Friday, June 27, 2014

The stupid life

"This is stupid," she says. 

"What's stupid, Mom?" 

"This," she says. "All of this is stupid."

And I have to say I agree with her. There we were crammed into her room with her personal caregiver in the skilled-nursing facility where she was stuck for two months. My father, to whom she'd been married for 68 years, had died in February at the age of 90. My 88-year-old mother had come down with shingles in March and, weakened by the virus, fell and broke her hip in April. My brothers and I were now tag teaming to be on hand to keep her spirits up. Despite our best efforts, it felt pretty stupid. 

Even before her latest fall, even before my father's death, it had been fairly stupid. My deaf, nearly blind father, stressed out by the demands of living in the modern world—bills, medical forms, scam mail, which he pored over with a hand magnifier in front of his thick glasses—would accuse my mother, who was already hobbled by earlier falls and a stroke that addled her brain and robbed her of useful language, of misplacing a letter or bank statement or checkbook. Unfairly accused, and never one to sit still for insults, she would punish him by refusing to speak to him. Not that her speech was entirely intelligible when she did speak to him. It would have been funny if they hadn't been my parents.

By the time doctors told my father that only extreme interventions could prolong his life, he was practically racing toward death with open arms. He'd had enough—not of my mother but of a life that was largely burdensome. Tragically, he and my mother had been engaged in one of their protracted skirmishes when he breathed his last. He had been begging her for forgiveness, and she had been withholding it. Then he died. She had the last word—or really the last silence—but regret is what she is left with now. So I'm pretty sure that's part of the vast stupidity she's referring to. But it's also stupid to be living beyond any expectation of usefulness or pleasure, maintained by a retinue of doctors, nurses, home aides, and well-meaning aging children who travel great distances to keep her company. 

It's really stupid that my last words to my father were "Don't worry, Dad. The bills are paid." It's stupid that those are the words that allowed him to finally let go. He died a couple hours later.

It's stupid that my quirky-smart father never got a chance to write down his curious thoughts and stories. He was too busy paying and losing the damn bills. It's stupid that my whip-smart, vivacious mother is crippled by a brain that is literally dammed and a body that doesn't really work, though "she has the vital signs of a teenager," as the nurses tell us brightly. It's stupid that when we remind her of the PhD she earned at a time when other women stayed home with the kids, her brilliance as a teacher, her stunning success as a financial adviser, she has not a flicker of memory for these accomplishments. 

My mother is right. All of this is really, really stupid.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Koons in Rock Center

The coolest thing is how the white daisies in its eyes sway in the breeze.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The thing with feathers

In the world of breast cancer, hope is a sacred word. "Don't give up hope," women tell each other, even in the most hopeless circumstances. "Here's hoping," they say before a friend goes in for a mammogram. “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul—and sings the tunes without the words—and never stops at all,” Emily Dickinson wrote (though not about breast cancer).

Hope is supposed to be a good thing. So I was startled the other day when a friend reported that a support-group leader had told her, "Hope is a waste of time."

I've mulled over what the support-group leader could have meant. And I think she may have meant one or more of a few things:

1. Hope implies that our own illness or someone else's is under our control, and that if we just hope enough we can sway the outcome. Like the blame-the-victim admonishment to "think positive," hope suggests that if we get sicker or die, it's our own fault for letting go of hope or failing to maintain optimism.

2. Hope is another name for fear, its inherent dark side. When we hope, we're really dreading whatever it is we hope won't happen. 

3. By focusing on a future outcome, hope takes you out of the here and now. And really, you can mostly bear what is in the present. It is the future that scares us silly. But if we ask ourselves, "Are we O.K. now? ... And now? ... And now? ..." the answer is affirmative. 

4. Hope is passive. If you really want something to happen, and it's under your control, you can take the actual steps to ensure it. Otherwise, it's just an empty word. And who needs empty words in times of crisis?

Ram Dass once said in an interview that a Tibetan Lama told him that the best place to stand is halfway between hope and hopelessness. Which is probably somewhere in the here and now.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The wackiness of happiness

I'm sure academe has a theory to explain my experience. My basal-mood temperature is a degree above "depressed," my "pessimism" reading is higher than my cholesterol, and I'm deep into the double digits of "anxious." Yes, my emotional vital signs are poor to middling, but it doesn't take much to make my spirits soar—at least briefly. And it helps if a little something has recently gone wrong. 

Take this morning. When I reached the library, I realized I had lost the small zippered bag that holds the ear buds and power cord for my iPhone. Immediate downtick in mood. After retracing my steps, I found it right where I had left it—next to the yoga ball at the gym. My sense of elation was out of all proportion to the event: my worldview changed from a slightly-below-baseline "Everything sucks" to "Am I not the luckiest woman alive?" I believe I may have uttered those precise words to the deskhuman as I left, holding the little yellow bag aloft in victory. (And I'm pretty sure she totally understood.) Simply remembering to pick it up when I got off the yoga ball in the first place would have been a non-event. But losing it and finding it was epic—even though it cost me time and concentration at the library. 

On the other hand, a major loss, the death of my father, caused little change in my mood-o-meter. In fact, there might have been a tiny uptick in the "relief" department. After all, his final illness had triggered stress, guilt, pity and fear. And those feelings largely vanished when he did.

Perhaps the answer is to lose a little thing every day, just for the exultation of finding it.

You can't make this sh*t up

The cardboard-carton mattress of the homeless man who sleeps on my block. Was he the writer or the recipient of this message? I don't know.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

Comma yoga

In my long career as a yoga practitioner, I’ve been a slut—a one-night stander, a two-timer and a serial monogamist. For an hour or a year, I’ve done PE yoga, gym yoga, power yoga, restorative yoga, flow yoga, Lyrical yoga, hot yoga, cold yoga, Ashtanga, Integral, Sivananda, fusion, Anusara, Atmananda, Jivamukti, kundalini. While others dived in deep or quit the water entirely, I splashed in the shallows.

Forty years in, I think I’m ready to take the plunge into copy editor yoga. That’s what a colleague aptly called Iyengar yoga when I described its attentiveness to detail and precision. There is a right way and a wrong way in Iyengar, just as there is in a respectable grammar manual. Sloppy writing, sloppy yoga—why bother?

It has been said to me by some writers that they have no patience for the pickiness of copyediting. They’re more interested in the creative process, they say. But grammar is the sinew and bone of writing. Without it, words are mere disgorgement.

I once had no patience for pickiness in yoga. Handstands, headstands, forearm stands—I was a thrill seeker who let her limbs fly. But for a while now, I’ve been tackling yoga’s grammar through Iyengar. And there’s a thrill as ecstatic as inverting heels over head in getting a simple pose precisely right.