Feb 27, 2010

Joannie Rochette Takes the Bronze

Like everyone else in America this week, I was captivated by the story of Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette. Just a few hours after Rochette's 55-year-old mother arrived in Vancouver to watch her daughter skate in the Winter Olympics, she died from a sudden and massive heart attack.

And her daughter continued to compete.

Some people may find this disconcerting, even heartless, but I found it enormously brave. We can only imagine the kind of focus and control it must have taken for Rochette to keep it together long enough to perform the short and long programs she'd been practicing for months. We saw the tears she couldn't contain at the end of the short program, and those of us who've lost mothers, especially suddenly, empathized with her unique pain. Was there any motherless daughter watching who didn't think, "Oh, sweetheart! What can we do to help you through?"

Elite athletes are trained to shut off all emotion and thoughts when it's their turn to perform, and to focus only on the task at hand, but this was another kind of compartmentalization entirely. That Rochette was able to come through at the level she did, and capture a bronze medal for Canada, is true testimony to determination, love, and faith in her own ability to come through.

In an television interview that aired last night, she mentioned that as hard as it was, and as much as she wanted to be with her family, she'd made the decision to stay in Vancouver and compete because that's what her mother would have wanted. On the one hand, that sounded like exactly the kind of answer she would have been coached to give when that question was inevitably asked. On the other hand, you can't help thinking it was probably true. Or feeling that the greatest tragedy of all in this story is the mother who never got to see her daughter skate, and know what she was capable of achieving under such extraordinary pressure. Although very likely, she already knew.

Feb 7, 2010

Kids Who Hear Voices

According to this article, sent to me by my friend Ann, the phenomenon is a lot more common that we would think. A group of Dutch medical researchers, publishing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, studied a group of 8- and 9-year-olds to find out how many of them heard voices that other people couldn't hear. Ten percent of them reported having what the researchers call "verbal auditory hallucinations." Sixteen percent of children and teens are believed to hear such voices. That's almost one out of five.
You can read a summary of the article here.

Whoa. I found this fascinating on several points. First, because so few of the kids seemed to be bothered by the voices they heard. They took it totally in stride. Second, because there were no other symptoms pointing toward pathology, and in the end the majority of these kids were determined to be perfectly fine, i.e. no evidence of mental illness at all.

And third, because the researchers don't ever say what, exactly, the kids were hearing--don't you wonder what the voices were saying to them?--or speculate about what these voices might have been. I guess "verbal auditory hallucination" is a way of saying the voices were imagined, but it seemed to be real to the kids. What kind of mental process, outside of mental illness, would make voices appear in one's head?

Our family's story was different, insofar that our daughter did seem troubled--extremely troubled--by what she claimed she could hear. Still, whenever an article like this shows up on my radar I'm interested in it, since even after all this time I don't have a definitive answer about what plagued my daughter, only a story about an unconventional journey that by all accounts, seemed to help.

Feb 3, 2010

Trash Cans Never Sounded So Good

Took the girls to see Stomp on Tuesday night--the street percussion troupe that makes music out of every ordinary object known to mankind. Sheesh, they were good. We don't typically do things like this on a school night, Hollywood being a solid 45 minute drive from the house without traffic, but I lucked into half-price tickets that were available only midweek so figured, Just this once: why not? And to make it even extra special, since we got there a half hour early, we made a Pinkberry run before the show.

How is it possible that I've lived in LA this long and never been to a Pinkberry? If you live near a Pinkberry, run--do not walk--for an original vanilla with chocolate chips and peppermint shavings. Oh. My. God.

Anyway: Stomp. It's one of those shows that makes you sit in the audience alternately thinking, How do they do that? and We've got to try this at home. Whole percussive routines using only brooms. Folding chairs. Water-cooler bottles. Those dancers were seriously inventive. Incredibly talented, too. And they did an encore that encouraged audience participation to a rhythmic degree far beyond what you'd think a thousand people could manage--yet did.

In the car on the way to Hollywood, I was telling the girls about how I've seen Stomp twice before, the first time at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1991 when they were still a scruffy bunch from Brighton and no one knew who they were. I was visiting my friend Sharon who was studying in England that summer, and we roadtripped up to Scotland with some of her friends for the festival. We wound up at Stomp because it was one of the few events that still had last-minute tickets available. I'm guessing most of the audience was there for the same reason, because nobody seemed to know what they were in for when the performers started doing their thing. If I'm remembering right, they opened with brooms back then, too, and also did routines with matchbooks, plastic bags, trash cans, and keys. It was fantastic and innovative and wholly new. Or at least that's how it seemed. After the show, the audience poured into the streets of Edinburgh and took off kicking trash cans and drumming against the sides of buildings. The most mundane objects suddenly looked like instruments, worthy of making music on the street.

Reading the show's program Tuesday night, I realized that the Fringe Festival performance had been Stomp's debut. Who knew? I guess those of us in the audience did, at some level, because of the electricity it inspired, the freshness it embodied. About five years later, after Stomp was already ensconced off-Broadway in the East Village, I saw them again and even though the U.S. troupe was equally as talented and the routines even more astonishing, the newness had worn off. The amazement of first contact was gone, replaced by the awe of their performance skills.

It's still an incredible show nonetheless. My kids loved it. It's playing at the Pantages Theater through Feb. 7. In lieu of driving to Hollywood on a school night, you can watch a short clip here.

Feb 2, 2010

Help for Haiti's Orphans

Like everyone else, I was glued to the internet in the 72 hours after the earthquake in Haiti, driven by an insatiable need for the minute details (inveterate nonfiction instructor that I am). How, exactly, were people being extracted from the rubble? Could all the reports about people going without any food and water for 72 hours be accurate, and if so, how was everyone still walking around? Who was doing what to help reunite parents and children, and how? And thinking, my god, all these people, all this suffering, how can one country contain it all?

As my mind always veers to the most vulnerable citizens whenever a disaster strikes, anywhere, I was also thinking, what about the orphans, who've already lost so much and now have lost even more?

In those first, early days I did as everyone else I knew did, sending whatever money I could to Doctors without Borders, and the Red Cross, and wondering how exactly those text donations were working and if Sprint really would send all the money to Haiti or divert some of it for corporate bonuses instead. And then, like everyone else, I hit the wall of disaster overload and had to stop checking the news every hour or two. Had to get back to regular daily tasks, with a prayer sent heading southeast and the faith that those in a position to do real, utilitarian good were down there finding ways to do it.

But there's one story that I can't get out of my mind, and so I'm going to take a chance here and introduce it to yours. It's the story of an orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti, one of the cities that sustained the most damage rom the quake. Our friends Martin and Sue, who live in Topanga, started it a few years ago and now support 13 kids full-time, some who are HIV+, others with special needs.

For the first few days after the quake, nobody knew if the children had survived, if the director and staff were safe, if the building was still standing. It was a tense time for lots of people in Topanga, since Martin and Sue have a large circle of friends and admirers, and many of us have been supporting their mission and cheering them on over the years.

Then, a few days later, word came through from Lia, the orphanage director, that miraculously, all the children were safe. Most of them had been at the park when the earthquake struck, and those who had been in the building--which is all but destroyed--managed to escape injury. But they're living in a tent in the street with their neighbors right now. They have barely adequate amounts of food and water and, thanks to people who donated generously and immediately, medical supplies that were just driven over from the Dominican Republic that will hold them for a while. This is particularly important, since going without meds is not an option for some of these kids. They're stable for the moment. But their long-term needs are great.

Lia has been keeping a blog of their experiences, and it's well worth checking out. The photos are surreal. The children are stunning in their capacity to nonetheless experience joy even under terrible conditions. Yet their plight is truly unimaginable to those of us up here.

You can read updates about the kids and the orphanage here.

So--if you're not suffering from disaster fatigue, and if you're looking for a way to help but want to know that your dollars will go right to those who need them most (and who doesn't?), and if your desire is to specifically help parentless children affected by the quake, I can personally assure you that this is a reputable charity, and that all of your money will go straight to helping the kids.

You can donate online at We Can Build An Orphanage. And blessings to you all for considering it.

Feb 1, 2010

Back in Blogging Mode

Ay yi yi, I'm not really fulfilling my end of the bargain here, am I? I can't figure out exactly what keeps me from blogging more often than I do. Though I have some ideas:
1. My own internal standards of perfection. Blogging, by nature, is a relatively off-the-cuff enterprise. Have thought, type it out, hit send. For someone who labors over every paragraph for hours, by nature, that's a foreign concept. And an unsettling one. Result: avoidance.
2. Time. Well, we all know about that one. Two kids, one husband, one house, two cats, a book that needs to be promoted, a book that needs to be conceived, students, the 2:45 school pickup daily, dinner every night, endless bills, taxes due soon. Structure and time management have never been my fortes. Why do today what you can't do today? Result: procrastination.
3. Fear of narcissism. Maybe I'm unduly affected by readers who accuse me (and other memoirists; I'm not alone) of being self-absorbed. With all that's going on in the world--Haiti, California's budget fiasco, nutso bank bonuses, the price of gas, and (god help us all) Scott Brown, who cares what I have to say? Even more to the point, is it fair of me to try to make other people care what I have to say when so many other more important things are going on in the world (see above)? Result: self-doubt.
If any of you have suggestions not just for how to get oneself on a regular blogging schedule, but also how to keep believing that one's own thoughts are worth sharing on a regular basis--I'm interested in hearing them. In the meantime, I'll be blogging when I know I have something worthwhile to say, not just to fill space and time. God knows, we all have enough demands on our time these days.