Friday, April 23, 2010

A Teacher

My Mother used to be a teacher.  When she graduated from college she taught elementary school for years.  She gave up that career when I came along so she could be a full-time mom for me and later for my sister.  But that by no means ended her role as an educator.

After my sister and I had been in school for while, Mom embarked on another career, founding a crafts and arts business.  It was successful and it wasn’t long before she was teaching employees how to paint, construct, and sew her various items so that she could concentrate on selling.  I mean to use employees in the loosest meaning possible, as these women were friends and neighbors who worked from home.  The business model was as much an excuse to socialize as to make money and I think it is fair to say they all had fun.  In particular, Mom enjoyed going to the craft shows to sell.  Her skill at doing so bordered on being a calling.  This also became a great excuse to travel around the country going to craft shows as far away as Arizona or New York.

As the years marched by, the hectic pace and long hours of craft shows got to be more difficult.  There also started to be some shifts in Mom’s personality as she developed a growing concern with her health.  We all change as we get older and with so many of her friends undergoing various treatments we didn’t think it too unusual for Mom to worry a little about her own health.

That worry slowly turned into a growing obsession.  Soon she was seeing doctors of one specialty or another nearly every week and amassing a collection of medical books of her own.  These things so concerned her that it was nearly all she would talk about with us.  I suppose in a way she was trying to teach us what she considered to be valuable information that would save our lives.  Creeping in around the edges was a worsening memory loss.  Dad would tell stories of how Mom would forget the names of people she had known her whole life.  This didn’t happen often at first, but it did contribute to a sense of unease in our family.

Mom too knew there was something wrong.  She worked hard to mask her problems and exercise her memory.  She had read somewhere that playing checkers is good for the brain.  So playing checkers with Dad became a daily ritual.  Actually the word ritual can be applied to a lot of the things she did.  She had very specific ways of getting through daily life such as: alarm clocks that were scattered around the house and her car to remind her to take medications at very specific times or to remember to eat; or tables that would be set for events, weeks in advance to be a daily reminder to prepare for that upcoming meal.

Her methods of coping with her memory loss were clever and effective.  Looking back on it now, I am so proud of her.

Eventually though these changes she underwent came to crisis moment.  This past March she ran a red light and was pulled over.  This event wasn’t part of her plan and she was unable to adapt to it appropriately.  The officer knew there was something wrong and called for an ambulance and backup.  She was uncooperative to say the least and the police called me to try to help calm her.  So I went to the scene and tried to reassure her while she was in the ambulance before they took her to the emergency room to be certain she wasn’t having a stroke.

Those hours in the ER will haunt me.  The stresses of that day’s events were too much for her to continue to maintain her masks and her self control eroded away in fits.  No words from her family or doctors could reach any part of her mind that could be reasoned with.  She had to be restrained for everyone’s protection and sedated before they could diagnose her altered state.  Mom was just not herself.

Over the next few days she was seen by a parade of neural specialists of one kind or another and each in turn decided that she hadn’t had a stroke or similar sudden catastrophe.  Instead this seemed to be some form of dementia.  When she finally got a psych consult, he explained to us that she definitely had dementia and needed to be moved to another hospital where there was a mental health floor, so that he could try to treat the symptoms with medications and diagnose her condition more accurately.

The next three weeks were hard for Mom.  She was so afraid for her health.  All of her rituals and routines were disrupted.  She felt she needed to get home and back to her good diet to save her life.  Physically she was in excellent condition for a 68-year-old woman and daily tests confirmed that, except for her.  Medications did help her think a little more clearly and calmly.  But not as well as her psychiatrist expected and he continued to look for an answer while we made arrangements to get her out of the hospital and into a nice assisted living home.

Then Mom’s psychiatrist had a eureka moment and pieced all of her symptoms over the last few years with her brain images and slow response to medication.  I got a call from him a few nights ago in which he explained that Mom has a rare, specific form of dementia called Frontotemporal Lobe Dementia.  In his whole career he has seen it less than five times, but in reviewing the literature, Mom’s case is a textbook example.

This is a particularly aggressive dementia with an average survival of eight years after the onset of symptoms.  Mom had first shown signs of this nearly ten years ago.  It was good to finally have a firm diagnosis, but heart rending to discover that Mom’s prognosis was so bad.  I suppose we all hoped that the medication would help her enough to come home for a few years.  That isn’t to be.  So we’ll move her soon to the nice place we’d arranged as a transition from the hospital that will now be her home until the end.

It has been arranged with her psychiatrist to do some MRI scans of her brain to chart the progress of her decline.  So rare is her condition that little is known about the stages and how that relates to the physiology of the brain.  We’ve all decided to help so long as Mom isn‘t upset.  Mom knows that once we get her moved into her new place that she’ll have appointments with her doctor once in a while to have a new MRI so they can see how she is doing.  She thought that sounded nice.

This one last time Mom gets to be a teacher.

[edit:  Mom will not be part of a study or have any more MRI scans that aren't needed for further diagnostic purposes.  Her psychiatrist has neither the students nor the funding to assemble such a study at this time.]

[edit 2:  Mom passed away today, December 2, 2013. Her long fight with dementia is over.]

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Who are you better than?

One of the things that I have come to really enjoy about the internet is that it allows so much overlap among my various interests.  One of the motorcycle forums that I visit has an active politics section and there are some real gems of political analysis posted there from time to time.  What follows is a post made on the forum ADV Rider by a writer who uses the name Jinx.

Jinx named this "...who are you better than?".  He started it with a quote by the character Agent Rupert Anderson from the crime drama Mississippi Burning.  Then he continued on with his own thought provoking article that I will reproduce in its entirety below.  I found this to be an amazing critique of the motivations behind some of the more extreme Tea Party activists and what this says about politics and racism in our country today.  Thank you, Jinx, for letting me quote you here.

"You know when I was a little boy, there was an old negro farmer that lived down the road from us, named Monroe. He was ... (subtle laugh), I guess he was just a little more luckier than my daddy was. He bought himself a mule. 
It was a big deal in round that town. Now my daddy hated that mule. Cause, his friends were always kidding him about, "They saw Monroe out plowing with his new mule and Monroe is going to rent another field now he had a mule." 
One morning that mule showed up dead. They poisoned the water. After that, there wasn't any mention about that mule around my daddy. It just never came up. One time we were driving down that road and we passed Monroe's place and we saw it was empty. He just packed up and left, I guess, he must of went up north or something. 
I looked over at my daddy's face, I knew he done it. He saw that I knew. He was ashamed. I guess he was ashamed. He looked at me and said, "If you ain't better than a nigger son, who are you better than?"
- Agent Anderson, Mississippi Burning 

And welcome to the Tea-hadist mindset. With Barack Obama in charge...who are you going to be better than?
And don't think some of us recognize the symptom because we are a pack of condescending know-it-all asshats. We are...but that has fuck-all to do with the observation.
It's just that we have seen this before. Up our so-called "enlightened" neck of the woods. 
Want to know the difference between North and South? Well, a man once told me that up North, it is OK to have a Black as your boss, but you will be damned if you will have one for a neighbor. Down South, it is OK to have a Black neighbor...but you will damned if you will have one as a boss. 
So we went through all this Tea Party nonsense up North, about 20-30 years ago. And the reaction was just as vehement, inarticulate, and dumb as what is being spewed now. If you want to see hate and spittle, you should have seen how South Boston reacted to school integration. 
But you would not have seen it 24/7 as you do today. It happened...but not in a perpetual echo chamber. And thank Christ for that. 
And if you think the enlightened liberal North embraced integrated housing with open hearts, think again, It was called "white flight" and it damn near emptied some cities. "Sure, we support excuse us while we move to the suburbs where those Zulus won't be able to spear us with their assegais." 
But white flight was a safety valve. It kept the pressure at reasonable levels. It also prolonged it and led to new levels of stupidity, but you could, after all, vote with your feet. Many did. Many still do. 
OK, the job front was a bit stickier. Northern Industry has always been (at least since the 1950's) largely integrated. Steel Mill owners don't give a fuck what your skin color is. Besides, you could only tell on the way into work, on the way out everybody pretty much looked the same. 
But you always knew what hand you were playing, because the cards were mostly dealt face up. Your boss was still white. Your union steward was still white. Your mayor and your chief of police were still white. And, as much as it pains me to tell you this, Michael Steele did not run the GOP. And even if he did, at least up north, you went home at the end of the day to your own private Idaho in the suburbs, and played golf on the weekends at a club where Michael Steele was never going to get in. Well, not the front door 
The workforce may have been integrated, but you still knew who you were better than. Nobody dared yell "You Lie!!" at a white boss. 
Over time, most of that has changed (but if you take a shot every time you can name a Black mayor of a predominantly white New England are going to bed sober). But it took a very conscious effort to change it. Acceptance of diversity does not come easy when the question is: "who are you better than?" 
And now the way the cards were dealt 18 months ago has upset a huge segment of the population. They no longer know who they are better than. They are lashing out. And there is fuck-all for a safety valve and it does run 24/7 in a perpetual echo chamber. 
They say it is about "freedoms"...but they can point to no freedoms that have been lost over the last 14 months. 
They say the Constitution is being destroyed, but when you ask them what parts of The General Welfare Clause or Congresses' power to regulate Interstate Commerce are being violated...they stand mute with rage 
They say it is about taxes...but they can find no drastic tax increases in the last 14 months. 
Come to think of it, I don't really remember anyone getting speared with an assegai thirty years ago either. But that didn't stop people screaming about the danger. 
And they say they want their Country Back. 
Well, Bing-fucking-O. 
Now we have it. They want to return to a time and place where they at least knew who they were better than. 
And the fact that most of this spittle is flying from the mouths of the poor, the semi-educated, the low information voter, and from By-God Dixie...well, that is only because it is your turn. A lot of the rest of the Country has already gone through this exercise 20-30 years ago. And the same spittle flew from the same confused lips when it was our turn. 
So we don't look on Tea-hadists with scorn because they are alien and unfathomable. We do so because we recognize these very traits as ours and those of our neighbors."All in the Family" wasn't the most popular show in the Northeast because Archie Bunker was despised. It was popular because he was comfortably familiar. But at least he was a character. Nobody tried to run him for President. 
And it ain't just President Obama. It is a lot else: If your job can be done on the Indian sub-continent, who are you better than? If China can launch a spaceship, who are you better than? If the world looks at the mighty Dollar as little better than an American Peso, who are you better than? If an immigrant can work your ass into the ground, and do it smiling for a lot less money, who are you better than? 
A whole lot of life has been shaken and stirred the last couple of decades. 
This whole Tea-Party nonsense will eventually pass. Because there is no "going back". OK, you can move to Idaho, or Montana, and it will feel like you have found what was missing. And you might even be happy. As long as you never watch the POTUS on the national news while you are trying to answer the question: "Who am I better than?" 
But Jesus wept, people are going to keep asking that damned question. Soccer may be watched for it's beauty...American Football is about who is better. We are more of a class society than people want to admit. There is still a very strong vein of Scotch-Irish pride that runs through this Country's character. Unfortunately that pride is seldom based, at least lately, on personal or collective achievement...just who you are better than. You can hear it every time a factory closes in this Country and people cheer. No, they really don't believe that closing the Auto Factories will make America stronger. But it adds a whole bunch of people to the list of those they are better than. 
Still...what the fuck. 600 years of violence and oppression was bound to warp the Scotch-Irish a bit. Hell, you can even consider them heroically well adjusted given their, and my, history. And history will eventually change us again once all the dogs adjust to the new Alpha Male reality and find their place again in the pack. Until then we live in the land of flying angry spittle. 
PS - I never wanted to be better than anyone else. Just faster.