3.25.2008

It's that time of year again...

...the time of year when the air warms up, the flowering trees begin to bloom, I start my spring gardening... and each deep breath brings me back to this season two years ago when everything began to unravel.

I can't stop thinking about that one weekend we had. Lonia was here. Mike fought with me to support his discharge from the hospital for a three day stint in advance of his April 3 surgery. I hesitantly agreed. Thank god I did. April fool's day weekend, he was home, in his own clothes, out in the sunshine, snuggling with Baxter and enjoying the beautiful spring in our new neighborhood. It was the last time he was home.


April Fool's Day. How F*cking Perfect.

In spite of this, I find myself grief-stricken and angry - yet at the same time so so thankful for the love and warmth and laughter and comfort we have found in PJ.
He is amazing. We spent Easter dinner with his family. We walked into his parents' house, and his sister motioned for me to come into the living room where, on top of the piano, there sat a picture frame with two 3X5 photos adjacent to one another. One was of Mrs. G's (PJ's Mom's) grandsons posing together (PJ's nephews) Tommy, 4, and Colin, 2, and the other photo was the one I had given her several days prior. Baxter. In his shirt and tie, posing for his school photo about a month ago.

Her
grandsons in one frame, and Baxter in the other.

They love him and us so much it sometimes feels like, "where did this guy come from?" It's all so overwhelming. In the most wonderful way.

Yesterday, Baxter decided that he wanted to throw a "PJ party." PJ as in Peter Joseph... not as in pajamas. PJ as in Baxter's friend who he "loves so much." I picked him up at daycare and the first words from his mouth? "Yay! PJ Party! Can we go to the party store to buy PJ balloons?" sure! PJ arrived home to find a balloon tied to the front steps and the playroom filled with balloons, including the must-have "Spidey" balloon.

When I see Bax with him, I feel like I love him for the love he has for my son.

When I'm with his family, I think I love him for the fun, crazy family he has brought into my life.

And then, when we're alone, just us, I love him for him. For his terrible Woody Allen impersonation that sounds like John Travolta in Welcome Back Kotter, for his wickedly smart brain that can tell me about planets or wasp survival mechanisms in one breath and criminal law in the next, for his nasally droning Bob Dylan impressions, for his non-stop giggles that seem to arrive at about 10 pm each night, for his insatiable need to beat a joke into the g.r.o.u.n.d, for his willingness to listen to stories of Michael and to laugh at Mike's jokes even though he's not here, for his affection and sweet words, and for his desire to be the best person he can be each day. He is a gift.

My mom thinks that Mike sent him to Bax and me. Like he gave PJ a seal of approval and orchestrated our partnership...

Well... unless Mike is working with the mechanisms of match.com, I can't totally buy that explanation - but I do feel like Mike would LOVE him. He would love hanging out with him just because he's so goofy and sweet.

But Mike on the moon? Well, if he is watching, I know it breaks his heart that he himself is not the one reading bedtime stories to baxter and helping him learn how to throw and catch a ball - but I also know that he thinks PJ is doing an amazing job.


Baxter asked PJ the other morning:
"PJ, did you know my daddy?" And before I could butt in to rescue PJ from what I perceived to be a potentially awkward moment, PJ responded, "No, Bax, I didn't know him, but I wish I did. From what you and your mom have told me, he seems like a great guy."

Bax seemed quite satisfied with that response. As did I.

3.22.2008

Meaningfulness and Insight

Some big thoughts on this lil' Easter weekend.

I just wrote the following letter to a professor at Penn State, Mary Beth Oliver, who studies the psychological effects of media and the nature of our attraction to various forms of media content. She was an advisee of my mentor, Joe Cappella, back when he was a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Backstory: Joe introduced me to Mary Beth at a cocktail party at the Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association in November 2002, in New Orleans. Mike was there with me.

***************************

Hi Mary Beth,

I just received the latest issue of JoC (Journal of Communication) and was excited to see your piece - a piece that is bound to expand the conceptualization of the various forms of media gratifications outside of the limited concepts of entertainment or enjoyment.

********

Oliver, M. B. (2008)
Tender Affective States as Predictors of Entertainment Preference, Journal of Communication

ABSTRACT

Four studies were conducted to explore how tender affective states (e.g., warmth, sympathy, understanding) predict attraction to entertainment that features poignant, dramatic, or tragic portrayals. … Results are discussed in terms of how these forms of entertainment may provide viewers the opportunity to contemplate the poignancies of human life—an activity that may reflect motivations of media use related to meaningfulness or insight rather than only the experience of pleasure.
********************************

It also brought me back to a conversation between you, my husband Michael, and me at the Annenberg reception at NCA 2002 in New Orleans. Joe Cappella had just introduced us to you and had told us a bit about your research interests. And then Joe headed off to chat with other folks. Well, the three of us (you, Mike, and me) had a brief conversation - no longer than 10 minutes in length, that has brought me much comfort over the last 2 years.

You were sharing that your most recent research was trying to understand why people seek out artistic representations of tragedy -- sad movies etc. What are the gratifications obtained through witnessing media portrayals of devastating events, illnesses and death? Well, my husband Mike, an artist, improvisational comedian, and graphic designer, had been polite and friendly for the previous hour of the "meet and greet other scholars" event, but I knew he was bored to tears - UNTIL this conversation with you.

I remember him being really passionate about the subject. He said, " To feel pain is a reminder that we are truly alive. Tragedy is the essence of the human condition. It makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and bigger than this very moment."

As you may know, my husband Mike passed away in July 2006 after a grueling 8 month battle with a "benign" brain tumor. Five of those months were spent in the hospital. Over that period of time, during which he underwent 13 brain surgeries, he lost all short-term memory functions, his vision, any sense of meta-cognition, and his ability to care for himself.

Throughout that time, his exceedingly large circle of friends was constantly present. At each surgery, the waiting room contained no fewer than 15 of our friends... waiting, joking, crying, eating. Using my blog, I was able to tell everyone the username and password for a google calendar, so people could just go in and schedule their visits with Mike. That way he always had someone to help feed him dinner when I had to leave to pick up my son from daycare. People used the blog to post comments about their most recent visit with Mike, memories of him when he was well, and other reflections.

It was a period of 8 months during which many of us close to the situation survived on pure adrenaline. There was little sleep, little rest. Many tears, many deep hearty and dark laughs.


But I have never felt so alive as I did during those months.

Many of our friends still talk about it. I think that what Mike gave us during that time was the gift he was referencing in that conversation we had at NCA many years prior. His death and the slow process leading up to it gave us the opportunity to experience the essence of the human condition - and subsequently, to feel truly alive.

One of my newer research interests concerns emotional responses to conjugal bereavement (death of a spouse), particularly after a prolonged illness. My colleague, Scott caplan, and I examined user profiles on match.com of people who where young (under 40 years old) widows and widowers looking to repartner. Using content analysis rooted in the literature on bereavement and self-discovery, we coded profiles for expressions of meaning-finding, sense-making, and priority shift as function of their tragic experience. You would think this would be a depressing exercise, but the sentiments expressed in these profiles are inspiring. They reflect growth, appreciation for life, shifting in priorities, living in the moment, and a sort of spiritual awakening among the surviving spouses.

All of these outcomes are consistent with the concepts of "meaningfulness" or "insight" people obtain vicariously through sad or dramatic media content - as found in your recent work.

I wanted to share this because I think your research is tapping into something real - a hunger for opportunities to feel the "essence of the human condition." But without having to pay the price of actually losing someone or something.

Thanks for listening - and thank you for giving me that conversation in 2002 to which I often return.

It helps me find some peace in the whole situation to know that Mike understood the human thirst for purpose and meaning. It helps me feel like he would be proud of his role as a catalyst of self-discovery and insight among those closest to him.


Have a wonderful weekend. I look forward to your future work.
Best,
Danna

3.15.2008

... he's so going to kick my arse

But, for those of you who have been asking, here are some photos of Pj. The ones outside were taken in early January by my friend Rosa, mom to Rowan (pictured in the wagon with Bax).

Busy times on campus. Next week is the week when my students we be abruptly disillusioned as their otherwise fun and
perky professor administers some damn challenging exams in two different classes.

They have made me so proud these past few weeks. I was observed by the chair of my department, teaching my upper-level seminar of 25 students and they were so on the ball it was fantastic. Then, my class of 200 was the scene of a guest appearance by a UD alum who is now a big time tv producer in Hollywood. They were attentive, friendly, engaged and responsive. Warmed my little heart, I tell you. Sometimes I wonder if they understand how much I get from them - how gratifying it is to see their eyes light up as I tell them something they've never thought about before. It is a truly amazing job.

3.08.2008

What a week.

[(At right) Oh... what a seemingly innocuous little toy...]


It's now Saturday morning. Thank the lord above that this week is over.


It started last Saturday night as Bax began waking in the night and feeling warm to the touch. Sunday morning as the clock approached noon, his fever approached 102.

I was all set to attend PJ's sister's bridal shower at his folks' house in Mount Laurel. PJ, Bax, and I had spent Saturday over there, organizing things at the house and I was
loving my self-assigned task of arranging the flowers. So, Sunday I get all dressed up - pearls and all - and after taking Bax's temp, I feel sick at the prospect of leaving Baxter for the afternoon. Instead, PJ and I put him down for nap and I left for his folks' house to drop off my gift, say a quick hello and then duck out fast to get back home to Baxter.

EXCEPT... this isn't just any ordinary bridal shower. This isn't like 25 women who I already know just eating finger sandwiches. Oh no. This is SEVENTY... yes, count them... SEVENTY women - friends of Shannon, plus relatives... and more relatives... Irish relatives... aunts, great aunts, grandmothers, cousins. PJ's mom is one of 8. His dad is one of 8. You do the math! There were a LOT of 'em. And most of them had heard tales of PJ's girlfriend. PJ's first really serious significant girlfriend since college... PJ's older widowed girlfriend who's a mom to a little boy.

It was like a coming out party for me. And it felt so warm and fuzzy. PJ's
mom is wonderful and was proud to introduce me to all the extended family. She just about died when her mother, "Gram" embraced me in a hug and spilled orange-creamsicle-like punch down the back of my black coat - which I hadn't even had a chance to take off when I got in the door. As PJ's mom was trying to pat me down inconspicuously and wipe off the frothy punch from my ass, Gram was gushing about her wonderful Grandson PJ and telling me that she had heard that we were "getting serious." J

ust then, PJ's other sister, Meg, scooted by and said with di
smay, "DANNA! Did somebody spill their drink all OVER your back?" At which point, PJ's mom promptly shushed her, motioning towards Gram. And - surprising us all... Gram winked and motioned to Meg to shut her trap. Gram KNEW she spilled her frothy beverage down my back! What a freaking riot.

So I spent the next 10 minutes dodging Gram's attempt to disrobe me to clean off my coat.
And all this in the middle of a crazy packed crowd of people.

Then I met PJ's great aunt Grace who suggested that PJ hurry up and propose already because she's 90 and not getting any younger. I told her I'd be sure to get on him about it.


It's funny. I hadn't been to a bridal shower since mike got sick. I haven't been to a wedding since Don and Kathleen's back on October 2005 - when Mike revealed his diagnosis to our closest friends. I have thought this entire time that I might never want to be a part of a wedding celebration again. But... now I know that's not true.

There are two weddings coming up in the next two months. One of a dear friend I've known now for about 7 years and the other is PJ's sister's wedding in early May. And you know what? I'm looking forward to them both.


It's such a slow process, but now that I'm about 20 months past Mike's death I have more and more opportunities to see how far I've come.

So, why the shitty week? Well, Monday Baxter just got worse. Woke up with a fever. I canceled my classes at Univ of Delaware. I stayed home with him and watched as - in the presence of motrin in his system - his fever spiked to 103.4 in the afternoon.

Holy Shit, right?


[Photo: Baxter on Monday afternoon, sleeping in my bed... as sick as I've ever seen him. What better time to take a picture right? I'm terrible!]
Doctor's verdict: 2 ear infections, virus affective respiratory tract.

I stayed home with him again on Tuesday, too. Now all this would be fine and I would have been able to multi-task had Baxter been his usual self. But he wasn't. He was angry, sad, whiny, in pain and generally oppositional and needy. So, anything beyond domestic tasks and caring for Bax just didn't happen on Monday and Tuesday.


His fever didn't go above 100 from Tuesday on, so he was back at school for the rest of the week - but whiny, crying alot, sad... which of course makes me feel like a TOTAL asshole dropping him off to go to work.

But, I am happy to say that we've got our Baxter back. This morning the fog has lifted and the ol' happy boy is BACK in action. Thank god.


So, no
w we need to go back in time a lil' bit. Cut back to Tuesday, February 26th.

Baxter was still refusing - about 75% of the time - to go on the damn potty. I had decided in January that Pull-Ups were a freaking marketing trap-racket... so I had put him back in generic,
plain crappy diapers. But still, he insisted on stopping play to go on the potty.

So, Miss Elizabeth (who owns the daycare) suggested that we just get rid of the diapers altogether. Go straight to underwear - and when he wets through, make him get undressed and redressed himself. Her hypothesis? that he'd be potty trained in like 48 hours.


And dare I say: She is a freaking Genius.
Tuesday night (2/26) we started in underwear for the first time. He wet through them twice and was soooo mad when we said he needed to change them himself. As PJ said, "It's like he's realizing that this is the last weapon in his arsenal and he's NOT letting go." Totally.

So, we did diapers that night as he slept, and in the morning put him right into underwear. He wet through once in the morning. And then.... that was IT. On the potty every time since then. Victory!

So, part of the plan here is engaging in SUPER-POSITIVE feedback every time he uses the potty. You know, Pavlov's dogs? Food and bell at the same time... eventually just the bell alone makes them drool... So, my goal is to pair pee-pee and anything that will illicit positive feelings, so that eventually peeing alone will illicit the positive feelings... So, everytime he pees it's like insane clapping and celebration...

More Background info: Bax's new favorite toys are all his matchbox cars. He loves them. He makes them talk. They all have names.

And, one of them - appropriately named "Racecar," has spawned a series of other cars to "rule in the name of Caesar" so-to-speak. They are, in order: 1) "Other Racecar," 2) "Other Other racecar," and 3) "Other Other Other Racecar." I shit you not.


Thursday night, February 28th - he's been successful in undies for about a day. Right before bathtime - Baxter pee-pees on the potty.

To indicate my bliss and associate the act of peeing with positive emotions... I held "Other Other Other Racecar" in my hand and made it "jump" up and down and shout "YAY BAXTER! HURRAY!!!"


But as I was doing this... Baxter flushed the toilet.


At that same exact moment, "Other Other Other Racecar" slipped from my hand.


As the fucking toilet was flushing...


In that one instant, my attempt to employ Pavlovian psychology to associate positive feelings with urination in the toilet totally backfired. "Other Other Other Racecar" disappeared down the chute.

As my friend Scott said, "Now every time he pees he's going to feel like he's losing a piece of his soul."


great.


Abandoning all dignity, I reached in after "Other Other Other Racecar." But he was gone. And Baxter sobbed. Naked Baxter was sobbing real tears at the loss of this "third in line to the throne" racecar.

What an asshole I am, I think.

So, I run into my "gift" bin in my office and thank the freaking lord I had a set of 4 cheapy matchbox cars to give baxter to alleviate his feelings of pain and loss. He seemed satisfied with my offering.


But the story does not end here. Oh no. On Sunday morning (March 2), as Bax was just starting to get sick, I noticed a puddle in the basement. A puddle that appeared to be coming from an old pipe. I got the name and number of a plummer from PJ's parents and he came over late Sunday night.

"Looks like some kind of blockage in the drainage system," he said.

"Like... for example... a matchbox car?"


"Well," he says with a smile, "Yes, that could certainly do it. Especially if it got caught up in one of the bends in the pipes."


But, nothing urgent... just a slow leak that he would take care of when his schedule opened up later in the week.


Cut to Tuesday morning. Bax still sick. Low fever. Me staying home with him. I figure I'll use the time to get ahead with household duties... like laundry.


I place a load of laundry in the washing machine. It goes about its business...gets to the rinse and spin cycles... and then.


There is a flood coming from my downstairs bathroom... flowing over the threshold into the hallway. The toilet is overflowing with grey sudsy water. It is clearly the residue from the washing machine.

I shut the valve on the toilet and take a deep yoga breath. I call the plummer. His wife says he'll be over in the next two hours.

In the meantime, Bax and I have to use Michelle's house for all matters bathroom oriented.
The plummer comes around 10:00 am. He snakes the drain and gets the system all flushed out. $300 later, we were back in working order.

I think of it as "Other Other Other Racecar's" big "fuck you" back to me.

************


If you've read my blog for a while you know that I am prone to positive spin. So, in the spirit of all things happy, let's recap all the positive things that came about throughout all this mayhem:


1) Baxter is now in underwear - potty trained for real.


2) Baxter is healthy again - and happy.

3) Other Other Other Racecar has left the building and our plumbing is all fixed and in working order


4) I had my coming out to PJ's family and feel warm and welcomed by them all.


5) My relationship with PJ is keeping me grounded, calm, and laughing - a lot.


Hugs, everyone. Have a great weekend. Oh... and If "Other Other Other Racecar" happens to pop up in your toilet sometime, tell him we say, "fuck you, too."