Wednesday morning

A bright and noisy Wednesday morning, rap music coming from the apartment building to the east, hammering and drilling from the back of our lot, more hammering and power saws from the apartment building to the west.  A fire caused by accumulated lint in a dryer displaced a large family some months ago, and the building owner is finally renovating. I’ve no idea what happened to the family. I last saw them huddled on the sidewalk watching large men wrestle giant hoses toward what used to be their home.

How life can change in an instant–a fire, a diagnosis, a death. Even if we learn to be wary, tread cautiously, watch where we put our feet, some things just fall out of the sky.

The news is full of Crimea (“If Not a New Cold War, a Distinct Chill in the Air”) and the missing Malaysian plane, an increasingly bizarre story. Oh, and let’s not forget the latest from the Edward Snowden leaks, that the NSA has now built a surveillance system “capable of recording ‘100 percent’ of a foreign country’s telephone calls…” and storing them for 30 days.  “A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine–one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance.” (Washington Post, “NSA surveillance program reaches ‘into the past’ to retrieve, replay phone calls,” March 18, 2014)

Honestly, isn’t it kind of crazy that they can lose an entire plane with 239 people aboard, but can listen in on Maud discussing laundry detergent with her niece Sally? Will our children and grandchildren grow up just assuming the police can listen in to every phone call, monitor every text and email, locate them in time and space wherever they are? It’s the Stasi on steroids.

Cartoon by Chappatte, Int’l Herald Tribune


I think about these things when I spend time with grandchildren, as I did yesterday. My daughter’s childcare arrangements for her six-year-old have fallen through, so I am contributing to the patchwork of substitutes by picking up my granddaughter at noon every Tuesday at her kindergarten. The first time was yesterday. The teacher holds the children in the classroom until she can identify who’s picking them up, so there was a crowd at the door, at the back of which was my granddaughter, jumping up and down and waving madly. My daughter told me she was terribly excited that I’d be picking her up, and last night I got a text from her saying, “I love my mom’s mom.”  How irresistible is that?

First we went to a hofbrau for lunch–chicken nuggets for her, a burger for me–then to the ice cream store, where she insisted on a sugar cone for her strawberry ice cream with carnival sprinkles. First the sprinkles fell off, then the ice cream.  Happily, we were sitting at a table outside, so she could pick it up and plop it back on the cone. Then we walked to a wonderful park with huge green lawns, two playgrounds, benches and picnic tables. Within minutes, my granddaughter found a friend from preschool, and off they went to do whatever six-year-old girls do when an adult isn’t within earshot. When it was time to go, I walked across the lawn and found them in an amphitheater, prying up pieces of cracked earth and heaving them onto the benches. My granddaughter said she couldn’t leave because she was having too much fun.

And now, all the workers have gone to lunch, the rap music has disappeared, and I’m hearing twittering birds and cawing crows. The orange cat is asleep in the sunshine, the gray cat stretched out on the brown fuzzy blanket, and I am contemplating going out to buy fresh ginger for the chicken and cauliflower curry I’m cooking for dinner tonight. But no rush. It’s not even noon yet

What a lucky life.


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Friday rambles

Cloudy this morning, the whine of the power saw competing with the robins. As the weather gets warmer, people throw open their windows and voices from next door drift across the landscape. I like hearing neighbors’ voices. I’m not so enthusiastic about their TV programs or throbbing basses from idling cars, but it sure beats the freeway noise I lived with all those years.

Photo from the Evening Standard, March 14, 2014.

Saddened to hear of the death of Tony Benn, described by the Guardian as “the lodestar for the Labour left for decades, orator, campaigner, diarist and grandfather.”  Democracy Now interviewed him in 2009 when he was 83, a day after he’d led a protest in London against the war in Afghanistan. His response, when Amy Goodman asked him about the protest:

But, you see, I think you have to understand the history of this. Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1839, captured Kabul, and was defeated the following year, and 15,000 British troops were killed in the retreat. Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1879. Britain was in Afghanistan in 1919. The Russians were in Afghanistan. I led a delegation to the Russian ambassador in London to protest that. The United States government, President Bush, the first one, funded Osama bin Laden to fight the Russians to get them out of Afghanistan.

And the situation now is very straightforward. The United States and NATO, 40 countries with 64,000 troops, in eight years have been unable to defeat the Taliban. And this is a Vietnam War for America and for the rest of the–well, for the people involved, soldiers and civilians on both sides, it’s an absolute tragedy….

….I think you just have to ask yourself the question: Is it a war on terror, or is it a war on Afghanistan? It’s a war on Afghanistan. And to call it a war on terror just entitles you to do what you like. And I don’t think it’s going to succeed.

Giant footprints, hard to fill. He will be missed.

A sentence from Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979):

The assassination of Allende quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Bohemia, the bloody massacre in Bangladesh caused Allende to be forgotten, the din of war in the Sinai Desert drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the massacres in Cambodia caused the Sinai to be forgotten, and so on, and on and on, until everyone has completely forgotten everything.

I suppose you could pick any decade in the last century or this one and make a similar list.  It makes me sad to have lived so long and seen so little progress toward a more peaceful world.

The sun is out now, and my neighbor in the front apartment is talking to a squirrel. I go outside and we stroll about looking at plants and blooming things.  The tree fern is madly producing ancient curled beginnings of fronds. Surely there should be dinosaurs wandering through. Apocalypse Meow, the Siamese cat who has adopted my neighbor and turned his back on his owner in the next lot, follows us around, throwing himself in our paths and begging to be petted.  She reaches down and scratches his neck. When she stops, he tries to catch hold of her pant leg and keep her there.

A man walks by carrying a bottle of Grand Marnier.  “This is the good stuff, right?” he says, holding it up.  I say, “Um…” My neighbor says, “maybe not for early afternoon.” “I bought it as a present for my grandmother,” he says, “because it says Grand Ma… on it.” We laugh and he walks on.

Quiet now, the workers are at lunch, laughter from next door, the orange cat rolling luxuriously in the sunshine. Reading a mystery in which one of the characters has a horrible hangover, I am thankful once again to be free of the demon. Well…not completely free, perhaps. I expect there’ll always be a little tug there, but it’s not a part of my life anymore, and whatever troubles and moods and despondencies I have, I can manage other ways. I’m very happy for that.

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Rough winds

Thursday afternoon, and the fierce winds of the last few days are finally dying down. I’m glad I wasn’t out on the bay in a sailboat. How do people manage in winds like that? Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May (only it’s March, and supposed to be raining). Shakespeare’s sonnet #18. My mother used to recite it by heart when she put us to bed at night:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

My mother didn’t have much of a singing voice, so poems were our bedtime lullabys.  I loved the ones about the sea–John Masefield’s “Sea Fever,”

I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking….

The “Seal Lullaby,” from, lord help us, Kipling’s The Jungle Book:

Oh! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow,
Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at they ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake the,
Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas!

My mother’s voice soothed the night-time terrors, rocking me like that baby seal.  The ogres and monsters crept back in the closet, and I was safe–not that the world was safer then than it is now, World War II raging, an invasion on everyone’s mind.

My two-year-old granddaughter is afraid of trees in the wind. She expects them to fall down on her. This may be a sensible response. When the wind blows and the trees sway, she grabs my hand and says, “Go inside! Go inside!”

One of my grandsons was afraid of trees, too, but it was their spooky shapes, sinister arms reaching out for him.

How do we make our children feel safe when the TV nightly news is filled with violence and death?  School on Lockdown as Police Search for Possible Shooter; Police Capture Man Wanted for Shooting People Talking Outside his RV; Man Carjacks SUV with Boy Inside. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Somebody said to me today, “How come the NSA can’t find that Malaysian plane? They can find everything else.” He told me a story about a lefty journalist–someone like Jeremy Scahill, though it might not have been him–watching whole sentences disappear from an article he was writing on his laptop, apparently being sucked away by some unseen hand. It wasn’t every sentence, only the ones attacking the NSA. Probably apocryphal, but believable enough in the present climate to make the rounds.

And what a climate it is.  Per Bob Dylan,  you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows–and no wonder so many end up in the drink.







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A bird in the hand…

Chestnut-backed chickadee
photo by Glenn Bartley/VIREO

A sudden cessation of the power saw whining away at the back of the lot opens up the auditory world–birdsong, distant voices, a car passing on the street. I am sick of construction noise!  Here we are in this idyllic garden apartment, trees moving gently in the breeze, chickadees darting in an out of the blooming abutilon, and some days there is so damn much noise we can’t sit outside and enjoy it.

Our landlady is converting the garage into a studio apartment, the better to grow her rental income. How she ever got away with closing off the driveway is beyond me, though it’s what gives us peace and privacy when the construction workers go home. She closed off the driveway, then got the city to provide a handicap parking spot for her right in front of the building.  (Well, it doesn’t have her name on it, but she’s the only one who uses it. I have a handicap placard, too, but competing for my landlady’s parking space doesn’t seem politic.) Now, since there’s no driveway, and no way to park a car in the garage, she can convert it to a rental unit.

The construction has been going on intermittently since we moved in last June. First, sewer lines had to be laid to the garage; then a bathroom was built. It has a 10-foot high ceiling, a window overlooking a fern garden (when it’s not covered with boards and gravel), but no connecting door to the garage. It does have a door to the outside. Will the tenant have to go out one door and in another to use the bathroom? It’s a mystery.  Next the shed had to be expanded so some of the junk stored in the garage could be moved there. Now, finally, they are actually working on the conversion of the garage itself–walls to be replaced by windows, a new sheet metal roof to match the one on the bathroom, flooring and wallboards, plaster and paint. It’s actually pretty fascinating, and the noise isn’t every day or even all day. In fact, I have to admit it’s quite tolerable except for right now, when I want to sit outside and listen to chirping chickadees.

Right now seems to be an integral part of my personality. I think about chocolate and must have it right now. A book I want? Quick, order it from Amazon! No wonder I was so pitifully incompetent about controlling my alcohol intake; delayed gratification has been the bane of my existence.

In an article in Psychology Today (July 29, 2012), Alex Lickerman describes an effort to study this phenomenon.  In 1970, a psychologist named Walter Mischel designed an experiment to test children’s ability to delay gratification.  He placed a cookie in front of each child in a group and told them they could eat it right away or, if they waited until he came back, they could have a second cookie. Then he left the room. Most ate the cookie, but a few, whom he labeled “high-delay” children, resisted until he returned.

The high-delay children did better in school, had fewer behavioral problems, and went on to have higher SAT scores, finish college at higher rates, and achieve higher incomes. Never mind that these aren’t everybody’s definition of success in life–certainly not mine, but the ability to delay gratification is considered an important skill by most people, and one it would be useful to learn. So how do we do it?

The answer may lie in the strategies Mischel’s high-delay children used. Rather than resist the urge to eat the cookie, these children distracted themselves from the urge itself. They played with toys in the room, sang songs to themselves, and looked everywhere but at the cookie. In short, they did everything they could to put the cookie out of their minds.

Sound familiar?  It’s like Recovery 101.

I was never one of those high-delay children. I’ve struggled with impulse control my entire life. But recently, I read a 2011 article in AlterNet (reprinted from The Fix) that made me think about it differently:

If you think addiction is all about booze, drugs, sex, gambling, food and other irresistible vices, think again. And if you believe that a person has a choice whether or not to indulge in an addictive behavior, get over it. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) blew the whistle on these deeply held notions with its official release of a new document defining addiction as a chronic neurological disorder involving many brain functions, most notably a devastating imbalance in the so-called reward circuitry. This fundamental impairment in the experience of pleasure literally compels the addict to chase the chemical highs produced by substances like drugs and alcohol and obsessive behaviors like sex, food and gambling.

The definition, a result of a four-year process involving more than 80 leading experts in addiction and neurology, emphasizes that addiction is a primary illness–in other words, it’s not caused by mental health issues such as mood or personality disorders, putting to rest the popular notion that addictive behaviors are a form of “self-medication” to, say, ease the pain of depression or anxiety.

Indeed, the new neurologically focused definition debunks, in whole or in part, a host of common conceptions about addiction. Addiction, the statement declares, is a “bio-psycho-socio-spiritual” illness characterized by (a) damaged decision-making (affecting learning, perception, and judgment) and by (b) persistent risk and/or recurrence of relapse…

Interesting, huh? Maybe these are two separate processes–inability to delay gratification and impairment in the experience of pleasure–but maybe…they’re not. How much does that gimme gimme NOW behavior have to do with feeling subnormal all the time? We know this is true once addiction is in place, that you must have your substance of choice to feel good at all. But I always assumed that was to head off withdrawal. Now, however, almost five years sober, I’m starting to wonder. Because really, most of the time, I don’t feel that great. I’m not weeping, I’m not in crisis, I’m not lost in the darkness, I’m just kind of…blah. And anything that gives me a little jolt, like sugar, chocolate, or coffee,  I want again and again. Right now!

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After nearly a year of silence…I’m back.  I’m sorry if I worried people.  The most likely explanation when a recovering alcoholic drops out of sight is that she’s drinking again, but I wasn’t. Not that I didn’t think about it some.

I don’t have a good explanation for the silence. I lost the desire to write–perhaps because for most of us writing demands examination of the inner landscape, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. Too much turmoil in there. Too many changes.

Since last April, my husband and I have packed up our belongings, sold the house we’d lived in for 28 years, and moved across the bay to a small apartment. It’s a formal acknowledgement of a new phase of our lives: aging. No more jobs, no more child-rearing, freedom of sorts, but with it, for me, increasing restriction.  I am not who I once was.

This was brought home to me recently when one of my ten-year-old grandsons asked to interview me for a public speaking project:

“Grandma,” he said, “what was the hardest thing you’ve ever done?”  I thought about quitting drinking, bearing children, nursing my father and mother when they were dying; none seemed great to share with his 5th grade class.  “I guess,” I said, “it was when I went to Selma.” “Selma? How do you spell that?”  Oh my, I thought, where do I start?

So I talked a little about the attempts in 1965 to march from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery to demand voting rights for black people, what things were like in the south in those days, why I responded when Dr. King put out a call for people all over the country to join the third and final march, how scared I was to go to a place where people had been brutally beaten trying to do what I and others would try to do again. I described a silent walk 50 of us took through a white neighborhood in Selma, walking in pairs 50 feet apart to avoid arrest for unlawful assembly; how a heavy-set white man attacked the slim boy from Maine I was walking with, bloodied his nose, knocked him to the ground; how we were all arrested, piled into school buses, hauled off to jail, where we watched Sheriff Jim Clark hand out clubs to white men  he was deputizing. (We were spared, thanks to the national press presence.)

“I was scared the whole time I was there,” I told my grandson. “How could you do it?” he asked. “Because there were so many of us,” I said. “I wasn’t alone.”

He called me a couple of days later: “Grandma! I got four out of four on my speech! And the teacher wrote a really long note on the paper. She said it had been a major event in our country’s history, and I should be proud that my grandmother was part of it.” It made my day: my grandson saw me with different eyes.  I wasn’t just a grandma anymore.

The loss of identity with retirement and aging is significant. To many, you become a gray, bespectacled “senior,” harmless and irrelevant.  Perhaps the move away from the house where I’d spent so many productive years made me feel that way, I don’t know. I went into silent mode, read mysteries, watched movies, didn’t return calls, didn’t make calls, retreated from the world.  And now, for no particular reason, I’m re-entering.

We moved into a ground-floor apartment in south Berkeley nine months ago. It’s only IMG_1893steps away from a green and verdant garden;  huge trees loom in the background.  Robins and wrens, finches and humming birds, crows and jays are visitors here.  The cats have adjusted, and the grandchildren like it. Friends tell us it’s exactly the sort of place they visualized us in.

Today, sitting outside in the sunshine with the twittering birds, I am content.

I can’t wait to catch up with all my blogging friends.



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Grass on the hill was rippling in the wind like the pelt of an animal this morning, orange poppies and purple lupin poking up through it. Small patches of fog skittered past, sun darting in and out.  Dogs swirled about, chasing balls, each other, shadows, ghosts. I turned on my MP3 player and started up the hill, exchanging smiles with a woman walking down, both of us three-legged with our canes. By the third bench, I was in enough pain that I had to sit down–no great misfortune when I could listen to the wind in the eucalyptus and look out over the city. High above, a kestrel caught the draft and floated by. People and dogs wandered past.

A large black dog mounted a smallish white one on a leash and hung on for dear life as the woman holding the leash tried to pull them apart, finally succeeding with a frontal assault on the black dog, who tumbled to the ground.  White dog immediately presented her backside for further attention, but her owner yanked her away. Seeing the hopelessness of his cause, black dog withdrew with dignity and trotted off determinedly into a pine grove, demonstrating independence.

Almost a month since I wrote here last, a month of shattering violence and heartbreak all across the world, of an unexpected death in our extended family, of another year gone by, of the slow and uneven stumble to move on. I am older, sober, and slightly more mobile, but it’s been a tough month.

Selling the house is much harder than I thought.  Instead of complaining about the hills and stairs, I’m now remembering how much I like the light, the great sweep of sky from our living room window, the ironwood tree we planted all those years ago.

Downsizing means getting rid of things, but memories stick to them. I put a teacup in the giveaway box and take it out again the next day.  Since we drink coffee and tea in mugs, why not give away my mother’s teacups? Because I see her in my mind holding one, lifting the cup to her lips, smiling and talking. My father’s slide rule, my children’s early drawings, those brooches of my mother’s I’ve never once worn in the years since she died, that pile of magazines with holiday recipes…decision after decision. I am too old to tote around this load. Someone, please, just take it all away.  Every time anyone comes over–kids, friends of kids, our friends–I thrust something into their hands.  Bits of your life shouldn’t go to strangers.

The change is hard because the memories are good.  I am 73 and wake to mockingbirds. Outside my window, trees sway in the spring winds. Humming birds flit through the sunshine. My youngest grandchild blows me kisses with a pudgy hand. In this dark and chaotic world, I’ve had a lucky life.

1979: I

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet

around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
And the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
And I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

–Wendell Berry, Sabbaths

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The music is back

Four years ago today, desperate and heartsick, I quit drinking. I knew I couldn’t keep on with it. It was making me too ill, too depressed, reclusive, isolated, labile. I cried a lot, life looked hopeless, I felt deeply ashamed.

But sobriety didn’t immediately launch me onto a pink cloud. Drinking had helped my chronic back pain, and when I stopped, the pain got worse. It also had given me periods of energy, elation, sociability that had gotten shorter and shorter as time passed, but without wine, they disappeared entirely. With daily blackouts and increasing subterfuge and shame, continuing to drink simply wasn’t an option; but quitting brought a load of problems to resolve that I’d been avoiding for years.  I felt trapped.

It has taken a long time, but things are improving. The latest attempt to treat the pain with medical marijuana is showing promise, and if I can get to a place where being out and about for a few hours doesn’t do me in, I’ll be content.  I think the marijuana is helping my mood as well–I find myself humming again, music is back in my life.

I’ve never been a patient soul. Had I known it would take four years to get to this point, would I still have quit? There wasn’t a choice. Drinking has its own momentum, you don’t stay in one place–and my life was consumed by it. From the outside, I looked pretty normal, but as I posted on a recovery forum this morning:

I don’t think I realized at the time how much my life revolved around it. Every day I got up with an acid stomach and trembling hands and shame and regret, swearing I’d never drink again. As the hangover passed, the strategizing began: what food would taste good with wine for dinner, what store wouldn’t remember my last big purchase, how much could I sneak into the garage without my husband noticing. Whatever else I was doing, obsessive thoughts about drinking were the background for it. I was enslaved, and now I’m free.

Or, as Bob Marley would have it,

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.

Photo credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

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