For the Birds

Sandhill cranesThis week my writing group, the Write On Mamas, was invited to share our work at a local senior residence. It was a delight to be there along with my fellow WOMers Janine, Mindy, and Steven. Here’s what I read, an old favorite of mine originally published in skirt!

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Like most married couples, my husband Jonathan and I have many pacts–no cheating, no badmouthing each others’ parents, no going to bed mad. Our agreements are the glue that holds us together.

One of our pacts is to never take up birdwatching. Jonathan and I spent way too much time as kids trapped in some swamp while our parents cooed over coots.

We once took a hike with our friend, Peter, an avid birder. Eyes downcast, my husband and I listened politely as he droned on about plumage and wing span.

“Oh,” Peter said, at last noticing our silence. “Children of birdwatchers.”

Since we have our youthful resentments to uphold, we cling to our pact even though every binocular-toting couple we know is happily married. Birdwatching may unite others, but not Jonathan and me.  If one of us strays, pulse quickened by a downy breast, it’s grounds for divorce.

Still, as long-term marrieds, we’re always on the lookout for new ways to spice up our relationship. The forbidden, even birding, holds allure. So what if it’s like watching paint dry?

That’s how we recently found ourselves driving to the delta with our friends Steve and Mary to catch the last of the sand hill cranes before they headed south. Or wherever cranes go when, sensibly enough, they tire of hanging out on the levees with bored teenagers gunning their engines.

Before we embark, my husband and I renew our vows.

“Promise me we won’t become birdwatchers,” I implore.

“I do,” Jonathan pledges.

Steve and Mary have an exemption. They even have a temporary placard for disabled parking. Sidelined from favored pursuits like hiking and backpacking by surgery, they have entered the phase of life Steve refers to as “recalibrated pleasures.” They’ve traded in their boots for Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guides and sunk a few thousand dollars into birding paraphernalia. No doubt they’re faking it, forced to find the silver lining in an unjust fate. We’ll be safe with Steve and Mary.

We pile into the backseat of their car. After a drive that lasts forever, strip malls give way to fields of rice stubble. We pull onto the shoulder of the levee dam road. “Look at the swans!” Steve and Mary exult in unison. It occurs to me that they’re not pretending.

The side of the road is littered with parked cars whose trunks yield vast arsenals of birding materiel. Pot-bellied men hoist huge tripods onto their beefy shoulders. Except for their girth and Audubon Society t-shirts, they could be mistaken for guerrillas sporting shoulder-mounted grenade launchers.

Birders are a passionate lot. Within a 10-mile radius, only my husband and I are cool to the wonders of feathered fauna. At least I hope Jonathan still is. He seems suspiciously enthralled as Mary explains the difference between divers and dabblers.

Steve spots the cranes on a distant bank. Even I have to admit they’re spectacular. After about 10 minutes of genuine oohing and another few of feigned ahhing, I’m ready to climb back in the car and head for civilization, or at least a Starbucks in one of those strip malls.

But people who routinely drive 100 miles in search of creatures they can’t see without expensive equipment are not prepared to settle for such a small return on their investment. So we look at the cranes. We look at ducks. We look some more.

Birding is like time-lapsed photography in reverse. The day slows down and stretches out in a languorous slow-motion crawl of nothing much happening. We drive farther. A chain-link fence separates the road from a plot of barren land. Steve spies a thin white line close to the horizon.

“Might be white pelicans. On the other hand, it might be plastic garbage bags,” he says with quiet excitement, as if either outcome would please him equally. Has his sense of pleasure been so radically recalibrated?

We train the binoculars on the barely discernible thread of white. Sure enough, they’re pelicans. But heaped together in a slovenly pile, these pelicans look like garbage bags with wing spans fluttering listlessly in the breeze. Perhaps it’s some kind of rare hybrid species: Feathered trash.

The day moseys along toward sunset. Mud hens are now indistinguishable from mud in the long shadows swallowing up the fields. The sky is streaked with cotton-candy wisps of pink and smoky gray.

It is also streaked with birds, flying in formations that, truth be told, look a bit ragged. No perfect, straight-edged V’s for these cranes and geese! Maybe they’re bored, too, and want to mix things up a little.

I think of my friend who took his family to see Winged Migration. Ten minutes into the film, his eight-year-old daughter elbowed him and said, “So this is it, huh? It’s just gonna be birds and then more birds all the way through.”

I’m with that girl! But is my husband still with me? He’s keeping up a steady stream of delighted chatter, admiring how graceful the airborne cranes look when they’re not stuck on land with their unruly necks and legs all akimbo. Jonathan’s enthusiasm makes me nervous until I realize that I, too, sound like I’m going to log on to one of those birding chat rooms the second I’m near a computer. I sidle up to Jonathan in the gathering darkness and whisper, “You haven’t gone over to the light side, have you?” He smiles and squeezes my hand hard, twice, our secret code. Birds of a feather flocking together. Such a man I have married! Black silhouettes fly against a crimson sky; white lies fly below.

“It’s so beautiful,” I exclaim, this time sincerely. Not only because together my husband and I have resisted the call of the wild, but because of how the bloodshot-turning-charcoal clouds are reflected in the little pools of water dotting the furrows. The delta at twilight looks like sepia shards from a shattered kaleidoscope.

We stow the scopes, the tripods, the binoculars, the books back in the trunk. Relieved, we climb into the car and head for home. Steve and Mary point out raptors on the power lines while Jonathan and I hold hands silently, eyes closed, in the backseat.

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Postscript: Years later, Jonathan and I are still stubbornly resistant to birding. We know a hawk from and a hummingbird, and are happy to leave it at that. Steve and Mary, meanwhile, have traveled all over the world on birding expeditions. They are still our friends, though they haven’t invited us along on any more outings. What shared interests and antipathies do you and your sweetie enjoy?

 

Pizza Anniversary

pepperoni feast

“You seem to believe that a man will drop out of the sky right in front of you,” my then-therapist said to me when I was 29.

As usual, I had been lamenting my lack of a relationship while listing all the reasons I could never actually try to meet someone. A personal ad (the Dark Ages equivalent of Match.com) was out of the question: I might as well put out a sign soliciting ax murderers. Going on a Sierra Singles hike would probably sidestep that problem by providing safety in numbers. But that, too, I argued, was only for desperate and pathetic people. I was feeling desperate and pathetic enough without advertising it. Besides, why spend the day with a bunch of other losers?

Still, my therapist had a point. My friend Mary conspired with her by buying me a Sierra Singles membership. So I was stuck.

“At least I’ll have a nice hike,” I rationalized as I reluctantly laced up my boots.

I did have a nice hike. So I went back, making sure to choose long, arduous hikes instead of champagne sunset strolls. I figured that’s where the men would be.

My third Sierra Singles hike was a 15-miler in Marin County, up Pine Mountain and down to Kent Lake and back. As we all milled around the carpool point in Oakland engaging in the usual getting-to-know-you exchanges, where we’d gone to school came up.

“Oh,” some cute-enough guy asked. “Do you know so-and-so?”

As it happened, I knew so-and-so extremely well; I’d had a crush on him for years, but my college roommate landed him instead. The carpool guy had grown up with so-and-so.

Small-world chit-chat developed into 15 miles of walking and talking about everything—Prairie Home Companion; how the subject matter didn’t matter when the writing was great (c.f. Roger Angell and baseball in The New Yorker); his sister, who homeschooled her kids and was, like me, a Virginia Woolf devotee.

After the hike, everyone crammed into Red Boy Pizza in Fairfax for beer and pizza. Before we parted, Jonathan asked for my phone number (he’d had few opportunities to collect any woman’s number on previous hikes, as he was not clever enough to improve his odds by going on the champagne strolls).

“I think I’ve met the man I’m going to marry!” I crowed to my mother when we spoke the next day by telephone.

“You say that about everyone you meet,” my mother replied.

Fair enough. But like a stopped clock that’s accurate twice a day, this prophecy proved true.

Today is our 31st anniversary of meeting. That auspicious day led to 29 years (and counting!) of marriage, two daughters, and an abiding appreciation for therapy’s art of gentle challenge. At the rehearsal dinner before our wedding, Jonathan’s father urged everyone to donate to the Sierra Club. This weekend we recreated our Pine Mountain hike (we’re still 15-milers at age 60, though we’ve let our Sierra Club membership lapse).

It’s a lot to celebrate, but today’s ritual is my favorite: As we do every June 2, tonight we’ll devour pepperoni and green pepper pizza from Red Boy in Fairfax, clinking our beers together in honor of all the years gone by, and all those still to come.

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Have you ever had to overcome your resistance to working at finding love? How did you meet your sweetie?

 

I is for Inheritance

Maggie was my trainer when I volunteered for a crisis hotline in 1977. Although she was 30 years older than I, we became close friends and colleagues. Maggie and her husband, Peter, came to my wedding. Whenever Maggie and I went out to lunch, I’d say hello to Peter. But I didn’t know him at all outside of these brief encounters and Maggie’s stories about their life together, first in war-torn England, then fleeing the Soviets in Prague, then in America.

When Maggie was stricken with Alzheimer’s, my interactions with Peter became a little like the change in shift between the live-in caretaker and the respite help. “How is she doing today? Will she be able to order off a menu? Does she still know who I am? Have there been any repeats of the time she tried to get out of a moving car? How are you doing?”

“Oh, fine, thanks,” Peter would reply, always the stoic and dignified immigrant. Occasionally I would hear frustration in Peter’s voice as he persuaded Maggie to put on her socks. Or maybe he just spoke louder because Maggie was losing her hearing as well as her mind.

Whenever I would return from my brief outings with Maggie, Peter would say, “She always seems in better spirits after she sees you. Thank you.”

Maggie died seven years ago today, but I have kept up my visits. Every few weeks, Peter welcomes me into the home he and Maggie shared. He is as heartbroken today as he was when she died.

“I’m ready to die, too,” my new 94-year-old friend tells me. “But Maggie wouldn’t want me to be the kind of person who stops getting dressed, stops washing, sits around doing nothing all day. So in the meantime, I’m keeping busy.”

And in the meantime, we talk—about his life in Prague as a multilingual intellectual and journalist before the Nazis came, about his service in the British Royal Air Force, where he met Maggie when stationed in her home town. We talk about Maggie, about politics, about his children and grandchildren, about my work and family.

What a priceless inheritance Maggie has left me.

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What unexpected treasures have you inherited?

Season of Renewal

Iris

Spring is officially here, and with it comes a sense of renewal. Here in northern California, the green hills and blossoms make everything feel possible despite the drought. Even on the East Coast, as temperatures inch upward, the earth comes alive from underneath the snow that is inexorably melting.

It’s a time of hope.

How fitting and delightful, then, to visit with our friends from Indiana (where, they tell us, the crocus and daffodil are beginning to make a strong stand). Terry and Lisa have always symbolized for me the promise of fresh starts after dark times. After suffering through a painful divorce and the death of a spouse, they met at a conference and fell deeply in love. With fulfilling careers in separate states, Terry and Lisa maintained a long-distance relationship for years. Marriage was certain, but on the horizon.

Then suddenly, everything became less certain. Two springs ago, Terry and Lisa lay in separate  London hospitals in medically induced comas. They had been hit by a double decker bus on their first day en route to a conference. The early reports were grave—no one knew if they would live. Or if they’d be better off if they didn’t. Anxious days and weeks followed, until Terry and Lisa were stable enough for separate medical transports back to separate states.

Their road to recovery has been long but steady. And, miracle of miracles, complete! Today you’d never know how close Terry and Lisa came to death. They are vitally alive, emerging from dark times with even greater gratitude and love. Such a close call did, however, change their horizon–last year Terry and Lisa consolidated two states and two households into one, and got married! They are thriving, and we are so grateful for the renewal of love and life that they embody and inspire.

Lisa and Terry September 2014

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What does spring mean to you? What  opportunities for renewal will you embrace?

Her/Us

Her Movie PosterThe movie Her is a love story for our times. People pass one another without interacting, fixated on their electronic companions. Theodore, who writes others’ love letters for a living, is especially disconnected after his marriage breaks up.

Into the void steps Samantha, the perfect partner. Except that she isn’t real. Or is she? Samantha’s an operating system endowed with artificial intelligence. She has a consciousness. But whose? Her own, as it evolves through “lived” experience? The programmers’? Theodore’s? Perhaps Samantha is solely a projection of Theodore’s desires, a fantasy for which reality is no match.

The parallels to psychotherapy are many. How real is the relationship between therapist and patient? The work is intimate, yet we remain hidden. Distance and closeness are carefully titrated. Fantasy and projections–key transference components–abound. The real/unreal paradox is fertile ground in therapy, as it is in Her.

Theodore, meanwhile, turns not to a therapist but to technology. Asked to describe his relationship with his mother in order to personalize his operating system, Theodore says it’s fine, except that everything’s about her. Samantha (or at least her voice) appears, “an intuitive entity that knows and understands” him and anticipates his every need–the ideal mother/lover. Who doesn’t wish for perfect mirroring as an antidote to early wounds when undertaking love–or therapy?

Initially Samantha is all about Theodore. With her help, he starts to feel better. As with the mutual influence of therapy, Samantha, too, grows and changes. All is well, though trouble rumbles in the background. The idealizing transference soon becomes eroticized. Disappointment inevitably follows the intrusion of reality into fantasy. In an echo of how clients are loathe to share their therapists–or children their mothers–Theodore is dismayed to learn that Samantha is not there for him alone; she’s the operating system for over 6,000 people. Like Theodore’s mother, Samantha increasingly develops her own interests. “I’m yours and I’m not yours,” she tells him. Worse, the pain Theodore’s fantasy is designed to defend against is recapitulated: Samantha leaves, just like his ex-wife.

Is it abandonment? Or a developmentally appropriate separation? Samantha may start as an extension of Theodore’s psyche, but, as with healthy infant-mother pairs, they end as two distinct individuals. (Perhaps it’s part of the design!) Coming to terms with disillusionment, Theodore can finally write his own love letter to his ex-wife. He retrieves his projections, fully feels and mourns, and thus moves on from loss. Perhaps Theodore is even ready to try the whole disappointing, glorious mess of human connection again. For only when we can tolerate that the other is not an extension of ourselves, but another full and complete separate person can we risk ourselves for love–for real.

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This piece appeared originally in NCSPP’s “Impulse,” a publication for analytically oriented therapists in Northern California. What did you think of the movie? 

Steady Hands

Stomach injectionFor the past week and a half, since my husband Jonathan had eye surgery to correct strabismus, I’ve been applying a thin line of ointment to his inner eyelids each night. It’s been something of a slapdash operation–the ointment sometimes sticks to his eyelashes, sometimes runs down his cheeks. It makes me wonder how on earth I ever got drops into our daughters for pink eye when they were little—Jonathan, unlike them, has not even screamed or squirmed. Eventually we figured out that if he rolled his eyeballs back into his head, the ointment got within spitting distance of the target area. Still, it’s a lucky thing I never aspired to become a brain surgeon.

All of which sparked my memories of a year ago, in the days following my last chemotherapy infusion, when Jonathan gave me my final Neupogen shot. (Neupogen stimulates white blood cell production.) For five nights of each chemo cycle, I’d lain on the couch while Jonathan swabbed my exposed belly with alcohol before carefully plunging a syringe into the fatty tissue. The first cycle we’d nervously joked about the movie Memento, in which an injection gone awry leads to amnesia and an excellent film. But nary a drop of blood did he draw the whole time. I can’t imagine entrusting myself to anyone else.

There were many steady hands holding me throughout six months of treatment–my doctors and the always cheerful Kaiser staff, my therapist, my yoga class, Michael at Pine Street Clinic, my daughters (who in honor of my remaining wisps of hair dubbed me Gollem), and, of course my many wonderful friends and family members who cheered me with delicious food, walks, emails, flowers, CDs, presents, visits, and funny YouTube links. I wouldn’t have made it through without everyone.

Yet the steadiest was Jonathan, who was there from the first terrifying news of diagnosis through it all: hours of surgery not knowing how far the cancer had spread; uncooperative catheters; private sadnesses and fears; doctors’ visits; a wife with no appetite who didn’t put dinner on the table but who still obsessed about her weight; hair loss; and all the usual demands like taxes and college tuition. On top of it all Jonathan worked 10-hour days to keep the paychecks and medical insurance in place, and he did it all without complaint. He even endured my most incessant question: “How do you really feel?”

I’m not sure how he really felt. But I feel incredibly lucky to have him: steady hands, steady heart, mind, and soul.

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Who’s your steady?

 

Love, Actually

Green for sustainability

Green for sustainability, a little scuffed for reality

“Our lives are so boring,” my husband remarked recently. “Pretty much the same thing from one day to the next.”

“That’s why the girls have a horror of becoming us,” I replied. “And also why it’s so hard to write the holiday newsletter year after year.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jonathan continued. “I’m really happy with our lives.”

Me too.

Perhaps it’s just self-delusion, but I’ve long thought that the secret to a happy marriage is a high tolerance for boredom. Jonathan thinks the secret is watching DVDs of long-running TV shows, like Friday Night Lights. Our Friday nights consist of pizza and Netflix. Our latest addiction is The Good Wife, which has the advantage of 6 seasons with 23 episodes each. Not to mention the salutary impact of the title’s subliminal message!

Still, even Jonathan and I have our limits. So the other night we decided to shake things up a little by going to see a live one-man show at our local community theater. As soon as the lights went down and the performer appeared onstage, Jonathan’s eyes closed. I would have elbowed him awake, except my eyes closed soon after. We made our escape at intermission, and settled in for the next episode of The Good Wife.

Perhaps the natural arc of long-term love moves from rutting to rut. Couples dubbed by “Modern Love” editor Daniel Jones as “appreciatively resigned” fare best with this trajectory.

We can come to appreciate some pretty strange things.

The other night, for example, I was laboring over a clogged toilet that looked as if it might defeat even Roto-Rooter. Jonathan came in and asked if he could help. I remembered a midnight years ago, same toilet, same linoleum floor, my exhausted husband cleaning up from the latest round of our daughters’ stomach flu. Back then I was inexplicably turned on watching him mop, flush, and mop again. “Is this what it’s come to?” I’d thought in despair. I couldn’t imagine anything more depressing than reviving muted passion over an overflowing toilet. How low we had sunk from the days of mutual fascination! But a wise friend saw it differently: “There’s nothing more intimate than seeing someone take such tender care of those you love.”

Those kids are gone now, leaving none of their messes to clean up. Intimacy is the glue that keeps us together. Not the intimacy of candlelit dinners and sexy lingerie, but enduring intimacy, which requires a continual process of mutual forgiveness for not remaining as exciting as when we first fell in love. We stay together precisely because we know each other’s messes, and mop up after them patiently and lovingly time and time again. Not because we have to, but because we want to take care of those we love.

And because we always look forward to the next episode.

 

Like Everybody Else

I wrote this just after my friends Ann and Joan got married  in 2008, during the brief window before California’s Proposition 8 was passed. In honor of enduring love, and of Proposition 8’s demise this week, I’m running it again. What has the Supreme Court’s historic rulings on marriage equality meant for you?

Hands in MarriageAnn and Joan got married recently. The brides were radiant in their silk tunics, silvery hair, and sensible shoes. After waiting 17 years to walk down the aisle, they’d earned their comfort.

Like any couple getting married, Ann and Joan vowed to love, honor, and cherish each other until parted by death. They could pledge this with more certainty than the average newlyweds, having already lived through so many years of for better or for worse.

Ann vowed to try not to throw things away. Joan promised she would try to throw things away. That’s what comes from being forced to wait nearly two decades for marriage. You know one another’s foibles so well that what used to drive you crazy now deepens your love. You know it’s precisely your differences that bring balance. You know it’s the trying that counts.

The brides spoke in honor of their dead parents. When Ann first revealed she was gay, her mother responded, “It’s about time you figured it out.” Ann quipped that her father would have loved to give her away to Joan, if she were the type to let herself be given away to anyone.

Joan’s family was less embracing. Her mother died when Joan was 24, fearful that her daughter would suffer terribly from a hostile culture. Joan knew her mother would be delighted that her fears had not come true, and that her life was rich with love and happiness.

Guests were invited to place a rose in a silver vase and share what this wedding meant to them. There was an outpouring of hope and gratitude and joy. By the end, the vase was crammed with roses of every hue.

I grew up dreaming of bridal bouquets and my bridesmaids’ matching sashes. I didn’t know what blooms would be in season when I married, or whether my color scheme would be driven by the daffodils of spring or the chrysanthemums of fall. But as a straight woman, I knew I could count on having a season.

Now there is a season for everyone.

Opponents to same-sex marriage argue that gay people shouldn’t be granted special rights. But what is so special about wanting to be treated like everybody else? It’s not just gays who benefit—it’s all of us. My joy in realizing my childhood dreams is enhanced because Ann and Joan are no longer excluded from having such dreams.

I also cannot imagine how, as some claim, same-sex weddings threaten marriage between men and women. My feelings for my husband deepened as I listened to the readings about love, friendship, and commitment that Ann and Joan chose for their wedding. A marriage that draws its strength from discrimination is not a marriage at all.

Surely Ann and Joan don’t really need the state to affirm their love and commitment. At 60-something, they can buy all the bath towels and appliances and flowers they want. They can even buy a lawyer’s time to secure most of the rights that straight couples take for granted. But without the state’s sanction, something is missing.

Now we all have what money can’t buy: Inclusion and equality.

At the end of the ceremony, Joan and Ann grinned through their tears while we all cheered and wept like crazy.

“This is something we never dreamed would happen,” Joan said. “We never imagined that we could get dishtowels and kitchen gadgets, like everybody else,”

At last they can.

And at last we can give them.