Posted by: Shades of Susan Gray | August 29, 2010

Stress for Success

Years ago, in my earlier life as a technical writer, a colleague was working on a corporate research project to eliminate stress in the work place.[1]  I found this topic intriguing because what could be defined as stress for Kelly, the corporate researcher, could be an excellent opportunity for someone else moving up the corporate ladder.  When I asked Kelly how she defined stress, I could see her eyes narrow, her lips purse, and her temples pulsate.  I knew that I was pushing the wrong buttons and was stressing her out.  Since then, I have dipped my foot into this stress pool and realized this topic is far too deep for a brief paper.[2]  I could easily write a book on how different generations view stress.  A teenager might find not being invited to the prom stressful; whereas, a geriatric might find health and end-of-life topics stressful.  Employers and employees experience stress differently.  And while women and men respond differently to stress, women can handle stress much better than men, according to Shelley Taylor, a psychologist at UCLA (Carmichael).  I also don’t want to muddy this pool with analyzing chronic stress, that which is ongoing and unrelenting.  Someone who dodges bullets and IEDs every day for a year has a unique stress load that I don’t even want to visit.  What I am interested is the every day, garden-variety stress that life always throws our direction.  How we individually deal with work, relationships, financial, and health stress fascinates me.  Unlike Kelly and her research, I believe that stress is necessary for life.  Without some intermittent stress, our lives would be dull, lifeless, and certainly not healthy.  Stress makes our hearts pump and our minds switch on.  But how we handle stress will ultimately separate the successful from the unsuccessful people.

Most people, unlike me, view stress as bad.  When I told people that I was researching stress, they all assumed that I was writing about how paralyzing stress can be.  Few thought that stress could be healthy or positive.  I spent some time looking for articles to show that the prevailing trend is to see stress negatively, but the idea that anyone would write about stress as negative would be the same as someone writing that the earth is round or that it orbits the sun.  It’s so preposterous that anyone would even think stress is good that no one even writes a simple article that it is bad.  What researchers do write about is the minutiae of stress scholarship.  For example, in Stress and Health (2009), I came across “Sources of Stress and Coping Strategies of US Soccer Officials” or in the Journal of Community Psychology, I could have read about “Adolescent bicultural stress and its impact on mental well-being among Latinos, Asian Americans, and European Americans” (2007) or “Mapping nondominant voices into understanding stress-coping mechanisms” (2008) (see Voight, Romero, and Ivasaki).  In my quest for a general article that would even argue that stress is bad, I found nothing.  Despite this lack of scholarship, the prevailing opinion can be summed up by Bruce Rabin, a distinguished psychoneuroimmunologist, pathologist, and psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who, in a 2009 interview, described people who thrive on stress as “nuts” and “pathological” (qtd in Carmichael).

What I did discover, however, is that researchers who argue that stress is bad highlight its connection to increased health problems.  Since 1982, the Stress and Health Lab at Ohio State University has conducted numerous research projects into stress and its effects on our bodies.  The academic pop stars in research equating stress and health, Ronald Glaser, professor of medical microbiology, and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology, have concluded that stress and anxiety can prolong and worsen allergy attacks and can produce poor surgery results (Holland, “stress”).  In her article “Emotions, Morbidity, Mortality: new perspectives from psychoneuroimmunology, Kiecolt-Glaser points out that “negative emotions can intensify a variety of health threats” (Kiecolt-Glaser 85).  Barbara Andersen, another clinical researcher, has studied 116 women who have been treated for invasive breast cancer.  Not surprisingly, she found that the stress of the surgery and the cancer reduced their immune responses (Andersen 30).  In another study, conducted by doctors at Heidelberg University, Germany, investigators for a decade followed 5,100 adults who self-reported that they had high stress jobs.  Of those in high stress jobs, 2.4 per cent of the adults developed asthma during the study period, compared to 1.3 per cent of adults in low stress jobs (“Work”).  Generally, researchers claim stress can make us ill or can prevent us from getting physically better.

Despite all these dire warnings that stress is physically hard on us poor mortals, new research has revealed that even those with happy experiences and low-stress lives may still produce cortisol, a hormone associated with increased stress levels.  For a long time, scientists assumed that an increase in cortisol in the blood meant that the patient was experiencing increased levels of bad stress.[3]  In a 2000 study, the Glasers, the lead researchers in stress and health at Ohio State University, tested newly married subjects.  The newly married couples were asked pleasant questions about “how they met, what attracted them to each other,” and why they decided to marry (Holland, “Even”).  One would think that these kinds of questions and the experiences of the couples would be pleasant and non-stressful.  However, in 25 percent of the men and women, the stress hormone, cortisol, had risen (Holland, “Even”).  Although this doesn’t answer conclusively my question concerning the relationship between disease and stress, it does suggest that the relationship between stress and physical problems is not quite so clear-cut. 

Running parallel to these doom and gloom researchers, stressing that stress is bad, some optimistic voices are slowly being heard.  Ohio State University, the hub of stress research mentioned earlier, has also suggested that stress may be beneficial, contrary to the Glaser research.  Dr. John Sheridan, the lead author of a 2005 study, discovered that social stress may actually boost the body’s immune system to better fight off viruses.  Sheridan and other researchers placed bully mice in cages with groups of meeker mice who were already content with their hierarchical order.  The aggressive mouse soon displaced the normal pecking order, causing social stress in that environment.  Later, the stressed, bullied mice successfully fought off viruses because the T-cells, special immune cells, could “remember” the last time being stressed and could help the body attack the foreign stressors (Wagner; also see Holland, “Social”).  This is similar to how vaccines work.  The body becomes stressed by the foreign but inactive virus but learns to attack (the fight or flight response).  Later, when an active virus attacks the body, the T-cells remember what to do.  In this sense, stress helps us build up immunity.

Other stress experts have suggested that stress itself does not affect our health but how we respond to stress is what can make us ill.  Rather than stress causing prolonged physical misery, the disease, such as cancer and its subsequent treatment, may actually cause the increased health problems, not the stress itself.  In his 1956 ground-breaking book The Stress of Life, the grand-daddy of the stress can be good camp, Hans Selye,[4] explains in quite thorough medical detail the connection between stress and health.  However, Selye argues that how well we deal with stress will determine if we will be successful.  Admitting that not everyone will deal with stress successfully, Selye gives the example of carrying a heavy suitcase.  To relieve the stress on the one arm, the traveler will shift the weight from one arm to the other.  The traveler recognizes and understands what is stressing the one arm and can rectify it.  The weight doesn’t disappear, but it’s tolerable (Selye 266).  In order to deal with stress effectively and successfully, Selye argues, one must know oneself, truthfully and honestly (260).  Of course, he also jumps in with prescriptions on how to reduce stress through diversion and deviation (switching arms or tasks) (268; 276-77), exercise in order to be fit, healthy diet, and a good night’s sleep (to key down) (270-272).  Finally, he suggests smiling a lot (263).  In other words, how we deal with stress determines whether we will be successful or not.

Poor lifestyle choices, therefore, rather than the stress itself can cause poor health outcomes.  For example, if we overeat, drink alcohol, or spend hours playing video games or watching television as a way to “deal” with stress, we are causing health problems from these poor responses to stress.  According to Bruce McEwen, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University in New York City, thousands of years ago when we were living in caves and banging things with clubs, we dealt with stress with the fight or flight response (allostasis) (McEwen 6-7).  Today, when neither of these responses (the fight or flight) is appropriate, such as working for an overbearing boss or caring for a seriously ill family member, then we must find other ways to deal successfully with stress.  This is when poor lifestyle choices can have an adverse effect on our stress load (McEwen 135).

At different times of my life, like everyone else, I have experienced stress.  When I felt stress with relationships, I would focus on my schoolwork.  I would do extra research for my English essays or spend longer working on my chemistry labs as an undergraduate at the University of Regina.  As a result of stress, I graduated with Honours.  At other times, with career stress, I spent time zoning out (meditating) by running longer and longer distances.  As a result of work stress, I became healthier.  This personal, anecdotal evidence supports what Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University says about stress:  “… most people do their best under mild to moderate stress” (qtd in Carmichael).  By exploiting my response to stress, I was able to harness the energy (the flight/fight response) that stress produces in us.  My body’s hormonal response to stress was channeled into excelling academically as well as physically.  According to Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist at UCLA, stress in the short term can “energize us,” and in the long term it can “motivate us to do better at jobs” (qtd in Carmichael).  One only needs to consider examples we have all seen or experienced ourselves:  the concert pianist is energized when she has to perform in front of a large audience or the new employee during a time of recession comes up with innovative ways for the company to save money (and thereby saves his job).

With more and more cutting-edge research pointing to the positive effects of stress on our personal development, scientists are also discovering that stress actually prolongs our lives.  According to a professor emeritus in the department of physiology at the University of Texas, Edward Masoro explains that if stress can, like a vaccine, ward off later stress, then stress must necessarily help us mend ourselves as we age.  Masoro argues that stress can slow down the aging process.  And he backs this up with plenty of evidence to support these claims.  When researchers “stress out flies and worms by exposing them to heat, they live longer.”  Likewise, human cells live longer after undergoing stressful conditions in the laboratory (Wenner).

In the process of writing this essay, I examined what people did when they handled stress well in order to bounce back quickly, such as after a death in the family or marriage break-up.  When I asked my niece how she handles stress, Elizabeth said that she cleans the house.  After our mother died in 2009, my sister Nancy started researching our family tree.  Others I asked, such as my friend Biz, were physically active, read books, talked it out with friends, and joined self-help groups.  Although these examples are just anecdotal and not scientific, they all support author and medical doctor Richard Restak’s claim that people who have excellent coping skills do so when they respond doing something where they can exert some control over the stressful situation.  It doesn’t have to be actual control of the situation, but the belief that one is in control.  Restak gives the example of the dentist who tells his patient to lift a finger if he / she feels any pain and the dentist will stop.  In reality, most dentists cannot stop a delicate procedure once they start, but the patients don’t know that.  Patients will put up with a lot more pain (stress) because they believe they are in control of this stressful situation when in actually they are not (Restak 153-4).  Even the military is currently examining how soldiers can deal with stress better, not how to eliminate stress altogether (Mahoney).   Military psychologists are currently studying a phenomenon they are calling “posttraumatic growth” (Carmichael).  Today we no longer need to eliminate stress, as I recall poor Kelly, the corporate researcher; instead, we are learning to harness stress to make us better, successful, and more resilient.

Works Cited List

Andersen, Barbara, et. al.  “Stress and Immune Responses After Surgical Treatment for Regional Breast Cancer.”  Journal of the National Cancer Institute 90. 1 (January 7, 1998): 30 – 36.  Proquest.  Web.  8 July 2010.

Carmichael, Mary.  “Who Says Stress is Bad for You?”  Newsweek 153.8 (23 Feb 2009).  Academic Search Complete. Web.  29 July 2010.

Cooper, Cary L.  “Mental Capital and Well-being.”  Stress & Health 26.1 (2010): 1-2.  Academic Search Complete.  Web.  8 July 2010.

Holland, Earle.  “Stress, Anxiety Can Make Allergy Attacks Even More Miserable And Last Longer.”  Research News.  Ohio State University.  14 August 2008.  Web.  2 July 2010.

Holland, Earle.  “Even Happy Experiences Can’t Reduce Stress, New Research Shows.”  Research News.  Ohio State University.  2 August 2000.  Web.  2 July 2010.

Holland, Earle.  “Social Stress May Enhance the Immune Response to Influenza Virus.”  Research News.  Ohio State University.  28 February 2010.  Web.  2 July 2010.

Ivasaki, Yoshitaka, et. al.  “Mapping nondominant voices into understanding stress-coping mechanisms” Journal of Community Psychology 36.6 (August 2008):  702-722.  Academic Search Complete.  Web.  2 July 2010.

Kiecolt-Glazer, Janice, et. al.  “Emotions, Morbidity, Mortality: new perspectives from psychoneuroimmunology.”  Annual Review of Psychology 53 (2002):  83-107.  Proquest.  Web. 8 July 2010.

Mahoney, Sarah.  “Stress Less, Accomplish More.”  Good Housekeeping 250.5 (May 2010).  Academic Search Complete.  Web.  8 July 2010.

McEwen, Bruce.  The End of Stress as we know it.  Washington, D.C.:  Joseph Henry Press, 2003.  Print.

“Perceived Stress Scale.”  The road to wellbeing. Web survey.  2 July 2010.

Restak, Richard M.  The Mind.  Toronto:  Bantam Books, 1988.  Print.

Romero, Andrea, et. al.  “Adolescent bicultural stress and its impact on mental well-being among Latinos, Asian Americans, and European Americans.”  Journal of Community Psychology 35.4 (May 2007):  519-534.  Academic Search Complete.  Web.  2 July 2010.

Segrin, Chris, et. al.  “Social Skills, psychological well-being, and the mediating role of perceived stress.”  Anxiety, Stress, and Coping.  20.3 (Sept 2007):  321-329.  Academic Search Complete.  Web.  8 July 2010.

Selye, Hans.  Selye’s Guide to Stress Research.  New York:  Von Nostrand Reinhold, 1980.  Print. 

Selye, Hans.  The Stress of Life.  New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1956.  Print. 

Voight, Mike.  “Sources of Stress and Coping Strategies of US Soccer Officials.”  Stress and Health 25.1 (Feb 2009):  91-101.  Academic Search Complete.  Web.  2 July 2010.

Wagner, Holly.  “Social Stress Boosts Immune System’s Flu-Fighting Abilities.”  Research News.  Ohio State University.  3 April 2005.  Web.  9 July 2010.

Wenner, Melinda.  “Find Your Stress Sweet Spot.”  Women’s Health 6.7 (Sept 2009).  Consumer Health Complete.  Web.  9 July 2010.

Wolfshenk, Joshua.  “What Makes Us Happy?”  Atlantic (June 2009).  Academic Search Complete.  Web.  30 June 2009.

“Work stress linked to higher asthma risk.”  Reuters reprints.  27 April 2010.  Web.  8 July 2010.


[1] Examining stress in the work place is not new.  In England, stress, in 2007, cost the country £77 billion a year and employers £25.9 billion a year in lost work time.  This is no small potatoes.  See Cooper.

[2] Two journals devoted to stress, Stress and Health: a Journal of International Society for the Investigation of Stress and Anxiety, Stress, and Coping suggest that scholars have been weighing in on this vast topic for some time now.

[3] Back in 1914, a physiologist, Walter Cannon, started examining the body’s chemical response to stress.  Today, scientists define stress as that which produces a hormonal surge response of adrenaline and cortisol (see McEwen 10-11, 61).  Also refer to Carmichael and Holland.

[4] Selye started researching stress and health during the 1930s, a time of great stress for most Americans.

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Posted by: Shades of Susan Gray | April 2, 2010

Maps

I love maps.  In fact, I love maps so much, I will even devote some time to writing a blog on them.  I can “read” maps for hours, looking for out-of-the-way little roads that might meander around lakes or through a national forest.  When I read a map, I see a twisty road as an interesting route up a mountain while a straight road has vast vistas of the plains.  When my sister-in-law travelled to San Diego recently, I pulled out one of many road maps I own, asking her if she will have time to visit the Silver Strand Blvd or the Sweetwater Marsh Wildlife refuge I saw tucked away to the south west of the city.  My parents, knowing my love of maps and themselves explorers of the unbeaten path, gave Jim and me for a wedding present the deluxe National Geographic Atlas of the World.  The world was there for us to explore together.

Maps fall into one of three categories:  touristy maps, google maps, and the real maps.  The brightly coloured tourist maps are free at most tourist sites.  For some reason, perhaps thinking I’m spatially challenged when it comes to reading maps, tourist attendants love to draw lines and circles with large felt markers before handing it over to me.  They circle the location where I am and my destination, connecting both with a big fat line.  This map is useless because my explorations have been reduced to a single path rather than holding multiple possibilities.  The next category of map is the google map.  This kind of map also comes with a written description of the drive and provides mileage.  Although these are better than the tourist maps, these maps are not to be trusted.  Google maps are transitory and easily discarded.  They are meant to be thrown away.  In this day of energy conservation, how ecological is that?  The third category is the map to end all maps:  the ‘real’ road/street map, the ones folded up so nicely that they can never be folded that way again; but we still hang on to these substantive maps.  Like any traveler (here I’ll lump myself in with the likes of Cabot, Cartier, or Champlain, all of whom discovered Canada through serendipity), I had to learn this through experience.

My first real falling out with the brightly coloured and deceptively inviting tourist map occurred back in 1988 when my husband and I were cycling from Falmouth to Provincetown on Cape Cod.  Deceived by bright pictographs, I really fell in love with the free tourist maps and even begged the tourist agent not to scrawl on it with her felt marker.   With pristine map attached to the handlebars, we set off, following the bright blue street lines and looking for the handy little cartoony icons printed on the map.  I always allow my husband to carry the gear such as the tent, sleeping bags, and stove.  I, however, carried the map and prided myself on my navigational prowess.  When Jim suggested that we were headed in the wrong direction, I had to give him a short astronomical lesson, pointing out that the sun went down in the west, and, therefore, we must be heading north.  Jim remained silent, digesting my nuggets of knowledge, and I knew then that I was destined to be a teacher.   Hours and many miles later, Jim, who must love me, nicely hinted that this was the second time we passed this particular group of shops.  He had a point.  My faith in these tourist maps was forever lost.

Like the colourful tourist map, the google map (I’ll even throw in the GPS into this condemnation) has a certain allure for the office-chair travelers.  Let me provide a case in point.  James, my office mate, never believes a word I say about my home-town, Regina.  If I mention that Canadians prefer the exhilaration of an ice bar over the too-easy beer garden and that I’ve been to La Bodega’s ice bar in Regina, before I even finish my sentence, he’s emailed his spy on all things “Regina” (DP), googled pictures of it, and previewed a number of restaurant reviews in leading Canadian e-journals.  He’ll also add in the history and the last three owners.  The point of this little digression is to demonstrate that James questions things.  He is an academic in the true sense of the word.  Thus, I was a little surprised when James told our mutual friend Sarah who was planning a Christmas party to use a google map.  For someone who loves researching everything, James showed a remarkable blind faith in google maps that I’d never seen before.  Moreover and even more astonishing, he advised that she write “Just google it!” on the invitations.  Having never lived at an address that google maps has correctly identified, I was a tad leery of this confidence in google.  But I kept my lips sealed.  I didn’t want my friends James and Sarah to think I was a luddite.  They already think I’m a dinosaur who vividly remembers the early 70s, a time before Sarah was born and when James was still in diapers.  The night of the party, my husband Jim and I whipped out the old-fashioned map we keep in our cars and were one of the first arrivers despite being fashionably late.  When James arrived three hours later, bedraggled, parched, and somewhat contrite, he explained that he, relying on google maps, had combed Marquette Heights from end to end looking for Sarah’s street.  I rest my case.

The biggest problem I have with google maps, as well as the tourist maps, is that they do not give the traveler choice.  A real navigator would pull out an old-fashioned map, one with all the streets and highways clearly marked.  With paper maps, the traveler has choice, can expand his/her dimensions on a whim, and can see at a glance the relation to other places in the city, state, or even globe.  Where is Penticton, one may ask, in connection to Peoria?  Could google give the traveler a clear sense of the time and space needed to travel between these two points?  Moreover, what if the traveler, halfway through the journey, decided to take a detour to Palm Springs or Pocatello?  In this age of global this and global that, it just doesn’t make sense to narrow our focus to a few square inches of google map.

If I relied on google or those touristy maps, I would never have been astounded and amazed by some of the out of way places I’ve explored.  I won’t live my life, the google way, travelling on Interstates and staying at Holiday Inns.  Give me an old-fashioned map over any other map, and I will always have the confidence to travel new roads yet have the security of finding my way home.  I’m reminded of what Robert Frost said of his traveler who, most likely with his old-fashioned map in hand, came across two diverging roads in a yellow wood.  Had he relied on google or the tourist map, he would have only one choice.  However, with his old-fashioned street map, he had the confidence to choose the one less travelled.  And that makes all the difference.

   
   
   
   
   
   
   

 

Posted by: Shades of Susan Gray | March 21, 2010

Resisting Closure

This is the preamble my mother’s friend, Annie Janks, told me about a neighbour-friend of hers in Falmouth, Massachusetts.  During World War II, this neighbour-friend was a stunning beauty and also part of the underground French resistance.  The French resistance capitalized on her head-turning looks and on the loneliness of German soldiers patrolling far from home.  Her job was to lure any young German soldier to where her compatriots were hiding.  When the young German was focused on her upturned face, anticipating a kiss from those luscious lips, he would be whacked on the back of the head and his throat cut.  Her job was to be a “bomb-shell” and make these lonely men forget they were fighting a war. 

However, the second part of the story was about one particular German soldier with whom Alene (she needs a name, so I am giving her one) engaged in conversation.  She just needed to lure him to the bushes on the other side of a bridge he was patrolling.  Despite walking with a gorgeous knockout, this young German lad was less keen in flirting with Alene but more in talking about his girlfriend.  The two were in love, he said, and this girl back home was everything to him.  That morning, he had just received a heart-felt letter from his girl whom he missed terribly.  He continued to tell Alene the young lovers’ plans once the war was over.  Just as they were nearing the bush and this young man’s imminent death, Alene turned him around and walked him back to his post on the other side of the bridge.  She left him there, alive and breathing.  And the story is over.

This story, however, has haunted me since Annie told it to me about a quarter of a century ago.  On my romantic side, I am fascinated that this young man, so close to death, had no idea that he was saved by just talking lovingly about his girl whom he missed and cherished. The other German soldiers that night at the farmhouse most likely teased him for not taking advantage of that beautiful French woman when he had the chance.  They most likely mocked him for thinking about his girl back home:  she would never know, they would say.  But this young German would know and he loved his sweetheart.  Further to this line of inquiry, what if the young German lad didn’t live long enough to marry this girl at the end of the war?  What if he lived but she died in the Dresden firestorm?  They would never ever know that their love for one another saved his life when he was stationed in France.  What if she had never written him that letter because the cost of stamps was so dear or what if her letter was lost in the chaos of war?  Would he still dream enough of his girl back home to tell Alene about her?  And if he never told Alene about his girlfriend, he would die.  He lived because he was in love and he was faithful.  What more could one ask of a love story?

My less sentimental side sees this young woman marrying her young soldier-man after the war.  It was a hardscrabble life with not enough to eat and babies on the way.  He would complain about how she kept the little flat and she would complain about his lack of motivation.  They would become bitter with one another, forgetting about those letters she wrote to him during the war.  He would drink too many pilsners and she would become dumpy and sour looking.  Her hair would turn gray and his would fall out.  Maybe they would divorce in the 1960s, but most likely they would stick it out in misery.

This story of the lonely German lad and his nameless girl attracts me perhaps for the same reason it attracted both Alene and Annie.  Like these previous story tellers, I too have been haunted by this brief moment in history, wanting to tell someone else about the serendipitous nature of life and death.  Of all the men Alene led to death, why did she just save this one story to tell?  Of all the stories Annie could tell me, why did she pass this particular one on?  What is it about this story that attracts all three of us?  Is it because we genuinely like happy endings?  I could also wear an academic hat and analyze why women repeat this story.  I can’t imagine my husband, as romantic as they come, telling this haunting tale to his colleagues at work.  Are women just naturally attracted to romance or are we socialized to appreciate love stories?  And does this romance demonstrate women’s brief power over men?  Alene had power over the German soldiers, and the German lass had power over her lover stationed in France.  According to this story, women’s fleeting power is based on physical attraction.  Alene would get nowhere with these young men if she started off the conversation discussing the excitement of cleaning out a tractor’s carburetor or the germination rate of soybeans; and if, for her pièce de résistance, she didn’t wear a blouse revealing cleavage, no solider would have given her the time of day.

For the past twenty-five years, this story has been rattling around in my head.  I want to know what happened to the German lad.  Was he happy after the armistice?  Did he and his girl happily marry as he proposed?  I know what happened to Alene who immigrated to the United States after the war.  She never married, preferring to live quietly in Cape Cod, until her death, an old woman, a few years ago.  I suspect that, for years and years, she had this story rattling around in her head too.

Posted by: Shades of Susan Gray | March 14, 2010

The Feather

One of the last times I visited my mom, she gave me a feather.  This is not unusual on two counts: she loved Canada geese and she was an avid collector, some would call a pack-rat.  In fact, “pack-rat” is a better term for what mom did because she was not a “collector” in the traditional sense.  She did not collect cars, dolls, figurines, bolts of lace, or pottery.  She was a collector of things most people today would find useless.  If it was free, mom seemed to value it more.  She collected pieces of string, used wrapping paper, any plastic and glass container that crossed her threshold, and burned-out flash bulbs.  The flash bulbs she hung on our Christmas trees, along with all the cans decorated to look like Santa Claus and coloured paper chain-rings that were our grade school craft projects.

My mom’s pack-rat tendencies were embarrassing to me when my little friends would come to visit.  I vowed then that I would not have piles of paper and plastic bags, newspapers dating back six months, and music tapes and books piled high like ancient ruins, crumbling under time and dust.  In contrast to the chaos in my home, my young friends lived in pristine splendor.  I could easily imagine velveteen ropes barricading their sterile living rooms from our childish assaults.  In my youthful attempts to emulate my friends’ homes, I would do a major purge of my bedroom twice a year.  My mom, a few steps behind me, would go through my garbage, retrieving things that I discarded.  She would salvage old cassette tapes of me and my pals talking about the type of man we would like to marry when we grew up, old dime-store photo-mat pictures of us mugging at the camera, and birthday cards I received years before.  Yes, my mom was definitely an embarrassment to my youthful sense of decorum.

Over the course of my adulthood and my various needs to purge myself of stuff, I have come across articles about pack-rats that have grabbed my attention.  Basically, the analysis of pack-ratters is that the collectors imbue these things with memories.  A broken flashlight might stimulate memories of a family camping trip.  An old fridge magnet might have been connected to a journal my mom loved reading.  Pack-ratters are afraid that they will forget incidents and moments in their lives if they don’t keep things.  It’s like a scrap-book the size of a house.  Knowing my mom, this made sense.  She collected things because they were her memories.   Ironically, the most cruel disease for her was Alzheimer’s.

Years later, as my mom’s Alzheimer’s progressed, her collecting frenzy increased.  She reached a point when she was incapable of discerning what to collect and what to discard.  In 2004, I had to clean out their packed to the gills, four-bedroom house because they were moving into a small assisted living apartment.  The house was too much for my incapacitated dad and my mom’s failing mind.  Piles of papers and books lined each room like calcium deposits in a kettle.  Think cholesterol-clogging veins and imminent stroke, and I’m the catheter threading through the house, unblocking years of accumulated “stuff.”  At first, I just waded into the thick of it and threw piles of newspapers and magazines into the large industrial-sized garbage bags.  I found pieces of paper and grocery store receipts going back thirty years.  I haven’t begun to describe her collections of cans and packages of food found in the basement.  This was her own Mount Masada stronghold.

At first, I was just chucking this all into the garbage.  Then I turned one receipt over and read a little scrawled limerick written by my younger sister thirty years before.  After that, I would turn every piece of paper over to discover our childish doodles scribbled as we talked hours on the telephone with our girlfriends.  I started recognizing the passage of time:  my sister’s “mongey” doodles to her angst-filled poetry, my niece’s childish stick figures to her character portraits.  Moreover, everywhere were our childish letters to Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and God.  This was archaeology at its best.  I was flooded with history and memories, thanks to my mom who saved this all.  I was also stumped by other gems unearthed in that house.  I would wonder why mom clipped out an article about a man who built looms or about a child who wandered outside in the dead of winter but was miraculously saved from freezing to death at the last minute.  Did my mom know these people?  Did she know the writer of the article?  What memories, I thought, could these hold for my mom.

Psychologists often say that we grow into our parents.  I would like to think that I have become more like my mom over the past few years.  Yes, I have begun, ever so slowly, to collect.  I have saved all the Valentine cards my husband has given me.  I’ve even saved some of my “memento” clothing, favourite dresses from a different era but ones that reminded me of my travels and friends.  Perhaps decades from now, when my great nephew Otis is cleaning out my house, he will stumble upon the feather and wonder what it meant to me.

Posted by: Shades of Susan Gray | March 12, 2010

The Cowboy

This seems rather depressing, to begin my blog with a memory of my dad who died last year; but for me, it’s a celebration of his life.  When my parents died within six months of each other in 2009, a bad year for parents, a door on my life closed.  I’ve been told that people become hoarders when they don’t want to lose connections to the past.  Instead of collecting bread clips or rubber bands, margarine containers or fridge magnets, I want to collect memories.  Thus, here will be a first of some memories I’ll share about my dad to illustrate the complicated man he was.  In short, he was a great teacher but a lousy student.  

Dad was a cowboy deep down.  He loved dogs, horses, and eating his hearty western breakfasts of fried eggs, bacon, and hash browns on Sunday mornings.  He taught us to enjoy camping, building fires, and cooking sludge, he called camp coffee, over an open fire.  He played the harmonica and liked making tools out of bits of wood, bailing wire, and string.  In his den on Regina Avenue, he had pictures of cowboys, with the same saggy mustachios he sported, riding their horses across a dusty and hilly landscape sprinkled with tumbleweeds and brush.  These pictures went with him to the William Albert Personal Care Home, a nursing home.  In his heart, he just wanted to ride his horse over the open range, smoking a pipe and estimating the cost effectiveness of cultivating the grasslands.

When we lived on an acre of land in Pocatello, Idaho, Dad bought a little half Shetland, half Welsh pony who seemed too big for me but too little for Dad. We named him Blueberry, and Dad, always the epitome of self-reliance, designed and built a little pink barn for him.  Dad wanted me to learn to ride Blueberry, but it didn’t take me long to realize that both Blueberry and I were novices at this.  Blueberry didn’t want to be bothered by someone sitting on his back, and I, at 7 years old, didn’t want to push it.  Dad just saw this as an opportunity to solve a problem, which he always did with determination and patience.  For the problem between Blueberry and me, Dad resolved this through repetition.  He would put me on Blueberry who exhibited an athletic disposition to remove me from his back.  Dad would then pick me up off the ground, dust me off, tell me that I was doing fine and other words of encouragement, and then put me right back in the saddle……again and again and again.  Art Hillabold, if anything, was tenacious and persevering.  He just never gave up.  Moreover, he wanted me never to give up either.  After the twentieth tumble from the saddle, both Blueberry and I were less keen on this project of Dad’s.  Mom, watching from the house, decided enough was enough.  She came running out, yelling at Dad that he was going to kill me if he continued. 

He eventually taught me to ride a horse, and Blueberry learned to accept a body on his back.  In my mind’s eye, I still can see Dad riding little Blueberry back from a visit to the mailbox, both of his hands tearing at the envelopes and reading the mail, his feet lazily dragging on the ground while he smoked a pipe.  When Dad wanted my younger sister Nancy and me to take English saddle lessons during his sabbatical leave in Surrey, England, I was ready and I hoped as persevering as he was.  Falling off was not going to stop me because I knew Dad would be there to help me back in the saddle.

These last few years have been painful for me.  I’ve seen both mom and dad slowly disappear, mom with Alzheimer’s and dad physically deteriorating.  Dad became imprisoned in his electric wheelchair and even needed a hoist to move him to his bed, a far cry from riding a horse.  And during this slow deterioration, I’ve wanted so badly to put him back in his saddle.  However, this old cowboy told me last summer he was just plain tired of riding.  This might sound corny, but in my mind’s eye, I would like to envision a younger Dad with wisps of smoke curling up, a dog by his side, and riding his horse under the setting sun, his back to me but scouting the way forward.

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