Foul-Mouthed Adult

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Here’s another advantage to approaching retirement age: you get to hang on to all the old habits you adore that everyone else abhors.

I used to be one of those youngsters that, hearing an elderly person curse or seeing him shoot the finger at someone in traffic or adamantly refuse to give an inch in a long-term family feud or get into a spitting match with a stranger over a place in line, would comment, “You’d think he’d know better than to act like that at his age.” Really? Why?

I’ve always had a bit of a sailor’s mouth. I’d like to blame it on working in backstage dressing rooms for years, but that’s not really the source. I can’t remember when it actually became my favorite way to blow off steam but distinctly remember the first time I used the “F” word in front of my mother. I was practicing a twirling routine for upcoming high school auditions and had gone over it in the back yard so many times that I’d worn a bald spot in the grass. Every day I would start from the beginning and every time I missed a trick, I’d start over until I could get through the routine three complete times. Try that in a Texas summer with the heat and the humidity. But then again, I was a teenager and much more resilient than I am now. I had finally completed three error-free sets and, with auditions coming up soon, finally called my mother out to be my audience. Right in the middle, I dropped the baton, instantaneously spit out, “F_ _ _!” and then froze.

My mother’s face was priceless – mouth agape, eyebrows damn near scraping her hairline, hands fisted at her waist. “Lisa!” was all she said. I couldn’t help it; I laughed. I knew she’d watched me torture myself for weeks and all of that afternoon and that she understood my frustration even though she might’ve objected to the way I chose to express it.

So here we are some 50-odd years later, and the “F” word is still my favorite. It’s funny how young people think age brings wisdom, certainty about everything good and right, and a gentle, placid nature, one free of all offending language. Maybe there are more people than I think who have found all the answers and nothing bothers them enough to warrant a curse word here and there, but somehow I don’t think so. Most of us never grow up.

It was another laughable moment when I used the “F” word in front of one of my younger co-workers and her facial features took on a similar look to my mother’s 50 years earlier. Horrified, she commented, “I’ve never heard you use that word.” My response was, “Are you kidding? I lived in backstage dressing rooms for much of my youth and it’s my favorite word.” I could see that I’d become a completely different person to her. I’m still not sure if that was good or bad but it struck me that I was supposed to be of an age when I resorted to strong words like “shoot” or “darn it.” All I can say is she clearly didn’t know me at all. Once a foul mouth, always a foul mouth.

So all you youngsters keep in mind that unless you work on them now, your bad habits will follow you into retirement and you’ll be annoyed to hear someone twenty, thirty or forty years younger say, “Shouldn’t she know better at her age?”

And when that happens, watch your language.

Suicide Scares Me

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Anthony Bourdain’s apparent suicide has scared me. Inadvertently, it hit on some latent fears and also my inability to comprehend the act. Let’s take the latter one first.

I don’t truly understand how a person reaches the point of suicide. I suppose I can’t comprehend it because I’ve never been in those shoes. That does not, however, mean that I’ve dismissed those who reach a point where life is too painful for them to go on. I understand it only from the point of the terminally-ill because that’s the population I’ve worked with for so long. It used to scare me when I would hear someone say the patient was ready to die because they were “just tired.” I couldn’t imagine, and didn’t want to imagine, reaching a point where I was “just tired.” However, after having my own back surgery for a problem that had grown increasingly painful on a daily, then hourly, then minute-by-minute basis, I was made aware (on a diminished scale, to be sure) what it must be like to have a much more painful problem that had gone on for so long that that person would rather die than live with it any longer. I get that now.

Okay, but that’s a physical problem. I still can’t really understand dealing with mental demons that would incapacitate me to the same degree. I’ve always been aware that my darkest thoughts happen at night and that if I can hold on until morning, I’ll feel better. And even if nothing has resolved overnight, I feel better just because I’ve put it aside long enough to sleep and now feel like it’s something I can run with for another day. And even though I might face the same issue every night for weeks, there comes a time when the issue has resolved or I’ve realized it’s not the demon I thought it was and I’m able to move on.

I remember once upon a time in my early Vegas dance career, going right off the deep end over a broken relationship. The cad had walked me out the front door to my car after work every night and then walked around back to meet another girl who was in the same dressing room with me. When he finally decided to make the split official, I found that I couldn’t eat. I was already thin at 5’8″ and 126 pounds, but I went down to almost 110. I would go home and sob every night and, exhausted, try to sleep but, of course, didn’t sleep well. This went on for months. But even then, I never contemplated suicide.

So my fear is twofold: (a) What if, once I retire, I discover that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, I run out of things I want to do or explore, I have nothing better to do than sit around at home and stare at the television, and I begin to spiral down into a place where I will understand how one gets to the point of suicide. I will have become that terminally-ill patient with no future who’d just as soon die. And (2) how can you ever know a person well enough to see past the exterior, to know if their interior emotions have a stronger pull on them than their outer persona? If you can’t see it, how can you help?

I’ve always understood that people let you see only what they want you to see and that they never share all of themselves – in my opinion, never. There are inner parts of all of us that we simply don’t share with others.

So the thought that someone like Anthony Bourdain, who seemed to have pulled his shit together from an admittedly raucous youth, should be suffering and no one had an inkling, is frightening.

 

Is Modern Art Art?

Here’s an interesting thing you’ll learn as you near retirement age: You begin to voice your opinion on things you wouldn’t dream of bringing up years earlier in case it stirred controversy. Once you reach the point where your opinion isn’t likely to impact your career, you feel the freedom that comes with being able to mouth off at will (not that it really took retirement age for me to mouth off). So here I go.

Several years ago, I found myself in Chicago with some fellow employees and, although most of the rest were interested in clubbing and sleeping late, two of us were interested in taking in the Art Institute of Chicago. It was fabulous and we spent several hours perusing the different exhibitions, even tagging on to the back of a tour group to hear the guide explain all the hidden messages one Impressionist painter incorporated into his work.

But then we wandered off and eventually saw a sign indicating the entrance to the modern art wing of the museum. She indicated modern art was not her favorite and I readily agreed. She went on to say that the thing that irritated her the most was when someone included something like a big red dot in the middle of a canvas and called it art. We both laughed because, really? (and here’s me mouthing off at last) if it looks like something I could do, then it’s not art, because although I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, I’m pretty sure I could manage to get a colored circle on a canvas or sling a bunch of paint and when it looked colorful and pretty, declare it a masterpiece.

So, yes, you guessed it. We walked in to discover a giant red dot on a canvas. It was a laughable moment. Nevertheless, I am left trying to imagine an art connoisseur staring fixedly at the painting, taking in the bold use of color, the brush strokes, the nuance and declaring it a masterpiece worthy of exhibition in a museum.

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Ok, I clearly don’t understand what makes modern art art. To me, it’s art if it’s something I can identify and something I couldn’t achieve in a million years of classes or practice. Something like this –

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– something where even I, the novice, can see the bold use of color, the brush strokes, the attention to the smallest details, the beauty of the facial features, the tranquility of the scene, the snapshot of an era.

You can try to get me to understand what makes something qualify as “art,” or you can sigh, shake your head and leave me to enjoy the Impressionists, thank you. Ah, the joys of retirement age and no filter.

Revising the Dreams

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They say getting older is not for the faint of heart. It’s true. You discover that the things you dreamed about doing when you were young, things that you’ve carried over decade to decade, are suddenly no longer within your reach. So now what? Do you persist in going after them, do you give up on the dream entirely, or do you try to find a compromise so you’re still getting some of the experience even if it’s not all it was meant to be?

I find that I have a stubborn streak that holds on to the dream for months and months, reworking it in my mind a dozen times with tiny little concessions each time, so I can still pursue the basic dream. But somewhere along the line, I realize it’s time to let it go and then I start looking at ways to make some of it happen.

One of my dreams was to have a house with enough land to create a garden retreat, a place replete with trees, flowers, vines, grass, and at least one little nook where I could hang out with a good book and enjoy the view and the quiet – sort of like the picture I chose for this post.

Getting close to retirement, I refused to give up this dream and looked only at houses with spacious back yards. But little realities kept creeping in and I must say, they really annoyed me. I have a friend who pointed out that the cost alone of all the foliage would kill me. Then I’d probably have to initially employ a landscaper to till the soil and prepare the beds. Not being much of a horticulturist, I’d probably have to get professional advice on designing my perfect retreat. All of these costs are difficult, if not impossible, when living on social security.

That was my first reality. Then there’s the annoyance of old age. At 65, I’m in relatively good health but my aches and pains have increased and I notice that they do so at an accelerated pace. Perhaps that’s the problem and everyone faces it: You go for decades being in tip-top form and think it will stay that way indefinitely and then one day you discover you need back surgery for the increasing difficulty you’ve been having with what you thought were pulled muscles that were just taking longer and longer to heal, or you have a strange bout of symptoms that mimic heart problems and find you need a medication for GERD, or bounding up the stairs two at a time becomes a slower progression on a daily basis, etc. To top it off, these new issues are not things that are going to return to that 20s physique; they are permanent and likely to get worse.

I didn’t bargain for that when I was younger and, stupidly, didn’t anticipate it, either. Although aware of the possibility, when I was younger I sort of figured they always happened to someone else or that I’d see them coming and make appropriate adjustments (although what those adjustments might have been is anybody’s guess). And now, it’s too late to back up and tackle that garden with the stamina and non-creaky joints of my 20 or 30-year-old self.

So, reluctantly, I’ve realized I would never be able to keep up with the daily maintenance of a garden of that size. That acceptance, oddly, happened almost overnight. I registered the growing list of problems I might encounter but stubbornly stuck to my original plan for months. Then one day, I woke up and instead of talking about buying a house, began talking about renting a condo or townhouse with a small space off a back patio or a balcony where I could put a few potted plants. Just like that, I’d come to terms with a new reality.

And just so you know, the hardest part of this whole thing is moving forward without looking back at the things I could have done, and should have done, when I had the time, the resources and the stamina. People tell you it’s never too late, but sometimes it is, and I hate that.

Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

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The sentiments expressed in the photo above are central to being able to really help someone who is dying. But the best part is that you find the humanity of this carrying over into your interactions with others and although you may not always make the best choices, it will make a difference.

I have watched family members of a dying patient come into the room, turn on all the lights, change the television to the news to to some obnoxious sitcom they happen to enjoy and sit there rubbing up and down on the patient’s arm saying things (loudly) like, “Dad. Dad. Sue’s here. Wake up dad!” So if you put yourself in the patient’s place, you realize that when you don’t feel good and all you want is quiet and dark, those actions are bothersome. If you were asleep (maybe for the first time in hours), it’s irritating to have someone vigorously rubbing your arm. And the news or the sitcom? I imagine that if I’m dying and facing my own mortality, processing the events of my life and narrowing things down to what really matters in these last moments, the latest school shooting or government squabble or comedy laugh track or prime time murder mystery isn’t going to be the last thing I want to hear. I imagine I’ll be down to the basics: what did I do with my life? Did I do the best I could under the circumstances? I’ll want the quiet to be able to focus. I can’t say I’ve ever had a patient who was still semi-alert ask me to turn on some heavy metal and turn it up, please. Not one.

Have you ever felt bad enough that food sounded disgusting? Appetite disappears rapidly when you start to fade. Nothing sounds tasty. In fact, the mere thought might make you nauseous, right? So when I see family member force-feeding a patient who clearly can’t swallow, I’m a little horrified. I understand not wanting to lose someone you love. However, I’ve been around it long enough now to also recognize that the family member is thinking of herself and her potential loss, not what the patient wants. I know we tend to think the thing to do when soneone doesn’t feel well is to feed them, but when the patient is dying, those same rules don’t apply and even if you don’t know that, you can see it. If the patient can’t swallow or is alert enough to tell you he’s not hungry, then honor his request not to eat. Put yourself in his place. If you were as sick as he is, would you want to eat?

Perhaps it requires a bit of age to be able to recognize the efficacy of putting yourself in someone else’s place, because Lord knows I couldn’t do that for many of my earlier decades, but it’s a good practice. Even if you haven’t ever been in a similar situation, I’ve found that if I can look at it from the angle of what I’d most likely be experiencing under the same circumstances, I’m much more likely to make a good decision. So the next time you find yourself wanting to impose your own desires on someone who’s got a different idea of how things should be, try to look at who you might be based on the history of their life and the decisions you might have made that lead you up to this point, and see if it changes the decision you might make. You’ll be much more likely to do something that makes that person more comfortable in the moment.

 

 

Transformation – Conservative to Liberal

63f44bf5df433d698abb349de3018b08I can only speak to my own transformation but I think it was my three years of traveling overseas that turned me from a semi-conservative to a liberal. Prior to travel, I had no reason to pay any attention at all to anyone else’s customs, hopes and difficulties. My thinking changed by interacting with various cultures and realizing the things we had in common. The little things might differ – what we wore, our food preferences, where we worshipped – but the big things were the same. We all want happiness and a measure of success. If you look at the billions of people on the earth, I’d wager that most of them are working to survive, not working at something they love. What, then, determines what makes their lives good ones?

My thinking had progressed a little bit when I moved from small town Texas to big city Washington, D.C. and then to international Las Vegas. It was not a big city when I first got here but it had an international base in the casinos and I worked with many of them in the show I danced in for my first four years here – French, Canadian, Czech, Italian. I watched their approaches to American norms and heard stories of what it took to adapt to our ways. Although I didn’t have to accept the differences, I found myself thinking about them. What did it take to leave everything behind to come here? I wasn’t sure I would’ve had the courage to do that. And the little differences became apparent as well. Who thought fast food was awful? More important, who survived on fruits and vegetables … and preferred them? Really?

And then I got the chance to travel to South Africa for a show that was beginning rehearsals in Bophuthatswana. I had found the stories of travels from the military people I had met in Washington interesting and they had opened my mind to even more options once I drove across country to Las Vegas on my own and found that I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I guess that was the beginning, because I would not have imagined such a thing in high school. In fact, I remember that my mother had once told me that although not a rich family, if I wanted to do something like go to school in Switzerland, they would find a way to get me there. I was horrified at the thought of being that far away. I couldn’t really tell you why. Perhaps it was that I was young and had always had relatives close by that I could depend on to take care of me and although I longed for the independence that all teenagers do, I didn’t want to push it too far.

So I arrived in South Africa, where I spent ten and a half months, and loved the adventure. To this day, I have great stories to tell. But more important, I saw firsthand what apartheid was like and wondered how people could treat each other that way. I saw people who had to be taught what a knife and fork were before they could work as waiters in the resort’s restaurants. That people could be so different was eye-opening and it made me take stock of the sheltered little world I’d left. It also made me put things in a bigger perspective.

I worked in Cairo where women who wore pants of any type (that includes jeans) were suspect as being loose and ran the risk of being followed, and maybe worse, if they dared to walk alone. I had a boyfriend there and learned that, by law, women were second-class citizens. It was not appropriate for me to hug him in public. Unimaginable.

When one of the shows I worked in overseas took me to Ito, Japan, I was particularly fascinated by the plethora of “rules” the Japanese lived by. When I questioned some of them, the answers almost always came back to “tradition.” I realized that in many of the countries I visited, the people I met had no reason to question. They had grown up in one place and much like me before I left Texas, knew nothing else. To them, it was entirely normal and my views were seen as radical. I got a taste of what it’s like to be the outsider with different ways that are frowned upon.

So I came back to the States having loved my travels but sporting a liberalism about what other people could and should be allowed when they come to my country that appalled my conservative mother. Too late. I’ve discovered that once you start thinking a bit more liberally, it’s impossible to back up. And I wouldn’t want to because the most important lesson for me was that if you look at the big picture, everyone simply wants to be valued, loved and to live life to his or her fullest.

Looking Back at the Forks in the Road

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From time to time I see comments from people who say they don’t regret anything they’ve done in their lives. I often want to say, “Really? Just wait.” How can you not look back at some of the forks in the road and try to imagine how different (always assuming better, of course) your life might be.

One of those forks in the road for me began the day I decided to continue a relationship with a man that I’d begun dating before I moved to Las Vegas and before he decided to marry someone else while I was working overseas. His job required a lot of travel – Secret Service – and so I saw the separations as a normal part of our relationship. In my mind, he only married her because, as he’d told me, the agency encouraged its agents to marry. Surely he settled for second best under pressure but just couldn’t tear himself away from me. (Yeah, I know. Don’t laugh). It took me a long time to understand that love is not necessarily reciprocated. That’s a hard lesson because we like to think if we’ve vetted the other person and found them worthy of our love, they must love us, too. How could our love be so misplaced?

In this particular case, our meetings lasted on and off for almost 20 years. Stupid, you say? Why yes. I remain mystified that I could’ve thought someone who only saw me once every year or couple of years would actually be in love with me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I convinced myself that he didn’t really love the person he married or he wouldn’t still be coming to see me. I told myself that he was just too chicken to face her.

Here was the defining moment that made me look at our relationship realistically: Over the years, he drank more and more and I had eventually told him I thought he was an alcoholic and I didn’t want him calling me again as long as he was still drinking. Two years later, he was in town, called, said he’d made some changes in his life and could we have dinner. Well, of course I relented because it sometimes takes a whole lot of water to extinguish the fire and clearly I’d only tossed a sprinkle or two when I’d needed a fire hose. I noticed that although he didn’t drink as much at dinner, he still drank. Hmmm. Then when he told me he loved me, I didn’t want to rock the boat by bringing up the booze issue.

So the next time he came to town, I decided to broach the subject of our long-term relationship and where, if anywhere, it was going (and yes, he drank at dinner). I don’t remember much of the conversation. The only thing I remember clearly is that when I told him he’d said he loved me the last time he’d been here, his eyebrows shot up and he laughingly said, “Jesus, was I drunk?”

Cue anvil between the eyes. Boy, that was a show stopper, I’ll tell ya’! It was also the end of the relationship. My regret is my stupidity. On the other hand, I’ve always believed we learn something from the bad as well as the good so I’ve long since put it in perspective. Even so, I sometimes look back and wonder what the hell I was thinking.