Monday, February 10, 2014

Mortality

     By the time we're eight or ten, most of us figure out that we are not immortal.  And, if we still think we're immortal, we've run smack into the realization that at least some others are not.  But, beyond that, we don't give it a whole lot of thought.  In fact, if we DO give it a whole lot of thought, we'll have been told not to be so morbid and to be happy.   So we toodle along, content in the notion that while death may indeed exist, it exists only for the old or those far away from us.  For the most part.

     There are a few words out there that can change that in an instance, a prime one being biopsy.  Biopsy, along with it's fellow traveler cancer, can bring mortality, personal mortality, into very clear and immediate focus.  There you were, toodling along with your life; working, playing, laughing, loving, wasting WAY too much time on the computer and WHAM you are pulled up short by a six letter word and all the baggage it carries with it.  No more, "don't worry, be happy" because worry has just taken up residence in your brain and whether that residence is permanent or not remains to be seen.

      And so it begins, the biopsy, the inconclusive results, the referrals, the scheduling of surgery, the pre-op check ups and the terror.  No matter how calm, cool, collected, even sanguine one thinks one is, there is a time around 2:45 in the morning when the terror is undeniable.  No one else may see it.  You may even try to convince yourself that it isn't there.  But it is.  And no one, not your mother, not your spouse, not your friend, not even the very nice surgeon that you just met, can say anything to make that go away.  Because while they hope for the best, and can quote statistics, and can assure you it will be fine; ultimately, they can't know that to be the fact until you've moved through the entire experience.

Of course, all of this takes time.  So you have a lot of time to think.  And think. And think.  You realize rather quickly that you are not where you'd always thought you'd be by whatever-this-point is in your life.  You then begin to wonder IF making plans for the future is some sort of magic you are invoking to get through the situation.  Or if, perhaps, you are just whistling past the graveyard and which graveyard is it going to be.   One sinks to the forbidden morbid regions rather quickly.

Before too long, you realize that even IF this isn't going to be whatever it is that will spell your demise, something will and that every day lived is a day closer to that day.  And you begin to wonder what that means for your life going forward.    Between blood tests and CAT scans and this and that, you have quite a bit of time for reflecting.  

And, if you're me, you wonder if any insights you garner through all of this reflecting will be carried through should the surgery and the pathology reports say that the end isn't coming in that particular way in this particular year.  

Mercifully, the pathology reports came back "negative for malignancy."  Now it's time to see how many of the insights remain and where they lead.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Enough?

On July 20, 1969, I was 9 years old.  My great-grandmother was 89 years old.  And Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.  At this point in her life, my great-grandmother had finally given up her own place and spent her days in a room at her son's home, usually listening to baseball on the radio.  She never had much use for television.  But on this day, everyone was urging her to leave her room to watch the historic event.  But she flat refused.  Eventually insisting that it had not, in fact, happened.  All of which led her family to speculate that Grandma had finally slipped into senility.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

She explained that in her life so much had happened.  Born in 1880, she'd seen indoor plumbing and electricity introduced.  Her little Ozark town had seen the train come through, followed by cars and then airplanes.  Her world had stretched from a girlhood in Des Arc to adulthood in St. Louis.  By 1969, she'd buried her husband and three of her five children.  Radio, television, satellites and now this!  A man walking on the moon was just too much.  She'd had enough!

In the end, she lived 94 years, out living everyone who had shared her memories of all these changes.  I've always admired the wisdom she showed in knowing when enough was enough.  And as I've gotten older, I've wondered when I might reach the point of recognizing when enough is enough.

As a child of the space age, I am thrilled at Curiosity's successful landing on Mars without for a second thinking it going too far.  However, I must admit, I'm not enamored of each and every technological doodad that comes down the pike.  Not so much because I distain innovation, but rather for their dehumanizing side effects, the way they seem to put up barriers between people while purporting to expand connections.  Two years ago, on Valentine's Day, my love and I were out for a romantic dinner at a very nice little restaurant.  A casual glance around the room revealed that the couples at every table except three had their eyes glued to the screens of their smart phones, rather than on the face of the person they were with, which perplexed me.  It still does.  Certainly, it was no more than an extreme example of what one sees every day, but the phenomenon is not a good thing in my opinion, and one place where I choose to say enough in my own life.

I wonder what new events will lead me to consider the limits of enough in my life.  I don't think it is any sort of one-size fits all absolute.  Perhaps many people never reach a point of enough in their lives.  And I wonder if that is either a good or bad thing, or perhaps neither.  Maybe the wisdom lies in recognizing if you have reached the point of enough.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The way things are

I'm up early this morning. Contemplating the way things are. Because that's what you do when it is the wee hours of the morning. And you're sick. And you have no health insurance.

The first thoughts that come to you are those of dread. Why the heck is my throat hurting so much? Is it strep? If it's strep, what am I going to do about it? I'd have to do something about it obviously. Remembering the time when I didn't do anything about it and ended up with pneumonia. Didn't have insurance then either.

This is followed by the denial phase. Of course, it isn't strep. It's just a sore throat. The aspirin makes it hurt less, so it MUST not be strep. Right? Sure, the fever got rather high yesterday, but aspirin took the edge off of that, too. It's not serious. Really, it's not.

Quickly, the dread creeps back in. But the pain woke you up, you idiot. Swallowing isn't supposed to wake you up. At this point, you must throw all your energy into heading off total panic. It'll be better in a little bit. That's right. Somehow the magic of sunrise will make it better. Everything is better in the light of day. Sure. That's it.

Then comes the balancing of fears. Which is worse? Strep throat? Going to the doctor and risking adding even one more penny to the balance sheet? At what point does the balance tip too far to recover from?

Then comes the time for counting your blessings. I'm luckier than so many. I shouldn't complain. Others have it much, much worse than I do. I have a roof over my head. Food to eat. Clothes to wear. And, dammit, a very sore throat! What am I going to do?

What am I going to do?

Then the fatalism sets in. If it continues, I'll just have to go to the doctor anyway. Risk the bill. Try to avoid a bigger bill. Nothing to be done about it. It's probably not strep anyway, right?

And I think about how 50 million of us, in a population of 311 million or so, have to go through this type of small hours calculus, or, for the small ones, have parents that must do it for us. And I wonder why, in a country that is so rich, this is acceptable? But, on some level, it is totally acceptable or we would not have one sixth of our people without health care. We wouldn't have politicians who suggest those without the basics of life are somehow just too lazy, that no circumstances could have led to this otherwise. We wouldn't have a population so fearful of their own vulnerability that they feel the need to lash out or ignore the have-nots for fear that one day they might join their ranks.

Then thoughts come full circle. There's a very good chance that it's not strep. If it continues for a couple more days, I'll figure out someway to pay the doctor and, if need be, the pharmacy. And I'll deal with whatever I have to deal with. Because that's the way things are.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Father's Day

Father’s Day is not a holiday that has had much of a place in my life. My parents divorced just before my 5th birthday and my father, quite literally, disappeared from my life for five years. We had some vague notion that he’d moved to California, but birthdays and Christmases came and went with no word. And no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that I didn’t care and it didn’t hurt, I never quite succeeded. I learned early that you can miss what you never had.


When my father reappeared, I felt suspicious and frightened. Totally unable to fall into a family relationship with someone I had no memory of. Despite acrimonious court dealings, I probably saw my father no more than half a dozen times before I was 17.


I survived, but it could get tough. As a young child, no other kids in my elementary school had divorced parents. This led the other children to taunt me, as if I had driven my father away all by my little self. This did not do a thing to lessen the usual child’s guilt in such cases. If only, I’d been a better little girl! Preposterous from this angle, but very real at age 5, 6, and 7.


After I became a mother, my father and I made some attempts to get to know each other. But distance and his early death ultimately made that impossible. And when he died, I mourned what I could never have more than what I had lost.


I’ve often wondered how I might have been different if I had had some sort of consistent father figure in my life. Someone to look up to, or resent, or both in turn. As it happened, there is nothing there to lean on or push against and it remains a big question mark. I’ve looked on, with both envy and relief as I witnessed my friends’ relationships with their fathers, and wistfully wondered what that would be like.


Happily, I’ve had a glimpse in the past two years. My fella came fully equipped with one regulation-sized father whom I am privileged to call Pop. It’s a new experience having someone to call by that name. I don’t expect Pop will be helping me with any skinned knees, flat bicycle tires or teenage angst, at least I hope not. But he has certainly welcomed me into the family. And, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m able to pull back the curtain a little bit and take a peek, up close, at what a father is like. And while I’ll never have what I never had, it makes me smile to see it was real for someone else.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

More Words

Shortly after my mind started spinning at the manipulation of Twain’s words, a tragedy unfolded in Tucson, Arizona in which 19 people were shot with 6 killed by a deranged young man. Almost immediately mud started being flung from both ends of the political spectrum blaming the other for their inflammatory language causing the incident.


It started a discussion about the lack of civil discourse in this country, particularly in the political arena. Clearly, it is not reasonable to point the finger at anyone other than the perpetrator as being responsible for what happened. However, all the accusations flying back and forth tended to reinforce the point that our civil discourse has become ugly. It doesn’t seem that we have the option of agreeing to respectfully disagree any longer. It must escalate to an angry tone with name-calling. We can’t just believe that there are different ways of thinking about how to solve problems or even what we identify as problems. Those that we disagree with must be evil, stupid and/or unpatriotic and probably all three.


Naturally, the initial calls for civility have quickly disappeared and the nasty rhetoric is back in full swing just two months after the shootings. What is to be done? With a 24-hour news cycle broadcasting the worst of the worst in inflammatory speech, how do we avoid its influence and throw water on the flames? How do we maintain righteous indignation in the face of wrong while refraining from contributing to the uncivil discourse that is seemingly everywhere?


I’ll admit I started bristling when I was first called unpatriotic for having a different political opinion than some others. And after hearing it several dozen times, well, we won’t get into my unladylike response just now. How to defuse such things? How to opt out while maintaining one’s own integrity and remaining engaged? Clearly the media is not going to tone things down. And neither are the politicians. So that leaves the rest of us.


Perhaps a first step could be to reduce or eliminate adjectives when discussing someone with whom we disagree. No longer is that politician/commentator that stupid, lying, evil SOB. He or she is Job-title What’s-his-name and he or she did not tell the truth about X. Maybe it is time to act like Sgt. Friday on Dragnet and use “just the facts.” Naturally, there are people who don’t care what the facts are because they know better and their agenda requires that they not acknowledge any pesky little things like facts. In which case, why bother to talk to them about it any way?


Secondly, we can recognize and acknowledge that most folks on both sides of the political chasm believe that they have the best intentions to work out the best solution to a problem and they are not attempting to do evil things. Whether or not their beliefs are justified is another matter, but we need to stop assuming that the other side is acting from nefarious motives. The person who cuts your hair is not evil just because they prefer a socialist dogcatcher to one from the Bull Moose Party. I have absolutely no doubt that there are some folks that are acting from bad motives, but they are not likely to be among the people you run into on a daily basis.


You may have noticed that these two suggestions are aimed purely at how we perceive someone with whom we disagree and how we respond to them. But isn’t that truly all we can do about the situation? Resolve to not be part of the problem? Maybe, if enough people refused to play along with the status quo, it would spread like a cold until enough people caught it to ignite a spark of civility across our sadly polarized society. At the very least, it could make us, as individuals, feel calmer in our daily lives. And who knows where that might lead?


As I said earlier, words are powerful things. We should be careful how we wield them.

Words

I've been thinking a lot about words recently. It started when I heard an interview on the radio with Dr. Alan Gribben, who has edited a bowdlerized version of the novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (Published by New South Books) His stated purpose was to make the books more accessible to younger readers by removing every instance of the word "nigger" from the books and replacing it with the word "slave". His stated purpose is to remove barriers because the word makes younger readers uncomfortable and thus puts a barrier between them and Mark Twain's work. He also stated that teachers were reluctant to use the books in class because it contains that word. Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I started thinking about his argument and found the whole notion of his changes objectionable.


Huckleberry Finn came under fire almost immediately. Published in 1864, by 1865 it was banned because it was "coarse". Who knows what was meant precisely, but the primary objection of the Brooklyn library in 1902 was concerned that Huck both itched and scratched and that the word "sweat" had been used rather than perspiration. Now, of course, the objections are focused on language, which reflect the cultural norms of a particular place and time in history.


In Dr. Gribben's concern for teachers being unwilling to use the book, I believe he shortchanges the profession. I'm certain that any good teacher would begin the study of the book by explaining the book's historical context. They would tell their students that the word was in the book and why Twain used it. They would talk about Mark Twain's childhood, growing up in a slave state and his witnessing of a brutal murder of a slave by a slave owner. They would talk about Twain's position on slavery and his use of sarcasm and irony. They would go on to point out that the character Jim, who is saddled with the unsavory adjective, is the most admirable character in the book. They would point out that Jim frees Huck from his ingrained prejudices and becomes free himself. So, I don't think Dr. Gribben's concerns for the teachers were justified.


Moving on to his concerns for students, particularly African American students, being uncomfortable with the word. Hopefully, their teachers would have taught them about the book before actually reading it. They would know about historical context, how the ugly bigotry and the nasty words related to it are no longer acceptable and why. They would have had discussions about ethnic/racial and all other sorts of prejudice. They would have been given ideas to look for within the characters of the book; the education and evolution of Huck, the ignorance of his father, Jim's essential dignity. Then they would begin their reading. And then, I hope that the word would still make them uncomfortable, no matter what the student's ethnicity, because it is a filthy, hateful word used by hateful people. It should make everyone uncomfortable. And if the students are too young to grasp all of that information, then they are too young to be assigned the book.


Perhaps because I am from Missouri and feel a bit proprietary about Mr. Twain or perhaps because I write a bit myself, the question is is Dr. Gribben's version of Huckleberry Finn still Mark Twain's work once he has tinkered with the objectionable adjectives? At the very least, it is something less than the original. It takes on the weight of a Cliff Notes version, a graphic novel or a condensed edition and, thus more than just a word has been lost in translation. It is not Mark Twain's book any longer. (And I swear that I can hear him cursing in the distance.) It is not just that the words Twain chose have been fiddled with, but also the tone he intended to set has been altered along with them. The people who call Jim by that word do so out of either ignorance, in Huck's case, or hatefulness and that is clearly shown in the book.


Words are powerful things and no childhood rhyme about sticks and stones can negate that. And Twain's use of the word is powerful enough that we discuss it, debate it and are made uncomfortable by it 101 years after his death. He knew what he was doing.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Resolutions and Procrastination

I've been thinking about firing up the old blog again for months and kept putting it off. Why? I don't think I can answer that. I think part of the problem was the longer I left it dormant the more profound I felt the next posting should be. WARNING: This blog post is NOT going to be profound. There, now that that's out of the way, we can continue.

I'd also been thinking about New Year's Resolutions, as one does at this time of year. The more grandiose the better, right? But as I mentally listed the various steps that I could take to improve various aspects of my life, I was left with the absolute certainty that none of them would last past January 18th, if that long.

So, what to do with all these rambling thoughts? Is there a value in resolutions? They say that most people's resolutions rarely make it past February. So, why make them? For me, they seem to have value in that they let us articulate, if only to ourselves, what our highest aspirations are for ourselves. They let us visualize a better us and offer the opportunity to take some steps toward that better self. Sure, many times we don't succeed to the level we envision to begin with. But that's really not the point. Any notion that "perfection" is actually attainable is doomed to failure. However, the awareness of goals and incremental steps in their direction offers us a focus and motivation to move forward in our lives rather let them idle indefinitely.

The trick is to make resolutions realistic and not restricted. If I say that I will lose 46.5 pounds and then only lose 35 have I really failed? Sure I didn't hit a magic number, but I made measurable progress towards an overall goal. Once the sense of failure is allowed to settle in, it is far too easy to give up entirely and slide back into behavior or thinking that we have admitted to ourselves is not in our best interests.

So I propose a more realistic model. Choose an area of life that you'd like to see an improvement in and then resolve to improving it in some realistic way. Small bites, in small time periods; rather than grand gestures over long periods of time, would seem to have more chance of some sort of success.

Given that I haven't written here since last February, you might have guessed that my major bug-a-boo is procrastination. Surprised? I could get the gold on the Olympic procrastination team, if such a thing existed. This is only made worse by the fact that I am very good at working under pressure. If a task doesn't have any other challenge associated with it, then I add one by putting it off as long as possible. It certainly gets the adrenaline going, heart racing, etc. However, I'm finding that I'd much rather approach things in a more peaceful manner. Goodness knows that life hands us enough adrenaline inducing events without adding to it.

So my resolution for 2011 is to reduce my chronic procrastination. Notice I don't say eliminate, just reduce by some amount. I've been at it since I was in high school; I have no illusion that I can quit cold turkey. I will attempt to do assignments as they come in, rather than just before they're due. I will attempt to do the laundry before I'm totally out of clean clothes. I will respond in a timely manner to all communication. And I will blog in something approaching a regular manner.

Happy New Year, everyone!