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Not dead today ... just at the beach ...

Not dead today … just at the beach …

Today is my 15th Not Dead Day.

Yes, I have had a few thousand days of being not dead, but on this day in 1999 I very well could have been.

During the course of what I thought was a routine checkup with a cardiologist while on holiday in Singapore I was yanked from a treadmill after about 10 seconds, told to lie down, had a Heparin patch slapped to my chest and was informed that I was within one to thirty days from a massive and certainly fatal heart attack.

Good thing I took that vacation, huh?

I’ve written before about the process, recovery, etc., so no need to do that again. What I would like to do today is talk about living. Fifteen years … nothing to sneeze at. I would have missed a lot had I not been around. Not that everything has been peaches and roses (sometimes not even coming close with pizza and rotgut), but an unpleasant slog through what we know as real life. There have been times I’d have rather avoided, some that almost broke me …

You fall out of your mother’s womb, you crawl across open country under fire, and drop into your grave. ~ Quentin Crisp

But so much has been worth much more than the price of admission. Fifteen years of sunsets and puppies and laughs and love and friends and fresh fruit and hugs and cuddles and kisses and great books and conversations and new experiences coming seemingly from out of the blue.

Who will tell whether one happy moment of love or the joy of breathing or walking on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air, is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies. ~ Erich Fromm

I’ve had

They're growing, and I get to watch the process...

They’re growing, and I get to watch the process…

another fifteen years to learn new things, to confront my personal ghosts, and wrestle them for lessons, to put effort into making the world a better place.

Life has meaning only if one barters it day by day for something other than itself. ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I’m still around to see Sam at 11 and Cj at 9, to fill their heads with as much wisdom as I can and as little baggage as possible, to do my best to leave them with as few gaps as I can … and I have no doubt I will leave them before the gaps are full, just as all parents do … and to live up to Walt Whitman’s edict in “Leaves of Grass”

“…the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”

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17 to 60

The question of the week seems to be:

How does it feel to be 60?

After a flash of “Ya talkin’ to me?” that clears fairly quickly since I can only be delusional in short spurts, the answer so far comes in some version of: Well, it sure feels weird to say it.

For much of the time, I can go with Erma Bombeck’s take:

As a graduate of the Zsa Zsa Gabor School of Creative mathematics, I honestly do not know how old I am. ~Erma Bombeck

That gets harder to swallow when birthdays present, and decade-flipping ones make it close to impossible even though most of the time I have no idea what bloody month it might be and how notoriously crap I am with numbers.

All-in-all, I don’t feel different. I’m less-than-chuffed about how I look, but I felt the same at seventeen so nothing odd about that. The list of places I want to go, things I want to do, people I want to see has grown no shorter. I still wonder what I’ll be when I grow up and which paths I may discover will lead me there. I like loud music, raucous laughter, rolling around on the floor with kids, occasionally drinking myself stupid and wild sex when I can get it. I make more decisions with my heart than my head, gamble outrageously with my health and safety and take comfort from hope no matter how often that has proven fruitless. I have all my own teeth, can read without glasses or 5-foot-long arms, don’t color my hair or inject toxins into my face. I avoid doctors, ignore aches and pains and spend a lot of time in the sun.

I’m as intolerant as ever of the cautious old who set life behind them and choose recollection over participation, dependability over experience, sagacity over enthusiasm, no matter how many years they may have chalked up. On the same hand, I’m still far too lenient when it comes to devil-may-care brilliance, too easily dazzled and can highly enjoy hours spent in conversations on topics I’ve not had before from angles new to me. I dream of happy-ever-after.

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.
~Samuel Ullman

So … 60 years …

Okay … it’s now my mother’s hands sprouting from the end of my arms, I’m slower up a hill, I allow myself a certain rudeness I’d been uncomfortable with when younger (especially with “authority figures”, since many are whippersnappers). My epidermis grows thinner no matter how thick-skinned I become. I don’t pop up as fast after a knockdown. My rose-colored glassed sport a cynical filter. I need more, trust less and spend a lot of time pondering the meaning of it all.

Forty is the old age of youth; fifty the youth of old age.
~Victor Hugo

Maybe I do do delusional … maybe I’m living it … but, for now anyway, I’m going with the thought that I’m a teenoldager.

Here’s a birthday gift from my beautiful eldest that illustrates some of the steps between past and present …

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Hanging in a place of prominence in every house I’ve lived in for the past 30-something years is a photo of Roy Rogers in his prime upon which is the legend:

Stinkpot,
You old horse.
Roy

Not a personally autographed souvenir from a cowboy hero, but rather a snarky Christmas gift emblazoned with amusing family references by my brother in a quintessentially Hanks way I’ve treasured ever since the morning I unwrapped the thing and got a good laugh.

It was my father who dubbed me both “Stinkpot” and “Old Horse” … and the two often went together … when I was a little kid and since neither moniker was meant to sting I’ve no resentments or emotional scars, just the appreciation for humor that runs in my blood.

Why am I sharing this today? Well … I was pecking around for a post title, came up with this one and thought an explanation might be a good lead when addressing the issues of aging women. (So I’m considering this contribution a twofer … )

It’s this from the Washington Post written by Naomi Wolf, a writer whose work I’ve followed and appreciated for yonks and whose thoughts on women resonate.

Her topic in the Post is “The Aging Myth”, and I’m liking what I read.

I had thought that getting older would be harder. The common cultural script tells us that women lose value as they age and that men will trade in their counterparts for younger versions (because, of course, that would be trading up). Middle-aged women are supposed to face the loss of their youthful selves with grief and anguish.

I look around at the magnetic and dynamic women my own age, I look at my own life, and instead that script seems more like a convenient fiction — designed, as so many aspects of “the beauty myth” are, to make women feel less powerful; in this case, just when their power, magnetism and sexuality are at their height.

I’m not claiming that “at their height” thing personally, and although there are aspects of aging I’m not exactly chuffed with I’m far from anguished, as are the women I know.

Interestingly, Wolf compares today’s messages with those cranked out by ad agencies, marketing folks and others with a vested interested in fostering self-image damage of the past and finds the present-day situation even worse for women:

When my book was published in 1991, I noted that a burgeoning epidemic of eating disorders was engulfing what should have been the feistiest, most confident generation of women ever. The field of cosmetic surgery, especially breast implant procedures, was booming. Pornography was chipping away at young women’s sexual self-esteem just as insult-ridden advertisements for anti-aging creams were shaping the way women thought about the experience of getting older. The way we looked determined our value to society.

Since then, many of the issues I warned about have, indeed, gotten worse. The body size of fashion models and starlets has dropped still further; fashion ads showcase women who look as if they should be hospitalized. The technologies of cosmetic surgery have become so commonplace that there are communities in which women with unreconstructed faces are seen as bucking the norm. Breast surgery is almost universal in pornography, and pornography is almost universal in the sexual coming-of-age of both young women and young men; those images now have greater impact than they did when I wrote the book.

The good news, however, is that we’re not buyin’ it, or at least not in the wholesale ways we once went like sheep to the slaughter. She calls it a “substantial subset” and sites a study that reports about 30% as “change agents” … women “who are defining beauty for themselves”.

How this translates to both men and young women is a question, but I have to wonder if it’s one we need bother asking.

If I look like a crone to a twenty-something chickie-pooh should I feel somehow less-than? In actuality, I’m more-than and if she chooses not to notice the accumulation of wisdom and wit she still might catch the reflection that is herself in time.

If my age makes me invisible to a man whose vision is limited to the firm and perky is there some mandate stating I must react with self-flagellation with a sack of insecurities and regrets over what I no longer have at my disposal?

There is only one alternative to aging and that involves a deep hole and a box, so beating myself up over the rings of my tree … even if they add a bit of girth … seems a waste of time and an endeavor meant only to add to frown lines.

Ms. Wolf goes into some detail on the advantages of aging, and I don’t disagree:

On the street, young women are told: Give me some. Older women hear: I love your eyes. That is not a bad trade.

Since I hear that quite often, I’ll settle for being how old I am … until I’m older.

Here’s lookin’ at you, Kid …

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Chopin's grave: 2 June 2010

A few days ago I came across this story on the BBC about some long-lost letters from Frederic Chopin that kicked off a series of brain flares.

Six letters written by Frederic Chopin, thought to be lost in 1939, have been found and donated to a Warsaw museum dedicated to the Polish composer.

The letters, written by Chopin to his parents and sisters between 1845 and 1848, were believed lost after the outbreak of World War II.

After it emerged in 2003 that they still existed in a private collection, moves were made to secure them.

Chopin was born in Poland in 1810 but spent half of his life in France.

According to museum curator Alicja Knast, the letters were last displayed in public in Poland in 1932 and were still confirmed as being in Warsaw in 1939.

It is thought the letters went missing, like many other cultural artefacts, after the Nazis invaded Poland.

There’s a bit of family humor that came to mind immediately, as I have a step-nephew whose birth took my father in a literary direction … as was often his angle. Born to my Chinese sister, Debbie, and her Japanese husband, Dad decided the kids needed a nickname. What came to mind were a couple of James Clavell novels … Shogun and Tai-Pan, one being set in Japan, the other in China. He called the boy “Taigun”, because, as he said, “Sho-pan” wouldn’t work because he was Polish.

From there I jumped to Paris where I shot the photo you see here at the grave of the real Chopin on a day I solitarily rambled the Pére Lachaise Cemetery in the company of my son’s spirit on the first anniversary of his death … Jaren’s, not Chopin’s.

So it was the second of June last year I sat for a time at Chopin’s grave. Listening in my head to his “Nocturn”, I contemplated the accomplishments of his mere 39 years of life and, in keeping with my situation at that moment, his doomed relationship with the writer George Sand and the heartbreak that virtually ended his days as a composer … and as a man among the living.

His grave is lovely, a peaceful, perpetually flower-strewn resting place reminding all of not only the music, but also the passionate transplanted Pole amongst Parisians … his heart, by the way, rests in Poland at his wish it be removed upon his death and buried there … the complicated lover to a complicated woman.

As often is the case with artists, neither Chopin nor Sand were easy and their relationship was unconventional. She was an older woman with strong passions of her own and a long string of relationships.

“She was a thinking bosom and one who overpowered her young lovers, all Sybil — a Romantic.”
~ V.S. Pritchett

He was physically weak and needed such babying she referred to him often as her “third child” and a “beloved little corpse”.

Artistically, neither were easy:

Chopin is at the piano, quite oblivious of the fact that anyone is listening. He embarks on a sort of casual improvisation, then stops. ‘Go on, go on,’ exclaims Delacroix, ‘That’s not the end!’ ‘It’s not even a beginning. Nothing will come … nothing but reflections, shadows, shapes that won’t stay fixed. I’m trying to find the right colour, but I can’t even get the form …’ ‘You won’t find the one without the other,’ says Delacroix, ‘and both will come together.’ ‘What if I find nothing but moonlight?’ ‘Then you will have found the reflection of a reflection.’

That they lived and loved and died is history, as everything eventually becomes. Their lives were what they were, and 162 years after his death he fills me with music and sets me to pondering the bumpy, uncomfortable roads traveled and the resulting detritus of our journeys.

The news that letters have been found feels almost like a gift from that grave I visited, and I’m more than pleased that email wasn’t an option in those years between 1845 and 1848 when he wrote them.

I’ve not seen the letters, and it doesn’t matter much if I never do. Here, however, is an example of him finding the reflection of a reflection:

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In a swimsuit much like Mother's

There was a period of time when, as a child, I was pretty sure that Liz Taylor was my mother. No, not that I was her love child being raised in another family, but that she and my mother were one and the same.

National Velvet convinced me my mom could ride horses and should, therefore, buy me one. For reasons I completely get now, that didn’t go over so well.

Both born in 1932, my mom and Liz led somewhat parallel lives in that married-a-whole-buch-of-times-with-loads-of-drama sort of way, so even when I grew old enough to read headlines it would occasionally be confusing.

They also looked very much alike … two brunette, busty beauties skilled in grand entrances that drew the eye of every man in the room.

I distinctly recall walking down Market Street in San Francisco shortly after Butterfield 8 opened and seeing Ms. Taylor’s face looming large from posters outside cinemas and thinking, “That could be Mom.”

Of course, my mother was not a movie star, simply a suburban housewife spending her time giving me Toni home perms and sewing up pjs and playsuits for me and my brothers, but that didn’t seem … to me … to impact negatively on her glamour one bit. I can still conjure an image of her strolling into the Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park in a skin-tight black and white sheath dress, high heels and a HUGE hat as my brother and I checked out the crocodiles and all the men in the place checked out my mom.

I wasn’t allowed to see many of the films Liz starred in until I was old enough to have made the jump necessary to know the difference between the woman who’d married Richard Burton and the one who’d divorced my dad, so it took a while to catch up to the cultural assessment that had one a world famous celeb and the other just my mother, but the blend continued nonetheless.

Now Elizabeth Taylor is dead and my mom is not well. Both lived. Both aged. Both did life in the way that life must be done.

I love you, Mom, and, Liz … I thank you for sharing yourself and adding to my childhood confusion.

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Victoria's "Gift"

On yet another day that sees the news filled with horror stories and images of destruction, I hunt for a bit of diversion from the real-life world that shakes and screams and hurts and hates, something to let my head go in directions necessary to make progress on present work. In other words, to lift the clouds of gloom and feel the sunshine with little nagging guilt over just how bloody easy I have it at the moment.

History can provide quite the perspective, so finding this story on Queen Victoria’s much younger man has caused quite the reroute in thinking on world reports through the mirror of time and more than a little sweetness.

Mr Karim was just 24 when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at table during Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887 – four years after Mr Brown’s death. He was given to her as a “gift from India”.

Within a year, the young Muslim was established as a powerful figure in court, becoming the queen’s teacher – or munshi – and instructing her in Urdu and Indian affairs.

Mr Karim was to have a profound influence on Queen Victoria’s life – like Mr Brown becoming one of her closest confidants – but unlike him, was promoted well beyond servant status.

“In letters to him over the years between his arrival in the UK and her death in 1901, the queen signed letters to him as ‘your loving mother’ and ‘your closest friend’,” author Shrabani Basu told the BBC.

“On some occasions, she even signed off her letters with a flurry of kisses – a highly unusual thing to do at that time.

“It was unquestionably a passionate relationship – a relationship which I think operated on many different layers in addition to the mother-and-son ties between a young Indian man and a woman who at the time was over 60 years old.”

Ah, the advantages being Empress brings a girl, heh? (And just in case anyone is wondering what to get me for my birthday in July, such a “gift from India” would not be scorned!)

Apparently, Karim was not on the Top Ten list with the rest of the clan, as he was given the royal boot out the palace doors within just a few hours of Victoria’s funeral, but although attempts were made to wipe the castle clean of all reference to him he had spent ten years with the woman, and he did keep diaries.

Those diaries are on their way to becoming a book, and a fascinating read it’s bound to be. Not only do we have that cougar thing going, but the fact that the Supreme Governor of the Church of England was taking daily advice from a Muslim back in the days India was still part of the Empire is very interesting.

No doubt, Victoria was one smart monarchial cookie, as under Karim’s tutelage she learned to speak, read and write both Urdu and Hindi, and I enjoy imagining the range and depth of conversations they conducted as they shared days, traveled the world and passed time in her remote highland cottage in Scotland.

He was, of course, not the first younger man the “Widow of Windsor” had a thing for, the Scotsman, John Brown, having been her “personal servant” from shortly after Prince Albert’s death until the time of his.

Victoria’s children and ministers resented the high regard she had for Brown, and, inevitably, stories circulated that there was something improper about their relationship. The Queen’s daughters joked that Brown was “Mama’s Lover,” while Edward Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby wrote in his diary that Brown and Victoria slept in adjoining rooms “contrary to etiquette and even decency.”

Well, what the hell? If you’re the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, you’re going to pay attention to what others have to say about where your boyfriend beds down? I don’t think so … at least not in the days before tabloids and Twitter.

I’d never considered Queen Victoria a woman I’d relate well to, but seems I’ve found some commoner ground, and although I know it’s not only more than 100 years too late, but also something she would never have registered on her radar, I’d still like to say:
YOU ROCK, GIRL!

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I heard a story the other day about a woman who recently found herself standing in a pair of my three-year-old shoes … shoes that were feeling very comfortable until the day they sliced my feet off and left me to hobble on bloody stumps.

Members of the confab gathering around … apparently a lot of us wear the same sized slippers … have asked for my thoughts. They tell me she’s around my age and had been thinking herself well-married, happy, safe only to learn that her devoted husband had shifted his devotion from her to someone else.

She was blindsided … a very nasty way to take a blow … completely unprepared for the drastic change to life, and in the man she’d considered for many years a life partner.

“Who is this guy, and what did he do with my husband?” is the question she’s asking now, and with good reason since “this guy” is nothing like that guy. Or is he? Can you really miss that much in someone you’ve been sleeping beside night after night for decades? Apparently, yes.

With interesting timing, this article came across my radar this morning. Titled “He’s the One Who Cheated and Left; So Why is He So Angry At You?”, if nothing else, it proves that those old shoes sure get around.

I couldn’t understand why my ex never expressed remorse for what he’d done to me, just regret at what our daughter suffered. He’d always been extremely concerned about me while we were married, worried about my health, mental and physical. He’d always apologized every time he blew up at me. I was stunned at his coldness. He did say to me on various occasions that he felt “guilty” but he never apologized or showed any empathy for my suffering.

Sound familiar?

I don’t know the newly-dumped woman, so am in no position to give a hug and add to the chorus now teaching her the words to “I Will Survive” and encouraging her to sing at the top of her voice.

Not that she’s there yet. It takes time to move from “alone and petrified” to “savin’ all my lovin’ for someone who’s lovin’ me” … a LOT of time.

Unfaithful husbands–even husbands who have always been loving– can be inexplicably brutal. The incongruence between you makes it all worse. He’s already found a new partner, and doesn’t feel the loss of the marriage. You, on the other hand, are shattered, terrified of the future and collapsing on friends and relatives. His happiness is the unkindest cut of all. He’s already detached from you, or is in the process of detaching, which makes him excruciatingly insensitive.

Apparently, there are reasons for the excruciating insensitivity … not that it’s any excuse for it:

“Infidelity is harder on women, who are more vulnerable to feelings while men are a law unto themselves,” explains psychoanalyst Simone Sternberg. “Men don’t allow themselves to empathize with women’s suffering. It’s too threatening. Also underneath male supposed indifference or even hostility is self-hate which they project onto the wife. They can’t afford to empathize or they’ll have to experience the full force of that emotion.”

Well, whoopiefuckingdoo …

Oops. Sorry. Okay. Not sorry … and still pissed off when I allow myself to dwell, but, hey, I’m entitled to my feelings, too. There is, after all, such a thing as consequences, as William Congreve noted way back in the 1600s:

“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

Being burned leaves scars that can itch and tug and it’s not in any furious, scorned woman’s mandate to forgive or forget, only to get on with it.

That’s about my only advice to anyone finding their feet now bound in those old shoes … get on with it. There’s nothing else you can do. Suck on the bitter pill … it won’t choke you … remember the flavor, and try to avoid the queue that forms in front of those dispensing another dose.

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