Farewell an era

I remember sitting on the floor not far from the ironing board, where my mother pressed shirts with hissing steam while watching General Hospital, and sometimes As The World Turns.  I remember the faces, the close ups, the over-acted drama.  I remember getting a little older and acting out half-understood scenes from those soaps, trying to entertain her.  I also recall being a freshman in college, the main living room of the dorm populated midday by a mostly African American group of young women watching All My Children and howling at the screen.  I would occasionally attend, not to watch the exploits of the characters on the show, but to observe the group theatrics played out by the viewers.

I was never a joiner, never a fan of daytime soaps.  Like most people my age, I was an avid watcher of MASH, CHEERS, and various other evening shows.  But the daytime craze never reached me.  Perhaps it didn’t reach many of us, and it passed into arcane obscurity, and now one by one they are ending altogether.  It is the end of an era, several eras perhaps.

My mother used to tell me about listening to scary radio shows while she and her sister cowered under a blanket.   We play Podcasts in my home, but that is something different entirely and the content is not meant to inspire fear (although most recent news does so anyway).  Garrison Keillor still carries on the radio tradition with Prairie Home Companion, but it a re-created relic of another time, as entertaining as it is.

No, soaps were their own phenomenon, and so is the “reality” television that is replacing them.   My mother had her Dick Cavett and other talk shows, but they are not the same animal as what exists today.  A distant cousin perhaps, as the Carol Burnett show and Laugh-In were, and Ed Sullivan, Your Show of Shows, and others before them.  Soaps were entertainment, a distraction, a narrative based white noise (and very white they were) for individuals home alone (except for the babble of small children).  It was the background to my small childhood, and anesthetic for my father when he was briefly unemployed in the recession of the 70’s.

I find myself doing many of the same chores as my mother now, but instead of a soap I put the flat screen on to the Bernie Mac show.  It makes me laugh (and I try to find a reason to laugh every morning), and has a sly poignancy about family life that I find dead-on.  My children are in school, and no one sits on the floor next to me while I do dishes.   I am very much alone these days, and wonder how my mother must have felt.  Such a social person, not used to the new cul-de-sac suburbia of the early 1960’s.  I remember a few things from those days in the one level, aqua post-war house.  I look at photos and recall the objects.   I wish she were here to ask about those days, what she remembered, how she felt.  I would ask her what she thought of the soaps dying off, and watch a few final episodes with her out of nostalgia.  I would make us coffee, and sit next to her chair.  But she is not here anymore.

I make my way in the world, feeling time pass.  Technology changes, but people don’t.  We are still 3-D beings, make of flesh and bone who act on impulses, drives, and desires as well as carefully considered obligations, loyalties, and entertainments.  I shake my head this morning, oh we do become our parents!  We may run away from it, fashion ourselves lives that on the surface seem so completely different, but we do, we do become them.  For better or worse.  That phrase should not only be used at weddings, but when one finds out they are pregnant as well.  For better or worse- you are a part of this marriage, now this parenting, for the rest of your life (of course I recognize there are alternatives, but for most of us this is the social contract we enter into).  Your options have become circumscribed and huge responsibilities conferred, but not without privileges and joys.  And in the slow, quiet moments you can give yourself choices, small though they may seem these choices will become the background to your memories and those of your children.  I do not recall much about those soaps, but that they were the sound and sights of some consistent time spent with my mother.  It’s like catching her singing, or laughing to herself, those intimacies a child gets to see, those fleeting insights into the people we love.

So goes the soaps, so passes time.  Farewell to an era, a domestic ritual that has lost any meaning.  Farewell.

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. . .




The Numbers

Cheeses, antiques, geological formations, star systems, all things that benefit from age, the passage of time.  Yet for we specific biological beings, not so much.  Cellular disruption occurs from the moment we become a unit, a cluster of split cells.  Our DNA flips off and on in response to various environmental factors, and we face the onslaught of oxygen breakdown (oxidation), the very stuff of life, our atmosphere.  Since I have been in my forties, I have realized mortality in new ways.  Not just the death of a parent, not just the usual life experiences that add depth and breadth to understanding have come my way.  I have actually pondered this thing, this run of time.  Not as eloquently or masterfully as many before me, to be sure, those who add comfort through their poetry and song. 

Consider: If from this day forward I am in the second half of my life- if I live to be over 88- then I have 16,060 sets of 24 hour cycles left.  That may sound like quite a bit at first, equaling 385,440 hours.  If one is incapacitated, oppressed, or incarcerated, it may seem inordinately long (Nien Cheng’s book “Life and Death I Shanghai” is a good meditation on time in confinement).  But if you, like many of us, measure your life in days, 16,060 seem too little.  Each year is a paltry 365 days.  Financial advisors would say if we put away $2 for each day, we would have 730; if we put away 5 per day, we would have 1,825 (that’s approx. 150 per month); and over time if invested, we would have a nice little nest egg.  Sadly, many of us can’t do that right now.  With recent economic issues (inflation- fast rising food and energy costs especially- and housing negative values, unemployment, under-employment, etc.) pressing on most citizens in the world, saving money is difficult.  I know we lose sleep and gain acid reflux from the stresses of thinking about what has been lost in retirement accounts and the value of our home, as well as Husband’s stagnating salary (higher education jobs have never kept up with inflation, and we did the numbers long ago and realized that he is expected to put into his job the equal of 5-7% of his salary.  That, once taken from the “take home pay and benefits numbers”– we won’t use or discuss the computed hourly wage– makes him the equal of our UPS deliveryman, and less than our garbage collectors.  Oh yeah, it’s a myth that college professor’s children get to go to college for free.  We won’t be able to send ours). 

If I free myself for a moment from those numbers, I am back to the hours, the days (a fine film that ponders quality of life issues by the way, “The Hours”).  It seems so small, so trivial.  I am spending this time overlapping with many other people, people I do not know, but who share this gross “time”, as well as people I love.  Imagine a large computer screen covered with small dots.  Each dot is someone known by name at this moment, both dead and alive.  Over time, dots are replaced by other names as some people fade from memories, from history.  While they existed, they helped make up the gross movements, the impact of humans on time, place, and matter.  Yet most of us will fade.  Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus) is remembered by name, but his servants and friends are not.  Eventually, even his name will fade from the screen.  We become the bricks and mortar of history, each overlapping the next, unrecognizable as individuals.  I think the focus of religions on individuality, of god/s knowing each person by name is driven by this collective knowledge, this consciousness of mortality as the loss of individuality.  It is a last desperate bid, hope, for self after the living is done. 

Each day I am usually aware of at a macro level, when I am falling asleep.  I am aware of having wasted it to some degree; feeling guilty over not having taught my children enough, of not getting enough done, of not having let go and laughed enough, of not loving the people who love me enough, of not having listened well enough, of not having been a better citizen, of not being more healthy, and of being too self-involved.  I am also grateful to have been able to observe the crazy things we call culture, and public life.  I am grateful to have smelled food cooking, feel the autumn air, and see the leaves in different colors.  I am grateful for the warm, quick hugs of my small boys, and the lingering embraces of my Husband that can make me feel calm and safe (really- it slows my heart rate and lowers my blood pressure.  I find it an amazing effect).  I also know these things are fleeting, and exist only in our shared memories, which will fade someday as well. 

I have a Jewish friend who impressed upon me the importance of remembering, and of witnessing in her faith.  She noted the importance of remembering names, and events, as ways of keeping not only the gross reality of her religion alive, but individuals too.  I told her that made the Old Testament so much more relevant to me, as a document of remembering names.  So much of it is taken up with a boring list of who was, and who was born of whom.  The Mormons have engaged many Jewish persons in this remembering process, as part of their dedicated genealogical studies.  The vast Mormon databases of who was and who was born of whom is open to anyone, and is quite useful I am told. 

I want to fill a jar with 16,060 dried, small black beans.  Each day I want to remove one, a symbol of what is passing, to remind me to step back and love my life a little better.  The clocks on the walls of every room are not enough, the tickers of moments on the top of my computer, my cell phone, my auto dash board that constantly flip numbers.  I want to more tangibly remind myself to witness, to forgive, and to be aware of time as it passes, of my self and others as we pass and fade into the background of history. 

Horton alone heard “We are here!”  but someday our noises will fade, the lights will dim, and all the dots will go black.  Space spins on, most of the larger mysteries not knowable to us, in a framework of time and matter we can’t begin to grasp.  The sliding scale of reality can go into the microcosms of organisms that exist only for seconds, then spiral out into the vastness of time (A film was made about these ideas, Powers of Ten, 1977, by Ray and Charles Eames; look it up on UTube to see it for free). 

I’ll use my tiny beans to remind me, “I am here!” for as long as I can think it.  Descartes was right about one thing; we recognize our own existence as long as we are living it.  Whether or not we can call it reality is another discussion. 

Quality and Quantity will always be debatable in the consideration of this thing called living, and time. 

For the most part, the food is terrible and the portions so small.

In sum, the alternative is much less, significantly less palatable than what I know.  At least for now, for me.  Goodbye David Foster Wallace.  This time will be much less a place worth sharing without you, the 16,060 days I might have left.


Addendum:  I have read today that adding Jewish persons to the Mormon genealogical database is prefaced by baptizing those who have died first.  There is an active movement against this practice.  What seemed like such a good cross religious effort now seems like just more religious hocus pocus.  What a shame.

Is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city?

Is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city? 

Today I suffocated under 4 consecutive hours of a crying 20 month old, and the usual domestic duties.  I told my husband, who came home at 6 p.m. intellectually on fire after participating as a mentor in numerous trying and yet exhilarating grad critiques, that I was jealous.  It had been so long since I had discussed David Byrne’s Big Suit, or the tricky route from symbol to meaning in creative endeavors.  So I cracked open yet another bottle of cheap red wine (now 0 for 6, the other 6 in the past two months having been relegated to cooking use after a first sip), surprised at the irony of finally getting a drinkable glass on this of all days.  Perhaps not irony then, but grace.

Ever seen the movie Network?

Of course you have.  If I have not completely alienated all readers of every stereotypical stripe, what’s left will understand.

It is a true life partner, it is true love, when one melts down and says “I just want to get up at 5 a.m. tomorrow, throw the kids in the car and go to the city for the weekend and feed my head”, and partner says simply “Ok, let’s do it.”  After a moment adding with wry humor, “heck- is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city?”

I grew up working class- yes the word class.  The taboo word of not only the academy, but also public life.  Sniff at the socialist whiff, turn to the GOP fantasy and tell me I am obsolete.  My colleagues in academia have already beaten you to it, Race being the “good”, and strangely exclusive, concept of the moment (if 40 years is a moment).  I worked in pizza restaurants at 15, and a string of cheese factories (where I was not asked to sit with women my age at break, on the midnight to 7 shift because I was going to college- I was informed by the matrons on shift- and was perceived as having a way out), temp jobs, restaurant jobs, and other good working class girl wage endeavors while trying to rise beyond, explicitly so, the factory and receptionist life my parents were relegated to and hated.  It was not the honest work; it was the gradual decay of respect and evidence of respect (lost health benefits, wage stagnation, retirement raiding, lay offs and eliminations, dismissals of concerns, rudeness, invisibility) that wore them down.

What is this hybridized identity- so post modern, yet so not cool- that finds me university PhD educated, middle aged and female, discarded and invisible to most.  Bitter?  Angry?  Hell yes.  To a mutual friend of ours who writes “graphic novels” (not to over simplify, but a fancy name for comic books), I said my hero is the middle-aged woman who becomes a vigilante.  Say, have you seen the new series on TV about that?  Yea sure, those glamour pusses are my ideal.  As my niece would say, NOT.

Perhaps you could call upon women writers of 40 years ago, who had rage and understanding in spades.  Say I am “uninformed”, derivative.  I say, No.  I know them.  I have read them.  And that they are still relevant does not negate this space, this life.  After the first blog, I was told I was angry.  I laughed.  Oh yeah, you got it.  Acerbic?  Sarcastic?  Yet still sincere?  Oh my.  Fold another napkin on the fire, and let me apologize for my lack of tact.  NOT.

Think of this as the anti-Ann Coulter.  That scion of current journalism who has never worked an honest day in her life.  And yet, I say you go girl, savor it while you can, because when it all goes away all you’ll be left with is your nasty coke habit and wrinkly neck skin.  Those GOP puppet masters who romanced your rise to fame will run and hide, bounce your emails and treat you as the pariah you are.  You may want to have a feminist moment when this point comes, you may even think you earned it, but you’ll probably find yourself alienated.   Whisper to yourself that you are still good, you are still important, while the world shuns you.  Welcome to the real world baby- if you have not saved, you have not earned- as that female money guru Suze Orman would say.

You want placebo? You want sexy, palatable, mildly amusing mother? Read the syndicated folks.  Those who get paid to entertain.  Enter here, and enter another realm.  My hero Molly Ivins died this past year, and a little bit of my hope went with her.  When Studs (Terkel) goes, I don’t know what I’ll do.  .  . Scream, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it any more”.  Not that many will notice me without an AK-47, or other armaments- the standard attention getting (and economy riding) devices for all from Dub to the local sad teenager.  I guess middle-aged women are just not threatening or sexy.  Pass the Provigil and the written ammunition. 

Halleluiah. . .get your hands off the scissors!  Get in bed! Where is that damned cooler? 

See you tomorrow at the Smithsonian.