Monday, December 18, 2006

The Effect of C

My first memories of C were of him hanging around after work with my co-worker, W. He was her doting husband, and he was always speaking with great enthusiasm about issues having to do with W's work or about their condo on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. He seemed like a most pleasant chap, very engaging, always smiling, frequently laughing.

Eventually W and I became close friends. We used to go on double dates: W and C with Betty and Child. Who else would think of arranging regular outings with a single mother and her young son? They were Jehovah's Witnesses, and I came to find out that Jehovah's Witnesses were known to be totally non-judgemental. They never spoke of their religion to me, but they lived it, by taking me, a woman who chose to have a child out of wedlock, under their wings, without question or comment. W and C didn't need us, for sure; they had 8 kids and a multitude of grandchildren of their own, most of whom live right here in town.

C had just retired from his highly successful career as a chemist. His fascinating tales of chemistry are probably the reason why my child now prefers science over any other topic or subject. I'll never forget the child's delight when C presented him with his first microscope.

When C found out that I enjoyed trading stocks as a hobby, he set out to share with me his decades of stock market success. Over a period of several months, he imparted his considerable knowledge to me. Then, after all that, his bottom line still rings in my head, loud and clear, "We can sum up everything there is to know about investing in 4 words, just 4 words: Buy cheap; sell dear. That's all you'll ever need to know. Buy cheap; sell dear."

We so missed W and C during those winter months when they escaped to their Molokai retreat. But they were good about staying in touch, calling us regularly, and they came back with unbelievable stories of life on the island, along with Hawaiian outfits, books and toys for my child.

W had breast cancer, and C used his medical and scientific knowledge and resources to help her. As a result, she lived way beyond expectation, stretching out her 6-month prediction to 10 years.

I asked C why he hadn't become a doctor after graduating from medical school. That's when he explained to me that it was an ethical issue. During medical school he had become painfully aware of the power of money, and the pharmaceutical industry, in medicine. He could not devote himself to such a profession. That's the kind of man C was.

During his career as a chemist, he had quit a lucrative job after being asked to participate in a dishonest scheme. He quit on the spot, that day. C was not the kind of man who had to go home and think about what was right. Integrity was his way of life.

W succumbed to cancer two and a half years ago. Everyone who knows C is shocked that he has lasted this long without his childhood sweetheart. He insisted on remaining in the house he had shared with W, taking good care of W's beloved cocker spaniel, Chandler.

I wondered what my relationship with C would be like once W died, but he took care of that. He wanted to set up a schedule for phone calls, so we talked every Monday, without fail, and sometimes on other days too. At first I considered those phone calls to be my opportunity to check on C, to make sure he was OK. Gradually I came to see that C was checking on me as well. We both benefited from knowing that somebody cared, all the time, not just when it was convenient.

C wanted us to try going out on the town as a trio instead of a quartet. Although we did try it once, our vivid memories of W's sweet presence made us unbearably sad.

C had been a great lover and supporter of classical music. He was absolutely outraged that tickets to the thriving local sports events were so much more expensive than symphony tickets, while the struggling symphony so desperately needed the community's financial support. Nearly every time we talked over the past few months he brought this up with renewed passion, and he was always thinking of ideas to help bring in more money to the symphony.

He often spoke of his wish to go to a concert with me. We set up several dates, but he ended up backing out, undoubtedly heartbroken remembering the many concerts he had attended with his dear W. But last summer we finally made it to an outdoor symphony concert.

Interestingly, the concert took place in a venue which C himself had set up many years ago. It was the huge, multi-acre lawn of the chemical company which had been his last employer. C loved to tell the story of how one day he had looked out the window of his office onto the huge green expanse below, and declared, "This is the perfect setting for outdoor symphony concerts!"

Since then, the symphony has been holding concerts there every summer weekend, with thousands of people showing up to enjoy picnic fare while listening to live classical music. C's boss ended up receiving the credit for the idea, but C didn't mind, as long as his beloved symphony was playing there.

After the concert that night I noticed how weak C was, barely able to get out of my car even with my help. He was shaking from the effort, yet he thanked me profusely for taking him, with tears in his eyes.

We continued talking every Monday, and sometimes on other days too, and even though I constantly asked if he needed anything, he always declined. Just once, on an icy, snowy day, he sheepishly asked if I could take his trash container up to his house. After I did it, he thanked me as if I'd saved his very life. So accustomed was he to putting others first, it was unspeakably difficult for him to ask for help.

A few days ago he called me from the hospital. He'd fallen at home and couldn't get up; he'd eventually pulled himself to a phone to call an ambulance. I went to visit him with a stuffed bear wearing a shirt that said, "Get well." He looked terribly ill. He clutched that bear for dear life, again with tears in his eyes.

Today is Monday, my day to talk to C. He didn't answer his phone at the hospital, nor his phone at home. I started to feel sick. I called the home of one of Charles' sons, and the son's wife answered. "C is not well," she said. "He has a living will, so he has to be taken off his respirator today at 2pm. Then, after that, there can be only one more attempt to resuscitate."

C, I wish I could have seen you one more time. I wanted to tell you how much I appreciated knowing you, how important you are to me and how much I'm going to miss you. May your ethical standards, your passion for the arts, your incredible intellect and your loving, giving nature live on in me and in the countless others whose lives were touched by you.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Effect of Dr.V.

Would you cry if your dentist died? You probably would if your dentist had been Dr.V.

A few years ago I decided that I was fed up with my dentist. His fancy office in a downtown high-rise surely was being subsidized in part by my outrageous bills, which my insurance company labeled "excessive". Everybody who worked in his toxic office flashed huge, blinding white smiles as if to advertise their product.

So I asked around. Surely one of my alternative-type acquaintances would know of a good dentist.

And my babysitter suggested Dr.V. He was a holistic, non-toxic dentist who sounded too good to be true.

His office was modest. His appearance was disarming- he could have been a model. During my first visit, Dr.V. himself cleaned my teeth, very painstakingly, I might add. Has your dentist ever cleaned your teeth? I don't know why he did it. Was that just his procedure for first-time patients?

Unlike Dr. Toxic, Dr. V. did not believe in excessive dental X-rays. He did not spin stories of how "you get more radiation from a day of sunlight than from one measly dental X-ray." He simply did not X-ray unless there was a clear reason.

The last time I saw Dr.V., he took a long time to explain the fine points of brushing and flossing. Afterwards, as if to not want to have been offensive, he said, "I told you all that because you seemed interested."

Soon afterwards I received a letter in the mail from Dr.V. He reported that he had decided to sell his practice because he really wanted to teach dentistry at the local university. I was devastated.

Yesterday I received a letter from my current dentist who had bought the practice from Dr.V. It relayed the very sad news that Dr.V had died suddenly.

Immediately I thought of a fact I had come across about dentists having a very high suicide rate. Certainly Dr.V. had seemed unusual......but suicidal? Hard to imagine.

The internet provided many missing pieces to the puzzle of Dr.V. The only obituary I could find was in a Catholic Church newsletter which explained that the 48-year-old athletic Dr.V had collapsed during his weekly raquetball game. Apparently his heart gave out, and attempts to revive him were futile. He left behind a wife and 5 children, and there was a request for contributions to a charity which he had devoted himself to- a Catholic agency which helped people living in inner city neighborhoods.

I found it interesting that this alternative, holistic dentist who didn't believe in casual X-rays had also been Catholic, and that shortly before his death he had made a major life change, switching from practicing dentistry to teaching, his true calling. I was lucky to have encountered him before that switch. In reality, he was already teaching when he was a dentist, I realize as I recall his very lengthy, detailed explanation of proper brushing and flossing technique.

Our automatic reaction to such a death is horror that such a good man died so young. But after thinking about it, I have instead been able to focus on the probability that here's a man who was able to die without regrets, having aligned his life with his beliefs and passions, with his true nature and purpose.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Life with Legos

What an optimistic title: Life WITH Legos. Maybe it should be Life vs. Legos. At any rate, I am decidedly Lego-challenged today.

We've had an unusual relationship with Legos. When the child was a tiny toddler, I had more interest in Legos than did he. I used to buy outrageously expensive sets (designed for age 10-adult) which featured 3-wheeled cycles, various workers with interchangeable hairdos, and elaborate service stations apparently intended to keep the tricycles up and running. I'm the one who assembled these sets, and became quite adept at it, I might add, since Legos were tragically absent from my own childhood toychest.

The child never did participate; he watched me with polite amusement. At one point I distinctly recall feeling a sense of relief that I would not have to take out a second mortgage to support the Lego Corporation. We lived in peace for a while, with the Legos shelved.

Then one day last month everything changed. His bedroom was transformed in one afternoon from a pleasant boy's bedroom kept very tidy for real estate showings into a massive mound of Lego pieces concealing the bed and furnishings. Although I always said I wanted him to have wholesome interests, I was highly dismayed by this turn of events, and expressed it loudly.

Besides, the child's very character was affected. A hitherto unknown level of frustration began to rear its ugly head whenever a Lego creation fell apart, as they inevitably do. The child began to rage so vehemently that I feared he'd pop a blood vessel. Now, every time he calls me in to view a finished project, I grab my phone in case I have to dial 911, since the collapse of the creation usually occurs within seconds of completion.

The child, being known for his expensive high tech taste in gifts, had the good sense to present me with his Christmas wish list last October. I ordered as much as I could reasonably afford, glad to have that task out of the way. Then, just yesterday I was informed by said child that he wanted nothing but Legos for Christmas this year. Mind you, Legos were not included to any extent on his fall Christmas list. The Lego sets he wants are measured in hundreds, not tens, of dollars. I have no idea what I'm going to do about this bit of unpleasantness.

Then this morning the child exhibited an abnormally delayed response to my urgings to get ready to leave for school. I should have known that Legos were to blame. When it became too late to walk to the bus stop, I yelled for him to get into the car. With horror, I watched him march to the car with his latest Lego invention in tow, another new behavior for the child who had up until this point confined the Lego world to his bedroom. When the bus pulled up, he shrieked bloody murder as yet another structure bit the dust. He had apparently intended to take that creation to school, as far as I could determine from his wailing as he boarded the bus. Even the bus driver looked shocked at the extreme display of emotion. His red, tear-streaked face mouthed desperate, indecipherable words at me as the bus pulled away.

What's a mother to do? Well, a stable, sane one would have gone on with her day, knowing the child would be OK, and that maybe even he'd learn to put Legos into their proper perspective. This one drove to the child's school to deliver the fallen Lego pieces to her son, lest he fall apart like they had.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Where do YOU live?

Urban planning is one of my all-time favorite topics. My guess is that it will become much more relevant now that we are driving less, according to recent reports.

New Urbanism is a trend which began 25 years ago. New Urbanist developments feature houses with large front porches, garages in the back on allies (not facing the street), sidewalks, and modest backyards. Various building types are integrated into the neighborhood: apartments, condos and free-standing houses, workplaces, schools, post offices and stores. There is a defined neighborhood center which includes formal civic spaces and squares. It sounds like a too-good-to-be-true fantasy to me.

How can you tell if a neighborhood is truly an example of New Urbanism? See if it passes the "popsicle test." An 8-year-old should be able to safely bike from home to a store for a popsicle without risking life and limb on highway-sized streets with freeway-speed traffic. (This, to me, is unfathomable, but I do hope it really exists somewhere.)

Real neighborhoods with a true sense of community are few and far between these days. The problem is, most of us don't realize what we're missing, having never experienced it. I did experience it during my first 5 years of life- my fondest early memory is of the candy store on the corner which actually sold penny candy. By the time I was 5, my neighborhood had caught up with the rest of the country, and the little bakeries, shops and grocery stores had surrendered to the mega retailers.

What a loss. That's why I now crave urban living, in my case involving an actual downtown neighborhood as opposed to New Urbanism. I crave the option of walking rather than firing up the Honda. I want a sidewalk in front of my house, dammit.

Is New Urbanism a successful attempt to bring back the neighborhood of bygone years, or is it a contrived, forced imitation? I can't say, because I've never had the pleasure of actually seeing a New Urbanist example. I've seen half-assed versions, in which each condo features a front porch overlooking a sidewalk, but all the other elements, such as destinations to walk to on those pristine sidewalks, are noticeably absent.

As far as I know, New Urbanist neighborhoods exist in the suburbs. This makes sense, unfortunately, since the downtowns of many cities are in decay. In essense, a new (albeit fake) downtown has to be built within each New Urbanist development. I say, why not use the blighted urban downtowns which already exist, and try to create viable, vibrant neighborhoods there again?

So where do YOU live? Does your neighborhood pass the popsicle test?