Thursday, February 18, 2010

Not being a Grouchy Old Man

A few days ago I shoveled about two inches of snow from the driveway and sidewalk before running a few errands. When I returned I found two neighborhood boys playing “king of the mountain” on the huge bank of snow between my sidewalk and the road. You can imagine what my sidewalk looked like. They looked at me, then the sidewalk, and got that unmistakable “uh-oh” look in their eyes. I gave them what I hope was a friendly grin and asked if they wanted to play a new game, this one involving shovels. They leaped at the opportunity. It would have been faster and easier to do it without their “help,” given that most of what they shoveled slid right back onto the sidewalk, but that was not the objective. I am working on the ongoing spiritual discipline of being the Friendly Older Neighbor rather than the Grouchy Old Man.

When we moved into this house some 23 years ago, we were one of the few families with young children in a neighborhood of retirees. The people from whom we purchased the house gave us but one bit of advice – they pointed to a house on the other side of the street and cautioned us to make certain that our kids never allowed a ball to roll into that yard. It was the home of the designated Neighborhood Grouch. He was extremely fussy about his lawn and had no great affection for children. Something in me vowed then and there that I would never be like that.

We are now the older couple living in a neighborhood with many young children, all of whom are fortunate enough to have parents who understand the importance of unstructured outdoor play, especially in warm weather. It is a safe neighborhood, and the kids roam the block freely. Our driveway is alive with bikes and scooters much of the year, a good thing to remember when backing out of the garage. Chalk art on the sidewalk sometimes greets us when we come home. Children knock on our door seeking a snack or asking if we have anything fun for them to do. One day, when I was working at my desk, two little girls dropped me to announce that they wanted to take a tour of our house. The cautious part of me wondered if a man home alone should really be playing host to little girls, even for a few minutes. But the world they are growing up in is ugly and confusing enough, and I did not want to add to either by telling them it would be better to return when my wife was at home. They pronounced our house “boring” because it had nothing in it but grown-up stuff, sat at the kitchen table for a snack, and hopped back onto their bikes.

The costs I pay for the joy of having the neighborhood children as a part of my life are very modest. Sometimes my carefully-raked leaves will need to be raked again after they jump in them or ride their bikes through them. I will do more snow shoveling than I would do if I lived in a retirement community (kids are constitutionally unable to walk home from school without kicking, climbing or sitting down in snow). When my lawn is soggy after a heavy rain it will occasionally sprout grooves the width of bike tires.

We have a term for all this. We call it “the goodness of life in community.” And each time I hear high-pitched voices squealing with joy and excitement, I am reminded of what a wonderful blessing it is.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Valentine Dilemma

After more than forty years of marriage I still dread those three annual occasions – Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Susan's birthday – when I am pretty much required to purchase a card for her. The overwhelming majority of cards designed for a guy to give to his wife make me feel embarrassed to be a male. We have the “humorous” category (easily recognized by the bashful cartoon bear on the front) designed for men who are terrified of displaying any hint of having actual emotions. Sometimes this category crosses with a second, the “apology” card – “I know I leave my dirty clothes all over the floor, never take out the garbage and essentially ignore you 364 days out of the year, but at least I bought you this card!” Who are the men who buy these cards? Who are the women who, in receiving such a card, do not tell their husbands what they can do with it?

Then there are the cards that do not know when to shut up. They are festooned with hearts and flowers, and feature a badly-written, sloppy, sentimental romantic poem that runs on and on. And on. If I gave such a card to Susan she would likely run for the bathroom, clutching her stomach. Which is one of the many reasons I love her.

My ideal Valentine’s Day card (which I have never found) would feature a simple, tasteful picture and would say only two things: Happy Valentine’s Day; I love you. So I wade through rack after rack, searching for the card that does not exist, and settle for the least offensive one I can find. The browsing itself is always educational, especially the new categories of cards that keep popping up to address increasingly complex family patterns. I have yet to see a Valentine category labeled “For Your Fourth Wife,” but I am sure it is out there. This morning I saw one on the rack labeled “For a Troubled Relationship.” I was eager to see what such a card would say, but they had sold them all.

I think it is time to buy one of those packs of Valentines designed for children to give to their classmates; the ones that feature cheerful bumblebees saying “Bee My Honey!” One pack would last me the rest of my life, and likely embarrass me a good deal less. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My cervical spine revisited...

I have not written anything about my cervical spine issues for some time because there has been nothing new to say. The cortisone injection did not appear to help much. I will have another injection next week in the hope that the second time is a charm, and also because if that does not do the trick my only recourse is surgery. Meanwhile, even before the injection I was experiencing a gradual increase in shoulder strength, which is approaching 45-50% of normal. The “glass half full” part of me is grateful for the things I can do that I could not a few weeks ago, while the “glass half empty” part worries about the things I love to do (kayaking, backpacking, etc.) that I may never be able to resume. There has also been some progress with the pain. Three weeks ago I would have cheerfully bitten the head off a live bat to make the pain in my shoulder go away. Now I would insist on seeing papers demonstrating that the bat is rabies-free.

Last night I had an “aha” moment; a “duh” moment, actually. I have had a nasty headache for the last week, and could not figure out how it related, or if it related, to my spine. I believe I have found the answer. My cervical traction device gives such blissful short-term relief from the pain that I had cranked it higher and higher, until I was on the verge of turning myself into a bobble-head doll. I am guessing if I lay off it for a day or two then dial it back to a reasonable 30 pounds, the headache will vanish.

I am receiving lots of friendly advice about what I should do, and the advice, of course, is contradictory. In one camp are those who urge me to stop messing around and go for the surgery. Their reasoning is impeccable. The longer the nerve is pinched, they note, the lower the odds of significant recovery. And the underlying condition – arthritic degeneration of the spine, which has narrowed the canal through which the nerve passes – all but guarantees that the problem will recur and I will wind up having the surgery anyway. Airtight case, right?

But then there is the other camp, which points out that the surgery is a profoundly unpleasant one with a fairly difficult recovery. For starters, the surgeon goes in from the front of the neck, which means moving the larynx and various other useful things out of the way; some veterans say that the most difficult part of the recovery process was swallowing. Sleeping is a real challenge, particular for us side-sleepers. While the worst is over in two weeks or so, full recovery requires twelve weeks, and as I learned after my hernia surgery last fall, twelve weeks means twelve weeks. They also note that virtually everyone over sixty has some degeneration of the spine, and it is entirely possible that I will never experience this again. Then they add the final argument – there is no guarantee that the surgery would work. As one friend put it, “surgery should always be the last dog hung.” Why one would wish to hang a dog I cannot say, but I find myself agreeing with him. I will stick with my physiatrist and his cortisone injections for at least a few more weeks. This whole thing is proving to be quite a lesson in patience, a lesson I would have just as soon avoided…

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Boiled Frogs and Clean Laundry

I have done the laundry in our household for many years. This is because I like to do it and Susan does not. It is also because I notice when the laundry needs to be done and she does not. All I ask of her is that she remembers to remove the Kleenex from her pockets before she throws her jeans into the basket, which she mostly does.

After years of talking about it, I finally replaced my 26-year-old washer and dryer. The stars aligned just right – Wisconsin offered a “cash for clunker” rebate, a local appliance store purchased all available stock of a very good washer/dryer combination that was being discontinued and sold them at a deep discount, and the manufacturer even tossed in an additional rebate. So I am now learning the nuances of a front-loading, high-efficiency washing machine, and establishing a relationship with a dryer that appears to be smarter than I am (it monitors the dampness of the laundry it is drying and sets its time accordingly, for example).

The old Maytags had served us well, never requiring a repair that I could not do myself. They were sturdy beasts, right down to their hoses. My friend Harry, after reading that the water hoses on a washer should be replaced every ten years, removed his and took them to an appliance parts store. The guy looked at them and said “Those are Maytag. A ten-year-old Maytag hose will last longer than any new ones I could sell you!” Similarly, I had taken for granted the heavy rubber hose that carried the drain water to my laundry tub. The new one is lightweight plastic, so I had to drill a hole in the wall of the tub and attach it in order to make sure it stayed in place. But the old washer was beginning to leak a bit and the dryer was making disconcerting noises. They were ready for the appliance graveyard.

Here is the huge surprise: my clothes are now coming out much cleaner! As they say in the ads, my whites are whiter and my colors are brighter. Far less lint is collecting in the dryer’s lint trap, suggesting that the washer is cleaning clothes more deeply. Some of that may be attributable to the design itself. It is an entirely different washing process that is more interesting to watch than most of what is on television. But I am guessing that it also reflects the fact that the old washer had been losing its efficiency for years in increments so small that I did not notice the change. And therein, of course, lurks a metaphor.

The idea that ignoring a small, undesirable situation will inevitably lead to gradual, often unnoticed, worsening is most commonly expressed in terms of the camel’s nose: “if the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.” We have also the fabled “slippery slope,” the “for want of a nail” proverb and – my personal favorite – “boiling a frog.” Toss a frog in boiling water and he leaps out, but heat the water gradually and the little guy is toast before he figures out something is wrong. Not that I ever have, or would, boil a frog myself. Similarly, there are any number of personal disciplines that, if allowed to slip a little bit at a time, will ultimately be lost. Take handwriting -- I have no idea when mine passed from “poor penmanship” to “utter illegibility,” but somewhere along the way that frog got boiled.

So for years I have accepted laundry that was not as clean as it should have been because my standards and expectations were declining in lockstep with the washer’s performance, and it took an external reality check – in this case, in the form of a new washer – for me to notice. Which is why we need friends who will hold us accountable and provide us with reality checks. I will show you my laundry if you will show me yours.