My Empty Bucket

postaday 2013 - long

WordPress suggested we write about the 11th item on our bucket list. The subject alarmed me. I don’t have a bucket list. I’ve never had a bucket list. Until the movie of the same name came out in 2007, I’d never heard the expression.

Clearly I am and have always been out of touch with popular culture. When I was a kid, I always had my head in a book. When everyone else was dancing to the tunes on American Bandstand, I was practicing Chopin or Mozart on the piano. I didn’t have time or — if I want to be honest, the inclination — to spend afternoons watching something I found kind of dopey. I wouldn’t have admitted it under torture, but I never understood what they found so interesting.

In elementary, junior high school, and even high school, I was so out of step that even amongst misfits I was a misfit. Yet by the time I got to college, there were enough people like me to form a sub-culture of oddballs who did their own thing. I finally fit in.

At some point in my life, I opted out of trends and fashions. I stopped reading reviews, cancelled subscriptions to fashion and home decorating magazines. I have no idea what’s in style. I’m wearing the same kind of clothing I wore in college. As for home furnishings, decisions are entirely based on affordability, back-friendly design and how well the upholstery can withstand and/or blend with dog hair.

Because I read voraciously and enjoy movies, I poke around to see what’s coming out, but I have no idea what’s on any best-seller or most-popular list. I have favorite authors and genres. I listen to the same music I listened to 40 years ago. It wasn’t popular or fashionable then either, but I like it. Good thing my husband shares my lack of concern with what’s current, trendy, or “hot.”

The closest thing I have to involvement with The Latest Things is a passion for technology. From the day I first got my hands on a computer back in the early 1980s, a lightbulb went off and I said “This is a better way.” I never looked back. I’m not quite as on top of the techno wave as I was a decade ago when I was working in the development world, but I retain a keen interest and strong opinions about technology, operating systems, databases and software. My granddaughter makes fun of me … until her computer stops working and suddenly, I morph from granny to guru.

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Photo credit: Affendaddy

I enjoy donning my cape and mask and slaying computer demons. It is a rare Old Person who gets to be a heroic in the eyes of  a 16-year old, however briefly.

I am most at home in the world of words. As much as I write, I read even more. Obviously I don’t sleep much. This blog is my reward for spending my entire working life writing about abstruse software and hardware. I finally get to write for fun.

One of the things I try to do is correct cultural errors, as least as they pertain to books and movies. If I feel something has gotten a bad rap and deserves better, I tell people about it. Movies that got bad reviews, books that have been overlooked, authors who haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve. I’m kind of like a literary Chicago Cubs fan. I hang with underdogs.

Many of my favorite books and movies got lousy reviews. The books didn’t sell, the movies flopped at the box office. Garry still reads reviews and passes them to me if he thinks I’ll be interested. It is not uncommon for us to wonder if these reviewers watch or read the same stuff we do. It doesn’t sound like it.

My life in publishing … ah memories

I worked at Doubleday back in the 1970s before it became part of an international conglomerate. I worked in the book club division. Each of the writers — we were called editors even though we had no editorial responsibilities — had our own book clubs. We wrote flaps for book jackets,  monthly mailers for club members and promotional stuff for whatever was new. Everyone wrote for the two general interest clubs — The Doubleday Book Club and The Literary Guild.

The difference between the two was entirely a matter of presentation. The Literary Guild was supposedly more high-brow than Doubleday Book Club. In fact, the same books were sold in both clubs, but you used bigger words when writing for LG than DBC. And LG was more expensive because paying more makes some people feel superior. I have never been one of them. My mother taught me  only fools pay full price. If it isn’t on clearance or at least a second mark down, why are you buying it? It wasn’t just a matter of money: it was a point of pride. There are people who feel anything inexpensive isn’t worth owning. Thank God for them. They keep the economy going.

When you wrote up a new book, you got the book plus the official summaries and descriptions from headquarters. Most editors used these summaries as the basis of whatever they wrote.

I read the books. All of them. I’m a fast reader and getting paid to read seemed a great gig. More often than not, the material from the main office had little or nothing to do with the books. The writers of the summaries hadn’t read the book either. I got the impression that me and the author were the only ones who had actually read the whole book.

Flaps were often embarrassingly wrong. I couldn’t control what others wrote, but if it was anything coming through my clubs or any club for which I was writing, I read the book. I was considered extraordinary. After all, this was just promotional material. I thought even promotional material should be accurate. Apparently I was one of few who felt that way. I suspect a great deal of current “critical reviewing” is done using the same inaccurate write-ups from corporate publicists.

I thought then … and still think … that a combination of laziness and an unwillingness to offend The Powers That Be has more influence over reviewers than the quality (or lack thereof) of books and movies. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

Then there’s the politics, about which the less said, the better.

Back to the future … or present

This all leads back to why I remain so disconnected from pop culture. Call me cynical, but I’ve seen too much to trust anything that comes out of a corporate office.

And thus my failure to have a bucket list. If I really wanted to do something, I did it. If I didn’t do it, it was because it wasn’t all that important to me. Today I’m limited by money and health, but when I was younger, I did my own thing. I wanted adventure. A life composed of suburban predictability was much scarier than any risk I could take.

I wanted to live in another culture and I did. It cost me a lot. International moves with 10 year interruptions of career are not fiscally sound life choices, but I wouldn’t trade that “lost” decade for anything. And who’s to say it would have turned out differently anyhow? I bet we wind up where we are supposed to be no matter what we do.

I don’t need to regret what I missed. I know it’s a cliché, but “at least we have memories” isn’t ridiculous or sentimental. It means you’ve lived. You can’t buy a  life you missed. You have to be there, have been there. You had to choose the foolish, unsafe path to get the stuff that money can’t buy.

The whole idea of a bucket list bothers me. How can you codify life on a list? You get opportunities, see forks in the road. People come into your life. You choose to do it or not. If you say no, maybe you’ll get another chance, a different opportunity … but most people never accept any invitation to get off the path, even temporarily. They have lots of good reasons. Money, responsibilities, uncertainty. Fear.

They wind up with bucket lists that are a summary of regrets, an organized statement of missed opportunities, paths not taken. Maybe that’s the sensible way, but I would have hated it. So I don’t have an 11th item on my bucket list. I don’t have a 1st item. I just have a life.

Surviving: It beats the hell out of the alternative

postaday 2013 - long

In 2010, I discovered I had cancer in both breasts. Two tumors, unrelated to each other. Just twice lucky. They removed the tumors and the associated breasts, gave me very attractive fake replacements — much perkier than the old ones in an artificial implant sort of way. I actually have a little ID card for my breasts, like they have their own personae. Maybe they do. Thus, a little more than two years after the siege began, I’m almost me again. Almost but not quite.

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My mother died of metastasized breast cancer. My brother died of pancreatic cancer about 5 years ago, having never gotten as old as I am now. This is not a reassuring family history.

All chronic illnesses make you paranoid. The thing that’s so insidious about cancer is its absence of symptoms. The possibility that it’s growing somewhere in your body and you won’t know it’s there until it’s too late to do anything about it is about as scary as disease gets. Nor is it a baseless fear. I had no idea I had cancer, much less in both breasts, until it was diagnosed twice during a two-week period. One diagnosis of cancer is hard to handle. A second diagnoses a week later is like getting whacked over the head with a bat. It leaves you stunned, scrambling to find someplace to stand where the earth isn’t falling out from under you.

I don’t think most of us are afraid of dying per se. We are afraid of the journey we will have taken to get there. We’re afraid of pain, suffering, the humiliation of dependence and gradual loss of control of our own bodies. After having one or more close encounters with the dark angel, no one is eager to feel the brush of those wings again.

We are called survivors, which means that we aren’t dead yet. The term is meaningless. Put into perspective, we are all survivors. Anyone could be felled by a heart attack or run over by an out-of-control beer truck tomorrow. The end of the road is identical for all living creatures; it’s only a matter of when it will be and what cause will be assigned. Everyone is in the same boat. If you’ve been very sick, you are more aware of your mortality than those who who’ve been blessed with uneventful health, but no one gets a free pass. The odds of death are 100% for everyone.

Recovering from serious illness is a bumpy road. Each of us has a particular “thing” we find especially bothersome. For me, it’s dealing with well-wishers who ask “How are you?” If they wanted an answer, it might not be so aggravating, but they don’t want to hear about my health or my feelings about my health — which are often as much an issue as anything else. They are simply being polite. So, I give them what they want. I smile brightly and say “Just fine thank you.”

December Sunrise

I have no idea how I am. All I know — and all I can possibly know — is that for the time being, I am here. To the best of my knowledge, nothing is growing anywhere it’s not supposed to be.  Two years after a double mastectomy, I cannot be considered cancer-free … and really, if you’ve had cancer, you are in remission and that’s as good as it gets. So the answer for those of us who have had cancer, heart attacks and other potentially lethal and chronic ailments is “So far, so good.”

That is not what folks want to hear. People want you to be positive and upbeat. You cannot suffer physical or mental discomfort. Why not? Because if you aren’t fine, maybe they aren’t either. They have a bizarre and annoying need for you to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed no matter how you actually feel.

As I enter this New Year, I’m glad to be alive. With a little bit of luck, I’ll continue to remain that way. God willing and assuming life stays more or less on an even keel, I’ll be here in the cyber world, writing my little stories, taking pretty pictures of waterfalls and sunrises and you’ll still come and visit me from time to time.

Welcome to survivorship. It’s imperfect, but it beats the hell out the alternative.