Friday, December 17, 2010


The major work exertions of the year are over. There are minor loose ends and continuing projects to tend, but nothing that should require dressing like a grown-up and leaving the house. What’s left to do is a combination of writing, thinking and daily email-tending. The sense of relief and, yes, victory is real around here. Shea gets home today, and once she’s here the rest of the weekend is Christmas: getting and putting up the tree, decorating the house, making cookies, getting ready for tomorrow’s tree-trimming party, trying some more to understand the nightly dance of the dogs. This week’s site visit overtaxed my available energy in a costly way, so there’s also time for a ton of just resting.

A stray comment by a colleague this week got me to thinking about how much the texture of our lives has changed in recent years, personally and societally. She has a son still in grade-school and was ticking down the (high-stress) list of things to be done to “make” Christmas. The feeling of that internally-generated stress isn’t at all hard to access. For me, it was always meeting the standard set by the who-knows-how-accurate memory of how my mother managed all kinds of feeling-related events, and also some of my own driven tendencies. In part because I’ve been a mother longer than my colleague has, that conversation exposed just how much I’ve relaxed about this stuff over the years, coming slowly to focus more on the events and activities that bring good family feelings more than a checklist of “has to” be dones. There’s not much that has to be “just so” any more, from how the cookies look to the order in which things are done, if everyone is having a good time. Also, there are things that, over the years, I’ve learned that I don’t like and am not good at (package wrapping, exterior decorating), which are therefore stressful. For things in that category, if it really matters that it get done well, outsourcing through trading tasks, barter or direct pay is an answer that sure takes some of the frantic edge off the holidays. The new balance is in a good place. We have rituals we all enjoy and we have lots of time devoted to just being.

That change in texture, from “how it must be done” to more what the holidays should be and mean, got me thinking about other changes in texture of recent decades. The most obvious is that, sometime in the last little chunk of time, I’ve transitioned into being an old person in certain situations. I have been the old person in the classroom for some time, of course, which is fine and works for me. Changing into the old-timer in meetings and work settings is an entirely different kettle of fish. Having previously almost always been the youngest person in the room, it’s been an abrupt and unsettling change. This week, I even caught myself twice explaining the "history" (from 1984, so give me a break) of how something came to be on campus that is now forgotten and totally taken for granted, but took a major battle at the time.

Other changes are ones we all talk about all the time: undressing instead of dressing up to travel (my mother putting us in our best clothes and herself in a hat and gloves comes to mind), using Dr. Google to find out even the most arcane pieces of information instantly, stuff like that. (I was able to learn why the campus flags were at half-staff again the other day while riding past a building and idly asking what that day's reason was. No one knew, so I searched: it turns out that, in Illinois, the Governor has mandated that all state flags fly at half mast whenever an Illinois soldier killed in action is buried. That's both worth knowing and sobering and I'm not sure how I would have found that out without Google.) I typed most of my papers in college on an electric typewriter and erasable paper. Even the stuff you used to keep a typewriter for--labels, etc.--aren’t necessary any more. If you lost track of a child or other family members in public, it was stressful. Now, you just call their cellphone and figure out where to meet. So on and etcetera. We didn’t have central air conditioning until well after Kearney was born. Michael’s parents never did have a dishwasher.

And then there’s the social etiquette: I sat in a meeting last week and observed once again the social contagion of devices. The first person to pull a phone out of a pocket and check messages led, within minutes, to everyone else in the room responding in kind, like some kind of twitchy reflex. In another meeting, one person setting up a laptop and gazing at email during the meeting spread across the room like a pandemic. It was amazing to watch. There are so many used-to-be norms that large numbers of people don’t observe any more, including visibly paying attention to the business at hand. Sure, there used to be doodlers and letter-writers during meetings, but the general etiquette was to affect engagement while surreptitiously thinking one’s own thoughts.

The pace of change probably isn’t any different now than it ever has been, it’s just that now that it’s personal to me and to us, which makes it noticeable and noteworthy to us. In the lifetime of my father’s generation, cars took over from horses, and most of the diseases that ended lives young were eradicated or became survivable. That’s a lot of change. It seems likely that the pace of change is always startling over the arc of decades, and that it is just the human condition. So why don’t we, as a species, seem to get much wiser? Or, if we’re not going to get wiser, why do we have such a hard time accepting that people are pretty much the same everywhere? A friend who has been doing international site visits for schools observed recently that children playing on a playground universally sound the same, whether they’re in Urbana, Illinois or Cairo.

All those questions, and no answers! It’s time to drink my hot chocolate and browse cookie recipes. All that work and all those weighty issues will have to wait. May your weekends bring some peace and reflection.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas is Coming

It probably shows how shallow I am that a television show got me to thinking about my father recently. A recent episode of Criminal Minds featured a young woman struggling with why she didn’t hate her father--a serial killer. My father was far (far) from a serial killer. Still, he wasn’t a good father in many ways and the show got me to wondering about what kind of people the script writers are and whether it’s them or me that’s badly flawed.

My dad got the basics down: we all got fed, and educated and shown the world and ended up with good work ethics, not to mention a pretty good genetic heritage: he lived to 96, and his sister is still going strong at 97. Without doubt, he shaped my personality in powerful ways, mostly because a lot of who I am is based on “I don’t want to be THAT.” It turns out, when you listen to other people, that’s not how most of them talk about their parents. It’s not my aspiration for how my children think about me. Still, much of who I am, if I’m honest, was shaped by him.

The TV character felt guilty for still loving her father who had done terrible things. Yet, as portrayed, still loved the father part, while not liking the serial killer part. Either that’s nuts or I’m not very evolved, or both. My dad outlived his relationship with several of his seven children and left other relationships in bad repair with residual damage. I maintained a relationship with him all his life for the most selfish of reasons, which is admittedly ironic, since his overriding personal relationship characteristic was selfishness. My selfish reasons were to think well of myself and my conduct toward him. Dealing with him required great boundaries, which is in many ways the foundation of my professional life. So I owe him much, but still would be hard pressed to go much farther than that. I’m still contemplating what that means in the big picture.

One core contemplation leads to others, and the one that’s at the top of the stack is what our recent travels have revealed about the overall balance of this new life of mine. At home and even when I travel alone, the tradeoffs are not as apparent as they become when traveling with Michael. He is a venturer. Together, we have always been goers-and-seers when we’re in new places. We have pretty catholic tastes, so we generally include a wide range of things to do and places to see.

The last three short trips we’ve taken, though, compressed as they were, threw into high relief how much this version of life requires a retreat to silence to pay for being out in the world. When we were in Sarasota, we’d read ahead about some things we wanted to explore, and never got to any of them. At the time, I just attributed it to the gloriously beautiful weather and the enticing swimming pool at the hotel when we spent most of a day just enjoying the sun (well, he always lurks in the shade) and the water. It felt decadently wonderful, though a bit like we were playing hooky, since we didn’t get out to see the museum or any of the local character.

The next two trips, though, led to the thought that perhaps that wonderful day wasn’t the aberration it had seemed: in both of those, the balance of adventuring and cocooning was the same, heavily weighted to cocooning after getting the work done. That got me to assessing my daily life, which has fallen into a routine, but one that is radically more home based than ever before. It’s a good life, happy, comfortable and most of all, functional. It’s just different than my self-image and it’s requiring thought. An even bigger question in my mind is the change in Michael's quality of life. If he doesn't venture because of my limits, how much does that cost him, over the long run?

While mulling that, I’m toting up the balance sheet and it otherwise looks pretty good: the end of travel for the year means I’m back in the regime that leads to gradual weight loss, and after a long plateau, the number is steadily drifting down again. The book draft is still percolating along and the new approach seems potentially promising. Baseline commitments seem more doable, once this week is over because, then, it’s time for Christmas. We’re having a two-day site visit for our ethics resource center this week, and that will take (is taking) a lot of energy. There will be a day or so of end-of-semester mop up, and then, done! I’m looking forward to it. A lot.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Aging

My aunt, now 97, told me that if she’d known she was going to live this long, she would have recovered her easy chair, and maybe had the springs fixed, too, because they’re as she says, “rump sprung.” She is the last living member of her generation in the family and has lived in the same house since 1952. Her husband died 26 years ago. In talking about her life, she says the only thing she wishes she’d done differently is that she’d talked back more to her mother (a mean old bat, in my experience), though she doubts it would have made much difference. It’s an interesting question and what it makes me wonder is whether standing up to her mother would have changed other things in her life, in a ripple effect.

While we are talking, I notice once again that she has the same hands my dad did; when I remark upon it, she says that they’re her dad’s hands, and she thinks of him when she looks at them. Some of the family stories she tells are new to me, and some are stories I’ve heard before, but with a completely different slant to them. People and their perspectives are amazing. As the end of my visit approached, she summed things up by saying she’s content and enjoys her life. How great is that? One could have worse aspirations than to be able to say that at 97.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rules to Suit

We live in Central Illinois by choice. Given that, it seems churlish to be unhappy that on the first of December, cold and snow have arrived for the first time. There’s a Jimmy Buffett song about finding a life that suits his style. For me, it’s more about adapting my rules to suit my life.

Writing this, as I am, while stalled/procrastinating on finishing something due today, I’m contemplating which of my rules are useful and which are not. This is relevant to the section of the book I’m working on as well because I’m struggling to write coherently and helpfully about how young professionals encounter a range of reactions to ethical situations and need to develop a personal code of conduct before getting too deeply enmeshed in settings that influence them for the worse. The challenge is to avoid being preachy (“do it my way because I said so, and I’m old and wise”) or too wishy washy (“whatever works for you”) in setting out options for exploring values and knowing what they are--and still saying how doing the right thing matters even when it’s not expedient or easy. It all boils down to how to develop rules that work and also help each person be a contributing and positive member of society. Conveying that clearly is turning out not to be so easy.

While that rumbles around in the back of my head, my task for this morning is cutting things down: a talk I’m giving next week and a summary of the Ethics Center project for an upcoming advisory board meeting. This is all connected to the concept of rules because I’m trying to focus more, and to adopt an improved less-is-more stance. This is all in aid of remedying a problem in my presentations in that that I typically try to teach everyone everything I know all at once. Conceptually, I understand this isn’t a great approach--more than once, participants at events have characterized the experience as trying to drink from a fire hose. All the stuff is useful and good, and still, there’s no point in trying to share all of it in every situation. Which gets me back to the basic conundrum: what’s the real point, and how best to focus on it?

Thinking about that question circles back to the question: what is the goal, anyway? That forces me to contemplate what’s shaping my responses and the “rules” that, for better or worse, govern my thinking. Here are a few that come to mind today:

It’s not about me, it’s about the audience.
The audience doesn’t always know what it doesn’t know.
I need to trust myself more and not second-guess so much.
We shouldn’t complain about the logical consequences of my our choices.

Hence my judgments about my grumpiness around the snow and cold. We’ve had a glorious, mild autumn, with shirt-sleeve sunny weather as recently as Sunday. It’s been a real gift. We choose to live in Central Illinois, and have reaffirmed that choice at many times over the years. We choose it because we wanted stability for our family, our children and, yes, us. We choose it because of quality of life. We choose it because we like the midwestern values and the people and because we could find satisfying work here, in a reasonable balance with personal fulfillment and overall life. When it comes right down to it, we’ve come to realize that neither of us much likes the trade-offs that beautiful weather brings in over-developing/occupying places that have a more appealing climate. Having recently been in Madison to visit Kearney and Brad, we appreciate anew the quality of the water produced by the Mahomet aquifer that runs out of our taps. We appreciate being able to get to work in 5 minutes and to be able to walk/bike/ride the bus with ease. We like the prairie sky and landscape, though we’re plenty able to appreciate flashier landscapes as well. Given all of that, there’s no justification for grumpiness, so I’m working on reframing my attitude about the snow and cold. Here’s my best shot: the snow on the ground really brightens things up on an otherwise grey day.

Back to work. May you find the brightness in your day.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Did Escher Draw Rolled-Up Socks?

In so many ways, the process of recovery from a massive event is more dramatic than the slow process of regular life. My own continuing evolution into a life as a balanced Slow Hare life has hit some bumps, along with a plateau in the weight loss campaign. The book feels like I’m stuck somewhere in an Escher drawing, though what keeps coming to mind is a pair of badly tangled rolled up socks, which you know have a beginning and end, but cannot find. Mostly, it’s an organization problem: what comes first? does something else have to be explained before it, so it all makes sense? how does each piece fit in the big picture? Experience and common sense both say that the only way to get through this bit is to keep at it. That is tedious and there’s not great progress to write about. Once you omit all the ways I spend time on which it isn’t appropriate to write, like students, the main things left to write about are those that feel utterly, totally self-absorbed, even at a time when life isn’t living or feeling that way. Hence, silence in this forum.

Here’s an interesting phenomenon that is puzzling and I’d welcome thoughts about it and what it means. Several of you know about the short ethical dilemmas I used in professional responsibility and ethics classes. Recently, we used some of them for interview questions and also for extra credit problems. The dilemmas are always presented as “you are (and then the dilemma).” In both the recent interviews and in the extra credit papers I read yesterday, most people take on the situation as a personal one, as intended. A small subset, though, distance themselves from it and either talk or write about some other person in the dilemma--and almost always it’s a man. Since I didn’t catch on to this early enough to make an accurate count, or to notice if there’s a pattern in who adopts this approach, I don’t have a good base from which to analyze what’s going on. That leaves rank speculation. It seems to be more than just a writing reflex using “he;” it feels like more than that. Michael asked me what percentage do this, and since it only belatedly occurred to me that it had been happening, I truly don’t have an accurate count. Maybe 10 or 15 percent? Have any insights or ideas about what’s going on?

In whatever setting and form you celebrate Thanksgiving, may you have a relaxing and personally satisfying day. Our love and thanks to all who make our lives what they are.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Power of Sleep

In recent months, I’ve been creeping up on a regular-person sleep schedule: sleeping a reasonable number of hours at night (often, the same number as Michael does!), and staying awake all day, every day. It’s been great--almost like being a real grown-up again. This has been highlighted for me lately, because the recent cognitive gains I’ve made have been accompanied by a return to earlier-in-the-recovery-process sleep patterns.

This means that every now and then, I simply have to go to sleep. Right now. And that I am needing more sleep at night on a regular basis. When I do presentations, they go well, especially now that I can hold a thought better and make more connections, but it has been taking several days to recover from the exertion--and sometimes, up to a week before I’m back at sleep equilibrium.

Sleep is a wonderful healer, and apparently, my brain is healing more right now and needs this medicine. Still, it’s an odd feeling to be fine one moment and completely collapsed, totally out of energy, the next moment. All of this makes me wonder at all the years that I often took regular naps, especially on weekends: was that a growing brain tumor symptom? I haven’t reverted to that pattern even now, so for the first time I’m wondering about that.

Snippets from life on the road: at the conference hotel, I ran into the same woman several times in two days, usually at the elevators. She was crabby and bossy to all around her, friends and strangers alike. She told people where to stand in the elevator, told some people to get off because it was too full, dressed down a friend for not grabbing enough food from a buffet, and “helpfully” told a woman her slip was showing. I’m guessing, as I listened to her, her internal script has her “being frank” or “saying what no one else will.” Belatedly, after watching her be rude and mean both to a range of people, usually while telling them what to do, I managed to summon up some compassion for how awful it must feel to be her. I’d really like to be the kind of person who has the compassion first, not only after thought. Even with the compassion, though, being around her must be horrible. It was a cautionary moment, because I’m often a person who is willing to say what no one else will; I try hard not to be mean and don’t think I am; how often, though, do I cross the bossy line? It’s worth more thought.

Not today, though, as we hurtle to the end of the semester. One more class this week and then one more the week after Thanksgiving, then final project presentations, and this semester is over. Then, all book all the time. I hope! the leaves are almost all gone from the trees here. The temperature is dropping. Thanksgiving is around the corner. Tempus fugit.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

NOW I'm Processing this Experience?

The metaphysical questions are too confusing, so mostly I ignore them. For example, the sentence “I’m feeling more like myself again...” invites a whole host of questions (what does that mean? who am I, anyway? why wouldn’t I be me, no matter what, since by definition, no one else could be?) that, to pursue, derail the thought that stimulated the sentence in the first place. So, mostly, I ignore them. The end of that sentence goes like this: “ seems to be safe to go back and explore some of the really scary parts of this experience, and there seems to be some need to do so. So, I am.” Ok, if you want to get technical, that was the end of the sentence, and then the next sentence, too. Picky, picky.

This adventure went from 0 to 60 in no time flat: one minute I thought I was a hypochondriac with allergies/sinus issues having the worst case ruled out before sucking it up and dealing with the occasional headache, and the next minute, I was a person with a baseball-sized brain tumor scheduled for surgery. It didn’t leave much time for anything except dealing with it, so that’s what we did.

It seems important to note that the speed at which events proceeded was at least partially by choice, mine and ours. While we were doing our research about doctors, treatment options and second opinions, we could easily have added a couple of weeks into the schedule. We even had the option to delay surgery by a week and didn’t exercise it. It was a Thursday when we learned about the tumor and its size. I had a craniotomy the next Wednesday. Once it was clear from our research, and the time of several expert friends who really went into things with care for and with us, that the only sensible approach was surgical excision, that we had an excellent surgeon with a great track record here in town and that no second opinion was likely to shed much more light on the situation, we were all systems on “go.” As I recall it, my whole reaction, and Michael’s too, was to Get. It. Out. and then go from there to deal with the consequences. So we did.

At the time, there was so much to do--again, the time scale was at least partially by our preference--there wasn’t much time to do anything other than acknowledge the scary parts and carry on. There were people to notify, obligations to get covered, from a speech I was scheduled to give to classes to be taught, meetings to cancel, pre-op tests and paperwork to complete, lists to make (always!) and more. We were scared and we were doing what needed to be done.

This is all a very long way of saying something sort of weird: I’m scared about having brain surgery. To be more precise, I’m now scared of having brain surgery two years ago. I’m not talking about a future-oriented fear, I’m scared to have a surgery that’s already over and done and healed. The only way this makes any sense to me, so the way I’m choosing to think about it, is that there were emotions that there wasn’t time for experiencing until now, so now that it’s safe, they’re emerging and it’s time to process and deal with them. So, I am. It is strange, though.

Yesterday, it seemed urgent to talk about what our durable medical power of attorney says and whether anyone checked that it was in force before I had the surgery. Michael says this is a topic that was covered and reviewed during a meeting with the surgeon and again in all the pre-op paperwork, and not to worry, all the paperwork is in order and reflects our wishes very clearly. Now, how weird is that, to be worrying about whether the paperwork two years ago was in place in the event that things that didn’t happen might happen? (Yes, I know the answer: very. Nonetheless, that’s what bubbled up yesterday.) As I said, it seems to be safe now to deal with some of this stuff, so dealing it is.

Meanwhile, we played hooky for an hour in the middle of the day this week to go walk in the park. The weather is simply glorious, the more so if you consider that it’s the middle section of November in central Illinois. Today is the same, so while there’s work to be done, probably serious computer problems to address with my desktop machine and very sad developments on the book front (my editor hates it), we’ll likely do the same today. It will turn cold by the weekend, we’re told, so we’re going to play while it’s gorgeous. We’ll also take time today to remember Michael’s dad, who died on this day in 2005. He was a really fine human being, and we miss him. We’ll do something Ernie-ish today and talk about him. We do many days, but today, especially, on Veteran's Day, we’ll celebrate all that he brought us.

Later, there will be plenty of time to buckle down and get all boring again, and actually, there will be plenty of that today, too. Just not all the time. I sort of see a way through for addressing the book stuff, it will just take a ton of work. The grade appeals for the first quarter’s class are mostly all resolved (sigh, a new one in this morning’s email), and the end of the semester seems about as much in order as is possible at this zany time of year. I’ve started thinking about the self-assessment I write for each class after it’s over (and before the evaluations come in!) and how to make this course better the next time. The organizational pieces of our NSF-funded national ethics resource center are coming together in pleasing ways, with a work plan emerging that should be fun and challenging and satisfying. And there are craniotomy fears to process. But today, the sun is shining and it’s over 70 degrees, so there will be some time in the sun. .

I hope you’re taking the time to do whatever is the equivalent in your life today.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Thoughts on Adaptation on the 26-month Cranioversary

One of the heroes who saw us through this medical adventure, GF, in talking with me about its remaining markers in my life, told me that she has become less connected to reading fiction as her life has unfolded. An English major and voracious reader in college, she suggested that maybe the change in my reading habits isn’t entirely tumor/surgery-related. I’ve been thinking about that lately, as inquiring minds wanted to know, after the last brief 26-month status report, how the reading is since it wasn’t mentioned at all in that report.

It’s an interesting question that pointed out how one adapts. I didn’t even think about the reading hole in my life when I wrote the status report, though it’s one of those things I still struggle with daily. Most days, fiction seems out of my grasp, both in the ability to follow a narrative arc and in just plain interest. Both interest and ability flicker on every now and again, though, so I persist because reading for pleasure has been such a central part of my life. As with the recent onset of the ability to make connections and hold thoughts for longer periods, the reading seems to be improving, though very slowly. The changes are so slow that they are almost imperceptible at times, yet if I look at the progress over a long enough time horizon (say, every six months), there is steady improvement. Most young adult fiction is accessible most of the time, so I have a renewed acquaintance with writing in that genre. Brain candy (trashy chick lit, mysteries, etc.) are sometimes accessible, though I have much less interest in them than before. Serious fiction is a challenge and much less accessible than I’d like. A friend loaned me Wolf Hall and some days, I make progress, and others I simply cannot. Room, I was able to read (extraordinary) one day and then not the next, though it clicked back in and I finished (and enjoyed it) the day after that. GF's insight that some of the change is likely to be from a natural evolution in life is helpful, and maybe explains the reduced interest in brain candy.

All of this suggests that maybe the slow hare will, one day, cross the line to the next level, so I keep trying. For now, I’m reveling in the pleasure of making connections in real time and holding a thought from one part of a conversation or presentation to the next. It feels good to have that back now and again, after missing it and feeling its absence so acutely for so long. What we were told is that the major cognitive gains that were possible would all be made in the first 18 months to two years, and everything possible would happen with in five years. I was discouraged at where things stood at 18 months. At 26 months, the future looks bright.

So that’s the story on reading. Happy Wednesday and cranioversary day.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Body Awareness

One of the positive aspects of my brain tumor adventure was getting a pointed lesson in paying better attention to the signals my body sends me. Since I wasn’t a particularly well-coordinated child (which turned out to be at least in part depth perception and vision problems that were ultimately addressed), I tended to turn away from most physical activities, and play more to my strengths. You can see how this would have turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy/feedback loop over the years, and it did. And then along came the medical adventure, which probably lasted much longer than it would have, if paying attention to the signals and adding them up had been higher on my attention or priority lists.

In any event, while heeding my body’s signals is still not my best skill, it is at least now something I try to attend with some diligence. Thus, toward the end of last week, when it was clear that both Michael and I were coming down with something, I didn’t try to push through it or work anyway--at least as soon as I got through my Friday teaching and meetings. This might not sound like a big step, but for me, it was, and I spent most of the weekend sleeping and didn’t even try to work--or answer email.

Napping during the day carried loud echos of napping in the time after surgery, when without much warning, I would be out of energy and have to stop. Right then. This led to wondering about my recent cognitive gains. Don’t get me wrong: those are all good and all happy. They do, though, carry a price, which is that working well, like that, requires a larger recharging period than I’ve probably been giving it. I think I got sick partly because I haven’t been paying as much attention to the hard-earned lessons as I should have been--and actually thought I was. Instead, I got complacent and started taking for granted that new life habits and the balance I’ve negotiated were fine and would keep working. That probably turns out not to be true, so here is another reminder that paying attention isn’t an option, it’s a requirement. I don’t much like being under the weather (does anyone? dumb question!), and wouldn’t it have been nice if I’d simply chosen to take a weekend off and spent it doing something fun, rather than being sick in bed? Hmmm??

Wednesday this week marks the 26-month mark since surgery. In a status round-up, since napping brought it all to mind, here’s a quick summary: scalp still feels odd and clicks strangely in ways that I can now replicate all the time, rather than only sometimes. In most positions of my head/neck, rubbing my hand up and down on the left side of my head produces audible clicks. This seems relatively harmless, but it would be nice to understand. I got crowded to the back of an elevator the other day and put my head back against the wall: it still feels very odd and strange, and the slowly-dawning conclusion is that this sensation is probably permanent. Maybe the nerve endings don’t reconnect or something where the scalp was peeled? More questions for Dr. Google. My right shoulder and arm take pretty regular exercise and maintenance to stay flexible and fully usable. While I can go downstairs alone now, it’s never comfortable and requires full attention not to stumble/fall. When I get tired, my balance fails. Sometimes this is amusing, but mostly not. Loud and or visually very distracting places drain the batteries faster than other activities and have to be matched with quiet periods: very quiet periods. Energy levels? About 80-90 percent of what they used to be. Overall? Seems like a pretty solid victory to me.

I spend a lot of time coaching professionals about their priorities and goals and asking questions to help them come to personal conclusions as to which tools are helpful ones and which one are not. Trying to heed my own advice, over the years, I’ve learned to turn off the “incoming” sound on my email and have designated periods where I quit the program entirely. I’ve been working to train expectations about when I’m responsive and when I’m not, to help tamp down all those good girl tendencies about letting other people get on with their work by giving them answers quickly whenever they ask. I'm practicing not saying "yes" to requests just because they are to do things I can do well. My goal is a fulfilling balance of work and reflection and fun. Getting sick from pushing too hard these recent weeks made clear that it’s time to bear down and consciously pay more attention to my own priorities and goals when presented with options. Again. If I truly care about achieving a better balance (I do, I do! really), then I need to do better in making choices.

Here’s to doing better this week.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

More Progress

I have been a listmaker since I was small. During the massive attic-cleaning project I started the summer before this adventure began, we discovered a list in my handwriting that must have been made in grade school. The attic project ended prematurely, preempted by other goals, like recovering from brain surgery. One day, we hope to get back to that project and get the contents of our attic weeded out, pared down, and generally brought under control. That day is still a ways off, but I have a good feeling about the fact that it will, someday, come to pass, because of another list I found recently. This list is relatively recent, by the standards of the grade-school list, say, oh, only 10 or 15 years old. It is a house to-do list, optimistically labeled “things to do on the house this summer.” Happily, virtually every item on that list is either complete or well under way, which only underlines the reality that progress sometimes happens when you’re not watching.

This last weekend brought more indicators of progress achieved almost imperceptibly: I gave a long workshop on Saturday during which I felt more like my pre-surgery self than in a very, very long time. I was able to hold thoughts and make connections among important points without relying on the reminders and crutches I’ve been using--the points were just there, the thoughts persisted. It felt terrific. The structure and content of the talk itself, I didn’t like so much, but it worked for the group and it was grand to be firing on more cylinders than usual.

People generally dismiss my sense of being diminished because I put on a pretty good front, and indeed, I can and do compensate for most of the remaining deficits. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. They are. Across the arc of this still-evolving story, the two single most important themes have been how incredibly lucky I and we were medically and in our community of family and friends. At the end of the day, my children still have a mother and I am still me. Everything else pales beside those facts. Still, even washed out, pale realities are not vanished ones, so this weekend felt like a big, big consolidation of recent gains.

It’s election day. If you haven’t already, please remember to vote.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dance of the Dogs

For approaching 20 years we have had two black labs at a time, good friends to each other and to us. Our current two are really wonderful dogs, and especially now in our empty nest, the activity, companionship and extra life in the house is one of the really nice parts of our lives. We pay a fair amount of attention to animal behavior, reading up, practicing good interaction styles, etc. Still, there are things they do that just mystify me at times.

The personalities of our current pair couldn’t be more different, within the overall category of black labhood, which is generally, friendly, people-loving, with a desire to please. They are also very food oriented, which makes persuading them to follow the house rules generally straightforward, so long as we remember the incentives (otherwise known as positive reinforcement, or bribes).

We have one alpha dog with a strong desire to be dominant; probably the strongest dominance drive we’ve had in a dog for a while, though this may be distorted by the exaggerated subservient tendencies of the second dog, a rescue who is still easily cowed and has a damaged soul. These two dogs do the strangest dance about sleeping places I’ve seen.

There are two dog pads in our bedroom, which is their second-choice sleeping haunt, their first, of course, being with Shea when she’s home. During times the lights are on, the more passive, afraid dog prefers to be under our bed, in a dog cave. Occasionally, and I don’t see a pattern to when, she prefers the dog pad against the book case, out in the open, but with a solid back.

The problem is that the alpha dog also prefers that sleeping place and claims it as her right a good deal of the time. The under-dog will sometimes stand and look at the alpha dog for many minutes at a time. Sometimes, Hattie gives up the sleeping place, and other times, she just turns her back and goes to sleep. Yet, at night, with the lights out, Sophie, the under-dog, is always to be found in that place. It’s a mystery, this dance thsee two do, and I’d dearly love to understand it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Finding Balance

I received some questions about why I retired and how it’s going. The answer to the first part is pretty simple: the university is in deep financial trouble, I had more than 36 years in the system and it seemed wrong to keep taking up a full-time job when doing so might cost someone else an opportunity to keep/have one.

What I didn’t expect was the change it brought, especially since I continue to do much of the work I most enjoyed. First, the transition process itself was rough: it appears that no one had really thought through what it would mean to shed a lot of people with many, many years of service all at the same time; the process was not handled well. Though my work on many levels continues, it was a bit of a shock to have to figure out for myself a whole range of logistical aspects of the transition. And then, to get rehired on the grants/projects I’m on, I had to show up with my passport to prove my identity and refill out a ton (well, ok, nine or ten) forms showing who I am, where I live, etc. That was all on top of the self-identity issues that surfaced after an adult life of full-time employment and connection with the place.

Having gotten through all of that, though, there are some terrific aspects to being retired I hadn’t anticipated and that I like very much. For example, all the good girl rules in my head about what I “should” do have fallen away. I’m retired and I don’t need to account for myself (beyond my personal commitments) to anyone. That’s freeing in grand ways, especially since this period of my life seems to be require yet a new set of working habits to be productive.

During the very first phase of my university life, I worked at a research lab, mixed with school and other things, so it had a set of idiosyncratic rhythms. When I moved to my grown-up career as an administrator, it was set in office life: fast-moving, multi-processing that required juggling a lot of balls and people all the time. I loved the work. Then, when I went to the law school, the rhythm and pace were completely different, as well as the centrality of my role, which in a word, wasn’t. There were still a lot of people with whom to interact, but in a completely different way. It took me years to find a way to do that work that was productive, satisfying and met all my internal rules about “how to work.” Then, I was recruited to the business school and now I’ve transitioned into retirement. I’m still maintaining a lot of different projects (maybe one or two too many, I think some days) but I work almost exclusively from home, only going places when there are specific meetings to attend or classes to teach.

In part, of course, this is my new brain and the only way I can maintain all these projects is to spend a lot of time in familiar environs and in the quiet. Part of it, though, is moving into a new phase and learning both who I am now and how to work in this new and different configuration. It’s an interesting voyage and I’m learning things about myself that seem worth knowing. My endeavor now--along with keeping things going on a variety of different fronts simultaneously--is to figure out what I most enjoy and how to focus only on the things I like, not those that feel like “shoulds” when those are now exclusively self-imposed. It’s a surprisingly daunting task to disentangle all the pieces.

I’m enjoying the process, though, and this phase of life. Talking with Kearney the other day, she said “we really did brain tumor well,” as a family. We did, and emerging from that, the sense of satisfaction for having fared well as a family with all the support we got, well, that feels good and provides a great foundation for this new phase of life. The book is progressing again, the class is going well, the announcement is in the papers tomorrow, and I’m almost 15 pounds down, and counting. There’s still a long way to go, but one foot in front of the other is bringing progress. May your endeavors be moving in the direction you want, too. Cheers.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Still in Limbo

So we’re STILL waiting for the final announcement to be approved, and have been warned, repeatedly, that we mustn’t do say anything publicly without that approval. I am finding this limiting, as you can see by my continued silence here. I’m told, once again, that patience is a virtue. Personally, it seems pretty over-rated as a positive quality to me.

In other news, the first ten pounds are gone. I’m trying to feel good about this, but my negative voices keep telling me things like “well, sure, that’s ten pounds from the high-water mark, but it’s much less from [fill in any date/benchmark here].” I’m working on overcoming this attitude, because, as Michael says, it’s ten pounds from where I started, and the trend lines are all good.

One thing that has emerged from this experience so far is that 60 calories’ worth of chocolate is not nearly enough for me of an evening to be satisfying. Thus, I am working to keep breakfast and lunch proportionately lower so there is both room for a satisfying amount of chocolate and a civilized amount of wine with dinner. Thank goodness for shirataki noodles! They’re filling and have basically no calories and no carbs, and they are helping me keep the beginning of the day to 300 calories so the end can be suitably satisfying. On to the next thing and exercising this lovely quality of patience. I hope each of you has a great weekend planned.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Happy Bubble

Finally, the big project is on the verge of being announced, probably later this week, so that limitation on writing will be reduced soon, which will be a relief. In the meantime, I’ve been feeling that this is a particularly happy phase of life. Bad things have happened before and I’m sure will again, but this moment feels all wonderful. Life is comfortable, the girls are healthy and thriving, the weather is beautiful, Michael and I get to spend a lot of time together, we have great friends, the work is interesting and challenging, the dogs are sweet and fun.

As a bonus, we have access all the time to hot water on demand. The weather has started to turn so yesterday was chilly at home and in buildings around campus--the heat isn’t on anywhere this early in the autumn. As I luxuriated in the hot water in the shower the other day, it seemed almost miraculous and so easy to take for granted. Do very many things make that difference in daily quality of life, though?

My travel is cranking up again, and since I put everything off during the heavy teaching month of September, the other months are fuller. Normally, I limit travel to twice a month, but I seem to have wavered here and there in booking this fall. I’m not exactly sure how that happens; bound to be some interesting psychological fault line that rationalizes, overlooks and explains away how it will work in the future, no matter how much I regret it when the moment arrives.

While it may be a bubble and may be fleeting, I’m really enjoying this stretch of my life and hoping I can hold on to the thought about how it feels when the challenges crank up again, as they are bound to do at some point. Even writing about how good this patch is feels a little like tempting fate, but Michael doesn’t believe any of that superstitious stuff and advocates for enjoying what there is to enjoy. I’m trying his approach today (and crossing my fingers, hoping it doesn’t come back and get me). May you find pleasures, large or small, in your day. Cheers.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Still Changing?

My brain feels different again.

For whatever reason recently, every-day things are triggering washes of memory. It happened here, when I wrote about my association between the perfume bottle and my mother (something I think about every day, often several times, and have for years) and ended up with Ritz crackers and peanut butter for lunch in grade school. On the white plastic plate with a line sketch in blue of a boat.

It happened the other night when some TV show (Grey’s Anatomy?) had someone in an operating room for brain surgery, which transported me back to my operating room experience: I didn’t move myself from a gurney to the table the way it was portrayed on TV. This wasn't just a recollection, it was the sense of being overwhelmed by the memory, as all of these incidents have been. When I call it a wash of memory, that's what it feels like.

It happened last night, when my dreams were flooded with people from my childhood about whom I haven’t thought in years. The mother of my childhood best friend featured prominently in last night’s dream, though in it she was more than six feet tall and I don’t think my friend’s mother was.

These intense recollection experiences are strange and seem particularly concentrated right now, at the same time as my thinking processes are becoming more fluid, if that makes any sense.

Since this adventure began, I’ve had the sense that my thinking feels different than it used to. I’m not sure that, before this strange series of events, I ever really thought about how it "felt" to think. How it "feels" has gone through a number of distinctly different phases. None, at least not so far, are like it used to feel when making connections, integrating and synthesizing information. At the same time, I’m closer to my old self than I have been, while still being aware, acutely, of the deficits. Each one of those deficits can be compensated for, but that doesn’t make them go away, it just covers them up. Still, that's good enough for me right now, when you look at the overall balance.

Now, I’m going to see if I can locate the family of my childhood best friend somewhere and send them a card.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

At the Top of the Stairs

Usually, as I drift off to sleep and as I wake up, I think about things to write here. The main problem now, other than energy, which is getting better and will improve a great deal more next Thursday when the MBA class ends, is that there are so many things I shouldn’t write about: I shouldn’t write about my students and I shouldn’t write about the project that’s on the verge of being announced. Those are my two major preoccupations at the moment, and as I’m not good at dissembling under the best of circumstances, the consequence has been the radio silence here. I’m hoping that will end soon, as I’ve enjoyed the interactions this forum has provided. The beautiful weather hasn’t helped much, as it’s been alluring to go sit outside in the sun in the odd snatches of time here and there that aren’t consumed trying to crank this project and these two classes through right now. Today, it’s the start of the autumn thunder season, one of my favorite parts of the year, and we have thunder, lightning and rain. It’s cosy, being inside with Michael, and I’ve been thinking about something lately that’s not on the “shouldn’t” list; oddly enough, it’s focused on a perfume bottle.

Every time I go up our stairs, I see the decorative perfume bottle my mother had on her dresser as long as I can remember. It’s long since empty, and my sense is that she kept it on her dresser for a while in that state, though of course it was long enough ago that I cannot really tell you anything with certainty. It’s a pretty thing, and seeing it never fails to transport me back to where it stood, on the corner of her dresser, on a lacy dresser cloth, against the textured, neutral bamboo-y wallpaper.

It’s nice to have a tangible reminder, though of course I’d think about her even without it. Though my mother died when I was 12, I have echoes in my head regularly of things she said, or did, or wanted to see happen for me. She’s always present with me at the major events of my life, and when I succeed at something, and when I fail. When I write, I think of my mother, remembering the first “research paper” I had to write in fourth or fifth grade, and her coaching at the kitchen counter while I struggled to produce my TWO WHOLE PAGES of essay. I still fall back on her advice when I’m stuck.

The weather and thinking about writing a paper at that kitchen counter makes me think of school lunches in this kind of weather: we walked home for lunch every day back then, even in the rain, and the standard lunch I recall was Ritz crackers with peanut butter and vegetable beef soup. The counter was white, and my lunch plate and bowl were plastic with sailboats on them. Strange, the things that memory provides.

Anyway, I’m still here. I am still working to improve my balance and manage the available energy, and trying to remember to do the exercises to keep my shoulder loose and functioning. So far, I’m making some progress on the weight thing, though I’m going to hold off on saying much about it until the first ten pounds are gone. That will be a good day, and at that point, I’m hoping it will feel like both a successful effort and something that can be sustained for a while. Back to work for me, now.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Second Cranioversary Today

One of the hardest lessons I have learned over the years is how often less is more. This applies, I’ve learned, in writing, in handling disputes, in managing, and even in my slap-dash approach to cooking. As a fan of flavor (lots of it), it’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I’m willing to try Michael’s more restrained approach to some items. That leads me to the question on this second anniversary of my craniotomy: is less me also more?

While two years ago right now I was having an MRI with the facilitators on my head for the final brain map that was used to guide the coming surgery, this morning I’m getting ready to go teach a new class of 600 students, divided into two pots of 300, plus oversee the platoons of people working on this endeavor. It’s a testament to the medical skill, love and support that’s been the mainstay of our lives these past two years. At every single moment, we knew that our community of friends and family had our backs and was there with us. Our relationships have been enriched and strengthened. We’re more for that.

As for me, I am working, can do most of what I want, and have learned, mostly, to cope with the limitations and deficits of the new me. The ability to read fiction fluently and on demand never has come back; it still flashes glimpses now and then, but it’s a view of foreign territory most of the time. There are holes, pretty big ones, in my memory. My energy levels are much lower than they used to be and I miss being able to do whatever I’d set my mind to. At the same time, I have learned a lot by being the slow tortoise and managing my commitments more strategically. Out in the world--except when I’m going down stairs or in a noisy place--you’d never know about the limits. That they don’t show is a godsend along, I suppose, with the perfect hair for brain surgery. Two years ago today, they were getting ready to shave the alley where the incisions were made in preparation for peeling my scalp. That is as odd as it sounds.

I spend vastly more time not out in the world than in it; so long as I circumscribe my outings, I can make them. When I travel, I have to budget my energies differently--but look at the beginning of that sentence: “when I travel.” I can and do travel, and I can and do work. Those are gifts and I don’t take them for granted. Sure, there are things I’d like to do that aren’t possible anymore. At the same time, there are many, many more things that I can do.

Most of all, as from the very beginning, it’s all about the people. The people who helped us with navigating the thickets of the medical problem, the people who sat with Kearney and Michael, physically and virtually, during surgery, the people who brought food, the person who left a single stalk of a gladiola on our front porch the day after we’d learned there was a tumor the size of a baseball in my head, the people who were there through a long journey back to reality. The friend who sent songs, with the message that the best way to express love was to be unafraid of embarrassment. The friend who coined the term cranioversary for these days. Really, all the love that came our way, in so many forms, each of which we recognized, embraced and caused us joy. Coming back atcha today.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Catching Up

Well, here it is Wednesday, with only one more thing on last weekend’s to-do list yet incomplete. As soon as that is done, I think and hope I’ll be caught up with all the things that got pushed aside to accommodate the major time sink the end of summer project became. That will be final and permanent and pubic soon, I hope, and then it will be time to move on to the exciting and fun phase after the not-so-fun, interminable and enervating phase.

With the backlog (almost) cleared, the next big task is to figure out a rhythm of life that fits and feels right. There are glimmers here and there of how to sort things out and they look fun and promising. That’s the case even though I’m beginning to form a conclusion about how many holes in my memory my compensation systems are making. Filling out a medical form yesterday, I clearly remembered that I’d gotten that biopsy last month, but couldn’t for the life of me remember why. That was strange and as I was saying, “I just don’t remember,” it suddenly dawned on my how often I’m saying that these days, and how ferociously I’m concentrating on the core areas of my life--and how much of the other stuff is falling by the wayside. Who knows what elements of this are age-related and what come from the medical adventure, but it was a little eerie to stop and tally up how much stuff I just do not have a handle on anymore. Still, the compensation mechanisms are working well, and as I have little choice, I’m cheerful about saying “I don’t remember” and it usually all works out.

The biggest hole is retaining student names. I’ve never been great at names (and always execrable with titles), but it’s now much, much worse. And, I’m in a place populated with people who really focus on and drill each other on names, so it’s conspicuous. I’m trying new systems for keeping track better and while I doubt it will improve things significantly, if I can keep it from getting worse, that will be enough for going on with.

The team of people I’m working with this semester is a strong and fun one, and this semester brings the culmination of most of a year’s work on this new course, so that’s fun. The school year started well (that consumed all of last week) and I’m hopeful for the rest of the semester. It startled me when, last week, the night before the first class, I had anxiety dreams all night: I haven’t done that about teaching in years. This time, though, I dreamed of being in the building, but forgetting to go down for the first session, forgetting to take along the clothes I was going to wear, etc. etc. etc. It makes sense, given how much work it’s been to get this thing going, but it did catch me off balance. Oh yes, and one of these dreams featured taking a baby along to class with me, dressed in a t-shirt that made it look like the baby was wearing a business suit. The mind does strange things.

That’s enough procrastination for the last major job to close out the summer’s work. I hope to post more regularly, if my aspiration of having things under better control comes true. Happy Wednesday to all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


This week brings the series of events that catalyzed diagnosis and then surgery two years ago. It was after the welcome back picnics that we first went to the emergency room in what turned out to be the formal beginning of this adventure. The MBA picnic, in particular, is associated in my mind with all these events, and it’s coming up Thursday. Two years provides an interesting perspective: the events are far enough back that they feel over and done, and near enough that they’re still pretty fresh in memory.

Overall, I don’t question any of this, because it is what it is and certainly better than all the alternatives. Yet when, like yesterday, I flat run out of steam in the middle of the day, or when I fall down, or when someone in my family takes care of something I used to do without thought, it feels odd. It feels odd when colleagues see me walking down stairs and say “that’s great!” It is, of course, it’s just an odd place to be in my life that we celebrate that. I’m not complaining: I have a great life and I’ve been very, very lucky. It’s different, though, and the adjustments, large and small, take time.

One of the things I hope changes very soon is to regain the energy to do more contemplation, more often. This recent stretch of time has been too intense and stressful; and whoever thought those words would come out of my keyboard? One of the extraordinary gifts about the kind of work I do and have been lucky enough to have over quite some time now is that I have a lot of control over how and when it gets done. Now it’s up to me to manage the overall load better and improve on my absolute worst capacity, which is to say “no.” That slow haredom that took so very, very much work to appreciate needs to come to the fore more often. On the plus side, the changed approach to eating and daily life seems to be working.

This stressful patch should ease soon, I hope. Maybe as soon as next week, maybe the week after… stay tuned!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wax on the Floor [written in the morning; posted at night]

Remember being told to be careful what you wished for, because you might get it? I’m in that situation right now, though in a good way. It will be a few more days at this level of activity and then things should calm down. I hope. Within a week or maybe two after that, the final decision on the project should be made, and then things will switch into a another, better mode. I hope. Christopher Hitchens has recently been quoted as saying that he burned the candle at both ends for many years, and it made a lovely glow. The glow doesn’t seem all that lovely to me, at least in this stage of the burn, but we’ll see how it turns out later.

Anyway, I’m still here and still thinking about writing every day; things are just too hectic right now to be able to get to it. I’ve thought interesting thoughts I’d like to explore with you about the expert eye that sees things that others don’t, and about taking back the pious thoughts I expressed last year about paying better attention to the signals my body sends in the future after this experience; it turns out not to be possible, nor probably very sensible. Now, for example, all kinds of weird things are going on around the edges, all of which I attribute to being tired. What else could it possibly be? In retrospect, all the early warning signals of brain tumor were sufficiently vague and distributed that even if I had paid better attention, I’m not sure what it would have yielded me. Before I run for this day’s sprint, why didn’t anyone ever tell me about shiritaki noodles before? They’re filling and have no calories and no carbs. It’s a great way to manage portion control, which is one of my most difficult challenges.

Off for another day at the races. Thanks for writing and inquiring, and most of all, for caring.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

23-Month Status Report: Counting Blessings, Redux

Our trip this summer and some recent web-surfing I’ve done has solidified for me, 23 months past surgery, just how lucky we’ve all been through this process and how very many blessings we have to count. First of course, is the fact that the tumor was benign and we had access to a first-rate neurosurgeon who works five blocks from our house. Beyond that, though, was the extraordinary outpouring of support and love we received from so many through this adventure. It sustained us in more ways than you’ll ever know.

The past few years, we had a chance not everyone gets: we got a signal that it would be good to make sure everyone we love knows the depth of our feelings and how much we value each one. And the love we got back was powerfully healing. It insulated us from some of the worst psychological effects that many meningioma patients experience, and that’s an unbelievable blessing, too. While I’m acutely aware that I’m not what I used to be, this version, in this life, is a good place to be.

The travel back, which while relatively smooth as these things go (one flight delayed two hours causing one of those frantic runs through an airport, only to arrive and find that the connecting flight was delayed anyway, luggage that didn’t make it home with us, etc.), underlined for me some of the changes in me this whole experience has brought. For one thing, hard as this may seem to believe, I’m more patient, and more able to let go of things I cannot control. That’s a huge positive step forward that makes our lives that much better. All that practice at slow haredom seems to have paid off. Slowly.

I’ve learned to pace myself better for my current energy reserves, and I automatically built in time to recover from the visual/auditory overload such a trip necessarily entails. It was close to automatic, and I’ve learned to be more accepting of the fact that there are times when getting up and going just isn’t in the cards, like yesterday after the return. I got the mail sorted, laundry done, and, when the suitcases eventually arrived 28 hours late, the unpacking.

It was a good trip, though my writing output was a disappointment. The work in progress took some serious wrestling over structure and direction, and while I got some words on the page, the result was far, far fewer than I’d hoped. Still, I think (hope) that maybe I’m on the right track now, thanks again, to dear friends and readers who were willing to spend time exchanging ideas and nudging me back when I fell off a sensible path.

So, for the status report 23 months later, things are good. My skull has huge dents and it clicks. I still lose my balance when I get overly tired and/or end up in visual/auditory overload. Getting tired happens almost instantly: I go from fine to collapsed with not much warning, and in a new strange artifact, when I push past that point out of necessity, my brain does something I can only describe as clunking all night after that: it fixates on two or three visual images, and they repeat all night. Over and over and over. It reminds me of the sound a tennis shoe makes in the dryer. It’s unpleasant enough that I’m getting pretty adroit (brazen, even) at cutting off whatever is going on and going to bed when I feel that point approaching. That’s been a big change. My shoulder needs more exercise than it gets because it’s a hassle to remember, so it still freezes up now and then. Still no consistent ability to read fiction, though I practiced all summer in small and medium doses and am ever hopeful that will come back. If it doesn’t, I’m finding ways to fill both my craving for narrative and for getting my mind to shut off and focus on other than work. I’m not exactly meditating, but I’m managing my fixations better, all part of this slow haredom that I seem to be settling into. And, now that I’m home, it’s time to start getting serious about all the weight I’ve gained through this process, and I think the emotional energy and discipline might be available to deal with it, finally. I hope. That’s a hedged public commitment!

Most of all, though, is the blessing that all of you are who rallied, helped, encouraged, cared, and were constantly with us through this part of our lives. Thank you, again and again.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Slow Visiting

While lots of people like to do whirlwind trips, full of activity, we like to sink into the atmosphere of a place and learn it in depth. I guess this is in some ways like the life decisions we made to grow in place, which carries both challenges and benefits. There’s a lot that’s nice about long-term relationships with neighbors, friends, businesses, and colleagues. We chose the staying-in-place approach for a lot of reasons, though at least for me, the root reason was providing stability and security for our family--and me. Of course, while the up side is that people know and trust you, the down side is that people know you and your weaknesses, too. It’s hard to hide those over thirty or forty years knowing the same people.

We do a lot of what we think of as “spot” travel when we go places when I give talks. We stay for a weekend or a few days, hit some of the highlights and get the flavor of a place. More to our taste, though, is really stopping and getting to know the texture and rhythms of a place, as we do when we come here every year. And, of course, pretty much everywhere we go, especially non-US countries, we visit hardware and grocery stores. Lots of people visit museums, and we do that, too, but we never miss the chance to check out what the local hardware store--not a chain if possible--carries and is like. When we’re in the midst of a big project, we inevitably end up at a big chain for the variety and quantity, but for figuring out how people live, there’s nothing like the hardware stores and grocery stores. As you might guess, the hardware stores are Michael’s particular passion and an acquired taste on my part.

Both the hardware stores and grocery stores here have changed remarkably over the years. The mom-and-pop hardware stores are disappearing at a breathtaking rate, and the grocery stores carry more prepared foods now than would have been conceivable even five years ago. Two years ago, our main grocery store had ripped out a huge section of traditional foods and installed two or three huge rows of frozen food cases, something we thought we’d never see in a place where there have always been one specialty food chain (not hugely popular) for frozen food. And did we mention that the pharmacies here carry pet medicines and supplies as a matter of course?

As we prepare to wrap up our summer sojourn for the year, Michael is making one last hardware store run to do a few last fixes: window blinds, dehumidifier supplies, replacement locks for the doors that were broken into this year. I’m still struggling with the book and continuing to practice reading a little bit every day. We have some of the family favorites from years of yore here--most YA level books--and I’m trying to do some reading every day. I have no idea if this is how to retrain my brain, but it’s my current effort. Cannot hurt anything, I figure. We’re thinking of you all. Cheers.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Annual Benchmarking

One of the unexpected highlights of visiting the same place annually for decades is that you get a snapshot, year to year, of changes and growth. Thus, we notice the buried power lines and redone houses around us, and we notice the changes in ourselves. For me, still grappling with the overall changes--and often as not still feeling like an alien in my own life--this year’s snapshot has been particularly informative.

While my inner critic (okay, okay, my inner criticS) are still heavily judgmental about how much video I watch these days, slowly it’s become clear to me that’s in part a way of responding to my still-gimped fiction-reading ability. Whether my brain wants or is able to follow narrative in writing, something in my being longs for stories and character development. The video we’ve been watching, I think, works at filling that need.

It’s still odd, very odd, to have watched more video in the PBS (post brain surgery) era than in all the pervious eras combined, but it begins to make a bit more sense when viewed in that light. And, as the other (very tiny) defender voice says, 42 minutes every few days or so is still not all that much video, which when fetched via iTunes or on DVD (at home) is pretty time-effective compared to the broadcast versions. (Michael and I tried watching one of the shows the girls recommended in its broadcast version earlier this year, and still cannot stomach the commercials, we found, in common with our selves of 20-odd years ago when we dropped cable the year Kearney was born--that and the outrageous price then of $20/month). On vacation, I’ve even been letting myself watch two episodes some days, especially if I managed to do any useful writing (hat tip to you, Doug, and your reward theories) and you should hear the inner critics on those days.

Since one of my goals continues to be “fewer, nicer things,” and I’m particularly poor at being able to get rid of things, it’s always nice to inhabit the much more stripped-down and compressed life here, where there’s little choice. There isn’t room for much more than we have here, so if something comes in, other things have to go out. As always, as we anticipate returning to regular life, we hope that the practice here will carry over and we’ll continue to be able to pare down our regular lives more. Too bad we both come by our pack-rattery honestly: when we cleaned out Michael’s dad’s house, he had more rubber bands than anyone you’ve ever met, including us. His, of course, were organized and stored in an ingenious way, compared to Michael’s stash.

We had some overnight company this year again for a few nights, and there’s nothing like having someone stay with you--or staying with them--to learn about others. I suppose you could say we’re kind of set in our ways (I hear you laughing, K), and the approaches of other people are always eye-opening. One of the things we do particularly well together is to adventure, including navigating, for which Michael has an amazing in-built sense (and, of course, he always looks it up in advance) and also a willingness to problem-solve and listen to my map-reading as we go. We provided maps and directions to a really magnificent set of gardens to our visitors, who programmed the address into their GPS and then never got there. We were astonished at the reliance on the GPS when, after all, we’d also provided a map. Apparently, the GPS being fuddled, they gave up. And the signage here, once you get the hang of it, is particularly useful and helpful, especially for cultural attractions... It made me remember the year we rented a car with GPS that provided directions that made no sense to Michael, so we ignored them, going the path he thought was better--only to have it recalculate after we’d not taken several of the “immediate U-turn”s it commanded, and cut almost four hours off the travel time it had been estimating. In our family, that’s known as “doing it our own selves,” and I’d say we’re all, in our own ways, verging on militant about it.

As always, we are taking deep satisfaction from improvements large and small in the time we’ve been here. It’s another thing we do, improving things, and on this small canvas, in a compressed time period, it’s particularly visible. It’s nice to be reminded of that, as we go back to a number of larger endeavors. Now, if only this book would write itself, or the book fairy would deliver it, more completed, some night while I sleep. The failures of the book fairy explain the long gaps in posting here, that and being somewhat out of time in our alternate life here. Back to the book.... Cheers to all, and please do keep letting us know how you are and sending us your thoughts. We’re always glad to be connected and get word back from you.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Practicing Stillness

After making my schedule hectic in the spring through a series of choices that, mostly, I would make again, I’m practicing being still and quiet. I still have a long list of things to do, but along with setting times for working, I’m trying to spend some time just being still, without any structure, urgent goals or imperatives. The purpose is not only to stop the frenetic activity that characterized my spring semester, but to get the brain chatter to settle down a bit, too. I like to be busy and productive and have been incredibly fortunate to find work that is enjoyable at which I can succeed, but I do have a tendency to go overboard sometimes. Spring semester was one of those times. Aside from doing a whole raft of things I cared about--and that I’m still pleased I did--all that activity did provide cover to avoid facing the major change underway in my life. The stillness is a way to let everything integrate and sink in a bit. It’s a work in progress, as this is definitely not my strong suit. Hence the practice.

As for the book, I’m a hopelessly linear writer, beginning at the beginning (every time) and writing until the end, so the fact that the portion of the book that’s drafted (about half) needs to be restructured is a complication. The most efficient path would be to concentrate on writing the un-done sections first and editing it all together later, but I seem not to be able to pull that off; without understanding how it begins or how it all hangs together, I’ve been stymied.

Several days of practicing stillness, though, seem to be paying off, and ideas are finally beginning to emerge. Part of the problem is that the purpose and audience of the book have shifted since the project started, and so much of what’s written is tailored to the old vision of the book, not the new one. There’s lots to say, and the issue for me is to find the right frame and figure out what the overall question is the book is trying to answer.

Meanwhile, in the stillness, I’ve been appreciating all the truly wonderful things about my life, which of course, always begin with and center around knowing Michael. On top of that central, abiding happiness, the colors here feed my soul, and we have glorious blooms in the yard and on the terrace. In the sunshine here and in the quiet, good things are happening for me. Soon enough, I’m going to have to reinvent myself--again--for the next stage of my life, and figure out what comes next. I’m not going to worry about that until another later, after I practice stillness some more, and after this book either emerges, or doesn’t. Happy mid-summer to all.

Monday, July 12, 2010

More Thoughts about Enoughness

On Saturday, we went to lunch with some neighbors at a restaurant that had an indoor air-conditioned room and an outside terrace. Indoors was so noisy that Michael opted for outdoors, thinking (correctly) that the noise would cause problems for me. Outdoors, it was very hot, sweating hot, though we were sitting in the shade. Over the course of a long and typically good french lunch, we saw a lot of patrons come and go. About half sat outdoors, and after a while, I was struck by the fact that wasn't something we'd likely see in the States--unless of course the restaurant had a misting machine or some other way to cool down the outdoor tables.

Another thing you wouldn't see at home is one of the groups of people who came for lunch, all of them employees at the local hardware chain. All wearing their Castorama uniforms, they were clearly there on their lunch break. It didn't seem to be a special celebration, just a regular work day going out to lunch. Now, I'm not sure what Castorama pays, but I'm guessing that they each spent several hours of pay on lunch that day.

All that got me to thinking about the number of stores in this vacation-destination area that shut down during the biggest vacation months of the year so the owners can take their own vacations. Most US visitors who come here, and see the signs that the owners are on vacation while the town is crawling with potential customers, comment on this. We are often struck by it ourselves.

This is all a variant, I think, on enoughness: choices to put quality of life over "just" money. So the hourly hardware store workers value quality of lunch with each other and the store owners value their vacations, all more than money. It's one of the things that distinguishes France from the US and it's a healthy kind of enoughness to think about. Even sitting in the heat was a choice about quality of life--our neighbors don't really like air conditioning for the quality of the air it produces, though they have, in recent years, broken down and gotten an air-conditioned car, as it's gotten warmer and warmer here in the summers. Europe is having another "unusual" heat wave, though since we've had one of these unusual heat waves every year now for the last three or four years, they seem less and less unusual to me. For everyone else, it's about a society that isn't pervasively air-conditioned--yet. Here, only the chain stores have AC and few homes. So the heat is just a part of life, and it means that you slow down a bit and that you're hot. We went to see the new Harry Potter movie, the last time one came out, and had the lovely experience of being able to sit through a whole movie without sweaters or being cold. The theater had fans moving the air, and the place was large enough, and without windows that it probably retained a lot of its cool air, but it wasn't air-conditioned at all. So far, at least, that's the norm, though we see AC units moving into more and more offices. Even then, though, it's not central, and the cooling isn't to subzero; it's limited to directly around the desks of the people who are present, and only moderates, doesn't completely remove the heat. It's just enough to make it possible to wear professional summer clothes.

Is it only possible to acquire this sense of enoughness if the whole society around you is doing it? We see pockets of change at home, in the locavore, slow food, big-enough house movements in the US, but still, anyone who closed their business during the tourist high season, or chose to sit outside in a heat wave would stand out. Are there lessons to be learned from all this? How, and what are they?

postscript: Michael points out that I haven't grappled with another element present here, which is a sense of entitlement, which is true. I'm not actually that interested in that part, so it's easy for me to overlook it, though it clearly requires some more thought. That would be for another later, as they say.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Differences are Good: A Cranioversary Theme?

Among the lovely things that travel brings is a change in topics of conversation. Michael and I try to walk every day--at least every day when my balance isn’t totally wonky, when my knee isn’t acting up, and when the rest of life isn’t so crazed that it’s yet another obligation instead of something peaceful, healthy and calm. Changing locales means there are different things to notice and to talk about as we walk, which is always nice, because even though we take different routes, after you’ve done them for years, they do start to become more background than foreground. When we’re here, though we do some of the same walks regularly--the yacht basin is one of our favorite places, both because it’s flat and because it’s a different universe--with a gap of a year since our last visits, there’s always a lot to notice.

It’s on these occasions that the differences in our interests becomes most clear. Here’s a real conversation we had yesterday, walking along the Croisette, where there are many tony pay beaches, always an interesting spectacle.

Me: “Oh, look, here’s the same man setting up as last year, but the theme and the umbrellas and furniture are all different. It’s pretty!”

Michael: “Do you think the bathrooms here are below the sewer lines?”

Me: “huh?”

Michael: “That truck has a line down to the beach buildings, and it’s clearly sucking something liquid back up to the truck, not supplying from the truck to the beach. Do you think it can be sewage? I think it has to be.”

And that about sums it up. On the yachts, I notice the people and the size and the accoutrements, and he’s looking at their antennas and the cars parked across from them. I’m speculating about the people, and he’s looking at the equipment. In the parks, I’m looking at the people and the dogs, and he’s looking at the species planted and the watering system.

Or, walking in the neighborhood:

Me: “What a great view that house must have.”

Michael: “Right. And look at that! Wow!”

Me: [confused] “What? I don’t see anything. What am I looking at?”

Michael: “They buried their power and phone lines since last year!”

So, today’s 22-month cranioversary theme is how good differences are. Cousin South detected a change in my topical theme, about the time I changed the color of the blog, to one of reinvention, figuring out what to do with what I am now. That seems about right, and I was glad to hear it! It's amazing how often our friends detect what we're feeling before we do, in these realms. As for the status report, from the top down: the head clicking is newish and definitely weird; I’ll ask some doctor about that, sometime. Reading fiction and comics and doing certain mental activities comes and goes; my thinking processes are definitely different than they used to be, though certain facilities, like synthesis, seem to be improving steadily. I’m restarting all the shoulder exercises after letting them lapse, because it’s freezing up again and doing all its weird detours when moving up or down, though side to side is fine. So long as I’m willing to ask for and accept help, I can navigate stairs and since, mostly, I like life better without lots of crowds and loud noises anyway, the fact that I don't do well in those settings is not usually an impediment. Bottom line: I’m different than I was, and how I am is ok. It’s a journey, not a destination, as they say.

I’ll probably do status reports only through 24 months, because that’s about the outer limit of when positive changes can be expected, though someone recently told me that she’d seen the final real improvements five years after surgery. In any event, two years seems like more than enough attention for this thing that was in my brain. The book stuff is going v e r y slowly, but at least that's likely because writing is hard, not because of my broken bits, and I’m trying to keep at it consistently. My editor told me she thought I was probably one of the only authors in the history of the world who asked “who would want to hear what I think about any of this, anyway?” and (in the nicest possible way) told me to stop being such a girl about it all and get on with it; she’ll worry about the audience if I just write the words. So, off I go to try to write more words, hoping very much that, someday, there might be something someone, anyone, might want to read.

It’s a pretty nice life, sitting on the terrace trying to write words. Of course, it's even nicer when not trying to drag words out through fingers onto the screen: last night, Michael opened some champagne, just to celebrate how nice it is to be here, with each other, in this nice place. My wish for you is that you make time to stop and celebrate the nice elements in your lives. While you're at it, notice differences. They're good, too.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sinking into the Silence

One of the things about our annual migration is that it gives me a space for reflection and silence. In France, Michael takes over the role of primary communicator, as his French is better than mine. This is a big change, and it alters our dynamic in ways that are interesting and healthy for both of us. On top of that, when the girls aren’t here, days go by without me speaking to anyone except Michael. That too, is a nice change, as my life is usually filled to the brimful with talktalktalk. I like that and it energizes and keeps me going as I’m an interactive person. Stepping into the silence each year for a bit gives me valuable time to reflect, rest and recharge. Resting is especially high on the agenda this year, as I’m tired.

We’ve learned over the years to do the gardening first, as the plants in the built-in window boxes rarely survive year to year, while the bigger plants generally do. This year, we have pink and purple new plants in the window boxes and the bougainvillea, while challenged by cats trying to rootectomize them through digging, are hanging on and determinedly surviving. The calvary has ridden to the rescue and they’re bouncing back with gratifying rapidity. The colors here feed my soul in important ways and I feel better already. Our indoor plants, two orchids and, I think, a bromeliad, do for the inside what the terrace does outside. Does anyone know what this one is? Dr. Google and I haven’t yet been able to identify it definitively.

On top of the recharging, this year calls for some serious reflection, both because of the major transition I’m facing and because this quiet place, where for decades my main activity has been reading, highlights that it is time to work through and find some resolution to my sense of self-displacement. With my ability and interest in reading disrupted, I’m plugging away both at continuing to try (and finding sporadic success) and at adapting to what seems to be the new reality.

A root problem for me is how to think about my personal challenge, which is not really a “problem” in any real sense of the word when compared to what’s out there in the world. It feels whiny (a serious sin in my book) to think or talk about this as a problem and yet, without thinking and talking about it, it is not possible to process or integrate it. It’s a conundrum. The central issue, I think is one of proportionality. It only takes looking around or reading a newspaper to recognize that I’m entirely lucky in every respect. Still, that doesn’t change this sensation of being an alien in my own body. There’s no real resolution, only a sense that it’s time to get on with it. Somehow. Any and all tips and pointers welcome. Oh, and did I mention? My scalp clicks consistently now. There is some kind of strange discontinuity in my skull that causes my scalp to click when touched in a certain way. It has a strange fascination to it which I can only liken to the feeling of quickening babies kicking inside. At least that one is completely understandable in its physiology; this clicking is just plain strange. It seems benign, and yet having an explanation as to the mechanism and cause would really help and probably let me accept it and move on more successfully, leaving it alone more.

Michael is off playing boules with the informal club that welcomes him annually--another change in our routines. He’s a social butterfly here (at least on his scale), and much in demand as a teammate. I’m getting ready to work, having done nothing but nap and try to read and sit in the sun for a few days. Wish me luck.

Endings, Beginnings and Middles (written July 3)

I’m terrible at endings. The endings of my classes are the weakest part of my teaching, goodbyes are not my thing, and my transitions from one thing to another are not usually any kind of high point. The single exception is that the end of my workshops is a strong one, developed years and years and years ago. In consequence, I use it in every single event, pretty much no matter the topic. Stick with something that works, that’s my theory. I read once that when speaking, the parts that matter the most are the beginning, the peak point and the end; I have worked hard to hone the workshops, and wish I could bottle whatever it is about it that works so well. Still, getting back to the train of thought that started all of this, the ending this week [last week, by the time of posting] of my formal employment at the university after 36 years, as might have been predicted, had some rough edges. Some of those were mine, but for once, most of them were caused by others. Some left me feeling pretty bruised. That was maybe inevitable, and as it now looks as though most of the problematic issues will resolve, because I did a good job of responding. (This is an acknowledgement of some success at my goal of giving myself credit when due and feeling good about it.) Maybe I’m actually improving at endings? Still to be seen.

In the same space in which my work transition was playing out, we went to a wedding of a very happy young couple, in a ceremony and party that seemed entirely suited to them and their relationship, and that yet once again made clear to me how idiosyncratic many of our ideas are. It was an interesting thing to stop and contemplate how well our lives fit us and how comfortable we are in them, and yet how different they seem to be.

Now, we’re in our time together in France again, and it’s a life that fits us well. We’re good at middles, and this middle is an especially good one, notwithstanding the technical glitches associated with getting the internet back up and running here this year. My computer doesn’t deal gracefully with the heat and I wasted a lot of time before we figured out, once again, that some of the strange symptoms were probably heat-related. I am SO ready for Apple to upgrade that particular part of their line! The one dissonant note in all of this is that my main activity has been for many years to soak myself in reading things I’ve saved up over many months. Now that I’m mostly unable to read the way I always have, I’m trying to find new patterns and rhythms. While I know full well this is one of the good problems to have, it’s challenging me.

I’m giving myself a complete break until after the holiday: come Tuesday, my goal is to try to write for two hours a day and keep with up with email and other work in a similar time, and use all the other hours of the day to play and rest. How’s that for a great middle?