Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sanity and Handbrake Turning Points

"O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!"
Shakespeare, King Lear

We saw Laurence Olivier's King Lear last night. Simply the best performance ever. Thanks, Netflix. But, how to describe the play?

Permit me to digress. According to Wikipedia: “When Lisa and Homer discuss the language to use in his first review Homer attempts to augment nouns with 'groin-grabbingly'. Lisa offers the word 'transcendent' to which Homer replies, 'What about groin-grabbingly transcendent?'”

Sir Laurence's portrayal of a powerful king losing his mind, of navigating dysfunctional family relations and betrayal is best described using Homer's timeless phrase. And to those who say The Simpson's is low-brow, I say 'Good day sir!'

Which got me thinking about other experiences where the term is apt. Upon serious consideration, between loads of wash yesterday, I sat outside, warmed by the late winter sunshine, cleaning herbs for soup. I came up with this idea.

That expression also perfectly describes certain instances in one's life where great change is afoot. Such turns along the Road of Life are typically approached way too fast, making it feel like one is a passenger in a sports car careening down a steep mountain road, driven by a suicidal madman, and pursued by screaming daemons of age.

At such times, we struggle to retain compos mentis while navigating handbrake turns: dangerous, dramatic and, life-changing. Once such turns are in the rear-view mirror and the death-defying theatrics are over, the moments are recalled as “groin-grabbingly transcendent”. Surviving handbreak turns provide us with moments of such clarity, albeit tinged with a kind of life-flashing-before-your-eyes panic, that ordinary life becomes once more relatively peaceful and bearable.

At such times, I think it helps to think of what King Lear said. I would like not to become mad. Handbreak turns are sometimes required to keep on the right road, and I think they can sometimes help us to stay sane and temperate.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lucky Seven and Cleaning House

“’Cleanliness is next to godliness’ was one slogan to which it was difficult to subscribe. If by the last quarter of the twentieth century, godliness wasn’t next to something more interesting than cleanliness, it might be time to reevaluate our notions of godliness.” Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

Our cable went dark midway through the Inauguration yesterday, but at least I got to hear Aretha. She’s still got it. I sorta missed seeing the door hitting Dubya on his way out, but at least he’s gone. Whew!

So, because the only other alternative to TV was to talk to each other, Tech Support Guy and I watched Disney’s anniversary edition CD of Snow White last night. There are lots of features besides the movie. There’s an interactive game where you see the seven guys in silhouette as they return from work and march single file across a log bridge. In the game, you have to name the Dwarves in order. Sure, Doc is first and Dopey is last, but who’s in the middle? Let’s just say I nailed it. (Mom would be so proud!)

Meanwhile, until the cable guy can fix the box, our living room is littered with books from the bookcase we had to move to get behind the TV. And talk about dust! Not a pretty picture, albeit a mute testimony to my housekeeping skills; or more precisely, a testimony to the lack of exercise of my housekeeping skills. Because the cable box is always warm, the cat likes to sleep on top of it. There was cat hair embedded in dust, and even a desiccated hairball. You’ll understand why I didn’t want to accompany this post with pictures.

The seven dwarves aren’t the only thing that comes in sevens (isomers of heptane come to mind). The cable guy came while I was writing the above, and installed a new cable box which promptly registered 11:07 AM. Coincidence? Luckily, I now have a brand new cat warming machine on top of my TV, and a shiny new remote to learn how to use. Even better, the first thing I saw on headline news when the TV woke up was Michelle Obama’s white gown for the Inaugural Ball last night. This was probably the most important piece of news I was deprived of yesterday.

Now, it’s back to dusting and replacing the books on the bookcase in an effort to be more godly. At least I have CNN to keep me company.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Encounter on The Road of Life

"One recognizes one's course by discovering the paths that stray from it." Albert Camus

Tech Support Guy and I were out in redneck country the other evening, on our weekly trek to get fresh eggs from a lady who raises chickens in her suburban back yard. Tech Support Guy was driving, and I was riding shotgun. While we were stopped at a red light, a red pickup truck pulled up in the lane to our left. From my seat, looking out the driver’s side window, all I could see was a ginormous right front tire: large, bumpy, and - because the truck was jacked up so high - an obscene amount of muddy undercarriage, looking a little like dirty underpants glimpsed beneath a bright red dress.

Flashback: Years ago, when out with our then teenage daughter, we parked at a restaurant in Pasadena. The same type of vehicle parked next to us: a pickup truck painted in a bright primary color, oversize tires, heavy-duty suspension and whatnot, and raised so high off the ground that you would risk a nosebleed getting into the cab. As we passed this monstrosity on our way to the restaurant, the driver climbed down. Our daughter said, as we passed him, sort of under her breath, but actually loud enough for him to hear, “Dude! Sorry about your penis.”

Since that day, it has been a sort of family sign language/shorthand, upon encountering obvious manifestations of monumental overcompensation, to gesture with thumb and forefinger spaced an inch apart and to say “TLP” which stands, of course, for tiny little boy parts.

Back to our red-light. Tech Support Guy glanced over at the pickup truck, turned slowly to me and gave the TLP sign.

Me: “I’d love you so much more if only you were more of a real man. Like TLP there.”

TSG’s reply was interrupted as the light turned green, and TLP gunned his truck through the intersection and up the hill, probably consuming a half gallon of gas. Nobody saw that coming.

TSG: (choking on TLP’s exhaust and easing our politically correct Prius through the intersection) “Yeah, baby, I hear you. And if only you wore your clothes two sizes too small, dyed your hair with Clorox, and chewed sugarless bubblegum, we’d both be much more satisfied with life in general.”

Me: (Hopeless, wordless, shoulder shrug, conveying my world-weary acceptance of the crushingly dull lives our vehicle bespeaks, as well as the failure of so many of my own dreams and ambitions, like never learning how to crush a beer can on my forehead.)

TSG: “But, we each play the hand we draw, you know?”

Me: “Boy, howdy.”

Monday, January 12, 2009

Memoirs of a Docent

"We must learn to distinguish morality from moralizing."
Henry Kissinger
Winner of the coveted "World's Most Ironic Come Back to Bite your Ass 2009 Award", in great part because he said it years ago, and I just rediscovered it.

I’ve been a docent at a Southern California Water Smart Garden since I retired about 5 years ago. In my professional life, I was an attorney writing and negotiating business contracts to buy and sell professional services and subcontracts. Managed to get out before my ethics were compromised, that is, before work began to feel like a Mission Impossible scene where the hero escapes the last closing door by sliding beneath it like a slider heading into home plate. Despite the lack of professional respect or commensurate pay, I actually liked what I was doing, and believed I was doing good. Now that retirement has overtaken who I was then, I have shed that mask like a retiring superhero who simply becomes his once secret identity.

The up side of getting no respect was that, never being suicidally inclined, I didn’t define my identity by what I did. I always peed sitting down, but that didn’t threaten my grip on my own value. Once I retired, I had to become acquainted with the person beneath that conservative dress suit. Get back into my own skin and my old t shirts.

I gave some thought to what I’d do to keep busy, and in how I valued such activities. I decided to get out of the lawyer ‘business’ and into the gardening ‘pleasure’.

To keep my mind from slowing down, I sought something to keep my body from freezing up and becoming brittle. Gardening, when done right, can be a sort of purification ritual, an improvisational tai chi and moving meditation, and a simple stretching and slow moving in all physical gardening actions. I may have only successfully grown cabbage once, but there are other measures of success in my current career.

I haven’t had to stretch my brain to learn new lessons since I was trying with mixed results to memorize the 8 times table a while back. My experiences as a docent have been in realm where I have never been before. I have some residual interpersonal skills and expertise in kissing management ass that served me well those first touchy months.

People I worked with for most of my professional career are strangers to me now. But they knew I was a smart-ass, but tempered by being on the losing/weak/defensive side in contractual transactions. I once knew how to smear Vaseline on the lens of my actual thoughts to make them presentable to mixed company. With other docents, I have had to learn a whole new set of interpersonal skills. Trouble is, as my Daddy used to say, it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. I’ve got to remind these new friends what a cynic I am. Must work on my profanity, dammit!

This is not to say that I’m surrounded by boors and morons. This is more like and advance apology. Should I offend even those of my fellow-docents who I’m slightly fonder of than I am of poison ivy, I offer these, the “least of my brethren” my sincere apology. I may occasionally remember my experiences with docents in this blog, and if that offends, then I'm sorry you can't quit your moralizing, and doubly sorry you're a hypocrite, and that you identified something I said with your own character. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I couldn’t be sorrier. Seriously.

In addition to my gardening activities, I now hereby decree that this blog will be about my growth in every respect, notes of lessons I’ve learned, skills I’ve mastered, and my attempts to chronicle lessons lavishly failed. I’m the center of this tiny universe and make no apologies for speaking my biases here. Notwithstanding the foregoing however, to the best of my knowledge, no actual persons or events was/will ever be discussed here. Should anybody in real life disagree with that, I hereby stipulate that my autobiography often misquotes me. Immoral as hell.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Caring, Hoping, and Cease Fires

"He thought he saw a Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
'A fact so dread,' he faintly said,
'Extinguishes all hope!'"
Lewis Carroll, A Strange Wild Song

The term “caregiver” has been on my mind lately. When does love fade from complex devotion into simple need? Don’t think of the myriad awful interminable little assaults to caregivers. Don’t think of the burdensome begrudged undignified duties involved in caring. I’ve been thinking of what the lover gives to the loved one. Can the loved one tell the difference between love and need? How do we need care and give care except through love?

Today, I’m wondering why can I devote lavish care to cultivating my garden (in the way Voltaire spoke of Candide, in my blog, and in my yard) while I resent demands to care for the people I live with? One could argue it means I care for the garden more than the people. I protest it’s not that simple. I think it’s a more complicated mixture of resentment at having to provide certain chores, putting up with the passive aggression and ingratitude, my growing desire to stop pretending to play nice, and needing care desperately myself.

I do know however, that I’m finding it harder and harder to muster the resources for caring. My body aches with new and strange pains, and they come more frequently and go more slowly. My spirit is exhausted by trying to steal moments alone to meditate and try to find my way back to the neighborhood of good moods. To good days and pain-free nights. To be myself again.

I think there is a cycle, or perhaps spiral, playing itself out. Good days and bad days. Honest attempts and resentful failures to connect. I’m less able to extend the good days; less able to hurry past the bad days. Our lives are spinning past, and daily we are reminded what we lose despite our best efforts to stay limber, inventive, inquisitive, interested, alive and together.

On good days I replenish reservoir of love for coming droughts, remember the promises we made each other, and do the simple math: there’s more good than bad. Way more. We’re not going anywhere, and we’ve managed to keep each other entertained pretty well over the years. It’s been a blast.

On bad days, I see old age as an unavoidable descent into indignity and dependence. Those days, I just try to remember it’s not a defeat to stop shooting first, no matter who started it. It’s the way we care for the ones we love. It’s also, incidentally, how we all care for each other. So stop shooting.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Make haste slowly

"We are ordered to hurry
and to take our time.
Let the arrow with a snail on it
make this clear.
The snail is slow
and the arrow swift."
Andreas Alciat, “Liber Emblemata”, Emblem 53 “Ripening”

My resolution for 2009 is to learn to make haste slowly. I’m going to be the snail, balancing precariously on top of the arrow sailing above the mountains.

Or, is that a pie balanced on the flying arrow? In which case this emblem could mean to always send chicken pot pie via airmail, just like your mamma advised you. Either way, I’m cool.