Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pinball Wizard

We are sitting at the table, and I mention that I’m worried about the future. I say:”I feel like this is a pinball game and we are one of the bumpers in the corner. For some reason, we haven’t been whacked by the pinball. We are just sitting here waiting for a shiny steel ball to scream out of the corner and hit us. We are so lucky that it hasn’t happened yet.”

Eileen looks at me curiously and says “but we have both already been hit.”
I think and realize that I have set aside the fact that we both cared for our spouses at the end of their lives. But I’m just looking ahead and worrying about the future pinball. I ignore surviving a giant hammer that beat us up every day… for years.
I had thought I had managed my grief to the point that I was no longer –re-living some of the more ghastly scenes. I’m still hoping to be able to enjoy the memories that preceded Cancer. Or as I just read in a short story: “Cancer World.” If you have been there as a caregiver, you know all about Cancer World. If you don’t, I’m not going to tell you.

A few days ago, I heard an 80 year old man speak of his grief at the loss of his spouse (50 years). The hatch-cover for my grief, which I thought was pretty firmly in place, came quite loose. In fact, the door swung wide open and I felt quite overcome with tears and sobbing.

After Sarah died, I didn’t do much crying. I have been able to do more of that these past 4 years. Eileen and I understand and I can cry with her. We both have our moments. But this gentle man, who spoke of wrapping love around his grief really unlocked me for a few moments.

Later, I marveled at the strength of my emotions. I used the term electrocuted and then realized the term was electric. I felt shocked.

Although I didn’t need a reminder, this was an affirmation that grief is forever. When Sarah first died and I was speaking with people, I began to say:” I have a wound that will never heal. It is not infected. I’m o.k. but it is never going to heal.”
Still true.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

When Mike Understood

When I first went off to college, I lived alone in a basement apartment. I rode the number 7 bus each day to campus and came home after dark each night. I was very lonely. I had zero friends for the first semester.  I frequently spoke to absolutely no living person for an entire day. Remember, my history class had hundreds of students in a huge auditorium.
I didn’t feel like a cipher, but I certainly didn’t feel very good. I was totally ready to drop out of school and move back home. Fortunately, my wise mother would not let me come home. She told me I had to finish at least the first semester before I quit.  Somehow, that contract seemed reasonable and I stayed. I was firmly committed to being a self-pitying miserable lonely dog. But, I stayed.
I had been a fairly good high school student, but at Berkeley, I felt rather like a dull knife. I could not tell what was going on because I lived alone. I did not leave class and go off with my fellow fraternity brothers, or with my fellow dorm dwellers. I went off by myself. Poor me. Even now, I feel sorry for that kid.
But one day, late in the Fall, I did my first series of mid-term exams. I wrote in my little blue book. I waited for the grades. I think they were typed and posted on a bulletin board. Somehow,  I discovered I was getting passing grades at Berkeley. I wasn’t doing “A” work but I was not failing.  As I later learned, many of my fellow students got the boot.  At Berkeley, they would let you know you were failing, but it was totally up to you to do something about it.  A couple of warnings and then bye bye.
On the day that I understood I was going to make it, I suddenly calmed down. I began to consider that I might be reasonably bright. By the time I graduated 4 years later, I did know that I was intelligent.  That is pretty big learning event.  I’ve met many adults who are still questioning their own intelligence. I’m grateful that I figured it out when I was 18.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Food Service Stories

For almost the entire time I attended UC Berkeley, I worked, in one capacity or another, for the UC Food Services.  I washed dishes (big bucks 1.75/ hour when minimum wage was 1.25).For one job, I worked in a tiny dish room and exclusively sorted huge containers of silverware.  As we managed it, the silverware  was quickly taken off of the plate and dumped into some kind of green slime.  The slime removed all the food and grease. As it turned out, it also removed our skin as I recall a lot of skin peeling off of my hands. We probably had gloves but you can't sort very fast wearing gloves. I became extremely fast. I could do it without looking.  I put the forks, knives and spoons into little containers. You know, you pick your silver out of these containers in self serve restaurants.  Ever wonder how clean silverware gets into these containers?  Well, I'm here to tell you.

I was quite a whiz at this.  I imagine I was about 19 at the time and we had fun working in this steamy room with very loud dish machines. One vivid memory is about a popular song: "On Woverton Mountain".  You can hear it on the link below.   For some reason, we  4 young men decided that we liked to sing this song at the absolute top of our lungs. Because the machines were so loud nobody but the 4 of us could hear us singing. We loved the chorus "On Woverton Mounnnntain!.  We did this night after night.

 So, since I'm telling Food Service stories, I must share another . This time, I am working in the big on-campus cafeteria dish room. Yes, I'm a versatile fellow. At this location, I did not do silver. I worked at the end of a conveyor belt. Students would put their trays of dirty dishes on a belt and it would disappear. Ah, but where does it go.

In my workplace, I stood at the foot of a belt that was descending from the roof about 12 feet above us. We stood in front of these extremely huge (and probably dangerous) garbage disposals. They had openings big enough to accept an entire dinner dish. We particularly liked to drop ceramic gravy boats into the machines. The disposals were powerful and they would just glurp them up in about 1 second.

I worked next to a student from China. He was continuously amazed at home much food we were dumping. We worked at a very fast pace and if we didn't keep up, the belt would just throw things all over the room. If we got totally behind we could stop the belt, but a very loud alarm would ring. We rarely stopped it.  My Chinese co-worker selectively picked out his lunch each day as plates of half eaten food came down the ramp.  He had a little spot and he would pick out things he liked and then eat them.

Now to my delicate  sensibilities this was strange. He was eating food destined for the great mouth of the disposal. Germs, I thought. Ick. Germs.  Now, here I should pause to tell you that I grew up in a very germ phobic home. My dad had had TB, so our entire family practiced very careful germ management. (I didn't know why we did this until I was 13 years old and my dad had a recurrence.)
We never ate or nibbled off of one another, drank from a "dirty" glass... you get the picture.

Now fast forward to me the-clean-germ-phobe. I am literally up to my elbows in garbage for 2 hours every day. I even was occasionally  assigned to scrub out garbage cans . How did I overcome my fears. What therapy helped me!  Pretty simple, if I didn't do the work, they would not give me my $1.75/hour.  Also, I developed my germ-cancellation theory. I designed this theory my very first day on the job.  Here is the theory: "There are so many bad germs in this pile of garbage that they are killing each other and therefore if I just wash my hands at the end of my shift, I'll be fine." I did wash my hands and I was fine. By the way, my Chinese associate was also fine.