Saturday, March 31, 2012

Beyond Every Horizon Lies Another

     I woke up this morning from a permutation of a dream I've had many times before. It's the dream where I realize that I haven't finished part of my education, either some required class from high school or college, and I am back in the classroom, completely confused about how I got myself into this mess. In this particular dream, although I was already an M.D., it was discovered that I had missed some physics course credits, and I had to go back to school. I was re-enrolled in what seemed to be a community college. I'd stopped attending this class weeks before, and had never even opened the textbook. There were all sorts of quizzes that I'd already missed, and now, there were only two weeks left before the final exam. Oddly enough, I was taking several concurrent classes, all of which I was doing well in. For some reason, I just couldn't get through physics. The physics instructor was the woman I do my banking with at Suntrust. Elizabeth is an attractive, intelligent, soft spoken woman who's entertained me during our phone conversations over the years with amusing stories about how, back in the '60s, she left her home in Fair Hope, Alabama to pursue her dream of becoming a ballerina in New York. She was willing to overlook the fact that I had missed most of her classes, and was urging me to use the next two weeks to study. I was aware that most of the students in the class were people I knew from anesthesia residency, but I only recognized one person. It was Annette, a brilliant young woman with an undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech, who completed her residency a couple of years after me. She's now an anesthesiologist in Colorado, and is expecting her first child. In the dream classroom, Annette sat one seat over and behind from me. I kept looking back at her as she busily scribbled down equations, thinking to myself, "How does she understand all these formulas?" I couldn't make any sense out of the word problems, much the same as it had been for me when I took my year of physics 16 years ago. The mood of the dream was sort of neurotic, with a pervasive feeling of being a phoney, and of being pressed for time. I don't know how the dream itself ends. It's one of the realest-feeling recurring dreams that I have, and I am always incredibly relieved when I wake up.
     I'm not sure what to make of dreams like this. Maybe it's not all that important to try and understand them, but I do find dreams intriguing. They are our subconscious minds, uncensored. In analyzing my dreams, I don't necessarily come to any earth-shattering conclusions, but I do gain awareness of certain feelings that seem to escape my consciousness. Right now, I'm deeply involved in some sort of spiritual journey. I don't know what to call it or how to classify it. I don't even know why it's happening. All I really know is that I feel a happiness and inner peace I've never experienced before. The further I travel outside the boundaries of my own mind, the calmer and more receptive I'm becoming. I feel differently, but I can't explain it. The things I once thought I needed seem unnecessary, unimportant, peripheral. It's as if I am shedding my old skin.
     On a superficial level, I can explain this dream. I chose medicine as a second career, and was a working mom when I went back to school to complete the pre-med requisite coursework. I've always struggled with physical science and mathematics. In high school, I took algebra and geometry, after which I opted out of any further math courses, joining the newspaper staff instead. My SAT scores were dismal. When I first took college algebra in 1980, I was completely lost. I quit going to class, and ended up making a "D." The biggest obstacle I had in going back to college years later as an older adult was my fear of math, chemistry, and physics. I really didn't think I was capable of understanding any of that stuff. In most of my classes, I was the oldest student, and I felt like such a dummy, sitting next to a bunch of 20 year olds for whom this coursework seemed effortless. I poured myself into these classes this time around. What I discovered was that, in the past, I'd made these subjects needlessly difficult. In over-thinking and second-guessing word problems, I couldn't arrive at the relatively straightforward answers that were contained within each problem. I made simple problems complicated. My new approach was pretty simplistic: I went to class, did the assigned reading, worked through each chapter's questions, and if there was something I didn't understand, I sought help. Instead of feeling intimated and inadequate, I now felt challenged. I decided to have fun with it. In no time, I discovered I could "do" math and physical science, just like everyone else, and amazingly, I was getting through it. I surprised myself; was this really me? Or was I just some sort of poser?
     I've spent a good deal of my life, trying to get anywhere but where I am, reaching for something just beyond the horizon, never feeling at home within my own skin. What is it I've been reaching for, and where exactly is this horizon anyway? Given that what we refer to as the horizon is only an apparent line, dividing ocean or earth from the sky, Earth's curvature seems to preclude its existence: beyond every horizon lies another. It's really nothing more than an imaginary boundary, an optical illusion. The presence of trees or buildings obscure the definition of the horizon's line, making it seem closer and more attainable, but this, too, is an illusion. It's something that isn't really there to begin with. In reaching for what's beyond the horizon, maybe I've been fooling myself. If I turn my head a few degrees to one side or another, the horizon changes without my feet moving an inch. To other observers, the point at which I'm standing right now might be the horizon they are desperately trying to reach, yet there is nothing terribly exciting going on here. It's a place just like any other. I'm starting to think my concept of self is my biggest obstacle, that what I've strived so hard to understand may not be as important as what I already know. Maybe it's this consciousness of mine which perpetuates the illusion of boundaries defined by a horizon, this gnawing feeling of insignificance. Maybe "me" is the illusion. Maybe I've been home all along.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

An Incidental Kind of Happiness

     Late last night, my brother, Adam, called me from the Cobb County Jail. He's been imprisoned there since before Christmas for a non-violent offense, which violated the terms of the probation he was serving for felony charges he'd incurred more than a decade ago. He'll be transferred to a state-run drug rehabilitation program soon. Initially, he wasn't too thrilled with this sentence, and had actually considered appealing it so he could continue to serve the remainder of his time in jail, with the thought that he'd probably be released sooner from jail than the drug rehab. The time he is currently serving doesn't count for anything; his time will start when he is transferred to the new facility. He is in a limbo of sorts right now. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for him. Once he gets out of prison, he will be starting life all over again, just like he did when he was released on parole ten years ago. If he successfully completes this drug rehab program, his slate will be wiped clean, with no remaining probation to serve.
     Adam chooses not to see his 4 year old daughter, Jerney, while he's institutionalized. Although it is doubtful that she would recall their visits when she's older, he prefers talking with her over the telephone. She believes he is working out of town. Although I think she would love to see him in person, I respect the choice he's made in this matter. Adam also has an adopted 20 year old stepdaughter, with whom he's always been very close. To my knowledge, she has never visited him, but they do communicate by telephone. Adam and Jerney's mother have been divorced for some time now, and prior to his incarceration, he spent every other weekend with Jerney. My mother, who is 77, has now assumed responsibility for those weekend visits, often making the full two-hour trip to middle Georgia to pick Jerney up on Thursday afternoons and deliver her back on Sunday. Tomorrow, Mom and I are taking Jerney to Cleveland, Georgia to visit Babyland General Hospital where we'll see Cabbage Patch 'babies" being "born." Jerney, who is brilliantly precocious for such a young child, is going be delighted. I can already imagine the myriad questions she'll have.
     I wonder if Jerney's happiness is what's sustaining Adam right now. Other than talking with her on the phone, he can't actively participate in doing things to make her happy. I know he grieves deeply over this. His lifelong melancholy seemed to dissipate when Jerney was born, perhaps because it was the first time he'd experienced love so selfless and pure. It really seemed to transform him. Regardless of the choices he's made recently, I'm convinced that transformation was real. I don't know that Adam himself is happy, but I can tell he's genuinely elated over Jerney's burgeoning enchantment with life. It's an incidental kind of happiness.
     I'm currently involved in an interesting discussion about altruism on the blogger forum I belong to. One of my friends, who goes by the username, "NothingProfound", wrote this aphorism: "Being happy for other people's happiness is the best kind of happiness." He then asked, "Is altruism a myth?" There are many people who don't believe in altruism, who think that even the kindest act is motivated by selfish concern. I think kindness is sincere when there are no attached expectations. In being happy for another person's happiness, we detach ourselves from any perceived personal gain or desire for reciprocity; we step out of ourselves to experience transcendent, selfless contentment, independent of an inner sense of happiness. In other words, one doesn't have to be happy to experience true happiness. It's as passive, gentle, and spontaneous as the rippling waves on a seashore which lap at your feet while you're standing still: this happiness washes over you. This kind of happiness just happens. My hope for Adam is that the happiness he feels for Jerney will continue to nourish his spirit, heal his pain, and eventually, become part of his being. I hope that one day, he'll be happy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

All In Good Time

     A couple of mornings ago, I awoke with a sense of uneasiness. I had gone to bed the night before, thinking about our unfinished tax returns and my pile of credentialing paperwork, waiting to confront me in the morning. At some point during the night, Brad had a nightmare, and his muffled screaming woke me with a start. I nudged him awake, and asked him what he'd been dreaming about. He'd dreamt that he was alone in a house, surrounded by an overpoweringly ominous feeling, and that he'd seen a woman's face, painted ghostly white with a bright light coming from behind her, peeking at him from around a corner. That's when he tried to scream. "Did you recognize the woman's face?" I asked. "Yes, it was Sue Plaga." Sue was his first step-mother, a psychologically abusive, alcoholic hag who's been dead for a long time. Brad lost his mother, Mary, to breast cancer when he was only six. He and his brothers adored Mary, and Brad says that when he started kindergarten, he cried every day because he missed being at home with his mom. He doesn't remember much about his mother, except how loved she made him feel. About five years later, Brad's father married Sue. From what Brad and his brothers say, Sue was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; she was instrumental in getting Brad's older brothers kicked out of the house, leaving Brad to fend for himself. He must have felt terribly isolated and alone. On her best behavior while Bob was home, Sue would wait until he left town on business to terrorize poor Brad, driving around drunk with him in the car, constantly berating him and making him feel worthless. Eventually, she stopped hiding her evil side from Bob, and he divorced her. It's a wonder Brad doesn't have nightmares about Sue more often.
     We woke up a few hours later, had our coffee together, and then, Brad went off to work. I had a mountain of tax and credentialing paperwork awaiting me, and began the tedious process of slogging through it. I had to meet my CPA at 2 p.m. the next day to go over the taxes, and was nowhere near finished itemizing our deductions. I wasn't sure I'd be able to get it all done. The credentialing forms are lengthy and redundant, requiring recall of obscure information, as well as notified copies of various documents and passport photos. I'm surprised they aren't also asking for my umbilical cord stump. Despite having all of that paperwork to fill out, I felt inspired to write a new blog. Inspiration took precedence over duty and obligation, and feeling slightly guilty, I pushed the paperwork off to the side. "I'm really going to be behind now", I thought. This was probably around 8:30 or so. I was heavily involved in writing when I received a text message from my 21 year old son, Rory. He's been on home intravenous (IV) antibiotics for the last 3 1/2 weeks, treating a pulmonary exacerbation from his cystic fibrosis, and had texted me to let me know he was at the Emory Clinic, having his indwelling IV catheter removed. His pulmonary function was 1% above his previous best baseline, definitely something to celebrate. He told me that his doctor was having a hard time getting the IV catheter out, and that he was being sent to Radiology to have it removed. I was a little worried. Rory told me he'd "turned green" while his pulmonologist was tugging on the catheter, trying to dislodge it from the crook of his right arm. I wondered if he'd need some sedation to tolerate having it removed. I asked him if he wanted me to drive over to Emory, thinking he might end up needing sedation, in which case he'd be unable to drive himself home. He responded that he wasn't alone. His girlfriend, Fanchon, had accompanied him, and they suggested that we meet for lunch after Rory finished up in Radiology. I was so touched that Fanchon had spent three hours, waiting with Rory at Emory. As a parent, there is nothing quite as wonderful as knowing your child is loved by a significant other, and all of a sudden, spending time with the two of them was all that really seemed to matter.
     Rory and Fanchon arrived at my place around 1 p.m. I had just finished my blog, and still hadn't showered. After reading to them what I'd written, I got ready and the three of us went out for sushi. Lunch was unhurried, and afterward, we decided to sit outside in the beautifully cool, sunny weather. We took Simon and Lilly with us, and as they chased squirrels and basked in the sun, we enjoyed a glass of pinot noir and each other's company: an afternoon well spent. The uneasiness I'd felt earlier in the day seemed to melt into a casual sense of relaxation and serenity. In celebrating Rory's good health and his companionship with Fanchon, I lost the internal agenda that had been haunting me, like the ghostly apparition in Brad's dream. I knew the taxes and paperwork would still be there, but they were now of peripheral, instead of central importance.
     When we attend to something, we consciously ignore just about everything else. Whatever it is that we're worrying about tends to pervade our consciousness, drowning out other thoughts, narrowing our focus even further, creating anxiety which can actually disable us from completing any of our tasks.
When nothing is done, 
nothing is left undone
It is in stepping back and trusting my intuition, clearing out the thoughts which are cluttering my mind, instead of trying to control or ignore them, that I seem to accomplish the most. In not worrying, there is nothing to worry about. Time and energy are conserved, instead of being wasted, and with surprisingly little effort on my part, problems and concerns seem to take care of themselves. Such an open-minded approach may seem counter-productive, especially to those of us who like to feel we're "on top of things."
A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.
Einstein described the "systematic thinking of human beings" as being "an utterly insignificant reflection" in comparison with the harmony of natural law, which reveals a vastly superior intelligence. He surmised that it is this intuitive receptiveness and open-mindedness which guides the life and work of a true scientist. In other words, when we detach ourselves from our own ideas, we are no longer prejudiced. 
     I finished my tax return yesterday at 1 p.m. My visit with our CPA was brief, yet pleasant, and the outlook doesn't appear as grim as I had thought. Remembering the conversation that Rory, Fanchon, and I had about money the day before, about how it is really just printed paper of uncertain value, helped keep the tax situation in perspective. Money itself doesn't bring happiness; we assign its value. I'm still working on the credentialing documents, and should be able to get them mailed out later this afternoon or tomorrow. Credentialing is a complicated process, and doesn't occur overnight, even with rapid return of one's application. Once I become credentialed, I'll be able to start working again. Although I'm really looking forward to getting back to work, I'm not allowing the looming specter of this paperwork to haunt me. I know it'll all happen, all in good time.
Rory and Fanchon

italicized quotes from Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching

Monday, March 26, 2012

Everywhere Is Already Here

     A friend of mine, whose husband was critically injured less than two weeks ago when the car a 19 year old woman was driving careened into his motorcycle after she failed to yield at a stop sign, has just updated her Facebook status to read: "My dear girlfriends that have a spouse, I ask that the next time socks, shoes, coins, clothes, bread crumbs, or any little mess left from your partner, thank God for it! Oh, how I miss being at home with mine!" Aside from being incredibly poignant, this request is truly visionary. When I think about what Kim has been through: Michael's accident, his spinal cord injury, his rocky ICU course, it is impossible to fully comprehend the grief and uncertainty she must feel. To add further insult to injury, she learned over the weekend that the young woman who caused Michael's accident posted pictures of her damaged Honda on Facebook, "apologizing" to her car, seemingly oblivious to or unconcerned with the ordeal she created, leaving Michael to struggle for his life. On the surface, this seems so callous, but coming from a 19 year old who likely has no concept of her own mortality, it's not surprising.
     Perhaps the biggest curse of being human lies within the constraints of our egos. We spend a great deal of time, consciously ignoring what we deem to be unpleasant thoughts, especially those which relate to mortality or death. Instead of accepting death as an inevitable part of life, we reject it as something to fear, something which must be prevented at all costs. As a result of this fear and ignorance, we've invented all sorts of myths to explain what happens to us after we die, how we'll be judged, where we'll go, who we'll meet, much of it even scarier than the thought of dying itself. One of my former partners "died" at work one morning while he was eating a sausage biscuit. "Sunshine" (my affectionate nickname for him) had just finished a night of call, and he was tired. Instead of leaving work as soon as his colleagues arrived, Sunshine decided to hang out for a bit and eat some breakfast before driving home. He was sitting on a couch in the anesthesia lounge, in the midst of enjoying his breakfast, when all of a sudden, he slumped forward and became unresponsive. Sunshine's lifeless body was swooped up into the muscular arms of one of the surgical techs, who ran with him to the recovery room, placing him on the stretcher where he would then be resuscitated by his colleagues. As a new partner, I'd heard personal accounts of this story from everyone but Sunshine himself. One day, I asked him if he had any recall of the event; what he described to me was a near-death experience. He told me the last thing he remembered was passing out, and then, being in the recovery room, standing off to the side where he could see his colleagues hovering around someone on a stretcher. "Everyone seemed to be ignoring me." As he stood there observing, unaware that it was himself who was being worked on, he described having an awareness of utter calm and absolute peace. As the story goes, Sunshine was successfully resuscitated after his cardiac arrest, and is still working today. After having that brush with death, he told me he is no longer afraid of dying, that there was nothing frightening or scary about his experience at all, only a profound sense of tranquility.
     When we operate within the illusion of the self which our egos create and perpetuate, we feel isolated and separate. Perhaps this is the genesis of our fears and resentments. We perceive the world around us as a hostile place, full of people and even things with bad intentions. Out of fear of being judged, we are quick to judge others. Everything feels so personal. The gum on the nightstand and the socks under the bed become symbols of someone else's lack of consideration, and seem to take on a personality of their own, like unwitting victims of our misguided agendas. We soon come to resent the people we love the most. Because our egos tell us we came into this world, instead of from it, we feel rather small and insignificant, and we compensate for this by clinging to our idea of how life should be, instead of accepting it for what it is. In this regard, we are everywhere but here. We want apologies, yet we're unable to forgive, so we dwell in the past. In planning for tomorrow, we cheat ourselves out of today. What is there, really, other than this moment in time?
     In transcending our egos, we lose our attachments to time, people, and objects, along with our need to control the physical world. In a way, you could compare this to Sunshine's description of what it was like to temporarily be dead. We lose ourselves, but become aware of the unnameable essence which flows through all of us, from which we were conceived and to which we'll all return. There is no past or future; there is only right now. The razor stubble in the sink just is and we just are, and it and we are all simultaneously everything and nothing. A verse from one of my favorite songs goes like this: "We will all be here till here is there." What I think the song is saying is that the present never really ends, and that perhaps, right now is the only thing we can really be sure of. If that's so, it certainly makes no sense to waste time worrying about when "here" will become "there", fussing over life's little messes. Everywhere is already here.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Chance To Channel Qi

    It's another rainy Friday morning here in Atlanta, Georgia. I am sitting at the desk I share with my husband, the surface of which is littered with an array of books, bills, and my recently acquired credentialing paperwork, all waiting to be attended to. I wouldn't classify it as organized chaos; it's more like a lukewarm mess. Lurking in the depths of the file cabinet next to our desk are all the receipts and documents for our 2011 tax return, which I still haven't dealt with. I am hoping this will be the last time I ever have to file quarterly taxes. I went from being a W-2 employee to being a 1099 independent contractor a couple of years ago, and honestly, I've deplored every minute of it. Taxes went from being relatively easy to ridiculously complicated. Aside from going through all these receipts, I have to go back and calculate the square footage and energy expenditures for our home office deduction, and because we are both renting out our houses this year, there will be rental income, relevant expenditures, and depreciation to consider. Gee, I can hardly wait!
     What I'm pondering right now is this Acupuncture for Physicians Comprehensive Training Course brochure, sitting next to my coffee cup. For months now, I've been thinking about plunking down the $7,000 for this well regarded, intensive, six month program, organized by the University of California. I've already missed one early bird deadline. Several of my anesthesiologist friends have taken this course, all of whom thought it was excellent. One of my former partners developed a bustling acupuncture practice in his home state of Louisiana, and tells me he had patients who flew in from other states for treatment. Another friend of mine in Colorado is credentialed to treat post operative nausea and vomiting, as well as managing pre-operative anxiety, using her acupuncture skills. Although the course is expensive, it seems like a worthwhile investment. Aside from the home study with videotaped tutorials, there are several weeks of hands on clinical experience in San Francisco, as well as instruction in the concepts of traditional Chinese medicine.
     The further I advance in my profession, the more aware I'm becoming that Western medicine, particularly the current American system, has no real model for health. Instead, we do damage control: we treat disease. Because we've lost sight of our patients as whole persons, we break them down into manageable parts. We actually refer to them as a disease, e.g. "the perforated appendix in OR 4" or "the GI bleed in ICU." Not only is this disrespectful, it's primitive. In regarding the human body as a machine in need of repair, we ignore its maintenance, its equilibrium, its balance. Who's to say that our cellular infrastructure doesn't have a "mind" of its own? The scientific "cause and effect" approach does a lousy job of explaining phenomena which defy logic, but because we're so fixated on generating scholarly questions and innovative treatments, we routinely neglect the subtle signals and intrinsic healing capabilities which issue from within our own bodies and minds. In reducing our patients into "parts", we effectively rob them of their dignity. The paternalistic "doctor knows best" mentality precludes the opportunity for active collaboration between us and our patients; what we're left with is a sick, powerless, passive, pill-seeking monster. This is why I find integrating concepts of holistic, Eastern-based medicine into my practice of anesthesia so appealing.
     As an anesthesiologist, I am entrusted with each patient's mind, body, and life. I'm not just putting them to sleep. I administer medications which will profoundly alter or obliterate their consciousness, the seat of their egos. It's my job to ensure they don't experience awareness under anesthesia, to anticipate and manage their pain, and to prevent anesthetic side effects like nausea. It's really a pretty big deal. In the few minutes I spend with each patient pre-operatively, I try to learn as much as I can about him or her as a person, so I can develop a gestalt about the individual. Appreciating as much as I can about my patients as a whole helps guide my understanding of what's happening with them while they're under general anesthesia. I am in charge of caring for their souls. Although I am controlling much of their physiology, as well as temporarily disrupting their ego integrity, I respect that each cell which comprises that person's body houses the essence of who they are: their spirit. I take this responsibility very seriously. That's why I want my patients to understand exactly what it is I'm going to be doing to and for them while I am charged with their care. It's why I'm such a stickler about informed consent, and why I want my patients to be as involved in their anesthetic management as possible.
     We are all so much more than the sums of our parts. The mind-body connection is undeniable, and those of us who've been in medicine long enough have witnessed at least one or two miracles we simply can't explain. I'm convinced our bodies already know the answers. I'm excited at the prospect of learning an alternative means of treating my patients' symptoms, of channeling their own energy ("qi" pronounced chee) into wellness and healing that can extend beyond the post-operative period. I'm also curious about how acupuncture therapy might benefit my sons in their daily battle with cystic fibrosis. I can't wait to get started. What can I say? I'm proud to be a lifelong learner. As a perennial student in the study of life, class is always in session!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Between the Sounds

     As morning's solitude begins to fade into the noise made by people, I am trying to remain as quiet as possible. Amidst the loud and imposing sounds of cars backing out of our complex's gravel lot, the "swoosh" of the MARTA train, and the rumble of work trucks rolling in to fix the water line across the street, I can hear a bird warbling, and a dog barking. Inside, Simon and Lilly are sighing and snortling in their canine slumber, while my fingers tap away on the keyboard: click click click! I realize I am straining to listen for what's between the sounds. If I keep my mind still enough, I can hear and feel the silent hum of life, effortlessly reverberating throughout the snippets of auditory downtime.
     There is sap, busily coursing up and down tree trunks, and new leaves, bursting from their buds. In the garden my neighbors have just planted, there are carrot and watermelon seeds, lapping up the moist morning air which kisses the grainy topsoil, and tomato plants whose roots are hard at work, ingesting nutrients from the rich earth below. Tiny green caterpillars are lazily swaying back and forth beneath the trees, suspended by their glistening silken threads. Like miniature Tarzans, gently lifted by the wind, they kerplunk onto the soft moss below, undulating as they inch themselves along in search of a delicacy to nibble. Everywhere, there is pollen. Some of this dust is getting lucky right now, germinating on pistils and cones, transmitting its genetic information and ensuring the continued survival of its individual species, while wayward grains are being munched by the buzzing bees or plopping themselves all over my newly washed car. I'm aware of a drip...drip..., without a corresponding splash. In the kitchen, rogue droplets of water escape the faucet's constraints, quietly christening a half-full ceramic mug sitting inside the sink, the one my husband hastily slurped his coffee from in his clamor to leave for work.
    Although I am almost deafened by this fecundity, I feel tranquil. All around me and inside me is life's orchestral flow, the sounds and the non-sounds of which harmonize to support its melody, each note, chord, and pregnant pause imparting its own mood and texture, its soundprint. I am left with the thought that life's beautiful noise isn't just in the sounds it makes, it's in the silence that lies in between.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Second Cup Tzu-Jan

      Today has started out just like any other day, with a couple of lattes, a perfunctory glance through my email, Facebook, BlogCatalog, and NPR, and the thought, "What will I write about today?" The topics I choose for my blog are rarely, if ever, thought out in advance. They usually concern whatever I am thinking about at the moment, and some of them take an entire day to compose and edit. The further I get in this process, I notice the effects that my mood and disposition have on the manner in which I write. Because I'm not working and earning money right now, I sometimes feel a little tinge of guilt about sitting here, day after day, completely absorbed in something I love doing, something that gives me a great deal of pleasure, but doesn't generate any income. I suppose I could be cleaning the toilet or finding some other type of busy work, but staying busy has never been much of a priority for me. I am rarely ever bored. I'm one of those people who abhors vacationing with a set itinerary, and my approach to life is much the same: I am enjoying it right now, for what it is, not for what it will be a few minutes or a few years from now.
     At some point today, I will exercise and take Simon and Lilly out for a good walk. I will call the water company to find out what our share of the water bill is, since the owner of this place didn't pay last month's bill. I may even attempt to start on our taxes, but that's a stretch. Right now, I'm just trying to relax my mind, to find a way to remain humanely concerned, but detached, from all that is going on around me. On the surface, the world seems like a disorderly, chaotic place, inhabited by parade of lunatics, replete with a never-ending supply of disaster. Looking at it this way, it's easy to see why I sometimes become so easily overwhelmed and frustrated. Attempting to make sense out of the world around me is like trying to sneeze with my eyes open: futile, impossible, a waste of time. This need to assign order, to determine causes and effects, to control, arises from my own self-consciousness, my ego, the way in which I perceive myself as being separate from my surroundings, instead of being of them. In doing so, I render myself unable to see the forest for the trees.
     My heart is beating, my neurons are firing, and I am breathing, without having to be told to do so. If I get up from my chair to fetch another cup of coffee, the nerves supplying the muscles in my feet, legs, hips, back, abdomen, and arms will help coordinate the effort, my heart will beat a little more rapidly to accommodate the change in position, and my breathing will become a little deeper and faster to accept and oxygenate the extra blood that's being pumped into my lungs. My body knows how to do all of this; I don't have to think about controlling it at all. This is also the way of the world. It follows a natural flow, a rhythm which is indescribable and non-sensical, yet at the same time, intuitive.
     The less I think, the more I know. Eliminating the filter of understanding seems almost heretical, but in reality, what do any of us really understand about anything? For instance, I know what beauty is, but in trying to describe beauty, it loses its meaning. Intuitive concepts are quickly lost in translation, yet we devote an inordinate amount of time to categorizing and compartmentalizing them into acceptably neat and tidy packages, mistaking this effort for wisdom. What we end up with is perception, nuggets of illusion which permit us to see ourselves, other people, and things the way we want to see them, how we think we or they could or should be, instead of appreciating that we all simply are, that indeed, it is what it is.
     Is life a problem to be solved, or a reality to be experienced?* If every problem contains its own solution, why do we continually expend so much energy trying to influence the process? Is getting to where we want to be more important than any of the steps we take along the way? In seeking out answers to all of our questions, what are we missing out on? Is it possible to just be? As infants, we were all the centers of our universe, lacking in self-consciousness, existing in perfect synchrony with the immediacy of each moment in the world around us. We had not yet separated ourselves from our environment: we were everything, and everything was us. We were reality, only we weren't aware of it. A newborn baby is soft, yet resilient, empty, yet receptive, detached and impartial, yet primally connected: she doesn't have a care in the world. Anywhere she is, she is already at home. As she grows, she inevitably begins to worry about things like pleasing her parents, her developing ego displacing her innate connection with the here and now. Is it possible to regain our childish sense of openness and detachment, while still being shaped by our experiences? Can we recover what we once knew without "knowing" it, namely that "me" is "we"? I don't know for sure, but I'm certainly trying. In coming to know and accept myself, I'm beginning to let go of my ego, and with it, a lot of the illusions I've had regarding life. My body has no agenda, it just does what it needs to do. Given proper nutrients, rest, and exercise, it seems to be doing quite well. Can this automaticity or "self-so"*** be adapted for the soul? With intuition and mystery as my source, spontaneity as my muse, and the constant realization that what is beyond, is that which is also here**, I see no reason why my mind and spirit would do anything but flourish.
The Wu-Wei of Grilled Cheese (a related post)

*Adapted from Gerardus van der Leeuw's original quote: "Is the mystery of life a problem to be solved, or a reality to be experienced?"
**Hindu proverb
***Tzu-Jan= automaticity, or the concept of "by itself so" or "self-so"

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Next Great Generation

     Last night, I invited my sons, Nick and Rory, and their girlfriends, Haley and Fanchon, over for an impromptu cookout.  Our dinner consisted of grilled Kahlua peaches, free range chicken, portobello mushrooms, asparagus, and a wasabi arugula salad. Since Nick and Haley are vegetarians, I also had a meatless entree, pre-grilled vegetable-soy protein patties made from portobello mushrooms. Our dinner conversation was quite lively, and the seating arrangement was fun. Fanchon wanted each of us women to sit across the table from our men, and I have to say, it gave me an entirely different perspective, sitting directly across from Spartacus, instead of right next to him. Ranging in age from 19 (Haley) to 25 (Fanchon), all four of these young adults are members of "Generation Y" or the "Millennials", which encompasses the group of people born anywhere from the late 70s to about 1994. Over dinner, we talked about pop culture, our families, whatever we felt like. The conversation drifted easily from one subject to another, with everyone equally involved and lots of laughter. I think it's safe to say we all enjoyed ourselves.
     After dinner, Rory and Fanchon went home, Spartacus went to bed, and Nick, Haley, and I stayed up late, talking about stuff. They were lamenting the fact that at the ripe old ages of 19 and 21, they feel "out of place", mostly because they are struggling with what they perceive to be societal pressures to have their lives already mapped out, to "know what they want to be" when they grow up. As someone who still doesn't know what I want to be when I grow up, I can empathize. Although I'm a member of Generation Jones, a subset of the Baby Boomers consisting of people who were born between 1954 and 1965, labelled as such partly because of its preoccupation with "keeping up with the Joneses", I don't subscribe to that philosophy. I've honestly never really cared too much about what the Joneses are doing. Whereas the first cohort of Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 to 1954, are typically characterized as being experimental, individualistic, free spirited, and social cause oriented, the second cohort (GenJones, born 1955 through 1965) is less optimistic and generally cynical, with a distrust of government.(1) Because I don't seem to fit anywhere in that stereotype, I consider myself a GenJones anomaly.
     Apparently, my generation's biggest problem is its perception that we were lied to. As children growing up in the post WWII confidence of the 60s, the great expectations and secure futures we were promised were met with the disappointing realities of the 70s and 80s. While the older Baby Boomers, who'd been the agents of social change during the 60s, were becoming prosperous Yuppies, deftly snatching up the best jobs for themselves, we were left "jonesing" for the limitless possibilities we'd been promised, namely those of financial security and self-fulfillment beyond money.(2) As Jonathan Pontell, who coined the term "Generation Jones" puts it: "Our generation came of age watching the slow sellout between the love fest of the '60s and the money grab of the '80s...So who are we? We are practical idealists, forged in the fires of social upheaval while too young to play a part. The name "Generation Jones" derives from a number of sources, including our historical anonymity, the "keeping up with the Joneses" competition of our populous birth years, and sensibilities coupling the mainstream with ironic cool. But above all, the name borrows from the slang term "jonesin' " that we as teens popularized to broadly convey any intense craving..."(4, 5) In essence, GenJones is perhaps a little more balanced and mainstream than the idealistic Baby Boomers/Yuppies, who "naively tried to change the system",  and the cynical GenXers, "who were never promised much of anything."(2) We simply "play" the system to get what we want out of it. Once considered an invisible generation, GenJones now boasts over two-thirds of the presidents and prime ministers of EU and NATO member countries, including our current president, Barack Obama.(3) We make up 26% of the American electorate, and it seems we've finally found our voice. According to Pontell, "Our practical idealism was created by witnessing the often-unrealistic idealism of the 1960s. And we weren't engaged in that era's ideological battles; we were children playing with toys while Boomers argued about Vietnam. Our non-ideological pragmatism allows us to resolve intra-Boomer skirmishes and to bridge that volatile Boomer-GenXer divide. We can lead. For Boomers, the legacy of the '60s is ideology, but for Jonesers it is idealism. That spirit of the '60s is far from dead; its seeds were planted in us then, and are flowering now. We're not late Boomers; we're late bloomers."(5)
      In talking with Nick and Haley last night, I caught a glimpse of what worries them most about coming of age in their generation. Whereas people my age were early and enthusiastic adopters of technology, GenYers have never really had that choice; they've been inundated with it from day one. It sounds kind of strange to hear this coming from such young people, but many of the GenYers I know wish they'd had the experience of growing up without computers, cell phones, and iPods, of being told to go play outside, instead of being plunked down in front of the TV, of learning how to write letters on real paper, and how to bake cookies from scratch. Nick observed that there are people his age who don't know how to plant a seed or even worse, how to hold a real conversation. We're all too busy with other things, like worrying about retirement. I've always had a distaste for the "busy-ness" of my generation: the constant "go-go-go", self-sacrificing mentality that sounds good in theory, but is really cheating us out of the opportunity to know ourselves, to contemplate life, and to really get to know our kids. We've been selfish with our time. It's our fault that GenY (along with GenX and even some GenJonesers) has earned the unfortunate moniker: Generation Me. This group of young people is largely depicted by disgruntled Baby Boomers as narcissistic, entitled whiners with overstoked self esteems and extremely short attention spans, who expect instant gratification in all areas of their lives, yet still believe nothing is impossible, that "it's all about me." 
     Why are we so quick to equate "It's all about me" with narcissism? I believe this perception (or misperception) lies in the mind of the beholder. To someone who's spent his or her entire life making personal sacrifices, or endeavoring to be a people pleaser, the idea of healthy self love is taboo. It's a concept that is misunderstood, feared, and rejected by these individuals, and anyone who demonstrates this quality is automatically dismissed as narcissistic. For example, as a group, GenYers demonstrate remarkable family-centrism. In the workplace, they pursue jobs with more flexible hours, or choose to work fewer hours at a higher paying job, in order to spend more time with their families. Because of this, they're criticized by older generations for their narcissistic lack of commitment and drive. How choosing to work fewer hours in order to spend more time with one's family translates into being egotistical or self-centered is beyond me, but then again, I see refusing to be defined by what you do for a living as quite admirable. If you're not exploring,  acknowledging, and honoring your individual dreams and desires, how can you ever truly be supportive of someone else's? It's ironic that the parents who are credited with instilling the sense of self esteem and belief in oneself that characterizes Generation Me, are now their own children's most vocal critics. The reality of the matter is that not a whole lot about how our youth feels, thinks, and behaves has changed in the last 30 years.(7) There are always going to be youth-bashers who, instead of expanding their consciousness as they age, develop that boring tunnel-vision of ageism: "Oh, this younger generation is so self-absorbed! Their expectations are too high! They have no respect for authority!" Perhaps this younger generation is just struggling to follow its intuition, amidst the clutter of technology we've imposed upon them.
     As Nick and Haley pointed out, "We've grown up with GPS devices which tell us where to go without us ever having to know where we are." These devices effectively circumvent the need for using our intuition; we no longer have to pay attention to our surroundings or orientation because a machine can do it for us. When we no longer have to process information for ourselves, we quickly become lost: we arrive at our destination, but the path we took to get there was meaningless. Maybe the perceived self-absorption of tech-savvy GenYers is really a subtle rejection of technology, an inward search for meaning, stemming from their desire to remain connected with their own inner voices, their gut feelings, their intuitions. This isn't narcissism; it's fighting the good fight. This is one generation that hasn't wasted a lot of time fighting with its parents; to the contrary, GenY is much closer to its parents than the Boomers were to theirs. Although this is partly due to our current state of economics (one in three GenYers lives with his or her parents), it's also because GenYers make an effort to understand their parents. We actually have a lot in common, from pop culture to religious and political views. GenY has been described as confident, team- and achievement-oriented, exceedingly tolerant and accepting of diversity, and is poised to become the most educated generation in American history. The GenYers I know are also some of the coolest people I've ever met, brimming with great ideas and interests. They don't seem to get their feathers ruffled too easily.  Yeah, they might have to be nudged away from their computer games at times, but they are definitely not deserving of the bad rap they've gotten from parents, educators and psychologists.
     I think Nick, Haley, Rory, and Fanchon have a lot to be excited about. Their generation grew up with school shootings, 9/11, and the war in Iraq, yet somehow they've managed to embrace and celebrate cultural diversity; they are truly "color blind." It is possible that GenY may be the next great generation. Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation who are credited with coining the term "Millennials", are quoted as saying, "This generation is going to rebel by behaving not worse, but better. Their life mission will not be to tear down old institutions that don't work, but to build up new ones that do."(10) As I mentioned before, Generation Y seems to have more critics than supporters. If they can find a way to stay as plugged into their intuition as they are with their devices, I think they've got a good shot at proving those proverbial old codgers wrong.
...And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware what they're going through...
--David Bowie, "Changes" 
Part of my extended family of "Gen Yers", July 2011. From left to right: Lilly, me, Spartacus, Simon, Haley, Nick, Willie, Caitlin, Rory, and Chad
1. Generation Jones
2. Generation Jones: Between the Boomers and the Xers
3. Generation Jones
4. Who is Generation Jones?
5. Stuck in the Middle
6. Generation Jones Has Good Reason To Be Suspicious of Technology
7. Generation Me vs. You Revisited
8. Generation Y
9. 36 Facts About Generation Y in the Workplace and Beyond
10. The Millenial Muddle

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Prayer for Michael

     I've spent the last 24 hours, in deep thought about a friend of mine's husband who had a terrible motorcycle accident yesterday. Michael, who is 42, was struck when a 19 year old woman ran a stop sign in her Honda Civic, colliding with him from the left, ejecting him from his Harley, fracturing his skull, his thoracic and lumbar spine, his left leg and left shoulder blade, his pelvis, and a number of ribs. He was unconscious at the scene. Initially, he was transported to Floyd Medical Center, the hospital where his wife, Kim, and I used to work together, but because of the critical nature of his injuries, he was airlifted to a trauma center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I am following Kim's updates on Facebook. Last night, she reported that Michael sustained a spinal cord injury, and is paralyzed from the chest down. He was awake, following commands, and moving his arms. His surgery yesterday to stabilize his fractured pelvis and leg had to be interrupted because Michael was too unstable, and he is now undergoing neurosurgery to stabilize his thoracic spinal fracture. Hopefully, with successful surgery today, resolution of the swelling around the spinal cord, and rehabilitation, Michael will regain his previous level of functioning. I can only imagine what Kim is feeling right now. She and Michael have been together for 17 years, and have two sons. Although I don't know Michael personally, based on previous conversations I've had with Kim, I can tell that they are a couple who are still very much in love. Less than a month ago, they were snowboarding on a family vacation in Colorado.
     In learning of a tragedy like this, I can't help but wonder about what was happening just moments or hours before the accident. For both Michael and the young driver, I imagine that yesterday probably began just like any other day, with morning rituals and routines, and perhaps, a sense of anticipation. It is doubtful that either of them awoke, thinking, "Something terrible is going to happen today." Separately, they went about the business of getting to wherever it was they needed to go, completely unaware that their paths would later cross in such a fateful way, or how in one brief moment, both of their lives would be inextricably altered.
     This accident could have happened to any of us. We don't consciously think about how a single variable being slightly askew or out of place can affect us; otherwise, we'd never set foot outside our homes. We trust that people are going to do the right thing, like stopping at a stop sign. I wonder what distracted the lone young woman driver in this case from stopping. Was she texting or talking on a cell phone? Was the weather so bad that she couldn't see the stop sign? Or, did she not stop on purpose, because she was in a hurry? What was she thinking? Was she thinking? I can't help but wishfully think, "If she had only left her house a few minutes earlier or later, this never would have happened." On a superficial level, especially during a time of grief, this kind of logic seems to make sense. In our human desire to go back in time and somehow prevent the hand of fate from delivering its outcome,  wondering "if only" seems to helps cushion the blow. Regardless of whether or not this situation could have been prevented, it happened. If the young woman was distracted by a cell phone, or for whatever reason, chose to disregard the rules of the road, she was already on a collision course with destiny. If that's the case, a split second of faulty decision-making on her part spun out of control, dominoing into a disaster, profoundly impacting so many lives, not the least of which was her own. It all seems so senseless. If she hadn't run into Michael, would it have been someone else? Why, oh why, do things like this happen? It's almost impossible to comprehend the uncertainty and grief Kim and her family are experiencing. The only thing that seems to make sense right now is to pray.
     I am not a praying person per se, but I do believe in a universal consciousness which channels our thoughts, hopes, and dreams. If this universal consciousness is God, then we are all part of it, just as it is part of us, and in that sense, we are all embodiments of God. It's inexplicable, something to which we all contribute, and have equal access to. I've seen the powerful effects of healing thoughts and wishes, all of which could be considered a form of prayer, and perhaps right now, I am praying. My thoughts are with Michael, Kim, and their sons, hoping for the best possible outcome, and maybe even a miracle or two.
Where there is pain, may you be blessed with comfort
Where there is uncertainty, may you find reassurance
Where there is fear, may you know courage and hope
Where there is frustration, may you also be encouraged
Where there is sorrow, may it soon be replaced with solace
Let all that is injured and broken heal and become whole again

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Like Vitamins For The Soul

     Last night, Spartacus and I ventured out at 9 p.m. to see my sons, Nick and Rory, perform with their grunge/hard rock band, Bearknuckle, at a little neighborhood bar in East Atlanta. It the first time we'd seen the boys play together since their progressive metal band, Sanus Valde, broke up a few years ago. I'd been looking forward to Bearknuckle's show all week long. Although I'd heard some of their recordings online, to capture a band's real essence, you have to see them live. When Sanus Valde was performing around town, we tried to catch every show. Their music was all original, sort of a fusion of heavy metal and blues, and Nick, who played guitar, Rory, who played bass, and their drummer, Walker, had a great chemistry together. At the time, they were only 16 or 17, which made it a little difficult to obtain gigs in bars, so the majority of their live performances were held in public warehouses or basements, specifically designed for young garage bands who needed a venue.
     Just when Sanus Valde seemed to be gaining momentum, Walker quit the band. Nick and Rory were both disappointed and frustrated, mostly because of the way he'd just up and quit, for no apparent reason. Walker, who was a year younger than the boys, had been a fixture at our house for a couple of years. He had an odd, sometimes disturbing sense of humor, a highly elevated opinion of his talent and ability, and seemed to do or say things just to get a rise out of people. I guess you could say he was both a little narcissistic and anti-social. Although my heart broke for Nick and Rory, I knew that life in rock and roll would be punctuated by lots of breakups and disputes, with moments of pure electric glory in between. Whether Sanus Valde kept on going would ultimately be up to Nick and Rory, and how much they enjoyed playing music together.
     Sanus Valde's last show took place at Walker's house, at an outdoor party hosted by his parents. I thought it was cool that their pulmonologist, Lindy, a young mother of two, brought her husband and kids to the show. She knew how serious Nick and Rory were about their music, and wanted to support them. Nick and Rory were sort of novel patients for Lindy; as the director of the Emory Adult Cystic Fibrosis (CF) Center, they were the youngest patients she'd ever had. Shortly after that show, we learned that Lindy had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, and despite treatment, she died about a year later. Her death left a hole in our hearts; she'd been so accessible, such an advocate for the boys. At the show, Walker gave a bizarre, rambling speech about why he was leaving the band, and though his words stung, and his actions seemed so senseless, I thought "Good riddance." That same afternoon, he introduced the boys to a drummer friend of his, a young man named Fred. Fred was about a year older than Nick and Rory, and was married, with a baby on the way. He'd spent a short time in the Marines, but had been medically discharged because he'd developed ulcerative colitis. Fred had been with a band called AngelGrinder, and though his style was different from Walker's, he melded with Sanus Valde quite nicely.
     Because bass players, like drummers, seem to be a sought-after asset, Rory started being approached by some other local bands. He ended up securing a spot playing bass for The Craigger White Band, a local hard rock group. Craigger White, who's made rock and roll his profession, is 24 years older than Rory, and has been a great friend and mentor to him. He later invited Rory to play bass for Craigger White's Rainbow Bridge, which is the only Jimi Hendrix tribute band endorsed by the Hendrix family. They've toured in Florida and Texas, and have a following down in the Gainesville, Florida area. Rory was also the bass player for K-Dence, a local "klub rock" band whose sound can best be described as rock-infused Southern rap. Rory's increasing commitment to these other bands, as well as Fred's ulcerative colitis and the birth of his son, Sagara, resulted in less available time to devote to the music of Sanus Valde. After Fred left, Walker briefly rejoined the band, quitting multiple times before they broke up for good. While Walker alienated himself from Nick and Rory's circle of friends, Fred, his wife, Amy, and their son, Sagara, became part of our extended family. Amy enlisted in the military about a year ago, and the three of them now live in Texas. Walker is still out there somewhere, marching to the beat of a different drummer.
     I've seen Rory perform around town with all of his bands, and love watching him on stage. He's blossomed into an honest-to-goodness professional musician; it's kind of funny to hear him complaining now about other musicians who "aren't punctual." What amazes me about Rory is his natural, innate grasp of music theory. No one taught him this; it's something he was born with. Nick, who's spent the last couple of years on a spiritual quest, has continued to develop and expand his virtuosity on guitar. His playing has evolved from adolescent showmanship into an outward expression of his inner calm, and it is a beautiful thing. Last summer, Nick and Rory came to visit us in Rome (Georgia, not Italy!) on their 21st birthday, accompanied by many of their good friends, and they put on an impromptu show for us. It was sort of a blues improvisation, reminiscent of Clapton when he played with Cream, and it was the first time I'd heard the boys play together since Sanus Valde. Watching and listening as Rory deftly plucked his upright bass, while Nick's fingers soulfully traversed the frets of his custom Gibson semi-hollow body was absolute magic, other-worldly, incredible. There was talk of a new band, which would include Nick, Rory, and their friend of almost 7 years, Willie. Willie and his brother, Chad, are my sons from another mother; the bond they share with Nick and Rory has deepened and grown more intimate with each passing year. Their friendship has weathered the test of time, and I think it will last a lifetime. Willie and Chad, together with Fred and his family, Nick's long term girlfriend, Haley, Rory's girlfriend, Fanchon, and Jessica and Russell, friends of the boys who have been together since high school, comprise a diverse and talented group of young adults, who I consider "family." I am grateful for these friends, who have always demonstrated concern for Nick and Rory's well being in so many ways. Whether it was coming to the hospital to visit them during a CF tune up, accompanying them to doctor's visits, confronting them about an unruly girlfriend, attending their various live performances, or helping them pick up the pieces after a break up, this group of friends has remained steadfast and loyal. Just like Nick and Rory's beloved pulmonologist, Wendy, friends like this come along once in a lifetime.
     When we arrived at the bar last night, we were greeted warmly by the boys' friends, just about all of whom are now 21 or older. The opening act, The Eithers, had to borrow Bearknuckle's drummer, Donny, because their drummer was in jail. No one knows exactly why he was in jail, but his absence caused quite a bit of inconvenience for his band. Although Donny did a bang up job of improvising on the spur of the moment, it's apparently just not the same, playing without your own drummer. During the second half of their set, the singer took over on the drums, and the guitar player performed the vocals. Overall, I thought they compensated for the loss of their drummer pretty well. Spartacus noticed that The Either's bass player made a bee line for Haley after their performance, who I'm guessing informed him that she was with Nick. I missed out on that. Haley is a gorgeous girl, though, and last night, she was decked out in a crushed velvet suit, wearing a Jim Morrison T-shirt, looking ever so rock'n'roll, snapping photographs left and right with her fancy new camera. Fanchon, whose job entails working the night shift, was off last night, so she got to come and hang out. Spartacus and I drank beer, enjoying our conversations with Nick and Rory's compadres, patiently awaiting 11 p.m., which was when Bearknuckle was scheduled to play. When they finally took the stage, I couldn't stop smiling. It was obvious that they were having fun together, and the chemistry among Nick, Rory, Willie, and Donny, as well as the energy in the room was palpable. I thought they sounded great. With a little more time and practice together, who knows what will happen? It's a matter of each of them finding their niche, their unique voice within the tapestry of the music, I suppose.
     As Bearknuckle's set came to an end, I realized I was standing next to the singer of The Eithers. He commented about how awesome Bearknuckle sounded, and we traded a few laughs about his drummer's unfortunate, and untimely, confinement. When I remarked that I was "the twins' Mom", he turned to me and said, "Wow, I'm almost 40, and my mom has never come to see me play!" That struck me as so sad. I can't imagine being a parent who didn't care enough to come out and see my child perform. Before we moved to Rome last year, we'd tried to make as many of Rory's shows as possible, and before that, we'd gone to see Sanus Valde every time they performed. One of the hardest parts about living in Rome was missing out on shows. I happen to be a music aficionado, and am perhaps one of very few mothers who purposely exposed her children to Rage Against The Machine, Black Sabbath, and Nirvana. For us, music is a common bond, a gift we all continue to surprise and delight each other with, a gift that keeps on giving. Playing music is part of who Nick and Rory are, which makes supporting their efforts such a priority: it brings them (and me!) joy. In that sense, music is similar to Nick and Rory's remarkable friendships, the melodies of which have been crafted and adapted over time, each chord and note an integral part of the masterwork in progress. Like vitamins for the soul, the music and friendships they've nurtured provide ongoing nourishment and sustenance, fueling their spirits, recharging their minds, healing their bodies, and allowing them to look past themselves to truly savor the "good stuff" of life. In doing what they love, and knowing they are loved, I think Nick and Rory have come to know and love themselves. As their mom, there's not too much more I could ask for.
                                           Rory and Nick, jamming on their 21st birthday, 2011
Bearknuckle, March 14, 2011 Nick (left, on guitar) Willie (center, singing) Donny (on drums) Rory (right, on bass)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

We Snooze, We Lose!

     Over the last couple of months that I haven't been working, I've become well-acquainted with the rude sound of Spartacus's cell phone's snooze alarm. It appears to be set to alarm about 45 minutes before he really wants to wake up. Aside from its annoying ring tone, this alarm will sound every 15 minutes, which he usually sleeps right through. Since the phone is on his side of the bed, I have to stir him from his catatonic, hibernation-like slumber to ask him to turn it off. This wouldn't be a problem, except that I'm wide awake after the first alarm. Once we're both up, having our coffee, he'll remark that he feels more tired than he did when we went to bed. I've often wondered, why isn't he waking up, refreshed and recharged after a full night's sleep? We go to bed together between 10 and 10:30 pm, and are up by 0620, which adds up to about 8 hours of sleep. I'm convinced his perpetual tiredness is a function of snoozing. I understand that he likes the idea of having a few more minutes to sleep, but why not just sleep until a) you wake up or b) the alarm goes off? Snoozing gives one the illusion of having more time to sleep, but all it really does is interrupt your natural sleep cycle, and disturb your sleeping partner. What is modern society's fascination with snoozing, anyway?
     From the day I started residency, sleep became a precious commodity, something I coveted. As a surgical intern, I sometimes wouldn't get home in the evenings until 8 pm, and would have to be back in the hospital, ready to pre-round with the senior residents and fellows by 0500 or shortly thereafter. (Real rounds with our attending surgeon occurred later in the morning.) This meant getting up around 0330 every day, throwing back a cup of coffee, showering, and hitting the road, so that I could see and examine the patients on our service, and get all my intern notes written for the day. Accordingly, my alarm was set for 0330, and when that alarm went off, I immediately bolted out of bed. I remember only one or two times where I had mistakenly set the alarm for "p.m.", instead of "a.m.", sleeping a few minutes past my normal rising time, making me late. I attribute the rarity in which I was late to the fact that I was usually awake a few minutes before my alarm went off, in much the same way as I still am today. For example, in order for me to get to the hospital by 0615 at my most recent job, I'd arise at about 0515, no alarm necessary on most days. This gave me plenty of time to enjoy my usual two cups of coffee in absolute quiet and solitude, check my e-mail, eat some breakfast, and get ready for work without having to hurry.
     What exactly happens during six to eight hours of sleep, which seems to be the universal recommendation in avoiding the much-dreaded (and dangerous) state of neurologic dysfunction called sleep deprivation, which arises from accrual of a sleep debt? Sleep consists of two stages: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) or restorative sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is where active dreaming occurs. NREM sleep is further divided into three stages: N1, N2, and N3, with N3 being the deepest sleep state. Each sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes with four to six cycles per night. Deeper sleep tends to occur earlier in the night's cycle, while REM sleep predominates in the latter part. In general, sleep architecture progresses from N1 to N2 to N3 to REM and back to N2. In N1, which lasts about 5 minutes, we are transitioning into sleep, and are easily awakened. In this stage, the brain's wakeful alpha waves are replaced by slower theta waves. The eyes are moving slowly beneath the eyelids, muscle activity begins to slow down, and consciousness starts to wane. It's not uncommon for people to experience "hypnic jerks" or hypnogogic hallucinations (waking dreams) during N1.(1,4,5) The first true stage of sleep is N2. Lasting between 10 and 25 minutes, N2 is where we spend approximately 45-55% of a typical night's sleep. This "light sleep" is characterized by the appearance of sigma waves (sleep spindles) and K-complexes on the EEG, oscillatory bursts of brain activity, often followed by muscle twitching, which are thought to assist the brain in maintaining tranquility, screening out external stimuli, and refreshing our ability to learn. In N2, the heart rate slows, body temperature decreases slightly, and eye movement ceases.(1,4,5) The deepest sleep occurs in N3, accompanied by extremely slow delta waves, and a redirection of blood flow from the brain to the muscles, which is thought to restore energy. If you are awakened during N3, you're likely to feel  somewhat disoriented for a few minutes. People with parasomnias, or sleep disorders, such as nightmares, night terrors, and sleepwalking, as well as those with nocturnal enuresis (bed wetting) experience these problems in N3 sleep.(1,4,5) About 70 to 90 minutes after falling asleep, we enter the REM phase, spending approximately 20-25% of a night's sleep in this cycle. REM is characterized by rapid eye movements and a low voltage EEG. Our arms and legs are "paralyzed." Breathing becomes shallow, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and we experience active, memorable dreaming. Whereas NREM sleep is restorative to our bodies, REM sleep is where our brains and minds are refreshed.(1) This is where we integrate information we've learned over the course of the day into learning and the formation of new memories, strengthen existing memories, and replenish mood-boosting neurotransmitters.(1,4, 5) Below is a sleep architecture diagram(1), which depicts how much time we spend in each of the stages, and how the cycles shorten or lengthen during a typical night of sleep:
     Disruptions in NREM sleep, caused by altered circadian rhythms (night shift work), external stimuli (crying babies, a partner's snoring), or substances like alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine,  rob our bodies of energy and cause us to awaken feeling tired. If these alterations in deep sleep persist over the course of a few days, it can lead to a state of sleep deprivation. What are the signs, symptoms, and ill effects of sleep deprivation? Here is a helpful list, borrowed from an online article entitled How Much Sleep Do You Need?(1)

You may be sleep deprived if you... 

  • Need an alarm clock in order to wake up on time
  • Rely on the snooze button
  • Have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning
  • Feel sluggish in the afternoon
  • Get sleepy in meetings, lectures, or warm rooms
  • Get drowsy after heavy meals or when driving
  • Need to nap to get through the day
  • Fall asleep while watching TV or relaxing in the evening
  • Feel the need to sleep in on weekends
  • Fall asleep within five minutes of going to bed 
 The effects of sleep deprivation and chronic lack of sleep...
  • Fatigue, lethargy, and lack of motivation
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Reduced creativity and problem-solving skills
  • Inability to cope with stress
  • Reduced immunity; frequent colds and infections
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Weight gain
  • Impaired motor skills and increased risk of accidents
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems
     Yep, my suspicions are confirmed: poor Spartacus is sleep-deprived! His reliance on the snooze button, his self-reports of fatigue, sluggishness and problems concentrating, which begin upon arising and last until he goes to bed, and his 12-14 hour weekend sleep-a-thons are all consistent with inadequate restorative sleep. Before meeting me, he was a night owl. Even though we go to bed together now, he often gets up in the middle of the night to eat ice cream and watch TV because he can't sleep. Once he finally does come back to bed, he's only getting a few hours of sleep before the alarm goes off at 0550, the quality of which is debatable. I, on the other hand, also seem to have some features of sleep deprivation. Spartacus says I fall asleep once my head hits the pillow. I also tend to get sleepy after lunch, and enjoy taking afternoon naps, but I prefer to think that this is a function of my belief that humans are still hard-wired for biphasic sleep and because I endorse the custom of siestas, which have been demonstrated to decrease levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Hey, it worked for us as cavemen, and still seems pretty effective in the siesta-taking cultures of today! I don't hear the global community complaining about uptight Spaniards; maybe it's because they honor their body's natural biorhythms, instead of subscribing to the Western "go-go-go" mentality. OK, I'll get off my siesta soapbox. Once we've established that we are indeed sleep-deprived, what can we do to prevent it from exacting a toll on our health?
     This may come as a surprise, but it is impossible to catch up on sleep by sleeping in on the weekends. Short term solutions like this don't fix the underlying problem, which is a deficiency in quality, restorative sleep. Neither do sleeping pills! The only way to reduce one's sleep debt burden is to alter his or her sleep hygiene. For most of us, this means aiming for about 7.5 hours of sleep per night.(1) Although 3% of the population has a mutated "sleep clock" gene which allows them to require two hours less sleep per night, the other 97% of us need closer to eight hours. Good sleep hygiene can be achieved by making some simple changes, and sticking to them. The most important intervention consists of establishing and maintaining a regular, daily sleep-wake pattern. If you normally go to bed at 10 p.m., and awaken at 0600, try to sticking to those times, even on the weekends. While you may be able to pay off a short term sleep debt by going to bed a little earlier, or waking up a little later a couple of days in a row, if you are chronically sleep-deprived, it makes more sense to go to bed earlier or wake up later on a daily basis, to accommodate your need for more sleep. If you can, try going to bed earlier for a couple of weeks, waking up naturally without an alarm. Maintain a sleep diary during this time, and you'll soon be able to objectively assess what your sleep needs really are. If you find that, despite getting a full 8 hours of sleep, you're still waking up tired when the alarm goes off, you may be waking up in N3 sleep. Try resetting your alarm for a multiple of 90 minutes, so that you awaken at the end of a sleep cycle, which is when your body is primed for wakefulness. For example, if you normally go to bed at 10 p.m., set your alarm for 5:30, instead of 6:00 or 6:30.(1) In the evening, start dimming the lights to support your body's diurnal light cycle and Circadian rhythms, all of which have an impact on sleep. Use your bed for sleep and sex. Watching TV, messing around on your laptop, and even reading can all impair your ability to fall asleep. Make sure you get plenty of exercise during the day. The recommendations for avoiding vigorous exercise four hours before bedtime have recently been disproven, so even an evening workout shouldn't interfere with the onset of sleep. Avoid eating a heavy meal right before bedtime; your body has to work hard to digest it, which can prevent the onset of sleep. Alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine all disrupt sleep architecture, so it is best to avoid those substances for several hours before going to bed. Obviously, because stress is positively correlated with insomnia, it's best to reserve emotionally charged topics and conversations for earlier in the day, and to avoid ruminating about them as you're trying to drift off to sleep. Ensure that your room is neither too warm or too cool, and that it's dark enough to promote sleepiness. Finally, establish a relaxing bedtime ritual, whether it's a warm bath, a glass of milk, meditation, or a few moments of intimacy.(2)
     Spartacus and I definitely have some work to do on our bedtime routine. We've recently gotten into the habit of watching late night reruns of "Seinfeld" in bed, which I now realize is a sleep hygiene "no-no." We're also bad about leaving the lights on around the house, mostly because we have a lot of lamps, all of which are compact fluorescent and don't eat up a lot of energy. It's a pain in the ass to go around and turn them all off, but I guess that's another thing we could do to improve our home's sleep ambience. The only real point of contention that lingers between us is that godforsaken snooze alarm and the disrupted, fragmented sleep it yields. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, snooze addicts who have trouble going to sleep early may actually benefit from waking up earlier, allowing the morning light to reset their body clocks.(3) Placing the alarm on the other side of the room can also be helpful. That way, you are forced to get up out and out of bed, instead of rolling over and hitting "SNOOZE." Unfortunately, super-gluing the snooze button, a clever idea recommended for extreme cases of snooze addiction, isn't an option for Spartacus's cell phone. Like any other issue in a relationship, this is going to take some compromise. The bottom line is this: we snooze, we lose! If Spartacus and I make just one or two of the changes I've listed above to improve our sleep hygiene and reduce our sleep debt, I'm confident that confounding snooze alarm will enjoy a swift trip into obsolescence!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What's In A Name & The Grass Only Looks Greener In The Neighbor's Yard

     Today, I will share with you another entry from my father's autobiography and his parents' diary, in which they tracked Little Bartek's progress from his birth in August 1921 through 1927. The first entry explains how he came to be known as "Bartek", and the second describes how his insatiable sense of curiosity led him to the conclusion that in life, the grass only looks greener in the neighbor's yard.
     "The sign on my office door and my business card reads: W.P. Mazur, M.D. Most people who get to know me on a first name basis are puzzled because 'W.P.' apparently has nothing to do with 'Bartek', which is how my family and friends refer to me. Bartek is short for Bartłomiej, pronounced BART WAME YAY, which is the Polish version of Bartholomew. 'W' stands for Władysław , the Anglicized version of which would be Ladislaus, and 'P' stands for Piotr, which is Polish for Peter. These are my first and middle names on my official birth certificate.
     Why then am I known as Bartek? The answer to this question is a story in itself. I was born on August 24, the day of St. Bartholomew, and it was assumed by everybody that, according to traditional Polish custom, my given name would be Bartholomew. Our family's doctor, Dr. Nowak, was the chief promoter of the name Bartholomew. He spread the rumor that I'd receive this saint's namesake among friends and neighbors, who addressed the 'welcome-to-the-world' cards they sent my parents to 'Bartłomiej Mazur.' When Dr. Nowak delivered me, he exclaimed, as soon as it was discernible that I was a boy: 'Here is your little Bartek!' My mother fully expected that this would be my first name. However, she was not present at my baptism. In those days, women were confined to bed for up to two weeks after childbirth, and babies were baptized shortly after birth to ensure that, in the case of neonatal death, they'd go straight to heaven.
     The details of what actually happened on the date of my baptism are unknown to me. According to one version, my mother wanted to name me Władysław, and that is the name I received at my baptism. Another version describes how my god-parents stopped at a tavern on the way to church, and that, possibly influenced by libation, a decision was made to be innovative, to break the old-fashioned tradition of naming children after the saints on whose days they were born. This is how I acquired my first and middle names, being named after my father and my paternal grandfather. The rarity of the name Bartholomew was perhaps one of the reasons my godparents rejected it. Another possible reason was the fact that 'Bartek' had acquired a proverbial meaning, being almost synonymous with an uneducated farmhand. How this personification of a social class developed is unknown to me. Maybe it had something to do with the New Testament story that Bartholomew served as a representative for the shepherds who paid homage to baby Jesus in Bethlehem. However, in my hometown of Stary Sącz, tradition prevailed, aided by Dr. Nowak's active campaigning, and that is how I came to be known as 'Bartek.' Thanks to its rarity, Bartek is a convenient nom de plume which I now use to sign my paintings and sculptures."
     This next entry refers to an excerpt from my grandparent's diary: "The personality of the terrible fours, along with other less desirable traits of my character, was briefly mentioned in 1925: 'At home, there are two Barteks: the well-behaved one, and the naughty one.' There is one very naughty thing I did that year. We did not go anywhere for summer vacation in 1925, but my maternal grandfather did come to visit us. He took me for walks in our neighborhood. In the vicinity of our house, there was an apartment complex, or perhaps more correctly, a couple of tenement houses. You could see the courtyard through the slats of a fence between the two big houses. I had always wanted to go there, to explore the unknown, perhaps to meet new playmates. Somehow, the grown-ups who exercised total control over my comings and goings never allowed me to visit that particular courtyard. By the time my grandfather took me for a walk around that block, my yearning for an excursion beyond the fence reached its peak. I decided to force my grandfather to go there, which I did by tossing my hat over the fence, like a Frisbee. This was not an ordinary hat. It was a Polish highlander's hat, made of black felt, shaped like a British helmet or the huts of Italian priests. It had a red leather band with white sea shells. It was part of the customary garb of the Podhale region, which was where my mother's father came from. I was therefore sure that such a treasured possession, a gift of my grandfather, would undoubtedly be retrieved. It was a form of blackmail extortion, or at the very least, manipulation. I don't remember whether or not I was punished for inconveniencing my grandfather. (It was quite a long walk to the front entrance to the apartment complex). What I do remember is my disappointment. Once we arrived to the other side of the fence and picked up my hat, the mystery of the unreachable place was gone. There was nothing of interest there, just cobble-stone pavement. Perhaps it was my first lesson in finding out that grass only looks greener in the neighbor's yard. Wanting what one does not have is a human failing, and like the above-mentioned incident, I experienced it at other times, though none of this was recorded in the diary, perhaps because it was not observable as overt behavior."
     I love reading through my father's and grandparents' recollections of his early years in life. I think we all enjoy hearing stories from when we were young; it gives us such great insight into the people we are today. Those early life's lessons and experiences shape our personalities, impart us with individuality, and help us in understanding why we are who we are, as well as how we can grow and change. Yesterday, on Facebook, one of my friends posted this picture, which I'm reasonably certain both Little Bartek and Dr. W.P. Mazur, M.D. would have agreed with. In the end, it's all relative, isn't it? :-)

Brad, modeling a Podhale hat, just like the one Little Bartek tossed over the fence

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Pretty Wonderful Life

     Yesterday was one of "those days." My last two blogs received mixed reviews, either touching and inspiring people who read and critiqued them, or severely pissing them off, even spurring one piece of very-close-to-hate mail. The last time I received anything close to hate mail was during my senior year in high school. Somehow I'd ended up on the prom planning committee, and the theme that year was going to be the Old South. This meant hoop skirts and top hats, something I didn't find too exciting or current. This was back in 1980. Punk was sort of fading into New Wave, featuring a diverse array of dance-oriented groups like M, The B-52s, The Clash, Devo, The Talking Heads, Gary Numan, Lene Lovitch, The Pretenders, The Cars, The Knack, The Boomtown Rats, The Violent Femmes...the list goes on and on. While most of my classmates were still doing the "white man's dance" to Top 40 hits, a few of us were snapping up thrift store leggings and wraparound sunglasses, gyrating on the floor to songs like Rock Lobster.
     My job on the prom committee was to help plan the food. During one of our meetings, which I'm pretty sure took place in Mrs. Barrow's classroom on the front hall, I acquired the unfortunate nickname "Crackers." We were all giving our suggestions for party fare, and I'd said something like, "How about some crackers?" Al Abbott, one of the boys in my Latin class, found this outrageously funny, and for the rest of the year, I'd hear him in the hallway, yelling "Crackers!" good-naturedly anytime we went past each other. I don't remember what types of snacks we ended up offering. I think everyone was a little more concerned about whether or not there'd be punch, which would inevitably be spiked with EverClear or some other type of high test grain alcohol.
     Since my boyfriend and I had broken up, I didn't have a date to the prom. He and I had broken up sometime around Christmas of 1979, after a ridiculous argument over his assertion that Catholics worship "false idols", like the Virgin Mary. I was Catholic and he was something else, maybe Southern Baptist. Although I was by no means a committed Catholic, I felt I had to correct him in his ignorance, but there was just no reasoning with him. We sat in his car in front of my house, engaged in this dispute. He handed me my Christmas present, a bottle of Avon Sweet Honesty cologne, a scent I detested, and drove away. That was the last time he and I hung out together. Over the Christmas holidays, I found out that he and another girl in our class had been seeing each other, even though he and I were going steady. I guess I should have been angry about this, but I was actually relieved. I didn't know this girl too well, and I'm operating under the assumption that she probably wasn't Catholic. Having a boyfriend sort of got in the way of spending time with my friends, Eileen, Leslie, and Elaine, and now, my Friday and Saturday nights were free again.
     I never had any intention of wearing a hoop skirt to my prom. I definitely couldn't envision myself as a southern belle, and surmised that a hoop skirt and crinoline would not only be uncomfortable and itchy, but unjustifiably expensive. There were a lot of kids in our family, all of whom needed clothes, and Mom wasn't keen on the idea of spending big bucks on a dress I'd never wear again. I happened to agree with her. I didn't like most of the current styles anyway; they were way too disco for my liking. For my junior prom, the year before, I'd made my own dress out of white eyelet. I made a lot of my own clothes in high school so that I could dress exactly the way I liked, without it costing too much money.  My dress consisted of two pieces: a sleeveless bodice and a long, tiered skirt. Inspired by a white, hippie-chic dress I'd seen in Seventeen magazine, modeled by Phoebe Cates, I set out to create my own version. Since I was already a pretty accomplished seamstress, I knew exactly what to do. I went to Hancock Fabrics, found a pattern I liked, and splurged on some nice material. I took my time, cutting the fabric, sewing the 5/8 inch seams, and placing the darts, enjoying the process, instead of hurrying through it. The finished product was beautiful and unique, and I was proud to wear something I'd made myself.
     My deepening interest in the punk and New Wave cultures seemed to validate my long-standing inner rebellion against authority, and helped me find my "voice." The whole idea of mindlessly going along with the majority, just because everyone else was doing it, never really appealed to me. As a seventeen year old girl, I vowed that I would never allow myself to become a lemming. In using the term, "lemming", I am speaking metaphorically, referring to people who blindly go along with popular opinion, not commenting on the sometimes bizarre and often misconceived migratory behavior of these rodents. What bothered me most about the Old South theme was that it seemed to be condoning the systematic oppression of a group of people. In my mind, hoop skirts represented ignorance, racism, and hatred, just like the Confederate flag. Our country had just gotten over the Iranian hostage crisis, something I was very sensitive to because my brother-in-law is Iranian. I saw how Iranian-Americans were being mistreated, similar to the misinformed contempt which many Americans harbor for Muslims and Middle Easterners today, and I didn't want any part of it.
     I considered not going to the prom at all. For the most part, I couldn't wait to get out of high school and on with real life. I'd grown so tired of the superficiality which characterized the boring, yet ever-so-popular "prep" mentality, where everyone dressed alike and drove a certain kind of car. It was all about appearances, about how you looked instead of what you thought. I was keenly interested in smartening up, not being dumbed down, and I spent much of my time in high school, feeling like I really didn't fit in with any particular group. My circle of close friends was wonderful. Fortunately, they knew and accepted me, exactly as I was, for all my weirdness, my adolescent rebellion, and my stubborn resolve to think outside the box. Given the fact that I'd helped in planning the food for the prom, it seemed a shame to miss out on it completely. Although I was generally disenchanted with the whole high school scene, I still felt a little nostalgic, realizing that I'd never be able to go back and relive that period of my life. It was a strange, mixed bag of emotions. Accompanying the anticipation of college and being treated as an adult was a deep sadness over the loss of childhood innocence, something I knew I'd eventually leave behind.
     I worked out a compromise with myself. I'd attend my senior southern belle prom, but I would arrive dressed as myself, which at the time consisted of an old thrift store men's suit, a skinny tie, pointy toed Keds sneakers, and wraparound sunglasses. My good friend, Jay, with whom I'd attended the junior prom the year before, would be home from college that weekend, so I invited him to come with me. He was a big fan of The Who and the "mod" scene. Jay was also going to come, dressed as himself, wearing a pork pie hat, Ray Bans, a scraggly beard, and his old wool houndstooth blazer. We weren't really prom-crashers; we were pioneers of modern style. It was no secret that we weren't planning to adhere to the dress code, which strictly forbade the wearing of tennis shoes. Word began to spread among my classmates that Jay and I were coming to the prom, dressed like punk rockers. My chemistry teacher, Miss Cox, who was considered one of the "cool" teachers, alerted me to a few notes she'd received from other students, ranging from mild complaints to spiteful character assassinations, directed at me. The general consensus was that, in not adhering to the dress code, I was going to somehow ruin the entire prom. These letters didn't deter me at all; they only deepened my resolve.
     Amidst threats that Jay and I wouldn't be admitted into the prom, especially if we were wearing sneakers, we arrived in the aforementioned garb, both of us having decided to speak in Cockney accents all night long. This was going to be fun! Despite a little bit of hassling at the door, we were permitted to enter, and we spent most of the evening, dancing and laughing, enjoying an occasional swig of booze from the flask he'd stashed in his jacket's breast pocket. We even got our picture made. We'd refused to pose the way the photographer had insisted, with arms encircling each another, opting instead to stand side by side, with cocked heads and subtle sneers. I think we ended up staying for about an hour or so. After leaving the prom, we pulled over on the shoulder of a deserted road, not far from where I lived, to listen to music and play strip poker. I ended up having a lot of fun that night, and as far as I could tell, the prom had been a success. I like to think that Jay and I provided a bit of comic relief or a memorable distraction. I never learned who the authors of the nasty letters were, nor did I really care. People who are inclined to react with such vitriole are always much braver on paper than they are in person, especially where personal threats or assaults on one's character are involved: these are people who can't see the forest for the trees. I often wonder what those people are like now. Have they changed at all? Did they ever learn to think for themselves and critically assess life's complexities, instead of reacting myopically to every viewpoint they find objectionable? One can only hope so.
     For a brief period of time last night, I felt dejected. I started thinking about what it would have been like if I'd never been born, sort of like Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's classic, "It's A Wonderful Life." The conclusion I came to was this: for every person I've somehow managed to piss off, there are at lease a dozen whom I've inspired or helped in some way. That's really not a bad ratio. Long ago, Rudyard Kipling described words as "the most powerful drug used by mankind." Words have the power to inspire or frighten, to heal or hurt, to liberate or oppress, and the problem with words lies in their interpretation. Take a simple email or text message, the underlying tone of which complicates how you interpret the message's meaning. Is this person mad at me? Or am I taking it the wrong way? I've had this conversation before with my friend, Allen, who sends very terse text messages and emails. Both his partner, Bryan, and I have commented to him that he sounds mad or annoyed. In bringing this to his attention, we learned that the messages Allen sends from his phone are brief because he has a problem with fat-fingering, which eats up a lot of time and frustrates him to no end. Had we not addressed this, we would have continued to personalize his one word responses in a negative way. In writing, I try to choose my words carefully, giving deep consideration to the subject matter at hand, contemplating all aspects of a situation. Sometimes, I may get things wrong. That's why feedback is important; it helps broaden my perspective, and permits me think about things in a different light. You can tell a lot about where people are "at" mentally and emotionally by the words they choose, and the way they craft them into sentences. The hateful comment I received yesterday was filled with rage and displaced emotion, and it was clear that the author is disturbed, not so much with me, but with life in general. The words were clearly intended to hurt, not to provide any useful feedback, and after reading what was written, I decided not to publish it.
     Not all words are important or worth agonizing over; one has to consider the source. In Bryce Courtenay's "The Power of One", there is a beautiful passage: "“Always in life an idea starts small, it is only a sapling idea, but the vines will come and they will try to choke your idea so it cannot grow and it will die and you will never know you had a big idea, an idea so big it could have grown thirty meters through the dark canopy of leaves and touched the face of the sky...The vines are people who are afraid of originality, of new thinking. Most people you encounter will be vines; when you are a young plant they are very dangerous...Always listen to yourself...It is better to be wrong than simply to follow convention. If you are wrong, no matter, you have learned something and you grow stronger. If you are right, you have taken another step toward a fulfilling life.” I think these are good words to live by. In much the same way as my senior prom ended up accommodating an unconventional teenager who "only wanted to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self"*, remaining true to myself, no matter how hard it's been over the years, has eventually absorbed most of life's slings and arrows. When I consider all the experiences I've had, the joys and sorrows, the challenges, triumphs and disappointments, as well as the people I've met, ranging from saints to every day Joes to real assholes, I realize I've been blessed with a pretty wonderful life, one with very few regrets. Unlike my hairstyle, which seems to undergo a metamorphosis every few months, with regard to my life, I wouldn't change a thing.
*from Hermann Hesse, "Demian
Amidst all of our still unpacked boxes, I cannot find my 12th grade prom picture. When I do find it, I will post it here. 
A page from my high school annual