Saturday, January 21, 2012

Midlife Mayhem: to Hell and Back

I know this topic is taboo for many people ("nice" people don't mention it in public), but I’m pretty sure a reality TV show about menopausal women…let’s call it Midlife Mayhem: to Hell and Back…would be an instant hit and a sponsor's goldmine.

For one thing, it would be educational. Perky, oblivious, it'll-never-happen-to-me younger women need to know what's in store. And men forced to cohabit with midlife women would finally make sense of the roiling cauldron their lives have become (some female partners get it but are no less afraid). It would be exciting. Most people would be stunned…enthralled…captivated by the bizarre behaviors of which midlife women are capable. It would be suspenseful. The physical/emotional/behavioral midlife roller coaster ride would absolutely thrill viewers with its unbelievable twists & turns. And special “cliffhanger” episodes could put a bunch of midlife women together in one small, enclosed space. These episodes could involve non-stop baking, wild, uncoordinated hormonal swings, and knitting needles. They could NOT be done live, as they would put a studio audience in grave danger and present liability headaches for sponsors.

One MM episode could follow a couple through a single day at home. Our protagonist, let’s call her Eve, is freezing and cranks up the thermostat. Her partner sneaks by and turns it down. They repeat this several times. Then, Eve’s internal blast-furnace suddenly fires up (fluctuating hormones cause her pilot light to go out, flame on, go out, flame on, etc., throughout the day & night). She breaks out in a sweat, until her hair is stuck to her forehead. She strips down to B & B (briefs & bra) and throws her clothes at the dog. She turns the thermostat to "off." Her head snaps around like a hunting raptor’s until she spots her partner, cowering, quaking, in a dark corner of the living room. She smiles and says, “Want some cheesecake, honey?” About an hour later, just as her partner resumes breathing normally, the cycle begins again.

Infrared cameras will track the couple throughout the night, where the fun continues. Our protagonist alternately hogs all the covers (occasionally adding six down blankets to the pile) and throws all the blankets on the floor on HER side of the bed. She curses in her sleep and does NOT wake up to retrieve the covers, a job that falls to her exhausted partner. This nightmare, by the way, explains why most early TV couples, instead of one marital bed, had paired twin beds—the space between the beds acts as a sort of “safety buffer” for the beleaguered partner. They didn’t call her Mrs. Cleaver for nothing.

Another episode could involve Eve suddenly taking off one day for the regional zoo. For the entire day, no one knows where she’s gone. Frantic phone calls buzz from cell tower to cell tower in an attempt to locate her, while she’s at the zoo, weeping and taking closeup photos of every beastly mother. In between shots, she stuffs her face with greasy popcorn. She tries to climb the fence at the gibbon enclosure. She offers a mother hippo money and a scarf. She tells a drooling tiger about her deep regret at not becoming a ballet dancer. Human parents quickly steer their strollered children away, giving Eve a wide berth. They report her to zoo officials. By the time numerous reports lead zoo security to track her down, she’s driving through McDonald’s for super-sized fries and a chocolate shake on her way home.

The Halloween episode might find Eve's partner hiding all the sharp kitchen utensils, as Eve berates The Entire Planet for its continuing discrimination against women. Her partner runs for the basement, as Eve’s tirade turns personal, condemning her partner for not vacuuming out the toaster. Eve is suddenly overcome with love & gratitude at the mere idea of decorative measuring spoons. She calls sweetly, but her partner mumbles something about “groceries…milk…sedatives…” and makes it out the back door. It’s seven degrees. Eve’s partner is wearing a t-shirt and pajama pants but doesn’t feel the cold. Eve bastes sweet & sour ribs and hums “You Are My Sunshine.”

The Valentine’s Day episode will show the folly of Eve’s partner attempting to say something nice. Eve is still unfamiliar with and horrified by her new midlife body—the carb-inflated monster truck tire around her middle, the thinning uncooperative hair, the wrinkies around her mouth and eyes that make her look perpetually aghast, the flesh that must now (thanks to half a lifetime of gravity) be corralled, hoisted, and carefully positioned in clothes that can only be categorized as “stretchy,” the libido that switches randomly and without warning between “You’ve GOT to be kidding me” and “NOW!” and the failing eyesight that makes her squint like a mole. Through the first half of the episode, her partner makes unsuccessful attempts to pay Eve sincere, heartfelt compliments, finally giving up and taking a nap. Through the last half of the episode, Eve cries and throws dishes because no one ever ever ever says anything nice about her anymore.

I’m telling you, Midlife Mayhem: to Hell and Back would be a blockbuster. It would have everything: love, sex, food, danger, humor, stuff broken or blown up, and all-out war. It would be an advertising dream, sandwiched between Dr. Oz's latest midlife “skin recovery” method and Dr. Ruth's “spice it up” sex advice for folks over 50. 
The show would have an instant, enormous Facebook fan club. Women would sport "I {heart} Eve" hoodies. Kitchen knives would come in pink. Vid clip montages of Eve alternately screaming and cooing would go viral on YouTube. 

YOU would TOTALLY watch it. I wouldn’t watch it, though—I’m kinda “burnt out” on reality (cue maniacal cackling).

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Winter of Our Discontent

This winter will certainly go down in the Annals of the Bizarre here on the Row…a confounding conflagration of calamity…a sheit-storm of Really, Universe? Really?!?

Take the weather. Last week, on the day of The Great 2012 Tuneup (see previous post), it was a sun-soaked, record-breaking, 62-degree day in Sioux Falls. I could have sunbathed in my bikini on the veranda of the Heart Hospital, though that might have been too much (literally & figuratively) for a few too-fragile hearts, scaring them into permanent OFF. 

We’ve had very little snow so far, and the landscape remains mostly brown and gold. No icy roads, no white-out blizzards, no waiting for Tractor Man to dig us out. Corn-fused pea-boys are out fanning their half-grown tail feathers (they won’t have fully grown new “trains” until spring) in the faces of bewildered peahens. And I should be celebrating Mother Nature’s beneficence, but I recently read that the incidence of depression actually increases in northern climes during unusually mild winters, since there’s no snow to reflect what little SAD-preventing light we count on up here. Time to break out the full-spectrum bulbs and vitamin D.

Or take our peaflock. By mid-summer we had 29 peacocks—18 adults and 11 chicks. Then came The Marauder(s). Over the next few months, peas began to disappear. Or we’d come home to a half-eaten carcass. The first couple grisly scenes made us think it was a furry predator. Then we woke to a pile of cleanly-plucked feathers below a tree branch, which  made us think it was a raptor or very big owl. Then finding three or four headless but otherwise intact peabodies (I found the most recent headless peahen today) made us think raccoons. I finally decided that a local thug-critter got word out that the Row is a free, all-you-can-eat pea smorgasbord—a peaffet—and that we’re completely surrounded by predatory wildlife. So I did what any rebel farmwife would do: I wrapped the Roosting Tree with blinking Christmas lights. This strategy worked for a few days, until a squirrel chewed through the wire (paid off by the coyote down the road, I’m sure). Anyway, we’re down to 13 adult peacocks--not a single surviving summer chick. Some well-meaning friends suggest that Mother Nature simply knew I was in way over my head and “helped” me restore balance. But that’s a net loss of 16 peas in ONE season! So while I’m not a violent person, I’m now shopping for a patio duck blind/paintball gun combo.

Back to The Great 2012 Tuneup. In addition to Ray’s heart nudge (“attack” sounds so deliberate), my friend’s surgery to remove what she calls a “non-benign visitor” from her colon, and my other friend’s mom ending up as Ray’s roomie down the hall at the Heart Hospital, my oldest brother has had at least three surgeries on his eyeball this winter to repair (and repair and repair) a detached retina. This is unsettling because (1) he’s in Ecuador, where I can’t just pop over to help out, (2) he has to spend most of his time face-down and isn’t supposed to use his eye for a while, and (3) he makes his living working mostly as an online travel writer, which is hard to do if you’re not supposed to LOOK at anything. Then, Mom had to have a couple of teeth pulled. Dangerous, because I know a person can only stand so much blended split-pea soup before he or she loses it completely and starts trying to train his or her little dog to sing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Amid all this, I had to keep plugging away to get ready for a new semester. Also, since about New Year’s, I’ve had the South Dakota Respiratory Plague, which means my best friends are Emergen-C, Advil, Puffs, Nyquil, chicken soup and my heating pad.

It's not one stressful event that does us in; it's the pile-up, when we don't have enough time between stressful events to recover or rally. So I’ve been in a sort of stunned pre-hibernation mode lately. I've been “closing ranks,” as my Mom would say. Holing up. Hiding out. Yes, I know there are bigger things going on out there in the Great Wide World and I may be thinking a little too locally. Yes, I know it’s only January. And yes, I know Jack Blizzard’s probably in Wessington Springs right now, having a beer and plotting on his bar napkin a trajectory that will lead him directly to our door. But for now, if I don't answer my door or my phone, it's because I'm curled up in a blanket-wrapped ball, knitting peacock chain maille and contemplating what surely will continue to be one mighty strange winter.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Big and Broken Heart

Back to my “crapshoot” theory of life. Think of any heart attack you’ve ever seen on TV or in films; it probably looked like this: A guy suddenly clutches his chest then drops over dead. As Tim O’Brien’s character Kiowa says, “Boom. Down.” And the guy is usually 150 pounds overweight, and he’s either choking down a ½-pound double bacon cheeseburger at the time, or he’s having a red-faced screaming match with a mobster, right? Well, once again, Ray and I have been lovingly kicked in the arse as a reminder that real life is not like the movies.

Ray had his first heart attack ten years ago, at age 50. Ray is not overweight. He’s fit and exercises regularly. Our diet includes very little fat (and rarely anything but olive oil), loads of whole grains and vegetables, little red meat, as much organic stuff as we can get here in South Dakota, and Ray has been eating only fresh fruit till noon every day for many years. We both drink liters of water daily. Seriously…we couldn’t eat more tofu and tabouli if we tried.

The day of Ray’s first heart attack, he was at work when, mid-morning, he had a bellyache. He thought he had gas, and he felt faint. He called me and said he didn’t feel “right.” I told him to eat an aspirin and I’d pick him up. We went to the ER, and sure enough, he was having a heart attack. By the time the whole adventure was over, he’d had a couple of stents to get some temporary heart-healing blood flow, then quadruple bypass surgery to get around eight blockages in his coronary arteries.

His second heart attack was last week. He’d been having occasional heartburn for a month or more. It woke him up a couple of mornings but went away if he got up and moved around. Then one morning, it wouldn’t go away. It was right in the middle of his chest, and he described it as a slight burning sensation—hence, the heartburn—and he said, again, he just didn’t feel “right.” He took an aspirin and we headed to town to see the doc. An ER visit, ambulance ride, and hospitalization later, he now has a new stent in one of the original bypass grafts that had slowly closed down to around 99% blocked.

Ironically, I had been planning to spend the day of Ray’s procedure with a friend in the waiting room of another hospital, where his wife, our friend, was having surgery that morning. He and my mom had waited with me through Ray’s bypass surgery years before, and it had been a great comfort, so I was looking forward to doing the same for him. Alas, the best laid plans... It all got even more comical when I discovered another friend’s mom three doors down from Ray in the same hospital, in to have her heart meds adjusted. So now I’m calling the whole affair The Great 2012 Tuneup. It will be cause for a new party each January—one with heart-healthy red wine and a delightful assortment of low-fat, high-fiber, organic, flax-encrusted hors d'oeuvres.

Anyway, here’s the thing, people: A heart attack isn’t necessarily a single, sudden, isolated event. It may sneak up slowly, giving little warning signs that most of us would probably ignore. Ray didn’t have ANY of the classical symptoms this time: faintness, shortness of breath, radiating pain or ache in the arms, back or neck, clamminess, cold sweats, tightness or pressure in the chest. All he had was a little heart burn.

Ray’s home for a week of R & R now, and he’s feeling fine. We’re grateful he didn’t need another bypass re-do (they tell us the average “life” of bypass grafts is ten years, after which some patients need the procedure re-done. Since it involves cracking the chest and stopping & re-starting the heart, we’d like to avoid that). We’re also grateful for yet another reminder never to take life—or each other—for granted.

So now we’ll both take aspirin daily. We’ll both carry nitroglycerin in our backpacks. Maybe we’ll institute an evening constitutional to get in a little more exercise. And we’ll pay close attention to anything that doesn’t feel “right.” 

I’m puzzled when I see people whose lifestyles or body conditions scream “heart attack!” but who have NOT furnished a wing in the Heart Hospital, as Ray probably has by now. I'm amazed at the powerful influence of a few crummy genes. I’m befuddled by how crafty, subtle, slow or cleverly disguised a heart attack can be. I’m baffled that it can happen to lean, fit folks leading healthy lives. But then I remember the lesson Life keeps throwing like an adorable little grenade in our path…it’s all a crapshoot.