Sunday, February 26, 2017

Time zone

Six miles into a 14-mile run along the lakeshore near where my parents live, I started to feel queasy. Not two minutes later, I saw that familiar flash of blue, the likes of which make a lot of people involuntarily wrinkle their noses in disgust but will appear as a bit of blue heaven to any runner in the situation I was in. Crayola doesn’t make Porta-Potty Blue yet, but it’s unmistakable, and at that moment it couldn’t have been more welcome. I did my business there and went happily on my way, a spring in my step for being a few ounces lighter.

Sometimes timing is everything.

Runners will tell you all about the significance of time in relation to running. (Actually, runners will tell you all about every thought, emotion, or questionable nugget of information they’ve ever had about running whether you want to hear it or not, and I can’t imagine why you’d want to hear it even though I do it too.) It isn’t just the measuring of time that concerns them, though; it’s also the quality of time, the way time passes during a run. A particular mile can seem to take forever or can be so energizing you can’t believe how quickly it’s over; either way, in running we have a sharper focus on what I am doing at this particular moment in time than we do in most other daily activities. I remember when I first tasted the running Kool-ade and I could not wait to put on my shoes again, taking great pains to arrange every other activity around The Run. Meals had to be eaten at certain times so as not to cause GI distress during The Run. Errands would be run at certain times that would allow solid blocks of time for The Run. A party that started at 8pm would be abandoned before anyone had even had a second adult beverage. Can’t get too pickled before The Run.

Like so much in life, all of this activity comes down to just another way to try to get control over something that’s out of your control. Time can’t be controlled; when you think about it, it can’t really be anything’d outright. We only experience it indirectly, watching numbers change on a clock, watching miles pass, waiting for the next thing to happen to us. If you’re lucky, the things that happen are by your own doing, they’ll be good things, and there will be lots of them. If not, our lack of temporal control can make life very strange indeed.

My mother was up at 2am this morning eating cereal. Immediately after she ate her cereal, she asked when we were having lunch. This was not because she was hungry—she hardly eats anything at most meals—but because that was the next big thing she knew tended to happen in a normal day. In every day prior, she would get lunch and dinner mixed up. “Are we having dinner now?” she’d say at noon, and right after eating lunch—sometimes during lunch itself—she would talk about making dinner. She always thinks it’s a lot later in the day than it really is, and because dinner is the main thing that happens late in the day, she focuses all her attention on that. Now, I can relate—food is awesome, and I imagine to a degree a lot of us get through the day looking forward to the next meal we’re going to eat—but it’s a little problematic when you turn the stove on at 10:30am for a meal that won’t happen until 6:30pm.

The blood on her brain has mainly affected her sense of time, and unfortunately because she never had much of a routine before her illness, she doesn’t have many ways to mark time now. My father listens to the radio all day, watches certain TV shows at certain times, and meets with other seniors at discussion groups on certain days; my mother doesn’t do any of those things, has tended to listen to music on CD and watch DVDs whenever the mood strikes her. The lack of regimentation is turning out to be problematic for her, and for my sister and me in dealing with her. She has no sense of what time of the day it is, no idea how much time has passed between now and the last time she asked about it. In all other ways she appears just as healthy as ever, and as seems to be typical in these cases, her long-term memory is unbelievably sharp. She could probably tell you what she cooked for dinner on June 18, 1972, but she doesn’t know whether dinner is the meal we’ve just eaten or the one that’s several hours from now.

Yeah, it’s disconcerting, to say the least. Dementia scares many people more than death does. It does not particularly scare me; I’ve had first-hand experience of what it’s like to not have complete control over a part of your mind, in my case the part that makes me feel really shitty about everything. But it does make me wonder what we’re all going to do next. My mother’s condition could get better very quickly, or it could get much worse and become full-on dementia, one of those hideous coin-flips of life that keeps you in a constant anxious limbo.

As with the magical appearance of the Port-a-Potty just when you need it, sometimes timing is everything, even if time itself is, in some sense, nothing, an emptiness we try to fill with things that matter to us. Even in an activity like running, where we are so focused on the present moment, we can’t help but look ahead in time, to consider what may happen next. The anticipation may brings us excitement and joy—finishing a good run, seeing a loved one after being apart—or dread: Will she ever be the same again?

Monday, February 20, 2017

The call

You always imagine the call will be a certain way: in the middle of the night, of course, and definite. The news is the one you’ve been anticipating—it’s always been just a matter of when, given how old they are, and now it’s just a matter, to put it bluntly, of which one. You don’t expect a different kind of call, one that leaves you feeling something you can’t name just yet.

One hour into a 12-hour drive for a book reading at my graduate school, my sister called me with some good news: our mother would be leaving the hospital tomorrow morning. She’d been there for several days due to a subdural hematoma, meaning she had suddenly developed a big blob of blood on her brain. Bloody brains are not only an icky image but they are also not healthy, as you can imagine. My mother’s blob gave her a headache that she managed to endure for three days before finally calling my sister and asking to be taken to the hospital. When my mother asks to be taken to the hospital, you can bet the headache probably feels like a hundred Lucille-wielding Negans walloping her cranium at once. 

Because I was driving when my sister called, I pulled over at the next gas station to fill up the tank and return the call. Yes, the news this morning was good; the doctor OK’d our mother to go home. There was more, though. “So, when do you think you can come out to visit?” my sister asked. “I know you said May was good, but do you think you can come sooner?”

“March is also good. I could definitely do—”

“Could it be even sooner?”

I was flummoxed. What was closer than March? Like, now?

“I don’t really think she can care for herself right now,” she explained. “And our father is hopeless. He can barely care for himself. I’ve already taken a lot of time off work and I can’t keep doing that. I could sure use some help—as soon as you can.”

When my sister asks for help, you can bet she probably hasn’t slept more than about a half hour in the past week. I knew she’d been waiting on my parents during this ordeal, and I felt as guilty for not being there to help as relieved because I knew she was in her element. My sister is good at taking care of people. When I was a kid, I would have said she was good at bossing people around, since that’s pretty much how I, the youngest child, saw her. Who knew I’d be grateful for that quality as we got older.

“Well,” I hesitated. “I’m actually on my way to upstate New York right now to do a reading. I couldn’t get a decent flight so I’m driving. I won’t get back until late Wednesday night.”

She assured me that was no problem; I could certainly come after the reading. That wouldn’t be for a couple of days, though, and I had a feeling she had been hoping I could come right away. The truth is I’d been having mixed feelings about this reading all along. I was happy to have been asked to do it, and I was looking forward to getting back with some of the professors I’d worked with back in school, but lately it’s been hard to take myself seriously as a writer given the thoroughly unimpressive sales of my books. A month ago I found out that my first novel is now officially out of print without much hope of a second edition. If you bought the first edition, I’m afraid I really was joking when I told you it might be worth money someday.

With all this in mind, I sat there at the gas station staring at the dashboard wondering what I was supposed to do—and how I was supposed to feel about all this. Over the past few days my sister had called several times to give me updates, and while the news had never been truly dire, it was often disconcerting. Our mother was confused, disoriented, imagining things. She didn’t know where she was. She thought the hospital was a casino. She is in her 80s but has never been less than razor-sharp mentally. Now she was looking at the machines she was hooked up to, pointing at them and saying “see, look at the slot machines.”

It wasn’t the call I was expecting; none of those calls were. Even if you’re someone who likes to be prepared for the worst, as I am, a quality called pessimism by some but absolutely necessary for others—even then, you think it’s going to be a certain way. You think, here’s how it will end, and then you grieve, and then you try to move on. You don’t think, here’s how it begins. Here’s how things start to change, to break down. You don’t know what to think, really, so without another thought you turn the car around, and even though you’re going back the way you came, nothing is the same any more.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Selfie Shmelfie (not a very relevant title but fun to say)

Over pizza and beers the other night a friend of mine described an interesting literature course she’s taking at the university this semester, interesting because the theme is “narcissism.” This concept has been getting a lot of buzz lately in relation to everyone from the President to the Millennials (who, interestingly and much to their credit in my view, mostly didn’t vote for him). Selfie culture is often cited as evidence of our supposedly increasingly self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing mentality, which in turn is supposedly evidence of the imminent downfall of civilization, or at the very least may contribute to ocular strain due to excessive eyerolling. “This class really makes me think,” my friend said, adding with a grin, “I take a lot of selfies. I wonder if I’m a narcissist.”

I assured her that being able to ask that question probably means she isn’t. If you can view yourself critically from an outsider’s perspective, instead of falling in love with the image you see of yourself as did the mythical dude who gave the malady its name, a few social media-posted photos of yourself smiling over a plate of food or sporting a new haircut or cuddling with kittens seems harmless and possibly even, I daresay, fun. I myself don’t actually take very many selfies—my phone plan is so bare bones that I can’t do too much more than call people with it (shocking, I know), plus I’ve never much enjoyed taking and posting pictures of myself. At the same time, I blog about my life, which could be seen as little more than verbal narcissism, so you won’t find me among the eyerollers. 

In some ways it may even be essential to examine your own self-image. The writing I do for my blog gives me a chance to look at things that have happened to me and try to figure out how they might be meaningful. The meaning I “discover” is actually a creation—an image. Nothing that happens to me really “means” anything—it just happens—but by creating that meaning, life becomes a little more interesting as well as a little easier to grasp. Sure, you can go too far with any of this stuff—you can get to the point where you believe in the creation far more than the reality. Narcissus fell in love with a reflection off of water, not himself, which is what led to his literal downfall (and subsequent drownfall). Obsess too much about self-image and you end up living a life with no real substance. (Yeah, you might also end up President of the United States, but one with a lousy approval rating and a lot of unflattering memes.) 

The criticism given to selfie culture isn’t just because it leads to self-absorption but because it seems to demand the absorption of others. It isn’t enough that we live satisfying lives; we have to broadcast the choicest bits of those lives to everyone we know, even if just barely, so that they can gnaw their lips to shreds in sheer envy. In other words, the modern day Narcissus doesn’t just fall in love with his own reflection but instead gathers everyone he knows around him at a moment when his reflection is looking particularly amazing and insists they fall in love with it too—or at least “like” it. Obviously, as I said before, taken to extremes this is unhealthy. But there’s a positive side to having other people see your life this way, and it comes during times when you’re having a hard time seeing it yourself.

The pizza and beer I mentioned at the start of this post was a thank-you dinner I bought for a bunch of friends who helped K and me move our heavy furniture to our new old house. Yes, we are finally moving in, even though we’ve hardly done anything to spruce the place up and there isn’t a single square foot that doesn’t need some kind of work. Moving is said to be one of the most stressful events in a person’s life, and this particular move has been a real test of our marriage. On top of the usual stressors of moving (why is it that every time you go to cancel a particular service because you’re moving, it’s like you’re the first person who has ever done that because the customer service people are absolutely flummoxed as to how to handle it?) is the fact that it will likely be years before this house looks like a place where functioning, gainfully employed adults live. I don’t know what your Valentine’s Day plans are, but we’re probably going to spend it making sure the kitchen cabinets are free of mouse poop before we put our dishes away—that is, if we can find where the dishes are.

Oh, we didn’t go into this blind. We knew it would be a trial. It’s one thing to know about stuff, though, and another thing for stuff to actually happen. I know people go skydiving. The hell if I’m ever going to do it. That said, there have been times in the past two months when it did feel a bit like we were in free-fall without parachutes, and the day we moved would be the day we splatted down to earth. And even though most of the time I look forward to the future ahead of us, when our friends pulled up to the new old house and got out, I have to admit: I took a look at what we were all looking at and felt my heart go splat. Broken windows. Mossy siding. Piles of junk excavated from the attic. A field not of dreams but of weeds. Whatever image I had created and fallen in love with was suddenly impossible to see.

“Well,” I said wryly to my friends. “Here it is.”

“It’s beautiful.”

I look, startled, at the friend who had said this. I’d expected some “wows” and a few “cools,” since “wow” can be ambiguous and “cool” can mean “so cool that you have the energy and ambition to clean up this dump.” I had not expected beautiful.

His remark was sincere, and it was echoed throughout the day by the others.

“I so envy you.”

“Can I live here too?”

Even when we admitted how difficult it has been—and will no doubt continue to be—our friends had nothing but admiration and support. One noted the great old doors, originals from 1900, and what fabulous details they had. “Did you notice one of the doorknobs had all these hearts worked into the design? It’s a little tarnished but with some polish that would look so good!”

I had not noticed that particular doorknob. I went to look after I got back to the house that night and sure enough, the closet door of the master bedroom had an intricate design of tiny Valentines. Hmm. Maybe cleaning mouse poop on February 14th isn’t really that terrible after all, if we’re doing it here in our beautiful dump.

Sometimes it does take an outside perspective for you to gain your own perspective. You don’t need to fall in love with the image you create of your life, nor is it necessary for everyone else to; you merely need to keep creating, and sharing, as much as will keep it worthwhile.