Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

     Bless my Mom for saving our childhood artwork. It has been in her closet all these years, carefully saved with the dates written on the back. I was surprised to find that my choice of subjects and their composition had often repeated themselves. Through all the tumult and struggles of an adventurous life, painting has clearly been an avenue for reconnecting with the care free joy of childhood. Risking the security of a real job, throwing caution to the wind and often taking the path of most resistance are not things I can honestly recommend, but I have no regrets. Choosing uncertainty and risk guarantees you will feel fully present when you think the ship under you might be sinking a thousand miles from land, when gallery owners hand your work back as if it belongs in kitty litter or when you nearly miss a flight in a foreign country during a coup with ten dollars left to your name. Life is grand. I sincerely hope all your goals will be realized and dreams come true. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Joan Buchanan 1924-2013

August 2013, still going strong at 89

        The night before Thanksgiving I didn’t know Mom was having a heart attack. She could not tell me where she was hurting. I thought she was coming down with the flu. Dementia is unkind in so many ways. Even in the ER they did not know right away since nothing indicated massive trauma. What an incredibly strong woman to endure so much pain while making silly faces to amuse the nurses. The doctors could not explain how her heart could still be beating, but I knew. Even without memories or a conscious connection to place and time Mom wanted to live. She loved life. And she was so strong that it took six days before the other half of her heart finally gave up. She was at home as the hospital had released her into our care through Hospice. I won’t describe her time in the hospital or her end. Over time hopefully those images will blur and become less disturbing. My Mom was a funny woman with a quick wit, which is how I will remember her. The violent and crude behavior as a result of advanced dementia I will forget in time. I practice fast forwarding through the difficult memories until I land on a good one, then I savor it and push the others aside.  

     Overall I wish there had been less anger in our lives. None of us ever quite fulfilled each others expectations. Mom would call me a pill and advised me to quit taking myself so seriously. I suggested she attend AA meetings. I’m not resentful about the time I spent caring for my parents. In a perfect world we would have been happier and less irritated with each other before disease ruled our interactions. Negative emotions certainly get in the way of having fun. I stayed present through the last ten years choosing time in the gym and hiking for solace over liquor and denial, but no judgement. They served a purpose for awhile in my life also. I held Mom’s hand as she departed. She said “I love you” often, before her heart failed rendering her silent. She could not remember my name, but I chose to believe she loved me because it felt better that way. I miss the goofy fun moments. I wish I had a photo of her buying a chocolate taco in her Tigger slippers at the colorful ice cream truck in front of the house from the wizened old guy with long white whiskers wearing a blue turban. She was never too proud to laugh at herself. She shuffled around in those silly slippers, which were advantageous as it hurt less when she kicked me. I hope she found Dad in heaven because the last year that she spent looking for him in closets was as heartbreaking as it was annoying. I love you Mom and hope you are at peace. I did my best. Feel free to haunt me now and then, I know you’d laugh about scaring me. Damn, this is one big empty house without you.      

Sunday, November 24, 2013

We love you Dottie!

     Dorothy Harris, known affectionately as Dottie, passed away leaving a void where before a kind and generous soul inhabited. Dottie you lived well, but then quiet, sensitive people don’t generate drama. I will miss your laugh, kindness, concern and gentle prods to take better care of myself. It was impossible to be angry with you, except for leaving life too soon. You gave more love than you asked for and listened more than you spoke. There are so many things I still want to tell you just to watch you roll your eyes and laugh. We never crossed words and I draw a blank on problems, except one time I did not return a flashlight right away, which is the most I can come up with. Sitting on your lanai on Molokai, staring at the ocean when conversation seemed less important than sharing a moment, I learned serenity from you. You never failed to have a smile waiting, a warm hug and a wonderful welcome at your door. Humility is that quality where a person doesn’t expect a result, a reward or a favor in return. Dottie, you embodied those qualities and could always be counted on to tell the truth.

     Our dear friend is gone and it hurts.  My heart goes out to Bill and her family. Mickey said it best, “They are unconditionally lovely people.” There are so many good memories too, our week in American Samoa, countless family style dinners and shared laughter. Dottie emanated positive good will. She cared, said so and we believed her because she always told the truth in her quiet loving way. We are so much richer for her friendship. I love you Dottie and I sure miss you.  

Monday, November 11, 2013


     My Mother first showed signs of dementia ten years ago. Currently she believes she is in her early twenties and has no memory of me. Yesterday she announced that the Kleenex in her hand was a book of secrets. Her slow decline has gradually allowed me to adjust to the surprising attributes of a demented mind. The toilet brush in the refrigerator, a banana peel in her Ugh and a flashlight flushed down the toilet are all in a day. The more recent turn towards violence over not being responded to instantly, even by the people on television who she often talks to, is most difficult. Mom loses her teeth and hides things like cutlery and half eaten fruit in her diaper. When I threw a nasty diaper away that she believed was something precious worth saving I was admonished in a hissing voice with, “You go lick your own ass!” When I threw out the used ‘book of secrets’ she scorned, “You are the kind of person who really should hate yourself.” When I asked her to say something nice, she responded by punching me in the ribs.

     I called a plumber when the toilet overflowed because there is little time to fix anything myself. I had taped the lid closed to prevent it from being used until it was repaired. In a logical world that would have stopped most people. Undeterred Mom took a dump on the lid. I keep heavy duty gloves and a respirator on standby because cleaning up shit is a reality with people who barely recognize one end from the other.            

      Mom has taught me more patience than if I joined a monastery. She has numbed me into never taking anything personally. I work out to improve my health because taking care of both Mom and Dad last year nearly did me in. After many months of insane stress and little sleep I had developed a heart condition and it turns out that frequent hard exercise is the best remedy. Time at the gym is not frivolous. Hopefully I’m not mistaken, but I believe we are here to learn. Mom’s evenings during sun downing are a nightmare of anxiety, instant rage and confused sentiments. In her best moments she is maudlin, nonsensical or asleep. She is rarely likeable, but occasionally a human speaks through her and she sincerely thanks me for helping her. Her actions are unpredictable and I keep a wary eye on her hands to make sure she is not carrying anything sharp. A few weeks ago she walked out of the bedroom with her breasts stretched out in her hands leering at me while demanding, “Suck on these!” To her I might look like a man who she hopes would be interested in such things. To me it is a horror I do not always know how to cope with. For the last six months I’ve been on duty for seventeen hours a day, seven days a week and all day Sunday. I rarely get a full night’s sleep and sometimes make up for it during the day when another care giver takes over.

     Last week when we were discussing care options for Mom my brother said, “At least it is not stressful.” In charitable moments I interpret his comment as, “Way to go sis, you have miraculously found the strength to cope with this nightmare since you’re not showing signs of your health deteriorating from the stress again.” What part of this isn’t stressful? A few nights a week I get to paint if I can talk Mom into going to bed early or I forgo sleep for the privilege. Time at the gym is not extra-curricular. It is akin to putting on my own oxygen mask before helping a child. Hiking in the surrounding hills offers a restorative serenity found solely in the beauty of nature and those moments are not negotiable either. I have much to be grateful for and no regrets, although so far I have yet to banish the hope that my Mom will see who I truly am.  On the deepest level isn’t that what we all want? To be seen and heard without judgment? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to receive unconditional goodwill from the people closest to us? It is more often wished for than found, but definitely easier to strive for than licking your own ass.  
me at Castle Rock near Mt. Diablo (thanks Karen!)

lone leafless tree

sun flare over rocks that look like Stonehenge

 Diablo Foothills, Walnut Creek, California

serene pond with an egret near Shell Ridge

bellowing cow

friends on a fallen giant

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Before and After

                     photos by Arthur Deak
"You cursed brat! Look what you've done! I'm melting! melting! Oh, what a world! What a world!
                                              The Wicked Witch of the East  
       If only lying in bed eating chips were good for us. I’ve tried every diet scripted since dinosaurs roamed the Earth and my weight still goes up and down with the tide. Gyms require elusive self-discipline and I'm sure the mind numbing boredom of cardio machines turn brains to paste. Besides, giggling fat is an unpleasant sensation best avoided. An incensed two year old gripping a fully charged Taser would have more humanity than what I say to myself when I look in a full length mirror. Rebuilding muscle seriously hurts so duh, it is much easier not to bother. I dutifully sign up at gyms but could not talk myself through a ten minute workout. I gravitated to machines with wide cushy seats and put in minimal effort never stopping to ask myself who I was actually fooling.
      Four months ago I signed up at a nearby gym. Debbie, a friendly woman with more tenacity than epoxy, actually called my sister when I didn't show up and talked me in the door. With little hope I scheduled the free orientation, expecting no more than atta girls for being awesome enough to commit to a monthly payment. I’ve been to a few orientations over the years. During one the trainer took my blood pressure then recommended I take it easy which was pretty much like ordering me to go to bed and eat chips. Another time I was handed a list of exercises as if I would actually be able to motivate myself and once I demanded a refund because the dopey trainer was so aggravated about working with me that she rolled her eyes at her co-workers. I was fat not stupid. Four months ago I showed up to meet a trainer who could have been Sponge Bob for all I cared, but I’m cheap so I took the free hour. I had no intention of signing up for anything and no idea that the next four months would have me so busy that I would not find time to even type a blog post.

     Arthur showed up with a binder of photographs of clients who had made remarkable changes and claimed he could transform me. Right, I asked if that included a bad attitude while I scanned the pictures for evidence of Photoshop tricks. Arthur promised that if I stuck to the diet and did the work that in three months’ time I would be leaner, fit and off my blood pressure pills. I stared at him blankly. He did not have the shifty eyes of a compulsive liar and he actually sounded sincere. I had not exercised for over a year and had been warned by a doctor that I was heading for heart disease. I was constantly fatigued and short of breath. A bag of chips felt heavy. My abs would have required a Taser to contract. I knew it would feel like a truck hit me every day and it was expensive, but it crossed my mind that a heart attack would cost a lot more. Arthur did not try to sell me on his program. He packed up his book ready to move on to someone who cared. In a devil may care moment I reached for my credit card.

     Within two weeks I was off my blood pressure pills. I stuck to the recommended diet and my blood sugar levels have fallen to normal. I lost 35 pounds in the last four months, but most important, I feel fantastic and have renewed hope for the future. I move quicker, walk farther and laugh more. Arthur has a bullshit detector verging on mystical so I cannot get away with my usual slothful tricks, although I suspect I exchanged a dependency on pills for the need to have my weight written on an index card by an uber fit guy. I had hoped to learn to love working out, but that’s too much to ask. It hurts and I swear a lot, but I totally get that staying in shape is a chance to age gracefully, excluding my language at the gym. I couldn’t do it alone, but my only mistake was thinking I had to. 

     If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and are ready to get in the shape of your life sign up with Arthur Deak at Forma Gym in Walnut Creek. He will kick your ass into shape while making you laugh. If you’ve tried everything do not give up. It took me a long time to find someone who could make me work hard enough to show results. I’m also a big fan of Joyce’s gentle yoga class, which is a great way to warm up for the intensive training. I hope Forma will be adding her meditation class soon, she has my vote. And special thanks to Debbie for tracking me down.   

     Hiking uphill beats cardio machines. Numerous steep inclines in the East Bay parks help sweat the pounds off. Check out ebparks.org. A stunning new vista is a great motivator and the critters will make you smile.

Diablo Foothills with Mt. Diablo in the distance

Quail at Borges Ranch

Fawn hiding in the grass at Shell Ridge

First year pelicans on the bay

Turkeys in Morgan Territory Preserve
Lime Ridge in Walnut Creek

Coyote in Briones Park

Lizard waiting for flies on a pile of shit

Karen and Roman in Briones Park
Dopey goat at Borges Ranch
Seen at the Lafayette Reservoir
Apparently squirrels aren't bothered by poison oak.
                      I hope life is treating you well. Thanks for reading!