Where the Ego Fears to Tread

I just finished reading an essay on Medium by Meghan Daum, “My Life at 47 is Back to What It was Like at 27“. I’ve been thinking a lot about change and the idea that who we were is always going to be who we are. For someone like me, who is always striving to be better – a better parent, a better writer, a better human, the idea that our essence will remain essentially unchanged throughout our lives bothers me. Perhaps I’ve begun to see the threads of my life that lead from the wood library floors where, at age 9, I’d sit with a pile of books, to the worn, overstuffed reading chair in my study next to a table fairly groaning with to-be-reads at age 51.

Yesterday, I stopped in the drugstore and for the first time in two decades, looked behind the counter to see how much cigarettes cost. It’s a new habit I’ve been practicing – trying to notice things that I don’t normally look at in my daily routine. There was a time when I knew exactly how much cigarettes cost. I smoked until I was 30. Even when I was broke in grad school, I’d scrape together the money (sometimes all in coin) to buy a generic pack of menthols.

canstockphoto13455198.jpgWhat I lost in lung cancer potential, I gained in weight. But in the intervening years since my last smoke, how much has really changed? Is it just the external trappings – from an apartment to a house in the burbs, from the worst girlfriend ever to a less-than-awful wife? From a dog caregiver to a cat caregiver? From someone allergic to children to someone who feels the awful, wonderful deep love for a child. From someone who bounced to whatever job paid more to someone who will be lucky to ever be paid again.

Sometimes it scares the hell out of me – what if this is it? And that question may be the thing that has definitely never changed. It’s the same startling thought I had when I was 18, 28, 38, 48…what if this is all I am? What if I never become a published writer? What if I continue to live an obscure little life? What if the potential I believed I had was all a myth? What if this is all there is?

It’s no coincidence that the heavies are catching me this week. I finally got the last layer of hair color sheared off. I’ve got a Dame Judi Dench thing happening on my head. And I can’t pass a mirror without being a little startled. All the color is gone, replaced by a silvery white. I rarely wear makeup and suddenly I have a better understanding of my grandmother’s blue eye shadow and intensely red lipstick. I am a faded photo of myself. I thought, well, this is me until I’m dead, just picking up more wrinkles and arthritis along the way. Get used to it. 

canstockphoto39088457.jpgAnd then I laughed. There are some things that haven’t changed – my smirking, dark sense of humor. My ability to have the worst thoughts and then let them go. The likelihood that I will be trying to self-improve right up to the moment of death. Oh look, her last Google search was “How to be more productive in hospice”. That in my deepest, darkest moment of despair, I have an inkling that I’ll have a new plan tomorrow.

I’m not the most mentally healthy person. I compulsively overdo everything – food, shopping, TV binging, saying “yes” – less and less as I age, but I can still put away half the kitchen on a bad day. I run a continuous cycle of depressed-okay-depressed-okay- mostly okay. I’m not particularly accomplished at anything, but I know a little about a lot of things and I spend a lot more time doing what makes me content than I did before. My special skills involve list-making, the ability to do heavy physical labor, swearing in several languages, rationalization of just about anything, and my inclination to occasionally bake good homemade bread.

As for the writing, well, there’s a lot of good writers out there and so much of what gets published is the result of hard work, opportunity, and luck  – a secret combo that no one ever really gets sorted. I’m still stuck in the hard work phase, or I should say the pre-hard work phase, because the hardest work is getting myself to do it. Once I’m there, everything is good. Getting there is worse than getting myself to the gym. In fact, I will sometimes work out to avoid writing. That’s wrong on so many levels.

It’s when the jokes get real that throw me off. Less haha-ing and more: oh, shit. Yes, this may be all that there is. Is it bad? Unendurable? Untenable? Not at all. I just feel a bit like a pissed off school teacher sometimes – she had so much potential. I suppose that most humans are guilty of not living up to their potential. I’ve been reading The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn, a very nice collection of short stories, that include not only the story, but a biographical summary of the author. I immediately notice when they’ve died. Atwood is still alive, Borges and Cather had long lives, but Camus at 47, Carver at 50, Chekhov at 44 (apparently I’ve only gotten through the Cs).

Panic mode. Oh my god, if I were them, I’d be dead. I’d have no stories to tell. I haven’t been writing my whole life. No one might ever now that I ever wrote anything besides this blog. Everyone has a blog. Who cares about that? Breathe. There’s nothing to be done now, except to keep moving along like you have the time. No amount of panic will make you write better. Now get back to that short story you’ve been putzing around with for a week.

As my teenage daughter puts it, why would it matter? You’d be dead. Yes, that little cynical apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Still, it matters to me now and regardless of the quasi-solipsistic existentialism that governs much of my personal outlook, part of me knows the power of words. What if my words are what someone needs to hear, to get them by a bad moment, to lift their spirits? It isn’t ego as much as it is paying things forward.

canstockphoto34158490.jpgSometimes I feel like my life was saved by books, that the right words at a particular time in my life, lifted me, gave me heart, taught me empathy, kept me from spiraling downward. Perhaps our essence never changes, but we complete the circle. The words that saved me rooted themselves, became part of me and grew. And now they grow beyond me. Not a bad way to head into the last inning – saying thank you, using my words.

 

Some Words I read This Week that I Enjoyed:

Raymond Carver’s short story,  “A Small, Good Thing

Made me blubber – not always the best selling point, but if you’re in need of a good cry, it’s a good shove in that direction.

Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

I’m not particularly interested in style guides – I use them as reference books for specific questions. However, I’ve just started reading this one and will likely read it cover-to-cover, because of the writer’s sense of humor.

Aging Gracelessly

This was the year I was going to quit dyeing my hair and give into the white hair that has been fighting its way out since my early twenties. To get it started, I got an incredibly unflattering short haircut to let the butterfly metamorphosize into the old lady I was always meant to be. With the extra menopausal pounds, I now look like a potato with a sprig of hair, working my way out to a full pumpkin shape. Occasionally I catch sight of myself in the mirror and just have to laugh.

potatocartoonwitharmsWith all the advice, articles, and products relating to anti-aging, they often fail to mention what an odd ecosystem the aging body is. I watch with bemused curiosity. The random hairs, the delicate balance between hydration and the number of times you have to get up in the night to de-hydrate, your eyeballs sinking in, slowly being swallowed by your eyelids, and how you begin to fade until you look like an old dish towel that’s been through the wash one too many times.

I write this and can already hear the protests about loving yourself and the cruelty of a youth-obsessed culture and how it’s inner beauty that counts. Blah, blah, blah. Beauty has never been an aspiration of mine. I went through the motions when I was younger, but could never really pull it off. I was average and bookish and looked like I was playing dress up when I attempted anything feminine. So I stopped trying. I focused on getting and staying fit and that worked for awhile. Until it didn’t. Injuries took longer to recover from and I started to not want to interrupt a day of reading and writing, with, you know…moving.

peopleachesandpains.jpgYour 50s and 60s are where you get to reap the rewards and punishments of life choices. Every illness, bump, odd intestinal feeling is now accompanied with the anxiety that this is going to be what gets you – a tumor, cancer, some weird infection that incapacitates you and makes you a burden to everyone around you. I mean, it’s going to happen eventually. There are people who use this uncertainty as a launching pad for unmitigated daily joyfulness. I am not one of them. But I stay curious and occasionally have a laugh about some of the more ridiculous aspects of being human.

Still, I feel it’s my duty to make some sort of effort towards health. I’d like to make it until my daughter, now a teenager, is in her 30s. You know, after all the bad boyfriends, fender benders, and years of therapy to undo the damage I’ve done – when there is a possibility that I could call her out of the blue and not hear her eye roll at the other end.

Sochildgirlwomanaging this brings me back to aging. I believe in leading by example as a parent and sometimes I’ve gotten it right, sometimes not. Now, I need to navigate the aging process, the last third of life, the accumulation of good and bad decisions, and whether or not I can still make better ones.

I sense that I’m at a tipping point. Over the last year, I gave up on planned diet and exercise, choosing instead to focus on my creative life. There have been immediate consequences. I’ve suffered insomnia, heartburn, panic attacks, low energy, weight gain, and low spirits. I’m having trouble rallying the troops to get back to good habits. I reverted to childhood – comfort foods, burying myself in books, dreaming of a day when I can feel successful, productive, whole, loved. It’s elemental. All that growth, all that learning, and the moment I stop trying, I become the bespectacled silent girl with a book who loves mashed potatoes and cheese and spends a lot of time daydreaming.

My life coach friend will likely be irritated reading this. She likes to point out progress when I’m in one of my discouraged moods. It’s true, my life is taking a different shape. In some ways, that shape is returning me to who I started out being before the vagaries of family and society became internalized. There is a reason that parallels are drawn between adolescence and middle age. Hormones in reverse. Everything is up for grabs. Suddenly you have to start thinking about potential and possibilities again.

The ride this time is accompanied by a lifetime of lessons. Some of those lessons are about limitations and disappointments. And there’s a lot of here we go again...it’s a little exhausting to think about getting on the right track, making a change, getting my shit together so that I don’t completely fall apart, so I can age gracefully. I hate that phrase. I was never graceful before, why do I have to start now? I’m a mess of habits and emotions aavocadocartoonnd moods. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in months. Things are wobbly and I don’t remember why I went into a room half the time.

Age gracefully my ass.

I’m going to age just the way I’ve always lived – curiously, awkwardly, and one can always hope, slowly. My life will continue to be the three steps forward and two steps back dance that it has always been. I’m just going to look like an avocado doing it.

Me & Social Media: I Feel a Bad Moon Rising

I have written many times over the years about eschewing social media, most notably, Twitter and Facebook. But it’s becoming a problem, because everybody and their grandmothers are on it, including businesses and writing groups and offline groups that I’m involved in. It’s become more of a pain in the ass to avoid it, than to throw up some accounts and give in to a zeitgeist I missed by about ten years and still find just a little repulsive.

canstockphoto14835320Maybe it will be like the year my family took an Amtrak vacation shortly after a fatal train crash. We rationalized that we should still go, since the company would be upping their safety checks – perhaps it was even the safest time to go. Now that social media platforms are being raked over the coals and forced to come to terms with the idea that their platforms are shitty human free-for-alls and treasonous manure spreaders, maybe some things will change. Except people don’t. And companies tend to subvert their shittiness, rather than improve their products. I’m pretty sure it’s all going to still be a time-wasting swamp of excrement.

That being said, I’m going to open accounts, connect with the people I need to connect with, and then hope like hell I can navigate it all without tossing my phone, computer, and self from the nearest bridge. Things are getting intense with writing and I’ve got to learn to connect with people and organizations that support my intentions. It sounds just dreadful.

canstockphoto59497944In the past, it seemed important to have a clear delineation between professional and personal selves. These days, every day is casual day, the profane blends with the political, and metaphorically everyone is in sweatpants. I’m not sure how I feel about that. There is the judgmental voice in my head from my prudish, proper, spit-shine-your shoes, stiff-upper-lip background – impacted by my British mother and grandmother and a stint in the military. And then there is the hippie liberal, comfortable means confidence, pay-attention-to-substance-not-surface, throw-no-stones person that I often long to be.

Of course, nothing is binary these days, which loads us down with the paradox of choice and forces those of us from different generations to really examine what standards we’re holding onto and why. Communication is no different. We are in an age where very prominent, powerful people are running our lives from their toilet seats – where people don’t vet anything before they spew it out. Much like self-published literature could use more editors, social media could use a little self-censorship. But I have to decide what that looks like for myself. Where are my lines in the sand?

canstockphoto14835421I sometimes naively mention my blog to people and am horrified when they want to know what the URL is. Then I’ll quickly denigrate it – oh, it’s nothing, just a little something I threw together, you don’t want to waste your time… I’ve written a lot of personal stories here, used some blue language, rattled off a political opinion or twenty. The thought of people I see regularly, reading it, makes me want to throw up just a bit. When someone says they’ve read my blog, I feel a bit like I’ve just woken up in front of a panel of judges. In my underwear. Yet I have no intention of changing the tone of the blog.

One of my writing kicks lately has been to really think about narrative distance and how that impacts what kind of information we relay – both in fiction and on social media. I feel distance from my writing when I type it – as if I’m writing about someone else. I can say the most vulnerable, revealing things and it feels like I’m just telling a story. If I feel that way about my own writing, I have to pay attention about how I interact with others who write online. Do I make the connection between what they write and their humanity?

canstockphoto14835466The problem with this approach are the insincere, attention hogs who view social media as some sort of stage upon which they can play act any role. Provocateurs and narcissists and sociopaths populate these venues, savoring the idea that they are the puppet masters of others’ emotions, while taking no responsibility for the division and spitefulness they sow. Then there are the maternal, smiley emoticon people who tsk, tsk any negative emotions, trying to have everyone make nice, no matter what the issue. And then there are people like me – a little narcissistic in writing publicly, constantly irritated by bad grammar, and so easily baited into anger by blatant ignorance. I am not well-suited to these venues.

But it’s 2018 and staying true to my interest in anything pop culture, I’m a decade behind the curve. I look forward to the next decade when I get into Instagramma and Crapchat.

My Ineffectual War Against Incompetency, Bureaucracy, and Crime

We keep getting told life is short. I feel that. At 50, it seems to speed by more and more quickly. I have become resentful of the things that eat my time and am trying to simplify more than ever before. But who am I kidding? Nothing about modern society is simple. Everything has a EULA attached and you better damn well read it, lest you inadvertently give up your firstborn.

canstockphoto12549577Today, I spent a couple of hours reporting a fraudulent credit card charge, cancelling my credit card, and moving auto-pays (which is an alarmingly high number of transactions) to another card. Because fraud has become so ubiquitous, it was surprisingly easy, albeit time-consuming, to do. I do hope that AirBnb in California was a lovely place. For $950, these criminals should have gotten a bedtime story and warm milk with their stay.

Over the last month, I’ve been stalking the magazine American Scientific through email and phone calls requesting repeatedly that they remove me from their email lists. I finally cancelled my subscription. To no avail. They email throughout the week with offers and click bait. I’ve blocked the sender and finally reported them to my internet company as spammers.

It isn’t just the constant emails that aggravate – it’s the idea that a publication covering science is incapable of managing a database or teaching their customer service reps who, to a T, have told me they have taken care of the issue, how to use said database. My husband doesn’t understand why I’ve picked this particular battle. He’s a programmer. Color me suspicious.

And the final time-suck culprit is the MEETING. Every time there are more than two people involved, there is a meeting. Some of the groups I’m involved in have a heavier social aspect than others, requiring designated drivers and doggie bags. The other groups have a decidedly bureaucratic flavor, with multi-page agendas, PowerPoint presentations, and where, at any given moment, 50% of the participants are on devices. Connected and disconnected all at once.canstockphoto13823889

Meetings are made up of human beings. At least that is what I keep telling myself. There is always the meanderer, the nonstop talker, the pen-clicker, the drink-slurper, the strident, loud voice that stomps on everyone else. I have meeting narcolepsy. The sound of the human voice going on and on, puts me to sleep.  College was torture.

639919With my abhorrence of meetings, I’ve mastered several new skill sets. The classic lean on hand so closed eyes are not noticed posture or writing as if I’m taking furious notes, while putting together grocery lists, bad limericks, and drawing animals based on my childhood Ed Emberley training. I have not, however, learned to avoid the snort-awake. But I’m good at it – meetings, yoga classes, airplanes. Any place where there is a slight chance I might doze off. They don’t call it the relaxation pose for nothing.

Pushing back against the minor indignities and inconveniences of life likely takes more effort than the initial grievance. But that’s what they’re counting on. That we just give up and before we know it, we’re walking balls of aggravation, carrying our hostilities out in public, hunched over by the weight of it all.

There’s something to be said for picking your battles – maybe not every single one, but a few here and there to suggest you still have a pulse and haven’t been assimilated into the machine. There are bigger battles to fight, huge social and political issues that might award some integrity points, but sometimes you like to have a fight you can win. Snoozing during meetings, stalking publications, and making crime profitable – these are things I can do all on my own.

 

Me Versus Nature

Spoiler Alert: Nature wins.

The Pale Murderer Cometh

Now that spring has arrived, I’m faced with an age-old question. What am I going to canstockphoto11157518murder this year? Thus far, six house spiders, two house centipedes, eight ants, an errant box elder bug, and just five minutes ago, a carpenter ant who decided startling the shit out of me by crawling on my keyboard was a good plan. It wasn’t.

I am a very conflicted person when it comes to creatures. I research the creatures I come across. I don’t know, I guess I try to understand them in the hopes I won’t shriek die, die, die while hitting them with the broom. House centipedes are fantastic hunters – they eat spiders. As much as I’d like to remember that, when I see one of them slither their way across the wall, my primal instinct takes over. Maybe at some point in human history that instinct was “Yum, snack”, but I tend to believe even cavemen pulverized those things with clubs while grunting orf, orf, orf (translation: die, die, die).

Furred and Feathered Jerks

canstockphoto20447169The rabbits have lopped off numerous tulips, leaving a trail of colorful petals across the yard. They don’t eat the flowers. They just nip them off, as if they’re a distraction from the real num-nums, the leaves. It makes me think that the rabbits in my yard are assholes.

As soon as I filled the planters with my desperate need for color canstockphoto16122084– geraniums, impatiens, and marigolds, the pots got dug out by the squirrels who a) forgot where the hell they buried their food stores last fall and b) just like a tasty nosh of fresh root.

canstockphoto20642408The house finches have taken over the old robin’s nest we forgot to remove in the fall and now they squabble outside my study window all day long. A young cardinal has taken over a feeder, choo-choo-chooing to let everyone else know it’s mine-mine-mine. A pair of Northern Harriers set up shop in the tree next door and for hours at a time, she shrieks at him to bring her food or get on with the mating, you lout.

It’s Self-Defense!

While I enjoy riding my high horse about a yard without pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer, the downside is that I am outnumbered by the sheer quantity of creatures who would like to eat our food, live in our walls, dangle in front of our faces, snake out from under the dryer, wait for us in the shower, and in general, make us feel very uncomfortable in our living quarters. And it’s not even mosquito season yet.

canstockphoto12050597This is the first house I’ve lived in for any amount of time. Before, it was all apartments. They spray for bugs in apartments, hence the infrequency of encounters. We’ve never had our house sprayed for bugs. We’re classic DIY people who think vinegar is magic (it is, it is!) and try to follow environmental recommendations for pest control. Generally, Minnesota gets a good, cold killing season. Many of the critters are forced into retreat, marshaling their forces for the longer days of freaking out humans.

I love nature. When it’s outside. Well, not right outside. Maybe a restraining order’s distance. And I try to be respectful of life in general. There are several house spiders who reside in the corners of the kitchen. That’s fine. They eat gnats that show up when produce does. And occasionally, I talk to them. It’s when they crawl over the lip of my coffee mug that I completely lose my shit and become a serial killer.

I remember once reading about monks who walked carefully, lest they step on a creature on the ground. And I get it. I get the whole respect life, creatures have value, humans are really an invasive species thing. But critters outnumber us and if they ever develop longer life cycles, elevated thinking, and inter-species communication, we are all dead.

Your Honor, I’d like to present the first (and possibly only) piece of evidence for the Defense:canstockphoto7083768

Our client could have only reacted the way she did, in self-defense.

Your honor? Your honor?

But that was evidence sir! Why are you shrieking?

Judge: Excuse my outburst. Bailiff, please get an evidence bag for my gavel.

The Defense rests its case.

An Unfiltered Crank in the Study

I’m struggling with everything right now and when I’m struggling, I can get a little grumpy. I’m still working the microresolutions from the last couple of months, putting in time every day on the novel, and trying to make better choices despite the winter discontent creeping in. But occasionally, I need to poke a few vent holes and let the steam escape.

*****

When I hear people be passionate about whatever they’re passionate about, I wonder what is wrong with me. Why don’t I have fiery rhetoric? Why is everything I say automatically followed by brakes (is this right? is this necessary? is this helpful?). I used to admire people who lacked self-consciousness, who burst canstockphoto14157022forth with whatever emotion they had on the tips of their tongues. It seemed like fearlessness. But that has all changed.

Now that blurting has become a socially acceptable, nay encouraged, form of communication, it’s just irritating – from a President with Twitter diarrhea and an incomprehensible syntax, to the digital lynch mob of ideological purity, intent on destroying people’s careers and lives, choosing the “difference without distinction” approach to all offenses, no matter how minor or grievous.

Is it irony to wonder on a blog, if people talk too much and listen too little?

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canstockphoto27854960.jpgI just read about Life Time Fitness choosing not to show cable news channels in its gyms saying that cable news was not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Amen. Immediately people were crying censorship and that the gym was interfering with their time management. Ohforchrissake. News reports stream out of every technological orifice in our society. In waiting rooms, restaurants, on our computers, our phones, even at the gas pump. Take a breather, do your workout, the world will still be turning out shitty sound bites after you walk out the door.

*****

canstockphoto28277727Holiday cards have become postcard versions of Facebook – a collage of pictures of all the prettiest moments during the year. We get more of these each year, replacing cards that have actual handwritten notes. Just text us with a link next year, so that we can continue to know as little about you as possible, except for your dental work and where you vacationed. I’m thinking about taking pictures when our family has the flu, when our drains in the basement back up, and the last pile of cat barf I had to clean up. People will take us off their list right quick.

*****

canstockphoto24846599After I drink my kombucha-snail slime smoothie, do my Freezer Cold Yogilates, spend an hour saying inane positive things to myself in the mirror (I am a stable genius, I am a stable genius), buff my skin back to my seventeen year old self, organize my spice rack by geographical location of their fair trade markets, Feng Shui my house so that everything faces whichever direction cultural appropriation comes from, and strap on all the devices to monitor just how much of a lazy shit I will be today, I need a nap.

Sometimes when you’re bone tired of trying to improve yourself, don’t you just want to find a self-help guru and tell them to fuck right off?

*****

We’ve had a few atypical days weather-wise here. Last night, I went walking in spring-like temps. I live in a suburb where a lot of streets do not have sidewalks and where the lighting is sparse. Having spent more of my life as a single woman than not, I think through worst-case scenarios. I pay attention to the shadows in the dark, remind myself of pressure points, jiu-jitsu moves, and make sure I know what direction I’d run in.

These days, I’m more concerned about being picked off by an errant driver than running into a criminal with perfect timing. I think getting hit by a car is one of the more ignominious ways to die. To prevent that, I dress up like a damned Christmas tree just to go on a walk. LED lights on a vest with option of blinking when I really want to look like a construction site.

canstockphoto17889074Then last night happened. I passed a man walking his dog with bright blue lights flashing all over his doggy coat and a woman with a vest where two vertical lines of red lights cascaded up and down her front, like she was a human landing strip. Perhaps we’ve just created a more ridiculous way to be found dead.

*****

So what do you do when the dark mood descends? I have a couple of different approaches. Eat until I fall into a carb-induced coma or workout in a manner that suggests I’m preparing for a death match. Today it’s a workout in the hopes that I can follow it up with some heavy duty writing. If you’re a moody person like me, I find it helps to write the dark scenes when I’m feeling grim, to use the emotions already floating about in my head. Afterwards, I feel spent, but marginally better.

Do you find yourself writing according to mood?