Archive for January, 2011

Pathways

The hardest thing about driving on the other side of the road while visiting New Zealand was the fact that the blinker and windshield wipers were on opposite sides of the steering column.  Every time I went to make a turn, I turned on the wipers.  I didn’t drive enough to break the habit but Chris came home and for the first few weeks we were back he had the same problem here.

As we drove away from the airport, both of us moderately flipping out at the roundabouts and different road signs, Chris said, “I think I can actually feel new neural pathways forming in my brain.”

I’ve been feeling that way the past few days after getting what I think is my first actual smart phone.  Every pathway in my brain associated with “phone” has been challenged, changed, moved or modified in the last few days.  I got the phone on Friday and Monday was the first time it rang.  It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I didn’t actually know how to answer it.  (Even though I am well aware that I use my phone less and less to make phone calls, I didn’t realize exactly to what degree that was true.)

I’ve read and heard a little bit about what you should do to prevent, or what you *can* do to help prevent Alzheimers Disease.  It’s a moderate concern for me because although my mom is 76 and still very sharp, two of my great aunts on my mom’s side of the family had pretty severe cases.  (Not really sure if my grandmother might have suffered as well since she died at a younger age.)  So I know one of the most important things you can do is constantly challenge your mind by learning new info, or doing crossword puzzles, etc.

I generally think this won’t be difficult for me because I read so much.  Last year, I read 29 novels.  Yes, you read that right.  29.  I even surprised myself when I tallied it up in the last weeks of the year and it’s even more impressive when I mention that all 29 were novels *not* associated with my dissertation work.  This was just my pleasure reading.  (I won’t even consider the number of student writing pages I read in a year. <shiver>)

But I wonder if reading counts in terms of setting new neural pathways.  It’s not that I don’t get great, new experiences from reading and considering a blog I was looking at earlier tonight, I seriously need to be writing young adult fiction since that is the genre all 29 books fall into.  But the act of reading itself is completely natural, a pathway in my brain that might be inches deep.  Is reading new novels really going to challenge my brain in the *right* ways?

Other than wondering if anyone is doing research on how our constantly evolving technological culture affects the potential of Alzheimers, I began to wonder if there were other areas of my life where some more hidden pathways might exist.  I’ve already written in this blog about how I’ve challenged my emotional life to a great degree by choosing to be happy, and focusing on doing things and spending time with people who make me happy.  These are already new paths my heart is wandering down.

It’s these hidden emotional pathways, I think, that are the most distressing for me.  When I think about my family, I think about a set of thoughts or ideas that constantly reoccur, like wanting my mom to take better care of herself, or my brother to pull his head out of his ass.  I’ve been having the same emotional reactions to my family members for most of my life.  And it’s not just my family.  Take any set category of people (politicians, teachers, therapists, musicians, etc.) and I’m guessing I have some sort of emotional pathway set up for them as well.

It’s sort of a game of emotional shortcuts but I think I might be the one getting shorted.  If I’m really going to commit to living an emotionally dynamic life, then I think I need to take stock of these stock reactions and see if I can’t shake up or change my own emotional pathways.  I mean, if my phone can do that for my brain, the least I can do is the same for my heart.

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Something in the Water

In an effort to pull myself out of the family induced funk I’ve been in the past few days, I am remembering all the things I loved about my trip to New Zealand.  One of my favorites was finding this song by Brooke Fraser that never fails to put a smile on my heart.

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I shouldn’t care

But I do.

I’ve continued reflecting on my recent trip home to see my family.  As I mentioned in a post from the weekend, it wasn’t an easy visit mostly because of heath issues my mom and my brother are facing.

But there were other issues as well.  I don’t really feel like my family of origin understands me.  I know many people feel that way and over the years I’ve come to accept that they think I’m just, well, crazy.  I can live with that.  Most days.

I am not sure why I am so sensitive to this right now but I can’t help but balk at a short discussion I had with my brother.  We were at dinner and I mentioned that I was graduating from the Ph.D. program this spring.  My brother’s girlfriend said, “Oh we thought you were going to be a professional student!”

And my brother said, “You just took the words right out of my mouth!”  Then he laughed.

It’s difficult enough getting a Ph.D., and it’s not a road I’d go down again if I had the choice.  But the thing is I *am* a professional student.  Because what that means is that I am working on making teaching and research my profession while jumping through the hoops that are set up for me to finish the doctorate.

All through the Ph.D. program I’ve had three part time jobs.  I’ve taught three courses a year at my university, I’ve been working on my research, and I’ve taught online for a community college.  On average, I’ve taught over 100 students a semester.  Many of the other “professional students” in my cohort maybe teach 25.  What does that boil down to?  I’ve been working my ass off.

It’s a delicate balancing act, keeping up with the demands of my teaching and research at the same time.  I’ve managed it pretty well I think, not letting the days when I wanted to throw the towel in get me down too bad and working on the dissertation even when I wasn’t 100% sure what I was doing or what I wanted to say.

So it’s a particular slap in the face to have my status as a professional student be made a joke.  I kick myself now because I didn’t say anything at the time; I was somewhat dumbfounded when I realized that they were both, essentially, looking down on me and judging me, making fun of some difficult choices I’ve made.  I don’t believe the Ph.D. makes me smarter than anyone else; it is simply a road I chose to wander down and hoops I’ve chosen to jump through.  It does, however, rank me in a very small population. According to the 2000 census, less than 1% of the U.S. population holds a doctorate like the one I’m finishing this year (a research based degree, not counting medical doctors or dentists).

So no, I really shouldn’t care that my brother and his girlfriend think it’s a joke, especially since I know it takes most people an average of five years to complete a Ph.D.  What’s that, you say?  How long has it taken me?  This is my fifth year, and I’m on track to finish.  Well, I would be if I was spending this time working on the dissertation and not writing about my annoying family.

 

 

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Genealogies

I am on my way home from a difficult trip to see my family.  It was supposed to be a stressful trip but stressful in a different way than it ended up.  I came down this weekend because my brother was supposed to go in for heart surgery on Friday morning and I offered to come and drive him and my mom to the hospital (which is about three hours away in the “big city.”)

When I called my mom after I picked up my bright yellow and black rental car, she informed me they had to reschedule the angioplasty because my brother didn’t get all the paperwork done on time.  She was worried I would be upset – and I was – but I was also relieved.  So instead of spending the weekend in and out of the hospital, it would be just me visiting my family.  That was a big stress relief and since this is the semester I will defend my dissertation and classes start tomorrow, I know I won’t be able to come back for the rescheduled surgery.  So I suppose, I really dodged a big bullet of self imposed stress.

 

I am always glad to spend time with my mom but this was a difficult visit.  She’s been in decent health the last few times I’ve seen her but she was sick most of this visit.  The surgery she had on her intestines left her with fibers in her colon that are sticky and like most sticky things, they like to stick together.  This is causing her lots of cramping after she eats and a fair amount of discomfort.  The doctor told her they could operate to remove them, and they will if they become a blockage, but since surgery causes them, it’s truly a catch 22.  She could end up still having them or making them worse after an additional surgery.

We talked a lot about good digestive health and I told her she should start eating old fashioned oatmeal everyday, something that will hopefully help scrape out her intestines.  The doctor said the fibers can go away on their own and all I can think about is EAT LOTS OF FIBER to help that along.

But I have to resign myself to one of the truths I’ve fought so hard against for the last few years with my mom: I can’t make her take care of herself.  I try so hard, tell her all the good nutrition information I can, but in the end, she is the only on in charge of what she puts in her body and if she isn’t going to change her diet, there is nothing I can do to help that.

She talked a lot about my namesake this visit, telling again the old family stories I’ve become so familiar with I can recite them in my sleep.  I love to hear her tell them though because they always have some magical quality I just can’t mimic.

Regina Elizabeth is my great grandmother.  My maternal grandmother’s step-mom.  She followed Christian Science.  She died from a blockage in her intestines that she refused to have operated on.  I know given my family’s genealogy, and since three of my four grandparents passed away before I was born, how unlikely it is if she had survived that blockage that I would have known her.  The way my mom talks about her, I really wish I could have.

 

She would visit my mom while she was a child and always brought her a gift.  My grandmother would tell my mom she could sit on the front steps of their flat on Cap Street in San Francisco and watch for her coming down the street but she couldn’t leave until she actually saw her.  I can just see my mom, straining to see as far down the street as possible and hurling herself off the steps the second my great-grandmother’s hat brim and shopping bag could be seen down at the corner.

My mom would run up and hug her and say, “What did you bring me?” over and over, much like a puppy looking for a treat.  For my mom, my great-grandmother was a bastion of strength and normalcy in a world filled with alcoholic fights fueled from anger and pain.  That gift might be the only new toy she would see for weeks or months.

I pride myself on the fact that the women of my family have always been strong, holding together the tethers of often insane circumstances.  But I can’t help returning to the idea that with all the strength we’ve given to others, none of us are particularly good at taking care of ourselves.  I know a lot of women put themselves last in order to help and support their families, and I can understand the reason behind those choices to a point.  But it seems counterintuitive at some point to keep putting yourself last.

I suppose I’m breaking that pattern simply by writing this entry, one where I’m considering the long term effects of individual choice and I hope I can keep breaking that cycle as the years progress.  I want to nurture that jewel of a heart I talked about in my last #reverb10 post, and keep it healthy not just for my own sake but for the sake of those who love me.

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Smile.

Toady’s The Daily Post at WordPress is to post something that makes you smile. There are so many things that I could post under this topic, it’s ridiculous. I laugh at the ordinary, the mundane, the pointless. Sometimes I even laugh at the profound, and meaningful.  Life is full of humor, if your eyes are open to see it.

Today I laughed at a friend’s status update where he hoped he wouldn’t use toddler talk while at work today, after having been home all last week with his kids.  It was one of those quick moments where I was thankful for the deluge that is social networking because that was a window into his life.  And I knew he laughed writing it, so in a way, we laughed together.

Today I laughed at myself when I had one of those rare thoughts that are so obvious, it should have been said before.  I have a lot of those moments working on the dissertation and then I remind myself of one of my live in the moment resolutions – don’t take those observations for granted, they are more profound than you think.  (I talk to myself like this a lot.)

A few years ago, I went back through my old journals.  It was like looking through written snapshots of my life.  I wrote a lot about being sad or upset and rarely about being happy.  I think that’s going to be one of my resolutions this year: write about more happy things.  From my own status updates to whatever it this space turns into, I want to focus on the things that are working.  Laughter is a good place to start.

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