Observations from the Invisibility Cloak

When I was 28 and writing poetry, I wrote a poem lamenting the feeling that I was invisible because I was no longer the youngest, cutest thing on the block --- and I had become a mother. Now I'm in my sixties and really invisible. And I like it!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Too hot. No escape in prison.

It's hot, y'all. I know it gets like this every summer but this is a long string of hot, humid days and that is hard to bear. Maybe it's because I'm getting older or more spoiled by air conditioning. Can you even imagine being without air conditioning anywhere these days? 

Oh wait, I can. I was born in 1950. Summers were hot even back in the olden days and yes, all we had were fans, shade, and cool drinks. Is it worse now? I don't know. Depends on where and who you are.

There's one place I'm personally aware of that is ridiculously hot in these 95 -100 degree days. Women's prison in Raleigh, NC.

Oh, well, they're prisoners. What does that matter? They shouldn't be comfortable anyway. They're no worse off than our grandparents were. And it's supposed to be punishment for bad people.

I've written about my friend Joanna Madonna, here, here and here. She's in Women's Prison right now and has been for awhile.  I talk to her frequently and between letters and phone calls, I get a lot of news about her experience in there.

It's hot, y'all. Really, really hot. A throwback to the 1950s hot. And there's no going to the mall or the movies to escape. There are cooling procedures in place for the 1,000 or so inmates --- large industrial fans in some places, smaller fans in others. You've stood in front of one of those huge fans before, haven't you? Remember how comforting that is?

And water. There are large containers of drinking water strategically placed. I know when I bring my glass of ice water outside these days the ice melts within a few minutes and the tepid water needs to be refreshed. I don't know how the water containers on the compound or in dorms are cooled. Some water, even if it's not cold, is better than no water at all. At least for hydration.

They're even authorized to take extra cooling showers when the temperatures are extreme, and I'm sure that feels good. For a few minutes. Unless the sweat is pouring off of you when you step into the shower and doesn't abate much when you get out. 

Should inmates be treated like regular ol' human beings, like the rest of us? After all, aren't they the bad folks everybody is scared of? Aren't they the terrible predators, the irredeemable, the sinners? They get fed and housed, don't they? What more are they owed?

For a huge number of people, including policymakers, prisoners are a faceless horde. Theoretically, it's obvious that the person who stole from a store, stole a car, got caught with drugs, even committed a violent offense, is someone's mother, father, son, daughter or spouse. In this case, some are grandmothers, even great-grandmothers. Locked up and put away, they're all invisible and it's easy to dismiss the humanity of someone deemed a criminal.

What do we owe those among us who have been locked up? Not even going to questions of the justice system, and there are many, what standards of human compassion must we show to those who have been segregated from society? 

It's hot. Give these women some air conditioning, for heaven's sake!

For more information about Joanna's case

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Esse Quam Videri, Y'all

Things are not always as they seem, nor easily projected into the future. I foolishly thought that by the time I got to the shady side of sixty-five I'd have things pretty well figured out and simply coast for awhile. Not so much.

I'm auditioning for inclusion in an Alzheimer's study at Duke. This is for people at higher risk but not showing signs of dementia. I won't know whether I've been accepted (met the conditions) for a little while yet, but it has me thinking. One part of the consent form stated the probability of an adverse reaction to one of the procedures in the study as 1 in 4,000. Whoa! That gave me pause. It then went on, for perspective, to state that the chances of dying in a car crash are about one in 82, and the chances of being killed by a car while crossing the street are about one in 730. Context is everything; I'll forge ahead.

I have an abiding and very personal interest in this kind of research. When each of my parents began to show signs of dementia, my immediate reaction was denial. It wasn't possible. It had to be something else. There was no family history and they were in good health. But it was true. I could neither wish it away nor ignore what was unfolding in front of my eyes. Alzheimer's doesn't care if you believe in it or not --- it's happening.

So now there is an established family history for me and for my siblings. The four of us, all in our sixties now, whistle in the dark, peering around corners and invoking gallows humor over any slip of the tongue or a lost water bottle. Spooked, we are, and rightfully so.

We each are developing strategies to stave off the anxiety. Three of us are geographically close and when we get together, the jokes will fly. One sister, always more active than the rest of us, still runs the trails regularly, still works full time. She's the baby sis. We older three make stabs at the modern obsession with diet and exercise that is supposed to banish decrepitude and death indefinitely but do so with little conviction. We all know what's coming, it's just a matter of how or when.

So my strategy at this stage is not to stay excessively hale and hearty. Yes, I'm teaching Qigong classes six times a week, which definitely keeps me moving and meditative. (It's a revelation to me that the only way to make sure I get regular exercise is to get paid for it!) I eat all right though I do seem to have overridden my appetite-curbing mechanism. But there, you see, is the magic bullet. If and when my brain starts to dissolve, I don't want to be so fit that I have to take it to the very end. 

Mom and Dad both rode that pony all the way back to the barn. The ending of Alzheimer's Disease is not pretty. Some people, upon hearing a diagnosis of AD go ahead and plan to short circuit it intentionally. The trouble with that plan is that it's too unreliable. The progress of the disease precludes being able to make plans and complete them. Being paroled by a heart attack or stroke before the last gasp of AD is no more reliable a plan, but has its appeal for me.

Jill, my voice of caution, reminds me that dementia may not even be in my future. I know that. I'll take it under consideration. She just wants me around for years to come, she says. Isn't she sweet?

So all things in moderation, as they say. The other lesson I'm learning as I age is that it is just fine to be myself, warts, tummy rolls, moon face, and all. In due time, it will all be resolved. In the meantime, I continue to treasure the moments as they come without too much expectation. This day is sufficient and I am happy "to be rather than to seem" --- esse quam videri.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Icebox Brigade

Right now, our refrigerator is full. I've been reading about food waste lately and while I grew up with the ironclad rule that food should never be wasted or thrown out, I know that these days I do contribute to the food waste stream. We have fresh produce delivered from a farm to the house every Wednesday and sometimes don't eat it all before it goes bad. Some weeks we even avail ourselves of one of those meal-prep delivery services which makes me feel like an actual cook but sometimes doesn't turn out to our liking.

So the fridge is full, and what a blessing that is. I've known this appliance by many names --- the icebox, the frigidaire, the fridge, the refrigerator. Over the years I've had quite a few. Remembering them today, as I contemplated where to stuff the leftovers from lunch, I realized that they trace the trajectory of my fluctuating economic circumstances.

Things started out ok. When I was 18 and newly married, we rented a furnished apartment specifically set up for servicemembers from the nearby Navy base. That was where I started learning my way around the kitchen, though my husband did most of the cooking. He had a talent for it.

When he got out of service and we started college, money was tight. All our furniture and appliances were second-hand,  as was our series of beater cars.  After a couple of years, I moved out on my own for awhile to live in a student boarding house, the first time I shared a kitchen with 6 other women. It was a never-ending effort to keep tabs on my own food. The fridge, with its limited space, was the hardest to control.

After Andrew was born and his dad and I separated for good, I went on welfare and food stamps to keep life together while I finished college and looked for a job. My upstairs apartment had a small fridge with an undependable thermostat and a freezer just big enough for ice cube trays. I learned to shop every couple of days and was very grateful that breast milk was always at the ready and at the perfect temperature.

Next, I threw resources in with my sister and we rented a small, tattered house together. Garage sales provided appliances, including a stove with 2 working burners and a refrigerator that had to be roped shut. Inconvenient, but at least it worked. Somehow, she forgave me for suddenly packing up to move to California, leaving her to unload all our fine furnishings. 

My second place in San Francisco was another shared space with 5 housemates. We instituted the use of small colored stickers to differentiate refrigerator food for each of the roomies. It sort of worked. Sometimes.

Zig-zagging back to Chicago for awhile, I had a garden apartment with no refrigerator at all, and no hope of affording one. Andrew and I slept on a single floor mattress and ate off of a round cocktail table with 2 metal chairs. That was all of our furniture. But the kitchen had hot water and a stove, so I stopped at the market every day to buy cold things for the styrofoam cooler and somehow we got by.

Moving in with my parents in the Azores gave me all the comforts of home: washer and dryer, a working stove and fridge, and a grandmotherly, Portugese, housekeeper/babysitter who took good care of things --- and of Andrew. 

It actually took until I was well into my forties for me to get a brand new refrigerator for the first time. Same thing with a car. Fifties before I owned a house. You would think, after all this history, that I would never take anything for granted, but that doesn't seem to be the way things go. We live in a country in which poor people having a refrigerator calls their legitimacy into question. It's complicated. What exactly is a luxury and what would be a necessity?  

Jill and I have a fifteen-year-old fridge that is still pumping away for the time being. It's ample for us, even without the bells and whistles I see in Home Depot on the new models. I hope it lasts awhile longer, but I also am pretty sure that when it gives up the ghost we'll be able to go pick out a new one, not shop the second-hand stores. We may not be rolling in dough, but we also don't have to tie the door shut with a rope to keep the cold in. 

And that's the lesson, isn't it? Not everyone is so fortunate.

I remember.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Carrying on, A.D.

Nancy and Lester Bundy

Fourteen years ago today, my father died of Alzheimer's Disease. He was an accomplished musician and I grew up in a swirl of classical music and jazz while playing underneath the baby grand piano with my sisters and brother. It was the soundtrack of my childhood.

It's now more than two years since my mother died of the same disease, a sad follow-up eleven years later.  Both were teachers and lovers of theater, music, art, and literature. All four of us apples did not fall far from the parental tree.

Now they're gone and it still surprises me. There is an enormous difference between the intellectual understanding that death is
inevitable and the reality of being an orphan. These two people live on dramatically in my memory and my own expression of life. My personal playlist still revolves around Chopin and Bach, Coltrane and Ellington, and every lyric of every Broadway recording I listened to on the old record player in the living room. Now I listen in my car to a CD of Dad playing Scott Joplin ragtime.

Lately, I've had several friends whose parents have passed into beyond. It is a truism that we are able to turn our own difficult experiences into a force for good with other people in need. That's happened repeatedly in the past couple of years. I am able to pass along what others gave to me and what I've gained from my own experience. 

It's also true that you don't know what it's like until it happens. I suppose that's true of most everything. Not everyone feels a profound loss at the death of a parent or parental figure. Most of my friends going through this are, as I am, veterans of caregiving. We're not kids anymore in need of regular meals or tuition money. Still, the loss of parents is the loss of generational knowledge and continuity.
At Grandma and Grandpa's house

I'm left with boxes of papers, photos, books, and recordings made or compiled by people who no longer exist. Because I had direct interactions with them, I carry sensory memories, intimate recollections that are still alive to me. Soon enough though, I'll be gone as well and fewer people will have any idea of who the people were who came before. We all, if we are remembered by anyone, become reduced to the few tangible mementos and artifacts that survive.

It doesn't seem like 14 years since my father died. My brother and I were at his bedside that day, holding his hands and talking to him. Mom was right here in the front room when her end came, surrounded by family, people who love her still. Alzheimer's had robbed them both of not just their vitality and expression, but any consciousness of self.  In each instance, at the very end of AD, only a shell remained.

Anyone who hangs around the planet long enough will lose someone to death. And it doesn't have to be a person; the death of a beloved animal companion can be devastating as well. As life continues after a death, it can feel incomplete, unnatural, as though the world has fundamentally altered. And while that acute sense of loss eventually diminishes, some of it seems to linger.

It's a new stage of life, I guess. I'm not sure where the memories live. And what do I do with the leftovers?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Everything you know --- right or wrong?

Once upon a time, I would lie on the floor with my head between the speakers listening to the Firesign Theater album "Everything You Know is Wrong" for hours. It seeped into my brain; some stray phrases still surface from time to time. Those were the good ol' days, when America was Great. 

Forty-five years later I have the feeling that everything I know is wrong, and getting wronger by the minute. Not only is the "phone" I carry in my pocket way too smart for me, the world I thought I knew is becoming unrecognizable.

Now I might be able to blame that on the fact that I was lied to. Earnestly and repeatedly lied to, by every authority figure in my small, sheltered world. That's what they did back then when America was Great. Some people called it child-rearing. Others, education.

#1  The guys in the white hats are good, the ones in black hats are bad, and girls are buxom and dumb. 
#2  The United States of America was, and always has been, savior of the world, ever since the noble Founding Fathers invented liberty and justice for all. 
#3  Good people are rewarded and bad people are punished because that's the way God wants it.
#4  Pity the poor, the sick, the old, and the infirm. They can't help it if they're not as healthy and happy as we are. And don't stare.
#5  Just be good and nothing bad will ever happen to you, and if it does that means you've done something wrong.

Now that America is not Great anymore and I'm waaaaaay older than I was back then, the scales fall from my eyes and WHOA! What happened to my pretty places? It's strange to think that even though I've now lived nearly 7 decades and have been through hard times and seen my fortunes ebb and flow, there are still illusions to be shattered. 

I have managed to hold on to a shred of belief that things do keep getting better for humanity. That's involved a lot of squinting, reframing, and sometimes plugging up my ears, but I have never quite lost hope that humans continue to evolve. When cynicism begins to overtake me, I look to history and see where we've been compared to now. It requires taking a very long view, but we have made progress, even in terms of overall warring and killing. Plus we have smart phones now.

Making America Great Again seems to mean a return to black and white thinking, in every sense of the phrase. There's no room for me in a black and white world.
#6  There's one soulmate (opposite sex, of course) for everyone and finding The One brings ultimate happiness.
#7  Don't you worry honey, I'll take care of you.

Did you know that gay people weren't even invented until 1969? And that the push for the ERA and Civil Rights broke America's Greatness forever? Until now in the 21st Century, when we can start getting it back again.

#8  War is terrible but absolutely necessary to preserve Democracy and Greatness.
#9  The Poor will be with us always.
#10  God helps those who help themselves. Hard work and ambition are the keys to the American Dream.

Of course, the hardest work gets the highest pay and if you do unpaid work, like "homemaking" it's not really work at all or you'd be getting paid. If you do manual labor it's honorable even if you can't afford to live on it, because work is redemptive in itself. And if you work even harder, the American Dream of Success will undoubtedly be yours. Just keep trying!

#11  Every American Citizen has the right and the sacred duty to vote. Free and open elections are the foundation of the American Democracy. That's what makes America Great and every other country should be like America.
#12  When you get old, you will be taken care of by your family and your community because we Americans respect and honor families and our elders. They fought in wars and worked hard to Make America Great, and deserve rest, relaxation, and good healthcare at the end of life.
#13  And everyone lived happily ever after.

P.S. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It's probably George Tirebiter.

Monday, January 30, 2017

What did you do during the coup, Grandma?

First of all, I don't have any actual grandchildren, a fact for which I am increasingly grateful these days. But if I did, I would want to have an answer for that question. So far, I carry signs and march, make phone calls to congress, send emails, talk to friends. What else will be required before it's over?

Coup? Is that what this is? Surely that's hyperbolic. Hysteria from a loser Democrat who refuses to get over a lost election. But I don't think so.

There is the "peaceful transition of power" that we've all heard so much about lately and then there's the concentration of power in so few hands that it becomes ----- what? Authoritarian? Dictatorship? Kleptocracy? Some new mash-up tailored for the 21st Century?

Whatever it is, I find myself becoming more alarmed every day. I've slogged through years of being in the political outlier swamp before. I've railed against what seemed obviously bad policy decisions and frankly inhumane treatment of citizens who dwell on the fringes. But this is not the same. This is not, to me, a disappointing political turn of events. 

The new administration is showing itself to be chaotic, unreasonable, woefully inept, and antithetical to the standards of public and private behavior that we expect of anyone over the age of five. But it's the undercurrent that has me waking up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, planning my escape.

Why does Trump have his own security force? The Secret Service is at his disposal. A private security force is one hallmark of authoritarianism.

Why is he deliberately installing people in sensitive, powerful positions who completely lack experience or expertise? Even worse, what is the possible rationale for naming cabinet members who are demonstrably opposed to the departments they are to head? 

Secrecy and deflection are the standard operating procedure for this group. Executive orders do not originate nor are they reviewed by people in government or legislature who have knowledge and experience pertaining to them. Unveiling sudden surprises is the word of the day.

What passes for "national security" appears to be more about political calculation and petulance than considered decision-making. The flagrant ignore-ance of geo-political realities and delicate balance of interests is breathtaking.

Most of all, who is in the shadows? Now that power has consolidated to the point of the Executive branch ignoring both the Legislative and being in contempt of courts in the Judiciary over the immigration/refugee/Muslim ban, who is the power behind the power? What are not just the next steps but the ultimate aims?

This is why it feels to me like a slow-motion coup. And really, considering the pace of the past two weeks, not so slow after all.

Am I succumbing to conspiracy theory-itis? How do you know when you're witnessing the end of a democracy, the final throes of a society? 

Anybody? Anybody?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Worlds in Collision

It's December. 
It's the month my mother died, two years ago tomorrow.
It's the month after the 2016 election.

I'm having trouble sleeping except when I have trouble waking up. I spend intense, loving hours with friends and family all the while desiring nothing so much as solitude and silence.

The house is decorated for the holidays. We are re-creating the traditions of the family Christmas. The familiarity of rituals and food brings continuity and soothes my psyche.

At the same time, I feel a jarring sense of impending doom, of urgent actions I should take in order to stave off Armageddon.

Welcome to my world.

Two years ago, while Mom was lying in her hospital bed in the front room, the Christmas tree dazzled, music played, the scents of the season wafted through the house. My world had shrunk to that room, that bed, the woman who no longer ate or drank or opened her eyes. The woman who had given me birth and life and without whom I couldn't imagine being in the world. But time does go on, just as they always say, and I am still here and she is not. There continue to be good times and difficulties and so many things I want to tell her about.

Now, two years later, I open my computer or the newspaper in the morning and everything I see and read shouts of imminent destruction, chaos, and loss. It doesn't read to me as if it's something far away and not connected. It hits like action that I must take or all will be lost. The entire election season felt that way, and since the election of Donald Trump it has heightened to enormous proportions. 

I have lost my perspective. I have allowed myself to be seduced by the very fear tactics I so decried over the past year and a half, no actually, for the past 8 years. 

Fear and Loathing in America. 

Maybe what is needed most is for everyone, including me, to chill out. Take a breath and then another and another. This constant fever-pitch opposition is not only exhausting but dispiriting. I feel my life force draining with every headline, every new outrage, every single threat. And where does that lead?

Right now, it's leading me, incrementally, to abandon what was once quaintly referred to as "current events". There is only so much I can take without destroying my own spirit and affecting the people I love. I can't let it go all at once, cold turkey. But I can certainly cut down and replace it with other activities: reading books (actual, physical books), walking dogs in the woods, meeting friends, meditating. If the lure of electronics gets too strong, I can even listen to/watch TED talks.

Regardless of what is happening in the outer world, I am still responsible for my own reactions and perspective. I learned a lot about that during the years of taking care of Mom. Now I need to recalibrate and use what I learned in order to contribute something positive to the world at large, rather than continuing to raise the anxiety level.