Bookshelf

Completely bereft of an idea for today, I started to stare at the large bookshelf that hangs over my desk—the desk where I often sit thinking about how I don’t have anything to write about.

Mary and I have been getting rid of stuff that we have not touched in 10 or 20 years and that we have finally decided we should really let go. The urge to purge really came from two sources. One was that we had to empty bookshelves, closets, china cabinets and more because we were having all of the flooring in our house replaced and we had to protect as much stuff from breakage and dust as we could. We enriched the local thrift stores with a truckload of boxes and bags, but half of my garage is still taken up with boxes that we have not had the time or the will to tackle.

And then 5 years ago, my sister and I had to empty my mother’s mobile home out and put it up for sale when we realized she could no longer live on her own and had to move her into a board and care home. It took us the better part of a month to sort through the decades worth of crap that my parents had held on to. I hauled bag after bag of items that were once useful and meaningful to them off to the dumpster including at least 10 ashtrays (they had both stopped smoking over twenty years ago). It was weird. It was like throwing away someone else’s life without their permission. I decided that I would try not to do the same to my own kids.

So on my bookshelf I can see there are really three categories of books: books I will never read, books I have read many times but cannot yet bear to part with, and books I have purchased or have been given to read but haven’t gotten to yet.

The “never will read” category includes Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, which should have gone to the thrift store, but I felt guilty because some people think it’s a modern classic and I always meant to read it. Same goes for Camus’ The Plague and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I mean, really. When am I going to be in a good enough mood to want to read shit like that?

The “cannot bear to part with” section is probably the largest. There are the classics like my copies of Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, Catch-22, The Poisonwood Bible, and Fahrenheit 451, each filled with years of notes crammed into the margins from the time I spent teaching them. They each carry all of the memories of those years of my life, especially of the days when a discussion went well. And tucked away in a corner is a little gem of a book entitled If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock. It was his first book, and I’m pretty sure it’s out of print. It has romance, time travel, Mark Twain, and the history of baseball all put together in a story I fell in love with.

The “yet to read” section is filled with gifts from family and friends, most especially from my son, a fellow writer. High on my list is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity which I hope it is just as funny as the movie was, and Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I can’t figure out why I have not yet tackled Khaled Hosseini’s book And The Mountains Echoed because his first two books were so terrific (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns).

So, I’m faced with the dilemma of what books to save, to toss, or to give away. It’s a tough one for a former English teacher. Each story seems to carry it’s author’s history and a little bit of my own.

 

 

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Misinformed

When I used to have students ask me to write their letters of recommendation for the colleges they thought they longed to go to, one of the boxes I was almost always required to check was the student’s level of “intellectual curiosity.” To be honest, I think this is a great quality for other people to have. I just don’t think I’d rate very high on the scale.

I mostly enjoy reading mindless detective fiction and watching unchallenging (but well-written) TV shows. If I stumble across something on the History or Discovery channel, I’ll rarely hang around to watch. I only want to learn about what I want to learn about—something about the next city or country I’m going to visit, that kind of thing.

Today, though, I was thinking about how my mom had spectacularly lied to me when I was young and curious. It probably happened when one of our neighbors or relatives was pregnant and I asked her that dreaded (at the time) question about “how does the baby get out of her tummy?”

Even though my mom was an RN, I could tell my question made her uncomfortable. It was the 60’s and I’m sure I must have been in elementary school at the time, and we simply never talked about reproduction or bodily functions. Never.

So, she took a deep breath and told me that when it was time, a “natural opening” in the body, “the bottom” opened up and the baby squeezed through. I’m sure, at the time, that I thought the whole thing was just gross and certainly had no follow-up questions, but the image stayed with me—for years. We had all been crapped out of our mothers. That was just how it worked.

Imagine my surprise when my nervous sophomore biology teacher got to the chapter on human reproduction and was determined to find a way to make a discussion of sex boring. He succeeded admirably. But imagine my confusion when he threw up a transparency on the overhead projector showing the outline of a pregnant woman in the process of giving birth, and the baby was headed in entirely the wrong direction.

I think by then I knew what a vagina was so I knew there was another “natural opening” but I kept staring at that diagram and trying to reconcile it with what I had been told and had believed for maybe 7 or 8 years. I felt the impulse to raise my hand and try to clarify things, but even then I was smart enough to realize that there was a pretty good chance I was going to reveal my total ignorance if I did.

Since during those hormonal years I was mostly concerned with simply finding a kind girl who would let me experience all of the fun stuff that comes before pregnancy and birth, I didn’t feel scarred by the experience. I could understand why my mom struggled with treating the subject clearly and rationally. I soon learned that friends and heavily dog-eared books were much better sources of information than parents.

Even though I tried to be much more open and matter-of-fact as a parent, it became clear to me that it was a subject that kids don’t quite always know how to talk about either. I hope your generation is doing better at it that we did, but I’m not at all sure. After all, we never talk about it.

 

 

Ooops!

Coming home from Balboa Park the two days ago, I got into a car accident on the freeway and I handled the whole thing in a totally uncharacteristic way.

A car re-entered the freeway slowly from the shoulder, causing the guy in the first lane to swerve into the guy in the second lane, causing that guy to hit me a glancing blow on the right side as I swerved into what was luckily an open space. I looked in the rear view mirror and could see some dust and debris flying up in the air but it didn’t look like anyone was spinning out or slowing down or pulling over.

By instinct and training, I knew I was supposed to pull over to the side of the road, exchange information, and call my insurance company, but at the moment that just seemed like an enormous fucking hassle.

Strangely enough, I was uncharacteristically calm. I did not feel shaken up at the close call and wasn’t feeling that huge adrenalin rush that usually accompanies such a moment; I wasn’t angry at the idiot who had caused the mess; I just felt annoyed that I might get sucked into some god-awful mess when everything had happened so fast that I didn’t even know the color of the car that had hit me.

So, I just decided to drive on and hope the damage to my car was as minimal as I imagined that it was. I was kind of surprised at my reaction but figured it this way:

First of all, I was most definitely a victim. Through no stretch of the imagination could I have been considered at fault. I got hit in a chain reaction and had luckily avoided hitting anyone else. It didn’t really occur to me that someone could have been seriously hurt, but I suppose that was a possibility. I just didn’t feel it was my job to stop and try to sort things out.

Secondly, I didn’t want to get into the legal hassles that were going to follow a chain-reaction accident. This had happened to me once before when I was sitting at a stoplight and a young woman plowed into a car, three cars behind me. I ended up being the last in line to get popped, just enough to get some free chiropractic and massage treatments. But I also got sued by someone in the line who sued everyone involved in the accident even though I had no possibility of being at fault. I called my insurance and the guy said, “Yeah, this happens all the time. It’s why you have us.” The estimate was that it would take 3 months and $6– $10,000 to extricate me from the suit. I did not want to go through that again.

Lastly, I’m not crazy about the car I own now. It’s a small 2007 SUV that I’d like to replace, but it only costs me about $500 a year to insure and it’s paid for. It is eminently reliable and functional for hauling around my yard and garden stuff. I’ll probably drive it until it dies. All the dings are on the passenger side, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s in pretty pristine condition as long as I don’t walk all the way around it.

It did vaguely occur to me that I had “left the scene of an accident” and that I might get a visit from the Highway Patrol if someone had been fast enough to get my license, but for me, someone who worries about just about everything, I felt oddly unconcerned. You could say that it barely put a dent in my day.

Paranoia Strikes Deep

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Let me just say that I’m not universally opposed to a good conspiracy theory. I do believe that the government can and will be untruthful and manipulative when it suits their purposes. Area 51 as a hiding place for UFO’s and captured aliens? Sure, why not. The grassy knoll in Dallas is number 6 on my bucket list, and back in college I actually read the entire book, Rush To Judgment, detailing all of the reasons why Oswald could not possibly have killed Kennedy.

But what really scares me is that I’m becoming convinced that with a wide enough platform, you can convince 30 to 40% of Americans of just about anything. WMDs in Iraq? 30% of Americans still believe that they existed even after former president George Bush admitted that they were never found. A similar number still buy the notion that Saddam had something to do with 9/11. Climate change? Don’t get me started.

Most of those notions are harmless. Some of them are folks simply adhering to a set of political mantras that suit their worldview and their temperament. Am I wrong though, in feeling like the paranoia is becoming more acute? When I heard that Texans were arming themselves after hearing of a routine military exercise fearing that the government was preparing to take over their state, I wanted to find it laughable except for their passionate sincerity. I mean, seriously guys? The government can’t even figure out how to take back a remote wildlife refuge that’s been taken over by some random yahoos, a place that no one even goes to except the occasional birder. What in the hell would the government do with the entire state of Texas? Rename it Eastern California and hope the people would become more progressive?

The military exercise came and went and Texas still abides as a sovereign state. Shocker.

Just this month, though, I read in the New York Times about a professor, James Tracy, who had been fired from Florida Atlantic University ostensibly for not filing forms detailing outside jobs and activities. The professor maintains a Facebook page and blog named “Memory Hole.” In it, he promotes the idea that mass shootings such as the one in San Bernardino and at Sandy Hook elementary were elaborate fakes “carried out by ‘crisis actors’ employed by the Obama administration.”

Hey, write what you want to write, believe what you want to believe, but what hit my “utter disgust” button was Tracy’s response when the parents of Noah Pozner, a 6-year-old victim of the massacre at Sandy Hook, requested that he remove the picture of their son from his blog. In response, Tracy sent them a certified letter demanding proof that Noah had ever actually lived and documentation that the Pozners were actually his parents. In a letter on his blog, Tracy accused the Pozners of “profiting handsomely from the fake death of their son.” At this point, I believe both parties are suing each other for harassment, and Tracy is claiming that the family is responsible for his firing.

It’s one thing to believe that there is a government conspiracy to deceive the public and to use your voice to promote your version of the truth. It is entirely something else to attack people who have already endured the worst kind of suffering.

My wife has tried to keep my blood pressure down on this one reassuring me that it’s just one more voice screaming in the wind, but check out his FB page (https://www.facebook.com/memoryholeblog/). The 30% are starting to line up in his support.

The Answer Is…I Have No Idea

In a comment I posted recently, I mentioned that I had met my wife when we were both juniors in high school and that we later (in 1974) were married and continue to torture each other to this very day as we approach our 42nd anniversary.

One of our writers asked what was the “secret” to having stayed together for so long, and I hope I can give a reasonable response. It won’t be complete or in some cases helpful. Sometimes I think, when it comes to relationships, there is an awful lot of luck involved.

We were celebrating year number 36 at a swank hotel in Coronado, eating appetizers and having an afternoon cocktail, when Mary asked me, “Did you ever think we would still be married after 36 years?” In one of my shining moments as a partner, without preparation or pretense, I honestly answered, “It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t still be married after 36 years.”

So there is something about commitment and expectation that makes a big difference, I suspect. I wrote earlier about how Mary and I first met at a youth retreat and my first impressions of her were that she was strong-willed and looked terrific in the jeans and snug t-shirt she was wearing. For me, it was a powerful combination. I did have to wait around a bit, dating friends of hers, until she ditched a tenuous boyfriend, and I could swoop in. Yeah, I was the rebound guy.

But for all intents and purposes from age 18 to age 21 when we got married, we were each other’s everything. She was extremely faithful, and I never found the wild oats that I guess I was supposed to sow. One time, I put our romance on hold for about two weeks to give me space to consider if I might have a vocation to the priesthood (I’m a recovering Catholic), but I happily realized that giving up my affection for women was not an acceptable compromise and our relationship intensified quickly.

So, right. Longevity. I might be completely off on this, but I think the sexual freedom that young people have enjoyed over the past few of decades (we just missed that particular wave) has made them a little uncertain about the viability of a long-term commitment. The number of serious partners that young people now have between the ages of 20 and 40 seems to make them feel unsure about the possibility of a union that will last a lifetime.

Believe me. I’d love to have a wonderful, guilt-free affair. Truth is though, I can’t even be unfaithful in my dreams. No, I’m serious. I have turned down the advances of beautiful women in my dreams and hated myself for it in the morning. I am a terrible liar, and I find myself feeling guilty about things that I have only thought about doing.

It has not been easy. We pretty much lost ourselves in the 25 years we dedicated to child rearing. Our children continue to mean everything to us and continue to challenge us. It turns out that being the parents of young adults is just as tough as dealing with the terrible twos.

Both of us worked in demanding jobs that we loved. I cared deeply about becoming the kind of teacher that could, on a good day, change lives. As hard as I worked, Mary worked harder. She spent incredibly long hours as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. Her workdays seemed to have no end. All of that took a toll on us as a couple. And while we certainly went through periods of time where we felt more like roommates than lovers, we persevered, believing that eventually the bond we had initially enjoyed would return.

In retirement, we are now healing. We’ve identified some of the dynamics that have continually driven us apart and are now much more aware of each other, appreciative of each other, loving toward each other. We still have work to do, but now we feel like we have the space and time to make things special again. It doesn’t hurt that she still looks great in jeans and a tight t-shirt (yes, I really am that shallow).

I do believe that relationships can last. I’m not sure I’ve done the subject justice. Maybe our combined stories will weave the tapestry that creates an answer that satisfies.

 

It Was Everything We Wished For—And So Much Less

Note:  If you have just suffered the loss of a loved one, you might want to pass on this one, or it might help.  If you are caring for a loved one and have wondered about hospice and end-of-life issues, then this might be informative.

Once my sister and I decided that 89-year-old mother’s dementia had reached the point where she could no longer live alone, we toured a number of “board and care” homes and found a comfortable place for her to live, surrounded by caring and competent attendants. The home was only three miles from my house so I could visit daily and make sure she got to her doctor visits or quickly attend to any emergencies. We both recognized the inevitability of her decline, and we stuck to the mantra, “We just want her to be comfortable.”

My sister was always a great source of support and comfort to me, but once she returned to her home in Maui, the burden of decision making, finances, and the occasional all-nighter in the emergency room fell to me.

That period of my life stretched out over the past three years. I had a front row seat in watching my mom slowly lose more and more of herself, and I struggled with the constant responsibility of living up to what I thought it meant to be a “good son” when I quietly knew, I really wanted it all to be over.

I thought I was prepared, but it all happened so fast. I got a call from the home telling me mom wasn’t breathing well, and we got her into the doctor who diagnosed her with pneumonia and gave her some new meds. The pneumonia persisted, and I finally made the call that it was time to seek out hospice care.

When you sign up a loved one for hospice the first thing that the glossy brochure will tell you is that “you are not giving up, not throwing in the towel” because, in fact, that is exactly what it feels like. But as my orientation went on, it became clear that this service would provide exactly what my sister and I had promised ourselves we would do—keep mom comfortable. She would get in-home care, around the clock if necessary—no more exhausting doctor visits or runs to the emergency room. And most importantly, they said, “we won’t do anything without your approval and consent.”

I started her on hospice services on Friday, June 5 and she passed away on Friday, June 12.

There is no doubt in my mind that I made the right decision and that I had placed her in the hands of caring professionals, but it also was a week full of awful decisions for me, all of which were papered over with words like “letting nature take its course” and “keeping your mother comfortable.” What all of these decisions really amounted to was my being complicit in, being responsible for aiding in the process that would end with my mother’s passing.

It began with being presented with a list of medications that they wanted to take her off of because they no longer were necessary to keep her comfortable or prolong her life. By this time my mom had drifted into a semi-conscious state and it was becoming more and more clear to me how near we were to the end. The most wrenching decision for me was when they asked me to agree to stop feeding her. The danger of her choking was now so great because of her state of awareness that it was time to begin withholding food.

I had to go deep inside of myself to be able to say yes to this. I had to remind myself that my mother was never, ever going to get better, that her immune system was so compromised that there was nothing to be done, that I had sworn to keep her peaceful and comfortable to the end.

After that, it was just a couple of phone calls asking if it was OK to up her morphine. By then, I had conceded to the inevitable—that she would, in fact, never wake up again.

I went over to the home on that Friday evening, planning on spending the night, but knowing that her time was short. Before midnight the nurse called out to me and I stood at her bedside, trying to say something comforting, feeling a little bit numb, and watched her drift off.

I had been able to accomplish exactly what I had told myself I had wanted for her. She died in a home-like environment, without pain or dramatic and useless interventions. But as I drove home around 1 AM, it was so much less than what I had thought it would be. It was a comfortable, unremarkable death that left me feeling both hollow and relieved.

 

 

A Pain In The Neck

ChronicPainMind

At age 63, I’m blessed with pretty good health. I won’t be training for a marathon anytime soon, but I’ve managed to dodge the scariest and most hideous forms of progressive diseases that give me nightmares.

However, I have had the same headache for 10 years now. It began as a dull throb at the base of my skull and now involves all of the muscles of my upper back, particularly extending along my right shoulder and down my right shoulder blade. I initially blamed the headache entirely on my problems with TMJ, but now realize that 50 years of poor posture have probably contributed equally.

On a good day, three ibuprophen will take the edge off and get me through most of the day. Some mornings though, I wake up feeling like someone has jammed a knitting needle down my neck and into my upper back.

The pain has successfully resisted $5000 in TMJ treatments, acupuncture, chiropractic, physical therapy, injections, massage, yoga, heating pads, topical creams, and a myriad of stretches and exercises that I’ve been told would help if I would do them daily, hourly, whatever.

All of these things have provided some temporary relief. If I could afford a daily massage, I think I would be pain free. Visits to my chiropractor also are particularly helpful; but then even if she could “fix” me, I’d continue to make up excuses to go in and see her because we’ve become friends and she is amazingly pretty.

So I manage the pain by using all of the above along with as few ibuprophen or Tylenol as I can get away with. I’ve read their warning labels and I know there is an almost inevitable downside to their constant use, but chronic pain is a bitch that I simply can’t tolerate day in and day out.

I recently discovered what seemed to be a lovely cure-all as a result of my adventure with sinus surgery. I was given something called Norco, a pain medication that combines Tylenol with just 5 little milligrams of Hydrocodone, a cousin of Vicodin. Having had little experience with opioids, I thoroughly enjoyed the 4 or 5 days that I felt justified in using this wonderful drug. I found that it didn’t necessarily eliminate pain entirely, but it took care of most of it and made me feel so good that I didn’t care about any pain that was left over. I was ready to try to find a friendly doctor that might keep me on the stuff until I read all the side affects. Just like all good things in life, it’s both highly addictive and likely to kill my liver or kidneys or both. Worst of all, to keep taking it I’d have to give up my affection for craft beer, an unacceptable trade-off. However, I still have 19 pills left—just enough for an occasional vacation from the pain if I feel I need it.

So that’s it. Big surprise! I’m getting older, and I wake up with aches and pains. I know how lucky I am that this is the extent of my physical troubles for now. I sure hope it stays that way.