Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Places of my Carbondale Childhood

Eight years ago, I moved back to the small town where I grew up. It wasn’t my intention, nor did I intend to stay, but a series of minor decisions led to a major life leap: back from Barcelona, Spain to Carbondale, Illinois.
After a few years of rootlessness, I did yet another unthinkable deed: I bought a house around the corner from where I grew up. When I was young, this neighborhood was the average neighborhood, nothing special, kind of second-class. We envied the kids who lived in Parish Acres, a much more upscale, and newer redoubt of middle- and upper-middle-class success. It’s funny that today when I drive through that neighborhood, it looks exactly like mine. Where did that pecking order come from? Its newness? And now the upscale neighborhoods are further out beyond Parish Acres, leaving it as the somewhat dingy wanna-be and my neighborhood to inexplicably become a sort of cool-ish, diverse, cottage-y neighborhood with – get this! – mid-century bungalows. Really? The Hengehold house, the Keim house, the Isbells, the Wilkinsons, the Schills and our house? They’re now mid-century treasures. They have a fashionable label! And honestly, it is a lovely neighborhood: mostly well-tended, modest homes, not too big and not too small, many built along the same patterns (the ranch, the split-level, the Cape Cod) with huge trees shading them in the summer. My father, an inveterate walker-to-work on campus his entire working life in Carbondale, remembers standing at the top of Glenview and looking down the entire street, past Freeman, only a few baby trees to obstruct his view. Today, except for winter when the branches are bare, there are no views down Glenview, just lush, leafy green.
The other day I was walking my dog around the block – my stomping grounds for the first 25 years of my life, then a 20-year hiatus, and now the last 8 years – and as I was peering into the space between two houses on a half-cul-de-sac, I distinctly remembered that place, an iconic one from my childhood: Bardo’s Jump. We roamed free in my childhood, and one of our frequent routes was to Murdale. In the early days, we went to the Walgreens and spent our weekly dime on a candy bar or a soda. The soda was more complicated because we had to reach into a cooler, remove the bottle, drink it, and get our 5-cent deposit back. Or Cristaudo’s to get pink-iced cookies or peaks – mountain-shaped delicacies with cake on the bottom and cream on top, all covered with chocolate. Years later, we’d go to Huck’s to get more junk food. But no matter where we were going, we had to walk by Bardo’s Jump. Bardo’s Jump was where two streets that should have connected didn’t, so to get from one part to another we had to walk through the yards of two back-to-back houses – one being the Bardos’. And because there was a five- or six-foot drop between the yards, a dirt-covered drop-off became the place where all the neighbor boys would take their banana-seat bicycles and jump off. Who remembers Bardo’s Jump today? It was just the name we neighborhood kids gave it, but this no-place is forever etched in my mind.
When I was growing up, our “block” was around a mile in radius, so a walk around the block, a common family activity in a summer evening, was indeed a walk. Inside this large block was The Field. It wasn’t just any field: when we told our parents we were going to The Field, they knew what we meant. The field was just long grass with a few brush piles and one large tree, but the truly magical place in The Field was The Mound. The Mound was: a mound of dirt. And yet to children, this mound of dirt was A Place. Yes, you could play King of the Mountain on the mound, but the best part was when someone – I have no idea who – carved winding holes through The Mound, so you could not only climb on top of it but also through it. The pecking order in The Mound was clear; we younger kids only got to play in and on it after the older kids tired of it. When The Field was built up, I remember being anxious: what scary strangers were taking over our terrain and stripping us of our Field? And today, as I walk my dog through the streets that used to be The Field, I often wonder under which house is The Mound today? I can’t quite reach that far back…
My parents were New Yorkers. While my mother never stopped yearning to return to the city, my father had spent his Brooklyn childhood dreaming of being a forest ranger, so he was pleased to be near nature. When we were kids, he would take us on Walks in the Woods. The Woods was the natural area on the south side of Chautauqua if you walk down Emerald Lane (and it’s still there!). A Walk in the Woods was a big event. He’d plan a route, and then tell us we were going on An Adventure. An Adventure would be tunneling through hedges and vines, perhaps balancing on a fallen log across a creek, or maybe going past the thickets where Mad Myrtle was hiding. Mad Myrtle… who remembers her? The legendary Girl Scout camp madwoman that terrified every kid. And to think that Mad Myrtle lived in the thickets near the pond! My heart pounding, I’d follow the safe lead of my father through the thickets until we got to the pond, in a clearing where no madwoman could dwell! As a parent, I’m guessing these walks were as much about giving my mother a break as our Adventures, but we always smet the prospect of traipsing through the woods at the end of the road with anticipation and excitement!
As we got older and more independent, we discovered Kelly’s Barn, right where our road runs out. We’d walk to the end, continue down a gravel path, and end at a little barn – if my memory is accurate it was little more than a lean-to housing a few horses – with a field nearby. We would pet the horses, walk around the fields, and mainly get away from the adults. Because we were getting to middle school age, I have a fuzzy memory that a few minorly illicit things occurred at Kelly’s Barn, but it was our getaway, our way to escape scrutiny. Today the lands are owned by Green Earth and horses are a distant memory, and although it’s still just around the corner I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been back. Maybe today…
When I was living in Spain and never intending to come back, I had forgotten all these places. With my daughter, we carved out new places: the pond in the Parc de la Betzuca, the snorkeling in our special secret little bay near L’Escala… these are the places of her Spain childhood. She even had her local madman: Mamel, who lived near the train station in Valldoreix, where we’d have to drive by quickly lest he come out! But since I’ve come back to Carbondale, I will see a place and flash back to those days and those places, which lurk under the everyday places today, forever in my memories, and maybe in someone else’s, too.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Out of It

February 29, 2016

I never had the corner on cool, and I certainly came late to whatever minor allotment of it I ever managed to muster. Still, there was a time in the eighties when I dressed cool (vintage), listened to cool music (REM, Talking Heads, Psychedelic Furs, etc.), and could command attention as a style-leader cool-chick.

Granted, a very brief period, but still…

Naturally, as I matured cool ceased to be on my radar. After your early twenties, I felt there was something unseemly about caring about being cool. Still, as my daughter grew up, I thought I could fairly consider myself among the “cool” parents, not in the sense that my daughter’s friends are welcome to party at my house, um… no!!! Not cool at all! But cool in the sense that I appreciate their sensibility, their worries, their style, and their music.

My daughter loves to show me the latest music that she’s into, and I generally appreciate it because after a brief turn as a Directioner and Taylor Swift fan, she’s now into more alternative music, and it’s really pretty good. Did I mention that most of it could have easily been made in the eighties? Oh well, that’s another matter!

The problem is, I can’t seem to keep the names of the bands straight. It started a few years back when she showed me a band she loved, and I, sounding senile, kept asking, “What’s the name of that band? The Freelance Elephants?” Turns out it’s the Freelance Whales. But really, two large mammals; it’s understandable, right?

Then one day she tells me about another band she loves named Best Deal, which the next day I couldn’t remember. “What was that band’s name? Best Buy? That’s a strange name for a band.” We were doubled over with laughter when it turned out that the band’s name wasn’t Best Buy or even Best Deal: it’s Bastille. Gulp. Oops! Cool cred is definitely plummeting at this point… Is it hearing aid time?

But I think my middle-age mom uncool reached its peak with Macklemore. Don’t ask me why it was absolutely impossible for me to remember his name once my daughter brought him to my attention. It was one summer in Spain, driving up to the Costa Brava, listening to the radio, when “Thrift Shop” came on. I loved it! So of course I had to exclaim the next day: “I really loved that Marplethorple song!”

My daughter almost choked. “WHAT?????”

“The Marplethorple song. Wait, Marplepurple. No, Mapplemurple. Or Maplemarple?” I knew I was getting colder but I just couldn’t find it. “Thurplemarple? Marbleburble? Oh crap, what’s his name?”


“Ah, that’s right!!”

“Mama, are you okay?”

Oh, dear. It’s not good when your teen daughter wonders about your mental stability. The good thing is I can now remember Macklemore, but every time he comes up she and I begin a litany of possibilities that only get more absurd:


I figured I had to pull myself together and etched Macklemore, Bastille, and Freelance Whales in my memory so I could hide my increasing befuddled middle-agedness. But then she recently started talking about a band’s name that really offended my feminist sensibility, Taming Paula. Really, taming a girl? Is that a good band name? I bet it’s all men. What kind of message is that sending?

Finally, after a bit of attitude in which I asked her where they got such a stupid name, she simply called up a song on her iPhone and showed it to me, nary a word spoken. It was by Tame Impala. Oh.

Still, I mean, what kind of band name is that? Young whippernsipples, snipperwhackles… I mean whippersnappers!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tortilla de Patata

Walk into any tapas bar in Spain and what do you find? Little marbly wedges bedecked perhaps with a twist of roasted red pepper, maybe a dab of salsa rosa, or maybe the wedge by itself, in all its glory. Meet the tortilla de patata.

When you talk about tortillas in the United States, people think that you’re talking about Mexican tortillas – wheat or corn. But I’m talking about the Spanish variety – an omelet. The tortilla de patata, or potato omelet, is the humblest, homeliest dish in the Spanish repertoire, a repertoire that is already quite homely: peasant food, solid, sturdy, nourishing, even fattening for hard days in the field. When there’s nothing else in the larder, you’ve always got olive oil, eggs, potatoes and onions, and the hard-won wisdom of poverty in the Mediterranean sparked the alchemy that created this most earthy yet satisfying of dishes.

I learned how to make a tortilla de patata from many masters: my ex-husband, his mother, the grandma of one of my daughter’s friends. From each I observed and learned. And the thing is, you can only learn to make a tortilla de patata by observing. A friend who had visited Spain once years ago once asked me to send her a recipe for it. I can’t. Like most traditional dishes, there is no recipe. And if I did concoct or find one, that’s no guarantee that it would actually turn out well.  OK, there is a list of ingredients: olive oil, onions, potatoes and eggs. In what proportion? Well, do you like it more potatoe-y or more oniony (I love the latter – the sweet of the onions contrasting with the savory of the omelet – yum!!) How many eggs? Well, how many do you have? And how far does the tortilla de patata have to go? Seasonings? Well, how do you like it? Or how does your family like it, the real question for the good Spanish wife. One friend of mine said that her husband couldn’t stand onions in his tortilla de patata, a travesty in my opinion, but she dutifully always made two – one without for him, and one proper tortilla loaded with onion.

What counts in a tortilla de patata is the technique. How big do you cut the onions and potatoes? Which sautés first? Or do they go in at the same time? Do you sauté them quickly and brown them (like that masterful grandma – who made the best tortilla I’ve ever had, by the way) or slowly? Do you use just eggs or add a bit of milk? Do you just pour the eggs into the frying pan, or remove the sautéed potatoes and onions, mix them in a bowl and pour them back in the pan? How brown should it be? How tall or thick?

None of it matters. What matters is having eaten enough of them to know what you like. I personally cut the onion small and potatoes larger. I throw the onions in just before the potatoes to make sure they are nice and caramelized before the potatoes are done. I like to turn up the heat at the end and slightly brown the potatoes, hash-brown-style. I beat the eggs apart, add a splash of milk, plenty of salt and not a small amount of pepper. When the onions and potatoes are done, I pour them into the eggs and mix them all together, add fresh olive oil to my pan, turn up the heat and pour it back in.

As the tortilla de patata cooks, how do you know that underside is ready? Each cook has their way... My clue is that the olive oil burbling up on the sides of the pan goes from large bubbles to teeny-tiny fiercely fizzling bubbles, as if the oil is saturated with the tortilla ingredients. I plop a plate over the pan, do a flip, and slide the tortilla back into the pan, uncooked side down. A bit more cooking to finish up that side, and we’re done. Flip it back onto a clean plate, let cool, and eat room temperature.

Ok, I’ll come clean. A tapa is really a frittata. But perish the thought of using one of those newfangled two-sided frittata pans that avoids the issue of the flip. Williams Sonoma for wimps and wanna-be’s. Really, now, do you think yayas had frittata pans?! And acquiring knowledge of when to flip, along with a sound flipping technique, is a kind of folk wisdom that any cook is proud to have earned after many failed attempts.

In this entire process, I’ve probably used half a cup of olive oil. So is the tortilla de patata healthy? Well, dietetic, no. Wholesome, absolutely. It’s all fresh, nothing processed, and – most importantly of all – always made with care. There is no need to spend an hour in the kitchen making something so simple. If you do so, it is an act of love. I former student of mine from Afghanistan, after trying a piece of tortilla de patata, sighed. “It’s just like our food at home,” he waxed nostalgically. I don’t know if there is an actual dish like that in Afghanistan, but I have no doubt that he was reacting to good, simple home cooking using the humblest of ingredients, no tricks, no add-ons, nothing fancy, just made with heart.

My father always laughs at me when I say “tortilla de patata” – the rat-a-tat of the “patata” probably sounding like baby talk more than his notion of Spanish. And yet in any cuisine, there are a few dishes that, in my opinion, mark the skill of a cook, dishes that, though humble, test their mettle and their ability to mold dishes to their own tastes and those of their families. Dishes that have no recipes but instead certain general features that can and should be made personal over the years. As humble as it may be, and as funny as it sounds in English, I would suggest that the tortilla de patata is the crowning test-dish of Spanish cuisine.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What’s wrong with this picture?

Feb. 9, 2011

When I was 27, I went to Spain to teach English. I thought, two years in Spain, enough to learn Spanish, a marketable skill back home. Then I’ll come back, possibly to Boston, a city I love. Life, however, intervened in my plans. I met a man, married him, had a child, bought a house, started a business, got divorced … and so in my late thirties I found myself still living in Spain, a single mother with a business to run, exhausted from trying to keep everything together, depressed at being alone on holidays when all my friends were with their families (nuclear families, which for me was my daughter and myself, which seemed lonely, or extended families, of which I had none… in Spain). Sad, feeling isolated and out of place after so many years, which only further saddened me, I went to talk to Silvia, a fabulously wise and insightful therapist I’d turned to several times in the past at difficult moments.

“Why don’t you go back to the U.S. for a year and live near your family?” she suggested. I blanched. To me, going back was an all-or-nothing business. I had spent 17 years in Spain, struggled for 6 years as a single mother determined to keep my daughter near her father, even though her upbringing was 99% my job, proud of having grown a successful business, in love with Barcelona and its vibrant cultural life, although, yes, feeling disconnected, disjointed, out of place, dejected. Going back was like surrendering, admitting defeat. But I’d never considered going back for one year, just as a brief respite to recharge my batteries in the glow of the love and care of my family and friends. It sounded just like what the doctor ordered.

I started thinking about it logistically: My business was translating; it operates entirely on the Internet, so that could move with me. My daughter was in 4th grade and would be going into 5th,, so basically I still entirely made decisions for her. Still, I asked her what she thought. She loved the idea, although as it drew closer she started to have some – very natural – misgivings. Nonetheless, she was in favor of it. Her father put up no real objections, much to everyone’s surprise. As for my home, at first some friends were going to stay in it for me, but when they backed down I decided not to rent it since rental laws in Spain totally favor the tenant and I would risk not being able to get my home back when I wanted it. Plus, we were going to visit in mid-winter and wanted to go home then, not to a hotel or friend’s house. I asked my father and he agreed to let us stay at his house for the year, not the ideal situation as he had gotten used to his solitude after my mother’s death and I had been independent for so many decades, but workable for a year. So… with no real impediments I informed my friends and clients, threw a huge farewell party and set out for what was to be a year-long adventure. Knowing the healthcare situation in the U.S., I bought travelers’ health insurance in Spain which would basically cover us for any emergency. And we were off…

As soon as we got here, I registered my daughter in school, set her up at a stable where she could ride horses (her passion) and then a pony, Fancy, sort of fell into my lap, so I bought her Fancy. Her own horse! Finally! Her school was almost a one-room schoolhouse affair, a tiny, alternative private school where she positively flourished. Being an essentially rural child, she loved her life here – full of nature, horses, a huge, grass-covered, forested playground at school, a pony of her own – everything her heart desired. As for me, I was near my boyfriend (long story, no longer long-distance!), my sister and her family, my father, and my best friend in the world, and I soon reconnected with a very important friend from my college years, a resumed friendship that is extremely meaningful for him, me, and my daughter. Then, I got word that the local university needed ESL teachers, and since that was where I originally got my start teaching, I applied and got hired as a part-time adjunct. Plus, one of my goals when in Illinois was to bring Mediterranean, specifically Catalan, cooking there, so I started teaching Catalan cooking classes at the local co-op, a dream come true.

Things were falling into place. One day, my daughter looked at me and said, “Mommy, I’d like to stay here.” She was echoing my own thoughts. “Really?” I asked her. “I’ve been thinking the same thing.” We started to talk about how she wouldn’t see Daddy very often, how she might miss her friends Maria, Carlota, and Andrea in Spain, how she would miss the big “Nit d’Estels”, a special all-night affair for the graduating sixth-graders in her elementary school in Spain that kids there dream about for years and prepare for months. I also told her that we would have to find a home of our own, and that meant I couldn’t afford her private school anymore so she’d have to go to a public school. Much to my surprise, Cecilia was willing to accept all of this to stay in America. Wow. I was a little more ambivalent. I missed the city. I missed the sea. I missed the opera. I missed the amazing food and champagne. I missed my home and its halls echoing with the laughter of Cecilia and her friends. I wasn’t sure how I could make things work here – surviving off a business in distant Spain and having travelers’ insurance was good as a temporary measure, but it wouldn’t work out forever so I’d have to figure out a way to earn a decent living and get us healthcare in the U.S. Still, we weighed it all and decided to stay on.

So, after the summer in Spain I rented a little duplex, furnished it (and got into debt doing it), renewed my travelers’ health insurance from Spain one more year since after looking into health insurance in the States I realized I couldn’t afford it, registered Cecilia in the public schools and got all her immunizations up to date, and embarked on life in the U.S. with an intention to stay. I kept working as an adjunct at the university, since I had missed a big hiring campaign the previous year, before I knew we were staying, and there was now a hiring freeze. My adjunct position came with no insurance. Well, actually, my boss said I could get health insurance, but it would be $800 per month… out of the $1,000-1,500 I was earning. Somehow, um, earning $200-700 a month for half-time work didn’t seem like a good deal. The health insurance I had from Spain worked on reimbursements. I had to pay the bills, then submit them and get reimbursed. I had used it once last year for a minor sinus infection and gotten promptly reimbursed, so I felt good with that. But still, if we were staying I did need insurance here.

Then my first health issue arose. For years I’d had a tiny cyst on my back. My dermatologist in Spain said he could remove it, although there was no real need to unless it got infected, so I had always ignored it. Well, it got infected. It turned into a large, red, throbbing golf ball on my back. Sleeping was difficult; swimming was out of the question. I called a dermatologist’s office and the first question I got was: “What insurance do you have?” Not, how serious is it? Does it hurt? Is it oozing? Nothing like that. Just, “What insurance company do you have?” When they heard I had none (because saying I have travelers’ insurance from Spain just doesn’t register here) the next sentence was, “An office visit costs $150, payable in cash the same day, plus any additional expenses for further treatments.” Okay, still no questions about my health, although I’m talking to a doctor’s office. When I assured them I’d pay it, they then scheduled for me an appointment in ten days. Ten days?!?! I had a huge, angry infection on my back! Wasn’t there anything sooner? “Sorry, ma’am, ten days is the soonest opening the doctor has.” What could I do? And this doctor had come recommended by a friend. The emergency room would be too expensive, plus, was it a real emergency? I didn’t want to be one of those people crowding up the emergency room unnecessarily. So I waited ten days, my back oozing, sore, smelly. What was this? I had a condition – minor in the grand scheme of things, but still, needing attention – and couldn’t get the care I needed. Finally, ten days went by and the doctor confirmed, yes, that my cyst was infected. He gave me two treatment options and then I hit him with the fact that I had no insurance. He paused, then said that he would just do the simpler treatment there, on the spot, without charging me. I was flabbergasted, in the best of ways, utterly grateful, ready to fall on my knees to express my relief and appreciation. He treated it, my daughter had to care for the wound for ten days, and it mostly went away, although next summer, when I’m back in Spain, I’ll have the whole thing removed. Of course, I can’t afford to here. And there it won’t cost me a cent. And I don’t even live there anymore.

In the meantime, I had called my health insurance company in Spain. They said that if I needed further treatment they would set me up with a doctor, but in the meantime that I should send the bills for reimbursement. I did, although the bills were far smaller than they would have been if the doctor had actually charged me. One week later I got a phone call at around 10 pm. It was the insurance company in Spain. I had a gut-wrenching feeling. Uh-oh. What’s wrong? The woman on the phone said, “I was just calling to see how you’re feeling, how your back is healing, if you need anything. If you need anything, any further treatment, please call us and we’ll arrange it for you.” What the heck? I think “insurance” and fear strikes my gut; here’s an insurance company calling me to see if I’m all right? I was blown away. Then I was blown away by the fact that I was blown away. Imagine that! An insurance company that follows up not to pursue payment, deny coverage and issue warnings, but to see if I’m ok, offering me more treatment if I need it. How sad that not only is this not a regular occurrence here, but that I’d already been conditioned to fear a call from my insurance company.

Fast forward to winter. I get the flu. Not wanting to spend the $113 on the doctor’s visit plus medicine, I tough it out. Not wanting to be absent from work because I want to get hired fulltime (not because I really want the job, but because I want the healthcare), and because I don’t want to burden my fellow teachers with subbing my classes, I go to work despite a low-grade fever. Mistake. The next weekend I’m flat on my back, feverish, lungs burbling. I bite the bullet, wait three hours, spend $113 to see a doctor. Conclusion: he thinks it is pneumonia and informs me that I need a chest X-ray. When I tell him that I have no health insurance and ask him how much an X-ray will cost, he said between $200 and $300. So he offered to medicate me for pneumonia with a strong antibiotic and steroid that would reduce the inflammation, and told me to come back the next week if I’m not better. Again, I think: in Spain if I needed an X-ray I would just get one. My co-pay would be around $2. My doctor would insist. I realize that the doctor here didn’t insist and instead medicated me for an illness I may or may not have without the right diagnostics in order to save me money, a favor, I guess. But that once again spotlights how healthcare works in this country: money considerations come first, health comes second.

In the meantime, my daughter is still riding horses. In fact, she’s training to participate in eventing, a dangerous sport which involves jumping over obstacles while galloping full-speed through open fields. Before she gets started when the warm weather came around, I decided that we absolutely had to have health insurance for her here, if for nothing else than because I was ashamed of having to sign her up for everything and having to leave the spaces for “primary physician” and “health insurance information” blank because we didn’t have either a primary physician or health insurance. I had to do that when I signed her up for school, for U.S. Pony Club, for Girl Scouts, basically for everything. But here, how do I get a primary physician without health insurance? Who wants us? How can I pay out of pocket for intakes for a doctor I later may not be able to afford, or may not want to see us, because we have no insurance? I felt like a neglectful mother, yet I had always given my daughter the best care. We have always been prosperous, educated, aware. That’s how I perceive myself. Here it has to change; here I’m unable to care for us because I can’t afford monthly payments of upwards of $500, the minimum to have any sort of decent coverage (of course, after deductibles and copayments it’s much more, if the policy covers the care you need, that is…).

A friend told me about a state program that provides health insurance for needy children. Wow, here in my own country I’m the head of a needy household. But Cecilia needs (no, we both need) healthcare, so I went and applied for both of us. I felt ashamed, humiliated. Because of this country’s lack of universal healthcare we had been brought down to the level of welfare care. Not all clinics take this insurance because it pays doctors little. I just hoped it would be enough; we’re still waiting to see if we get covered. I feel reduced, humiliated, vulnerable. How had this happened to me? In my own country? Wasn’t going back to your own country like going back into the fold? Being where you’ll be cared for and valued? Didn’t I come back to my country for some care, for some ease? I did, but apparently in this country care and ease are elusive.

All of this has made me think about this country. What’s wrong with this picture? Let’s rewind and compare from my own personal experience:

When I was travelling through Thailand with my father soon after his retirement, while I was in my mid-twenties, I mistakenly (I should have known better!) ate pineapple from a street vendor. After 12 hours of vomiting and diarrhea, my father asked at the hotel desk and found a nearby hospital. There, a polite, American-trained young Thai female doctor put me in my own room, gave me two or three I.V. drips and left me there 24 hours. The bill upon release? $75.

Fast forward two years. I had just moved to Spain, and my travel-happy father and I were now meeting in London for ten days of sightseeing. The first night he fell down the steep, narrow staircase in the cheap hotel we were staying at near Paddington Station. He seemed fine, with just a bit of pain, until the last night. A stoic former Marine, he rarely complains, but that night he woke me up asking me to get him to a hospital; the pain had become unbearable. I asked at the hotel desk and we called an ambulance to pick up my father. It took him to a nearby hospital, where the nurses treated him with great care, got him muscle relaxants and painkillers for the trip home and took him back to the hotel. The bill upon release? Nothing – although donations were welcome. And of course once home my father sent them a generous donation, amazed that they would truly not charge him a nickel.

Now fast-forward quite a few years. My parents are visiting us in Spain, about to travel to Paris for their 45th wedding anniversary trip, a gift from my sister, brother, and myself. My father and I walk to a nearby takeout restaurant to get a quick lunch before we drive them to the airport, my father falls near a construction site, and in a freak accident a gas canister nearby falls, glancing off his head to land on his hand, severing the tips of two of his fingers. The ambulance comes and takes him to the nearest hospital, part of the public healthcare system. The doctor comes out to tell us he needs complicated surgery. They wheel him in and operate on him for five hours, reconstructing the one finger they can salvage and neatening up the tip of the severed finger. He stays in the hospital for three days. Obviously, the trip was off. The bill upon release? $3,000. And if he had been a resident of Spain it would have been free. What would that bill have been here? At least $30,000. When he gets home, his doctor checks out the surgery performed by a public health doctor in Spain, and says he couldn’t have done a better job himself.

What is the moral of this story? Don’t travel with my father, you might say. Well, we have cut down on trips lately… But the moral is, in any other country, if you need healthcare you’ve got it. No questions asked. It’s a fundamental human right, like education, like drinking water. And when you need healthcare, certainly the first question is not “How are you going to pay?” The first questions are “What do you need? How can we help you?”

What is wrong with this picture is that in any other developed (or not so developed, if you include Thailand) country, the healthcare system is there to care for people’s health – whence the name. In this country, I’m not sure what it’s here for – to enrich the system itself, I suspect, a huge entity steamrolling over all us, or at least my daughter and me. But caring for health, for everyone’s health, does not seem to be high on the agenda.

What’s wrong with this picture is that there seems to be a myth about public (or – perish the thought! – socialized!) healthcare systems, about the horrible waits, the stringent quotas, the government control. But are there worse waits than here? Ten days with an infection? Does anyone mete out care more stingily than insurance companies in the U.S.? Is any doctor in a socialized system told by the government what to treat? (None that I know of… and I’ve asked.) All of these myths come from people with absolutely no experience in a country with a public health system, people who gather “horror stories” from God knows what source. Words are cheap; anyone can invent horror stories about unknown lands perhaps ridden with that scourge: socialists (akin to fascists, they believe). I’m the horse’s mouth; I’ve experienced socialized health. Ask me. It works. For everyone.

What’s wrong with this picture is that here doctors and healthcare managers make decisions based on saving money for the insurance companies, not based on their patients’ health. Could there be any worse pressure on a person who has sworn to protect and save people’s health than that? Don’t medical professionals in the U.S. have uneasy consciences knowing this? Or do they assume that things work that way everywhere? I was fortunate to meet one doctor, the dermatologist, whose humanity came before his kowtowing to the system, but I was lucky. Now, Spain is an extraordinarily corrupt country – if you can fool the system, you do. Yet there, healthcare is universal, and the costs are far cheaper than here. My thyroid medicine there costs me $4 for 40 days; here it costs $20. It’s the same medicine. I’m not paying for a better drug; I’m paying for a corrupt system that makes a business of out people’s health, and a profit off their illness. Am I the only person who thinks it’s a scandal that medicines are advertised in big-budget, melodramatic, beautifully scored TV commercials? We’re paying for that, you know, all of us. In Spain, you can also get private health insurance if you’re prosperous and want more choices. I always did – at a total cost of $200 a month for my daughter and myself. When I had my daughter, I stayed in the hospital (the refurbished Hilton Hotel – not bad digs!) for five days, with a bed for my husband, and menus we could both choose from every day. The bill upon release? $2 for a phone call we made (this was pre-cell phone).

What’s wrong with this picture is that as an active, positive, contributing member of society I have to suffer from constant low-grade stress, which turns into acute stress when I get sick, because I feel that my daughter and I are vulnerable.

I am trying to figure things out so my daughter and I can stay here. I have two solutions. One is to work fulltime at the university. The work is killer – I’ve never seen people work more hours for less pay than at this school, nights and weekends included (not mandatory, but hey, you can’t let your students down… and you can’t, it’s true!). But at least I would have healthcare coverage for my daughter and myself. It’s not what I want at this stage in my career, not at all, but it’s a way to take care of us. In Spain, a much less wealthy country than the U.S., I was able to be an entrepreneur, to follow my heart and my brain, and to earn far more than I would earn working at the university here (and thus contribute more taxes to society) because I knew healthcare was not an issue. We were cared for. Here I don’t have that freedom. I’m forced into the system, a system that strips me of my freedom to live life as I choose. The other alternative is going back to school. That way at least I’ll have healthcare for myself and I’ll only have to purchase it for my daughter. I’ve applied to and been accepted to the PhD program at the university. I’ve even been put up as a candidate for a doctoral fellowship. How wonderful! If I get it, I’ll earn $1,500 per month (minus taxes). From that I’ll have to pay rent, utilities, oh, and healthcare for my daughter.  I’m 46 years old. Is that an attractive option? That’s sliding back 20 years in my life. But at least one of us will be covered, and I’ll learn something in the process.

The point is: all my decisions since I’ve been strategizing about how to stay in this country revolve around how to get healthcare for my daughter and myself. This is not freedom; this is slavery to a hostile system. In Spain, I made decisions based on my dreams, hopes and desires; they turned out well and I was successful. As a result, I was a fruitful member of society, contributing plenty of taxes and a healthy future citizen. Just to live here with any measure of safety, I have to give up dreaming, hoping, and desiring and instead cling to any option that will ensure nothing less than our survival.

That’s what is wrong with this picture. We think we’re free here; it’s our national myth. America is the bastion of freedom! The model of freedom! Everyone wants to emulate us, live here! I speak to my students – from countries like Haiti, Colombia, Libya and Saudi Arabia – and they are shocked that some people in this vastly wealthy country have no healthcare, that society does not take care of each other. No, we are not free. Actually, it’s the opposite: we’re enslaved to the system; the system rules our lives, and we are prostrate before it.

That’s what is wrong with this picture. Welcome home.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Caleb Crain’s novel Necessary Errors is a story of a young Harvard graduate who goes to Prague soon after the Velvet Revolution in the early nineties to teach English. It’s based on Crain’s real-life experience as an English teacher, but in novelized form. In the book, the narrator and main character is a young gay man testing out his sexuality, but also testing the world, befriending kindred spirits, and reveling in intense new sensations that come from being abroad when you are young and have the luxury of being somewhat aimless. The book could be considered gay coming-out story, or it could simply be considered a Bildungsroman, or perhaps it’s just a fictionalized memoir, but to me it is a zipline back to a time in my life that has inexorably slipped away.

The book has swept me back to my days in the early nineties as a young English teacher in Barcelona. It has me grieving for those intense days of discovery. Crain’s book has me smelling, feeling, seeing Prague, a city I’ve never been to, no doubt drawn from the author’s own intense sensory experience of his youth. The city is a palpable character, and the book is imbued with the acute sense of discovery of both a place and oneself: as the main character wanders the streets, I recall my endless walks around Barcelona, rambling all corners of the city on foot as my way of appropriating it, of making it known and therefore making it mine. I remember being all eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, alert to and soaking in every perception – every paving stone; every balcony with every geranium; every shop – including the jamón serrano shops with their pig legs dripping fat into delicate little paper umbrellas jammed into the bottom tip, smelly but to-die-for delicious once I tried it; every person, noting every feature, noting the styles – the men, this being a hangover from the eighties, in their purple shirts and pink ties, the women in their miniskirts with big-shouldered jackets, all so fashionable; the ubiquitous plane trees; the coffee shops with the news or soccer games blaring out and the old men drinking coffees and smoking – back when that was legal inside; the piss-smelling streets of the Gothic Quarter on a Sunday morning after Saturday night revels, mostly by fellow expats; the little squares with cafes, always filled; the big squares with pigeons and North African immigrants selling top manta – fake goods; the groups of well-scrubbed youth, even the ones dressed Punk – not yet “vintage” back then, or worthy of exhibits – whose mamas seemed to have just ironed their artfully ripped shirts.

Necessary Errors revolves around the narrator’s new-found set of friends, an international group that improbably becomes close and spends all their time together, discovering themselves and the world together, supporting each other, even though at home they may have never become friends. I, too, remember the intense world of my first years in Barcelona, before “going local”, before having the language to do so, pushed together with other expats who became my friends, with whom we shared adventures. Improbably, I still consider most of my friends from that year friends today, even though we’ve been scattered to the wind, some of us for decades. The very intenseness of that experience – every moment lived with every cell and pore of our being – can never be erased despite the time and distance. We supported each other through sickness and homesickness as we navigated through a strange city and culture… And the fun we had! The Fish Bar… I never knew its real name but we spent just about every weekday evening there quaffing beer after beer, after getting off work at 10 p.m. The Guitar Bar, a dingy little hole-in-the-wall where we’d go, and someone who knew how to play would pick a guitar – or would be handed a guitar by the silent, bearded owner – and start strumming and we’d sing along all night. The Saturday-morning, hungover schlep to Badalona, all chanting the mantra, “The true professional can be ready in five minutes.” My friends living in the Gothic Quarter in ancient apartments with mosaic floors, a coterie of international bohemians always staging some party, on the city rooftops overlooking the ancient tiled roofs, or out in the country. Some of those friends left after just a year or two, others stayed and our ways parted, and yet the intensity of that experience binds us together still.

In the book, the author leaves Prague after a year. But I stayed in Barcelona. I stayed almost 20 years. I stayed to live out my adult life – marriage, climbing the corporate ladder (so to speak!), child, mortgage, divorce, my mother’s death. My young adulthood was played out entirely in Barcelona, but it very gradually, imperceptibly evolved away from that first year. Slowly, the crowd dissipated as my friends did what I had planned to do – stay for a year or two and then go home. Gradually, we who stayed paired off with Barcelonans, our lives became “real”; we left behind the white-hot crucible of that first year and instead real life took over, with all its complications and hurdles – job woes, money issues, relationships. That intense experience slowly, imperceptibly came to an end; it wound down over the course of those years and receded into the almost-forgotten distance.

And now, as I read this book, it has all come washing over me with an intensity that has brought me to my knees. It’s no wonder it took Caleb Crain 20 years to write this book; such a compelling experience takes time to be processed, to be seen with enough perspective to understand what it meant. The book brought into focus the fact that that amazing experience of pure receptiveness, the pure permeability of youth, of living every single moment intensely, as an adventure and a discovery, is over. Not only over: long gone. How is it now 20 years ago? It arouses such melancholy in me: will I ever again live so intensely? Will I ever again be such a sponge eager to absorb the life around me? As I’m bogged down in middle age – bills, teen-rearing, work-work-work – will I ever have the real time and mental space to be so alive again? Are my life’s adventures, real adventures, over? Are we are only capable of experiencing this permeability in youth? Are we moldable and transparent when young, allowing life to suffuse and metamorphose us, whereas now my shell has hardened, I have fossilized and no longer susceptible to this transformative experience?

And so I hold onto those memories of my first overwhelming year in Barcelona, the single most intense experience in my life, the experience that changed me and made me who I am, or in truth, who I chose to become. I mourn that moment dwindling into the distant past; I mourn the loss of the youth, that singular moment that crystallized in Barcelona where I was able to absorb everything and everyone around me and let them enter me and move me the way I doubt I will feel moved and transformed again.

Although I hope I’m wrong…

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Puddle Jumper

This morning I boarded a nine-seat plane to fast-track my way to St. Louis, where I was to catch a plane for a conference. I hadn’t been on a tiny plane like that since my college years when my sister dated a pilot. Since then, I had only flown internationally, or long-haul domestic flights on large planes, planes where you are so insulated from the act of flying that – except for popping ears – you hardly know you’re airborne. But on a nine-seater, there’s no mistaking it: you are most definitely in a wobbly little contraption flying improbably high over the land.  

And the experience is utterly different to me, utterly thrilling, better than any amusement-park ride. As we took off – in itself an unlikely source of glee – the little town of Herrin came into focus, along with Crab Orchard Lake and Carbondale in the distance. And then, pure rust, yellow and brown. The last time I flew in college it was summer – the trees were like broccoli tops – lush, dense and green. This time, in the fall, the green had almost vanished and instead all I saw was tight curls of rust and brown, like my African-American friend’s close-cropped hair. The bucolic countryside of vast tracts of farmland punctuated by houses and barns and grain silos looked peaceful, eternal, idyllic, only punctuated by ponds and licks of creeks. As we neared the Mississippi, fingers of what had once been meanders came into focus, revealing the secrets of the river’s ancient course.

And the pilot:  he couldn’t have been older than his twenties, such a young fellow to hold my life – and the lives of my fellow-travelers – in his hands! And yet he did it with such aplomb, such insouciance, almost boredom. I wanted to hug him, to congratulate him. I wanted my daughter to become a pilot for the sheer nobility of the effort. Flying people through the skies – how romantic! How honorable!

As the Mississippi merged with the Missouri, I spotted my sister’s town off the distance, identifiable by the bridge.  St. Louis came into focus. And then, the descent. No getting away from it, we were dropping. Down we went, as I watched – for the first time – the runway come into view, and come closer, and closer, and closer… like a videogame. The landing couldn’t have been smoother, and that creaky little airborne jalopy braked in a matter of seconds, like a toy airplane, not the screeching slow-down of a larger craft. We were, improbably, back on the ground, having just shared our secret adventure, a peephole look into our everyday world that is usually kept hidden from us.

I was delighted, smiling, alive! My everyday world, the one I hardly see – and when I do see it, it’s up close, crawling through it, half-hour to Pinckneyville along pokey, narrow country highways – was suddenly miniscule, peaceful, toy-like, adorable. It was tiny – everything is so close! From up there, the water tower of Pinckneyville was just a few trees away from the bustling metropolis – comparatively speaking – of Carbondale.

And the sense of adventure. The sense that lurking up there, all the time, is this possibility of escape, of adventure. The possibility of seeing the world from a different perspective, a thrilling new perspective, and it’s there, waiting to be plucked, waiting to give a chiropractic crack to our brains and to remind us that the world is smaller and yet larger than we ever imagine as we slog through our daily lives. That thrill is right here, that new adventures and new perspectives and new possibilities are within our grasp. I had gone nowhere, to St. Louis, a trip I take several times a month, and yet flying there lifted off the fog of routine and opened up the frisson of newness. As I rose above my day-to-day life, my sense of possibility was triggered. As I climbed into infinite space, my sense of infinite possibility expanded.

I know that to a physicist airplane flight makes sense, but I’m almost glad to be illiterate in physics. To me, it seems magical. I was flying! I can fly!


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Lioness and her Cub

One day, out of the blue, my seven-year-old daughter presented me with her theory on life. “I think that before we were humans, everyone was an animal, and before we were animals we were insects, and before we were insects we were plants, and before we were plants we were rocks or minerals”.” Interesting cosmovision, or perhaps her very personal take on the “ontology recapitulates phylogeny” of my beloved grad school days: humans developed to a higher order just as life on Earth did. More or less. If we can be considered a higher order, that is. And if I remember correctly.
Having been raised a Catholic, who then rather lapsed in her wild oats-sowing days, I had tried to raise Cecilia nominally as a Catholic. So how did this vision square, I inquired? “Well, when you die you go to heaven and God sends you back to Earth as whatever you’re supposed to be, but humans don’t remember it.” All right. Hybrid Catholicism.
But the real fun of this theory was that she started to tell me what everyone we knew used to be. She informed me that I used to be a lioness – referring probably to my mane of unruly hair, and perhaps – I like to flatter myself – to my fierce protectiveness of my offspring. Her father, on the other hand, was a hamster. Why? “Because he’s super neat and always primping himself”, referring no doubt to his “no me despeines” (“don’t mess up my hair”) obsession. Her parents: a lioness and a hamster. From the mouths of babes: I did, indeed, eat him alive.
Her friend Andrea, blond, sweet, kind-hearted yet overbearingly hard to take, was a golden lab puppy. She is cute and awkward like her former canine self, “but she’s like a puppy – she wants too much attention.” So true.
This became a game in which we debated which each person was. You can only debate people you know well, because their animal alter ego reflects not only their appearance but also their character. Her friend Gemma, a graceful ballerina, wasn’t a swan but a swallow because of her dark, Mediterranean complexion. Unlikeable, cold people often ended up being fish or reptiles.
It’s funny how she was so often spot-on with her observations. My favorites were my friend Nestor and my boyfriend at the time, Enrique. Nestor is a masculine, barrel-chested “macho ibérico”. He’s got quite an ego about his own manhood which he doesn’t take pains to conceal. When I told him Cecilia’s theory, he said with all the puffed-up pride of a manly man, “And I’m a bear, right?” I asked Cecilia. Her answer: “A bear? No way! He’s a bat.” A bat? Why? “Because he looks like one.” I guess his face can take on a pinched quality at times. Needless to say Nestor’s ego was slightly deflated, but only slightly because after all, an ego like that has a life of its own, and he knew deep down he was really a bear; she just wasn’t ready to recognize it.
Enrique was tall and gangly. “He’s an ostrich,” declared my soothsayer Ceci. And it fit him like a glove: the kind of tall, angular man who never quite grew into his body, the head moving back and forth seemingly independent of the long legs; think Shaggy’s walk in Scooby Doo. Not to mention the personality that in time revealed itself to be none too kind. Perfect!
So what was Cecilia? A lynx. Why? Lynxes are quick, and Cecilia is a quick runner. They tire easy, and while she doesn’t so much tire, she does get bored easily when an activity doesn’t engage her. And, as she said, “They have pretty eyes like me.” Well, now that’s healthy self-esteem for you!
A lynx born to a lioness and a hamster. When Cecilia was just days old, I propped up that tiny baby, looked her in the eye and told her what I already sensed in my heart of hearts: “It’s just you and me.” Just two felines: the lioness and her cub.
By the way, if you ever see her, ask her what you used to be!