Friday, October 31, 2008

What an Odd Choice of Words

The beginning of yesterday’s post about learning of my father’s death is not some strange metaphor that didn’t work. It’s literal. Following his instructions to the letter, dear J traveled from Alabama to our house with his ashes and rang our doorbell, which is the first we knew of his deteriorating health or his death. His (extensive) instructions, which she is lovingly carrying out, prescribed every step. It was an odd way to learn of a death, though completely consistent with the life that preceded it.

While a completely different experience, it reminded us of our experience with him and ashes when my stepmother died. I was in law school, and we’d been helping him with paperwork and arrangements. As an aside, this is how we came to be reading hospital bills for her surgery and hospital stay, and concluding there must be a secret guild of people trained to construct unintelligible medical bills. We couldn’t make heads nor tails of most of them and ended up hiring a specialist in reading medical bills to help us through the maze. It was a trial. Anyway, one day, my father asked me to go by the funeral home to sign some papers. Thinking it would be a short errand easily accomplished on my way to class at the law school, I set forth.

Instead of papers to sign, however, once I arrived, the funeral home receptionist handed me Dorothy’s ashes. In what looked for all the world like a two-pound coffee can covered with contact paper. A trick of memory or story-telling embellishment leaves me with the distinct feeling that the plastic lid even said “Folger’s,” though that seems unlikely. Arriving at the law school, it felt wrong to leave Dorothy in the car, so I took the can into the building with me. Waiting in the hallway for the door to open, classmates kept saying “hey, are you going to share?” and otherwise joshing about this odd package. Taking my seat, it felt incorrect to put Dorothy on the floor—disrespectful, somehow—so I put the can on the desk, which caused the professor to say, “Ms. Gunsalus, how nice of you to bring the coffee!” It was trying and awkward.

Leaving class and going to work, the dilemma re-presented itself: it didn't feel right to leave the can in the car, so I took it into my office with me. Same scenario: everyone who saw me carrying this coffee can commented on it in some way, the more so if they knew us well enough to know that we don’t drink coffee. In my discomfort with the circumstances, I finally resorted to saying to “It’s not coffee, it’s my stepmother.” There’s a conversation-stopper for you. It made for a good story, though, after the services were over, the ashes scattered and some time elapsed between the experience and the telling.

This is all a diversion from thinking about what it really means for my father to be dead. He was a complicated person of great accomplishment who powerfully affected the lives of many people.

A true son of the prairie, he grew up on a farm with smart, hard-working parents who had only elementary school educations. He told us stories about his father who had a gift for machinery, taking apart his tractor on the barn floor on a tarp, cleaning all the pieces and putting it back together to improve its performance. He learned to drive in a Model T. His mother, a woman of formidable will, raised and supported three children after his father’s death in a threshing machine accident when he was a senior in high school. An eagle scout, he started college at South Dakota State University, and then followed his scoutmaster to Cornell, finished college there, got a Ph.D. and became a faculty member. Over his career, he built an international reputation. From his South Dakota roots—never forgotten—he grew into a cosmopolitan, polished presence, teaching himself and many others about wine, music, travel, and life.

A better mentor, probably, than a father, he wasn’t an easy person to be close to: he had the highest of standards and required much of himself and those around him. Passing along what he experienced, his style wasn’t praise but criticism, always meant to spur greater accomplishment. As a small example—one of the smallest, actually—despite my bringing home all A’s from school one year, he asked me where the plusses were. As they didn’t offer plusses, I was crushed and felt unrecognized for my hard work. It almost surely wasn’t meant that way, and to be around him meant coming to terms with the dichotomy between intent and effect and dealing with it. Riding in a car with him one day as he cataloged my (many) failings, he saw a blind woman having trouble crossing the street. Pulling the car across the lanes of traffic at an angle, he got out, held up his hand, stopped all the traffic, went over and escorted the woman across the street. Returning to the car and permitting the traffic to start again, he returned to the excoriation of my conduct without missing a beat. As you can imagine, this style worked better with some personalities than with others.

We all were clothed and fed and got great educations, if not much emotional nurturing. We were exposed to wonderful people, places and experiences. Scores of students attest to horizons opened, opportunities provided and the excitement of the journey with deep gratitude and affection. He was capable of enormous kindness and stimulated tremendous loyalty. His work was meaningful and will be remembered.

You could leave a lesser legacy. We will hold a memorial service in the spring, as requested, once the crocuses are blooming.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Stream Flows On

We opened the door this morning to the news that my father has died. Today has been a blur of handling notifications and thinking about what next needs to be done. As one of the people I called today said, “No! Gunny is forever!” It did feel like that, as his was a formidable presence and will. He’d been planning to live past 100, though he “only” made 96. Even that, he did his own way, refusing treatment after his congestive heart failure left his dignity compromised. Even more, he restricted the news about his health in the final weeks, not wanting anyone to see him in a compromised state. He died peacefully, without pain and surrounded by caring. You cannot ask much more than that, after a full and eventful life.

For the rest of us, there’s remembering and reconciling to do. According to his wishes, we’ll have a memorial service in the spring. In his words, he wanted it to be “when the crocuses are pushing up.”

More later.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Everyday-ness of Recovering

If there were an option to do the everyday chores of life in clumps—like cleaning the house for two weeks solid, or whatever number the statistical gurus calculate as being the quantity of time otherwise spent spread out over the year, that would always be my choice. This would apply to cleaning, exercising, organizing, tidying, dieting, all manner of life chores that need to be done on a regular basis but aren’t that interesting or fun. This applies, double, to recovering, where the everyday-ness is getting old. Of course, if you think about it, I did do recovering in a clump, and this is just a different phase. Given my inclinations, though, every time I’d go for a longer acute period and shorter in-between period, just because managing this is so complicated and frustrating. On the other hand, trying to dwell on the bright side, the recovery report is very good: I’m able to drive reliably now, at least for short jaunts, the incision healing has taken another big leap forward, and my balance and shoulder are improving. Washing my hair and brushing my teeth this morning occasioned a moment to stop and appreciate the distance I’ve come, as both have now moved back into the routine category from extremely-difficult-or-impossible. It pays to stop and track progress and to appreciate it.

Riding in the car with our whole family this weekend, it came forcibly home to me how well the tumor lottery worked out: if anyone in our family had to get a brain tumor, I would choose me every time. Not only do I have the perfect brain tumor hair which neither Michael, nor the girls have (they have Michael’s hair, except more of it), but if it’s me, I have more knowledge and control over how things are going. The horror of it being any of the three of them is hard to contemplate. So, that’s another thing to be happy about: the tumor lottery turned out the best possible way and exactly the way I would have chosen, had I been consulted.

Slowly, it is sinking in that scheduling one big event per day is about all that makes sense; more is possible if the events don’t involve major expenditures of energy, like standing up and teaching, but even then pacing is called for. Even more, I’m getting better at recognizing the signals of when to slow down, which feels like a major victory: after my flu shot, the next morning felt like more sleep was needed, and I actually heeded the signals. Score one for the tortoise.

My goals have been slightly revised: before adding back in the work on the book, restarting mentoring at the middle school needs to be added back. My mentee from last year has moved, so this year brings starting anew with another student, and I’m anxious to meet her and get started again. Maybe next week?

We’ll know a lot more next week, after the election, about a lot of things. Waiting is hard. Hope you’re all hanging in there, and thank you, as always, for the support and caring. We send the same back to you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Why Are You Teaching After Brain Surgery?

This is the question that I get asked more than any other. I’ve thought about the answer a lot, and the answer remains fairly simple: I really like the teaching and it lets me feel like myself again. My feeling of responsibility to these unusual classes is another element, but I’ve always had an overgrown sense of responsibility—even to the point that it’s gotten me into trouble more than once—and I know how to get over that when needed.

This has been an isolating journey; the blog and the responses I get to it reduce that isolation, but the contrast between the number of people in my life before diagnosis and after is sharp. Teaching my classes gives me concentrated doses of interactions with people, and as both groups this semester have remarkably cheerful and pleasant personalities, it’s always nice to see them.

It’s not particularly fashionable to like teaching as much as I do and maybe that’s attributable to the fact that I haven’t been doing it year in and year out for decades, only for most of one. Maybe if I’d been at it longer, I’d be really tired of it and glad to drop it. On the other hand, the experience is never the same because the kinds of topics I teach lead to fascinating variability in each topic and simulation. I’ve had experiences this semester in each class where negotiations I’ve assigned scores of times developed in ways I’d never seen before. Law students are smart, hard-working and interesting people; the freshmen I teach are smart, motivated and enjoyable to see where they are in their lives. So the experience of teaching my classes is stimulating, challenging and fun. Each provides me with a fairly safe place to figure out if I was/am still “me” the more so because I’ve had such stellar people with me backing me up and providing a safety net if I turned out not to be up to the task either physically or cognitively.

That’s why I’m teaching my classes, and so soon after brain surgery. Because it lets me experience a little control and provides a lot of reassurance that I’m still in here. Kearney points out this morning that all of this could end up making me a better teacher, especially the part where I’m experiencing being a slow learner. She points out that the best teachers and coaches are ones who understand what it is like not to be good at something initially and can help others move from that to strength. That’s a positive framing, and I’ll go with it. My slowness at getting to know and love being a tortoise is helping me be a better teacher. Selfless of me, isn’t it?

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Conveyor Belt Moves Into the Larger World

The conveyor belt I stepped onto in September, pulling my family with me, started its path in a small and tightly enclosed space. In recent days, it has been moving into the larger world, something I’m ready for only part of the time. While returning to the larger world is the much-desired overall goal, it also can be overwhelming and tiring. Mostly, it raises “what if?” questions that aren’t answerable until the effort is made—and succeeds or doesn’t. Uncertainty is not very fun.

The balance that has been lost and must be regained is more than physical, it’s also personal: can I do this again? And if not, then what? The conveyor belt’s current path may be in a bigger space, affording a wider view with horizons that are farther away, but it still goes over bumps and takes sharp turns that are unexpected, for which we are unprepared. In general, though, its consistent direction is towards real life, regular life. The hard and important things to remember are that the shortages of energy and drive are rooted in the physical issues. This turns out to be way too easy to forget in the moment. It took me many years, before this adventure, to learn to trust my own pacing and sense of timing, and that must be regained: if I do not feel like taking on a task, it is almost certainly a physical energy issue, not my inner shirker at work, as my early programming trained me to conclude. My inner shirker, it turns out, probably either does not exist or is so ineffectual that it is almost never the culprit.

Learning to trust the “go rest” and “slow down” signals and to respect them is the part of this adventure that presents the biggest challenge for me. And that turns out to be yet another way of seeking my inner tortoise, a creature I did not know existed and never particularly wanted to know before this adventure. I’m warming up to the little guy. Very slowly. That seems suitable, somehow.

This part of the recovery would be psychologically easier to work on if it had more overt visible physical symptoms. Those are incontrovertible and do not require much calibration or explanation. The internal healing, though, is not so easy to gauge, so just dealing with it is now called for. On with these tasks.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Glass is Filling Up

We’ve been having a family weekend, visiting with Kearney and Brad, enjoying our time together and eating some truly great meals. Yesterday’s post never happened, but if it had, it would have been titled “Siesta Lifestyle. Minus the Lifestyle” (all I do is stop and nap, it feels like), but Kearney pointed out that it’s a pretty nice lifestyle to visit and eat and nap. That’s true—it makes for a great weekend, though even there the undone chores beckon. It makes for a little less great everyday life, especially if getting anything done is part of the concept. Even so, taking a retrospective look, more things are getting done, and the recovery continues at a steady pace.

If I think of this blog as a record of recovery (and not just self-absorbed drivel), it helps. The progress is all in the positive direction and the distance come is long. The only real remaining big challenges (other than stamina) are balance, the scalp issues and not being able to summon words/ideas sometimes. Otherwise, the use of my shoulder and arm are almost complete, though there is still some work to be done. I still haven’t looked up the effects of the brain moving around to refill the tumor void, and hope there will be a time soon when I both remember and am sitting at the computer. It strikes me that there may be some information out there that would explain some of how recent times have been.

After the big reassessment, the next activities to be added back in need to be the book I have under contract, and projects that involve others being slowed down by my absence. All adding back in will come in small steps, as I think (hope) I’ve absorbed and learned the overdoing lesson.

We all send good wishes for your weekend and the upcoming week.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Learning, Slowly

My courses are built around letting students discover as much as possible for and about the topic of the course and themselves. This generally involves giving them both conceptual information (readings, lectures, etc.) and experiences (simulations, other exercises) that are related to the conceptual information, and then working to integrate the two, so we can go forward, building on that base, repeating the whole cycle. Experiential learning, it is called. A very wise man who generously shared advice and materials with me told me that the lessons people learn best are those in which they are given an opportunity to do it for themselves, fail, and then learn from the experience. He pointed out that if you just tell them information related to the topics I teach (negotiation, interviewing, leadership, ethics, etc.) without context or application, their reaction is often “I knew that” although, likely, they did not and could not have applied the information—nor will they likely be able to generalize and apply it in the future. It would have been nice if I had been quick enough to learn my fatigue lesson without experiencing it first. It's not like there weren't plenty of warnings.

People I know, respect and love advised me throughout this process to take things slowly, or risk prolonging the recovery. I heard this advice, trusted them, nodded my head (“I knew that”), and then was not very good at applying it to my situation—or recognizing what being overextended felt like. However, having failed now, I get it. Now, the feeling of being tired and on the brink of over-doing it is clear to me, and I have observed personally how long it takes to recover from going too far. Wiser now, if set back by most of a week, my tortoise lessons have progressed by leaps and bounds, enhanced by all the information supplied all along by those who had been there themselves and tried to warn me. This has been another illustration of the power of experiential learning. I am sure there are people who manage to learn this without failing the way I did; how do they do it? That would be a nice skill to acquire....

Sometime this week, I realized that my fingers and toes have almost completely stopped tingling—the absence of something (even something unpleasant) isn’t always quickly noticed. Anyway, that is more evidence of progress, so hooray.

Thanks for the encouragement, all. We get to see Kearney this weekend, who finally gave her long-delayed seminar yesterday and passed with flying colors. Another hooray! We’re looking forward to cooking, visiting and exploring together. Plus, of course, resting even when, in the moment, it might not feel needed.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Attitude Adjustment

Still a work in progress.

My experience suggests the best way to get out of a self-absorbed funk is to do something for someone else. That's my goal for today, amidst digging out of the email backlog and redoing a to-do list for the near future in more sensible terms. A little exercise, also within sensible boundaries should also assist.

May all of you be having stellar days, or at least satisfyingly productive ones.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Impatience Goeth Before The Exhaustion

Being glum and having headaches this week is probably related to being overtired: looking back on the time logs kept for sick leave, Sunday (grading for both classes), Monday and Tuesday (teaching, preparing to teach, etc) showed almost full-time hours. Clearly, that much energy is not yet available. I’m back to redoubling my efforts to learn to speak and live Tortoise. Most of this has been improved by a lot of sleep last night and more sleep and rest--and little work-- today. Live and learn, as they say. More balance, fewer headaches.

Physical therapy this week involved some light tissue massage to try to loosen up my scalp, which is still among the most problematic remaining symptoms of this whole adventure. It seemed to make a difference in a positive way for my leg mobility, which is interesting. While most of the incision is healing nicely, the area of my scalp that was pulled back for the surgery is still “boggy” in the parlance of the surgeon. To me, it feels numb and sensitive at the same time, if that makes the slightest sense. There are places where the incision has healed so much it is all-but-invisible, and then there are three places left that are still not-so-healed. One of those is especially tender, which was identified for us in our last visit with the surgeon as likely to be the original drill hole. After learning that, I was much less enchanted with the episode of “House” (how do you punctuate the name of a TV show on DVD, anyway?) we watched that involved someone using a drill press to drill into a person’s skull to release intracranial pressure while working at a scientific station at one of the poles. I didn’t watch that part, myself. Nothing about drilling into the skull is an appealing image, even though it was so clearly helpful to me.

Kearney and friends have noted a progression of behaviors returning that indicate to them that I’m returning to my normal self: in a recent call, Kearney told me the first sign that reassured her was when I had vocabulary upon awakening from anesthesia, the second was when I wanted ice water but complained about the Styrofoam cup in the hospital room, the third when the clutter there started to bother me, and the fourth (in her words, not mine) when I started “obsessing” about getting out thank you notes for all the kindnesses we experienced. This week, my natural crabbiness when tired is back, so maybe that’s another sign that this experience hasn’t changed my fundamental personality.

Autumn is beautiful in central Illinois, especially when it is still relatively warm, the sun is shining and the sky is blue. The forecast is for frost on the weekend, but until then, the weather is to be enjoyed. I may even try to sit in my protected corner in the sun for a bit today. Cheers to all, and thanks for reading and caring. As I resurface, the number of people who mention reading this continues to take me aback. After the initial drama was over, we figured the drivel-factor would drive people away and it would be mostly a mechanism for organizing the experience. The exchanges it has stimulated have been interesting, enriching, fun and reconnecting. Thanks again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

Was the Tortoise Patient or Just Always Moving Forward?

My regular life is within view, if not within grasp. This is frustrating. Given my commitment to Tortoise-dom, I’m making every effort to see this current location in perspective and to be patient with its "features." (This is a reference to the old computer tagline, "it's a feature, not a bug.") Today, I’m not even trying to attain grace, just to achieve some facsimile of patience.

Riding the conveyor belt is limiting, frustrating (have I already mentioned that?), boring at times, isolating, tiring—and the only choice I get right now. We’ve always taught the girls that the only thing you get to choose about some situations is how you respond to them, and that you always get to choose and to control that. Today’s goal is to choose patience and optimism. Wish me luck. May your endeavors be going better than mine are, at least so far.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

On the Conveyor Belt

Who gets a brain tumor, anyway? What does it all mean? Being recovered enough to look beyond the immediate circumstances means trying to find a way to incorporate this experience in into our regular lives. This turns out to be a little complicated.

Looking back, it feels like we were walking along our regular path and somehow stepped onto a conveyor belt in early September. That belt goes at a speed and to a destination over which we have no control: our job has been to balance ourselves as well as we can while it speeds up, slows down, takes big turns, and heads to its own destination, whatever that might be. We have stayed reasonably balanced throughout our ride, and have worked to improve its quality. Our counting exercise and this blog have helped us immensely, in that respect. They have allowed us to shape our immediate place on the belt, as if we’d put up our own hand-rails, built some comfy seats and painted our section of the belt in pleasing colors. Any way you look at it, though, we’re on this ride until it’s over, and we do not have much say in when that is, or where the final destination might be.

In talking about where we are, one aspect I’ve been reflecting on is that, once it became clear that there was a tumor that needed to come out, my own focus has been the micro-picture: what is the immediate next step? Michael and I talked originally with the surgeon about his track record and results with this surgery: how many has he done, with what kind of outcomes, including adverse effects, etc? After that, though, once we’d decided on a course of action, that wasn’t a topic I revisited. Was this denial, or something else? Michael, Kearney and Shea, though, talked and worried among themselves, especially about the possibilities for brain damage and stroke. Is it healthy that I simply didn’t focus on something over which I had no control, or was I just in la-la land?

As we proceed along this journey for which there seems to be no itinerary or travel guide, the current locale, as with most places, has both pluses and minuses. Having the energy and health to see more of the world again brings both pleasure and some anxiety about all the things going undone or just left hanging when we started on this conveyor belt. Most of them are still not possible to tackle: the energy is just not there. In some ways, it was easier when there were so many immediate demands on my attention that I just wasn’t aware of them. However, mostly, this is a great opportunity—should I take advantage of it—to be purposeful about how I allocate my time and energy as things move forward. Wish me wisdom and the resolve of the tortoise to stay focused on the long-term goal and to keep moving towards it slowly and methodically. That is the challenge of Part 4 of this adventure.

While thinking about the challenges of the current portion of the journey, we are also even more aware than usual of just how lucky we have been throughout it. So much could have gone wrong that did not and we are so much better off than so many others who land on one of these conveyor belts. We do not want to lose sight of that, nor what we might be able to do for those on worse trips or in worse situations. Nor do we want to forget to celebrate all that is good about where we are and the prospects of the end of the journey. It can feel like a lot to balance, especially if we cannot see the big picture.

A tip for those with healing incisions: we’ve been putting vitamin E, straight out of the capsules poked with a pin, on the incision, as recommended by Richard at my first hair-washing. We think it has helped and this is not something we would have tried without the advice. It’s worth keeping in mind.

Enough of navel-gazing: it’s the week-end, the farmer’s market beckons. May each of you who reads this have a personally-satisfying weekend, whatever that might mean to you. Appreciate someone around you and share your appreciation with that person. Cheers.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Definitely Part 4

Yesterday was a watershed day in many ways: it brought awareness of the clutter back, there was a major leap in the healing of the incision, and we actually made some headway in clutter reduction. The meds have been cleaned up, and many small clutter deposits consolidated. As the mail came in during this adventure, whoever brought it in shuffled through it and tried to fish out the bills. Some of us throw the true trash away at a recycling station near the door, but others of us set it aside in a pile. Most of the mail over this period was brought in by the set-asiders, so we had an impressive collection. We’ve managed a first pass through the pile, discarding most of it. We did find some important items, so it was good that we kept things—there just wasn’t enough attention to go around for a while.

The difference in the incision and its healing is remarkable: it seems like from one day to the next, major sections have changed, and there are only two truly sensitive spots left, along with the general feelings of tightness, numbness and strangeness across the peeled-back area. The improvement from even one day before is striking and most welcome. The surgeon said that it would take a full three months for the scalp to heal completely, so more patience is indicated. The advances, though, are heartening.

All told, this is certainly a new and encouraging phase. Part 1 was the diagnosis, surgery and immediate after-math in the hospital. Part 2 started when it was possible to go home. The third segment of the adventure began as it became possible to see people and pick up one or two threads of real life, very slowly; the medical routine was dramatically reduced and the pain came under control, at least most of the time. And now, Part 4, where genuine healing has taken place and the recovery is tangibly in transition to regular life, albeit at a prudent and stately pace. If you didn't know I'd had surgery, you probably couldn't tell encountering me during an "awake" period. There are more awake periods, though I still just run out of steam now and then and urgently need to rest. Just not as often. Hooray. It's all forward progress, even in a week that had some dips and setbacks. Part 4 is a nice place to be. We're counting our blessings, again.

I’ve been mulling over an experience this week. Before an MRI, patients are both questioned closely and fill out a form about whether there is any metal in their bodies. Questions include whether any items have been implanted: pacemakers, dental fixtures, hearing aides, joint implants, etc. They even ask if you have ever done any welding or have any shrapnel shards. What they don’t ask, and what never occurred to me to mention (though obviously they knew about them) were the titanium pins in my head. They just aren’t part of my self-image or consciousness so far, though this probably needs to change. At least on my first trip, by the way, the pins weren’t an issue in airport metal detectors. We’ve been told that the pins aren’t detected by them, which raises a whole host of other questions. I’m not going there. Meanwhile, I have a letter for travel—just in case—that explains what I have in my skull and why.

Today brings physical therapy (balance) and strength training. Late in the day, a talk on civility booked long ago. For me at this point, that’s a full day of activity, though some grading will likely be possible as well. Very slowly, I’m beginning to learn how to balance energy and aspirations. Mostly. It’s a moving target, since I am getting stronger every day. The tendency is to over-reach, but I’m getting better at recognizing the signs and responding more appropriately. It would be hard to say that I’ve achieved full tortoisedom, but I’m at least approaching some kind of hybrid racing tortoise drinking espressos all day.

Fridays are nice days. We send you our wishes for a good day and a better weekend and hopes that you will fit in some enjoyable time with your family and friends.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Sample of Our Clutter

Just one example of the clutter that is making me crazy. There have been a lot of meds to deal with, and thankfully we are down to just one that is on a schedule (anti-seizure) and one that is "as needed" (for pain). We are truly thankful to be dealing with this problem in an era in which medicine has so much to offer.

Shifting to the Next Phase?

Yesterday, the clutter in the house from deferred tasks and untended routines suddenly became visible to me again. Over the course of this adventure, we’ve attended to the most urgent items and done the best we could with everything else. The clutter and un-done items receded from notice. Until yesterday.

That's when the piles of unread newspapers and our collection of medicine (much now unused), tape, etc., sprang back into view and started becoming irritating. Unfortunately, after the MRI, the headaches came back, so the energy to deal with this (re)newly-irritating mess just wasn’t there. After the travel, teaching was all I could handle Monday and Tuesday and yesterday brought both physical therapy (work on balance, which was very difficult) and strength training. Other than that, mostly I slept. Maybe today, which only brings occupational therapy, I’ll get caught up on rest and be able to think from my tortoise-center about priorities and how to balance recovery and all the deferred aspects of our lives. Maybe not. Maybe, all the deferred stuff will stay that way for a while longer?

Seeing more around the house and beyond has to be good news and mean that my world-view is opening up. Surely that is another step to recovery, and possibly even a shift to Phase 4 of this process? While maybe someone has detailed how the recovery process unfolds, I haven’t yet found it, so this is uncharted territory for us. A travel guide would have been helpful. I’m adapting, slowly and awkwardly, to not having energy to do things I used to do without thinking, and generally took for granted. Now, as I regain the ability to add back, is the time to be thoughtful and intentional so the energy that is available is used well.

Happy Thursday. The week is playing itself out, and the weekend is coming. Don’t forget to take care of yourselves today, and to hug someone you love.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What’s The Story With That Name, Anyway?

Even friends who have known me for many years are confused by my name and ask about it. For some reason, it’s coming up a lot recently, so here’s the full story.

My parents both had Ph.Ds and enough sense to come in out of the rain. Smart people, with broad interests and strong values, well-educated, travelled, etc. So why this predictable name conundrum exists is a mystery.

My full name is Carolyn Kristina Gunsalus. I’ve been called Tina since birth. My mother’s name was Carolyn, and she went by Carol. The story I’ve been told is that my father proposed my name, perceiving Kristina as a kind of linguistic diminutive of Carolyn. As you will quickly detect, this means that what I am called comes from the end of my middle name. This would have been fine, except my younger sister’s name (still all perceived to be linguistic diminutives, I’m told) is Kristin Carla Gunsalus. This means my initials are C. K. and hers are K. C. Cute. She’s been called Kris since birth. The combination of my mother’s use of Carol and my sister’s use of Kris rules out the use of either Carolyn or Kristina by me, the confusion factor being high with either. For informal purposes, of course, there isn’t any difficulty: Tina is fine.

The situation changed when I got to be a grown-up lawyer. Tina is not a good lawyer name. (In those days, it still evoked memories of Tina Louise, among others.) For business cards, even though I’m not big on the first-initial-then-name construct (pretentious), the best option seemed to be C. Kristina, so as to provide a clue as about the source for Tina. Life got a little more complicated when I started publishing: my mother had a full set of publications out there in the world under Carolyn Gunsalus. My sister was publishing as Kristin C. Gunsalus. Mulling it over, and finding remarkably few options or degrees of freedom, other than renouncing my name altogether and starting from scratch, I opted for C. K. Gunsalus.

One interesting side-effect of this choice has been the number of people who have assumed this must be a man. There have been a number of interesting and usually beneficial aspects to that assumption. Some are just amusing: Someone once forwarded a string of speculation from a blog that my press must have forced me into the use of initials to make me sound more authoritative, until eventually someone googled and found that ALL my publications, dating from the 70s, use that name. That ended the discussion. Other interesting effects have been the decisions of some editors about how I should be cited when quoted. Nature, for example, for quite some time insisted that my name was and must be Kristina Gunsalus, which caused quite a bit of confusion for a while. Eventually, they relented and will now quote me as C. K. On election ballots and in the local newspaper, the choice was usually C. K. (Tina), because so many people in town know me as Tina… it’s not the name I would have chosen, given the choice, but it is what I got, and I’ve never thought seriously about becoming someone else, although a remarkable number of people, after meeting me once, throughout my life, have thereafter called me “Lisa.” I’ve never understood that, nor the number of people who don’t listen and misspell my last name, even as it’s being spelled out loud for them, in chunks. I say G-U-N and pause, and they write down Gonz. Oh well.

Anyway, that’s the story of the name.

Yesterday’s MRI adventure brought back the headaches, so I’ve taken more vicodin in the last two days than in the last week. That’s likely a minor setback and now, in full tortoise mode, we’re just concentrating on more rest. It’s still warm here, though we’re expecting a cold front by Saturday, including a frost. There’s not much sunshine, especially this afternoon, but the warmth is lovely and we’re appreciating it before the cold arrives. We send you warm greetings and hopes that your weeks are going well.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

One Month Check-up

MRIs are not a lot of fun. Mine today was another contrast MRI, and involved getting an IV port (since removed) and 30-40 minutes of scan. On the other hand, the MRI made the precision of the surgery possible and there are many worse things, plus, it’s over. Our visit with the surgeon afterwards was short and crisp: my progress is good, the tumor void is 80-90 percent refilled with my brain and the incision is healing nicely. He did say that it would take about three months for my scalp/head to feel normal again and the soft spot I dislike so much is likely from the first drill hole. (Ick.) Between the two appointments and the necessary nap afterwards, the morning evaporated. I have another follow-up with him in a month and another MRI in six months. Whatever filling-in my brain is going to do will likely be complete by then; he said that, when tumors get as big as mine did, the void never refills completely and that my progress is encouraging. In the scans, we could clearly see the scar line from the surgery as well as the space not yet filled. It was interesting, especially if I turn off the part that identifies that as any of me. Or my brain. Truly, it is amazing what medical science is able to do these days.

The leaves outside my bedroom window are turning, and they are glorious. I have a few more papers to grade for today’s class, and then class. We are having an old, old family friend for dinner who is in town to give a seminar on campus. He worked with my mother and we are all anxious to see him. (For the inquiring minds wondering about this, I’ll rest between class and dinner.) And then, the rest of the week will be very low-key and restful. It’s likely that I have some accumulated exertion to rest off, plus it would be grand to be able to start getting some exercise again on an organized basis (beyond the therapy). Today the surgeon cleared me to do anything I am comfortable with if the energy is there. We’ll see if things are scheduled properly, if that is possible.

With low-level headaches still going on and still taking a ton of meds, my reading and quickness aren’t returning as quickly as I would like. (Tortoise, tortoise.) In the back of my mind, if I’m honest, I’m worried they will not ever return. Now, in addition to working on my patience and grace, I’m working on being more optimistic. This morning, while occupied with medical stuff, Michael’s cell phone rang and went to voice mail. Characteristically, I worried that maybe something had happened to Shea at school and that we should check it in case it was an emergency, and Michael assumed it was not a big deal and a call that could be checked at leisure. (Need I mention that he was right and I was wrong, again?) Despite my general can-do, problem-solving attitude, I do tend to be a catastrophist. Not about myself, only about those in my zone of caring, or natural disasters. This has some positive consequences, as we are well prepared for a tornado with a storm shelter. We’re less well prepared for a flu epidemic, but it’s there in the back of my mind to think about when there is time.

The yard sign enigma still puzzles me. I get the residential restrictions and the lower-key necessity in a state like California, but not the contrast between the small towns in Illinois and Urbana (also not really “in play,” as they say). Surely people everywhere are the same with the same impulses to root for their cause? Is this a cultural difference somehow?

Speaking of people being people, the great speaker I met in California recommended Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), so I’ve (very slowly) been reading it. This is another book well worth your time about how people justify their own actions, cognitive dissonance, the confirmation bias, etc. It’s by Tavris and Aronson.

That’s the medical progress report. All positive, with a distance still to go. It only takes hard work (can do) and patience (iffier, and still a work in progress). Still, it is not like there is any choice about being patient here: it can go easily and gracefully or by being constantly restive, but the healing is going to take as long as it takes. So, the goal is to be patient and graceful. You might not always recognize it, but that is indeed the goal.

Have a great Tuesday! Big hugs to all of you who are caring and supporting us through this adventure. We send our caring and our profound gratitude back to you.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Yard Signs and Bumper Stickers

Here’s something that seems puzzling: in my few outings of the last month or so (including the mega-outing for going to California), we’ve seen tons of yard signs for local races, wherever we go—and hardly any for the presidential candidates. On that lovely Sunday when we went to the Salt Fork Art Festival, we drove the back roads as we usually do when we have time. Every small town we passed through had plenty of signs for coroner, county board, and a few legislative races. Except for two, we saw not one presidential yard sign, and even in those, it was only a few houses in one stretch with competing signs. In California, we saw many bumper stickers for presidential candidates and, again, hardly any yard signs even though there were many for other causes/races. In Urbana, yard signs are ubiquitous for all kinds of candidates, causes and, yes, even presidential candidates.

All of us commented on the scarcity of presidential yard signs in Northern California. We were primarily in small towns and then on big highways where we couldn’t see houses or yards. Is this a local thing? Do people in small towns avoid yard signs for the big race to keep the peace with their neighbors? Something else? We were really puzzled. Is it just college towns that do yard signs for the big races with abandon?

The travel home was more like what travel is like these days, with delays and “helpful” policies affecting us. Our flight from San Francisco to Chicago was late departing due to equipment problems, so we ran across O’Hare to catch our Champaign flight. We made it to the gate just as they were calling the boarding, so sweating and happy, we congratulated ourselves. Too soon. When we got to the head of the line, our seat assignments were deemed “invalid” by the machine, so we were shunted to the gate agent. Some helpful airline person or computer program had decided that our SFO flight would be late enough that we’d been moved to a later flight, so even though we were there, and had boarding passes issued by the airline, we couldn’t get on the flight. The really aggravating part was that there were empty seats on the flight—five to be exact—but they went to the standby list and not to us, even though we were ticketed passengers. The gate agent tried valiantly to find a way to get us on the standby list with sufficient priority (all three of us) that we’d get on, and “the computer” wouldn’t let him. Thus, we waited and came home on the next flight. The good news was that we saw people we hadn’t seen in some time and were able to visit and catch up, including with A who is volunteering in Ohio pretty much full time for the Obama campaign and will be until the election. It was fascinating to hear about the work she’s doing and the progress they’re making. We got home later than we’d hoped, but we did get home without incident, and the bag arrived safely that Michael had checked with wine he got at the Bottle Barn, a discount wine place that has fun stuff because the local wineries all send their odd lots there.

I slept eleven hours.

Today brings occupational therapy and law class. The papers for today are almost all graded (a long plane ride plus airport time provides a great out-of-ordinary-life opportunity for grading), so there are only a few more to go. Today’s class is a fun one, and I’m looking forward to the students and a great guest speaker.

Tomorrow is my follow-up MRI and visit with the surgeon to assess how things are going, plus class and dinner with a family friend who worked with my mother and who I have known most of my life. And, as always, there will be plenty of rest in between events. We are acculturating to the rhythm of building in the rest periods as a standard part of our routine. In California, Michael rented a biggish car so that I could sleep on the back seat while others were pursuing activities. We went to the coast for a hike, for example, and I walked with everyone for about 10 or 15 minutes on the flat part, and then went and slept in the car while they all continued hiking. We’d taken my famous buckwheat pillow with us, and it was a warm day; with the windows cracked, there was a great ocean breeze. It was a nice solution.

After this weekend’s experiment, we figure that for at least another few weeks, I’ll do little beyond teaching and the therapy schedule. I’m hoping that by next month, I’ll be able to resume more of my other activities. For now, though, it looks like teaching and grading makes a pretty full plate for me, and matches the energy available. I’m getting stronger every day but am still taking a lot of meds and resting a lot. Plus, the therapy schedule alone fills a lot of time. However, the progress is discernable and I’m focusing on that. As a total aside, the hair around the incision that is growing out is now about ¾ of an inch long and standing straight up. It’s a great reminder that my whole head could have looked like that, and another reason to stop and count my blessings.

As this week begins, I hope that you can anticipate some aspects that interest or excite you, and that you’ll get to make progress on something that matters to you, as well as dealing with all that other “stuff” that constitutes work and life. Don’t forget to stop and appreciate health, family and friends. Hug someone, or reach out to a friend with whom you’ve lost contact. It’s the people that really matter in the end.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Taking Stock, One Month Out

This trip has confirmed, or maybe emphasized, several things about this path to recovery. The most important to me was that I was able to interact effectively and enjoyably with the group at the university; my old “self” was back. That was a huge relief and exhilarating experience. I had a lot of fear about whether I’d be able to pull off what I went there to do. While I still have problems accessing words now and then, the short term memory problems are vastly reduced, and my perception is that mostly, it’s not that different than if these were simply senior moments. The second thing that emerged on this trip is that sleeping is reverting to more normal patterns. After the surgery, there wasn’t any choice but to sleep on my back, slightly elevated, to accommodate the incision and the wonky shoulder. With the healing of the incision (slower than desired, but what else is new?) and the immense improvements (especially while taped) of the shoulder, limitations on sleeping position are significantly reduced, even if not totally gone.

Taking stock overall, the situation is amazing. Who would have predicted I’d be able to travel and work a month after surgery? None of us, especially me, are losing track of how very fortunate we are. We count our blessings and try to retain a sense of joy and appreciation--and not to take any of this for granted.

The status report: most of the areas that felt “dead” have come back and feel almost normal, I am regaining control over the arm, the areas that tingle are vastly reduced, my thumb doesn’t hurt all the time, and my balance improves every day. I started to say, as I have before, that things are vastly better than we had any right to hope or expect, except that is not quite accurate.

I cannot speak for the rest of the family (who, I know, worried a lot about potential brain damage), but my thinking never really extended this far out. Between my denial (let’s face it: what else explains it taking two hours for it to register that a mass in my brain requiring a crainiotomy meant a brain tumor?) and my focus on “Get. It. Out.”, it would be hard to say honestly that I gave much thought to “after” or recovery. Those thoughts that occurred were mostly related to schedules and obligations, as in, how many to cancel? My focus on the moment and the next step were probably useful in getting through the process, but looking back, a little bemusing. Some of that can certainly be explained by the whirlwind of it all. The rest, I think, really does need to be attribute to denial. It’s not just a river in Egypt, as they say.

Otherwise, so long as I pace myself properly (remembering, always, the tortoise), I present a reasonable facsimile of the ordinary Tina. Just not as much as there used to be, nor as there will be again, I hope. When we took the tape off the shoulder this morning, the skin underneath looked just fine, and Michael’s marks are holding up for the retaping. Even without the tape, the range of motion is better, though not as good as with the tape yet. So the progress is discernable, if only I stop to assess and appreciate it, as I’m sure a good tortoise does regularly to help maintain the pace and the direction towards the ultimate goal.

At the university, one of the other presenters in the program had fascinating, complementary knowledge to mine and opened up new horizons for me. He attended all of my sessions and, afterwards, when we were debriefing with the program coordinator, his insights, based partly on body language and micro-expressions, were fascinating. He and I always got to the same place, through completely different paths, with different vocabulary and concepts. I want to learn some of what he knows! His work focuses on nonverbal communicative information (based on NLP and John Grinder’s work) and behaviorism. He and I talked about potential collaborations that could be exciting. Fun!

We had a great visit with D and J, and then with family afterwards.

We are looking forward to a wonderful weekend and we send you our wishes for the same.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Michael was Right and I was Wrong (Again)

Michael thinks I worry too much about too many things. Mostly, I don’t think of it as worrying, so much as preventive anticipation: if I think of all the things that could go wrong, maybe I can prevent them. Of course, he’s right, I do worry too much. And, in the specific case of the California trip, he was right and I was wrong. I told him so, but it never hurts to repeat it. None of the things I worried could go wrong on this trip (so far, let us not tempt fate too much) have gone wrong. The travel was smooth, the hosts exceedingly understanding about altering the schedule so I could rest in between events, the hotel quiet and lovely, etc. The schedule at the university changed a good deal due to some unforeseen events here, and in a way that was probably more suited to my energy levels. Everything worked out for the best. As it does more often than not.

Meanwhile, Michael says the bills are coming in. It looks like my little medical adventure is going to cost somewhere north of $70,000—at the discounted for insurance companies price—by the time we’re done. That includes $45,000 worth of hospital stay and $20,000 of surgery. We maxed on our out-of-pocket, as I mentioned, on the radiology and emergency room visit at the very beginning, which again raises the issue of the deep injustice for all those who do not have access to health care insurance. Our system is really broken.

The weather here is glorious. I sat in the sun some yesterday as I waited for the next event, and it was a truly lovely interlude.

I’m off now for one more engagement, then to meet Michael and Shea and head off for our weekend of seeing family and friends. Oh yes, the weekly papers did arrive, so I have those with me to grade in quiet moments.

Thank you for all the good wishes for this trip of mine. So far, so good. A wonderful Friday to all.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My First Travel Day

The travel went deceptively smoothly. Kearney would suggest that my beginner’s luck kicked in again. Is the first time traveling after brain surgery a category to which it applies? Everything was on time or early, all reservations were recognized, navigation was straightforward, etc. However, it was exhausting. The kind of exhausting where it is hard to sleep afterwards, you are so tired. It was a good thing that I had most of the day to rest and recover. The hotel is a business suite hotel with no restaurant, so I ordered food to be delivered, and when it arrived, was too tired/full/off schedule to eat it. I worried about this for a while, and then realized that I’d been grazing steadily all day on some sandwiches Michael made me and had stupidly eaten food on the flight just because it was in front of me, not because I was hungry or liked it. I put the food in the refrigerator and will use it for meals tomorrow.

At some point during the day, it came to me that, throughout this experience, one of my underlying assumptions has been that it has only been about the tumor and surgery, not the rest of my healthy body. This might well be one source of my failures to pace myself very well so far. At the very least, it bears some thought, because of course, sense and the surgeon have plainly communicated the magnitude of the assault on the whole body presented by the anesthesia and surgical process. With any luck, this insight will assist me in coming days to be more realistic about limits, etc.

Is it true that women mostly shower with their backs to the water while men face the water? I cannot remember who told me this and I have never taken the time to track down whether it is true or simply another urban myth. This came to mind as I was standing sideways to keep the shoulder taping dry, since it needs to last until Michael arrives on Friday. The ends that curled the last time are taped down extra well this time, and there’s no premature loosening so far, but there are still two nights and at least 1.5 days before it can get replaced. Since it helps so much in the use of my arm, I’ve become very protective of the tape. Late last night, we had to modify the upper-arm taping, as an area under it had become inflamed and was seeping/weeping. Michael trimmed the tape so it was no longer covering the bite and treated the angry area with hydrocortisone cream. Overnight, it continued to be unhappy and even blistered, though that has subsided by now. We are hoping that an irritated bite is the full extent of the issue here, and not, as we were warned to watch for, the skin breaking down from being covered by the tape. Fortunately, I think this is the only bite that is covered by the tape. (The no see ‘ums were out in force my last two or three days in the sun.) The occupational therapist warned that this is one of the potential downsides to the kinesio-tape we’re using, though to a lesser extent than for other options. So far, it is plausible that our early, hopeful, theory was right.

In one of those strange leaps, this led me to thinking about things experts know and notice that the rest of us do not. This concept entered my life when I was a child, and the mother of a friend of mine who was a doctor said, in a conversation since lost in the mists of time, that the child we were discussing could not possibly be as old as we thought, as she had no ridges on her teeth, so did not have her permanent teeth yet. That she could tell the difference between permanent and baby teeth struck me like a thunderbolt. And, if she knew things like that, what else could she tell by looking at me? The therapists I’m working with have educated eyes about items I’ve never even considered, and it is always interesting to learn what they are looking for and monitoring. When we took car trips with Ernie, Michael’s dad, we always learned fascinating things about the fields along the highways, as he knew so much about agriculture. He knew about farming methods, equipment, erosion, crop rotation, etc., and could tell a lot about the success of the farmer by assessing the state of the cultivation. Usually, he could tell us the kind of equipment that had last been through the fields, as well as how the crop was doing. It always opened new worlds to us. We miss him a lot, for this and other reasons. But to get back to the point (yes, I know I wander a lot these days and I am hoping it will diminish as I recover more), the educated eye of the expert holds fascination. Is there a place out there on the web that catalogs some of the things experts look for in various dimensions? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a way to get access to the pointers that are meaningful in areas that matter to us to be able to make use of them? Just knowing the questions to ask is sometimes the most important step.

Your thoughts and comments on “enoughness” are providing food for thought. Keep them coming. How much is enough? How do we tell? Is it a teachable concept?

Even though it is early here, my emerging new respect and awareness of my physical state suggests that extra sleep is called for, so I’m going to heed. Tomorrow will be an interesting test of how well I am pacing myself and how my stamina is building.

I send you wishes for at least one moment of beauty and peace in your Thursday.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Westward Ho...

As this California trip begins, I’m a little apprehensive, and at the same time excited. My world has been tightly constrained for the last four weeks. Since September 10, when I had my surgery, my time has been spent in the hospital, in my house (mostly in my bedroom), at Mettler, and in law school classrooms. I’ve been one or two other places, but not more. Suddenly, a small world expands. A lot. Seeing family members and friends, including those at the university where I’m speaking, is energizing. Travel seems daunting.

Ambivalence like this can be costly. Things we want to do or achieve cost time or energy or involve risk. They can so easily seem overwhelming. Paralyzing, at times. Other times, it is so easy to brush off. Finding balance is the trick—in this, as in so many other areas.

So, forward. Any problem that arises can surely be solved. There will be people to call upon and I’m not short on problem-solving resources. Rest is built into the schedule and Michael and Shea will be there with me on Friday (so as to minimize missed school). I have my noise-cancelling headphones (I wonder if they will go over my sore scalp? I hadn’t even thought about that), plenty of to-read items to shed along the way, my kindle with many books, papers to grade. The week has started well: good occupational and physical therapy sessions, full attendance at both classes (what wonderful students!), strength training and plenty of rest. It has been a strong start. Now, it is up to me to build upon it. Wish me well.

Thank you again for all your caring, support and communication. My progress and forward motion rest on that strong foundation. I hope to be able to repay each of you individually and personally, or if not, by passing along what I’ve received to others. I bombard you with positive thoughts for stellar days.

Therapy Ins and Outs

Yesterday, the occupational therapist taught Michael how to tape my shoulder so we can renew the tape at home when it peels loose. She then had him do the actual taping as she coached him. She was pleased with his facility in picking it up, but taken aback by the full Walker approach, which involved marking with his pen on my skin where each piece of tape begins and ends and numbering the order in which the pieces are applied. (When we got home, he took pictures, too, so he had good documentation of the correct approach. And went over the marks with a permanent marker, so they hang around longer. He also added strips of tape at the ends to keep them from curling. He will be able to recreate this with consistency, never you fear.)

As we understand the effect of the taping, it lifts my shoulder blade a bit and thus calls into action the muscles beneath/around it, which otherwise weren’t doing their job. What we didn’t ask, and should have, was how long this will be necessary and what the natural progression is of this treatment approach. The effect of the taping is so terrific—it gives back almost full use of my arm—that was more the focus at the time. With the taping, almost everything I want to do with the arm is possible. Writing on a blackboard is still difficult unless the right elbow is being supported with my left hand. There are still movements at which the arm just fails, but they are so dramatically reduced that, as long as I’m careful, it’s almost as good as new. The shoulder still gets tired and my hand needs to be supported after a while (pockets and table tops are good), but there is real, discernable progress here. It feels good.

We have been trying to understand the difference between physical and occupational therapy; it turns out we’re not alone, as when I consulted Dr. Google, it was a common search that many others have also done. And, there were many sites with information. In my case, the physical therapy is working on gross motor skills and balance and focusing on my leg. The occupational therapist is an arm/hand specialist (specially certified) and is working on my arm and hand. As far as I can tell from my superficial search, occupational therapists focus on life skills (not necessarily occupational skills), so hair and tooth brushing, doing buttons (if that were an issue in my case) and writing on the blackboard are all in that domain. One web page suggested that PTs are state-licensed and OTs are nationally certified, but I didn’t see that elsewhere and didn’t pursue it. For me, the two are coordinating (and with the strength training coach as well), so they are avoiding overlap or contradictory approaches. Over time, the PT may work on my head and neck as well, but right now, the scalp is sensitive enough for that to be out of the question.

Posting the rest of the week may be spotty, as I’m off to California at 6 a.m. tomorrow. I was able to do all three hours of my law class yesterday (hurrah!!!) though the wonder-friend and teacher who covered and is now co-teaching with me and focused pretty hard on getting me to sit down whenever possible. Please note that I followed her advice without question. Overall, I would give myself a B for yesterday: the day was devoted to resting and class, but still probably included a little more of “other” than the situation calls for. At one point, in communicating with my terrific assistant at the law school, I was so fuzzy I was sending her confusing information. I took a nap and cured that, but should have recognized earlier the need for some rest. That is a skill that needs honing. It’s on the list.

Happy Tuesday to all. Take a moment in this day, somewhere, no matter how busy or rushed your day, to give yourself a moment to enjoy or appreciate beauty and friendship.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Still working on pacing

Beloved members of my family (Michael and Shea) have the absolutely amazing ability to open a package or letter and leave the packaging sitting on the counter while they move on to the next thing. Apparently, the packaging becomes invisible in the joy of reading the letter or using the item in the package, because even with a garbage can directly underneath the counter, it can sit there undisturbed while other activities proceed. I’ve never actually been able to measure how long such items remain invisible, as my patience with the clutter is shorter than the time it takes the item to re-materialize. I was thinking about this ability to overlook excess items this weekend, as I overdid it again. An ability to overlook things might be just what I need to cultivate, along with my patience. I wasn’t too active, I just worked too hard on grading: there were both regular weekly papers and mid-term papers in front of me, and since they were there, I graded them all. Now I’m tired, and the week is only beginning.

The surgeon says it takes two to three months to recover from the assault to the system that brain surgery (or any major surgery, for that matter) represents, and between the wise counsel about pacing myself everyone is offering and my own intellectual understanding (though not, apparently, much beyond understanding the concept) surely I can make progress on this.

This must be related to enoughness, which if I could only get traction on the concept, likely would offer illumination. How much is enough, anyway? Do you have to think about it in advance, if you don’t have Shea’s ability to recognize it in real time? Apparently so for me, as I do not recognize it in real time. Back to the drawing board. My current idea is to set boundaries in advance and to talk about them, using the principle of commitment to help reinforce their actualization. Thus:

Today brings occupational therapy and my law class. And rest. Only.

The leaves are turning here and it’s beautiful. At the beginning of a week, I wish you balance and peace. Cheers.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Cocooning and Connection

It’s another gorgeous, sunny autumn day here. Yesterday, grading papers in the sunshine in the protected corner of the back yard was theraputic and helped me with my goal of resetting my attitude. As the reality settles in about just how long a slog this is going to be, I’m struggling with my perspective. I’m still enjoying the small pleasures that were so wonderful after surgery and still appreciating how tremendously lucky we have been throughout every stage of this process. At the same time, the contrast between my life a month ago and now is stark. However, the distance I’ve come is remarkable and focusing on the positives here is the order of the day. I’ll get there.

H asked if the taping of my shoulder is like the volleyball players in the Olympics. It’s exactly the same thing and the therapist even mentioned that while she was doing the taping. In my case, the tape is keeping the shoulder blade lifted a bit. The effect is powerful: I could drive our manual transmission car with the shoulder taped and can brush my teeth with one hand for the first time since surgery; sleeping is vastly more comfortable. The area in which there just isn’t control over what the arm does is vastly reduced. The only downside comes from how much the ends curl and the tape peels. The therapist said each taping would last about three days, and we go back again tomorrow.

Right after the surgery, especially, my and our impulse was to hunker down at home and cocoon together. At the same time, the urge to be connected to others was strong—even when, at least then, we didn’t have much energy to spare to actually see people. This blog and the responses to it have been a lifeline. Being able to stay connected to people, knowing you’re all out there and rooting for recovery, is sustaining. There are parts of this that are solitary endeavors, but not as many as you’d think, with the support and encouragement flowing in. Not to mention the good advice and the constant reinforcement to pay attention to the pace of this and not rush it. That has made a big difference in helping me keep my eye on the goal, which is full long-term recovery. In short bursts, I’m a pretty good facsimile of my old self, especially if I have my right hand in my pocket or resting on a table. Before and after those bursts, not quite so much. However, the bursts get longer every day and the time between them shorter. The progress isn’t directly linear, but it is all in the same direction.

So, thank you for staying in contact. It means a lot. Without it, the isolating aspects of this would have extracted a bigger toll. We are in the debt of all of you. Happy Sunday.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Gaining Ground; Distance Still to Go

Yesterday brought some milestones: after my shoulder was taped in occupational therapy, I was able to drive, a first since surgery. It felt good. The pain is much reduced and, by now, the last of the steroids should be out of my system. The shoulder-taping also helped with sleeping. We’re settling into long-term recovery mode. At the same time, it was hard to feel triumphant, as there’s so much distance yet to go.

My mood was surely affected by the cooler weather and reduced sunshine, but also, I think, by the sheer uncertainty of knowing, at any given time, what is possible and what is not. It is hard to plan ahead as it is not possible to predict how things will progress. For a person who has been perhaps overly fond of certainty and maybe had a worldview that was a little black-and-white at times, this is trying. I’m working at seeing it as part of my special opportunity to learn patience and acquire grace.

Today’s main task, therefore, is to find a more cheerful frame of mind and to focus on the progress, not the distance to go or the uncertainty. We’re scheduled to visit one of my brothers at the end of next week in conjunction with me giving a talk at a university I have been working with for many years. They’ve been wonderful about reorganizing the original schedule to fit within what we think (being sensible and prudent) I ought to be able to do by the end of the week. Assuming I have enough stamina to spend the entire class period at either or both of my classes this week, this should work. The daunting part is wondering if I can still be me and do what I love to do, and do it well. We’ll know more next week.

In the meantime, there are naps to take and papers to grade, and maybe a walk in the park on a beautiful autumn day. Shea is taking the SAT this morning and the farmer’s market is this morning. We have a full and good life and we intend to revel in it. For now, that’s enough. We hope your Saturday is full of friendship and love.

Friday, October 3, 2008


My mind is finally starting to wake up. It feels like it will be a slow process with this self-absorbed recovery process still commanding a lion’s share of attention, but yesterday’s post at least did get me thinking again about an issue that I have been puzzling about for quite a while: the concept of “enoughness.” The catalyst was writing about one of Shea’s really fine qualities, that she stops when she is full, no matter how good something is or what she is leaving uneaten. That is a form of “enoughness” and it is a powerful and important quality.

The idea of “enoughness” and what it means and how to think about it began to interest me through teaching law and business students. Many of the ethical problems that come up in their lives do so when everything in the environment is measured by money. Yet what draws a lot of students to law school is the desire to make the world better, work for justice, etc. Yes, the desire to have a prestigious, well-paying career is a draw as well, but a remarkable number at least start out idealistically. There is interesting research out there about how law school changes people, not in a positive way, and a fascinating movement among a group of law professors to humanize legal education to help students retain a sense of balance and mission throughout their careers, instead of becoming one of the statistics that make lawyers among the unhappiest, most substance-abusing, most-divorced (and so on) professionals around.

Anyway, a perennial topic in my negotiation course when discussing exercises that raise core questions about each person’s own conduct as a negotiator is managing your money in a way that permits you to walk away from a job if you feel compromised ethically. Many—but by no means all—students cross ethical lines in some of these exercises, which they explain by saying it felt like their obligation to the client, or they knew they wouldn’t look good if they didn’t. (Really.)

An important question I ask during this discussion is whether students want to become the “go-to” person for cutting corners or the person about whom it is said “Oh, don’t ask her, she’d never do that.” That kind of reputation starts at the interview, on the first day, etc: what set of core values are they projecting and what do they seek in their colleagues and supervisors? This is closely related to my ethics lesson on the critical importance of choosing colleagues and supervisors for their character. Anyway, back to the money-managing point, one random piece of advice I always give is to consider sending automatically to savings half of every raise that comes along, and only letting your standard of living/spending escalate by the other half. When you are asked to do something ethically compromising, it is much harder to say no if it means that your mortgage or your children’s tuition might go unpaid.

There’s a seductive trap that young lawyers can fall into of excessive spending because those who go to large law firms work so many hours early in their careers. It can be enticing to spend money on yourself as a form of compensation for not having a life—a feeling of being entitled to toys and fun things because you have so little time. Given the large sums that slosh around in the system for some of these students (last year, starting salaries at the top law firms were around $160,000/year and some include end-of-year bonuses as well), how to develop a sense of proportion?

To cut to the chase, how much money is enough? How much recognition? How much status? How do you recognize enough? How do you achieve balance in your life among your values, including being good at your job and having a satisfying personal life? Before my current adventure started, I was raising this topic with people I ran across because it was on my mind. Elizabeth suggested that maybe the question to ask is “Why more?” She points out that one possible answer is “Because there is more. Why should you have ONLY enough, even if it is enough, if someone else has more or is going for more? There’s a powerful sense that his more will eat away from your more. You have to be at least a little bit greedy to protect yourself from someone else’s greed. Given an ecology of scarcity, only too much is ever enough. Which is why Americans get fat!”

While I started thinking about this in terms of money and tangible “stuff,” the concept is broader. I grapple with it, for example, as retirement looms on my horizon. We have a really good life and we have enough money and enough stuff. We feel fortunate and content in the balance of our lives. We have a great quality of life and live according to a set of values that we believe in. We are incredibly fortunate in our human connections from our family through all of our friends. But how much mattering is enough? How much making a contribution? This medical adventure has not diminished our appreciation of the good fortune of our lives, indeed it has reinforced that sense. At the same time, it increases the intensity of some of the other questions, which also revolve around “enoughness.”

Enoughness raises practical questions well as philosophical ones. So far, the topic has been a slippery and elusive one for me. I continue to think that the idea is important for professionals at the beginnings of their careers. For that matter, it is probably important to people at all stages of their careers. The question is how to get at it in a tangible, useful kind of way. The concept must relate in a fundamental way to some of the social psychology research on happiness and emotional intelligence and maybe even Carol Dweck’s work on motivation, though I have not yet found the right connection or traction point. If any of you have thoughts on enoughness and thinking about it, I’d love to hear them.

Today brings occupational therapy and grading papers. And resting in my new tortoise-incarnation. I hope to have enough energy by late afternoon to go to a retirement celebration. If you’re feeling great today, stop and appreciate your good health, your family and your good friends. Happy Friday.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Autumn, and aging

Autumn has arrived in central Illinois. You can be certain of this because, yesterday, Michael closed all the air conditioning vents AND plugged in my heated towel rack. The towel rack surely leads to fearsome clashes between his inner energy police and his inner caretaker, as a warm towel rack is surely a decadent and wasteful use of energy—except I enjoy it so very much. Score another one for what a nice guy he is. I hasten to assure you, though, that otherwise, the inner house doors are all closed to keep the warmth in the rooms we occupy and not rushing up the stairs or into the hallways, the power strips are turned off into which are plugged the instant-on appliances we do not use that often, and almost all of light bulbs are low-energy fluorescents.

Yesterday, the sum total of my activity was doing a load of wash and taking naps. I guess I was more tired than I’d thought. I had a great visit late in the day with M, which made me feel less like a total slug and a little more like my old self—at least I could carry on a coherent conversation. She reassured me that it is not necessarily related to my surgery that I couldn’t come up with the word “sailing” in class on Monday (instead resorting to describing a boat on a voyage as “driving around the oceans”) until a student helpfully provided the word, or couldn’t recall the name of my former colleague from Friday night until it popped into my head Sunday morning. I took the reassurance. In the course of our conversation, she asked questions that helped me realize that in our counting exercise, we probably should have been a bit more careful to keep track of hospital versus clinic employees. Thinking back, there likely was a different pattern in their reactions, revealing a different general level of contentment in their employment situations. Yesterday, we also started dialing down the pain medicines, switching during the day from generic vicodin to over-the-counter NSAIDs. This is definite progress, even if it worked for daytime, but not yet the night.

Today brings both physical therapy and strength training, and another week’s papers are in and ready to grade. I hope very much to go out to lunch, as well. That will be a first since this whole, strange odyssey started, and another small step towards reclaiming the life I had just a month ago. Yesterday, I postponed another speaking engagement scheduled for later in the month, one planned as a full-day event, trying to be realistic about energy levels. As my physical therapist pointed out to me the other day, every time he reads the story, the tortoise wins.

When I wished Michael a happy birthday this morning, his response was “I’m old enough for Social Security now.” He doesn’t feel that old and I don’t think of him that way, either… aging is a strange and interesting process. On the one hand, at least as we’re experiencing it, are the quiet pleasures of settling into your own skin and knowing yourself better. There is increased focus and less flapping about. Many things are simpler because you know what you like—and don’t—and can spend your energies on things that matter. (This medical adventure has certainly reinforced the importance of moving steadily in that direction.) From little things like learning just to go ahead and buy two of something I like a lot and will wear consistently over time—and not buying things that I will never wear no matter how appealing in the store—to knowing the causes to spend time and money on, choices are simplified.

Maybe we’re just late bloomers in becoming comfortable in our own skins: Anna Shea is and has been more comfortable with herself her whole life than I’ve become by 50ish. From small things to large, she’s just comfortable with who she is. Though she has a tremendous sweet tooth (courtesy of Michael), she’s had a sense of “enoughness” that has awed us since she was very small. If she’s eating ice cream or chocolate or cookies or… you get the idea, she quite often stops eating, pushes the rest away and says “this is really good and I’m full now.” We’ve watched her in groups of peers as well as with adults take a position in opposition to the group without getting confrontational or unpleasant, just being willing to say “I don’t see it that way.” She’s been good at telling friends she doesn’t want to go to a party or a movie or the like, and peer pressure doesn’t seem to be an issue. She spent part of an afternoon once driving around a distinguished visitor who had several errands to run. I later learned from him that they’d spent a good deal of their time together in a discussion over a book they’d both read and about which they disagreed vehemently. He said he’d forgotten at times that she was only a child. There are times I’ve watched her do something at 8 or 13 or 17 and thought “I’d like to be able to do that at my age as smoothly as she does!” One of our main parenting goals with this remarkable child has always been to graft even the thinnest veneer of politeness on top of her forthright personality. I’d say our track record is at best mixed. We have been lucky in that she is inherently a kind person, so her direct comments are rarely mean-spirited, just, well, direct. The most important thing to know about Shea is that if you don’t really want to know what she thinks, do not ask.

On the flip side of the aging matter are the design issues with which one can take umbrage. Leaving aside anomalous brain tumors, let’s think about the more mundane, irritating flaws like the arthritis in my hip joints or Michael’s shoulder (my personal theory is that someone neglected to take the extended warranty option when offered) and various other indignities of the aging body.

I have been reflecting on the fact that at 40, I had my gallbladder out and at 50 had a brain tumor removed. The morbid mind might wonder what will come out at 60. As the morbid mind is not welcome, it is banished from this discussion. The physician who diagnosed the need for the gallbladder removal, by the way, did so by telling us “Female, fat and forty—bound to be gallbladder!” I wish I’d known then and could have shared with him the data on which physicians get sued for malpractice. The short version is that it is not those with poor technical skills, it is those with poor communication skills. This always grabs the attention of the medical students and residents in communications-skills classes. In this, as in so much else, likeability matters. You hear lawyers talk about the plaintiffs who consistently say things like “oh, I know it was Dr. Smith who cut off the wrong leg, but he was so nice to my mother; don’t sue him. Just sue everyone else who was in the room. They were jerks.” Strong communication skills also increase patient adherence to medical advice and physician work satisfaction; while the students and residents think those are good things, avoiding getting sued always is the main grabber.

A wonderful new book, by the way, on what we know about influencing and persuasion from the social psychology research is “Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive” by Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin, and Robert B. Cialdini. (Sorry, I don’t know how to underline when putting text in this thing.) It is an easy read and great food for thought. Well worth your time.

Again, I’ve wandered about a good deal, and for longer than seems reasonable. For those who read all of this and send me your thoughts and comments, I thank you for your patience and forbearance. These writings have helped me organize and process this whole series of events, and the responses of you all have really helped. However, maybe becoming more succinct should become one of my goals, along with becoming more patient and graceful. Meanwhile, happy Thursday.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Picking Benchmarks to Celebrate Progress

Three weeks ago today, I was in surgery. Looked at from that perspective, I can see and measure the progress I’ve made. From an in-the-moment perspective, it is harder to see. This being Wednesday, which seems to be the low day of every week so far, we are back to engaging with medical issues, as the headaches returned last night. Michael has some kind of low-grade bug and isn’t feeling well, so it’s hard to tell whether I just have what he has or if something else is going on. Late at night, we decided that I’d take today’s reduced steroid dose early, along with a decongestant, to see if it would help. It did make some difference and we’re hoping that the headache might have been a congestion headache. Some very small voice in the back of my mind reminds me that is what we were thinking at the time of the original CAT scan that found the tumor. Not being a fan of that little voice and not finding it useful, that message has been rejected. However, we’ll be consulting with the surgeon’s office again today, as we have each Wednesday since surgery, for one reason or another.

Assessing progress since surgery is encouraging: I have vastly more control over my right arm, the tingling in the arm and leg has subsided, and my fingers (except for the thumb) hardly tingle at all. My energy level is higher. Focusing on the improvement, not the distance yet to travel, yields very positive results, as that improvement is real and measurable, especially if compared with a well-chosen benchmark. I choose. I celebrate that I was able to get to each of my classes for at least a while this week and that progress is something to build upon. My reading and attention span are improving, especially if compared to directly-post-surgery. I am still “me” and my thinking, while it has small gaps, is more intact than not. My scalp/head is much better and we still haven’t stopped celebrating that I have a head-full of hair nor appreciating the ability to wash it. It may be a small thing, but it is a great thing. (It is well worth remembering that what could be up there right now is itchy stubble.) We feel really good about the therapy and strength training program, as we really like the people involved and the way that all the pieces coordinate with each other. There’s more progress to be made and the path before us is clear. It looks like there will be more sunshine today, though the temperature has dropped from last week: it’s autumn in Illinois. We have a sheltered corner in our back yard that collects sunshine and the early afternoon sun should be lovely today. On a less personally self-absorbed note, our family is healthy and happy and engaged in productive endeavors. We are surrounded by caring friends. It’s all good.

Other than medical engagement, today is a rest day. It is possible, of course, that last night’s events were related to overdoing yesterday, but on balance, that is not the most likely answer. Yesterday brought strength training, a nap, occupational therapy, a nap and an hour of my freshman class (what a terrific group of students!) and a nap. It was all paced and I didn’t feel overwhelmed at any point, though the naps were each welcome. Viewed in isolation, or in comparison with a daily schedule a month ago (not the chosen benchmark, upon consideration), it doesn’t seem like a lot. Compared with the possibilities and three weeks ago, it is a lot. Actually, an unbelievable amount. This glass is a lot more than half-full. It could even be seen to be overflowing. We choose that view.

My main issue today is that tomorrow is Michael’s birthday and I don’t have anything for him this year, let alone just the right thing. Walkers are very difficult to find good presents for and this task always takes a long time. Throughout the year and my travels, I keep my eyes open and maintain a running list of possibilities. This year, none of them ever gelled, at least in time, which is frustrating, because often I have something weeks and months in advance. I do have a pleasing card in my stash (Michael really likes funny cards), though it is last year’s runner-up card and my hope is always to find a better one. I know perfectly well that his main focus right now is that I’m here and recovering strongly, but it’s still frustrating not to have something that he’d actually use and enjoy. Ah well, in the overall scope of things, as Dr. Donny would say, these are the good problems to have. This is a count-my-blessings situation looked at from the big picture. I’m counting my blessings.

Tomorrow is also the day that Kearney gives her student seminar, so we’re sending her our support and good wishes as she prepares. Thinking of you, sweetie!

Hanging about in the back of my mind are some random post-scripts to previous items that vanished in the transition from thought to typing. To clear the cobwebs, here they are: yesterday, I meant to acknowledge, talking about the AWOL inner copy editor, that there has never been an inner proofreader, so unfortunately, she’s not missing, she just doesn’t exist. In the worst-proofreader Olympics, I’m a contender; throughout my career, I’ve always been lucky enough to work with others who are strong in this arena and always leaned on them. Now, you all get to see just how much. This experience doesn’t seem to be summoning up skills in this area, so we are going to have to muddle along with us all proofing as best we can and you continuing to overlook the aggravating errors. This is vexing and my challenge is to be able to see as another opportunity to work on becoming more graceful and to overcome aspirational perfectionism. In talking about the surgery itself the other day, I meant to include Michael’s enthusiastic surmise that what they must have used to cut through the bone in my head was a surgical circular saw. He figures that’s about the only tool that would have done the right job. He can get downright animated over the thought of what a great tool this must be. (We all march to different drummers.) We still haven’t gotten around to consulting Dr. Google about exactly how the surgery is done, though that might be one of today’s small goals.

In our lives, it is the people that count. We owe all of you so very much. Our wishes for you today are that you are able to find and to celebrate the small moments and human connections in your day. Throughout this unexpected adventure of ours, what has sustained us at every turn have been our connections with all of you. Those have brought us strength, wisdom and laughter. Revel in the people in your lives.