PSYCHIC INDIGESTION

Dear Friends, I stand at the podium today to talk to you about Psychic Indigestion.

Psychic Indigestion is what happens when something you have said or done comes back up in you and won’t stay down.  Though it has nothing to do with actual food, it can not only  take a toll on your psyche but also tie a knot in your stomach.  It happens when you swallow an angry response, or fail to chew carefully before you say yes to something you should have said no to.  It also occurs when you don’t say “Hey, stop pushing,” when someone pushes, or say nothing when someone hands you a sly uncompliment like, “You look better today.”

“May we bring the dog to the wedding?”  “Can you loan me another thousand?” “Would you watch the kids next weekend?”  “Will you be at the rally and join the committee and can my cousin stay at your house?” Yes, we say, yes, yes, yes, because we don’t want to disappoint. We want to be good people. We want to be reputed to be good people.

Or, we don’t want to put anyone out.  So, to “Refill your drink?” “Another coffee?” “Too cold in here for you?” we say, no no, no, while we stay thirsty and our teeth chatter.

And then comes the bitter emotional reflux.  It can happen almost instantly or after several days, or sometimes it takes months to manifest, like an out of control sweet tooth or beer habit, which eventually leaves you seriously out of sorts.  And sometimes it can even last a lifetime, when the last words you say or fail to say to someone cannot be either withdrawn or uttered.

But (and I’m ditching the metaphor now, before it chokes me) if the things we say yes or no to are time-stamped, our resentment will eventually end, too. And maybe we even learn from our mistakes and limit our vulnerabilities, though I don’t see that as likely, since most of us don’t make big changes in our natures, mid-life.  But that’s okay, if we see and accept it with some humor. Most of us don’t say or do what we mean or want, sometimes in our lives. It’s the price we pay for being in the world.  So let’s let ourselves off the hook.

Which brings me to “toxic” — that recently popular metaphor I see all over the media lately.  Have you heard it?  So-and-so is a “toxic” person?  Such-and-such is a “toxic” situation? It is a verbal avatar for what we are living through now: harsh, accusative, and divisive.  To be “toxic” is to poison.  There’s no coming back from “toxic.”

Is this blog about language?  Spoken, unspoken?  I guess so.

The impulse to round things up, and make an ending which connects with my beginning moves me to observe that the only spoken words that fail us forever are words of hate; the only unspoken words that have to be spoken are words of love.

Take it from there and go forward.

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NOTES IN THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE, PART I

Clipboard.  Pen on a short leash, attached on the right side and I am a lefty.  Questionnaire. To be answered by writing between extremely narrow lines, like a right-handed calligrapher with tiny fingers.

Questions. Do I smoke?  Do I drink? Am I pregnant? Do I remember that far back?  Should I still list my tonsillectomy under surgeries or is there an expiration date beyond which this information is irrelevant?

Someone two seats away is sneezing.  I turn my head away, trying to inhabit the spot of empty air least likely to carry germs.   I think I see the germs dancing up there.

A nurse opens the inner door and calls out someone’s name.  It is the sneezer.  I cover my face as he walks past.

I don’t know if I like the fact that the nurse uses the patient’s first name.  It is an unwarranted familiarity.  But then I realize it is because of the privacy laws, so no one knows his last name.

Another nurse comes and calls out another name.  Wasn’t I here before that person?

Why did I leave my newspaper in the car?  I meant to bring it in. If I am not called in another minute I will go out to the car and get it.  I would go now, but I am afraid I will miss being called.

I should have gone a minute ago.  Now it is too late.  Is it?  It is.

I should have gone a minute ago.  Now it is too late.

I should have gone a minute ago.  Now it is…was that my name?  How could someone mispronounce my name?  It is so simple.  Oh.  That was Teddy, not Bette.   I’ll just run out to the…

Oh.  Too late.  Finally!

The nurse weighs me and measures me and takes my blood pressure, and goes over all the particulars of my history and current medications.  I am in a nostalgic mood and remember when this is what the doctor did.  But that was long ago, when he was still called “the doctor” instead of “the healthcare provider.”  She tells me he will be in in just a moment.  I look at my watch.

I hear a murmur of voices from the next room.  He’s probably just finishing up in there.  a moment means a minute.  He’ll be in in another minute.  I try to eavesdrop, hear the words being spoken in the next room, but it is just a hum.  I review my appointments for next week on my smart phone.  That takes about ninety seconds.  Then I look back at my appointments since June. Another ninety seconds.  I read the labels on all the jars on the exam room counter.  Then I read them backwards. The voices next door have gone silent.  There are no sounds in the hallway.  Why did I leave my newspaper in the car?  If he does not come in in another minute, I will run out and get it.

I feel like I am sliding off the butcher’s paper of the examining table, so I dismount and sit down on the doctor’s little stool.  I notice the peeling green paint on the side of the room I never get to see when I am sitting on the examining table.  I check my watch.  It has been a while. Maybe I should check outside.  It was a late appointment.  Maybe they have all gone home? I remember once when I was in an eye doctor’s office and they put drops in my eyes and then forgot about me. Which reminds me of my brother-in-law’s classic eye doctor story, when he got so impatient with his examination, with the doctor switching lenses and asking him, “How about now?  How about now?” when he couldn’t tell the difference between one lens and the other that he said, “Fine, fine” and then when the glasses were made up, he couldn’t see.  I was in the middle of laughing out loud at that, when the door burst open.  It was the nurse.  “How are we doing?” she said, as if I were in the process of something, instead of just waiting for her boss.  “Fine, fine,” I said, echoing my brother-in-law. I was not fine.

They should have left me outside in the waiting room.  They move you from the waiting room to the examining room so you can think you are making progress.  But you are still waiting.  I look at my watch.  It is half an hour since I progressed.

I dig around in my bag and find my notebook.  I dig around and find a pen.  I begin writing: Notes in the doctor’s office.

A little knock on the door, and then the provider comes in.  “Hello!” he booms.

I hold up my finger, for him to wait.  I must finish this sentence.

 

 

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PACKING IT ON

Yesterday was a beef stew day.  Next week I am going to make gnocchi, the Italian version of potato dumplings, which I will bury under a blanket of creamy gorgonzola sauce, or a Bolognese, or, if I want to go light, just plenty of melted butter and parmesan. If I am watching my weight, I will go with the butter and parm.  No?  Really?  You don’t think so?  Well, maybe you’re right. Whenever I decide to watch my weight, I get hungry for bad bad things. I begin to eat rebelliously.  To boot ( high and fleece lined in the northeast), winter is coming, and when winter comes my thoughts go to things that warm me up: soups that your spoon can stand up in, stews whose reason for being is the  potatoes, pot pies, lasagna, creamy sauces, fried chicken, rice pudding, and the three “p’s  – pumpkin, pecan and pear pie. What better time to make all three than now, when they are in season?  (I’m not sure about pecans, since they don’t grow around these parts, but as long as I can harvest them in big bags from Sam’s Club, they’re in season for me.)

When the clocks get turned back next week, and darkness descends by five or six o’clock, I tend to slump, and nothing is better than food and drink to give me a lift.  A glass of wine.  A handful of chips.  Some camembert, or smooth peanut butter on a Ritz.  A brownie. Or just the sight of a tall, broad, beautiful menu of entrees, none of them cooked by me (for a change) and all of them whispering their promise of deliciousness or comfort.  And there are so many occasions coming up!  There’s Thanksgiving to think about, and Chanukah and Christmas, so I’ve got to stock up on cookies and other freezer-worthy, prepare-ahead goodies.

Wait.  Hold it.  In 500 words or less I’ve just given a handful of excuses for doing what come naturally to me: loving food.  I can take anything and turn it into an occasion to eat.  If I’m sad, if I’m happy, weather bad, weather good.  When I want to celebrate.  All the kids and grandkids get their favorite meal on their birthdays.  If I want to give someone a token of my esteem, I bake it.  When I have something on my mind, I go into the kitchen and dice veggies or make bread.  No wonder I have to watch my weight!  How could I NOT have to watch my weight with the regularity of a traffic light: STOP! Reach for a carrot stick; GO, have a cupcake, STOP! eat a rice cake, GO on, have a rice krispie treat instead.

Sometimes I think about those folks who are not excited by food…and there are such people, I know some of them. One of my oldest friends is such a person.  And here’s the curious thing: they’re not all thin.  What I’d like to know is how, when someone’s entire attitude toward food can be summed up by  “eat to live,” instead of “live to eat,” can such a person get fat?  I’m not saying they don’t have a right to get fat, but I just wonder how they do it, without fantasies of mac and cheese oozing its pinky orange sauce, without being bothered making advance plans for tomorrow’s lunch during tonight’s dinner? These are people who have probably never been preoccupied by thoughts of whether crushed pralines will make a good substitute for streusel in coffee cake or how wonderful olives and cashews are when they are chewed together by the same teeth at the same time. These are people who don’t spend hours watching cooking shows, jotting scraps of recipes on napkins left over from the last meal they ate.  I’m just glad if I’m going to gain weight that I have a good time doing it.

Now, I know some people will say this is a politically incorrect message, what with things like cholesterol, and triglycerides and salt and sugar to think about.  To them I say, “Sorry.”  ‘Tis the season to pack it on, load up the plate, go back for seconds.  Right after that, I am going watch my weight. Right after I finish the Halloween candy.

 

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HIDDEN WORLDS

You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it.

 I was walking Pete this morning, and suddenly he stopped dead in the road. He does that from time to time, so I waited, and then gave a little tug on the leash.  “C’mon,” I said, but he didn’t budge.  I waited again, then tugged again, and this time he closed the distance between us, got up on his hind legs and gave me a little push with his front paws, then pulled me back toward home.  Very unusual.  But what was more unusual was that I completely understood.  “Not there, not now,” he was telling me.  Had he sensed a bear? Felt a coming thundercloud? Intuited a high-pitched danger that I was not privy to?

Before I had Pete, the world of dog ownership was closed to me.  I had no idea of what a relationship between dog and person could be, what knowledge he would share with me, in what ways I would learn to trust him as he trusted me.

It got me thinking about the hidden worlds that exist around us, no matter how far and wide we have traveled, no matter how long we have lived.

Some worlds are temporary and we are glad when they become hidden again.  The world of hospital stays, for example.  Have you ever been in one?  Amazing, how quickly you get to know the beating heart of the hospital, with its routines and regimens, set hard and fast against their mission of life and death.  They come at 6 for vitals, again at noon, again at 6.  They call giving pills a “med pass” and you learn all the other jargon associated with why you’re there, too. You know the tread of “your” nurse. You temporarily straddle two worlds, and visitors bring a foreign influence with them: street clothes, the smell of real food, a chill from the outside. You say “come later, they’re taking me down for tests,” and establish yourself as part of the hidden world.  And then you get better and that world closes again.  And you go home to your dog.

(And I can resume my happy tale of the hidden world of dog ownership.)

Nowadays, I hear a distant bark and I can tell the size of the barking dog before it comes around the bend.  I also have a fuller understanding (and forgive me please for all the ridicule I once subjected you to) of the phrase “pet parent.”  Who knew? I love Pete like a kid, fuss over his diet, worry about his stress level.  If he misbehaves at the dog park, I tend to blame the other dogs or alibi Pete with as much bias as I once did in the playground.  (Did I do that?  Am I that kind of parent? I only thought you were!)  “He doesn’t usually do that,” the lady with the terrier/Chihuahua says, the third time her dog snarls and foams at the mouth. I may not believe her, but now I get it.  Entering previously hidden worlds can not only bring new knowledge but self-knowledge, as well.

As long as we keep on living, hidden worlds open to us, some like blossoms and others like chasms.   There is a last line lurking here, a final thought, a bullet ending, but I don’t have it yet, it is still hidden inside the thought that keeps unfurling this morning.

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WHAT I MEAN IS…

I’ve written about euphemisms before, those substitute words or phrases that stand in for what seems too raw or honest “in polite society” (a euphemistic paraphrase for “people like you and me but not them.”).  The most familiar euphemisms are the ones having to do with bodily functions.  Recently someone I know was at a conference for educated adults and the facilitator gave the assemblage a mid-morning “potty break,” where , presumably, the assemblage was expected to go to the “rest room” (in other words, the “toilet” where they would do more than rest; some of them would “poop” and some would “tinkle.”)

What these words and phrases have in common is they all step back from the acts which are most private and most elemental because referring to them makes us uncomfortable. (“Uncomfortable” by the way, is another, more recent euphemism for everything from the pain of surgery without anaesthesia, to “extreme rendition,” a post-9/11 euphemism  for torture.)

The effort to soften the reality of death shows up in substitute phrases like “passed,” “passed on,” and “departed.” “Put to sleep” means “euthanized.” “Patient negative outcome?” Harry died.  My own pet peeve are the words and phrases that put distance between an actual disability and the politically correct expression of it: “other abled,” “cognitively challenged,” and worst of all, “special.”

Of course, none of the above makes a bit of difference in the reality.  If you’re dead, you’re dead.

I will not indict all euphemisms.  They are figures of speech like other figures of speech, and where they mean well, I celebrate them.  For example, I like “spirits” (as in Wine & Spirits) which elevates “liquor” a bit, makes it high, so to speak.  And isn’t it kinder to refer to the consumer of spirits as a “bon vivant” rather than a barfly?

There are, however, euphemisms that attempt to mitigate or put a spin on reality for the sake of a political position, or the semblance of correctness, and these do make a difference, at least until our brains catch up with our ears.  I’m thinking about camouflage language, words in drag, euphemisms that act as switcheroos, like “pro-life” for “anti-abortion” and “pro-choice” for “anti-anti abortion”; an “illegal alien” becomes an “undocumented immigrant.” The power these euphemisms has is to obfuscate, not clarify, and I think a good part of the political climate we find ourselves in has  to do with people being fed up with that lack of clarity.

Canned speeches, camouflage language, switcheroos: the euphemisms of political life. And in this climate, the lure of the real inner thought,  the forbidden vulgarity has a fatal appeal.  Ordinary, nice people delight in hearing public speech which features words like “ass” and “bullshit” and “spy” and “treason” because they are real words and not stand-ins for other words, and especially because ordinary, nice people can hear themselves thinking and saying them.

When the brain catches up with the ears, I believe people will realize that what one says and how one says it are two vastly different things; until then, we should all try to keep the faith/hold the line/hang in there.

 

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BREAD: PURE, SWEET AND WRY

I’ve often said, “In another life I would have been a baker,” but that’s cocktail party talk, only momentarily true.  I tried it once.  Way back when I was first baking bread, someone gave me a standing order for 3 loaves of challah every Friday. Suddenly I couldn’t charge enough to make up for the inconvenience and time I spent and when I began to think of my (first and last) customer as my enemy, my “bakery” went out of business and I went back to baking for fun.  To me, challah means family: sweet, comforting, good with soup, or eggs, or as French toast.  On the Jewish holidays I bake enough to give each of my kids a loaf to break their fast. I’m still using the same recipe I got from my friend, R’s mother, Sophie, and I’m still trying to make my loaf comparable to hers.

The best bread recipe I’ve ever followed was Julia Child’s, for the baguette. It runs more than ten pages, and is as detailed as can be, with diagrams, and even includes advice about leaving one hand unsticky in case the phone rings while you are in the midst.  The French baguette is pure, containing only flour, yeast, water and salt;  it relies on a long, slow gestation period for its flavor to develop.   (Or, as Julia said, “The villain in the breadbasket is speed…”)

Making challah is cosy, part of nesting, easy to fold into a busy day. If you start early, you can bring the ingredients together and let the bread rise while you do household chores, then go back and form the loaves, then wash the kitchen floor and throw in a wash and by the time you’re done, you are ready to preheat the oven, bake the loaves, and get on with your day.  Making a baguette is a meditation.  You are in a day-long negotiation with the bread gods.  The bread rises three times. You form the loaves carefully and prepare the pans carefully and impersonate a baker as you transfer them to the baking pan without deflating them or disturbing the delicate equilibrium that has puffed them up with the proper amount of gases.

I’ve made lots of breads in my time. I’ve pursued (and finally found) a rye bread recipe that yields a loaf that smells and tastes like the ones I remember as a child, and a flat bread (similar to focaccia) called onion board.

But no matter what bread I’m baking, it’s the setting out on the journey, the trying of the yeast – auditioning it, so to speak, in a small dish, with some warm water and a small encouragement of sugar—letting it prove itself before going full speed ahead that I love.  If it bubbles up, the aroma it releases, funky, winey (or beery), is like a promise.

I don’t use a bread machine because kneading bread is a good way to work out frustration and anger, and though I live in an anger-free environment these days, there is still politics.  So, kneading is good.  I knead until the dough is as smooth as an earlobe, and set it aside to rise.

This morning I broke a bottle of vinegar reaching for something, and the cleanup took almost an hour. The bread waited patiently, and I even had time to begin this blog before it was time to revisit it, to punch it down, press all the air bubbles out of the dough and form the loaves.  I painted them with an egg wash and cooked the rest of the egg for the dog.

There is an organizing principle at work here that I feel, that does me good, that gives meaning; I honor it.

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JUDGE AND BE JUDGED

 

You are at the supermarket deli counter.  You make eye contact with a pleasant looking person holding #27 to your #29. They are serving #23.  Enough time for a chat.   But then you see her glance at your cart, scan the big bag of fun-size Snickers, the large bottles of root beer and orange soda next to the giant store-brand Cheetos, and turn away. Her cart has Almond Milk, a cube of tofu, 52 grain organic bread, a bag of sprouts, and a large Purel, which reminds you that you forgot to wipe the handle of your cart when you yanked it free it from the grubby, germ-infested nest of carts as you came in.

You feel thoroughly judged.  Part of you wants to say, “Wait, wait, I just started shopping, I have serious things to buy, too!” or “I’m picking up a few things for my friend who runs a kindergarten,” and the other part of you wants to poke her in the chest and say, “What’re you lookin’ at, nosy lady?” You imagine her asking, in an oh-so-reasonable tone of voice, if you happen to be aware of the dye they put in the soda to make it that orange color and what it likely does to your insides and what the Cheeto dust could do to your lungs.

You hate her and her whole damn family.

You imagine she is everything you disagree with. She is probably the owner of the SUV you parked next to, with all the bumper stickers that say things like don’t believe the liberal press and save America for americans and I’m a proud gun owner so back off.   You accuse her, in your mind, of being a hypocrite for buying organic food and driving that gas guzzler.  Not only a hypocrite, she’s dumb, too, paying triple for organic mascara because it was not tested on the eyelashes of defenseless hens, when everyone knows that hens don’t have eyelashes.   You think she looks unhappy, recently divorced, in a custody battle, and she makes her children so nervous with her health and wellness obsessions that if you were asked to testify you would give the other person custody.

#25 has just been called. #27 turns to you and is about to speak. What, oh superior one? you think.  What does she want to tell you?. That she knows you are about to buy full-fat cheese and salty meats (which you are) and she wants you to know you are slowly killing your family?  Go ahead, say it, you think.

“Excuse me,” she says.  “You just reminded me, would you watch my cart for a minute while I run over to the candy aisle?”

“No problem,”you say, and put a protective hand on her cart. “Take your time.”

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