Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Retrospect

In retrospect, I would have let Nursie rule my life sooner. She is, after all, my inner voice of caution and common sense, similar but not identical to what Freud referred to as the superego.

Nursie is mainly an auditory, as opposed to visual, hallucination. She speaks with a clipped, no-nonsense, grammar- school-educated British accent by which I mean she would be eligible for employment as a governess at Buckingham Palace if such a functionary were needed.

In the past, ignoring Nursie led me down a ruinous road of reckless self-indulgence. No, I will not entertain my modest readership with horrific tales of riotous living and its inevitable consequences. Suffice it to say, that only moments before I became an itinerant bag lady, Nursie broke out of jail and engineered a coup d'etat.

Now she's in charge...well, not all of the time but most of the time. Every once in awhile she takes cat naps. That's when I go online and order books from amazon.com. and pay for them with my credit card. Sometimes Nursie catches me in the act and marches me off to the local library. I have nothing against libraries. They are noble institutions which ensure that everybody, regardless of  their station in life, can become literate and well informed. It's just that I love the smell and feel of a new book, one that I can take down off my bookshelf and read anytime I want.

Another indulgence is buying toys, books, etc., for my youngest grandson. I adore my grandson. I also love toys except for cheap plastic ones that fall apart instantly or ones that talk. My grandson enjoys costumes and I love buying them for him. At this point, he has almost more costumes than he has clothes. As a child, I used to improvise costumes from various discarded items from my family's wardrobe. In those days clothes held up longer and were cast aside mainly because they were no longer in fashion. In these days of planned obsolescence and economic uncertainty, discarded clothing items are useful mainly as kitchen rags.

From all the above, the reader has no doubt ascertained that I am not an actual grown up, despite being more or less in my dotage. It's true, I confess. Some of us are simply incapable of maturity and that's why I have handed the reins of power over to Nursie.

Nursie's  most challenging agenda these days is keeping me away from fat, sweet, salty, delectable foods such as custard-filled maple bars, fried chicken and pizza with multiple toppings.  For the past two weeks she has been mostly successful. "Hmm," she'll intone, as I'm about to reach for a buttered roll, "Quite a few calories in that, I should think."

In summation, if I had let Nursie rule my life sooner, I would be in better physical shape and enjoying a lifestyle further away from the poverty line. I would have a graduate degree in something useful such as civil engineering instead of a useless BA in English literature with a writing emphasis. I would have a robust savings account instead of a  finger puppet collection. I would have fewer wrinkles because I would have stayed out of the sun instead of indulging in fantasies of myself with a bronze tan.

My scarred, besmirched and pitted conscience would be as smooth and as dazzlingly white as new-fallen snow. I would be enjoying a tranquil old age knowing I had led an exemplary life...

...if I had only let Nursie take over  sooner.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Honoring McEwan

My friendships have always been limited to a few people -- individuals whose unique qualities make it virtually impossible to label or categorize them.

Sherryl, about whom I've written voraciously, is one such friend.   McEwan is another.

McEwan does possess a first and/or given name -- two of them, in fact -- but I've never called her anything but McEwan.

We met as returning (i.e., non-traditional age) students at a private college in California and found we had more than a little in common. For one thing McEwan scored extremely high on the verbal section of  just about every standardized test and extremely low on the math section. I did not score quite as high on the verbal or quite as low on the mathematical but the discrepancy was nonetheless remarkable.

We also shared the difficult combination of high expectations and low self-esteem. "I think I flunked that exam," she'd say and I'd inevitably respond, "Me, too." By "flunked" we meant we probably wouldn't get an "a."  Nine out of ten times, though, we did. Get an "a" that is. We possessed a fanatical, almost frantic determination to excel but we knew this and were able to laugh at ourselves. In fact, we laughed quite a lot -- applauding our own wit, our mutual talent for satire and our capacity to view ourselves as slightly absurd.

McEwan's poetry was poignant, subtle and professional while mine was melodramatic, self-evident and puerile. My expertise was more in the short story genre, an area where McEwan perceived herself as more of a novice.  Whatever the genre, her facility and artistry with language was always astonishing.

One of the many things McEwan excelled in was her descriptions of food which were so tantalizingly accurate they made my stomach growl. Whenever one or several or her characters dined in style, her easy flow of words was rudely disrupted with audible gastronomical protests from my rebellious body.  This was especially true when our creative writing class took place just prior to lunch.

During leisure hours we indulged in diet Pepsi served in tall glasses crammed with ice and a wedge of Meyers lemon. If I stayed at her apartment for dinner, we often dined on what we called "dog food" -- some brand of canned chili, I believe, but I can't remember for sure. I do remember that it was quite tasty.

McEwan has eyes which I was once inspired to describe as "glass blue." Her eyes have appeared on the faces of various characters in my various short stories, though sometimes "glass blue" changes to "ice blue."  Just one of many examples of McEwan's generosity is that she's allowed me, for literary purposes, to borrow her eyes.

After graduation McEwan went away to graduate school while I remained in California and held various positions in the field of special education.  We communicated off and on via the phone, email, short visits. She returned permanently to California just months ahead of the time I retired and left for New Mexico.

Fate has rarely been kind to McEwan. Most of her life she has suffered a number of excruciatingly painful medical issues, both chronic and acute. Her husband had serious medical problems which precipitated his early death, while various friends and relatives have suffered painful crises.  Amazingly, no tragedy or calamity ever blunted her sensitivity or eroded her enormous capacity for empathy.  She is one who really has walked in someone else's moccasins.

Now, while still in her forties, she has been diagnosed with an especially pernicious form of Stage III breast cancer.

Breast cancer is an illness that has been highly romanticized and embroidered over with life-affirming, self-affirming psychobabble.  Like my late friend, Sherryl, McEwan shoots from the hip and has little taste or tolerance for fluff and frosting. She does not think of her disease as a self-transforming opportunity. She does not wish to cuddle a pink teddy bear. In fact, she doesn't much care for the color pink.

However, she does not appear to be harboring that perennial outcast of the human potential movement -- i.e., a negative attitude.  Simply, she prefers to be honest and finds it frustrating when people respond to her  honesty with pasted smiles and perky cliches.

In a culture where virtually everyone suffering from cancer is described as being brave, it becomes hard to honor the truly brave.  It is hard to wade through the flotsam of denial, the pep talks and the slogans out into open waters where illness means exhaustion and pain, and half of all roads to the future are signposted with fear and sorrow.

As with Sherryl, I am angry and frustrated because I cannot bargain with some disease-dispensing deity to allow me to bear half the pain, take half the cancer cells into my own body.

All I can do is say "I love you." And hope those words will shed their cliched shell and actually mean something however small and pitiful.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Regarding Deja Vu

I no longer experience this phenomenon very often these days. When I was a child, though,  it happened on a regular basis. A friend I was playing with would attempt to execute a cartwheel, tumble sideways against a dining room chair, giggle and say "phooey beans!" and I would feel as if someone had thrown a switch inside my brain.  First would come an eerie sense of physical separation, followed by a shock of familiarity as if I had witnessed every detail of this action with this exact same person before, expletive and all.

File:Ivy Hedera Red Brick Wall 2892px.jpgSometimes the focus of my experience would be a place-- someplace I was supposedly seeing for the first time:  a house surrounded by a brick wall accessible through an iron gate, a brick house half-covered in ivy with an abandoned wasps' nest attached to one of the eaves.  Had I lived there once? Visited someone who did?

I did not tell anyone about these episodes. Neurologists might claim I was experiencing a type of seizure. There are many different types of seizures I've come to find out since working in special education.

As a young adult in the late sixties I tended to ascribe these episodes to sudden links with a previous incarnation. Back then, we "radical thinkers" made a point of believing in just about anything our brainwashed, hyper-conforming  parents rejected as utter nonsense.

 I still don't dismiss the idea of reincarnation though I don't believe that being born with cerebral palsy into a family of poverty-stricken alcoholic parents is the result of previous bad karma.

To tell the truth, I miss my deja vu episodes which were kind of like taking a mild dose of a mind-altering drug. Some wise person (Carl Jung? Joseph Campbell?) suggested that humans possess a basic need for metaphysical experiences. In many primal cultures such experiences are highly valued and can even be induced without the aid of a substance such as Jimson Weed, Peyote or Cannabis Sativa.

                                                                   *  *  *

Sometimes you'll meet someone for the first time whom -- you're convinced -- you already know.

This happened to me only once with my friend Sherryl.  I, who am incurably socially awkward, felt no discomfort whatsoever on first meeting her -- none of the initial concerns such as: should I refrain from profanities or obscenities? downplay my irreverent humor? steer clear of controversial subjects?

I knew Sherryl instantly and she knew me. From the onset we conversed as if we'd been friends forever. When Sherryl was dying of cancer, we were both convinced we'd see each other again but not in some celestial afterlife of harps and frilled clouds. Neither of us specified exactly how this future encounter would occur because we didn't know. All we knew is that our connection would somehow be preserved.

 Magical thinking, some would say, a way of coping with a painful separation, with death.

It is important to be able to demonstrate what is so and what is not so. Science is, and ought to be, the basis for making decisions that affect the course of human events. But it's also important, I think, to let oneself be confounded by the sheer majesty and mystery of human existence.

Thus, deja vu can be a neurological glitch, a synaptic collision of short term and long term memory. Or it can simply be... deja vu.

In any case, Sherryl said when we met again she'd have a cup of coffee ready for me.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Criminals and Kindergartners

The days are getting shorter; the nights longer. That, at least, remains within the range of predictability. However, I can't help thinking our earth is being crudely reshaped in the hands of criminals and kindergartners.

I know, I have touched on this subject before. The other day, on a wildflower identification hike, we encountered an enormous weed patch -- a fire-eaten  shallow bowl of tangled shrubbery where Ponderosa pines once grew. Artemesia was the predominant shrub -- not bad looking really, feathery and full but not a Ponderosa pine.  Definitely not a Ponderosa pine. These weed patches will proliferate  as each summer thousands of acres of the southern Rockies burn with unprecedented ferocity.

Then there's the coast of Maine where, once upon a time, we went out every morning wearing a heavy sweater which we shed at noon and put on again just before sunset. This July, we actively sought shade at nine a.m. and never wore anything more than shorts and a tank top even after sundown. The once sharp blue sky was smeary with a thin layer of clouds. The starfish were gone or almost gone and new forms of aquatic life replaced them. The humidity reminded me of long-ago summers much further south -- in Virginia or Washington, D.C.

I have done some research online and it seems pretty clear to me that (a) global warming is a fact, and (b) that it is human caused. The majority of climate scientists think so and they can cite data to prove it.

I also believe that the the most vocal opposition consists mainly of uber-rich capitalists who trot out studies sponsored by Exxon-Mobile and other fossil-fuel-based industries.

The uber-rich capitalists won't have to endure the consequences of global warming. They will have air-conditioned mansions in cool places. They will have access to food even when half the world starves due to drought. They will still be able to enjoy their swimming pools even as the water table sinks and rivers dry up.

I think the top dogs in the energy industry know that human-caused global warming is a scientific fact. They simply don't care because they won't be negatively affected by the consequences. In the meantime, there are huge profits to be made. These are the ones I call criminals.

Then there's the kindergartners.  Kindergartners indulge freely in magical thinking -- e.g., if I want it to be so, then it is so. Attached to this assumption is its corollary: I am supposed to live happily ever after.

These kindergartners are easily persuaded by the energy industry's propaganda. They also harbor an attitude of suspicion and contempt toward environmentalists. I can sort of understand this having  observed inflexible ideologues hooting like spotted owls at town meetings as if such behavior had even a ghost of a chance of changing hearts and minds.

I am not one to claim a moral high ground. I, too, am a kindergartner, just not when it comes to global warming.

Kindergartners believe in the bottomless cookie jar. They cannot imagine a tomorrow with fewer cookies, no cookies, or no food of any kind. Someone will fix it so that this doesn't happen. The grown-ups. They. The people in charge.

 Meanwhile, we continue to raid the cookie jar, reaching down further and further as the supply dwindles, scraping the sides to gather crumbs. Eventually we smash the container to pieces, promising to glue it together later. After all, the bottom isn't really the bottom. And we can always lick the shards.