The Other I

October 11, 2007

Hope: Of the fabulous and crummy

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:59 pm
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At his birthday roast last week, my brother Bob read us a quote from William Sloane Coffin. 

“There are many people who go around and see nothing but beauty and are remarkably insensitive to the immediate needs surrounding them.  There are others who get so obsessed with the humiliated that they forget the sun rose today.  To keep life in some kind of balance, you’ve got to see the beauty and you’ve got to see the oppressed, and you’ve got to keep the tension alive between them.  

“What a fabulous world this is:  and what an unbelievably crummy world this is.  When life has that kind of tension in it, it will sing like a violin string.”

William Sloane Coffin, (1925-2006), Christian chaplain at Yale University, and internationally-renowned peace activist.

Right now, I’m seeing more of the crummy than the fabulous, which I suspect could turn me into quite an complaining hopeless curmudgeon.  I think I’d rather be a violin-string.  I’m going on a hunt for the fabulous. 

September 13, 2007

The McCanns: A tragedy whatever happened

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:53 pm

Last May a four-year-old English girl disappeared from the bedroom where she was sleeping with her younger brother and sister in Portugal.  Her parents were having dinner about 100 yards from the apartment, and when they went back to check the children, Madeleine was gone.  Despite world-wide publicity, an audience with the Pope, and several reported “sightings,” Madeleine has not been found.

Her parents, two medical doctors, returned with their two children to England last week, but the Portugal police think that Madeleine’s mother accidentally killed her, and that the parents somehow hid the body, and five weeks later transported it in their rental car to a new hiding spot.  There is gripping DNA evidence to support this hypothesis, and the police offered Kate McCann (the mother) a reduced sentence if she confessed.  After sixteen hours of interrogation in which she denied responsibility, they released her.

The problem is that the DNA evidence was gathered under dubious circumstances, most of it collected months after Madeleine’s disappearance and not gathered according to the standards which a court of law in England would require.

It’s almost impossible to find a happy version of this story.  At best, two parents have lost a greatly-loved child, and are now being accused of having killed her.  Or possibly two parents did kill her with an overdose of medicine she should not have been given, and they are trying to cover it up.  Perhaps they will get away with it.  Perhaps, guilty or innocent, they will be convicted of manslaughter and concealing a body, and imprisoned for years in Portugal.  Their two year old twins will be stripped of their entire family – mother, father, sister.  Rightly or wrongly, two medical careers will be destroyed and a mother and father faced with the anguish of loss I find unimaginable. 

To me, each of the versions is possible.  Kate McCann’s family are adamant that she could not do such a thing.  But I know that people think I am a good, kind, loving person with principles, and I also know that I have seriously thought about killing someone.  If I had, and then come to regret it, I’m not at all sure I would have had the courage to admit it.  There have been times in my life when I have not admitted my responsibility even over small things.  I did break that plate but didn’t say so.  Yes, I dented the car fender.  No, I didn’t tell the clerk that she’d just given me too much change.  Or admit that I’d said something disparaging about a friend.  How would I respond if, accidentally or not, I’d done something much much worse?

The investigation continues but the Portuguese police have not accepted any outside help, even from the internationally acclaimed Scotland Yard’s Child Abduction team. 

I guess to say it’s worrisome is the understatement of the decade.

August 30, 2007

Life is not exactly what one plans

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:05 pm

I think it was Phyllis Chessler who said “life is what happens while you’re making plans to do something else.” 

Today was like that.  Not bad.  It just didn’t include much besides breakfast that I’d actually planned for the day.  Tomorrow I hope to describe the day I entered the convent.  If I don’t, you’ll know it was another unplanned day.

August 23, 2007

The unique gift of the depressed

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:52 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my attraction to people who are depressed – among the short list of people whom I have loved the best, I think there is only one who doesn’t suffer from at least mild depression.  When I look at the list of men to whom I am attracted, they are invariably subject to some kind of depression.   I have to ask myself why.  The way one asks about women who repeatedly choose abusive men. 

Along with the obvious Freudian analysis that my father was a depressive,  I’m finding my motives are complex.  Part of it is being what my sister Dorothy calls “an emotional athlete.”  My version of it goes something like this:  “I can love you the way you need to be loved;  my needs can be put to one side;  I am strong enough to love you.”   Of course, if you are offering to love a depressive, you can’t ever take away his despair, that sense of failure, that insatiable longing to be loved, because it isn’t something that can be filled by someone else.  From his point of view, that someone else will never measure up or won’t really understand him.  Or if you do manage one of these two feats, he will be convinced that he’s not good enough for you.  So if a relationship is going to survive, someone like me has to learn not to need to be needed, has to learn that however important my love might be, it is never going to be a kind of non-medical cure for the emptiness and lonliness of the depressed.  In my case, in important relationships I have found a great deal to love and something between us besides my illusion that I’m important because I’m needed to fill an unrealistic need.  But it has been a steep learning curve and there are times when I still have to learn it all over again.

That part of it I have understood for a long time – and so has Peter, which is part of why I think we are happy that we are still together after 35 years.  But now I’m beginning to get an inkling that there’s more to it from my side of the equation.  Almost every depressive I’ve ever known is on the one hand filled with longing, and at the same time convinced that no one can possibly meet his/her need.  So it makes me feel very special if a depressed – especially an intelligent depressed – man shows some special affection for me.  I am amazed to recognize just how charged my own responses are when I resonate with someone like this.

I have always thought that women who are attracted to men who turn out to be abusive made the mistake of confusing violence with strength.  This may often be so.  But I wonder now if some women also stay with abusive men because they sense a need in the man which he has turned to her to meet.  I would stay with an abusive man for about ten seconds longer than it took me to recognize the abuse.  But the allure of being chosen to meet the needs of an intelligent and depressed man might be a similar dynamic in myself.

There is a third thing about depressed men.  Or at least the depressed men who have been important in my life.  They might sometimes be moody, they might be unreasonably demanding, but in my experience they are not clingy.  They often want to be left alone.  And so do I.  I need hours in the day to be by myself, or I eventually unravel into a kind of disorganized sarcastic bitch.   

By some paradoxical convolution, I think I have gained as much as I have given in my relationship with depressed people whom I love.  This probably sounds strange, but it makes me feel rather fortunate.

August 16, 2007

The workaholic urge resurfaces

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

I am a serious workaholic.  I mean workaholic in the true sense of the word.  When I become absorbed in a project, especially when it’s one that involves using my mind, my urge is to work on it for ten or twelve hours a day for weeks at a time. 

For better or worse, and probably for more better than worse, Peter simply won’t tolerate it.  So I’ve learned to pull myself away from my desk, but for the thirty-five years I have been living with him, my desire to keep working nonstop has not diminished an iota .  I pause out of a commitment to our relationship.  I do know too that not getting proper food and enough exercise could kill me.  I think it helped cut Mary’s life short.  Like me, she was capable of dogged discipline and she regularly worked late into the night for day after week after month after year.

For the last three days, though, I’ve given in to my obsession.  Getting all the figures organized for my UK tax adviser is a huge job, the details of which only a fool such as I could find interesting.  It’s been raining every day, so I’ve used that as my excuse for sitting at my computer all day with only those pauses required to maintain civility in the household.  Peter really doesn’t like it, even though there isn’t anything I’m keeping us from doing. 

I know it sounds weird, but I’m loving it.  There are few things in my life I enjoy as much as work.  Seriously hard, driven work.

I will admit, however, that my delight would be completely undone if the tax adviser sends it back as all wrong, inscrutable, or missing the point altogether.  Worse yet, if she says I owe hunreds of pounds in back taxes.

August 15, 2007

Sunshine as a cancer defense

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:36 pm

My family for several generations has been riddled with cancer.  My mother and sister Mary both died in their forties, felled by cancer, and another sister, Bernadette, is in remission from breast cancer.  Which is why, I guess, we tend to notice the ongoing research on the causes and cures related to cancer.

So it was with great delight that I read a research blurb yesterday on the effectiveness of sunshine in reducing the incidence of various cancers, especially breast cancer.

Sunshine, of course, smiles on our skin and produces vitamin D, which is what the researchers think is the magic elixir that is producing this marvellous protection.  It also offers some defense against osteoporosis and quite possibly some of the other baddies of modern living.  It is possible, of course, to get too much exposure to sun, which will increase the chances of skin cancer which can be as deadly as any other. 

But getting too little sun can be as dangerous as too much.  Or, I suppose, one can take vitamin D supplements.  But that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

August 9, 2007

The arcane subleties of English tax law

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 4:25 pm

Several months ago I was told I may have misunderstood the rules that dictate what income tax I should pay here in England on my American income.  There are few agencies in the world for whom I have greater respect, albeit based almost exclusively on sheer fear, than tax collecting authorities, and I do not deliberately try to cheat.  Use the legitimate tax loopholes available, yes.  Tell out and out lies, no.

So I have been assiduously trying to find out what the rules are that I should have been following.  After three conversations with a representative of Her Majesty’s Custom and Revenue service (the counterpart to the IRS in the US), and about 25 emails with a tax adviser who charges about $350 an hour, I am still uninformed.  And it’s not that I don’t have a head for taxes.  I’ve filed my own returns in the U.S. for 40 years and they weren’t the simple version either.  But I keep being told something different.  And that makes me very nervous;  it is not apt to be a robust defense if I were ever to be audited.

In Spain we used to look with amazement at the Spanish approach to inconvenient rules.  If they didn’t think they made sense, they simply made their own independently-arrived at adjustment.  Builders, for instance, calculated before they laid a single brick whether it would be cheaper to get the necessary building permissions before starting, or pay the fine for not doing so when they were finished.  When I pointed out to a neighbour that it was against the law for him to build up to our property line, he smiled and said “El ayunamiento es loco” – “the townhall is crazy” – and that ended the discussion.  His garage formed part of our property line.

When the Nat West bankers were recently extradicted to America for violating American law even though they had never left Britain, there was a great deal of sympathy over here, and a lot of writing about how the British regulations are based on principles, while American law legislates specific behavior. 

When it comes to paying whatever UK tax I owe, I feel like one of those Nat West bankers in reverse.  Even as I sit here, I await an email from my adviser clarifying those subtle distinctions on which my ultimate tax bill, and possible penalty, rests. 

She has already warned me that the process is unlikely to be simple.  On that we are in total agreement.

August 8, 2007

Directions for the correct use of shopping trolleys

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:54 pm

I was returning the trolley – what is known to Americans as a shopping cart – to the stand at our local DIY store today when I noticed a sign reading:  “Directions for use are printed on the handles of all trolleys.  For further help, please ask at the customer service desk.”

Have you ever felt the need for directions in how to use a shopping trolley?  I have seen children quite as young as three manage it without any previous training whatsoever, though they may benefit from the suggestion to grow a little taller.

If it were in America I would say posting the directions probably had something to do with avoiding legal liability for dangerous activities like wheeling one’s pet monkey around in the trolley, or perhaps trying to use it on an escalator or standing in it to reach merchandise on the upper shelves.  But England doesn’t tend to be that litigious yet.

The next time we are there, I will read the directions for trolley use.  I may learn I have not been driving the trolley correctly for my entire life.

August 1, 2007

Thoughts on planning a murder

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 10:10 pm

In a post several days ago I remarked on the bullying attitude of the male hierarchy that runs the Roman Catholic Church.  One might think therefore that I’m a committed and ardent feminist.  Committed and ardent, but not without ambivalence. 

A friend remarked to me today that we might be on the cusp of the re-emergence and even dominance of feminine perspectives.  Perhaps, but let us not assume that feminine perspectives are necessarily more understanding and tolerant, more sympathetic and peace-loving then male perspectives.  Our strategies are often different because of our different strengths and weaknesses relative to men and our different positions in society.  My personal experience is that we are capable of just as much vicious hatred and aggression as men.  It just often takes a different form.

One of my most terrifying moments of self-knowledge came when I realized that, in cold blood, I had seriously planned in great detail how to murder someone.  And I don’t just mean theoretically.  I figured out how to commit a real murder and how not to get caught.  Had I done it, it would have been a devious betrayal of someone who would have believed that I could be trusted with his life.  Someone who had volunteered to care for him during his last months.   And I could very well have stood by his bedside saying soothing words – a kind of terrible Florence Nightingale in disguise.  My proposed method was typical of my feminine way of operating.  I would not stop appearing to be kind and caring.  I would just slip small amounts of aspirin into his food that in his case would slowly kill him.  I even mixed some into applesauce one day and tasted it to see if it could be detected.

I didn’t do it in the end because I thought under the circumstances I had no conceivable right to take this man’s life.  I was not being forced, I wasn’t being pressured by my husband or father or friend, and there were other ways out of the dilemma in which I found myself besides murder.  But even now I sometimes shudder when I remember what part of me is capable of.   I who, on one hand, am incandescent when I read of honour killings also contemplated killing someone whom I found inconvenient.  So I’m not so sure that should a feminine perspective replace male dominance that truth and love and goodness would always be the victor.  I’m not sure we would put an end to wars.  We might just fight with different methods. 

We women have a dark side too.  Just as dark as men.  A lot of times I think we’re just sneakier. 

July 31, 2007

Yoga revisited for old bones

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:28 pm

Some months ago I returned to a yoga routine I first began in my thirties to see if it would help ease the encroaching stiffness of my joints.  Well, something is working.  I am more flexible than I have been in some years.  I’ve been using a Try-Everything-At-Once strategy, so I’m not quite sure it’s all down to yoga, but I am certain that it is part of the solution.

If you are interested, here’s the strategy I’ve been implementing – fairly conscientiously, but not without, I must admit, some unauthorized days off:

I take an aspirin every morning after breakfast.  They say it’s good for your heart in any case, and I thought it might also help ward off pain.

I turn on some music and do 20-30 minutes of mixed exercising about five days a week.  This includes holding my yoga positions for a full minute each (I use a timer), followed by a resistance exercise such as lifting weights for another minute, and three minutes of aerobic activity like skipping or stair stepping.  I find between the music and alternating the kind of exercises I’m doing I am able to keep the Sheer Boredom Factor under control.  The result is often rewarded with an endorphin high, but it never starts out that way.

I take 1500 mg glucosamine with chondroitin, and 1000 mg omega 3 supplements every day.

And alas, I stay away from wine, to which I seem to have an allergy.  Inevitably, just a glass at night produces a sore hip in the morning.  This seems to be my only allergy, so it could be worse.  Much worse.  I could be allergic to chocolate.

July 30, 2007

How to tell the deceitful truth

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:45 pm

The truth told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent.

William Blake

I’ve never heard this quote from the poet William Blake before, but somehow it catches  the complexity of things that appeals. 

Yes!  I want to keep reminding myself:  what seems obvious might actually be its exact opposite.     

July 27, 2007

Special status event

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:27 pm

We have not been flooded, so it would have been egocentrically churlish to complain about the mere dreary grey miserable rain that has drizzled so relentlessly for the last eight weeks here in Cambridgeshire.  But today is dry and sunny and can even pass for a respectable summer day. 

I am awarding it a Special Status Event Day.  The forecasters say we might have another one tomorrow.   

I’d go outside and hug the sun if I could.  I understand why so many peoples have given it god status.

July 19, 2007

Different than yesterday

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:59 pm

I visited Audrey, the neighbor I talked about yesterday.  Her husband was mowing the lawn, so the two of us sat together and talked.  I think she is about 80, and absolutely lovely.  She’s badly limited now with arthritis, but I found her gathering spinach from her garden, and came home with a superb head of fresh lettuce.  I am looking forward to knowing her better.  I think I can learn something from her.

She and Bob have four children, and as many more grandchildren throughout Britain with whom they visit often.  She said for years she helped run the meals-on-wheels to the infirm, and often drove the ill to the clinic or hospital.  I know from their reputation in the village both she and her husband have been super-givers.  But now she herself is the one in need of help.  She looked at me and said quietly “I miss helping people.”

I knew exactly what she meant.  Sometimes I feel too as if I can’t bear not being able to help anybody, to give anything to anybody.  All I think I have ever had to give is to teach people to think, and so have confidence in themselves, to be free to choose to live their own lives for themselves.  And I don’t have that anymore.  I’m happy, but at the same time sometimes I weep for my lost students as if they had been my children.  I think Audrey might say something similar.

But I know that somehow this is the way life is supposed to be.  We are supposed to let go, and now we have something new to do, to learn.  I was thinking today as I listened to Beethoven that the very passage of time demands we let go of what we love – our childhood, our children, our friends, our work, perhaps our partners, our good times.  I can be grateful for the past, and use its loss as a springboard for living today.  Or I can pine for the past, regretting I no longer have what I had before.  But it won’t bring it back, and will keep me from the living I can do today. 

Whatever my task is –  – or the task of anyone who can no longer give the things we gave to others before – it’s not to live trying to get the past back.  There’s something brand new and fantastic to learn and to do today.  And it’s not something I’ve already learned and already done.

July 18, 2007

My approach-avoidance of people

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:14 pm

Meeting new people for me is inevitably an excruciating process.  I dread having to go to parties of people I don’t know well, and often lay awake in anguish for nights after having been to one.  Standing up in a lecture hall or conducting a seminar or making a tv presentation hold few terrors for me, because I know my role and usually feel pretty competent.  But small talk is a form of slow torture.  I know I give the impression that I’m very confident.  But inside I am often writhing with discomfort.

The irony is that I really find people interesting, and would quickly go quite mad in social isolation.  I need people to be happy.  In fact, of all the things I most enjoy and find interesting, even exhilarating, people come first.  I enjoy watching them, young and old, in the supermarket and on the street.  I enjoy helping them if I can, and love to share a cup of tea or coffee with friends.  Not only that, but I think that, more often than not, people like me and are positively glad to see me.

But it still takes a kind of inner fortitude for me to impose my presence on others.  I would much rather that the neighbours knocked on our door than my knocking on theirs.  But sometimes it is necessary out of sheer courtesy to do the knocking and risk being an annoyance.

Which is why I am now determined to delay no longer and to go next door to say hellp to our new neighbours as soon as I’ve posted this.  I did go over once before and they were not home, but today both cars are in the drive.  I have the suspicion I will enjoy them, but I have to walk first through my self-generated fire to get there.

July 16, 2007

Grapefruit and breast cancer

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:01 pm

A major research report has just been published in the U.S. in a study of over 50,000 post-menopausal women.  It found that women who eat three or more grapefruit a week are three times more likely to develop breast cancer than those who don’t eat grapefruit at all.  They think grapefruit might raise estrogen levels which is associated with higher rates of breast cancer.

My mother died at a very young age of cancer, one of my younger sisters died of breast cancer twelve years ago (it feels closer to twelve months), and another sister is in remission from the disease.  So I tend to notice reports like this.   Not sure how I manged to reach my current age without greater mishap though.

I guess I’ll switch back to apples.  But I’m still going to enjoy all three grapefruit I bought in the market yesterday.

July 15, 2007

Is lost love lost?

I have recently read a letter in the paper from a woman who is in what has become a sex-starved and barren marriage.  Then some years ago, she had an affair that awakened in her a passion she didn’t know she was capable of.  They split up because the man wanted to father his own children, not just the two children she already has with her present husband, and he has since married and started a family.  She is living now with a sense of despair and loss that she has been unable to overcome.  More than anything, she dreads the time when the children are grown, and she is left only with a marriage from which she draws no joy or strength.

I’ve been thinking all week what I would do if I were in a similar situation.  I don’t know.  Even if she had the option of leaving her husband for this other man – which she doesn’t – there are the children who adore their father.  Leaving an abusive father for the sake of one’s children is one thing.  Leaving a loving father because one has found someone else is altogether a different thing, isn’t it?

I don’t know how to express this without sounding religious and it is not religion that guides my thinking about this.  But I am beginning to see that loss and pain are not only inescapable in life.  They are absolutely necessary.  They are like the black hole at the centre of every galaxy.  They feel like the end of the world, and yet they may be as critical to our fulfillment as black holes are.

 I remember my tears when as a child my balloon broke and my father said that, all-powerful that he was, he could not fix it.   I was no doubt a small step toward maturity.  Other losses are less trivial.

I have struggled in my life even today to take strength from the anguish of a loss that feels inconsolable, an enduring pain that sometimes bleeds as if it happened in this very hour.  I have looked at those who have been able to draw strength from their pain – not in spite of it but from it – to see how they do it.  They are great spirits who I am sure did not seek greatness and would trade it back for what they have lost – a child, a partner, a friend, a parent.  Or a lost opportunity, a missed relationship, the loss of some physical capacity like seeing or walking or hearing.

It feels like an act of faith to believe that suffering like this has value.  I don’t believe there is value in simply passively accepting suffering.  When a loss is irreversible, and there seems no way out of them, some people are destroyed by it, but others somehow create something new out of these black holes of anguish. 

It takes a truly great person to grow from such destructive pain.  Or perhaps it makes a truly great person to grow from such pain.

July 2, 2007

It’s a gutzy country is Britain

I had originally planned to begin a short series of posts about my Catholic childhood on the farm in Ohio today.  But that will have to wait.  Right now I want to write about what it’s been like as an American living here in Britain these last few days. 

People’s responses to the failed terrorist attacks in London and the Glasgow airport are that they aren’t going to be cowed.  They just aren’t going to break.  They know what is happening, but simply are not going to stop living.  And they certainly have no intention of giving up what they consider the British way of life.  I guess it goes at least as far back as the second world war when the constant bombings killed hundreds of thousands of people, and destroyed whole cities.  Then there were the bombings by the IRA that went on for decades and had all the characteristics of today’s terrorist attacks.

During the attempt to ram a Jeep loaded with explosives into the airport, a young man who was a returning passenger saw the driver on fire in the Jeep struggling with security men.  “Hell, no,” he said- or words to that effct- , “we don’t do that kind of thing around here.”  He went over and punched the flaming man to the ground, from which position the security men were able to take control. 

“Hell, no, we don’t do that kind of thing around here” seems to me to just about sum up the attitude of the majority of people.  Yes, there’s debate and disagreement about legislation, and resources, and security measures.  Yes, I get exasperated with the spin and the excuses and the complaining sometimes.  And yes, Britain has changed a great deal since the end of World War II.  Yes, Britons girate between thinking they are abject failures and the best thing that’s happened to the human race since sliced bread.  But young and old, they are a gutsy determined people who know what they stand for.  When push comes to shove, you aren’t going to shove very far. 

I think it has been raining almost non-stop for about three weeks, and weathermen – well, my husband – say it might not stop until the wind patterns change at the end of the summer.  That’s depressing.  But this is still a fantastic place to live.

June 24, 2007

Something adolescence and old age have in common

I was about eight years old when one day on the drive to school my father said it was worth remembering that Aristotle had written that happiness wasn’t something you could get at directly.  Rather it was something that happened when you were concentrating on achieving something else.  Exposed to this kind of casual conversation from a young age, you can see how I became such a serious person.   Along with a potent mix of intellectual Catholicism, this kind of thinking has formed the foundation of most of my values and big choices in life.  I haven’t been a believer for many years, but the old habits die hard.

It is now, though, getting in the way.  Instead of getting on with life, I remain tempted to spend hours worrying about questions like whether a sense of meaningless and lonliness are an inevitable part of growing old.  I went to bed last night and woke up this morning composing my little philosophical treatise on it. 

But before I actually got started, I sat down with my husband to read the Sunday papers.  Having concentrated on the Great Issues currently facing the world, I came away quite refreshed and energized.  Quite obviously, the elusive answers to the meaning of life, like happiness, disappear if I start looking for it.  So I will spare you – and more importantly myself – the treatise.

I said earlier that for me getting old is a lot like adolescence.  It’s a fantastic time to learn so much.  It’s a whole new perspective.   

June 22, 2007

Taxes: SuDoku is more fun

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 8:10 pm

The idea of taxes seems to have been thought up about 6,000 years ago by the Sumerians who lived in what was called Mesopotamia and is now called Iraq.  They thought up a lot of things, like a coherent musical scale, writing, and even mortgages for which I am grateful.  But I do wish the idea of taxation had died out with stone tools.  Unfortunately, it is alive and well, and with computerization, seems to have taken on a global vibrancy of its own.

I have compiled my own tax return for the last 40 years.  I try very hard not to pay more than I absolutely have to, but I don’t try to cheat.  That is not a result of virtue so much as sheer terror.  I do not have the psychic fortitude to sit in front of a tax official and knowingly try to lie my way through.

I’m an American who lives in England, and so must file returns each year in both countries.  I have just discovered, to my horror, that for possibly the last five years I have been misinterpreting UK tax law.  I’ve spent hours today going through my accounts.  If I do owe any taxes in the end, the result will not be devastating, but even a few hundred pounds will be painful.  Not to say embarrassing.

I’m trying to put a brave face on it and telling myself that this kind of thing is good exercise for my brain.  I’m thinking though that I’d rather play Su Doku.

June 18, 2007

Enjoyment might be deadly serious

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 11:43 am

For me, being retired feels an awful lot like the time when I was entering adulthood.  It’s got the same intense highs and lows, the same questions about what to do with my life – or in my present case, the rest of my life.  I’m certain that enjoying it is a more profound answer than it sounds at first, but being the kind of person I am, I seem inevitably to be pursuing it with deadly seriousness.  Though I hope not too deadly.

I remember telling my university students that one of the best ways of identifying their talents as they were making career choices was to ask themselves what they enjoyed doing.  Because what we enjoy is one of the best signposts of our gifts and of what we are good at.  So I decided to apply the advice to myself.  What do I enjoy doing most?

Writing, working, thinking, music.  Oh god, what a serious list, even without teaching, which is no longer an option.  I still get the most incredible highs from working, and from listening to music.  And from people, but that isn’t automatic.  Having to make small talk makes me extremely anxious, and going to parties in which I have to meet new people is inevitably a tortuous experience that can last for days afterwards.  I really only enjoy serious conversations about things either I or the other person or both of us know about.  This combination of ability and disability makes retirement its unique challenge for me.  I also enjoy cities.  Right now I get immense energy from tramping the streets of London and Cambridge, and come back after an hour or two invigorated. 

Music, writing, cities, serious discussions.  That’s a pretty good list to get started with.  Besides this blog and the blog to accompany my book The Big Bang to Now, I’m not writing anything besides email.  I think it’s time to start another book.  I’m vascillating between two very different possibilities.  One is a series of autobiographical sketches, the other another book like The Big Bang to Now about the major civilizations that have developed in the last 15,000 years.  I could do both.  Post autobiographical sketches here, and start a civilizations as a serious project.

Okay, so I enjoy serious projects.  It’s a better alternative than hating the serious projects we can’t avoid, don’t you think?

June 17, 2007

Churchill and the ladybug

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 2:05 pm

I disturbed a toad in our garden yesterday when I was spreading mulch.  Toads are welcome residents since their dietary intake includes undesirable little things that munch on our vegetables before we get to them.  So I apologized to the toad and hope I moved away fast enough not to discourage its continued residence with us.

Today I found a ladybug studiously making its way across the floor of the conservatory.  Ladybugs also bring good fortune to the garden, though I don’t know why.  In any case, I lifted it outside to a place where I also hope it will thrive.

There is a story that Winston Churchill once found a ladybug on his desk when he was Prime Minister.  He had to leave for a high-powered meeting, and told an aide not to harm it, but to make sure it was transferred to a place of greater safety.  According to legend, the aide later came into the meeting and whispered loudly to Churchill:  “Don’t worry, sir.  She got out the window.”

June 16, 2007

The gift of now

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 1:48 pm

This morning our neighbour asked me about his son, KS, whom he loves dearly but often does not understand.  He thinks I might have some helpful insights because K has an artistic temperament.  

K had just sent him illustrations of the work of the artist Andy Goldsworthy.  I was first introduced to Goldsworthy’s work by my sister Dorothy, and initially I had little patience with it.   Most of his creations are  embedded in nature outdoors and not built to last.  They may be as ephemeral as leaves or snow or patterns in the sand that will be washed over by the next tide.  

Now I appreciate him much more.  What I think Goldsworthy is about is the transience of everything – of beauty, of our existence, of our relationships and ideas, of whatever we do or build.  What his work says is that life and what we experience is of value nonetheless.  For me, it is ultimately a statement of defiance of the finality of death, a refusal to accept that because it all comes to an end, life is meaningless, and despair the only rational response.  No, says Goldsworthy.  Celebrate life!  Celebrate what is now!  It is what is given to us.  No one ever has anything more.

It is perhaps what Snead was saying when he said of my new vision after cataract surgery:  “Enjoy it.”

June 13, 2007

Cataract conclusion: a gift to grow old with

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:11 pm

The stitch put in during my last cataract surgery was removed today.   It is astonishing that a process as delicate as removing a stitch from my eye was so simple and completely painless.  But the truly astonishing part is my vision.  Snead told me earlier that my surgery hadn’t been “exactly routine.”   I don’t think the results are either.   I’ve never been able to see with this clarity in my living memory.  I thanked Snead again and told him about the comment earlier on this blog describing him as “brilliant, amazing, and considerate.”  I know he was pleased, but in his typical fashion said he learned his skill from the surgeon with whom he’d studied.  I will miss seeing him occasionally.  His gifts as a surgeon as well as his extraordinary sensitivity in understanding the needs of his patients and staff are particularly unusual because these two quite different abilities don’t often come together in the same person.  Both have given me a great gift to grow old with.

Afterwards, Peter and I walked around Cambridge with a special buzz today.  Students are graduating, explaining the streets and buildings and customs to visiting parents, or inexpertly punting on the river, bumping into the banks, each other and other punts.  We stopped by the Fitzwilliam museum to see an exhibit and I luxuriated again in seeing without the pre-surgery blur that turned everything into a version of Impressionism.   Then we went out to lunch in a restaurant beside the river, and celebrated the conclusion of the Life Crisis I managed to make of my whole cataract episode.  I feel on top of the world.

Of all the surgeries to repair the wear and tear of age, I know that cataract surgery has got to be the light weight in the field and I’ve made a whole meal out of a cracker when it comes to angst over mine.  I even managed, a couple of weeks ago, to make a crisis over the operation’s unprecedented success.   When I told Snead I had struggled wondering what I’m to do with this new vision, he said “enjoy it.”  Quite right. 

I suppose it suggests I haven’t quite got the spirit of the thing right yet if I say I’m working on it?

May 25, 2007

Looking one’s age

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:32 pm

How does “you don’t look that old” subtly morph from meaning “you’re not old enough” into a compliment?  When I was in my 20’s,  people often told me I didn’t look as old as I really was.  It was an observation that invariably came with the implied or explicit assumption that I wasn’t old enough to do whatever I was proposing.  I was thirty-three the last time I was asked to produce some identification before being served a drink in a bar.  In retrospect, I think I did not look my age because after nine years in the convent, I had maintained an innocent inexperience and naivete that showed.

Now some forty years later it’s happening again, but this time, “you don’t look that old” is invariably meant as a compliment.  I’ve never thought that not looking old was as important as being attractive, and I’ve seen enough stunning women in their 70’s and 80’s to know that old can be amazingly attractive even in the sheer photographic sense.

So I’m rather surprised to discover that I have adopted the value of looking young and feel flattered when someone says ” you don’t look that old.”  Some day I will look unambiguously as old as I am, though, so I’m making an effort to hold on to my original assessment that young doesn’t necessarily mean beautiful, and “old” doesn’t have to be a pejorative accusation amounting to ugly.

May 24, 2007

A perverse ingratitude

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:51 pm

On my desk, I have Victor Weisskopf’s quote “When life is very bad, two things make life worth living – Mozart and quantum mechanics.”  Quantum mechanics is more exciting in theory than in practice so I listened to Mozart’s 38th for enlightenment in my determination to live this last stage in my life for itself.

I’m 67 years old and I feel like a spoiled child who’s been indulging in a tantrum about having to go to bed.  I have this fantastic result from cataract surgery that makes me feel 20 years younger and gives me vision I’ve never had in my life.  Am I grateful?  Oh no.  I not only want to feel 20 years younger;  I want to be 20 years younger.  No.  No.  I won’t have it.  I am not going to spend the rest of my life engaged in this kind of stupid, unrealistic sense of loss.

That child careening down the supermarket aisle yesterday is right.  What life isn’t for is trying to recapture the past, for regretting what one doesn’t have instead of delighting in what one does.  If I won’t let go of the past, I can’t have the now.  And when it comes to having, I have an awful lot.  I will not live subsumed by some fake existential despair about a past that is over, engaged in some fruitless attempt to regain in.

Besides, I’m remembering that university wasn’t all exciting research, stimulating colleagues and students, eager minds pushing against my own frontiers of thought.  It was, as a colleague reminded me yesterday, exam papers and dissertation boards.  It was bored and angry students as well as enthusiastic, inquiring ones.  There was driving through the snow, and walking the dogs before 7 AM in order get to 8 o’clock classes.  There was the vicious, terrible, vindictive politics, the shoddy work, the promotions of underachievers and undercutting some of the best scholastic faculty.

Perhaps I will write another book.  But first there is London, and the garden, and the loft insulation to finish.  Careening down the supermarket aisle, though, might be more than I can manage.

May 20, 2007

Unscheduled inconvenience

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 12:55 pm

Peter and I drove to London yesterday for an evening at the theatre.  Among other unscheduled events on the drive in, we were forced to brake suddenly, and a soft tire pulled the car with uncompromising force into the curb.  The tire and wheel were completely ruined.  Nobody was hurt so it’s merely one of those irritating if somewhat expensive inconveniences.

I consoled myself as usual when faced with such events by saying “it could have been much worse.”  Peter’s response, equally typical, was that “it could have been much better.”  Both strategies have their advantages.  By some magic of rationalization, my method generally manages to make me feel undeservedly fortunate when misfortune strikes.  Peter’s method, on the other hand, tends to maximize strategies that prevent similar misfortune striking again.

We make a good pair.  Even if it has taken years to effect our mutual appreciation.

May 9, 2007

Yoga: mind-numbing but effective

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:51 pm

I started doing yoga exercises regularly in my early thirties and more or less kept it up routinely until about a decade ago.  At that point, the research on the importance of resistance and aerobic training convinced me to switch to circuit training.  At the same time, my joints have become more painful, and I have stopped drinking alcohol almost completely because it is a contributing factor.  I take fish oil capsules and glucosimide and condriton.

Last month I began to experiment with a daily yoga routine again and think it is doing me more good than anything else I’ve tried.   I’m in much less pain and more flexible.  I’ll keep up the regime for six months or so and see if the effects hold up as the weather changes.  If it does, I’ll try giving up the supplements.  Yoga is a lot less expensive.

I will confess, however, that undiluted exercise is by any criterion the most boring enterprise I have ever engaged in.  Brushing my teeth doesn’t exactly qualify as exciting but it lasts about two and a half minutes.  Thirty minutes of exercise is ten times worse.  Music helps keep me motivated.  So does does the pain in my joints the day after I have given in to living my electrifying life without yoga.

May 1, 2007

Gardening might not do it for me

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:47 pm

I’ve spent most of the day gardening again, but I’m finding this version of retirement a bit bland.  My last book, The Big Bang to Now, came out just a year ago.  I think I’ll have to start another one.   

Of course, that assumes I’m still going to be able to read after tomorrow when I’m scheduled for my first cataract surgery.  It’s the one that really counts because it’s on my reading eye.

April 29, 2007

Clowns walking backwards

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 10:04 pm

Native American tribes have a figure called a Sacred Clown.  The clown is to their communities what comedians often are for us.  They make us laugh at ourselves, our pomposity and arrogance.  They mimic, they exaggerate, they sometimes help us realize the hypocrisy of what we’re saying by saying the exactly the opposite.  Clowns in sacred ceremonies sometimes walk backwards – just to remind us that we should never take even the most serious things too too seriously because we just might have got it all backwards.

Being half German, I usually take myself and the world with dead seriousness.  So I really need clowns in my life, and people who can make me laugh.

April 28, 2007

A self-destructive strategy

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:36 pm

For more than a year when Peter and I have walked to the local shop, we have often passed a man walking alone.  We greet each other, but no more.  Even as an American who is frequently unsure whether my particular form of polite greeting may be perceived as intrusive, I am careful not to slow my walk as we pass, for fear of threatening the possibility of actually having a conversion.  His expression makes it clear that to so much as a comment about the weather would be unwelcome.

This morning as Peter and I walked to pick up the newspaper as usual, we saw him on the sidewalk ahead accompanying a woman in a wheel chair.  As we passed, I greeted them in the usual way.  The woman returned the greeting with a smile of long-suffering martyrdom, of someone who has been asked to bear an unfair burden that she resents but probably feels she is carrying with stoic heroism.  Rightly or wrongly, I thought almost at once that I now understood the self-contained independence of the man who is presumably her husband.  My guess was that he is burdened with a complaining wife whom he in turn resents but who is determined not to mirror her grievance.

I know nothing about this couple and my hypothesis may be completely wrong.  I do hope, though, that I will never face my own life resenting the cards I have been dealt.  Even if I can never read again after my cataract surgery next Wednesday, I am determined not to be sorry for myself.  Life is too exciting, too wonderful a gift.  Still, I am aware that I am an immensely fortunate person.  I have never been tested by an event that seemed unbearable or a disappointment that could not be healed.  I have never had to bear the loss of a child, worry about where my next meal is coming from, endure unstoppable pain, an abusive husband, or most horrors that cross our television screens and papers every day. 

April 27, 2007

Weed-free Worry

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 1:12 pm

Cathy phoned last night with the news that she got an all clear on her MRI.  And I have entered a period of calmness about my eye surgery next Wednesday.  It’s fortuitous because it is too cold today to work in the garden much.  I discovered that I’ve been tending what has turned out to be a cheeky weed for the last year, and consigned a Scottish thistle to another life in the compost.  Appearances do deceive. 

Anyway, I often prefer cleaning and inside projects to gardening to work through my worries.  Today is one of those luxurious “miscellaneous jobs” days.

April 26, 2007

Gardening as a duty

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:36 pm

I spent a good three hours in the garden today digging out weeds and pulling out miles of invasive ivy that’s crawled over the fence for years from the neighbors’ side.

Actually, I don’t like gardening all that much.  I realize for many people, working in the garden is an almost mystical exercise, and not to revel in it is a mere one step up from hating children.  I’m doing it though, because it needs doing and it does help me exorcise my anxieties.

To my surprise, I am finding that yoga gives me more energy and relieves my aches and anxieties better than any other activity I know except possibly swimming.  It may help even more than any vitamin supplement as well, though I’m not planning on trying to test that hypothesis too rigorously.

April 24, 2007


Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:39 pm

I went to the hospital eye center yesterday for the tests and measurements that have to be done in preparation for cataract surgery.  The staff is unusually willing to take time to discuss the tests, and we talked about research exploring the relationship between learning difficulties and the kind of eye problems I have had all my life and that plague so many children.

If I were still employed by a university, I would find an optician and suggest we apply for a grant to study the relationship between spatial and reading skills and vision problems.  With the specialized knowledge of an optician, and the specialized knowledge I have as a cognitive psychologist, it would be possible to do much more detailed research than has been done by optomitrists’ treatment centers thus far.

My worry about whether I am going to be able to read after surgery has been displaced by worry about my sister C who had follow-up tests yesterday to clarify some dodgy shadows on her mammogram.  I spent most of today furiously gardening trying to keep my worry under some reasonable control.  The medical world offers so many possibilities and so much hope, but it also brings a new kind of anxiety and trauma that even our grandparents didn’t have.  It’s when modern medicine says “no, there’s nothing more we can do” that the true terror has to be confronted. 

April 20, 2007

Cheerful News

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:14 pm

A friend just sent me an email saying the optician told her she has cataracts, but if she has surgery to remove them it might fail, in which case things will be even worse than they are now.  Meanwhile, Mary Jean is going in May 1st for surgery for a macular hole that’s opened up for a third time.

I read today that blindness is a growing phenomenon among the elderly in the developed world.

Well, I can only think that if cataract surgery doesn’t work for me, at least I won’t say I never thought it could happen to me.  But I hope desperately it doesn’t.

April 17, 2007

Composting in Ignorance

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 11:09 am

A friend of Peter’s just wrote that she’d attended a day-long seminar in New York City on making compost. 

I wonder if it was mostly fill or if there’s a lot I don’t even suspect I don’t know about this complex subject.  We have been composting for thirty years on three continents in wildly different climates.  But I would have to engineer some long coffee breaks to fill up a whole day with what I know.

April 15, 2007

Cyber Privacy

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:21 pm

I have not told a single person about this blog.  I’m afraid somebody I know will read it.

I know, I know.  You’d think if I don’t want somebody to read it, I shouldn’t be posting it in cyberspace.  It’s not that I don’t want you to read it.  I don’t know you and you won’t complicate my thinking by recognizing yourself in one of my diatribes.  I won’t have to try to explain that I really didn’t mean you when I said whatever.

I don’t know where this experiment of thinking by writing to an audience that mostly isn’t there is going to go.  Right now, it feels as if it has potential, so I’ll keep it going for a while.

April 9, 2007

Looking for Alternatives to the San Francisco Bridge

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:34 pm

I can’t say my Easter hope in life in general is getting me through contemplating the possibility of my cataracts being inoperable and my not ever being able to read again.  In fact, I’ve not really found a strategy to get me through.  I need to write, I need to read, it’s how I relate to the world. 

Life so often seems to demand of people the sacrifice of what they hold most dear.  Like Abraham who believed God was asking him for the sacrifice of his son.  But God stayed Abraham’s hand because he was willing.  I’m not willing, which theologically speaking no doubt significantly weakens my bargaining position.

I tell myself that most humans get through their entire lives without reading, and millions of people survive being entirely blind.  I think about my own mother and sister who died of cancer in their forties.  Beethoven was deaf for the last fifteen years of his life.  What kind of despair must have engulfed him?  Writing is for me what music was for Beethoven.  (Except, of course, I’m not a genius.)

None of which makes me feel less worried.  It just makes me feel like a spoiled rich kid who wants everything, but I still want it.  I’d trade off my hearing, or a leg, or if absolutely necessary an arm (especially if it were my left one — well, if you’re negotiating, you might as well not give away the whole store if you don’t have to) in order to read.  It doesn’t make me feel any better.  Anyway, nobody has offered to take a leg in exchange for a working pair of eyes.

I’m not going to jump off the San Francisco Bridge, but I am begging “oh please, don’t ask this of me.”

Today is a holiday here in England so all offices are closed.  I will phone Snead’s office for an appointment tomorrow.

April 8, 2007

Easter for the believing unbeliever

Easter was originally a pagan feast, and I still like it best that way.  It’s a celebration of life – the hope that even in the despair of apparent hopelessness, the light will return.  Hoping in this dark world that the light really will return takes something like blind faith.  And yet – and yet:  I do.

I hope I don’t have to test my hope too strenuously though.

April 7, 2007

Fearing the Worst

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:58 pm

ITV television just did a documentary on cataract surgeries that have gone wrong, which did absolutely nothing for my waver-thin confidence in the medical system.  What if I have eye surgery that is bungled?  

All my life I have been able to read only with my left eye.  I’ve been experimenting with making the font bigger on my computer monitor to see if I could read with my right eye if the print is big enough.  I can manage to limp along at about 10 words a minute.  By the time I reach the end of a sentence, I can’t remember how it began.  I’ve checked out audio books and computer software for the visually impaired. None of which brings me much consolation.

I am preparing for life without books.  I will listen to music.  I will open up a whole world I have ignored before because there was always so much to read.  I will still be able to watch television, and I have a husband who can drive. 

But life without books.  Without being able to read.  Without writing.  Where will I dredge up the strength of character to live with that?

April 6, 2007

Cataract shock

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:37 pm

I saw D.J.Thomas, the optician I finally decided was the best choice I could make in my current state of ignorance.  He did a lot of computer-assisted test, some of which I recognized, but when I asked what one of them was about, he told me not to talk to him while he was working.  He never did tell me what the tests were.  I think he might be more at ease with his computers than with his patients, but that doesn’t tell me if he’s competent or not.  I suspect he is.  Just doesn’t have a lot of communication skills.

Thomas’ competence or communication skills, however, might be the least of my problems.  He said everything is fine but that the cataracts I knew I had are seriously interfering with my vision.  He said he was recommending me to the best possible cataract surgeon, and then dropped the bombshell – that he might not be willing to do the surgery because my eyes are particularly problematic.  What does this mean?  I have always had poor vision and have seen double since I was operated on at the age of six for a lazy eye.  Will I just slowly go blind now because my eyes can’t be operated on?  Thomas said I would have to talk to the surgeon to learn more. 

I cannot say I am feeling stoically calm.  And I don’t have a lot of confidence in the system yawning before me.  Perhaps Martin Snead, whom he recommended, really is the best man there is.  Or perhaps he’s Thomas’ brother-in-law.  Mary Jean’s strategy for survival looks more heroic today than it did yesterday.

Thomas did say I shouldn’t be driving, which more or less is a decision I’ve already made.  Peter is hugely relieved.

April 5, 2007

Laughing as a survival strategy

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:12 pm

My half-sister Mary Jean just emailed that she has to have a third surgery to close a macular hole that’s opened up again.  She says her husband is a rock who is quietly helping her find whatever she can’t see to find, which is just about everything even when it isn’t lost.  Like me, she’s a voracious reader and losing the world of books would be mammoth.  I admire her way of dealing with her fear.  She’s pretending her big worry is not to burn Easter dinner.

I’m seeing the optician, DJ Thomas tomorrow.  I’m hoping he can adjust my contact lenses and fit them so it feel as if I have sand in my eyes.

April 1, 2007

April Fools Day

Filed under: Survival Strategies,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 12:01 pm

I have been looking in the media without success thus far for evidence of an April Fools’ Day prank.  The standard against which all other jokes are measured may be the BBC’s documentary in 1957 on the bumper Swiss spaghetti crop, complete with clips of the harvest being pulled from the trees by joyful farmers.  When BBC viewers asked how to source the spaghetti plant to grow themselves, the BBC suggested putting a strand of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce.

March 26, 2007

Creative Reconstruction

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:22 am

If it’s really really important – like if you’ve just shredded what you thought was junk and your husband does not share your evaluation – it is possible to put a shredded document back together again. 

For the record, I lacked motivation.

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