Sunday, June 17, 2012

Electronic Traces

Two weeks ago I received an email from my father. That wouldn't have been odd a few months back. But since my dad passed on two months ago this mail sent a chill through my spine. Obviously I knew he hadn't sent it. He couldn't. In fact there aren't going to be any more emails from my dad—those one-liners that always made me smile—the constant reminders that he was thinking of me. The arrival of that mail was yet another reminder that dad was no longer with me.

My father was ill; in fact, very ill. And since he'd been diagnosed, just one year earlier, I knew that nothing would ever be the same--that there would be no escape from the inevitable. Nevertheless, although his passing was imminent—it wasn't. We were prepared. Yet we weren't. And with Father's Day around the corner I find myself floundering. How can it be that he's gone when he was always here? I look around my office, in fact right here next to the computer, and he's everywhere. I have a wheel of pictures tracing our lives together from my childhood onward (a treasured souvenir from his office), and a picture of the two of us together at my second-born son's Bar Mitzvah celebration in Philadelphia. He's hugging me tight and smiling. The same pose--every time. When I click into HeyTell on my iPhone there's a partial conversation, a leftover from one of his treatment sessions at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. (He just loved all of those funky Apps. The more the merrier.) A month ago I worked up the courage to call his cell phone. I was desperate to hear his voice: "You've reached Don Goldberg…." The voice mail box has been reset. What a loss--another loss. There are so many that I've lost count.

Back to those messages from dad's iPad: since the first one arrived there have been others. Mom is sending me pictures of the friends and family she's spending time with during this especially raw period. Although it's just short of unbearable to see his name pop up in my inbox I dread the day she'll get around to changing the name on the account. There's some comfort in these small electronic traces of a life so enormous and significant. Now when they appear in my mailbox I smile. Dad's still with us.

I cannot begin to count how much my father gave me: the list includes infinite love, affection, guidance, admiration, advice, respect and friendship—the curly hair, the eyebrows, the dimples. He knew exactly how to make me feel good about myself in any given situation. He showed infinite patience when teaching me how to tie my shoes, read a clock, ride a bike and yes, drive. I know I'm not alone in feeling that he was the best—absolutely the best. My brother had hats with this logo made, way back when, to celebrate his 60th birthday. How deserving. Those lucky enough to have received his attention, affection, warmth, advice and love, were truly blessed.

The painful reality is that while my dad was always, and I mean always, there for me, he no longer is. And I have no concept of how my life will be without him. I know that it will never be the same. The immeasurable comfort of knowing that he was on my side, albeit across the world, a feeling which cushioned my every move, is gone. The carpet has been pulled out from beneath my feet. I know that I can stand on my own—that's a big part of what both of my parents gave me—but it's not something I am entirely eager to do.

Post-mortem emails are only the tip of the iceberg. My father has left traces absolutely everywhere. He's with me when I shuttle my children from one place to another, accompanying me on each and every carpool as he did from the time I was small. He's with me when I work on a crossword puzzle, write an article, or read the newspaper. He's with me when I go to the hardware store, the liquor store and the garden store. He's with me when I wipe down one of my ill children's foreheads, open a good spy novel and watch a border-line violent HBO series or a tennis match. He's there ordering a huge plate of pasta—only spaghetti and only with tomato-based sauce. He's there for dessert: a bowl of chocolate chip mint ice cream, strawberry rhubarb, lemon meringue or key lime pie. He's with me when I cheer on the Eagles or the Phillies. He's there by the Weber pot, in front of a roaring fire, changing the flat tire of my bicycle. He's camped out in the living room or the sun room with a briefcase full of papers at his feet.

My world is inundated with his presence. He's tending his garden on Andorra Road, digging a hole for a post at the beach, watering a plant at 1830. He's sitting in a booth at Madrays, ordering a draft beer in his personal mug at McNally's, enjoying a muffin and a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice at the Commissary. He's having breakfast at Park, a drink at Lacroix, dinner at Marathon Grill. He's in his office, peeking out from behind a stack of briefs, framed by hundreds of post-its and lifetime memories. He's in the Square walking the dog and waiting for me to finish my run. He's all over the beach house—his beloved Jersey shore, watching those waves come in. He's standing on the tennis court here in Caesarea, arm raised in a salute as I drive by, with his friends at the club in Loveladies, legs firmly planted, tennis arm extended either far to the right or far to the left. Wherever the shot, he'll get there. He's all over the world; peeking into the mouth of Vesuvius with me, biking along a road in Bordeaux, lying in the next bed attached to matching oxygen tanks in Cuzco. He's all of Philadelphia—from Euclid Avenue to Fairmount Park, from Panama Street to Andorra Road and back to Rittenhouse Square. He's City Hall—he's Willie Penn.

And then there are the arrivals and departures—especially difficult to bear. He's pulling up to my bunk at camp, ready to take me home after a long summer away. He's meeting me at the airport; I spot his tall profile as I run down the terminal ramp with my luggage, anticipating his firm and all-encompassing hug. He's waiting for me to pull up in my car, seated on his bench on the front deck in Loveladies. He's helping me pack my bags, my cartons, the car, but he can never say goodbye. A day or two before any departure he has a hand poised in front of his stomach with fingers raised: 3 or 4 finger agita. He's anxious. I'm leaving. I'm right there with him. I share his dislike for goodbyes. He carefully avoids that final hug, saying goodbye on the phone as mom takes me to the airport, or better yet, speaking with me once I've safely landed. My father could never have anticipated the depth of the agita I've experienced over our final goodbye. And following suit, he never really said goodbye. He didn't need to; it was implicit. And instead our final moments were blessed with abundant love and a tight embrace—precisely mirroring our long life together.

Although I knew this time would come, it's not something I can accept with ease. My father was simply too important, too significant, too wonderful and too irreplaceable. I have, for certain, been the luckiest daughter in the world. I take some comfort from the fact that my dad knew that I felt that way. He lived a beautiful life--straight and true, full of love and compassion—and I am certain that he knew just how much he was treasured. And yes, he knew that I would take his loss hard. Accordingly, for him, specifically for him, I try to take strength from the intensity of his presence which accompanies me throughout the day, and sometimes into the night.

I know the importance of counting one's blessings. And there have been many, foremost among which is having had almost fifty years with the larger than life man who was my father and will always be my father—a man who will forever serve as an example of how good a father can be. I miss you desperately Daddy.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Youth is fleeting...or rather, fleeing?

Youth is fleeting. Who said that? (Longfellow, de Montaigne, Ecclesiastes??)  And I wonder how old they were when they wrote it. Probably somewhere near my age. Well, this past week I discovered that they were right. My boys were scheduled to compete in an aquathlon; a run-swim-run kind of deal. I decided, heck, I like to swim and if I have to give up another Saturday to their activities I might as well participate. I registered the three of us.
A few days passed. I almost forgot about it. And the, everything changed. First of all, a nasty winter storm came through, something we're actually getting used to here in Israel this year, and it was forecast to be nothing less than FREEZING on Saturday. Now it was one thing to start out a run in 9 degrees, but what was it going to be like getting out of the pool soaking wet and continuing on to the second run! Brrrrr. It was clear that this wasn't for me. I have not one big of polar bear in me. Next piece of foreboding news: the adult category was going to be combined with the Elite Youth category; yep, the strapping 16-19 year olds. There simply weren't enough adults to justify splitting the start times. Uh-oh… I was actually going to start out with my boys. Well, that was simply comical. Obviously I wouldn't be able to even get close to their pace. The consolation would be that there would be plenty of room in the pool by the time I got there.  And it turned out, that was no joke.

A few minutes before the start I shed my sweatshirt. The shivering started. Soon enough I was shaking like a leaf. Coach Uri was explaining the rules. I didn't care. Let's just get this thing started. I was turning blue. Blessedly it came: On your mark, get set, GO! The race started. And what do you know, within less than five seconds I was virtually alone. I turned around seeking some consolation. There it was, I spotted a few last stragglers behind me. I couldn't believe it. And I was running fast!!! In fact too fast! This was no recognized zone and my differed sharply from what my coach had recommended a few days before.

In any case, I began to feel like a train wreck: totally out of control. I'd had no previous delusions of keeping up any kind of pace with the Elite Youth but hey, just how humiliating was this!!!  It made me appreciate that comfortable "Women's start" that I've gotten used to at most other competitions. To add to my misery I began to panic: how was I ever going to know where to go? I'd never done it alone before!!

At the turn loop I saw Daniel run by, then Noah. What could they possibly be thinking? Well they were happy enough to share that information with me in the car on the way home, accompanied by quite a bit of pantomime: "How come mommy runs with her arms crooked up high in the air?" "Here comes mommy with her cane!" Lovely.

In any case, off went the Elite Youth and there I was plodding along, fast enough to realize that I was developing a nasty case of shin splints. And then the worst thing happened: I sensed that I was going uphill. Not only that, I realized that this hill was getting steeper and snaked sharply upward as it led me back to the pool. Who said anything about an incline? This definitely wasn't mentioned in the race flyer.  

My God…it was a nightmare. But I did it...I finished the first run and headed to the pool. I strolled my way down the stairs and into the pool area. It was super slippery and since I was one of the last competitors it didn't really seem to matter! I jumped in. BLAZES!!! The water was simply burning. How was I supposed to swim in boiling water? It turns out later that it wasn't boiling, that the difference in temperature between my skin, frozen from being exposed to the wintry elements outdoors during the run, and the 27 degree water, was just enormous enough to give the "impression" of jumping into a cauldron of soup.  Shades of Macbeth flashed before me; a kind of ultimate punishment to top those I'd already inflicted on myself that morning.

It didn't matter. I couldn't swim. Here we were at my favorite part and I could barely move my legs. The shin splits I'd developed during my climb of Everest had left me with horrific pains. The only plus was that, as I'd figured out beforehand, I had plenty of room. Almost everyone else was ahead of me. But still, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get my legs to kick. They hurt that much. About 300meters into the 800 meter swim I started to recover and started to move. I even managed to catch up to those runners who'd left me alone on the road during the first run.  Finally catching my breath I was able to assess the bitter facts about this competition: most of the other adult competitors were runners who happened to swim a little. It's too bad I couldn't capitalize on my own talents in the pool; too bad I couldn't get up to speed. But the fact remained—I spent most of the swim trying to recover from the run. While it wasn't my worst swim ever it wasn't nearly my best.

Oh well. I pulled myself out of the pool; no easy feat at the Wingate Institute. The pool is a lovely Olympic 50meters but the walls are incredibly high. I actually had to use the ladder. Yep, here comes the old lady!!! I made my way out, put my sneakers on and braced for the cold. WHOA!!! No amount of preparation could have prepared me for just whipped through me. The only thing that made me forget it was hearing the announcer announce the names of the Elite Youth who had already finished. Yes, finished. They were already coming in and I still had that lonely run ahead of me….lonely, and, lest we forget, freezing!

So there I was…chugging along, knowing that most of the field had already finished—finding almost every step unbearable and dreading the mountainous finish that I now knew lay before me.

Well, suffice it to say that I did it. I finished. I finished even though absolutely every second was more than I could bear. I crossed the finish line and that was it. I was officially put out of my misery. Although I'd been cheered along the way by a few friends and acquaintances, all incredibly helpful, and quite a few strangers in awe of, or alternatively horrified by, the struggling old lady, my children were nowhere to be found. They'd finished a clean 9 minutes or so before me and, after all, who really cares about mom? Adding insult to injury, a full five minutes after I crossed the finish line the announcer announced, "the four last contestants are…."and I heard my name. 

Enough said. I probably won't be doing that kind of race again. It wasn't even slightly satisfying. Maybe if they actually decide on reasonable categories and provide a few reasonable contestants I'll give it another chance but being shoved into the 40-59 category isn't for me! I've learned my lesson: aquathlons are for runners, not swimmers. I had it wrong. And no, I don't need to endure another "start" with the Elite Youth because yes, youth is fleeting…and this youth was simply flee-ing…and I didn't enjoy being left behind to consider where my own youth had gone; not to mention stuck with a nasty case of shin splints. Lessons learned. Not a bad thing in the end.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

History: Vacuum-packed

My husband is a neat freak. Actually, that doesn't even begin to describe it. His need for order seems to surpass that for human conversation, physical warmth…you name it. Now, I'm sure he'll take issue with this (and I'll definitely hear about it later) but the facts speak for themselves. We actually moved from one house to another because he couldn't stand tripping over the toys parked by the front door. Oh, and what a surprise it was to discover that adding 100 sq. meters didn't actually dispense with those toys, it just relocated them a few meters to the right--out of immediate target range.

I've lived with my fair share of "neat freaks," not to name names; all of them teetering somewhere on the border of, gulp, "obsessive compulsive." One lines up pencils and polishes tables, another just can't stand to see "stuff" scattered around the various surfaces of the house. For the record, I actually think that those "surfaces" shout: "bring me stuff"—I mean, what else are they meant for? How ironic that my brother, who constantly needled me to "pick up" during those summers we shared a house, eventually married a woman who is, shall we say, slightly less focused on order. My sister in law proudly claims that she "broke" him. I love that. But I don't know how she did it. Maybe he just loves her that much. I'm envious—despite having quite a lot of "love" in my house, I've been completely unable to "break" my spouse.

The proof of actual OCD lies in its manifestation further down the genetic line. There is simply no neater space in my house than my daughter's room. It's so tidy that any "intruders," items I find elsewhere and haphazardly return to her shelves (folded laundry, a school notebook, or an Ipod) seemingly call out in distress: "We don't belong!" Until she has actually logged each item into its precise location, everything seems out of place. Furthermore, anyone actually caught putting something, for example, on her desk, risks waking the wrath of Khan.

There are definitely benefits to living with what could be called "freaks of nature;" the obvious one being that things are usually "in place" and can, accordingly, be found. And to be sure, there is nothing more stomach-turning than a glance into one of my boys' rooms. Being a "neat freak" is not necessarily a bad thing. However, in the long run, it's probably a good thing that my daughter's the only one, of the three, to have received that "tidy" chromosome. After all, I've seen its ugly side. Indeed, the panic that accompanies disorder, for this obviously "disadvantaged" population, can be frightening to witness. 

In order to truly understand what I definitely consider a "disorder," I need to describe the various clothes' closets in our house. My husband's, not surprisingly, boasts neat piles of carefully folded shirts and pants complete with ironed pleats and a uniform profile. Not one obedient soldier is out of place. My sons', on the other hand, represent something closer to M*A*S*H; a result of their nasty tendency to just "pull out" whatever they need (GASP!!) leaving the neighboring items hanging at all angles, for the most part unfolded and in some cases (Oh No!) on the floor!!! I already described my daughter's inclination so one can imagine which closet hers most closely resembles. Mine? My closet is somewhere in the middle. Yep--stuck in the middle as always.

One of my housekeeper's primary duties, determined by my husband, is to "straighten" the closets. What does that mean? That means that she spends a good portion of each week whipping each little "soldier" into order and neatly tucking "him" back into "his" assigned location! Can you imagine? So much to clean and sweep and mop and wipe and scrub and she's wasting valuable energy lining up the folded corners of our gym shorts and button-down shirts! I don't think I have to complete the description of this insanity with a medical diagnosis. The facts speak for themselves. 

Despite this frightening situation, I think I've come a long way in increasing my husband's tolerance for "organized mess" and I definitely feel that we've reached some kind of negotiated middle ground. At least, I thought I'd made progress. An incident a few weeks back suggests otherwise. Imagine a sunny Saturday morning. I'm tucked comfortably back into pajamas after returning from a hard morning ride, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the news on line. The children are each in their individual caves engaging with whatever virtual world lies beyond their screen of choice. In swoops my husband with a pile of newly-purchased vacuum-packed storage bags and a smile similar to that of the Cheshire Cat—and equally as conniving!

For those not in the know, these bags are outfitted with a large plastic nozzle. The idea is to stuff them with clothes, attach a vacuum and then suck out all of the air. The items inside are shrunken to a fraction of their former size and occupy far less space than if, for example, allowed to sit neatly folded on a shelf. These bags are an excellent solution for those who lack proper storage space. If I still lived in a studio in Manhattan I could understand their role in my life. As it is, lucky enough to have a huge storage room downstairs, one of the fringe benefits of having moved to that bigger house, their purpose is much less obvious. In truth of fact, I think they're basically one more means by which my husband can try to assume complete control of what he obviously feels to be an untenable amount of disorder.

Within one afternoon he literally took everything we could define as "out of use but too emotionally valuable to pitch" as well as "summer clothes" and squeezed them into a surprisingly small number of these bags…sucking the air out of each and every one. At some point during this project the hamster went missing. I panicked. Maybe in his frenzy to compress, my husband had sucked him in as well. I imagined him lost within one of these wrinkled bags--gasping for air. I frantically started to sort through the unbelievably small wrinkly plastic bags (just how many pounds of clothes were crammed into each one??) and then paused. It was so quiet. Everyone was home but there was no noise whatsoever. Where were the kids? How come I couldn't hear them? Was it possible? Had my husband been so hell-bent on sucking up and shrinking everything in sight that he hadn't bothered to discriminate between animate and inanimate? Was it even possible to vacuum our three kids into these bags?

Although he obviously would have done no such thing I acknowledged the appeal of the idea. What a tidy solution to an untidy hitch! These bags could offer a way to finally manage the physical and emotional mess entailed in raising three kids!

Abandoning this fantasy, I started thinking about all of this sucking and stowing. Was life meant to be so easily packaged and controlled? By suffocating one's memories can we effectively tuck away the past? I find the present state of our storage room to be nothing less than depressing. These bags, or rather, "agents of order," have wrecked total havoc with what used to be a clammy space filled with my history: a little bit of Brown University, a race or two, high school youth group, a ski trip to Vermont, winters in Michigan. All of this was still documented in the t-shirts, scarves, gloves and jackets which I absolutely refused to throw out or give away. But where one glance inside the storage room used to reveal an assortment of scrumptious colors and textures, a visual history of my life say, post 1980, it had now become a conglomeration of tortured-looking plastic packs, yearning to be freed; or, at minimum, to breathe.

Maybe it's not that important to keep our sails trim, to pick up the pieces, to tidy the rough edges. I appreciated comedian Jonathan Ames' recent article on what he so cleverly called "kipple".  Kipple is basically everything that gets left behind: bottle tops, receipts from the post office, old school tests, a random photograph from a summer long past, a key whose lock can't be identified, a child's art project, a sock whose match is missing in action. While my mess doesn't come anywhere close to the accumulation of detritus described so hysterically by Ames, it is precisely this "kipple" which clutters my house's surfaces and drives my husband crazy. Maybe it's time to raise a protest of the sort being held in Wall Street and downtown Tel Aviv; a kind of "Take back the right to Accumulate" demonstration. After all, a life of skirting around the edges of these neat freaks has left me firmly convinced that a little clutter indicates a lot of character. As Anna Nalick sings, just "Breathe."