Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sadness Can Kill Us

I love my friends who are close enough and kind enough and who understand me enough to warn me away from potential sadnesses. ("Avoid this book/movie/person/situation.") I do work hard these days to pursue warmth and light, but occasionally I take a foray into a dark zone to honor a friend or someone I respect, or just to continue the work of soul healing that seems endless and often requires comparison for the purposes of reflection.

For the past week I've been listening to the audio version of Sherman Alexie's recently released memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. Damn. This book is hard. It's sad and brilliant and tragic and evocative and I just want to hug him, or more truthfully, I just want to hug the child that I was, the child who was so often ignored and belittled.

I always say—blithely, to people who don't know me well—"I forgive my dad" or "I forgive my mom," but the real truth is, I'm still working on that. It still hurts. My father's ridicule of me at times was epic, and I'm not talking about the playful teasing of a father who loves his child. I'm talking about the blatant you-disgust-me level of resentment and rebuff that comes from a man who is unaware that even mediocre parents work hard to disguise their disappointment in a child who is not what they wanted, not what they expected.

In 1994, when I was diagnosed with skin cancer, my brother called to tell me that I was angry and that was why I got cancer. "You're angry about your childhood and our dad, and you're holding it all in, and you need to just let it go now or you're going to keep getting cancer because this anger and sadness can kill you." Hours later in the same conversation he admitted that he was still so angry and so hurt over things our father had said and done to him that he couldn't allow himself to cry in order to heal "because once I start crying," he said, "I'm afraid I will never stop." He later got cancer... and a decade later, it killed him. True story.

By the time I matured into a true adult, I had one question regarding my father: Why? Why were you loving and kind and playful with my sister, but cruel and derisive toward me? I'll never be able to ask him. Or at least, not for a very long time. My father died when he was 43. I was 8. He died of a very rare disease, one in which the body turns on itself... kind of like cancer, but not cancer.

Was he sad? Profoundly so. He married my mother because she was pregnant and he was doing "the right thing," but this was in spite of the reservations he and his family had about this woman who was not Irish, not Catholic, and not easy to get along with. And then, after they'd had three of their four children, and she had alienated many of his family members in Illinois, she decided she needed to separate him from the brothers and fellow law enforcement officers he drank with and confided in. So she packed up and moved to California, in essence telling him, "You can come along or not."

Of course he went. And he tried to make a good life here, be a good man, a good neighbor, a good father, taking his three beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed children camping and to mass on Sundays.

But then I was born. And things took a turn. I was... different... from my siblings. Oh so different. Decades later, after my second divorce, my mother would finally tell me, "That wasn't right, the way your father treated you. I knew it wasn't right, but I couldn't say anything because I was his wife and wives weren't supposed to contradict their husbands back then." These are interesting words from a woman who always boasted that she was the one who "made" my father move to California; Dad had no say in the matter.

Was my father sad? I think so. I think he was deeply sad, separated from his brothers and sisters and friends with whom he had been very, very close, now having to create a new life, new friends, in this new place, working security instead of law enforcement as he did back east, asking for the graveyard shift so he could take classes in law during the day. He finished, too, and took the bar exam and passed it. And immediately after, he was diagnosed with this illness that would kill him. "You have time," they told him, "a year or two, maybe. But this disease is terminal. There is no cure."

Did he take his sadness out on me? I think so. No, I know he did. I know he needed a scapegoat. To be honest, I would have been really pissed off, too, if I were in his shoes, having moved far from his loved ones in the days when a "long distance" phone call could take a large chunk out of a man's weekly paycheck. And then to have the wife be shrewish to live with? And on top of all that, to get sick? To be dying so far from all that is loving and familiar? Yeah, I'd be really, really pissed, too.

Anger causes cancer, my brother said. Sadness, if it is deep enough, can kill us.

Unlike my brother, I do cry. I started crying on my nineteenth birthday, the same day my first child was born. Before that day, I had not cried since I was a very little girl. ("Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about" was the threat I grew up with.) But in some ways, I became child-like again with the birth of my daughter. And in some ways, I have been crying ever since. I wish I could have told my brother that. I did tell him, "Dan, trust me, I cry every single day." But I wish I would have said to him, "Dan, it's okay to start crying and not be able to stop. That pain is gonna hurt for a long time, so it's okay to keep crying and keep crying and keep crying. Because eventually there will be more things to not cry about than there are things to cry about."

I wish I could say that to so many people....

So yeah, sadness can definitely kill us in the most complete and permanent way. But it can also deaden us while we are still living... each time we fail to return a smile or see the humor in a joke, each time we walk past something or someone beautiful and fail to acknowledge it or them, each time we are so preoccupied with what hurts us we cannot hear or see or feel the pain of others.

That's what I worry about. I'm not in the least afraid to die. I'm afraid I will go back to being dead while I am still alive. That's why I need to remind myself, day by day, that there is light and beauty out there... if I choose to seek it out.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Return to Morro Bay

There's this quaint little fishing village on the Central Coast of California called Morro Bay. At the mouth of the bay is a giant rock (pictured above) called Morro Rock. You can't climb it (anymore), but you can drive right up to it and park. The side that faces the bay and the town is lovely, with gulls wheeling in and out and otters splashing just feet from shore in the bay. The majestic backside of the rock faces an angry ocean that, day in and day out, minute by minute, slams into it, demanding to be let in. The rock just sits benignly, never wavering.

Many years ago, when my children were little, the man I unfortunately married took me to Morro Bay. Fortunately, I didn't let our mutual disdain for each other keep me from returning. I used to go often, especially when my daughter became a young adult and could watch the house while I traveled. Then all the kids were grown and gone, and I had to find housesitters every time I went somewhere (which was particularly difficult when I lived in a cabin in the wilderness).

This past week, I left Thomas, Purrl, and Sugar Plum in the care of The Grandson, and I headed off to Morro Bay for the first time in several years.

Most women my age don't travel alone. I get that. I don't worry about my safety as much as I worry about getting a decent table at a restaurant. (Many's the time I've been seated in crappy little cubbies by the kitchen, by the bathroom.) But in Morro Bay, I know where to go. The Great American Fish Company, on the Embarcadero, has a tiny table in a corner at the far end of the restaurant, and they try to save it for singles. The south side of the place is all windows that face the ocean, so this was my view when I first sat down:

This is what I ordered (baked potato, sauteed mushrooms and a dinner salad):

While I ate, I watched a sea lion swim past. Far out in the bay, I could see otters wrapping themselves in seaweed. (They anchor themselves before drifting off to sleep, floating on the water.) A couple of young Great Blue Herons roosted temporarily on the rail outside the window, but when they looked in and saw people, they flew off. (I can relate.) After I finished my meal, I walked outside to one of the docks and took this photo of Morro Rock:

Mostly when I think of visiting Morro Bay, I daydream about visiting this magical place, Montana de Oro state beach in Los Osos, just south of Morro Bay:

There's a trail that winds along the bluffs for two miles, and it is one of the most wonderful places I've ever hiked. I've seen whales there. I've seen two otters making... baby otters. (Sea otters mate face to face, unlike most other animals.) This time, I saw a female sea lion. The photo I took of her is from too far away to post here; she was looking a bit stressed, so I didn't want to get any closer than standing on the cliff above her. I often see rattlesnakes along that trail, and I did this time as well. Mostly what you see as you walk there are sea caves:

They're amazing and mysterious and alluring--and probably deadly if you get caught in one and the tide comes in. I just look and take pictures. I don't explore.

After my four-mile hike, I was pretty hungry, so I stopped at the Hof Brau (another favorite spot in MB) for some clam chowder in a bread bowl. I've been ordering that same delightfully simple and delicious dish at that establishment for a couple of decades. It's always as wonderful as I remembered it. While I ate (looking out at Morro Rock), I noticed this woman sitting on a bench with her labradoodle:

I asked if I could take her photo, and she agreed--then asked me to take a picture for her, since, she told me, "I'm a photographer and I'm always the one taking the pictures." She handed me her phone--yes, she handed her phone to a perfect stranger--and I walked away with it, back into the restaurant to take one for me and one for her. When I returned, I took several of her and Ruby, her dog, from a side profile, looking out to the ocean. She thanked me, and wouldn't you know as we talked I learned she's a teacher (second grade) and has a Master of Fine Arts degree. She writes books. Ha. Funny how I was drawn to her. She also has a great story about Ruby (of course). Years ago, she was mauled by a German Shepherd. After that, she feared dogs until a friend talked her into a desensitization experience of sorts with the friend's Great Dane. She agreed, fell in love with the dog, and decided to get one for herself. Ruby is the sweet, mellow companion who now goes with her everywhere. In the twenty minutes we sat talking, she never stopped stroking Ruby's head and ears, occasionally stopping to tell her what a great dog she is. This brief interaction with the woman and her dog was one of the highlights of my trip.

In the summer, Morro Bay is often foggy in the morning. Sometimes the rock is hidden:

But by late afternoon or evening, the fog clears out.

The photo above was taken just before sunset. I'd gone down to the beach to sit and write, and I watched as the shoreline became flooded with people, lovers flocking in to walk on the beach, hand in hand, and witness the day's end.

Morro Bay is a magical place for me, still. What makes it a memorable experience each time is the solitude. In 48 hours, I watched no TV (which, for me, means no morning or nightly news coverage). With the exception of the woman and her dog, I spoke to no one except restaurant servers and store proprietors. Alone with my thoughts and with no distractions, I tend to write up a storm, filling pages in my journal. Understand, I am lonely and homesick every moment of every day when I am traveling. I know in advance I will experience those feelings of wanting to be with Thomas and the girls, wanting to sleep in my own bed, wanting to be in my house and my kitchen to make a decent cup of tea. But always I return with a story. Thanks for sharing this one with me.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sgt. Thomas Tibbs on steroids

So, here's the good news about Sgt. Thomas Tibbs:

After three and a half years with me, he is still making slow progress toward becoming, as I like to characterize it, "a real dog." He has settled in nicely to life in Calimesa. We both loved the fact that over the Fourth of July holiday it was relatively quiet around here, except for the occasional bottle rocket shot off by some miscreants on the nearby golf course, and of course, a half hour or so of muted booms from the fireworks display at the local high school (which we toughed out nicely by sitting in the truck in the garage, me reading, Thom panting).

Dog lovers know that living with a dog is like living with a secret agent; you're constantly followed by someone who seems to take notes of everything you do, everywhere you go. I never thought Thomas would ever get to this level of companionship, but since I've been retired, he's been very intent on scrutinizing my routine. He knows if I put on a certain pair of sneakers, we're going for a walk, and he will follow me down the hall without being called. On the now rare occasion that I put on slacks or a skirt, he stays on his bed—with very sad eyes. In that case, he knows I'm leaving without him and will be gone for a long time.

And he absolutely loves riding in the truck. Every afternoon at 4:00 (he reminds me if I'm caught up in writing something and forget the time), we go for a drive to get the mail and just get out of the house for awhile. Thomas is happy to sit in the back seat for as long as I want to chauffeur him around. Yes, this is the same dog whose anxiety would make him puke if he had to ride more than a mile or so. Now that's progress.

He's also gotten extremely good at playing 'possum. I'm still getting up pretty early, usually around 5:00. All the dogs I've ever companioned with (except for Osa, when she was very, very old) have begun their potty dance as soon as I swing my legs over the side of the bed. Thom remains where he is, absolutely still, until I come to his bed and rub his belly. When he first started this, I thought he wasn't feeling well. He'd lay in his bed, unmoving, until I came to sit by him and pet him. Slowly, he'd begin to "wake up." It took me awhile (humans are notoriously slow to catch on, as dogs know), but I finally realized he was staying in bed so I would come scratch his back and behind his ears. When he's felt sufficient love and adoration, he simply jumps up, shakes all over, wags his tail and trots for the back door. He's such a goofy, funny dog now compared to the depressed, traumatized and shut down dog he was three years ago.

But... here's the bad news about Sgt. Thomas Tibbs:

He was recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. It's called Pemphigus. When his nose began to look like this

I Googled "Why does my dog have spots on his nose?" and ended up on, reading about how dogs can get lupus. I picked up the phone and called the vet's office.

Our new vet, Dr. Thompson at Adobe Veterinary Clinic, was really great with Thom, understanding and empathizing with his fear of humans. (And Dr. Thompson appreciates the work of Temple Grandin, so that makes him even more wonderful.) Plus he has horses. And a sense of humor.

He explained that no, we don't know what causes Pemphigus, but yes, it usually does respond well to a certain steroid, and he is confident that Thom's quality of life will remain good. "He has a strong heart," he commented as he applied his stethoscope to Thom's ribcage. We left with medicine which Thomas is swallowing down with his treats (never suspecting). I think he'll be fine in a few weeks. I've already told him I need him around for a few more years. We've got a lot of walking—and driving—to do.

Monday, July 10, 2017

68 points

Here are the two salient points in today's post:
1. I've lost weight. (YAYYYYY!!!!!)
2. I've lowered my cholesterol—by 68 points. (In this case, "yay" in all caps with five exclamation points may not suffice to express my elation.)

If you read the blog on a regular basis, you may recall being vaguely annoyed by my post of January 3 wherein I discussed my weight gain over the holidays and my strategy for fitting more comfortably in my clothes again. So here's the update on that:

I stopped eating sweets. No homemade oatmeal cookies or lemon-lavender muffins through the winter. No more agave nectar (or half & half) in my morning tea. (Whew, that was hard. Like, really, really hard.) That's all. Well, I mean, I tried not to overeat or snack out of boredom or whatever but mostly, I curtailed sweets. I've lost eight pounds. Yep. Sloooooowly, a couple ounces at a time, the weight came off. I feel better. I move more fluidly. My clothes fit better. Yoga is... still hard but slightly less hard and worth every bit of the workout every time. Namaste.

In November, my new-really-horrible-doctor had me do blood work and my cholesterol level was 278. She sent me an email saying she'd enrolled me in Kaiser's here's-how-to-eat-better class—even though I'd already told her I do eat healthy and I've been a vegetable vegetarian for fifteen years. I didn't attend the class. I did ask Kaiser nicely for another new doctor. I was then assigned my new-really-wonderful-doctor (Dr. Vendiola in the Redlands facility, and she's awesome). She asked me to do blood work. I said, "Of course. I came in fasting for that very purpose." Three days later I got the result: My cholesterol level is now at 208.

Seriously?!? This is good news. I haven't had a number below 240 in twenty years.

How did I do it? I retired.

You're laughing. I'm serious. That's all I've done differently. I'm not exercising any more than I did before. I'm not eating differently (other than these past couple of months without cupcakes—sob).

I was so fascinated by this number, I spent a bit of time researching the correlation between stress and high cholesterol, and then it made sense. Want me to explain it? You can read a fascinating abstract by clicking here, but this is the bottom line of the study:

Stress produces elevations in serum cholesterol concentrations.

Know what else does? Standing. In the same study, the cholesterol concentrations in test subjects rose when they were tested while standing. Yeah. What did I do all day long five days a week for twenty-seven years? I engaged in a highly stressful activity (teaching teenagers in a public school setting—damned bell to damned bell) while standing. No wonder my cholesterol kept going up and up and up no matter what I did. When the stress ended, my cholesterol level plummeted. Just. like. that. Booyah.

So once again, I highly recommend retirement (unless you can sit while performing the very relaxing tasks required for your job). Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going out to work in the garden. Then maybe I'll play my guitar for awhile.