Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Charice is right!

Great advice from Charice, in Richard Russo's Everybody's Fool:
"You gotta stop worrying so much about being wrong."

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Effectively invisible

Penelope Lively describes the invisibility of a certain age in Spiderweb:

“A woman in late middle age is the most neutral figure of all … She poses no sexual threat nor challenge. For young men, she is of so little interest as to be effectively invisible. For women younger than herself, she is a comforting reminder that they have not themselves got that far yet, thanks be. For those around her age, she is a reassurance: we are not alone.” 

But I believe she gets the benefits wrong: 

“Accordingly all three groups are reasonably well disposed, the defences are down, an overture will be accepted with equanimity and in some quarters with enthusiasm.”

Monday, October 3, 2016

Death, taxes and moving

Lately I’ve been thinking about how moving is like dying. 

It’s not just that you’re leaving the known world for an unfamiliar one. It’s that sorting through your stuff is like that moment before death when you’re supposed to see your life flash before your eyes. In my case, the flash lights up a crude wooden heart carved by the guy who became my husband, the weird 3D photograph of my son and me at a friend’s birthday party, a note scrawled by my daughter on a torn scrap of paper—“I love mommy”—and the mildewed, now-too-small shoes I wore for over 30 years on every dress-up occasion. 

Moving is like dying because deciding what to toss and what to save is like writing your own epitaph, shaping how your children will remember you. I pore over every belonging with a view to what it will feel like for my daughter or son to stumble on it. I’ve thrown out that crappy novel I never finished writing: even I can’t remember how the American Egyptologist turned up dead in the Valley of the Kings—and I certainly don’t want my kids to find out how bad a writer I was. But I’ve saved an insane number of drawings by my children. I want my kids to find their old artwork and know how much I treasured every little accomplishment of theirs.

I wonder what it will be like in a month or two when I leave the apartment I’ve lived in for nearly 35 years and step into the one I will be living in till I really do die. I like to think I’ll be starting a new life. But I’m a little afraid I’ll be living in a graveyard.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Hymn to Sunny Jim

If you were a dog you’d be a glossy golden retriever, but smart like a border collie, and loyal like a Lab, and cheerful like a Doodle. A big dog, with a loose-limbed lope. Happy-go-lucky and home-loving but with a muzzle sniffing for adventure and a wet lick for every friend.

What I can’t quite picture is you as a sick dog, with your head hung low, or even as a human being sick as a dog. (Where did that expression come from?) To me, you’ll always be a pup, gamboling—and gambling—through life. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

It takes all colors

Toeing the (nipple) line

The other day in yoga class, the teacher gave an instruction with a reference point that I’ve heard before and that always flummoxes me for a moment: the “nipple line,” as in “Place your hands [or whatever] at the ‘nipple line.’” 

Where did my nipples used to be? I ask myself. It’s been over 10 years since they were removed, along with the rest of my breast tissue, so the memory of their precise location has grown a bit vague.

The first time I heard this reference, I thought of it as peculiarly female-oriented, until I reminded myself that men have nipples, they just don’t have breasts. And then, on further reflection, I realized that it was actually more male-oriented than female-oriented since a woman’s nipple line changes with time. Indeed, my nipple line had certainly been traveling toward my waist before it disappeared entirely.

I’m thinking of writing a note to the Iyengars, who believe in stringent precision, asking them to possibly modify this kind of instruction, so that fools like me can stop getting lost in the weeds en route to their downward dogs.

Getting older, falling apart

Cars and people—same same. When Other and I moved to New York, we had an old Dodge Dart that we parked on the streets. Slowly the peripherals began to disappear in the night. The side-view mirror, the hubcaps, the gas cap. But its rebuilt engine remained strong. And weirdly, to us, no one stole the vanity license plate, which read Objet (objet d’art, get it?).

Four decades later, I’m suffering the same fate. My breasts, my lymph nodes, and bits of my face and back are scattered in pathology labs around the city. There seem to be more strands parked in my hairbrush than on my head some days. And now there’s talk of amputating a deformed toe—easier to take the toe than rebuild the entire foot, I’m told, especially in a person of my age. 

Pretty soon I’ll be told that it’s cheaper to buy a new body than to keep fixing the old one. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

So this is weird

My mother is known for her sharp, sometimes lacerating, tongue. Sentimental is the last word you would ever use to describe her. So imagine my surprise when I asked her what she would like for dinner and she answered, “All I want is joy and happiness.” And then she told me that the previous evening, when my brother and sister-in-law and I arrived and ordered Chinese, was “perfect—nothing needed to be fixed.” And by "nothing needed to be fixed," I think she meant flawless. At 90 years old and counting, my mother is still fucking with my brain!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Sometimes I feel sorry for myself

Then I listen to what other people are going through. During a single weekend, I heard updates on way too many sad tales. One friend struggles with depression and anxiety two years after her husband committed suicide following a lifetime of unremitting pain. Another friend helped his wife kill herself after a lifetime of unremitting pain. Two other friends cope with grief and loneliness years after their husbands dumped them for other women. Another friend is helping her brother raise his daughter because his sportswoman wife committed suicide when her chronic fatigue syndrome made living unbearable. That same friend, whose husband limps from a stroke, is helping her sister deal with multiple myeloma.  Two other friends are coping with the health problems of their adult sons, one with a disabling seizure disorder, the other with a life-threatening colon condition. Another friend, who recently watched her father die, is trying to figure out retirement as she watches her husband descend into “mild cognitive impairment.” The daughter of another couple cannot work because she suffers panic attacks in the wake of a concussion. And yet another friend is the single mother of a foster child born with fetal alcohol syndrome whom she has placed in a residential school because he was uncontrollable; he begs her to let him come home. And that’s not all. But I just can’t bear to go on … 

Monday, April 11, 2016

That'll work

Overheard at the bank from a guy talking on his cell phone: "Look, I don't want to fight about it anymore. Just stop being a bitch and I'll see you Thursday."

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Hearing voices—mine!

I’ve been volunteering on a cancer helpline for many years. I think I give good advice, particularly to women dealing with the anxiety of a cancer diagnosis. “You’ve done everything in your power to maximize your survival,” I tell them. Or “Keep a notebook of your worries, so you don’t rehearse them when you’re trying to sleep.” Or “Remember to breathe.” Or “Go to a movie.” Or “Yoga!”

Recently I spiraled into anxiety over concerns about my own health. I began parroting my own advice back to myself. A psychologist I know says this is a form of “counterattitudinal advocacy.” And you know what? I give good counsel! (And by the way, I'm fine.)

Friday, March 4, 2016

Some days are hopeless

I’m one of those people who apologize too much. In fact, today I was at a medical clinic and found myself doing it again—saying I was sorry my paperwork was messy, sorry it was taking me so long to get my insurance card out of my wallet, sorry my things were cluttering up the waiting room. Finally I realized my apologies were getting annoying, and I had to fight the impulse to say, “I’m sorry I’m apologizing too much.” 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Space is tight in New York, and no one has enough privacy. When I told friends about a recurring dream I had in which I’d discovered an extra room in my apartment, it turned out they’d all had the exact same dream. 

When my daughter was born, she slept behind a curtain in an alcove in my husband’s painting studio. We built my son, who was 10 then, a room of his own with a sliding door. My husband and I sleep in a fold-down bed in a tiny space that doubles as my office; when the bed is down, I can’t reach my desk. 

After my son went off to college, my daughter moved into his room. I continued to long for a place of my own where I could get away from everyone and think my own thoughts. I told my family that when my daughter moved out, that room would become mine: I dibbed it.

We let her keep it while she was in college, and after college she lived at home off and on for a while. But a few months ago, she found an apartment with a friend and took her stuff with her. 

I had big dreams for my new room. I would finish the novel I began before my kids were born. I would move my books in and turn it into a personal reading library. I would use it as a yoga studio. I would set up my sewing machine. In the end, I’ve left it empty, though I sit in it for a few minutes every day. All their things may be gone, but my children continue to inhabit the space. The ghosts of their pasts linger. That room changed my kids. They entered it as children, and when they left they were adults. This is where they led their secret adolescent lives, learned to get away from my husband and me, did things they wanted to keep from us, found their freedom and their true selves. Now that my children have grown and gone and I finally have time and space to think my own thoughts, I find that I think mostly of them and the curious alchemy that took place in that room.

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.