Midlife Musings


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So, bitches,

I can’t be immune to metrics and considering the number of page views my California ABC is getting, I should pack it all in and just talk trash about myself. Or if you’re looking for Schadenfreude, I should tell you how much I am failing myself and everyone else around me: when I walked away from that Amazon job, almost a year ago now, I had a record number of hits with many of you probably gloating without saying anything, lol. Then the Amazon article came out in The New York Times and I received a record number of e-mails with people asking me: did you see this? Did you experience this?

Speaking of which, since it has been a year ago that I started this blog (with mixed success– although you can’t blame me for not being prolific), I should give you an update of what my UNCORKED life looks like these days.

The successes:

  • Working from home. Perks: a commute of about 5 minutes, no endless office meetings, a warm puppy at my feet and when work is slow, I can go for bike rides into the canyon behind our house, smell the eucalyptus trees and feel very blessed.
  • I am getting back to my writing. For a while, I was two-timing and then I am not talking about adultery or weird positions at orgies, but working two jobs, as in, teaching at Berkeley and commuting to LinkedIn. I had no time for writing, let alone be a good mother to my kids or a happy trophy wife to my husband. I was exhausted and getting fat from those fab free lunches at LinkedIn. But God, I do miss that company and the people I worked with: it is by far the best company I’ve worked for ever…
  • House projects are actually getting done or started…
  • Continued work: let’s be fair, I took a huge gamble when I walked away from UC Berkeley where, after ten years of work and a successful Excellence Review, I had some job security. Then when I took a job with Amazon and walked away from that one too, I was putting it all on the line. Some people might have thought I had a temporary bout of insanity while others were probably thinking I suffered from some form of midlife crisis but luckily, after this debacle, Netflix and LinkedIn took me back in as their contractor and work has been consistent, so I am not on food stamps yet.
  • My work for The Indo Project: in this important year of the 70th anniversary of the ending of the war in Asia, I have loved my work and activism for The Indo Project (www.theindoproject.org), an international NGO that works to build a legacy for the Indo Dutch community worldwide and tries to right the wrongs of WWII and post-colonialism. I have met many new people and have had some great opportunities and love some of the progress we’ve made. If the Armenians in this country could start not one but two Armenian Studies programs at California universities, I don’t see why we can’t do the same…
  • Reconnecting with friends: thank you for being my friend, and you know who you are!
  • Last but not least, and I should have mentioned this first: being home when my daughter, Caroline, is in her last year of high school: I feel the stillness of the empty nest approaching fast, and to have my baby one more year at home and laugh at her stupid jokes may seem insignificant, but it is not… it’s huge and I’m savoring every moment…

    I should set off my successes against my failures now, because that’s the only way you might read on, although failures is a big word and frustrations might be a better word. 

    I had a real low point recently and I will tell you why. With President Carter’s and Oliver Sack’s melanomas, I decided to have a skin check. Growing up with a mother who apparently thought it healthy to “sun her baby” without any form of sunscreen, and a father who had such bad psoriasis for which only sea and sun were considered “good” medicine (which meant every family summer vacation we were roasting in the sun like overcooked turkeys in a convection oven), I had the sneaky suspicion I might have a lot of sun damage, if not pre-melanoma skin cancers. Oh, and did I mention I am blond (though in recent years it comes more out of a bottle than straight out of my scalp), fair-skinned and green-eyed?

    So I picked a dermatologist and prepared for the visit (shave my legs and pits and be clean but not overly perfumed, which doctors hate). I walk around barefoot a lot, as that is supposed to be good for your feet, but I do clean my feet, honestly…

    However, the first thing the doctor went for is the soles of my feet, which, apparently can have lethal moles, too (if you are a hypochondriac like me, you will drop your computer/device at once and check your feet pronto).

    “You have a mole there,” she said.

    And I was like, “Come again?” because I had never seen any moles on my lily white princess stompers.

    So she got a wipe and wiped my foot.

    “Oh, no,” she said apologetically. “Just dirt,” which made me feel great of course, as if I were living under some highway overpass in San Francisco somewhere, eating leftovers from the food that Taco Hell left in their dumpster.

    Then it was off to my other body parts– did you know, by the way, that questionable moles on legs and arms tend to be much less serious than those found on scalps, faces, ears and necks? Mind you, I am, in fact, a serious mole checker and have read all the literature about size, colors, irregularities, asymmetry, bleeding, itching, you name it, so my concern was grave when the doctor spotted a thing on the back of my neck, which I of course hadn’t been able to check because I couldn’t see it. What bothered me most was that she kept going back to it with a certain glee, like a child in a candy story who has finally found that piece of candy that is rare but rewarding. Before I knew it, I was signing a piece of paper, okaying a biopsy and in she went with a scalpel, shaving off part of that mole after a local anesthetic. She assured me it was small and that it was probably nothing and I bought her chill attitude. For the moment.

    When, after a week, I still hadn’t heard back from the dermatologist’s office, I grew suspicious, not in the least because the scab of that mole in my neck seemed to grow and burn like the letter A on Hester Prynne’s chest. If you don’t know who Hester Prynne is, you need to go back to school. Seriously. 

    So I called the office.

    After much waiting, the receptionist came back telling me that my crusty old mole cells had been sent out for a “second opinion” (wtf, I remember thinking, I thought patients went for second opinions, not doctors). This was quite common, the receptionist assured me, but to me it sounded mega suspicious, or at least, I now knew for sure that that dreaded spot in my neck (well, yes, because everyone always forgets to put sun screen there, and I bike, and hunched over, why wouldn’t cancer grow on the back of my neck, triggered by the unrelenting sunlight of California?!) wasn’t 100% benign. “We’ll call you back, in another week.” Great. And now the worrying began for real. Was this the beginning of the end? After all, I am turning 50 this year, and God knows what else might be growing and blossoming inside or on my body, without me noticing until it was too late?!

    So I had to wait another week with mortality on the brain: have you ever been there?

    Right after Caroline was born, more than 16 years ago, I had an irrational fear that I was about to die and wouldn’t be able to be a mother to my two little darlings– and wouldn’t ever see them grow up… now, as I said, this fear was irrational and possibly hormone-induced, for which there must be some evolutionary reason: postnatal chemistry may trigger more fears in mothers with newborn babies (who really need mothers) so that they don’t lose their lives bungee jumping, rock climbing or binge drinking. I remember saying silent prayers, asking God or Whomever, for more time, just to see my children grow up. Funny that I should remember that, because now my kids were grown up and ready for college, and maybe my time was up and the Whomever was coming for his part of the bargain? Tick tock….

    I even got a little mad; ever since my folks died, not too long ago, I have been wearing their double wedding ring (as I broke my own, crashing off my bike), and guess what, I walked into my bedroom and flung that damn ring in the corner and said out loud: “I ain’t coming, mom and dad. Not yet. Just forget about it!!”

    After that little bout of anger, reflection set in. What if, I told myself, this were some melanoma, a malignant stain, a thing that would spread in no time to all other organs in sight… what if I had a limited life to live, what would I do with that time, OR if it weren’t malignant, what would I do differently in my life to make the years count instead of me merely counting years? Maybe you’re sick and tired of this piece already, but I tell you, we don’t start to live until we fear we might be dying soon, and everyone should, whether death is near or not, constantly reassess what a full and meaningful life really means…

    The answer was simple: I would stop all my consulting work and write my heart out. First a Book of Wisdom for my kids that they could open in times of their lives when the going got tough and missed my shoulder to cry on. Then I would finish all the book projects that I have started and write morning, noon and night. I have learned a lot in this beautiful life of mine, but I have also read, absorbed so much that I’m positive that I can write something, even if it’s a little something, that people would love to read.

    When I was teaching this is what my students connected with, i.e. I closed the usual playbook, grammar book or any other overpriced textbook and I would tell stories about my life– or have them share stories with me, to connect and engage and challenge students. Ask them the big life questions… and have them laugh at my inappropriate humor. Caroline writes and performs comedy– to me this is what teaching has felt like at times, as I knew that if I could make them laugh out loud, they would listen, and they did… I miss that part– being in front of a classroom.

    So why did I leave that job, again, you ask me? Read my Why I Left Academia blog– I have moved on from that, and may be dying. But then we’re all dying… some day.

    And I had work to do. The railing of our deck needed painting. Will was going to do that, to make money this summer (drinking money for when he gets back to Boston, duh…) but after having been a counselor all summer long, he was burned out and spent those last days in August lolling about, hiking with his friends, and being a 19-year-old, enjoying nada before the heavy course work of the semester would make him wish it were summer again. (Btw, I dropped him off at SFO recently, and his happy hopping through the terminal like a playboy bunny was almost insulting– as if we run a maximum security penitentiary at home and he got his first day of freedom… I cried a little tear as I saw him vanish, after security, and like every mother who has to say goodbye, we always think back at those moments of how little and vulnerable they were as babies and we forget they are practically adults now– clueless adults at times, but adults nonetheless who will have to find their way into the world like we did, when we were their age. I had a flashback of my mom dropping me off, to go study in the States. I still see her standing there, lost in that Schiphol terminal, dark glasses resting on her nose that she wouldn’t take off, even though the terminal was dark. When I walked away, I hardly thought of her feelings or sorrow– I was rearing to go, like Will was that day, and well, by dropping him off and being all maudlin about it, I had become my mother. Fuck that. No more tears. Life goes on, with or without us. Who are we to think that our lives even matter in the big scheme of things?)

    So as I was saying (are you bored yet?!). There was work to be done. All my pent-up anger went into the painting of the railing of that big deck of ours. First I thought I’d do a quarter but the weather was gorgeous and while it was still shady, I decided to paint on, and then I said to myself I needed to finish that whole gallon of paint, because no one likes old flammable paint sitting in California garages during times of drought, right? So I painted that whole goddam railing, plus a bit of the back deck, risking tennis elbow. A labor of love, And remember: hard labor is always an excellent way to get your mind off of things, like nauseating melanomas. And doing stuff with your hands is absorbing for the soul, so after a day of painting, that deck looked like a million bucks and that melanoma: what melanoma? I had painted the worries about a premature death out of my system.

    Buddhism teaches us that we should live every day like it might be our last. To live like that is a real discipline but after that paint job (forget tennis elbow, the next day, my entire right breast hurt like it had been pounded by the Bart train, lying on the rails just outside the Orinda station), I should embrace (paraphrase) the words of Oliver Sacks: to live with grace, die with dignity and always be very thankful for what was given to you, every day of your life. I have much, much to be thankful for and while my EGO always wants more, the key is to let go and utter hallelujah. The doing is in the being, and in being, we move away from the selfish ego and become part of all that is us, outside ourselves and within ourselves. That’s the wonder, the energy that nature has embedded in us. Some call it God but I am with Spinoza and Emerson and Yeats. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you’re reading too little. And no, Buzzfeed does not count…

    I had painted myself out of a black hole and was ready to accept whatever the Cancer Furies were going to fling at me.

    Life, as a wise woman once told me at a funeral, is not about quantity (number of years) but about quality (how you use those years) and if you live by that principle, you may have seen enough after 10 years, or you may realize 100 years still isn’t enough. However you roll the dice, you are still the master of your own universe and you can try to make that universe heaven or hell. I chose not to dwell on hell and was ready to accept my fate. Noli timere messorem.

    And all because of that one stupid railing– it resurrected me like the mast on a ship, ready to sail any storm, at high seas and low tide. Whatever. I am not a sailor. You get it.

    Now let your freak flag fly, be yourself, and don’t worry for once about tomorrow or the bills you have to pay. All we owe is what we owe ourselves. Life is short. 

    Vita brevis… et longa blog.

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