Thursday, December 29, 2022

I Dreamed a Dream

The weirdest dream last night...

I was at home in Oakland, Grandmother was still alive, and I think I was in my thirties... I was thin, and had dark brown hair, and felt good, so was somewhere between quitting drinking and getting fat. At any rate, in the dream I discovered that I am naturally incredibly good at baseball, or rather at hitting a baseball far and fast, and I needed to become a good runner to qualify to play baseball, I think for a business league team rather than a pro team, but still I wanted to pursue it. I went to a doctor at Kaiser to discuss what I needed to do to become a good runner, having never run anywhere for very long in my life, and she gave me eight different dietary supplements to take, one of which was a gel substance in clear capsules that hydrated your body so you didn't have to carry water with you. The doctor looked like the psychiatrist I had at Kaiser, but with bigger hair, like Carol Kane, or maybe Blyth Danner.

Anyway, I got home and argued with Grandmother some about I-don't-remember-what, took all my new pills, and went out to go running. And I decided to take our dog Maggie (a lhasa apso who died in 1997) with me, and she ran alongside me through a dream version of my old neighborhood, Crocker Highlands and Piedmont, and even via some space-and-time bending all the way down Tunnel Road past the Claremont to UC Berkeley before turning back. The running felt amazing, just floating along without any effort at all, which is unusual for my dreams, which are usually spent walking or swimming against resistance for incredible distances. 

On my way back up College Avenue, I stopped off to work a shift at a cafe that I apparently worked at, though I'm pretty sure at the beginning of the dream I was working in a corporate-type office that had a baseball team. This happens in my dreams a lot, where I'm in a food counter service job that I don't remember how to do. Anyway, it was sort of an amalgamation of all the cafes I'd worked in before college, and it migrated from College and Ashby where Espresso Elmwood had been to Grand Avenue where the Coffee Mill was (or still is, I don't know). It was a full shift, too, longer than I was asleep for, and had all sorts of dramas and struggles and weirdness to do with patio seating, negotiating power plays between two assistant managers, and something to do with baked goods. 

I took off home after my shift was over and a lot more weird things happened on the way, getting lost a couple of times, finding myself all the way in West Oakland, running on the freeway that looked a lot like the Cypress Superstructure that collapsed in the Loma Prieta quake, and navigating through a terribly complicated dream version of Downtown Oakland to get back home. But still running effortlessly and perhaps even joyfully. What I imagine running feels like to real athletes.

I realized as I was running over the hill on Mandana (which in waking life would have winded me to even drive over) that I'd lost Maggie somewhere along the way, since I hadn't had her on a leash. But I found her by the gas station at Mandana and Lakeshore in a sort of utility enclosure, basically a plywood box built at chest height around a utility pole, where she was hanging out with a small colony of feral cats.  She was happily humping away at a disinterested black and white shorthair, the way she used to do to her littermate and dam and any other small dog she met...I never understood why she did that, some kind of instinctive dominance ploy, I guess. 

I pulled her out of there and started jogging up the hill toward home, Maggie wriggling like crazy to get away from me... oh, and somewhere during the course of the dream, before I lost her even, she'd changed into an entirely different kind of dog, no longer a white and caramel lhasa apso but sort of a cross between a dachshund and an Australian shepherd, with the short legs and pointed nose of the former and the brindle coat of the latter, but she was nevertheless Maggie. 

Anyway, she argued with me the whole way home, wanting to get back to the black-and-white cat she was convinced she'd gotten pregnant, wanting to be there to take care of the babies and be a good father. I had to point out that A) she's a dog, B) she's a female, and C) she was neutered as a puppy, so there was no way in hell she'd impregnated that cat. It did not seem odd in the dream that she talked, any more than that she'd changed shape and color... the sort of thing that makes my dreams really bizarre.

When I got into the house, Grandmother had the kitchen all in a whirl with dishes and Tupperware everywhere, rearranging the cabinets for some reason, and annoyed with me for being gone all day. I wanted to go back out running some more, though, so I looked for my water capsules, but Grandmother had moved them in her mad reorganization and didn't know where they'd gone, so I had to go through all the piles of bowls and utensils and containers, looking for them... and that's when I woke up.

Not the weirdest dream I've ever had, but it was stuck in my head so I had to write it down. Plus I've been thinking a lot about dreams lately, wondering about the phrase I always use when wishing people good-night—"happy dreams!"—and whether or not I've ever had a happy dream, myself, or only anxiety dreams of greater or lesser degree. It has been suggested that perhaps I don't remember the happy dreams because nothing awful or bizarre happens in them to haunt my waking hours, just as you'd never remember a movie or book in which only nice things happened. I kind of like that idea except that it leaves the question of why we talk of ideal situations as "a dream come true" or quests for success "pursuing your dreams" or glibly wishing people "sweet dreams" when they go to bed. 

Anyway, I hope your dreams are perfectly lovely and not at all day-hauntingly weird.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Thoughts on Ageing

Or is it aging? I'm never sure about that word. Spellcheck doesn't catch on it, so I guess both are OK? (editorial note: aging is preferred in the US while ageing is preferred in the UK, and either is acceptable in Canada)

Anyway here I am on the morning of my fifty-fifth birthday and thinking about age, about the expectations we have about specific ages, how few of us Gen-Xers seem to feel the age we are, and what it means to finally qualify for senior housing and to order off the Senior Menu at Denny's.

I'm honestly kind of excited about it. It feels like a milestone, though I'm not treating it as a milestone birthday in any way...I don't intend to leave the house, much less have a party or even go out to dinner. I'll be hosting in Second Life, though I was offered the night off to celebrate, but I find I like working more than just being there, plus people tip like crazy on your birthday (or rezday, your SL avatar's birthday). So that and clicking the Love icon on all the birthday wishes on Facebook will be my birthday party.

It feels like I'm entering the sacred halls of Old on this birthday, like I've finished the Middle Age portion of the race and can relax. Of course if I relax any further than I already have, I am in danger of melting altogether and being absorbed by the carpeting, but there is nevertheless a sense of arrival having reached 55, safely under the marquee of "Golden Years."

Mostly it feels like I am now the appropriate age to be the physical and emotional wreck that I already am, like I am now allowed to settle into this curmudgeonly heap of thinning gray hair and drooping flesh that I've been occupying these last ten or more years as a birthright citizen instead of an interloper. I feel like I'm properly old instead of prematurely old, I guess.

Of course this is all based on expectations developed in early childhood, our first understanding of how the world works by observing our parents and grandparents and how they lived. I'm now in the age range that my multifarious grandparents and step-grandparents were when I was about five or six, starting school and learning about family structure and social structure in my early reading and television viewing. 

All my grandparents had certain things in common because of their generation, the so-called Greatest Generation who grew up in the Depression and were young adults in WWII. Well, to be specific, both my grandfathers were older than that, born in the first decade of the 20th century, but their experiences were not dissimilar to their fifteen-years-younger wives' except they were too old to be drafted by 1940. 

And then my parents and stepparents and aunts and uncles and all their cohort were first-wave Boomers, and they all had certain things in common, having grown up in the same place at the same point in history, with the same cultural references and social structures and sets of expectations to either succeed or fail at. The Boomers had a lot more choices of mainstreams to enter than their Greatest Generation parents had, but they were the same choices that all their peers had, and for the most part they aimed at having adult lives similar to their parents' adult lives, with long-term jobs and owned homes—but with a nostalgia for their golden childhoods and adolescences that the previous generation did not have.

Then my generation, Generation X as we came to be known as people started studying American culture through a lens of generational subculture, based our expectations of what adult life would be like on what our parents' lives were like when we were little, though we doubled down on the nostalgia by never letting go of our childhood obsessions and pastimes. We nevertheless based our expectations on what was modeled for us early on. 

What was different, I think, is that the world changed faster and faster as we grew up, and has continued to change at increasing speed as we age, and we really don't know where we are or where we should be. Our grandparents' lifestyle that our parents more often than not emulated is simply not available anymore, and we've got generations of children and grandchildren now that we simply don't know what to do with. 

That's the real mind-fucker, that our grandchildren are now coming of age and forming Gen-Z. That we've passed where our parents were when we formed our expectations of life, and are now zooming through where our grandparents were, and our models have turned out to be completely irrelevant. But they're still our base for what we think we can and should do.

These are of course sweeping generalizations, as most discussions of Generation Whichever tend to be, requiring sub-generations like Generation Jones and Gen-Y to bridge the gaps between actual population surges whose experiences will be different from those born at the beginnings of the Generations. But I find as I observe and talk with my own born-in-the-late-sixties peers that there are generalizations one can make, and the main observation is that we can't, and shouldn't, base our expectations on previous generations. But those expectations were formed in childhood, and anything formed in childhood will continue to echo through one's whole life. You can change your expectations, subvert your expectations, but you can't escape your expectations.

So that's what I'm thinking about on my fifty-fifth birthday. I'm off to write some notices and making some posters for tonight's Starfall shows, and make a nearly-naked outfit so I can party in my birthday suit, and expect to have a lot of fun. So here's a wish and a prayer that every dream comes true; and now, 'til we meet again, adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn!

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

House of Grief

I was reminded of the Five Stages of Grief trope earlier today in a context that had nothing to do with grief; but since I was dealing with grief at the moment, processing what would have been Grandmother's 104th birthday today, the little background buzzword hit me like a clanging bell. 

Of course I can't remember what the five stages of grief are, exactly... I know anger, depression, and acceptance, but is bargaining one of them? OK, a quick Google reveals that the stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, in that order...but that's not what I want to talk about right now... I want to talk about why I grieve for Grandmother's house as much as I grieve for Grandmother.

I have these dreams—not really a recurring dream because the circumstances and personnel change around with each outing, like different adaptations of the same play—where I am having to move out of Grandmother's house for some reason, seldom ever the reason for which I did move out, but the dream is always full of grief and I wake up from it sad for most of the ensuing day. 

In most of the house dreams, Grandmother is still alive, and in a lot of them everybody in the family who's died in my lifetime is alive and involved in the moving out somehow... Grandpa, Aunt Terry, sometimes my father. The most common reason for moving out is that Grandmother is moving into a senior living facility, sometimes I'm going with her and sometimes I'm going to a separate apartment I already have, sometimes I'm moving someplace new. Weirdly, I'm usually a lot younger in these dreams, like in my early 30s. Or at least I look like I did then, thin and relatively attractive.

A common trope in these dreams is that the whole damned family is staying in the house, especially my cousin Kellie and her vast brood, and we're trying to put on a family event, either Christmas or Grandmother's birthday, at the same time as packing up to move out. This of course makes everything more difficult, trying to pack up and throw out stuff that we need to put on a tree or make a big dinner party, with children getting in the way and Grandmother wanting to look at everything as we're packing.

The thing that makes the dreams so memorable is that it's always me doing lots of work to get the house emptied out while everyone is hindering me; when in fact it was the other way around--I mean, I don't think I actively hindered progress, but I was unable to take part in the packing and sorting in any meaningful way. I just couldn't move. I wanted to help, to at least take care of my own stuff, but I just couldn't do it. My uncle did a lot of it for me, and my friend Abby volunteered as a paid packer who sorted the things to get rid of from the things to pack up, and Caroline helped in the last push getting the things I wanted to keep packed. But for the most part, I just lay in bed like a lump...I guess that was the denial stage?

In the last years of Grandmother's life, I decided that I wouldn't keep anything from Grandmother's house when the time came, I'd maybe keep my own stuff but otherwise would make a clean start. And with a few exceptions (I kept a lot of things I'd need in the kitchen, and a few small decoratives that suddenly felt too precious to abandon) that's what I did. I got rid of or left behind everything but my clothes and books and decoratives, and didn't keep anything personal of Grandmother's except for a couple of things that I'd given her as gifts that meant a lot to me.

When I finally did get packed up and moved out, taking a room in Old Town Eureka to inhabit until the estate was settled and I'd have the money to secure permanent housing, it was an exciting adventure. The room was so small that I decided to leave my heavy wood furniture behind as well, and got some dorm-room-type furniture, all white-enameled, with navy or cobalt blue soft furnishings like pillows and blankets and towels. Living on my own for the first time in my whole life was so novel that I didn't really miss anything, didn't just sit down and grieve. I mean, I wasn't exactly dancing and frolicking and strewing flowers around me, but I wasn't as sad as I expected I'd be.

Of course, I was going home about once a month to take care of various business, and talking to Caroline on the phone daily, and my uncle and my sister at least once a week, and didn't unpack much into my new room so it felt really temporary. Suspended emotional animation, I guess. But after I bought my new home and moved into it, had all the painting and roofing and window-fixing and carpeting and furnishing done, all those feelings that had been suspended over the previous months came crashing down on me all at once and I was a wreck.

One of the things that wrecked me was wishing I'd kept certain things from Grandmother's house... like when Caroline brought fresh asparagus from the Farmer's Market, I wished like hell I still had the asparagus pot, which nobody else in the family even remembers or knew that's what it was, which was part of a set Grandmother got as a prize for top selling Tupperware in the 70s. I would be looking for something on my phone (I photographed a lot of documents and licenses to have them handy) and saw pictures I'd taken for the estate sale we had after I moved to Eureka, and would just weep over all the things I missed, stupid things that I didn't really care about before but which were now invested with a painful nostalgia. I eventually moved those all into a folder on my desktop so I wouldn't keep stumbling across them.

So in the last almost-four years (Grandmother's 100th birthday was five weeks before her death), I have been grieving for Grandmother, which I was prepared to do in some ways as I'd been working on the inevitable eventuality with my therapist for years in advance of the event; but I wasn't prepared to grieve for the house. Almost four years later, I still cry when I see pictures of the house the same as I do pictures of Grandmother.

And I know that grief doesn't work on an external timeline, everyone processes it differently, and that it takes how long it takes and no more or less.  But I guess I wish that I'd known to prepare for the grief of losing the house as assiduously as I prepared for the grief of losing Grandmother. When you live in a place for a long time, it takes on its own persona, it becomes a character in your life, and when several generations of a family live in the same house for a long time, it really becomes a family member. I knew that before, but I didn't really consider it at the time when mourning Grandmother was fresh and new, and didn't take it into account when I planned what to do with various things in the house that I miss now.

So that's me today. I see it's been seven months since I last posted, which is shameful, but not the first time I've gone so long without writing here. Hope to come back sooner next time, this has been exceptionally cathartic, writing all this out. Thanks for listening to me whine.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Faith No More

 A few weeks ago, Facebook gave me a "memory" from some time back, something I'd posted on that date in a different year... it does this every day, sometimes several times a day, and it often offers me a bewildering glimpse of a person I've forgotten I ever was. In this case it was a list meme (remember those?) called "Five Things You May Not Know About Me" or some such; in it I state that something people might not know about me is that I believe in ghosts. Looking at this list ten years or so later, I found that I didn't know that about me...not only had I forgotten I'd ever said such a thing, but I'd forgotten I ever believed in ghosts. Needless to say, I do not believe in ghosts now. And that got me to wondering: do I believe in anything? The notion of belief itself felt unfamiliar somehow.

In another Facebook-based instance, I was messaging with an old friend from AA whom I haven't seen or talked to in well over a decade; and as one does with old AA fellows, I said I was keeping sober and practicing the principles in all of my affairs despite not going to AA meetings or interacting with the program at all. But when I thought about it later, I can't say I was practicing all of the principles, since one of the principles is reaching out to the alcoholic still suffering, sharing the gift of sobriety with those who seek it. And though I didn't go into all that with the friend in Facebook Messenger, one of the other principles, the one I do consciously practice, is rigorous self-honesty; so I spent a lot of time dissecting the statement "I am practicing the principles still"... and realized that I had also let go of all the higher-power-centric steps, too. So, with God and the Fellowship both out of the equation, which principles was I still practicing?

That's a topic for another post, but for this post I asked myself why did I give up the God parts? When exactly did I stop praying? Why? I don't remember when, though I assume it was some time after I stopped going to meetings, as I would have noticed if I'd done it when I was going to meetings, as praying is part of the meeting; but the why came quickly: I'd stopped believing in God. There was no reason for it, no watershed moment where I saw it happen, I just stopped somewhere along the line. And I wondered, like I did with the ghosts, what do I believe in? What do I even just believe?

I couldn't think of anything. Not a single article of faith anywhere in my brain. It was just things I know and things I don't know, nothing in between but guesses and opinions. And of course a lot more of the latter than the former, things that I used to think I knew but turned out to be things I just believed, and had to be added to the things I don't know instead. And that's not even addressing the things I thought I knew and discovered that I'd misremembered, which is the topic of a whole other essay.

The very concept of belief feels foreign now, like how does one just believe anything? What does that even feel like? I don't remember. I remember believing things, but I don't remember what it feels like to believe, I don't remember how to believe. It's just gone.

I guess or opine that it's the depression that's done this, stopped my ability to connect to something that once gave me comfort and purpose like it stopped me connecting to lots of things that gave me comfort and purpose. But more, I have a feeling (perhaps this is a belief, but probably just a hypothesis) that it has to do with brain chemistry.  

There was a study published some years ago that claimed to have discovered a subunit of the brain that was directly responsible for the concept of God... a part that was activated during neural-imaging scans when the subject was praying, or thinking about God or the lack of God, or engaging in any kind of "spiritual" activity. I'm probably not remembering that right, or at least not exactly, but I don't have the energy to do research on it right now, I'm just going to take it as the premise for my hypothesis. 

Discussions of this discovery or study took two separate interpretations: some said that it showed that there was no God, there was just a knob in your head that makes you think there's a God (or any gods); others said that this knob made us capable of perceiving an existing God in the first place; but most agreed that a big part of our evolution into a successful species is our ability to engage in abstract thought, our ability to imagine things we cannot see, which might well have developed from this segment of our brains that perceives God, and our ability to rationalize and imagine, to construct philosophy and language and art is a direct result of that perception. 

If that is so, if the ability to believe in God, or anything that can't be seen or touched or smelled or heard, is centered in a part of the brain, then it is also possible to disable that part of the brain with a lack of serotonin or excess of some other chemical. Whether belief is an illusion caused by the brain or another degree of perception, I can't say, but it's suggestive that my ability to believe has waned as my depression has progressed.  It may be coincidental, though, so I can't say for sure. I should do some research on this if I'm interested enough, but I'm not sure I am... I mean, will knowing the answer help me get my faith back? Or give me a sense of natural inevitability for its loss? Do I even miss my faith?

I did, when Grandmother died. I wanted to take comfort in the knowledge that she wasn't really gone, that she still existed somewhere else, reunited with loved ones who'd gone before, retaining her memories and her personality without the pain and limitations of her decaying body. I used to believe that's what happened to people when they died. I think I believed it, anyway... I mean, I had a hypothesis that the neural networks that make up our memories and personalities survive the death of the brain that created them, and that the human will would hold those networks together without a body, in the ethers perhaps, floating around on the air, as light as radio waves, retaining organization and consciousness. That when these conscious networks floated around where they'd lived, they could be perceived as ghosts, and when they floated off into the atmosphere they went "into the light," mingling with lost loved ones somewhere up there, attracted to each other by the connections formed in life. 

It was just an opinion, but was based on something I simply believed, that there is an afterlife, that the individual soul continues to exist after death. Now, though, I don't quite see how that could be possible, that a neural network can exist without the flesh and blood that created them through sensory input; and if they could, they certainly couldn't interact with the rest of the world without those organs, they couldn't take in new information at all, they could not be sapient and conscious... they'd be in a permanent dream state, reliving what was already in their minds when they died, without any kind of direction or mobility.

But, though it seems unlikely, I can't say for sure that's not what happens. I have no belief in the opposite possibility as truth, either. I just don't know. And that not-knowing is far more uncomfortable than believing one way or another. They say that atheists have no beliefs, but they do: they believe very firmly that there is no God. They have made up their minds as to what is true and can think about something else.

Much stickier wicket being caught in between, unable to believe that there is or isn't a God, or an afterlife, or a purpose to existence either in general or individually. You're caught in a perpetual shrug with an eternal question-mark floating over your head. And that's just unpleasant, is all.

Well, anyway, I don't think I've drawn a conclusion from having aired and organized these thoughts in blog form, but I've written something, and I'm going to take that as a win for the day.  Celebrating little victories usually improves my mood, and that's enough of a takeaway.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

New Year, Same Old Me

I'm avoiding working on my finances for last year and budget for the coming year; the first part only takes plugging in the rest of December's transactions and copying the page formats into a new spreadsheet, but the second part is bound to be depressing. But it's necessary, and I'm already depressed, so why not just poke the bruise and get it over with? Because there are other things I can be doing to avoid it, so here we are.

As you can imagine, I'm not terribly excited about a new year... it's pretty arbitrary, when the year starts and what date is which, since they're not timed so that things start and finish on solstices and equinoxes and moon phases, which are the only non-arbitrary constants we have... weather and seasons are different in different parts of the world, and move in too complex of patterns (so complex that we haven't figured them out yet and it still looks like capricious divine behavior). Of course, it is pretty close, the Winter Solstice was just a couple weeks ago, so it's not too farfetched to start the calendar year here.

Years of experience have taught me that it's useless to try and start good habits at the new year, it simply never works out. And the last few years have indicated that it's useless to attempt new habits after a certain age. After reaching adulthood, new practices never become habitual: it's a permanent, ongoing, repeated effort to keep achieving the behavior.  At least for me, I shouldn't state that like it's a universal truth.  But it's like I've had to relearn how to walk, to allow for the extra weight and the decreased flexibility of the joints; I can't just walk as a background process like I did when I was young, I have to think about it and adapt to the new physics of walking, have to deliberately take each step, aware of every movement and cognizant of each destination. It's like that with everything, if I take my mind off what I'm doing for even a second I can become disoriented as my body falls into habits learned thirty years ago and I autopilot toward things and places that no longer exist.

Well, that doesn't mean I shouldn't learn new habits, especially new healthy habits, just that it's no longer a matter of "just do it" or making resolutions on an arbitrary date. When I learn what it is a matter of, when I discover how to get myself to do things that I don't want to do, I'll let you know. Until then, I'll just do what I can to get through the day. And work on my budget, which I'm going to go do now.

Happy New Year!