Thanks, Mom!

Who? Trevor Noah?

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That was my reaction when Jon Stewart tapped Noah to replace him as host of The Daily Show in 2015. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were practically my only sources of news during the George W. Bush era. The regular news shows were so depressing: I couldn’t imagine an administration that could do more harm than the wrong-headed policies of Bush and Cheney.

When I first saw Trevor Noah, my reaction was, “How can I dive into those luscious dimples?” Wow, so cute! And that South African accent!!

Noah_9780399588181_epub3_001_cviIt wasn’t until I read Noah’s 2016 memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood that I found out just how unlikely it is that he’s starring in an American TV show. Even if it’s just basic cable, as Jon Stewart often humble-bragged. 

The obstacles in Noah’s path had to do with South Africa’s racial system which the government called apartheid. Races, judged by looks, were strictly segregated: white, colored (usually, the result of the union of two mixed-race persons as it was a crime for persons of perceived different races to be together), Indian and black. 

From his appearance, Trevor Noah was colored. It was illegal for him to be seen with his white father or his black mother, grandparents and cousins. He was kept hidden indoors, with clandestine visits to his father and park outings with a colored neighbor while his black mom walked a few paces behind. Even when apartheid ended when Noah was about ten, customs died hard.

He attributes a large part of his success in life to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. I would add that Noah’s amalgam of qualities — mental quickness, inborn optimism and generous soul — also contributed greatly to his rise.

One way that Noah found community was to become a “chameleon,” as he called himself. He picked up the languages of different tribes, such as Xhosa, his mother’s tribe; Tsonga; Zulu; as well as English. People accepted him, despite how he looked, because he sounded like them. Noah quotes Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” (italics mine.)

UnknownDespite the surreal circumstances of his upbringing, Patricia Noah insisted that Trevor get a good education, go to church and behave. When he misbehaved, which was often, she gave him a beating. She wanted to raise him strictly, despite his impish disposition, because she didn’t want him to end up, as Noah puts it, “paying the black tax, that I would get trapped by the cycle of poverty and violence that came before me.” She insisted that Trevor would escape.

My mom was a lot like Trevor Noah’s. Not in any of the particulars. My mom was a generation older, lived 8,000 miles away in China and was from a wealthy family. But I see similarities in their steely determination to see that their children get a better shot at life. I see in both a resolute, almost cheerful, orientation toward the future with no regrets. And they share a devotion to religion.

More than what our mothers wanted us to learn, both Trevor and I learned from our mothers’ examples. Patricia Noah got a secretarial job, a rare thing for a black woman.

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Shanghai, 1952

My mom, against her mother’s wishes, went to medical school. She married Dad on graduation, also against her mother’s wishes. Patricia had to evade the police when she lived in a white area of Johannesburg. My mom and I lived in Hong Kong as illegals after escaping Communist China. Mom and Dad were separated for seven years. Patricia was a battered wife. Both our moms had no bitterness about the hard times. They always looked forward.

Mom grew up the younger daughter in a well-to-do Chinese family in Shanghai. Her mother treated her almost as a servant. One of her stories had to do with sugar cane, a favorite snack. Mom had to chisel the tough peels off the stalks and then cut them into bite-sized pieces. She was only allowed to eat the stringy, fibrous joint pieces. The boys got the sweet, juicy pulp. 

Despite my grandmother’s conventional view that daughters were less valuable than sons, my mom raised me to be equal with boys. She encouraged me to play sports, excel in studies and to speak my mind. She never hit me, but she kept me in line with her eyes. My cousin calls it “The Look,” a searing sidewise glare. Not until I had my own kid did I realize what a “paper tiger” The Look was. When my son ignored my attempt at discipline with The Look, I had no clue what Plan B should be. 

Born a Crime is full of Trevor and Patricia’s adventures at different churches. Patricia insisted on going to three churches on Sundays: a mixed church, a white church and a black church. Trevor would try to talk her out of taking him but it never worked. 

Mom always took us to Mass on Sundays and on Holy Days of Obligations. As she became demented, she would repeatedly ask, “Is it time to go to Mass?” The rituals and songs of Mass were like muscle memory for Mom. She still knew the responses and when to kneel, stand and sit. One day, when it was time to stand and sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” she gave a full throated rendition. She sang a couple of octaves below everyone else. She also sang a couple of bars behind everyone else. At first, I was embarrassed. But when I saw her face, happy in her faith, I was humbled.

Trevor Noah dedicates this book to his mom, his “first fan.” Patricia did good. 

Tell me: Who was your first fan?

The Body Keeps Score

41jibh5KHbL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I flagged so many pages of Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps Score that it became kind of ridiculous. But it is that important. Van der Kolk is a psychiatrist who has spent over thirty years working with trauma survivors. He has worked with patients with PTSD, victims of natural and man-made IMG_8888disasters, and people who were abused or neglected as children, including clergy sexual abuse victims. The Body Keeps Score explains the physical basis for trauma symptoms and offers a plethora of effective treatments. This is tremendously hopeful.

Here are the critically important breakthroughs he describes:

  • Van der Kolk offers anatomic and physiologic correlations to the symptoms that trauma victims exhibit: fight, flight or freeze. This is akin to correlating someone’s belly pain to the x-rays of gallstones. This approach lays down a scientific framework for many of the psychological treatments that are based on theories (psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, etc.) that are not anchored to what is actually happening in the body.
  • The treatment of traumatic injury is urgent because, according to van der Kolk, “[b]eing traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.” (italics mine.) People five, ten, twenty years out from their trauma cannot fully experience their current lives.
  • According to van der Kolk, child abuse is “the gravest and most costly public health issue in the United States.” “[E]radicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters.”
  • Prevention is the best solution. “… [S]ocial support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma … being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.”

Van der Kolk describes many victims of trauma suffering from “timeless reliving; re-experiencing images, sounds, and emotions; and dissociation.” While writing this essay, I

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9/11 scene photographed by Don Halasy

heard a radio interview with Garrett Graff, author of a new book of oral histories about 9/11. He said that, in talking to people who lived through that day, he was struck by people reliving their sensory experiences: the taste of the dust and the feel of the ashes all around them; the feel of the heat; the ankle to knee-deep water (from the sprinklers) they waded through to get out.

Van der Kolk’s research shows that many kinds of treatment are helpful. He divides therapy into two categories: “top down” and “bottom up.” By top down, he means treatments that require language. These include cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), writing and art. The “bottom up” approach uses the body’s sensory awareness to soothe the brain. (The body sends as many messages to the brain as the brain sends to the body.) These include yoga, dance therapy, Heartmath, Pilates, theater and more. He is not against medications. They have their place.

My own experience of trauma seems very mild compared to van der Kolk’s patients or the 9/11 victims. Some years ago, we had a birdhouse on a tree that overlooked our back porch. Eurasian tree sparrows had set up household. We eagerly awaited the babies. Then, one day, a male house sparrow stuck his head in the hole and pulled out a naked, half-formed chick, maybe an inch and a half long with little bits of fuzz. It laid on the wooden porch boards. The violence of it unnerved me.

When I was in college, my boyfriend took me to the home of one of his friends. We were all chatting. The wife — I think her being Asian made it more distressing to me — came in and said something to her husband. Without warning, he started chasing her around the room and hitting her with a pair of slippers.

When I was a kid in Hong Kong, all the kids in our little neighborhood ran to the man who hawked sweet soy bean curds. There would be a mob of kids twenty strong. I joined them. We bought our little bowls for him to fill. As he did this, he ran his fingers through our genitals. He was so fast and stealthy. Two questions stayed with me. What did he get out of it and why did we keep going to him?

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Mom, Dad and me right before he left for America

Logically, the real trauma of my life was not having a dad until I was eight years old. He left China when I was one. We (my mom, my sister and me) joined him in America seven years later. In trying to get to America, we moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong. This required learning new languages. Then, learning English, of course. Traumatic? I don’t

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Reunited in St. Louis, age 8

know. Two results. I am a more reluctant traveler than many (Peace Corps? Go somewhere where you don’t know the language or how to get around? Been there, done that!) Also, I always felt I needed to protect my parents in this new land. I imagine it’s a common immigrant story. When I think about it though, there were hardly two more competent people than my parents.

As you can infer, Bessel van der Kolk is brilliant and energetic. He is also deeply compassionate. He states, “It is much more productive to see aggression or depression, arrogance or passivity as learned behaviors: Somewhere along the line, the patient came to believe that he or she could survive only if he or she was tough, invisible, or absent, or that it was safer to give up. Like traumatic memories that keep intruding until they are laid to rest, traumatic adaptations continue until the human organism feels safe and integrates all the parts of itself that are stuck in fighting or warding off the trauma.” I am not always so charitable. Sometimes, I think arrogant people are just jerks.

Trauma sufferers have a great advocate in Bessel van der Kolk. The Body Keeps Score gives hope both in unravelling the physical reasons for trauma symptoms and in offering a review of a wide range of effective treatments.

Tell me: Do you know of a “bottom up” treatment program that one wouldn’t necessarily associate with treating trauma?

I give my vote to Prison Performing Arts. Van der Kolk states that humans have been re-integrating war veterans back into society through ritual since the Greek tragedies. This organization puts on plays by people in Missouri’s prisons. I have been to a performance by women in the Vandalia Correctional Center.

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The Vandalia Women’s Theater

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Troubles

IMG_8844 2I decided to read Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Mystery in Northern Ireland, by New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, because a recently solved forty-year murder mystery sounded intriguing. Also, I wanted to learn something about Northern Ireland. Much of the discussion around Brexit brings up the Ireland/Northern Ireland border as a flashpoint. Why? What is the big deal about that border?

The book focuses on Dolours Price and her sister Marian. When The Troubles started in early 1969, I was 21 years old. Dolours was a couple of years younger than I. Marian was even younger. A picture of the sisters show them in jeans and mini skirt. Their photo reminds me of my Catholic high school friends — fresh-faced, full of the future.

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Dolours (L) and Marian(R)
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Suzanne, Susie and me at Xavier H.S. for Girls

I remember the late ‘60s and 70s as heady times. There was a great heaving movement of youth.Young people integrated public spaces and registered voters in the South. American athletes raised the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics. Students at scores of universities held sit-ins and other demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Women formed consciousness raising groups and read Our Bodies Ourselves. We took the Pill. There was Woodstock, the Summer of Love and communal living. Liberation was the byword. 

In Northern Ireland, young Catholics re-ignited the fight to rid Northern Ireland of British rule, to unite the island under the Irish flag. They formed the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary group, to seize power when peaceful protests failed. Sometimes with them and sometimes against them were the old timers of the traditional IRA, who won Irish independence in the 1920s. Those loyal to the British formed their own paramilitaries. Also in the mix were the Northern Irish police, and later, the British army. The fighting lasted nearly three decades: Protestant vs Catholic, Loyalist vs. Republican, British vs Irish, old IRA vs Provo IRA. The conflict was also economic. Catholics were kept out of government and top jobs.

The de facto segregation and unequal treatment of the Catholic minority was brought home to me in an unexpected way this summer. Bill and I were watching the British Open Golf Tournament, held this year in Northern Ireland. Two people we had watched for years, David Feherty, the sports writer, and Darren Clarke, a pro golfer, both Northern Irish Protestants old enough to remember The Troubles, talked about the segregation by religion. Both said that if it weren’t for golf, they would know no Catholics. 

Like the catalyzing forces of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the violence at the Democratic convention, the Price sisters were radicalized when a peaceful march for Catholic rights was viciously attacked by loyalists at Burntollet Bridge. A while later, Dolours and Marian joined the newly formed Provisional Irish Republican Army.

The tactics included assassinations, kidnappings and bombings. Some of the murdered were dumped in the streets as a warning. Others were “disappeared,” kidnapped and buried with no one knowing that person’s fate. Retaliation included prison, being shot by the police or by paramilitaries or by British soldiers. The worst sin wasn’t being the enemy but being an informer or “tout.”. As it turned out, people betrayed their own side with alarming regularity, and thus, the aptness and irony of the book’s title, Say Nothing.

As a member of the Provisional IRA, Dolours Price “had no intention of being relegated to a supporting role…she wanted to do exactly the same work that a man would do.” She got her wish and was swept into the spiraling violence. She killed people. She set bombs. She did jail time. She went on a hunger strike and was forcibly fed. 

Dolours died of an accidental overdose in 2013 at the age of 62. Because of the physical and psychic toll of her IRA activities, and because there was no resolution or reconciliation after three decades of fighting, it felt to me like she could never outrun the consequence of youthful decisions. 

For me, my life in the 70s feels like someone else’s life. I rode in the middle seat of a Version 2friend’s Ford Pinto to one of the big anti War marches in Washington. I handed out leaflets and was told by a young man to “Go back to where you came from.” I did not burn down the Washington University ROTC building, despite Bill’s joking claim. I lived in a commune. I farmed for the first — and last — time. My response to gender equality was to go to medical school. 

My political leanings haven’t changed much, but I support them with checks these days. And climate change has taken the place of the anti-War fervor.

Reading Say Nothing, made me wonder. What if I had chosen a more radical route? What I had fallen under the thrall of some charismatic leader, like Gerry Adams for Dolours? I remember that feeling that all things were possible, the thrill of making a difference. Some in our country did turn to violence and made decisions that turned out to be irrevocable: the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Panthers. 

The official end of The Troubles, the Good Friday Accords, did not resolve much, legally, morally and most of all, emotionally. Northern Ireland sits like a scab that could break open at any time. And that murder mystery? By the time the big reveal came, I had given up caring. By that time, nothing could make up for the lost lives, the warped survivors, the grieving families, the orphans, the betrayals, the suffering. 

Tell me: What were your young adult passions?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Dante in St. Louis

I tend to pick up long, dense literary works when I’m stressed out: Faulkner, Beowulf, Dante. I find hope that I can chip away at my troubles one problem at a time the same way I can finish lengthy tomes by reading a few pages every day. To be transported into other worlds and to marvel at language beyond my imagination are happy bonuses.

IMG_8814I read The Divine Comedy, a few cantos at a time, in my bed in the basement of my home while my parents, unable to care for themselves, slept in Bill’s and my bed upstairs. 

Dante may well have been the very first “gonzo” writer, even though his life bridged the 13th and 14th centuries and the term was coined by American writer Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s “gonzo journalism” combined reportage, memoir and wildly subjective and speculative opinion.

Isn’t this what Dante has done in The Divine Comedy? The hero, after all, is named Dante. Both Dante the author and Dante the character are from Florence. The story is set in 1300 when the actual Dante was 35 years old and when Dante the traveler journeyed “half of our life’s way.” Dante’s descriptions of his adventures in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are certainly subjective and speculative. IMG_8819

It delights me to think of Dante as a gonzo writer because I came to write my Dr. Bookworm “gonzo book reviews” as a result of reading The Divine Comedy. I started reading it at a very tough point in my life, just as Dante the traveler found himself in a “dark wood of error,” and as Dante the writer suffered exile from his beloved city of Florence. Bill and I were caring for my infirm parents in our home. That alone stretched our physical and emotional resources to near breaking point. In addition, a family member criticized everything we did. They didn’t like the food we served, the physical therapy, the caregivers we hired, the TV shows we watched with Mom and Dad, the money we spent. This person spent hours on the phone degrading us to relatives and family friends

I thought Dante’s Inferno would give me some release. I wanted to see a place where bad behavior was punished. I wanted to see bad guys “get theirs.” I hoped for a vision of hell like that painted by Hieronymus Bosch or in Chinese folk paintings of Buddhist hell. I was not disappointed.

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 In Inferno, gluttons are eternally pelted by stinky rain and ice; corrupt politicians are dipped in burning pitch while devils poke them with prongs; churchmen, including Popes, who made money from their office, are jammed upside down in holes with flames licking their feet.

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Drawing by Botticelli about 2 centuries after Dante

Reading about tortures was satisfying, but Dante gave me much more than vicarious revenge. Dante’s conversations with the inhabitants of the afterlife sparkle with personality. Francesca da Rimini eagerly tells her story of lust and death: seduction, 14th-century style. She says,“One day, to pass the time away, we read/of Lancelot — how love had overcome him. …And time and time again that reading led our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale.” The only problem was that Francesca was sharing that look with her husband’s brother.

I was immediately taken by the writer’s use of imagery. He uses everyday examples to illustrate some rather bizarre scenes. Dante the traveler encounters Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri. In their struggle for political advantage, they betrayed their own people and double-crossed each other. Here’s the description of their eternal punishment: “and just as he who’s hungry chews his bread, /one sinner dug his teeth into the other/ right at the place where brain is joined to nape.”

Purgatorio has a very different vibe. Rather than the class and regional jealousies
evident in Inferno, people in Purgatory greet Dante as kin and countryman. It is a place where sinners atone for their sins, and all are guaranteed entrance to heaven through God’s goodness. Dante converses with many artists, who praise their colleagues, bringing up such names as Giotto, Pisano, Cimabue.

As Dante and his guide, the Roman writer Virgil, travel up the seven terraces of Purgatory Mountain — each terrace represents a deadly sin: pride, envy, anger, sloth,
avarice, gluttony and lust — the Arts play a prominent role. Eight times a day, everyone stops what they are doing to sing the Liturgy of the Hours. Dante converses with  a musician who had set his poems to music. In the very first canto of Purgatorio, Dante speaks of his “talent,” his writing skills, and how he would “sing” of his trip through Purgatorio. 

The visual arts are highlighted in Purgatory. Atoners carry heavy blocks of stone on their backs, but not as punishment for punishment’s sake. These stones are used to carve

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Atoner with stone. Virgil (left) with Dante on right

devotional scenes on the walls of the terraces. At the top of Purgatory Mountain, Dante and Virgil arrive at the Garden of Eden. There Virgil eases himself out and Beatrice becomes Dante’s guide. Virgil, as a pagan, is not allowed to enter Paradiso. 

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Beatrice leading Dante

In Paradiso, Dante discourses with philosophers, saints and apostles; emperors,
popes and founders of religious orders; fellow Italians; ordinary people and an ancestor. He sees all the orders of angels, the Virgin Mary and a vision of the Triune God. And he is blown away by God’s Goodness.

His ancestor, a crusader, and St. Peter urge him to write about his remarkable journey. They tell him that that is his mission. He has to make the poem we are reading. He worries if he’s capable of doing justice to the experience, but he has to try. He has to become Dante the writer. He must make Art. Dante the traveler and Dante the writer become one. 

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As I read through the one hundred cantos of The Divine Comedy, the anger and angst about my life situation faded. I decided that I have to write. My life experience is as unique as Dante’s, and only I can tell my own story. As Dante the poet put everything he knew about history, geography, politics, the Bible, the Greek and Roman classics into his work, I too would incorporate everything at my intellectual disposal. I, too, would transform stress and joy into stories. And thus, Dr. Bookworm was born. 

Tell me: Do you have a literary revenge book?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?