Half-glassed — a metaphor for flexibility

We all know the old trope: half full, or half empty?

I worked at Borland, which means, I worked with highly capable engineers who were accustomed to doing things right. I once got a very friendly, but very earnest, lecture about the half-glass phenomenon: the point is not whether the glass is half-full or half-empty.

The problem is, the glass was not designed for that amount of water. You either have to fill the glass,

… or use a vessel that’s designed to hold that quantity.

The whole half-glass thing drives them crazy. It’s not a matter of attitude, it’s just bad design!

I love engineers. There’s something adorable about the way they storm the gates of Accuracy, convinced it’s the same as Truth.

At first glance, that attitude looks silly at times. On deeper thought, they’re usually right.

I was thinking about the engineering approach to the half-glass issue, while my subconscious was still bathed in reflections on Rosalie.

I realized that the engineering approach is exactly what those of us with crippling disease have to do: our glasses, our outward lives, were designed to hold a lot more than we’ve got right now.

We either have to build up what we have to put into it, or we need to use a smaller glass. A significant disparity between what our lives can hold, and what they do hold, is depressing. They need to match up better.

Rosalie alternated, and I think all of us with chronic disease (and determination) do that as well. Sometimes we can build ourselves up, and expand what we can put into that glass; sometimes we adjust our expectations and commitments, making the glass smaller so that the contents fit.

I like this image, because it reminds me that I can do either thing. When pushing against my limits doesn’t work, when I really can’t get another drop of water into that glass, I can pull back my expectations and switch to a smaller glass.

By now, I have mental cupboards full of wildly mismatched drinkware – a glass for every occasion, for every level of function so far.

The one on the right is for when my hands don’t work.

“My cup runneth over” takes on a new meaning now, doesn’t it? When it does, I’ll reach for a bigger glass.

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Rosalie’s gold

I met Rosalie about 15 years ago, when she put me up for my dad’s second wedding. I fell in love with her on sight, when she threw open the door and bathed me and my brothers in such warmth and delight that even awkward, dorky I felt completely welcome in her life.

I stayed in the little den next to her bedroom, overlooking the pool. Her house was built in the 50s, when her neighborhood was inexpensive and remote. It has an endless view across the whole valley of Los Angeles.

She was a spring chicken, only 83 years old. She had already had two back surgeries to fuse vertebrae, and scooted around – with characteristic energy – in the distinctive crow-backed shuffle of post-fixation chronic back pain.

About five years later, my CRPS journey started. Rosalie was my first model of how to handle increasing pain and disability with a degree of grace and poise. Whenever I came to visit my stepmom or her mother, I’d see if Rosalie’s and my schedules would allow a visit. In all those years, I don’t think she failed to raise a smile more than once or twice, despite some brutal trials.

She had several more surgeries, implanted devices, physical therapy, and she swam laps in her pool whenever she could possibly manage it, inviting whoever came over to swim with her to have a glass of wine and tonic water (or gin instead of wine, for my stepmom) afterwards.

She kept love in focus: for her offspring and her dear friends, she had a seemingly bottomless well of love and regard, regardless of the vicissitudes of life and relationships.

She was always herself: whatever her opinion, and whether or not you agreed with it, she would let you know. No energy and no words were wasted on making things seem nicer than they were. You never had to wonder what her agenda was. And she managed that without ever being pissy or the least bit mean. Conservation of energy, including emotional energy, is a big issue for pain conditions, because pain is so exhausting; she didn’t waste a drop.

Yet she was famous for the radiancy of her outlook, not to mention of her smile. As soon as she had answered the question, “How are you?” with customary honesty, she visibly put that aside, turned her bright eyes on her visitors, and got them talking about more interesting things. She kept her focus where it belonged: on the rest of life.

As I said at her memorial service yesterday, she always looked for the nuggets of gold, whatever else was going on. She always looked for a way forward, whatever held her back.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I hardly ever write about anything until I’ve found the nugget of gold. You know that I always look for a way forward, whatever holds me back.

I can find this in myself, in large part because Rosalie gave me a living, breathing, occasionally querulous but never unfair, always loving, always real example of how to do it. I need those living models. I can learn only so much in theory.

This is real life. And sooner or later, it ends. I’m slightly bowled over by this intensely personal realization that the true radiance of a life can outlast the grave. Rosalie’s radiance is with me still, reflected off these nuggets of gold.

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Moving is hard anyway

Intermittently, this page is getting redirected (the Back button usually takes you back to this blog) and Google is becoming more and more problematic. It’s like their old adage of “Don’t be evil” is fading into the mists of time, along with Borland C++ and proper punctuation.

I’ll be switching my active blogs to new URLs, but don’t worry, I intend to redirect this link myself (take that, hackers!) to the new link.

It’ll be good.

In the meantime, I’m in geek hell. If I could remember more from my software-career days, I’d be in much better shape, but I have to relearn a bunch of basic stuff with a CRPS-riddled brain.

Yeah. It’s a ball.

So there’s some blood, sweat, tears, and probably no further posts until this is sorted out, but then (I hope) things will be even better and easier and cleaner than before. 

Those of you much-cherished people who’ve subscribed via email, I’d love to be able to port your subscriptions myself, but we might have to do that the old-fashioned way. There will definitely be a way to sign up again on the new page.

Wish me luck, patience, insight, and adequate brains…

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Breathing

Sooner or later, it all comes back to breathing.

Without adequate breath, obviously, nothing else matters. As a sometime ER nurse and continuing asthmatic, I’m more than usually aware of that fact.

I mean something beyond that, though. Something more pervasive.

Breathing, like walking, is one of those things that I keep coming back to as an interesting study — one that’s so fundamental that I forget, in between times, exactly how deeply it changes everything else in life.

I first began meditating in my very early teens, after basic instruction from my mother:

1. Think of a simple, unemotional mental image, like a burning candle flame, and breathe.
2. As thoughts come and go, let them go (sometimes, especially at first, I had to chase them off) then…
3. Bring your attention back to the image and the breath.

The image didn’t do me much good – I think fire is a little too emotional for me – but simply being at home to my breath, and letting the haywire-ness of the day drift off into the mist… with my odd and beguiling little cat softly nestled against my leg under the covers… did me all the good in the world. Especially at 13.

The language of breath is interesting. Breath, spirit, life, and insight often share the same word or sounds in languages around the world. For instance, in English, “inspiration” means both a breath, and a sudden idea; the root word means spirit. There is no divide between these ideas.


(Life, breath, spirit, ideas… how can these be separated? How can a life worth living, let alone a bearable life, let alone a pulse, exist without all of them?)

As I said, I’ve been breathing intentionally for decades. In my 20’s, I taught my ER and ICU patients a particular form of breathing which, I’d noticed, cut their pain response, lowered their blood pressure, and improved the level of oxygen in their blood — no matter what they came in with.

In 3 breaths the difference was noticeable, and if I could persuade them to take 10, we were halfway home.

It goes like this:

1. Breathe in through your nose.

2. Draw the breath all the way down into your lower abdomen.

3. Let it out through gently pursed lips, like softly blowing out a birthday candle.

4. Repeat.

The abdominal breathing improves lung expansion. The slight backpressure on the exhalation nudges extra oxygen into the system (the importance of oxygen can’t be overstated, especially in emergencies) and sends a gentle message to the blood-pressure sensors in the neck, telling them to lower pressure.

This kind of breathing activates the “calm down” part of the central nervous system, that is, the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.

The extra oxygen helps clear some of the oxidative damage away.

It feels wonderful.

And it always works.

(Clinical note: for people with COPD, I did 2-3 breaths, and checked in. As with most adults with a chronic disease, they could generally be trusted to sense their limits and stop. Youngsters soon learn, though very few youngsters have COPD.)

Recently, I’ve learned a slightly different technique from the same psychologist I mentioned in my last post…

1. Notice my breathing. That’s all. Let everything calm down for a bit.

2. Draw the breath into my abdomen.

3. Gradually increase the size of those abdominal breaths.

4. Let the midchest join in, getting still more air in. Exhale from the top down.

5. Eventually, let air into my abdomen, then midchest, then upper chest — inhaling from the bottom up. My lungs are pretty fully expanded in the inhale now, and I still exhale from the top down.

6. I tell myself: My arms are heavy and warm. Soon, they are.

7. I tell myself: My legs are heavy and warm. Soon, they are.

8. I tell myself: My lower abdomen is warm and relaxed. The whole bowl of my pelvis becomes a sea of lovely calm. (I had no idea how much standing tension was stored there, at the bottom of the spine and where all the exits are — though it makes sense, when I think about it…)

9. Then I stop contriving my breathing, and let it just flow.

After about 15 minutes, well, life is good. Really good. Talk about activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

I’ve forgotten what else I was going to say. I want to be that peaceful and warm right now.

Oh yeah. The point is this:

Breathing well makes everything better.

It shouldn’t be that simple, but it is.

Excuse me. My limbs need to be heavy and warm… In a good way.

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