Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I wax no stalgic

I had a wonderful childhood, growing up in farm land  where everything was dangerous and exciting, but my overprotected grandson is bored.
My parents graduated from Central Michigan University and to protect us from the polio epidemic, they bought a farm house in the country.
Neighbor kids threw dried cow dung at each other like frisbees, and rode in the open bed of pick up trucks.
We jumped from haylofts, sometimes into a pen with a bull to outrun.
We treasured lead toys bigger than our hands, about as heavy as a bowling ball, and painted with lead paint, like the walls of our bedrooms.
Dentists put mercury in our fillings.
Our homes were insulated with asbestos.
We explored dense forests and gravel pits, four to eight children fearlessly led by an eight or nine year old and no one could swim.
Wasps nested under the outhouse holes where we set our posteriors.
There were lots of smells: outhouses, chicken coops, cows, kids that only took a bath once a week in a steel tub heated by tea kettles, but we were used to the odor of ourselves and each other and impervious to germs.
My grandson asked today if we are poor, because we eat a lot of chicken.
Some of my neighbors were so poor, they lacked electricity and indoor running water but they were only poor in earnings.
We were rich in all the ways that mattered, and we knew it.
Everyone owned land, Mother sewed us lovely clothes, we were never hungry or alone.
My grandson does not know that vegetables and tomatoes grow in dirt, or that it takes months to raise a baby chick, so it is eventually possible to steal its eggs and one day cut its head off, hold its feet and dunk its body into boiling water, twist and pull hot feathers off, burn off pin feathers with a candle, cut off neck and feet, extract gizzards, liver, egg sacs and worse, then cook it for three or four hours.
He does not know the meat he eats was once alive, and it died painfully to feed him.
He does not know that someone very poor and far away sews his jeans, jackets and t-shirts.
He is less rich than me when we lived on a farm.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Losing a job but finding work, part 1

"I didn't know we were living at the edge of a financial abyss until we fell, but eventually, we hit bottom and now we have a new life, better than the old one," my friend Mary said last week.
She and her husband are among the many who left Michigan during the recession.
"We lost our careers, paychecks and home, but now we are happier," Mary said.
A college student and stay-at-home mom while her kids were young, she finished her bachelor's degree the same month her boys graduated from high school.
Mary looked forward to working, and wanted to contribute to Purdue University tuition in Indiana.
When the boys earned their degrees in business, Mary and her husband moved from Auburn Hills to a smaller home in Brandon Township.
The new home offered five acres of land, a private lake and a pole barn to hold their antique Porsche, SUV, car and the truck her husband needed for the gardening and landscape business he hoped to create "when he found the time."
She commuted an hour each way to her office in Bloomfield Hills, and he drove the truck to an automotive plant where he worked as a manager.
The pressure and their pay seemed great, so Mary bought a time share, allowing them a Hawaiian vacation once or twice a year at a beach-front condo.
They threw lavish parties, even buying, preparing and serving corn beef and cabbage to their church congregation on St. Patrick's Day to celebrate their Irish roots.
Refinancing their mortgage each time the value increased on their home helped pay off credit cards and purchase luxuries.
Mary said: "Everyone believed income and property values could only increase, and with each increase, we could always afford more."
As layoffs started in Michigan, tensions rose with rumors about housing bubbles and corporate downsizing..
"We loved our home even more. On the dock at the edge of the lake, the worries of the day disappeared," she said.
In 2007, Mary survived the first round of layoffs at her office, but was given more work, faster deadlines and pressure from supervisors to do better.
In 2008, she skipped lunch, cancelled vacations, stayed late, took work home.
Then she lost her job in the second round of layoffs.
Stay tuned for Part Two 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Lovely Advantages of Not Being Lovely

1. Strangers rarely say, "Has anyone told you how beautiful you are?" to the backside of an older woman as she loads groceries in the car trunk or a woman in her 50's dining with lady friends in their 60's whose feelings were hurt when everyone was young.
2. When a stranger tells a woman older than 55 or so that she is beautiful, she knows he is lying or potentially dangerous unless he's in his 80's or married to her.
3. A woman can hug a male friend or talk to him with their heads nearly touching in front of their own spouses, without incurring jealousy, because the spouses know he's asking if wrinkle creams might work for men or she is asking if he knows what her husband wants to do for his birthday. People when they get old whisper very loudly.
4. A retired husband no longer points to a woman his wife's age with a beautiful coiffure, wearing a tight suit, designer shoes and says, "I bet if you wanted to, you could look like her!"
5. Instead he says, "I'd hate to think how much she pays for a hairdresser, clothes and plastic surgery! I am so glad I married someone so careful with money like you, Honey."
6. When a woman is beautiful and marries a man who is kind, wonderful with kids, romantic and funny but not handsome, people assume he has money and she married it for him. If she gets a promotion, people wonder if she flirted or dated the boss to get it, and that's why she stayed late at the office each night.
7. The older one gets, the swifter the days pass and the slower one's feet move, causing time to reveal its precious nature, making it fitting to fling false eye lashes, high heels, pantie hose, facial masks, electric curlers and clothes that require starch and ironing into the wastebasket with our old self-imposed standards of how to be pretty.
8. One sees beauty in everyone young because youth is beautiful, and beauty in the elderly because age brings wisdom. In the dimming of eyesight, the eyes of the heart grow strong, able to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of all ages.
9. A friend is anyone who smiles or asks "How is your day going?" because the old requirements for choosing a bff fades away, as old best friends forever die, move far away, or lose their driver's license.
10. Husbands, if they age in a noble way, always see their wives not as she looks that day, but as he remembers she looked in the moments she was most dear and beautiful to him.
11. My husband swears I was most lovely to him a year ago when I touched his shoulder, raised his hospital bed, helped his lips find the straw in the ice water I held beneath his chin, and tried to explain why he woke up in Intensive Care.
12. He was most lovely to me whenever he told our sick daughter she could stay with us as long as she needed, even when she moved in with a son, and he insisted their dependence on us was not their failure but our pleasure.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Still Waiting For Test Results

Last week my daughter had an ultra sound, which showed that her pain and abdominal swelling is not the result of powerful medication, like I had hoped and as has happened in the past and is easily corrected.
Her blood tests and the ultra sound revealed "anomalies" and a potentially malignant growth, so she was to return in three days for a cat scan, but on the day of the appointment, roads were icy and snow covered, and we were reeling from the results of her father's routine heart examination, which we expected to be normal but which indicate another mild heart attack with more damage, perhaps throwing him into the realm of congestive heart failure.
Jennifer's cat scan was rescheduled for today and her father's cat scan is a few days from now, and so we wait.
This is all familiar, at least for Jennifer, who has had chronic medical problems since birth.
In another sense, hoovering between hope and fear is something one never gets accustomed to, even if it happens once a year or two and most of those times, fate hands life and family back to me intact.
Sometimes life feels like a kaleidoscope turned so slowly we are unaware of the changes, just going around and around within, doing the same things day in and day out, until we can't for awhile, and then someone does it for us.
What seems dreadfully boring and repetitious within that circle, like sorting laundry or eating the same meals day after day becomes gloriously wonderful, and first proof of recovery when someone loses the ability to do it, and then finds the strength and will again.
My daughter said this morning, "We aren't aware how precious people are to us, and our lives until suddenly we begin to to see how it might be coming to a close. But what I think seems like end to us really is the middle, maybe of new routines and vistas and circles some where else."
If she's ill, I tell myself, it only means another operation, and then another recovery.
Right now I cannot think beyond that.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Baby Einsteiner’s First Symphony

Dustin asked Bassonist Jonathan Boyd if being a musician is fun.
Dustin Cankar, sixth grader at Hart Middle School of Rochester, last
listened to classical music in infancy when his mother played Baby
Einstein tapes of Bach and Mozart hoping to increase his I.Q.
The tapes put him to sleep.
He preferred rap music at age four, and could repeat Eminem’s sad,
angry words from memory.
Rap woke him up.
If he heard nursery rhymes and kiddie tunes in the crib, he might not have
used words like “rage” or “gangsta” when he played with Webkins.
On Jan. 14, Dustin and I were invited to the Symphony of the Lakes
performance led by the esteemed conductor, Zeljko Milicevic.
Dustin sullenly agreed to go if he could wear jeans with a striped
hoodie and have a Big Mac afterward.
I hadn’t attended a symphony since the nineteen eighties when my
husband and I lived in Chicago.
Chicago audiences wore gowns and tuxedos, forbidding coughs, snores or children.
I knew children were welcome at the Performing Arts Center inside Waterford Mott High School,  but wondered if Dustin would be quiet.
We found students, community residents, and supporters of the orchestra
occupying about 85 percent of a very large and lovely auditorium.
It offered great stage lighting, wood paneled walls and high ceilings.
The musicians played with passion and perfection, making a memorable
and most affordable evening for all in attendance.
Camera bulbs flashed and late comers came, which added to the sense of
elegance tempered with a casual approach.
A few audience members said it was the first live concert or show they
attended and expressed disappointment at intermission because they did
not want it to end and thought it was over.
Dustin did not fall asleep, sneeze, make fake bodily noises he finds
entertaining when bored. He sat in quiet awe.
“This reminds me what it felt like when I was a baby,” he said at intermission.
At the end of the final performance, the orchestra and conductor
received a standing ovation.
Musicians graciously spoke to patrons and answered their questions.
Audience members were friendly to each other, talking about their
favorite symphonies, wondering when the next performance would be
given and asking each other how to pronounce Zeljko.
"That was exciting, especially the clarinet solos!” Dustin said
Symphony on the Lakes performs
afterward to the bassoon player. “I play clarinet, myself.”
Like old friends mingling, people seemed reluctant to leave.
“I really thought those Mozart and Bach tapes your mother made you listen to were a waste of time,” I said as we stepped into the night air. “But maybe that’s why you enjoyed yourself tonight.”
“And maybe it’s why I’m an all A student with a photographic memory,” he said.
Then he made fake bodily noises, all the way home to Rochester Hills.

Waiting for the test results

The picture to the right is of Jennifer, my daughter, who turns 39 in April. 
The photograph was taken last September.
Today she can barely bend her knees.
Jennifer hasn't felt well the past month, and lost so much weight, even her "skinny" clothes no longer fit.
Yesterday she reluctantly visited her doctor, expecting a diagnosis of acute laziness and winter blahs, but he said she lost 12 pounds since her last visit three weeks ago, her thyroid function is zero and her liver is enlarged.
He ordered her to get an ultra sound at the hospital immediately, and warned she may have to be admitted when the results of all the tests come in.
When she first seemed ill a few weeks ago, I blamed the toxicity of medications she takes for rheumatoid arthritis, seizures, low-functioning thyroid, inflammation and anxiety.
Then I remembered my mom, maternal grandmother and grandma's grandfather also suffered from migratory pain and swelling in joints or organs that caused pain for days or weeks, then vanished, only to appear later, some where else.
Mom was diagnosed at various times with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus,  polymylitis or Sjogren's disease, different diseases to describe similar symptoms.
Most people thought her mom was a hypochondriac, until her sixties when surgeries revealed and tried to repair the damage some unknown condition had wracked upon her stomach, lungs and heart.
Great-Great-Grandpa Sidney Rowell blamed his problems on the hardships he endured in the Civil War, and was granted a government stipend as a disabled vet.
I wrote to the NARA for his Civil War records and obtained a sixty page report detailing all the letters and medical documentation Sidney needed to get his government disability pension.
Like my daughter, mother, grandmother and great great grandfather, bouts of arthritic pain or pain and swelling in organs comes and goes, with months or even years remission in between series of attacks. 
But my great great grandfather suffered permanent, crippling effects from the most severe episodes, causing his elbow and shoulder to be deformed and by the time he was fifty, he could no longer bathe or dress unassisted, according to his records, which included a statement from a neighbor that Sidney was a "good, moral man who never engaged in drinking, smoking or loose behavior." 
When Jennifer was young, sometimes she had mobility problems, but steroids probably kept her from suffering permanent damage
When the juvenile rheumatoid arthritis "burned itself out" when she was about 18 years old, I hoped it would never be a problem again. 
A blood test showed high levels of rheumatoid factor in a routine test about five months ago, before the pain started up again.
When she was 13, her liver swelled and bulged in reaction to steroid treatment and anti inflammatory medications, so probably her trouble this time is the same as last time, although she hasn't taken steroids in years.
I'm grateful last time she suffered so was 25 years ago.
I'm grateful she proved the doctor wrong, who warned she probably wouldn't survive to adulthood.
When she wanted to get married, I warned that pregnancy could bring on the disease again, and I asked her to promise she wouldn't have a baby, while she demanded her right to a live like anyone else.
I'm grateful she didn't listen to me.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Death at Middle School

Last month, a teacher at my grandson's school was murdered by her husband because of a contenious divorce.
He shot her, then shot himself, leaving three young children without parents.
The school sent a e-mail to the parents of students from the middle schools where she taught, informing parents that grief counselors would be at the school a few days, to help children cope.
My grandson, a sixth grader, seemed his usual cheerful self when he arrived home that afternoon.
We were surprised, because he cried when his best friend moved to Howell, and when his chocolete lab died last year, at the age of 16.
"Maybe asking him how he feels will make it worse," my daughter said.                  
But we decided to take the advice of the principal in his e-mail, and fighting back our own tears, we asked Dustin how he felt about the tragedy.
Dustin waved his hand as if to dismiss us from his bedroom, where he bent over his X-Box.
"Oh, she's okay," he told us reassuringly. "She was going to get a divorce but the daddy did not want to lose his children.So they had a fight and a gun went off, but nobody got hurt. She wasn't in her classroom this morning because her family is taking vacation at a water park up North."
"Who told you this?" my daughter asked.
"I told myself. My friends and I got together, and this is what we figured out happened, because otherwise, how can we sleep at night?  We all liked her. And what if we lost our parents when our eyes close?"
As he came to understand the truth, he had trouble falling asleep, and began awakening when the furnace clicked on or his mom coughed.
He was often sad and frightened, and did not know why.
He never spoke about her, until one night when he insisted everyone go to sleep and he would fall asleep without someone still awake in the living room, as someone had to be since the tragedy.
He asked to be tucked in, for the first time in a year or so, and told his mom, "She had a most beautiful smile, like she was always glad to see me every morning. I'll always keep that smile with her name, inside me."
We will each recover in our own way, those less close the fastest, but even the closest recover at last.
The first sign of our healing from a tragic loss is always a joyful memory of the person's life, or recognition of something they've left with us.
Every child impacted by this will carry something inside, just like I will never forget a teacher at Parkdale Elementary in Midland in 1959 who died with two friends in a car crash when I was in sixth grade.
Her name and smile still dwell inside me, too.

Napping and scolding our days away

During the Superbowl my husband found he needed a nap before half time.

When he woke up, he confided he is too old to die young, no longer middle aged unless he lives to be 116, and we need to plan for our retirement.

I reminded him he retired four years ago, and I retired last year.

His senior moments are lasting longer these days.

I don't know why.

It could be the medication he takes for cardiovascular disease, blocked arteries, fluctuations in blood sugar.

Maybe it's a side effect of blood poisoning a year ago, the little strokes during surgical procedures, the heart attack or concussions in his childhood when he played hockey and took a few whacks to the head.

Forty years ago, friends and I read  magazine articles that helped us determine if we were fashionably dressed, in love or happily married but now I feel adrift in uncharted territory.

I wished for sage advice on things like how to get someone to stop driving, shoveling snow, incorrectly filing income tax reports, using the stove.

Most of all I wondered if someone has the right to make medical decisions for himself, in defiance of doctors or ambulance attendants.

Today, I read letters my grandmothers sent forty years ago.

Dad's mom wrote how Grandpa turned  the television as high as the sound would go, but the loudness let her know when she was in her garden that he was busy, happy and safe.

She told funny stories about Grandpa's driving, how she guided Grandpa down expressways and on small town streets, warning him of pedestrians and stop sign as he drove 25 miles an hour, stopping in the middle of intersections for red lights, driving in circles on the same on and off ramp on the freeway, getting lost.

He made the shortest trip into an adventure, she said.

He drove that way for three years, because he refused to let her drive or give up his license, he backed their car into a friend's house, at forty miles an hour in reverse.

"The police confiscated his license," she wrote, "and he is heartbroken but I'm glad no one was hurt, and I wasn't the one who broke his heart."

She wondered if, had she been with him that day, he would not have parked the car sideways in the road and put the car into reverse instead of drive, then floored the accelerator when he wanted to go home.

"Sometimes men and children just have to learn the hard way," she concluded.

What everyone remembers most about Grandma and Grandpa is how their love just grew bigger as they became older, Grandma living to be 94 years old and Grandpa, 89.

She never complained or tried to change Grandpa and although she wrote to a young wife and new mother, she gave sage advise to the old woman I've become, even though she's been gone twenty years now.