H is for Heartbreak

So, you are a middle-aged woman, single, no children. You are English. Your job as a researcher  and teacher at Cambridge University may not be renewed. If you lose your job, you lose your apartment on campus. Then your beloved father dies suddenly. You are disconsolate. What do you do?

51FJFqMnaBL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Well, if you are Helen MacDonald, you decide to train a goshawk. You bring an untamed raptor, a predator with a formidable beak and blade-sharp talons, to live with you in your university digs. What happens is the story that MacDonald tells in her 2014 memoir H is for Hawk.

I admire MacDonald’s ability to weave so many strands of her life into this book. She talks about falconry replete with technical terms and names for equipment, such as creance, jess, hood. She paints a picture of her photojournalist father and their close relationship. She shows how her grief clouds her judgment. She intertwines an account of author T.H.White’s attempt to train a goshawk. (White wrote The Sword in the Stone, the basis for the play Camelot.) She describes the topology, the trees, shrubs, flowers and fields where she flies her hawk. And she uses her academic expertise in English literature to describe her surroundings, using archaic words like bosky for wooded and ley for lea, meaning meadow.

Helen-Macdonald-014Helen MacDonald challenges you to accept all of her. She is a woman of many, many parts and it’s up to you to put it together. I wonder if some editor didn’t say, “Helen, why don’t you leave out all that stuff about T.H.White and his uncertainty with sexual orientation and sadism?” “Why don’t you use regular words rather than archaic words that people have to look up?” “Why don’t you change the book title so that it doesn’t sound like a Sue Grafton murder mystery?” MacDonald seems the kind of person who’d shrug and say, “Because.”

Boy, did I learn a lot about goshawks and the long history of using them to hunt. More than that, I could feel how MacDonald feels. When she first sees her bird, she writes, “The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine [an archaic term for porcupine]. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumped sideway.”

northern-goshawk-female-sitting-on-a-root-G0B72XMacDonald becomes obsessed with the process of taming and training this bird that she calls Mabel. In MacDonald’s small rental, the bird poops, the technical word is mute, wherever she wants. She eats bits and pieces of raw meat. Her table manners are atrocious. 

Helen’s obsession, and the intense focus necessary to taming a hawk, temporarily distract her from her grief. Throughout, there’s a part of her that realizes that she may be spinning into madness, but the needs of the hawk are all consuming. “I’d instructed my friends to leave me alone. I’d filled the freezer with hawk food and unplugged the phone. I was hermit with hawk in a darkened room with books on three walls, a faded Afghan rug and a sofa of stained yellow velvet.”

As she gains the bird’s trust, MacDonald takes her out and flies her. It is heart racing, both because she is on the ground, dashing through stubbly fields and crashing through thickets while  trying to keep the flying bird in sight and also because she can never be absolutely sure that Mabel will come back. 

Eventually, she realizes that she needs to care for herself psychologically. Her friends help. Her mother visits. She sees a doctor. She takes meds. Her life achieves a sort of balance. 

The writing in this book is glittering. It is nature writing. It is psychological writing. It soars with literary flair. “Today I walked up to the crest of a hill on a freezing, smoky afternoon, the whole Cambridgeshire countryside laid out in front in woods and fields and copses beneath us, all bosky and bright with golden sunshine.” It is a joy to read. I got a chuckle at her description of a friend’s falcon. “He was watching the Spitfire [WWII fighter plane] overhead with professional curiosity.”

I am like Helen MacDonald in having expertise and interests in numerous areas. As a Chinese, I have studied Chinese history and Asian art. I am interested in the Chinese-American experience. As a physician, I keep up with articles in medicine and science. I love tennis and opera and crossword puzzles. And, like her, I write. 

Helen and I differ in our response to grief only in degree. My dad had a stroke three years before his death at age 90. My heart spasmed every time I saw him, an orthopedic surgeon, struggle to grasp a fork or a toothbrush in his stricken right hand. I have had my own health disappointments. Less than a year after I had my son, I needed a hysterectomy. At 33 years old, I lost the choice to have another child. Unlike Macdonald, however, I have never neglected health, hygiene or work.

Kind friends tell me I am disciplined. I call it a surfeit of superego. Still, I understand MacDonald’s need for distraction. As for me, I reread books: The Lord of the Rings, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I watch reruns: Murder, She Wrote, The Rockford Files and Night Court. And when those cut too close to my heart, I do crosswords. 

These book reviews that I do reveal one or two aspects of my life at a time. I am in awe of Helen MacDonald’s courage —and organizational skills — to put everything out there, to challenge the reader to look up the archaic words, falconry terms and species names for plants and bushes, to follow her spiral into grief, to go from bird to sadist to friends and family and to fall in love with a goshawk. 

Tell me: How have you coped with grief? 

The Lord of the Rings: A Love Story

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This is my 1965 copy of Volume I of Lord of the Rings. It cost 95 cents.

All stories live and die on their relationships. I have found the sweetest of relationships in, of all things, a three-volume fantasy novel — J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This story about hobbits (pint-sized creatures noted for hairy feet), wizards, elves, dwarves, men and the One Gold Ring has stayed with me since I first read the books in the 1960s.

I definitely relate to Frodo, an ordinary hobbit called to

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J.R.R.Tolkien at age 24

extraordinary heroism. His task is to destroy the powerful One Ring in the furnace of Mount Doom. When Frodo decides to leave his companions and go alone to Mount Doom, his friend Sam insists on accompanying him. The two hobbits, alone and often lost in the wilderness, suffer hunger, thirst and cold; struggle to avoid the spies and soldiers of the evil Sauron; and meet up with Gollum, who once possessed the Ring himself.

A part of the appeal of Lord of the Ring is the language, evocative of heroic times. Reminiscent of the Iliad’s use of epithets, Tolkien identifies the characters by their lineage: Aragorn, son of Arathorn; Gimli, Gloin’s son; Frodo, son of Drogo. The speeches are stirring. Gandalf the Wizard describes his return from the dead this way: “Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time. … I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world.” Galadriel, an elf queen, tells Frodo and his companions, “[Y]our Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true.”

But it is the relationships that melt my heart. There are many kinds of love in Lord of the Rings: Aragorn and Arwen’s pure love; the camaraderie of the young hobbits Merry and Pippin; the friendship of traditional adversaries, the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli, the love of many of the knights for their lords. The tender affection between Frodo and Sam is blended so subtly into the action and fantasy that it took me a long time to notice it.

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Sean Astin (left) played Sam and Elijah Wood (right) played Frodo in Peter Jackson’s movies

Like the other hobbits, I took Sam for granted. He packed the pots and pans. He took care of the ponies. He was the skeptical voice when Aragorn wanted to join the group. He checked Merry and Pippin’s exuberance. But, as he and Frodo pressed on in their perilous journey to Mount Doom, Sam’s courage, resourcefulness and devotion to Frodo became clear.

When Frodo, holding the Ring, becomes too weak to continue, Sam says, “Come, Mr. Frodo! … I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.”

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The Wizard Gandalf riding on the Wind Lord. This rendering hangs from the ceiling of the Wellington, NZ, airport.

At the end of their journey, they are spotted from the air by the Wind Lord: “two small dark figures, … hand in hand, upon a little hill.”

I have not been tasked with such a desperate Quest as Frodo. Yet, over the years, I have worked very hard to achieve goals important to me. These include caring for my patients, raising my son Alex to be a righteous person and seeing my parents through to the very end. It has occurred to me only lately that I was not alone on these quests. Bill was with me every step.

We started dating when we were middle-aged. We both had demanding jobs and we both had children. I like to think of our living room the months after we blended our households as a metaphor for our life together. We had so much furniture that we didn’t have room to set the sofas down from their upended position where the movers had left them.

We scrambled. Sometimes, we felt as desperate as Frodo and Sam. Bill dictated patients’ charts into a tape recorder while driving. I was always late to pick up Alex from after school care. We ate take out and ordered in pizza. We each had our weekends to work, and got phone calls at any hour.

Time passed. The kids left home. We got jobs that didn’t require being on call. Everything eased, except for the three years when my parents lived with us. Then the parents died and we retired.

We’ve been retired for seven years now. We spend our time staying in shape, cooking (me), gardening (him), home repair (neither of us wants to do it), tennis, golf, yoga, travel. Oh, and I decided to write a book review blog.

As time freed up for Bill, he took over doing many of the chores. It happened so naturally that I didn’t notice. He took over total cat care: food, water, litter, and later, meds. He vacuums the basement for our weekly yoga session. Way back when, I taught Bill how to use the Mr. Coffee. Now, every morning, he has coffee ready for me.

Bill prepares all the tennis equipment. He packs the car with the rackets, two water jugs, my distance glasses, a towel, wrist bands and a paper towel which I use to blow my nose. In the summer, there’s also an ice chest with cold neck wraps.

He goes with me to writing conferences and to medical conferences. He does not balk at trips to see Alex and his family in Virginia. When did Bill become my Sam?Dr. Douro AA

I suppose he has always been. I just wasn’t paying attention. When I had trouble with administrators at work, Bill insisted, “You did nothing wrong. They are jerks.” Whatever enthusiasms I develop — opera! watercolor! blogging! bird watching! — he’s there with me. (In all honesty, he has enjoyed most of our adventures.)

These days, we walk a lot for exercise. If an eagle, or Wind Lord, were to spot us from the air, we’d be hand in hand on the sidewalks of our neighborhood, just like Frodo and Sam.IMG_8716

Tell me: Who or what is your idea of love? (No biggie!)

Tennis, Everyone!

IMG_8711 2I am tired. I am tired of losing. I am tired of losing tennis matches. I am tired of losing tennis matches to people who don’t play as well as I. I am tired of losing tennis matches to people who don’t play as well as I despite having taken tennis lessons for years. So, I did something different. I read a book: Gerry Donohue’s Winning Doubles: Strategy for Recreational Tennis Players.

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Gerry Donohue

Wait! I know you are asking, “Why would I be interested inreading a review of a tennis instruction book?” Well, for starters, you may be among my dozens of friends who play tennis. These tennis pointers are useful. But whether or not you’re a tennis player, there are life lessons that can be extrapolated from this book.

To those of you who attend tennis clinics with Bill and me, you’ll be happy to know that the book’s advice jibes with what our coaches have been exhorting us to do: get to the net, make the opponent hit the ball up, go for the short angle. The author covers every contingency: poaching, serves, service returns, net coverage, the lob.

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Coach Billy Gluck feeding a ball. Paula and Jennifer at the ready!
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Kevi (left of picture) and Felice (right of picture) on the other side of the net

The author uses statistics to back up his recommendations. For example,. he states that in recreational tennis, “eight out of ten points are decided by a mistake.” Hence, the importance of keeping the ball in play. I was surprised by his advice to always “defer the serve,” that is, let the opponents serve first. This is despite telling us that the server’s team will win 70% of the time. His reasoning is that if the receivers lose, it’s expected. But, if they win, and the servers may be nervous or not warmed up in the first game, they are way ahead.  He says the player with the better overhead should play the ad court because most lobs go down the middle. I had never considered this tactic. 

I like this book because , for starters, the title delivers exactly what it advertises. This book is about doubles — a very different game from singles. The chapters are super-short but covers pretty much every situation. It is about strategy, not stroke production, not mental attitude, not physical prowess. This book is definitely for the recreational player. It doesn’t assume a hundred miles an hour serve or an overhead that hits the ground and then caroms over the fence. The author recommends dinking the ball (a soft underpin shot) in certain circumstances. The professional player would eat such a shot for lunch. Also, the term recreational is a reminder of how low the stakes are. Chill! 

Yet another reason to like this book is the authoritative voice the writer uses. He doesn’t give you options, which, in my case, often just confuses me. He says to “Play the percentages,” and then tells you what those percentages are.

I was always a singles player. There was hardly any strategy involved. You run after the ball and hit it. When one gets older, everyone your age plays doubles. That’s when I started losing. I admit it: I have never been a fan of strategy. I felt that strategy was for sissies and double dealers. I want to win by beating you, not tricking you. With all due respect and love, Bill is much more strategic. One of his favorite moves is to lob over his five-foot tall wife. I call him SB. That’s shorthand for sneaky bastard. 

When I think about it, I have not just under rated strategy; I’ve avoided it like the plague. (I tried to think of another word to use instead of “strategy” and came up with “scheming,” which tells you how I feel about it.) I am willing to work hard at practicing my top spin backhand and my volleys, but learning how to fake a poaching motion feels stupid. 

Before retiring as a physician, I spent my time reading about the science of medicine, not the business of medicine. In retrospect, this was a mistake. I needed to pay more attention to the contents of contracts. Or pay someone to. But, there was so much science and medicine that was interesting and necessary to know.

I am that way about financial issues too. I worked hard at my job. I saved my money. Even now, I clip grocery store coupons. I had a bank savings account when I first started working in 1980. A patient told me about money market funds. But these days, there are an unbelievable number of investment options — stocks, bonds, annuities, mutual funds, CDs, insurance policies. Fortunately, I at least have Bill to weed out the truly bad ideas.

Winning Doubles: Strategy for Recreational Tennis Players fulfills this weeding function for tennis.This book whittles down one’s tennis options. (“Limit yourself to two target areas when you poach.”) The author speaks definitively about which stroke to use, where on the court to be, what partners should expect from each other, how to communicate. Studies have shown that experts, including professional athletes, have less brain activity than the novice in performing in their field. They are able to cut down the noise, to filter out irrelevant information. And in a sense, these instructions help me do the same. I don’t need to think about what to do, just focus on doing it.

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SB and me

These are my non-tennis takeaways:

  • Strategy is important. (I’m sorry to find this out so late in my life.) 
  • Having a plan – even if you have to change it – helps focus your attention.
  • For most things on most days, the stakes are low. Remember, it’s recreational!

Tell me: What sport has taught you life lessons? 

A Good Presidency Spoiled

I have reviewed over thirty books since I started the Dr. Bookworm blog last year. I have discussed all sorts of books: Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Lesley Stahl’s Becoming Grandma, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, The Little Prince, War and Peace, Donna Leon’s The Temptation of Forgiveness and Richard Power’s The Overstory, to name a few. All this time, I have stayed out of national politics. I have stayed away from Trump. UNTIL NOW.

It’s not as if I’ve lived in a cave since Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017. I have been intensely interested as the TV images tumble and jumble together in my mind: toddlers in cages, blue tarped roofs, piles of uncollected garbage, dejected farmers, tiki- torch-bearing marchers. Trump’s actions toward other nations are equally dizzying: leaving the Paris Climate Accords, cozying up to North Korea, Mohammed bin Salman and Putin, shrugging off the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, snubbing NATO, and insults to Justin Trudeau, the Australian Prime Minister and everyone from a “shit hole country.”

I have listened to Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, John Kelly, Maria Bartiromo, the guys sitting on the couch on Fox and Friends and assorted current and now-fired enablers justify the indefensible. I have heard reporters and ex-officials on TV and the radio tout their tell-all books: Michael Wolff, Omarosa, Bob Woodward, the Team of Vipers guy, James Comey, Andrew McCabe. On and on. 

I haven’t wanted to review a book about Trump for two somewhat contradictory reasons. On the one hand, the hanging fruit is so low: gold escalators, porn stars and Playboy bunnies, the Tweets, the Prince of Whales and Covfefe. He’s a boor. 

The other reason is the fire hose of misdoings, so many that it’s boring to have to list them. And the lies! How to keep up? It’s already past 10,000 according to the Washington Post. I quote Rick Reilly, the author of the book I am reviewing this week “Sometimes the gap between the truth and Trumps (sic) is so great you couldn’t cross it with a Cessna.”

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But I can’t ignore the orange elephant in the room forever. At some point, I have to tackle Trump. I chose Rick Reilly’s book, The Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump, because I like Rick Reilly and I like to play golf. I discovered Reilly, an award-winning writer for Sports Illustrated and ESPN,  about twenty years ago when I was struggling to learn golf as it was the passion of my new boyfriend (Bill). I found the game stultifying in every way. There are rules for how you hold your shoulders, wrists, elbows, fingers, hips; how you dress; where you can walk; when it’s your turn to play. 

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Rick Reilly

Reilly’s 1997 novel Missing Links, about a bunch of golf die-hards at an unkempt public course, humanized the game for me. And it was hilarious! It seems to me that the author of such a book has to be a person of humanity, insight and humor. (All traits that Trump lacks.) However depressing the message, I would enjoy the read because of the way Reilly writes. I was not disappointed. I got a chuckle out of his description of a Trump golf course in Scotland. “Take the lighthouse. It used to just sit there by the 9th tee, looking a lot like Melania, gorgeous and lonely.”

Reilly’s point isn’t just that Trump plays golf and builds and promotes his golf courses the way he runs the country — all of which is true — but that we all could have seen this coming had we been paying attention to Trump on the golf course. In Reilly’s words, “Golf is like bicycle shorts. It reveals a lot about a man.”

In golf and in the presidency, “Trump operates as though the rules are for other people.” “[T]he way Trump cheats at golf, lies about his courses, and stiffs his golf contractors isn’t that far from how he cheats on his wives, lies about his misdeeds, and stiffs the world on agreements America has already made on everything from Iran to climate change.”

Trump’s bad behavior on the golf course is personal for Rick Reilly. He quotes his father, Jack: “Remember, Ricky, golf is a gentleman’s sport.” And according to Reilly, “Somebody who makes his caddies cheat for him to earn their tip is not a gentleman. Somebody who bullies and manipulates and yells that his courses are the best in the world when that world absolutely knows otherwise is not a gentleman.” He adds, ‘I’m glad my dad didn’t live to see a Commander in Cheat like Trump. It would’ve turned his stomach.”

“To find a man’s true character, play golf with him.” This line by PG Wodehouse begins the book. My husband Bill, who has played golf since he was a teen, shares this view. He definitely would not do business with you if you cheated at golf.

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Bill

Golf is a game where one polices oneself. You can improve the lie of your golf ball with just a twist of your club without anyone seeing you. You can kick your ball out of the rough. (Trump does this so often that the caddies call him Pele.) You can drop a new ball down and pretend you’ve found the one that’s lost in the woods. In the 25 years I’ve played with Bill, he has never done any of these things. It’s the ethic of the game.

In a way, Bill and Rick Reilly are more appalled by Trump’s golfing antics than I. Not that I cheat, but I have often found many of the rules surrounding the game too stuffy, and dare I say, “gentlemenly.” Even these days, someone like me, an Asian woman, has a hard time finding my place at the golf club. I am a couple with Bill or I am relegated to the Thursday morning Ladies League.

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Me

I have often scoffed at the United States Golf Association’s Rules of Golf, a 500-page tome 41GbrAbF5UL._SX385_BO1,204,203,200_that covers every contingency. It’s sort of like the Mueller Report. You really should read it, but it’s too damned long. Nonetheless, I do have my own verities that I live by: Truth, Science, Justice, Fair Play. And they are not far from the Rules of Golf’s Code of Conduct: “All players are expected to play in the spirit of the game by Acting with integrity – for example, by following the Rules, applying all penalties, and being honest in all aspects of play.” (italics mine.) Disobeying the rules can get you disqualified. 

Even for someone who operates on the basis that rules are for other people, the extent to which Trump would go to “win” is extreme.When playing the game, Trump’s golf cart is rigged to go twice as fast as the others. That allows him to get to his ball first so that he can move it to his advantage. In order to hype his golf courses (and be able to charge more for membership,) Trump lies about their ratings by golf magazines. To take things

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FAKE!

one step further, Trump cheats about his own accomplishments. At several of his golf courses, Trump hung photos of himself as the cover of a 2009 issue of TIME magazine. Except that TIME did not publish any cover with Trump on it in 2009! Cheating at sports is usually a spur of the moment decision. These actions required planning and forethought. 

Rick Reilly interviewed many of the caddies at Trump’s courses — first names only. Just as Trump counts on his caddies to abet his cheating, at the risk of losing their jobs, he now has a whole Cabinet of such people. At Cabinet meetings, folks like DeVos, Carson, Zinke, Pruitt, Mnuchin, Tom Price, Kirstjen Nielsen, Wilbur Ross, Elaine Chao earn their caddy’s tip by stroking Trump’s ego. The Congressional Republicans, like Trump’s caddies, go along with the Trump agenda even when they know what the real rules are.

There is even a golf equivalent of the Trump supporters, the Trump base, the 38%. (I have some in my family too.) They remind me of the people Trump plays golf with: professional golfers like Tiger Woods, sports celebrities and announcers like Mike Tirico, politicians like Lindsey Graham. They all know that he cheats, that he’ll always win, but they don’t care. They enjoy the banter, the attention, the company. A fun day, just not golf.

What this book tells me is not just that Trump behaves badly in golf and in life. It tells me that these traits are his character and he isn’t going to change. As long as he’s in office, the cronyism, the nepotism, the corruption, the casual cruelty, the lying, the demonization of the press and other perceived enemies will continue. For the sake of ourselves, others and those not yet born, Trump needs to be defanged, declawed and his power neutered. Or as the Rules of Golf would so drily put it, he should be disqualified. 

Tell me: Trump — a great golfer or the greatest? (apologies to the Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert who always asked, “George W. Bush — a great president or the greatest?”)

 

To Be Old and Useful Is a Happy Thing

Even though Texas in 1870 is very far in time and space from my life in 2019 St. Louis, Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel News of the World, touches on subjects very close to my heart. The story is about an old man who transports ten-year Johanna four hundred miles through lawless Texas territory to her family near San Antonio. Three themes in this slim novel speak directly to me

  • how the old cope with physical and emotional challenges
    Paulette Jiles
  • the relentless human need to communicate
  • and a belief that every personality is made up of all their past: things that happened to them, people in their lives, memories, beliefs.

I read about Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd turning 72 three days before my 72nd birthday. His thoughts on aging ring true.  Physically, there are days when “he hurt in all his joints.” I don’t hurt in all my joints, just my right hip, across my lower back and when I step funny on my left foot. Every time I get up, I lumber a bit, like someone getting off a ship. Kidd felt that “[h]e could for a brief time work as hard as a younger man but it always took much longer to recover.” I know. I know. I still play hard at tennis, but afterwards, I need a nap. I’ve become aware that I sit down and rest after such minimally exertional activities as dishwashing or even yoga, the last ten minutes of which is lying still in “corpse pose.”

When the Captain knew he had to take a dangerous action, he acknowledged his age but said, “I am not a cripple and I am not stupid.” I admire his grit. Ten years ago, when husband Bill and I were both in our sixties, my dad had a serious stroke causing right-sided weakness and impaired speech. He had been the caretaker for my memory-impaired mom. They moved in with us. Caring for them for what turned out to be over three years was the most physically challenging thing I have done before or since. I remember telling Bill I felt like we were in a crucible and I wasn’t sure if we would come out of it intact.

For almost a year we didn’t have hired help. (At first, I had hopes he would significantly recover.) One of us had to sleep in their room, which had been our bedroom, every night to accompany Dad on multiple trips to the bathroom. We had to sleep with one eye open because he just took off despite his weak leg and falling risk. (Later, when he wore Depends, he would still head for the bathroom, like a reflex.) We cooked their accustomed Chinese meals. We kept hot tea available at all times. We checked dad’s blood sugars and gave appropriate doses of insulin.

Bill and I had part-time jobs at the time, our plan to ease into retirement. Fortunately, we were able to stagger our schedules so that one of us could always be home. I drove them to physical therapy. I accompanied Mom to Mass. Once a week, friends came over for mahjongg. The physical exhaustion weighed on both Bill and me. At night, lying on the air mattress next to mom and dad on our king bed, I could feel the achy tingling in my feet.  I started taking Ambien on nights not on duty because I couldn’t afford even one sleepless night. We had experienced similar conditions – lack of sleep and ridiculously long working hours — as medical residents. But we were young then.

Son Alex, Dad, Mom, me at Physical Therapy

Small glitches – a power outage or car trouble or an appliance malfunction (the dryer, the stove and the microwave all broke during this period) – became major crises. Then my beloved son decided to have a destination wedding in the Virgin Islands. Bill’s mom, who lived near her daughters in North Carolina, died, and Bill had to go there. Then, Bill had what we professionals called “acute urinary retention.” In layman’s terms, he couldn’t pee because his enlarged prostate blocked his bladder. For three weeks, he worked and carried out all his parent-care duties wearing a catheter and pee bag. After the wedding, and as both the parents’ health deteriorated, we got caretakers who spent the night. Still later, hospice workers helped with care, especially bathing.  To the very end, we never found anybody who could do Shanghai cuisine, however.

I think Jiles got it right about being old. You can never be sure if the challenge this time will be the end of you. Unlike the young, who see every setback as reversible, the old can never be sure that they will recover. I am happy to report that, as far as I can tell, we were not permanently broken.  This February, we trekked the Milford Track in New Zealand, a four-day, 33.5-mile hike with packs over boulders, streams, fallen trees and one mountain. Bill did carry catheters with him just in case.

Jiles explores the relentless drive of humans to communicate with others through the Captain’s story. Captain Kidd’s love of the written word began early in his life in an odd way. In the War of 1812, the teenage Jefferson Kidd was a runner in Andrew Jackson’s army, “carrying information by hand: messages, orders, maps, reports.” Kidd became a printer and headed out to San Antonio. There he opened his own print shop. “He loved print, felt something right about sending information out into the world.”

After losing his business following the Civil War, Kidd decided to make a living by reading the news to the residents of Texas frontier towns. He excerpted articles from US and world newspapers. He read to the people about electromagnetism, Schliemann’s discovery of Troy, Hottentots, Lola Montez, the British colonial government’s census in India, the Franco-Prussian War.

It was a living but also a calling. When Kidd was younger, he believed that “if people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places.” He didn’t believe that any more. Still, he felt he could be useful by escorting the listeners’ minds “into the lands of the imagination, far places, crisp ice mountains, falling chimney pots, tropical volcanoes.”

I am drawn to Captain Kidd’s love of stories and of the written word. His choice of stories to read, curating, really, shaped his listeners’ perceptions and feelings. I, too, have this urge to send my thoughts and feelings into the world. I’m not really sure why, but when I look around, the need to communicate seems nearly universal. In dictatorships where writing is a punishable offense, authors persist.

I, too, had an odd start to my writing life because I didn’t even know English until I was eight. Yet, I soon realized that I could move people just by how I put words together. In fifth grade, my essay of the battle of Marathon won the class’s vote!

“Guilty Pleasures” book signing at Left Bank Books, St. Louis, 2003

Even though my academic studies were in other fields, I continued to write. I put out a Xeroxed newsletter to my fellow medical students with such articles as Nestle’s push to get Latin American mothers to use infant formula instead of breastfeeding and opposition to the closing of one of the St. Louis County health clinics. I joined a writing group, and in 2003, our book Guilty Pleasures was published. I wrote op-eds printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And now I write gonzo book reviews.

It is not just my wanting others to understand my point of view. It is also to pay homage to all the stories that have moved me to laugh, cry, think. Until three weeks ago, when I picked up News of the World, I knew nothing about the Captain or the girl Johanna. Now they are so dear to me. Jiles’s description of spring coming to the Texas countryside made me acutely aware of the changes in the weather, the rivers, the trees and the birds in St. Louis this spring.

Kidd felt that everything he had been through – battles in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, being a Southerner during the Civil War, a happy marriage to a San Antonio woman from a Spanish land-grant family, owning a printing company, being the father of two daughters – had made him the person he was in 1870.

Like Kidd, I am the accumulation of my experiences, my thoughts, my dreams and even my imagination. Captain Kidd believed that “Every thing you ever did stayed with you, every horse you ever saddled, every morning he awoke with Maria Luisa beside him, and every slap of the paten on fresh paper, every time he had thrown open the shutters in the Betancort house, and his captain dying under his hands, always there like a tangle of telegraph wires in the brain where no dispatch was ever lost.”

I time-travel every day, thousands of times. My memory travels to the days when my parents taught me how to be a Chinese person in America. Rather than chiding me for some behavior, Mom would say, “We Chinese do such and such this way.” I remember how much I ached for an unattainable boy. I can feel the excitement ofwhen my girl friends and I celebrated the last day of high school by going to see the movie Tom Jones. I still see myself making hospital rounds with my young son in tow. I remember the faces of the bean counters who took my medical practice from me. I relive the hours Bill and I sat on my living room loveseat making out, unable to keep our hands off of each other, even though we were both in our forties. Nothing and no one is lost. It is a comfort to me.

Bill and I on the Milford Track

I hope, at 72, that I, too, can rise to the challenge if I am called upon to take on a dangerous and important mission. But, in the meantime, just like Captain Kidd, I am “still in one piece, alive and unaccountably happy.”

Tell me: Have you a favorite place where memory takes you?

Guardians of Being

I can’t say if April really is the cruelest month. From my position here throughout April and into May, it feels pretty shitty. I am a cheerful person — some friends might say, relentlessly cheerful — yet, I feel edgy, unsettled, depressed. My next book review was going to be the redacted Mueller Report. But, as the days passed, something always came up to keep me from opening the ebook version of the report that I had downloaded. There is a disturbance in the force, methinks.

Why might this be? There have been a lot of deaths and serious illnesses among my friends this year. And we’re not that old! We are not yet the advanced elderly. My friends have been felled by drop-dead heart attacks, dementia, Parkinson’s, cancer. Other friends have gone under the knife for leaky heart valves, possible cancers in the lung and in the belly, and an array of ortho procedures. OK, I expected the hip, spine and foot operations, but the life-threatening stuff? Not yet! I thought I had seen what illness was about in my decades as a doctor, but seeing my friends and their families go through such suffering disheartens me.

Even the pets are sick: lymphoma, seizures, pancreatitis and inflammatory bowel disease. 

Then there’s the political climate. So much lying. We all know it. The Mueller Report only gave the chapter and verse. What does it say about the state of affairs that I think it’s even odds between our President and North Korea as to who is telling the truth about the two million dollars for Otto Warmbier’s release? 

You know when you’re down and everything that bothers you seems connected? Well, years ago, I had a very bad run-in with a relative. They were litigious, quarrelsome and twisted every fact to their own self-serving interpretation. Seeing some politicians unartfully spin lies and browbeat others is like re-living the emotional trauma of being abused by my relative. And other politicians who, opossum-like, do not protest such treatment of their citizenry, remind me of the relatives who were afraid of the temper-tantrum throwing one.

The proliferation of racist hate crimes upset me. There have been so many shootings in churches, mosques and synagogues. I never thought I’d worry about my grandchildren because they are Jewish. 

Also, the melting Antarctic, immigrant children ripped from their parents, transgendered folks being forced out of the military, millions in fear of deportation, people going broke from medical bills,  farmers going broke sitting on tons of soybeans, factories closing, black men getting shot by cops. So much misery, and much of it societally self-inflicted.

Even getting HBO this week to watch The Game of Thrones hasn’t gotten me out of this funk. I knew something was wrong when I didn’t get excited about the running shoes I had ordered online that were even more comfortable than the ones I had worn out. Instead of dancing a jig, I muttered, “Okay.” It may be my imagination, but I think my cat Lily has been looking at me with concerning glances. 

Or maybe, my mood is just a drug side effect. I started on Zocor for cholesterol less than two months ago. It could be something as simple as that. A good friend suggested that possibly I was let down by the Mueller Report itself. We had waited for so long, and in the end, the wrangling continues. So, perhaps it’s not so mysterious that I never got around to opening the redacted Mueller Report.

IMG_7710Looking on my shelf for another book to write about, I found The Guardians of Being, with words by Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now, and pictures by Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the comic strip Mutts. My son gave me this book a couple of Christmases ago. I enjoyed it at the time, and then I put it away. This time, I found great solace.

Through full page illustrations, some of them in the style of Japanese woodcuts, Tolle and McDonnell gently nudge us to get out of our minds. They advise: “Be still. Look. Listen. Be present.”

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“raindrops falling” in Japanese woodcut style

Being present requires stillness — to tune in to Nature: the sound of rain, the song of birds, to really see a flower. Taking the book’s suggestion to heart, I decided to take a walk in my neighborhood. I let my surroundings come to me. I just took them in. It was an overcast, coolish day, typical for this rainy April. Everywhere I looked, vistas of lawn IMG_7682and trees in soothing shades of green met my eye. A spot of color would pop up like a birthday surprise: dogwoods in white and pink; azaleas in red, white and light purple;

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Dogwood

cherry blossoms. In close ups, I notice the miraculous “lobster claw” bud that would

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Iris bud

become a full-blown iris in about a week, the flashy, tarty tulip and the insouciant lilac bushes with their cloying scent and circling bees.

Nature was going on, oblivious to my swirling thoughts. In fact, at least for a while, the swirling slowed considerably. So much so that I was absolutely delighted when geese parents hissed at me when I ran into their little familial gathering. IMG_7724

Another part of Nature lives with us. Our pets! According to Tolle and McDonnell, “When you pet a dog or listen to a cat purring, thinking may subside for a moment and space of stillness arises within you, a doorway into Being.” They also say, “The vital function that pets fulfill in this world hasn’t been fully recognized. They keep billions of people sane.” They are the Guardians of Being.

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Guardian Patsy with Jean
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Guardian Charlie with Cindy
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Guardian Theodore with Caleb
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Guardian Lily and me

When I got home, I cradled Lily in my arms and took some deep breaths. As Eckhart Tolle says, “I have lived with many Zen masters, all them cats.” IMG_7709

Tell me: Who is your Guardian?