Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Yoga and the common cold

Homebound with a bad cold these past few weeks, I’ve missed my yoga. But then I began to think about how certain aspects of the common cold—coughing, nasal congestion, sneezing, wheezing—invoke a kind of involuntary yoga.

In yoga, there are a series of breath-control practices called pranayama. They are thought to enhance physical health and mental clarity.  They involve exercises like:

*ujayyi, or throat constriction, which produces a soft hissing sound—not unlike wheezing!

*kapalabhati, short forcible exhalations followed by passive inhalations—not unlike coughing! Or sneezing!

*nadhi shodana, alternate-nostril breath, in which you breathe through one nostril at a time—not unlike nasal congestion! Or blowing your nose!

So it turns out that we all do yoga, whether we like it or not.

Monday, January 25, 2016

S*%@ my mom says

A stroke, dementia and advanced age—90!—have sabotaged my mother’s ability to communicate. She gets lost in the middle of a sentence and drifts off into a swamp fog. But every once in a while she says something with crystalline clarity. One of her caregivers reported to me that she said, “I’ve always been unhappy.” Sadly, I think that may be true. But then she told me yesterday, “I always thought I’d be a tomato.” Is that true too?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Being single

I told a friend that I was going to write about being single. “But you’re not single!” she said. “You have no idea what it’s like to live alone.” She’s right. I’ve lived with my “boyfriend” since I was 22—and I’m 66 now. From the beginning we’ve had a joint bank account, and everything that’s his is mine and everything that’s mine is his, including an apartment and two children. It’s a fine point, I admit, but there’s a reason we haven’t gotten married. I never wanted to be half of anything—not even someone’s “better” half. As a child, when other girls dressed up in their mothers’ slips for make-believe weddings, I hung back. And when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “A hermit.” Even then I wanted to feel whole, on my own, untethered. In the end, life gets messy, and you get tied down. So, yes, my singleness is now a mere technicality. And lately my boyfriend and I have been advised to get married for estate-planning reasons. I would never have gotten married for love. But for money? I don’t know. I’m thinking about it.


She doesn’t wake till 9 or 10 these days, and she takes a nap after breakfast for an hour or two, and then another after lunch. Sometimes she can barely keep her eyes open till her aide puts her to bed at 8. Meals are the main event of her day. They can be exciting in their way. They begin with the long shuffle from the bedroom to the dining room. There’s a slight frisson of suspense as she turns her walker, a few degrees at a time, and reaches back for the arms of her chair to lower herself into it. Will she lose her grip? Slam down too quickly and break a bone? 

She doesn’t like to sit the normal distance from the table. Perhaps it hurts her legs to bend them sufficiently. When the aide or I try to move her closer, she speaks sharply and resists. So each bite is a tiny drama as she moves her fork, a morsel dangling from a tine, slowly, shakily, across the broad expanse of her lap. Her average: about 75% ends up in her mouth, 25% in her lap or on the floor. It keeps us busy, the aide and me, sponging off her pants, scrubbing up the tiles. Sometimes I think it amuses her to cause these little commotions—and bring people to their knees! Other times I think she’s doing the best she can.

It’s hard to know, because her speech is murky. A stroke and dementia have turned her language into an unpredictable thing. Sometimes the words flow freely—but lead nowhere. “I have something I need to discuss with you!” she’ll say excitedly. What is it? I’ll ask. “I don’t know.” Sometimes she’ll say startling things, announcing that we’re having rabbit turds for dessert. And, rarely, her words are crystal clear: “I’m lonely.” I know, Mom. I know you’re lonely. And there’s not a thing I can do about it—except visit you, eat breakfast with you, pick up your fallen food, and share the rabbit turds.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Happy to bore you

I am an old woman now, 65, but I’m still struggling to heal the wounds of childhood. And as I look at my friends and family members—even my 89-year-old mother—I see that they are wrestling with the same task. The variety of childhood wounds is so vast, and the injuries so often exacerbated by re-infections along the road to recovery, that sometimes it seems that the whole point of adult life is to cauterize the beginning of life. 

So when I look at my children, I fear that the annoyance they sometimes cannot conceal has its roots in some dreadful cruelty of mine that they cannot completely forgive. But then I realize, No, it’s nothing so grand. It’s just that I cannot remember what I’ve told them before and so I repeat myself, tell the same old stories so often that they jump in to stop me by providing the punch lines before I can get to them myself. 

And since the stakes are high, I feel relief that I’m just boring, not harmful.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Old people—yuck!

The elderly may sometimes slur, but more often they get slurred. These days I’m struck by the casual ageism that drops into conversations and essays without a ripple. Some examples from my notebook:

“There are quite a few semi-old people traveling with really desperately old people who are clearly their parents. Men after a certain age simply should not wear shorts, I’ve decided; the skin seems denuded and practically crying out for hair, particularly on the calves. It’s just about the only body area where you actually want more hair on older men.”
Shipping Out, by David Foster Wallace

 “When I look at [my old paperbacks] objectively, like a child looking at the tented skin of a beloved grandparent, I must admit that they are not physically attractive.”
The Shelf, by Phyllis Rose

“The parents are just on the other side of 40, still relatively young, still relatively attractive.”
—Modern Love, New York Times, September 24, 2015

“Hoodie … a piece of clothing that makes you look hip and cool if you are under 40 years old but that you shouldn’t be using over 40 if you don’t want to appear as a pervert and/or a slob.”
—"How to Fold Your Hoodie Into a Pillow or a Laptop Bag," Lifehacker

Moral: Being old is really, really fun, but only if you have body hair and like having people think you’re a pervert.