Sunday, December 29, 2013

Aftermathing

The ambient silence smolders heavily,
cocooning them in a sticky lonely fog,
separating them even further
in the separateness they'd long ago mistaken for independence,
both of them living some version of the truth.

Aftermathing is such an exhausting affair.
Trampled and Trampled Upon stumble alongside each other,
circumnavigating their elegantly crafted minefield of eggshells,
carefully sidestepping resentment's timebombs,
treading ever so lightly
until the suffocating fog lifts,
leaving them spent and exposed,
each of them wondering,
"Are we the only ones who 'do' this?"

Why is communication so easy for some
and so difficult for others?
Humility, honesty, and assertiveness
don't come naturally to everyone,
I suppose.
In the interim,
Time intervenes,
softening the blows
delivered by love that still stands a fighting chance.





Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Girl The Boys Wanted To Kiss

     Even though it ain't all that cold outside fer December, my bones've got that deep down chill inside, an' for the life of me, I caint seem ta get warm. So many regretful thangs done happened in the last coupla weeks, I don't even know whar ta begin. Maybe the Good Lord ain'tsa good after all. I know I'll probly be damned to eternal hellfire fer sayin' that, but I caint hep it. Blessed Savior of Mankind, my ass. Whatsoever He done giveth, He gets even bigger kicks from takethin' away.

     Poor Luella. Nineteen years old and settin' in prison. Got 'erself in a terrible fix a coupla years back, drivin' drunk. Killed a woman who was drivin' without a license, not wearin' a seatbelt, an' had 'er brake line held together with a pair a pliers, but none a that made no differnce ta the judge. Neither did the fact that Luella was a straight A student all through high school and her first two years a college. He intended ta make an example outta her. Ta make matters even worse, the victim's family was goin' after her mama, Roxie, in a civil suit. As if that was gonna bring their mama back.

     Me an' Roxie started workin' together down at the county clinic right aroun' two years ago. She knew just about ever'one in town. Usually had a story or two to tell about 'em all, too. I didn't know 'er growin' up, but my ex-husband did. They was in elementary school together, an' Roxie was his acrosst-the-street neighbor's girlfriend. From what I hear, she was a real tomboy. Loved fishin' and gettin' 'erself dirty. Baited 'er own hooks an' gutted 'er own fish, but at the end of the day, she was still the girl the boys wanted to kiss.

     The time leadin' up to Luella's trial was real hard on Roxie, but she hid her feelins sa darn good. I come ta think a her as an original steel magnolia. Bein' a mama myself, I could only imagine the worry an' despair she musta felt, waitin' and wonderin' 'bout what was gonna happen to Luella, knowin' how crooked the so-called justice system was in that stinkin' county.

     There was times at work that Roxie didn't look or feel sa good. Me an' her was about the same age, an' there weren't no reason ta think there was nothing serious wrong with 'er. As far as we knew, she didn't have no health problems. Made sense that whatever was goin' on with 'er was because've all the stress she was goin' through.

     Luella's trial commenced two weeks afore Thanksgivin'. Instead of havin' a jury trial, she plea-bargained an' ended up gettin' three years in a soft prison 'bout a hunnert miles north a here. I guess they was all worried that a jury mighta dealt her an even harsher sentence. Hard to tell. We all done heard about a similar case a few counties south which didn't involve no prison time. I thank that person got house arrest, community service, an' lifetime public speakin' engagements instead. None've us thunk prison was necessary or just in Luella's case. The prisons are overflowin' with them non-violent offenders, but the courts keep stuffin' 'em in there. It don't make no sense. Prison must be makin' the powers that be a whole lotta money. Seems like the powers that be is more innerested in makin' criminals outta people than servin' them real justice.

     Roxie come back ta work a coupla days after the trial. She looked a little worse fer wear an' tear, but she seemed ta be holdin' 'erself together perty well. I hadn't never talked ta her 'bout Luella's legal troubles afore, but since I got me a brother who's done been in and outta prison, I thunk it couldn't hurt, and might help. Now, I'm glad I done it. We had a real good talk, an' I told her I was gonna write to Luella, once she got moved from the county jail over to the state prison. We cried and hugged an' said "See ya next week." I had no ideer that Wednesday'd be the last time I'd ever seen 'er.

     Thursday, Roxie called out sick ta work. Friday, she come inta work, lookin' white as a ghost, sayin' she didn't have no feelin' in 'er fingers or toes. She didn't wanna go to the hospital; she wanted ta drive 'erself home. Long story short, poor thing was et up with cancer.  Ovarian cancer had done spread all up  into 'er liver and lungs. Had she knowed she was so sick? None've us'll ever know. Judgin' from how my own mama's neglected her needs what with all my brother's problems, it's easy ta see how Roxie could've waved off any symptoms she might've been havin' as stress.

     The cancer was sa far gone that the doctors done give Roxie right about six weeks to live. None a the treatment she got that weekend was helpin', in fact, it made 'er worse. She ended up on life support on Sunday, an' later that afternoon, her mama an' daddy made the decision to take 'er off. It was the right thing ta do. Roxie died peacefully on Monday, surrounded by love. It's right fittin' that her remains is being kept inside a tackle box. She wouldn't of had it no other way.

     Thank the Lord, the court allowed Luella outta jail on an ankle monitor so she could be with her mama during her last hours an' attend her funeral. Made me sa mad to hear that her bein' outta jail had to be kept on the down low, so's the victim's family wouldn't get upset. Now, I'm not one ta blame a victim. No sir. But somethin' tells me that family don't care as much about justice as they do about cashin' in. Hope I'm wrong about that.

     Luella is the spittin' image of her mama. Besides bein' smart and perty, she's got 'erself a strong will an' a good heart. Her family loves 'er to pieces, an' they'll be there fer her, come hell or high water. Caint get no more solid than that. She's gonna do just fine.

     As for the rest of us, the suddenness a Roxie's passin' still has us all in shock. I hadn't been back ta work yet, and it don't quite seem real that I ain't gonna hear Roxie tellin' jokes or belly-laughin' no more. Losin' a friend ain't never easy, but when yer the same age, it's real damn hard. Reminds you just how precious each drop a life really is. Maybe Roxie knew she was sick. Maybe she didn't want to be a sick person. Maybe she wanted to be the girl the boys wanted to kiss fer just a little while longer.





   






     

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Model Woman

Spartacus and me in 2009
It's no secret that Spartacus and I are "into" being physically fit...that's probably what first attracted us to each other. It's a mutually beneficial interest. Now that both of us are over 50, fitness itself is becoming rather interesting. For almost two months, I've been dealing with a shoulder injury that's really kicked my ass. I suspect I was performing lateral flies with too much weight, and man oh man, the resultant biceps tendonitis has been a real bitch. It got so bad that I actually went to see the doctor about it. (For me to go to the doctor, it's got to be pretty bad!) The pain and limitation in range of motion in my shoulder weren't improving with rest and analgesics, so I started wondering if maybe I'd seriously injured my rotator cuff. Fortunately, it's just a raging case of tendonitis. Like all wounds, it'll heal. Eventually. In the meantime, I'm still struggling to raise myself up out of a freakin' armchair. 

WTF, Mary Dent?! Bitches puh-leeze!
I'm not gonna lie. This injury is totally cramping my style, and consequently, I'm finding myself becoming increasingly annoyed by seemingly innocuous people like Mary Dent, who at age 53 has unnaturally flat abs, unnaturally perky boobies, and equally unnatural willpower.

I recently installed new lighting in my bathroom, and part of me was honestly hoping that this nagging little bit of belly fat that I just can't seem to get rid of was an imaginary product of suboptimal illumination. Uh, nope. It's still there, only the shadows are a little less harsh now.

I asked Spartacus what he thinks about Mary Dent, and his opinion is that, like pretty much all the fitness magazine models, she's not only been airbrushed, but she's also spent about five grand on tummy-flattening fake tits. In other words, Mary Dent is an illusion. Although he reassured me that the dimply dumpling I see staring back at me in the mirror is an illusion as well, I'm still feeling ab-ravated. I've really gotta find myself some new bathroom reading material. This is especially true now that we're fully stocked on transparent ass-wipes, courtesy of Spartacus, who gleefully brought home two packages of Scott single-ply toilet paper, despite my explicit request for a twelve-pack of cushiony Angel Soft double rolls. Upon being questioned about this purchase, Spartacus responded, "One ply is fly." Sigh. From over-weighted lateral flies to gossamer-yet-woefully-ineffective single ply, I'm barely managing to get by. 

"Another year, gone with the wind!"
While we're on the subject of reading, I received the most beautiful 51st birthday card from my son, Rory. He recently went through a painful breakup, and we've spent quite a bit of time together over the past few weeks, talking about his feelings. I'm really proud of how maturely he's handled himself, working through his emotions by writing some amazing new songs. What he wrote in the card (pictured at left) was unexpected and so touching that I cried instantly upon reading it:

"This past year really has gone like poof! In the last 3 months in particular, they have zapped right by. I have realized even more why I appreciate you. You really are the best representative of a woman that I'll ever have. My standards for women have become so high because of you. Any girl I date has to have so many of the traits you have. You are the model woman for me to base my women on. You are the best mother I could ever ask for, and certainly the greatest woman I know. I love you, Mom!"


Rory, me & my belly fat, Nick, and Nick's girlfriend, Haley
Wow, talk about an affirmation! Who needs flat abs when your 23 year old son thinks you're a model woman? I believe I understand exactly what he was trying to convey. All he's saying is that he appreciates my unconditional love for him--the fact that I love him for who he is, just as he is--and that's the quality he's looking for in a woman. In terms of expectations, what he wants is neither unrealistic nor unnatural. As for me and my stubborn belly fat, the reality is that it's probably here to stay. I don't see a starvation diet or liposuction happening anytime soon. Even though I consider myself a model of fitness for my age, I'm certainly no Mary Dent. I'll just have to settle for being a model woman.





Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sleep Come Easy

     Sleep come easy fer the two a them, just fer differnt reasons...him 'cause his compulsions done wore 'im out, an' her 'cause it was the only time she could find 'erself any peace. Quite the pair, they was. To look at 'em, you'd thank they was two normal ever'day people, but if you looked real close, you'd see they was livin' in a worlda shit, a bone fide shitstorm, so ta speak.

     Winston was the quiet type, and by that I mean, real quiet. Getting 'im to talk was like pullin' teeth on a mule, unless a'course he'd gotten hisself into the cups, an' then, ya couldn't get 'im ta shut up. He wasn't hisself no more. He become a liar, a real mean trash-talkin' drunk. Onest he got that first sippa whiskey or a coupla oxys in 'im, she was pretty much fucked. Goddamn hillbilly heroin.

     Even after they done been married fer a coupla years, there was still thangs she was findin' out about 'im, thangs he hadn't told 'er 'cause he was so ashamed of hisself. Thangs like bein' a convicted felon an' all. Thangs that gave 'im an excuse ta keep lyin' and drankin' hisself silly ever' few months or so, 'cause fergivin' hisself an' livin' and let live was outta the question. Winston thought hisself a special case. He done convinced hisself a long time ago that he was beyond help.

     Why Lurlene hadn't left 'im wasn't no mystery ta her. Even though he weren't violent or unfaithful, he was dangerous. Dangerous mostly because the love she felt fer him was the same love she had fer her own children, an' that clouded her mind. She done drunk the Kool-aid. Lurlene done always been partial to danger, bad boys and whatnot. There was somethin' excitin' about a man like that, a man with secrets. But, sooner or later, them secrets become her secrets too.

     Layin' there next ta him, waitin' fer sleep ta come, listenin' to his drunk self sawin' logs like he didn't have no cares in the world, she knew nothin' was gonna change. At least, not no time soon. She done give up on tryin' ta lead the horse to water a long time ago, an' a long time ago done came an' went. Maybe that's why sleep come so easy fer poor ol' Lurlene. She didn't wanna see no other way out.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

When It All Comes Down

Although I'd originally intended for today's long overdue post to be something light-hearted and off-the-wall, one of life's family-drama curve balls socked me right in the gut this afternoon, prompted by a panicked phone call I received from my mother. Instead of elaborating on the details, I'm just going to write about how I'm feeling right now, which is emotionally exhausted. I will preface this by saying that my dad was a psychiatrist and my mom was a psychiatric nurse, and that I grew up on the grounds of a large state mental hospital (my family lived in one of the staff cottages). I worked in a psychiatric hospital for several years during my early 20s. Ironically, one of my current job functions entails giving anesthesia for patients undergoing electroconvulsive therapy for various mental illnesses and dementia.

Addiction. It's a word that's been tossed around in my family quite a bit, dually fueled by Drug War hype and poor decisions made by individuals over the years. Addiction is medicolegal terminology for vices that become acquired habits. Like mental illness, it's a stigmatizing label for behavior that's deemed socially unacceptable. It's also a politically defined disease, rooted in society's belief that it's the government's job to protect adults from themselves. But, individuals are accountable for their actions, period. They are not powerless over their behavior. Drugs don't ingest, smoke or shoot themselves, alcohol doesn't drink itself, money doesn't gamble itself, and sex doesn't sell or fuck itself. The government's role should be strictly educational regarding the potential consequences of these activities, not to criminalize them. Whatever the vice happens to be, an individual makes a decision to engage in compulsive behavior that's usually accompanied by a set of undesirable consequences. 

Addiction is really a problem in living. Although I realize that many people experience successful recovery through twelve step programs, the basic tenet of powerlessness defies common sense. Thomas Szasz, a modern day psychiatrist, who was an advocate of individual freedom and vocal critic of the social controls engendered by psychiatry aligning itself with government, described drug treatment that isn't completely voluntary at its inception as being "eerily akin to forcible religious conversion." In other words, individuals who really want help are capable of helping themselves without coercion. His analogy comparing the Nazis' persecution of minorities with today's persecution of drug users is compelling: "The Nazis spoke of having a 'Jewish problem.' We now speak of having a drug-abuse problem. Actually, 'Jewish problem' was the name the Germans gave to their persecution of the Jews; 'drug-abuse problem' is the name we give to the persecution of people who use certain drugs."

Suicide. It's also a word that's been tossed around in my family quite a bit, given that several of my relatives suffer with severe depression. One has to be suffering greatly to view suicide as an acceptable solution. I mean, is there any problem or cause worth dying for? I honestly can't think of any, which is probably why I have no respect for ideologies that are centered in patriotism or martyrdom. I don't consider suicide to be a moral issue in any way, but it definitely contradicts human instinct. Suicide is always a tragedy, especially for those left behind. But, is it morally reprehensible...a crime? If one believes that individuals are morally free in determining whether or not they wish to live or die, then involuntary commitment is what's criminal. Being depressed isn't a crime, even if it involves suicidal ideation or a plan. But, involuntarily locking up a depressed person for not wanting to live breaches that individual's freedom. Although I think someone who's suicidally depressed should be actively discouraged from going through with it, there is little that can be done to stop someone who's truly decided that suicide is the only option. A blogger friend of mine shared with me this passage from David Foster Wallace, an American novelist who eventually took his own life. It provides very personal insight into the decision-making process behind suicide:

The so-called "psychotically depressed" person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of "hopelessness" or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling "Don’t!" and "Hang on!", can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

So, there it is. I am not pretending to understand either of these issues inside and out, nor am I making any kind of value judgment about people who are struggling with addiction, depression, or suicidal ideation. I do think that all human beings experience feelings of depression or even fleeting thoughts of suicide. I know I have. It's part of the human experience. But, thoughts are thoughts, and thoughts alone are pretty meaningless. It's the power that people give to their thoughts, the translation of thoughts into behavior, that changes everything. When it all comes down, we're our own worst enemies.  The only person who can save you from yourself is you.
A pencil drawing made by my father in 1984





Monday, September 30, 2013

The Minute Since Yesterday

In the minute since yesterday,
I'm seventeen,
an Anaïs Ninja in an almost 51 year old body,
untamed and unapologetic,
lapping up the milk of experience,
waves of time lapping at my feet.

Dimensionless, I course my veins
Beat my heart
Stretch my legs
Nest my eggs
Breathing this moment now,
In the moment that was.

Teenage me,  1981


Now me

Monday, September 16, 2013

Breaking Brad

   
"Breaking Bad's" Jesse Pinkman & Walter White
(image borrowed via public Google search)
Spartacus (aka Brad Crowe) and I have just emerged from a shameless three week boob-tubing spree, a "Breaking Bad" marathon of ginormous proportions. Quite possibly the most entertaining and provocative TV show I have ever seen in my entire life, it's the story of Walter White, a brilliant but underachieving middle-aged high school chemistry teacher, whose unexpected inoperable lung cancer diagnosis and ensuing concerns over his family's future financial stability propel him into a new vocation as the southwest's premier crystal methamphetamine chef. He partners up with Jesse Pinkman, his meth-smoking former student, cooking up enantiomerically pure blue meth in the Chihuahuan desert in a stolen RV, all in an effort to amass a decent nest egg for Walt's surviving wife and children. Walt handles the chemistry, and Jesse provides the street smarts and networking. 

Yo bitch, can you front me a teenth?
(image borrowed via public Google search)
Reminiscent of characters in a Greek tragepic, they encounter an array of seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their plans for large scale distribution, including Walt's pregnant wife and her meddling sister, his DEA agent brother-in-law, local dealer turf wars, regional drug kingpins, the Mexican drug cartel, an international shipping conglomerate, white supremacists, and sometimes even overly ambitious meth-heads themselves. Walt's elaborate lies and manipulations of the truth are so outrageous that even when he's being completely honest, no one believes him. Oddly enough, the poetry of Walt Whitman is a central plot element. How cool is that?!  Like Uncle Walt, Walter White shares intellectual and personality traits relegating him to society's margin. Throughout the course of the show, Walt's character metamorphosizes from protagonist to antagonist, while Jesse serves as an unlikely moral compass.  It's pretty clear that Jesse flunked Walter's chemistry class not because he wasn't bright, but simply because he didn't apply himself. Although the obvious seems to go right over Jesse's head, he's no dummy. For instance, during one of Walt's pimping sessions in their mobile meth lab, Jesse incorrectly identifies wire as a conductive element instead of copper, yet single-handedly conceives the idea of using a giant magnet planted outside the DEA's evidence room in order to scramble data from a co-conspirator's confiscated computer hard drive that would have otherwise incriminated him and Walt. He's not booksmart, but he's got lots of common sense. The fact that Walt and Jesse's relationship first began in a high school classroom has made for some interesting discussion between Brad and me about our individual experiences with the education system, namely its imposed set of expectations and pressure for conformity. 
     
WANTED!
For coloring outside the lines
DISARMING AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS!
I love hearing Brad's stories from when he was in school. Like most kids, he would've rather been playing ball, riding his bike, or running around outside than sitting in a boring old classroom. Not surprisingly, he daydreamed a lot. He also went about doing things his own way, which didn't exactly win him brownie points with his teachers. They wanted him to color inside the lines. When Brad was in the sixth grade, his teacher, Mr. Lightfoot, sent home the following comment on his report card:

"Brad is very independent. Unfortunately, he is independently stagnant."

Just what the hell was that supposed to mean? Apparently, Brad wasn't fully cooperating with the program. He was busy being his own person, and that created a disturbance, a deviation from the Bell curve norm. This was just one in a series of failed scholastic attempts at breaking Brad. Fortunately, Brad's dad didn't take that kind of criticism seriously, and instead of being pissed about it, Bob sent him right back outside to play. 

"We got your book right here, Mr. Krug!" 
Two months after starting 11th grade, Brad and his folks moved from Decatur, Alabama to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. His new chemistry class wasn't at all in sync with the one he'd just left. Realizing he was seriously behind in the material, Brad approached his teacher, Mr. Krug, one afternoon after school.

"What can I do to catch up with the rest of the class?" Brad inquired earnestly. Asking for help...not exactly an independently stagnant move, yes?

                       
Well, what do you think Mr. Krug's smartass condescending answer was?

"You have the book, Mr. Crowe." 



Gee, thanks a pantload! Feeling somewhat dejected by this unproductive interaction, Brad took to daydreaming again. Not long after that, Brad was sitting in his desk, staring out into the courtyard, completely oblivious to the fact that Mr. Krug was calling on him to name an element. 

Mr. Krug was becoming impatient. "Well, Mr. Crowe? We don't have all day." 

Brad's bullshit answer of "cotton" had the entire class, including Mr. Krug, in stitches. 

That semester, his test scores progressed from "D" to "A" to "F" to "B," his final grade being a respectable "C."  

Like Jesse Pinkman, Brad's performance in chemistry was more mercurial than sterling, but hey, as long as you realize that cotton makes your tidy whities absorbent and that, in a pinch, you can make a battery with a lemon, some copper wire, and a galvanized nail, what more do you really need to know to survive?

"Breaking Brad" featuring himself as Walt & Boris as Jesse
Needless to say, despite all of Brad's academic misadventures, he turned out just fine. He's still doing his own thing in his own quiet way, and it's funny how that quality still arouses suspicion among some of our friends. In fact, one of my partners at work started a rumor that Brad was in the CIA. I kid you not, he was dead serious about it. It reminded me of that scene from "Bridesmaids" where Megan is convinced that the guy sitting next to her on the plane is an air marshall. Turns out, she was right! Anyhow, that rumor spread around the operating room like wildfire. I have to admit, it was kinda fun. Brad's Ray-Ban aviators and lean, mean look definitely lend a James Bond-ish aura, but beneath that steely surface lies a heart of gold that follows its own path in life, the mark of a true individual. Maybe being independently stagnant isn't such a terrible thing after all.

A selfie of us partners in crime...



    

Monday, August 26, 2013

Nowsurance (My Summer of Living Dangerously)

This photo needs no explanation...
I've been incommunicado the last few weeks, partly out of not really feeling inspired to write anything, but mostly out of living dangerously. No, I haven't joined the Merchant Marines or become a stripper, although a few weeks ago, I came pretty darn close to simulating the latter when I got annoyed about the fact that, as a woman living in the godforsaken state of Georgia, I'm not permitted to expose my breasts in public, no matter how uncomfortable I am in our stifling summertime heat and humidity. Says who?! After informing Spartacus that I was going to step outside in our public courtyard to enjoy the morning sunshine bare-chested, to which he responded, "Just make sure the po-po don't catch ya," I threw caution, and my T-shirt, to the wind. My boobs haven't stopped thanking me; in fact, they caught the cool late August breeze just this morning. Aaaah!

That moment of living on the edge got me thinking about just how ridiculous the concept of insurance is. Take disability insurance, for example. For several years now, I've been paying around $600 per month so that if I become disabled, I'll be guaranteed an $11,000 monthly income. That's an awful lot of dough for reassurance that I'm guessing will never be actualized. My income's dropped considerably since I negotiated that policy, and since my monthly expenses aren't anywhere near $11k, not to mention the fact that I dare to live in the moment and am healthy as a horse, I decided it was time to either drop that policy altogether or reduce it substantially. Even though I've already reduced my life insurance coverage, I'm still worth more dead than alive!

I'll let you in on a little secret. All summer long, I've been working on developing my own personal insurance. Nowsurance is probably more like it. Just because I live like there's no tomorrow doesn't mean each day doesn't count. Although traditional disability insurance is designed to prevent one from worrying about untoward future events, I can't help but think that it leads to complacence and a smug lack of caring about the here and now. My independence--being able to do things for myself--is incredibly valuable to me. I really can't imagine living any other way.

Hemp...it's what's for dinner.
There's no monetary premium for my nowsurance policy, just common sense and accountability. When my jeans started feeling tight a few weeks back--despite all my crazy-aggressive workouts--I quit drinking wine every night, substituting green juice instead, and guess what happened? I lost 10 pounds. Even though I wasn't technically overweight to begin with, making that adjustment has done wonders for my sleep and energy levels. If I do drink wine, it's no more than a glass now, as my alcohol tolerance has gone down to zero. Best of all, my jeans are back to fitting like a glove, which is a wonderful thing when you hate clothes shopping as much as I do. (I'm a bit of a freak in that regard, and will wear the same clothes for years, provided they fit). I've worn these jeans for 6 years, and they've still got plenty of mileage left. Another lifestyle modification that both Spartacus and I have made is skipping traditional dinners during the week. Because we tend to work out later in the evening, we weren't eating dinner until 9 pm, which meant we were going to sleep with full stomachs. That's precisely how sumo wrestlers gain so much weight, by eating massive amounts of food and napping right afterwards. Not sexy! After our workouts, I make us both some kind of well-balanced smoothie with homemade almond milk, fresh fruit and leafy greens, and a little hemp protein, leaving us both satisfied, instead of overstuffed. Best of all, I have no pots, pans, or dishes to wash.

Rory (pink glasses) with BearKnuckle, feelin' green :-)
Juicing might sound like a silly fad, but I've seen recent anecdotal evidence suggesting that it boosts immunity. A few weeks ago, my son, Rory, called and told me that his lung functions were down despite a two week course of oral antibiotics. His pulmonologist recommended continuing the antibiotics for a couple more weeks, but felt this was probably a cystic fibrosis exacerbation that would definitely require intravenous antibiotic therapy at home. Rory and I had a long talk about the role nutrition and exercise play in maintaining and improving one's health. Like most people, I think he viewed exercising as time-consuming drudgery. The new thinking about exercise is that short but intense workouts achieve the same level of cardiovascular fitness, without taking up a huge chunks of precious time. There's really no need to spend more than 30 minutes working out. I sent him a few of my favorite total body and high intensity interval training workouts, all of which can be performed with no equipment in 20 minutes or less, and he started exercising daily before going to work.  

Rory's Lung Power juice and my amazing sprouted raw granola bars
I read him the riot act about his diet, which doesn't contain much in the way of fresh produce. He agreed to try drinking some green juice on a regular basis. After researching juicing for cystic fibrosis, I came across a recipe for Lung Power juice. Apparently, the watercress and pineapple it calls for contain anti-inflammatory compounds, as do the golden beets and turmeric root that I added. Because I've been taking him a two-liter bottle of juice every few days, it means I get to see him more often, so that's been an added bonus for me. Anyway, after two weeks of juicing and exercising, he went back to the pulmonary clinic to get baseline lung functions prior to starting his IV antibiotics. Even though it sucks that he's having to go through another round of home intravenous therapy, I was delighted to hear that his lung functions had actually improved by 4%, instead of declining further as we'd anticipated. Since the only thing that had changed was his lifestyle, I think that's pretty significant. Hopefully, it will be good motivation for Rory to continue with his workouts and intake of raw micronutrients. 

Attack of the Maple-Bourbon Cro-Doughs. 
Yesterday, Spartacus and I went out for doughnuts before running a few errands. Revolution just released its version of the cro-nut, so the queue was snaking itself outside the double doors. This was such a momentous event that I dolled myself up in my favorite (and only) pair of diamond earrings, which happen to be insured. At least, I thought I was wearing both of them. While we were standing in line, I kept noticing people looking at me oddly, as if maybe I had a booger in my nose. Spartacus confirmed the absence of any conspicuous nasal nuggets. I tried to ignore the continued awkward glances. Finally, when I ducked into the natural foods co-op to replenish my supply of buckwheat groats used for making my almost-famous sprouted raw granola bars (Spartacus stays in the car when we go there; he complains the place smells like B.O.), I figured out what all the stares were about. The cashier mentioned how pretty my "earring" was, and when I reached up instinctively to touch my earlobe, I discovered my right earring was MIA!

Diamonds, roughing it the concrete floor near the garbage can
A brief panic ensued, prompting us to retrace our steps. After thoroughly searching the car, we went back home to check the gravel lot where we park our cars. Nada. My original thought all along was that the earring had never even made it outside the house, that I'd somehow failed to engage the clasp, allowing the post to fall right out of the hole in my earlobe. Sure enough, Spartacus found it lying smack dab in the middle of the kitchen floor. After breathing a sigh of relief that we wouldn't have to notify the insurance provider, we talked about how bizarre it is to even have such material possessions in the first place. I purchased those earrings at a time in my life when, despite making an insane amount of money, I was the unhappiest I've ever been. Life's gotten much simpler since then, and I rarely shop at all. Having less "stuff" makes more room for happiness. The lost earring was a gentle reminder of that, and I was pleasantly surprised at how un-upset I was at the prospect of it really being gone. If I hadn't been walking around multi-tasking while I was putting those earrings on, it wouldn't have fallen out in the first place...the jeweler replaced the flimsy original clasps with spring-loaded ones that are fail-proof and unbreakable, and if engaged properly, will keep the earrings in place indefinitely. I've decided that from now on, I'll put the earrings on while standing in front of the mirror, gazing upon my womanly beauty, LOL. Seriously, though, multi-tasking is SO overrated!

Barefoot wife vs. husband's 2 ton briefcase...ouch!
On Thursday, I went to the doctor for the first time in two years. I don't have any health problems, except for two broken toes, but because two years have elapsed since my last mammogram and Pap exam, I figured it was time to get plugged back into the system. Initially, I was a little bit nervous about the visit with this new doc, but it couldn't have gone any better. She turned out to be a very cool lady, clearly a patient advocate like me. I liked her immediately. My blood pressure was 100/60 mm Hg, and my body mass index was normal at 22.8 kg/m2. She did an EKG on me because I'd had a history of premature beats, presumably from stress at my previous job. That, too, was stone cold normal. After examining me, Dr. Bernard looked me in the eye, smiled and said, "Welp. I can't find anything wrong with you." Cha-ching! My nowsurance has paid off. I've taken matters into my own hands, trading the comfort of future assurance for the risk of real change, and it's producing fantastic results. Now, if only my poor feet would cooperate... 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Worst Kind of Kindness

   
Me, immorally caressing the "forbidden" med cart at work (1987)
Something must be wrong with me. Not only am I not outraged by pretty much anything and everything that's wrong with society, I'm also not particularly inspired by what's right with it. I'm using the terms "wrong" and "right" loosely here, mostly because I'm not a big fan of society itself, just the individual human beings who comprise it. As someone who's always been attracted to what's considered immoral and degenerate, I don't really relate to society's mainstream. I'm much more moved by poetry than the random acts of kindness attracting the media's attention. Why is that?

I don't like the idea of anyone telling me how to live my life or how to be a better person. The notion that people can never be good or kind enough, that we always have to work on improving ourselves is a bunch of regret-engendering hooey. I'm already the person I want to be, always have been. I really can't think of anything worse than modeling myself according to someone else's principles. Self-righteousness has always rubbed me the wrong way. What I find particularly odd about most religions is how the prophets themselves were humble and self-effacing, whereas their disciples have taken themselves so seriously over time that killing in the name of God continues to be justified. Religion's problems are rooted in the concepts of God's kind mercy and forgiveness. Sounds good in theory, but in practice, not so much. The actual administration of God's kindness always seems to require a human intermediary who, more often than not, comes equipped with his or her own personal and repressive moral agenda. Since when do people need outside permission to be kind to themselves, accept themselves, and move on with life? 

Last night, Spartacus and I watched "The Godfather." I'd never seen it in its entirety before, and the one scene which really stood out was when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) confided to his longtime girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) that, after a lifetime of resistance, he was now working for his mafioso father, Don Corleone (Marlon Brando). Unlike his brothers, Michael had shunned the family "business" in favor of a college education and military service. After his father was shot and seriously wounded by a rival mob family, Michael abandons his role as a civilian, eventually assuming leadership of the Corleones, all the while promising Kay that he'll make the family business legitimate within five years. Fully aware of the violent, criminal nature of Michael's new undertaking, Kay protests:

"But you're not like him, Michael. I thought you weren't going to become a man like your father. That's what you told me." 

The clarity of Michael's response is chilling. "My father's no different than any other powerful man, any man who's responsible for other people, like a senator or president." 

Shaking her head, Kay condescends, "Do you know how naïve you sound?"

Michael barely squeezes in "Why?" as Kay explains matter-of-factly, "Senators and presidents don't have men killed!"




Indeed, Kay, who's being naïve? As Lao-tzu once queried, "What is a bad man but a good man's teacher?" How is a president who wages war any different from a mob boss? Yet, society is pretty darn selective in making such distinctions, e.g. our current wars on terror and drugs. Isn't war a form of terror? So, we should fight terror with terror? Nothing about that reasoning makes sense to me, but by God, we're gonna prove we're the good guys if it means wiping out every last one of ya!  

Other than rendering a medical opinion in the patient care setting, I'm not too keen on giving or taking personal advice. I read a commencement speech this morning in which the author urged new college graduates to focus on becoming kinder and more loving, by "taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers.  We have to do that, to be our best selves." Although I totally get where he's coming from and agree with the article's basic premise, I think this is terrible piece of advice. Why? Well, for starters, it's virtually impossible to act selflessly when you take yourself seriously. Also, the worst kind of kindness is that which comes from overthinking and moralizing it. It's unnatural and doesn't come from the heart. There's usually an element of expectation or reciprocation involved, as well as a desire for recognition, especially in those who do take themselves seriously. Finally, I don't even see how kindness itself is a moral issue; in fact, you could say that morals arise from a lack of goodness or kindness. I agree with Lao-tzu: "Perfect kindness acts without thinking of kindness." 

Going with the flow,  but not floating the mainstream, 1982

I'm not knocking kindness, just the way we value it as something otherworldly and extraordinary. True kindness is effortless and doesn't require any forethought. It's often overlooked. Thinking about kindness relegates acting kindly to the future, which seems like a waste of right now. Being kind happens naturally when people accept themselves as individual expressions of the universe, going with the flow, instead of floating the mainstream. All human beings are capable of it, without a third party assist.




See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self; 
then you can care for all things.
                                --Lao-tzu




Saturday, July 27, 2013

There's Everything Else

   
My first day of doctorhood
As a medical student, surgical intern, and anesthesiology resident, I ate, slept, and breathed medicine, and every one of those rites of passage came topped with the cherry of long-awaited and hard-fought-for success, the kind where you're supposed to say to yourself afterwards, "Looks like I've made it." When I graduated from medical school, I must've written "Kristyna Mazur Landt, MD" a zillion times, practicing my signature which now resembles the Loch Ness Monster. I was the first person from Mercer University School of Medicine to be accepted into Emory's general surgery program, and it was kind of a big deal. You don't get to pick where you go for residency; you're matched through a national lottery. 


Emory had been my first choice for surgery residency. Vanderbilt was second. No one, not even your academic advisors or the programs themselves, has any idea where you'll end up. That's what makes Match Day so exciting or disappointing, depending upon how you were ranked by each program. On the morning of Match Day, you sit with your classmates in an auditorium, waiting for your name to be announced. When your name is called,  you walk up to the podium where you receive a sealed envelope. At least, that's how it happened at Mercer. Anyway, I could hardly believe it when I opened mine and saw "Emory." To congratulate me on that accomplishment, the chairman of Mercer's Department of Surgery gave me his first edition copy of "The Papers of Alfred Blalock." I was on Cloud Nine. Well, that is until July 1st actually rolled around.
     
My surgery internship class
Internship was a rude awakening into the organized slave labor trade known as residency. My intern year occurred a year or two before the legislation mandating an 80-hour limit on resident work hours was passed; there were plenty of weeks where I worked 100-120 hours. Think about that for a moment. There are 168 hours in a week, and if you're working 100 of them, you're left with approximately 9.7 hours per day for your remaining activities of daily living, at least six to eight of which ideally should include sleep. Based on those working conditions, my house physician salary of $32,000 averaged out to about a dollar above minimum wage. Economically speaking, my college degree and four years of medical school didn't amount to jack squat. 

     I switched from surgery to anesthesiology after my intern year, and it was a very wise decision. There's a mindset among surgeons that there's operating, and then there's everything else. At the young old age of 39-about-to-turn-40, I knew I couldn't commit to that lifestyle. I missed my kids terribly. I missed being at home. I didn't want to miss out on any more of our lives together. Faye, a friend of mine who'd gone through three years of surgery residency before switching to anesthesia, convinced me to consider changing paths. At that point, I was less than six months into my year of internship. 


My very special set of skills? Test-taking!
Test-wise, I could have easily had surgery in the bag. Even as an intern, I passed the mock board exam that we all had to take each year, and was one of ten from a residency of about 75 to earn $200 in book money. That meant there were chief residents who didn't pass. I was so disillusioned, though, and I don't think my misgivings were strictly a by-product of sleep deprivation. I was actually thinking about dropping out of medicine altogether, maybe getting a research position of some sort, but seeing as how I'd never done any research, that was a long shot. I felt stuck. It was while I was on my super-sucky Grady Hospital emergency room rotation in January of 2002 that I ran into Faye. Seeing her so relaxed and happy was kismet. Thank goodness my program director, Dr. Dodson, was so supportive of me. Not only did he go out of his way to secure me a spot in Emory's anesthesiology program for the following year, he never criticized me for my decision to leave surgery. When our mock board score letters were released, he'd inscribed an addendum: "You will do well in anesthesiology, and they will be lucky to have you." 

     For me, the study of anesthesiology was much more difficult than that of surgery. Being an anesthesiologist means you have to have a solid grasp on internal medicine, cardiology, pediatrics, obstetrics, pharmacology, as well as the intricacies of airway anatomy and the complexities of cardiac, respiratory, neurologic, endocrine, renal, and maternal physiology. As if that's not challenging enough, you have to be able to integrate all of that knowledge to formulate a safe anesthetic plan for your patient in ten minutes or less. 
   
Emory Anesthesiology Class of 2005
My three years of anesthesia residency weren't exactly a piece a cake. Eight months into my first clinical year, my father died suddenly. That catapulted me into a serious depression, and I ended up having to take an antidepressant just to be able to function. I went back to work only a week after he died, and spent every private moment I had, crying in the call room and trying to remember the sound of his voice. To make matters worse, not all of my attendings were aware of the situation, and some of them gave me a really hard time about being spaced out. I did everything I could to keep it together, but by that point, my marriage was falling apart. Being at home wasn't a refuge; it was a battleground.

   
Ahmet in 2003
In 2004, during my final year of training, one of my residency buddies fell to his death in a freak hiking accident. Ahmet's death was a stark reminder of how tenuous life really is, a realization that was difficult to reconcile against the demands of being a fledgling physician. One month before I graduated residency, my husband informed me he'd filed for divorce and custody of our twins. Whereas my peers were celebrating the end of residency and the beginning of their new professional lives, I was grieving the end of my marriage and fearing the loss of my children. Not a great way to start off the rest of your life. Fortunately, my ex and I were able to settle things amicably, sharing custody of the boys and handling our divorce cooperatively, out of court. To this day, we remain on friendly terms.

   
Dr. Me
The last eight years of my life as an anesthesiologist have been a push-pull affair. As hard as I've tried to push away from my identity as a physician, I keep getting pulled back into it, whether I like it or not. There is just no escaping that part of who I am. For some time now, I've rejected Dr. Me, as if it were some sort of embarrassment, an albatross that I've tried my best to ignore. But, I'm realizing that it's really our collective workaholic "I'm a physician, therefore I exist" identity I abhor, not mine individually. I am a physician, but it's not who I am. It doesn't define me.



I've never been one to float the mainstream. Why would my brand of doctoring be any different? Four years of medical school, four years of residency, and eight years of being an attending anesthesiologist have reinforced my suspicions that there's wisdom in being lazy, that committing to my own personal happiness and freedom, as opposed to revolving my entire life around medicine, is what's prevented me from becoming a burned out and cynical physician. Working part-time is pretty amazing. It's like having the best of both worlds. I enjoy practicing anesthesia again, instead of dreading what each day has in store. Long gone are the days of eating, sleeping, and breathing medicine; now, I'm channeling Hippocrates.  It comes naturally. Intuitively. And, I do love it. Doctor, there's everything else, and then there's medicine.

 


Related posts:
About my friend, Ahmet: Ahmet, Interrupted
Self-explanatory: The Day I (Almost) Got Fired From Residency
A funny story from anesthesia residency: Boo
Why I hated my emergency room rotation: Asthma and Detention
A taste of what it's like to be a surgical intern: A Special Kind of Bedlam
The social aspects of cadaver lab: Elegance and Horror
     

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Halfway

   
Juicer or torture device?
When I was in high school, my dad discovered the wonders of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Dad jumped into anything that interested him feet first and, as crazy as some of these things were, he really was about 20 years ahead of his time. My parents' bookshelves were bursting at the seams with books and manuals that catalogued his progression of interests, from making yogurt and cooking with tofu to building an earth-sheltered home, eating for your blood type, and naturopathic healing. We'd barely recovered from having to recycle every scrap of aluminum and styrofoam when juicing struck his fancy. Adjacent to the giant ball of compacted aluminum foil which occupied a tremendous amount of kitchen counter space, there sat one of those old timey citrus presses, the kind where you inverted halved fruit over a ridged cone and used all your might to crank down on the handle that clamped the lid, all for a few lousy tablespoons of precious life-giving juice.

   
 
Me in 11th grade. SO not interested in juice!
The thing about Dad's new fad was, he wanted either me or my sister to prepare his juice for him. Whichever one of us set foot in the kitchen first for breakfast was greeted by Dad's melodious Polish accent: "Good morrrning, daughterrrr of Barrrtek. I am rrrrrrready forrrrr you to prrreparrre my grrrrrrapefrrrrruit juice." O mój Boże! (That's "OMG!" in Polish). I've never been much of a morning person, and the only thing my sixteen year old self was interested in at the crack of dawn was gobbling down a bowl of Captain Crunch so I could call first dibs on the bathroom I shared with my sister and two brothers. I'm really not sure why Dad got hooked on grapefruit juice. True, it was the mid '70s, and the Hollywood Grapefruit Diet had taken the nation by storm. But, Dad was never one to follow trends; he was more of a trend-setter himself. He wasn't drinking grapefruit juice to lose weight. I suspect that he believed fresh juice had real health benefits, and over the years, his suspicions have proven true. Raw whole foods contain all sorts of micronutrients and digestive enzymes that pasteurization and processing kill, and nowadays, it's widely accepted that freshness is where it's at.
     
These grapefruits didn't fall far from my tree...
My son, Nick, requested a slow juicer for his 23rd birthday, which is coming up on the 21st of this month. Over the last couple of years, he's become extremely conscientious about his health and has developed quite an interest in plant-based nutrition. There's no doubt in my mind that the dietary modifications he's made, along with yoga and meditation, have had a significant positive impact on the progression of his cystic fibrosis, that the gradual improvement in lung function and decrease in serious pulmonary infections he's experienced cannot be attributed to medication alone. Coming from a 22 year old guy, this might sound like a strange gift request, but it's really just part of his DNA. Nick's fascination with nutrition isn't surprising, given his legacy. It's the same with his brother, Rory, and his enthusiasm for making music. Grapefruits never fall far from the tree.

...or from their Grandpa's.
I gave Nick his juicer  a few weeks early. Since he works at a natural foods store, he now has an innovative way to use up all that expiring produce that would otherwise be tossed into the compost bin. After hearing him rave about the joys of juicing, I decided to give it a try myself. I eat lots of fresh fruit and veggies, and carry my lunch to work in order to avoid eating crap. Unless I have cherries or apples on hand, Spartacus forgets about all the yummy things I have stashed in our crispers, so I have to find creative things to do with wilting greens, limp broccoli and cucumbers, and bruised fruit. There's only so much cobbler and soup stock I can make!


Hmmm...isn't this how this thing's supposed to work?
Several weeks ago, I injured my back from one too many HIIT workouts, and have been very aware of the fact that my jeans are fitting a little tighter than I'd like them to. I'll rest my back by walking for a few days, then I'll get disgusted and go balls out with a Spartacus workout, and boom! I'm back to being practically crippled. It's complete madness. Sure, exercise is a great way to burn calories, especially if you're resistance training and building lean muscle mass, but exercise alone won't compensate for caloric overconsumption. My eating habits haven't really changed since I switched jobs, but my alcohol intake has. When I was taking hospital call, I'd have at least two alcohol free days per week. In-house hospital duty is physically taxing as well, so in general, I was moving around a lot more at my old job. Now, I'm at home every night for cocktail hour. No matter how much you work out or how little you eat, the calories from alcohol are burned preferentially before those from fat, so you're basically negating any metabolic afterburn potential by ingesting booze on a regular basis. This has been on my mind for a while now, and I'm sure that's why I've gained a little weight. So, I figured I'd eliminate alcohol, substitute an array of fresh juices, and see if it makes a difference. It'll be interesting to see what happens.
   
My new wine
My first batch of juice came out kinda "meh." It was blueberry, black plum, and mâche with fresh ginger and a bit of turmeric root. I forgot to strain it, so it was really viscous. According to Spartacus, it would have been better served over ice. The second attempt yielded a groovy concoction called Pumpkin Pie juice. This one contained winter squash, apple, fresh ginger, and carrots. It was smooth and rich and absolutely scrumptious, like the lightest, most sunny pumpkin pie filling you could imagine. Yum! Next, I made a green juice with  green apple, celery, cucumber, lime, kale, and turmeric and ginger root. In case you're wondering about the turmeric, it has anti-inflammatory properties, and I'm thinking it might help with my sore lower back. Anyway, the green juice was delicious and refreshing, especially when chilled. Lastly, I made ruby red HeartBeet juice from beets, beet greens, rainbow chard, cucumbers, kale, celery, apple, lemon, basil, and broccoli. That was my "wine" for the evening, and it too was very satisfying.

   
Waste not, want not...it's all edible!
After juicing, you're left with quite a lot of dry pulp. I figured I'd just put it outside in the community garden, but then I wondered if it would be too acidic and whether or not it needed to be composted first. As far as I know, there's not a compost heap around here. I didn't want to throw the pulp away, so I googled "what to do with leftover juicing pulp." Who knew there were so many things you could do with pulp? It's all edible, so it makes sense to use it in some way. I learned that, besides composting it, you can make bread and crackers with it, add it to soups and pasta sauces, stir it into cream cheese for a sandwich spread, and even make dog treats with it. Since my dogs are allergic to whatever the heck's in storebought dog treats, I decided to whip up a batch especially for them.
   
I think this dehydrator's finally gonna get some use.
I mixed the pulp with sunflower and flax seeds and some nama shoyu, spread it out on two dehydrator trays, scored it into bite-sized pieces, and let it dehydrate for about 16 hours. It smelled (and tasted) really good! This morning, Simon and Lilly were introduced to these homemade canine cookies, although I'm not sure they deserved it after tearing all the stuffing out of their dog bed on Friday afternoon. Welp, I suppose it could be worse; they could be chewing on shoes or furniture. Eight cups of leftover vegetable matter made my dogs and me very happy. They got crunchy wholesome treats and I got the satisfaction of knowing that no part of the produce I juiced went to waste. I even shared some with our neighbors' dog, Mason.

I thought Kevlar was indestructible!
"Chew on these, not your dog bed!"
                 
Yesterday afternoon was a little voyage in discovery, transforming each colanderful of Nature's gorgeous abundance into supercharged nutrients in liquid form, glowing like jewels on the top shelf of my refrigerator. I can't help but think I've made a healthy move here. I was so excited about baking those dog biscuits that I ended up making another trip to the store for flax and sunflower seeds. As I was leaving, Spartacus looked at me and said, "You don't do anything halfway, do you?" He wasn't being critical; it was just an observation. "No," I responded on my way out the door, suddenly reminded of the unbridled enthusiasm for the little things in life that I share with my sons and their grandfather. "I suppose I don't."
Gorgeous jewel-toned juice


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

There Are Millions of Suns Left

   
Two of my lonely books
I'm gonna go ahead and put this out there: I don't enjoy reading. Although I spent the majority of my youth reading anything and everything I could get my hands on (including "The Joy of Sex," which my parents thought they'd hidden in the linen closet), sitting down with anything other than a cook book lost its appeal for me somewhere between pregnancy and medical school. So far, only Hemingway, Lao-tzu, Alan Watts, and Jack Kerouac have re-ignited my interest, and that's been spotty at best. I've tried so damn hard to get through Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," a book which really blew my mind when I started reading it two years ago, but have never been able to finish the last fifth of it. It's sitting patiently on top of my nightstand, bookmarked and collecting dust, along with a copy of "The Complete Poems" of Walt Whitman.

My colleagues are incredulous when they find out that I'm a writer who doesn't read. I suppose that blogs, cook books, fitness magazines, and an occasional anesthesia-related periodical don't really count as self-edification, do they? Yesterday, a friend of mine posed this question on Facebook: "What's the best book you've ever read? Your favorite author?" The answers were pretty diverse, ranging from classics we had to read in high school, such as "Moby Dick" and "The Old Man and the Sea" to  mysteries like "The da Vinci Code" to popular fiction du jour, e.g. "Fifty Shades of Grey." My answer? "Pretty much anything by Dr. Seuss." Not especially dignified-sounding, but it is poetry. Maybe it's true that all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.

   
This qualifies as literature, right?
Funny thing is, I consider myself a pretty well-read person. I can't quote literature or regurgitate famous sayings off the top of my head or engage in witty, incisive historical and political dialogues, mostly because none of that interests me. Being booksmart doesn't make one intelligent. Nor does having an opinion. The most heartless, ignorant people I know are also the most highly educated. They take themselves very, very seriously. They're sure they're right about everything, their main source of ammunition being something someone else once said somewhere. In a book. In other words, they're incapable of formulating their own original ideas. Ideas like that don't come from books; they come from experience. I have my own experiential understanding of things, yet I don't feel constrained by opinions, mine or anyone else's. I agree with Lao-tzu: "The more you know, the less you understand."

   


Lilly & Simon, taking a breather
On most days, I take my dogs on hour long walks. I live inside the city of Atlanta where there are lots of quaint old neighborhoods with narrow, buckling sidewalks. Sharing them with other dog-walkers, runners, bikers, and baby carriage-pushers has proven insightful in understanding the rigid social conditioning that's so ingrained in us humans. For instance, since Simon and Lilly are quite large and I walk with them at my left side, it makes sense for me to keep to my left, too. That way, the dogs are walking on the grassy strip between the sidewalk and curb, freeing up the other half to two-thirds of the sidewalk to my right. What I've observed is that this throws people off. It's sort of like the scene in "Midnight Express" where mental patients are circling a column clockwise, and Billy Hayes, in an attempt to preserve his sanity, starts walking in the opposite direction. His non-conformity greatly disturbs the other patients, and also makes him a Communist. I get an equally reflexive response on the sidewalk. The further left I veer in my attempt to make more room for oncoming pedestrians, the further to my left they go, until we're practically dancing to get around each other.


My son, Rory, was being cross-examined by a leftward-leaning musician acquaintance on Facebook the other night. Apparently, this guy had taken issue with Rory's status update that "all presidents suck." This prompted a lively and somewhat heated discussion between me and said musician about reconciling one's individuality against the confines of the social contract during which I was reminded, "It's not all about you." Yawn. To think there has to be a compromise indicates a lack of regard for anyone but oneself. How so? Well, it's pretty strong evidence of the moral superiority and lack of humility that accompany the hypocrisy of self-sacrifice, the goal of which is to be rewarded. It's the failure to understand that nature isn't cruel, it's selfless, and that the social order is what's cruel and unnatural. Why else would mankind need  its sacrificial lambs? Real selflessness isn't a product of self-denial, it comes from self-acceptance, recognition of one's limitations, and detachment from outcomes.

   
Causality...meh.
As someone who's never been particularly interested in patriotism, politics, money, or imposed morality, I've managed to function in society without buying into it hook, line, and sinker. Sure, I pay my taxes and contribute to charity and whatnot. I've never viewed social responsibility as a big threat to my independence. Selflessness is a no-brainer when you're not at odds with Nature or seeking recognition for doing what comes naturally. I don't view the universe as me against "it." I am with it, of it. It's not a causal relationship. I'm not orphaned by it; I am its expression. Society and its demands don't interfere with my individuality because I'm not subjugated by them. I mean, without individuals, society wouldn't exist, right? If your plane is going down and the oxygen masks pop out, you affix your own first before trying to assist others. That's not being selfish. It's the applied practical understanding of the way the universe works, otherwise known as common sense. 

      

Boris, the epitome of Tao
For me, flying under the radar is about following my own heart and doing what comes naturally, instead of feeling constrained by social mores and norms or being imprisoned by opinion. It's entirely possible to be a free spirit, even in society that isn't really free. And, being free from one's own ideas is where real freedom lies. That's probably why I'm not a big fan of rules, micro-managing, or know-it-alls. I've yet to meet a person who actually likes being told what to do or think. If moderation, compassion, and patience were the rule instead of the exception among people, maybe self-responsibility would obviate the need for self-serving self-sacrifice. Laws, social contracts, and altruism would be obsolete. Subversive-sounding, huh? Looking after others and looking after oneself aren't mutually exclusive in nature, except among humans. The fact that society operates on ghost power doesn't deter me from tapping into nature's spontaneous immaterial wisdom. 




Me (on right), flying under the radar as Mrs. Cowbell (1973)
The conversation ended with his assertion that "none of us can blissfully fly along 'under the radar' unattached for long. It's not in our natures, nor is it in our reality." I suppose there are grains of truth in that. But, that "either/or" reasoning that says we can't be a part of things without losing ourselves is counter-intuitive, unless one views life as a continuum, not a cycle. Detachment isn't isolation or laziness; it's indifference to  the extremes that disrupt simplicity and moderation. The Puritan work ethic is a perfect example of one extreme creating another. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The harder he works, the harder he has to play, burning the candle at both ends. Eventually, something's gonna give. Being consumed by one's work isn't an asset; it's a liability, just another vice. 



Me, my favorite rockers, & my gravity-defying silver disco boots
Our difference in opinion boiled down to his belief that "if you give up your small amount of control over your environment, someone else will take it and do their will" and mine that control, other than that which we have over ourselves, is more or less an illusion. "Nice lecture, bad reality," he responded.  I wasn't aware that reality had a value or that Nature obeyed contrived moral laws. Here I was, thinking that Nature controlled itself like I control me. As far as reality goes, I'll grant that people (including myself) do seem to have their own subjective interpretations of reality, which is what makes discussions about it so interesting, but  to contradict yourself by sanctimoniously invoking the theory of gravity as an illustration of practical reality while in the same breath yammering on about the control you have over your surroundings is  pompous and hypocritical. Gimme a break, man! That's basically what happened next, and as far as I'm concerned, his argument lost any validity it might have had at that point. 

Wooden gymnasts, embracing the mystery (of the chopstick)
I don't think reality and fate are mutually exclusive. They might even be the same thing. That poor Cirque du Soleil performer who fell 50 feet to her death a couple of days ago exemplifies just how little control one really has over one's external environment. Despite a highly developed set of skills and rigorous quality and safety assurances, her safety wire snapped, its tensile strength overcome by the weight of  her and other aerialists whose job it is to entertain us by simultaneously tempting Fate and defying gravity. I have to think that gymnasts possess an exceptional grasp on their physical limitations and the uncertainty of chance,  that embracing the mystery of the unknown, instead of fighting it, keeps them balanced. Otherwise, they'd all be choking on fear. That wouldn't be very good for ticket sales, now would it? 

A few weeks ago, I gave a legal deposition in a malpractice case. (No worries, I'm not being sued). One of the questions put forth to me had to do with whether or not it's possible to erase the "retrospectoscope" of hindsight. To clarify, the retrospectoscope is medicine's equivalent of Monday-morning quarterbacking in which causal relationships are implied through a provocative association of events. "Shoulda, coulda, woulda" is always crystal-clear after the fact. Outcomes that have already happened are easy to predict. The scope of hindsight transforms the ho-hum into heroic, slip-ups into sin, and duty into disillusionment and doubt. It occurred to me that relying on history to interpret and manage the conditions of today could be equally misleading. 

Does history really repeat itself? Or was Mark Twain right when he said, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme....To wit-no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often."? Certainly, past experience provides opportunities for change and growth, but recycled knowledge seems an awful lot like the retrospectoscope. Maybe that's why scholars, philosophers, and historians are so smug. The brain power required to draw conclusions from historical events is approximately zero, yet they've managed to convince everyone that they're brilliant. 

Society's got it all wrong. Relying on intellect, instead of the innate intelligence we're all born with--compassion, self-mastery, and contentment--is precisely why people are so divided. Real intelligence can't be learned or measured. Real intelligence doesn't come from a book: it comes from the heart. Real intelligence is a lot like common sense. It's practical wisdom. This is why I find conversations about social contracts and governance so superfluous and unenlightening; they keep missing the mark, the root of the problem. As silly as it sounds, the world would be a lot better off if we were the persons our dogs think we are. Believe me, I spend a lot of time with my dogs and cat. With the exception of their knack for vomiting on a certain area rug, there are plenty of days where I find their behavior preferable to that of most people. Maybe if we all spent more time reading and writing poetry, the language of the heart, we'd experience a collective return to intelligence.




After ending my rather exhausting Facebook conversation with Rory's friend, I did just that. Weirdly enough, Uncle Walt was calling to me. So, I opened up his dusty book of poetry and randomly selected a page.



Not surprisingly, this resonated with me, especially the part about not feeding on "the spectres in books." The "dumbing down" of America that everyone loves to complain about comes from too much knowledge and too little intelligence. There's little that's new in the way of knowledge. It's like being served up a continuous loop of leftovers. Dogma in, dogma out. Knowledge isn't power, it's pretense. Knowledge only empowers those who don't think for themselves. Freedom from ideology, that's where it's at. The poets all know it. Lao-tzu thought having an empty head and an open heart was the way to roll. In a way, so did Dr. Seuss. I think that's exactly what he meant when he said, "It is better to know how to learn than to know." And, good old Walt was definitely onto something, too. Indeed, there are millions of suns left.