Thursday, October 24, 2013

Facebook: Middle School for Grownups

Most of my friends on Facebook share my feelings about politics.

Several of them don’t.  Among these, two stand out.

One is a man I have known for over twenty years.  He was one of my first writing teachers.  I think he’s pretty brilliant.  I do not get his politics At All.

Once, years ago, at a writing retreat, I jokingly made reference to a political issue about which I knew we disagreed.  He looked at me imploringly and said, “Please let’s not talk about it.”  I understood that he did not want to fight with me.  I didn’t joke about it anymore.

Recently, this man posted something about President Obama as a response to something I had written.  I posted back, “Love you.  We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”  And he respected me and said nothing further.

The other person I want to write about is someone I’ve never met.  It’s funny that we’re even Facebook friends, since our lives are about as different as two Americans’ lives can be.  But we became online friends after his daughter starred in the trailer for my book PRETTIEST DOLL (Clarion 2012)

This man disagrees with just about every political opinion I hold.  But what I love—what I find meaningful about our virtual friendship—is that we’ve actually had extended conversations (via Facebook) about things that are hot buttons for both of us.  These conversations have been civil, even friendly.  That’s a rarity in today’s world.

The reason I’m writing about all this on a blog supposedly devoted to writing, books, and my life as a middle-aged woman is that I am working on a manuscript that takes place in a middle school.  Middle school, as we adults know, is a dreadful, dreadful place, and I was trying to catalog the reasons for this.
The usual things came immediately to mind: kids have one foot in the adult world and the other in a child’s, their voices are changing, they’re getting their periods, their skin is bad, their hormones are misfiring.  Everyone’s basically a hot mess, and there’s a lot of homework.  Just thinking about it makes me sick.

But the really bad thing—the worst thing—about middle school is that you only talk to your friends (which, this being middle school, you’re lucky to have).  There isn’t a whole lot of inter-clique mingling.  The athletic boys hang out with each other at lunch; they don’t have much to say to the Theater kids or the smart boys or the boys who go their own way or haven’t figured out just who they are yet.  Or the boys who want desperately to belong somewhere and, whatever the reason, don’t.

That is what is so dreadful about middle school.  That is what tears at my heart when I think about it.

This morning it occurred to me that many of us adults have re-created our own grownup version of middle school for ourselves.  We hang out with people who share our beliefs.  We whisper about the people who don’t, or make fun of them, or tell other people how stupid they are for believing what they believe. 

It’s kind of crummy, actually.

I’m not going to stop posting memes about how dangerous “the other side” is, or how they make up facts, or are delusional, or misinformed, or just plain wrong. 

But my two Facebook friendships have made me realize a couple of things.  One is that I have to keep in mind that “the other side” is made up of people I like and respect.  Would I say nasty things to their faces, in person?  Nope.  I would not.

The other thing I’m going to remember is that having a substantive conversation with someone who sees the world differently from the way I see it is far more satisfying, and ultimately more fun, that sharing funny memes.

Even the one about the idiots who think Girl Scout Cookies promote lesbianism.

Monday, October 14, 2013

On Being Eighty

A few days ago, my daughter and I were browsing in a used-book store.  She pulled a book off the shelves, thumbed through it, and then handed it to me.  “This is something you would like,” she said.  “It looks sad.”

The book was a novel, EMILY, ALONE, by Stewart O’Nan (Viking, 2011), and it wasn’t sad, or at least, it wasn’t to me.  It is a lovely character study, a meditation on growing old with grace.  I found myself riveted.

The book is told entirely from the point of view of Emily, an eighty-year-old woman, recently widowed, who lives alone in Pittsburgh.  Emily’s days are quiet, occupied with reading, puzzles, classical music, the care of her dog, and occasional outings with her sister-in-law Arlene.  She waits expectantly for calls from her adult children, for warmer months, so she can indulge her passion for gardening, for family reunions held every year.

The book is interesting for several reasons.  I was amazed that a man had written it.  I did not for one moment doubt Emily’s voice, her way of looking at the world.   It is one thing for a male dramatist or a short-story writer to craft a well-drawn heroine, but it is quite another for a male novelist to inhabit a female character so artfully and so completely.  The fact that she is eighty makes the accomplishment yet more notable.  O’Nan (who is younger than I) captures beautifully the rhythms of aging—life slowing and shrinking—as well as Emily’s dignified submission to them.

The story dwells less on death than one might expect, even though death is all around.  Emily thinks often of those she has lost.  Still, there is forward motion, however slow.  But it is a story without the devices we have come to expect in modern novels.  There are no car crashes (of any significance), no brutal crimes, no life-shattering revelations, no epiphanies to speak of.   Ultimately, we are told the story of a woman who, even within the constraints of a life winding down, manages to change and grow.

I read the book expecting to see my mother in Emily, but, surprisingly, I didn’t.  Before dementia began ravaging her mind, my mother was not as introspective as Emily.  She was more adventurous and less preoccupied with the past (at least as far as I know).  She had little use for friends, no patience for crosswords.  She did not care for the neediness of dogs.

Instead, I saw myself in Emily: a woman who takes comfort in books and music and the company of friends and family.  I hope I do not end up as alone as Emily feels herself to be.  But maybe I can muster some of her grace.  That would be something.

When you’re my daughter’s age, you can’t imagine being eighty.  I can’t really imagine it, either, but I know it’s coming.  (At least, I hope it’s coming.)  I don’t know what my life will look like then, but EMILY, ALONE underscores that the things I value—good health for me and those I love, a well-functioning brain, books and music and a friend or two—are reasonable things to hope for.  Can you take spin classes when you’re eighty?  That would be nice, too.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Update on My Mother, and Some Sad News

My mother—93 years old and suffering from dementia—is being much nicer to me these days.  I think that’s because she has finally forgotten that I took her car away two years ago this month.  She looks forward to my weekly visit, and to our drives through neighborhoods in which she used to live and which she no longer remembers.  She enjoys the stories I tell her about her own life. 

Here are some other things I noticed last Friday:

--When I escort my mother from her apartment to my car and back, we hold hands.  I always extend my hand to her and say, “Can we hold hands?” (I know, I know, “May we hold hands?”, but who says that?), and she always takes it and tells me how she holds hands with my ex-husband when he visits her.  I do it because she is very unsteady on her feet—last week she fell in her apartment—but I don’t think she knows that.  I don’t ever remember holding hands with her, not even when I was a child.  Her hands are slim, with long fingers and beautifully manicured nails.  (The caregivers take her to the salon, where someone named Henry does them for her.  “I love that Henry,” Mom always says.)  She does not have arthritic knuckles, a fact that amazes me.

--She is almost unable to articulate a complete sentence.  When we drive past houses she likes, she whispers, “Lordy” or “Vey iz mir.”  “Vey iz mir” is one of my mother’s traditional expressions; she said it all the time when I was growing up.  “Lordy” is something new.  I have no idea why she says it.  I’ve asked her caregivers, and it’s not something either of them says.  Every time she says it, I have the same thought: that the woman I am driving around isn’t really my mother but someone who is simulating her and doing a bad job of it.

--She loves trees.  She can be brought to near-ecstatic exclamations at the sight of a tall redwood or a robust, spreading oak.  Sometimes she calls them her “friends,” which is weird and lovely and sad all at the same time. “They must be so old!” she says in wonder. 

--When we look at nice houses, she often says, “So much money!”  Since she married my father in 1950, she has enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, but her Depression-era roots (daughter of non-English-speaking Hungarian immigrants who died when she was five, a childhood spent in a [wonderful] Jewish orphanage) are in there somewhere.  Her tone when she talks about people with money is admiring and derisive at the same time.  She is not aware of how much money it is costing to keep her in her home with ‘round-the-clock care.  She is also not aware that her credit card can’t be used anymore.  “Can I fill up your tank?” she always asks, and I always smile and say, “No.  But thank you.”

--Another thing about looking at houses:  At least five or six times on any given drive, she will say about a particular house, “That one’s empty.  No one lives there.”  I always laugh and say, “Yes, they do, Mom.”  But she is adamant.  “Why do you think no one lives there?” I ask sometimes.  She peers out the window.  “No one’s in there,” she says, certain.

--Twice, she said, “I love my grandsons.”  And I (who seemingly cannot-CANNOT-stop trying to make her see the world as it really is) said, “One grandson and one granddaughter, Mom.”  “No,” she said stubbornly.  “Two grandsons.” 

--For the first time in two years, my mother said "I love you" without my having to say it first.  Also: she seems to know who I am, but she can't bring my name to mind.  A year ago, I would have wondered if she was saying "I love you" reflexively, without really knowing--knowing--who I am.  Now I don't wonder.  I just accept her statement with love and gratitude. 

I have more to write, but I just received a phone call from my daughter: her grandfather—my ex-father-in-law—just passed away, after a few months of illness.  He and my mother were great friends, despite her insistence on calling him “Fonzie.”  (His real name was Gonzalo, but he went by Gonzy, a name my mother just could not remember, even before she became ill.)  His illness was abrupt and immediately devastating, as opposed to my mother’s, which is incremental and slow.  I wonder, Which way would I prefer to go?  And honestly, I do not know.

What I do know is that he went with supreme grace and dignity.  And that I will have to tell my mother tonight, and the news will make her sad.