Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Post On My Birthday

Last night a guest speaker spoke to my Digital Media class, the very talented David Badash, who founded, a beautiful and comprehensive blog about gay marriage and gay rights.

David reminded me that when he was in my Journalism Basics class several years back, a student had said "Don't tell A story; tell YOUR story." That statement had hit him hard at a time when he was shifting the whole of his life. In my Features class, we'd just read two of my favorite first person essays, both National Magazine Award Winners; both True. The first one by Laura Hillenbrand is an excruciating account of her long descent into the hell of chronic fatigue syndrome; the other is another kind of hell-spiral by Meghan Daum, about descending into debt while attending Columbia. I'm sure the latter is an old-chestnut in writing classes now; it seems impossible to me that it was published in the New Yorker over a decade ago. Both of these essays have wound themselves into my own vernacular of what successful first person essays should do.

Tell Your Story, not The Story.

Blogs are funny things. I have this sense that entries should be at least semi-complete and well-formed essays. But I'm not complete and well-formed; why should my blog be? My faults emerge daily in communications with my son (patient is not my middle name), or in the mess I leave hanging around my apartment (isn't there always something better to do than clean and organize?). Real stories are rough, not smooth and perfect. They don't always come packaged with a beautiful Beginning, Middle and End. Real stories are bumpy and sad, impulsive and thrilling. My goal for this year is to be true to my Real stories and to tell them with more honesty and regularity than I'm accustomed to doing. It's not like I've been dishonest here; I haven't, but I have held back to be a perfectionist. I mull over entries so long that they wind up not being written at all. I don't like reading drivel and so I hesitate to contribute to the never ending river of it. Hopefully, my Real stories won't be drivel...

I had a perfect day today. I spent it with my two guys, starting with a lazy morning. After trolling through Priceline for the 10th day in a row, I saw that my dream tickets to Paris had dropped hugely in price, so I impulsively decided that it was a sign that it's time to make a lifetime dream come true and travel around, unencumbered, for six weeks. When I pressed the "purchase" button, I got choked up. It was a bittersweet moment because my sister in law, who died just last week, had taken her family on beautiful trips, and I missed her terribly. I wanted to call her and get her advice and have her be on the other end to listen to me rattle on and on. The absence of her gets harder day by day; not the other way around. I wonder how long this will go on? This sadness was a real part of my perfect day.

Early this morning Jamie woke up and scrambled into our living room to scribble a few hearts on a piece of paper with a marker sorely lacking in fresh ink. He'd written "I love you Mommy! Happy!" He came into my room to read it aloud to me in bed (it came with the gift of a silver dollar unearthed from his room), and ran back to add the missing "Birthday" in tiny letters next to the Happy. Later, we ended up at Brick Lane for a late lunch (a great deal, and a welcome departure from the rest of 6th Street). Finally, we went down to Battery Park to walk by the harbor and take Jamie to one of his favorite playgrounds. The sun had broken out after days of grey, and we spent some time soaking it up on the Irish Hunger Memorial, which deserves its own blog entry. We came home to a completely crooked chocolate birthday cake; certainly not perfect or well-formed, but in its imperfections it was perfect and True.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


This morning at daybreak I lost my beloved sister-in-law Patty to a vicious and unrelenting bout of breast cancer. Three years ago she was sitting at her computer when she felt a lump under her arm...

Patty's life at 49 was fuller and more complete than most octogenarians I've met. She raised four beautiful children, who tragically she will never get to see long into their adult years (two sons and two daughters, ranging in age from 14-20).

The first time I met Patty, I'd gone home with my future husband for the first time for Easter. His family is huge, and I was overwhelmed. It's hard at this stage of insomnia to roll out the whole exchange of our forged friendship, but speckles of phrases sound like this: A Fine Balance; mixed china at my wedding in the Pre-Revolutionary barn she renovated with her husband of nearly three decades; New York City girls night which ended up as New York City stay in night with pajamas, Pride and Prejudice, and her two gorgeous daughters; a constant admiration for her boundless energy; her kitchen which oozed effortlessness and feasts, simultaneously; my confidant; my political twin; the older sister I never had; her wanderlust; her complete rounded life of selfless and often private volunteerism; the chickens she raised; the love and understanding she showed my son; the way she flapped her hands before she cried because she was so often moved to tears.

I have the rest of my life to be sad; for now maybe I'll try to focus on celebrating her and all she left behind. It reaches far and wide.

Friday, March 19, 2010

When Baby is Allergic to Kitty

Here's an essay that appeared today on the New York Times' Motherlode blog. Years ago, I had to go from being a cat person to being a reformed cat person. Read it and weep. Meow!

Parenting is about sacrifice. Rachel Aydt learned that when her son’s allergy tests gave stark evidence of what she already suspected, that her beloved boy was having asthma attacks because of her beloved cat. Of course there was only one choice, she writes in a guest post today. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a hard one.

By Rachel Aydt

Tomorrow I’m going to visit my cat, Charlie, who moved in with my brother in his Chelsea apartment in New York City two years ago. She sleeps in his bed now, by his head to be specific. Last week I brought over a case of Fancy Feast; this week I have a “catnit” gift from my six-and-a-half year old son, Jamie. Fights still break out with Chris’s other cat, Ally, from time to time, but over the months they’ve learned to tolerate one another. After a series of asthma attacks, we learned that our son Jamie is allergic to dogs, dust mites, and cats. So after a trip to the emergency room we made the agonizing decision to send Charlie away. To date, this is the biggest parental sacrifice I’ve ever made.

Sixteen years ago I rescued Charlie, a Siamese mix, from the Harlem ASPCA. I was 22 then, and had gone through my first season of death: not one, but two beloved family members had passed away, and I needed some creature comfort. Charlie quickly became my familiar and followed me from room to room of my New York Chelsea apartment, jumping on every sink for a dribble of water, racing up and down the spiral staircase. For years, a rotation of post-collegiate roommates loved her, and she was my constant companion. Eventually those single years morphed into boyfriend years, boyfriend years into marriage; throughout it all was Charlie.

When we brought our son Jamie home from the hospital for the first time after he was born, his breathing sounded rattled. We called our pediatrician in the panicky way first-time parents make those calls. “Do you think he’s allergic to our cat?” we’d asked. “No,” Jim recalls her saying. “Babies’ chests are small little chambers, and any congestion sounds amplified. He’ll be fine, but call us if it continues.”

Well, it did. We made friends with saline spray, blue earwax nozzles used to suck mucus from little noses, makeshift steam saunas in our bathroom. His sickness cycle would have weakened Paul Bunyon. Cold after cold transformed him into a miserable green-snotted monster. As he got older, we kept him out of nursery school with increasing regularity. The folklore that kids get sick a lot in their first school environment became his story. “His immune system is just building up,” his doctor would say. “Next year he’ll be healthier.”

Next year came and went with just as many colds. Peach colored antibiotics sat in our refrigerator with alarming regularity. His tonsils and adenoids were so large that we had to have them removed.

Two years ago we were visiting my parents in upstate New York, when Jamie’s familiar cough ratcheted up to wheezing. His chest sounded like an orchestra of piccolos. We got him to an emergency room where he was nebulized with Albuterol for the first time—his first full-blown asthma attack.

The next week, after getting allergy tests where he was pricked with twenty needles, what was suspected became official: Spunky, my parent’s dog, had set off the first asthma attack.

“If you keep your cat you’ll have to live like a miniminalist,” our new allergy doctor said. “Get rid of all upholstered furniture and curtains. They hold dander. Kitty will need a bath daily, and must be kept out of his room at all times. You’ll need a Hepa air filter, and the good ones cost about $400. Oh, and you’ll need to nebulize him with steroids twice a day.” Jim and I looked at each other warily. We could do our best to be neat freaks and keep Charlie clean and out of Jamie’s room…but keep Jamie on steroids indefinitely? We waved the white flag. It was too much.

For a few nights after dropping her off at Chris’s place, I’d cry myself to sleep. In a particularly mournful moment I pulled out a photo album. In it, there are murky, dark pictures of Jamie as a 3-month old infant, asleep in just his diaper with his arms splayed out on our bed. Charlie sleeps next to him, and stretched out she dwarfs him. It’s the New York blackout of August 2003, and as evening falls we’ve been without electricity for three days. They’re both so hot without the air conditioning. Our poor babies. Charlie was my girl, and I had brought her home with the promise to take care of her always. I failed her there, and the lingering pain is acute. I’m fortunate that my brother didn’t even question his decision to take her in.

Even though we now live pet free, managing asthma continues to be hard. You never know when invisible allergins will strike, and the wheezing will kick in. Now we travel with a bulky nebulizer, antihistamines, and steroids, just in case.

It’s true you lose your freedom when you become a parent, and the sacrifices are sometimes greater than you can imagine. For Jamie, sacrificing his breathing wasn’t an option. In the end, there really was no choice to make.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Summer Wanderlust

Up and coming: my first unencumbered summer (of my life?). I'm having the revolutionary thought that I could travel with my husband and kid for like 2 months. The affordability issue is another story, but these trips always start with the small seed of a big dream. Two cities as bases, say, for three weeks to one month a piece. Paris and Rome? Or Rome and then Paris? Or somewhere along the coast? We're open. Cities with day trips within easy reach and a glut of apartments for rent. I've never been on a cruise, and am loathe at the idea, but Jim is on the verge of convincing me that if I wanted to, say, see the Greek Islands for a week we could arrange that once we hit one of those big cities.

When Jim and I went to Asia pre-parenthood, we made arrangements to get to Thailand once we were already in Hong Kong. The result of doing that was a 5 star hotel in Bangkok that we never could have afforded. We're generally the "walk down the street till you find the clean $30 pensione" type of travelers, but after a long trip to Hong Kong it was amazing to kick back at the Royal Riverside Marriott after getting lost in Bangkok for like 15 hours. Plus, we didn't have a little guy at our heels, and the mama in me would feel better to have housing sewn up.
My problem so far is that airfare is insane. I'm a researcher by trade, but at my first cursory searches the cheapest I'm seeing is $1,200 per person, just to get to Rome and back. This is before a nickel is spent on trains, lodging, and food. Food isn't generally a big expense because we're happy filling up in the markets, especially if there's a kitchen to go home to.

So, dear friends, if you have friends who are looking to rent out a place in Paris or Rome for a time this summer, let me know. I'm even open to an East Village swap. We live in a two bedroom apartment on East 4th Street, between Bowery and Second Avenue, which was voted "Best Block in NYC" by the Village Voice this year (ours is the building with the food co-op downstairs mentioned in the article). Any ideas?

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Writer in the Window

Several weeks back, an artist named Georgelle Hirliman died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the place where I grew up.

Her nickname was "The Writer in the Window." I didn't know her personally, but wonder if she might have remembered a gaggle of preteens dating back to 1984. Georgelle was part writer, part performance artist; an iconic figure on the fringes. One day she appeared on my daily after school, downtown trajectory, sitting in a shopfront window with her typewriter. On the window, she'd hung a sign up that said "Help me Cure My Writer's Block." Santa Fe was, and is, a very New Age place, and she used her Writer in the Window experiment as a means to crack open her creativity by communing with her passersby on the big questions, what she's called "the sky is blue questions." It worked, and it was simple. You'd scrawl your Big Question onto a piece of paper, and eventually she'd tape her answer to the window.

Reading her obituaries, I have a different appreciation for the kind of active political and artistic life she led. Looking at her online journal, I see she was a prescient poet ("preparing for return to the Great Field"). My friends who stayed in Santa Fe and got to know her as adults were lucky, because left, right, and center, her close mourners speak of what a cherished and loyal friend she was.

When I learned of Georgelle's death by an old friend on Facebook, the one thing I kept coming back to was her very good nature. Her impact on the community wasn't only on those who understood her work and took her art seriously. To my nine-year-old brother and my twelve-year-old self, she quickly became someone to pass and stick our tongues out to. Was she cranky toward us? No. She'd laugh and smile back. She became a firm fixture in my developing mind (along the lines of The Rubber Lady, but that's for another day); a Dick and Jane of sorts for the Santa Fe childhood set. Here is a writer, here is a window. See writer sit, see writer write. See writer see kids wave and stick their tongues out. See writer wave and stick her tongue out at the kids. See window fill up with different pieces of paper, in Courier type. See children wave. See children want to write. See writer wave goodbye.