There will always be women in rubber…

…. flirting with me.

This is the lead -in to Rent’s “Take me or leave me. ” I just adore this song for a whole host of reasons. I love the dynamic between Idina Menzel and Tracie Thoms and the staging at the engagement party. It reminds me of “I Got Life” from Hair. It is also just full of passion, frustration, and the desire to not be left behind.

The desire for absolute acceptance of one’s self expressed in the lyrics, “take me for what I am or leave” are unassailably clear. We all want acceptance or at least not constantly being told to change. But this is really just an outcome of the lead in. The song really seems to me to be about about reacting to distraction.

“There will always be women in rubber flirting with me,” is a way of saying that there will always be people and things trying to distract me, but I will always be focused on you. And then it is followed with a long argument to say “quit trying to change me, I love you, so love me.” The problem, as we see throughout the scene, is that there is no give and take, no compromise, just each demanding acceptance. In the end, distraction wins out.

Distraction is a beast. It causes us to lose focus, to lose strength. In the Phantom Tollbooth, the Terrible Trivium is the faceless face of distraction, encouraging pointless never-ending activities for Milo, Tock, and the Humbug. It’s gruesome to anyone who values time and focus, and mind-numbing in the doing. “If you always do the useless and easy jobs, you never have to worry about the important ones.” Important tasks like communication, engagement, and being vulnerable to one another.

Allowing distraction can sabotage anything. It is insidious and can easily become habit. “Well, let me just check Facebook and Twitter one more time.” Or, “well, I’m not winning this argument on its merits, maybe I should throw something else into the mix to distract and redirect the argument.” Distraction also destroys mindfulness as it is hard to be in the moment if one is always chasing squirrels or shiny objects. It’s also hard to enjoy the happiness of moments that occur if you constantly allow distraction.

So I’ve been working on taking each moment, recognizing it for what it is and observing my surroundings, and allowing less distraction in. It’s pretty pleasant.



Trying to find mindfulness at the driving range

Mindfulness is not my strong point. It never has been. Finding mental stillness has too often been next to impossible. Thoughts are mostly undisciplined, caroming around and bouncing off of ideas and off of each other, creating possibilities and dead ends, both of which calling for exploration.

I’m not very meditative by nature. So as part of my investigation into mindfulness, I began reading “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki. The most important thing I have learned thus far that has been immediately helpful is learning to count my breaths as a way to still my mind. This has been helpful in many ways. When something is troubling me, this simple strategy helps me redirect and engage the moment I am in.

I am in the process of learning to give up on having any goals for golf other than enjoyment. I struggle too much with the swing. This is despite the fact that I have simplified and shortened the back swing and am slowly learning to feel the swing and understand what it needs to be. I have a fundamental problem that is not going away.

I have no sense of rhythm.

In fact, I learned some years ago that I am “rhythm-deaf” or “beat-deaf.” (You can test yourself here.) I have a very hard time keeping a beat and even harder following a beat. This affects a number of activities including singing (where being on the beat is every as important as being on key) and physical activities where a consistent rhythm is desired to produce a consistent result. Naturally it made it a real challenge to progress as far as I did playing the banjo – which really wasn’t very far. So, I also have no consistent rhythm in my golf swing. Each swing is pretty different even after hitting about 15 to 18 thousand balls in the last two years. I could probably live with this if I stood over the ball with a clear mind.

Up until a few weeks ago when I practiced or when I played, I tried to focus. I tried really, really hard to focus. It didn’t work. Not only did it not work, it made things worse. It made tight, especially my grip – it became way too tight. I started trying to do everything hard and fast and in doing so lost what little synchronization there was between upper and lower body. I would often spin-out turning my body well ahead of the clubhead, sending balls high and 90 degrees right. Or low and 90 degrees right. It was miserable and I was on the verge of quitting the game again.

The readings, unfinished and unmastered as they are, in mindfulness and Zen meditation, helped me to take a new approach. Rather than trying to focus on hitting the ball, I now try to find the moment and be in it. Clearing my head except for one or two swing thoughts, feeling the air around me, the ground beneath my feet, and the movement of the swing. Feeling the moment. I’m not quite there yet, but it is happening and as it does so, I am feeling the swing itself in a way I haven’t before. I’m also not having to worry about maintaining focus or going in and out of focus. I simply try to be in the moment – a moment that is not about stress, but about play. After all, I am only playing a game or practicing for a game.

An added benefit is that I am playing happier. Seriously happier. Even when things go poorly. I am enjoying the game like I should, like I want. This is the way it should be.

A final thing that I learned: Don’t just do something, sit there! I’m learned a lot about being about to sit and do nothing comfortably, except count my breaths. Sometimes I get up to 20. I hope to get where I lose count on a regular basis.

From Caregiving to Caring (again)

So, this is a hard post to write. I think few people can really understand the divide that can grow between a couple when one becomes the patient and the other the primary caregiver and this becomes the relationship over a period of years. Caregiving is hard enough when you don’t really know the patient, let alone even have a personal relationship and connection to the patient. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that caring or love ends, it just gets put aside in a some ways.

I’ve written before about the lure of becoming a fascist as a caregiver. Exerting control over the environment and the patient for the patient’s good is tempting. It is all the more so when it makes life is easier for the caregiver. Plus, in the same ways that medical professionals develop a certain amount of detachment, the caregiver does as well – blocking empathy to do what’s required. As things go further, if your patient is in chronic pain, you actually start losing empathy altogether because it gets to too much. Complaints of pain that you can’t actually fix become wearing. Pain becomes an evil, demanding god.

What happens when a couple actually makes it through to the other side of this experience? This is what we are finding out.

First, while Melinda has made tremendous improvement and is now living a much more independent life, it is not strictly pain-free. Nor are we (she) done with the surgeries. For now though, she is off the pain meds. She is driving. She is getting out and about. She is awake. This is different. But we are not the same couple as when we meant.

Since 2010 we have lived with my 32-hours brain surgery and multiple-year recovery until I actually felt well and then a series of health issues with Melinda, that now seem to have been the early warning signs of full disability. Dislocated ribs occurred in fall of 2010. Nearly uncountable sick days and worsening arthritis leading to a pain management contract. Then there were the surgeries. The il-advised foot surgery that failed and was repeated. The months of not being able to put weight on her right foot that led to the destruction of her left knee. The breaks in mental well-being that made the pain and misery worse. The knee replacements and other surgeries.  It all got so old.

Pain became her god. She had so much of it. I juggled my time between caregiving and work, filling any spaces between with hobbies or the Internet to keep from going crazy. (Well, at least so I thought. I guess it depends on the definition of crazy. I certainly got sad.) I learned to simply ask what was wrong when she complained of pain. Trying not to judge, just listening, but also not trying to share it.  I needed to be able to keep doing. I couldn’t shut down.

Throughout all this, we tried to give a home to our former daughter-in-law and two grandsons. A couple of times. Well, actually three. Stability is desirable, but not always obtainable for some people it seems. Or at least certain kinds of stability are less desirable than others.

And so we grew apart.

As I have engaged in self-care I have simplified my life. Learning mindfulness. Learning to improve my focus. Removing distraction. Making more space for life to happen and for me to engage it. And what do you know? This made more time for Melinda.

In recent weeks, we’ve begun to reconnect. We have made time for each other. Really, I have made time for her. Since everything is no longer about having to take care of her, I’ve been able to learn to care about her again, more fully. To remember that we have thirty-one years of history together and that there is a reason for that, beyond stubbornness and our son. It’s also gotten easier to care since I have begun to really learn how to live without anger as a lifestyle.  It really does amaze me at how much that has changed my life for the better, despite the fact that I am not yet very good at it. Seriously though, not being responding to almost everything with some kind of anger, is a huge improvement in well-being.

Putting away the habit of anger and making time do another important thing. They open space for communicating beyond “How’s your pain today? What appointments do/did you have?” My problem is that I pretty much detest small talk. I am not good at it. I am also really only interested in the conveyance of useful information. But of course, I have had blinders on. Small talk does convey useful information if you let it. Perhaps more importantly, it eases the way into big talk and makes difficult talk a little less difficult.

So, throughout all this, it has become a rediscovery of caring without caregiving for the woman I married in 1989. It’s challenging and exciting and comforting, all at the same time.

Here’s the thing. We are in our fifties. She has a connective tissue disorder that will never go away and will only worsen over time. I have a brain tumor and lifetime of MRIs ahead. In all likelihood this is only a respite. But it is a necessary one to recharge the caring battery. It is also a good time for it happen. Our road trip to Philadelphia and Joplin was a rediscovery of who we used to be and so we are in the early stages of planning a new road trip, that’s completely awesome.

Road trips, the Great American Road Trip, are challenging ways to spend time together. They can fail dramatically or be succeed wildly. I’m happy when they fall somewhere between and the travelers arrive home happy, tired, and interconnected. I think though we are already on an adventure, one that began in 1986, and our summer road trip will be just another highlight.






14717120_10154541369667416_8914379146319549256_nThis past weekend we celebrated my father’s 85th birthday. There was a small gathering of some of his students (spanning the mid-1970s through his retirement in 2000) and former colleagues. Dad taught English, journalism, and communications, at MSSC/MSSU from about 1972 to his retirement in 2000. He taught in Oklahoma before that and elsewhere.

Dad related the following story during his remarks:

Recently I was called for jury duty. During the questioning of the potential jurors, I was always the last to be called on. One question in particular was of interest. “Do you have a passion? What are you passionate about?” Almost invariably, the responses were about sports. Football. Baseball. The Cardinals. The Royals. And others, of course. When he got to me:

“Are you passionate about anything?”

“I try to teach passion.”

“I suppose they call you , ‘Mr. Passion!?'”

The judge said, “I wouldn’t go there. That’s Mr Massa. He has a reputation for passion.”

Here’s the thing though. Growing up, I don’t recall a single lecture directed at me about passion. Admittedly, I didn’t move back to live with him until I was 16, so it might have been too late to have much real impact after short visits and summers between seven and 16. Unlike my sister, I didn’t take classes from him or become a communications major. However, I do a recall number of lectures, monologues, and exhortations, all delivered with a great deal of passion. I probably assumed at the time that this was simply a device to gain my wayward attention.

I didn’t realize at the time that I was being given the roadmap for my life.

I’ve written before that my earliest memories are of college campuses. Primarily the institution known then as Oklahoma College for Liberal Arts and now known as University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. Those memories take me to age seven. From 16 to 26 (save for three years in the Army) my campus memories are of Missouri Southern State College (now University). Along with those memories of campuses, are memories of students. Dad’s students were almost always at least a weekly presence at home. Wide-ranging discussions of economics, history, political science, and yes, journalism, were the norm with Dad, Teresa (‘T’,my step-mother), and whatever students dropped by. I don’t think this was ever stated, but it always seemed to me the rules for participation were simple: keep up or shut up (and listen).

The common element was always passion. Passion for knowledge, understanding, or making a difference.

If you know me, if you have seen me present, or worse, you’ve been present when I start talking about the power of data and information to make a difference, you know I have passion for what I do. I absolutely love what I do. Every single day. Even the days that aren’t so great. I intend to keep doing this work as long as I am able. I never set out to find my passion or even asked, “Can I do this work with passion?” I simply did it with passion. And the passion was there to be found.

I’ve worked a lot of low-wage jobs and blue collar jobs before I stumbled into this career. I never thought about doing those jobs with passion, or at least not much. A couple of the blue collar jobs I gave serious consideration to as a career path, but in the end, they were not satisfactory. I took those jobs to support myself, or my family. I never hesitated about the type of work, just dove in and did it because I needed to do so . And that’s a different type of passion.

I remember some thunderous, emotive monologues delivered from the front seat of the car while I rode in the back. While I knew they were for my benefit, they weren’t strictly because this is simply who he is. He cares about things, about people, and it shows. It shows in the care with which he does things. It shows not in sympathy or or even obvious empathy, but in finding solutions. In addressing needs. There are stories that really should be told, but they are not mine to tell. Just know that he is a class act and the student tributes I have heard and seen are deserved.

As first-generation college students themselves, Dad and T sponsor scholarships at four universities to support first-generation students. They are passionate about higher education and that is only a part of their shared passion of 46 years of marriage. They do what they believe in, always in the fullest measure possible, and always with passion.

So, when you’re thinking to yourself, “Boy, Tod does get wound up and passionate at times about this stuff,” this is why. With Dad and T as role models, there was little likelihood that I would not turn out to do things with passion. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My sister Daphne and Chad Stebbins (former student now faculty member at MSSU) led the way in creating a secret Facebook tribute group for Dad. Former students wrote their tributes and uploaded photographs. Many of these were compiled into a bound book entitled “Passion” that was presented at the event. The excerpt below is one of my favorites. It is from Nancy Prater of Ball State University, a student who was my contemporary when I returned to MSSC after the Army and who married one of my fellow students and friends (Mike Prater, also of Ball State) in the art department:

Mr. Massa was student-centered before colleges used that as a catch phrase. He understood his audience at Missouri Southern. In so many ways I was a typical Southwest Missouri student. I was from a family with limited means and barely an inkling of the big world out there. He helped kids like me set our standards higher and our sights further than we likely would have on our own.

 This is Dad. Professor Emeritus of Communications. The person who founded the Department of Communications, the Center for International Studies, and the international mission of a mid-size regional college in Southwest Missouri. Someone who saw, and sees, beyond the borders of states and nations, and the self-imposed limits of individuals. When Susan Campbell wrote in the Hartford Courant in 2000 upon his retirement that the students he took were “boozers, losers, and the occasional fundamentalist,” that resonated with me. I knew those people. But the point was that he saw value in everyone, particularly if they were willing to engage life and study with passion. While I never had formal lessons with Dad, every single day with him has been a lived lesson of the exemplary for which to strive. My only wish is that I had paid better attention at times.