Friday, March 28, 2014

Five Things I Had Forgotten About Virginia Beach

I'm back in Arlington today after eight days in Virginia Beach, which was probably the longest stretch of time I've spent there since I left for college in August 1982. We moved to Virginia Beach when I was seven and I left when I was sixteen, but it's still the closest thing I have to a hometown. My two brothers live there, Mom's grave is there, Dad still keeps an apartment at Chicks Beach. Since Mom's death, though, holiday gatherings tend to be at my sister Peggy's, outside Richmond, and it was usually too much for me to drive the extra 90 miles from Richmond to Virginia Beach.

Now, however, it's 200 miles door to door from my house to James and Sara's, so there'll be a lot of the Southside in my future. In fact, I'll be there on April 12 to see Bruce Springsteen, and I expect to be back a lot over the summer. (Summer traffic is a nightmare, but my work is flexible enough to let me travel at off-hours.)

The City of Virginia Beach has transformed itself in the 30+ years since I left. For one thing, its population has nearly doubled. Construction is constant, a little overwhelming. Most of it looks shoddy, houses of siding and polymer shingles next to my childhood neighborhoods of red brick. (Brick is cheap in Tidewater Virginia, or used to be. The land is clay, and ships from all over the world carried bricks as ballast, and left them behind when they sailed away with tobacco, whiskey and hams.) The whole south half of the city used to be farmland, and some farms remain, but most of the farmers sold out; the money was too good, and everything was cheaper in North Carolina anyway.

Not everything has changed, though. The Virginia Beach SPCA is exactly where it was when my Girl Scout troop visited it, out on Holland Road; back then it felt like a trip to the country, and now it's right off a major intersection. The Willis Furniture sign is still a landmark on Virginia Beach Boulevard, welcoming visitors to the gracious neighborhood of Thalia. The planes over Dam Neck are still deafening, and I still wonder how anyone lives in that flight path. (Lots of people do.)

And a few things I had forgotten, and was glad to remember.

1. Virginia Beach is huge. It used to be Princess Anne County; they turned the whole thing into a city. It's 497 square miles, of which about half is land and about half is water. By comparison, the entire state of Rhode Island is just over 1,200 square miles. "Around the corner" in Virginia Beach means about five miles away.

2. The Virginian-Pilot is a damn fine paper, especially its military coverage. My brother and sister-in-law still get home newspaper delivery, and I had forgotten what a luxury that feels like.

3. It's not all Navy. The Navy is the single largest employer in Virginia Beach and its sister communities of Norfolk, Chesapeake and Portsmouth (Hampton and Newport News too, but they're on the other side of the bridge). If you don't work for the Navy, chances are good that you work for a Navy contractor (as my brother and father do), or for an organization that serves Navy personnel and their families. But the serious money in Hampton Roads isn't Navy, or Navy-related. It's real estate, and some of it goes all the way back to the bad old days. The powers that be in Virginia Beach were there before the Navy and will be there after the Navy is gone. I can't say whether that's good or bad, but I went to school with some of them. It was a good school, with an honor system and a weighty sense of history.

4. Virginia Beach has a lot of churches. A lot. My brothers and sisters and I fought a lot as kids, and my mother would quote her own mother: "See, how these Christians love each other." Well, the sheer number of independent churches in Virginia Beach is pretty good evidence that no matter how much humans might love the Lord, the first thing they're going to do is fight about it. It's kind of impressive that so many individual communities can support so many places of worship, but it's hard not to remember the Tower of Babel when you drive past a whole row of them.

5. Pollard's chicken is still the best. No contest. When I was engaged, we were going to have Pollard's cater the wedding reception. I may never get married, but maybe they can cater my funeral.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

When Kindness Becomes a Commodity

Greetings from Virginia Beach. I've spent the last week down here with family — cancelling my trip to Left Coast Crime, which I'm sorry about, but this was more important — because we're all dealing with the usual life-cycle issues that any big family goes through from time to time. (And while I mention that, fierce congratulations to my cousin Christine and her husband Patrick, who welcomed their third son into the family earlier this week. At last count, I had 21 first cousins; I have lost count of how many first cousins-once-removed I have, but it's somewhere in the dozens.)

My brother James and his wife, Sara, are mourning the death of her mother, Linda, after a long illness. Linda lived with James and Sara in the last years of her life, and we took her into our family as she took us into hers. She was kind and funny and optimistic almost to the very end, and her faith was awe-inspiring.

The last couple of months of her life were terrible and terrifying, as so many cancer deaths are. Sara and James, their daughters Gina and Kristan, our brother Ed, our sister Susan and others saw to her needs, drove her to and from doctors' appointments, and in the end sat by and watched, pushing the pain pump so that she could die in peace, surrounded by people she loved.

Last night James and Sara got a condolence visit from Angela, one of the hospice nurses who had tended to Linda in the last months. This lovely woman came on her own time, after a full day's work, partly to mourn but partly to celebrate Linda's struggle, which Linda believed (and I believe) would end in a homecoming. Sara and Angela talked about one of Angela's colleagues, who had also been a great help, but has quit the hospice service because she just couldn't do it anymore.

"I don't know how you do it," said James. Angela (I swear I'm not making that name up) must hear that all the time, but it's true, because the hospice service here is nearly overwhelmed, and will be increasingly so as the baby boomers age. The nursing shortage is more than a decade old, and although the situation had improved a bit over the last decade, it's about to get a lot worse — a lot worse.

Because let's get serious: could you do that work? I could not. It's hard to imagine who in my circle could, although I know a lot of wonderful people. It's hard enough when it's someone you love; if you've been through it, you know how courage and compassion can fail, how helpless you feel, how exhausting it is, how frankly scary all of this can be. Life is the biological imperative; most of us don't go easily.

It's none of my business how much Angela earns, but apparently the median income for hospice nurses is about $60,000. That's not poverty level, but that shames me. It should shame all of us. No, you can't buy compassion — but God, shouldn't we be rewarding the people who do the hardest work of all, the work that makes us (well, me) shudder and pretend that reading books for a living is work, too?

I have no answers, but this is a conversation we need to be having. Forget missing aircraft, misguided foreign military operations, the latest celebrity divorce, or your outrage about whatever kind of sex people you don't know might be having or not having. We all die. We don't get a choice about that. Who is going to help us on that final journey, and how are we going to pay them?

Many years ago, in a conversation with a friend about my grasshopperish attitude toward money and financial planning, he said, "I'll tell you this: Stephen Spielberg is not going to die in a public hospital ward."

We cannot outsource compassion and care, but we can do a better job of rewarding the people who do it for a living.

Thank you, Angela and all your colleagues. And Linda, safe journey home.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Clean and Clear

This is me.

I don't allow my picture to be taken unless I absolutely cannot avoid it, and this has been true for many years. I feel — yes — shame about what I look like, about the weight I've put on and about the reality of time passing.

I had a short window of about four years, maybe five, in which I was aware that I might be somewhere on the spectrum of what other people considered "pretty." It was intoxicating, though I knew better than to trust it. People who knew me back then will remember my disgusting habit (which embarrasses me to think about, even now) of watching myself in a mirror. Was that me? Was that person me? I didn't know, and I still don't.

Nor have I ever trusted in Cinderella-type transformations: in fancy clothes and/or makeup, I am still my schlumpy self, and always was. I never really had a waist, even when my rib bones showed through my skin. I have Irish legs that drop piano-style right to the ground, without ankles. My feet are absurd, Lego-style rectangles, and the best manicure in the world cannot make my hands look like anything but an aging child's. My hair — well, we've discussed my hair.

For many years, the easiest thing to do about all of this has been to ignore it. It's especially easy in Maine, where common sense calls for as many layers of clothing as you can pile on, and nobody pays attention to what anybody wears, in any case. And I lived — for nine years — in an apartment that did not have a full-length mirror. (No, of course I didn't buy one. Why would I buy one?)

I knew I'd need new clothes when I moved back to D.C., but one of the more painful surprises of moving back to the city has been the omnipresence of mirrors and other reflective surfaces in public places. Conveniently, the loss of peripheral vision means I'm not catching my image out of the corners of my eyes, but sometimes it's just inescapable, and head-on is even more disconcerting. Who is that woman? Do I know her?

Lent started this week, and I began it with something else I haven't done in at least 10 years: I went to Confession. And yes, it was terrifying, but only before I stepped into the stall. Once I sat down with the priest, it was easy, because he was glad to see me and I was glad to be there. The pastor of my church is an older man, a funny man, a man who has seen and forgiven much worse sins than mine — and a man who understands that his job, on behalf of the God we both believe in, is to say, "Welcome home."

So it felt like a strange coincidence — and yes, I'm getting to the point of all of this now — that on Wednesday, the incomparable Laura Lippman posted a photo of herself without makeup to Facebook and Twitter, in order to tell Kim Novak that it was okay to look the way you're supposed to look. She challenged everyone to do the same, and the response has been and continues to be overwhelming.

Erin Mitchell has assembled many of the photos into a video here. Take a few minutes to watch it, and realize what I did: we look like ourselves. It didn't even occur to me to judge how my friends in this video looked, I was just so happy to see them all. I've bookmarked that video and I'm going to watch it whenever I need a little help. Thank you, Laura, and thank you, Erin.

Posting my own photo (above) felt like going to Confession. It cleared me and freed me. No, I don't look the way I wished I did, but it's nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I can change it if I want to, and maybe I do; I've just finished a three-day whole-foods cleanse that I'll probably adapt for the rest of Lent.

I might even buy a full-length mirror this weekend. (And as I type that I think, but that's just crazy talk.)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

February's Reading and a New Word

Lent started this morning, and I learned a new word: metanoia, which in a religious context means "repenting," but in the original Greek means "a transformation of mind."

Despite some recent evidence I've seen to the contrary, I don't believe that human beings are naturally lazy or incurious. Look at any group of kindergarteners; they are busy and they want to know why. Where and how do people lose that? What beats it out of them?

I am busy and I want to know why, although I admit to laziness when I think I can get away with it (seldom, when one bills by the hour). This year I want my reading list to reflect that; last year's reading was too closely tied to my work and my personal preferences. But books, if we let them be, are the most powerful tool of mental transformation available.

I still have to read a lot for work, and thus February's list doesn't include a few things I read for clients. But it's more eclectic than usual, and I'm happy about that. Here's to metanoia, not just for Lent.

What I Read in February

Greg Herren, FASHION VICTIM. Although I prefer paper books (hardcover or paperback), I'm not above the temptations of cheap or free downloads. I'm mildly embarrassed that it took a free download for me to read one of Greg's books, because he is a hilarious and thoughtful person and rather intimidatingly prolific. FASHION VICTIM is a romp, a light-hearted mystery that introduces magazine writer Paige Tourneur, who has secrets of her own. The next best thing to a weekend in New Orleans.

Chuck Wendig, BLACKBIRDS. Chuck Wendig is another prolific author whose books I hadn't read yet; I meant to read this last year, but finally got to it because it too was a cheap download. (Yes, I bought from independent booksellers this month, too.) It's the first in a trilogy about Miriam, who can see how people die. Most people have it coming, as Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven, but when Miriam meets a rare good guy and realizes that his imminent death may be her own fault, everything changes. I am impatient to read the second and third books in this trilogy.

John Straley, COLD STORAGE, ALASKA. The advance readers' copy of this book traveled in the front seat of my car for most of November and December because it was always the book I was going to read next. When the hardcover arrived, I could not put it off any longer, and I was glad I didn't. Cold Storage, Alaska is a tiny fishing/canning town on the Alaskan coast, hundreds of miles from anywhere. Miles McCahon, the town's physician assistant, has mixed feelings about his brother Clive coming home after a prison term. Clive's showing up with a strange dog and a lot of unexplained cash doesn't make Miles feel any better. People might compare this book to Carl Hiaasen, but Straley's voice is his own, and his view of human nature is far more loving and generous. COLD STORAGE, ALASKA made me homesick for Maine.

Dorothea Benton Frank, THE LAST ORIGINAL WIFE. I wanted to like this book. I really did. I loved the first chapter, in which we meet Leslie Carter, who is contemplating ending her marriage of 30 years, and has no compunctions about asking a well-preserved stranger for a referral to her plastic surgeon. Leslie's husband Wesley deserves to be left, no doubt, but Leslie herself is so one-dimensional and self-absorbed that I didn't care whether she'd find true love with her high-school sweetheart. And a howling timeline error — ten missing years — told me nobody read this book very closely before it was tossed to the public. Books like these give fuel to every jerk who looks down on "women's fiction."

Clive Cussler with Grant Blackwood, SPARTAN GOLD. Since I don't take vacations, this book was a great substitute. Professional adventurers Sam and Remi Fargo stumble upon a German mini-submarine in a Maryland swamp, which turns out to be linked to a relic of a broken wine bottle that may have been part of Napoleon's lost cellar. Of course an international supervillain has been searching for this lost cellar, and will do anything to track it down — so Sam and Remi start a chase of their own, from the Caribbean to the Riviera, with Ukrainian strongman Hadeon Bondaruk and his henchman on their heels. I learned a lot from this book, and it was perfect airplane reading, as it let me imagine I was flying to Monaco instead of to JFK.

Dyan Cannon, DEAR CARY: My Life with Cary Grant. I love celebrity memoirs, and I refuse to call them a guilty pleasure. I just want the celebrities to remember something interesting. This charming memoir is fascinating and not a little sad, and would be even if the two people involved hadn't been movie stars. Dyan Cannon was 23 and, by her own account, oddly innocent when she met Cary Grant, who was 58 and had already been divorced three times. Their age difference was so extreme that it took her a while to realize he was courting her, and then even longer to realize he had no intention of marrying her. When she made it clear that she wanted to be married, he agreed, but they might have been better off going their separate ways. Cannon is direct and honest about almost everything, including Grant's LSD use and her own drug abuse, but her casual references to "purging" made me wish she'd been more open about her eating disorder, if that's what it was.

Frank Langella, DROPPED NAMES. Yes, I read two of these in one weekend, immobile on the couch with a sinus infection. It was all I could handle. This book is a feast of anecdotes about Langella's encounters with some of the most famous people of the last century. He met everybody, and slept with a lot of them: Noel Coward, Rita Hayworth, John F. Kennedy, Yvonne DeCarlo, and on and on. With one exception, everyone he talks about in this book has died; even the last survivor, Bunny Mellon, is no longer able to contradict him. But Langella is insightful, even as he's being brutally honest. His portrait of Anthony Perkins is loving (though coy; he hints at experimentation with men, but confesses nothing), and his description of his flirtation with Elizabeth Taylor is wistful and compassionate. He also makes no bones about being a complete monster in his own right — but what a life, what a book.

Saira Shah, THE MOUSE-PROOF KITCHEN. I read this book in one long insomniac night, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Anna, an ambitious London chef, is married to Tobias, a scattered but talented composer. Their first child is born with birth defects so severe that both Anna and Tobias consider leaving the baby at the hospital, and never bringing her home at all. Instead, they buy a ramshackle farmhouse in rural France, and try to make something out of their shattered dreams. Saira Shah herself has a child with profound disabilities, which makes any criticism I have of this novel feel like criticism of the author's own parenting, although Shah has emphasized in every interview that she and her partner are not Anna and Tobias. The book sometimes feels almost too honest, but Anna and her family are saved by the intervention of characters who feel a little too much like "magical natives," and I'm not sure I bought the ending. Like all good books, it told me things about myself I might not have wanted to know.

Laura Lippman, AFTER I'M GONE. I was a fan of Laura Lippman's books before I met her, and am grateful to call her a friend. Even so, this is quite possibly her best book, which is saying something. Small-time gangster Felix Brewer disappears on July 4, 1976, but this book isn't about that. It's about what happens after he's gone — to his wife, Bambi; to their three daughters; but most of all to his girlfriend Julie, who disappears herself ten years later, only to be found in an advanced state of decomposition in 2001. Sandy Sanchez, a retired Baltimore detective who works cold cases for extra money, decides to look into what happened to Julie, and Lippman takes us through the 30+ years of the Brewer women's lives without Felix. Every character here is starring in her own life story, and the truth turns out to be something that happened while they were doing that — in fiction, as in film, as in life, so much is about whatever you happen to be looking at, at any given moment. No, I'm not going to explain that any further. Just read this book.