Monthly Archives: November 2012

THIS OLD HOUSE


November 19 2012                 
Well, I’m glad to report that, at least as of this week, a lot of people seem to have stepped up to the plate in terms of volunteering to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy; so much so that, according to a recent NY Times article, some of those who are still suffering in Far Rockaway are now expressing resentment at being helped by people like us, their resentment arising from the fact that we weren’t of help before the storm. 

It’s a valid point, generally speaking, in that many of us who live more fortunate lives tend not to be pro-active, on an ongoing basis, in helping the so-called have-nots. Still, it smarts. Surely trudging up flights of darkened stairs, carrying food to trapped tenants counts for something? And what about all the young people going to these areas day after day, donning masks and work gloves, demolishing and reconstructing precious homes? Or the person I read about who is trying to salvage flood-damaged photos for people who lost their homes; photographs of christenings and weddings, BBQ’s and bar mitzvahs? How tender is that?

This storm has brought up so many issues beyond the obvious ones of loss of life and property and living in the cold and dark for 3 weeks: there’s a sense of chaos and confusion and futility here that is at times overwhelming. For instance, it took me until just a couple of days ago to understand why the newspapers haven’t felt any obligation to list information on how to be of help other than donating money and supplies: it’s all done via Facebook and Twitter now. Even online searching won’t keep you in the loop, believe me, I try every day.

Occupy Sandy’s website informed us a few days ago that 2000 frozen turkeys were needed for donation and distribution in Coney Island and I couldn’t help wondering why? Are there that many working stoves yet? What about the people who still don’t have power, or who’ve lost their homes altogether? I was hoping to find places that were actually going to cook Thanksgiving dinner on the actual day. Finally today, again on Occupy Sandy’s website, I saw volunteers were needed to cook at St. Marks on the Bowery. I called immediately. Too late. Twitter beat me to it.

So what are old farts like us supposed to do? Send money? Well, why not? It’s what we’ll be doing with our kids for Christmas. Shove a check in an envelope and hope it’s put to good use.
Talking of old farts, I went to the GYN last week for my twice a year check up. Like an old jalopy put up on the blocks I surrendered to inspection; seems the engine is still purring. I go twice a year because for several years I’ve been on a low dosage of HRT, but now that I’m going away for a year a lot of things are up for reconsideration. So once I was dressed and sitting in his office I asked the gynecologist what he thought about my continuing with the hormone stuff. No problem, he said, as he filled out the prescription, but I’d have to get a mammogram before leaving the country.

I reminded him that the last 2 mammograms I’d had result in the “need” for biopsies, both of which were negative. The first, a needle biopsy, doesn’t sound like much except that this type of needle actually removes a small piece of your breast, rather like that kitchen gadget that takes little plugs out of a wheel of cheese. The second mammogram, 2 years ago, showed an area of concern that resulted in the “need” for a surgical biopsy. So just before Thanksgiving that year I joined Tom Turkey in having my breast sliced. Although the result was negative it was nonetheless a painful experience resulting in a 2-inch scar.

It was after that that I decided I was finally done with invasive procedures and therefore would be having no more mammograms. I mean, really, at this stage of life I’d rather accept the reality that something eventually is going to carry me off. Like most people I hope it will be quick and pain-free. If not, then bring on the morphine, friends, good music and the gratitude for a life well lived.

On telling all this to the good doctor he promptly threw the scrip in the waste- basket, basically telling me that it was a mammogram and HRT or nothing, and nothing. I felt enormous relief. And then he said, “If you find yourself aging too rapidly you can always change your mind.” Aging too rapidly? Is he kidding? Is there any other kind of aging? What was he inferring? Was my face going to completely dry up and fall off? Was my vagina going to hang down to my knees in crepe folds? And if so, did he, or I, or anyone really think going back to taking a little white pill was going to reverse that?  Surely a winch would be required.

Well, it is laughable, this whole idea that aging is a curable disease. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as vain as the next person and I admit it, I’ve increased my reps at the gym this week. But what I really want, more than anything, is to be comfortable in my own skin. It’s the largest organ of my body and for 66 years it’s been weathering the storms of life. Why can’t we look at each other and admire the beauty of that, the way we admire old buildings with all their cracks and patches, facades that describe their histories; histories of storms and fires and wars and the centuries of life and love lived within.

I think again of all those buildings that Sandy demolished so easily, it seemed, and all the people whose material histories were swept away, revealing the underlying reality that was there all along: nature will always be more powerful than we mortals. The only nature we have any control over is our own, yet even that comes housed in a temporary home.

NEWS FROM THE FRONT

November 10 2012                
We just got back from a day of volunteering in the Far Rockaways. For those of you unfamiliar with the five boroughs that make up New York City, this area is the furthest eastern shore of Queens. It, like Lower Manhattan, Red Hook and Staten Island, took the full brunt of Hurricane Sandy, but unlike lower Manhattan it still, after nearly 2 weeks, does not have electricity, therefore no water, heat or light. No TV. No reading. No fridge. No toilet flushing and, from what we saw today, not a lot of hope for recovery anytime soon.

It’s not just the thousands of downed trees, the smashed cars or the boats that ended up in backyards of those unable to afford a boat. It’s not just the caved in roofs, the torn siding, the closed storefronts or the long lines of people waiting for gas; some in cars and some on foot with plastic containers. It’s the sense of futility, of fear, of how close we all are any given moment to total chaos and breakdown. The infrastructure ain’t what we think it is. In fact, there isn’t a true infrastructure. We live in a domino game and eventually it won’t matter what color you are, it’ll all come tumbling down.

The volunteer center today was an enormous parking lot filled with racks of clothing and tables of supplies waiting to be sorted and distributed. A line of people in need went round the block. They waited a long time. It seemed incredibly disorganized and we wouldn’t realize for hours why. It turns out this was a “political” event. Some local councilman, I believe, got some people to donate, got John Legend to show up for a photo op and then the two of them left, leaving a few real organizers to make sense of everything. And we call this a super power?


It’s not that the day was a waste of time, it wasn’t. The people who lined up eventually received clothing, toiletries, food, water and other much needed supplies. When the food trucks finally arrived those of us who were volunteering to go door-to-door, formed a human chain, passing boxes of sandwiches, juice, fruit and energy bars down the line. Then we filled plastic shopping bags with 2 of everything, piled the loaded bags back into the boxes and then into the trunks of cars and vans and, along with those of us who were without vehicles, drove to the projects on the edge of the sea.

It was like driving through post-apocalypse. No traffic lights. Lots of intersections, no traffic lights. People dragging trolleys of supplies. People lining up outside decrepit churches. The thing is, these people were already on their knees before Sandy came and kicked them in the teeth. The atmosphere of desolation and chaos was overwhelming, ambulances and fire engines on every other street and even with truckloads of National Guards and utility trucks there was the sense that nothing was ever going to be enough to fix this. 

And then we arrived at the Projects. I don’t know how that name came about, but let me tell you these projects are unfinished. They rise up into the sky without a trace of spiritual uplift.

           This is the building we went door to door in
The first building we had been assigned was swarming with National Guards who told us the building had already been checked and food delivered. So we carried all the boxes of food to the next building. There were about 20 of us assigned to this area and Joel and I were the oldest by at least 30 to 40 years. The building had 17 floors. The stairways and labyrinthine hallways were pitch dark even though it was mid-day. The smell of urine and feces was powerful. We worked our way down long, never-ending corridors, knocking on doors, calling out to let people know we were volunteers, not looters. Most of the lower floors were deserted, the residents having fled to god-knows where. A few doors would crack open on their chains, the tenant trying to figure out if we were friend or foe. There were more people on the higher floors, many of them unable to walk that many flights. In the lobby, an elderly man was catching his breath before making his way back up to his 10th floor home.

The whole thing was totally disorganized and as a result immensely frustrating. People needed flashlights and batteries. We had none. We all wanted to do more. So many young people had turned out to be of help, they felt like a ray of hope. I guess what we all learned today is that you can never help everyone. Ever.

It reminds me of the story of the little boy walking along a beach littered with thousands of stranded starfish. He starts picking them up and putting them back in the sea. An old man coming toward him says, basically, what a waste of time, he’ll never save them all and the little boy says, but even if I save one…

A terrible thing has happened to New York. And like the 2004 Tsunami and last year in Japan, these natural disasters not only will continue, but increase. Sooner or later we will all suffer. But what’s heartbreaking now is that it is the poor who are taking the worst of it.

As the afternoon started to darken we headed back to the parking lot where buses would take us into Manhattan. It’s always been a depressing ride coming in from JFK, but now it’s frightening. You look at the seedy buildings and cemeteries, the crumbling overpasses and the garbage and as you near Manhattan you see its wealthy thrust is an illusion. The wealthy got lucky this time and are carrying on as though because nothing happened to them, nothing happened. They might not be so lucky next time. 

I tell you, if you spend a day out in Far Rockaway the whole city will look different to you. You will not be able to look at it without conjuring a picture of the absolute pandemonium of 8 million people trying to flee disaster.

Yet, as a friend of mine wrote me today: “There is so little time left to still enjoy life on earth why not make the best of it even if sometimes our hearts are so heavy.”

I’m with her. I have a pot of homemade soup on the stove. Joel is napping beside me. We have a fresh baguette for tomorrow’s breakfast. So yes, let’s enjoy. But please, let’s also spare a little time to be of help to others. And can we all, please, try to be a little more conscious of taking care of this precious planet?

A SMALL OFFERING


November 6 2012                     
These days, between the hurricane and the election, one must take whatever small pleasures reveal themselves. And so it is that today my hurricane-delayed shipment of blank journals finally arrived, all 10 of them. Enough to last me through next year, should I be gifted the opportunity to live it. So now, having set 9 aside for shipment to France, I lovingly cover this one with the French linen I bought last year in Lourmarin and when the glue has dried I ink onto the linen with my trusty little fountain pen: “Flying The Coop, Book IX.

Like most writers I have what I used to think of as my superstitions, but which I now believe are actually intentions. That is to say, rather than believing the superstition that the way one starts a book could well dictate how it will turn out, it is more advisable to state one’s intention in the first paragraph. And so it is that I have chosen to start this book with pleasure, for no matter where we are there is always plenty of heartache and injustice to bear. But it is a question of balance: in this case of knowing the difference between pleasure and self-indulgence.

This past Sunday morning, Joel and I experienced a great deal of pleasure eating our customary Sunday breakfast of poached eggs, toast, marmalade and a good strong pot of PG Tips. From there we moved to the couches in front of the fire along with the NY Times and some classical music. But by 11 o’clock the pleasure had turned to deep discomfort. How could we enjoy ourselves like this when thousands of people in our not so fair city were devastated by the hurricane? I mean devastated. Homes, businesses, loved ones – gone. Cars, boilers, power – gone. The family album, baby’s crib, computers, furniture, trees – gone. People stuck on the 10th, 20th floor with no electricity, therefore no elevators, some of them in wheelchairs; no diapers, no medications.

I’d been looking online for days to find a way to help and could find no information. Finally my daughter, who had been without power for 5 days, texted me that she was taking supplies to the Bowery Hotel, down on the Lower East Side, and she provided a list of what was needed. So we left the couch and went shopping and loaded up with big bags of food, water, clothing, blankets, toiletries, flashlights and batteries, took the long taxi ride down to the Bowery. 

It felt good to do something. But it didn’t feel like enough. And how dispiriting to ride back through Manhattan, to see the tourists and shoppers with their luxury items, carrying on like nothing had happened, when the truth is that for a week we’ve had our own Katrina here. All those outer edges of the boroughs that got washed away, Red Hook, Rockaway, Staten Island, they’re all working class areas. It’s true that wealthy people lost electricity and homes and cars, too, but they also have the means to rent hotel rooms or apartments or go to their second homes. But these other people, they’re literally in the dark. And the cold. Waiting for people like us who were fortunate enough to escape the Hurricane to get off our arses and do something.

Denial. How we all hate that word. It’s become such an eye-roller. Yet how we love its backdoor escape. We have a population here in which almost half of its citizens are in denial that one of today’s presidential candidates has been lying to them for months. And imagine the denial he’s in! And what do we gain from denial; a little more time off? From what; taking responsibility?

Look, I admit it, I had some denial going on last week. I’d go online a few times in an attempt to find out how to help and then after a few dead ends I’d tell myself, “Well, I tried.” But the truth is I only tried so much; I’d help if it were easy. Even on Sunday morning when I started feeling uncomfortable I tried to let myself of the hook. I didn’t really want to get off the couch. I wanted to keep feeling pleasure. I actually heard this thought go through my mind, “I’m in my 60’s, I’ve done my bit, I’m allowed.” Wow.

When we came home from dropping off the provisions I wrote to the board of directors of our building offering to head up a relief effort, what did they think about encouraging the tenants to donate, how could we organize trucks for delivery to affected areas. I was told a local synagogue was set up to receive and deliver goods, but the person told me he didn’t think he or management should direct people to a Synagogue. What? Is this part of the fear we’re living with here in America; fear of directing people to a synagogue to donate much needed relief? Would we be afraid to direct people to a church? Is it this fear of the other that allows half of this country to believe a candidate’s blatant lies rather than have a black president re-elected for another four years? And how do we live with this fear; through denial?

We’ve booked our flight to France, leaving on 29th December. We decided we wanted to start our year of living in Europe by waking up there on New Years Day. I’m trying not to wish the time away between now and then, but I tell you, I can hardly wait to live in a small village that has fresh-baked baguettes and local cheese. I long to walk the winter woods and lanes before moving on to the farm in Tuscany in late spring. I can’t take this city life anymore, can’t take the immense divide between the rich and the poor, blue states and red states, black and white, corporate driven media and a government made up of 2 opposing sides; a government where one side, for four years, has done nothing for its country in crisis, nothing. It’s only intention being from day one of Obama’s presidency to make sure he doesn’t get a second term. And they call themselves patriots?

I don’t know how it’s going to turn out today, but I did get enormous pleasure from voting for the first time in my adult life. I became a citizen two and half years ago, so I got to cast my vote for Obama this morning. And I got pleasure from posting information in the lobby of our building, telling people where and what they could donate for the hurricane victims. I didn’t mention it was a synagogue, just gave the address. Isn’t that all we should be caring about right now, where and how to be of help? Every day of our lives. Some small offering, so that we may rightfully experience the pleasure of sitting on a couch writing in a new journal, watching the brilliant red sunset of another day.