Sunday, November 11, 2012

"If it is to is up to me" ~author unknown

During this past Veterans' Week, and as Veteran's Day approaches tomorrow, November 12, 2012, I have given a great deal of thought to my family's record of military service to this country.  On my father's side of the family, there is a story of two brothers, Daniel and James, who immigrated from the west of Ireland to New York City in the summer of 1864.  They had no idea that the U.S. Congress had passed the Enrollment Act in March 1863, and that they, as young men in their twenties, would be forced to fight for their new country.  The 69th Infantry Regiment, also known as the "Fighting 69th," had consisted primarily of Irish immigrants, but suffered devastating losses at Chancellorsville (only 300 men survived) and then again at Gettysburg (where they held the Wheatfield on the second day of battle until it was overrun by Confederates) in 1863.  The Lynch brothers joined the 1st Regiment of the 2nd Irish Brigade, which included the depleted ranks of the 69th.   They were at nine-month long "Siege of Petersburg," which was trench warfare.  One brother sustained a leg injury, but recovered from his wound.  Both brothers survived the war, and were at Appomattox when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant.  Although I haven't been able to document what happened to them after the war, Lynch family oral history says that one brother settled in New York City, and the other in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

My maternal grandfather George, son of two immigrants from Co. Derry in the north of Ireland, was born in the Five Points area of New York in 1901.  He was too young (and suffered from pleurisy) and so could not serve in The Great War.  He was one of the younger brothers in a family of thirteen, and George went to work for "The Edison," as ConEd was known.  His adored eldest brother Patrick had been lucky and smart enough to win a scholarship to Fordham University where he studied engineering.  As a civil engineer for The City of New York, Patrick had participated in overseeing the installment of 107th Regiment Monument, a bronze sculpture designed by Karl Morningstar Illava, which is on Fifth Avenue and East 67th Street, right by Central Park.  The monument was dedicated in 1927 to "Seventh Regiment New York, One Hundred and Seventh United States Infantry, 1917-1918."  The Seventh Regiment entered World War II with 3,000 officers and men.  By war's end, they suffered 1,918 casualties (dead, wounded, and those who later died from their wounds).

Grandpa was in his forties, the father of four children, when the U.S. joined World War II in December 1941.   However, his brother, my great-uncle, Patrick J. McNicholl already had enlisted in the RAF before our country's official involvement in the war.  Uncle Patrick became a U.S. Army Colonel in the 317th Engineer Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division.  The 92nd Infantry Division was the only segregated unit of African-American soldiers to see combat, and were crucial to winning the Italian campaign.  They had the nickname "Buffalo Soldiers,” which is what Native Americans called African-American cavalrymen in the 19th century.  After the war ended, Uncle Patrick returned to the Bronx to his beloved wife Anne.  I was very young when he was very old, and I remember him as crusty and stoic.  My mother remembers him as a man who had a sense of fun, and who very much enjoyed spending time with his nieces and nephews.  I hold precious letters which my grandfather wrote to his brother during the war.  

My father Danny was celebrating his fourteenth birthday in Jamaica, Queens when Victory over Japan was declared in the United States on August 14, 1945.  Five years later, at the age of nineteen, he was U.S. Army Private serving in the Korean "Conflict."  He was wounded on August 14, 1951.   Shrapnel was spread throughout the lower part of his left leg.  He refused morphine from the Army medic because he wanted to be fully conscious when he arrived at the MASH Unit in order to tell the surgeons that they were NOT amputating his leg.  Fortunately, in the years since World War II, military surgeons had learned to do vascular grafts (dropping the amputation rate from 46.9% in that war to 20.5% in the Korean War).  The MASH surgeons repaired my father's leg as best as they could.  Then he was shipped to Japan, and then to his first VA hospital in Hawaii.  My father spent two years in VA hospitals in the United States, most far from his home in Queens, before receiving an honorable discharge in October 1953.  He won The Purple Heart.  

Daddy didn't talk much about his service in Korea, although I was born at a V.A. hospital, and we used to go to Fort Totten and, later, Mitchell Field to do our food and clothing shopping when I was growing up.  During the Ice Storm which hit on December 16, 1973, the day before my eleventh birthday, he was trying to comfort me in front of the fireplace, a fireplace in which he kept a fire roaring to keep his family warm.  He spoke about how cold it was in Korea.  (Aptly, David Halberstam's history of the Korean War is titled The Coldest Winter.)  He suffered a lot from that wounded leg, but he suffered more from the invisible wound of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  My father self-medicated with alcohol.  It's only in the past few years that his brother, my Uncle Jimmy--yes, two Lynch brothers, Daniel and James--explained how when they shared a bedroom in my grandmother's apartment in the nine months before Jimmy married Diane, my father had terrible nightmares.  He would wake up both of them with his screams.  Mostly, my father Danny went to school at Pace College, where he studied accounting, held an office job, hit the books, and enjoyed his life as a single guy.  (Until he met my mother in 1958, but that's another story.)

I grew up watching the Vietnam War on television every night with Uncle Walter (Walter Cronkite).  I was left with the impressions and images of the horrors of war at a very young age.  Young men left our neighborhood in Queens whole, and came back missing legs, or with heroin habits.  Billy across the street overdosed at age 20 in 1969.  In the spring of 1973, I wept at the image of John McCain's daughter running to greet him when he returned after five-and-one-half years as a POW in Vietnam.  

As an adult, I have witnessed from afar many other wars and have been a student of military history, and the reflection of war in literature and film.  While I have no doubt that war IS hell, I was, am and always shall be proud and supportive of military personnel and veterans, and the part my family played in war.  And especially to those who made the supreme sacrifice.   I would not be a free citizen, someone who has the right to speak out and write about how wrong war is, if it were not for their service and sacrifice.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reports Of My Drinking Are Greatly Exaggerated

On Thursday, September 20, 2012 I entered a major medical center in New York City to have my fifth spinal surgery.  I really don’t want to go into all the details of why it was my fifth.  Let’s just say there was an “accident” at a gym in November 2001, and I’ve been paying for it ever since.  My third and fourth spinal surgeries (both fusions) were done back-to-back (ha, nice pun) in 2005.  I recovered, and I can walk.  However, gradually, over the past seven years, I began to lose feeling in first my right foot and then my left foot.  I didn’t lose all feeling, because the numbness would alternate with excruciating, acute and sharp pain.  It was the type of pain one might experience when, say, sticking a fork into an electrical outlet.  I saw a neurologist, had two days of tests, and was referred back to my orthopedic surgeon.  He told me that I had some screws loose (big news to those of you know me) from my last fusion which needed to be removed.  The surgeon also informed me I needed a laminectomy, a procedure which would relieve the pressure on my nerve roots and, ultimately, bring back the feeling in both of my feet.

Well, the surgery went well, but, after it was completed, I awoke in the operating room and could not breathe.  I was drowning in my own lung fluids.  The anesthesiologist gave me a steroid, intubated me and placed me on a ventilator.  I spent the next eighteen hours in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit.  Sometimes the ventilator would go off, “Bing!  Bing!  Bing!”  I realized that meant the machine wasn’t working so I wasn’t breathing.  Oh dear.  I made it through this horror because I had two wonderful nurses, and a very good resident.  Also, they gave me as much paper as I wanted and I scribbled frantically.  I was writing for my life because I could not speak.

Amazingly, I remember this in vivid detail.  Why would this be a feat?  I have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  My mind has repressed many of the horrible events which have so deeply wounded my psyche.  I'm relieved, and yet, because I have a superb memory, I find it annoying.  Yet, who am I to question the wisdom of my subconscious?

Although I consider myself as someone who is “in recovery,” and have faith that someday I won’t be plagued by the attendant anxiety, panic, nightmares and depression, I presently can only be who I  am.  Am I strong and resilient?  You betcha!  Yet, this post is about how I have been coping with my close-death experience.  I am terrified of sleeping, and my body needs rest so very much.  There have been complications, and sleep is a key to the body healing.  Insomnia is my arch nemesis.  The longer I lay awake, the more vulnerable and terrified I feel.  I feel as though I’m a “bad patient,” one who is not fully compliant and cooperative in the act of restoring my body to good health.  What to do, what to do…?  I know!  I needed to be out among other people, AND I happen to live in “The City That Never Sleeps.”  So I have been going out on the town for the past 3 weeks in the wee small hours of the morning. 

Now, after living here for decades, I have a few things going for me.  I have street smarts, oh, yes I do. I know how to use public transportation; a skill which I believe is greatly undervalued.  Finally, I have a little money in my wallet.  But since most of my friends who live locally actually do sleep between midnight and six o’clock in the morning, where should I go?  Where do people gather, and speak, and listen to music, and build a temporary community?  Bars!  Or, since I’m Irish-American, I prefer the term pub.  I have been visiting a lot of taverns, alehouses, watering holes, drinking establishments, and even after-hours joints.  Naturally sociable, I can sit down at the bar, make friends with the bartender, mind my own business, or chat with other people.  I can read a book, or use my smart phone to go on Facebook or Twitter.  I simply can sit, sip a beer, or some other type of beverage, and relax.  I do not really have to explain myself to anyone.  I’m having a few drinks over the course of five to six hours.  There have been no arrests for public intoxication or other criminal behavior.  Sometimes I go and sit in a McDonald’s and drink coffee.  Also, going through a Duane Reader at night is like an archaeological excavation of in advance of our civilization’s decline. 

But, friends, I don’t want you to worry about those check-in’s on Facebook at The Hibernian, McElroy’s, The Auld Dubliner, The Irish Rover or The Rose of Tralee.  I’m safe, I’m sound, I’m sober, and when I get home, after some good craic, I can sleep snug.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fool's Gold

FIELDS OF GOLD - Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, CBE, aka “Sting” (born 2 October 1951)

You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in the fields of gold

So she took her love
For to gaze awhile
Upon the fields of barley
In his arms she fell as her hair came down
Among the fields of gold

Will you stay with me, will you be my love
Among the fields of barley
We'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we lie in the fields of gold

See the west wind move like a lover so
Upon the fields of barley
Feel her body rise when you kiss her mouth
Among the fields of gold
I never made promises lightly
And there have been some that I've broken
But I swear in the days still left
We'll walk in the fields of gold
We'll walk in the fields of gold

Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold
You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in the fields of gold
When we walked in the fields of gold
When we walked in the fields of gold

I literally left a field of gold yesterday.  And it was a lovely 7 weeks.  People seem to think that because I’m almost 50 (I know, can you believe it?  I DO look that good!) that my dream of finding romantic love must have ended long ago.  Why?  Is it because I never actually married?  Is it only those who officially had a marriage, which ended by divorce or the death of a spouse, who get to stamp their life passport with “I loved and lost?”  Am I someone who never had her heart broken because I am and always have been “single?”  We “singletons” (thank you, Helen Fielding) do still dream.  We do still find love, even if it’s for a brief encounter.  Yes, like the David Lean film, Brief Encounter (1945), we meet someone and realize that we really enjoy the other’s company.  What begins as something light and fun metamorphoses unexpectedly into something sincere and real, and it is sobering.  But I am nearly 50, so I know how to hold back from falling in love as I did when I was 25.  By now, I have the experience to wait and see, and hold back, and really look at this new lover.  The waiting is important because I have learned by trial that the monsters can jump out of the closet and falling in love would be falling into a pit of despair and hopelessness.  I believe being in love is more important than falling in love, and “being” means the present.  So I judge by whether or not this relationship carries tell-tale clues of my past, so that history doesn’t repeat itself.  So before I allowed myself to fall in love this time, while the smoke and mirrors were in place, but the man behind the curtain, behind the facade, was stepping closer and closer into the light of day, I grabbed myself and said, “What is happening NOW?”  My observations and my intuitions, and then the shocking revelation that everyone else had known about this man’s particular personal demon, held me back.  Yet, the air carries the unfulfilled potential of “what might have been.”  Until I get to “what actually is,” I won’t fall in love.  But when I meet the man who makes me feel that what is shall also “be”--I will hurl myself into love.  I won’t be singing sad but beautiful songs about a few months of illusory golden days.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: MONKEY MIND: A MEMOIR OF ANXIETY by Daniel Smith

Monkey Mind:  A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith
Simon & Schuster, July 3, 2012        ISBN 978-1-4391-7730-3 (Hardcover)

Mental illness is a serious, grave topic. Yet, if you are a person with a mental illness, it is a prerogative, a right, and a survival mechanism to find the humor in your condition. In Monkey Mind, Daniel Smith lays out, in painfully vivid yet highly hilarious detail, his experience as a person who has an anxiety disorder.  He tells the reader at the beginning of Chapter 2.,

“This is no recovery memoir, let me warn you now.”

Smith bravely and deftly explores his own life, and examines the genetic, psychological and environmental components of his anxiety disorder.  As far as the genetic factor, Smith merely has to look only as far as his mother Marilyn, who has panic disorder.  As defined by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH),  panic disorder is “an anxiety disorder and is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms which are called panic attacks.   “Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger.”   In Smith’s words,

“…what do you do if your greatest fear is of being afraid?”

Without revealing the confluence of events which led Smith’s mother Marilyn to learn to live with and to accept her panic disorder,  I can say that she chose, of all professions, to become a therapist.  Was it a comfort for a boy with anxiety to have a mother who was a therapist?  Eh, not so much. 

Smith probes deep into his childhood to find “the” event to get to the origin of his anxiety.  Certainly there are, as he says, “clues,” but even knowing about these psychologically and environmentally impacting issues cannot  prevent his anxiety.  At 16, he loses his virginity in such a way as would traumatize any young person.  He spends the rest of high school in utter distress, and Marilyn and his father decide that Smith needs medication and therapy.  These are like a small gauze pad on a gunshot wound to the abdomen.  Anxiety is like the monster in any horror film which keeps rising from the dead, no matter how many ways and times you kill it. 

Smith’s memoir continues through his college years, and his first job as a “fact-checker at a major American magazine.”    These second and third “Episodes” of Smith’s book are equally fascinating and riveting because Daniel Smith, truly, is a brilliant writer.  He cites Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote The Concept of Anxiety in 1844); Franz Kafka, who had a deep-seated fear of appearing physically and mentally repulsive, i.e. social anxiety);  and Philip Roth, who, like Smith, uses his middle-class secular Jewish upbringing as a well for self-loathing and irreverent humor.

Anxiety is not usually a funny subject, but I guffawed and laughed and giggled all the way through Monkey Mind.  Smith seamlessly intertwines serious and  incredible critical analysis of his own anxiety disorder, and anxiety in general, with side-splitting humor.  Smith has great intelligence, great heart, and, although I don’t wish to worry him, a great future ahead of him as a book writer.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Review: THE TENDER BAR by J.R. Moehringer

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer
Hyperion, August 31, 2005   ISBN 978-1-4013-0064-7 (Hardcover)

We read memoirs either because we wish to know about a life which is vastly different from our own, or because we recognize something similar to our own life experience.  For seven years, I avoided reading The Tender Bar because Moehringer’s memoir hit too close to home--literally.  He and I both grew up in the 1970s and 1980’s in a town called Manhasset, Long Island (“East Egg” in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). Moehringer’s mother Dorothy, having left J.R.’s violent, alcoholic father, is forced to move them into her parents’ home.  Grandpa and Grandma reside in a ramshackle Cape Cod. Dorothy’s brother Charlie, her sister Ruth and her six kids, also live in “Shit House”—five adults and seven children under one (leaky) roof.
Like Moehringer, alcoholism (my father’s) was a core issue of my childhood.  In his prologue, Moehringer writes,
“Anyone familiar with Manhasset understood why liquor surged through Fitzgerald’s novel like the Mississippi across a floodplain…Manhasset, site of the largest liquor store in New York State, was the only town on Long Island with a cocktail named after it (a Manhasset is a Manhattan, with more alcohol).  The town’s half-mile-long main drag, Plandome Road, was every drinker’s street of dreams—bar after bar.”

The “bar” in the title refers to Publican’s (initially named Dickens), a bar with which anyone who lived in and/or grew up in Manhasset at that time was well-acquainted.  Owned by Steve Schnitzer, J.R.’s Uncle Charlie (“Chas”) was the first bartender Steve ever hired to work there.  Grandpa’s house, conveniently, is exactly 142 steps from Publican’s.
As children, Moehringer and I also shared what psychologist Abraham Maslow defined as “The Need to Belong,” i.e. people are social beings who have a fundamental need to belong to a group, and, if this need is not met, people will have low self-esteem.  No kidding, Maslow; we all want acceptance and love!  Yet, when people are not available to us, books always are.

The Tender Bar is Moehringer’s exploration of how he found his people and his place to belong, his substitute father figures, and a world where words and stories were told or created.  As a boy who loved his mother, an incredibly courageous and tenacious woman, Moehringer also had an enormous desire to please her.  He worried about whether he would become a “success,” be the kind of man who can really take care of his mother.  He is very young when he declares that he will grow up to become a lawyer, and that he will attend Yale University.  When his mother moves him to Arizona as a young teen, J.R. loses his bedrock.  Dorothy understands this, and makes sure that he gets to spend the summer, and every summer thereafter, in Manhasset.  This means he spends summers in the company of his Uncle Charlie and Charlie’s co-workers and pals Colt, Bobo, and Joey D.  Let’s just say that hijinks ensue.

While in exile during the school year in Arizona, J.R. (then 13) gets a job at a mall book store, and comes under the tutelage of two employees.  Bill and Bud are very odd, but very dear men,  middle-aged bachelors who spend every waking moment reading the store’s contents in the stockroom.  J.R. has learned a lot about being a man in a man’s world in Manhasset, but it is here, with Bill and Bud, that he learns about the world by reading the curriculum they lay out for him.  J.R. gets accepted into Yale, where he feels he doesn’t belong.  He falls in love with a beautiful, high society woman student, and the class differences between them (and her own need to belong to her type of clique) end up breaking his heart.  J.R. takes many a late night train from New Haven to get down to Manhasset, to get to the bar, and to drink.  He is like a drone returning to the hive.  After graduation in 1986, Moehringer manages to secure a place as a copyboy at The New York Times, in a training program where someone with the right stuff could work his way up to becoming a full-fledged reporter.  Moehringer uses the last part of his memoir to determine whether he, as a man, can put away childish things and figure out where he truly belongs.

Moehringer’s comic but never condescending pitch-perfect portraits of his family, his friends, the staff and the regulars at Publican’s left me laughing out loud, and, occasionally, wiping away a few tears.  He breathes life into a very specific period and place, and there is not one false note.  The consummate prose, adept pacing and emotional content of the memoir are absolutely breathtaking.  Although The Tender Bar clearly is a work of nonfiction, Moehringer possesses the imagination and inventiveness of a great novelist.  How fortunate for us, since his first novel Sutton (based on the life of Willie Sutton, the bank robber) will be published by Hyperion on September 25, 2012.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: PICTURE THIS bby Jacqueline Sheehan

PICTURE THIS:  A NOVEL (P.S.) by Jacqueline Sheehan
William Morrow Paperbacks, May 22, 2012   ISBN 978-0-06-200812-1 (Trade Paperback)

Once you have had the pleasure of reading a Jacqueline Sheehan novel, you will be hooked.  Her writing style is mellifluous and her characters are unforgettable.  Sheehan manages to create stories which are both appealing and authentic.  She conveys the joys of life, love, and nature—and captures this triumvirate in her lead female characters' relationships with their dogs—but she also mines the wells of human suffering and loss.  Her second novel LOST & FOUND introduces us to Rocky Pelligrino, who, at age 39, becomes a widow after her husband Bob’s sudden death.  Rocky leaves her home in Massachusetts and takes a leave of absence from her job as a college campus psychologist in order to escape her all-encompassing grief.  She flees to Peak Island Maine, and takes the job of Animal Control Warden.  Gradually, she discovers that you may run away from your life, but you cannot escape Life.  She saves a black Lab named Cooper after discovering him with an arrow embedded in his shoulder.  But, as anyone who loves dogs knows, Cooper really saves Rocky.  Sheehan also creates a cast of supporting characters who are every bit as compelling, fascinating and flawed as Rocky.  PICTURE THIS is the sequel to LOST & FOUND, and it is great to be reunited with Rocky and her friends—especially Cooper!

Rocky arrived on Peak Island in October.  Now it is summer, and she must decide whether she is going to return to her job in the Berkshires.  Rocky feels conflicted, since she has come to consider Peak Island as home, and has built strong relationships with friends Tess, Isaiah, and teenaged Melissa.  Then there is the possibility of new love with Hill, her archery instructor who lives on the mainland.  Before Rocky has a chance to sort through her feelings, she receives an astonishing phone call from a young woman named Natalie.  Natalie, age 18, has just been emancipated from the foster care system and claims to be Bob’s biological daughter.  Rocky is stunned by this call, and, as she is wont to do, impulsively invites Natalie to come to the island while they sort out the truth of her parentage.  Rocky tends to lead with her heart even though she is a sensible and intelligent woman.  It’s only been a year since Bob’s death, and this news causes her to lose some of the ground she has gained.  Rocky behaves impulsively, and her actions may cost her and her friends very dearly.

I do not want to give away any of the plot and spoil an iota of Sheehan’s magnificent ability as a story teller.  The chapters are written from alternate characters’ points of view—including Cooper’s—and the prose is rich and rewarding.  Sheehan utilizes her background in psychology and captures people being very real.  Her characters deal with the damages life can inflict in ways which are, by turns, horrifying or astonishingly heroic.  Her story line is riveting, and I very much hope that there is a third Rocky Pelligrino novel in the works.  Even if you did not take a vacation this summer, when you read PICTURE THIS you will have traveled well.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Book Review: GUTS by Kristen Johnston

GUTS:  The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster by Kristen Johnston
Galleria Books, March 13, 2012   ISBN 978-1-4516-3505-8 (Hardcover)

Many addiction memoirists offer up in lurid detail their most horrifying experiences when their addiction had complete control over their lives and behavior.  The author/addict gives the reader a front-row seat to the worst moments of his or her life with a focus on the horrors of being an addict.   Johnston’s talent enables her to write a memoir which explains both the universality and her individual experience of addiction.   Her writing style is incredibly accessible, but never misleading, as she tackles this most difficult territory.  If addiction memoirs seem “scary” to you, then read it for the “funny.”  Johnston still will be able to slip you lots of insight and understanding. 

Johnston grows up (and she means that literally; she is just shy of six feet by the age of 12) in a Catholic family in an affluent Milwaukee suburb.  She is bullied by classmates at her parochial grammar school for the gross offense of “being different” or “other.”  As a day-dreaming book lover, Johnston focuses on the future.  Her discovery that she is funny is a life-saving grace.  She goes to NYU’s Tisch School of Drama and studies acting.  She works extremely hard and, at age 24, is cast as “Rose” in Howard Korder’s play The Lights, and the production moves to Lincoln Center.  There she is spotted by television producers, who want her to audition for a new show they are creating:  3rd Rock From The Sun.  The sitcom becomes a huge hit, and runs from 1996 through 2001. Johnston’s performance as Sally Solomon garners her 3 Emmy Awards as Outstanding Supporting Actress – Comedy Series.  She also becomes an acclaimed feature film actress.  After 3rd Rock is cancelled, she resumes a successful career in the theater, and continues to make television and film appearances. 

Now, that’s how it all looks from the outside.  The inside scoop, however, is that Johnston is not a happy, healthy person.  She is a functioning alcoholic and addict who manages to continue to work.  Yet she uses much of her energy and ingenuity to acquire drugs, remain in denial, and lie about her drinking and addiction, thinking nobody was the wiser.  Her success and celebrity doesn’t make her feel better about herself.  Only booze and opiates make her feel better.

Johnston gives the best explanation I’ve ever heard as to why people become addicts:

“Now, the reaction of the drug addict’s brain is just slightly different.  It goes a little something like Yes!  Yes!  Thank you!!!  This is what I’ve been waiting for all these years.  I finally feel normal, I finally feel happy!  MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE…  And that’s what makes me suspect that addiction might just have a little something to do with people’s different brain chemistries and isn’t just because we’re lazy, pleasure-seeking narcissists, hell-bent on ruining our lives.”

While in London to do a play in December 2006, Johnston, age 39, has her “Giant Disaster.” She is unaware that she had a gastric ulcer.  She consumes her usual mass quantities of alcohol, and she also is able to purchase codeine over the counter in England.   However, the codeine is combined with aspirin, and Johnston’s daily intake far exceeds the recommended limit 8 pills per day.  Then, while alone in her hotel room one night, her gastric ulcer bursts, and Johnston actually spills her guts.  (Her surgeon later explains that the erosion of her gastrointestinal wall has led to her intestinal content spilling into her abdominal cavity, causing acute peritonitis.)  The paucity of kindness Johnston receives from most of the hospital staff is no match for the lack of compassion she shows herself.  She denies herself the comfort of having her mother there in a misguided attempt to prove she doesn’t need anyone and that she is in control of this situation.  Johnston also checks herself out of the hospital prematurely in order to return to the play as she doesn’t want the producers to lose money.  Fortunately, the stage manager of the play realizes just how ill Johnston is, and insists she returns to hospital.  Her surgeon explains she has developed an infection as the result of surgery, and if she leaves again, she will die.  The penny finally drops.  Johnston faces the truth about how she alone is responsible for her near demise during the two-month recovery in the isolation of her hospital room.  She also realizes that she alone is responsible for her salvation.  When she is well enough to return to the U.S., she gets herself into rehab.

What makes Kristen Johnston’s memoir Guts a stand-out is the way in which she tells her story.  She possesses the tremendous gift of having a unique voice as a writer, a voice which is unsparingly honest, in-your-face, and uproariously funny and ribald, as well as vulnerable and wise.  I cannot wait for her to write another book!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review: THE WHIPPING CLUB by Deborah Henry

THE WHIPPING CLUB A Novel by Deborah Henry
T.S. Poetry Press, February 2, 2012   ISBN 978-0-98445531-7-4 (Paperback)

“The Church and State behave as incestuous bedfellows, keeping the whole of Ireland in a guilt-ridden headlock.”

As a second-generation Irish-American who has made 18 visits “home” to Ireland, I know something about this country and about its capital city Dublin in particular.  I also know about the history of the Jews in Ireland.  I have a friend who is related to Ben Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin (elected in 1956).  I’ve paid several visits to The Irish Jewish Museum, opened in 1985 by then-Israeli President Chaim Herzog (born in Belfast in 1918).  To quote Kathy Griffin, as an Irish-American Catholic from an urban area, I feel as though I’m “Jew-adjacent,” in that faith, family, oppression, guilt, survival, tenacity, language, food,  lust and humor are central themes to our cultural and life experiences.  Deborah Henry’s debut historical novel serves as a marvelous introduction to the specific topic of Jews and Catholics in Dublin.  However, Henry’s astonishing gift as a storyteller leaves no doubt that The Whipping Club has universal appeal as a tale about marriage, family, love, loss and redemption.

In 1957 Marian McKeever (23), a Catholic school teacher employed at The Zion School in the small Jewish enclave in Dublin called Little Jerusalem, has fallen in love with Ben Ellis (24), a Jewish journalist.  In fact, Marian is pregnant.  She confides her condition to her uncle, Father Brennan, who lays out her options for Marian.  She can marry Ben without telling him she’s pregnant.  Or she can go away, have the baby and place it up for adoption, then return home and allow Ben to marry her on his own terms.  Her uncle says, “Because sometimes love isn’t enough, Marian.  That’s the truth.”   That very night Marian meets Ben’s parents Samuel and Beva.  She realizes that his mother Beva, who escaped The Holocaust but lost all of her family, will never accept that Ben loves a non-Jew and wants to marry outside of his faith.  Harsh words are spoken by both women, and Marian leaves Ben’s home and makes her decision about the baby.

The plot leaps ahead to 1967.  Marian and Ben are married, and have a beautiful daughter Johanna (age 9) whom they call “Jo.”  They live in a lovely home in Donnybrook, south of the Liffey.  Marian, still deeply in love with Ben, stays at home and takes care of their daughter while Ben works at The Irish Times as a reporter.  But the Briscoe’s are not the complete picture of contentment.  Marian is bored with being a housewife.  Ben is quite involved with his journalism career, and often is not at home.  Marian hates to admit to the disappointment she feels in her life because she carries a larger burden--guilt.  Marian took her uncle’s advice and went off to the Castleboro Baby Home, run by the villainous Sister Paulinas (whom Marian dubbed “Sister Penis”) to have the baby without Ben’s knowledge.  She gave birth to a son, Adrian, who would be 11-years-old now.  She believes that he was placed with an American couple.  An unexpected visitor soon brings news which upends everything and raises doubts for the entire family about themselves, about their marriage, about who they believe they are, and about their country.

The Whipping Club is a book to be savored.  While the plot twists are riveting, truly this book is about the journey, not the destination.  Deborah Henry knows the real language which all couples speak, which all families speak.  While the reader focuses on the family story, social and political conditions are strongly drawn.  Henry’s naturalistic prose renders each scene authentic, and she endows the novel with just the right details, small and grand, in terms of time, place and characters.   One of the author’s finest feats is that she is able to summon up insight and even sympathy into even the most profligate clergy members.  This is a thoroughly great historical drama, and I eagerly await Henry’s next novel.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book Review: NIGHT SWIM by Jessica Keener

NIGHT SWIM A Novel by Jessica Keener
Fiction Studio Books, January 10, 2012   ISBN 978-193677826-1

In 1978 I was a 15-year-old Irish-Catholic girl who was raised in an affluent Long Island suburb.  I was a good student; I played guitar and sang; I played the violin in a youth orchestra; and I was terrified what other people would think of me if they knew that my father drank.  Scarcely ever did I tell others about how my father’s alcoholism could launch our family into misery and chaos.  I was the eldest child, and I was “the good daughter.”  It is a terrible burden, and, unfortunately, my situation was and is more universal than specific.  In Night Swim Jessica Keener has brought the Kunitz family to life through the extraordinary first-person narrative of Sarah Kunitz.   In 1970 Sarah is a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl who is being raised in an affluent Boston suburb.  She is a good student; she plays the guitar and sings, but also studies piano in order to please her mother Irene, who was a classically trained violinist.  Sarah’s father Leonard is a volatile but weak man, a frustrated English professor who specializes in Shakespeare.  Irene suffers from terrible arthritis, and possesses an emotional fragility which makes her the kind of mother in her children’s lives who is as ephemeral as the smoke from her constant chain of cigarettes.  Irene, beautiful, blond, and exquisitely dressed, spends her days drinking scotch and taking pain killers.  She and Leonard go through the rituals of a happy family with dinner on the table promptly at 6 o’clock every evening.  Sarah, her older brother Peter, and her younger brothers Robert and Elliot try to get through the 20-minute-long meal without falling victim to Father’s wrath.  Peter and Robert are particular targets of Father’s verbal and physical abuse.  Sarah simply tries, as the only daughter, the best daughter, the most perfect girl, possible.  She longs for a deeper, more real connection with her delicate mother Irene. 

When an accident occurs, Sophie begins to realize just how insubstantial the foundation of her family truly is.  She is out in a larger world now that she’s a freshman in high school.  While she studies and gets excellent grades, and has a strong, close friendship with another Jewish girl, Sophie, Sarah is fascinated by the Italian-American Margaret, who sits behind her in homeroom.  Margaret literally introduces Sarah to the darker side of life by bringing Sarah down to the restrooms in the basement hallways.  Sarah begins to copy some of Margaret’s behavior and “bad girl” image, but ever so furtively.

Real tragedy happens, and the Kunitz family is completely and utterly shattered.  Each child must find his or her own way without any parental guidance.  Sarah’s journey from the 15-year-old child to the 16-year-old woman is uniquely hers and unforgettable.  However, Sarah finds her own way to adulthood in quite an ordinary, relatable fashion.  Jessica Keener’s masterful, awe-inspiring prose is what makes Night Swim such an amazing and exceptional novel. 

“I stood taller, turning my palm out, offering up my heart.  It was here, in this moment of singing, that I shed my shadows and ghosts…In bed that night, relief and exhilaration splashed against another layer that stayed ever the same inside.  Alone, the music that filled me, that had temporarily patched up the cracks and holes, drained away, like streams after a flash flood.  I was left with darkness again.”

I want to read this beautiful first novel again, and soon, in order to luxuriate in Keener’s writing.  However, I need time to allow the real pain and joy of adolescence, and of dysfunctional family, to settle.  Night Swim may break your heart.  Like Sarah, you’ll older and wiser.  And thanks to Keener’s talent, you’ll remember all the very private details of your own burgeoning youth.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Review: ECHOLOCATION by Myfanwy Collins

Book Review:  ECHOLOCATION by Myfanwy Collins
Engine Books, March 6, 2012   ISBN 978-0-9835477-6-1

Truly great literary crime novels have the theme of family at their core.  Whether the family members are related by love and blood, or created by love and necessity, family is the most basic and base social unit we humans have.  Family, as we all know, can make people behave rashly or boldly or direct us to act in ways we never thought possible.  What we will do to preserve family, or sometimes destroy it, has mesmerized us since the beginning.  Myfanwy Collins’s ECHOLOCATION is a new classic literary crime thriller, beautifully written, seamlessly plotted, and heart-wrenching.

The novel is set in the north of New York State, in a small town in the Adirondack Mountains, 7 miles south of the Canadian border.  Cheri’s mother Renee (late 30’s) gave birth at age 16, then a few years later she took off with a man on a Harley-Davidson and fled to New Smyrna, Florida.  She left her daughter in the care of her much older half-sister Marie.  Aunt Marie also took in Geneva, a beautiful blond girl who had been neglected by her own mother Iris, when both girls were about 4-years-old.    Aunt Marie raised them as sisters, and taught them all the skills she herself had learned as a child during the Depression.  Marie runs a general store and gas station.  The girls are best friends, and spend a lot of time out in the woods and at a nearby quarry.  When Geneva and Cheri graduated from high school, Geneva, who had grown into an even more beautiful woman, accepted a marriage proposal from Clint, a good-looking ne’er-do-well.  Cheri couldn’t accept that Geneva had chosen Clint over what the two girls shared, and took off for the city.  She dresses very punk, has tattoos of shackles on her wrists, and her life revolves around drinking and promiscuity.

Four years later, Aunt Marie (late 70’s) is very ill, and Geneva (22) summons Cheri (22) home.  A few months later Cheri, who tends bar with her boyfriend Rick, a junkie with a criminal record, finds a reason to flee Florida.  It’s as though they are summoned by echolocation, a biological system of navigation used by bats (as well as some birds and a few other mammals) which involves hearing, not seeing.  These characters are listening with their hearts and with their own needs, but they all do come home.  But the family reunion, which occurs just before Christmas, is not a simple or joyous occasion.  People don’t change.  And sometimes they bring baggage both literal and metaphorical.  Sometimes they bring danger as an uninvited guest. 

What ensues in ECHOLOCATION will take your breath away.  Collins has crafted a real page-turner.  I already have read it twice.  The first time I had to know what was happening and what would happen.  The second time I read it to become better acquainted with each of the characters, and to savor the singular setting, masterful plotting and exquisite prose.  Collins already has been compared to Daniel Woodrell, whose “country noir” novels set in the Ozarks, are superb.  However, I believe Collins clearly has earned her own rightful place in the pantheon, as the creator of “Adirondack Noir.”

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Book Review: A THOUSAND VOICES A Memoir by Jeri Parker

Book Review:  A THOUSAND VOICES A Memoir by Jeri Parker
Winter Beach Press, November 16, 2011 ISBN 978-0-9836294-0-5

A memoir can have an extraordinary subject, whether it is a life, an event or an experience, yet, sadly, often the memoirist may not possess the skill to properly convey and express the uniqueness and power of that story.  This is not the case with A THOUSAND VOICES.  Jeri Parker has been blessed with an incredibly strong, exceedingly clean and lyrical talent for language.  And language is at the core of her tale about the decades-long relationship she formed and nurtured with a boy who was poor, Mexican-American, and deaf.  This memoir is about love, language, and how we communicate with those we love in order to reach and nurture one another’s spirit.

In 1964 Jeri (then 24) is the Head of the Language Arts Department at Weber High School in Ogden, Utah.  She teaches English and French.  Her fascination with language leads her to a friendship with Marian Bentley, a teacher at the Utah School for the Deaf, also in Ogden.  Marian has one student who is both beguiling and maddening.  He is ten-year-old Carlos Louis Salazar.

Jeri is a widow whose husband and unborn child were killed in a car accident five years previously.  She yearns for a special connection with this beautiful, black-haired boy.  She wants to help Carlos with his speech and learn the process of matching up speech with meaning.  With Carlos’s mother Lillie’s permission, Jeri takes Carlos on their first outing, a drive up into a nearby canyon and a hike.  Carlos is bursting with energy, and clearly is in his element in the outdoors.  Jeri observes “how much communication takes place outside words,” as Carlos communes fully with the beauty of nature, as only a child can.  The first word he says to Jeri is, “Yes.”  This comes to symbolize Carlos’s general affirmation of all that he wants from life, as well as how much Jeri is willing to give to Carlos.  She writes, “I had helped him say one word, but he had a thousand voices I was yet to hear.”

Carlos flourishes under Jerri’s care and teaching.  Yet within a few years, at age 12, he is acting out in school.  Jeri decides that she will spend a sabbatical in Montreal in the winter of 1967.  After receiving an alarming letter from Carlos’s principal about the boy’s bad behavior outside the school, Jeri is concerned.  Carlos is one of several children in a poor, single-parent family.  Many of the young men end up in prison; many of the young women end up becoming mothers before they barely leave childhood.  So Jeri asks Lilly if she may bring Carlos to Montreal, and his mother readily agrees.  “In the months that Carlos stayed in Montreal, he changed his life” (meaning for the better).  Carlos thrives in the new school and environment.  His speech becomes understandable to nearly everyone.  Alas, eventually this highly intelligent, sensitive, and artistic boy’s dark side eventually resurfaces.  This doesn’t surprise Jeri.  “If his happiness made me glow, his wrath dimmed the sun.”  No one is more disappointed in his bad behavior than Carlos, and he exiles himself from Jeri and Montreal and returns to Ogden.  Jeri had planned to go to Germany, but returns to Ogden, to her boy, and he moves in with her for two years.

Life for Carlos takes worse and worse turns, even as Jeri, who moves to Salt Lake City and pursues graduate degrees and eventually becomes the Director of Women’s Programs at Westminster College, a liberal arts institution.  Tragedy occurs, and Jeri rushes to Carlos’s side. 

“I saw that what I might have taken for a few colored threads at one point in my life had become over the years the bright weave of continuity.  Carlos was of course one of its central designs.”   

This beautiful memoir, often heartbreaking but unceasingly inspiring, is a teaching plan for how to love.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Teacher

I spent the first 9 years of my life in Bayside Hills, Queens.  The neighborhood was comprised almost completely of other Irish-, as well as Italian- and German-Americans, 99% of whom were Roman Catholic (like us).  I only knew two Protestant families, and there was but one Jewish family who lived at the end of our block.  Their son David and I played together in the sandbox my father had built for me in our backyard.  But that ended in September 1968 when I began attending first grade at our parish elementary school St. Robert Bellarmine.  I was incredibly excited about "big girl" school after a fantastic year in Mrs. Sacks's Kindergarten class at P.S. 123.  First Grade with Sister Lumina and Second Grade with Mrs. Jay were really lovely experiences.  Then I hit Third Grade.  My parents began receiving report cards, and on a score which included "Good" and "Excellent," mine were marked with mere "Satisfactory."  I was puzzled and disappointed.  I began reading at age 2-1/2, and I was very good at Math.What was I doing wrong?  What was wrong with me!?

My father was hired by the Tax Department of Exxon in 1971, and by the summer of 1972, he and my mother had enough saved for a down payment on a beautiful brick center-hall colonial in "the hamlet" of Munsey Park, an incorporated village in Manhasset, Nassau County.  Now, having moved us to one of the best school districts in the country---and constantly reminding us about the taxes they were paying to support this school system--Daddy was set on his children attending Munsey Park Elementary School.  He did not want us to go to our parish St. Mary's parochial school.  So I headed to my first day in public school in Mr. Williams's Fifth Grade classroom.

For several weeks at the dinner table all I could talk about was how much I loved Mr. Williams, and did I tell my parents all that I had learned that day!?  Mr. Williams made me feel good about myself after those two awful years under the tutelage of the lay teachers at St. Robert's.  Since I was attending public school for the first time, I had to take a "special" test given by New York State.  Early in October 1972, my parents had their first parent-teacher conference with Mr. Williams.  They came home in a state of shock.

Daddy:  "Honey, you didn't tell us that Mr. Williams black gentleman."
Me:  "Oh, is he?"
Mommy:  "Yes, he is....but I already explained that God made people with all different skin colors..."
Me:  "Uh-huh, I know.  But what did he say about me!?  Does he like me?"
Mommy:  "Yes, he said you are a very good little girl in class.  You do talk a lot, but he said you are learning to raise your hand first and waiting to be called upon before you speak."
Daddy:  "He told us you did very well on the test you took."
Me:  "Sure, I'm a teee-riffic speller!"
Daddy:  "No, not your spelling test, Sweetheart,  that other test, the special test you took.  He told us you scored 166."
Me:  "Daddy, everyone knows that tests only go up to 100."

My parents were unable to effectively communicate that I had scored 166 on The Stanford-Binet intelligence test, placing me in the Intelligence Classification of "Genius and Near Genius."  Mozart and Darwin are estimated to have had IQ's of 166.  Just 4 years ago my mother told me about my IQ.  I was apoplectic.

Me:  "Why didn't you tell me that before?"
Mommy:  "We did, we told you when we found out."
Me:  "But I was only 9-years-old!  Emotionally, how could I have comprehended what you were telling me! Why didn't you explain it to me?"
Mommy:  "We didn't want you to get a swelled head."

Oh, Irish-Americans, how you are taught to fear and despise the deadly sin of pride.

Thank goodness Mr. Williams did nothing but instill pride and self-esteem in all of his pupils.  I flourished under his care and watchful eye.  Since I was reading at college level, he allowed me to go through the Reading and Language books at my own pace.  I finished that series within a few months.  For the first and--sadly--for one of the briefest periods in my life, I felt that I was a good student in Math and Science.  There was never any sexism in that small classroom.  On the playground, all of us children, white, black, Christian, Jew, played together.  Okay, so maybe the girls were more inclined to play hopscotch while the boys ran around doing whatever it was boys do.  When Mr. Williams saw how much I loved Miss Haddad's music class, he would speak to me about how wonderful it was that I had the gift for music.  (He also knew that my parents had begun giving me guitar lessons.)   

In addition to our regular studies, Mr. Williams would speak to us about our personal hygiene.  "Every morning, you must wash your faces and brush your teeth.  Then gently blow your nose in a tissue so that it's clean."  He also talked about good nutrition.  "If you want to get a really good breakfast, and you don't have any milk in the house, pour your orange juice on your cereal."  No milk?  Who wouldn't have milk in the house?  I didn't realize that some of my black classmates might not have.  I was able to walk to school.  They took a bus from some place called "Spinney Hill."

In February 1973 we celebrated "Black History Month."  Mr. Williams became very serious and explained what segregation was.  Black children used to have to attend separate schools from white children.  He told us that just 9 years ago--when we all were babies--President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Civil Rights Act of 1964.  I remember how his facial expression was a mixture of both sorrow and outrage as he told us that our town Manhasset was the last town in New York State to be desegregated.

While I was only 10, I knew that Mr. Williams had imparted something very important, and historic, to us.  My admiration and respect for him grew even more than I thought possible.  I paid special attention to the lesson play that February.  His stories about Crispus Attucks, Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, E.B. Dubois, Lorraine Hansberry, Sidney Poitier, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were utterly fascinating.  The most important lesson I learned from Mr. Williams was that all children deserved to be treated as equally special, and that meant we all deserved to be treated well.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Charles Dickens: All Is Grist That Comes To The Mill

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known. "  ~A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

The celebration of February 7th, the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of world's greatest and best storytellers, has already begun in parts of the world. Given my moniker, I place a great deal of emphasis on how we are deeply influenced and largely formed by the period of history into which we were born.  1812 marked the official beginning of The Regency Era in the United Kingdom.  I refer you to Alan Bennett's 1994 film adaptation of his play "The Madness of King George."   You'll remember that the Prince of Wales was appointed Regent of England as his father, George III of the United Kingdom was thought to have become severely mentally ill and unfit to sit on the throne and rule.  Then the son, George IV,  ruled until his death 1830.  This just is what was occurring on the homefront.

Abroad, the British Empire was waging war with its former colony, The United States of America.  We, ever looking inward, refer to this as The War of 1812.  However, closer to home, England was also fighting the French, under Napoleon Bonaparte.  Most importantly, the Industrial Revolution, the watershed of Modern History had begun.  It was the busiest of times.

But back to Mr. Dickens.

Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812 on the British island of Portsea, just off the southern coast of England.  Charles's father was clerk who had 8 children to support. Charles, the second-born, was an outdoorsy boy, and he was able to attend private school for several years.  Then, when Charles was age 12, his father John's habit of spending far more than he earned, landed John and all his family in the barbaric Marhsalsea debtor's prison...all save Charles.  He had the remarkable good fortune to be taken in by family friend Elizabeth Roylance and escape this hellhole.  But he did have to leave school and begin working perilous 10-hour days at a boot-blacking factory. Dickens memorialized the dilapidated blacking warehouse  in several of his novels, especially his second, Oliver Twist (1838).  The factory and its surrounding warehouse was a dangerous place, filled with vermin, lacking sanitation, and populated by other poor souls and their brutal, abusive counterparts.

Charles eventually went back to school, and became a student at The Wellington House Academy in North London--which was an institution of learning on par with the blacking factory.  At 15, he became a junior clerk at a law firm for a period of 18-months.  In the brief hours when he wasn't working, Charles taught  himself shorthand, and then landed himself a job as a freelance reporter with a focus on court proceedings for 4 years.  He later plumbed from these experiences to write The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and (one of my favorites) Bleak House (1853).  

When his story "A Dinner at Poplar Walk" was published in 1833, Charles Dickens, age 21, officially became a published writer of fiction.  However, he was already making a name for himself as a political journalist, concentrating on Parlimentary proceedings and traveling the country to cover elections.   Dickens's his first novel The Pickwick Papers (pubished in 1837, but initially serialized in 1836) is about four members of a gentleman's club who undertake a journey all over England in order to report on their observations and discoveries to the rest of the club.  (Shades of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell tour of The Hebrides in 1773 here!  But I digress...)

Charles's novels continued to be received with great success.  He married and had 10 children of his own.  Yet whether you know the rest of the personal history--and I encourage you to learn more since his life continued to be as fascinating and heartbreaking as his books--Charles Dickens was tutored by the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and schooled by the hegemony of its descendant, the Victorian age and its extremes of class and economic status.  Charles Dickens the writer emerged the champion of the poor, the downtrodden, and  the disenfranchised.  He paid them consistent and constant homage in his work.  He railed against moral, legal, and economic injustice.  Dickens did so with incomparable plots, unforgettable characters, unbelievable prose style,  huge doses of sentimentality, bountiful wells of good humor, and wise observation of human nature.   I count myself among many for whom their first knowledge of the inequities of Victorian society--inequities which continue in our current global society--were learned from the  pages of Charles Dickens.