Friday, February 13, 2015

What You Should Have Done

"I’m not religious, but at the end of my life I wouldn’t mind hearing a deep, resounding voice telling me what it was I should have done. I wonder what he’d say."
 - Nobody here  (A lovely, visit-worthy site)

If I could ask each of my dead parents and my dead husband one question is would be:
Mom, did you believe in God?
Dad, were you satisfied?
Husband, were you ever happy?

No questions about regrets. No why or what-ifs. Just yes/no questions. 

But, what an amazing question is: what should I have done? Assuming that by the time I die I won’t be so far gone into dementia that I don’t notice I’ve woken up dead, what will that voice tell me?

Would the voice behind the wagging finger say I should have tried harder? Been better, done more, made a bigger difference. What if the answer is mundane?

You should have kept trying to perfects that violet cookie recipe until your cookies tasted like the Fortnum & Mason violet cookies. You should have got a tattoo referencing some lame TV show character’s memorable one-liner. You should have learned Latin, told more jokes, read better books.

What if the answer was tragically consequential?

You should have followed up that idea about creating a time machine using dremel tools and cookie tins. You could have saved the world from the genocidal megalomaniac Genghis Hitler and his evil minions in 3025. You should have picked up that hitchhiker, you should have taken up ice sculpture. You should have looked in the rear-view mirror just a minute ago.


My best guess is that the deep resounding voice will be saying I told you so.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Why I Didn’t Go to the Gym

For life is quite absurd
And death's the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin
Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.
 - Monty Python, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

I spent Wednesday and Thursday trying to keep my heart rhythm steady and intermittently failing. I awoke on Friday to atrial fibrillation that had increased in intensity, duration and frequency. I packed a go-bag, put on comfortable socks and shoes and the only button-front shirt I have and went back to bed. At 9:00 I had an episode so extreme that my pulse was in the 160s and I heard the most charming ringing in my ears: like waves lapping the shore gently. After the second such episode, accompanied by the usual dizziness and flop sweat, I made sure some lights were on and the cat food bowl and water bowls were filled. At 9:30 I called for an ambulance and waited on the bench by the front door.

In the ER at one point, while the doc was talking to me to get the history of this latest episode, his eyes kept straying to the monitor that showed my heart rate bouncing around the low to mid-100s, and he finally said, as much as I’d like to keep discussing this, I think we better get some medicine into you right now. The rest of my day was spent attached to a drip in the ER waiting for my heart rate to “convert” to normal sinus rhythm.

I did have the best room in the house. Some fun facts: I was next door to the corner cubicle – the one that can be locked from the outside – where they put dangerous people. I could see the monitor at the nurses’ station that showed the poor girl inside the room, scrunched up and hugging herself and looking frightened and alone, and watching the guard through the window in the door. He was watching her back with as much empathy as a lion watching an old gazelle who has not kept up with the herd.

Because this is flu season and the joint was jumping, most of the staff were wearing face masks. I learned that I rely much more than I thought on reading lips; and yet I could clearly hear the man in an adjacent cubicle telling his beleaguered wife nobody was paying attention to him, while she murmured with saintly patience that they seemed kinda busy.

I saw a guy from Central Casting wheeled in with what even I could diagnose as a drug overdose, head lolling and minimally responsive but clearly feeling no pain.

The drill at Kaiser is that when you present with heart symptoms, they want a chest x-ray, which I routinely decline. Then they want to send you to nuclear medicine for a 4-hour test where they inject something radioactive and then give you a package of ten-year-old Lorna Doons while you wait with a bunch of old people in hospital gowns for the radioactive stuff and cookies to settle in, and then they give you a 5 minute scan showing how radioactive your heart is – which I also know to decline.

Then, after not feeding you anything all day, they decide to admit you for overnight observation. This time I was in my room by 6:00 and in a wing of the old hospital I’d never seen before. Believe me, I’ve seen enough of this place. I finally scored some dinner and was settling down to sleep when another patient was brought into the room loudly complaining that she wanted a private room because the other person always kept her up. She then proceeded to keep me up.

It may be counterintuitive, but when you spend an entire day with your heart rate averaging 120, you are exhausted and all you want to do is sleep. But you can’t. They wake you every 3 hours to make sure you don’t rest too well, aka, to take your vitals. At the 3:00 am check I asked the nurse if she could get the lab people in for the early blood test since I was already awake (that’s how well I know this drill). She explained that their practice was to wait about 30 minutes until you got back to sleep before the lab people came in.  Then, 30 minutes after that, roommate has to use the toilet which takes her past my bed. Believe it or not, she was complaining about hating to share a room with a noisy roommate as she passed my bed. I gave serious consideration to clocking her with my tiny complimentary toothpaste tube when she left the toilet to return to her bed.

By the time breakfast was served at 7:30 (why?) I had the distinct pleasure of waking up my roommate by asking when I’d see the doctor and then apologizing for speaking so loudly because I’d forgotten to put my hearing aid in. Oops. I was discharged just before lunch with instructions to double my dose of Lopressor. My copay for the day was $65, up from $50 the last time this happened, but still cheaper than La Quinta and dinner and breakfast at Denny’s.

The taxi driver told me on the ride home that if he had a couple of million dollars he’d remarry and have two wives. I asked, wouldn’t that cause fights in the house. His sanguine reply was that if his wife ever fought, he’d simply not feed her until she behaved. Like he cooks, you know? He gave me his card in case I ever wanted another $50 ride with free offensive commentary.

I was home by noon on Saturday, trying to decide how much salt not to put on my cheese sandwich for lunch. I had potato chips on the side.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Get Up

“Get up get up get up
No time to rest or run for cover.
Get up get up get up
Before the road pulls you under.
Knock the breath out of your madness.
Burn your photographs at the edges.
Send your heart back from where you left it.

Took a long way to come here
Got a long way to go
Climbing up switchbacks
Walking through tall grass the color of matches.”
 - Caitlin Canty, Get Up

At the moment, the only difference between a madman and me is that I have no penis. If I were bipolar, I’d be on my spin cycle. I feel like those washing machines that walk across the basement floor when they’re on spin because they’re so unbalanced. But I’m standing up.

A few days before Xmas, I wrote that I was surprised at how much it hurt, or to be more precise, the way it hurt. Not like a sharp pain, but like the way I describe the occasional “discomfort” of pressure in my bumpy heart to my cardiologist. It is all perfectly bearable; it’s possible to work your entire life around it to accommodate until it becomes part of your day. It’s a sadness so gentle that I can manage to not realize it for hours. Like my pinky fingers, swollen and distorted with arthritis, but painful only when I forgot to not use them for anything more challenging than touch-typing.

I think what predominately occupies my mind now – when I can’t manage to distract myself by not cleaning the litter boxes – is how we can go about our finite lives knowing they all end. How do we ignore this impossibly big and inevitable fact until we sit with a loved one and hold their warm hand, and keep holding it as it grows cold and still with death? How does this not overshadow everything all day long? All I could say was “wow”, not even in capital letters, or exclamation marks. Just a very small, amazed, soft, wow. This happened.

Now, past the first month of the first new year of my life, I’m ready to forget some of the negative stuff. But I’ll never forget him. Apparently however, when you go through a major life change, you have to mark the occasion by doing more than buying a new couch and living room rug, or even joining a gym. My new mission statement has something to do with my determination to be less negative, which is something he would recommend.

But for the moment, I feel as equipped to do that, as an octuple-amputee octopus is to open the combination lock to a safe. Even if I knew the combination, I’m not sure I could stop wobbling long enough to do it. I know how to do snark, but being nice isn’t something I have much practice at. Perhaps I should practice mixing a martini with the power of my mind alone. That might be easier than trying to be kind.

Being positive doesn’t mean being relentlessly happy. I have to keep reminding myself that I got this. Happiness is overrated - happiness without sadness would be boring, I’m going for contentment. It’s what I’ve waited for much of my life: retiring from having to take care of somebody else. The good part is that I don’t have to keep looking back and slowing down, and I don’t have to carry a dead weight. The bad part is that now that I’m up, I’ve just realized I don’t have a map.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Hey Superbowl!

"He did well, but he would have done much better if he had somebody with him who knew the score instead of all those crew-cut college boys in their silk suits."
Robert F. Kennedy, The Enemy Within

I don’t know who is playing. I don’t plan to pick up a 55 gallon drum of bean dip at Costco for my superbowl party.

I don’t care who wins. I don’t care what the score is. 

I don’t even care about the commercials because, well, commercials.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Women Not in Combat

“‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

. . .
But he did for them both by his plan of attack."
 - Siegfried Sassoon, The General

O good grief. If I weren’t past the age where estrogen makes me all “erratic” and shit, I’d be weeping at Fred’s post about Women in the Military.

Partly, because Fred is 100% right that women are often in pain. To this day, I am acquainted with increasing pain, and I hit menopause in the previous century. Apparently, men can function and perform whatever isn’t “light duty” better than women, because their external genitalia make them stronger. Never mind that real life – like real war – is somewhat more complicated.

Mostly though, I’d be weeping because Fred is clearly not alone in his – dare I call it misogynistic? – opinions and racist rants. I understand. Many people preoccupied with their masculinity and power can become a bit irrational when their spot atop the steep precipice of the social hierarchy is undermined from below.

My personal pre-menopause experience involved being a professional in a large bureaucracy. I was an attorney at a large research institution. Apart from the fact that all the attempts to do mortal harm to others in my workplace were metaphoric, we also didn’t have to carry wounded people around. While I lifted my share of heavy loose-leaf binders filled with bureaucratic rules over the years, I never had to apply a tourniquet. But my story bears an uncanny resemblance to that of The Menstruator. I’ll call myself The Post-Menstruator.

I spent my 30-year career being managed by both men and women, and managing both men and women. Unlike the guy with The Dismal Facts in Fred’s post (who retired in 1967) I’d say my anecdotal experience, having retired in 2003, was that the ratio of competence to incompetence was much more inversely proportional to pay grade than to gender. My work environment was relatively tolerant of gay people. Racism was so pervasive that you’d literally have to be blind not to notice it. But believe it or not: there was rampant sexism even before political correctness (almost certainly spread by menstruating women) put a curb on the worst abuses - before PC itself became a travesty of a mockery of a sham. I could, at least, use the ladies room without a buddy.

In my white collar world, where bravery, strength, aerobic capacity and upper body strength, were not factors, women were still not promoted based on intelligence, skill or leadership qualities; women were expected to work harder for less pay, and to make the coffee at meetings they attended.

Fred says women are more susceptible to fatigue? Are you fucking kidding me? Visit any group senior home – or survey your cohort – women live longer than men. Men succumb to the ills that flesh is heir to at greater rates and at younger ages than women. But why limit ourselves to facts?

If I may be permitted a few of my own unsupported claims like those in Fred's article above the section on The Dismal Facts: men complain louder, whine longer, become more needy as they age and expect their wives to do the heavy lifting of housekeeping long after all they do is manage to figure out how to pay their bills on line. In general, women are more stoic, more resilient, more capable than men as we age. I’ll even go so far as to suggest we possess these same advantages in our youth, but that might go against Fred’s inherently internal narrative.

Assuming Fred’s unsupported statement (quoted in previous post below) that sex erodes command authority is a fact, and his snarky rhetorical question about whether women would use sex to get what they want, is Fred implying that men don’t do precisely that? Seriously? And exactly whose fault is it that sex erodes authority? I’m guessing that’s not exclusively down to the girls either. Certainly in my non-military career I saw both sexes behaving badly. What eroded authority more than sex was incompetence in authority and the lack of respect that incompetence engendered among the rank and file.

With all due respect, I suggest we all drop the pretense that this whole women in combat argument is based on differences in physical strength or mood swings. It’s about men in power not wanting to let the girls into the game.

Which is exactly like it was in my professional workplace a generation ago, and like it is today in corporate offices, retail malls, and many marriages. This argument may take a while to become obsolete. After all, I’m not pretending we live in a “post-racial society”. Still, it’s hard for me to share Fred’s worry that the last bastions of military and corporate rule by white men are being overrun with people who aren’t their equals. But as the tide turns, posts like Fred’s seem to become more shrill and desperate. It’s almost unmanly.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Women in the Military: Then and Now

“And there are problems that one mustn't talk about. Menstruation, for example. Women often are in pain, they want light duty, and become erratic. Having men of low social class in authority over young women inevitably results in rape or behavior close to it, usually by black men. Women don't like to squat and pee around men, which can lead to absurd behavior--see below. Thirteen men in a squad will work together as a team; add a woman and they will all compete to get into her pants. Sex erodes command authority: Once Admiral Jones gets involved with Seaman Sally, it stops being, ‘Yessir, Admiral,’ and becomes ‘But Bob....’ Would women use sex to get what they want? No, never. Perish the thought.”

 If you have read the above quote and can’t quite get a grasp of where this guy is coming from, read his entire post. Apparently, women can’t be in combat because they menstruate. Or to use Fred’s words: A few* with truculence sometimes amplified by misspelling, have demanded supporting data.” The facts support the fact that men are generally physically stronger than women. Who knew?

* Presumably women who disagree with Fred’s unsupported statements.

The response below is from a female Army vet who washed out of OCS (with stress fractures) at the age of 35, and then spent three tours in Afghanistan as a civilian advisor stationed with a British unit in Helmand Afghanistan in 2011-12, followed by a year as a civilian conducting studies under DOD contract in Kabul. Let's call her The Menstruator

Holy fuck balls! With all due respect to those in the military in 1967, do let them know it is now 2015. I'm not trying to be cheeky - his understanding of integration and women problems is seriously out of date.

Twenty-nine out of 29 failed. I am sorry to read that. I can go find you 100 men who would also wash out. 100% of women have failed, but we all [should] know that's a small sample size. He won't get an NSF grant with those sorts of stats. It's just not compelling yet. It's also flat wrong to argue that women aren't capable of the 'guy stuff' that men are. Not only am I a female who menstruates, grew up playing with dolls, and sometimes cries at bad rom-coms, I am also twice the age of the male soldiers with whom I deployed, carried half my body weight, and kept up. I also was one of two females who carried a wounded soldier to a PEDRO. I didn't even cry. I can't remember if I was menstruating at the time...

I am a crappy runner. Nevertheless, I passed all Army PT tests even to the standards for males. Of course these tests were also easier the older the soldier is. Under his logic, anyone - male or female - should be discharged (honorably?) after age 30, because apparently all that matters is the ability to run and lift things and talk about boobies and shun menstruation. One of the many reasons I thought OCS as horrifying was that I watched people earn their butter bar because they could 1) run five miles in 45 minutes, and 2) yell.

That's all one has to do to be an officer in the USA these days. I'm not kidding. I watched smart people who can actually lead and think under pressure get out, or go enlisted because they couldn't stomach the nonsense. I understand why the Army has a tradition or rewarding people who can shout (and lift heavy things) rather than real leadership much better after reading this. There is more to the combat than cardiovascular capacity! I think we'd all agree that anyone on a patrol needs to be able to carry a mate to safety if necessary, and I assure you women can do that.

I say this having been in combat. I went on over 100 combat patrols in the most dangerous Districts and Province in Afghanistan, and have been in dozens of TICs, and have been IEDed 3 times, and not only was I not a drag to the non-menstruators around me, I was a force multiplier because I can carry rounds, and send them down range just as well as the boys. In fact, the Army's insistence that long distance running was key to combat effectiveness continuously proved wrong to me. What we needed out there was the ability to carry lots and lots of stuff on our backs at a 15 min/mile pace forever, all day, for weeks on end. Women can do that just fine! Occasionally shooting prompted us to sprint with that weight for cover, and we did that fine too. I've NEVER gone on a combat patrol and jogged! More importantly for combat effectiveness is what the Army calls "resilience," meaning the ability to see bad shit and continue the mission ("Charlie, Mike"). Women and men are susceptible to combat stress, PTSD, and all that other stuff. In fact, if we're looking at numbers here (selectively), I'd point out that far more men have PTSD than women, so perhaps men aren't up for combat?

I absolutely take issue with his characterization of women "looking cute" while men lifted things. I remember in BCT once a male soldier tried to help a female soldier with something, and the DS yelled at him, and reminded us that that dog don't hunt, because downrange we're all going to need to be up for that. The DS was right, and today I'm proud to say that my Army promoted women getting their shit together and learning to pull their own weight. While the Army still links physical fitness too much with leadership, in my opinion, they are right to emphasize that part of leadership is the ability to lead from the front (hence OCS' "Follow Me" slogan), and dudes in uniform are going to be less serious if their female OIC is leading from behind. Got it. It's still all possible.

It's strange to have done three deployments with an integrated Army, and read that apparently I was using sex and threats of false rape reports to further my career. The British Army has mixed accommodations; even the "ablution blocks" were mixed sex. Guess what: we all survived, and we weren't all shagging each other as much as Fred would have us think. His opinions don't change the fact that I was integrated, and carried my own weight (literally and metaphorically). Not only have I peed in front of guys, but because Helmand is so dangerous, I had to go announce to them I wanted to pee, ask the point man to barma the area (check for IEDs), and then have them stand guard around me so I could have 30 seconds to drop trou, have a wee, and not worry about getting shot. We showered in front of each other, we did laundry together, we ate together, and we shared accommodations, and it was professional. 

There is an intimacy to living together like that, but it's often not sexual. The thing they never told me in training is that the real intimacy comes with being with someone who is about to die, or has been terribly injured. One soldier I was on patrol with stepped on an IED and suffered a traumatic amputation of both legs. I went with him to the field hospital (SOP is that the first one with the soldier accompanies the injured bloke/bird to the hospital); months later his wife emailed me to ask if I'd had an affair with her husband. My point is that of all the intimacies troops experience, the most important one is not at all sexual. Troops also had lots of sex downrange, but they kept it discreet and out of the "office". In any event, the issues we face in combat have actually little to do with our potty parts, and much to do with our maturity, and I'd prefer to see my Army focus on the important parts of resilience and leadership. Yes, sex can erode command authority, but so does sexism. Of course I would say that, I'm a girl who sucks at running.

I don't see the military as he does. It is simply a fact now that because war is so weird and unconventional that women are in combat. Often I suppose these are logistics folks taking the mail out to FOBs or something like that. In any event, let's please stop pretending there is a FLET and everything is neat, and women can be sheltered in a green zone. That world has never existed in AFG, and I suspect it hasn't in Iraq as well. Moreover, I have not seen the presence of women, people of color, or gay people erode anything we did in Helmand. I believe that to a great extent, something can only "erode command" if leadership is weak. In other words, if troops are irritated to have women (or place any group here), then command needs to step up and create an ethos and environment in which it becomes workable (CW can speak to this much more than I). Easier said than done, I know, but it would be aided by having officers who have some charisma in addition to their ability to run 5 miles in 45 minutes.

It is interesting that he said "the brass are terrified of women." I believe that to be 100% true. I felt in the USA there was a big difference in experience, backgrounds, and just plain street smarts between CPTs and below and Majors on up (and similar split among enlisted ranks based on time in). The Army has its most highly educated junior ranks it has ever had in all its time. Additionally, Field Graded cut their teeth in Desert Storm 1. With all due respect to their 72 hour war, our war kicks their war's ass. What I'm getting at is that those with more time in are more socialized to buy into the argument that change is bad, and that women/gays/blacks/etc. are going to disrupt something sacred to the esprit de corps. In contrast, those in for 10 years or less (who had done most of the fighting) are less amenable to those arguments because we grew up with women/gays/blacks/etc.

I'm not intimidated by integration. Integration of women does not threaten the military. From my perspective, what threatens the military is that we are hemorrhaging smart and battle-tested CPTs who are keen to get out and going to a world that isn't so superstitious and resistant to change. What threatens our military is that we are given power in war, and treated like children in garrison. (It's true that in CONUS I needed a "battle buddy" to go pee. I agree it's nonsense.) What threatens our military is that it punishes those who seek better ways to fight a war that is unconventional - but please don't tell the field grades and generals that we're not fighting an enemy in uniform. Better they work on devising new PT tests that even girls can pass.


Thanks for the interesting read!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Former Drunkard

I will walk the streets up
And I’ll walk the streets down.
I will see the fine ladies
Dressed in their silk gowns.
With my elbows all out
And my breeches without knees
You are the biggest vagabond that e’er I did see.
-      -  Steeleye Span, The Drunkard.

I used to sing this song to my child as a lullaby to put her to sleep when she was small. No wonder she has “issues”. What was I thinking? I had a completely unhelpful heart operation to straighten out my irregular hear rhythm. I can’t drink or have more than 3 potato chips without breaking out in flop sweat as my pulse races up to the low 140s, sometimes for days. Which sucks, but which I suppose is only fair given how I messed up the kid by singing such sick lullabies.

My Wikipedia page would read like Alice in Wonderland, except I don’t have a Wikipedia page. And this place is to Wonderland as a circus clown car is to a suitcase that fell out of a plane. By which I mean, non sequitur, yo.

Instead of taking a Viking Rhine River cruise like most retired boomers at this point in their smug lives, I’m thinking of taking a road trip this year, only I’ll call it a lecture tour. The 2015 Motel Six Philosophy of Disappointment Tour.  

My mission statement for 2015 is not going to be “suck it, bitches” because that didn’t work out so well for me in ’14. Perhaps “Less carbs, more gummy bears”?  Or: My life blows so much that I put the air in despair. Need to work on that: a little more redemption and a little less gloom.

For the new year, I usually try to re-do my “about” page to make my life more interesting. Each year, this becomes more of an exercise in distinguishing my real life from that imaginary life down the rabbit hole, past the orange marmalade jar, and into the land where I hop rides on passing trains and travel with benevolent hobos to quaint and colorful places where I can depend entirely on the kindness of strangers.

Each year it becomes more of an exercise in ignoring the Elephant of Cognitive Dissonance in the room that looms between my drab actual life and the imaginary and vibrant life I had always intended to lead. I think this year I’ll survive the coming apocalypse by finding a nice quiet bunker filled with gummy bears and books I’ve been meaning to read. I joined a gym and I already feel better, so that’s good, right?

My backstory needs some more color too. As a recently widowed crone, whose dearly beloved passed out of my life and into assisted living in 2013, but who didn’t die until last month, I’m having trouble saying things like how I miss his support when something goes wrong with the infrastructure of this old house/yard. I mean, I can say such things, because shit is always going wrong here at the Fortress of Attitude. But it’s hard to say it with a straight face.

I at least have the deadly serious lesson learned from his death: you have to re-arrange your memories in non-chronological order in order to grieve properly. The man I married was a wonderful person, and it makes me very sad he’s gone. But he’s been long gone. The sick old man who died was a shell of that wonderful man. Too bad – so sad, as my sister once said.


So that happened. At least we got to say goodbye.