Those Who Live in Glass Houses

 

I indulged in gluttony in front of my loved ones at a funeral lunch and I was ashamed. But not sorry.

When I entered the hall and scanned the tables heaped with an abundance of appealing homemade food, my youngest grandchildren had already grabbed a soft drink, piled chips on top of their fried chicken and headed toward the dessert table.

I smiled at their self-indulgent choices and complimented myself on my healthy selections. Then I neared the salad section and saw several shimmering, sugary Jell-O salads: red, green, and orange Jell-O; Jell-O containing bananas, grapes, raspberries, and pineapple; Jell-O with nuts, cream cheese and whipped cream blended in or spread on top; mouth-watering salads with nary a vegetable lurking in their soft, creamy depths.

I picked up an extra plate.

Despite my funereal fall from grace, I eat healthy foods most of the time. But I remember fondly the foods I yearned for as a child in the fifties, foods much like those my young loved ones crave today.

I used to spend the pennies, nickels and dimes I earned doing extra chores for my mother on anything sugared and frozen on a stick, especially blueberry popsicles that dyed my mouth an alarming fluorescent blue. I also liked orange and white dreamsicles and chocolate-covered milk nickels. But I never bought fudgsicles..

I quit eating the chocolate treats when Dad bought one for everybody in the car. Those of us in the backseat whooped with appreciation, but Mom took one bite, said it tasted like brown chalk and tossed the remains out the window. Dad yelped, “Hide ‘em, kids, or she’ll get yours too,” but I sided with Mom and threw mine away. Carolyn called me a copycat; Bob said I was too stupid to be in third grade.

Like today’s teenagers, I craved soft drinks of any sort, spending far too much of my babysitting and fruit-picking money at the Arctic Circle trying to decide between lemon lime and orange. I routinely convinced my younger sister Barbara to trade tastes. I would take a generous swallow of hers then say she couldn’t taste mine because I didn’t want her cooties. I also accepted dates with young men I didn’t care for because I hoped the A&W would be on the itinerary.

Raised in a home where caffeine in any form was frowned upon, I didn’t discover cola drinks until later in life. But I‘ll never forget the illicit thrill that ran through me when I was ten and told Mrs. Tucker how much I liked the birthday cake she’d made for her daughter’s party. Mrs. Tucker thanked me and said that cherry cola cake was her family’s favorite. I ate two pieces and walked home convinced I was drunk.

So today, when I notice young people inhaling chips, soft drink, candy and ice cream, I keep quiet about their poor choices and my longing for Jell-O salad with bananas and whipped cream.

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You’ll Regret It Someday

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clipartpanda

I stifled a wail when I read Mike Spoor’s BuzzFeed list of “Thirty-seven Things You’ll Regret When You’re Old,” because I’m a shining example of his regrettables. Mr. Spoor provided the bolded descriptions of youthful follies; the confessions are mine.

Not learning another language: I sensed in 4th grade that I wouldn’t be a linguist when I failed to master Pig Latin. Then in high school and college, I took every literature class offered, which left no time to study another language. To me, analyzing Moby Dick seemed more entertaining than conjugating French verbs.

As a result, when visiting foreign countries, I repeat phrases from a traveler’s dictionary with increasing volume to any approachable stranger and receive confused shoulder-shrugs or incorrect information due to my mangled pronunciations. A dapper gentleman once led me two blocks to a zoo when I asked for directions to a restroom. Conjugating verbs has its rewards.

Not Using sunscreen: In the sixties, my high school friends and I believed we’d be more attractive with a deep tan. So we slathered baby oil on any exposed skin and lounged on top of Meldrum’s chicken coop, miserably roasting in the sun, hoping to look like Annette Funicello — and failing.

Then my college roommates and I sunbathed on the thick grass of a cemetery that bordered our dorm. We misted water on our hot skin with a spray bottle, poked one another to test for doneness, kept a wary eye out for cemetery workers and suffered unsightly sunburns that drew looks of pity rather than admiration.

Years later, my youthful skin-toasting financed my dermatologist’s second home..

Being afraid to do things: Some things frighten me — deep water, selling things and fried liver; other things don’t — spiders, public speaking and Jack Nicholson in The Shining. My fears of climbing a Colorado fourteener and traveling by myself faded when I did those things, but no matter how many times I drive big-city interstates, my hair stands on end, and I hyperventilate. My age has nothing to do with it.

Caring too much about what other people think. When sunburn didn’t make my teenage face flame red, embarrassment did: “But nobody else will wear a coat; I’ll look stupid.” “I hate it when Dad sings while my friends are in the car. They look at each other.” “Why is it when I drive up with one of my boyfriends, Blaine and JL greet us by riding around on the tire-less rims of our old bicycle? They look deficient.”

Eventually, as they matured, my family quit embarrassing me. It’s nice.

Worrying too much. Evidently it’s OK to worry a little. I’m an outstanding worrier, so I’d hate to give it up completely. During the last five minutes, I fretted about my cravings for dessert, the sharp pain I had yesterday behind my eye, and whether the weatherman feels bad about his poor forecasting record.

With age, I’ve begun to realize the futility of some of my worries like fretting that I won’t be able to open an airplane’s emergency door after I assured the stewardess I could. But I still worry that not worrying about something will give it permission to happen.

I Hereby Resolve

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As of January 1, 2017, I will no longer describe my latest ailment to anyone who will listen. It will be a difficult resolution to keep; I enjoy clucking away about my physical difficulties to those who don’t retreat when I lean close and confide, “You know, I have this rash…”.

I’m not alone in thinking others want to hear about my bunions, sore elbow and arthritic thumb. In my late fifties, I participated in an animated discussion with friends about our physical woes: dry eyes, insomnia, tinnitus and leg cramps. We described symptoms, “It’s like my head is filled with buzzing bees,” suggested remedies, “”Pull your toes back as far as you can for as long as you can,“ and shared our expertise or lack thereof, “You mean there’s a difference between floaters and flashers?”

Later, we couldn’t believe we spent an evening talking about our maladies rather than our jobs, families, movies and sports. Physical problems had plagued all of us our entire lives, but never before had we felt the urge to share them with all the fishes in the sea.

Like most people, my friends and I grew up in a maze of childhood sicknesses, wandering cluelessly from colds to mumps to measles to chickenpox. We suffered earaches, stomach-aches, sore throats, pink eye and the flu. We worried about tonsillitis, which could lead to a dreaded tonsillectomy, and lived with the threat of polio, which lurked in the background of every day, an uninvited and dreaded guest.

We were quarantined to our rooms and confined to our beds. We whined, complained of boredom and dreaded the agony of vomiting. We sweated under mustard plasters, soaked in Epsom salts and scratched our red spots when our mothers weren’t looking.

At one point, to cure my chronic sinus congestions, the doctor told Mom I had to forego sugary treats and, when it was cold, wear a stocking cap to bed. For weeks, I blew my nose and ate a banana while my siblings enjoyed cherry pie and made fun of the raggedy knit hat I wore to bed.

Yet I never inflicted a detailed description of my malfunctioning sinuses on my young friends; nor did I introduce my hangnail-infected big toe into a late night conversation with my college roommates. My impacted wisdom teeth and stress-related headaches were never discussed in a faculty lounge.

Now, however, Joel and I consider a day poorly spent if we don’t devote several minutes of conversation to the quality of our sleep and the status of our chronic issues. At family reunions, my siblings and I provide health updates to a sympathetic chorus of sighs and advice: “You can’t wish your sciatica away. You need physical therapy.” And my friends and I compare symptoms at length: “My mouth gets so dry my husband says I have a speech impediment.”

I admire my sister-in-law, a successful professional woman and involved grandmother, who has wit, intelligence and complex health issues, problems that would allow her to dominate any discussion. But she never mentions them. Ever. When directly asked by those of us who love her, she responds simply and briefly and then gracefully changes the topic to grandchildren, pets or politics.

So, in 2017, I’m going to follow her example and stop pouring a detailed description of my latest symptoms into every available ear.

But I don’t promise to quit writing about them.

Adjusting to the New Me

sweet clipart.com

sweet clipart.com

If you read my last post chronicling my nosedive into medical testing, you know my perception of myself as a healthy person changed a few years ago.

When young, I thought I’d grow up, get married and live happily every after. I skipped minor details — graduating from high school, earning money for college, seeking employment, choosing a spouse, being a parent — and hit the highlights: marriage and happily-ever-after.

In constructing this fantasy, I ignored the examples of my extended family, dear friends, and good neighbors. In reality, some never marry; some remain childless; some don’t graduate; some are unemployed; some never have the opportunity to go to college; some fight debilitating illnesses; some suffer life-changing accidents.

And, happy as my childhood was, my mom and dad didn’t go around every day bursting with joy and tra-la-la-ing.

Neither did I. Once married and employed, I bumped into reality on a regular basis; never more so than when I faced divorce and its aftermath: an admission of failure and a flood of grief for what had been.

When I began my career, I entertained another irrational illusion: Retirement would happen to others, never to me. I assumed I would teach happily and successfully until I died. Then my classroom would be sealed and a placard hung: “Mrs. Bohart worked here, so step softly and get rid of your gum.”

However, in my early 60’s, reality intervened: My enthusiasm waned; I grew tired; I loathed my alarm clock. Not wanting to offer less than my best, I wrote my letter, accepted my commemorative clock, and went home.

More recently, health issues destroyed the rose-colored glasses that allowed me to pretend I would suffer minor, inconvenient ailments but remain intact and robust as I aged. In this fairytale, I died peacefully and painlessly in my sleep after snowshoeing all afternoon, snacking on carrot cake, and finishing a good book.

Then I slammed to the pavement on 6th street and underwent countless tests to determine why: electrodes plastered to my skin, my breath stilled as various machines hummed and clanked, my heart challenged by a treadmill, and, finally, an electric transmitter run from my groin into my heart.

As a result of the last test, I now live with a pacemaker: a medical marvel that should, as my silver-tongued cardiologist said, “…keep you ticking until something else kills you.”

I’ve grown accustomed to wearing an embedded mini-computer everywhere I go; but for the first few months, at odd moments, my eyes widened in surprise at the thought that I had a permanent, serious malfunction in my body and that I was dependent on a machine. These things didn’t fit my self-vision; I cherished and tried to protect my health. Didn’t that count?

With time, acceptance of my new reality slowly seeped in, like sunlight leaking through a cloud, and I understood situations beyond my control — accidents, exposure, genes — could impact my health; things would happen I could neither prevent nor fix, things I could neither control nor ignore.

I realized for optimum health, I’d need to schedule regular appointments with health professionals I trusted — and listen to them.

At last, I had gained a bit of  the wisdom old folks are said to possess.

Stitched, Scanned, and Restricted

thecliparts.com

thecliparts.com

Recently, I came across one of those anonymous sayings that pop up on social media like prairie dogs in Texas:

Cherish your health:
If it is good, preserve it.
If it is unstable, improve it.
If it is beyond what you can improve, get help.

And I remembered.

Walking with vigor and strength through an afternoon of erratic March weather, I felt light-headed, thought, “Whoa,” and caught a close-up glimpse of my scuffed shoe next to dirty snow.

I came to in a park a block away: my heart thumping, my vision crystallized, my walking faster. I looked around. How did I get here? Unable to remember, I continued striding across the snow-ruffled grass of the park, puzzling over my wet, muddy jeans and blood-stained jacket. What happened to me?

At home, I looked in a mirror at the ugly havoc on my forehead and mainly felt relief: At 5:00pm near a busy intersection in a town full of helpful people, I fell on my head, thrashed about in a muddy gutter like an upside-down turtle, scrabbled to my feet, and walked home, billowing blood, with no witnesses — and thus no need to explain my clumsiness or to pretend pluckiness. Whew.

Joel came home, looked at my head, and we went to the hospital. As the doctor stitched my forehead together, my comedienne husband asked if I would be too traumatized to cook dinner. Ha. Ha.

The next morning, I looked like I’d walked on the wild side: a blood-encrusted, cross-stitched wound, shades of purple, black, and green like the aurora borealis and a squiggle of red eyeball peering through massive swelling. Joel, ever happy to celebrate my life events, emailed a close-up photograph to family and friends. They all called, forcing repeated confessions of my inability to walk and think at the same time.

When the stitches were removed, an intern gave me good news: “Wow! Cool! Looks like the stitches stretched out a couple of wrinkles.” Perhaps he could team with my husband as the new Abbot and Costello.

Eventually, I stopped dwelling on my plummet to earth and my inability to remember. I thought I misjudged my step, turned my foot or tripped. So I was taken aback when my family doctor said she feared an underlying cause for my scarred forehead — potentially more serious than a lack of grace. She recommended tests and a cardiologist. I trusted her, so I agreed.

As I waited for the tests to be scheduled, I experienced strange symptoms: pressure in my nose, twinges in my chest, lightening striking my brain. Was that a hiccup or heart failure? Could a faulty aorta be causing my painful big toe?

But a second conversation with my doctor disconcerted me more than my imaginings: “Janet, I talked with the cardiologist; he said you shouldn’t drive until you’ve had the tests and see him. You could blackout again and harm yourself or others.”

Because I feared being a little old lady who passed out and drove through the window of a Denny’s restaurant, I obeyed. Grounded for four weeks, I was monitored, scanned, x-rayed, and stressed. Electrodes and wires became my fashion accessories and please-hold-still-and-don’t-cough my new pastime.

Finally, only one procedure remained before I could reclaim my car keys: a test of the electrical current in my heart. If problems were found, I would awaken with a pacemaker.

A pacemaker? Me? Ridiculous. I cherished my health. I worked to protect it. I did things to improve it. How could I need help?

Self-perceptions can change overnight. But that’s another story.

National Poetry Month

poetry month

My uneven experiences with poetry started with Mother Goose.

I admired the little girl who had a little curl; and when she was bad, she was horrid. But I questioned Little Jack Horner’s IQ: with an entire Christmas pie to himself, he ate only the plum?

Then, during a lesson on rhyme, my fourth-grade teacher at Lake Shore Elementary had us write a couplet using the word day at the end of the first line. Inspiration struck:

The sun was shining bright that day
To cheer the birth of Janet Bray

When I read it aloud, my classmates giggled, and I decided to become a famous poet.

I abandoned my career plans in 5th grade, however, when Mr. Ralphs corrected me for saying “poyme.” He told me to repeat his pronunciation, “pome” three times, and then had the entire class chant it three more.

In high school, my exacting English teacher, Mrs. Cornaby, wondered why her students from Lake Shore said “pome” when the word was correctly pronounced “po-em.” “Is there something in Lake Shore’s water?” she wondered with a smile.

A few days later, when I answered a question in class and said “po-em,” she winked at me, and I returned to poetry.

College brought weighty discussions about the symbolism, significance, imagery and universal meaning of assigned poems. Students volunteered ideas until someone said what the teacher wanted to hear. The chosen idea was then expanded on in a lengthy lecture, and the students stopped thinking.

I gave up on poetry again, until my junior year when my roommate, a literature major, rescued me with the poetry of E.E. Cummings. His unique phrases danced with musicality and fascinated me:

“Anyone lived in a pretty how town
and up so floating many bells down.”

I continued to read poetry on my own, but never tried to write it. Then, four years ago, I started meeting with a group of poets whose work made me laugh, reflect, and feel. These good people gave me the motivation to write poems of my own and the courage to share them.

So, in honor of National Poetry Month and my poetry group, I’ve chosen to conclude with one of my efforts. Don’t bother looking for symbolism or universality. To do so would waste your time.

Dismissal

On a sun-dominated day
we hiked in cadenced silence
above a long-nosed jump where
in a ski-town’s season
winter-bright birds swoop then
soar in flashes of neon plumage.

A squared-off snout
led two cautious eyes and attentive
ears through the undergrowth
ahead then peered both ways along the
path like a parent-programmed child.

In the absence of heavy traffic,
the bear’s considered judgment
discarded us as distant-harmless
and launched its shaggy bulk
into a bowlegged shamble
up the path where we held breath.

Before the source of our
amazement popped away
into the far-side cover
of inter-woven brush and tree
the creature sent its disregards
by mooning us for thirty yards.

Achieving Relaxation

As I cradled a bowling ball and tried to look confident, my teacher reminded me to extend my arm forward, then smoothly move it down, back, and forward again in rhythm with my steps, maintaining eye contact with my selected point throughout, and releasing the ball at the optimum moment. He then added, “And relax; don’t forget to relax.”

Did he really think I could relax while remembering his instructions, coordinating my appendages, and worrying about the rear view I’d offer to fellow bowlers and innocent bystanders alike?

Doctors advise me to breathe deeply and relax as much as possible before beginning an invasive, unpleasant, or embarrassing procedure witnessed by a nurse, an anesthesiologist, two student interns, and three anatomical charts. Might as well tell a lobster in boiling water to sing an aria.

I’m also told to relax when stretching. Lithe exercise instructors twist their willowy bodies into pretzels while informing their students that stretching requires relaxation.

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Obviously, this is not a self portrait: no frowning face, no quivering limbs.

I sprawl on my back, lift a leg, clutch it above the knee, and pull desperately, trying to stretch the inflexible limb toward my body while pointing my toes as instructed.

“Doesn’t that feel wonderful?” the teacher croons as my leg muscles — tense from my heroic efforts to relax —quiver, twitch, and spasm.

I’ve heard that a relaxed gait helps when hiking. I used to hike with a friend who floated up the intimidating mountains of Colorado with a serene expression on her face and a glide to her steps, every muscle loose. I, on the other hand, grabbed my climbing pole in a death grip, staggered like Lurch, and told myself if I took twenty more steps, I could sit down and think of ways to hurt my slithering friend.

14'ner lake

Trying to look relaxed, but achieving only a grimace: I still have to hike back down.

When trying to teach me to ski, my former husband told me to tighten this, tighten that, then relax and go. How the hell do you simultaneously tighten and relax?

Of all those who’ve said I need to relax, only one has told me how to do so. During a stress-reduction class, the teacher suggested that when sleep eluded me, I should take a deep breath through my nose, fill my lungs completely, then exhale through my mouth so forcefully the escaping air whooshed and whistled. After five repetitions, the optimist promised, I’d relax and fall asleep like a model in a sleeping-pill ad.

Filled with hope, I tried deep breathing the next night. I didn’t drift off with a smile on my face and a giant butterfly floating around my head; but I did alarm Joel, who thought we’d been invaded by a troop of whistle pigs.

My dad developed a relaxation procedure that helped him fall sleep during the years his shifts alternated around the clock and his children battled outside his bedroom. When I complained to him after a night during which I fidgeted and fumed, he divulged his secret: “I relax every muscle in my body, one after the other, starting with my ears and working down; so far, I’ve fallen asleep before I had to loosen up my toes.”

Relaxed ears? Loose toes?

I’ll just go on whistling.