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!

 

 

Saturday Morning Musings

Saturday 9 December

7:30 a.m.:  Coffee in bed, browsing the internet for cars (yes, I’m still looking but have survived surprisingly well without one so far).

8:50 a.m.:  Breakfast at Cenote, “East Austin’s Neighborhood Patio Cafe” while waiting for the local branch of the Austin Public Library to open at 10.00.  I will pick up two books I had reserved:  Getting Started in Consulting and The Gates of the Alamo.  A book for the future and a book about the past.

9:57 a.m.:  At the door of the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library, I am impressed to see a small group of young men waiting with me.

10:00 a.m.:  The sliding door opens.  The group of young men rush past me and head directly to the restroom.  They live on the streets of Austin and the restroom is a place where they can attend to their needs in privacy and with dignity.  I have traveled throughout the developed and developing world and I have seen people living on the streets of Bangalore, Oslo, Colombo, Paris…still, the sight of them in one of the world’s richest countries depresses me.  It is heartening to observe the library staff who are kind and polite to everyone who enters the doors here.

Houston?  Why Not?

It has now been a few weeks since I came to Austin and I’ve just returned from a week visiting friends in Washington.  I have now decided to settle down in Houston rather than in Austin.  After years of visiting my parents in Houston and thinking “I could never live here”, I have to come realize that I could actually live here/there.  Here are some salient facts about my soon-to-be new home:

  1. Houston is the most ethnically diverse metropolitan area in the United States.
  2. Houston’s economy is larger than that of Norway and Sweden.  In fact, only 21 countries in the world have a GDP larger than Houston.  Houston is home to 26 Fortune 500 companies, many of which are in the oil and gas industry and thousands of people are  employed by the Port of Houston, NASA and the Texas Medical Center.
  3. Residents of Houston eat out more times a week than in any other city in America
  4. Houston is one of America’s “fattest cities” with an estimated 34% of the population classified as overweight (see 3 above)
  5. Houston has one of the best culinary scenes in the country (more than 10,000 restaurants representing more than 70 countries and regions of America) (see 3 and 4 above)
  6. It is home to the largest medical center in the world with 54 medicine-related institutions situation on 1,000 acres of land with an average of 7.2 million visits per year.  There are more heart surgeries performed in the Texas Medical Center than anywhere else in the world (see 3, 4 and 5 above)
  7. Houston is the fourth most populous city in the nation with 2.3 million residents (add one more in a few weeks’ time)
  8. Houston has the third largest number of languages spoken in the US surpassed only by New York and Los Angeles
  9. The first traditional Hindu Mandir in the US was built in Houston.. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was assembled like a puzzle. Consisting of 33,000 pieces of Italian marble and Turkish limestone, the temple was carved by hand and took 28 months to build.
  10. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is one of the biggest rodeoNutella Ballss in the world, attracting 2.5 million attendees each year.  It is also known for serving foods like deep-fried Nutella Balls and fried Twinkies (see 3, 4, 5 and 6 above).
  11. Beyoncé is from Houston.

As I move into my 57th year on this earth, I have come to know a bit about myself and a bit about life.  Here is what I am pretty sure of this Saturday morning:

  1. I can change my mind whenever I want to and no one will die because I did.
  2. There is no perfect place to live but there are places that feel good, especially those where family and friends are close by.
  3. Living close to a green space where I can run has become a priority for me in my search for an apartment…that would not have even entered my mind 7 years ago.
  4. Living in a State where it is legal for licensed permit holders to carry a gun openly causes me more concern than if I lived in a State that did not allow this.
  5. Buying a car is a horrible experience…it just is…there is no way around it.
  6. Buying a bike is a pleasant experience…I want to buy one every day.

 

 

Buying a Car in Texas: Part II (or how not to buy a car in Texas)

I write this from the outdoor patio of Clark’s Oyster Bar where I have treated myself to a most perfect meal of lobster roll, slivered fries with rosemary and homemade sweet and sour cucumbers, all washed down with a glass of crisp Muscadet and topped off with a perfectly pressed espresso.  I really needed a treat today and I could not have found a better one.

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Solace at Clark’s Oyster Bar

If you are following from “Buying a Car in Texas: Part I“, you will know that I had settled on purchasing a somewhat sensible compact SUV with excellent safety features and a quiet ride. According to Consumer Reports, one of America’s most reliable sources of product testing and ratings, I should buy a Honda CR-V or a Toyota RAV4.   Armed with this in-depth online knowledge, I set out to buy one of those.

 

In preparation, I researched things like “what to look for in a car”, “how to negotiate the price of a car”, “what to consider when test driving a car” and “Austin’s best Tex-Mex restaurants” (that last one because I am always looking for a good Tex-Mex restaurant).  I had a checklist and a budget, both of which provided a useful baseline from which to measure how far away from them I would move in the end.   It was time to venture out into the oh-so-treacherous world of car dealerships.

My first dealership was nice enough but we did not see eye-to-eye on anything.  Clearly, our astrological signs were totally incompatible.  Although we gave it a good try, it just was not meant to be.  We parted friends but I do not expect we will see each other again.

My second dealership tried to meet my needs on several levels and I started to believe there might be a future for us.  However, a second date of mind-numbing boredom led me to the realization that we do not share the same values or approach to relationships.  I decided that a clean break was best for us both and I walked out, not looking back.

I met my third dealership online.  After exchanging a few pleasantries, we agreed to meet the next day.  My more modest expectations resulted in a few successful test drives.  I was impressed that he allowed me to drive the vehicles on my own.  He was not clingy and I liked that he valued my independence.  We were able to discuss openly our expectations of the relationship upon which we were embarking and we shared past mistakes, without judgement.  There was just the sticky issue of the dowry.  I left our first date feeling confident he would be able to propose something acceptable.  He promised I would hear from him the next day.

Alas, there has been no word from him: no email, no text message, no phone call.   I have, of course, considered the possibility that he got run over on his way to work or that he contracted a rare Texas flu that has resulted in total amnesia.  Most likely he is already in a relationship with another make or model.  Crushed, I sought solace in the arms of Clark’s Oyster Bar.  At least Clark did not let me down.

There has been one bright spot in this oh-so-treacherous world of car dealerships:  I had a solid and supportive shoulder to cry on in the form of my brother-in-law, Phil in Winnipeg.  Phil was at the receiving end of several frantic phone calls from dealership parking lots and more than a few text messages (my sister Carolyn played an integral role in facilitating these sessions).  Had it not been for his sound advice and calming words of wisdom, I would have abandoned all hope.

Yet, I knew there had to be someone out there for me…and I think I’ve found him.

Ray at Bicycle Sports Shop has introduced me to the pleasures of Specialized pedal-assisted bicycles.  In a city famous for its hills, I found it impossible to resist such temptation.   Ray and I spent two amazing hours together riding up and down hills, he a steady companion at my side showing me not only how to keep a steady course but also encouraging me to shift gears every now and then and, most importantly, to enjoy the ride.  I think Ray and I definitely have a future together…

 

 

 

Buying a Car in Texas: Part I

I’m pretty sure I bought a car yesterday.

I chose to relocate to Austin, Texas for many reasons, including the fact that I thought it might be a more walkable city than Houston, where my parents reside.  Having lived in European cities for the past 26 years, I have gotten used to walking, even as a means of transportation.  Putting one foot in front of the other has gotten me to work, to friends’ houses, to restaurants, to cinemas and, sometimes, from one part of a forest to another simply for pleasure.

I knew I would do more driving in Texas, a State with a population of 27.8 million people and 22 million cars.  Compare this to Norway’s 5 million people and 2.6 million cars.  I knew I needed a car. And, having lived in energy-conscious European countries who not only signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change but also intend to honor it, I had decided to buy a long-range electric or at least a hybrid car.  At least this was my plan…

For the past two weeks, I have been driving a rental car, an SUV.  It is big.  It is really big.  And I kind of like it.  I like the height of the SUV:  it has the advantage of allowing me to see what is happening ahead of me on the crazy Texas highways.  It also has the disadvantage of allowing me to see what is happening ahead of me on the crazy Texas highways.

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Houston’s Katy Freeway

Although I have owned a car since I began to drive at age 16, I have not driven much these past years (ref. the paragraph about walking above).  When I sold my 1994 Saab 900S to my neighbor in Oslo, it had only been driven 218,000 kilometers (135,000 miles)…that’s about 9,500 km (6,000 miles) per year.

And, since I have not driven much these past years, I had forgotten some of the few but significant pleasures of driving on highways in the US.  On a recent drive from Austin to Houston for Thanksgiving, nearby motorists might have noticed me careening along at the speed limit of 75 mph (120 kph), singing along with the powerful vocals of Robert Plant to Stairway to Heaven blaring through the bluetooth speakers in my big SUV.  It was as if Robert himself was sitting next to me, and I liked it and I’m pretty sure he did too.

Now, rather than looking for a long-range electric or hybrid car, I have decided upon a somewhat sensible compact SUV with excellent safety features (airbags all over the place) and a quiet ride; this, to ensure that my duets with Robert are not dulled by highway noise and that we both enjoy a comfortable and safe ride together.

See also Buying a Car in Texas: Part IIrobert-in-texas (1)

 

Back in the US

I have cried twice these past two weeks since I moved back to the US:  the first time was when I found out that I would not be able to get a bank loan to buy a place to live because I do not have a job after the end of the year, and a second time when I found out I have to establish residency in Texas before I can get a Texas driver’s license and that it takes a year to become a resident of Texas.  Other than that, my reintegration has been a breeze.

Having lived outside of the US for 26 years now, I seem to have forgotten how to live in the US.  I am American, born in Dallas, Texas (doesn’t get more American than that…except perhaps if I had personally sailed in from England on the Mayflower in 1620).  I like root beer and Twizzlers.  I grew up watching My Three Sons and The Brady Bunch.  I have a social security number, the equivalent of a European national identity number…all things that define “American”.  But I don’t have a credit rating and, without, that, I might as well be from another planet, such as Europe.

I don’t know how to purchase real estate or how to buy a car here.  I don’t know which laundry detergent is best or what to wear when it is 60 degrees outside (seems hot, but it isn’t).  I forget that when an ironing board is priced at $17.97 I really have to pay $19.09 after the sales tax has been added.  I forgot how annoying it is to have to figure out how much to tip a server in a restaurant because they are not paid a decent wage at the outset.

But I have also forgotten how nice people can be here.  When turning the corner in a supermarket aisle, the person doing the same thing from the other side apologized profusely…for being there… for being in my way…for being.  Compared to Norway, where people never excuse themselves for fear of intruding in another person’s space, or France where people get angry because you are in their space and it is their space and why are you in it in the first place?, I find this surprisingly pleasant.

I went to the Yeti flagship store in Austin to buy one of their famous tumblers and the guy at the checkout asked me “So, what did you do today?” and, when I answered, it actually turned into a conversation…and the conversation was interesting.  I liked that.

I have been invited to lunch by a total stranger with whom I have had one email exchange.  She is a realtor I had contacted about purchasing an apartment.  When I told her that I could no longer consider buying since no one will lend me money to do so, she responded with a lunch invitation to a place outside of Austin…on a lake…

I do not know many people in Austin yet.  I like eating at restaurants.  This means that I eat alone at restaurants.  The average restaurant in the US caters to families, couples, people eating alone, polar bears, aardvarks…in fact, they cater to just about anyone (at least since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made segregation in public places such as restaurants and lunch counters illegal).   It is easy to eat a very good meal for a very reasonable price, alone and comfortably.   I can highly recommend the tamale cakes at The Shady Grove.  Tamale cakes are an amazing combination of fried masa, pulled pork, queso, green chili sauce and pico de gallo (all staples of Tex-Mex cuisine).  I’m sure the tamale cakes taste just fine when dining with others but I think they must be even even more delicious when dining alone…especially when washed down with a Houston-brewed Weisse Versa beer (how could I possibly resist ordering that?).  The tamale cakes and the beer came to $17.00 (NOK 140)…plus tax…plus tip.