Sunday, June 16, 2019

How My Light Is Spent

I grew up with a father whose vision became severely limited several years after he'd come to Alaska and I myself turned out to be nearsighted to the point of embarrassment at an early age. I wore glasses from the time I was six, just so I could see the blackboard in our one-room schoolhouse. Eyesight was always a topic of prime concern in my family and when I first found Milton's sonnet that began, "When I consider how my light was spent," I immediately thought of my father.

I've only known the sharp clarity with which other people see the world when I've put on a pair of glasses but I've learned that I prefer seeing the world through a myopic veil that conceals imperfections. It was only because of my remaining cataract that I recently had vision tests and it was a good thing that I did. Although I don't have a hole in my retina, I do have macular degeneration in both of my eyes.

I'm not alone. One estimate claims that 11 million people in the U.S. have some form of this condition, which can only be restrained, not cured. I take a special vitamin twice a day and wear sunglasses on bright days in an effort to keep this at bay. I was originally told that a diet of fish and leafy green vegetables was mandatory but, like almost everything I was told by that doctor, this is faulty information, disproven by recent studies. Even so, I've limited meat so severely that I'm almost a vegetarian, but not fanatically so. When I found that a nearby Thai restaurant served khao kha moo, fatty slices of braised pork leg with rice, I was devouring a plate of it on the following afternoon. "May" and "might" aren't words that are going to curtail my enjoyment; they never have.

Few people go blind from macular degeneration, although some are reduced to peripheral vision over time. My definition of it is simple and probably flawed: my eyes are wearing out.

This isn't surprising. I've been a gluttonous reader for the past sixty-six years, racing through a book a day ever since I learned to read at four.  And because of severe motion sickness that's plagued me from childhood, I stare out the window of any vehicle I'm in instead of reading or even turning my head to talk to the person sitting beside me. This trained me to observe everything I pass through and makes me damned poor company on any road trip. It also gave me a prevailing hunger for fresh vistas and turned me into a traveler who lives through my eyes.

But nothing lasts. Although I refuse to acknowledge it in any significant way, I'm growing old. In fact, some people might describe me as an old woman. If that's true, I'm a fortunate old woman whose major failing is a disregard for calendars and a predilection for arriving at an appointment a day ahead of time. (Thank goodness for virtual calendars on phones and tablets, with their annoying reminders.)

My hips, knees, and feet still work. My brain and heart still function creditably well. My memory occasionally falters when I try to remember an author, a book title, or the name of a movie, but that's what Google's for. We've all outsourced our memories, haven't we?

My pace is slower than it was twenty years ago and I have wrinkles. Tant pis, as I learned to say in my introductory French class at a Catholic girls' school. I suppose that fading vision is a reasonable deficiency that comes with age.

But in the time I have left, be it years or decades, I plan to spend my light in the same greedy, pleasurable way that I always have, devouring books and absorbing the world through my retinas, taking pleasure in light, shadow, and color, snapping images that delight me with my phone, loving every second of vision that I'm fortunate enough to have been given.

Saturday, June 15, 2019


We all have our definitions of who we are and mine has always been that I'm healthy. That was a good thing, because for many years I had no health insurance. During that time, I developed high blood pressure, which tarnished my self-image a trifle, but when I reached the age of Medicare, I began to control it with a daily pill.

But swallowing a drug every morning wasn't what I wanted to do, so when I turned 70, I began to walk more and eat differently. Within a month of that new regimen, I no longer had high blood pressure and my self-image began to restore itself. My waistline was returning and I walked up to eight miles a day. As a septuagenarian, I I felt better than I had in a very long time, with just a couple of simple changes in the way I lived.  Getting older was easier than it was cracked up to be, I told myself.

Then I went to an ophthalmologist to have my second cataract operation. In the barrage of tests, she told me I had a hole in the macular region of my retina, showing me a spot on a photograph that she said was the hole. Telling me she wouldn't remove my cataract until a retina specialist had determined the size of the hole, she left me with her diagnosis and a lot of uncertainty.

Being a woman of my time, I went home and consulted the internet, going to sites like the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical, and the American Academy of Opthalmology. As my doctor had told me, if the hole was small it might close on its own. However if it were not, it would need a procedure that would result in me keeping my head face down for anywhere from three days to two weeks. This was a horrifying thought and one that preyed on my mind quite a bit for the two weeks between the diagnosis of the hole and the assessment of its size.

There was no macular hole. However after the misdiagnosis, my blood pressure had risen by thirteen points. I was certain that the relief of learning that the only surgery I faced was cataract removal would bring it back down to normal levels.

Two weeks later I went back to my opthalmologist, my faith in her wavering a bit after having her statement of certainty proved wrong. However cataract removal was something Doctors Without Borders do in undeveloped countries under field conditions. Certainly she would be able to handle this without any difficulty; her academic and medical pedigree was high enough that I had no reason to worry and I was in good spirits when I showed up for a few tests.

The technician returned after taking the test results to my doctor, saying "She wants one more." This involved putting numbing drops in both eyes while I was lying down but after the right eye was done, he said he needed to do it again with an assistant. "I need two hands," he said.

While he was getting someone to help him, the right side of my lower face began to go numb and I touched it with my fingertips, assessing how much skin had been affected. A few minutes later, the fingers of my right hand began to tingle and I was getting concerned. "Some of the drops may have run down your face but I'll get the doctor," the technician said.

It took at least ten minutes for him to reappear with the doctor and I got off the table to get my phone, just in case I needed to call 911. Puzzled and beginning to feel alarmed, I was relieved when the doctor
entered the room. When I told her what had happened, she told me my symptoms were that of a stroke, that the drops had nothing to do with what I was feeling, and that this was a neurological issue. She said nothing more as I stared at her, trying to process this information.

After what seemed like a long period of silence, I said "I'm going home." "Let us know if there's anything we can do to help you," she said and I replied "There's nothing you could do for me."

I was shaking by the time I reached the elevator and called my primary care physician. She was busy but I was seen by a nurse practitioner who ran me through the physical tests for a stroke, took my blood pressure, and gave me an EEG. My heart was normal, my body showed no stroke symptoms, but my blood pressure was at 110.

Two weeks later, my blood pressure is at normal levels but during that time, I felt shaken. I still am. I continue to have faith that I'm a healthy woman but I brushed far too close to a belief that I am not, through misinformation given me by a doctor who pronounced these things with certitude.

That woman is no longer my doctor. My customary skepticism about medical professionals has increased. Always a "difficult patient," I'm now a 21st century female Diogenes, carrying a lamp to raise in search of honesty in a profession that seems to have forgotten the oath of "Do no harm."

Thursday, February 21, 2019


I never thought I had any. Wherever I lived was always temporary, and I liked it that way. When my husband bought our first house, the sentence that reconciled me to the purchase was made by our realtor, "The average American buys a new house every five years." Ha. Those were the days, back in the mid-70s.

Within eight years, we moved to the next place and after that my life was a long succession of apartments, with dreams of going farther afield. Eventually I would live in eight different dwelling places in Bangkok and Penang before returning to four different ones in Seattle. In those years I learned how to KonMari my possessions to fit into two suitcases.

That part is easy. What isn't is leaving the people I care about.

Now that I'm looking for another place to live, a friend recently asked me "Why not Bangkok?" It's a logical question, since that's been my alternate universe for over twenty years. But she is the reason why, along with some other close friends and my family. I can do it. I know how to do it, but the older I get, the higher the price becomes.

Time is infinite right up until we reach our sixties. Then we begin to assess and budget how we spend it. When I was a mere slip of a girl at 45, leaving was as easy as getting a passport. Now I know that no matter how much I love my life overseas and how many friends I may make in another part of the world, the ache of not being able to share it with the people I care about most grows stronger every year. When one of my sons came to visit me twice in Thailand, after each visit was over I cried for two days, and when my longest standing Bangkok friend returned to the States after years of being my mainstay in that city, I was unable to go downstairs to wave goodbye as he walked out the front door of our house. Expat living, when you do it on your own, is damned hard, even though it's materially more comfortable than existing in the Old Country.

Today when I went to Craigslist and examined my three different staple sites, I found several possibilities in this area. Only one was for Seattle and I'm pretty sure it was either a scam or someone else has already grabbed it. But it made me wonder. Are rents coming down in the Puget Sound market? And would I pay the top end of what I can in order to stay here, even though Tucson offers more comfort and Queens is the pinnacle of my desires? When I think of the pleasure of conversations with my friends and the joy of spontaneous visits with my sons, I say yes. I claim roots.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Where Would You Go?

A year ago I saw realtors clustering in the hallways of the building I'd lived in for years and I knew I was in trouble. When my landlord confirmed that yes indeed, the place was up for sale, I began to think of what to pack and what to jettison.

This wasn't an unfamiliar mental exercise. I'd left that building and returned to it twice over the past ten years but it had always been there for me. If I had a Seattle home, it was the International Apartments, and foolishly I'd thought it would always be there, as it had been for many others over the past hundred and four years. But boom town Seattle, flush with tech money, had other plans.

The workers in previous high times of this city had been gold prospectors, fishermen, loggers, shipbuilders, and factory workers. This current crop worked with intangibles, the Internet, the Cloud,  fostering dreams and satisfying desires on the world's computer screens. They were paid beyond any laborer's wildest dreams and they were filling up the city, paying astronomical rents and keeping the restaurants alive. They were crowding the rest of us out.

For the past year, I've shared a house with two friends and looked religiously on Craigslist for apartments. Craigslist is a lot like the mail order catalogs of my childhood. With a flick of my fingers, I can look at apartments all over the world, and I have. Mexico, Bangkok, Dublin, Marseilles, and almost every city in this country with a major league baseball team--I've peered at photos and assessed rents in them all.

A friend says I'm fantasizing but I'm really not. I've moved often enough in the past seventy years to become an expert on relocation, and some of those moves have involved a passport. So far only one was a disaster, a short-lived tenancy in Malaysia that was a financial disaster, a foretaste of hell, and a wake-up call. But Penang taught me to do my research and spend a lot of time in thought before leaping into a new life in another place.

When this all began, I said I'd give it a year, living in someone else's house, hoping that an opening in a low-income building would come my way, and continuing to scour online ads for possible dwelling places. That year will be up in three more months and I'm facing the reality that I may not have the luxury of living near my family and my friends much longer. My new deadline is this coming autumn.

Like Amazon, I've found two possibilities: Tucson and Queens.

Tucson has heat (oh god does it ever) and beautiful light, along with seasonal thunderstorms. Its sky is right up there with Cambodia's and Northeastern Thailand's. There are apartments that are only slightly higher than what I pay for living in this house, and according to food reviews, it has Chinese restaurants that use Sichuan pepper and chili oil. The library system is good, and there are bookstores.

It also looks quellingly suburban. But there are Ubers.

Queens. What can I say? It has everything I want and a winter that I don't. For the same price as a very nice apartment in Tucson or a 420-friendly travel trailer in this past of the world, I could share an apartment in South Richmond Hill, a couple of blocks away from sari shops, East Indian groceries, and a diner that knows how to make egg creams and ice cream sodas. It's close to two subway lines and the Atlantic Ocean is an hour away.

But living with someone else is a crap shoot that's easier played when you're in your twenties. At seventy, not so much. But it's New York.

So--I have all summer to ponder this and perhaps a reconnaissance trip or two for reality therapy. Meanwhile, I'm haunted by Tucson or Queens, the Lady or the Tiger.

Where would you go? Which would you choose? (This question is not rhetorical.)

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Jenny Made Her Mind Up...

I have a confession to make. That snowstorm and its aftershocks--my fault, all mine. Back in the earliest days of February, I decided to increase my walking from 2-3 miles to 5. And then it snowed.

Snow on its own is a lovely thing to walk through, both when it falls and when it's fresh on the ground. Happy to have a chance to wear my fur jacket which I paired in true Pacific Northwest fashion with red rubber boots, I trudged through the transformed streets, taking pictures and smiling at the happy dogs whose morning walks had become a trip to canine Disneyland.

Even when I stayed inside, my world was different. The white landscape changed the quality of the light. Even with a heavy cloud cover, the days were bright and once when I woke up at 3 am, I was certain it was time to get up. "White-out" they call it in Alaska and in this part of the country it was almost hallucinogenic and definitely surreal.

The beauty of it almost made up for the truth that it closed Seattle down. Buses were scanty, children stayed home from school, flights were cancelled, library doors were locked. That began to feel oddly familiar. It was like living in Bangkok when political strife took to the streets, or like Fairbanks, Alaska during a siege of heavy ice fog.

And then the ice took over. The University of Washington swears that a student who died after slipping on campus ice and hitting her head perished from natural causes. I began to salt my porch steps, knowing it was an environmental sin but finding that I couldn't break through the packed and icy snow with a shovel. Walking to buy groceries took forever because the idea of a broken hip made me cautious. The world shrunk and it stayed that way for days.

There are still patches of dirty snow in my front yard while the back has lost its beauty and is fifty shades of grey-green. The cold prevails but the sidewalks are mostly clear and dry. My cat continues to stare balefully out the window and becomes worried when he sees me put on my boots. He's eight years old and has never seen anything like this before. For the first few days of winter he burrowed under my comforter, only emerging when it was absolutely necessary. There were a few late afternoons when I followed his example, with a book and a cup of tea.

When I was small, my mother would tease me at times with a song about Jenny, who persistently made her mind up, with disastrous results. I thought of those lyrics often in the past three weeks, when my walks were perfunctory, careful, and much shorter than five miles..

Sorry, Seattle.