A Flickering Light

I’ve been missing my Dad a lot these past days.  It’s been almost 3 months since he died.

Knowing he was going to die, I asked him if he was scared of dying.  He said “no, I think of death as just “lights out””.  While his light may have gone out—perhaps at that moment when he stopped breathing, perhaps before that when he was in a morphine-induced coma—his light seems to be flickering in me, reminding me of his presence on this earth for 88 years, 4 months and 28 days.  For 58 years, 10 months and 23 days, he was my Dad.  Those numbers will never change.

Grief is weird.  It comes and goes.  For me, it is not a constant pain.  It floods over me at unexpected moments.  I was in a store yesterday to buy a birthday card.  I saw Father’s Day cards and realized that I would not be marking that day again.  That made me sad.  I may have been the only person in the Kennedy Center concert hall crying through the Dvorak cello concerto last week because it was a concert my father had recommended for me last year, when I sent him the program for the National Symphony Orchestra and asked him to select a few concerts he knew I’d like.  I didn’t really need him to select concerts for me.  It was one of those things I did because I knew he’d appreciate it and it was my way of connecting in a relationship that had often been a challenging one. These concerts connect me to his spirit, that flickering light that hasn’t gone out, at least for me.  If you ever see me crying during the Dvorak cello concerto or Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto or Mahler’s Fifth, you’ll know why.

A friend in New York wrote to me: “Jews do grief well”.  I think she is right, although I don’t have much experience with grief in other religions.  I found unexpected comfort in going to the synagogue every morning before work for 7 days after my father died, as is tradition.  Before the mourner’s kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is recited, each mourner is asked to say out loud the name of the person they are mourning.  For 7 days I said out loud “my father, Eli Bensky.”   I am not particularly religious, but I had a need for some type of ritual to honor my father and honor my loss.  Sending his name out in a sacred place amongst strangers and other mourners was life-affirming and death-affirming.  For those 7 days, I also lit a Yahrtzeit memorial candle, another Jewish ritual of mourning.  I placed the candle on a shelf above my bed and, in the middle of the night when I woke, the flame bounced gently off my bedroom walls and reminded me of Dad.  I took comfort in that flickering light and I will do so every year on the anniversary of his death.

So, while death may be have been a “lights out” for Dad, it has been a “lights on” for me.  That flickering light that is my Dad, that gently bounces off the walls of my bedroom, that light that flickers within my heart.  That light that reminds me of the 58 years, 10 months and 23 days he was my Dad.  Those numbers will never change…

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Finding my voice

Two days ago, I retracted my acceptance of a senior management position that would have made good use of my skills and experience, covered my health care expenses, significantly bolstered my retirement cushion and provided a salary commensurate with the high level of responsibility and expectations of the job.

I did this after two days in which I was subjected to questions about my political and personal beliefs and my professional associations.  This followed the reactions of a handful of intolerant people who protested my appointment.  They objected to the work of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), one of the world’s most principled humanitarian organizations, in a region of the world that is fraught with complexity and conflict..and, by my association with NRC, they objected to me.  They questioned work I had done with the Norwegian Red Cross in the same region, work I am proud to have done and done well.  They disapproved of people I have worked with, attacking views they had expressed with courage and conviction.  I was destabilized.  I was shaken.

Why this should have come as such a surprise to me is, well, surprising.  From my  comfortable perch on top of the world in social democratic Norway, I had followed the rise of fundamentalism in an increasingly polarized America.  I have lazily expressed my outrage by reposting a Facebook article or a meme from those who have been raising the alarm of fundamentalism for many years.  Such virtue signaling didn’t cost me anything.

On my return to the US, I naively thought that I could remain shielded from such narrow-mindedness and continue to express my outrage from wherever I sat comfortably perched.  I never imagined that I would come face-to-face with it so soon and in such an unexpected way…or that it would be represented by so few who were given so much power.  In the end, walking away from this was pretty easy.

There is nothing like a bunch of reactionary voices to clarify one’s own voice.  This clarity came at a price, albeit a relatively small one for me.  Others have paid a far greater price defending their beliefs and values.  I do not presume to stand among them.  Writing is my therapy and I really just needed to get this off  my chest!

 

 

Living Big

One of my biggest challenges since moving to Houston has been getting enough exercise.  Unlike my life in Oslo, walking is not a mode of transport here.  On an average day in Oslo, my iPhone app told me that I walked between 7,500 and 12,000 steps a day, and this, without counting my running or other exercise.  Here in Houston, I struggle to get in 2,000 steps.  My car, on the other hand, gets a lot of exercise.  I guess that is how she stays so svelte.

Today I decided to use running as a mode of transport to visit my mother who is in hospital at the Texas Medical Center recovering from surgery.   Did I mention that I live only a few kilometers from the Texas Medical Center (TMC)?

The TMC employs 106,000 people who provide medical services to 10 million patients a year.  The TMC comprises 54 medical institutions, 21 hospitals (my mother is in one of them), 4 medical schools, 7 nursing schools, 2 pharmacy schools, and a dental school. More heart surgeries are performed here than anywhere in the world.  The TMC is home to the world’s largest children’s hospital (Texas Children’s Hospital) and the largest cancer hospital (MD Anderson Cancer Center).  And, with a GDP of $25 billion, the TMC is the world’s largest medical complex.  This is BIG business!  Ironically, the medical institutions are part of the Texas Medical Center Corporation, a non-profit umbrella organization.  Someone is making a lot of money at the TMC and, with more than 160,000 visitors each day, I believe it is whoever manages the parking garages.

My 4-km run to TMC began directly across the street from my apartment at Hermann Park.  I am lucky to live so near to one of Houston’s most visited green spaces.  Hermann Park is home to the Houston Zoo, a great running track, a 9-hole golf course, a Japanese garden and the Miller Outdoor Theater.  On any given day, the park is full of people like me whose cars get more exercise than they.  The running trail is lined with gorgeous oak trees dripping with the Spanish moss that is so symbolic of the Southern US and makes me think of swamplands and bayous and crawfish and the blues.

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The Marvin Taylor Trail at Hermann Park

As with most of my running activities, I like to listen to a variety of podcasts.  Today’s playlist included one of my favourites, On Being, an award-winning podcast that describes itself as a program that asks “What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”.  Despite its somewhat complex themes, the program is always inspiring and always uplifting…something to which I increasingly turn to counter the rather depressing traditional news programs here in the US.

The program is usually an interview format but today I listened to a special broadcast from a theater in New York entitled Stories about Mystery.  One such story was a reading of “The Doctor and the Rabbi“, written by Aimee Bender, a novelist and short-story writer.  The story, read by a great American actress, Ellen Burstyn, begins with:

The doctor went to see the rabbi. “Tell me, rabbi, please,” he said, “about God.”

The rabbi pulled out some books. She talked about Jacob wrestling the angel. She talked about Heschel and the kernel of wonder as a seedling that could grow into awe. She tugged at her braid and told a Hasidic story about how at the end of one’s life, it is said that you will need to apologize to God for the ways you have not lived.

“Not for the usual sins,” she said. “For the sin of living small.”

I don’t know if it was the endorphins kicking in or my romantic association to the Spanish moss but these words struck me deeply and I have been mulling over them throughout the day.

I feel challenged (in a good way) by the notion that it is a moral imperative to live our lives to the fullest, to live big, and that this is what is expected of us; this is our normal.  And I began to wonder what it would look like for me to live this way on a daily basis.  I think of those cheesy refrigerator magnets I so quickly dismiss; “Do what you think you cannot”, “Build your own dreams, or someone else will hire you to build theirs” and “If you can dream it, you can do it”.  What if those kitchen magnets are right?  What would that look for me?  What would that look like for you?

America The Difficult

I have been back in the United States of America for a little over two months now.  That means I have been out of Europe for a little over two months, enough time to start missing things I’ve left behind; things like universal health care, job security, respectable  and intelligent heads of state, and friends.  I will, of course, make new friends and I have many of them in the US, just not yet in Houston.

It is unlikely that I will see universal health care in my lifetime.  Even though the Affordable Care Act is a big step forward, America is decades behind most other industrialised countries in providing health care for its citizens.

Job security for most Americans is a thing of the past and I even wonder how long this will continue to be the norm in Europe.

As for a respectable head of state, 2020 is not that far away and I am willing to ride the “Oprah for President” wave or any other wave that can put a human being who’s like, really smart in the White House.

When visiting, I had the impression that everything was easy in the US.   “America the beautiful” was also “America the easy”; easy because there are a lot of people to make things work, easy because I know the language, easy because stores are open all the time and easy because, well it is America and look how easy it is to become President…

Since moving back here, I find that not everything is easy.  Yes, there are a lot of people to make things work—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 158 million of them—but this does not always make things easy.  Take my bank for example.  There are so many people to make things easy that each time I call with a simple question, I get to talk to 3 or 4 of them.  A typical call will go something like this:

Confusing Recorded Automated Answering System (CRAAS):  Thank you for calling XXXX Bank.  Please enter the last four digits of your account number. If you are calling about xxx, please press 1.  If you are calling about yyy, please press 2 (and so on and so forth).  

CRAAS:  Please stay on the line.  A customer service specialist will be with you shortly.  This call is being recorded.

Really bad background music plays for a few minutes…

Customer Service Representative:  Thank you for calling XXXX Bank.  My name is John.  May I know who I am speaking with? (Doesn’t John know never to end a sentence with a preposition?)

Roberta:  My name is Roberta.

John:  May I know your last name? (John didn’t give me his so why should I give him mine?)

Roberta:  Bensky

John:  Thank you Miss Roberta (so why did I give him my last name if he doesn’t use it?)  May I have the last four digits of your account number?

Roberta:  9999 (Didn’t the CRAAS already ask me for this?  What has the CRAAS done with the last four digits of my account number?)

John:  Thank you.  For security purposes, may I send a verification code to your phone now?

Roberta:  Yes.

John:  May I have your telephone number (Don’t they have this information already?)

Roberta:  555-555-5555.

John:  Thank you.  Please know that XXXX Bank does not charge for this service but your telephone carrier may charge for this service.  Do I have your permission to send the verification code to your phone now?

Roberta:  Yes.  (Code arrives and I recite it to John).

John:  Thank you, Miss Roberta.  For security purposes, may I know your mother’s maiden name?

Roberta:  (I tell John my mother’s maiden name, but how old-fashioned is that???)

John:  Thank you, Miss Roberta.  How may I help you today?

Roberta:  I am wondering why I was charged $43.00 for something called “foreign exchange rate fee”?

John:  I do not see this charge on your credit card.

Roberta:  It was charged to my debit card.

John:  I’m afraid I only deal with credit card issues.  I will now transfer you to a customer service representative who specialises in debit card issues.  Please stay on the line.

Roberta’s internal dialogueOMG! WTF?

Really bad background music plays for a few minutes…

John:  Thank you for waiting, Miss Roberta.  I have explained your situation to my colleague, Jane, who will help you.  Thank you for calling XXXX Bank and have a wonderful day.

Roberta’s Internal Dialogue:  Well, it started out wonderful but is rapidly going downhill…

Jane:  Hello.  My name is Jane.  I am here to help you.  May I have your first and last names and your mother’s maiden name?

Roberta’s internal dialogueOMG!  WTF?

I feel it is important to note that (1) this bank HAS MY MONEY; (2) this bank USES MY MONEY WHEN I AM NOT USING IT; (3) this bank MAKES ME PAY TO USE MY MONEY; and (4) a reliable consumer magazine RANKS THIS BANK HIGH ON CUSTOMER SERVICE.

Why can’t banks be more like Lexus dealerships? (see Buying a Car in Texas – Part III (finale))