Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Disconnect

I'm sure we all have had experiences where our thinking was disconnected from, say, common sense and reality. Much of this involves risks and consequences. When you're young and want a tan, you have a disconnect about melanoma and wrinkles. When you avoid brushing and flossing your teeth, you have a disconnect about how unappealing it is to see the dentist. People who smoke and drink excessively have temporary memory loss of what it means to get lung cancer, liver disease, or a ticket for OUI. You know that eating junk is going to lead to ill health and will eventually show up on the scale, but you focus on the immediate pleasure. For some reason, human logic and calculation is undermined when the temptation of the moment is strong.

Some of this, I think, ironically is just self preservation and protection. If you really and truly realized the risks and consequences of what you were doing, your emotions would probably explode with the horrible understanding. It is also human nature to want to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, concentrating on the here-and-now pleasure as opposed to future pain.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when we talk about death - or don't talk about it. I was listening to a financial show on public radio a few weeks ago in which some experts were debating the necessity of buying long-term health care insurance, e.g., nursing home insurance. After much discussion, basically the recommendation came down to this: How long do you think you will live and how healthy do you think you will be?

I don't know a whole lot of people who like to sit around and wonder at what age they will die. It's not something high on the "feel good" list of things to daydream about. We don't like to think about our own deaths and we certainly don't like to think about deaths of those we love. And there's the disconnect. Our brains tell us that these things will happen, but if we seriously thought about the reality of it, our emotions would overpower us and we would end up angry, depressed, anxious, or even emotionally paralyzed.

I remember when Ed was at the bed of a dying AIDS patient in Tennessee. They had several discussions about what was to come, what to expect, fear, loss, pain, disappointment - the works. I remember Ed telling the young man, "You know, I'm going to die too. The only difference is, you know when it's coming for you."

It seems in the last few years, I've had some female friends die who I thought would be here forever. You know the kind - independent, sassy, overcoming-all-odds people. You can't imagine the world without their presence. These were strong women, all involved in music and highly talented, who would, I thought, would just each shake their fist at Death and say, "Not for me, buddy!" But it didn't happen. They lived long, productive lives (in one case, however, cut short), made so much a difference in their world, but Death finally took them and never once asked me for my opinion about the matter.

This week, my daughter-in-law's Gram died, and also my sister's dog Abbey died. Both were old, both had long, energetic, fruitful lives surrounded by people who loved them, and both were such presences that their families can't fathom a world without them. I remember I felt that way when my best friend, Bernie, died at age 49. I remember thinking several times that I needed to call her to tell her something, then it crushed me to remember she had passed on. Same thing with my wonderful dad - your parents gave you life and love - they will always be here....won't they? People (and pets) like these are so much a part of us that you just know they will be here forever. You've never known life without their love and care, and you can't imagine how empty and useless life will seem without their physical being here to hug and touch and talk to.

Death has been called The Great Equalizer, but it can also be called The Great Disconnect - and not because it disconnects us from our loved ones, but because when viewing death, we have a habit of disconnecting our brains from reality. But in my heart, I believe there is another reality. I believe that the souls of these people and pets live on, that Death is not the final answer, and that that love cannot die, even when the physical body has left us. Sure, it hurts to love when things like this happen, but this is the way life works. Memories are precious and healing. I think that is one of the cruelties of Alzheimer's and other dementias: They take away the victim's ability to recognize loved ones, and they erase all their beautiful memories that make her/him a human being.

I wish somehow as a society we could look upon Death as something natural, not necessarily welcome (but in some cases, it is), but inevitable. Death gives us a great gift. Knowing it will come, it makes life all the more precious, gives us realization that life itself is a fragile commodity, gives us the desire to define our legacy, and give us an opportunity to form and cherish the belief that it doesn't have the last word.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

South Meets North

This June will mark our transplant anniversary - we moved to Maine from Tennessee 15 years ago this June. I can remember when we first told friends and family that we were moving. Half the people thought we were crazy and the other half said it sounded like a marvelous adventure for us. So what has it turned out to be?

A little bit of both, I think! The move definitely changed the course of our lives, as both our children married native Mainers and are raising their kids here. Rachel still has somewhat of a southern accent, as she was 18 when we moved, but Matt has lost his southern accent, as he was only 13 and his developing teenage years were spent up north. (He doesn’t sound like a Mainer; he just doesn’t have much of an accent at all.) Rachel’s husband Chris swears that when they fly to Memphis, the minute the pilot makes the “Welcome to Memphis” announcement, her southern drawl gets significantly more pronounced.

I’ve had to field a lot of questions in these last 15 years. What are the differences in Maine and Tennessee, and how much of a culture shock was it? What do I miss about the South and what have I been relieved to abandon?

Well, of course, my family first and foremost was the treasure I left behind, and I miss them every single minute. On top of that, after Mom’s car accident, she moved in with my sister, Joy, and I have had to watch Joy maneuver through that major change in her life without being able to help as I would like. Distance is a quite a barrier. Thank God for the telephone and Internet.

What differences have I encountered? Most men don’t wear suits and most women don’t wear dresses. In Tennessee cities, even small towns where we lived at various times, I would see men in suits every day. Doctors, lawyers, businessmen, salesman, church attendees - I do love a man in a suit. Here, I think I think I’ve seen two suits - one on a drug representative at the hospital where I work, and the other on a lawyer in court when I was on jury duty. Casual is the dress code of the Maine lifestyle. In most offices elsewhere, “casual Friday” is too dressed up for where we live now. Part of this is, of course, due to the lack of big cities, and another part is due to the weather conditions. In winter, the whole idea is to stay warm, and one dresses to accommodate that need, regardless of how unkempt it appears. The roads are a mess all winter with salt and sand, and in the spring, it all turns to mud. I get dirty just getting in and out of the car. Then, you have to realize that air conditioning is not ubiquitous up here. Most homes and some businesses lack it (including our house), and so when it gets hot (and it does for a few weeks every summer), you again dress just to stay cool, not for fashion.

It’s normal to see pickups with plows attached all winter. It’s normal to see seagulls in parking lots. It’s normal to hear the “tides” times given in the weather forecast. It’s normal to read in the local newspaper long, fascinating obituaries for every single deceased person, most of the time accompanied by a photograph. It’s normal to have snow piled up in yards and driveways that won’t be gone entirely until late April or May. It’s normal to read newspaper summaries of annual town meetings for every town, no matter how small, detailing every discussion and every debate and every vote. It’s normal to have schools open with 2 feet of snow in the school yard (that’s because the municipalities clear the highways and roads quickly). It’s normal to read the police log not for murders or armed robberies but for cows loose in the road and neighbor disputes. In Tennessee, it makes you tired to think of traveling the state from west to east, but in Maine, it makes you tired thinking of traveling north to south.

We don’t miss the tornadoes or the endless thunderstorms. We miss the moderate spring temps (it is still freezing here at night) and miss the early spring flowers. We certainly do get used to single digit temperatures in the winter, and, of course, the snow is lovely, but hard work as well. But in the summer, when Memphis has days and days of 100-degree-plus temperatures, we are basking in the 70s and low 80s, so there are advantages! The beauty of both Tennessee and Maine are legendary, and well deserved. We live within a short walk to one of the many Maine bays. It’s hard not to enjoy that! You appreciate spring more after a hard winter, and, of course, the fall foliage is incredible.

A lot of people are very reserved in Maine. Most people like to keep to themselves. You’re not a real Mainer, we’ve been told, until your mother’s mother was born in Maine. They call people who move here “from away,” and no matter how long you’ve been here, you’ll always have that moniker.

And, of course, there’s the language. We say tennis shoes, they say sneakers. We say housecoats, they say robes. We say houseshoes, they say slippers. We say washrags, they say washcloths. They have unusual words like “wicked” (very) and “cunnin’” (cute) and phrases like “right out straight” (stressed to the max). They put R’s in words that don’t have them (“warsh” for “wash”) and take R’s out that are supposed to be there (“lobstah”). Caroline and Charlotte know that my sister in Memphis is “Ant” Joy, and their northern dad’s sisters are “Awnts.” Coke is soda, of course. You have to order “iced” tea or they bring you hot tea. In most restaurants that have sweet tea, it is “sweetened” with some fruit flavor, not sugar. You have to ask for the whole phrase “cole slaw” because we have ordered plain “slaw” and they weren’t sure what we wanted.

You feel out of the loop if you’re not a big fan of the New England Patriots or the Boston Red Sox.

So, yes, it has been an adventure, scary in some parts, but on the whole, quite an exciting transition. We’ve met some wonderful people, I found a wonderful job, the kids found exceptional spouses, we love our little house on the dirt road, and we feel very blessed. We can all laugh together about our eccentricities and differences, and any conversation is likely to end with “See ya!” with a response of “Y’all be careful!” Being a transplant can be fun.

I leave you with a limerick I wrote recently for a limerick contest (but entered a couple of others instead):

We moved here to Maine where we’ll stay.

We've weathered each hardy Maine day.

Alas, it's our fate:

To the rest of the state,

We'll always be folks "from away."

Friday, March 04, 2011

Snow Job

It has been the winter of snow in our part of Maine, that’s for sure. Without a snowblower or plow at our disposal, Ed and I have used muscle-power to shovel our entire driveway and turnaround space after every storm, sometimes lifting as much as a foot of heavy, wet snow. Most of the time we do this at 4 a.m. in the dark, so I can leave for work by 5 a.m.

Scenarios like this give one a lot of time to think. The world is quiet and peaceful, with the only sounds being the hypnotic crunch of the shovel and the occasional grunt of exertion. On one such morning, gloved fingers still frozen to the bone, I had a revelation. I had been under the illusion that we were getting rid of the snow, when in fact, we were just moving it around. It would have nice to have had some kind of machine that would have melted the snow and thrown the water off somewhere, or even just evaporated the stuff, but we were only taking snow from one place and putting it in a different place. (This is why we fear any more storms this season; we have run out of places to put it.) On the surface, this seems idiotic. We have an irritant (snow) and instead of disposing of it, we just move it out of one place and into another. The obvious reason is, of course, that we have priorities, and one of those is getting me to work, and to do that, we have to clear the driveway. So we move the snow from the driveway to the side of the driveway and the adjacent yard.

I wonder how many times I have done that with other things. In a journey to simplicity, one of the first tasks is figuring out what to do with a lot of “stuff.” From my experience, these were (and still are) hard decisions - (If I get rid of it, what if I need it again one day? What if I’ll regret it?”) and the tendency is to avoid making hard decisions, so I ended up just transferring “stuff” from one place to another - maybe distributing in more boxes, taking some things to storage, getting it out of sight. I wasn’t getting rid of much; I was just moving it around. My accumulation was still weighing me down; it just wasn’t in my face so I could avoid thinking about it.

I also think humans tend to do that psychologically. If we encounter a problem that we just don’t want to have to deal with, we “transfer” it to another part of our brain and put it on hold. We’re not getting rid of the problem; we’re just moving it around like snow to convince ourselves we have done something. Of course, we have only done some rearranging and the problem has certainly not gone away (and may have gotten even bigger in the meantime).

Avoidance of the tough decisions in life is human nature. So is doing things to try to trick yourself. Next time I hear the phrase “snow job” meaning to fool someone, I’ll smile. Sometimes we have no bigger fools than ourselves.