Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Norman Cousins' Good Advice

I forget when I first wrote to him, or why. A long time ago I had a habit of writing letters to authors. Usually, they wrote back. Sometimes that developed into a correspondence, and that's what happened with Norman Cousins. It must have been in 1980s, because I had a newspaper column then, and he thought I was witty. And it was in that decade that I had symptoms of anxiety and underwent some heart tests, and that's what his advice was about.

Norman, who wrote Anatomy of an Illness and Head First, among others, explained to me that since the nervous system affects breathing and the heart, tension can skew the results of numerous tests. When I was scheduled to have a thallium scan heart test, he said I should use humor to lighten the atmosphere in the testing room, thereby reducing my stress levels.

I remember four or five grim-faced people bending over me as I lay on the table, attaching straps and devices of various kinds. I forget exactly what I said to them—something like, "You people would be nothing without Velcro"—no, I'm sure it wasn't that harsh. But it did involve Velcro, and it did make them laugh. And I laughed, and I aced the test.

All these years later, I applied it again when I had to go for a breathing test last week. The technician and I didn't exactly have an affectionate history. In fact, I considered insisting that I take the test elsewhere because I was sure just one look at her would cause my chest to tighten up. I was sure hers would, too, but her lungs didn't have to perform well under pressure.

Finally, I decided I could do it. I could be charming. I could win her over and lighten up the atmosphere in the room. You're probably expecting me to admit that I failed miserably. But no, I did it. I was chatty, she responded, and the atmosphere in the room was just fine. And not only did I ace the test, but I came away feeling a lot more positive about the technician.

Thanks, Norman.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sag Harbor, Boys, and The Kingston Trio

Many of the perfect memories of my youth are set in Sag Harbor. For those unfamiliar with the area, Sag Harbor is out on Long Island, in the vicinity of the Hamptons. My dad, who worked for an oil company, accumulated a lot of vacation time, and every summer we spent it all in a cottage on Noyack Bay. We would leave Queens at 6:00 a.m. (an unearthly hour, it seemed in those days) and make the long drive to Sag Harbor with our 7.5HP Evinrude outboard motor in the trunk of whatever car my father owned at the time. A big custom stick-shift Pontiac with a truck clutch comes to mind.

I had an awkward period that began at around age four and lasted ten years, but at 14 I was a fairly pretty girl. I had lost weight at last, and had long, thick hair the color of butter and just as shiny. Although I had no more fashion sense then than I do now, I remember I favored white shorts that year, and white sneakers, of course. It was a good look.

The summer I was 14, my childhood friend Pat joined us. We met Jim Shaw and Johnny Bechtel that summer. Pat and I were on shore--two blondes--and the boys pulled up in Jim's Penn Yan boat. So cute they were. They became a big part of our summer life, and, in Jim's case, beyond. Boats are why to this day I love the smell of gasoline. For the briefest moment it gives me that rush of pure teenage freedom layered with sun, water, gulls, and hermit crabs.

Pat and I both have an indelible memory of the time we climbed a road to the top of a cliff, and then ran down. We didn't run, exactly. All that was between the top of the cliff and the beach below was deep sand. I'll never forget the feeling of running in slow motion, each step sinking, sinking into the sand. And then we were at the edge of the water, thrilled at the experience.

Two girls in a boat, Pat and I had lots of adventures. Accidentally drifting too close to a gull's nest, we waved oars in the air to fend off the aggressive parents. We had ample opportunity to closely observe sand sharks, clam beds, eels, and fish of all kinds, including jellyfish. We walked where the sandpipers walked. We looked into the water to study the prehistoric-looking horseshoe crabs. We took the boat out at sunset to ride that golden path.

On the last day of one of these vacations, I was the only girl in the living room of one of the boys' homes. One of the others (there were quite a few by then) had discovered folk music. Raised on 1950s rock 'n roll, this was new to us. He put on a record, and we sat there listening to The Kingston Trio. Do today's teenagers ever sit quietly together, listening to new music? I hope they do. I remember sitting cross-legged. Nothing hurt aches or pains, no responsibilities, no to-do list, nowhere else I had to be. Is this what mindfulness is? What they call "living in the moment"? I remember looking with more than a little interest at Dave Guard on the album cover. I remember putting it down and gazing out the big picture window at the sun on the water, and being aware of my friends around me, and hearing the wonderful harmonies. Perfect harmonies. Perfect moment. Perfect memory.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Who named our bodies (of water)?

The Atlantic Ocean. The Mediterranean Sea. The big bodies of water are named like that: First the word the, then the assigned name, then the category.

The Mississippi River. Same deal with rivers.

But when we get to lakes, everything changes. Lake Huron. Lake Como. Lake Wallenpaupack. (What? You never heard of Lake Wallenpaupack? Accent on the the third syllable.) With lakes, we have the category first, then the name. No the.

Moving down to ponds, we have another change. Caleb Pond. Walden Pond. Back to reversing the name and the category, but again, no the.

Where I live, the creeks have names. Middle Creek. Cooper's Creek. Oops—that's in Australia. No matter. Creeks same as ponds. do you suppose this naming system came about? I have no idea.

I was pondering this in the car today. I have a rather long commute to work. Sometimes I need to think about something other than deadlines, plumbing problems in the house, and my ever-lengthening To Do list.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Living Green. Or Yellow.

I read in Newsweek this week (or maybe it was Time, or The Atlantic) about the toll pharmaceuticals are taking on our water supply. (Over)medicated America is tossing leftover pills into our landfills, flushing them down the toilet, and peeing them into our septic systems. I knew some of this already, but the latest word on the subject was pretty alarming.

Since I don't take any meds on a regular basis, my urine is above reproach. But I know over the years lots of pills have gone from my house to landfills. The article said communities are setting up drop-off sites where residents can safely dispose of unwanted pharmaceuticals. Like the hazardous waste drop-off site I've been eagerly anticipating for years, this is not likely to happen in my community.

My dog Wolfy takes an arthritis pill every day. Actually, it's a piece of an arthritis pill. He started out with a half pill, but that was reduced to a quarter pill. Since the pill is small to begin with, and my eyes are not improving with age, it can be a challenge to cut the pills accurately. And once they're cut, the pieces are quite tiny.

This afternoon I shook out of his pill bottle a piece that was too big for a quarter and too small for a half. To make it the right size, I chopped a piece off. I set aside the piece I'd give to Wolfy, and picked the remaining piece up. I stood there, holding it. Now what? I shouldn't flush it or put it in the trash, and I couldn't very well cart it off to our non-existent disposal site. I stood there a while longer, thinking. No good ideas came to me.

In the end I dropped the piece of pill into a zip-loc sandwich bag, and put that in the trash. It seemed like the chicken's way out.

What would Susan Sarandon have done?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter Then, Easter Now

I was raised a Lutheran in a Catholic neighborhood in Queens. On Easter, the two religious seemed to meld into one big fashion statement. My friends and I followed the strict tenets of the city that gave the world the song "Easter Parade." Each of us left the house Easter Sunday wearing a new dress, a new spring coat in a pastel shade, matching shoes (patent leather or pastel) and bag, white gloves, and a hat.

The hats were usually made of white straw, often with a pastel ribbon. Or ribbons. Or flowers. Or lace. Whatever the style, one thing remained constant: We never wore the hat again. It was also unlikely that we ever wore the coat again. We certainly didn't wear the gloves again. The dress and shoes (and maybe the bag) might to to a party at some point, but the rest of the outfit stayed in the closet after Easter.

We wore the outfit to church, and then we hung around on the sidewalk in our Easter clothes. We did this all afternoon. My dad often took pictures. Then we went back home and ate a lot of chocolate.

Religions can be such curious phenomena. At what point did fashion become allied with the resurrection of Jesus? Is it a symbolic hat equals new life?

By the time my children came along, my concept of Easter had changed. My husband and I didn't go to church, and pastel spring coats just didn't fit in on the old farm. We colored eggs and did Easter crafts, and I filled baskets with little gifts in lieu of candy. My mother sent Easter outfits for them every year, and the girls enjoyed wearing pretty dresses as they hunted for Easter eggs in the front yard.

Now that they're grown, I'd probably ignore Easter if left to my own devices. But fortunately, today I wasn't. My daughter Suzanne's brother-in-law and his partner invited me to their Easter dinner. This is a Slavic Catholic celebration, different from the Irish and Italian Catholics of my childhood. Today's gorgeous table was decorated with Pysanky eggs in various sizes.

There were other differences, too. I wore beige pants, yellow shoes, and a linen top in spring colors. My 19-year-old granddaughter wore a strapless swirl dress in pink and white. The men wore shorts. In the house, most were barefoot. At one point my son-in-law ran home (literally ran, through the woods) to don a dry suit (it's like a wet suit, only dry) and go water skiing in 40 degree water.

But some things never change. After a delicious traditional Easter dinner, we sat in the living room surrounding a spread of desserts: Apple Crisp, Lemon Lush, Banana Bread, and something else. Mounds of pretzels surrounded a fondue pot of bubbling chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

Happy Easter, everyone.