Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Patron Saint of Jazz

Here’s one of the challenges of writing not only for oneself, but for others out in the cyberworld. Among those ‘others’ are people I know and, increasingly, people I don’t actually know. That’s cool. That gladdens my heart, in fact. It reminds me of a little sign one of my aunts had in her house when I was a kid that said, “There are no strangers, only friends we haven’t yet met.” It’s maybe a little hokey, sure, but as I begin to post more to this blog and send my personal thoughts out into the world, I prefer that image to some alternative like, “there are lots of strangers out there, some even living in their mother’s basement, subsisting on Ramen noodles, playing lots of Dungeons and Dragons, acting like trolls on the internet, and thinking of stalking you.” You see what I mean? Which would you pick?

So since this post alludes to my spiritual world-view, and I know that there are about as many spiritual world-views as there are people in the world, I’d just like to clarify something from the outset for those who are reading this and have never had the opportunity to chat with me about life’s big, eternal questions, and don't yet know just how much I respect the diversity of viewpoints on this here planet Earth. I will herein mention the G-word. You know the one—the one that makes some people froth at the mouth (I’m thinking atheists here) and some people get really . . .oh . . .proprietary, I suppose (I’m thinking just about everyone else). No, but seriously. God and religion are topics I tend not to touch upon on this blog, at least so far. There are some good reasons for that, which perhaps you can imagine, especially if you’ve ever come across a true internet troll. But for the sake of something resembling clarity, I will say that when I use that word “God”, it doesn’t bring up for me an image of an old white guy with a beard, sitting up in the clouds or among the stars. It doesn’t even bring up an old clean-shaven dude, or a middle eastern guy with a goatee, or a black man with sideburns, or any dude at all, really. Neither does it bring up for me a female image, bearded, mustached or otherwise (though for some reason, the word “Italy” does). When I use that word “God” I’m keenly and painfully aware of the word’s inadequacy to describe that toward which it points, and I use it because I haven’t yet come up with anything better that would rise to anything like the level of universal understanding. For me, when I use that word, I’m typically referring to my own sense of the Unity of All Things; the Life Force that informs my sense of connectedness to everything (and I do mean everything) that I feel in moments of extreme clarity, such as in the presence of natural beauty, or in my garden as tiny seeds begin to bring forth such abundance, or in the presence of my nieces and nephews at play, or my partner when his still-wet hair falls just so across his handsome face, or when seeing Egyptians who yearn for freedom peacefully take down a dictator, or when looking at a Vuillard, or Jules Breton’s “The Weeders”, or when witnessing another person bringing forth their heart’s deepest yearnings.
I feel it also, as you will soon read, when hearing or performing music.
For me, music is a big one. For me that’s prayer, and that’s when I most understand the notion that ‘the body is a temple’. Some days, there comes a point where I feel a change-over from singing to being sung. Those are very good days.

That said, prologue over. Here’s the main thing I wanted to post about today.

Today I’m remembering the England I came to know when I was ten—how I became obsessed with its history, how I soaked in the pageantry and ceremony. How I reveled in the historical gore, all those heads rolling on Tower Hill, the way only a ten year old can. I loved the palaces; their gardens with those expanses of green where one could walk and walk enough to make a fawning entourage weep.

I’m thinking of that basement jazz club called Pizza Express—it’s still there today—and  what a stark contrast was to be found amid all that smoke and sound beneath the street. All around me in London and its surroundings was propriety and symmetry. The park gardens were all straight lines, tightly trimmed hedges and topiary, rows of flowers with colors harmoniously arranged. There were the long straight hallways and drawing rooms of Hampton Court Palace, reminders and enforcers of the stuffy protocols and rules. But Pizza Express was like an exotic treasure, a whole different world with red candles casting a sultry light in the darkened smoky cavern.

Here’s how it goes: like a typical ten year old American, I’m whining a bit. Like an atypical ten year old, I’m out past midnight, with my parents in a foreign country. I’m complaining about the music. Because of my musical training from the age of five, at age ten I have a deep love of classical music—again the symmetry and formality, straight lines mixed with controlled pageantry and strict rules. And like any truly American child, I possess an equal love of rock music and the kind of pop that makes my parents' skin crawl.  But this "Jazz" is as foreign to me as England, where the only snack I recognize in the hotel shop is the Twix bar, where there are ghastly little round pizzas with one olive in the center, under-stuffed sandwiches, meat pies, double-decker buses and Taxis that are black—not yellow, like they’re supposed to be. So strange that even living so close to NYC, even with a father in the music business (which is the reason for our trip), I have to cross an ocean to finally come face to face with this uniquely American music.

This “Jazz” is noise. But only because I’m not listening; not really hearing. “This is boring. There aren’t any words,” I say. My father turns to me truly bewildered, his voice uncharacteristically displaying the New Yorker in him, as he leans in to where I can hear him and says deadly serious, “What’uh you, nuts? There’s a whole conversation happening there. Listen—hear that bassist? He just asked the piano player a question.”

My face says Huh?

“It’s a language; this is how musicians talk, how they say what they need to say. Listen. Here’s the piano player’s answer.”  I do listen. I can relate to this piano player. My hands have similar memories; at that point, five years worth, anyway.  After a few minutes, I feel some meaning emerging. Really feel it; it’s not quite a thought—which, I consider for the first time, is maybe what music is for, language that can magically bypass thought if it wants to, and go straight to feelings we understand.

“Now,” my father says, “that drummer’s going to add his two cents.” I focus and listen as my heart shifts its rhythm to match his. The discussion unfolding before me has me rapt. Nothing he’s doing falls on the convenient and familiar 1-2-3 or 4, but it works. All of it works—the rolls, and seemingly languid laying-back on the beat that arrives just in time. He’s so relaxed. He’s the definition of cool.

Then, I will never forget, a young man with blond hair and a trumpet comes to the forefront. That ten-year-old me thinks everyone is old, but the adult who looks back knows this “man” was probably somewhere in his 20’s, maybe even his early 20’s. I think of him as the Patron Saint of Jazz, even though I don’t know his name. Perhaps you didn’t know there was such a thing, but I assure you there are many. I’ve seen them everywhere, especially in NYC. Just when stress or difficulty seems poised to overtake one, they appear there in the park, or next to the drug store, or the subway platform, their case open for your offerings as they send theirs through the airwaves. They blow or strum or drum or pluck their way into your consciousness, like a shaft of light let into a dark room, reminding you that there is something else you forgot amid all your sleepy, automatic comings and goings. There is that current of Life beneath the life circumstance; that spark that comes through in the lulls between trains and appointments and meetings.

So this young man steps forth, brings the horn to his lips and fingers the valves to speak his part in the dialogue. He begins, and within seconds he is gone. Simply gone; eclipsed by something celestial, the glint in his eyes rivals the sparkling brass in the stage lights. He is somewhere else, and the whole room has gone right there with him.  The music is loud, but you can tell that all the cacophony of the patrons' chatter and silverware has ceased. No tables are being bused, no drink orders taken. All heads are turned toward this young man and his horn, the center of the universe, blazing like the Sun, no longer two separate entities, unified, flowing, divine.

How can this be real? There are no more rules, no straight lines; only freedom, and the great expanse of the creative spirit. I’m not whining anymore. I can’t speak. My mouth is hanging open. My father rips his eyes from the band to look at me, knowingly, smiling, relieved. She gets it, he is thinking.  This is my child.  Now she knows.

It goes on forever, this man’s solo, and yet it ends too soon. Oh to be that nimble, that knowing. His lips are glued to his horn, but still you can feel his smile. He knows he’s good—better than good—this is distinctly clear in my memory. He’s giving everything he has, and he floats as he feels the crowd taking it in, joined to him like a lover, awed by the connection, speechless and hungry for more.

Eventually, he winds down, leveling off. Only the rhythm section is pulsating now, almost a whisper, reverent, as he lowers the horn, coyly smiles, and nods at the band, and then the crowd.

There is a noticeably long pause amid those assembled; mouths agape and silent as if an angel had just appeared and revealed a stunning secret. Then, the crowd draws its collective breath .  .  . and explodes like a supernova.

The rhythm section is drowned out. People rise to their feet hollering, clapping, smiling in sheer amazement and gratitude. They turn to each other, to strangers even, shaking their heads as if to say, “Can you believe what just happened?”

And I am crying.
And smiling. And clapping so hard my hands hurt.
My life, and music, are forever altered in that London basement.
Even at ten, I am thinking, I can barely believe how many ways there are to know God.
I am thinking, For the rest of my life, this is how we will speak to each other.

Image credit: Nick White

Friday, February 11, 2011

My Old Man and the Sea

It’s that time of year again. My favorite holiday is almost here—February 15th. Yes, I know most non-single people tend to prefer the 14th, but I live for the day when all that leftover chocolate goes on sale for 50-80% off. November 1st has a similar charm, but I think the quality is a little better on February 15th. Maybe I’m just a bon-bon snob. This year will be a more reserved celebration, due to Operation Svelte, but I will indeed mark the occasion with some deeply discounted, deeply delicious indulgence. Romance is in the eye (or in the taste buds) of the beholder, I guess.

Valentine’s Day also happens to have been my father’s birthday. I think of my father as having had a complex personality, but amid those complexities I’d say he was a romantic in many ways; brought to tears of joy at the thought of his friends and family, or a good Asiago cheese, alike. He liked to buy my mother jewelry. For a few years when I was in high school, he seemed to me to be on a mission. We’d take a lot of trips together to NYC in those days (about three hours drive from home then), and he’d love to head to the jewelry stores on 47th street. Be it a birthday, Christmas, or Valentine’s Day, he just had to buy my mom some jewelry, despite her own protests. Often, as is her way with gifts in general, she’d have him return the jewels suggesting that, while she appreciated the thought, the particular item just wasn’t quite right for her. Eventually, though, my dad had a stroke of genius. He bought her a gold bangle bracelet and had it engraved on the inside with the line of a quite romantic song that I think really did capture his feelings for my mother. No returning this one. She kept it, and loved it, and still wears it more than most of her other jewelry, as far as I can tell.

My dad would also get the classic red roses for his wife on Valentine’s Day. Now, I hear a lot of people, especially of the male persuasion, complaining that this is “clichéd” or “unoriginal”, however I seldom hear of these men coming up with an alternative, original or not. Personally, I think it might be an excuse to hold on to their cash, or for commitment- phobes and love-phobes to not have to appear to actually express anything resembling emotions or basic gratitude for their Significant (or not-yet-sure-of-their significance) Other. It’s cowardice, really. If love is too scary, how about framing it as kindness and appreciation? And they call us the weaker sex? Sheesh! Scaredy-cats.

I’ve also heard some women complain—actually complain—about the flowers they get, too. For the same reason, it appears. This “type” seems to want some kind of Disney-scale production, as if this is the standard of proof of their partner’s feelings for them. These are probably the same women who will virtually extort a diamond ring from their guy when they give birth. Have you heard of this trend of Birth Jewelry? I think the louder you scream, the more carats. And for the stretch marks? Well, only platinum will do, darling. These same delightful catches will measure their partner’s love by the size of the engagement ring. Get a grip, ladies. And guys, if this sounds like your intended, see that red flag waving now or start putting money aside in a fund for the lawyers you’re going to need (or at least fantasize about) in a few years. To my thinking, if a guy is willing to spend half a year’s salary on a piece of jewelry, because DeBeers and his fiancée double-team him, in most cases the answer to his Big Question should be “No”, unless, of course, your girlhood fantasy has always involved a fool on a white horse, careening at a full gallop toward bankruptcy court. Anyway, to these ladies (or gentlemen) my point is, please shut up and love your flowers, if you’re lucky enough to get some. Really look at them, touch them, and smell them. Revel in them. Love takes many forms, and is expressed in a variety of ways, including simple gratitude. OK, lecture over. I’m off my soap box. Kind of. 
Where was I going with this . . . oh yeah. .  .

By way of helping you appreciate those flowers, let me tell you about my old man and his wife, and the sea. My dad had boats in his younger days. Two of them that I know of. One called The Fink, and one called Rockabilly (he was in the music biz). He loved his boats. He loved being on the water, a trait I think I inherited from him, despite simply winging it in the beginning. He really didn’t know much about safe boating, as you’ll soon see. My dad, highly distractible and practically blind in one eye, was also known for not being such a great driver, so maybe boating, with less traffic and no lines he had to stay within (apart from channel markers), was good for him. Knowing of his driving skills, it’s still hard for me to believe my mother would take trips with him on the back of his Lambretta scooter through the streets of New York in their early days. I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager that helmets didn’t play a big role in those trips.

Anyway, a boating story has been handed down to me that stands out. I’m sure that over the years it may have been embellished somewhat (or even a lot. My family likes storytelling), and I’m equally sure my memory isn’t what it used to be. But on this occasion, my dad’s idea of showing a lady a good time was taking a trip to the southernmost tip of New Jersey to pick up his new boat, The Fink, and pilot it all the way back up to New York City. Whitestone, to be exact.
Stopping along the way to face off against Russians with guns.
On the tail of Hurricane Donna. September, 1960.

And my mother married this guy.

Remember that the next time you’re asking yourself why I seem a little bit . . . “off”. It’s probably in the genes.

So, never having attempted such a trek by boat, my father and his future wife decide somehow that they will take the intra-coastal waterway, and that this will take them all the way to NYC in a day. I mean, intra-coastal sounds nice and cozy, doesn’t it? Too bad there was no Google or Wikipedia back then to tell them that it stops at around Manasquan, about thirty-five miles from NewYork Harbor by sea. [sigh]

A true Man of the Sea who lived above my relatives’ restaurant at the Jersey Shore, a commercial fisherman, I believe, suggested to my parents that taking the trip right then would be perhaps unwise. But, what did he know, right? Perhaps blinded by the excitement of finally signing on the dotted line and owning The Fink, off they went anyway. Or, perhaps already eyeing my mother as a potential mate, and knowing how trauma can create strong bonds between people, my dad figured “If we survive, she’s mine, baby!” Oh dad, you hopeless romantic, you.

The Man of the Sea, perhaps seeing that there was no convincing my father, told them that as long as they saw what sailors called blue or black water, they might be OK, but stay away from white water. When you see white water, know that there’s something just below the surface that you can’t see, and steer clear. They started in that intra-coastal waterway, on choppy seas, but managing all right. My mother was tense and nervous, and like a true New Yorker, dressed entirely inappropriately. Brown suede jacket—great for the bistro, bad for the ocean. They would take that route as far as they could, but then, for stretches, they’d be forced out to the open sea beyond the barrier islands.

I’ve been trying to keep some humor in this, but when today I asked my mother to tell me the story again, this is the part where her voice changes. It gets tighter and a little higher, a little louder. I can almost hear her muscles tensing, her body bracing, her eyes going wide. I can almost see her neurons in her brain start firing differently at this juncture in the tale—traumatic memories will do that. She begins to tell me about heading onto that roiling sea in their 21-foot vessel, and those neurons are firing like . . . . like it’s September 1960 again. It’s as if she’s facing into that harsh wind, feeling the salt sting on her face, and almost forgetting—almost—that the story didn’t have a tragic ending after all. She lived to tell the tale. But I understand as I listen that it was a very close shave. The thing about negative emotional experiences, too, is that they seem to leave very detailed traces in our memories, even more so than positive experiences (says, among others, this man, Bessel Van der Kolk). I’ll wager my mother can describe that day of more than 50 years ago better than she could describe whatever she did last Tuesday.

“The boat had an inboard/outboard motor,” she said. “Thank God it didn’t crap out on us.” They had what’s known as a Following Sea that day, which means that the waves were moving in the same direction as the boat. This little boat would ride up on the crests and down into the troughs, violently thrust upward again, then slam down hard on the next swell, over and over. “If the engine had stopped,” she said, “those waves would have come right over the transom and swamped us. As long as we could keep moving, I thought we might be OK  . .  it was . . . it was TERRIFYING.” The ocean was just constant motion, shaking like Jello, she said.

They made it as far as a place called Brant Beach the first night, where there were boat slips and my mother (and probably my father) were relieved to get one, relieved to be in port. But the next day, they had to continue, and the sea hadn’t calmed one bit. Remember, they were tailing a hurricane.

They continued within the relative shelter of the barrier islands as far as they could, but had to head back onto the ocean at Manasquan, which stands out in my mother’s mind as particularly bad. She said that not too long after this trek, they took a boating safety course (I believe we call this Genius After the Fact) with the Coast Guard or some other organization. She said that they had a movie or photos showing Manasquan as an example of a dangerous area, where many currents meet, and knew the truth of it down to her bones. At one point, they passed a stretch of beach where, for some reason, my mother suggested they just try to get in as close as they could and leave the boat. If it got smashed, it got smashed, but at least they might make it. That was probably fear talking, because my mother knows what the undertow does. My mother knows about rip-tides keeping swimmers from shore, even a strong swimmer like her. This was the thought of a truly, desperately frightened woman. The trip continued in this manner for some time, until they reached the Sandy Hook area and my father said he needed to go below deck to use the bathroom. He left my mother in charge of steering, which she says she could barely do with both hands and all her might, the currents there were so violent. But she managed and they knew, with some relief, that New York Harbor was now not so far off. They would make it home.

That is, if the Russians let them.

Here’s the thing. When you barely survive a boat trip on a sea that’s been stirred up by a cyclone, it’s really ok to say, “It’s Miller time”, go home, get a shower and some sleep, and . . .I don’t know . . . adopt the fetal position and have a good cry for a couple of days. They didn’t have Ben and Jerry’s in 1960, but I’m sure that in NYC they could find a reasonable substitute and consume a 55-gallon drum of the stuff, reaching solace at the very bottom. You know? But . . .

“Hey, look! Look at that big ship docked along the Hudson. . . let’s check it out.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that that was probably my father’s idea. I could be wrong, but . . it just sounds like him. So they did go check it out. It was a Polish ship called the Batory. Big, beautiful ship for sure. I’ll bet Nikita Khrushchev liked it, too, since it seems to have been where he was staying during the United Nations General Assembly that year. Yes, that Nikita—the one with the lively shoes. I’ll bet the other folks on the ship enjoyed it, too, when they weren’t busy pointing all their rifle-power over the sides at innocent, harried couples on 21-foot boats that got just a little too close.

Yeah, I’m not kidding. Though, it would seem that even from way up on the deck of that ship they could see my future parents already looked pretty worked-over by mother nature, and with enough arm-raising, shouting, and waving, they were allowed to move away from the ship and onward to the Harlem River without further incident. When they finally reached home, people on the docks stared at them as one would an alien life form, recognizing they had obviously just been through something pretty bad—my mother’s suede jacket had bled its rust color all over everything; all over her, her clothes, the boat’s deck. She and the jacket were caked with salt, and the jacket was so stiff she could barely remove it. The boat was littered with everything that had been tossed around, as well. Given the alternative, this is what we call a pretty happy ending.

So what’s this got to do with diamonds and flowers? At most times of the year, probably not much. But we’re coming up on Valentine’s Day, which as I said, was also my dad’s birthday. Love and Dad, they go together, right?

Look, I know I sounded a bit curmudgeonly back there. But really, I’m a romantic, too. There’s nothing wrong with jewelry and flowers and candlelit dinners. That’s really great stuff. But when, as a single woman, I dampened my pillow and prayed that love might find me, I wasn’t so much thinking about heart-shaped boxes. I wanted something as deep and unpredictable as that ocean, as Life. I knew that sometimes love is going to look like that little boat, rocked and tossed in a tempest, and there’s nothing you can do but hold on with all your might and keep going. You might sink, you might swim, but you know you’ll do it together. That’s my kind of love. That’s what I call Romance, in all its blind, thrill-seeking glory.

Happy Birthday, Dad. Happy Valentine’s Day, Mom.

And thanks.

Image credit: Steve Liss, Getty Images

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The C-word

This is about the C-word; not the one that offends and can never be spoken, but the one that terrifies and must be whispered, or simply mouthed.

She has Cancer.

My cousin, who is only a year older than me, just found out a month ago she has cancer. While I would never suggest that there is a good kind of cancer, I can say that hers is a decidedly bad variety.
I find myself wondering what the word conjures for her in her mind. Or does it simply short-circuit thought altogether—and might that be a good thing somehow?

I first heard the news from my mother. Unfortunately, I’ve been the recipient of lots of bad news over the last couple of decades, and more often than not, my mother has had to be the bearer of such news. She has a very particular Bad-News-Voice that I’ve come to recognize, and to dread. Sometimes it carries a hushed, matter-of-fact resignation. Sometimes it’s a teetering and quavering, like a teapot on the edge, just before its breakthrough scream. It’s to the point where if I hear even a hint of that Bad-News-Voice (even if she’s just phoned when she happens to be tired), I can go through my mental Rolodex in a nanosecond, imagining all manner of tragedies befalling just about everyone I know. This is not something to brag about, I know, and I’m not. Just telling you how it is. A steady stream of close-proximity accidents, injuries, and illnesses will do that to a person, and hyper-vigilance becomes a way of life despite its ultimate impotence.

This news conjures various images for me, personally. I’m wondering if I’ve reached a place of acceptance with the nature of things, the nature of the world and of life, or if that’s just a sturdy veneer of denial talking. I’m not really sure it’s either. I think I’m maybe somewhere in between; a place of recognition of the sweetness and sadness inherent in all things, as we know all things of this world to be transient.

I hear about my cousin and her illness, and all that goes with it—tiredness, weight loss, medication, stress, worry, uncertainty—and yet I picture her, about eight years old, blond and bubbly, and ready to put on our mothers’ high heels. I picture her with me, seven-year-old brunette, bookish and tom-boyish, resigned to the fact that she, my cousin,  will always be the pretty one, because she is the blond one. It’s not fair. She doesn’t even have to try.

We would compete in our own way, fight like wild dogs, and just as quickly make up. Once, when our parents had taken a trip together and left us (perhaps passive-aggressively) with our grandmother, a screeching match broke out, as usual. Our grandmother finally couldn’t take it and rushed into the kitchen, murder on her mind. She grabbed the nearest weapon which, sadly for her, turned out to be a soft, white loaf of Wonder Bread. Also unfortunate was her choice to grab it by the twist-tied end of the plastic bag, so that when she tried to hit whichever one of us she could reach first, it flopped and flailed, sending us from angry screeching at each other into paroxysms of laughter and an instant alliance against a common enemy whom we evaded by running circles around the small kitchen table, making a game of it, until she was too tired to continue her pursuit.

By evening, probably tired from all the arguing as much as from the fun we were having, we’d beg to sleep in the same room, the same bed, where as we talked each other to sleep, we’d also play Guess-Which-Letter, where we’d take turns drawing letters on each other’s backs, as softly as possible, until the other one guessed. When that was too easy, we’d write whole words or draw pictures. When we were a little older, we’d just crack each other up with our own smart-assery until one of our parents would yell from another room, “Will you two SHUT UP and go to SLEEP?!” She’d blame me, of course, and everyone would believe her because . . . well because I was a more public smart-ass, and she was smart enough to reserve that mostly for private. Pretty slick. We’d calm down for a bit, then start up again until hearing, “If I have to come in there, you’re both going to be SORRY!” I seem to recall a few occasions where someone actually did come to the room to yell, and we’d fake sleep as if, like two unfortunate narcoleptics, we could go from laughter to being passed-out in a matter of a seconds.

Our grandmother’s house was a common meeting point for us, as her family lived about an hour from Gram, and mine lived about three hours. So, when we visited our grandmother, her family would come for a visit, too. Then, when my family lived with my grandmother for about a year, we’d see hers more often. I remember the feeling of intense anticipation when I knew they were coming to visit. My grandmother’s kitchen window was large, and looked out on a beautiful view of the highest mountain in Massachusetts, as she lived on one of the steeper roads across the valley from it. I remember being glued to that window, waiting and watching for their car coming up the hill, then shouting like the town crier when it did, “Here they come! Here she comes!” and then running out to the driveway to greet them. It was usually only a matter of minutes before all of the kids would be on our way out to the pasture behind my grandmother’s place.

It seems a big pasture to me even today, even as its edges have been sold off bit-by-bit and built upon. But then, to we kids, it was vast; it’s southern end virtually uncharted territory. We could (and did) spend entire days exploring the pasture and it’s adjacent woods, losing all track of time, hiding and seeking, running, building dams in the small, unnamed stream, avoiding the cows and their droppings, shooting my brother’s arrows, catching salamanders and even the occasional crayfish, and never exhausting the possibilities for adventure there. Miraculously (it seems to me looking back) we didn’t tire, we didn’t want to return to the house, even as the sun began to go down. Typically, our Uncle Joe’s figure would rise above the hill to the north, and he’d call and whistle to tell us it was time to come back to the house (though sometimes, he’d join our adventures). Sometimes, if the relatives were only visiting for the day, he’d come to fetch only my cousin, and the rest of us would say our goodbyes there, then later look toward the far edge of the pasture toward the main road, so we could wave and shout as their car passed, heading back home. Honk! Honk! “There they go! There she goes!”

In my mind, in this little paradise we created, everything is greener than any present-day green I know. The birdsong is more abundant and melodious. The sun is brighter, yet more forgiving, than the present-day sun. The sky is bluer, the occasional clouds more soft and more billowy. And I don’t think this is retrospective idealization. I think it really was that way. So much so, that even today when I drive past green pastures and see cows, my heart skips a beat for sheer delight, and I roll down my window and breathe deeply. My partner might wrinkle his nose and say something like, “Are you crazy? Roll up that window. It smells like shit!” And I smile, still breathing deeply, saying, “I know . . . isn’t it great!” It is for me like a dreamscape, and yet, we really lived there. It was real.

In that paradise, the C-word didn’t exist—and yeah, I see that part is idealized, as such things should be for children. Perhaps that’s why, when I hear this news, the pasture is where I instantly go in my mind. I see the little brunette and the little blond, full of vigor and life, and nothing bad can touch us there, amid that sea of green, under that bright sun.

But here in the present, we are not surrounded by gently swaying grasses and softly lowing cows. We are surrounded with questions; primarily, how long? What will happen? What is to come? Will it be a year? Five years? Ten years?  And whatever the number of years, how might they best be lived? When can we stop being afraid?

These are not only questions for my cousin, but I find I’m asking them of myself, as well. I find myself shaken from complacency and reminded that there are no guarantees in this life. I find myself remembering, rather sharply, that this daily stuff is not a dress rehearsal for something else that happens later. Perhaps why I’m trying to write more, like I always tell myself I should. This here, right now, is life, Blanche. Wake up, you know . . .we’re all dying.

So, what are you going to do? A voice keeps whispering this in my ear lately, trying to keep me awake, trying to keep me from falling back into sleep. What would your cousin give for such lazy confidence in Time, the voice says.
This is good. I need this reminder, and often. Rehearsal over—it’s show time.

These tears are so warm, and move so slowly that I’m aware of each millimeter of my cheek. They are so salty, and I can taste them . . . as though I’m alive.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Operation Svelte

Here’s the thing—people are crafty.
I don’t mean the glue-and-sequins kind of crafty. I mean sneaky, unpredictable. Take the fitness instructors at my local YMCA. There’s a kick boxing teacher, and a man who conducts a spinning class, and a class called “Abs and Back”. I’ll explain their crafty elements in a moment. I came across these folks when I recently joined the ‘Y’ in an attempt to one day look good naked. Not “good for forty-something”, I mean good. I understand that this is going to be a project to rival The Big Dig, but I think I can at least stay on-budget and no one will get killed by the project, except possibly me.

A wise person would examine their level of activity (or lack thereof) over the last year during grad school, and decide to start slowly. That wise person would remember that the only “fitness class” they’ve had during that time is called “Catch The Train That’s Pulling Out”, and “Run for the Bus”. I am not a wise person, however. So, on the first day of my membership, after my tour of the facilities, I checked out the fitness class schedule. Ah, kick boxing! Never tried that. Could be interesting. Here I should point out, also, that a wise person would take into account the ankle sprain of last year (acquired during one of the Catch That Bus “classes”) that has never quite moved on. But again, I am not a wise person. The Kick Boxing class was to have lasted an hour. . . and it did. But I didn’t. This was partly because of the ankle. It was also partly because the class turns out to resemble an aerobics class, in that one needs to be able to coordinate multiple movements, and tell right from left. Moving arms and legs at the same time, while actually thinking about whether I want the right or left ones to move, and whether they should move together or in opposition to one another, does not happen to be my strong suit. I get a deer-in-spandex-in-the-headlights kind of look, and then it’s all over. But the bigger factor that forced me to cut the class short was the instructor’s barely-concealed rage. Here’s a delightful sample:

[music loudly thumping; pumping up the jam, as it were]

Instructor: “OK, now if you’re new to this class, do the best you can.”

Me: [thinking, not out loud] Ok. Cool. That sounds nice. She sounds nice. I can do this.

Instructor: “If I’m pushing you new people too hard, just say ‘Get outta my face, bitch!’ [she laughs, and some ‘regulars’ laugh, albeit timidly—Red Flag number one].

Me: [thinking, not out loud. Inner deer seen emerging from woods] Uh . . .yeah. Sure. . . right. . .I think I won’t be saying that.

[Music really pumping now. Instructor’s headset and microphone is on!]

Instructor: All right, people. Now let’s MOVE! Yeah . . . C’mon now, MOVE IT! . . . . right. . . 2 . . . 3. . . 4. . . now left . . . 2. . . 3. . . 4 . . . now punch out to the right . . . . really PUNCH IT! . . . .

Me: [thinking, not out loud] Jesus H . . . .

Instructor: MOVE! . . . 2 . . . 3. . . 4 . . . C’mon people, I want you to pretend that arm’s goin’ right in the face of someone you wanna PUNCH! . . . 2. . . 3. . . 4 [some awkward laughter from a few students].

Me: [thinking, and shrinking, and eyeing the door] Um . . . isn’t exercise supposed to make us more relaxed? Yeah, I want to get my heart rate up, but not like in a road-rage kind of way that promotes heart attack . . . it’s more of a cardio kind of pump I’m looking for, you know . . . .could we maybe . . .

Instructor: Now KICK! . . .2 . . 3. . .4 . . C’mon . . . 2 . . .3 . . .4 . . .and get ready to kick backwards, but don’t hit the person behind you in the face . . . .

Me: [thinking, as I move toward the door, favoring my ankle, which hurts, but not as much as I’m making it seem] Oh, don’t kick the person behind you. What a thoughtful concession. . . . really, kind of sweet in light of everything else . . . yeah, ok . . . bye.

[Aaaaaand . . scene!]

So I waved to the instructor and smiled, and got the hell out of there. At this point, I might add that at this stage of the game, being in a room that surrounds me with mirrors is not my idea of a good time or an ego boost. But since I had just joined and was still fired up about my Master Plan for my new bod, I looked to see what other classes were happening that evening. I see “Abs and Back”. Perfect! I need help with both of those, so this will be great! I head to the class, into which strolls the instructor; a gentleman who is skinny in his spandex shorts, wearing a short-brimmed biking hat that says “Italia” (but somehow appearing to be bald beneath that hat), with big eyeglasses. He looks to be maybe in his late 50’s, but hard to say with a fitness instructor type, and a bald one at that. He could be older, could be younger. Most importantly and deceptively, however, he is wearing socks of just-above-ankle height.

Socks that are light blue, with clouds on them, rainbows, and unicorns.

That’s not a 12-word typo. Those were his socks. What’s not to love about this man? This man will not hurt me. This man will only help me. He’s from a land of unicorns and rainbows. Well. . . .

All I can say is that I don’t care if that bastard was wearing My Pretty Pony bikini briefs under his shorts—he was pain incarnate. And thanks to him, so was I the next day. It is only now, a week later that I can turn to my right or left using only my neck, and not my whole body. It is only now, a week later, that the simple act of breathing in and out doesn’t produce pain from the stretch it produces in the abdomen region. I’ve tried just holding my breath, but that seems to create other problems, like passing out.

Now that we’ve covered the willfully deceptive fitness instructors, let’s talk about the circuit training machines. For those who are unfamiliar, these are machines designed to work specific muscle groups with more controlled movements than free-weights (aka dumbbells) can provide. My gym has machines called “Strive” that are designed to give a person a better result in less time. One gets on a given machine, and does three “sets” of exercise in no more than two minutes, without resting in between sets. Again, for the uninitiated, a “set” is a specific number of repetitions (or “reps”) of a given exercise. So, for example, one might lift a heavy bar over one’s shoulder twelve times to equal one set. Now, these machines have specific dials and numbers that change each set, making the exercise more or less difficult at specific points. The machines also have diagrams of the human body and its muscles showing how to use the machine and highlighting specific muscle groups that it will impact. For example, the drawing of the muscular fellow has red highlighting his gluteal muscles, or his biceps, depending on the motion of that particular machine. But I think the machines should come with a warning, kind of like cigarettes do.

Here’s what I’m thinking would be more helpful and to-the-point:

“This machine works your lower back. Tomorrow, when you lay down to sleep, you will find very few positions are comfortable.”

“This machine works on that ass you’ve been trying to get rid off. The good news from this machine is that tomorrow you won’t be able to sit on it as much as you usually want to.”

“This machine works your triceps and shoulders. Tomorrow, you will not be able to raise your arms high enough to brush your own god damned teeth.”

“This machine works your quadriceps. Do not even think about walking up or down stairs tomorrow.”

On a similar note, it would perhaps be helpful to put clear labels on things like the racquetball and squash courts; labels that say, “This looks like fun, but the ball moves very fast, and hurts when it makes contact with your face. Do not let it make contact with your face.”

I mean, really, in a country where coffee cups remind us that there’s hot liquid inside and hot liquid hurts when you spill it on your crotch, would this be too much to ask? Am I so far out of line to ask for a warning that trying to become Fabulous without surgery (and its accompanying anesthesia) is going to hurt like hell? It won’t keep me from doing it, I swear. It’ll just adjust my expectations, and I’ll be prepared for The Worst until I’ve attained the goal of The Best. I find such reminders helpful.

Anyway, that’s my report from the front-lines of the War on Fat, also known as Operation Svelte. What’s the takeaway? Remember people: unicorns are mythological creatures. So are fitness instructors who are free of passive-aggression, as far as I can tell, unicorn socks or not. Sure, they might cheer you on and offer encouragement, but make no mistake about it—they want you dead.

But that could just be the pain talking. Ask me in another week or two.

Painting credit: Peter Paul Rubens