The Backbeat in the February Funk

After September 11, we all expected each other to be flaky, emotional, to have trouble sleeping, to be inappropriately open, to reorder our priorities, to acknowledge the world was breaking up around us. It was a major disruption and public.

What's different now? Why is everyone cranky and thinks it's "them?" How could it be "you" when things are falling apart?

We were glued to the TV, to the recaps of the buildings as they crashed and evaporated. We were filled with denial -- I remember the posters, "missing person," over all the lampposts. It was baffling and external.

And now for months I've been staring at the ^DJI, down, down. Back in time, back to 1997 now. Before Gavin's first "death." Before 2001. Before the dot.com bust and reboom. We're drowning in tales of people cutting more than corners, of abandoned pets and homes, of seniors ruined by Madoff. Some assisted living facilities are offering that you can have a roommate now. I'm so glad I'm not close to retirement. I'm so glad Mr. Fresh's parents were scared early on. I'm glad I have a cheap house and I'm so, so happy to not be alone.

Yes, I'm in a seasonal funk, and I'm still grieving, and I do hit that special widow dramatic spot of "why me?" when I get low. Add that to numerous real issues in my personal bit of the world and this is a challenging time for me.

I remember September 11 feeling unbelievable and totally real at the same time -- a lot of us said "surreal."

But this crisis is just plain real. Many of us, at least in my town, only cracked open our clenched eyes two weeks ago and we are all feeling it. Hell, I think the concrete feels it.

Why aren't we all giving each other room to be grumpety-grumps? (Why aren't we all considered heroes for showing up and soldiering on, as we were on September 12?).

Maybe we all feel we are partially to blame, even those of us who can say we didn't benefit from the boom. We were still living in the dream world. I heard a story about someone who went to jail for an alleged sexcrime and said he hadn't fought harder in court because of his Catholic guilt over having sex at all. Do we all have something like that going on?

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I did not laugh

He was probably 8 or 9 years old, in line at the grill outside the lodge.

"Wow! Dad, 7 inches -- that's a really long hot dog, isn't it??? I mean, it's like (holding hands some distance apart)."

"Yes, son, that is really long."

"I'm going to get that! I'll bet it's the biggest hot dog I've ever seen!"

"I'm sure it is, son.... Yes, ma'am, one hot dog, one beef, and two Dr. Peppers, please."

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I shouldn’t, my daughter’s birthday is in February, and I am usually on the upswing by Valentine’s Day, even when I haven’t been in love. I can understand why red signals prosperity for the Chinese – I love seeing those cupids and hearts everywhere, drugstore windows made me smile, and the candy!

Good things have happened in February: I moved here on Valentine’s Day 1989. Childbirth, Chinese New Year, and other explosions. The evenings lighten. I find daphne and camellia and hellebore surprises consistently.

But I spent one and a half days last week convinced I’d be fired Friday afternoon. It was a level of paranoia that I don’t think I’ve experienced … ever – although I think it was also based on some decent observations. And the truth is that since I got married and didn’t need the job so much – this is the first time in my adult life that I've not been the breadwinner – I have been phoning it in, at best. I can’t handle the detail in the kind of work I used to do, which they hired me for. I don’t have the patience for it, or the eyesight. I’m impatient and stupidly unafraid to show it. And I’m bored with doing it after 10 years and I don't fit this particular environment.

And the next tasks which they’ve trained me to do seem to antagonize someone important to a degree that I can’t imagine fighting, or winning, or accommodating and hugging into some great hippie happy ending.

Combine that with all the other things that sucked the past few weeks:
-- Mr. Fresh got a notice from IRS saying he owes $17K. He was super upset. While he has been blown away by my competence and ease at hiring a professional to do tough stuff, it's a stress on a new relationship, one that has had to hit the ground running.
-- Volunteer work for church has been haywire because I couldn’t get the data I need (just got ‘em; supposed to be done tomorrow; Good effin’ luck!)
-- I got angry at one of my NIMBY neighbors and he exaggerated our conversation to the point where the community association has called and asked if it’s true that I have giant plans to destroy the character of the neighborhood. I was provoking him, I’m mad at myself, and of course, I still want everyone to like me. (And no, this will not be what makes me rich, not in the next 10 years anyway).
-- I ran out of time to schedule an art thing that will be fun, but requires preparation, and now I have to do it this weekend.
-- We got an offer from the cab company that destroyed our front yard in September and the company is in bankruptcy. We may have to settle low.
-- We reserved honeymoon tickets, but then had to confront that they cost money.

And oh yes, the economy. Yeah, that. We didn’t want to notice, but the hammer keeps getting bigger every few weeks and those whacks are beginning to smart. On the Tuesday that the stimulus bill passed and the market tanked anyway, I told someone that I felt our whole town woke up and could see the vultures circling above. Did I mention Mr. Fresh was trained as an economist? He had been pretending along with the rest of us, sanguine, it will be limited. No more.

I am pretty sure someone put itching powder under my turtleneck two weeks ago and it’s still there. So in the hallway in my great anxiety I told a friend how I hate February and she said, “Isn’t that when Gavin died?”


He died in June. But let me think of that February. 2006. It was effin’ hell. He was dying on the couch. I could see him receding from us. I was furious and trying all kinds of futile manifestations like taking him to a neurologist, vacation, church, anything. Anything! Let it make some difference! Let it HELP! HELP.

The insight is that this loss still connects to everything in my life. Nearly three years later, I’m not in active grieving, but find a thumbtack on my chair and my first thought will be “why me” all over again. All the pain, the anger, the position of widowing comes flooding back. I’m there again, not here, not married again and better, not mothering competently, not holding down a job. There, watching someone fade and flow away from me. Unable to do a fucking thing to stop it. So sad I could kill.

The rage that sent me crying after the argument with my neighbor. Crying in Mr. Fresh's shirt: “Why do those people care what I do with my property when they never did a goddamn thing to help us after Gavin died? They were all one block away and we could have died a dozen fucking times! And they couldn’t bring one fucking casserole?”

But it’s a lie, this position, my widow’s anger. (Though it is true that widows traditionally exploit their properties. That’s another kind of rage.) The fury that made me provoke a good neighbor who is actually one of the only people who helped out that year and a half when we were dying, Short Stack and I, and who put a gate in the fence so she could play in his kid’s treehouse.

Maybe it’s rightful rage – loss sucks – but like so much in my life, it’s been misdirected.

I still expect that ax to fall, and I am still angry. But I already saw one lawn full of purple crocus, and I can work on the resume. [I am so bad at ending on a hopeful note. Ack, February!!!!]

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Dating Episode 0 [Summer 2007]:
My Elbow Was a Delicious Cake

We went around the circle in grieving group. What happened in your life this week? I was all a-giggle. “I BOUGHT PERFUME! Here smell this!” I oozed manically, extending my cleavage to Viv.

I’d never bought a perfume before. Sure, I used to wear sandalwood or musk oil, smearing it through my hair before martial arts class. But I’d always been skeptical that the marketplace could come up with a fragrance that really suited me, me, me, and it seemed that every perfume I tried smelled like my Grandma, mostly half-rotten lilies, at least on me.

I had lost a man. I had a child, a job, and a graduate degree. Maybe I could admit I was a woman in the marketplace – the perfume market at least. I could, I thought, settle on a single product, or two or five, and let go of my artists’ dream of inventing my perfect personal fragrance (which might take till after my death). Maturity meant dealing with reality and the limits of the mere 1,000 fragrances that are manufactured commercially. Enough perfectionism, let’s dance.

I asked girlfriends how they had selected:
“My friend who picks my haircolor told me what to buy… and ze men love it.”
“I’ve always worn White Shoulders, I don’t know why.”
“I had a hip aunt who wore this and I wanted to smell like her.”
“My grandmother told me Chanel means you’re classy.”

It was not useful and I was scared of the lilies. Then one week I sat so close to a cute Jewish lesbian at church that I joked I could smell her perfume. (Yes, it was a flirt, but given my state, she would know I was not serious). She said, oh, do you like it? She schooled me about the fragrance families. Yes, of course I like vanilla, musk, woods, spices. Must be an Oriental amber.

Tried several at the MegaBeauty on the way in to work each day. They were all so powdery – it was just wrong -- I am not a dry person in any sense of the word. Sniffed around and decided Oriental Spicy for sure.

Opium smelled fantastic at first but faded to a soft smell of Gillette shaving cream, definitely not what I was after. Went through 10 more, at least, many of which completely disintegrated on my skin.

But I fell in love with my own arm the first day of Versace Crystal Noir. “Oh man,” I told Emma, “I smell like a cake, HERE” – a vanilla cake made mostly of gardenias. Gavin and I had honeymooned in Oaxaca where they sold gardenias from the zocalo for a peso, there were always some in the room. Each day I stopped at the store and respritzed; I couldn’t stop sniffing the crook of my elbow. And it got better, peppery and floral with none of that old-lady lilyness I so abhor. Faded to something that was still seductive, even to myself. While I was sniffing I noticed, hmmmm… that arm tans rather beautifully, and has a little tone left in it… and oh the other one. Quel arm! Nice.

Sixty bucks later it was mine and I was its.

I’m pretty sure that was when I started to think of myself as a single woman and not so much as a widow. All of a sudden there were men in the streets, and in cars, and even in meetings with clients. They looked at me. I looked for empty ring fingers. (How strange to be on the make after 15 years.) Friends said, “you look great, have you lost weight?” and “what a great haircut.”

It would be another 5 or 6 months before I had my hands full of flesh, but now I was moving through air that had been charged. It wasn’t just the “aerial notes” and “headspace of gardenias” (with a touch of clove and vanilla) but those were a constant subconscious reminder of where I was and where I was headed, if slowly.

* Read the next installment in this series! *

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More Winter Blah's

It's hard for me to convey just how much I hate this time of year.

Usually, though, Valentine's Day is the start of the off-ramp, the upswing. Even though the light's been gaining on us, a minute at a time, mid-February is when it begins to seem real, that spring might come.

Yes, there are still treasures: Mr. Fresh bought me some chocolates yesterday, thinking there were actual mushrooms in the "truffles." I asked him if he was joking, looking intently in each other's eyes, and I could not tell if he was. (He was serious).

And we are planning our honeymoon. In our own way, while we learn about each other and how to cope with the in's and out's of each other's routine weekend lowpoints.

The other night we were teasing each other and he said, "God, we are just like an old married couple." Me: "We are an old married couple. We just weren't married to each other most of that time."

So I'm still feeling down, and needing naps. It doesn't help that the economic situation seems to have sunk in a bit all around. Tuesday I felt everyone in town was finally seeing the buzzards circling above (no blame -- I have been looking steadfastly away too). And reading blogs of young widows and widowers, recapping their death experiences and their denials, hearing of their shocks, does not help (though finding comrades does). I dread looking at my analytics and seeing the downward bounce after being featured in BoingBoing (thanks, Gar). Sure, it was up 3217%.... that means it will soon be down 3216% too. I'm a silly blogger, a bad journal writer, and a mediocre worker overall.

But there's dark chocolate in the house, and a scuba honeymoon to look forward to. So, onward.

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Navel academy

Comparing my innie to her outie:

"Look Mommy, you have an uppercase and I have a small-case."

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Short Stack knows the alphabet and is learning to write it. One evening (this almost qualifies as a tantrum) she insisted that I tell her how to write the word "POOP."

It was not worth fighting.

I told her (see picture).

"Another 'a'?" she said in disbelief.

"Yes, honey, you want me to tell you how to spell 'poop,' don't you?"

I am a bad mommy.

(By the way, she wrote it boustrophedon -- the way early literate cultures did -- as the ox turns the plough. Left to right, then right to left, then left to right again.)

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My First Young Widow and Her Advice

Last Sunday after service, I was introduced to a woman around my age who had just lost her husband to another cancer. It was a hallway meeting, rushed, and we scribbled e-mails and gave our two-sentence summaries. When I mentioned just having remarried, her eyebrows rose in an "mm HMMM" that I remember from meeting my first young widow.

My connection to Marie was a surprise from church and happened during Gavin's last several months. Of course, I was in a cranky e-mail conversation. In this case, I was complaining that a certain local politician, eligible for an upcoming election, was scheduled to present a sermon. I didn't like him because he was promoting the light rail that was planning to run through my porch. I knew of one serious ethics violation* and the gentleman's general dishonesty and didn't feel we should give him such a bully pulpit.

I was referred to the worship committee. After some e-mailed discussion of the issue, Marie wrote, "On another note, I don't know how you'll take this, but I want you to know that my husband died after several years fighting cancer and I had small children at the time. It's been several years, and I am doing much better now. But if you ever want to talk, about anything at all, I'm here."

Did I ever.

We had coffee in a reading nook that was multitasking while her kitchen underwent remodeling. Copper granite, her late husband's art books, and a toaster oven resting on a bookshelf next to a jar of Smucker's.

We talked about his illness, and ours. Her kids had been two and four. His death was a surprise; he had good odds after a second chemo but then broke his hip and died from complications. Yes, there had been life insurance. She had long ago abandoned grad school to stay at home and they'd moved to an area she didn't like for his job. She didn't know what to do next or who she was but she knew she had to take care of her kids. And all her friends were married with kids the same age.

She told me two things that had a huge influence on me. HUGE.

(1) Grieving can take many forms. Listen to your body. It may not be what you expect. "Ummmm... like what?" Well, for her, it had manifested as intense horniness. I laughed. Okay, if anything happens.... I guess I will just respect what my feelings and try not to be too shocked.

Almost two years later, when the wave of horniess hit me, I told her and she said, "What took you so long?" When had these feelings started for her? "Um, the next day."

(2) Wednesdays, wine, and West Wing. Marie had no identity, no direction, but some time to grieve and take care of things. What did she know about herself? "Well, I knew I liked wine. And I liked to watch the West Wing."

So every Wednesday she would put the boys to bed early, open a bottle of wine, and watch her favorite show. "Were you studying wine?" "No, it was pretty much anything. I wasn't ambitious or intellectual about it."

Somehow, for Marie this ritual dedicated to herself turned into an evening out each week, and dating and sex, but I don't remember the details too well. She was married and in grad school when we met. Now she's starting a new career that is good for her and uses her talents. Her family is pretty well settled in (and the kitchen is finished).

What I remember was how she carved something out from this tiny nook -- just a little bit of insight into one or two things she enjoyed, no matter how ordinary.

And these two bits of advice from Marie were instrumental in my journey, even though he was still alive and fighting. Of course, I knew I would need them, so I listened despite myself. Someone had been through it, and out. She'd even had choices on what steps to take.

I try to pass on Marie's wisdom whenever I can, though I'll admit I get some funny looks. Hey, we're not all Unitarians.

* In the end, he was disqualified from that election because he didn't meet the eligibility rules -- and he's, um, a lawyer. Nah, nah, I was right.

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History According to the 4.5-year-old (plus Pink)

Hamish and his Mommies love Pink. He knows all the words (clean versions) and dances along. In preschool he was learning about the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks was told to go sit at the back of the bus. Hamish protests: "She should say to the bus driver…" (he stands with his hands on hips):

"So what, I'm still a rock star,
I've got my rock moves, and I don't need you.
And guess what, I'm having more fun,
and now that we're done, I'm gonna show you…."

(Ugh, another full disclosure: I've been telling this story wrong for months: it was Susan B. Anthony.)

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More About that Artwork (the Zen one)

Presenting one artwork, and the detritus from the Day of the Dead performance, makes me want to present everything I wrote about that blank piece of paper, which I cut up and distributed with this note, to all the guests. Forgive the repetition from a previous post. In real life, things weave, repeat, abbreviate, rephrase, expand, as they will here.

For Gavin O'Leonard

I have very few regrets, but I do wish I had said this at Gavin’s memorial service.

Gavin always believed the meaning of his work was in the eye of the beholder. He hated writing artists’ statements and trying to explain. “That’s just what I think the work means,” he’d say. “That has nothing to do with anything!” He believed that only your eyes at a particular time can see the work and give it meaning, a highly individual meaning each time you view any piece.

And God, Gavin hated the way his work looked on slides. When you have a slide, you have a feeble reproduction, with light shining through it, of what the camera saw on that day. Light is so much brighter than white cotton. It just gets flattened by the lights given the camera, which reflect back on the surface, and then the work would get washed out from the bright light of a slide projector. He said his work looks better in person because in his technique, the light comes from inside the paper.

I saw from watching him work how well he understood every fiber of the Arches he listened to every day from 10 to 10 with breaks for lunch, dinner, the news and a few beers. While it looked pale, in Gavin’s classic work he ground the pigments of the pencils deep into the paper, punishing the cotton fibers while he made them sing. (Ask me about the “original” Smithy drawing if you don’t believe me.) The paper was another skin. That Arches 100% rag paper was his partner more than anything.

He also pointed out how in the classic O'Leonard, the source of the light is never pictured. A device from Vermeer and others, very classical.

So this what I wish I had read at the memorial service on June 25, 2006 – when we showed his “Audubon of Lamps” drawings – this quote from the Buddha, whom Gavin respected more than any other teacher:

Therefore, be ye lamps unto yourselves, be a refuge to yourselves. Hold fast to Truth as a lamp; hold fast to the truth as a refuge. Look not for a refuge in anyone beside yourselves. And those, who shall be a lamp unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the Truth as their lamp, and holding fast to the Truth as their refuge, they shall reach the topmost height.

- - - - - - (p. 2) - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This is a piece of the first drawing that Gavin did not start. It was hung and ready to go on the studio wall. It would have been used as the base for the fifth piece in The Mysteries, which I always considered the culmination of his life and life’s work. I only wished he had started it earlier.


Please use this paper to write a note to someone you love right now, to write a note to Gavin which you can burn and thus send to him in the afterworld (if he’s in one of the seven Chinese hells still), or to make a drawing. Or just feel the cotton and remember his every day. Or all of the above.

It’s yours now.

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Death is the Mother of Beauty.

It occurs to me how wordy I can be when there are wonderful visuals. Writing about the Days of the Dead reminded me that I have pictures of them.

802, 801, 800.
The top of the ofrenda. (Left) Fertility charms from friends, hospital bracelets. (Center) Gavin’s baby sweater, birthday greetings, our rings, a sex charm I made in a sardine can. (Right) Photos, wedding invitation, more hospital bracelets.

806, 807, 808.
The base of the ofrenda. (Left) Portrait of Gavin by a friend, milagro. (Center) Wooden flowers intended for our wedding, mums, painting from Oaxaca. (Right) Drawing of Gavin by a friend.

2006_Cancer Drawings. I’m not actually sure when Gavin did these, possibly in the summer of 2005, before the spine surgery. Everyone is drawn to them. I despised them on first sight. “Look, honey, I’m drawing the cancer going away.” Grrrr. It looked to me like he drew himself fading away. Losing weight, holes in his bones, mets all over, one drug after another, it still looks like prophecy.

It saddens me that people respond well to them – that he thought they would work, as part of his “visualization” routine, making it real with his eyes and his hands. And perhaps it’s contempt that makes me tell visitors how I thought these pieces foretold how he would erode and then disappear from this world. People want to buy them, I am broke but I don’t care. (Though I don't really want to keep them, either).

It’s not what he would have done, before disease, during, or now.

810. The blank piece of paper, hanging at the ready, which I cut up to make “party favors” for the 2007 Day of the Dead fire dance dedicated to Gavin.

I could talk more about how my Dad was a a photographer, and how careless I am about my history through images. I could talk about how a collective offering with Felipe Ehrenberg turned me back into an artist again, a long time ago. But for now, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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Two and a Half Years, Dozens of Anniversaries

Is it the mid-winter blahs, or real S.A.D.?

Is it that we haven't had a break, got married fast, no honeymoon, childrearing consumes all?

Is it that I overvolunteered for church stuff?

Is it that pizza I had delivered on Friday was so bad that it made me take the failing economy much, much more seriously? I mean, when you eat something, you really internalize it.

Or is it that I remember this day three years ago – my daughter's second birthday – when I had to get up super early to drive an hour to the hospital and pick up the prescriptions my dying husband had neglected to pick up?

February 1, 2006. When I came home from work, he'd been asleep for a few hours after his visit to the oncologist. Cindy had driven him there and back, and gotten a wheelchair to wheel him through the medical center. He was on Nexavar, the first miracle drug, which was sapping his energy and seemed to be stealing his breath. He could barely move without collapse. Cindy was one of his oldest friends, and she not only helped but enjoyed getting some time with him.

He was close to the end of his life, but I didn't know it, or admit it, and the drug was actually working.

After he'd woken up and eaten a few paltry bites of dinner he started to put his prescriptions away. I think there were eight that day. Three were missing – all the opiates: the patch, for a continuous low dose; and two strengths of oxycodone to supplement whether he needed a big hit or a little one. He had the tags, but not the bags, and we were down to maybe one pill.

And it was the night before our daughter's second birthday.

It was a complicated situation. He'd paid for them, and they were opiates; yes, they had them stored in the safe so it was a little complicated to pick them up, but really. If someone at the pharmacy had their eyes open they could steal them with no trouble at all by "forgetting" to put them in the bag. It would be so easy to take advantage of my sleepy 100-lb husband in his wheelchair, with his ditzy escort. Maybe it's the New Yorker in me, but I don't trust anyone, and there are some pharmacy workers who abuse their access. I had no reason to distrust these folks, but it's a large public hospital with many indigent patients in a forlorn secondary city, and I had, in the past, experienced consistent problems with another pharmacy giving me 28 pills instead of 30 for a maintenance drug. (And that had happened when I was paying out of pocket and generic was not yet available. So I really felt it.)

I was furious. I thought how much pain he'd have that night with only one pill available. I thought how lack of sleep and what minimal humor was left would hurt the next day's birthday festivities. I was the only competent adult around and the only one who could drive (opiates made him unwilling to risk driving). I had a busy day at work plus the birthday stuff. I was failing. I couldn't do it all. This, I had to.

He kept saying, "But the tags were there! Why would I think to see if the bags were full?" It was a huge handful of white bags and tags, plus receipts on top.

"See if your goddamn TAGS keep you warm at night!" I fumed.

I was going to be pissed, but I also had to act. I left a long, very anxious message for the pharmacy which was, of course, closed. And I rose early like the Groundhog to be at the hospital when the pharmacy opened. They hadn't listened to my message yet. The drugs were still in the safe and they apologized profusely.

I dropped the drugs back at the house, where Gavin was lying on the pulled-out futon (it was the middle of his two months there), told him I loved him and gave him a kiss, played with my girl, arranged dinner with my Mom, and went to the office.

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