Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Memory of Evelyn Dack, My Mother

Evelyn Miriam Stodghill Dack
Mar. 18, 1920-October 21, 2010

She comes sailing on the wind, her wings flashing in the sun
On a journey just begun, she flies on.
And in the passage of her flight,
Her song rings on through the night.
Full of laughter, full of light.
She flies on.
(Gordon Light)

Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal

By Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
New York, Penguin, 1996, 2006

Week 44    Spiritual

Isn’t it amazing how sometimes things fall into your lap with absolute perfect timing. Such is the case with the book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, which was lent to me by a friend. As you know, I have been spending a great deal of time with my mother and preparing for her death. Well, she died on Thursday, Oct. 21, and because I was reading this book, it became a great comfort to me. Additionally, I have recently been hired to prepare reviews of books and journal articles in the mental health field for a new website, and this book will be my first review, because I am convinced that every mental health professional needs to have a deep understanding of the concepts Remen presents. On this topic, Remen says, “According to the Buddhist understanding of auspicious coincidence, all circumstances can be brought to the spiritual path. Everything that happens in our lives, whether positive or negative, can serve to awaken us to the nature of the world. But occasionally, events cluster in particular ways that give us a glimpse of the deeper structures of reality, and suggest that time and linear causality may not be the ultimate way in which the world is ordered.”

The reader has to know a bit about Rachel Remen in order to understand Kitchen Table Wisdom fully. She is a doctor but also a patient. She has suffered from Crone’s disease all her adult life. Thus, she has great empathy for people facing disease and death. As a young physician, she realized that she had not been equipped to help patients on any level other than the physical, and she felt a great loss. When she tried to relate to her patients on a more humane level, she was criticized. Thinking there must be a better way, she began to develop a psychological approach for people with life-threatening illnesses and for the physicians who treat them. Thus she became one of the earliest pioneers in the mind/body health field.

Kitchen Table Wisdom is a compendium of her wisdom about life, illness, family, death, and all the other components of the mind/body connection. The book is constructed as a series of short chapters, on a variety of topics, with each section on a basic topic of the mind-body connection. The chapters are basically stories that Remen has collected in her lifetime of dealing with people. She believes in the concept of story, and that in order to understand someone and help someone, you must know their story. So, she tells her story, the stories of her patients, and the stories of the doctors that she trains to be compassionate healers. Each short chapter is self-contained. One reviewer commented that it is great bedtime reading, because the reader goes to sleep filled with words of comfort and healing.

The edition of the book I read is the tenth anniversary edition, and its wisdom is so enduring that I imagine there will be a twentieth anniversary edition. I can highly recommend this book to anyone who is dealing with what life is presenting us—and I guess that would be everyone. Here are a couple of interesting concepts:

Remen quibbles with the concept that “life is fragile.” She says that life is impermanent, but not fragile. “Accidents and natural disasters often cause people to feel that life is fragile. In my experience, life can change abruptly and end without warning, but life is not fragile.” “That tenacity toward life endures in all of us, undiminished, until the moment of our death.”

Another thought: “Perfectionism is the belief that life is broken.” She talks a lot about doctors and their basic belief that life is broken and it is their job to fix it. It reminded me of the visit my husband Lee’s oncologist paid to us on the day before Lee died. He had tried and tried to “fix” Lee; it had not happened. He put his arm around me and broke down in sobs, and I comforted him. He left his practice shortly after that and became a medical missionary, having realized that he was the one that needed healing.

Well, I could go on and on. This is a beautiful book, spiritual on many levels. When the reader finishes the book, they are blessed in so many ways and know that for all its impermanence, life is a marvelous journey until it is over. As one reviewer wrote, “Kitchen Table Wisdom shows us that a good story is like a compass of life’s journey, and reminds us of the power and joy of being fully human.”

Review on a mental health website:

Review in Journal of Psychiatry:

Interview with Rachel Remen:

Rachel Remen’s website:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park

By Marie Winn
New York, Vintage Departures, 1999
Week 43    Non-Fiction
For those of us who live in areas where nature surrounds us, the thought of “nature” in New York City’s Central Park seems a bit absurd. Marie Winn’s Red-Tails in Love was my first exposure to the magnitude of nature that can be found in that urban oasis.

Specifically, the book tells the ongoing saga of “Pale Male,” a red-tail hawk that arrived with a mate in Central Park in the mid-1990s. He mated with a much larger female, and a bird-watching, binocular and telescope frenzy arose among the Central Park bird watchers. The frenzy spilled over into the community at large. Multiple efforts ensued to protect the birds, and as the story continued into the second and third years, Fifth Avenue residents such as Woody Allen, Mary Tyler Moore, and Glenn Close became involved.

The birds defied all nest building logic and built their nest year after year on a building across Fifth Avenue from the park. Watchers had a regular bench at the edge of the park, and during the nesting season, the “regulars” as they were called manned the bench during all the daylight hours every day. Marie Winn, whose career has been primarily as a nature writer, joined naturalists from the Museum of Natural History, ornithologists, photographers, and others from all over the city who became enthralled with the bird’s love story. Jaded city dwellers and tourists alike clambered to look through the telescope an astronomer set up.

I was fascinated not just by the story of the birds but by the community of bird watchers that emerges from the tale, as well. People who don’t really know each other except for their love of birds form alliances to take care of the birds. Winn doesn’t waste time telling about the personal histories of the watchers; it isn’t important, and my guess is that she probably didn’t know much personal history. What is important is the mutual love for nature and birds.

Winn includes descriptions of all the various aspects of nature watching in Central Park. Who would believe that Central Park remains a major migratory path for dozens of types of birds and waterfowl? Additionally, how did the raccoons and other larger mammals (we know how the rats got there!) find this oasis in the midst of the urban wilderness?

This is a book that I would never have picked up on my own; thank goodness a book club member chose it for our October read. We all loved it, and the discussion flowed easily. Be sure to find the 10th anniversary edition, because it contains an update on Pale Male. Also, there is an entire Pale Male website with daily images of Pale Male. I couldn’t tell if this was the original Pale Male or one of his descendents. I have included October 20’s photo.
As a book side note, a young movie maker arrived in New York at about the same time as Pale Male. He was searching for a movie idea, and wandered into Central Park on one of the first nesting days. AHA! He had his idea, and on November 24, his movie, The Legend of Pale Male, opens in New York City. Here is the movie’s website:

Following my usual website listings, I have included an experience that I had with cardinals. I remembered the experience as I was reading Red-Tails in Love and was inspired to write it down as a way of retaining it. Please indulge me in this.
A review in the Smithsonian Magazine. I have followed the url with a quote from that article.
"Between the lines, this melodrama about nesting hawks is really about how wildness persists, even amid concrete and glass and jackhammering. It is about a tough town’s politesse, giving the winged newcomers space, not getting in their face. And so it is a hopeful book. We learn that even urban sophisticates will trudge into the park in midwinter to put out seeds and suet. As one Regular said of the hawks, “Aren’t we luck to see this.”

Marie Winn’s website:

A transcript of a PBS show:

A cardinal moment. (2002)

A pair of cardinals made a nest in the cedar tree beside the pool on the patio. All that spring, we watched as the cardinals made the nest and the female laid three eggs. After several weeks of tending the nest, three little heads were visible poking out of the top of the nest.

One day during the second week of June, I was in the swimming pool in the late afternoon when I heard a great commotion and looked over at the nest. All three hatchlings were out on a branch of the cedar tree, hopping around and chirping. They seemed to be signaling that they were ready to move.

On the other side of the pool the mother cardinal perched on a branch of the white pine tree calling to her young. The hatchlings called back. The mother flew back to them, pushed each of them gently to the end of the branch, and then flew over to her original perch. The hatchlings continued their hopping and chirping. The mother acted in the same way several times, flying back and forth over the pool, calling to her young encouragingly. It became obvious that all the birds were quite anxious—why wouldn’t these birds fly like their mother wanted? It appeared to me that the hatchlings were afraid to fly over the water.

Mother Cardinal came up with another plan. She started making a different call, more shrill and persistent. Before long, another female cardinal arrived on the scene. She replaced the mother cardinal on the white pine, and the mother crossed the pool to her three hatchlings in the cedar tree. On one side of the pool, the surrogate mother called while the real mother tried to move the birds. The hatchlings were having none of it. They continued their agitated hopping and chirping, but they would not budge from the protection of the cedar tree.

Enter the cat. While I had been trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible at the corner of the pool, Meezer, the cat, had been asleep under a nearby bush. He had awakened from his afternoon nap to a cacophony of bird calls. He stretched, yawned, and made his way across the lawn to the pool.

In the next instant, a huge outcry arose. The female cardinals began squawking in unison and flapping their wings. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two male cardinals swooped down and began dive-bombing the cat, flapping their wings, and shrieking their warnings. I watched for a moment, then scrambled out of the pool, gathered up the cat and went into the house, removing the immediate danger.

I changed into my clothes and went back outside. The nest and the branches of the cedar tree were empty as were the branches of the white pine. The scene was serene and quiet. The cardinal’s mission had been accomplished.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Name is Mary Sutter

By Robin Oliveira

New York, Viking, 2010

Week 42 Fiction

Robin Oliveira embarked on an adventure with a steep learning curve when she envisioned the young woman named Mary Sutter who she created for her first novel, My Name is Mary Sutter. Not only did she not know much about the Civil War, the setting for the book, but she knew very little about nursing, surgery, pharmacology, obstetrics, or all the other details that are key to this novel’s setting and plot.

Oliveira says, “through it all, there was Mary Sutter, whose story I needed to tell as a celebration of women who seize the courage to live on, to thrive, to strive, even, when men conspire to war.” I think it took a courageous woman to take on the huge task of writing such a book, even as she created the courageous woman who is Mary Sutter.

Mary Sutter is a midwife, the latest in a long line of midwives, living in a time when all babies were delivered by midwives. (Trivia alert: the first President to be born in a hospital was Jimmy Carter.) However, being a midwife is not enough for Mary. She wants to be a surgeon, either by going to medical school or by apprenticing herself to a surgeon. This is not to be, however; in the mid-1800s until the Civil War begins, women have no place in the surgery. When the first troops are called up, Mary sees her chance and goes off to Washington, where the wounded are to be taken, to do whatever she needs to do to learn surgery and to be of service. Dorothea Dix is calling for women to come and learn nursing as it had been taught by Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War.

What she doesn’t realize, of course, is that the surgery she will learn is the amputation of limbs. She also learns about the prevention of serious disease and death. When she finds a surgeon who will help her achieve her goal, she implores him: “Teach me everything you know. I want to understand what makes the body work. I want to see what you do, how you do it. I want to hear what you think. I want to know which medicine to give for what condition. I want to change dressings, see the wounds, understand why the boys are dying, how to make them well. Not just after a battle, but all the time. Every day. At your side.”

As the war progresses and men by the thousand are dying, Mary remains in the thick of it, meeting among others Clara Barton, President Lincoln, and his assistant John Hay. She helps a doctor research the causes of dysentery and other wartime diseases and applies her midwife’s standards for cleanliness and orderliness to the battlefield hospital. In one horrendous scene she has to make the decisions as to which wounded soldiers will live by getting on the train to Washington to be treated, and which soldiers will be left behind to die.

Although all doesn’t end well (her family suffers some excruciating losses), Mary survives the war, returns home to Albany and finds love and purpose for her post-war life.

The reader is amazed by how the book is so comprehensively researched down to the smallest detail. It is not for the faint of heart, however, and I think that I learned more about the casualties and deaths of the Civil War than I cared to know. This is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and this book is sure to find a place among the other books about this time. That it is about a woman makes it all the more valuable.

During my grandson’s 10-year-old adventure, we visited Frederick MD and toured the battlefields at Fredrick and Antietam, both scenes in the book, My Name is Mary Sutter. Maxwell bought a Union cap at the National Park bookstore and ran through the fields, shooting a tiny GI Joe size gun at imaginary enemies. When we left, he was ecstatic about the adventure of it all. My Name is Mary Sutter certainly removes the romance of war from the reader’s memory and allows you only to feel the pain. Frankly, there were moments when I only wanted the book and the war to be over.

It is a story well told; the characters are believable, the plot compelling, and the story-line filled with the detail that lovers of historical fiction crave. Some of the scenes will stick in my memory for a long time. I can highly recommend this book for readers during this Civil War sesquicentennial.

Some interesting reviews from the Good Reads blog:

An interview with Robin Oliveira:

Robin Oliveira’s website:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir

By Christopher Buckley

New York, Twelve, 2009

Week 41     Memoir

An audio book read by the author.

The only child of a famous couple, Christopher Buckley lost both of his parents, Patricia Taylor Buckley and William F. Buckley Jr. within the space of a year. His father, of course, was the famous journalist, novelist, and “lion of the right,” in the words of his son. “Pup” as Christopher called him, was the founder of the conservative movement, the founder and editor of The New Republic and host of Firing Line for 32 years. “Mum” was a leading New York socialite and hostess par excellence. Christopher says his mother “took possession of a room and possession of her husband.”

Buckley recounts the fateful year (2007-2008) with love and humor, and intersperses the difficult narrative of illness, death, and funerals with stories from his childhood and insight into his upbringing, which, needless to say, was not like yours or mine. His relationship with his parents was a bit difficult, but there was a great deal of love within the family, although Christopher suggests that his parents did not speak to each other about a third of the time. He discusses caustic letters and emails that were sent between father and son. And in one of the most touching moments of the book, Christopher strokes his dying mother’s hair and says, “I forgive you Mum. I forgive you.” The reader has the impression that a lot of family business did not make it into this memoir.

Among his better memories are sailing trips he made with his father across the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as a few more ill-fated jaunts. Buckley says that his father, like all great men, wanted things to go his way, and that included taking sailing trips in “perfect storm” weather—just because he had made up his mind to go sailing. Other funny stories concern his mother’s fabrications that caused her son’s eyes to roll on more than one occasion, including the times his mother told guests that the King and Queen of England were frequent visitors to her childhood home of Vancouver, British Columbia. The way in which the author intersperses these stories with the grittier details of death and funerals makes the memoir at once funny and poignant.

He discusses in detail planning both funerals, and the reader warms to his concern about doing things right. His desire is to honor these remarkable people, while at the same time exert his independence. The thing I like about his approach with this book is that he has few illusions about his parents—he is proud to be their son, but he is also an author who knows a good story when he sees one.

Christopher Buckley is a well-known author in his own right (or left since he supported Obama in the last election.) Among his many books are Thank you for Smoking and Supreme Courtship, which I listened to on an audio book. He is a satirist and observer of politics and Washington. I laughed all the way through Supreme Courtship. One of the characters is so very much like Sarah Palin, yet the book was written before Palin arrived on the scene. He says he “learned the English language at the knee of a master.” He attributes his sarcasm to his Mother who could stop any conversation with a few choice words.
For those of us who have elderly parents, there is much to appreciate in this memoir, including the utter helplessness that comes from not being able to make a bad situation better. Buckley devoted much of this last year to his parents, staying in his childhood room in the family home in Stanford CT, getting up at all hours of the night to soothe his bewildered father or rush to the hospital to care for his mother. I kept thinking how lucky he was that there was enough money available to keep his father’s dignity intact, although he gives intimations of his father’s self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

One of the best parts of the audio book is hearing Buckley read it himself. Because he knows the subjects of his book so well, he can mimic perfectly the caustic sarcasm of his mother’s voice and the imperious superiority of his father’s. His voice warms as he relates his father’s triumphs—finishing a column in a few minutes or a book in two weeks. And when his voice cracks during the last few sentences of the book, my heart broke for “the orphan,” as he called himself. I cried for all of us who loved our parents and whose loss has made us “orphans” as well.

This article in the Washington Post tells a bit more of the story of Buckley’s book, including some of the warts on his family history.

Book review in the New York Times:

Video interview with Christopher Buckley

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824

By Harvey Sachs

New York, Random House, 2010

Week 40 Non-Fiction

Along with many other appreciators of classical music, I am a person who loves Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so I was intrigued to find this new book, The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, by Harvey Sachs. It was just what I needed; an overview of the symphony from a cultural, historical, musical, and personal perspective without being outside the scope of interest of a non-professional musician.

I first met Beethoven as an eight year old playing Fur Elise and feeling like a real piano player. For most young piano players, Fur Elise is a transformative event. “Finally, I get to play real music!” Listening to the Ninth Symphony, however, requires a more adult comprehension. Harvey Sachs tells about his own love affair with the symphony as a young teenager and his recurring fascination with the music throughout his long career as a musician, music conductor, and music writer. That personal history becomes the footnote (or postlude) to the book and the driving force for his writing. This is his ninth book, including biographies of Toscanini and Rubinstein.

The first performance of the Ninth Symphony occurred on May 7, 1824, in Vienna, Austria. The details of Sachs’ book revolve around that event. He looks at it from four perspectives: the perspective of the composer, the historical context in which it was written, the listener, and the composers who inherited its legacy. He includes his own experience with the music as a postlude. It is a satisfying format, very readable and not too technical. He lets other biographers delve into greater detail about Beethoven’s life. His interest is in setting the context of the work in the historical era and analyzing the music from the perspective of a listener rather than a musicologist. Taken as a whole, the reader is enlightened and enchanted to know more about this brilliant piece of genius.

I was particularly interested in knowing about Beethoven’s circumstances during the years in which he wrote the symphony as well as the circumstances surrounding its first performance. I had told elementary students for years about his deafness and about how he conducted the performance and could not hear the audience’s response. It was gratifying to know that I wasn’t making up the details. Sachs makes these circumstances quite vivid; he suggests “To say that he (Beethoven) broke new ground is to understate the matter grossly; Beethoven altered the course of Western music. In the astonishingly individualistic compositions that he produced between the ages of thirty-two and forty-two, he extended the boundaries of tonality, lengthened and transmuted the old forms, and allowed intensely personal expression much freer rein than it had previously known in music.” All that genius reached a climax in this first performance of his master work.

The second part of the book was also fascinating. 1824 was a pivotal year in European history. Napoleon had been defeated but there was still a great deal of idol worship regarding him. Additionally, many great artists, writers and musicians were at work, including Shubert, Byron, Pushkin, Delacroix, Stendhal and Heine. Sachs spends a little time on each of these men, helping us understand the way in which artists of all types internalize revolution. He reminds the reader “that spiritual and intellectual liberation requires endless internal warfare against everything in ourselves that narrows us down instead of opening us up and that replaces questing with certitude.” Although European governments were returning to autocracy, individuals and their creativity were opening up to new levels of genius.

I got bogged down a bit in the section of the book that deals with the music itself. Part of it was my fault; I didn’t take the time to find a copy of the music to listen to as I was reading about each movement. It would have been a much more valuable experience if I had done this. However, I have included a link to an NPR Performance Today episode which does a similar analysis of the music, if you would like to spend a time listening and analyzing the music.

The last chapter discusses the legacy of the symphony and especially its influence on Richard Wagner.

Altogether, The Ninth is an enlightening read for music lovers, and I was glad that I took the time to delve into it. It was a confirmation to me that sometimes the easy read is not the most satisfying.

Review in The New York Times:

Interview with Harvey Sachs on Indiana Public Media:

NPR Performance Today: Milestones of the Millennium. Another view of that day in 1824: