Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Five: The Sound of Muzak (tm)

I have not played the Friday Five for a very long time.  Today is the day, since I'm home from work.  Over at Rev Gal Blog Pals, Deb has this to say:

Recently, we got some Indian take-out food. While we were paying for our order, we heard a “Bollywood” version of “My Favorite Things.” We almost missed it because music is so much a part of our lives that we can ignore it!

Since then, I’ve been noticing some of the background music in my world. Sometimes it’s the busker at the Metro station, playing away for some quarters. Sometimes it’s the usual “oldies” station, or the “Mix” station (“the BEST of yesterday and today!!!”). And sometimes it is completely random, like that Bollywood moment…
SOooo let’s talk background music this week for our Friday Five.
1. At the office: If you have a choice, do you turn it up, turn it off, or drown it out with headphones? 
It depends on what I'm doing.  If I really need to concentrate, sometimes music gets irritating.  In general though, I turn it up.

2. At the grocery store or mall: What song (or genre of music) makes you want to hurl? Or throw something?
Genre: Rap.  If there is one thing I dislike, music wise, it is repetitive sounds over and over and over and over and over and over and over.  But you already figured out I HATE techno, but that usually isn't heard in grocery stores.  As for a song I never need to hear again, "The Pina Colada Song" might just top the list.

3. If you were going to create a “perfect playlist”, who are the artists (or songs/pieces) that you would include?
This is very hard because I love all kinds of music.  It would depend on my mood of the day, but somewhere in there I'd have Mozart, Bach, Debussy, The Iron Butterfly, The Beatles, Ian and Sylvia, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Coldplay, Dave Matthews Band, Simply Red, Louis Armstrong, Jason Upton, Casting Crowns, Eric Clapton (unplugged), B.B. King, Fleetwood Mac, Aretha Franklin, maybe a little Who, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Fish, Straight No is a looooong playlist.

4. Have you ever tried using recorded music in worship? If so, what was your plan, and how did it go over?
At my last pastorate, there was no worship team when I arrived.  We sang to CDs.  Many people were used to it because it had been the norm for a while.  I disliked it intensely, but you do what you gotta do!  One of my first goals was to get some real singers and musicians together.  As for using a special song, I did this often.  Sometimes it was a secular song, but always with a specific purpose.  I recall, "All We Need is Love" from the Beatles and "The Times They Are a Changin' from Dylan and once something from Harry Connick Jr.  I think it went over fine.  I often used a recording of a particularly nice communion song--"Come to the Table"--and it was beautiful.

5. When is the earliest you’ve heard Christmas music in the grocery store or mall?
August.  It was at Kohls.  I was so irritated I refused to shop at Kohls till the Holidays were past.

BONUS: “Weird Al Yankovich” has been releasing a stream of his parody music videos lately. Among my favorites: “Because I’m Tacky” :) If Weird Al was going to do a music video of your life, or a recent experience, what song/hymn/musical would the parody be based on?
I LOVE Weird Al.  I think it would be....hmmmm....."An American Tune" from Paul Simon. Here is a clip.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Story of the Blue Countertops

The story of the blue counters begins with a dream that came at a terrible time in our lives.  While this story is not about that time, I share a little of it so you understand--and so I don’t forget--why the dream was important.

Ken and I were struggling with the sudden death of a big plan, one that we had cherished for years and believed was God-given.  Ken had spent nine years in the US Marine Corps as a COBOL computer programmer and systems analyst.  This was in the late ‘70s and COBOL, a complicated business data processing language “spoke” to computers so large entire frigidly air-conditioned buildings were required for them. Brilliant and extraordinarily good at his job, when Ken decided to leave the military he received several offers to work in data processing for large private companies.  The starting salaries he was quoted would compare to six figures today.  Flattered, he nonetheless declined all offers.  He was resigning from the USMC in order to study theology.  As it turned out, we both did, helping each other with coursework, kids, and work.  That was not an easy time, but we had a goal. We were going to minister overseas as missionaries. 
Fast-forward several years.  We were co-pastoring our second church, but some time before we had applied to our denominations’ world missions department.  Things were moving along in the complicated process, albeit slowly.  We were stunned when we received a letter that turned out to be a polite but strangely unequivocal “No, thanks.” 

I remember the two of us sitting on the bed staring at each other, speechless and teary-eyed. This sudden death of something we had planned for and worked towards for years was devastating and confusing. 
We were living on a very low salary and struggling to make ends meet. We thought about those large salary offers from nationally-known companies, and we cried and we prayed and we struggled to understand.  We never did, and this was deeply painful for a long time. We tried to find out more, but there was, we were told, no negotiating and no further explanation forthcoming.  While we struggled with the unexpected NO, we struggled even more with the seeming injustice of it.
Meanwhile, our small rural church had been growing.  We were excited about what might lie in store and we talked about the approaching need to expand our facilities. If we weren't going to fulfill the dream of an overseas missions assignment, we would turn our thoughts and energy to our current place.

Then things began to go bad. Very bad.  Unknown to us, a monstrous lie had been told, followed by another and another. No one told us, so we were mystified at what was happening to our congregation.  There were other complicated issues involving a beloved former pastor who remained in the congregation and the deacon board, one of whom was the son-in-law of that former pastor. 

Things got really ugly.  Small towns are often places where news travels fast and rumors travel too. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who love to spread gossip—especially if it is about clergy.  One very bad day, our daughter came home crying because someone on her school bus had repeated one of those monstrous lies to her, adding that maybe her dad should go to jail. Once a teacher at the middle school said to her, “I don’t believe what people are saying about your mom and dad.  They must be good people to have a daughter like you.”  That teacher’s comment was well meant but not particularly comforting. 
I wanted Ken to resign, but he said he could not. We still disagree, all these years later, about what the “right” thing to do would have been. The stress on us was extraordinary and unrelenting.  Eventually we were asked, at a particularly horrid business meeting, to leave.  Only afterwards did a dear church couple visit us and tell us about the second and third lies. Too late, of course.  We were horrified and our hearts were broken. 

We examined our motives and our actions, reminded ourselves that we could not afford to get bitter, did our best to forgive.  Still, we were spent and knew we could not just try to pastor another church somewhere.  We needed to leave “the ministry” for a while, but we had two children as well as ourselves to think about.  We had to quickly find an income, but the computer world had changed in the years since Ken’s expertise had been prized.
The church building was right across a narrow driveway from our home, which was a “parsonage” owned by the church.  We had 30 days to vacate. I closed the curtains so we did not have to constantly see the church building.  Looking back, I think both of us were perilously close to breakdowns. 

All that leads me to the night I had the dream of the blue counters.
I lay in bed, deeply depressed and trying to pray. Eventually I slept and dreamed a vivid dream.  Ken and I were with our children in a kitchen, the counters of which were a deep royal blue, my favorite color.  I still remember, nearly 30 years later, the expression on our little boy Joshua’s face as he laughed, jumped and clapped his hands. We were extraordinarily excited. There was more exuberance than we would likely have displayed in real life. Even in the dream, I knew we were happy because we had found a new home.  We were safe.

Next morning I didn’t say anything, but the details remained clear in my thoughts--our dreamt-of laughter, our smiles and joy.  And most vivid of all were the blue counters.  I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and the details seemed much more like a memory of a real-life event than a dream.  Eventually I wondered if the dream might be important. Somewhat sheepishly, I told Ken about it.
Not long afterwards, Ken found a job as a fuel truck driver. I had already been working part-time for the county Department on Aging.  About a week before we had to leave the parsonage, we found an available rental. The house and yard were a mess, but there were many things to like about the place and the rent was affordable.  The landlord was a hate-filled nut, but we didn’t know that yet. 

The relief at having a source of income and a place to live was enormous, but I stood in the kitchen and looked at the counters.  They were not blue. They were a particularly ugly brownish yellow. I told Ken, “I guess that dream was just a regular dream after all.” 

The spiteful nature of our landlord soon became apparent. We avoided him as much as possible.  One day we came home to a hand-written note that informed us we were being “evicted” and had two weeks to leave.  He would not be returning our deposit.  Feeling fed up with injustice, we went to small-claims court and we listened, incredulous, as the landlord described how we had ruined his house.  He had no proof.  We had actually cleaned up a great deal of garbage and improved the place enough that someone wanted to buy it.

The clearly intoxicated judge said he didn’t know what to believe and handed down a decision completely contrary to landlord-tenant law. While we weren’t exactly evicted, the landlord had sold the house and we had to move.  It was a few weeks before Christmas.
Someone told us about a house owned by a missionary couple who were relocating and needed to rent it quickly.  One cold night, Ken and I, feeling utterly defeated, went to look at a large house secluded in thick pine woods. There were no visible neighbors.  In the back, a hill sloped down to a small lake. We soon saw that the house was beautiful inside too. 

Ken whispered to me, “Don’t get your hopes up. On my current paycheck there is no way we will be able to afford what they will want for rent.”  I whispered back that it would be rude not to take the tour. 
We passed through a formal living room to an oak stairway. On the second floor were three bedrooms. The master bedroom was about the size of the parsonage living room, with a private bath and large glass doors leading out to a deck that overlooked the moonlit lake.  Downstairs we saw a dining room and a large family room with a fireplace.  Another set of glass doors led to a second deck.  Ken looked at me and shook his head, but talked to the husband of the pair about rent as, chatting about the loons that lived at the edge of the lake, the woman led me to the kitchen. I heard no more of what she said.  My mouth, I have no doubt, was open. 

The counters in the kitchen were blue.  Not just any blue, they were a lovely, bright royal blue. I had never before, and I have never since, seen royal blue countertops. This was the kitchen of my dream.   

I bit dazed, I followed her back to the family room.  Ken told me what they wanted for rent, adding to the man, “I’m not sure we can do that.”  Some sort of negotiation followed, but all the while I was urging Ken towards the kitchen door.  “Honey, you must come see the kitchen.”
Ken sighed a bit, and said, “Dorcas, this is a great house, but we just can’t afford the rent.  It is less than I expected, but still too much for us….” He stopped talking and stared at the blue counters. 

We rented the house for a lower figure than first asked and we lived there nearly three years.  They were difficult years but the time was made easier by our secluded house in the woods.   We didn’t have to see anyone if we didn’t choose to—and we usually didn’t.  We marveled at the deep silence and the beauty of the snow-covered pines all around us.  In spring their scent filled the air.  We often sat on the deck to listen to loons calling across the lake, and we watched a pair of Canadian geese teach their little ones to swim.  At night, a great horned owl sometimes hooted in a tall pine just beyond our bedroom deck.
At some point, Ken applied to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (the DOC) for a chaplain position.  He took the test and scored highly. He expected an interview but we heard nothing and after a time we forgot about it. 

Eventually our landlords wanted more rent and we moved into a tiny house in town.  As it turned out, it would have been better if we had just stayed a few more months because not long afterwards, Ken heard from the DOC and was subsequently hired at Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution near Plymouth, WI. There had been a "hiring freeze" for all state positions, and his test results had remained in a file for over a year.  
He applied for and received official endorsement from our denomination as a “nationally-appointed home missionary.”
We sometimes missed our beautiful, secluded home in the woods.  But the healing of our hearts had begun there, and life went on.  Ken spent over twenty years at KMCI, only leaving when his illness made it unavoidable. 

It seems to me that God is silent and distant.  I can’t pray. I struggle with tears and anger every time I attend church. But lately I have been thinking of that other time of sorrow and confusion.  I am, for the first time in a long time, thinking about that vivid dream and those beautiful blue counters. 

Monday, July 07, 2014

Ken's Ordeal Part 16: Neurological Tests

It has been three months since a post about Ken, but here is number sixteen.  That in itself is a bit horrifying.  I think I have avoided posting because things seem pretty grim.  It is difficult to be optimistic when writing post number sixteen.

For the good news, Ken's knee healed fine with no infection.  It is a bit swollen, which will be the case for about a year.  He limps slightly when walking, but this is a great improvement over his really frighting, lurching, bow-legged gait before the surgery to "revise" the previous knee prosthetic.  He has very little knee pain. The VA rheumatologists have prescribed an antibiotic that has a side effect of lessening joint pain, and it is helping somewhat with Ken's overall pain, though not enough to discontinue the high levels of pain meds.

Last post, I mentioned tests in the VA neurology department.  Ken had a nerve test to once again try to discover if his pain is due to nerve damage or some undiagnosed nerve disease.  It is a painful test that always brings Ken to tears and has now been done three times, once in Sheboygan, once at Mayo and now at the VA. The results, once again, showed the kind of neuropathy that would be expected in a long-time diabetic but nothing of note.

Then we went back for an actual neurology consult.  (I had insisted on one and the rheumatologist had agreed.)  I wheeled Ken into the little room in a wheelchair.  In the room were a white-haired doctor about our age who had been present during the previous nerve testing, and  a young, soft-voiced middle-eastern woman who appeared to be a student.  The older doc was grumbling quietly to her.  ".....and what are those guys in rheumatology doing?  What do they want?  We already did the test..." 

The woman began to ask Ken about his knee, apparently thinking he was in a wheelchair because of that.  (There is a bad-looking scar.)  Then she asked other very general questions about pain.  Ken was not having a good day, and he struggled to answer. His voice was weak, and he kept his head down. Meanwhile, the older doctor had his back to us as he typed on a computer keyboard.

I got angry.  I said, "STOP!  Please stop asking questions and just listen to me, and I'll save us some time." 

The young woman stopped, looking surprised, and the typing at the keyboard stopped too.  I apologized for being rude, telling her I wasn't angry at her, but I was frustrated.  (Serious understatement.)

I went on, speaking quickly, "Ken is not in a wheelchair because of his knee.  He does not have enough energy to walk around this medical center.   He is in severe pain, as you know.  He has also lost about 130 lbs. with no dieting.  His testosterone level remains quite low in spite of monthly injections.  He sleeps a great deal of the time.  He has trouble with memory, and this is getting worse.  He has been to Mayo six times and between Mayo and here has been tested for all kinds of things.  We still have NO DIAGNOSIS after over a year and a half!  He had a pheochromocytoma. [If you are one who has read these posts from the first one, you will likely remember that is what started this series--the one-in-a-million tumor that is often diagnosed post mortem because it is so rare.] The tumor was removed in February of last year and he was expected to get well.  His blood pressure is no longer high.  His blood sugars have stabilized and he no longer has to deal with hormonal 'storms' that caused all kinds of weird symptoms for years on end--but as you can see, he is NOT WELL!"

At this point the older doctor turned and said, "Well, your husband has been a diabetic for a long time, I see." He started explaining to me as if I did not know what diabetes can do to a person.  I put my hand up.  "Please stop.  We know this."

He looked irritated, started to say something, stopped, and then looked closely at Ken who was still sitting with his head down. After a long moment, the doctor asked quietly, "Mr. George, how old are you?"

"Sixty-two.  I'll be 63 in July."

"Hmmm...sixty-two...." he paused, and I said, feeling testy, "Yes, he is only 62.  He is 62 going on 82."  Tears came to my eyes, and the doctor looked at me kindly. I have since wondered if he is 62.

"I see," he said.

And it seems he did.  The atmosphere in the room changed.  He asked Ken some simple questions, examined his hands, had him raise his arms and do some other range-of-motion movements.  Ken mostly kept his eyes closed.  I'm not sure why.  I expect just from exhaustion and maybe frustration.  

"Mr. George, you can open your eyes," the doctor said gently. 

Looking at me, the doctor reviewed the symptoms I had just recited. Then he turned to Ken.

"Mr. George, did you have any episodes of hypoglycemia?"  (That's low blood sugar.)

Ken said, "Yeah.  A few." He shrugged.

I said, "Not a few.  Many.  And some were severe enough that he passed out.  His blood sugar swings were crazy.  He could go from a blood sugar level of over 300 to one below 50 in half an hour.  Of course, we now understand why nothing Ken did made any difference.  It was the tumor."

"Aha.  Yes." 

He paused a long time, continuing to look at Ken, before saying, "High blood sugar is a bad thing, of course.  But low blood sugar can be even worse.  We may be dealing with brain damage." 

Ken had a stroke many years ago.  He recovered well, and he never even missed work, though he should have.  There were some lasting effects, but they were mild and went mostly unnoticed by people who did not know him beforehand.  The doctor told us that sometimes low blood sugar could increase the damage already caused by the stroke.  Of course, other areas could be damaged too.

He said to me, "You were right that I did not understand, but now I do. This is really complicated, so thank you for helping me put it together. There must be some sort of central event, some single cause for why Mr. George has changed dramatically in a relatively short time.  There has to be. This can't be all unrelated."  He began to explain, but I nodded and said, "There is no need to explain. Ken and I understand this.  We have been saying that to every doctor we have seen.  So many I don't remember them all."

He scheduled two things.  First, Ken would have several hours of neuropsych tests.  Second, he would have a brain MRI.  He seemed astonished that Ken's Aurora Clinic doctor had never ordered a MRI.  He said, "I would have ordered one be done yearly, since you did have a stroke."  He was surprised that none was done at Mayo either.  Perhaps it eventually would have been, except that the VA stopped payments to outside providers and required Ken to receive all care at the VA. 
(And I am broken hearted by the news on TV about the VA and deeply glad we do not live in Phoenix, AZ.)

Anyway, a few weeks later, Ken spent an hour talking to a nice woman who is a nueropsychiatrist.  When Ken left the room, our daughter, Kris, who was the one with Ken that day, said "My dad used to be a genius."  Kris told me that the doctor replied, "Oh, I can tell."  She even told the technician who would administer the testing, "This will require some additional tests.  This is a very intelligent man."

When Ken was in the US Marine Corps, his IQ test had a result of 170.  Yep.  A very intelligent man.  In the USMC he was a computer programmer/systems analyst and was the lead programmer who wrote the fiscal system for the Marine Corps (winning the prestigious Navy Acheivement Medal for his work).  He graduated from college Magna cum Laude with five minors (missing "Summa" by one tenth of a point) in spite of having a family, working several hours a week, and playing basketball on the Trinity team.  On the morning he went for the neuropsych tests, he said, "If I am The Scarecrow will you still love me."  I can't type that without crying.  The Scarecrow, of course, is the Wizard of Oz character who had no brain.

The tests were all about mental functioning and took nearly four hours.  Tomorrow I will take Ken to the VA Medical Center for the brain scan.  Then we will make an appointment to meet with the original white-haired neurologist to discuss the results of these tests. 

So at Post Number Sixteen, we are back to looking at the results of the pheochromocytoma, the "little ball of hate" as the urologist who did the surgery to remove it over a year ago, said to us.