Monthly Archives: March 2011

Dora Stein, 1921-2011

Dora Stein could be described in many ways — a devoted wife to Jack for almost sixty years.  A mother of three.  A proud grandmother.   A “career woman.”  A teacher.  A volunteer.  But mostly, and all of her life, my mother was a fighter.

It may sound silly to think of a tiny woman, who probably never had a physical altercation as a fighter, but she was.

When she was a little girl she almost died when her thyroid became overactive and she had to have a large chunk of it removed.  It slowed her down enough to save her life, but not too much.  She still managed to skip a grade or two and got into Hunter College of the City University of New York — the Vassar of CUNY.  Her own mother didn’t see the point.  Why did a girl need to go to college?

But my mother fought that attitude.  And her whole life she was proud of being a “Hunter Girl.”

She majored in Math and it never to occured to her that “girls” weren’t supposed to be good in math.

When she met my father — no slouch in the intellect department either — she held her own.  He proposed on the first date.  She wisely neither said yes nor turned him down, but waited until she got to know him a little better.  They married and she became, before it was a children’s show, Dora the explorer — following him as he was transferred in the army, working as an accountant at a time when “girls” weren’t supposed to be accountants — even going to one job as “D. Feldman”.   When her ruse was discovered and she was told, “You’re not an accountant.  You’re a girl.”  My mother replied that she was a girl AND an accountant.

At a time when the movies and television offered the stereotypes of the perfect housewife or the lonely career woman, she chose to be a working mom, a phrase which didn’t even exist,  settling eventually on teaching as a career.  It didn’t occur to her to do otherwise.  It was pragmatic — she wanted a good life for her family and she wanted to work.  She didn’t need to wait until Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique to know there was more to life than ironing your husband’s shirts. You could get that done at the laundry.

It must hardly seem revolutionary to anyone under forty, to raise your daughters to believe that they could do anything and there were no limits imposed by gender — but at the time when she was raising her children — it was hardly a given.  She raised her daughters to excel and always with the idea that they would someday go to college, and that having a career was as important for her girls as it was for her son.

Dora always fought for her family and for what she thought was right.  In 1956, when a neighbor complained about my father’s having his business in their new house, Dora went to City Hall herself, to the office of Mayor Wagner, to get the certificate of occupancy changed, making it clear  and legal that the home could be used for a business.

When the Vietnam War was raging, my fiercely patriotic mother joined in the protests, going with her teenaged daughter Anita to Washington and taking me — at age 10 to the Moratorium in New York City.

Dora never stopped fighting.  She didn’t fight time in the way some do with plastic surgery or potions.  She kept herself busy.   My father complained that after she retired from teaching, she worked even longer hours as a volunteer for Hadassah, turning his old examination room into her office space, learning to use the computer to create newsletters and fliers.

She fought coronary artery disease for years.

She and Jack lost his fight with cancer, but even that didn’t defeat her.  She wanted to be independent, but accepted she couldn’t stay alone in her home and moved into assisted living, where she kept active.  She volunteered as a tutor with elementary school children.  She met sister Hunter girls, and enjoyed Yiddish club and Boggle and discussions on current events.

The last few months were hard for her.  She took a fall and fractured her pelvis, but she fought her way back in physical therapy even though it wasn’t easy for her.  She was determined to remain independent.  To stay out of a nursing home.   Her only real fear was losing her mental agility, which she never did.  She was still aware of the world around her, keeping up on current events. One of her hospital stays coincided with the President’s speech on health care, and we watched it together on the little set in her hospital room.

The last time I visited her in her apartment, she was showing Craig and me old photographs and the book about the Spatts — she was as proud to be a Spatt as she was to be a Feldman or a Stein, and still talked about working for her very successful uncle Sam Spatt what it meant to her that he believed in her brain.

Even, after her stroke — she was fighting.  She made her wishes clear. Like Jack, her humor could be laced with irony.  When Anita told her that it was ok to stop fighting, that the fight was over, Dora looked at her and asked, “Did I win?”

She came from a crowded railroad flat in depression-era Williamsburg and went to college, became an accountant, a teacher, a mother, a wife, a grandmother, and a volunteer.  She traveled to Israel and Europe and even Alaska.  She saw Paris and the Grand Canyon.  She saw all of her children graduate college and go on to graduate degrees, one of her grandchildren become a lawyer and all of them get into good colleges. She sustained a marriage of almost sixty years.  She had a good life and died with her family at her bedside. Yeah, Dora. I’d say you won.

Live Blogging — My Mother’s Death Bed — Part II

13:15, 24 March 2011 — My mother’s body continues to shrink and contract into itself.  Her breathing is shallower than it was.  I think she’s fighting less.  The gurgling sound is still there, though less loud than before, there is simple less fluid left within her or maybe the sound which had seemed horrible at first, is now something I’ve adjusted to.  (It doesn’t seem to bother her.  I think she is beyond feeling bothered by anything.)

Death is a teacher.  The handsome young resident whom I referred to as Doc Bollywood in a previous blog, seems to have learned something and matured in the past couple of days.  He just popped in and asked how she was and seems to have accepted that she is dying and he can’t do anything about it and nobody expects or wants him to.  He’s gone from arrogance to compassion.

The bed opened at the hospice, but the family decided that moving her made no sense at this point, though a hospice might approve a higher dose of morphine which could possibly speed things along, but the dose she’s at seems to be sufficient to keep her from suffering, so speeding things up isn’t important.

Not having monitors, we can watch the process and speculate — count her breaths, debate whether or not they seem more shallow.  They are certainly quieter with less heaving of the body, less struggle.  Like labor, it’s probably best to let it happen on its own time.  It’s humbling.  Even those of us with medical knowledge, can’t know exactly what will happen when.

I’ve turned the music back on and just swabbed her lips and mouth.  I may close my eyes for a bit.

Live Blogging — My Mother’s Death Bed

It’s been many hours since she last spoke, but her breathing is steady, loud and labored.  My sister and are sitting in a shit-smelly room in the Albany Medical Center, 5th floor, neurology unit.  My sister is reading her kindle by the light of the patient’s bathroom.  I am writing this backlit by my mac.  The music is something Bach-like via Pandora.  It’s not exactly a softly lit, pastel colored hospice room.  There was no room at the hospice, but at least they got my mother out of the “stroke room” where an eager neurology resident made idiotic statements about an 89 year old woman with advanced CHF and coronary artery disease making “a full recovery” in 6-12 months.

When confronted with the information that she’d had a heart attack as well as a storke and cardiology had told us they couldn’t treat the blockages because of the stroke risk,  Doc Bollywood didn’t blink.  He just said, “Well, that was cardiology. I’m talking from a neurological standpoint.”
To which my brother-in-law replied, “Are you saying she can live without a heart? Who do you think she is, the Tinman?”

That actor had it wrong.  Comedy is easy; dying is hard.

Physical therapy also stopped by earlier. We sat  astounded.  “I guess she’s tired.  We’ll come back later.”

Yeah, tired.  She’s just resting.

Not everyone who works in a hospital is crazy.  Only the doctors and the physical therapists. The nurses get it.  Comfort care when nothing else can be done.

My mother hasn’t said anything in the last six hours or so, and hasn’t said anything we could really understand since yesterday. — though there was a moment earlier  today when I thought she understood me perfectly and I imagined I understood her grunted, garbled reply.  I was telling her how great Jack — her husband, my father was and how much he loved her, how I still felt his presence, and the caring never dies.

She looked at me, and mumbled something, which I imagined was, ” He was a great husband and father.”

I agreed.

Now my sister and I just sit in a dark room and wait.  My mother gasps for every breath.  She was gripping our hands hours ago — holding on for dear life.  Holding on to dear life. But that’s stopped.  Her knees are bent up, the way we remember our father’s being.

On the phone to my friend, a nurse practioner in New York, my friend overheard the 9 PM announcement telling all visitors to leave.

“That doesn’t apply to you,” she said.

“I know,” I told her.

They finally gave her morphine.  A tiny bit.  My sister was worried.  My mother once had a bad reaction to it.  It was after a fall.  She was in pain, but the drug made her paranoid, hostile.  “I don’t want her to go out that way,” my sister said.

But finally my sister agreed it was time.

1 miligram to start.  It’s already quieted the breathing.

We’re staying the night.  Maybe in shifts.  I used to work a night shift in a hospital.  That was years ago, psyche, not medicine, but still it seems familiar to be here and odd, watching the woman who gave birth to me, contracting into herself, becoming smaller, smoother, more fetal.

Her strangely unwrinkled face.  Dying has a beauty too. It is as elemental, fundamental as birth, but not celebrated.  Still, there’s nothing tragic here.  We are not meant to be too long lasting.  None of us gets more much more than a century, and no one gets out alive.

The morphine is helping.

Shit My Father Used to Say When He Was Alive

I’d gotten back from Spain and was really fascinated by this one whacky thing I’d discovered.  You know what they call beans in Spain?  It ain’t habichuelas.  It’s not frijoles either.

It’s judías:  Jewish females! No shit. Green beans are judías verdes, which could be translated as green Jewish women. I discovered this fact on a train ride from Madrid to Barcelona, where I made the young woman behind the counter in the snack car show me a packet because I couldn’t quite believe the menu.

So vacation over, I stopped by to see my folks and mentioned it to my father.

“Isn’t that weird,” I said.  “I mean where does that come from?”

“You know, he said, “They’ve been a second rate country ever since they kicked us out.”

On Fiction Writing Rules

The conversation was about the “rules.” Mr. McGrumpypants insisted that he knew what agents and editors wanted, despite having never actually landed an agent, and having only been “edited” by a very, very small press publisher who went out of business shortly thereafter, and many years later by a one-man shop “e-book publisher.”  In spite of  his extremely dismal sales numbers, he was quite adamant that his ability to have “sold” to a “publisher” gave him special insight that all others lacked, and if we’d only read Dwight Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer. we’d be enlightened and as successful as he.

The above took place on a forum in one my old haunts — an online writer’s community filled mostly with those desperate for publication. I found the same “debate” raging as when I left months before. Except it wasn’t exactly a debate, since all but one old sourpuss seemed to be in agreement.

I don’t claim to know what anyone wants. I’ve never landed an agent despite several “full manuscript requests” for Loisaida — A New York Story.  I know a few people who found agents who were enthusiastic about their work, but failed to sell it to editors. So apparently even those gatekeepers don’t always know what editors want.

I should know more. I have one of those MFA’s, but  I’ll tell you a dirty secret — at least back in the 1980’s when I got it, we almost never talked about publishing though we probably should have. That was at Sarah Lawrence. I’m pretty sure they were talking about publication at Columbia.

The truth is at this particular moment in publishing history, as I wrote months ago, “nobody knows anything.” Bookstores are closing, even the big chains that not so long ago devoured the independents. Some legitimately published writers like Stephen Leather are choosing Kindle to self-publish their old titles and the ones their agent couldn’t use. The success of a purely “indie” author like  Amanda Hocking is a shock to the system. Yet, yesterday I read a story of a first novel being published by a major house. It read like a fairytale, and was enough of an anomaly to make it to the pages of The New York Times, but is it sign that good books will always find a way?

As a reader, I know what I like. What I like isn’t formulaic. It bends and breaks “the rules” and does so with such grace that the writer makes it look as natural as Fred Astaire’s dancing.

As a reader who’s also a writer, it gives me a thrill to see the risks great writers take in their storytelling especially around “point of view” and “backstory.” Think of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opens with a man about to be shot by a firing squad, remembering an incident from his childhood. Then we go into the “backstory” including the lives of several characters besides the man in front of the firing squad, and we don’t get back to the firing squad for another 200 pages or so.

More recently, Jonathon Franzen, pulls off a similar trick with Freedom which starts off with a distant narrator telling a story about some neighbors who moved away long ago and were recently involved in a “scandal” which we don’t get any details about. We then go back twenty years or so to when they first moved into the neighborhood. Later we go further into the past and then up to the present with shifting points of view including a journal in which the first person narrator refers to herself in the third person. Neat trick, that. We don’t find out about the “scandal” till around the last quarter of the book.

Then there’s James Hynes, whose novel Next almost stopped my heart. It’s a close third-person tale. The story itself takes place over the span of a single day. A man travels from one city to another for a job interview. We are privy not only to what occurs in real time, but his thoughts and memories. You know the rule about avoiding “info dumps” or “too much backstory?”  This is almost all “backstory” and it’s riveting. And while its ending is perfection, I can easily imagine an editor rejecting it for not being “upbeat.”

Warning: The following statements are purely the opinion of the blogger, and may not lead you to find an agent or write a bestseller. The following “advice” is meant for writers interested in honing their craft for non-commercial purposes:

I’m not advising that untested writers attempt the trickiest ways to tell a story, but I am suggesting to think more of guidelines than rules and not to be afraid to drive off road for a while. Even a failed experiment might teach you something, or yield unexpected results.

Writing guidelines can be simple and should be aimed at keeping the story moving. As Elmore Leonard helpfully suggests, “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” I would humbly add that most of us may need readers to tell us what those parts are, so its a good idea to  have some workshop buddies, or others whose reading skills we respect, who are willing to be honest with us, and it’s a good idea for all of us to be open to critique.

This brings me back to Sarah Lawrence, and one day in a writing workshop taught by the late great Grace Paley. There was a conversation about the short-hand “rules,” like  “show don’t tell,” which Paley joked she sometimes turned around. Someone brought up, “write what you know.” Paley replied that if you only wrote what you already knew, it would be boring, and then she stated the one rule that I always attempt to follow, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”