Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sometimes the Lamp Breaks

Yesterday was my mother’s 94th birthday.

Robert and I drove up to see her.  Because she has dementia, it is difficult to go to a restaurant with her, so we brought flowers and took her for a drive, which she very much enjoys.

In the car, she said, “I thought you were coming around dinner time.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mom,” I said.  “I told you to write down that we were coming at twelve.  And you said J [her caregiver] was writing it down as we spoke.”

“I don’t remember,” she said.

“Well, I’m sorry you were surprised,” I said.  “J must have written it down wrong.”

“Oh, J is wonderful,” she said.  “I don’t blame her.  I blame you.  It’s easier.”

She said this without a trace of humor or sarcasm or irony.

I know that dementia is a terrible, insidious illness that wreaks havoc on one’s essential self.  But what she said—“I blame you.  It’s easier”— is my mother at her most truthful and least inhibited.  This is the way it has always been between us.  (“I had the most beautiful legs when I was young.  I weighed 125 pounds all my life until I had you,” she told me when I was a teenager.)

My father, who has been dead 36 years and whom I adored, had a thing about ownership.  “It broke,” I said once over the shattered remains of a lamp I had unintentionally knocked from a table.  “It didn’t break!  You broke it!” he thundered.  I can still hear him saying it.

My parents really did a number on me.  I am responsible.  Always, I am the one to blame.

Oy, that word.  Blame.  For many years, I seemed unconsciously drawn to people who liked to affix blame.  Years of therapy later, I’ve learned that the people who want to blame you for everything are usually the people who are afraid they are responsible for whatever is wrong in the world.  You are their scapegoat.  They are hiding behind you, terrified of their own flawed selves.

I’ve learned this, but I have to keep reminding myself that it’s true.  My subconscious self is very used to taking the hit.

Over the years, I’ve become defensive.  It’s not a quality of which I’m terribly proud.  I think I became defensive when I was learning, in therapy, to refuse blame, to stand up for myself.  Now, it’s just a bad habit, a behavior I no longer need.  I am trying to learn to squelch the impulse to defend myself against all complaints and grievances.  Because, you know, sometimes I really screw up.  And then I have to own it.

Oh, here’s another thing I’ve learned.  Sometimes, the lamp breaks.  (Not that one that I knocked off the table when I was six.   I broke that one.)  Sometimes, the washing machine overflows or the cell phone won’t pick up a signal or the car won’t start, and it’s not your—or anyone’s—fault.

That’s a really freeing thing to learn.

When my mother said, “I blame you,” I didn’t say a word.  Two years ago, I would have read her the riot act.  I would have felt righteously indignant. 

Yesterday, it was easy to stay silent.  

Later this week, I'll write about my mother's thing about men.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Running for Meg

Yesterday I ran four miles to honor a woman I never met.

On January 13, Meg Cross Menzies was out for a morning run when she was struck and killed by a drunk driver.  According to her obituary in the Richmond (Virginia) Times Dispatch, she was 34.  She is survived by her husband, her three young children, her parents, and other relatives.

Her friends designated Saturday, January 18th, as Meg’s Miles Day.  (They note that with a careful rearrangement of spacing and punctuation, the day can be known as Meg Smiles Day.)  They asked runners worldwide to run in honor of Meg, to take off their headphones and be conscious of their surroundings, to feel grateful for good health and strong bodies.

In photos on her Facebook page, Meg looks beautiful, healthy, athletic, and happy.  In other photos, her children (whom I would guess to be about eight, seven, and five) pose with Santa.  In October, the whole family went to Disney World.  (I think it's Disney World.  I've never been there.  That's what it looks like.)

It’s an odd thing to be stalking someone I never knew.
As I was running, I couldn’t shake the heavy sadness I felt.  I knew I was supposed to be concentrating on gratitude for my own good fortune and the beauty around me, but I just couldn’t.  (And besides, I try to do that anyway.)  I knew that in order to honor Meg, I would have to write something down.

To anyone who even thinks about driving drunk, or texting while driving, or being otherwise criminally irresponsible, I would say that the harm and horror you might leave in your wake is unimaginable, and really, is that what you want to inflict on this world?  Is that what you want to leave behind?  Isn’t the slimmest possibility that this might actually be your legacy enough to get you to man up, sober up, look up, pay attention?

Also: it is very easy to look at photos of Meg’s beautiful children and feel a crushing sadness, a sense of devastation wrought, of innocence randomly shattered.  But those children will know pure, unadulterated happiness again: not now, and maybe not for a while, but someday.  Yes, they will.

Meg’s parents won’t.  I’m willing to bet they thought the hard part was over: they’d gotten their daughter through driver training and first boyfriends and living-away-from-home homesickness and whatever else befalls young adults when they’re out on their own, learning to navigate in the world.
I’m willing to bet they weren’t banking on this.

So yesterday, I ran four miles for Meg.  I know it didn’t do anything for all those people who are trying so hard to cope with such a grievous and unacceptable loss.  But I did it anyway, because when there's nothing you can do, you still have to do something. 

I send all my sympathy to Meg’s family and friends and pray for their comfort and peace.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On Lena Dunham Walking around Naked

I have a lot of writers on my mind today. 

For Christmas, Robert snuck into my office, took note of every Philip Roth novel I own, and then bought me all the ones I didn’t.  That pretty much takes care of my reading for the year.

Before the holidays, I read Alice McDermott’s Someone.  It’s one of those books you read slowly, so you don’t finish it too fast.  Beautiful.

Another holiday present: my friend Jim sent me Tom Barbash’s Stay Up with Me, a terrific collection of short stories.

But the writer I’m thinking about the most these days is Lena Dunham.  For those of you who don’t know, she is the twenty-seven-year-old creator of the HBO show “Girls.”  She writes and directs and stars in the show.  She has also made two movies (Creative Nonfiction and Tiny Furniture).  In her spare time, she writes for The New Yorker.


When I was twenty-seven, I was married, pregnant, and working (unhappily) for Bank of America.  The closest I got to writing was drafting incentive compensation plans. 

Lena Dunham gets a lot of flak for her appearance.  She is a perfectly lovely looking young woman who has a lot of tattoos and does not appear to be a super- model.  But people are outraged—outraged—that she dares to appear naked in “Girls.” 

(By the way, the people who are outraged by this are the same people who watch “Game of Thrones” and tell their friends it’s quality television.  Which it may be.  But there are a lot of naked women in it.  Who look like super-models.)

Lena Dunham is quick to talk about the people who vilify her.  I follow her on Twitter.  She seems mildly amused and incredulous about the vitriol she inspires.  She does not appear detached; neither does she seem overly concerned or wounded.

Twenty-seven.  Twenty-seven.

When Lena Dunham is naked on “Girls,” it is often without reason.  Like, she’s just walking around without a shirt on.  This leads people to complain that there is unnecessary nudity on her show.

I disagree.  I believe that nowhere is nudity more necessary than it is on “Girls.”  Here’s why: because Lena Dunham knows—at age twenty-seven—that her nudity inspires outrage and vitriol and maliciousness and panic and senseless hatred. (Really.  Check out the tweets at @LenaDunhamTroll if you want to be disgusted.)  And she does it anyway.

Why panic?  Because she is a real woman who is comfortable with her nakedness.  (Or maybe she’s not, but she’s doing a fantastic job of acting as though she is.)  And this is just terrifying to men AND women.  I don’t have proof, but I’m willing to assume that a lot of these outraged people aren’t really outraged by Lena Dunham walking around naked.  They’re outraged by Lena Dunham walking around comfortably naked.

(By the way, outraged people.  If you think you look better naked than Lena Dunham, think again.  I bet you don’t.  Nobody does.  Unless you are Bar Refaeli, and even then.)

I wish Lena Dunham had been around when I was twenty-seven.  As it is, I’m glad she’s around for my twenty-four-year-old daughter and her friends.  I’m glad she’s out there writing and speaking and cavorting naked and leaning in.  And tweeting things like “Feminism is never a matter of convenience, not for me and I hope not for anyone I admire.”

And whoever is behind @LenaDunhamTroll?  Go fuck yourself.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thoughts about Jewelry and Memories in the New Year

My father (who died 36 years ago) was a very smart man.  He studied hard to become a surgeon, and he read voraciously all his (too-short) life.  To me, he passed on a love of English literature and a respect for knowledge and fact.
Yesterday, I felt oddly compelled to go through my jewelry box.  Ostensibly, this was because last weekend, my mother asked me to return her wedding ring.  I told her I didn’t have it, and she asked me to check.
But I felt as though something else was urging me to take the box from the shelf where I keep it and pore over the tangled chains, lone earrings, and broken-latched bracelets I barely remember I own but can’t seem to throw away.

I’m funny about jewelry. I have pierced ears but a lot of hair, so I never wear earrings.  And I tend to wear the same pieces over and over: two cuff bracelets (one given to me by my son, another by my friend Jim), a ring with a silver horse on it that I bought in London, another with a dolphin, a gift from my daughter.  Plus a diamond watch and a couple of things Robert has given me.  I have lots of beautiful jewelry made by my friend Tracy, and I wear it often.  It makes me feel cooler than I am, because Tracy is one of the coolest people on the planet, and I know if she’s made something, it is unarguably fantastic.
In general, I wear jewelry that means something to me.  I’m not very good at buying a piece because I like the look of it or think it will go well with something else (which is what I love about shopping for clothes).  I like wearing jewelry that people important in my life have given me.

I never did find my mother’s wedding ring.
But I found something my father gave me a few years before he died: his Phi Beta Kappa key, inscribed with his name, his college (UC Berkeley), and the year he was graduated (1944, when he was 20).

Immediately on finding it, I dug around for a silver chain (with a working latch) and hung the key around my neck.  I have decided I will wear it for a while.  It makes me feel close to him.

Today is the second day of 2014—happy new year!!—and I find myself thinking about someone who has been dead more than a quarter of a century.  Someone I only knew for nineteen years, who never knew me as an adult, a writer, or a mother. 

My mother—soon to be ninety-four, with ever-worsening dementia—is losing her past.  It is slipping away, like the foam that washes up the beach and then ebbs, swallowed by the depths behind it.  Each moment disappears into a vast abyss of moments, all the same, un-remembered.

Today, moving forward, I am so grateful  to have that key—that link to an old time—and to remember why it was important to my dad and why he gave it to me.