Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Of Neti pots and disappearing husbands

Having cheerfully informed me that I am “a human Petri dish,” my pulmonologist recently recommended that I use a Neti pot at least five times a day. Rinsing out my sinuses has now become a second career. I write a paragraph or two, then heat water in the microwave and retire to the bathroom. Write and rinse; repeat.

This is the kind of thing that makes me cranky.

The onset of middle age has coincided with a distinct increase in the number of hours I spend attempting to maintain or improve my health. When I add up the hours spent jogging, weight training, bicycling, visiting doctors, rinsing out my sinuses, and performing Buteyko breathing exercises (designed to decrease the frequency of asthma attacks), I arrive at an alarming figure. (And no, I can’t fudge the numbers by claiming that the bicycling is really just for fun. It is fun, sort of, in the sense that it’s better than running lukewarm water into my nose, but in my world fun involves either lying down or chocolate and as such, cycling doesn’t qualify.)

It takes me aback, all this attention to self. In the old days (like, when I was thirty), I took my effortless good health for granted. I did nothing to nurture or replenish it; I simply assumed it would always be there. I pretended it was a patient, virtuous, long-suffering husband who wanted only to please me, who seemed to ask for nothing in return (in this way distinguishing itself from my actual husband at the time). I callously took what I wanted; I gave nothing back.

Now, in my fifties, I see that this pretend husband was actually a calculating, passive-aggressive jerkwad. While feigning agreeableness, he was really storing up grievances and plotting revenge. Now he’s left me (probably for someone half my age), and I am stuck with my Neti pot and my inhalers and my regret.

It has taken me a long time to learn that you can’t take anything for granted.

Off to the microwave. I hate this. But when I’m finished, I’m going to have an Almond Joy and maybe a nap. As my mother says, So it shouldn’t be a total loss.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Perils and Perks of Aging

Middle age is fraught with unpleasantness. Your body begins to turn on you in vicious and previously unimagined ways. Your adult children make known their grievances. If you are a woman, you become invisible to males under the age of forty. Despite being the high point of Sunday nights, “Mad Men” makes you wonder for the first time in years what your parents’ sex lives were really like.

This is not to say that being middle-aged is without benefits. There are a lot of things I like about being fifty-two. There’s the fact that I no longer bleed on a monthly basis. That’s something. And I like not having to pretend to enjoy rock concerts anymore. Plus, there is the fact that I know all kinds of things of which younger people are ignorant: which actors played the brothers on “Here Come the Brides,” for instance, and what it was like to ride a bike without a helmet, and how it felt to be able to wander your neighborhood entirely beyond the reach of the parental units, who were unabashedly thrilled to be rid of you.

But it is safe to say that, in general, being “of a certain age” sucks ass. I’ve asked my friends, and most of them say that they hate the changes in their physical appearance, the increasing number of doctors’ appointments penciled in on their calendars, the realization that they can no longer run as far or as fast as they used to, the sense of being “peripheralized” by the media (and teenage girls), the notion that the world is really intended for younger people, the fading of memories, the way newsprint seems to get smaller and blurrier, the ever-increasing number of pills on the nightstand. There’s no denying it. No one would choose to age if the other available option was Stay Young Forever.

So I’ve decided to remind myself, on a regular and public basis, of some of the nice things that have happened to me since I’ve turned fifty. To wit:

--My daughter was graduated from high school;
--My son was graduated from college and had relatively little trouble finding a job with a salary that allows him to pay his own bills;
--I saw Paris for the first time with someone I love;
--I sold my house for more than it was objectively worth, in time to avoid the recent economic collapse;
--I moved in with my boyfriend (which brings to mind yet another indignity associated with aging: the absence of a reasonable word with which to refer to one’s significant other when one is over the age of thirty and unmarried);
--I now live in a beautiful part of the world that features fog, crashing surf, pelicans, sea lions, a non-working lighthouse, and KPIG reception;
--My colonoscopy was clean;
--My kids usually pick up their phones when I call;
--I have a new book coming out early next year;
--I read Amy Bloom’s AWAY;
--I am currently planning my mother’s ninetieth birthday celebration;
--I am still able to wear the same size jeans that I’ve worn for ten years.

That’s twelve things to be happy about, my ever-threatening physical decline notwithstanding. That’s not bad.

I will try to remember all this tomorrow as I stand in line at the pharmacy, waiting to refill three prescriptions and buy new reading glasses to replace the ones I’ve unaccountably misplaced.

Leaping Into Nothingness

A few weeks ago, my twenty-year-old daughter texted me from New Zealand to tell me that she had just bungee-jumped off a platform over the city of Queensland. My reactions ran the gamut from pride to anger (what if something had gone horribly wrong?), from fear (what in God’s name is she going to do next?) to disbelief (how did I give birth to someone who could possibly want to do this?). It took me a long time to settle down.

The disbelief is what has stayed with me in the days that have followed. I have known since shortly after she was born that my daughter and I are not terribly alike. She is shorter than I, brown-haired, blue-eyed, a person who loves to be surrounded by friends. (I have dark hair, brown eyes, and prefer the company of a chosen few.) She loves activity, noise, loud music, raucous laughter, bright lights. (I am quiet and sedentary and just generally more bat-like.) She can sing. (I can’t.) In short, I can’t really say that I’m shocked that she would be drawn to bungee-jumping, an activity pretty low on my list of What I Must Do Before I’m Eighty. (The only thing lower is intentionally setting myself on fire.) I have had a long time to grow accustomed to our differences.

Today, as I was jogging through my still-new-to-me neighborhood, I thought again, How did I give birth to someone who would want to bungee-jump? How do I—a person given to catastrophizing and imagining the worst, a careful person made happy by certainty—have a daughter who would willingly take a gleeful, running leap into nothingness?

It was a beautiful fall morning in my neighborhood, which sits on a cliff above Monterey Bay. Yesterday’s clouds had all but dissipated, leaving behind a pale sky and the smell of wet eucalyptus leaves. I could hear jays cawing from the Monterey pines and the rush and crash of waves in the distance. When I finally reached the shore, I sat for a minute and watched a trio of brown pelicans skim the water’s surface, then rise in formation, looking like a phalanx of unmanned drones.

Climbing the steep, rocky path up from the beach, I thought how happy living here has made me, how much I prefer my life here to my old life in the suburbs, where I never paid attention to the color of leaves, where I had a yard instead of a garden, where a sudden rainstorm would remind me only of the traffic jams sure to ensue on the flooded streets.

I live about a hundred miles away from my old house, but my move entailed so much more than packing and sorting and throwing away and then driving south for an hour and a half. It has meant leaving the house where I raised my children: the house where they built pillow forts in the family room and learned to read and hid my birthday presents and called for me in the middle of the night. My son worked on his Lego models at the kitchen table. My bungee-jumping daughter ate seven red Jello Easter eggs one year and threw up what I thought was blood all over the kitchen floor. Moving has meant giving up access to the rooms where these things happened. It has meant having to rely on my own memories, without the prompts of place.

Moving is one of life’s monumental stressors. Those of us who move have to find new places to shop, to exercise, to eat, to play. We have to make new friends. We have to get used to the way the new streetlights are timed. We have to find new favorite bookstores. (Mine is Capitola Books, located conveniently across the parking lot from a See’s Candy store.)

Moving has also meant giving up my life as a single parent to set up housekeeping with Robert. It has meant forging new traditions, like buying flowers and vegetables at the local farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, and heading out to an orchard for apples afterwards. It has meant finding a place for his late father’s armoire (the guest bedroom). It has been a joyous process of accommodation and coming together and learning to make meatloaf just the way he likes it. But back when we had just begun the moving-in-together conversation, I had concerns. What about my freedom, my independence? What about all those things I liked doing alone? (Tellingly, I can no longer remember what those things were, but at the time, they loomed large.)

Remembering all this as I jogged home this morning, I was struck with the realization that moving is its own kind of gleeful leap into nothingness, a bungee jump without a cord. Perhaps my daughter and I have more in common than I’d thought. Perhaps, I decided as I turned into my driveway, I am braver than I had previously believed. It was a nice thought to have as I stood, panting, watching two gray doves peck the damp dirt beneath the now-flowerless hydrangea, each careful not to lose sight of the other, seemingly aware that the world can be a dangerous place.

I caught my breath; I imagined telling my daughter that we are more similar than not; I could hear in my head her uproarious laugh. Okay, maybe it’s a stretch. But I’m vowing that I will stop thinking of myself as timid and fearful, that I will give myself credit for occasional courage, however tentative, however mundane.