Friday, August 28, 2009

Sleepless in Manhattan redux

Lately my chronic insomnia has reached a new peak. Unless I take a pill, sleep is a four-hour deal for me, with another four hours spent trying to calm my panic about various worries. In the past when I've had a worsening of my night life, I've tried to rest my mind by focusing on something soothing, something going right in my life. But lately there is not a whole lot of that. Of course, it's all in how you look at things, but with two sisters-in-law with cancer (head-and-neck and uterine), a brother with colon cancer, a close friend with late-stage uterine cancer, a son with real estate woes, a daughter with a penchant for out-of-control spending and a lawless approach to curfews, frail parents (my mother just had a grand-mal seizure last night) a continent away, a job situation that looks direr by the day, cats that throw up and smear excrement—there's no place pretty to look. Except for Other, snoring peacefully beside me. If he would just stop snoring ...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Yoga bliss

It's hard to explain to skeptics the deep visceral appeal of yoga, how it's different from ordinary exercise. Today my wonderful Sunday yoga teacher put it in broad terms. "When you do the stair master, you try to zone out," he said. "But in yoga, you try to focus fully on your body and your breath."

He described the physical practice of yoga as laying down impressions, so that each time you enter into a pose or sequence, you move deeper into it. And because you are fully focused on your body and your breath, the impressions are engraved in your mind as well.

So as you walk the path of yoga, you're not just following it, you're laying it down as you go.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Use it or lose it

I got a little shock about a week ago, when my physical therapist (whom I like a lot) gave me my walking papers and said I should proceed on my own with the exercises he'd given me. "I'll continue to improve, right?" I asked, since I'm still in a lot of pain at night from several herniated disks, and I haven't returned full tilt to yoga. "Yes," he said, "but you really need to adjust  your expectations and focus on maintaining rather than progressing. After all, you're well ahead of other people your age in terms of what you can still do." What! Are they even allowed to say such discouraging things?

His well-meaning comment cast a pall over my week. Would I never be able to do, say, the peacock? Or the turtle? Or any of the other poses that keep me up at night figuring out how precisely to approach them? I know yoga is not about the physical practice. But the physical practice provides some wonderful thrills, and I'd hate to forgo them. 

Then I read two very encouraging pieces of research: one from the journal Skeletal Radiology, suggesting that for runners, "continuous exercise is protective, rather than destructive" to knees; and the other from the New England Journal of Medicine, suggesting that weight training, once thought to trigger lymphedema in breast-cancer patients who had had lymphedectomies or radiation, actually helps prevent lymphedema. 

These studies aren't precisely at odds with my PT's comment, but they threw me into a much better frame of mind, one that allowed me to return to yoga feeling I was engaged in a healing practice rather than a pointless one.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mia's World

Every once in a while when I'm rolling along in what I assume is a shared reality, I suddenly discover that I'm all alone in Mia's World, not hanging with all the people inhabiting the real world. For instance, Other and I, along with C sometimes, have been going to B Island for a dozen years. There is no running water, no electricity, no landline-phone service, no television, no stores, no cars on B Island. We cook, eat, swim, kayak, read, sleep, hang out with friends—and that's about all. Without the ability to shop on a daily basis, a dramatic transformation takes place: consumer cravings slip away over the course of a week or two. Much as dirty begins to feel clean and isolation begins to feel cozy, having nothing begins to feel like having something special. This is one of the key experiences of being on the island—the sense of contentment that flourishes when the cravings disappear. I assumed this was what everyone was going for.

But! I suddenly realized that we do-withouts are in the minority. Most of the regulars on the island have boats—and drive them much as suburban landlubbers drive SUVs. Landfall—with its stores and cars and other conveniences—is just a rev of an engine away. So, what exactly are these other folks savoring about the island? Everyone is passionate about the island, so there is some magic that they're responding to. But what precisely is it?

Monday, August 3, 2009

I Ishi (and you Ishi too)

One of the few raunch-free references in Michael Tolliver Lives, by Armistead Maupin, which I read during my longer-than-anticipated journey to Maine, was to Ishi, the last of the Yahi, a native people of California who were massacred during the Gold Rush. Ishi, who was discovered in a state of starvation in Oroville in 1911 and taken to UC San Francisco to be studied by anthropologists and placed on display as a living museum piece, became an object of enormous public curiosity. He was dubbed "the last wild Indian," and anecdotes about his habits and skills and demeanor were regularly reported in the press—until he died four years later of tuberculosis—and became fodder for numerous books and movies and even a stage play.

My instinctive empathy with Ishi reminds me of my response and others' to earlier feral loners, like the Wild Child of Auvignon and Mowgli, the little boy adopted by wolves in Kipling's Jungle Book. I suspect the bond we feel with these social isolates reflects our deep, usually well-buried sense of aloneness and of the fragility of social connectedness. Who doesn't feel, in some way, on most days, that they are members of a lost tribe, cultural orphans, misplaced persons?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Vacation, part 2: Reading rainbow

In among the light motifs of island sunrises and sunsets, night skies and fireflies, there was a literary leit motif to my vacation this summer. B Island is a buttoned-up kind of place where bad language and PDAs are frowned upon and fretted over, and the island library is reliably staid. But even in this conservative outpost, as in the adulteriferous conservative movement at large, racy currents rage beneath still waters.

It all started at JFK. With seven hours in a dreary airline terminal waiting for my one-hour flight to Maine, I clearly wasn't going to survive on a skimpy Monday New York Times with its too-easy-even-for-me crossword puzzle. Airport book kiosks are a stunning case study of catering to the lowest common denominator, so when I saw a paperback by Armistead Maupin, I grabbed it, thinking it would be a quaint sequel to his charming '70s San Francisco Chronicle serial, Tales of the City.

It wasn't. Or rather, it was a sequel, but it was hardly quaint. It had, among many other points of interest, graphic descriptions of three-way ass-fucking in the Viagra-popping viral-loaded Baghdad by the Bay.

So when I finished it on B Island, I was consterned that someone might pick it up and start browsing and freak out. I asked Other if we should burn it. He was worried that it wouldn't burn completely in the wood stove, and our landlady would find it among the ashes. He suggested we discreetly slip it onto the paperback rack of the library. I was scared we'd get caught, though I toyed with the idea of inscribing it with the name of the primmest islander or the most vicious gossip and leaving it on a roadside bench. In the end we decided to carry it off the island when I took Other to the airport (he was leaving a couple days before me), and he would dispose of it. But alas, he accidentally left it at the counter of the parking-lot office when we picked up our car. I was embarrassed to go back to retrieve it, especially since the parking-lot operators are hand-in-glove with the gossipers of the island, but Other had also left a serious read, Elizabeth Costello, that he wanted to finish. So I nipped in and as unobtrusively as possible removed the two books from the counter, where they had remained all day, and put them at the bottom of my suitcase when I got back to the island.

Islanders might be shocked by graphic gay sex. But I in turn was shocked by a hetero sex book I found in the cottage. It was raining, and I had read everything I'd checked out of the island library, and I was bored. I spotted on my landlady's shelves a Judy Blume book for adults. I read very few best sellers, so perhaps I'm a little naive about what popular fiction consists of these days. I remember the Judy Blumes I read to C in elementary school. Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing and Freckle Juice were pleasantly down to earth. Summer Sisters was downright earthy. All sex all the time, coy euphemisms for body parts, only the thinnest veneer of a plot, not much else.

Is this what ordinary people read?

Vacation, part 1: Jet blues

To Whom It May Concern:

I would like to register a complaint re my flight (or nonflight) on July 27 (confirmation no. N17QS1). Flight 668 from JFK to PWM, which was supposed to depart at 10:55 a.m., was first said to be delayed and then finally canceled at about 12:30 pm, purportedly because of mechanical failure. Passengers were assured that they would have no trouble flying standby on the subsequent flight, 604, which was to depart at 1:43 pm. In fact, there was no seat for a single standby on that flight. We were then booked for Flight 606, departing at 5:29 pm. We were assured that our luggage had gone ahead, on Flight 604, and would be awaiting us in Portland. In fact, when we finally got to Portland more than seven hours after we were originally scheduled to arrive, our luggage was nowhere to be found. It arrived the next day. Because I had missed the last scheduled ferry to the island where I had rented a house for the week, I had to pay $100 for a special boat to deliver me to the house. My husband, who had arrived in Portland two days earlier, was forced to spend his entire day rushing between the airport and the dock in South Freeport trying to arrange that special boat. I missed a day of my vacation. So did he. In addition, I wasted at least $25 on airport food. And although I tried to be pleasant, reasonable and accommodating throughout the ordeal, I was treated with startling rudeness and misinformation, as were the other passengers.

What I would like to know is, how are you going to compensate me for a seven-hour flight delay, $125 in extra food and transportation expenses, a lost day of vacation for both me and my husband, and the delay in luggage delivery?