Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Ringing changes

The projects I work on sometimes get done all at once, and sometimes older ones will suddenly leap forward. Sudden leaps, though, are usually only after a long and often arduous journey to get there. Like right now, for example.

Today I “finished” another project: I changed the phones in my house. A few days ago, I mentioned on my personal Facebook that I was working on this. I shared a “Facebook Memory” about “In Dependence”, something I posted on May 8 of last year (in those days, Facebook had a “Notes” feature, which was like a sort of blogging platform, and I’d post both there and here). In last year’s post, I talked a bit about the phone system issues (and mentioned them again in a post the following month), but I never really talked about how difficult it was to do. I said on Facebook:
All of what I sad last year is still true. And, as it happens, over the past week I’ve been trying to locate *all* the pieces to the multitudinous phone sets so I can swap out the set I started using this time last year (the first set we ever had, and despite getting batteries for them last year, they’re on their last legs). It’s not gone well, and I may just buy a new set. All the ones I have are destined for e-waste recycling some day, anyway, so I may just do that sooner rather than later.
The fact is, I was shooting blind last year: I had no idea how Nigel had set up our system, or even what (or where) the parts of those “multitudinous phone sets” were. The fact they were missing was probably because the house was packed up by various people, not just the movers, and so, everything ended up separated. However, Nigel didn’t exactly keep things together in the first place, and that was a problem.

All of that meant that, for example, I might have phones, but not the base unit they needed to talk to each other and the VoIP phone line. Or, maybe I had one or two handsets, but not the minimum of three I wanted. Add to that the fact that I didn’t know how to set it all up, and I just couldn’t work it out.

In the post last May, I mentioned that as I was going through things, I found something and said to myself, “that box is for VoIP”. That allows me to hook up an ordinary phone system, and not use a specialised VoIP phone set, which was important because so many bits of those were missing.

When I found what was actually our first multiple handset phone system (one we replaced something like 14 years ago), I decided to use that and the VoIP box I’d also found. That worked, kind of, for the past year.

Things got worse over time because each handset a problem: On one of them, the screen didn’t work, but the buttons did—which didn’t really matter because without a screen it was impossible to see what number I was dialling). Another handset’s buttons worked, but it had no sounds (including a ringer). The third one rang and the screen worked, but the keypad didn’t.

I tried to deal with all of those problems, assuming it was just a wrong settings (it wasn’t). That third phone originally didn’t really work at all because it wouldn’t charge. I noticed a couple of the charging contact pins were bent, so I fixed that, but the keyboard was frozen because Nigel spilled paint on it at our house in Paeroa when we were doing it up. I opened up the phone (!) to see if I could clean the keypad. Turns out, it was covered by a clear silicon pad and escaped most of the paint. I was able to clean off what was keeping things from moving, but didn’t matter because the keypad still didn’t work. Maybe if I understood electronics I could’ve fixed it, but even if I had, it’d have been the only handset working correctly. And, of course, they were all probably the better part of 20 years old.

I limped along with that set for the past year, even as one phone suddenly started dying because the battery was still one of the originals (I bought two replacements), and even though the line connection was never great.

So, I again started the search for phones, and accidentally came across the base unit and a handset for was actually our second set of phones, one that had four handsets (which we needed at the time). The four handset system is the one we were using when Nigel switched us to VOIP ( found the other two handsets in my office where I’d put them “so I can find them” just yesterday; that was about a week after I’d started work on this).

Nigel bought an IP phone that could connect directly to the Internet through our system, and I found the base unit and all its handsets (four). I bought rechargeable AAA batteries and fired them up. One handset connected to the base, but the other three wouldn’t, even when I followed the instructions in the manual (which, of course, I had to download—that’s still missing). I knew this system was going to be difficult to set up (because I’d had enough problems with VoIP box), so, when I found the two missing handsets from the second system, I decided to use that—All I had to do was put in the batteries and plug it into that VoIP box. So, I did. And it worked.

So, I now have a somewhat better, fully functioning phone system, including a handset on my desk so I can answer it it it rings when I’m at my desk (it hardly ever does, actually). But even this, I know, isn’t the end of the story.

There’s one more set of VoIP phones, the last one Nigel bought, maybe a year or so before he died. He had trouble getting it to work, and one or two of the handsets seemed to have batteries that wouldn’t hold a charge. I have no idea whether Nigel bought the phones new or used, so it could be the batteries were on their last legs, anyway. They’re the type that’s in a pack, meaning they’re more expensive than ordinary rechargeable AAA batteries and have to be ordered from a specialist supplier. Because of that, and because I know that Nigel had some problems with them, I’m not keen on even trying to get them going.

Ultimately, I probably will need to get a newer phone system, and a VoIP system would be better. I’d need to do a lot of research to make that happen, including maybe even solving the handset registration problem I couldn’t easily do before. I have plenty of time to do that, though, now that I have a functioning phone system that I can use—for now.

The larger question, though, is should I bother keeping the “landline” at all? There’s really only one person who rings me on that line regularly, and one other person occasionally does. Everyone else rings me on my mobile, either directly or, if they’re overseas, through an App. I also use Zoom and Skype on my desktop computer rather than making international phone calls. So: Should I bother keeping the “landline” at all?

For now, I will. But because I don’t know that I’ll have one much longer, I’ll probably stick with the phones I have rather than buying new ones. Eventually, all the phones will end up going to e-waste recycling—it’s just a question of how soon.

This particular project lurched ahead when I found missing “pieces to the multitudinous phone sets”, and now it’s reached its latest conclusion point. It won’t be the last one, either.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Leo said good night

I forgot to share this the other night. Maybe it’s because I seldom embed Instagram posts directly anymore, and instead I post the photo separately. Dunno. But right now Leo wants to go to bed, and that reminded me. So, good night?

We’re very good actors

Here’s something that not everyone knows about grieving people: We become very good actors. We learn what to say, how not to say things, and how to present ourselves in a way that the people in our lives expect. We learn, in other words, how not to be real.

The thing about profound grief is that it’s not linear, and it has no timeline. How many times have I said that now? What most grieving people don’t talk about publicly is the extent to which we remain silent, or pretend things are different, because we know that’s what others expect of us. That changes absolutely nothing, that is, nothing except the extent to which we can be honest.

We learn pretty quickly that others have a pre-determined timeline for how long we’re allowed to grieve. Most everyone will give us six months—no real problem there. But folks get twitchy the longer our grief continues: Nine months? Some awkward foot shuffling. A year? Loud and long sighs. Any longer? Subject changes, silence, and/or disapproving frowns if we’re honest about where we’re at.

We see all that, and we learn the message: If we want to be around them, at some point we have to pretend everything’s fine—doesn’t have to be wonderful, just as long as it’s positive. And if we don’t feel positive? Fake it. We hear that, loud and clear.

We all hear your protests! “I’m not like that!” and maybe you’re not. But consider how even detachment and disinterest appears to us. Are we over-sensitive? Why the hell shouldn’t we be?! We’ve had a part of us ripped away, so do forgive us if we can’t read intent: We’re busy trying to deal with being a shadow of our former selves, and that takes up way too much energy to have any left to work out what various people intend.

The thing is, no one has to have to have the answers! They don’t even have to say anything, not really. But if they ask us how we’re doing, they really need to mean it—and if they truly care about us, then the should mean it. They should care about us and hear what we have to say, even if they feel uncomfortable. We can’t have an honest relationship if they can’t accept our reality.

There are some people, of course, who want to “fix” us, like if they don’t approve of how long our grief lasts. Those people don’t matter. We alone get to determine the course, shape, and duration of our grief journey—no one else gets a say. Anyone who can’t accept that should do us the courtesy of saying so and then back out of our lives because the reality is that we don’t really need people like that. Harsh? Nope. Truth.

I recently realised that sooner or later, dealing with profound grief becomes like living in the closet all over again: I feel like I can’t always talk honestly about where I’m at and what I’m feeling or going through, and instead I have to filter everything I say to match what people expect is “normal”. It’s exhausting.

The lesson in this is as simple as it is obvious: Never judge. Never dictate. Always know that you can never know what private war someone else is fighting, so just relax! It’s not your burden or responsibility to “fix” anyone. If someone else’s grief makes you feel uncomfortable, realise that’s about you, not them, and, again, relax. Thing is, most people, most of the time, find their way through and the only thing that matters from you is to make that journey easier. It’s never about being “right”, it’s about being there. That’s it!

People dealing with profound grief become very good actors. We learn what to say, how not to say it, and how to present ourselves in a way that the people in our lives expect. Others’ choices and behaviours can help us make the only real choice: To be real.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Tooth Tales: The marathon

These “Tooth Tales” haven’t gone away, they’ve just become smaller and part of a larger narrative, one that’s about accomplishing long-held goals, and also maintaining a personal commitment. So many of the best-accomplished things are exactly like that.

The last specifically “Tooth Tales” post in this series was back in December 2020 when my crowned tooth was removed, something that seemed to take forever to heal.

After that—on my birthday—I saw the dental hygienist. I was impressed immediately with how nice and friendly she is, and how collegial: She talked about the things that needed to be done in terms of a partnership—without actually calling it that, of course. In the first visit, she took her measurements and admonished coached me to use those damn little brushes between my teeth, taking the time to both “train” me and to overcome my main hesitation, namely, that it freaks me out when the brushes get stuck between my teeth. The second visit was more of the same, except that she happily noted the progress I’d made in addressing the pockets around my teeth. That’s because I actually used those damn little brushes between my teeth; she’s quite persuasive. Clearly.

There was a new problem that popped up, though: My top and bottom front teeth were colliding, and that caused some damage, some pain, and a lot of annoyance. Today I saw the dentist about that.

The problem is that my top front tooth and bottom front tooth would sometimes collide when I chewed, which hurt, and one time it chipped my upper tooth. A few nights when I was in that space between being awake and asleep, my jaw suddenly snapped shut and my teeth collided. I felt miserable.

The problem exists because my upper tooth dropped when it lost bone support from my periodontal disease (I think I first talked about that six years ago). Meanwhile, the bottom front tooth has thrust upward, something that happens sometimes, apparently. That caused a misalignment that allowed the two to get into a sort of dental fist fight.

I did a few things to try and help myself until I could get it sorted. First, and most obviously, I chewed very carefully. I also tried wearing a sports mouthguard when I slept because it’s cheap and I wasn’t sure it would work. The one night I wore it my teeth didn’t collide in my sleep, but it propped my mouth open and my tongue dried out that night, and that meant I couldn’t taste much the next day. So, I next tried something very simple: When trying to fall asleep, I concentrated on relaxing my jaw muscles, then relaxing them some more, then some more. My jaw hasn’t snapped shut at night since; maybe it wouldn’t have, anyway, but I don't care because it just didn’t.

Today I saw my dentist and he ground down the bottom tooth just a little bit so they can all close properly now—they’re not trying to occupy the same place. This may be permanent, or it may need to be done again if my teeth are still moving. No way to know either way right now, but the important thing is that I immediately felt better because my mouth could close properly. It was downright miraculous.

The next step is that when I see the hygienist in a couple months, in addition to checking my gums and doing an ordinary cleaning, she’ll do some bleaching to try to remove some of the staining. Then I’ll go back to the dentist and have him repair my chipped front tooth (it’s better to do it this way so that the composite they use colour-matches the tooth; fixing the chip first might mean it might not match after my teeth are bleached).

All of this is related to my original goal: A prettier smile. However, now it’s just about getting the best reasonable result. I know it won’t be what I originally wanted, but I’m trying to get to “good enough” (as I am with so much these days…), and, especially, so that when I enter my Golden Years my teeth won’t look like they arrived and settled in many years earlier.

Nigel started all this. He made the appointment that started me down this road some seven years ago. He only wanted to help me achieve what I wanted, and he would’ve supported me as I came to terms with the goalposts lowering. But all that’s also part of what makes me want to see this through: He was in my corner even when I wasn’t. But I also want to make things better with my oral health because that, ultimately, will make everything else better, too, including whatever still is possible—even if that’s considerably less than what I thought would happen when I started out on this journey.

Today, and the other days I haven’t blogged about, brought me closer to a new stasis, something that’s healthier and more sustainable than what I had before. I may never get the prettier smile I wanted at the start of this journey, but I’ll still end up with something that could last me through my twilight years, and that, I think, is good enough.

Thanks, Nigel.

Jake has a champion

I’ve helped a problem Jake was having, and it says something about me as much as about him. The basic story was in the Instagram caption:
My boy Jake is 14 now, and has “old man problems”: He’s hard of hearing, hard of seeing, and hard of moving (and so am I sometimes…). I noticed he was taking longer to eat his meals, and sometimes he’d stop and raise his head before finishing. So, I took a collapsible step I keep in my kitchen for reaching high places, and put his food bowl on it. Now he gobbles his food just like he always used to and no longer raises his head. I’m glad the idea worked and that it makes him just a bit more comfortable in his golden years. He’s definitely earned a good retirement!
The important thing here is that Jake was struggling a bit and now he’s not. That’s all that matters. Also, he seems happier because of the small change.

What occurred to me later is that this is my strength: I see a problem, evaluate possible solutions to arrive at what I think is the best solution, and then I put it into action. In this particular case, it worked the first time, which isn’t necessarily a very common or usual thing, but what matters is that this is how I operate. And that it worked.

Nigel and I were very different. He’d conduct in-depth research to arrive at the best possible solution, while I’d look at all the observable facts to arrive at a useful solution. He was more about the right solution, and mine was more about a workable and fast solution (and, to be honest, one that was cost-effective). This particular time is one where my solution may have been his choice, but it’s also one he’d have have backed, even as he looked for a different (probably more elaborate) solution. Whatever works, especially for our furbabies, is all that would’ve mattered to either of us.

What matters is that Jake is less challenged than he was before. All the rest? It’s about me finding my way in this foreign life I’m now in. Jake, he just is. But he still has a champion.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Mown goal

Today I achieved a goal: My lawn mower paid for itself. That’s not literally true, nor even figuratively true, really, but that’s the way I look at it. Because of that, today was an accomplishment of a goal.

The mower didn’t literally pay for itself not only because it’s a thing that doesn’t earn a salary, but also because it’s difficult to calculate a break-even point. Even so, I came up with a way that worked for me, and today I arrived at that admittedly arbitrary break-even point.

As I’ve said several times, I wanted to get a lawn mower as soon as I moved into this house. I knew that my doctors would be glad I was doing it (for the exercise), and I also knew that because it was a small, contained job, it was one I could handle even in the iron-tight grip of my grief.

I bought my mower the day after the sale of the last house that Nigel I lived in was settled (which was also six months to the day after Nigel died ). It was probably the first big thing I spent any money on after moving to Hamilton because I’d been avoiding doing that in case the house didn’t sell and I needed to cover the mortgage payments for longer than I’d budgeted. As it turned out, I didn’t have a lot of time to spend any money after the sale because only a few days later, New Zealand went under lockdown.

Because I’m me, I wanted to work out how long it would take before the cost of the mower would be offset by the savings compared with hiring a service to do the mowing. I knew this would take awhile because I bought a battery-powered mower which was significantly more expensive than a petrol mower. Thing is, I didn’t want to burn fossil fuels and pollute the air just to keep my grass (well, weeds…) looking tidy (there’s those pesky values of mine in action again).

Since so many people had urged me to hire a lawn mowing service, I decided I’d use what we paid for each complete mow at the old house as a starting point. This may or may not have been a good idea—I never got quotes in Hamilton, so it may have cost more or less here than it did there (I think it may have cost less here because there’s far more competition in Hamilton, and because my section is smaller than what we had at the old place). Nevertheless, I decided it was as good a number as any.

Next, I took that number and arbitrarily divided it in half—half for the front lawn, half for the back. The reason for that is that even though I knew I’d usually mow both the front and back lawns the same day, that wouldn’t always be the case (in fact, the very first time I used the mower, it was only in the back). The front lawn is a LOT smaller than the back, so this was a truly arbitrary number; I just didn’t feel like working our the area of the two parts of the section to accurately calculate each part’s “share” of the total. Besides, this was never meant to be a true and accurate analysis—it was just a way of setting a goal to achieve.

Today I reached the goal I set, and the cost of the mower itself is now effectively zero. Kind of. Because, of course, there’s another thing I didn’t work out: The cost of recharging the battery. Calculating that would’ve required me to learn how to calculate that, which seemed a bit much for a non-serious exercise.

In any event, the recharging cost is now moot: I always mow the lawns in the daytime, of course, and usually when the sun is shining brightly. When I finish using the mower, I immediately recharge the battery, and that’s now done with free power from the sun. This means that my running costs are effectively zero.

If I’d taken the time to accurately work out how much I was saving by doing the mowing myself, and if I’d factored in how much it cost to recharge the battery, I’d have had a far more accurate estimate of when the cost of the mower would have been offset. That was never my intention—reaching the goal was.

I wanted to mow my own lawns for the exercise, and because, as I said, it was a small, contained job I could handle even in the iron-tight grip of my grief. But I also felt that some people didn’t think I could, or maybe would, actually do it, and I had a lot to prove, especially to myself.

That’s the real importance of the goal I achieved today: I proved that I could do it because I did do it, and that’s exactly the sort of thing I was talking about in my post from last March, “To err is human, the choice is mine”: I have to try things to find out what I’m capable of.

Whether the mower really did become “free” today or not is beside the point: Today when I mowed the back lawn I got better than that: I achieved the goal I set for myself, and I think that’s worth celebrating. Always.

Distorted reflection

It’s not unusual to see ourselves or aspects of our lives reflected in pop culture—movies, songs, and, maybe especially, TV. It’s never a perfect mirror, but it can still help us see things we might otherwise miss, just as a dirty shop window might let us see that our collar is sticking up.

All of which is a way to acknowledge that we shouldn’t take something we see on TV as being truly reflective of our lives and our realities, however, it also means we may find something that’s useful. Exactly that recently happened to me

One evening last week I was channel surfing, and one of the NZ broadcast channels was showing a UK TV programme broadcast here as Hoarders. In that episode, a 64 year old gay man was in need of help for the second time in eight years, and we learn his hoarding problem was a result of the depression that followed the death of his partner from cancer, something that happened quickly: “There wasn’t enough time to think about what was happening,” he said. He also explained that afterward, he’d start multiple projects—sewing, crocheting, etc., “but instead of finishing one, I’d start another one, and another one, and so on.”

For obvious reasons, this caught my attention. I’m not a hoarder, even if parts of my house are overrun with moving boxes (the garage in particular). On the other hand, I’m also not an “un-hoarder” because I haven’t dealt with the mountains of stuff that was moved here from the last house. It’s true, as I often say, that it’s 24 years worth of stuff for two people, and it’s also true that I don’t have places to put everything (this house is significantly smaller than the last house, which was smaller than the house before that, and stuff was accumulated along the way). But I know damn well that while those are all facts, they’re not the reason I haven’t dealt with the stuff yet.

Which brings me back to the programme. I noticed, especially at the beginning of my grief journey, that I’d sometimes get obsessed with doing projects, like printing out and framing photos of Nigel and me, but it could be absolutely anything, even unusual things (like finding bedside lamps for my guest room). I, too, have found that “instead of finishing one [project], I’d start another one, and another one, and so on.” While there are plenty of projects I’ve finished (including those where I hired someone), there are far more that are incomplete.

It’s quite common for people dealing with deep grief to develop anxiety disorders (something that hoarding is classified as). I know that Nigel’s loss of his partner before me is what led to his anxiety disorder. Recently, I sometimes felt unwell, experiencing systems similar to the heart rhythm issues I’d had before. I checked, and my blood pressure and heart rate were all fine, and my home ECG showed that I wasn’t in afib and didn’t have tachycardia, both of which sent me to hospital in the past. Apparently, I was just feeling anxious, and seemingly for no reason.

One day a couple weeks ago I was feeling that way, but decided to go mow my front lawn, anyway, because it was going to rain that day. After that, I unexpectedly had to go try to capture the neighbours’ dogs who had escaped their yard while their humans were away for the day. This involved a walk around the block, plus another, shorter walk later. And after all that, I felt fine. Because physical activity made my symptoms go away, it reinforced for me the fact that what I was feeling wasn’t heart rhythm problems, but anxiety, something I suspect reared its head because I feel my life is stuck because I miss Nigel so terribly, but especially because I don’t have a clue what’s next for me.

I’m also keenly aware that I continue to fight a war with the naysaying voice in my head that I was talking about in March, but that’s always been there to some extent, kind of like background radiation. Adding that on to the sort of intense ennui that profound grief brings, and even the simple fact that none of the things I “should” be doing around the house, let alone what I could be doing, are even remotely fun without Nigel, and it’s pretty much a recipe for remaining stalled.

I imagine that some of that must’ve been what the man in the TV programme was feeling. He dealt with his loss by hoarding, while in my case it’s been more about not doing things. Like him, I’ve seen that doing something to move forward is one of the best strategies to get past the roadblock.

Unfortunately, I also feel I’m over-medicated, now that my heart rhythm issues seem to be resolved. That leaves me very tired all the time, and I have naps several days a week. Of course, emotions can tire us, too. Despite all that, there are times I manage to shove my way through the exhaustion, like I did that day the neighbours’ dogs got out, and I feel better for it (possibly those released endorphins people talk about).

All of that went through my mind as I watched that programme the other night. I suppose the resonance was a bit stronger because the man they were helping was named Nigel. Whatever the hook was, it helped reflect my own life back to me, and that was a useful thing, even though the reflection was distorted.

Each of us has to find our own way through the life we have and the issues we face. Sometimes we can see ourselves or aspects of our lives reflected in pop culture, and sometimes that can be useful. This time, for me, it was.

*The programme is from UK broadcaster Channel 5, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Viacom, who broadcast it as Hoarder Homes: No Room To Move. This programme is inherently better than the American series called Hoarders— it’s kinder, gentler, and less false-dramatic than the American version (though in my opinion the American programme didn’t start out being as over-dramatic and brutal as it can be now). This particular episode was labelled “Season 1, Episode 4” on the TVNZ on-demand service, but Channel 5 said it was “Series 1, Episode 3”. I have no idea why there’s that difference.