The Next Two Weeks

I lived my life in four-year blocks of time for a long time. 

I went to high school for four years, enjoying the studying, the teams, the football Friday nights, the dances, the classroom experiences, the crushes, my first real love, and the teen years. A small mill town in the south. A big fish in a little pond. A girlfriend. A handful of dreams. 

I went to college for three years (yeah, I got credit for four years because I CLEP tested out of a year, but that’s a story for another day). I lived in the organic chemistry lab visited by my professor’s Great Dane, studied late at night at the local Krystal eating chili and cheese Krystals, agonized over making enough As to get into medical school, then took the MCAT to make that dream a reality. 

I went to medical school for four years. I endured the hell of year one, when classmates drop out after two weeks because it’s just too fucking hard. Most of us made it to year two. We made it past professors that told you no matter how you tried you would never get more than a C (then gave you a B if you were lucky). We made it past anatomy, microbiology, pathology “pot cases”. (No, those were not studying people who smoked marijuana, but looking at the diseased tissues of those who had donated their organs to be placed on carts in formaldehyde filled pots for medical students to study in detail.) We enjoyed electives after enduring the compulsories. We graduated, doctors in name only, not knowing how little about life and medicine we actually knew. 

I did a four-year internship/residency/chief residency in psychiatry. I learned just how little Freud knew about people who I now treat who have real psychosis, real depression, and who really kill themselves. I learned more about how to manage and navigate the future systems in my life than I did about the medications available at the time, which is good really, considering that people and systems don’t change that much over the years, but medications become obsolete and get recalled. I learned to work ninety hours a week on very little sleep. I learned who I could trust to have my back, and who would stab me in it. I learned to love my patients for what they would teach me, real things about life and love and sickness and death that no two-hundred-dollar medical textbook could ever show me. 

My preparatory years were measured in four-year increments. 

Now, we are all gathered on the battlefield of a great pandemic. 

There is a virus out there that can infect me, make me sick within fourteen days, and kill me in just a few more. If I am exposed, I must count fourteen days. If I make it that far, then I will likely make it farther. If I don’t, who knows. 

I used to look forward to the next four years.

Now, I count myself among the lucky who make it through the next two weeks. 

Marking Time

Is it just me, or has time felt different in the last ten weeks? Do you feel that time has sped up, giving you a decreased ability to accomplish the things you need to get done, or does time feel slowed down to you, making each day feel longer and harder to fill with constructive tasks? Do your protracted days feel full of dead space that is buffered by countless hours of Netflix? I have been doing some thinking about time and schedules and orderliness and routine lately and thought I would share some of that with you this week.

Time is measured in several different ways by us and for us. First of all of course is our natural, biological circadian rhythm. According to the National Sleep Foundation at sleepfoundation.org, your circadian rhythm is basically a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It’s also known as your sleep/wake cycle. A few important things about this cycle. It’s pretty regular, but it can be altered or disrupted if you are a night owl or a morning person, or if you are caught up on your sleep or sleep deprived. Light and dark tend to coincide with this cycle but shift work or other alterations in usual patterns of activity also can make things interesting. Lastly, your circadian rhythm may change as you age. You may not have the same sleep cycle as your partner, children or parents.

How has this affected all of us during this pandemic? We tend to get into a pattern that involves going to bed at about the same time every day, getting up at the same time (albeit prompted by that dreaded alarm that always goes off earlier then we like), having a relatively fixed commute time, and eating meals at the same time. We mark time during our days by these fixed events and behaviors and we can almost set our clocks (internal and external) by them. Now that many of us are working from home, or might have even lost our regular jobs, these temporal signposts have been disrupted. We might get up an hour later. We might have more time for lunch at home. We have a shorter commute, or no commute at all. Light and dark might not be the biological bookends that they were before, in that we get up and go to bed at different times that before the pandemic. Our internal clocks, our circadian rhythm, has been slightly altered just enough to make us feel odd, tired, irritable and out of sorts.

What about our self-imposed schedules, our calendars, alarms, reminders and other ways that we mark time during our days and nights that helps us make sense of our world and our place in it? These have always been the ways that we choose to structure our days. For example, my wife is a very analog person who has a calendar in the laundry room, another in her art room, several ongoing Post It note lists for groceries, phone calls and projects that live between the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen and art room. I choose to structure most of my life digitally, with a to do program called Things, a digital family calendar for our stuff and Outlook for work related time, and reminders that are pre-programmed for months and years to pop up and tell me what to do when it’s time to do it. Both of these methods of marking time work very well, depending on the person and their needs. Even in the time of this pandemic, these ways of controlling our day and the time allotted to various events and projects maintains a fair amount of integrity.

That being said, even these physical manifestations of our time have been altered by COVID-19. How? She is going to the store less. I am ordering things online as I always have loved to do but finding that I need fewer things now that I am home the majority of my time. Seeing and visiting our families has become an entry to FaceTime on the weekend to catch up. My routine management team meeting with my coworkers is now done on Skype for Business, instead of around a table. Church is at ten AM, but we now go there via Facebook Live. The events on our calendars are exactly the same, but the way the events happen is vastly different.

How about the big external ways that we mark time or have it marked for us? I’m thinking about birthdays, graduations, holidays, sports seasons and events, changes in the seasons, and other major delineations of time that we experience collectively and socially. What has happened to these during the pandemic? We know that we have not been able to travel to visit with parents, siblings, children and grandchildren. The joy of a hug and blowing out the candles on a birthday cake has been tempered by the possibility of being an asymptomatic carrier of the coronavirus and inadvertently infecting a loved one. Easter came and went with virtual celebrations, family Zoom calls and personal egg hunts. As I write this, a NASCAR race will be held at the speedway in Darlington, SC, but no spectators will fill the stands to watch it. Seniors are graduating without public fanfare. Baseball will play a shortened season starting in July, without fans. The celebration of summer will start as it always does on Memorial Day, but pools will not open and beaches may still be closed.

We count on our internal clocks, our personal calendars and the changing of seasons to guide our behaviors, set our moods and keep us connected as we celebrate the moments of our lives. We mourn the loss of these tangible ways to measure time. It is not the same today, and it may not be the same next week or next month or even next year. Will we get back to the security of a routine, a calendar filled with events and being able to celebrate life’s many milestones?

You can bet on it. Mark it on your calendar.

The Space Between

“The space between
Your heart and mine
Is the space we’ll fill with time
The space between…”

Dave Matthews Band

 

The week between Christmas and the new year is a wondrous time, a state of limbo and a nebulous preamble.

There are memories of things done and left undone, places visited, goals reached and projects unfinished. Loves gained and loves lost.

There are regrets about things that might have been. Could have. Should have. Would have. Might have. Needed to. Wanted to.

There is  bright hot anticipation, reflected in the two thousand six hundred eighty eight triangular Waterford crystals of a ball not yet dropped, one that in its slow, inexorable perpendicular slide to Times Square defines the space between one year and the next, one dashed hope and a myriad waiting dreams. At the top, three hundred sixty five days seem endless. At the bottom, with the tic of the first second of the first minute of the first hour of the infant year, we know that we will be doomed to meet here again, God willing, to bask in the reflected light of hope once more, one year hence.

Modern day Illuminati we are, striving to write something that we will never be able to read, build a structure that we will never inhabit and control a universe that will never bend to our collective will.

And yet, we are excited. We are hopeful. We make plans. We set goals. We dare to dream. While feeling wistful about the last grains of sand slipping into the bottom of the hourglass, we feel buoyed by the infinite possibilities of a new year.

2018 will be the next in a long progression of blank canvasses ready to be transformed.

We have only to pick up the pencil, the pen, the brush, the knife to craft words that incite, art that transforms, music that fills the soul.

We have only to connect, to form a bond, to fill that infinitesimal but incalculable space between hearts with something that will transcend time.

We have, only, to perfect the pristine new year by soiling it with life’s messy palette.

Welcome, 2018.

 

Theory of Relativity

My fiancé and I traveled to Spartanburg to visit with my youngest daughter and my granddog Sadie today. Tricia turned twenty five. She is my youngest. We had a celebratory birthday lunch and a nice trip to the shady, grassy, wonderful dog park in her apartment complex. 

Now, first of all, having your youngest daughter turn twenty five does something to your brain. It thinks that it has to tell your body, “Hey, man, you are older than dirt.” Some mornings, when I get up and have twinges and aches and pains and stiffness and soreness that I did not have when I was twenty five, I believe my brain. Other days, I think it is simply deluded and needs more Haldol. 

Time is relative, folks. I look back at the pictures of myself holding my then-two-year-old-now-twenty-five-year-old Tricia and I wonder who that guy is. I mean, the hair is dark brown, the body is thin, the clothes are bad and the glasses are HUGE. Who IS that guy? How did I travel through time and space from that guy to who I am today? Would that guy recognize ME today? 

I have noticed that my sense of time at work is changing. Since I work odd hours, doing both a full time medical director/clinic job as well as a half-time telepsychiatry job, some days are the standard eight hours, while some stretch to eighteen hours. I have found that when I work a full day in the clinic, take an hour and a half to get home and eat dinner, and then go back to start an evening emergency room shift, I am relieved that I only have five and a half hours left in the day. That time seems to fly by. When I start a weekend shift at eleven AM and the clock goes past noon, I feel that I am on the downhill side of the shift because I now have less then twelve hours to go before blessed sleep. Time bends, warps, lengthens and shortens, depending on the circumstances. 

Like many folks I guess, I sometimes find myself thinking of my life in terms of years lived and anticipated years left to live. Now, of course, none of us knows how long we have on this earth. However, if I am very optimistic and think I may have ninety years of life if I’m very lucky, then I have lived almost fifty-nine years of it, and I have thirty-one years to go. Instead of feeling, like I do on my ER shifts, that I am on the downhill side of things and that time is short, I look at that potential thirty-one years and it looks very long and potentially full of wonderful times to come. 

You are no doubt familiar with the principle that says that the amount of time required to complete a project increases according to the amount of time available to finish it. 

It would be nice to know exactly how much time we have to complete our life’s work, our life’s love, and our bucket list, wouldn’t it? The problem is, we don’t have any way to know for sure how long we have. 

For me, it always comes down to how I am going to spend each day, today, now

If I am truly trying to make the most of each day, if I am celebrating each milestone, if I am working hard and loving truly and lending a helping hand, if I am making the world a better place and enjoying myself along the way, then my life has been a good one. 

If it ends tonight, or if it ends thirty-one years from now, I can be assured that I have made the best use of the time given to me, and that is all I could ask for. 

Use your time wisely. 

It truly does fly.