Saturday, October 27, 2007

Here's to your health

My mother has always said, “If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.” Her miracle ingredient to ensure success of this goal was milk of magnesia. According to her, it prevented or cured everything that could go wrong with our bodies. I’m sure in her mind, every hospital had a medicine storage facility where, directly in front of the antibiotics and narcotics, a blue bottle of Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia was no doubt prominently positioned. That blue bottle of chalky white repulsive potion was the bane of our otherwise idyllic childhood. We quickly learned never to complain of any kind of problem - neither acne, sore throat, nor chapped lips - in order to avoid the dreadful liquid. Whatever we had wrong with us would always pass (no pun intended) eventually, and Mother would attribute this extraordinary cure to that wonderful milk of magnesia. I don’t think she ever considered the probability that our little nuisance of a health snag would have gone away on its own anyway.

The older I become, I understand Mother’s driving ambition of health maintenance, although I take issue with the aforementioned unorthodox method. (That blue bottle has never entered my threshold since I became an adult. ANYTHING but that!) As a kid, I thought I was invincible, but now I know better. When I send annual Christmas greetings, one of my most consistent wishes has been good health, so my friends and relatives will be able to enjoy everything else life offers.

It’s kind of ironic that at the very time we Baby Boomers are finally seriously concerned about the well-being of our bodies, said bodies start a rapid process of deterioration. Chronic illnesses come in and make themselves at home for extended visits. Acute injuries (like my sister’s current back problem) make getting through a normal day almost impossible for several hours or a few weeks. Ed lives with diabetes, and after the doctors changed his medications last month, he has had a very frustrating time trying to adjust to the new medicine’s way of working in his body.

Health is on my mind these days because, as most of you know, I’m in the middle of studying for my Certified Medical Transcriptionist (CMT) exam. Every time I think of complaining about my body’s deficiencies, I read another chapter of a body system and my only recurring comment (besides “how will I ever learn all this stuff?!”) is that I wonder how our bodies manage to function so well for so long a time.

I divided my 7-week study plan into 4 body systems (chapters) per week, but I have found that keeping strictly with this outline is hard to do. Why? Because the “Cardiovascular System,” for example, cannot stand on its own, as it is linked with the “Nervous System” and the “Respiratory System.” Add in the muscles and bones involved, falling under the “Orthopedic System,” and you can’t completely isolate any part of the body so that it can be studied on its own. Everything is intertwined and inseparable.

So much depends on all these systems and parts working together, doing their jobs, day in and day out. The details of how the heart beats, its web of impulses and chambers and the electrical component, is so dependent on perfect timing that it is a miracle this cardiac muscle works for as long as it does. Considering the world we live in, I think that is remarkable.

When humans design products, for example, those products have a very limited life. I remember buying an expensive exercise machine once that had a 1-year warranty. One year? Someone designed and built that piece of machinery so poorly that they only guarantee it will work for one year??

Contrast this with the design of our bodies. Of course, cancer and other insidious diseases take their toll, but if you think about it, on the whole, the human body has an ingenious way of functioning and healing itself. It is a miraculous, intricate machine that usually lasts longer (especially if we take care of it) than anything you can buy at Wal-Mart. Sometimes I think we just need the reminder.

Oh, and by the way, Mother is 84 and still going strong. My sister has never had to take her to the hospital, she hasn’t fallen and broken any bones, and her mind is still sharp. I dare say when she turns 100 and a reporter questions her about her longevity, she will bring out that disgusting Blue Bottle. Oh, well. I might have to lay down my arms against the ole milk of magnesia. If it has truly kept my mother alive and well all these years, I owe it my eternal gratitude.

I still refuse to touch it, though. It is truly disgusting.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Please rein it in!

I used to be a news junkie - in fact, for most of my life I kept abreast of the latest developments. While we still had cable, I was a regular viewer of the news. Now, however, with rabbit ears and 2 channels from which to choose, I watch the news about once or twice a week in the evening, and other than that, I am dependent on family and friends to let me know when something important is happening.

Five days a week, though, I go to bed at 7:30 p.m. or so, and with the national news finishing at 7:00 p.m., the time of the broadcast is so close to sleep time that it can leave me with nightmares. Oh, there’s plenty to be upset about in the news - with the war, the economy, Chinese import quality, congressional stalemates, the mortgage crisis, politics in general, the increase in poverty, the conditions in Africa, etc. I don’t want to denigrate all those important topics, but I want to add a subsection to the news reports that manage to increase my blood pressure.

On Tuesday night, ABC aired a segment honoring National Dictionary Day. As a word/language/spelling/punctuation/grammar lover, I prepared myself for something pleasurable in the news for a change. What I got was anything but pleasurable. It seems that the Oxford University Press has decided that, due to usage parameters, they will accept alternate spellings to some words in their new edition. “Free reign,” for instance, is now an acceptable alternative to “free rein.” Why? Because 46% of the time, people use the former spelling. “Vocal chords” is now acceptable, when the only proper spelling used to be “vocal cords.” That’s because 49% of the time, people use the “h” in spelling the word. The third example was “shoe-in” as a new acceptable alternative to “shoo-in,” because 35% of the time, that incorrect spelling is used. So now proper usage is a popularity contest?!

Talk about something to give one nightmares!!! (OK, not everyone. Certainly 46%, 49%, and 35% of the people will have been ushered into the Correct Club using a fake ticket, but I don’t imagine they are too excited about the honor or that they even care.)

You can see I’m bitter. All these years, I have taken great pains (not panes) to learn and maintain correct spelling and usage. When I get depressed about how little I can do well, I can always salve my feelings by reassuring myself that I can spell correctly. Now what little self-esteem I had is being eroded.

What’s Ed’s reaction? He feels vindicated, of course. In an ongoing argument for over 30 years, we have staunchly remained in our respective camps regarding language. I'm pretty much a purist. He insists that language is an evolving entity. He says that when usage changes, what is acceptable will change. He says a dictionary’s purpose is to reflect what society is doing, not to publish some arbitrary set of rules. He dares me to look at Shakespeare’s English and say that is the same style we use today. All I could do in return was sputter my indignation. At a time when our precious words were being bastardized, I was ironically speechless.

Since then, I’ve done some Internet research. The site I can find where this issue is best discussed is this one. I’m trying hard to understand, but it looks to me as if we are turning down a perilous road (not rode). What’s next? Effect and affect interchangeable? With chat rooms pulling in millions of word-users, will “R U hapy now?” be the next dictionary entry? After all, if 40% of the people write like that, the dictionaries shouldn’t be too far behind in their acquiescence.

Sigh. By the way, if you are hearing something that makes your blood boil, a spouse laughing nonstop in the same room is not good. For you or him. Especially him.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Not just the facts, ma'am!

I never know what to expect when I talk to my Mom. She is constantly surprising me. Then there are other times I can see it coming. Recently, one call went like this:
“Hey, Mom. Guess what? I just wrote my obituary!”
“Did you hear me? I just wrote my obituary!”
After another pause, Mom said in that voice of hers (the one in which I can sense an imminent maternal lecture), “Now, Carol...I think you should leave your brain to medical science.” In effect, she thought I was nuts.

Well, maybe I am. But writing my own obituary was an enlightening experience. I wanted to save my family the chore of creating one when the time comes and they are in fresh grief. So I did it myself.

A friend of mine, though, had another experience with obituaries. She said that when her father died, her mother and the immediate family sat down together to write his obituary, and the occasion was emotionally helpful for them, as fond memories brought them a measure of comfort. I thought that was sweet, and I can see her point.

However, I don’t think my family could reconstruct my life to my satisfaction even now, much less later, without some prompting. So I sat down a couple of weeks ago and reflected on my life thus far. (One always has to have that disclaimer, of course. My life is hopefully far from over. I am reminded of Matthew, when he first saw the movie “Hook.” As he exited the theater, he gushed, “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life so far!”) What do I want to be remembered for? What things would I prefer to omit? What things should be described that may seem inconsequential to others but are important to me? I don’t want just the facts...I want my story to be personal - something that validates my existence as a unique human being in a world of millions of other human beings.

Ed and I are reading a biography of John Adams, and we came across an interesting fact about Thomas Jefferson. This is from the Monticello web site:
It was Jefferson's wish that his tomb stone reflect the things that he had given the people, not the things that the people had given to him. It is for this reason that Thomas Jefferson's epitaph reads:

BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1826

No mention of his being the President of the United States, a glaring and deliberate omission. This was Jefferson's last chance to summarize the importance of his own accomplishments in his own opinion, and only his opinion. This was, in a way, his last act of control.

Of course, I’m not writing my epitaph; I’m writing my obituary. I am, however, fortunate to live in a small town in Maine, where obituaries are usually long and detailed, some even listing the deceased’s hobbies, pets, and favorite teams. I am not limited to a short list of my alma mater, church affiliation, occupation, and survivors. I can be lengthy and altogether boring, but I don’t care. It’s my obituary, after all. It’s my last chance to leave a written summary of my legacy, such as it is.

As I looked over my life, detailing the events that I deemed worthy of remembrance, I was shocked to discover how important music has always been to me. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since I was the daughter of a choir director, took piano lessons and then organ lessons, planned to major in music in college, as an adult sang in several church choirs, then took up the Celtic harp after I moved to Maine. But somehow it was a poignant moment for me to realize its prominence, probably because music has fallen by the wayside in my life right now for various reasons. Writing your obituary is helpful in that way - you examine your life (so far!), and you make discoveries about the occasions and hobbies and people who have enriched your life, or at least given you a unique identity. The process will make you cry and laugh and wonder if you ever will live long enough to accomplish the things that are important to you. You can stand back and observe how you have evolved.

I’ll also tell you what writing your obituary won’t do. It won’t be bad luck, it won’t change the past, and it probably won’t make your Mom very happy. On the other hand, it will give you some important introspection, a feeling that your life did matter in many ways, and a feeling of gratitude that you ever got to go on the journey of life - your life so far, that is!

There is a lot more for me to experience, and I'm sure by the time I pass away, I'll have many edits and additions and rewrites. The story has yet to be finished. Oh, and regardless of my mother's comment, I really don't need to leave the world my brain. I'd rather leave it music, some silly poems, handmade quilts, pretty cross-stitch, amazing kids and grandkids - and a doozy of an obituary!

Thursday, October 04, 2007


I have always had a love/hate relationship with rules. I realize the world is not black and white; indeed, I tend to scoff at naive people who have that world view. The truth is, though, that sometimes I fight against rules and other times I welcome their restrictions.

Rules can make us feel safe, for instance. Ed once preached about a psychological experiment where they had kids on two different playgrounds. One playground had no fence, and the little children were generally afraid to venture out into what was to them a wide expanse of the unknown. They pretty much stayed huddled together in the center of the playground. The second playground was just as big, but had a fence. Can you guess where all the children headed? For the fence, of course, with some even trying to climb it.

Experts say that children (especially the young ones, but older ones as well) love to test boundaries. They do this because the boundaries of their lives are sometimes ambiguous (how I hate that word!), and other times because the rules may be clear, but they want to see if the fence will give way every once in a while. Rachel has had many a frustrating day as Caroline and Charlotte test the limits.

Some things in life give us a good mix of rules and freedom. My favorite quilt store, Keepsake Quilting, has a quilting contest several times a year. Called the Keepsake Quilting Challenge, it has just a few rules and a lot of leeway. The entry rules give the dimension measurements. The rules state that you have to buy a certain packet of fabrics from Keepsake Quilting, and your quilt has to incorporate most of those fabrics. You may get to choose one or two other fabrics to complete your design. It has to follow the theme for that specific contest, which varies, but which is usually a big enough umbrella to encompass whatever interpretation you might want to use. With these few rules, many quilts are made that on first glance seem to have little in common. They are marvels of workmanship and creativity.

Then there are the hard-and-fast rules versus implied rules. When she was a little girl, Rachel once entered a coloring contest at a restaurant. She was given a standard picture of an outdoor scene to color, and she did a good job, as did many other children. After she won the contest, the manager told her that she had impressed the judges because she had drawn and colored in a sun where there was no sun. They admired her creativity. I guess the rules did not specifically state you could not add anything, and her creative license saved the day.

I have usually been a dutiful follower of rules in my life, even as a teenager. I followed the school dress code, I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, usually got my homework in on time, and generally behaved myself. My one big irritation, though, was being told what to do in certain instances. I loved to read, but if a teacher demanded I read a certain book, I immediately developed a hatred for it, sight unseen. If I had picked up the same book on my own, I might have enjoyed it, but to be forced to read it sucked all the pleasure out of it for me.

When time came for our senior graduation picture, we were told to wear our graduation attire and to be sure to wear black shoes. Why that irritated me, I have no idea, but as a last defiant gesture to high school, I balked. If you look carefully at my class picture, I am in the front row wearing white shoes. It probably made me feel a semblance of control in what was a very, very anxious time. But I will say this - one has to know the rules in order to choose to break them.

In our simplicity journey, we make our own rules, and our journey is unlike any other. It’s a roller coaster, it’s a maze, it’s a walk in the dark, it’s serendipity, it’s adjustment, it’s regret and disappointment, wonder and delight.

I’m being featured soon in an online-only new women’s magazine (, where I will give highlights of my individual journey to simplicity, and three other women will give theirs. They will talk about their own rules and their own goals, and I am anxious to see the various quilts we are each making with our lives, using a few basic rules and a mountain of creativity. I’ll never be totally at peace with rules, but it certainly is nice when you’re old enough to make your own. I can live with that.