Becoming Norman . . . Pleased or Chagrined?

Hello on the weekend,

It has been an emotional couple weeks, and if you have been reading the blog, you have some sense of why that is, but I think there is more. There are times, and their frequency seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, that I feel like I am simply not as capable as I once was. While that might seem like a normal aging process ~ even if a reasonable explanation ~ I do not like it . . . and more so, I do not have to like it. While the GI tract stuff is a normal part of my life, some of the aches and pains logical, I have been often respected for how well I remember things, and that is where I am struggling. If I do not write it down and then follow it rather explicitly, it seems I am not as apt to remember it. Last week, and regardless the number of classes, committees, or other things, I found myself wandering around the parking lot looking for my car, for more than a half hour. In fact, in the spirit of total transparency, I wandered around two parking lots, and I could not find my car. I eventually remembered I had parked in a third possibility, but that scared me more than I have words.

The concern of some kind of memory loss concerns me more than most might realize. My father, while my adopted father, is a relative. He was a first cousin to my paternal grandmother, so that genetic tree is pretty strong. My father, each of his brothers and the daughter of a brother have all have significant difficulties with either dementia or Alzheimer’s. The number of times I have forgotten where I have placed my keys, my glasses, my phone is a number that would need an exponent. I wonder when it is time to question and if there is a reasonable way to ask about taking a benchmark level memory test. The fact that I have hydration issues, which seem to have negative outcomes for most of my body, might also exacerbate brain health. I remember going home once to check in on my father, after receiving a concerning phone call from my sister. My father was livid that I had come “to spy” on him as he angrily told me at lunch one day. Knowing what I know now because of his experience, as well as the progression of Lydia’s dementia, I have a much clearer understanding of some of the early symptoms, the markers, that might provide some earlier detection. While I certainly do not need another health battle, if I am going to battle something else, I want to take it on headfirst and with everything possible tool in my arsenal managing it the best way I can.

One of my favorite movies, certainly in my top 5, is the Academy Award winning On Golden Pond. It is an incredibly touching story of a retired professor (Henry Fonda) and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) who are spending the summer at their vacation home. They are visited by their daughter (Jane Fonda, who, of course, is the daughter of Henry). The struggle of grown adults managing their parents (as well as perhaps vice versa) and the portrayal of dementia before it was a common word as it is now is superbly done. Henry, as the cantankerous Norman Thayer Jr., is both heart-warming and frightening. I have often said to those who know me best here in Bloomsburg, that I want to be just like Norman when I get to that age. One of my former students actually refers to me as Norman because of this very movie. It is a term of endearment from her. There is hardly a time, and I have watched the movie multiple times, that I am not moved to tears as I watch it.

There are other ways I find myself becoming Norman. I seem to have less patience with absent-mindedness, or simple oblivion characterizing or plaguing some people. When something is forgotten once, I can generally find some graciousness. When it happens again and again, on a weekly (almost daily) basis, I find myself being less than charitable. That bothers me because I feel hypercritical and unfair. One of the things I have struggled with most of my life is boundaries. I know that does not make me unique, but I have a tendency to allow people the benefit of the doubt, and then I allow it again, and then again, and then  . . . you get the idea. Ultimately, I get frustrated. As I have pondered this characteristic, it seems that this time of the year is particularly when I find myself at my wit’s end. I do find some progress being made, even in my current dilemma. I made myself step back and ponder and do some analysis (and that meant working through six months of a checkbook, statements, and other items to make sure I was being fair). In addition, rather than merely hitting someone broadside, I have also stepped back and am working to manage the circumstance thoughtfully and in a way that demonstrates both appreciation for the progress made and help offered, but simultaneously to look at the reality of the situation. Of course, there are always things that seem to be tossed in to make the current state of affairs more contextually complex. Then again, I was once asked by a counselor if I ever did anything the easy way. I think my response, almost 30 years later, would be the same: probably not. There are undoubtedly times I still seem to learn slowly. What I do know is there is a genuinely caring and good heart involved in this situation (and that is on both sides). I also think there are also good intentions (again, on both sides). Part of this is merely seeing a larger picture, and when one has not really had to do that too often, knowing how to do that is not a simple or readily achievable outcome.

I am reminded of the young person who is left with Norman and Ethel for the summer. He is not sure what to do with them and they are not sure how they will manage him. Again, I see parallels. I often wonder what I would have done had I been a parent. I was petrified to do so, mostly because I am not sure I had good role models. I think some of that fear persists. I try to do what I think is best, but sometimes (often) it seems I either enable or I have no ability to allow for mistakes. I know there is a happy medium somewhere in the middle, but I struggle to find it. I think some of my concern about what I feel now is a predicament is because there is a history. There is also experience. Undeniably, that experience, be it over the years or the last months, demonstrates a consistency from both. Again, at the same time there is progress and I have to give credit for that. One of the things I am forced to come to terms with is that I created this dilemma because I allowed it. I cannot blame anyone else for that. Again, the rationale for allowing this goes back to where I usually find myself. Someone needs help and I offer said help. The problem is I do not know how to be consistent in pushing adherence to what I said needed to happen from the outset. The question is why am I willing to allow myself to step back time and time again from what I laid out. It is my inconsistency that creates the problem and I cannot blame the other for my mistake. The anger comes, I imagine, from my realizing that I again engendered the present dilemma. I also enkindled the complications. In the movie, there are ups and downs, and at the end, there is a mutual respect produced. I am praying for something similar. I am not sure it will happen immediately. In fact, if it happens immediately, I will once again find myself believing in miracles. One of the things that most frustrates me are things I find myself doing, particularly when I fall short. Over the last months, I have worked hard to be on time. When I was growing up, I had a father who believed if you were not 15 minutes early, you were late. I am not sure that I am there, but I do try to be a few minutes early whenever possible. That is not always easy when you are dealing with other people’s needs and their schedules, but again, discipline and planning will help. The second thing I am trying to be more intentional about is remembering that I do not live in a vacuum. What I do affects other people. Therefore, my choices do also. That is probably my biggest frustration at this point, be it students or in the house. If you say you are going to be somewhere at a certain time, then just do what you say. If your schedule changes, please let someone know. That is where I have been particularly pained by the actions of others as of late.

I have a ton to get done yet tonight, but it has been a pretty productive weekend. I am always amazed by what can happen when I am frustrated. The energy in that can be channeled into some very positive outcomes. My house is pretty spotless and I got some things cleaned and organized that have been on the back burner for a while. I think there is always a fine line between helping and enabling a person. Being the co-dependent person, and one who was much more so earlier, I still struggle to find that balance between helping and hindering. It is always complicated when there is a history. Again, it reminds me of the movie. In the movie, Jane Fonda, as Chelsea, struggles with the relationship she currently has with her aging father. What I found interesting in my research about the movie is that as real father and daughter they were estranged. This movie brought them together. She, in fact, produced the movie to allow for her father to act in it. As I research things, it is interesting to see how our history and the events that cloud that history affect so much more than we are aware of.

One of the other things I have been forced to consider is how people come into and move out of our lives. In the past, I worried when people moved out of my life. I think now I see the reason for that. I do believe we lose something in their moving on, but at the same time it allows for a refocus of sorts. Perhaps the most important thing for me is learning to let go. That has never been a strength, and what I have done in the past when doing so is to walk away and say little or nothing. That is also a problem because it is more like running away. Again, On Golden Pond comes to mind. In one particular poignant scene (and again a scene where some say this is where the two Fonda family members made amends) the dialog goes something like this:

Chelsea: I don’t want anything; it just seems you and I have been mad at each other for so long.

Norman: I didn’t think we were mad; I just thought we didn’t like each other.

Chelsea: (with tears in her eyes) I want to be your friend.

Norman: This mean you would come around more often? It’d mean a lot to your mother (and you can tell he is struggling as he covers his own eyes)

Chelsea: I’ll come around more often.

Norman: Well . . .

I find this part of the movie particularly difficult because my mother and I never accomplished this sort of absolution in our relationship. I often tell students now when they say they are struggling with their parents, or note they are not speaking, that it is best to try to manage that separation. I have two or three of those situations to which I must attend even now. The question can often be what does one risk in reaching out. I think the more important point is to know how to let things go so that the separation is a reasonable one rather than merely running away. Sometimes those separations happen because people change. Sometimes they happen because locations change. I think one of the things I have been more likely to do is remain in touch. Perhaps that is why I am teased that I know everyone from everywhere. There is both a blessing and a curse to that, as it the case with most things in our lives.

By the end of the movie, the summer has passed and the Thayer’s get ready to leave Golden Pond. Sometimes we fail to comprehend how our lives are interwoven into the fabric of others. Sometimes, the fabric becomes tattered and worn, but that does not make it less valuable or important. Sometimes, we need to hold on to the things that remind us of who were are and from where we come. Other times it is reasonable to look for something new. As most things in life, there is no recipe, and much of what we do is by trial and error. Sometimes I am more like Norman that I perhaps expected to be. Sometimes, I wish I was even more like him. Here is some music from the movie. If you have not had an opportunity to see this amazing show, do yourself a favor. It is worth the time.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin


41 Years and a Walking Oxymoron

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Good evening, good morning, good next day,

I am sitting in my study after a day of working on cars and bikes and doing some cleaning, a day of planting and working in the yard, and a day of washing clothes, some planned and some unplanned. While I was up pretty early, that is the norm for me. I cannot sleep the day away, but I have always been that way from the time I was a small child. When it is light, I am up; it matters not if I went to bed only a few hours before, I will be awake and the idea of falling back to sleep is not within the realm of possibility. I will admit to my usual 45 minute power-nap later in the day. I got most of what I wanted to get done in the yard and around the house completed, so that is a nice feeling. I have spent that last hour and a half working on my Spanish, both with the computer and with flashcards. I need to work harder than I have. I have a lot I want to learn in the next weeks.

It is hard for me to believe that it was 44 years ago that I was confirmed at Riverside Lutheran Church by our interim pastor, the Reverend T. P. Solem and that it was 41 years ago today that I walked across the stage as a member of the first graduating class of West High School in Sioux City, Iowa. I was such a little boy at that time. Even though I had already enlisted in the Marine Corps, I was certainly not ready for what would come some 27 days later as I took my first flight from Omaha to Denver and Denver to San Diego. Amazing the changes I have undergone. I think the most significant change or realization is what I deem important. I have often said what I thought was important (and now I might say 41 years ago) at one point does not seem so very important now and things I thought were “not” so important have begun of the utmost importance. I have learned that you can have all the “stuff” in the world, but none of that really matters. In the 30 years that I have been fighting this Crohn’s issue, I have learned that when you do not feel good or when your health is not good, nothing else really matters because you are not able to enjoy those things, whatever they might be. There have been days and even some weeks where I was in so much pain or so ill that I merely existed. That is not really life; it is just going through motions of living. Again, all the stuff or money in the world will not change that. I often think of the way that life changed for the late Christopher Reeves because of a chance-accident. He was successful, wealthy, handsome (he was Superman), and in an instance, it all changed.

Okay, so as often the case, I started this post, but did not get it completed. So it is now Tuesday, and I was awake earlier than I wanted, but that might be the new norm. It might be good that I waited a few days before I finished this as I have a better perspective on a couple of things. Over the last couple days I did some work to help a student for whom I have some great appreciation. That situation has forced me to consider why people go to college and whether college (or at least the undergraduate aspect of it) should really be considered mandatory. Even as a college professor I cannot answer this query in the affirmative. When we allow under-prepared students for whom the university receives a lot of money, come with little chance of succeeding, I believe we are guilty of exploitation. It is wrong and it is unethical. That is the situation in which this student currently resides, if you will. Something better must happen or the student ends up 10s of thousands of dollars in debt with little chance of ever obtaining a degree. Furthermore, because of that debt, their chance of ever getting to return is minimal at best. It is my hope that we have come up with a better option.

People often lament that they wish they could know what they know at some point later in their life and go back and re-do or start over. I am not one of those people. If I would have known all that would happen to me, I am not completely sure I would have wanted to continue. In addition, and I do understand the following statement might make me sound even older than I am, I am certainly sure I would not want to be venturing out into the world as a “20-something” right now. As I write today I find myself trying to understand some new version of what or who God is. Nothing significant, right? I am imagining how Anselm must of struggled with that question. I am struggling with wanting to know what will happen in the next weeks, or hopefully months, and then not wanting to know anything at all. However, as I was reminded in a conversation again last night: “everything happens for a reason”, and their somewhat logical extension of that was ” then there are no miracles”. I see some truth in the progression of those two ideas, but perhaps the question is must we disregard, or do we then lose appreciation for that which appears miraculous, because we are unaware of the reason? If we jettison the miraculous, does that affect our ability to hope? I think that might be the next conversation. Or at least a starting point. As I pondered the two days of conversations, it seems to be another form (and I am not really comfortable with that word) of a sort of religious humanism, a different strain of rationalism, but one that demonstrates a more profound appreciation for the numinous. By the way, it is now Wednesday morning and I am still writing. That might be a new record for blog-procrastination. The picture is of me on my ordination day in my religious trappings, if you will.

I will say this, I am continually amazed by Melissa’s thought processes. Certainly not typical of someone her age, or at least of the overwhelming majority of people her age. I have teased that she is a 50 year old in a 22 year old body. After being around her the last few days, she also has a part of her that is about 70. I am sure she’ll appreciate that, but it is there. I also know she won’t ask me what I mean even though she does read this. Escucharle y reloj como su proceso de pensamiento trabaja es realmente una alegría. Si sólo una gente más tomara el tiempo para hacer lo que usted hace, creo que nuestra sociedad estaría en un mejor lugar. Gusta me realmente su postura que tenemos la capacidad, y estoy de acuerdo que hay un tiempo y un lugar cuando la gente podría entender finalmente esto. Lo que es milagroso es que usted lo ha hecho tan temprano en la vida. That is why I think she is a walking oxymoron. There are so many ways she is way beyond and seems to be an older soul, but when listening to her music or some of the other things she says and watching what she does or does not do, it is not logical to me. Of course, it is not her job, nor anyone’s for that matter, to be such. However, as she noted last night in her questioning, why does everything have to be logical? I guess she is right. Perhaps it is because I find comfort in logic. Maybe we all just walking oxymorons.

Thanks for reading.