Payback

I met Tony a quarter century ago in a small class of budding writers who were handpicked by our Trinity professors to become Writing Associates. Class convened around a conference table where we discussed writing, and writing about writing. We were an eclectic group of college kids: a scientist (me), the stunner (Julia), the talent (Lisa), the boy who knew all of the big words (Ran), the comic genius (Nancy), and Tony.

Tony, despite his bespeckled, Philosophy brainiac persona was essentially a jock. A Jock in the Writing Center. Tony regularly threw balls to and snapped towels at boys I would never know. As a rather serious Biology major who divided her time between the library and the lab, my tiny social circle would never overlap with Tony’s. And yet there he was, all fit and baseball-capped and talking and writing in ways that defied my prejudices. We became fast friends.

Today is his birthday, and I’m all wistful about those moments in our early twenties when Tony and I were sure we were the smartest and most interesting people in any room. One of those rooms was the 35th year reunion for the rather infamous Class of ’63. We were on campus for our own 5-year celebration, but Tony was invited to the swanky dinner with the silver foxes as a special guest: Tony was the first Class of ’63 scholar. They were expecting a witty and pithy update on their investment.

Tony and I quit our classmates and headed across campus. Memory fails, but I probably insisted that Tony let me tag along to dine with the titans of industry and lords of Trinity’s yesteryear. I’d always liked men who were older, men who knew things. They were infinitely more interesting than the boys in the tent on the quad who were lying about their jobs or groping drunkenly in the name of nostalgia. We grabbed drinks, Tony introduced me to our tablemates, and the speeches began.

It went something like this:

Tony (whispering): I have no idea what I’m going to say.

Me: You just graduated from an Ivy League law school. I think they’ll be, you know, proud of you.

Tony: Ok. Yeah. I got this.

And on cue, Tony was asked to stand and share a few words. With a knowing grin that can only mean mischief —which you know well if you know him— Tony stood, probably winked at me, and began:

“I’d like to introduce all of you to my friend Britt…”

The next five minutes he devoted to how we met, my academic accomplishments and accolades and research, his certainty about my bright future, and probably some nod to how pretty I looked. Their first Class of ’63 scholar gave a thorough report about… me. He might have thrown in at the end some little snippet about their support of his college years that led to a law degree and a coveted job at a Boston law firm, but no one would have been surprised if Tony dropped to his knee and pulled out a little box. His very public lauding even made it into their Class Notes, where they wondered, in a very gentlemanly, Class of ’63 way, if Tony’s speech had led to some other action ‘neath the elms.

Though I love Tony madly, we’ve always been buddies. And I’ll always recall that dinner with a giggle. Tony took a moment that should have been all about him, and made it all about someone else because 1. It would make a great story later, and 2. It would be hilarious in the moment, and mostly 3. No one was expecting that. That bizarrely fun evening 20 years ago is a fond memory of a boy who remains a treasured friend. When we’re together, we are still pretty sure we are smartest and most interesting people in any room… and we’re still writing, and talking about writing about writing. In so many fabulous ways, nothing has changed—which is how forever friendships work.

Happy Birthday, to my still sporty, ever-the-jock Tony. I may have embarrassed you the teeniest bit in the very public affirmation of my longstanding affection for all that you are. But payback’s a bitch, old friend, and you’ve enjoyed a 19 year reprieve.

(And if now you want to know more about Tony, go here. It’s fabulous stuff.)

Tony Picture

Tony: lawyer, jock, stud, philosopher, and friend

Fresh Air and Mirth

Some people are so generous, so wonderfully share-y, so thrilled for you to join in on their fun, they hardly appreciate the magnitude of their gifts. I hope we all know one or two of these fabulous souls. Or maybe you’re one of them… and wondering what’s this all about? I mean, who wouldn’t be wonderfully share-y given the means and opportunity? That’s their mindset, these happy givers. Do you know them? When you thank them, hug them, attempt to return the favor, or even raise a glass in their honor, you’ll get an aw shucks shoulder shrug. And they mean it. This is a genuine aw shucks shoulder shrug. And then they totally want to return to the fun awesomeness you were having because your heartfelt thank yous are probably just delaying more fun awesomeness.

I spent the past two days in a picturesque mountain town with my happy giver friends who invited us to join them. My kids had never been on skis, and when you live up here, apparently your kid becomes some weirdo outcast if he’s never been on skis. For me, the idea of adhering thick knives to bent boots in order to plummet more gracefully down a cold mountain sounds like a ridiculous way to get injured or (gasp) delay cocktail hour… but my boys were up for the scary challenge. So we stuffed duffles with puffy clothes and joined our outdoorsy friends for a mini-break, pre-Christmas get-away.

The house belonged to their friends, also of the happy giver ilk. I mean, who does this? Sure, use our house while we aren’t there, bring friends, make sure to test the hot tub, light the fireplace, sample the wine cellar, enjoy enjoy enjoy? Who doesn’t worry that the house will be a messy wreck for Christmas or that kids that aren’t yours will lose the board game pieces? The happy givers don’t. My mother would rope off the living room and restrict certain bathroom usage for days prior to the arrival of guests: vacuum lines in the carpet and triangulated toilet paper arrangements were necessary indictors that our house was ready for an audience. The notion of permitting others free range enjoyment of your home mere moments before a major holiday is beyond the pale. It also betrays a belief that a house and its contents are just stuff, and people and fun and fellowship always trump stuff. And can’t we all, especially at this time of year, use this reminder?

Oh, did you want to read all about the skiing? Skiing types always do. The conditions, quality, weather, memorable “runs” and tricks, and oh-we-ran-into-the so-and-sos… there is nothing a skier enjoys more than to share his zeal for skiing. The wide-eyed euphoria that accompanies people who happily hurl themselves down mountains is quite similar to my exhaustive enjoyment of peonies and caladiums and dahlias. I’m equally passionate about pursuits on flatter, warmer grounds. But nearly everyone strapped to go-fasters (save a few over-bundled, overtired toddlers) was full of fresh air and mirth. Because teenagers exist, it’s possible that so does the occasional, grumpy skier. But it’s impossible to be anything but delighted around skiing types who are skiing. Fresh air and mirth. It’s contagious.

I still didn’t tell you about, you know, the skiing. Well, that’s because I don’t. In case this wasn’t made plain: I don’t ski. I was content to wander the lodge, mix hot chocolate into my coffee, and have an appropriate venue for the debut of my mohair legwarmers. But my boys? Champs. Two lessons and they were switch backing down the mountain with a cool ease that made my heart soar. Even though controlled mountain plummeting scares me all bejeezously, I do want my kids to try new things. Better still when they love the new thing and don’t suck at it. But the biggest gift of this mini-break get-away was the memories made in an idyllic setting surrounded by people we love, and hosted from afar by generous people who care more about celebrations than stuff.

And now the usually slothful Lees will greet this Christmas with grateful hearts, full of fresh air and mirth, inspired to be happy givers this season, too. Maybe we’ll even plan our own trip for controlled mountain plummeting… or something equally outdoorsy that allows for legwarmer accessories during and Proseccos afterwards.

Merry Christmas, friends!

Happy little skiers...

Happy little skiers…

Facebook, the healer… by Steve Safran

Shhh… Steve has a headache. He doesn’t need chicken soup. But a pithy status update complaint has us rushing to his virtual, darkened room.

Here’s what it’s like to be sick in 2013: you hear from dozens of friends who wish you well, hope you get better, pray for you (well, if that’s your thing), and send you advice. All thanks to Facebook.

Here’s what it was like to be sick in 2003: A few get-well cards, emails and phone calls you didn’t want to answer.

For all the crap Facebook takes, it’s fantastic when you need it. I had a series of migraines this past week, and turned to my Facebook friends for help. I wasn’t getting the treatment I needed. My friends stepped up. And that’s the really cool part. People don’t just wish you well, they can actually have a conversation with you and others about different ways you can get help and heal.

It’s real-time health advice. Not all of it is my style, but it is sincere and based on experience. And while I’m in with the doc, I can check it to see what questions friends remind me to ask. Thankfully, I have a doctor who knows I’m a social media freak and so he indulges friends who ask such questions as “What about injecting botulism into his face?” After several of these questions he gave up and recommended it to me, just not in the form of Botox.

Of course, my little headaches don’t compare to Britt’s Boobie Disease on the severity scale. But we have this much in common– we use social media to let our friends know we’re OK. And we use it to let them know we’re not OK too, and that we could use a little help. All the days when we post jokes and silly things, aspects of our lives trivial and trite– those are warm-ups. People see you as the real person you are. So that when you need real, serious help, they are there for you as well.

For Migraine Boy, the only drawback is the computer light. Facebook really ought to read to you. And in a soothing voice, too.

Stupid

Messages abound of What Not To Do. Don’t admit you want to get married (at Princeton), or that you want to stay home with sticky children, or that you almost never shop at Whole Foods. And don’t eat baby carrots. Ever. But certainly don’t say that to someone with Cancer. Maybe these messages are true, and mean well, smooth over cocktail conversations, lasso you to the tony social circle, and prevent tumors. But, to me, they all sound like this: “listen up, dummy.” Three people sent this to me yesterday. It’s genius, and a diagram… so, obviously, I love it. But like so many of the messages of the day, it’s also a bit of a finger-wagging admonishment of Things Not To Do.

Superfamous blogging/tweeting Lisa Bonchek Adams compiled a list of crap things uttered to the cancerous, and she recently reprised the list now that news of her own metastatic disease inspired even more awkward responses. The list is horrifying. The list is unbelievable. The list is… hilarious. The Cancer Girl in me reads these smugly: oh, yes… you wouldn’t believe what someone once said to me. What an idiot/bitch/zealot. But even though I heard some doozies, they never (ever) made me angry… certainly they didn’t make anything worse. I already had Cancer. In fact, the really awful, thoughtless comments were fun to share with my girlfriends later with giggly, text-y glee.

“Oh. My. God. It says, ‘Well, make the best of it!!’ Yup. Exclamation points and all. Obviously I’m approaching this all wrong. I don’t need wigs and Ativan… just fezzes and kazoos.”

But this is difficult stuff: we’d all like to deliver the perfect response to shitty news, and yet in the moment ridiculous things fly out of our mouths and keyboards. After Lisa’s husband (an old high school crony) shared her website with me–and only weeks later the news that her Cancer was back–I was praying for her. And after reading a heart-wrenching tweet in the wee hours, I wrote something to the effect of oodles of us on our knees on her behalf. Little did I know those sentiments were about as useful to her as barrettes during chemo. Had I read earlier posts from Lisa, I would have learned that she finds the Churchy Jesus Girl approach sort of annoying. Ooops. A few tweets later she sort of asked for well-wishers (like me) to keep all the goofy praying crap under wraps. It wasn’t helping her.

See? Even The Girl With Cancer can say The Wrong Thing. It’s so easy to do. And though we can poke fun at an acquaintance’s blunder, or ignore the tweeted prayer of a Bible-thumping stranger, when The Wrong Thing flies out of the mouth of someone closer, we’re troubled enough to issue reprimanding blog posts. I had my own when I first entered Cancerland. But on the anniversary of my mastectomies, which has been my most difficult day in the Era of New Hair, the only words that I remembered were the good ones.

Most thoughtful friends and supporters of the cancerous can avoid the stupid remarks (more easily than I can), but often wonder, “What is the right thing to say?” Whenever I am asked that, I think of Drew. The night before my surgery he sent this:

“We will love you most on January 17th… until January 18th when we will love you more.”

Sifting through the cards and emails and messages from those scary days, I compiled my own catalog chronicling a chorus of kindnesses. And if you have the grave misfortune of knowing me on Facebook (I’m a frequent updater, a rather public guilty pleasure), you might have seen it there. Quite easily I could find scores of wonderfully “right” things to say. I thought it deserved its own page devoid of the smug finger wagging of the breastless. (Not that we don’t deserve our finger wagging.) Ten Awesomely Wonderful Things to Say to Someone With Cancer. I hope you’ll add to it.

The instinctive goodness of an eight year old...

Kids never get this stuff wrong…