goodbye house

In 1953, my family moved into the house in Torrance. I was 4. After my parents divorced in the 1970s, my mother continued to live there. Last February she had to move into assisted living after two very stressful years (for both her and my sister) living alone after becoming disabled. My sister, with some help from my brother, spent the spring inventorying and boxing possessions. I’ve been out here for the past 10 days helping with the final sort. My mother worked in pottery and ceramics, and there were a couple hundred pieces in the house. We “kids” took a lot of the stuff, the rest is going into an estate sale. This was my last night in the house. Today  I’m flying  home and the estate sale person takes over, to be followed by the real estate agent.  I have not lived in the house since 1970, but this still feels like “home” even though there has been no comfortable place for me on visits for a long time as my mother spread out and occupied all the rooms of this five-bedroom house.  But it was  a touchstone, a point of reference. In the future when I visit, I’ll have to stay with my father or brother or sister — the old place won’t be there. It’s a strange feeling.

Mom is doing better with the move, by the way. She made the decision to move after a health crisis last December and has made up her mind to look forward, not back. For the first few months she was pretty depressed and demoralized in the new place due to a variety of adjustment problems, but since finally getting her mobility scooter as well as a better doctor who actually talked to her and adjusted her medications (!) and told her to get a case manager to deal with bureaucracies, her depression has lifted. She says food tastes better, she’s gaining weight and making friends. Once again she is chatting up a blue storm to anybody who will listen about all her years of international travels and genealogy researches. As we cleared the house, we moved a shelf full of her smaller pottery plus her plates and prints that can be hung on her walls so her artistic side can be visible in her new space. It wasn’t until her depression lifted that it even occurred to her that she could make her environment less bleak.

On the sociology side, the person doing the estate sale runs a turnkey business: she helps seniors find assisted living facilities, moves them into them, then cleans the house and goes through all the stuff to clean it up and display it for the estate sale, then connects with charities that will pick up what did not sell and empty out the house. You can see that this business is in a growth industry. The real estate agents were very interested — they have other clients who need this service.

an old friend found too late

My spouse spotted the NYT obit for Dennis DeLeon, an old friend from high school we have not seen since our wedding reception in 1970. Our last communication from him was a note saying he’d get our wedding present to us later. It’s a common name so we wouldn’t know it was him without the picture (which looks just like we remember him) and corroborating biographical details. He was an important part of the speech/debate team, the small circle we spent most of our time with in high school in California, and was my spouse’s debate partner in their senior year. We wondered over the years what had happened to him. Now we know. He was a prominent human rights activist  in New York who announced that he had AIDS in a 1993 NYT op ed . His activism is not a shock, as he was already a student leader in high school and at Occidental College. Nor is his sexual orientation, although it wasn’t anything we were aware of at the time. We were a nerdy crowd and people were not dating much anyway. I sure wish we’d known where he was — it would have been great to see him.

Smart and stupid

Smart: Taking a four-mile test walk with backpack wearing my proposed travel clothes and new travel shoes and socks.

Stupid: Taking a four-mile test walk with backpack wearing my proposed travel clothes and new travel shoes and socks.*

I’ve never had blood-soaked shoes before. At least I have several weeks for my feet to recover before the trip. Which will be made in my old shoes.

*I wasn’t as stupid as it may sound, as I had taken several one- and two-mile walks in the shoes, and I thought those preliminary tests had revealed no problems. The socks might have contributed. Still, I’m both really thankful that I had this experience now, before the trip, and at the same time really mad at myself for doing so much damage to my feet.


I was reflecting even before church about some of the hard things parents have had to do, and then the minister brought up one of them in a wonderful Easter sermon. Here are the things I was thinking about: (1) The parents who paid for and accompanied their adult child overseas to get sex change surgery and have been supportive even as they have had to work through their own confusion and grief over the loss of the son they once had and their fears about their new daughter’s quite serious other health problems. (2) The father whose son murdered his daughter, who has stayed connected with his imprisoned son even as he lives in the depths of grief and anger about the loss of his daughter and the enormity of his son’s crime, and others’ anger at him for staying connected with his son. (This father is the minister’s brother-in-law.) (3) The parents whose son died in an automobile crash this year, who have had the courage to embrace the depths of their sorrow and to go on living without him. (4) The parents who are respecting an adult child’s wish to have no contact with them, even as it breaks their hearts and they don’t know what is wrong.

My reflections were triggered by a conversation the other day that began with people complaining about their parents. These conversations take a new twist when you have been a parent. As I’ve often said, it was parenthood that forced me to confront my own deep imperfection. From parenthood I also learned about the clutching fear when a child has an ailment that has no cure, and about the pain of realizing you have hurt someone you love and are charged with nurturing. Grief is part of parenting even if we have the good fortune to avoid tragedy. We grieve the baby who is gone forever, and then the young child, and then the teen. This grief is an essential part of parenting – if we cannot let the baby go, the child go, the adolescent go, we hinder her growth to healthy adulthood. Sometimes we are called to love our child when he has taken a path that seems wrong to us. Sometimes we grow to understand that the path was “right for her,” and sometimes we have to stand by and love a child who has done something irredeemably wrong, not making excuses, but being together in the pain and the shame. And yet, amid the inevitable sorrow and fear, there is great joy and meaning in being connected with one’s offspring, with watching the unfolding of a new person, and with feeling your own growth in the process.

Easter is the day when Christians celebrate life arising from political persecution and death. Non-Christians draw similar religious or secular lessons from other stories. And we all learn from nature, from spring emerging from winter and the brutal realities of biological life.  John (12:24-25) links them: “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” (Edit: The translation is Eugene Peterson’s The Message.)

Going and Stopping

Almost everyone agrees — and this is supported by my own many years of observation of colleagues — that the  most productive scholars have regular schedules of writing a few hours every day.  We binge writers can be intensely productive when we are working and can get a lot done in a short time, but over the long haul we are simply less productive than the “write every day” people.  A big reason for this is that if you have been away from the writing for more than two days, you forget what you were doing and have to invest a lot of time in start up and remembering where you were. The turtle beats the hare every time. I have known this for years and “write every day” is the advice I give students, even though I have never successfully followed that advice for an extended period.

Today I figured out the other half of the problem. It isn’t just a problem with self-discipline.  I actually have quite a bit of self-discipline in some areas. The problem is that when I am working, I become extremely focused and I don’t stop. I’m on sabbatical now and finally got time to overcome angst and distractions and re-engaged my work. I became so focused I lost track of time, forgot to eat, and even stayed up all night. No deadline, I just could not let go of the work. This always happens when I really engage my work: even if I have outside obligations, I do the bare minimum and return repeatedly to the work whenever I can.  I sleep too little and exercise too little. After a while, other things pile up:  unpaid bills, undone laundry, unwritten letters of condolence and letters of reference and article reviews, unprepared lectures,  undone shopping, unplanned vacations, neglected family. Even when I’m not actually working, my mind is on my work and I’m just not attending to anything else. At some point the “rest of life” explodes and demands attention and yanks my focus away from work.  And the cycle starts anew. When I’m aware of more than one thing that it is important to do, I lack focus, I’m easily distracted, and I experience anxiety and tension from being pulled in different directions.

So there’s the crux of the problem. To be a “write every day” person you also have to be able to take care of ordinary business every day, too. You have to be able to shift your attention and focus from one thing to another, to compartmentalize not only your life, but your brain and attention. I find it easier, for example, to do “mindless” activities like exercise or laundry when I’m focused on work than to do other intellectual work like prepare classes or write reviews, because they do not compete for mental attention. I wonder if people may actually differ in their innate ability to shift focus, or whether this is a skill that can be developed.

I still plan to keep trying to develop the “write every day” habit.  But now I know that for it to be sustainable given my lack of a personal life assistant, I also have to have a “do some urgent tasks every day” habit, too.

Beauty, age, gender

These reflections were prompted by an interview with Renee Fleming in the Met broadcast of Massanet’s Thais.* She commented that Thais’s religious conversion is tied to her recognition that she is aging and will lose the beauty and sexuality that has defined her identity and personal power. Fleming commented that “we all” feel that way. I realized that I don’t so much. This is not to say that I am never shocked by my age. A couple of the wedding photos – not the formal ones where I’m all gussied up and wearing a lot of makeup, but the candid “getting ready” photos in the kitchen with the morning light streaming in the window – made me look so old that even my son said, “You don’t look that old in real life.” My bathroom mirror is relatively kind to me, due to the soft yellow light and the fact that I have to take my glasses off to wash my face or apply makeup.  My hair is just now beginning to gray, while most of my age contemporaries were fully gray fifteen to twenty years ago. But the deep wrinkles I see in photos or television shots taken in harsh light tell the truth. I’m not young any more. This is not much of a trauma for me, it is what it is, and I’m sitting easy in this skin. To the extent I’ve had aging crises, they’ve been more typically male, as I realize I have not accomplished all the professional ambitions I’d set for myself. I was reflecting that some of this may be because I was never treated as attractive or pretty when I was young, so there was not much to lose as I aged. It has been my impression that some of the gender traumas are harder on beautiful women, as their sexual attractiveness to men gets more in the way of their desire to be taken seriously as professionals. Being taller matters too: no man has ever patted me on the head. My gender issues have been different: I’m more the Dragon Lady sort who frightens and intimidates a lot of people of all sexes. I’m naturally bossy and have often been asked questions as if I were the person in charge even when I’m just standing around as part of an audience or crowd. I’m blunt and straightforward and can be tactless and insensitive. The gender price I’ve paid has more often been that of being seen as “difficult,” while a man with these personality traits is seen as more normal. An older male colleague once told me that I seemed odd and difficult to people because I’m the sort who will walk up and shake a man’s hand and say, “Hi, I’m Olderwoman.” When I asked, he confirmed that it was because I was a woman that this was unsettling, that I was acting like a man. Yes, I can also be very warm and nurturing, and in the academic context, I’m told that I have more social skills than many of my colleagues. My persona seems much more out of place in the real world of ordinary human beings, especially White Midwesterners, than in the academy.  My way of being was more troubling to people when I was young. Now that I’m old enough to be my students’ mother (and old enough to be the mother of assistant professors, for that matter), my tendency to assume authority is accepted more, as is my capacity to be very warm and nurturing in a motherish sort of way. So the sociological reflection I guess is simply that we carry many different traits with us as we move through life and these traits interact with other traits, giving us a wide variety of ways of doing gender and doing age.

*This opera broadcast was smashing, by the way. I was totally blown away by the opera and the performance on many levels. If you have any taste for opera, you may wish to look into the HD broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera into local theaters. This is the Saturday live broadcast that has been on radio for years. There is often a taped replay in a local theater about 10 days later. Everyone I’ve talked to who goes to these loves them (assuming they like opera): it is a great entertainment experience to see the performance close up, the behind-the-curtain footage of the scenery being put in place and the performers warming up is fascinating, and the intermission interviews range from weird to wonderful. The $20 price tag is the best bargain around for opera.

This Should Not Have Surprised Me

I admit I was taken a bit aback when my daughter said she wanted to take her (new) husband’s name, as I’ve been so comfortable living with my own (father’s) surname while married all these years.  But she’s something of a romantic and I understood her feelings about bonding with her husband’s family and it is her life.  And the day after the wedding she changed her facebook name to “firstname husbandssurname” which seemed weird, but then I thought, well, OK, she needs to live her own life.  Today she was running around getting name changes.  But it turns out that I did not understand her intentions.  You may (or may not) recall from prior posts about names that my childrens’ names have the pattern “firstname middlename fathersurname mothersurname” where their legal surname is “fathersurname mothersurname” — space no hyphen.  Turns out that her intention is to now have the three-name surname “fathersurname mothersurname husbandsurname.”  She ran into trouble at the social security office where there was not enough space to write in all the names, and is now researching her legal options. I realize most of you do not know my daughter, but as someone who does know her, I should not have been surprised.  It appears that the social security problem is a character limit.  We’ll see how this goes.  Years ago, when we were naming the children, we recognized the long-term problem of all these names.  My husband’s idea was that, after a few generations, you’d just generate an acronym and start over.


Well, we did it.  I’m a mother-in-law now. The wedding was Saturday and it all went really well, despite being thrown together at the last minute.  The snow ended early enough that the roads were in good shape for the wedding. The day began with my husband going across town to the reception site to take delivery on the dance floor and help with set up. The woman who has cut my children’s and my hair since they were “sitting on horsies and watching cartoons” while they got their hair cut demanded to “do” E’s wedding.  She came to the house and grabbed and “did” the hair and make up of everyone she could catch, including visiting relatives.

The wedding was lovely and sweet and very much my daughter’s own. Guests had been encouraged to come “in garb” and there was a wide variety of clothing, including one friend who wore a mask dressed as a fairy.  The groom lit candles in honor of his deceased parents.  They processed to the music from the final awards ceremony in the first (i.e. episode IV) Star Wars movie and, at the end, recessed to Holtz’s Jupiter, my daughter’s favorite music.  As she insisted she wanted to, E was married barefoot. She wore a red dress made by her friends, a long dressy formal Victorian-looking ensemble worn over a corset with a shiny red under-dress and a slightly darker red jacket with a stand-up collar and gold buttons and a bit of a bustle.  The maid of honor and another friend made it for her, finishing Thursday night.  The maid of honor sewed her into the jacket just before the ceremony.  (The stitches were pulled later in the evening when she took the jacket off for dancing.)  The maid of honor was also barefoot, and wore a flowing corseted black dress — originally part of a vampire costume — that looked surprisingly good next to E.  The groom and best man and father of the bride and ushers wore suits and shoes. I wore a pretty party dress and shoes. E looked radiant and happy.  Her father walked her down the (short) aisle in our church and kissed her on the forehead before handing her over to be wed.  We read poetry as part of the service, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, Corinthians 13, and the section from John Donne’s Eclogue for the Marriage of the Earl of Somerset that closes Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon. The minister, who knew my daughter when she was young, performed a ceremony that was personal, religious, serious and at times funny, especially when she reminded them that their first answers about why they wanted to get married were “to get presents” and “set something on fire.”  One of my daughter’s vows was to tolerate her husband’s hobbies, including those that become obsessions — big laugh. But the other vows were serious and thoughtful and bespoke a couple who had thought about relationship issues. The desire to “set something on fire” during the reading of the Donne — pretests involved a bowl of burning alcohol which produces a spectacular effect, but we ran out of time for fine-tuning just how this would be done without setting off the sprinkler system or cracking crockery — had to be expressed in lighting a unity candle.

At church we had an hour for visiting and the first round of food with the Indian appetizers and coffee and punch — no alcohol allowed at the church.  The reception was at a game store, basically a big shed with Magic banners hanging from the ceilings and plenty of room.  We forgot to put out the guest book — our only major blunder — so we don’t know exactly how many people showed up, but the tables at the reception had been set for 150 and the room l0oked pretty much full.  About 20% of the people at the wedding and 10% at the reception were relatives or my work friends, the rest were friends of the bride and groom, mostly gamers.  A lot of the guests were playing Magic or board games.  The groom’s family provided the liquor, as is customary in this region, and the groom’s sister took care of setting up the bar. The Indian buffet went well and the food was kept hot thanks to my last-minute negotiations with the caterer.  My husband and I had to don aprons to put out the second pan of some of the food and again when it was time to get the food out of the caterer’s pans so he could take the steam tables back to the restaurant for Sunday buffet, as we’d neglected to line up food help, but otherwise things went fine.  The cake was great.  Three tiers, white with white chocolate sprinkles, no decorations.  The game store manager pulled a gold plastic dragon out of the display case and it made a great cake-topper.  Another bigger dragon was put into service (next to the flowers) as a head table decoration. A sociologist friend and her husband and the daughter of another sociologist friend leaped at the chance when I said I needed someone to help serve the cake, letting my sister off the hook.

My daughter loves to dance, mostly West Coast swing. When she got engaged, she said to my non-dancer husband: “And, Daddy, you have to dance with me.”  We’d talked about taking “dancing for weddings” lessons, but that never happened in all the confusion.  So the night before the wedding, my husband was reading up on waltz steps on the Internet — he’s always thought theory ought to get you by.  My husband is an opera fan, and he has passed this love onto the children. I did not recognize the import of the music E selected for the father’s dance and thought he was just tearing up because he dotes on his daughter.  He explained to us later that they were dancing to Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro.”  Now I tear up. Here are the words:

O mio babbino caro
Mi piace è bello, bello
Vo’ andare in Porta Rossa
a comperar l’anello!
Sì, sì, ci voglio andare!
e se l’amassi indarno,
andrei sul Ponte Vecchio,
ma per buttarmi in Arno!
Mi struggo e mi tormento!
O Dio, vorrei morir!
Babbo, pietà, pietà!
Babbo, pietà, pietà!
O my dear papa
I like him, he is handsome, handsome
I want to go to Porta Rossa
to buy the ring!
Yes, yes, I want to go there!
And if my love were in vain,
I would go to the Ponte Vecchio
and throw myself in the Arno!
I am aching, I am tortured!
Oh God, I’d like to die!
Father, have pity, have pity!
Father, have pity, have pity!

After dinner and toasts and the initial dances, the dance floor was used alternately for dancing and frisbee games.  At one point, when my daughter was dancing with her brother and the frisbee got in her way, she grabbed it and marched over and put it next to the groom’s grandmother.   But later she retrieved it and played some frisbee herself.  The older generation mostly just sat and visited and enjoyed watching the young people.

Edit: I forgot this part.  In lieu of the local custom of dollar dances with the bride, guests were invited to  pay a dollar to get in one of the battle pods and try to blow up the groom.

The owner of the game store (who donated the use of it as a gift) wanted to be able to go home, so at the end time announced on the invitation, we demanded help from the guests to help get the presents moved and, with some effort, got them to go home.  One group took the rest of the beer keg along for an after-party. We loaded a lot of stuff into the cars and got home by 1.  The next day, my husband and brother-in-law went over to take apart the dance floor, and my sister and I repacked the left over Indian food (which had been chilled in the below-freezing garage).  The kids came over later to pick up my daughter’s car and eat Indian food and take the rest with them, looking pretty much the same as before, except with shiny new rings.

Wedding Update

One commenter I don’t know and some friends have asked about the wedding.  So here is a quick update.  B’s father died October 23 after a hard month.  We traveled to his home city on Saturday to meet and express our condolences to his family, and then again on Tuesday for the funeral.  B’s family appreciated our efforts to show that we cared about B and his family.

The wedding is on, it happens December 6.  That’s about 3 weeks from now!!!  Yikes.  The wedding will be at our church, officiated by one of the ministers who pastored my daughter through her eighth grade confirmation year in which she questioned and rebelled against everything and ultimately decided to refuse confirmation.  It will be a religious ceremony, although with a light touch on the religious end.  The minister has done weddings and has given them a nice set of ideas and choices to work with.  As both of B’s parents are deceased, we cannot have a “parents blessing” part without pain, but are talking about whether we can have some kind of family element.  So there will be a wedding, check.

Oh, music.  The most obvious person to ask was Daniel, a gifted pianist and long time family friend who was killed in August.  Another suggestion surfaced at church, a gay man who used to be music director at a Catholic church until he was fired for being gay.  He hasn’t answered yet, we asked again about the contact information and the correct spelling of his name.

Oh, guests!  Whoops.   B & E just published an invitation to their friends via Facebook.  I’ve been scrambling to try to get a list of B’s relatives as well as put together my own list.  I’m going to be emailing invitations today to my list, to be followed with phone calls and paper  mailings to people old enough to expect them.  Have to include an explanation about why this is so late.  No time for fancy engraving or double envelopes.  I’ve been emailing/calling B’s female relatives to try to get a list of names & contact information for the people on his side and calling my spouse’s female cousin to get a list of names & contact information for his side.  (Detect a gender pattern here?)  B’s sister is representing his family in executing his father’s desire to make the groom’s family’s contributions to the wedding events, so she and I have been emailing pretty intensely about possible arrangements for alcohol, rehearsal dinner, etc.  Although last night, as I was emailing back and forth with her and we were discussing what B would want, I realized B (who had come by and was using my spouse’s computer across the room from me) was also communicating via computer with his sister about the same issues at the same time!

Clothing?  It is to be “dressy but fun,” not traditional.  E asked her best friend (an experienced costume designer) to make her wedding dress.  They were here last night working on this: Friend is panicking as there is no fabric and E’s choices of what kinds of things she likes seem to have no common characteristic except that they are dresses.  A trip to the big city to shop seems scheduled.  Another friend will be making B’s outfit; I assume she is panicking too.

Reception will be at a game store, “Indian buffet, dancing, games.”  My spouse and B are in charge of finalizing the food plans.  My spouse is also negotiating with a baker about cake, and he and B will make the cake choices.  Flowers?  That’s getting worked on, and photography.  After sticker shock about the price of a professional (and, yes, I know why a professional is expensive), we are checking with needy friends who have taken photography classes.  Oh, and I need to call the church & the game store to make sure I understand how to get arrangements set up.  I just got reminded last night about rehearsal and its dinner — we’re working on that.  Every woman I talk to asks me about a shower for E: I tell her, “I’m not doing one.  I don’t think anyone else is, either.”  So, not your traditional organized extravaganza. But it will happen.

I’m getting emails from my grad advisees who need letters from me, and comments on theses.  And I’m supposed to be working on a book during my sabbatical.  Oh well.

Don’t expect to hear much from me until this is over.

Wedding Plans

It has been an intense couple of months, with personal life and public life bouncing into each other, and into me.  My mind and heart feel exhausted.  I’d like to tell you about one strand of this.  In late August, my daughter E and her boyfriend B told us they’d decided to get married within the next few months.  Within the next week, E became unexpectedly unemployed so job applications rather than wedding rose in importance for a while, our family friend Daniel was killed in an auto crash, and her fiance’s father told them he had a brain tumor, which he said was slow growing and no big deal.  (His mother passed away several years ago.)  We wanted to meet B’s family, but first I had a two week trip to California and then my spouse had a ten day business trip.

After some negotiation, the date was set for Dec 6.  Pulling a wedding together in a few months is an enterprise, even with our goal of keeping it relatively informal.  First there was where to have the wedding.  My daughter and B identify as atheist, so the first thought was a secular ceremony.  But as we were searching the web and discussing those options, I said to my daughter, “It is a shame you are not religious, because it would be homey to have the wedding at our church.”  She said she thought that would be nice, if they would not make her and B say things they did not believe, but it would be ok if other people blessed them.  Well I knew where that was going, as we are not exactly in a rigid church.  I emailed the minister and got back his reply, saying that it was “non-negotiable” that they offer a prayer of some type in the service (!), but they could handle this requirement “gently” with respect for E and B’s beliefs.  So the church is on.  The next week Daniel was killed and my daughter was at the funeral — itself a very moving event at which we railed at God and spoke our lament and heard a touching eulogy by Daniel’s older brother — and the next thing I knew she’d volunteered to teach Sunday school along with my spouse.  She says: “People say they went to church because they wanted a community.  When I was younger, I saw this as a weakness.  Now I see this as a strength.”  This does not mean she has abandoned her professed atheism, but she is interested in the Bible and her atheism isn’t much distinguishable from my theism.  As the youth minister said (she did have the sense to talk to E after she volunteered), “For someone who does not believe in God, she’s thought a lot about these issues.”

Anyway, so now we have a place for the wedding.  But what about the reception?  The church hall can be used, but the church does not permit alcohol.  B does not drink alcohol at all, and my daughter rarely drinks, so this is not a problem for them, but B thinks he has a lot of friends and relatives who think it isn’t a wedding if you don’t get drunk, and his father’s response to being told of the engagement was to say, “I’ll pay the bar bill,” seeming to imply a certain expectation about what would happen.  So we search for a reception site.  This is harder than you imagine unless you’ve done it.   Now I know why I’ve been to so many receptions in seemingly-improbable places.  Many public  spaces ban alcohol.  The ones that don’t typically have their own caterer and have definite ideas about what they want done, ideas that don’t mesh very well with E’s ideas of what she wants.  As B is vegetarian as well as a teetotaler, Indian food would be their preferred meal, but the Indian restaurants are too small for the desired crowd and the dancing E wants.  So after some searching and a lot of phone calls, the owners of the game store where my daughter works part time offered their store for the reception.  This is not many brides’ idea of a romantic site — it is basically a big shed with a lot of Dungeons & Dragons banners hanging from the ceiling and shelves with gaming equipment all around the edges — but it suits E and B well as they are gamers and met at the game store.   The owners are offering the space as their wedding present, although of course we will pay for cleanup etc.  So the reception now has a home.  Ready to move on.

This was decided on a Tuesday.  The next day, E and B leave for what they think is a one day trip to accompany B’s father to the Mayo Clinic for a medical appointment.  It turns out that he is in much worse shape than he has let anybody know.  The brain tumor has grown, he is confused and very ill.  So they and B’s siblings unexpectedly spend much of the next few weeks in Minnesota.  Things are looking bad for B’s father.  He gets better with re-hydration and is able to talk some with his children, but then has a surgery that could have helped but didn’t that leaves him more confused.  We put the wedding plans on hold.  We don’t even want to ask B what he wants to do.  One Friday night, E’s car quits on the interstate halfway to Minnesota where she is driving to rejoin B after having come back to town during the week to work; my spouse and I ferry a car up to her so she can continue the trip to Minnesota and then wait to bring her car back to town.  (Who knew?  A small town on the interstate has a Chevy dealer whose repair shop stays open until midnight on Fridays.)  When I get back at 1:30 a.m. I’m still wired from the coffee I drank, and I find B on line (E had arrived a couple of hours before and was now asleep), so I IM-chat with him about life and his father and death and marriage and stuff until 4:30 in the morning.  He told E it was our “bonding conversation.”  A week later I broach the wedding question with my daughter, we know it is a terrible time, but we need to decide whether it is a go or a no go.  And we could scale it back and just have a simple ceremony and not do a big reception.  She says they have talked about it and B says the wedding is on, no matter what, and he figures a party is going to happen anyway, so we may as well plan it.  So we are back in planning mode, we book the grandparents’ airplane tickets, but are subdued, knowing that this is not the most important thing in the world, and that we live in the intermingling of joy and sorrow.  B’s father gets worse, suffers a stroke that leaves him unable to interact with others and probably unconscious, and the doctors say to make arrangements to transfer him to  hospice care, there is no more they can do.  There are discussions of whether and when to pull the feeding tube.  My heart aches for B.

While this has been going on, I’ve been working nose-down getting updated racial disparity statistics prepared for several big presentations, and have pulled two all-nighters doing that work, and have been involved in a number of intense coverations about race.   Like everyone else, I have also been obsessing about the election and race, and spend hours reading blogs about the election and race.  Last spring I  agreed to do workshops about race at church this fall: the first one is next Sunday, I’ve gotten feedback from people about what they want that shows (as I expected) that people are all over the map in what they’d bring to the discussions.  So at this point, I am dazed, confused, and disoriented in my work-related life.

The presentations are over.  Back to the wedding, we need to triage.  What is most urgent?  OK, the liquor question can wait, but we need to make sure we have a caterer who is available.  Hopefully at least one of the five Indian restaurants in town can handle the volume.  Oh, and a dance floor.  How far in advance do you have to reserve a portable dance floor?  Eeek.  And pretty soon we need a guest list and invitations have to go out.  I’m also feeling pretty panicked about what I’m going to wear to this thing, as fashion decisions have never been my strong suit and I know I don’t own anything remotely resembling a mother of the bride dress and, anyway, my daughter is planning to have herself and B dressed in non-traditional clothing with perhaps a 19th century look, so I REALLY don’t know what I’m supposed to wear, except that she told her father he definitely has to be in a suit and possibly a tux.  And is there any way I can reach out to B’s siblings and his aunt and grandmother (none of whom I’ve met) to tell them that we care about them and their suffering and grief in this time of intermingled joy and sorrow and the onward press of life?

Bureaucratic Insanity

I’ve taken over the phone for my mother, whose is once again on hold, as she has been for at least 20 hours since Aug 12, including 3 or 4 hours today.  She bought a “deluxe rider” to her health insurance to cover vision care (among other things).  The insurance provider assures her she has the insurance, but she does not “show up in the system” at the health care provider for the vision benefit.  There are three parties to the problem: her health insurance provider, the organization that handles most of their vision insurance, and her health care provider organization.  At all three organizations, you can never direct dial back to the specific person you spent several hours with the last time, you have to start over with a new person and retrace the same steps multiple times.  Many times she has been assured that the problem is resolved and she will show up in the system in 24 hours, 48 hours, or a week.  Apart from the first visit, where she was shocked by her lack of coverage and had to pay a larger-than-expected copay at her optometrist, she’s been told she’s good to go twice, only to be told no on site after she has paid her neighbor to drive her to the office to get the glasses.  She is exhausted and near often tears with frustration.  Many different interpretations have been offered as to why the problem exists and what needs to be done to resolve it.   This week, while I’ve been listening on the speakerphone,  the phone people have been humane and sympathetic and willing to do a lot to resolve the problem, but even humanity seems to have limits when running up against an insane system.  According to today’s people — including a very helpful Sharon in Wichita who with her supervisor spent several hours yesterday and personally faxed a document to organization #2 and who today spent several hours in a multi-way conference call with the health care provider (even insurance company representatives have to wait on hold when they call each other!) — the problem is that most of the insurer’s customers are assigned to company #2 for vision benefits but my mother is in the 10% who were assigned directly to her health care provider.  This is why all the attempts to get her in the system at company #2 did not work.  At this point, I just spoke to a person at the health care provider’s patient services who says that she has been assured by Sharon that the benefit exists and is assigned to them, that she personally will be calling someone else (!) to get the information entered into the system, and that we should get a call from her or the optical department when this is done.  She also gave me her direct line phone number so I can follow up with her.   Now we will see if it works.

what to do

This is a followup to today’s earlier post.  My spouse and I went by, our friends were alone, we hugged them a lot and sat with them for an hour while they cried and talked.  I’m glad I went.  The younger generation is asking me what they should do.  I thought you’d be interested, as a lot of older people don’t know either.   Many of you have had to be on the receiving end of this, so you may want to tweak the advice I gave the kids.  Here’s what I wrote (edited to be generic):  You don’t have to do a lot. Showing up is 90%. They are going to feel terrible no matter what, but they will remember that other people cared enough to show up. You don’t need to — it isn’t helpful to — try to say anything to make it better. You can’t. You just say how sorry you are and listen to them and, in a low key way, tell stories you remember about the good times you had with them. They are likely to cry and this is normal. It’s OK to remember funny and happy things, it is OK to laugh. It is OK to cry. Offer to leave every 15 minutes or so. If there is food out, it is ok to eat it. (People bring LOTS of food to the houses where there has been a death.)   These things are not done on appointments.  The hardest thing is know whether to call ahead.  Talking on the phone is really hard when you are grieving (your voice chokes up) and calling someone to say how sorry you are is not good unless you are a really close relative or friend and you are manifestly too far away to get there.  So you just kind of go over, and if it turns out to be a bad time, you come back a different time.   Or, if they have someone to handle the phone, you talk to that person to find out if it would be a good time to come over.  Or maybe call just to ask whether it is ok to come over.

joy and sorrow

The intermingling of great joy and great sorrow goes on.  My daughter told us ten days ago that she and her boyfriend plan to marry soon — this is a joy.  Then she became  unexpectedly unemployed and she had to focus on that, diverting attention from wedding plans.  And there are various hassles with getting my son and his girlfriend moved into an apartment.  The roller coaster of life.  I was going to post about that when I had a chance.

But now the shock.  Dan, a childhood friend of my son was killed yesterday in an auto crash.   There was a five-year period when six boys gamed together every Friday night.  For the first few years, the gaming was hosted by the Dan’s parents, and then later it moved to our house.  Dan drifted away from the group about the time they graduated high school, and the other boys have not seen  him much in recent years.  My spouse and I remain friends with his parents through church and have seen Dan playing piano at church (he was a superb musician) and at his graduation party in May.   It is hard to think of much else.  Besides my son, I’m in communication with some of the other boys, including some who live elsewhere but happen to be planning to be in town this weekend.  And church folks are exchanging messages about how to help out and funeral planning.  I’ll be going over the parents’ house soon, food in hand.  I don’t know whether they will want me to hang around for comfort, or leave them in the hands of people closer to them.


I was chatting with an older male colleague about being on sabbatical but feeling kind of frustrated because I’m spending time visiting my ill mother and talking to her every day on the phone. He said, “You don’t want to waste your sabbatical that way. Can’t you get out of all that?” I just looked at him for a couple of seconds, then said, “I could, if I’m willing to be a total jerk.”

I could go on about all this implies about world views, but maybe I’ll just let this speak for itself.


We’re having our house painted. This involves covering the windows and doors with plastic to protect them from sprayed paint. It was like the whole house was wrapped in Saran. After the painting, the plastic is obscure, so the windows emit a glow but you can’t see anything through them. Eerie. I tried to go out for mail the other day and found all the exits covered with plastic. All of them. We were trapped inside plastic wrap.

being older

It’s odd.  When I chose it, I thought of the “olderwoman” moniker as a little edgy, sort of the wise and proud Crone of mid-1990s feminism blended with Anne Bancroft in The Graduate.  A lot of my friends had croning parties* in the 1990s, before I was old enough to qualify.   So I’m always a little taken aback when someone (so far it has always been a young man) thinks I’m somehow saying something humble or self-demeaning or depressed in my choice of name.  I’m not.

I had fun when I was young and I’m having a good time now.  The hardest part was in the middle, when I was raising children, but even that was interesting.  It’s interesting hanging out in the blogosphere and finding out how different the preoccupations are in different life phases.

*A croning party, at least in my circle, was pretty much a 50th birthday party with feminist pseudo-pagan rituals.  All the web sites I can find easily about it are trying to sell you something.  Relatedly, this made me think about Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run With the Wolves, which I read in about 1993.  To be honest, I found the Jungian analysis tough sledding but found the stories and myths thought-provoking and interesting.  I think I’ll re-read it while I’m on sabbatical.  I imagine the stories that speak to me will be different now that I’m in a different life phase.

california dreamin’

Like Jeremy and some other of the scatterbrains, I grew up with a very deep and specific sense of place, although a very different place from his rural Iowa. My mother still lives in the north Torrance house I grew up in, and I’ve been out here visiting. It has been 41 years since I left for college in 1967, although I’ve been back periodically. The area has evolved, although much is the same. Walking yesterday, I realized how small a section of land feels like home – about a square mile. I walked everywhere when I was young, and have never lived in the community as a car-owing adult. This is a neighborhood of one-story tract houses near the corner of Yukon and West 182nd Street. (Map) Many of the houses on my street look pretty much the same as they did 40 years ago, although some are even more run down now than they were then. Others have been substantially remodeled, in some cases into quite upscale dwellings. The vegetable farm that was across Yukon when I was growing up is gone now, replaced by development of 3000 sq ft homes. Continue reading “california dreamin’”

pulmonary rehabilitation

I’m in LA with my mother while my sister is on vacation and floods ravage the Midwest. Twice a week, Mom goes to a pulmonary rehabilitation class. Everybody else in the class appears substantially younger than she and was a heavy smoker. Several have had multiple hospitalizations after which they returned to smoking. I know this is sort of dumb of me, but I never smoked and it was only recently that I realized that the reason smoking is so addictive is that it makes people feel good. Mom never smoked, and her diagnosis is “idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis,” which means they don’t know what caused the scarring in her lungs. Continue reading “pulmonary rehabilitation”

life and death

I’m not sure but I think a man died within six feet of me yesterday.  This was on a jet that was just about ready to close its doors for departure in O’Hare.  They had not given up on him when they carried him out, but everyone involved was treating it as fatal.  I noticed the couple while waiting to board.  They stood out amid the jeans and shorts because they were very dressed up, he in a suit and tie and she in a dress.  They were middle-aged and looked vaguely Southeast Asian and spoke with some accent.   They sat one row behind me, across the aisle; I was on the aisle seat.  We were all seated, they were preparing to close the door.  The man one row back and on the other side started making strange coughing/wheezing sounds.  I looked back and saw him looking ill, a strange kind of gasping but I did not recognize it as anything dangerously bad.  (Later, I heard a flight attendant describe the coughing symptoms and say it sounded like a typical heart attack, while my seat mate said he thought it was more like congestive heart failure.)   Then his wife started calling for help.  The flight attendant came and she asked for a doctor.  A man two aisles up stood up to help.  There was some more talk and I heard someone say, “We need more help.”  More people came and then an announcement over the PA asking for doctors.  I heard someone say that the first volunteer was a psychiatrist.  Someone stood up and said she was a nurse, then several more middle-aged men came back from first class.  Continue reading “life and death”