Monday, 9 December 2013

Doctor Santa

     I don’t believe in doctors.  I really-truly don’t.  And if that sounds kissing cousins with something nearing religion, it’s cause it is.  I do not believe in them the way you probably don’t believe in Santa (sore subject this time of year, I get it) or the Tooth Fairy.  Yes, it’s probably fear-based, childish pain aversion, for sure.  Deep psychological blocks no doubt, that would take far more time than I have left on this planet to iron out, and as this belief—or rather, non-belief—doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I have bigger psychological fish to fry before I’d ever drum up the will to tackle my aversion to all-things-medical.
     It’s been awkward for me, the whole Health Care debate.  Having lived for nearly a decade in the UK, I know for a fact a National Health System (along with a National Theatre) is a true sign of a healthy society.  Having said that… I don’t really care, (for myself, for myself) cause I’m not playing!  I’m not going!  This will sound harsh, but quite honestly, I’d rather get whatever it is they’re testing for than the test itself!    
     This hard-core lunatic-left-wing stance I take visa-vis the medical world presses buttons in many people, especially in those close to me.  It’s eccentric, I can see that.  And as I get older I’ve found I’ve had to make a few exceptions.  I do go to the dentist.   And last week, I broke down and went to the eye-doctor.
     “Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said, trying to keep from sounding too defensive (well, the doctor was laughing at me.  She’d just asked who my regular physician is, what medications I take, and when my last eye exam had been…the answer to all of it was: ‘none.’).  “Listen Missy, (I didn’t say ‘Missy, but my tone did), I believe the eye is composed of muscles.  Therefore, by not wearing glasses it’s like going to the gym for my eyes, they’re getting a daily workout.  Am I right?”
     She snorted. 
     That was her only response.
     And this is why I don’t go to doctors, I thought.
     And then she started talking to me like there was something wrong with my brain as well as my eyes, slow and calm:  “This might all be a little over-whelming for you, as it’s your first time.  But… you are far-sighted, you have astigmatism, and you have a few floaters.”
     Floaters?  FLOATERS?  That is something found circling the toilet bowl, surely, not your cornea.  Floaters.  It’s impossible say that word with a straight face.  
     And I didn’t.  
     And then I was hustled out fast, handed over to ‘Stephanie,’ the assistant in charge of helping blind people (or nearly-so) make fashion statements with eyewear.
     And this is where I turned a corner. 
     Suddenly I was in.  Suddenly I had to try on every pair they had.  Suddenly Stephanie and I were laughing, bonding.  And I knew I needed not only reading glasses, but driving glasses too, AND dark glasses.  And computer glasses, why not?  I’m a writer, for God’s sake!  I need glasses, I need them, the way Imelda Marcos needs shoes!
     I came away enlightened.  Humbled.  I had no idea going to the doctor could be so much fun. 
     I was blind, but now I see…
     Next up: mammograms.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

House-guests: Breaking Bread and Breaking Bad

Was it Ben Franklin who said ‘house-guests and fish stink after three days’? Last weekend left me wondering about the reverse.  What’s the sell-by date, the statute of limitations, the odor if you will, of time spent in the home a ‘BreakingBad’ addict?  
When and how fast exactly does that get old?
We’d had a lovely evening. He’d come in from London, was a little jet-lagged maybe, this house-guest of ours, a charming chappy, we all were getting on like a ‘house-on-fire.’ The house on fire theme could be seen as foreshadowing, I get that now. But at the time, the company, the conversation, the Abbott Kinney Tapas restaurant we went to, the bonhomie all-round, it fell safely in the realm of ‘a nice time had by all.’  Maybe too much wine was consumed, definitely too much chocolate—so what? It wasn’t like Meth was involved.  I didn’t even bring up the names Walt or Jesse or Skyler or Hank.  Okay, yes, I admit, half-way through our meal I was wondering just how bad our house-guest’s jet-lag might be, cause if it was super bad, well, maybe he’d like to call it an early night himself, and then—and only then—I might have time to squeeze in an episode of 'Breaking Bad' (just one…or two, three at the most). I have rules in place, you see, about that kind of thing. I won’t watch the show just before falling asleep.  It’s too darn dark and winds me up, and I’m ‘my-body-my-temple’ enough to know it’s not good to carry all that twistedness into my dream-state. But I’m also an addict; I can admit I’ve often planned my day around my watching schedule. I’m addict enough to feel a quasi-holy gratitude for the fact I never got into 'Breaking Bad' till it was all over, because I don’t know how I would’ve survived the waiting for fresh episodes on a weekly basis. And goes without saying, I’m addict enough to break my own rules about protecting my dream-state, especially when it comes to a season finale.
But at this point in my busy watching schedule I was only mid-way through Season 3, nowhere near the finale.  And as this pleasant evening wore on, I became aware we were entering a grey zone… chances were I would not be squeezing in anything that night, and I was going to have to be fine with that.
But it was on my mind, you know?  It was calling me.
I’d just left off where Skyler tells Walt he has to go to the police.  The scene where she’s been up all night, unable to sleep for thinking about it (join the club)-- that was re-running in my mind as I kissed our house-guest good-night on the cheek. Walt’s face, hardening, and Skyler who doesn’t see it, but we do, the audience, I did-- that’s what I was seeing as our house-guest disappeared into the guest room with its thin little walls and shut the door.  “She goes on and on, oblivious about the effect she’s having on him!” I turned on my husband whispering without missing a beat, like he had any idea what I was talking about. Though he probably did, because 'Breaking Bad' is pretty much my only subject of conversation these days. “She’s rabid! Frantic!” I hissed.  “He has to go to the police, she says, he’s in over his head with all these drug lords, he’s just a chemistry teacher for God’s sake!  Oh-ho-ho, Skyler had to use that word, didn’t she?  ‘Just.’ Just a chemistry teacher!”
My husband stares at me blankly.  He’s not watching 'Breaking Bad.'  Maybe he feels he doesn’t need to, he’s already getting blow-by-blow nightly re-enactments.
But I need him to see, to understand, to go on this journey with me, get down into those scary 'Breaking Bad' trenches.  I can’t do this alone.  “He’s changed, get it? He’s gone to the dark side of the moon, he’s a monster and she doesn’t even know! She still thinking he’s just her Walt, her schlubby high school chemistry teacher!  And he’s not! He's not!”
I think this is where my husband began shaking his head. At the time, I took it as affirmation that he saw what I saw: “It’s the character’s fatal flaw, right? He’s a good guy, or was. But it’s his pride, his ego!  All this ‘just-a-chemistry-teacher, in-over-your-head, can’t-handle-it’-business, she’s pressing down on the wrong button! Wrong, wrong, wrong! He’s a ticking time bomb, and here’s where he explodes!”
My husband’s expression turned to real concern. Again, I see now I probably misconstrued the meaning, I took his look as worry for Walt. Or maybe Skyler. Not for the state of our marriage. Or my mind. Or our house-guest…lying in bed, one thin wall away.
And if I’m perfectly honest, actually, none of this thought process was really happening. Cause I was in that scene in that moment. I was Walt. I was Skyler. I was breaking very, very bad--
“’WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE TALKING TO? HUH? WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK I AM?  YOU HAVE ANY FUCKING IDEA? HUH? HUH? I’m the bad guy at the door. I’m the man you have to be afraid of. I’M the man. I’M THE MAN! I’M THE MAN!!”
I might have gone on for a bit more. The scene definitely goes on from there. But my husband, thank God, was in fact ‘the man.’ The man of reason.
“Shhh,” he whispered gently, pointing at the thin wall separating us and our house-guest.
Next morning, we’d all planned to go to brunch together, meet up with friends, a nice day out.  But I woke up a bit too late (you really need to ask why?), and our house-guest had already gone.
… Something I said?

Friday, 1 November 2013

Day of the Dead

     “If I had even one memory of her cooking on it, then…” My husband was unable to finish that sentence.  How could he? My eyes were pooling, my bottom lip was trembling.  My mother had only recently passed, and we were standing in her ghostly quiet kitchen, staring at her dilapidated O’Keefe and Merritt stove, making emotional decisions. The stove would cost a lot more to put right than buying a brand new one, or even a similar re-conditioned one from ‘Antique Stove Heaven’—the place that had already offered up their astronomical ballpark estimate.  But that was the least of it.  Adopting my mother’s stove would also mean remodeling our entire kitchen around it.  Over the years I’ve dragged my family through more remodels of more fixer-uppers than most people have hot dinners cooked for them.  If I’ve learned nothing from all of that it’s that no kitchen ever transforms itself cheaply.   
     And my husband was right, my mom did not cook.  Had not cooked, not for a very long time.  I cast my mind back—I’d been with my husband coming up for 30 years (I was baby bride, don’t bother doing the math).  Had she really not cooked anything for over 30 years?  Did she ever cook?  I have a vague recollection of her stirring something on the stove top… once… but it’s such an early childhood memory, so lost in the mists of time, I could be just making that up. 
     “But we…we ate,” I said aloud.  My husband looked confused.  “Chicken Delite.  Or pizza,” I admitted.  His confusion seemed to deepen, but I’d answered my own question, remembering my youthful excitement over the parade of young delivery boys who showed up on our doorstep bearing food.
     “That’s where I get it from!” I said, connecting the dots, unbelievably, for the first time.  “I don’t cook either!  She passed that on to me!” I exclaimed, like that was a good thing.
     Well, I don’t.  Cause I’m crap at it.  Burning is my specialty.  I’ve had to remove all smoke alarms from our house, that’s how bad it is.  It was like those alarms just knew.  I only had to step near the stove and off they’d go.  When our kids were little I remember offering to cook for them once, and their little faces broke into panicked anguish: “NO MOMMY, NO!  PLEASE, NO!” they cried, like I was Joan Crawford threatening them with a wire-hanger.  It was awful.  I never offered again.  The only thing that saved us from complete starvation is my husband’s genius cooking skills. Whether that particular gift was in his original gene make-up, or an artistry born out of necessity, we’ll never know.  Point is, he’s smokin’…in a good way.
     “Honey,” he said gently, holding me close, “I can’t imagine you’d ever cook on this thing either.” 
     “But… but… you will,” I said, bursting into fresh tears.  Tears of the grieving trumps all reason.  And so, with that, our fate was sealed. Another remodel.
     It brought to mind the last remodel we’d endured in a different house—the one that had me swearing it was the last one.  Fixing up homes has been a sideline/addiction of mine, and until someone offers up a 12 step program, I may never be fully recovered.  But that one had been particularly painful.  Way over budget, way over-long, a certain psychosis had set in: I’d actually resigned myself to the idea that Chuck and his cohorts were a permanent fixture in our house, part of the family.  They’re nice guys, I remember thinking, is it really so bad living with them…forever?  Is it really so bad living with an unending root canal?  Yes, is the answer.  It was really so bad. 
      And in the midst of it, my father passed away.
     “Chuck,” I said, my eyes pooling that time too, chin trembling, full grief-mode, “you have to go.  (You, and your saws and your hammers and equipment, and your workers, and your dust and your chaos, and your invoices, and your intrusion, and your never-ending and-and-and…). End of the month, Chuck.  We’re having a memorial here in our home… for my father… and…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.  I didn’t have to.  Chuck was gone. 
     You could say it was manipulative, opportunistic.  But I knew it’s what Dad would’ve wanted for me.  He was a builder himself, and he had a sense of humor.   
     And I also knew Mom would’ve wanted me to have that stove, if only for the symbolism.  She was a woman who refused to be a product of her time, she was unchained to her stove.  It would be a classic reminder.
     I really love Day of the Dead.  It’s such is a beautiful concept; a day when we commune with those on the other side.  A time to remember, to appreciate and express our gratitude for all they gave.  But I especially like to ponder the many and varied ways they continue to give and enrich our lives, even after their ‘quote-unquote’ passing.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Knowing the ending doesn’t necessarily spoil a story..., I love the story of how we got our dog, Dashiell.  See?  Just by the fact I introduce him as ‘our dog Dashiell’ means, well, that we got him.  But believe me when I say, the actual getting of him was a mission filled with genuine will-we-won’t-we-page-turning kind of tension.  So yes, obviously happy ending, we got him, but I like telling the story anyway. 
     We needed another dog…like a root canal or an IRS Audit according to my husband, but in fact we did need another dog and that’s inarguable, like gravity or the sun coming up.  No debate required.  We’d moved to coyote-mountain-lion-filled Topanga Canyon, where Phoebe, our teeny-tiny designer Maltese-Mix, was an appetizer waiting to happen.  Furry four-legged protection was the only answer.  Obviously. 
     Nothing against people that get pure-breeds, but I like a mutt (hence the designer Maltese-Mix).   I also like puppies…and fluffy dogs rather than short hair…and it had to be a boy cause Phoebe’s a girl…and bigger than a mountain lion, or at least grow to be one day…and a rescue mutt cause there’s a world of dog out there needing a home… and a whole laundry wish-list of qualities I can’t remember now, but suffice to say, I’m super picky.  And I’d been looking for a while, too long it seemed, cruising all the animal shelters—local and not-so-local, the papers, etc.  It was a lonely job.  Our kids were little, I didn’t want to get them excited till I was sure.  Till I’d found ‘him.’   But time was knocking on, coyotes howling outside, mountain lions scratching at the door, that kind of thing.  The clock was ticking, no question, I felt the pressure.  But still ‘our’ dog remained elusive. 
     Dog pounds are hard places to visit.  More than once I was tempted to just take home a deserving case.  The dog that wasn’t a puppy, or maybe not very fluffy, or it wasn’t a boy and not much bigger than Phoebe.  Or it was maimed in some way.  Did the dog really need to have FOUR legs?  I found myself asking.  But all good things come to those who wait.
     Cause one day, there he was. 
     Fluffy, a mix of browns, a pup, but with big paws he’d grow into one day.  The cutest puppy in the entire world, and that would be understating who he was.  Another un-debatable fact.   
     Problem was there was a three day hold on him.  The shelter needed to give the owner a chance to come find him.  Three days!!  Felt like a life sentence.
     I went there every day.  They let me play with him.  I think I maybe named him.  I tried to manage expectation, tried not to fall in love with him, just in case the owners turned up at the last minute (who in their right mind could’ve given this perfect dog up?  Someone had to be looking for him).  I didn’t tell my kids, just in case.  I don’t think I even told my husband (he might have rooted for the owners).  But, as the shelter closed on the third day, the people who worked there said if I came first thing in the morning and so long as the owner wasn’t there, he’d be mine.
     8 AM.  That’s when they opened.
    7 AM.  That’s when I sailed past the kid’s school.  That’s when I told them they weren’t going to school.  They were going to get the cutest puppy in the world.  That’s when shrieks of happiness reverberated from our car throughout the entire city.
     7:15 AM.  That’s when we got to the shelter… That’s when we saw the fourteen other people standing in line waiting for the shelter to open.  Fourteen other people!  In line.  Ahead of us. And that’s when shrieks of happiness became shriek of horror echoing all the way back up to Topanga Canyon.
     Fourteen.  For sure they all wanted ‘our’ dog.    
     Maybe one of them was the actual owner. 
     How did they all know to get there so early?  Why didn’t I?  What a loser!  We all stood apart.  In silence.  Glaring at one another.  Instant enemies.  Competitiveness mutilated by a feeling of inevitable disappointment, those forty-five minutes of waiting were a kind of hell.  Maybe they want the dog with no tail, the old boy with mange, I tried to lie to myself.  There are a lot of dogs in there.  We can’t all want the same one.  But of course they did.  By definition there’s only one ‘cutest puppy in all the world.’  That’s the only dog you get up early for.  Obviously.
     I’d blown it.  My kids were looking up at me with muted expressions of unspeakably crushed hope—the kind they’d be on a couch fifteen years later dumping on a therapist. 
     “Alright kids, I have a plan,” I whispered to them.   But the woman in front of us whirled around, her eyes boring into me like she knew I was Al Qaeda and I was giving last minute instructions before we all boarded the plane together.
     I didn’t have time to give them my plan anyway.  A man had emerged from the shelter—one of the workers—with instructions for us before the doors opened.  We pushed forward, group tension reaching fever pitch now, you know, the way it is before a riot breaks out.  
     “You’ll go to the cage your dog is in, and get its number,” the man said.  “Bring the number and forty dollars cash up to the front desk.  Forty dollars will pay for your dog to be either fixed or spayed.  You’ll have to pay for your dog today, but you won’t be able to take it home till tomorrow after it’s had its operation.”  With that, he opened the doors.
     “RUN!”  I commanded.  “THIS WAY!” I called back, hoping my kids were keeping up with me in the crush, but this was not the time to worry about their safety or whereabouts.  This was the time to go get the cutest puppy on the planet.  Somehow all twenty-five of us squeezed through the front door in under a minute (more had arrived after us.  Super-Losers!).  It was here that I separated myself from the herd.  “This way!”  I hissed, hoping my kids and mine alone, heard me as I peeled left from the crowd which was heading straight back to the cages while I bee-lined for the front desk. 
     “Number 10653! One-Oh-Six-Five-Three!” I yelled at the poor woman behind the desk, startling her to attention, I think she might have even flinched at the two twenties I threw at her.  But this wasn’t the time for pleasantries either.  I wanted that cutest puppy in the world, and he would be mine, oh yes he would.  Ours, I mean.  And we were first.  Because of course, I had the number memorized.  I’d been going there for three days, after all.  Eh?  Not just a pretty face, here, huh?  “Kids, one-oh-six-five-three,” I turned to them with the urgency that saves lives, like I could somehow impress the number into their brains with mind control.  “Go to that cage right now.  That’s your dog.  It’s yours.  All those other fuckers, they can just back off!”  Okay, I didn’t say that, but that was the subtext.   
     They let us play with him all morning, before it was time to say good-bye, and they took him away to be ‘fixed.’ 
     Funny thing though, the other people didn’t leave either.  No they did not.  Because they were too busy playing with their own dogs.  The ones that, I guess in their eyes, were ‘the cutest in the world.’   Unbelievably, no one had wanted our Dashiell.  Un-frickin-believable!  And the next day when we all met again to pick up our dogs we were friendly as pie.  Smiling, waving.  We petted each other’s new friends, we complimented one another’s adorable choice, said we liked the names we’d all chosen.  But there was an undeniable underlying smugness… because we all knew in our hearts we’d got the ‘best dog in the world.’
     But Dashiell really was.  Again, not open to debate.  Proof happened when my husband, so reluctant to get another dog, declared immediately upon seeing him that Dashiell was actually his dog.  And he was—his, but ours too, as I said in the beginning, for over fourteen years.
     Yesterday we had to put Dashiell to sleep.  They say he was old for a big dog.  And this past year we for sure let his old age suffering go on too long.  He was on so many meds, so nutty, so smelly and tired; he reminded me of something out of Stephen King’s Pet Cemetary.  For months we’d been saying things like ‘This is cruel,’ even as we hesitated.  It was over-due.  Even so, thing is, he was the best dog in the world, and today it hurts like I'm under-going open heart surgery to think of him, like a physical pain in my chest, like a heartache you think might never move out.
     The inevitability of saying good-bye to a pet is built into the relationship from the start—it’s amazing, really, knowing this, that we all go ahead and put ourselves through it anyway.  But as I said, I guess knowing the end of a story doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it.    

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Smells like...?

      My husband’s nose is poised delicately over a large, freshly poured—some might say stupidly expensive—Petite Sirah.  We’re deep in romantic wine country.  Eyes closed, he conveys such bliss it sends me and my nose scurrying to my own glass.  “What do you smell?” he murmurs reverently.
     “Alcohol.”  Cause I do.  That’s what I smell.  The kind of scent I associate with the last few seconds of physical comfort I’ll know before my arm is jabbed with a sharp ‘this-won’t-hurt-a-bit” needle.  ‘Fear’ is the word association I put to those kinds of smells. 
     He laughs.  Cause he knows exactly what I’m talking about. 
     Don’t get me wrong, I love wine.  I drink wine all the time.  It’s all I do drink, as other types of alcohol for me are just that: Al. Co. Ho.  Rubbing.  Disinfecting.  Warning.  Those are the only appropriate uses for something that smells so damn industrial strength.   No…wine…wiiiiiiiine…whine…. That's always been my poison of choice.  And I don’t stint myself on price either, cause the cheap stuff gives me headaches.  When it comes to wine I go big or go home.  But having said that, I’ve never once been sniffing distance from it and found myself thinking: ‘Ah, there it is!  The indelible taste of scattered Autumn leaves laced in fine Brazilian dark chocolate with a whimsical note of a Monarch butterfly’s breath and all undercut by a sly hint of nun’s underwear’…or something.  Nope.  Words like ‘nutmeg,’ ‘cherry bouquet,’ or ‘soft alpine fire’ never occur to me, even when they’re advertised by the experts.  I don’t smell them.
     “What do you smell?”  I ask my husband. 
     He swirls the glass professionally, creating the ‘stems’ of wine on the inside of the glass that’s supposed to mean something…to someone.   He sniffs again.  “Hm, yeah…oh, yes…definitely…”
     “Smells like I’m one glass away from a guaranteed shag tonight.”
     Wine shoots out my nose.  Enough wine in fact by his definition to put him one and a half glasses away from getting lucky.
     It’s okay.  He’s wrong about the wine sealing the deal anyway.  After nearly thirty years together, wine coming up my nose is a far more effective aphrodisiac than wine going down my throat.  He had me at “guaranteed shag.”
     Let that be a lesson to you boys: girls like the funny.
     We also like bouquets of course…especially those underscored with the scent of fresh cut cedar along with the over-tones of rippling turkey-jerky, maybe just a nod from an elfen-lighted-honeysuckle-wick and finally rounded off with the smooth velvety texture of Black Sea mud, in order to reach for a perfect crescendo into a finely sanded, buffed if you will, holiday mood and—I could do this all day—the buttery warmth of toasted pine-cones…