Sunday, April 26, 2009

The world according to wells: why we are special

Not being The Huffington Post, I usually avoid commentary on current events, but the confluence of two seemingly unrelated news items got me thinking of this country, who we are and why we are special. Let me note, upfront, I do not mean this in any jingoistic sense. I’m more than aware of our faults and missteps.

First the feel good item: our NCIS-like rescue of the freighter captain from pirates.
One crack SEAL team, three perfect shots and our guy is saved.
We pay them not one cent: they pay the ultimate price.
Protecting its citizens on the high seas is, after all, among the oldest and most basic of governmental responsibility.
The Buddhist part of me abhors the violence and loss of life.
The Jewish part of me applauds the Mossad-worthy surgical justice.
The message that reverberates startles the pirate world and beyond: this country will go the distance in defending an individual American life.

Now on to the bad news.
We tortured people.
Parse it as you will
Call it “harsh interrogation.“
But, like porn, we all know torture when we see it.
We are not talking about a few renegades from Abu Grav, here folks.
This was a systematic government policy.
Terrorism is no excuse.

That’s the same twisted thinking that led to destroying a village to “save it” in Vietnam.
This is not the American way.
We know it in our collective gut.
Hence the debate.
And herein lies our uniqueness.
Where else, could such a public conversation take place?
What other country would create, not to mention, publish a “torture memo"?
What government would voluntarily release photos documenting such behavior?

Yes, history records evidence of other reprehensible acts on our part. Slavery, Native American extermination, Japanese internment, medical experiments on unknowing “volunteers” spring to mind...

Yet, as an adolescent studying that history, I can still recall how lucky I felt at being born an American—especially being female, and Jewish. Yes, yes, I know, I wasn’t born into one of the above groups. I take that into consideration.

Other countries get parts of it better.
Health care, parental leave, 6-week vacations.
We definitely work much too hard.
I admire the red-line secularism of the French, for instance.

As far as we are from approaching perfection, people still risk--and lose—their lives daily to set foot on our soil, to give birth to their children within our borders. But that doesn’t give us license for arrogance or complacency.

I don’t even mind being held to another standard by the world at large.
I learned that lesson in sixth grade when Mrs. Gold rejected my hastily written thank you note she had assigned the class.
I protested, pointed to those from my classmates she had accepted.
“You,” she replied. “Can do better.”

Sunday, April 19, 2009

adventures in bookselling

Dispatches from the frontline of publishing.
You know, that part of the biz where the book actually makes it into a reader’s hand for the first time. And that reader forks over cash.

Life in these retailing trenches occasionally amuse and startle. When my book is written it will include the following incidents.

I take the middle-aged woman to the section and hand her the requested book, The Yeast Syndrome.

She looks up at me asks, “Can I buy this?”
For a tiny part of a second I am too stunned to speak.
“Of course,” I reply. “That’s the point. You can purchase everything but the fixtures.”
“Well, I’ve never been in here before.”
Huh? Perhaps the name above the door should have been a clue.

OK, so maybe one such oddity is to be expected once in a blue moon. But this is the SECOND such inquiry I’ve had in the past two months. And neither was approaching senility.

In the early days of my employment, I am working the register in the hectic post-Christmas rush. A woman of no more than 50 steps up to my station, complaining her computer is not functioning. Where, she demands, is the line for returns. I lean in close, so as not to embarrass her.

“Ma’am, do you think you are in Best Buy? (on the other side of our mall)
She stops, straightens up and looks around.
“I guess you got your laugh for the day.”
I do.

A colleague reports a phone call from a customer requesting, “A bible for someone new to walking in the word.”

I recently took a call from customer requesting the author of The Anderson Method. Perhaps, I thought, it's the same person buried in Grant's tomb.

As the lead bookseller in the kid’s department, the bane of my existence is adults who think nothing of dropping/sending their young children to my department and trotting off to sports, self-help, investing or whatever. I am not a babysitter, and small folk are not to be left unsupervised in the section. I once caught a toddler hanging from the metal hooks of a display he had climbed.

One day, I notice a child who really does toddle, she’s so young--not much beyond a year--wandering about with no adult in sight. I am just about to call a manager, when her father (I assume) strolls in, unconcerned. Overcome with outrage am I. What can I say? The Jewish mother part of my psyche is easily activated.

“Sir, you cannot leave a child this young alone in this department.”
He looks genuinely surprised.
I wonder how his wife—or the judge supervising his visitation—would react.

The recent installation of a security system creates its own indignity, constituting a downright hostile work environment. While covering breaks in the music department, I am subjected to repeated shots of my butt in the monitor. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Terms of detachment

It’s one of Mother Nature's little jokes.

Among the rare things shrinking as we age is the vitreous, the gel-like substance surrounding the eye. As it shrinks, it pulls at the retina and can cause a retinal tear or worse. If not attending to quickly, this can lead to blindness. Those of us with extreme myopia are the most at risk, cause our retina’s are stretched thinner around our elongated eyeballs.

So when the cascade of black dots and cobwebbed floaters over a filmy gray field suddenly descended on my right eye last Saturday as I worked, I was more than disquieted. Naturally, when I got home, I did the expected. I logged onto the internet to check it out—using mainly my one “good” eye. The results were confusing.

The lists of symptoms were vague and comments from others describing what seemed to be the same trouble complained of no cause or cure. The problem was the description. How to tell if what I was seeing was what they were describing? The two definitive photos of what a detached retina would look like to the victim brought about a temporary sigh of relief. They appeared different. One photo looked like those black semaphore flags used to send Morse code in those old movies.

That night, I worried and watched my internal black’n white psychedelic light show. No improvement. My mind kept returning to the phrases “sudden change” and “immediate medical attention.” Sleep didn’t help. What to do on a Sunday morn? I called the service of a glaucoma specialist I had seen several years ago and was referred to the doctor covering for him. That doctor, bless his heart, called me immediately. Turns out, he is a retinal surgeon. “I’m heading down to the office for another patient, why don’t you stop in.”

This stroke of “luck” is referred to in my Buddhist practice “a benefit.”

I feel the need to note how petrified I am of anything regarding my eyes. I’ve worn glasses since 5 years of age. And my myopia increased at such a rate, my family would joke that “next I would need a seeing eye dog.” At night, I would shut the lights and feel my way around the bedroom to memorize it, so convinced was I that blindness was near. Children are literal creatures. As a teen, an attempt at contact lenses (hard plastic back then) ended with corneal abrasions, as if a ring of fire had been stamped onto my eyes. The few times I tried not wearing my specs the results were too embarrassing to mention.

I chanted silently to myself through the uncomfortable exam (another one on tap for later today) and the results were encouraging. The retina was intact—for the time being, he emphasized. It was the vitreous that had detached and those dots were from the broken blood vessels. There was nothing to be done but watch and wait to see if the retina would follow. In the past week, I have noticed no improvement. But I think I may be getting used to the flotsam congesting my view. If I make it though the next few weeks, he said, I would only have to worry about the other eye, which usually follows the same pattern.

“If there had been tear, I’d just take you into the other office and spot weld you,” he added, referring to the laser used to seal the breach. I must say, the thought of it makes me lose my lunch. Let’s face it. There is no “closing your eyes and thinking of England” in these procedures. You are awake and too much aware for my taste.

I have a great deal of company here. The doc is making a fine living. There are so many of us bailing water out of this same aging boat, that it gave me an idea for a new reality show: Retinas behaving badly.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lawn yawn

This is an example of what seems eccentric, at best, may be just enough ahead of the curve to appear around the bend.

Oct 1, 1995
Point Pleasant, NJ

It’s been this summer’s drumbeat: drought, drought, drought. Meteorologists even insist that the recent rain has done little to fill our reservoirs.

In England, the chief executive of a Yorkshire water company recently announced that he hasn’t bathed in three months, limiting himself each day to a washcloth and a half a bowl of water to keep from offending others.

I’m not following his sterling example, but at the incessant urging of public officials, I have made a good faith effort to cut back, to at least not waste this very stuff of life. I try not to linger in the shower, to shut off the tap while brushing and to think before I turn on the dishwasher, although I freely admit it sometimes slips my mind.

Although we have been fortunate in not needing mandatory water restrictions like the North Jersey communities, I remain puzzled and disturbed by our priorities.

Walking around my neighborhood, I can’t help but notice an awful lot of lawn watering. To my mind, that should be way down the list, right after filling a swimming pool. (But it was stifling this summer, and to my mind, people come before lawns.)

OK, OK already, I confess to lacking this national obsession with outdoor, velvet-green carpeting. My long-suffering neighbors would be quick to agree. I make this statement with full realization that most of you call such a position heresy.

This spring, a new friend asked if she could borrow my lawn mower. (She obviously had not been to my house yet.) When I stopped laughing and told her I had no use for a lawn mower, she stared in disbelief.

You see, I don’t have a lawn. My front yard is a motley collection of sand, weeds and trees. Every few months I go out and trim things back a bit, so it doesn’t grow to resemble the rear yard. There is no other way to describe the back yard other than wild. One of my friends dubbed it “the rainforest.” At this time of year, you can’t even walk back there – not without hip boots and a sickle, that is. (At this juncture, I feel the need to pause and point out that I wasn’t raised in some shack with a dilapidated car in the front yard. My family lived in a succession of very middle-class houses with very green lawns.)

When I married and moved into my first home, the yard work fell to my husband. But that was another lifetime. For decades, I have lived in my own home, one with quite a large yard. And I have never been inclined to “put down a lawn,” as they say. I just don’t get it.

Why do we yank out the indigenous plants, the so-called weeds and spend an enormous amount of time and money nurturing grass and polluting our precious water with chemicals? And who are these weed police, anyway? Who decides, for example, that the graceful and abundantly growing mimosa tree is little more than a weed?

Humans seem to have an inborn need to reshape nature instead of joining with it. After careful consideration, I have decided we feel uncomfortable without the illusion we are in control of our surroundings. And that extends to the physical space around our homes.

By now a lot of you might be thinking, so what’s the big deal? Lawns look and feel real nice, and it’s not as if they do any harm. I will concede that a hearty strain of grass makes a nice place for children to play. But front lawns are worse than useless.

They waste time, energy and pollute the environment. And for what? I could understand it if the yard was put to some productive use, such as a vegetable garden. But all this just make our houses look better? Please!

Decades ago, I had a friend with a large family who actually dug up the front lawn of her Monmouth County home and planted vegetables. She also started an alternative school for her six youngsters before moving out West. Once in California, her kids adopted names like Treefrog. I’m sure you get the drift.

Back then, I thought she was slightly off kilter.
Now I’m not so sure.