Was Blind, But Now I See

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In keeping with my theme this week of reviewing memoirs by friends of mine, I would like to mention another great read for your Labor Day weekend – Long Time, No See by Beth Finke.

Beth Finke and I were intrepid reporters and editors for our high school newspaper, the York-Hi. I fondly remember Sunday pasteup nights in a bygone era when we had to put together each page of the newspaper manually (a lost art in this digital age).

I learned early on that Beth had Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes, and that she took it in her stride as a teenager. It wasn’t until our ten-year high school reunion that I realized the terrible toll diabetes can take on an individual. In the class memory book, we were each invited to give an update on our lives. In Beth’s, I read, “I am busy learning to be a blind mother.” Although I knew blindness could be a side effect of diabetes, I was stunned to realize that my former classmate could no longer see.

Years later, I reconnected with Beth and discovered that she had continued to write and that she had penned both a children’s book about her disability entitled Hanni and Beth: Safe and Sound and a memoir with the cleverly named title Long Time, No See. Reading the book gave me a new window onto the world of my former classmate and, more importantly, into what was lost and gained by her blindness.

With humor and honesty, Beth chronicles the many hurdles she faced growing up with a life-threatening disease. She clearly illustrates the strength of her indomitable mother Flo as well as her own ups and downs coming to terms with her illness and her eventual succumbing to blindness. Beth’s adult life has been marked by job discrimination, infidelity, and caring for a severely disabled child. It has also been marked by love, determination, and the support of family and good friends, as well as her husband Mike.

I loved Long Time, No See, and I appreciate Beth’s willingness to share her story. It certainly opened my eyes about many things in life. I highly recommend that you give it a look.

For more information, go to bethfinke.com.

Good American Wives

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Susan Blumbeg Kason is an accomplished writer. She is also a friend of mine. Besides living in the same town, we both have Chinese children. Mine was adopted, but Susan’s was the product of her marriage to a Chinese national, a marriage that is at the center of her recently published memoir Good Chinese Wife

Good Chinese Wife is a clear-eyed portrait of a marriage gone wrong. In her memoir, Susan describes the infatuation with China and Chinese culture, as well as the youth and naiveté, that propelled her into a relationship with a man she hardly knew. The memoir has all the ingredients of a good book: a riveting, page-turner of a plot, well-drawn characters (a difficult feat when said characters are real people), and an unflinching honesty that shows her desperate attempts to make her marriage work as well as the bravery she exhibits in protecting her young son. The book premiered to critical acclaim, and as a writer myself who is currently working on a memoir, I can only hope I have the skills and especially the courage to look at myself and my life with such candor.

Another great memoir that details the unraveling of a marriage is a book by another friend, Margaret Overton. Margaret and I were high school classmates back in the never-you-mind!s. Her memoir Good In a Crisis has also received rave reviews since it was published in 2012. In it, Margaret describes the disintegration of her marriage, her near-death experience due to a brain aneurysm, and her life after divorce. Despite the fact that Margaret is tall, blond and drop dead gorgeous, she endures the most horrific dating experiences and subsequent down periods in her life. Although the book is at times laugh out loud funny, it is Margaret’s complete honesty that gives the book its meaning and authenticity. I am in awe of her talent and heart.

I highly recommend both Good In a Crisis and Good Chinese Wife to anyone looking for an honest, devastating,  but ultimately uplifting story of a woman in crisis. 

Ice on Your Head

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Hinsdale police take the Ice Bucket Challenge (source: Darien Patch)

The Ice Bucket Challenge has taken social media by storm. At first I was puzzled. What were all these reasonable people doing having a bucket of ice poured over their heads? I wondered. Then I realized that there were charitable donations attached to the activity, most notably for research to cure the devastating disease ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The whole thing is not unlike the dunking booth at school carnivals, wherein students can, for a fee, sink their favorite (or most hated) teacher into a vat of cold water.

Inevitably, though, the haters started posting. Quit being stupid, these posts admonished, and stop pouring ice over your heads. Just make the donation already! I have to admit that in the past I have been a naysayer about charitable events, whether  they be marathons or dinner dances. My favorite charitable event was one called the No Show Dinner. You were asked to send in a contribution without the expectation of getting dressed up and attending a pricey gala. This appealed not only to my dislike of wearing high heels and makeup, but also to my sense that the money spent on these events would be better spent by giving it directly to the charity in question.

I have come to realize, though, that the events themselves are important. First of all, they provide a catalyst for action. Most people don’t sit around pondering which charities or causes they should support. But if you invite them to walk or run a 10 K, hobnob with the glitterati at a gala, or, indeed, pour a bucket of ice over their heads, they tune in to the need and respond accordingly.

Charitable events also provide emotional support for those suffering from a particular disease or syndrome. It gives their loved ones a focus for their feelings of grief and helplessness. Last summer my daughter and her friends helped a good friend organize an event in New York City called Cycle for Survival. This activity helped my daughter’s friend after the death of her mother to cancer.

Participating in a benefit is also a way to cultivate our own sense of compassion for the suffering of others. Last summer I walked 39.3 miles in Chicago for the Avon Breast Cancer 2-Day. Although I have not been closely affected by the disease, as a woman I wanted to support others going through cancer treatment. Raising the money helped fund practical cancer-fighting activities, but the walk itself gave me a sense of unity with men and women in treatment for or, more happily, in remission from, this dreaded disease.

So if I am called upon to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge, I just may be posting my own video on Facebook and asking friends to donate to ALS research. I’ll be sure to choose a 90 degree day!

Hausfrau

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Like many women my age, I married later in life and had my first child after the age of 30. Although (or maybe because) I had spent a number of years in a fulfilling career, I had no problem relinquishing my job and staying at home full time. And I certainly had company. In my area, there were many other women who were able financially to give up their salaries and devote themselves to full-time motherhood. What I hadn’t bargained on was that, being the one at home every day, I would turn into a housewife.

That simple word “housewife” is weighed down with so much Fifties baggage that I found myself reluctant to call myself one. On various forms I needed to fill out, I would refer to myself as a “homemaker.” It just sounded so much more genteel. Even my husband would refer to me as a high school English teacher to his friends and colleagues despite the fact that I have not spent a day in the classroom since my first child was born a couple of decades ago. When acquaintances would ask the inevitable ice-breaker question, “What do you do?”, I would stammer apologetically about my decision to stay home with my children.

The funny thing is that I have never once regretted my choice to be a stay-at-home mom. I loved being there for every waking moment of my kids’ lives (and even more for their blessed sleeping ones!). I did sometimes worry whether I was a good role model for my girls, but since my older daughter is pursuing a career in business, I guess my being at home with her did no harm. I also had the occasional fight  conflict with my husband when he would not so innocently inquire, “What do you do all day?” or, worse, “What is there to eat around here?”

Over time, I have gotten over the label but not the job. For me, it has been a struggle to keep a good attitude about cooking, doing dishes and laundry, and completing the other myriad tasks required of a housewife. There is something so depressing about doing a job and then seeing it rapidly undone by messy children and a husband who cultivates clutter. It’s not a lot of fun to cook a meal and have the family complain that they don’t like it/ think it looks gross/won’t eat it. Let’s just say that being a housewife is not all “Oprah” and bonbons.

Yet there are some perks from this lifestyle. I plan my own schedule and can take breaks whenever I want them. I don’t have to wear high heels or makeup. My kids don’t really notice dirt, so I can often get away with letting the house go. And both when my kids were little and now that they are older, I have had the chance to spend time outside when the weather permits it.

All in all, I feel incredibly lucky to be spending my time tending the home fires. And as my kids leave the nest one by one, I know I will miss some of the chaos and the mess that has kept me one busy hausfrau.

Tears of a Clown

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My brother-in-law Dave Rudolf is a funny guy. Since he is a professional entertainer, this quality is a definite asset. One of the biggest compliments I ever gave Dave was that he reminded me of Robin Williams. Both performers had that zany, stream-of-consciousness style that never quit.

Like many fans, I was saddened by the news that Robin Williams had died of an apparent suicide. Like many fans, I have been spending time reading accounts of his life and watching his brilliance on You Tube clips from many of his stand up performances and talk show appearances.

I am a little puzzled, however, by people’s shock that such a funny comedian would take his own life. First of all, the performer is not the person. The personas Williams created were acts of the imagination and had little connection with his personal life. Secondly, there have been many troubled comedians over the years – John Belushi, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce, to name a few.

I would even venture to guess that many performers seek out the role of comedian because of a darkness in their own hearts. When you think about it, the source of most humor is dark. We laugh at human weaknesses and foibles, embarrassments and misfortunes. Rodney Dangerfield recites a litany of examples of how he “gets no respect.” Steve Martin makes us laugh by getting kneed in the testicles. Many comedians make their livings mocking politicians and celebrities. Williams himself was a master at accents and used them to paint various ethnic groups with humorous yet stereotypical strokes.

Whatever personal demons led Robin Williams to his death, I feel sorrow for a life cut short, for family and friends who will feel his loss for the rest of their lives. But I hope they can take solace in the fact that he gave so much enjoyment and did so much for others in his short life.

Turn, Turn, Turn

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As summer is beginning to appear in my rearview mirror, I am already mourning the loss of long days, warm weather, lake visits, and my kids at home making noise and messes.

This week my youngest is on a father/daughter expedition for a whole week, leaving me home with peace, quiet, and way too much time on my hands. Don’t get me wrong. I am enjoying my long, solitary morning walks. I have been reading good books and making my way through the TV series Friday Night Lights. My teenage son has a car to drive and a group of friends, so I am not needed for driving or even much cooking.But I am getting an inkling of the meaning behind the famous saying, “Be careful what you wish for.”

When my kids were little, I prayed for just a little breather, just a bit of time to myself. I remember falling asleep on the floor while my infant played next to me. I remember that bone-tired feeling a mother has after a day spent lifting, feeding, cleaning and entertaining a toddler. “Just one more book,” my daughter would plead, and I would read Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny for the umpteenth time.

Last weekend was one of our last summer weekends at the lake. As we drove home on the interstate, the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by Pete Seeger came on the radio. The lyrics are from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible.

“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

While those words give me some solace as I contemplate the changing of the seasons in my life, I have to admit that I’m not quite ready for summer to end.

Dying for Boredom

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It has been way too long since I’ve heard or said two magic words of childhood: “I’m bored.” I can remember hot, sticky August days, deep into the dog days of summer in the era before air conditioning, when I would lie listlessly on my bed or swing in a desultory fashion on the backyard swing set and think to myself, I am dying of boredom.

Is it weird to miss those days? Nowadays, I have to-do lists a mile long and kids to chauffeur to appointments and housework on an endless loop. I need to find time for exercise, writing, playing piano, and paying bills. Even my leisure activities, such as watching television, are accompanied by chores such as folding laundry. So my days fly by, and I never once feel that sensation of stillness, of having literally nothing to do.

Even my kids can rarely be heard whining about how boring it is around here. When my oldest ones were young, I did hear those classic complaints, “I’m bored,” “There’s nothing to do,” and “Are we there yet?” My answer was usually to throw them outside and force them to confront their boredom with their imaginations. The result was beautiful. They would be out in the backyard playing a pretend game called Mountain Dew and Sea Squid. The swing set was safety while the yard was a shark-infested sea. If it was a cold or rainy day, they might build something with Legos or make a huge fort in the basement.

Those were the days before iPods and smart phones, Facebook and Instagram. Now my kids are forever in front of screens. If it’s not the TV or video games, it’s their own little private electronic paradise. I rarely even see their faces full on. And I never hear those words I once dreaded but now long for: “I’m bored.”

I wonder what will happen to creativity and imagination. Creating something new requires mental space and time to think. In our fast paced world, we have given up that mental space for constant stimulation and instant gratification. I once read that the director of a medical school was concerned because her students lacked problem solving skills. They could spit back every fact from Gray’s Anatomy, but they couldn’t use what they knew to diagnose and treat patients. That’s scary to me.

And that is why I miss boredom. Boredom is the fertile ground in which ideas take root. Most of my ideas for blog posts come to me when I am driving by myself or taking a walk. In those times, my body might be busy but my mind is free. And ideas just pop up. And sometimes, when the house is unexpectedly empty and chores can wait, I have been known to sit with my cup of coffee and just think. Maybe it will just take growing up and life experience for our children to realize the virtues of boredom and to seek it, rather than avoid it like the plague.