Saturday, December 29, 2012

Good-bye Momma, Good-bye Christmas

I'm having a difficult time getting a handle on exactly what I am feeling this week. Several of my good friends who also lost their mothers this past year have expressed deep sadness and a sense of loss especially on Christmas.

I do genuinely miss my mother, and feel sad at her passing, but I also feel a sense of relief that I could finally let go of our three decade long battle over Christmas.  It stopped being my holiday thirty-two years ago when I converted to Judaism, but it continued being a bone of contention between me and my mother.

Our conflict had less to do with religion than with the mother-daughter relationship. My mother, although a life-long Methodist, was what I liked to call a "loyal dissenter." I have so many memories from childhood of my mother whispering commentary in my ear about how various things being spouted by preachers were "not believed by everyone." My mother believed whole-heartedly in God the Father, and thought that Jesus was an important teacher, but she was openly (to me) skeptical about most of the conventional Jesus story from birth to death (or resurrection). She didn't really understand my conversion, but she didn't overtly object to it either. However, she did object, frequently and volubly to my not celebrating Christmas. To her this was my rejection of our family history, but even more so of her as a mother and her efforts each year to create a "real" Christmas experience for her family. Something she felt cheated of in her own early childhood (her own mother was a severe asthmatic and would not allow Christmas trees or greenery around the home).

It is only from a distance that I can see that she did not really enjoy creating these family Christmas. She viewed it as a challenge, to find the right gifts, wrap them appropriately, have the right tree, and fix a perfect dinner.

My memories of the last Christmas that I spent in California with my family (1981) just before I began my conversion process, are dominated by Mom's anxiety about everything being just so. Her anxiety was so great and so grating that my brothers decided to go to a movie (The Life of Brian) during the hours while the turkey was cooking and invited me to come with them. At the time I was just so delighted that my (younger) brothers actually wanted to have me go with them, that I did not think about how our disappearance for two hours was going to increase my mother's frenzy.

For years following my conversion, my mother would actively pump me for details: Was I going to get a tree this year? Why not? Was I going to send cards? Who was I going to send cards to? What would I say in them? Was I going to go Christmas Caroling? Was I going to go to church?

Paradoxically, I never found it unpleasant to spend Christmas with my in-laws, who accepted our religious differences, did not try to change me, and simply welcomed me into their home for a family meal. Sharing another person's celebration is quite different from being pressured to engage in that celebration directly.

I consciously and deliberately avoided going "home" for Christmas for a number of years. I broke down one year (1985) because my first husband had just moved out, and I needed to go home and lick my wounds after the semester was over. It was not a good move. Much of my visit involved a battle with my mother over why I would not go to church on Christmas eve. Now if she'd been asking me to accompany her to church, I might have felt differently about it, but she didn't want to go, she just wanted me to go. I never went at Christmas time again. In 2001 I went for three days from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22 to celebrate my father's 90th birthday, but I would not stay for Christmas.

Our struggle over Christmas only ended with her death this year. Finally there was no one left to make me feel like I had abandoned her, when I stopped celebrating Christmas.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Winter Meditations

I have always liked winter. When I was a child in California, winter was when the rains came and the hills turned green instead of brown. I liked wearing sweaters and wool more than I liked sundresses.

The thing that I have come to love best about winter is the bareness of the trees. In winter the architecture of the world is easier to perceive. I have always seen a parallel between the world in winter and human life in times of stress and difficulty.

I did not always take comfort in that revelation. When I was young I focused on frailty, on loss.

For the winds are bitterly iced
between trees that,
having lost their summer leaves,
are no longer seen as intertwined,
but only tenuously touching a few brittle twigs
here and there;
solitary in a gray world that prevents
even the insubtantial companionship
of a shadow.
December 11, 1972
As a young person I perceived (often falsely) the failure of friendships to survive stress. I mistook temporary solitariness for abandonment.

Over the years, however, I have come to cherish winter as a time of bareness and spareness. Living as I have now for many years with woods and forest all around, winter is a time when the world opens up, when secrets are revealed. Having seen more of human life,  and where once I saw bleakness and abandonment, today  I see strength, resiliance and people reaching out. It is in the hard and cold times that people draw together, offer each other support.

In winter
nature drops her disguises,
forest opens to sky,
rock cliffs are bared,
sheltering leaves fall away,
wind whistles through
tenuously touching twigs.

Walking the forest floor
one sees further, more clearly,
steps more surely
among rocks and fissures.
November 2, 2008

It is interesting to me that I used the phrase "tenuously touching" in both poems - an unconscious echoing. But there is a tenuous drawing away and a tenuous reaching outward. It is the latter I perceive today.

Monday, November 19, 2012

a dog's life

My all time favorite website is where people post adorable photos of their miscreant pups. It reminds me of how much worse our doggies could be (and have been), and it reminds me of how we learned how to live with dogs.

Our first dog, Missy, was a grown up three year old when he rescued her from a shelter in Tennessee. She had been thoroughly trained and was by the time I met her five years later a quiet, well-behaved adult dog. When she got very old (she lived to the ripe old age of 19) she had doggie dementia and although she always went to the door to be let out she didn't always wait until she was let out to go. But she was our baby and that was okay.

A year and a half after Missy died, Rosie dog applied for the position of "dog of the house". Rosie just showed up in the yard, and on the porch, and hung out until we knew what she knew - the we were her humans. We thought we knew all about dogs, but Rosie taught us differently. She was young but big, and a dominant dog who wanted to be boss, and a little bit scary. The wonderful trainers at PetSmart helped us turn Rosie into a wonderful companion dog, who was still assertive, but knew that humans set the rules. In the process however, we lost lots of things, clothing, shoes, books, pens, blankets, pillows, dog beds, and one entire couch.  Rosie grew or was trained out of all those bad habits, but it took a long time, and more change on the part of the humans than on the dog. Gates had to be put up, shoes and socks couldn't lie on the floor, everything had to be tucked a way out (not just out of dog reach, but where cats couldn't knock it down into dog reach).

We'd had Rosie for five years, when Molly showed up.  Molly knew we needed an "auxiliary back-up dog", and pretty soon we did too. Suddenly pillows, blankets, rugs, and especially books were again at risk for chewing.  We sealed up every book shelf Molly could reach with plastic sheeting.  Molly had some new tricks - like eating remote controls (four in total).

So we made some adjustments, our wonderful open-concept new house, got two sets of dog gates with cat passages in them so that cat boxes (and all that lovely cat poop) as well as cat food stayed totally out of Molly reach, as did the garbage and the food, and other tempting items. New end tables with drawers for all the remotes and reading glasses and other crunchy items. Shoes are on top of dressers or shut behind closed closet doors. Bathroom doors are closed (against cats as well as dogs) so that no paper towels, bath towels, toilet paper, or other goodies can be shredded. 

By the time we adopted blind Bob this fall, we had this keeping things out of dog reach pretty much down to a science - except for the throw rugs which have been sacrificed to the cause.  Between the cats and the dogs, some things do get chewed - especially gloves, which the cats love to dig out of the big basket for outerwear and then drop on the floor for doggie tug-of-war. But we deal with that by buying cheap winter gloves by the dozen.

 Life with dogs (and cats) is wonderful, but it takes a lot of work and paying attention to make sure that no one gets into something that could hurt him or her, and that things that are really important and valuable don't get eaten.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Dona Nobis Pacem

In June of 1965 at Junior High School graduation my  14 year old self spoke to an auditorium of my fellow graduates and called ours "The Hopeful Generation."  Among the things that I thought we had hope for was the curing of disease, the alleviation of poverty and the attainment of world peace.

At age 61 my hope is a little tattered but still there. I think we've made progress on all those fronts. But we still have such a long, long way to go. As long as there are still people who hold these goals we have a chance. That's why I love Blog Blast 4 Peace so much, it tells me that the dream is still alive and that there is still hope.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Don't wish your life away...

Recently I have come to recognize how all of us, at some time or another, engage in wishing our life away.  If you've ever said to yourself, "I just wish this day was over," then you too are guilty of wishing your life a way.

Sometimes when things are particularly awful in our lives, we wish away whole weeks, months, or even years - "I just wish the holidays would get here."

The impulse to get past difficulty, pain and sorrow is understandable. We all have it. But when we focus on just "getting past" stuff, we may be losing out on the ordinary and even wonderful moments that come in the midst of trouble.

What is even more pernicious, however, is the wishing away of perfectly good ordinary days when we are too focused on achieving some future goal. If all our energy is tied up with thinking about what we'll do when  "I lose 30 more pounds," or "finish my degree," or "get that promotion," then we are not really appreciating the moment in which we are currently located.

Friday, July 6, 2012

a shoe in the road
straddling the yellow line
its mate fifty feet ahead
lying on its side
a testament to
loss or joy?

July 6, 2012

Sunday, June 17, 2012

finding a new path

Over the past two years my life has been rife with change, some good, some bad, some neutral, some unexpected, some much anticipated.

We've bought a new house and moved ourselves, our animals, and (most) of our belongings. It turns out that a move is a move with all the attendant disruption and financial pressures, even if the distance between the old house and new house is 25 feet.  A few months after the move, we took in a second stray dog - a 6 month old who still needed house training, and who chewed everything in sight (including some of the molding on the doors of the new house).

My mother descended rapidly into dementia and dealing with her bizarre delusions turned daily conversations into an emotional mine field. Ultimately six months ago, she had to be placed in 24 hour care.  At which point the pace of change ramped up.  The family house had to go on the market, decisions had to be made about belongings. Then suddenly mother had a heart attack and died. The family house got sold. Because of distance, lack of time, lack of resources, lack of energy, and lack of space here at home, the only realistic choice was let all those material things from my childhood go. Yes it would have been nice to have some of the beautiful pieces of furniture that my father had made in his workshop, or some of the delicate china and glass treasures that my mother had received from her parents. Now that choice is no longer available, all that represented my childhood has gone.

A week after my mother died, my older dog died.  For a long time, my day had been anchored in the evening by two things, walking my dog and calling my mother. Both anchors disappeared within a week of each other.

Six weeks after the dog died, I learned that my eating over which I'd lost control during this stressful period and the inevitable weight gain had thrown me over the threshold into full-blown diabetes. The fiction I carefully constructed for 50 years blew-up; that fiction was that being overweight didn't matter because I had good genes and the weight didn't affect my health . I'd always felt sorry for other people who had to watch what they ate. For 50 years, my cholesterol was normal, my blood pressure was not just normal but actually low, and my sugar metabolism was the envy of laboratory technicians in 5 states. Little did I realize the damage that I was doing, and that the bill would eventually have to be paid.

The next week while I was just beginning to figure out how to eat as a diabetic, my brothers came from California bearing not only mom's ashes, but also dad's (he died 2 and 1/2 years ago), to inter them in the cemetary in dad's home town in Virginia, which meant restaurants and family meals.

On the good change side, I received a modest inheritance, paid off all our consumer debts, paid down the new house, set aside some savings, and still had some left to indulge some long pent up demand - like replacing all the pillows and rugs that the young dog destroyed in her first year with us. But, being in debt had been part of my life for 40 years, since graduating from college, so this also is new, uncertain territory.

I was beginning to get a handle on how to eat, and how to exercise again (after hurting my back May 4 and breaking some ribs May 16), when the most recent blow fell this past Thursday from the cardiologist. The tiredness, exhaustion and shortness of breath - is probably some blockage in the cardiac arteries. How much blockage and where I go from here has to wait on more tests.

I have lots of friends who have been dealing with heart disease and with diabetes, several with both,  for many years.  I know that life can go on, and be a very rewarding life. I just don't quite know yet what that path looks like.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Yearning to Teach

My mother taught elementary school for six years from the fall of 1943 to the summer of 1949, when she married. Immediately after their June marriage my parents moved to Florida, which did not recognize Virginia's teaching certificate. It would have required additional years of college to become licensed in Florida - at that time Virginia only required two years of college in a teachers program to become licensed. So instead my mother became a full-time homemaker, and after less than a year of trying found herself pregnant (with me).

It was quite clear to me, even as a young child, that my mother did not like being a "homemaker." She truly hated housework, and did as little of it as she possibly could. She did like cooking, especially baking, and she loved gardening. When my parents bought their first home in 1955, my father constructed a raised bed that covered more than half of our huge backyard and had a couple of tons of top soil trucked in to fill it. Mama had grown up on farms among farming uncles and older brothers.  She raised tomatoes, beans, carrots, spinach (yuck!), corn, artichokes, rhubarb, and many other things in our garden.

But Mama missed teaching, and she took it upon herself to instruct not only my brothers and myself, but all the nearby neighbor children in the games and activities she'd learned in the teacher program at Martha Washington College. The other children's mothers were more conventional 1950's housewives, who spent their days cleaning and watching soap operas, and did not want noisy, dirty children tromping in and out of their houses disturbing them. So our house and our yard was the place to play because my mother welcomed the children - most of the kids found that it was a small price to pay to have my mother instruct them in how to play various traditional games ("Red light, Green light," "Duck, duck, goose," etc.) and supervise the play.
My mother may have looked down at women who watched soap operas, but she would save up her ironing to do weekdays at 1:30 PM when the "Dialing for Dollars Movie" was on (no, Janice did not make that up, it really existed in the S. F. Bay Area).  She would watch the black and white re-runs of movies from the 1930's and 1940's that she had originally seen in the movie theatre as a teenager and young working woman. During the summers I would watch these movies with her, and longed to be as elegant as Carole Lombard, or as feisty as Barbara Stanwyck.
Mama also threw herself into being Brownie leader, Cub Scout Den Mother, and Sunday School teacher. Positions in which she could put to use all her training in arts and crafts, music, and be teacher for a time each week. She spent much more time planning activities for her brownies, Cub Scouts, and Sunday School classes than she did dusting, vacuuming, or scrubbing.

In 1961, the year my youngest brother Frank entered school, Mama decided to try substitute teaching. She loved it.  She was well liked as a substitute, so much so that she was given a long term substitute job - a couple of months long - for a teacher who'd gotten ill or pregnant.  But she didn't return to substituting the next year. For one thing, she felt very guilty about not being home when Frank came home from school. She felt she was harming him. The other reason, I think, was that because the money she earned was entirely discretionary and went to pay for luxuries and extras that we children really appreciated, my father was angry and jealous. We children did not properly appreciate his roll in paying the mortgage, the car, the food, etc. Instead we were effusively enthusiastic about the store bought (rather than rummage sale) clothing and toys we got because of Mama's income.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

things my mother told me

There were no Christmas trees in her home when she was a little girl, because of her mother's extreme allergies and asthma...her mother died when she was eight years old [actually 5 days before my mother's nine birthday]...her father sent her to live with her Aunt Sue and cousins Mary Edna, Florence, and Herb Glenn who lived less than a half mile away...there were Christmas trees at Aunt Sue's...and fireworks at Christmas.

My mother felt unattractive, awkward, and an outsider in school...she tried to make friends with Negro children in the community and was taunted by white children with the classic "n...r lover"....she refused to say "colored" like most of the white people she knew growing up and she certainly wasn't going to say the "n word".

In the teacher program at Martha Washington College my mother was taught to play the piano, simple music to accompany children's singing...she learned a wide range of basic arts and crafts, none of which she was particular good at, so that she could help children develop their artistic talents...she learned lots of children's games like "Simon Says," "Red light, Green light," "Duck, Duck Goose," "Poor Pussy," and many others in college, none of which she had played herself as a child growing up until her mother died in a house full of brothers.

Virginia schools only paid teachers 9 months of the year. The other three months teachers had to fend for that she wouldn't have to go back home she worked as a nurses aid in the state mental hospital...she lived in boarding houses with other unmarried working women...the last boarding house she lived at in Sandston, Virginia was next door to a boarding house for men...the owners of the two houses decided to introduce the women and the men and planned a Valentine's Day party...that's how she met my father.

Monday, April 2, 2012

April is National Poetry Month

Learned this morning from a friend on Facebook that this month, April, is National Poetry Month.  You can learn more about the official celebrations here: National Poetry Month- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Poetry has been very central in my life since my 12th birthday in 1963. My father gave me a 300 page book, The Golden
Treasury of Poetry
, selected and with a commentary by Louis Untermeyer, and illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund.

A few years ago, I retrieved the book from my parents and brought it back home to Kentucky with me.  I've been enjoying discovering both remembered and unremembered poems.  My adult tastes in poetry are rather different  from the mostly rhyming poetry of this book. Once I discovered e e cummings and Carl Sandburg in high school, my poetic preferences underwent a tectonic shift, but I have enjoyed reading the poems in this Treasury especially out loud (to the amusement of my cats, and the occasional irritation of my husband). From the story poems of the Pied Piper of Hamelin to the limericks of Lear and everything in between, I enjoy the melodic lilt of the words.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What's in a name

My mother was born in March of 1923 so she died just shortly before her 89th birthday. 

My mother imagines the occasion thusly:  the country doctor who attended her home birth must have asked her father: "what are you going to call this little girl" and her father responded "we're going to call her Josie T." So the little baby girl who was suppose to be named Johanna Theresa after her grandmother ended up with a birth certificate that said her name was "Josie T."

She did not discover this fact for more than fifty years until she needed her birth certificate to get a passport. In her childhood she had indeed been called Josie T by her parents, brothers, Aunts and Uncles and cousins. But she was also often told that she'd been named for her grandmother Johanna. At  college, the name she earned her certificate under was Johanna Theresa. The social security number she got before her first job was assigned to Johanna Theresa. When she married, the name on the wedding license and register was Johanna Theresa. Her children's birth certificates named their mother as Johanna. On the title to the house she'd signed Johanna.

In the 1970's when my father retired and my parents decided to do some world traveling. Mom wrote away for her birth certificate. When it arrived and she eagerly opened the envelop her first reaction was shock. Then she was angry. I think that was the most pissed off I had ever seen my mother up to that point in my life. She stormed around the house cussing at her father. She said to me that she just knew how it happened. She had this image of her dad had been joking and talking with the doctor, and when the doctor said "what are you going to call her?" he just didn't think, and told the doctor what they were going to "call" her, not what they were going to name her.

As the shock wore off, the disorientation set in. She began to wonder if everything in her life was a lie. Did she really have a teaching certificate? Was she really married? Were we really her children? Did she own the house? It was a disturbing thought. If she'd done all these things as Johanna, and she wasn't really Johanna, then had she done any of them?

The question arose - what would she do about her passport? She decided that she'd be damned if she'd travel around the world with a passport under the name Josie T. For Pete's sake she didn't even have a proper middle name, just an initial. So she did her research, consulted a lawyer and went to court, and had her name legally changed to the name she'd used all those years, so that she could have a passport that said Johanna.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"I Remember Mama"

That was the title of one of my mother's favorite play/movie/TV shows - and the books on which those were based. I hadn't thought of these in years. There was actually two books in the fictionalized memoir by Kathryn Forbes about her Norwegian immigrant grandmother.

My mother is the one who taught me to love reading. She read to us almost every night. Unlike the photograph which my father staged, normally she would sit on a stool or in a chair in the hallway between my room and my brothers' room. We would lie in bed in the dark and she would read out-loud to us. She would read one or two chapters and leave us waiting for more the next night.

Among the books that I remember her reading to us are every single one of P. L. Travers' Mary Poppins books. The Mary Poppins of the books was nothing at all like Disney and Julie Andrews' Poppins. She was crotchety and plain and difficult, but also magical and wonderful as well. She also read us the 1950's classic Beverly Cleary series about Henry, Ramona and Beezus.

The book that my brothers and I loved the most, and the book that really transformed my life was Robert Heinlein's Red Planet. My brothers and I loved the alien "Willis" the Martian "bouncer." The book was so enchanting, that I started reading ahead of my mother during the day time (although I still enjoyed hearing her read it out-loud). That lead me to the "harder stuff" of science fiction, which I began to devour.

Before I was old enough to have an "adult" library card, I would go into the main part of the old San Mateo Library (one of those built by Carnegie of stone, marble and lots of steel), and pull down Galaxy Readers, and the Years Best Science Fiction, and read story after story in the reading room while my parents did their Saturday shopping in town.

With her nightly story time, my mother made reading a wonderful, delightful, guilty pleasure that I could not wait to embrace for myself. She initiated me into that magic world that so stimulated my intellect and imagination.

One of the saddest things about the dementia that took over my mother's life in the past three years is that it robbed her of the ability to read. She could not concentrate enough to follow the thread of even a short story. She could read the words - she'd read complicated documents out-loud to me on the phone having no trouble with any of the words, but she could not follow what she read.

Monday, March 12, 2012

In love with "Wrecking Ball"

It's been years, maybe even decades, since the last time I bought an album without having heard a single song on it. But, last week I downloaded Bruce Springsteen's new album Wrecking Ball on the strength of one's friend recommendation and a Rolling Stone review.  Now I'm deeply in love with the music.

Every song on this album is just right. This is a case of a songwriter/singers vision fitting exactly into my present mind set.  I've been writing a series of pieces on my sociology blog Sociological Stew called "Zombie America." In Wrecking Ball Springsteen wrote the perfect sound track for "Zombie America." The lively melodies of songs like "We Take Care of Own," "Death to My Home Town," and "American Land" (which remind often remind me of Irish immigrant jigs) and catchy choruses of Wrecking Ball are the perfect contra-punctual to the images of anger, despair, and desolation that peek through the verses.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bulletins from the Land of Dementia

It has been two months and six days since my brother settled my mother into a pleasant, small home-based care home near him in San Diego.

My mother likes the people who work in the home and she has made friends among the other residents. She likes the warmer weather in San Diego and never complains any more of being too cold. She says she sleeps well, which was one of the biggest problems with her living alone as she imagined all types of dangers and anxiety and cold often interfered with her sleep. She loves the food (simple, home cooking with fresh ingredients).

Yet despite all this she has made herself almost frantic at times with the absolute conviction that she MUST leave and go somewhere else. She is not sure where, she knows she can't care for herself, and knows there is no family members who can take over her full-time care. Like all dementia patients my mother has developed elaborate delusions utterly divorced from reality, that have convinced her that she cannot remain in this care home.

She cannot help this, it is a symptom of the disease that is destroying her mental abilities. There is no way to fight the delusions of a person with dementia; there is no reason, no evidence that can dissuade the person to let go of their delusions. Any attempts often serve to strengthen the obsessions rather than enlighten. It is extraordinarily frustrating to Charlie and myself to see her struggle with these totally imagined demons, and know that there really is nothing we can do. In fact, the best thing seems to be for us to take some steps back away from her, fewer and shorter visits by Charlie, fewer and shorter phone calls by me.

The thing that strikes me about my mother's delusions, however, is that they are woven from the habits and attitudes of her entire life time. My mother always was a control freak. She always had to know what was going on - not only with her children and family members, but with her friends and neighbors. Then not content merely to know, she had to solve everyone's  problems - frequently when such help was neither desired nor helpful.

She trained us children early to stop telling her our concerns, if we didn't want her to bulldoze into our lives with her ten point action plans for how to solve our problems. Since her life as a housewife gave her no experience or insight at all into the work and social lives of me and my brothers her action plans were generally worse than useless, they were highly judgemental and intrusively critical. Her obsessive controlling actually drove my youngest brother to completely abandon her and our entire family, disappearing from all our lives.

My mother's delusion is that she is responsible for what happens to everyone at the care home; she believes that she is responsible for all the other people's safety and health and welfare. She believes that she that she was brought to the home for a trial "job" of working at helping to run the home. But that she did not do a very good job of it, because as she told me today - it is a very, very hard job and she can't do it. It is because she can't do the job of running the care home that she says she must leave.

She also believes that as nice as the people who work there are, that they are not really competent (she's never thought anyone was competent in her whole life - certainly none of her children or neighbors or friends). Her evidence of this lack of competence is that they do not do anything about the dire situations that are total fabrications of her demented mind. She naps during the daytime (as most of the residents do) and often has vivid dreams that are completely real to her. She reports the most fantastical events to me when I call.

She reported to me Saturday that a man died sitting on a bench in front of the house and that the people in the house wouldn't do anything about it for hours and hours, and that they didn't take care of the problem properly at all. While deaths in elderly care homes do certainly occur, no one died on the bench in front of the care home on that day. It was entirely a fiction.

Charlie and I try to tell her that she does not need to work, that the people are there to care for her, and that cost of her food and lodging and care is already paid. None of these things change her view. She tells me that the people there are not competent to take care of her. Sometimes she says there is no money to pay for her care, sometimes she accuses Charlie of stealing it all. But she refuses to believe that she can relax and enjoy and just be there.

I am fascinated by both the distortion of thinking and reasoning that dementia produces, and by the continuity that there is between the patterns of personality and behavior from the past - the obsessive control freak, who has to solve others problems for them whether or not such assistance is desired. The sum of our lives, our attitudes and our actions do seem to matter even in dementia.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Wealth Creators

I’ve heard a lot of politicians talk about tax cuts for the “job creators” in recent months, but what are we doing for the “wealth creators”? The only way to create wealth is through work, digging things, cutting things, building things, assembling things, cooking things, selling things, and providing services that people want.

Wealth isn’t created by the wealthy, they only gather it up and move it around; wealth is created by the workers – the coal miners, the plumbers, the assembly line workers, the burger flippers, the house cleaners, the nurses, the road pavers, the truck drivers, the waitresses, and computer programmers.

We need to start talking about what we are going to do for the “wealth creators” in this country.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Bulletins from the Land of Dementia

My mother has in recent months slipped over the edge into mental non-competency. Before Christmas my brother Charlie moved her from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area down to visit over Christmas with him and his life partner Claire, then New Years Eve got her settled into a small, pleasant 24 hour care home ten minutes from his home.

She is not happy about this, but then she wasn't happy at home for the past few months, where she believed strangers were invading her home on a nightly basis, causing her "papers" to disappear, moving things that she "knows" were on the table, and turning her gas heater off in the night causing her to get cold.  She told me one day, that the doors and windows were all locked so the people must be crawling in through tiny cracks in the roof and ceiling. Sometimes she would say that she hadn't seen them, just heard them, but she knew they were there, because how else could one account for it getting cold - someone had to have messed with the heater - or for the papers not being where she'd left them. But other times she would describe in detail things the people she had seen, what they'd looked like, what they'd done and what she'd said to them.

As a sociologist the workings and mis-workings of the human brain are not within the scope of my professional expertise, that's the realm of psychology. However, I've been reading and thinking about the problem, and think that I have a plausible hypothesis for what is happening in her brain.

An example from my own experience today will help illustrate:  I came home early from work today because it was snowing heavily and predicted to get worse. There were no students coming in for advising, and most of us left early. I've been a bit sleep deprived recently, so when I sat in my recliner to watch some cable news punditry, not surprisingly I dozed off several times between the interminable discussions of what may or may not happen tomorrow in the Iowa Caucuses. At one point, I was awake enough to know that my husband John had come out to sit down and watch a little with me, and that we exchanged a few words about the Iowa Caucuses. But then I drifted off and had an extremely vivid dream of an extended and lively conversation between John and I about some of the candidates. It seemed very real, and I was quite annoyed with John because instead of answering me himself, he kept playing a recording of Newt Gingrich saying something absurd. When I was roused from my nap by a cat pouncing on my lap (happens a lot at our house), the vividness of the dream lingered and seemed like something that really happened.

But I knew immediately that it had not really happened; first of all my husband was no longer in the room with me, and I know for a fact he doesn't have a fancy silver iPad that he can play video of Gingrich on, and that he'd never record anything by Gingrich anyway, much less play it over and over. I quickly was able to check the very real seeming conversations and interaction of my dream against a list of things that I knew about reality, and immediately classify the experience as a dream and "not real".

But my mother, suffering from dementia, no longer has the ability to reality check in that way. For her all things are possible - so if she "sees" something, or "hears" something while dreaming or dozing, it is real. As a sociologists/anthropologist I know that there are human cultures that do treat dreams as having the same reality as waking experience, and in those cultures, the entire family and village would be supportive of  her experiences, accepting them as valid. But in our culture, everyone is telling her that there are no people living in the battered metal shed in her back yard, no people coming into her house and changing the heater settings, no people coming in and taking photos of her in bed and making movies out of them. She is hurt and angry and sees a conspiracy against her because she says "I know what I see!" And believes that everyone else, the neighbors, her care takers, her son, who all tell her that there is no one there, are in a conspiracy against her.

So I remind myself that she was not happy at home and had not been happy for a long time, when she complains pitifully about how "awful" the care home is, and how the owner of the home doesn't want her there and doesn't want the care workers to do anything for her, and that the workers will get in big trouble because they gave her a shower today. Which she loved, but since she loved it, she won't ever get another one.