Sunday, May 13, 2007

Not a Shallow Ebb, But a Deep Flow

Wonderfully, the weather is nice enough this Sunday afternoon to be writing this on my laptop outside on the patio by the pool. While I have often sat out here to read, I’ve never written here before. I feel like I ought to have brought out with me some kind of an alcoholic beverage in one of the plastic, “pool-side” drink glasses I saved from my Carnival cruise of a couple of summers ago, which I do when I read, but I already feel a little “looped” from having gone out to a Sunday brunch and had my fill of champagne. Okay, so for this afternoon, it’s only a large cup of coffee, served in a cool fat-bottomed Starbucks coffee mug that one of my favorite parents at the school gave me as a “thank you for what you do” gift last year. This particular mug with a rubberized bottom is designed, I am sure, for use on a boat; it won’t slip and slide with the waves or tip over (and that’s how ultimately I would like to use it). So, it suitably adds to the outdoor, “waterside” theme.

After a week of hard work yet with a feeling of much accomplishment, I had been looking forward to a quiet weekend of solitude. However, it didn’t exactly work out that way, although these days (these past several years), I feel that I am much more “in solitude” even among crowds than my normally-extroverted self has ever been before. I have been moving much, much more into the internal realm of my self than I have been outward in my focus, and wonder if that has more to do with my advancing age than anything else. No, I think that must be less due to a particular “number” than it has to do with my perception that my time is running out and I’m somewhat dismayed at my focus having turned more toward sentiment for the past and less toward excitement about the future. I view that as a bad thing. Because, after all, if my health holds out, I actually could have more productive years ahead of me than I have already had in the whole of my adult life. So, I’ve got to work on that.

Despite wanting solitude at home this weekend, I saw that I had the third and final play of the “Reprise” season to go to Friday night, and I had been invited to somebody’s birthday party Saturday.

I remembered how on the day of the previous play of the “Reprise” season there had been that episode of the crane falling down across the 405 freeway just one side of the 101 interchange, which fouled up traffic all over the westside for four or five hours after that. The traffic from the school to UCLA (the Reprise plays play at the Freud Theater at UCLA) was so heavy that even with me taking back roads, I didn’t get down there soon enough to have dinner beforehand. This time, even with no traffic obstacles, I decided to head to UCLA right away and have dinner there on campus.

This time, I was armed with a listing, operating hours, and campus maps of all the places one can eat on the UCLA campus. None of them are really “restaurants” as such, but are more like food courts at a shopping mall. I selected a Mexican one at the North Campus Student Union and sat outside on the patio to eat. Being around 6:00 on a Friday night, I was the only person outside there eating. A group of skateboarders arrived nearby and began to practice their tricks. As usual, I was amazed at their grace and skill. I feel that skateboarding doesn’t have the respect it deserves, perhaps because it seems to mostly be practiced by rebellious, disaffected youth, maybe “losers” in some distorted high school catalogue of status that puts “real jocks” at the top and “skaters” somewhere down in the lower reaches. But I’d rather watch them (or be able to do what they can do) any day than, say, execute a perfect slam dunk or a touchdown.

The skateboarders kept it up until one of them seemed to get hurt a little too much (they are able to take quite a bit of punishment, but ultimately there IS a limit)...an older adult official of some sort came by either to help the hurt boy or else to police the area, I couldn’t tell which, but immediately after, they all disappeared and I was left with a feeling of how chilly it had turned outside.

I hurried up with the meal and then went on a long walk around the campus. There was some sort of graduation going on (as I observed from afar as an outsider), maybe the real “official” UCLA graduation, but somehow it didn’t quite look like it (gosh, are we at graduation time already?). I imagined the “real” UCLA graduation being a huge deal like the Berkeley ceremonies that fill up the football stadium. This one involved thousands of temporary chairs set up on the flat land of the campus proper, pretty enough, but not much more ceremonial than a high school graduation. However, the only frame of reference I had was when I served as an extra on a Beverly Hills 90210 episode which was a college graduation, filmed on the Occidental College campus in Eagle Rock. This ceremony at UCLA looked much like that one, so maybe the Berkeley ceremonies are unusual as far as college graduations go.

Still, despite this somewhat “inferior-looking” graduation ceremony, I felt I’d rather send a child of mine to UCLA than Berkeley. While I LOVED Berkeley when I was a student there at the tail end of the sixties, now that I am middle-aged, I view the atmosphere at present-day Berkeley with alarm. I can now sympathize with my parents who regularly phoned me with fright in their voices--of course, that was after seeing on TV police, the National Guard, and barbed wire all over the Berkeley campus. Nowadays Berkeley doesn’t seem to host civil unrest, just crime, homelessness, and heavy drug dealing. Not so with UCLA, though, which is very pretty, respectable, and filled with students more interested in making money than instituting socialism.

The play I had come to see was not one of the more popular, well-known Broadway musicals...in fact, I had never heard of it...but I do not bill myself as an expert on Broadway musicals. It was No Strings, notable for only three reasons: 1. It was the first musical written by Richard Rodgers after the death of his writing partner, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, and so while some of the music was lush and beautiful, the lyrics weren’t much to write home about. 2. The musical featured for the first time an “interracial” love affair among the lead characters on the musical stage (South Pacific had an interracial love affair between a pair of minor characters). 3. There was one memorable song coming from this musical, “The Sweetest Sounds,” but all of the other songs were forgettable.

Interestingly to me, seeing this musical came right on the heels of a conversation I was having with my usual lunch-time eating partner earlier this week. She was lamenting that “we”, meaning “her and her fellow Democrats”, had no winnable upcoming presidential candidate. “It’s really only Obama or Hillary,” she said, “and I just don’t think the country is ready to have either a black or a female president.”

“Well,” I said, “Obama is only half-black. And it is tempting to say that Hillary is only half-female.”

“With Obama, half black is still black, I’m afraid” she said.

“For people to whom being black matters, I guess even 1/16th black is still ‘black’,” I agreed. Which led to us discussing what was “really” black, and what about it even matters. Is “black” a matter of racial genes (of a certain proportion), or is it really cultural, or economic, or a perception of a social-historical background (“once upon a time, we were slaves”)? Somewhere along the line, it becomes a ridiculous distinction. What about a person who has African genes but whose father was a doctor and whose mother was a psychologist and they had a home in an upper middle class neighborhood and all the kids graduated cum laude from Ivy League colleges? How much do they identify with or relate to what has traditionally been thought of as “black”? And contrast educated, conservative people like that but who nevertheless have black skin, with lower class white kids who go around wearing hoodies listening to hip hop and making gangland signs with their fingers every time somebody takes a picture of them? What if those wanna-be-gangsta white kids have installed “grillz” on their teeth? Just what really IS black or white, anymore, or who’s this or that?

Seeing this play featuring an “interracial” love affair carried on those same questions for me. The love affair in No Strings took place in Paris between a couple of American expatriates. The woman was a black woman who escaped Harlem and ended up in Paris as Vogue’s top and most celebrated fashion model. The actress playing her looked like Audrey Hepburn with a cocoa suntan. That vaguely dark tint to her skin and her ancient memories of life in Harlem were really the only “black” things about her. Otherwise, she had a long, lean, possibly over-skinny body, straight, elegantly-coiffured hair, Caucasian features (whether through genes or plastic surgery, I do not know), and spoke elegant, educated English and French. And in Paris she suffered no apparent prejudice against her, but was taken strictly on the face of her beauty, talent, and abilities. She was also more successful and more sure of herself than the male partner in this love affair, a white man who had escaped from the rock-bound cost of Maine to become a writer in Paris. He had long ago written a novel that had won a Pulitzer prize, but had since then lived off of his fading fame, making do as a party-boy among the rich who sought to elevate their cultural standing by consorting with “artists”, but he had failed to write a word since.

It was obvious to me that the man would be attracted to the woman, everybody else was, too, and it would have been ridiculous for the issue of “race” to be a deterrent for him (which it wasn’t). That the woman would be attracted to this man was a little less reasonable, particularly since he was an American and she (apparently) expected the fact of his nationality to stir up the racial issue that she had successfully escaped from. However, she was intrigued by the fact of his previous writing success and wondered at his present failures. No sign of his writing talent had been demonstrated in the script and had only been mentioned as a given, so it was up to the audience to accept on faith that there was something valuable in this man that was worth the woman’s while to get him back into writing again, even though he now felt that that portion of himself was dead and buried.

So for me the value of the story was the aspect of resurrecting the man’s writing talent and it took his love for the fashion model to do it, even though, ultimately, the fact of their race ended up being a wedge that was going to temporarily pry them apart, as it was detemined that the only way he was going to successfully write again was to return to the solitary rock-bound coast of Maine (away from all the social distractions of France), where the fashion model could not follow because she would not be accepted in American society (so the racism was America’s, not the writer’s). But the woman was the only person who was “real” in his life, and in order for him to be with her, in reality or in his heart, he needed to be “real” himself, too, and for him “reality” was really writing, not partying among the rich. Presumably once he got his writing back, he would be strong enough to return to France and back into the arms of the fashion model he loved.

I know from personal experience that total isolation is way over-rated when it comes to writing. Everybody thinks that they need that (and certainly they do in small, temporary doses), but it is only among people and adventure that you get any worthwhile material for writing. Also, if you really are a writer (instead of somebody wearing that mantle as a persona) people stimulate you to keep on going, rather than distract you from the task. Going off to live alone in the mountains or wherever seems to lay an even heavier blanket of writer’s block over onto you, whereas if you sat and wrote in a noisy pub or sidewalk cafe, you’d find yourself writing reams. To use Ernest Hemingway as just one example, he got so much writing done in Paris or Pamploma, Key West or Cuba, interspersing his writing day with bullfights or deep sea fishing, but suffered overwhelming writer’s block in Idaho where he died of a (some say) self-afficted gunshot wound.

By my not being familiar with No Strings, I was surprised to see that the song “The Sweetest Sounds” was from this play. That song had been used at the beginning of the Disney-produced Cinderella movie of the week (which they called Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella) that I had been a heavily-used extra in. It was so glorious to be involved in the filming of that song (and the whole movie, actually) while first Cinderella, and then the Prince, sang their verses in separate sections of the village while out among the people (and I can be seen about a dozen times throughout that whole song). Being in the movie was one of the highlights of my filming work in L.A.

This particular Cinderella was the famous “interracial” Cinderella, which Whitney Houston produced, originally planning on casting herself as Cinderella (and I wonder if at that time her idea was to make it a strictly “black” Cinderella, similar to how The Wiz had been a “black” Wizard of Oz), but ultimately decided that she was too old to play that part, so cast the young black singer, Brandy, instead, while she, herself, became the Fairy Godmother. The play evolved into an interracial one, with an Asian Prince (Paolo Montalban), a white king (Victor Garber), a black queen (Whoopi Goldberg), white ugly stepmother and stepsister (Bernadette Peters and Veane Cox), a black second ugly stepsister (Natalie Deselle), and a whole village of mixed racial citizens and ball-guests, of which I was one of the whites.

In my view, when you think of “interracial”, performers like Brandy and Whoopi Goldberg stand in as more representative of blacks than does a cocoa-skinned Audrey Hepburn look-alike, and it makes me wonder if that same criticism applied to the use of Diahann Carroll (not black enough of a black woman?), who was the fashion model in this musical when it first played on Broadway. I would almost go so far as to say that Whitney Houston and the other producers of this version of Cinderella had been disappointed in the too heavily “whitened” No Strings as a satisfactory interracial love story, and figured the time had finally come to do it up right with this Cinderella, with music also written by Richard Rodgers, and extracted the one good song out of No Strings to apply to the musical line-up of this meatier interracial love affair musical.

Other than these issues of “only nominally a black/white issue” and there being only one good song, this Reprise production of No Strings was a passable production of some interest, although it was the least good play I have ever seen coming out of Reprise. Probably the most outstanding feature of it was that it was costumed by Bob Mackie and peopled by an ensemble of appropriate beautiful girls and boys for those costumes. How very French and “St. Tropez” it all was, with the women decorated in amazingly huge and broad hats and brightly-colored flowing body-revealing capes and harem pants and the like, with the guys with tight, form-fitting, several-sizes-too-small striped t-shirts and boxer-cut shorts tighter and smaller than Speedos all looking like they stepped right out Jean Cocteau sketches or the homoerotic photographs of Pierre et Gilles. Nothing says “surface” and “temporary” better than a perfect-bodied young person dressed in high fashion; it’s the ideal rendition of a velvet trap with steel-jaw teeth. No wonder the top Vogue model craved for the writer to resurrect his talent and create something immortal.

And I understand how I, still, can be allured by that trap. Only recently have I figured out what the evil of fashion marketing really is. And what it is, is the selling of something that except for a miniscule portion of society, is something you are not, and never will be, which explains the disdainful scowling expressions of all the models. You’d think they would sell better with friendly, welcoming smiles, but no, it is similar to how liquor is sold in print ads with monsters painted into the ice cubes that alcoholics see when they suffer from delerium tremens. (I used to work in advertising market testing, so I know the technology. Really look into some ice cubes resting inside of elegant crystal Old Fashioned glasses and tell me what you see.) It’s marketing by obsession, trapping you in the shadow world of your fears and failures. The scowling high fashion model is no less of a demon than that which tortures the alcoholic (or the novelist with writer’s block, for that matter), who say to you with their face that their only regret is that that they have to endure the yearning stares of the likes of you as they saunter disdainfully down the runway, telling you by their every step that, “rest assured, you will never look like me no matter how much you want to, but that will not stop you from spending as much money as you can trying to.” (A subset of that type is the MySpace youth whose only words in his blog are the requirements for “being added” as his “friend”, a friend you don't need and certainly don't want but you feel your own page is enhanced by having his picture on it.)

Never fear that the entire entertainment world suffers from that same complex except in cases where there really is true talent. Do you get eaten up and spit out, like a Brittany Spears or a River Phoenix, or a boy band, or some pretty girl group, or do you survive out the other side of it like a Frank Sinatra, Katherine Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, or Sir Lawrence Olivier?

The birthday party I went to proved to be yet another subset of these issues, this time within the alternative art world as it operates in Los Angeles. (I had already experienced this for a year working at The Getty, which I described as a snake pit. The deal with the Getty was that Los Angeles always felt second fiddle to San Francisco when it came to culture. Now all of a sudden Los Angeles had the glorious appearance of the billion-dollar Getty Center, which really was more “building” than it was “museum”, more like a movie set with nothing but emptiness inside, and attractive to those people who had money but no culture and to whom the illusion seemed quite the thing and, again, like the alcoholic drunk on liquid “spirits” instead of finding true spirit, were stuck with one foot inside the gate and had gotten no further.)

This was celebrating the 70th birthday of an artist who had been an art teacher at our school, but had retired last year. I had always liked this particular teacher (he seemed to have an appreciation of the kids) and I felt that I understood his art somewhat, although as time went on, it became clear that from his point of view, things were much more about HIM than it was about anything else, including the children he was teaching. Well, we’ve all heard “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach”, that insult to teachers which pre-supposes that a certain “doing” is superior to “teaching,” as if teaching were something inferior. The thing is that at a school, the “doing” IS teaching, so where one CAN’T teach is when they think their own “doing” is superior. As I understand teaching more and more, I understand that teaching is a form of surrender of the teacher's ego needs to the needs of the students in a way similar to how parents must surrender some of their selfish desires in support of the needs of their children. It’s a passing of a torch in a grown-up, mature way in which the ego of the torch-passer works in service to support the ego of the torch-receiver. The spirit of this is the same as the spirit of Santa Claus, that force who has the power to MAKE magic is also the GIVER of magic. Children are the unabashed RECEIVERS of magic, free and clear without strings or obligation, and this goes on until the child has learned enough to make their own magic, and then they pass it along themselves, moving over from being receivers into being givers. To fail to do that is to remain immature.

Surely the artist has learned how to create magic and it therefore should NOT be felt as a lessening of their role to pass that magic onto receivers, but if the ego is still thinking of primarily wanting and needing to receive ITSELF, then that magic is only partially given, and partially withheld, which gift becomes stagnant and polluted, like instead of fresh milk flowing straight from the cow, is a milk that has sat around in a bucket in the sun too long until it is really no longer fit for anybody to drink and therefore will be “given” away. (From sour grapes to sour milk....)

I could see that this artist and retired teacher still had those ego needs, and one of the ways that was demonstrated was in how he received the birthday gifts that several party guests (including me) had proffered to him.

What can you give to a retired 70-year-old who by now must have everything? I, myself, did not want to spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. I went to the party with another retired teacher who made a better attempt at it and was more successful at it than I was...she had asked the artist’s wife what he was into these days, and the answer was “golf, boxing, and fishing,” so she bought him two books, one was a biography of a boxer and the other was Chicken Soup for the Fisherman’s Soul. I didn’t want to copy her idea, but did briefly consider getting him the novel The Legend of Bagger Vance or else Michael Murphy’s Golf In the Kingdom, but as I didn’t think of him as being particularly spiritual, I felt those would fall on blind eyes. So instead I did what counts as almost nothing...bought him a bottle of wine. I thought back to the countless gallery receptions of his that I had gone to and how much wine had been served (which also was served at this party), and figured that would be an acceptable token.

But I guess not really, even though wine was mostly what people gave him, except for a few gag gifts or else things like fish-shaped keychains and other novelties. It was when he opened the bottle of wine that I had picked out for him (the selection of which had taken SOME thought), he finally said, “For a non-drinker, I sure have gotten a lot of alcohol.”

How many guests at that party had any idea that he was a “non-drinker”? Apparently not many, and certainly not me. Is that how you receive gifts, by explaining their unsuitability? If people didn’t know that he was a non-drinker, it was now a bit too late to advertise the fact.

After the dam had broken, he continued to stress his non-drinking status which each successive bottle of wine he received. “I don’t drink, but here is another one.” “I gave up alcohol in my twenties.” “I don’t like the taste of alcohol.” “I don’t like what alcohol does to me.”

Finally, in protest, one of the guests (whose gift of a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne had been similarly rejected) said, “Well YOU may not drink, but your GUESTS certainly do!”, but which really takes us right back up to what I wrote about his teaching--it wasn’t ABOUT his guests (or his students), it was about HIM. Which may go a long way toward explaining why people love the new art teacher we NOW have so much. A very common comment that I have heard frequently this year is, “Now, finally we have a lower school art teacher!” Okay, so now we may no longer have a “famous” artist on our teaching staff, but instead, what we have is a true art teacher, and NOW you should see the output from the students! Never before has our end-of-the-year “emerging artists” show been so beautiful and wondrous, and never before had it brought so much joy to the viewers (not to mention such a justified celebration of their teacher).

I’m still a long way from 70, but I nevertheless do have an eye forward to what my life is and what it should be, and what, if anything, might be left once I am gone. The important thing to understand and accept is that I WILL be gone, that’s a fact of life and death, and therefore my self ultimately will be insignificant and unimportant and all that matters is how I lived while I was here. What does remain is an ever-continual stream of life that flowed before I was here and will flow after I am gone. With that stream being much, much bigger and more powerful than I am, it ought to be relatively easy to surrender myself into its flow and be satisfied with at least not polluting it a bit with sour milk or sour grapes. I can’t hurt the infinite stream, but how much better I would feel knowing not that I couldn’t, but that I DIDN’T.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Stairway to Fitness

Ye gads, it’s hot, but I love it. It really feels like summer, although I know it will “gloom” down next month and then perk back up again in July. But I’m enjoying it as much as I can even though it probably isn’t long-lived.

I feel great, now that the root canal was finished this morning. The endodontist said that things are looking good. The tooth is all cleaned out and sealed up, and he put my temporary crown back on. Once the final crown is made, my regular dentist can put that on and I will be finished with this. [The endodontist just called me a few minutes ago and asked me how I was doing. “Great! Just great!” I said, very enthusiastically. Then I added, “And I’m not on drugs!”, because I sounded to myself kind of like I was (and I have them), but I haven’t taken any of them. I’m sure my claiming to not be sounded even more like I was, but he just laughed and said he was happy that I was doing so well.]

In my previous post, I wrote about starting back on an exercise program once we move into our summer schedule (end work at 2:30 and Fridays off). However, with this good weather and my feeling so good, I started it today. I have a great book, Stairway Walks In Los Angeles, that maps out 18 different walks in the Los Angeles area that take the walker into hidden, beautiful, and sometimes fascinating neighborhoods that one doesn’t normally go through or really even know about. Despite being such a “car town”, L.A. can be quite fascinating when experienced on foot. I decided to use those different walks as a basis for the walking phase of my program.

One thing that links the majority of these walks is that most of them feature some portion of the route that includes stairways. You wouldn’t think there would be that many (or any), but there are many, many locations in the hilly areas that have public stairways that connect sections of the streets, going inbetween the houses and saving pedestrians the trouble and distance of having the follow the switch-back road down out of the hills (or up them), but can, instead, make quicker descents down these stairs. So this maybe tells you that these walks are much more intense exercise than simply walking down the street, because you walk up and down very steep roadways and stairways. It’s also quite scenic, due to being up in the hills, and the houses in these kinds of areas tend to be beautiful, cool, unusual, impressive, or in some other way worth seeing and mentally “oohing” over as you walk by.

For my first stairway walk, I chose one that I could do right from my apartment, so I didn’t have to drive to it. It was walk number 11, “Lower Beachwood,” subtitled “Churches, Temples, Monasteries, and Mosques.” Interestingly, that is something you definitely do find on this route, including the Vedanta Meditation Center, a house where Krishnamurti once lived, the Hollywood Presbyterian complex that covers two and a half city blocks, a Russian Orthodox mosque, and a Dominican monastery. Beyond all the religious buildings were countless houses of all shapes and sizes, each one amazing in some way, including shaded courtyards with fountains (very inviting-looking in this heat), awesome decks on various levels, and unusual examples of archtecture (lots of Spanish and Moorish architecture). Despite the crowded maze of streets and very difficult parking (although it seemed that most of the houses had garages or plenty of parking room on their property), I can see why people like to live in the Hollywood Hills. Technically, I, too, live in the Hollywood Hills, but at the very brink of it and about as “lowland” as you can be while still officially being in the hills.

I took in too much hot air as I panted up pyramid-steep hills and pretty soon the entire inside of my mouth and throat felt like a dry, cracked leather boot. Note to self: Next time, bring a water bottle! (I quickly filled my water bottle up after I got home and now have it chilling in the refrigerator, ready for my next walk.)

As I walked, I thought of how I should organize my exercise, and figured I ought to alternate something aerobic with something weight lifting. So tomorrow is weight lifting, although I will start doing this with equipment I have at home instead of going to the gym. I’m sure I’ll start going back to the gym in a few weeks, but for now, I like the convenience of doing this at home until I really get into it.

To make the aerobic phase more fun, I want to do other things besides simply walking all the time. I love swimming and there is a convenient public swimming pool quite close to where I work, so that’s a place I can go to on the way home. I checked out their website to get the scoop (hours of operation, cost, etc.) and saw that Los Angeles has a whole aquatics program that includes, among a lot of other things, kayak lessons and rentals at the Hansens Dam and Balboa lakes. Yeah, that sounds like a great idea for the weekends, so I am going to check that out. I’ve wanted to do some kayaking, but didn’t really know how, or where.

Bicycle-riding sounds like a good idea, too, and I can easily fantasize how great it would be if I could get into riding a bicycle to work. I could imagine how much weight THAT would help me to lose, and with gasoline on the brink of $4.00 a gallon, the money savings is a good draw, too. But all that’s a HUGE if. It is a very difficult ride to the school, because first I have to get up to Mulholland Drive and that is a very long, steep, curvy hill up Cahuenga to there...and then there is the remainder of the eleven-mile journey on this up and down and curving all around mountain road. (I don’t know how long such a trip would take, and it would have to be done twice a day.) I do not at all have the fitness for it and can almost imagine that I NEVER would have the ability to get up Cahuenga to Mulholland Road. I’m not sure how to even develop that ability. Practice, practice, practice with going up hill, I guess, but for me, that would have to be in frustrating five-minute increments, I think. But sometimes one has to accept success coming in miniscule increments (that’s what I learned from physical therapy), and success DOES come.

Riding a bicycle on the streets of Los Angeles sounds horrible--too much crowding traffic, very dangerous. Mulholland is a different animal altogether and there are several bike riders up there that I see every morning when I am driving to work (you know, the arrogant frou-frou kind, all covered in multi-colored spandex, thinking they are Lance Armstrong but will squeal like stuck pigs if you drive too close to them). So, if I can’t handle Mulholland, I wouldn’t want to ride a bicycle except at the beach or on mountain trails. So this puts me in a quandary of not knowing what kind of a bicycle to get--a mountain bike, a road bike, or a hybrid? Oh well, I’ll figure it out.

What’s great is that the mood is on me and I am excited. I need to get going and keep on going so that I get addicted. If this great weather holds out, that will be no problem, because I WANT to be outside.

Meanwhile, as I wrote before, I’m enjoying my home-made (non-diet) meals! Tonight I had a great dinner of left-over Amish creamed chicken and corn souffle. I heated up some tomato basil soup, but the other dishes filled me up, so I didn’t take any soup (gee, it probably had minus 10 calories). Good appetite control, but honest. Anway, exercising like this is one way to pay the piper. But it’s gotta be fun, that’s the key for me.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Joy of Cooking Again

During the days of my "youth" (actually, it would be more accurate to say "my young adulthood"), I was quite into cooking. That seemed to have started due to my first apartment, which was in Manhattan. The apartment was small, but the kitchen (also small) was marvelously laid out as efficiently as the interior of a sailboat and stocked with every kind of cooking tool and device, including a hefty library of appealing cookbooks.

That got me off to a great start, which I continued, and then enhanced, when I went back to California to go to law school. The school had just built a brand-new apartment building on campus that the students could rent and this was a population of renters viewed with great respect who presumably were headed toward being in the moneyed class (if they weren't there already) and therefore required suitable housing to prepare for it (in other words, this was not "slum" or typical "student" housing). As it happens, the kitchen in that apartment was perfect and remains to this day the very best kitchen I have ever had. So I really got into the cooking there, going so far as to making my own bread, mayonaise, yogurt, jams, and other ordinarily packaged things in addition to frequently holding elaborate dinner parties. A friend and fellow-student at the school said that he and I were the only ones who didn't let having to brief cases get in the way of keeping our kitchen clean! (He however, actually went on to become a lawyer, something I decided not to do, maybe because I soon realized that I had greater interests elsewhere.)

Somehow, once I was out of school (a youthful, high-energy setting for generally everybody), I seemed to settle down into "sedentary working adulthood" and for some of us what comes along with that is putting on weight. Thus as I moved into working life in Los Angeles, I also enrolled myself into what is apparently a difficult-to-escape-from cult--that of the eternal dieter.

Surely you've heard this somewhat confusing aphorism, "dieting makes you fat" and studies have pretty much shown that this is true. Well, sure, dieting also can make you thin, in the short run, at least, but suppose you think of being on a diet as being somewhat like being forced to always have sex with someone who doesn't turn you on. Maybe this is what happens in marriage--the spouse becomes dull and unattractive, and so the impulse is to have an affair. So one could say that "marriage makes you unfaithful" in just the same way that "dieting makes you fat".

What makes you fat in dieting is the yo-yo effect of (a) living with a severely reduced calorie (and flavor) load, which (b) lowers your metabolism and (c) makes you finally get the hell off the diet and binge eat (maybe for years), which leads to (d) making you twice as overweight as you were before the diet, until (f) you get so miserable with your body that you try the whole thing over again with a new diet, which takes you back to (a), ad nauseum (or, if you are a teenage girl, "ad bulimium").

I've been there, I know all about it.

That started when I lived in L.A. "the first time" (that is to say, before I lived here, moved away, lived a dozen other places, and then came back here this time), where, incidentally, I had a really cool apartment but a lousy kitchen that got me into the habit of not only eating reduced "something" food (low calories, fats, carbs, or whatever) but also not enjoying the process of preparing whatever it was that I was making. I realize that there are all sorts of diet cook books out there that cater to every diet fad there is so that you can take out whatever ingredients or items you think are to blame for your being fat. I even bought myself a huge Weight Watchers gourmet cookbook that in size and appearance is somewhat akin to the complete cooking guide published by Le Cordon Bleu, but something about its artificiality (or artifice) never lured me and so it sits gathering dust on the shelf.

I had lost all interest in cooking, because I had lost all interest in eating anything that I prepared myself, because I would only allow myself to prepare diet foods (so instead I enjoyed eating out all the time).

And to think that this attitude of denial and suffering lasted for over thirty years--this constant alternation between fortitude and failure and all the time getting no pleasure except in illicit eating, and from that, whatever pleasure it contained was diluted by guilt, which was mentally like a little e-coli along with the hamburger.

Can't last.

Well, this go-round I lost more weight than I had ever lost before, but it was only half of what I needed to lose, yet suddenly it just had to stop. I couldn't stand Weight Watchers any more, even though just previously I had been singing its praises for how good-looking my body was becoming. I couldn't stand not looking forward to any party or eating occasion. I couldn't stand eating the same old "partial" foods any more. I couldn't stand feeling that I had done something terribly wrong by having a waffle or ice cream. I couldn't stand the lecturers at the meetings whose advice was always about how to eat miniscule portions ("at Trader Joe's they sell almonds in individually-wrapped one-point packages") or manufactured fake foods ("at The Heavenly Diet Shop they sell low-carb pancake mix and at Humphrey's Frozen Yogurt Shop they have sugarless frozen yogurt"). But most of all, I couldn't stand the OTHER people at the meetings. The meetings and the people there are supposed to "give you support". What support? Nobody ever really says anything unless it is to complain about how (once again) they failed at this party or that restaurant. "I was so hungry I just went ahead and binged on chips and dip," or "At first I was going to order pears for dessert, but I found myself going ahead and ordering a Mud Pie, instead." And the advice always is "So, you learned from your mistake, didn't you, well next time, eat a big salad, drink lots of water, and don't forget to ask the waiter to take the bread off the table."

Worse, perhaps, was that when I participated (and my version of that was to share some philosophical point of view that seemed to get me over a hump, such as "While I couldn't see how I could enjoy this cocktail party without eating a lot of stuff, I realized that if I engaged my other senses, such as appreciating the beautiful setting or really got into people's conversations, I could enjoy something other than food"), the room would be dead silent while some people turned around to look at me strangely as if they were thinking let me get a look at this freak, or whoever you are, you arrogant bastard, I wish you would just stop. I mean, I have to say it, but most of the people who are in Weight Watchers meetings are not really working to change too much. What do I really have in common with them? And then there would be the sudden shocks to my consciousness (okay, so I admit I'm an arrogant bastard), such as when somebody new would join: why, they're so fat! I know that is awful to say (my mother would really be shocked when I'd confess it to her), but that's really how it was for me. I mean, duh, this is Weight Watchers, there are going to be fat people! But somehow I kind of expected the whole world to slim down while I was...I was seeing the world from slimmer eyes and the fat people mucked up the viewscape.

So I knew that it was no longer working, but I didn't know what to do as a substitute. I kept rotating my mind around the idea that "I need to have it be organized somewhat like a school," you know, like you enroll at one end, take classes, do homework, take exams, and end up with a degree at the other end. But then one day I saw a video on YouTube by a man who was telling high school kids how to get a college degree really cheaply. His suggestions included taking all the AP courses and getting as much college credit for high school courses as you can, going to free or very low-cost junior college for the lower division courses, and doing as much independent study as you can for the upper division courses. He said, "If you can't study on your own, you aren't mature enough to go to college." Wow, that really hit me. Here I had been saying that I couldn't lose weight without being part of a "college-like structure", and he was saying that a college student ought to be able to do his studies on his own (all you need is a good library, who cares about the renown of the professors?). So I was shamed into understanding that I had to lose weight on my own (let's be grown up about it). I couldn't need some person or some group standing over me, making me do it (i.e., the old Weight Watchers "weekly weigh-in").

If I had to do it on my own, then I have to really understand it. The science of it. How it works. It's no longer acceptable to have an organization tell me how much food I have to eat, or what foods I should or should not eat.

So here are some things that I have learned:

1. Much of what we are told by organizations (corporations, governments) is wrong.
2. Things natural, traditional, and primitive are healthy; things manufactured, packaged, processed, adulterated, and marketed are unhealthy.
3. A vast variety of different foods is far more healthy than a limited selection of the same old stuff.
4. Two pounds of weight loss a week is too much for most people, who have to eat below the lowest acceptable minimum daily amount of calories in order to have that level of weight loss, which means that they are injuring their body, not getting enough essential nutrients, are losing lean body mass, and are lowering their metabolism, which makes them gain more and more stored fat on less and less food.
5. We have lost our natural appetite-"stat", eating according to a schedule or chart or diet plan or habit or addiction instead of eating what we really want and need, so we need to sensually reconnect with our body so that we will become aware once again of what we should eat and how much.
6. We also need to use our bodies more in movement, work, and play (making this fun instead of a chore), which will increase our muscles which burn fat and improve our metabolism so that our body weight will normalize; this is putting an emphasis on burning up excess calories instead of eating fewer calories.
7. We have to ENJOY EATING AGAIN, with real food full of natural nutrients. Get rid of the guilt, just get in touch inside. Then it is no longer deprivation, and we are no longer fat, having broken out of the "dieting makes you fat" viscious circle.

So now I have regained my joy of eating things that I have cooked at home. I got four new cookbooks, all of which I have been using in making exciting and delicious new meals. The first one I got was The Coconut Oil Miracle, which I had gotten from the same source where last summer I had gotten the book on how healthy the sun was. There are two corporate myths exposed--it is essential that we get out into the sun, yet people are afraid of it ("skin cancer"!), but the truth is that the diseases caused by vitamin D deficiency are gigantically more common than skin cancer. The sun CURES diseases.

Coconut oil, the much-maligned saturated fat "tropical oil" (thanks to self-serving marketing distortions by the soybean producers) is probably the healthiest oil a person can get. Unsaturated fats, particularly "poly" unsaturated fats, are cell-damaging free-radical producers, whereas saturated fats are anti-oxidants that clean up free radicals. Coconut oil is a medium-chain fatty acid that gets immediately used for energy and is NOT stored on the body as fat, and in its metabolism, kills infections. Few people on Earth have been more beautiful and healthy than the Polynesians (prior to their replacing their healthy natural diet with Western-produced processed canned and packaged junk food that makes those who indulge ponderously fat) and there in Polynesia you have the abundant use of BOTH these maligned sources of health, the sun and coconut oil.

So I started with the fun of making some of the recipes in the coconut oil book, which led me to desire a broad cookbook of native Polynesian cuisine, so I got a beautiful one from Amazon.com. Then, during spring break, our school had its annual trip back east and two of the participants brought back cookbooks as gifts for me! One was a uniquely wonderful book of Early American recipes, publishing the favorite recipes of early American heroes such as William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and dozens of others. That book really hit the spot with me. And the other gift book is a true treasure of traditional Amish cooking. The Amish are one of my favorite and highly-admired cultures and they still live naturally and minimally-technologically off their eastern Pennsylvania farmland and it has been quite a treat to start making some of their wonderful recipes. All of a sudden, eating is very exciting again (and shouldn't it be?) Later today, I am going to make three dishes from that Amish cookbook.

So, did I blow up like a balloon with jumping off of my "diet" and eating, instead, "salmon and rice with coconut-cream sauce" or "William Penn's favorite potato omelette" or "Amish cornbread"? I've been on this for about a month and the answer is no, I haven't gained a pound. I haven't seen weight fall off, either, but my weight loss will be rather slow until I increase my movement (I don't want to say "exercise" any more than I want to say "diet".) But our reduced summer schedule is right around the corner and I will be doing things outside a whole lot more. I expect to move into autumn being somewhat thinner (10 pounds worth, maybe?) and with the renewed enjoyment I have been having lately with NO suffering, I'd say that would be a delicious accomplishment.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Rooting For a Root Canal

You have to understand that at this point, I never ever expected to even get a cavity. Whatever the chemistry of my mouth is, it isn't a cavity-causing environment. (Gums, now, now gums were a different matter. Floss floss floss! Brush with a Sonicare. But even that I felt I had under control. I didn't even need to have more than the requisite "twice a year" check-up and cleaning.)

So it was with some combination of horror and ignorance that I got a toothache. I was polite about it, of course, just didn't complain TOO much, said that while it was certainly correctly called a toothe ACHE, it wasn't REALLY a toothache of the "electric cautering iron fall down on your knees in shock" kind of a toothache. But actually in that, I was fooling myself...this was a genuine toothache (of the "it's going to be very expensive" kind), as I gradually was to discover.

After a weekend of trying every natural/alternative pain relief method I could find on the Internet (none of which worked, by the way), it was finally simply a dose of Aleve that I took late on Sunday night that did the trick. I was even able to go to work on Monday, and then go see my dentist on Tuesday, embarrassed at even coming in at all, me with the trouble-free mouth.

My dentist sat down in front of me and very patiently listened to every word of the history of my complaint. While I HAD hurt before, I tried to minimize it, because the truth was I didn't want it to be something serious. I hoped he would have a perfectly decent explanation for the whole thing, such as, "There's some kind of new strain of flu going around that makes the teeth ache, but as it has now stopped, you've probably kicked it." You know, something like that, the explanation of "you had something, but now you are well."

However, what he said was, "It sounds like you might have a cracked tooth. Those are very hard to see, but let me examine you carefully." And what his careful examine revealed was that I did, indeed, have a fractured molar.

That sounds serious, doesn't it? That sounds like something you can make other people cringe with when you say, "I really had a right to complain about my pain, I had a FRACTURED MOLAR!"

"Okay...so what do you do about a fractured molar?"

He explained the process of holding the tooth together with a crown that also capped off the top so that bacteria couldn't get into the tooth's root through the crack. He talked about how it was a two hour job that entailed him having to grind the tooth down in size so that a cap could fit over it with the whole thing ending up no bigger than the size of the original tooth. I was thinking "crown, hum, that's a procedure level III on my dental plan, they only pay half, how much is this thing going to COST me, anyway?" but I said nothing about cost, only specified that I wanted the cap to be porcelain (well, it's going to be porcelain over metal).

Okay, so I left the dentist depressed about how I was going from perfect teeth to now having one of them half-way to artificial. How did I suddenly get into "procedure level III" territory? Well, a fractured tooth can happen at any time, particularly a molar, although I have no idea HOW this particular thing happened to me, or when. It could have happened a long time ago, slowly getting worse, until now it was noticeable.

In the week I had to wait before my first appointment for the crown, my tooth pain came back and I had to take ever-increasing doses of Aleve in order to get through my days at work. However, miraculously (I thought), the pain stopped by that weekend, so I didn't need to take any more pain pills. Apparently, though, that was really a bad sign.

I will say that the "novocaine-receiving, tooth-grinding, impression-taking, temporary-crown-making" process was utterly UNpainful...well, I guess I really thought as much (in these modern days of dentistry) and only worried about receiving the novocaine shot, but even that didn't hurt one bit. However, just because nothing HURT didn't mean that the procedure wasn't quite uncomfortable and stressful. I was prepared for it to be much worse than it was, though. I thought I would have to lose myself almost entirely on a meditative-like visual journey similar to what I had to do in order to not become a raving sceaming claustraphobic maniac during a couple of CAT-scans I had to have a few decades ago. I was prepared to just go into a mental trance and ignore everything that was being done to me until it was over. However, really, thanks to the "local anaesthetic" (apparently "novocaine" is not really correct, they use something else), I could have just placed full attentive consciousness on the whole procedure. In fact, I wonder if it would be of benefit to someone having this done to ask to be shown all the instruments and devices that were going to be used for this, because whereas I had previously been afraid and didn't even want to LOOK at anything, it ended up that the extreme mystery of everything made the experience worse than it needed to be.

Definitely, for me, the very worst thing was this rubber-spongy-prop-open kind of thing that my dentist jammed into my widely-stretched open mouth like a medieval bondage brank. It's purpose was mainly to keep my tongue out of the way (that my dentist described to his assistant as an "aggressive tongue," and I thought to myself, "Yes, you ought to ask my lovers about that"), but it all but threw me into a panic. I couldn't imagine that I could tolerate that thing in there for two minutes, let alone two hours, and the helpless, frightened feeling it gave me immediately threw me onto the brink of panic. However, thankfully, I was able to get a grip on my mind and float off into my meditative visualization and did not lose my mind, but pretty much got so I forgot about the thing in my mouth soon enough.

The very best thing that happened, and I admit that it is odd for something like this to give so much pleasure, but I absolutely LOVED the taking of the impression of my teeth. I think this is something that can really scare some people (like the mouth-prop-open thing did for me) because it flickers toward their gag reflex, but because the whole back half of my mouth cavity had no feeling at all, I was only conscious of the device around my front bottom teeth. In a strange way it was at first quite erotic, as if my teeth were a penis and the impression material contained within this curved holder were the depths of a vagina; it was amazingly pleasurable to sink my teeth right into it. But then I understood that this was more comforting and embracing than it was stimulative of a sexual thrusting power, so I realized it was more like being back in the womb. I felt so thoroughly held and embraced and loved by this thing and I never wanted to come back out of it. But even the eventual taking of it off, the way the dental assistant had to rock it a little and the sensation of the suction of the material against my teeth as it released its grip, that felt good, too.

But all the rest of it was one long session of grinding, grinding, grinding, and the sizing of the temporary crown was that, too, grinding and grinding and grinding, over and over again, until I finally felt that it was no longer sitting up too high in my mouth. Determing that, though, was along the same order of difficulty as deciding which ophthalmolic lens is better, "this one or this one" during an eye exam. "I don't know! Let me the first one again. And now the second one again." Back and forth, back and forth.

The dentist informed me, though, that although he had now taken the impressions and carved my tooth down to size, he wasn't going to order the crown from the lab, yet, because there was some troublesome motion in my tooth and he wanted to send me to an endodontist, first, for a consultation. I thought this meant the consultation was to determine whether I needed a root canal, or not, which, if I did need one, the endodontist would be the one to do it.

Despite my now having to leave one dental office and make an appointment for another one, I lucked out in that the endodontist was able to see me more or less right away. He just had to eat his lunch first, said the front desk person, but that would give me time to get there.

It wasn't that far away...I had to go from Mid-Wilshire over to Century City.

The endodontist was surprisingly young and handsome. I don't know what I had expected, but this was a pleasant surprise. He proceeded to examine my condition by testing me for feeling with a probe and then with something that was cold. I felt that I was passing the test by not feeling any pain or cold, except I did in some places, and I reluctantly indicated those areas, feeling that those were failures, but actually, I was failing, because my lack of feeling meant that the nerve in my tooth was dead and where I did feel something were areas that were peripheral to the fractured tooth.

It ended up that this consultation was not to determine whether or not I should have a root canal, but whether I COULD have a root canal, or should the tooth be EXTRACTED. The root canal was the "better" of the two choices. I was so shocked to realize that not only had I entered into crown and root canal territory, but that I had even gotten into possible tooth extraction territory. So now the idea of the root canal (something I had understood that I should be very afraid of) was actually something to be happy about and to WANT! So I went into that procedure gladly and actually, it didn't hurt me one bit, either, and neither did the four shots of local anesthetic I received in preparation for the procedure. Also the root canal work was much less stressful and uncomfortable than the crown work.

After my mouth and face had been numbed by the anesthetic was when the front desk woman happened to come in to inform me that while my insurance policy covered root canals (I know they pay 50% after I meet the $50 deductible, but their total coverage for one calendar year is $1,000 and I have no idea how much they have already covered for my routine exams and cleaning, and I don't know what the crown will cost), they required a pre-authorization for the procedure. Somehow that meant that they weren't able to tell the endodontist billing person over the phone that day how much of the procedure the insurance company would cover and how much was my portion, so the upshot of it all was that I had to pay for it in full today, and the medical office would file a claim and the insurance company would pay me the portion that would have gone to the doctor. And the full amount was $1,300. Okay, whatever, yes I could pay that today.

Once the money piece was settled, the root canal could begin. There was one thing peculiar in this procedure to me, something unexpected, and that was the aspect of the dental dam which at first appeared from my fore-shortened view to be something like a big yellow balloon that the endodontist presumably was going to attempt to stuff into my mouth. In actuality (I say without having looked at it from a normal perspective), I ascertained that it was somewhat like a flexible latex ring that was bigger than the circumference of my mouth, with a molar-sized hole in it over near the outer edge of the ring. The tiny hole was stretched down around the tooth itself, isolating it from the rest of my mouth, leaving it protruding up all by itself to be worked on above the field of the dental dam.

The endodontist told me that a molar would have three or four roots, so I was counting the number of times he drilled in order to ascertain when he might be finished. However, after the third drilling, he suddenly put all the tools down, ripped the dental dam off, and left the room, saying he would get back to me. He closed the door behind him and left me there alone, bewildered by myself in the closed room. I felt that this could not be good.

When he did finally come back, he told me that he couldn't finish the root canal today, that there was so much pus and active infection inside the tooth that he wanted me to undergo a course of antibiotics, first, to clear all that up. Up until that time I had had no idea that this infection due to bacteria getting into the root via the tooth's crack was so bad, but already it had killed the nerve and who knows, it might have even damaged the bone (which is what I believe my tooth's motion had indicated to my dentist). I could see that this fractured molar was getting to be more and more serious than I had ever thought.

The traffic back home was horrible, hardly moving at all, and I saw that I was nearly out of gas. I wasn't familiar with the locations of gas stations in that area, so I took the first one that I finally came to, a Mobil station that charged $3.90 a gallon. If I weren't already depressed enough over all these tooth difficulties, it cost me more than $50 to fill my tank and I see that we really are on the brink of paying $4.00 a gallon these days. Suddenly I felt very poor and helpless against a rising tide of difficulties.

I was supposed to start the medication right away, plus I was worried about what I would feel when the anaesthetic wore off, so I was eager to get my prescriptions for the antibiotic and pain pills filled. Rite Aid was inescusably slow, until it was as stressful to sit there in their waiting room as it had been to be in the dental chairs. They said the prescriptions would be ready in an hour, but it ended up being an hour and forty-five minutes. The extremely low price was very pleasant, though, $16.00 for three prescriptions, thanks to my health insurance plan (and dispensing generics instead of brand name drugs).

By the time I was finally home, it was after 6:00. I really had spent ALL day on all this dental work.

Later that night, my dentist called me to seriously discuss the ramifications of my procedures and to help me decide how to proceed. He was very worried about the fact that it seemed 50/50 regarding whether I should finish with the root canal and crown or instead have the tooth extracted and have an implant made and installed. If I chose to try to save the tooth, that is, finish the root canal and have the crown, but then later complications arose so that the repair work failed and the tooth had to be pulled after all, the insurance coverage wouldn't cover any of the repair work. An extraction and implant would cost $2,100 he told me, and I would have to cover that entirely by myself.

But ultimately, I care more about saving the tooth than I care about the money. Which in a way is strange, because the tooth seems pretty much gone already. The endodontist did not put the temporary crown back on, because he said if the infection flared up, it would hurt me like hell for him to pry the crown off, so he's just leaving it off until the infection seems gone. When the temporary crown had been in there (only long enough for me to drive from the dentist office to the endodontist office), it looked almost like a real tooth, but now what I can see in there is my ground down real tooth, looking like it was cut off right at the surface of the gum line. I guess in reality it is a little taller than that, but that's how it looks to me. So just about the only difference between the "crown" solution and the "extraction" solution is that instead of the crown being attached to a metal pin as it would be in the "extraction" solution, it would be attached to my tooth's root in the "crown" solution. Still, this is the choice that both the endodontist and my dentist recommend, so long as I understand the financial ramifications of my choice.

But I'm more positive than they are. While they see a 50/50 chance between their work succeeding or failing with this tooth, I feel that while a cracked tooth, itself, can't be fixed (it won't grow back together like a broken bone, and "cementing" it together and holding it with a cap is not as strong as the real thing), I feel that what could cause failure would be continued infection destroying more of the bone so that the bone can't hold the tooth in, but in my view, I CAN kill the infection, and BONE can grow back. So as long as as much of the natural components are still there, I feel that the odds are in my favor.

"It's good to think positively, I guess," said my scientific, statistically-minded dentist, but he didn't seem to really appreciate the power of such thinking. Okay, whatever happens. I'm still thinking positively. None of this should have happened, but somehow it did, but I'm not about to assume that the bad luck will just keep on happening like a column of dominoes. The bad luck stops here