Thursday, December 20, 2007

Doctor's Orders

In the October 2007 News Edition of American Laboratory (Vol. 39, No. 19), Dr. Dan Schneck's editorial talks about the difference between actual passage of time, r, and one's individual perception of time, n, in terms of how each can be biased to create the sensation that a day is 'dragging on' (r<n) or 'flying by' (r>n). FYI, he cites hyper/hypothyroidism; cellular metabolism; sensory, physiological, and energy stimuli like music, chemicals like caffeine and various drugs, and meditation; and other less quantifiable variables like one's innate n. The whole editorial is here (PDF format), in case you're interested.

This discussion brought my brain to something I read by another person who's out of my league when it comes to understanding oneself, Dr. Judith Orloff. In her book Positive Energy, part of the 'ten extraordinary prescriptions' is to find one's own personal pace. This is something like what Dr. Schneck calls n, though she doesn't go into the science of what makes n or how it can vary. Dr. Orloff says that, among other things, working at any other pace besides your own leads to being inefficient, sloppy, and dissatisfied, no matter what your perceived level of success, even if you're moving faster than your natural pace.

These two discussions, and the link between them, ring a bell in my brain and heart loud and clear. Here, I am starting to dig into a barely prospected lode abound with gems of inner happiness and success rivaling anything 'traditional' indicators might provide (college degrees, professional title, income, vehicle, zip code, etc.) I know that if I am ever to be effective and productive in this world, I must (MUST) get busy with the spadework. While I do try to be a simple man with a simple life, I know that this sparkling boulder sticking out of the ground in an out-of-the-way place in my life is only the iceberg tip of a treasure I am meant to discover, explore, and share. To what end I am not certain; maybe it will define my life, maybe it is only a means to a greater end, or maybe there is one person (probably a child) waiting to be shown a single iota of this wisdom, something that can only be delivered with a full understanding, and I am the designated messenger. The answer I only expect will become clear when this life has ended. Hopefully, that's enough time to fulfill the role that's been set aside for me.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Inside here
is a world you can't imagine.
It is both wild, and ornate.
It is as cultured and refined
As it is spontaneous and chaotic.
It is draped with things of beauty
And rank with dis-ease.

Inside here
are things I long to share.
Music and pictures and words
to fill the soul a thousand days over
Flash in every thought,
Pure and childlike.

Inside here
Are things I cannot bear.
A Monster resides in the depths
poisoning the fresh waters of creation,
and goodness.

Beware as you enter
that you do not cross his path.
For his evil is lascivious and sweet and clever,
And taints the purest of things.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Welcome, Old Man Winter

CNN Story: 'Nasty' winter storms cause traffic deaths, delays

Of course by now, everyone knows we in the northeast-midwest US had our first real winter storm over the weekend. And let me tell was wasn't a doozey. It wasn't extraordinary. It wasn't anything different than what I've been waiting for the past six weeks.

Deaths are terrible and delays are regrettable, and accidents, sometimes tragic ones, certainly do happen. But this is winter. Can everyone above the 40th parallel PLEASE stop complaining about:
(1) the inevitable winter weather,
(2) the first sign of the season that the Earth is tolerating the dramatic change we're inflicting,
(3) a wonderful gift of beauty and fun for kids of all ages, and
(4) a fantastic excuse not to have to pick up semi-frozen dog poop from the yard?

Is it just me, or have the last 10 years or so been rank with whining about summer heat, spring rains, and winter snow and ice? Disasters notwithstanding, it seems to me that natural seasonal changes do nothing but piss people off, causing them nothing but inconvenience because they might actually sweat while working in the garden, or have to shovel the walk in winter. What is wrong with these people? Californians put up with how many months of drought (and then wildfires), Katrina victims are still living in fermaldehyde-ridden FEMA trailers, and we're upset because we've forgotten how to drive on a slippery road, or our flight was (for safety reasons, remember) delayed? Puh-lease.

Driving past the near-million-dollar homes I see on my way to work today, I saw no less than three luxury vehicles stuck halfway out of their professionally plowed driveways, and yesterday during the end of the snowstorm, I watched numerous 4-wheel drive vehicles with high-end brand names (including a Hummer) spinning wheels in the snow because the well-manicured ladies or silk-shirt businessmen behind the wheels haven't a clue how to operate them. Am I missing something, or has expectation of nature to conform to human comfort zones become the norm?

There are lots of things to be upset about, and lots of legitimate problems we have as individuals, communities, and a species in general, but it strikes me as counterintuitive when part of everyone's solution is the exact opposite of trying to fit into a natural order with the world. It's nice to have air conditioning and a furnace to keep the house comfortable, but when the ambient air temp falls outside your ±5° tolerance, do us all a favor and complain elsewhere. Even the French are probably less whiny than you.

As for me, what I'll remember most about this weekend's storm will be my little kids all bundled up with their kid-sized snow shovels, helping me in the driveway (or shoveling the grass around the tree, depending on their mood), little bootprints inside my own because the depth of the snow was higher than my daughter's legs, snow angels and giggling, red chapped cheeks smiling at me through the window because my son, cold as he was, was having too much fun to care about hot chocolate, and the slightly-achy feeling in my shoulders and back, and very satisfied feeling in my heart, after hanging my snow shovel on the garage hook and coming in myself. These memories will remain and feed my soul long, long after whatever might come of the activities I would have otherwise engaged in without the gift of snow we received.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Eleven Tuesdays, part 3

This Tuesday, 4 December 2007, my dad came home from the hospital. As of a late last week, he was able to get out bed and sit in a chair to watch TV, a near-miracle compared to previous weeks. I haven't been to see him yet, but he sounds good on the phone. It was nice to hear him talk about simply wanting to take a bath and go to bed. He has no more IV's and can wear his own clothes (technically, he never quit that--the man never once wore a hospital gown and insisted to be allowed to wear his own pajamas the entire hospital stay). I hope, maybe 99% in vain, that his home life now is spent so simply, taking in small pleasures. He will find out the status of his tumors in the coming days or weeks, and hopefully keep himself as healthy as he can. I sincerely fear, and disgustedly expect, to find him sitting in his chair when we visit, the smell of smoke still lingering and a red and white can in his hand.

Maybe I'm not giving the man the benefit of the doubt, or I'm underestimating any new appreciation of life he may have gained, or maybe I'm just being a selfish jerk, but a huge (HUGE) part of this whole ordeal for me has been the fact that, during my dad's hospital stay, he did not have any opportunity (Thanksgiving aside) to engage in his usual addictive behavior, i.e., smoking and drinking.

I do not think he has been clean this long my entire life. I believe it was probably scary: he probably had no idea who he was unaffected by his vices. I know I didn't. During my visits and conversations with him, however, I liked that person very much. He spoke of hope and sometimes faith. He talked evenly, even if it was sternly, without that unpredictable time-bomb of rage due to blow at any moment due to a disagreeable word or opinion. He shared himself with me in ways I cannot ever remember him doing, and finally accepted me as-is when I shared myself. I've always known my dad is a good man with a giving heart and soul and a sharp, critical mind, but I've only seen shadows of it beneath the surface of that smoky amber pool he lives in. During the last 11 weeks, I've met and gotten to know the man I always wanted to be my father. I am so desperately, vehemently afraid of who I will meet when I cross my parents' doorstep, that the man I grew up with will have once again taken over the man I met so recently. But I suppose all these things are lessons in acceptance, and I, of all people, cannot hold anyone's Evil Twin against him.

What the future holds for my family is beyond my understanding, something I am thankful not to have to carry the burden of. I will keep hoping, praying, and learning both about myself and my dad, whomever he may be, and loving him no matter what. I am not finished with any of the feelings, reactions, confusion, and sometimes turmoil I've experienced the last few months, but I do hope they make me a stronger, wiser, better person, and that I can make the most of each moment as a result.

Eleven Tuesdays, part 2

It was on another Tuesday, 6 November 2007, when my dad was admitted to the hospital because he wasn't eating or staying hydrated.

What we'd learned was that his cancer was stage IV, inoperable, and had spread to both lymph nodes, both adrenal glands, and his left hip. There were three tumors in his lung and three tumors on his femur which were interfering with the ball joint and making most movement involving legs very painful. They also found a blood clot in his lung which posed a more fatal, immediate danger than the actual cancer.

He was scheduled for radiation therapy and given morphine for pain, mostly due to his hip. He was still smoking early on. Over time, he went from a well-intentioned scaling back of his usual activities (smokes and Budweiser all day), to a few beers with his meds to help him sleep, to not being able to smell even an open bottle of wine without getting sick and puking up what little he'd eaten that day. His mood was deteriorating, and as his emotional state declined he became downright hateful to my mom. He would barely eat because it hurt to swallow. I suspect there was an huge amount of self-anger and self-pity in him, which is certainly expected for someone who learns he could be dead soon (and it's his own damn fault), but per his nature he hid all that behind an increasingly vitrolic wall of non-emotion.

It was partly this which led my dad to his hospital admission. He had driven himself to his radiation treatment when the doctor basically told him he had to go to the hospital and stabilize. An ambulance took him. I left work early to pick up my mom so she could bring his truck home. When I walked into the room, my father, a 62 year old man who'd inspired such fear and violence in me, broke down and reached for me as a child would.

I don't know what happened then. I cannot name the emotional or spiritual mechanism that caused it, but my heart solidified. I hugged my dad without thinking, sat with him and held his hand, asked him questions that allowed him to tell me things he needed to get out, and supported his crotchety decisions even when he raised hell with the nurses over his blood thinner. This was not a reaction like the one I experienced while driving to Benzonia, a patronizing reaction due only to my own fear and selfishness, this was 100% heart and soul love like I'd never felt it for my dad, like it was a natural thing I'd been doing my whole life, possibly even longer.

I visited or called my dad almost every day to ask about his meds, his treatments, how much he was eating and how he was resting. Over time, all the staff of his floor/section learned what I'd learned about my dad: that no matter how sick he is he's still a jerk when he doesn't get his way. My dad spent his 63rd birthday in the hospital, and when we took the kids to see him he was such an ass to my mom I wanted to slap him; I didn't care that he'd done 14 chemo treatments in ten days. He also spent Thanksgiving in the hospital, though he was allowed to come home for a few hours, during which time I visited with my wife and sister, and again he treated my mom so abusively I wondered why she bothered taking care of this man, dying or not.

After his return to the hospital, his blood pressure would not stabilize and he got an infection. The chemotherapy was killing him by this time and we all began to wonder if dad was going to ever make it out of the hospital. I could not visit my dad because they were requiring gloves and masks in the room, and I'd caught a cold. All of this, as well as a childish spat with my sister over the Thanksgiving weekend, put me into a spin I'm only beginning to recover from. But again, I'm being selfish.

Eleven Tuesdays, part 1

I know it was a Tuesday, but for some reason the date 26 September 2007, a Wednesday, sticks in my head. It doesn't matter which is right. That's the day I found out my dad has non-small cell lung cancer.

The emotions I felt that and the days immediately following were difficult to identify. There were pain and fear, to be sure, also other less son-like or familial feelings. There was anger (my dad's been smoking since his early teens and everyone, inlcuding him, knows full well the cause of his disease), admiration (the way my dad handled the news and discussion about his disease, treatment, future, etc., was so uncharacteristic of our past relationship it was actually a refreshing change), even relief (not related to the change in relationship, but something much darker and more selfish).

This news came early in the week preceding the annual salmon fishing trip with my dad (and occasionally my brother) in Benzonia. It was a sombre thing, preparing for this trip. Normally I'd be reserved and closed, ready to defend against any criticism or return any generic lashing out due to uncooperative hardware, physics, weather, etc., in kind. I typically become a different man when I'm with my dad out of habit and necessity. Due to the grave news of the week, however, this didn't happen. I was open and ready to help no matter how filthy the language or energy was that happened to be thrown my general direction. I was making an effort to remember that this man is my dying father, and it was damn near pathetic. I believed that this may be our last fishing trip together. It still may be.

Truth be told, it was refreshing and relieving to unchain myself from reactions to my father's life of ire. What I discovered was a fear beneath it, a very childlike fear. In my eagerness to spend such precious last weekends with him, I wanted to talk to him, to ask questions and hear answers, to learn who this man was who had raised me, or tried to as best he could. I made a very dramatic effort at discovery worthy of any Hollywood performance.

But I discovered something else, too. As we drove, despite my dad's frailty and sickness, he was still smoking at least one cigarette per hour (actually, a great improvement for him) and carelessly spewing his negative talk and occasional prejudices like nothing had changed. I was surprised, I was saddened. I was sobered.

What I'd discovered was that no matter how sick my dad gets, he is still the man I've known my whole life. He is still a mean old fucker when he wants to be. The news of the disease hadn't changed him the way it had changed me, and this was both disappointing (selfishness) and reassuring (stability).

Throughout the fishing weekend, his crotchetiness resurfaced in new expressions of father-son interaction. He practically called the National Guard when I failed to return from going to get food. He thought I meant McDonald's down the street when I'd actually gone to a local bar for a burger and beer, then scouting out the local bike trail. While visiting with his friends at another campsite the next night, we both had drinks, but he had the gall to criticize me for going back to party after I'd carried his drunk ass back to our camper. More than once, I had to remind him that I'm a grown man. By the time we drove home, I was content to read my book and settle for intermittent conversation between long bouts of silence.

So finally, I discovered something else: I must love my dad the way he is, no matter what. Whether he's sick or healthy, a saint or an asshole, he is who he is, and he's also my dad. True, he may be dying, and I must not waste any time, but to change who I am as a result of his cancer, or try to change who I think he is, would be to cheapen the relationship we've slowly built as grown men over the last handful of years.

I still do not know that much more about my father. I never got the stories about his Army days, or the girl in Panama he occasionally talks about, or the places he's lived, or his history with him mom and sister, or why he hasn't spoken to his own father in 30+ years, or the jobs he's had. But I do know much more about myself, and am much more accepting of who my dad is and what I do have with him. And for today, that will be enough.