Thoughts for the kids II

Don’t be afraid to be eclectic in your tastes. Sample widely, consider the structure of the things, of the gestalt as well as the parts. Then decide if you like it- in food, music, art, and opinions of all sorts. Know how to listen, then how to express yourself with grace, authenticity, and directness.
Try not to put things into your head that will only make that space darker. Feasting on violence, horror, (in films, books, etc. even if “just” fiction) or the often overwhelmingly bad world news, is an indulgence that decays your heart and mind. Know what to not watch or read- what will only add to a sense of powerlessness, distress, or imaginary possibilities of destruction. Think about what will truly make you bigger in spirit as a human being, and more capable of empathy and what is just destructive mental trash. It’s not always obvious either.
Know the difference between being bold, taking a calculated risk, and being risky or reckless.
Dance with abandon regularly, and sing open throated.
Don’t ignore personal hygiene. Brush those teeth well, floss, and gently scrub all your nooks and crannies every day with a mild soap and water. Keep your hair and beards trimmed, even if to appear shaggy- make it a plan, not an accident. Know your body so if you get a truly odd mole, or something hurts, you know where, for how long, and can describe it to a good doctor. Never settle for a mediocre general physician, and make sure they have all your information.
Clean your messes.  Know how to use tools, often and correctly.  Drills as well as spell check.  Know the difference between tools and toys.
Be careful what you consume. While you may have access to many different ingestibles, many of them are not worth consuming. Read labels. Drink lots of water. Stay physically active in body and mind.
Moderation is usually a good idea in all things. An old adage that is still useful.
Learn to do a couple of things that make you feel flow. That focused intensity of purpose, and the subsequent satisfaction it can bring.
Always appreciate the people who are crafts persons about what they do- the cooks, the wait staff, the post people, the plumbers, electricians, teachers, mentors, accountants, etc. Your life will suffer from the bad ones, and be considerably better for the really good ones. Even if you don’t always notice. Learn how to tell the difference, and appreciate explicitly.
Don’t be afraid to give people compliments. But know when personal boundaries are appropriate.
Make a few good friends, and know when a friendship is no longer tenable. Be direct about it too. Know how to trust and love, and have fair self protective strategies as well.
It is never out of style to be generous of spirit, or to look out for those weaker or more in need than you. You choose your character every day from the small to the large in thought and actions. Save civil disobedience for really important moments. You should not be breaking the law but for an accident, or intent. Intentional reasons should be really, really good and be prepared for what consequences may exist. Authority should be earned (not conferred, or handed over by privilege) and not all rules are good. Question, and calculate your actions.
Cut yourself some slack- everyone makes mistakes. Perfection is impossible and sometimes the best surprises come from our mistakes. As Bill Watterson said, “Art is knowing what mistakes to keep and what to throw away.” Don’t let mistakes not worth keeping in your head rot there.
You will get hurt. It will make me miserable to not know how to help you sometimes. Learning how to bounce back, how to think about what happened without ignoring it, is a big part of living. Be good to yourself, and don’t forget that you matter.

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?
 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. . . 

Good

People say things like, “I am good at (fill in the blank. Playing piano, guitar, golf, typing, you name it)”.  A qualifier, such as “I worked really hard to learn it”, usually accompanies the statement; or, “I still have a lot to learn” or, “I could not have mastered it with out a mentor, a friend,” etc.  The point is most people will admit, even if just to intimate others, that they are good at something.  Yet never, never in my life in any book, media statement, casual conversation, overheard discussion, or drunken revelation have I ever heard anyone say, “I am a good parent”.  More to the point, “I am a good mother.”  Not a great mother, not a superior mother- no those would be value judgments that seem even more taboo.  Still, I have never heard anyone say that they are even just a good mom.  You think people might feel that way at some point.  But it seems they don’t.

I had to ask myself why.  Is it because we too readily conflate parenting with life, and no one would say, “I am good at life”, which is grammatically awkward at best, and conceptually infinite at worst.

Is it because we have no taught, explicit evaluation and assessment standards for parenting?  No ruler by which to explicitly judge others and ourselves?  Well, it’s true- there is no parent certification course required to have children (despite the shelves of books available claiming to instruct us).  But we do have standards. Oh, we do.  I hear people say all the time “I am a BAD parent”, or “I was a bad parent that day”, or “He/she is such a difficult/demanding/etc.=bad parent.”   So we have some type of internalized standards by which we judge ourselves and others, but it seems only to reflect a baseline and everything beneath it- very little over and above the baseline of adequacy, even though we may envy someone’s organization, another’s cleanliness, or still another’s patience with their children.

We only have our own parents and sometimes those of others who showed us what parenting is; we also have sound bite utopias from television, but that seems to enter in very little except to make us feel uneasily inadequate.

I have heard moms say “I am so glad I/we got through the diaper stage!” and they will also smile and talk about the achievements of their children, yet they do not willingly take any credit for such achievements, but will often take responsibility for the failures of their children (I/we did not work enough, did not get the right things to eat, enough sleep, read the right books, go to the right summer camps, etc.).

In the US, people usually are a little reticent to boast, or to take credit for their own accomplishments anyway.  Especially women, or so all the business-psych articles tell us.  We have precious little language for expressing our self-satisfaction, or our own goodness, much less understanding it.  Is it because pre-kids, we have only fantasies of what parenting is?  Being a mother is one of the most vilified as well as over-romanticized activities on the earth.  Reality is such a different story; there is a chasm between people we know who have kids and those who don’t and it seems so difficult to explain why.

What would happen if, as we lay down to sleep every night, as moms we reviewed our day and were willing to say to ourselves “I was a good mom today, and this is why I think so”, and be aware of the mistakes, consider them soberly, but move them to a different list?  What if we told people we know well when they were a good parent?  Told them we appreciated their example, to us and for our children?  And perhaps most difficult, what if we could accept the compliment for ourselves when someone, without manipulative intent and with sincerity, tells us the same?

I have been wrestling with a birthday that is a few years off and reviewing my life.  Right now, and I know it is partly the blues-  I can find little about which to feel good; little I can say “I was good at that” or, “I am good at that” about.  I am starting to wonder if this is what moving towards old age is about; realizing most of life if not all is in retrospect an area of gray.  The highs and lows sink and rise, but in summary fade to gray like the rest of time spent.  Not especially unique, not especially valorous, not especially successful, and sometimes completely failed, and hugely disappointing.  If this is true, I have the option of saying “Oh well” and finding things to make me happy on a smaller scale, on an everyday basis and just get on with it- or get depressed.  I think I’d rather work on trying to be a better parent, and hope I can someday feel good about it when I go to bed at night.  Oh, and tell others when I think they are good too.  Maybe someday, I can help my own children be parents and not have to fall back on the crap shoot that is the real-time learning curve they are/we are currently suffering through.

We only get one shot at raising our kids.  I want to try to make the best of it, warts and all.  But I also want to be good at it, and that is a whole different matter.

 

of an age

When we speak of our children, we sometimes say, “They are of an age. . .” indicating that a level has been achieved in which they can be trusted to do something themselves, or when we expect booger and poo jokes to be in full bloom.  I have been thinking about the former this week.

It seems I have griped for so many years about feeling put upon, and when I said it immediately felt guilty, for the constant attention from my children.  The neediness, the must-keep-an-eye on, the do they need food-liquid-medicine-exercise and moment to moment care required for small children.  Now as if by magic, I have had several months of both my children in full time elementary school.  I had such grand ambitions at first.  All the lists of things I would get done, and try to do.  Much of that evaporated for one reason or another.  My fault entirely.

But there was also the unexpected loneliness.  There was no one to dance or giggle with when I played They Might Be Giants, no one to eat lunch with.  It was strange. 

This past week has been Christmas vacation.  One child has been sick (inevitable) and the other off working with Daddy.  I do not know what I expected, but it has been a let down.  This morning, for the first time in about eight years, I took a magazine into the bathroom for a sit.  I could hear the boys outside watching PBS kids and playing on the floor, being good brothers.  I knew I could trust them to answer the phone if needed, not kill each other, or destroy body level objects.  I got through much of the thin magazine.  I was both surprised and pleased, because I realize the experience would have been dramatically different if I had not had the accompanying sound on the other side of the door.  I miss the boys, and having them around is a pleasure- even if the occasional glass of juice still gets upended, toys litter the floor, and a whine for something to eat will arise.

Being a parent is a constant revelation no one ever is instructed on how to appreciate, and the experiences are so personal I am not sure adages and tips ever fully apply.  I did not want anything for Christmas that required cash, and told Husband as much.  I wanted him to help me figure out the video camera and download mechanisms, I wanted the kitchen ceiling finished, I wanted everyone healthy.  What has surprised me is the gift of time and everyday happiness I have.  The world can swirl in chaos outside, but for now, I am grateful for just this: my family and our simple stability.   They boys may be of many ages at many times, and I don’t want to miss any of it.   I think it will be all I ever really want.

Merry Christmas.

Waiting for the Plumber

Nothing to be done.

He should be here.
He didn’t say for sure he’d come.
And if he doesn’t come?
We’ll come back tomorrow.
And then the day after tomorrow.
Possibly.
And so on.
The point is—
Until he comes.
You’re merciless.
We came here yesterday.
Ah no, there you’re mistaken.
What did we do yesterday?
What did we do yesterday?
Yes.
Why . . . (Angrily.) Nothing is certain when you’re about.
In my opinion we were here.
Well?
That makes no difference.
You’re sure it was this evening?
What?
That we were to wait.
He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think.
You think.
I must have made a note of it. (He fumbles in his pockets, bursting with miscellaneous rubbish.)
(very insidious). But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? (Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?
 It’s not possible!
Or Thursday?
What’ll we do?
If he came yesterday and we weren’t here you may be sure he won’t come again today. 
 
Let’s go.  Yes, let’s go. 
 
My apologies to Sam Beckett.  But he had it right about life.  He also had it right that in the pathos, there is comedy.  
 
We met with the plumber.  We needed to take down the cabinet.  When did he say he would come again?  I thought you were supposed to call.  No, I think we said two weeks.  No, I think he said we should call this week.  We still need to take down the dry wall.  Yes.  Let’s take down the dry wall.  We can’t go camping if he comes.  No.  We need to make clear when he is coming.
 
Yes.  This was a real conversation with Husband.   Completely unintentionally parallel.  Oh, Beckett.  We hardly knew ye.  But we know of what you write.
 
A first weekend in July, 2011.  We wait for babies to be born, a brother to become a father, a father to become a grandfather (again, if he does not pass before), myself to be an aunt; the tomatoes to ripen, the sun to set and temperature to fall.  A plumber who said he would come.  We can not leave, we dare not leave.  We do not leave.  The waiting is all. 

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. . .

 

 

 

On death and dying

Holy Sonnet X, John Donne: Death be not proud.

Death is a fact.  Dying is an act.  After actively witnessing close up the acts of dying my mother and (most recently) my grandmother have participated in, I have come to a few conclusions.

Dying is ugly.  I will probably, like most, see back through jellied lenses at what I know and instinctively find ways to convince myself that it was deep.  I will make meaning of chaos.   But truly, dying is ugly.  I believe those who convince themselves otherwise are avoiding the issue or finding ways to be right with it.  That’s fine.  But at present I can’t escape the knowledge of smells, sights, sounds, textures, and smells that linger as tastes.  I can’t escape indignities, of the body fighting itself and the process of decay.  I can’t stop struggling to hope for more grace, a quicker route than I have seen pass. 

There are those who enact hospice, who find fascination with dying as well as defining themselves as enablers of peace.  I do not admire them, but know them to be useful to others.  So be it.  We have lost our rituals of dying; so that many of us are left to act as best we can, making it up as we go along, stumbling, hoping for better.

I despise funeral homes.  There is nothing, nothing at all, more fake than a funeral home (what home is this?).  The fake condolences, the fake fluids, the fake box.  The fake spaces, which never seem to be completely clean and always a bit shabby, tacky, and inept.  The only thing that is not fake about a funeral home is the stark black on white of the legal document agreeing to fork over very real cash, large amounts of it.  If one reads the fine print (and I did),  it is a laundry list of fake services no one needs.  If one takes a mental red marker to the list (and I did), what you are left with is a huge base charge for people you do not know to carry away your dead, pump them with chemicals, and display them for view.  The rest are add ons of every sort meant to balloon the profit margin for a business that has successfully lobbied over the years to take over our ability to mourn, to process our dead.  The strategic shame game when being offered boxes, the subtle sliding of more services to customers addled with grief, the “oh you should discuss that part with your pastor/priest” for the things they do not want to handle, and the awkward organizing that’s left is all just fakery. 

What I and my father know, what we have done to help our dying family members, looms large beside what we did not get to do.  We should have been able to complete the process we were so intimately a part of.  We did the dying, and were denied the death.  The last steps for thousands of years- the washing of the body, dressing, building a simple box, digging the hole, putting the dead in (or burning, if that is your tradition) then covering over- it should be our right.  It is the end, and to have experienced the rest and not the end is unfair.  It is wrong.  It is a step, an essential step, left out.  Once in the ground there is silence.  Others who came, leave.  Then it is time for bills to get paid, letters written to cancel services.  Clothes get donated, the room cleaned.  A once vital, well loved human finishes becoming memories. 

I know I was loved.  I know, however fragmented, I was understood.  I know I loved in return.  They are gone, two of those who loved me most.  Two of those whom I loved most.  I am left with a smaller circle of care, of family, of those I love and whom know me in return.   Death be not proud, but ugly.  Inevitable.   Now let us be about our business, those of us who witnessed and enough of fakery.  We know what has passed, and what is lost.  There is no end to the loss, just fact.  The act is done.

Goodbye beloved mother, grandmother.  

Still Standing

Iris Chang was a young woman who wrote a famous book (The Rape of Nanking).  She became a symbol for many Asian-Americans, and blurred the lines between journalist and historian.  She was to all eyes a very confident, competent, attractive woman who “had everything”.  Yet her internal life went into free fall and she committed suicide at the age of 36 in 2004.  I just finished reading an inquiry into her life and death (Finding Iris Chang) written by her good friend, Paula Kamen.  Suicide seems to be a theme this week, with several young celebrities going that route.  I had been wondering about Ms. Chang for several days when I woke up at 3 a.m. completely at peace with an understanding.

Depression and degrees of sanity are part of the human condition.  When we slip into such degrees that it becomes clinically diagnostic is a question artists, philosophers, and most recently psychologists have been wrestling with for a long time.  Anyone can fall.  Just as anyone can slip and fall in their own house, anyone can slip, and start a decline that even they lose the ability to understand or stop.  That may be one of the reasons depression and insanity are so scary to us, because we know it could happen to us as well.

 I think supremely competent people are as susceptible, even if we don’t want to believe they are.  We all develop habits, and when those habits of mind and action are all we have to fall back on to block any pain or anxiety we have, they can stop working for us and begin to work against us.  Yet we keep dong them, because they are safe.  Those habits are knowns.  Ms. Chang worked.  She followed her habits of work because it was what she knew best.  She had responsibilities to her husband, son, and extended family.  She knew how to be forceful; she had learned how to perform.  But perhaps there came a time when she, like many of us, just did not want to do it anymore.  I’ll call it “pulling a J.D. Salinger”.  When people just say STOP.  They change their lives, and quit doing what they had been- no matter how successful it seems to people around them.  Many times, these people get happy.  Sometimes after long stretches they go back to what ever they had been doing (for better or worse).  I woke up at 3 am and I just knew that Ms. Chang had not been able to say STOP, when she may have really wanted to.

 The consummate achiever and self described geek with rough social skills may have just not known she had that option, or felt too ashamed to take it.  It’s a cliché to say Asian people commit suicide more frequently than any others, and often do it out of a sense of shame that is difficult for Westerners to understand.  Ms. Chang was second generation Chinese-American, and while that may have played a role, I think it was complicated.  What was not, it seems, was the clear inability for her to feel any differently than she did.  She fell, and could not get up.

I read recently about a forest in Japan that has been around a long time, but is a taboo subject for the Japanese.  It is a place where people go to die.  To commit suicide.  There were gruesome photographs of bodies everywhere in various states of decay, like some over populated CSI training lab (the likes of which they have in this country, using donated corpses).  Is it part of our world now that especially in first-world countries, suicide is just a fact?  I sympathized with Dr. Kevorkian when he lobbied to be able to help terminally ill people end their lives sooner rather than later.  That is an agonizing thing, to be sure, but an option I believe ought to be available for people who have terminal illnesses.  I know with complete certainty that if I develop Alzheimer’s and treatments have been useless, I want that option.  But this forest of lost souls, this is something different, I think.

 I talked with Husband about the value of real friends, and strong friendship-based marriages.  He agreed that we need those few folks in the center of our dartboard, the bulls-eye, who know us well enough to help us when we don’t even know we need it.   Those most intimate with us, not the rings and degrees of less intimacy that spiral out from our cores.  We need those central stabilizers, those perspectives.  Especially those of us with strong minds and hearts, whom others rely upon and seem to “have it all”.

 Developing such friends is not easy, and not overtly rewarded in our culture.  It takes a tremendous amount of work, and willingness to shunt some folks off to more superficial levels of friendship or eliminate them from our lives all together.  It also takes time.  We live in such geographically fragmented, fast-paced, demanding realities that the very idea of slow anything- slow food, slow friends, slow entertainment, slow work- seems impossible.  But the lesson I take from Ms. Chang is that anyone can fall, and fall fast.  Three things may have helped- I do not know, but I feel it to be true for myself.  1- knowing that anyone can fall, and letting oneself ask for help, and say STOP.  Change it up, let the ego go.  Pull a Salinger. 2- Teach my children the value of intimacy, real friends, and laughing at oneself in joy as much as self-deprecation; and living it as an example.  3- Live slower and let go any anxiety about what is let go as the compromise.  One last addition to this list is the “don’t put it in your head” rule.  There is so much suffering in the world, and we can read about it, see it.  We must, I believe, be a form of witness.  But also, we have limits to how much we can stuff into our head and try to balance.  So I choose not to watch violent fiction, or read it.  There is too much fact I have to carry around, and I don’t need the added images, ideas, or darkness.

 I have known depression, more than once.  I can’t say for sure what pulled me back from the edge, from falling over an edge I could not come back from.  But I know I have a very few good friends who helped.  I also know that I felt shame, I made huge mistakes- and I still suffer regret, but I am letting it go and trying to stop beating myself up about it.  I also know I am now middle aged, and I probably won’t be the high achiever I wanted to be.  I have to say, “oh well”, I pulled a Salinger of sorts in the past and now I am slower for it.  Oh well.

 Life goes on for me.  For many of us.  Sometimes it is enough not to know why, but just to be glad it does.

Mental space

“Gimme some space damn it!”

This is a thought I have often around my kids and my husband.  I have been thinking about what this means.  On the surface, it means “pick up the toys, clothes, dirty dishes and detritus of daily living that clutter our shared physical space and make for constant random picking up in the effort to make space” (or at least orderly space).   This constant demand to clean is a distraction and irritant, making anything else productive difficult.  Just walking, as anyone who has stepped bare footed upon a lego can tell you, can be interrupted.  If I had several hours alone to crank the tunes and clean, that would be different.  I could organize my time, react to unexpected issues (needing to pretreat a shirt here, address the bill that was found in the Dr. Seuss book), and Get Things Done (capitals intended).  Usually though, it’s a constant barrage in which one small gain here or there gets accomplished, and the macro level of the problem remains a mystery. 

So too with mental space.  In order to be creative, I have learned I not only need to be self-disciplined (that’s where procrastination guilt occurs- when I know I could have been self-disciplined but have not), but also need “head time” to let ideas “cook”.  Head time can even come when I am Getting Things Done- because the mental is uninterrupted.   Then there is the creative need for “doing” time.   This is most pointedly putting down thoughts and ideas into the computer without interruption (writing).  It can also be creating objects, or seeking out and taking in stimuli without interruption (“feeding the head”).  All of which I rarely get, and the consequential outcome is depression and irritation. When I have time in a span of a week to create, I am a much happier and a nicer person to be around.  Husband has noticed this about himself as well.  I also believe there is a long-term additive effect.  We are also more productive people if we can create on a regular basis. These observations are also borne out in creativity research.  

I recently stumbled across Jonah Lehrer’s book “Proust was a Neuroscientist” (2007) and the accompanying book reviews.  I agree that he over-reaches a bit; with many underlying assumptions about the shared positions his readers must have to imagine where he is going with his ideas.  He also blogged about the use of Modafinil, wondering if it’s use and established ability to help concentration and focus was a deterrent to creativity.  I wrote him a response to that blog.  What I found most useful about him is he is a good example of a new breed of thinkers.  Young, smart people who are continually learning, from every experience be it academic or something as plebian as a line cook.  They are taking in what they experience and try to create a framework for understanding that works better than the overly specialized units we currently know.  They want to bridge the macro and the micro, and synthesize areas of philosophy that have been said for hundreds of years to be completely incompatible.  They do not postulate any dogma, and seem to have extremely open, mature minds- and are willing to acknowledge when they are wrong, or need to reframe something they have conjured.  I like the things I read from this new wave of thinkers, even if I don’t always agree (Steven Pinker is not one of them, his framework of reference and definition being clearly and unapologetically hierarchically organized according to scientific principles and the culture of high science). 

To do the things Lehrer and similar writers are doing requires a high degree of creativity. I hear myself shouting “ARRGGHH”, knowing I will never be free of the research subject area I started investigating a long, long time ago. The areas I was synthesizing formally as a graduate student were seen as arcane; when people were being kind, they would say rather esoteric.  But I know them as red-blooded, living ideas.  It is good to know people smarter and younger than me think so too.  When I mentioned all of this to Husband, an accomplished artist in a complex culture, he replied ” A lot of what I do requires creativity.  Not just my art.”  I nodded.  Sometimes the partnering in a marriage is to remind us of what we already know, and even have already discussed in a different time or place.

Note to Lehrer:  mental crowding can also come from too much immersion into a culture and topic.  Me? I gasped for air and got out for a while.  Now I get back in from time to time, and make much better use of the knowledge and information I find.  Virginia Woolf had it right– in order to do that, I have to shout “gimme some space damn it!”; and pick up those sharp little legos.  

Romance?

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.