Thursday, December 31, 2009

My name is Mia, and ...

It is New Year's Eve, and all around the city, people are drinking. Other and I decided to stay home this year. Actually, I've been sitting out the drinking for more than four years now. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I scrutinized my life and found little to change. I had eaten food, mostly plants, not too much. I had not only exercised but practiced yoga—regularly. I was not too fat, not too thin.

But I drank too little water and too much alcohol. At 5 o'clock every night—and I started watching the clock in midafternoon—I had the first of two stiff drinks. I knew that women were supposed to limit themselves to a single drink, but I'm 5 ft. 10, and I figured that meant that like a man's, my limit was two drinks. And mostly I kept to two drinks, but the drinks got bigger—and stronger—as I got older. It was my reward at the end of the day, and there was rarely a day when I went without. I remember the feeling of the alcohol as it burst into my bloodstream. It was like heroin. It made my knees go weak. I passed most evenings in a mild stupor. I wasn't down-and-out drunk, but I wasn't sober either.

When I told Other I thought I should cut back, he guffawed. But I know I had a problem. I stopped drinking when I got my diagnosis. It was surprisingly easy. And having a brain that actually functions after 5 is a relief. I'm not that ambitious about accomplishing much at night, but it's nice to know that if I wanted to I could. Mostly I fill my evenings with small pleasures. I can read—and even write in this blog if I've a mind to.

Cancer may mean that I don't live my full lifespan in years, but in a funny way, it has given me a few more hours in every day.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Yoga is the hokey pokey for adults

When I was in elementary school and when I volunteered in my children's elementary schools, it was the custom for teachers to get the kids up and moving not just at recess but periodically throughout the day—to wring out the wriggles that prevented them from concentrating. Remember the hokey pokey? One function of yoga is to do the same for adults—to twist and squeeze-and-release and stretch away the tension that afflicts us all. A back injury has once again sidelined me from daily practice, and I feel as squirmy as an eight-year-old who's been sitting at her desk too long.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Who says the age of newspapers is over?

Every so often, my brother, who lives in rural California, sends me a copy of a local newspaper. The cover story of the Dec. 3, 2009, Point Reyes Light, which flags itself as "Marin's Pulitzer Prize-Winning Newspaper," was a nude protest—by a group called Baring Witness—against the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The gist: a dozen activists arranged their naked bodies in a peace sign in Love Field. Arresting as that story was, it is the "Sheriff's Calls" column that I found most haunting. Verbatim excerpts:

Monday, November 23

BOLINAS: At 8:31 a.m. a dark-colored kayak drifted, empty and upright, off Brighton Beach.

POINT REYES STATION: At 9:05 a.m. a large black dog ran north along Highway One.

NICASIO: At 9:56 a.m. an 85-year-old woman had a stroke.

SAMUEL P. TAYLOR: At 10:23 a.m. the remains of a horse, complete with its saddle, were found in the park.

CHILENO VALLEY: At 11:15 a.m. a 70-year-old woman was found dead inside her car on a turnout.

MUIR WOODS: At 12:15 p.m. deputies were asked to stand by while a homeowner gave her housepainters their final check.

STINSON BEACH: At 10 p.m. deputies encountered people cooking marshmallows in a campfire on the beach.

Tuesday, November 24

STINSON BEACH: At 12:29 p.m. a bearded man in a wheelchair was seen wheeling backwards down hill, through blind curves, toward town.

Wednesday, November 25,

HICKS VALLEY: At 6:19 a.m. two black and white cows were walking down the road.

Thursday, November 26

FOREST KNOLLS: At 1:56 p.m. a 56-year-old had a seizure.

HICKS VALLEY: At 3:25 a.m. a cow was seen walking through the fog.

FOREST KNOLLS: At 5:11 a.m. broken toys were moved from the road onto the shoulder.

FOREST KNOLLS: At 7:37 a.m. a 56-year-old woman reported that her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend had pushed pills down her throat while she was asleep. Deputies stood by while the woman told her daughter to move out.

MUIR BEACH: At 1:58 p.m. a man reported that a gray-haired man driving a red Subaru had approached his ten-year-old son, asking for water.

STINSON BEACH: At 8:52 p.m. an 85-year-old man was suddenly unable to talk.

Friday, November 27

BOLINAS: At 2:51 a.m. deputies got a 911 call but heard only wind in the background.

Saturday, November 28

BOLINAS: At 7:53 a.m. a 73-year-old man reported that he had been throwing up all night.

WOODACRE: At 11:53 a.m. a person trying to dial 916 instead dialed 911.

BOLINAS: At 3:29 p.m. a large man who was yelling and throwing things at customers exiting the store was arrested and released.

POINT REYES STATION: At 5:33 p.m. a 12-year-old girl fell off a trampoline.

Sunday, November 29

FOREST KNOLLS: At 12:57 a.m. deputies got a call with nothing on the other end except what sounded like a woman gasping for air.


I totally get why this paper won the Pulitzer Prize.

The peace of wild things

A friend of my parents sent me this lovely poem for Christmas:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

- Wendell Berry

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The calculus of misery

I've been feeling pretty sorry for myself: I've had a kidney infection, Other has had food poisoning, daughter C suffered a disaster that entailed parental involvement, my mother-in-law is in the hospital with pancreatitis—all in one week. It felt like my family was getting more than its share of troubles and that some other family was getting off scot free. And it was pissing me off.

Then my friend A e-mailed me that her friend J had been fighting bedbugs for the past six weeks—and it cheered me right up! I do believe I'd rather have all my troubles than bedbugs. Now I feel I owe J one. And I'm feeling life is pretty, pretty, pretty good after all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I've got a thing for guys named David

For me, telling a joke is like driving a car: I always get lost along the way. So I have an incompetent's appreciation for good comicry (and, of course, for expertise behind the wheel). And because laughter has bought me carefree moments in troubled times, I feel a debt of gratitude to the funny people on the screens and title pages of my life. But all too often, humorists get lazy, relying on insults and sexuendo for laughs. I don't know why that stuff tickles other people. It leaves me cold. (On the other hand, a really good fart joke squeezes the bahookie bubbles out of me every time.)

My onscreen favorite is, of course, Larry David, who spelunks the bat caves of human nature to shine a headlamp on the dank guano heaps that are our most foul faults.

But there is something special about portable laughs, and for those you need a book—and for that you need another David, David Sedaris. Many humorists spin a good yarn, but if they drop a stitch, they tend not to pull out the row and reknit it. They're not perfectionists. And they make me feel a little tense, as if the whole thing may come unraveled. The remarkable thing about Sedaris is that not only is he charming and funny but he is also a wonderful craftsman. His stories have flawlessly formed arcs. He always finds the right word, never settles for close enough. And while his grammar is not perfect, it's so good that you notice when he gets it wrong. Yet with all that care and burnish, his writing never feels forced or precious. You can ride along without a care and leave the driving to him. May I recommend When You Are Engulfed by Flames?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What has big ears and a long nose?

A recent post by a sister blogger raised the question of what topics are appropriate for blogging. Is it important to steer clear of controversial subjects that might offend readers? Is it important to provide an upbeat message? To avoid negativity and whining? Frankly, these are questions that hadn't really occurred to me. My primary concern is achieving a reasonable level of truthfulness while protecting my own privacy and that of my friends and family members. And I'm finding that quite difficult these days. Some days I feel as if I'm blogging about everything but the elephant in the room. Actually, there are several elephants at home and at work. They are turning my life into a zoo! I wish I could send them back to their native lands, but they seem to have settled in for the long haul.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Other threw down the gauntlet yesterday. After I announced that I had virtuously taken the SuperShuttle to and from the airport in San Francisco at $20 a pop (including tip), saving $40 each way from what it would have cost to take a taxi (about $60, including tip), Other decided to take the plane to the train on his return from Florida for $7.50, saving $52.50. Wow! I don't know if I can beat that, except by walking.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Home aides and heroines

I have huge admiration for the underdogs of America. The underdogs I've met include such unsung towers of strength as women who undergo breast-cancer surgery and chemotherapy and radiation at filthy substandard public hospitals and struggle to feed their kids and fund their treatment on public assistance when they'd just like to lie down and die, illegal immigrants who for pittances clean the homes of the wealthy who never consider that when they get their raises and end-of-year bonuses they might consider providing the same to their household help—and the Philippina home aides who uncomplainingly care for my parents.

I simply do not know how they do it. My parents' home aides, L and R, surely do not consider themselves underdogs, for one thing. R has diabetes and and scrambled innards from a busboard injury a couple years ago, yet five mornings a week at dawn she doggedly (underdoggedly!) trudges up the steep hill to my parents' house, sweetly requests their breakfast preferences and patiently waits as they bicker over whose choice it is, then whips up waffles or eggs or whatever they decide on. While the 'rents are eating, she jumps into lunch and dinner prep, bedmaking, laundry, stopping only to bring them their coffee, the salt, whatever they desire. She raised five kids on her own, ran a family farm and started a catering service back in the Philippines. Here, she takes pride in the loving care she gives the elderly. L, the relief aide, who comes just two days a week (her two days off from providing 24-hour care for a 96-year-old with Alzheimer's), is not much of a cook, but she's a cleaner and a charmer. She used to be a dental assistant before she "retired," and clearly knows how to touch others in a loving, caring way. My mother nearly swoons in anticipation of having L give her a shower.

I love my parents and appreciate their sterling qualities and the uprightness with which they have conducted their lives, but after two weeks of serving them, I feel desperation. That may be in part because they're my parents and not my clients, but it's also because I simply do not have the strength of character possessed by their home aides. I cannot wait on other people, cannot put their needs first, cannot slow my own pace to accommodate theirs. Thank god the home aides can! I worship their kindness and fortitude and pray that they stay on.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

I want to play

When I was in San Francisco, I visited a young friend who had moved there from New York. And she introduced me to a wonderful writing game called collaborative fiction. It's a great sprawling gazillion-dimensional world, where a mediator designs a basic plot, and then a dozen players put it into action, creating characters, writing scripts and action sequences, making it all happen. It can take days—or years. It's like the Sims, only with words—lots and lots of them, and well written—in addition to avatars.

For the first few days after she showed me how it worked, I was hungry to play it too—either join her game (she could use me for verisimilitude, since her current game is populated exclusively by 20-somethings!) or enlist writer friends and set up my own game. I've finally resigned myself to the fact that this is yet one more thing that's for the kids, not for me.

Kids have all the fun, it sometimes seems: texting, Twittering, iPhoning, iChatting—and now this. I mean, I could do all these things too, but who would I do them with? When I told my friend B that I secretly craved an iPhone, she looked at me as if I had lost my mind. "What would you do with it?" she asked. Everything! I thought.


I knew AW for only a brief time. We shared a shift as volunteers on a breast-cancer hotline until a few weeks ago, when her metastatic disease flared up and she moved away to be closer to one of her adult children. A few days ago, I tried to call her and couldn't reach her. Yesterday I learned she had died at the age of 86, many years after her initial diagnosis. Even in the short time I knew her—less than a year—AW taught me some valuable lessons by example:

1. Carry on with your commitments, no matter what, even if your legs are so swollen and inflamed with lymphedema you can barely shuffle in your walker, because "what am I going to do, sit around at home and feel sorry for myself?"

2. Read like a madwoman. Borrow books. Lend books.

3. No matter how often people inquire about your obvious discomfort, change the subject to ... fiction. Disease is boring. Fiction is interesting. "I just finished this. Want to read it?"

4. Take the lead in staying in touch with old friends. Call them, sympathize with them about their troubles. Do not dwell on yours.

5. Reach out to the newbies. Resist feeling threatened by their (relative) youth and their, say, computer skills. Take advantage of those skills. Let them log your calls for you. And let them listen in on your calls and learn life lessons from you.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The check is in the mail—and the hell with it

Although my mom has lost much of her eye for detail—the fine points of writing out big numbers on a check, say—she retains a good sense of the big picture. When I worried aloud about whether the home-aide agency would accept a check where the figure and the spelled-out number didn't match, she was nonchalant. "They need me more than I need them," she said. And she's right.