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Archive for June, 2013

Everything’s a Phase

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

The other night JDP lolly-gagged contentedly in the bathtub.  His brothers were already bathed and jammied, and he was happy to be in the tub alone without anyone to steal his toy boats and trucks, so I let him take his time in the bath while I changed our sheets in the room next door.  At one point his babbles and splashes settled down and I quickly went in to check on him and found him lying on his back in the tub, completely relaxed, holding a toy boat above his head and turning it over in his hands.  He was so happy.

This was a noteworthy moment because just a few weeks ago every bath was a battle.  For reasons that we were never able to determine, sometime in late April JDP decided that baths were on par with waterboarding and threw a commensurate fit every time we filled the tub.  This lasted for about a month, and then suddenly it was over.

The experience of raising children is probably unrivaled in its ability to impress upon you that nothing lasts.  Neither diapers nor tantrums.  Neither Boppy naps nor toddler vocab (the cutest words ever spoken come out of the mouths of 18-month-olds).  For better and worse, they all come and go.  And based on our limited tenure so far I would say that raising an adopted toddler even further heightens that truth.  They have so much to process, and yet they have so few means to do so.  And so, absent the ability to say something self-aware and coherent about it (such as, “You know, Mom, remember like three weeks ago when X happened at bath time?  Well it really freaked me out and I’m having some trouble getting past it.  Could you talk it through with me?”), they throw a fit.  And perhaps they even throw the same fit every other night at bath time for a solid month.  And then, poof, they’ve moved on.  What was once perceived as a torture chamber is now considered the best possible respite from the stresses of toddlerhood.  Voila!  Time heals all bath hatred.

That night after putting JDP to bed I went downstairs and told my husband about The Happy Bath and marveled at it.  All the hangups were just… gone.  “EVERYTHING is temporary,” I told him.  And that got me to thinking about how true that statement is in all aspects of life.

It is true of the friends whose lives go in different directions.  It was true of many old classmates.  It was true of the car I drove and loved for nine years after college.  It is true of the miserable boss or antagonizing coworker (I’ve had my share of each).  It is also true of the wonderful, mentoring boss and the fun, collaborative coworkers (thankfully I’ve had those too).  It is true of neighbors and homes and restaurants.  When we look at the list of things and people in our lives that are truly permanent – the ones that will be with us ten or 20 years from now – it’s a surprisingly short list.  The people in my life who are permanent include my and GAP’s parents, siblings, and their children, and a few key friends whose presence in our life transcends logistics or phases.  We will not live in our current house forever (which means that we will not live two blocks from our favorite pizza place forever).  We will not have our amazing dogs forever.  We will not have to travel with sippy cups and Pack N Plays forever.  Our kisses will not heal our children’s wounds forever.

It both breaks and warms my heart to recognize that everything is temporary.  Everything’s a phase.

GAP is not one for keepsakes, but I am.  When we first started traveling together it took me a while to explain to him why a memory itself isn’t enough; why I needed an object to embody it.  Most of life’s experiences are fleeting, but tangible representations of those moments can be more enduring.  I like to look at, and hold, and feel things that take me back to a particular place in my life.  They help me carry with me the moments that I can’t actually carry with me.

Sitting on my desk at home are a horseshoe, a coffee mug, and a lacquered box.  But they are not just a horseshoe, a coffee mug, and a lacquered box.  They are reminders of a place or time that I do not want to forget – a phase of my life that is gone.  Almost.  But not quite.

Tell Me a Story

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Steven Spielberg is predicting the end of movies

Actually, if we want to be slightly less inflammatory about things, he’s predicting the unsustainability of the current film business model.  Apparently, we – the movie-going public – are a fickle lot, and it’s hard for studios to predict what we’re going to like.  This makes it difficult for them to determine which projects they should spend $200 million to make (like the Iron Man franchise), and which ones they should not (ahem, cough, John Carter).  At the other end of the spectrum, it’s also hard to foretell which smaller films are worth making.  As an example, Lincoln, which was a huge hit with both audiences and critics last winter, nearly ended up on HBO because studios weren’t sure what audiences would think of it. 

Spielberg believes it’s inevitable that one of these years the studios will release their big spring/summer high-budget films and they will all flop.  And the studios will be forced to change their paradigm.  As The Huffington Post explains, “Hollywood has waded into increasingly tumultuous financial waters in recent years, as an explosion of competing media options has divided consumers’ attentions — and their wallets. Movies themselves, meanwhile, have become more expensive to produce.”  Given the fickle nature of movie-goers studios are only willing to spend big money on films they think will draw big crowds, and comparatively small sums on films they are less sure of.   So we’ve ended up with a vast chasm on the movie continuum – high-dollar action films and shoestring indy films with almost nothing in the middle ground.

Call me crazy, but I think I have a solution to this problem:  just tell me a story.   

Yes, we love to shovel popcorn into our mouths at break-neck speed while watching things blow up in front of us on a giant screen.  But if we don’t walk out of the theatre feeling connected in any way to what we just watched then it probably wasn’t worth our time (and definitely not worth our word of mouth).  Perhaps they are fun, diverting, and ooh- and ahh-worthy, but we don’t need stunts and explosions and aliens and high speed chases to make it worth our while to go to a movie in droves.  We just need a good story.

This doesn’t mean that movies have to be slow and moody and indy-ish.  Three of the biggest hits of past few years were Wedding Crashers, The Hangover, and Bridesmaids and they were all raucous, off-color, and hilarious.  They didn’t involve big special effects or otherwise huge production budgets.  But we loved them anyway because they told great stories.  And if your taste leans more toward the, well, tasteful, then the same goes for Lincoln and Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech.  The value of a story holds true for action films as well – we wanted more and more of Jason Bourne because he was interesting in addition to being a bad-ass.  (Even 007 has become more interesting in the post-Bourne Identity Daniel Craig era.)

In looking at the some of the most-loved movies of all time, very few of them hinged on special effects alone.  Citizen Kane, The Godfather, A Few Good Men, and The Shawshank Redemption still captivate us because we care about their characters and what happens to them, not because they are eye candy.  And even the ones that are – Indiana Jones, Titanic, and The Dark Knight – gave us both action and plot. 

I’m not campaigning for a wholesale industry transformation to Merchant Ivory films.  But please tell me a story that I will care about.  A happy one, a sad one, a funny one, or even a (slightly) scary one.  If you tell me a good story I will happily pay $15 for a ticket, $9.75 for a box of Milk Duds and a fountain Coke, and $40 for a babysitter.  But you have to tell me a really great story.  Otherwise I’m headed straight to whatever book is on my nightstand.

The Last-Timers

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

We haven't seen at least 5 of these people since that day.

Sometimes it makes me sad how few of my best friends today were not at our wedding.  This group includes all but one of my wonderful girlfriends from graduate school, all of our great friends from GAP’s work, spouses of old friends who have become beloved in their own rite, and many others.  Either because we had not yet met or because the relationship wasn’t fully formed at the time, they were not there.

At the same time, there are people who were invited to our wedding – a couple who were even included in it – whose presence there was a vestige of a phase of life that was winding down.  They had played a role of some significance in our lives up to that point, but their scene was almost up.  Some were childhood friends whose lives have since gone in very different directions from our own.  Others were sorority sisters and fraternity brothers with whom we’d never been that close, but whom we felt obliged by etiquette to invite.  For a few of them our wedding day was the last time we would see them.

I’d been thinking about this recently for a few reasons, and then stumbled across this post on Slate which encapsulates nearly to a T what I’d been mulling over in my mind.  In it author David Plotz discusses the two varieties of last-timers.  There are the obvious ones, the ones you probably know on the day of the wedding are last-timers – parents’ friends from back when you were in diapers, former co-workers, and a sea of plus-ones.  If you could retroactively take them off the guest list, you probably would.  But then there are those whom you would never have guessed at the time were about to fade out of your life.

Plotz comments that extreme pragmatists suggest not inviting those whom you think won’t be a part of your life moving forward, but that such an approach is both unrealistic and misguided.  For starters, oftentimes we just don’t know that someone is a last-timer.  More importantly, perhaps the fact that they are is the very best reason to invite them.  For so many of us our wedding is the moment that ushered us out of the life of an overgrown adolescent and into the life of an adult.  As our lives turn that corner, some of our friendships don’t make the turn with us.  But sharing your wedding with the people who have brought you that far might just be the perfect ending to that chapter of your life.

All of this, though, makes me especially thankful for the weddings that have come after we’ve turned such corners in life.  Some of our very best friends (IEP’s godparents, as it would turn out) had just started dating when we got married, and our wedding was the first out-of-town trip they took together.  A few years later we attended their wedding and it makes me happy to know that our weddings caught our friendship on the upswing.  Similarly, in looking back at the friendships that have fallen away over time I am especially thankful for those childhood and college friendships that have stayed a part of our life in spite of the different paths we’ve taken.

Some good friends of ours recently got engaged and it makes me so happy.  I’m happy for all of the obvious reasons – they are a wonderful match and will have a wonderful life together.  But I’m also happy that we met each other after that fateful adolescent/adult conversion was behind us.  That we will be able to sit at their wedding and comfortably predict years and years of shared moments together.

Perhaps one day my girlfriends and I who married before we met each other will sit around with a bottle of wine and a pot of fondue and tell each other about our weddings.  The dresses, the toasts, what went right, what went wrong, and all that we missed when our lives had not yet intertwined.  But of course what matters most is that we had then, and have now, friends whom we want to include in life’s biggest moments.

Sad Face

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Is there a part of the human experience that you could do without?  Is there some universal aspect of this life gig we’re all currently living that we would like to factor out of the equation?  I’m not talking about soy sauce bloat or improper use of the word “literally.”  I’m talking about the big and existential stuff.  Specifically, I’m talking about (brace yourself for the buzz kill) sadness.

A couple of Sundays ago GAP and I sat in church and listened to the priest give a sermon that was largely about death.  He commented that as modern-day people we’ve become adept at brushing death under the rug, and moving about in our daily lives pretending that it is not an undeniable fact of life.  His perspective was that we should be willing and able to come face to face with death because the fact of our salvation hinges on our dying first. 

Then, the next morning GAP sent me the link to this article which he thought (and I agree) was interesting in light of the sermon.  In it the author laments that tragedy has been sanitized out of much of modern Christianity.  (Don’t worry, I’m going to get this discussion out of the sanctuary and into the real world in just a sec.)  He takes exception to this because, “Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection.”  Uncannily similar to the message of the homily.  He goes on, though, to criticize the degree to which we have elminated death from our consciousness through all manner of distractions – that entertainment and distraction have become the primary purpose of our existence.  He quotes Pascal who once wrote, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. … Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”  And that got me thinking about whether or not the ability to distract ourselves from sadness is a good thing.

The fact remains that the certainty of death (and countless other tragedies) doesn’t change.  We will not beat it.  Ever.  Given that we must walk through life knowing the inevitability of our own death or fearing that of a loved one do we not somehow come out ahead if we can manage a way to get through each day thinking about something else?  I don’t dismiss the gravity of the tragic.  I hear about it every time I turn on the news or open my web browser.  Thankfully, that is usually the closest I come to tragedy.  I don’t live in the Middle East or an inner city.  I have a healthy husband and children and parents and siblings.  My life is far from tragic and yet I still feel the need to distract myself from some of the immense sadness in the world.  For people whose circumstances aren’t so privileged such distractions may be the only way they can manage to get dressed in the morning.

I wonder, though, if such distractions cause us merely to suppress sadness, rather than to eliminate it - to defer, rather than dismiss some key component of human existence.  If we prevent ourselves from feeling and truly experiencing sadness, is it actually a Get Out of Jail Free card, or do we just end up stockpiling unrecognized sadness at some unknown cost?  In one of the books we have recently aquired about adopting a child the author discusses the value of letting your child cry.  All toddlers are prone to crying jags, but adopted toddlers – who have experienced all kinds of emotional upheaval and yet have no articulate means to express it – are more prone than others.  The book suggests that all adults can understand the catharsis of a good cry.  Yet as parents we are constantly trying to get our children not to cry.  For most healthy toddlers in their biological homes this makes sense.  Crying is usually a function of a scraped knee, scant nap, or graham cracker deprivation.  But for the adopted toddler, who has lost the only home and family he’s ever known and has something he really needs to grieve, crying may play a more important role.  Quelling the crying may not always be the best course of action for the child.  He may need to feel that sadness in order to work his way through it.  And sometimes we may too.

Embracing sadness can be slippery slope, as can distraction from it.  Those of us who lean more towards it naturally may need to guard against wallowing.  We have to remember that embracing our sadness takes us inward.  And while such self-focus can be a very good thing, by its very nature it takes us away from the people around us.  We should look to our sadness to find whatever catharsis that we need, and then move on.  Those of us who are disinclined to experience sadness have to take care that our distractions do not become an end in themselves.  That we allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotions even though removing sadness from the equation might be appealing. 

Any Psych 101 student can tell you that the four basic human emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.  While I hope that happiness takes up the lion’s share of what I feel, I still want to leave room for the other three.

The Lunch Gods

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

In a happy turn of events our good friend Robert* who used to work at the same company as GAP now works at the same company as I do.  Robert has been a friend of ours for many years, but as GAP’s colleague the two of them had spent significantly more time together and had developed a pretty finely tuned lunchtime routine.  Now that Robert and I are in the same neck of the woods we are finding a periodic lunch routine of our own.  However, Robert has some very specific ideas about when lunch should be scheduled and he is doing his best to train me.

I crossed some sort of invisible line a couple of times by IM-ing him at 11:25 asking, “Hey, do you have lunch plans?”  He always did and I was on my own.  No harm, no foul.  But he took the opportunity to explain to me that he “takes lunch seriously” and doesn’t plan it at the last minute.  So another time I messaged him for lunch “later in the week” and was confused when he said he didn’t want to commit to plans so far in advance.   I left all future lunch plans in Robert’s hands, as I was clearly not up to speed on his rules.

Then last week he explained to me how one should go about planning lunch.  (It’s a miracle I’ve made it this far in life…)  Per Robert’s Rules of Lunch, prime lunch-planning time is between 9:45 and 10:30.  You do your part to corral a group, and if the group doesn’t materialize then you don’t force it.  You have to leave it to the lunch gods.  On that particular day I was excited at the potential that GAP might join us for lunch and mentioned to Robert that I planned to call GAP to see if he would be able to make it.  I was shut down – instructed not to push it.  As it turned out, GAP was not able to make it and I was disappointed.  But Robert told me to trust in the lunch gods; that sometimes plans fall apart and you think you’ve been hung out to dry and then the lunch gods pull through with something better than you could have planned yourself.

The lunch gods pulled through.  I was still disappointed that GAP couldn’t come, but because he had to bail we also bailed on our plans to meet at the nearby Indian buffet.  This meant as we were driving to a nearby Five Guys we drove past a little dive-ish looking Thai place and Robert mentioned in passing was good.  ”I could go for some Thai,” I said, because good Thai can be hard to come by in this part of the country, so we flipped a U and went back.  And let me tell you, everything about that lunch hit the spot.  It was a gorgeous day and we were able to snag an outdoor table.  The service was good and my yellow curry was great.  Robert’s Pad Thai was also terrific.  We had great conversation, and it was a great outing.  Robert was quick to point out that the lunch gods had in fact pulled through.

This whole zen philosophy of the lunch gods does not necessarily prompt a paradigmatic shift in my approach to making plans, but it is a good reminder.  For someone who a planner by nature, there is something to be said for letting things unfold without manipulation.  There is something to be said for giving chance, fate, the lunch gods, what have you, to get a word in edgewise and turn the tables in unforeseen and delightful ways.

I’m sure the lunch gods won’t always pull through.  There will be plenty of days when I end up getting a veggie burger in the company cafeteria.  But if I give them the chance the lunch gods will show up from time to time, and I will be glad that Robert taught me how to listen for their call.

*Not his real name.