– This time two years ago I was curled in a chair with my laptop watching an angry sea in San Simeon. I planned to return this month, though according to the forecast the ocean would be placid and the skies blue. But a year of too much travel and a bout of post-Christmas illness made us decide to stay home, and instead I cooked a Flemish beef and Chimay stew by the last lights of a Christmas tree that hasn’t taken up much water, hasn’t dropped many needles, and has yet to brown at the tips though we’ve had it since the second week in December.
– The tree has had a certain talismanic significance for me, as 2018 was a year I sometimes felt so battered that I thought I wasn’t going to make it through without hiding under a comforter until 2019 rolled around. From a January that began with the search for a skilled nursing facility for my mother to a February that ended in an agonizing and angry move, from a long March hospital stay to hospice and her death in June, I lost count of the number of times I thought I can’t do this! But inevitably I made another phone call, drove another mile, filled out another spreadsheet, sat by another bedside.
– I am writing to Celtic music on the Sonos accompanied by the traumatizing rhythm of the roof being ripped off overhead. This is doubly discouraging because we just had it replaced two years ago. But when Tesla came out to assess our property for solar, they decreed the roof pitch too shallow for shingles and solar panels to coexist without leaks, so in comes a rolled composite roof instead.
– The panels and two Powerwalls should be installed by mid-January, the final phase of our ongoing strategy for dealing with Atascadero’s punishing summers. In theory the Powerwalls will grant enough battery capacity to keep our air conditioner (and everything else) running during blackouts, which have been occurring with dismaying frequency. And the panels will definitely cheapen the cost of keeping the house cool, as well as giving us more flexibility in charging the Model S at home instead of a Supercharger.
– Our neighbor, a retired electrician, helpfully informed me that he wouldn’t have “gone with Tesla” for solar because he doesn’t think they’re “quite there yet.” But if they’re good enough for a virtual power plant in Australia, for Puerto Rico after a hurricane, for PG&E’s Moss Landing substation, and for approximately 240 households within a few miles of us, I’m willing to take that risk.
– 2018 was the year that I achieved Marriott silver reward status by March, gold status by June. I sincerely hope that never happens again, as when traveling for pleasure instead of family business I tend to gravitate toward smaller and more eccentric lodgings. Still, I am grateful to the hotel chain for its consistency, its full kitchen, its easy access to Netflix. And to the Arcadia site for being across the street from Maki and Sushi, whose nourishing chirashi bowls probably staved off more than one fatigue-fueled illness.
– The Celtic music is courtesy of Hearts of Space, which began as a late night radio show in the 1970s when New Age and ambient electronic music were entering the public consciousness and has managed to adapt with each disruptive change in transmission technology. It got me through many a sleepless night when I was a college student in L.A., and it seemed serendipitous to stumble across it as a Sonos service towards the end of this past, difficult year.
– I’m now writing to the rock group Starset – who seem to specialize in songs that are simultaneously about love and astronomy and who perhaps I enjoy more than they deserve – because the roofers have started playing loud Spanish music which, while not particularly offensive, isn’t the music I want to be listening to.
– My Spanish studies have advanced far enough that there are a number of things I could communicate – more or less correctly – to the roofers. ¡Hace mucho frío esta mañana! Hay un baño disponible en aquel edificio. ¿Quiere usted usar esta carretilla para la basura? Lo siento, pero la música suya es muy alta. But as always I shy away from the encounter. Will I look pretentious? Will they talk so fast that I won’t understand them? Better to retreat to my Kindle and go back to reading Harry Potter y la piedra filósofal, which I have sworn to finish this year.
– The politics of 2018 did little to soothe my stress levels. I’m tired of stridency, tired of hyperbole, tired of lies. How did statements that we would consider utterly unacceptable in our children become the lingua franca of civic discourse? At some point for the sake of my sanity I started looking away, scrolling past news articles beginning with “The President tweeted…” or “response to the President’s tweet was…” as fast as my mouse would allow. I want to know what’s happening, not what belligerent nonsense people are spewing.
– As for what is happening, I often don’t know how to parse it. A case in point: the tiny house phenomenon. A few have cropped up in my area, and local governments are increasingly discussing their benefits and shortcomings. Proponents at the municipal level tout them as solutions to student housing shortages, to homelessness, to caring for the elderly. Individuals who want to build and live in them cite simplification and rejection of consumerism. I can appreciate the latter. But at the same time expensive, expansive developments continue their march across desirable land, and I can’t shake the uneasy feeling that a new nobility is consigning a new class of serfs to circumscribed opportunities. Saying, “Yes, simplicity is great for you!” while kitting out their yachts.
– Another case in point: the phenomena known as coal-rolling and, more recently, ICE-ing. Coal-rolling is not particularly new – it was originally a by-product of engine modifications made for county fair diesel truck-pull contests – but street drivers deliberately spewing soot onto EV drivers and pedestrians is a recent, malicious spin. (And yes, it has happened to my husband in his Tesla, so I’m not merely repeating unsubstantiated third-party “liberal hype”). The more recent ICE-ing (an acronym for internal combustion engine) involves deliberately blocking access to Superchargers and in some cases taunting EV drivers, with large pickups again the usual offenders. On the one hand I find this sort of hostility mystifying. Why does anyone care what someone else drives? But then I remember opposition to gay marriage, and transgender bathroom use, and abortion rights – all about demanding that others conform to a perceived “norm” – and a tight knot of anger supplants the perplexity.
– And then there is the recent discussion of exorcism in the usually progressive Atlantic, which at the end of a largely uncritical article concluded, “If someone lapses into an alternate identity that announces itself as a demon bent on wresting away that person’s soul, how can anyone prove otherwise?”I stared at that statement, aghast. Though there were anecdotal conversations with psychologists describing “phenomena they couldn’t explain,” there was not a whisper of a study, a control group, any effort at a critical analysis – anything that qualified as systematic research that could have examined evidence in an attempt at proof or disproof.
– I feel as if we’re teetering on the edge of a Dark Age, where scientific and social progress are swallowed by credulity (I’m looking at you too, anti-vaxxers) and a sense of entitlement that leaves little room for fairness. Where for too many people magical thinking is preferable to facing the reality of a dwindling resource that has been at the centerpiece of industry since industry arose, and whose toxic effects are threatening to ruin the environment we live in. Where this magical thinking, if not arrested, will create a feedback loop that makes it impossible to correct our course, and then further tightens the grip of superstition until humanity has doomed itself to a smaller, meaner life. At best. This is not the retirement I envisioned.
– The roofers have gone for the day, so Hearts of Space Celtic music returns. My anxious dog has retreated to her bed for the evening, blissfully unaware that they’ll be back tomorrow to finish the job. But hopefully their presence will be neither as noisy nor as long.
– Circumstances made exercise an erratic activity in 2018, though in the second half of the year I began taking Guinness for longer walks in an effort to quell her aforementioned burgeoning anxiety. It has seemed to help a bit, and has introduced me to the heretofore unexplored world of audiobooks. I still prefer reading when I’m sitting, but there is a unique and comforting charm to a voice in one’s ear, and it certainly makes solitary walks more entertaining.
– I was charmed by the BBC Radio dramatization of seven Terry Pratchett novels, and enlightened by Trevor Noah’s self-narrated Born a Crime. Karl Malantes’ Matterhorn was a shattering look at the Vietnam War, expertly and surprisingly narrated by Bronson Pinchot, formerly best known for his role as the silly and endearing Balki in the 1980s sitcom Perfect Strangers. The 10th anniversary edition of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has carried me into the new year, and though I’ve read it before (more than once) the full cast production brings a new savor.
– I enjoy Goodreads for the opportunity to see what friends are reading, but it has slowly begun to dawn on me that it is still a marketing device. I used to re-read books that I particularly enjoyed with a certain amount of regularity, but driven by things like the The Reading Challenge! have become perhaps a little too obsessive about always finding something new – something to buy. If I have a resolution for 2019, it might be to return to Lord of the Rings, Annie Dillard’s essays, Virginia Woolf’s diaries.
– If there is one thing I learned last year, it is that the business of death lingers long after the ashes of the body have been scattered out at sea. Closing my mother’s personal account took five months and a lawyer. Closing the family trust account took a hundred mile drive to the nearest Citi branch. Her skilled nursing facility owes me both insurance money and the prepayment for her last month in residence, and though United HealthCare has gotten personally involved I still haven’t seen a check.
– More predictably perhaps, memories of life linger as well. A birthday uncelebrated. A trip for Thanksgiving unmade. Perusing the supermarket holiday aisle for a gift card enclosure I was confronted with an array of For my Daughter, at Christmas messages and realized with a queasy pang that I will never be a daughter again.
– I arrested a headlong rush into the arms of demon Nostalgia by reading about Christmas 2017, where I had transcribed this interlude:
Mother asked for her call button again. When I asked why – because in all honesty she typically wants it for things she doesn’t need – she said she wanted the nurse, Olivia, to give her pain medication.
“Are you in pain?” I asked
Ignoring my question, she replied, “I’m supposed to get it at lunch.”
“Well, she did bring pills.”
“Not the right pill.”
“Are you sure? It looked to me – ”
‘I didn’t get it!” Her voice edged dangerously close to a shriek.
“How many pills are you supposed to have at lunch?”
“Well, you get stomach medication.”
“Yes, and a pain pill.”
“But that’s two.”
And on, and on, until Skip finally broke in and changed the subject so I would break out of the loop of despair.
Five minutes later she asked for the pull cord again and I gave up and handed it to her. When Olivia came, she told Mother that she had taken the pill. After she left, Mother gave me a triumphant look and said, “I guess that’s why I’m not in pain then.”
– These are the moments that I’m glad I keep a journal. Remembering good times is a good thing. Making false, weepy idols of them is not.
– An acquaintance’s recent post on Facebook asked people to list three things last year that had given them joy. She had a phenomenal year, which it was a pleasure to watch from afar. For myself, on the other hand, as 2019 begins I realize that the bar for 2018 was set to, “If something actively awful isn’t happening, then it’s good!” I couldn’t think of three things that gave me “great pleasure and delight,” only things that gave me surcease from stress and sorrow. Sometimes the heart isn’t ready for joy, just for peace and stillness. And for myself in 2018, that was good enough.