Buying a Sermon

By | May 15, 2013

I’m a member of Faith United Methodist Church in South Burlington, Vermont. It’s a good church — not the largest church in the area, not the best attended, but generally supportive and full of a sense of community spirit. Each year we have a spring ham dinner and silent auction to raise funds for the church, and the last couple of years our minister has auctioned off a sermon. (For all I know, this has been going on for centuries, or at least since the church was founded in the 1960s.)

For some strange reason that I can’t really put my finger on, I decided this year that I was going to be the winning bidder on the sermon. Seriously, I have no idea why. I’m a big fan of our minister, Krista Beth Atwood. She’s a few years younger than I am, very brainy, and always does a very good, thought-provoking sermon. But I don’t particularly know why the idea of getting to choose the sermon topic struck my fancy.

I spent years as a member of Toastmasters International, starting in the late 1980s and continuing until the mid 1990s. I got to be reasonably good at public speaking along the way; perhaps that’s why I’ve spent the last 18 years working as a professional software trainer. One of my favorite parts of a Toastmasters meeting was the section called “Table Topics”, in which the “Topicmaster” of the meeting assigned topics to other members for short, off-the-cuff, one-to-two minute speeches. Some people absolutely hated Table Topics: the only way they could stand to speak in public was with weeks of rehearsal and preparation, and being forced to speak off the cuff took them into deep water. Other people loved Table Topics and delighted in taking the topic in a direction that the Topicmaster could never have imagined. When it was my turn to be Topicmaster, I probably spent more time thinking of fun, whimsical, borderline-cruel topics to assign than the participants actually did delivering them.

So maybe that’s involved in my desire to call the tune for an entire sermon. Or maybe not. But in any event, come the night of the spring banquet, Carole and I were on hand helping run the thing; Carole was selling tickets and I was taking the tickets and assigning people bid numbers for the silent auction. I took a few minutes during a lull to wander around and look at all the donated goods and services that were up for auction and, frankly, didn’t see much of anything I wanted. Carole and I are trying to watch our spending; she’s been unemployed or marginally employed for quite a few weeks now and we really can’t afford to blow $100 on something we don’t need, even if the money does go to the church and could be considered a charitable donation. The one item I kept drifting back to was the sermon.

I put down an initial bid of $25. A few minutes later, I’d been outbid by bidder #40. I upped the bid by $5 and sat back down at my table. Every few minutes, I’d wander back over to check, find that I’d been outbid again — by bidder #40 each time — and I’d up the bid again. I checked my notes to see who bidder #40 actually was, and oddly, the name didn’t ring a bell at all. Carole and I have been members of Faith UMC for about three years now and there are still some members whose names I’m not entirely sure of; hardly anyone in our congregation actually wears their name tags. I assumed that bidder #40 was one of the people who comes at Christmas and Easter and odd Sundays in between but wasn’t otherwise super-active in the church.

Whomever they were, they were persistent: each time I upped my bid, they upped theirs. I was there to the end, right up until the “last bids” call at 7:30 pm sharp, having put in one more bid that raised the going price to $85, and was expecting our mystery bidder to come up at the last possible moment to bid over me. But they didn’t. I’d outlasted them.

$85 for a sermon isn’t exactly “me practicing financial discipline”, but in a sense, it’s like a very very targeted offering. Unlike the items that actually bore tangible value, I’m pretty sure 100% of the $85 can be considered a charitable donation.

The people there wrapping up the auction — my fellow churchmembers and family members who were cashing people out and setting aside things that had been won by people who hadn’t stayed to the end — asked me what I was going to ask Krista Beth to preach on.

My response?


That might have seemed weird and off-the-wall to most people, but as I said, I’ve been a member of the church for three years or so now and most of them have worked out that I have a strange, pointless, and fairly inane sense of humor. So they didn’t press me for details.

But truth to tell, that is what I want her to preach on. Or, to be more precise, on what cheese represents to me.

You see, I have a problem with cheese. I can eat virtually unlimited amounts of it. I can spend a day watching my calories and exercising and taking all things in moderation, but if there’s cheese in the refrigerator, the odds are high that I’m going to shamble out of bed in the middle of the night and have some. And not just a little. A lot. I’m with cheese the same way a lot of people are with chocolate. Or alcohol.

G.K. Chesterton was the same way: in his essay “Cheese” he begins with the immortal phrase “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” and continues, noting “If all the trees were bread and cheese there would be considerable deforestation in any part of England where I was living.”

But cheese isn’t my only problem. I have lofty ideals for how I should live my life. For how I should get the most out of my time and avoid things that are wastes of time. Unfortunately, just as I vow to avoid overindulging in cheese, and fail completely, I fail almost every time I resolve to do more with my life.

Long ago I came up with a Grand Theory of Time Classification. Setting aside time spent in the course of doing one’s job and looking only at discretionary time, all time can be divided into four categories:

  • Category X: Meaningful and necessary chores. Unloading the dishwasher, shopping for groceries, mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, paying bills, etcetera, etcetera. Things that have to be done but that aren’t necessarily enjoyable.
  • Category Y: Meaningful and useful self-development. Running, walking, bicycling, kayaking, making tie-dyed shirts, practicing music, etcetera, etcetera. If you bake because you enjoy it and because you learn something each time you bake, then that’s definitely Category Y.
  • Category Z: General recreation: watching a TV show that you particularly like and enjoy, going to a movie that you really want to see, reading a good book, spending quality time with a friend or friends, etcetera, etcetera. “Appointment TV” falls into this category.
  • Category W: W is for waste. W is watching hours and hours of television, watching shows you don’t even like, just to avoid having to stand up, get off autopilot, turn your brain on, and do something with your day. W is sitting at a computer surfing the net for hours, not in order to learn something specific or shop for something you actually need or something else that’s actually productive. but just aimlessly following links. W is playing endless games of Spider Solitaire or Freecell. W is going to out to the garden to weed and somehow losing track of time in an obsessive-compulsive nightmare and suddenly realizing that it’s six hours later and the sun’s going down.

One of the big problems with my life (and, if I may be so bold, with the life of a lot of people I know) is that things that might appear to be safely located in categories X, Y, or Z can ooze into Category W. Playing one game of online backgammon on your cell phone after work might be relaxing or even fun. Definitely Category Z material. But if you leave work and you pull out your Droid and start playing backgammon and suddenly it’s 10 o’clock at night and you have no idea where the time went… you’re in the Category W zone.

It’s like the way that a very small dose of a poison may have a therapeutic effect, but the same substance is deadly in larger quantities. Heck, even oxygen can be toxic at high enough pressures. Something that might be good for you, pleasurable, relaxing, and enjoyable ceases to be “good” when you take it to an extreme.

It’s bad if a workaholic stays at work late every night and neglects his family. X becomes W.

Visiting quaint little antique stores in search of furniture to restore might be category Y. Until you’re spending all your time in quaint little antique stores but never actually buy anything and never restore anything. Then it’s just an unhealthy obsession.

Watching a favorite TV show is fine. Watching TV for hours and hours every day, using it like a drug… at that point Z becomes W.

What falls into Category X, Y, and Z for each person varies from person to person. I can go weeks without watching a minute of TV. It just doesn’t fall into any of my categories as a good and enjoyable way to spend time. And I don’t judge someone who does like four or five (or six or seven) programs and can’t imagine going a week without watching them. But when TV watching becomes compulsive and takes up so much time that categories X, Y, and Z are neglected… that’s when you have a problem.

There are all manner of things I would like to do with my life. Running is high up there. Writing is up there too. But ask me how many nights I’ve told myself “I’ll go running tomorrow for sure” and stayed at my computer, just browsing the web and watching the minutes tick by.

I want to be a kinder, more considerate, less judgmental person. I need to spend more time working on that as well. But far too often, I let my temper get the better of me and I say mean, thoughtless, dumb, or cruel things. I should be working on meditation and reflection: classic Category Y stuff. I should be volunteering more in my community and doing what I can to be the kind of person I want to be. But I don’t.

And there I am at 3:00 am, standing in front of the refrigerator, eyes glowing with a fiendish lust, rummaging in the deli drawer for the last half of a block of Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar. But tomorrow I’ll stop binge eating. Tomorrow I’ll use my time well and go for a run after work.

Yeah. Tomorrow.

St. Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, put it this way: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” 

I can’t stand the way I watch my life flit away on garbage. On waste. On pointless pursuits and useless endeavors. And I’m not equating “time not spent on actual work” as “wasted.” Not all “fun” is Category W.

Pointless effort, mindless effort, directionless effort — that’s what takes us into Category W. And while it’s easy to blame the Imp of the Perverse for my tendency to fritter and fribble my life away, ultimately, I have to take responsibility for what I do with it.

Is it sinful to waste the lives we’ve been given? I don’t know. Consider the Parable of the Talents. I’ve been given great gifts. And yet I do so little with them. Not in the celebration and service of God. Not in the service of my fellow man, or of myself. In many cases, not at all. And I constantly set goals for myself that I fall short of, not by trying and failing, but too often, by simply failing to try.

“Cheese” is just a metaphor for my constant failure to live up to my goals and promises. I have a feeling though, that if I ever developed the strength of character to resist the siren call of cheese in the refrigerator, all my other problems would evaporate as well.

“Cheese As a Metaphor for Personal Weakness and Failings” may be one weird sermon topic, let alone as a Toastmasters “Table Topic”, but … we all have our angels and demons that we wrestle with. This one just happens to be mine.

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Lifetime Piling Up

By | April 17, 2013

Since my last blog post on, life has been … frustrating, to say the least.

My father’s doing MUCH better, thank you — that’s not one of the frustrating things. He has recuperated very well from his emergency hip surgery in mid-February. He got over the delusions that he was plagued by post-surgery and he’s gotten to the point that he can walk without a walker.

I’ve been struggling with severe depression, absolutely unrelated to Dad. There have been days that I sat at my desk in my office for four hours after quitting time, just aimlessly web-browsing and thinking “I should go to the gym and run” and then, once finally in the car, just heading for home and crawling into bed. I’m taking citalopram and trazodone every day and seeing a therapist a couple of times a month. I know that the trazodone has been not so good to a lot of my friends because of the drowsiness factor, but that’s actually why I’m on it. I gave up coffee a couple of years ago (and try to avoid caffeine in general) and that really improved my sleep, but there have been too many nights when I lie awake, fretful and restless. The trazodone helps with that… much more so than the Ambien they had me on a couple of years ago.

My depression is biochemical in nature. It’s (probably) not due to life stress, although there’s certainly been plenty of that. The depression waxes and wanes even when life conditions stay constant. I’m aware that my body is fighting my brain and saying “DO DUMB THINGS. OVEREAT. DON’T EXERCISE. SIT HERE IN YOUR OFFICE AND FEEL SORRY FOR YOURSELF.” It’s one thing to know that and another to actually be able to fight the urge.

On another front, I was going great guns on running at the start of the winter. My speed was increasing and I had gotten to the point that I no longer had to walk at all during a 5K session on our local indoor track. I ran in the Shelburne Spring Fling 5K on the first day of spring and did amazingly well — I finished in 28:27, by far the fastest time I’d ever had at that point in an actual road race.

Then metoprolol happened. I’ve been concerned about my high blood pressure for the last year. Prior to last May, my blood pressure was pretty amazing. Then ugly personal events happened in May (which I may never blog about, but they were pretty bad), and my blood pressure went straight through the roof. We tried lisinopril, which gave me a bad cough, then switched to losartan, which helped somewhat, but not a huge amount, then added hydrochlorothiazide (a diuretic), which also helped a bit, and then there came a day when I absent-mindedly checked my blood pressure at work and got a reading of 190 over 120 or something. And I freaked. And next thing you know I was on metoprolol, which lowers your blood pressure by turning you into a heavily sedated zombie of some kind. I liked what it did for my blood pressure, but when I tried to run after about a week of metoprolol, I found myself running 5K in thirty seven minutes. I could barely run at all. Most of the distance was spent walking. I felt like I was on heavy anesthesia.

I had a choice — I could punt on any thought of running, or I could opt out of the metoprolol. I decided that I didn’t want to have healthy blood pressure at the cost of feeling winded when I climbed a flight of steps, and simply stopped taking it. It took a few weeks to get entirely out of my system, but I seem to finally be “back”. I’m back to the point where I can run 5K on an indoor track without stopping to walk at all, and I’ve run several sub-30 minute 5K distances in a row in the last week. Today I had my personal best time ever at that distance: 27 minutes, 50 seconds. First time I ever got below 28 minutes.

Now I need to start working on distance… upping the distance run to 10K and beyond. Fortunately, spring is finally coming to Vermont and that should be possible.

But with every step forward, there’ve been multiple steps back. Our dear little cat, Thursday (it’s short for ‘The Cat Who Was Thursday’, a reference to a work by G.K. Chesterton) has been very very sick lately. She started avoiding food and showing no energy whatsoever last week, and I insisted on taking her in to the vet (Carole initially though that she was just being finicky). Turns out that she’s essentially suffering from chronic renal failure and her BUN and creatine levels were unbelievably unhealthy. They kept her for about 48 hours on an IV and got her back to the point where she had an appetite and would take solid food. But we’ve been giving her subcutaneous fluids and potassium and an antacid and an anti-nausea drug, and that’s helped a bit, but today she’s been back to refusing food. We think it’s because of mouth ulcers — she’s got bloody ulcers in her mouth and occasionally drools blood… and I suspect that it just hurts too much to eat. We’re going to beg the vets tomorrow for something to help with that.

We know that she may get to the point that she’s “better” and can live for a year or two more. Friends with cats in this sort of condition have gotten their pets past the hump and to a stable condition. But on the other hand, if Thursday’s quality of life doesn’t improve (case in point: she’s not cleaning herself and her fur is matted if we don’t wash her ourselves) and she just lies around feeling too sick and ill to move, we may have to make a very hard decision. I know many of you have faced that same decision in the past and some of you may be thinking “it’s cruel to keep her alive and in pain”, but again, lots of cats have faced this and mostly recovered. We don’t want to give up hope yet. Thursday has been with us 15 years and we love her very much.

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My so-called life

By | March 22, 2013

Never let it be said that I don’t lead a glamorous life.

I’m currently on my way back home to Vermont from a business trip to Austin, Texas, which went well, all except for the motherboard in my work laptop apparently suffering some sort of infarction that left it unable to draw power from the AC adapter. So, the battery ran dead, and the laptop won’t run when plugged in…

All of which would merely be annoying if it weren’t for the fact that I fly back to Texas on Sunday morning (to scenic Lubbock this time) and won’t be able to get my laptop fixed by the support team at work. My coworkers apparently dug up a laptop I can borrow but they’ve got to overnight it to me from Plano, Texas. I hope it gets to me; it’d be awkward being on a business trip with no access to work email or files for four days.

Assuming I make it home today, I’ve got an action-packed weekend planned.

I’ll be spending this evening stuffing candy into about a thousand plastic Easter eggs for next weekend’s hunt at my church (I volunteered for the job, no idea why).

Tomorrow I’m signed up to run in a 5K: the Spring Fling 5K/10K, which ironically had its route changed from rec paths to public streets after 10 inches of snow fell this week. They’ve informed us that the streets will not be closed to cars so we are requested not to run more than 2 abreast. Um, yeah. I have a feeling that no personal best times will be set tomorrow.

When I’m done with the race I’ve got to grab my camera and head out to spend the day photographing Vermont Maple Open House Weekend … or at least the first day of it, since I’ll be flying all day on Sunday. I’m on the marketing committee of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association and I run the Vermont Maple Syrup Facebook page (75,000 ‘likes’ and climbing).

And then it’s time to pack again and head back to Texas. Hello, Lubbock!

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Exciting discovery today

By | March 3, 2013

I go to Faith United Methodist Church in South Burlington, Vermont. We get newcomers there all the time. We do our best to make them feel welcome, and I think they do, because we have a lively and friendly church, with a congregation well-distributed over all ages.

One woman who started attending a few months ago was Bridget. Pretty young woman, but we paid more attention to her baby, who is called “Pippi,” and we all went nuts over the “Pippi Longstocking” connection.

Well, today I came to find out that Bridget was my first yoga instructor!! This was several years back, at the YMCA in Burlington, and I was just crazy about her. I haven’t gotten attached to another yoga instructor since; though I’ve attended many different classes, none of them were quite right. So I was thrilled when I realized it. When I told her, she remembered me, too… and she said that I’d looked familiar, but she couldn’t quite place me. I knew I hadn’t recognized her, and eventually realized that she wears glasses now, plus her face looks different — thinner, somehow older — she had a baby face when I first knew her.

Anyway, I found out where she teaches now. Shelburne Health & Fitness, on Monday night. I’m hoping to give it a visit tomorrow. 🙂

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Beta blockers and “warming up”

By | March 2, 2013

In recent months, Jay and I have both had some troubling blood-pressure readings and have been put on hypertension drugs by our doctors. As luck would have it, we are both now taking metaprolol, one of the family of “beta blocker” medicines. Beta blockers have the general effect of slowing down the sympathetic nervous system, aka the “fight or flight” or adrenaline response. This means that when events would previously have caused your blood pressure to rise, it rises much more slowly; this of course has the effect of lower average b.p., which is the point. Another effect, though not the one being sought, is that your heart rate stays lower on average.

And therein lies the problem. Exercise requires a “warm up” interval, during which the heart rate is being brought up to a functional speed for aerobic exercise. Now, I don’t know much about the physiological reason for this, but I have found in the last few years that if I want to get a really hard workout, it is extremely hard for me to keep going for about the first half-hour, and then it suddenly gets easier.

It’s like, when I make a demand on my heart, it goes, “NO! NO! NO! SLOW DOWN! I CAN’T TAKE IT! I’M GONNA EXPLOOOOOOODE!!!!” at first. But then if I keep pushing through it, my heart finally says, “Oh, well then, if that’s what you want.” And stops protesting.

Now, the problem? The beta blocker slows everything down. This means that I am working hard for even longer to get through the “NO! NO! NO!” period. It also seems that I must work much harder during every minute to get my heart-rate up into the “Fat Burning” or “Aerobic” zones … you know, the ones you calculate as a percentage of your max heart rate? Like, take 220 minus your age (178 for me) then multiply by 60% for fat-burning (107) or 70% for aerobic (125). But I’ll be honest, now that I look at these numbers, I think I was spending much more of my time than I realized in the 80% range before now. I mean, I know when I went bicycling, I was routinely up to HR of 150.

So anyway, now, I have to recalibrate my efforts. It feels as if I have to work a lot harder just to get to the 60% mark (because I guess I was getting there too easily before), and I’m having a hard time with that. Jay is also feeling this effect, according to what he wrote about his running yesterday. Of course, his problem is on a much different scale from mine. He’s reasonably fit; I’m about as close to couch-potato as I can get.

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Metoprolol effects on running?

By | March 2, 2013

I had an absolutely awful run yesterday. It was outdoors, on roads near my office, in near-freezing weather. I absolutely could not get ‘going’ — I seemed to have no stamina. I took 36 minutes to run/walk/plod 5 kilometers. The route was fairly hilly and the first stretch is all uphill — but I don’t think that should have caused me quite so much distress.

And while I was glooming about it this morning to Carole, Carole pointed out that perhaps the beta blocker medication I started a couple of weeks ago (to combat high blood pressure) may have played a large role in what happened yesterday. I had some good runs at the gym last week, but I’d only been on the metoprolol a few days at that point. Now that it’s had more time to really get into my system, who knows? Maybe I’m going to have to work very hard to get warmed up before starting running from now on.

A quick Google search after Carole and I got home from running errands indicates that there’s something to the theory. People said “just because it’s harder doesn’t mean that you can’t run — people have run marathons on beta blockers.”

So I need to avoid despair — and just work really hard on getting warmed up before I launch into a run. I hope that makes the difference.

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Well, isn’t that my dumb luck

By | February 21, 2013

As those of you who follow this blog know, I’ve been trying to become more of a runner, trying to improve my stamina and speed and be less of, well, a joke.

In the last couple of weeks, I really haven’t gotten out and run much. Last week I was in Florida, where one would think I’d have taken advantage of the warm weather to run nearly every day. Unfortunately, I was not there on vacation; I was there to look after my father, who’d had emergency surgery after falling and breaking his hip. I had to stick around the house pretty much all the time, and when I wasn’t at the house, I was out buying various things to help in his recovery. I only got out to run once while I was there.

This week I was playing catch-up at work. The first time I was able to get out and run was today. But, fortunately, my time away from running doesn’t seem to have hurt me. When I showed up at the gym in Essex Junction to run, I felt good. Strong. I was raring to go.

But when I got upstairs to the indoor track and turned my Garmin Forerunner 305 on to track my laps (indoors, the GPS isn’t much use, but it still works to record my heart rate and I can manually press the ‘lap’ button each time I go ’round), I was greeted with the annoying message: “LOW BATTERY”. I’d charged it last week, but somehow it’d gone almost dead. Presumably it’d gotten turned on by accident while in my luggage, and I hadn’t charged it since getting home.

So what was I to do? I wasn’t wearing my watch; it was down in my locker. I had my Droid phone with me, and it had a stopwatch app on it, so I shrugged and figured I’d use that to time myself. No problem, right?

An actual lap counter would have been even better, but I didn’t want to take the time to search for and download one. (I had visions of fumbling with the touch screen every sixty seconds, trying to record a lap when I should have been focusing on running.) So, I shrugged and just kept count in my head.

Now, it’s not always easy to keep track of laps in your head. You start going “11 11 11 11 11” and then think “wait, did I just finish lap 11, or am I on lap 11?” I tried hard not to lose count — that’s about all I can say.

I did not look at the stopwatch as I ran. I just kept my head down and focused on running. I felt good. I felt like I had a good stride and didn’t feel the fatigue setting in that I normally feel. From a standpoint of how I felt, it was probably my best run ever.

But here’s the punchline: when I finished the 25th lap (making 3.125 miles) and came to a stop, I pulled out my phone and looked at the readout: 22 minutes 53 seconds.

Twenty two minutes and 53 seconds?

When my best time ever was 28 minutes and 30 seconds?

Okay, I have to have lost count. But did I lose FIVE WHOLE LAPS?

Sigh. Just my dumb luck. I may have had my best 5K run ever, and I have no way of knowing how I really did.

I’ll be back tomorrow night… WITH a fully charged Forerunner. We’ll see if tonight was a complete fiction, or whether I really have improved!

This August I’ll be taking part in the Michigan Susan G. Komen 3-Day, walking sixty miles in 3 days to raise funds for the fight against breast cancer. I have to raise a minimum of $2,300 to take part, but I’ve set my goal even higher: $5,000. Will you sponsor me and help in the fight? If you’re willing to help, please click here: — and thanks!
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Dad’s status, two weeks after hip replacement surgery

By | February 20, 2013

My father had emergency hip replacement surgery two weeks ago. I flew down to be with him in Florida the weekend after the surgery and was down in Brooksville (north of Tampa) for a week. Dad is 80 and not super-strong, so as you can imagine, I was, and am, concerned about him.

Dad is bit by bit getting stronger as a result of the in-home physical therapy that he’s receiving, which is good. At the same time, there’s been a big worry: confusion and disorientation. Dad has had days where he’s just out there … where he believes that he was made to lie on the bed for three days and was ignored by all and sundry, where no one would give him anything to drink, and so on.

Finally, on Sunday night, it clicked — we needed to find out if the painkiller he was on, Tramadol, might be causing the confusion. Various websites and anecdotal evidence from friends, plus input from a few actual pharmacists and doctors on my Facebook friends list, led us to conclude that the answer was somewhere between “probably” and “yes”. We took Dad off Tramadol that night — in the sense that we didn’t give him any more after that.

Monday was a “good day” in that he was awake early, rested, and had plenty of energy. But yesterday, Tuesday, was another “bad day” in that he had no energy, no appetite, didn’t want to get up, and was, frankly, depressed. I was worried.

But apparently yesterday’s drowsiness and lassitude was apparently the result of Tramadol withdrawal. Today he’s MUCH better. Much more energy. And, while he unfortunately still remembers all the delusions that he experienced, he’s able to cognitively process that they weren’t real. And he’s very embarrassed by the stuff he said, felt, and did. We keep telling him not to be, but no one likes to think of themselves being delusional, especially when you’re elderly and worried about the possibility of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

My sister Julie came down yesterday from North Carolina and will be there through the weekend to keep him company, help out, and in general provide love and support and coaching. I’m really glad he’s there. My cousin Anne has been a rock as well and we’re all so grateful for everything she’s done to help Dad.

An occupational therapist has been coming this week and Dad has been able to, with help, take a shower. He has a bit of difficulty getting into the shower because he has to lift his leg up to get over the lip of the shower, but once in, he’s good. He’s using a brand new shower chair with back and hand grips and good gripping feet that I bought him last week.

So I think we’ve turned the corner. Hopefully tomorrow will be another “good day” and all days from here on will be “good days”. He has an appointment with his surgeon tomorrow and I believe they’re going to see if it’s time to take the surgical staples out. I counseled him to tell the surgeon that he has an heated pool that he’d like to use to continue getting stronger, and to ask the surgeon if the incision is to the point where he can expose it to pool water. If he’s not ready, he’s not ready, but I know that pool therapy will be very good for him once he is ready.

I thank everyone for their prayers and support during this difficult time. I know many of you have had similar experiences, either yourself or with your own parents and relatives, and your advice is much appreciated.

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What is love? Part 2

By | February 14, 2013

It’s Valentine’s Day.

I’m in Florida looking after my father as he recovers from a broken hip. My wife of 15 years, Carole Furr, is back home in Vermont, working part-time doing accounting for a local firm, looking after our three kitties, and trying to keep from going nuts during the long dark cold Vermont winter.

We spend most Valentine’s Days apart, thanks to my job which has me traveling three weeks out of every four, or sometimes even more often. I’d like to say that I find a way to make the day memorable somehow, every year, but the fact is, I don’t. Some years I order her flowers, some years I order her chocolates, and some years I take her at her word and order neither in order to save money. Sometimes we go out for a nice dinner when I get home at the end of the week, and sometimes, best intentions notwithstanding, we simply never get around to it.

Carole and I have been married for fifteen and a half years. They haven’t always been easy years. We sometimes don’t get along at all. Carole suffers from depression and some rogue form of ADHD, and she’s simply not always easy to stand. And for my part, I have a bad temper and sometimes get a lot angrier about her mood swings than is reasonable, or even sane. But I’m working very hard on that these days. And I think she’s putting in some effort toward being more considerate of my need for peace and quiet in the evenings when I actually am home. Bit by bit, a step forward and a step back and another step forward, we’re learning how to get along with each other. Maybe by the time we’ve been married 50 years we’ll actually be mature enough to be good partners to each other.

Do we love each other? Yes.

But do we always like each other? No.

But we’ve stuck with each other to this point, even though at times it seemed like insanity to do so.

In the end, you know why I stick with her and she with me?

I think it’s because we feel so comfortable being silly together.

I’ll spare you a long litany of examples (although I could post one if I was so inclined and not so tired) and simply give you a classic bit of Jay-and-Carole silliness:

Our old house in Essex Junction had a large kitchen with an open archway leading to the dining room. The dining room had a glass door leading to the back yard and another open archway leading to the living room. The living room in turn had open archways leading to the dining room and to the kitchen, and then a hallway leading to the bedrooms and such.

In other words, you could walk from the living room into the kitchen, bear left, walk through an archway into the dining room, bear left, walk through an archway, and be back in the living room. (I miss that kitchen. It was about five times larger than my current kitchen, although everything else about my current house is better in every way.)

We put the topography of our house to use in a particularly strange ritual about once or twice a month. Specifically, Carole would decide to chase me. I would run (slowly), howling in fear, from kitchen to dining room to living room and back again to the kitchen, looping around over and over as she gamely pursued me. She would chant “I’m gonna git ‘cha! I’m gonna git ‘cha!” I’d go “AAAAAAAAAAAAAH” and so on.

Reasonable enough, so far.

But what made the game really special was what happened after about five or six laps. Carole would suddenly turn around and suddenly she’d be in front of me as I came around the corner into the kitchen. And while I obviously could have reversed direction myself, that wasn’t the point. She’d raise her arms in the air and go “I’M GONNA GIT ‘CHA” and I’d run right into her and *pow*, she’d grab me.

And she’d hug me and I’d whimper pathetically.

But bit by bit, I’d relax and, in my gormless way, realize that this wasn’t so bad, and I’d return the hug.

All couples do that, right?

So if that’s not love, what is?

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What is love? Part 1

By | February 14, 2013

I am spending Valentine’s Day far from my sweetie.

This isn’t as unusual as it might be for some people. I work as a technical trainer for a very large Fortune 500 company and it’s often the case that I’m on a business trip on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes I send flowers, sometimes I send chocolates, and in any event, we often try to have a special meal out when I return.

But this week I’m not on a business trip. In fact, I was supposed to be at home this week; I expected to be in town all week long, resting up between road trips and getting in some serious running at the gym and, with any luck, having a romantic Valentine’s Day night out with Carole.

That all changed last Wednesday night, when my father, Keith Furr, tripped over his own loose sock on the hardwood floor of the hallway outside his bedroom at his house in Brooksville, Florida. Dad is 80, a widower, and had been planning on having a hip replacement soon anyway, but that fall fractured his right hip but good — the same one he’d been planning on having replaced. He lay in agony in the hallway for a while, somehow managed to drag himself back into his bedroom and onto his bed, and then finally was able to wake my sister Elizabeth up with his shouts. Elizabeth lives with him; she’s the oldest of my three siblings, and is disabled with mental health issues. She got word to my cousin Anne who lives across the street and who works with my family as driver, housecleaner, cook, and all-around superhero. And it was off to the hospital for Dad.

I got word as I was already in Illinois for a business trip. There was debate over whether Dad would even be healthy enough to survive surgery; among his many problems is a bad heart, a significantly blocked artery, and atrial fibrillation. A debate took place between his orthopedic surgeon and his cardiologist as to which surgery would take place first. In the end, they went with the hip replacement.

I knew that I needed to get down to Florida as soon as I could. For all I knew, Dad might not wake up from the anesthesia; if he did, he might be looking at months of rehab and/or hospitalization. I had vague notions of flying home, unpacking, repacking, and flying down here to Florida to spend the week with Dad at the hospital until he was well enough to transfer to rehab, then keeping him company in rehab until the weekend and then flying home to resume my work schedule. But life took another frustrating turn when my flight home from Illinois on Friday was cancelled outright; I couldn’t get home to Vermont because of a massive blizzard that hit the Northeast. The earliest a flight could get me home to Vermont would be Monday of this week.

Then the Good Fairy interceded: it turns out that I could alter my Chicago-to-Vermont flight to a Chicago-to-Tampa flight, basically at an even trade. No out of pocket on my part, and I could fly down as soon as my Illinois work assignment was over — essentially, Saturday morning. I arrived here in Florida with no return ticket; I wanted to wait to see when it would make sense for me to fly home. For that matter, my siblings in Calgary (AB) and Chapel Hill (NC) might decide to come down, so I figured I’d wait to see what their plans were.

And that’s how I came to spend the weekend, Saturday and Sunday and Monday, sitting calmly in my father’s hospital room in Brooksville, Florida, watching him sleep, serving as a go-between to make sure that he actually got fed (he kept getting left off the meal list and if I hadn’t been there, he’d have gone hungry), actually got looked after (he wasn’t functional enough to ring for a CNA when he’d wet himself, and I had to keep checking on him and summoning help), and so on, and doing my best to talk with him and keep his spirits up, despite the pain. Dad was very very loopy when I first got to Florida; he had been on an older form of anesthesia since had not had a week to wean himself off the Plavix he routinely takes, and if I understand correctly, that particular kind of anesthesia takes a long time to leave the system. That, and the narcotic painkillers he was on, left him unable to distinguish between dreams and reality. He didn’t know where he was; he was convinced that there had been a huge party at his house Wednesday night, which he was very cranky about, and that my sister Julie had been present (she’s still in North Carolina), and even though I politely, but firmly assured him that there had been no party, he kept going back to that belief.

Don’t even ask about the nightmares he’d had, which were equally “real” to him. I’d be sitting talking with him and he’d seem quite lucid, but then he’d begin talking about how “that trip to the cemetery” had taken so much out of him. I learned to recognized the signs of the false memories and could distinguish them from reality, but he would also treat his doctors, nurses, and CNAs to the same jarring tangents into horror.

We decided that it was best if he took no more narcotics and switched him to Tramadol for pain. He got some decent sleep and by Sunday afternoon, the second day I was there, he was almost back to normal, mentally.

All along we had been acting on the assumption that he would be in the hospital for five days, post-surgery, then transfer to an inpatient rehab facility. I arrived at the hospital bright and early at 8 am on Monday morning and no sooner had I walked in than Dad cheerily announced that his doctor said he could go home. Home home. Not to the rehab facility.

I had no idea if this was real or another delusion, so I went and found his nurse and got some clarification. He could go home if his physical therapist thought it was reasonable. I secretly hoped that his PT would persuade Dad that it wasn’t a good idea; I had a premonition that Dad would take home physical therapy a LOT less seriously than the intense, three-hours-per day PT he’d get at the inpatient rehab. I wasn’t alone in worrying about the prospect — the nursing supervisor for the floor and the case manager for the floor arrived mid-morning, looking alarmed at the prospect of Dad heading home as though he hadn’t just broken a hip and had emergency surgery. I could tell from Dad’s face that he desperately wanted to go home and not spend another night in a crummy hospital bed, no matter how nice. I equivocated and said that we would certainly listen to the advice of the PT and his own personal doctor, who would be coming by around noon.

You guessed it: the PT didn’t tell us “over my dead body”, and his doctor said “Yeah, okay, whatever.” And after about three hours of waiting for papers to sign and transport to arrive, we loaded Dad in a wheelchair and loaded the wheelchair in a van, and next thing you know, here we were at the house.

Dad’s going to be getting PT three times a week, A nursing visit three times a week. And a visit from a CNA three times a week. But so far, he’s not been super-dedicated about doing the exercises his PT assigns him. And when we get him up in his walker to move him to a chair, he just won’t listen when we beg him to stay inside the walker, not pushing it so far in front of him that he’s practically falling down. But he needs to be up and moving around and doing his exercises to get strong… and it’s incredibly hard to persuade someone who just feels defeated that there’s a reason to rise up and give it another try.

I sympathize tremendously. I’m not angry at him. I don’t fault him. He’s 80 and injured and weak. But willpower makes such a huge difference when fighting health issues, and I know he’s got will. The trick is trying to bring it to the surface.

But when he’s resting, and I’m waiting for the next occasion to help him, the minutes and hours sure do pile up… minutes and hours that fill, unasked, with melancholy thoughts.

I didn’t grow up in this house. Far from it. Mom and Dad retired to Brooksville in order to get away from the snowy, cold winters in Blacksburg, Virginia. But the house is full of possessions I did grow up with. And it’s full of memories of my mother, who passed away suddenly a year and a half ago.

It’s been very emotionally upsetting for me, hanging out at this house where a reminder of good times or bad lurks around every corner. And I’ve had a lot of time to ponder and mope as Dad’s needed someone to be here around the clock ever since we brought him home on Monday. When he’s sleeping, there’s not much I can do other than sit around waiting for him to call from the bedroom that he needs help. My cousin Anne has been a huge help, and she’ll continue to look after Dad after I fly home on Saturday, but she’s got a life of her own and when she’s not here, mostly I sit, do a little work-related email, and gloom.

I worry about my father. He had few friends and loved my mother very much. She was his life. And when she died, the ship of our family suddenly lacked a captain. While Dad was the breadwinner, Mom was the person who made sure things got done here at the house. Even when she wasn’t strong, when she was in her last years, she still made sure things didn’t get overlooked. Without her around, and with my father so terribly weak and frail …

I keep wanting to go around and “fix” things so they’ll be the way she would have wanted them. Books that I know no one will ever read again — they need to be straightened. Houseplants that she once looked after attentively — they need to be tended to, fertilized, transplanted, whatever. I want to pick things up, put them back the way she liked them.

I’m obviously suffering through some kind of denial. Though she’s been gone for a year and a half, I was able to push the thought of her demise away by focusing on work and my life back in Vermont. Back here in her house in Florida, the presence of my mother is everywhere. And I know that no matter what I do, nothing’s going to bring her back.

Dad is suffering from the same denial. He hasn’t gotten rid of anything of Mom’s. As you walk around, it’s almost as though he thinks she’ll be back. Her drawers are still full of her underwear and scarves and jewelry. Her closets are full of her clothes. Her rack of daily prescription medicines would probably still be on the dining table if Carole and I hadn’t taken it upon ourselves to dispose of them a couple of days after her memorial service.

I know that one of these days Dad is going to die. And I spent the first five days of this time down here dreading that like you would not believe. Not just because Dad will, ultimately, die, but also because it will be hard, HARD when the time comes to go through the house and dispose of all their things. A couple days ago, Cousin Anne informed me that Dad has altered his will putting the house in a trust for Elizabeth so she’ll continue to have a place to live after he dies, and that puts the date of us having to empty the house off for, I hope, MANY years. Dad hadn’t informed me of the change, but I wholeheartedly agree with the new plan.

I’m exhausted and wrung out, emotionally and physically. Dad’s having prostate issues and several times a day we’re having to go deal with the consequences. The poor man can’t get up to use the bathroom and a bedside urinal isn’t always easy to manage in the middle of the night when you’re in pain, disoriented, and sad. I’ve been sleeping on a sofa in the room next to Dad’s bedroom so that I can come running if he needs me in the middle of the night. The “sleep” I’ve been getting hasn’t been great; I come awake over and over again, listening and thinking “was that him calling for me? is there a problem?” only to find out that it’s just him mumbling in his sleep. It grieves me to see the man who was such a strong central figure in my life when I was a kid so foggy and frail and helpless.

Some people who know me well find it a bit incongruous that I’m down here at all. Dad was a hard man to have as a father. I was beaten up, physically and emotionally, for years. Dad never had a kind word to say about me from about the time I entered third grade until I finished graduate school, and even then, the praise came only rarely. Dad didn’t really start treating me with respect until I got a salaried position and began living a normal middle-class life. Until that happened, I’m sure he was waiting confidently for me to fail — he spent most of my childhood aggressively predicting failure in my every endeavor.

He mellowed a bit as he got older. But he’s still got the same problem that he’s always had: he’s not good at showing love. Except to Mom, and even then, he usually found a way of expressing it that allowed him plausible deniability. That he loved her is not in question. But he was never good at showing it, not when others were around. And he’s not good at showing it to his children, even today. He’s quick to criticize, quick to find fault, and the only defense is to show a quiet, unflappable competency.

But on the other hand, something pretty out of the ordinary happened the other day. The last day he was in the hospital before coming home, after a flurry of activity where I’d chased down the hospital catering crew to find out why, for the second time in five meals, he’d been skipped, chased down his nurse to find out why a promised pain pill had still not materialized after an hour, and helped him out of his chair back into bed (not an easy task), he looked at me and said “Thank you for all you’re doing to help me.”

I said “It’s no more than I should be doing — you looked after me when I was a baby and when I was a kid, now it’s my turn to look after you.”

And he replied, “Well, yeah, but …” and here his voice dropped to a barely audible mumble … “I was pretty rough on you at times.”

That is the closest he has ever come to admitting “I beat the hell out of you for most of your childhood.”

And I understand why people who know me, and know Dad, and know how we haven’t always gotten along (to say the least) find it odd that I’m down here. That I’m waiting on him hand and foot, talking with him to try to keep his brain engaged and lucid, lying half-awake all night waiting for him to call for help. That I’m going to such lengths to try to help him.

It’s not easy. But it is the right thing to do. When someone you love is in pain, you do what you have to do.

And there’s that word: “love”.

Love is a confusing, frustrating thing. It’s not an easy thing. We think of love in terms of “romantic love” more often than not, especially on today of all days. But love comes in many forms, and if it’s not love to change your father’s wet bedsheets three times a day with a smile on your face and without a word of complaint, then I don’t know what love is.

It does me no good to keep a record in my head of all the mean and angry things Dad did to me over the years. It would do me no good to hold a grudge and to say “Let him suffer; it’s no more than he deserves.” It would do me no good to sigh in exasperation and say “Oh, jeez, what now?”

I must simply remember: Dad is a human, like all the rest of us. He is not perfect. Nor am I. But we are all deserving of love. One day he will be gone and no amount of tidying or reorganizing his cluttered office will bring him back. And when that day comes, I will miss him. And I do not want to have on my conscience when that day comes that I did less than I could have.

I believe that Dad can regain his strength and live several more years, able to walk and function and enjoy life. I am optimistic that he’s going to get stronger and that he’ll be able to take care of himself and not be perpetually dependent on others to care for him. But even if my belief and optimism come to nothing, whether he prevails or whether he gives up, defeated, I still love him. With all his faults, he’s still my father.



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