Monday, April 27, 2009

hunkering down

I guess this is a great time to be doing what I'm doing, which amounts to little more than hunkering down. Traveling overseas seems to be a bad idea, what with the current (and highly irrational) swine flu scare going on.* Being in Korea right now might be nice in terms of job security (the perennial English craze ensures employment), but Korea, too, is suffering from the global economic downturn.** Mom still has balance and coordination issues, which means we need to be watching her to make sure she's OK, which in turn means that I am-- we are-- right where we should be.

Just as she was before the crisis on April 16, Mom seems to like curling up on her new living room couch and watching Korean TV. My aunt sits with her, and they talk. I don't think Mom feels ready to go out into the world; she's very self-conscious about her surgical scar (no word yet on the date for actual scalp/skull staple removal). She does talk a lot more, and now handles phone calls, which is a very positive development. She is, however, telling some of her interlocutors things that she seems to have pulled from thin air, such as the idea that I'm leaving to continue my walk sometime in May. I heard her say this to a caller just a few minutes ago. I felt a pang, because I think I understand the cognitive issue that prompted Mom to say this.

We've talked about the frontal lobe before, and about its role as a connector of cause and effect. It also plays a role in forming and maintaining inhibitions, from which I deduce that its job has something to do with our understanding of the relationship between "is" and "ought." When the frontal lobe is damaged, the distinctness of these two concepts is blurred. From Mom's perspective, I ought to be returning to the walk and not worrying about her. Her motherly instinct is deeply engraved within her, so this line of thinking stems from the basic impulse to see her children happy and leading fulfilling lives, not "cooped up" with her. But because Mom doesn't neatly separate "is" and "ought," she may be prone to telling people things that ought to be true (from her perspective) but which are not (yet) the case. For Mom, then, expectation morphs into fact: Kevin OUGHT to go and enjoy his walk, therefore he IS restarting the walk in May.

I could be wrong, of course. Taking a few undergrad psych courses*** and reading M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled doesn't make me an expert on anything. But having done the psychology and linguistics courses, and having spent a lot of time in both francophone and coreanophone cultures, I'm used to the idea of trying to figure out where people are at, mentally speaking. I think I have a handle on what's happening with Mom, and I'm constantly testing the boundaries of her mental terrain.

Mom is healing from her brain surgery, so I have no idea how long the cognitive and physical issues will last. The fact that she's becoming a more active participant in conversations is a great sign, but she still has such a long way to go. The diminution of her active vocabulary**** is painful to hear, but that deficit must be seen in light of the great progress she's made since surgery. Perhaps more will come back.

Major therapy for Mom doesn't start for a while-- perhaps a week or so. We have appointments with her therapists on May 11 and 14, and are currently trying to make an appointment with one of her neurosurgeons. Doctor after doctor told us, though, that Mom needs time to heal first before the radiotherapy can begin. For the moment, then, hunkering down seems to be the best thing to do.

*The news services that highlight entire states on their maps are misleading the public into thinking that entire states are infected ("It's hit California!"), when in fact we're talking about dozens or perhaps hundreds of confirmed infections and deaths worldwide. As with SARS, most of the current fears are unfounded, especially when you put those tiny numbers next to actual population figures: 300 million-plus Americans, over 110 million in Mexico, etc.

UPDATE: As of April 26, no one has died outside of Mexico.

**I'm amused when countries with nanny states (think: high taxes, big government, lots of strikes, gummed-up bureaucracies and, more often than not, too much unemployment), after spending so much time bragging about the superiority of their economic policies, suffer the same catastrophes as everyone else. Shouldn't these countries be more resilient? What's the point of bragging if that's not the case? And wherein lies the superiority of those economic systems if such countries turn around and blame their interconnectedness with America for their own crises? Shouldn't a robust, "superior" economy anticipate problems related to interconnectedness with other countries' economies?

South Korea's not really the source of my amusement in this case: its government has its nanny-state aspects (as does our own, unfortunately), but taxes are relatively low and many aspects of Korean society are arguably more capitalistic and free market-oriented than American society. A trip to Namdaemun Market illustrates this quite nicely: American retailers would be astounded to see such free-wheeling capitalism in action.

Then again, South Korean healthcare, more nationalized than our own and not without its faults, makes for an interesting case study. In terms of big government, freedom of speech also remains a somewhat dicey proposition on the peninsula, especially if you try to state publicly that the problem of North Korea's slow massacre of its own people is far more important than a couple of rocky islets whose possession isn't really, seriously in dispute.

***The courses in question: General Psych, Abnormal Psych, Educational Psych, and Second Language Acquisition (where you get doses of Piaget, Skinner, and Chomsky) as part of my certificate program to become a French teacher.

****Active and passive vocabulary are concepts found in language teaching. The former relates to the two primarily productive macroskills (speaking and writing), while the latter relates to the two primarily receptive macroskills (listening and reading). Most people generally develop more passive vocabulary before they develop active vocabulary. As babies, we spend about a year, on average, not saying a single distinct thing. During that time, a storehouse of passive vocabulary is being built up as the people around us fill our brains with often-repetitive auditory stimuli. Active vocabulary appears soon after, but almost always lags behind. We see the difference between these two storehouses even as adults-- for example, when we read authors who rely on 50-cent words, but don't feel adept at using such words properly ourselves. (There are, of course, exceptions to this.)


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