Pass the soma

Childhood obesity is now a major American problem. When they reach their twenties, many of today’s overweight youth will discover adult diabetes, something virtually unheard of before.

If only the new problems facing today’s youth were limited to obesity. In addition to the normal traumas of adolescence, there are a whole potpourri of new problems and issues for them to confront. Attention deficit disorder is rampant. Many of our youth do not have the organizational skills to manage their homework. Many cannot even study. (They know how to do it, but cannot seem to successfully follow the steps, or even summon the motivation.) It is no wonder that we parents are spending so much money getting them counseling, therapy and life coaches. Only it does not seem to be doing much to solve their problems.

The Future Shock predicted by Alvin Toffler is here and now and it is not pretty. The complexity of our world has increased exponentially in my lifetime, and it only continues to accelerate. We adults have a hard enough time getting through the minefield of living. It is far more confusing to our children. Not surprisingly, they are having a hard time adapting. Why? We need people that who behave like machines. Instead, we humans stubbornly insist on being human beings. In addition, the more complex life gets the bigger the disconnect. Like it or not we cannot retrofit bodies that for millennium were optimized for chores like farming and hunting mastodons into a species of cubicle dwellers.

Imagine what would happen to a thoroughbred that spent most of his life in the stall. Imagine if the supply of oats and water were plentiful and always readily available. Imagine if he only rarely got outside the barn, and once outside did not have the opportunity or inclination to run around. Most likely the thoroughbred would be obese and unhealthy.

Therefore, we really should not be surprised that our youth seem to be having a hard time coping with modern life. Our children are not living a natural life. They are living an unnatural life. For a human child a natural life would involve a lot of time spent outdoors, running around and exploring. I knew that sort of youth. The woods were less than a mile away and we were frequently in them. After school, we were outside playing ball, running around or having harmless “wars” with the other kids on the block. There was no Nintendo to distract us. We had no personal computers and could not even imagine the Internet. With so much time to fill, we created our own realities. We engaged the world because there was no other choice.

Today we are thrown together in increasingly dense communities. The streams are now underground in drainage pipes. Most of us modern parents cannot allow our children to play unsupervised. There are too many wackos and perverts out there. We imagine them lurking around every corner targeting our children. Our youth live highly managed and busy lives. As parents, our mission seems to be to never given them a moment’s rest. How could we? This modern world is so complex. There is so much they must learn and not enough time to learn it. We know the anxiety first hand because we live in it. Therefore, we push our children hard.

Just the idea of our children growing up technologically impaired gives us the heebie jeebies. Therefore, in addition to the compulsory game machines they have their own computers, PDAs, cell phones and fat pipes to the Internet. So naturally, when they have something resembling downtime, they are sending text messages and IMing friends instead of playing ball in the street. When my daughter is on the Internet she often has a half dozen chat windows open at the same time. She has the message: in this modern world, you must be able to multitask.

If we were a more enlightened society then perhaps we would demand no more complexity to our lives. We might even insist on regression. Perhaps we would be petitioning Congress to unplug us from the Internet and take away our computers. Perhaps we would go back to slide rules, logarithm tables, black and white televisions, typewriters and carbon paper. Perhaps we would be limiting our children to one per family so future generations could enjoy something resembling nature again.

In truth, Future Shock has been around since the early 19th century. It began with the start of the Industrial Revolution. The problem is that it is only getting worse. With each generation, it gets harder to push us square peg humans into the round holes of modern living. We must all live by our wits now. If we do not then we will not survive.

Our children will be emulating us: spending their work life in cubicles in leased office buildings. They will be constantly on call. They will have little time for hobbies. Leisure time will need to be productive. If they made it through college, they will be going to graduate school. Lifelong education will be a necessity so they will be constantly earning new degrees. However, it is questionable whether so many of our ADD-addled youth of today will be able to master modern life at all.

It is a good bet they will not be hitting the health club after work. The forty-hour workweek will look increasing nostalgic. They will be lucky if they are working only fifty-hour workweeks. Most likely, they and their spouse will be juggling multiple jobs each to maintain some semblance of a decent standard of living. In addition, on top of their frantic lives they will be expected to raise another generation who will likely turn out even more dysfunctional. The road kill rates are likely to climb.

My wife is now teaching in a community college. I have been teaching in a community college for about five years. She runs across the same type of students that I do. She is surprised but what she sees but I am not. It is amazing and incredible, but most of her students arrive in college with no study skills at all. They whine for extra tutoring and study sessions. They do not know how to take effective notes. (Most do not even bother to take notes.) They pretty much refuse to read the textbook. They think homework is optional. If the lectures are not made available as printed Powerpoint slides they probably cannot absorb it. They need short bullets. These college pretenders cannot cope with college, just like they cannot cope with many other aspects of modern life. That is why so many of them are still living at home. That is why Mom and Dad are still paying for their room and board.

They seem comfortable in their cocoons. Modern life is too scary. They would rather stay in the nest. They would rather live with Mom and Dad forever. Despite all the preparation they allegedly received for real life, they arrive baffled and largely clueless. Life seems surreal. Money is abstract. It is hard to associate effort with value. It is hard to think. It is hard to understand cause and effect. They live in what they perceive to be a virtual and abstract world, not a real world.

I expect that our drug companies will try to come to the rescue. There will be a plethora of new drugs to help us cope. They will not solve their problems, but hopefully as a result they will feel better. Rest assured that they will enrich drug company profits. For if they survive then they will be needed in their stalls/cubicles. Lots of email will be constantly streaming in and out of their inbox that will need their attention. Perhaps their ability to multitask so successfully will make them a better cubicle dweller. For eight or ten hours a day, they will sit at their workstations hardly moving. However, the vending machine will be around the corner if they feel the need to graze. Because not only has Future Shock arrived, but Brave New World is also here. Pass the soma.

You Shouldn’t Do Should

Can we banish a world from our vocabulary? I would like to do so. I would like to get rid of the word should.

Okay, maybe I am being a bit hasty. There are after all a number of definitions for should. If you are calling home saying your flight should come in at 6 p.m. you are merely giving fair warning: it may not actually arrive on time. Given some of my recent travel experiences, 6 p.m. might be 3 p.m. the next day. However, I do not like the word when used to give self-imposed guilt trips. When used this way there are usually apron strings attached.

I have been noticing that in general women use should in this context a lot more than men. I am not sure why this is true. Nevertheless, I can speculate. Maybe it is because men are better at doing what they want. Or perhaps men are better at concealing their feelings. Whatever. But when you hear the word, you or the person uttering it is probably parroting their mother or father.

You should make your bed every day. You should brush your teeth after meals. You should exercise every day. You should take your vitamins in the morning. You should not eat too much fatty food. Should means you are expected to live up to someone else’s standard.

Why are you letting these people dictate your life? Let us try a more benign word instead. How about could? Could is should without the guilt trip. Yes, I could make my bed today. However, it will be just as clean and comfortable tonight if I do not want to make it. I could exercise today, but it is not necessary to do it every day. Therefore, I will watch TV instead. When you use could instead of should you are saying you are a grown up. You are affirming that you are fully capable of making decisions for yourself. When you say should you are being manipulated.

As an ex-Catholic I know all about should. When I grew up you sure knew from religious class that you should go to Mass every Sunday. At one time, it was a mortal sin to miss Mass without a priest’s okay. (I guess it was demoted to a venial sin.) I also knew I should never have sex before marriage. In school, I knew I should get all straight A’s. (I usually succeeded but I boy was I ashamed to bring anything less. I mean my face would turn beet red when I handed over my report card.) In fact, anything that gave me any real pleasure was something that was frowned upon. Apparently, I was born to be miserable.

I am sure I still live at least partially in the land of the “shoulds”. As a parent, I am busy making sure that my daughter also lives in the land of the shoulds. She should bring home all A’s too. But she rarely does, much to my consternation. She seems to be better at keeping the parental flypaper from sticking. My wife, bless her soul, is firmly entrenched in should-world. Some days it seems like every other word out of her mouth. “Oh, I should grade these student projects,” she will bemoan. Instead, she is playing computer games.

And that’s okay in my book. True I am not too enamored with people who make commitments to other people and don’t keep them. So were she to not plan for her next lesson I might even think her guilt trip was earned. I know that she will grade those projects at some time when it is more convenient for her. But usually when she uses the word should, it’s for a lot of silly stuff. She should do laundry on Tuesday. Instead, some weeks it is done on Wednesday or Thursday. Hey, it is okay as long as we do not run out of clean clothes. We should have dinner on the table by six o’clock. Some nights it is more like eight o’clock. Yes, I do prod her from time to time, but only because she insists on cooking and I am getting hungry. However, if it is an hour or two late on most nights I do not mind. Moreover, if she is busy doing something else that she really likes or is focused on it’s not the end of the world. I know how to cook for myself.

So should means more when it affects other people. Yes, if you are a parent you darn well should get your kids their shots when they need them. Actually, you must get them. Nevertheless, if it affects only you or no one really cares one way or the other, just turn off the guilt trip. You do not need it. If instead you are articulating these feelings to the rest of the family or significant others then we don’t need to hear it either. All we are hearing is the subtext: there is something wrong with me. I am flawed. I did not live up to my parent’s expectations. I am not living up to my expectations. Okay, we got it. Once was enough.

If it bugs you then get some therapy. I hope it helps. However, it may be a whole lot cheaper to put yourself on permanent holiday. Ask yourself: does this behavior affect anyone but me? If not, you have only yourself to answer for. If it does then decide whether it really matters or not. Is anyone you love or care for truly affected? Will they go sick, hungry or suffer emotional neglect? Or do they simply not care? If unsure, ask them. If they want you to have dinner on the table at six because they are used to it, does that matter? Or is the request simply an expectation? Is it perhaps a not too subtle way of controlling you? Again, if it does not matter then it is not worth all the thought. Go back to doing what you were enjoying.

Shall means there is a legal or ethical commitment. I shall feed and clothe my daughter. If I do not then I am likely to end up in prison. Will means that you honestly and sincerely intend to do something according to some specified conditions. You had given someone (maybe yourself) a commitment. Violating it doesn’t mean that you will be dragged away in chains, only that someone may be upset or think lesser of you.

However, should is simply a word you should not use. So repeat after me: I shall not use should. Instead I will use could. Repeat until the apron strings disappear and you become a liberated human being. Should just puts out a lot of unnecessary bad karma that will make you needlessly and pointlessly upset. You do not need it and no one who associates you needs it either. Pitch the word, pitch the attitude and move on.

The Vortex of Dying

Five weeks ago my 85-year-old mother could still get around. It was true that she often needed assistance. About half the time she could raise herself into her walker. Yes, she was a bit awkward shuffling forward or turning in her walker. But once started she could generally push herself forward. When she sat she was more likely to plop into her chair than brace her fall. But arguably she was mobile. She had some vestige of independence.

Five weeks ago she could also feed herself without much problem. Although her hands shook from time to time a drug made her tremors manageable.

Five weeks ago my mother lived in her own apartment. My father tended to her and was her constant, if sometime reluctant companion, day and night, catering to her many and seemingly endless needs. She slept in her own bed. Every evening she could count on a quality dinner at the dining room in their retirement community. She would enjoy that daily cup of coffee (now decaffeinated) served to her by waiters in uniforms. The coffee was poured into real china cups. She could count on enjoying a tasty entree fresh from the kitchens of the Riderwood dining facility. She especially liked the shrimp entrees.

Five weeks later finds my mother in a nursing home. The place is called Renaissance Gardens. It is a nursing home adjacent to the retirement community. She can no longer get herself into her walker. She cannot even lie down without assistance. Almost every act requires assistance. Her condition, PSP, means it is difficult for her to move her eyes. So she can only focus on what is straight ahead of her. She can still tilt and rotate her head slowly, but doing do brings fatigue after a while. So most of the time she listens and stares blankly at whatever happens to be in front of her.

Her days consist of meals, bed rest, occasional visits from occupational therapists and physicians, a visit or two from my father or a family member, and more bed rest. Her nights are long. She claims she doesn’t sleep, at least not very much. Days and nights blend together, as they have for many years now. She can read but only with concentration, and not for long. Her hands are not agile enough to hold a book. She has no interest in television and cannot concentrate on it.

And her condition is unlikely to improve. She may visit their apartment briefly from time to time. But it is unlikely that she will ever spend another night in her own bed. Instead she will be managed. Life is and will continue to be endlessly frustrating to her. Nothing can be done on her schedule anymore. She must wait. Wait for meals. Wait for someone to take her tray. Wait to be turned. Wait to be lifted into her wheelchair. Wait to be helped to and from the bathroom. More often than not she is changed like a baby. Underpants are useless. For the rest of her life she wears Depends.

She still hears very well, as long as her hearing aid batteries are fresh. She knows where she is. Even if she were mobile she cannot escape her ward. You see you have to know the number to type on the pad by the exit door and she doesn’t know it. Nor could her wobbly fingers press them accurately. She can recall most events clearly. Her hair may be gray but she has the skin of a woman twenty years younger. Her face may sag but there are few lines on her face.

Yet she keeps receding. She is clearly mentally ill. The extent of her illness is difficult for me to gauge, but it can be hard for those of us who love her to endure it. She is told one thing and remembers another. A 2 p.m. appointment becomes 1 p.m. in her mind. A fifteen-minute wait magnifies in her mind to an hour wait. As a result she is often bitter, resentful, and generally a complete killjoy. With luck, perseverance and enough conversation she can lapse into something like the mother I used to know. But increasingly the mother I knew throughout my life is gone. I ache for the moments when she acts familiar. But three quarters of the time or more she is not the mother I knew. The face is there but her personality has been magnified. The good parts have receded. Her unpleasant aspects have been grotesquely magnified. She acts more like a child than an adult.

To those of us who know and love her, she is in some sense already dead. Dead, yet alive, yet also inexorably sliding down a slippery slope. She is moving down a vortex from which life cannot escape. Hope is gone. She recognizes the reality of her condition but cannot fully grasp its dimensions. So she is understandably angry and depressed by her reality. She talks about her own death much more frequently now. She both resents her husband and admires him. She resents that he won’t spend every waking moment by her side engaged in conversation. She resents that he won’t lift her or put her down, even though he should not at 78. She resents that he cannot make things right for her, even though things are about as right as they can get under the circumstances. But she still admires the husband and father that he was, and wonders why on the dawn of their 55th wedding anniversary the husband she thought she knew and trusted is now more like Mr. Hyde than Dr. Jekyll.

For my father is being pulled into her vortex too but so far is clinging firmly to its edge. He is doing the best he can for his wife, wishing he could do more but finding it impossible. He has limits that he must respect. He loves his wife but mourns these changes in her too. He feels confused, hurt and resentful when she lashes out at him in anger. He knows it is her mental illness that makes her do these things. But it makes most interactions with her painful. It makes him want to see her less, not more. Yet he plods forward in his marital role as best he can. Her bills get paid. He sorts through her many medical issues. My Dad is fraying a bit at the seams too. He must pull away. For the first time in his life he is seeing a therapist. We wonder how he survived so long without one.

And now he comes home to an empty and deathly quiet apartment. He makes his own meals, but not for two. But he now he has freedoms he didn’t have before, like being able to get out for regular walks. But always there is the psychic tug of his wife and her wants.

No one is at fault. Everyone is doing the best they can. And no one is happy about the situation. We wonder how long my mother will be living like this. How long before death finally overtakes her? Days? Months? Weeks? Years? Most patients with her condition live one to two years after they are committed to the nursing home. There is no way to know for sure. But considering the extent of her deterioration in just the last five weeks I suspect it will be sooner rather than later.

We recognize that we are not super humans either. My siblings and I still have our own families and commitments. We love her as much as we always have. But we cannot be there all the time. She has to cope with this unhappy phase of her life as best she can. Yet she does not seem to be in pain most of the time. Her basic needs are seen to. Her other needs are difficult if not impossible to meet.

So we grieve too. Seeing a parent decline is like watching a fatal car wreck in slow motion and in exquisite detail, except we cannot turn away from it. We feel the emotional impact of her decline. We wish we could wave a magic wand and make things better. Like my father we cannot really turn off our feelings.

In the process we wonder if we see in our mother what we too will go through in time. Despite her high quality of care it still looks like a nightmare. I find myself hoping for a sudden and quick death when my time comes. Is what my mother going through really life? Is this the “culture of life” that we claim to so highly value? Or is it just existence? Whatever it is, it seems like a horror.

So we too stand on the edge of her vortex looking down too, confident that for now we will not be sucked into it but knowing our time will come too. We look because a lifelong commitment of love between parent and child means we cannot turn away now. For myself, I move through the rest of my life seemingly normal on the surface but a changed, humbled, frustrated and sometimes scared person. I hope when my time comes I will be more graceful in my decline. I want a death like King Theoden’s on Pelennor Fields. But I suspect mine will resemble my mother’s. I’d like not to think about it but I cannot. The pain is too close, too tangible and too persistent.

My mother will not survive this but we will. Death is a natural consequence of life. The feelings we go through when we are dying are natural too. I know I won’t enjoy this time of her life. But I will survive it. Perhaps when these horrid years are behind me I will live fully again, humbled but grateful for each day of good health. I hope so.

I wish I lived in a culture that had a better attitude toward dying. I wish my mother were a devout Buddhist instead of a Catholic wondering if she’ll die with a mortal sin on her soul. I wish she could embrace the changing experience called dying. But for the moment she is not in that space. Perhaps before the end she will embrace it. And perhaps someday I will too.

Mental Health Issues Strike Close to Home

Last night a subset of my extended family (eight of us altogether) went out to dinner. Since we are geographically disbursed every opportunity for group chitchat is welcome. It was a mixed crowd this time of siblings, in-laws, and nieces. Perhaps because of the preponderance of women we largely ignored the usual topic during such times: family gossip. Instead we talked about weightier issues. One niece, for example, spoke of all the medications she is on for her mental illness. That opened the floodgates. As the discussion evolved I was struck by how many in my family are or have been mentally ill.

Collectively on my side of the family I have two living parents, seven siblings, five brothers or sisters in law and eight nieces and nephews. As best I can tell this is our current mental health picture:

– Currently on medication: at least 6 out of 16
– Seeing therapists regularly: at least 7 out of 16
– Ever been diagnosed with a mental illness: at least 8 out of 16

Where did all this mental illness come from? My side of the family? I grew up in a large but “normal” Catholic family. The idea of sending one of us to a psychiatrist back then seemed ludicrous. We all had our issues but we didn’t see our issues as mental health issues. They were simply things we had to cope with as part of growing up. In retrospect looking back on my childhood and adolescence, time with a head shrinker would have been quite helpful. But in the 1960s and 1970s our notion of the mentally ill was limited to people wearing straight jackets and inhabiting rubber rooms. We always assumed we were in perfect mental health.

But admittedly there was the case of my maternal grandmother. My mother, a psychiatric nurse, spent the last months of her mother’s life taking care of her while she went through mental illnesses. And then there was my paternal grandfather, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. And perhaps some of the mental illnesses in my nieces and nephews came from my in-laws’ sets of chromosomes.

There is a marked amount of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in our next generation. But even among my siblings there are problems with ADD. While I have never been tested I have some ADD symptoms. I know I am easily distracted. I find it hard to concentrate on anything unless I find the task very engaging. I interrupt people often. I have to make a point of listening carefully but even when I do sometimes I cannot sustain the effort. My mind eventually fatigues from the effort. I’m pretty good at remembering tasks but others around me, such as my wife and daughter, frequently forget important things like homework or doctor’s appointments. I can see symptoms of ADD within my immediate family.

Then there is depression. I have had situation depression, as have many of us coping with life’s challenges. But I have never had chronic depression. But people who are chronically depressed surround me. My mother was recently diagnosed as depressed, which is understandable for an 84-year-old woman in declining health. But I suspect she has been depressed most of her life. Otherwise it appears that my siblings have been fortunate not to suffer chronic depression.

I am very grateful that within my extended family that we can afford to have our mental health problems treated. While there are lots of bad shrinks out there and it seems that medications they put people on are often hit and miss at least these options are available now. I am thinking of both a niece and a nephew who would likely to be unable to cope with adult life at all if it were not for the treatment they are receiving. Thanks to modern medicine they can become not just productive members of society, but have the promise of living full and happy lives. At the same time I recognize how fortunate we are. I know others who live marginally and who cannot afford health insurance. As a consequence mental health is a luxury they cannot afford either. Those with mental illnesses spend a lot of their lives in pointless misery and seem to stumble through life, often sinking into black mental holes.

Still I wonder if historically so many people have been this mentally ill. I have read about women suffering from melancholy, which I assumed was the name given to depression in days gone by. Until recently was brutal Darwinism at work? Without effective treatments were our ancestors with depression more likely to commit suicide rather than procreate and pass on their genetic predisposition to the next generation? Perhaps it is because depression can now be treated that means that we are seeing more of it. It is just as likely though that depression has always been around and it was never recognized as the serious problem it is until recently.

I am angered that mental health benefits are not universally available in this country. Of course I am also angered we do not have universal health insurance. If we are to provide any class of universal health insurance I suggest we start with universal mental health benefits. While it’s not a solution to our health care crisis being able to cope with life provides a foundation for so much more, including self-sufficiency. I think even my Republican friends would understand the natural logic of my suggestion. Collectively we shoot ourselves in the foot by not providing universal mental health coverage. To be a world-class country we need the best from all our citizens.


Right on! That’s what I thought, anyhow, after reading an article in today’s Washington Post about psychiatrist Gordon Livingston. After 33 years of listening to people tell them about their problems he finally decided to talk back in the form of a book, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now“.

Most of the heartbreak of life, he says, comes from ignoring the reality that past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future behavior. Good intentions aren’t a substitute for good acts. Sweet nothings mean nothing. Just do it.

I confess I am losing patience with those who spend their lives whining about the bad things that have happened to them over the years. It’s not that I don’t have some empathy for their problems. I have plenty of it because I went through many of those miserable experiences myself. I do know that dwelling on my problems never solved them. If anything it just made me worse. It was when I stopped dwelling on my problems and figuratively stood up, rolled up my sleeves and engaged the world that things started to improve. I haven’t looked back.

Now clearly this is not something everyone can do overnight. Therapy and antidepressants have their part. But they are only part of the solution to happiness. The other part is to engage the world. It doesn’t matter so much how you engage it as it matters that you just engage it. Life happens through living: through engagement. It withers like a parched garden when you do not engage. This is a truth of life borne out by simple experience, and stated so unambiguously by Gordon Livingston. If we are a garden we make our own rain. This rain though does not come from us directly but through interacting with others. Engagement is essential to our growth and our mental health. It’s really that simple.

I think I can finally say that I’ve cleared my midlife crisis hurdle. It has lasted about ten years, which is about nine years too many. And maybe I was one of these people that needed ten years to get through my stuff. But I know it didn’t happen by staying in my little mental black hole. It happened because I decided the only one I could change was myself so I had better get busy.

Resolution began with graduate school. That consumed three years of my life with no difficulty. And it was a good but very exhausting experience. I discovered that I had the perseverance and smarts I thought I had. It positioned me well in my career. I rode my degree and my work ethic to more interesting and better paying positions. But it was not enough. I was still mired in midlife muck.

It seemed with every couple steps forward there were steps back. I put on weight that I shouldn’t have. Taking it off was yet another difficult and time consuming chore but it focused me. Meanwhile around me members of my family went through mental health crises and physical traumas. Dealing with it drained and depressed me. But I never wholly gave into despair. As best I could I kept fighting it and moving forward.

I discovered that the only one I could change in my life was myself. There was no point in wasting time or energy trying to solve problems that I could never own. My wife has her own issues. I wasn’t helping her any by taking ownership of them. She has to take ownership of them. The same was true with my daughter. She is an A student pulling C’s. I can offer her support but I cannot change her either. She has to feel the impact of her decisions. It’s her life, not mine.

I have learned that you can love someone with all your heart and soul but you cannot change them. You can only choose to be pulled into the gravity of their problems, or you can choose to stay above, weightless and in orbit, yet nearby.

Instead I started to use my time in more meaningful ways. I attended services at my Unitarian church regularly even if I couldn’t get my wife out of bed to come with me. I started teaching in my spare time. I ran the church web site for a couple years. I thumbed my nose at society, which seemed to be saying to me that I should only have friends in the context of my marriage. I found my own friends. If I found someone interesting in the course of life I engaged with him or her. And it turned out I found the hers often more interesting than the hims so be it.

I have chosen to step outside the boundaries of what is expected of me. I’m not sure why I was in bounds in the first place. No one was holding a gun to my head. Perhaps I felt I should do what was proper, whatever that meant. Now I do what brings me some satisfaction. That is not to say that I spend my days in reckless hedonism. Rather I spend my days in ways that give me the most personal satisfaction.

So I no longer watch television. I want to engage with the world, not watch images of it pass by on a phosphorescent tube. I blog because I find it fun. It gives me an excuse to write, which I enjoyed so much growing up. If it engages a few friends and others who arrive serendipitously via search engines so much the better. If I cannot find a friend to see a movie, or if my wife is not interested I go alone. While I wait for that day when my wife decides to exercise again I am off on my bike on 20 or 30 mile trips alone.

Maybe it’s a tad myopic of me. Maybe it is selfish. Maybe, but I don’t care anymore. I am in command of my own life again. Life will continue to have its ups and downs. The downs will doubtless change me but suffering is an inevitable part of life. But suffering doesn’t last forever. If things are good then the day is a blessing: I am free to make the most of the day given to me. Good or bad as long as I engage in the experience of the day at least I will feel fully alive.

Therapy for Everybody!

I’ve been seeing a shrink about a year now to work through a few issues. In my family we’re no longer ashamed to be seen associating with mental health therapists. “Licensed clinical social worker”, “psychologist”, “psychiatrist”, even “psychotherapist” are words that now easily roll off our tongues.

It never occurred to me I would ever need or even want to see a shrink of my own. It seemed sort of unmanly somehow. Real men, women and children from normal and healthy families (and I assumed I fit in those categories) didn’t need mental health specialists. This is what passed for my reasoning. I figured I was supposed to struggle through my own stuff alone. That was an intrinsic part of the human experience.

And I guess I could have kept struggling alone. But at some point the suggestion came for me to see my own shrink. I found in a strange sort of way I was looking forward to it. For a while I sat through sessions wondering just why I was there. I pictured myself as the one in the family fully grounded in reality. The only therapy I needed was fuzz therapy: my cuddly cat Sprite all curled up on my lap looking up at me with his adorable Bambi-like eyes.

I thought therapy was reserved for people with real issues. For example, I figured if I had compulsive hand washing problem I needed to consult a shrink. I seemed to navigate fine through life. It was true there were aspects of my marriage and family situation that seemed pretty topsy-turvy at times. Yes, occasionally the stress level got pretty high, but nothing more than I could handle. I was an immovable rock. The high seas could crash against me as much as they like but I was (I thought) fundamentally unchanged. I could handle it.

Still when the wife told me to go see a therapist I figured she must see something in me that I did not quite see. So off I went. And now every couple weeks I sit in a room with a guy about my age and a diploma with a PhD in Psychology on his wall. We talk about my life and the answers to life’s persistent questions.

I still don’t understand what this therapy business is doing. I am not usually aware of any real changes in my thinking or behavior from one session to the other. Basically I just sit there in the cushy chair and talk. And mostly he listens. Occasionally he throws in a suggestion, or repeats back to me what he is hearing. This often means I have to restate my words several times. And then we move on to the next topic. Sometimes this is in a structured way, but often in an ad-hoc sort of way. All this for $130 for forty five minutes. I’m glad I’m not earning my living as a Wal-Mart greeter.

But anyhow this therapy stuff seems to be working for me. Maybe it is just coincidence, but I seem to be getting better at managing my problems and my own life. Things that used to annoy me don’t seem to annoy me as much. I seem to be a pleasanter person than I remember being. My wife and daughter seem happier to see me, and I am happier to be with them. And I keep going back and talking to my shrink. I sometimes I wonder why I am still there shelling out money.

It seems like everyone I know beyond a superficial level is doing therapy these days. Those who aren’t getting it I bet often secretly wish they were, or would if they understood its value. I’m starting to believe that in our complex world pretty much anyone — no matter how well ordered and happy they consider their life to be — would be better off in therapy.

I’m trying to figure out what is really happening in therapy. Am I really getting better because I spend my time talking to a guy with a PhD in Psychology? Is this better than, say, talking to my minister? I don’t think it hurts that my shrink has all these lovely professional qualifications. But I’m also starting to suspect that with a little training we could all be pretty competent therapists.

For me the value of therapy is simply that I can unload the stuff running around my mind. It has to get spoken, heard, repeated back and probed. It doesn’t mean as much (for me apparently) to analyze it in my mind. It’s only when these feelings are articulated, expressed and heard that the feelings derive meaning. Then they appear in a place that I can grab on to them and actually tackle them. In other words the simple act of sharing them with another safe human being is in itself therapeutic.

In less complex times I think our friends, family and neighbors were our therapists. Many of us still do this of course. But increasingly intimate family connections fray upon adulthood. In my family we are all geographically separated. I have one sister about an hour away. Everyone else I will probably only visit by buying plane tickets. Yes, we do have email to keep in touch but unloading on family is inherently risky. Family members more than anyone else really know you. They know what buttons to push to trigger devastating emotional damage. I’m sure my birth family wouldn’t do it deliberately, but might they might do it inadvertently. So I’m not anxious to unload too much on my family. As for neighbors, they live too close to warrant the exchange of intimate information. I can’t risk the whole block knowing my private life. As for friends I can’t think of any friend I have who I’d really want to exchange my most intimate stuff. Even with my wife I find I have certain thoughts and feelings I don’t want to share with her. But with a therapist I have a safety valve. I have that necessary but missing mental health link. And that by itself makes the difference.

So I say therapy for everyone. If it were up to me we’d all have individual therapists we would see on a regular basis. I realize there are cranks out there in the mental health world. It’s important to spend some time checking a number of therapists out before settling on one you are comfortable with. Even if it is just a trusted friend you can confide in, I think it is in the nature of human beings to need to confide and unload your thoughts with someone. Those of us who try to deny this need probably do so at our peril.

Healthy Love and Mental Health

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on mental health issues over the last year or so. Maybe my life is unusual in that I believe I come in contact with more people with mental health problems than most people. Or perhaps I am overly sensitized to mental health issues. But the more I learn about mental health the more I believe that the majority of us have persistent or chronic mental health issues.

A lot of us don’t seek treatment. The usual coping mechanism seems to be to ignore mental illness or just chalk up its miseries as part of the price of being alive. Some of us develop coping techniques so we can keep these issues contained in some relatively safe spot. Occasionally they pop out, often during periods of stress, to show us they are still around. Clearly for others mental health issues are so chronic and debilitating that their whole lives are filtered through the suffering and pain of their mental illnesses.

I went through a period of mild depression a couple years back. Unlike lots of people I sought treatment. For months I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even recognize the symptoms within myself. But eventually I figured out that crying at my desk for no logical reason and enduring persistent low level headaches for weeks at a time meant something was out of kilter. It seemed strange to find myself in a psychiatrist’s office, and stranger still to be spilling my guts to a therapist. But it seemed to work for me. Within six months I was off the drugs and felt relatively back to normal. In that sense I was fortunate. My depression appears to have been situational and limited in time and scope. But I had enough of a taste of it to develop empathy for those with much more chronic mental illnesses. It also made me realize that the scope of the problem is huge and our response to it as a society is less than adequate.

It is clear from my reading that the causes of mental illness are still hard to pin down. There appears to be a genetic predisposition toward depression for many people. But it is not clear if it takes events for depression to be manifested, or whether people can get depressed solely due to a predisposition. I do believe that a lot of depression has its roots in how we coped with difficult times in our lives. And I am increasingly convinced that much of these stresses have their roots in early childhood. But they have receded so far in memory that we have no recollection of them.

I have been curious of late why good people stay with people who are toxic to them. Why on earth would a woman who has been physically and emotionally abused by her husband cling to him and say that she can’t live without him? My reading suggests that it may be a result of addictive attachment hunger issues from our early childhood.

I think this is true with me and might be one of the reasons I suffered from depression. It is also one of the reasons I have been either so naive or idealistic when it comes to romantic love. I want to believe there is someone out there who is so in tune with me that we play off against each other perfectly. This ideal person (presumably a woman) can play me like a piano, and I can play her the same way, and life is somehow a continuously pleasant buzz instead of a series of challenges and harsh realities that it often is.

I know that when I was born I was one of three boys in diapers that my mother was shuffling at the same time. As a parent who struggled through nurturing one child I know how difficult child rearing can be. I can’t imagine doing it for three young and active boys at the same time, not to mention two older girls that my mother also was mothering in 1957. In her biography my mother fessed up. I came along at a time when she was mentally and physically exhausted, and quite likely depressed (although she has never admitted to being depressed). While she loved me as any mother would love a child, she was overwhelmed with work, stress and motherhood. I was very much a “time-shared” baby. I know I didn’t get the amount of mother time that children typically get. I probably picked that up even as an infant and it affected me in some powerful ways. Although adolescence is a natural time to pull away from the parents, I pulled away particularly from my mother. The issues were I thought overly excessive Catholicism and conformity, but I now suspect that these were but catalyst issues. The likely real issue was simply that I had not gotten the quality time from my mother than I wanted as an infant or growing up and I resented it. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I could do something about it. And unfortunately when I struck back I did it in a mean and vindictive way.

Part of my coping process until that time had been to play the “good son” role. I endeavored to be the peacemaker in a family of 10. A large family is, by its nature, a boisterous, sometimes rowdy, and always loud place. When the noise and the perceived mayhem got too bad I withdrew to my room and tried to shut it out. I latched onto my father, whom I perceived as calm and gentle mannered, unlike my rather temperamental mother. But my father also got to work with civilized people in clean and modern office environments eight hours a day. My mother was a housewife. Mothering and parenting was a 24/7/365 occupation.

As an adult I suspect I seek that which I felt I was sufficiently denied as an infant. Growing up I likely wanted to feel like I was one with my mother, and I wanted to feel special and utterly cared for by her. An inevitable part of growing up is learning to detach from the mother and confront the world alone. I was probably detached way too soon for my liking. Missing that attachment I seek it now in my marriage. But the reality is that marriage is not a supplicant relationship where I get the love I need from an authority figure. It is a relationship of equals where my responsibilities to provide love are as necessary as my wife’s obligations to me.

So my notions of how romantic love should be (shared perhaps by the majority of people in my country) are probably naive also. It is probably counterproductive and unhealthy for me to seek that sort of bonding in a marital relationship. We need to realize that we are seeking the unattainable. More importantly, if it were attainable, it would be unhealthy.

Still, for many of us adults this lingering attachment disorder echoes through our adult lives. My hope is that I have channeled these longings in appropriate ways. I have tried to have a consistent loving and nurturing relationship with my daughter. And yet sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in the nurturing the relationship as a reaction to my attachment disorder. Since my daughter is now fourteen she is going through a natural and necessary process of pulling away from me. I wonder if I was perhaps too much of a micromanager of her life. I wonder whether I should have trusted and empowered her more earlier. If I had, would she be a more functional young adult? I don’t really know but my gut says “yes”.

It would have been smarter to know and understand this before she was born. I would have changed my parenting strategies a bit, I think. I will be upset to learn if in spite of my best efforts my daughter spends her adulthood affected by similar attachment disorders.

If so Rosie, please forgive me as I forgive my mother. I did the best I could.

Scrooge is alive: Wal-Mart is evil

Can a company be evil? I think so. Wal-Mart is an evil company.

I have decided I will have nothing to do with Wal-Mart. Granted I was not exactly one of their major customers. I bought some paint there once, only because it got a Consumer Reports recommendation. And I purchased a set of prescription glasses there a few years back. I might have bought a couple other things over the years but that’s about it. That’s all it’s going to be unless Wal-Mart reforms its ways. I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. See, first Wal-Mart has to get a conscience. It has none. Tolkien’s evil Lord Sauron looks good in comparison.

Admittedly I find its stores to be incredibly easy to hate. I hate the phony Wal-Mart greeter at the door. I hate the narrow aisles with products stuffed to the ceilings. I hate not being able to find anything quickly in the store. I hate the hugeness of the place. I don’t hate its customers, but they don’t appeal to me a whole lot. They make me itchy. I know I paint with a wide brush here (and I’m certainly not saying that all their customers are this way) but they seem to me to be a lot of overweight and over-hassled looking people. They seem to disproportionately represent the lower middle class. I don’t hold it against them for shopping there. If I were living from paycheck to paycheck I might be shopping there too.

I don’t hate its employees either because I was like them once. For about two years in my early 20s I worked as a wage slave for the now defunct Montgomery Ward corporation. It had a lot of the same attributes of Wal-Mart, but it just wasn’t as successful. What can I say: the economy was bad in 1979, even worse than it was today. I was a newly minted college graduate with a liberal arts degree and no place to use it. I worked at Wards to survive. I survived most of the time at or a little above the minimum wage (then in the $3-$4 an hour range). I did earn a commission of sorts for every lawn and garden sale I made, but all of it was against a draw. Lots of times I couldn’t earn my draw (i.e. earn the minimum wage based on my sales). (This wasn’t from lack of effort, just lack of customers.) I still got the minimum wage in these cases, but they were forever threatening to fire me and hire someone else if I couldn’t “earn” my draw.

Surviving was tough. I was fortunate to be young and in good health. Wards did offer some sort of health insurance plan but I couldn’t begin to afford it. Imagine trying to live on $4 an hour. If you can find a place to flop and put food in your mouth you are doing okay at those wages, even in 1979. I couldn’t afford a car — the one I brought from Florida gave out and I had no money to fix it. Purchase health insurance on my salary? The idea was laughable. The same is true with current Wal-Mart workers, which, like Wards, does actually offer something they call “health insurance”. Those of us who have real health insurance wouldn’t recognize it. The Wal-Mart basic health insurance plan costs $10 a week but is limited to paying out no more than $1000 a year in benefits! In my family we spend three or four times that a year on prescription drugs alone! Wal-Mart health insurance is, in short, mostly a waste of money, which is probably why so few Wal-Mart employees bother to get it in the first place.

McDonalds (another evil corporation) calls its jobs “opportunities”. I doubt Wal-Mart workers really believe their dead end jobs are opportunities. Here in Northern Virginia the local Wal-Mart seems to hire a lot of people who must have just recently gotten their green cards. Most don’t appear to be American citizens. I see lots of people who appear to be part time workers of Indian or Pakistani descent. When I was working for Wards I could afford (barely) to share a cheap apartment with another guy. I doubt they can manage even this. I imagine their Wal-Mart job is probably a second, third or fourth job and whatever miserly income they make helps support an extended family living in densities greater than their local housing officials would approve.

Scrooge lives folks, but he is now incorporated and he runs Wal-Mart. This Scrooge though squeezes everyone: suppliers and employees alike. He is ruthless in increasing profits and driving the competition out of business. If that means doubling imports from China and putting Americans out of work, it’s not a problem. This Scrooge is not immoral; he is amoral. He simply doesn’t care if his actions put Americans out of work, or results in depressed wages across the country. He doesn’t care if his store is tended to by legions of Bob Crachits. Scrooge begrudged giving Crachit Christmas Day off, but at least he did it out of some feeling of shame. Wal-Mart employees, as has been amply documented in the media, often are forced to book unpaid overtime. Its cleaning contractors hire illegal aliens at rates below the minimum wage that at least in some cases never get a day off. Scrooge grins and looks the other ways. The stockholders are pleased, as long as it doesn’t go public. Oops.

People like me with consciences need to know which companies treat their employees fairly and provide them with decent benefits. We need to know so we can patronize these companies. I wish there were more people like me. But Republicanism apparently has turned us into an amoral nation. We simply don’t give a damn about Wal-Mart workers and all the companies like Wal-Mart. All we care about is low prices and reckless consumerism. We don’t care if these people get sick. We can’t even see the connection when they show up at emergency rooms and their costs are passed on to us in the form of higher premiums. Skeptical? Believe it! Health insurance costs don’t go up twenty to thirty percent a year for years on end solely because new miracle drugs come on the market. They go up also because Wal-Mart workers and workers like them can’t get preventive medicine and instead get “free” but transitory treatment at our public emergency rooms at your expense.

I won’t patronize companies like Wal-Mart anymore. We need to grade corporations on how well they treat their employees and their business partners. They need score cards that are released with their quarterly balance sheets. We need to know who these corporate Scrooges are. We need to change our laws to ensure the lowest paid workers in this country are still paid decently and can actually survive on their wages. Until then those of us with consciences must just say no and refuse to patronize these places. Wal-Mart is the easy target. But if we can get Wal-Mart to cave in, the rest might too. Then perhaps there will be fewer stories in the paper like this one.

Continue reading “Scrooge is alive: Wal-Mart is evil”

A Neighbor in Hell, Part Three

I have written three entries (here, here and here) about a neighbor down the street and her personal hell. I haven’t written about her situation since March. I wish I could report that she is at least ascending into a higher level of Dante’s Hell, but that is not the case. Things have gone from really, really bad to even worse. After last night I feel I simply must write about it again, hopefully to purge it from my system. I hope no one in the neighborhood reads this weblog because it will be pretty obvious who I am writing about.

When last we left C and her daughter B, B was in and out of psychiatric institutions and making sporadic efforts to return to her middle school. After months of work C managed to get her daughter admitted to a full time mental health facility and boarding school for emotionally disturbed children near Leesburg, Virginia. She detailed this whole journey for us a few months back when we invited her over for dinner. Needless to say everyone in the approval process went out of their way to keep this child, who desperately needed help, from getting it. C’s husband D has been unemployed for over a year so they are living off her income but apparently it was too much for her to get public mental health services, even though of course they were exhausting savings and 401-K’s right and left. Keeping up their house payments seemed increasingly doubtful. Anyhow, B finally got admitted and has been in this institution for more than six months now. It is only recently that she has been allowed to come home for a few hours for very well chaperoned visits. How much longer she will stay in this institution is unknown, but thank goodness she is getting full time psychiatric care at last. B is making progress.

Little details about B’s life keep leaking out from time to time. As you may recall C’s husband D is a drunk. I should not have been surprised to learn that B had been hitting Daddy’s hooch. I never had a clue, but I’ve heard that alcoholics are really good at hiding their habit. B told our daughter Rosie that she recently had been clean and sober for a whole year. This is also good news. I hope she can always be that way. This makes me wonder what other bad stuff she had been getting into. We have heard rumors that she had been using marijuana, but now I’m wondering if she got to harder stuff. Perhaps I will find out in time.

No, the real problem is no longer B but husband D. Since his unemployment it has been all downhill. To start off with, he’s had knee surgery to correct some major problems. Apparently he had a lot of pain from it and he’s been on pain killers. Somehow, and I doubt it was something given to him in the hospital, he found a doctor to write him prescriptions for Oxycontin. So he’s been mainlining Oxycontin, along with of course continuing to drink almost all the time. The doctor, we learned, had no idea he was also an alcoholic, although how he could miss it we don’t understand. The rest of us could tell he was a drunk from a hundred paces.

D of course remains in denial about his drinking. C eventually figured out that she had to get him out of the house. He and his drinking gave B opportunities for her steady and disastrous decline. Apparently if two people are married one can’t force the other to get out of the house and he wasn’t leaving. He had no place to go and no money to live anywhere anyhow. He lived off C’s salary. That left C with few alternatives. One was to find an apartment and move there with her son E. The other was to find D an apartment and convince him to move there.

She eventually succeeded in the latter and found him an apartment with a six month lease a few miles away. (Naturally, she has to pay his rent.) Of course D didn’t seem to like the new situation and petitioned to get back in to the house. And C, for reasons I don’t understand, didn’t bother to change the locks.

So a few weeks ago B came home for a supervised visit and there was her drunk father, who she should not see. C talks him into going into the basement, but it isn’t long before reputedly he is cussing up a blue streak at her daughter and blaming her for all of his problems. But there is more. For weeks the man is growing more and more psychotic. He’s had my wife come over to check his computer because he believes that agents are breaking into his computer. Later, it’s not just agents; it’s none other than al Qaeda itself! Yes, Osama bin Laden apparently is targeting D’s computer! Terri, of course, finds nothing wrong with his computer. She should know; she does this stuff for a living but D is not convinced.

We go as a family to see a movie and were to run Rosie by B’s house for a brief visit afterwards before B had to go back to the institution. Rosie and my wife Terri knock on their door. No one answers, but B should not have left yet and the light is on in her bedroom. My wife calls from their driveway using her cell phone. D picks up the phone and goes into a rambling and high pitched dialog about people trying to get him and then the phone goes dead. She tries again; the phone is picked up but there is no answer.

She comes back to our house and we call the police. They come by and ask us questions. We try to reach B’s institution to find out if she arrived back there early. They can’t tell us. We try to reach C but don’t have her cell phone number. Eventually the police go to his house and knock on the door. We don’t know what happened but a little while later an ambulance quietly goes down our street and silently exits some time later.

Much later in the evening we get a call from C. Thankfully B was safe and C had taken her back earlier than we expected. But there is no one at home, the police won’t tell us what happened and C has no idea where her husband is. Later in the week we learn that D was taken to Fairfax Hospital. Apparently he had a massive infection in his knees. He’s been in the hospital since that time. Two weeks of intravenous antibiotics seem to have finally brought the infection under control. We learn that the infection was very advanced and that D was actually pretty close to death. My wife’s concern and our calling the police may well have saved his life!

Now apparently D is close to being released from the hospital. Why we’re not sure, because he still thinks al Qaeda is out to get him. But of course he wants to return home, not go back to his apartment. C, of course, does not want him home. D says there is no bed in his apartment. C decides she will move the futon into his apartment so he can’t use that excuse. I volunteer to help her.

So last night we struggle to get the thing into her minivan and I, and her son E (who is in fourth grade) go to his apartment to deliver it. C brings cleaning supplies with her because the management is upset about the condition of the place.

We enter but can barely get in the door because of all the crap all over the place. I have never seen such a god-awful mess, and believe me I’ve seen a few. I can only begin to describe it. Furniture is tipped over. Birdseed is all over the place. The refrigerator is open and unplugged. The burners on the stove have been removed. The washing machine and dryer have been pulled out. Aluminum foil is strung out everywhere and taped across walls (to confuse al Qaeda apparently). I find a whole mess of pills in the pantry of unknown type and lots of alcohol swabs in the bathroom. How long had he been in the apartment? Only two weeks! Oh. My. God.

We eventually clear a path so we can bring in the futon and we furiously begin picking up crap, vacuuming, sweeping and cleaning counters and floors. Eventually though I have to leave C to finish, but I take her son E back to our place, help him with his homework and let him zone out on video games. C keeps cleaning and doesn’t come by until nearly 11 PM. She had no choice. She has to get the management to get the heat back on tomorrow in case D comes home, and they won’t do it until the place is cleaned.

D has family in New Mexico who sound like they can be arm twisted to let him “come home”. C is hoping that will happen soon. Then perhaps she can get that divorce and reorder her life. Her daughter B would be more than enough of a problem for any parent. Just managing her, if she can get rid of hubby, will be an enormous relief.

We’ll see. I hope this is their nadir as a family, but so far every time I think things can’t possibly get worse they do. To whatever God or gods are out their directing their fate: enough! No one deserves his level of hell. It’s time for this family to heal and move on.

Senior Space Cadet

I hardly know the lady. We’ve been working together off an on for a big project for a couple months. It became clear when the project started in earnest that she wasn’t quite there. I might have called her a space cadet except she is over 50. Even stranger, she is a senior civil servant, a grade GS-15, one grade higher than I am and as high as one can get in the civil servant system without becoming an executive.

She dresses immaculately and drives herself to work every morning. She parks on the street but seems oblivious to the tickets that accumulate on her car because she has forgotten how to feed a meter. She can find her way home well enough and on the surface seems to be doing her job quite well. But she will interrupt conversations with completely inane remarks. She attends meetings but rarely contributes anything. Originally not knowing any better we gave her plenty of action items. But they rarely got done. We do her action items now. She seems to have the ability to find her way to our meetings if they show up on her calendar. But she is there in body only.

She can be very lucid on certain topics like her daughter, but new information coming in does not seem to get processed. She can stop in the middle of a hallway and just stay there like a zombie. Her speech is often halting and she will repeat the same things over and over again.

She is more than likely mentally ill. I have been told it wasn’t that long ago that she was another high charging senior employee, fully earning her pay that likely tops $100,000 a year. Now I’m not sure she does anything resembling productivity. And it doesn’t appear that she has any idea that her behavior has changed.

If she leaves through a different entrance and needs to get back in she can’t find her way to the entrance. The guards take her by the hand and escort her to the main entrance. She couldn’t navigate her way to the building across the street to attend a meeting. When these events happen she doesn’t appear upset or anything. She just stops where she is at and if she stands there long enough she may turn around and go back to her office.

I hear she is divorced and lives alone. We all know about her college age daughter since that is her one topic of conversation. Much of the time she seems lucid and in the present. And then an inanity will come out of her mouth or she will stop where she is like a deer looking into the headlights of an oncoming car.

Presumably her supervisor has observed her behavior but it doesn’t appear that anyone is doing anything about it. It’s hard to know what to do in a situation like this. Employee actions and grievances are a laborious process that requires utmost respect for the employee and frequent redundant notices. But it’s not clear whether if her boss called these issues to her attention they would even register. Short term memory seems to be gone. I’m not sure she could add two numbers together.

The only thing I know is that I am covering a lot of her slack. At first I resented it and now I am sympathetic. She makes me feel the fragility of our species. In her case though she is clearly mentally ill but she doesn’t seem to know it.

How did it happen? I have no idea. One person suggested she might have had a mini-stroke that destroyed some part of her brain. It seems plausible. I am more concerned about what should be done about her problem. Right now those of us around her simply choose to note and not do anything about the problem. But one of these days the law of averages will catch up on her, and she will be hurt by someone, or herself, because she has lost a fair amount of her wits and her common sense.

There are lots of mentally ill people out there. I’m wondering if she is some sort of future street person. Hopefully her daughter has noticed her symptoms and is thinking through her issues. But if she doesn’t see parking tickets she probably is also ignoring creditors. Perhaps one day she will come home to find all her stuff on the street corner.

I have no lessons to derive from this. But it makes me aware of the fragility of life, and how I will be lucky if I can escape one of these common mental or physical impairments and keep my wits into my doddering senior years. I wish there was someone who could do something for this woman. I just don’t know who, nor do I know exactly what it is she needs.