Archive for April, 2011

You probably didn’t know Sally Goodrich. She was, among other things, a teacher and school administrator; a cancer survivor; wife of a small-town lawyer from North Adams, Massachusetts;  the mother of a young man killed on 9/11; and eventually, a dedicated advocate for Afghan civilians, particularly for girls and young women.

It was in this last role that Sally attained a modicum of notoriety. Not nearly as much as Greg Mortenson, the internationally acclaimed humanitarian and author of Three Cups of Tea. This week, in a devastating article published online and in a “60 Minutes” interview, author Jon Krakauer accused Mortenson of falsifying his memoir and worse, of ripping off the charitable foundation he established.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about this story; we already are–which is why I’ve been thinking of Sally. The accusations against Mortensen, if true, present a depressing “teacup half empty” view of relief efforts in Afghanistan. Sally’s story, heartbreaking though it is, fills the cup again.

Immediately after 9/11, Sally started, along with her husband Don and a few others, Families of September 11 (FOS11), an organization that worked on behalf of 9/11 relatives around the globe. I got to know Sally when I worked with the organization, first on the board and then as its executive director. She was a gracious and giving, with a sharp New England wit. Like all of us, she was suffering. Worse, on top of the delayed grief and depression, she had to deal with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer which came in 2002. It was a difficult time.

Then, in 2004, Sally heard from a Marine in Afghanistan, a friend of her late son Peter, who asked her to collect supplies for school children. It was then Sally found her calling, a way to lift herself out of depression and create something positive to honor her son’s spirit. In 2005, Sally and Don founded the Peter M Goodrich Memorial Foundation.

The organization has raised over a million dollars which was used to build a 500-student coed school and support others. It also supports an orphanage in the Pashtun region. Sally and Don have helped many students attend college in the United States. It also raises money for, among other projects, disabled landmine victims, a dental clinic, exchange students in the United States, victims of natural disasters and other school projects.

Sally made several trips to Afghanistan beginning in 2005. That year, she was ABC’s “Person of the Week” because she “turned personal loss into hope for hundreds.” She traveled back in 2007 and again in 2009. Then her cancer returned. In December of last year, Sally died at the age of 65.

Sally was an eloquent woman but she never wrote a book, never went on a speaking tour, never took any money from the foundation. The projects gave her back her life, she said, and that was enough. For the hundreds she’s helped, it’s more than enough.

Filmmaker Rick Derby has created a short film—Axis of Good about Sally’s work. I hope this might take some attention away from the Mortensen story. Of course, big scandal and big money make up a bigger story, but sometimes a small tale holds a big heart.

image: Axis of Good

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 My early teen years were a struggle, to say the least. I was ungainly, unsure and decidedly uncool. Eventually, I would  attain the even teeth, the carefully ironed long hair,  even an  acceptable body shape.  But in 1964, I wanted to look like my older  brother’s cheerleader girlfriends. More seriously, I wanted to be
someone else–anyone else except me.

I was miserable at school. I couldn’t hide my smarts or keep my mouth shut; couldn’t get my footing  or find my place. Ripe for teasing, I tried to stay clear of the mean  girls and sought refuge in music and books. Then, beginning September  22nd of that year, I had a chance to latch onto a debonair chap and his sexy partner, the stars of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

UNCLEThe show was both an homage to and send-up of the popular James Bond movies and starred Robert Vaughn and a young Scottish actor named David McCallum. They played agents of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE), an international organization dedicated to stopping THRUSH from exercising its evil plan to take over the world.

The casting was impeccable, the setup fantastical and the details were  inspired. Vaughn’s character, Napoleon Solo, was the classic spy in the 007 mold: suave, clever; with a fondness for the good life and a weakness  for women.  He was cool in an old-fashioned sort of way; a throwback to previous decades.

But it was McCallum’s character, the elusive Illya Kuryakin, who caught and held my attention. The Beatles had landed in the U.S. a few months earlier and like so many girls my age, I was drawn to the safely boyish Paul McCartney. But in Illya, I found my soul-mate: a mysterious,
educated (Masters degree from the Sorbonne; PhD in quantum mechanics from University of Cambridge) Russian whose hip calm exterior hid, I was certain, a treasure trove of passion. He seemed to own a wardrobe of swoon-inducing black turtlenecks.  Best of all, he and Solo were working in a spirit of global cooperation to defeat terrorists, anarchists and the like in the middle of the Cold War.  I was hooked.

My mother, in a display of solidarity and support, took pictures of our television set when the show was on and gave me the images. I can’t tell you what that meant to me; it was like having your mother approve of your first boyfriend.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lasted four years and took me through high school. Even after I grew out of my ugly duckling phase, I remained loyal to the intrepid spies and to the attractive Illya.   Encountering McCallum in recent times on another show that has saved me–NCIS–is like  olderMcreuniting with an old love. McCallum’s Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard is a little fussy, but also funny, smart and sensitive, with a soulful side
that probably owes to his Scottish origins (okay, I’m projecting). He’s not quite the sexy Kuryakin I remember–except perhaps for the twinkle in his eye. But he seems wise in ways that matter. I’m sure he’d forgive my crush on  Mark Harmon’s character. I like to think we have a deeper, more meaningful relationship. He was, after all, my first love.

sources: IMDb; Wikipedia
images: nnbd  firstachurch, photobucket

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I’ve been thinking about a movie I saw recently: Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenthaal. This science fiction cum action thriller (with a dash of romance) had a fair amount going for it: stellar cast, great special effects, tight plot; even the requisite happy ending.

I liked it. A lot. But then again, I’m a sucker for films that posit such an optimistic view of the brain’s power to transcend any and all physical limitations.

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Outside the Boxes

I’m moving.

To be honest, I’ve been promising/threatening to move out of my townhouse for eight or nine years; but this is the year I intend to set my intention into motion.  Perhaps it’s the tenth anniversary of my husband’s death or the fact that I’ve lived alone in the house we bought together for nearly as long as we shared the space. Maybe it’s the crack in the ceiling or the bumps in the wall; the peeling paint in the garage or the rising property taxes. Most likely it’s the fact that several of my closest friends have put their houses on the market and are dealing, painfully, with closings and contractors, agents and buyers, finishes and new beginnings. Whatever it is, I’m ready to go.

I haven’t settled on the “where” quite yet, although I’ve narrowed it down. I fanaticize about a perfectly designed free-standing, one-story, one-person house, energy-efficient, well-appointed; unique in its design and its aspirations. I’m inclined to use an architect because I’ve worked with designers for much of my work life and because I want to create something special: not just a model home but a template for other singletons; neither too small nor too large but just right…assuming we singletons have made peace with living alone.

To get ready, I’ve begun to tackle the “stuff”, all those objects one unthinkingly accumulates over years of staying in one place. I don’t hoard and I’m not above sweeping a drawer full of items into the trash from time to time. Still, I’ve lived in this house nineteen years, half that time with another person. In the finished basement I scarcely visit, there are boxes on shelves built by my former roommate, aka my late husband.

(Is there an expiration date, I wonder, for terming him “late”, as if he’d simply stayed extra hours at the office?)
I sit on the floor and open the boxes. Some are empty, which I take to be  a good sign. Others contain records, mostly albums, but also a few 78s. I open one filled with sheet music and “fake books.” These are the staples of any piano bar crooner, which I was for at least a dozen years (Billy Joe put in half that much time, but he got a hit single and a career out of it). I catch the faint scent of Scotch and cigarettes and flash back to evenings in the company of a tip jar and a group of mostly sad, tired people. The song I wrote was far more downbeat and jazzy than Joel’s, I think but in its own way, just as evocative:

Life at a bar begins around five
The cocktail crowd brings the place alive
Talk turns to business, baseball, and broads
One for the road turns to two

(©1982 Nikki Stern & Owen Vance)

Next to that box is another filled with lyric pages, vocal scores and charts from my years as a theater and pop composer, a memorable but highly unprofitable career I abandoned more than two decades ago. No one writes music by hand now; music software “listens” to what you’re playing and translates it fairly accurately into notes on staffs. I’m not even sure who reads music anymore.  I look at the scribbles–the notes, the fading pencil marks, mixed in with a couple of photos taken with a Polaroid at a recording session. Who was that person? What did she expect would happen?

There is a box of trinkets—there’s no other word for them—that I clearly valued at one time. They should be my madeleine, my gateway to a long-ago world but when I touch them, nothing happens—no sharply recalled moments visit me in the cold basement.

The bulk of the photos are in albums stretching back more than forty years: My senior prom, my college roommates, my mutton-chopped boyfriend; images of our family, Mom and Dad looking predictably vibrant; programs, diplomas, yearbooks, newspaper clippings (Nixon resigns!)—they’re all here. The thirteen years’ covered by the images of my husband remind me how much time we spent together–and how little time I really had to become adept at navigating a lifetime relationship. There is a box of his with items from his early years. It’s logical that he would bring his cherished mementoes into the house and the life we were supposed to inhabit together for longer than his time with his parents.

I sit among images and belongings of dead loved ones and missing friends, of younger selves with ambitious dreams and untainted hopes and I prepare to feel the predictable flood of emotions: a cocktail of grief and longing, sorrow and not a little rage at what was not achieved, not finished, not retained, lost forever, goddamn it.

The wave never comes, only a little sigh escapes me, as if I were finally exhaling. This flotsam and jetsam is the tangible evidence that I’ve lived my life up to now. The memories are stored in the dusty closets of my mind; I can get to them as needed. I will one day need them. Old people go back as their future closes in on them. I’ve already had a glimpse of the hemmed-in existence that awaits me.

But in this moment, I have to live, I want to live outside these boxes. I still want what’s new: new experiences, new places, new patterns; new connections. So I consolidate everything into one box; whatever doesn’t fit goes into a trash bag and out to the garage. It’s time to get moving.

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