Thursday, June 28, 2007

Agoraphobia -- My Story

We had just finished our warmups for the first game of the All-Star baseball tournament. Our team was ready to play, adrenaline was rushing... the first pitch was about 10 minutes away. I looked at Tom and calmly said, "Coach, I need to go to the bathroom. Be back in a minute." He asked, "Why now?" I answered, "I need to go throw up. All the guys in my family did that before a big game; it's no big deal. I'll be right back." I went to the concession stand bathroom, hugged the toilet for a minute, then came back and played a good game. I was twelve years old.

I had told the truth to my coach -- my family had similar stories of pregame sickness all around. My dad always vomited before his high school football games. I'm pretty sure my uncle did too, before his college games. I figured I was the same way, and this was just a way of settling my nerves before an important athletic competition.

But then it started to get worse. Soon it wasn't just playoff games... I was getting sick before almost every baseball game. And sometimes the nausea wouldn't go away after visiting the bathroom, and I'd be on the verge of sickness for the whole game. Then it spread to my basketball games, to the point that I was leaving the floor during warmups to run to the bathroom. And this was a 13-year-old recreational league... not really a pressure situation.

I got baptized when I was 13, and had been told repeatedly how that was the biggest decision of my entire life, bigger than marriage. I could barely eat for two days before I was baptized, and had the dry heaves 60 seconds before I entered the water at our church.

Soon any new situation brought on the same symptoms -- dizziness, sweating, high heart rate and extreme nausea. On my first day of 9th grade I threw up in the hallway, two minutes after entering the building. First school dance? Could barely enter the gymnasium.

Eventually it continued to expand, and sometimes the symptoms would hit when we were eating out at a restaurant, or going on vacation. It seemed like the only time I never felt sick was at home. It was my safe place. Is it any wonder I never dated in high school? I probably would have had a heart attack while driving the poor girl to the movies. And you can imagine what I thought about a first date at a restaurant, which would require me to be calm enough to eat.

My issues continued throughout my teenage years, and didn't go away when I went to college. My parents were attentive and recognized what was going on, and at some point they sent me a book about panic attacks. It mentioned the word "agoraphobia", and when I read more about it I knew I was reading about myself. New situations, or situations that didn't leave me a quick exit option, completely terrified me. I was a freshman in college... how many new situations do you think pop up during that year?

I surived my freshman year. Barely. I remember the day I was supposed to give a speech to my Honors English class. It was mid-September of 1994, and I was wearing my only suit (blue, of course), walking across campus to go give my speech about the baseball strike's impact on the national economy. Only I didn't think I could actually do it. At one point I stopped, leaned against a tree, and visualized what would happen if I just skipped class. Skipped the whole college thing. Went home, got a low-paying job, and played it safe for the next sixty years or so. As boring as that vision may sound, I seriously considered it. But I didn't follow it. I gave the speech.

I played college baseball my freshman year (as a walk-on) and did pretty well. The nausea was still there sometimes, but not every game. I guess I was more comfortable on the field that I was in social situations or public speaking settings. But intramural sports almost crushed me -- how weird is that? I could play baseball in front of 500 people with no problem, but low-level volleyball in front of 20 friends put me in a panic.

I read the book my parents sent me, and felt their love and thoughtfulness, but I just didn't find anything in it that I thought I could use at the time. Basically I just kept on surviving day-to-day, while trying to have fun without putting myself into places that would bring on an attack.

You may think I'm being extremely open here, but trust me, I'm skipping over lots of other stories. If you've ever been to college, think about all the fun times you had and new experiences you enjoyed (parties, friends, learning, sports, concerts, etc...). Those were a double-edged sword for me.

I graduated from college and was accepted into an MBA program, of which I would be the youngest student. I moved to Houston and started school, and on the first day we were formed into teams and given 5 minutes to prepare a 5-minute speech, followed by a Q&A session. Our topic was the sale of the Houston Oilers franchise, and how it would affect the city. My four other team members immediately selected me to give the speech. Crap. Here we go again. Those five minutes of preparation were among the worst of my life, as I wondered again if I would back out of this whole thing and just go home. But I made it, gave the speech, and eventually gained a reputation as one of the best public speakers of the class. But I never liked it.

I wish I could tell you that eventually I found the secret, the answer to solving the terror of agoraphobia. But I never did. Over time my panic attacks got fewer and fewer, and each new situation I conquered gave me just a tiny bit more comfort for the next one. I was never officially diagnosed, and I never had formal treatment. I also never ended up stuck in my room, with the entire world unreachable from my only remaining "safe place". But I was just a step away, and can certainly imagine an existence like that.

Why am I telling you all of this now? Maybe because on Sunday I'm scheduled to give a 5-minute talk at our church, which has over 900 members. There are two separate services so I'll speak twice, two hours apart and each time to about 500 people. My father-in-law is preaching that day, and he asked me to do a communion focus on the topic of "living for Christ".

I've done this kind of stuff before. Heck, I gave two full sermons at our last church. But this is my first time speaking at our new church, so it's a new situation. The old panic may come back, but I know it can be overcome. Not due to any special tactic or trick -- just the memory of dozens of previous attacks that were overcome, so it can be done again.

It will probably never go away completely, although there have been spans of months without a single glimpse of a panic attack. And what about my kids... how will I approach them if I see them dealing with the same thing? Perhaps I can just start with my own story, and assure them that they're not imagining it, they're not alone, and they can make it through.

My name is Michael, and I've struggled with agoraphobia.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Money, money, money!

Lots of stuff about money going on in our house lately. Here's the lowdown:

1 -- Getting Reamed

We got our hospital bill from Jack's intussusception situation a couple of months ago. If you haven't read it, or want a quick reminder, Jack had a collapsed bowel and needed the following treatment:
  • Admission to the ER at Texas Children's Hospital.
  • Ultrasound and X-ray to diagnose the blockage.
  • One enema (using tapwater) to fix the blockage.
  • One enema two days later (using air) to fix a recurrence.
  • Total of 22 hours in the hospital, less than a day.

Final cost? Five thousand dollars.

The kid didn't even spend a full day in the hospital, and he basically needed a tube up his butt. Twice. Once it shot tap water into him (the nurses filled up the bag from the sink right before the procedure), and the other time it was just air. No fancy materials, no surgery, no anesthetic, no medicines... $5K.

I'm obviously grateful for the treatment, since that type of intestinal blockage is eventually fatal after a few days, if it isn't fixed. Still, five grand? We got the detailed bill with line-by-line costs, and each enema cost a thousand dollars. Ridiculous.

2 -- What a crock

We took the kids to get sandals a few weeks ago, thinking it would keep their feet cooler during the scorching Houston summer. I figured we'd spend about $10 each, but then they found the "Crocs" section. I'd seen these cheap-looking plastic shoes around, but figured they were just another sandal variety. I was wrong.

The kids did the cliched "please, please, please" routine, and then I looked at the price. $30 each. For tiny little kids' plastic sandals. No laces, no wireless capability or anti-air missiles... just sandals. I explained to the kids that we could buy them, but it would mean no dinners at their favorite restaurant (Escalante's) for a while -- we would need to save some money. It wasn't that we literally couldn't afford both the shoes and the dinner, but I'm trying to introduce the whole "cost" component to the kids. Every dollar you spend is a dollar that can't go somewhere else. It's about choices.

They chose the shoes. A few days ago Samantha tore the strap clean off her left one, after messing with it for quite a while. She was totally crushed, and understood that we wouldn't be buying her a replacement pair. Now she's wearing them anyway -- one Croc with a strap, one without.

Friday night she came to me and said, "Daddy, can we please go to Escalante's to eat? I'll even wear my tennis shoes." I think she may have missed the point of choices.

Escalante's was delicious that night, by the way.


Jack is having a really hard time letting me go to work in the mornings. He has been a true Daddy's boy lately and just doesn't want to be apart from me.

Finally, last Thursday, he said, "OK, Daddy. You go work and buy money." That's the language the kids use regularly -- Daddy goes to work so that he can buy money for the family.

Samantha then joined the conversation. "Yeah, go buy money so you can save it and get me tickets for college!"

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

7 things you probably don't know about me

I been tagged. By RedWifey. She wrote recently about "7 things you probably don't know about me", and now it's my turn. Here goes!

  1. I don't know how to tie a necktie. I mean, I could do it if I had a computer where I could look up the instructions, and a spare hour to experiment until I got it right. Since I don't need neckties at work or church, I just never got the hang of it. My few ties in the closet are pre-tied.

  2. I have three recurring nightmares or fears. Two happen in my sleep, but one while I"m awake. My two sleeping nightmares at that I : 1) check in the mirror and see that my teeth are loose, and start falling out 2) am startled to find that I'm back in school, and didn't realize that I was enrolled in a very tough class so I never attended it, leaving me a certain failing grade as the semester is almost over. My waking fear happens about once every six months, around 2am. I wake up suddenly and realize I'm actually doing the whole "grown up" thing -- wife, kids, job, house... it's all on me, and I'm hundreds of miles away from the home I grew up in... how shaky is it all? The feeling lasts about 20 seconds and then subsides, and I go back to sleep.

  3. My perspectives on God, faith, salvation and redemption are so completely different than most people in my church and in my family that I've never really shared them (except with Jamie). I'm afraid of the consequences, and don't want to be a source of tension to those I love.

  4. Most people think I have a good memory, but they don't know the half of it. Often I will fake that I barely remember something, and will talk in general terms about something I heard or read, when in actuality I remember the entire thing verbatim. I guess I do this so that I don't freak people out.

  5. I was a jerk as a baseball player. My athlete persona is one of complete narcissism and superiority. For some reason, I had to feel like I was absolutely the best player on the field (Earth to Michael -- I probably was not actually the best player every game). Even though my playing days are over, I'm certain that the old persona would return for a softball game. Whenever I've tried to play "nice", it didn't work, and I didn't have fun.

  6. I cook the breakfast for me and Jamie at least four days a week. The craziest part? It always has spinach in it. Yes, me, eating spinach. I make scrambled eggs mixed with shiitake mushrooms, baby spinach leaves, cheese and salsa. Sometimes we'll add turkey sausage on the side. We've been eating it for a few months now and are feeling better than ever -- it's been a healthy, consistent way for us to start our day.

  7. I was born in Arkansas and now live in Texas, but really don't care for hunting or fishing. It's just not my thing. And in college, I even joined the "redneck" fraternity that was all hunting and fishing. I just thought they were great guys and wanted to be a part of the friendships. Even today I'll go hunting or fishing with my father-in-law, or my family during summer vacation, and I'll certainly teach my kids how to fish, but it's never something I'd choose to do with my time. I expect this may change as I get older (my dad would have never considered gardening at 30 years old, but now he loves it).

OK, that'll do it. :)

Hal and Rob, if you're up for it, if you're man enough... tag, you're it!

Happy Birthday to Jack

Jack (a.k.a. Jackie-boy and Jack-Jack) turns two today! The other day I found a message I wrote to Jack when he was born. At that point a baby is pretty much a clean slate, and as parents we really don't know what to expect from this person as they grow. That's reflected in what I wrote two years ago:

We pray that Jack will achieve much, but not at the expense of his
humility. That he will have a comfortable life, but not at the expense of
his dependence on God. That he will raise a wonderful family, and learn to
do it while also serving the family of God. Most important, we pray that
heaven will be different (more mansions, more souls, more love) because Jack
lived on Earth.

Now, though, we are starting to get an idea of who Jack really is. He has his own personality, strengths and weaknesses just like the rest of us, and his uniqueness call me to raise him in a different way than I raise Samantha. So for Jack's two-year birthday, here's a new message for him. From a father who is learning about his son, and wants to be nimble and wise enough to give him just the right start in life:

The last two years have revealed so much. Your grasp of language shows me that you will be quick and eloquent of tongue, which can be either an effective tool or a devastating weapon. Our goal is to help you see the power of your words.
Your physical recklessness is evidence of your pure joy in life, yet also tends to put you in harm's way. Our goal is to to keep you safe, while never squashing an ounce of your joy and energy.
Your excellent manners, always displayed without prompting, uncover a heart that is empathetic to others. Our goal is to nurture this, and to tune your ability to pick up on the subtle hints, good and bad, that will help you connect to people.
Your connection to me, and your separation anxiety while we're apart, is a novel and treasured experience. Who knew you'd have a "Daddy's boy" phase? My goal in this time is to be there, to show up, to be 100% connected in return. As your pass in and out of the different phases of life, I will still be here. My goal is to give you that stability and trust that no matter what happens to you, daddy is near.
I love you, son. Happy birthday.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What I looked for in a wife

I never really dated in high school, for a variety of reasons. The main reason is that I didn't ask anybody out. I wasn't the coolest guy in school, and although I was an athlete, I didn't play for any school teams, so I missed out on the whole "groupie" angle.

Had my first date in college before school even started. Met a girl in the registration line the day I moved into the dorm, and we ended up as a couple for our entire freshman year. She wasn't really a good person, and frankly had some pretty major problems, but I was a rookie in relationships and learned a lot of good lessons.

I came back my sophomore year dedicated to having fun. Lots of dates, no serious relationships, and the freedom to do whatever I wanted, with whomever I wanted, every weekend. That lasted until the first week of school when I met Jamie.

It dawned on me that I had been building up a profile of what I was looking for in a wife, even though it was a mostly subconscious process. I'm not one of those people who makes an actual list of desired traits in a partner, but we all have our preferences. It took my entire freshman year in a bad relationship to even begin to formulate what I actually did want in a girl.

So here's what I was looking for. Yes, most of it is cliched, but it's true:

  • She had to be funny. On her own terms, not just able to laugh at my jokes.
  • She had to be a strong personality, with confidence and fire and no ability to let the status quo rule. I wanted someone who could challenge me and surprise me for decades to come.
  • I prefered a brunette. Something about dark-haired girls has always been attractive to me. Maybe it's a built-in genetic force of differentiation, to balance out my fair-haired and fair-skinned genes.
  • She had to have clasically beautiful features. The kind of girl who looks great without makeup, and breathtaking with it. A girl who could put on a ballcap and still turn heads.
  • She had to have life in her eyes and a great smile. You know what I mean by "life in her eyes". You've seen people who have it and don't have it.

That's pretty much the list. It's funny, because on a physical level, I couldn't even think of many women who fit my idea of beauty. Hollywood loves its blondes, and whenever a brunette was given a strong personality in film or TV, she was usually bitchy.

There was one girl I remember, the lead singer of a cheesy 80s band. Here she is in their big hit, "Breakout". Great smile, the kind that makes it look like that's the natural state of her face. A pretty face, but approachable and kind. That's what I wanted to see across the pillow every morning:

I think I ended up doing pretty well on the physical level. :) And any of you who have met Jamie know that she isn't lacking in the "strength of personality" department either, so I have no chance of getting bored on that front. I definitely married up.

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Note: I fully admit that my "list" was probably shaped by Jamie, after I met her. Love works both ways.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Why I love science fiction

My dad loves to read mystery/thrillers. His mom reads everything, but at one time had a neat collection of old westerns. My uncle can devour a book in a few hours (devour it mentally, not digestively), and I think he's also partial to mysteries and thrillers. My son reads mostly Bob the Builder and Cars. I don't know of anyone who reads purely non-fiction, but I'm sure they exist.

Me? I love science fiction. Sci-fi, or from here on out in this post, SF. And I loved SF from the very start, even melding it into other genres you wouldn't think of. My favorite book was the Smurfs, but specifically, it was Astrosmurf, the story of a dreamer dude who wanted to fly to the moon in a rocket ship. It was smurfy SF.

Later I progressed to more sophisticated material, such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series. You can guess my favorite of the set.

It holds true today -- I love nothing more than a great SF story. Every year I read the short story collection edited by Gardner Dozois, titled The Year's Best Science Fiction. Every year I come away screaming, "Why can't Hollywood take any of these stories and make them into films!?!?! They would far surpass Mission to Mars, Battlefield Earth or any of that other drivel that's been thrust upon us!!" Then I take my medicine and all the angry thoughts fly away into the moonbeams.

This year I added another anthology to my reading list: Fast Foward 1: Future Fiction From the Cutting Edge. Note: if you look for it, make sure you get the title exactly right. There's another book called Fast Forward that is an autobiography from a screenwriter of pornography. I'm not kidding.

Not only was Fast Forward just as strong any other book I've read, it shows again why SF is such an important genre. You all know me by now, if you've been reading a while. And you know that I'm ultra-introspective and annoyingly relentless about improving myself as a person. So SF to me can't be just entertainment.

Here's Frederick Pohl (SF author) and his take on why the genre helps us all:

"Does the story tell me something worth knowing, tht I had not known before, about the relationship between man and technology? Does it open a new horizon for my thinking? Does it suggest possibilities about the alternative future courses my world can take? Does it illuminate events and trends of today, by showing me where they may lead tomorrow? Does it give me a fresh and objective point of view on my own world and culture, perhaps by letting me see it through the eyes of a different kind of creature entirely, from a planet light-years away? These qualities are not only among those which make SF good, they are what make it unique. Be it never so beautifully written, a story is not a good SF story unless it rates high in at least some of these aspects."

Editor Lou Anders has this to say:

"Asimov gave us the word 'robotics' and Gibson the world 'cyberspace.' Our communications satellites were dreamed up by Sir Arthur C. Clarke in 1945, and our personal computers were first envisioned by author Murray Leinster back in 1946 in his short story, 'A Logic Named Joe.' Not only did Leinster envision the PC, but he understood that it would be used for television, news, horoscopes, dating, stock trading, weather, and all the 'junk' that fills up so much of our inboxes. As has been said before, anyone could have predicted the automobile, but it would take a SF writer to predict the traffic jam."

Reading SF is not just escapism for me -- it sharpens me. Off the top of my head, I can think of stories from those two recent books that have changed me in very real ways. One gave me vision for a humanity centuries away, and a hope that our race will continue to make progress in learning what it means to truly love and serve one another. Another reminded me that nothing impacts a man quite like the experience of becoming a father, and that eventually every dad has to let his children find their own way. Every single story shaped me, mostly in ways probably imperceptible.

Our world needs dreamers. The laptop I'm typing on, the wireless internet connection I'm surfing on, even the custom-made chair I'm sitting in... all were made by technology thought impossible just decades ago. Yet they exist, and here I am too. I've had a hernia operation (when I was 7 years old), rehabbed from knee injuries and had LASIK to fix my eyes. To someone from 1907 I'm a certified cyborg, a freak of science. My wife and children wouldn't even be alive in previous centuries, and even today in many parts of the world, due to their health issues. Yet here we are.

Science is a wonderful thing -- it has literally saved my family's life. And it's made it possible for you read what I'm writing now. And today's science was yesterday's SF. What's up next? I can't wait!

That's why I love SF.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Only the good die young

I went to a funeral last week for someone only four months older than me. Kim Delgado, 31 years old and a former employee of mine, passed away only six weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She had been sick off and on since returning from a vacation to Aruba in November, and the doctors figured she just had some exotic strain of a virus that would clear up.

Over time it became evident that something more serious was going on. That’s the problem with pancreatic cancer, and the reason it’s the most lethal form of cancer – it looks like a dozen other things before it’s usually diagnosed.

The funeral was held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Plantersville, TX, more than 50 miles north of my office, and my office is already in North Houston. This was way out in the middle of nowhere, Texas. It was funny driving to the funeral. At one point at a stoplight in the small town of Magnolia, there were eight vehicles waiting: two Lexus sedans, two BMWs, a Jaguar, a black Dodge Intrepid (me), and two white Ford F-350 trucks. Guess which vehicles had driven in from Houston for the funeral, and which vehicles belonged to the town’s citizens who were merely coming in for lunch after working on the farm all morning.

The church was absolutely beautiful and the funeral service was well done. Somehow I don’t think I’d ever been to a Catholic funeral before, and for the most part it was pretty standard. One nit, though – the entire affair took more than 80 minutes, but less than two minutes was spent remembering, talking about, or otherwise focusing on Kim. It was basically a standard Catholic Mass, with a 90-second eulogy. It’s totally the family’s choice how they do things, so I don’t begrudge them that. But note to my own family: let’s spend some time sharing about the special person we miss at our funerals.

The most touching point was when Kim’s father spoke a very brief, 30-second message to his daughter’s remains (she had been cremated). He said, “Kim, we used to love going to movies together. Remember when we’d get into the theater early, then I’d leave to hit the concession stand? I’d always ask you to save me a seat. Well, that’s still what I’m saying. You’re in a better place, and you’re not sick anymore. I’m glad the pain is gone. And please save me a seat.”

Kim worked for me for about a year at my last company. It was typical high-tech corporate matrix organization – Kim reported to me although nothing in her job overlapped with anything in my job. But there was no other manager available for her, so I took her on. She was extremely sweet and we enjoyed working together. Well, not together since our jobs were so different, but we at least worked in awareness of each other.

We had at least one meeting face-to-face every day, but much of our working relationship took place through instant messaging (IM). I’ve never been a big fan of IM, but she liked it so I went with the flow. It actually worked out pretty well, because she could send me a quick question, and if I was busy on the phone or in a meeting, I could wait to answer until later.

We stayed on each other’s IM list after I left the company, and every few months we would have a quick online chat. Her avatar picture was a self-portrait of her face, so it was kinda neat to get a popup window on my screen every morning when she would log in to her computer at work (I get to the office earlier than just about everybody else).

It dawned on me a few weeks ago that I hadn’t seen her face pop up on my screen in a while. Now I know why.

31 years old. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on April 4. Died on May 26.

The priest mentioned the song, “Only the Good Die Young” during his comments. He said that was certainly true in Kim’s case. He also said that for some of us, it means we might be around for a long, long time.