Friday, November 28, 2008

Imagine you're a balloon

Since I take so many yoga classes and have a curiosity about the language of the ineffable, I'm always thinking about how I might give an instruction. So here's an idea for savasana, or corpse pose, the final relaxation at the end of a class:

Imagine your body is a balloon. With each inhalation you inflate and become light and floaty, and with each exhalation you deflate and become heavy and sink into the floor.

But then I start thinking about how, as the receiver of this instruction, I would probably slip away from the guided imagery and drift off to consider all the other items I've inflated: medical gloves, condoms, silly putty, bubble gum, that weird bubble glue with the fumes that comes in a tube with a straw, guest-bed mattresses, wading pools, rubber balls, swim rings, swim wings ... and I begin to feel light-headed.


So I have an idea for a sanwich-gen video game: Elderville. In it, a woman of a certain age has to race against the clock averting eldercare disasters. It goes something like this:

--Slow-mo shuffle to assist mother in walker to toilet.
--Crash! Something has broken in kitchen, but player cannot abandon slow-mo walk till mother is safely deboarded onto toilet.
--Rush to kitchen, where father stands barefoot among contents of shattered quart jar of rice.
--Ask father to move aside (he's on blood-thinners, so cut can be dangerous), and grab broom and dustpan.
--Ting-a-ling! Bell from bathroom indicates mother has finished tink-a-ling. Tell father to stay put and rush to bathroom before mother can lurch for walker.
--Brrrring! The phone! It's probably doctor you've been trying to reach all day about medicine that's on mother's hospital-release chart but not in medicine caddy.
--Yell to father and mother to stay put, and rush for phone.
--Miss call, and rush back to bathroom to catch mother as she hurtles floorward.

And so forth, with many timed challenges, including fetch the paper, fetch the glasses, fetch the pills, pillow placement, doorbell answering, food-mishap-averting ...

Friday, November 21, 2008

The land that time forgot

I've been living in the land that time forgot, or, more accurately, the land where time has been forgotten. There is a timelessness—or, rather, too much time—in the San Francisco duplex apartment of my aged parents. For there are three time zones here: Pacific daylight savings time downstairs, where we spend most of our day; Pacific standard time upstairs, where no one has gotten around to setting the clocks back; and Eastern daylight savings time on my various electronic devices that do not automatically reset. And then there's the way one day slips into another when you're engaged in a monotonous, slow-motion cycle of tasks (shuffle along beside your mother's walker as she makes her way to the bathroom to the bedroom to the dining room to the bathroom to the bedroom to the bathroom; prepare a meal, eat a meal, wash dishes, prepare a meal, eat a meal, wash dishes), and you don't go outside for days on end. "Who needs the outdoors?" says my mother. "I grew up in New York, where nobody ever goes outside." And the lights are never fully on ("What a waste!") and never fully off (since there are many trips to the toilet in the night).

My mother struggles with aphasia—she lost her nouns in a stroke five years ago—and she can get stalled on a word for several minutes or an entire day, so thoughts start off brightly, flicker, then gutter out, sometimes to be relit later, sometimes days later. Conversations course along a verbal mobia strip, stretching into eternity.

Food, too, follows its own clock. There were so many possible origins for the bad smell that ranked up the kitchen whenever my dad or I opened the fridge that finally we spent an afternoon sniffing every item, and threw out a third of the contents. Most appalling was a plastic container of six-month-old boiled beans that emitted a sinus-clearing stench. Most dramatic was the eerily beautiful cream cheese draped with mold. 

The hierarchy of needs is inverted here. The old advice about putting on your own safety mask first, then your child's, doesn't apply. The fit are second-class citizens. The feeble come first. The weak have inherited the world. If you, say, need to use the bathroom at the same time that your elderly infirm parent does, it doesn't matter how many bathrooms there are in the house, you have to hold off till you've taken her to the loo. To do otherwise would be to risk embarrassing her, and having to clean up after your selfishness.

My father used to describe war as incredible boredom interspersed with sheer terror, and that's what eldercare is like. Repetitive mindless tasks, punctuated by the horror of watching your mother teeter in her walker, knowing her bones are so hollowed out by osteoporosis that one more fall could turn her into a sandbag. 

And so it goes for eight days a week, a Saturday-to-Sunday visit.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Night and day

You know how Silly Putty breaks when it's cold but flows when it's warm? Well, I find that my body follows similar laws of thermodynamics. After years of practicing mainly in the morning, I've begun attending evening classes (daughter away at school, no need to worry about a timely dinner or homework help), and the difference is more dramatic than expected. I didn't realize I could get my palms on the floor in Uttanasana (Forward Bend) or my soles on the floor in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog). In the morning I'm like raw spaghetti: rigid and brittle. But in the evening I'm cooked: flexible, soaking up instruction like a sauce, and wet—don't know why, but I sweat hard in my night practice. It's thrilling to make so much progress literally overnight.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reading between the lines

A recent news story noted that Maya Soetoro-Ng, Barack Obama's half-sister, had declined to join Obama on election night in Chicago, opting instead to stay in the apartment in Hawaii where she had cared for their grandmother for eight years. She spoke of her conflicting emotions in the aftermath of their grandmother's death and Obama's election. Although she was not explicit, one wonders whether resentment figured in that mix. The Obamas typically visited Hawaii for the Christmas holidays, whereas Soetoro-Ng lived there year-round, caring for her grandmother, working as a teacher and raising her daughter. Surely she must have had moments when she felt that her brother was able to pursue his political prospects in part because he was unfettered by the caregiving role that fell to her.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ode to L, my personal fixer

In the news business, foreign bureaus traditionally have had a "fixer," a local who speaks the language and knows everyone and gets things done. Often this person is given a title that has nothing to do with his or her actual duties. They're like CIA agents. One fixer, who never had a photograph published in the magazine he worked for, was listed in the masthead as a photographer. When I was writing his obituary, I looked high and low for examples of his work. None existed. But tales of his problem-solving genius and courage under (literal) fire abounded. Often fixers are called office managers. They don't manage just the office though. They manage everything. They are the heart of the news business, consummate matchmakers, human bulletin boards synching symbiotic needs. They finesse visas, find official and anonymous sources, squirrel correspondents out of tight spots, smooth over diplomatic crises, solve every problem known to man or woman.

Well, I have a personal fixer, sort of like a fairy godmother, named L. When I was a fact checker, L tipped off the editors to try me out as a writer. When my animal-loving daughter was looking for a summer internship, L linked her up with an old friend who ran the primo animal hospital in the city. When I was trying to decide whether to have immediate reconstruction after my mastectomy, L hooked me up with a woman who'd had virtually the same procedure I was considering—with the same breast surgeon. When I was emptying out my parents' pied-a-terre and didn't know what to do with all the junk, L arrived with a friend who just loved junk, and they carted it all off in an SUV.

When my mom's troubles began, I flashed on my fixer, but it didn't feel right to call her about my problems since I hadn't had a chance to celebrate her birthday, hadn't even talked to her since she'd gotten back from her last trip abroad. 

Yesterday I ran into L in the Union Square greenmarket, and we made a date for dinner. Lo and behold, turns out L has contacts in the San Francisco Finnish community (there's a Finnish community in San Francisco?!) who supplement their Social Security by doing eldercare—preparing meals, providing transportation, running errands, keeping people company—in my parents' neighborhood. I've already talked to one of the Finns on the phone about helping my 'rents, and she says if she can't do it, she knows who can.

How does she do this? I don't know. I think it's magic.

Dental yoga

Yesterday my yoga teacher N used an interesting image to describe the way an action on one body part affects the rest of the body. "It's like a toothpaste tube," she said. "You  squeeze at the bottom, and the toothpaste rises up through the tube." So, when you're seated in, say, sukhasana (the so-called "easy" pose, with legs crossed "Indian-style"), squeezing your buttocks causes the energy from that action to squirt up your spine like toothpaste.

I'm tempted to extend the notion to spitting, rinsing, gargling ... flossing? Perhaps not.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Laying the framework

"Approach each pose as though you're laying the framework for the future of that pose," said my yoga teacher G today. By that she meant that we should exercise precision and prudence in setting up the foundation of each pose, and see each pose as the foundation of future enactments of the pose. So the foundation of vasisthasana, or side plank, is the supporting foot and hand. The next level of foundation is the shoulder and hip. If each point of support is aligned correctly (hand under shoulder, fingers spread; foot flexed, outside and sole to the floor) and the muscles are firmed, the chance of injury is reduced and the benefits—strength, balance, flexibility—are increased. The care with which each asana is executed sets the stage for the next iteration of the same asana. If you sag at the waist and round your shoulders in today's vasisthasana, you have set up bad habits and failed to cultivate strength for tomorrow's vasisthasana. And if you fling yourself into it without taking care to create the foundation and alignment structure, an injury may set back your next attempt.

As usual, yoga lessons are life lessons. In short, I kind of fucked up in setting up the structure for my parents' elder-care arrangements by allowing my effort to sag. I let time slip away. So now the tasks are much more daunting.

Please don't get married

I'm so stressed out about my parents' situation that I can't sleep and my mouth is dry no matter how much water I drink. The only thing imaginably worse than my taking a role in managing this downward spiral would be planning my daughter's wedding. 

In a real-life enactment of a nightmare, Dr. B, the "hospitalist," told me last week that my mother, who is in the hospital after a fall, has compression fractures in her spine and dementia in addition to a broken patella. She had been fitted with a long-leg cast perhaps permanently and was about to be sent to rehab. What do you suggest I do? I asked. "She needs to move in with you," said Dr. B. Never mind that I live with Other and our daughter in a one-bathroom walk-up apartment in New York and my mother lives in San Francisco with my father, or that I work full-time. 

Then I called the office of Dr. S, my mother's internist, and was transferred to Dr. S's assistant. "Oh, yes, your mother is being released into hospice," said Joy (her real name). Turns out the hospice part was a misunderstanding on someone's part. But it's a fact that my parents need some help. And they're resistant to accepting it.

I head to San Francisco in a few days, shortly after she's released from the rehab clinic, and I'll be carrying a to-do list of 21 items and counting, and some of  those items are multiples—like visit five assisted-living residences—all of which I'm hoping to accomplish in a week. 


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obama makes my day

I've been feeling quite blue over elder-care issues—my mom in the hospital with a fractured knee, compression fractures in her spine, dementia, and concerns about her returning to the apartment she shares with my dad 3,000 miles away from me in San Francisco—but every time I think about an Obama presidency I just brighten right up! McCain may have been correct in saying the outcome of the election had special significance for African Americans, but it had special significance for a lot of white people too.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dem bones

One of the delights of yoga is that it's like playing with one of those wire toys that you press and pull and turn inside out to form a dozen different shapes. I'm not talking about the joys of pretzel yoga. I'm talking about the ability to manipulate one body part and create a cascade of powerful effects in the rest of your body. 

Last Sunday, for instance, my teacher focused the class on thigh mucles, especially the thigh muscles of the back of the leg, in particular those of the rear leg in unsymmetrical poses. So, in Downward-Facing Dog, we firmed our thigh muscles and poured our weight out of our hands and arms and into our legs. In Warrior 2, we concentrated on firming the muscles of the straight leg and pouring our weight into it, lightening the burden on the forward, bent leg. And so on. Every asana was transformed not just in the position of the thigh but also throughout the rest of the body.

As I walked home from class, still in thigh-firming mode, I noticed that my lower back was no longer aching, my navel was tucked in, and my chest was lifted. Adjusting one small element of alignment was realigning my whole posture. 

It's like that song: 

The toe bone connected to the heel bone
The heel bone connected to the foot bone 
The foot bone connected to the leg bone 
The leg bone connected to the knee bone 
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone 
The thigh bone connected to the back bone 
The back bone connected to the neck bone 
The neck bone connected to the head bone 
Oh, hear the word of the Lord!
Dem bones, dem bomes gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'
Oh, hear the word of the Lord