Terror in the Dressing Room

frog-pond-841839_640About ten years ago I had a frightening incident while trying on clothes at Macy’s. I went to buy myself some new clothes for Christmas. In those days no one bought clothes online. There were catalogs, but I preferred to go to brick-and-mortar shops, choose whatever caught my eye from the racks, and try things on. One of the items I tried on that day was an attractive lavender turtleneck sweater I found on the sale rack.

When I looked at myself in the dressing room mirror after I got the sweater on, I almost screamed. I managed, just barely, to stifle it. I was horrified to see that the sweater had pushed up the loose flesh of my neck to form a spare tire bulging between the top of the high, snug-fitting collar and my chin. I looked like a puffed-up bullfrog. A bullfrog sending out a mating call.

“How are you doing in there?” the sales woman asked sweetly from outside the dressing room door, a tinge of concern in her voice.

“Fine,” I lied. Apparently I had not managed to stifle the entire scream. Some squeaked out for the sales woman to hear. Or riveted out, more accurately. Well, I thought, what would that sweet, firm young thing know about how frightening a spare tire made of neck flesh can be? She was twenty-something, I was sixty.

How had this state of affairs, of my neck I should say, escaped me for so long? I had no idea it was that saggy. It was a huge shock to me, but such a condition can’t have blown up overnight. I had developed turkey neck, a condition many of us senior women get unless we have cosmetic surgery, only instead of sagging it was being pushed up by a turtleneck collar. I realized with dismay that I had a couple of turtleneck sweaters at home. I hoped I hadn’t been going around looking like I did in the mirror. I hadn’t been paying attention. Hopefully their necklines weren’t as snug as the one I was trying on.

It was an afternoon of brutal Truth. I realized my neck was just one of many conditions of aging creeping up on me. Galloping up. Bags were starting to form under my eyes, I had gained a bit of weight, I had a few liver spots, and skin damage from the vain, reckless sunbathing of my youth. A basal cell carcinoma, above my right eye, was successfully removed but the surgery had left a crater. Deep vertical creases had sprouted at the sides of my mouth and I looked sort of like a puppet.  Turkey neck, temporarily transformed into bullfrog neck, is just one of the many dents and scratches resulting over time from that big messy collision called life. Today I cheerfully accept them, as well as the fact that there will be more as time goes on. After all, consider the alternative (and I’m not talking about cosmetic surgery). I’ll gladly take my dents and scratches over that any day.

This Thanksgiving I have a special blessing to be grateful for.

pumpkin-pie-520655_640I’m thankful for so many things in my life. My good health and my family’s, an enjoyable and active retirement, good friends, the freedoms we enjoy in this country, financial stability….

Oh, yadda yadda, blah blah. Do you want to know what I’m really thankful for? I’m really thankful that my niece Heather and her husband Sam have taken over hosting our family Thanksgiving celebration at their home. Their home, not mine. Yay! With 70 right around the corner for me, I’d rather Thanksgiving be at the home of someone who’s not me. I did it for years, and while it was a pleasure in many ways, it took weeks of preparation:  planning what to serve, shopping, cleaning, polishing, putting up special decorations, and so forth.

I did lots of hunting for dishware. I never remembered where my holiday stuff was from year to year and would have to rifle through all my cupboards. I would get down on the kitchen floor with a flashlight to search the cupboard under the stove, looking for my casserole dish with the warming candle unit underneath, my butter dish with the turkey-shaped cover, my orange-red-and-gold leaf-shaped appetizer dish, and other favorite holiday things. And after I found those, there was the tablecloth and matching napkins to be ironed, last-minute cleaning…it never ended.

Most of the guests brought food, and my husband even cooked the turkey. Can you believe I have the nerve to complain? But I had the key responsibility for making sure the bird and all the accompaniments and side dishes were done at the same time. It made a nervous wreck out of me every year. And though lots of people helped with cleanup after dinner, there was always plenty left to be done the day after, and the day after the day after. Washing the linen, putting away the holiday dishes in special places that I wouldn’t remember the next year, cleaning up wine stains on the carpet…    

Heather and Sam are doing an outstanding job. Sam, who is establishing himself as a world-class grill master, cooks the turkey on a great big rotating spit on his super-duper outdoor grill. It’s delicious. Out of this world, in fact. And Heather has revealed a real flair for gracious entertaining, seemingly without effort, from cooking to mingling with all the guests. She charms, she stays calm and carries on. It’s a bit humbling for me, actually. But I forgive them when, fresh and rested, I walk in their door, deposit my green bean casserole in the kitchen, then go join the other guests to chat and mingle and attack the appetizers.

I haven’t always been a grouch. I loved doing Thanksgiving when I was younger. But youth belongs to the young, and in my opinion, so does Thanksgiving. Now that I think of it, Heather has always admired my special casserole dish with the warming candle. I think I’ll give it to her as a little token of appreciation—if I can find it. 

Bring her home.

In the wild she’d sometimes swim a hundred miles in a day at thirty miles an hour. She could dive down as far as 500 feet. But she always stayed close to her family. Deeply bonded, her pod remained together over the years and included generations from calves to grandparents.

killer-whales-591130_640Those days are gone for her. Instead she performs for crowds twice daily and bobs, inactive, in her small concrete pool between shows. She hasn’t seen another orca since her tank mate Hugo died decades ago.

“She” is Lolita, an orca born in 1964 and captured in 1970. As of today she has spent 45 years in her concrete pool at Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

A campaign is under way to move her to a sea pen near her surviving family in the waters off the state of Washington. She would receive human care for life as needed, be guided on boat-led “sea walks,” and be provided with other exercises so that she might even be able to rejoin her pod someday. If not, she could see and communicate with them from her pen. Her natural skills and stamina have atrophied, but she is still clearly excited when she hears recordings of her family’s vocalizations, and she still vocalizes in their dialect.

The move from her “home” at Seaquarium to her waiting retirement sea pen would likely be extremely traumatic. The change for Lolita is a risk, no doubt, but it is one worth taking. Most experts strongly believe captive orcas are stressed and lonely in their bare, cramped tanks even if they do become attached to their human keepers. Humane retirement is the right thing to do for Lolita, and eventually for all captive orcas—these beautiful beings who once shared the ocean and should never have been taken from it.

       *For more information, visit orcanetwork.org.

A minor injury can spice up your life.

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My husband Frank fractured the metatarsal bone in his foot playing tennis. He wore a stiff knee-high boot for ten weeks, which made it very difficult to get around. When the boot came off he had to do physical therapy with an exercise band for a long time and his foot was sore and sensitive for months.

Frank was 75, and after much thought he stopped playing tennis. The bone was a weak link, and he didn’t want to re-injure it. He might get carried away running down a ball and do just that. So we began to do things together, which before the injury only happened on Sundays because all he did on the other days was play tennis. We started going to movies, and after showing zero interest in them before, he now has a long list of movies he wants to see, old ones and new ones. He also made a kite, like the ones he made as a boy, and in good weather we go to a bayland field and he flies his kite while I read or walk around the field. We go for walks, which we never used to do, and he even goes to the mall with me on the rare occasion. Two or three afternoons a week we go to Starbucks for coffee.

I’m really enjoying our outings. I think Frank is too. His list of must-see movies gets longer. And his tastes are changing. He used to only tolerate guy movies, and I never thought it possible that he would even go to see a musical, much less enjoy one. But he loved Into the Woods. I love Meryl Streep, and now Frank does too. He has to see every Meryl Streep movie there is. Who is this man? Whoever he is, I’m enjoying our new life together. I’ll just come right out and admit it: I’m glad Frank fractured his metatarsal. Just don’t tell him I said that. 

Miracle at the Car Wash

One busy morning I stopped between errands to get my car washed. I told the young man at check-in that I wanted a hand wash and hand wax but needed to be out of there by 10:30 latest. I had to be at the dentist by 11:00. I was pushing it—it was 9:45, but he assured me my car would be ready so I paid and went to the waiting room.

At 10:30 I looked out into the pickup area. My car wasn’t there. I walked back to the kiosk and asked the young man about it, who called the manager on a walkie-talkie. “Where’s the white car with the hand wash and wax? We told her 10:30,” he said. A raspy, insolent voice asked, “You mean that old lady?” I was stunned. The young man, embarrassed, knew I’d heard. I’m 70, but I consider myself to be holding up pretty well. I had never been called old lady, and certainly never so derisively. I felt deflated. Ancient. I was swept up in the insanity of vanity . They brought out my car and I left, but my day was ruined. For the next few days, old lady kept ringing in my head.  

I never went back there. When my car became unacceptably dirty, I googled and found a hand car wash that was much closer to my house. Happily, it turned out to have much more to recommend it. When I paid at the kiosk and went into the waiting room, I found myself entering a place of beauty and peace. Silence reigned; it was a true hand-wash operation, with absolutely no automated equipment. A cool gurgling stream curved across the stone floor. In it, lovely orange carp silently glided. Lining the stream were small red tables, the kind found in nightclubs, where customers sat in the stillness, broken only by the whispering of the stream and soft talking on cell phones. Two turtles rested together in lush foliage on the stream bank. Several well cared for cockatiels chattered in the other room. The gourmet coffee was delicious.

My car is much cleaner now because the car wash is such a pleasant place that I go every chance I get. That insolent, bad-mannered manager is a faded memory. In fact I now think of him as my angel in disguise. He guided me to Car Wash Paradise, and I silently express gratitude. Thanks, you old geezer.

Animals are our teachers.

duck-587058__180One lovely afternoon I was strolling by the fountain-pool in our municipal rose garden. It is often filled with ducks and their ducklings in spring. But on this day there was just one mama duck, with only one duckling. I was instantly sad. I usually saw mother ducks trailed by five or six ducklings, or many more. What catastrophe, I wondered, had struck at her family? I assumed she had given birth to more than one. Perhaps a city-critter like a raccoon or a skunk, maybe even a family of them, went on a night raid in the park. Maybe a cat or loose dog had come upon them. Maybe a gardener unwittingly sprayed their sleeping place with pesticides. I speculated endlessly. My gloomy side had kicked in. However it happened, my heart was broken by this mother who it seemed had suffered great loss.

But perhaps, after all, she was not as troubled as I by her lost ducklings. To a wild animal, life is what it is. It’s very possible she was fulfilled by the one duckling left to her to love and protect and teach and care for. She doted, fussed, stayed close to it, and herded it back by the pool when it climbed out on the “duckling board” fastened to the pool edge. Maybe she didn’t define the quality of motherhood by the number of young left to her to care for. She just calmly and lovingly mothered the one she had, putting her whole being into it. I doubt she went around comparing reality to happy ideal scenarios like I do. She has a lot to teach me.

Laughter deserves some serious attention.

We live in a world of war, famine, injustice, genocide, homelessness, isolation, all manner of suffering….and here am I, grinding out funny little essays. At least I hope they’re funny. I actually don’t know why I write them. I don’t ask for the ideas, they just sort of roll down the right side of my brain, unasked for. They land in my consciousness with a dull thud, ready to be organized into blog-post format, tweaked and embellished, edited, proofread, and then published with a click of my mouse.

I’ve been writing pieces like this for years. I had some published in magazines long ago, before single working parenthood swallowed my life whole and I had no time for writing them. In those days I jotted ideas down wherever I happened to be, on whatever was available when they came to me. Menus, napkins, the backs of receipts and parking tickets, matchbooks (I smoked then), concert programs—whatever was made of paper that happened to be at hand. I still jot down ideas when they come to me, but in my iPhone notes. It’s not as much fun, actually.

Sometimes I feel guilty about my blog, like I’m wasting valuable time doing something totally unimportant. Something that doesn’t help solve the world’s problems. Usually I feel that way when I’m tired, stressed, and feeling generally down. But when I practice self-care—get some rest, take a walk, talk with a friend—I feel much better about my little blog.

Laughter, after all, is a healing thing. These days it gets a lot of respect from scientists and medical doctors. It’s all about endorphins. Laughter increases endorphins, which are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. They’re the feel-good chemicals produced by the brain and have been proven to heal us both mentally and physically. When I visualize them they’re very cute. How can something called an endorphin not be cute? I see tiny pot-bellied creatures wearing bikinis, with corkscrew antennae and hair like Art Garfunkel, multiplying exponentially and spinning faster and faster as the human host’s laughter increases. Realizing that, I no longer feel superfluous, like I’m not doing anything useful. I’m performing a public service, improving my readers’ health. That’s you! So I’ll just write on, and I hope you’ll read on.