Our two weeks in Kauai have come and gone, like everything else in life, but the memories are still burning bright. And…I have pictures and a video to show for it!
Have ukulele, will travel!
I bring along my beloved beat-up mid-century modern Flea, the one I take to UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital to play for the kids. The one I take to the beach. A good friend has shared a gorgeous instrumental with me, Ashokan Farewell, and I get busy writing a ukulele arrangement. With the soft rain and gentle trade winds making their own kind of music, inspiration is only a breath away.
This tune was written in the style of a Scottish lament by a fiddle player from the Bronx, Jay Ungar, and it became the theme song in Ken Burn’s mini-series The Civil War. There is something about the elegant simplicity of the melody that short-circuits my chattering mind and what opens up is…well…wordless and yummy. Even after woodshedding the thing hundreds of times I still feel a big “ahhh” when I play it.
Finally I plop down on a plastic chair in our friend’s backyard in beautiful Hanalei and Craig takes this short video. We get it in just before it begins to rain and a neighbor turns on his chain saw. Please CLICK HERE to watch.
It feels like we are living through a global storm surge right now—there’s a lot of “I’m right and you’re wrong” strong fisting going on. Of course I have my own Rolodex of political concerns and let’s put it this way, I frequently wake up at three o’clock in the morning in a state of existential angst. That’s when I grab the Sudoku I have snipped from the LA Times, a pencil and flashlight which I tuck under my chin, pull the covers over my head and dive into the world of numbers. Nothing puts me to sleep faster than numbers…
But what do I do during the day? Well I vote and I TRY to be kind. Moment to moment, my act of civil disobedience is being kind. Can you imagine that? I do not email my congresswoman or sign petitions or post political stuff on Facebook. I do not appear at marches.
Unless I’m in Kauai.
It just so happens that the “Families Belong Together” March is happening around the country AND right at the airport in Lihue. This week! My husband and I spray on sunblock, grab the Gatorade and drive an hour to the green space that will soon fill with 500 hearty souls dressed in all sorts of subversive displays of dissent. It’s a people-watcher’s dream. Cars and big flatbed trucks swoosh by, honking their horns in support as the crowd goes “YAY!” A Hawaiian band of musicians bang their drums and plays songs. The march organizers let me borrow a sign from last year’s Woman’s March so I’m not exactly the picture of “current events” but by golly I’m here.
While my husband Craig is on the hunt for great photo ops, I am talking to the lady next to me and I soon learn she is protesting the penal system in Hawaii, that her letter to the editor appeared in today’s Garden Island Newspaper, that she is a gardener and lives in a converted shipping container and that we both have mothers who were pathological narcissists. Don’t ask me how a conversation with a stranger can turn so personal so fast, but it does. The more I talk about my experiences, growing up with a mother with mental illness, the more I find that SO many others are walking the same road. This reminds me that politics is personal; it’s like we are broadcasting our own radio station, all talk. 24/7. But getting to know another person, tuning into their bandwidth, for a while, it can open my heart. Just a little.
Back in November 2016, right after the election, I wrote a blog about my mother, about pathological narcissism and how it muddies the waters–for family and friends. This blog, “Not Your Normal Trip to Trader Joe’s,” is one of my favorites. You may want to check it. CLICK HERE.
Craig and I are very lucky that we get to leave our little bubble in Culver City and experience the ordinary AND extraordinary somewhere else. As if we are wearing a new set of bifocals. Even the sweet mundane stuff like taking a walk, having a cup of tea, standing in line at the box store takes on a different sheen because it feels new again.
Happy travels to us all – to the next room, down the street, one state over, across the country or the world, by car or plane or imagination.
One of my dear friends implores me to go zip-lining in Koloa. “My husband went upside down,” she tells me gleefully. For most people that would NOT be a tempting invitation… But I am intrigued. Craig and I have zip-lined once before on the North Shore of Kaua’i and it was spectacular. I want to do it again. This time on the south side.
Now you gotta know there’s no way I’m going upside-down. “Okay got that Cali?” I tell myself over and over. Hey we can “fly like a bird” or just do the standard “hang there” thing and that does sound mighty fine. Our tour guides, Coco and Sierra, are confident, funny, kind and very patient. I get fitted with a harness…a HEAVY harness…and presented with my very own zip-line-pulley which I will carry with me on the trip. Mine is etched with the initials “1 FK.” Is this a prescient sign of things to come?
We pile onto an open-sided truck that hauls us into what I will call a JUNGLE. We climb a platform to our first zip-line. It’s short and not very high but you still leap into the air and hope for the best. There are nine of us on this tour and one lady is a Russian ballerina with a sense of humor that doesn’t quit. She announces to anyone who will listen that she is doing this zip thing to conquer her fear of heights. Upon arriving at the end of the first zip-line she declares, “I need a VOdKa! I need a VOdKa!”
And so it goes. We trudge up up up, eventually landing above tree level. I thought I was in pretty good shape. Until today. It’s hot and muggy and I’m lugging some ten extra pounds of metal and strappy gizmos on my body. At one point I can’t catch my breath as the rest of the zippers navigate around me and disappear up the trail. Both Sierra and Coco stay behind, snatch the pulley from my hands and give me water. Lots of water. I tell them to “go ahead, I’ll catch up. Gasp. Gasp.” But they aren’t having any part of THAT. They wait. And wait. They regale me with stories about the beautiful valley we are in and about themselves. They are newlyweds and just got married a few months ago. My heart is going “awwwww” and I snap their picture. They love their jobs. They love Kaua’i. Finally I muster the energy to climb up to the next platform as they follow behind.
And I get my mojo back. In a very big, stupid way. Yes I decide I’m going to zip upside-down. Well, let’s just say…it doesn’t turn out that way. My husband, who zipped just before me, happens to be on the platform taking a video of my descent. A video of the WHOLE thing. I have added humorous asides and you’ll hear lots of voices in the background–that’s my husband and Sierra. The precocious kid asking all the questions is Miss VOdKa’s son…
My friends who have already seen this video tell me I’m very brave. Others question my sanity. I say maybe and yes. But for someone who is happiest sitting on her ass in front of her computer screen in earthquake country, I’m more than a little proud that the “dare-devil-she-lady” in me still lives and not only that, makes reservations to jump into mid-air and embrace gravity.
I am here on the Garden Island of Kauai…to decompress. To put a little distance between me and doing, doing, doing. To sh-sh-sh the crazed hamster turning wheelies in my head. To tear myself from my cell phone long enough to breathe and not get sucked into another wormhole. I’m here to feel my heart beat. Again. To look up at a watercolor sky. To walk barefoot. Somewhere. Anywhere.
My husband Craig and I are up for a little adventure too. I read about it in the airplane magazine—The Kauai All Girls Rodeo. This week!
We follow the GPS to Poipu then rock n’ roll down a rutted dirt road to CJM Country Stables, park by a horse trailer and slog our pasty pale bodies to the nicely painted stands just as the girls ride the flags—U.S., Hawaii, The Kauai All Girls Rodeo Association–around the arena in the opening ceremony.
The “cowgirls,” as they are called by the announcer, are little ones wearing “kid” helmets to older gals, with wind-tousled gray hair that goes all horizontal on their high speed cowponies. A few wear cowboy hats and those hats go flying as the ladies circle the barrels and race for home. The winner does it in 17 seconds; the little girls take longer. Chivalrous cowboys retrieve the chapeaus for the ladies.
We arrive with the can of sunblock we snagged at Wal-Mart in Lihue and my ubiquitous bottle of Gatorade. Even the announcer warns us about the perils of dehydration…
I think this is my first rodeo.
But when I was a little girl oh I LOVED horses, ever since I learned to “post” on an English saddle in the badlands of Washington D.C. Better known as the bridal trail loop in Rock Creek Park.
But when the family moved to Los Angeles the best news was that Western saddle. Oh God there’s something for my little girl hands to grab onto. In those days an hour horse rental at the local stable cost $2.50. I paid in pennies. I’m also lucky to be alive because I wasn’t a very good rider. Nor very smart around large animals. Twice my horse reared up and I went in the opposite direction, landing hard on my butt. Once my horse fell down, on all fours, and took me with him. I scrambled free before he rolled over me. Then there was the time my rental steed took off down a desert ravine, I lost my balance and slid off but caught my foot in the stirrup. I could have been paid big bucks for that nifty trick if I was a stuntwoman. But no… I just got dragged in the dirt until the horse decided to stop.
Craig and I took a trail ride during our honeymoon in Lake Tahoe and that’s the last time I’ve been on a horse, unless you count the merry-go-round in Santa Monica and Disneyland. It’s been 30 years.
All these memories wash ashore again as I watch the ladies do their thing. The trade winds feel like soft feathers across my face. The lush green hills and sparkly ocean form this spectacular backdrop for a rodeo, Hawaiian style, where the girls and boys speak Pidgin. Where the island tradition of Paniolo is honored and carried forth.
After the opening ceremony the “rodeo Zamboni,” which in this case is a flat bed truck pulling a giant metal grill, drives in neat concentric circles around the arena. I am mesmerized by the whole spectacle. And it’s good to smell horses again.
I cheer on each girl, even if she knocks over a barrel. My stomach drops to my knees as one the young lady is thrown from her horse at the second barrel, right in front of me. She’s laying flat on her back, legs splayed. She can’t get up. The medics rush in, another cowgirl grabs her loose horse. They know the routine. The announcer tells us that “these things happen.”
I remember how I walked away from my horsey mishaps, unscathed and very lucky, and am much relieved when the young rider is finally helped to her feet. Strong arms support her as she limps to the gate.
My life is very busy. Go cowgirl, go! Faster. Faster. And then the barrel gets ya…
We stay for the team calf roping event. There goes a baby cow…or is it a steer…and it’s running, running, taking aim at the opposite end of the arena as two ladies, their ropes spinning in the air, chase after the critter. One cowgirl is supposed to lasso the head and the other is supposed to lasso the hooves. And I’m wondering if the cow is thinking “F**K YOU!”
AND they are being timed how long this all takes, IF they can do it at all. Most of them can’t and one pair of cowgirls actually gets chased by the cow. Really? That got them a free turn. Bad cow!
I am fascinated. This is…so…outside my “bubble.” But my brain is still here, churning butter and trying to figure out HOW things work… And I’m really curious how the cow knows to RUN in the first place AND to the other side of the arena where it trots into a rather compact metal slot.
So we pass a couple cowgirls on our way to the car and I mosey over to have a little chat. “Hey There! I have a city-slicker question for you…” as I confess ignorance when it comes to animal husbandry. Well they are the nicest ladies and one declares “that’s a very good question.” What a relief because I’m feeling kind of “bubble-wrapped.”
So this is what happens: The staff comes early to work with the cows, run them around, show them the exit and all that stuff.
“Will they remember for the next rodeo?” I wonder aloud.
Apparently they kind of do remember UNLESS the rodeo is at another arena in which case they have to be “re-educated.” I immediately flash on my early piano bar days–when I changed gigs a lot and it was a different piano, in a different room, facing a differing direction, with different people… well it took me a while to “find my slot.”
This is one reason why I recommend people play their ukulele in different places in the house, outside, on a park bench, at your doctor’s office. It gets easier to find your slot, no matter where you are.
A Little Extra Something: Years ago I wrote a song called “I Wish I Was a Cowgirl.” It’s one of my absolute favorites. I was stuck in freeway traffic one icky, smoggy afternoon and this country-fantasy daydream stole me away and wrote itself into a song. Please click here to watch the video on YouTube.
First I hear it. Then I see it. Then my life passes before my eyes. In slow motion.
It falls with a thud and bounces on the hard floor. I hear wood kaploof and strings buzz like confused bees. It lands face down, my precious Koa ukulele. This is NOT where you want to see your prized instrument come to rest. A few of The CC Strummers gather around to offer solace after our Thursday class.
The spruce top is cracked. The binding is cracked. My heart is cracked.
How did this happen? OMG! Then I replay the last few seconds. Yes, I carefully place the ukulele in my case and zip it up. Do I zip it? I remember jabbering with my friends and hoisting the backpack case over my shoulder then…snap, crackle, pop.
Guess I didn’t zip it up after all. Multi-tasking is going to freaking kill me one of these days.
I beat myself up. All day I beat myself up for being so stupid. My husband sends loving texts: “Accidents happen.” “ Life is short.” “Even monkeys fall out of trees.” “I’m sure Rubio can fix it.
“Rubio” is German Vasquez Rubio. (You pronounce his first name like Hair-Mahn, not Angela Merkel’s country in Europe). He is a master guitar maker and luthier who I think would rather be in his workroom, hands to wood, than anywhere else. We have been taking our ukuleles to him for years because he’s excellent, his prices are reasonable and he’s a very kind man. His shop is no frills with bars on the windows, a couple old sofas in the waiting area, cases of classical guitars scattered about and autographed photos of grateful clients on the wall.
Armand, his right-hand man, greets us with such a big open smile that it helps tamp down my despair as I present him with Exhibit A
“Can you fix it?” I whimper.
“Of course we can.”
“Have you seen worse?” I ask.
He laughs at that one. They had to put Humpty Dumpty together again after the airlines shredded a $10,000 guitar. Just saying…
As he’s writing the paperwork I notice a nearby movie poster. “Oh! It’s Coco!” I exclaim happily.
Armand smiles again. “Yes German made the guitar from the movie.” Well suddenly I forget ALL about my ukulele because I want to hear “the rest of the story.” The rest of THAT guitar story.
Armand does a “show and tell” as he scrolls through pictures on his phone and tells us how the execs at Pixar and Disney heard about this great guitar maker in Los Angeles who also happens to be from Mexico, like the young protagonist in their upcoming movie, and they knock-knock at his door. Apparently everyone hits it off splendidly because German is hired to make a real guitar, just like the fancy white, skull-festooned one in Coco.
He builds a magnificent instrument and the execs are so pleased they bring in a crew to film him at work and they order 20 more. German just finished guitar #11. Wanna buy one? ☺
Coco debuts in Mexico first, just in time for Dia de los Muertos, and Disney flies German and the folks in his shop to the movie premiere. Within days it becomes the #1 film of all time in that country. The Los Angeles premiere comes next and again German and his peeps are VIP guests.
Then last February German is invited to his hometown in central Mexico. He needs a police escort as he is greeted by throngs of people. Their native son has returned. The man who built THE guitar. There’s music and speeches and an autograph session that lasts six hours. Try signing your name for six hours straight? And if you have the Blue-Ray version of Coco, Armand tells us that German Vasquez Rubio is one of the “bonus features.” Read more about this remarkable man.
As we leave the shop I say to my husband Craig “we better rent the movie.” As much as I love Pixar flicks, this one got lost in the holiday shuffle for me.
So we click On Demand and rent it that very night. Saturday. The following Tuesday it will disappear at exactly 7:28 P.M. The movie begins, the story unfolds, the music pours through our earphones and I start crying. I’m not Mexican. Well not that I know of (DNA test is pending). But this feels like my family and my story–the family who demands that young Miguel, the hero of this tale, chuck his dreams of becoming a musician, a guitar player, and learn to be a shoemaker like mom and dad and the rest of the kin.
My parents didn’t want me to be a musician either. My family prized academia. The arts? That’s hobby stuff. But the piano saved me when I was a sick kid. My Sears Silvertone guitar saved me through those ragged rutted teenage years. I couldn’t help myself, like Miguel.
In the movie he goes on a hero’s journey through the land of the dead on Dia de los Muertos, where he meets up with members of his departed family with their eccentricities and finely-drawn personalities intact. Miguel discovers that sometimes the very people we idolize, worship even, are balancing precariously on a wobbly pedestal. Sooner or later they land on their butts. If we are lucky, like Miguel, we learn the truth—that good guys are not always good and bad guys aren’t always bad and families, as imperfect as they are, teach us something deep and enduring about love.
Miguel brings this truth back to the land of the living, to his great-grandmother Coco, and he plays THAT guitar and sings her THE song that beckons her forth from the mists of dementia. Awakened once again, she reaches into a drawer to retrieve a tattered picture and a frayed book of poems. Her father’s songs. Apparently Coco has done a pretty good job of keeping these dusty old mementos to herself but their discovery changes the whole trajectory of the family. Music helps them “remember” — to see the dance of life across the generations, across the threshold of life and death.
Well that “Remember Me” scene just about does me in because I see this happen when I’m doing music therapy with seniors. They hear a song, the THAT song for them, the fingers on their hand move, maybe a foot taps, they look up, maybe smile. And sometimes they sing along. And for a few precious moments they have rejoined this mortal coil.
I am mindful that “reality” is a relative thing and that their reality is as valid as mine. But it’s lovely to behold when a person who is lost in another land rejoins what I would call the status-quo. At least for a while.
And for a while, Coco feels very real to me.
I watch it again Sunday night and a third time on Monday. I would have watched it Tuesday but alas, time runs out.
We picked up my ukulele last week at German’s shop. It’s beautiful. As if someone dusted it with a little magic.
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Earlier this year my husband Craig happened to be on Olvera Street in downtown L.A. and followed the music to this “Coco” celebration. He tells me that the kids were over-the-moon as they perched on daddy-shoulders, like this little girl, so many ponytails swinging back and forth with the Mariachi band. Viva Los Angeles!
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I think I got more responses from my last blog, USE THE BATHROOM, WHY DON’T YA, than any others. Some of you thought it was hilarious. (Thank goodness!) Others were grossed out. You shared your “it-happened-to-me” stories and I learned more about camping etiquette than I shall ever use in my life (because my idea of camping is Motel 6). But many of you reamed me for not saying something to the poop lady (as she was taking a dump under our third-floor balcony during her afternoon jog). You told me, in no uncertain terms, that I should report her.
To tell you the truth I feel badly for this woman. She obviously has “issues” BUT she is not homeless and this is a rules-rule community where I live. One of the rules is no #1’s and no #2’s in the common areas unless you are a dog and your master is toting baggies to clean up the poop. So I did have a little talk with the powers-that-be and an incident report was filed.
It’s been several weeks now and I haven’t seen the lady jogging or doing anything else for that matter. I don’t feel particularly vindicated. It’s just sad. We human beings struggle. All of us. And sometimes those struggles wash into public view. May kindness prevail.
It’s 5:30 P.M., dinnertime on this balmy Monday evening. My husband and I are high on salads these days as I have discovered a cornucopia of succulent green stuff at the local farmers market. All I have to do is empty part of my weekly harvest into the salad spinner and spin.
But I like to add a little extra pizzazz so I trot outside to our balcony and “my edible garden” which consists of a lone basil plant I snagged at Trader Joe’s. I grab the half-rusted shears and cut off a sprig for our salad. We live in a third floor condo in a large gated community and when I’m doing my “balcony thing” I like to peer over the wood railing and check out what’s happening down there in the concrete canyon below.
And that’s when I see her. “The Jogger Lady.” She’s jogging. And then she’s not. She stops dead in her tracks, pulls down her sweat pants, flashes her butt, full moon and all, squats and…takes a dump. Right there in “the common area” which in this case is THE ROAD.
Maybe I should have yelled “hey you…yes you…don’t shit in the road.” But I’m feeling like I just stuck my finger into an electrical outlet. It’s that kindof stunned. Maybe I should have grabbed my phone and taken a picture. You think? But I didn’t want to miss anything, especially the end of THIS story.
And it does end. And not well. She squeezes out three giant dookies. I know this because I have a bird’s eye view of her ass. Also I can count. AND I’m wearing my glasses. Then she pulls up her pants, brushes herself off and looks around. I duck behind the basil with my jaw hanging at my feet. Around here it is a mortal sin if you don’t pick up your dog’s poop. Plastic bags and leashes go hand-in-hand. Garbage cans appear in every direction on the compass. Do you think The Jogger-Lady pulled a baggie from her pocket? Do you think she scooped up her own poop? If you say YES then you live in Fairyland. Where no one poops.
Having relieved herself and probably feeling refreshed and…um…lighter…she continues her jog, disappears around the corner and leaves a steaming pile of doodoo behind. Whoever passes will think it’s the parting gift from a Great Dane or a Shetland Pony. Certainly not a lady jogger who undoubtedly knows how to flush a toilet. Thank God a big storm is coming to Los Angeles. In 24 hours. Which isn’t soon enough for me.
I understand that there are communities around here that have gotten so huffy and puffy about dog poop that as soon as DNA testing came into vogue…well you see where I’m going. An anonymous brown bomb is left on the sidewalk and the amateur scientist-board member with her do-it-yourself tester kit nails the offender. Of course it’s not the dog’s fault. Dogs will be dogs. But one would hope that owners know better.
Actually one would hope that PEOPLE know better. Sure there are cultures in the world where this story would elicit a “and…your point is?” But not here. Not in Culver City. This is where they filmed the movie Singing in the Rain. Which is what I will be doing tomorrow.
Speaking of tomorrow. AND beyond. I see this lady around. A lot. She jogs to the grocery store. She jogs to the post office. She jogs in circles. I admire her stamina. She’s probably burned through half a dozen Fitbits. But I wish she would use the bathroom. And I will forever link her face with a full moon. Spitting bon-bons.
So who made up the rule that there are ONLY twenty-four hours in a day? Because that isn’t enough time especially if you want to…like…sleep. Too.
I’ve been a busy missy and haven’t had a chance to write a blog for a while. But I think about you, my online family of fellow human beings, and hope you are doing okay. That you are slurping chicken soup as needed, smiling at a stranger at the grocery store, needed, and hopefully strumming your ukulele lots. NEEDED!
I’ve been writing lately, but not stories…
Instrumental music, of all things, and here’s the deal:
You can imagine my shock, as a singer-person, to learn that some people don’t want to sing. I hope you are laughing—a little—because fundamentally it’s kind of sweet. I know how good it feels to sing, to make a noise, and I figure everybody wants to feel good. But some of my ukulele students want to keep their mouths shut and play a cool melody on the uke instead.
So I’ve gone a-hunting for simple songs, knowing that I want folks to learn to read notes and come up with their own chord melodies. That’s the piano player in me talking. Give me a note, I can give you a chord. Give me a chord and I can give you a song!
But I haven’t found any that flutter my heart. So I’ve written a bunch of ukulele-friendly songs myself and they are gorgeous and I’m putting them into a book. News Flash—this is going to take a while. I’m just copyrighting them now. My patient husband Craig is doing all that Sibelius computer stuff and abracadabra, we’ve got sheet music with tablature.
I had a chance to play one of my favorites, Whirligig Waltz, at the recent NAMM show in Anaheim, amidst the “whirl” of thrumming sounds and swirls of people.
Craig snagged a video as I balanced a really cool Tenor Fluke on my thigh and played in the Magic Fluke Co. booth on mellow Sunday (that’s a joke).
Some of you may know that I played in piano bars for twenty years and that’s where I learned to “tune out” distractions, to put on the metaphorical blinders so to speak, and make music. Distractions like…televisions blaring, fire alarms going off, the hostess calling out “Peterson, party of four, your table is ready” on the house PA; the couple having sex—or pretty close–in the corner booth; the crusty dude with the well-fed garter snake slung around his neck and a beer in his hand; the bagpipe player who isn’t wearing underwear; the personal conversations whispered around the piano and I CAN HEAR YOU; people saying snarky things about me; me picturing a puddle of poop on their heads.
So that’s how I can keep right on playing “Whirligig Waltz,” impervious to the maelstrom around me. It’s a gift! And you can watch by CLICKING HERE.
I’ll keep you posted how “da book” is evolving. I already play instrumentals when I do music therapy gigs and a pretty melody on the uke can soothe and comfort. Oh those four magnificent strings.
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In the meantime, I’m singing too and wanted to tell you that I’m doing a Kanikapila—a Ukulele Strum Along and Workshop at Dave’s Island Instruments in Lakewood, California, Friday February 9, 2018 from 7:00 to 9:00 P.M.
Tickets are $20 and you get to keep my arrangements of the songs we play. See the flyer below. You can record the opening ceremony of the Olympics that night on your TV and join us for the real thing—people playing and singing and making music together. It is one of the sweetest pleasures in this precious life.
It’s two days before New Years. Late 2015. I am doing a morning Target run, trying to beat the crazy holiday crowds when all of a sudden a shrunken Medusa head drops from the ceiling. Just to my right. Hundreds of itty-bitty black dots are swimming in circles around her wiggly tendrils. Each minute new ones crash the party.
Here I am, frozen in the middle of the aisle, staring at the ceiling and thinking this is some weird-ass Target promotion for God-knows-what. But customers are pushing their carts around me, oblivious to the dancing head and that’s when I get really scared. Could it be me? Could this be a detached retina? My husband rushes me to the local emergency room where the crackerjack team diagnoses a posterior vitreous detachment. That’s the good news. My retina is okay. But it’s in my right eye. My good eye. I am legally blind in my left. Is this my new normal? Medusa hell.
What to do? I make a follow-up appointment to see a retina specialist and then write a blog about what happened, tap, tap, tapping through a gunky haze. I call it, appropriately enough, “Floaters.” The blog is funny, educational, it’s full of pictures and you can read it by clicking here. I hope you do because this blog is central to the rest of the story.
The Rest Of The Story — July 2017
The word “floaters” is innocuous enough. Some people “see” bugs—flies, gnats—that zip into view or hover like tiny helicopters. They swat them away. Good luck with that…
I have bugs too AND Medusa who is hanging out–right, left and center. Sometimes I’m looking through Medusa when I look at you. The medical term for this is a Weiss Ring—a circle of dark protein that is really really annoying. It’s the fallout from that magic moment when my vitreous membrane decided to divorce the back of my eye.
But in my case, there’s more… Clouds of gauze and slithery worms roll between me and my computer screen. And the television. I actually changed the channel once because CBS was all foggy. It wasn’t them. I can’t drive at night anymore because of the glare from headlights, any lights. I’m seeing halos that I thought were strictly the domain of heaven. Unless heaven is Wilshire Boulevard. One day I’m okay, the next day THIS happens.
Not long after I send out my Floater blog, I get an email from “happy uke player” who is on my e-list. She tells me about her friend. The one who had floaters too.
Yes HAD because this friend found a doctor who uses a specialized laser treatment that gets rid of them. Are you kidding me?
I contact her friend, whom I shall call Miss Floater-Free, and we talk on the phone. She describes her floaters to me. I describe mine to her. When I try to explain my “situation” to people who don’t have floaters, they kind of nod and glaze over. But she gets it. Miss Floater-Free tried special glasses and eye exercises. She spoke at length with the experts–eye docs. They told her she’ll get used to it. Don’t you just want to throw-up when someone says that to you?
So she scours the Internet. This is a woman who does her due diligence and she generously invites me along for the ride. Miss Floater-Free tells me she found THREE, ophthalmologists in the WHOLE United States who use the YAG laser to treat floaters. One in Virginia, one in Texas and one in Irvine, California. She books a flight to see the Virginia guy. In two consecutive treatments her floaters are zapped away. She pays the bill and presents him with a bouquet of flowers.
My floater-free friend warns me that eye doctors will dismiss my problem and tell me there’s nothing they can do. And THAT is exactly what happens. I understand that this isn’t about going blind. This isn’t about glaucoma or macular degeneration. But folks, I’ve got a freaking zoo in my eye.
The first retina specialist I see at the prestigious university hospital takes a quick look-see, hands me a “floater information packet” (the what, why, where, who cares of floaters) and shuffles me out the door. He should have just given me a lollipop and a pat on my head considering the way he blows me off. I get a second opinion. The new guy rates higher on the empathy bell curve, but still spews the company line: “You’ll get used to it.” And diss-diss on the YAG laser treatment (which by the way, has been around for over twenty-five years). Even my kindly optometrist tells me it will get better and why would I want to take the chance on some little-known laser thing with my one good eye? The real floater docs, it appears, are outliers.
I like outliers.
But I wait anyway. I wait a year and half and the floaters do not go away. In fact they get worse. I roll my eyes around in circles like I’m channeling Marty Feldman in the movie “Young Frankenstein,” trying to swoosh the “stuff” out of the front row. This works. Until it doesn’t. I email Miss Floater-Free again. “How are you doing? I ask. She writes back that the floaters are gone and have stayed gone. But now she has floaters in her other eye and she’s booking another trip to Virginia.
And just like that my husband and I drive one hour south on the 405 Freeway and land in Irvine, California, face to face with Dr. James Johnson. An outlier, indeed. Some have suggested I am very courageous to do this but I respectfully disagree. I have no choice.
With a big-as-your-hand 3-D model of an eyeball that opens in half to reveal the exciting innards that inform our vision, a nifty white board which Dr. Johnson props up between us (the man writes upside down so I can read it right-side up) and various other visual aids that includes Handi-Wrap (“membrane” material), he explains to me what happened and what is happening now. Finally I get it. I “see” it. No pun. We all see it… Lordy, he has beautifully framed pictures of floaters on his walls… If I didn’t know better I’d swear I’m looking at the Hubble Space Telescope’s “best of…”
I fill out lots of forms including the one where he asks how bad the floaters are on a scale of 1 to 100. 100 being awful, miserable, the worst. I check 100. Well…they seem really bad to me. Obviously this floater thing is very subjective because when he dilates my eyes and takes a “vitreous” tour Dr. Johnson tells me it’s not THAT bad. There IS Medusa however and, as he describes it, the vitreous membrane that detached from my retina is undulating like a wave through the gooey gel in the back of my eye, folding over and producing the panes of opaque that drift across my central vision. Actually floaters cast a shadow over the retina, like an eclipse, and that shadow is what we floater people see.
But hallelujah, Dr. Johnson understands how something like this impacts my life. I feel validated. FINALLY. What a freaking relief. There are no guarantees in medicine but he is confident that Medusa is a goner.
“Does it hurt?” I ask. “The laser treatment?” Dr. Johnson grins and says “I won’t feel a thing.” Meaning HE doesn’t feel a thing. Oh ha ha ha. But he quickly adds “no it doesn’t hurt.”
Well then let’s do it!” He drops a local anesthetic in my right eye and sits me in front of the laser, which looks like the “glaucoma-tester” machine to me. Well except it’s not. He places a fancy contact lens over my eye, secures my head with a Velcro strap and tells me to look that-a-way. And just like that the video game begins. He’s working a joystick and my eye is the target and “I” am the observer. It’s the strangest thing.
Pow, pow, pow. A couple red lights spark and I see Medusa floating in a sea of bright psychedelic light. Pow. Medusa jiggles and a tendril turns into tiny droplets that fall south. Pow, pow. Another tendril, more droplets. He pow pows the body of the Weiss Ring. Within minutes there is hardly anything left. Medusa has been vaporized. Her diaphanous mass turned into miniscule gas bubbles that float away.
Now he gets to work on the other gauzy stuff. Dr. Johnson will eventually do 729 laser hits. About average. We are done for today.
Mole rats have big teeth and can’t see. I feel like a mole rat. For a few seconds. The bright lights of the laser treatment have rendered the room one big weird blur. But soon I can see the wall. No Medusa. And the ceiling. No Medusa. OMG!
During this treatment, Dr. Johnson took a short video of Medusa’s demise. It runs about four minutes and includes his commentary on what’s happening. You can watch by clicking here. Don’t get thrown off by the incorrect date stamp, which he forgot to change, this is me, myself and eye! The gas bubbles actually “go up” in this video because that’s what gas bubbles do, but I see them “go down” because the eye and the brain commiserate to mess with reality. Whatever “reality” is…
Follow-Up — September 2017
Since that first visit with Dr. Johnson in late July, I have had two more treatments on my right eye and two on my goofy left eye with its double-dancing fur balls (a Weiss Ring that split in half).
The improvement is not 100% but it is startling and significant. I was encouraged to temper my expectations because some floaters are easier to treat than others. I can tell when the laser is not making a solid connection because it goes “ping” instead of “pow” and I don’t see the bubbly remnants float away. Gunk that is too close to the retina is off-limits. That testy diaphanous vitreous membrane still slinks around like a snake through the goo in the back of my eye. The laser just bounces off of it like a wisp of breeze that flutters a curtain. Tiny strands float through the lens of my life. But it is SO much better now. The Weiss Rings are gone and so are the psychedelic halos at night. Darkness is sweeter again.
If you have floaters that are driving you crazy or know someone who is swatting away imaginary flies, you may want to do some exploring. I’ve included links to various resources below. I suggest you find a doctor who has experience with The YAG laser technique. I am impressed with Dr. Johnson’s knowledge and expertise. I especially appreciate his candor about the benefits and limitations of this procedure. His entire practice is floaters and nothing but. People fly in from parts far and farther to make his acquaintance and get zapped. But medicine is an art, not an exact science, and no two cases are alike nor will they have the same outcomes.
So if we are lucky we get another birthday and another…and our body parts wear out and wear down. They detach and droop and leak and dry up and… What to do? Grab your ukulele and play a song.
A bouquet of thanks to “happy uke player” and “Miss Floater Free.” Perhaps I would have learned about the Yag laser eventually but these women expedited this journey of restoration for me and I am immensely grateful. And glad to pass the information along to you.
Ted-Ed Talk: “What Are Those Floaty Things In Your Eye” (Four minutes long). Click Here.
Vitrectomy is an eye surgery that drains and then replaces the vitreous fluid in the back of the eye. According to my doctor this is the gold standard for sweeping floaters onto their next life. But there are significant risks associated with this procedure and with only one good eye it’s not an option for me. Click Here for more details.
James H. Johnson, M.D. is my doctor. His office is located in Irvine, California. Click Here.
Video of Dr. Johnson zapping away the Weiss Ring in my right eye (4½ minutes long) Click here.
John Karickhoff, M.D. pioneered this YAG laser technique and is located in Falls Church, Virginia. Click Here.
I’m so glad people read my blogs. On the one hand, it’s cotton-candy sweet just knowing the stuff I write about is stuff that happens to you or someone you know. I love that “big human family” thing where our differences begin to pale in comparison with all that we share.
On the other hand, oh what a resource you are in my life. Case in point? Jeopardy. Watching Jeopardy is like comfort food for my husband and I. It is the official signal to tune out the happenings of our day and wind down before lights out. That said, I’m a terrible Jeopardy player. Just awful. My “processor” is slow. So when I do nail an answer it’s like WOW! “Good, honey!!!” My husband coos.
I wrote about Jeopardy in a recent blog. As most of you know it’s been a tough year cleaning out my mother’s home after she passed away. It’s taken all this time for the neurons in my brain to rejoin the party of life. And of course I wrote about the whole mess of it. Finally we sold the house and as I shared in my blog Watching Paint Dry, despite what we have been through, my husband and I are so grateful for the little miracles in our life. That we can snuggle in a warm bed and watch Jeopardy.
I receive a lovely email from a woman on my elist who actually works on Jeopardy. She asks me if I would like to see a taping. “Are you kidding? Yes, yes, YES and thank you!” And it’s not like I have to drive to Hollywood or Burbank. Sony Pictures Studios (once-upon-a-time it was MGM) is right across the street from The Culver City Senior Center, the home of The CC Strummers.
So that’s how I land at Studio 10. Actually my friends and I are escorted through the bling & swag room, the pretend mock-up studio (get your camera!), past cardboard Alex Trebek who is standing by the phalanx of Emmy Awards in their glittering display case, on to our front row seats as Jeopardy Production Guests.
I’m so excited I don’t even know my fly is down. Not that anyone would notice. Or care. Being here totally jump starts what I call my “Disneyland Complex.” It’s never enough for me to just ride the ride… No, no, no. I have to know HOW they do all those tricks. And right now I’m watching a whole lot of “HOW.”
The contestants are led into position with their respective staff member. There are animated conversations between them and fist bumps. It all seems very convivial. Stationary cameras are pointing at the contestants, the Jeopardy Board and Alex Trebek’s desk. A jib swoops in and out for the wide shots. We sit behind a bank of computers, manned by the director and writers and the lady who makes sure everything is on the up and up in game show land.
Other staffers decked out in their Jeopardy tee-shirts tell us when to clap. And stop. This is old school wonderful. No flashing applause signs here. Alex Trebek is introduced and we whoop-whoop. Microphones are hanging over the audience so we are warned several times not to holler out the answers. “Like you do at home.”
When the show breaks for the commercials Alex walks over to the audience and answers questions like “what’s your favorite show besides Jeopardy?” Better Call Saul. “Do you get nervous?” Not too much but he does get angry at himself when he fluffs a line. “Will you grow your mustache again?” No!
I ask “what do you and the contestants talk about at the end of the show?” He says just about anything and rattles off a few topics like sports, where they are from, those testy categories… The show today will be broadcast in December, hence the category about holiday songs (on this blazing hot August morning).
The answers are written on a big spread sheet that covers Alex’s desk and he crosses them off, one by one. During the break he re-records lines he messed up and the contestants get an extra dab of powder on their faces and more encouraging words from the production staff.
I don’t know what to look at first because there is so much happening at the same time. It’s like a three-ring circus. The audience has a monitor to watch, then there’s the great big Jeopardy Board itself, the contestants’ monitor and the contestants themselves, the staff nearby, the guys at the bank of computers, the cameras.
Now here’s something you don’t see on T.V. The moment Alex finishes reading an answer one of the guys sitting at a computer flips a switch (or something) that turns lights on both sides of the Jeopardy Board. That’s the signal to buzz in with your answer and the race is on. Some contestants get very “energetic” with their buzzers. I admire their spunk but wish they’d knock off the theatrics. Yeah, yeah I know you know the answer but your neighbor nailed it first so stop clicking that thing.
During the first break Alex poses for a picture with each new contestant. How these smarty-pants gals and guys stay focused with all this activity whirling around them is beyond me.
And let me just say this: Alex Trebek is 77 years old and stone-ass gorgeous. His marvelous resonant voice would make any singing teacher swoon. He practices the answers and pronunciations with his staff before the shows are taped. Johnny Gilbert, the announcer is 93 years old. Did I say “old school” rocks!
Kelly and Sarah of the Clue Crew also answer audience questions, pass out raffle tickets and souvenirs. We are attending the morning taping of three consecutive shows. This afternoon, after lunch, they will tape two more shows with a whole new audience. It’s a long day. But then again we get Jeopardy 46 weeks a year. So there…
Probably most of you remember Ken Jennings. He’s the Jeopardy champion who won an astonishing 74 consecutive games in 2004. That run became a cultural phenomenon. And a personal one for me.
Picture this: I am setting up for an evening show at a nearby retirement home. There are about twenty residents hunkered down in cushy chairs and sofas. Right beside the baby grand piano sits a big-screen T.V. that has been rolled in on a cart for this special occasion. It’s tuned to Jeopardy where Ken Jennings is doing his thing. But I have to set up my gear for the gig so I tiptoe around the television as I surreptitiously test my sound system. All eyeballs are locked on Ken Jennings and the gang. You can smell the “OMG” in the room. We’re talking Double Jeopardy, life and death.
During a commercial I run my fingers across the keyboard so I can get a quick feel of the instrument. This is called a glissando and just as I reach the highest notes on the piano the television goes black.
For a moment there is stunned silence. The residents look at the television and they look at me. They look at the television and then they look daggers at me. And now they sound like angry birds. Caw…caw…caw. They THINK I did it. They KNOW this looming tragedy is my fault.
I desperately fuss with the television knobs and the power cord. Nothing. I try to reason with the residents, explaining that doing a glissando on the piano does not affect electrical currents or cable reception. They aren’t buying it. Jeopardy is gone and it doesn’t come back. And neither does the audience. I lose them before I sing a note.
Such is the power of a beloved television show to capture us and then soak into the marrow of our bones. And today at Sony I get to watch HOW it’s done!
As for that interesting episode at the retirement home, every time I play a glissando I get a little twinge. Still.
What is it about the ukulele? This sweet little musical instrument that makes you feel so good. When you hear it. When you play it.
We “oo” and “ah” when we watch a great guitar player or violin virtuoso, piano, sax… “Wow, look at that.” We are grateful spectators.
There are ukulele virtuosos too but that is not what this story is about because the ukulele, more than any instrument I can think of, finds YOU. With its four tinkly strings, it invites you to join the party. Because you can. The ukulele is for “civilians.” For people who have never thought of themselves as “musical.” With this instrument you can experience the utter joy and deep mystery that comes with being THE ONE who is making music.
The ukulele turns spectators into participants and when we keep on strumming, something magical happens. A community appears. Out of nowhere… I have seen this again and again. At my gigs. In my classes. There is just something non-threatening and goofy and sweet happening with this instrument. It is not about rivalry. It is about sharing. It’s about “being human.” Together. That means the whole circus of being human. The triumphs. The travails. The hello’s. The goodbye’s.
The CC Strummers and I “take our community on the road.” Every other month we visit The U.C.L.A. Mattel Children’s Hospital. The music therapist tells us that some of the kids we meet…well…they won’t make it. Room after room we breathe in the truth that hangs over all of us: It’s a short life even when we live long.
So we make music. That’s what we do. We play a song or two, sometimes we teach a kid or mom and dad how to strum along then we give them the ukulele with a tuner and songbook. There are no words to describe what this means to them. What it means to us. Several CC Strummers have come close when they say it’s “life-changing.”
I put together a short video of our trips to Mattel. It includes kids, parents and our “Carpool Ukulele” where we rehearse as we drive north on Westwood Boulevard towards U.C.L.A.
And you can do something like this too. First of all we partnered with The Ukulele Kids Club which donates ukes to pediatric hospitals around the United States. When we sent them our first check they asked if we had a hospital we’d like to designate. The CC Strummers are close to Westwood so we contacted U.C.L.A. and waited several months for them to get funding to begin a Music Therapy program. But it happened! And from that moment on things started moving very fast. With the help of the music therapist whom I swear is an angel incarnate, we brought the ukulele to the intensive care unit at Mattel.
Doing something like this changes you. Our entire group has been transformed because we are all part of this journey whether we step foot into the hospital or not. It goes back to that “community” thing. As of August 2017, we have donated over $1000 to The Ukulele Kids Club. That’s a lot of ukuleles… And a lot of smiles.
Please watch the video by CLICKING HERE and you will see what I mean. This instrument is powerful medicine! For the kids, the families, the staff. For us. It is a gift that keeps on giving.
We don’t watch television for twelve days. In a row. 288 hours. Can you freaking believe it? Husband and I get out of town. Hawaiian Airlines deposits us on the Garden Island of Kaua’i. We drive to the North Shore, Hanalei, where we hunker down in the little studio apartment over our friend’s garage. After a very challenging year, this vacation is about doing a whole lot of nothing in one of the most beautiful places on this beautiful planet. And that “nothing” part includes not getting sucked in by the daily drum beat of news and manufactured drama and insipid opinions expressed by people who, by all appearances, have no bodies…only heads that talk and squawk.
The infamous Kauai roosters do all the squawking here—starting around four in the morning. Joined by a chorus, well cacophony, of exotic bird calls, rain that sounds like a steel drum on the tin roof and the soft whoosh of trade winds blowing through the phalanx of tropical trees and tangles of bushes. Oh the explosion of greens! And reds, oranges, pinks, yellows, blues, purples. In the sky, the ocean, the land, the tee shirts at Spinning Dolphin in The Ching Young Village in Hanalei central.
And there are rainbows. Lots of them. Because it rains. Everyday. When I was a little girl, my mother, in her infinite wisdom, told me “the devil is beating his wife” when it was both sunny AND raining at the same time. You know those kinds of days?
Sometimes we say things without thinking them through. Well maybe lots of times. I took this disturbing observation to heart and obviously it’s still rattling around in my head. But really, who in their right mind would marry the devil? And IS there a devil? Some guy who needs anger management…or psychotropic drugs…or more fruits and vegetables in his diet…because…well…he’s a horse’s ass?
By the way, meteorologists call the phenomenon a “Sun Shower.” Hooray for science!
So I sleep, eat and walk. Almost 10,000 steps a day according to my handy-dandy smarty-pants phone app. But mostly I pull the covers over my head and go unconscious. Until it’s time to get outside, play a little, meet and greet…
I take a lesson with Auntie Beverly who plays smoking’ hot strums on the ukulele. She also teaches hula, plays piano and bass and performs all over the island—wherever the compass points. She is a living, breathing avatar for her native culture and melts her sense of history and aloha into every note she plays and every word she sings.
My husband takes a video of the two of us playing Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of “Country Roads.” NOT the John Denver version I grew up playing. Like he does with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” Iz changes up the words and the chords. So I gamely strum along, smile and bounce around, even though I have no idea where Beverly is going with that middle part…because this is Auntie Bev’s world and I’m just passing through… Click here to watch.
She’s from Manhattan, the sales woman who could sell a slinky pareo wrap to a Bolshevik granny. We are perusing one of the gift shops in town where we meet her. Manhattan or not, she’s lived on Kaua’i for over half her life so I ask how she’d compare the two locales. In one sentence. This forty-something happy-one ponders my inquiry. For a few seconds. Everything on Kaua’i takes a few seconds…more.
“We talk to each other here,” she says. “In Manhattan, people just walk by.” With rare exceptions, we find this wondrous exhibit “A” of human connection in full bloom on this island.
By the time we leave, my husband has befriended the locals at the breakfast joint. Clarence and Bill for example.
Bill the Bird Man.
Like many cafes in Hawaii, the doors and windows are wide open. Birds fly in and out and make themselves at home. Our last morning in Hanalei, a sparrow bangs into something and keels over in our booth, right next to my husband’s backpack. I zero in for a closer look. The little thing is lying on its side, quivering like it’s having a really bad dream. And maybe it is. I figure—oh good, it’s not dead.
So I go over to the table of North Shore eccentrics and sputter some bird nonsense. Bill ambles to our table, leans over and, with exquisite tenderness, lifts the bird in his hands. He must have the special island mojo because that bird comes to life like some Disney audio-animatronic parrot in the Enchanted Tiki Room. Although in this case it’s the enchanted Village Snack Shop and Bakery.
Because it’s cheap and good we are there every morning, before 8:00 A.M., before the spam musubi, my favorite, sells out. One of the cashiers, Narcie, shares a bag of lychee nuts from her tree with us. Just like that. These “kinda-look-like-a-grape-inside” fruit are very labor intensive. It takes A LOT of peeling to get to the good part. But I like to play with my food so lychee nuts are delicious AND oh so soothing.
People are kind and say “hello” or “aloha” except for some uptight tourists. We see a bunch of local kids fishing in a river by our food truck. “What are you catching?” I ask the young woman and she gives me a Cliff Notes education on local, eat-able fish and who the boyfriend is…”over there.”
This is why we go back to Kaua’i again and again. There is a palpable sense of connection—with the air and water and land and each other. A little more “time-lapse” between words and thoughts. Of course there are issues roiling under the surface that you won’t see in the glossy travel brochures. Always something. Everywhere. But in this place I find my way…back to my heart.
It’s a warm, postcard-pretty afternoon here in Culver City and I am guarding my parent’s home. I’m sitting on the edge of a rented white couch, hunched over my computer. The sofa, with its array of white and blue throw pillows, looks better than it feels. A big black table has become my temporary workspace. I share it with an assortment of “coffee table books” arranged just so. Just SO the colors pop. Ersatz curtains frame the big picture windows and generic paintings, the kind of fluff you see in a doctor’s office, decorate the walls.
This house is “staged” to sell. We want to get it on the market. Yesterday. Before the flying saucers land in Omaha, before the stock market crashes, before something terrible happens in the world or in Congress or at Burger King. So I have been living my own episode of Flip this House. Minus the cameras and commercials.
My mother passed away July 4th. Independence Day. There is enough irony in that to keep the generators running. Suddenly I am faced with the one thing I have been dreading for years. Cleaning out my parent’s home. Perhaps it is intrinsic to that generation—the ones who lived through The Great Depression, a world war—that they don’t throw their stuff away. Did they think the whole mess of it would suddenly vaporize? Abracadabra! Well let me tell you about magic. There is no magic.
Before me is the story… The story of two lives stuffed into boxes and files and Hefty bags. The story behind thousands of black and white pictures that have lain dormant in a musty black trunk. I look at each photograph one by one. “Who the hell are you?” I ask over and over. Out loud. No year. No name. No nothing written on the back.
A few days later I am leaning against the wall in my daddy’s den, a room that hasn’t been cleaned since Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. My jeans are coated with a thick layer of soot and dust. I’m reading my father’s love letters to my mother. He wrote them on a typewriter. Besotted, he was. He saved caches of greeting cards from my mother too, where she added flirty missives and lots of curly X’s and O’s.
Oh those kids…
But I know how things ended. And they did not end well.
My father died 20 years ago and my mother kept his ashes in a purple-velvet bag on his desk. Once in a while she’d venture downstairs to his office, his bunker during marital wartime. There she is, my mother, standing akimbo at the door, hurling expletives at the purple bag. “You son-of-a-bitch-motherf…ker.”
It’s impossible to find the right greeting card for marriages like this. Something like: Call a truce, would ya? It’s your freaking anniversary. And have a nice day.
So back at the spiffed-up house, I am watching paint dry. Literally. The last thing on the “to do” list is to paint the front door. It has to remain open for a few hours and I’m channeling my inner German Shepard, sitting sentry even as I feel the memories within these walls begin to unfurl into the soft cushion of time.
POSTSCRIPT — THAT WAS THEN…THIS IS NOW
It took three months to clear out my parent’s home. Their essence faded away with each new coat of paint. Our real estate team, a mother-daughter (oh the irony…) helped at every turn with precise explanations, reassuring late night calls, hand holding and hugs. The house sold in less than two weeks, just before the election, and now a new family is writing their own story inside those walls.
It’s taken me this long to feel grounded again–in my body and in my life. From last summer, through fall, winter, into spring, it felt like my mental spark plugs were covered with gunk. Sludge. Goo. I transposed numbers, forgot people’s names, asked the guy at the grocery store where the garbanzo beans are…as I’m standing right in front of the garbanzo beans, and I made so many mistakes in my classes and at my gigs that it was no longer charming. In other words, life throws you for a loop. And you whirl.
Until you don’t. A few mornings a week I drag my butt out of bed and do a brisk walk. You know, that cardio crap. I trot right by THE house. I thought for sure this would churn up the woe-is-me stuff. But that hasn’t happened. My mother kept the shutters closed. Now I see sunlight splashing through the windows. It looks like a home that’s breathing. Again. And this makes me happy.
My mother and father did the best they could and I love them. I’m grateful that they got me here. But I arrived in their world. My mother’s mental illness is old. My great-grandmother had it and maybe many before her. My father was brought up by a single mother and an abusive alcoholic stepfather. What did my parents know about a loving marriage that endures through the seasons of life?
Think of all the baggage that gets “handed down” to us through the generations. Sometimes we take it on—someone else’s burden—and make it our own. And pass it along.
But this morning something wonderful happened to me. I woke up.
I played music and talked to strangers in line at Costco, answered a few emails and wished a couple Facebook “friends” Happy Birthday even though I will never meet them in person. I got to say “hi ya” to my next-door neighbor and watch some amorous squirrels chase each other around the Eucalyptus trees that lean into our balcony. I got to look up…at the sky…and feel the warm breeze whoosh across my face. I ate something delicious with potatoes in it and enjoyed a yummy cup of Bengal Spice herbal tea. I got to hug somebody and somebody hugged me back.
My husband and I have a regular date after dinner. We watch Jeopardy. And we tell each other, out loud, how grateful we are for our sweet life.
Hoarding is a big problem. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, how much money you have in the bank, or not. Maybe saving stuff is like saving little slivers of ourselves. We know how this story of life is going to end. That we are marching, crawling, dancing, back-flipping toward the inevitable. Does squirreling the stuff away lull us into denial? Mute the truth? Massage our egos just enough to make it through one more day and still feel tethered to this earth by another delivery from Amazon?
My mother passed away last July. My father died twenty years earlier and his stuff has been sitting dormant in their house all this time. The place needs to be cleared out, cleaned up and sold. I don’t have brothers or sisters. My husband helps when he can but the job of looking at every little thing–of holding it in my hand, maybe pressing it against my heart and saying “thank you” or “good bye.” Of taking its picture then depositing it in the rented dumpster in the garage—a dumpster I will fill four times. This job is mine and mine alone. It feels like I’m riding a time machine as I plow through boxes, piles of papers, endless file cabinets and big black Hefty Bags stuffed with God-knows-what. Of memories hiding in the sooty, crusty corners that haven’t seen the light of day since 1976.
My parents had lives before they had me and now I’m coming face-to-face with the old report cards and term reports and art projects. I’m talking about theirs, not mine. In other words, my parents saved everything. And that’s just IN the house. There is an attic too. It takes two dump trucks from the most wonderful people at 1-800-Got-Junk? to clear that out. Just the attic. A friend stands sentry with me as the crew shoves bag after bag, box after box down the rickety wooden ladder into “today.” If I had the time and the energy I would have emptied and searched through each bag, each box. But I am exhausted and overwhelmed and soon it all looks alike and smells alike and I just want it to be gone.
One of the Junk guys tells me that his biggest job took thirty-two dump trucks. Thirty-two trucks to haul the mess of “whatever” away. Can you believe it? Our two loads are positively dainty compared to that…
After my father died my mother’s mental illness spiraled out of control. Not that it was ever really “in control” but with him around–well kind of living his own life in his office, his hallowed space downstairs next to the garage–she wouldn’t go too far off the rails. But after he passed away the piles of stuff grew like bamboo in a rainforest. She got meaner and petty and petulant.
The dishes lay filthy in the sink, clothes slung over chairs, then over boxes. She slept in a ratty daybed in front of the television in what was supposed to be the dining room, wearing a parka, the same parka from last night, from last week, from last month. My mother let me into the house long enough to drop groceries by the front door and would start screaming if I ventured beyond the relatively neat living room to the chaos-zone upstairs. She wouldn’t let anyone else in either. But she liked to talk on the phone and was such a good actress that she convinced her buddies that things were peachy keen at the old homestead.
“I don’t have hot water,” she confessed to me one day. “Let me call a plumber,” I implored. “NO!” She’s screaming now into the phone. This went on and on. I tried to enlist others to help, but she would tell them, in her assertive telephone voice “there’s no problem.” And they believed her and not me. She did not have hot water for a year.
In retrospect, I should have called Social Services, but termites did a better job. Yes, Western Exterminators rocked her world. My mother had to vacate the place for three days or else die with the bugs. The guys were already inside, climbing over stuff, prepping the house, the tent was unfurling over the windows, it was getting dark inside and I still had to push that woman out the front door. To a local retirement home where they treated her like “your royal highness” and got her to sign on the dotted line to move in.
My mom had her moments. She could be delightful. Smart. Laugh-out-loud funny. Then, out of the blue, turn all Joan Crawford. If you don’t believe me, read my blog Not Your Normal Trip to Trader Joes that I wrote last November. And now, here I am, cleaning up her mess, the landscape-of-her-psyche. Made visible.
And then there’s my father’s stuff. He was the organized one. The scientist. The one who saved bills and receipts and their mailing envelopes, going back to when Franklin Roosevelt was president. He received so many awards for his work as a writer and aerospace engineer. I take pictures of them. I take pictures of pictures. I’m doing my own hoarding, storing these electronic images somewhere in“the cloud.” Besides that, I have to look at every single scrap of paper in his office, on a mission to find social security numbers. I am keeping the shredding department at Office Depot very busy.
Once in a blue moon I have a dream that is so vivid it feels like all the characters are real. The place is real. The time is real. I had a dream like that the night after I scoured the bottom drawer of a tall file cabinet that was tucked into a dark, musty closet. That day I had gone back in time with him, reading the most excellent papers he wrote in high school. A young man before he became a husband or a father.
In my dream I am in a laundromat washing my clothes when I glance up and see my father a few machines over. He is middle-aged and healthy, long before emphysema reduces his world to the size of the bedroom where the massive oxygen tank is hissing like a metal silo of snakes. And keeping him alive.
But here he is, in my dream, doing his laundry. I can’t believe it. My daddy. I catch his eye. Daddy! Daddy! He looks at me. No, he looks THROUGH me. As if I am invisible. The sudden despair I feel is crushing. I can’t breathe and wake up gasping for air.
My husband and I talk about the dream over dinner. “What do you think it’s about?” he asks. I don’t believe for one minute that my father actually visited me, like a ghostly apparition. But I have learned that all the characters in my dreams reflect some aspect of myself. After all, I’m the one dreaming this stuff up. And there is something about washing. It’s about taking something and making it new again. A fresh start. The father in my dream is washing something and so am I.
The heart-wrenching part is that he doesn’t recognize me while, at the same time, I am so happy to see him I’m ready to dream-dance across the washing machines and hug him like there is no tomorrow. But this is my dream and those two seemingly disparate reactions belong to me. We are talking about letting go, aren’t we? He is letting go of me. And ultimately, I am letting go of him. Maybe in this dream my father and I are setting each other free.