Monday, June 21, 2010

Circumstance and Character

From long experience saying things along the lines of what I’m going to say here today, first please let me assure you that I’m serious and ask you to consider not laughing. Ok, it’s fine if you laugh, so long as you don’t let me know that you’re laughing, at least until it’s all over. Some of us are slower than others, so it takes us longer to work things through and assimilate various concepts. These thoughts were stimulated by yet another conversation with someone displaying raging curiosity about my brain tumor without being rude or causing me trauma.

As background, during the Long Slog of last month, I attended a small, day-long event about ethics at which Robert Burton, the author of On Being Certain, spoke. He did more than speak, actually, he was present for the entire time as the group worked through some ideas and problems. He presented his work and some of his current ideas, including his ruminations on the implications of the collective intelligence of slime mold, ants, locusts, etc., for human beings. If you haven’t looked at the slime mold-replicating-Tokyo-rail-system study, you should. There’s apparently a similar one replicating the highway system in England, but I haven’t looked that one up. You can tell I’m stalling for time before getting to the part you’re going to laugh at. Anyway, in the midst of that event, citing studies on the effects of odors (fresh baked goods) on willingness to donate, he said, meaning to be provocative, that maybe character is all circumstance.

Ok, so here’s the truth that has come home to me: getting a brain tumor wasn’t my fault. In that case, unlike most others in my life, I didn’t have to spend time, given my childhood conditioning, figuring out what I’d done wrong, or thought of doing wrong, some way I’d fallen short, or some pattern of my behavior that induced the bad result. There’s nothing about it that requires or evokes any particular feelings other than “stuff happens.” It just was, and we needed to respond to it, and we did. Here’s the connection to the stuff about slime mold and locusts and Burton: If circumstance is character, individually and collectively, we measured up, and more. I’m proud of how we responded individually and as a family, and what it says about the character, especially, of our children. (I already knew all that about Michael’s character; he’s an unbelievably wonderful human being.)

Thus, it hasn’t been complicated for me to talk or write about this experience, since I wasn’t responsible for causing it in the first place, and have been only responsible for responding to as best as I could. Some of the post-craniotomy effects are downright odd, the oddest being not really knowing myself fully at middle age: I’m not who I used to be. Most of this adventure, though has followed the course laid out by many others who have traveled on similar journeys. Virtually all of what happened was affirming, heartwarming, wonderful and cheering. (There was that unique, fairly irritating experience when a collaborator asked for an extension on a deadline without telling me, citing my brain tumor as the reason for the extension, even though my share of the project was all done, but whatever. That experience was such an anomaly, it really stood out.) It does mean, though, that I’m still chewing hard to figure out how to respond to what comes next in my life, all of which is flowing largely as a result of my own (sensible) choices. No good answers there yet, just the putting one foot in front of the other.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Still Here

Several people have asked if things are ok, since there have been continuing gaps in my posting. I’m fine and it’s nice to know there’s a community out there paying attention and noticing the gap. We know the nicest people!

Thinking about the reasons underlying my actions--always a worthwhile activity--reveals that the silence is mostly because there’s a lot to do, though nowhere near what it was this spring. Also, I’ve been a little cranky, and I generally try to keep things to myself when there isn’t much positive to say. There’s no good reason for the cranky, just sorting through all the looming changes and a general dissatisfaction with the degree of clutter in my life.

Here’s an example: There’s a dress hanging on the back of my bedroom door that’s been there now for some time. The calculation of exactly how long that might have been is a little cringe-inducing. There was some compelling reason to get it out that’s no longer accessible, and I’ve been hesitant to put the dress away when the prospect of remembering why it’s there might be just around the corner. Sadly, that corner hasn’t presented itself, and doesn’t seem likely to do so, so the dress is likely to get put away today. That’s the state of my life: full of stuff and clutter without knowing why it’s there, except that the nagging sense that there was a good reason or use for it at one time.

I’m getting caught up, finally, after the exertions of the spring. This week and next, my goal is to get things in order for fall teaching and clear the decks before turning to summer, the waiting book manuscript and new horizons. The new horizons are both exciting and daunting, so preparing and thinking about them is taking some sorting through. In the back of my head, thoughts about exceptionalism are rolling around; as soon as there is something interesting to say on that topic, I’ll write more.

Summer is my favorite time of year. I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am. Cheers.

Friday, June 11, 2010

21 Month Cranioversary, Plus One Day

It’s been a long pull, but each and every one of the big projects with deadlines is over now, and successfully. I’m still a little numb and, so far, about all I’ve taken in is how good it feels to stop. This intense patch went in two waves and, as has been clear from my absence here, resulted in a pared-down life focussed entirely on putting one foot in front of the other. The deadlines were in two waves, and the first wave was bigger than the second.

After that first wave, when both the huge proposal and the conference were complete, we got home on a Saturday night. All I wanted was ice cream for dinner. It’s hard to describe how deviant that is in our lives, which are generally pretty well-ordered. We make the bed, eat dinner together at the dining room table, wash the dishes and keep the public areas of the house tidy and welcoming for family and guests. We exercise (Michael more seriously than I). Michael, the cook, makes sure we have a protein, a vegetable and a starch at every meal. Our food habits are healthy and don’t include caffeine or sodas, much processed anything, etc.

Still, upon arriving home after a long day of travel, following a long and intense stretch of work, the only thing I wanted for dinner was ice cream. From Jarling’s. Size Big. Since I didn’t have to worry about the consequences of this choice for anyone but me, that’s what I did, by way of celebration and punctuation. Michael, of course, ate a balanced meal first and then had his desert. Size small.

It bothers me that I didn’t take more satisfaction from doing the two big projects, and doing them well, and that’s something I want to think about more: when I do well, I want to feel good about it, not just listen to the inner script that says “yes, that’s what you’re supposed to do, so what about it?” I’m ready to shed, for good, the “day late and a dollar short” tag my father hung on me, as it wasn’t right then and it isn’t now. My new goal is to feel that as well as to know it. Stay tuned on that front!

As for the 21-month cranioversary, plus one day, things are good. The intense stretch I’ve just been through wouldn’t have been possible last year or even six months ago, and certainly not the summer before diagnosis. It’s a great demonstration of the long road we’ve all traveled together and the tremendous gains of the journey. I’m not what I used to be, both in positive and less wonderful ways, and that’s ok. It’s all manageable and I am keenly aware each and every day that mine are the good problems to have.

The key is that my children still have a mother and that I can work, and successfully. The other stuff, including the need constantly to manage my energy and watch my balance, is becoming second nature. I’m more graceful at asking for--and accepting--help, which is overall a net gain, I think, in my overall growth and maturity. The continuing balance problems are the most visible remnant of my medical adventure, having stabilized at, well, unstable. After a long period where, with seriously focused attention, I could navigate stairs alone, that’s no longer possible, especially going down, without assistance. This gets worse as I get tired. I’m hopeful that this will attenuate some as I get less stressed and more rested. If it doesn’t, that’s ok. I can do this. The ability to read fiction still wafts in and out, and I remain hopeful it will click back in for good sometime.

My head and its dents are something I’m still aware of, though not anyone else--except now some TSA workers in Boston. I got wanded at their security station this week, and my head beeped. This resulted in what felt like about 600 people feeling my head and its dents, searching through my hair to assure that I hadn’t hidden anything in it. I’ve long since stopped carrying the document that explains the titanium spacers in my skull as they don’t set off the walk-through metal detectors, so that was a less fun moment. Fortunately, I had plenty of time and still made my flight. And washed my hair when I got to the next hotel.

As I continue to integrate this strange experience into my life, I’m discovering that a lot of people apparently harbor fears that they have undetected brain tumors. People who have heard through some grapevine about my surgery often seek me out and ask how the tumor came to light, and then tell me about their own concerns. This has happened often enough by now that I’m getting used to it, and hope that my responses are suitable. Who knew? It’s so easy to overlook or discount the stories everyone carries, their hopes and fears. That’s worth remembering and factoring in more often: we need to be more gentle with each other, as a daily habit. I’m going to try to start with myself so I can offer more to others.

And what I’m going to offer to myself, now, is a day away from my computer. Cheers.