Monday, April 30, 2012

My new daily retirement countdown

Appropriate illustration
from the parking lot
of the Alamance County
Arts Council
in Graham
(from this morning's visit
there with Pineapple Girl)
As I start to write this, my Retirement Countdown clock says 2 hours 52 minutes to go. Goodness, that means it's after 9 p.m. Time to retire so I can rise eager early on my first official day of retirement....

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Motomynd: A caution on "beyond the rail" experiences

[In conveying this article to me, Motomynd commented, "Think of it as a public service provided from a personal perspective. I was a pall bearer at a funeral last year of a man much younger than me who died of an allergic reaction very similar to the one that almost killed me. I was very fit, he smoked. I was fortunate, he wasn't. His heart blew up, mine didn't. That's all it takes to make the difference between being here and being gone."]
Walk across
Golden Gate Bridge?
Your thoughts on “the rail and all the things that might be linked with it brought back a rush of memories. The question I would add to your musings is, Are you taking any new medications? It is also a question I would urge anyone else with similar symptoms to ponder. While your situation could simply be reacting to the deep thinking you are doing about the dramatic change coming to your life–retirement, and the unexpected stress it may bring with it–there may be more to the story.
From age 25 to 37 I made my living by photographing, writing about, and competing in adventure sports such as mountain biking, white-water kayaking and canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, snowmobiling, and downhill and cross-country skiing. One June morning halfway through my 37th year, I was out for a pre-dawn run with one of my Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and as the sun rose over a hill in my suburban neighborhood I was suddenly overcome with symptoms similar to what you describe: unsteadiness, a bit of disorientation, and a sudden bizarre, unexplainable fear of the eight-foot drop to the small creek that flowed beside the road. Despite having run that exact route hundreds of times before, I had to slow to a walk to get myself together. The 200 yards along that small drop felt like I was on a tightrope.
An hour later I felt fine and since we had no web back then to research such things, I dismissed it as a one-off, as the Brits say, and got on with my life. Two days later, on a beautiful Friday morning, I was making the three-hour drive from my home to participate in a 50-mile mountain bike race in West Virginia when I crossed a favorite bridge over the James River on Interstate 81. I had canoed and kayaked that section of river many times and I always loved looking at it and rekindling those memories as I crossed high above at 70 miles per hour. This time, however, as I looked downstream I felt my pulse climb and a sense of dread and dizziness descend.
In retrospect this should have been a clue to stop and think about what was different in my life, but a mountain bike race and a national ranking were at stake, so I drove on. The race actually went well. I won my age group decisively, placed very high overall, and except for one moment of unexplained fear on a steep downhill, felt my old self. Then I drove over the same bridge on the way home and had what could only be described as a panic attack: racing pulse, sweating palms, the works.
The rest of the week passed uneventfully as I firmed up plans to head west the following Monday to do a spate of national mountain biking assignments. The only speed bumps were a wedding to photograph for friends and a bit of a cold or allergy, for which I had gone to the doctor a week earlier and was taking some sort of new medication.
Wrapping up my work week, I was driving to the office on Friday when my pulse roared to a level I had never felt. It was going so fast I couldn’t begin to count itand I was used to doing such in calculating how hard to run or pedal and how much rest to take in between. In a wicked bit of irony, I drove right past our local hospital just before the road rose up to meet me and twisted like a scene from one of those black-and-white Godzilla movies from the 1950s or 60s. Finally having realized that something wasn’t right, I pulled into a parking lot on the right, turned off the ignition, tried one last time to count my pulse, and, for all practical purposes, died.
To make an already too-long story at least a bit shorter, let me simply say that instead of heading west to go mountain biking the next week, I went north to specialists at the University of Virginia. And for the next several months I made trips between there and other cutting-edge medical facilities instead of trips to great biking and climbing venues.
The problem? An allergic reaction to a new allergy medication.
The result? Some bleeding in the brain, a “miracle” survivor’s story to tell, some lingering occasional bouts of vertigo, and suddenly having to give up a dream career and take on the horrors of doing studio photography to pay the bills.

A footnote: Within six months the panic attacks from driving over bridges went away. After a few years they became so distant I would laugh as I recalled them. Nearly five years later I drove north on I-81, hauling a van-load of gear for a commercial photo session in Massachusetts. I crossed the spot over the James River without incident and thoroughly enjoyed driving the huge spans across the wide Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Later I crossed the mighty Hudson River near West Point, all without incident.
That night some friends and I joked about it over drinks. “Thank goodness that is behind me,” I said, “since I’m driving to Alaska and back in a few months. I can only imagine the bridges out that way.”
Three days later, with our photo assignment done and all wonderful in the world, I loaded the van and headed back to Virginia. Then, as I approached those same bridges over the Hudson River, I was suddenly gripped by a panic attack so violent I wondered if my heart was going to stop again. Slowing to barely thirty miles per hour I somehow stayed in my lane and made the crossing, but I still don’t know how. Later that day I suffered through almost identical symptoms crossing the Susquehanna.  
In the years since I have learned frankly way too much about the long-term impact of injuries to one’s brain and heart, about the affects of caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and stress, and about how once a “trigger” is planted deep in the brain, you never know when it will fire. Your “trigger” may have been set at the Golden Gate Bridge, even though it didn’t fire until years later at the hotel in Atlanta. It may never fire again, or it may the next time you get in an elevator to the third floor of a modest office building. I would suggest you give especially careful thought to your state of mind and balance before braving an escalator, no matter how small.

The moral? Don’t live in fear, because your world will shrink faster than you can begin to imagine, but don’t confront too many fears head-on without professional help because you may blow up your heart in the process. Most importantly, if you do have a sudden unexplainable symptom you have never experienced before, stop and ask yourself: “What new medication am I taking?” 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Two days to go minus two

I've told some people who asked me what I would do in retirement simply that I'd go out a little later in the morning to put out the bird seed.
    I was going to do that this morning, but it hit me that our feathered visitors shouldn't have to wait because of my change of circumstances. I took the seed out at about the usual time (early).
    I'm glad I did. I felt better in my heart and conscience. (Aren't they sort of the same thing?)
    Today has effectively been the first day of my retirement, because I'm taking a vacation day on Monday, the day before Official Retirement Day One on Tuesday. It has been a happy day. I've enjoyed yelling "I'm retired" to neighbors out in their yards as I've driven or walked by.
    I went into a shop along Clay Street in Mebane (the site of the City's annual Dogwood Festival today) and told the proprietresses that I had a tie rack I don't use anymore, would they be interested in buying it from me to sell in their shop?
    They would. "Congratulations on your retirement. What are you doing to do?"
    "I'm going to go out later in the morning now to put out the bird seed."
     (It's still a good line, even though I now know it's a lie.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Beyond the rail

Renaissance Concourse
Atlanta Airport Hotel
My room was on the ninth floor. Yesterday (Friday), standing a few feet from my door, I took the photo to the right. By my estimation, the Renaissance Concourse Atlanta Airport Hotel has at least two hundred rooms whose door is about ten feet from a short railing leading to misadventure. Maybe three hundred rooms, assuming that you might not have to fall but two or three floors to kill yourself. And you can't see it well from that photo, but the balcony for each floor along the far right juts out farther than the balcony below. There's no chance on that side of grabbing a railing on your way down (obvious from the photo below).
From an elevator opposite the
spot where the photo above was taken
    Upon my arrival Thursday morning for an overnight meeting, the sight of the balconies had made me feel uneasy—the same way I'd felt walking across San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in 1967 or 68. I hugged the hotel balcony wall as I walked from the elevator to the far corner where it turned out Room 938 was located. (It was a good location so far as the window view was concerned.) When I returned to 938 at the end of the afternoon session, a housekeeper's cart blocked my way along the wall, so I had to get closer to the railing than I liked. I considered moving the cart, but I made myself buck up.
    Yesterday morning, preparing to go down for breakfast, I thought about calling the desk to send someone up to escort me to the elevator. The intervening hours had given me too much time to reflect on the Golden Gate Bridge Feeling—the sense that your body might suddenly try to jump over the rail and you wouldn't be able to stop it.
    It made me wonder how many suicides each year aren't really suicides in the sense of a willful act to do away with yourself, but just people's bodies acting on their own without the bodies' "owners" being able to intervene? Might be difficult to get statistics on that.
    Again, I steeled myself and went unescorted. I may have walked faster than the day before.
    But why was I having this uneasy feeling now? I'd been near high cliffs and rails quite a few times since 1967, and I had rarely had the feeling again.

When our meeting convened on Thursday afternoon, we'd all been asked to introduce ourselves and share "something interesting." Most of us already knew each other, from one or more previous annual meetings of our enterprise, but several people were new this year.
    When my turn came, I said,
In eleven days I'll no longer be who I am, so there seems to be little point in telling you who that was. But for those who don't know me yet I will say that this is my tenth annual meeting. I am, for the few days left before my retirement, the state coordinator for North Carolina.
    I've been asked one particular question so often lately, it might possibly be of interest to you how I'm dealing with the prospect of retirement.
    The most interesting thing about it to me is the strong polar-opposite feelings I have about it.
    On the one hand, I'm really glad to be leaving the organization I've worked in for fourteen years. One of the reasons is that it has already ceased to be what it was, and I very much dislike what it has become. Your organizations back home are hierarchical too. So has mine always been. But over the past few months it has become rigidly so—more top-down, more chain-of-command. The commands come down, and subservience is supposed to go back up. If you want to communicate with someone in a different part of the hierarchy, don't call them directly, but go up your chain to where the two hierarchies meet.
    Enough! I'll be relieved to escape my division's oppressive regime.
    But on the other hand, I'm already sad thinking that this is not only my tenth annual meeting—it's also my last. I'm going to miss working with all of you on our beloved tuition-savings program for college students in our states who want to pursue degrees that our own state doesn't offer. I'm going to miss each of you personally. We have become friends.
    Of course, no one likes to feel sad, so I'm trying to focus on the glad part of the situation —escaping the division I've worked in for fourteen years. I'll try to put off the sad part until later.
Well, the truth is I can't feel entirely glad about retiring from work that has given me a great deal of satisfaction. I think I'm feeling...diminished.
    It happens to many retirees. Some feel that they no longer have anything to live for, and a number of these die soon after their last day at work.
    Walking along the hotel balcony, think I feared that some hidden part of me might commandeer my body and pull or push it toward the rail....

After passing through the The Zimbabwe Exhibit at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport yesterday afternoon, a World Wildlife Fund poster brought back a powerful feeling I'd had the day before on the flight to Atlanta. The sound of a young child talking to its parent had provoked in me a profound sense of vulnerability. My heart went out to that child. I ached with the knowledge that it would not always be taken care of, that it was subject to wanton hurt, ill-treatment, even abandonment. How helpless are our children, how dependent on us our pets and even the livestock we slaughter. How vulnerable wild animals subject to legal hunters, to poachers, to each other.
    On the plane, I thought it was the child's vulnerability I felt. Stopped before the poster of the young elephant and its mother, I thought it was the vulnerability of the small elephant.
    I suspect now it was my own vulnerability that was trying to speak to me.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Don't beat yourself up (I'll do it for you)

Apricot blossom
(photographed late January)
Because one of our flowering apricot trees is starting to overarch our rain gauge, my wife asked me to move the gauge.
    It's mounted on a four-by-four set atop a metal stanchion driven about eighteen inches into the ground, which is hard clay beneath the planting bed's conditioned top soil. It was a bear to pull the post out of the stanchion mount, and three bears to pull the stanchion out of the ground.
    To drive the stanchion back into the ground, about ten feet away, I mounted a shorter length of four-by-four, which I failed to notice fit more snugly than the four-by-four the rain gauge is screwed onto. It seemed to be going to be four or five bears to pull this four-by-four out of the stanchion mount.
    I ended up pulling the stanchion out of the ground (easy because I'd loosened the soil and not driven it in as far as before) and striking the four-by-four on a brick by holding the tapered end of the stanchion roughly the way I held a baseball bat as a boy.
    My wife came out to see what the racket was, and I gave voice to what I was thinking with each swing. "I don't seem to be able to do anything, without doing something stupid at some point."
    "Oh, don't beat yourself up," she said.
    I appreciated that. Nice to hear.
    "Why aren't you wearing safety glasses?"
    I'd actually already realized I'd left them in the garage, but hadn't bothered to go get them.
    "That's a stupid thing to do," she said.

I laid my "bat"down and went to get the safety glasses, reflecting on the way that I had no need to beat myself up, my wife would almost always do it for me.
    But she's earned the prerogative. We've been married forty-six years today.

Still fire

Last evening we had dinner with some friends in Carrboro, in their lovely, cavernous, cozily civilized home. We sat on their back-yard deck overlooking a few of their many bird feeders and their dense stand of bamboo, mesmerized by the flames of their Jolly Rancher grill, which leapt so high we almost had occasion to sing "Sire, Sire, pants on fire."
    We were all amazed at the variety of still images my Coolpix P300 could see even if none of us could:

[Click to enlarge]

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In ointment

Come on baby, rub it on, anoint it!
Make it slick, then hold it firm and point it.
    I'll slide it right in,
    Cram its full height in—
Oh my God, what a smooth entry ointment!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The help

Octavia Spencer won the Oscar for
Best Supporting Actress in The Help
In Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help (but not in the Academy Award-nominated movie based on it), the character Minny Jackson's mother told Minny when she was fourteen, "Sit down on your behind, Minny, because I'm about to tell you the rules for working in a White Lady's house."
    Rule Number One included the advice, "Don't go crying to White Lady with your problems. You can't pay the light bill? Your feet are too sore? Remember one thing: white people are not your friends. They don't want to hear about it." [p. 38]
    Like most of the while folks (not all of them) depicted in The Help, many employers (most? nearly all?) are not their employees' friends either. When push comes to shove, their employees, too, are just "the help."
    I'm coming to know this well.

Of course, I can't tell you about it right now.
    But there are only thirty more days until retirement.