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Shut Down Week 2

Nothing’s changed in my one-bedroom condo.

I wake up frozen in fear. My old Ikea down comforter shrouds my body. Before peeking out at the same world I fell asleep in, I breathe in and say, “The troubles of the world don’t own me.” I breathe out and say, “I don’t own the troubles of the world.” After twenty or thirty minutes forcing my mind back to this cushioning mantra, I go to my computer for the latest messages and news about friends impacted by the coronovirus.

At the hospital, a friend is off a ventilator and in for a long recovery, thanking those around him for saving his life. The Panama Canal Authoirty finally approved passage of a cruise ship that had been stranded off the coast of Chile, shunned at every port. Four people died onboard, and my friend, healthy but worried is locked down in a cabin with no windows and scant information. 

IMG_4785Henry jumps around to say he’s ready to go out and read his drizzled mail on the low hanging boxwood branches. There’s a shift on the sidewalk; less people than the day before, fewer parked cars, more birds. And Henry makes less and less whiffer stops. His friends must be on a later schedule, sleeping in. It’s the second week after all.

We pause at a neglected sidewalk garden, elevated in a bas-relief concrete trough. In there a crow pecks at dead twigs and tendrils from last year’s plantings. We’re not more than ten feet from her. She drops a brittle stick on the cement ledge, plunks a claw down on one end, grabs the other end and pulls up, breaking off a piece of nesting material. Gathering a few more right-sized pieces she jumps down and walks across the empty street with a full beak. Henry is nonchalant, as if she were just another member of the family. Dogs have a way of knowing. They read souls.

Around the corner, we stop to watch workmen covering another couture clothing shop with sheets of plywood. Pretty soon the whole street will look like a war zone of boarded up storefronts. Crows caw overhead. It’s our mother and her kin squawking about the lack of garbage pickings in the alleys behind the shut-down restaurants.

Back home you’d never know Chicago is on STAY-AT-HOME orders from the mayor unless you open the freezer and see 25 frozen Mac ’n’ Cheeses from Trader Joe’s. Other than that, nothing’s changed inside. I spend the whole day in hysterics laughing at jokes, memes and cartoons that people send me and post online. At first there were all dog jokes, like two dogs looking at a couch full of papers and a computer. One says to the other, “Do you think we’ll ever get our couch back?” The other says, “I think it’s going to
be a couple of weeks.”

After that, there were husband and wife jokes, like the photo of a woman knitting aIMG_5462 noose for her husband. And one of a woman digging a grave in the garden. Now I’m getting a lot of jokes with swear words:

Today the devil whispered in my ear, “You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”

And I whispered back, “Six feet, motherfucker.”

That’s another way of saying the troubles of the world don’t own me. I don’t own the troubles of the world.

Learning & Leaving the Real Estate Business

FeaturedLearning & Leaving the Real Estate Business

Adele, the feminist, challenged our church elders to explain exactly what the Bible passages stating “wives, submit to your husbands,” had to do with 1973 modern America. She steadfastly refused to “wear a head covering” as proscribed in verses familiar to anyone who’s been ensnared by a church that adheres to literal interpretations of the Bible. Adele, my role model for a time, taught me how to live in a conservative Christian extremist community as a sincere provocateur who loved God. It wasn’t easy.

“You should get a real estate license and work with me in that new subdivision,” Adele suggested, knowing wives were discouraged by church elders from working outside the home. I trusted her counsel because she was on her third marriage and knew that financial independence was the first step to freedom from my second bad marriage.

I sat in the makeshift office of the model home in a planned development of half-built single family homes on ⅓-acre parcels in Ocean County, New Jersey, answering phones, staffing open houses, tidying up the office, running errands. Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, buoyed by Adele’s words,“You only need one sale.”

A couple appeared one day when I was alone in the office. I leapt to my feet, obtained some qualifying information and showed them around. The Princeton University professors picked out their dream house-to-be-built, and I called the Owner of the development to bring a contract. Not only was I going to make a few thousand dollars, but I would be playing a bit part in helping to integrate our all-white community.

I had been a political activist since high school, and at age 27, I had no evidence to suggest that all of America wasn’t heeding the call of social change and racial integration espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It just never occurred to me that people thought any other way.

The pro forma Owner arrived in short order with a contract but when faced with the couple doubted that he could provide their choices of tile, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. I always found him to be too encumbered by his own cunning so nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusual. They signed a contract contingent on negotiating for the decor at a later date. The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, then found me a part-time job making stained glass lamps.

A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice charging me and the Owner with discriminating against the black couple from Princeton. All they wanted was a house near the ocean where they could raise their boys in a good school and send them to Little League. Guilt squeezed my chest with thoughts that I was complicit in killing their dream. “This is Adele’s fault,” I irrationally concluded.Unknown

I sat for a deposition and feared a discrimination law suit would follow me around for the rest of my life. It dragged on for months but never went to court.

I was scoring glass in the workshop when Adele brought me a news article. The NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending couples to white neighborhoods to purchase property.

“See?” she said, “they were shills.”

 Good for them.

Life in the Shut-Down Lane

 

Going? Not going? A single day passed and no matter the destination whether Walgreen’s or Mexico, the decision was made for me. I’m not going. No one’s going. No one’s going anywhere. 

The questions alone open an empty space in my head that fills quickly with a laugh, a giant cosmic laugh that says, “You used to have a choice!” Now there’s no dilemma about where to go, who to see, what to do, what time to do it. 

Today, I am my existence. I maintain my essence built over a lifetime; fretful sleep, overeating, wasteful showers, obsessive reading, TV ’til two a.m. And, I build anew. I make tuna salad sandwiches, stir-fry zucchini with onions and go to meetings on Zoom. Henry the dog and I walk to new places like Michigan Avenue where we give six-foot hellos to neighbors we don’t know, will probably never know. In an unfamiliar park I break the law, unleashing him to run the crunchy March earth. We’re lulled into concluding some rules no longer apply. He trees squirrels. I hear a woodpecker

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Henry Sheltering in Place

(tomorrow binoculars). T.S. Eliot wrote “Time past and time future what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.” I have time on my hands. It cannot be washed off, nor sanitized away.

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales help children cope with their existential anxieties and dilemmas. I’m grateful for my new-found fairy tales on Acorn and Netflix. They’re satisfying, even intoxicating. “Vera” quenches my thirst for relief from today’s threat of a mad virus loosed on an unprepared society. She always catches the killer, within one episode. And “West Wing”’s President Jed Bartlett reassures me, “There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we are one country and have national needs.” Fairly tales are indeed a good shield.

A friend yelled at me on the phone, “I just want to go to a restaurant!” 

Who doesn’t? I live in cafe society— exchanging gossip, ideas, medical records and laughs in half-public coffee shops, restaurants, hotel lobbies, church halls, run-ins at shops and malls. It’s part of my essence, my existential cover, a baby blanket of being. I need it. 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said Blaise Pascal whose health problems left him no choice but to sit alone in quiet for long periods. He tried to solve some of humanity’s problems. Perhaps if he’d lived longer he’d have given us more than pensées.

To preserve my sanity, I usually sit quietly in a room for thirty minutes every day consciously telling myslef I do not own all of humanity’s problems, nor do they own me. But now that I’ve been sitting in a room alone for days, I’m concocting brilliant and crazy solutions to humanity’s problems. Pascal would be pleased, but I’m afraid I’ll go from here to the psych ward. 

Or run for office.

Writing Family Secrets

When I began memoir writing I had no intention of chronicling my family’s drinking, or mine, for that matter. I wrote because my new doctor led a program in expressive writing. He said writing would cure my chronic pain. He was the last stop on an exhaustive trip that was going nowhere, so I took a chance. He was right.

As a kid, I was singled out to write the all-school letters; thank you notes to the local bakery for Christmas cookies and expressions of sympathy to teachers who had a death in the family. Once I wrote a note in French to the French teacher congratulating her on retirement. Every year I’d write an official letter to the president inviting him to visit our school.

When my sixth-grade class was assigned to write about our Thanksgiving vacation, I wrote that my family’s leftovers were wrapped in aluminum foil and stored in the refrigerator where they’d stay until the smell got so bad someone would finally throw out the rotten food. Until I retired, that was the only time I wrote anything revealing about my family.

But looking back now, I’m starting to understand why so much of my memoir-writing includes stories about alcoholism. Bonnie Carlson, author of the novel Radical Acceptance, says retirement liberated her to be open about her recovery from alcoholism; she didn’t have to worry about the stigma at work.The stigma of alcoholism at work never worried me, but retirement did free me to write fearlessly about consequential decisions resulting from alcoholism and mental illness. Shame broke like a water balloon all over my writing, and dissipated into my own edited words. I’ve dared readers to accept the chaos of my family’s alcoholic life. More than that, I’ve added my own voice to the truth-telling writers of recovery whose stories help explode the stigma.

Frank McCourt’s powerful language forces us to relive his impoverished and loveless childhood in Angela’s Ashes. It’s quite a feat to write about his alcoholic father with forgiving humor. Pete Hamill in A Drinking Life, Mary Carr in The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life all give us stories of violent alcoholic behavior that make me wonder how they ever managed to get out alive, much less write about it.

“Write what you know” is attributed to Mark Twain. But I could quote all my school teachers saying it. I’ve always known it doesn’t mean to write descriptions of my school 9EC7F9F3-1257-4DA2-9AD7-FD17975A7022_4_5005_croom or home or even all the gory details about my parent’s drinking. It means to write that I wished my mother was more like I-Love-Lucy or that on most mornings I put my finger under her nose to test for life.

Writing like that was forbidden when I was a child, as were any vocal or facial expressions of the fear, the self-pity, the distress. Those emotions settled in my soft tissue and came out to physically torment me in my fifties.

James W. Pennebaker, the pioneer of writing therapy, hitches recovery from the health aftershocks of secrets to expressive writing. Expressive writing reveals feelings through events, memories, objects, or people. It’s not so much what happened as how you feel about what happened or is happening. It’s that all-important question we hate to hear from a therapist, “how did that make you feel?”

Eyeballing your feelings in your own writing can be unpredictably gut punching. It’s a fast-acting treatment though, this bibiliotherapy, a painkiller and a healer.

Get A Grip

Over the years, I’ve acquired one untrained dog after another. I dismissed the American Kennel Club admonition, “Scottish Terriers are hard to train” as if it didn’t apply to me, Scottiesbecause I simply love them. The AKC is right, of course. Scotties are hard to train in all
areas particularly in their nasty habit of “marking” any old spot they please including inside, on the carpet. My last Scottie yanked so hard on his end of the leash to protect me from sidewalk dogs that I’d lose my grip as he went on the attack. I’d been to court twice for his biting dogs and their owners. He was finally sentenced to permanent muzzling but before I could carry out his punishment, five-year old Ozzy inexplicably and suddenly died.

After Ozzy’s death, bottomless-pit grief drove me to vow to be forever dog free. This made the decision to rip up the stinky carpet an easy one. I replaced the old stained wall-to-wall with Home Depot’s TrafficMASTER Luxury Vinyl Plank Flooring. No more dogs with their curious canine mating rituals. No more carpet cleaning. And no more vacuuming, which I hated even more than the dentist’s three-hour procedure to extract my ankylosed tooth. I didn’t need to worry about traumatizing the dog with such a drastic change. Ozzy was dead. I’d never have another. I didn’t know I’d parked the idea of a dog in a sub region where ideas slow cook before the boil.

The first week of the new cherry colored hard floor, one of my favorite CB2 glasses slipped from my grasp and smashed to pieces. The next week another fell out of my hand to the floor.

The Marta glass collection from CB2 has a cult-like following. The glass itself is micro-thin. Your lips close in on the minimalist rim with ease. Liquid doesn’t sneak out of the edges between the glass and your cheeks, dribbling down your neck onto your new pink velvet blouse. The sides are smooth and straight; no prismatic mystery of what’s inside. They are a joy to embrace, these perfect affordable glasses. I loved to open the kitchen cabinet and see my whole Marta collection lined up like gossamer terra cotta warriors. 

The hard floor brought a hard reality. With carpet, when my hold weakened on breakables, and they dropped, they didn’t break. With the hard floor underfoot many treasures have slipped out of my grasp and smashed to the ground before I remembered to get a grip. Glass slivers embedded in my feet led me to question what was wrong with my hands. 

Hand grip strength is a test the doctor performs on the aging. Greater grip strength equals greater mortality. There it is. That old mortality jumpin’ up trying to scare the bejesus out of me, tempting me to obsess over how long I have to live.OIP.G7cFtu7ChS0N98F2VAjjqAHaFj

Only one of my treasured glasses have survived. All is not lost though. I have a new well-trained non-Scottie dog who doesn’t test my impotent grip on his leash. And I’ve softened  my grasp on mortality, leaving the fear of dying for another day.

 

 

How Can I Keep From Singing?

I once read that Michele Obama insisted Medicare require doctors to ask their patients if they are depressed. Whether that’s true or not, my doctor recently asked me the question in three different ways.

“Are you depressed?”

“No.” I wasn’t at that moment.

“Are you sleeping?”

“No.” 

“Are you socializing?”

“No.”

Socializing is not a word I use. I join friends for choir practice, writing classes and lunch, but I rarely go out at night except to public meetings and author talks, not exactly social. And I’d always rather be in bed.

Ok. I socialize. I just don’t want to socialize since I am, well, depressed. There’s a web dangling overhead that periodically ensnares me. I have to shake its silky mess from my psyche before the new normal sticks me with its venom.

I asked the doctor if a lot of people are depressed.

“Everyone I see. Everyone my colleagues see,” she answered. “Careful you don’t look to yourself for a reason for your depression,“ she said. “The reason is trumpism.”

 Oh. That.

Choir director Jonathan Miller never utters a word about politics. But I can tell he’s picked up the scent of this national stink by the songs he picks for our choir. Our song index for the spring concert includes Waitin’ for the Light to Shine, What a Wonderful World, The Storm Is Passing Over, Bridge Over Troubled Water and How Can I Keep from Singing?

Roger Miller of Dang Me fame (and a depressive himself) wrote the score for the Broadway play, Big River, an adaptation of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn walks around in the dark singing Waitin’ for the Light to Shine lamenting his thcircumstances and wishing he could find meaning to his life. When he returns home, his father, a violent drunk, drags him off to the woods and tries to kill him. The poor kid escapes down the Big River, never to return.

This is my fear. I’m afraid a deranged president is attempting to psychologically murder me and there’s no escape. The fear is mutating and causing havoc like the coronavirus. It shape shifts itself into depressed, suspicious, angry, aggressive people. And they’re multiplying. They’re on the bus, at the checkout counter, on the condo board and sitting next to me at the movies. All of America needs to find the escape hatch and flee downriver with Huck Finn.

“How do you feel when you get up in the morning?” The doctor asked.

Hopeless. I need about fifteen minutes of constant prayer to catch the hope I need to get out of bed. It eventually floats through my thoughts in song.Untitled

You may think the song How Can I Keep From Singing doesn’t exactly fit into the buck-up category represented in my choir’s repertoire since the lyrics contain words like lamentation, tumult and strife. But Jonathan Miller added his own lyrics describing a choir as a healing balm. My hope is whenever trumpism churns my stomach, I remember to take the cure. 

How can I not keep singing?

__________________________________________________________________

Sing Along with President Jeb Bartlett: How Can I Keep From Singing

 

Funny Old Valentines

Whenever I’m reminded of My Funny Valentine I sing it to my dog. Sometimes he sings back. I’ve always had funny dogs, especially when I forget to take them to the dog parlor il_570xN.1179210609_jgjt
and they can’t see through their neglected haircuts.

The truth is, My Funny Valentine is comforting, not just for singing to dogs. The lyrics make me feel lovable. According to the song writers, the more time goes on, the more lovable I might be getting. I’m less photographable, my figure is less and less Greek, my mouth is getting weaker and what comes out of it is less smart. Perhaps Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart actually wrote the song with their grandmothers in mind. After all, haven’t most of us laughed at our quirky old grandmothers? Like the time she put the turkey in the oven upside down? Or bought a dry-clean-only shirt on sale at Bloomingdales for a 10-year-old boy?

Those laughs may be in short supply if Michael Bloomberg becomes president. He says that healthcare will bankrupt us unless we deny care to the elderly.

“If you show up with cancer and you’re ninety-five years old, we should say, ‘there’s no cure, we can’t do anything’. A young person? We should do something. Society’s not willing to do that, yet.” Bloomberg said.

Yet? Society’s not willing to pull the plug on its grandparents? Yet?

Why can’t policy changes allow me more time in the cost-effective doctor’s office, instead of withholding costly medical treatment as I get older? Words from my weakening lips have become slower and less smart. Because office visits are limited to twenty minutes, the doctor may not hear that this grandmother requires nothing more than a prescription drug change. Inattention to my symptoms in the doctor’s office could lead to a later trip to the costly emergency room, admittance to the costly hospital and visitations by costly specialists who in the end announce a diagnosis of nothing more than easy-to-treat high blood pressure.

There’s nothing new about politicians proclaiming the elderly are not worth the medical expense or care we give them. In 1984, Governor Dick Lamm of Colorado said, ”We’ve got a duty to die and…let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” The duty-to-die statement ruined his opportunity to run for president. When Obama officials tried to add simple advance-care consultations to the Affordable Care Act, Sarah Palin denounced it as the creation of “death panels.” How do you think Bloomberg’s statement will be used?

We’ve gotten the same messages from the right-to-die movement for years—as if our right to die must be supported by cost effectiveness rather than a policy of choice. Don’t get me wrong. I have no intention of living past my expiration date. I’ve made my own choice in my end-of-life papers.

Bloomberg’s “yet” is a bothersome dated idea—killing off our funny old valentines to save the country from healthcare bankruptcy. 

Surely we’ve progressed farther than this.

Across the Divide by John Buchanan

 

Guest Blog from John Buchanan, Pastor Emeritus, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

“…Comey, who Trump, employing his most eloquent adolescent vocabulary, called a “sleaze bag.”

Hold to the Good

Our minister, Shannon Kershner, read Matthew 5: 13-16 to us Sunday morning, told us we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world and challenged us to start acting like it. Shannon said that a clergy friend of hers was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last week so Shannon tuned in on C-Span and watched the entire event, something she said she had never done before. She said she was deeply disappointed by what transpired at the Breakfast. The congregation applauded at the end of her sermon, something that doesn’t happen much in Presbyterian Churches.

The National Prayer Breakfast has been an annual Washington tradition for nearly 70 years and ordinarily a strictly nonpartisan event. The Keynote speaker at the recent Prayer Breakfast was Arthur Brooks, Harvard University and Kennedy School Professor and former president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank…

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