Eight weeks

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How different eight little weeks, and the speed with which they pass, can feel depending on the place you find yourself in life.

For a man struggling every day, every minute, with sobriety, eight weeks is an eternity – but almost an unbelievable one (to the degree that he has been fearful to even count or keep track consciously). And each little milestone (being able to claim two months!) feels like a major triumph, but also comes with a possible downside. Like all lifelong ‘afflictions’, it’s forever. It’s something he lives with that must be maintained and nurtured with great care and consideration. He may be sober but never free of the label, the disease, the temptation.

Eight weeks feels like a very long time: each of the days passing not hour by hour but minute by minute. Each day packed with AA meetings, work and gym-going (or whatever fills those minutes) and the slowing evening more difficult, staring at the clock while the minutes pass until the stores that sell alcohol finally close. (All these themes appear at length in David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest, which I’ve been slogging my way through for days; the addiction parts are by far the most interesting.) It’s a safety net, knowing he can’t get anything if he suddenly fell into despair. Eight weeks, eight days, eight hours, eight minutes. Everything broken down to the smallest parts, anything to make the time go faster.

Meanwhile, for a newly pregnant woman, if she is even 100% sure she is pregnant at eight weeks, time is almost accelerated. At eight weeks, she has barely accepted the reality but is in a race with time if she, for example, intends to terminate the pregnancy. Many places have a 12-week cutoff point (at which point she could still terminate but needs special permission from her doctor or a panel of doctors), and while one would imagine that the four weeks in between eight and twelve weeks is a whole month, it’s never quite that simple.

She has a massive, life-changing decision to make. She may be in denial. She may even attempt to schedule an appointment to terminate, but even that can take time. Again it depends on where in the world she is. (It could be that depending on the stage of the pregnancy, the abortion will cost more; in the US many states don’t have abortion facilities at all, making the whole ordeal that much more challenging.) Eight weeks into a pregnancy, it’s already so well underway – like two months have already slipped away sneakily, almost without her conscious knowledge. And she wishes for anything that could make the time go slower.

It’s not what we thought…

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Everything turns out, in time, not to be what we thought it was.

Women’s fertility, thought to hit a precipitous slide downward from the age of 27 – or 35 – or some other number conjured up by dubious science, may decline in general/on average. But then it turns out fertility is not quite that simple.

“But it’s no wonder we’re so easily panicked. The fearful narrative around women’s fertility fits with a broader theme that’s become all too common as women have gained economic independence over the last several decades: we’re going to pay for our equality. Mothers going to work in the 1980’s were told they were subjecting their kids to an epidemic of sexual abuse at daycare centers. In 1986, Newsweek reported that 40-year-old single women were “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than find a husband. These stories and many more like them, of course, are completely false. Perhaps the best way to fight the panic is to question those who’ve made a business of selling it.”

Pregnancy after 40 is becoming quite common. In fact, in the UK at least, the number of over-40 pregnancies outnumbers the under-30 pregnancies for the first time in 70 years.

I lived for years in Iceland, where it is quite common to have children (many, in fact) when you’re quite young (late teens/early 20s). This is seen as the norm. When a non-Icelandic friend lived in Iceland, everyone around her hounded her about having a baby before she was an “old hag” (meaning mid-20s, I guess???). She did not have a child until she moved to Denmark, and by then she was in her late 20s. The Danes, though, insisted that she was “so young” to be having a child, and all the other women in her maternity ward had at least ten years on her.

And this very pressing issue – fertility – reminds me not only that life goes on but also that, as it does, there are so many other things we don’t know shit about but pretend to (or to trust experts about them): Addiction, aging, the brain, radiation, education, the powerhouse Japan was supposed to be… or even pasta. Nothing is definitive – it keeps changing as the environment around it changes. We really don’t know anything – even what consciousness means.

The same can be said of people, but that’s another and different challenge.

Childless Woman’s Lament

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I do not have children. Some lost by chance, some lost by choice. I am middle-aged. Sometimes I am deeply content and relieved to be childless, but I am a cliché in that I started to feel that telltale pang of need and/or desire when I hit 30. I never thought I would feel it.

I find myself getting overly and perhaps inexplicably emotional now from superficial triggers. Sometimes when I see a pregnant woman on the tram, sometimes when I see someone with a baby, sometimes when an email circulates at work about someone’s impending maternity leave. Most frequently, the strangest things set me off – often television plots and characters finding themselves unintentionally pregnant, their expressions of uncertainty, their handling of the private fear and joy that early pregnancy brings on and their handling of the unintentionally hurtful things people say to them while the pregnancy is a secret. And it makes me sad and contemplative.

Fictional Mindy Lahiri’s surprise pregnancy on The Mindy Project, a show I never intended to watch but did, brought tears to my eyes. Even when Uma Thurman’s character in television’s crappiest show, The Slap, faced a surprise pregnancy, and her journey (one of my least favorite words) from shock and doubt to acceptance and joy, I found myself feeling choked up. Oh, and of course every single week on Call the Midwife.

The most profound sadness came when I read and reread (and reread) an article from the late neurosurgeon and writer Paul Kalanithi, who recently died at age 37. It would have been a sad story anyway, but his eloquence and the peace with which he expresses himself as he wrote parting words for his baby daughter before he died is heartbreaking.

The ending in particular made me cry more than once. I don’t know why I am reading it repeatedly when the grief it generates is so close to the surface and raw, but its beauty keeps pulling me in to read it again:

Yet one person cannot be robbed of her futurity: my daughter, Cady. I hope I’ll live long enough that she has some memory of me. Words have a longevity I do not. I had thought I could leave her a series of letters – but what would they really say? I don’t know what this girl will be like when she is 15; I don’t even know if she’ll take to the nickname we’ve given her. There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple. When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

-Paul Kalanithi (RIP)

Dickheads – Who Remembers Richard Marx?

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Among world-famous “Marx”es – Richard Marx is pretty low on the list and not first to spring to mind (Karl being most prominent for me). I always forget about 80s musician Richard Marx – I’d call him a “flash-in-the-pan” except that he had more than one hit at the time (at least one of which most people could sing along with or at least have heard, even if they have no idea who is behind it – “Right Here Waiting”.

He was no priority to me, but today I stumbled on an article about Marx’s petty wars-of-words with journalists – sometimes not even big-time journalists. Just people whose articles (even blog articles?) Marx apparently stumbles across and then starts arguing, defending himself against nonsense that does not really matter. Is it just to be mentioned and inflate an ego that cannot be sustained just on the 80s hits and a successful producing/songwriting career that came after the more visible fame? Is it really some kind of inferiority complex? Because really – if he embodied the kind of confidence that he probably should, to which he applies all manner of defensive words and threats, he would have neither the time nor interest in stooping to the level of addressing the fact that someone makes fun of the hairstyle he sported in the 80s or referred to his (soon-to-be ex-) wife, Cynthia Rhodes) as a “former model” (I guess he rushed to her defense, citing her history as an actress in important/popular films – we all remember Dirty Dancing and her role as “Penny”. Although I don’t remember much about her or her role, I remember Jerry Orbach saying something like, “You’re the one who got Penny in trouble.” – always enjoying this euphemistic language – “in trouble” – to describe pregnancy).

The aforementioned 2013 Salon article puts it best (although a Techdirt response also made me crack a smile in response to the Salon piece and Marx’s behavior, which they characterized as “acting like a self-important psychopath”) – Marx has outsold so many of his much better-known peers but has not had the staying power nor garnered the respect of the industry (italics are mine).

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Marx’s quadruple-platinum album “Repeat Offender” has sold more copies than “Blonde on Blonde,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” or “Pet Sounds.” (In fact, Marx’s most popular album has sold more copies than any album by Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra or the Beach Boys.) However, Marx’s window of fame was so brief, and his songs so ephemeral, that he doesn’t have a musical legacy. He’s still heard on late-night call-in request shows for the lovelorn, and, as even he admits, “I’m HUUUUGE at Walgreens” as background music for shopping.

But unlike near-contemporary pop stars Hall & Oates and Journey, Marx has not built a following among a new generation of fans. Few people under the age of 30 or over the age of 60 knows who he is, and most people in between haven’t thought about him in decades. His last Top 10 hit, “Now and Forever,” was released in 1994. He’s a songwriter and a producer now, with a Grammy for co-writing Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father,” but in Hollywood, nobody knows the writer’s name.

Marx has never gotten respect from critics, which is understandably galling for any artist. In a 1990 concert review, a New York Times critic compared him to David Cassidy and Donny Osmond, as the latest in “a long string of insipid, pseudo-adolescent singing idols whose tenure as teenage heartthrobs rarely lasts more than three years.” That was also the last time Marx’s music was the subject of a New York Times article.

To be honest, I never imagined that I would devote a whole blog post to Richard Marx. But Edward McClelland (writer of the Salon piece and this longer, funnier version of the story, “Right Here Waiting”) probably did not imagine it either. But mostly on the strength of the quoted text above and how much I enjoyed McClelland’s pieces, I thought… yeah, this is all true. (I did a little bit more online digging, which also led me to a different Richard Marx who apparently practices law in Florida – found an article about journalism in Zimbabwe linked from that Richard Marx’s site – ties in nicely, if completely randomly, with my intermittent Africa-related knowledge binges.) It made me feel sort of bad for the guy, even though his lashing out at critics seems overboard and desperate – especially when he could arguably have the last laugh. He has undoubtedly “outgunned” most of his contemporaries and certainly his critics financially. And artistically – even if he did not make a lasting impression aside from probably providing a theme song for many a high school prom (again, see “Right Here Waiting” again or “Hold Onto the Nights” – among that category ballads that really does strike a chord with the lovelorn high school set who believe fervently that high school sweetheart love will last forever) – he made a few decent records (I sort of liked the single “Don’t Mean Nothing” at the time – I was a kid in the late 80s; what can I say? I am sure I thought I was too cool for it, just leaving sixth grade, but I will cop to having the broadest of musical palates, even then, so I won’t apologize! haha) and has what – at least in 1990 – I would have characterized as a rabid fan base.

Yes, you got that right. Rabid. Back in 1990 (you know, the old days when we did things like this), my best friend and I were waiting for tickets to a Sinéad O’Connor concert (we got in line about 4 in the morning) – and we thought we would be the first there. But there was a 30-something woman there first, who proudly exclaimed that she had been there all night waiting to buy tickets to see Richard Marx. She said she had previously been following him around the country and that his rabid fans affectionately refer to themselves as “Dickheads”. We were sort of making fun of him, and this woman became maniacally defensive. Why does Marx need to be out there defending himself when there are bulldogs and terriers out there fighting all these little battles for him? (Granted that was back in 1990 – I don’t know if the Dickheads are still out there, but I suspect that diehards of that type are forever.)

(And because I cannot sign off on a Richard Marx note, here’s Sinéad’s “Just Like U Said It Would B” from her brilliant debut album.)

Likelier to be a Dirty Astronaut: Five Admissions

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It’s the last day of March, and I am not fond of listening to most English accents. I admit it. I have gone from an adolescent anglophile to… well, this person who just does not want to hear it. I like to joke about it and imitate it à la “You don’t know me at all. I don’t need to be drunk to talk dirty.” (Because one of the only words that sounds best in English-English and can really only be taken seriously from the mouth of an English person is “dirty”.) Admission number one.

Admission number two. Watching movies in which a character finds out she is pregnant and then has to tell someone else she is pregnant (especially someone who has a stake in the pregnancy, i.e., the father), sort of freaks me out emotionally. Seeing these reactions – fictional though they may be – the processing that takes place… the characters’ place in life – some wanting a baby, some not at all, some shocked or horrified, not even thinking “baby” is on their life’s radar when it comes into being. Watching these reactions makes me think about how I doubt I will ever have this kind of conversation – and up to this point would not have had this conversation even in the event of pregnancy. It occurs to me right now as sort of sad because I have been determined to go it alone. No illusions, no expectations, no surprises – the hard work would be mine alone.

I think this all hit me the other night when I watched the film Short Term 12. The main character (played by the suddenly-everywhere Brie Larson) discovers she is pregnant and eventually tells her boyfriend. His surprise, initial reaction (which seemed almost as though he was stunned – negatively – gave way to a lot of joy and support), interested me as well. The actor’s face registered such shock and surprise in that moment… the reality dawning on him in just a few seconds – I am not sure I have seen a purer reaction in a film before. (Incidentally, I had never really seen the actor – John Gallagher Jr before except in the often-grating and thankfully almost-over The Newsroom, in which he portrays one of the only likeable characters.) I am, and I say this with a tinge of regret and wistfulness, more likely to become an astronaut than a mother at this point in my life.

Admission number three. I am always – always – too curious about things and particularly about people, which almost never ends well. When someone seems really out there and bizarre, I find that I want to get to the heart of their pathology – or at least their deep-seated irregularities. Several years ago, I briefly talked to/had a few conversations with someone who was, for lack for a better or less repetitive term, way out there and completely fucked-up. His proclivities and perverse predilections (insofar as I knew the extent of them, which, as it turns out, I didn’t. What I knew was only the tip of the iceberg – and not illegal) were so bizarre that it was like watching a building collapse in slow motion. He slowly revealed things about himself that were disturbing and sad – but did not even begin to reflect what would come later, long after I no longer knew him. It was a brief acquaintance that ended almost as soon as it began. But my too-curious mind Googled him after a couple of years and found that he had apparently been arrested for something very serious, tried to commit suicide, was put on house arrest and then disappeared before his court date (or something resembling this chain of events). He thus ended up on his state’s most-wanted list of fugitives. The whole thing was rather shocking but satisfied (or even overly satisfied) my curiosity. Then, the other day, after a couple more years had passed, I looked up his name again to see if he had been captured or if anything new had come to light about the situation… only to learn that he is dead. Apparently he died on the opposite side of the country from where he was a wanted man, using an assumed identity – and died of pneumonia!? From the little I knew of him, he was someone who wanted to die and therefore took all the risks a person can take. I am not surprised to learn that he is dead, but it still rests uneasily in my mind – like what a horrible end. What a horrible life, really.

Admission number four. I have often laughed at Swenglish – the fluent but strange Swedish-English concoction that escapes Swedes’ mouths when they quite ably speak English. One of the things that gets me, much more than the “yoy” rather than “joy” and the “shat” for “chat”, is the tendency to form a “dju” sound at the beginning of words that start with a “u” sound when combined with some other preceding sound. You will thus hear something like, “When we worked in the UK” as “When we worked in the Ju-Kay”. Recently I heard someone say, “The views that we works with” but it sounded like “The Jews that we work with”.

Admission number five. “I love everything about you.