it’s probably not going to last; I heard it was raining at the Pirates game (PNC Park is within a half hour from here, depending on traffic and construction and whatnot).

It’s really something how the weather can have such an impact on one’s mood. Mine has definitely been affected. It doesn’t help that I’ve been spending much of the past several weeks in doctors’ waiting rooms, probably some of the most depressing places on Earth. I’m convinced the banality of the dreck that passes for morning TV has embedded itself into my brain. Seriously, I have no idea how the hell people watch that crap.

(Things are, physically-speaking, okay. Nobody needs to be alarmed. It’s follow-ups and regularly-scheduled appointments and answer-seeking still in progress.)

Of course, I never go to any of these appointments without my own reading material, so the positive side to all this schlepping and waiting around is that I’ve gotten through a few books, including some DNFs (Best American Poetry 2013 and Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn, which I really wanted to love but didn’t).

The notable ones, though, have been stellar.

The Best American Essays 2015

A fantastic collection of essays — most by writers who are well-known (Hilton Als, Roger Angell, Justin Cronin, Meghan Daum, Anthony Doerr, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed, and others).  These aren’t gratuitous inclusions; this collection is a winner and these essays will stay with you.

The Art of Description

Being the huge fangirl that I am, I’ll read anything by Mark Doty. This little book was on display in the library’s poetry room (yes, we are lucky ducks here in Pittsburgh … our library has an extensive poetry section as well as its own room, which is rather grand). The Art of Description: World Into Word is a must for every writer. Doty examines description as part of poetry and the result is akin to being in a writing class with a master.

Tales of Accidental Genius

Yesterday I started Tales of Accidental Genius, a short story collection by Simon Van Booy.  I’ve read three of these and so far, so good. I would describe this collection as quietly surprising. (Short stories are, incidentally, great choices for waiting room reading material.)

LaRose

And finally, I was lucky enough to snag a copy of LaRose by Louise Erdrich from the library, her newest novel.  I’m engrossed in this story about two families who are also neighbors; during a hunting accident, one neighbor kills the other’s five year old son.  To atone for this, he sends his own five year old son to live with the bereaved parents and to be raised by them.

Listening (Audiobooks) …

Sin in the Second City

It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to an audiobook (this will be only my second this year),  but when I saw Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott at the library this week, I realized that would qualify for #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks since I have the print version. This is a nonfiction account of Ada and Minna Everleigh, sisters and proprietors of the Everleigh Club, a famous high-end brothel in Chicago during 1900-1911. The audiobook is great. (I’m fascinated with their keen marketing sense and financial savvy!)

Listening (Podcasts) … 
For months now, the Pocket Casts app on my phone has been acting strange. As a result, I haven’t been listening to many podcasts.  I think I figured out the issue and was able to catch “The Accidental Gay Parents #3,”  and “The Accidental Gay Parents #4,” episodes #80 and #81 from The Longest Shortest Time. LST is one of my favorite podcasts and I love this series and this family.

My go-to source for all-things-podcast is The Timbre, a fantastic site. I suppose that should be past-tense, because the site’s creators announced that they are closing up shop. Their reasons are understandable but I’ll certainly miss seeing their recommendations in my news feed.

Linking

PeaceBang’s post about “Outliving a Parent” resonated with me.

For reasons I can’t and won’t get into here, Dani Fleischer’s essay in The Washington Post (“Friends grow apart all the time but we rarely talk about it”) is very much something I’m experiencing right now. (And yes, I am aware of the irony of that statement, thankyouverymuch.)

This week was National EMS Week and my friend John (who writes the popular Pittsburgh blog Ya Jagoff!) explains why this is so important.   Because of our experience on Thanksgiving, we know all too well how valuable EMTs are and I’m so grateful they were there when we needed them. And thank you, John, for your service as an EMT to our community.

My Listen to Your Mother castmates have been writing some incredible stuff lately. Those pieces deserve their own post. Look for that later this week.

And now it’s raining. Of course it is.

Back inside I go.

 

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi
Random House
2016
228 pages

I read a lot of memoirs. A lot. My choices tend to skew on the sadder side of life and if it involves death or some tragedy, chances are it’s going on my must-read list.  These are often the books I’m still thinking about weeks and months after I’ve finished them.

In The New York Times (1/6/2016), reviewer Janet Maslin writes that “finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option. There is so much here that lingers, and not just about matters of life and death.”

She’s absolutely right.  Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant and compassionate neurosurgeon who, at 38, was diagnosed with lung cancer just as he was on the verge of completing a 10 year residency program, has much to teach us in his posthumously published memoir. When Breath Becomes Air is more than the journey towards one’s own lightbulb, a-ha, now-I-know-what-life-is-all-about moment of revelation that often accompanies a serious illness or tragic event. Indeed, many memoirs cover similar ground in inspiring ways — but this one is, somehow, very different.

It’s about what it means when everything you have worked toward and planned for 10 years vanishes at the precise moment when you are on the cusp of realizing all those dreams and aspirations.

“My life had been building potential, potential that would now go unrealized. I had planned to do so much, and I had come so close. I was physically debilitated, my imagined future and my personal identity collapsed, and I faced the same existential quandaries my patients faced. The lung cancer diagnosis was confirmed. My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed. Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit. Here we were, finally face-to-face, and yet nothing about it seemed recognizable. Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of the countless patients I had treated over the years, I saw instead only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity.” (pg. 121)

This examination of identity and purpose is, ironically, at the nucleus of Kalanithi’s calling as a neurologist.

“While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact…. Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and his family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” (pg. 71)

“I had started in this career, in part, to pursue death: to grasp it, uncloak it, and see it eye-to-eye, unblinking. Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death. I had thought that a life spent in the space between the two would grant me not merely a stage for compassionate action but an elevation of my own being: getting as far away from petty materialism, from self-important trivia, getting right there, to the heart of the matter, to truly life-and-death decisions and struggles … surely a kind of transcendence would be found there?” (pg. 81)

These are such powerful observations — ones that resonate so much with me lately, which is part of why I think I loved this book so much.  It’s both reassuring and refreshing to know that there truly are doctors who think and feel so deeply.  In my 47 years, I’ve been lucky to know a few doctors with this level of knowledge and sensitivity, but, sadly, there haven’t been many. A doctor with a phenomenal bedside manner is special, indeed.

“As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives — everyone dies eventually — but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness. When a patient comes in with a fatal head bleed, that first conversation with a neurosurgeon may forever color how the family remembers the death, from a peaceful letting go (“Maybe it was his time”) to an open sore of regret (“Those doctors didn’t listen! They didn’t even try to save him!”) When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.” (pg. 86-87)

Read that last line again.  When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.

And those words? They matter. They matter so goddamn much.  They’re what we remember when we get the phone call, the test results, the diagnosis, the prognosis.  That moment is weighted; everything that comes after hinges on how that news is conveyed.

The title When Breath Becomes Air comes from Baron Brooke Fulke Greville’s “”Caelica 83.” (In addition to a brilliant physican, Paul Kalanithi was a hell of a well-read guy.)

“You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity. “

We’re all mere steps to our eternities, Kalanithi writes.

“Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” (pg. 115)

So how do we go on with our lives in the midst of such uncertainty which can either propel us forward or paralyze us? Kalanithi offers his perspective.

“Maybe, in the absence of any certainty, we should just assume that we’re going to live a long time. Maybe that’s the only way forward.” (pg. 162)

Undoubtedly, Paul Kalanithi impacted many lives as a neurosurgeon.  He would have — no, should have — had the opportunity to touch many more for many, many more years than the 38 he was given. And while he should still be here, enjoying his wife and young daughter and a successful career, his words will change countless lives.

Highly, highly recommended. 5 stars out of 5.  This will likely be the best book I read all year.  

like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky

Storybook Ball (2)

“It’s not easy being green.
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.
And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re not standing out
Like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky.” 
“Bein’ Green” – written by Joe Raposo, sung by Kermit the Frog

I hate television.

I really do.

And right now I hate it even more than usual because ABC cancelled “The Muppets” after only one season.

The MUPPETS, people.

Who the hell cancels The Muppets?! I mean, you really must have one dark, shriveled, corroded soul to pull the plug on Kermit the Frog.

According to Variety, along with “disappointing ratings” in the 18-49 year old market, critics said the series was “not family-friendly enough and out of step with the history of the characters, created by the late Jim Henson.”

That, my dear Kermie, is pure bullshit.

Having watched every episode of the newest incarnation of “The Muppets,” this show more than did the late Jim Henson proud. The irony isn’t lost on me, either, that this news comes on the heels of today’s anniversary of 26 years since Jim Henson’s sudden and heartbreaking death. What a way to remember and honor the legacy of this creative genius.

As for not being family-friendly enough, the new “Muppets” had plenty of innocent laughs for the younger set combined with an abundance of in-jokes for those of us who remember with nostalgia days when iconic performers like Carol Burnett, Milton Berle, Lena Horne and many, many more were sidekicks to floppy, colorful, zany characters.

And really, since when is “not family friendly enough” a barometer for keeping a show on the air? Have you seen what crap supposedly passes for family-friendly TV these days? If we’re going to make that a criteria, then all we’d be left watching is a blank screen.

Maybe “The Muppets” were doomed in this entertainment culture.  As The Husband wrote in this post (“Remembering Sammy and Kermit: When Entertainment Was the True Reality Television”) which I published here six years ago,

“They were part of an era when ‘entertainment’ meant more than watching some fat bastard try to lose weight, some chick with enormous boobs and not-so-enormous talent try to win a karaoke contest, or some incredibly dysfunctional psychopaths try to raise eight children on television in an attempt to become famous. 

It meant real talent. Real magic.”

Real talent, indeed.  Those Muppets had it.

And we’re not likely to see their real magic ever again.

photo by me, taken at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, Pa, May 2009 

feeding the mother of all adrenaline crashes

IMG_20160509_174028_741

Holy mother of all adrenaline crashes.

When I tell you that I am in a nearly comatose-like zonked out state from my Listen to Your Mother experience this weekend, I am not exaggerating.

Well, okay, maybe a little. But Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, am I exhausted. I feel like I could sleep for the rest of the week. The month.

Hell, make that the rest of this year.

I don’t know how you people who do things like run marathons or perform for thousands are able to function after this kind of rush. I really don’t. I took today as a vacation day from work and after doing some errands, I spent most of the afternoon in bed.

I know this is the aftermath of an intense week, which included heightened stress — some good (pre-show prep) and some that I could have done without, thank you very much. I’ve had a jackhammer of a headache since Thursday.  I haven’t been sleeping more than a few hours per night nor eating very well. It’s Mercury retrograde. And this weather — steel-gray sky, colder than usual even for Pittsburgh — ain’t helping matters.

No wonder I want to retreat to my bed.

Time to recharge the batteries, starting with tonight’s dinner.

I wanted soup, something hearty and healthy and fast. Enter this bowl of deliciousness, right here.

IMG_20160509_174028_741

Tortilla Soup from Cook the Pantry: Vegan Pantry-to-Plate Recipes in 20 Minutes (or Less!) by Robin Robertson.  (Note that the addition of shredded cheddar is my doing.)  I really like Robin Robertson’s recipes for their simplicity and speed.

I couldn’t find the exact recipe online and since I noticed that other bloggers include a publishers’ permission when posting Cook the Pantry recipes, I’ll refrain from posting it here because I’m not interested in being sued. It’s pretty basic; you probably have something similar in your culinary repertoire.

All these ingredients are staples in our house — olive oil; garlic; chili powder; salsa; diced tomatoes; frozen corn (I used canned because our frozen corn has been recalled); vegetable broth (I used homemade stock); and black beans.  I didn’t have scallions and we didn’t miss them.  I did have an avocado and vegetarian chicken strips, which I substituted for the Soy Curls listed as optional in the recipe.

Tortilla Soup and Salad - 5-9-2016It came together quickly, as promised.  I served the soup with a simple green salad (lettuce, tomato, and cucumber, with a slight drizzle of olive oil for dressing) which was last night’s leftovers.

The Husband and I liked the Tortilla Soup. The kids, as expected, didn’t want anything to do with this.  Whatever. Their loss. They opted for leftover rotisserie chicken and nothing else. They’re 14 and perfectly capable of making their own dinner if they didn’t like what was offered.

Simple, convenient and fast. Can’t ever get tired of recipes like that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

afterglow

LTYM - Poster

LTYM poster at the entrance, as the audience arrived. 

LTYM - Ready, Set ...

Our words, waiting to be released into the world.

LTYM - Roses and quoteTwo dozen roses from The Husband (a.k.a. as my perfect guy) along with a lovely gift from the LTYM producers  ~ a framed quote from my essay, about love and differences and acceptance.
The meaning behind this at this particular time defies words right now. 


“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” 
~ Muriel Rukeyser, “Käthe Kollwitz” 


Sometimes in this life, you have the kind of experience when you can physically feel yourself being transformed.

When your heart becomes lighter while simultaneously overflowing, spilling over the brim.

When your perspective and understanding becomes a kaleidoscope, shifting your view of yourself and your world.

When you can almost see your words in the air, and you take a leap and ride.

All of that and so much more was Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh 2016.

So much more. 


On Friday night, I stood on a stage and told more than 400 people the most personal story of my life.

I told them I was born without a uterus.

I told them I didn’t get my period.

I told them this is called Mayer Rokitansky Kuster Hauser syndrome.

Here’s where I’d expected to write “and the room got completely quiet and still.” That’s not what happened.

Some people laughed.

They laughed.

Mind you, it wasn’t in a mean way, but nervously. Like when you laugh at an inappropriate time.

Onstage, I heard those laughs and for a moment I was terrified.

I thought, holy shit, what the fuck have I done?

And then I did the only thing I could do.


I told them how it felt, back then.

I told them about being 1 in 5,000 women with MRKH.

I told them about the shock, the tears, the denial, the wishing-away, the feelings of being like a freak, the hopelessness.

I told them all of this and how I thought all the plans I had for my life were over. I told them how I thought I was given MRKH because I would be a crappy mom and that maybe I was better off.

I told them about meeting someone who saw me for who I am. I told them about acceptance and being different and being loved despite those differences and the challenges that would lie ahead.

I told them about those challenges, about chemical pregnancies and depths of sadness.

I told them about the power and mystery of the science and faith that makes it possible to turn a handful of cells into two teenagers.

I told them this and the room got very, very still and quiet.

(Except for the knocking of my knees, which started about mid-way through my talk and which I was convinced could be heard echoing off the walls.)

I told them all this because Friday will be exactly 31 years since I learned I have MRKH and that’s a really long time to stay silent.

I told them this because I want — no, because I need — women and girls like the one in India who took her life because she couldn’t see a future post-MRKH to know she is seen and respected and loved.


After the show, many people came up to me, thanking me and letting me know of their similar journeys. A few moments before the show, our producers gathered our incredible, amazing cast together in the “green room” and told us that there would be someone out there who needed our words, our story.

Who needed to feel heard and to be seen.


Nearly 48 hours later, I am still running on the electricity that surged through the Lecture Hall on Friday night, powered by the incredible women onstage with me and the generosity and compassion from everyone in the audience. I’m so grateful for those who were part of this and the support from so many people in my life, here in Pittsburgh and those far away.

You know who you are. You know what you did to give me the courage and strength to do this.

You know.

When I say that Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh was — and is — a significant life event for me, I mean it like this:

I was one person before getting on that stage and a very different person after.

This isn’t hyperbole.  This is right up there with seeing our children for the first time and marrying The Husband.

It is a defining, specific moment. A life event in every sense.

There’s so much I still need to reflect, process, and write about from this experience.

So much more.

This is just the beginning.

LTYM Cast - Final Bow (2)

 

brave

Mothers Day 2015 - Be Brave

Less than 24 hours till showtime as I write this, and I’m still trying to find my brave.

Literally, that is.  Not figuratively.

I’m missing my Bravelet bracelet, pictured above on my wrist, and have been tearing the house apart searching for it.  I wanted to wear it tomorrow — and who knows, it may still turn up. I’m hopeful.

There’s another bracelet that’s missing.  I’m picturing a sapphire bracelet that belonged to my Mom-Mom. It would be perfect with my dress.  And, I like the idea of wearing something that once was hers or that she gave me as a gift. I do that often, actually.

I thought I found that one last night, but it was different than I remembered.

And it’s broken.

All this got me thinking about the tendency we have to seek out our brave in places where we’re not likely to find it.  We look for our brave everywhere except for the only place where it lives.

Within ourselves.

We know this, yet somehow it’s still easier to depend on things — clothes, makeup, food, a glass of wine to steel one’s nerves — to give us the confidence we think we lack.  And there’s no shortage of products that promise a quick fix.  Drink this, wear this, do this, try that, take these and you’ll be fabulous.

We fall for this so often.

We know these things prevent people from seeing our true selves.

That’s because there’s a vulnerability to being real and sharing who we really are inside.

Bravery can’t be bought, like a pair of Spanx that promises the confidence provided by an instant hourglass figure. It isn’t found in a bottle.

It’s within us, waiting to be set free.

 

sunday salon/currently …

Sunday Salon banner

Big week ahead!  Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh is Friday night and it’s pretty much all that’s on my mind. There’s some final show prep that I need to work on  — including writing a two-sentence introduction that should be easy, but this is proving to be THE HARDEST THING.

Yesterday the Tribune Review did a nice write-up about the event, including an interview with me.  That was fun to put on my PR director hat again. On Wednesday evening a few of us are going to HOT for Your Health, an event hosted by Women’s Health Conversations, one of our show’s sponsors. And then Friday is showtime!

I’m taking Friday as a vacation day from work and getting my hair, nails, and makeup professionally done (thanks to a generous gift card from my sister-in-law).  I am very, very low maintenance when it comes to this stuff;  I have the most basic of hairstyles and can go months without a haircut, I don’t know what it means to have one’s “roots showing” (my hair is its same natural color that it has always been), I can’t remember the last time I had a manicure (pretty sure we’re talking at least a decade and quite possibly much more, maybe even two), and the only makeup I wear is lipstick. This is just not my thing. It’s expensive and time-consuming and I usually can’t be bothered except for a special occasion — you know, like telling an audience of several hundred people about part of my life that I’ve never publicly discussed.

Reading

The Price of SilenceThis week I finished The Price of Silence: A Mother’s Perspective on Mental Illness by Liza Long. She writes candidly and honestly about the struggle of getting an accurate mental health diagnosis for her teenage son and her experiences navigating the mental health and judicial systems.  She addresses how stigma and fear are at the crux of our society’s ineptitude in caring for people with a mental illness. The book is sobering and well-researched. I’m planning a longer review in the next few days (ironically, May 2-8 happens to be National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week).

I’m trying to catch up on my many back issues of The New Yorker. One of the most fascinating articles was Gay Talese’s piece (“The Voyeur’s Motel”) in the April 11 issue  about a guy who purchased a motel for the soul purpose of spying on his guests and recording their sexual activities. It’s an unbelievable and fascinating read, and apparently a book is coming out this fall.  Another good one was “The Scold,” Nick Paumgarten’s profile of Mr. Money Moustache from the February 29, 2016 issue.

 

That’s about all for now. Hope you have a great week!