A collection of my newspaper columns, essays and mental meanderings about motherhood, friendship, social encounters, politics and a world that goes bump in its fright.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Longest Mile ...

Starting on the Old Denali Highway, August 2000
When my birthday arrived last October, I paused briefly to take stock of where I was and to look ahead to the future unfolding from that vantage point.
I was on the couch and the future didn't look too whoopie. 
I had just finished reading Younger Next Year, by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, M.D. Its no-nonsense approach and bottom-line truth-telling had provided sufficient wakeup call that the passing of another birthday simply underscored: I am getting older and the days when I can just let my body take care of itself are pretty much gone. I can age well, or I can age woefully: The choice is up to me. 
Rats.
The concept from the book that spoke most directly to me is the idea that, to paraphrase Saint Bob Dylan, cells that are not busy being born are busy dying. And the way cells get the message to live and grow and be healthy is through movement. 
There have been times in my life when I've been a body in motion. The photo above, for instance, was taken at the beginning of an epic bike ride in 2000, the end of a decade of cycling in which I had ridden numerous half-century rides, a couple of centuries, was logging 100+ miles a week on my bike and was a human pie furnace. No kidding. One of my nicknames at that time was The Pie Slut, because  about 3 p.m. every afternoon, I would go around to my co-workers seeing if anyone wanted to join me for a slice of apricot or apple pie at the little cafe down the street. 
I love food: I rode to eat. 
However, over the years, I found that I had been eating more and riding less. Then just eating and not moving much at all. 
The consequences, of course, were obvious. A BMI of 27 pretty much tells the tale. Mostly, I simply felt bad. I was starting to make those old-lady-getting-out-of-a-chair noises, and limiting the things to which I said "Yes." Since I think Yes, especially in response to invitations from Life, can be one of the holiest of holy words, this was a problem.

My Inspiration
I have several friends who are runners and I noticed a sort of pitiful whimper arising when I would read of their accomplishments. "I wishcould do that ..." "If only I were younger, I would so be out there with them ... " and the truly pathetic, "Back in the day ...
While I was reading Younger Next Year, I was gobsmacked by the truly obvious: It isn't going to get any better. This isn't a phase I'm going through -- feeling weak, being fat, having trouble lifting not-very-heavy things, feeling out of breath after going up a flight of stairs, seeing my waistline increase and my shape become apple rather than hourglass -- this is the new reality. When my mother was ill and in assisted living, I got to see up close and personal how that new reality is likely to look in another 20 years or so. Lord have mercy. 
And there is not some magical Someday Maybe Day in the future when suddenly this condition of weakness and un-fitness is going to suddenly dissipate and I will be strong and able again. 
Nuhn-unh. Things can change -- I truly do believe that -- and only if I say so and then get into action to create a different new reality.
Despite massive amounts of internal resistance, inner-voice whining and perfectly good reasons why I shouldn't  make myself uncomfortable, yea, even unto sweaty several times a week, I let my friends' examples inspire me (that'd be you, Rikki, Darrah, Jennifer, Danica and Jereme) I got myself off the couch and into action, starting with the Couch to 5K program. I did a 5k in November and another one in December, and posted about it on my Facebook page. 
Which is when my friend Danica Lucker, ultra-marathoner and author of the Boston or Botox blog, said, "Since you've done two 5k's, why don't you train for a half marathon next year and I'll meet you there so we can run together. I'll coach you." 
The logic of that statement continues to elude me, but I couldn't think of enough good reasons to tell Danica no, so I said a most holy Yes, with an Amen, and got started. I've registered in a half marathon in Northern California in June and am eyeing a trail run half in late September in Colorado, with several 5ks and 10ks scattered in between, just to give me some interim goals. 
I love the symmetry of the fact that I'm training for my first half marathon (from not being a runner AT ALL, friends and neighbors) the very same year that I qualify for Medicare. 
Take that, cells that had been busy dying. Onward!

Next time: Using my Livestrong.com food and activity tracker and how that's making a dramatic difference.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Competence Trumps Self Esteem Any Day

My daughter recently let me know that she has applied to go to Haiti to assist with the recovery efforts there. On the one hand, my maternal instincts instantly went into protective gear and I wanted to physically restrain her from leaving her nice neighborhood in Northern California for the hell that is now Haiti.

On the other hand, I am full of admiration and respect. She wouldn’t be the young woman I know and love if she didn’t feel compelled to offer her service. As a mother, I don’t want my baby to suffer; as a human being, I can’t imagine anyone better qualified to offer compassion than my highly skilled, deeply kind kid.

In fact, if I were in a heap of trouble of just about any kind, I can’t imagine anyone I would rather see coming over the hill than my son or daughter. Useful, capable, competent, neither is inclined to helplessness or handwringing. When there’s work to be done, they are both pretty much a drama-free zone, looking for what needs doing, rather than proclaiming their unhappiness or discomfort to anyone who’ll listen.

My daughter has a master’s degree in nursing and works as a labor and delivery nurse in a big urban hospital. My son is master carpenter for a professional repertory theater that does challenging, interesting work. Each of them has been smart enough and lucky enough to find mates who are exactly right for them and equally competent, useful and generally nonplussed.

I consider my children’s competence to be the greatest possible acknowledgement of my parenting skills. As a single mom, I didn't have the energy to fret much about their self-esteem—although my son did have some dark days in high school that had me praying incessantly for a solution. That solution turned out to be … more competence. He wasn’t having a very successful time of it in regular high school, although he was certainly smart enough to do well academically. But as soon as I relented and let him slip out of the academic track and into the technical track, his outlook began to improve. He learned to weld, to do carpentry and engineering, he started feeling useful and began to see a future for himself.

As a newspaper editor for many years, I had the privilege and sometimes the curse of dealing with a number of interns who were still in school or “baby reporters” just out of college and in their first year on the job. I could tell very quickly whose families and schools had focused on building the young person’s self esteem and which had insisted on competency. The ones who were competent were confident. The ones for whom self-esteem was the prize were an endless eddy of narcissism, complaint and need.

If I could pass along one value to parents and educators now, it would be this: Stop worrying so much about whether that child is happy and start making certain she or he knows a thing or two and has the internal resources to accomplish useful tasks. Once a person is capable and knows how to produce results, self-esteem tends to take care of itself.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

We keep looking in the wrong places

A few weeks ago, my cat, Ace the Ferocious Hunter, brought into my house what I thought was a large mouse. After much skittering and chasing around the kitchen, where the still-quite-lively creature took up behind the refrigerator, I finally decided I had had enough. So I bought one of those terrible, deadly zappers and within an hour had dispatched what turned out to be an actual rat to that Big Kitchen in the Sky.
My cat checked out the places the rat had been--apparently he skittered from behind the fridge to a little space beside the dish washer and, when he thought the coast was clear, to the bowl of dog kibble and water on the opposite side of the kitchen. This happened in the middle of the night, at which time the cat would hear the skittering, the dog would hear the cat and, for a few minutes, all hell would break loose. This is not my idea of a good night's sleep. Thus, the rat electric chair. I felt bad, but ... it's all over now.
So the cat investigated a time or two and immediately got the idea: the rat is gone. Case closed. My dog, however, to this day dashes expectantly over to the space beside the fridge and sniffs enthusiastically, digging at the tile beside the fridge. Or he passes the dish washer, is reminded and starts trying to dig the rat out from under the dish washer. I have pulled both appliances out and thoroughly mopped, so most traces should be gone. And besides, if any of us is going to keep trying to get the rat, it seems it ought to be the cat. But no, he gets it. Game over.
I think most of us have more in common with the dog than the cat, at least in this regard. We keep looking for love where it used to be, revisiting life as it has been, eager for a new experience, but looking along familiar pathways trying to find it. We think if we only dig a little deeper into what has been, or approach it from a different angle, we'll see another outcome and recapture what we've lost.
I haven't posted anything on my blogs for a while. I went through a long period where anything I could say would be so maudlin I wouldn't want anyone to read it. Within a three month period two years ago, one of my dearest friends killed himself, my 18-year-old cat died and my mother passed away after a lengthy series of illnesses that defined how I don't want my passing to be.
I entered a kind of paralysis that I now recognize as the way I process things. I keep working--my salvation when things get rough, and they've been that way a bit, so I've created a great career for myself with all this marching on--I only wear my heart on my sleeve for a very small circle of friends, and then only enough to let the pressure off. I just carry my sorrow along with me and keep doing life and eventually, the fog lifts and life starts coming back again.
Generally, during this time, I gain weight, which makes me feel like hell and my first re-entry into the fullness of life involves getting back on the bicycle and saying No to second glasses of wine.
But what I notice is a profound temptation to keep looking back, wishing for what will never be again. My friend was one of my best music buddies and certain songs have simply disappeared from my life since his death. I realized recently that I was, in some illogical part of my heart, saving them until we could sing them again. I've been holding my present cat at arm's distance (which to people who haven't ever been friends with a cat might not seem so bad) because he just wasn't the same cat I had come to know so well. He's a cute cat, and a sweet cat, but he wasn't my cat.
And my mother? I keep wishing for a few do-overs. I don't have a lot of regrets, but death inevitably drives those that exist directly to the surface. So, even while knowing utterly and absolutely the futility of the desire, I've been wishing to revisit some events and conversations and have things turn out different.
Watching my misguided mutt as he enthusiastically visits the rat's old haunts reminds me how goofy such impulses are. Time to move on, to different songs and love in unanticipated expressions.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Surrender!!!

This weekend I finally gave up. I have decided to let the bindweed bind, the pig weed oink and the Bermuda grass grow all the way back to Bermuda if it so desires. The little rectangle I had called -- with great hope and sense of purpose -- a "garden" just a few weeks ago is now released to become whatever it will, which is probably just more badly maintained lawn like the rest of my yard.

Nature, my schedule and a bad wrist conspired to bring me to this turn of events. In May I had lots of small plants in pots, ready for the soil my occasional landscape guy had so diligently tilled for me. Then the rains came. And came, and came and came. When I was 5 I would have loved the pool of gumbo all that water and all that soil became. Now? Not so much. And it was simply not the kind of place you'd want to maroon a sweet little tomato plant.

So I bought large containers and bigger bags of soil, trying all the while to ignore the voice sniping in my head. "Now that's just about ridiculous, paying for topsoil when you have a ton of it sitting right over there ..." "You know, if you were actually trying to raise food to feed anyone, you'd all be on the brink of starvation right about now ..."

Thank you for sharing. Now shut up.

Actually, this process has made me even more appreciative of the people who do manage to make this soil and seed and rain and shine stuff work and actually do bring food to market. I noticed that our local farmer's market -- provided by people who live in roughly the same geographic area as I do -- was loaded with vegetables. How is it that they managed to get seeds in the ground and starts started when I just sat on my porch drinking a microbrew and wishing I could get in the garden?

I'll blame it on my wrist. I had carpal tunnel surgery in April and just couldn't wield a shovel with my usual level of enthusiasm. That and my schedule. Killer, I'm tellin' ya. Just an absolute killer. Never a moment to spare. Except, of course, the occasional microbrew and half hour or so sitting on the porch with my foot on the railing and some nice accompaniment on the iPod.

Reluctantly, I may have to conclude that my most fitting role in gardening is that of appreciator, a sort of garden fan, full of profuse praise for cucumbers someone else has raised, vociferously thrilled with the tomatoes of another's labor and happy to sprinkle a couple of contained peppers and basil with sufficient water to keep them from croaking in full view of the neighbors.

Hey, everyone needs a cheerleader, don't they?

Rah, rah, ree, sorry 'bout your knee;
Rah, rah, rass, Dude, I think that's grass ....


Monday, September 10, 2007

Earth Loses One Smart Lady

This photo of my mother was taken seven years ago, when she was 80. It hasn't been manipulated or retouched -- that's the way she looked at 80 -- eyes full of intelligence and spirit; complexion still like a bowl of cream; a body as fit as eight decades would allow it to be, thanks to daily swims and an energetic, can-do approach to life. The photo was a publicity shot for the back cover of one of her books -- each one a romance, published after her 80th birthday. You haven't lived until you've read one of your mother's love scenes, but as she said at the time, "I wasn't born old, you know."

Indeed, she didn't really start to get old until five years ago when her hip was broken -- irony of ironies -- when someone accidentally tripped her at the YMCA where she had been swimming laps. After that, her life became increasingly focused on a series of medical procedures and interventions, all of which she met with her usual verve and snap. The surgeon who performed her hip replacement asked to use her in a video demonstrating how to use a walker, thanks to her ready response to physical therapy. The years of exercise and her refusal to let age be the definition of her life made her an ideal patient, quick to recover and determined to meet the challenges of her physical limitation.

That relentless determination ultimately prolonged the suffering of a body that needed to quit long before the spirit was ready to let it go. Saturday night as my daughter, neice, sister and I surrounded her and sang her to the finish line, that powerhouse heart kept trying and trying to stay in the race.

As her body began to shut down and the hospice nurse rounded us up for the final farewell, we began to sing every song we could dredge up from a lifetime of harmonizing over dishes and family road trips. Although she had been unable to communicate for several days, her color improved and she began to breathe a little faster as we found the harmony on Somewhere Over the Rainbow and the beat on a medley from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, leading the nurse to speculate that Mom was trying to sing along with us. I said, "It was probably because she noticed I was flat on the high note -- and that will just never do." We all laughed at this acknowledgment of her commitment to vocal perfection, but decided to chill with the stirring renditions of show tunes and focus on slightly more sedate selections.

Then I thanked her for teaching me to sing way out to the cheap seats, and I thanked her little body for giving life to all of us and to the rest of us who weren't there, my sister thanked her for teaching us to be wonderful cooks, and one by one we began to thank her for every connection, every contribution, every good thing we could trace from her life to ours. There were many and we could have kept going, sending her out on a sea of acknowledgment and praying that she could somehow let it in, she who so often shrugged off warm fuzzies in favor of sharp edges.

Ultimately, the little clock wound down. With my hand over her heart, my daughter's hand cradling her head, my sister's arms around me, my neice embracing my daughter and even the nurse holding Mom's toes, she breathed one big sigh and just like that, she was gone. It was a gentle, kind exit and I will never get over the honor of participating in it as we did.

We washed her little body ourselves -- given her lifetime care of her appearance, I couldn't stand the idea of strangers receiving her disheveled and poorly groomed -- and dressed her in her favorite nightgown. For good measure, we wrapped her in a thick, warm robe she loved. I gave her a last pedicure and manicure and laughed at myself as I did so. As if it really matters that my mother's nails are pretty when she meets her Maker.

But it mattered to me. It mattered that we were the ones to wash and dress her, to comb her hair and give her back to the Earth not as one discarded, but as one annointed and prepared.

My dad used to bear my sister and me off to bedtime modifying Shakespeare's, "Good night, sweet Prince. Flights of angels sing thee to thy sleep," to fit his girl children and also his whimsical sense of humor. "Good night, sweet princesses. Flocks of angels sing thee to thy sleep." It helps me now to imagine him standing on that mythical Other Side, his arms open wide for her as those flocks of angels take up singing where we left off.


In my version of this story, they get the pitch right on all the high notes. She'll see to it that they do.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Have a not-so-mushy Mother's Day

A traditional tattoo in prisons everywhere is the arm or chest emblazoned with loving salutes to “Mom.”

Mother apparently is singled out for special attention because she is the only one in the bearer's life who has loved, forgiven and taken him back time and time again, regardless of how seriously he has messed up.

Maybe she shouldn’t have.

While their tribute is as touching as all get-out, I'd say both mother and offspring might be missing something. Children should know that the greatest acknowledgment they can give their mothers doesn't come in the form of flowers, nice cards and gifts, or even a cool tattoo scratched into a really buff bicep.

What your mother wants most from you is for your life to work. You want to say “thank you” to your mother? Be a good person.

And Mom? If you believe unconditional means any old behavior is accepted, overlooked and forgiven, you're missing the boat. Mothers have to be as much a wall as a pillow.

With apologies to Hallmark, what I dislike about the day devoted to Mother, with all its treacle and fluff, is that it focuses entirely on the soft side of mothering and completely ignores the solid. Being kind, gentle and forgiving is an essential part of the mothering gig. But being a tough cookie who won't let kiddo get away with zilch is equally important.

When our kids are straying from the straight and narrow, they need to run smack into a brick wall that directs them back on the path. That wall's name should be Mother. One of the qualities our society needs most right now is respect. Respect for other people, respect for other opinions, respect for natural resources, respect for ourselves. And, like it or not, the first and strongest lessons our children learn about respect come from? You guessed it: Mother.

Sometimes, in the mall or grocery store, I feel instantly anachronistic and appalled by the way I hear children addressing their mothers -- and vice versa. I cringe when I hear a little child of 5 or 6 sassing his mother, being bratty, disrespectful and demanding, and I feel a nasty foreshadowing of the direction that relationship will take as the child grows taller. Children usually don’t get sweeter as they get older.

As mothers, we must generate respect – give it, show it, expect it, and sometimes command it -- and receive it with graciousness and dignity. This is a complex process. It means that, in addition to respecting ourselves, we must respect our children.

Demonstrating our respect starts early and manifests itself in subtle, practical ways. For example, a mother who respects her baby won't just walk up without warning and start scrubbing a washcloth over the child's face. From a baby's perspective, that amounts to assault. Mothers who respect their children take time with them, and try to see adult actions from a child's viewpoint.

Mothers show their respect for their children in their behavior, in the tone of their voices. You can bet a mother who orders a toddler around and consistently bellows at an 8-year-old is going to end up having a disrespectful, out-of-control teenager. Young humans are utterly dependable at mimicking what they see. Insist that a child respect you without giving respect first and you simply breed insurrection – an equation that is persistently missed not only by parents, but also by school administrators and politicians.

Children also learn respect by how much respect their mothers command. Lifetime patterns are based on this. If we let our children speak hatefully and disrespectfully to us, we train them to believe that the rest of the world will accept such behavior. If we are in a relationship with a partner who abuses or demeans us, we train our children that this is what we, what women, deserve. Children will act out that message for the rest of their lives.

It isn't easy to be firm in a world that so often confuses firmness with meanness. Learning to insist without coercion, to be resolute without nastiness, to be compassionate without being a sucker can be a tricky business. Training ourselves to give and command respect in a culture that tells us we aren't worth much can be a lifetime pursuit.

To do all of this with the clock ticking, with a child's future hanging in the balance, is the trickiest of all.

When we become mothers, we hit the deck running, learning life's lessons on the fly. Most of us don't do a perfect job of it, and many of us are much more aware of the ways we've failed than the times we've succeeded.

So this year on Mother's Day, sure, take your mother to brunch, give her something nice. Thank her for being sweet and understanding and kind.

But even more, thank her for toeing the line with you. Thank her for insisting that you behave, for demanding that you do well, for requiring decency of you. Thank her for the occasional kick in the rear that grabbed your attention and steered you toward a better future.

Thank her for being your wall as much as your pillow. Have a great life and let her know she got the job done.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Tethered to Life with Steel Filament

My mother is tied to life these days by the slenderest of tethers. Her world, once full of music and passion and words and ideas, has narrowed to the width and length of a hospital bed. Once a swimmer evangelical in her belief about fitness, her last walk was the four steps from her bed to the hospital room's door.

That was two days ago. The little bird in the bed is barely recognizable as the force of nature once known as my mother, and with each ebb I wonder if this time she will finally let go her grasp on the physical and known in favor of whatever is next. Her answer so far has been: Not on your life. She is tied to this life by the slenderest of tethers, but then, so are the cocoons on milkweed that survive gale-force winds.

She has always been impossible, this hard-headed mother of ours, and feebleness and fragility have thus far produced no miraculous alteration in that trait. My sisters and I have tried for several days to have some practical conversations with her, only to be met with, "I don't want to talk about that today. We'll talk about it later. Tomorrow." Last night, inexplicably, her hearing failed and now the woman whose hearing was so keen she could hear me from the other end of the house going flat on that high C or my sister sneaking into the house five seconds after curfew can't hear a word unless you stand right in front of her and yell.

Every conversation has to be conducted at a decibel level that defeats nuance. Try discussing "durable power of attorney" and "living will" and "hospice" at essentially the same volume you'd tell the motorcyclist next door that his muffler appears to be broken.

Regardless, she isn't having any of it. "I'm just dealing with what I need to do next," she says in response to our attempt to have her formalize her wishes for the next time her blood pressure crashes or pneumonia returns. She hates us for "making" her go to the hospital, but refuses to sign papers because "maybe I will need to come back to the hospital." She wants to be well-cared-for and she wants to be left alone. She doesn't want heroic medical intervention, but she wants anything that can be done to be done. She wants to be who she was even five years ago before the hip broke and the systems started shutting down and her able body became undependable. Impossible.

And yet, I would expect no less from her. She isn't being ornery for the sake of being ornery. When she says she is just focusing on what needs to be done next, she's being who she's always been, minus the physical resources. I learned persistance and a never-say-die attitude from her, so why would I think when it's actual Death she's facing, she'd just roll over and let it carry her away?

"Do not go gently into that good night" could be her theme song. She will rage against the dying of the light with her last breath -- not with histrionics and drama because she doesn't have the energy for that anymore. But with that set of her jaw and that deep, deliberate exhalation as she focuses all her energy into just one more bite of pudding, she will keep going because that's what she knows how to do. She doesn't know how to surrender, doesn't know how to quit.

She never did. And for that, I admire her and despair.