Monday, May 30, 2011

Jennifer: A Different Kind of Hero

I respect and admire the people who rush to save us and our possessions in emergencies, and those who place themselves between us and people who wish us harm, but they have chosen the professions that make them heroes.  

There are others who have the opportunity for heroism thrust upon them, who have not asked for and do not want it, yet perform in ways that make those around them better people.  Jennifer was such a hero.

Soon after she was born doctors discovered severe immune deficiencies, so severe that the family was told she wouldn’t live into her teens.  When I met her she was thirteen.  Jennifer and her two sisters, age ten and eight had come with their father to our house for a barbeque. Our three kids, for reasons I can’t recall, wanted to sit on the roof of our small brick cape and invited the girls to join them.  Jennifer, hands as red and raw as a scullery maid, tiny determined mouth looking chapped as a skier’s, smaller than both her sisters and so frail I worried that a light wind could blow her off our roof, was first at the ladder.  She scrambled up like a playful kitten, scooting to the peak of the roof before any of the other children reached the eave.  She had claimed the high ground.

In spite of her many hospitalizations and consequent absences from school, Jennifer graduated with a more than acceptable grade point average. 

At her college freshman orientation, students were asked to stand and introduce themselves.  When Jennifer’s turn came, she stood and noticing she was still shorter than many of the seated students, climbed onto the desk seat and introduced herself proudly in the high nasal twang that life had forced on her.  She made it clear to all by that gesture that she was neither to be pitied nor denied.  That Jennifer went on through school to become a pharmacist, struck no one who knew her as strange.  She had knowledge of exotic drugs almost from birth.  

When this tiny wraith, who wasn’t supposed to reach her teens, was in her early thirties she was attacked by the one disease she couldn’t beat into submission, cancer.  Even this horrible killer had a fight on its hands.  It took more than two years for her to succumb, and even then she didn’t exactly lose the fight.  When her father struggled to find the next miracle drug to add to the litany of medications that had both formed and damaged that tiny body; when she saw the pain and frustration on his face, she reached out and held his hand.  “I’m tired,” she said in that funny voice that always sounded as if someone were holding her nose.  “It’s time.” 

During the next two weeks, until she closed those eyes so magnified by her thick glasses, Jennifer consoled her family, went with her two adult sisters to get matching bracelet tattoos around their right ankles, and made herself ready to die.  Even cancer had to take Jennifer on her own terms. 

So remember all the heroes this day and every day. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Best People

Often I hear interviews where someone is explaining a request/demand for more money by saying something like, "We have to pay more if we want the best people."  Almost always the existing salary is already in six figures.  New York State judges and school superintendents are two that I have heard most recently.  It seems to me that offering more money attracts the greediest people, not necessarily the best.  

In 2010, for example, a commission was created in New York State to decide on judicial compensation - taking that responsibility out of the hands of the state legislature.  Salaries had been frozen at $136,700 since 1999 - not a bad wage even in today's economy.  
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman commented -
"... we will be able to have, like other professions, the ability to attract and retain the highest quality judges to the bench.” 
That's the mentality I'm talking about.  The best (whatever that word means) is equated to money. So do we measure a judge's worth in dollars, or in quality of decisions?  Is that a valid measure for anyone's worth?

A good friend, with a masters degree in organizational development and an excellent job at IBM, decided to join the Peace Corps.  She wound up in Jacmel, Haiti for her assignment and, when her tour was up, stayed for another five years.  She spear-headed the formation of an art education program for children, that also provided studio space for local artists and musicians.  She formed a not-for-profit foundation in the US that provided funding and helped find markets for the artists.  All this while living off her savings and donations.   When she felt that her goals were met in Haiti, she returned to the US with an orphaned Haitian girl  she had adopted.  She now free-lances from her small  home in Massachusetts, where her daughter attends the local public school.  

Is she one of the best people?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mothers and Balance

Happy Day to all you amazing mothers out there.

I've been thinking this weekend about balance, mainly about balance in the universe - kind of a big topic I know - the word that jumps into my head is equilibrium.  I know from various physics and chemistry courses I've taken over the years, that all of the natural world seeks equilibrium.  "Seeks" kind of personifies nature, and I don't mean to do that.  The natural world, in my opinion is not sentient.  Powerful - yes, destructive - yes, but not knowingly so.  It is merely a series of opposing forces.  Equilibrium is the state in which these forces reach stability.

At the atomic level, an ion will not long stay that way.  It will combine with some other atom to reach neutrality.  On a larger scale, the continental plates on this ever-shifting planet of ours push against each other, generating massive stress which is momentarily neutralized by an earthquake.  The air around us, our breath of life, can become unstable and must find neutral ground.  Tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. are the vehicles of neutralization.  The human cost of this quest for stability can be enormous, as our recent history shows.

Carol and I just returned from Alabama where we visited relatives in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, where Carol grew up.  The family drove to Forest Lake to see the home Carol and her siblings grew up in.  It was designed and built by her father.  The following photos will say more than any words I could put down.

Carol's bedroom is on the left. 
Forest Lake from 15th Street.
Carol's home is between the two tarped roof houses.
This side of the lake suffered worse damage than her side.

Enough said.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cinco de Mayo

Interestingly, this is not, according to Wikipedia, Mexican Independence Day (which is September 16th) but actually celebrating a victory by the Mexican Army over the French.  It is recognized pretty much only in the Mexican state of Puebla, where the battle occurred.  In the US on the other hand, it is a celebration of Mexican culture.  Funny how misinformation becomes fact by repetition. 

The huge international news this week is the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  The only way to miss that news would have been to be hiding under a remote rock somewhere.  The death of a man who dealt in death.  The various reactions have been fascinating, and in many instances troubling.  I understand the evil he perpetrated and would have definitely continued to perpetrate.  I understand the rationale that dictated that he not be brought before any court for trial.  I understand that his death was necessary.

That said, I cannot celebrate it.  Killing another human being, however evil that person may be, diminishes us as humans.  I believe it was Gandhi who said, "An eye for an eye, makes the whole world blind."  I cannot celebrate Bin Laden's death, but I can say, unequivocally, that were I the first Navy Seal entering that room, I would have pulled the trigger, and it would have made me sad.

Tomorrow I go to another place of pain, Alabama.  The devastation in Tuscaloosa, and the somewhat less damage in Birmingham must be visited.  Carol grew up there.  Much of her family is there.  Though none were physically touched by the tornado, there is no doubt that seeing the destruction in places that once held fond memories has to touch the heart and mind of the family.  We will be there to see.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Uno de Mayo

Last week was one of extremes, from the enormous tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa, Alabama and took  hundreds of lives, to the royal wedding that captivated millions at a cost that could probably rebuild most of that destroyed city.

My wife grew up in Tuscaloosa and has family there.  They are all okay, but her childhood home on Forest Lake, the one her father designed, is likely gone.  We'll probably be heading down there this weekend to help with some of the cleanup.

Ah but May is here and everything is growing again.  Trees have tiny leaves and blossoms, my yard is covered with tiny purple and yellow flowers, and green is everywhere.  Sitting here on our porch, we  are privy to the call and response of several different species of birds trying to entice mates, or call off rivals.

Balance - the planet adjusts itself to maintain or regain balance, earthquakes that relieve tectonic pressure, storms that relieve differences in air pressure and temperature.  Humanity has been a victim of this balancing operation quite a bit recently.  Maybe killing some of us is part of that balancing act.  Scary thought.