Archive | December 2012

Were the Mayans right? Will we be here tomorrow?

Only eight hours till midnight, and I’m optimistic about surviving December 21st, despite what the Mayan calendar allegedly said. I already celebrated by nuking and devouring a Kashi Mayan Harvest Bake for lunch – my second-favorite frozen entrée, a vegan mélange of healthy stuff like plantains, beans and amaranth that weighs in at just 340 calories.*

Mayan calendar and pyramid

But walking my dog Sirius this morning, I thought maybe the Mayans were right. Mother Gaia was whipping up gale-force winds that sounded like jet planes or freight trains.** Perfect weather for falling trees, and my neighborhood has dozens of enormous pines, oaks and maples. Normally I’d have been sensibly hunkered down indoors, but Sirius wasn’t about to be denied his morning peeing and pooping.

In the course of our walk, I realized two things: I could quite easily be killed by a falling tree limb, and I wasn’t yet ready to die. Sirius, my chow-Aussie mix, had no such concerns. At first he was a little unnerved by the force of the wind, which was blowing his ears and his long black hair straight back, but he soon adapted, and he would have been content to putter around indefinitely, marking his territory and looking for the perfect spot to poop. He couldn’t understand why I cut our walk so short.

It’s often said that humans are the only animals with the foresight to fear death. I don’t entirely believe it, but the way Mother Nature was showing her fury on the very morning of what was predicted to be the End of Times got me thinking about death and how we deny or come to terms with it. The subject is far too vast for a single blog post, but here are a few of my personal observations.

I can’t remember exactly when I first understood the reality of death, but two childhood memories come to mind. I recall lapsing into hysterical giggles when I attended my grandfather’s funeral and saw him laid out in his coffin. That was the first time I’d seen a dead body, and my laughter was undoubtedly a nervous reaction. And I recall the many civil defense drills of my elementary school years, when we were led to believe that crouching under our desks would somehow protect us from a nuclear holocaust.

Like millions who grew up during the dawn of the nuclear age, I never expected to reach the age of 30. As a student at Barnard in the early 1960’s, I was amazed when I read of plans for a World’s Fair in New York City in 1964. How could people possibly plan that far ahead, when it was a virtual certainty the human race would have annihilated itself by then? And I vividly recall the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the United States and Russia came perilously close to launching the nuclear missiles that would destroy us all. As the days dragged on, I begged the boyfriend who would later become my first husband to marry me before it was too late. I was far from virginal, but the sanctity of marriage seemed somehow significant in the face of annihilation.

Gradually as the years went by and the apocalyptic big bang didn’t happen, the fear lost its intensity, and it became possible to imagine a longer lifespan, and even the possibility of bringing children into the world. But I wonder how much of the hedonism of the Sixties – in which I reveled to the fullest – had to do with the sheer relief of having survived well into the atomic age, and the determination to make the most of whatever time remained?

There’s so much more to say, but it’s almost 5:30, and I need to get ready for an end-of-the-world party. These same friends, Tom and Meredith Mercer, gave a Millennium party on New Year’s Eve in 1999, another night when many believed something dire would occur, and here we are an amazing thirteen years later. That night I created a decorative platter with an intricate mandala design of meats, cheese and veggies.

This year I wanted to make something comparable, but it’s going to be a little simpler and a lot sweeter. This afternoon I bought a big plain New York-style cheese cake, and I’m going to spread ready-made Betty Crocker chocolate frosting on top, then draw a Mayan calendar-style design with pink and green decorative frosting. Hey, don’t knock it – that’s all they had at Walmart.

And now I’m off to look up some designs and practice a bit before I decorate the cake. I’ll try out the different frosting tips on bread, and I’ll get to eat the rejects – yum! First, though, I’ll fortify myself with eggnog, heavy on the brandy. Here’s to the dawning of a wonderful New Age!

*By far my favorite frozen entrée is Palermo’s Thin Crust Supreme Pizza. It comes from Milwaukee, my home town, and I lower the calorie count by feeding lots of the crust to my dog Sirius.

**Later, driving to my Nia class at the Y, I did in fact encounter roads closed by fallen trees, and I learned on the afternoon news that our little Rensselaer County town had the highest wind gusts in the area, upwards of 75 mph.

orroMayan End of World cartoonw.

Deja vu: Another troubled young man, another massacre

Back in July, I concluded my blog post about the horrific massacre in the Colorado movie theatre as follows: 

Social media and mass communications have become so overwhelmingly powerful, the images of violence and mayhem so inescapable, and powerful deadly weapons so readily available, it’s no surprise that for certain deranged individuals, the lure of deadly international fame will prove irresistible. Sadly, the massacre in Aurora probably won’t be the last.  

Bacon Francis 3 heads

I wish with all my heart that I’d been wrong, yet here I am, trying once more to make sense of a senseless act of violence. We don’t yet know what motivated Adam Lanza to kill twenty first-graders and six staff at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, and the answers may have died with him. We do know that he spent countless hours closeted in his bedroom with his computer, but the authorities are saying he smashed it up so thoroughly that the contents may never be recovered.

Once again, in the wake of this tragedy, the pundits are pontificating about gun control and mental illness, and theorizing about what can be done to prevent future massacres. There are no easy answers, but one is painfully obvious: outlaw or severely restrict the sale and possession of semi-automatic weapons and magazines.

In January of 2011, after Jared Louchner opened fire in a Tucson parking lot, killing six and injuring 14 others, including Congresswoman Gabriella Gifford, I began writing the following blog post: 

Bacon Francis seated figureAs soon as I heard the first reports about the twisted thinking of the shooter in the horrific Arizona massacre, a snap judgment came to mind – I was willing to bet he was paranoid schizophrenic. As an art therapist, I’d worked for over a decade with patients who shared that diagnosis, and I knew the symptoms well. It was Jared Loughner’s creation of a “new currency” to rival the government’s that was the tip-off.

I knew quite a few paranoid schizophrenics who believed in complicated structures of world domination, often involving the government. Sometimes they thought they “controlled” these bizarre delusions, but of course it was the delusions that controlled them – that and the fact that they were confined to locked wards in a state psychiatric hospital.

That was back in the 1980’s – ancient history when it comes to the treatment of mental illness. At Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie, deinstitutionalization was making rapid inroads, with more and more patients being discharged to the community, but there were still well over a thousand inpatients, many of them there for years on end. All were judged a danger to themselves or others, and many had done prison time. I worked with arsonists and murderers. It was almost inconceivable that some could ever be discharged, yet in the years that followed, most of them were. I don’t know what became of them.

Strangely enough, I wasn’t frightened. None of them ever assaulted or even threatened me. I like to think that was because of my charming personality or therapeutic skills, but more likely it was my role as a creative arts therapist. I didn’t wield the authority to change their medications or make crucial decisions regarding their privileges or discharge planning, so I didn’t constitute a threat. The options I offered – music, art, creative writing and role playing – weren’t required; patients could elect to take them or leave them. Then too, they were on heavy doses of medication.

One night a week, I facilitated a Creative Arts Club at the Rehabilitation Center for those approved by their doctors to leave the wards. In a mostly dark, deserted building, with only a therapy aide and sometimes an art therapy intern for backup, I helped them to create murals and to act out their issues in sociodramatic role playing. We held art shows in the community and staged cabarets for the other patients, with me as the piano accompanist. Years later, these events provided the inspiration for the climactic cabaret scene in my novel Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders.

I never finished or published that blog post – in part because I couldn’t figure out what conclusions I wanted to make, in part because I was in the throes of profound depression at the time. I was barely able to get out of bed in the morning, and nothing, including blogging, seemed worth the effort. Yes, I too am one of the millions of Americans diagnosed with a mental illness. In my case it’s bipolar disorder, currently well controlled with medication.

It appears Adam Lanza may have had Asperger’s syndrome, technically a developmental disability rather than a mental illness. Perhaps with proper treatment, he might also have been diagnosed with an underlying mental illness and received appropriate help. In any case, people with Asperger’s are certain to be further stigmatized the way people with mental illness already are.

Should our society start locking up more of the mentally ill, the way we did in the good old days of Hudson River? Probably not, but these days millions of them are doing time in prison instead. The old-fashioned psychiatric hospitals were far more humane, and sometimes they actually helped. But of one thing I’m absolutely sure: those deadly semi-automatic weapons have got to go.

Bacon Francis carcass umbrella

 Illustrations for this post are all paintings by the British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992), one of the biggest influences on my own art. 

Curbing the Christmas urge to overspend

christmas-presents under treeMy Christmas shopping came to a screeching halt this morning when the garden center rejected my debit card. Fortunately, I had the checkbook from my other account, the one I share with my husband, so I wrote a check to cover the cost. I’d finally found the perfect ornament for the top of the tree, a woman swathed for winter in Victorian clothes, and it was the only one left. That plus a couple of other ornaments cost only $36 – a deal I couldn’t resist.

He’s not going to be happy about it. He’ll be even unhappier when I tell him I drove down the road to the bank and deposited a check from our joint account to cover my shortfall. I usually check my balance online to avoid sinking into the red, but my computer had mysteriously refused to let me to access my account for the past few days, offering up a pesky argument about lapsed security certificates. Now the glitch is gone, but the damage is already done, to the tune of a $25 overdraft fee.

I thought I’d found an okay treetop ornament last night – a gilded light-up star for $10.99 from Walmart. But when I showed it to my spouse, he gave me that sardonic half-smile, half-sneer that means “This is so ridiculous that I’m not even going to dignify it with a comment.” (It’s the same expression he dons when I tell him I’m going to make a gazillion bucks from my books in the near future.) Given that look, I decided to visit Hewett’s one more time. I’d seen some treetop angels there last week, a bit pricy, but I hoped they might be on sale by now. They weren’t, but I couldn’t resist that Victorian woman, or the beautifully feathered red and green birds, even though I’ll have to hang the latter well out of reach of my cat Lunesta and my dog Sirius, who will no doubt find the plumage irresistible. Christmas shopping-frenzy checkout

Actually, last night I’d decided my shopping was pretty well finished anyway. Just before midnight, I ordered a Yamaha keyboard for my six-year-old granddaughter Jasper, a beginner’s model with lots of voices and built-in lessons on sale for $79 from Best Buy. I’ll give my 13-year-old granddaughter Kaya a promissory note for tickets to the travelling show of Les Miserables at Proctor’s next spring – that way I can put off actually buying the tickets till January.  

I ordered my husband a special present – something beautiful and totally impractical that he’ll never guess in advance, and that I can’t describe here because he reads my blog. Our daughter Stacey’s present is a new washing machine to replace the one that died – essential for a working mother with two young girls. For my 83-year-old brother, who lives alone in the Bronx, an assortment of cheeses and sausages, including his favorite Limburger, from our native Wisconsin. And that’s about it.

Back in the last millennium, I would have been a lot more extravagant. I had more credit cards back then, and I used them freely. I’m bipolar, after all, and one of the endearing traits of my diagnosis is a tendency to spend like crazy. But I’ve long since reined in that aspect of my manic side. Now I have only one credit card, and I’m proud to say I haven’t used it in years, though I’m still paying off the old balance. It’s not even activated, but they sent me a new one, and I admit I’m tempted.

My husband and I don’t need much new stuff these days, but three weeks ago we bought our main Christmas presents – two state-of-the-art Samsung Galaxy II smart phones. For years I’d struggled with my old Blackberry, hating its tiny keys and avoiding it as much as possible. Incredibly, I never even tried texting until I got this new gizmo, and already I’m finding it useful. In Target the other day, I texted Stacey to double check Kaya and Jasper’s current sizes.  And an hour ago, while my husband was out, I texted him as follows: 

Hi. U should know that I wrote checks for $240 today because my debit card was declined. Please don’t yell! IOU.

Unfortunately he came home just as I was sending it, so I told him to go into the bedroom and check his messages before we talked. He obliged, and when he emerged, we had a calm, rational conversation about our Christmas budgeting concerns.

Household harmony – what more could I possibly want for Christmas? How about you – how are you coping with the holiday spending frenzy? I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

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R.I.P. Dave Brubeck

Brubeck Time magazine_cover,_Dave_Brubeck,_November_1954The first two jazz LPs I ever bought were by Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck. That day was in 1953, nearly sixty years ago, and I was barely twelve years old. Brubeck died this morning, one day shy of his ninety-second birthday, and his death brings back a flood of memories. I heard him in concert on several occasions, and bought several of his early albums, including that first one, the ten-inch Jazz at Oberlin.

Brubeck enjoyed a long and illustrious career. I last heard him at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall several years back, and although he hobbled on and off stage with difficulty, his playing was still as spry and powerful as ever. But his death reminds me most of all of how and why I became a jazz fan. This poem I wrote in 2007 explains:

My First Downbeat

Dimly in black and white, through a scratchy glassine sleeve

in a dingy bin at Colony Music in Times Square,                                                                       

Eddie Fisher’s face smiles up at me from the cover

of a bedraggled Downbeat magazine.

My very first major crush! I catch my breath, transported back

to seventh grade, the day I bought this very magazine,

the one that seduced me down the road of jazz.

Long lost for decades, now it’s reborn as memorabilia,

with a $25 price tag. My knees creak as I hunker down,

retrieve the magazine, and slip it from its plastic sleeve.

 

Yes, this is it – November, 1953. I turn the fragile pages,              

searching for the story. Stan Getz, busted in Seattle

for trying to rob a drugstore to finance his heroin fix.

My mind’s eye scans the photo – Stan in white tee shirt,

leather jacket, boyishly handsome, cuffed and flanked by cops.

So tragically romantic – oh, alas, poor Stan.

So it came into my life, a heavy ten-inch Verve,

Stan Getz Quartet, my very first LP. I didn’t understand at first,

me, a 12-year-old Milwaukee girl, who played “Oh My Papa”

on a red mother-of-pearl accordion. But still I persevered,

and soon my tastes evolved. At a Washington convention,

my father had his photo snapped with Eddie Fisher

as a special gift to me, but when he brought it home,

to his dismay, I blew it off as square.

 

But no, Stan’s story isn’t in this Downbeat! Paging through,

I find fascinating photos – Mingus and Bird at Birdland,

a young Miles Davis with a broad, ingenuous grin,

before he donned the mask of Prince of Darkness.

Then it comes flooding back –

Stan Getz was in my second Downbeat, not my first.

The Hilltoppers were on the cover. All these years,

my personal mythology has been a fraud.

 

Carefully, sadly, I slip the Downbeat back in its dusty bin.

Later, on Amtrak, heading north once more,

I curse my stinginess. Damn, I want those early pictures

of Miles and Mingus, even though I didn’t fall in love with them

till freshman year. Nothing for it but to head back to New York

and splurge on tattered memories in a magazine

that no one cares about but me.

Stan Getz

Stan Getz

I never did get that magazine, but down in the basement I still have cartons of old jazz LPs from the 1950’s. Browsing on eBay, I’ve learned that some of them may be worth hundreds of dollars, including perhaps Brubeck’s 10” Jazz at Oberlin. Maybe I’ll auction them off one of these days, but somehow I haven’t gotten around to it, in part because they’re so well and thoroughly played.