I’d rather laugh with the sinners

It was six months since I had spent basically half a day at the ophthalmologist only to find out that all those tests I took were merely establishing a baseline for what my optic nerves looked like. Now, it was time to compare, and this meant hours of horrible tests again (one of which involved a woman photographing my optic nerves, which means you are doing the exact opposite of what your instincts tell you to do when a blazingly bright light is repeatedly flashing in your eyes). But before this, it meant having my eyes dilated as much as they possibly could be, and they ended up nearly black and much like a cartoon character’s eyes. I was told I needed to wait around 10 minutes (it was much longer) before they’d come get me for the next round of tests.

I was led into the darkened waiting room, which is somewhere within the maze of examining rooms. It was completely full of other people staring into space or at the television that was blasting out at us. Every now and then someone’s name would be called and then another person would stagger into the room to wait. The lights were dim, but not totally dark, and I found that without my glasses and my book held pretty close to my face I could read (a book of John Cheever stories, as it happened). Oh, this is fine, I thought at first, but then noticed that over time my vision got slowly blurrier and blurrier. This fascinated me, but then kind of panicked me. It was like I was getting older before my own eyes, as though time had sped up and soon I would look in the mirror and see that my face had deeply wrinkled to match my much older, much weaker eyes. This is what happens, I thought, terrified, just not so quickly. And for the first time I wondered, What would happen if I couldn’t read?

From the time I first started figuring out how to put words together (which I am told was when I was three and a half) nothing has ever made as much sense to me as reading. And when I started to write a few years after that, it was mostly so that I would have more to read. If I really think about it, I’m probably better at reading than I am at anything else, though it’s such a personal and pretty much hidden skill. So what would happen, if, as I saw in that waiting room, my eyes began to fail me and no special glasses or operation could help?

My uncle, who was once a terrible reader, is now a prolific listener of (to?) audio books. He can’t get enough of them. And it thrills him that something that was once so impossible for him to do (apparently he read so slowly that it frustrated him too much to continue) is now part of his daily life. He listens on the subway, on his bike rides, everywhere he can. And, he calls this reading, which I have to say it really is. So there is no reason I couldn’t simply start listening to books, right?  I think about how you end up asking yourself, at some point or another, If I had to choose, would I rather lose my sight or my hearing? And I always pick sight because I think I would die without being able to listen to music (which I recall becoming important to me around three and a half as well), but what about all the things I’d miss seeing? And what about reading? And then I just get sad.

Eventually my name was called and I got to have the flashing light tests, etc. When it was all over, they told me to wait in the regular waiting room, though I couldn’t figure out why. I had already paid the copay. I just wanted to go home. And as I sat there, feeling exhausted and battered, I suddenly noticed that on the radio (was there a radio on all this time?) Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” had just come on. Hadn’t I heard this song enough in my life? In fact, wasn’t this one time too many to be hearing this song, a song I had heard, on and off, for the past 39 years of my life? I stood up. There was a man at the desk (born in 1947 I could not help but overhearing) happily discussing his copay with the receptionist like he had all the time in the world. I did not. I put my sunglasses on on top of my glasses (which naturally made me feel like this guy) and headed out into the most blinding sun I had ever seen.

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Waiting

I was in the waiting room of my doctor’s office. My younger daughter had gone in and asked if I’d wait in the waiting room. Sure. Our doctor shares an office building with a bunch of other doctors and soon I noticed a tattooed youngish woman wheeling in an older woman in a wheelchair. The woman in the wheelchair was very pleasant-looking, Grandma-like, in a green shirt and black leggings. She didn’t seem all that old to me, late 60s maybe. The younger woman was clearly her caretaker and was soon filling out a form while patiently answering the older woman’s questions. Their conversation fascinated me.

What am I doing here? asked the older woman, looking around almost casually. You’re here to see the doctor, said the younger woman. What for? asked the older woman. Just a check-up, she was told. The older woman then asked about her own mother and was told that her mother wasn’t there. My mother was a beautiful woman, she told her caretaker. She was, replied the caretaker. You look just like her. The older woman smiled modestly. Thank you, she said. There was a pause for a minute or two. Then the older woman asked, What am I doing here? You’re here to see the doctor, said the younger woman. What for? asked the older woman. Just a check-up, she was told. Almost the exact same words. I realized that I had never seen anything like this before in real life. It was like a scene from a play about Alzheimer’s. I caught the older woman’s eye and smiled at her. This felt important. She smiled back at me, quite warmly. I wondered if she wondered if she knew me or not. She then talked to the younger woman about her husband and the younger woman said that she had never met him, he’d passed away years before. Then the older woman began to say a prayer, very quietly, so that I couldn’t hear it entirely, but I did catch the words Jesus Christ a few times. She seemed to be repeating the prayer over and over. Then there was a silence. And then: What am I doing here? You’re here to see the doctor, said the younger woman, still filling out the form. How many times would she have to answer that question? How many times does she have to say the same things again and again? How did she have the patience for it?

Finally, a nurse stepped out and called for Anna. The younger woman went around to the back of the wheelchair, but before the older woman was turned and wheeled into the doctor’s office, she was sitting facing me and I caught her eye again and smiled and she smiled back and waved goodbye to me as her wheelchair was then turned around. I felt my eyes fill with tears.

Who was Anna? What had just happened? In that short time, I felt like I’d finally had an understanding of what Alzheimer’s was like. I had read and heard about it, but I had never witnessed it so clearly before. But now that I knew, I wasn’t sure what to do with this knowledge. There seemed to be so much that I had seen in this tiny scene: fear, despair, impatience, patience. But what was I doing there? Just paying attention, I guess.

 

What I’m listening to

About three years ago, during a routine repair of my car’s computer, the screen that tells you how many miles per gallon you’re using (I have a Prius) got wiped out, along with (and here’s the crucial part) the ability to turn on and off the stereo. So for a while, I simply rode around in silence, which was sometimes good and sometimes not so good. Then, a little while after that, I got a job three days a week that involved a 35-minute commute each way. It was then that two things happened: I got a little Bluetooth speaker that works with my phone and I started listening to podcasts. Little did I know I’d been waiting for podcasts all my life. How did I (seriously!) ever live so long without them? And really, if you have spoken to me at all in the past three years, I’ve probably at some point said, I was listening to this podcast and…

So I figured what with all the podcast curating I’ve been doing (okay, seriously, my curating, of any kind, is minimal), I thought I’d share the ones that I listen to regularly, in case you have any interest at all in listening to what I happen to think is really cool. This list is not really in any order.

RadioLab. This is the one I started with and often the episodes are fantastic (I highly recommend the one called “Be Careful What You Plan For” that involves a certain psychological study that took place at Harvard in the 1950s and one particular participant in that study.) (How’s that for cryptic? Believe me, the reveal is totally worth it.). My problem is only with the hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, who act as though no one would be interested in a show about science and human nature unless the hosts were yukking it up all the time or acting like total idiots so the audience might feel smart. They are never ever funny.

99% Invisible. This is a podcast about design, sort of. Or perhaps it always is, but in very unexpected and fascinating ways. Lots about cities and signs and architecture, but also technology and history and even sound design. Also furniture, such as Freud’s couch. And, for example, the worst smell in the world (liquid ass!) that is used to train army medics. I am such a fan of the show that I have totally forgiven the host, Roman Mars, for being really excited about a topic I pitched to him and then slowly losing interest as it seemed to be an increasingly difficult show to record. Strangely, he sounds completely different on the phone. I suppose he uses his radio voice only on the air.

Mystery Show. Honestly, this is everything I could ever want in a podcast. I might even call it perfect, but you should probably decide for yourself. Let’s just say that it is storytelling at its very best. Each episode, the adorable, hilarious (never irritating!) host, Starlee Kine, solves mysteries that cannot be solved by the usual methods. No Google, for example. So she might try to figure out what happened to a video store that seemed to disappear without a trace overnight. Or she might try to figure out what exactly was going on in a specific scene on a Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox. For me, without question, the very best episode was “The Belt Buckle,” in which a belt buckle that her friend found as a child (like, at least 20 years ago) on the side of the road was amazingly returned to its rightful owner. It is so delightful and so unexpectedly moving you will probably cry. I cannot wait for the new season to start. Come on, Starlee.

Serial. Yeah, we all know this one. I was just as caught up in season one as everyone else was, though it eventually felt too creepily sensational to me. By the end, all of Sarah Koenig’s updates on Adnan’s case were practically giddy. I loved the second season, however, which was the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who was held captive by the Taliban for five years. Sarah Koenig explores every angle of his story and I found every single episode riveting. There is so much to think about with this one and, just like with the first season, you are left not quite knowing what to believe. Which is totally fine.

More Perfect. This is the newest one and it’s a spinoff of RadioLab, which means more Jad (but, thankfully, less yukking it up). This podcast explores cases and issues involving the Supreme Court, and even if you think this is not quite your thing (even though it is so totally my thing), trust me, it’s worth your time. My favorite one so far (there have only been three) is called “The Political Thicket,” in which a Supreme Court case in 1962 (Baker v. Carr) caused one justice to have a nervous breakdown, another to have a stroke, and basically changed the way the Supreme Court dealt with politics forever.

Invisibilia. This is another RadioLab spinoff, but it’s like if RadioLab did the same stories (perhaps more focused on the human nature and psychology angle) but with entirely likable hosts. I happen to love Lulu Miller (not entirely because of her name, but maybe a tiny bit) and the entire first season of the show was terrific. The titles of the episodes should give you a good indication of what they’re about; for example, “The Secret History of Thoughts,” “Fearless,” “The Power of Categories.” The new season just started and I am saving the first episode for us all to listen to on our upcoming trip to Portland, Maine. I am ridiculously excited.

Embedded. This is a newish podcast from NPR in which reporters, and host Kelly McEvers, take a story from the news and “go deep.” So, for example, in one episode reporters follow police officers in L.A.’s “Skid Row” to see what really goes on after hours. In another, a reporter goes to Greenland to spend time there figuring out why it has the highest suicide rate in the world. Some episodes are better than others, but even the ones I didn’t love (what happens to basketball players who don’t get picked during the draft?) were still quite good.

The Canon. In this one, your cohosts Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson, both movie critics, pick a movie each week and decide if it belongs in “the canon” of great films. Devin is somewhat of a jackass and Amy is much smarter and more interesting, but there are times when Devin gets it just right and Amy is completely off base. Their banter is usually fun, although there are episodes (see: Goodfellas) where there is so much animosity I kind of can’t take it and have to stop listening (this probably only happened once). Sometimes they will pick two movies and pit them against each other, which is usually a lot of fun (the most recent example being “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes vs. Some Like It Hot”). Their love of Steven Spielberg is curious, but mostly the movies they choose to debate are really good ones. Without meaning to, I’ve become totally addicted to this podcast.

Surprisingly Awesome. This one is hosted by Adam Davidson and Adam McKay, but sometimes (if you’re lucky) John Hodgman steps in as host (the most recent one “Extinct Hockey” that he hosted is my absolute favorite). I don’t always love it but I have learned some interesting things (especially about concrete and broccoli). The premise is roughly to take a seemingly boring topic and to show how surprisingly awesome it is. But it has kind of devolved into just things they want to talk about (yo mama jokes, why “I told you so” is always a disappointing and awful feeling). I always think I might stop listening but I am still listening.

Reply All. This is, as the name implies, a podcast about the internet. That seems to be the only requirement, which means that the episodes are as varied as you can imagine. And they are usually pretty great. Recently, there was a four-part episode about a guy who managed to start a blog from prison, but then suddenly (in a very Serial-like turn of events) it followed the case that got him into prison in the first place. One episode detailed the guy who inadvertently invented pop-up ads and has felt guilty about it ever since. A couple of episodes have dealt with online dating, and all of its strange and mysterious secrets. My only problem with the show (which is the problem I have every single episode) is that one of the hosts, P.J. Vogt, has such an awful laugh that I cringe every time he laughs. Sometimes even his voice makes me cringe. I eventually realized that his voice and his laugh (and even, to be honest, his personality) reminded me of someone I used to date. This does not make things any easier.

The Loh Life. If you don’t love Sandra Tsing Loh, this is not for you. In fact, if you do not love her, you will hate this podcast. Just imagine three minutes of Sandra Tsing Loh talking about whatever topic she’s come up with for the week, which I almost always find endearing and funny, but which someone else might find unbearable. It’s your call.

Lunch hour

I once worked with a woman who was originally from Montserrat, and probably the best way to describe her would be to say she was both entertainingly cruel (when looking at a coworker’s high school yearbook picture: “Wow! You weren’t so fat then!”) and a total idiot (when O.J. Simpson was found innocent: “I knew it!”). But the one thing I found actually interesting about her was what she brought for lunch each day. If you work in an office for any amount of time, you definitely notice other people’s lunches; that’s just the way it goes. I certainly try not to judge (once at a temp job, I saw a coworker put an entire rotisserie chicken into a microwave, which was totally fine), but I can’t help noticing things.

First of all, there are always those people heating up frozen diet entrées. Could they be happy with that crap? I have no idea. Then there are the people who buy their lunch and bring it back to their desk, and it sometimes smells so good you want to kill them, or so mysteriously unappealing you feel the same way. And then you have those people just bringing in sandwiches or leftovers. Sometimes people will heat up the tiniest container of leftovers and I can’t imagine that that could be all they are eating for lunch. But then again, there is a candy dish at the table of one of my coworkers, which everyone dips into when they walk by. It’s a terrible thing.

Usually I bring in leftovers and when I heat them up I sometimes get to hear, Wow, what’s that? That smells great! But sometimes I hear, Wow, it smells really garlicky in here, and this statement can either be approval or total lack of approval. I’m not always sure which it is.

In any case, my Montserrat coworker used to bring an entire dinner with her for lunch. A dinner is different than leftovers, trust me. She explained once that where she came from, they ate their largest meal in the middle of the day, and there was no reason she was going to stop doing that now. I found it sad but also fascinating that she was eating her dinner every day in a conference room with people she barely liked who barely liked her.

She would sit at the conference table with a delicious-smelling plate of stew made of fish or meat and vegetables and wonderful spices and often look out the window wistfully, possibly thinking of afternoon meals she had once enjoyed not in a conference room, and it was in those moments (when she wasn’t speaking) that I actually liked her. Her lunches made me like her.

This is basically how I’ve always been. A person can be awful or unbearable, but sometimes they can make one small gesture, or do one unexpected and interesting thing, and then I have to like them. You know how in The Catcher in the Rye Holden goes on about how much he loved (probably it knocked him out) how his friend Jane Gallagher always kept her kings in the back row when she played checkers? It’s kind of like that. But in his case, Jane was someone he already liked. I can truly dislike someone but then be unexpectedly delighted by something small.

I once had a 400-pound coworker who was mostly a jerk and smashed his chair to pieces out of frustration one day, but he did tell us that the guy who was in the TV show “The Fugitive” had thrown a ball at his head when he was a kid, which led to his “difficult” personality and subsequent weight gain. This didn’t exactly make me like him, but it was the thing I liked most about him, strange as this sounds.

That’s all it takes: one interesting detail. Which probably makes it sound like it is very difficult for me to truly dislike people, and in a way, that’s correct. There are plenty of people I despise from a distance (some Republican senators and presidential candidates come to mind), but it’s harder for me when I actually know someone in person. I’m not even sure this is a good thing. I love people’s quirks so much that I would probably let anyone get away with anything. I mean, it kind of depressed me to see George W. Bush’s paintings because they were really pretty good.

But anyway, all I’m saying is that the next time you look at your annoying coworker eating a huge plate of garlicky lunch, just remember: he might have played the oboe as a child, or has a brother who’s a clown, or even once lived in Canada! These are some things that might make him seem not as entirely awful, just a little more human.

Leap

leap

If you’ve read any of my blog this month, you may have noticed that I set a challenge for myself: to write something every single day. With the exception of two days where I found myself, late in the evening, too exhausted to write something new and so posted something I’d written previously, I managed to come up with something to write about for the entire month of February (including this bonus day!).

But why on earth did I even set myself up for such challenge? Really, the whole thing started with yoga. After a couple years of doing yoga twice a week at my local (fabulous) yoga studio, I decided to do a daily 30-day yoga challenge at home, which led to another 30-day yoga challenge, which led to me doing yoga at home every single day for the last, approximately, 130 days. I discovered that challenging myself to do something every single day was extremely satisfying. Whatever you did that day, you’d know that you also had to do the one thing you did every day (at first, just yoga) and you could arrange your day around that or somehow manage to fit it in, but it was a way to feel accomplished every single day. Which honestly is exactly what I needed (I tend to write things like “eat lunch” on a long to-do list just to set myself up for success).

So then I decided to try another daily challenge and writing seemed like just the thing. My writing on this blog definitely slowed down over the past year because it was so much easier to listen to the voices in my head (“Nah, no one wants to read about that,” “This has totally been done before,” “Maybe I should save that to publish somewhere else”) than to just forge ahead anyway. But this month I decided to forge ahead anyway. I had no idea if I would be able to come up with a new topic every day or to say something interesting or funny or important (this is seriously the stuff I think about), but I figured I’d give it a shot. I get so caught up sometimes in what to write about or who I should write for or who even cares that I’m writing at all that I forget that writing is about doing the work.

And so, I did the work. Some days were easier than others. Some days the topic for my essay just came to me in a flash and other days it was a long slow simmer. I was either inspired by the photos I took or felt constrained by the photos I took. Then, at one point, I decided that the photos I was taking (simply because I like taking pictures) didn’t really have to have anything to do with what I was writing about. And so, at a certain point, they just weren’t, which felt completely freeing. I had to be reminded that it was my blog actually, that I could call the shots.

Another challenge was writing so much about myself. This, as an essay writer, is something that I think about a lot. Such things as, Oh jeez, no one wants to know about that. Or even, I don’t want to write about that. Have you read those personal essays (I’m sure you have if you have read a personal essay in the past couple of years) in which the writer pretty much slices open his or her (usually her) wrists and bleeds all over the page? I’m not really a fan of reading that type of writing (well, okay, I do enjoy hate reading it sometimes) and I definitely don’t like to write like that. Some writers find writing about the same painful topic over and over again cathartic, but I tend to find it a little, shall we say, tedious.

And so, here I am, at the very end of February. It’s been quite the thrilling (and sometimes exhausting) month, having to do yoga and write a blog post every single day. Going forward, I will probably not write a blog post every day (I mean, jeez), but I do plan to write a lot more regularly. Maybe I’ll set myself up for a once-a-week challenge. This challenge thing is really something. You ought to try it sometime.

 

The fall

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On this day in 1854, around 50 or so abolitionists met in Ripon, Wisconsin to call for the creation of a new political group. Within a few weeks, the Republican Party was born. Such remarkably noble beginnings, no? But how did it all start? you might be wondering. Luckily I happen to know someone who wrote a school reference book about abolitionism, so I can give you the basics.

We need to go back to 1820, though, and the Missouri Compromise, which was not really a compromise at all, but more like a way for Congress to keep stalling on the issue of slavery. At this point, every time new territory was acquired or a territory wanted to become a state, Congress had to debate whether or not slavery should be allowed there. One of the most significant parts of the Missouri Compromise was that it set a boundary for the extension of slavery into the newly acquired territories in the west. All the territory north of the southern boundary of Missouri, except Missouri, would be free, and all the territory below that line could allow slavery. A proverbial and literal line in the sand was drawn.

This “compromise” lasted until 1854, when some of the western territories applied for statehood. Now shit was getting real. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing for “popular sovereignty” in the territories, which meant that the settlers there could decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery (three years later, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no authority to allow or prohibit slavery in any state, so that was that for the Missouri Compromise or any other compromise).

But anyway, it was this passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that led abolitionists to form a new political party. The Republican Party believed that Congress had the right to prohibit slavery in the territories and ought to do so. This new party was made up of members from the former Whig and Free-Soil parties, as well as antislavery Democrats in the North and West.

It was a success pretty much from the start, as Republicans soon won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Things got a bit heated, however. In 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts gave a passionate speech on the Senate floor, criticizing several pro-slavery Senators. This infuriated South Carolina Representative Preston S. Brooks who, two days later, beat Sumner unconscious with a cane on the Senate floor. Brooks was declared a jerk, or the 19th century equivalent, and even more Northerners began to support the Republican cause.

Later that year, Western explorer John C. Freemont ran as the first Republican candidate for President. He won about a third of the popular vote, but lost the election to James Buchanan. Four years later, the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for President. You probably know the rest.

I mention all of this because I think it’s important to see just where the Republican Party came from and how devastatingly it has fallen. You know, I’m not one to advocate violence, but if someone beat, say, Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz with a cane on the Senate floor right now, I’d probably just, you know, shake my head (SMH). Or perhaps just take a walk on this lovely day and try not to panic about pretty much everything that is going on in this country, even though all I can do is panic. The Republican party, with such noble beginnings,  once stood for essentially the opposite of what it stands for now. Maybe (hopefully) it’s time for it to come to an end.

Kindness, part 2

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A few months ago, I was taking probably the hardest yoga class of my life with the marvelous Raghunath, and somewhere toward the end of the class, when we had to do the millionth warrior two pose, a woman I knew from our regular Tuesday night class, looked at me with probably the same astonished and exhausted face that I had at that moment, and, barely able to lift her arms, said under her breath to me, I’ve got nothing left.  

That is exactly how I find myself, again, late (for me) on Saturday night. Which is why I am sharing with you not a new essay but one I wrote about two years ago. Once again, however, it has to do with kindness.

Jean Marino was the meanest girl in my eighth-grade class. She was terrifying in the way that girls could be in the early 80s, with her feathered hair, fierce black eyeliner, and tight Jordache jeans. You didn’t mess with Jean, who on the first day of school stuck her gum on a classroom sign that said “Do Not Chew Gum in Class” and took one look at me and said, “I don’t like that girl.” She and her three best friends called themselves The Dizzy Crew and they were already drinking and fooling around with high school boys before most of us had any idea what that meant.

I had figured out early on that the thing to do was be incredibly, impossibly, nice to the Dizzy Crew at all times.  “That’s really great!” I said about an okay-looking ashtray one of them had made in the pottery class we took together. And she looked at me, conflicted, and said nothing. Eighth grade is exhausting for most people, I imagine.

One day in science, one of Jean’s friends made some comment about my (non-Jordache) jeans and the entire class started laughing. I laughed too, which was, I figured, the right response. The laughter went on for a good long time, longer than would even seem reasonable in the middle of a class. But eventually something became apparent: Jean was furious. For reasons I never understood, but may have had to do with my hard work and regular compliments, she actually stood up. “Stop laughing at her!” she said, and everyone stopped, stunned. “I am sick of you picking on her! She’s really nice!” Her eyes were blazing.

This moment, like so many other moments of astonishing relief in my life, seemed to stop time. Or at least that’s how I remember it, just sort of dangling there, to be revisited over and over for the next 30-plus years. It was a moment right out of an afterschool special and even though it happened to me I know it doesn’t sound believable.

From that moment on, I was treated with the utmost respect. Jean Marino liked me. No one wanted her angry.  The simple lesson here, taught to me by the meanest girl in my eighth-grade class, is that kindness, effortless or not, can go both ways.