Friday, August 28, 2015

Rather Than a "Sex Talk," Why Not Give a "Love Talk?"

Surrounding the Isle of Man, a wall of mist forms. It is called Manannan's Cloak. It must be a part of my genetic memory (an ancestor founded the town of Kenmaa there in 1516) since I view so many of life's wonders in its metaphorical terms. There is the thing, and then there is the mystery surrounding the thing.  Nothing is ever just the thing itself.

Lately I have been applying the metaphor of Manannan's Cloak to the Sex Talk we give our kids.
I think we can all remember it. The little book with the pictures in it. Mom or Dad sitting awkwardly next to us on the bed. By the time this talk was necessary or prescribed it had been a long time since either of them had read us a bed time story. Now, here they were.

The pictures in the book my mom used, How Babies Are Made (please note the little eggs by the hen, sperm by the rooster), slightly hinted at claymation Davey and Goliath cartoons as they progressed through the sex act from chickens up the food chain to eventually show a man lying on top of a woman, with details of what's going on inside.

This was sex. "You do it with someone you love," came the lesson.

I didn't want to have the "sex talk" with my daughter. My mom was awesome when she read that little book to me, and she's still an amazing mom. I just know that the world my daughter is growing up in has pretty much blown the little hen and rooster into nuggets with all she's been exposed to through her iPhone connection to the whole f-ing world, literally.

So, I am on this other track. I'm giving my daughter The Love Talk. It takes a lot longer. It doesn't have just one book. Right now, I'd say we're about six months in. She is 12, and she pretty much leads the conversation.

I envision "The Love Talk" as this blue haze surrounding our home the way Manannan's Cloak surrounds our ancestral home of Isle of Man. Love is everything surrounding us, and we can talk

about it all the time. We inhabit its mist. We watch television and romantic comedies, and I'll often press pause and ask whether what we just saw was healthy or bad. She will often launch into a story of a couple in her 7th grade class who exhibit the behaviors we've seen, be they good or toxic. She knows the word "toxic," and she knows the word "abuse." While reading books, we'll draw examples, even if we are reading different books. She knows my love stories and recognizes that things come to an end. She also knows that some loves never end and take shape as deep friendships that border on guardianships. She is clear on the mysteriousness of love and how it can, again like the mists around Isle of Man, wrap us up in it and keep us enclosed from the battles of the world, and it can blind us to the world, and it can make the world feel safe. She knows it can turn quickly. Having heard a boyfriend of mine suddenly cuss and yell at me on the phone, she said frankly, "Let's listen to Selena Gomez and be single for a while." After seeing a passionate text message I hadn't meant for her to see, she asked me about it. I pulled her onto my bed and we sat face to face, and I told her a very long story to contextualize what she had seen. I felt I was parenting at the very edge of parenting in doing so, moving away from a simple book and writing our own. She shared more of her own heart with me as we continued, and she said, "Thank you for talking to me."

Our children are catching innumerable glances and glimpses of sex and love. One of my daughter's 12 year old friends has a sex scene from an anime as the screensaver on her phone which I saw at one of my daughter's sleepovers. They see vines and youtube videos on their phones and computers. They watch music videos. All of this information can find meaning in the narrative of our own love stories that as we share will give meaning to our children's love stories. Without the narratives though I imagine my daughter's idea of love and sex could become as fragmented and episodic as all the little clips she sees. I want her to see the long stories, the threads that come together to form a love life, and the best way I can come up with to do this is to share my own stories of mad crushes and broken hearts, of the boy in 9th grade (he was in 10th) with whom I'm still good friends, meaning I didn't scare him totally away by staring at him for the duration of 1986, about the old college boyfriend I'm still crushing on through Facebook, also the story of her father and me which brought us her, and of the ones-along-the-way whose hearts I broke or who broke mine and what I loved about them, and what I had to leave behind.

All of this gives kissing and love-making and humiliating mistakes and inutterable fascinations and life-crushing heartbreaks meaning. She learns we don't get what we want and deal with it. She learns the heart is the most storied beat of the universe. Most importantly she learns she is not strange or alone in her feelings for a particular boy who friend-zoned her this week through the mouthpieces of two henchmen during recess. After, she cried in the bathroom "for five minutes" then returned to the playground and found a way to make her friends all laugh to make herself feel better. That evening, she downloaded Taylor Swift songs to which we danced in the living room, honoring her heart, honoring all she feels, and all the stories her heart will gather along the way. "I'm happy we're just friends. I can be myself again, and we can treasure our friendship" she said. She so totally gets it.

As we move through this Love Talk, I let her know that inside all of this, in the vulnerable core of the conversation and the drama, there is this thing called sex. It isn't what chickens feel, it isn't two dogs humping on construction paper, it isn't even a man lying on top of you in a cardboard or claymation embrace. The sex talk takes just one sentence really: Yes, it can be loads of wonderful and it is how you get pregnant and catch STD's so use condoms. The love talk takes much longer, and, like love itself, it is much more beautiful and complex and mysterious and at times feels as though we've stepped beyond the map of the world.

Friday, June 12, 2015

How Asheville Can Win The Battle of Busk

When a friend asked me while we dined on salads what I thought of the busking situation in Asheville, I almost choked on my salad.  "We have a busking situation?"

He told me he'd seen the article in the New York Times. Again: almost choking, "New York Times is writing about buskers in Asheville?"

I love this so much for so many reasons.

The fact that we are in the 9th most food insecure city in America, the fact that people can walk around this town and not know we have a large African-American population scuttled away on the outskirts as a result of demolishing 2000 homes in the city center, the fact that we don't have affordable housing in town, all this aside: we make the Times for our "busking situation."

This is why I love Asheville. This is why you really should move here: we have a busking situation.

We have music everywhere. We have music outside t-shirt shops that print quotes by great songwriters on their organic cotton and complain about the musicians outside on the their sidewalk. We have music outside banks. We have music in the alcoves of galleries and jewelry stores. We have music in the park all the time, and we have music all night long on the sidewalks to sing you back to your parking deck where you will no doubt also hear music in your car.

As an (ahem) award-winning historian of this lovely city, I have to tip my hat to the people who feel the need to "do something" about our "busking situation." I am not wearing a hat though so I will not. The busking situation is classic Asheville. It simply is. This is a city that is so rooted in music that no one will ever ever stop the busking because it is actually impossible to stop the music. These mountains are made of music. The people here--well, the people who have been here a long time--have been raised on music. Music just is part of the brickwork of our early 20th century architecture, and it's just part of the gorgeous landscape we look up at through our office windows then escape into when evening comes.

To get more specific, Asheville was designed for healing and for song. This is the land of breathing, where people who could not breathe came to so they could. They came here also to drink moonshine, to dance on the verandahs of gorgeous hotels. They came here to play.

That kind of energy does not change.

People made money elsewhere and simply brought it here to make beautiful homes and to get in touch with the one of the strangest natural resources known to man: mountain magic. The best translation of this magic has always been either in the cooking or in the music. Last I checked one would have to have some health department permission to serve up the first of these on the sidewalk, but last I heard one needs no such permission for the second, and that's because music poisons nobody. Music hurts nobody. Music doesn't even touch you, unless it's in that, yes, magical sense, in your heart, your soul. Maybe it makes you move. But that's not harmful. That's what we call beauty (even when it's not perfect!) and it is good for you.

There's beauty in the simplest presence of the slightest attempt at making music. It's the beginning of something. If someone has a song to offer, well they are in this world welcome to sing it. Rather than viewing it as an affront to the image of the city, we'd be much better off accepting it as the city, because that is exactly what it is.

This is a city of music. Before it was a city, it was just the music. Sometimes, if you're in the right frame of mind and heart, you can hear that. And maybe if you're really in the right frame of mind and heart, the frame in which this city was first formed and the frame it really wants you to remember as a vital and still-needed part of your life, you can dance to it.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Free Time

Remember in elementary school when after an in-class exercise was completed the teacher just said, "Now you can have free-time?" Maybe it was just three minutes, but the idea of it felt like a patch of blue sky through a firmament of cloud. During free-time, I could doodle without being told not to. I could lay my head on my folded hands on my desk, I could talk with my best friend quietly in our third row seats.

My daughter mentioned free-time to me yesterday. Having completed a two-hour standardized test in less than one she had two hours of free-time in which to de-standardize. Disallowed markers for drawing, she was permitted a book, which she was happy to have some quiet time read. She also folded her blue sweatshirt on her desk and took a little nap. "It was nice to have some free-time."

I had forgotten about free-time.

I have had unscheduled time. Plenty of it. As a university professor my classroom time is far outweighed by what has become nearly constant prep time as I read, update, prepare course content and, most importantly, keep up with my students' lives and stories. Sitting at my laptop to accomplish all this, I also am checking emails and notifications on social media, often opening several channels of my varied lives at once, and they accumulate on my screen until I am actually doing ten things at once. This makes me feel inspired, on top of everything, and I'll often get two or three ideas for new projects (this blogpost for instance) so that by day's end I have consumed my time with busy-ness even in moments when I might have taken a break.

I am reintroducing the concept of free-time to my vocabulary to prevent this from happening every day.

Free-time means I am not at the computer. I am not even writing (because writing, for me, is work-adjacent).

I am at the piano or in my car on the Blue Ridge Parkway (after dropping my child at school). I am sitting in a chair or the hammock in my garden with a cup of coffee or tea. I can be reading if the book is not a book for a course I am teaching. I am lying on the grass letting my thoughts drift.

Right now I am aiming to have 90 minute segments of free-time in both morning and afternoon. The purpose: to break free of technology's accumulation, to let my brain relax, to bring a little bit of childhood forward into my adulthood, and for no other purposes than these.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Kissing the Water (an excerpt from a memoir about my grandmother who'd been in a prison camp in China)

. . .

Three days a week we did this. I did it for a whole semester until one day I didn’t wake up and meet the van outside. I let it just go the way I let the balloon rope go once the burner had filled the silk. I never gave any of the team my phone number. Arthur had no idea which dorm was mine. I wish I could say it was because I didn’t need it anymore. I did need it more than ever. Everyone needs it--those early mornings of blackness, that uplift of seeing heat raise something so enormous simply by being itself up into the sky.

There was a “move” I learned about in one of the very few conversations I had with my balloon people. We parked the van with a view of the balloon just as it lowered toward the earth. Normally, when we saw it descend, we tumbled out and started the most violent 500 meter dash over thorn bushes and yucca and pyrocanthus and every other miserable Florida plant that Florida produces to seize the ropes the Captain tossed down to us and which we grabbed hold of with every fiber of muscle tissue we had in our small little human hands. The rope burned through the heavy canvas of my gloves. The brambles tore at my denim jeans and poked through my thick socks as I held on with the others. But no balloon wants to come down. No balloon wants to be trapped on the ground. The slightest updraft would pull us soaring into the air, sometimes twenty or thirty feet (I never counted, but I never let go either) back up into it then it would end and send us plummeting to the sand, with our only goal not to get smashed by the basket. You’ve seen the peaceful flight of hot air balloons over where you live. You’ve imagined the quiet of the air, the view. What you didn’t imagine was the bone-threat of being lifted by one of those blasted beautiful things and being thrown back to ground on the whim of something so harmless as a morning breeze, a soft lilt of air. This one morning, though, we didn’t run.

“Shouldn’t we be running?” I said to Arthur.
“Just watch.”

The balloon approached a lake in the middle of the vast field, a man-made lake but a lake about the size of a similarly man-made shopping mall. The captain lowered the flame in the burner, and the balloon gently descended.

“Shouldn’t we really be running?”
Arthur shook his head.
The balloon came down to the water then just in time the captain flared the burner once again, lifting the balloon back into the sky.
“It’s called Kissing the Water.”
The seven of us stood in a line like we were watching something die and come back to life.
“He only does it when the conditions are perfect.” 

I never saw him do it again, but the phrase stayed with me. It was something that could happen.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Cinderella and the Glass Hearing Aids

It's been a while since I've written about deafness. When I started this blog some seven years ago or something, that's what it was about. In the in-between years, I've gathered my life up and moved it into a new life, a quieter one. Things about deafness that frightened me then don't anymore: I can sit through dinner parties and not get much of the conversation and still honestly say I had a wonderful time. I have good hearing aids that let me hear my students read their work. I can take them out at the end of the day and have a very quiet world. For most situations I have accepted deafness into my life.

That is.

Until I have a horrible exchange with a young woman working at the cinema over the quality and performance of assistive listening devices after watching Cinderella.

Cinderella keeps saying "have courage and be kind and all will be well."

But I found myself today in a situation where I understood why "the disabled" are grouped together often as being a grouchy lot. I didn't start out grouchy, though I have become accustomed to a certain degree of inconvenience when I request one of the assistive listening devices at the cinema. The manager or staff attending the little customer service kiosk always behave as though I have asked to see the holy grail or some other precious thing that few have the authority to handle.

"They haven't been charged," said one manager about the closed caption device that sits in a cup holder.

"It will take me a moment to figure this out," said the one today as she toiled with the cords of the closed captioning lenses.  I also asked for the t-coil device because the lenses don't always work.

I stood waiting for 10 minutes, then she started to wipe all the cords with alcohol.

That was the beginning of my bad mood. Yes, I want clean devices, but I don't want to miss ten minutes of my movie.

I understood she was polishing the grail so didn't interfere.

The t-coil device was crackly, and the lenses didn't work.
I left the movie to get help, but it was another10 minutes so I left the devices with the usher, saying please have the manager come help me.

The manager did, and the lenses still didn't work. She fiddled with them, then they worked. But they missed about 20% of dialogue.

Before I went deaf, I was included in just about everything that white women are. I could enjoy movies, restaurants, move around in the world with a pretty decent ticket to everything. That ticket went away when I lost my hearing due to a congenital disorder that lay dormant til my late 20s.

And I know this is what I sat with during Cinderella.

When the technology for accommodating deafness doesn't work. deafness is brought into high-relief once again. I am driven to remember it, to recognize that my world is limited.


After the movie, I delivered my device to the manager and suggested she have a staff member accompany the user into the theater to make sure the devices are tuned to the right channel. That way the user won't have to miss a chunk of movie-time. This blew up very quickly into a very different conversation.

"They did work. They were the same ones I gave you at the start of the movie."

It isn't possible to trace the logic of this response or how emotionally she delivered it. What was happening was beyond the devices and their administration. She was not trained to help, and the ADA is about helping.

And just as quickly, I lost my temper. I was in tears after the exchange, having been brought face-to-face with the exclusion deafness has introduced into my life, this thin shaft of the whole spectrum of exclusion and its many forms. And it hurts terribly. It stings the blood.

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires all places of public accommodation to comply with ADA standards.  Current rulemaking is addressing the inclusion of closed captions within this title. Legal matters aside, though, what I feel as a result of this situation is beyond legislation.

I was told tonight, "No, I will not help you." I was told, "The machine works."

The machine doesn't work.
And I needed help.

When Cinderella is given the glass slippers, we know it's a losing deal. The shoes are glass. We know they can be lost. We know they can be shattered. And we know that at midnight, they will turn back into the little canvas dirty things they started as.

When deaf-tech fails, when accommodations fail, when justice fails, even in the microcosm of the cinema,

when help fails . . .

that is the coach turned back into pumpkin, the shards of illusion that the world is open to everyone.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Through the Beloved We Talk to God

“Where there is sorrow, there I dwell.
Where there is grief in the world, love has its dwelling.” 
― Mir Sayyid Manjhan Shattari Rajgiri, Madhumalati: An Indian Sufi Romance

The world is frightened tonight
of the last thing it said.

My daughter tries on her first Valentine’s dress.
When asked what color it is she said, “It’s the color of the galaxy.”
(We found the jewelry to match on the moon.)

I read tonight about the Muslim man who when the extremists
took over the kosher grocery store in Paris
hid the Jews he could in a freezer and turned out the light.

The largest part yet of a fallen airplane was found in the sea,
having flown where it wasn’t supposed to.

The tree is still up. Each year I am more reluctant to take it down.
This is not a religious statement but a statement on the art
my daughter has made and which decorates all the branches.

Each year I want to hold her closer than the last.
Each year I let her go into the world a little bit farther.

She sprays glitter across her shoulders so she resembles the winter sky
outside the window, four degrees and falling, but she is warm and singing.

A world enlightened by the dark might work better I often wonder
considering Isaac Newton’s unpublished works were still about magic,
the thing he’s credited for taking from this world.

A man who asked questions in Saudi Arabia received the first 50
of a thousand flogs today, and in the coils of sound that travel the earth
through pain and sorrow I heard him.

In Paris, everyone had to stay indoors yesterday.
The first siege since 10th of May in 1940. I flipped through the photographs
of the Seine last July when Les Berges opened and the lovers and the artists and the children with their families and the young and the old gathered along the Seine,

and I photographed them without their knowing
because I did not speak enough French to join them.
(This is true for me in all languages, sometimes even my own.)

But when I hear the rough-throated howl of my dog at the night’s pant-cuff,
ready to chase down heaven,

or when I listen to my daughter’s voice describe a really cool trick
involving a coke bottle and three-point-five hours,

I think of a Sufi story about the bird of love who finds no place to land
so alights in the inmost human heart.

and I take a sip of this wine
that tonight only tastes of the hope humanity has sipped at every day’s end
for all time,

that which is dark and heavy and sweet.
A Sangiovese, the blood of the sky god,
out of this glass blown of thunder.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Hula Dancer on a Square of Flesh: Scene from my Father's Medical Education

" . . . dismiss whatever insults your own soul"
                                               --Walt Whitman

I often hear people mention that "a lot of doctors are poets." The list begins confidently with William Carlos Williams. It often ends there. My interest in Narrative Medicine moves from another list, the list of doctors who never wrote poems. At the top of this list is my father, an endocrinologist, a Fellow of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. My father is a brilliant physician. His patients adore him. Though he is retired a decade now, his patients friend me on Facebook to ask me how he is feeling. We don't often ask how doctors are feeling. More often we accuse them of not feeling.

While my father is in assisted living in Sedona, we talk often about Narrative Medicine, me as the poet, he as the doctor. To summarily arc his career: he started in research and was happy there, teaching and discovering insulin's effect on adipose tissue under varying circumstances. Publishing ceased in the late 1970s, at which time he decided to move to the U.S. and enter private practice. He grew his success to multiple locations and real estate holdings and lost it over two decades, leaving the U.S. in 1992 and opening a single-examining-room office in Hamilton, Bermuda.

He wanted me to be a doctor. I knew I could not. We fought about it. In that argument I threw a Royal Doulton coffee cup at his head. I missed by a centimeter. Ten years later I reconsidered and told him I would leave my MFA in Poetry program to study Medicine. This time, he argued:
"Don't do it. Poetry is the superior means of finding the truth."

I didn't withdraw from the MFA program. Another fifteen years later, I am developing the field of Narrative Medicine, a practice whereby doctors are trained to develop empathy by engaging literature. My father is my greatest ally. For years, I felt that I needed to justify poetry to him. Now, though, we justify medicine to poetry.

Poetry and Medicine both heal, one the soul, the other the body. Our fields have always connected by an obscure parallax. How far apart we were can only be perceived by blinding oneself in one eye momentarily, but we are connected. Now I talk with him to learn how he learned to be a doctor then I follow up with an email asking him about the story he has told.  He told me the other day the story about his first day at University of Toronto College of Physicians and Surgeons when one of the more advanced students stood in the hall stretching a "square shape" which as my father got closer he realized was a large piece of flesh cut from a dead person's stomach featuring a tattoo of a Hulu dancer, making it "dance." I wrote after:

Hi Dad,

I'm excited about our writing project. I'm going to ask you questions about your medical school experience to begin. I know the story of the tattooed flesh cut from the cadaver's belly. But I don't know how you felt as you walked down that hall. It was your first day. You see a more-senior student, or just a person down the hall . . .

Can you tell me your thoughts as you discovered what this was?
What did seeing this "do" to your ideas about medical school. It's a bit horrific to someone who hasn't been in medical school.


When we spoke today he told me he had never thought about this. He referred to John Irving's Door in the Floor, paraphrasing the writer's task as being one of paying attention. He said that a physician's task is to get information and "get out of there." He told me he was astonished by my three-dimensional thinking. I had to check the email I had sent to see if we were talking about the same thing. I wasn't aware I was being three-dimensional or astonishing. I was asking how he felt
"I mean, wouldn't seeing something like that insult your soul?"
"Insult your soul. That's Whitman, isn't it?"

I remember the first time I heard my father deliver an order to disconnect a patient's life support. We the family were gathered for supper when his beeper beeped. He dialed the hospital using the phone on the kitchen wall. I could hear him.

"Is the family gathered?"
Silence as person at hospital replies.
"Okay, then. Go ahead."

Then, he sat down and continued eating. I knew what had just happened. I stood and walked to my room. He followed.

"How could you just sit down after that?"

He told me the story of the first patient he "lost." He was devastated. His attending physician told him that he could choose to either be devastated each time a patient died or he could choose to be a doctor. That was the lesson. My father chose the latter. Hearing the story helped somewhat. We both returned to supper.

"Yes, Dad, it's Whitman."

"Did it insult my soul? If it did I never thought about it."
I told him I didn't think my questions were that astounding, that I thought they were the most obvious questions to ask. 

"No, don't sell yourself short, kid."

I have always sold myself a little bit short. It started the night the coffee cup shattered against the plaster of the dining room wall. It started when I chose to be a poet instead of a doctor. 

Now, to think that my consideration of seeing a human being holding another part of another human being (with a cartoon image of yet another human being inked upon it) in a joking, detached manner is unique or amazing, I would have to think that my father and I approach life from two extremes. Is it possible? Would others not be mortified by this image? Is poetic reasoning so different from clinical as to effectively render such a sight readable as two very separate texts?  One seeing it as okay and acceptable? The other seeing it as a horrendous and vile act?

The conversation ends with no judgment or even answers. And will continue.