For all my snarkiness about how Janet’s birth destroyed my life, the truth is we are and always have been very close. I’m using photos of Janet and I enjoying each other in this blog to balance the hundreds of photos where I look like if I can’t kill her, I’ll kill myself. (Full disclosure – it’s far easier to find photos of me in abject despair beside a smiling Janet than photos where I’m happy. Just saying.) Janet previews all of my bitter tongue-in-cheek photo captions so she can rein me in if I go too far. I think (hope) she finds this whole sibling rivalry “you ruined my life” business amusing – aside from that unfortunate episode when I “accidentally” shoved her baby carriage down a flight of stairs.
Janet’s emergency run to the hospital to have her appendix removed via surgery (it sounded so exotic at 13) was the most thrilling and life-threatening event our family had faced but Janet was just getting started. She quickly cornered the market on medical crisis. Joyce and I still have our appendixes. Joyce and I never broke our arm like Janet did. (She broke it skate-boarding. Some might say she was ahead of her time. Others might say she was desperate for attention.)
Janet also suffered – and still does – from horrific highly dramatic migraine headaches. Unless you count mild acne or clinical depression – and I don’t because they’re boring head things – I don’t think I had a single health issue during childhood or adolescence.
However, in the last 14 years I made up for lost time with three cornea transplants. Like me, Janet and Joyce inherited Fuchs disease (because it’s a genetic disease, duh) but so far their cases are mild. I’d be stunned if either of them needs a cornea transplant. Of course, at this time last year if you’d told me I’d need two cornea transplants before the year ended, I would’ve called you crazy.
Just to prove I’m not making this cornea transplant thing up, here’s a close-up of my right eye that clearly shows the 16 tiny stitches holding the dead person’s cornea in place.
I’m sure some of you are sick of seeing me share Carson Animal Shelter dogs in desperate need of homes. I try to limit myself to one a day but sometimes a second or third will tug at my heartstrings. Once I’ve shared a dog or cat, I like to cycle them through again until they get adopted, rescued or (noooo!) PTS (put to sleep). I’d love to adopt them all myself but my family is near mutiny (we’re at a mere three former shelter dogs, two cats and a turtle). And, like they say, you can’t hug every cat. Or dog.
Gunnar, the puppy in the entry above, led a long and happy life but not with us – Joyce and John Salter re-adopted him and did a far more successful job of training him than we could. (We think he may’ve been part dingo. That would explain a lot.) We went back to the Glendale animal shelter a few days later and brought home a golden retriever we named Nick Mellow – one of my favorite dogs of all time. They’re all my favorites, in their own way.
In June of last year, one of the Carson posts – about a blind deaf dog abandoned at that high-kill shelter by his owner because he was “too old” – really got to me. So much so that despite opposition from my family, Joyce and I drove down to Carson and adopted him. They wouldn’t let us introduce him to Zelda – to see how they’d get along – before we adopted him. Most likely, I would’ve brought him home even if Zelda despised him which, unfortunately, she does. Eight months later, she’ll still savagely attack Mr. Magoo if I turn my back. Mr. Magoo doesn’t even try to defend himself – he just whimpers.
Magoo’s done a good job mapping the house and yard but occasionally he makes a mistake and slips into the swimming pool. He’s never outside unattended so he’s quickly rescued. Still, between Zelda the Evil Princess and Magoo’s unexpected flops in a frigid pool, our house is not ideal (but a vast improvement over death row at Carson). Both Sam and John urge me to find a safer place for him. The thing is, although he requires more care than a younger less challenged dog – I love the little guy. I love him enough to let him go should a perfect environment arise but too much to actively seek to re-home him.
So, if you’re sick of my dog shares, I’m sorry. Scroll through them fast, like I whizz through topics that don’t interest me. I’ll try not to abuse everyone’s patience. For now, though, I plan to keep sharing and re-sharing at least one a day so these poor animals won’t be forgotten and destroyed. They look so confused and terrified, as if they’re trying figure out what they did wrong. It breaks my heart. If you’re enough of a dog or cat person that you don’t mind looking – and there’s room in your home and your heart – consider letting one of them in. Yes, it requires some work on your part. But it’s worth it.
As the photos suggest (a very well-documented party, thanks to my sister Janet) this was a fun birthday party with two very familiar features – the phone call with my parents, in which they regale me once again with the details of my birth in a snowstorm. I’m ashamed to admit I got impatient with them although I tried not to show it – don’t they understand that I know this story by heart? How many times are we going to tell it? Of course, now that they’re gone, I’d give anything to stroll down those familiar paths of memory again.
And – true confession – I’ve been known to torture my own three children with overly-long sagas about their birth – which I’m sure they’d prefer to live without.
My second obligatory birthday riff – no matter what birthday it happens to be – is how achingly sad I feel to be so old. The melancholy trauma of aging hit me for the first time when I turned ten. I was inconsolable at the realization that from that day forward, my age would never again be a single digit.
Although I should know better by now (live for today, darn it!) I’m always lamenting the loss of something trivial, especially compared to the blessings I’ve enjoyed in this life. If you’re into the enneagram, I’m a classic type 4 personality – obsessed by what’s missing, never satisfied with what I have – until I lose it, anyway.
This entry captures my skewed priorities during my senior year (aka known as my Great Depression). Getting accepted at UCLA was momentous (and kind of crucial, since I neglected to apply to any other institution of higher learning). It was truly life changing.
That said, my obsessive focus was on pinpointing where I stood in my relationship with X – talk about an absurd waste of time! A mollusk could’ve deduced I was nowhere – the same place I’d been for almost two years.
It’s a peculiar kind of hell, pretending to be satisfied being “just friends” with somebody you’re madly in love with. To level the “just friends” playing field, I invented a boyfriend to compete with his living girlfriend. When he tortured me by rhapsodizing about how much he loved her, I could retaliate with my make-believe relationship with the non-existent Pericles. (I gave him a more normal name which is not to imply he was one iota more believable.)
To render an already pitiful situation more pathetic, I repeatedly pulled my fictional punches. Instead of touting my relationship with Pericles as a love affair for the ages, at the slightest hint X might be interested in me again, I kicked poor Pericles to the curb. My brilliant reasoning went, “X secretly wants to come back to me but he’s afraid he’ll be rejected for Pericles! Play it smart. Tell him you dumped Pericles so you’re fully available to him.”
Yeah, that’ll work every time – somewhere other than the planet earth. Suffice to say, my Herculean efforts to recapture X’s heart failed miserably. When I left Santa Clara (as it turned out, for good – and in June, not September) I never expected to see or hear from X again – but at least I had UCLA in my future. And that’s what actually mattered.
This is one of those days with more significance today than when I wrote it; there was so much we didn’t know, couldn’t let ourselves imagine. This breakfast/lunch would be the last time I’d see and speak to my father while he was still mobile and able-bodied. Sam and I were lucky to get there at all. I was sound asleep on a Saturday morning when Sam darted into our room and said she just received a text from Janet – we were invited to breakfast for Daddy’s 89th birthday, starting five minutes ago. We threw on our clothes and raced over – even so, we were last to arrive and CD and Alex missed it entirely.
The word I used to describe it in this diary entry is so bland – pleasant. Foxy’s is a long-standing Glendale coffee shop on Colorado Blvd. It was another sunny day in California. In a large group like ours, it’s hard to indulge in much intimate conversation but – as he always did – my father engaged everybody at the table individually about what was going on in our lives. As usual, he said next to nothing about what was going on in his. He certainly didn’t mention he was in pain.
If anything, he might’ve urged us to spend more time with my mother, who was struggling to adjust to the nursing facility where she landed. (It would be weeks before we could move her to Solheim, the Lutheran nursing home they had selected for that far-off day in the distant future when they might need one.) Right now, all my mother wanted was to return to her life at their condo. None of us knew that life was already over. None of us knew we were already counting down hours and minutes.
If I’d known, what would I have said? The question haunts me because contemplating what I would’ve said if I’d known makes the banality of what I did say painfully obvious. We probably said “I love you” in the casual hello-goodbye way we always said it, not in the heartfelt way I wish I’d said it. Not like I’d say it if I’d known it was the last time. I would’ve told him he was the best father ever and the greatest blessing in my life. I would’ve said, please stay. I need more time to study the kindness in your face, so I can reflect a fragment of what you gave to me and anyone else who was lucky enough to drift into your orbit. I would’ve said, the world is a colder place without you. Nothing will be the same when you’re gone. I hunger for the sound of your voice. I’ll miss you every day for the rest of my life.
Instead I said, happy birthday. Thanks for lunch, what a great idea. Let’s do it again for my birthday and Janet’s, coming up in less than two weeks. We didn’t have two weeks. In retrospect, I see his tumble during the photo shoot as foreshadowing but on that sunny day in February, it seemed like a careless mishap, nothing to worry about. We had years of sunny days to brunch in our future. Next time, the whole family – including my mother, who’d surely soon be ambulatory – would gather. We’d get everything right next time.
Usually, I don’t realize a particular day or night was auspicious – in terms of exerting a major influence on my life – until long after the fact. Not this time. Everything about meeting John for the first time felt intense, heightened, dramatic. At the same time, there was a quality of recognition – like, “There you are. I knew you were coming into my life.”
I have some corroborating evidence for my romantic premonitions. The next day I met my friend Denise Gail Williams for lunch. She said I looked happy, glowing. I told her, straight-faced, “I met the man I’m going to marry last night.”
I can’t explain how I knew this with such certainty and – in the interest of full disclosure – I must add that John did not know any such thing. He was in his first year of law school at USC and marriage was not on his mind (although it would be, a mere six weeks later when we got engaged, and six months later when we got married).
None of our fellow residents at Law House gave us a chance. Someone started a betting pool about how long we’d last. No one predicted forty-one years and counting. And after all these years – he’s still the One.
As desperate as I was to leave Santa Clara behind and start my new life in Los Angeles, I was twice as desperate to get back to Santa Clara once I left. I’d never known such intense, aching yearning – I guess I’d never been away from home long enough to get homesick.
I hadn’t been gone all that long – just under a month – but it no longer felt like the same place I left. It took a while to realize it was me who changed, however slightly. I came running home because I longed to hold onto the part of my life I left behind – my childhood and adolescence – but it was too late, those days were over. Wherever I went from now on, I’d have to live with the person I was becoming.
As years and decades rolled by, the city itself became unrecognizable. How many people remember that before there was a Lawrence Expressway (I don’t know what it’s called now), there was Lawrence Station Road, a two-lane road with a walking path lined by walnut trees?
There’s no shortage of brilliant quotes by great writers about this issue, all more articulate than me. Here’s a small sampling.
My favorite Ibsen plays aren’t the ones that deal with social issues (A Doll’s House, Enemy of the People) but the ones that deal with secrets of the heart, complicated desires most people refuse to admit – even to themselves.
The common elements to Rosmersholm, When We Dead Awaken and The Master Builder are:
An aging artist is artistically blocked and the thrill is long gone from his marriage.
A stranger from the past appears and demands payment for an unkept promise.
The young stranger tantalizes, provokes and ultimately inspires the aging artist to ascend to high, cold isolated peaks.
This perilous climb results in death. Unfortunately, in Ibsen’s world the hero must choose between living death by secure but sterile marriage or actual death by passion, romance and self-actualization.
One might assume Ibsen is the aging unhappily married artist but late in life, speaking of his wife Susannah, he said, “I could not do without her greatness. “ He never left Susannah for any of his young girls. So what was going on in Ibsen’s secret heart?
In an early work, Brand, which also ends high in the mountains with the hero’s death via avalanche, Ibsen refers to the “Ice Church”, a human soul in which love has died. All that’s left for the couple is to “try to fill that emptiness with something. Something resembling love.” (Little Eyolf)
In an interview about The Master Builder, Ibsen said “Solness and his wife are worthy people who aren’t happy in their life together. They don’t become what they could and should have become. They aren’t actually miserable. Although they share consideration and a kind of tenderness and love, they cramp each other. They brood perpetually because each goes his own way mentally and doesn’t share with the other. Contrast Hilde and Solness. They are not extraordinary persons but they feel spiritually akin, strongly attracted to each other. They feel they belong together and life together would be immeasurably richer. They would be better people and their relationship would give their lives greater meaning. Then the collision comes – when Solness still has a zest for life, a need for happiness, and feels unable to live in subdued resignation. And so they decide to build a castle in the air and live together in spirit.
This lifts him higher than before, able to do things he had not been able to do for a long time. He stakes his life on his passion and is killed.”
How many married people relate to this passage, even if they’re unwilling to admit it or act on it? Is this why these plays made people of Ibsen’s era so uncomfortable?
Ibsen also said, “It is wrong to think of unhappy love as two people who love each other but don’t wind up together. No, unhappy love is when two people who love each other get married and feel they…cannot live happily together.” I think Ibsen meant, they can’t keep their passion and romance alive – but who can? Passionate romantic love requires an element of risk, uncertainty, mystery and a leap of faith – the opposite of a long term marriage.
That’s not to say I don’t believe in marriage. I do; I’ve been married forty years (to the same man.) However, it’s not always easy. My novel, REPRISE, struggles with these themes in more depth and I’ll write more on this topic in future blogs.
Since my family and I are touring Scandinavia, it’s a perfect time to revisit my relationship with Henrik Ibsen.
Growing up in California the smart second language was Spanish, but in high school I opted for Latin. When I reached UCLA I registered for German but in less than an hour I realized what most people probably already knew – Germans don’t employ the same sentence structure as English.
Luckily, UCLA offered a plethora of languages, one of which was Swedish. As a second language its usefulness is debatable since most Swedes speak English, but it utilizes the exact same sentence structure as English. Sign me up!
Today, the only Swedish I remember is “Ja kan tala da svenska mycket bra.” Unfortunately, this translates to “I can speak Swedish very well” and since I kannot tala da svenska mycket bra, I dare not utter it to anybody who actually speaks Swedish.
Since a year of Swedish familiarized me with the Scandinavian languages building, I figured why not take Scandinavian Literature? The first book we read was “The Axe.” (That’s all I remember, but I’m willing to bet no one lived happily ever after.) Next we read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (logline – Norwegian writer starves himself to death for art) and then Barabbas
(not the feel-good movie version. In the Lagerkvist book, Barabbas escapes death on the cross, thinks about things but reaches no conclusions, and dies on another cross.) If you’re hooked on nihilistic hopelessness and can’t get enough tragic suicides or avalanches, Scandinavian lit is for you.
This brings me to Henrik Ibsen. What better way to follow up my immersion in Scandinavian lit than a ten-week four-unit course all about Ibsen, all the time? I might not know much about Strindberg but by God, I can pontificate about Ibsen as long as you can stay conscious. How important is Ibsen? He’s behind Shakespeare but ahead of Chekhov when it comes to fathering modern theater.
Here are some things you might not know about Ibsen. He left Norway before he found fame as a playwright and lived most of his adult life in Italy and Germany. He had a yen for young girls (but not Polanski thirteen-year olds; Ibsen’s crushes were old enough to legally consent, although it wasn’t necessary as nothing physical was involved.) Oddly enough, although I find the old man/ young girl thing a little repugnant, my favorite Ibsen plays are his later ones dealing – not obliquely – with old geniuses and young girls. Ibsen might be famous for A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Hedda Gable, Peer Gynt and Enemy of the People but I’ll take Rosmersholm, Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken all day long.
Part two of Ibsen and I to follow tomorrow.
But, before I leave you, today, here is a collage of some of our experiences on our cruise from Stockholm to Copenhagen.
Two weeks later, although I have visited many wondrous places and have seen some incredible things, it is time to stop climbing the endless castle stairs.
Judging by the October 1955 photo above, even at four I wasn’t a “thank god I’m a country girl” type. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what my life would be like if I’d grown up in Missouri instead of Silicon Valley.
Most of my cousins – almost all of my extended family – lived in the Midwest in 1968. Every other year, our family loaded up the station wagon and drove to Estherville and Graettinger in the northeastern corner of Iowa. There are aspects of Iowa that are buried deep in my subconscious, images that are inscribed on my brain – brick or white houses, humidity and mosquitoes, dinners with fresh buttered sweet corn and strange puffy homemade bread. The smell of coffee wafted through the day – coffee and musty old books. The basements, which all contained a washer, dryer and toilet were damp and a little bit scary even though that’s where we always played. It was cooler down there even though sometimes it was still so hot all we could do was breathe and sweat. I hate to sweat.
My grandfather, commonly referred to as R.S. by all grandchildren, was a real go-getter, a non-stop talker. Even after retirement, he didn’t quit; he took volunteer work in a funeral parlor, probably to remind himself on a daily basis of how much more vital he was than the average man. In a box in his basement, he stored the obituaries of all his friends. The basement also held a pool table and assorted recreation equipment but my cousins and I enjoyed the obits most. I suppose our fear of death – and its imminence for all the aged people of Estherville – made it an object of high hilarity.