08 December 2011
09 October 2011
‘Even those people who want to go to heaven, don’t want to die to get there.’ Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Address 2005
Like most of the world, I woke up last week to the shock and sorrow that a man I had never met, Steve Jobs, had passed away. And like most of us, I felt as sad as if I had lost a personal friend. I will not attempt to eulogize him any further – in the past few days people from all over the planet have paid their tributes. Certainly, the world has lost a visionary far before his time. Certainly, had he lived, he would have continued to generate the remarkable ideas and products that have impacted all of our lives and made us mourn as if for someone we knew.
But truth be told, in addition to my sadness, I felt something else. Something that I think that others like me might also have felt, and that is fear. Because, like Mr. Jobs, like far too many whose lives have been struck by that range of disease we know as cancer, I too am a survivor. Most days the breast cancer I had is but a background memory – one that plays only a tiny role in my life and reminds me to get regular checkups. Still, all it takes is news of the premature death of someone from the ‘Big C’ to catapult this bit player to front and center stage. The thought of it is always waiting in the wings, despite constant (and in my case, largely successful) attempts to banish it. Banished from my body, it nonetheless rests in the back of my mind and comes forth when even a stranger dies.
No doubt, one need not be a survivor to experience this fear. Death is shocking, even when expected and doubly so when it is premature and robs us of someone who touched our lives. I must have watched Job’s brilliant Commencement Address at least three times since last week and the part in which he speaks about death resonates deeply. Receiving his doctor’s diagnosis ‘to put his affairs in order’ one of Steve’s first thoughts was how to tell his children in a few months everything he thought he would have years to tell them. Maybe I imagined it, but it seemed to me that he choked up a bit or at least had to swallow hard to get through that part of the speech. I understand.
Since beginning this blog, I’ve been asked many times why I never write about having had cancer. The answer would have to be, because I don’t really want to. I don’t dwell on death and the cancer is not that important a part of my life. I look after my health and it is excellent, the cancer I’ve overcome enjoys an ever-improving rate of remission and complete cure.
Yet what I ultimately took away from Job’s talk is something that I too have experienced: yes, death scares us, yes, we dread it. Still, the idea of death is the ultimate freedom. Used wisely, it is an incredible tool to live life. Early in his youth Steve said he was touched by the idea of ‘living as if each day was your last.’ We all know what that meant for Steve Job’s remarkable life, but we must each define it for ourselves. For me, it doesn’t mean jetting off around the world or indulging my every whim. It’s about normality, hopefully with an enhanced appreciation for the little joys – for fresh snow, for laughing out loud, for Sunday pancakes ‘en famille’ for canyoning down a waterfall behind three fearless boys. It is all those things but not necessarily any one of them. In all honesty, I think I would have appreciated the little joys anyway. But it is about examining the life you live, about not waiting for what you want, about imparting any wisdom you might have gleaned to those you love, about making the most of everything that comes your way, about living even the minute intensely.
20 September 2011
In a few short weeks, the M-men and I will be heading to New York for our much anticipated, annual autumn visit. On the agenda is everything from university tours (they are never too young) to Trick or Treating (they are never too old.) And, of course, as any American expat returning ‘home’ will appreciate – shopping, shopping and more shopping – visits to stores that seem to say ‘welcome back to the USA - land of so many, many things.’
But sadly, this year will not be quite the same. I’m not talking about the depressing economy: we will do our part, as always, to give it a boost. (It’s amazing what you can justify when you compress several months’ worth of shopping into ten days.) But as I said, it won’t be the same. This year we might well find the land of so many, many things but books.
When I told my sons that the last Borders bookstore closed this past Sunday, there was a collective ‘NO-OH’ in full three-part harmony. A visit to Borders was special – even if later it entailed lugging back immensely heavy suitcases filled with latest edition hardcovers (waiting for paperbacks is not an expat luxury.) It was a price we gladly paid.
Borders did not go bankrupt for lack of M-support. When the boys were still little, back in the Magic Tree House/Berenstain Bear days, a store manager approached me. She saw us racking up piles upon piles of books and asked if I would like to open a corporate membership. When I replied I didn’t have a corporation, she said a family of readers was ‘close enough.’
We treasure our books. It runs in the family - my mother still has the books she brought to America when she emigrated from Greece some sixty years ago. She passed on her love to me and luckily I’ve passed it to my boys. Maybe partly it is because living in a foreign country; the boys realized English books were not always easy to come by. Sure there are libraries, but book lovers want to own the books they love, want to be able to pick them up and re-read them at any time.
I also know the availability issue has since been solved with instant downloads on kindles, ipads, laptops – even phones. But it isn’t the same – you can tell me what you like. They are nice supplements, not the real thing – in many ways better, in many others worse. For example, when you see your kid with a book in hand, you have a pretty certain idea of what he or she is doing. See a kid mesmerized by an ipad, well, the possibilities for various activities are infinite and not all likely to improve SAT scores.
Still, I fear the book lovers will soon have little choice. Borders is not the only bookstore chain, but its closing might well be indicative of others to come. Schools all over the world are trialing ipads to supplement (and eventually replace?) textbooks. It makes sense. But since when has loving meant being rational?
I will miss wandering through a bookstore – touching and feeling and opening the glossy covers, smelling the new book smell. I will miss the well-read salespeople who came up to my kids, saw what they were reading and said, ‘I see you like this series, have you tried this one?’ Their suggestions opened new worlds for my boys with books I might never have known to recommend. I will miss the carpeted kids’ corner, its reading nooks, beanbag chairs, the soft and wonderful colors. And I will miss seeing my kids sitting there, unable to wait to start reading one of the latest treasures they selected.
The books we have bought back to Monaco over the years take up a lot of space. They are well worn and dog-eared. I always thought I would someday donate them to our school’s library. But I just might have to keep them. I want to know that my boys will have these treasures to share with their children someday. It is no longer something I take for granted.