Friday, December 26, 2014

"The Pinball Machine," Ch. 11, Axtell Memoir, BUT...AT WHAT COST

With each chapter I write, I ask myself, “Who cares?” It all seems so ordinary and unimportant, but ultimately, I think that’s the point I’m trying to make. Most lives are ordinary. Most people don’t go to the moon or make the history books. Most people’s lives are filled with mundane events that will dictate an automatic, but temporary emotion, and hopefully add a bit of knowledge to incorporate into our world views.

I expect the pinball machine analogy has been made many times before, but it’s helpful in explaining why people act the way they do. As stated in my “Home Again” chapter, trying to explain the differences between people has been my life-long avocation, and the nature/nurture debates of the seventies and the birth of neuropsychology as an accepted discipline brought a whole lot more evidence for my consideration.

Ironically, the results of my investigation did not end up explaining differences as much as showing me how utterly pointless it is to try!

Drum roll please. Life is like a pinball machine. Let us suppose that little silver ball is a human brain. Researchers in neuroscience and most psychiatric and socio-psychological disciplines have finally agreed our genes – the way our brains are wired – prescribe roughly fifty percent of how each of us turns out.

So, when that blob of neurons leaves the womb it is hard-wired, not a blank slate as was supposed by all the early experts who blamed every unwanted result (homosexuality, autism, criminality, depression, etc.) on Mommy’s child-rearing choices. Seems sort of silly now that we know better, but that was the conventional wisdom when my kids were born. Environment trumped heredity.

Anyway, many subsequent advice-sellers, despite all evidence to the contrary, have continued to nit-pick every choice Mommy makes. Most no longer blame her for illnesses, but many are still hung-up on blaming someone else for any behavior they deem unacceptable. Few look at the big picture.

Life presents way too many exposures to ever assume one person (or one event) will dictate a predictable outcome. Imagine that little ball (your brain) smacking into each bumper (all the people and events in your life) along its path to the grave… and each bump leaving a piece of itself on the ball. Further imagine that the ball is already half-filled with hard-wiring that will dictate how it perceives each person and event as he is exposed to it. Only identical twins are hard-wired the same, so from day one, most people’s perceptions will be inherently different from every other person’s. From their responses, I’d say Randy perceived cuddling as being trapped, and Beth perceived cuddling as being loved.

How anyone perceives any event depends on how he is hard-wired. His innate emotional and behavioral tendencies, his intelligence, his talents, and everything he has learned along the way will affect his perceptions of any future event. I happen to think who a person is with at any given moment, will likely most influence his choice in behavior.

Few young men, for example, will use the same language they use in the locker room when they’re talking to Grandma or a priest. Most people automatically adapt their speech and behaviors to “fit in” with the people they’re with. When in Rome most will do as the Romans.

Keeping this theory in mind, I’ll continue my story.

The eighties began with my mother’s third mitral valve replacement. She was in Albert Einstein Hospital in Bronx, New York, for three months in critical condition. Gram was in an assisted-living nursing home by then, because hers and my mother’s declining health issues were overwhelming my dad and to a lesser extent me.

The worst part for me, both before and after Mom’s surgery, was accepting the very apparent reversal in our roles. Instead of my being their little girl, I was Gram’s and Mom’s mother. Both relied on me for emotional and practical support.

The first time I bathed my grandmother, I nearly lost it. My concerns for her dignity overshadowed my concerns for her hygiene. She wasn’t very clean when we finished. It took me a while to become a good nurse. And my guilt for not moving Gram in with us was ever-present. “Ashley, the logical,” prevailed on that issue. It would have been an unworkable situation considering my mother’s impending surgery. Fortunately, Gram saw the writing on the wall and was completely accepting of going to a nursing home.

The ninety minute trip to NYC every day, and later every-other-day when Dad and I took turns, was bad. I couldn’t wait to get there, and I couldn’t wait to get home. I couldn’t wait to get to the nursing home to see Gram, and I couldn’t wait to get home from there either. Ash and the kids? I don’t even remember any specific interactions with them during that time frame. I assume I went through the motions. Guilt reigned. No matter who I was with, I felt I was failing someone else. And, God was I tired!

The quality I admire most in myself is that I was and am a willing caregiver when circumstances demand. Yet, my most fervent hope is that my children will never feel forced to be my caregiver. Go figure. These are diametrically opposing views living in the same brain, and I never know which view will take precedence.

Is relieving my kids from caretaking responsibilities a gift or a deprivation? I don’t know; that would depend on their perceptions, I guess. They might feel duty-bound to help, yet resent every moment; or they might actually want to help... and feel good about themselves for doing so.

I don’t think naked altruism exists. Ultimately, folks will choose to do what makes them feel good, so there is always a partly selfish reason for any choice. Yet some priorities are definitely seen as more noble than others. What we value is a large part of who we are.

I could not have lived with myself had I not done everything I could to help my parents and grandmother. Helping them made me feel good. But that’s me; I don’t know how either of my kids and their spouses will feel if I need them. The totality of their circumstances and priorities will dictate their choices, choices I hope they never have to make.

There’s no doubt my experiences as a caregiver greatly influence my current beliefs and behavioral choices, but not in any predictable way. I hate to ask for help from my kids and grandkids (and Ash), because I hate being seen as needy, and don’t want to be a burden. However, when push comes to shove, like the lawn needs mowing and my knees hurt, I will ask and remember how good I felt when I mowed the lawn for my parents. I never know which part of the caregiving experience will win the moment – or if I might be rationalizing my choice to maintain my self-esteem, something we all do regularly.

These are very ordinary (though troubling) life choices that probably needn’t be explained and/or judged by outsiders. It’s fun, so we do it; but, bottom line: it is what it is. Pardon the cliché.


We are serializing the memoir written by Judy Axtell and edited by me, BUT...AT WHAT COST: A Skeptics Memoir, available from and other on-line book sellers. You are invited to visit my writing, coaching, editing site

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