Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Gift of Restlessness

Some people might think it's a curse. It's whatever was placed upon me at birth that turns me into a screaming witch if I am in one place for six months without leaving. When I return, I always am happy to be back--for six more months. Then the edges of my life begin to fray again and I have to go away.

It doesn't have to be a long absence, but it does have to include at least a couple of nights in another city, another region, another country. Somehow that works a strange magic on my discontent and when I come home, I feel grateful for familiar things that had grated on me before I left.

Yesterday after five days of being away from home, I walked to meet a friend for a glass of wine at a cozy little cafe that feels French to me. The tables are cheek-to-jowl close but every conversation is its own little realm with secure borders. A glass of wine becomes two, but never more than that, and the talk is always absorbing.

The street that takes me there is bordered with trees and yesterday they were in full autumn color, flaring with orange, scarlet, and gold. The air was crisp and almost cold and suddenly I was in an East Coast city, savoring fall.

There were new photographs that evoked Grimm's Fairy Tales at a gallery along the way, childhood scenes that were startlingly bright and hauntingly eerie. To clear my palate after that jolt to my imagination, I stopped for the first time at a Catholic chapel that was designed to evoke the cave sanctuaries where early Christians found refuge and spiritual solace. At least that's the way St. Ignatius felt to me, perhaps not to its architect.

I love finding a new dimension to the city I've spent many years in, but this only happens after I've abandoned it for a while. I'm lucky. Although I'm a perennial Prodigal Daughter, Seattle always welcomes me home.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Promise We Made, a Promise to Keep

I am a person who receives Social Security, and began to do so just before I turned 63. Because I was for years a woman who didn’t work outside the home and never remarried after my divorce, I became eligible for my former husband’s benefit, which was double that of what I had accrued in my own work history.

For twenty years, I had worked as a bookseller, first as a part-time employee, then full-time as my children grew older. Over time, my back and shoulders began to deteriorate and now I have almost monthly episodes of debilitating pain, where my activity level sinks to absolute zero and I am often sleepless, unless I take Advil PM.

My Social Security check is higher than most, thanks to my husband. My own Social Security earnings have gone back into the system, so that I am actually draining the fund only of what I earned myself. The excess is offset by what I accrued and didn’t take. This is true of anybody who earned a wage that was taxed for Social Security payments, and then chose to forgo their earnings in favor of a spousal benefit instead.

I am part of the Baby-Boom Generation that exceeded in numbers any that came before us. Most of us grew up in a time when the unemployment rate was miniscule and we were blessed with jobs, unlike many in our country today, The benefits we provided to our predecessors for Social Security went to a smaller number of people than those of us who were providing them—and in many cases our wages were higher than the money made by those who went through the Depression.  There should have been a surplus of money but it was used for other purposes by our government.

Now there is great concern for the generation that follows us who are responsible for our benefits, and I share that concern. If our government had repaid the money they have “borrowed” from the Social Security fund, this would not be a flaming issue today. I believe our government owes it to everyone, recipients of Social Security and those who are paying into the system, to find ways to replenish the funds that were used for other purposes.

There should be an income-cap on those who receive benefits—people with fat pensions should not receive a monthly Social Security check. Crack down on under-the-table wages by giving anyone in this country a right to work and the responsibility to pay into the system—then police employment venues notorious for paying off the books (restaurants, landscaping businesses, sweat shops). Within the realm of the Social Security Administration itself, there are people who are capable of finding far more creative solutions than I, ones that will not break the contract that has been made with the people of our country.

Much controversy rages over the cost of living increase of Social Security benefits and I’m going to add to it. Stop it. It’s a joke. Last year my increase amounted to $25 additional dollars a month. My rent also increased by $25 a month. Food costs have risen quite a bit. That extra $25 meant nothing in the scheme of how I live my life. If it will help the system, get rid of it. But also get rid of cost of living increases for our elected officials in Washington, they who pull down very decent salaries and receive health care subsidies too. Fair is fair, as we used to say in the schoolyard.

Speaking of health care, next month my check will be reduced by $100 to help provide me with Medicare. No. It’s not free, for those who labor under that delusion, and for those who receive less in their monthly check than I, this is a steep cut in income. (I know because it provides a substantial pinch for me.) It also is not a guarantee that we can get health care when we need it. There are co-pays and out-of-pocket deductibles, which not all of us will be able to afford. The medical establishment has come up with credit cards for anyone to use, with exorbitant interest rates, so that health care will be available to all—along with soaring debt. Is this the best solution that America can come up with?

I’m happy to have any sort of health care because I’ve gone without it for decades. I have never accepted any sort of government assistance as a single parent or as an aging woman with no health insurance. I have paid into the system that now sends me a monthly check, with my own payroll deductions and payments from my employers which otherwise might have come to me as income. I never begrudged that bite into my rather meager salary because I was helping to fulfill a promise that I believed in.

My generation believed in that promise. Now we are “a drain on the federal budget.” To those who flinch at our numbers, I ask them to look at statistics. More American women are dying at younger ages than ever before, and given the frailty of approaching years, most of those women are the ones who are aging. Men, of course, traditionally live fewer years than their female counterparts. Just so long as our health care system, eager for Medicare dollars, doesn’t prolong our lives with modern medical miracles, our shelf lives will be short. Our Social Security checks will go back into the system for the next generation, unless of course our government decides they need it more than the recipients do.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Gaining Invisibility

My body is resolutely aging and the changes aren’t pretty. Clothes at my favorite neighborhood boutique don’t fit me and the ones that would in other places are ones I don’t like. The last time I bought something to wear was at Old Navy last spring. Since I don’t have money, this is a good thing. The surprise is how easy it is for me not to care.

Nor does the weight prey much upon my mind, but that I can understand: Thailand taught me what weight loss really means. When the baht fell in the late 90s, I began to miss a meal or two far more often than I wanted to. First I became slender, then thin, then gaunt and haggard. My breasts disappeared and my face became drawn. A photo a student took of me during that time showed a death’s head flashing a rictus. I knew that losing another ten pounds could bring me to my knees but I didn’t know how to stop, aside from leaving cigarettes alone. That thought occurred to me no more than a couple of times. I told myself I needed them for stress relief, but of course I was too addicted to consider that for more than five minutes.

I came home to the states, put on some weight, and stopped thinking of poundage as being my enemy. It was my insurance policy. Even now, with my stomach becoming a small shelf, I look at this in a Thai way. I’m almost 65 and old women look better when they are plump.

I think of the Chinese sisters who made noodle soup on the corner of my soi. Each was plump and both were pretty. One was sweet and one was stern; both of them liked me and I adored them. Across the way two other Chinese ladies made the same kind of soup. They were lean and they were not at all happy. Their soup was better than the one I ate several times a week, but I had stopped eating it long ago. The plump ladies were more fun to be around.

When I stopped smoking seven years ago, I was still sporting a figure that was much younger than my face. It yielded me nothing more than the envy of women who were much younger than I and coveted my waistline, and the comments of men hanging out on the street. “She old but she in great shape,” one entrepreneur of dubious substances proclaimed as I walked past a McDonald’s corner and another provided the generous assessment, “I’d fuck her,” on what was mercifully an almost deserted street.

Much has been written about the “invisibility” of women as they age, and it’s usually in the form of a complaint. The women who rail against this are stark, raving mad, as far as I’m concerned. From the time I hit my teens, I withered under the calls of “Hey, baby” and piercing whistles. When I lived in New York, the “visibility” that was mine when I walked past a construction site made me want to shrivel up and die on the spot.

Even when I was pregnant with my first child at the ripe old age of 21, as I walked down a street in Anchorage on a Sunday morning, a man felt the need to remark, “Bet she wished that she had danced all night nine months ago.” Believe me, this sort of visibility is not the kind of thing that makes a woman feel special in any way, and when I received my cloak of invisibility at last, it was a milestone. At last I could walk in the world without being threatened or humiliated. It was an acquisition as useful as my passport.

In the parts of the world where I want to be, old women receive respect. Younger women receive ravenous attention, no less threatening for being silent. In the part of the world where I live, I can walk for miles without comment. I love it. Would this still happen if my body were slender? Thank you, but I really don’t want to find out. My thickening body is a form of protection and, for the most part, I appreciate every pound.

Except of course when I look at clothing that will never be mine—but then I think of how much time and money I spent on my outer covering over the years. I still love color and fabric and when I find something I like that fits my body, it’s better than Prozac. It’s no longer an obsession, however, and that feels good.

“You can’t just let yourself go when you get old,” a woman twelve years my senior told me once to justify her extravagant wardrobe. I’m as old now as she was then and my feeling is I’m not letting myself go, I’m letting go of cravings. The Buddha, I tell myself, would understand.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Hello, Cambodia

Yesterday I made a short trip that took me farther away than I expected. The review that I’d read in the local paper said I was headed for a place with good, cheap Khmer food; Yelp was filled with young Cambodian voices saying it had the food their grandmothers cooked. So I went to White Center and found the spot wasn't too far from other places I'd been to in the area, housed in a diner with a little grocery attached.

I was there to meet my son Nick and I was early so I went into the grocery. The door was open, the counter was bustling, and the customers were speaking Khmer, which I thought was a very good sign. A little produce section had the pea-sized green eggplant that’s a major ingredient in green curry, which I haven’t seen in this city for over a decade, so I was enchanted. Going to the counter with that and a pack of phrik ki nu, I noticed the woman in front of me had a little package of perfectly red rambutan. “You have that here?” I asked in delighted shock and she led me to a pile of plastic-wrapped thorny red orbs.

I returned to Queen’s Deli, glowing with discovery and was led to a table that was sticky from earlier inhabitants. I didn’t care, even when the laminated menu  also turned out to be a bit worse for wear. I was dazzled by the choices, mostly soups, two that claimed to be “ancient” and that I’d never seen before in any form. Others were reminiscent of Thai dishes, and one had clear echoes of ragu.

I asked for appetizers—fried chicken skewers and nom krok, prepared like kanom krok but “Not sweet,” I was told. Each of them could have been their own meal, the cakes solid with a filling that was I think rice and coconut milk, and the chicken was fried wings, absolutely delectable, a whole plate of them.

My “ancient” soup was on the menu as being a noodle dish with an assortment of vegetables. I thought it would be a simple, clear broth, with noodles that I hoped would be thick, and chopped vegetables both in the bowl and on the side. What I received were three hearty nests of kanom jeen noodles, a cloud of finely chopped and sliced vegetables on the side, and a bowl of green broth. I sniffed it and was amazed at its fragrance.

The beans that came with it were chopped as finely as if they were chiles, the cabbage was in slivers and I think it was daikon that was almost a dream of its former self, so fine that it nearly melted when I picked it up with my chopsticks. And the banana blossom was in thin, concentric circles, crisp and bitter. “This hasn’t been frozen, has it?” I exclaimed in a state of near ecstasy and the man who was clearly the owner said proudly, “From Florida.”

The broth was filled with flavors that were clear and yet mingled into something that I couldn’t pick apart into its separate components. Fish sauce was plainly in evidence but no coconuts had been brought into play in any form. Still the broth had substance and I couldn’t decide where its body came from until I neared the bottom of the bowl, where a layer of pureed aromatics rested. “Yes, we thicken it with lemongrass, tamarind, and galingal,” the owner told us. At that point I had to clamp my jaws together to keep from asking him to marry me.

Nick’s soup had a coconut milk underpinning but the flavor of fresh vegetables was prominent in the broth. The vegetables were in small chunks and their colors were still bright in the bowl. My soup, I decided, was a very sophisticated form of kanom jeen

We crumbled our way through the doughnut and sesame ball that were given to us at the end of our meal, and I felt a bit shamefaced when the internal egg yolk that we’d avoided turned out to be a filling of yellow bean paste and coconut.

Through our meal, the low murmur of old men speaking Khmer and the sweetness of Cambodian pop music videos formed the background noise. I left feeling warmed by Cambodia and deeply happy that a part of a country I love is only a bus ride away.