“We all have an expiration date. If we didn’t, nothing would ever get done.”—”The Big C”

If you know anything about me at all, you know that I love entertainment. Pretty much any form of live performance or media is something I am going to enjoy (although I don’t much like sci-fi or action/adventure flicks, and have been known to walk out of a movie theatre or a play if it’s just that bad.), and it even extends to books, magazines, journaling, and of course, social media.

In particular, I love television. I always have. It sounds incredibly lame, but when I was a little kid, I used to pretend the people on my favourite shows were real. They were my friends. I talked about characters on TV sitcoms the same way I’d talk about someone in my kindergarten class. I had an Oscar The Grouch stuffed animal that lived in the laundry hamper in the hallway. I’d pass by and have conversations with him. I slept with an ALF doll, and had nightmares about the Whammies on “Press Your Luck”.

I’ve always felt an affinity for TV, that it was this consistent thing in my life I could always count on to be there for me when everything else in the world was chaotic or falling apart. I may have never moved to Atlanta if it weren’t for the TV show “Frasier”. When I got very ill about a year and a half ago, and wrote letters and journals about fearing I was going to die, I didn’t get through the fear because I thought of my family or friends or all I hadn’t accomplished in my life, or that dying at that point in my life would be a sad and terrible waste of potential. No. I thought, “I need to hang on and make things get better, because I want to see who gets kicked off Big Brother this week”. In a time where virtually nobody could stand to be around me and I thought I might either be losing my mind or my health, and getting out of bed was a challenge, turning on my TV and entering a world populated by strangers in a Big Brother TV studio every night made me feel connected to the world. It made me feel stronger to feel a connection with characters that weren’t even completely real, the same way it always did as a child.

Ironically, many of my past romantic partners have not liked TV, or felt it was a distraction, or felt intellectually above staring at a box with sound and pictures. I think I never quite understood myself well enough to know “Must Love TV” needs to be part of the equation, if someone is the type of soulmate I’m meant to end up sharing the primary part of my life with. Just as I couldn’t relate to someone who didn’t care for music, or thought theatre and art and performance was stupid, or never read books, I’m pretty sure my household will always have TV.

As happens every May, many of the shows I’d been watching ended. Unfortunately, many of them have been canceled for good, which always makes me sad. However, I know that in about a month, there will be new things for me to get slightly obsessed by, and I look forward to that.

In the absence of all my normal shows, I started looking around On Demand for something to watch tonight, and noticed that Showtime had started showing “The Big C” again. It’s on its fourth season, but it’s being advertised as a “limited series event”. Looking at Wikipedia, I see they’ve only made 4 hour-long episodes in Season 4 to wrap up the show. (previously, the show was a 30 minute deal.) The last one is airing May 20th.

“The Big C” is not the kind of show that’s for everyone, but it’s definitely my cup of tea. It’s full of sarcastic, intelligent, black humour. The show starts off with a middle-aged suburban housewife (played by Laura Linney, who is wonderful) being diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma, and given a year to live. It starts off in a way that indicates the end at the beginning; each season goes through a different season of the year. However, they don’t really follow through with that, and it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the show has to end with the main character’s death. There are a lot of plot twists along the way. And, strangely, for most of the show, it’s a dark comedy. A majority of the show is very witty and very funny.

So, I was shocked when I started watching Season 4, and found myself sobbing through most of the episodes. Suddenly, it isn’t funny anymore. It’s dramatic and tragic and all those things you think a show about a terminally ill person would be.

One of the themes the show repeats often is that each and every one of us is dying, every day. For a very long time, my tagline on many of my social profiles is a line from a Cake song that particularly resonated with me: “As soon as you’re born, you start dying, so you might as well have a good time”.

One of the reasons the show is painful is because it doesn’t sugar-coat anything. It reminds you that whether it’s cancer or a heart attack or a car accident or plain old age, at some point, every person you know and have ever known will no longer be here—including yourself. It is a sad thought, and a terrifying thought, but the premise behind the show is “If you knew you only had a year to live, what would you do with your life?”.

It then reminds us that perhaps every single person should live that way, because all the years are precious. Most of us don’t know we have a certain amount of time to tie up loose ends and do everything that matters. We have an expiration date, but for most of us, death comes as a surprise for which we’re unprepared. As I get older, I notice that not only just in myself but in those around me, the process of aging becomes a surprise for which we’re unprepared. Visits to the doctor start to feel a little more serious. We start to have a few more wrinkles. Sometimes, we pass by a mirror, and no longer see the child, the adolescent, the carefree young person. Instead, we start to see our mother, our father. There’s a realisation that time is not infinite and the clock keeps on ticking—and that’s if you’re lucky.

In the show, there’s a scene where Laura Linney’s character is in the hospital, and her son pieces together a collage of photographs from her life, so it’s the first thing she sees every day. I wonder if I am, on some subconscious level, more acutely aware of how short life is. I’ve lived in a room with a wall that has been collaged with my favourite memories since I was 26. It’s been a pain to take the wall down and reassemble it whenever I move. But it’s also really important to me to always feel like I’m surrounded by moments when I was happy and young and vibrant, and to see the faces of the people I love—even if they don’t always remember I love them, or how much I care. I think I’ve always thought, “If I don’t wake up tomorrow, I want the last thing in my head to be that wall.”

I think about being a thing that has an expiration date a little too much, and it scares me sometimes. My grandmother passed away when she was 50. I was a little over two years old, and it is one of my earliest childhood memories, being in a dimly-lit, sepia-coloured room with a tiny little woman with her head wrapped in bandages. Above her bed was a cross, making everything seem very somber and austere. My mother tells me I could not remember this; children don’t remember scenes in detail at that age. But I do. That is the only memory I have of my grandmother. She died when my mother was only 33. I spent most of my life thinking I was adopted, because I don’t physically resemble anyone in my family. When I was older, I saw a picture of my grandmother, and realised how much I looked like her. I think it’s why my mother always criticised me for being too small, too pale, too thin, too fragile-looking….things I could do nothing about. I always thought she was just being my mother, the type of person for whom even the smallest flaw is worth noting and compliments are rare. As I get older, I realise I must remind my mother of the mother she lost so early in life, and that she’s always been afraid that my small frame and fragile health meant she’d lose me early, too.

For what it’s worth, it turns out I’m a survivor, at least so far. I’ve been in a car accident where the driver was killed, another where my entire family was injured but me, and a third where my head literally went through the windshield, leaving an Alayna-shaped headprint. I’ve had tubes put in my ears, suffered a ruptured appendix at 9, and then developed an infection requiring another surgery. I had my knee completely reconstructed at 15. I need surgery again for a torn ACL. I have virtually no sweat glands and am prone to both hyper-and-hypothermia without feeling it. I get flu-like symptoms when I get rained on. I went to the beach and came back with 2nd degree sunburn on 60% of my body, and an infection that turned into a rare inner ear disorder. I’ve had enough “female troubles” to last a lifetime, and apparently, my heart beats too fast. I’m pretty much a walking medical disorder.

Yet, all things considered, I grew up to be a relatively strong person. I’d like to think even though I am not the healthiest person around, emotionally or physically, I’ve always been a fighter in my own small way.

If there’s one thing that scares the hell out of me, though, it’s death. I have had dreams in which I see my death—not the scary kind, where someone is chasing you, the building explodes, the car crashes, or the murderer pops out from the closet—but the kind in which I am almost able to experience the process of dying. It is never frightening, but almost calm and surreal. The thing always notice most about death is that I feel sad about leaving.

I had one dream in which I saw my death in that same way I see many of my “psychic dreams”, and that of course threw me for a loop when I woke up. It shocked me to see me as someone who was very old, and very small. I was surrounded by people I didn’t really know or recognise, but they were my family (apparently, in my dream, I have a daughter and two grandchildren and a very unruly great-grandchild, which is almost as shocking as the idea of me living to be very, very old.) My daughter doesn’t look like me, or what I imagine I’ll look like at that age. She is taller and stronger and more imposing, and has olive skin and black hair that is starting to show streaks of grey. I can’t imagine her being related to me, because she seems very strong, and I am old and tiny and look very fragile. The nurse tells me it is a few days after my birthday, and there are icicles on the tree outside the hospital room window. (which we have in the Northeast, but rarely here in Atlanta.) I ask her if New Year’s Eve has happened yet. New Year’s Eve is one of my favourite holidays, even though it seems to be a rather cursed day for me.

I do not believe my dream is truly a “psychic dream”, although numerous psychics and palm readers and whatnot have told me I will live an exceptionally long time. The hereditary factors in my family—people either die relatively young or live to be exceptionally old in my family—as well as my history of health problems, and my natural constitution, do not point to a long and robust life. For the longest time, I was convinced I wouldn’t live past 30, and I was OK with that. Now I am older and wiser and know how important it is to stay healthy and keep living and creating and sharing my life with those who matter for as long as I can, I am suddenly terrified of the idea that I might die.

It is not helped by the fact that I’ve lost many friends and acquaintances who passed away suddenly, at relatively young ages. I have to visit the doctor on Monday, and I am filled with dread about doing so. I feel so sorry I spent a lot of my life taking health and the gift of being alive for granted, and instead made many stupid choices, some of which *should* have killed me. I suppose that’s everyone when they’re young, but there’s an age where you stop feeling invincible. There’s an age where you realise you never were, and the fact that you’re still here and took that for granted all along isn’t something that should continue.

“The Big C” turned devastatingly sad because it stopped being about characters on TV, and started being about everyone. We may seem so different, but the one thing we all have in common is that one day, we will die…and hopefully, there will be people who are terribly sad that has happened. No amount of preparation, money, lifestyle choices, or prayer will change the fact that we all begin life and end life in a way where the timing isn’t run by us for our approval.

I suppose it’s everything in the middle that matters. That is why all I’ve ever wanted, really, is for my “everything else” to have mattered to someone, somewhere.

Perhaps it’s a good sign, one that means I’m regaining some strength and ability to concentrate on more than just 30 minute television shows, but I’ve gotten back into the habit of reading a good deal lately. I think some of this is to do with the fact that The Guy I Am Currently Dating bought me a Kindle Fire for my birthday, and as with my enthusiasm for anything new, I very quickly filled up my shelves with classics I’d been meaning to read and interesting works on Amazon’s $3.99 or less shelf. However, ironically, most of what I’ve been reading seems to be in the format of actual books.

I love my new tablet, for a number of reasons; when I am well again, or at least well enough to travel or spend my days outside my apartment, I suspect I will greatly appreciate the convenience of never having to travel with a carry-on bag full of books and computer accessories. I love, love, love the size and portability of it, and since getting an awesome pink case for it, it kind of resembles a little pink Bible.

On the down side, however, a number of the books on my wishlist—particularly newer ones—have the Kindle version priced at twice what it would cost for a used version of the book, plus shipping. Once I’m finished with a book, I tend to keep it on my shelf (if I love it; I only have so much space.), send it to a friend (if it inspires me enough that I absolutely must share), swap it on Paperback Swap, or sell it back for a few dollars on Amazon. On the Kindle, once I’m done reading it, I can’t do anything else with it. Therefore, I’ll likely never pay full price for a Kindle book when the actual book is being sold for the same, or less. Why would anyone? I hope that as book readers become more popular, there are more businesses launched like Paperback swap or apps where you can swap books with friends. This is just what people do, and have always done.

Yet, I’ve gotten back to reading, something I’d abandoned when I first became ill because attempting to look at the words on the page would trigger vertigo. Instead, I’d gotten in the habit of simply crawling in my bed and watching TV at night until bed, or eventually, writing in my journal.

I’ll probably put up a page on the site about what I’m reading this year, but here are some of what I’m reading one month into things. (I doubt I’ll reach my 100 book a year quota this year, but that’s OK, because I’m covertly working on writing my own from time to time.)

Learning To Breathe:My Yearlong Quest To Bring Calm To My Life
I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this book. While I’m a fan of Paulo Coelho and other writers who bring a sense of spirituality into their stories, you’re not ever going to catch me quoting from Eckhart Tolle or The Secret. I’m just far too much of a realist to really believe in what’s being espoused, though I have no doubt it’s helpful to others. However, this book was recommended to me by two different people in response to talking about my recent diagnosis with an anxiety disorder, and then I later read multiple articles where it was highly praised. It’s more of an “Eat, Pray, Love” story about coming to terms with yourself than a book of Louise Hay affirmations, which I appreciate. It also gave me a clearer understanding of what was happening to me; like me, the author suffered from having a “highly-strung” personality most of her life, but managed to live a fairly well-balanced, productive life, often self-medicating with vodka. She was unaware of having a panic disorder, or why she’d have one, until later in life, when forced to come to terms with the idea of mortality. Her journey through therapy, Buddhism, meditation, Klonopin, and all sorts of treatment is a good read for anyone who suffers with anxiety or panic attacks. These issues are rarely cured, but when the reason is identified and treated, it can get better. The down side? The author’s detailed descriptions of panic attacks provoked anxiety in moe in a way that I had to put the book down and come back to it later. It sucks to identify too much with someone else’s experiences, particular when they resemble your own.

The Book Of The Courtesans:A Catalogue Of Their Virtues. Like their Japanese counterpart, the geisha, the idea of the courtesan is an old-fashioned one that’s not understood in today’s society. Sometimes street prostitutes who worked their way up into a different realm of society, sometimes actresses and ballet dancers kept by a succession of powerful, rich, and titled aristocrats, sometimes middle-class girls longing for a better life, courtesans represented power in a time when women had none. Throughout history, these women lived independently and owned property when aristocratic women could not, freed themselves of the restraints of chastity and inhibition when society dictated that being confined and without want or feeling or opinion was the role of women, and associated with some of the most brilliant minds in history in a world where a woman’s purpose was largely decorative. Of course, in today’s society, where women are presented with more opportunities and the ability to choose independence in virtually any aspect of life, choosing to exploit one’s sexuality in exchange for being kept by a man, or series of men, is frowned upon—whether you’re a prostitute, stripper, gold digger, mistress, kept woman, or conniving baby mama. These women were all of the above, and their stories range from the dramatic to the tragic to the inspirational. (many of these women appear in paintings by grand masters, are the subjects of plays, operas, and novels, and have become synonymous with luxury and opulence. Some died penniless, or at the hands of the guillotine, or an enraged lover. Others became nuns or wrote novels. Still others married into aristocracy, and amassed fortunes beyond belief. One, Sarah Bernhardt, became the grande dame of the theatre, acting from her wheelchair well into her 80′s.) It’s a great book that re-examines what the meaning of “virtue” is, and should be, and gives a glimpse into many other periods of time in which beauty was less to do with physical beauty, and more to do with an innate ability to charm and captivate.

Wintergirls. A book I discovered because it was an Amazon special for the day, Laurie Halse Anderson has a lyrical way of writing that’s provocative and beautiful at the same time, much like the two girls whose stories she tells in the novel. Dealing with the lives of two teenage girls struggling through the angst of growing up—one with anorexia nervosa, the other with bulimia, and both lost and depressed souls struggling to appear normal in the midst of dysfunctional suburbia—it’s the kind of story that’s been told a million times, in every Lifetime movie. However, the way it’s written is extraordinary; the writer is unknown, but gifted. I’d liken her to Jodi Picoult, and I stayed up until 5 AM in order to finish the book in one reading. It also proved to me I could get into reading books on my Kindle.

Over the holidays, I also finished reading biographies of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, but for the sake of argument, we’ll say they belonged to last year’s list.

Next up, I have a few more biographies, as well as Paulo Coelho’s Aleph, which I will drop everything and read as soon as it arrives.

I haven’t tackled any classics yet, but maybe I’m just not in that classic state of mind quite yet. You see, Jersey Shore is back on, along with MTV’s new Challenge show, Battle Of The Ex-es. There’s also the Real Housewives Of Atlanta, Beverly Hills, and soon, Orange County…as well as Project Runway. February will bring Survivor and yet another Celebrity Apprentice, so I need to leave some quality reality TV viewing time.

Oh, and I’ve been catching up on How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory, although all out of order, which is often on the confusing side.

Regardless, I’m pleased to note that Atlanta is #4 on the most literate cities list (odd, because I can’t remember the last time someone wanted to engage me in a conversation about a book.). Washington D.C. is #1, but then, they were also ranked #3 on the list. Maybe people in D.C. are only rude because you’re trying to interrupt them WHILE THEY’RE READING? :P

Whatever. I’d personally give Atlanta a spot in the top 5 on the rudest cities list. I suspect that, for some reason, gossip, judgment, and passive-aggressive behaviour are not registered as “rude” on this study. If they’re measuring the capability to be a total jackass to a stranger and not lose any sleep over it, might I recommend my home city of Philadelphia (which I’m convinced is nicknamed “The City Of Brotherly Love” by those who appreciate irony.)?