Monday, April 28, 2008

Thin (sigh) (a meditation on food and antidepressants)

Back to my discussion with Estelle about food and the odd atmosphere of prohibition that hangs over what we eat and how much we eat (and what our children eat and how much they eat) in a country where food is plentiful. Her question was if we, as a culture, have a disordered relationship with food. I believe she said this is the conclusion of author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma)--Estelle based the theme of one of the classes she teaches at the Community College on his book.

It does seem true that in our culture it's rare for there to be an uncomplicated relationship with food. We are sooooo fortunate to have plenty, why do we confound it? Perhaps it's a transmutation of guilt--for having and wasting obscene amounts when so much of the world is desperately hungry.

I've been on a project to transcribe all of my old diaries into my computer. Currently I'm on #33, which makes it at least the 25th diary (with a long, long way to go) where I'm dealing with the issue of food, eating, body image, and the western cultural imperative to be thin.

I've studied this and suffered over it for years and I don't feel any closer to understanding the imperative. I know that growing up it was implicit--'diet' was an ubiquitous verb. As a child if I went home from school with a friend my mother would ask when I got home if my friend's mother was 'heavy'. That was the euphemism.

drstaceyny writes under her profile on her blog: My contention is that every woman has an eating disorder-- not necessarily anorexia or bulimia per se, but a fixation on food/ weight/shape that is unhealthy, unwanted, and undying.

And, if I might add, wearying.

Like I said, for years I took on the subject, mainly from the point of view of why I felt so susceptible to it and the ways it jabbed me internally. Why could I not dismiss the perfection hysteria for what it is? Especially since I knew it wasn't rational, I knew it was cruel.

My current working theory is that there is a sort of anxiety-fueled need-to-win dynamic that drives it. I got a clear example of this dynamic when watching a comedy television program about a family. The father volunteered to take on coaching his son's dispirited soccer team. Obviously determined that he was going to be a nurturing coach he admonished the coach of the opposing team who was harshly screaming at his kids: "Hey! Come on, lay off, they're just kids! This is supposed to be fun!" To which the opposing coach responded by sneering to his team: "Hear that? That's LOSER talk!" Similarly, to consider swimming upstream from the main by shrugging off a cultural ideal of beauty was undermined by the idea that I was indulging in sour grapes: loser talk.

This issue has been present for most of my life, in varying degrees of intensity and urgency.

I put it in a bottom drawer for the past 3 years. Shortly after returning to Portland I was very low, very depressed. I met a physician who was confident in her ability to help me manage this medicinally.

The first antidepressant I tried was Remeron. I was shocked 3 months later at my GYN checkup when I weighed more than I had ever weighed not-pregnant. The dr. said confidently: "Everyone gains weight on Remeron. I'll often prescribe it to new mothers, stressed, underweight, and not sleeping." Well, this wasn't a time I was prepared to face down the whole weight issue and I asked my primary dr. if I could switch to something like Wellbutrin, which I'd heard had a side effect of weight loss.

The way the weight-loss side effect worked for me is that the experience of hunger was detached from my emotions. I might still feel hunger, but I didn't experience it as suffering. The eating motivator was thus less potent and I lost weight. So for the past 3 or so years I've weighed approximately my high school weight.

The thing is, the drug didn't have that much effect on my mood. Not really noticeably, anyway. Perhaps there was a subtle change to my background mood base and the alteration was so gradual that I didn't notice it. Last year when I started seeing Sharon, my counselor, I told her that I was taking antidepressants. She suggested that at some point I might want to wean off of them and "see who I was without the drugs." But I really felt I wasn't any different with or without the drugs; I felt like I knew 'who I was'. Time, situational change, and a year with both boys full time in school eased the depression symptoms; the medication didn't seem to have much effect beyond the hunger effect and a mild (not unpleasant) buzz.

It was really only the weight effect that motivated me to keep taking them.

I pushed to the back of my mind the awareness that a day of reckoning was coming where I'd face some questions:

1) What does it mean to be thin?
2) Is it important to be thin?
3) Why?
4) Is it still important to be thin when I'm 49/50/51?
5) Why?
6) What does it mean that it's important to be thin?
7) Is it legitimate to use anti-depressants as a diet pill?
8) Is it dishonest to be slender by these means?
9) To whom do I owe 'honesty' about this? If me alone, why should I feel uneasy about (dis)honesty? If someone else--no that just seems absurd. Should I carry a sign that says, "I'm slender because I take Wellbutrin"? Still, I'm dogged by the feeling of misrepresenting myself. (Then comes the 'puritan question'-- if I don't have a metabolism that makes me 'naturally', 'authentically' thin is the only way I can legitimately be thin is if I suffer to do it--either through eating less than I want or exercising mightily? Why should those means be more legitimate than an antidepressant with a convenient side effect? Who says?)

Of course this opens up a whole other can of worms, too. I can see when I read my journals that there was a lot of fevered energy that I now recognize as biological--the drive for a mate. I didn't know it then but it's plain now. A successfully sexually appealing identity once seemed very necessary.

What is the basis of sexual appeal when one is beyond childbearing age? Again, the question, is it important, is it worth an effort, is it even possible? A certain number of pounds hung on my frame now looks very different than it did when I was 20, 30.

And it's not as if I'm interested in entering the world of trying to attract a sexual partner. I have friends my age who are single, friends who are divorced, Out Looking. After 16 years of marriage there is no appeal in that for me. When I get dispatches from that field I have trouble relating personally--it seems like something that belongs to another age and another time. My friends seem very engaged: I just can't relate.

I suppose having two young children makes a mate search
additionally irrelevant. It's rare that children from one man, particularly boys, have a successful relationship with a man-not-their-father who is close to their mother.

I started tapering down the antidepressants in January. It's been several weeks now since taking my last. My mood continues to be stable, but I didn't expect to experience any differences on that front. What I'm nervous about is whether or not I'll be having to confront the old demons about appearance and weight. And whether I'll finally be able to make some peace with them.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A poem helped answer the question I asked myself

Doug posed himself a question on his blog: "Why Am I Doing This?" I think that may have essentially been the question I was asking myself earlier today...which was also an examination of the legitimacy of writing my thoughts in a public forum.

This evening on our public radio station news anchor Andrea Seabrook interviewed Edward Hirsch, who has just published a book of his poetry called "Special Orders". Here is his poem, "Self Portrait"

I live between my heart and my head like a married couple who can't get along.
I live between my left arm which is swift and sinister and my right, which is righteous.
I live between a laugh and a scowl, and voted against myself, a two-party system.
My left leg dawdled or danced along; my right cleaved to the straight and narrow.
My left shoulder was like a stripper on vacation
My right stood upright as a Roman soldier.
Let's just say that my left side was the organ donor and leave my private parts alone.
But as for my eyes, which are two shades of brown, well, Dionysus, meet Apollo.
Look at Eve raising her left eyebrow while Adam puts his right foot down.
No one expected it to survive, but divorce seemed out of the question.
I suppose my left hand and my right hand will be clasped over my chest in the coffin and I'll be reconciled at last:
I'll be whole again

When he finished reading they shared a laugh.

Seabrook: "It's so personal, and sooooo universal, oh my God, who hasn't had the experience of being completely split in two."

Hirsch: "Well thank you for saying so...I mean I thought of it--you know it's a self portrait--I thought of it as a completely personal poem but I've had a wonderful experience with different readers who have identified it when it turns out that everyone seems to have this experience of being completely riven between your, your heart or your passions and your mind and your reason."

Seabrook: "Isn't that right there the basic guts of human experience, I think."

Hirsch: "That's what you're trying to get at, to get down as far as you can get viscerally to where your own obsessions are and hope that they're also the obsessions of other people and really get at what is most essential using your own experience... but what is most essential about human experience."

Then I remembered why I do it. There is something liberating about being able strip an 'obsession' down to its essence, and a deep relief and joy in finding that other humans share that experience. Sometimes other people's observations enlighten me...and sometimes I've had the pleasure of hearing that mine express their truths too. It's a gift that keeps on giving: there is release for me in being able to describe to myself the essence of an experience--and it's indescribable when someone else resonates with it.

It's funny as hell is what it is.

And I love a good laugh.

kidness again

Kid intensive morning. Connor spent Friday night at a friend's, watched a questionable movie (thinking about if, and how I should broach this topic with the friend's father), and says he was up til 4. A.M. His disposition seems to be ample evidence of that.

Any other morning Scott would be impossible to get up before 7:30, like when he has to go to school. Today my heart sank when I realized he was not going back to sleep; it was 7 a.m. Bye bye, early morning writing time.

Last week he took a hundred dollar bill to school. It was his Christmas gift from one of his grandfathers. I didn't realize this until I saw him flashing it around when I went to pick him up. To prevent this from occurring again I've hidden it, and pay the price of having to fend off questions about where it is.

He's got a buddy coming over eleven minutes ago. Meaning, that WAS the ETA. Since 7:00 when he got up Scott's been fretting over 'how long it's taking', and 'it's taking forever' and 'when is he coming' and 'how many minutes is that' and 'how many seconds is that'. This child has been here before, so a soundtrack of foreboding has been humming in the background. I dutifully made scones, but I'm anticipating that his mom is going to be all-too-eager for a few hour's freedom and will probably be dropping him. Gary took Connor to drum lessons and said he's stopping on the way home 'to pick up skis.' Darkly I admonished him to not linger. I remember what happened last time.

Yeah, some kid play dates are maintenance free--a child entertains my kid so I don't have to. But these two require a high level of hands-on to keep their hands off each other.

Car door slammed...

...and we're alone. My prediction was accurate; this was a drop-off. Gary's not home yet. Scott has pulled out the prized toy that he'd put away because he wasn't 'prepared to share it'. Richard has claimed his seniority as guest and wants it for himself. It's been 4 minutes. I'm tempted to tell them to go downstairs, but it may be wise to have them here where I can watch them. At least it saves me a trip downstairs.

I'm trying to come to terms with a conflict I have about keeping this blog. In some ways it seems like the ultimate in navel-gazing (and in the most pejorative, self-indulgent sense of the term). Who am I to think that my musings would be interesting to anyone? Who cares what kind of thought processes and evolution path I take in deciding whether to stay in my marriage, or leave it? Who cares about the particular ways that parenting small children rub me raw?

When I wander around in the blogosphere and read some of what's out there I'm even more discouraged. There is just so much really really good stuff out there.

This could be a vestige of this country's puritan heritage expressing through me: the prohibition against self-aggrandizement, calling attention to oneself, even thinking well enough of oneself to imagine that someone else would be interested in what I have to say. The audacity!

Thursday, April 24, 2008


That is such a juicy word.

I picture a continuum, with the word 'betrayal' on one end--and on the far end 'forgiveness'.

My cousin Lori wrote the most beautiful post about duality, and oneness. Just now looking at it, in order to link back to it, I feel the intensity of the inspiration behind her writing.

Over the weekend I saw a picture of Helen Hunt and an article about her latest venture in writing, directing, and producing. I see that her latest work is inspired by a novel by Elinor Lipman (Then She Found Me--about a grown woman who's found by her birth mother and they 'forge a relationship'), and an essay by James Hillman. The essay is on the theme of betrayal.

So I went to find the essay and discovered that Hillman is an Archetypal Psychologist. That piqued my interest some more, since this is the work I am doing with Sharon.

I've spent the last 5 days trying to lift this very large concept without its crumbling to dust in my mind. It's like trying to lift a pancake with a fork or knife rather than a spatula.

Basically there are enormous themes that express as patterns of energy, and each of our own lives is a lens that splits this energy, like light, into various refractions and colors. They express in the lives of individuals, and in the lives of peoples and civilizations. They are a superstory. I see a glimpse of this in some of Doug's photography where elements repeat, in different variations.

And it is about consciousness, evolving and differentiating.

Oneness is perhaps the original, primal state--the Garden of Eden. But it is not the ultimate state. Perhaps the word 'oneness' in this case is better expressed by 'undifferentiated'. Perhaps the ultimate state is attained through the journey toward differentiation, which must first traverse the road of separation, duality. The Garden of Eden, though blissful, represents a state of the soul that is not sufficient unto itself...there is a state of Oneness that can only be attained through the experience and integration of the fullness of life's experience.

The experience of the brutality of life, through the agency of betrayal is the initiating event on the road to this higher differentiation, this evolved state of Oneness.

The search by the betrayed to wrest meaning from the betrayal event is the creative act which brings about reconciliation, and finally, forgiveness, the resurrection of that Soul.

These are cosmic forces, far larger than we are, and it's tempting to dismiss them as petty when they express in our lives. However, our stories can illustrate and bring understanding to these larger forces.

Perhaps the initiating event can be analogized to a seed penetrating an oyster's defensive shell--an irritant which eventually manifests as a pearl.

There's a decision upon initiation, and we are completely alone with it. We lie on a ledge that we have fallen to from a great height above--we're dazed, injured, and in grave danger that in not being cognizant of our situation we will fall further to greater injury or annihilation. Yawning before us are the pitfalls of vengeance, denial of what is good, cynicism, and worse, self-betrayal. The pain we suffer at betrayal causes us to split from ourSelves--we deny who we are because it hurts too much to be ourSelves. Or, we may become paranoid--demand iron-clad loyalty from others we may encounter--demand a relationship free of the risk of being hurt again. And be ever vigilant for signs of backsliding. The relationship becomes one about power, and not love.

We can dither in these pitfalls for a lifetime and never emerge. We may notice sometimes a certain pattern to our lives and dealings. We might swing between the poles of self-blame and blame of the Other. We may despair...

If I can humbly offer my life as an illustration:

The light that passed through my prism already had passed through the prism of a Cold War, and the decisions made by people who saw themselves custodians of an Atomic Age. Furthermore it passed through people who were very young and who had been subjected to the cold impersonality and brutality of their own life circumstances (Great Depression, poverty, war, influenza). I suppose my own initiation came in the form of a father who would spank an infant for doing what infants do to express need: crying. I suppose I could say that initiation was finalized when my mother turned from me when I was attempting to express the Truth and sided with the neighbor in believing I was lying.

It seems evident that I 'chose' the pitfall of self-betrayal. To allow myself to see the Truth, that the people who I depended upon for my very existence could be arbitrary and even cruel, was too painful. It was also too painful to be who I was in those moments, hurt and bitterly alone. To cope I chose to believe what had happened was a result of me being deeply flawed. I could not know that the truth was my pain was a result of a flaw in my parents--it was their bad.

For my entire life I carried the burden of the doubt. Perhaps the fault lay in me: perhaps I was looking at an event from the 'wrong' perspective. Perhaps mine was the mistaken, or even venal perspective. In this way I 'protected' others from the burden of wrongdoing, I protected them from having to account for themselves.

And I was surrounded by people who were unwilling to be called to account for themselves. If something hurtful was said that I wanted an explanation for, they were the ones who were 'hurt' by my request. I was the one who was too sensitive, or I had a sense of self-esteem that was so low that it would 'cause' me to misunderstand. Conditions were not favorable for asking people for explanations for their behavior.

This cost was especially paid in problematic relationships with men. Since I held my every action and motivation under a microscope of doubt, I was unable to read with any accuracy someone's intentions toward me. If I had any doubts as to their honorability I immediately assumed I was expecting too much, or was imagining things. I was very vulnerable and got hurt, and assumed I was at fault.

I think I was preoccupied, mistakenly, but understandably, with seeking an experience of "atonement", or at-one-ment. I've sought connection, re-connection, oneness, but perhaps by going backward, attempting to return to the Garden of Eden which is guarded by an angel with a flaming sword.

As Hillman says: "But forgiveness is so difficult that it probably needs some help from the other person. I mean by this that the wrong, if not remembered by both parties - and remembered as a wrong - falls all on the betrayed. The wider context within which the tragedy occurred would seem to call for parallel feelings from both parties. They are still both in a relationship, now as betrayer and betrayed. If only the betrayed senses a wrong, while the other passes it over with rationalizations, then the betrayal is still going on - even increased. This dodging of what has really happened is, of all the sores, the most galling to the betrayed. Forgiveness comes harder; resentments grow because the betrayer is not carrying his guilt and the act is not honestly conscious. Jung has said that the meaning of our sins is that we carry them, which means not that we unload them onto others to carry for us. To carry one’s sins, one has first to recognize them, and recognize their brutality." (bold text mine)

Healing for the betrayed, comes through his/her efforts to find meaning in the event and the ability to relate to the event in a wider context. Reconciliation may not be possible with the betrayer, but it is possible to find reconciliation with the event. Better would be for the betrayed and betrayer to consciously reciprocate the experience of atonement and forgiveness. The betrayer who is unable to carry his sin robs him/herself of this healing experience.

The betrayed also understands that there may be times in meeting the impersonal demands of life that we are agents of its cruelty. If we have consciously integrated our experience we are in a better position to enter this parallel relationship with those we love and injure: we can offer atonement, and, possibly receive the gift and miracle of forgiveness.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Before coffee:

Connor makes a flying leap onto Scott. Instantly I'm behind the curve, trying to stop the bottles from falling from the pyramid, ineffectually touching them on the way down: "Connor! Cut it out! Get off him!" It doesn't help that Scott loves the attention, loves nothing more than an early morning 'rassle'. It also doesn't help my immediate goal of him getting up and dressed so we can leave for school.

"Connor! I'm getting angry! Get off!"

Connor pulls away, then yells and throws himself back on Scott: "He stuck his finger up my butt!!!"

"Well he banged his knee on my leg!"

"Get off him!"

Connor heads into the bathroom to put in his contact lenses. "I wouldn't have jumped on him if he hadn't stuck his finger up my butt."

"If you hadn't gotten your butt in position his finger wouldn't have been anywhere near it!...Scott, if you had your finger up his butt you need to wash your hands!"

And that, my friends, is nothing anyone should ever have to hear themselves say. Fifteen years ago I could not have conceived ever using that combination of words.

I wonder if people with daughters have ever had to say that. I feel like washing my own mouth out with soap.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Where things went wrong

There are a few ways for a relationship to succeed:

1) The Perfect Relationship (conflict-free)

One is for the parties in question to be so perfectly matched that conflict never arises (A sad fact of conflict is that often when it arises it creates other messes, schisms, blemishes.).

Therefore, a conflict-free relationship generates no messes and love can thrive and grow.

a) The Perfect Relationship (a little less perfect)

The parties in question don't acknowledge any blemishes in the perfection. They don't allow themselves to notice if they feel disappointment or annoyance. Therefore there is no conflict.

Therefore, a conflict-free relationship generates no messes and love can thrive and grow

b) The Perfect Relationship for one (less perfect for the other)

One person prevails in the relationship and the other accedes. The one who accedes treats the Other's wishes as their own. The one who accedes submerges his/her will to the Other.

There is no conflict

Therefore a conflict-free relationship generates no messes and love can thrive and grow

2) The Imperfect Relationship

Conflict is acknowledged as an inevitable consequence of humans trying to work together. Furthermore it is acknowledged that conflict can be a source of other conflicts, schisms, and messes.

Therefore, there need to be effective tools to minimize the damage a conflict can cause, and tools to clean up its effects.

--good will sets the stage for successful conflict resolution. An understanding that the other person probably means no harm predisposes the best results

--conflict is often caused by misunderstanding: sometimes there is no conflict but misunderstanding creates the impression that there is. Some conflict can be eliminated by clearing up misunderstanding. This requires talking.

--conflict is often caused by genuine differences in priorities. Negotiation is the framework for deciding whose need is the most pressing in a given situation, or if it's possible for some elements of the needs of each to be met. If one's needs are deemed secondary in one circumstance they can receive assurance when to expect their needs will be met.

--conflict is sometimes caused when one person wants another to change behavior, especially if the behavior is annoying.

--strong feelings can arise in conflict. Sometimes these are the result of fears and beliefs. People often judge their own feelings (and those of others) very heavily. They may fear negative feelings mean something very bad about themselves. They may be afraid to talk about them, and so try to ignore them. In those circumstances feelings can fester and become resentment. To choose to be vulnerable instead, and share them with their partner can be frightening (because sometimes this can activate the partner's fears and negative feelings), and it can also be liberating. Being vulnerable opens up the possibility of hurt, but it also
opens up the possibility of understanding, relief, deeper intimacy and love.

The relationship is not conflict-free, BUT there is the ability to clean up the messes, heal the schisms, create more intimacy, and the imperfect relationship can thrive and grow.

4) Poison

Person A has a wound and believes something is wrong with him/herself. Person A is deeply ashamed of this. A believes that if person B is unhappy with his/her behavior that he/she, person A, has been very deeply insulted. Person A believes B should not feel any criticism toward him/her self. Or, if any criticism is felt, B should conceal it. To acknowledge conflict is to criticize, and this is not tolerable. To acknowledge conflict is grounds for deep resentment, anger, and wounded feelings, and that justifies retaliation. Retaliation happens at Person A's choosing, and can be delivered in circumstances far removed from the original offense. It can be demonstrated in obstructionism, subtle gestures of contempt, acts of hostility that are difficult to read but the feeling of having been stung is unmistakable.

Person B believes that direct acknowledgment and addressing of conflict is desirable. Person B asks directly for what he/she wants, and asks for an accounting if an agreement hasn't been kept.

If person A and person B are in a relationship, they have a serious problem. To have conflict is forbidden, and in fact generates more. There is no means possible to clean up conflict, so the air gets more and more polluted. Person A, no matter how gently and respectfully approached with conflict believes he/she has been violated. Person B believes that direct acknowledgment of conflict is the key to resolving it.

Therefore B's way of resolving differences is deeply offensive to A. Attempts to bridge gaps are seen as intrusive and threatening to A. Their methods are diametrically opposed.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Suzy said, "There are no accidents" in reply to a post of Doug's.

I have been worrying, off and on about the activity of blogging. I've been writing less in my diary; sometimes I'll be writing there and feel an impulse break off and take the theme I'm writing here. I've not been sure if that's a good thing--if blogging represents a distraction from more "important" work. Often I feel restless inside, with the result that I simply have not been drilling as deeply in my journaling. And I miss the feelings of warmth and pleasure as I did so. I continue to wonder if some of the restlessness has to do with no longer augmenting my explorations, and if blogging has been the default distraction.

But now I'm getting a hint that blogging may be expanding and enriching the search. Today I realized that some themes that have come up in blogging have been informing some fruitful movement in my counseling.

The approach of the type of counseling I've been doing, Archetypal Pattern Analysis looks at patterns, how they influence and perhaps ensnare us. Thoughts and feelings that we may believe arise from within us may instead be part of a larger pattern of energy whose influence we're unaware of in shaping us.

Last week in my counseling session I told Sharon about a dream I could only remember the smallest bit from: my father had tickets to Olympic events in the Soviet Union. It was snowing and he was driving us in a car on winter roads. It was very slippery. Perhaps this is what initiated the talk about my father having been a bombadier aboard one of the planes that circled the globe, carrying a payload of nuclear weapons.

A direct result of this conversation with Sharon was my mentioning it in my blog to Doug, who reminded me of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). I did a little reading at Wikipedia this morning about MAD, and entered the world of tortured logic of nuclear deterrence. I see that my father was part of the doctrine of "Second Strike", which was the deterrence part. He was to be the 'consequence/punishment' of a Soviet "First Strike"--which was meant to keep a First Strike from happening. If my reasoning is correct the logic of 'second strike' required that a certain tonnage of bombs that had been calculated to 'assure' destruction had to be in the air at all times. (This must have been wild logistically to coordinate.)

I think this is the first time I've come to grips with the fact that my father was trained to drop a nuclear weapon and was prepared to do it. I think I'd had an idea somewhere that his planes carried conventional bombs.

I've in my conscious mind felt very separate from my father's profession. I see now the contradiction in this: it put food in my mouth and put me through college. It's an illusion that it had nothing to do with me.

Years ago I asked my father if he'd felt any personal repugnance at some of the CIA personnel he must have had some contact with. This was in the 80's when it was becoming public the role that the CIA had played in South America, in propping up dictatorships that had resulted in the 'disappearing', torture, and murder of thousands, tens of thousands. I don't remember how his reply led to his disclosure that he, by himself, in one of the planes he crewed on, could have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and he was fully prepared to do this--and was convinced that this was not immoral. Even then I did not connect nuclear weapons to him.

I was a weird kid. I felt connected to living things like animals, to plants, even to inanimate objects. I felt nagged by a sense of responsibility for suffering, and it was a very heavy weight. Turning away from suffering I think was the crux of this. I could be reading a book, and remember that there were plants outside that hadn't been watered for a while. I would feel nagged by this, the personal feeling that these plants were thirsty and I could not rest until I'd (unwillingly) gone to them and watered them.

I suppose this is why the whole issue of 'collateral damage' has been looming so large for me. It's the idea of acceptance that some suffering is inevitable and must be turned away from in order to accomplish a greater objective (while ignoring that it is someone else who is paying the price for this greater objective) that I'm stuck on.

At 12 and 13 I was tortured by the feeling that insects might be in pain. Along any sidewalk I might travel would be bugs that had turned onto their backs and their legs were flailing. I couldn't turn away and I often felt paralyzed by this responsibility. I felt I had to kneel beside them and gently (so patiently and carefully) turn them back over onto their legs so they could go on. But then sometimes they'd flip back over onto their backs. Generally by now there were people calling to me impatiently: "Come on!" "We're waiting for you!" This was a very anxious time. I couldn't stay, my sense of responsibility wouldn't let me go. I might give the bug another chance, and if that failed my final responsibility was to euthanize it. I'd place a leaf over it and step on it as quickly as I could to give it an instant death. I hated this. I hated the feeling of the exoskeleton crunching underfoot.

To anyone who may have been off observing I probably appeared to be cruel and cold-blooded.

I think it was this part of me that resonated in reading McCarthy's The Road.

Some weeks ago I told Sharon about some family folklore. My mother laughs and tells the story of when she nearly divorced my father. I don't remember in the story if I was newborn or a few months old, but she said my days and nights "had gotten turned around". I slept in the day and cried at night. This was during the times my father worked on the flight crew holding the threat aloft. I suppose his hours may have been punishing, and he needed his sleep. My cries must have been very frustrating for him. It's so sad that there was no flexibility in those days to the rules that a child must shape his/her behavior to the convenience of the adults around. It's so sad that there was no place for exception in the belief that a "child must sleep in his own bed". Mom said one night my father got up and came into my room and spanked me. Later she amended the story to say that he 'patted' me, once, through the diaper on my butt. She said she was so furious she wanted to leave (which is saying a lot because my mother has always adored my father and has always been very dependent on him). The caveat of the story is that I "never cried at night again"--what's implied is that he was vindicated and she was a fool to have been so angry.

That story was part of family lore and would be told spontaneously. For me to ask for it to be told now would have to be approached carefully--my family has learned to be wary of my 'excavating', even though I try to exclude intimations of blame. The point is, I never really thought much of this story, besides the merits of it: how would a baby know to not cry again? Surely a baby wouldn't have the wherewithal to realize cause and effect in such a sophisticated way?

A week after I told Sharon about this she said she was still trying to 'get her mind around' the idea of someone spanking a baby--for crying. That's when I thought some more about my experience with my children. I was very lucky to not be challenged with colicky infants; my guys soothed pretty easily. I think this is because going in our favor was a relaxation of some of those 'rules' I referenced above. They slept in our bed so I hardly had to awaken for feedings; I never felt sleep deprived. There was a lot of peace that we wouldn't have had had the old rules been in force. There was also a general cultural awareness that there were certain expectations of baby behavior that were unrealistic and cruel.

That said, I still can't blame a parent who might want to spank a baby. I had plenty of friends who did have colicky babies. One friend of mine, a psychologist said she'd had a fantasy flash before her eyes on yet another night of needing to walk a wailing Nathan, of dashing his head against the wall. Another talked about wee-hours walking around and around four floors above a motel courtyard that surrounded a pool, looking down at the pool, and then at her son's screaming face, back down at the pool.

They thought it, they didn't do it. They got support, they redoubled their efforts to give this baby what it needed.

With that in mind I looked at the family folktale with a different eye. And it's hard to imagine a circumstance where it would make sense to apply a doctrine of punishing a behavior in order to shape it, to an infant. How cruel that would be, to not only leave an infant with the pain of an unmet need, but to punish the expression of need.

My father was very young, 23 when I was born. He probably needed the precious few hours of sleep he could get, because he was expected to wake up in the wee hours and get on a jet that was going to circle the world with a monstrous payload that he'd already rationalized to himself its use. Perhaps whatever it took to reconcile this to himself, denial, compartmentalization, rationalization, minimization (of whether or not the suffering of the 'enemy' even mattered), disabled the moral sense that might have kept him from hitting a baby. Results were enough.

And to get back to the idea of patterns, and energy behind patterns, is it possible that his pushing his responsibility to other living beings into his unconsciousness pushed that same responsibility onto me? Or, is it like a child wandering into a room and finding some adult material there--a gun, perhaps, or pornography--and picking it up?

Perhaps I've been wondering what to do with it ever since.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Remembering Mary

Back in my professional days I was a physical therapist working for a home health agency. My geographical area was a working-class section of town which included one of the poorer neighborhoods.

Many of these people had come to Portland to work in the shipyards during WWII. After the war was over there was an aggressive attempt to 'send' African American immigrants 'back' to the states they'd originated from (not a proud part of this city's heritage). Failing this measures were taken that resulted in people being concentrated into neighborhoods which functioned as effective containment zones for the low income. Many of these areas gentrified while we were away in St. Louis. Places that 10 years ago I would have made an effort to have my work done before dark are now quite upscale.

Mary was living with her long-time boyfriend Lucius in an apartment in the heart of the poorer part of town. Her medical history said that she'd had 11 children, all of whom had been taken away because she was unable to care for them. She was a few years older than me. Her immediate need for physical therapy services was that she'd sat down on her sofa one day and couldn't get back up. Her diagnosis was morbid obesity and osteoarthritis.

She'd been taken by ambulance to the hospital. She had been evaluated in the ambulance rather than taken in to the ER. I'm trying to puzzle out the reason for this now, and it doesn't seem right to say it was because there were no stretchers or beds that could accommodate her: it seems a hospital MUST be required to be equipped to accommodate even unusually large or heavy people. I wonder if the rationale was to triage her in the ambulance and see if her condition warranted a hospital admission. If not, why bother taking her inside, particularly since she was on welfare and had no other medical insurance? So she was sent home and trundled to bed by the EMT staff and a few weeks later I got the referral.

She'd been bed-bound for the intervening time before I went to do an evaluation. She had been up a few times--to accomplish this she would "call the paramedics" and they would set her up in a chair in her front room for a few hours until she'd call them again to put her back to bed. Obviously, use of emergency services in this way wasn't sustainable and I was supposed to help her get her independent mobility back.

The problem was not only was she bed-bound, but she was also room-bound. She had a wheelchair that accommodated her, but it would not fit through her doorway into the hall. To be able to leave the room she was going to have to be able to walk a few steps through the doorway, far enough into the hall that the wheelchair could be unfolded behind her so she could sit down. Then she was home free for the rest of the apartment. After that there was the matter of 4 steps from her front door to outside.

Curiously, vulnerable in her immobility and dependent on the good will of her neighbors should there be a fire, she hated African American people. She appeared to have no shame about this, or awareness of the practical downside of such a stance. Her boyfriend worked nights (in addition to being paid to be a full-time caregiver for her) so she was alone. She didn't seem to realize how much wider her own margin of safety would be if she had a friendly and cooperative relationship with people around her: she could watch their houses during the day and they could look out for her at night.

I proceeded on the first prong of my attack: could I get her ambulatory? For her to be able to move about independently would be the optimal outcome. I had one of the local medical equipment stores come to the apartment and he immediately had me suspend attempts to stand with a walker: "The weight limit on these is 300lb; it could break and that would be a liability issue." So while we waited for the reinforced walker to be delivered I worked on leg strengthening exercises. Her knees were painful, so we had to proceed slowly.

The walker arrived, and I could see its limitations immediately: she would still be room-bound even if she could stand up and walk a few steps. The walker was too wide to fit through the doorway. If she was going to be able to walk and if that was going to have any practical application she was going to have to move into the living room of the apartment and that would be her base of operations.

Additionally her bed was low enough that getting up was painful for her and too much of a strain for her knees. To effectively strengthen her quadriceps muscles I needed to be able to work with her in standing, but the pain it took to get her to standing preventing being able to work. She needed a higher surface to reduce strain on her joints, and to enable her to exercise more effectively.

Getting her to the front room was going to be a problem. She'd progressed to a point where she could bear weight on her legs and the walker for a few seconds, and on good days might be able to take a step or two. The floorplan of the apartment was such that if we started her from the very end of her bed, she could be through the doorway in 3 steps, make a u-turn through the opening from the hallway into the living room, and arrive at another resting place in 3 or 4 steps. The logistics were that if she could stand long enough we could walk her to the doorway, then she'd need so sit down for a moment while I folded the walker then maneuvered it through the doorway and then set it back into position once it was through. We'd need something on wheels she could sit down on while I moved the walker, then we could position her to stand up again. A few more steps and then she could sit down on the end of a bed that Lucius was going to get. Between my visits he collected mattresses and piled them up in the front room to make a surface high enough that she theoretically could stand up from more easily. He also bought an office chair that was higher than her wheelchair and more maneuverable. The plan was to have it behind her as backup as we made the transition.

A pleasure of home health is the different quality of interaction when I'm on someone's home turf. The intimacy of being in someone's home, with their pictures on the wall, their treasures, their individuality intact changes the professional footing to one I find satisfying. I enjoy the privilege of being trusted. We had lots of opportunity to talk, so I learned a little about Mary and Lucius. They were very generous to me, often feeding me lunch or a late afternoon snack if my work had been so hectic I'd not had an opportunity to stop. Lucius was a good cook, and very devoted to Mary. Mary confided to me her humiliation when her family wouldn't accept her, or allow her to sit on their furniture because they thought she'd get it 'dirty' somehow. Apparently there had been a period where they had their children with them, because she told me with some pride that with food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children she'd 'pulled in a good income.' I looked forward to seeing them, and they were glad to see me.

So on moving day I helped her stand with the walker. She managed two steps and then said she could go no further. Lucius was behind her with the office chair and she sat. The chair squealed, but held. To avoid stressing the support on the chair we didn't push it by its back to move it forward, but instead I squatted on the floor and grabbed its base and pulled it from there. We made it into the hallway, but she couldn't get up again. So, committed, I tugged at the base of the office chair and duck-walked backward and Lucius pushed from behind and we made it through the hallway opening, around the turn to the waiting bed (pile of mattresses) to which she rolled herself. And sank, right into the middle, like a body will sink a trampoline. OMG, I had not foreseen that. There was absolutely no way she'd be able to get up from there--she was truly imprisoned. She'd not wanted a hospital bed, but there was no way around it now. There was no going back to the bedroom. She would have to stay where she was for a day or so until the specially reinforced hospital bed could be delivered, but she and Lucius felt they could manage that. In the meantime the landlords had given written permission for a ramp to be built outside to make the apartment accessible, so that was being put into place.

Plan B, failing Plan A (to get her independently walking), was to get her mobile with her boyfriends' assistance--and without having to call paramedics. The height-adjustable hospital bed arrived, and since it was placed in the front room she could now enter and exit the apartment, in a wheelchair (once the ramp was in place), with her boyfriend's assistance. I worked a while longer on the goal of strengthening her legs to the point where she could walk, but it became clear that there weren't the resources available reach that goal. Medicaid said she'd had enough of a chance for that, and plan B was going to have to suffice. So we said our goodbyes. A few years later I read her obituary and wondered how Lucius was.

I wonder about her many children, too, where they are and what their own lives are like.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Only recently has it become less of a dreaded ordeal to take Scott with me when I go grocery shopping. I took him about a month ago and he was good company, so I've taken him more since.

He likes to ride in the grocery cart and examine the items I place therein.

When we got to the cash register the cashier smiled and made a few pleasant comments, the usual. Then he asked, "Your grandson?" "Nope. He's my son."

The first time I got the grandma question was when my older boy was about 9 months old. So I was 41. We'd had a major poop accident on a comforter that was much too big for our home washer and so I'd taken it to the local laundromat. Connor in his stroller and I sitting on a folding table, watching the dryer spin the fabric.

"Are you his grandma?" I looked up into the face of a young-ish woman, the kind who in country-western music terms looks like she'd 'done a lot of living'.

I said, "No, he's my son."

She slunk away immediately. Another woman close by snorted and said, "That's the kind of thing you want to hear."

I said, "But I AM old enough to be his grandmother." Encouraged, the first woman came right back. She said, "I had six, but I was 16 when I got started. Now I been fixed."

This morning Scott said, "Mommy, you're old. You look really old."

Sigh. So the days are gone where his love for me translates into me being 'beautiful'? I was living on borrowed time. It ain't gonna get better, kid.

He said, "You're 51. That's really old." (Funny. In a dream, just the other night, I was admitting to my father, that though I'm 50 and that used to seem really old, I FELT like I was only in my mid-thirties.)

I've been lucky to not be alone and isolated in my geriatric mother status. In St. Louis I quickly found a mother's group that was composed of mothers who were over 40. (It was called "Sarah's Circle". The name took its inspiration from Sarah, Abraham's wife, (mother and father of Israel) having given birth to Isaac long after her time for child-bearing was done. The La Leche League met at a local Presbyterian church in the Tower Grove neighborhood. The pastor's wife had played a strong role in forming the over 40's mom's group--she had naming rights. A very interesting discussion we had during one of our meetings centered around one member shyly asserting her atheism.) Back here in Portland at my sons' schools a quick glance informs me that most of these mothers are not teenaged mommies. So my sons probably aren't destined to be singled out for being the only ones with wrinkled moms and dads, as they probably won't stand out too much in a locker room for being uncircumcised.

I climbed out of the shower to search for some clothes for the day.

Scott: "Mommy, you're hot."

Well, at least he wasn't nauseated. Probably won't be long, though.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


When Connor was born I began to understand my parents' anxiety over my appetite and eating. There was such pleasure in having a child who nursed so avidly, and then when he later started solids had such a flexible appetite, such gusto.

I took full credit for this, me and my superior parenting.

Then at about 18 months the tables turned and his impressive list of loved foods began to shrink. Soon we were down to 'acceptable' foods, and that list shrank too. Before long we were down to what could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

My dear friend Estelle and I were talking just the other day about the heavy layer of judgment that surrounds eating, particularly the food intake of one's offspring. Estelle told a story of a friend who'd just discovered that her stepson had fathered a child before he tragically died. They found the child and her mother. Estelle said, "The first thing Trudy said about her granddaughter was, 'her mother feeds her too much sugar!' "

Now I no longer basked in the pleasure of my baby's voracious appetite, and in addition I had to deal with the anxiety of the extended family. My MIL knew better than to say this to me but that didn't stop her from reminding Gary that he and his brother had been huge eaters and liked everything. Fortunately by then we were living in St. Louis, 2400 miles away and I could easily ignore her. Gary was more difficult to manage because as he was stabbed by anxiety he passed the jabs onto me.

The trouble is, the jabs were telling me, in urgent terms, to DO something. And my problem was, there wasn't really anything I could do. There are many things I can make my son, or anyone else do. But, it's kind of a futile endeavor to try to make somebody like something.

So it was annoying to keep getting pressed to do something that is not possible to do. I tried a few tricks that I learned from the good mothers at the La Leche League: I tried hiding fiber in muffins by blending in zucchini, or spinach to batters; I tried sneaking in cheeses, tofus. For a while I pressed the 'one taste' rule, which mandates that a child has to taste something, and if he doesn't like it doesn't have to eat any more. Still the bad will that developed around that particular power struggle (they ALL became power struggles) did not set a favorable stage for liking whatever was proffered and seemed self defeating so I abandoned that too. Finally, I fell back on some sympathetic friends' words of wisdom--it's not likely he's going to starve himself. I listened to some parenting mentors (they had older children) kindly tell me that for a year their child had eaten only cheerios. I broadened my view to include nutrients taken in over a week instead of in a day (since then I've broadened it further to a month). And most of all, I looked at him. He was active, energetic, happy (for the most part). He did not look emaciated. I concluded that maybe he was pulling nutrients out of the air, a miracle, but his small appetite did not seem to be hurting him any.

Lastly, I remembered my own experience. I'd been a picky eater, in a time when parents measured their success as parents on their ability to control their children. So I was doomed to sitting at the dinner table for hours after the others had left. I came up with tricks to get food down. I'd cut it up into tiny pieces and swallow it whole in gulps of milk, or other foods that were more palatable to me. Alternately I'd try to give the appearance of having eaten by cutting food up into tiny pieces and spreading it around my plate and dropping a napkin over the whole mess. I was further doomed because my mother was not a good cook. I didn't realize this til I was a lot older. So there were a lot of years where the whole tone of my day at school was influenced by what I knew was going to be served at dinner that night.

The point is, I am a very adventurous and flexible eater today. And this had nothing to do with being forced as a child. I remember clearly a period where all at once my tastes and taste buds changed. Food that had repelled me before began to seem and taste good. It was a matter of development and had nothing to do with any kind of morality.

Armed with this information I withstood the forces that put such irrational importance on what a child puts in its mouth. I'm ever mindful though of the laughing-last-laughing-best aphorism, so I'm not too triumphalist about this. Especially since last summer at his semi-annual ped appointment Connor had dropped from longstanding 50th percentiles in height and weight to 20th. He's among the shortest in his class (though he's young in his class--with a Sept age cut-off in Oregon schools his June birthday puts him among the youngest), and the lightest. He's still quite active, athletic, agile, and prides himself on this. The ped acknowledged that a fall-off from an established curve is cause for attention, but not necessarily alarm. Still, she wasn't alarmed enough to have me bring him in before his next well-child appointment, two years hence.

So, I guess there's still a chance that my laissez-faire pick-your-battles philosophy may come back yet to bite me in the butt and put me at the receiving end of the Old Guards' "I-told-you-so's". Though the Old Guard never did give me any constructive suggestions on how to get someone to like something if they didn't like it already. The Old Guard prefers to force the issue.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


One of my goals that didn't make it to do 'to-do' list yesterday was to listen to an interview by Terry Gross (NPR's "Fresh Air") of a man who had been the 'chief of high-value targeting' for the Pentagon--he assisted in choosing targets and helped plan logistics for the bombing missions of the invasion of Iraq. Two days after Baghdad fell he's on a plane to New York to work as a military analyst for Human Rights Watch. Shortly after that he's in Iraq, touring the areas of damage that he'd helped plan.

I may have mentioned reading a book by Mary Doria Russell 2 years ago, A Thread of Grace. Within the larger story of the final 3 years of World War II after Italy surrendered but was still under Nazi occupation was a stark portrait of what life is like for civilians unfortunate enough to live in a strategically valuable location. They were bombed regularly by the Allies while coping with hostile occupation. Reading this book was an experience of scales falling off my eyes and realizing how many different ways there are to suffer, and I really got visceral feel for what a bomb falling on your neighborhood means. "Collateral Damage" ceased to be a clinical and sanitary term.

It is very surreal to listen to this man describe the bombing planning, watching the bombs fall in real time on a Pentagon screen (his group even cheering in one case when a body they saw fly and flail hit the ground and bounced because they thought it was Chemical Ali--they bet lunches on how many times he would bounce), sincerely citing the 'great care' that the military takes to avoid civilian casualties (at the time of the invasion there was a threshold of 30 estimated civilian deaths--any operations resulting in estimates greater than that had to be directly approved by the President or Secretary of Defense.), and then describing actually walking into these craters and talking with survivors of the bombs that he'd participated in dropping.

My head spins when I consider how ethics are turned topsy turvy and the moral compass spins. He describes how he'd been looking for other work, but when Human Rights Watch finally called him it was on the eve of the invasion and he told them they'd have to wait because he had a sense of responsibility for the invasion: walking out would mean that some other planner would have to be brought in cold. Without a proper immersion in the background and context more civilians and more pilots could be endangered. He couldn't "let that happen".

It's a world of thinking that it's better to find a way to kill just 15 people instead of a hundred.
On the face of it there's no arguing with that. His argument is very logical that he's one of the good guys. He points to having dropped 9 2000# bombs targeting the Republican Guard's intelligence operations--located across the street from a maternity hospital. He says that only some windows were broken in the hospital (but was there a poor woman in labor walking across the street at 2 am, with her husband and a young child beside her?). Good planning reduces collateral damage.

Still, what kind of mental and emotional gymnastics must one do to come to terms with being a part of something that maimed people horribly, tore families apart most tragically, ruined livelihoods, contributed to the further collateral damage of turning people into refugees, forced to sell their young daughters into prostitution to feed the family? Is there really any comfort in saying "it would have been worse if it hadn't been planned well"? Terry asked him if he'd divulged to any of these survivors he spoke with what role he'd had in their calamity and he exclaimed, shocked, "No!"

He said that though his wasn't a branch of intelligence that was concerned with acquiring evidence of a nation's wrongdoing or weapons stockpiling, there was much discussion about the quality of the intelligence that the US was basing its case for war on. His particular working group in the Pentagon all felt the case was based on garbage. So his planning for reduction of casualties was for an invasion that he and his group felt was based on garbage.

To embrace, reluctantly or otherwise a starting point that says that your decisions mean that someone is going to die, be maimed, or orphaned and the only choice you have is whether to kill one person or to kill 10--to go from "it's wrong to kill" to "it's better to kill less rather than more" is a quantum leap. Years ago some friends of mine were driving through Yosemite on a climbing trip. They saw the car ahead of them hit a squirrel and they pulled their car over to see what they could do for it. They concluded that it would be best to give it a humane death. The intention was good...but of course none of them carried guns. So they took a rock and tried to end it with a blow to the head. Well, the squirrel clung to life and struggled, bloodied. It was very messy. One friend who had opted to stay in the car said it had looked a barbaric scene, and nearly indistinguishable from one where the intentions weren't good.

It just seems that warfare would have sickened human beings so much that they'd have abandoned it as a tactic centuries ago. Instead, our threshold for what's tolerable seems merely to rise.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A bit overwhelmed (by my 'to do' list)

Sometimes it helps to write it down (so I can see how far behind I am)

Today's a finite-time day anyway. After dropping Scott at school I return home and have about 2 hours before I need to go over to Connor's school to help out his classroom teacher and in the library. Then back over to Scott's school I go to help Billy for 2 hours. Since this is the first week that I've not been staying with Scott in the classroom maybe I'll have a chance to assess for myself if he's maintaining a trajectory without my direct support, or if he's starting to drift. I'll get home with him around 3:30, try to get some homework done with him and his vision therapy exercises before I can head off to see Sharon. I look forward to that very much.

In the remaining time I have is a strong desire to give a much closer listen to the Petraeus/Crocker report before the senate committees yesterday; it appears the testimony before the house committees today isn't receiving the same direct coverage. I should read the transcripts and download the analysis to listen to. However, that's behind in line to an interview I'm listening to of Hans Blix supporting his new book about nuclear disarmament. There is also an interview that sounds fascinating with a woman who was diagnosed with very severe bipolar disease at the age of 24 and what she has learned to sustain herself. (These interviews are on a program called the Diane Rehm Show--highly recommended.) Even more pressing is a discussion about American strategy in Iraq in light of yesterday's testimony, an overview of progress in Iraq and the more strident alarms being raised about Iran's influence. I feel anxious when I fall behind in this material, because that's when I feel vulnerable to the opinion-manipulators. There's a page on National Public Radio that seems like it would provide the basic information I'm seeking, but it's looking daunting to wade through. Finally, it's very important to me to listen to an interview with Douglas Feith who has written a book about the Pentagon and its role in leading up to the Iraq war and I'm sure he addresses the issue of the faulty intelligence and his office's hand in that. I'm curious about whether I'm going to find a credible argument, or spin.

Still waiting in the wings is the Vanity Fair article ("The Green Light") on the role of top level government, military, and justice officials in sanctioning US torture of detainees (Feith had an influence on that too), the Esquire article on Admiral O'Fallon, and Frontline's "Bush's War".

Yesterday afternoon I met with the special ed team at Scott's school to establish his new IEP there for speech and occupational therapy. His articulation goals are largely met, but there's a nagging issue of some possibility of a language processing dysfunction hanging out there that causes us to hesitate in closing out special ed altogether. His attention and ability to focus were recurrent themes under concerns. In some ways I wonder if this is a maturity issue, because my observations of him tell me he's not engaging in what's going on in the instructional sense unless someone is right there spoon-feeding it to him. I was heartened to hear that academically he's actually doing pretty well, grade level. But he reminds me of younger children who are like fish-with-bicycles with information that they don't have the conceptual base to process. You can explain long division to a three year old until you're blue in the face and they're going to only get restless and possibly misbehave if you persist. It's not that Scott is dismissing information as irrelevant; it's that it doesn't even have a doorway in to register as being significant. At 6, maybe it's time to be concerned that these doors aren't opening yet. However, I saw the same pattern in Connor, and he definitely matured to the place where these doors were accessible. I actually am reminded of myself too, and it's like scales had to fall from my eyes before information meant anything to me. Or perhaps I had to develop more discriminatory vision to distinguish what was meaningful and what wasn't. I've had a hard time explaining this without sounding like an over-protective mother, or a mother who wants to avoid an ADD diagnosis. We discussed pursuing that line of inquiry, to see if there is a medical process interfering with his ability to attend. I hesitantly consented to proceeding to the next level of evaluation, to see if that is a diagnosis that's warranted. I don't know why I feel cautious--surely this isn't like giving someone a medication without knowing for sure if the condition makes it appropriate? I think I feel a kind of fear that further evaluation will lead to a diagnosis that further maturity will make irrelevant, and then will that have an adverse effect? It makes sense to go ahead and get the evaluation done to see if he does have needs, wait through the summer to see if his development may play a factor, and then put an action plan into effect if maturity isn't the main issue? I need to understand my reluctance better, and I don't think dismissing it as 'denial' is helpful.

Now I've gone and written through my shower time. Time to get ready to leave for Connor's school.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A morning before a birthday party

My book reading group is discussing Ian McEwan's Saturday on Thursday. I am slack-jawed at his ability to delineate the various psychological and thought processes from what is ordinarily an undifferentiated mass of human impulse and behavior. When we read Atonement a couple years ago I was dizzy with the pleasure of reading him and was surprised that other members of the group found him tiresome. Sadly for me the other fans of McEwan weren't at that meeting and I didn't do a very good job of defending him.

In thinking about just what it is I appreciate about him, a light shines on one of the frustrations I've had about full-time mothering: a mother's day tends to disappear into a homogenized mass. It's the sheer mass of details that makes it difficult to articulate and so it fades into a sort of background. What at-home mother hasn't felt mute and frustrated when her SO comes home from work (perhaps late) and said, 'So what did you do today?' Picking out one or two of the details that can be remembered out of a day just doesn't do it justice, and not being able to really answer belies how tired she feels.

The story I told below was my attempt to deconstruct a day and look at the elements that left me exhausted and demoralized at the end--because to try to explain it, as I did then, sounded so lame--"Why should anyone be upset because her kid pissed on the floor and spilled his milk?"

Dialing back a few years, to summer of 2004 in St. Louis, MO. Scott is turning 3 and we have a birthday party planned for him the next day--a parents/kids/siblings affair in our backyard, a BBQ. We're expecting a fair number of people and I'm aware of a lot of pending chores to get ready. It is Saturday, and a little later on I'm taking the boys to another birthday party a friend is having for her daughter, turning 6. here's the entry from my diary from that time (I'd copied and pasted an e-mail I'd sent to some supportive friends):

Scott's birthday, and there's a sales force here from Korea and Gary had to go in. There was also some mandatory party last night; Thursday we saw our counselor at 6:30 and then he had to go straight to the concession stand at the ball field to work off our family obligation for Connor being in baseball this year. This after having lost our power on Monday night through Wed morning, which meant Scott's 1st day of summer camp, which I've been living for since the end of May, was canceled.

I think I've mentioned already having planned poorly for this summer; how there's been way too much unstructured time. Part of it, I think, is the relocation of a couple of friends and so that resource was lost. Part, too, is a new period of adjustment for Connor and Scott at a more demanding age; therefore their relationship is more complex.

So Gary's gone before we're up this morning with the promise to be back by 1:30. We have a birthday pool party to go to at noon. I'd started our usual weekend chores yesterday in order to have a jump on them since we're having a combination Scott birthday party/summer party tomorrow evening. So, I think we're sitting ok for getting stuff done; did some extra stuff, like wrap some presents for Scott while he's downstairs watching cartoons with Connor. Left the ones Gary's Mom had sent, inexplicably unwrapped, for Gary to wrap. Went downstairs thinking I had a little open space to be a mother and actually sit down and WATCH some of these cartoons with Connor (Are THEY the source of the violent revenge fantasies the counselor told me, shocked, that Connor had cheerfully revealed to her--mostly with me as the subject???) I folded some clothes down there as I listened; and actually what I was hearing sounded fairly decent--a bunch of kids learning from a karate master about there being "no lessons in victory and a thousand in defeat..." So I walked over to sit down and noticed, again, an inexplicable stream of water or some liquid behind the sofa and running under the area rug. A few weeks ago it had been the hot water heater leaking, but this time Connor said, "Scott peed on the floor". And I was ready to buy it, except he had a diaper on. I kept puzzling, then my guileless son said, "I'm sorry". It was then I realized HE had peed there (LOTS), and more than once too because I've been puzzled before about that liquid in that spot--it's random appearances, that sometimes coincide with storms outside and sometimes not...then nothing for a while...So there was the explanation for the pee smell I'd been noticing down there and I'd just put down to Scott being down there without a diaper sometimes. Then I also made a connection with the strange pee smell that's been in the boys' room upstairs. So I got a jug of vinegar and a bunch of cotton diapers and made him help me poor vinegar along the "path" and over the wet areas in the rug and pad...made him help me soak it up...until we ran out of diapers and vinegar. Made him put the diapers in the washer while I went upstairs to get more...all the time he's raging at me and saying that he "doesn't care" if the place smells like pee, and that he hates me and he hates being in our family. I left the program on, but he didn't get to watch it as he helped me, then I had him take me upstairs to show me where he'd peed in his room. Once up there he pulled himself under the bed. I talked to him about how sometimes when we feel badly about something that we feel angry because that makes us feel powerful...after a bit his voice softened and he said that he'd had to pee downstairs and had been "too lazy" to shove the basketball hoop away from the doorway to our "emergency shitter" we have in the basement. He said, "I'll bet you don't want me to watch TV" and I said, "Not really, I just don't want you to use the basement floor as a toilet, and now you know why. It's a lot of work to clean up." And, peace was made.

A little later

While Gary goes back to the grocery store to get the cake I ordered for Scott (I'd ordered 2, one for a little party for us tonight, and another for us tomorrow for the big party--I'd spelled that out on the shopping list that he was to pick up the small one: he forgot to get it) I'll see how much of this saga I can finish.

Let's see, I'd finished with Connor under the bed, gradually improving in humor, and even helping me by moving the stuff out from under the bed.

That was all the easy part.

I had us get in the tub for a quick bath before we were going to leave for the party. Getting out, Connor complained of hunger and asked for some cereal. Got Scott something to eat too, to occupy them while I gathered up our swim stuff (hadn't dressed Scott yet, he's still naked), and rounded up the stuff to wrap the birthday girl's gift.

Connor: "I'm sorry". For some reason he'd stood up on his chair, and in getting down had put his hand on the edge of his bowl and upset the entire contents of milk onto the table, pooling under the placemat, into some papers and books that also were there; down into his chair and in a pool on the floor including under the table and chair legs. Ohhhhh, Jesus...When he saw that I was truly upset he became angry and kept saying, "I SAID I was sorry!" To which I replied, "Connor, some day you will live with someone and you'll know how it feels to have just cleaned something up and have someone mess it up." (Uncomfortably reminiscent of my mom telling me that someday I'd have "a daughter JUST LIKE YOU and you'll know how horrible it is". Speaking of whom, the phone rang and it was her. This was while I'm in full mop-up and Connor's still barking at me and my head was hurting and we were late. And I didn't want to tell her about it because of the part of me that remembers the "someday you'll blah blah blah" and even though I know she wouldn't say "I told you so" there's a 16 year old part of me that wants to deny her the satisfaction. At one point, I think where she's saying she and my dad are going to be in Colo this July and Dave (my brother) and my niece may be with them and maybe Dave and Denise can drive this way and see us and I'm thinking "In my dreams" because for the past 10 years every time Dave has been going to come visit he's cancelled at the last minute: a job interview or something, or fear of fact the last time was just this last June and he canceled 2 days before he was supposed to come for Connor's birthday and THAT time I'd REALLY thought that "this time" he was "coming for sure". I got tearful then and so worried her...and around this time Connor tilted the edge of his bowl and spilled the remnant of his milk.)

Got the gift wrapped; got Scott dressed, was about to go out the door and the phone rings again and this time its Gary and he says he's going to be later than he thought. Well, you don't want to know what I shouted into the phone.

The pool party was nice, a private home (these people had auctioned their back yard for a party for a church benefit and a friend had bought it) with luxury like I've never seen. So that at least was relaxing.

Got home and Gary's home and it all came back; I tried to explain that--how he just didn't know how it had been here at home (all the running back and forth--a kid drops something; going to get a diaper to mop it up...all the diapers used...have to go upstairs to another part of the house to find another stash...kneel down to change a diaper...child gets up and runs, have to get back up off the floor to run too...about ready to leave...where are the shoes...oh yeah, Upstairs)--how his company having his presence at their deal on a weekend, on his son's birthday---what it cost me, his they're completely oblivious to the hidden costs and sacrifices that are being taken out of the hide of his family and how that infuriates me...then I see him looking at me like I'm just being hysterical and what-can-be-so-hard-about-doing-what-you-do-EVERY-DAY (he actually said that, along with saying that millions of mothers around the world do it). Well, injustice really gets to me, especially when it's about ME ;) and I just lost it. Connor then started yelling, and I know he blamed me...and that was the truly rough part of it was knowing that Gary really doesn't SEE the moment-by-moment minutiae that can be so killing (not seeing that for every smooth moment there's a hell of an unseen back-story) and that Connor only sees that I'm causing trouble. That's a very bitter not only have my efforts not seen, but to be blamed for expressing my pain about it. (I won't leave you with that; later when they came home and I was upstairs nursing Scott awake from his nap Connor stole upstairs with some beautiful tropical flowers Gary had bought to make me feel better).

Well, it's almost 7:30; Gary just called to said that the bakery didn't have our order for the cake (!!!!) so I improvised and told him to have them decorate a baby cake that's there and order another for tomorrow...Scott fortunately had a late nap, so should do ok with being up rather late in order to have his birthday pizza and cake and presents...

I'm a little worried about the laptop...while I was downstairs cleaning up the pee Scott pried several of the letters off the keyboard and some seem loose...

If you've read this far I thank you....Ugh

And then here’s the text of a message I just sent Gary; which I’m proud that I managed to distill down all the words above:

Yesterday when I got out of your car I forgot to put the seat back. I woke up after a dream in the middle of the night and remembered. I was going to get up anyway, so I went out there and moved the seat back. I did it standing in front of the car, and realized what you meant when you said that it was harder than one might think for you to move it back when I have it all the way forward. And I realize how when you're trying to move on with your day, even a minor snag like that can feel like an impedance--an annoyance when "smooth" would feel so much better.

When I complain about something you've done or not done, it's in that same vein...maybe it seems to you like no big deal, but to me it's an interruption and just one more extra thing to have to deal with when "smooth" would feel so much better.

It's not fair to lump all my "complaints" into one and then say you have bad will toward me because I complain too much. That doesn't give dignity to the merits of each INDIVIDUAL issue and it lumps me into being a bitch. This is very painful for me. It hurts me to my very soul, and is the reason that I keep coming after you with it. Even if it seems like an inconvenient time, when you're hot or busy. It's because I'm in so much pain that I'm desperate to find relief for it. It's not because I'm trying to make your life difficult.

When you try to blow me off or dismiss me, it makes the complaints stronger and louder, because it makes my pain greater.

In accomplishing a goal together, be it getting breakfast on the table, or planning a big celebration for our son, there are as many nonverbal dynamics as there are verbal. There are ways that people can divide labor, so neither is doing a disproportionate amount, and ways to anticipate things to do to make the way smoother for each other. Good will is the grease that helps smooth the way, and it also powers the desire to be proactive and look out for each other. I was feeling very sad yesterday at how we don't really have that and therefore things we do together are more difficult than they need be. Further eroding good will...sometimes I feel very disheartened that this dynamic can be improved between us. I really hate to think of us going into old age with it. And I think it harms our children to witness it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

"The Amount You Do"

Ah, the Science Fair. I'm so glad I didn't have to do those when I was an elementary school student. Every year it looms for Connor. It would have loomed for Scott too, had we not changed schools. If one science fair project is overwhelming to me, how do parents with 5 children in grades 1 thru 6, say, possibly stay sane?

And no matter how many times it's explained to me, no matter how carefully the supporting written instructions lay out the expectations and objectives, I get confused as to how to guide my son thru The Scientific Method. Like me, his thinking doesn't seem to track naturally through the process of inquiry: question, hypothesis, referencing available data, design method of collecting data, run the method (experiment) itself, record results, draw conclusions. It sounds so simple. How can I get so muddled.

I'm letting Gary take the lead in helping Connor.

So, the question Connor came up with: "Does the type and brand of soda make a difference in the intensity of reaction when a Mento mint is dropped in?"

They bought seven different brands and types of sodas and colas--some clear like 7-up, some green like Mountain Dew, and the conventional dark colored ones like root beer and Coke. And a diet 7 up, and diet Coke. All in 2 liter bottles. They covered the side of our house and deck with a tarp, placed a measuring tape on the wall. They were obviously anticipating a mighty blast from each. To our surprise we had to scale way back on our expectations--the most intense reaction rose about 8" above the neck of the bottle. Still, we were able to see clear differences in the brands. Mountain Dew may have had the most ho-hum results--about an inch.

Connor clearly enjoyed this very much. He is actively asking questions, wondering what accounts for the differences. He also enjoyed the full participation of his family. The miniaturization of the blasts didn't disappoint him at all. Perhaps it's because next week they plan to try the same sample size, same volumes, and more mentos.

This morning, Monday marks a return to full school-time routine. Scott was off all last week on his extended spring break. I'm a little rusty at the motivator and coordinator role. I'd forgotten about making lunches and snacks and so was running the circuit--turning burners on to preheat, pulling ingredients from fridge, running in to get dressed and reminding Scott it was time to get up, back into kitchen to prep ingredients for cheese-melted tortilla, reminding Scott it's time to get up, helping Connor round up some work to take in to school, turning off the burner because Scott wants p-nut butter, not quesadillas, reminding Scott it's time to get up.

In the midst of my activity I think I hear Connor say, "I'm amazed at the amount you do." What? I permitted myself to feel an inkling of pleasure--can it be, that a 10 year old might actually be noticing what it takes to launch a morning? This was something I anticipated would never happen--especially in my daughterless state. Unless he grew up to be an at-home dad, chances are he'd just assume his morning base as the zero point for everyone and have no clue that much has been going on behind the scenes to get to zero. Maybe I'd somehow managed to raise a kid with an extraordinary sense of observation and empathy, and dare I say it, appreciation? Hadn't he given me a hopeful sign just yesterday when he volunteered that he noticed that many of his emotions express through his throat? That he notices that particularly anger makes its presence known by a physical sensation there?

"What did you say, Connor?"

"I said, I m amazed at the Mountain Dew. That it had such a wimpy reaction."

Bwahahahahahaha!!!!!!! I need to get my hearing checked.

At least I clearly understood Scott's asking me to just drop him off, not stay. I had to say this one back to him, to make sure I didn't misunderstand. But, he said he would be fine if I left, he would "behave", and he would "learn". And when we went in to the classroom this morning (late because I'm rusty at morning routines) one of the first things he said to his teacher was to ask if it was ok if I left. So I did.

Today I'm home before 9:30 a.m. What kind of wonder is this?

The news I get when I come to pick him up at 3 will determine whether it looks good for the wonder to continue.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

My Sister would have been 49 today

It doesn't seem right to let the day pass without acknowledging her.

For years it was a dilemma when people would ask me how many siblings I have. I have 2 brothers, and technically that would have been the correct answer to the question. To say I had a sister who'd died risked unplanned emotions when people would inevitably ask what had happened to her. It was one of those awkward gray areas like how honest to be if someone asks how you are and things actually aren't going well. Sometimes it's surprising how complicated an answer to a simple question can be.

One of my favorite literary works is Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, which follows the life of an Egyptian family from WWI to the 1950's. I came to care so intimately for this family. In the first book Palace Walk one of the sons was killed in a demonstration--perhaps against British rule? I don't remember. He was referred to by his grief-stricken family as 'my late (brother) (son) Fahmy'. That seemed like a dignified way to refer to a deceased relative, simple, but conveys information clearly and gently. Unfortunately it seems a little quaint in the context of modern American culture and so I never felt comfortable using that either.

This summer will mark the 20th year since her death. She left behind a daughter, now 21. My beautiful niece was 19 months old when her mother died; she never got to know her mother (and her mother never got to see what a wonderful daughter she had) because my sister was in a coma for 19 months before she died.

I called and talked to my mother on this day. An acknowledgment of the truth that having children means having your heart outside of your body and away from your ability to protect--always at risk of being broken.