Saturday, October 29, 2011

Letting Go Is The Hard Part

We are starting to clean out my parents' house after my father's death and my mother moving out to assisted living.  Going through things trying to figure out what to keep and what to throw is an emotionally exhausting experience.  Disposing of things that my parents were attached to involves a guilt trip down memory lane.

My cousin went through the similar cleaning out process a couple of years ago.  I helped him relocate his mother.  His mother had already lost her husband and her three older sons (I call my cousin Private Ryan) so she had lots of stuff with emotional attachments.  He said she kept asking him:  "How can we possibly throw THAT away.  His repeated reply was:  "It's easy, Ma.  You pick it up;  Hold it over the trash can; and let go."

Yup, sounds easy.  Pick it up.  Hold it over the trash can.  And just let go. 

Letting go is the hard part.

Each object tugs at the heart.  A material object shouldn't have that much meaning:  It's just a book, a table, a chair, a mirror, a tool, a hat, a ticket, a painting, a marked up calendar.  But we remember them using it, making it maybe, treasuring it.  It connects us to them, the memories, the events, our childhood, the things they did, the way they lived, the things that in part made them who they were.  It was a book they read, maybe even read to us.  It is a tool they used to make things for us.  It is the table we sat around with them.  It is the mirror she got as a wedding present.  It is the ticket to that big event in their lives that they talked about for so many years afterwards.  It is hard to let go of the objects that connect to those memories.

There's also the feeling that this stuff doesn't belong to me.  It isn't mine.  It's theirs.  They wanted it.  They kept it.  It feels like I am messing with someone else's personal and private possessions.  Part of the problem is coming to terms with the reality that they are no longer there.  My father is gone.  My mother is alive, but has moved;  moved out; perhaps moved on. Neither of them, in different ways, could take it with them. The stuff is no longer theirs. They had to let go of it.  So so do we.  Letting go is hard.

It is not just my own mementos I am disposing of:  It is my parents' mementos, or their parents', or even their grandparents'.  Some of those of course are truly precious and will be saved.  But there are so many more than can possibly be saved, that we just HAVE to get rid of.  We can only hold onto a few things.  Most of it, we just have to let go of.

To some extent letting go of the objects means letting go of the people.  Sure, people are more than their possessions, but they cannot be entirely separated from the objects they spent a great deal of their lives working for, working with, creating, accumulating and caring about:  Their collections, their hobbies, the home they built, not only figuratively, but half the house my father indeed literally built, by himself.  The plants they so carefully tended and nurtured.  The things they used.  The way they lived. It means recognizing that is all over.  Gone.  Done with.  Finished.  They don't need them any more, because they are not there any more.  That is hard to accept.  Hard to let go of.

We learn early on that honoring our parents means doing what they have taught us to do, even if they are not there to supervise us directly.  Our "conscience" is really just the conditioning they give us that makes us feel what is right and wrong without them having to tell us.  We know what they would say; what they would do; what they valued. To devalue what they valued means letting go of some of that conditioning.  It means consciously doing what we know they would not, did not, could not do.  It requires going against a part of the way they lived and how they trained us.

Letting go involves recognizing that we are not our parents.  We do not live their lives.  What they valued was what was a part of their lives.  Although much of them lives on in us, the possessions that were important to their lives are not what is important to our lives.  Our lives are different.  Times change.  Needs change.  Places change.  People change.  The things we need now are not the same things they needed then.  The lives they lived are past.  We have to let go.

It is not just about letting go of the objects, but about coming to terms with the reality that dead or alive, that part of their lives, and that part of our lives, is over.  Those possessions that used to be important to them are no longer important to them.  They did let go of that stuff, in one way or another, but left it where it was.  Now, we have to pick it up, carry it out, and let go of it.  Letting go is the hard part.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

My Father Could Do Anything

My father was a do-it-himself-er.  I don't mean that in sense that he did some handyman hobby projects - he did everything himself.  Whatever it was he wanted to do, he did it, himself.  I grew up thinking he could do pretty much anything.  I still think so.  There wasn't much he put his mind to that he couldn't figure out on his own.

He died sometime Friday.  He was 93, going on 94, still driving, still working around the house, still trying to keep up the house and yard, still resisting help to the end.  He had been diagnosed by a surgeon with multiple aortic aneurysms recently, but that merely confirmed the diagnosis he himself had made some years before. The doctor needed a CAT scan to verify what my dad had deduced on his own.   He resisted going to the doctor because "they would just want to operate, put me in the hospital, and I'd die there."  I actually respected his opinion on that. He was such an independent person I just could not see him enduring the indignity and surrender of independence involved in going into the hospital and probably subsequent nursing home.  He did finally go to the doctor only because of the pain he was in.

Although he had only a community college two year education, about the time I was in the expensive University my dad had saved to send me to, he decided he should get an engineering license and started studying at home on his own.  Before I graduated, he had passed the state exams and was a registered mechanical engineer.  A lot of university graduates have trouble passing those exams.

Until recently when he was in such poor health that he just physically couldn't do it any more, he did all of his own auto repair work.  I  even remember him doing automatic transmission repair.

When I was young, he got into radio and television repair, back when it was vacuum tubes and stuff like that.  He had a bunch of antique radios he had fixed.

He built his own grand piano.  Well, not a whole piano, just one octave of it.  It was a class project in a community college course he took.  But it's a full size working, playable piano octave, complete with all the parts, strings, keyboard, case, the works.  That octave is sitting in his living room (what on earth are we going to do with it?).  I think he got into that to learn to tune pianos because ours needed tuning.

He grafted camellias and other plants.  If I recall correctly, he had a lemon tree that grew half oranges or something of the sort by grafting one onto the other.

At one point, he took up oil painting.  I don't think he had what you would call great talent at it, but he did some pretty good paintings.  Wouldn't have won an art contest, but could have entered one without being laughed at.

He developed and printed his own photographs.  Mostly black and white, but even did a little color.  He had some old, old cameras, probably still there actually, an enlarger, full darkroom equipment.  He would tape up the door and window in the bathroom to keep the light out when he wanted to do darkroom work.

I never went to a barber until I got married and left home.  Daddy cut our hair (yes, his own too, using two mirrors to see the back of his head).  Probably wouldn't win any awards in Hollywood, but I never had anyone say anything to indicate my hair cuts were crude or amatuerish. I don't think he ever got a professional haircut in his life.

He added a bedroom and bathroom onto our house.  Did everything from drawing the plans, surveying the plot, digging the foundations, framing, drywall, electrical, plumbing (back in the day when that meant pounding molten lead into cast iron plumbing), glazing, and cabinetry.  He even stuccoed the exterior to match the rest of the house.  At this point, honesty compels me to admit that he sort of ran out of steam on that project after he got the permits signed off and never totally finished the interior.  That was his Achilles heal - trying to do so many things that he left a lot of projects unfinished.  Then he re-roofed the whole house.  That roof is now 40 some years old, and about at the end of its life, but it was a good roof. He was up on a ladder checking it out two weeks ago, thinking it, like he himself, was pretty near the end of life.

He played the violin.  Not anything close to professionally, but well enough to be enjoyable to listen to.

Of course he was a Christadelphian, which is pretty much the ultimate in do-it-yourself Christianity, with no clergy and members doing everything themselves.  He wrote a magazine column on Bible prophecy, entitled Signs of the Times, for our national church magazine for a number years.   I would read the magazine and think:  "That's pretty good - who wrote it?  Really, my dad ?"  It amazed me.

He got into computers later in life than most people, because he was of a pre-computer generation, but he adapted and learned that too.  He took a class in programming and wrote a program for playing Black Jack.  He did adapt to Windows when that came along, but he had some "antique" PC's he kept going for years, because they still ran the DOS software he had set things up in.

He was church treasurer and board member for decades. Yep, he computerized that too, of course. His integrity and confidentiality were absolutely unquestionable.  The real problem I have now is that he was executor for the estates of several of the members of our church, taking care of their finances toward the ends of the lives and afterwards.  Why is that a problem for me?  Because now, we need to do what we always depended on him to do.  The complexity is so daunting.  I sure wish he was around to help me with it.

If my dad couldn't fix something, then it just couldn't be fixed.  Of course, even if he couldn't fix it, it's almost certainly still lying around his house somewhere, waiting for him to find a way to fix it after all, or at least to cannibalize the parts.  Some things he fixed that he shouldn't have, like that old refrigerator that uses 7 times as much electricity as a new one (yes, we metered it to prove that).

Oh, yes, he also found time to actually work for a living, as a mechanical engineer, designing controls for the Gas Company's long distance gas transmission lines.

Of course, he was far from perfect.  In many ways, his inability to let anyone help him was as much curse as blesssing.  Doing everything is humanly impossible.  He left way too many things unfinished: A house full of clutter of things that need doing that he couldn't let anyone do for him.  Because no one else would do it "right."  Being the stereotypical Scot that he was, Frugal MacDougall just refused to pay someone else to do something he could do himself (i.e. anything).  It would have been a sinful waste of money.  I think too that his independent ways were also driven by being shy and socially uncomfortable.  His biggest problem was that, although he could do anything, that didn't mean he could do everything.  There was only so much one man could get done.  So there were lots of unfinished projects all over the place that he just couldn't get to.

He was  kind of a hard act to follow, in many ways.  I am what I am in large part because of what he taught me about what a man can do if he sets his mind to it.  I have had to learn from others not to try to do quite everything by myself, but it's a struggle.

But in the end, for all that he could do, the thing I will remember most is that he loved me and he was proud of me.  He happily sacrificed for his family.  He did what he did to provide for his family - to give us the luxuries that he wouldn't buy for himself.  He was always there for me, and for my family, no matter what.  I guess it must be obvious I was pretty proud of him, too.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Thoughts during my Saturday morning bike ride

I got in a 23 mile before-breakfast bike ride up Angeles Crest Highway yesterday morning.  Saturday morning is the one time during the week I can go for a long ride, during my wife's areobics class.  It has become my Saturday morning break-away.

So: Early morning ride, before breakfast, before coffee, didn't have time to make and drink my morning coffee first, but wanted my caffeine fix.  Solution:  Cold coffee in my water bottle.  Not bad, actually, compared to the city water lately.

The ride up Angeles Crest is a climb.  Just up, and up, and up.  About 2000 feet of climbing this morning, though there's lots more up, up there when I have time.  I ran out of time yesterday just short of 12 miles and had to turn around. And then, of course, 2000 feet of adrenalin rush descent.  The caffeine is only necessary for the first half.  The second half provides its own stimulant.

I love riding up into the mountain highways.  There is the challenge of pushing my limits going up, the views are great, there's the rush coming down, and the fact that most of the hard work is done in the first half of the route.  The second half is, literally and figuratively, all down hill.

I can tell that keeping up with that pair of guys ahead is going to be tough when they have shaved legs -  that's a dead giveway that they are serious cyclists.

I wasn't sure about the hand signals that guy was giving me behind his seat. Was he warning me of hazards ahead, making sure I wasn't going to bump his wheel, or just dispersing passed wind?

Just because the cyclist in front of me is wearing pink socks does not mean she is going to be easy to overtake.  Never did catch up.  I did rationalize this by noting that she had the calf muscles of a male athlete.  And yes, I think she had shaved legs too, but I never got close enough to tell for sure.

I did pass a number of other riders (queue Rocky theme music). The trouble with passing someone is that then pride requires that I stay ahead, so I have to make sure I can permanently drop them before I pass them.

Firing snot rockets during a 35 mph descent is risky.  The rocket must be launched with maximum force or it may get caught in the nose-tip wind vortex and blown back in my face. 

Wonder what they do about nose blowing in the professional peloton?  A couple of weeks ago, the guy who had quietly come up behind my left shoulder about to pass me was lucky I heard him shifting cogs at just the right time.

These "new" so-called "clip-less" pedals (the ones with cleats on the bottom of the shoe that clip into the pedals) are a HUGE improvement over the old toe clips and straps.  I wasn't sure I'd like them and it sounded scary to have my feet trapped in the pedals, but I got a used pair of clipless pedals and they are SO much easier to use than the old toe clips and make pedaling hugely more efficient.  I say "new" in quotes because they are new to me, but have been around for a decade or two.  I was just out of active cycling for most of  that time.

Cycling has really caught on since I used to commute on my bike over 25 years ago.  Back then, the few times I rode up Angeles Crest Highway, I had it all to myself.  Now there is a steady stream of cyclists on a Saturday morning.  Maybe it's the Lance Armstrong effect.  Whatever the reason, I think it's great.  It's nice that I'm no longer the only crazy person climbing that mountain. 

It's also nice that I can still pass a lot of much younger cyclists.  It's a little funny though when I notice that almost ALL of the others on the mountain are much younger.  I don't feel old.  I wonder if I look it.

Replacing my old Bell Biker helmet probably helps to disguise my age a little.  That old helmet, left over from the '70s, was certainly a giveaway of my age.

Lance Armstrong has in fact ridden (down) that same road, in the Tour of Califonia.  The T of C used the route across Angeles Forest Highway and down Angeles Crest Highway, and then on down to the Rose Bowl (where I went last week), several times.  Hard to imagine racing down that road.  Going down it alone is one thing, but racing down it in a group is hard to imagine, even though I watched them do it.

I keep trying to use the mapping app on my iphone to track my rides, but it rarely works right.  Today, it did map the route, sort of, but it thought I had gone twice as far as I actually did.  Last week, it clocked me at 52 mph on a flat ride, which was probably also double the reality.  The idea in using it was so my wife could tell where I was and be reaassured that I was OK.  Glad she didn't see that reading of 52 mph live or she would not have felt at all reassured.  The fact that the phone crashes so much makes it useless at reassuring her that I have not crashed.

Spinning class is good exercise, but it really doesn't compare to actually climbing a mountain.

Funny thing though:  I have estimated that Angeles Crest would rank as several category 2 climbs in professional cycling, but actually the toughest climb on the whole route is the first couple of miles in town, just getting from my house up to Foothill Blvd.  Nothing after that is as steep.