Ten Years Gone

At 10:47 PM, Pacific Time, ten years ago today, John took his last breath. His passing was peaceful and I was grateful that he was able to depart on his own terms, at home, comfortably in bed, and in my arms. When he left the house a few hours later, it also seemed to be on his own terms. The folks who came to get him had placed him on a gurney, wrapped in a very lovely quilt. When they got him to the font door and had to go down a few steps, they chose to up-end the gurney such at he appeared to be standing as it rolled down the walkway. Watching from behind, I imagined him walking tall as if heading off on another road trip. He is still out there on the road, and I continue to talk to him every day….

Happy Birthday John

Today my darling would be 108 years young. It has been 8 years since he died and I continue to miss him, and to talk to him, each and every day. This picture was taken one day before John’s 97th birthday. I sure hope I will look as good when I reach my 90s.

John and Devra Levy, 2009.

What would John be feeling if he were here today? Like most of us, he would be grateful to those on the front lines, saddened by the massive loss of lives (of both friends and those unknown), and enraged by the ineptitude of national government that has made this crisis so much worse than it had to be.

What would we be doing? Probably “relaxin’ on the axis of the wheel of life” and listening to Nancy Wilson’s Lush Life recording or Joe Williams’ Here’s to Life. Maybe we’d have rice and beans or catfish for dinner. If we weren’t on lock-down, we’d go to the fish market and pick up a basket of Maryland crabs so John could cook seafood gumbo for tomorrow’s Easter Sunday dinner.

Darling, you were the light of my life and you are still my guiding light: yesterday, today, forever…

Candlelight and Roses for my love.

Notes on Writing

This weekend The Huntington opens the first major exhibition on the life of award-winning author Octavia E. Butler. For those who do not know of her, Ms. Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive a prestigious MacArthur “genius” award and the first African American woman to win widespread recognition writing in that genre.

I am not particularly an aficionado of sci-fi, but she was a master story-teller and to those of us pursuing the ‘creative’ or ‘narrative’ nonfiction path, stellar story-telling is the holy grail.

Ms. Butler’s literary archive resides at The Huntington and included among her manuscripts and drafts are what I might call ‘notes to self,’ including the one above, and this affirmation shown below – don’t knock the power of positive thinking!

William Hurskin and Nigel

When Mr. Hurskin first came to Crown City Veterinary Medical Group, it was with his young German Shepherd named Cleo. This Afro-American man in his mid 60s, tall of stature with a military bearing, was cordial but reserved. Over the years of bringing Cleo in for routine care, Mr. Hurskin became friendly with Dr. Tyson and her staff.

After awhile they learned a little of his history. Mr. Hurskin was first drafted in 1966, but was deferred because he was still in school in Mississippi. A few years later he moved to California. By 1970 he was working security for the Pasadena school district, but was drafted again in 1971. He served three years in the Army, both stateside and in Frankfurt Germany, repairing infrared night vision equipment. When he mustered out he returned to his security job for several more years before moving on to a jobs in aerospace and finally security for the Los Angeles Department of Airports, from where he eventually retired.

As Cleo aged, she developed hip dysplasia and Dr. Tyson worked with Mr. Hurskin to reduce the dog’s weight. Mr. Hurskin was really open to hearing someone who wanted to use preventative care instead of simply band-aiding the problems. With guidance from Dr. Tyson, he mounted a crusade to reduce Cleo’s size which would put less pressure on her hips and retard the pain and progression of the dysplasia. Cleo went from being a 120 pound German Shepherd to being a 89 pound German Shepherd, essentially extending her life for several more years than she would have had otherwise.

Animal care is not always easy, but Mr. Hurskin was impressed with what could be done when it came to rehabilitating an animal. With the ongoing encouragement from the veterinary staff, Mr. Hurskin stayed the course.  “I wouldn’t let him not do what he needed to do,” recalls Dr. Tyson.

And Mr. Hurskin became attached to Dr. Tyson. “She’s like a sister to me. She’ll say anything to me to keep me from doing something stupid. That’s what I like about her. She talks to me like she a big sister, and she’s caring,” explains Mr. Hurskin. “That’s what I like about her. She’s a very caring person. She doesn’t want to be hurt, which I can’t blame her. She got a tender heart, a very tender heart.”

In the end it was not the dysplasia that ended Cleo’s life, it was a tumor that was initially found on one of her limbs.  When tumor ended up popping up in her chest at the late phase of her life, Mr. Hurskin brought Cleo to the clinic so that she could end her life peacefully without any pain.

What’s remarkable about Mr. Hurskin is that very soon after he had lost Cleo, he realized that his good, and his purpose in life, is best suited for a companion, maybe another shepherd. Without hesitation he came back to the clinic and said, “I don’t know what you have in store for me but I know you said that there were animals in need. I am in need.”

“I think that abrupt loss was enough for him to also want to reinvest himself in a different way,” said Dr. Tyson thinking back on her decision to unite Mr. Hurskin with Nigel, a 40-plus pound brown-and-white 11-year-old English bulldog in need of a human companion who would take care of him and who would give him purpose. Nigel was one of the many dogs who were under the care of the Asper de Tyson Foundation and Sanctuary, a non-profit organization that takes a holistic approach to the natural contributions that flow back and forth between People, Animals and the Planet.

nigelNigel, who had come back to the foundation not long before Cleo’s passing, is an interesting case because he wasn’t abandoned or treated badly. He was an adorable puppy bought in a pet store by a lovely couple who loved him.The couple didn’t know that bulldogs are prone to have eye problems, but they took care of him as best they could.

By the time Nigel turned eight, the couple had exhausted their funds and, desiring to start a family, they could not afford the ongoing veterinary expenses. Nobody wanted to take a dog that needed surgery and they did not want to put him down. Luckily, Dr. Tyson was Nigel’s vet and she told the family that if they gave him to the Foundation, she would take care of his medical needs and find him a home.  They agreed.

Nigel had so many skin folds around his eyes that he couldn’t see. Dr. Tyson resected Nigel’s face and his eyes and allowed for him to see again. Two surgeries plus some recovery time and he was ready for his next life’s assignment.

For a short time, Nigel went to live with a client who had a female bulldog in need of a friend. That worked great until the other dog passed. Soon after, Dr. Tyson took him back because the man was too busy to take appropriate care. Once a Foundation animal, always a Foundation animal.

Even though Mr. Hurskin was thinking to get another shepherd, Dr. Tyson tasked him with fostering Nigel for a weekend. Mr Hurskin did, a little reluctantly, and then brought Nigel back when the weekend was over. But Dr. Tyson had seen, or maybe felt, that they were meant to be together and she was not surprised when Mr. Hurskin called and asked for a second weekend. Man and dog, Bill and Nigel, had bonded.

Nigel went home with him with all of his bag of tricks, his medicine, his special food, his eye wipes. A baggage of things that needed to be done three or four times a day, and Mr. Hurskin was ready for the task. That would not have been true a decade before, believes Dr. Tyson. “Back then he would have said, ‘What? People do what for their dogs? Are you kidding? You use face wipes? They have special things? You wipe their boots? Like really, this is a lot more than I had signed up for.’” But now Mr. Hurskin was ready to do it, realizing that without a friend to care for he wasn’t complete. “Without hesitation he signed up for it knowing that Nigel was coming with all of that,” recalls Dr. Tyson.

Nigel likes routine and so does Mr. Hurskin. Nigel’s preference is early to bed and late to rise. “He’s is something else,” says Mr. Hurskin. “He doesn’t like to sit up late. I would be trying to do things on the computer and he’d want me to go to bed at 8:00, 8:30. Yeah, come scratch me on my leg. I’m thinking he wants to go outside. No, uh-uh. He wants me to come go to bed. If I didn’t get all the way in bed, he wouldn’t get in bed until I got all the way in bed.  Yep. Then, he would come up, climb up the little footstool, and come up and he want to lick me in my face I don’t know how many times. English bulldogs, they’re heavy. Sometimes, he’d want to stand on my chest. I’m like, ‘Oh, no! You can’t stand on my chest now.’ In the morning he wanted to stay in bed.  Sometimes, we wouldn’t get up ’til 10:00 or 11:00. Then, I’d get up, clean his eyes, wash his eyes out and everything. Feed him. Then, I’d go out in the backyard, sit in the sun, and have my coffee.”

Mr. Hurskin was once married and has a daughter who, he recently found out, is living in Sacramento, now retired from the Air Force. He hasn’t seen her since she was a teenager, and he’s never met his grandson. They are estranged. So it’s just Mr. Hurskin and Nigel enjoying coffee in the sun and long walks.

They also listen to music together. “I like music,” says Mr. Hurskin. “You can just listen to music, you can relax. If you’re working, it’ll make you forget about thinking about your time. I took a class in classical music, so I could understand what it was about. Then, once I understood it, I took a liking to it, too.”

“You know the strange thing?,” Mr. Hurskin reminisces. “I could get dressed to be around the house, or I can get dressed to go somewhere, and have on the same thing. But Nigel, he could tell when I was going to go somewhere. Yeah. He’d head straight for the door. I started taking him everywhere I went. He’d get in the back seat of the car and just go to sleep.”

Mr. Hurskin enjoyed good health most of his life, but early in 2015 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but Mr. Hurskin and Nigel were not ready to part. Nigel requires a lot of care, cleaning his eyes several times a day, tending to his allergies with a special diet, and he has heart issues as well. They both felt a responsibility to one another and they kept each other going for well over a year.

bill-and-nigel“If you spend time with animals, they get to know your moods. When you feeling sad, they’ll feel sad. They give you that look. Sometime, they’ll try to bring you out of it,” says Mr. Hurskin.

Whenever he had an appointment for chemo, Mr. Hurskin would bring Nigel over to the clinic, walking quietly in the back door and straight to “his” crate on the bottom row in the middle in the treatment room. When it’s too hot, Nigel pushes aside the towel meant to make him comfortable. After touching base with the staff, offering fatherly advice about life and saving your money, Mr. Hurskin would drive off in his red jaguar, returning a few hours later to collect Nigel and head for home.

In late April of 2016 Mr. Hurskin’s health began to decline. Nigel was back at the clinic while Mr. Hurskin was in the hospital fighting his way through pneumonia and still looking forward. “I just don’t feel that I’m strong enough to do the things Nigel needs, like take him walking and stuff right now, stuff he needs to be doing. He needs to be exercised. He likes outside. I can’t do that right now. I don’t know what I’m going to do. First, I know I got to be well. Get that straight.”

“Nigel can’t be there with him; he wants to be but he can’t,” says Dr. Tyson. “They both can’t continue to thrive together. Having two advanced age candidates together is hard because one feels obligated to make sure that the other is doing okay. And when the other is not doing okay, in this situation, it will make him docile and quiet, like Nigel is now. He’s pensively waiting.”

It is now October 2016 and, like Nigel, Mr. Hurskin is much on the minds of the staff at the clinic – praying for him to have a peaceful journey when his time comes, and hoping that he truly knows what a tremendous gift he has given to Nigel and to the humans at the Foundation and clinic who love them both dearly.

# # #

Lives Well Lived

Well here I go again! Welcome to the relaunching DevraDoWrite. I hope you like the new “look.”

For starters, I have added a new category – Lives Well Lived – that will spotlight people and programs that make a positive difference, large or small. First up in that category is a man and his dog story. William Hurskin took in a 40-plus-pound 11-year-old English bulldog named Nigel. The ‘old dog’ had been rehabilitated by the Asper de Tyson Foundation and Sanctuary (more about the Foundation in future posts), but Nigel required a very high level maintenance for his ongoing survival. Mr. Hurskin was willing to care for him, and, as it turns out, when Mr. Hurskin was diagnosed with cancer, Nigel took very good care of him.

We the People

We the people must protect ourselves, not with guns but with intelligence. Don’t let others manipulate you with emotional speech that hides their true intent. We are too smart for that.

While candidates hurl insults and accusations at one another, we must look deeper to see their motivations. These “remarks” they make are not really meant to hurt the other’s feelings, they are meant to manipulate our emotions and lead us to ignoring our own intelligence while acting in the heat of passion – love them or hate them, it’s all the same form of manipulation.

We need facts, and we need to use our good sense.

We the people must take a good look at each person, their words, their behavior, and all that it implies about their character, their personality, and their values. This goes for candidates and anyone else who wants to influence you.

Some things a candidate supports might be good in your opinion, others not so good. Each and every one of those who would claim to lead or represent us all have agendas of their own. Having an agenda is not bad in and of itself. What you must determine is whether their agenda is in conflict with what you believe is best and/or right.

This goes for people we admire as well as those we detest. These people come to us with personality traits that we might like or dislike, traits are part of a person’s psychology. From one extreme to the other – from Mother Teresa to Hitler – desires to be selflessly kind or to kill are influenced by early life experiences. A person can be passionate about saving the world and doing what they believed to be best, but that doesn’t mean that they are reasonable. Whether for better or worse, passion can cloud judgement. “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.” (Attributed to Benjamin Franklin.)l

Now negative campaigning is nothing new – candidates did it back in the 1800s. What IS new is today’s media, and we have to look closely at their motivations as well. First, the traditional media such as network news programs are no longer as dedicated to truth in journalism because they don’t have time to fact-check and verify. Today’s news is immediate. If they take the extra time to verify, they risk being scooped by a competitor – never mind that the competitor’s facts are also not verified. Second, there are a multitude of competing sources, some professional, some not, but all immediate and many visibly biased toward one side or another due to pressure from advertisers and the company’s executives.

So what are we to do? First, stop and take a breath. I’m not kidding. Try to calm your emotional response and then evaluate what you are being told. Next, think for yourself! Whether you are hearing the words from the candidate him/herself, or from a supposed “person in the know,” or from the media, or from your social circle, or even best friend, do not fall into crowd mentality without thinking first for yourself.

Think about what is most important to YOU, and question the truth of what you are hearing and whether it truly makes a difference to your goals. If you think Clinton has lied about some things, does that mean she lies about everything? Does it make her unfit to be President? If Trump makes rude comments about women, does that make him a chauvinist pig and, if so, therefore unfit to be president?

I cannot answer for you and you should not allow anyone to control your thoughts and actions whether through persuasion, manipulation, or outright lies. Think for yourself. Do not believe everything you hear or read. Look at multiple sources and evaluate for yourself. I urge you to be true to your own values and beliefs and not be swayed by the crowd.

NOTE: this essay was inspired by my mother, a psychoanalyst who, along with her colleagues, is concerned about the effects of bombastic rhetoric on the population at large. She contributed thoughts and words to this piece, for which I thank her.

Is it worth it?

“Today’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems” said Sam Greengard last week at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference. He was talking about how cool technological gadgets and ‘apps’ have left us drowning in gigabytes of data. Tagging is one of today’s solutions and applying tags to email messages and files not only allows you to categorize them without having to move them into various folders, but it also allows you to assign more than one tag to each item. Wondering if I really have time to re-read and tag tens of thousands of emails and files led me to more basic questions: Do I need to do it? What do I have to gain? Trying to harness, arrange and tame our data troves seems an illusive goal and takes way too much effort. And that, in turn, led me to an even more interesting consideration: What might I lose by doing it, besides the most obvious time suck?

Coincidentally, while thinking about this I was embroiled in the parallel endeavor of straightening up an office, arranging and taming the piles of envelopes, papers, bills, receipts, cards and letters, articles, books, stick-it notes, photos….

Whether the labeling and filing is physical or electronic, once done one can quickly and efficiently find what one is looking for and that is the ultimate pay-off, right? Time is money; waste not, want not. Hmmmm…..maybe not. By arriving so immediately at the destination, what is lost is the journey itself. It may take longer, possibly even create a detour, but if one has to sift through piles, or open multiple electronic documents to see what is inside, serendipity might strike, yielding an answer or solution not previously considered, or uncovering something about which you had forgotten. Even if what you find is not relevant to the impetus of the search, accidental rediscoveries might open up a whole new avenue of thought…or just make you smile.

Gray is more than a hair color

I remember the clarity of my youth when I was certain about everything. Things were clearly right or wrong, good or bad. Love was supreme and war was reviled. Democracy was good, communism was bad. My friends and I were child activists, picketing the sale of war toys at a nearby “five and ten cent store” — GI Joe Must Go — and savvy enough to call the local TV station and end up on the evening news.

It was the 1960s. Our ideology was nonviolence. “Flower Power!” We were in favor of passive resistance and free speech. We marched WITH Dr. King and we marched ON Washington. We sang the songs of Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’“) and Phil Ochs (“There but for Fortune“).

In our teenage and college years our concepts grew a little deeper but still we held to a simple clarity of right and wrong. Quality was of higher value than quantity. We knew journalists to be reporters and fact-checkers who would not dream of ‘making news’ or becoming celebrities unto themselves. Without question, substance was supremely more important than style. I knew what I believed in, believed that I was right, and that fueled my confidence.

I don’t know when it changed, but the light began to fade and our vision required corrective lenses. When I was 42, a friend referred to me as “a woman of a certain age,” meaning, of course, that I was no longer a kid. I thought of myself as principled, but perhaps I was just naive? Answers to questions large and small no longer seemed so simple. I noticed style was rewarded even when substance was absent. Was it time to pay more attention to style, at least as it pertained to self and one’s future. I had improbably survived a stage four cancer and the graying temple hairs were now very noticeable — perhaps it was time for a little hair color and a brand new attitude. Time to grow up and ‘get ahead,’ whatever that means.

Get ahead? I invested in myself, looked good, worked hard and made a little money too. But the work was just for money, devoid of passion and not all that enjoyable. I watched my husband and others around me – the happiest and the healthiest of them were passionate about their work. “Don’t worry, be happy” sounds good, but how to pay one’s bills? Can one seek both money and happiness? Somewhere I took a wrong turn, another of life’s detours.

Fifteen more years have gone by and I no longer color my hair. I am once again clear about my likes and dislikes, ideology is back, BUT I have come to accept that nothing is simple, there is no clear black and white, right and wrong, just lot of pros and cons. There are many applicable quotations:

    “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
    ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
    “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
    ― William Keane
    You’ve got to get to the stage in life where going for it is more important than winning or losing.
― Arthur Ashe

Some phrases seem almost cliche, but their points are well-taken. I evaluate life’s compromises on a case-by-case basis. Embracing the gray is my new mantra for navigating life’s path. For this Libra, life is now a game of balance, and the prizes to be sought on every given day are the little bits of color one finds while unraveling the tangled layers of gray.

Kampai, my darling

Yesterday I had visit from prolific record producer Kiyoshi Itoh and his associate Takeo Suzuki. Because of their longtime business association with John, I have known both of these gentlemen for decades. During the 1980s-90s, when Kiyoshi produced many of Nancy Wilson’s recordings, we saw them often here in Los Angeles, in New York, and also in Tokyo. 

Even though we had not seen Kiyoshi in many years, he kept in occasional touch and he spoke to John by phone this past December. Kiyoshi’s travel plans had him coming to Los Angeles in April and he made a date with John to come and visit him then, right around his 100th birthday. I put it on our calendar, even though John didn’t expect to be here and said so, but John was very happy just to have spoken with Kiyoshi and to have felt his heart’s intent. That meant more to him than the possible visit. 

A few weeks ago Suzuki told me that Kiyoshi still had me on his calendar and wanted to come to the house, or perhaps the cemetery.  I had to explain that John gave his body to science and that there is no cemetery plot to visit. A drive to our house in Altadena from the west side of town near the airport would take at least an hour, and probably much more. Definitely would be worth any hassle to see John, but with him gone…. 

“Are you sure?”, I asked Suzuki. “It’s a long round-trip and I know Kiyoshi has just this one afternoon in town. Please make sure he knows that I would not be offended if he needs to change his plans.”

“We will be there at 3 PM.”

Knowing what the traffic would be like, I actually felt bad for them and considered refusing so they would not have to make the trip, but some part of me understood that for them this was an action of deep cultural import. Most cultures speak of paying respects, but here in America (maybe even more so in Hollywood) it can be more a matter of lip-service. This is why John was adamant about not having a funeral or memorial concert mounted in his name. He hated to see people show up at such events and speak of their love and admiration for the departed when they had not been there for the person while still alive. “If you are going to pay tribute or give thanks, do it while they can hear you,” John would say. But John also had great respect for other cultures, and I think he would have felt, as I do, that the Japanese desire to show their respect is deeply rooted and more honest, particularly regarding elders. 

To be sure, I consulted with my friend Chie Imaizumi and she confirmed that for me to refuse would have been rude. I was still a bit nervous so I invited her to be here as well. I wanted everything to be just right.  I was also thinking that she is a fabulous composer/arranger and I could hear John saying ‘it will be good for them to meet.’  With “I’ll Be A Song” ( Nancy Wilson produced by Kiyoshi, seated, and arranged by Masahiko Satoh, standing) playing softly in the background,  I prepared some green tea with green tea cookies, and awaited their arrival.

Through the window I watched Kiyoshi and Suzuki park and pull from the back seat a huge floral arrangement. I had just the spot for it on John’s desk next to his portrait. They entered and put the vase on the desk, then clasped their hands prayerfully and bowed to John. Then we exchanged hugs and sat down to chat for a bit. I told them about John’s last months and how peacefully he made his transition. 

In years past, following meetings on our offices or hours in the studio, we often went out with Kiyoshi to eat shabu-shabu in restaurants on one coast or the other. John was especially fond of this meal where you cook your own thinly sliced beef and vegetables in a pot of hot broth then dip in goma-dare (sesame) or ponzu sauces. When John and I found an authentic Japanese restaurant here in Pasadena specializing in it, we became regulars, going once a week for many years. With only one day in town, Kiyoshi and Suzuki were not free for dinner, but after they left, Chie and I went there and toasted John. 

Kampai, my darling.

Happy birthday my darling!

I love you yesterday, today, forever… just like it said on our wedding cake.

I know that some little part of you wished to make it to the 100th birthday milestone, not because you reveled in rituals or awards – everyone who knew you knows better than that – but I know you wanted that centennial happy birthday letter from Obama! Again, all who knew you are keenly aware that the value of that letter lies not in it’s Presidential nature, you have letters of thanks and commendations from prior Presidents, but because Obama is America’s first African-American President.

I will never forget inauguration day – a day you thought would never come. We hosted a small breakfast party in our living room. You, your son Michael, and friends Washington Rucker and John Mitchell – representing three generations of Black men – partaking of scrambled eggs with grits, bacon, and biscuits while talking about history and watching it unfold.

When the swearing in ceremony was to begin, plates were left behind and you four moved to straight-backed chairs much closer to the television. You could have heard the proverbial pin-drop and if someone had been able to gather up the tears of joy that were shed around the world when Obama was sworn in, mankind would never fear another drought.

During the hours we were glued to the television I saw other emotions as well — concern for Obama’s well-being, fear for his life, and fury when he and Michele got out of their car and walked down The Avenue…and oh yes, a great deal of pride. I am so glad you lived to see that day.

I am glad, too, that you lived to see some more personal milestones, growing closer to your children and grandchildren, and holding in your arms your one and only Levy great-grandson who will carry the Levy name forward.

Before you left, you got to read the many 100th birthday messages that people sent, and I saw how touched you were by their words. The only message I really wish you could have seen was a condolence letter I received from a total stranger — Sally, now an older woman and a jazz fan for decades, wrote “Mr. Levy was a great man (not only as an artist himself) but for his recognition of all these great jazz artists!”

You see, my darling, your legacy lives on in oh so many ways….

[here’s a link to the memorial card and letter to friends posted on Lushlife.com]