Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mean Girl

So far this month, two people are mad at me -- wait, maybe three. Perhaps even you?

Surprisingly, I'm okay with that. In my advancing age I've decided to switch from a lifetime of Nice Girl to an occasional Mean Girl.

Oh, you won't find me tripping the feeble, or hurling insults at strangers, just that I may do something that makes you mad -- like acting haughty or telling you no -- and, I can live with that.

This recent decision is so liberating! It all began in discussions with several acquaintances and I was not able to satisfy either with my No, can't do response.

While my repeated No eventually terminated the dialogues, it didn't stop my brain from simmering. Because of my decades of being nice, polite, and diffident, I couldn't leave the issues as settled. Instead, I obsessed about my dissenting and anticipated a night of tossing.

It was then the refreshing idea slipped in among my turbulent thoughts:  It's okay for someone to not like me, or to be mad at me; I will survive.

And with that light bulb moment, I felt unburdened, and knew I could then sleep peacefully.

Of course, this liberating notion required a bit of research: When did my intent of being Nice Girl begin? So while visions of avengers skipped on by without pausing, calendar years flipped backwards until I reached childhood.

I see pre-teen me posing in front of a three-way mirror in a department store circa 1950. Mother is seated on a cushion surveying the outfit I am sampling. "You look fine," she says, responding to my dour expression.

I dearly love this beautiful woman who is scrutinizing my fashion show. With her upswept hairdo, blue eyes, Max Factor red lipstick, and beauty queen shape, she resembles a film star. She is adorned with costume jewelry, a sweater I wish had a higher neckline, a slim skirt, and high heels she insists on despite the resulting bunions.

The scene in this department store is familiar: My mother selects my clothes. As usual, I button my lip about my hatred of her choices because I believe my tie to her so fragile that I dare not oppose. "If you want me to get it," I say about each unappealing ensemble, "let's do it."

So Nice Daughter continued until Mother died. She left this earth without ever learning of my loathing of the bulky winter storm coat, the school shoes with thick heels, or the faux cashmere sweaters that made my skin itch. I can live with that; she didn't deserve to ever meet Mean Girl.

Nice Girl was also Nice Student; first to raise her hand, turn in her perfect penmanship paper, and volunteer to erase the black board. That's why the unpleasant time in the assembly hall still reproduces darkly whenever I try to recall my eight years at Lafayette Elementary.

"I can't see the stage," I said to my chum on my left as I tapped the stiff cotton of her blouse. "Can I try on your glasses?"

After Sandy handed them to me and I placed them atop my nose and ears, I let out, "Wow, I can even see the buckles on their shoes."

"Elaine, stop talking or you'll have to leave the assembly," said Miss Lowe, her finger touching her lips for emphasis.

This had never happened to Nice Girl! I removed my friend's glasses, handed them to her, and used my small arm to wipe tears. I was mortified. In my childish mind, that incident dumped me into the group of bad kids, those who would be sent to the principal's office.

I had made the teacher I adored mad at me, and that incident must've seeped into my brain and stuck there as if it were chewed gum on the bottom of an unlucky shoe.

History reveals that my desire to prevent anyone's displeasure went beyond those I care about. I see now that it protected everyone from Mean Girl, like an insurance policy that promises full coverage even in the event of flood or earthquake.

As I look back on these petty examples of how important it was for me to be Nice, I wonder how off base I had been. Perhaps Mother would've taken my view, considered it, and said, "Oh, I never realized that. Of course, you can choose what you like."

And maybe Miss Lowe, if she had known how her simple shushing had devastated me and left a lifelong stain, would've pulled me aside and said something like, "I know this was not your usual behavior. You're still my star pupil."

No matter. You've been warned: Watch out for Mean Girl.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Abandonment Issues

The super thick exercise mat won't arrive until tomorrow. But I'm hyped up to begin, so I improvise. Two curly bathroom rugs tease. I place one on top of the other and plop them on the hallway floor.

From my filing cabinet -- a cardboard box stored in a closet -- I retrieve a folder labeled, Medical Soloway. Did I place my physical therapy exercises here, or could I have tossed them in my recent move?

Found! Now, I have no excuse to ignore the suggestion from my internist that began with her question: "Does the pain start in the butt and radiate to your leg?"

"Exactly," I had said during a consultation the previous day.  Was she clairvoyant, I wondered, or had a glance at my online chart revealed this was a recurring symptom?

"I've booked an appointment late in September for an epidural injection," I said. "Those shots helped in the past."

I went on, "The pain started after walking at least a mile." But instead of congratulating me for my daily treks as I had hoped, she announced, "sciatica."

Then she turned from the computer screen and said, "Actually, physical therapy may be better for sciatica than undergoing the needle."

As she was reaching for a prescription pad, I confessed, "Um, I did six weeks of PT in Los Angeles."

Her face brightened, "Did it help?"

"While I was doing it," I said.

"Well, perhaps you should try again before the epidural. Let the surgeon know the results and maybe you can avoid the shot."

That was the conversation that had me flat on my back, with stomach muscles pulled tight, and counting to 10 with each stretch. After the last maneuver, compressing on the two rugs, I scolded myself for abandoning these beneficial exercises.

If they were indeed easing the pain encountered with long walks, why did I shove the instructions deep into the file cabinet and ditch a padded mat in the L.A. apartment I recently left? I wondered: why are good intentions so easily dumped?

Instead of remaining on the duo mat to ponder the question, I retreated to my bed, the better to meditate on my latest desertion. With my eyes closed and the sliding door open to a morning breeze and the sounds of early traffic, I retraced other worthwhile plans I had promised to pursue, but instead paused.

Let's see, there were courses on speaking Spanish beyond the present tense, lessons on swimming while breathing on either side, private piano lessons so I could play Rogers and Hart, and group singing classes to accompany myself.

The most enjoyable part of all of these activities -- including my recent physical therapy -- was the pre-research and purchases. There might be new workbooks, wardrobes, equipment, and other necessities.

And once an instructor and location were determined, came the exquisite next step of entering the details on electronic and paper calendars. Ever the optimist, each activity would be "a recurring event," which I would optimistically stretch out for an entire semester.

Oh stop it. I know you're imagining I flunked at all of those endeavors, threw out the workbooks, tossed the goggles, sold the piano, and cursed the composers. Well, no, nothing so abrupt or dramatic. Each one slowly slipped away, like a full moon that disappears from the sky.

If friends or family inquired as to the status of any pursuit, I'd say, "I just got too busy with work and couldn't fit it in any more." (Substitute "lazy," "bored," or "discouraged" and you'd be closer to the truth.)

Fortunately, I barely remember the tails of my attempts, but I easily recall the beginnings. So, after a year's time, when a fresh catalog appears in my mailbox, or when a new apartment offers both an indoor and outdoor pool, or when a promotional flyer is pasted on a nearby bulletin board, I feel the familiar lures of  "Why Not?"

Of course, doing daily physical therapy exercises doesn't exactly match the pleasures I would win if I were to hablo espaƱol, do laps, tinkle the ivories, or croon. On the other hand, if I performed them every morning without fail, it's possible I could walk a mile without returning home for an Advil, heating pad, or icepack. And perhaps I could cancel the epidural.

And, if I were able to repair my body and walk or trot without stabs, perhaps I could one day run a marathon. Hold on; let me look into that.