Sunday, January 29, 2012

It's in the Past

War stories become history. Anecdotes become legend. A mirage becomes a memory. Remembrances and recollections…well…float between fact and fiction. Two entirely different events forced me out of my present orientation and into the past.

The antique microphone icon on the iPhone in front of me blinked, signaling as it recorded my words, bumbling and inelegant as they were. I wasn't exactly sure why I was being interviewed in the empty classroom, but the young, obviously intelligent woman was asking questions about my college years, the early 1970s.  Supposedly, my answers, and the results of a prior photo shoot, were to be used in a 50th anniversary alumni publication. It was embarrassing how significant events (to me at least) from over 40 years ago came spilling out. Some of the stories I had retold many times before, while others leapt to mind as if from brown-edged photographs just then discovered, tucked in an old album. We were carefree teenagers, or diligent young adults, depending on the day. We had left our various home towns for the small college, longing for life outside our parents’ pretended sovereignty. My now dirty gray hair was then dirty blond, and much longer. My camouflage green coat was a Vietnam War castoff that I wore without knowing whether I was protesting something or simply posing as someone who might. Immaturity, agility and good balance led me to the attention-seeking activity of sitting on the handlebars of my bicycle, looking over my shoulder and pedaling backwards to class. I momentarily wondered if, despite my Parkinson's tremor, stiffness and loss of full equilibrium, I could still pull it off. Thankfully, there was no bicycle around to illustrate my continued immaturity. The interview led my thoughts through a labyrinth, a time tunnel I had rarely visited, to an age of growing awareness of how vibrant an adventure life could be.
Friday night's venue was entirely different; a swish golf and country club hosted a reunion of a law firm where I used to work in the early 1980s. It was an eclectic group of people then who, despite having maintained their individualistic traits, seemed to have mellowed since. Hugs, mostly sincere, replaced handshakes in many cases, something that would never have occurred when we shared the offices and workstations 30 years ago. It was apparent that those who had attended were honestly pleased to see each other. Stories, some amplified with age, were told with enthusiasm, especially if the main character was not in attendance and storyteller had visited the bar frequently. There was warmth and laughter in the room, a far different feeling than the typically serious, muted coolness that had so often permeated the corridors of the old firm. Not surprisingly, it was the staff that had come up with the idea and planned the get together, for it was them, not the lawyers, who were the heart and soul of the place. I was happy that they had so successfully pulled it off, for there was an inexplicable value to catching up with old colleagues. Despite having to explain the PD reason for my shaking arm and leg to a few, I felt comfortable in who I was and am. There seemed little left to prove, no good reason to try and impress.
Recently, a rather self-evident thought occurred to me: the older I get the more past I have to remember. It has been a long journey, a path of unpredictable twists and turns which, when I look over my shoulder, makes me smile. It has been what it was meant to be. And I am thankful for the memories, shaded and scattered though they may be. They are like the patches sewn together by my grandmother to form a quilt. It may not be a work of art, but it is warm, unique and meaningful (at least to me).

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Six Benefits of Six Years of Parkinson's Disease

"It's my anniversary. Six years ago today I was diagnosed", I found myself saying to a friend as we discussed our common ailment, Parkinson's disease. He reacted with a mixed question/exclamation, "You keep track!?" What he really meant to ask was, "Why do you?" That unasked question and its potential answers hung in my mind for hours like cigar smoke in a room with no ventilation. To me the anniversary was unavoidable. January 19, 2006, was a day in which my life changed irreversibly, irreparably and irrepressibly. A memorial had been built that day to which I return annually. Difficult though this pilgrimage has been, I try to recall what it felt like to hear news that began to permanently alter my priorities. The truth is I was numb, and the anesthetic effect of the neurologist's words took years to wear off. It may not have yet.
However, that day was not, as it may have felt, the beginning of the end. Yes, it began the slow strangulation of some dreams and the suffocation of naïve assumptions I had made about living. But that needed to happen if I was to maintain an attitude of adventure in the days that lay ahead. As surely as birth of spring follows the death of winter it remains true, "to everything there is a season". The old must make way for the new. Living began to school me, teaching me lessons I had never anticipated learning. It was like that treasure hunt game we played as kids where our parents hid a series of clues, each one leading to another clue until finally we reached the "treasure". And so it has proven true; the best teachers are the toughest.

Like a poor student who has difficulty paying attention, I often fail to learn my lessons the first time through. But here are a few of the benefits that six years of Parkinson's disease has tried to bestow on me.

1.      Impatience with myself and others is really a form of arrogance, a failure to acknowledge that there may be a good reason why someone else is going slower than me. I know how fumbling with keys or coins, dressing, walking and eating more slowly, all seem to aggravate those in the "fast lane", attracting a scowl or stare that effectively communicates, "Get out of my way!"

2.      Discomfort with the disabled, deceased or simply different is born out of fear. Uniformity has no value when it comes to people. Each one of us is unique. The truth is that we can only be accepted by others by accepting the diversity of others.

3.      True friendship flourishes in the mutual sharing of weakness, vulnerability and inadequacy. Hiding the symptoms of our diseases only drives others to do likewise, leading to loneliness. We need each other. Each relationship requires risk to test its strength for the storms that lay ahead.

4.      Pain is neither part of a sadistic plan, nor is it intended to punish. Pain has a purpose. It may be darkness without which the light cannot be seen, a reminder of what is important. Has anything worthwhile been gained except through hardship and sacrifice? The greater the goal, the greater the cost.

5.      Life is short. We all seem to act as if that final day will not come. There is no need to sprint. Haste is just waste. And there is no reason to dawdle. Pace yourself for the race. You will need the energy at the end.

6.      Invest time, the ultimate nonrenewable resource, wisely. Make each day count. Search out your calling and pursue it passionately and relentlessly. We each have something to contribute.

Whatever your anniversary, be it one of pain or pleasure, recognize it. Use it to build hope and purpose.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

It's Complicated

"It's really very simple."  The words tumbled from his mouth in a braided mixture of conviction and doubt.  Like the confluence of two streams into one river, the result was both unclear and deceptive. It was obvious that the man in his 70s desperately wanted to believe his bold assertion. Perhaps it was the fear that my legal fees would increase if the matter was portrayed as complex. Maybe it was his inability to come to grips with the convoluted history and intricate detail of his story. Whatever it was, I knew instinctively that he would not be happy with my advice. Inevitably, his emphatic opening statement would either be cause for his embarrassment or he would leave the boardroom frustrated at having wasted his time explaining his “straight-forward” problem.  
It was a potential for family conflict that had been bubbling underground like hot lava, ready to crack the apparently well-ordered surface at the least provocation, leaving behind ugly scars that would never completely heal. The inevitable eruption would splash red-hot anger into hairline cracks in relationships, splitting open the hidden stress fractures that had been created over many years.

The man's wife had died, after a long illness, leaving him confused and companionless. After a short period of mourning he found himself searching in quiet desperation to fill the void he felt. Within a year of his bereavement, an attractive widow sauntered into his life, restoring his sense of romance and reason. He and his second wife were soon married in a simple ceremony attended by their respective children and grandchildren, all of whom seemed uneasy in their celebration of the couple’s happiness. Difficult, unasked and unanswered questions began to form. It was complicated. 
That wedding was several years ago. Now, reality having set in, this gentleman wanted me to draft a will that would equitably distribute his sizable net worth after his death. After enduring two hours of sometimes painful discussion, my client left, dejected, with a list of questions much longer than the one he had arrived with. The "simple" questions: how would he distribute his wealth without alienating his new spouse or children; how could he avoid leaving a legacy of litigation?

There seems to be an unwritten rule when it comes to people's perception of simplicity. The more simple we wanted something to be, the more complex it is in fact. In this way, birth and death may appear to be rather simple brackets for the in-between living. If they are simple, which is debatable, both events often create unimaginable complexity. For within the parentheses called life lay many complex challenges and choices. Despite appearances, the older one gets the more complex one's life can become as  many of our lifelong assumptions are dashed on the rocks of reality. 
In my case, I held onto a delusion of uncompromised capacity to enjoy life as I age, only to have it disrupted by disease and the diverse menu of disabilities it drags along. Only lately have I begun to recognize my oversimplification of my diagnosis: Parkinson's disease. Perhaps, due to the slow onset of the disease in my case, the potential peril has been, until lately, like lava creeping only modestly threateningly down the slopes of a somewhat distant volcano.  I have successfully pushed self-assessment and its haunting cross-examination to the periphery of my day-to-day life. But maybe, like my client, my doomed and deluded attempt to remain in control of life cannot survive. I must engage with the complexity of it all.

Life is complicated. People are complex. We must understand what we can. Then marvel at the mysteries that remain.

“Abandon the urge to simplify everything,
 to look for formulas and easy answers,
and to begin to think multidimensionally,
to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life,
not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences
that are inherent in each experience -- to appreciate the fact that life is complex.”
M. Scott Peck

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The "Best Before" Date Myth

Every once in a while I read the obituaries in our fridge (icebox). I don't mean curling up with newspaper atop the crisper drawer in the refrigerator. I mean determining the "shelf life" of our chilled food supply. Few things frustrate me more than throwing out containers of flavored yogurt that have never been opened, thinly sliced corned beef sealed in the apparently too distant past by the Safeway butcher, or a carton of orange juice rushed to our home from Florida only to languish too long in the coolness of the fridge door. In each case, the prominently displayed date on these consumable items suggests certain death if even a small sip or nibble is taken. It is as if the development of germ warfare has begun in our kitchen and must be destroyed. Sometimes, when I open the fridge door, I am sure that I hear the ticking of a 100 clocks marking off the seconds until botulism has conquered our entire food supply. Most times I smell a conspiracy by retailers. Who sets these dates? What sort of safety factor is built-in? Who monitors these "best before" bandits? Doesn't this date stamping practice simply appeal to our laziness, our quest for convenience, our penchant for eliminating the need to discern?
What did we do before, the invention of the now ubiquitous "best before" date stamp mindlessly applied to almost all food and drug products. And what does it mean, "best before"? Whatever it was originally intended to mean, it now virtually demands that consumers pitch the product the day following, failing which dire consequences will quickly ensue. No more need to sniff carefully for smells of deterioration. Observation skills to detect small patches of mold are no longer necessary. Just read the label and toss. Fear trumps forensics and economics.
This is been a difficult practice for me to adopt. When I was very young, I would be sent to the basement room where jars of homemade jam and "canned" fruit (the "canning" process was a misnomer as thick jars were used to seal fruit in their syrup) lined the shelves in annually replenished supply. There was a date on these glass containers, but it was the day, month and year that the fruit had been pulled from scalding water and vacuum sealed. I was instructed to choose the oldest jar to bring upstairs. Aside from ensuring that each jar when opened let out a small ‘pop’, there was only a limited inspection undertaken. In fact, if a bit of mold lined the wax seal of some strawberry jam, it was simply scooped off without a second thought. In like manner, if cheese wore a little fuzzy green coat when pulled from the cooler it was merely skinned and used without any consideration of impending death or disease.
Today, most "civilized" parts of our world have seemingly stamped "best before" dates on the foreheads of all older members of society. We all seem to have been conditioned to believe that at a certain time in life each person has outlived their "best before" date. That person has become outdated, a candidate for the discard heap, having nothing useful to contribute any longer. As I approach my 60th anniversary of entry into this world, I sometimes wonder whether I will soon reach (or maybe already have reached) my "best before" date. Certainly, having a degenerative, chronic disease, Parkinson's, has the potential to leave me feeling somewhat moldy and beyond my prime. But is the societal "best before" message true?
An instructive experiment was undertaken on the expiry dates used in 100 medications. It was determined that 90% were effective and safe for as long as 15 years after the specified date. In fact, "best before", read literally, simply and most unhelpfully means what it says, that a particular product is likely to be best if used before a particular date. It does not read "bad after". In fact, it is, at best, a qualitative guidance.  With the exception of fine wines, and serious whiskey, which could usefully have a "best after" date, what products are not "best before" the earliest possible date?

Maybe it's time to return to making our own decisions about when something, or someone, is no longer useful. Maybe looking beyond the surface will allow us to find a lot of good left to enjoy and a lot to contribute. Maybe there is no real "best before" date.