Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Vanity of Graham Crackers

For those of you who don't know, we recently put my Mom into a home for people suffering from Alzheimer's and dementia. This is all okay because it seems to be a good place and we knew it was coming.

I went up to Chicago last week to visit her there for the first time. What I expected was something from "Awakenings," maybe something as exciting as "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest." People who were not totally there, but who were not totally gone either. Maybe there would be one or two McMurphys, or that woman from "Awakenings" who wouldn't walk on the white tiles. In my head I guess I wanted to imagine that, while we don't understand her in her disease, once she got around other people who had the same disease they could somehow find each other out there in that place where Alzheimer's takes them. But I guess it just takes everyone somewhere different.

Before I went to the home Dad was telling me that he had gone to visit one morning and the staff had gathered everyone around a table for coffee. When he walked in everyone was just kind of dozing there in their chairs with their coffee and a single graham cracker sitting in front of them. Nobody was talking, nobody was really even awake or present in any way. That is the kind of scene I walked into when I visited for the first time.

It was before lunch and they were all gathered in a common room, and looked like they were having an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I don't know what they were doing in there. Dad went in and kind of woke her up a little and she was happy to see him. Then he pointed at me and she jumped up and left the circle to give me a hug, which started out as a really joyful thing and quickly evolved into a tear-soaked act of desperation on both our parts. It was classic Mom and Annie, and it remained classic Mom and Annie. At one point we were sitting on a little bench and we each, at the same time, tried to lean our head on the other's shoulder. I asked to see her room and she led me down the hall. The room looked like it belonged in a hotel. It was tiny and there was a bed, a dresser, a side table, lamp, and chair. That's it. When I left I told her that I was going to go get all of her stuff. We were going to decorate her room.

At lunch Dad and I were talking about the whole deal there at the home. I said how depressing it seemed there.

I said, "You know, that whole graham cracker thing. I don't know, man, the graham cracker with the coffee just kills me."

I never liked a graham cracker. They were always giving them to me in grade school and I ate them because I wanted my snack, but I never looked forward to getting a graham cracker. It always seemed like they had to give us something for a snack, but we didn't have to enjoy it so, hey, graham crackers are easy.

Dad agreed. "Yeah, they always represented taking the easy way out to me. Like 'I'm going to give you something totally useless, but I'm going to act like I did something very meaningful.'"

We both laughed about how stupid graham crackers are, and I don't know about him, but I was kind of laughing about how he and I could, independently, come to the same conclusions about the implications of graham crackers.

I spent the next morning excavating the bedroom at Mom and Dad's house. I picked out lots of gardening and decorating books, books that she didn't have to read but could just look at. There were calendars and circulars and unopened boxes of mechanical pencils, there was an old journal from 1985. I didn't know what it was, but was kind of flipping through things out of curiosity and found my name in this particular journal. She was writing about a dream she had in which she was on a beach and she sees this woman, very tall, thin, with dark hair and dark brown eyes. In the dream this woman gave her a hug and felt very "mothering." She wrote, "I thought it was Annie, all grown up." I'm not tall, certainly not "very" tall. Mom always thinks I am though. She was always asking how I got so tall. It was with this in my head, and with about four baskets of books and notebooks, that I had to go see Mom. I was determined that it was going to be a good day. I was going to be "Annie, all grown up." We were going to decorate her room, and we both like to decorate.

It was a good day and we got some life into her room. I mainly just wanted her stuff in there so that people walking by would look in and think "wow, she must have been a really interesting woman!" There were no afghans or doilies, nothing made of yarn, nothing mauve. Her room had books, it had baskets, it had multicolored antique boxes that said "this woman is young, she is smart, she floated through life and she liked the color red!" I don't know that it did too much for her, but I left feeling much better.

The next day was the last day of my visit and we made one last trip to see Mom. I was happy to walk into her room and find that the books were not all exactly where I had left them. We took her out to eat with us and she fell asleep at the table. We laughed about her, and then Dad, not being able to zip up her coat. On our way back, as we were turning into the home Mom said "Oh, noooo." To the best of my knowledge the last time she saw the place from the outside was when they moved her in over a month ago, yet somehow her mind held on to that memory, and she knew she was going to have to watch us walk out that door without her.

As hard as the whole trip was I feel good about where she is. Like I said, it seems like a good place. I just miss my mom, and in a way it's kind of a neat situation because I can tell her that. Lots of people don't realize how much they miss their parents until they're gone and they never get to tell them. I have that opportunity, and while there is no indication that she's not just being erased, I still like to think that she's somewhere hearing me when I tell her that I grew up to be just like her, maybe she already knows. Annie, all grown up. I just wish I were closer, I wish that I could be there more, that I could see her smile, that I could bring her this disgusting bitter dark chocolate she likes and redecorate her room so she doesn't get tired of looking at the same stuff all the time. I don't really know if those things make too much of a difference to her anymore. They make me feel better though. Maybe graham crackers are not so bad.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sitting outside at quarter to ten

I was sitting outside on the porch tonight. Orion is kind of on the horizon these days and it was right in the line of my sight. It's been a long time since I've looked at the stars. I know they're there, I've seen them before and I rarely think to just sit and look at them. I mean, I didn't tonight, I just happened to be because I was outside smoking, a fact which I debated including, but who are we kidding? Who just goes outside and sits there? I couldn't tell the story without that fact to make it believable. So anyway, I was sitting there, cigarette in hand, looking at the sky. Does it seem to anyone else like the stars are twinkling more these days? Tonight they were just really, like, flashing. Maybe it's something to do with the nearby nuclear plant, or 2012.

I guess I'm in a thoughtful mood, which I get embarrassed about because I don't want anyone to think that I'm trying to be profound or overly dramatic, especially about something as poetic as stars, but it really is hard to look at them for any length of time without thinking. I mean, everyone will have a different take on the stars. For me, I like to read a lot of a) history books and b) science books - easy ones, I don't really know that much about either subject. So I was sitting there thinking about the light from those stars travelling millions of light years through space to reach MY eyes. All those years and across unimaginable distance, there were those little photons of light destined to meet my eyes, they were mine all along - out in space, struggling through our atmosphere, down from the sky, to my porch, my eyes, and my brain to make them real (I mean, if we're not here to be monitors for reality, what is reality? Am I right?). It's unthinkable, incredible. For another thing those stars have been there, just overseeing, all that history I love. The Great Pyramids were built to line up exactly with the stars in Orion's belt, that one just a little offset from the other two. That means that when I'm looking at those stars, I'm looking at the very thing that inspired the minds that built the pyramids thousands of years ago. Einstein looked at the stars, DaVinci, Jesus Christ himself must have looked at the stars, and they're there for me to look at too.

Walking in from outside I was thinking about all these things, and about this big oak tree that looked really pretty in the light from the porch and then I looked at the cabinets. I've never thought about them before, and may never again, but they're just these boxes attached to the wall. They were a thought in the mind of a man who tired of piling his dishes on a table. My cabinets aren't bad, not really nice ones, but not terrible. They're simple, functional. The whole house is that way. I really can't tell you the last time I looked at the stars, but I look at the house every day. I look at the house so much that I forget about the stars. And I guess it was kind of nice to remember that they're there, they and all their implications, and I decided that I would just write about it really quickly to remind you too. And then I thought I might draw a picture of the oak tree for Mom. I probably won't do that, I haven't drawn in years, plus it's getting late... It's getting dark earlier now. Go look at the stars.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Reluctant Optimist

When I was little I complained a lot. I was always being told to find the good in things, and never could, so as I was learning who I was I naturally assumed that I was a hopeless pessimist. I embraced it and it never occurred to me that I could or would be any other way. As I learned from Werner Erhard, you don't know what you don't know, and I didn't know that there was any other way to be. So, the other day when I was complaining about how terrible my day had been, and ended my commentary with "but that's okay, tomorrow will be better" and my friend said "there's that optimism again!" my immediate response was, "oh, no, no I didn't mean it like that," but did I? What other way could you mean "tomorrow will be better?" I didn't really believe tomorrow would be better. Was I a liar and a pessimist? Then there was the use of the word "again," as if I'm puking optimism all over the place all the time. Disturbed by the whole event I sat down to consider the implications. What could this mean about the whole nature of my personality?

Here's the thing: My whole life I've hated doing things I hate to do. I put them off, griped about them, and often just didn't do them at all. It gave me a terrible attitude. I guess it was really immature to act like that, but I mean I REALLY hated doing some things. Now I don't ever do anything I don't want to do. When I'm forced to do things I don't want to do like hold a wrench while I watch my husband repair machinery, it's absolutely agonizing. I don't know if everyone feels physical pain when forced into doing something unpleasant, but I swear it makes me sick. I do things I'm not crazy about doing, but I don't do them because I'm a soldier and I bite the bullet and get them done. It's because I trick myself into thinking I want to do them. With a little preparation and mental maneuvering I can make myself think I like to clean the house. I mean, how often do I get to listen to music really loud outside of the car? Sometimes I don't feel like washing my hair. I'm tired, it takes forever to dry, I don't want to do it. So I plan for it, I'll try to get excited about not having dirty hair anymore, sometimes when I'm having a really hard time getting motivated I'll go out and buy some new shampoo. Some tricks are more costly than others, but I've got a great collection of shampoo and toothpaste. Most people hate Mondays, hate their work in general. I'm blessed because I worked as a telemarketer for three months. I love my current job. If ever I start getting down about my job I just think about holding a phone to my ear for eight hours a day. And as far as having a terrible day and then saying some ridiculous thing like "tomorrow will be better?" I'm just trying to avoid praying for a quiet death in the night. Tomorrow's got to be better, right? It's not optimism, it's survival.

Of course, Werner Erhart is right. We don't know what we don't know. There are whole realms of possibilities out there that we can't even think of because even the possibilities we think of are still hemmed in by the things we know to be true in our experience. I've never experienced optimism, so whatever methods I use to avoid doing things I don't want to do are derivatives of my experience as a pessimist. Is that optimism? Maybe I'm taking optimism and putting it into my pessimism box. Maybe I'm learning something that I didn't know I didn't know. Life can be exciting that way. See? I did it again.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Why I want to be a cheerleader

I was usually on my way out the back door as soon as we were released from class for our high school pep rallies, so when Holly, my 14-year-old cheerleader step-daughter, called last night asking me to come to hers today, I immediately thought about trying to find a way out the back door of this request too. But instead I told her I would ask my boss if I could take off and be there, after all it was the last one of the season and I do like watching people dance. And wouldn't you know it, my boss said it was fine if I wanted to go.

The game tonight is the big one of the year. It's like a civil war of junior high football between the East Side team and West Side team of RJHS. The gym was all decorated with balloons and banners saying things like "West is best!" and "We bust ours so we can kick yours!" When we walked in the band was getting all tuned. About a million junior high kids were milling about and laughing, all in their school colors of red and black, or red and white depending on their East/West allegiance. As we found our spots on the "parent's side" of the gym I watched the kids, and it looked so fun to be young and excited about something. Then I remembered so clearly what it was like to be that age. It should have been fun, it really should have. I think it probably was but I was too busy nursing that chip on my shoulder to realize it. I spent most of my time being, or at least feeling, awkward and trying to adopt the personalities of my friends. These kids were probably all doing the same thing, but I wish I could have told them something like "hey, just be yourself" or "this is the time of your life, enjoy it" or "don't do drugs." You know, all those things that everyone tells junior high kids, things that everyone told me, that are totally meaningless in a 14-year-old mind. Some listen, and I hope that these do because they looked like they were having so much fun.

At the beginning a girl came out and sang the national anthem, and she was really good. They then paraded couples of dressed-up candidates for some king/queen-type of award. As they smiled and walked along their designated route to the middle of the gym a very unenthusiastic announcer, probably a vice-principal or science teacher, talked about who they were, who their parents are, what kind of things they like to do in their spare time, never deviating from, or possibly making up, what had to have been written on a card in front of him. "Bobby is in the Nicholas Sparks fan club and enjoys hanging with friends in his spare time." That had to be a joke, right? It seems like you'd either be in the Nicholas Sparks fan club OR "hang" with friends, but both? There were a few mentions of Justin Bieber and four wheelers, but the majority of the kids enjoyed spending time with friends, and some family and friends. That whole ceremony could have gotten pretty boring if the Playboy-esque descriptions of what these kids liked didn't carry it. It was a fascinating little window into what kids are doing these days. That Nicholas Sparks thing was totally unexpected, maybe 14-year-olds are getting something different from "The Notebook" than lonely 30-somethings.

The king and queen of something were crowned and then it was time for the real rallying to begin. The band started up, the cheerleaders took the floor and the kids in the stands started yelling. The East Side kind of did their thing first. Their cheerleaders did their routine, and their dance team, and then one of the football players got up and squeaked though a kind of encouraging talk about how much heart they have.

Holly is on the West Side, and maybe it's because of that that I'm biased, but I get the idea that they were saving the best for last. The West Side dance team came running out and did their routine which was so good that I had to kind of check myself to make sure I wasn't dancing along a little bit. Then Holly and her cheerleaders were up. I have to admit I kind of cringed a little bit when she made the cheerleading squad because, I don't know, she's a cheerleader now. But I'm so proud that she did, and what I saw was amazing. When I was little my mom used to play this "trust game" thing with me where I would fall backwards and she would catch me. You've probably done it at some point in your life. The West Side cheerleaders took that to a whole new, and amazing, level. They lined up as if standing facing each other on a train track with their arms held out in front of them. In the middle one of the girls rose above the rest, with her feet where their arms were. I don't know how they did it, they had to be holding her up. But then, to the beat of the fast hip/hop/pop/cheerleading music she fell backwards, was flung back up and fell forwards and flung back up, I likened it to the bar on an equalizer. It was amazing. They were flipping and and dancing and flying all over the place. It made me not only like cheerleaders, it made me want to be a cheerleader. I'm going to make Holly teach me how to dance. Then I'm going to get her to invite all her cheerleader friends over to I can do the equalizer bar thing.

The pep rally was a screaming success. It made me wish that I had gone to more of them when I was in school instead of dodging parking lot-watchers and sulking around hating cheerleaders. I left this one feeling much more peppy than when I entered. I even made Justin listen to some song that goes "I whip my hair back and forth" on the radio on the way home. It was awesome. In the words of Rod Stewart, I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger. Ooh la la. Damn, I'm old.