Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Speak Softly and Move Like a Tiger

I've had nursing homes on the brain lately. But none of us will have to worry about our retirements if Iran is allowed to enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon. So today, briefly, a switch from local news, to international ...

I was in Israel on business a few years ago, and a friend from the Foreign Ministry was taking me to lunch in Jerusalem. As we left the gates of the ministry, he saw a friend of his and they spoke for a minute in Hebrew.

Robin, on the Mount of Olives with the Dome of the Rock and the old city of Jerusalem in the background below.

As they parted, I turned and saw a man put his foot up on the railing of the fence that surrounds the Israeli Foreign Ministry building. My friend, a retired General in the Israeli Defense Force, began to move slowly, like a cat stalking a bird.

As the stranger tied his shoelace, my friend turned his body in what seemed like slow motion and moved in a large arc, from one side of the stranger to the other. All sound around me stopped and the only things I could see were the surroundings as, if they were standing still, and my Israeli friend, with every muscle on alert, his eyes moving back and forth, as he seemed to clear an invisible path around the man tying his shoe.

And then the stranger stood up, straighted his trouser cuffs and walked away.

Time and the movement around us restarted, and my Israeli friend took my arm, finished the sentenced he had begun with me a nanosecond-but-what-seemed-like-an-eternity-before, and off we went to lunch.

Israel is the kind of country in which a man tying his shoe in front of the Foreign Ministry may just be a man tying his shoe or may be something much worse. I started breathing again about an hour later and I cannot tell you to this day what we had for lunch. I have often wondered, in the years since, what it must be like to live in a country that required one to be constantly on the alert like that.

But that was before our own experience on September 11, 2001.

All this came to mind this morning when I read Richard Cohen, of the Washington Post, in today's paper. He has a terrific column about the latest news on the nuclear enrichment facility in Iran and how it might be a defining moment for President Barak Obama. Cohen is a liberal columnist and thus his comments have especial import--insiders in the White House read what he says and do take note.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.

Cohen's point: that either the U.S. can do something to ensure that Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon, or Israel will have to. And if Israel has to, seriously bad things in the Middle East may ensue.

Barak Obama looks good and sounds good and his election seems to have been good for America's image abroad. Now it is well past time to show he is more than an image--or an empty suit. This is a very bad business and it calls for a great leader.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is tying his shoelace on the fence that surrounds the safety of the world. It is time for Barak Obama to watch him as he does so, and move like a tiger cat.

Read Richard Cohen's Memo to Obama

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

All the Leaves are Brown, And the Sky is Grey ...

Wow, the last ten days have been so challenging I haven't been able to blog. We've had the final hot days of the California summer season, and I, watching things at my parents' home, realized I was approaching meltdown myself.

I took a few days off during this final heat wave and headed up to the Sierras where it was really beautiful: but even then I couldn't write about it. I visited all the little Gold Rush towns: Twain Hart and Angel's Camp, Copperopolis and Murphys, Sonora and Railroad Flat, winding my way through Calaveras County and crossing the Stanislaus Rivers. It was good to get away, but I knew there were big decisions looming about what to do regarding my father.

I could see he was losing his ability to walk, which happens with some kinds of dementia of the Alzheimer's type. He's losing his motor skills. He's having trouble feeding himself.

Even with 24-hour care at home, we can't manage him if he can't walk. We would need two people 24-hours a day, and that's not even practical.

So I came back from the mountains relaxed and feeling better about things, but still aware that I would have to do something: that is, aware that somehow I would have to get my father into nursing care.

Nursing care is something no one in the family wants for Dad, least of all Mom who, upon hearing that we're going to do it, will go ballistic (which is why I haven't told her yet). Dad himself will be confused and upset by the change, and thus it will at first seem worse for him. And I will actually have more responsibilities, because I'll have to spend more time driving to see him, so I know he'll be okay, and driving my mother to see him, and helping to manage his care at the nursing center because you have to stay on top of things to ensure the one you love gets the best of care.

Then, yesterday morning, Dad couldn't walk at all and wanted to go back to bed after breakfast. I knew something was wrong and we took him to the hospital. He had a low grade infection and they didn't admit him, but that simple thing has wiped him out.

Thus I've visited a new skilled nursing center to see if they have room for Dad and to see if it is something he might like. Or might not hate as much as I imagine.

My sister and I have done this drill already once this fall, as you may recall, and the day we planned to move him, the Big Fancy Nursing Home on the Hill didn't have a bed for him, and my sister and I didn't really like the BFNH's attitude. So we backed down and let it go another month and now, here I am. Looking for another place.

I never thought I would say this, but I would rather go out and cover a 7-11 shooting, live, for the six o'clock news.

The place I've found, if they will take him, is smaller than the BFNH and closer to my house and my mother's house and is adjacent to the local hospital. It is sunny and bright. How they might treat him there, I can only discover once he is there.

But I must do this this week, because if I leave Dad at home, unable to walk, he or my Mom or one of the caregivers, or even myself, will get hurt trying to transfer him from bed to chair to bath, and then we will have another candidate for nursing care on our hands.

Come to think of it, perhaps I should just check into the place with my Dad so I can get a complete rest.

These are awful decisions we have to make, but there we are. Life, as my parents have known it at their home in Los Altos for more than half a century, will change and it will change forever. My parents had the option to make decisions about these things much earlier in their lives, when they were living in healthy retirement, and they chose not to do that.

So now they must rely on their children to make these choices for them. Just as we once had to rely on them.

We are in the midst of our first touch of autumn in Northern California now and the state is as achingly beautiful as ever. But, we are having a break from what P.G. Wodehouse once called our "relentless sunshine." It is somehow appropriate to the tasks I have at hand.

Autumn in California, as the leaves change on the maple tree just down the street ...

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Friday, September 18, 2009

News Nose is Itching: My Prediction for the Week

Thursday, September 12, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made an unannounced visit to Moscow for a meeting on a unknown subject with unknown officials in the former Soviet Union. It didn't turn out to be a secret trip, since it has been in all the papers, but it wasn't on his schedule, he was gone for twelve hours and no one is commenting on exactly what he did. But before Israel takes any military steps to eliminate a nuclear threat in Iran it would need assurances from Russia (one of Iran's chief suppliers) that it would take no retaliatory steps. If Netanyahu didn't take a suitcase full of money with him to Russia, I would be really surprised. What do you think he was doing there?

Netanyahu's Secret Russian Visit

Friday, September 11, the United States and its European allies agreed to begin talks with Iran about its nuclear program. There is no agenda for these talks, nor any start date. But, agreement to talks like this provides the West with cover. No one will be able to say we didn't at least make an attempt to talk with Iran about its nuclear weapons program before we--or our allies in Israel--take extraordinary steps to eliminate the threat.

U.S. Agrees to Talks with Iran and North Korea

Thursday, September 17, the United States announces plans to scrap a missile shield in Eastern Europe and concentrate instead on protecting the Middle East from the short-range missiles that might come from Iran. This news item holds two clues to the future: the first is that it throws a bone to the Russians, since they haven't wanted the missile shield technology deployed in their backyard. And secondly it allows the U.S. to make clear it is deploying its anti-missile devices elsewhere, where they might be more useful, i.e. to protect Israel.

U.S. to Shelve Nuclear Missile Shield in Poland

Friday, September 18, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tells NBC News reporter Ann Curry that Iran would not explicitly rule out development of nuclear weapons and that he would "never halt Tehran’s work on peaceful nuclear programs to mollify Western skeptics."

Iran's President Won't Rule out Nukes

You can add up all the unknowns in this equation for yourself. Ahmadinejad is reading the same tea leaves I am, but I believe he underestimates America and its allies' resolve, which always comes to the fore when dangerous bullies begin to make megalomaniacal threats. It is my belief that all these signs we're seeing point to an action very soon that will be forthcoming out of Israel and that will not be protested by either the U.S. or Russia. I suspect the action will make Iran's president sorry he was ever born. If he has time to have a thought like that before he is gone.

I have no inside knowledge. My news nose is just itching, and it appears to me something very serious is imminent. We won't know until it happens. I don't have the data the intelligence authorities have so I don't even know what should be done. I'm just telling you what I think will be done. I pray that whatever happens it will be quick and clean and will not cause damage anywhere except where such damage will do the most good. And that when it is over, I hope the world will be a safer place. At least until the next bully comes along.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Favorite Teacher

A teacher who made a difference in my life, Marlene Maselli Schuessler of the Los Altos High School District.

The photo from my old yearbook doesn't do her justice, but it does show her wonderful smile. We called her Miss Maselli, though she always hoped we would get to know her well enough to call her Marlene.

I was a junior in high school when I took her journalism class, the class that produced our high school newspaper The Lance. And she did something wonderful for me that year and the next as I continued to work on the paper and became its editor: she encouraged me to be myself and thus began to give me my first glimpse of my own character.

She was the first woman I had ever gotten to know who was in her twenties and not yet married. She told us funny stories--after class, anyway--about her dates and misadventures. When I was around her and she shared these things with me it was as if she had let me in to a secret club of womanhood, and it was heady stuff for a seventeen year old girl from family that discouraged closeness outside our family circle.

No one before had encouraged me to be unique or to follow my dreams. My family had its own dreams for me and I was encouraged to follow those. But Miss Maselli--Marlene--told me I had a real talent for writing and I should pursue that, if that is what I wanted to do. It was like turning on a light in a dark room.

My older sister was away at college by this time and I was a solo teen suffocating in a world of adults. Individuality was frowned upon. Marlene, in a kind way, and with a laugh and a wave of her expressive Italian hands, just waved it all away. At least for the hours I spent in her class.

I didn't even take the pencil from behind my right ear for this photo. What a geek.

The most interesting times came when we put the newspaper to bed every other week. We had to gather at a printer's shop in those days, and proofread the galleys. It was incredibly good experience for the days that lie ahead for me: we found mistakes and corrected them. Made sure we had our facts straight. And Marlene brought huge bags of chips and crackers and munchies for us to devour while we worked. My mother never understood when I wasn't hungry for dinner when I came home late on an evening we had put the paper to bed. I was stuffed with junk food and I was also walking on a cloud of my dreams--what I would do in my life and my career and my future.

I was pretty lucky. Thanks to Marlene's encouragement I actually did go on to a career in television news. I don't know if she was surprised about that. I certainly was.

When I took a job at KRON-TV in San Francisco, five years into my career--a station in the top ten television markets in the U.S.--Marlene called and asked me to speak to her journalism class at Los Altos High. I don't remember much about what I said, but it was so much fun to see her again. She was married by now and was Mrs. Schuessler, and now she was telling me it was possible to have a career and a marriage, with the one not necessarily making the other an impossibility. These were magical thoughts back then. Everyone does that now. But back then, cheerful Marlene continued to be at the cutting edge of her generation of women.

Robin at KRON-TV.

Now I know her as a grandmother. When I returned to California this year, we had coffee together. She's just as pretty as she was then, though her black hair is a gorgeous gray. The funniest thing happened. I discovered how young she was! All this time I had looked up to her as an older person of wisdom and authority. She was all those things to me. But she is just eleven years my senior.

She had a long career as a teacher and a counselor and she and her husband are now retired. I'm sure Marlene Maselli Schuessler had an impact on many young lives, since that is the kind of person she is.

I don't know if I've ever told her thanks for all she did for me. Just by her kindness and her belief in me, she made it possible for me to imagine a glimpse of a world I was not sure would be possible for me. Of course it was possible, she said, and so it became.

So today, I send her my thanks. No longer as student to mentor. But as a woman to a kind friend.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Having Fun at the Palace of Pretty

This is the latest giveaway at Neiman Marcus: faux leopard totes in beige or red. Bet you can't guess what color I chose?

When you re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all;
I'm on your side. when times get rough
And friends just can't be found,
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.

Bridge over Troubled Water
by Paul Simon 1969

I think Neiman Marcus should adopt this Simon and Garfunkel song as their motto. Not only are they doing a fabulous job of getting their company through this recent financial slough of despond, they are lifting up all of us who wander dreamily through their stores, at the same time. When tears are in my eyes, I just drop by Neiman's and they dry them all.

Have you been there lately? All you have to do is drop in and buy a lipstick or a pair of socks and they give you some lovely "gift." Faux leopard shopping bags are their latest treat. And I was just thinking the other day how much I needed one of those.

Nieman Marcus has long been one of my favorite stores. When I was married and moved to Washington D.C. my husband said I chose the house we bought simply because it was less than a mile from the Chevy Chase Neiman Marcus. What? And you have a problem with that? (He may have had since he's no longer with us. I mean, he's still alive. Just no longer with us.)

Neiman Marcus seems to be the last remaining store that makes just going there and walking around a treat. If you enjoy seeing beautiful things, in a peaceful, tasteful environment, and being waited on by kind, well-dressed staffers, Neiman Marcus is your place. The folks at the National Gallery of Art aren't nearly this nice. And the decor is better at Neiman's. Forgive me for this anathema.

Lately, I've been wandering around the NM in Palo Alto quite a lot.

I suppose that is partly because I'm living with a lot of stress right now, what with the grumpy, aging, octogenarian parent-thing going on 24-7. And, it is also because NM keeps sending me these wonderful invitation cards to come down and stop by and receive a little gift for my trouble.

One of the first such promotional items I received on a visit several months ago was a little package of faux gold bracelets, which they told me were the hottest thing for fall. They said this was the new dramatic fashion statement or something like that. I bought some stockings and there was this free fashion statement I could start making, right away. Turns out the bracelets were too small for my wrist, but you see I have this sister (Kim, stop reading now and skip a couple of paragraphs please) with a birthday coming up and a much smaller wrist.

About a month later, I stopped by and saw the same bracelets on sale at their jewelry counter. I checked out the price and just about passed out. These faux gold bracelets aka fashion statement cost quite a bit when you didn't get them as a promotional present. Wow, will my sis be happy.

The latest invite I received from them has me a little worried. I mean some real weirdos might drop by for the free pantie offer. But I guess the people at NM won't mind, since any strange gentlemen desirous of free panties will also have to buy a bra in the process. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Taking my tongue out of my cheek for a sec, I think there is something about Neiman Marcus that hearkens back to the quality and service one received at department stores long ago. In the days before shopping centers, my family used to drive into San Francisco each fall for our holiday shopping. The large stores there were beautiful and had helpful clerks and merchandise that was well-made and and so classic it would last forever, or at least until next season.

I remember especially a store called the City of Paris that had a ground floor filled with necessities and accessories and mezzanine floors above that for its special departments. At the top, there was a gorgeous glass roof that let in beautiful filtered light on even the grayest of San Francisco days. At Christmas, they brought a huge Christmas tree in through the roof and everyone for miles around came to see the City of Paris tree. You could look up at it from the ground floor as it rose up to the roof, and, if you went up to the mezzanine floors, you could almost reach out and touch its branches.

The products were quality then, almost all of them made with union labels in the United States. The imported things--from France and England--were more expensive and had an exotic European quality. The clerks were knowledgeable and deferential. The experience was delightful. And there was always a restaurant or a tea shop on one of the floors where you could sit for a minute and munch on a sandwich while you got your blood sugar back up for the next sortie into a new department.

I know people who like to hike and watch birds for fun. And I know people who like to gamble, and people who like to drink, and people who like to garden--all these things we humans do in our quest for peace of mind, or escapism or whatever you want to call it.

For me, Neiman Marcus is the Palace of Pretty. Much easier parking than most art museums I know. No entrance fee. Good lighting and helpful staff and beautiful objects d'art wherever I look. Add in a few "free gifts" and its irresistible. Neiman's has developed a particular marketing plan to help get its company--with its luxury brand--through this tough recession. And it's mighty good medicine for the odd day of depression as well. Just goes to show you what a pair of free panties can do.

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Neiman Marcus on the Web

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Loving Without Getting Tired

Robin and her mother, dancing in the front yard of Echo Drive in the 1990s.

I wanted to write something about the anniversary of 9/11, but the solution to the problem of asymmetrical warfare seems so far away, I return to the troubles in my own family life. Sometimes they aren't so troubling. When my father said to me the other day: "I've been giving you problems all my life. I might as well not stop now that I'm almost ninety," I had a good laugh. He may be ill, but he has not lost his sense of humor.

Still, one of the unfunny things I'm realizing lately is this: that my sister and I are very misguided when we continue to delude ourselves that we, if we try hard enough, can exert some control over the lives of our elderly parents.

A friend of mine put it best. When I said one day, apropos of the whole situation, "I guess I have to accept that I have only so much control over this." She answered: "You have no control at all." She lost her parents four years ago and speaks from experience.

Our lives are full of the illusion that we have control over things. We think by investing wisely we will end our lives in comfort. We reckon without earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, tax increases, divorces, deaths, depressions, down markets and things like the dust bowl and the Grapes of Wrath.

We assume if we are kind to our children they will all grow up to make healthy and wise decisions. We reckon without personality quirks, innate favoritism, uncooperative spouses, rebellion, illness, bad friends, cults, drugs, punk rock, the fad of tattooing and the Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds.

And, as our parents age and grow sick, we think if we can just find them the right nursing home, or have enough money to give them good care, they will live happily until they quietly and safely pass into the great beyond, from whence they can continue to watch over us just the way Spencer Tracy did over Irene Dunne in A Guy Named Joe.

What a load of horse manure that sounds to me today!

I can't even get my parents to install a ramp on the back stairs of their house. I can't even get them to promise to take a break after one hour, from a three-hour meeting with their minister, so Dad can use the bathroom and not have an accident in his pants. I can't make them go to the doctor. I can't keep them from falling down. I can't seem to do anything at all but do the best I can to keep them comfortable while I watch the train coming down the tracks headed straight for them. Kaboom.

I sound like I'm down, but I'm not. I think just getting to the "acceptance" stage of grief at this point is a good place to be. I've been in the denial stage, and the anger stage, and just accepting the inevitability of it all may bring some comfort.

Mother Teresa said we can't do big things and must do small things that make a difference instead. She added: "Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired." That's a tall order, isn't it?

I have no idea how she gained this wisdom. She, too, must have had many days in which she doubted the magnanimity of God. I'm certainly no Mother Teresa, yet when I think of what she accomplished in the face of all the world's troubles, it certainly makes my own challenges seem manageable. As long as I learn to accept them and realize I can't manage them. What a huge step that is.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Housing Our Elderly in a Dormitory of the Dead

"This is a terrible way for a man to die," Dad said last week in one of his moments of clarity." But what are the options?

In my house in Winter Park, I had a really charming apartment over the garage with a peaked ceiling and a fireplace. It was so cute that it was easy to keep it rented, though it was not always easy to find just the right kind of person to be such a close neighbor--that is, to have living right on my property with me.

One year, I rented it to a really nice lady from San Francisco, who had come to Orlando to help organize her father's affairs. He had Alzheimer's, she said, and she had given up her life in San Francisco, rented her home to friends, and come out to Florida to help get him settled for this final stage in his life.

How sad, I thought to myself, but naturally this will never happen to me. Life must have looked down on me and had a good laugh at that one.

Georgia was a wonderful person, a terrific tenant and a kind friend. She told me about a support group she was attending for Alzheimer's families (it is one I later attended myself). She pondered with me about how we keep everyone alive now with various treatments and medicines, so that they can all live to be a zillion years old and then die in nursing homes. Still, my parents continued to be self-sufficient long into their eighties and I just assumed they would continue to be like that forever. Georgia's problems didn't touch my own life back then. Silly girl.

It was a year and a half ago that my father was diagnosed with dementia of the Alzheimer's type. Now my sister and I are doing just what Georgia did: we are spending a lot of our time organizing his finances, handling the crisis management, making sure he is safe, hiring caregivers for his home, and planning for whatever time he has left in the best way we can.

Today we toured another nursing home and it turned me into a basket case. People, in various stages of decrepitude, spending over a hundred thousand dollars a year each--money they worked for and saved all their lives--to live in what is essentially a dormitory for the dying. It was a lovely place, as these places go, but yuck and double yuck. I'd rather be hit by a truck.

Who would want to go there? No one in my family that is for sure. But we are having to spend about twice what a nursing home would cost, to keep our Dad at home and we worry that there won't be enough left for Mom's care. The other option: to hire a caregiver for less than the going wage and pay them under the tabled seems unfair to us. Break the bank or break the law. What a choice.

It makes me think that living fast, dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse isn't such a bad idea after all.

It is too late for me to die young. But perhaps I was a little overzealous, a decade ago, when I quit smoking and started to take better care of myself. What fools we mortals be.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls

Dad, going over his checklist before a flight. He flew for fun after he retired and before he became ill. It was an engineer kind of thing.

It will be no big surprise to anyone if I tell you it has been painful to watch my father slowly fade away to the neurodegenerative disease he has of Alzheimer's-like dementia. At the same time, some fascinating things have happened to him that have made it possible to survive this, without total despair.

His singing, for one thing.

My father, the engineer, was always happy to sit and chat with almost anyone about how a pendulum worked, or about the principles behind the flying buttress. But singing? The only time I ever remember him singing was in church, and even then it lacked a certain joi de vivre.

So, it has been very surprising to hear him pipe up, over his take-out McDonald's pancakes with syrup, and launch into a solo rendition of "On the Road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, and the dawn comes up like thunder out of China 'cross the bay..." This is not a song I had ever heard from his lips until this week. And it is just one of the songs he is presently enjoying.

He's always smiling when he sings. On the Mandalay song, he also attempts an English accent, and though it is terrible and his deafness makes him really off-tune, the joy he takes in the music is absolutely worth the pain to your ears.

Where do these old songs come from?

His neurologist says a recent electroencephalogram, or EEG, shows that his brain is actually shrinking. I forgot to ask the physician how this would cause these songs, from the distant past of his life, to pop up. But something about the changes in his brain seems to have reconnected the synapses of his childhood.

When we asked him about "The Road to Mandalay", he told us his family had a hand crank Victrola and that they had a record of this song. In my entire life, he never mentioned this machine, nor his family singing around it, nor how much fun it obviously was for all of them to join in on what must have been an exotic piece of music for the folks in Homewood, Alabama.

One morning over the Safeway donuts I brought for a snack, he began singing "I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls ... " My sister and I looked at each other with big question marks on our foreheads. We had not heard this one either, and on the ride home I said I thought it must be a hymn. But we didn't find it in our hymn book, so we Googled it.

Turns out it is quite a famous song called "The Gypsy Girl's Dream" from an 1843 opera called The Bohemian Girl by Michael W. Balfe and Alfred Bunn. James Joyce uses the song several times in his short stories and in Finnegan's Wake, in which various characters refer to the opera or sing lines from the gypsy's song.

The other day I was sitting at my laptop, while my father's caregiver, Alem, was helping Dad get settled on the kitchen couch. He almost fell, but she waved me away when I got up to help, which meant she was better handling the situation alone.

Then, there was one of those brief moments my father has, of clarity. He said: "This is a terrible way for a man to die. I'd rather just have a heart attack and keel over than go through this."

I couldn't turn around because I didn't want him to see me crying. And yet, in the next moment he was on to singing "I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls." I realized that each sorrow in life has its teaspoon of beauty. Hearing my father sing doesn't erase the sadness of seeing him die by inches. But it helps to ease the meanness of it all, just a little.

I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls,
With vassals and serfs at my side,
And of all who assembled within those walls,
That I was the hope and the pride.

I had riches too great to count, could boast
Of a high ancestral name;
But I also dreamt, which pleased me most,
That you lov'd me still the same ...

That you love'd me, you lov'd me, still the same,
That you love'd me, you love'd me, still the same.

"The Gypsy Girl's Dream"
from The Bohemian Girl
Michael W. Balfe and Alfred Bunn 1843

Music in the Works of James Joyce

About The Bohemian Girl

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

You Can't Get to Roseville From Here

We saw these tomatoes piled high in the back of a big rig on Interstate 5, near Stockton, California.

We didn't mean to end up on Interstate 5 near Stockton. My sister and I started out today for I-80 and Roseville, California, where our family owns some rental property that nobody has inspected in decades.

But the traffic was so heavy as we turned onto Highway 80, we were forced to plod along at about 15 miles per hour. After a couple of hours of this, we turned off at Suisun City for a break.

There wasn't a McDonald's in sight. We pulled into a dusty strip mall that appeared to be one payment away from mortgage default. There, we spotted a little place called Bertha's Restaurant.

"Let's go in and get a tuna sandwich and regroup," I said. We parked the car and walked in the wind of the Sacramento Delta, through the dust to Bertha's.

Inside a ceiling fan spun above us and it was cool and nice. A cheerful young man greeted us.

"Have you ever tried a pupusa? They're great. You ought to have one," he said.

The truth is we had never even heard of a pupusa, which we learned was a traditional Salvadorian dish. So we washed our hands, sat down, and ordered a couple of pupusas. We noticed that Bertha's Restaurant also called itself a pupuseria. Eavesdropping on the Spanish spoken by the young man and the woman doing the cooking, we deduced that she was Bertha, the name of a Catholic saint whose feast day is May 15. St. Bertha lived in France in the middle ages and thus, missed the opportunity to feast on Bertha of El Salvador's pupusas.

They were wonderful. They looked like two soft tacos smooshed together over a thin layer of corn and a thin layer of beans, and they were topped with shredded cabbage and hot sauce.

He said we ought to try the sweet cinnamon tamale for dessert and we said we thought we ought as well. The tamales were sweet and rich with corn and cheese and sugar, and we felt very full when we were finished.

You can find Bertha's in Suisun City, on your way to Sacramento, at 413 Marina Center (707-399-8507). It is right off Interstate 80.

We never made it to Roseville. We headed back from Suisun City across the Sacramento Delta through farm country and over to Interstate 5 and back to the San Francisco Bay Area. It is Labor Day weekend and the Bay Bridge is closed for repairs so it appears all of the Bay Area residents who wanted a holiday jammed onto Interstate 80 headed to the mountains and Lake Tahoe, beyond Sacramento.

But it turned out well for us in spite of that. The drive home was beautiful. We saw the truck full of tomatoes, learning what tomato sauce looks like before it is transformed into something you put onto a pizza.

We saw several enormous windmill farms and lots of rolling California hillsides, golden from the summer sun.

And we were full of pupusas, an intriguing dish from our friends south of the border, by way of Bertha's Pupuseria, in Suisun. Que bueno.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Salute to Charlie Gibson: Scene Stealer

I was sorry to hear that Charlie Gibson was stepping down as anchor of "ABC World News." I think he is a good anchor and I know he is a good journalist. I also believe he is a nice guy with a pretty normal life for a man who achieved so much as a public person.

He's not really retiring, in spite of what the press releases say. He's leaving ABC because they've decided to replace him with Diane Sawyer and they're doing that because "ABC World News" isn't getting the ratings that Disney executives want to see. It's the way the TV business goes.

Charlie Gibson figured in what was, perhaps, my nearest Brush With Greatness during my years as a Washington reporter. Fortunately, with the passing of the years, I have been able to forgive him for the incredible success he achieved at my expense.

It was a Monday night and I was reporting for our 11 p.m. news at WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Washington D.C. I was in my thirties and in my prime. But it was a slow news night and especially slow because on Monday nights, ABC-TV aired "Monday Night Football," which meant that our 11 p.m. news didn't always air at 11 p.m. It depended upon when the football game ended. And that night it looked like it was going to be a late one.

I had filed my story for the late news and it was almost midnight when I asked the producer if he needed me to stay. No, go on home, he said. The show was all ready to go and the crew was just waiting for the game to end. My story was in the can. Not much big news breaks in the nation's capitol after midnight. Everyone is up much too early Making Decisions to Change the World to stay up late causing trouble.

I took about three steps toward the door and then I heard the assignment editor tell me to wait. "Bomb scare at the capitol," he said. "Take a crew and head down there."

Oh what a drag, I was thinking. We'll head down there, get about half way there, the thing won't turn out to be anything and they'll call us back. Meanwhile it will be 1:00 a.m. before I get home to bed.

We hopped into a news van with a microwave dish on the top and we began the circuitous drive from NW Washington DC to Capitol Hill. After about twenty minutes I said to the photographer, who was driving; "Odd isn't it, that they haven't called us back?"

He just nodded and on we drove. When we arrived at the capitol we knew why. There were fire trucks everywhere, police vehicles of all kinds, and yellow crime-scene tape around a section of the Capitol of the Free World.

The police captain in charge gave us a quick briefing: a bomb had actually gone off on the House side of the capitol, in a bathroom. Only one member of Congress had been working late in his office and he had heard the explosion but had not been injured. The police had no idea who had placed the explosives there. Since this was decades before 9/11, it was assumed some wacky Serbo-Croatians or One-Worlders or Neo Nazis were at the root of it, but police "were investigating." Still, it was an awful breech of security and suggested that something worse might be in the offing.

Robin doing a live report at the Capitol in Washington D.C.

Since all the other news stations had completed their newscasts and sent everybody home, our program was the only one with the story. I reported the lead story that night on our ABC affiliate, going live from the capitol, gave the details, and the anchors threw back to me several more times during the half-hour newscast, for updates. I was higher than a kite from the adrenaline rush of it all.

Then, during a break, a young woman stepped up with a notebook and said she was a producer for "Nightline" and said that Charlie Gibson, who covered Congress for ABC News was on his way in a cab from Chevy Chase to report on the story for "Nightline," but, if Charlie didn't get there in time, would I mind going live for a little Q and A with Ted Koppel, the legendary "Nightline" anchor.

"Why, yes," said I, with my calmest poker face on. "I can do that."

My cameraman and my producer were over the moon with the joy of it all and underneath my veneer of calm, so was I. Wow, what a chance. I was going to do a report on the network and people all over the country would see it and the network might even want to offer me a job and then I would be a huge success and then I would go on to become ... the mind races at moments like that.

I looked down at the yellow legal pad I always used when I was going live on television and I made some notes. I practiced what I would say. It was in the zone, if you know what I mean, and I was ready to go. Ask me anything, Ted. I'm there.

At about one minute before "Nightline." I looked around and saw no Charlie Gibson. The "Nightline" producer and I conferred and she briefed me on how it would go. Ted would open the show, intro me and then toss to me live at the capitol. I stepped in front of the camera with about forty-five seconds to go and let the photographer set his light and focus. The producer checked the live feed, and spoke to me in my earpiece, giving me a countdown to air time.

I looked up. With 30 seconds to go there was a movement in the crowd surrounding the police tape, inside which I was operating. A cab had pulled up. The crowd parted. Out stepped tall, genial, surefooted Charlie Gibson. Charles-Bloody-Gibson had found the only Iranian cab driver in the District of Columbia who knew where the capitol was. Bloody hell.

He beamed as he walked over and shook my hand.

"Hi Robin. Brief me."

In fifteen seconds, or less, I told him what had happened. The name of the congressman who had heard the bomb go off, what police were speculating. What would happen tomorrow. Who the police spokesman was. What were the officials' next steps. What Congress would do in the morning.

"Thanks kid," said Charlie, as he took the microphone from my hand and stepped in front of my camera. The cameraman glanced over at me for a nano-second and shrugged in sympathy and then turned back to the work at hand.

I stood and watched Charlie go live on "Nightline." He was really good, with all that info I had given him. He didn't even use one written note. He just chatted away with Ted like the pro he was. I hated him. Really bad.

My Brush With Greatness had been somewhat abortive. I could have killed Charlie's cab driver for being so bloody efficient. If that driver had taken just fifteen seconds more to make the drive from Chevy Chase ...

I did manage to recover from this terrible blow and continue my successful career in television news. Still, I've been aware ever since how much can change in a person's life with the passage of just a few seconds. Charlie's life and mine were always different, so our paths would have been unique no matter what had happened that night. And, you never know what heartache you might have been spared when you miss what appears to be the chance of a lifetime.

Still, when I feel like a good laugh, I remember Marlon Brando, sitting in the back of that cab with Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront and I think how funny it is that Marlon's speech is just the one I wish I could have delivered to Charlie Gibson, after that night at the capitol when he gave me that one-way ticket to Palookaville:

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley. It was you."

(With apologies to Budd Schulberg, Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront, and of course to Charlie Gibson, who is a genuinely nice guy.)

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Armageddon Delayed: Nursing Home Blinks

"Hey, why're ya takin' my picture over there?"

My sister and I were gritting our teeth and girding our loins and sharpening our spears and all the other metaphorical things one does before the Final Battle on the Last Day of the World. We had the attacking hordes in our field glasses and we were even considering the Nuclear Option (meaning using any powerful weapon in our arsenal, regardless of its power) when ...

I better explain. My sister and I have been told by our father's physician that it is time for him to go into nursing care. He isn't safe at home anymore, even though we have full-time care for him there.

Our mother doesn't agree our father needs nursing care and we are aware that this is her prerogative. That is why we acquired the proper legal papers so that we might make the decision to do this ourselves. But since our mother can get a very scary Mary-Todd-Lincoln-in-the-asylum look about her under conditions when her will is challenged, my sister and I have been preparing for a very bad time. We had decided any bad time we might endure would be worth it, if we could get Dad into the best care available in California.

We were even practicing counting to ten before responding to our mother's bon mots.

Anyway, according to reputation, the best place anywhere for Dad would be a place not far from here where the wealthy people in this region go to spend their final years. My father has never lived like a wealthy man, but he has invested wisely and my sister and I decided it was time we use his carefully husbanded savings to allow him to have the best possible care for whatever time he has left.

My father still looks so good, even though he is increasingly fragile.

I spoke with the admission director of said place, took a tour, asked for the appropriate forms, filled out the forms, got a physical for Dad, wheeled his wheelchair to a radiologist so he could get a chest x-ray to prove he doesn't have tuberculosis, got a prescription for "respite care" from his doctor, released financial information to the care center and spoke with the key executive late last week twice on the telephone so that we could finalize the details, including how to transfer his prescriptions, how much and what kind of clothing to bring, what kind of rehabilitation sessions he might expect, where to send his mail and so forth. After a thirty-minute conversation we agreed that my sister would fly out from Colorado and we would meet with the admissions director to complete any paperwork. We agreed on Thursday, September 3, 2009 as D-Day.

Tuesday, my sister flew into town and we drove to this beautiful location where the place with the nursing care would be. The views were spectacular and the grounds stunningly well-manicured. The place is just four miles from town, a drive that took just a few minutes.

We entered the lobby and asked for the admission director. The receptionist asked us if we wanted a tour. No, we said, we had had a tour, we now had an appointment. She gave us a form to fill out and we gave it back to her. Please let Ms. A know we are here for our appointment.

Ms. A came out about ten minutes later to tell us she was really swamped and trying to clean up her office. She didn't approach us but told us this in passing as she walked from one door and through another one. We saw her several more times, coming and going in the twenty minutes we waited in the lobby of the place, well beyond our appointment time.

Not a good start. When we finally were ushered into her office she reviewed the paperwork we brought and said: "I'm not sure if I have a bed on Thursday for your father. How would Friday do?" Not well, since we have 24-hour care for him at home and I had already cancelled it as of Thursday, the day she and we had agreed upon.

She looked down at the papers. "How do you think he will make the transition to nursing care? Will he be agitated?"

I was starting to feel uneasy. I turned the question around:

"How do you think he'll do? He has dementia. You're the experts here." She didn't answer and moved on to other, even more patronizing questions.

When we left my sister and I didn't say anything to each other for a few minutes. "Well," I said.

"That's just what I was thinking," my sister said.

We knew from that minute that we would be postponing Armageddon Day, D-Day or whatever you want to call it. Any looming family battle over nursing care wasn't worth it to bring Dad here. We weren't willing to fight for a place that might treat him the way we had just been treated.

So we went home and unarranged everything again and put Dad's home care schedule back in place.

We don't know what we will do next, nor when we will do it. But our goal is to get Dad into safe care before he falls and hurts himself at home. And our prayer is that we won't have to wait until he falls, to make his next transition.

Dad cared for us with love when we were children. Now, we were ready and willing to fight any battle necessary to protect and care for him. As it turns out, this was not the time for it. Like so much one worries about in life, the thing we worried most about vanished into the mist. Life made its own plans and chose not to share them with us.

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