THREESCORE AND TEN

I had two conversations recently with two different people, about loved ones dying.  One has a relative in her nineties, who is experiencing the kind of breakdowns in health that are expected of a person in her nineties. So she is not really, specifically “dying” at the moment – it is just that “dying” is the general direction she is going in.  The other person is in his forties, and is dying now, of a specific disease, and long before his time.  It seems slightly upside down, doesn’t it?

I indulged in a moment of fantasy.   I asked myself whether, if I were given the power in my mid-nineties, in failing health and mind, to die immediately, in exchange for the restoration of health to a young person with a whole life before him, would I do it?

As we age some of us think differently about time, quality of life, and what a full life span is.  In the King James version of the Bible, Psalm 90 refers to “threescore and ten,” or seventy, as the expected lifespan. But thanks to advanced medicine and technology, threescore and ten is just about average these days. Ninety is the new seventy.  Which makes seventy the new fifty and fifty the new thirty.  (Does it follow then that thirty-somethings are like teens?)

And as the expected lifespan has grown, we have seen retirement change too, from rocking chair to golf course to skydiving, in as short a time.  Or retirement is deferred and people keep on working well into their eighth decades.  When life was once considered over, it is now considered still in progress.

So, I doubled down on my fantasy question with a series of other questions: how “failing in health” was I in this scenario? Was I in constant pain, or just slowing down? Could I still work? Enjoy food?  Was I just a little forgetful or quite out of my head?  And, was the young person I was restoring to health someone I knew and loved, or just someone?  If I could still enjoy a hotdog, and was just forgetful, I would be inclined to want to stay around, especially if the person I was “saving” was a stranger.   So then I turned the screws on the proposition: what if it were someone I knew and loved?  Well, all right, I would give up my life for one of my children, but I would have done that when I was young, as well.

I am far from ninety, but I am past threescore and ten, and in the last several years, I must admit, I have been feeling an intermittent sense of been-there-done-that about a lot of things. When I listen to the news, some days, I feel as though I have heard it all before. That there is nothing new under the sun.  When people say “there’s never been a winter like this,” I remember 1977. The new diet everyone is talking about?  I was on it twenty years ago. I don’t buy seventies retro fashion because I wore it the first time around.  New recipes are old recipes with new wrinkles.  New remedies are old remedies disguised.  I am irritated at the culture of Facebook, and regretful that I will probably never learn to swim. And I don’t believe in miracles, because most miracles are lucky breaks, and once you outlive one, you know the truth. So, if I am so jaded, why not say enough is enough?

Because I am still greedy for life. I must have forgotten for a moment, but to love life is to value each breath, whether the air is fresh or stale.  Every once in a while it takes a reminder, like the upside-down case of someone dying young.

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INSIDE A CULTURAL CAGE

I am not an authority and I am not a pundit, but I am a voter and here’s what I am thinking: During the first Democratic debate Kamala Harris called out Joe Biden.  She was eloquent in personalizing what bussing meant to her as a little girl growing up in a segregated California school district in the 1970’s; Joe Biden was defensive and claimed he was misunderstood.  Points were made, points were lost.  But really, what was gained?

The culture is what we live in.  It is our atmosphere, what we breathe, walk around in without even knowing it is there, like the air: odorless, colorless, without a tell most of the time.  But occasionally we get a whiff of something, or see something and we take note. Notes.  Information.  Which leads to new thinking, and eventually a change in culture.  You see it in child rearing sometimes.  Breast feeding gave way to bottle feeding in the fifties, when entrepreneurs advertised it as not only nutritionally superior but also culturally enlightened.  Then, when nutrition in pregnancy became a focus and more pregnant women were healthier, studies said that breast feeding was indeed better (and again, more enlightened).  If you grew up in the fifties, chances are you were bottle fed; in the seventies and eighties, breast-fed.  Nowadays, in this politically correct moment, the main point is that it is a choice.

And remember “spare the rod and spoil the child?”  In the early part of the 20thcentury spanking was considered a parent’s sacred duty, not a blessed relief after your kid threw a tantrum in Target. Then it was considered a parent’s version of a tantrum and a no-no.  Now I think they call it abuse.

The culture we grow up in, our atmosphere, is surrounded by a cage with invisible bars made up of the current givens.   And it takes somethingan anomaly, an egregious act, a whiff– to make the bars visible, to make us contemplate life outside the bars and then act to make it happen.

Slavery.  De-segregation.  Civil rights. Reproductive Rights.  LGBTQ rights.  Unbelievable that we ever believed what we believed when we don’t believe it anymore.    But it took someone to get a whiff, get a glimpse, make an effort to break through those bars.

When people hark back to the culture as it once was, it is either for perspective or nostalgia.  It is important to be sure which.   The longer someone lives the more the culture will have changed, and his actions and beliefs will have been right or wrong many times over.  What is the point of referring to something with the advantage of hindsight?  Will it help change things going forward? (That’s perspective.) Or is it for the limited advantage of indicting someone for having had the “wrong” view in light of today’s “right” view or praising someone for the opposite? (That’s nostalgia.)

If we take judgment out of it, the perspective we gain can benefit everyone. But that means no boast and no blame. Take the raw material of experience and use it to enrich all.

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DREAMS, HOPES, WISHES, GOALS

Dreams are both the most powerful and most passive of these. You could say they are the garbage disposal of the mind, grinding up the stuff we can’t or don’t want to think about when we are awake.  Dreams are colorful and crazy, magical realism flashing back and forward, jigsaw pieces and morphing characters, yet they make complete sense in our sleeping state and we live them out with conviction.  That’s the power.

The passive part: ordinarily, we don’t set them in motion. We don’t choose our dreams.  They happen uninvited, sometimes unwanted (which we call nightmares) and are erased by mid-day.  We may hang on to a few details for an hour or two before the dream fades and by the time it is time to dream again, it is gone.  (Unless we happen to be in analysis, and we get into the habit of writing the dreams down before they fade and then we and our analysts pore over the details like Holmes and Watson).

Hopes are sort of passive, too. “Dear so-and-so, hope you are feeling better.” “I hope you will forgive me.”  “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”

Wishes have more urgency attached to them. “Wish you were here,” betrays a kind of yearning. Hope stands up straight, but wish leans in. Sometimes when you wish something, you set a goal to achieve it.

We are talking about words, here, but more.  On this weekend that my beloved eldest grandson is getting married this phrase keeps going through my mind: “Did you ever dream, when he was that little boy…?”

Dream what?  That he would grow up? That he would move beyond chicken nuggets for lunch with grandma and become this adult mensch about to marry a sweet and beautiful young woman? Of course not.  That’s not how dreams work.

But as I count down to the day and prepare for it in all the practical and ordinary ways that families do:  what to wear, when to have the haircut, where to board the dog, what time the pictures will be taken, I think about this magnificent family of mine, and the fact that through my life there has been a preparation of a kind, too, an assembling of intentions and acts that make up what is the opposite of an “accidental” life. It is more than a hope, isn’t it?  And more than a wish, and not even a conscious goal.

But pitching in, giving a hand, lending an ear, making a loan, babysitting, holding them close, letting them go: how many of us have done all that, yet having reached moments such as these, think “I never dreamed…”

It had to have begun with a dream, unremembered, unfathomed, and magical – the way time takes us, awake and asleep.

 

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FACING HER FACE:A Cautionary Tale

 

We live in a culture that values youth and beauty above all and we don’t like people who don’t measure up, especially women.  We spend tons of money and time on trying to change or improve our looks, as if America was one long runway.   I read recently that women and even teenage girls are having plastic surgery in greater numbers and at younger ages than ever before.  But it is not a new phenomenon.  Here is a true story about a woman I know:

At nine, when her naturally baby blond hair began to darken, her mother leaned her  over the kitchen sink and with a stinging mix of peroxide and ammonia made her blond again.

For her thirteenth birthday, she had her first plastic surgery.  (She might  have preferred a sweater set?) But her mother said her ears stuck out too far from her skull, and they had to be pinned back. (Unfortunately, she developed keloids—overgrowths of scar tissue– which pushed them forward again and she had to have the surgery again the next year, and then a course of radiation treatment which, in the dosages they gave in those days, might end up killing her sometime in the future).

At sixteen she had a nose job. By then she was convinced her mother was right: if she wanted boys to ask her on dates, she needed a better nose.  When she said goodbye to the plastic surgeon (who had done her two ear surgeries  too), he said it was only ‘til we meet again, because as long as she had the same mother, he was sure she’d be back for a different chin.

She didn’t go back.  But she kept bleaching her hair and worrying about how she looked.   On meeting her future husband, her reaction was not just stars in her eyes, it was a crisis of color: She made an emergency appointment at the all-night beauty salon and had the color of her hair changed, sure he would only fall in love with her if the color of her hair was right.

She battled her mother’s values, but believed in them, too.  She said true beauty was on the inside, but worried about the outside, dieting, tweaking her hair color and judging her appearance, waging a secret war between herself and herself. The battleground was a mirror.  She knew how little what she looked like mattered to the people who loved her. Her epitaph wasn’t going to be “What a nose!”  Yet the early message was still there, etched deeply.

As she approached middle age, she began to see her mother’s face in the mirror – -not its lines or wrinkles, but its expression.  The corners of her mouth turned down, like she disapproved; her smile was strained and her eyes looked frightened.  She thought what she was seeing might be influenced by seeing it, so she tried to catch herself unawares, but her expression shifted in a flash and she was never fast enough. That was when she decided she had better make friends with what she saw in the mirror before it was too late.

She began looking in the mirror often, and smiling. It felt awkward at first, but then the whole thing struck her funny, and every time she looked she laughed. When she laughed her whole face participated.  The eyes narrowed, the skin beside them wrinkled, the cheekbones plumped, the tip of the fixed nose pointed down, the upper lip went up.  Not pretty.  Happy.

Now and then she relapsed.  One day a Bloomingdales makeup salesperson told her that her eyelids were awesome for a woman her age, and it went to her head (eyelids! her heart sang).  But then she wondered what age the salesperson meant, and whether saying that had influenced her to spent the extra eighty bucks on eye goo, and by then she was laughing so hard she didn’t even worry if laughing would make her eyelids crinkle too much, and disturb their awesomeness.

At long last simple logic set in. She came to understand that the people in her life knew who she was: how old, what she looked like, so if she looked different they would still know her as herself, only herself-with-an-eyelift or a chin tuck.  So then, she asked herself, who would all this fixing up be for?   Strangers she passed on the street?  Were they worth the trouble and pain? Would they want to be the cause of it, if she told them?

When I see beautiful young women as young as teenagers altering their appearances surgically, or injecting stuff into their brows and lips and cheeks, it makes me want to cry.  When I see older people, insecure about themselves because they have wrinkles and grey hair, I want to tell them to stop.  Look in the mirror.  Know who is there.  And laugh. But, of course, even as young as teenagers, most of the imprinting has already been done, and no one may be in a laughing mood.

 

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DA CAPO:go back

The other night my friend, A, and I were watching the movie remake of the 1950’s Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “South Pacific.”   As young music students, we had the entire score memorized: lyrics, syncopated beats, all the little vocal quirks and flourishes of the original stars, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.  And here we were, some sixty years later, singing it again, beaming at each other, delighted at the triumph of recall and the sweet memories it brought back; we sang the whole score to each other, making our own flourishes, laughing and crying at the feat and the time gone by.

And I got to thinking, if it were for entertainment alone, it would be easy to live in the past. And not so bad.  There are revivals of the great Broadway musicals everywhere, live and on tv.  You can Google anything.  And Youtube?  Youtube is the absolute motherlode.   You can kill days, nights, weeks on Youtube if you’re not careful.

Case in point: The day after “South Pacific” I Googled the musical genre “salsa” because my friend and I were talking about Larry Harlowe, (el Judio Marvellioso – the marvelous Jew famous for his salsa sound) with whom we went to high school.  Google sent me to Youtube and I found and listened to some cuts from the Latin Legends/ Fania All-Stars album and while I was listening, I was reading the strip of attractions down the right side of my screen.  It included Dick Cavett’s interview with Groucho Marx, which reminded me of the famous Cavett interview with Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer so I watched both of those and on the strip of attractions on another page I saw Miles Davis, so I listened to some Miles, which reminded me of  Chet Baker so I listened to him, and on the side of his page was Peggy Lee so I looked up some Peggy Lee and after listening to her sing “Black Coffee,” I got to missing Sarah Vaughan, so I listened to some Sarah Vaughan.

“How fabulous,” I thought, “You can find anything on Youtube!”  Which made me wonder if you could really find anything, so — not to watch, mind, because I had already spent too many hours watching too much—but just to prove that I could indeed find anything, I went looking for the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First” bit, which just popped into my head, and sure enough I found it, and as long as it was right there, I figured I might as well watch it, and I did.  And watching that made me think how much I preferred old comedy to new comedy and that brought me to Richard Pryor, so I looked up Richard Pryor, and George Carlin and Buddy Hackett and…well you get it.  A day gone.   But it was pleasurable without much fuss, like bathing in  re-runs of Seinfeld instead of pulling against the tide of Meet The Press.

Watching stuff we’ve seen before is soothing.  The music plays as we heard it play before; the talk is talk that mattered urgently once but maybe not so much right now; the comedy is still funny but not so cutting edge anymore.

The present comes at us with surprise and relevance, and though that can be exciting and stimulating, it also unsettles. So bring on the re-runs.  And old musicals.  And Youtube.   Sometimes living in the past is a temporary cure for the present and the anodyne to thoughts of the future.

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BLABBERMOUTH

I have been thinking about secrets lately.  How many I have kept and how many I have confided in my life, and why they were secrets in the first place.

When the good news is not a sure thing yet (“Guess who’s pregnant?” ) we don’t want to jinx it, or so terrible (“I’m not supposed to tell you, but…”) that telling it will confirm its reality, but we just can’t contain the news, we tell just one person and make it a secret.   Or when something is unbelievable, like the secret my friend, writer Marion Renning wrote about in her poem, “Blabbermouth”:

Swearing me to secrecy

My mother told me

Where babies came from.

I got up on an orange crate

And told all the kids.

Imagine the faces on “all the kids” that day.  What confusion she erased!  How many pregnancies she helped avert among those eight-year olds!  How the reputation of storks was righted in that neighborhood of Chicago the day she spilled the beans!

Secrets can be bonding or bondage.

Telling someone a secret is like a pledge, like saying, “I give you this nugget of information that no one else knows because I like you best, or trust you most.”  But sometimes that can be a challenge.  (Or something worse.  What if someone lets you in on something illegal or immoral or evil? )

Keeping the secret can be a pledge, too, of honor and faithfulness. Remember Jerry Seinfeld’s “it’s in the vault”?  Though if it’s something illegal or immoral or evil it pits your sense of honor against your disapproval, or your concern for some hurt that can come out of your keeping that secret. (“Promise you won’t say anything, but I murdered Fred who isn’t really little Jimmy’s father…remember Larry, best man at my wedding?  Well, right after the rehearsal dinner…”)

Some secrets have expiration dates, like that pregnancy only you knew about, or the friend who finally comes out to his parents so you’re not the only one who knows, or the job offer no one knew had been offered gets turned down or accepted.  Some secrets are so deep in the past that they live longer than the people who told them and kept them, and are discovered so long after the fact that they can be like those buried land mines from World War II which may detonate unexpectedly.  (In the Depression people sometimes sold their jewels and replaced them with paste and never told a soul. Imagine inheriting those family jewels.)

I am the repository of secrets that have expired, and secrets that stay buried in me after the person who told them to me are gone (which is a lonely feeling).

In my parents’ generation, health was a secretive issue. You couldn’t even say the word cancer, you spelled the first two letters, CA…and the rest was implied.  In my own family, we couldn’t speak of having even a cold outside the walls of our apartment.  Now, the family rule is no secrets when it comes the health.

With the perspective of age, I understand secrets differently from the way I used to understand them.  I think they should be used exclusively to prevent pain and hurt, and never to delay pleasure. Even if it’s not a sure thing, sharing the anticipation of something wonderful puts a little more joy into life.  So if you cheated on your taxes and you’re feeling guilty I’m your girl, I won’t tell a soul; but if you think you might win the lottery and want to keep it under wraps, don’t confide it to me.  I’ll probably blab it to the world.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

A lot of older people took their time deciding whether or not they were going to opt into The Computer.  At first, many of us refused to buy one, as if computer technology was the invasion of the body snatchers.  Happily, those days are over.  Now everyone has a computer (even if only because everyone’s children have insisted).  And most of us have given in, one way or another, making the not-so-easy transitions to notebooks without pages, tablets that you don’t take with water, and phones that are truly smarter than they need to be. But don’t you notice, we are always somehow a beat behind?  By the time we got accustomed to e-mail, everyone else had moved on to text messaging; just when we were forming our Facebook nostalgia groups (there is one for every neighborhood and every high school in America, I suspect) it seemed like everyone but we were becoming Instagrammers.

Once I was a typewriter person.  I loved my IBM Selectric, the click and clatter of the keys, the distinctive ball that rode across my paper and inked it with words right off the bat, without so much as a PRINT keystroke to worry about.

But I was in the vanguard; early on I bought a computer, solely for its word processing technology.  I thought it would make writing easier, and it did: correction was instantaneous (with no WiteOut or smudges): errors and changes were gone in a keystroke.  (Of course, that meant all evidence of the thought process was also gone, so I had to be confident in the rightness of my  changes.)  I saved a lot of trees by not printing out anything but the final draft on paper, and a few years later, it became unnecessary to print anything at all, I just typed the final draft onto the screen, e-mailed it to an editor and it appeared on her computer.  Invasion of the body snatchers, indeed.

Using this technology (which I still did not quite understand, I admit) was so easy that it was seductive.  There was no hard (paper) evidence of the work itself.  It was all there but with a flick of the switch not there. It was a matter of trust – “fall back and I’ll catch you” – that if you pressed a “save” key it would come back intact when you flicked the switch again. From time to time, I would hear about someone “losing everything” because of a computer virus, so I would use an external drive (at first that little platter, called a “diskette” and later a flash drive smaller than a Zippo lighter) and magically it would copy all my copy. I admit I did not do this a lot, even though people were always saying I should. Then, one weekend, during storms that turned the power on and off and on and off, my computer had a breakdown. “Crashed” is the word they use –fitting because it felt like a train wreck in the midst of my life.  All at once, all my business correspondence, my files, lists, poetry, book ideas — everything — was gone.  The computer tech had little hope.  Work that had taken years to accomplish was gone.  Everything that had not been on paper, or on a flash drive, gone.  It felt like someone had died.  I was in shock.  Twenty-four hours later, when I began to calm down, I told myself that of course no one died, and no one was injured in this crash, and as long as I still had a mind, I could generate new documents, so I had better just snap out of it. It was not easy. And believe me,  even if it isn’t a death, it is a loss, of intellectual property and also of control, because this machine (whose technology I still still don’t understand) had snatched my entire body of work, thereby cutting me off from a good part of my life.

Since I had no choice, I decided to see it as a sign to start fresh, with new words and new ideas.

The next night the tech called with guarded good news: there might be a way to retrieve all my lost material.  I was guardedly glad, and a bit disappointed.  I had begun to look forward to my fresh start.  And I resolved that if I should retrieve my lost stuff, I would give it a long, hard look, and what I could live without I would live without.  And as for the rest of it:  Regrettably, my old Selectric is no more, but I will back up more often, and buy a ream of paper, and print, too. And because in some small way I think it will save me from the aliens in our midst, I will put important things down with a fine point rollerball, into an old notebook with marbled cardboard cover, and blue lined pages.

 

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