Thursday, March 22, 2007

Just checking in.

This started out as a quick "hey there--I'm still alive!" post, but as I got into it, well...

First, I assure anyone reading that I haven't truly disappeared. These long breaks between posts are simply the result of my being so busy with work and school that I haven't had much time for the blog--or for CR, for that matter. My CR practice is all but suspended at the moment, but I remain committed to it, and as soon as things settle down, I look forward to getting back into the swing of things.

Next week is my spring break, and I will spend it helping my beleaguered mother care for her ailing parents, so she can take a break herself. Grandma and Grandpa are old (96 and 79, respectively), and Grandma has been fighting off a rare infection in her lungs called nocardia, a bacteria that typically infects only immunocompromised patients or those with damaged lungs. Grandma was a smoker for many years, and her lungs are full of scar tissue (amazingly, no cancer). She's also immunocompromised by virtue of being old and frail. Over the last year she has been in and out of the hospital a dozen times in as many months. Last year she spent two months in a long-term care facility, trying to recover enough strength that she could go home and do simple things like cook for herself and bathe.

Grandpa isn't much help: though mentally sharp, his body is failing him too. He's been diagnosed with an "age-related" condition called spinal stenosis for the last 10 years or so. It's a narrowing of the spinal canal that squeezes on the spinal cord and nerves. For him, it results in numb legs after a short time standing, so he can't do much walking before he starts losing sensation in his legs. Back when surgery was still a viable option, he was afraid of the risks. Now he's too old and frail for the surgery. Coupled with that, he had an old and deteriorated hip replacement touched up surgically a couple years ago, and things never returned to normal afterward. He gets around with a walker, and can bathe and feed himself, but is in no condition to be a care-giver to his equally frail wife.

Grandpa is 96--that's pretty old by almost anyone's definition. But his quality of life sucks. He can't get around, has nothing to do, and we all believe he is probably depressed (he is rarely willing to cop to physical pain--admitting emotional pain is not part of his stoic constitution).

Grandma would almost certainly be in much better shape had she not smoked cigarettes all those years. But she battled alcoholism, and dealing with that--which she has done quite successfully (sober for something like 30 years)--made the smoking seem less a problem--something to put off until sobriety was a part of her life again.

I am grateful that so far, they've been able to live at home with relative independence despite their failing conditions. But that's thanks to my mother looking after them constantly. My mom's been a superhero through all this--I guess that's what we do for our parents.

This whole experience has been instructive for me--particularly in light of all I've learned about health and nutrition since I started reading about CR last November. The pair of them are simultaneously a great example of lots that's wrong with how we live--and lots that's right. They are old, and they have survived a lot--so it doesn't seem unreasonable for me to conclude that, in terms of genetics, I probably have a decent shot at a long and healthy life--if I take their situation as a lesson, and make wiser choices now.

I have to live at least 60 more years to catch up with Grandpa (and likely longer--he's not dead yet!). I plan to do that, and I'd like to do it well, with strength, self-sufficiency, and the knowledge that at 96, I will still be capable of seeking out and experiencing the pleasures of life.

So I am acknowledging two things to myself right now: 1) I will get on the ball with this CR lifestyle by year's end, and 2) I will not add to my stress and at times overwhelmingly hectic life by beating myself up for not doing it right now.

I started flirting with CR in November, after Thanksgiving. If it takes me a full twelve months to achieve, at last, a single full month of committed CR practice, so be it. Grand life changes are difficult, take time, and the most important lessons are learned slowly.

I do have some good news that I believe will make getting my lifestyle under control a little easier: I have a job lined up for May, when I pseudo-finish school. I say that because I was meant to graduate in May, but it turns out I'll be short a few credit hours and will have to squeeze in a class or two part-time over the next year while I experience gainful full-time employment for the first time in more than five years.

I'll give more specific information about my burgeoning career in a future post, but for now I'll say simply that I'll be working for a non-profit advocacy organization whose mission I've been committed to for many years. And it's not just an administrative job like all my others. I will be a program manager, and in time, the expert in my field--not just in Chicago, but in all of the United States. That's not meant to sound grandiose--it's just that Chicago is a leading city for my field.

I consider earning this job to be the fulfillment of a commitment I made to myself after getting laid off in 2002. I returned to school with a plan to change my life and do something good. I set my sights on this organization, and five years later I have the job. Sometimes I fail to take credit for my successes, for the systematic way I took all the necessary steps to arrive here. I had a loosely defined plan (which is about as close as I get to "ambition"), I allowed myself to be influenced and motivated by good people along the way, and now I have what I set out to get five years ago.

Best of all, my new career has nothing whatsoever to do with my degree. When I returned to school at the age of 32, I vowed to study something I found interesting and fulfilling to me personally (Latin American and Latino Studies), without regard for career. I believed things would work out if I was true to myself and my values, and it turns out I was right. I have received a wonderful gift, to be able to live like this, and I want to prolong it as long as I can.

And I'm mindful that I'm just starting a real career at the age of 36, and while I may only be a post-pubescent teenager in CR years, I'm still beginning perhaps a decade late compared to my peers who are graduating and beginning the careers in their early twenties. So, obviously I must live longer (and even longer!) so that I can enjoy a similar--or even longer (longer longer)--career! CR is my ticket to do it--I believe that--so now I have yet another reason to get back to CR!

Finally, I'm also continuing work on a novel I started last year, and what creative energy that remains after my writing for school has been funneled into that instead of the blog. It's a passion of mine that needs to be nurtured at all costs, and one of those costs is the frequency of my blogging. Sorry--but any of you who are artists of one sort or another understand what happens when a creative endeavor begins to gather critical mass and take off.

So, that's where I'm at right now. Thanks to those of you who left comments wondering what had become of me. I'm right here, and I'm still reading the blogs and the e-mail list. I swear I'll be back in full-force when this semester is over!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Existential Crisis!

I have some great news: I am not suicidal!

I'd always suspected that I was not suicidal, but how could I have ever known for sure? I mean, it's really easy to sit there and say, "I want to be alive! Living is great!" But where do you find your proof? How do you know your desire to be alive springs from a passionate lust for life, or some sense of purpose, and isn't just instinctive and reflexive, the product of the basic survival impulse?

However bad things get, however defeated I ever might feel in an individual moment, it seems that I generally return to an optimistic attitude. I know that I can probably have a good life and make a difference, and all that stuff. But sometimes I wonder, "what's the point of it all," and "why bother?"

I realize that I am not breaking any new ground here, and people far more well-read and well-spoken and intelligent and possessed of more philosophical curiosity than I have waxed eloquently about these questions for, like, a really long time. If I have nothing new to say about these things, then, what am I going on about here? Well, a week or two ago, this question popped into my head, unbidden:

"Why would I want to live even LONGER...when this is all meaningless, and I could die today and I wouldn't even care because I'd be dead, so I wouldn't know any better, right?" What would I want with all that extra time? Why not just "live it up" now and who cares when I croak, if it's at 50 or 80 or 120?

It occurred to me that this was a really, really important question to discover an answer to if I seriously want to do CRON (or any other healthful thing) for the purpose of longevity. It seems to me that if you are asking for more time, you should have some sort of idea what you plan to do with it. I realized I wasn't sure.

This sophomoric existential crisis was looming large a week or so ago when, in an intensely strange moment while I was preparing my (decidedly non-CRON) dinner, I vividly imagined having a massive heart attack and dropping right there in my kitchen. Making the moment more surreal was the fact that opera music was streaming from the living room (something from Prairie Home Companion). I felt like I was in some kind of artsy movie. The diva was wailing, and I imagined myself on my knees, clutching my chest, begging, "No! Not now!'s too soon! I have so much to do!" before slipping into the darkness.

I stood there, paralyzed, waiting to see if it was really happening. You know the funny way time seems to stretch out and everything goes slow-mo when something horrible and traumatic is happening, when seconds seem like minutes, and minutes seem like hours? I found myself stricken with the idea that I was in the midst of a sudden, surprising death, and time was stretching out forever, so I could experience every moment of it. Not that I was experiencing any bodily sensations or anything--this was all in my head.

When I'd recovered my senses (just in time to drain the gaky pasta I was cooking), I couldn't help but chuckle with relief, that kind of insane chuckle that really isn't because something was funny, but rather, served as a pressure-release valve we sometimes need after averting disaster. I mean, obviously I was relieved that I wasn't really having a heart attack. But more than that, I felt an intense relief to suddenly know for sure that I actually wanted rather seriously to be alive, as opposed to descending into the aforementioned sophomoric existential crisis.

I know that all sounds so silly, but I realized that I've never really been endangered in a way that made me seriously fear for my life. My mortality has never posed much threat. It's been more theoretical than actual.

I suppose that sureal moment (revelation? ephiphany?) was at least in part the result of all my new knowledge about health and nutrition, and the tension inherent between all that knowledge and my continued bad behavior.

I'm sure I was fantasizing what I actually do fear will be the likely consequence of my continuing the path I've been on. That path has been strewn with fitful, sporadic CRON practice, peppered with frightening bouts of ad lib abandon. I was in the midst of preparing macaroni and cheese, a meal so off my CRON list it shouldn't even be recognized as food so much as poison!

I realized something else: I've been thinking of my bad feelings about food as "guilt" and "shame," but those are imprecise characterizations of something that I think is much more primal. I think, at least for me, my bad food feelings spring from fear. I was suddenly imagining what was going to happen to me thanks to the very food I was preparing that moment.

Guilt came next, in the moment I realized I wasn't having a heart attack and everything was fine. As I shoveled greasy forkfulls of macaroni and cheese into my mouth, I felt like, "Ha! I've gotten away with it again!" But getting away with something always makes me feel guilty. This is why I cannot bear to play practical jokes on my friends--if I get away with it, if I fool them, I feel guilty!

So, what does all this mean? I guess the answer is, "I don't really know." It's a relief to be made aware in no uncertain terms that I don't want to die, that in fact I'd prefer most strenuously to remain alive. I never did think I was suicidal, but isn't it nice to know for sure? But I also know that if I want to stick with CRON, I need a plan. I need a goal. I need a rationale for prolonging the time that I plan to spend here, a justification for the greater amount of resources I will then have to consume in order to do that, for the greater footprint I will leave on the environment.

The answer, it seems to me, is that I must do something good. I need to prolong my life, and most especially, the period of my life during which I am most robust, because there are some good things I am meant to do, and they take more time than I'll have if I continue the way I have been. What are these good things I have to do? I have no idea. But I'd prefer to have the luxury of time in which to figure out the answer to that question. And so, I must do CRON.

Existential crisis averted, for now....