THINKING PINK

Today is the ten-year anniversary of my breast cancer surgery. I would love to announce that “I’m cured,” but with cancer, you are never cured. You can be in remission — sometimes for decades — but it takes just take one cell to restart it. Moreover, having had cancer once or twice doesn’t mean you can’t get it again. The same or an entirely different kind. My mother had breast cancer twice, but died of lung cancer. My brother died of pancreatic cancer as did both of my maternal grandparents. It runs in the family. These days, it seems to run in everybody’s family.

In the course of cancer survival, I have come to thoroughly dislike pink, especially the toddler pink they use to raise money for breast cancer. It was never my favorite color. Too girly. Unless it’s a “hot” pink, it’s also not a color that looks good on me. Rosebud pink is almost as bad as beige. It makes me look completely washed out. Nonetheless, having had breast cancer I am besieged by pink and not just the color, but a distinctly pinkish attitude.

Fake breasts

I lost both breasts and got two nice fake breasts. Implants are not real breasts. They are vastly better than nothing, but they aren’t the right kind of skin. They have far less sensation than the originals. I wonder if they will ever stop feeling like alien invaders attached to my chest. Also, there are no nipples. The implants look fine under clothing but they aren’t me. I was going to do the whole thing including replacement fake nipples, but to get those fake nipple it mean two more surgeries followed by healing and then followed by tattoos because the new nipples aren’t pink. They are just skin-colored. For a while, i considered just getting interesting tattoos without the nipple adaptations, but finally, I realized i didn’t want anything. I’m not doing any nude photographs or going topless to the beach.

I have a bad attitude towards cancer. I’m supposed to celebrate my survival as if it is a miracle of miracles. It was top-quality surgery, but it wasn’t a miracle. i was just lucky that i had a slow-growing type of breast cancer. Even though it wasn’t discovered until it had been around for a while, it was still a relatively small tumor that had not spread into my lymph nodes. It was considered very non-aggressive. Actually, both tumors, were slow-growing, but one was much bigger than the other. My theory was and is that one breast had had cancer for quite a while and the other on showed up late in the process. I can’t prove it, but the odds of having two completely different tumors — one per breast — is unimaginably minute. I think by the time they found one and eventually the other, they were simultaneous, but didn’t start out that way.

Many of my friends have had breast cancer. It has become very common. Maybe it always was, but we didn’t know how to check for it. It is Especially common among younger Black women and any age Ashkenazi Jewish woman. But truth be told, breast cancer is common for all women. Any race. Any age. I’m told there’s a new test out that can detect it earlier without the painful mammogram. Nice, though it wouldn’t have helped me much because I went for six years between mammograms. The doctor forget to remind me and I forgot to remember. I had other issues at the time which were trying to kill me and other potential but non-lethal medical events got lost in the frenzy. If it had been a more aggressive form of cancer, I’d have been in more serious trouble, but lucky (?) for me, I had time to get it fixed. Three-and-a-half years later, I had to have major heart surgery. I considered that extremely unfair. The double mastectomy was bad enough and I was just pulling myself together when it was time for the next round of “life or death, then toss the dice and hope for the best.”

Women who haven’t had cancer point out that if I were better at smiling and telling everyone that I’m FINE, I’d be FINER.

I have stopped going places where people ask me how I’m doing and don’t want to hear the answer. Of being told my attitude is the problem rather than the disease. Many women want me to be upbeat. If I’m happy, it makes them feel safe. These women do not want to hear that sometimes — years later — I am still overcome by feelings of sadness and loss. I miss my breasts. We grow up believing with our breasts are a major signifier of upcoming womanhood. Having both of them removed tends to make you feel less womanly, especially when you are older and past the age of childbearing. It’s a major hit to your femininity. Regardless of whether you feel that this is a very anti-feminist attitude, it doesn’t change how you feel about having breasts.

I no longer like having them touched. They aren’t sexy. They aren’t me.

I’m supposed to celebrate “being cancer-free” except no one who has had cancer ever feels cancer-free. When your breasts are gone, replacements don’t feel like the ones you had before. Those are gone. I have a lot of trouble wondering why so many women have breast surgery to “improve” them. It’s not minor surgery. It’s painful and there’s a surprisingly long recuperation following surgery. No matter how well the surgery is performed, it continues to hurt. Not a lot, but the areas where muscles and ligaments were cut are always sore. Ten years later, they still hurt.

The point of being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about having a bilateral mastectomy is to make other women feel less threatened. If you tell them how great you feel, they don’t have to worry. Or at least, not worry as much. I grant you that gloom and doom might not be a great choice, but neither is pasting a fake smile on your face and telling everyone how happy you are when you aren’t. We should be allowed to feel how we feel — even if it’s not great. We’ve had to deal with a major physical loss. Being repeatedly told we aren’t allowed to feel unhappy and should stay positive is unkind and frustrating. It ought to be okay to be upset, to mourn our losses, to wonder “why me?” People moan and complain about their bosses, their love life, their cars, traffic and the weather, but if I complain I had cancer … that’s not okay? Really?

I come from a family where cancer has taken a lot of lives. Getting it wasn’t exactly a bolt out of the blue. The last words my mother said to me the day before she died was “Get regular checkups.” There are many genetic links for breast cancer, especially for young Black women and anyone with a family link to Ashkenazi Jewishness. Two known (and testable) genetic links have been found (so far) for me, but  insurance only pays for one — the more common marker. What good does all the research do if we can’t afford to use it?

On top of all of this is the “pink” culture. Why pink? Why not turquoise or burnt orange? Along with “pink think” comes a kind of glorifying breast cancer as if it were a kind of gift that helps you “understand” yourself better. Oh please! Breast cancer isn’t a “test” which, if we pass, makes us heroines. What it usually means is (1) we found it early enough to get it fixed and (2) we had quality insurance. Moreover, I am entitled to be pissed off about it. Someone thinks it’s a gift, but I’ve never met someone who actually had it who felt that way. This is a country that seems to believe that denial really improves your health.

It doesn’t. I’ve had enough health issues that I can’t afford denial.  Right now, we are seeing an entire nation in which at least 1/3 of our citizens are in a dangerous state of denial.. No one with a serious illness  (or potentially a candidate for such an illness) can afford denial. Cancer, heart disease — and COVID-19 — is not an attitude problem.


Absolutely no evidence of any kind exists to confirm the widespread belief that a positive attitude results in a better survival rate for ANY disease. Being in a persistent state of gloom is a bummer, but it won’t change the outcome of your illness.


On top of everything else, the sappy postings on Facebook that urge everyone to pray for all the people suffering from cancer. Prayer seems to be the only answer. Personally, I think sending money would be more useful. Sick people have expenses. Children. Mortgages. Car loans. We have not abjured things that cost money. More accurately, we usually don’t HAVE any money. If we had any, by the time we are done with treatment, we have a lot less than we used to have. Personally, I’d be delighted to get an infusion of money. I’d love to have someone come weekly to clean my house. Paying the credit cards, improving our 1973 kitchen, and repaving the driveway are high on my list of things I’d really love to do. Having enough money to fix my broken tooth would be nice too — and enough money to get new eyeglasses would also be a nice touch.

Offensive pink trash bin. Celebrating breast cancer with trash bins?

So if you are wondering what to do with your spare money (does anyone actually have spare money?), feel free to send cash, personal checks, and money orders. I’m sure we will do something useful with it, If you need information on how to make a direct transfer into our account, I’m sure we can work it out. Unlike standard charities, I can invite you over and show you exactly where the money was spent and how it improved our lives. Isn’t that better than giving to some giant charity where most of your money goes to pay the CEO?

Cancer is typically a financial disaster for families. Everything — including the quality of the care you receive — depends on your insurance as well as the facilities available where you live. Major diseases — all of them — deplete your resources and can leave you with nothing.

No one wants to complain all the time. It’s humiliating, boring to listen to, and even more boring to explain. A real rundown of one’s health is a lot more complicated than plastering a big smile on your face and saying: “I’m FINE!” It’s bad enough to be sick and having parts removed. When you’re also dead broke and can’t see any way to get out from under the debt, it’s so much worse.

I remind myself that we are all here on a temporary permit. No one gets out of this world alive. Anyone can be felled by a speeding car or hit by a meteor. We are born without a warranty. We don’t even get a cheesy 90-day guarantee for medical treatments. If it doesn’t work, oh well. They don’t do it over for free or even at half-price.

Everyone wants to be fine. We plan to be fine. We base our lives on being fine. Sooner or later, you won’t be fine. That’s called “being human.”


A positive attitude will not alter the course of a disease.


Pretending to be positive makes others less afraid. It will make your family and friends feel better. To some degree, we do it because what’s the point of spreading gloom? The “acquaintances” and other people who impose the obligation to smile regardless of your real feelings are not concerned with your welfare. Most of them could care less how you feel. They just  don’t want to deal with your pain or the threat you represent to their peace of mind. They want you to be okay so they can feel okay. The culture of positivity that has developed around a painful experience is phony and embarrassing. Forcing women to smile when they want to scream is an old, old story. We’ve been doing it for centuries.

I understand people think they are doing the right thing by telling you how lucky you are to have “caught it in time.” Lucky to be alive.

Not dying isn’t lucky. If I were lucky, I would still have breasts. Not getting cancer would be lucky.


Friends don’t tell friends how to feel.


So it has been ten years. It doesn’t feel that long. It feels like yesterday. All of the bad stuff somehow feels like yesterday. Weird, isn’t it?

CONTROLLING LIFE – FANDANGO’S PROVOCATIVE QUESTION #88

Fandango’s Provocative Question #88

Coming from an abusive home, I learned very early how little control I had over my life. All kids have essentially no control because children have no rights and an abused child has even fewer rights. The only control children get is the right to beg, nag, or excel at a sport or in school. An abused child lacks even those minimal protections because an unstable parent can react in any number of ways to children, many of them violent and terrifying.

I grew up and as soon as I could, I moved out and stayed out. Not surprisingly, I married early because abused children are usually looking for a stable life situation — and to no one’s surprise, these early marriages do not usually last. They get outgrown. But the point is, by then I already knew how little control I had over my life. I understood that under a cool exterior can lie violence and cruelty. Later, I learned that simple good health was not within my control. I think I’ve spent almost as much time in the hospital and in recovery from some surgery or other than almost anyone else I’ve ever known.

Control is an illusion. Control is what we are sure we have over our lives until — out of the blue — our life takes a turn, hits a big rock, and slides into a ditch. Crash. All your firm beliefs that nothing can stop you doesn’t help because there are things — many, many things — that will stop you dead in your tracks.

I really love it when people tell me how nothing can stop them. Whatever they want, they can get it. All they need is to want it enough and keep trying. I never argue with people who talk like that. They believe it and who am I to argue? Personally, I’ve hit a lot of rocks and ditches. I’ve had my “life vehicle” battered to wreckage. I learned, painfully and slowly, there’s a time to put down the reins, let go of the steering wheel. Take a long look in the mirror and face your reality. Not the reality you used to have, but the reality you have today. Now. The real reality you live even if you have always gotten what you want. There comes a time to give up trying to control your world and go with the flow. To roll with life.

There’s no moral to this story. It’s just life. The only thing you cannot plan is a life over which you have full control. No one gets that. We all have some control, but ultimately, no one has full control. Ever. When life throws you a curve, you have a choice. You can spend your time fighting for something you can’t be or do — or with a bit of grace, find your way to being whoever you are now, in this time and place. Not winning all the battles doesn’t have to be tragic. That is where you have control. You can view changes as a challenge or as a catastrophe. How you see them is up to you. Just don’t pretend the challenges aren’t there. That can be calamitous.

A real world is not the worst place to live. A human life is full of weirdness, lies, and illusion, but going face-to-face with the truth can be uplifting. You don’t have to give up living. You do have to learn to live a life that works. For you. Now. In this time and in this place.

EX-PATRIOT: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A VACATION AND BUILDING A LIFE

The Herodian, hideaway of the King of Israel

There used to be a joke in Israel. It worked in English and Hebrew, so here it goes.

A tourist goes to visit Israel. He is astounded at what a beautiful country it is. He’s awed by the crops in the field, the amazing range of topography from mountains to deserts, from to to ocean. Haifa sits on the ledge overlooking the Mediterranean and little Safed (Svat) is a gem atop a mountain overlooking the sea of Galilee. He decides his future is there and he gets his family on board and they all move to a Merkaz Klita (Welcoming Dwelling) where they will first settle for free while everyone learns Hebrew and figures out what work they would like to do. But nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. The family is completely bogged down in bureaucracy. The kids learn Hebrew quickly, but mom and dad? By the time they’ve been there a year they have a couple of hundred simple words and an accent that makes Israeli’s cover their ears. Their skills don’t seem to fit in and their poor language skills make even an interview feel like climbing a mountain. Although they arrived with quite a lot of money, a year later, they are nearly broke, still don’t have a home of their own or something they could call a profession. The kids are happy, but the parents are sometimes too depressed to get out of bed in the morning.

“What happened?” says the man who first came there. “It was perfect. Beautiful. Everyone was happy. It was just like a tourist guide, full of fascinating archaeology, golden fields, exciting technology, hope, joy … with a future.”

“Aha,” said the Israeli to whom he was talking. “That was because you were here on a tourist visa.”

This particular bit of humor works for any place on Earth — or for that matter, Heaven and Hell. It’s an all-purpose joke. You just don’t “get” a country when you go there on vacation. I know a lot of people who moved to places they fell in love with as tourists, only to discover that the day-to-day lives of those who lived there was something too different for them, at least permanently. Nonetheless, I maintain that everyone should spend at least a year living in another country and not next door. It’s the only way you learn that how we do things here isn’t the only way they can or should be done. When you live abroad, there are no foreigners because you are one.

I had a dream about Israel last night. I often dream about Israel, and frequently, I dream in Hebrew. This is particularly interesting because apparently somewhere in my brain, I know a lot more Hebrew than I ever managed to to speak while I lived there. Owen spoke like he was born there within six month, but I spoke with such an awful American accent, often substituted words that sounded similar to the correct ones — which was hysterically funny to Israelis who are not, overall, big on politeness. They laughed until they cried. Each burst of laughter made me less willing to try to learn the language properly.

Mount Gilboa where the wild irises bloom

Nonetheless, I stay just under nine years and loved the country. I didn’t love the politics. I’m not sure anyone loves their country’s politics, but Israel and the Middle East are particularly incomprehensible. There is truth on every side, lies on every side, and a bizarre mixture of both on every side. It is not only possible to believe two completely opposing beliefs simultaneously, it’s almost a requirement. For example you can believe it is absolutely imperative that Israel have borders that can be protected against invasion because we have seen what happens when we don’t, but also believe that the Palestinians are getting a raw deal. Both things are true and both issues need to be somehow reconciled. If it were up to me, I would try to convince everyone involved on both sides to declare the past done. It’s too complicated to work out the differences. Start from today. Make something work now because the past is gone and living there is not doing anyone any good at all.

Wild poppies in the Galilee

In my dream, a friend (who I didn’t recognize and still don’t) was singing an Israeli folk song. She asked me if I knew the song. I said I didn’t. She asked me a lot of questions about the country and places I had visited. Eventually, I woke up talking to her explaining I had moved there and never been a tourist. I never did touristy things unless I had guests from the States. I loved having guests because it was the only time I had to do the tourist stuff.

Otherwise? I worked. I raised a family, or tried. I had a terrible marriage which was a “bounce back” from a recent divorce (always a very bad idea — overseas or not). I didn’t understand anything and he wasn’t much of a help. I worked long hours and commuted … something few Israelis did at that point though I understand these days, Israelis do commute between cities. It’s a very small country, after all. Today’s Israel is very different. Owen commented the other day that he had overheard some Israelis talking and could barely understand them. The language — especial the idioms — have changed enormously during the past 30 year. He was embarrassed that he understood so little.

The western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

But the thing is, I was involved almost from the first couple of weeks in work, relationships, and working at being a part of a society about which I understood only pieces. I never gave myself a chance to learn the language which remained a huge barrier for me. I was tied down to very young children and their care while they didn’t even understand my language nor I theirs.

Moving to a country is not at all the same as vacationing there. Maybe retiring might be similar. I wouldn’t know. I never had any significant time off while I lived in Israel. I was always working. Like many people who move to a new country, most of my friends were immigrants too. From England, Australia, South Africa, France, the Philippines, and of course, the U.S. In the years I lived in Jerusalem, almost all of them went back to where they came from.

They got tired of battling bureaucracy, dealing with terrorists and impending war, as well as Israel’s weird brand of socialism crossed with capitalism. With salaries too low to live on and what was then the most insane inflation you can imagine.Calculating various currencies and overdrafts while tryin to figure out what you were really earning. Mostly, I came to realize that Israel was not solving its problems. With each passing year, the idealists got older and the younger ones were a wholly different culture than the ones in my age group or older. The new crowd were born there. As far as they were concerned, the lay of the land was the way it had been since before they were born and they weren’t giving up anything to anybody. Much like this country. Is the U.S. giving back our Native Americans their land? Or even giving Black people a couple of acres and the equivalent of a mule? Of course not. After a certain point in time. the land belongs to whoever has possessed it, regardless of what happened before. I did not think there would ever be peace in my lifetime or maybe ever.

My home in Baka, Jerusalem

Yet I loved it. I love the Old City. I love walking the wall of the old Jerusalem. You could still do that back then. You could still go and dig around in archaeological areas and “find stuff.” You could walk through a corner in Jerusalem where David fought Goliath. Climb a mountain where an Israeli king made a last stand. See where the Romans broke through the walls into the city. Look at the reservoirs built by Herod the Great (his greatness is in considerable dispute, by the way). You could climb the Mount of Temptations, follow the Via Dolorosa and have Arab coffee along the way at the Misery of the Cross Coffee House and Souvenir Shop while shopping for sandals. You could fall in love with the open air spice shops and vacation along the Sea of Galilee. Drive to the top of the Banias and visit Eden where Adam and Eve had that especially delicious apple.

Old city wall in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee

With all of that, it was never a vacation for me. It was beautiful, haunting, and rich with thousands of years of history … but in the end, it wasn’t “home.” Because when I thought of home, I knew I wasn’t there.

Maybe had I made a more sane marriage, learned the language, and felt the country was moving in a better direction, it could have been home, but I made too many bad choices too fast. I learned too little and most of that, too late. Ex-patriotism doesn’t work for everyone … at least not when it’s very far away, across an ocean in a culture that bears little resemblance to your own.

DOGMA

FOWC with Fandango — Dogma

UU Church 44

Unless you count drinking coffee and checking email as dogma, I don’t have dogma to which I feel attached. I do, however, have personal rituals. Stuff I do, stuff in which I believe or at least think I believe. As time has galloped by, I’ve renounced stuff. I didn’t really need it anyhow. I gave up worrying. I gave up working. I gave up the lottery, although I occasionally still buy a ticket — just in case.

I gave up wanting a new car or expecting old friends to call. Some of them don’t remember me. Some don’t remember themselves. I’ve stopped hoping Hollywood will make movies I like, even though they sometimes release a good one. I’ve stopped trying to like new music and most television shows. I’ve stopped trying to figure out why evil people got that way or what their motives might be. They just ARE and maybe I don’t want to understand them.

Some stuff gave me up. When anyone asks me how or why I have given up whatever it was, I tell them it was for religious reasons. Almost no one has the temerity to ask what I mean by that. But so you know, I will reveal my secret.

I don’t mean anything. It’s nothing more than a way to end a conversation. No one wants to offend me by asking for the details of my religious beliefs. Who knows? They might turn out to be embarrassing or bizarre. Thus my all-purpose answer to everyone is “religious principles,” or “my spiritual adviser told me to do it.” Given current events, you can but imagine what enormous power these words hold. They will make a conversation vanish without telling someone to shut up. It works on everyone except those who really know me. They will raise one or more eyebrows, and fall over laughing.

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. For religious reasons. No Dogma requiured.

ENJOYING AN IMPERFECT LIFE

Nothing goes exactly as planned. No vacation or visit is perfect. Some part of every meal won’t be ready when the rest of the dishes are served. Guests come too early or late, leave too soon — or not soon enough. Complications, delays, bumps in the road are the companions to pretty much everything.

Then there are the things that almost happen. When I had just come back from Israel, I took a three-day weekend from my new job to visit friends in San Diego. I bought a new weekend carry-on bag. It’s still my favorite travel bag. That bag was the best part of the trip. I bought tickets to San Diego which was not easy because most cross-country flights out of Boston go to Oakland, SF, or LA — none of which are even close to San Diego. And I hadn’t rented a car.

I got to the airport, but my departing flight never arrived. I sat in the waiting lounge for five hours. When my connecting flight in Salt Lake City had already departed, there was obviously nowhere for me to go. I requested my money back. The perky young thing at the ticket counter explained, “These are non-refundable tickets. See? It says so right here. We can get you on a flight to Los Angeles tomorrow afternoon. How’s that?”

I was not feeling perky. “I took a three-day weekend from work. I won’t get those hours back. I’m not interested in Los Angeles or anything that goes anywhere tomorrow. Los Angeles is at least a 3 hour drive to San Diego and I don’t have a car. By the time I get there — if I got there — I’d have to turn around and come right back. I’ve had to spend money on taxis and I’ve lost my holiday time which I’ve spent in an airport waiting room. If you can’t get me to San Diego today, return my money.” I got my money back. After which I took a taxi home. I spent the weekend having an orgy of self-pity. I never got to San Diego. Eventually, I lost touch with those friends and life moved on.

Our fondest illusion is control, that we are in charge of our lives — or ought to be. We spend a staggering amount of effort trying to wrestle life into our own shape. How else can we succeed? You’ve got to be in charge, right? The promise we get as children is one on which we build a world.


No matter what you want, no matter how unlikely it is, or how unqualified you are,
you’re sure that trying harder will solve the problem.


It’s the biggest lie we learn as children. It establishes a belief that if we do all the right stuff, we can get what we want, no matter what. It’s the trying that counts. It’s got to be true because our teachers, parents — pretty much everyone — told us so. Good work will inevitably be rewarded. Kindness will be returned. If we eat right, keep fit, avoid drugs, cigarettes, and booze, we’ll be healthy forever. All the stuff that happens to other people will not happen to us because we are special. Mom said so. Dad said so. My sixth-grade teacher said so.

From all the little stuff that goes wrong — flights cancelled, vacations rained out — to failed marriages and jobs lost, life and time strips us of the illusions with which we grew up. Injustice shows itself in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes, from tiny indignities to incomprehensible cruelties and calamities. No one is immune. We learn we are passengers on the bus we call life. We aren’t driving and don’t even know what road we’re on. Nor have we any idea of our destination or the stops along the way.

Finally, I get it. The bus is going where it’s going. Outside, it’s beautiful. We don’t have to drive. We don’t need to control the bus. Where we are going is irrelevant.


It isn’t about getting what we want. It’s the journey that matters.


 

WHO ARE YOU NOW? DIDN’T YOU USED TO BE SOMEONE?

Fandango’s Provocative Question #80


From Fandango, a deep, philosophical question. We need some of those because everything else is about disease or the news.

“I saw this question on a site that offers up a bunch of “deep, philosophical” questions and this one intrigued me. It’s about evolution, but not in the context of Darwin’s evolution of the species. It’s more about evolution of the individual and about who you are and how you change over time.

Here’s this week’s question, which is essentially about you. I hope you’ll have fun with it.”

That’s a pretty good question, actually. I am not at the “forgetting” stage of life. It doesn’t mean I don’t remember events, especially those which were significant, but I’m losing a lot of the details. Many formative life events go back more than 60 years. A lot of life has been lived since then.

If you think of your brain like a computer’s RAM, there comes that moment when you either have to offload material onto an external drive, or get a bigger, badder computer. The opportunity to get a bigger brain has not presented itself. Yet. You never know. Massive brain extensions might just come along any day now. If so, sign me up.

Otherwise, the me that I am is an amalgam of everything I was, wherever I’ve been plus all the people I’ve known, loved, hated, lost, or somehow just faded out of my life.

I often think my life is like a long flight of stairs. I remember a few things from when i was very young … before I could even speak. The next time I have a clear memory is moving to our house in Queens and meeting the girls who would be my friends for the next 16 years. The woods. Building “forts” and drinking lemonade while playing killer Monopoly on Mary’s front porch. The accumulated sunburns of childhood and wondering how I managed to avoid skin cancer, all things considered.

Piano lessons. Starting to play when I was just four years old and my legs weren’t long enough to reach the pedals. They had to put blocks on the pedals for me. I was really tiny. I complained a lot about having to practice, so one day my mother stopped giving me lessons until I begged her to bring them back. I never complained again. Music got “stuck” in my soul and never left. I would have been a musician except, it turns out, that loving music doesn’t necessarily give you the talent to perform it. I still love it and I play a little bit. I’ll be playing more as soon as I get my new strings.

Piano lessons?

I remember seeing Dumbo maybe half a dozen times one year because that was when my sister was born and the aunts who were taking care of me kept taking me to the movies. The same movie, as it turned out. My one and only trip to Rockefeller Center was to see Dumbo. Again. I was a permanent animation addict and still am. In between wanting to be a ballerina — my mother took me to see the NY City Ballet and I fell in love with the dancers — I also decided I could be a cartoonist. I actually had a little talent for cartooning, but by then, a love of words had intruded into my brain and wormed it’s way right into my soul.

No matter what I studied in college, I knew I was going to be a writer. I remember the first stories I wrote, my brief foray into poetry, getting my first professional writing job, then getting the next one … and many of the ones that followed. I never stopped writing. I also never stopped taking pictures or playing piano … until the arthritis in my hand made it impossible.

Here I am. Seventy-three. I can’t play piano anymore, but I can strum on a ukulele and am working on two different pennywhistles and a three-string cigar box guitar. It’s part of my life and there are people who still think of me as a musician because I got to know them while I was studying music in college. I don’t worry about the “long-term” future. I don’t know how long I’ll live, but I’ve survived so much, I figure I deserve some moderately healthy, if old, time to be me — whatever that is.

I remember Israel very well. Not so much the people as the place. The Old City. The open spice markets. Climbing to the top of the Old City wall, imagining the Romans attacking the city and “holding the fort.”. Lachish where the Egyption had an outpost down near Rehovot. A lot of work-related activity because it was in Israel where I learned to deal with software and write about it. The little English-language newspaper I ran — the most fun I have had on any job.

Leaving Israel and coming home — and realizing I felt like a foreigner. I feel like a foreigner now, too. Times have changed so much and so fast.

My home in Baka, Jerusalem. I lived on the second floor.

I still write. Probably more than ever, but this time, I write what I want, not what I’m paid to say. I still take pictures, even though the technology has changed enormously. I don’t know if I’m a better photographer than I was. I think a lot of the work I did very early on may have been more artistic and because I worked in a dark room, more “mine” that the work I do now. So f I’m maybe better or maybe worse than I was more than 40 years ago, but I’m less into portraits and much more into birds and critters and wild spaces  I became a climate believer in Israel, spending almost 6 years working for the Environmental Health Laboratory at the University of Jerusalem. That has carried me through the years. I’ve been beating people up over clean water for decades — for all the good it has done. In the 1980s it seemed urgent. In 2020, it’s a dire necessity that we change our ways of doing just about everything if we want to continue to live on this planet.

I can’t remember all the cats and dogs I’ve had in my life. I remember the first ones and those from the past 35 years. In between, I mostly remember work. It used to amuse me that all my girlfriends got pretty clothing and make-up and perfume for their birthdays and Christmas. I got briefcases and computer accessories … and when I was lucky, cameras and lenses.

I still read history and science fiction and fantasy with occasional forays into criminals and cops and courtrooms. I actually love courtroom dramas and sometimes I’m sure I could do a better job than the fictional ones. There were a couple of years when I couldn’t go a single day without watching “Law and Order,” but I’m in recovery. I’ve given up collecting dolls and ancient Chinese pottery, but there’s still an awful lot of collectibles in this house.

So. After all the sturm und drang of my early years, I’m comfortably married to Garry. Thirty-years this September. This one is until death do us part.

THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT – Marilyn Armstrong

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-legged beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us!
– Traditional Scottish Prayer


I’ve never met a ghoul and I have questions about long-legged beasties, but I can speak from personal experience about Things That Go Bump in the Night.


Ghosts have been part of human mythology as long as tales have been told around campfires. Maybe before campfires. I don’t know if any religion excludes the possibility of ghosts and many have a strong link to them. There seems to be an overall, yet non-specific agreement that ghosts and wraiths are spirits of the dead who linger on Earth after they’ve slipped their otherwise mortal coil. Some are malevolent, others benevolent or merely curious. Ghosts vary by mythology, religion, era, and ethnic origin.

I cannot claim to have seen a ghost, but I lived in a house where everyone could hear ghosts. In 1965 when for $20,300, we were able to buy a tidy little brick house built in 1932. On the first floor were two bedrooms and a bathroom. There was a big bedroom on the partially finished second floor. The house was small but solid, walking distance from the college where my husband worked and I was finishing a degree.


The ambiance of the house from the moment we walked into it was friendly. It welcomed everyone and made them feel at home. The little house had been built by a couple who had lived, raised children, and died in it. Not murdered or anything sordid. They merely grew old and passed on in the home they loved. We loved it too. My son wouldn’t come onto the scene for 4 more years, but it was a good house in which to raise babies.

The house was a bit neglected. Not falling down, but in need of paint, and some modernization of its infrastructure. It still had its original heating system, converted from a coal burner to an oil furnace. Not very efficient and the radiators were huge, old and iron. Oil was cheap; we didn’t worry about it. We’d get to it eventually. Initially we lived on the first floor since the bathroom was there. The upstairs had been an attic, but half had been turned into a big bedroom. We wanted to move up there. It was much bigger and had wonderful light, but we wanted to fix it up first. Before anything else, we wanted to paint. The entire house was painted pale salmon pink. It wasn’t ugly, but it wasn’t any color we’d have chosen. Worse, it was high gloss paint, like one would use in a kitchen or bath.

We painted the downstairs first. Every night, we heard our ghosts walking. You could hear the sound of heavy, loud footsteps upstairs, sharp, like the soles of hard leather shoes or boots. Everyone on the lower floor head it. The walking started around eight in the evening, continued for a few minutes. Then the footsteps would pause and restart randomly until around midnight. The footsteps always stopped by midnight and never began before eight.

Roof on an old mill

We called them “The Old Man” and “The Old Woman.” They wore different shoes. Her shoes had a sharp sound, like high heels on a hardwood floor. His were clunkier, like maybe work boots. Both of them had died in the house, so they were prime candidates for ghosthood, especially since no one else had lived in the house since they died. Until us. At first, we also heard them on the steps, but after we painted the stairway, the footsteps retreated and we only heard them in the attic and bedroom. After we began painting the bedroom, we continued to hear them for a while in the attic and then, one day, they were gone, never to return.

Were they watching to see if we properly cared for and loved their home? I thought so. Were we all hallucinating? It was the 1960s, so anything is possible, but I think it was the couple who had lived there watching to make sure we did right by the house. We did and I guess they felt it was okay to depart. If anyone has bumped into a long-legged beastie, please tell me. I’m still waiting to meet one and I’m all ears.

LIVING IN REAL-TIME

When I was little, I had imaginary playmates. I talked to them. They followed me around. I was never bored because I had friends who really understood me. After I started school, my shadow friends left, never to return. Instead, I got a narrator who has been my lifetime companion. Whatever has gone wrong in my life, I suggest you blame in on the narrator. It’s all his or her (or both) fault.

“Narrator?” you ask. Before you decide I’m schizophrenic, a lot of writers have one or more narrators. I understand the narrator is my voice. He has just one story to tell. Mine. My job is to live. His is to tell the tale. His is the eye that sees all but isn’t involved. He witnesses — but causes nothing, changes nothing, makes no suggestions except to correct grammar. I wish he were a better proofreader.


My narrator does not instruct, chastise or judge. He records, remembers and fills in the back story. I’m in charge except I can’t get him to shut up. He gives me a third person perspective on my life. I’m so used to hearing the running commentary, I don’t know how else I could see the world. I’ve grown fond of the old guy.

There are narrators and then, there are narrators. You can get into serious trouble if you forget the narrator is you, not an “other” entity. Should you find yourself listening to a narrator who is telling you to blow things up or kill anyone, you might want to drop by someone’s office for a little chat. Just saying. Of course if you know it’s God talking to you, who am I to interfere?

Through the years, the narrator has filled the holes in my life story, adding “He said, she said,” describing action and scenery, “novelizing” reality. I wish he could type. It would save me so much work. A couple of years ago, the narrator left for a while. It was a particularly turbulent period, so maybe the noise in my head was too loud and I couldn’t hear him. Eventually, he came back. There a correlation between when I’m writing and the narrator. If he’s gone, so is my creativity.

The narrator is distracting and I have had to learn to not let him derail me. He does not respect the moment. A running commentary in one’s head during sex makes it difficult to focus. Men take this personally and trying to explain always makes it worse. They then think you are not merely disinterested, but also nuts.

A narrator can take the fun out of parties. You have to make an effort to participate, not just observe. With the narrator describing the surroundings and each person, occasionally arguing with other narrators (sometimes I have more than one), it’s tricky to connect with people. When narrators argue, I have to step in, settle the dispute, tell all but one to shut up. Problem is, there’s more than one way to see stuff and when a lot of points of view clamor for attention, it gets noisy in the brain-space. It can keep you up at night. It can keep your partner awake too

I’ve learned a lot from my narrator. I’ve learned to see life as an endless story with chapters, back stories, weird incidental characters, tragedy, romance, hope and despair. My job is to live it and not forget to write it down. And fix the typos.

IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR – RICH PASCHALL

The Class of South Pacific, by Rich Paschall

Most of your high school and college graduates will not have the pleasure of hearing the typical graduation speeches this year.  Students are usually listening to them in wonder, perhaps even shock at some odd notion.  It seems like a peculiar thing to say to high school or college graduates, and yet we say it all the time.

“These are the best years of your life,” a guest speaker may exclaim.  Some may narrow it down to tell students, “You will look back on this as the best year of your life.”  The best year?

It was a long time ago, and I can not recall specifically what I heard at my various graduations, but I am pretty sure the idea was sold to me somewhere.  “How can this be?” graduates may ask themselves.  “What about the next 60 years?  You mean to say, ‘this is it’?”

Are these youthful years the best years of our lives?  Is this where we had the best times, best friends, best dances and concerts and music and well, everything?  The answer is a surprising yes, and no.

graduation

When I was in the third year of high school I learned that DePaul Academy would be closing and we would all be shipped off to another area high school.  To be perfectly honest, I did not like this a bit.  Despite the tough discipline of my school and the fear of 4th year Latin, I wanted to go to a similar environment.  However, the school where I applied to go to for 4th year would not take any incoming seniors.  So off I went where they sent me, bound to make the best of it.

There were a few familiar faces at the new school, some were transfers like me and some I knew from grade school.  There were also new experiences. There were dances and plays.  They had a fine arts department (something lacking at the all-boys academy) and teachers who seemed to care about you as well as your studies.  I took drama, not fourth-year Latin.  I came, I saw, I took something else.

The social activities meant more opportunities to make friends.  The interaction was an education itself.  Soon there was a group of us that hung together a lot, and some of us still do.

The most remarkable part of this transition was the “Senior Class Play.”  Yes, so many students wanted to take part, it was just for seniors, as in 17 and 18-year-old students.  I got the nerve to audition.  I have no idea what I sang.  Everybody was in the show so it did not matter that a hundred of us showed up.  We were going to do South Pacific.  I was rather unaware of it.

I’m in this group, front row just left of center.

Aside from learning the art of theater (Project, Enunciate, Articulate, Stand up straight), I learned about the classic story of war, hate, prejudice and, of course, love.  Learning to play our parts was important.  We were commanded to be professional in everything.  We also learned a story that held a dramatic lesson in life.

When the movie starring Mitzi Gaynor, Rosanno Brazzi, and Ray Waltson was re-released, we ran off to see it.  In subsequent years, we saw several community theater productions as well as professional versions of the classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical.  We grew to love the theater and the lessons that such musicals could bring to us.  We learned why fine arts were so important in the schools.

So we were fortunate. We had a positive experience and a good education.  We learned our lessons in the halls as well as the classroom, and in the gym which was also our auditorium.  We signed one another’s yearbooks and held on to them like they were made of gold.  But was it the best year of my life?  If so, what about all the intervening years?

It is an interesting paradox that you can not adequately explain to an 18-year-old graduate.  Yes, it was the best year up to that point, and it will always remain so.  Nothing can ever take away those memories, so hopefully, they are all positive.  Those lessons of love and life will influence everything from that point on.

While you are busy making new memories, a career, a family perhaps, and new friends, they will all be measured against “the best year of your life,” whether it is at 18 or 21.  Some friends may be better, some lessons may be better, some experiences may be better, but they will all be measured against those moments in youth when you discovered who you were and where you were going.  The quality of future friendships must stand up to those already at hand.
If you have a South Pacific in your memory bank, you will tell people all across the (hopefully) many generations that come through your life how this was a great experience.  You may say it was the best time ever.  If your younger friend looks sorry that your best times were so far back, remind him to enjoy what he has because it will be the springboard to everything else.  It will be his touchstone.

Every spring, without fail for these many decades, the change of seasons hits me like some great coming of age story.  My imagination calls up images of Bali Hai and I hear echoes of “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” in the distance.  I once again feel “Younger Than Springtime” and every night is “Some Enchanted Evening.”  Whenever I look back to the Class of South Pacific, I can also look forward to a lot of “Happy Talk” for everyone who will listen.

YOU CAN STOP HOLDING YOUR STOMACH IN! – Marilyn Armstrong

In every relationship, there comes a moment when you stop holding your stomach in.  You realize you don’t need makeup unless you’re going out. A tee-shirt and sweat pants are fine. You can let go and just be YOU.

Remember how that felt? What a relief!

live-and-let-live

The day you give up trying to remodel family and friends is like that. One day, you have this huge revelation. Other people aren’t projects! You can’t fix them. Moreover, they don’t want to be fixed. They don’t think they are broken.

Talk about relief. Phew.

The world keeps spinning. Turns out, we never had any control over anyone but ourselves — and not much control over ourselves, either.

Welcome to live and let live.

MORE ABOUT SURVIVAL VS. VALOR – Marilyn Armstrong

We were watching a rerun of NCIS, an episode from a few years ago. The victim had given her life to protect others and her country’s secrets.

“She didn’t have to do it,” McGee pointed out.

“No,” said Gibbs. “She had a choice. That’s what makes her a hero.

Osprey (sea eagles) nest on the jetty

Some people have called me brave because I’ve survived cancer and heart problems and a lot of other life-threatening ailments. As it happens, I would have been just as happy to skip all of that and have a pleasant, uneventful life. For excitement, there’s always a trip to an amusement park where you can get a huge dose of adrenaline without being in actual danger — and it (usually) doesn’t require years of recovery and rehab.

I’ve managed to slouch into senior citizenship still alive but hardly deserving a medal. You don’t get medals for staying alive. Survival isn’t bravery or valor. A mosquito will do its best to survive. So will a slug.

LAKE TABOURIE, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 04: Residents look on as flames burn through bush on January 04, 2020 in Lake Tabourie, Australia. A state of emergency has been declared across NSW with dangerous fire conditions forecast for Saturday, as more than 140 bushfires continue to burn. There have been eight confirmed deaths in NSW since Monday 30 December. 1365 homes have been lost, while 3.6 million hectares have been burnt this fire season. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Saving your own life (and occasionally, dragging others with you to safety) is natural. Staying alive is hard-wired into life’s DNA. Otherwise, life on earth would have long since vanished. It may yet.

My definition of bravery or valor is the same as Gibbs’. You have to make a willing, conscious choice to put yourself in peril for the sake of others. There must be a choice involved. Taking risks for fun, to make money, to get your adrenaline rushing through your blood vessels, or because you’re going to die anyway isn’t courage. It’s survival. Some of us are better survivors than others, but that doesn’t change anything.

Medal of honor from Obama

If you do it for fun, it’s entertainment. If you’re doing it for profit, it’s shrewd business practice.  If it’s choosing to live rather than die? It’s survival.

I have never done anything I would define as courageous. I’ve done exciting stuff, entertaining, and fascinating stuff. I’ve gotten myself into tight corners — almost always by accident — and lived to tell the tale. I’ve occasionally put others ahead of me to help when I could. But never have I put me in harm’s way to save another’s life.

The most I could be accused of is doing the right thing when it was not the easiest choice. I won’t get a medal for that, either.

THE END OF THE WAR ON THE POND – Marilyn Armstrong

And when the nest-building and love-making are done, as the long spring afternoon stretches ahead, Mr. Mute-Swan stretches his wings and heads over to the other side of the pond to harass the demon Geese who stole his nest. No matter that he has built a new nest and it is a fine nest.


“Never forgive, never forget” is his motto. He will get the geese out of the pond. There is no forgiveness between swans and geese. This appears to be a permanent grudge.

Casually paddling cross the pond towards the old homestead.
Casually paddling across the pond towards the old homestead.

“What ho! Incoming” cry Mr. and Mrs. Canada-Goose. “Prepare to repel Mute-Swan!”

Incoming, 12 o'clock!
Incoming!!

In the assault, notice that our swan does not actually attack the geese directly. Instead, he attacks their nest. There’s no physical contact between the warring birds. It’s a war of principle, not annihilation.

Attack!
Attack!

Perhaps that is one of the differences between “creatures” and “humans.” We actually kill each other for far less worthy reasons than having had our nest stolen. Mostly, animals don’t kill each other unless they are hungry. Or it’s mating season and there’s a lady creature to be won. Cherchez la femme, even when you are a bird.

A new nest
Full-on attack mode! Swan is much bigger, but the goose is strong.

The attack continues.

Confrontation!
Confrontation!

And again, from another angle … still, with no direct contact.

Another battle
Another battle!

The geese don’t look all that upset. Is the attack part of an ongoing ritual? All parties seems to know the rules of the game. They were probably born knowing.

Paddling like mad, the attack continues!
Paddling like mad, the attack continues!

“I think I hear my wife calling,” says Mr. Swan. He slowly circles the nesting geese one final time. “But I’ll be back. Don’t think this is over. It won’t be over until you are gone from this pond.”

I shall return!
I shall return!

And it the end, the Canada geese gave up and moved to a different part of the river. It’s hard to figure why they bother to fight since there is so much water around. There is more than enough room for both of them and all the other waterfowl, too.

Be at peace, larger feathered friends.