The Big Chop: The Hair Dilemma for Middle-Aged Women

I’m obsessed with my hair at the moment.

Let me preface this by saying I’ve always been ‘the girl with the hair.’ Mountains of hair that could barely be tamed. People have been commenting on it my entire life. Stylists jokingly begged my mother to stop putting “Miracle Gro” on my hair when I was a child. I like to think I looked like Rachel from Friends, but the truth is, I looked much more like Young Hermione from Harry Potter.

So I’ve always had this love-hate relationship with my hair. I go through cycles where I can’t stand it any longer and I chop it all off. This provides relief for a variable period of time. I love the convenience of short hair. I love being able to zip in and out of the shower, without the prolonged ordeal of shampooing and conditioning a pelt worthy of Chewbacca–especially living as I do now, in a house with low water pressure. I love being able to run my hands through my hair messily and dash out the door. No blow-drying. No attempts to tame the frizz. No hours of damp hair (of particular concern now that winter is rolling in again). Better still, I’m not using my hair as an excuse not to do things. I don’t know when I turned into that person to be honest. Maybe it was when I moved into a house with crappy heat and water pressure. But I find myself weighing whether I have time for a shower before I choose to do certain activities now. And forget about swimming. Between the coloring and the chlorine, my hair felt like straw. The big chop is an excellent way of getting back to healthy hair.

What I don’t love is looking like an angry hedgehog. Because that’s what I look like with short hair. I am not a pretty woman, and it takes having the right kind of face to pull off a pixie cut. Heck, there are beautiful women out there who can’t wear a pixie well and they don’t have my square jaw and rather masculine features. So any love I have for the short cut soon turns into absolute loathing. I begin the growing out process and swear I will never cut it short again.

The things I love about long hair? I love how it makes me feel sexy. I love being able to style it different ways. I do a little cosplay, and I have more options when my hair is long (unless I want to invest a lot of money in wigs…) With long hair, I can toss it back in a ponytail or barrette and it’s out of my face. I can put it up to look professional and curl it to look romantic. Most actresses have long hair–for a reason. We associate it with not only beauty, but youth as well.

A small part of me thinks as a romance author, I should maintain the ‘look’ of romance, if you know what I mean. I’m also very much aware that, no matter what my SO says, he prefers my hair long rather than short. (A wise man, he avoids rendering any sort of opinion on my hair, only to say it’s my hair and I should do what I like with it.)

This time, my chop or not chop decision is harder than usual. I’ll be honest, this past year has been rough. 2017 has been a train-wreck of colossal proportions: personally as well as for my country. I’ve been struggling, and only recently felt like I might be turning the corner in my downward spiral. For the first time in over a year, I find myself getting serious about cleaning up my diet, exercising more, eliminating or decreasing the stressors in my life. I want to spend more time writing and less time stewing. Cutting my hair short feels like it would be a step in the right direction to meet these goals. A clean sweep, a fresh start. A dramatic change to signal the dramatic (well, okay, little shuffling baby-step) changes I’m making in my life. Part of me really wants to do this.

Another part, the chicken-shit part, is afraid. Scared I’ll look as terrible as I fear. Worried that I’ll hate it and then be stuck with it while I go through the misery (the YEAR LONG MISERY) of growing it out again, wearing hats and refusing to look in mirrors and in general being a snarling bitch until it is long enough to pull back off my face again.

But mostly worried that I’m somehow kissing youth and beauty goodbye with the big chop. Yes, I know, not beautiful in the first place, but okay, the possibility of beauty. Of somehow announcing that I’m done with romance. That I’ve accepted middle-age and am willing to look my age. I read an article that suggested far too many women my age hang onto their long locks well-beyond the time a shorter cut would look better on them. I feel I might be in that category now.

When I read back over this, I’m struck by the vanity of it all. There are women out there who have no choice when it comes to their hair. Illness or hormonal imbalances or simple genetics have determined their choices for them. And I still have a lot of hair, though my part is definitely wider than it used to be. But for most of my life, my hair has been the only thing I could be vain about. So yeah. Decisions, decisions.

I’m excited and nervous. I want something dramatic but want something easy to grow out if I change my mind. I think the worse thing is the sneaking suspicion that no matter what decision I make, it won’t change my life in any meaningful way. I’ll still have to work on that diet, and fit more exercise in, and park my butt in the chair and write the next story. The puppy will still need training, work will still be stressful, and my house will still have crappy heat and low water pressure.

But maybe I’ll lose twenty pounds of pressure to be something I’m not. Maybe I will find the shedding of locks to be freeing in more ways than one.

 

My Me Too Story

It wasn’t my intention to go into details about my experiences with sexual harassment and assault. I’d seen the #MeToo hashtags on social media and shared them, in part because I believe there is value in victims realizing they are far from alone. I understood that many people who have experienced such negative situations might not be in a place where they felt like they could share, and I was okay with that too.

I also felt that though I’d been harassed and assaulted too many times to count, my experiences didn’t count on some level because I’d managed to avoid the ultimate assault: rape. So perhaps it was best that I simply shared the hashtag and otherwise remained silent on the subject. What did I know anyway?

But here’s the thing. The Harvey Weinstein revelations opened some real dialog, and had the potential to provide healing across a large scale. In the course of some of the fallout from these discussions, Twitter has promised to invoke stricter rules with the intent of protecting people from online harassment. We’ll see if they follow through, but at least it’s a step.

People from all walks of life shared the hashtag. Sometimes that was all they could share, and they typed those words with shaking hands. Sometimes seeing those words on someone else’s timeline led people to share more deeply, and in doing so, bring a measure of comfort to those who have suffered in silence so many years.

But then Mayim Bialik posted her opinion piece in the NYT. I have to say, as one of those, ‘Gosh, if you just obey the rules, nothing bad will ever happen to you’ opinion pieces, this is one of the worst. Because the whole thing reads like one long ‘n’yah, n’yah, n’yah’ to every woman who intentionally or otherwise made Ms.Bialik feel bad about her appearance while working in an industry where the roles are largely assigned based on appearance. Whereas the post pretends to be a ‘guide’ on how to avoid sexual assault by dressing modestly, not saying anything that could be misconstrued as flirting, and by all means, go get a degree in neuroscience because everyone knows brains aren’t sexy, the piece is really a giant FUCK YOU to beautiful women everywhere and the popular girls in high school.

Let me say for the record, I belong to neither of those groups.

I take exception to Ms. Bialik’s post on many levels. For one thing, sexual assault is not about sex. It is about POWER. It is about someone saying they own you and they have the right to do things to you without your consent, and the assaulter gets his (or her) jollies out of degrading you to the point you feel helpless to report them. It is a power trip. Your personal attractiveness has nothing to do with it. I would hazard a guess that the greater the disparity between power bases, the more pleasure the perpetrator takes in his or her actions.

The other thing that pisses me off about pieces like this is the implication that if you just followed the Good Girl Rules, then nothing bad will happen to you. The flipside of this implication is if something bad HAS happened to you, it must somehow be your fault for not obeying the rules. And crap like this shuts down any possible healing that might be taking place with the Me Too hashtag, as it turns into a finger-pointing game.

Case in point: me.

I’m going to leave out all the times I was catcalled and harassed on the street. Ditto the times I’ve been flashed, or the times old men have said lewd things to me in passing. I’m not even going to recount the time I was followed on the interstate for over 150 miles (I didn’t notice at first, but once I did, I couldn’t shake the guy until I pulled a dangerous stunt to exit the interstate at high speed as he was passing me) or the time I was run off the road at night by someone who’d been tailgating me with the high beams on. Fortunately, I had no hesitation about putting the car in reverse and backing up the interstate at 70 mph…  I’m not even going to include the letter I received from the father of one of my high school friends six months after his wife died, professing his long-standing desire to date me.

The main reason for not telling all these stories is they are simply too numerous to count, and honestly, after a certain point, it starts to feel like the normal cost of being female. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m just stating a fact. I’d be hard pressed to name a woman who doesn’t have stories like these to tell.

But let’s look at the more serious infractions. I should point out that all of my high school year book pictures were so bad, I never bought any, nor did I buy any of the yearbooks themselves. In high school, I had mountains of frizzy hair, glasses with Coke-Bottle-thick lenses, and teeth only a gargoyle could love. I graduated early, and wound up in college at seventeen, wearing braces. Seriously, as unsexy as you could get, and by Ms. Bialik’s reasoning, should have been utterly safe.

Only I wasn’t.

My first experience with sexual assault came when I was flunking organic chemistry. I approached the TA for help; he recommended a tutor and gave me a name. At the very first session, my male tutor said the only place in his dorm with enough room for us both to look at the books at the same time was on his bed. I spent 40 minutes trying to get him to keep his hands to himself and refocus back on the material, but it was no use. I could have insisted on future meetings at the library or a study room, but I was too freaked out by the experience. I could have reported him, but I didn’t know to whom, and beside, who would believe me? They would take one look at me–gargoyle in glasses–and one look at him, your average clean-cut All-American rich boy–and said it was wishful thinking on my part. Or worse, an attempt to extort money or something. At the time, I bought into the myth that rape and assault were about sex. I must have done something wrong. So I did what most teenagers would do. I said nothing and dropped the class.

The next time I got assaulted, it was by a professor. I was in the lab working on my project by myself. It was 2 pm on a sunny afternoon in a building full of people. I was working at a point where the two counter tops came to a right angle, and standing with my back to the door when this professor entered the room, came up behind me, and pressed his erection into my backside. He pinned me in the corner without escape.

I stomped down on his instep while at the same time driving my elbow into his gut and shoving him backward. Then I turned in all innocence, blinking at him wide-eyed as he bent over double, and said, “Golly! You surprised me! You know, you really shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”

He never came near me again. I found out later he had a reputation for hitting on college girls, but again, I said nothing. I’d taken care of the problem and because he wasn’t my professor, he wasn’t in a position to give me a failing grade. I know now I should have reported him. At the very least, that report would have given ammunition to the next girl who filed a complaint.

The third time was more serious. I was trying to get into grad school and studying hard, no time for a social life. But I met a guy, and he was cute and made me laugh, so when he asked me out, I said yes. On our first date, we somehow never made it to the movie we’d intended to see, and spend most of the evening talking. He wanted to go out again that weekend, and we made tentative plans, but when Saturday afternoon rolled around, I had to finish a project and suggested we meet with my friends for dinner that night instead of going out that afternoon.

When he came over that evening, he took me aside privately and castigated me for ‘canceling our plans’, letting me know he didn’t appreciate that. I honestly couldn’t see what the fuss was about, as we were having dinner that very evening, nor did I appreciate his attitude, but what was I to do? Kick him out? Tell him he was being a jerk and I wasn’t going to put up with that? These days, that’s exactly what I would do. But of course, at the time, I didn’t. I was 21 and raised to be polite.

After dinner my friends wanted to go out, and we went as a group to hear a band play at one of the local bars. I was uneasy about my date, but felt safe because I had company. Then, while the guys got drinks, my roommate informed me that earlier in the day, she’d caught my date going through my car. When she questioned him as to what he was doing, he said he was looking for my schedule. This creeped me out, but again, I thought I was safe because I was surrounded by friends. Only later when I went to the restroom, I came back to find my friends had left without me–and I was alone with my date.

In retrospect, I was very close to being a dating statistic that evening. Probably the only reason I’m not is because I instinctively knew not to let him in the apartment–and because I did some pretty fast talking when he dropped me off. Even so, I shouldn’t have gotten in the car with him, and I never should have told him I didn’t think dating was a good idea on my doorstep. At the time, I was certain he was going to hit me. I realize now I was in far more danger than that. But I made myself the bad guy–it was me, not him, I was trying to get into grad school, I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted, he needed a girl friend who could treat him with the respect he deserved. When he brought up the fact that people got married and went to grad school all the time, all the alarm bells went off, but I kept it cool. It had nothing to do with him being the Conductor on the Wackadoodle Train. It was all my fault.

He eventually left–and immediately sought out my friends, telling them he’d ‘lost’ me and begging to know what to do to get me back. My roommate, clueless as to what had happened (no cell phones in these days) suggested he write me a letter telling me how he felt. So he did. A letter so full of misspellings and poor grammar that I knew everything he’d told me about himself and his career was a lie.

And then the stalking began. I ended up cutting off all my hair and relinquishing my contacts for glasses again. I took an unlisted number. I got a big dog. I moved. Eventually, he no longer knew how to find me, and the harassment ended. Several years later, I ran into him in public and I swear, I saw murder in his eyes. I know that sounds like an exaggeration but you had to be there. He would have killed me if he could. I pretended not to recognize him, all the while my heart pounded hard enough to burst through my chest any second. Only when I saw the doubt cross his face as to who I was did I make my excuses and leave the party.

So when I say I Mayim Bialiked myself big time, it’s true. For years I went about in defensive coloration mode, and I’m telling you, it’s no protection. Years later, I was working at my new job in a new town, and stopped for groceries after work on the way home. I was in hurry, so I dashed across the parking lot into the store, grabbed a few things, and ran back out again. As I exited the store, a truck at the far end of the parking lot turned its headlights on. I thought nothing of it. It was on the other side of the parking lot. Probably someone headed home, just like me.

But by the time I’d opened my car door and tossed the groceries inside, the truck had pulled up in the parking space next to mine. As I closed my door and pressed the automatic locks, a man appeared at my driver’s side window. And the look on his face was that of a predator that had missed its kill. I’ve never been so unnerved in my entire life.

Again, before cell phones. And I wasn’t sticking around to confront the guy. I peeled out of the parking lot as though pursued by the hounds of hell. No, I didn’t report it. What would I have said? Some middle-aged white man with dark hair pulled up beside me in the parking lot. Big whoop. Or if I’d been taken seriously, the police may have watched the lot for a few days, but that’s all.

With ALL of these incidents listed here, my dress was the same, my standard uniform: jeans, T-shirt, and hiking boots. It’s how I dress 97% of the time. Tell me how that is being provocative or flirtatious.

So yeah, when I read Mayim Bialik’s opinion piece, it pissed me off. I said as much on the Twitter feed of someone with a LOT more followers than me, and someone else jumped in to MANSPLAIN my reaction, saying I shouldn’t twist Ms. Bialilk’s words. Um, go read the post yourself. No twisting necessary.

This mansplainer did have some good points in the cascade of Tweets he sent in response to me. He (and I assume male because his Twitter account was in a male name) stated (and I paraphrase here) that seat belts don’t guarantee you will survive a car crash, but to ignore the advice to wear seat belts is foolish and dangerous. That though the drunk driver is still the cause of the accident, don’t negate the importance of seat belts in improving survivability. That because seat belts don’t convey 100% safety, I shouldn’t act as though being ‘safer’ isn’t a valid reason to use them.

Now this is the point at which I stopped responding to the guy. A) He had his own axe to grind and I wasn’t going to let it be at my expense. B) He wasn’t listening to me when I said I that every decision I made was with my personal safety in mind and that I only took exception to people who implied the lack of ‘seat belts’ must have factored into someone’s victimization.

As neat as this little seat belt analogy is, it still points the finger of blame in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t be asking, “Was she wearing a seat belt?”

We should be asking, “Why was he driving drunk?”

The Power of Self-Forgiveness

WARNING: Discussion of self-harm and other destructive behaviors

I’m a tiny bit embarrassed to admit it, but this past weekend, I was tooling around the back roads in my car, listening to my iPod when a song by a favorite artist queued up. Most of the songs on the CD are about standing up for yourself, not letting anything hold you back any longer, and there is an underlying theme of getting out of abusive relationships and situations. It’s a powerful CD by a great artist, Anna Nalick. So when “Scars” began playing, I started singing along–only to be struck like a sledgehammer when I finally realized what the song was about.

It was about cutting.

I was staggered by two things: first, the fact it took me so long to recognize the meaning of a song I’ve listened to several times before. I’ve lived with a cutter. I know the signs. Sadly, knowing the signs doesn’t always mean you understand what compels some people to self-harm. In my defense for not picking up on the meaning of the song, in it, the singer speaks to that part of her that self-harms as though it is another person outside of herself, and the first couple of times, that’s how I heard it: that the singer cared about someone who she wasn’t going to give up on, someone in a dark place that needed help. Once I realized she was speaking about herself–the part of her that was twisted and in pain, I was gobsmacked.

The second revelation followed closely upon the first: there are many more ways to self-harm than cutting. You can practice self-harm by staying in a bad relationship, or eating the wrong foods, drinking too much, using drugs, or simply by hating yourself.

I hit replay on the song I don’t know how many times. All because of one line: Know that I forgive you.

Wow. I can’t tell you the effect that had on me. Here I am, on a lovely Sunday morning, tootling along country roads with a tired puppy in the back, having just gone on a hike in the woods. And this song hit me with something on the level of an epiphany: we have to accept the part of us that is destructive in order to heal. We have to learn to love the whole of us, even the parts we hate, in order to get better. Sure, today we might not be the person we want to be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be that person tomorrow. Aside from habit and exhaustion, two things that make it very hard to change anything about our lives, I think it’s critical we stop denying that part of us that hurts, the part that uses pain and distress as a coping mechanism, that says, this pain (be it the way you feel when you slice skin or the way you feel when you binge and purge or whatever your not-so-great coping mechanism might be) is better than the pain you were feeling before–of being unloved, unwanted, unworthy.

And when I sang those lyrics about forgiveness, I felt something inside me shift. Something I hadn’t even realized was bound in chains. Something gave, took a deep breath, and said, “Okay. We’ve got this.”

We. As in all the parts of me. The good and the bad. The parts I like (which admittedly are few) and the parts I dislike (the list of which seems to grow longer each year).

No, I don’t think I’m magically healed. You don’t spend a lifetime running a negative commentary on yourself and erase its effects overnight because of a pop song. I don’t think I’m going to immediately stop doing the things that are counter-productive to the life I want to lead. I suspect I’m going to find myself choosing between the lesser of two evils for a long time to come. But I think I’ve taken a big first step here because I realize now it is a choice. I can choose to keep walking in the direction I want to go or remain stuck in a quagmire of angry thoughts and bad decisions.

I choose to sing.

 

Dear Nietzsche: I’m Strong Enough Now, Thanks

I’d originally intended to title this post: Nietzsche Can Bite Me. It would have been catchy and clever, no? It also would have clearly stated how I feel at the moment. Nietzsche, of course, is known for the statement “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

I thought that title, paired with this image, would perfectly highlight what I was about to say.

So I Googled Nietzsche to get the exact wording of the quote, only to discover he began suffering from health issues that forced his early retirement, and at the age of 44, suffered an acute collapse that destroyed his mental abilities. He lived in the care of relatives the rest of his life.

Oh dear.

I think Karma was being a serious bitch there.

So I re-titled my post, though my basic feelings haven’t changed. I’d very much like it if the universe could lay off me for a while. But that’s not how it works, is it?

2017 has been an incredibly difficult year for me. I’m not going to bore you with the tally of losses, but suffice to say if I put them all in one story, no one would believe it. It’s the equivalent of living inside a country music song, the kind where the singer prefers the ‘bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy’. Imagine if you will, a heroine who, while trying to outrun a tornado on her way home from her daddy’s funeral, flipped the car, killing a child/spouse/pet. And then she staggered home, bloodied and grief-stricken, only to discover a foreclosure notice on the front door and a wildfire raging toward the house from the back forty. While she is trying to put the fire out, she gets a text message that she’s been laid off and her health insurance has been canceled. And then the doctor’s office calls to tell her she has cancer.

Okay, things aren’t that dire for me here, but it has been bang-bang-bang, one loss after another with more on the way and scarcely any time to recover my breath. And certainly no time to grieve. ‘Take all the time you need’ in reality means ‘you can take Friday afternoon off before the funeral if you must.’ The demands of work are such that even if you do take time off, you end up paying for it before and after your return in terms of additional work.

I tend to be a ‘put it on the back burner’ kind of person. I’m the sort of person of whom people say, ‘She’s really managing quite well, all things considering.’ I don’t cry at funerals or family gatherings. I’m the one who organizes and sees that the appropriate things get done. I’m good at my job and I work hard at it. I walk out of a funeral and right back into the office.

But the stress fractures are starting to show. I’ve become a real weenie when it comes to my entertainment, avoiding anything that might be too sad or violent. Recently, the unexpected turn of events in La-La-Land left me unsuccessfully trying to smother sobs on the couch so no one else would notice–something that wouldn’t have affected me six months ago. I’m losing my temper over things that normally wouldn’t bother me–or at least, not openly. Health issues that had been dormant are becoming active again.

The thing is, even for those of us who set aside grief to be dealt with at some future date, that date always arrives. My problem is I haven’t allowed myself to deal with the first loss before the others began piling up. Now I’m walking on a thin crust of barely cooled lava, hoping it will support my weight as I go about my day, trusting that no one will notice the ominous glow shining through the cracks, the sulfurous odor, or the smoke coming off my shoes.

We’re not a very forgiving society when it comes to grief. Hell, we’re not a forgiving society when it comes to anything at the moment, if the current state of affairs in the US is any indication. Stiff upper lip, and all that. It was the way I was raised and I know no other way of behaving, to be honest. But I strongly suspect this time, this year, it’s not going to be enough.

I’ve been collecting–but not reading–links to articles on grief. I intend to read them. You know, when I get the time. Today, I did click on one–an article about a letter of consolation Seneca wrote to his mother.

One passage in particular struck me: It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.

It occurs to me that I’m not going to get the kind of time I need to process all my grief right now. Not in one block of time. I certainly won’t be able to package all grieving into a specific time frame, after which I will declare myself done and move on. But if I don’t do something, it will lie beneath the surface like a festering wound, unable to heal and with the potential of becoming truly toxic with time.

The only solutions I can see at the moment are to take little mini-breaks. To say no to things I don’t want to do. Stop filling up every free minute with commitments and promises. Turn off social media. Play more music. Walk outside barefoot. Appreciate what I have, let go of what I’ve lost, and fight for what I want in the future. Honor grief by being quiet enough to listen to it.

But Nietzsche can still bite me.

 

Just Wear It…

Last week I discovered a perfume I truly adore, something unusual for me. Most perfume just doesn’t smell as good on me as it does in the bottle, but this one was fabulous.

I don’t wear perfume often, nor makeup for that matter. I don’t go out much and my work demands sturdy clothing over sexy. I indulge my girly side with nail polish in outrageous shades, but even then, I stick to the more conservative colors on my hands and save the more unconventional shades for my toes.

For the most part, the only makeup I wear is mascara. Occasionally some eyeliner. Rarely do I put on lipstick. I never wear foundation. And yet, just like perfume, I like these things. I’m just saving them for a special occasion.

So when I fell in love with this perfume, my first thought was, “Wow, I love this so much, I could wear it every day!” Until I saw the price tag, that is. Then I instantly relegated it to “Only on very special occasions.”

Then it dawned on me. I have an awful lot of perfume that fits into this category. 

Do you know what happens to perfume that sits in a bottle too long and doesn’t get used? The scent degrades. The chemistry within changes. Before you know it, the magic is gone. The product you thought too precious to waste on everyday life has been completely wasted by not being used at all. 

I think a lot of us spend too much time waiting for special occasions to bring out the things we love. Life is too short. We need to stop ‘saving’ ourselves for potential-but-not-guaranteed events. This doesn’t just apply to perfume, or that favorite pair of shoes, but to ourselves as well. How many of us have chosen not to go to the beach or put on the cosplay outfit because we weren’t happy with our appearance? We don’t ask for that raise because we’re afraid we don’t deserve it. We don’t follow our dreams because we’re afraid of being crushed. And somehow, we think at some future date, when all the stars align and we look exactly how we want, that we’ll get the other things we want as well.

In the meantime, we tell ourselves the perfume is too expensive to wear just around the house.

Put on the perfume. If smelling that delicate scent on your wrist makes you smile, wear it, by God. Even if you’re only going down to the barn. 

Don’t put it on for someone else. That applies to the makeup and the favorite clothes, too. Put them on because you like the way they make you feel. So what if you’re only going to work? As long as you can get the job done (and you’re not violating any dress code), wear what makes you happy today instead of saving it for some future date. If someone tells you you’re too old to wear graphic t-shirts, or that you really should stop wearing x-y-z when you love how you look in them, tell that person to stuff it. The ONLY thing women of a certain age should stop wearing is the unsolicited opinions of people on the Internet.

Stop putting your life on hold for some mythical time when you are prettier, thinner, smarter, richer, or what every yardstick measurement you’ve been holding yourself up to. Live. Love. Smile. Today is yours.

Wear the perfume. Don’t let it go bad in the bottle because it was too precious to ‘waste’. Life is too precious to waste. Every day that we get is a special occasion.

 

The Perils of Decision Fatigue

It occurred to me this weekend that I am beginning to suffer from a kind of global decision fatigue.

I only recently ran across this term. Someone used it in conjunction with sticking to a diet plan, and how many of us can do so up to a certain point in the day, when decision fatigue sets in. The article went on to list ways in which you could fatigue-proof your diet plans so you didn’t fall victim to bad food choices late in the day or when you were under stress. I thought it a useful term and made note of the points in the article.

I think it’s similar in some ways to compassion fatigue, in which caregivers or people in the health professions, such as doctors or nurses, burn out on the emotional demands of their jobs.

And I’ve got another one for you that I made up just now: fear fatigue. It goes hand-in-hand with its partner in crime, outrage fatigue. Because at some point I have to look at the headlines that say we’re all going to die from a) an imminent pandemic (it’s just a matter of time) b) catastrophic climate change (also a matter of time) c) global war (which will probably get us first, given the current administration), so I don’t have to worry about losing my Social Security or Medicare or health insurance because I’ll already be dead. That’s what clicking on the news does for me these days. Paired with the sickening and terrifying changes in policy within this country, I’m glad on some level I still can be outraged and afraid.

But the fatigue is setting in.

All of it is coming to a head with the decision fatigue. I’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions lately, the kind that make a great Lifetime movie but suck when it happens to you in real life.

I am required to make many important and difficult decisions at work on a constant basis. I am having to make tough decisions at home as well. I am tired of feeling unwell much of the time, and have added trying to change my diet into the mix–something several friends have suggested I hold off doing right now. I see their point, but I also desperately want to feel better. Changing my eating habits does seem to make a difference in that, despite bringing its own stresses to the mix. But it’s more decision-making.

This past weekend, another one of my elderly animals has begun showing disquieting symptoms. I found myself literally paralyzed in determining what was best to do for him. Do I put him through extensive diagnostics when he is nearing the end of his natural lifespan in the hopes of finding something treatable? Knowing the stress of such tests could kill him? This is a spooky little cat who hates being handled and definitely freaks going to the vet. I know in my heart the likelihood of finding something treatable is pretty slim, so I’ve been going round and round, making and unmaking my decisions, certain one minute I will take one course of action, only to change my mind a few hours later.

Deep breath.

Because that’s what you have to do when decision fatigue sets in. You have to take a step back. Take a deep breath. Look at your decision logically. Take the emotional component out of the picture for a moment.

For years, I’ve had a firm policy: no important decisions without a fully belly and good night’s sleep. Most decisions don’t have to be made on the spur of the moment, so if you have the time, take it. Don’t leap into action without making sure you’re in the best frame of mind to make a good choice. This addresses the fatigue portion of the problem. Don’t discount that. We make our worst decisions when we are emotionally and physically wiped out. If at all possible, sleep on your decision-making. Many times your subconscious will show you the way overnight and you’ll wake up with the realization of what you should do.

For many people, this is what prayer does for them. If you are of a religious persuasion, pray about your decision. The acting of praying about something is another means of putting some distance between you and the problem and giving yourself time to sort it out. Just remember, if you ‘turn something over to God’, you’re not supposed to snatch it back and worry over it. That sort of looks like you don’t trust God to handle it. 🙂

Talk with your friends and family. Get their opinions. It’s not likely they will all agree, but it is likely that the people who care about you will give you some indication as to whether you’re on the right track or not. Moreover, you may find overwhelming support for one decision over another and make your choice easier.

Forgive yourself for not being perfect. This is a biggie with decision fatigue, I find. Part of the inability to make a decision stems from the paralyzing fear it will be the wrong one. Yes, you make make the wrong choice. The consequences could be greater than just slipping off your diet plan. But you’re making the best decision you can with the information you have at hand. You’re not setting out to deliberately make an unwise choice. Let your fear go.

Remember many decisions are not irreversible. If you discover you didn’t make the right choice, chances are you can change direction and modify your course. It’s highly unlikely you’ll wind up in an oubliette like Sarah in Labyrinth.

 

But even if you do, remember, Sarah got out in the end.

And Now We Are Two

Captain and I took our first walk together without Sampson this evening.

After an uncomfortable evening, in which more than once I woke up because I didn’t hear the stertorous breathing that has marked Sampson’s respirations these past weeks and I thought he had died, he only picked at his home-cooked breakfast this morning. His legs threatened to give out on him when I took him outside, and I knew it was time.

Of course, he perked up when I took him to the vet’s–enough to eat treats at the hands of the staffers who have known him most of his life–but that’s exactly what I wanted. Him still able to motor in under his own steam, if somewhat wobbly. Not glassy-eyed and in distress because he couldn’t breathe. Still bestowing tail-wags and kisses, even though the wide stance of his legs was yet another indicator of how hard he was working to move air.

The process went as smoothly and peacefully as anyone could hope for. He was ready. A pawprint was made. Next week, his ashes will be returned to me and together, Captain, my husband, and I will scatter them along one of our favorite walks.

But oh, it felt so strange to be just Captain and me this evening. This is the first time in nearly twenty years I haven’t had a big dog by my side. I was conscious not just of the absence of his presence, but of a sense of vulnerability I haven’t felt in a very long time.

There will be another big dog at some point. I’ve been looking at my schedule and seeing when the best time to introduce a puppy would be. Not because I didn’t love Sampson, or because I’m trying to replace him, but because I loved him so much his absence leaves a huge hole that only another fuzzy little face can fill.

Goodnight, Sampson.

Who’s a good boy? You are.

Take Your Time

These days, we’re walking more slowly.

Where once the dogs dragged me along as though we were running the Iditarod, these days, there is slack in the leash. Sampson either walks alongside me in perfect heel position, or lags a few steps behind. Captain and I are learning to match his pace, to not push him too much.

I no longer play Pokeman Go when walking the dogs. Though I still enjoy the game, these days, I’m more aware of how Sampson is breathing, and whether or not I need to give him a break. We’ve been blessed by cool weather–for days now, the breeze has been damp caress, ruffling my hair gently in passing. I’m grateful because it has given us a little more time. I realize even without the increased heat our time together is limited, but the typical Carolina humidity is going to play havoc with Sampson’s ability to breathe.

But each day, I see the gradual decline. His appetite is beginning to fail, and I, someone who can barely be persuaded to cook for herself or family, am scouring the internet looking for tempting, wholesome recipes for my dog that won’t upset his stomach. In the past month since his diagnosis, he’s begun to lose muscle at an alarming rate too. And he seems to have gone gray almost overnight. The rate at which the cancer is aging him is nearly unbelievable. It’s like when one of those space vampires on that show Stargate Atlantis suck the life out of their victims, leaving them old before their time. The hiking trip we took just a few weeks ago would be impossible today. I’m so glad we went when we did.

And yet, while I think he is enjoying being spoiled with special food, I don’t think he needs special trips. He’s happy just to go on our daily walks. These days, we mostly go to the playground, and he actually slows down as we pass the jungle gym in the hopes some children will come out and tell him how handsome he is.

The days when he desperately needed to run off leash to burn the energy off of him are gone. A car can pass within feet of us and he barely reacts. That’s okay. It’s kind of restful, actually. And when we’re in the big hayfield behind the house, I do let him off lead. He and Captain putter around in the weeds, the little Jack Russell running circles around the tired old Shepherd.

And he is getting tired. I can see it in his eyes. I know the time is coming when I will have to make a decision. But today, we sat in the hayfield for a while, admiring the view. I have him to thank for that. For making me slow down. For reminding me to listen for the calls of the meadow larks and the redwing blackbirds. To close my eyes against the background hum of lawn mowers in the distance, and smell fresh-cut grass on the damp wind.

 

Today by the ball field, we were approached by a family who wanted to pet him. Soon we were surrounded by a small crowd, with Sampson in the middle, wagging his tail and holding court. The mother, sharing that they too had a Shepherd, asked how old Sampson was. My voice caught as I answered because his birthday is soon and I’m not sure he’ll see it. I found myself telling them he had cancer. You could feel the sorrow close over the group as soon as I said the words.

Afterward, Sampson turned back toward the car, choosing to cut our walk short for the first time in his life.

I wish I’d started these posts sooner. I know Captain and I will still go walking once Sampson is gone. I know I will get another dog, and will share the joys and frustrations of having a puppy again after so long without one. But Sampson has taught me that more than ever, life is but the blink of an eye, the space of one heartbeat and the next. I’ve never had a decade pass so swiftly in my recollection. More than anything, I’ve spent that decade working. I know I will have to continue to work hard to make ends meet.

But life is also more than just making ends meet. Sometimes we have to chase the ball. Sometimes we need to lie in green fields and drink in the late afternoon sun. Mostly, we need to just be.

That’s the greatest gift dogs teach us.

 

Of course this is going in a book someday…

I started out with the best of intentions today.

I’d forgotten, however, that the Powers That Be had decided we needed to start doing weekly office meetings prior to the start of the business day. On Mondays, no less. I know this is for the benefit of the newbies on board, but as someone who is not a newbie, I resent upsetting my morning schedule to come into work even earlier than usual. As such, I forgot to allot time to make breakfast and wound up grabbing a granola bar. Okay, could have been worse. I could have chosen Captain Crunch.

Fine. Off to work I go. Only because we now do the early morning meeting thing, it’s been decided I get out early on Mondays, which yay! for getting out early but… that means I get to work through lunch. Because why stop to eat when I am going to be leaving in an hour, right? So now I’m leaving work at 1 pm, and I’m well beyond peckish and moving into hangry territory.

But it’s okay, because I’m going to stop at the store where they have that new salad bar. I’m going to load up on good, healthy food and pick up a few items while I’m at it. I juggle the flimsy plastic tray while I kick my shopping basket along side me, loading the plate as I go. I am just at the end of the line applying a dash of salad dressing when the plastic gives in the middle and the whole thing dumps down the front of my pants and into my basket sitting on the floor at my feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is salad and dressing everywhere. My planned purchases are covered with bacon bits and cheese. I attempt to wipe up the mess with napkins from the salad bar, but quickly end up with a sticky goo on my hands. A shopping passing by smiles and says, “Don’t take it so hard. It happens to all of us.”

I don’t know what she saw on my face but her words do me in. Tears begin to flow. A staff member comes to help clean up and says, “Having a rough day, dear?”

“No,” I say. “I’m having a rough year.”

And the words threaten to spill out messy and sticky like the salad dressing. I recently lost my cat to heart failure. I lost my mother to an unexpected stroke two weeks later. My dog is dying from cancer. My sister is dying from cancer. Our country is either on the brink of destroying democracy or taking us back into war–or both. Civil rights are being taken back to pre-1950s status. We’re poisoning our planet and the government wants to remove restrictions aimed at slowing that down. And someone has had the gall to be nice to me.

Because kindness is just too much to bear right now.

But I don’t say any of these things. I sniff and wipe my face with the parts of my hands not covered in salad dressing. I see a cute guy looking at me with a worried expression on his face, but instead of offering to help, he tiptoes away like someone who doesn’t want to get involved with the crazy lady snuffling into the California French.

“You can get another salad, sweetie.”

I shake my head. I don’t want another salad. I thank the people who helped me clean up and take the rest of my purchases to the checkout. I don’t want to talk to anyone, so I go to the automatic cashier, only the scanner can’t read my dressing-covered food. I try again and again until I am slamming the items down on the scanner and I have to call someone over to help anyway.

Deep breath. It’s all good. It will be okay.

In the parking lot, I overhear two women speaking of the likelihood of us going to war with Korea. I’m waiting behind them patiently while they put their carts away, but  then one of them says, “Well, we’re living in the end times now. Everything that has been predicted in the Bible is coming true now.”

She shrugs, resigned.

I can’t help myself. “Well, there will be some people in the government that are going to have a rude awakening when Jesus comes back,” I snap.

They look at me, blinking slowly like sheep surprised at finding a dog among them that might possibly be a wolf, only they’ve forgotten what wolves really look like. One of them smiles uneasily.

“Jesus,” I say, shoving the cart into the rack with a little more force than necessary, “believed in charity. Jesus believed in taking care of the poor.” My voice rises a little higher, louder. “Jesus believed in health care.”

One of the women laughs. “That he did.”

“And Jesus, ” I said, not yet finished. “Believed you should pay your taxes.”

There is a narrowing of eyes at that, and a little nod. Maybe I got through. Maybe not. But I swear if I hear one more person fatalistically state that the end times have come and there is nothing we can do, I think I shall scream.

Which is why I ended up in the bathroom at McDonald’s, scrubbing the dressing off my hands like Lady MacBeth trying to remove bloodstains. Right before I stuffed my face with a burger and fries.

SAMSUNG CSC

So no, as a ‘first day’ on a new diet plan went, it was not highly successful. But I didn’t punch anyone, so I count it as a win.

Besides, I am so using this in a story some day. Only it will be funnier, and the cute guy will have the balls to come over and help, and another romance will be born.The realization hit me as I was finishing the last of the fries and my hangry pains faded away. Oh yes. Good stuff here.

 

 

Walking with Sampson

My dog Sampson is dying.

He has a mass in his chest the size of a grapefruit, a lesion called hemangiosarcoma, which is common in older Shepherds. It’s a miracle he’s even breathing, let alone eating, playing, and seriously considering chasing that car when it goes past us on our evening walks. Aside from breathing a little hard all the time and slowing down on our walks, you wouldn’t know he was as ill as he is. The last three evenings I’ve taken him down to the local playing fields. Children are drawn to him like a magnet. They come boiling off the baseball diamonds and tennis courts like a swarm of bees, running up to us. “May we pet your dog?”

I make them slow down (because seriously, you don’t run up to a Shepherd waving rackets or baseball bats) but my fears are groundless. Sampson’s ears melt back in happy anticipation of the adoration that is his due, his tail wagging as the kids run their hands all over him. Several times I’ve been tempted to say something. To tell them he has cancer. But I don’t. I don’t because he is so happy and they are so happy, and how can I spoil that moment?

He doesn’t have much time left. We know this.

But the funny thing is, he doesn’t. Or if he does, he doesn’t care.

I firmly believe that dogs come into our lives at various times to teach us lessons when we need them most. I’ve been blessed to have had some amazing dogs in my life. My first Shepherd taught me what it was like to be loved completely and totally for who I was. My second taught me life was more than just getting through the day and set me on a path of life-changing self-discovery I’d never have taken without her. I changed careers because of that dog.

Even though Sampson has an inoperable mass in his chest, I consider us fortunate in that not only do we have time to adjust to the realization we’re going to lose him soon, but he is teaching me much about living for the present. Making the most of each day. How to be a dog.

I spend far too much time these days either living in the past (reacting to events that should no longer be affecting me but still do) or worrying about the future and things I can’t control. Each of us only gets today. Yes, we’re probably overworked and utterly exhausted because that seems to be the American Way, but we have to remember the things that make life worth living. Believe me, it seems like only a couple of years ago, I brought home a fuzzy little moose-puppy. In reality, it was over a decade, and yet it seems like the blink of an eye.

When I go walking with the dogs in the woods, I am reminded of Thoreau: 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”

That is what Sampson is teaching me right now. I’m very much aware I’ve spent a good deal of the last decade griping at him to go lie down. I wish now we’d gone hiking more often. That I’d been more patient with his enthusiastic energy. That I’d told my employers ‘screw it’ and spent that time with those that I love.

I can’t undo that now, but I can be the person my dog thinks I am. I can’t quite manage the bucket list thing, but I am determined to make the time Sampson has left be the best it can be. I know on some level, he’s happy as long as we’re together and he doesn’t have to fight for my attention. That’s not quite enough for me, though. So a few weeks ago, I impulsively rented a dog-friendly cabin at a state park, and the four of us–the husband, Sampson, me, and little Captain– went away for an isolated weekend in the woods.

The weather was perfect. The daytime temps were in the upper thirties and lower forties–brisk but not so cold to make long walks in the woods unpleasant. The nights were brilliantly cold in the manner that took your breath away, as did the stars overhead when you stepped outside the cabin at night. No internet. No television. We sat in front of the fire and read while the dogs napped at our feet, tired from the day’s walks. I didn’t want to come home. Best. Weekend. Ever.

And sometimes, that’s all it takes. A reminder life is more than just getting through the day. You don’t have to go to Mexico or Hawaii to reconnect with those you love. You just have to unplug and look at them.

There will be more walks with Sampson. And when he is gone, there will be more walks with Captain, and whatever new dog I accept into my life. I just hope I can retain these lessons in my heart so the next dog–and everyone else I love–can benefit from them.

The cabin had a little journal where campers could leave messages. The book was nearly full–there was just a tiny amount of space left on the last page. Most of the entries had been written by children, stating how much they’d loved their week of swimming and hiking. I left this post: