Bulletproof lists

Telluride Daily Planet, Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dear Santa (or write-in candidate), It’s possible you remember me from last year — although I’m not sure how much energy you reserve for adults (thick and unimaginative as we are). I said you were my favorite superhero, but then threw in fading plastic icon, Freud look-alike and some other regrettable things. Hopefully, you just rolled your eyes and reached for another piece of marzipan.

There was probably nothing memorable in that letter except maybe the mention of my dad’s choice of Christmas tree every year — a scrawny one he’d lovingly fluff up and drape with old-school, (lead-based) tinsel. And how I’d lie beneath that tree and put myself under a deliciously soporific marshmallow-y, cinnamon-y, pine-y yuletide hypnosis, lazily willing the world back to its true nature, which is holographic and charged through with electric currents of magic.

Well, anyway, now I’m pretty sure you saw the letter for what it obviously was: an address to the masses — or a small segment of them living in our valley. This letter is real. It’s really to you. I mean it. I’m only relegated to this format again because there are no other options for adults. Which is, in fact, what I’m really writing about.

I don’t have to point out how our children’s Santa letters have sunk to new lows, what with the viral extent of e-mailing and texting and the internet (www.textsanta.net, emailsanta.com, etc., and all the letter generators that require only marginal filling-in of the blanks.) Given a dearth of adult letter-writing role models, however, is there anyone to blame but we, ourselves and us? Kids have been trained to ask for trademarks, brand names, labels and logos. They are forgetting how to ask for things invisible to the eye. How to want them, even.

It occurs to me a yearly letter to Santa should be mandatory for every adult U.S. citizen. That’s my idea. That it be required by law and written by hand in order to receive one’s automobile registration. (I am well aware not everyone has a vehicle, and that some will object to the Santa letter for religious, empirical or semantic reasons — or all three. That’s why we initiate a reward-based voluntary program, suggesting other addressees or an option for write-ins). The point is: adults using ink to pen compulsory letters of desire.

I mean, when you think about it … Hilary Clinton writing a yearly letter to you? And Donald Trump? Jim at the post office? Maggie at the library? Patty at the chocolate shop? Toll booth operators, poets, housewives, lost men, horse trainers, rock stars, maître d’s, masons, soldiers, ballerinas, plumbers, people in prisons, patients in hospitals. Newlyweds and people with broken hearts. People who can’t get out of bed in the morning. Even people whose hearts are devoid of desire — even them. All telling you what they want, or what they would want if they could want. All checking in annually with whatever part of the self it is that fashions wants and desires out of raw materials. Would that be the heart? The heart of hearts?

I’m sure you remember “A Miracle on 34th Street,” in which your true identity is eventually proven real in court when 50,000 letters addressed only to Santa Claus, US Post Office are dumped in front of the judge. Every day, we fashion the world anew from our collective belief in what it is, what it was the day before, and what we think it will be. What if we gave ourselves a lifelong project of writing letters, of remaking the world based on our pared-down, barefoot, daisy-holding wants? What if we inadvertently remade Earth into something that throbbed better, breathed better, gave and received better?

Last year, I said I thought children and their belief in belief were holding up the world and you were holding up the children. Well, I’ve changed my mind. Grown-ups need to grow down and participate in this act of conjuring. We need to make our lists, and then check in with how careful — or slovenly or greedy or wasteful — we are. Then we need to prune the wish tree until we have even the smallest Whoville inkling that the fruits borne will be sweet, and satisfying and right.

So here’s the start of my letter to you (the real one), which should actually be private and penned in ink and on decent paper except that I’m trying to make a point here to the people of my valley (and earn my automobile registration for 2011).

Dear Santa: Please don’t let me run out of good candles this year since burning them is cathartic, smells good, and the blue flames speak to me. And if you can figure out how, give me the courage (every day) to use my arms a lot more on the balance beam of life….

Apple a day, metaphors at bay

Telluride Daily Planet, Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My current obsession? I want to be better in bed. Here it is, flu season, and — clearly — I’m just as rotten at being sick as I ever was.

My very own custom-made version of the winter crud, which begins — mysteriously enough — with a whistle in my ears, is here; and by day three it’s in my chest and my vocal cords have gone through a meat grinder.

Very shortly after that, the four horsemen — chills, aches, hacking cough, and fever — career into my body, and, with their hoofing and snorting, I go down. But not gently.

No, I kick and fight back and pretend it’s not happening as long as I can until finally, eyes shiny and face flushed, I collapse, strapped onto the symptom gurney and being wheeled away to I don’t know where.

All I can think about is that wellness grass, over there, on the other side of the fence, and how green it is, how envious I am of the people standing there. Am I on the outside looking in? The inside looking out? Why did I get this thing? Will I ever be well again?

Of course, this kind of pitiful, prattling interior dialectic thwarts healing. I know this.

So then I start wishing I were more like my sick-people role models: the ones who sleep for three days straight. Or toss back Theraflu until one day it’s simply replaced with a life-resuming morning Cappuccino. Most of all I envy the ones who accept their fate with peace, drink their green tea, and then fall into difficult 900-page novels.

Because of the fact that envy is misguided, I then opt for a thoughtful meditation on the sick boys and girls from childhood stories, the pale ones who patiently watch as seasons of birds, leaves, and snowflakes scud by their window panes until the scarlet fever or what have you is finally vanquished. There is beauty in the natural process of going through the dark night of sickness to get to the new dawn of health.

So why can’t I be more natural with it, huh?

Maybe the answer lies in etiology — the childhood causes of this disease of resisting disease. Here is so complicated and rich a field to mine, I don’t know where to start.

Double pneumonia, delirium, and a bathtub filled with ice cubes? Fabricating an illness in Mrs. Wilson’s fourth grade until the symptoms become real? Long, empty sick days in a big house with a mother who cannot, under any circumstances, have her housecleaning schedule interrupted (which explains a visceral response to the combination of soft-boiled egg/sound of floor waxer)? I don’t know!

And when I don’t know, the car of my mind will inevitably veer onto the MetaphorLand off ramp. There are those, as we know, who believe all illness and injury are primarily a reflection of spiritual, emotional, or psychic imbalance.

Sinuses are about repression of grief and unshed tears. Hands are about not being able either to hold on or let go. Etcetera. I am so prone to this kind of thinking — not just about illness but about every single thing in life — that I need to be polemically reminded that there are also those who disagree.

One of them is American woman of letters Susan Sontag (1933-2004), who in her 1978 celebrated treatise Illness as Metaphor states up front that “…the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.”

She names tuberculosis and cancer, and later AIDS, as illnesses that have not benefited from being culturally viewed as metaphors for anything. In fact, her view is that patients suffer unnecessarily by attributing additional meaning to their disease.

Exhausted by meanings, I partially agree! As I lie here, then, trying not to attribute much meaning to my symptoms, their related organs or body parts, or to illness as a whole, I try imagining a world without metaphors. To do this, I have to imagine myself as a crow or a box or a bolt of lightening, which, though they exist in our human world as metaphors, exist to themselves as simply themselves. I am able to hold this thought — myself as crow — for about six seconds before my stream, river, flood of consciousness collapses the dike.

Fast forward to now: I have managed to stay on the couch for four solid days and get better. How do I do it? Ha! A lucky combination of blocking metaphors, drinking gallons of hot fluids, and four entire seasons of a TV series I’m too embarrassed to name.

Now that I’m better, however, I know what I’m in for: that inevitable flooding back of metaphors. So, I’m rolling up my pants.

Please, Google, 
do bedbugs fly?

Telluride Daily Planet, Tuesday, November 16, 2010

WASHINGTON — The D.C. Department of Health has had to move the location of its “Bed Bug Summit” to accommodate demand.

It’s crispy-cold in the city, and I’m experiencing familiar New York things that never seem to change: honking horns, the warm whoosh of air from subway stairwells, and the smell of hot pretzels, of trash, of Chanel No. 5.

As my old friends and I make our way across the park to an early ($6 instead of $13) movie, however, I am being told that some things have changed, including theater protocol. Bedbugs — cimex lectularius — are still on a rampage here, you see. In the Empire State Building, and Bloomingdales, and public schools and swank hotels: all over the place. In movie theaters, too.

Thus, we will need to scan each other for the apple-seed-shaped, reddish-brown creatures before we leave. Because if they latch on and follow you home, your apartment could be infested with them — potentially thousands and thousands of bedbugs in just a couple of months. Which could mean getting bitten as many as 500 times in a single night, then waking up anemic (I kid you not). And itchy and splotched and freaked out. Because psychological damage is one of the ravages of this small and insidious pest, including the stigma of having the kind of cooties known for piggybacking their way into the homes of friends. Future former friends.

While Liz tells me about her initial bedbug panic, I’m reminded of the first time her kids came home from their private grade school with lice. Apart from burning down the apartment, she did everything humanly possible to eliminate each and every louse, systematically disinfecting the whole place, and then hiring a nitpicker to make house calls whenever necessary. Now she rolls her eyes. Lice were easy.

This summer, when every newspaper blazed Bedbug Infestation! Liz said she raced home to the Google oracle with her burning question: “D-o b-e-d-b-u-g-s f-l-y?” Because, obviously, if they did, no matter how careful you were it could never be enough, it would never be safe, not ever again. The world would become plague-ridden, dirty, worried, and post-apocalyptic in tone. Insanely relieved that they did not fly, she was able to continue on with her life — for a few hours at least — until it occurred to her that she hadn’t asked the right question.

“Do bedbugs jump?” I had my hand on the buzzer for that one. “Yes!” she laughs. “Exactly.” She’s eating the popcorn she has snuck into the theater. “They don’t, in fact,” she says. Still, in the stuffing of my soft theater seat I picture a dark, spongy world just made for things with legs so miniscule they should be called filaments. Only when I remind myself that mites live in my eyelashes am I able to relax — somewhat — for the movie. More on that later.

But, no, thankfully, bedbugs do not jump. Not like those four-eyed jumping spiders I saw on TV once and was never able to wipe from my memory chip. Bedbugs march, squeeze through and stowaway. They latch onto a sweater or coat and then disembark at your house where they loll about until nighttime, at which point the smell of the carbon dioxide expelled from slumbering bodies draws them to virtually limitless supplies of human blood. Then? Then they settle in their mattress and box spring frontier towns, sleeping until right before dawn — the same time most of us are having our most vivid and oblivious dreams — when hunger wakes them up. I’ll spare you how they actually bite.

Where have I been?! I wonder, remembering my own questions to the oracle regarding hanta virus, swine flu and Lyme disease. I Google bedbugs and altitude and fail to find anything specifically preventing them from arriving at 9,000 feet, on a suitcase, say, and then being quite happy here for the rest of their lives.

What do to? Even though we nearly eradicated American bedbugs with DDT in the 50s, they’re developing resistances to chemicals used today. Their natural predators — cockroaches, spiders, centipedes and such — are too disgusting for biological warfare. And now they’re saying even the brilliant bedbug-detecting beagles are giving false positives, and that nothing — virtually nothing — is sure to rid us of the problem.

Hence the need for summits, like the forthcoming January “Bedbugs are changing our world” summit in DC. Are they really? Well, in the meantime, you can buy an iPhone app for $1.99 that pinpoints current infestations. Or buy bedbug covers for mattresses and box springs. Or stay home and stay sterile. Or … you can see a movie like the one I saw, about the hiker who has to cut off his own arm to save his life.

Then Liz’s line comes to mind, slightly paraphrased for my purposes: bedbugs are easy. Because everything — yes, pretty much everything — is relative.

Wombos that bite

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, October 22, 2010

I’ve just encountered the word “hormotional” for the first time and don’t know whether to laugh it off, throw my hands up, or throw the laptop and its Urban Dictionary across the room at the whole English language. Because in addition to loathing “wombos” (word combo = wombination = wombo = an ugly word describing an uglier trend of compound travesties like dramedy and backne and ginormous), I’m hormotional. Very hot. And very bothered.

And in just a few, surprise number of minutes, I’ll be very hot, and very bothered, again.

Because just when I was about to break out all my coziest sweaters sanctimoniously and smugly, hot flashes — after a “fantabulously” cool six-month hiatus — have returned. Hot flash, hot flash, hot flash. Anybody cringing at the unabashed use of terminology from the Female Lexicon?

OK, then, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m having triggered neuro-endocrine responses that corrupt my body’s normal thermoregulatory system. Sometimes 20 a day and three a night. Atypical thermoregulatory reactions. We’ll call them ATRs.

So here I am, standing in front of my sweater piles, eyes resting wistfully on the turtlenecks and tight pullovers. Beautiful, soft things meant to keep a person warm in the dead cold of winter. In a world without ATRs, that is. Now, evidently I’ll have to find my way back to the sweaters of Winter ‘09-10, the loose cardigans and cotton jobs and wooly bags with sleeves: garments that can be pulled off and on quickly in case of — Hold that thought! It might trigger an ATR. Yes, ATRs can be sparked through any variety of complex neuropsycho-biochemical responses. Or NBRs.

Other possible triggers besides thoughts? Oh, gosh, pretty much everything is a potential NBR: interesting foods and beverages, stray feelings, furrowed brows, sleep, waking up, anything hot (including the word itself), changing seasons, changing circumstances, change in general, weather, heating ducts, blow dryers, the moon, moodiness, claustrophobia, elements of surprise, the list goes on. To-do lists, there’s another one!

Conversely, however, and on the other end of the spectrum, ATRs simply trigger themselves. This is done via the inevitable biological arcing in the mid-life segment of the female of our species, in North America at least and not including indigenous cultures.

So, here’s what happens with a hot flash, just to clarify, for once and for all. One minute, you are walking down the aisle at the grocery store trying to figure out if the whole world is based on wheat especially now that you are trying to eliminate it from your diet … and then the next minute you feel your skin warming, as though you are being wrapped in a body-sized hand warmer. Where is the heat coming from? you wonder for the thousandth time, as if the question were freshly bewildering each go round. Where, from my core? My morphing prana? From brain cells exploding and then dying in a caloric puff?

While pondering this, sweat starts to form down your spinal column and on your sternum and the heat builds, swirling itself into tropical microclimates. You rip off your side bag, then your coat, and then you yank at your collar while looking around to see if anyone else is in standing near the Fritos. Which have no wheat and only three ingredients, corn, oil, and salt, which is why you believe in them, except in excess, which generally leads to water retention and/or guilt and eventually on to NBRs and ATRs.

You pull at your clothes, tenting them, feel the cooling breeze. Then, sweat, not knowing how else to behave, cools you. It makes you clammy, then it makes you cold. You forget about the Fritos, get your coat back on and then forget what you were doing in the store in the first place. Outside, the bracing air clears your head and for a moment — poised perfectly in the present — you are an empty vessel, neither here nor there biochemically and seemingly in a state of stasis. If you weren’t so panicked by the unruly and rebellious state of your body, you might use the moment to consider the beauty of the day.

Are there any questions?

Men should know that they are not exempt, by the way. It is estimated that 25 percent of males in the U.S. experience hot flashes as a side effect of Andropause or Male Irritability Syndrome. I wish it were more. Because imagine for a moment that all men were subject to such temperature fluctuations. We’d have invented a whole new spirituality based on body heat by now. We’d have given someone a Nobel Prize for discovering how ATRs, NBRs and the entire realm of mind-body connection work.

I guess for now we’re stuck with the fact that the average temperature on Venus is 900F and on Mars -55F. But it’s important to have compassion. Sympathy. Understanding for all homosapiens. Or is that hormosapiens? (Just kidding.) (Or am I?)