Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Boldly Go...

Today is November 30th.  It’s funny how times flies when you are not having fun. Any day spent in a US government office is dismal at best, but there are papers to be filed, receipts to be received and endless flat screen TV’s to be watched while waiting for your number to appear. I was at Social Security Administration Office this afternoon turning in my Dad’s last check and ordering a new card for myself, which I lost in college.  It’s never too late to redeem one’s self to the government.  Honestly,  no one has asked to see the card in the last twenty years, but I figured while I was there…

Two and one half hours I spent in this bureaucratic hellhole watching an endless loop of Social Security sponsored promo in which George Takei and Patty Duke advocated the “Boldly Go” campaign to use online services.  They used an old Star Trek set and the actors were both curiously dressed in Starship Enterprise costumes.  What Patty Duke had to offer this scenario is anyone’s guess. I surmise that Baby boomers would recognize her from “The Patty Duke Show.”  I watched that show although was comforted in the fact it was in syndication at the time.  Whew.  Am I that old?

I watched endless television when I was a child.  The best babysitter in the world was probably my mother’s thinking.  It started as soon as I sat up and was able to stay seated in one position in the famous red “jumping chair” my parents used for me and all of my siblings.

Like some surreal photo album, my childhood could be documented by what was programmed in TV Guide.  I know I started watching “Romper Room” as a tot.  Miss Louise was my favorite especially when the “Magic Mirror” dazzled the viewer into some sort of submission as she called out the names of children in “Televisionland.” I must have sat through years of that show moving vertically not horizontally in that chair waiting for my name to be called. 

Cartoons were always welcomed.  Who could forget “Winky Dink and You” and the plastic “magic drawing screen” you had to adhere to the TV to draw with “Winky Dink. “ Somehow I think my older sister didn’t wait for that instruction because I do remember pen marks on the Console TV.  I, of course, was stuck in the jumping chair and couldn’t be blamed for that misadventure.

Besides, Winky Dink, most days were spent with a cast of characters.  “Deputy Dog”,  “Underdog”, “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and of course the endless loops of “The Little Rascals.”  You never noticed the deleted episodes until the “Cabin Fever” series came out.  No, as a child, you were subjected to bad films of Our Gang comedies that occasionally used to burn right on camera until WPIX would switch to either a commercial or a “Technical Difficulty” caption.  As a kid, you didn’t mind.  You ate a snack or went to the bathroom until the loop reappeared.

The daytime reruns were always watched too.  “The Munster’s”, “Flipper”, “Daktari”, “I Dream of Jeannie”, “Beverly Hillbillies”, “My Mother the Car” rounded out a full rainy day of most of my childhood. My sister liked “The Patty Duke Show” so I was subjected to those ‘incredible cousins”, “who walked alike, talked alike, you could lose your mind.” No doubt with so much TV and radiation.  Never liked “Star Trek.”  Sorry Mr. Takei.

 On sunny days we were shooed out the door with the nondescript instructions "to go play.”  It might as well have been the “Boldly Go” command.  I think from age 5  through age 11, my mother had no idea where I was, what I was doing or with whom I was doing what with.  No supervision, no lunch breaks, just urban air, pure imagination and girlish energy.  What I wouldn’t give for one ounce of that today and to not worry about Social Security.

As I think ahead to summer activities for next year, I am always asked by my three “What kind of camp did you go to Mommy?”   I always would answer “F-Troop.”  No, it wasn’t Girl Scouts, but it did involve some lazy summer afternoon planning and TV Guide reading.  I would love to just shoo them out the door and say “Boldly Go. ” But no one does that today unless they mean "online."   I am old,  but now with a new Social Security Card in the mail.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Going Long.......

I seemingly always have library fines.  Somehow I haven’t figured out that I can renew things online or just make a notation about due dates.  The last one would have cost me about $76.00 for an overdue book my daughter had out all summer.  I surreptitiously blamed her sloppy teenage ways and the sympathetic librarian bought the story. The fine was reduced to $16.00.  Whew.  Dodged a budgetary bullet there.

I have since checked my local library account online.  It has many updated features, which I was unaware.  The research databases are amazing now and so are the personal account services.  What surprised me the most was the expiration date on my library card.  It was 3/31/2107 nearly 96 years away.  I will be 145 in the year 2107.  Will I make it?  Has medical science progressed that much?  Do I want that kind of longevity?

With my father’s debilitating illness, I have cautiously warned my children that if I were to be that impaired, “Please just take me out at 50 feet.” Perhaps my humor is a bit dark for most audiences.  The older ones rolled their eyes as usual, as my younger daughter told me “sure I’ll take you out to dinner Mom.”  What a sweetheart.
But his illness raised certain questions on the course of the rest of my life  (In which I'll bore you with in other blogs) and certainly choosing options for my death.

Do we all want to live that long?  What would be the cost to society of that length of living? What would be the cost to my loved ones?  Now I understand what actuaries actually do for a living or for the living.

As a physician, you often see people kept alive after catastrophic events such as strokes, car accidents, cardiac conditions, etc.  The cost of an average ICU stay mounts to thousands to tens of thousands per day.   Whether the Republicans like it or not, we all bear this expense in the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, Federal Taxes, or private insurance.  It’s political slight of hand on whose pocket it actually comes from. The talk of “death panels” gave a grim spin of this rationing of care.  But is it rationing or just rational?

Giving the Republicans a break for a change (just this once), I do give them some credit for the notion of self-determination.  We all should have the right to decide our fate to some extent, certainly in such personal decisions as death.  This brings up the topic of Advanced Directives.  I just signed mine and you should too. As a pitch for the opposing team, President Obama was the first United States President to sign an Advanced Directive in 2009.

Advanced Health Care Directives are also known as Living Wills, Personal Directives, Advance Directives or Advanced Decisions.  They are instructions to the medical personnel or the family on what actions should be taken when a person is no longer able to make decisions for themselves.  Another form is a Health Care Power of Attorney or Health Care Proxy, which is a specific person, designated by the patient to make decisions on behalf of that patient when they no longer can.  They are simple forms, easy to complete but vary from State to State.  I will leave the legal stuff to the lawyers to argue incessantly about.

I was my father’s health care proxy given my medical background.  I knew he didn’t want extraordinary means to keep him alive.  Medically, given his condition, I knew that aggressive therapy was not rational.  And I was by no means rationing. Just as an aside: Hospice care was wonderful, exemplary and should be an option for any family faced with impending death.

Every adult should think about these important decisions. Whether you are middle aged, young adult or more importantly elderly.  It takes much of the guilt out of the equation of death, especially among the living.

I probably won’t face a firing squad when my time comes. I already face my daughters on a daily basis in the carpool line when then are usually ready to shoot me for my cursing, singing with my iPhone or weasel driving habits, but at least now they know what do with me whether my death is soon or in 2107. In the meantime I hope to be checking my online library account for those damn fines. Given my habits though, I could rack up quite a boodle over the next 96 years.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanks, ladies

When I was a child, I needed adults. I knew I was an adult, when I needed children.
   -not sure if I heard it or made it up myself-so sue me (please don't) or google it yourself !

For anyone with children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews, you have undoubtedly sat through the usual graduations speeches thanking the obligate family members who “got them through” school.  I have sat through many too.  Starting in preschool and now high school, they are monotonous; occasionally tear jerking and mostly annoying.  They are first given by small children who have memorized their lines and read in a monotone staccato or high schoolers who are embarrassed and laugh all throughout the well-worn speech. It always ends with an "Ahhhh", clapping and some sort of self-satisfaction on everyone’s part.  I am not done with this ritual.  Only about 10 more times to go.

The children have no one to thank.  It’s us, old farts who have them to thank for everything.  I am glad I have touched the future.  My children are the ones who have taught me so much:

Tolerance of teenagers' messy rooms, papers that are due at 8am but “can you just look it over” at 12 midnight, of late weekend nights and sleeping to the obligatory noon hour, questionable friends, toddlers who decide that the cat would look better with a Sharpie® doodle on it’s back, middle schoolers who have their first foray into dating with a school dance and giggle in the backseat about some boy who dropped his pants, dogs with green toenails, of crazy do-it-yourself haircuts of six year-olds that take two years to grow out, shattering an iPhone after it's been unknowingly dropped (in the damn carpool line) and “it’s your fault because you drove over it”, of candy wrappers hid between mattresses and box springs, rejecting what is made for dinner by commenting “do you have any back-up?”, dirty size 6 underwear found tucked in the back of a closet when you know they are at least a size 12 now and of course,  them knowing something academic that you don’t or can't remember. That bites the big one.

Patience of teaching your child who needs extra help with her ABC’s, waiting in endless darwinian carpool lines, toilet training (say no more), of urgent text messages that don’t get through because “I left my phone in my locker, Mom, ” repairing a bed that has been used again for a trampoline, calming a dog down who had peas put into her ears,  and them returning some real patience as they teach you the new iPad features.

Restraint in eating brownies, cakes, cinnamon buns, snicker doodles, tollhouse cookies, oatmeal cookies, smores, hamantashen (no latkes!) and every other sweet that seemingly gets made or brought into my house every single week. The big one doesn't bite them anymore.

 Joy in watching your child walk for the first time, talk for the first time and drag their backpack for the first time.

Pure Inner Peace with the quiet rhythm of rocking a freshly bathed and fed newborn to sleep and watching her for the next twenty minutes thinking “It doesn’t get better than this.”

Real Fear of having your child get wheeled into an operating room, of falling off a horse of 17 hands height, getting their first stitches, their first time out with the car alone or with the car and THAT boy alone, rejection, or by being made fun of by children whose parents haven’t mastered the tolerance step yet.

My girls have taught me tolerance, patience, to find joy in life, to treasure inner peace and to only fear fear itself to which I am eternally grateful. This is far from a comprehensive list; I haven't been taking notes. I still have so many lessons from you ladies to go. I'll try to be a better student.  No need to say grace this Thanksgiving.  I say it everyday, sometimes without expletives.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lost: One Stray Owner

Looking foolish next to the tree in a one o'clock rain: 

umbrella aloft, the leash in my other hand- 

I wanted my late-coming neighbor to understand 

that dogs are worth the expense, inconvenience, and pain;
their tails are truthful, no coiled rebellion beneath 
a loving look; they are quick to kiss you, and quick 

to fetch for you, and-should you raise a stick 

threateningly-they are quick to show their teeth;

and better still (but this I never revealed),
when you bring downfall home, the death of a hope, 

their nonchalant manner does more for you than a drink; 

and best of all, when triumph's to be unsealed, 

such lack of respect they show for the envelope, 

-your fingers halt, the brain cools, and you think.

                                    Dogs in Rumshinsky’s Hat and House of Buttons by Aaron Kramer

She was really my first ever dog.  Sure I had childhood ones but they were family dogs; I couldn’t really claim ownership.  I always had cats.  Every size, shape, personality and color.  One even got me kicked out of my dormitory in college.  I was such a rebel.

The decision to get a dog was an easy one.  I was working nights and home alone during the day with my developmentally delayed daughter.  It was lonely, scary and I needed company. Her thrice weekly physical, occupational and speech therapists were often the only adult contact during the day.  I looked into therapy dogs or near therapy dogs-the ones that don’t quite make the top tier- but the wait was at least three to four years.  I am patient but not that patient.

I knew I wanted a Labrador.  Their temperament and the short hair had a certain appeal.  And I knew I couldn’t handle a puppy.  Blessed be the various Labrador Rescue websites. I inquired about one dog, a “gentle giant” but he was already promised to another family.  Weeks went by when another dog popped up.  Her name not only described her coat color but also a popular "fireside alcoholic drink”. She apparently had puppies at one point and was found wandering the streets. 

I quickly called the foster mother.   She described that she was a sheer delight in the house with her other two larger male dogs but she was alpha to those beta males. That had a certain appeal. The boys always allowed her to eat first.  She was a snuggler, gentle but protective of children.  Also good with cats. But then she said the magic words “I’m going to miss her.”

I drove the 100 miles to “just see” under the pretense that I had a medical conference to attend.  The minute I saw her and she me I knew she was the one.  The whole love at first sight thing I guess. I should be so lucky with men. Her coming over to put her head on my lap sealed the deal. Her middle name became “Nana” like the dog in Peter Pan.  I needed someone to watch over me.

We had eight and one half wonderful years together. I never doubted her intelligence or allegiance to my children or me.  It hurt that my husband never petted her. 

She trained our new puppy a year and a half ago.  She had that motherly instinct.  My puppy seems lost without her now and often wanders the house with a rawhide bone in her mouth looking for her fellow chewing companion. I wander around the house often in the same way.

I am a lost stray owner now.  I go to lab adoption fairs but no one yet has picked me.  Still looking for my next best labby friend. Her middle name too will be “Nana.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Crazy Woman

I shall not sing a May song.
A May song should be gay.
I'll wait until November
And sing a song of gray.

I'll wait until November
That is the time for me.
I'll go out in the frosty dark
And sing most terribly.

And all the little people
Will stare at me and say,
"That is the Crazy Woman
Who would not sing in May."

                        -Gwendolyn Brooks

Despite the cold winds, I closed my garden down this weekend. Procrastinated yet again. The zucchini had been plentiful, but my heirloom tomatoes were not good despite the best care.  The feathery asparagus canes were cut down preparing for a bigger harvest for their next and third year.  Blueberries and blackberries were acidified and mulched despite their uneven showing. I can still harvest some thyme, parsley, sage and rosemary here and there for the Thanksgiving dinner. And the cats will be happy since the catnip bush is still abundant. Mind-altered cats: nature's housebound court jesters! The harvest is in.

I love this time of year.  There are still faint hues of gold, red and brown left in a few trees.  T-shirts give way to sweatshirts and wind-breaking fleece. The gloves come out of hiding.  The grass no longer needs mowing.  Logs do need to be split given our poor power grid and in anticipation of heatless but snowy nights. Duraflames will be bought just in case for back- up. There’s that sense of snow in the air with low lying clouds but still uncooperative temperatures. The only thing left blossoming is the pilgrim in my soul.

Bulbs need to be planted, being careful not to use the ones which hungry squirrels feast on. Daffodils seem to fair best.  I don’t dare do tulips. Geraniums are cut down and stored since they do come back if properly planted in the spring.

Oh me and my worms.  Voracious devils those red wigglers.  Feed them vegetable scraps, old shredded newspaper and they make the best soil ever.  It’s getting too cold outside for their bins so I have thousands of new pets in the garage.

Winter coats come out of storage.  My older girls still fit into last years but there’s always the hand-me-down scramble for my youngest to see what assorted coat of her sisters’ she can wear.  She got lucky this year. A coat my oldest never wore “because it was purple” was carefully put away only to be resurrected as new. My youngest  daughter's favorite color is purple.  Magician yes, extravagant Mom, no.

We see fewer rabbits in the yard, even fewer squirrels than last week as they sense the weather change.  Curiously, not many acorns again on the old oak in the back. The smashed pumpkins will certainly make up for what the oak trees lack. The deer have lessened too despite me throwing out stale bread.

It is a time for preparation. Hunkering down. Moving inward not only for nature but for myself, for I am not sure what the winter and spring will bring. Hope springs eternal they say.  I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I will sing most terribly with my iPhone.  You’ll all be glad that the car windows will be shut because of the impending cold.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


There is no doubt that exercise makes one happy, healthy and wise.  After my recent troubles, I began to exercise  regularly out of sheer anxiety.  Spending weekends at my Dad’s house near a shore, I would often escape to  a certain boardwalk to just walk, think and often just stare at the sea.  

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

                                             -Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Ah, Mr. Melville.  It has truly been the damp, drizzly November of my soul and muscles.

That particular boardwalk is exactly 0.75 miles long and I would often just walk up and down so that could get at least 6 miles in.  Just me, my iPhone and sometimes a book after the mileage. On beautiful summer nights, it was glorious; cool, clear and not crowded.  I hate the beach during the day.  To much skin, UV radiation and the annoying smell of sunscreen.  The hot sand burns my feet. Lying in the sun seems like such a waste of time, energy and melatonin.  I am more of night beach person.  I had plenty of company too.  The young male surfers were delightful to watch, ahem. A squadron of older ladies would walk, chat, laugh and enjoy their slow strolls in unison.  Older gentlemen would be sitting enjoying poker at one of the tables.  If you’re lucky a friendly dog would come visit for a nice pet.

I continued this regimen once at home at a nearby trail seeped in history.  It's an old railroad track that conservationists have turned into a biking, jogging, and walking trail. You can even take your horse.  It is glorious too and runs along a small stream.  The flow of water adds a certain calming effect just like the sea. Occasionally a blue heron will delight the scene.

But life started again. Schedules to keep.  Stop exercising for 3 days or so and you feel like the kids on Wonderama.  You freeze.  Ah, Wonderama.  Wonderama was a Tri-state children's staple on Sunday mornings on WNEW (Channel 5) TV.  Broadcast for 3 hours, interspersed with cartoons,  everyone watched it.   I even knew two classmates who went on the show. What celebrity!  One of the many segments featured the "Exercise Song."  Even at my age I still remember the lyrics:

                                              Exercise, Exercise, come on everybody do your exercise
                                              Exercise, Exercise, come on everybody do your exercise
                                              Then freeze........

Freeze after the music stopped and if you move again, you lose.  Sounds exactly like my situation.

Only this time, I lose if I don't move again.  I have to overcome this inertia . Stop the excuses that seemingly come out of the woodwork-the phone calls to be returned, the massive amounts of paperwork, the laundry, errands, etc.  Ignore your flower bed of habits and life has a nasty way of encroaching like wanton weeds.

Where’s Bob McAllister when you need him?  If you find him tell him to bring some pruning shears.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Breaking Good, Breaking Bad

Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey
                     -Lennon and McCartney

We are all complex human beings.  I don’t think anyone of my friends knew that I wrote poetry.  Some good, some bad.  The English language is truly so delicious. It’s sometimes good to play with your food.  Someday I will share. Probably some even think I plagiarize this blog. With the exception of one short but vague sentence (Thanks, S!),  I don’t.  It’s me.  Those who really know me detect the underlying snark, mixed with over the top sentimentality and unending curiosity and opinions.

I think of many of my friends.  Who knew that my MBA-degreed former roommate had a secret desire to write steamy but very funny romance novels?  Who knew my then grad student lab mate now microbiologist also teaches a course on the misuse of biology in movies and popular culture (think DOC films)? Who knew that a buttoned down college dorm mate really could paint amazing Southwest scenery? Who knew that a hematologist suffering from his own hematological nightmare could write such humor? Who knew that a former midwestern college kid could write such great instrumental music? Who knew an old friend from "the hood", now an attorney, had an interest in Civil War weaponry? (Okay, given THAT neighborhood and THAT profession-maybe THAT  is believable.) Who knew that one former residency mate sews designer quilts, another has an amazing blog about art and illustration  and yet another is becoming an episcopal priest?

I have such interesting and amazing friends.  

I love the TV show “Breaking Bad”.  I don’t watch much TV but this show is certainly “must see.”  It tells the complex story of Walter White, a downtrodden high school chemistry teacher who, when faced with his own mortality, starts synthesizing methamphetamine and becomes a sinister drug lord. The term 'breaking bad' is apparently a southern colloquialism. According to Wikipedia, it describes  a person  who has taken a turn off a usually straight and narrow path

It is violent, disturbing, but most of all, a character study of the best kind.  No one is really who you think they are.  They start out as one stereotype, but through extreme stress, greed, and death- the once mild mannered is now blowing up a drug kingpin.  The once high school drop-out is now a millionaire but in a covert beaten-up station wagon.  The once righteousness wife has an affair with a former boss then blackmails him so that her own sordid financial situation isn’t exposed. 

And it all takes place with the sunny background of suburban New Mexico.

Ah, those suburbs!  Artificial turf of the finest plastic.  Lots of monkey business.

Next time you really think you know someone, dig deeper.  You might be surprised. Hopefully pleasantly. Sometimes not. Some are breaking good creatively and some just may be creatively breaking bad. I am breaking good lately , finally (although nothing Walter White bad!), and leaving so much of other's bad behind.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Car Talk without the Tappet Brothers

"We have met the enemy and he is us." 
                              -Pogo by Walt Kelly

Morning commute is morning hell.  Getting my three each at different schools in three different directions is often fraught with yelling, fist pounding and expletives.  And that’s just in the driveway.

But seriously, it is a time when I reconnect with my brood. 

My middle daughter has the longest “car time”.  She shares my odd sense of humor.  It’s either that or perhaps a survival tactic.  Hard to tell.  But the other day she was telling me about her freshman high school course called simply Alcohol, Drugs and Sex. ADS for short. Pretty comprehensive I might say.  But it is taught by exactly the wrong person.  The teacher is a church lady type.  Most of the kids ignore her preaching.  My daughter this week has a choice of going to a rehab center or math class.  Boy is that an easy decision.  I would do geometry over seeing the depths of the human condition any day.

My daughter states that the church lady talks down to the kids. Explaining the subject matter is one thing but the “Just Say no” campaign was kind of corny, unrealistic and went out in the 1980’s. It was promoted by Nancy Reagan and LaToya Jackson: ‘nuff said. People are naturally curious.  You just need to show them when curiosity becomes a bad thing, when bad things become an addiction and when the horrible consequences of that addiction happen.

In other words, you want to scare these kids shitless.  My theory is if you scare them enough they’ll never want to do any of those things or hopefully do some of the things with some foresight and extreme moderation.  It’s not enough to just say they are bad.  You want them to see Harry the Heroin addict with rotted teeth, smelly clothes and blind from talc emboli to his retina.  You want Crystal the crack whore with dentures at age 27 who starts soliciting the young men and the ladies for a “quickie.” That will get them out of their seats in a jiffy. Best of all, bring Al the Alkie with live moonshine demonstrations and side of squirrel -skinning.

Better yet is to do what my medical school did for us much more mature med students (hah!)  It was just a short lecture about the statistics of the problem, blah, blah, prevalence, incidence, blah, blah, blah but it ended with a mild mannered stockbroker.  He was perfectly groomed with an expertly tailored suit. He spoke eloquently on how he has been a heroin addict for the past 10 years despite his education (an alumnus actually), great job, upstanding wife and his one child.  He could have been us.  That was truly scary.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

horses, horses.......

The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run,
but the movie kept moving as planned
The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker,
He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny
The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started laughing hysterically

When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he's being surrounded by
horses, horses, horses, horses
coming in all directions
white shining silver studs with their nose in flames,
He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.
                                                                                                -Patti Smith

I see horses every other day.  Real ones.  My daughter rides them and they are majestic creatures.  But the ones I see have a certain sadness in their eyes.  Some have strange behaviors. Most of their peculiarities are from their time on the track.  One horse is spooked by plastic flowers.  The other is easily scared of bells and must wear earplugs.  Another cannot have a regular saddle because of cruelty. Most are former racehorses that have been retired and retrained to become school horses for equestrian events.  They are docile now, trained to walk, trot and canter.  If you are lucky some days, you do get to see them in the field in full gallop playing with their buddies. It is rare but grand to see. They seem finally free.

These are the lucky ones.  Their friends may not have been.  Just think dog food and glue factories.  Once bet on, tampered with and shown with pride, they are victims sacrificed for man for a game with high stakes. The industry is fraught with cheating.  The inbreeding to win, drugs, etc are to produce the fastest animal yet. Everything is on the line to win, place or show.  When they don’t, they are discarded. One can  hope to a school riding program to be fussed over by high school girls.

I think about the Penn State case.  A parent's worst nightmare.  Society's worst nightmare. Pure evil incarnate and complacent people  who ignored the many warnings as to not ruin their own reputations, money and football.  Cowardly Nittany Lions. They rode on high horses that team.  When any institution sacrifices children we are all losers.   You have victims now that are docile, damaged, never to really gallop again. I never really paid attention to college football, now I most certainly will not.

I wonder what Mr. Sandusky’s victims thought of when being molested and raped.  Those children are  the horses, abused and now broken.  They will never be free of the horribleness inflicted on them.  Ask them if they gave one “for the Gipper”. They most certainly did but probably without cute cheerleaders, generous scholarships, special dormitories, special dining halls and every other luxury afforded to a winning college team. Maybe they thought of horses. Beautiful concept sometimes, but better when they are truly wild and galloping.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sibling Reverie

From the Book of Ecclesiastes, Pete Seeger and the Byrds:

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to be born,

Fall is  the time of my greatest joys and my greatest sorrows.  All my children are fall babies: in rapid succession- September, October then November birthdays.  It’s one big gift giving season all leading up to Christmas. They are my everything as W. H. Auden said it best:

My North, my South, my East and West, 
My working week and my Sunday rest, 
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; 

I would do anything for them, but as teenagers and near teenagers, I can’t let them know that of course. They already walk all over me.

a time to die…
Death usually comes to my door in fall too.  My brother, my aunt, my uncle, and now my father all died  within a two week span in late October and early November.  I am down to one original immediate family member now.  It’s strange to be that alone.

My brother’s death was so unexpected.  One minute he was a vibrant, 34 year old working (legitimately!) in the pharmaceutical industry.  The next minute the police were tracking down my Dad at 3am announcing his passing in a neighbor’s car as he desperately scrambled for help.

My brother was unlike my sister and I.  He was a free spirit in a ethnic world where boys were still treated differently.  I don’t know how many times I heard he didn’t have to do something “because he's  a boy”.  Oh, Y didn’t have to help with the laundry,  "because he's boy”.  Y didn’t have to pick up his socks, “because he's a boy.” Y didn’t have to set the table “because he's a boy.” “Boy” did I have penis envy at age 12 without ever needing to read Freud.  His laissez-faire attitude extended to his academic work too.  He just got by, went out with friends, goofed around in school.  I remember one historic trip to the principal. Sirens were going off outside his classroom and he yelled to his teacher, “Hey Sister A, they’re coming for you!” My parents had to stifle their laughter as they handed out some very lenient punishment.

He hid bad grades in piles of sidewalk leaves until my sister caught him one day. He broke things, especially my things.  Barbie dolls mysteriously had posterior punctures after his friend got an arrow set for his birthday. He and his friend Anthony, also lost two pairs of vise-grips. What 10 year old boys do with vise-grips I’ll never know.  My father went ballistic.  That incident was the longest running joke of my family. “But he's a boy!” was the real punchline.

I remember one trip while I was in college and he still in high school which drove me crazy with jealousy.  My parents let him and a friend go see “Blondie” at CBGB’s in NYC.  He was only 15.  "Why did you let him go?" I asked my Mom.  You already know the answer.  

He carried this attitude to everything he did.  He was casual with girlfriends, eventually engaged to two of them then suddenly breaking it off.  He borrowed exorbitant amounts of money from my Dad for whimsical cars, camping equipment, a trailer and even a gun (yikes). “Let him have his fun” my Dad would say with a wink, met by my frequent growls.  “He’s a boy.” One of his last acts was cashing in his 401K for a new 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee.  “It’s okay, I need a car and it’s really cool.”

He could be carefree, reckless, and exasperating, but my baby brother always made me laugh.

Maybe he knew something we didn't know that autumn.  Maybe he knew that his life was going to be shortened by a myocardial infarction of his left main coronary artery ("the widow maker") that crisp crystal clear fall night exactly thirteen years ago today.   Maybe he knew he didn’t need retirement. Maybe he didn’t really want any widows.  Maybe he just wanted to be “a boy” forever. Boy,Y, I miss you. Where are those damn vise-grips?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Artificial Turf

I have lived in two suburbs now.  I have also lived in three major cities.  Even with an “n” so low, I think I have the perfect case-controlled study of how artificial suburban life is.

The street names in the suburbs really bother me. They don’t reflect history.  They represent some developer’s state of mind.  They are meant to feed into some bucolic dream.  I have to laugh every time I am on the New Jersey Turnpike and see the water tower of “Milltown” since it (minus an ‘l”) was a popular sedative in the 1960’s. The drug was actually named after the town.  I think the developers of that time wanted to sedate everyone.  They don’t call them “bedroom communities” for nothing. City streets have real names usually after someone who has achieved something, a local landmark or perhaps a geological site.  In my urban hometown there was “Railroad Avenue”, “Canal Street” and   “Old Bergen Road”.  But sometime in the late 1950s and early 1960’s that all changed.  Post World War II idealism made kodachrome moments out of everything.   Americans somehow decided that they wanted some mixed up combination of the country and city life, hence the birth of the suburb.

It was attempted in my urban hometown wasteland, although half-assed as usual. Sometime in the 1960’s an old landfill site in that city had an enterprising developer who reworked a tract of former swamp and renamed it “Country Village”.  Suddenly the streets names became generic, upscale and pastoral as to fool people into thinking that they didn’t really live among what was commonly known as “The Back Highway" or near a Ryerson Steel plant.  I knew “Suburbia Court” since my late uncle lived there.  There was “Suburbia Drive” ,“Sycamore Road”  along with “Ferncliff Road” and “Colonial Drive”.  You can’t erase what nature intended.  They had perennial flooding problems.

The same thing happened in the two real suburbs I currently live in or formerly inhabited.  We moved to Notre Dame country in the late 1990’s and bought a “spec’ house in an upscale development that had beautiful houses but no soul.  The street names were “Shamrock Hills”, "Dublin Drive" and "Shannon Brook Court."   Everyone is Irish in South Bend Indiana. Notre Dame Football seems to be the only industry left. They still lament the “Studebaker” and "Uniroyal" names like some revered old but dead soldiers. Next to Catholicism, ”Footballism” is a religion onto itself.  The ceremonies are similar only with tailgating altars, coaches as priests and news organizations as lectors and commentators. Real Celtic people must cringe at this distortion.

Moving to the East Coast was no better.  The developments here are all named in honor of the fine tradition of fox hunting: stalking a poor beautiful animal by herds of famished hounds and full of themselves Englishmen on horses.  There’s “Hunt Valley”, “Foxcroft”, “Fox Hollow”.  Is honoring a quirky and non-animal friendly sport really make people think they live in a better place?

I will escape suburbia someday.  Goddammit I don’t even have sidewalks in my neighborhood.  It’s back to the city or really rough it in the country.  Actually, if I am lucky,  both.  I love the contrast.

Monday, November 7, 2011

My Beautiful Launderette

Rumor has it that my maternal Irish great grandmother was a laundress for a Catholic Church in New York City.  If that is true, I am descended from a long line of Irish washerwomen.  Laundry was always a priority in my household growing up and it is one habit of my mother’s that I can’t shake either. It’s funny which of your mother’s habits you hold onto to and which ones you discard.

Perhaps it’s because it is of one of my most beautiful memories of my mother.  We lived in a very urban area near New York City.  It was an apartment house with its laundry room in the basement.  I was a pesky child and often tagged along with her.  I don’t think she even wanted me to “help”  but she was afraid I would get into something.  My baby brother was often left with the kindly older lady next door, Mrs. Johnson.  My sister was already in school.

Down the elevator we would trudge with baskets of dirty clothes.  With three children, she and my Dad, it was a daily chore.  Hours I spent wandering that apartment basement, poking through others people’s stuff  (the storage area wasn’t locked) all under the watchful eye of my mother sorting, prewashing and carefully folding the laundry for the next step.

My mother was frugal.  She always thought the dryers were too expensive so she would cart the heavy baskets to the roof of that apartment.  That’s where the real dreams began.   The roof of that apartment was glorious.  On clear days, you could see the entire expanse of the New York Harbor: the Statue of Liberty, Battery Park, the downtown harbor and all the seafarers that frequented it.  I watched barges, tugboats and the occasional pleasure boat all while my mother hung her own sails of sheets in that urban breeze against a brilliant blue sky.  With the clothes whipping in the wind, the echoes of the tugboat horns accompanied the visuals.  I loved those days.  Not yet in school yet conscious enough to think and remember. 

My girls tease me about my laundry habits.  Why does everything have to be so perfect?  Why does my white underwear smell of bleach?  Why do you buy Oxiclean® by the bucket full? The answer is invariably, “That’s the way my mother did it.”

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Dying Game

No one dies in the United States without a mountain of paperwork.  Last week I gave myself a bit of a reprieve from this onerous task.  This week, if I don’t deal with it, I will be buried myself.

The medical bills seems to multiply by themselves like mushrooms.  Leave them overnight in some dark corner and feed them shit, they just grow and grow.  I am accustomed to the whims of medical bills.  Never pay the first one since likely the physician or more likely the insurance company hasn’t quite caught up with the billing cycle.  The second usually reflects an adjustment then the third probably reflects the actually cost to patient.  I like to wait for the final, since only then they mean business and have exhausted billing everyone else.  Being on the other side of this billing nightmare, physicians are at the whims of insurance companies.  What they get paid goes through so many machinations of denials, appeals, special rates, etc.  It is mind numbing and the truth be told, most physicians just hope for the best.

Regarding funeral arrangements, my dad made his wishes the least costly possible, thank goodness.  He always joked, “If you could just dig a hole in the ground I would be happy.”  Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be because given my family’s dynamics, I would be the one burdened with the backhoe.  I accompanied my aunt when the time came.  Although I knew exactly that my father wanted a direct to cremation, the funeral handed me a list of itemized costs of the various services.  I nearly fell off the chair when I saw a coffin price top $46,000. “Am I buying a car or a coffin?”  I, the eternal smart ass, asked the intake person.  The costs of wakes, funeral cars, etc., would have easily gone way over $25,000.  I do not have that much guilt over his death.  His last summer was spent with the best medical care, assisted living care, and hospice care I could give him.  I bought special bath chairs, new comforters for his bed, new sheets, etc.  He wanted for nothing in the end except relief from his life of physical pain.  That was something no amount of money could buy.

 The funeral business is the most sinister out there.  They prey on the grief and guilt of their customers.  I had grief but not guilt.  That’s where they couldn’t bullshit me.  When they handed me the bill, they also made the very odd comment, “if you pay up front they’ll be a $1500 discount.”  I couldn’t believe it, but like a devious customer who just got handed the wrong change, I didn’t question it.  They got paid on the spot cold hard cash.  Somewhere my father is smiling.

That leaves insurance policies, stocks, bonds, etc. to deal with.  I have to sell his car too.  Up until the last minute, he wanted to drive.  He was independent to the core.  Thank goodness, some of that independence has been inherited.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The College Game is Flat

My daughter is beginning the college application process.  Mountains of college catalogs are filling the mailbox on a daily basis.  Thank goodness they are all recyclable otherwise I would really start complaining.

I am suddenly old now.  Middle age has a nasty habit of creepy up on us and turns our once happy toddlers into demonic teenagers.  I now unconsciously start my sentences just like my late Dad with “Back when I was…” It’s both frightening and thought provoking as we try to make sense of this next academic step.

As an urban kid with a set of parents one of which went to a local college at night, and the other who did not go at all, a highly competitive college was their dream.  My sister and I were pushed academically to succeed to get to “name” colleges in the 1970’s.  We weren’t necessarily in our respective high schools to have fun; they were just supposed to prepare us for the next step.  I, not being especially social in high school for a variety of reasons, happily retreated to the academic lair.  Science projects, the forensic team and the school newspaper were my “fun” activities.  I certainly went to some dances at the local boys high school but it was self-limiting. I think I lost several amplitudes of hearing only, thank goodness, and nothing more in those dark bleachers.

When my sister went off to one of the "most competitive" (according to the top right hand of the Barrons Guide),  I knew my turn was next. 

Was this all worth it?  Sure my parents proudly displayed the various stickers on the backs of their cars.  Sure I can boast that I have read Thucydides, Plato and conducted original research and eventually got into an Ivy League Med School but am I any better than friends who went to small non-competitive schools, with matching non-competitive tuitions, who worked hard and long and are probably happier?

Me and Heisenberg again with all the uncertainty.  My pretzel logic has once again taken the old 1960’s phrase “Question Authority” and turned it into “Question everything”.  I don’t know what to tell my daughter.  Be quirky “one foot across but one mile deep” and get into Harvard?  Be even quirkier and go to the University of Chicago which boasts “Kuviasungnerk” as opposed to the  ("Back when I was….") “Lascivious Costume Ball”? Go to the local community college, save a ton of money then transfer to another school to get that “name degree”? Go online and “Be a Phoenix?”  Don’t go to college at all, grow up and learn life’s real lessons?

When I used to deliver babies, I used to tell the new parents “They don’t come with instructions!”  Boy was that prophetic.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why Joan and I write

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”
                                                        -Joan Didion

                      The New York Times Book Review 
                                5 December 1976

Several years ago I read “The Year of Magical Thinking. “ It was on the New York Times Bestseller List and it sounded interesting.  I had never read Joan Didion before.

I hated it.  I thought to myself “what is this woman talking about?" So her husband drops dead and she can’t function, great.   To me, the entire book was one long spinning sentence.  Move on honey, I thought.  I can be quite callous at times. A cold bitch from hell as someone aptly put it once.

It’s strange how middle age and its vagaries change a person. After my summer of my own personal hell, I know exactly what Ms. Didion is talking about now.  Throw together age, reasonable intelligence, imagination, a death and a whole lot of stress and you will start your own salad spinner of magical thinking too.

Simple tasks turn into monuments.  You function although at a much slower and more primitive level.  You over-interpret the slightest of things.  It’s not clearly clinical depression (although my psychiatric colleagues might argue that).  It’s a downright uncertainty of how things will be and a certain wish fulfillment of how you and others should be. You go down one road only to be blocked by another.  It’s a circular labyrinth with a clear beginning by no clear end.

I thank Joan Didion for one solution to my magical thinking.  I took her quote above and started this blog.  I don’t care who reads it.  It’s often very personal but without any names or distinct places being said.  It’s anonymous.  It contains exactly “what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”  I need no followers nor comments.  It is what it is.

The spinning has partially stopped. Exercise, poetry and benzodiazepines  help as I said before. I am adding writing to that tossed salad too. I will be reading Ms. Didion’s earlier works and can’t wait to get her new book “Blue Nights.”  Ms. Didion, you are one of the many Joans I have to thank in my life.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A (Flash) Light in the Dark

Many of my more Northerly friends are still suffering the effects of a freak early winter storm in October that hit the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut areas.  Many are still without power thanks to snow-covered trees, downed power lines and outdated power grids. My sympathies to all.  I have suffered similar fates last summer after Hurricane Irene’s wrath and the Blizzard of 2009, which left my area with almost 44 inches of snow.  You must look at the light in the dark.

Last summer we did not have power for 6+ days.  My kids revolted and constantly reminded me to call the local electric company to report our outage as if repeated calls would really make a difference. My husband groaned and cursed at the lack of TV, computers and convenient appliances.  He called every electrical company in the area to install a generator but to no avail.  The price tag on some models topped 10 grand for the capacity he wanted.  Knowing the constant and annoying groan of a neighbor’s up the block and the cost, I objected and for once, got my way. 

Although humorously complaining on Facebook about my travails, I actually enjoyed the quiet.  Without air-conditioning, the open windows welcomed the sounds of crickets and the passing of the occasional car down the street.  Everyone listened intently and earnestly for the diesel-powered utility trucks to save our day or better night.

Like a child after a prescribed bedtime, I took a flashlight and read a record of four novels during those nights without the interruptions that “normal” life affords me.  It was glorious.  I could hear myself think for a change.

Similar circumstances happened in the Blizzard of 2009 although complicated by a heating challenge.  Squirrel- like I prepare for such adversities and use chain saws to cut down dead wood in the backyard and store a good woodpile.  I try not to buy back up “Duraflames” but I usually cave in to that too.  With a fireplace, a good book, my outdoor propane grill, my dogs at the time and a few cats, I was all set since the house temperature plummeted to an uneasy 52ºF. It was a one-dog-two cat-three blanket night.  Bedtimes actually feel better in the morning when they are before 10pm.

No one has ever accused me of being an optimist.  I am a realist and a survivalist.  No I am not going to go hiking in the Antarctic to prove it, but I would rather stay home and make the best of a situation.  Hopefully also in the quiet.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Peri-rily We Roll Along………At the Zoo

Most of my age-matched friends are going through it.  The strange part of a woman’s life called “perimenopause”.  Suddenly the predictability of monthly cycles becomes less foreseeable, way too strange and often embarrassing.  Who cares about sexy underwear anymore?  You want something that Oxiclean® can handle and won’t fall apart in the laundry after one wash load.

I blame estrogen. Everyone else should too. A strange monkey that jumped on our backs when we weren’t looking.  It crept into our happy girlhood lives spent beating the boys, imagining life of wild adventures, and slaying all dragons. Instead it derailed many of us for a zoo life of birthers, breeders and animal husbandry (or at least thinking about birthing, breeding and animal husbands).  I started early and was probably destined to have twenty -five children.  An ethnic Duggar who would have little ones calling me “great grandma” and wearing embroidered sweatshirts and velour pants by now. Way too many conflicts between the soul and the flesh.  Paul Simon said, “Monkeys stand for honesty” in his song.  Honestly now…. They are far to human to be animal, yet far too animal to be human.  Sort of like teenagers I guess.

The double whammy hits most of us who put off having children until our 30’s and now have teenagers.  Right about now we are not only hit with our own hormonal roller coasters but those of our adolescent children.  The irritability often explodes in several powder kegs and God forbid at the same time.  My sister has two boys.  Not only has her sleep deprivation caused her to be a screaming maniac but also then she has to contend with two raging bulls often locking horns on the living rooms floor, beating each other over the TV remote.  One wants “South Park.” The other wants “Big Bang Theory”.  Going on the lam seems to be the only option. Thelma and Louise had it right.  If only a smarter Brad Pitt would come along at every rest stop.

My girls pick different targets.  Door slamming has turned into a non-contact sport in my house. It’s “who’s going to sit in the front seat of the car”, who can roll their eyes up farther when the simplest of comments are made or who can spend the most time in the bathroom. I suggested a timer in the bathroom but I was too afraid it will be chucked at the very large and expensive new mirror.

They are going through their own simian phase.  It’s a whole barrel of monkeys with three girls and I am not the alpha female. They never seem to line up, tail to tail.  It’s more a scene out of Jumanji: plates flying, catch one and the others run away, and the kitchen is always a mess. This will not be an easy mission. Monkeys slow the expedition,” the Jumanji game clue warns.  No kidding. Especially when they weigh heavily on your back.

My sleep deprivation adds to the chaos.  Drugs and alcohol do little good.  They just make the view from the cage all the less clear.  No good zookeeper falls asleep while on patrol.

Suddenly there are monkeys are everywhere these days.  Those damn sock monkeys even made it into giant inflatable Christmas ornaments.  It’s a simian dream. Better yet nightmare. Get this monkey off my back.  Let me return to the carefree and estrogen free soul who ran the neighborhoods in search of friends, adventures and curiosity.   Let my girls realize that sometimes their monkey can be assuaged, softened and charmed sometimes by the right organ grinder music but never tamed. For the boys, I guess tranquilizer guns are the only option. I am loading mine up now as the dating season begins.