Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Dead Dad Club

I hope I’m alone in this, but right now, there’s an bizarrely high number of people in my extended circle sloughing off the mortal coil. One of my best friends lost her dad a few days back.  He was just sixty-five, healthy active guy, low-stress job, and BAM—heart attack.  Gone.

My dad died when I was twenty-one, and, ever since my wife, Margaret, and I got the news from our bewildered friend, getting ready to board a plane to go back east for the days of nightmarish crisis that follow the death of a family member, I’ve been pacing and organizing my thoughts; trying to figure out what information I have that’s useful to pass on, since at my age, there’s not a load of my friends who have been through this process before.

Here’s what I got.  Ahem.

There’s a dead parent club.  If you’re in it.  Congratulations.  Poor you.  All of us who are lucky enough to outlive our parents join it eventually; some of us join earlier than others.  Being part of the Dead Dad Club, or it’s sister organization, the Dead Mom Club, doesn’t make you instantly wiser; on the contrary, it makes you more prone to wander around in a dysfunctional haze and possibly do some stupid, dangerous, self-medicating things for the first few months.  The only benefit of membership is that you’ve probably lost part of that buffer of assumed safety most of us wander through the first part of our lives with.  I think most of us unconsciously assume that we’re mostly safe while we’re young, and if we’re lucky enough to have loving, committed parents, we probably grow up assuming that they’d take that metaphoric bullet to keep us safe.    Unless you’ve actively worked to deconstruct this belief, it’s probably still there—until somebody dies, and it’s gone.  This is the hidden membership fee of joining the Dead Dad Club.

Peeling off that psychological layer of protection is a big existential shift; acknowledging that you’re number’s up next.  This offers you either the opportunity for some fabulous self-destructive behavior, or the chance to get a lot more honest about your limited time on the planet and use the fire that will inevitably consume you to fuel your passion for whatever you want to do before you die.  Hopefully, you do a little of both.  Me? I wrote a novel because my friends started getting wrinkles.  You’re never the wrong age for a midlife crisis. Because you never know how much longer you have to live.  Mwoooahahaha. 

What’s often overlooked when we’re busy laughing, rightfully, at forty-five-year-old dudes driving late-model penis cars, is that a crisis like this is a shitty, painful opportunity to recognize the consequences of your actions, and clean up your act, let go of unhealthy, draining relationships, bad habits, or whatever is holding you back, and use that freed-up energy to plunge heartfirst into where ever you suspect your personal sweet, juicy, meaningful bliss might lie.  You don’t have to take advantage of this opportunity.  But as long as you’re suffering, you might as well get something beneficial out of it.

This leads me to one of the best, most useful things anybody told me when I was grieving for my Dad;  you’re never too old to feel like an orphan.  Yes, it sounds like wallowing claptrap.  Guess what.  Your parent died.  Within the appropriate time frame, you’re allowed some wallow.  As we get older, being an orphan is an increasingly universal constant.   What does it mean?  Orphans in children’s books get to have all the adventures, partly because nobody’s there to protect them from having them.  But ultimately, we as readers feel their experiences more keenly because, unlike most ten-year-olds, orphans (in the literary, no adopted/foster/step parent sense) are entirely responsible for their actions.  Nobody is going to step into the middle of the story and say, “I’m sorry my daughter rubbed the magic lamp setting a djinn loose and wrecking your antiquities shop, Mr. Suleman, I’ll pay for the damages.”  Nope.  If you’re an orphan, it’s up to you to wrangle a shop-fixing wish out of that djinn yourself, and get it back in the bottle before it wrecks Lower Manhattan.  Or whatever.  It’s lonely and scary losing that protective buffer.  But it can make you a better, more interesting person.  Or not.  That’s optional too.

My best advice to someone grieving, is, as long as you’re engaging your grief, you can’t do anything wrong.  If you’re downing a half-bottle of whisky so you can let down your guard and really be in touch with the pain, chug-a-lug, my friend.  If, however, you’re downing a half-bottle of whisky so you don’t feel the pain, you’re setting yourself up for a short lifetime of alcoholism.  Because that pain is there until you sit with it and let it have its way with you.  You may need to do weird things.  I felt the desperate need to be outdoors with my grief.   For me, God, or whatever I needed to draw solace from couldn’t be found indoors.  Since I was grieving on a college campus, and had no car to get away to, say, a large park, this led to some awkward circumstances.

But whatever.  This is your time to be an entitled bitch--as long as you’re aware of the consequences of your actions, and can live with them.  Cry when you need to.  If people are disturbed, it’s probably because they’re out of touch and you get to be the little blackbird of dourness that offers them the chance to enter a more compassionate reality.

When my Dad died, I had to mourn every single way I loved him.  It’s like my mind had this giant mourning checklist; hundreds of items long, and I’d be unpredictable around those things until I had time to sit down, dig in, and really feel miserable about them.  Somebody would offer me coffee, and I’d start tearing up because I’d realize I’d never get to steal another sip of Dad’s mug of coffee, which was always a quarter milk with five rounded teaspoons of sugar.  I hated never knowing when something would come up and I’d start crying.  So I became a marathon mourner.  I was going to set the world record for getting over it and back to normal life.  When I found a new bubble of sadness, I’d try to go off by myself and push on the idea, find what hurt, bawl if I needed, until it stopped hurting.  I was the massage therapist of grief. 

Here’s a hard-won secret.  You can only feel so bad.  The best thing to do—for me—was to let myself feel as miserable as I could.  Just plunge in to grief as deep as I could go.  What I found was there’s a bottom.  You can’t go beyond a certain point.  Like the ocean floor, you can settle in there for a while, under the weight of all that’s happened, and be held, as long as you like.   Then the energy naturally dissipates, and you get kicked back up to the surface for some cathartic deep breaths.  After a while—and I mean months, it became mechanical and assured.

How bad is it?  That’s completely individual, and depends on your relationship.  My Dad and I weren’t super, secret-telling close, but we loved and respected each other enormously.  His death was about three times harder than when my first partner of four-ish years left me.   I figure when Dad died, I had four months of being an utter mess, and another five of the exhausting but predictable hard work of grieving.  Take that and do your own math.

Last advice: when the opportunity arises, don’t be afraid to be happy.  You’re not betraying anyone.  Some day in the third month, you’ll have a really nice day.  You feel lighter, and you laugh like an idiot about something.  Somebody asks you how you’re doing, and you want to tell them you feel fantastic, but you’re embarrassed, because maybe they’ll think your dad didn’t mean anything to you.  So instead, explain that you’re living closer to your skin.  That the darks are darker, the lights are brighter, that everything smells more intense.  Because it does.  You’re happy not because your relationship was shallow, you’re happy because happiness is a biological inevitability, and some part of your unconscious has decided to give you a well-deserved break.  Take it and be glad.  Because there’ll be more work to do tomorrow. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Mouse

When I was seven, my dad found a litter of mice in the shed and, after sharing the wonder of life with me and my friend Mark, proceded to suck the kits up with the shop-vac. I laid awake that night thinking about the blind squirmy babies, if they were dead yet, and what their deaths were like. I didn't understand how my dad could appreciate this little mouse miracle enough to call us over, and then turn on the vaccuum. I appreciate now how he didn't shield me from situations beyond easy answers.

There are a thousand ways civilization as we practice it is undercutting our species' ability to survive on the planet. Our governments are largely abnigating leadership in changing them, so it's up to each of us to hash through inconclusive research and competing priorities and draw our own lines. One I've chosen to stand firm on is not using poisons. The problem with rodent poison is that it turns rodents into poison. Which in turn make poisoned beetles, owls, bacteria, groundwater, pacific chorus frogs, and garden vegetables. Once that stuff leaves the box, there's no telling how much of the food web it takes out before it becomes inert.

My wife, Margaret, wisely draws the line at living with mice. She's lived in places where they've gotten out of control, and told me enough to stories of creepy, urine-covered hanta virus hell to convince me that our three spoiled housecats shouldn't be counted on to provide enough deterrent. So since I won't let her hide little cartons of rat poison everywhere, our compromise is that I become the house mousesquisher.

When the cats cornered an adolescent white-bellied field mouse in the living room, I swallowed my seven-year-old conscience and reached for the vaccuum. Then I realized that if the bag was full, the mouse might be able to crawl back out. I opened the case. The bag was full. I scoped out the cat and mouse tactical situation. Caraway was stationed at one end of the book case, Wingnut at the other, and Fenris seemed to be covering the corner that would provide the best coverage for an escape route. Good cats. I sprinted to the kitchen and found vaccuum bags stashed under screwdrivers and grocery sacks and a wedding picture from a friend's failed marriage. Old bag spews dust and lint as it comes off, new bag goes on. Books get stacked in piles so I can move the cases away from the heat register providing prime mouse cover.

I wedge the case away, watching the mouse, watching the cats. Part of me expects a spectacle of mouse panic. Which I'm sure is there, but the little creature seems surprisingly collected--it just figures out the safest place, runs there and stays. I turn the vaccuum on and the cats scatter. Fearsome predators. I tilt the case back far enough to slide the attachment tube to the mouse. There's a hollow 'THOO" sound as it goes up the tube.

I was a vegetarian for twelve years. Vegetarianism is a compassionate, rational response to a factory farming system that turns feeling, thinking animals into meat units. I don't believe our cultural memory extends far back enough to know how farmers thought of their animals before they got packed away into the abstractions of industrial agriculture. How much did we love our hogs? Were we less terrified and neurotic over our own deaths because so many of us were personally responsable for delivering animals we knew to theirs? Did the bacon taste better because it came from someone you loved?

I want to repersonalize death. I don't want to anthropomorphize, or engage in emotional hair-tearing, nor do I want to distance myself from the pain I cause by pretending it doesn't exist because animals are non-verbal or have differently shaped brains. I want to explore what I know about death from those I have participated in.

Which is why after capturing this mouse in a vacuum bag, I reached for a hammer. The vacuum bag was nearly empty.  Still, it took a long time to find the mouse, because, like a mouse, it was quiet.  Holding perfectly still, I mistook it several times for a lump of lint. A little more probing revealed which end of the oval lump was it's head.  That's what I aimed for.  Then a few more smashes to make sure it was quite flattened, and any mistakes I'd made would be brief ones.  Then into the dumpster behind the house.  Sorry, cute furry one.

Secrets of Orchids and Allergies

Yes, that one.
My friend Luna gave me an orchid.  A classic; the color you think of when somebody says orchid, and the type you think of too—a phalenopsis, or moth orchid.  I loved it.  It was a sweet, delicate sigh amidst my rollicsome, jangly life.  I read up on it's needs; lukewarm water about every four days, frequent, weak fertilizer.  I went slightly nutty, started daydreaming about having a bay window—nay—a greenhouse—nay—a turn of the century, glass-paned conservatory where I could wander among my far-flung specimens, smoking a pipe of vanilla-scented tobacco, and muttering Latin names to myself while the victrola crackled out Hayden in the background.
 Yes, I am a colonial fetishist.  Yes, I realize I am romanticizing an era whose glories were about 100% built on economically and socially exploiting awesome people and cultures all over the world, many of whom are still struggling to recover from our arrogant hubris.  I’m sorry.  The heart wants what the heart wants.  My heart wants tweed. 
So I bought another phalenopsis.  Like I do, I found out they were cloned hybrids of southeast Asian origin.  They moved into my kitchen window because I do the dishes.  Anyone who does the dishes knows the benevolent power of a beautiful kitchen window.  It counters dealing with a moldy salad bowl left in an unnamed wife’s backpack over the weekend, or having to plunge your hands into a dish of watery meat solids and beef tallow.
Then tragedy struck.  I saw a naturopath for a little mild, dry rash that had persisted on the back of my hand for a year.  She recommended (as I would have in her shoes) that I put tea tree salve on it, so we could rule out fungal infection.  I mentioned that I’d had a bizarre, violent reaction to tea tree oil the previous year, when it turned the skin of my toe to sponge, with water blisters under water blisters under water blisters.  But maybe the stuff was old or something.  She said try the salve anyway.  I did, for five days.  By day two, I noticed a burning smell when I applied the salve.  I saw her downtown and mentioned it.  She said to stop the treatment immediately.  I did.  Not soon enough. 
Turns out, what I had wasn’t fungus, it was a mild, gentle nudge of eczema.  The eczema was a due to a mild, gentle allergic reaction to all the essential oils I work around every single day, most prominently, tea tree oil.  Within two months, eczema had taken over the backs of both hands, and was creeping up my fingers.   A month later, I had to wear gloves to bed so I wouldn’t scratch in my sleep.  The month after that, I was wearing gloves full time because my skin broke open and began weeping.  I had to change gloves several times a day or layer in gauze so I didn’t weep through.   The foods I began reacting to read like a week’s grocery list.
But then there were orchids.  The worse things got, the more I needed them.  I needed them passionately, and desperately.  I think if it weren’t for my wife, my cat (who I eventually turned allergic to) and orchids, I would have sunk into a permanent, sleepy depression.  I would spend 20 minutes lingering in front of the orchid display at Trader Joe’s, basking in their glow, while mentally classifying them; brassia, cattlea, oncidium, doritinopsis.  Margaret, my wife, bought me a brassia—a Mexican spider orchid, with a two-and-a-half foot spike of cheerfully creepy, spidery blossoms marching like soldiers into the air.
Brassia/Oncidium hybrid "White Knight."
Smells good when it blooms.
Also, Margaret is awesome! 
I bought books on orchid hybrids and care.  I bought special orchid pots for them, with holes in the terra cotta so these air plants could let their roots breathe.  I began coveting papheopedela—slipper orchids.   So the main reason you’re seeing cheap orchids everywhere these days is the advent of meristem cloning.  It’s a process that takes the hard tip of a root or flower spike (it turns out in orchids this is undifferentiated tissue, like stem cells, it could become any part of the plant) and splices it, turning it into, literally, millions of plants.  So you can thank meristem cloning for that $7.99 phalenopsis looking like a botanical supermodel on your dining table.  Before meristem cloning, it would have had to been raised out of a bottle of seeds, with a hundred thousand brothers and sisters, and run you around forty bucks.  Slipper orchids can’t be meristem cloned.  They have to be raised from seed like their forebears.  Smell that whiff of tweed?  They’re special because they’re not (as) mass produced.  Even better, only super orchid dorks will know how special they are, so I get to be a super geek PLUS not a twitty jackass, because I get to be snobby without looking snobby because only other snobs will know.  Plus--(don’t tell!) Southeast Asian hybrid papheopedelums are super easy to grow.  Swoony intoxicating goodness!
What adds to their mystery, for me, is their association with the slipper orchids that grow in the high-altitude, old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.  Our local lady’s slippers are endangered, and have been flummoxing botanists for decades.  We can’t grow them in “captivity.”  They are dependent on some esoteric relationship with certain trees and fungi in the soil.  I appreciate them because, as much as I like science, I like things that outfox our efforts to understand them even better. 
Soon, I got two.  One, when I bought it had five small lancelate leaves, and one enormous blossom the size of my hand.  I haven’t gotten it to bloom again, but two and a half years later, it’s huge and green and healthy looking.  The other is a gracious, striped, green and white flowered maudia.
I, Maudius
So here’s weirdness.  My allergies and eczema got better.  This huge hurricane of inflammation passed through my body and left me in better shape than I had been  It took a year and a half before things approached normal, and the rest of two to settle down.  I got my normal, thin, elastic, smooth skin back.  This was huge. I still need to watch my spices—I can’t eat too much of any particular spice too many days in a row before I start reacting to it.  I might start feeling agitated, my heart racing, and wake up with puffy lips, or find an itchy hive or two on my hand.  But, otherwise the eczema’s gone.  I need to take a break from dairy now and again, but otherwise I can eat whatever I want.  This had three interesting effects.  1. I don’t take any food for granted, and remember my solemn promise to my diet-restricted self, that, should I ever get my skin and digestion back, I would never say no to a French pastry I wanted.  2.  I approach everything I eat, whether it’s organic kale or a GMO-laden corn dog, as a giant gift of love from a glorious tasty universe that I am a part of. 3. I got bored with my orchids.
To a degree, this is no surprise.  Orchids had been a rare pleasure that couldn't hurt me in a grand field of deliciousness that would leave me itchy and hyperventilating for weeks.  As the world opened up, maybe other things competed, and dimmed them in comparison.  I maintained them dutifully, but began to resent the work my collection—now called affectionately, the ‘chids—demanded. 
Then a few months passed, spring got close.  Allergies were still a mere blip on the scene.  Then I started liking them.  A lot.  I went from disinterested to slightly crazy about them in a matter of a few weeks.  Then, the allergies struck.  I got itchy, I needed to drop milk, citrus and black pepper from my diet, my lips puffed up, and a dainty powder-sugaring of hives sprinkled across the backs of my hands.  For a few weeks, the heart-racing restlessness that kept me awake and tormented for months returned.  My need of them predicted the rise of my allergies.  That or I’m allergic to liking orchids.
Aaaaany day now. . . .
So I keep them, and I love them.  They are my thriving green canaries in the allergic coal mine.  My maudia is days away from blooming, for it’s second time.  The first bloom is a given; somebody else got it there.  The second bloom is the flower’s confirmation that your relationship is working.  I feel like an anxious expectant parent.  Expect a Facebook post any day now.