Friday, May 3, 2019

A White Elephant

Wow!  The FBI or CIA has done a good job expunging all the nefarious Eastern-bloc bots that had artificially driven up my blogger stats.

To be honest, I find it a bit of an adjustment.  For years, I thought I was actually popular in Ukraine--after all, my father's people on his father's side came from Odessa.  They were Barmacks.  I figured, someone stumbled across the name and got curious, became a fan.

But, no, there is no ancestral connection or fandom here. Only wishful thinking on my part, and robots on theirs.

Moreover, my most vocal supporters clearly prefer it when I write about some topics and not others, or when I write witty prose instead of lard poetry.  I can't explain their taste, but I assume they find it annoying when I jump the tracks, as I frequently do.

Anyhow, there is freedom in going largely unread.  I would like to write about my health again, and for that I'm glad to have a limited audience.

Like money, politics, and religion, health is a touchy subject.

Caveat: I'M NOT DYING, so there's not much interest in what I have to report.

On the other hand, I don't think one should have to be dying to write about ill health--although I realize, from a literary perspective, that it helps.

If someone is able to be eloquent and, in a tonal sense, disinterested in how they describe their drawn-out experience of dying, then we will read it.

The tricky part is, it's like humor.  You can't laugh at your own jokes, and you can't cry with self-pity, either. The author has to at least feign a stoic courage and detached interest in their own unraveling--which, they might argue, (correctly, I think) is a strange interstitial space, as integral to living as to dying, if not more so.

But it is a certain road, isn't it?  And we're all on a road of some kind. You may be on the road to retirement, or the road to maturity, or the road to success.

If you're lucky, you're out on the open road, in search of adventure.

We're not all on the same road.

Chronic but not terminal disease is a road I'm on.

For those of you who remember, I had these tiny weird nefarious doo-hickeys removed from my reproductive organs, last spring.  The inflammatory filaments associated with them fostered  symptoms that exceeded the mandate of my disease: Sjogren's, with a touch of undifferentiated connective tissue disorder.

Like a great parfum mingles with your own body chemistry to create a uniquely personal scent, Sjogren's disease plays a different tune on every woman's body.

The primary symptoms are dry eyes and mouth.

I broke my first tooth in 2012.  I was flossing, and it crumbled under the friction of the string.

A year later, I bit into a chicken sandwich at Burger King, and hit something solid that shouldn't have been in a chicken patty.  It sent a jolt of pain through my jaw that radiated through my face and head and left me stunned for several seconds.  When I came clear, I spit out half a tooth.

For someone who, all her life, had frequent anxiety dreams about losing her teeth, I found the reality of actually losing them much less disturbing.

In the dream, they fall out all at once, a metaphor of loss.

At Burger King, it was a single tooth. And, as painful as it was, it did not pack the emotional wallop of a metaphor.  It was just a tooth.  It was just pain.  That's all there was to it.

Later, I had the remaining tooth pulled--under gas, which is my favorite anesthesia.

Honestly, when I'm under gas, you can take all my teeth, I don't care.  I might comment about it in my head--but with real objective disinterest.

Once, when I was 25, they gave me valium intravenously for two impacted molars.  I hallucinated, imagined I was being attacked and mugged by two or three people in a public park. It was a wooded path.  I was still sobbing when they turned off the valium.  A couple of attendants had been holding me down.

A sense of boredom sets in the moment they turn the gas off.  And in those minutes of adjusting to not being well entertained in my head, I find I have a deeper appreciation for what drug addiction is all about.

It felt weird when they drilled the hole in my jaw for the artificial tooth--the implant that would be screwed into place.

I was under the gas, of course, so it didn't really bother me, but the thought floated through my consciousness like a cloud that maybe my jaw would break apart.

But then I remembered the extra bone at the base of my gum line--I can feel it through my cheeks on both sides--a horizontal rise that you would remark on if, say, you were examining my skull as an artifact in a museum, dry and apart from all flesh. You would see the hyper-ossification and excessive reinforcement undergirding a few chipped teeth.  This would be my skull's distinguishing characteristic.  Moreover, a kid might enjoy unscrewing the false tooth and screwing it back into place.  My skull is destined to be a favorite.

As the surgeon drilled, I pictured those two bony outcrops as flying buttresses, fortifying the integrity of my jaw.

But the bills! The bills for the implant were several and steep.

And so it goes, with Sjogren's: I now have two crowns, one implant, and one empty space in the back of my mouth where there used to be a tooth.

I could have a second implant, there, but why?  I chew just fine.

The dentist warned me, the absence of a tooth there could cause the one above it to sink down into the open space--or some such nonsense.

Thanks, but I'll take my chances.  (Sounds like bullshit to me.)

I bought a blood pressure monitor on Amazon, because I was having issues with fatigue in the afternoon, and I wondered if blood pressure had anything to do with it.

I occasionally get a high blood pressure readings at the doctor's office--most recently, when I was about to have a lip biopsy--where they stick needles in my lip and pry out glands, for testing.

They wanted to confirm the original Sjogren's diagnosis.  The lip biopsy, some say, (others disagree) is authoritative.

I got another high reading the first time I used it--high enough to put me in the type 2 category for hypertension.

But when I shimmied the cuff up higher up my arm, level with my heart, per directions, my blood pressure dropped down to normal.

Even so, sometimes it still tests high, so I do it again.  The second time, it is normal.  So this is the pattern: I do it once, I get a poor result.  I relax. I think calming thoughts...I do it a second time and get a passing grade.

Frankly, I'm not sure it's worthwhile to have a blood pressure monitor at home.

My husband and my son both tested normal on their first try--on the same day my result was Level-2 hypertension on the verge of a stroke.

But then, the other night, just because it's there, on the table, in the dining room, irresistible, like a Magic Eight Ball, my husband got a very high reading as well.

He repeated the test, with alarming results.

Then he took off his shirt, and repeated the test.

Then he read the directions, and repeated the test.

Then he examined the cuff and decided that it was too small for his arm and so his results were fake, as in, fake facts--didn't really count.

He is content with that conclusion.

Meanwhile, I continue to have a poor reading followed by a normal reading.  I choose to believe in the second reading.

And this is how it is with medicine, isn't it?

My old PA from Rheumatology left practice suddenly, without explanation.  I wonder why.

She was nice, supportive, a little overeager to prescribe medicine.

She put me on a new drug  that was supposed to keep my juices flowing.  She told me to take one pill three times a day with meals.

I took the pill with breakfast and lunch, and then I nearly fainted for the first time in my life, right there in the post office.  With difficulty, I drove the three miles home, my brain about to blow a circuit.

"She's got to be wrong," I thought.  If I take another one of these pills, it will kill me.  So, I didn't.

Recently, with concerns about high blood pressure, I read up on all the side effects associated with my medication.

For that prescription, among other side-effects, I read (this is real):

If you stop breathing...

If you pass out...

If you have no pulse...

Right.  If you stop breathing, pass out, and have no pulse, call your fucking PA in rheumatology and complain, bitterly.

But fatigue was my biggest complaint. I had hoped that the demon coils were responsible for my afternoon exhaustion, but, over the last few months, the fatigue had crept back into my day.

My blood labs are interesting to read, as a measure of autoimmune-disease activity.  But I don't know how any of it correlates to symptoms.  And neither do they.

The  primary medication I'm on is only effective 55% of the time, I read, and I suspect that I'm not among the lucky ones.  However, it is the first and foremost medication for auto-immune disease.  It's an anti-malarial, so I've got that going for me.

Side effects of Plaquenil: It's hard on the digestive system.  I spend my entire morning belching because a single bowl of cereal.

They say fatigue is the hardest symptom to contravene.

So, I went online and found some vitamins and herbs that are supposed to support the immune system.  (Theoretically, my immune system should be overactive--that is the nature of the disease; but I have a low white blood-cell count, and that's supposed to be my little army against disease, so what's with that?)

I am taking a lot of Vitamins C and D, as well Echinacea. I also upgraded to the old-lady vitamin. It has all the zinc and whatever, selenium, that I need in my decrepitude.

The result?  Fatigue gone!

And you know what else I learned?

You know all those kooky, folksy people who can't afford health insurance and talk about how they never get sick because they drink and literally bathe in apple cider vinegar?

Do you know them?

I do.

I've been hearing about apple cider vinegar since I lived in Middleboro, Massachusetts, back in my early thirties.

I don't know why people give me unsolicited advice about apple cider vinegar, but they always do.

So, I'm looking up remedies for high blood pressure, right?  And I'm on the Mayo Clinic website.   It's saying I can lower my blood pressure significantly in 24 hours by ingesting two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar.

Apple cider vinegar: It balances the microbes in your stomach.  It lowers your blood pressure.  It moderates your weight.  It keeps flies off horses.  It keeps mineral stones from forming in their hind gut.  I kid you not!  This stuff does it all.

If you're not drinking apple cider vinegar every single day, you're really missing out on something big.

I pour it on salads, and use it in marinades.  I may have to resort to drinking it straight, but that doesn't sound tasty, and I don't want to take on additional discomfort.

I pour it over my horses' grain, along with flax seed, which I buy cheap in 40# bags at the local feed store.  It looks exactly the same as the overpriced stuff in the supermarket.

By the way, you MUST watch the Netflix documentary about the Mayo Clinic.  It's called something like, The History of the Mayo Clinic, or similar.  You can't miss it.

All hospitals should comport with the guiding principles of the Mayo Clinic. It's reprehensible that they don't.

This is the road of Sjogren's, undifferentiated connective tissue disorder, and the side-effects of medication.  It's also the road of taking things into my own hands, of online research and hopeful experiments with vitamins and herbs, which, (placebo or not) seem to have chased away the cellular gloom that had cast a pall over my afternoons.  It is the road of discernment, questioning authority, self-advocacy, and self-preservation.  It is a road less traveled, and it can be lonely.

The worst thing about disease as a road is how it fails, as a metaphor, to depict real life. A road is linear in its essence and fails to suggest how I might possibly live a rich life simultaneously, with or despite the accompaniment of chronic disease.

I do have a good life, but this is not a disease that will go away.  It does not take vacations. It has integrated and settled into my life...Something I didn't want, but now must keep: A white elephant.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Emperor's New Clothes, Or, In Defense of Irony

Amid an onslaught of compelling news, I am struck by a few observations:

When there is a mass shooting in New Zealand, that country swings into action, expressing its solidarity with the victims, asserting its opposition to bigotry, and changing the gun laws in quick succession.

When an attic fire consumes the roof of Notre Dame, exposing the 800-year-old interior to sky, wind, and rain, France commits to the herculean quest of restoring its iconic cathedral.

But, in the United States, when the President surrounds himself with affirmed racists, criminals, sycophants, Russian spies, and (at least one) anarchist intent on dismantling democracy... NOTHING HAPPENS.

Not yet, anyway.

And meanwhile, at the same time, the American public has one epiphany after another:

1. Sexual harassment is a real problem and will not be tolerated.
2. Racism does not cease to exist when white people adjust their attitudes toward black people.
3. Gender identity varies.
4. Sexual preference and gender identity are two different things.

Why can't we see that the Emperor in his new clothes is in fact naked with toilet-paper stuck to his foot?

I suppose this shouldn't be so hard to grasp, for a person who lives in the purple state of Wisconsin.

Trump has campaign rallies in Appleton, Wisconsin--that long-time sunset city where for many years there was literally, planted right beside the Entering Appleton sign, another sign warning people of color in the rudest possible terms that their lives would be in danger if they were found on the city premises after sundown.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Convention has chosen Milwaukee as its venue for the 2020 presidential primaries.

In the local news here this morning, there were three unrelated articles about sexual harassment and assault:

1. The husband of the dean at UW Whitewater has been found guilty of sexually harassing almost a dozen women students and faculty.  The dean, who had steadfastly defended her husband against his accusers, has been asked to resign--and she has.

2. An 18-year old high school student/lifeguard recorded videos on his phone of unsuspecting female students changing out of their swimsuits. He has been charged with two felons but is still attending high school...

3. A high school principal came under fire by community and school faculty for his dismissive remarks in response to the sexual assault of a female student in the school bathroom by three boys. ("Kids will be kids.")

So, yeah. Consciousness has been raised, even in these Wisconsin enclaves. Boys-will-be-boys is no longer a valid excuse for sexual assault.

Yet still, somehow, collectively, we fail to see that the Emperor's New Clothes are NOT REALLY THERE.

Blame the Republican Senate--or ourselves, for not protesting as fiercely and relentlessly as, say, the French...Or blame the Russians, for embroidering the Emperor's wardrobe out of a web of misinformation.

But don't blame irony.

Have you heard the straight-up complaints from the anti-irony movement?

I first heard a diatribe against irony on NPR, saying in no uncertain terms that irony is straight-up slimy and bad, and that people should try to be straightforward and good.

I could not disagree more.

While it is true that some people use irony to evade speaking truthfully, and some people who use irony evasively are incredibly obnoxious and slippery, those people would be obnoxious truth-evaders with or without the use of irony.

Without irony, they would still have access to ridicule. They could be ridiculing.  Salty. Offensive. Mean. Violent.

Irony itself is not the problem, nor the worst expression of the problem.

To focus on irony as the problem seems censorial.

If I were being paranoid, I'd go so far as to suggest that this silly brouhaha against irony is meant to muddy the waters of genuine concerns.

It bothers me that the anti-irony diatribe on NPR was delivered by a woman, inviting the listener to   pair the new intolerance of sexual harassment with a new intolerance for irony, which is straight-up stupid.

I reject any possible tacit suggestion that opposition to irony is somehow a part of or stemming from the current women's movement.

As a woman who opposes sexual harassment and sexual assault, let me clarify, for the record: I'm totally okay with irony. 

Moreover, I oppose the censorial spirit, and any possible mischief behind this noisy, foolish anti-irony bullshit.

It may be corny and sweet of me to be so direct, or maybe I'm just not feeling very witty, but yeah, irony is not the issue.  It is not an issue.  It is not.

In literature, irony is used to reflect the presence of God. You heard that right, friends: God.

Here's how it works:  Everything is going along a certain path, and we in the audience, using our keen human minds, surmise the direction of that path.

But then irony happens, and nothing is as it seems, the path is otherwise, and we find ourselves humbled by false assumptions.

Through that ironic turn of events, the author has created our experience of being humbled and confounded.

That confounding and humbling gives us a sense of the mystery of God, of the unlimited possibilities of the universe (call it what you like).

In literature, irony creates a sense of the mysterious nature of God and universe.  When we think we are right, we are wrong.  God works in mysterious ways...In art, this mystery is revealed via irony.

In dialogue, literary and pedestrian, the alternate definition of irony (sarcasm, double meanings) conveys human duality.

I know, it's deep. And it's Saturday. And it's sunny outside. I apologize.

But think about it, if you care to:  None of us are particularly straightforward, to the root.  At some level, there is always a sideways glance, a wished-for impossibility, a harmless love of murder mysteries, a desperate devotion to church...somewhere, in all of us who are not protozoan, there are those contradictions that make us complicated and interesting and human.

And in literature, as in life, that quality of being human is often expressed through irony.

So that's it, in a nutshellL Irony is nothing more than a few brushstrokes to paint God, in one aspect; or ourselves, in another.

If you're going to rage against irony, you might as well yell at the brush and paint.  Or a hammer. Or a nail.  It's just a tool, and nothing more.

Although, for some, irony can be an instrument. For Shakespeare, a Stradivarius.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

To Chicken? Or Not To Chicken?

Let me lay out a few facts:

1) We have a farm.

2) We have no chickens.

3) I yearn to travel.

That we have no chickens, no coincidence, is between two oppositional truths: having a farm and wanting to travel.

After much soul-searching, I decided, finally, that this is the period of my life when I have a farm.

I have been deluded with the very suburban assumption that I live between city and country, I can have the best of both worlds.  To a limited extent, that is true.  I can drive into Madison and get sushi.

I could spend this chapter of my life contemplating the life I don't have, but then I wouldn't be thoroughly enjoying this life that I wanted and chose to live.  (When I lived in town and had the convenience and freedom of walking to the library and going away on trips, I spent a lot of time longing for country life.  It was a yearning that ultimately could not be ignored.)

Living on a farm, and having brought outdoor animals safely through a long hard winter, it is time to savor the farming life, enjoy the long light days of spring, and stop, once and for all, wishing that anything was different.  Because that is an asinine way to live.

So, chickens. YES, chickens!

We have an empty stall in the barn where we can house the baby chicks in a kiddy pool with a little warming lamp.

We have a ramshackle chicken coop next to the barn, and chickens would motivate us to fix it up nice again.

I have a form to fill out from the farm & feed store.  I did my homework; I want Rhode Island Reds and Browns-- hearty, agreeable chickens that can make it through a Wisconsin winter, and maybe a Polar vortex.

The next question was simple: How many?

If we ended up with one rooster, accidentally--it's almost impossible to determine the sex of a chick--then we would need a dozen hens to fend him off.

Did you know that "sexing a chick" is a fine art (involving something about their anus) that literally requires years of training to learn, and you can make a very handsome living doing it, because so few people on the planet can do it reliably and accurately, and because so few people need more than one rooster?

If we didn't get a rooster, then we could do with five hens.  But there's no way of knowing in advance whether they'll be a rooster in the lot or not, so, perhaps it would be wise to go with a baker's dozen.

Of course, then we'd also be more likely to get more than one rooster, and since each rooster requires a dozen hens to fend him off, we'd have to buy two dozen hens.

It would be best not to have any roosters, but, and this is the big philosophical conundrum about the hard realities of farming which even the most romantically inclined East Coast transplant can't ignore: More than one rooster is out of the question.

The second one has to go.

You know what I'm getting at.  I'm talking about the grim prospect of killing a rooster.

But I've grappled with my share of death and gore on this farm--the unavoidable effluence of glorious summer days, blue skies and glossy horses grazing at pasture.

For every moment of transformative bliss, there is its counterpart.

Living in town shields one from all that.

I remember, when I lived in town, I got a call once from the barn where my horse was stabled.  She had injured her mouth, it needed to be stitched up, and the vet had been called. By the time I arrived on the scene, there wasn't a drop of blood on the premises.  It had all been cleaned up.

Here on the farm, when my horses disagree on some pressing issue, and one of them lurches toward the other to press his point home, and the other recoils and leaps back into his door latch and tears open his shoulder...Well, heck, I was standing right there when it happened.  (It was a windy day, and the wind kinda freaks horses out, as do so many things.)

So, I'm thinking, now, after all of the trauma I've been through with life and death and the in-between, I can handle the mortality of chickens. 

Of course, these won't be meat chickens.  We're not savages.  (Kidding! Totally respect people who kill their own meat.  I just don't want to do it.)

I have  a Margaret Wise Brown view of farming, still.  I'm what Real Midwestern Farm Wives call being stupid.  I get it. No offense taken.

The chicken order form has to be turned in by the end of next week.

So, I was talking to my friend, Krista, who grew up among the Amish, who are seriously bad-ass farmers. (Respect!)

A dog kennel fence works best, she said.

I pictured a six-foot tall chain-link fence enclosing my pastoral chicken run.

And then you have to put netting across the top, she said, because the raccoons climb up the fence. They have hands.

I pictured a raccoon tumbling into and falling spread-eagle onto a trampoline of netting, bouncing there for a while, face down and gazing with frustration at the chickens safe below.  Excellent.

What else?

Chicken poop: It smells worse than anything in the world.

Really?  Not worse than dog shit, surely.



We used to clean the coop out every day with a power washer.

Every day?

But we had like, 29 chickens.

I only want 13 or five, depending.

If you have a rooster, it's going to fertilize the eggs.  A hen will get broody and wander off.  You won't see her for a while, and maybe you think a hawk has got her.  But then, one day, she'll come strutting out into the yard followed by a band of chicks.

How cute!, I thought. And how terribly inconvenient.

We'll collect the eggs, I said.  (For this, I received the Midwestern Farm Wives' glance: Yeah... Good luck with that.)

By the way, I suggest cracking your eggs open into a bowl, rather than into the pan or batter directly.

I knew what she was getting at; I did not require explanation.

Because of the partially formed chicks, she said.

Okay, let's talk about something else.

What are you going to do if you get two roosters?  The Rhode Island Reds aren't bad [as meat].  Would you kill it?

I guess.  Someone else will have to do it.

It's not hard, she said.  You go into the coop just before dawn, about ten minutes before they wake up.  You squash your hand down in the middle of their back; and then, with your other arm...Wait, how did that work?  [She gestured with her arms in the air as if to apply pressure to a roosting foul and with her other arm, made less certain, sweeping gestures. What the heck was she trying to do?]

You don't want the wings flapping in your face.  It's very alarming to hold a rooster with wings flapping in your face.

You can kill it for me, I said.

I could do that.  For a chicken or two.

Geez, I thought.  I've tapped into Krista's deepest agricultural instincts: We were now bartering: One kill for two chickens.

Who's going to kill the other chicken?

Maybe, I won't get chickens.  I said it out loud and I meant it.  But I wasn't sure.  I was giving up a lot: the whole point, really, was to embrace my life on the farm--every part of being on a farm--which meant chickens, obviously.

My friend gave me a lot to think about...a lot of grim reality to mull over.

I suppose I should thank her for rubbing the guild off the lily.

Now, when I picture a blue plastic kiddy pool full of fluffy baby chicks, I have a few competing images I can't get out of my head.

Farming. You have to be okay with predation and killing.

You have to see yourself in the food-chain of events, playing your part, making your plans, trying to thwart nature at every turn--foolishly imagining you can.

The chicken form is due by the end of next week.  I still haven't made up my mind.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Gloriana Redacted

I've been experiencing writer's block--not because I haven't had ideas or motivation, but because I haven't had the nerve to write.

I felt that I'd written everything I had to say; there seemed no point in blathering on and on; I'd just be repeating myself.

But, you know, people repeat themselves, all the time.  Nobody tells a story just once.

I thought that I had lost my witty style, that I couldn't write funny anymore.

And that no one, God knows, should take me seriously.

Then again, humor stems from a kind of congenital absurdity. I couldn't shake it off if I tried.

So, here I am, struggling not to write like Queen Victoria.  I've been reading her biography by A.N. Wilson. I'm saturated in 19th Century British royal syntax.

(I know, right?  What's the diff?)

In the BBC series, "Victoria," the dreamy Tom Hughes put on a little weight (just a scosche) to fill out his role as Prince Albert approaching 40.  Albert's chin, by that time, had melted into a doughy jawline, north of a distinctive paunch.

They might have slightly padded Jenna Coleman's petticoats to play a middle-aged Victoria.  But, it was hardly enough to qualify as a symbolic gesture. The stunning Coleman bears no resemblance to Victoria in her late thirties, whose petticoats had been let out a yard or two.

How will the BBC handle two decades of unremitting anguish and mental contortions: Victoria's grief over the loss of Albert?

Will they ignore it, like they ignored her physical metamorphosis?

Will they swap out Coleman for Judi Dench, have Dench reprise her roles as the adorable-when-in-love Victoria in "Mrs. Brown" and "Victoria and Abdul"?

The story of Victoria's now-famous friendship with Abdul, her servant cum munshi, is entirely missing from A.N. Wilson's hefty biography of her life.  What a disappointment!  What a scorching oversight!

I have seen the movie, of course, "Victoria and Abdul," but I want to read the book about their decade-long relationship to get the full picture.

The wanton, even craven, censorship of Victoria's diaries, letters, and entire chapters of her life--by her daughter, Beatrice, and her son, Bertie, is a shame.

Beatrice carefully excised anything personal in her mother's letters--all vestiges of tenderness and friendship; from her personal correspondence with Albert, to that with her prime ministers, and John Brown...

Bertie, as King Edward, destroyed everything concerning Abdul, an exhaustive effort to erase Abdul from British history--his name absent in every single "complete" biography of his mother's life.

Anything Victoria might have written of a personal nature is lost to us, thanks to Beatrice and Bertie (King Ed).

This is a theme I have already written about in relation to my own grandmothers.

Oh, well!  It bears repeating:

Growing up, when I asked about my grandmothers who had passed away before I was born, I was told that they were both very beautiful and smart.

I did not think they could have been very interesting, based on what I was told.

It was only later, as a grownup, that I learned about my paternal grandmother's awful rheumatoid arthritis at a young age; the piano in the living room, silenced; the stoic set of her jaw in photographs as she moved through her orbit as a leader among women on one committee after another.

Later, came the stories of my maternal grandmother slowly suffocating in the twin shadows of her magnetic but overbearing husband, and her creative mother who tacitly competed with her daughter on every level.

Women are much more interesting than what we are propped up to be.

It doesn't matter much whether we are the Queen of England or the daughter of an art teacher; it happens just the same.

At the end of our lives, and sometimes in the middle, we are cleaned up and propped up and placed on a shelf.  We spend eternity on that shelf, gathering dust meant to clothe us in dignity.

Because I had been struggling with writer's block, or because it has become a popular topic, I have been attuned to various people addressing the question of propriety, censorship, creativity, and self-expression.

Ruth E. Carter (Oscar for best costume design), for example, talked in an interview about being ridiculed in high school for how she dressed ("Who does she think she is?").

A podcast comic spoke about the importance of using material that makes him feel exposed and uncomfortable; the imperative to go out on a limb, risk embarrassment, embrace failure.

Amy Schumer posts photos of her naked and pregnant self on Instagram as a challenge to mainstream critics with trollish impulses, noting, in an interview, that the greatest power comes from not caring.

Imagine, if you can, giving yourself the freedom and authority to not care what anyone thinks about the choices you make, the things you do, the way you look, how you live your life; what you say, or think, or post, or write....

I don't suggest that I would, or that anyone should, forswear their privacy.  I don't think that to freedom has to involve turning ourselves inside out, airing out our inner lives on the outside porch like a rug.

No. I think privacy continues to be sacred to every individual, and I'm entitled to mine so long as I'm not attempting to conceal a crime.

Queen Victoria's family were not protecting her privacy by censoring her letters.

If Victoria had wanted her words redacted, she would have had someone do it for her.  But, if it was her choice to write things down, and not her choice to delete them while she was alive, then to censor them after her death was a violation of her privacy and autonomy, in my opinion.

In death, she was like an ordinary woman, cleaned up and propped up on a shelf.  She was, figuratively and literally, embalmed, the blood drained from a life-long habit of writing every breath in her diary.

I glom onto Victoria now as though she were anything solid that floats, and I a shipwrecked sailor.

Her lovable, rough-hewn personality and corpus beckon to me through the centuries.

As I get to know the real, cracked, monstrous, fabulous Victoria, she sometimes whispers in my ear, Just listen to my voice, and read between the lines. 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

And Now for Something Completely Different: An Interview with an Amateur

On NTR's "Beta," our list of guests have achieved extraordinary feats--creating, inventing, or influencing events in ways that have had a huge impact on the world, and on the lives of everyday people.   

Today, I thought we would take the program in a different direction, and interview someone whom we might describe as an amateur, or under-achiever.

Jess Barmack spent three years writing a novel that is not yet fully developed.   And, for the time being, she has set it aside.  

Let's see how she's coping with that gap in her resume.  Does she feel like a failure?  Is she disappointed in herself, or does she simply chalk it up to experience? Is it really better to have tried and failed, than not to have tried at all?  Or, if one has put an endeavor aside indefinitely, can we say that one has yet to achieve even failure?

Gordon: Jess, do you see yourself as an amateur, an underachiever?  

Jess:  Only when compared to professionals and over-achievers.

Gordon: Fair enough. How is your novel coming along?

Jess:  A novel is a published work of fiction longer than 100 pages.  What I have written is a Word document.

Gordon: I see.  Do you always use humor to deflect questions about your writing, aspirations, and unrealized dreams?

Jess:  Um...

Gordon: Would you describe yourself as the classic would-be novelist with an all-but-forgotten manuscript moldering away in a drawer?  Are you the would-be chef who can't boil an egg?  Are you the consumer-artist who buys expensive brushes, and never ventures outside to paint a landscape?  

Jess:  Um...

Gordon:  Because that's what this interview is about.  That's what makes it so special.  

Jess:  Okay...

Gordon:  So, this is refreshing. Would you describe for us a goal that you have currently set for yourself?  

Jess:  Sure. Um, this weekend, I hope to gather up all of my clothes into a big pile on my bed, and see whether any of them spark joy.

Gordon: And, does tidying up your home, being tidy, finding clothes that spark joy, does any of this mitigate how you feel about yourself?  

Jess:  What do you mean?

Gordon:  Does it chip away at your disappointment in yourself for failing to publish or even finish your Word document?  Does tidying up...

Jess:  I understand the question.  The answer is yes, it makes me feel better when I have a tidy house.

Gordon:  Great! Say more about that!

Jess:  It's a clean, well-lighted space. It's a room of my own.  You know.

Gordon:  I do! You're comparing yourself to Hemingway and Virginia Woolf.  And are you also saying that the benefits of having a tidy house go beyond mercurial popular trends? 

Jess:  Yes.  

Gordon: Do you ever conceive of a practical plan for accomplishing long-term goals?

Jess:  Sometimes.

Gordon:  Say more about that!

Jess:  Sometimes, I feel a surge of motivation to get back to the Word document.  

Gordon:  Did you know, very sick people feel a "surge" in the hours right before they die?  

Jess:  "..."

Gordon:  Go on. Say more about that.

Jess:  Sometimes, I'll plan to set aside an hour every day, or maybe every Thursday, to write.  I may go sit at my computer, dig up the Word file, and key in some words.  

Gordon:  Did you know, people used to call that "typing"? 

Jess:  Yes, I did.

Gordon: And then what happens, after the surge?

Jess:  Well, sometimes there's a polar vortex, and I can't walk the dog, and she's still a puppy, so she's really agitated all day, and that makes it impossible to write.  Or, I may have to go outside several times a day to make sure that the horses have enough to eat, so they're not too cold, and I muck out their stalls.

Gordon: You aspire to keep their stalls tidy, too?

Jess:  Yes.

Gordon:  Is it possible that you spend so much time tidying up that you don't have enough time to write?  What would happen if, say, you didn't spend that time tidying, and you spent it instead at your computer, typing?

Jess:  Well, the horses would get a yeast infection in their feet.  And my family would get impetigo.   

Gordon: So, do I have this right? You're not talking about achieving feng shui in your home or barn?

Jess:  No, I'm talking about a base-line of cleanliness that fends off opportunistic diseases, like thrush and impetigo. 

Gordon:  I see.  So, would you say that you have achieved a level of tidiness that prevents your family and horses from contracting disease?  

Jess:  It doesn't guarantee that they will remain healthy. 

Gordon:  Say more about that.

Jess: A couple years ago, a horse died of a rare disease.

Gordon: Oh. And what did you do to cause that?  

Jess:  Nothing--it was idiopathic, like an allergy.  Her body over-reacted to some unknown element.

Gordon:  It was not because her stall was untidy?

Jess:  No. I kept it tidy.

Gordon:  Interesting!  So luck, then, plays a part in achieving your modest goals, would you agree? And keeping your home and barn tidy only gets you so far?

Jess:  Yes.

Gordon:  You have a blog in which you write that being a woman is "impossible."  If being a woman is impossible, at some level, isn't everything impossible, for you, as a woman, and as a writer who is a woman? 

Jess:  Yes, I think there is an element of that. There are so many layers to my life. My priorities are constantly shifting.  When I think about it, keeping one goal in focus all the time is a huge privilege that few women can afford, or allow themselves to impose on everyone else.  

Gordon:  But there are women writers.

Jess: Yes, and I met one of them.  She doesn't have a husband or a kid.  She has one dog that she takes with her to writers' retreats.  

Gordon: You're saying, she isn't responsible for the care of a family, or horses, the way you are. 

Jess:  Right.

Gordon: And you also have paid work, like a job, isn't that right?  

Jess:  Yes.

Gordon: But this woman you speak of, she has committed both her personal and professional life to writing.  For her, it's a calling

Jess:  Right. When I made my big life choices, I never considered the implications for writing. I imagined that writing would curl itself up around whatever shape my life assumed; that it would, somehow, always be there.

Gordon:  Like a loyal dog.  

Jess:  Right.  

Gordon: But, in fact, your choices meant that you would remain an amateur, an artist doodling in the margins of your life.  Or, maybe, you're using this writer acquaintance  as a kind of excuse.  Is that possible?

Jess:  It takes a lot of chutzpah to consciously devote your life to one avocation.  

Gordon:  And, to pour hundreds, if not thousands of hours into a single activity that may or may not yield a profit?  Does that sound about right?

Jess: Yeah. It's like choosing to be a nun, or an astronaut.  Not everybody has that kind of  single-minded focus and determination--or the support they need to do it.

Gordon:  Or the talent.

Jess:  Right.  

Gordon:  Do you think it's innate, that single-minded focus and determination?  Or is it something that could be acquired, maybe, in other phases of a person's life?

Jess:  I like to remember Anna Mary Robertson Moses, "Grandma Moses," who didn't begin to devote her life to painting until she was 78.  

Gordon: Does thinking about Anna Mary Robertson Moses give you hope that in the future your life could have a different focus?

Jess:  Yes. And I think about Cesaria Evora, whose singing I love.  She wasn't discovered until she was in her fifties.

Gordon:  Wow.  And how old are you?

Jess: Fifty-three. 

Gordon: I see.  Would it be fair to say that this period of your life is about the health of your horses, and about your family not getting impetigo?

Jess:  To some extent. I wouldn't say entirely

Gordon: But kids grow up, don't they?  And horses can't live forever, can they?  How long do horses live?  

Jess:  They can live into their 30s, some of them. The little one could live into his forties.

Gordon:  Wow. And how old is he now, the little one?

Jess:  Seven.

Gordon:  So you'll be, what, 93, when he passes, when you can devote yourself to writing full-time?  Or are you planning to have him shot at some point?

Jess:  I hope to give him to my son's cello teacher in ten years or so, or whenever she gets a farm.  Because the little horse and my cello teacher love each other. 

Gordon:  The little horse loves the cello teacher, but not you?

Jess: Right.

Gordon:  So, you look after his feet, while he loves the cello teacher?  

Jess:  Yes.

Gordon: Do you  have any other pets that have don't like you, or prefer the cello teacher?  Is that a silly question? 

Jess:  No, that's not a silly question. Edith, a cat, doesn't like me or the cello teacher.  

Gordon:  Does she hunt mice in the barn?  Is that like, her job? 

Jess:  No, she doesn't really have a job.

Gordon:  I see.  Huh.  

Jess:  Yeah.

Gordon:  So, what were you planning to do you this weekend that would make your life seem more meaningful?

Jess:  I was going to gather up all of my clothes into a big pile on the bed, and, uh, see which ones sparked joy.  

Gordon: And that's the end of our program.  Next week, we interview a twelve-year-old child prodigy whose research in genetics may point to a cure for Alzheimers and Parkinson's  disease.    

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Muck Less, Enjoy More

Does your luck ever get so bad that it crossed your mind that you might be cursed?

Mine has.

Judge for yourself:

My first horse died of a disease so rare, she was the first mare ever (on record) to have contracted it without benefit of virus, bacteria, or parasite.

On Christmas Eve, 2018, I found my 6-yr old mini-horse (Class C, rather big, rather fat)  shaking his head, refusing his hay.  The vet arrived at 8 pm and left at 10.  (A suspected object in his cheek, or else an abscess.)

One week earlier, Tanner reeled back into his door latch and ripped open his side.  It was Sunday night, of course.  The vet was there from 8:30 to 11.

But it was Cooper's abscess, not Tanner's door latch accident, that made me wonder if I should smudge sage over the barn doors, or in the horses' stalls, or on the horses themselves.  Should I braid an amulet into their manes?

One of my closest friends did not laugh at the idea, though I was only half-serious when I texted it.  It couldn't hurt, she said.

The vet returned on Thursday to look in Cooper's mouth and to remove Tanner's stitches. I half-jokingly wondered aloud if my barn could be cursed.

She said she had some sage at home that I could have.

Thanks, I said. But I already had some fresh sage in the fridge leftover from a Thanksgiving recipe.

I wondered if the vet kept sage to keep curses off her own barn.

I wondered if it worked.

I began to think that it might be careless of me not to have rubbed sage in the barn before now.

Did I go directly to the produce drawer in my refrigerator, grab sage, return to the barn, and smudge?


Did I continue to give serious consideration to the possibility that there might be a hex on my barn?


I instant-messaged a friend who sees dead people--not piled up  like cord wood in a bad dream, but like the kid in "Sixth Sense."

I don't thinks she sees them all everywhere, all the time, not sure who's dead and who's undead.

She has occasional sightings. I believe she can identify them easily enough, since they do walk through walls and such.

And if it sounds to you like I'm being flip, that's just my natural turn of phrase.

This friend of mine has total credibility in my book.  I would not doubt her for a second.

I'll tell you why.

I've had encounters with the dead, myself.

Once, in our old Middleborough house, I was painting one of the rooms that had been the maid's or butler's quarters in the attic. I had already scraped off all of the wallpaper, a faded pink floral chintz, when I very distinctly heard a man's footsteps coming up the stairs.  I assumed it was my husband's footsteps.  The footfall was heavy and deliberate, like a man's, or like a weary, heavy-set woman with flat feet.

But there was no one there.  It hadn't been my husband, who later that night said he had been working in the basement the whole time I was painting.

I did not resume painting that room for two months.  When I returned, I brought with me a boombox and played music so loudly it would drown out any footsteps on stairs.

I had a brief interview with someone dead. She was not from my own life but from a friend's.  She was taking precautions: Not only was I asleep, and therefore receptive to conversation with dead people; I was also a neutral party who knew who she was but had not been around for her violent and perfunctory suicide. I would not judge.

She asked me to remember her to our mutual friend, and I did, months later, over dinner, where I learned that my dream had taken place on the anniversary of her suicide. Which left no doubt in my mind that it had been a visit.  (Moreover, my dreams are usually about me--my obsessions and my anxieties, of which she had played no part.)

So, you see, I'm receptive to the possibility that there are forces at play that we don't understand.  But I don't want to hear the dead, and I don't want to see them, either.  I don't want to be super-sensitive to bad juju, or to the cold presence of a still-potent hex.

I IM'd this friend of mine who sees the dead, knowing that she had friends with similar aptitudes. I asked if she would refer me to someone about a curse.

And she did.

She gave me a name and a phone number.  She said this woman was the real thing, and she was expecting to hear from me...

I pictured a stylish baby-boomer earthy-crunchy crone pulling up in a Prius packed with herbs, candles, stones, and crystals.  Jet-streaming patchouli (a scent as tenacious as skunk), she would look around inside the barn (being very careful not to get any on her) and prescribe a combination of remedies which I hoped would not require the sacrifice of a bird.

But after reading a little about curses on Wikipedia, I started to imagine the scene differently.

The crone would be the same, but instead of rubbing sage and placing stones and crystals among hoof picks and tack, she would look at me squarely, and soberly ask, "Who do you know who would want your horses dead?"

And then it hit me: If anyone had cursed my barn, it was me.

According to Wikipedia, a curse can happen unintentionally, in the way a beleaguered mother might wish not to have had children. She doesn't really want her children to die, and if anything bad happened to them she would feel the full weight of concern and care.  A husband who occasionally envisions a life without a wife, according to this logic, might convey an unintentional curse.

I had imagined that life without dogs could be tidy and clean; that books, travels, and a miniature horse could substitute for the puppy I got, the one that devours my time as though it were an old leather boot.

I have occasionally wished to be free of my horses--the daily grind, the relentless chores and responsibility that go with horse-keeping.

As harsh as it sounds to admit that I am the most likely purveyor of curses upon my own charges, it comes with a liberating epiphany:

I could afford to be a little less attentive to their upkeep.

Few people who have horses muck out a stall as meticulously or as often as I do.

Few people who have horses would feel guilty if they didn't cut up apples and carrots into bite-sized pieces for them every night.

Few people who own horses worry that if their barn isn't swept out entirely every day that their horses will develop a respiratory infection.

Taking care of horses doesn't need to be so intense and worrisome that it is impossible to actually enjoy it.

I am  now convinced that if I relaxed just a little bit, my horses would be just fine, and I would never wish them to be otherwise.

That brings me to my New Year's Resolution 2019:  I will try to be less excellent.

I will muck out the stalls once a day (in the evening, to be clean and nice for the horses at night).

I will bring them carrots or I won't, as it suits me.

I will enjoy and love them more, and bless them every day (instead of smudging the barn with herbs).

Maybe curses are real, and maybe they are not.

Maybe dark wishes escape our grasp, shape-shift and make manifest experimental thoughts that were meant to be private, fleeting, and ultimately lost.

There's less freedom in the idea that idle, un-acted-upon, uncommitted thoughts could have disastrous unintended effects.  It seems stridently Christian, as much as pagan, on a par with sinful thoughts.

Not to mention, narcissistic and grandiose to think a fleeting thought could kill a horse.

All of this by way of explanation: why I did not call the lady (crone, Prius, patchouli) to have her diagnose a curse.

To call her,

To place crystals and smudge sage,

Gives weight to a long list of possibilities that I'd rather not entertain. About curses and feelings and thoughts.

So instead, for now, my plan is simple: Muck less, enjoy more.