Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Summer of Our Discontent

The summer of 2014 was the summer of our discontent. Not that anyone would ever lay claim to that dubious title. It was a curious confluence of elderly needs verses the growing demands from our grand-children. Sharon’s mother had never really adjusted to the death of her spouse and the loneliness of widowhood. Upon our return home this May she began to require constant care and attention.  Then there were two youngsters who relished the presence of grandparents in their lives and only had a few summer months to expand on it. Unfortunately, the Colorado kids couldn’t even get that unless we flew in on the silver bird.

Confronted by circumstances beyond our control, my wife and I were forced to place private needs and wants on hold in order to tend to her mother.  It’s one of those all too familiar family scenarios that usually isn’t talked for fear of sounding selfish or self-absorbed. There were needy people on both sides of the age spectrum; some growing and the other declining.

Of course, guilt and denial often play into the greater scheme of such things. You try to find a balance between serving those who need you and taking care of yourself. But often you do it under the guise of the obedient child because to talk about your own needs refutes your Catholic upbringing…never to think of yourself…only of others. 

It a kind of cult of denial that you might also have needs and wants and desires. For the time being those are put on hold. In this case, it was mainly by my wife, the eldest daughter, who did the heavy lifting by giving so much attention to her mother. There were other siblings to help but my wife, along with her sister, took on the lion’s share of responsibility. My role was that of the supporting spouse doing what I could to help and keeping my mouth shut.

Both kinds of caring; for her mother and the grandkids was the right thing to do. We understood that. Kids grow up too quickly to wait for an ideal time for involvement. There were soccer games, bird-watching, T-ball, baby-sitting, bike-riding, weekend overnights, zoo ventures, etc. It was six short months to fill in for the time absent from their lives. We also needed more time in the mile high city. Thank heavens for ‘face-time.’

And even under the cloak of family obligations, caring for the elderly was still a very difficult thing to do. It’s never convenient, comfortable or more often than not satisfying at the time. It’s simply what must be done for another family member. The alternative to do nothing is too heavy a burden to carry for the rest of one’s life.

So that young girl who at age five started taking on farm chores and helping her mother around the house had now come back home once again to accept the ultimate and final responsibility in that circle of life. It’s what is expected even if it is an ironic reversal of roles. It was a role that suited her well.

The Girl with Seven Suede Jackets

Yet while she was ideally suited to the task, there was always the chance of collateral damage to worry about. What concerned me the most was the stress and mental challenges associated with giving such care on an almost daily basis. The long trips down to Wabasha. The confusion over meds and treatments. The patient’s anger and depression over growing old and feeling badly most of the time. The move from home to assisted living. Selling the homestead and her mother’s rough adjustment to communal living. The growing burden of a mother in denial.

Too often Catholic guilt (feel free to choose your own religion here) plays too prominent a role in this denial of the negative effects on the care-givers. Unfortunately, I have seen several instances where the care-giver died from such stress and strain on their mental and physical being. It’s a high price to pay for caring for another person.

Sharon's mother in her teens.

So they struggle on. The caregiver wanting to do everything she can to help. The mother in denial and yet leaning more and more on those closest to her for solace in her slowly closing window of life. My role was relegated to that of a bit-player, a secondary shadow in the background, doing what I was told to do and supporting the care-giver anyway I could.

It’s a role I can handle quite well.

Except the part about keeping my mouth shut.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cote d'Azur

It was the end of our journey; Paris to Nice. Two weeks abroad the Provence as we sailed lazily down the Saone and then the Rhone Rivers. Two weeks on our way to that infamous Pearl of the Mediterranean.

The Cote d’Azur (Azure Coast) has long been known in movies and songs as the French Riviera. This fantasy world encompasses the Mediterranean coastline of the southeast corner of France and includes the sovereign state of Monaco. While it has no official boundary, it is usually considered to extend from the Italian border in the east to Saint-Tropez, Hyeres and Toulon in the west. It’s here that dreams are made and visitors can pretend to be somebody else.

Many visitors come to Nice to live out their dreams and fantasies. Nice, the capitol of the Rivera is the fifth largest city in France and houses the country’s third busiest airport. Traffic from Cannes, St. Tropez, Nice and Monti Carlo all use the airport. Tourism is now the largest economic driver in the region.

Although it still harbors some of the characteristics of the “Grande Dame of the Cote d’Azur,” Nice has managed to create a special modern-day flavor all of its own. Unlike the other cities that hug the rocky shoreline of the Mediterranean, Nice has distinguished itself from neighboring Cannes and St. Tropez to the West and Monti Carlo on its eastern flank.

It’s not just the youthful tourists who flock to its rocky beaches or speed through town in their flashy sports cars. It’s not just the modern bike share system or light rail cars that whisk visitors to its museums,  galleries and historical buildings. Instead there seems to be a freshness in the air borne of beautiful young women, strapping men and plenty of socialization going on all day and night. I was just passing through town for one day and yet I could feel that special vibe every-where I went.

The French Riviera is a major yachting and cruising area and hosts 50% of the world’s super yacht fleet, with 90% of all super yachts visiting the region’s coast at least once in their lifetime.

400,000 years ago, the first people of Nice were chasing elephants. In 400 B.C. a Greek commercial center was thriving there. In 154 B.C. the Romans were building a second city on its hills. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that its winter warmth and clear blue shoreline attracted a new kind of visitor. Gradually old fisherman’s shacks and commercial stone buildings were replaced by splendid palaces built on the altar of conspicuous consumption.

The coastline became one of the first modern resort areas in the world. With the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century, Nice became the playground and vacation spot for British, Russian and other aristocrats. It was finally the Americans who gave the region an aura of charm, incalculable wealth and a fashionable way of life that became known around the world. Think of it back then as a multi-cultural ‘Downton Abby’ by the seashore.

Speaking of seaside attractions, one of the monikers of French beaches is their reputation for topless sunbathing and other distractions for the mind and eye. I ran into a similar cultural phenomenon in Bali and found that shooting video there (quite innocently for my cable series) could be easily misconstrued by husbands and boyfriends who spot you before you pan over to their half-naked girlfriends or wives.

This time around I only had a still camera but wisely kept it holstered so that my stroll along the promenade wasn’t misunderstood or challenged. No need for caution though. The only topless babes I saw there were less than one year of age or so old I was too embarrassed to look. Must have been an off-day at the beach.

Despite the Midwestern beach scene that day, there was still an atmosphere of casual sexuality all around town. Perhaps it was the rugged tan bodies of all the French, Italian and Spanish youth hanging out in the piazzas and corner cafes all hours of the day and night.

The newest trend among young girls seems to be showing plenty of cheek in their short shorts. The two youngsters I observed, or rather saw by accident, were both accompanied their parents. Their shorts were so tight they must have been giving themselves a naughty massage every time they crossed their legs. Yet both sets of parents seemed quite oblivious to their attractive male distractors hovering nearby.  Must be something about French parenting that I don’t quite understand.

Speaking of young flowers, Nice hosts one of the largest flower markets in all of France. On any given day, flower vendors fill the large plazas with their fragrance and colors.

Compared to other large cities such as Paris or London or Hong Kong, Nice is relatively small in square miles. Yet what it lacks in square footage, it makes up for in a constant stream of new cultural, social and pop icons that gradually make their way out into the rest of the world. It’s a natural incubator for fresh ideas and bold strokes of innovation. It’s in the air and on the tattooed backs of youthful exhibitionists. It’s a rich tapestry of ideas and color woven into everyday items and life styles.

It took until the end of our journey through the region of Provence before I realized that one of my favorite films of all times “A Man and A Woman” was filmed in great part in that region of France. I shouldn’t be surprised.

The area, like the film, had a grip on my heart and imagination long before my journey was over. Nice can do that to the soul. It still casts bright shadows of excitement whenever I back there…if only in my mind.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

There was a great English film that came out in 1962 entitled ‘The loneliness of the long distance runner.’ It was based on a series of short stories by Alan Stilltoe. Essentially it was the story of a poor Nottingham, England teenager from a working class neighborhood who had bleak prospects in life and few interests beyond petty crime. He turned to long distance running as an antidote as well as an emotional and physical escape from his situation.

For many of us writing is a long distance journey with no foreseeable finish line in sight. If you want to call yourself a writer and not just someone with a nice hobby then it’s something you must do. Emphasis on the words ‘must do.’

Many successful writers will tell you that only after four or five books, perhaps 500,000 words put down, can you truly consider yourself a real writer. C.J. Lyon says you must follow the ABCs if you want to succeed. ABC – Apply Butt to Chair. In other words, you write and write and then you write some more. Her formula is quite simple. First, write the best book you possibly can. Then you try to find an audience for your work. Finally, you repeat the process all over again. Then perhaps, maybe, with luck and the proper alignment of the stars you just might, ‘just might’ become successful.

                Link to Palm Springs Writers Guild
                    Palm Springs Writers Guild Facebook Page

I’m learning a lot from my fellow writers in the Palm Springs Writers Guild especially the women. Many of them have chosen this new profession as their protecting companion, their soul-mate and fellow journey master into the sometimes confusing, trying, stressful but ultimately soul-satisfying world of writing.

Once committed to the journey, writing for us becomes an addiction and obsession like other times in life when you know you’ve entered a whole new phase in your life and you can’t go back to what used to be. You can’t change the past. You simply pick up where you are today. For some of us writing becomes that path not taken. For others it was a life not lived. Now it has become more than just a pen to paper exercise.

So why do people become writers and what are they trying to prove?

For many it’s a high wire mental act that constantly struggles to balance art with reality and story-telling with self-exposure. For many, it is fraught with disappointment, sadness, failure, rejection and the ever fading possibility of success and satisfaction. We’re all after that book with the long tail; something that resonates with our readers and keeps them coming back for more.

So why do it?

I’m not sure. It’s certainly not for self-pleasure like…Rocky Road Ice Cream or a long run in the woods. It’s not about the money…there usually isn’t any? I assume for some it is ego-driven. For others, it answers a long held belief in their story-telling abilities.

For me it was something I’ve always had to do and damn the results. Plain and simple, it’s become a marathon. In every instance, I want to create a mind-picture, an image, a scene or a dream that my readers can enter into. I want to journey with them as together we explore these fictional worlds I’ve created in my mind.

I used to say I wasn’t retired but after a lot of negative push-back from fellow oldsters I decided to simply shut up. So now while others talk about growing old with their aches and pains, I intend to focus on my fictional characters needs and wants and how I can best tell their life stories.

It is, for all intents and purposes in mind and matter, a long distance run…with no end in sight.
It’s become something my fellow writers and I have to do. And most of us are crazy enough to believe it just might make a difference in your lives…if it hasn’t already.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Best Treasure Ever

Charlotte swaggered down the hallway like she owned the place. The three-year-old was on another road trip but knew exactly where she was going. “That’s Brennan’s room,” She announced as she pointed to my office/Melanie’s old bedroom. Then she entered Sharon’s office/Brian’s old bedroom. “And this is my room!” She proclaimed.

So that was that. The grandchildren had arrived for another weekend and taken over our place once again. This becomes their place when they spend weekends and overnights with Nana and Papa. If you asked them for a tour they could probably lead you around with their eyes closed.

I’m guessing they’d start with Brennan’s bedroom (my office and Melanie’s old bedroom). Then next door would be Charlotte’s bedroom (Sharon’s office and Brian’s old bedroom). Then there is the aviary (our screened-in porch overlooking the bird feeders). The play ball area (our back patio), the soccer field (our backyard), the jungle (our mulch garden with large boulders to climb over), the expressway (our cul-de-sac for racing radio-controlled race cars), the new corner cafĂ© and restaurant (set up in our living room), the play area (our family room), the aquarium (our bathtub full of toy animals), the theater (our large screen TV in the basement but with only limited viewing allowed – as per their Mom), the main dining area (our kitchen island), their reading room (portable house up from the basement) the drag strip for RC cars (our garage and front driveway) and finally Lamie (toy lamb) in the nightstand when Charlotte takes her naps in our bed in the afternoon.

Our Colorado grandchildren are no different. When we come to town, their home becomes grandparent central. There is the fashion show runway (their living room), Study/play area (the kitchen table), Cooking class (the kitchen island), the reading room (family room), special reading chair (family room), the expressway (their cul-de-sac across the street), toy sanctuary (basement) and always major shopping experiences when we’re in town (local garage sales on Saturdays with Nana in the lead.)

Entering our Grandchildren’s world or creating one for them is no accident. It’s our deliberate focused attempt to cram in as many life experiences as we can with each visit here, in the mile high city or out west. We know from personal experience that childhood memories can’t be replicated through toys, television, video games, screen time or other distractions from the normal routine of living. Instead they are born out of real life experiences generated by a hundred thousand little interactions and every day events. We want to build a treasure chest of memories for those grandkids of ours.

Unfortunately grandparents don’t get to decide what goes into each of their little memory banks. So all you can do is throw as many life experiences at them and see what sticks. Often times you’ll be quite surprised what they remember and cherish after a certain trip or visit.

Was it rafting and boating this summer along with playing on the Lily pad at Lake Okoboji? Or our backyard which provided the perfect spot to catch a chipmunk that was promptly named ‘Peanut.’ (Peanut was serenaded to by Maya and the Twins until its release the next day.)

Was it catching fish up north at Aunt Marla’s place on Lake Vermillion…or when the Colorado kids go to Florida where they love playing in the ocean and creating sand castles on the beach?

We know that Palm Springs provides the perfect setting for long days in Nana’s pool and snipe-hunting on the golf course at night with Uncle B. But what will they remember of those experiences? That’s really anyone’s guess. We’ll probably have to wait ten or twenty years to find out.

So I guess in the end Brennan’s room and the aviary and that fashion runway are really all iconic symbols for what we are trying to do for the little ones.

I think it was Samantha who said it best. After a long day of garage sales, she clutched some innocuous something or another and announced in her sweetest cherub voice: “Oh, Nana, this is the best treasure ever!”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.