Tuesday, February 4, 2020

"Be occupied with or focused on things and issues that are of interest, importance, and concern to you"

Still crazy after all these years...Mariposa, 2019

“Be occupied with or focused on things and issues that are of interest, importance, and concern to you. Remain passionately involved in them.” Morrie Schwartz

Today I took possession of a machine that sits on a small table next to my bed. There are plastic hoses attached to it and a set of straps that fits over my head. The straps hold a small mask that fits over my nose. When the machine is ON, it will provide extra puffs of air to expand my lungs to full capacity when I’m sleeping. Even though the mask doesn’t cover my mouth, when the machine is on I’m unable to talk.

It will take willpower to get used to this thing. I’ll give it my best shot.

It’s been a hell of a roller coaster couple of weeks. I’m now a Lame Duck faculty member. When I left my last two positions at the Geophysical Lab and UC Merced, I remained in touch for a year, keeping instruments going, people happy and employed. Having two jobs at a time is real work—make no mistake. I’m trying this time to have a smoother transition into retirement. If I follow Morrie’s advice, which I do whenever possible, I need to keep focused. I am. And will continue to be.

What makes this more difficult than it should be is subtle. I was very close to losing something very important (and dear) to making my last days as a professor important and relevant. When I had to ponder that potential loss for several days, it made me realize even more that I can’t fight all the battles and solve all the problems that were the hallmark of my persona for the past 40 years.

“Just let it go. Inch by inch. Just let it go. Inch by inch. One day you’ll see.” India Arie

I’ve been given a reprieve—but this was a wakeup call. What has been important and concerning to me is necessarily going to change. I am thankful to have the opportunity to close out my time at the University as best as I can manage.

“Resist the temptation to think of yourself as useless…Find your own ways of being and feeling useful.”

It’s a constant struggle beginning each and every day to find ways of being useful that don't completely exhaust me. Forget all physical activities—I need help with everything. Mentally, I’ve got to pull things together.

I was asked last week by a student how the hell I managed to build a lab, start an Institute, move to a new city, teach, write grants, and have a life with the overwhelming burden of ALS. I answered that it took planning and breaking these tasks down into small manageable bits. I’ve never been a person who is “overwhelmed”. Chris and I are pretty steady, get-shit-done sort of people. We’ve been getting shit done. The conversation made me realize that I need to take stock of what I have accomplished and start to think of the next phase. What does “useful” look like in my future?

I can order food from Amazon for my 92-year-old mother, but I can’t buy her fresh milk, as she’s in New Jersey. I can buy birthday presents online, but it ain’t easy to stroll through shops and pick things out. I can find easy, tasty recipes online for Chris and I to cook, but I can’t put a baking dish in the oven. I can mix Manhattans (bourbon and vermouth with a cherry), but I can’t drink more than half of one. I can read, correct grammar, and suggest editorial changes, but the time is over for starting anything new. 
I can help save for his college education! Sheri, Mike, and baby Travis (my nephews)

I can write my feelings down in this blog. You readers help me when you read and comment. It makes me feel useful.

“Don’t assume that it’s too late to become involved or to redirect your interests.” Morrie Schwartz

When I faced the possibility of shrinking my final University aspirations, it became very real that I need to take more effort to redirect my interests. July will be here before I know it. The Institute will either go into mothballs for a year, or someone will step in (and up) and see that it continues. I’ll easily transition off any faculty committees. (I’d be weird if that weren’t the case.) The final remaining piece is the laboratory. I’ll need to say good-bye, leave it to others who can figure things out.

At lunch with a friend last week, she asked how my painting was coming along. She’s a painter herself—and quite a good one with stunning abstracts that pop out with color and feeling. I mentioned how it was harder to hold a brush, couldn’t reach far, etc. She listened patiently and hoped I’d figure it out, in so many words. I will.

Chris and I need to figure out the travel piece, which is a movable target. Come July, we’ll host family for a couple weeks, then time will yawn on. We’re hoping to spend long times on the coast at Sea Ranch. Reading books, calling friends, and breathing fresh sea air.

Our friends are stepping up. In mid-February, we’ll be hosting two old friends that I’ve known since Chris and I met and a former student/postdoc and her husband. They’ll join us on the Mariposa “campus” helping making meals, helping schlepp me to Yosemite or wildlife refuges in the Valley. I hope they’ll contribute to Morrie’s next bit of advice.

“Take in as much joy as you can whenever and however you can. You may find it in unpredictable places and situations.” Morrie Schwartz

I tell my mother every time we talk, “Remember, laughter is your best medicine!” I gotta have this on my mind every day. ALS medications do a bit, but it’s that laughter and lightness that makes the day tolerable.

Chris and I watch funny movies, tell stupid Dad jokes, quote Monty Python, and try how we might to keep laughing. I will do this. We will make these days as laughter filled as we can. If there are some troubling times, I will remind myself of Morrie’s sage advice to find joy in new places.

And when I concentrate on things like the Salton Sea, the triple quad mass spectrometer and mass fragments, painting, hosting, and laughing, I’ll try to conquer that damn breathing machine so I can laugh as loud as I possibly can.


  1. Can’t wait to see you Marilyn- we have lots of stories to remember and new ones to make! Xo

  2. Look as long as u can think and communicate in some way i need you. Im compiling a high school students knowledge on kelp and have many ideas to discuss. U can uf willing join my brain in thoughts it would be so wonderful.


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