Thursday, August 21, 2014

Talking About My (De)Generation

There are a lot of us on Medicare right now, with more to come. I've been dubious about this blessing from the very onset but was persuaded to sign up for Plan B and then for the insurance company that would administrate this for me. Every month I pay $104 and every month I continue to bask in rude health--but, as friends pointed out, this could change at any time. Prudence demanded that I make that payment and for once in my life, I decided to be prudent.

By mid-September I will have paid $1000 for unused medical benefits, so recently I decided it would be a fine idea to have a checkup done, my first in thirteen years. It was basic to the nth degree, weight, eye chart, breast exam, Pap smear, a couple of immunizations, and cholesterol and colon lab work.

This basic examination would have cost $728--were it not for the Medicare discount, which brought the exam total to $329.49, which was paid by Medicare. What wasn't covered was a vaccine for tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis, which clocked in at $86, to be paid by me. Fortunately the $137 pneumonia vaccine was covered, which I appreciate but find illogical--why one and not the other?

Then there is the lab work. A $95 analysis (brought down to $19.06 by the Medicare discount) was covered. Another, sent to another lab and billed at an undiscounted rate of $140, was not. This brings the total cost of my basic checkup to $226, a mere $103.49 less than my entire (discounted) checkup.

Feeling curious, I went to the website of the hospital I very occasionally went to when I lived in Bangkok. This is what I would receive for $248 at Paolo Memorial
It includes a vision exam by an opthamologist, which in this country I have to make a separate visit to obtain.

For $21 more than what I will pay for a lab test and a vaccine here, I would be given a comprehensive exam in Bangkok.

Since my health is exemplary, according to this recent checkup, I'm so tempted to tell Medicare to take me off their stupid Plan B and then put that money aside for an annual air ticket. That $1200 would get me to Bangkok and back--and pay for my physical, perhaps even a spot of dentistry. This is absurd and I resent supporting this idiocy any longer.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Between My Sister and Me: An Examination

Three years ago, I went across the country to visit my sister, in the house she had lived in for a month.It was a visit that had been carefully arranged, both in timing and duration. It was something we had talked about from the time she first bought her house, and it was a trip I looked forward to.

My sister and I have always had that peculiarly not competitive closeness that comes with being eight years apart. By the time she was ten, I had left home. I was married when she turned twelve. Our lives have always been on different schedules, until I turned sixty and she reached fifty-two. When our paths became similar, we lost the magic shield that had protected our relationship and we had a falling out that was bitter, vituperative, prolonged, and painful. When we finally made peace, we agreed that this debacle had made our bond even stronger, that we had learned we valued each other too much to ever again jeopardize what we shared.

There was a silence resonating from my sister in the weeks before I arrived on my visit that I tried to bridge with messages and phone calls. When she finally responded, she assured me that I should not postpone my trip, that she was having some minor difficulties with her husband but “that was part of being married.” She followed this up with an affectionate note, and I set off on the long plane ride from west to east with eagerness and no trepidation at all.

Within three days of my arrival, my sister followed me to the guest room and erupted. She told me that our vicious altercation was something that she had not gotten over and that things I had said during that time had “eviscerated” her. She told me how happy it made her that I now was overweight enough to wear the jeans that she disliked and had tossed aside. She told me how much she hated watching me and my sisters come to my mother’s deathbed when she had been the one with the sole care for a woman we had ignored during her life. She told me that being the one who cared for an aging parent had been a blight on her life, and that I didn’t choose or care to know what that had been for her. She told me that if she wanted, she could say things that would destroy me, a sentiment she had first passed my way five years earlier, when our sisterhood was first under attack.

Then she asked me not to leave. Within an hour she was blithe and perky, and I went to my room with a “headache,” and stayed there for almost 24 hours. I decided that if I left before my scheduled departure, it would probably be the end of our relationship. If I spent the remaining four days of my visit being as pleasant as possible, then left and gave this horrible episode time to cool down, my sister and I could have a chance to salvage what we both seemed to want—an adult friendship within the framework of being sisters.

It didn’t happen. Two days after I came home, my sister put up a sentence on Facebook saying Ben Franklin was right. Nobody but the two of us would know that at the beginning of my visit, her husband had made what I hoped was a joke about visitors and dead fish stinking after three days. I said I “liked” it and she took it down, knowing the point had been taken. A day later, when I told a friend on that same venue that I hoped I never heard another accent from South Carolina, my sister responded with the proclamation that I was a hypocrite and she never wanted to hear from me again. Two days after that I received a card she had written before she disowned me, telling me that she had enjoyed my visit.

Now it was my turn to feel demolished and I have been, as well as confused. It’s taken me this long to sort through what was given to me during my stay in South Carolina. During these months, I’ve written very little and have given myself a lot of kindness, enjoying the summer without stint. Even so, as I write about this dissolution, I gasp for breath and feel a knot tightening in my left shoulder. This hurts.

From things my sister had said, she may well be going through menopause, which means I should take it all with the saltshaker full of saline grains that diatribes coming from that state deserve. That she refers to herself as being fat and boring, without the gifts that she feels her sisters have been given, is ludicrous coming from a woman who writes beautiful, insightful essays and takes lyrical photographs. It also shows a self-loathing that is very, very sad.

The weight that she worked to lose over the year after our mother’s death, she told a friend, was put on in response to the burden of the care that she had shouldered alone. That she put on most of it when Mother was still vital and independent seems to have been forgotten. If it happened because her sisters left her to cope with an aging parent alone, why then it’s our fault. And so are the drooping flaps of flesh that have been left behind by the weight loss, and the fact that my sister moves heavily, as though the hundred pounds are still with her. And so is the inactivity that her fat condemned her to for years—all my fault, and her other sisters’ fault.

I could just as easily excoriate my sister for taking control of my mother’s life when the woman we all loved was still active, able to travel, in possession of a driver’s license. This was not a decision that any of my mother’s daughters took part in. My youngest sister deliberately made herself the sole arbiter of my mother’s fate, and it could be argued, hastened its end by taking away my mother’s independence, bit by bit.

Right up until the very last breath, my sister refused my offers to stay with our mother or my pleas to look into other forms of care. She ran the show. She insisted I visit at the end, even though both my mother and I had agreed we never wanted that, and I went as a gift to her, which she later threw back at me in anger. She doled out the meager bits of my mother’s life after she died with rigid control. She locks away the relationship she had put a stranglehold on for years. And now she blames it all on other people.

I tried very hard to be a support to my youngest sister when my mother began to die, and I’m the one who has been violently and decisively divorced. “It makes me laugh and laugh,” my father used to say about situations that left him feeling shafted. I wish I could say the same, but instead this makes me ache. Once again, I face a death, but this time the person who has left my life is still breathing. I will always miss her, even as I recognize how dangerous she can be.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Some Do and Some Don't (You Never Can Tell with Bees)

My mother's attitude toward cooking could best be described as tepid and when I married, I felt much the same way. My father-in-law owned a roadside restaurant and my husband and I ate there most of the time when we began our life together. When we moved away from this refuge, TunaHelper became my best friend. Then I had a baby and found there were huge amounts of my time at home that stretched before me like the Gobi Desert. I started to read recipes in magazines, and then cookbooks. I discovered I could make things that I'd never dreamed of eating--exotic delicacies like eggs foo yung and beef stew with red wine.

As the seventies progressed, so did the cookbooks,and the minute I discovered Elizabeth David, there was no turning back. One year we bought half a pig and every damned bit of it was served up in the style of the French provinces.

Cooking was the least irksome domestic duty and I immersed myself in it. When my kids grew up, I cooked dinner for friends; after my first three months in Thailand, I came back to the U.S. and found a Thai cookbook and made wild forays into that cuisine with enthusiasm and very little skill.

Then I went back to Thailand for two years, during which time I never cooked a damned thing--ever. I made coffee in the morning and that was it. On the streets were hundreds of people who cooked for me, and in the nine years total that I spent in that country, I learned not to cook.

This is not a skill that translates well in the States.

At heart I suppose I was never a cook or I couldn't have relinquished the task so thoroughly. I've been back from Thailand for three years and the only food I ever cook edibly is Thai. When I don't make that effort, I roast chickens and chunks of pork. or I buy a quart of plain yogurt and eat it, or when tomatoes finally smell the way they should, I eat them. But as far as combining these things into a creative little mixture, forget it. That means cooking and I don't do that anymore.

It's too much effort and too much money for too little pleasure. It's boring--both making the food and consuming it. And face it, a tomato tastes best when  in the peak of summer it's eaten like the fruit it is, uncooked with a sprinkling of salt.

Much of my aversion to practicing culinary arts in this country is most of the food is eaten out of season and very little of it is fresh. The worst thing to happen to food was refrigeration. In countries where that's uncommon, food has to be fresh. And that's a terrible thing to become accustomed to, because when you're back in the land of freezers and refrigerators, you don't want to eat.

It's summer in Seattle and I understand the farmer's markets have fruit and vegetables that haven't been shipped for thousands of miles in a reefer van. There's a butcher shop down the street that has unfrozen meat that is displayed like offerings from Tiffany and cost only marginally less. It's the time to eat, I suppose--if I can afford to pay those premium prices for food that tastes good--food that stands on its own without ruffles and flourishes and with the barest minimum of preparation.

Or I can move back to the nation of good cooks and let them do it all for me...