Thursday, September 30, 2010

Giving Herself

Susan called it a midlife crisis; Robert just calls it life.

My friend Susan Matheson was the first in West Michigan to donate a kidney to a stranger. Typically, donors are family members of those who need a transplant, but Susan didn't know Robert, and wouldn't unless he wanted to meet.

He did. Here's the video of this ultimate act of philanthropy: giving life.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Something in the Air

Emma likes Nick.

So says my son Simon, age 10, who sees the two together on the playground every recess. When the group plays Star Wars, Nick is General Grievous, and Emma is General Grievous's wife, a character not previously included in George Lucas's world.


Simon's right. If that's not love, I don't know what is.

Funny how people attract each other. Maybe you're more yourself, or too much of yourself, with a certain someone; all sorts of dynamics jump around depending on who's in the room.

I had a meeting at my kids' school the other day regarding our diabetes management plan. A rompin', stompin' shout-out, it was; the other party brought out the fighter in me, and I pushed back on certain policies as politely, firmly, and loudly as I could. When the meeting finished, the ref called a tie and we bumped gloves amicably, yet there was a sense that Match No. 2 was right around the corner.

I walked out of the conference room and discussed the same topic with another person. Within minutes, we were consoling each other and wiping away tears. Same topic. Different person. Wildly different dynamics.

In the parking lot on my way out, I caught up with the mother of a girl in Simon's class. We exchanged stories about how well our kids get along: Simon's always sneaking up on Susie, tapping her on the shoulder and running away, giggling; Susie's always coming home talking about how funny Simon is, how he makes her laugh.

Susie's the kind of girl you want your boy to be attracted to, even at these early stages of noting nothing but the butterflies. Susie's sharp as a tack, sings like an angel, has a spark in her eye and a wry smile.

I'm not the picture of femininity, and I often wonder how spending Saturdays watching mom compete at the bench press will affect my boys' view of women. I approve of Susie, but I also know that the wind blows as it will, and there may be a bouncy cheerleader in our future.

Life comes down to these connections, doesn't it? In Eat Pray Love, I recall reading a story about author Elizabeth Gilbert's friend, a journalist. She'd meet with people in war-torn countries struggling to find food, housing, and safety, and all they wanted to talk about was the one who got away, a love lost in the war.

General Grievous, it turns out, was born Qymaen jai Sheelal; early on in his fighting days he became attracted to a woman with a lengthier, equally unpronounceable name, Kaleesh Ronderu lij Kummar. He'd tap her on the shoulder with his sword, which dripped with Huk blood, then run away, and she'd giggle. The Huks had enough and killed the girl, sending Sheelal into a deep state of grief. He gave himself a new, more fitting name, and has been bitter ever since.

Someone like Emma could really bring out the Sheelal in him, I bet.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Where Do You Stand

Think of someone you admire, I said to the men at the shelter, and walk silently around the room as that person. Don't mimic or imitate; find new ways to hold your body and become someone else.

In my line of theatre, this becoming is essential to personal awareness and empathy for others. And let me tell you: seeing a homeless man walk like President Obama makes you stop and think.

Tall Tom stood taller. He held his shoulders back, his head high. Look in his face and you'd see a fortitude not there a half hour before when he stood on the sidewalk to wait for breakfast.

Each time I led a similar exercise in the shelter, I came away thinking I'd found the key to personal evolution. Something so simple as good posture can build a person's self-confidence, which surely could help them begin the ascent out of life on the streets.

But later, while watching the hoopla preceding the finale of LOST, I noticed something.

The characters of LOST are stranded on an island. They must hunt and gather for their food, earning each of them strong, lean bodies. The island is tropical, lending a sheen of moisture to their sinewy muscles. Hair is tousled thanks to the stress of life lived among polar bears and black smoke.

The actors in LOST are, in short, hot. In every sense of the word. In interviews, however, these hotties were just average folk; they washed off the sheen and the appeal disappeared. Can hotness fall off in the shower, I wondered?

I decided to ask my friend Dan, an actor in NYC. Why, I asked, is the very hot Desmond not hot in real life? Why wouldn't he draw on his inner hotness? If you've got it, flaunt it...right?

After a long diatribe on corporate television, comic books, and the Bush administration--Dan's a bit distractable--he finally said this: Because it would be exhausting.

We have a default posture, as it were. We may be capable of holding ourselves otherwise, but we generally gravitate toward a certain position. Think of those folks you found on Facebook after 20 years; they still stand the same way, don't they? Head tilted to one side when they smile?

Posture, I've come to believe, includes not only the way you stand in the kitchen but how you stand in front of the calendar, as well, ready for what the day brings.

Recently a friend wrote to me after hearing of my son's diagnosis of type 1 diabetes.

Be strong. Life is full of ups and downs. Be courageous so that every problem seems to be weak in front of you, and run away from you.

I've asked for a boxing bag for my approaching 40th birthday. The primal nature of the sport appeals to something deep in me, and it's just a matter of time before I take it on.

Yet it pains me to realize that, beyond the sport, I see life like a boxing ring--either you're fighting in the center or you're sitting in the corner between rounds.

That's my default posture. I don't know that I'm convinced my friend's advice is possible without exhausting someone like me. How about you?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Choosing No. 4

I'm working on a chart. The secretaries at Theo's school need a reference page to go by when they check his blood sugar levels.

So yes, when he's 80 or over, go ahead with the lunch insulin. But wait! 78 is close to 80. Maybe I should back that 80 down to 78. Better yet, have a separate line for what to do at 75-80, and 70 to 80 with symptoms, and 70 and above without.

With type 1 diabetes, the numbers really do make a difference. Theo's target blood sugar at this age is 80 to 180, and we'll do everything we can to keep him in that range. We've been given insulin dose ratios as well as education on how and when to adjust them. For example, Theo gets 1 unit of insulin for every 24 grams of carbs he plans to consume. Some parents plan their meals down to the gram, whereas we've been figuring out what he'll eat and rounding up or down according to facts, circumstances, and gut intuition.

Numbers are everything. I've been feeling a bit guilty lately for not packing into my son's lunchbox a meal that is easily divisible by 24.

And then it hit me.

24 is not a magic number.

The doctors and doses, glucometers and CalorieKing are fallible, and we all have to do our best and hope for the best. I'm reminded of the day I asked the nurse about a strange spike in Theo's blood sugar levels despite our perfect counting; in her kind way she said, "Well you know, he does have diabetes." Meaning we've got a manageable yet unpredictable disease on our hands, and to expect the unexpected.

Doing our best despite the circumstances, the circumstances not fitting easily into one category or another. I write on this often, don't I? In the last post, and in my latest essay at Burnside. These thoughts are visited as often as I make attempts to reconcile myself with them.

Earlier today, a researcher caught me up in a phone survey on the health of Michigan residents.

"On a scale of one to five, with one being highly satisfied, two being satisfied, three being somewhat dissatisfied, four being dissatisfied, and five being highly dissatisfied, how would you rate your satisfaction with your life?"

By this point I knew I was not permitted to choose an answer lying somewhere in between his options, such as "4.5," nor was I able to have him elaborate beyond his script (they must have a section in their handbooks called How To Discourage Housewives Starving for Social Outlets).

My mind went to August 2, the day of Theo's diagnosis. To my ability to show up every day at lunch and gym to help with the insulin shot, and get an extra hug; my thankfulness for a flexible schedule, and the little tug and pull from the projects I'm neglecting. Walking my son to a class he's had to miss part of, wondering when all the missing is going to register with him.

In the end, the researcher needed a number, and the insulin pen must be dialed up to the half unit. But life can be lived on the edges of these boundaries, and even just beyond.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Arm in Arm

January 25, 2010. The sidewalk on the hill that hugs the shelter is slick, and no one is answering the intercom to buzz me in. I give up, link arms with Catherine, and penguin walk toward the front entrance. Catherine is a large, unstable woman who is often suspended from using the shelter's services; some of the women say she brings bad spirits into the place. We're finally allowed in, and I note that the offices of the director and other staff are suddenly empty. I'll learn later that a drug raid wiped out all but one of the staff, including a woman who covered for those who went back to their old ways, but for now, all I know is that I'm in trouble. When the teacher's gone the students act up, and today, I'm the sub.

The women's spirits are down. I can plainly see that no one is up for participating in my theatre class. I begin with stretches and call it exercise, which relaxes them a little, even the ones shooting me looks of death. They're easing up; they're remembering they like me. But Kay, who is clearly lit, is off to the side running a nonstop obscene rant. It's unusual behavior for her, and it's hard to ignore.

At some point a young women points her out. "I'm getting real tired of that," she says. Someone else calls out, "You old drunk." I try to keep going, but it's getting ugly. The noise from Kay is too distracting, and at one point I hear this:

"Now I love Amy. Love. Amy. But she's full of SHIT."

I make it to the final activity, when I ask the women to list their stressors, intending to lead them in a theatrical practice of finding solutions.

Weather, they say. Jobs. Money. Relationships. Homelessness (yes, it's fifth on the list). Not having my child with me. Not having my own home. Sitting around.

It's hard to recall what happened after I transcribe this list, but in my notes, next to this intimate time of sharing, I see that I've written the words "descended into chaos."

There's this "strange dynamic of them being too stressed to participate, but then doing a lot of apologizing to me for being that way," I wrote. "It's like they suddenly looked up and saw that it was me, and they know how much time I give them, and they love me, and they felt bad for possibly hurting my feelings. Even rude Quita apologized and made the gesture of asking me how the roads are, and saying, You drive safe, okay? Diane--poor, anxious Diane--made a point of saying she has trouble in groups; otherwise, she'd participate."

The night became one of my most difficult times at the shelter, yet one that proved I'd made deep bonds with the women. I wrapped up shortly after the chaos ensued, and after all the apologies a slightly sober Kay cornered me.

She confessed she'd hit the heroin again. "I get unemployment now, and it's not enough money to buy me a house but just enough for me to be stupid," she said in her friendly drawl. I always liked Kay, was flattered, even, to make an appearance in her earlier rant.

"Life's just too damn boring."

Weeks later, when Kay said she was dying, I didn't believe her. All manner of grand pronouncements are made at homeless shelters--some true, some outrageous, and a few you wish could never, ever happen. I had believed her talk of hip surgery, and watched her lower herself to sleep on a mat on the floor. But her cheerfulness contradicted thoughts of death; didn't fit, somehow.

The other day I received word that in August, Kay died from an aggressive form of cancer. A memorial service held at the shelter was packed to overflowing; extra chairs had to be brought in to the dining hall. Her family attended, as well.

In November, I saw Kay with her family. She was so happy to be spending Thanksgiving with "normal people," yet there she was in the cold weather without a coat. Happiness is rarely pure. Grief is compromised. Love and pain are forever treading arm and arm on an icy hill, waiting to be buzzed in.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Activist: The Origin Story

In a single essay, I mention Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Batman, and the size of my chest.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Who Are You and Where Did You Come From

Come to think of it, yes we did send our kids to school first day with talk of Hitler.

The scene was Rockwellian at its onset: I’m sitting on the couch with an arm around each boy, Greg is attentively angled in our direction from the reclining chair. We’re bantering around topics appropriate to the start of school, and in this spirit I mention I never was into history until later, as an adult.

“You have to make a personal connection,” says Greg, directing this fatherly advice at his sons. “Like the time you studied Germany, Simon—you knew that you’re German from my side, so you took an interest in it.”

I scoff. “Yes, and he can also make note that he’s of direct lineage from Hitler.”

Greg retorted: “One word, Woman: Mussolini.”

The kids chimed in: “Is it time for the bus yet?

Dropping the ancestral attacks but keeping with the theme, I mentioned an illustration used by Peter Rollins the week before at Mars Hill. He said that sometime in the 1930s a profile ran of a nice man and his well-designed home. The man was—you guessed it—Adolf, and Rollins pointed out that the feature story was probably an accurate one: Hitler may indeed have been kind to children, and all the facts mentioned were most likely true. Yet we now know the totality of his existence, and we cannot say he was a good man.

Rollins went on to relate this disparity to the way we often see ourselves, or to how we project our identities in places such as Facebook. “Your conscious self is an idealized reflection of who you really are,” he said, in my recollection. “We tell ourselves false stories.”

Rollins is a philosopher, and terms like conscious self can fog up my glasses right quick. I'm aware that calling a person good or bad gets people's panties in a bunch. But I think I understand what he’s getting at: We project our best side, but that’s only one angle of a three-dimensional creature. When Theo asked what Hitler did that was so bad, in a manner of words we told him. And we stressed the distinction between making mistakes and what makes a man.

Today I accompanied Theo’s first grade class through a hallway en route to lunch. Years of falling asleep to white noise has rendered my hearing a bit muffled, so when a sweet-faced boy pointed to the girl in front of him and mouthed something, I assumed it was one of the darndest things that kids say.

Instead, when asked to repeat himself, he motioned again to the girl and said this: “We’re mortal enemies.” The girl in pigtails nodded her agreement.

I guess you could say their conscious self idealization was more Clash of the Titans than I initially gave them credit for; I stand corrected. Meanwhile, Theo was happily skipping next to my side.

“Me like first grade,” he said. Ever since reading The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen From the Future, we speak like our primal ancestors.

“Me have fun,” he said. (To answer your questions, yes, he legitimately passed to first grade, and really does talk like this purposefully.)

Then he looked at me.

“But me cranky this morning.”

This was a nod to our head-butting before school. The kid has to be policed through every step of the morning routine, being what you’d call an extreme case of “not a morning person.” Mom and Dad have to play bad guys, mortally bad, every morning.

But here’s Theo acknowledging this side of himself and punctuating the confession with happy skipping. He knew it was safe to fess up because he knew I wouldn’t hold it against him, but maybe wanted to make sure. A little reassurance is nice, sometimes, knowing that no matter what image we project to others, we’re embraced and accepted, like an arm around the shoulders on a big, comfy couch.

Listen to Rob Bell interviewing Peter Rollins at Mars Hill here. I can't yet verify if this is the service I attended or the earlier one, in which case the quotes above may not be heard. However, I could listen to Rollins talk about breakfast cereal, and not just because of his lovely Irish brogue, so I recommend you check it out.