Keeping a Game Face On

Elizabeth and Pete, 10/18/08For the last month or so, I’ve moved my blogging to the site that details Marge’s progress in her fight against ovarian cancer. That’s the compelling story in my life right now, but it’s not the only one.

Another ongoing story for me, and one that belongs on this blog, has to do with faces. The picture here, for example, shows me with my daughter Elizabeth and was taken last Saturday. We are wearing our game faces here. Among the many traits we share, however, is a tendency to drift into private thought during quiet moments. In such moments our muscles relax and faces slip into an expression that might signify despair in another context. The result is that we are often interrupted by concerned friends who conclude that something is terribly wrong. Sample dialogue:

ME: (saying nothing because I’m a million miles away in thought)…
FRIEND: Pete! Oh my God! What’s wrong?
ME: (startled) What? What are you talking about?
FRIEND: You look absolutely stricken! Are you OK?
ME: (confused) I, I don’t understand…

Because this sort of thing also used to happen to my mother, I guess the “stone face cum sightless stare” counts as a family quirk. Current research documents the close relationship between mood and facial expression. That’s just common knowledge. The surprising new idea, however is that facial expression is mood, not just a reflection of it; that the configuration of facial muscles at any given moment determines the mood which the mind/personality will experience; that mood, in short, is something that is pushed into the mind–not something that flows out of it. The whole “let a smile be your umbrella” school of thought seems to be based on an intuitive belief in this principle, but I have to insist that it isn’t the whole story.

I’m more concerned than usual about this right now because during the course of Marge’s cancer treatment I do have stricken moments. I don’t want to squander my friends’ concern for me by looking stricken when I’m, for example, only idly wondering who decided which way “clockwise” would be or whether a necktie knot could be formed from inelastic material or why German uses “sie” as so many different pronouns if it’s supposed to be so damned precise.

It’s a pretty good idea for me to have my picture taken fairly often so that I can see how I’m doing with this. That photographer on Saturday, for example, had to snap the picture three times before he caught me with a facial expression he considered acceptable. I mean, come on people, it was a baby shower. Reveries happen even there. When he tried to take my picture I was just wondering how it came to be that in the years since Elizabeth was a baby, so much baby equipment came to look as if it was designed by Klingons.

5 Replies to “Keeping a Game Face On”

  1. I’ve been wondering where you went, I’ll check the other site. I assumed all along you were dealing with your wife’s illness. I hope she gets better.

    I think I told you once that our son-in-law is a two-time cancer survivor. The radiation therapy for his lymphoma was in and around his heart and lungs, and it seems the chickens are coming home to roost. He’s been chronically short of breath and energy since all that, but had learned to compensate, and much good is in his (and our) lives–not least a beautiful granddaugher. In recent months he got a bit worse, but that is a matter of degree and not kind for him. Finally,it required some heart investigation. Almost two weeks ago he had 3 coronary bypasses, and attempted mitral valve repair (all this due to scarring from the prior radiation). The bypasses went well, but the mitral valve was not repairable due to the scarring. The doctors are guardedly hopeful that the increased blood supply to the heart, via the bypasses, will improve his heart’s condition so that the leakage at the mitral valve subsides, and becomes a non-issue.

    Because of his underlying post-cancer-treatment condition, recovery has been a bear. They had him on a respirator and heavy sedation for a week or so, and he is only now returning to alertness. Baby steps, a squeezed hand, eyes following movement. I didn’t realize that at least in some cases waking up fully from extended sedation (unconsciousness, let’s face it) is very slow. We remain hopeful for the future.

    I relate all this not in the all-too-common “oh yeah, well my surgery was worse” sense, but to let you know I actually can empathize. I think of you and your wife often, and extend my hope to you.

  2. Thanks, Gerry, for your kind thoughts and your experience.

    We’ve been lucky enough in our lives up to now that all of this is new to us. We’ve already found, however, that the first lesson is you need to learn fast.

  3. Elizabeth is beautiful and I know she must be a great comfort to you during this troubled time. You both need to be good to yourselves as well as to Marge. The caretaker must not get sick.

  4. You have a beautiful daughter!

    So sorry to hear of Marge’s illness. She is fortunate to have such caring and giving family members to help pull her through some rough times ahead.

    We’re all thinking of you and your family, Pete.

  5. A melee of thoughts on this sunny chilly day in Atlanta: What a gorgeous Elizabeth! I renewed my driver’s license today, and looking at the updated photo I was stunned. The smile was great yet the haircut… what was I thinking when I stepped into that discount parlor? Nothing like a camera to reveal stuff denied. More effective than a good friend’s tactful words. You write with sensitivity about your family and your personal and our national history. I’m a sixties person, too, and while the road to this administration-elect (HOORAY!) has been long, weary, and teary, we have had bright spots, haven’t we? I lift up Marge with my dear pal Olga, a six-year fighter of ovarian cancer.

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