December 15, 2009

My Christmas Letter

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to any cyber friends I may still have left after such a long absence from Bloggers. I wish I hadn't neglected my blog for so long but I've been busy with life this past summer and fall, and this winter with posting on a message boards where I enjoy debating politics and other controversies. Anyway, below is the Christmas letter that went out with our cards this year.....

Writing Christmas letters, for me, is like going to the dentist. You know it’s a good thing to do---well, some etiquette experts claim they are tacky but who listens to them outside of Washington D.C. and New York City---but the process is often tedious.

Speaking of dentists, going through our appointment book in preparation for writing this letter, I discovered that between the two of us Don and I went ten times this year! A bummer statistic when you factor in that we lost our dental coverage due to GM’s bankruptcy. But the really scary statistic is that we’d also been to other doctors, hospitals and therapy appointments a combined grand total of sixty times in 2009. And that doesn’t include the months of January and February. For some reason I can’t fathom, I tore those months out of our appointment book. Senior moment? Boring months? Secret life I didn’t want anyone to find out about should I die suddenly? I don’t know but I’ll probably spend the rest of December trying to remember.

To be fair to all of you younger people reading this letter and shuddering that you, too, might be spending your retirement years in the waiting rooms of health care providers, let me explain that my knee replacement took up forty of those sixty appointments. Hint: If you have surgery, don’t pick up an infection in the process. For a while I was taking so many antibiotics and steroids that every night I’d turn off the light while standing in front of a mirror to see if I glowed in the dark yet. It never happened but it was easier to worry about that than to fret about the possibility losing my leg. Okay, so I’m being a drama queen. It wasn’t that bad of an infection, but in my defense when a doctor mentions taking your lower leg off as a worst case scenario the other scenarios fall on deaf ears. I’m fine now, by the way, and pain-free for the first time in years.

Don is doing well, but he does have a new medical issue added to his list things he’d rather not have to dink around with---sleep apnea. But he couldn’t have just the ordinary kind. The sleep specialist says his type affects only three percent of those with apnea and it’s caused by a problem in his brain. He’s only had his two machines---one being oxygen---a couple of weeks but already I can tell he’s getting a better quality of sleep. I need to find him a new hobby, though, because I’m not used to having him up so early in the morning spoiling my treasured Hour of Total Quiet and Solitude.

Speaking of quiet and solitude busters the joy of our lives, Levi the schnauzer, is doing well. He’ll be two in January and is trained to take Don’s socks off at night and not trained to stay out of my mother-in-law tongue which he uproots weekly. I’ve seen these plants listed on the web as both toxic and non-toxic to pets. Thankfully, we seem to have the latter rather than the former variety. But if anyone has any Cesar Millan type tips for breaking Levi’s Sansevieria fetish please call before my Dust Buster dies.

In addition to the Mickey Mouse stuff mentioned above, 2009 has been a hoe-hum year. Or to be more honest, we’ve had better years----the years when we didn’t have to worry so much about issues beyond our control like the country’s and GM’s ability to come back to life and prosperity again. (Don might like being a greeter at K-Mart, should he lose his pension and have to go back to work, but I’d look lousy in their red vests.) Hopefully, the New Year will bring renewed hope and happiness to all of us. In the meantime, have a great holiday season!


June 26, 2009

Catching the Caregiver Back Pain Train

I'm just returning from a two week pity party. You know the kind where you don't think you can handle one more metaphorical---or real, for that matter---hangnail. Giving myself a sharp "get over yourself, everyone has problems" usually keeps pity parties off my property---I'm generally an upbeat kind of person---but not this time. This time, four out-of-place vertebrae were playing sadistic games with the nerves running down my leg and they threw open the front door inviting the pity party pack to camp out in the living room. Woo is me! The cry fest started and the tears were only interrupted with occasional outbursts of succulent statements like: "I can't take care of us like this," "Oh, crap!" and "where is a nursing home when you need one?" I even cursed Don and myself for not having the foresight to have a few kids that we could guilt trip into coming over to help their old folks out in our time of need.

The only thing I was able to accomplish these past two weeks is to drive myself five times to the nearest chiropractor, shove simple foods like cereal and TV dinners towards Don, and let the dog outside almost as often as he needed to go. (And wouldn't you know it, my back problem started the day after we had the carpets professionally cleaned.) Heck, I was in such bad shape that I couldn't even kill an ant that was scouting his way across the bedroom in search of a cozy little place to relocate his colony. All I could do is hope he'd scouted his way half way up a wall where I could assassinate him without bending over. He was a smart little bugger. He never did get within my kill zone, but the gods of small favors did send Levi, our curious wonder puppy, to play the poor ant to death.

Thankfully, the pain is less frequent now and not as intense and instead of longing for that nursing home where all our needs could be met I dream of assisted living where someone comes in do the laundry, see that we eat and are not lying in bed bemoaning the fact that the bathroom is twelve HUGE steps away. I'm making progress. Next week I hope to be confident, again, that I can manage our lives with the decorum of a happy, in-charge woman who is not ready to throw in the proverbial towel.

Caregivers and back pain go together like peanut butter and jelly. Or so I've been told. I don't know why it took me so long to admit that pushing nearly 300 pounds of man and metal chair around has taken its toll on my already aging and not so beautiful body. So next week in addition to playing catch-up for the time lost to the pity party and pain I start physical therapy to learn how to minimize lower back strain. In the meantime I'm armed with my new best friends---the 48 inch body pillow and the handy-Danny PosturePro lumbar support. The first time I climbed on that pillow, face down with all four limbs hanging off, I audibly sighed and thought there really is a light at the end of my caregiver, woe-is-me tunnel and its not a train coming full speed ahead. ©

April 12, 2009

I'm Back!

Update: I haven't croaked and neither has Don. We haven't so much as had a cold to use as an excuse for not updating my blog. But since the last time I wrote an entry I have started holding auctions on e-Bay---ten a week---which has totally messed up our house. We've got the 'photo booth' area, the 'packing area' and of course the what-the-hell-did-we-buy-that-for?' area. Our 'Salvation Army' area is growing. Ever so slowly. Okay, I confess it's hard for me to give things away.

Before Don's stroke we had just nicely gotten started selling stuff on e-Bay. We had booths in several antique malls and we were vendors a 3-4 summer swap meets each summer. E-Bay was supposed to be part of the retirement plan, along with the booths and vending. When we downsized after the stroke, I kept all the small, "mailable" stuff but the stroke and all that involves got in the way of the fulfilling Plan B. So here we are almost nine years later and the reality set it i.e. I have to get rid of this stuff!

Life does go and we do have something else new in our lives. We had a little patio built at the front of our house. It will be great for Don to have a place sit and watch the neighborhood come alive on those hot summer nights when everyone is out walking, jogging and dog walking. It's small but the impact on Don's life will be big.

Sorry I worried a few of my readers with my absence on the web. I'll try not to let so much time go between updates.

February 27, 2009

Are You Reliant?

If you want to feel old really fast get a new digital camera. At least the one I just got is making me feel that way. It came with not one but TWO user guides and some of the pages have such small print that I have to use a magnifying glass just to read them. Worse than that, the camera has a mode dial with tiny icons on it and without my handy-dandy magnifying glass I'd never know those little suckers are suppose to represent things like: portraits, night shots, indoors, landscapes, movies and a bunch of letters I've yet to decipher. It even has an icon for aquariums. Aquariums! Who needs that? What I want to see is an icon for starting my coffeemaker in the mornings.

My very first camera was a Kodak Brownie box camera that I got for Christmas when I was a kid. Brownies have very few moving parts---a shutter, a button and a spool to thread a roll of black and white film inside the glorified cardboard box. I still have that camera. And believe it or not, I've only had two other cameras in between that Brownie and my new Canon. One of those cameras was sold off last summer on eBay as an antique. That sale alone established me as having entered the realm of old-dom, but I already had my suspicions. Being old is like living in a parallel universe. You can function normally in the world but in the back of your mind you know that unlike most of the other humans moving about, you have no future. You only have today unless, of course, you like dwelling in the past.

Having just bought a camera that should come with a master's degree if you learn how to use all its functions, does it sound like I dwell in the past? No, but I'm not so sure Don, my husband, doesn't live back there. The other day we had one of those infamous 'conversations' that all spouses of aphasia and apraxia patients would label as what-the-hell-difference-does-it-make? He managed to get out the words 'employment,' 'Mrs.,' and 'house' plus the phrase 'long-long ago.' Two hours later of off and on again games of Twenty-One Questions I finally figured out Don was trying to say that a guy he had worked with and his wife came over to visit him fifteen years ago. He, of course, was thrilled that I cracked his coded speech but I was working hard to keep my weary brain together long enough not to blurt out, "What the hell difference does it make that you had company fifteen years ago?"

Indeed, what the hell difference DOES it matter what happened in the past? We can't go back there. Or can we? We can still day-dream about what was once upon a time and is no more. We can still buy 120 film to re-spool in Brownie box cameras. We can still capture life in black and white, but what fun would that be while everyone else is sending vivid color photographs around the world as fast as a mouse click? Dwelling on the past doesn't make us young again. It just makes us irrelevant.

I have a theory about what is missing the most in the lives of old people---goals. So I'm vowing to live long enough to learn all the functions on that new camera and Don has agreed to live long enough to fill all the slots in his new penny collectors album that goes up to the year 2020. Setting goals is a good thing. They make you do off the wall stuff like buy aquariums just so you can learn to take pictures of fish and to get pennies back in change to check.

Jean Riva 2009 ©


January 11, 2009

Hear Me Roar!

NOTE to long time readers: Entries between December 22nd down to January 11th were moved here from an old blog I wanted to close. If something seems familiar, that's why.

I went swimming at the YMCA this morning. Jeez, I hope no one calls Social Services and the SPCA. I left Don and the dog alone in the house for an hour and a half while I did deep water aerobics. They were sleeping when I left and a delicious bowl of Kellogg’s was waiting on the kitchen counter for which ever one of them got to it first. This little wifey-poo is through mollycoddling the men in her life. Freedom is sweet.

I swam around with all the other senior citizens and only felt one tiny twinge of guilt over poor, dear Don asleep in his bed. It happened when I saw the lift the Y uses to get people who can’t walk down into the pool. But then I remembered that this was ‘Jean's Time' and guilt has no place taking up space in my head. I am woman. I need to roar! I also need to purr even if I have to scratch my own stomach to feel satisfied enough with life to find something to purr about. Yup, I’ve paid my caregiver dues. Years of putting Don’s stroke related needs first has earned me two sessions a week in the pool where I don’t have think and do “stroke” 24/7. Life is good.

When I got home from the Y, someone had eaten the cereal but neither one of my guys was awake to fessing up to who did it. Nap time together in the Lazy Boy aways comes after breakfast. It doesn’t really matter. I already know that one of them started out with the bowl and the other one ended up with it on the floor. Don’t tell Miss. Manners! I doubt she’d approve of dogs who try to lick the patterns off the china. She’s probably from the school of dogs-are-just-dogs. But the earth doesn’t belong to man alone. We share it with a diversity of God-created creatures. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Besides, we have a good dishwasher with a high-heat cycle.

Tonight we’re going to the old people’s club for grill night. Don will be trolling for friends while I stand at attention ready to slap him down if he starts yodeling his favorite one word song. Thankfully, most people at the club are hard of hearing and won’t know if he’s belting out the opening stanza of the ‘Operetta of the F-word in C Minor’ or if he’s making a statement about someone who is smoking at the next table. Yup, it’s still his favorite operetta to perform at the top of his lungs.

After we leave the club we’ll stop at the pet store to pick up some Mother Hubbard treats. Don’t tell Cooper. He’ll be mad enough that we didn’t take him to grill night and shopping at the pet center. Picking out his own merchandise is one of his favorite things to do. Lord, will I ever get the guilt bug-a-boo out of my head? It came with the packet they hand new caregivers when their spouses are about to leave rehab.

Also in the packet I received were several pamphlets from the American Stroke Association. The one on aphasia says: “Unfortunately, there is no general rule about how much improvement to expect. Some stroke survivors who are very disabled in the first few days make a full (or almost full) recovery in a few months. Others are left with serious and permanent language problems. Caring for a person with aphasia can be especially challenging.” No dog do-do, LeRoy! Another pamphlet says: “Being a primary caregiver may change your role in your family. How others in the family see you, what they expect from you, and your responsibilities and freedoms all may change.” Thank goodness, someone had the forethought to point out the obvious.

Okay, I’m through roaring. I’m through pandering for tea and sympathy from my internet friends. I’m through wondering why Don and the dog are in the living room sharing a bowl of Pup Corn---yes, PUP not pop corn. I pitched a fit. I really did, but they both like those little cheese-flavored puppies.

Jean Riva ©


January 9, 2009


My dad had a lot of little sayings. One of them was this: "With true friends, you can lay your billfold and your wife down side by side and a good friend won’t touch either one of them." It always got a big laugh when he said it, but he was also dead serious.

My dad had the same best friend for over seventy years. Growing up, our families spent a lot of time together, and in their retirement years Dad and Harold went out for breakfast together almost every day. In terms of their characters, their temperaments and values, they were as different as day and night. Harold was lazy, his house was falling apart around him, and his favorite actives all involved having a beer in his hand. My dad didn’t drink often and there wasn’t anything he couldn’t build or fix. Dad was always busy and often he had a gaggle of little kids following him around. Harold treated his wife like a slave and wasn’t much of a father. My dad was a warm and affectionate father and husband who was always my best cheerleader. Harold was not the kind of person I would have wanted for a father or husband, but he sure did add a lot of laughter in our lives. He was a colorful character, unique in every way…and my dad loved that guy through out most of his life.

One time I interviewed my dad for a family history book I was writing and I asked him how he was able to maintain so many warm friendships for so many years. His answer went something like this: “If you want perfect friends, you’re never going to have any friends. If you are always trying to change your friend’s way of thinking or acting, you aren’t going to have any friends. If you want your friends to all be just like you, you aren’t going to have any friends. Friendships are about respect for each other’s uniqueness. Friendships are about sharing good times.”

My best friend from kindergarten thought my second year of college is still in my life. We live far apart now so we only get to see each other often. We were like two peas in a pod for seventeen years, and then our lives took different directions. She’s a typical Washington D.C. wife; if you’ve ever seen the movie Birdcage, my girlfriend has a lot in common with the senator’s wife. Me? Let’s just say that ‘prime and proper’ and throwing lots of dinner parties is not my style. She’s got five complete sets of good china. I’m using 1930s Buffalo diner ware that I picked up one piece at a time at flea markets. But we still maintain our friendship because we do respect each other’s path to happiness and we can still make each laugh after all these years.

Tonight we went out for dinner with four friends who’ve been in Don’s life since their teenage years and in mine for the past 35 years. One couple lives out of state now, but whenever we’re able to get together, we can all pick up right where we left off. Tonight was one of those rare times filled with warmth and laughter. The kind of night you wish didn’t have to come to an end. None of us are alike in personalities. Our politics and life styles are all different, but as I sat there I realized that one of the reasons why we all get along so well is because we all have respect for each other’s uniqueness. And as far as billfolds and mates go, any one of us could lay ours down on a bed and the others wouldn’t touch them.

Dad, wherever you can still make me smile.

Jean Riva©

painting by Adriaen Brouwer


Tale of Two Bad Boys and a Song

I call her lollypop, lollypop, lollypop, oh lolly-lolly-lolly
Lollypop, lollypop, oh lolly-lolly-lolly

Lollypop, lollypop, oh, lolly-lolly-lolly

Handicapped, handicapped, oh handi-handi-handi
Handicapped, handicapped, oh handi-handi-handi
Handicapped, handicapped, oh handi-handi-handi

Same tune, different lyrics. Guess which set of lyrics belongs to Don and which set belongs to Daddy Cool---at least I think it was Daddy Cool, I could be wrong.

It’s not one of Don’s favorite or most frequent one-word aphasia songs but I hear it often enough to recognize that singing it is my husband’s way of dealing with stroke-related frustration. Last night The Handicapped Ditty was the last thing I heard before drifting off to sleep---the second time. I had gone to bed several hours before Don and when he came to the bedroom I woke up with the snapping sound of his hearing aid box closing.

“Did you remember to let the dog out?” I muttered, half asleep.

“Oh,” he replied as he backed out of the bedroom in his wheelchair.

Some where in between the bedroom and the outside door something happened with the dog that had Don singing his version of Daddy Cool’s song. “Handicapped, handicapped,” Don vocalized all the way back to the bedroom. It was like a lullaby that wooed me back to sleep.

When I'm a wake and listening to his song I'm often struck by the surreal-ness of hearing such a happy little tune sang with such a sad word repeated over and over again for the lyrics. It's inventive of Don's aphasic mind to be able to put the two together and have a tirade of sorts. But last night I was too sleepy to think these thoughts or to play twenty-one questions to find out what brought it on.

It wasn’t until this morning that I figured out why Don was singing The Handicapped Ditty. The dog either put up a fuss and wouldn’t go outside for him or he was a no-show because the half deaf mutt couldn’t hear Don calling at the door. Or Don could have been calling out "Jean" instead of "Cooper" as he often does and the dog took him at his word. Whatever happened, the evidence was clear that he couldn't get the dog to go out i.e. the darling dog had left his calling card on the carpet, in a nice little pile for the entire world to see or me to step in in the wee hours of the morning. Darn! What do you do at the exact moment of discovery? I couldn’t bawl the dog out. He was still asleep. I couldn’t bawl my husband out. He, too, was still asleep. So, I hopped into the bathroom to give my foot a shower as I contemplated whether to cut the two guys in my life a break or wake them both up with a rousing rendition of my own frustration song:

Shrew-Lady is raising cane in the place
Says you’re both in the dog house again
So wipe those smiles off your guilty faces
And listen to the words of her crazy song.

Jean Riva ©

Painting by Edwin Landsee, 1840, Trial by Jury


Water for Elephants

It's hard to remember a time in my life when I've felt more disheartened than I do right now. I've always been a glass-is-half-full kind of a person, a take charge of my emotions kind of gal who was never down or depressed for very long. Part of it---it not all of it--- is probably the by-product of having a total knee replacement July 23rd. Spending a couple of weeks depending on someone else was like seeing a preview of my life 10-15 years down the road when it's entirely possible I'll get shipped off to a nursing home with smelly residences, sticky floors, and where Jell-O is considered a major food group.

While I was immobile after the surgery I made the mistake of reading a bestseller titled "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen. It's a gritty, well-written novel about an old man in his early 90s living in a nursing home---physically at least---but mentally drifting in and out of memories of the days when he was young, naive and working for a circus that traveled from town to town by train. The descriptions of the condescending way some the staff at the nursing home treated him really hit home. How sad it is that someone can live a life as interesting as this old man's and yet be treated as if his simple desire to sit at a different dinner table from the one assigned him was too much to ask. To have your free will taken away in such little ways has got to break your spirit. At one point he spent a long time trying to get his wheelchair close to a window only to have a staff member come along and wheel him back to sit in front of the door to his room. I've never understood why nursing homes do that, line people up and down the hallways as if drooling down your chin as strangers walk by is some sort of treat.

It's been warm here in Michigan but I've been so cold that I'm wearing sweats all the time. Now if that doesn't make you look and feel old I don't know what does. I'm probably cool from the blood thinners I was on and the loss of blood. And this, too, shall pass. They tell me the extreme fatigue I feel will pass, too, but I wish I could curl up into a ball, sleep until 2008.

Physically, my knee is doing fantastic. I'm off the pain medications and driving again, still going to therapy and making good progress. But in the past few days I've developed hip pain. It's been a chronic problem off and on since my snow plowing days and has put me in the ER several times including once late last year. I don't need that again so I'll start the muscle relaxers again when I can get a refill tomorrow and hope to nip the hip pain the bud. I don't need to feel guilty over snapping at my husband, but I do. I hate telling him we can't go here or there because dealing with his wheelchair makes the pain worse. I don't need to feel this old! Someone, come hold my hand and tell me that I'll pull out of the funk I'm in.

The old man at the nursing home had a great ending. He escaped the nursing home to run away to a circus parked across the street. There he found an owner who loved his stories of the old days and who harbored him from the police when they came looking for the elderly run-way. So if you see an old man selling tickets at a circle, say "hi" to Jacob. At least in fiction the life can end as it should.

Jean Riva ©

P.S. I really did like this book. Its circus history was well researched and kept me turning the pages. I read it in three days. It did feel good to be reading again, even though it did make me sad in places due to my own health issues. At one time in my history I read 3-4 books a week as part of a review job I had at the time, but since my husband's stroke seven years ago I've read very little fiction.

painted by Adolph von Menzol


January 8, 2009

I Miss Dancing!

When I was seven-eight years old, I got the Gene Autry gun and holster set for Christmas and I worn them to bed more than a few times. I was in love. I even crawled up on my daddy’s lap once, sighed deeply, and told him that when I grew up I was going marry Gene Autry and his horse. My dad had the good graces not to laugh. It could be he was trying to figure out which one I was lusting after the most---the horse or the man. I still have that gun and holster and all of my Gene Autry fan club memorabilia. I never did anything half way, even my first crush.

I don’t know where I’m going with this trip down memory lane. Perhaps I’m looking at my life as if its film that I can edit and splice together into a movie titled: How to Grow up in Ten Easy Lessons, Plus One Really Hard One. Until I became a caregiver for my dad---in the five years before my husband’s stroke---I really hadn’t grown up and I was in my fifties at the time. My life was carefree and fun in my pre-caregiver days. Oh, I’d had my share of disappointments and pain. Who could get to be a half a century old without having a few monsters in their closet? But I try to learn my lessons and move on. Always wear the white hat. Mr. Autry would be proud.

Do you know what I miss? Dancing. I was never good on the dance floor. I have no grace, no natural rhythm, even though the Arthur Murray Dance Studios did their best to chance that when I was a kid. Never the less, I miss it all. Especially the tap dancing lessons I took when I so young that I still worn under pants with the days of the week embroidered on the fronts. Light bulb moment! If I were on the board of directors at Hanes, I’d expand that embroidered panties idea into a days-of-the-months set of cotton briefs for seniors. That way, when folks like me are at the store writing a check, and we can’t remember what day it is, we’d always know where to look to find out.

I also miss the square dances of my pre-teen days; my petty coats swinging and swaying with our do-si-dos and falling on the floor in a fit of the giggles. I miss the rock-and-roll record hops that came a few years later. (Those late night Time-Life R&R commercials are aimed at my generation.) I miss the rhythm and blues clubs and slinky dress dancing of my twenties. And disco. Don and I did some serious courting during disco. How could I not fall in love a guy who once told me, as I roller skated by, “You look like a refrigerator on a dolly.”

Most of all I miss the dancing that Don and I used to do in the 80s, the western stuff that came straight out of the movie, Urban Cowboy. Oh, we were never like John Travolta and Debra Winger struttin’ their stuff at Mickey Gilley’s. We just watched that stuff from the side of the dance floor. But we had our moments when I felt like there was nothing more fun than belly rubbing around a dance floor, thighs brushing from time to time, words passing back and forth---Gosh, I have to stop typing and go get a few ice cubes!

Don was far from a Gene Kelly or Patricia Swayze, and I was certainly never a Ginger Rogers, but I miss the magic and energy that dancing inspires. I miss the honky-tonk bars out west on vacations. Had I known the last time we danced that it would be the last time we dance, I would have taken a mental snapshot. But the sad fact is I don’t actually remember when that was.

I do have a mental snapshot of the last time my dad danced before he passed away. It happened in the parking lot of a KFC. I had been chauffeuring him and his girlfriend around on a date and the tape deck was playing a song from the 40s when my dad asked Martha to dance. He had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. We all knew he was dying. We all knew it was the last time they’d probably dance together. It was such a bitter-sweet moment, so private and personal---the way they looked at each other---that I had to look away. I’d like to think that if I had a snapshot of Don’s and my last dance, it would be like that---too intense and personal to share with friends.

My dad was a special guy. Even in the last years of his life, when our relationship was often more like mother and son, than father and daughter, he could still make me laugh. One time, when he was being tested for cognitive abilities---something that was done frequently because he was in the first wave of people getting a new Alzheimer’s drug---the psychiatrist had asked him what year it was. Dad gave the wrong answer and when the doctor corrected him, Dad said, “My daughter tried to tell me that in the parking lot, but I didn’t believe her.” Caregiver humor, you’ve got to love it. Another time, in a restaurant, my brother asked my dad if he was taking the noodle on his shirt home for a midnight snack. My dad, picked the noodle off his shirt, threw it over his shoulder, and said, “Hell, no!” and kept right on eating.

What is it I read in an old clipping from Ann Landers? “Old folks talk about the past, because they have no futures. Young folks speak of the future, because they have no past.” When did I get old enough to understand the full depth of that statement? Okay, so I’m having a cry-baby moment. But I know how to fix that. Tonight, I’m sleeping with my Gene Autry gun under the pillow!

Jean Riva ©

painting by ZilleHeinrich


January 6, 2009

The Long, Hard Road to Happiness

Have you ever wondered why it is that some people who have so little are able to sincerely appreciate what they do have while others who have so much can’t appreciate it at all? We all have an occasional blue day from time to time when the pity pot seems to be the most comfortable chair in the house. I’m not talking about those fleeting times where at the end of the day we stand up and realize we’ve worn a big red ring on our butts from sitting too long where maybe we shouldn’t have taken up residence in the first place. I’m talking about the general approach that some people have towards life itself where their negative disposition mistakenly makes them think that their pain and disappointments are always worse than their neighbor’s pain and disappointments. I’m talking about falling into the trap of using pessimism versus optimism as a general philosophy for living.

I’ve always been an optimist. Even in my darkest hours I’ve been able to recognize that wallowing in negative thoughts won’t help me climb back out of the muck of any given life crisis that all humans, at one time or another, go through---death of a loved one or a falling out with lover or friend, major disappointments and depression, loss of good health. For me, getting back up after a punch in the gut comes from being able to see that my metaphorical glass of life is half full---not half empty. It’s a personality flaw that I have to struggle to have sympathy for those who spend their entire lives describing their glasses as half empty. Sure, I understand that we’d all like to have our glasses over-flowing but more importantly I also understand that those times when they are over-flowing are as rare as penguin eggs in the desert. The optimists will tell you that the adversities we meet while we’re striving towards that goal is what makes a person strong and that our heartaches are what makes love---when it comes along---all the sweeter. The pessimists, on the other hand will throw in the towel the first moment things don't go their way and they walk around in circles like both of their arms are tied behind their backs. They delude themselves into believing that they have no control over their own happiness.

It must be hard being pessimistic, to aimlessly drag those woo-is-me thoughts and resentments around where ever they go. Optimists, on the other hand, achieve more in life---have more, are loved more---not because some divine intervention sprinkled magic fairy dust on some of us and not on others. Optimists achieve more because they don’t give up on themselves the way people with a defeatist attitude do. Pessimists don’t see each new day as a ‘do-over’ that can change the course of their personal history. They are so busy cataloging yesterday’s losses and tomorrow’s grim predictions to realize that they are stealing their own futures in the process. Pessimists are chickens, plain and simple. They are too afraid to roll the dice, take a chance and give up their defeatist attitudes long enough to work as hard at being happy as they work at being miserable. Nothing comes without a price tag, happiness included.

Life is full of hardships, challenges and heartaches for all of us and I am very proud to be married to a stroke survivor who never gave up on himself even when the medical community did. We---not just him alone as some survivors would have you believe of caregivers--- WE worked hard and proved the diagnosis of ‘vegetable for life’ wrong in every sense of the phrase. Some people out there in the stroke community don’t believe that it’s possible for someone who can’t walk, talk and use one arm to truly find joy in living again. That, to me, is both a sad and an arrogant attitude because it says that those non-believers value perfection to the point of being prejudice towards anyone who isn’t physically or mentally perfect in their eyes. I won’t deny that it’s often been a long, hard road getting to the happy place we reside in today and if that happiness annoys the pessimists of the world then I say, “Either follow me or get out of the way."

Jean Riva ©

No matter how bad things are, they can always be worse. So what if my stroke left me with a speech impediment? Moses had one, and he did all right. ~ Kirk Douglas

No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new heaven to the human spirit. ~ Helen Keller

Optimism is a happiness magnet. If you stay positive, good things and good people will be drawn to you. ~ Mary Lou Retton

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately so is losing ~ Vince Lombardi

painting by Henri Rousseau

January 4, 2009

Fly Swatters & Old Friendships

One of the nice parts about going to all the June graduation parties is that we get to see people we haven’t seen in a long time. Now that Don is wheelchair bound, we’re obligated to be one of the first cars---if not THE first---to arrive. Otherwise there is always an unloading problem, of being able to thread the chair through cars that might be parked too close together. Being the first to arrive has other advantages. We get to see everyone come in, one by one. What a wonderful awakening that was this year.

We see ourselves in the mirror every day and maybe we think, “God, I’m getting older or fatter or looking dowdier than usual.” If you’re female, like me, you might also do a chin hair check and wonder if you could stand on your head would gravity pull your breasts back to where they belong. Then we might pin that woo-is-me look on our faces and wish we could find an exorcist to make that person in the mirror go away. The only thing good about looking old is that people offer you senior discounts and your dog doesn’t seem to care so long as you can still open that treat bag.

At a recent grad party was a relative I hadn’t seen in a couple of years and the physical change in her was quite noticeable. She’d put on twenty-five or thirty pounds, was wearing a wig, and she had that old-lady-with-sore-knees gait. And, like me, she’d also given up the pretense of trying to look prettier with the addition of make-up---what’s the point? With the failing sense of color that people get into in their sixties who really knows what our faces look like when they’re viewed through younger eyes? A circus clown? A cadaver on a slab? At a certain point in your life you have to give in to the fact that you can’t win the war against time with a bleach or dye bottle and a lot of make-up. Even the plastic surgery addicts and Botox mammas are easy to spot. Just crack a joke in their presences and their faces look like frozen Popsicles, unable to move.

Another relative we ran into at a grad party also had to let out a few seams in her underwear but her sense of humor and quick wit were just the same as they were back when we were kids. It was good to laugh again until my sides hurt. And no one else but someone you’ve known for fifty years could have gotten away with saying: “I LOVE THIS! ---watching Jean trying to teach Don to say words! Don talked so much before his stroke that she didn’t get a chance to say anything for thirty years.” Don, he’s always game for a good laugh, even if it’s on him, so he soon followed up her remark with, “Oops!” and everyone starts laughing all over again.

But the most heartwarming, awakening of going to the grad parties this year was seeing the relatives I didn’t even recognize because they’ve changed so much in the last few years. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel! Like duh, why didn’t it ever occur to me when I was standing in front of my bathroom mirror that I’m not living in a vacuum? My peer age group is proceeding through our life-cycles right on schedule. We’re all wrinkling up and plumping out into a sea of gray-haired wonders with a wealth of history behind us. The young, under forty-ish kids might be able to move faster or look cuter, but when it comes to making up a list of all the things you can do with a fly swatter, we old duffers will win in a landslide. Don’t ask! But I’ll tell this much. Six old people with vivid imaginations don’t need a bar and a case of Bud Lights to have a good time.

Life as been good and looking back can really recharge your batteries.

Jean Riva ©

Painting: The Way You Hear it is The Way You Sing it by Jan Steen (1665)


January 3, 2009

American Graffiti

It’s Thursday and I’m having a vacation day from reality, I’m reading my old diaries. Its fun to spend an entire day wasting time and it makes me feel good to be reminded that somewhere out there in the great beyond is another version of Me who can still come alive from time to time. She may be an innocent kid who put codes in the pages of her diaries that the older version of Me is having trouble deciphering, but I still like her. I laugh at her and laugh with her.

The two years before and after I turned fifteen was my ‘American Graffiti’ era. If the movie by that name was about my life, I would have been Carol, the fourteen year old with the crush on John, the cool tough guy with a soft spot for kid sister types. My “John” was actually named Steve. Cool, sexy, dark-eyed Steve. He had one parent who was a full blooded Native American back when we still called them Indians and his dark good looks had more than a few girls sighing when he'd walked by. Steve also was a good friend of my older brother and he drove an old Model A Ford. Our driveway was often full of vintage cars and the male members of the cast of ‘American Graffiti’---the rebel, the nerd, the solid citizen, the king of the road and other assorted boys---many with tools in their hands as they worked on their prizes.

Cruising downtown after dark on the weekends, going to Rock and Roll record hops in the school gym, going to drive-in movies in the summers, cherry bombs found on laundry day in my brother’s pockets, walking to the malt shop every day after school, and hanging out at a drive-in restaurant with car hops on roller skates---It was a good era to grow up in. The characters played by Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Richard Dryfuss, Harrison Ford, and Mackenzie Phillips would have fit right into my youth.

I even saw a live performance called The Big Beat Show starring: Jerry Lee Lewis (Whole Lotta Skakin’ Goin’ On), Buddy Holly and the Crickets (That Will be the Day), Chuck Berry (Johnny B. Goode), Frankie Lymon (Why do Fools Fall in Love), The Chantels (doo wop singers of Maybe), Dickie Doo & The Don’ts (Tear Drops Will Fall), Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (I Put a Spell on You), and The Diamonds (The Stroll). I saw all these people on one glorious, fun filled night! In my diary, I had written: “That’s one show I’ll never forget. Boy, can those colored guys ever dance!” But I let the Young Me down. I don’t remember that show without the queuing of my diary description. I don’t remember that the curtains came down several times to get the kids to go back to their seats before the show would go on.

Young Me gasps in disgust upon hearing this. “Hey,” I tell her, “I’ve only got so much room in my skull for memories. I can’t keep them all!”

“But Jerry Lee Lewis?” the kid whines, “Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry?”

“Let’s talk about Steve,” I say. That’s her favorite topic, so I know that will distract her.

Steve was a personality plus kind of guy---outgoing, talkative, and funny. He’d often come by my locker at school, and would talk with me at dances and games. I had a five alarm fire going in my heart every time he’d come near. He loved messing up my hair, kissing me on my cheek or forehead---generally tease my hormones---then he'd would walk away laughing. Old Me thinks this is hilarious and believes he probably knew exactly what he was doing to my glands. Steve and I talked often over my high school years. We even double dated when I was with other friends of my brothers. Steve and I were two puppies playing in the yard, but inside I was the kid sister type with a burning crush.

In the earlier years, though, when ever he’d leave our house (after visiting my brother) he’d ask me if I was old enough yet to kiss him good night. Just after I turned fifteen one time I said, “Yes.” God, I thought I would die---according to Young Me’s words in our diary---when he put his arms around me and he was lowering his mouth towards mine. That’s when my brother piped up, “Watch out, she’ll bite you!” Steve laughed and said, “No, she won’t.” But, just as his lips touched mine, our dog bite down on his ankle.

Now, I’m frantically reading the next pages of the diary trying to find out if I ever got another shot at kissing my favorite teenage crush. Yup, I’m enjoying my vacation from reality when I hear Young Me singing: “You come on like a dream, peaches and cream, Lips like strawberry wine, you’re sixteen---I mean, fifteen, you’re beautiful and you’re mind.”

“Oh, cut that out!” Old Me says, “Steve didn’t sing that to you and you know it!”

“Did so!”

“Did not.”

“Did so!”


“I was there, and I say he did!”

”I was there, too, and I think you’re telling a fib. Besides,” I said with authority, “Johnny Burnette didn’t write that song until next year.” We both look at each other---Old Me and Young Me---with dawning in our eyes as we dive for the next volume of our diaries to look up our sixteenth birthday.

Jean Riva ©

Painting by: William-Adopphe Bouguereau 1885

January 2, 2009

Dancing The Blues

Tuesday was the weekly blues concert in the park held in a tourist town near by. It’s a great park for events like this. It’s in between a river and a paved bike path that goes for miles, hooking several small towns together. Maple trees form a canopy over the stage and people bring their lawn chairs and blankets and spread them on the gentle sloping hill facing that simple platform. The sun is low in the sky by concert time and it dapples on the water, reflecting on the undersides of the tree branches. At the top side of the dam, there are usually canoes and kayaks parked along the shore.

I’d forgotten to put my folding camp chair in the car so I spread our emergency blanket at the edge of the bike path where Don could stay on the pavement with his wheelchair. Soon we were surrounded with bikers in spandex. In our view was another kind of biker, all in denim and black leather and sporting tattoos. These guys stood at the edge of the crowd looking bold and mysterious. We love to people watch at these events. Everyone comes to them from nursing babies in their mother’s arms to yuppies with cell phones attached to their heads to families who pass pizza boxes back and forth.

Right next to stage, a gaggle of kids from two to ten usually gathers. The boys jump up and down to the beat of the music like jackrabbits on steroids and the girls pair off in groups of three or four, looking like back-up dancers on MTV with their choreographed moves. A blonde little boy of two or three always stands by the stage with a red plastic guitar helping the band find their mojo.

Tuesday another couple took to the grass dance floor with the kids and they didn’t sit out a single song. The guy looked like a balding Woody Allen and his partner looked like a corpus. You almost needed sunglasses to look at her bare legs sticking out from her wrangler shorts. If they hadn’t been so old---they were in their sixties---you would have called their dancing style sexy, sensual and often down right dirty. But for some reason I just couldn’t take them seriously as their kept their eyes focused on one another, their lips within inches of each other. His hands roamed her butt as she fingered what little hair he at the nap if his neck. Had there been a beer tent at the concert, I’m sure several of us would have been shouting, “Get a room!” How ever I felt about them---and I couldn’t decide between extreme amusement or faint disgust---it was clear they’d gotten their money’s worth out all those Arthur Murray Dance lessons they no doubt had taken. No one dances with that tango gaze for two hours without professional intervention.

Since that night, I’ve been examining my thoughts and why it is that a couple in their sixties dancing with passion and joy could look almost like cartoon figures while had it been someone like John Travolta or Patrick Swayze (in their primes) with a hot girl in his arms, I would have been thoroughly charmed and come home with a romantic glow on my face instead of a silly smile. I wondered if younger women in the crowd had looked on them and sighed, and said to themselves, “When I’m that age I hope my husband still looks at me that way.” I wondered if the kids who shared the dance area with this couple wondered why they were the only adults out of several hundred who hadn’t lost their appreciation of dancing to rhythm and blues. I wondered if that guy was someone I had danced with back in my youth when I was wearing long strings of beads and hip-hugger bell-bottoms to the clubs. I suspect he was.

The blues concerts, I decided, are a metaphor for the cycles of life. From nursing babies to humped-over great-grandmas from a near-by independent living center, all phases in human life were there sharing a common bond for those two hours in the park. I have been most of those ages and I look back with fondness at all of my reincarnations. I’m betting that I’ll like being seventy and eighty as well. One thing is for sure, only the very young and the very old get to the concerts in the park early enough to claim the best views of the stage. The more we change, the more we stay the same.

Jean Riva ©

Painting by: Pierre-Auguste Renior

January 1, 2009

Proposals on the Planet Aphasia

The first time---or maybe it was the second time---that Don asked me to marry him we were on a playground riding bouncing, pink elephants and not doing a very good job of it since they were designed for children and we were in our late twenties at the time. It was four o’clock in the morning. There might have been a little alcohol involved and we ended up staying up all night. Right from the beginning of our relationship, Don has kept me sleep deprived.

Another time in our early courtship that Don kept me sleep deprived started when we were standing in a line at a local movie theater with another couple. Don looked at his watch and said, “If we leave right now, we can get to Chicago before last call.” We all looked at each other and someone said, “Let’s do it.” As simple as that we hopped in Don’s yellow Chevy convertible and made the three-four hour drive ending up at the Playboy Club.

Then there was the night I got a call from Don well after midnight. It was hot; he couldn’t sleep and he wanted to go over to Lake Michigan with a couple of sleeping bags and sleep on the beach so that we could wake up to the sound of waves lapping the shore. We did it but instead of waking up to the sound of the big lake, we woke up to the sound of my little ten pound poodle, Sarah, warding off two Great Danes on their early dawn walk. They scared the heck out of us until we woke up enough to figure out what kind of ‘monsters’ had poked their giant heads down our sleeping bags. Gosh, those dogs sure ran fast once Sarah come shooting out from her brown cocoon where she'd been sleeping at my feet!

Back in those days it was easy to be carefree and impulsive. People often say that having children is what settles a person down and all but wipes out their impulsiveness. We never had kids so I can’t buy that as the sole explanation. For us, it was a combination of increased career/job obligations and growing responsibilities to help care for aging parents. It’s just part of the process: you’re born, you die and in between you march along a timeline as old as human life on earth. Now, some thirty-five years after Don and I first met, being carefree is sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee watching the moonflowers open and being impulsive is taking the scenic route home from the grocery store. We’re settled but in a comfortable, old slippers kind of way.

The last time Don asked me to marry him was the year after his stroke. We were living in an accessible apartment while I was getting his house ready to sell and I was also in the process of getting an auction organized at a large pole barn that he had rented for years. My house was sitting empty, waiting its turn on the sales block. I had been fretting about the high cost of my health insurance and we were having major cash flow problems. Don’s aphasia and apraxia, at that point in time, had his speech limited to a few nouns that often took as long as four hours for him to get out. So, by the time he finally got the word “marry” out I had no idea what he was talking about, how it related to what I had been talking about earlier.

“You’re merry?" I asked. "You’re happy?” which, of course, upset him because I misunderstood.

Besides the fact that it took me a while to recognize this single word proposal as a proposal, another thing that was different from the time he asked while we were riding pink elephants in the park was his reasons for asking. This last time, Don was asking because getting married would get me covered by his health insurance and pension plan. I don’t know why he asked that first time, but my answer was: “We barely know each other!”

Over the years between his first and last proposals, when ever people would press for a reason why we didn’t get married, one of us would repeat that line---we barely know each other!

Jean Riva

Computer art at the top by Nevit Dimen