The Long View

Being in the middle of any progressive line is an interesting point of view.  In school having a last name that started with a middle of the alphabet letter always seemed to get one in the middle of the line.  Not the first, not the last.  For example, one could watch the mistakes of others and learn, or envy those who got to choose an object or activity first.  With regard to age, being in the middle brings many new shocks- invisibility in some arenas, a sense of purpose in others.  What I see others experiencing ahead of me is the long view.  It is the distance time and age gives most people, the ability to look back and around oneself and see the world with a complexly measured eye.  Certainly there must be humor with this perspective.  There also must be some regret, some pain, and some relief. Also an understanding of humanity, and how little things really do change.  People are still motivated by the same things, still yearn for the same things, still feel pain, and the world seems to make the same mistakes over and over, just with a veneer of new paint.  Maybe that is part of what lets people let go slowly.  I don’t want to live in fear or apprehension, like so many older people do.  But I can see how the long view allows those of advanced age to shake their heads and know what they are leaving is hopefully in some small measure momentarily better for their having been there, still can offer pleasures, and will go on as it will after they are gone.  The feeling of powerlessness many of us in the middle face, the knowledge that we are so small, have so little real time, and can affect the world for the most part in such small ways- that sensation that haunts us in the middle has, by the time we are toward the end, become something else.  At least I hope so.

The West (and the rest of the world is starting to adopt this bad habit) has a way of disregarding older people, of finding them taxing, a burden.  Instead of knowing age for what it is, instead of having any interest in it (other than a crass, commercial investment in the money to be made from the aged in health issues and other arenas), we culturally accept that age is something to be avoided, and remain ignorant about.  I think this is to our detriment in a very big set of ways.  Primarily, this attitude robs us of the comfort of the long view, of seeing it coming and learning from those who are plumbing it’s depths.

For now, I am in the middle.  But I see so many others entering into the long view, some accepting it with grace, some fighting it with joyful humor, some with fear and pain.  There is much to be learned from all of them if we would only bother to ask, to watch, to see, to consider.

The Long Transition from a Gypsy to a Rose

Roses Turn (the re-invention anthem, out of order on purpose):

 Mama’s talkin’ loud.
 Mama’s doin’ fine.
 Mama’s gettin’ hot. 
Mama’s goin’ stong.
 Mama’s movin’ on.
 Mama’s all alone.
 Mama doesn’t care.
 Mama’s lettin’ loose.
Mama’s got the stuff.
 Mama’s lettin’ go.
 Mama’s got the stuff.
 Mama’s gotta move.
 Mama’s gotta go.
 Mama? Mama?
 Mama’s gotta let go.

 Why did I do it?
What did it get me?
 Scrapbooks full of me in the background.
 Give ’em love and what does it get ya?
 What does it get ya?
 One quick look as each of ’em leaves you.
 All your life and what does it get ya?
 Thanks a lot and out with the garbage,
 they take bows and you’re battin’ zero.

Ya either got it, or ya ain’t.
 And, boys, I got it!
 Ya like it?
 Well, I got it!

 Some people got it and make it pay.
 Some people can’t even give it away.
 This people’s got it
 and this people’s spreadin’ it around!
 You either have it
 or you’ve had it!

Well, someone tell me, when is it my turn? 
Don’t I get a dream for myself?
 Starting now it’s gonna be my turn. 
Gangway, world, get off of my runway!
 Starting now I bat a thousand!
 This time, boys, I’m taking the bows and

everything’s coming up Rose!
 Everything’s coming up Roses! 
Everything’s coming up Roses
 this time for me!
 For me! For me! For me! For me! For me! 
For me! Yeah!

 The general patriarchic summary of the stage play “Gypsy” often describes the mother, Rose, as a self centered harpy- but as I watched once again with an older, and more nuanced eye I saw the subtlety and wit that would make Nora Ephron (RIP) proud.  There is a reason the character of Rose can be on stage for almost the entire show and still be engaging.  If she truly were a one-note character largely made up of a self-centered harpy the show would not work.  The greater themes about parenting, aging, and the necessity of adapting are what keep us engaged as they play out in a larger than life woman and her relationships with those she loves.  That Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurent got it right is really impressive (and that some of their other work is such schlock makes me think they both might just BE versions of the Rose character).  Clive Barnes understood the psychological and entertainment brilliance of Rose when he said she was one of the few truly complex characters in the American Musical (Thank you Wikipedia for reminding me of this review: Barnes, Clive. ” ‘Gypsy’ Bounces Back With Zest and Lilt”. The New York Times. September 24, 1974).

While Rose is deeply and uniquely gendered, I think the character and the struggles she experiences (warts and all) as well as the impulse for reinvention goes beyond gender and is a truly humanist construction.  For decades swaths of people in LBGT communities have been drawn to the story of theater, parental conflict and the character of Rose.  So much so, fandom of Rose has become a sort of “hair pin”, and I would like to think I can make a claim to affinity for Rose without the hair pin, and reappropriate her for middle aged women.

I am struck by how well the tension between Gypsy and Rose captures the continuum all women face.  We start out as young women, exploring our lives as sexual beings, “pretty girls” (if you recall the mirror scene), resisting the objectification that comes with that time of life, and fashioning our presence as our own.  Slowly, over time, we grow and change and there is an epiphany many, many of us go through when we sing the “Rose’s Turn” song in our own way as we become a Rose, and leave Gypsy behind.  Oh, and all that “Mama’s getting’ hot”?  Layered meanings, folks- and the multiyear wind up to menopause is in it.

The necessity in middle age of taking stock and reinventing ourselves is not special to women, but can play out in very different and gendered ways that “Roses Turn” deftly captures.  What superficially may seem grasping, even delusional, is not.  The song is fully self-aware and instead of devolving into self-pity, asserts the character as adaptive and open to a new time in life with fierceness, intelligence, charm, and gusto (but does not avoid the attendant sadness and regret either).  We should all be so lucky to have the bravado of Rose!

I am still on the continuum, shifting.  I think of all the Red Hat ladies who designated women my age as “Pink Ladies”, not yet old enough, not yet ready to wear the brash, assertive red.  Aging and parenting can have dark, cruel, cruel sides for women.  Marketers count on that.  But it is the infinitely creative, funny, and strong presence of all the Roses I have known that provide my texts as I advance, and a bulwark against the all too common reductive, diminishing, and dismissive forces of culture towards middle aged women (in arenas of employment, entertainment, health care, and journalism especially).

I took great pleasure in watching Rosalind Russell belt out “Roses Turn” today.  Pleasure of a complexity I never had before.  I can’t help but think so many of the women who stump and squawk about issues that force women into untenable corners (healthcare and abortion rights as one example) and are on the side of regressive, suppressive policies might gain something from watching Rose, and start to recognize the Rose’s in their lives, and in themselves.

There have been many extremely stressful, unasked for corners in the past few years and I am deeply grateful for the love and support of my husband, friends, and family.  Huge holes in this blog are one example of the collateral effects.  But today, this morning, if just for a little while, I am humming and singing to myself,  Mama’s talkin’ loud.
Mama’s doin’ fine.
Mama’s gettin’ hot.
Mama’s goin’ stong.
Mama’s movin’ on. . .

Thank you Rose. 

All you Roses, thank you.

To my peers, lets start to shimmy a little and get loud. . . 

Heroes and leadership

Is it embarrassing to have an epiphany at such an age (all I’ll admit to is being somewhere under 50)?  I have groused for years about the lack of a youth movement in this country, and the tech-centered protests that pass for youth movements in the rest of the world.  But I have also been grousing about what passes for leadership.  When one is young, it is good to have heroes.  People who set the bar, provide examples.  As we age, we revisit these heroes, see their weaknesses, and hopefully mature enough to forgive them their faults and let them be human again.  Maybe we even learn to forgive ourselves our weaknesses, and with good humor realize what we are both capable of in extraordinary times, but more importantly how we operate in practice (not theory) on a daily basis.  Hopefully it humanizes us, makes us more tolerant, and less prone to the black and white simplicity of youth; which is appropriate for that time, it mobilizes energy and focus much more easily than a deep appreciation of the absurd and complex, which usually involves depression when one begins that journey- once out the other side though, it seasons us into adults.  We choose our battles more carefully, and have an overt need to balance personal responsibilities and our public selves.  But are we any less needful of heroes?

I know I have been mourning the loss of Studs Terkel again.  It seems to be a cyclic event for me.  I have humanized him in my mind a long time ago, and I am grateful for his constant self deprecation lest anyone make a hero of him.  Maybe it is the very definition of “hero” that has changed.  The media loves to toss about that word, to sell fathers day cards, to memorialize anyone who ever wore a uniform, you know the patter.  But I do not appreciate such flip use of the word.  Studs is still a hero to me BECAUSE he is human, because the definition is less a monolithic sculpture to perfection than a survivor of life with great soul, panache, energy, social contribution, and goodness.  Not perfection, but a consistent example of humanity I choose to admire, warts and all.

As an adult, a hero comes with difficulty.  I can’t say my parents are heroes anymore, as I did as a child.  It is not that I don’t love them- in fact, I love them more now for knowing them as an adult.  It is something else- the lack of intimacy?  The distance needed to have a hero or heroine?  I am still not sure.  It is in some part because I am not dead, or as Bill Maher recently said about turning 50, you have a lot left you can still do.  Some of the choices they made I do not wish to make, and I want to live long, healthy and as vibrantly as possible.  So I look for people who did, and see how they weathered life, what choices they made, practices they engaged in, and re-evaluate what they achieved and what I want to achieve.  I do not think leaders evolve out of a vacuum, and certainly not a vacuum that encourages a lack of self reflection.  Those people are not leaders, they are props- set up to some useful end by others and easily  manipulated.  We have an abundance of those people in roles leaders should have right now, in public and private arenas.  Leadership is hard- because if one is not to be the willfully ignorant prop of others, then one must make choices about one self, actions, and information.  One must be compassionate (active) not simply empathetic and sympathetic (passive).  One must choose good advisors, and develop complex perspective on issues of responsibility.  School board member or senator, local gadfly writer or Washington Post journalist, the leadership qualities needed are still the same, and only vary by degree.

This begs the question:  are all heroes leaders?  I don’t think so.  The heroes we choose as adults are usually not the ones set up by the media, although an uneasy venn diagram may exist between the two. We might also say our heroes and heroines are leaders in a particular way, that I’ll buy.  But an adult hero is so personal, so chosen, that perhaps they do not need to also be recognized as a leader.  But I think it is useful if they are- it helps us gain courage and example for the kinds of leadership we expect of ourselves, or certainly should expect for ourselves.  Remember, that leadership expectation is a matter of degree not kind.

I still admire Studs, and his wife.  They lived long and well, and in the process made contributions both small and large to our collective social lives.  I will never be as accomplished, but may I stay true to my path.  That is my wish, and why- I suppose – I still need my heroes.  So this fifth-grade essay is complete-  maybe we all need to write on the topic once a decade, as a self check on who we know ourselves to be and who we want to be in the future.  If you do not know of Studs, here is a great link to watch him at about 95 years of age (and several more interviews with and by him are avail. free on the net):

“For Studs, there was not a voice that should not be heard, a story that could not be told,” (Gary T. Johnson), “He believed that everyone had the right to be heard and had something important to say. He was there to listen, to chronicle, and to make sure their stories are remembered.”

And to laugh; always with perspective, good humor, and the deepest of good will.  If you have not read his collection of interviews in “Hope Dies Last”, do.  RIP Studs.

I am invisible

We are a collection of wonderful paradoxes, Walt Whitman might say.  I am both a very shy person, and yet can be charismatic and outgoing.  Choosing to be invisible is easy.  Worn teeshirt, jeans, frumpy hair, no makeup, what I think of as my Coco Chanel glasses (large, plastic frames and glass bi-focal lenses), small silver earrings.  Keen sandals.  Wedding band.  All this and I disappear.  Literally.  Counter clerks have to look twice, as if I appeared out of thin air from the first time they glanced.  When I am done with my business and walk away, I doubt they could recall anything about me at all.  Crossing the street, cars forget to stop. 

When I make myself “presentable”, people seem shocked.  The mothers of the children at the preschool my son attends recently had lunch together.  Many are academics, most over the age of 30.  When I walked in, the organizer of the event looked stunned.  She commented on how I appeared, positively.  So did others.  When I picked up my son from school his teacher could not stop asking about the large funky ring I wore (Did Husband make it? No.), the sweater, the black jeans, the BCBG black shoes, the silver bangles.  I had makeup and less crazy glasses on as well.  When she could not seem to stop, I interjected “Yes.  I clean up.”  She seemed embarrassed at that point.  I usually drop him off and pick him up while cleaning or gardening, or any number of banal and mundane activities that require “work clothes”.  Also, I know I am invisible when I dress down and no one bothers me.  They avoid me actually, so I suppose my appearance is a few steps above bag lady.

 I have a fantasy about my own super heroine.  She is a late 50’s retired chemist, widowed.  She lives in a neat and orderly craftsman style house in an older neighborhood, in a university town.  Her neighbor is a Native American man who looks after her garden when she travels.  Her old grad assistant looks after her dog.  She has become a finely attuned killer.  She has educated herself about all manner of methods (very funny scenes in the beginning of the development of her alter ego when she is learning methods of how to kill).  She scans various newspapers for people she believes deserve to be taken out of the gene pool as she says; child abusers who have gotten off on technicalities for example.   She expertly hunts them down and erases them.  She does so with relative ease because she is smart, but also because she is invisible.  She is the kindly, graying older woman no one takes seriously.  She slips through crowds without being seen, but without needing camouflage.  Hey, men have their Spider-mans and Dark Knights.  I have my Invisible Woman. 

 One sided dialogue from imagined film pitch:

“No.  Not like Ms. Marple.”

“No.  Not like Dexter.”

“No.  She does not have super powers.”

“No.  She does not dress like a tart.  I don’t think you get the idea.”

“No.  Not like Stephanie Plum.”

“No.  No no no.  The core demographic is not male 12-35.”

“Do you know what irony is?”

“We are done here.”

  That’s pretty much how life goes anyway.

I may not have the brains or nerve to BE my super heroine, but on a smaller scale I know how to manipulate my appearance and energy to achieve certain perceptions.  You have to “work with what you have” my mother used to say.  I was never beautiful, and youth is a great help in attractiveness.  Middle age is another situation entirely.   It was near the end of my graduate school experiences, at a conference, when a woman told me “you look like somebodys mother”.  I had not dressed that way, and wondered why she got off on insulting me.  She was older than I was and trying way too hard to be hip in her appearance.  It was just another straw on the proverbial camels back for me regarding academia, and not really a surprise.  People are just as messed up, petty, competitive, dim and prone to superficiality as in any other arena, they just have the skills to mask it better.  Being invisible does not mean it is a good quality, and there are a lot of women whom it really chafes.

Most of us know as we slip into invisibility.  Men cease to take the automatic sneak peek at our breasts, and we move beyond sexual opportunity into “safe” ; not yet grandmotherly, but not a sexual bulls eye to hit either.  We gain a little social authority, but only when we are persistent in a goal.  Otherwise we risk being called crazy, or threatening and are thus dismissed.  As Husband says, that is a grave mistake- because a middle aged woman comfortable in her body and experienced is “a thing of wonder and pleasure”.

Try to remember: you never know about all those ladies you pass on the street.  Don’t underestimate us, because you really have no idea about all the things we are and who we can be.  You have been given fair warning.  Besides, isn’t it better to imagine a bunch of terrific Invisible Women out there fighting for the greater good in the world?

The grace of a younger spouse

I get it now.  I am embarrassed to say it, but I get it: The cliché of older men marrying younger women. 

I was flipping through Facebook and various other sites late last evening, bored out of my mind.  I randomly began, as so many do, typing in names of people I knew 15, 20, 30 years ago.  The ones I knew in college, many were older than I was by 3-5 years.  They are now in their early 50’s.  Most look like it too.  Men with thinning hair or bald heads, chins that have become one with necks.  Wrinkles.  On even the most fit, there are age spots and the fine sag to skin nothing can change, that makes the thin seem stringy.  Most of the women dye their hair.  I don’t blame them. 

We are not yet old, but certainly no longer young.  I saw some of those men and thought, if I had married so-and-so, that’s what they would look like to me now.  I looked over at Husband and smiled.  I did not intentionally marry someone so much younger than myself.  Even the few years between us seemed a bit odd at first.  When we were married people were surprised, often saying they thought I looked the younger.  Maybe they were just being diplomatic, but we didn’t think it showed either.

Being with someone younger makes me younger.  I am not so obsessed with the things I might be otherwise, and had the luck to have children late.  Husband has always been an attractive man, and is aging well.  He has a good sense of humor, and can be spontaneous.  I do not want to rush into old age, and he helps slow the clock for me. The pert young chippies on the treadmills can hunt their sugar daddies.  Let them be dragged into old age at light speed.  I found my best friend when I least expected it, and he just happened to be younger.  It has proven to be a terrific experience all around.

The bifocal prescription had to go up a few notches last week, but the eye MD told me after the exam that I had surprisingly “young eyes”, not a lot of wear and still very healthy.  She knows better than to be diplomatic, so it was good news.  I do not feel my age most days.  In my own mind I am usually around 35-40.  I am sometimes surprised when I look in the mirror, and know I need to get fit, but still do not feel like AARP should be filling my mailbox with solicitations.  The “girls” still hold up pretty well, the teeth are good, and while I have lost a little strength, am still able to do what I choose with my body.  It is more motivation to get fit, really, despite the fear of not being able to do everything as quickly or as well as I might like in the gym. 

 I’ll revisit the photos on the net in another 10 years.  I may look stringy then, but I’ll still have kids in the house and a younger spouse.  I’ll still have the grace of youth all around me to help me stay young too.  I expect many of those I look up will be grandparents (some already are), and will have very different lives.  I’ll take mine as it is, and like it just fine.  This foolish comparison was a good 10 year anniversary present.  Now to find that box of hair dye I put in the bathroom closet. . .




Sweet, salty, and bitter

I finally understand why a tomato is a fruit.  Not the scientific reason, I have known that for a long time: in general, all fruits develop from the ovary in the base of the flower containing the seeds of the plant.  The tomato is born from the ovary of the plant after it is fertilized.  The flesh is made of pericarp walls and the cavities contain the seeds. Toms are an herbaceous plant in the nightshade family (irony there that given the chance over several seasons to go wild, some revert back) and the fruit is classified as a berry.

I ate a lot of garden tomatoes as a kid, and have long known the difference between the artificially ripened tomato-like things at the grocery, and the red, deeply flavored misshapen berries out of a garden.  But I always associated tomatoes with salt.  I have seen tomato jelly for sale and wondered why anyone would treat it as a sweet thing.  Until this weekend.

I bought a pint box of tiny orange tomatoes from a farmers market stand.  As I waited for Husband and kids, I sat and ate a few.  It was unlike anything I have ever had.  They smelled like tomatoes, the texture was of a good garden tomato, but the flavor was sweet.  Down right sugar sweet they were.  I continued to eat the whole pint, each tiny fruit bursting with flavor the second I bit down upon it.  I bought a second pint for Husband to try, as I rambled effusively about the flavor.  One bite and he agreed.

I was happy to have finally tasted a tomato that was the very definition of fruit, not just terrific tomato.  They were not the flavor of the “grape” tom, these tiny orange spheres are something else.  When I go back next weekend I will ask what variety they are.

Summer is in full swing with record heat waves, drought, pepper plant eating deer (I am now itching to shoot not only the dogs who randomly crap in our yard-damned the owners- but also the night stalking deer), itchy mosquito bites, bats swarming through the air at sun down, crunchy brown grass, and pots of basil that seem to multiply over night.  The split system heat pump and air conditioner we installed last year has been a blessing on days when the mercury has soared above 105, and the basement is always a good refuge from the heat.  The van shimmers and blasts out waves of throat-choking air when I open the door, and keeping the family hydrated is a constant concern.

The undecipherable tonking of speakers from a local baseball game sounds as the sun goes down, kids run dripping up the street heading home from the city pool.  Watermelon juice dries stickily on hands, chests, cheeks, and floors.  Cornhusks get composted, and the slow gray smoke from the black pot bellied grill wafts over the fence.  Cicadas sound early in the morning and late in the evening, and black birds converse as they take refuge from the heat in our black walnut tree. 

We buried Husbands 15 year old cat last week, at the end of the dry flower garden.  The boys and I found a small concrete sleeping cat, which we put on top of a 2’x1.5’ rock over the grave.  It was a major passing for Husband, a singular marker of middle age.  He had rescued the cat from a shelter as a kitten, and it was his companion throughout graduate school.  Last fall it had begun “losing its mind” according to Husband, and even after being confined to the basement continued to cause problems.  I give him credit, for knowing what had to be done and doing it.  He sat with the cat while the vet gently slid a drug into the small furry body.  He made peace with his friend, and let him go.  When he brought the box home with the body, he dug the hole and I helped him cover it over.  It was not an easy day for any of us.

Summer can be a time of bounty and sweetness, and a time of loss.  I swore like a sailor when I stepped out one morning last week and saw the leaves from my sunflower and pepper plants stripped bare.  I gave up trying to keep any of the lawn green after three weeks without rain.  And I cried for my best friend and the inevitable act he had to carry out that lessened our family by one pet.  I watch as my 95 year old grandmother winds down her life and her body, my father making sure she is comfortable and eating- I must remember to take her some of the tiny orange tomatoes.  I think one of the great graces of middle age is knowing that life ebbs and flows in a complex forward motion of the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, and lots of just plain doing in between being born and dying.  It is this knowledge that keeps the darkness at bay for me, the knowledge that I can still be surprised by life and that I will at some time again be tortured by sadness, but the sadness will not last.

I have never liked heat; geographic regions where the sun shines down and the air seems not to move and the temperature hovers in the 90’s.   I like rainy and cool places best.  But where we live is not always a best-case scenario, and things that happen are sometimes simply part of life.  There is always my family, the cool of the house, and the promise of sweet, bright orange garden fruit in the middle of summer.  Most days, that will do just fine.

Connect the dots

I really enjoy statistics.  I studied stats under a very kind, bright man who was dogged in his love of seeking out statistical errors and finding mathematical problems in analyses.  I wish I had paid better attention in all the classes I had with him.  Simply put, statistics can be a way through a forest of data, a way to see how “best” to draw conclusions- how to connect the dots.

Present day data mining is a hot way to do the same thing.  Vast amounts of data stream through super computers and different sifting programs are constantly developed to connect the dots and help humans analyze and draw conclusions.  I find this pursuit fascinating.  Not only where data is drawn from, but also how it can be thrown together at any given moment with other (often seemingly disparate) data and voila!  Conclusions about how large groups of people or chemicals or systems behave can be made.  Are the conclusions always accurate?  Probably not (back to statistics- the probability issue).  But then the conclusions themselves get treated as data to be shifted, grouped, and analyzed. 

There is a micro level of such investigation I’ll call case study (also a formal term).  This is the science and art of seeing the big picture within the single case, thinking of a case as a somewhat self-contained system (good doctors frequently do this).  All the data that can be derived from looking deeply within what is often treated as a single data point- a single person, or even business, or family- can be amazing.

One thing we know about systems (I won’t credit the long list of popular books currently published on this topic), say the human body for instance: when a cycle of feeding off of itself to survive begins, the system is in the last stages of existence.  When the human body (as is the case with long term anorexics, and cancer patients) starts consuming it’s own muscles and flesh to survive, it will die not long after.

I do not think it is a stretch to apply this idea to economics.  Whether one looks at the macro level of systems, or the micro (single families and businesses), these systems have begun to feed off of themselves.  The structures that would allow for the solving of problems in creative ways, of offering relief for corrosive stressors, of shifting problematic function points, have all worn away.  The cycle of feeding upon core bones and muscles, the very things that drive the system(s), has begun.  It takes time for these tings to wear away, but wearing away they are.  There seems to be nothing to alleviate these processes, so the spinning within spinning of these cycles, the feedback loops they create, continues and grows in corrosive power as the micro systems interact at a macro level; and the macro level systems themselves are caught in the same corrosive cycles of core decay.

Is this pessimism?  Some might call it that.  Some still hope that an outside force, something called God, or the possibility of drift that creates a sudden set of alternatives not previously imagined or seen that can throw the health of a system into more positive order may happen.  This may be hope, it maybe foolishness born of desperation. 

Some would say this is the natural outcome of systems- this decay into chaos, and that at the furthest point out from organization, from order, when chaos is as crazy as it can get, systems start to reorganize again organically.  Maybe so.  But how much decay and dying has to happen first?  This is a question no economist, no social theorist, no statistics genius, no physicist, and no computer scientist can answer.

So as each of us has a brain, an elegant machine if you will who’s very design is to connect the dots, to make connections between data, input, and then experimentally react, then analyze the results making more data and input that creates new connections and makes stronger pre-existing ones; we try to problem solve and forecast in order to survive. 

Some of us throw those nets of possibilities so far, then connect dots so strangely that we create paranoid loops for ourselves, seeing only information that then shores up what we believe to be connections of the most “real” or true.  You know people like this; you have been tempted to think like this.  Some of these folks will say that everything they experience is due to God being angry, or chakras being out of whack, or a comic book boogie man pulling all the strings of power in the world; or aliens.  Fear is a powerful motivator, and when the complexity of everything individuals face is so overwhelming, the impulse to simplify kicks in, and to react.  Thus we connect dots, and draw conclusions.  Even when we may know better, the comfort of sometimes whackado conclusions and the simplicity of them temporarily puts a stop to the fear, the stress, and the overwhelming feelings of powerlessness we experience.

Then sometimes, even when we try to be as open minded as possible, when we know our own error rates for our conclusions, our own foibles, our own ignorance and holes in knowledge, when we try to see as broadly as we can, what we see can seem damning.  So many experts on climate, economics, and politics- they very people we trust to see broadly- are feeling powerless.  Their sense of desperation transfers to others, and they get pilloried for being pessimists or crazy when they may be doing the best they can while trying very hard not to be “Chicken Little”.

Imagine again connecting the dots.  Taking that huge box of lenses, and pulling one magnifying lens out.  A small one, which will show you only your family.  See all the dots- your current bank balance, your debts, your possessions, your needs, your wants, your strengths, your weaknesses.  This system overlaps other systems, the businesses you run or are employed by, schools, communities, states, nations, geographic regions, on and on so much so that if you try to use all the lenses to see, the information gets overwhelming.  You may use well-developed tools for analysis- borrow from those classes you have taken to help chunk the data, to help index and analyze. 

But if you are like me, you may still be feeling overwhelmed because of what you currently observe through any particular lens:  the knowledge that the system you observe, and the other systems overlapping it, seem to be feeding on themselves.  Businesses cooking books, cheating, lying, creating new rules that feed off of customers in ways that destroy healthy interaction and hide it in language to try to stave off the customers reaction.  Individuals selling off anything they can, cutting back in ways that “go to the bone”, or throwing “caution to the wind” (forgive the mixed metaphors) in anticipation of collapse.  Government at multiple levels reduced to corrupt self-preservation, or feeding off of core muscle to keep going.  I don’t see where these cycles of decay end, I only see consequences of the decay that provoke more decay, more chaos.

As a parent, I feel despair.  Where can we go?  What can we do?  What will be the best decisions- even on a micro level, day to day basis- to take care of my family?  I wish I could write off these feelings as just something all parents experience, or as some floating midlife crisis.  But as I connect the dots, I am starting to wonder if we need to plan for something bigger than laughing off stereotypical angst.  If the smart, educated people I trust (including my husband) are feeling the same way, and seeing the same things when they connect the dots, by taking them into consideration am I just reinforcing my own patterns of belief?  Or should we really be reconsidering the very foundations of where, who and what we are to better plan for the future?  I don’t know and it scares me.

I think if we are honest, all of us are scared.  No amount of knowledge, hope, or power seems to be able to change the course of current systems decay.  What happens now is both a topic of speculative fascination (game playing) as well as pessimistic reaction (greed, violence) and in some cases altruistic exhaustion (volunteering time or money we don’t have for causes that give us a feeling of having done good, or hope).

I hear people saying do the best you can right now.  It makes us feel like we have some control over the moment.  It’s not bad advice.  But now is always connected to later, and some of us can’t help connecting those dots.

A weakness for cheese and a fondness for robots

I joined Facebook recently.  What a strange phenomenon it is.  I appreciate getting to share photos with relatives and friends who live at a distance.  I even appreciate people I knew finding me/being found, and being able to post links and other pieces of errata.  But I am still trying to understand this twenty-four hour news cycle, Twitter-fomatic orientation to the world that seems the domain of a generation younger than I.

Someone passed on the “tell me twenty five things about yourself” irritant that is popular right now.  I cringed.  I did not like the trend when it started, and am not much of a joiner that way.  My first response was flip, “Fingers, toes, eyes, ears and nose”.  When I considered it fully, I finally just said “oh, read the blog you lazy thing” and forgot about it.  Then, I came up with my own version of the challenge.  If you took a snap shot of your life right now, what would you title it?  I don’t particularly mean the micro level of the actual minute, but a more general sense of reality.  I decided mine would be “A weakness for cheese and a fondness for robots”.

Another friend forwarded a photo essay about egregious acts of culinary evil that “make you fat” from restaurants around the US.  Well, they are not responsible for my particular issues, I thought, but certainly having become more sedentary and having a weakness for cheese has.  When we were courting, Husband made a joke about my fondness for fermented milk by sending me the biggest hunk of cheddar (from Wisconsin) I had ever seen.  The man understood me.  The title also reminds me in some vague way of all things Monty Python, with some of Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit series thrown in (and I do like a bit of gorgonzola).   Cheese somehow sums up both the domesticity and absurdity I find myself in right now, and my fondness for it is both my downfall and my pleasure.

The robots reflect my Husband and sons’ fascinations.  This birthday the boys are begging for a robot cake, which I have figured out how to make thanks to many examples from Google images (no, not a cake that walks around- although that would thrill them, and the subsequent active narrative of destroying it).  Robots are everywhere in our home, and I have yet to completely understand the devotion to them.  Which brings up my latest food related idea.  Normally, if I had caught eldest son drawing on paper with one of my exquisite small bars of Madagascar chocolate that he obviously found on the ‘fridge door behind the butter (ok, I should have hidden it better), I would have been angry.  But it was cool in the house, and like a crayon it glided over the paper making an interesting brown robot.  Most chocolates have a high wax content, so this came as no surprise really, but my special bar had a low wax content so in any warmer weather it would not have had the same effect.  I thought about an Iron Chef episode in which a young pastry chef marveled and amazed the audience with his mastery of sugar, food coloring, and heat.  I wondered if such a chef could make a sort of edible rice paper parchment, and a chocolate crayon to draw upon it.  Little cartoons could be quickly sketched, and stuck at odd angles into small mounds of homemade ice creams.   Finally the Chef could respond to his devotees like political cartoonists in dark bars and cafes.  I have never heard of such a thing, so maybe I have actually come up with something new for once!  You “heard” it here first, folks.

When I joined FB and logged in as “trying to figure this out”, one witty person told me to ask a neighborhood kid.  If it were pure mechanics, I might have.  But the statement was addressing the larger issue of cultural context, and the varieties of meanings behind all the applications.  I still have not mastered Facebook, nor any of her sister circles of internet hell.  But I am learning, and to my surprise- am glad.  Maybe I am moving beyond the cheese.  What would robots eat?  What does this mass of circuitry consume other than time?  I wondered out loud.  My son’s reply:  “Metal mom.  Just like Iron Giant.”  Well, I have been a little short on iron lately.  Pass me the supplements. . . or perhaps no.  Machine age steam punk aside, that time has passed.  Wetware and silicon, electricity and bio-projects swirl in my head.  High-energy consumption gray matter, and we are back to a need for glucose doping.  That greediest of organs, our brains.  So maybe I am back to cheese after all, in moderation, with some crackers. 

Shaped like robots, of course.  Such conceptual fractals life seems to be, and I am out of bandwidth to follow the pattern for now.

“See you” on Facebook.


I was surfing today when I saw an ad for a contest, promoting the film Last Chance Harvey.  On the site Divine Caroline, the contest asked in very few words to describe one of the most romantic things that had ever happened to you.  Most of the responses were, well, sad or pretty standard.  I could think of many, and added what I think was certainly the most random.

I was in my early 20’s living in Chicago.  It was a warm day.  I wore one of my favorite long cotton skirts, white sleeveless shirt, and wide brown belt.  I needed a tube of red paint.  I stopped in an art supply store.  The clerk, a cute bearded young man came round to help.  At the register, he flirted.  I was down the street to the corner of Michigan Ave.  when I heard him yelling.  I turned around and he was running towards me, apron in hand.  He had cut work to follow me.  He asked where I was off to, and if he could walk me there.  I told him fine, and that I was on my way to a matinee down the street.  At another corner further on, he popped into a convenience store and bought us both bottles of juice – apple — without prompting.  We sat on the grass across from the theater, talking, and drank them.  I asked him why he had followed me.  He shrugged and told me quite simply, “because I thought you were beautiful”.  No one had ever said that to me before.  I laughed, eyeing him sideways, wondering if he was as sincere as he seemed, or playing a good come-on.  He asked for my number.  I said no.  He gave me his.  We parted, I went to the movies.  He went back to work.  I never saw him again.

I can still recall many details of that event.  Everyone should have a random stranger tell him or her they are beautiful.

I look back at photos of myself from that time and shake my head.  Do we ever know who we are when we are young?  I see the fit, long haired young woman who was worrying everyday about what she was going to do with herself.  I knew I was not as pretty, smart, funny, or worldly as so many of my friends and acquaintances.  What I failed to see was what I was, instead of all the things I was not.

Romantic events should, I think, be those unexpected times when we are raised above the mundane routines of our lives.  Those times when life becomes crystallized, even for only a moment, and we feel truly alive.  We associate the sexual so closely with the notion of romance, to the detriment of romance.  They are not interchangeable themes, but do often overlap. 

One of my greatest fears is succumbing in old age to dementia of some sort.  I do not ever want to forget so many things, especially the romantic events of my life.  Just recalling them helps me have perspective, and laugh. 

2009 has started as the year not many of us can seem to catch a break.  In times like these, I think knowing we have well and truly lived with hope and honorability matters.  May you remember random moments of romance.   May we all have more someday.

Another one bites the dust

My heroes are passing.  Studs Terkel died this past weekend, before the election but after the world series that wasn’t (no Cubs this year even though they had the best record in the league).  I can’t even begin to do him the justice other writers have.  I only cry, and read what they have to say.  Here is a good one: (TrackBack URL for this entry: you have never picked up one of Stud’s books, do it.  Consider it a light in the darkness.