Follow Jen!

The Passing of a Beastie Boy Coincides with My Mid-Life Crisis

I’ve been listening to Paul’s Boutique for the last few days while I’ve been driving around town running errands (going to the bank, to the p.o.,  taking the dogs to the park), and while I can recite most of the song lyrics by heart, and I can dance in my car seat and pretend I’m still hip, the fact is, I’m feeling unremarkably middle-aged. I’m also feeling a great loss. Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s untimely death from cancer a few days ago is terribly sad for those of us who have been big fans of the Beastie Boys. His passing represents not just the loss of a musical icon but also, in my case, the loss of who I used to be. I did not expect his death to become the tipping point to my midlife crisis.  

I listened to the Beastie Boys in the 80's when I was in high school and college. But in the mid nineties, when I was in my late twenties, the Beasties provided a significant sound track to my changing life. Ironically, their music-- with rhymes about partying, drinking Brass Monkey, smoking weed, mixing Bass Ale with Guiness Stout, and so on-- helped me become less of a party girl. Their raucousness made me feel like I could still dance that lifestyle without actually participating in it.  They added other words to my life, too, about how darkness was not the opposite of light, but the absence of it. And of course, Yauch, aka MCA, rhymed his intentions and his respect with his Bodhisattva Vow. I appreciated that kind of humility and still do.

Yauch was always my favorite Beastie. He was not just my musical hero, but a spiritual icon, too. Someone whose path into Buddhism coincided with my own spiritual explorations. I was listening to Ill Communication at the same time I was testing out a belief in a higher power, becoming comfortable with prayer, reading books by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, attending talks with the Dalai Lama, and letting go of a lifestyle that had me on the edge of extinction by the age of twenty-seven. Yauch made all of that O.K. He was the spiritual anchor of the Beastie Boys, just as, before him, George Harrison—another favorite of mine—had been for the Beatles.

Back then, when I was still coming out of the fog and learning to live without getting blottoed on a regular basis, I was irrationally hopeful that the Beastie Boys might surprise me on my door step, which of course sounds insane because it is. In my experiments with prayer, I decided to pray for their sudden appearance in my life—which is embarrassing to admit since it exposes my complete lack of spiritual understanding at the time, and my elementary belief in a Santa Claus god. But that’s another story. I had no connection to the Beasties personally and they had no idea I existed. I had giant crush on MCA and a blind hope (read: delusion) that somehow, one day, our paths would cross. Then he'd fall in love with me.

Fast forward several years. I was in my mid-thirties, dating a sound engineer who’s worked the monitors for the likes of David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Beck and many others, including, for a very brief time, the Beasties Boys. My good fortune is that I got to tag along to many of the shows. So when the Beasties were preparing to go on tour, I couldn’t believe my luck. Not only would I get to see a few shows with my boyfriend, but I might actually meet the Beastie Boys at some point, maybe bump into them backstage at the craft services table where MCA and I would be reaching for the bowl of M&M's at the same time! Life was sweet.

Then Mike D wrecked his bike, broke his collarbone and the tour was cancelled. My boyfriend never worked with them again. Eventually we broke up. By then, I was no longer desperate to meet MCA as I'd once been since I'd moved on to pursue other interests. Yet, I learned from this near brush with the Beasties what I needed to: that the world was smaller and more accessible than I'd ever imagined, and that amazing things are possible with time.

Now, all these years later, I'm remembering that old crush and all the feelings that went with it. If Generation X spans the years of 1964 through 1980-- and no one can agree on years, exactly-- then Yauch was born at the beginning of that curve, and has become among the first of our generation to die. His death has been a wake-up call for me. Now that I'm in the midst of (dare I say it) perimenopause and spent the month of February with the windows open to cool the hot flashes that have become an affront to my sense of self, I am feeling very far away from the girl who used to have a wild crush on MCA. I'm not sure I even recognize her as part of myself anymore, though I don't want to forget her, especially her better qualities. Back then, I wore crazy outfits and I had a closet full of get-ups that my housemates raided at Halloween to make costumes out of what were my every day clothes; I had an insatiable love of music and a reckless pursuit of art. There was also the part of me that did not want to full-time job (and still doesn't); that did not want to live in the suburbs; that always wanted pink hair and a pierced nose; and did not want to grow up and become dull. It’s not too late, but somehow I’ve become very serious. It doesn't help that my partner, a Baby Boomer, now has conversations about his prostate at the dinner table with friends. Nor am I feeling any younger after a shopping spree with my mother when I bought a week’s worth of comfortable underwear. Last night, I washed the dog after she rolled in fox scat, and then I made a kale salad for dinner. I love my dog; I also love kale. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. There’s nothing wrong with that, but, let’s face it, eating kale, washing the dog, wearing comfy undies—none of this is the stuff you boast about when you want to bust a rhyme.

Recently, my partner and I returned home after traveling for a week in Arizona. Coming home from vacation always blindsides me with the realization that this is where I live, this is what my life has become. For the last few of days, I've been in a "Wait! What?" state of mind, which just adds fodder to my mid-life crisis.

Before we left Arizona, we stopped in an old mining-town-turned-art-colony. We were drinking iced tea, looking out over the valley when a young woman stopped to ask Lee about the image of a firefly silk screened on his t-shirt. “Is that--?” she paused for a moment, then mentioned the name of a band. “Are you a fan?” she asked, eager, it seemed to me, to connect with a kindred spirit. Lee shrugged.

“We’re not that hip,” I replied. In fact, we’re so un-hip that I’ve already forgotten the name of the band that she thought Lee’s t-shirt was promoting. I’m sad about this. Sad that Lee sometimes turns down the music when I turn it up; that a good night’s sleep is what’s important to me now; that sugar messes with my mood and popcorn keeps me up at night. Sad that in my forty-five years, I haven’t accomplished a smidgeon of what I hoped I would’ve by now.  And I’m sad that I have to think about mortality sooner than I want to. MCA's passing is the loss of some part of me that would prefer to ignore maturity and death.

Two of my friends are suffering from cancer now. One is in her seventies, the other is only forty-four. Other close friends have passed prematurely in the last three years— from a motorcycle accident or from cancer. The only other person I know who has been similarly affected by Yauch’s untimely death is my friend’s fourteen-year-old son, Phinn. Maybe, also, my eighteen-year-old nephew who thanked me profusely for giving him a stack of Beastie Boy cds after one weekend visit. 

But I am—by numbers—a middle-aged woman who drives my dogs to and from the park every day and enjoys a good night's sleep. My dogs, when they ride in the car, hang their heads out the window and take in life at full speed, gulping at the air because they cannot get enough. Last evening, as I sat at a stop light waiting for the signal to change, another middle-aged woman pulled up in a SUV next to me. She leaned out her window and talked to my dog, Byrdie. Meanwhile, the Beastie Boys were blaring from my cd player: “Yeah, that’s right. I’m the Egg Man. Driving around, King of the town, always got my window rolled down.” Who knows what she was thinking. She was smiling, though, and while I imagine she was she smiling at my dog, I'd like to think she was also enjoying the music.





The Spring Equinox (A Day Late)

The first day of spring is hardly ever the first day of spring. Usually the “first day of spring” is symbolic. It comes and goes and we have several more weeks of gray wet weather to slog through before the forsythia blooms. But this year, the first day of spring is a few weeks late. The forsythia bushes, alarming in their bright yellow blossoms, are shouting with their wayward branches that it’s time to wake up. Last week, the peepers at dusk were singing joyful and loud in the boggy pools of the flood plain, but they’ve quieted down again, their mating party is just about over for the season.

I’m happy to report that one by one, the turtles have returned to the turtle log. I pass the turtle log at least once a day on our daily dog walk. Max and Byrdie don’t keep track of it, but I do. The log is partially submerged in a creek next to the trail and the turtles, in warm weather, line up to sun themselves. Last year, at the height of the turtle season, I counted more than thirty turtles lined in a row resting on the log. The other day, Lee and I counted ten of them. A few others rested on the bank of the creek. Some of them are the size of saucers, while the babies are smaller like silver dollar pancakes.

I am thrilled to be experiencing an early spring with warm weather and the extra hour of daylight at the end of the day. More time for dog walking. But I’m also confused. Some reptilian part of my brain is still hibernating, reluctant to emerge from the dark den of winter, still waiting tentatively for that last big snow storm we’ve yet to get.

At first I thought the daffodils were a bit anxious in their willingness to bloom. I expected at any moment for winter to sweep through again and freeze them in their tracks. But now the trees are budding, the cherry blossoms showing off their frill, the Bradford pears erupting in snow-colored blossoms. Spring has announced with full force that it is not slowing down with its renovations to the landscape.

Other things are happening too. I’ll be starting a new job in a few weeks, so please cross your fingers and wish me luck. Also, I’m very happy to report that I’m just about finished the final draft of the book I’ve been writing for the last three years, tentatively titled Life in Dog Years. (You can read an excerpt here.) I read a chapter from it at the Greektown Reading series in February and (to my great relief) it was well received. I’ll be reading another piece at the end of March as part of the New Mercury Reading Series, and I’ll be part of an all-woman panel in April to promote the journal Sententia 4: What She Says which includes my short story, “Injured.”  As if that’s not enough, Lee and I have been checking out houses, so, who knows? Maybe a move is in the air, too.

With all this commotion, there’s not doubt spring is here. All I can do is try to keep up, try to pay attention as it happens and not miss out on the great unveiling. New life, in all its glory is happening now!


Swimming with Dogs

These excerpts come from the essay, "Swimming With Dogs," which I premiered at the Greektown Reading Series in February. Enjoy!

Swimming with Dogs

 “Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.” ~Boris Pasternak

I am a strong swimmer and I love the water, but I don’t believe this has ever helped me in any significant way. Yet I was determined that my dog would be a good swimmer, too. We could cool off in the stream together, swim in ponds and lakes. It would be great. Except, Elle was a herder, part Border Collie, and did not share my enthusiasm for the water.  She waded. She stretched out in the shallow bed of the stream and let the water rush past her. Once in a while she’d take a few steps out beyond her reach, dog paddle for a few strokes and come back to shore, wild with excitement. She’d run in circles as fast as she could, overjoyed with her success. But she wasn’t one to paddle out into the lake to fetch a ball; she didn’t swim in wide arcs and figure eights like some dogs do. She was not a yellow lab.

Is it possible to teach a love of water? I persisted. On really hot days, I’d lead Elle to the middle of the Gunpowder River and we’d walk a mile through the water—never mind that my shoes filled with pebbles, or the drag of water made it difficult to walk; never mind that Elle trotted on the shore as much as possible. There were places in the stream where we’d wade ankle deep and pick our way across rocks. And there were other, deeper places that required a different kind of navigation. I’d take a deep breath, roll my shorts up high, and wade into the pools; Elle would pause, look for a different route, then reluctantly dip one paw into the water, then the next, until she paddled her way to the other side.

It’s what we all have to do from time to time: wade through deep water whether or not we want to swim.


One hot weekend, I packed my dog, my tent and my bathing suit into the car, and drove to Assateague Island, home of the wild ponies.  My plan: to camp on the beach. ...

I don’t know why I thought Elle might like the ocean more than the streams at home. Did I expect her to transform into a water dog? She did not. She became anxious. There were too many people on the beach for her to herd and each new wave startled her. Plus there was a whole universe of new smells and critters to sniff out. She was fascinated by the sand crabs that bore quick holes in the sand after each wave. That was exciting. She was also drawn to the rabbits and rodents that rustled under the scrubby foliage on the dunes. She ran toward them, straining her neck against the leash. She was strong, a little tank, her center of gravity low to the ground, and she pulled me along on her chase. Who could blame her? The island was a new place to mark, territorially speaking, with miles and miles of beach to claim. ...

In the evening, I strolled along the beach where groups of families and friends gathered around campfires. The fires, like small flares in the night, were comforting landmarks as I walked along the dark shoreline. I let Elle off her leash and we wandered further and further away from our campsite. I had a magnificent view of the stars, the Milky Way, constellations with names I don’t know. I hardly ever get to see the sky with such uninterrupted clarity, so I was in wonder of it all: Not just the canopy of stars but the sound of the waves swashing onto the beach and the tickle of sand crabs scurrying underfoot.

I’m always struck by the enormity of the ocean, the power and strength of the water and its ability to soothe and to destroy. The ocean is life, all rhythms and tides. It reminds me of how small I really am—and also, that I’m a part of a greater whole.

Sri H.W.L. Poonja, the Hindu Guru known affectionately as Papaji, said in one of his spontaneous spoken songs:

“I am the ocean and all forms seen

are my waves dancing on me,” this is knowledge.

When waves rise the ocean loses nothing

and when waves fall the ocean gains nothing.

I am ocean, I am water, I am wave;

There are no differences, no disturbances, no one to be disturbed...”

That idea gave me comfort. On my good days and my bad days, I am water and wave. I stood still on the beach and tried to feel the gift of it, the vast silence and peace. Elle sniffed the sand at my feet, pawing at the mystery of whatever it was she smelled, smitten with her own discovery.  We were fixed that way for several minutes, content in our wonder.

Then, in my state of reverie, I reached down to pet Elle and realized that, while I’d been gazing into the heavens in awe of life, my dog had been spellbound by a pile of horse manure.

Appreciation is all a matter of perspective.


Later, I hunkered down in my two-person pup tent eating nuts and crackers and drinking warm water because I didn’t bring much else. Elle was restless. She  wouldn’t eat her kibble and trampled my sleeping bag trying to get comfortable. I guess I thought my dog would be a natural camper, given that she is an animal. What dog wouldn’t want to spend the night outdoors in a tent with her human companion? Mine, apparently. She sat guard at my feet, tense and alert, her eyes fixed on the screen flap and what was beyond.

Occasionally she grunted or woofed at noises that came from a few campsites nearby. I could hear the campers laughing and playing cards. I could discern snatches of conversation, mothers telling their children to change into their pajamas, and I could make out the sssshhh-sssshhh sound of mosquito repellant being sprayed. Elle might’ve heard those same things or heard something else, entirely. Eventually the voices diminished and the night grew quiet. I adjusted the mat under my sleeping bag and I fell asleep.

Sometime in the middle Elle started barking and woke me up. She was adamant, trying to tell my something. I sat up quickly and tried to shush her. It was dark outside but I looked through my tent flap and saw, in the moonlight, that we were surrounded by wild horses. Three large horses grazed silently within feet of us.

I put my arm around Elle and calmed her down until her barks became small gruffs, and we watched the horses for several minutes as they chomped on dune grasses and moved silently in the night. It was magical and dreamlike and I almost missed it. I would’ve slept right through it, except my dog knew that even horse shit holds beauty and mysteries which might otherwise be overlooked.


Dog Days of Summer, August 2010

Lee and I decided to duplicate our vacation from last year stay in the same cabin on Lake Otsego just outside of Cooperstown, NY. The cabin is rustic, built in the 1920's and nothing about it is up-to-date except the septic system! The cabin is comfortable with pictures of someone else's grandparents on the mantel, a rotary phone with a long yellow twisted cord (what fun to dial one again!), a thirty year old electric can opener, a collection of dull knives and mismatched glasses, and musty books from sixty years ago outlining card playing rules and Boy Scouting essentials. just right. One of the fields he's been trying to capture has been hayed since he started the canvas. What a reminder that the picture we have of life literally changes from day to day!

As I write this I'm bundled up in blankets, my feet propped up, while I sit on the screened-in porch overlooking Lake Otsego. Byrdie's head is on my lap.  It's a gray day, but the water is calmer than it's been for the last three days after torrential rains and gale force winds. The waves were really pounding the dock that is, at this point, submerged in at least six inches of water. We've been cabin bound for a few days, playing lots of rounds of Rummy 500 and sleeping with a wool blanket at night. Today, on the way into town, Lee and I spotted at least four trees that turned red overnight. They were fully green when we got here.

(Right now, I'm watching an adult woman dressed in long pants and an orange pancho and two little girls in bathing suits. The girls are brave and squealing as they wade into the water. But I can hear them shivering from here!)

Besides the unexpected cooler temps, this vacation has also surprised me with another sprained ankle. I have a matching set now. This time I stepped off the porch--that's all--and for whatever reason, my left ankle crumbled under me. That happened two days into a fourteen day vacation, so I've spend most of my time with my feet propped up. (I sprained my right ankle back in June and it has been slow to heal.)

That means Lee is on full-time dog-walking duty until further notice. Before I sprained my second ankle, we'd taken a lovely hike together with the dogs and discovered another great vacation surprise, a beautiful large field of goldenrod and purple thistle and other wild flowers. They glowed and swayed in the sun. Someone had mowed a path through the field so we followed it down to a stream. At one point I stopped to soak in the view and all around me was the steady hum of bees, hundreds of them busy at work pollinating the flowers.  Glad I got to see it.

Other than that, it has been a strange vacation of immobility for me. We're usually very active with running and swimming and exploring. This year I'm reading a lot, writing a lot, meditating a lot, eating a lot.  I like to travel because it takes me out of my normal rhythms and can give me perspective on my life. But I'm not sure what I've been learning this time, except that I can visit the same place twice and have two totally different experiences. The place doesn't make the experience good or bad, but my attitude sure does. That's not a new revelation. I guess I just need to learn it again.

Lee is currently reading a book a friend lent us, Travels, by Michael Crichton. It's a memoir of his life both in medical school (he wrote best selling novels while in Harvard Medical School) and his other travel adventures around the world.  He's an interesting man, though a little obsessive and neurotic. Like the rest of us. Near the end of the book he writes about the direct experience that travel provides, and how he sought it out to increase his self-awareness. He writes:

            "My own sense is that the acquisition of self-knowledge has been made more difficult by the modern world. More and more human beings live in vast urban environments, surrounded by other human beings and the creations of human beings. The natural world, the traditional source of self-awareness, is increasingly absent.

            "Furthermore, within the last century we have come to live increasingly in a compelling world defined by electronic media. These media have evolved a pace that is utterly alien to our true natures. It is bewildering to live in a world of ten-second spots, each one urging us to buy something, to do something, or to think something. Human beings in the past were not so assaulted.

            "And I think that this constant assault has made us pliable in a certain unhealthy way. Cut off from direct experience, cut off from our own feelings and sometimes our own sensations, we are only too ready to adopt a viewpoint or perspective that is handed to us, and is not our own."  

He wrote that in 1988 before the internet, cell phones, texting, Facebook or Twitter--before the world could know about a version of your life in seconds. I am amazed at the pace of life now and how I can barely keep up even when I can walk.

So maybe it's not so bad to have two sprained ankles and be cooped up in a cabin where there is no internet, the TV is kept off, and the lake is wide open and wild. We've been watching the storms blow across the water. I've been trying to listen to the weather, to the water, to the message of aching ankles and the discomfort of not having packed enough warm clothes. Max and Byrdie, of course, are undeterred. Byrdie is a dog of tireless joy who wags her tail often. She greets everything with the same presence and joy. I can learn a lot from her!


Conserving Energy: One Thing At A Time, June 2010

I read something by a Buddhist monk once that expressed the virtue of doing one thing at a time. Well, that might be well and good for slow moving monks, I thought, but the notion of 'one thing at a time' wasn't taking into consideration my knack--my special talent--for multi-tasking. It seemed unrealistic and highly unproductive to do one thing at a time.  

The older I get and less energy I have to expend on unwanted distractions, the more I WANT to do just one thing at a time. At the same time, I have a competing desire-- culturally induced-- to do everything. It's been a small heartbreak of mine to realize that I can't. So where do I want to point my energy? How much energy do I want to expend?  

Interesting what you notice at a diminished speed.  I found a single butterfly wing on the trail the other day. I picked it up and was struck by the structure of the wing, the sturdy ribs and precise architecture that held the thin, light canvas of the wing together. That small, delicate wing with microscopic colored scales was resilient, able to carry the butterfly thousands of miles.

Just seeing the ripped wing reminded me of the story, "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury, in which a hunter who goes back in time to hunt dinosaurs, steps off the trail in a panic and crushes a butterfly. In the story, this small damage changes the trajectory of the future.  

Now it feels as if we've stepped WAY far off the path with the oil spill, that gaping wound in the Gulf of Mexico.  "Spill," by the way, is too dainty a word. The oil which is coating everything is actually a mirror of modern life. Just looking at the objects on my desk--the paper, pens, hand lotion, glasses, tea--I can't find one thing that has not been touched by the petroleum needed to manufacture or transport it, not to mention the energy needed to make my computer function and my lights stay on while I write this.

Unfortunately, these giant oil disasters happen in other places in the world, too, though it's inconvenient to think about. In Nigeria, according to the New York Times, an average of 11 million tons of oil (the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez spill a year for the last 50 years--no, that's not a typo) has had the effect of completely coating and killing the environment and the livelihood of the people who live there. This can't be right, can it?

I don't feel like an overly consumptive person, and yet, because I drive my car and live my life with heat and air conditioning, computers, plastic around my food in the refrigerator, I feel like a contributor to the problem. If we are all connected to each other and to the environment, didn't I also have a hand in this? No, I didn't cause the explosion, but my small needs were bound together with millions, billions of other people's small needs which spurred the oil company to dig in deeper and deeper water. Meanwhile the earth is hemorrhaging oil and it's no wonder this hurts my soul.

The question is, what can I, in my little life, do? We recycle. We have a water barrel to catch the rain and a composter where we throw our stems and rinds and cobs and eggshells to cut down on the amount of trash we produce. We turn off the lights when we're not in the room. We turn down our heat in the winter to 65 degrees and wear heavy sweaters; we use a wood stove to heat most of the house. In the summer, we only use the AC on the hottest days. We pick up our dog poop (most of the time.) I pick up other people's trash on the trail. We try to condense and consolidate the number of trips we take in the car. I've started walking more.  We support local agriculture and get most our vegetables from a CSA or grow it ourselves.  It's comfortable and natural. I'm sure there's more we can do. 

But what we can't do from home is clean up the oil in the gulf. One British critic, who is afraid-rightly so--of his own retirement pension disappearing in the steady decline of BP stock said, "Since Americans use so much oil, they should clean it up." I thought, "He's right."  Of course, I don't know the first thing about cleaning up an oil spill. Seems like the people who are supposed to know don't actually know either.

I'm frustrated and angry because I feel so powerless being at the mercy of a big corporation and the government. I know BP is charged with the task of cleaning up and the government swears that it will get done, but quite truthfully, I do not trust them to do it well.  I don't trust them to care about it as much as I do. This kind of disaster provides a great opportunity to wake up and change. Instead, there's a lot of posturing, dickering and finger-pointing going on. This very paragraph is my own finger pointing. 

I wish there was a way for ordinary Americans to go the gulf and clean up some of the mess, as people did after Katrina. Volunteers could be given the equipment and instruction to clean the shorelines and rocks and plants and habitats. The well-trained among us could rescue wildlife. I'd do it. I bet many other people would too. 

So what to believe in? Albert Einstein said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." On April 19th I had a dream in which my grandfather (who's no longer living) and I were looking out the window of a cabin at a giant orange-gray-black cloud that was taking over the whole sky and tumbling toward us like lava in the sky. It was very apocalyptic. There was nowhere to run to, so we stretched out on the floor and looked down hoping it would pass. I peeked up occasionally to see how close the firestorm was getting. We turned on the TV to see what the news said about it, but there were only pictures of the giant eruption coming toward us. It seemed inevitable that we were going to die. Then we looked up and it was gone, had somehow passed over us. But we didn't feel safe because we assumed we were somehow in the eye of the storm and more was to come. It all felt so real and terrifying. It haunted me and I wrote down my dream that morning. 

Turns out it was real. When I saw pictures of the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20th, I recognized the fiery clouds from my dream. Intuition is a powerful thing. I believe we're being given answers all the time to questions we don't understand. The best way to access that inner knowing is to slow down. Listen. Conserve energy by doing one thing at a time.