Saturday, August 27, 2011

Like a rhinestone cowboy ... and a short little Italian guy

I read about Glen Campbell in Rolling Stone last night. I knew he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but I hadn't read much about him in recent years. If you know who Glen Campbell is, or if you care about someone with Alzheimer's, you'll want to pick up a copy of the magazine. (You can't read the article on Rolling Stone's site without a premium-access pass.)

The cause of my dad's death in March was congestive heart disease, but he also had dementia. That diagnosis had caused some slight strife in my family; he had been seeing a doctor who had diagnosed him with Alzheimer's, but to most other health-care professionals, and to some family members, including me, he really didn't fit the criteria.

Everyone, though, was comfortable with the fact that he had experienced some cognitive failure, and other physicians' diagnosis of dementia seemed to be something we all could live with.

I cried as I read about Glen Campbell last night, as so much about his story is so familiar. He's younger than Dad was when Dad began experiencing confusion, but the disease seems to be manifesting itself in much the same way. Campbell still recognizes friends and family members; my dad did as well, till the day he died. But Campbell also obsesses over small things and seems to be imagining problems that aren't really happening. That was my dad, in spades.

The Rolling Stone writer observes and writes about an instance in which Campbell becomes agitated over an air conditioner. He determines that the temperature inside his house is too cold, and then goes searching through the house, loudly and in all the wrong places, for the offending appliance.

His wife mentions that Campbell won't allow himself to be calmed by reassurances that the temperature is fine, and that the air conditioner isn't where he's looking for it. So the rest of the family ignores the chaos occurring upstairs and carries on with the interview.

Our life with Dad was much that way the last couple of years. Most of the time, he was lucid and on point and appropriate in his conversation and behavior. Sometimes, though, he veered so far off into left field that none of us knew how to respond. His wife bore the brunt of the behavior, but my sister and I witnessed much of it as well and tried to help as best we could.

Here's the most challenging thing about dementia: People tell you to ignore the behavior. But when it's your loved one slipping into Whack-a-Doodle Land, that's hard to do. (And I don't intend any offense with that term. As you know if you've cared for or helped care for someone with dementia or Alzheimer's, there are times you have to laugh.)

During Dad's last few months until his last 10 days, he was cared for at a place called Edgewater. As he grew sicker, his dementia seemed to become more pronounced. One day, for example, he became convinced that his wife and my sister had sold his house and were going to move in together and put him in a nursing home. Another day, he was convinced that his dog had died and no one would tell him the truth.

He accused me of hiding all the clocks in the room, then changing the time on them. And when we moved him into Kavanagh House, he sat in a recliner and held court with staff and visitors, telling everyone that his wife had bought the hospice facility for $60,000 and moved everyone into it, which was a "stupid move because none of the rooms are joined together."

And a hallmark of people with Alzheimer's or dementia: As Dad's reality blurred, he seemed to become unable to let go of the things he believed to be true. He hung on to the story about selling the house until the day before he died. At times, he was angry with all of us because of things he believed we had done wrong.

Another aspect of the Campbell story that takes me back: Campbell's daughter says Campbell becomes agitated when a favorite washcloth is folded the wrong way and in the wrong place. I usually was with Dad in the evenings, and I'd help prepare him for bed.

The belongings on his bedside table, especially when he was hospitalized, had to be in a certain order. His bedsheet had to be untucked at the bottom. His pillow had to be fluffed just so. It was nothing for him to call me back into his room four or five times to ask me to move his watch a few centimeters or unfold his blanket just so. When the preparations became especially long, Dad would rub his head and say, "Oh, my God," over and over, or "This isn't right." Those were the especially difficult nights.

What do you do when this is happening to someone you love? You pray the medication works. And when it doesn't, you laugh sometimes because you have to -- and often because you're so exhausted that you're hysterical. And you cry. A lot.

The article says Campbell hasn't yet lost his musical prowess; similarly, my dad certainly didn't relinquish all of his intellect. His acuities slowed, as those of elderly people often do. But in the year before he died, he occasionally solved math problems and conversed rationally about politics and the economic downturn.

According to his family, Campbell hasn't accepted that he's been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Dad never talked about the fact that he had dementia, but he knew something was a little off. He'd say or do something, especially during the times he was hospitalized, then look at me and chuckle. "Why did I do that?" he'd ask.

I remember watching Glen Campbell on TV when I was little, and his song "Wichita Lineman" has always been a favorite of mine. (Shut up -- in the Rolling Stone article, Tom Petty and The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan say it's always been one of their favorites, too. So, ha.) I didn't much care for "Rhinestone Cowboy," his biggest hit, but I respected that the guy was a top-notch musician. (And he was also, to a girl of the '70s, pretty cute. Check out the end of this post.)

So his diagnosis, along with that of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, has been startling. But we'd better get used to the feeling; as our public figures age, we're going to be seeing more and more of them impacted by cognitive impairment. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer’s is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States among people 65 and older.

My family was lucky; my dad's dementia didn't cause him to wander or hurt himself. But when I think back over the last few years, there was nothing sadder than seeing him confused and upset because his brain just wouldn't work the way he wanted it to. In some ways, we lost him, or parts of him, before he died.

I feel for Campbell's family members, and I admire them for coming forward. And I hope these recent high-profile diagnoses will motivate people to open their hearts and checkbooks and support research to cure something that could, before it's all over, rob so many of us of our abilities to do the things we take for granted every day.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What do you mean, no school supplies?

So it occurred to me today that this marks the first year in very, very many that I have not purchased school supplies.

I love school supplies. I love the way they smell. I love the way they look stacked up neatly, with folders at the bottom, then binders, then notebooks, then pencil box, then markers and crayons. I love the sense of promise they convey: "It's a new year! Last year may have sucked, but who cares? Start over! Your folders have horses and hearts and purple bicycles on them; anything is possible."

My kids are still in school, but they're a senior and junior in college now, and for some strange reason, each felt perfectly comfortable going out alone or with friends to buy his or her classroom necessities. I may have been asked to replenish spent money, but my opinion wasn't sought on college-rule-versus-narrow-rule paper or 1 1/2- versus 2-inch binder.

I know my kids, though. Scott's new supplies almost certainly consist of a black spiral notebook, a gray or black binder and a pack of Bic pens. Caroline's undoubtedly include many notebooks and pens in complementary colors, patterned folders, a black binder for chorus, and maybe a set of mechanical pencils. Perhaps she'll throw in a planner or one of those big organizers.

When my kids were little, school-supply shopping was a big deal. We'd grab the list from meet-the-teacher day and head out immediately, spending at least an hour at Target to search for just the right scissors and ruler and Trapper Keeper and Spice Girls or Power Rangers backpack. We'd cap the trip with a lunch at the little restaurant in the Merle Hay Dahl's -- best burgers ever, to this day -- and then we'd go home and organize everything.

And the piles would sit on the living room couch until the day before school, when we'd transfer them to backpacks in anticipation of the rumble of the bus the next morning. And I'd take pictures of the kids every year as they stood at the bus stop, neat and shiny and full of anticipation, with those new backpacks hanging just-so off their right shoulders. For years, Caroline was so small that her bag reached almost to her knees.

This year, they're living in an apartment and a sorority house and spending hundreds of dollars on books. They have to organize themselves, so I'm sure they knew what to buy, supply-wise ... I'm sure they had a list to follow, or at least an email or something. I'm sure their supplies are complete, their backpacks are organized, and they're ready to go. I'm sure they don't need my input...

But maybe I'll just call, just once, and remind them not to forget the Kleenex. In my opinion, the economical three-pack is always best.

Friday, August 19, 2011

So ... what if you woke up in the wrong body?

About three years ago, my friend Karen died, and I ended up coming clean in a blog post about the fact that I had committed a journalistic faux pas – I had become friends with someone about whom I had written articles.

Karen was a school-board member, and during the course of her campaign and her time on the board, we had clicked. We were like-minded and we were night owls, and we found that we enjoyed chatting about things other than the issues of the day. I still maintain that my coverage wasn’t affected by the fact that I liked Karen; I like a lot of people, and I don't like a lot of others, and when any of them have merited articles, I've written about both groups objectively. That’s life in a small town.

Recently, I found myself writing about someone else I really like. We’re not in the same peer group – I’m a generation older than he is -- so you probably won’t see us hanging out. But I’ll certainly end up following the rest of his journey, as he already has impacted my life in much the same way Karen did. That’s one of the great things about being allowed to make at least part of my living as a writer; some stories, like this one, end up making me a better person.

In case you don’t have time to read the story right now, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: I met Chloe when she was in middle school. She was one of my daughter’s classmates – she played drums in the school’s show choirs -- and to my great embarrassment later on, I assumed she was a boy. Now, as an adult who has been diagnosed with gender identity disorder, she’s taking male hormones, preparing for breast-removal surgery, and living life as a man. (And Chloe, now Charlie, really likes the fact that I spent two years assuming he was male.)

Charlie’s story is on the front page of our community paper today. It’s bound to stir some feelings; one person already felt the need to share his belief that the fact that Charlie is changing genders is an “abomination in the eyes of God.” Most, however, have expressed that they sympathize with Charlie and wish him luck on the road ahead. Whatever your opinion about gender reassignment, the story is worth a read – not because it’s mine, but because the humility with which Charlie chooses to live his life is a thing to behold.

Here are just some of the reasons Charlie Poulson is one of my new heroes.
  • When you’re in your 40s, you look at a body you’ve walked around in your whole life and suddenly you don’t know who it belongs to. (Trust me on this.) Imagine waking up every day of your life realizing that your body is not only changing in some not-fun ways, but it’s simply the wrong body. As Cher told David Letterman when discussing her son Chaz, who used to be her daughter, Chastity: “If I woke up as a man, all I’d think of would be, ‘Oh, my God. Get me out of here.’” Charlie has felt that panic every day of his 20 years, and he’s handled his unrest with maturity far beyond his years.

  • Middle school and high school are brutal enough when you basically look like everyone else. Charlie looked like a boy – as I mentioned, I assumed for two years that he was one – so you can imagine the teasing. I suppose you could say, “Well, he should have dressed like a girl, then.” Again, to use the Cher analogy, if I woke up one day with male parts but still felt the way I do now – like a female – I probably wouldn’t want to put on a tie or a pair of basketball shorts.

  • He is unflinchingly nice. During our interview, he told me about some of the abuse he’s endured, and when I asked him how he had responded, he said, “My mom always told me to kill people with kindness. And I’m kind of a peaceful person, so I never really say much.” Not to overdo the analogies, but to me, that attitude is a whole lot more “Christian” than the epithets that have been hurled at Charlie by some known church-goers. That’s a huge lesson for people like me, who tend to become angry at the first sign of injustice. Charlie truly turns the other cheek, and I think that’s pretty rare.

Gender reassignment is a huge deal, and people are bound to be of varying opinions about it. If Charlie were my child and were undergoing surgery, I’d be worried, and his mom, Suzanne, is. But Suzanne also understands this: Charlie is not “choosing” to become a man. I’m no biologist, but there’s a reason he has always identified as male. And if there’s a way to make his insides match his outsides, it certainly seems like the sensible and humane thing to do.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Think the fair starts today? Think again.

Hey, Des Moines. I have a secret.

Everyone thinks the fair starts today, but it doesn't. It actually started yesterday.

I'll explain.

About four or five years ago, some co-workers and I started something that has become a tradition in our office. We had been charged with going to the fair the day before it opened to pick up tickets for our boss, who had planned a department outing for the next afternoon.

We drove to the administration building inside the fairgrounds, bought the tickets, and noticed something: Some vendors were open, and they were hawking their wares. We decided to explore for a bit and were greeted by folks hanging out the front windows of their food stands, asking us to sample things that would go on sale the next day. We gladly obliged them, and we bought a few goodies as well.

We spent our lunch hour walking around the grounds, enjoying corn dogs and lemonade and chocolate-chip cookies. No attractions or buildings had opened, so we didn't feel guilty about entering the grounds for free; really, all we could do was eat. But that was plenty; we three grown women smiled at one another conspiratorially, as if we'd scaled the fence.

The next year, our group grew by one or two. And yesterday, we hooligans, professional women ranging in age from early 30s to early 50s, set out on our covert operation once again.

It was obvious when we drove inside the gates that our secret had leaked out to a few more folks, but no matter -- we remained pretty pleased with ourselves, and we set out to cram as much fun into our hour as we possibly could.

The moral of the story? You're never too old to break the rules. And when you head to the fair, you have to buy a red-velvet funnel cake.

We parked and headed down the main concourse, plotting our attack.

This mini-restaurant, operated by the West Des Moines United Methodist Church, won our business when the proprietor said, "Come on in and sit down -- we'll serve you!"

We made our selections from a varied menu with really reasonable prices. Melissa was hoping for pie.

Amanda chose a pulled-pork meal. Prices for the combos ranged from $7 to  $9 -- not bad at all for the fair!

Our waiter, Isaac, demonstrated some serious customer-service chops to go with his Justin Bieber smile. Thanks, Isaac!

We didn't hit the midway, but it was looking busy.

Due to a strangely large number of things named "Mary" or "Porter" at the fair, our own Mary Porter grabbed quite a few photo ops.


We old-timers remembered the fair train and noted this evidence of its former existence. My kids loved that train.

Dating myself again, I mentioned that rides on the giant slide used to cost a quarter.

Amanda posed next to my very favorite ironic fair sign.  Once again, the Turkey Federation's spokes-turkey appears to be promoting ... cannibalism?

I couldn't resist pointing out the misplaced apostrophe.

These cool little calves were everywhere.

On the way out, we found the holy grail.

The red-velvet funnel cake may have resembled intestines, but it was worth all the hype. 

Thumbs up, funnel-cake guy.  Sssh -- don't share our secret.  See you next year.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Think Facebook is a giant waste of time? Ask Dr. Corn.

I have friends who hate Facebook. Whenever anyone mentions it, they don't even try to hide their disdain, remarking scornfully that they'd never allow people to know so much about their lives.

I respect that, and I'm starting to understand that there are basically only two types of people in the world: people who embrace Facebook and people who think it's a super-colossal waste of time.

Here's why people who think it's a waste of time are wrong.

A little background: I was attracted to Facebook because A. I'm a writer and habitual chronicler of events; B. I think in stream of consciousness, which is a perfect fit for social media; and C. relationships are important to me. Facebook hasn't been a disappointment; I use it to keep up with real-life friends, stay in touch with people I knew long ago, and cultivate new acquaintances with similar interests.

Kent fits into category C. He's not a real-life friend, but I have no doubt that I could show up in Earlham tomorrow -- which I might do, Kent; you never know -- and have a magnificent time traipsing through the town appreciating local history. If any of you watch Pawn Stars, Kent is Rick -- a Renaissance guy who knows something about everything. (And he's also funny and a dog lover, two attributes that make him a "win" in my book.)

So when Kent started a Facebook page called Lost Des Moines, I immediately asked if I could join. I'm a Des Moines-history buff, and I quickly was drawn in by photos posted by Kent and others of places that my father might have known in his younger days, but have since been felled by the wrecking ball. The discussions on the page deal with historic preservation, local buildings of historical significance, and people's memories of those places.

A few days ago, membership in Lost Des Moines began to grow exponentially. No one knew what prompted the spike, but the growth was fun to watch. With each new name came a new memory, and before long, people were having long, spirited conversations about everything from the old Jewish Community Center to long-forgotten ballrooms and amusement parks.

A few people also began talking about the physicians of "old" Des Moines -- the ones many of us baby boomers visited during our formative years. It seemed many on the site had been patients of a Dr. Corn, and they proceeded to talk in flattering terms about the care the gentleman had provided.

Suddenly, a woman who was new to the site popped up and said, "I'm here with Dr. Corn right now. I'm reading all your comments to him, and he's enjoying them so much."

It turned out the woman was the granddaughter of the now-quite-elderly Dr. Corn. Comments immediately turned to "Please tell him hello from Barb, whose broken arm he set in 1958," to "Please give him a hug for me. I'll always remember the way he took such good care of my brother when he was very ill." The granddaughter then responded that Dr. Corn indeed remembered little Susan or Leonard or Peggy, who then were transported back in time for a poignant few minutes.

I'm sure everyone who happened to be in on that conversation ended up feeling warm and fuzzy inside at the thought of a kind old gentleman who had given so much to so many, bolstered late in life by the knowledge that he had made a lasting difference in the lives of the children for whom he cared.

Kent and I chatted briefly -- via Facebook, of course -- after the conversation about Dr. Corn had ended. We agreed that we had witnessed a special moment, and what had transpired was Facebook at its best. And of course I found myself thinking of my dad, who hadn't really understood Facebook but would have so enjoyed the memories sites such as Lost Des Moines can provide.

As those of you who are reading this via Facebook know, the site is so much more than it's often portrayed. Yes, I see posts about so-and-so drinking too much and am drawn sometimes into meaningless conversations about a TV show. But for me, Facebook is about the kind of interaction prompted by my pal Kent when he dreamed up Lost Des Moines.

I have the utmost respect for people who want to guard their privacy; there are times, I'm sure, when I should be a tad more careful with mine. But if those of us on Lost Des Moines the other night had been worried about our privacy, chances are Dr. Corn never would have known how loved he was. In return for a few more nights like that one, my anti-Facebook friends can make fun of me all they want.

My own former pediatrician, Dr. Marion Alberts, who's been a lifelong friend of our family. He's almost 90. Doesn't he look great?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I'm on a bus.

I’ve covered quite a few Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) meetings as of late, and it occurred to me while I was sitting in one the other night that there’s no reason I can’t start taking public transportation to and from work.

I believe in it for any number of reasons, not the least of which being that I’m Charlie Lavia’s daughter and I like to save money. Thanks to the handy calculator on the DART website, I quickly realized I could save upwards of $800 in fuel costs in a year if I jettisoned my car for the bus. That amount easily could purchase a year’s worth of textbooks for one of my kids. Winning.

I don't have small children whose schedules might necessitate that I leave work during the day. I'm no longer helping to care for a sick parent. Logistically, there's no need to have my car downtown. Plus, I'll be having my knee replaced soon; some mornings, walking from my parking ramp to my building is more painful than I like to admit, and DART basically pulls up in front of my office.

Then there’s also the whole carbon-footprint thing. Although taking my 1998 Malibu out of commission isn’t likely to save the planet, no one will miss it. Besides, I worry frequently that my brakes are going to stop working or parts of the car simply are going to begin falling off, so from a peace-of-mind standpoint, leaving the car where it can’t hurt anything is also a plus.

So I pulled up DART’s website and began checking my options. It’s a little tricky, so I needed some help. As luck would have it, the Doyenne of DART happens to sit two aisles from me at the office.

Jen Deutmeyer not only is a bus champion, but she produced a video last year that was the grand-prize winner in DART’s Why I Ride the Bus contest. She scored an iTouch and a cult following. She also really knows her DART. Jen hooked me up with the best routes – there really are a ton of options – and I promised myself I’d just do it.

That was yesterday. Today, I rode the bus.

(Those of you familiar with the Saturday Night Life comedian Andy Samberg also might know his parody song I’m on a Boat. In my head, I’ve changed it to I’m on a Bus, and it’s on a mental loop as I write this. And it’s making me laugh. Anyway…)

I rose a little earlier than normal this morning to make sure I was at the bus stop on time. Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised, though, that of the two routes I can most easily take, I made it to the park-and-ride in time to take the latter of the two.

While I was waiting, I made small talk with another rider – one whom I nearly startled off the bench initially because from the back, he looks like my friend Brent and I greeted him with a loud, “Hey! You ride this bus, too?” Once he recovered his composure, he graciously explained just where the downtown stops were, as they’re not all listed on DART’s map of the route.

Soon, the bus arrived and I climbed on. I showed my company security badge and the driver nodded and pushed a button. Seriously, that’s all that transpired, and the trip was free. (I am not a suck-up, but here’s a shout-out to my employer for a great perk!)

I chose one of the front seats because I tend to fall victim to motion sickness from time to time, and sitting in the back of a vehicle often makes me feel worse. I looked around, smiled stupidly and started munching on the crackers I had brought in case my empty stomach didn’t take well to a lot of starts and stops.

And boy, were there a lot of starts and stops. If you’ve let yourself be deterred from riding the bus because you don't think it will stop close enough to your house, you needn’t worry. Between 86th and Aurora and downtown, we stopped approximately 8,032 times.

(I’m exaggerating, obviously. But suffice it to say these folks don’t want you to have to walk a block farther than you want to, which is something to be appreciated. And also, if you choose an express route, it will include far fewer stops.)

But here’s the thing: Even with all the stops, the commute took exactly as long as it does when I drive my car. DART gets people on and off the vehicles pretty quickly, and besides – the best part! – when we pulled into downtown, the bus dropped me off at the corner of my building. No need for hunting in the ramp for a parking space, walking down the stairs or taking a slow elevator to ground level, and then hoofing it a few more blocks to my office. I was giddy.

(Plus, I have to tell you: I’m a prissy girl, and the bus passed muster. It was clean, the seats were comfortable, and the aisles were wide. I could have used a drink holder, but, hey, I muddled through.)

I walked into the office and I bragged. Then I texted my husband, who – knowing full well that I’m directionally impaired – assumed I’d end up at the zoo. After that, I stuck a post-it on my computer to remind myself to ride the bus home.

There are some days I won’t ride the bus; once or twice a week, I cover meetings or events after work and will have to drive directly to them. But barring anything unusual, I think it’s safe to say that even after one day, I’m a convert.

Like many people, I don’t allow myself a lot of downtime, and riding the bus will force me to take some – 40 minutes’ worth a day, to be exact, and that’s huge. It will be my iPod-listening and blog-reading time, and chances are I may arrive home just a little more relaxed than is typically the case.

Also, I’m not likely, in my lifetime, to do anything huge to make a difference, environmentally speaking. It’s probably safe to say I won’t purchase a hybrid or install solar panels anytime soon. But this small decision I’m making is something, and if more people choose the same option, we could actually make a dent in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions right here at home.

No matter how you look at it, it’s all good. I’m on a bus. And I like it.