Smokers Anonymous

The past helped me to improve my future.  I am the historian of the zodiac, Capricorn, gripped by where I’ve come from, preoccupied with everything that I can remember, and I can remember almost everything, and then, captivated by the events of the world that occurred when I was no more than an electrical pulse flashing about the atmospheric heat of Earth looking for a home.  I am more intensely persuaded by the past than I am impelled by the future.  I seem always to be looking behind me, studying, feeling, learning, in my effort to rightly understand who I am today and what this world is today.  This becomes the Capricornian paradox, since the Goat is the sure-footed climber and MUST look forward at the same time to achieve the success that will inevitably be his.

In October of 2008 I was listening to NPR when I heard a Studs Terkel piece from 1974, re-broadcast on This American Life.  Studs was interviewing folks who had survived the Great Depression.  My vitality and my intellect are stirred by all stories of mankind that have suffered under injustice and endured.  These are the people who understand the meaning of life.  I often struggle to experience the essence of existence in this cushy world of consumerism, where I am never in need, never in fear of hunger, cold, danger.  “Okay,” you say, “well, isn’t that a good thing?”  And I say, “Yes, but when I look around me I feel like I am surrounded by the walking stupid; human beings whose brains cannot consider anything that does not exist in that very moment and within their own arm’s reach.”  And to me, that is not life, because, remember?  I keenly bear all the transgressions of history in my heart-lode.  These zombies never palpate with the rooting sensation of true hunger.

And this is how Studs Terkel and the Great Depression helped me to improve my future.  I was so seduced by the words of the subjects he interviewed that I declared I would live a mere 31 days in as close a Depression state as I could think to do in this modern world.  31 days is lousy compared to the near decade of the actual Depression.  But I know myself so well, I made my declaration in an attempt to quit smoking and I knew that I could rise to the challenge and that I only needed one month.

I proclaimed the first month of 2009 “Depression Era January”; a month without all non-essentials.  No fancy groceries, no wine, no dining out, no movies, no cigarettes.  No cigarettes.  The one item that had me in its clutches – the cigarette had begun to romance me long before I was old enough to smoke and when I cam of age I fully kissed that square between my lips in a loyal response to its allure.  I did smoke my cigarettes for 16 years then; longer than any other relationship I’ve ever been in.  No amount of will power, nicotine gum and patches, no drug or logical rationalization concerning my health could loosen the bind I had with tobacco until I determined to respect the wisdom achieved unwittingly by those that lived through the perversity of destitution.  Let me become nothing so that I can become something.  Release myself from all of the modern concepts that repulse me.  I cried and moaned as I rebuked myself for weakness; here is the addict breaking herself.  I looked with hope towards February 1st, when I knew I could choose to smoke again, if I wanted to, which I knew I wouldn’t.  A self-inflicted mind trick only works when you know who you are dealing with.

I would like to thank Studs Terkel, This American Life and the survivors of the Great Depression for helping me to “Dip down, God dammit, dip down“, because that is where the meat of the matter always is.


If Only

The other night, Jim and I watched The World According to Garp.  I read the book long ago and this was the second time I’ve seen the movie.  Watching it again, at this point in my life, seemed pertinent to two things that are nearly always on my mind but perhaps have been more in the foreground lately: parenting and writing.

My favorite thing about parenting was sharing as much of my knowledge with Mycol as I could and expanding his world to include as many experiences as possible.  I loved teaching him the academics, like reading and math, and I loved talking philosophically with him, at any age, in an effort to get him to consider the relationship between himself and the world.

When Mycol was 13, John Irving was on the schedule of presenters for the Drue Heinz Lecture Series.  Because I’d read nearly every one of his books, I was excited to go and hear him speak.  He was promoting his then yet-unpublished novel Until I Find You.  I took Mycol with me.  A prominent theme in many of Mr. Irving‘s stories is that of an only-child; a son, raised by a single mother.  At the lecture podium he spoke to the audience about the pros and cons of this relationship, which was again featured in the upcoming book.  He spoke about how only-children often get included in adult conversations, and in particular, only-children of single parents are likely engaged in even more still, because the parent relies on the child to be a sounding board for venting daily struggles they would otherwise dump on a spouse.  And to top it all off, Mr. Irving felt that this situation is most exaggerated when the only-child is a boy and the single parent is a mother.  So, there we sat, my 13 year-old son and I, in the Carnegie Music Hall, listening to John Irving talk about how the single mother in Until I Find You treated her son like an obligated boyfriend, and when I looked around the room all I could see were couples, not one single other pubescent child at all.  True, I’d wished my boyfriend would’ve gone with me, but I also felt glad that my son said he’d go when I asked him.  I was proud when he participated in things of that nature without so much as sighing, as if he really had learned to thirst for knowledge and new experiences (from me, of course!).  But when John Irving started to say those things, I felt like a spot-light was on us and I was flushed with embarrassment.  He’d called me out and announced to everyone that it was inappropriate to bring a child to adult programs.  After all, he was (is) John Irving.

Well, thank God, my son wasn’t scarred for life!

It reminds me of how my brother and I grew up in a house filled with books.  I am by far a more avid reader than he is, which I can only imagine is a direct result of the trauma incurred by Richard III when he was merely 3!

Then there is writing.  Another prominent theme in Mr. Irving‘s novels is a main character who is a writer.  A writer who struggles.  Authors are always saying the same thing about writing – that it is hard.  It is so hard to find the necessary discipline to keep at it, to not think everything you write is crap, to stop procrastinating by doing everything under the sun other than write something and just do it.  John Irving had a lot of athletic discipline as a wrestler.  I’ve been inspired every time I remind myself of what he used to do.  He used to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and sit at his desk to write.  He set an alarm clock on his desk to ring at 8:30 am, at which time he would push away from his desk and lead the rest of his life, which was the life of a father, husband, wrestling coach, and teacher.  Whether he got anything on paper in those 3 hours was not necessarily the most important thing.

I have a slightly different clock than John Irving.  I don’t ever plan to get up before the sun rises, it makes my stomach turn.  But I am pushing myself, challenging myself every day to try harder, to do my best, and looking for inspiration.  Sometimes I think that I could pour all of my parenting energy into writing discipline and I may end up with yet another creation (besides my only child).

Desultory Blues

Today in my head:

–  I consider bad luck, like passing my freeway exit or traveling an hour and a half for an event only to realize I missed the date by a week, karmic retribution for something I did wrong.  Then I rack my brain for what I did and who I might have hurt.

–  I slept in by 1/2 an hour today because yesterday was long and I was already dreading today’s “boot camp on the home front” run and work-out.

–  Figured I could take my time getting started, as I had the whole day ahead of me.  Made coffee & checked out my favorite web sites.

–  Reluctantly dressed to exercise.  Did yoga, stretched & did push-ups, sit-ups, leg-lifts, etc., indoors, all the while considering not running today.  Debated over & over again between cutting myself some slack & the knowledge that there is no slack in boot camp & I would feel guilty the rest of the day if I cheated.

–  My neighbors were outside talking & I got it in my head that I did not want to go outside & start my run in front of them.  I wished they would hurry up & go in before I lost my nerve.

–  Come on!  Go home (neighbors!) so I can run!  Get in your houses!  I don’t know why I would care – just a silly excuse not to run, I guess.  My neighbors are in their ’70’s & are from Italy.  I listened to them speaking in Italian out there on the sidewalk for nearly an hour while I agonized over my run.  They would think running for exercise is a symbol of a frivolous existence.  If I did ‘real’ work for a living, like till the soil, farm the land, chop wood, make bread from scratch, sew clothes, hand-wash laundry, etc., I wouldn’t have time to exercise nor would I need to.

–  I mill about the house.  I wander into the bathroom.  Now I hear my other neighbor & her 6 year-old daughter in their backyard.  Oh, God, please don’t make me have to start a run in front of them.  She is a successful single mother with a big house & a red BMW in her garage.  She is taller than me & regularly hops onto her bike, fully suited up, like Lance Armstrong, & probably cycles to Ohio & back.  And when she’s not on her bike, she is jogging with her 3-wheeled stroller out in front of her – probably for 6 mile runs on weekdays and 13 miles on Saturdays.  Other times I see her pull out of her garage with her one-man kayak on the roof-rack & she’s off to row the rivers.  Please don’t let me have to leave the house to run a mile and a half in front of her!

–  Finally the neighbors, all of them, disappear & I throw myself out the front door onto the pavement and I cannot look back.  Just do it.  Ha.

–  I meditate, concentrate while I run.  I think of Mycol, I think of strength.  I try to focus my mind on what I will accomplish today.  I am interested in daily progress.  Will I write?  Will I paint?  Will I garden?  Will I do it all?  What are my priorities?  What will satisfy me most of all?

–  Three quarters of the way and I am so over it.  I think I may stop running & start walking.  I envision Jim on his run this morning out at his place.  I envision Mycol running this morning under the watchful eye of his company commander.  I envision my company from 20 years ago, running in formation an all sides of me.  I challenge myself to make it to the stop sign ahead, then I can walk.

–  I run to the stop sign & past it.  I run the entire way & don’t stop until the end, at which point I am proud of myself for pushing &  I cool down with a walk around the block.

–  In the shower I contemplate what zodiac sign has the most competitive nature.  I am a Capricorn.  While I am on the zodiac, I also consider that jealousy is a fatal toxin for a relationship & that Scorpios are such jealous creatures.  (Not you, Mom.)

–  Even though I pushed through a work-out & it is a beautiful day outside, I feel sad & disinterested in any of the day’s possibilities.  Solitude has become depressing whereas I used to relish it.  I miss my son.  Jim calls & I start to cry when he says, “Don’t worry, you’ll hear from him soon.”

–  I decide a power nap could lift my spirits.

–  My bedroom is on the first floor of my house.  It is western-facing, with a window on the west wall.  I love to take a midday nap anywhere from 30 to 70 minutes long, depending on how I feel, and any time between 1 and 4 pm.  So often in the summertime, on a sunny day, I lie down to nap, & before I drift to sleep I am transported to another familiar place.  Something about the quiet against the background sounds of car wheels on pavement, birdsong amongst the trees or transmitting from a telephone wire perch, the occasional door opening or closing & sometimes a lawn mower, takes me to the second story of my grandparents’ house.  Something about the air, soft & comfortable as a linen sheet, & the sunlight diffused to shade, that sets me to recalling moments spent, perhaps napping as a child, in the big, floral bedroom of Nonna & Tata’s house.  I have a clear memory of the view from the bathroom window, a strong recollection of the smell of the bedrooms; the small one, the floral one, & Nonna’s dark and holy bedroom.  I experienced the nostalgia once & considered it coincidence, but now it is nearly regular, all things being equal, & it seems an atmospheric footprint, fossilized in my memory.  I can practically recall every fine detail; one of my favorites being the red-topped water sprinkling bottle on Nonna’s ironing board, forever ready for use, it it’s open position, between the dresser & her bed.  Anyway….

–  I have a new phone, but since I didn’t take the tutorial on how to use it, it rings when I had thought I’d set it to ‘alarm only’ & my nap is interrupted.

–  I think a smart phone would do what I verbally tell it to do.  This phone is not as smart as I want it to be.

–  There is nothing in the mailbox yet.

–  Tomorrow is another day.

I hate the words dago, wop, guido, etc.  People in this country toss these words around quite casually and so I wasn’t always aware of how hurtful or degrading they can be.  When I was 8 or 9, the neighbor’s daughter walked past our house and called me a dago bitch.  I asked my mother what that meant.  Now I am an adult and realize the irony of the situation.  Our neighbor’s daughter was a female dog of Italian descent.  But there is a difference between being Italian and being of Italian descent.  And if you use words like dago and wop, you aren’t Italian.

Zia brought over some homemade prosciutto the other day and I like to pair it up with fresh pineapple.   It’s even better than with cantaloupe.

I’ve always had an acute sense of loss and sorrow and this summer has provided a heap of fodder for my analytic brain and thin-skinned heart.  I was going to say that this all began in late spring of this year, but that’s not accurate.  Then I was going to say that this all began 20 years ago, but realized that’s not quite right either.  This all began at least 40 years ago and really, much further back than even that.  Believe me, I think about it . . . a lot.  But a blog isn’t the place for those kinds of tales.  Those kinds of tales play themselves out between the hard covers of a bound treatise.  Or on the 30 foot screen.  So I will stick to discussing my feelings of late, for the sake of the blog . . . FOR THE SAKE OF THE BLOG, I SAY!

Twenty years ago, when I was nineteen, I found out I was pregnant with my son.  I was only one year into my tour with the U.S. Navy.  On May 1st of this year my son turned nineteen, and by the end of that month I’d realized, yet again, that my teenage boy was floundering and I needed to guide him.  The problem was that I was close to the end of my rope.  I mean, how many times and in how many different ways can you try to teach a young man before you just want to quit, because hello? is anybody really listening?  So I suggested he consider the Navy.  He was adamantly against it.  For about a day.  Then he started listening.  This was at a moment in time when he was faced with moving forward with registration for fall classes at community college and applying to four-year universities for next year.  Suddenly, he did an about-face and headed to a recruiter’s office.  What he knew and I didn’t was that he’d screwed up his semester grades royally.  When I found that out, I gave him an ultimatum: by August 1st either move into your own apartment or have a ship date for Navy boot camp.  For one thing, I wasn’t going to continue to provide him with all the luxuries of a free ride if, instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to study enough for straight A’s, he was going to treat me like his proletariat housekeeper while he engaged in some grotesquely modern version of teenage bourgeoisie, complete with social texting hours, social gaming hours, and secret drinking parties made legendary by the cell-phone pics uploaded to the cyber-salon called Facebook.  And so, today is August 18th and this morning I am up early because my body wouldn’t let me sleep in on my baby’s first day as a seaman apprentice in the barracks at Great Lakes Recruit Training Command, i.e., Navy boot camp.  I know from personal experience that he’s been up for two hours already.

When my son turned 19 years old in the spring I became prone to musing about my 19-year-old self.  I remembered how fresh and wide-eyed I was then and how I thought the world was my oyster.  Sure, I’d made mistakes, especially concerning college, but then I found the right path.  I was in the Navy, stationed in beautiful San Diego, California and paying my own way.  I was nervous and unsure about my original plans to follow through into an officer’s program.  Was I good enough?  Did I like the Navy enough to want to serve after they sent me to college?  I thought maybe I should just give my four years and use the G.I. Bill to go to college on my own when I got out.  I wasn’t sure of anything, but I felt good about the possibilities.  The beauty of the situation was that it was exactly what I’d been screaming about for the previous 5 years; “I know what to do for myself!  You can’t tell me what to do anymore, I can figure it out!”  I was the master of my own destiny no matter what that may be.  There were so many, many possible paths to take, it seemed like the world was spinning quickly around my head so that it was a complete blur.  If I could just reach out a finger and stop it from spinning, but when?  Where?  In the meantime there was a boy who was directing his attention towards me and despite my uncertainty about everything else in the world, I knew I wanted a boyfriend.

When I started this post by pointing out that this all began more than 40 years ago, what I was thinking of is how my mentality, my perspective on life, my desires are directly rooted in the existences of my ancestors, up through to the family members that raised me.  (And those that didn’t.  Voids can be just as influential.)  Them and television, actually.  And my being has a direct affect on the existence of my son and will affect my grandchildren and so on.  None of us lives in a vacuum.  That is why I was always offended when my elders expressed utter disappointment and disgust in the things I did “wrong”.  I mean, my behavioral patterns were based on something, right?  What I am getting at here is that, in a nutshell, I knew from the time I was 3 years old that I wanted to be a wife and a mother but by the time I was old enough to consider those roles in reality, I hadn’t attained the knowledge of what is required to be a successful wife and mother in a successful relationship.  I’d grown up in a single-parent household.  Our extended family was small and I was the eldest grandchild, so there were no examples to follow.  In fact, it never even occurred to me that anything more than the desire for these things was necessary, I mean, it looked so easy (and joyful) on tv shows.  So when I found myself pregnant, though I was surprised, I never wavered from what had to be done.  My son’s conception is what stopped my world from spinning.  His existence was like a heavy anchor, dropped to the bottom and keeping me grounded.  In a sense I have considered that he was just what I needed to keep me from making any more mistakes.  On the other hand I have often wondered what I could be, where I could be, who I could be if I hadn’t changed the course of my life to raise him.  These wonders were made more poignant by the fact that when his father and I divorced, his father chose a distant role.  3,000 miles distant.  His father put himself before his child, and was free to do as he pleased.  My dreams and expectations of life changed the instant I understood that I was a mother because I was filled with love and commitment beyond my self.  I found sacrifice challenging and natural at the same time.  I had anticipated sharing the duty with a like-minded husband, but it was not to be.  The resignation of my personal choices and prospects was something that continued to exist in my mind, and possibly my soul, like an old chair in the basement, badly in need of a thorough cleaning and new upholstery, acquired for a song from some wealthy old neighbor years ago, which has the potential to look as if you couldn’t have afforded it, but there is simply never enough time or energy to devote to the project of restoring it; after all, it would please no one but me.  When my son made the decision to join the Navy this summer, I was given all the more reason to mull over the last 20 years in anticipation of living alone in this house where I raised him and wondering what to do next.

Specifically, I felt the first thing on the agenda would be to breathe a sigh of relief.  I was still stinging from curse of my son’s teen-age years.  He’d been a complete joy before 14 but starting in the middle of his freshman year he became a regular pain in the ass.  His defiance, his mistakes, his disrespect, his dishonesty, made me question my strength, my abilities.  Had me asking why?  Where is the joy in this?  What is the reward?  So, bitter-sweetly, it seemed the reward would be the relief that would follow his departure. But that is not how it was supposed to happen!  The folks on Facebook praise their children up and down, posting daily affirmations of their undying love for their perfect children, “thank god for my perfect little sally (or johnny) – everything I ever wanted in a child”, and so on.  I am left thinking the worst about my situation.  I feel like I never had any business having a child and bringing him into this disadvantaged existence; no father, an ill-equipped mother (obviously, otherwise he’d have been perfect like everyone else’s children).  I feel like karmic retribution has occurred, for he reminds me exactly of myself and I see-saw between believing that he will be okay and cringing at the realization that I have sent him off into the world without a mature inkling of how to succeed; the flip-side of believing that despite how awful I was to my elders as a teen, I turned out okay and then calling “bullshit” on myself because if I think this is success, then I have another think coming!  I have to be reminded by caring and logically thinking friends that those parents on Facebook don’t share their trials online; that they are all “keeping up with the Jones'” in a neighborhood where nobody even knows where the “Jones'” really live.

I don’t know if you are still reading this, but it is now August 22 and this evening concludes my son’s 5th day at boot camp, away from home.  The first few days after he left I felt pride and happiness mixed with fleeting moments of shock, together under a veil of surrealism.  Any and all ill feelings have evaporated into thin air.  Before he left I decided that I would do “boot camp on the home front” as a challenge to myself and as a symbol of solidarity with my son.  I left for Navy boot camp myself on August 21, 1989, and I love to test my mettle.

I am much older now and out of shape, but yesterday, after meditating and 5 yogic sun-salutations, in the swelter of afternoon heat I ran my “beginner’s mile” and did 20 push-ups and 50 sit-ups.  As I ran I recalled my days at boot camp in Orlando, Florida, running in formation on the macadam.  I wished for my son to find strength when he needs it during this demanding time in his life.  Then I got home from my run and I cried because I miss him so dearly, that kid.  I love him more than anything and that is why it is easy to say that he has been the perfect child, for me.  I wouldn’t change a thing.

Some things that I’ve been thinking:

I saw Iron Man 2 the other night with Lord Mycol.  I liked it better than the first Iron ManScarlett Johansson playing a bad-ass brunette reminded me of my friend Christine.  After the movie Lord Mycol mentioned that they will make an Avengers movie and that there is a rumor that Brad Pitt will play Captain America.  I said, “Oooh!  Brad Pitt can be MY Captain America. . . . He can colonize me!”

The day before yesterday Lord Mycol and I sat in the recently re-arranged living room and had a nice conversation for about an hour.  I like the living room better this way.  The sunlight and shadows combined with Lord Mycol in a white t-shirt against the backdrop of the spider plant and the matchstick blinds reminded me of Martin Sheen in the opening of Apocalypse Now.

Do you see it?  How about that koala bear?

Last Tuesday Yim and I spent all day working on the farm.  I transplanted our tomatoes and peppers from their indoor nursery into the garden.

Oh, the disappointment!  All but a few of our fledgling tomatoes submitted to death.  Of the 36 tomatoes only about 6 of them survived.  The peppers fared much better; nearly all of them made it.

Overall, the garden is doing well.  My favorite part about it is witnessing its amazing growth and progress from day to day.

Well it seems like the press has been beating down my door and begging for more!  Thank you for your compliments on my writing and for having confidence in me to continue.  I admit, I’ve been up against a writer’s block lately, but today I will attempt to scale that wall and the only way to do something is by starting with the first step.

I had a wonderful holiday weekend.  How about you?

Sunday morning Yim and I got up early, packed a picnic lunch and headed north to Butler County.  We hiked a 3 mile loop, Kildoo Trail, in McConnell’s Mill State Park before heading east to the South Shore of Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park.  There we laid our blanket in the grass and enjoyed deli sandwiches, cantaloupe, blueberries, strawberries, nectarines and sparkling mineral water.  After lunch we took the plunge into Lake Arthur and swam for a while.

Leaving the park we passed a sign next to an old barn and farm-house that read “Garage Sale”.  Woohoo!  Why not go to the first garage sale of the season in Butler County?  Yim found two roasters, sized large and medium, priced to sell separately.  He bargained for the set, the seller dropped her price and away we went with roasting pans perfect for the winter holidays or a family meal.  Zia will be envious!

On the drive home we took the secondary road through Zelienople and parked to take a stroll up and down their main drag.  Lucky us, we discovered the The Strand, which is where we will be next Friday night!

Back at home, Lord Mycol was finally rested from his hard work the night before and he was able to join us for our cookout.  We had grilled steaks and corn-on-the-cob.  There was no dessert because I’d been too tempted earlier and pulled over for a Dairy Queen dipped cone.  Sorry, Lord Mycol!

On Monday, having entirely enjoyed our Sunday, we got back down to business.  We pulled out the ladders, the scrapers, the wire brushes, the primer, the hammer and the screwdriver.  We put on our gloves and began to work.  One window and one door are scraped, cleaned and primed and ready for caulking.  Two other windows are now scraped and cleaned and ready for primer.  It was a good amount of work to accomplish before the thunderstorm shut us down.  No matter, though, as it was time to wash up and have an early dinner.  We had a lovely salad with our meal made with our homegrown lettuces and radishes, simply dressed with olive oil and salt; delicious!

What a fantastic weekend!  I am so excited about June, as I have a list of goals as long as I am tall to get started towards and the weather has promised to behave just the way I like it to.

What are your goals for the season?

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