The Poriskova-Ocasek Principle

The Poriskova-Ocasek Principle is when a chick is just way, way hotter than a dude.

Ric-Ocasek-Paulina-Porizkova

The Cars are a really good band.

Ric Ocasek has something so much more interesting than looks. If you don’t know who he is, listen to the following songs by The Cars (that’s a band from the 1980s):

  • Moving in Stereo
  • Let’s Go
  • You’re All I’ve Got Tonight
  • My Best Friend’s Girl
  • Good Times Roll
  • Bye Bye Love
  • Since You’re Gone
  • Shake It Up
  • Hello Again
  • Magic
  • Drive
  • You Might Think

And watch the movie Her Alibi.

Her Alibi movie poster

In the ’80s ladies were supposed to fall for guys like Tom Selleck and Burt Reynolds. Hairy, hairy dudes with mustaches.

In real life, Paulina Poriskova chose Ric Ocasek, a decidedly unhairy, tall, lanky dude with a mullet. And guess what? Apparently they have been happily married all this time. They have aged well. Back in the day I’m sure everyone was like, Paulina, are you sure? That guy? You could have the hottest guy around. You could have Rick Fucking Springfield or Jon Bon or something. But she chose someone with a far more interesting perspective. And it appears to have worked out for them.

It just goes to show you that beauty is not a very good indicator of how interesting someone is. Sometimes a beautiful facade hides a broken, wounded soul. And other times physically attractive people are just boring as dirt.

 

 

Book vs. Movie: The Wizard of Oz

WOZ-cover

My $3 Puffin Classics edition of the Wizard of Oz (the WoZ) includes an introduction by the improbably named Cornelia Funke. Apparently I am already to know who Cornelia Funke is because the book offers no explanation.

tobias-funke

Any relation?

Ms. Funke tells us that as a child in Germany, one did not read the WoZ; one watched the movie with the “adult woman dressed up as a girl” (Judy Garland was 16 when she played Dorothy) and “lots of singing and very evil witches.”

Instead, Ms. Funke read Pippi Longstocking and Tom Sawyer, and it wasn’t until adulthood that she read L. Frank Baum’s words in print.

In an elegant couple pages, Funke describes the physical appearance of her two copies — a modern edition in German and a first edition in English. She says no matter what our version looks like,  we are about to read a great story, and truly great stories evolve with the audience: A child today would envision a different Dorothy than a child in 1900, but each could have an equally profound experience.

It is the nature of things that not everyone will like the same stories. “If you don’t like it, it is often not the story that is to blame, just the fact that it was not the right one for you,” Funke says, and the “better a story is, the more readers will find themselves in it.”

And then Ms. Funke leaves us with a lovely little diving board off which to begin our adventure:

So, open the book and start traveling through the pages. It will be quite a journey, and you won’t come back the way you started, which is true for all journeys, especially written ones. Accept the invitation of the printed letters and step into the strange land of Oz. And if you are luckier than me, you’ll go there while you are still a child.

Like Cornelia Funke, I grew up with the movie, but have just read the book for the first time as an adult. I was struck by how much sadder Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are in the book, and how much more realistic.

Life on the Kansas prairie at the turn of the 20th century would have been incredibly hard, a fact that Baum could not have romanticized to his contemporaries who were living it.

Baum described the “great grey prairie” stretching on for miles in all directions, and the greyness of body and spirit displayed by Uncle Henry who “never laughed … worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was.”

Aunt Em, who came to the prairie a young vibrant woman,  now was so startled by Dorothy’s youthful laughter that she would “scream and press her hand upon her heart” looking at the girl with “wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.”

Unlike the typical head-bonk explanation given by the movie (maybe it was all a dream!), the book approaches Dorothy’s travel to Oz from a more practical standpoint.

Uncle Henry had gone out to secure the animals and Aunt Em had descended beneath the house to the “cyclone cellar” when the eye of the storm picked up the entire house and floated it, virtually unaffected, on a pocket of stable air all the way to Oz. While harrowing, this experience was not too upsetting to Dorothy, which hints at her character:

It was very dark, and the wind howled horribly around her, but Dorothy found she was riding along quite easily. After the first few whirls around, and one other time when the house tipped badly, she felt as if she were being rocked gently, like a baby in a cradle.

Toto did not like it. He ran about the room, now here, now there, barking loudly; but Dorothy sat quite still on the floor and waited to see what would happen.

And as hours and hours of this passed, Dorothy went through stages of fear, worry and panic, until finally she came to a sort of acceptance.

At first she wondered if she would be dashed to pieces when the house fell again; but as the hours passed and nothing terrible happened, she stopped worrying and resolved to wait calmly and see what the future would bring.

According the to book’s notes, the word cyclone was interchangeable with tornado at the time. Only in later climatology did a cyclone come to be associated with tropical storms over water, differentiating it from the landbound tornado that sweeps Dorothy and Toto away inside their one-room shack and lands them squat on top of the Wicked Witch of the East.

The book is more gruesome than the movie, with heads being lopped off at every turn and mass slaughter of enemies including mythical creatures as well as wolves, crows, swarms of black bees and the dreaded winged monkeys, who turn out to be not so bad after all in Baum’s version.

There are many more small battles and victories in the book, and many more times when each of the main characters proves beyond doubt that he or she already possesses the exact thing that he or she is wishing for.

The Scarecrow proves wily and full of good ideas; the Tin Man can barely hurt a flea due to the enormous compassion of his heart; and the “Cowardly” Lion fights and defends them all with tremendous courage, despite being afraid himself.

It is not clear why Dorothy’s biggest wish is to return home to the dreary grey prairie with her miserable relatives. Why wouldn’t she want to stay in the magical, beautiful, pampered land of Oz? The book doesn’t offer much explanation for this. All we know is that, when Dorothy does make it home, Aunt Em is watering the cabbages outside their newly rebuilt farmhouse. Dorothy comes running, and Aunt Em takes her up in her arms and covers her in kisses: “My darling child!” she says, “where in the world did you come from?”

Maybe we are to interpret that Dorothy knew all along that Aunt Em and Uncle Henry really needed her, or maybe being away helped Dorothy to see that she had a home — and helped Aunt Em see that she had a beloved child.

Either way, Cornelia Funke was right that it’s a very personal story. No matter which character you connect with the most — whether you wish you were smarter, more loving, more courageous or if you wish you could find a place where you feel safe and cared for, the answer is that you already have it. Whatever “it” is. You just need to know how to see it.

Grandma Maxwell’s French Tarts

Watkins Cookbook

This cookbook belonged to my paternal great-grandmother, Jessie Belle Parsons Maxwell, who passed it down to my grandmother, Mary Maxwell.

My mom always has been a terrific cook. She was raised on good old meat and potatoes on a farm just outside Vermillion, South Dakota. When she left home to follow an Indian guru and moved to an ashram in the mid-1970s, she left behind many of the foods of her childhood. Chicken and buttermilk biscuits were replaced with tofu and whole wheat chapatis (a form of Indian naan, similar to a tortilla).

Mom became the house cook for the ashram, where she learned to make vegetarian fare from Indian visitors, and where my dad likes to recall, there were beautiful moments of cultural exchange, such as the time when one such guest declared proudly, “How many chapatis have you eaten? … I have had 15!”

But even as she replaced white flour with wheat, and lard with ghee, and chocolate with carob, Mom’s roots in the down-home pioneer cooking of her forebears were strongly established. She still held on to the recipes on which she was raised and she passed the love of those dishes on to us. 

One of our favorites to prepare (and eat) was a recipe we simply called French tarts. Not only were they easy and fun to make, but they had a wisp and whimsy of the past.

The recipe came from my maternal grandmother, Mary Maxwell, whose maiden name was DesJarlais. Her family traced their roots back to the Carignan Regiment, France’s military unit that arrived in Canada in the 1600s, and the King’s Daughters, who were sent with dowries by King Louis XIV to marry them and propagate French bloodlines in New France.

Grandma Maxwell (DesJarlais) also was a mixer of cultures. When she married my grandfather, she took over management of the South Dakota farmhouse from her husband’s mother, Jessie Belle Parsons Maxwell.

Everett Maxwell and Jessie Belle Parsons

My paternal grandparents, Everett Maxwell and Jessie Belle Parsons, around the time of their wedding in 1900

Great-grandmother Jessie later in life

Great-grandmother Jessie later in life

The cookbook pictured at the top of this post once belonged to my great-grandmother Jessie, and was passed down to my grandmother Mary, and now belongs to my mom. 

Yesterday, Mom and I cracked open the dusty bindings of this cookbook to find a simple pie crust recipe, but the French tart recipe is not in any book. It is in my mom’s heart, and in mine. It represents the love and hardship that the women and men of our interwoven bloodlines have endured to get us to this moment. 

Grandma Maxwell’s French Tarts

I am not a very competent cook (sorry, grandmothers!), so this “recipe” is more of a loose outline. We began by making a simple pie crust and rolling it out to a sheet about an inch thick:

Pie crust dough

We then cut the dough into squares.

Place about a teaspoon of sugar at the center of each square (or wonky corner piece), and make a thumbprint in the middle of the mounds of sugar. When Mom was a little girl she always wanted to help Grandma Maxwell make the tarts, and this was the first thing that she ever was allowed to do. I recall making these thumbprints myself as a child, so you could say that these French tarts literally hold the fingerprints of our family line.

You then pour about a half-teaspoon of white vinegar into the sugar mounds and fold the tarts up by the corners.

Put them on a greased cookie sheet and drizzle with unsweetened evaporated milk, then sprinkle with sugar and bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes (until lightly browned).


Best to eat them when they are warm. The vinegar adds a bit of tartness. The pie crust is fluffy and buttery, and the sweetness is divine.

Sophie le Chat also was there to assist.

Sophie the cat assisting

Sophie the cat, assisting.

From Grandma Mary, Grandma Jessie, my beautiful mom, Roxanna, and all those in our family line, bon appetit!

How Do You Spend a Lonely Life?

Wanted:

Someone who breathes from the diaphragm.
Compassionate. Balanced.
With a strong inner ear.

Must love reading
The sun as it shines through the windows,
Stretching, dancing, laughing, telling stories,
Making breakfast.

Someone who feels music with their whole body.
Who wants to grow things,
and decompose things,
and grow things again.

Someone who puts their hand on my lower back as we cross the street,
and their arm around my shoulders when I am cold,
and their fingers through my hair before we fall asleep.

Someone who is strong in ways that I am not.
Who stands on all four corners of their feet
Someone who listens for understanding.
Who weathers a storm.
Someone who chooses me.

I’ve been single for nine years. It hasn’t felt like a choice, but looking back, it probably was. They say in numerology that energies move in nine-year cycles. Last year, was a 9 year (2 + 0 + 1 + 6 = 9), which represents the end of a cycle. This year is a 1 year (2 + 0 + 1+ 7 = 10, then 1 + 0 reduces to 1), which is the year of starting over. The year of my last break-up was 2008 (2 +8 = 10 = 1), also a 1 year.

I’m not big into numerology; I just found that interesting. Normally, we think of the beginning and ending of a thing—a relationship, an event—but this hasn’t been so much a thing as the lack of a thing. While I’ve watched many friends start and grow their families, I’ve spent the last nine-year cycle in a relationship with myself. As with any relationship, I’ve learned a lot about the other person.

For example, I’ve learned that, left to my own devices, I can eat an alarming number of chips. (After all, chips are my favorite food.) I also will watch a wide variety of shows on the old Netflix, sometimes following whims that I’m sure another person would find annoying.

That’s the beauty of being alone; no one to argue with. Not that I ever have been much of an arguer. All my relationships have been very polite, which is probably another reason I don’t mind some solitude. As a people pleaser, I often will give up my own wishes to avoid confrontation, or because I just don’t care enough to fight about it, and all that compromise leaves me feeling drained.

When I’m alone, I can feel whatever I need to feel, process it however I need to, recharge, hide out. I can put myself back together in peace, without the pressure of anyone else’s gaze. I’ve often thought you must have to be brave to be a parent—to know that your children always are watching you and learning even the things you don’t intend to teach.

I asked my friend DeAnna what it’s like to have her children and husband always around. I think I said something like, “You must feel like you have no place all your own.” Her reply had never occurred to me. She said, “Well they can’t get in your mind, Cara.”

DeAnna’s such a cool mom. She really treats her kids like whole people. For example, as she lists the children’s activities in her holiday letter, she says things like “he seemed to enjoy it,” or “she appeared to have a good time.” Even while her children are young, she doesn’t presume to know what their inner lives are like. She also knows that if she’s not happy, her kids are not going to be happy so she continues to pursue her own passions. It doesn’t hurt that she has a supportive husband who seems to take his role as a father equally seriously.

These are the kinds of things I think about as I try out some new farro-kale salad recipe for dinner and end up watching a show called The Fantastical World of Hormones.

The first couple years after my break-up, I really didn’t think I would be single much longer. I held onto the hopeful notion that my new life, my new self was just around the corner. But as the years have gone on, I’ve grown less hopeful, and I’ve had to grapple with the idea that I might not ever be married, or have children. That’s been a tough one to swallow. I’ve had to ask the question: What is my life worth if I am single? Does it still have value, even without a husband or kids?

What Do You Do With Eternity?

According to fan sites, Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) spends 12,403 days, or about 34 years, living the same day over and over again in the movie Groundhog Day. He goes through stages of disbelief, anger, fear, ecstasy, hopelessness. He indulges every sin without consequences. But even with total freedom and power to do whatever he wants, Phil grows bored. He gets depressed. He tries to kill himself. Yet every day he wakes up stuck in the same place, at the same time, like a needle stuck in a groove on a record.

Eventually, after trying every self-serving thing he can imagine, Phil gets the radical idea to turn his time to helping others. At the same time, he starts to pursue his own passions, a little bit every day. Time begins to have meaning and purpose. He learns to love others, to be loved by them, and to feel the pleasure of mastery. He becomes a musician, a sculptor, a doctor, an intellectual. And that is when he really falls in love with another person, and when she really falls in love with him.

I like to think that I’ve spent my last nine years in a similar process. While I haven’t achieved much mastery, I have put in a lot of effort to get to know myself. And I’ve stripped away a lot of layers, dealt with a lot of pain, uncovered a lot of hidden wounds, grudges, arrogance. One thing’s for sure: when you’re alone with yourself, you find out how imperfect you really are.

It’s like the mirror of truth at the Southern Oracle in The Neverending Story. Atreyu is told that when he looks in the mirror he will see his true self. Even great warriors have fallen at the realization—kind men discover they are cruel; brave men find that they are cowards. When I am alone, I have no one else to blame, or deflect my anger to. There are no scapegoats. Just me. If there are dirty dishes in the sink, it’s because I left them there.

I have chosen to stay single because I haven’t felt the right way about anyone, and they haven’t felt the right way about me. It’s not that no one has been worthy; I just haven’t been in the right headspace for dating and also, the older I get, the fewer people I am attracted to. (Maybe it has something to do with hormones. I should watch that documentary again.)

When I was young, I was constantly, deeply, hopelessly in love. The object of my love changed periodically, but the feeling always was there, that obsessive, possessive need to be wanted by another person. I thrived on romance like a drug.

Over the last three years, I’ve pretty much stopped dating all together. Again, it’s not that there haven’t been worthy candidates, or that I haven’t tried at all, but it doesn’t feel the same. I can’t play the games anymore. I want something deeper than drama, something more consequential than sex, something more balanced and sustainable. I want a whole relationship with another whole person.

I don’t know what the next nine years look like, or whether I ever will get married or be a mom of any kind, but I can tell you one thing: If I am still single nine years from now, I’m going to be a hell of a guitar player and a much better cook.

 

How to Heal A Broken Ankle

I have this personal trainer, Chris. I first met him at Colorado Athletic Club. I liked him right away. Chris is the kind of person who restores your faith in humanity. He served in the Army in Afghanistan, earning his degree by taking online courses in between missions. He wants to help other veterans through exercise and nutrition. He’s a bona fide hero.

Earlier this year Chris opened a gym with another trainer, Mike. Mike is from New Jersey, a fact he will remind you of whenever he feels misunderstood. He said one time someone complained that he was a misogynist, and Mike replied that he didn’t know what they were talking about and he hadn’t been massaging anyone.

What do you expect? I’m from New Jersey! Mike will say, as if this explains any perceived deficiency in his education or etiquette.

Mike is loud and brash, and he will not hesitate to yell at you as a motivating tactic. Personally, I do not respond very well to this tactic. Mike says he was a chubby kid, which is hard to imagine. One day he just decided to change his life. He joined a boxing gym. He says that you know a really good boxing gym when the guys jumprope double-dutch. I would love to see that.

Mike will not take no for an answer. You can’t do it? Impossible. You can’t lift heavier? Mike doesn’t believe it. Is that all you got? You can’t do 10 more? You can. You will.

This kind of driving optimism must have been how Mike got in shape, how he got out of New Jersey, how he got his own gym. And he’s only like 26. One time I saw him running through Boulder with a backpack on, and you just know he ran all the way up and down Sanitas. He probably ran all the way from Denver.

Mike yelled at me in my first class because I wasn’t trying to win a race across the room. I rationalized by saying something like “I’m just not very competitive,” which is like throwing down the gauntlet to Mike. He vowed to get it out of me, to make me a competitor, to make me want to win.

After a six-week introductory deal, Mike and Chris had me hooked on their exercise crack and I was ready for more. I was pumped. Sore today, strong tomorrow. I prepaid for a three-month membership.

Mike took my measurements so that we would have baseline numbers to assess my future progress. He pinched me with those creepy gym teacher calipers and then measured the circumference of my arms, legs and torso. He was like, “Wow, your legs are surprisingly fat.” That’s not exactly what he said, but it was something about how I was carrying more weight than was apparent to the casual observer. If anyone else had told me this, I might have been offended. But it’s Mike. He’s from New Jersey.

We talked about my goals. I wanted to finally have the body I’ve always dreamed of. I wanted to be a boxer. Mike designed an aggressive schedule of classes in the coming weeks. We were going to do it together. I was going to win. U-S-A! U-S-A!

The next morning, I got up early and went to boot camp. I felt strong. I felt like I could do this every day, get up before the sun, exercise, sweat, start off like a fucking champion.

It was the last round of reps in the last circuit. There was 10 minutes left in class. I was running in place with my hands on the wall. My partner, Kristi, was on the floor doing crunches — I had to run for as long as it took her to finish her reps. I turned my head to see how far along she was, and my left foot landed like a limp fish on the floor.

My ankle rolled out. There was a loud POP! — so loud that Kristi heard it clearly over the blaring music. I crumbled to the ground. I knew something had happened, but I didn’t feel any pain. My ankle started swelling. I was in shock. Mike asked me where it hurt. I found out later that he thought I had ruptured my Achilles. Kristie offered to stay with me at the hospital, but I told her that I’d be fine. I thought maybe I’d just twisted my ankle. Even the doctor seemed to think it was less serious at first. But the x-rays showed a clean break through the lateral malleolus of my left fibula.

img_0760

When my foot landed wrong, the ligament yanked on that little protrusion on my fibula and just snapped off the end like a rice cracker. Because it is not a weight-bearing bone, I was able to put pressure on it without feeling much. It didn’t require surgery, but I would have to be in a walking boot for at least six weeks.

img_0763

It has been exactly four months. The recovery has been pretty easy, all things considered. I’ve moved from the boot to a bandage, to nothing. But as I’ve transitioned to using my ankle more, walking more, standing more, I’ve been feeling it.

X-rays show that my bone has healed. They actually say that a healed bone is stronger than the original bone. It comes back reinforced, even better than it was before. But now I have the other effects from being in the boot, which restricted motion in my entire foot and calf during the recovery.

All my good intentions succumbed to Netflix and comfort food. I did manage to move to a new apartment while in the boot, so I wasn’t totally inactive, but it’s been the polar opposite of the Rocky workout montage I envisioned prior to my injury.

As I try to jumpstart myself back into shape, I am faced with new challenges — weakness, atrophy, lack of balance. And mostly, I just don’t trust myself anymore. If my ankle could roll once, it could roll again. (I saw this funny thing that said, “I don’t always roll a joint, but when I do, it’s my ankle.”) Even the doctor told me that once you’ve had an injury like this, you are more likely to repeat it.

My medical treatment up until this point has been spotty. The doctors at the ER were cool, but they couldn’t do much more than give me some crutches and send me on my way. My primary care physician is at a community clinic, where they have way more serious issues to deal with. They said that if it swells really bad, go get it checked out. So far I haven’t found any way to measure what really bad swelling looks like as compared to just sorta-bad-normal swelling. But hey, I’m not a doctor.

Last week I had my first physical therapy appointment. My experience with my PT, Lindsay, was totally different. She was focused and present. She talked through her observations.

The fact that I was just running in place against a wall when my ankle rolled told Lindsay that there was a disconnect between my mind and my body. The inner ear controls our sense of balance. She hypothesized that I had inner ear issues prior to my injury, and my ankle rolled because the message from my brain to my foot misfired.

I remembered that my left foot had been acting up the night before and the morning of my injury. I knew my foot was tired. I could feel that it was stressed, but my mindset was to ignore what my body was telling me and push through the fatigue. To power forward.

But sometimes forward motion actually requires that you slow way down.

I was at this bowling alley once where they had automatic scoring — rather than writing or typing in your own scores, the computer scored the game for you. In order for the lane to keep score, the sensors had to read the position of the pins accurately. Any jostling of the pins would throw off the sensors and require the system to reset again.

When it was my turn to bowl, I was chit-chatting and didn’t notice that the system hadn’t finished resetting the pins from the prior turn. I positioned myself just left of center and sent the ball rolling down the lane, only to have it smack against the rail of the pinsetting machine.

The guy working at the bowling alley was sort of a country dude. He had a thick twang, and he looked like a larger version of Eminem in the Slim Shady video. He came running over to tend to the pinsetter like it was a sensitive child.

He turned to me, sounding very annoyed, “Can you pay intention please?”

I remember we got a real kick out of that. Pay intention. It’s a brilliant flip. Rather than simply paying attention, why not pay intention. Don’t just observe; declare your purpose. Participate mindfully.

It is not surprising that my body rebelled just as I was about to launch a huge push to change. That’s the way life works. Just when you are ready to do something monumental, just when you are about to face a challenge bigger than you’ve ever faced before, you are shown your weaknesses. Not as punishment, but to reveal where you are vulnerable.

My body said, OK, if you are serious about getting in shape, you’re going to have to communicate better. Sometimes pushing is not the way. Sometimes you simply can’t force things. You can’t progress to a higher level until you’ve mastered the one you’re on. Life intervenes to show you where you still have some work to do. This isn’t a failure, but a matter of timing and experience. It’s like cooking — you can have all the right ingredients, but then you have to let them blend together. If you take the casserole out too early, you miss the full flavor. If you force yourself to compete at a level that you’re not ready for, you are going to stumble.

I’ve been back to the gym a few times. Chris and Mike have been their typical supportive selves. They modify exercises for me; they look out for me; and of course they just believe in me so much. It’s kind of annoying sometimes.

Mike usually is bursting with energy, bouncing around, singing along to Beyonce with his hair dyed green or purple as he barks at you to run faster, push harder. But a couple of weeks ago Mike and I were alone in the gym, and he was quiet. I asked him what was wrong, and he said that he’d just returned from a trip home. One of his friends had overdosed on opiates, a huge problem where Mike comes from.

The neighbors who found the body also found Mike’s friend’s dog alone and in need of care. The friend’s ex-girlfriend lives on a farm several hours away, so Mike and another guy agreed to drive the dog to the farm. Mike showed me photos of their road trip on his phone. He and the other guy are wearing suits. They are in a convertible. The dog looks elated. They’re from New Jersey.

I can tell that his friend’s death lays heavy on Mike. Having mustered so much personal strength himself, Mike feels a responsibility to show others the way. He knows what is possible and he believes in overcoming obstacles. He believes you can do it, anyone can do it, no matter what you are up against. But, as I learned the hard way, it doesn’t matter how much Mike believes in you if you don’t believe in yourself.

With Lindsay’s help I hope to get back to the starting line soon, back to where I was four months ago. Mustering the energy is very challenging, but no one can do it for me. No one can listen for me. No one can restore the communication between my mind and my body but me. No one can save me but me. Just as the lateral malleolus of my left fibula has grown back stronger than it was before, I know that I will be stronger for acknowledging my vulnerability. I will be wiser for seeing my weakness. I will pay intention. And I will reach my destination better than when I started.

 

Life and Death

A couple of days ago a friend and colleague of mine lost her father suddenly. It’s hard to know what to say when something like this happens. This kind of death carries a heavy grief, filled with so many what ifs and unanswered questions.

How you get through it depends on what you believe, I guess. Believing in an afterlife helps, or in some kind of divine logic. If you don’t have anything or anyone to give your grief up to — like God, or Jesus or the universe — then you might feel kind of stuck with the sadness for a while, struggling to process it.

Another friend recently went through a scare when her niece nearly died from a sudden illness. My friend and her family sat vigil in the hospital for days and nights on end. Even though her niece came through, my friend says that she feels a new kind of pain now, a deeper pain. There’s an anger and a shock when bad things happen to good people. Because even though we all know intellectually that good people suffer all the time, many of us still never think it will happen to us. It’s a loss of innocence, when we see how unfair life can be.

I haven’t been reading fiction over the past several years. A few books here and there. I took some deep dives into Infinite Jest, but still didn’t finish it. I read George Saunders stories. I read My Struggle (just the first book) by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Then a few months ago I joined the kind of book club where you actually read books (although I like the book club where you just drink wine too). The first book we read in Actual Book Club was The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. The second meeting, it was my turn to host.

I put some choices out to the group and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy got the most votes. I felt a certain hostess pressure. But when I finally sat down to start the book, I struggled to get through the opening chapters. The relationships were difficult to remember. I kept confusing the main characters, boy and girl twins, because their names didn’t correspond to my gender associations. The girl twin is Rahel and the boy twin is Esta. Typically, I associate girls’ names with ending in ‘a,’ so I kept thinking Esta was the girl; and the name Rahel, ending in ‘el,’ made me think of the masculine pronoun in Spanish.

god-of-small-things-insta

I reread the first part like five times. And then I made myself a cheat sheet, which helped a bit.

god-of-small-things-family-tree

The story jumps between the 1960s, when the twins are children, and the ‘90s, when they are adults becoming reacquainted with each other after a long separation. I was slogging through it, not getting into it, and then there was a kind of tipping point. At book club we decided it happens when the narrative starts to catch up to itself — when you finally start to see the events that have been hinted at and foreshadowed begin to unfold. I haven’t confirmed this, but it felt to me like the language got less fussy. I didn’t have to work as hard to understand, so I just started to flow with the story.

This also is the time in the book when Roy unleashes a very Knausgaard-ian-ly realistic, Lynch-ian-ly grotesque scene of child abuse that is so disturbing that I had to put the book down for a couple of days. There are several times when the writing is so visceral, and so barbaric, that it takes fortitude to read every word. You want to close your eyes like in the movies, but there is no way through it except through it.

Despite my resistance nearly all the way, I was in body-shaking sobs by the end. I felt like a stronger person for having allowed myself to mentally experience the brutal unfairness that Roy describes so vividly. She also applies that sensual realness to love scenes, which sort of balances the scales a bit.

[Spoiler alert] This book came out in 1998, but the police brutality theme is eerily current. My famous friend DeAnna and I were the only two to finish the book (which was no small feat, let me tell you) and we were both thunderstruck by about five pages toward the end when Roy dissects the rationale of the policeman beating Velutha to death. The way she describes the coldness of it and detachment of it – like the body attacking a disease — is chilling and terrifying.

There is very little justice in the world that Roy describes in The God of Small Things, and very little comfort. It just so happens that Roy recently announced she is working on a second novel. I might have to wait about 20 years to read the next one. Maybe by then I will have recovered.

But apparently, I hadn’t had enough of India, so I picked up a book that my dad had given me to read a long time ago.

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I love how Chester snuck into this picture.

Despite his reassurances that it would fly by, and despite other friends telling me how much they enjoyed it, I just hadn’t been able to get into Shantaram. But with India on the brain and emboldened by the slog through the first part of Small Things, I decided to try again. I gave myself a deadline. I would try to finish it in time to return it to my dad the next time I saw him, which gave me about 10 days to read 930 pages.

Shantaram is quasi-autobiographical (you don’t exactly know what’s real and what’s embellished, but you get the feeling that Gregory David Roberts knows a fair amount of what he speaks. And what is up with having three first names? It almost always sounds pretentious, right? Unless the person has three diminutive names, like Billy Joe Bob).

The narrator is an Australian fugitive who goes by the name Lindsay (later mostly called Lin or Linbaba). The story opens in the 1980s as Lin enters Bombay on fake papers. All we know is that Lin has recently escaped from an Australian prison where he was serving 20 years for armed robberies that he committed to feed his heroin habit.

Lin joins the local expat community, and falls in love with a woman named Karla, who, like all the non-Indian characters in the book, made her home in Bombay out of a desire to disappear. The expats Lin interacts with operate at varying levels of petty crime; and the Indians Lin interacts with range from slumdwellers to Mafia kingpins.

Like The God of Small Things, Shantaram depicts brutal suffering. Children sold as slaves, slumdwellers dying of cholera, paper-thin homes ripped through by fire and drowning in shit, starvation, rats the size of cats, malicious packs of street dogs, violence, soul-less sex, drugs, corruption and gruesome torture that seems to have no bottom, no end. It is all so unfair. The most unsettling part is that you can tell that the bad parts are real, because no one could make up the kind of cruelty that The Greg Pirate Roberts writes about.

Yet, intertwined with all the suffering, Lin experiences a different and cathartic kind of love. In particular, Lin’s guide, Prabakar “Prabu” Kharre, embodies the moral, noble heart of India. With his radiant, honest smile and his relentless optimism, Prabu insists on seeing the bright side. When tragedy strikes, Prabu says, you are very lucky, it wasn’t your house that burned down. You are blessed; it wasn’t you who died of Cholera. At first, Prabu’s approach might seem callous or selfish, but as Shantaram unfolds, we learn along with Lin, what Prabu has learned from a lifetime of inconceivable unfairness and unmerciful fate — the only way to survive is to purposely and intentionally insist upon seeing the light.

Faced with the weight of your grief, you can howl and scream, pound your fists, stomp your feet, curse the world, denounce God, give up hope, lash out, cut ties, gouge out your own heart, blame everyone you know, deny the truth, stuff down the parts you don’t want to remember, block out and numb out the things you don’t want to see or hear. You can rage, rage, rage, but none of it will change a damn thing.

On the surface, you could read Prabu’s character as a simplified stereotype, a goofy Uncle Tom type, smiling comically and getting cheap laughs from his broken English, as in the scene when he first approaches Lin:

“Good mornings, great sirs!” he greeted us. “Welcome in Bombay! You are wanting it cheap and excellent hotels, isn’t it?”

But throughout the book, Prabu is a constant reminder of goodness. His genuine care for Lin and others, his humor and spirit wash even the most heinous of realities with the soft light of compassion.

I don’t know why good people get sick. I don’t know why good people die. But I know that the only real weapon we have against suffering is love. Love can’t survive in a hardened heart; there’s no room for love when you are pumping venom or churning bitterness, blaming everyone else, carrying a big old chip on your shoulder. Love can’t survive in suffering. But also suffering can’t survive in love. And the thing about suffering is that it has an end — human bodies are built with an auto-shut-off safety function. When we reach a certain level of pain, we go numb. We can’t feel it anymore. But love is limitless. There is no end to how deep it can go. There is no ceiling. It just keeps getting more and more creative in how it grows. The more you feed it, the more surprising it is. And just as you can’t close your eyes and continue to read the book, the only way through is through. And until you actually get there, you have no idea the gifts waiting for you on the other side.

So, if you have a copy of Shantaram holding down a bunch of papers or propping open a very heavy door, all I can say is: It will fly by, I promise. I really enjoyed it.

Happy Birthday to Me

So it’s my birthday. Again.

As my friend DeAnna said somewhat accusingly in my birthday message, “I feel like your birthday has come very fast; I don’t know why — other people have also had birthdays — but I feel like the time between this birthday and your last birthday seems like less than a year.”

I hear you, DeAnna, how do we slow down this crazy train?

DeAnna is constantly surprising me with her perspective. She’s one of the few people I know who brazenly and totally bravely thinks for herself. She questions things I would never think to question (like has it been less than a year since my last birthday?). Everyone needs a friend like DeAnna.

You know, I thought 40 was the big birthday, but I think it’s 41. I mean, my birthday is a pretty big deal, as evidenced by this post on my Facebook wall from my friend Jenn:

jenns-calendar

Jenn is going to remember my damn birthday. I tell you what.

When I turned 40 last year, I just wanted to be alone. I took a solo trip to Connecticut. I slept in a greenhouse. They called this “glamping,” that’s “glamorous camping” to you and me. On my actual birthday I kayaked. I am not comfortable with any kind of deep water, so even on a dead calm river, I found it challenging. The whole concept of steering with the oar seemed counterintuitive.

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I did make it upstream to a spot where you had to duck to get under this bridge and then on the other side you were in like a mossy green fairyland. On the return trip, floating through the narrow opening, I thought of it as a rebirth. Onward to the next phase of my life.

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This year, Lani and Chris came to visit from San Francisco. It had been a long time since they had been in Colorado together.  We decided to take an overnight trip to an AirBnB in Salida with amazing views and a hot tub.

The whole time leading up to it, I was all about the hot tub. I could not wait to sit under the stars in the damn hot tub. But when we got there I had a respiratory infection and it was frigid cold outside – in the 20s and 30s. Definitely not get-wet-and-be-outside weather. I was grumpy and disappointed, and not that fun to be around. I pouted and went to bed, which apparently I still do, even at 41 years old.

From our deck, you could see a string of 14ers, which the owner, Drew, rattled off the names of when we arrived. Drew built the house himself using strawbale construction. He has chickens and turkeys, and a huge sow named Tammy. Drew gets the vegetable scraps from some of the downtown restaurants, and the waste barley from the brewery to feed her. (Tammy wouldn’t pose for a picture, but just imagine the biggest pig you have ever seen.)

We shopped at a great thrift store in Salida the next day called Ruby Blues. This actually was the impetus for the whole trip; when Mom and I were in Salida over Christmas, I just knew that Lani and Chris would love this store. The owners are a husband-and-wife team. Their selection is authentic vintage and very reasonably priced — like varsity letter jackets, and jean jumpsuits, riding pants and 70s sweaters. A lot of amazing pieces. I’m going to go down there just to go record shopping. I want every record in the store.

Chris found a 1940s reversible military jacket with fur trim that basically had never been worn before. One side is green and the other side is white. When wearing the white side, he looks like he is in Siberia in a James Bond movie.

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He also got these 1970s sparkly motorcycle helmets.

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I got a pair of clogs. For some reason, they have a robust selection of Dansko clogs at this place.

We had lunch at the Mexican restaurant in town, then stopped at a roadside Gem and Rock Store outside Buena Vista. Lani has a thing for rocks.

Lani was a pretty miserable baby. She had constant earaches. She only wanted to be held by Mom. She cried like crazy.

When Lani was about one-and-a-half my mom was pouring boiling water into a pitcher when it burst in her hands. Lani had been on the floor, possibly even clutching my mom’s leg. She was burned all over her little body.

My earliest memory from my childhood is walking down the hospital hallway and the nurse saying, “Now remember, you can’t touch your sister, or she’ll bleed.”

I must have been about three. It was dark in the hospital room, with only a few dim lights on. When they opened the door, Lani was standing up in the crib holding the bars. She had gauze around her head and this huge smile on her face. She was happier than she’d ever been.

We were pretty shy and quiet kids. Our parents were introverts. So imagine our surprise when Lani was about five and she picked up her stuffed bear and began to speak for him in a deep, growling voice. None of us would have believed such a big voice could come out of such a little kid.

Dad asked the bear what his name was.

The bear replied, “G.B.”

Dad: What does G.B. stand for?

G.B.: Gray Black. (G.B. was a gray bear, with black eyes.)

G.B. started watching the Broncos games with us, yelling at the TV screen, high-fiving Dad. Occasionally, Dad would pick G.B. up and throw him in the air, prompting G.B. to growl, “Stop it, Gery!”

One day Dad asked G.B. who his hero was.

G.B.: [thinks for a minute] Kirk Blueberry.

Dad: Oh, yeah, what is Kirk Blueberry famous for?

G.B.: He found 10,000 rocks.

Lani loved nature from the beginning. To me, a rock is a rock. But when we were in that rock store on the side of the road outside Buena Vista last weekend, it was clear that Lani has a very special talent for seeing beauty in normal, regular things. She chatted up the geologist proprietor, asking meaningful questions, picking the best things out of the case. Lani didn’t go to school for this, but she just enjoys it; she likes what she likes, not what anyone else likes, not what she is told to like. She and Chris have this sixth sense for cool stuff. I just see a rock.

Everything shifted for me when we got to the hot springs. It was a cloudless day, gorgeous fall colors, just a bit of chill in the air. After being sick and crabby, floating in the hot springs with the sun on my face was rejuvenating. We finished out the weekend with a nice gathering at Dad’s house where we ate cake and ice cream, and did a mini birthday celebration surrounded by extended family.

On my actual birthday Mom brought me the most beautiful lunch. Salmon with garlic and dill; quinoa; an amazing salad with romaine from her garden, feta cheese, strawberries, blackberries and pecans in a blush wine vinaigrette. She even made me a cheesecake. She went off-recipe and replaced the heavy cream and whipping cream with yogurt and cream cheese. Like she does.

She helped me repot my herbs and bring them inside for the winter. And she made me the most hilarious and awesome present. Over the weekend, I had been admiring the drawings in this old cookbook she had. We especially liked this one of the cowgirl and the vegetables.

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So my mom copied the drawing and made these kitchen magnets. She really is the best mom.

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All in all, I’m optimistic about 41. I received many sweet, genuinely thoughtful and heartfelt birthday wishes. I have many people to love, so many people who love me. It’s a ridiculous abundance of friendship. I am grateful to have known and shared my heart with so many. It really is the best gift.

It’s easy to focus on what’s lacking. Like, I’m not married, and I don’t have kids, I don’t have pets, I don’t own a house, I’m out of shape, I’m exhausted and unmotivated, my ankle still hurts after breaking it three months ago. I’m sick, blah, blah, blah. It’s easy to let my mind ramble on, cataloging all my faults and failures, but there comes a point (age 41, maybe?) when all that toxic noise just gets really boring.

As I was floating in the hot springs, trying out various arrangements for the sad limp pool noodles — Under the knees? The ankles? Propped under the neck? — I overheard two ladies discussing the movie “Age of Adaline” (currently available to watch on Amazon).

age-of-adaline

I’d seen the promo for it, but frankly, Blake Lively bugs me. She’s headed down that Gwyneth Paltrow road of self-righteous clean-living that just lacks any sort of spark of life. Where is the authentic woman behind the complexion and the ever-calm-and-collected smoky voice? Where’s the blood? Where’s the heart? Where’s the soul?

But as the ladies discussed the plot, I became intrigued. In 1930s America, Adaline (Blake Lively) is a young widow with a daughter when she accidentally slides off the road and her car ends up in a freezing lake. Adaline dies submerged in her vehicle in the icy water. But, it just so happens that within minutes of her death, the lake is struck by an electrical charge, which restarts her heart. She is alive. She climbs out of the lake, and from that day forward, her body doesn’t age another day. Adaline remains 29 years old forever. Even as her daughter grows up and becomes an old woman, Adaline still looks exactly the same. In order to avoid being kidnapped by the government or some crazy scientists, she changes her identity every 10 years. She has no life of her own. No one except her daughter knows the truth. Over the years, Adeline falls in love, at least twice.

(Spoiler alert) the movie unfolds as she meets a relentless young rich dude named Ellis (actual dialogue: “Like the island?” Ugh). Despite her reservations, Adaline, now going by the name Jenny, “falls” into bed with Ellis the way it always happens in romantic comedies: They drink a bunch and then ravage each other like horny virgins. These movies make you believe that the only way to “fall in love” with someone is to get totally hammered and have sex on the first date. Because that works out so well in real life.

Of course, Ellis is inexplicably drawn to Adaline’s aloof demeanor and distant gazes. He absolutely will not take no for an answer. Again, this only happens in movies. If a real dude were this persistent, you would be like hey stalker, no means no, brah.

Adaline agrees to go with Ellis to his parents’ 40th wedding anniversary celebration. But (plot twist!) it turns out that Ellis’s dad, played by Harrison Ford, also fell madly in love with Adeline in the 1960s, and planned to propose to her on the day that she ditched him to change her identity. One of the main reasons to watch this movie is to see the flashback scenes where the actor who plays the young Harrison Ford does like a crossover impression of Indiana Jones and Han Solo.

Eventually, Harrison Ford figures out that Jenny actually is Adaline. He begs her not to hurt his son the way she hurt him, but Adeline just can’t conceive of a life where she gets to be loved and to love another honestly.

As I watched Blake Lively’s shiny blonde hair flowing behind her as she ran through a forest, the point of the movie hit me. It’s about running away from life, making excuses, giving in to doubts, letting whatever the obstacle is – money, health, social awkwardness, fear, anger, shame, eternal youth, whatever – letting that thing stop you from even trying.

When Ellis discovers that Adaline has left, he asks his father what happened. What made her leave? Why’d she do it?

Ellis: Dad! Tell me what she said!

Harrison Ford character: She said she’s not capable…

Ellis: Of what?

Harrison Ford character: Of change.

Over the past few months, I’ve slowly opened up to the idea that my future could look different from my past. I don’t have to run. I don’t have to listen to the mindless critical chatter. I don’t have to settle. I don’t have to lock my heart away, and I don’t have to deny myself the life I deserve as penance for my perceived faults and failures.

The media and the advertisers will tell you that aging is about loss — the loss of beauty, of health, of optimism, of potential — like if you haven’t made your career and had your family by 35, if you haven’t maintained a perfect physique and resisted all addictions, if you haven’t found inner peace and eliminated negativity, if you haven’t accomplished something, become somebody, achieved your dreams, healed your family, saved the world, then you might as well just completely give up.

But it’s a lie.

The reason prior generations valued youth so much is that everyone expected to be dead by 50. Life was hard. People were dying all the damn time. You got married at like 12 and had 10 babies by 40. You probably wished you were dead. You worked on a farm or in a factory or a mine where nobody cared if you didn’t feel like going to work that day. Nobody cared if there was a blizzard or an ice storm or a dust bowl. You didn’t have choices. Youth was valued because you didn’t expect to be young for very long. You had to grow up fast, and the decisions you made as you launched into adulthood had serious, lasting repercussions. Marrying the wrong man or choosing the wrong job could put you in the hospital, or in jail, or in the grave. We have so many choices now. We have so much more to work with than any generation before us. Including time.

So, here’s to 41. Here’s to change. Here’s to choices. Here’s to anything can happen. Here’s to another year. (And I’ll try to make it a full year this time, DeAnna.)