Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Where I am Now

In Spring of 2009, at age 50 I went back to college . This left me nearly no time for blogging, as you may have noticed. But I can see the finish line from here, and I am now blogging over at The Travel Desk-- thetraveldesk DOT blogspot DOT com --where I will be blogging about my travels and studies as a middle-aged exchange student at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

I hope to see you there!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

On Surviving the Noughties

Little did we know, on December 31st, 1999, that the much-feared impending end of the world due to computer malfunction, inevitably resulting--according to the pundits--in widespread chaos and anarchy, would be the least of our worries in the coming decade. I know I was clueless. I was single, healthy, self-employed and all was right in my world and I couldn't imagine that life could do anything but get better and better. And the beginning of the decade seemed to confirm that for me, I met my husband and married in less than a year's time, and he has been my rock through all that has come after. We married on the 7th of September, 2001: a mere four days later we woke up to unbelievable horror. Since that day we have all seen people die on a scale that we simply never could have imagined that New Year's Eve as we watched the clock tick down and worried whether our microwaves would still reheat the coffee in the morning. As I commented to a friend on Facebook yesterday, it is the things that we haven't got the imagination--thank God--to anticipate that always get us in the end.

In the past decade we have watched in horror and disbelief as people deliberately and with malice flew airplanes into crowded buildings, killing thousands. We have watched again and again as a giant wave overwhelmed already struggling people and rich tourists alike, with hundreds of thousands of fatalities. We've seen an entire American city wiped out by flooding, and watched as day after day more and more of them succumbed to the horrible heat and hunger and disease, knowing all the time, to our great shame, that the reason that those people were left to suffer as they did for so long was because of the color of their skin and the level of their poverty, and that this meant that to the powers that be, they simply didn't matter enough. We have seen our country at war on two fronts for nearly nine years. In the conflicts all over the world that our news never gives air time to, people are dying every day due to genocide. The term and concept of "suicide bomber" is no longer foreign to us.

On a smaller scale, just in the last year alone we have seen celebrity after celebrity shuffle off this mortal coil. For those of us who believe that things happen in threes, we eventually lost count of the triplets. And there have been those many more people who although their faces were unknown to millions the world over, were loved and cherished by the people who did know them. In the last two months my friends have lost uncles, aunts, parents, grandparents and children.

In organizing my thoughts over the last few days about what I want to say here, I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the earth is thinning the human herd. Perhaps there has simply been too many of us, and that we are so crowded that we can no longer get through life without rubbing up against each other and the earth in a way that doesn't irritate all those we rub up against.

I won't talk about what the last couple years of the decade threw at my husband and I, because that is a whole other conversation. But out of the wreckage that our lives became, we picked ourselves up and got back in school last January. It has been the most wonderful experience. And then suddenly, on November 3rd, I couldn't breathe. My husband took me to the ER and I was admitted to the hospital with a massive saddle pulmonary embolism. Most people with a PE don't make it to the ER, and many who do don't survive. Mine was of a great enough size that I fell into the "don't survive" category. And yet here I am.

I know that my reason for surviving was because I refused to leave my husband alone in the world. For that first 24 hours that the ER doc told me was so critical, I lay awake all night watching the clock and thinking, determinedly, gleefully "I'm still here!" When they took me up to the acute cardiac telemetry unit in what felt like the middle of the night, on the white board opposite my bed was the heading, "Goals for Today." In my mind I wrote there in big black letters: Survive. And I did. Through sheer cuss-headedness, through the awesome skills of all the medical staff that I had the incredible good fortune to come into contact with, through the love of my husband, family and friends, and through constantly marveling over the miracle that I was indeed, still alive, and just simply delighting in that fact.

That's what I did to survive, and what the people around me did to help me to do so. But there is more to it than that. Call it luck, call it fate, call it some grand design. And that is the part that still puzzles the heck out of me. A few days ago I read a news story about an 18 year old who died after hockey practice. He had complained earlier that his lungs hurt. I don't understand why I survived and he didn't. Don't misunderstand me, I am really, really glad to be here and immensely grateful. I get it, I really do. But I don't understand the why.

We hear all the time, or read stories over and over, of someone who survives the impossible--a plane crash where no one else comes out alive, a car accident that kills everyone else in the car, the one kid who hides behind the desk when the crazy people come through with guns. And the feeling we are left with is that this person survived because life has a special purpose for them that they have not yet fulfilled. Or that this experience is the tempering that changes them into the person that then goes out into the world and does something amazing for mankind. There is always a why, always a reason.

I don't know what my reason is, and I feel like I'm supposed to know. I don't want to go out and change the world, although I see so many things that need changing. I don't have the energy to start a foundation, organize a marathon for a cause or campaign for office. I just want to feel good enough to start school again in two and a half weeks and maintain my straight A's. My goals are no loftier than finishing school, getting a well-paying job in a field that I will love and working there until I retire. I just want to live a happy life with my husband, spend spare time reading and knitting and gazing out the window, laugh with my friends, see Italy.

Right after I came home from the hospital I would sit for long periods of time just looking around me and feeling like a sentient new-born. I saw everything through new eyes, and with new understanding. Our apartment, the view from our windows, the flowers on our balcony, my husband and my life. One night just after I came home I was watching "Studio C" on a local channel, and Marc Cohn was the guest. He talked about being shot in the head a few years before during an attempted car-jacking, and having this same sensation that I am going through. A friend of his wrote something to him in a letter that I found so profound that I copied it down on the back of a nearby knitting pattern. The friend said to him, "Maybe life was curious to see what you would do with the gift of being alive."

Maybe it is just as simple as that. I simply don't know yet.

Friday, May 18, 2007

On the Wisdom of Mothers

My grandmother was no lady. Now, having stated that so plainly, let me disavow you of the notions of what Not A Lady usually means. She didn't have sexual relations with multiple partners for or without profit. She didn't drink to excess - barring the occasional grasshopper - or smoke anything in any form. She didn't use foul language much worse than hell or damn. What she was not is the classic picture of a Lady - a simpering, floral-chiffon-and-white-gloves-wearing, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth, delicate little thing. She was a capable and determined woman who was the eldest of 8 0r 9 siblings, raised on a farm to do hard work and to make do. Family legend has it that my grandfather-to-be met her when she was out riding her horse one day with one of her brothers, and decided that she was the woman he would marry. She was equally determined that she was not. In the end he won, but I think that was one of the few battles my grandmother ever lost in her life.

My grandmother - who was dubbed Wild Edythe by my immediate family - didn't really give a rat's hind end what anyone thought of her, and so was perfectly comfortable behaving as she pleased and saying anything she wanted to, wherever she might be, in whatever company. Gram was not shy about sharing her opinions. She died of pneumonia three days short of her 92nd birthday just over 11 years ago, still just as sharp as the proverbial tack, and I have no doubt that she got up there and straightened heaven and its denizens out in about five minutes flat. In the way that we are all cursed to develop some of those parental traits that horrify us the most, on occasion I now catch my mother in a restaurant giving a pointed sideways glance at the manner in which someone else is dressed and open her mouth to speak, when I will look deep into her eyes and ask, Edythe? Is that you? How the heck are ya? Have you organized God yet?

My grandmother didn't take any crap from anybody, and just let them try it! As she might have described herself in one of her many famous sayings, she was full of piss and vinegar. Take a cat, hold it firmly, squirt it thoroughly with a garden hose, give it a good few shakes and set it down. You have my grandmother. To me, the ultimate compliment someone in our family can pay to a new acquaintance is that Edythe would have liked them. My grandmother was one heck of a wise woman.

Now don't get me wrong. Gram was also a loving mother to two daughters, a loving wife (though legend has it a nagging one) to my quiet grandfather, one hell of a baker, and an incredible gardener. She could literally grow anything. Anything. And make it bloom, and be the largest and heartiest specimen of the thing that you have ever seen. She was a loving and non-judgemental grandmother to eight grandchildren and countless great-grandchildren. My grandmother thought we were all handed down from the Mount along with Moses' tablets, and she made sure we knew it. She treated everything we did and said as though it was the wisdom of the Oracles coming from our mouths.

It has long been one of my closely held convictions that upon delivering their first child, every mother is covertly given a copy of the 'Mother's Handbook'. No, this doesn't tell you how to bathe a newborn for the first time, how to breast feed or deal with colic. No advice on changing the diapers of small boys so that you don't get a faceful of pee, or how to answer those awkward questions of where babies come from. You won't learn how to deal with temper tantrums and teenage angst from this volume. No, leave all that nonsense to Dr. Spock and his ilk.

This book is every mother's source of Snappy Sayings. We've all heard them, and as kids we used to love to make up new versions of them - such as, 'If you poke your eye out with that stick, don't come crying to me!', or, If you fall out of that tree and break your leg, don't come running to me!'. It can also be great fun to contrast them with each other, such as 'Many hands make light work' countered with, 'Too many cooks spoil the broth' or 'Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.' There is no doubt that the classic saw comes in handy, if only on those rare occasions when someone jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge and you have to decide if this is a new trend that you wish to follow, or if it is that old thing your mother always warned you about.

My problem as a child was that I believed I was supposed to think about any advice I was given, and to weight it or question it as I thought necessary, much to the occasional consternation of my parents and the sniggering delight of my elder siblings. What kind of freak was I? So when my mother gave me the old 'Always wear clean underwear in case you get into a car accident and have to go to the emergency room', I had to stop and look for the logic in that. I pointed out to her that A- If they were clean when I started, they most certainly would no longer be so after the proverbial car accident, and B- If the accident and my resultant injuries are so severe that ER personnel are removing my clothing, then cleanliness of undergarments would be the least of my worries, and further, if it was nonetheless of such great concern to the nurses and doctors in the ER, I was in a whole heap of trouble that clean knickers would never get me out of.

No, true maternal wisdom comes from those moments when there is no snappy saying in the handbook to fall back on, and yet pearls of wisdom fall from the maternal lips nonetheless.

But among the many things my grandmother was famous for - and you can see that she remains a legendary figure in our family to this day- were her sayings. One of my favorites, invariably dispensed if you asked what was cooking when it should be terribly obvious with a little thought, was 'Shit stirred with a wooden spoon!' Now don't ask me why, but in my family, that is thought to be a perfectly hilarious rejoinder.

Another of her gems was dispensed to my mother when she came home crying one day from school, saying the other kids were teasing her about of her big feet. My grandmother told her that next time she should tell the those kids (all shorter than my tall mother) that it takes a bigger foundation to hold up a cathedral than it does an outhouse. I have used that in my own defense a time or two.

And my own mother, while she could occasionally - like all parents - deliver those lines that made one scratch one's head and think, No, she didn't just say that, did she?, had those occasional flashes of brilliance that were the right thing to say at the right time and are still memorable years later. When I first learned that such things could be planned, I asked my mother if I was a surprise. I have three older siblings all about 18 months apart, and I came along five years later. I was pretty sure then that I was an 'oops!' Mom looked at me and said, 'Honey, you were all surprises!' Good one, Mom.

On marriage, my mother had a few good gems of her own to deliver. Other than constantly telling our dog that she should never get married - which annoyed the heck out of my father. "Stop telling that dog not to get married!' Towards the end of his life, my grandfather suffered from emphysema, and so my Mom would go home from nursing school at weekends and mow the lawn for him. One day when I was a teenager and came back in the house after mowing the lawn one hot afternoon, Mom looked at me and said, 'As soon as I got married, I forgot how the lawn-mower worked.'

My Mom was quite a beauty in her day, and I imagine she had quite a few suitors. She tells the story of one man who came to pick her up for a date, and stood up to talk to her parents because the only 'empty' chair in the room had the cat sleeping soundly in it. She told me she knew right then that if he wasn't man enough to move the cat to sit down, then he wasn't the man for her.

One of my first jobs was working as a coat-check person in a busy restaurant. It was a cake-walk. All I had to do was sit there on my stool in the little window, and surreptitiously read my book under the counter until someone walked up and turned in their coat. I handed them a little tag, and hung up their coat. A while later, they came back, gave me the little tag back and I gave them back their coat. For this I made a goodly fortune in tips every evening. On a night that the place was really hopping, one of the cocktail waitresses came up to me and asked me if she could park her tray in my window while she dashed into the Ladies. When she came back for her tray, she said to me, 'You know, I once asked my mother why little boys got to stand up to pee, when girls had to sit down. She looked at me and said, Dear, some days that is the only chance you get.'

About 4 years after my grandmother died, one night I had this dream. In my dream I was on the computer reading my emails when suddenly a chat window popped up, and it was my grandmother. But instead of spelling her name Gram, as we always did, she spelled it Graham, like this guy I knew casually from a couple of the Aromatherapy lists I was on. All the time she and I were chatting - and I can't remember what about - I kept wondering not, Why am I chatting with my dead grandmother on the computer, but, Why is she spelling her name like Graham's? It was one of those dreams that really stuck with me the next day, and I thought about it all through work, and thought about how wonderful it was that she was still part of my life, if only in dreams. I got home from work that afternoon and turned on my computer. As I sat there reading my emails, a chat window popped up, and it was Graham. We chatted for six hours that day, and we were married less than a year later. A month after the wedding we went back east so that I could introduce him to my siblings and the rest of my family. We took a long drive one day up the mountain to see my Aunt Clara for what would turn out to be the last time. Aunt Clara was a favorite, the widow of one of my grandmother's brothers. While she and I were in the kitchen making sandwiches for lunch, she leaned over and said to me, Edythe would have liked him!

Of course she would. She picked him out.

P.S. To my bleaders who recently reminded me that it has been far too long since I posted. Life just gets ahead of me sometimes (all too often) and I need the occasional push. Thanks!

Monday, February 26, 2007

On Dressing For The Oscars

Last night was Oscar night, and I know we were all watching. Sorry, but this is a throwback from my days of working in salons, where you had to know on Tuesday morning what everyone wore, what their makeup looked like, and how they wore their hair. I saw the Oscars referred to recently as the woman's version of the Super Bowl (in which case, can we have funny commercials, too?), and I think this is pretty accurate. Sure, we might want to know out of idle curiosity who won Best Actor or Actress, and who won Best Picture. And we do enjoy the host's warm-up dialogue. But let's face it, we really want to know what everyone was wearing. And we aren't watching to see the good ones, tho we do give you the admiring 'You go, girl!' when you get it right. But mostly, we are really, really interested in those who get it wrong. We want to see you looking like a complete fruitcake in front of millions.

Maybe it makes us feel better about ourselves. After all, we think, with all her money, all her resources, and all her good looks, she still looks like crap and obviously has no real friends. Maybe this isn't all my own fault!

I know that the likelihood that anyone who attends the Oscars and gets onstage will read this is terribly slim, but if they did, here are some Fashion Don'ts...

1- Your dress should not be trying to do more than two things at any given time. If you have an organza collar and upper bodice, the simplicity of the concept should not have to fight against beading and ruching on the rest of the bodice, and feathers on the hem. You only look like your dress couldn't decide what it wanted to be when it grew up. Remember the adage that applies in all things - Keep It Simple, Stupid.

2- If your arms are showing, make sure you don't look like you can't remember when you had your last square meal. Looking like you have a serious eating disorder is not sexy. Conversely, if the flesh of your upper arms is heading for the floor, cover the poor things.

3- Feathers are for chickens, and strippers.

4- If your gown is tightly fitted, make sure your undies don't show. It really ruins the line of a sleek dress to have VPL. I would have thought you all knew that by now.

5- Oscar dresses should not have stiff parts to them. You don't want to look like a building under construction.

6- If you have a full figure (and more and more of us do, down here in the real world), make certain that the spaghetti straps don't dig into your back fat. If they are digging into your back fat because they are the only things holding up your huge boobs, make another choice.

6a- If you have big hips, don't get the dress with the hidden pockets. Bad idea.

7- Don't wear a short dress. Really, what the hell were you thinking? This is the Oscars, for godsakes.

8- Bustiers really only suit women who have curves. If the side of your body when seen from the front is a straight line from shoulders to hips, move on to the next dress.

8a- Bustiers should never look like body armour.

9- If your skirt wrinkles across the front horizontally at the hips, get the next biggest size. If your dress looks as though it is straining at the side seams, it is. You'll look better in a bigger dress.

10- What the HELL was Joan Rivers thinking?

11- You should not dye your hair to match your dress. Ever.

12- Animal prints are for, well, animals, and hookers.

13- For godsakes do something with your hair. It doesn't take that much effort to hire someone to give you a good 'do. Likewise, if you have a long nose, don't part your hair in the middle and wear it long and straight.

14- White women look sickly in yellow. Unless they are too tanned, in which case they just look like burnt toast in an awful dress.

15- Adult females should never wear fabric bows. Period. Bows belong on infant girls, on gifts, on puppies just back from the groomer, on bank tellers, and on women of the religious right. If you look like you have an opossum in a matching dress sitting on your shoulder or chest, move on to the next choice.

16- Red-heads can only wear red clothing if their hair is RED. If it is the sucked-out popsickle stick version of red better known as strawberry blonde, move on to the next dress choice. The dress is going to suck the life right out of you and walk into the room before you do.

17- If you have the upper body of a line-backer, with strong shoulders, built arms, muscular chest and small boobs, for godsakes don't draw attention to that with a dress that is fitted to your boobs and belted at the waist. Look at me! I could lift your car if I wanted to!

18- Morticia Addams' hairstyle was meant to be a joke.

19- If the designer used to dress Nancy Regan, move on to the next dress choice.

20- Do not EVER buy formal wear south of the Mason-Dixon line. Those people are just crazy. And not in a good way. This goes double for Texas.

21- Men, this is pretty much a no-brainer for you. Put on a black tux and dress slippers, and comb your hair, for godsakes. It really isn't that tough. You are just there to make the women look good.


1- Invest in a full-length mirror, and use it. Really, they aren't all that expensive. Marilyn Monroe used to get all dressed up for a big event, then stand with her back to a full-length mirror. She would do a quick turn-around-and-look, and close her eyes. Anything that stood out in her mind, she took off. There isn't much that she wore that we can remember, other than the dress she had to be sewn into to sign Happy Birthday to Jack Kennedy. And even then we don't remember the dress, but Marilyn in the dress.

2- If the financial stability of the person who is telling you that you look great is in any way dependent upon your choice, ignore them. They are not going to tell you what you need to hear when you need to hear it.

3- Take your very best sarcastic, nit-picking, detail-oriented, brutally honest, bitchy but funny friend with you. If you don't have a friend like this, get one and never, ever give her a gift or buy her a meal. She is your best source of the truth. You may not always like what she has to say, but in the long run you'll be glad she said it.

4- Ask yourself, Am I wearing the dress, or is the dress wearing me?

Ok, it's 1:15 in the afternoon and I'm still sitting around in my sweatpants and t-shirt. With my fluffy moose-hide slippers on. But I'm not standing up in front of millions.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On Menopause Day

According to a recent article on - and contrary to what most people believe - menopause is defined as being a single day that occurs 12 months after a woman's last menstrual period.

A line in the sand, as it were. Before that single day, you are either pre-pubescent, a woman who menstruates on a somewhat regular basis, or perimenopausal. After that day you are post-menopausal. It is only during that brief 24 hours that any woman can rightly refer to herself as experiencing menopause. Now, call me crazy, but I plan to mark Menopause Day on my calendar and celebrate it every year from that point forward. And I wonder why other women don't do the same.

I'm going to be frank with you: for myself, I've never been a fan of menstruation. In 1968 I was ten years old and a 5th grade student at North Park Elementary School, having just transfered that year from a private Catholic grade school. One day, very mysteriously, we girls were separated from the boys in our class, and all herded down to the music room to watch a film strip. About puberty. I remember sitting there in the dark (oh WHY did I sit in the front row for this one?) and seeing the big pinkish drawings of disembodied uterii and ovaries on the screen before us: before, during and after a menstrual period. The concept coming across with each successive illustration that one's uterus was slyly storing up blood a little bit at a time for three weeks - sneaking some in when you weren't paying attention - and then suddenly could hold it no longer, and WHOOSH! out it would come in a flood from one's nether regions. There were vague intimations that it had something to do as well with having babies, but we didn't go down that road. It all seemed perfectly reasonable - as though, well, ok, maybe they didn't tell us about all this right from the start and had waited ten years to throw that particular curve-ball at us, but all-in-all it didn't seem too unmanageable.

Our parents, of course, had been informed that we would be seeing this particular form of visual entertainment that day, so in the evening after dinner my parents sat down to have The Talk with me. I should tell you that at ten years old I was already a fierce feminist. I really didn't see why men had the idea that they were smarter than I was, when I knew danged well that the boys in my class and on my street weren't what you would call 'all that bright'. I knew I was more intelligent. I knew I could run faster, and I knew that I won every time my older brother pitted me in an underwater swimming race against the neighborhood boys. Ok, so my brother was the smartest of us all because he accepted dollar bets against me and made a fortune, but that's ok, he's family. So my attitude was one of 'And you're superior how?' I even resented having the door held for me when I was entering a store by a man just walking out, muttering that I was perfectly capable of opening a door for myself, thank you. I intensely disliked that fact that my father made the rules in the house based solely (or so it seemed to me) on the fact of his gender. Had I a bra at the time I would have burned it.

So picture me, fierce little thing with messy hair and owl glasses, sitting there in the kitchen on one stool and facing my parents sitting opposite me on stools of their own. My Mom was a nurse, so we always referred to body parts and functions by their proper names, and my Dad had worked as an x-ray tech when my parents first married and used to quiz us at the dining room table on the names of all the bones, so it wasn't weird for the two of them to sit down and talk to me about all this. However, I do still clearly recall - 38 years later - my Dad saying that having your period was 'the uterus crying because it wasn't going to have a baby.'

Yes, I swear to you, that is what the man said. And I sat there looking at him and thinking to myself, 'You are out of your mind, buddy.'

In junior high I was one of a group of 5 girls who lived near each other and always hung out together. Debbie had her period first, simply because Debbie was developed to a freakish degree and she was just like that. Then came Nancy; well, Nancy was generally perfect and would start her period obediently when she was expected to. Fran was next, and that just left me and Joni at a year younger, still waiting for our periods to start. We were so incredibly jealous of the others, it was a mark of maturity, a badge that teenage girls would wear.

My friend Tammy told me that when she had her first period, her parents took her out for a celebratory dinner, complete with cake and a candle at the end. I thought this was taking it all a bit far, and wondered how her parents explained to the wait-staff about the cake and candle but avoided having them all stand about mistakenly singing Happy Birthday. Were they singing Happy Period to You instead?

When I first got my period at age 14 I admit I did wonder what the fuss was about. First of all, it was pretty danged inconvenient. In those days we still wore the belts around our waists with the hooks hanging down fore and aft that we would hook a pad into, and if you didn't get it fixed on tightly enough, as you walked you could feel it wag behind you with each step like a dog's tail. You had to carry another enormous pad in your purse or keep it in your locker just in case you needed a spare during the day. And God forbid anyone found it and started throwing it up and down the hallways at school, or around the classroom when the teacher was writing on the board.

And let's be honest here, don't we all have our period knickers and our non-period knickers? Don't you hate it when your period starts by surprise (as it likes to do on occasion, just to keep us on our toes) and you are wearing your non-period knickers?

Then there was the pain. I loved it when the Midol and Pamprin commercials referred to 'menstrual discomfort'. Yeah, come on over here, lady, I'll show you what discomfort is. First of all, why are those women always shown sleeping on white sheets? Have you given that message some thought?

I described menstrual pain to an inquisitor years later as feeling as though someone had snagged your uterus with one of those hook and cable things on the back of a tow truck, and was trying to haul it out through your crotch. At the same time, another person was repeatedly punching you in the lower back, the resulting sensations adding up to make you feel like you were going to throw up on your shoes at any moment. I picture getting to heaven and seeing a long line of women all queued up to take a whack at Eve.

Did I mention the most embarrassing day of my life? (Right next to the time my favorite underwear fell out of my shorts and landed on my feet as I stood by the side of the street along with the entire rest of the town, watching the 4th of July parade go by.) That would be the day in high school when I snuck into English class a few minutes late and made my way to my seat at the back (I had learned my lesson after that uterine slide show), only to have the girl behind me tap me on the shoulder to let me know that I had a big spot of blood on the back of my white jeans. I had to borrow her jacket, tie it around my waist, and raise my hand to ask permission to leave the room again. Couldn't get any worse, you think? Then picture this one-sided phone conversation in the school nurse's office that followed just a few minutes later:

'Hi, Mrs. Michaluk, this is the nurse at Roosevelt, and I have your daughter Lynda in my office. She has had an accident with her period, and she needs you to bring her some clean clothes to change into.

Mrs. Michaluk.

Aren't you Mrs. Michaluk, Lynda Michaluk's mother?

Didn't I dial 555-1234?'

Great, now why don't you phone the rest of the town and tell them, too? Or set up a round-robin so that no one is left out?

Of course, there is always the time Joni's mother shouted at her from the other side of the crowded grocery store, 'Joni? Do you need more pads?'

Or my friend Susan who stopped into a grocery store to pick up a box of Tampax, and got to the front only to have the cashier realize the box wasn't priced. The cashier then picked up the microphone for the loudspeaker and asked in clear, ringing tones for someone to do a price check on a package of 24 count Tampax. Whence the person on the other end thought she asked for thumbtacks and came back on the intercom system to inquire loudly if that was the kind you push in with your thumb, or drive in with a hammer? Susan walked out of the store at that point.

So we have talked about the pain, the mess, the embarrassment, but we haven't talked about hormones. Heh, heh, heh. If we are ever having a conversation and my head starts spinning around on my neck and I begin speaking in odd tongues? Don't worry, I'm not possessed. It's my pms. In my twenties and thirties my Utopian idea of the perfect way to spend the first day of my period would go like this: I would get in my car, go rent a couple of chick-flicks at Blockbuster, get the BIG bag of Reese's miniature peanut butter cups and have them well-chilled with maybe a big bag of Cheetos or cheddar Goldfish just for good measure. Then drive home - preferably running someone down with my car on the way, just to relieve a little tension - and spend the afternoon on the couch crying and eating bad things. Perhaps with a nice cup of tea and a nap afterwards.

In my early twenties I worked in a state psychiatric hospital, on the women's geriatric ward. It was during the time that they were starting to deinstitutionalize the system and thereby, the patients. They began including the original admitting notes in their charts of these women who had been legally committed to the institution for decades. Decades. And every single solitary one had been admitted either during puberty, or during peri-menopause. Sit and think about THAT for a minute.

I'm not maternal. I've never celebrated the sacred feminine and the thought that I can create life. Sod that. I was never going down that road. I made up my mind on that score the minute they taught us about episiotomies in school. Nobody is taking big scissors to MY crotch and then whipping a person out of it. Any time I was feeling maternal in my younger days I would go visit my sister and her two kids for the weekend. Much as my other, gay sister observed that there was something really ironic in the thought that God gave her a uterus AND made her a lesbian. If there was something such as an organ donation network for uterii, I would sign myself right up. If I woke up all dozy in a strange hotel bathtub and discovered my uterus was missing, I wouldn't report it to the authorities.

My menstrual cycle is on average 24 days. That means that every three and a half weeks brings my period. (Debbie liked to refer to it all those years ago as her 'visitor'. Most of the time we had no idea what the heck she was talking about until she would finally say in exasperation, 'You know, my period!' Really, if I had a regular visitor that showed up on my doorstep every three weeks, stayed a week, made a mess and was this much of a PITA, I'd greet them at the door with a shotgun!) By my calculations that works out to roughly 512 periods in my lifetime so far. In the past 34 and a half years I have had 512 weeks of pms, 512 weeks of my period, and 512 weeks of blissful, hormonally-balanced sanity.

So yes, when I have had my last period, have experienced my last cramp, grumped my last grump, I will count 364 days out on my calendar, ticking them off one by one. And on the 365th day I am going to throw one hell of a big party and buy myself lots of lovely presents. Maybe go out for a massage and a pedicure. I am going to celebrate Menopause Day every year from then on. I invite you to do the same.

PS- On reading this, my husband tells me it ends too soon. He was really enjoying it and he wanted more. But I have nothing more to say on the subject, I tell him. I should perhaps tell you that my husband opens doors for me, carries packages and library books for me and just generally treats me like a queen, and I love it. I have come to realize that it isn't about my capabilities, but about cherishing me enough to want to do things for me. He tells me that I could include how he has learned in marriage that there are two weeks out of every month where he doesn't say a harsh or critical word. How he has learned the danger at those times of the honesty I otherwise treasure in the sane moments of my half of our marriage. While I appreciate that about him, I think this is for him to write about, not for me. It is about his experience of the thing, not mine. So I will leave it here.

But years ago I had a friend who always told me that I needed to go into stand-up comedy. If I had ever had the courage to stand up in front of a bunch of rowdy drunks, I would have started my routine something like this: 'How many of you here tonite have a uterus? Hmmm... Looks like most of the women, but only a few of you men...'

Thursday, December 14, 2006

On the Native Intelligence of Birds

All my life I have been a feeder of birds during the cold months. Living in upstate NY in the middle of fierce winters, as soon as the driveway was cleared after a snowstorm the next task would be to clear paths out to the various bird feeders both front and back, so that we could then go out and feed the birds for my Mom. She would remind us that the birds needed that food to keep up their body warmth and survive the cold temperatures, so we could never feel guilt-free in our nice warm house by the fire if we knew the bird feeders were empty. We had a big feeder in the back that was filled daily with a large coffee can full of food, while another can's worth was scattered on the ground for ground-feeding birds. In front was a thistle sock for the finches. And we went out every day, rain or shine, snowy or clear, and fed those birds.

Our parents taught us to respect birds, to recognize one breed from another by plumage and call, to take pleasure in their antics and songs, to recognize their nests in the wild and to respect the sanctity of the nest.

So it is only natural that we kids all still feed birds now that we are grown and in our seperate houses. One house that I lived in about ten years ago had a deep over-hang in the front where I hung a wooden porch swing, and put up several baskets of geraniums in front of the windows. Every year the same pair of doves would nest in one of the baskets. He spent his days in the mesquite tree six feet away as she sat the nest, and he would come in and relieve her when she went for food or water. I found it charming, albeit inconvenient, to see them return every spring to nest and I loved to climb up onto the couch and peer through the window into the nest to see the young birds after they were hatched. Once they fledged they would hang out nearby for a few days, and then right away Mom would be back on her nest with a new pair of eggs to brood over.

The house that we live in now has a very large window in the living room with a mesquite tree just outside, and we have a couple of feeders for small birds in the tree. We take great pleasure in seeing the house finches come in, and especially the pair of cardinals, which I consider the perfect, most regal wild bird. Seeing cardinals is a little gift from God in the middle of your day, something that makes you stop in your tracks and just be for a few moments while you absorb the beauty of what you are presented with.

While cardinals make me breathe a prayer of thanks, house finches just make you smile. They are very social little birds. House finches hang out in crowds and spend their days in the bushes chatting with each other. It might be the hedge of oleanders at the side of the yard, or possibly the Texas ranger shrubs at the front of the house, or the pyracanthus in front of the bedroom window where they like to eat the berries and where we keep a small suet feeder for them. When I was sick with recurring pneumonia two winters ago and confined to bed for days on end over the course of three months, I loved to see them there in the bushes, unaware that I was just on the other side of the windows and watching them with a smile. They are noisy little things and chirp constantly to each other, but as soon as they sense a human anywhere near they shut up all at once. It is like someone flips the birdsong switch to OFF - one moment they are all singing madly, the next moment is the deepest of silences.

There are the curved-bill thrashers with their distinctive 'whit-wheet!' or the cactus wrens who curiously inspect everything every day, checking out flower pots, the front windows, the porch furniture, cracks in the bark of the mesquite.

I also have a special place in my heart for the quail, and we spend all spring waiting to see them appear for the first time with their hatch trailing along behind them, so tiny that my parents call them bumblebees. We keep an anxious eye on the offspring during the summer, confirming a count of them each day, and mourning when we see one less than the previous day's count. In hot weather they will spend their days in the flowerbed under the bedroom windows, next to the soaker hose in the cool earth. They have a rich, bubbling song when they come in to feed that makes me think of slow bubbles rising in a pot of melted chocolate. Quail don't fly unless they have to, preferring to walk everywhere they go in little coveys made of several mated pairs. It is a joy to see them scurrying across the yard to feed in the afternoons or early mornings when we have just put out food for them.

We have a hummingbird that we call Speedy. Speedy has two fiercely defended bird feeders - one on the front window, and one about 4 feet away in the mesquite. No other hummers are allowed anywhere near, and she hangs out in the mesquite all day, getting into little hummer wars if another hummingbird has the audacity to approach. However, hummingbirds are not much afraid of humans and will come right up to my husband or myself when we are outside.

But I will come right out and say this, even though it may make you clutch your chest and gasp at the blasphemy of it: Mourning doves are stupid. They have the native intelligence of thugs, but beyond that, they are just plain stupid.

Consider this: Every afternoon around 3:30 I go out to feed the birds, filling up a large zip-lock bag with food, filling first the finch feeders and then tossing the remainder of the seed on the ground for the doves and quail. Doves are smart enough that they spend the afternoon waiting on the wires outside the house for me to come out and feed them. They are even smart enough that if I'm not home they will wait on the wires over the road like a line of lookouts for me to drive home, and then fly over to the house wires to wait once they see my car coming up the road. They do, I swear this is true. So they have grasped the fact that I am the one who feeds them every day, morning and afternoon, and that this is where to hang out to wait for the food. What they can't seem to grasp is that the person who feeds them does not then lurk behind the barrel cactus ready to leap out and catch them for a snack as soon as they get tucked into their meal. The ground is full of birds, I step out with a bag of birdfood and they all take off in a panic like I had just started taking pot shots at them. Hello! I'm the Food Lady! Not the Mistress of Death and Destruction!

While the doves are feeding and we are safely indoors once again where we can surely do them no harm, my husband and I must take care to not walk through the living room, or once again, they all take off at once like they are shot out of a cannon. Someone sneezes two miles away and WHOOSH! they all lift off the ground in one mass of fluttering wings and mad avian terror.

Ok, you say, they are wild creatures, they stay alive by avoiding learned threats. So I ask you, why can't they figure out the concept of the living room window? And why, if they are so frightened of us, do they constantly try to come in the house and join us? I'm not talking about a gentle tap and an, Oh, I'm sorry! I just ran into your window! Sorry to bother! No. They fling themselves at it headlong with as much speed and enthusiasm as they can muster. No other birds fly into the window. Doves do it in droves.

This is behaviour that my mother would refer to as Not Very Smart. And if you think about it, there is probably a great deal of inbreeding going on in the dove population. They really all do look a whole lot alike.

Our window looks as though we hired a painter to do a mural composed of little dust paintings of doves in flight, all over the glass. When the light is just right you see the impressions of every manner of bird posture. One would think they would learn after a while that the window is a solid object that causes them great pain when they come into contact with it at speed. One might think that there would be a form of collective learning, where they would say to each other, Whatever you do, don't fly into the window. Bob did it and he said it really hurts your head when you do that. One might assume that when one dove screams, Take off! Humans! that at least one other bird would pause to ask, Where? Oh, in the house? Well, I guess I won't fly that way then.

But no. Day after day, all day long doves like to fly at the window just as fast and as hard as they can to see if they can knock themselves out or break their necks. It is like teenagers and glue sniffing. I know this is self-destructive behaviour, but hell! Let's try it! It might be fun! I bet it makes you really, really dizzy.

And it is behaviour that can be especially startling to humans, as well. Picture being deep in a good mystery on the couch of an afternoon, all is peace and quiet, until BAM! BAM! BAM! Three doves suddenly hit the window with a loud report like a starter pistol going off just behind your head.

So I rest my case. Doves are stupid. Doves might even be masochistic, for all I know. Doves can give one quite a start, if they so choose.

Well, that's all I have to say about it. Time to go out and feed the birds.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

On Strangers, Acquaintances and Friends

After posting the previous to my blog and mentioning my situation on a couple of the knitting lists, I was flooded with emails. Some were from women who had also been through the long wait until they found out that they, too had a negative biopsy. Others were from women who had positive biopsies and survived subsequent surgery and treatment. One was from a woman who has had breast cancer, as well as cancers in three other sites in her body. Several were from women who told me that they knew everything would be fine, they had added me to their prayers. I mentioned my negative result on the knitting list that serves our local guild, and at the Thursday meeting several women come up to me and told me their breast cancer survival stories. These were all women I have known for a couple of years now, and except for the occasional one, I never knew that they were breast cancer survivors. Another guild member told me her friend had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was stunned by how many people I heard from who have been through all this with me, with their own positive or negative biopsy results. I was and am deeply moved by how many had added me to their prayers. The women from my book group - which I had to miss this month because it was the day after my surgery and I was still woozy from the anesthesia - got together and gave me beautiful flowers in a gorgeous glazed jug, as well as a basket with ‘a taste of book group’ including a bottle of wine, a wedge of brie, some artisan bread and gourmet chocolates. And they all sent me emails before my test to tell me that I was in their thoughts and prayers, and emails after to tell me how relieved they were to hear of my great result, with one woman planning to bring champagne to our next meeting - at my house - so that we can all toast my happy news.

I was raised in a small town in the late 50s and early 60s. Those of you who are younger can’t realize, but those who are my age or older know that this was a completely different period of time. We were raised to be polite to our parents, our elders, our teachers, to treat anyone we met with respect and to behave with decorum, knowing that our behaviour reflected well or ill on our family. We were also taught from an early age to never completely trust strangers. I remember at about 5 years of age, a friend of mine and I were playing in her front yard when a young man stopped his car and offered to take us for ice cream. Ann, a year younger than myself, started to climb into the car, but I was screaming so loudly that her mother came out of the house on a run and the young man drove off. I was completely convinced that I would be on the national news that evening for my bravery and quick-wittedness in saving my friend from the Demon Stranger. Much to my disappointment I was not. But the message was clear: Strangers are not to be trusted, and my early experience reinforced that.

Because the neighborhood was so small and the times were what they were, you knew everyone’s parents. Their parents knew your parents, your siblings knew their siblings, your teachers had taught your siblings before you, and there really wasn’t much wrong that you could get away with - it was an extended network that comprised your entire neighborhood. If you and your friends were riding your bikes up the highway into town without permission, believe me, someone’s mother drove by and saw you, and called your mother when they got home. I once notoriously was busily peddling my trike to town with a few pennies clutched in my fist to buy my brother a birthday present when I was spotted by a family friend along the highway and captured to be returned home to a serious scolding and rare spanking.

The families on our small street - five in total - were all of an age. Our parents were contemporaries, we kids were all in the same age range, and we were in many ways like one large family. I knew that if I behaved badly at the Bunk’s or the Petty’s, they could and would scold me as if I were their own child. And at the same time, and more than that, we had all the good times a large family had, with large summer cook-outs that started with the Dads all gathering in early afternoon to talk. Maybe one went to another’s house to borrow a tool or ask for a hand with something they were working on, next thing you knew they were all standing around talking and laughing, tasks forgotten, and the cold beer would come out. Then Moms were out in the yard, we kids were running around whooping and barbecues were fired up, someone ran to the store to fetch some extras, and food was being pushed at you from all directions. On Christmas we all visited from house to house to view presents and to eat wonderful food with each other.

Last summer my husband and I returned to visit my siblings back east, and while we were there one of the Moms - the woman who taught me how to knit, made us all laugh til we cried and made the best Italian food that I still judge all other Italian food by - died after a short illness. My sister Mary and I went to the funeral home for the wake, and I know Annie of all people would understand and be glad when I say that her wake was one of the best parts of my trip. To see all of our old neighbors nearly thirty years after I left was so wonderful. The parents from across the street now completely white-haired, the neighborhood terror a middle-aged man, his sister a mom herself. Annie’s family had an old photo album out for all to look through, and on page after page all our families were intertwined.

I left home in my early 20s never thinking I would ever go back, or ever want to go back, and made my way in a new place with new people around me. But I know now I have no other home, and these people are my family just as much as my own parents and siblings are.

I started to tell you all this because I wanted you to know what my concepts were of the meaning of the words strangers, acquaintances and friends. And all my moving from place to place didn’t change that. But the internet did. I married a man that I met on a mailing list of Aromatherapists. I made good friends through such lists, visited them, met up with them at conferences, shared laughs and stories and good times, truly stretching my ideas of who friends could be and where they were to be found. And here I find those old concepts are stretched and broken by what I have been given by this vast sisterhood of women. Few of whom have met in the flesh, all of whom are a family that stretches from Canada to Mexico, from Hawaii east to Finland. We share our stories of triumph and loss, births and deaths, illnesses and recoveries. Projects started and stalled, projects finished, projects lusted after. Stories of our children, our parents and our spouses. We are joined together by the common thread of our gender and the bond this neccesarily gives us.

We wear our scars for each other to see, and we wear them proudly, like the scars of old whales that tell the stories of battle and more importantly, of survival. I bear a new scar now to add to my others, and somehow this is the scar of which I am most proud, although it is not as hard-won as those of many of my sisters. I add it to the scar near my left eye and the divided cheekbone I still bear from my mugging, the scar on my leg from being attacked by dogs as a child. They don’t disfigure me, they are medals of war, and evidence of survival. They add to me just as my laugh lines and white hair does.

Years ago I went to visit a psychic who looked at my hand and laughed. She told me that as a child I was not meant to survive, and because of that I had illness after illness - which I did. But that I was too stubborn and refused to go, and that was the only reason I am still here. Supported along the way by strangers, acquaintances and friends.