Sunday, November 30, 2014

Olive Kitteridge

HBO's four-part series Olive Kitteridge is one of the best things I've ever watched. Frances McDormand is perfect in the title role, a middle-aged Maine native with layers of memories and emotions underneath her severe expression. It's based on Elizabeth Strout's novel of the same name (one of my favorite books ever) and I'm so glad McDormand helped turn it into a movie. The novel is excellent and, stunningly, so is the film adaptation.

This film is for anyone who's wondered why there aren't more movies about people in the second half of their lives. We watch Olive finish raising her son and eventually become a grandmother, we see her navigate a marriage that has lasted 20 years, then 30, then 40. We see her make choices and live with the consequences. In four approximately one-hour parts, the story covers decades in the lives of its main characters, giving an extremely satisfying sense of where they start and where they end up. 

I love this story for its realism and its practical view of death. Olive is a math teacher and one of my favorite parts is watching her talk to one of her former students who - as a young adult - seems to have returned to his home town to kill himself. Without letting on that she senses his mission, Olive chats with him about town changes, former classmates, her own father's suicide and her son's upcoming wedding. Yes, it's with that kind of casualness that Olive manages to turn a chatty neighborly exchange into the direct emotional support that the young man clearly needs. With rough empathy and straight talk, she distracts him from his purpose.

I always appreciate popular culture that deals maturely and sympathetically with mental illness. Olive and her former student discuss bipolar disorder and depression in their families. Other scenes in the series address the need for adult children to process their childhoods, the value of therapy and the isolation one can face in old age if she hasn't dealt squarely with past pain, received and inflicted. It's a very interior film, about what goes on inside people hearts, but is saturated with gorgeous shots of the coastline of the American northeast.

Be prepared: Olive Kitteridge isn't a character to love. She's sharp-tongued, merciless with criticism, stingy with her smiles and certain that she's right in all situations. She reminds me of my mother and of the woman I'll turn into one day. Actually, who am I kidding? I'm halfway there. I'm judgmental, stubborn, free with my opinions and won't tolerate bullshit, and I don't expect these traits to soften as I move into my 50's. Maybe it's Olive's lack of loveableness that draws me to her. She's almost impossible to get along with, but you always know where you stand with her. Watching McDormand's character with Bill Murray's Jack Kennison in the fourth part is a pleasure: they might try, but they can't out-crotchety each other.

Right now HBO GO is offering the four-part series in the U.S. until December 30th. After that I guess we have to wait until it makes its way to Netflix or other online platforms. If you subscribe to HBO, I urge you to watch it if you like character-driven narratives about relationships and human nature. In the U.K. the miniseries airs December 14, 2014 on Sky Atlantic (I got that from Wikipedia. I don't know what Sky Atlantic is).

BUT if you can't watch it on HBO, please go find Elizabeth Strout's novel on which the film is based. I read it three times in two months back in 2011 and clearly it's time for me to read it again. The book gives the same experience as watching the series, but with even richer detail of the world of this small town and more plotlines and insights into its inhabitants. It's one of my favorite books ever. In the film (and in the book) a chorus of children refer to Olive as a witch at certain points, but she doesn't seem to mind. If witches don't have to suffer fools and tolerate useless social protocols, then what's wrong with being a witch? Especially if it makes children leave you the hell alone.


My 2010 MacBook Pro only allows me to use it to go on the Internet when it feels like it. It's not the modem or router because my iPad and iPhone connect to my wireless service just fine. It's just the laptop that might or might not give me the message that it can't find a webpage because it's not connected to the Internet, even when it is.

This probably means it's time to upgrade from a computer that's almost five years old. Ugh. It's really too bad that we buy these incredible devices just to have them go obsolete within years. 

All this whining is just to say that I have to blog with my iPad more and more which means the font might be inconsistent.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Ferguson. Shame.

Earlier tonight someone who goes by Ashlyn@awiebe96 tweeted this at #Chi2Ferguson:

So many emotions right now... The most prevalent? Shame, for the society I support by not questioning, every single day.

She's the only person I've noticed on Twitter tonight who acknowledges her personal role in what happened with Michael Brown's shooter. Ashlyn seems to sense that all of us have participated in the millions of events and dynamics that led up to this cultural moment. This is what I believe is lacking in the conversation tonight: awareness of the whole country's culpability in the racism that Ferguson, Missouri has manifested.

Yes, the power dynamic was set generations ago with white men at the top and Black men at the bottom. Because of the hegemony established by thinking white men, Black men are the most hunted, incarcerated and ignored members of American society. But such a system could not stand all this time without the participation of all of us: the Mayflower descendents, the immigrants from China, Italy, Poland, Vietnam, Mexico, everywhere, and the children of all those immigrants. Yes, white men still hold the ultimate position of privilege and status, they run the companies and pass the laws, but they can't do it without the support, however tacit, of the rest of us, especially those of us with white privilege.

To those Americans with white privilege, have you ever heard someone make a statement expressing bigotry? Did you say anything in protest? If not, you upheld the status quo. Have you ever wondered if your co-worker of color (maybe one who speaks accented English) would be capable of doing some task? If so, that was racism. Have you ever wished we'd stop giving so much attention to people who just want to complain about racism? If so, you've enjoyed the luxury of denying the reality of experiences other than your own.

We all do this. White people harbor prejudices about others based on their skin color, but so do those of us with skin color. I don't know if anyone ever says this, but there's plenty of racism in the Mexican American community against Blacks, Chinese, Jews, Filipinos, whites and everyone, including other Mexicans. Every single American - no matter their background - discriminates against all the other Americans. Racism is in our history, our soil and our shared sense of who we are. Racism is human. It's inevitable.

What's not inevitable is for us to stay here. There is so much rage tonight about the Darren Wilson decision. Yes, let's use that rage to demand change, to make people hear us, to make clear that this kind of injustice is not acceptable and we will not tolerate it. But let's also use some of that passion to scrutinize ourselves. Think about it. How often do you notice the absence of people of color when you're in a conference room at work? How often do you notice the absence of people of color on news programs, in movies, on campus? How often do you notice that you're surrounded only by people who look like you at your place of worship, at  dinner parties, at weddings? How often do you hear a family member - maybe your own mother - express racial intolerance, but you let it go because you pick your battles and fighting for someone else's personhood doesn't feel worth giving up the peace?

Look at your reaction when you call a company and someone who doesn't sound American picks up, or when the driver in front of you is one of "those drivers" or when a friend of yours says she's dating a Black man. Check yourself. Notice your prejudice. It's entirely appropriate to rage and protest the mess that's going on in Ferguson, but don't think that because you're sick and disgusted that you're not racist, too. Racism isn't just white men gunning down Black men. Racism is any time you make an assumption based on someone's race/culture. The nicest people are racist. Racism can lurk in the best of intentions. We in the U.S. can't help being born into it and drinking it in along with the lowfat milk and the Mountain Dew.

But we don't have to stay here. We can't stay here. The United States will only throw off our culture of racism if we demand complete accountability. That means holding others accountable for their beliefs and actions and holding ourselves accountable for what we know is in our hearts. Tonight, if you think certain people in Ferguson ought to feel ashamed of themselves, check yourself. What have you been letting yourself get away with?

A difference between Chicago and San Francisco

United baggage area at O'Hare on 20 Nov 2014
I spent last week visiting my father in the San Francisco Bay Area, and one thing really struck me: there was no Christmas music on any of the radio stations out there. In the Chicagoland area, we have our local "lite music" station cranking out the Burl Ives and Amy Grant by mid-November at the latest. When I came through the San Francisco International Airport to return on the 20th, I saw no seasonal decorations, but at O'Hare International Airport the oversized Christmas ornaments were up and a lit tree sat next to the baggage claim area. Later, I found that indeed Chicago had Christmas music on the radio.

Chicago's early holiday radio isn't just part of the commercialism that wants us to start buying early. A few years ago, a local radio station announced that they would switch to all holiday music as soon as a certain fundraising goal was reached, benefiting a worthy charity. Listeners hit the goal with enthusiasm and the station started its "Holiday Lite" programming on November 9th.

I grew up in the SFO Bay Area (Walnut Creek to be exact), and never noticed any lack of Yuletide spirit, but after living in Chicago for 21 years, I see the difference. I love godless San Francisco, but as much as I'll always love the West Coast and see it as my first home, I'm glad to live in the land of Christmas music before Thanksgiving Day. I have a child's adoration of Christmas and the way they do it in the Midwest feels right to me. So there. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014


For whatever reasons, I'd never experienced grief in my entire life until after my divorce. Sometimes a wave will hit me and I'll feel that utter helpless sense of loss and ache. After the emotions of the past 14 months, I've come to believe that grief is the worst emotion, worse than suicidal self-hatred, worse than bottomless remorse, worse than helpless rage. Fucking grief.

Monday, November 17, 2014

How long before they notice you're dead?

(Again, I'm blogging on an app, so the text goes wonky in spots. Sorry.)

In the article How to Avoid Dying Alone With No One To Claim Your Body, Jezebel's Tracy Moore describes the increasing problem of dead bodies with no one to claim them and people whose death goes unnoticed for days, weeks or months (in some instances years). This is a true concern for those of us who live alone, without family nearby, and especially those who don't have a job to go to each day. Apparently, we're a growing population.

Having lived alone without family nearby for many years, I've considered how long it might take my dead body to be discovered. While it's disturbing to imagine my corpse just lying there for any length of time, I also know that since I'll be dead, it won't matter to me. The fear of one's death going unnoticed is really a fear of not being important to anyone. The discovery of a body that no one missed causes us to reflect on how long it would take someone to notice our death. We think: would it matter if I just dropped out of existence? If not, was my life worth living?

This is the horror of someone's death going unnoticed: it suggests that some of us don't matter. And mattering is a fundamental human need. Everyone wants to matter. 

Fortunately we all get to choose our own criteria for mattering. Some people feel satisfied to have reproduced and perpetuated their values and behaviors. Others feel like they've made a difference if their actions or money have affected many others. For some it takes artistic achievement or improving the lives of others one at a time or fighting the good fight, etc. etc. Fortunately there are many, many ways to believe that one has lived a life that matters. And yet the question of how long it would take your death to be noticed haunts. 

Moore's Jezebel article comes up with one way to make sure your body doesn't rot in obscurity: keep in touch with others. That's certainly a good idea. If you establish the habit of regularly making contact with others, chances are they'll notice a gap in activity. Have a conversation with someone every day, keep a standing phone call on a weekly basis or just text/email/post people frequently. Make your presence felt and someone will notice if you drop out. Someone will come and investigate if you stop answering their messages.

But to the bigger concern of living a life that matters: only you can decide that for yourself. When you hear a story about someone whose corpse went undiscovered for days or weeks, don't let it shake you (and I write this as someone without spouse, offspring or even a cat). Think about the ways you know you're important to others, and if you have doubts about that, then you have your work cut out for you. Make connections, figure out what you believe is important and do it. Live your life fully, by your own standards, and it won't matter what happens after you're gone. That's really the best we can do.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Black Thanksgiving - make it stop

(I'm blogging on an iPad app, so forgive me for the font going weird at times.)

I've been watching with disgust the build-up to the new Black Thursday, which used to be known as Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, although it has its own fraught history, was one American holiday that was observed by government and private businesses alike, without messy ties to any religion. We cherished that holiday as a kind of antithesis to Christmas: Thanksgiving represented a final day of enjoying family and appreciating what we already have, before shifting our attention to the I-need-I-want covetousness of the American holiday season. 

But apparently The Great Recession has eroded our sense of this day like no other force in U.S. history. Or maybe American culture has simply reached the point at which we treasure material things more than time with family/friends. But maybe I'm being too harsh. I must say that I am sympathetic to those who scrape for every dollar, dread the financial pressure of Christmas and can't get through the season without those deals that disappear in the first hours of Black Friday (Thursday). But believing that we will lose love and respect if we don't get our kids/family/friends the ideal gift - or at least show we tried -  perpetuates the worst of American traditions and has led to the erosion of our national day of thanks.

We pride ourselves on living in a land of plenty and we greatly value material success. Perhaps appropriately the American Christmas traditions we established in the 1800s centered on showering children with presents - marketable, appraisable, package-able presents. Over the past 150 years we've broadened this ritual to include holiday presents for almost everyone in our lives, although most of the gifts still go to children. People regularly complain that Christmas is supposed to be about Jesus, but the U.S. has consistently made buying and giving the focus of our holiday rituals. At this point most Americans believe others will look down on them if they don't participate, and regrettably, we do.

This is the belief system we have to dismantle in order to get our Thanksgiving back. It's not enough for the shrill and virtuous among us (including me) to rant against Thanksgiving Day store openings and beg people not to show up. If the driving force behind people who dive for those bargains is the need to reduce how much they spend on the holidays, then let's reduce that pressure in other ways. Let's aim at gutting the whole tradition of giving each other objects in order to show appreciation and love. And let's definitely, for god's sake, deflate the idea that the gifts you give demonstrate your success in life. That has to be one of the stupidest and most insidious American holiday traditions yet: the showing up of your relatives whose Christmas shopping didn't cost as much as yours. 

Such a mind shift would require a fundamental change in how we see personal relationships and money, force our capitalist economy to bend and flex, and push our noses into our sense of self worth and the standards by which we live. It would require us to re-evaluate how we show love and how we measure the love we get from others. I admit that such a shift in consciousness could reasonably be called un-American. 

I say that because the trampling of the holiday that values relationships over cash - especially as it stands as the last rest stop before the commercialism of the Yuletide - is quintessentially American. Anyone who tries to claim that Black Thursday is un-American is actually dead wrong. As American culture goes, stores opening at 6 p.m. (some at 6 a.m.) on Thanksgiving Day was inevitable, and was probably only sped up by the economic desperation of merchants in the new millennium. The modern American Christmas has always rested squarely on ideals of material indulgence. And here we are: forcing store employees to cut short, or skip altogether, the few hours out of the year when we're encouraged to appreciate what we already have.

Please don't shop on Thanksgiving, but really let's go further than that. Join me in taking the pressure off gift giving in general. Make a vow to spend time with the people who love you, instead of getting them things. Chances are that's what they really want anyway. Only a major shift from focusing on the material will get us our Thanksgiving back. It won't be quick or easy, but let's start now. Let's not allow shopping on Thanksgiving to take hold. Americans can't afford to neglect an opportunity to feel grateful for what we already have. Let's not erase a day of gratitude in favor of another day of gimme-gimme commercialism.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Monstrual cramps

I've been battling monster menstrual cramps since Sunday night. Cramps that are so bad they make me miss work was the reason I went on the pill in 2008 and I was really hoping those days were over. But I went off the pill in July because I wanted to get rid of symptoms I was having from it and now the pain is back.

I don't know why it took four cycles for the pain to come back as strong as it did on Sunday night, but this time it cut me down. On a scale of one to ten, it went back and forth in the 5 to 10 range. Yes, 10, which means it was the worst pain I'd ever felt. Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin and my hot water bottle did little to help. At times I rocked back and forth, moaning. At times I burst into tears. I left my apartment and walked the neighborhood just to distract myself from the pain and nausea. I tried to stay active, but the pain was never far away. I tapped a LOT. I struggled like this for 48 hours, with only short periods when the pain receded enough for me to get some sleep. This morning I finally woke up without pain and was able to take my time getting up instead of jumping out of bed to try to walk the cramps off. 

Can anyone tell me why menstrual cramps can get so bad in middle age? I'm 48 and didn't have problems with my period until I hit my late 30s. Maybe I needed an Advil or two and that was it. Is this another side effect of the extra hormones we Americans get in our processed meats and dairy products? Is it because my uterus never harbored a fetus? Is it stress related? Does the phase of the moon have anything to do with it? What? What? 

This is day four of my cycle and the dicyclomine my doctor prescribed is just barely holding my monstrual cramps at bay. I have renewed appreciation for birth control pills and want to get back on them. Many people dislike being "hooked on drugs" as they often call it. I don't understand those people. When drugs prevent pain, I don't care much about long-term effects or problems the drugs might cause. If it stops the pain - whether it's physical or related to a mood disorder - give me the drugs. Just give me the drugs. Give me the drugs! [See this post for how I've reduced the cramps. I decided not to go back on the pill.]

Sunday, November 09, 2014

I'm middle-aged and proud of it

I get frustrated with people who try to tell me I'm not middle-aged. Do they think they're being nice? I think they're being delusional. I often say, "What do you mean I'm not middle-aged? I'm 48. How long are you planning to live?" Middle-age traditionally refers to that period when you're about halfway through your actual, physical, heartbeat-measurable life. So why do people try to tell me I'm not middle-aged?

Maybe there's some social construct of what middle age is and people don't think it applies to me. I'll take a guess here at what that construct might include:

1. Graying hair.
2. Slowed physical activity.
3. Weight gain.
4. Increasing aversions to loud noise, late nights, physically demanding activity.
5. Shift towards more conservative dress.
6. Less sexiness.
7. Less sex.
8. Not being able to eat or drink everything you used to be able to handle.
9. Narrowing interests.
10. Expanding interests.

Does that look about right? If it does, I ask anyone who knows me: which of these things does NOT apply to me? The answer is that they ALL apply to me. I solidly identify as middle-aged and I'll say it to anyone. In fact, I find it patronizing and disingenuous when people try to tell me I'm not middle-aged.

Do not patronize me by trying to tell me I'm not middle-aged. You might think you're being polite or complimentary - and to someone else maybe you would be - but it just irritates me (increased irritability is probably another sign of middle age). It also makes me feel like you're trying to deny that I've lived and learned as much as I have. I have memories of what American culture was like in the 90s and 80s and 70s. I've learned a lot about human nature, personal dynamics, cultural trends, health and more personal subjects like living single, managing mental illness, racism, workplace dynamics in six industries, marriage, divorce, etc. etc. et goddamn cetera. Someone who thinks I look like I'm in my 30s (someone told me yesterday she thought I looked like I was in my 20s for chrissake), erases some that history and experience and really doesn't know who I am.

I am every minute of my 48-plus years. The experiences that have made me who I am go all the way back to Sunday July 24, 1966 at a little after 3:00 p.m. (I considerately made my first infant demands when everyone was already awake). Why would I want to deny any of that by shaving years off of my age?

(I hear that those baby boomers - the oldest of whom entered middle age a couple of decades ago - dislike terms like "middle age," "elderly," and "senior." I ask them: what's wrong with age? Are you all ego-delusional? Do you really think some of you get to bypass being old? Stop with the youth-worship and take your places as elder statepeople. Accept the titles of age. Chocolate-covered Jesus, there's nothing wrong with growing old!)

I've waited all my life to be middle-aged and I'm proud to have earned the title. Sure it suggests that I've slowed down, put on weight, become crankier and wish everyone would pipe down. It also suggests that I've been around long enough to have learned a few things about how to live a happier life, and so I have. Middle age brings me increased confidence, less worry, knowing how to take care of myself, being able to set boundaries, more discrimination about who I want to spend time with and general knowledge of how to build the life I really want. I've always been the kind of person others don't tend to screw with, and as I get older that becomes even more true. There's just less fear in my life in general.

As my ex-husband says, there's good and bad in everything. So I say let's stop treating middle age as if it's to be avoided at all costs (god dammit).

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Single and dating again!

When I started this blog in 2004, I was single and dating. In 2008 I got married and felt happy for a while. Then I felt not so happy, and then my husband ended our marriage. Earlier this year we got divorced. So guess what it's time for now? More dating!

Thus do I join the ranks of divorced women who are "back out there." Carrie Fisher tells Bruno Kirby in When Harry Met Sally, "Please promise me I'll never be out there again." In popular culture and conventional wisdom, being single is characterized as being on the outside, as lacking a permanent relationship. It's lonely and scary and feels like a wilderness you can't find your way out of. No one wants to be there.

But in real life there are plenty of us who want to be on the outside. I'm one of them. Having run the experiment of being married and finding out how I do as a wife (not so well), I have no interest in getting hitched again. That's not to say that if Johnny Depp looked me up I wouldn't change my mind, but having just completed one marriage, I'm in no frame of mind to seek out another one. This probably puts me in a common demographic since divorced men are often more eager than divorced women to find another spouse. Men wanting marriage more than women makes sense to me. When I moved out of the apartment I shared with my husband, my list of household tasks went down. The amount of energy I put into his well being decreased and I was able to put that attention on myself. I felt the wonderful freedom of not being accountable to anyone for my time or money, of not having to buy groceries for anyone but myself, of not having to listen to anyone's radio but my own. My sleep habits were no longer influenced by someone else's work schedule. I no longer lived with the daily smell of alcohol.

There's a rule of thumb that you're not ready to date again until one month has passed for every year you were together with your ex. For me, those months were up in September. Having made the decision to be open to the possibility of dating, I feel -- well, I'm not sure. Somewhere towards the beginning of this decision there was some excitement in feeling like the world is full of possibilities. But the insecurities are also back and I'm disappointed to find that one set of difficulties has been replaced by another.

Twelve years ago my dating was hindered by my active, major depression. It made me obsessive and moody and unable to find anyone satisfactory. No one felt right, I rarely went on a second date and I became convinced that I'd never settle down. My mood disorder caused me to fixate on finding a man, and dating was an almost reflexive response to what I saw as my miserable life. But in spite of my depressive symptoms, I did well on dates. I was young and beautiful and came across as funny and charming. I disappointed many men by turning down a second invitation. I just couldn't let anyone in.

I finally fell in love with the man who would be my husband after I pulled out of that depression, and I fell for him partly because I simply decided to. I made a conscious decision to stop this bullshit and make a commitment and get that ring on my finger. In this way, I enjoyed the age-old tradition of marrying out of insecurity and low self-esteem. I truly felt some of my self-hatred lift after I got married and it hasn't been back.

Maybe not many will say this, but huge numbers of American women get married because we just can't stand to be alone any more and/or we think we'll never find anyone better than the guy who's asking. Those were pretty much my reasons, but not many women admit that, even to themselves.

These days, I manage my chronic depression much better. Now what I struggle with as I wade back into the dating pool are the more common insecurities: am I too old? Too fat? Is the game over for me because I blew it the first time? Will I ever meet anyone ever again who I can have a real, satisfying, romantic relationship with? Do I have to date wrinkled, gray, tired-looking men who look like Dads because those are the ones who are in my age group? I'm not even looking for a permanent, long-term relationship at this point. I just want to go out for a cup of tea or a meal and have a good conversation. I just want to sit across a table from a man who isn't secretly seething with resentment and buried anger towards me. Yeah. That would be really good.

I believe (hope) mine are the common fears of women who start dating again after divorce. I believe (hope) these aren't delusional insecurities that few people can understand. Frustratingly, it seems to me like when I was young and beautiful, I was psychologically unequipped for the mature relationship I pined for. I now feel much more capable of a mature relationship, but I feel old and not very attractive. I'm 48 years old and 40 pounds heavier than I was at the height my previous dating experience. I don't know where to find the party anymore and feel doubtful that there is a party waiting for me.

Before anyone concludes, "Aha! Being single and out there does suck!" I remind anyone who's been reading my blog for any length of time that my insecurities and self-loathing aren't caused by being single. They're what I struggle with in general and they were right there while I was married, too. Sometimes they're triggered by my job. Sometimes they're triggered by how well I can bend and tie my shoelaces. Sometimes they're triggered by the relationship I'm in (or not in). So it goes.

So I keep on getting up in the morning, hoping for more good than bad, and feeling the sharp distinction between me and dead people: they're done. They don't have to worry about any of this anymore.