Monday, January 16, 2012

Boyz 2 Men

The world is feeling out of whack to me.

In the last few weeks, I’ve learned about the conditions of several local boys – teenagers who are going through the kinds of trying health situations I’d expect to hear about my mother’s friends.  Not about my son’s.

A heart surgery.  A gall bladder operation.  A mysterious loss of vision.  Circumstances that would make a parent pine for something as mundane as a concussion or a broken foot.

Hearing about these incidents reminded me of my husband’s story, a story that I tell with the authority of someone who actually witnessed the events, even though they took place before I ever knew him.

My husband lost his vision when he was in his twenties.  It happened gradually but efficiently, over the course of a few months.  Initially, his vision became blurry.  As if he were driving in a car whose windshield was very dirty, is how he describes it.  As time went on, he was barely able to see things directly and was left with only a peripheral vision.  And colorblindness.

It took a while for a diagnosis.  He went to ophthalmologists and neurologists, submitted to scans and spinal taps, and ultimately it was decreed that his condition was Leber’s Optic Atrophy – a rare affliction that involves the degeneration of the optic nerve.  It’s genetic.  It’s not correctable by glasses.  It’s neurological and untreatable and has left him with either 20/200 or 20/2000 vision (I can’t remember which).  In either case, legally blind.

My husband was a PA when he lost his vision.  That is, he was a Production Assistant at The Movie Channel, an entry-level job that require he screen a lot of movies and write snappy 30-second promo spots to run on the network.  I think it was his first “real job” out of college, and he had moved from his home in Boston to New York to start his career in television.

Once he received his diagnosis (and prognosis – which was, basically, this is your lot in life), he went to his boss to resign.  He said that his vision problems were uncorrectable and he planned on moving back with his parents and figuring out how to go on with his life from there.

His boss said to him, “Look, you have a lot of problems. You’re unorganized and your workspace is a mess.  Why don’t you go back to your desk and work on those problems and I’ll figure out what to do about your vision issues.”

My husband’s boss then went to bat for him.  Somehow, they found machines and contraptions that would enlarge text and video sufficiently for my husband to do his work.  His boss got the company to buy it all for him.  The idea that an organization would make that kind of investment in a Production Assistant was outlandish. 

Yet, they did.

My husband remained at The Movie Channel for a while, and then moved on to become an On-Air Producer elsewhere.  After a year he took the same job at Nickelodeon and remained there for 16 years, where he became a Senior Producer, Department Director, VP, Senior VP and ultimately Executive VP Creative Director of Nickelodeon Worldwide, which was an insanely highfalutin title for someone who remained as messy and disorganized as he was as a PA. 

Disorganization was not the only characteristic that remained a constant for him.  Another was his Vision.  Not his eyesight, but his ability to see and create things that don’t yet exist in the world.  Losing his eyesight didn’t affect his Vision at all.  Perhaps it even enhanced it.

What I’m saying is, he went on to become an award-winning producer of visual entertainment and groomed a staff that went on to run divisions and networks of their own – a prospect that no one could have seen or predicted through that dirty car windshield.

I am heartbroken when I imagine what these young men are going through with their medical hurdles.  I can’t even fathom how scary it must feel.  And for their parents – the anxiety of what’s to come, what kind of lives their children will now be able to lead.

I don’t know anything about medicine and even less about having to endure that kind of struggle in a life, but I see it proven time and again that our essence, our magic – our superpower – exists in a place beyond our physical circumstances.  I want to believe that these boys, like my husband, will discover a power within themselves that will transform them.   That they will find their own greatness not in spite of their hardship, but perhaps because of it.

What if they learn early and with certainty that our perfection has little to do with flawlessness and everything to do with loving the parts of us that are broken?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Zen And The Art Of Auto Body Maintenance

It’s no secret that my Friday Tennis Game sometimes takes on the qualities of a sacred confessional.  Last Friday did not disappoint.  I ran quickly through the details of The Teenager’s first vehicular mishap, explaining how he backed out of a driveway into a car that was parked opposite that driveway, a maneuver that I myself have managed to execute on three separate occasions in the 11 years we’ve lived in suburbia.  I told them how the car he hit belonged to his friend and how the driver’s door needs to be replaced, how the friend took it for two estimates, and how each estimate came in at $4,000.  I had given the friend the name of a particular auto body shop that I thought might be more reasonable, but the boy neglected to take it there.

“So, I took it myself,” I told them, with a self-satisfied smile.  It was obvious from my demeanor that the estimate I acquired was much, much lower.

“Did you cry?” asked Shelley.

I was startled by this, because that was going to be my big confession.  Not that I did cry, but that I announced to the owner as soon as I met him, that I might cry.

“I hope you cried,” said Eileen.  She told me that she uses a certain brand of gum as an aid for just such interactions.  “If you put it in your mouth and just let it sit there – don’t chew – it’s so strong it will make your eyes tear.”  She keeps some in her purse all the time.

When I was 27, I worked with a guy who accused me one day of using my feminine wiles to get what I wanted in the workplace.  He wasn’t even talking about promotions – just getting my projects moved up to the top of the roster so I could meet my clients’ deadlines.  I remember being so affronted when he said this to me that we had a big falling out and didn’t speak to each other for days.  I also remember being mortified that my tactics were so transparent.

Now, I’m barely even sheepish. 

It’s no secret that a woman reaches a point in her life where she doesn’t have many feminine wiles left.  I’m thinking I may have two or three at most; I may as well use them.

As I’ve matured, I’ve found the Threat of Crying to be more effective than Actual Crying.  You can still come across as pathetic, but you don’t get all pink and puffy.  For me, it allows oxygen a continued clear passage through my nasal cavity.  Also, there’s no awkward moment when someone has to decide whether it’s appropriate to put their arm around you.

The auto body shop owner was a man, but I’ve used my few remaining wiles with women as well.  “Are you really nice?” I asked the woman at the insurance company when I called to find out that The Teenager’s insurance rates would increase almost 100% if we filed a claim for the damage.  “Because I might cry during this call and I need to be talking to someone really nice.”

“I can be,” she said.

“Would you?” I pressed.

These conversations didn’t need any gum or onion-chopping or any pinching myself hard on the underside of my arm.  Because I really am on the verge of tears over this incident, even though I got a much lower estimate from my auto body shop and even though no one got hurt and no one is even angry about what happened.  But from the moment I got The Call from The Teenager, a truth solidified for me, one that I had been entertaining as hypothetical, but been able to push safely away, which is that my baby boy has gained a level of independence and taken on an amount of responsibility that I have no control over.  And things are going to get broken, despite how much I try to will them otherwise.

There is a Buddhist saying that goes, “The teacup is already broken.”  I usually take that to mean, don’t get too attached to the way things are – they’re going to change; impermanence is the nature of the world.  This has been a notion I’ve found solace in over and over when I find myself too worried about things I can’t control. 

But it’s a concept that’s harder to embrace when your child is getting behind the wheel of a car every day. 

For now, a better maxim might be, “Don’t send a teenager to an auto body shop to do the work of a distraught and zealously frugal middle-aged woman,” which may not be as elegant a metaphor, but is a notion I think every one of us can get behind.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year

Many, many years ago, I spent New Year’s morning walking through Hoboken with my boyfriend. We’d decided that morning (or maybe the night before) that we needed to break up. We’d been together for several years – longer than I’d been with anyone at that point in my life – but the writing was on the wall and we both knew it.

I think I was 29.

It was snowing that morning, which made our walk all the more wistful. Because we really liked each other, and we loved walking through Hoboken together, and also because Hoboken is especially beautiful during an early winter snow. It made the whole sad thing all the more sad.

Somewhere along our walk (I remember it being around 14th Street), one of us had an uncharacteristic moment of profound maturity and suggested something that, even as I write it, seems so outlandish I can’t believe the other even entertained it. One of us suggested we go see a therapist to break up. Because we were both in our twenties and each of us understood that we had gotten to “that place” we all get to in a relationship where we start doing our stupid, self-destructive things and that it would just be a matter of time before this union crashed and burned as had the others that came before it.

If we saw a therapist together and hashed it all out, we thought maybe we could do it differently with the next person. Maybe we could walk away from each other feeling not like victims, but empowered to stop playing out our same silly games in every subsequent love affair we had for the rest of our lives.

The logic was: If we broke up mindfully, we could perhaps each go off and find happiness in the world.

Therapy took a good, long time – much longer than the two or three sessions either of us had envisioned. After we were done, we bought a house together. And then we went on a 10-day trip to Hawaii, a trip that, after we got married, we referred to as our honeymoon, even though it took place before we had exchanged vows.

I just received this message today from an old friend: “On this first day of 2012 let go of the past. Don't waste a good minute worrying about a bad one. Know that everything is perfect exactly as it is. Trust that there is a reason, even when you can't see it.”

I don’t really believe in New Year’s Resolutions, but I’m making an exception this year and resolving to try and remind myself of my friend’s wise words every single day. And maybe to also try and eat more kale.

Happy New Year!! Thanks so much for spending time here with me.