Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The ultimate friendship test

I took a walk with a friend who’s struggling with hypertension. Under stern orders to check her blood pressure four times a day and write it down, she’s discovered that certain friends send it soaring. She has no choice but to dismiss them from her life. What an excellent barometer of friendship!

Life inside a horror movie

So what’s it like to wear hearing aids for the first time? It’s a little like living in the sound track of a horror movie. Floors groan, doors squeak, clocks tick, people sigh, papers crackle, computer keys clack, sirens wail, the TV drones in the distance. And that’s on a quiet day. I’ve lived in Silent World so long that such things are novel and distracting. Then there are the sounds I can’t identify—the weird susurrations and beeps that must be the borborygmi of the universe, or at least the universe that is New York. 

Other than that, and the slight echo that halos speech, it’s great. I can hear what people say, even in a crowded room. “What?” is no longer my automatic response to any utterance. Indeed, now I can be the one who acts annoyed when someone asks “What?” 

But the idea of having a thing that costs as much as a Mac Pro stuck in each ear makes me nervous. I keep rubbing the bits behind my pinnas—they sound like sandpaper when they’re on—to reassure myself that they’re still there. And I can’t quite imagine wearing earrings anymore. Too much stuff to load onto one flap of flesh.

Every day I wake up curious about what new sounds I’ll hear, what strange things people will whisper to each other. My biggest fear, that I would overhear people saying cruel things about me, has not materialized. It’s been so exciting to live in Noisy Town that I want to crank the volume higher and higher, to see what more there is out there to hear. Sadly my audiologist didn’t put the controls in my hands. Perhaps wisely, she left the volume to the chips to manage.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dither, dither

For several years now I’ve been dithering about whether to get hearing aids. Pros: They might enable me to hear. Cons: They’re expensive. Not everyone can bear to wear them. And it makes my daughter cry when I mention the possibility (“You’ll look so old!” she wails). 

But now that I’m spending more time at home and conversing more with Other, who is also hard of hearing, I’m edging closer to making the big decision to spend the damn money. 

Though having to repeat everything I say to Other, and asking him to repeat everything he says to me, is a factor, it’s the little things that are firming my resolve. Someone who recently bought hearing aids told me she was startled the other day to hear the sound of her own pee tinkling into the toilet. It had been years since she’d heard it. Funny thing, I often can’t tell if I’ve finished peeing unless I look.

Then there’s the eavesdropping issue. A friend once told me that everything she knew about her daughter came from listening to her daughter and her friends talking in the back seat of her SUV. I was clueless as a mother. First of all, I don’t have an SUV. Second, I can’t hear anything with the back of my head. I need my eyes to hear. Like most hard-of-hearing people, I rely on lip reading, something that’s not always possible to do discreetly.

It’s not just critical information about my children’s lives I’ve missed. I’ve also missed learning about the lives of strangers. These days, people tell their most intimate secrets into their cell phones on the street. Every once in a while, I catch a fascinating glimpse of what I’m missing. I know everyone else wants people to stop talking on their cell phones. I want them to keep talking—but a bit louder, please.

As someone who feels on fire in a wool sweater, whose eyes run if someone within 50 yards is wearing perfume, who can’t bear the feeling of a hat pressing on my forehead, what are the chances I’ll be able to tolerate something stuck in my ear 12 hours a day? It’s a $5,000 crapshoot. But I think I'm ready to take a shot.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Weird mathematical-esque kirtan

Om. That is perfect. This is perfect. From the perfect springs the perfect. If the perfect is taken from the perfect, the perfect remains.

Om purnamadah purnamidam
Purnat purnamu dachyate
Purnasya purna ma daya
Purna ve va va shisyate

Friday, November 8, 2013

Monday, October 7, 2013

Tax is wack

Other and I are struggling with a minor income tax problem on behalf of our daughter. It’s a small problem, relatively speaking, and we have both the money and the expertise of a competent accountant, and still we are confused. Other just dropped the astounding fact bomb that when I start taking Social Security, I’ll have to pay QUARTERLY taxes. I’m appointing a conservator and checking into a nursing home right now.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Tyranny of fashion

Sometimes I’ll overhear someone making a nasty snap judgment about a woman with an unbecoming haircut or a piece of clothing that accentuates her figure flaws: What horrible taste she must have to choose that unfortunate hairstyle and those unflattering clothes! How stupid she looks!

The thing is, she’s the victim here. She had a hairdresser who butchered her hair that way. She didn’t do it to herself. As the unfortunate bearer of many a bizarre haircut, I know that. And maybe her friends wanted to spare her feelings so they told her it looked nice. Maybe they actually believed it looked nice. 

And the thing about clothes is that you don’t really have a choice. Fashion changes every two weeks and is designed for teenagers. Even if you found something a year ago that minimized your hips or obscured your lack of cleavage, you certainly wouldn’t be able to find anything like it again. Unless the item was Levis 501s, which are the only piece of clothing that hasn’t changed since the 1970s. (Of course, no one but me and a couple of cowboys wear them anymore.)

That’s why I tend to buy multiples of clothes I like. Years ago I feared those fabric maryjanes from Chinatown might be discontinued. They were the only shoes I could find then that were comfortable and, I thought, attractive. I bought dozens of them. The weird thing was that they had flimsy-looking plastic soles a quarter of an inch thick, so they seemed likely to wear out in days, but they last for years. In fact, the soles never wear out (though the fabric can fray). 

So in case you’re wondering why I’ve got six pairs of pants or 10 skirts or 12 T-shirts in the same style but different colors, it’s because I know that fashions will change and I’ll never find anything like them again. As for my hair, let’s not talk about it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Key wars

My parents, who are virtual shut-ins, are obsessed with keys. They have clever key fobs (“THE KEYS TO SUCCESS”) and key-ring mounted tools (mini-flashlights). And they have a lot of keys: two to enter the building, one for the mailbox, one for the elevator, two for the door from the back stairs to the apartment, one for the deep freeze (which houses not frozen peas but old tax returns), one for the safe deposit box, and so on. 

For years, you would have thought I was robbing them when I asked to borrow a basic set of house keys. They were more willing to lend me tens of thousands of dollars to buy my apartment when I was poor and 30 and unlikely to be able to repay them than they were to lend me their keys for half an hour when I was in my 50s and running errands for them. 

After protracted, intense negotiations over the course of a year or so, I finally, at the age of about 60, managed to procure a set of my own. I knew that I had passed some kind of character test when I was shown the hiding place for the deep-freeze key and the safe deposit box. Somehow, after six decades, I had persuaded them that I was trustworthy.

Not so the home aides. Even though these responsible and reliable women live with my parents round the clock, providing the most intimate kinds of care, they remain suspect—and not to be trusted with a set of house keys. 

Interestingly, though I fought long and hard to gain possession of those keys, it is with heavy resignation that I unhook my own keys from the ring in my handbag and hook in theirs as I head out for a week in San Francisco. And the moment I drop theirs to the bottom of my handbag and rehook my own before boarding the plane for Newark is one of ecstatic freedom. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Home life

When I go to San Francisco to visit my parents, I usually discourage my California-dwelling brothers from overlapping with me. I figure when I’m there, they can take a break from eldercare. They’ll need to be there when I can’t. 

The downside is that by the end of a week or two of watching my frail 90-year-old father peer through his thick glasses AND a magnifying glass to load up his pill tray—unwittingly dropping lifesaving medications onto the floor—and my stroked-out 87-year-old mother eschew her walker to wobble to the bathroom, I’m a wreck. It takes months to calm down. And then it’s time to go again.

This past visit, though, my brothers and their partners made a point of visiting while I was in residence—and the result was a stress-free week, though in some ways, my parents were on their worst behavior.

They’ve always fought, but now that they are confined to each other’s company, the claustrophobia has escalated their spats into all-out war. My mother will lob a grenade into my father’s territory and then sit back contentedly to watch the explosion. 

Oddly, as the warfare heats up and my parents become ever less bridled in their verbal assaults on each other, my brothers and I have developed an increasingly abstract vocabulary to communicate with one another. And so it is that one brother will say that something is “controversial” to convey that a certain subject has drawn blood. And all three children are afflicted with a curious wanderlust and errand hunger that drive us to take long walks over San Francisco’s steep hills and deep dales at odd hours. 

We all have learned there is danger in being a white-flag-carrying emissary between warring parties. As the home aides have counseled us, we leave the room when the fighting breaks out. Which means that my parents, who love and look forward to our visits, spend much of the time without us—and alone again together.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The secret lives of trees

Life is so interesting!

My hair cutter told me that the reason baldness tends to start at the top of your head is that that’s where the blood supply is lowest. So massaging the top of your head (hello, Tingler!) and standing on your head (hello, yoga!) are the best ways to promote thicker, faster-growing hair.

And at the veterinarian’s today—$200 to find out my cat had dirty ears, not mites—I met a woman who has 49 cats and three pigeons. It would cost her $10,200 to get them all checked for mites.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Good-bye, Granny

And so she came to pass. As she had met the many troubles in her life, my mother-in-law greeted death with minimal fuss. She went to sleep one night, stayed asleep the next day and quietly passed into the great hereafter overnight. I wish I knew how she did it so I could do the same when I’m 94—or 90, because that’s when her quality of life began to deteriorate with dementia. 

And now begins the paperwork. The great snarls of red tape, the Rubik’s Cubes of catch-22s, the mountains of documents in triplicate—poor Other has barely finished putting his late sister’s estate to rest and now another volcano of bureautrash has spewed forth. 

The heaps of legal requirements, the fees for filing this and that, the barriers to getting things done, diminish the person who has died. There’s little time or brainspace to reflect on the life that has ended. 

But I do know my kids have lost the one person who never, not even for a moment, took anything but pleasure in them. She was the ultimate spoiler, the one who comforted them with ice cream when I had scolded them, who rented seaside vacation homes to lure them—and their friends—to visit, who tried to give them all the good things, who never tried to teach them a lesson. They were so lucky to have her! And so was I.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Good old Granny

Is it just me, or is world wobbling on its axis? First the heat wave, which made everything surreal. Then phone calls: A friend with a cancer recurrence—her fourth episode. A parent with depression. Friends with addicted children and degenerative disease. And now the nursing home with news that my mother-in-law didn’t fully wake up this morning and seems to be wafting in and out of consciousness. 

The news about my mother-in-law is unsettling. It’s not that she’s at death’s door; we don’t know what’s wrong with her. And it’s not that it would be a tragedy if she died; she’s 94. It’s that she could die, and then this woman who has been a symbol of resilience will no longer exist, her absence making the world feel a little less steady.

My mother-in-law is an ordinary woman—an old-fashioned housewife with no special talents or accomplishments, save one: a sturdy, down-to-earth cheerfulness in the face of terrible tragedies. She lost two brothers in World War II, three of her four children, her husband, one of her legs—and righted herself like a bop-bag clown after every blow. 

When I asked her late husband what had made him fall in love with her, he replied, “She knew how to have a good time.” 

Of all the genetic qualities I’d wish upon my children, my mother-in-law’s gift for having a good time is foremost. I care less that they learn from their mistakes than that they not be undone by them, less that they have great adventures than that they take pleasure in daily life, less that they fulfill their potential than that they not be driven by fear. Good old Granny was a wonderful model for living a good life.

Iggy's mug shot

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sisterhood is powerful

I often check out women with flat chests to see whether they’re flat or just small breasted. Because since I had my bilateral mastectomy seven years ago, I’m always looking for other members of my tribe. It can get a little lonely being the only ambi-Amazon. Plus, I want to figure out whether what they’re wearing works.

On my flight back from San Francisco the other day, I was amused to notice that another woman was checking ME out. I hope it made her day to see a sister.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

No place for old men (or women)

One of the conundrums of elder care is the sense that you should do something, anything, to make your parents’ lives better. But whatever you do is likely to actually make them worse.

Take my parents, for example. My mother suffers from dementia: Her memory is failing. Her speech is so unpredictable that even she seems perplexed by what comes out of her mouth. Her moods range from cantankerous to enraged. Yet she remains the boss, and no one can write a check or make a decision without her imprimatur. Which is a problem, since sometimes she likes to tease by withholding it. She’s like a little boy who lobs rocks into a hornets’ nest for the excitement of it. 

And my father falls for it every time. Though he’s by nature a kindly soul, he’s also a mostly rational one, so her perversity sends him into tantrums of frustration. 

My father’s brain is faring somewhat better than my mother’s, but his hearing is so poor that he often gets the wrong end of the stick, which makes him paranoid. His eyes are going too, and he reads with bottle-glass specs and a magnifying glass, which makes for spotty comprehension. 

Mail is a nightmare with its special offers and faux URGENT stamps and the tendency for the important stuff to end up in recycling and the junk to be saved. 

The two of them spend their days feuding with each other and searching for lost letters. 

They have round-the-clock home aides, who are extraordinarily competent and kind. They seemed like salvation five months ago, when they first began. But now that the roof is leaking and the toilet overflows as often as it flushes, they seem insufficient. 

But getting a roofer to repair the flashing or a contractor to replace the too-narrow waste line or anyone to come in to sort the mail would cause overwhelming disruption. They resist the notion of assisted living, and they’re probably right to do so. A change of that magnitude would make them lose what little of their minds they have left. Plus they’d never speak to me again.

So like Californians waiting for the inevitable earthquake, I too wait for the “big one,” the cataclysmic event that will clarify what I should do. Till then I just wait and watch.

My last image of them before I left for the airport after a nine-day visit was my mother dropping food into her lap and onto the floor, as she does at every meal because for some reason she doesn't like to sit close to the table, and my poor old 90-year-old dad, unsteady on his feet, plunging the most godawful sludge from the toilet. He plunged and plunged and plunged, and the bilge didn’t budge. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It sometimes takes a couple hours.”

Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad. See you in a couple months.

Today's yoga homily grit

When I was little, I used to confuse homily with hominy. Easy to mix them up. And if you think of grit as being a small morsel, you might be inclined, as I once was, to refer to a short sermon as a homily grit. 

In her homily grit today, my yoga teacher had us all focus on our breath, and then she pointed out that simply observing your respiration changed it—slowed it and deepened it and eased it.

That’s part of the magic of yoga: the simplest actions—even inactions—cause a cascade of benefits.

Things I wish I had

“Button your lip” was something adults used to say to kids when I was young. At the time, it was an unwelcome instruction. Recently, though, I was thinking about how convenient it would be to have an actual button—or zipper—to fasten your mouth shut. It would keep you from snoring when you wanted to sleep on your back. Nice also would be a button for your partner’s mouth to keep him from snoring too. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Oldsters do the darnedest things

When the home aides rebelled against cooking with the past-dates food from the deep freeze, my father finally capitulated and threw out all the mastodon-era steaks and Jurassic frozen peas. It must have cost him dearly. The thing was packed with ancient foodstuffs. In the end, he decided to just shut the thing down and not use it at all—as a freezer. But, he found, it makes an excellent file cabinet for old documents that he wasn’t quite ready to throw away. 

The trouble with nonverbal communication is ...

... that it’s nonverbal, so you have no idea what the hell it means.

I had a really juicy cold last week, but I didn’t want to miss the wake of a friend’s father. I didn’t know the father, but the daughter is a close friend, and I wanted to support her. So I packed my pockets with Kleenex and set out on the bus. By the time I got to the funeral home, my supply was depleted. The service had begun, so I took a back seat on the inner aisle and tried to keep my sniffling unobtrusive. 

At one point, there was a call-and-response prayer. I’m not Catholic, and I refrained from responding.

Suddenly a woman across the aisle snatched my hand. Oh! I thought, I didn’t know Catholics held hands during services. I thought that was more a, you know, Unitarian kind of thing. I looked around and saw that no one else was holding hands. Oh, I thought, she’s chiding me for not participating in the responses. 

It finally came to me later that she wasn’t chiding me at all. She had heard my sniffling and assumed I was overcome with grief. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Insomnia everlasting

I’m an insomniac and always have been. Even as a child, I would lie awake and worry. What does a child have to worry about? Infinity. I still get anxious at the notion, but when I was, say, 10, the idea of time everlasting was terrifying. I would lie in bed and throw my mind further and further into the future, not imagining what it would be like so much as trying to find the end and failing. Or I’d pitch myself into a bottomless well and fall slowly into the vast nowhere. Boundless outer space—cosmic torture. 

Infinity still bothers me, but now I know to stop at the precipice and will myself to worry about other, slightly less disturbing things—like the fact that I cannot remember the name of a movie I saw a fragment of the night before, or the words I said in good humor that could easily be misconstrued. Such things still keep me awake, or maybe I worry about them because what else are you going to do while you’re lying awake. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Turning down the heat

Although I have certainly felt from time to time that I was burning in the fires of my own private hell, it turns out that as the term “sandwich generation” suggests, I am not the only piece of lunchmeat on the grill of caregiving. 

And it turns out that none of us are completely satisfied with how we’re doing the eldercare slice. Those who have lost a parent (or two) are burdened with regrets that can never be resolved—a father’s pain that went unaddressed, say, or a mother’s loneliness a daughter was too busy to assuage.

Both my parents are still alive, so I have an opportunity to avoid such regrets. My trouble is that I still struggle with adolescent anger. I continue to repeat to myself and others the story of the abusive behavior of one parent and the enabling of the other. But those horrors are now more than half a century old. The people who inflicted them on me were younger than I am now, and every cell of their bodies has been replaced since then many times over. They are no longer the people who did me wrong. (Though they sure do look like them.)

So lately I’ve been trying not so much to forgive the people that they were but to love the people that they’ve become. Ironically, love in this case means maintaining emotional distance. I can appreciate my mother’s rampant stubbornness and my father’s tax-time OCD only when I don’t feel trapped by them. So I professionalize my relationship with them—when I have the wherewithal—by refusing to rise to provocation or, really, engage on any level. Oddly, this has allowed me to say—for the first time in decades—“I love you.” And mostly, I mean it.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Dachsund Day in Washington Square Park


Essentially, the hour-and-a-half level 1 class consisted of three poses, with variations: parsvottanasana, supta padangusthasana, and pashimottanasana. Static poses but with so many nuances that it was both intense and fascinating. I think I’ve found my second home!

Unbearable adjectives

Add a couple of hyphenates to the list of loatheworthy language

1. go-to
2. must-have

Sandman in Washington Square

Friday, April 26, 2013

Yoga in the naked city

I’m a yoga whore. I have no loyalty, and I’ll try anything. There seem to be 8 million yoga classes in the naked city, and in my month of semi-retirement, I’ve made headway into trying them all.

I’ve been a yoga whore for a long time, so I was already familiar with a number of studios: Ellen Saltonstall (my home base), Shala, Maha Padma, Integral, Ishta, Vira, Jivamukti, the Om Factory.

But with time on my hands and frugality in mind, I wanted to try others. First I went for bargains:
*$10 for a week of all-you-can-eat yoga at Yoga Vida—O.K. if you don’t mind meaning-of-life sermons from 20-year-olds and classes with 50 or more Lululemon-clad students
*$25 for a week of unlimited classes at Atmananda—O.K. if you get Jhon and don’t mind some military-style barking in classes so small you feel like a heel for being a cheapskate in a studio with a concrete floor painted black and ceiling lanterns that look like the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers
*Pay what you want (I paid $5) at Yoga to the People—Smells like teen spirit when the guys take their shirts off
*$12 for Sivananda—Classical but rigid

Except for the fact that I’m 63 (and most of the students in these bargain-basement classes look 18), I feel like Goldilocks. Next up: the Papa Bear of yoga, Iyengar.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Who comes up with these?

Language I love to loathe

1. Shirty: For people who like to sound clever and don’t mind being annoying, a Britishism that has come into American usage, meaning ill-tempered.
2. Change it up: For people who like to hear the sound of their own voice for at least one more syllable. There’s no other reason for “up”? 


I have only myself to blame for the cats, rescued from shelters 14 years ago and eight years ago. Other told me they were a bad idea. I thought I knew better. What was I thinking? Unlike the guinea pig and the hamsters and the gerbil and the turtles, which we dispatched in unintentional and sometimes gruesome ways, the cats persist.

And they entrap us and enslave us. Other and I, finally retired, are chained to the rhythms of cans and kibble and litter boxes. So temperamental have the cats become in their eating and elimination that we despair of inveigling another soul to take our place for even a week. We scheme of seducing an innocent with the promise of free lodging in exchange for cat care—making it sound simple and letting our victim discover on her own that she has become an American equivalent of India’s lowest caste, the Dalit, or night-soil collector.

It’s a 24-hour cycle. Let’s start at, say, 11 pm, when we latch the sliding doors with a bungee cord, since Boy Cat has figured out how to open our bedroom door, which lies beyond the sliders. 

If I get up to use the bathroom, I must unhook the bungee, scurry through the sliders and close them quickly so Boy Cat doesn’t dash in and wake Other. While I’m nodding on the toilet, Girl Cat licks my legs with her shockingly smelly, bristly tongue, nipping me between rasps as if to remove a burr. Cat love is surprisingly painful. 

A dash back through the sliding doors may be delayed by a step into a puddle of poo or barf. If the puddle is particularly disgusting or requires special effort to clean up—the cats are drawn for such purposes to a particularly valuable white carpet—it can take a while to fall back to sleep. 

At 5, it’s wake-up time because Boy Cat hurls his body against the sliding doors like a hammer on a gong. Then Girl Cat’s rasping of my legs resumes while I open cans. 

Now here’s the tricky part: Boy Cat must have a special food that Girl Cat despises. So Girl Cat gets a special food all her own. Girl Cat’s food would make Boy Cat sick, but he’s a glutton and wants his food and hers. So Boy Cat gets locked in the bathroom with his special food. Girl Cat must wait till Boy Cat is finished, because she doesn’t think it’s nice to eat anywhere but bathrooms. She whines while Boy Cat eats. When Boy Cat is done, I dash in to switch dishes, get Boy Cat out of the bathroom and Girl Cat into it. Then Boy Cat hurls himself against the bathroom door to let me know he’s got to go. I open the door and snatch Girl Cat’s food away, so Boy Cat can get to the litter box and won’t scarf Girl Cat’s chow en route. Once I’ve scraped the box and cleaned up whatever he’s deposited on the floor since he’s a guy and thinks I was born to clean up his shit, I replace Girl Cat’s food in the bathroom and slam the door so Boy Cat can’t get back in. This sequence gets repeated like an aerobic zumba riff.

Then there’s a respite while Girl Cat and Boy Cat sleep it off. Then Girl Cat might wheeze up a watery barf after much noisy effort, Boy Cat might heave up a dark hairball with nasty things like roach legs sticking out of the central dreadlock. There may be many visits to the litter box, with much kicking out of gravel and other debris. There may be the use of antique Persian carpets as toilet paper. Girl Cat may decide to rip half her hair out and re-upholster the couch with it. Boy Cat may decide he doesn’t like the rule forbidding him to rip the couch with his meat-hook claws, or he may decide to catch a pigeon on the deck and dismantle it alive inside the house. 

At 5, the game of musical cat dishes begins again. 

Between the hours of, say, 7 and 11, there’s a quiet time, when both cats snore sweetly in the glow of lamplight, and even though Girl Cat smells bad and Boy Cat is a biter so we don’t feel inclined to cuddle with them, Other and I think they’re really not that bad.

The thing is, they really are that bad. And we are at their mercy. No one wants a middle-aged cat, and certainly not a pair of them, so I can’t put them up for re-adoption. I’d put them down if I thought I could survive the guilt, but I’m a wimp that way. Other and I have agreed on DNRs for both of them—and no well-cat vet visits either to keep them healthy. But still they live on. It will be years before they die of old age. We’ll be too old ourselves to enjoy our freedom by then—and someone will be shoveling our shit. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Mixed blessings

The question of beauty and other worldly assets arose again this weekend during a discussion of a Dove video in which an artist produces pairs of drawings of unseen women. The first of each pair is based on a woman’s self-description; the second is based on a description of her by someone she has just met. In each case, the second sketch is deemed more flattering than the first. Let’s not even talk about what’s wrong with this picture, er, video.

First we started talking about how beauty can cripple. My friend said her sisters’ beauty had led to eating disorders and extreme and ultimately disfiguring cosmetic procedures. Then I said that as a parent, I’ve observed that early beauty—and the attention it draws—can give young people a distorted view of what is valuable about them and can discourage them from putting effort into endeavors that do not bring the easy approval that beauty does. Conversely, sometimes their peers dislike them on sight (“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”). 

My friend likened the barbs of beauty to those of wealth. She inherited money when she was in her 20s and feels her wealth robbed her of the satisfaction and self-esteem of earning a living. Which reminded me of how I feel about my demi-retirement: no practical worries but endless ontological ones.


Every picture (frame) tells a story

Outside a construction site at Great Jones and Lafayette

Friday, April 19, 2013

My way or the highway

This morning Other asked me whether I thought I was beautiful. I’ve actually thought about the question of physical beauty since 18 months of cancer treatments catapulted me from looking fairly youthful for my age to looking outright elderly. 

I do miss my lost looks. The old me—with the even complexion, thick brown hair, enviable figure and actual homegrown boobs—was nice-looking. I don’t remember feeling beautiful, but when I look at pre-cancer photographs, I can see that I might have been.

Now I feel certain I no longer conform to anyone’s ideal of conventional beauty. My skin is marred by brown spots. My hair is thin and gray. I’m bony and boobless. Men don’t do double-takes. There are no flirtatious glances. 

And it hurts a bit. 

But here’s the thing: I don’t feel like doing anything about it. If I put some work into the project, I know I could refashion some of my lost looks. I could get skin peels and rejuvenating facials. I could dye my hair and figure out a way of augmenting it. I could have surgery to implant silicon pillows into my chest and get nipple tattoos. Many women do all that.

I’m built differently. If people are going to dismiss me because of my ruined appearance, I say, Fuck ’em. I don’t want to live in their world. 

I want to be valued for my ugly, old, contrary self. I want unconditional love. It won’t happen. But I can’t seem to make myself invest the effort it would take to craft a more lovable self, even though it might make me happier. So I’m destined to pass my remaining years feeling a little out of sorts with the world.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Masks of age

Other had a lovely description of what it’s like to get older: When you look in the mirror, the eyes are yours, but as time passes, masks descend over your face—with lines, wrinkles, freckles, brown spots.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Time off but not away

Retirement is like vacation without the vacating.
So here’s what I’ve accomplished in the first two weeks:
*Took 11 yoga classes 
*Read three books
*Read an entire issue of the New Yorker, front to back, including Goings On
*Read the New York Review of Books (sort of)
*Solved 12 crossword puzzles
*Napped morning, noon and night
*Took a zumba class
*Attended one party, met three friends for lunch, four for dinner
*Got my e-mail hacked
*Visited the Genius Bar
*Changed every logon and password
*Actually read and annotated my financial planner’s financial plan
*Lay on the couch for hours on end not really doing anything

Is it over yet?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

I hate retirement

I am cranky. 

I am sick of cat hair. I don’t know what I was thinking when I got a white cat.

I hate it when my yoga teacher rubs my scalp with fingers drenched in lavender oil leaving my hair looking like a wet dog and smelling like a sock drawer.

My gorge rises when I hear the animal noises—grunts, vocalized yawns, burps, borborygmi, snores—of others.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Natural-born heroes

This is one of my favorite photographs. I think I look pretty lively for someone who had finished a year-and-a-half-long course of cancer treatment just a few months earlier. And I’ll always be fascinated by the guy I’m with—Wes Autrey—a.k.a the Subway Hero. 

In 2007, Autrey was waiting for a train with his two daughters when he saw a young man fall into a seizure and stumble off the platform onto the tracks. In an instant, Autrey made a multitude of dazzling mental and moral calculations: that the train was coming too fast to stop short of the spasming body, that Autrey didn’t have time to jump down and pull the man to safety, that the space between the trackbed and the undercarriage of the train would accommodate two men lying one on top of the other, that he wanted his two little girls to see him doing the right thing. And he jumped, flattened the guy and held him down as the train passed over them—while his girls watched.

I try hard to be a good person and do the right thing, and I generally make defensible ethical choices, but it would have taken me days—and a measuring tape and a calculator and a lot of Googling of math texts, plus perhaps more courage than I could muster—to make the decision Autrey made in a split second. 

Every time I think of Autrey and try to figure out the wizardry of his act, I end up gibbering. Despite all my years of yoga, I cannot grok how he had the sheer presence of mind to act so fast and flawlessly.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Night and day

On my last trip home, it took me a while to realize that my parents no longer bother to change their clothes for bed. Yes, they brush their teeth and wash their faces. But they don’t take off their day clothes and put on their night clothes. They just climb into the bed they’ve been lying on top of most of the day and pull the covers up.

My mother says it’s because my father has had dizzy spells and she wants to be prepared. (To do what? I’m tempted to ask.) In my dad’s case, it’s because there’s now a full-time home aide who sleeps in the bedroom next to theirs, and he must shield her from seeing the tighty whiteys he used to sleep in.

Good reasons, I’m sure, but depressing nonetheless. It smacks of depression and Why bother to get dressed?

Worse than bedbugs

Add to my list of phobias: getting my e-mail hacked. Only it’s not a phobia. It’s reality. On Wednesday, my e-mail address began sending out empty mail under a dozen or so subject headings like I’M FREE, I DID IT! and I HAVE BECAME MY OWN BOSS (sic). Thing is, since I recently stopped working full-time, many recipients—perhaps including my old boss and colleagues, plus prospective freelance clients—assumed they were genuine. So several cheerfully responded with congratulations. Which was heartwarming but spooky. 

Why do hackers do this—compromise e-mail accounts? What possible benefit can it give them to ruin my life when they don’t even know me? What is the point? 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Clueless in retirement

When layoffs were announced at my company a few weeks ago, I had no intention to volunteer. But when I learned that 40% of my department was on the block, I ran the numbers in the severance package. I could get paid the same amount for working twice as hard or for not working at all. 

So here I am, newly retired, without a plan. 

On my first day, I saw an audiologist, which sounds depressing but was enlightening: I actually got to try on hearing aids and experience firsthand the difference they made: greater clarity with a touch of tin—and a price tag of $5,500.

The second day, I bought a seven-day introductory all-you-can-eat yoga package for $10 and went to my first class. I’ll cram myself with yoga, bulimia-style, and push down the feelings of panic. 

Today yawns before me like a vast wasteland—with a yoga oasis shimmering somewhere in it like a mirage.

When I think about what I want to do with this unexpected empty time, I have conflicting impulses: Fill it up with worthy projects, undertake a new career entirely, lie around and watch television series everybody talked about and I somehow never watched, get really deeply into personal grooming, clean the crap out of my house, slit my wrists (kidding).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The self-defeating paralysis of anxiety

For the past nine months, I’ve been paralyzed by anxiety. I don’t know what brought it on or why it won’t go away. I’ve got plenty to worry about—foremost, a homesick child abroad and elderly parents on the precipice—but no actual emergencies. Yet I lurch from dead sleep to waking dread. And the fear flares anew throughout the day with sickening frequency. 

The phone rings, and my stomach drops for fear it’s bad news from my parents. An e-mail clangs into my inbox (I must change that chime), and I can’t bring myself to click on it for fear it’s bad news from my daughter. 

Any small thing that happens sends me into a swivet of what-ifs. A typo at work, and I envision a lawsuit. Failure to call a friend, and I imagine she’s suicidal. 

It just doesn’t stop. So two weeks ago, I asked my doctor for some antianxiety meds. She prescribed Zoloft. But now I’m anxious about taking them. I’ve read there may be a connection between SSRIs and breast cancer. I’ve heard Zoloft is hard to kick. Maybe I can cheer up on my own.

Make it stop.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Me and my friend M

My friend M and I are as different as a couple of 63-year-olds could be. She is dark, I am fair. She is short, I am tall. She is low-key, I am high-strung. She’s an optimist, I’m a pessimist. If we charted how our minds work, she’d be a bar graph and I’d be a scatter gram. 

It’s her very stolidity that I find interesting. But that’s not to say she doesn’t have a sense of adventure. Recently M tossed up every detail of her life like a game of 52-card pickup. 

After selling their West Village apartment, she and her husband realized they had conflicting ideas about the ideal domicile. She wanted to live in the country, he wanted to live in the city. Instead of compromising and moving to, say, Westchester, they split the money. He bought an apartment on the Upper West Side. She bought a car, rented a farmhouse in the Berkshires and moved into it with her dog. She and her husband talk on the phone and pay each other visits. She swears she’s not lonely.

It hasn’t all been easy: The first thing she told me when I went to visit her last weekend was “I’m on a tight budget.” Heating oil costs as much as $600 a month—and even then you have to wear long underwear, turtlenecks and fleeces in the house. The car has an engine light that went on for no reason and doesn’t go out. The dog needs to be pilled several times a day and walked in the middle of the night and gets diarrhea if you share your food with her. She hasn’t found a steady job, so she’s substitute-teaching for a pittance and wondering how long it’ll be before she has to dip into her savings.

But M is happy. Every night when she walks the dog, she looks at the starry sky, and every day when she gets up in the morning she sees the cobble that rises behind her house. And she’s thrilled by their beauty. Most of all, I think, she’s thrilled that she did what she wanted to do instead of going along with someone else’s plan or just getting mired in the inertia of the known. And I have to say I’m thrilled too. I don’t want her life—it’s too cold, for one thing—but seeing her carp her diem makes me feel I could too. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

From the annals of graffiti

Creating space in tight places

My teacher N gave a lovely intro to yesterday's yoga class: 

Sometimes you feel as if you’re in a tight spot and there’s no room to turn and every exit seems to lead to another wall. Your problems seem insoluble. 

That’s where yoga can show you the way. Sometimes your body feels tight too, and movement is restricted. But by breathing into the compressed areas and gently working them loose, you can find space where there was none before and gradually unfurl.

And figuring out how to create space in your body shows you how to find the space in other spheres as well.