Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Wait: Love, Fear, and Happiness on the Heart Transplant List (a review)

The Wait: Love, Fear, and Happiness on the Heart Transplant List

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I never watched the movie Love Story, the romantic tragedy based on the Erich Segal novel. It was released on December 16, 1970, two days after my mother succumbed to breast cancer and I saw no need to pursue entertainment, or enlightenment, from reminders of my own experience with life’s unfairness. This aversion, packed away with my avoidance of slasher movies and Mexican restaurants, has served me well for nearly 50 years.

Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I picked up The Wait (Love, Fear and Happiness on the Heart Transplant List), Jennifer Bonner’s and Susan Cushman’s brilliant narrative of the life and times of Jen as a young adult, thriving in her own way with a congenital heart defect. The Wait draws extensively from Jen’s daily diary, revealing the psyche of a vivacious (in its intended sense), witty, self-aware, compassionate, artistic and realistic college co-ed. My years at Carleton College, the setting for much of the book, and my deep and abiding respect for Jen’s parents, mandated investing in Jen’s story.

I will take the dividends to my grave.

Cushman, a retired physician, offers us remarkably understandable descriptions of the medical challenges faced by Jen and her family. We are guided through some of the breakthroughs in heart surgery and transplantation that make today’s procedures so commonplace and, as in 1988, make the shortage of donors a major impediment faced by the practice. Cushman also provides sufficient, but not overbearing, narrative to help us put Jen’s diary in context, allowing us to focus on the wisdom offered by a remarkable young woman.

Jen Bonner does not deny the seriousness of her health challenges. But neither does she allow herself to be subsumed by them. Her diary reflects what I am told are normal yearnings of maturing young women, with a twist: Someday I’m going to graduate. Someday I’ll get a job. Someday, I’ll get married. Someday, I’ll get a heart transplant.

An accomplished artist, Jen joyfully celebrates the accolades received for her work, yet gratefully accepts criticism from a visiting professor, knowing it will allow her to hone her skills as she dreams of someday supporting herself with her art. Jen’s musings about her love interests, expressions of sexual desire, jealousies and fantasies permeate the diary, underscoring the normalcy she pursues during The Wait and reminding the author and the reader that Jen focused on long-term goals that loomed beyond pre-transplant physical limitations.

Finally, Jen, at 20, understands far better than most of us, despite our additional years of experience, the importance of celebrating the big and the little beauties life has to offer. Her cognizance jumps from the pages of her diary and, whether discussing her art (If I can paint something that will shift someone’s balance toward beauty, I will have contributed to their overall happiness and to what I consider to be the base intent, purpose, and necessity of life.), or what should be important to us all (I am blessed with the beauty in my life. Loving parents, many friends, good food, my own studio–I have my own studio! Life is beautiful. I will enjoy however much I get and whatever form it comes in.), Jen Bonner, with Susan Cushman, makes us rethink our priorities as we move through life in the midst of our own Wait.

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Help with the Laundry

A month ago, I had two brothers. Now I have one. A week ago, three happy dogs romped on Meadow Breeze Farm. Now there are two, and they don’t seem as happy.

Since January 21, 2018, I have been reminded that the waves of sadness, helplessness, anxiety and depression that come to shore after the death of a loved one become more bearable when surrounded by others willing to reach out with gestures of kindness and support. This return to Prairie Pondering is meant to convey my deepest thanks for those gestures and to encourage the same selflessness on behalf of others in need.

There’s a scene in Robin and the Seven Hoods, a 1964 Rat Pack classic, where Frank Sinatra’s Robbo is asked by Peter Falk’s Guy Gisborne if Robbo wants help taking care of the crooked sheriff who arranged the ambush of Robbo’s mentor, Big Jim. “We do our own laundry,” replied Robbo, declining assistance.

As is the case with much of my training in the Tao of Frank, that scene has stuck with me over the half century since I first heard the words. Handling problems without relying on others and maintaining control is etched into my psyche. To be clear, I have availed myself of the assistance of many a guardian angel, but my inclination is always to go it alone.

What I’ve referred to as my “firstborn syndrome” during conversations outside my comfort zone requires that I be the stoic in the family or circle of friends, taking charge in the event of a crisis or tragedy. Grieving is typically internalized and providing comfort to a fellow despondent sustains me until the shock fades with time.

If I grieve openly, I am losing control. I am losing my ability to rise above the whirlwind of emotions surrounding me and be the stable influence needed to dial back the storm.

The problem, of course, is that doing that much laundry over so many years takes its toll. Repeated internalization of grieving becomes chronic anxiety over the pressure to continue on as the paragon of stability.

Such was the case when I received a phone call from my nephew on the evening of January 21st, telling me through sobs that my brother Harlan had fallen at home alone and died. The momentary glee at seeing Adam’s name on caller ID instantly transformed to numbness.

I shed no tears. I opened a very expensive bottle of Scotch that I had been saving for the right occasion (never dreaming), drank it neat, went into firstborn mode, and started making calls. Without breaking down, I delivered the horrible, horrible news to my 89 year-old father, my surviving brother, some first cousins and a few others who needed to hear the news from me and not on social media.

When the news did break on social media and in a more traditional obituary, the response was overwhelming and enlightening. I was inundated with condolence messages from extended family, friends, friends of my brother, friends of other family members, acquaintances of varying degrees, down to the most tenuous of relationships, and even persons with unknown connections taking the time to offer words of comfort.

Harlan’s funeral and the gatherings at synagogue in the evenings that followed were similarly therapeutic. Temple of Aaron, which I last attended in October to watch Harlan receive a lifetime award for his volunteerism, was filled as if it was the High Holidays. The family was sequestered beforehand, so I was unable to interact with attendees, but a subsequent review of the guest book made me realize how many people attended just to show me their support. These attendees were friends and colleagues who had never met Harlan. Yet, they left the warmth of their home or office on a bitterly cold day to drive to St. Paul to spend a couple of hours making their presence known. For my benefit. To help me heal. To help with my laundry.

This week, I had to call the farm vet to come to the house to put our 14 year-old Basset/Shepard CJ to sleep. CJ's recurring violent seizures, despite being on strong medication, were clearly terrorizing him and were becoming more frequent. With Deb out of town and me at the office, I could not stand the thought of our boy going through another seizure alone and I made a heart wrenching decision to allow him to find peace. There is a big hole at the farm without CJ’s presence. He’d been here for all but 11 months of our 14 years in the country.

I posted about the loss on Facebook and, again, was deluged with words of support and understanding in response. In fact, the 212 reactions and nearly as many comments may be the most in response to anything I have ever posted on social media. What I had intended as a tribute to one of my best friends became the vehicle for replacing my dejection with loving support. There are constant, depressing, reminders of CJ’s absence from Meadow Breeze. I have taken to mitigating the impact of the reminders by returning to the Facebook comments and taking comfort from both their words and the mere fact that the authors cared enough about my emotional well-being to announce their concern.

We all die. We all experience the death of others. The fact that so many individuals would take time from their regular routine to reach out to me and my family to contribute to the healing process is as reaffirming a testament to the humanity of our community as I have thought possible in recent years.

Communicating about death need not be difficult. I am not unique in my reaction to the kindness conveyed by as little as the words “sorry for your loss”. Even if your relationship to the mourner is no closer than the fact that you are aware of the loss, let them know that their grief is not being suffered in isolation. Social media postings, cards, phone calls, emails and personal visits each provide solace to the recipient and help them adjust to their new reality with the strength inherent in knowing that they are not alone in the task.

I was taught decades ago that consoling the bereaved is one of the greatest mitzvot (good deeds) God commands us to perform. As one recently consoled, I am reminded of the wisdom of the commandment. Having been elevated from the depths of despair by so many of you, I am determined to be better at contributing to the uplifting of the spirit of others suffering losses of their own.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Thank You from a Humbled Birthday Boy

I have the benefit of two extra hours in which to celebrate my birthday this year. Flying to Phoenix from Minneapolis bestowed this blessing upon me. Fittingly, I have decided to use the extra time to try to thank all of you who took time today to bestow your own blessings on me and our relationship.

"Wow" is the word the keeps coming to mind as I try to find a way to express how overwhelmed with gratitude I have been all day seeing greetings from friends all over the world.

It started this morning as I teared up reading what lifelong friend, Dr. David Ketroser, posted on our high school class' daily birthday greeting page. Then I chuckled when I read P.R. Genius Blois Olson's birthday listings in today's Morning Take newsletter and found myself described as "attorney and connector".

But nothing prepared me for the flood of well-wishing that arrived on my Facebook timeline, in my email inbox and as voicemail messages throughout the day.

Each greeting was precious, from the simplest "HBD" to Les Harris' annual birthday artwork. The humorous, like Susan Cushman's reference to being the 5,000th Facebook friend to convey greetings, the insightful, like Peter Dansky's invoking my Italian mentee, the loving, like references to "Uncle Sam" from several young adults I've known since their birth, the spectacular, like Wayne Klayman's obituary quality commentary, and everything in between, communicated the existence of connections that I'd best not take for granted.

As Dean Martin asked in the original Ocean's 11, how lucky can one guy be? This guy just tries to treat people with the dignity and respect they deserve. This guy expects nothing in return. Nevertheless, you persisted in demonstrating your appreciation for whatever binds us through your well-wishing. In doing so, you made me want to continue to convey, through words and actions,  how much each and every one of you sustain me and guide me to be an even better friend worthy of your time 365 days a year.

As I said, "wow". And thank you for each and every birthday greeting.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Leopard Spots

With a generally positive response to last night's speech in West Bend, Wisconsin, delivered with the aid of a teleprompter, and with this morning's shake-up of Donald Trump's campaign staff, there is much speculation that the candidate has finally been convinced to "pivot", stay on message and act more presidential.

GOP pundits across the board have been opining that their candidate's only hope of closing the apparent gap in support existing between him and Hillary Clinton arises from such a pivot. Effectively, this acknowledges that if the general electorate draws its impressions from Trump's words and actions of the past 15 months, Trump loses in the general election.

Thinking about this dilemma the GOP faces, I am reminded of the adage about a leopard changing its spots. If Trump is unelectable when his handlers "let Trump be Trump", what makes him entitled to the presidency if he modifies his behavior temporarily to comport with the dictates of political consultants? Clearly, when done role-playing after the election, he will "pivot" back to the pre-August 16, 2016 version of himself. Do voters who cannot bring themselves to vote for the candidate on display for 15 months really believe that an imposed upgrade to Trump 2.0 is deserving of their confidence, trust and respect?

If "pivoting" works, the Clinton campaign should just announce that HRC is honest, trustworthy and will be eligible for sainthood some day. All of the missteps and (alleged) shady dealings are a thing of the past and can be ignored going forward. She should also quit yelling at all of her appearances. Her pivot would wipe out any misgivings about her fitness for office and she'd win by a landslide.

There are no do overs in reality. Records have been established and bear ongoing scrutiny. Both of the pivot scenarios are ridiculous, which is why I am flabbergasted that one of them is being taken seriously. As I pondered in this blog last week, support based on faith finds no obstacles in the truth.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

It's All About Faith

If Facebook had existed during the time of Moses, vociferous, passionate supporters would be touting his candidacy in the forthcoming election for the first leader of Israel by citing Moses' personal relationship with God, his ability to communicate with talking bushes, his ability to cut good deals with Pharaoh, his military prowess demonstrated by parting the Red Sea and then drowning the Egyptian army, his survival prowess shown by his solitude on Mount Sinai and his strict construction of 10 Commandments received on account of the aforementioned personal relationship.

It being Facebook, there would be equally vociferous, passionate supporters of Joshua, arguing that after 40 years in the desert, Moses was not fit to serve as leader in the Promised Land. Had Joshua been in charge, the Hebrews' exile in the wilderness would have taken no more than five years. Moreover, they would point out, Moses is clearly a liar, making up stories about his imaginary Friend and claiming to have accomplished clearly impossible tasks some 40 years earlier for the purpose of self-promotion. Such a liar and mentally unstable braggart can not be trusted with the mantle of commander in chief after leaving the Sinai.

There was no Facebook as my people crossed the Jordan River a few thousand years ago. The absence of mass media espousing contrary views allowed Moses' version of events to become gospel (pun intended) and be honored annually throughout the world in the telling of the Passover story. Jews do not dismiss the stories of the Hebrews' escape from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians, wandering in the desert, accepting the Torah and reclaiming the Eretz Israel because the specifics defy common sense. We accept the stories, and worship Moses' imaginary Friend, as a matter of faith. No amount of derision, appeals to logic, name-calling, or public shaming can shake that faith. It just is, with no regard for what your definition of "is" is.

Today, a few years later, as evidenced by Facebook and elsewhere, there is a large group of vociferous, passionate supporters touting the candidacy of Donald J. Trump in the forthcoming election for President of the United States. Unlike the elections of 2008 and 2012, where I also strongly disagreed with the proposed policies of the respective GOP candidates, I have been particularly publicly critical of the Trump candidacy. I have repeatedly posted my own criticisms and have shared others' posts which reflected my viewpoints. I have been unabashedly derisive. I have appealed to logic. I have engaged in name-calling (#pigeons) and have publicly shamed Trump's supporters. I have lost respect for individuals I had believed shared my perception of basic human decency but whose defense of Trump led me to another conclusion and who I decided to "unfriend" in order to avoid additional angst over my misjudgment.

This past weekend, I had an epiphany and have decided to re-direct my efforts. I realized that many of Trump's vociferous, passionate supporters are, like Jews at a Seder, acting on faith (the rest are acting for various self-serving purposes). Their support of Trump's ideology and proposed solutions to perceived problems rests on their collective faith that he has the power to (wait for it) make America great again. The absence of specifics, the clearly demonstrable hypocrisy and the impossibility of many of Trump's proposals are no more relevant than the likelihood that Moses did not take direction from a burning bush. I no longer believe it is possible to dissuade the Trumpish from worshipping the Donald. While this is incredibly frustrating to those of us who believe that Trump represents an existential threat to the Republic, we need to accept the fact that our efforts are better spent on alternatives to converting the Trumpish. 

I intend to work to reach the "agnostics" among the electorate and offer clear choices based on my view, admittedly, of good governance, tolerance, fairness and reasonable expectations. This country has serious problems that need to be addressed in a manner that might actually start the process of achieving resolutions. There will not be any overnight fixes; some might take another 40 years. Hopefully I can make a difference and help deliver additional support to Secretary Clinton so that in November the Trumpish will go the way of the Know Nothing movement, whose followers shared many of the Trumpish' grievances.

Watch this space.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Horror in Dallas

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." 2nd Amendment, U.S. Constitution

I have a recurring thought. 

From the point of view of the People who believe law enforcement is acting as the judge, jury and executioner of innocent civilians with broken taillights, the Second Amendment, as written and as interpreted by the Supreme Court, justifies forming a militia to provide security and defend against the tyranny of the government.

Who decides when perceived tyranny rises to the level of justifying a well regulated militia's response? 

What happened in Dallas last night represents the logical result of deciding to exercise the rights inherent in the NRA's oft stated justification for broadly interpreting the 2nd Amendment. The fact that the murderers acted illegally is irrelevant since any armed insurrection against an established government will remain illegal until the rebels prevail.

240 years ago, the Colonies rose up against their sovereign decrying "taxation without representation". Lexington and Concord hosted the shots heard around the world. 240 years from now, if there's anybody left, an armed revolt in response to "execution without adjudication" may be viewed to have started in Dallas.

This is madness.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Father of the Bride

At year's end, more than one friend observed that 2014 would be a big year for Deb and me. We looked forward to the birth of our first grandchild and to the wedding of our daughter. Theodore Irving arrived on May 16th. Yesterday, I walked my princess down the aisle after we were delivered to the ceremonial site by horse drawn carriage. 

As predicted by Rabbi Norman Cohen during the service, I will blog more about the experience once I've had the opportunity to let the emotions of my daughter's wedding settle a bit. As was the case with the birth of my children and my grandson, no discussion or contemplation prepared me for the waves of joyous emotion that washed over me all weekend long.

In the meantime, by request, I'm publishing my Father of the Bride speech and a few snaps taken by friends George Dow and Ron Levitus. Talk to you soon.

Welcome to Meadow Breeze Farm. So many of you have traveled great distances to share this celebration and Deb and I are thrilled to have you join us at our home. Ellie wanted a meaningful venue for her once in a lifetime ceremony and, as usual, her sense of style, and her determination, were unstoppable. 

I’ve often thought, during years of traveling to Arizona, that I’m lucky enough to experience and appreciate the beauty of both the desert southwest and the majesty of Minnesota’s lushness. I hope that our visitors this weekend have had the opportunity to appreciate the magnificence of our northern greenery as well as the moderate summer temperatures. Minnesotans call this “hotter than Hell”, but, if you ask Garrison Keillor, he’ll tell you we never go there to actually compare.
Before I address Matthew and Ellie, I need to thank my bride, Deb, for all of her hard work creating our wedding site. Thank you, too, from the bottom of our hearts to EVERYONE who contributed so much. Chupah building, flower arranging, garden watering, barn painting, DVD burning. It was a labor of love to honor Matt and Ellie by so many. Thank you.
Ellie, this is the hardest speech I’ve ever had to write and deliver. Fortunately, it’s the last one I’ll ever need to deliver. After the bar and bat mitzvahs and the weddings, no one needs to hear from the Papa. Even if I end up writing another political speech someday, someone else will do the talking. I’ve always been a staff guy.
Because it’s the last, I wanted it to be perfect, somehow discernable between my sobs. Because you’re my precious daughter, I want it to be perfect as I tell all your friends and expanded family how much I love you, how proud I am of you and how happy I am that you and Matthew have found one another.

You are named, in part, after my grandmother, my beloved Nana. You share her beauty, intelligence, independence, drive, passion, love of style and spunk. Watching you grow up, it’s always seemed like a do-over for your namesake. She would be so proud of you and the loving and adventurous young lady, with an appreciation for beauty, that you’ve become. I am so thankful that you have grown up to bestow the honor on your namesake that I intended. While I never met Mom’s grandmother, Bertha Elizabeth, from whom you take your first name, I’ve heard enough stories about her loving and caring soul and devotion to family to know that you’ve honored her has well.

Matthew, welcome to the family. I hope I’ve already given you some sense of how thrilled I am to have you as my son-in-law. They say that girls grow up to pick a husband that reminds them of their daddy. Imagine my delight that Ellie thinks I’m a tall, thin, handsome, conservative, sports fan with a full head of hair.
I have no secrets for the two of you as you start your married life together. All the advice is out of the bag, on the Internet, broadcast by Dr. Phil, and in print for inquiring minds. Love and respect one another. Understand that you are each unique and nurture the personalities in one another that attracted you to your mate in the first place. You respect one another enough to commit to spending the rest of your lives together. Build on that respect and lean on one another when challenges arise.  Neither of you can be expected to behave in perfect lockstep with the ideal imagined by the other. That’s okay. NEITHER of you will behave ideally all the time. Cut some slack to be given slack.

Your parents have more than 70 years of marriage between them. We’ll tell you that it’s not all horse-drawn carriages and 30-year-old Scotch. And we’ll tell you not to drive one after drinking the other. But, personally, I can tell you that there is no greater joy in life than being in a relationship where the goal of your partner’s complete happiness serves as your guide. It requires sacrifice on both your parts, honoring the commitment implicit in your vows. Sometimes you have to muck a few stalls. Every morning. But the payoff is priceless. Being part of your loved one’s dream come true is as good as it gets, better than a 10% ROI or a new necklace from Tiffany’s. Work on it and enjoy.
Finally, this wasn’t so bad. So, if in about 15 years I’m still around, I’m willing to give a speech at a bar or bat mitzvah celebration, probably after dictating it into my iPad 17.
Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and family. Let’s raise our glasses in a toast to the newlyweds: Elizabeth Pearl was a gift from God and I will always be grateful to have been given the honor of being her father. May God continue to bless her and Matthew, God’s gift to RenĂ©e and Ed, and grant them safety, love, health and happiness all the days of their lives. L’Chaim!