Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Archive for February, 2008


Posted by boakley59 on February 24, 2008

I have finally gotten rid of a big pain in the butt.

The mischievous among you may wonder whether something has happened to Suzy or one of our dogs, and a few months ago you might have thought I meant I had quit my job. I am happy to clear up all such misperceptions in reporting that I mean to be taken literally. The knotted surgical string implanted in my butt to plug an unnatural hole has been removed after two months of discomfort.

The implant had been enlarged over the course of four followup visits to the surgeon with the addition of 10 rubber bands. Each time bands were added, the enlarged lump pressed harder on soft tissues. Very painful. The lump also was positioned so as to make contraction of certain busy muscles painful, so it was a most unpleasant experience.

But pain and discomfort are partly perception, and it seemed that both eased a few days after each addition of rubber bands, except for the last addition of two bands, which produced new pain for more than a week. No amount of self-control mattered with the last bands.

When the implant, called a seton, was inserted, the surgeon had told us essentially that “this, too, shall pass.” Apparently I am the clinging type, however, and it did not pass. After two months of patience with his patient, the surgeon decided to cut it out.

As Suzy writes in her blog, this involved an anesthesia needle, a scalpel and blood, so she had to leave the room before the surgeon got down to business. She writes too about the pain I have been enduring and in showing how bad the pain has been, hopes that I won’t mind her reporting that she saw me crying.

I don’t mind that at all; I do not feel diminished by having people learn that I cry at certain moments. I am curious about the moment that Suzy means, however, because I did not shed any tears. I did have a moment when my jaw was working, my lips were clenched and I sniffed in the beginnings of a sob. Already, only two days later, the moments are a little fuzzy, because indeed there was considerable pain and Suzy did a small errand on the way home, so a few stops and starts, bumps and strains on my butt blur the moments together.

The moment I recall came shortly after we pulled out of the parking lot of the surgeon’s office, but it was not the pain that had me starting to sob. I realized at that moment that for the first time in nine months, I did not have an abnormal swelling or a surgical artifact causing pain in my butt. I had a bleeding surgical wound, to be sure, and the local anesthetic and the pain pill I had taken before the visit were wearing off, but joy and relief, not pain, brought me to the brink of tears.

Suzy saw me suffering; I saw relief of my suffering. So much of what we see depends on the filters we apply. Suzy tries hard to imagine the pain I must feel so that she can serve and support me with appropriate gentleness yet without coddling. I consider pain a signal to be acknowledged and met with a controlled response, if not subdued. She always thinks it’s worse than it is; I seldom think it’s as bad as it is.

Between us, there is wisdom, and reason for tears of joy.


Posted in Health, Personal, Philosophy/Life Lessons | 1 Comment »

Knotted strings and nose prints

Posted by boakley59 on February 16, 2008

Wonder and mystery come at us in all shapes and sizes, in sound and in silence, anytime, anyplace. These moments raise us above the rocks and separate life from hopelessness.

Not even our wildest imaginings can prepare us for wonderful life. Not so many days ago, the richness of reality came upon me as I sat at the computer at my window desk. I recently had surgery on my bottom, so I was squirming a bit in my seat when the thought struck me: “I have a knotted string in my butt and there are nose prints on my window.” What warning could there be for any of us that such a thought could ever occur?

Certainly, I knew about the surgery. My digestive system makes new tunnels of its own and one of these pathways had become painful and infected. The surgeon exposed and cleared the area, then left a knotted string to block one end of the tunnel. The body heals and seals the rogue tunnel from the other end, and the string is eventually pushed out the waste tunnel that comes as original equipment. Life with a string in your butt is an unexpected challenge, but after weeks and weeks it becomes just another thing you deal with.

The nose prints? Well, they’re not so unusual, either. One of our two dogs (Salsa, the one in the blog avatar with me) is big enough to leap onto the desk and look out the window so she can protect us from passersby. Sometimes, she has to get as close to the action as possible and rubs her nose on the window.

But nose prints on the window and knotted strings in your butt? We are wonderful life, precisely because we recognize the glory of these momentary combinations.

Not all of these glorious moments are so silly as this one. A few years ago I was climbing a fourteener (a 14,000-foot peak) in Colorado and I got a bit ahead of my friends. I looked out alone over miles and miles of mountains stretching into the blue distance and knew how small and ordinary we are in the midst of wonder. Yet we stand above these rocks and we pass them by. Our thoughts soar above them and leave them behind, but our thoughts also bring these wonders back to us whenever we have been away too long.

When I was younger still, my family often went to Niagara Falls to see what I describe as thousands of tons of water rushing stupidly over a cliff. The glib description belies the power in the water. Standing on the observation deck a few feet from the falls, I always felt drawn to dangle over the railing with my feet in the water to test my strength against the current. Only wonderful life wants so desperately to test its own limits against such awesome power. Not only must we observe and describe nature, but we also must wrestle with it.

Wonderful life must participate in life. It is not the same to read about Niagara Falls or the Rockies, or even the nose prints on my window, as it is to see them from inches away. Life is unimaginably more majestic in the doing than in the telling.

We miss so much thinking that we know about life because we now can catch so much of it recorded in one way or another. But the best that people do is so much better than the best that recordings can show.

I was one of the helmet painters as a student manager at the University of Notre Dame and was on the field as Joe Montana led the football team to the national championship in January 1978. Over the years, I have seen many of the great athletes of our time live, and what we see on the small screen (or nowadays on the large, high-definition, digital screen) is only a pale imitation.

My days at Notre Dame notwithstanding, I really learned that when I saw Wayne Gretzky play hockey. I had watched him on television for years, and by then he had rewritten the record book in half the time it had taken his most prolific predecessors to set the standards. I thought I knew how good “The Great One” was. Then I watched him from a seat two rows off the ice. Even then, in the twilight of his career with the Los Angeles Kings, the fluid ease of his movements, the casual speed and graceful strength, the sheer excellence of his skills put the lie to all I thought I knew.

Imagination and recordings cannot prepare us for the greatness we must live to see.

And so, as I take a pain pill to forget the knotted string in my butt and I get out the cleaner to wipe the nose prints from my window, I think of the raw power of nature, the delicate talents of man and the richness of these moments of dynamic, wonderful life.

Posted in Philosophy/Life Lessons | 3 Comments »

Once a writer

Posted by boakley59 on February 15, 2008

Time was when writing came easier. These days, it seems, I am a bit rusty.

Like the Tin Woodman struggling to swing his axe, I find my thoughts resist smooth flow. I strain to find my voice, but the creak of clumsy words cuts me short. I have been away from the grindstone for too long and the razor sharpness is gone. I tap out sentences, but get back only a dull, thudding echo of the thoughts behind them.

Time was when I was a young and vibrant writer, a “Tin Wordman” perhaps, who could polish off a piece in no time. I needed only a topic and time for reflection. It didn’t even need to be quiet time; I could chip away at an idea in the back of my head as I went about the business of the day. When it came time to write, I would cut straight and true to the heart of the matter.

I was in those days a practiced craftsman, with a method to my madness. I knew that I wrote best when committed to my subject, so I reviewed each day with a keen eye for raw material. Always thinking ahead to my next essay, I looked back on each day for the little moments that struck a nerve, or the funny bone. Those little moments were all stories waiting to be told, lessons waiting to be taught, passions waiting to be shared. The stories would tell themselves, if I would just find them.

But it has been long since I was a paid tradesman charged to produce such pieces, and I have fallen out of the habit of crafting for my own pleasure. In the intervening decades as an editor, I have occasionally prepared a lecture, written a guide or compiled a research thesis, but mainly I have been writing headlines and polishing someone else’s prose. Writing has become a collection of brief, disconnected exercises in clarifying someone else’s thoughts. The careful review of each day with an eye toward a thoughtful revelation shared with dear reader has fallen by the way.

So I find myself puttering in the shop, working on pieces in starts and stops, trying to regain the delicate touch. Oh, the stories are there, still waiting to be told. In my months of disability, I have had time thrust upon me. That time has been filled with thoughts of hospital stays, insurance bureaucracy, banal television commercials, the undeserved love and support of friends. I made a list of catch phrases waiting to be expanded and expounded upon.

When some of them could wait no more, they brought me to Brulog. But my unpracticed hand finds me hitting snags with my catch phrases, and my carving takes unproductive turns. Part of me is more timid, fearful that the sharp edge will slice the wrong target; part of me is more rigid, not looking so hard for the newness in things; part of me is more gray, unable to resolve to black and white.

Still, it’s been only a few weeks and I suspect the touch will return. Come along with me and let us find the edge together.

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The other one in the room

Posted by boakley59 on February 7, 2008

Illness is a hard teacher. It reveals our fragility; it vanquishes all pretensions of independence.

But the hardest teachers often give the lessons we need most and retain longest. Sometimes the lessons take a while to sink in, but once they do, we are better equipped to understand our place.

Illness has been teaching me since November 1998, when my digestive system began to digest itself. In the span of a few weeks I lost 20 pounds, and eventually most of what I was passing was blood. I’m normally only a slight 140 pounds at 6 feet tall, so there wasn’t much of me left when I ended up in intensive care. After I had been in my private room for a couple of days, one of the nurses came in and said she was surprised someone so young was in the ward. In my late 30s, I was decades younger than all of the patients in what was mainly a cardiac care ward. A day or two later as I began to show some signs of improvement, another nurse said the staff had been quite worried about me, because I was the sickest person in the wing.

Alone in my room, I had long hours to think about what it means to be not yet 40 but still sicker than multiple-bypass patients in their 80s and 90s. The lesson of vulnerability didn’t really hit home, though. I never doubted that the medicines would help such a fit and trim fellow get back on his feet again. Indeed I did recover and within a couple of years was truly on my feet, running road races and winning my age group.

So it was while training for a marathon that my disease flared again.

The episode eventually put me back in the hospital, after drug therapy to suppress my system hyperactivated a stealth infection, an abscess we didn’t know I had. I wasn’t the sickest patient in the wing this time, though. In fact, I didn’t have the worst case of medicine gone awry in my own room. The fellow in the room’s other bed had lost a leg after an extreme allergic reaction when touched in an unrelated procedure by something not known to have latex in it. Then his painkillers gave him paranoid delusions, and he fought for his life against nurses he thought were foreign spies trying to give him a lethal injection.

Many hard teachings there: Medicine is a double-edged sword; fear keeps us clutching at life; as with Achilles, it’s the little hidden things that bring us down.

We all have heroes fighting to save us though, and again I was sent home healed and enlightened. The school of hard knocks is always in session, however, and once more I fell ill in 2007. This episode put me in the hospital three separate times.

The first visit came when hospital admissions were mercifully light, so I had a room to myself. Able to rest easily and to eat regularly, I seemed to improve fast and was quickly released. Unfortunately, illness teaches that life at home, even when couch-bound, is not so restful or easy as life in a hospital bed. My symptoms regained force and I had to be readmitted.

The second visit found me with a roommate with a similar abdominal condition, but he had needed colon surgery. The abdomen is a busy cauldron of bacteria, some helpful, some harmful. Surgery always stirs the cauldron, and he had developed an infection. His underlying condition and the tissues sensitive after surgery meant he needed painkillers. The infection meant he needed antibiotics. The colon needs to be active to remove waste that can contribute to worsening infection. Painkillers suppress muscle activity that helps remove the waste. His condition and his medicines were in a constant free-for-all.

Again illness teaches about the delicate balance of these fragile vessels.

The most important message finally hit home this time as I thought about my roommates and about the burdens Suzy had taken upon herself during my incapacity: Only when we think we are alone can we feel sorry for ourselves.

Alone in that first hospital room years ago, I thought it was a harsh fate to be the youngest and the sickest person in intensive care. Years later, in another hospital room, I watched a man fight imaginary demons conjured by the medicines meant to fight the pain of a leg lost to a subtle accident in care. Years later still, I watched another man who had lost part of himself try to keep his balance on a merry-go-round of pain and recovery. At home, I saw the strain on Suzy as she did the work of two while I could do no more than the slow work of recovery.

So, illness has taught me about looking around the room. When someone else is there, that’s who I need to worry about, not myself. The amazing thing is that the lesson holds true for anyone in the room. I am certain that Suzy thinks I am far worse off dealing with my illness than she is coping with the strain of housekeeping and breadwinning. And I suspect that my hospital roommates saw something in my condition somehow more tragic than theirs. Perhaps one thought I was too young and faced missing too much life while his had already been full. Perhaps one saw my illness on a similar path to his and he lamented the pains he knew I would face.

And so illness teaches. When you want to feel sorry for yourself, look around the room. When you wonder who needs your concern, who needs your love, the answer is always “the other one in the room.”

The best lesson of all is that, when we think about who and where we are, none of us is ever alone in a room.

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