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.


  1. Happy birthday, Michael!

    I have been meaning to write to you for a while. A while back, Tina mentioned that you have been active in the Animal Poison Control hotline, centered at the UI Vet Clinic. That fact stuck in my head, and when my little chocolate poodle, Valentine, ate a big a chocolate chip pancake last Feb during our before school rush, I knew just who to call! Within 10 minutes, I had the proper treatment and dose for her and we solved this problem with no major problems for her.

    Thank you for your work for animals -- Valentine is a delight and we are glad we still have her.

    Kathy Bucher
    San Diego

  2. Kathy,

    Great to hear from you...(and no jealousy about your being in San Diego). One small point, the Animal Poison Control Center started in the U of I Vet College and has now been under the auspices of the ASPCA for 10 years. Great people doing great things.

    I'm really glad that Valentine did not OD on chocolate!