Unquiet Meals

I suppose Age has blunted me –or at least made me suspicious of fads, curious about recent phenomena that wear the clothes of certainty, vogues that hitchhike on the backs of something else never meant to carry the weight… But one must not be caught rubbing the poor itch of one’s opinion, to paraphrase Shakespeare. One must seek either corroboration or refutation in equal measure; one must make the time and effort to critically analyze what one would fain discard. So it was with no little frisson of excitement that I read just such an attempt in the BBC News. Gluten allergy, and its social and physiological disguises, was the subject: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37292174

I have never denied the existence of true gluten allergy, Celiac Disease. Its prevalence obviously varies with the group being measured, but it averages to around 1% of the population and is a true auto immune phenomenon where the body detects the presence of –in this case, gluten- and views it as hostile. It then produces some countermeasures –autoantibodies- which, in turn, can have effects on various organs, the small bowel often being the one that results in the diagnosis.

The existence of a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, however, is more controversial. Studies –including the one the BBC reported- seem to vacillate wildly, so I suppose it is merely another example of confirmation bias as to which one you choose to believe. Me? I remain skeptical, firmly encamped in the valley floor between the two hostile mountains that glare and threaten each other from a safe distance. And if some of my patients choose to avoid gluten in their diets, so be it -I’m an obstetrician/gynaecologist, not a dietary immunologist. But sometimes my concerns peek above the mischievous gluten dust.

You know, you can’t tell the gluten-free apostles from the gluten abusers in the average waiting room. I can’t, anyway. Geraldine looked, well, normal as she sat slouched in her chair in the corner. Although my day sheet said she was in her thirties, my eyes said forties. Her blond hair was streaked with silver –although nowadays that may just be a whim- but her face was folded into little wrinkles like previously crumpled paper that had been hurriedly smoothed. She was dressed in black jeans that belied any definite attempt at ironing for the appointment, and her oversized grey sweatshirt matched her face for creases. The very idea of needing to avoid gluten apostasy did not spring unbidden to mind, I have to admit.

And yet the sullen face that watched me as I extended my hand in greeting did suggest that Geraldine was unhappy with her referral. In my practice, this is usually an indication that the patient was hoping that, contrary to what they Googled, I would still turn out to be a female. Although I am quick to disavow them of this, I find it still takes a few minutes more to gain their trust.

Once she had reslouched herself in a decidedly less comfortable seat in my office, I brought up the note from her doctor on my computer screen. It was a one word note –not terribly unusual from this particular GP, but not terribly helpful, either: ‘IMPOSSIBLE’ it said in bolded and underlined capital letters –rather striking, really.

“So, Geraldine,” I said, feeling my way along my words, “how can I help you?”

She glared at me for a moment, and then withdrew her eyes to the safety of her lap. “Didn’t my GP tell you?” It was at once hostile yet tinged with resignation –as if the GP was simply passing a rather complicated buck onwards. As if I were only one more stop on the journey.

Her answer was so uncomfortable it caught me unprepared. “Well…”

“He just wanted to get rid of me…” she said, venom dripping from the corners of her mouth at first. But she thought about it for a moment and neutralized her face. “He never listens, anyway.”

I tried to smile –sometimes it works. “Listen to what, Geraldine?”

Her eyes rose quickly from her jeans, like two birds flushed from a bush. “He doesn’t believe in gluten,” she said, a little too quietly for me to judge the temperature of the insinuation.

“How do you mean?” I walked right into it.

The cage door of her eyes flew open, and her mouth unlocked like Pandora’s box. “He refuses to believe that gluten is alive and flourishing in the world…” I’d heard similar words from religious acolytes proselytizing on street corners; maybe gluten was now another proxy for the devil.

“So…” I said, but before I could finish my thought –well, actually before I could even develop one, she interrupted.

“He doesn’t believe me. For years I was plagued with diarrhea and bloating so he sent me to a GI doctor who tested me but couldn’t find anything. All she could say was that it wasn’t Celiac Disease.” She stopped for air. “And now, whatever I tell my GP he just shrugs and says, it’s not the gluten.”

I pretended to type something on my computer screen, but I was just doodling.

“Anyway, I decided to cut out gluten in my diet, and the bloating stopped. The diarrhea stopped… But, then I started…” she added cryptically.

“Started what?” It wasn’t the most gynaecologically phrased question of which I am capable, I admit, but it was all I could think of in the moment.

Once again her face contracted like an animal about to spring. Or flee… “Started having sex!” she said, italicizing the last word. And then, mercifully, before I could gather my thoughts about why anything she’d had to say had anything to do with sex, she explained. “You can’t have sex when you’re bloated all the time, doctor! You can’t have sex when at any moment you might have to get up to go to the toilet!”

Okay, call me naïve, but I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before. It was a different world out there. “But eliminating the gluten in your diet helped, you said.”

She nodded her head vigorously. “I was a new woman.” She stared disconsolately out the window behind me for a second or two. “So I decided I’d better up my birth control method. I hate condoms and diaphragms… and I refuse to wear an IDU…”

“An IUD, you mean?” I said, attempting a gentle correction, but her eyes tried to ravage my face immediately.

“Whatever! So my GP put me on the pill!” she said, italics and contempt now mixing freely with the original venom on her lips.

“And…?”

“And I got bloating again, doctor!” Her eyes executed a predator roll somewhere near the ceiling before heading for me again. “So I did some computer research and discovered that the pills contained lactose and cellulose as fillers…” She folded her arms across her chest and waited to see what I thought of that.

“You’re wondering if they are code words for gluten, Geraldine?”

“Wondering?” she said between clenched teeth, the word only barely able to squeak through at the last moment. “Wondering?” she repeated more loudly and forcefully, articulating each syllable as if maybe I hadn’t heard her correctly the first time. “Are you another gluten atheist, doctor?” she asked scornfully.

“No, gluten exists, Geraldine,” I said, conscious of falling into her religious idiom. “But so do common side effects of the birth control pill.”

She tilted her head like a cat figuring out the best way to attack the mouse. “Nope, I know this was the same kind of bloating I got with the gluten.” Her fists clenched, daring me to contradict that.

But there was something about her face… “How long did you take the pill?”

She shrugged and then played around with her eyes, uncertain where to roost them. “A month maybe… And then I took them on and off for a while to see if they made a difference.”

“And…?”

Another shrug. “And yes, stopping them got rid of the bloating for a while.” She stopped and decided to stare at me. “And then it came back, even though I wasn’t taking them.” She took a deep breath and then sat up straighter on her chair. “I asked my GP if it could be some residual effects of the gluten and he decided to send me to you.”

“When was your last period, Geraldine?” Common things are commonest, eh?

A smile managed to crinkle its way onto her lips, and her eyes softened like sponges in water. Her expression turned almost mischievous. “I thought you’d never ask, doctor.” Even her voice, now, was pleasant.

“You’re pregnant?”

She nodded happily. “And it’s going to be a gluten-free pregnancy…” And then as a concession, “Is that all right with you?”

I smiled and nodded. No matter what I said, she’d do it anyway, so I thought it’d be safer to do it under supervision. “I’ll send you to a dietician to help you choose the proper foods for the pregnancy.”

She rolled her eyes again –but this time it looked more like a victory role. “Sorry about the theatrics, doctor –I just had to be sure where you stood on all this.” And then her face fell, if only just for a second. “Funny,” she added, “I thought you’d be more of a challenge…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Unfallen Yellow Leaf

Age, with his stealing steps, hath clawed me in his clutch,’ as the gravedigger in Hamlet says. I’m not so sure I agree –he was speaking about a skull, after all- but I have to admit there are times when I do feel old, and shipped ‘into the land as if I had never been such’; when I do wonder if whatever I have done has gone as unappreciated as a shadow from the moon, as unnoticed as an owl in the night.

I used to think that ‘Aged’ was just a word –but an adjective, not a noun; a descriptor rather than a described -somebody else, in other words… And that makes a difference, even when it is not mentioned in your CV but, rather, implied in the later stages of your career. I prefer to see the years as a kind of parliament where habits, and opinions and experience, all cohabit equitably, calmly debating the memories they were each elected to serve, sifting through them, perhaps, to decide if any merit publication.

And I’m sure there are some memories out there where my face is almost discernible in the background; where at least my voice was recognizable at the time. ‘What you lose as you age is witnesses, the ones that watched from early on and cared, like your own little grandstand’, John Updike wrote in one of his ‘Rabbit’ novels. He’s right, of course –and yet… Sometimes it can happen that you forget the very ones that watched from early on; you forget they cared.

Janice sat giggling in the corner of the waiting room, watching a little child toddle across the room towards her, his legs bowed around bulging diapers, his progress uncertain but determined. I could see her eyes from the reception desk; they glowed with excitement and her head seemed to bob in time to every tottering step. Her entire face became a smile, an expectation living vicariously as the little boy approached, followed closely by his beaming mother.

The consultation request from her GP said she had been referred for antenatal care -as if the rapture in her eyes, and the glow on her cheeks could be mistaken for anything else. Some people wear their pregnancies like jewels. It’s why I love obstetrics.

As I walked across the floor to greet her, she suddenly jumped up and extended her hand. For some reason I had the impression that she wanted to hug me, and would have under different circumstances. Not that I don’t enjoy being hugged, but it did seem unusual from someone I’d never met before. Pregnancy can be an unpredictable gem, though, and I have learned to appreciate its various rewards over the years.

“I’m so happy to finally meet you, doctor!” she bubbled as we headed down the little corridor to my office. “Pregnancy opens so many doors,” she added, smiling at nothing in particular with her eyes.

Indeed, she spoke as much with her eyes as with her mouth as she glanced around the room like a tourist in Paris. They pointed like children in front of each picture hanging on the walls, flitting from pictures to plants and back to pictures again -excited hummingbirds. They finally came to rest on a little terracotta begging lady I’d placed on an oak table in the corner. Pennies dripped from her little bowl, mute testaments to her longevity in the office.

“Where on earth did you get the pennies?” Janice whispered, this time rolling her eyes.

I had to shrug; it was a long story.

“I Googled you before I came, of course, and all your patients seem to mention the begging bowl… Now I see why,” she added shaking her head with what I took to be admiring disbelief.

“And there’s the carving of the woman holding the child and hiding behind the leaves!” she said, excitedly pointing to the little, pot-bound Areca plant on my desk. I was beginning to feel a bit like an employee at a Disney resort.

But then she calmed a little and instructed her eyes to leave the office thermals they soared and perch on my face. I could actually feel them, heavy on my skin, their prey firmly captured. It was almost as if I should understand that they had come back to roost; that mine was the aerie they had once called home. And throughout that first visit, I thought I felt her disappointment –a father finally seen after many years away, that no longer recognizes his child. I could sense a hope for reminiscence, a need for demonstrating familiarity, sharing secrets I couldn’t possibly possess.

Indeed, I got to know her quite well in that pregnancy, and the initial expectation of acknowledgment she had worn, soon blended imperceptibly into an easy friendship. Who once were strangers, now were allies in the weeks, then days, before delivery. But there was always something in the background that I sensed she was disappointed I hadn’t recognized. Something she was now holding as a surprise; something I should have known from the start.

And then, a week before her dates predicted she should deliver, I saw her sitting in the waiting room with an older woman. She’d told me her mother was flying in for the delivery and seemed excited that I was finally going to meet her. I could even feel the italics in the word.

I saw the two of them whispering excitedly in the corner seats Janice always chose, glancing secretly at me as I greeted other patients with earlier appointments. I thought I heard them snickering once or twice, but sometimes people do that when they’re nervous.

They both stood up and glanced mischievously at each other when I approached them. Her mother was a short matronly woman with greying hair that was precariously balanced on top of her head like a silver hay-stack. Her face, though wrinkled, held a pair of familiar eyes that strained at their cage doors just waiting for liberation.

It’s an interesting thing about faces: no matter how much they change, they stay the same… Or is it just the eyes –roses by any other name…?

The waiting room by then was empty, and there was nothing to stop Denise from hugging me, followed, as if on cue, by her daughter.

“So now do you recognize my daughter?” she said, her face an imp, her eyes laughing silently as they flew towards me.

“She’s changed a bit…” I stammered, still flustered by the secret, and admittedly a little embarrassed at being old enough to deliver a patient I had already delivered so many years before…

 

 

 

As I Age

As I age, it becomes increasingly clear to me that Life is far more complicated than I could ever have suspected. It is like a stew where I keep finding new ingredients –some to my liking, and some… Well, let’s just characterize them as unexpected -mysterious strangers that surface from time to time, wreak havoc, then disappear again like shadows on a moonless night.

Social movements are often like that –or, rather, social solutions. Society changes over time and it has been the fashion of late, to see this as an evolutionary adaptation to underlying conditions –the slow but steady metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly. And yet, sometimes the change is more abrupt -a mutation- and we are forced to deal with the consequences. When things around us change, we attempt to keep up –or at least, like the Red Queen in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, find ourselves running faster and faster to stay in the same place.

And one manifestation of this is the need to preserve a thin weft of values as a template during the inchoate and often thread-bare interregnum. I’m thinking, of course, about the age-old philosophical conundrum of whether we should tolerate the intolerant –and if so, then how? And at what price the compromise? One example from many: the need to establish special female-only transportation in the city of Zhengzhou in eastern China to help women feel safe from sexual harassment. To guard them. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-36169029  Of course, the problem is by no means unique to China -other countries have discovered the same need and arrived at similar solutions.

But it seems to me that the issue is far more complex than these solutions might suggest. This gender issue, in some ways is not dissimilar to the racial problems that surfaced so violently in the last century in America. To think that having different buses for people of colour would salve the problem was proven to be naïve, and in itself discriminatory.

It comes down to the difference between toleration and acceptance: putting up with something that might not actually be approved of –enduring it: ‘toleration is directed by an agent toward something perceived as negative. It would be odd to say, for example, that someone has a high tolerance for pleasure’; versus  Acceptance: acknowledging and welcoming something as itself; permission versus approval. A power struggle either deferred, or shared.

To equivocate for a moment, should we tolerate mere tolerance, or accept it…? As an interim solution, of course. In other words, is it better to have the segregated buses for women, say, than groping and intimidation on more inclusive public transit? To say that there should not be sexual harassment is all well and good, but it ignores the present reality –there is, and to ignore it would therefore be akin to tolerating it. So are we  trapped in a never-ending game of chase-your-tail, forever condemned to wander the Mobius strip looking for an exit?

Perhaps it might be helpful to distinguish the component parts of the issue (I have adapted some principles from the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/tolerati/#SH4a).  It seems to me that there is a difference between the more superficial and emotional response to whatever is being tolerated (Let’s call this the Reactive Stage) –the need to separate the aggrieved from the aggressor, for example- and the Rational Stage: the more dispassionate and reasoned analysis of the problem –if indeed such an analysis is feasible, or could even be rationally justified. In other words, on what grounds does the prejudice in question continue to exist? Is it remediable, or inevitable? Should we be forced to retreat behind our own societal boundaries and accept the relativistic excuses proffered that we simply can’t superimpose our own values on those who are not like us? That we, in fact, do not understand –nor likely ever will, since we are other?

Or, closer to home, can we ever hope to change attitudes such as disrespect and insensitivity to aspects of personal autonomy that have been entrenched –and indeed accepted- for countless unquestioning generations -that, until recently, were not even considered problems requiring solutions?

Well, societies do alter as time and members change; I’m not sure we could characterize the alterations as necessarily evolutionary, or teleologically driven, but certainly the initial reactive and then the more rational stages can often be discerned. The societal attitudes towards Gay rights, for example, have undergone major shifts within the past few years –even the initial toleration, which was rare in past decades, is now remodelling itself as acceptance.

So what -if anything- has Age taught me? What has the passage of years and the successive unfolding of events disclosed? Well, it has become clear that in the long run, our enemies become our friends; that we seek and find compromises satisfactory to each –bargains that in due course cease to be seen as concessions by either party, but rather as amicable balance; that Force only suppresses while it is being applied; and that discussion is inevitable and infinitely preferable to confrontation. We may not be able to evince our much-touted rationality in all things, but we are all eventually susceptible –amenable even- to accommodation.

Omnia vincit amor, I suppose.

 

 

Unregarded Age in Corners Thrown

I worry too much; I didn’t used to, but it kind of crept up on me along with my aches and pains over the years. Age is something that has always been fraught with tensions as we stumble through the calendar first wanting more, then less and then, I suppose, trying to forget about it altogether -ignore it when it clearly needs to be addressed. Demands recognition.

Age –especially old age- is one of those concepts that is very much contextually driven. Age-driven, in fact: where one sits on the spectrum very much influences age perception. An elder would live many fewer years if it is a teenager, rather than a senior who is canvassed.

But a good case can be made that age is not a mono-dimensional concept. Chronology does not come in one flavour; not all eighty year olds, say, are tied to the same constraints. Age might better be considered as a quartet with the other members consisting of Biological –we all age differently, Psychological –some aged people retain their faculties better than others, and Social –some elderly people, whether by fiat, or necessity, no longer work outside their homes and are no longer as connected to social networks. Indeed, in times past, ‘old’ might well have been related to usefulness rather than chronology.

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34465190

So there we have it: usefulness. Purpose! Self-worth. All contingent concepts to be sure. And retirement, despite the positive connotations that Society has tried to foist upon it, is still a denouement –however it is rationalized. However many cosmetics are applied. Wallpaper may fool strangers, but it is still wallpaper…

So, you see why I worry. It is not that there might not be new opportunities available in retirement -new venues- but simply the realization that it is a final chapter of a thoroughly read book. An epilogue.

But I digress. It is something of a fool’s errand to attempt to encapsulate Retirement under one banner. It is a chapter as yet unprinted, and at best only sketchily conceived. There are also portions of it written, even if unwittingly, by someone else.

There is a store I visit every so often to buy dog food. It is a large and perhaps corporately criticized chain, but my dog is fussy and became addicted when she was only a puppy to a brand only they seem to offer. To tell the truth, I enjoy the store; I enjoy wandering the aisles and feeling -what? – pride at resisting things I do not need and casting a cold eye on those I do not want. It is a juvenile thing, I suppose, but maybe that’s the point: a recapitulation of past temptations seen through different eyes. Different years…

But on my way in, I saw a face that seemed familiar. It wore the uniform of the store and yet it seemed out of place somehow. A bush growing in a patch of vegetables –or more aptly, perhaps, a tree standing all alone in the middle of a field of wheat. Staid and stolid, watching, bemused, the tender stalks waving frenetically around her feet.

It was not so much her age that separated her from those around her as her composure, her calmness in the Storm of Store. In the eye of the hurricane of shoppers intent on their own missions, her smile was like a shrine erected at the doorway, a refuge offered, but seldom taken. Seldom noticed: the store was not a temple –just another place to visit when the need arose, a series of shelves to inspect. There were no sacred places here, no altars, no need to reflect on the meaning of it all. The store fulfilled a function, not a curb-side meditation.

I have to admit, the face was so unexpected, so completely out of context that I passed it by with barely a thought, although I did stop halfway down a nameless aisle and wonder why. And it was there that it –she– caught up with me.

“Doctor?” she asked tentatively, clearly uncertain from behind at least, that it was me. And when I turned to face the voice I remembered somewhat shakily from the past, she smiled broadly. I could see it was all she could do to refrain from hugging me; instead, she proffered a bony hand, its skin replete with veins and the brown patches of age.

“Doris!” I somehow managed to retrieve the name from a long closed memory drawer -although not without an awkward pause because it was not the Doris I remembered, but an older, frailer model. Doris had been well into her seventies when I had last seen her in consultation but this face, this figure, was a worn and crumpled copy of that older woman I had once filed away.

Her smile looked painful it was so wide and welcoming, but it was her eyes that immediately captivated me. Like delicate pale blue figurines trapped behind the glass of an old cabinet, they begged for release, and when she opened their cages they flew to my face and rested there. “It’s so nice to see you again, doctor,” she said with her joy so evident I was almost taken aback.

Her frailty dissolved as I watched, and the younger Doris emerged as if it had been hiding all the while. I remembered her now as the vibrant woman who had quoted poetry to me when I was trying to take her history. Who had dismissed the referral from her GP as ‘misguided over-concern’ from a young doctor uncomfortable in dealing with a patient older than his grandmother. And as a result she had brokered the compromise of seeing an older specialist. When I also agreed that she really had no cause for concern, she’d bonded with me and even showed up at the office the next week with flowers. I suppose we all like our judgements to be validated.

But on that occasion it had led to a discussion of age, and whether or not to succumb. Whether, as Dylan Thomas had written, to go gentle into that good night. Or to… Rage against the dying of the light. She most emphatically was with Thomas, whereas I, in an uncharacteristic disclosure, had expressed uncertainty as to whether with identity obscured and purpose thwarted, I would be forced to go gentle into whatever the good night hid in retirement.

“Nonsense!” I still remembered her saying that, her face fierce, her eyes locked on mine. “Is ‘Doctor’ your last name? Age and function do not change who you are –just what you do…” Then her expression softened and her eyes unlocked from me and twinkled when they had returned to her face. She got up from her chair with an enigmatic smile and turned to me as she was walking out of the room. “Do not become what Shakespeare called Unregarded age in corners thrown. I would be very disappointed.”

I took a long hard look at her, standing in the aisle with her uniform proudly displayed and I smiled. “You’ve certainly taken your own advice, Doris. Not too many people your age would have chosen your path. You look happy.”

“Have you ever read any Robert Frost?” she asked after observing me quietly for a moment.

I nodded, suspecting what was to come.

She closed her eyes and a beatific expression emerged as if she were about to pray.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

There are forks in every road. Maybe she was praying -praying for me…

A Gift of Age

Is philosophy a reward of age, or is age itself a gift that metaphysics merely opens: Weltanschauung? Is it just that there is a time when thoughts flow along different and unaccustomed neurons? Or are they maybe shunted to the diminishing residua of nerve cells that are still firing? I ask myself these questions sometimes when night closes in and stimuli flee. At times like this, I wonder if the weight of years are more hindrance than benefit. Less a present, more a penalty.

When viewed from outside the prevailing ethos, age –especially its accumulation- is a gift. A bonus on the journey from which only the very young think they are exempt. And despite the mounting detritus of discarded cells and greying hair, it is a book whose pages, although well-thumbed and sometimes soiled with regret and torn by mistakes, are nevertheless extant, and readable. They are stories told without a plot and written, often, for the author with little hope or even desire for publication.

And yet, congratulations are sometimes lip-serviced  -the words mere decoys to disguise a different meaning: better you than me. In underestimating the years attained, the truth is seldom spoken except casually, as a joke –retractable, and yet echoing uneasily in the room long after it is uttered. Age is a gift, and yet shoddily packaged, the ribbon askew and poorly tied, the paper faded and rumpled with constant handling. Still, it is something at least… A recognition if nothing else.

But I’m making aging sound like night thoughts: a punishment rather than the achievement that it is.

We were talking about this, a patient and I, when she came in for a renewal of a hormonal therapy that helped her cope with one of the gendered ravages of her wealth of years.

“The young just don’t seem very thankful for what we’ve done for them, do they?” she said with a maudlin sigh when the subject came up.

I sat back as well as I could in my creaking chair, and smiled that gently exasperated smile that old folks are allowed. “But we look back; they look forward, don’t you think? Retrospective analysis is the domain of the experienced. Why do you think we have memories?”

“I suppose,” she said shrugging her shoulders in polite acknowledgement of a point with which she was evidently not in complete agreement. “We always seem to criticize generations other than our own when they do things differently, don’t we?”

I nodded. “But if each generation didn’t change a little, we’d probably still be chipping away with stone axes…”

A tiny smile crept onto her lips in spite of her attempt to remain pessimistic. “Speaking of the youth looking forward, I remember thinking of that when I had my first child. You probably don’t remember, but I had a rough pregnancy –high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, and then Melissa not growing as fast as she should in the womb…”

I actually did remember. “She was born prematurely – I induced labour about 34 weeks gestation or so, didn’t I? I recall being rather worried…”

Her face lit up with the shared experience, but her eyes stared far off into the past. “I remember thinking that she should be so thankful she was born. So thankful she was healthy.” I nodded again. “Anyway, a friend who came to see me while I was still in the hospital said that as well as getting presents on her own birthday, Melissa should give me a gift each time. A celebration of how lucky she was.”

I sat up straighter on my chair. “What a great idea, Melanie. And..?”

Her eyes twinkled at me. “Yup –all three of my kids. It’s a sort of family tradition now. Some of their friends are trying it as well, they tell me.”

The idea struck me as terribly innovative. Maybe others had done it, but I hadn’t heard about it. “Think it’ll catch on?”

She shrugged. “It’d be sort of like an accessory nipple in a way don’t you think?  I mean, I suppose that’s what Mother’s Day is for…”

I thought about it for a minute. “Mother’s Day is a bit generic, though. A child’s birthday is unique -an acknowledgement of its own presence in the world… and all because of its mother. It’s not a national day, it’s a personal day. And that’s what makes it so special.”

She stared at her hands she’d folded in her lap and was silent for a moment. We were both quiet. “Why do we think about these things more as we get older?” she said finally, breaking the silence almost reluctantly. “Or is it just me?”

I shook my head slowly. Absently. I was also lost in my own questions. She was right; it did seem to matter more nowadays that we poked around in the past, stirring the embers. But why? Did we really need the fire? The heat? The light? Were we awakening memories, or searching for something else? Looking, perhaps, for ourselves..? As if in the ashes of the dying fire there were patterns. Clues which, if properly mixed, could tell us where we, the lighters of the fire, had gone.

I could feel Melanie staring at me. “I can see you rummaging around in there, doctor,” her voice said, rustling through the room and bursting past the opaque curtain my eyes had drawn across it. “Come out again. I still need you…”

I had forgotten to write her the prescription for more hormones, yet somehow I only heard the words ‘I still need you’. But they were enough. I suddenly realized that the most satisfying gift of all, the most welcome treasure of age, was presence, not presents. And despite anything else that might go amiss, I was needed. Isn’t this what we all work for? When all is said and done, does anything else really matter?

Age Prejudice

I suppose I should have seen it coming. I suppose I should have laid down firmer tracks, taken a more trodden path. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so influenced by Robert Frost’s poem, the Road Not Taken. But I was… ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.’ Well, at least I think I did -I didn’t mean to, or anything; it’s just something that, as I look back through the years, turned out that way.

All our paths are unique, to be sure, and it is likely the conceit of many of us to think that we, alone, have chosen singularities for ourselves –things, if not incomparable, then at least extraordinary: signatures for which only we could have been responsible.

So it is with some dismay that I came across a BBC News article describing a paper by William von Hippel, a professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland, in Australia in which he suggests that ‘although many people remain unprejudiced throughout their lives, older adults have a tendency to be more prejudiced than their younger counterparts.http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33523313

Older folks? Now wait a minute… As someone who did not suspect his way of life had ‘fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf’, I feel almost blind-sided. Of course I didn’t see Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman coming either. I have been a life-long admirer of Atticus Finch –someone whose name I even bestowed upon a cat I once had- and Lee’s previous book To Kill A Mockingbird was always a beacon in troubled waters for me. Something that let me believe that we were more than our fists. That we could, if we chose, rise above the curses and anger that so frequently filled our streets. But even her older Atticus slipped beneath those waves it seems…

So is this how the path to maturity -the grinding road to wisdom- ends? An abnegation of all the tolerance that we have learned to espouse? An abrogation of all those principles we fought so hard to enshrine in law? A foretaste of the dark night of the soul that lurks, still hidden, behind the shadowed corners of our ever-increasing ages?

In fairness, if you read the original article in Psychological Science https://www2.psy.uq.edu.au/~uqwvonhi/S.vH.R.PS.09.pdf it attempts to frame the problem as a sort of neurologic deficit, suggesting –that age differences in implicit racial prejudice may be due to age-related deficits in inhibitory ability- perhaps absolving us elders of ultimate responsibility. As in dementia, it’s not our fault. Certainly not our wish… Some things, like grey hair or wrinkles, are merely part of the geography of age the trail runs through. But is increasing prejudice a town along the way, or a detour we didn’t have to take? A ghost town, sporting a few boarded up stores and nobody we recognize on the streets? A place we visited years ago, then left because we didn’t feel at home despite the friends we made?

The BBC report neatly summarizes von Hippel’s neurological hypothesis: The frontal lobes are the last part of the brain to develop as we progress through childhood and adolescence, and the first part of the brain to atrophy as we age. Atrophy of the frontal lobes does not diminish intelligence, but it degrades brain areas responsible for inhibiting irrelevant or inappropriate thoughts. Research suggests that this is why older adults have greater difficulty finding the word they’re looking for – and why there is a greater likelihood of them voicing ideas they would have previously suppressed.

Whoaa! I’m not sure I like that… I’ve always had irrelevant and probably inappropriate thoughts. I’ve always been a loose cannon. And now, I suppose, I should be worried that there is a threshold I might some day cross in which my age would shift me from being considered merely eccentric to a diagnosis of mild dementia –frontal lobe atrophy, no less- by default. Or maybe I should have worried about those mysterious frontal lobes all along –maybe I got a damaged pair from the outset.

Hmm, and I always figured it was the result of getting lost on that less-travelled road. It was, after all, ‘grassy and wanted wear’…

The Empathy of Age

I am intrigued by the concept of empathy. Variously defined as caring, psychological identification, or even sharing another person’s feelings, it is nevertheless a quality incumbent upon those of us in the health profession in whatever capacity.

Empathy is a word that has, in some minds, become synonymous with other altruistic traits such as sympathy, compassion, or even pity, but it is broader than those -and perhaps that is what makes it so valuable -so unique as a descriptor. Sympathy, for example, is more restricted in emphasis: more of a feeling of concern for another who is in need; compassion, on the other hand is what we may feel when another requires our help –a motivator.

Empathy encompasses these, and more. I like the definition in Wikipedia: Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference.

But is empathy something like a genetic gift? Something that pushes those who possess it to self-select into the helping professions? Or is it more like courage: you don’t know if you have it until it becomes necessary?

No, apparently it can be taught –although I must say I must have missed that lecture in medical school because, along with things like ethics and cultural safety, it was an assumed quantity. If you were going to be a doctor, that meant you had it… But, like St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of Time, it was an entity that was only definable when you didn’t try -or the philosopher Krishnamurti’s objection to naming God, because it confined the concept…

Over the years, though, I have tried to confine it –or at least experience its various manifestations. And although these are no doubt legion, I am still thirsty. Readers of these essays have perhaps already had their fill of my insatiable insistence on the art of listening before speaking (For example: https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/when-silence-is-golden/ ) But I’m afraid there was yet another news article that caught my eye: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33287727  and I thought I’d try it out at the first opportunity. I’m always looking for new tricks.

Radical listening –that sounded easy. And familiar: “…be present to what’s really going on within – to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing at that very moment” and, in practice, “Let people have their say, hold back from interrupting and even reflect back what they’ve told you so they knew you were really listening.” Perhaps that’s what I have been doing all along, but not consciously aware of it, though. Or maybe not –maybe all doctors think they listen, but possibly what we are actually listening to is ourselves –our prepared judgements, our sure and certain feeling that we have the answers. Or, at least an answer… Science uses inductive methods: start with the data and then establish a theory that seems to fit. But maybe, despite our protestations to the contrary, we sometimes resort to a type of deductive reasoning: start with a theory and then make the data fit -or at least search around until we find some that do. Because if we don’t have an answer… what good are we?

Time for awareness. I thought I’d start with someone with a relatively common problem –a non-gendered one so I could more easily slip into their shoes, as it were. I scanned my list of patients for the day but none seemed suitable. I simply could not easily cohabit a mind filled with fibroids or endometriosis.

Loren was different. A woman with persisting hot flushes seemed initially excludable from my naïvely chosen criteria, and yet it soon became apparent that the hot flushes were a sort of proxy. She was a young looking 62 with barely a wrinkle on her face. Fashionably thin and elegantly dressed, she seemed to have ignored the years that have exiled so many others -stranded them, as it were, on a foreign, uninviting coast. No, Loren was a professor at one of the universities here in the city, and much in demand both for her human rights advocacy and her several books on the subject that seemed to be quoted whenever federal immigration policies were in the news.

“I get these hot feelings in the most unfortunate circumstances, doctor. They usually occur when I’m in a social situation where my reaction to them would be noticeable –giving a lecture, for example. Or an interview. I’ve never embarrassed easily, but if some commentator manages it, I find myself almost overwhelmed by a need to wipe my forhead –not a sign of strength.”

She paused, no doubt waiting to judge my reaction as to whether that was a common feature. Mentally rubbing my hands and determined to try my new tricks, I smiled reassuringly. “So these hot flushes occur in social situations where to acknowledge them would be awkward..?”

She nodded, and then as if she’d been given permission to speak again: “I’m worried, frankly. I never used to be like this.” She considered it briefly, and her eyes turned inward for a moment. “I’m beginning to see it as a type of physiological dementia –a sort of bodily facsimile… an early protoype of things to come…”

The thought seemed to bother her and she studied my face for a refutation. “I can see you’re worried, Loren,” I replied slowly. “I’ve never heard hot flushes described as a type of nascent dementia, though.” Good; I was proud of that succinct encapsulation of her thoughts and looked at her contentedly. This wasn’t so hard.

She sighed, but I wasn’t sure whether it was out of satisfaction at finally being heard, or frustration. “And words don’t come as easily as they used to any more. I’ve been blaming it on the hot flushes because the two seem… coeval.” She glanced at me, her eyes frightened birds huddling in their cages. “Like just now –I couldn’t think of another word that meant ‘at the same time’ quickly enough, so I substituted ‘coeval’…”

Another long pause; I wondered whether this was the time to reiterate –the word ‘regurgitate’ entered my head and I almost smiled, but her face looked so anguished I decided to go for it. “Words don’t come easily anymore –and you blame it on your hot flushes… I like the word ‘coeval’ I have to say.” I blushed at my amateurish attempt at precis this time…

She didn’t sigh this time, but I could tell her eyes were about to leave their nest. “I suppose all of us experience this after a certain age…” She diverted her attention to the picture of a peasant woman leading a horse that hung on the opposite wall. “But words have been my world, and their loss –or at least their current drying up to a trickle- terrifies me.” She continued to stare at the picture, as if the answer lay in the coloured sketch, its almost random lines a reminder of her words. Suddenly she turned to stare at me. No, to study my reaction. I could sense her dividing me into grids, mathematically precise areas for analysis. “Hormones didn’t help before… Do you think it would help to go back on them?”

It was a plea, begging for an answer. A solution. Anything to give her hope. It was going to be hard to stick with my radical listening approach… Or had I already done it? I tried to smile intelligently at her, tried to find some words to help, but like her, I was struggling. “Words…” I started hesitantly, aware that I was blushing at my sudden blank. It was like my head was an empty screen. “…don’t come easily to you anymore…” The look of frustration at my repeated attempts to incorporate her own words into my response was becoming glaringly obvious, and I could almost feel her anger. I sighed and abandoned my tactics. “Words don’t come easily to any of us after a certain age, and its not only embarrassing, it’s frightening. They are my world as well –they’ve been what have defined me not only as an explicator of the arcane, but also as a person. Words are friends I’ve called on whenever the need arose. They’re still there, but as with you, the words that arrive in response are often friends of friends. Acquaintances from books I’ve read and long since forgotten. Clumsy words. Opaque words with only approximate relevance that people merely skip over when they hear them, thinking I’m just being clever. Metaphorical.

“And then the words, like branches floating past in a slowly moving river, make way for others –more familiar, perhaps, but moving all the same. And the conversation continues with probably only me who noticed all the substitutions…”

Loren sat back in her chair with a look of satisfaction on her face. Her eyes, caged once again, sat twinkling at me from their lairs. “You know,” she said, apparently finding her words with ease, “I should go to doctors more frequently.” And with that, she reached across the desk and squeezed my hand. “That’s all I needed to…” -a slight pause, almost unnoticeable- “assimilate…”

We looked at each other and smiled. We were of an age.