When Leah was born, my first child, I was overwhelmed. Not surprising, most first time moms are. Each time she cried, which seemed often, I would go through the possibilities: hungry? wet diaper? too cold/ too hot? needing to be cuddled? In an effort to bring some order to chaos, I kept a pad where I wrote down how long she slept, how long she nursed, and her diaper production (a nice way of saying her pooping and peeing). Writing it down seemed to help. With time it became more routine, and I relaxed as I learned about my baby.
I noticed that when Dan and Beth had their beautiful baby girl they more or less did the same thing, but they had an app for that! She is now approaching 11 months, they stopped using the app quite a while ago, as they too eased into parenthood.
Both my mother and my father-in-law, 85 and 96 respectively, have faced serious health challenges over recent weeks. My mom had an operation to have a cancerous tumor removed from her left lung (the second time she faced this, 3 years ago she had a cancerous tumor removed from her right lung). My father-in-law had pneumonia. He was hospitalized, fortunately briefly, and seems to be slowly recovering. Pretty miraculous – I don’t think many 96 year olds survive pneumonia. They are both progressing in fits and starts.
My anxiety about their recoveries reminds me of how I felt when Leah was born. A fear of doing the wrong thing, of not knowing what might be helpful, of understanding whether a symptom is serious or not, of not being attentive enough or maybe too focused. You can make yourself crazy.
So, we have come full circle – concerned about those basic bodily functions. Here’s hoping that they continue to work, and that my anxiety lessens as they do.
It is times like these that I wish I was a person of faith, but I don’t feel it. When my dad was seriously ill, and it turned out was approaching the end of his life, I had these same anxieties. Though I don’t believe in God (that’s an essay for another time), I found myself offering up a prayer to the universe: give me strength, give me the wisdom to know what to do and have mercy on my father. I silently repeated those words regularly over the course of the weeks. I don’t know if it helped. I did get through it. I offer that same prayer now. I will see this through, too.
Scaring kids straight isn’t supposed to work, but it worked on me. There is a school of thought that says that if you present adolescents with a frightening picture of what drug use looks like, it will keep kids on the straight and narrow. I haven’t looked at the data, but I’m under the impression that the strategy isn’t very effective. Maybe because adolescents think they are immortal, that they are unique, can maintain control and it won’t happen to them. Or maybe because they don’t believe the message adults are feeding them. When I was an adolescent, I believed.
When I was growing up in the early ’70s there were stories about people taking a ‘bad trip’ and trying to fly off buildings – to their death. There were other stories of tripping on LSD and wandering outside naked. I’m not sure which of those scenarios horrified me more. The idea of being out of control, or not being able to distinguish fantasy from reality, was terrifying to me. When there was a rumor that someone had laced the ketchup in Coney Island Joe’s, a neighborhood burger/hot dog place, with LSD, I stayed away for years.
When I was 12 a book came out,“Go Ask Alice.” It was released anonymously, described as the diary of a real girl who got mixed up in the drug scene. I don’t remember who got the book, my friend Deborah or me, but we were so anxious to read it that we went into her basement and read it aloud. I think we read the entire book that way – in one sitting. We were shocked and disturbed by it.
The story presented a 15 year old girl, who we could relate to as she struggled with social acceptance, whose first experience with drugs was accidental. It fed into the zeitgeist of the time (not that I knew that word then). After consuming LSD without knowing, she got deeper into the scene. She was new to her town and she became friends with a group of kids who were experimenting with drugs. It all seemed so plausible to me.
The worst part of the story was that the diary ended with her clean, starting a new path with new friends. There was a brief epilogue that reported that she died of a drug overdose a couple of weeks later. Deborah and I were devastated.
I was just starting junior high school and I never felt more alienated. As I have written before in earlier blog posts, Nana, my grandmother and closest companion, had died the year before. To make matters worse, I was zoned to go to a different junior high school from my classmates in elementary school. It was a challenging time to say the least.
Reading Alice’s story, the girl’s name is never actually revealed, we just assumed it was Alice based on the title of the book, convinced me that whatever loneliness I might have felt, befriending kids who were doing drugs was not an option. I think Deborah came away thinking the same thing.
I’m not sure what reminded me of the book or this issue, but when I did a bit of online research about it, I found some interesting things. Unbeknownst to me, a few years after it came out, there was controversy about whether the book was a real diary or if it was fabricated. The edition we read had the tag line “A Real Diary.” (see photo above) It was presented as non-fiction. Lo and behold, when information emerged about the possible author, Beatrice Sparks, it turned out she was a therapist who said it was a diary of one of her clients that the parents authorized her to use. But, apparently Sparks augmented the diary entries. Today the book is still in print, but it is categorized as fiction and includes a disclaimer. Turns out James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” wasn’t the first of this kind of controversy.
Perhaps those adolescents who were skeptical about messages from adults were right. Ironic, isn’t it? I think my fear of drug use served me well, though.
One challenge in writing this blog is that it is disjointed. I’ve jumped around quite a bit, while still trying to follow some threads in a coherent way. I appreciate you readers taking the journey with me. Hopefully it hasn’t been too confusing!
In preparing to write this piece, I reread a bunch of posts to remind myself what I had covered. I don’t want to repeat myself, but I also want to make sure that each essay stands on its own. Please feel free to comment or message me if you have questions or if I’ve lost you! I welcome the feedback.
I’ve written about the ‘tense conversation’ (read here) Gary and I had about his applying to medical school. With all that went into the application, and all the pressure he felt, medical school presented quite a test – to Gary, to me and to our relationship.
Gary sailed through high school with minimal effort. He needed only a bit more energy to get through college. He began medical school not knowing how smart he was and without well-developed study skills. I think to some degree he had ‘impostor syndrome,’ he didn’t know if he belonged or deserved to be there.
Plus, he had his father’s hopes and dreams (and money for tuition!) riding on his success. Not too much pressure! Fortunately, Gary rose to the challenge. He not only met it, but he excelled. He set a brutal work pace for himself to achieve it.
As I wrote previously, Gary and I drove a U-Haul from Queens to Pittsburgh in August of 1982. We parked the truck in front of Ruskin Hall in Oakland, the neighborhood which the University of Pittsburgh occupies, and got the keys and went up to the apartment.
Gary and his parents had traveled to Pittsburgh earlier in the summer to select the apartment, this was my first time seeing it. I was pleasantly surprised, and a bit overwhelmed. Tears welled as I looked at the high ceilings, huge windows, hardwood floors and spacious bedroom and living room. It reminded me of an upper west side of New York City pre-war apartment and I hadn’t expected something so nice. I couldn’t believe this was going to be Gary and my first home together. I wasn’t actually moving in with him at that point, I was going to join him later, but I knew it would be ours. I wanted to get at least six months in my new job before moving on, and Gary needed to get acclimated to medical school on his own. I knew I would be joining him in the not too distant future and I had no expectation that we would have such a nice apartment.
We moved the furniture in, which wasn’t much, but he had the essentials. We went to the nearest mall and bought some other items, including a phone. One of those new-fangled portable models that we plugged in and didn’t think anything more of it. After finding a grocery store and stocking the pantry and refrigerator with things he could easily prepare, I took a cab to the airport and flew home. I was sad to say goodbye, but fortunately airfare from New York to Pittsburgh was $29, thanks to PeopleExpress and US Air. We planned that I would visit once a month. We also planned to talk on the phone every few days and set our first phone date for Tuesday evening at 8:00, two days from then.
I went back to work on that Monday and pined for Gary. I couldn’t wait to talk to him. The appointed hour couldn’t come fast enough. At 7:59 on Tuesday evening, I picked up the phone in Canarsie and dialed Gary’s new number in Pittsburgh. The phone rang and rang. I counted 20 times. I hung up and dialed again and let it ring another 20 times. I was worried (was something wrong? Was he sick?). I was angry (how could he forget that we had a phone date?) I was confused (what should I do? There was no one to call to check on him). I kept trying. Eventually, he answered and he had a story to tell.
Gary was in the apartment, waiting for my call, keeping himself busy by refinishing a wooden desk that he had brought from home. He heard a chirping sound. Perplexed, he walked around the apartment trying to locate the source. It was a persistent, annoying sound and he wanted it to stop. He determined that it was coming from the smoke detector (also a new-fangled device in those days). He took the step ladder and tried to reach it to disconnect it (the downside of those high ceilings). No luck. The sound stopped, but then resumed. He got the broom and took the stick and pummeled the smoke detector. It fell to the floor, but the sound began again. It finally dawned on him that it wasn’t the smoke detector, but rather it was the new telephone. In the two days that he had been in the apartment it hadn’t rung once, so he had no idea what it sounded like. We were all used to the sound of the classic bell that our phones at home used when they jingled. This phone sounded more like a bird tweeting in a high pitched insistent tone. Meanwhile, back in Canarsie, I was in a panic. I was ready to be furious, until I heard his story. Then we started laughing. Though he had mangled the smoke detector, he was fine and would have the sound of that phone chirping imprinted on his brain forever.
It was a minor but amusing misunderstanding. We managed to communicate more successfully through that first semester. Gary wrote me a letter every day (I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he writes the kids an email every day). I was a faithful correspondent, too. And, we had no further problems with the telephone. That isn’t to say that we didn’t have our struggles during his four years of med school, but more on that next time.
Note: At the end of this piece, Gary offers his perspective.
It was the beginning of our relationship. Gary and I had long conversations about our histories, comparing our families, and sharing our dreams for the future. I knew the broad outlines of his family background, that his parents were Holocaust survivors who had not been in concentration camps. But, I didn’t yet grasp the impact of that on Gary. On one particular autumn night, with a particular conversation, I touched a nerve and, thus, I began to learn.
We were in the living room of the apartment that he shared with two friends. It was late at night, as it often was in those days when we hung out and talked into the wee hours. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the chair he was sitting in, his legs framing my arms.
It started as an innocuous conversation, at least it seemed so to me, about his need to take the MCATs (the medical school entrance exams) and the timing of the test.
A little background might be helpful. Most pre-med students take the MCATs at the end of junior year so that they can apply to medical school during senior year. This sets them up to go directly from college to med school. Since med school is four years and there is additional training required beyond that, which often takes anywhere from three to ten years, many want to be as efficient with their time as possible. Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t in position to do that. His junior year had not been terribly successful. He lost motivation and stepped off the track he had been on, and didn’t take the MCATs. It was now the 1979-80 school year, our senior year, and the test wasn’t available to be taken very often. I think it was offered maybe twice a year. Gary’s next opportunity would be in the Spring, but he hadn’t filled out the application yet.
In order to take the test, Gary had to fill out some paperwork, write a check and mail it in. Paperwork wasn’t a strong suit for Gary, as I was beginning to learn. But, it turned out there was more to his procrastination than met the eye.
“So, let’s fill out the application now and you can mail it tomorrow,” I helpfully suggested.
“You don’t understand,” came the testy reply.
“What do you mean?” I asked, moving to turn around to face him.
“You don’t understand the pressure I am under,” his voice was tight. I heard anger, frustration and anxiety.
“Explain it, then.”
Explain he did. A torrent of words describing high expectations placed on him from as early as he could remember. “It’s good to be a doctor,” his father, David, told him when he was in Kindergarten. It was an idea David repeated regularly over the years. Gary was a good student, it was clear he was intelligent from the get-go. The seed was planted early and his father could be relentless. It was assumed he would go to medical school.
This story isn’t unusual among Jewish families. Many children were on the receiving end of those messages. My response, thinking I was supporting his vision for himself, was to say, “But you can do whatever you want! You don’t have to be limited! You don’t have to be a doctor.”
“You’re not hearing me!” Now he was angry. Gary didn’t, and doesn’t, get angry often. He was angry now.
“I feel like I do have to be a doctor! I will disappoint my father, let down my entire family, if I’m not!” He went on to describe how things went at family gatherings, how it was assumed he was on track to go to medical school. His parents, not aware of the particulars of college and graduate school, didn’t know where Gary was in the process. He was carrying 22 credits that semester (and would have to carry an equivalent load again the next semester), to make up for junior year and to graduate on time. He explained how so much was wrapped up, for his father in particular, in his earning a medical degree.
At first, I stuck to my thought that Gary could do what he wanted. “You’re great at explaining things. You could be a great science teacher,” I said. After all, I was thinking, both of my parents were teachers. I thought it was an admirable profession.
“You’re still not getting it!” Gary exploded.
I recoiled at the power and emotion behind his words. I retreated, “Okay. Okay.”
We agreed that it was late and we weren’t going to solve anything in that moment. I told him I wanted to understand, and we could talk again after we both got some sleep. We said good night and I went back across the hall to my apartment.
It was the beginning of my understanding the impact of his parent’s Holocaust experience on Gary and how it shaped him. No child wants to disappoint their parents, I certainly didn’t, but there was a more intense sense of responsibility and deeper obligation for Gary, knowing how much his Mom and Dad had gone through, how much they suffered. Gary had this opportunity that they never had, and he felt a duty to make the most of it regardless of his own wishes. I was beginning to appreciate the weight of that.
I think our conversation was also a step along Gary’s journey to sort out what he actually wanted for himself and what others expected of him. He began to acknowledge that it was okay to factor in what his father wanted, after going through an internal rebellion. And, over the course of the next two years, it would become clear to him that he did want to be a doctor.
Of course, there was also all the other anxiety that every pre-med student deals with: getting good grades, scoring high enough on the MCATs, getting into a program (preferably in the United States!) and succeeding in one. Under the best of circumstances, it is a fraught journey. Not nearly as fraught as the journey his parents had taken, but challenging nonetheless.
Some thoughts from Gary:
We all should pursue our own dreams. Right? That seems straight forward enough and yet that very question was at the heart of my dilemma back when Linda and I had that tense conversation. To be fair, that idea, the belief that each of us can and should do what we want to do, is something that many in the world would find laughable. It is a luxury many don’t have.
Many people are just trying to survive and it is for those who are fortunate enough to grow up in the right county and in the right circumstances to even think about such questions. How many people dream of picking up garbage or cleaning hotel rooms? Of working endless hours picking fruit on farms, or working in mines? On top of that, many people really don’t have a dream. We fall into whatever and we do our jobs and earn our paychecks and the world keeps spinning around.
But back then, I firmly believed I should pursue my dreams. And, while I had no reason why being a physician couldn’t be my dream, I had one really big problem: My father wanted it for me more than anyone. And that left me with the dilemma. Did I want it or was I doing it for my father? And how could I do it if it wasn’t for me? And how could I not do it after all he had been through and all that he seemed to have emotionally invested in my becoming a doctor?
As it turns out, medical school was four of the best years of my life and being a physician has allowed me to utilize my inclination to think scientifically and serve people in a most important and personal way. It has brought me a tremendous sense of purpose, a sense of doing something meaningful. And it has given me financial rewards beyond what I would have ever imagined reaping. As it turns out, it was the perfect decision.
But at that time, it wasn’t clear to me whose decision it was; where did my father’s will end and mine begin? Certainly, complicating all of this was the fact that my parents are Holocaust survivors. The children (and I’m sure grandchildren) of survivors have common traits. We tend to be anxious. We tend to be driven. We tend to live with the guilt that comes from the fact that we never had to endure what our parents did. They were getting shot at. I was more concerned about whether Keith Hernandez would get the lead runner out when fielding a bunt. They didn’t have food. I was annoyed when my brother changed the channel on our TV.
Even now, if you ask me whether I should feel guilty, I think the answer would be yes, I should.
We know the old saying, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover.’ We know this applies to people, yet we do it anyway; we judge. Looked at another way, is the idea that you never know what is going on with another person, unless they share it with you. I am going to share, with the hope that it helps others.
I take Zoloft and I have for many years. Some may read that and think, ‘Big frickin’ deal! Doesn’t everyone?’ Others may be surprised since my life is so charmed (and it is). And some may wonder why I would share something so private.
It is that last one that motivates me to write this post. Struggling with depression and anxiety is no different than other illnesses. I think there are some who view having cancer or diabetes or high cholesterol as a private matter – but not out of shame.
I hesitate to label myself as mentally ill. I have never been clinically depressed, as I understand that term. I have suffered only one panic attack that I recognized as such, and that was when I was a teenager. But, I have struggled my whole life with persistent melancholia. Whether that qualifies as a mental illness according to the DSM, I will leave for a doctor to decide. The label doesn’t matter, I was struggling through my life. It took a few things to get me to finally seek help.
One significant trigger was my son. When he was an adolescent, he asked me why I was always so unhappy. That opened my eyes to the impact my moods were having on my children, and that maybe it was getting worse. I also realized that I was fed up with ruminating. When things would go wrong, let’s say a family member said something that hurt my feelings or an interaction at work was frustrating, I would replay the incident in my head for months, imagining what I should have said in response, or how I would talk to them about it, only to do nothing. I would get stuck in that place and time, I couldn’t get out of my own way. One more factor led me to reach out and that was my daughter was approaching college age and she would be leaving home. I wanted to prepare myself and I wanted to handle the stress of that process better.
I asked my internist for a referral to a psychologist. I wasn’t thinking that I needed medication. I thought talk therapy would be sufficient. The referral worked out well – the therapist was a terrific match for me. She took a cognitive approach and we agreed that we would look at adding medication down the road, if we thought it would help.
After a number of months of weekly visits that were useful, I still wasn’t progressing the way I hoped, we revisited the medication question. We decided that I would try Zoloft (my internist actually did the prescribing). It was the right decision. It hasn’t been a miracle drug. The big difference I noticed was that I wasn’t in my head all the time. I could move past the aggravations and hurts that are a normal part of life, but previously I was not able to let go of. It didn’t suddenly fix my self-image problems, or remove all anxiety or regret, but it made it less of a struggle.
After a while, having learned some strategies and having better insight into myself, I thought I would try stopping the drug – I discussed it with both my therapist and my internist. I weaned off of it. After about a year, I realized it wasn’t a good move. The aftermath of my father’s death was a particularly challenging time for me. I also came to the realization that whatever it was about my brain that led me to ruminate was still there – it wasn’t going away. While I may have been able to manage it behaviorally, it took so much mental energy to do it that it was exhausting. I needed to come to peace with taking the medicine for the foreseeable future.
I write this because during all the years that this was playing out, I had numerous occasions where people commented on how lucky I am, or how happy, assertive, or comfortable (insert positive characteristic here) I seem to be. I am those things, some of the time, and not without considerable effort. If only they knew, better living through chemistry! Now they know!
So, there are three points in my sharing this. First, don’t make assumptions based on what you see. There is an internet meme that says you never know the battle someone else is fighting. Every time I see it, it resonates. Start with compassion. Second, it shouldn’t be a thing for someone to share that they take an anti-depressant, anti-anxiety or any other medication that helps to regulate mood. We shouldn’t sit in judgment. We may be moving in that direction, but we aren’t there yet. Lastly, I hope it is helpful to someone to know my story.
I have always prided myself as someone in touch with their feelings. I can usually pinpoint the source of my emotions. Frustration with a relationship, disappointment in an outcome, anxiety about a challenge, excitement about an upcoming new experience – I can usually identify what is going on. Lately that ability seems muddled – I’ve had more free-floating anxiety than usual.
I was driving south on the Thruway the other day, heading to New York City for something like the 5thtime in a month (I’m usually excited by the prospect of time in the city). This time I just felt nervous, my brain flitting from one thing to another, I was having a hard time concentrating. Thankfully I was able to focus on the road – it would truly have been a really bad sign if I got lost. I can make the trip on autopilot at this point. I tried to think through what has been going on, why this unease? Why have I been feeling more overwhelmed than circumstances seem to warrant? Since I was alone in the car, I took the opportunity to try and sort it out.
I am well aware that I am very fortunate, my life is an embarrassment of riches. I try to keep gratitude in the forefront, but, oddly, I find that the more I have, the more I fear losing it. I’m not referring to things (though I do have a confusing relationship with things, I like them more than I should), but to people. Readers of this blog know that our daughter-in-law is expecting a baby any day now. I think humming along in the background of my brain has been an awareness of the risks involved for everyone. I am also well aware of the fact that I have no control over how things will go. If only I could wrap up my loved ones in a cocoon to protect them! Obviously, not an option. So, maybe one contributor to my heightened level of anxiety is anticipation of this big event.
It’s funny in some ways because we spend so much time wishing for things (both tangible things and situations/events) and then when they happen, you realize it isn’t quite what you thought. There are strings attached.
You hope that your child finds a partner in life. But when they do, it changes your relationship (in all sorts of ways, many positive, some unanticipated). You look forward to being a grandparent, but that brings new worries. You look forward to a trip, but then you deal with the aggravation of delayed flights or turbulent weather. You want the luxury of a swimming pool in your backyard, but then you have to deal with the maintenance (a seemingly never-ending source of aggravation in our case). These may seem like wildly different ‘things,’ but there is a theme. There is a cost that comes with the things we want. Perhaps that is obvious, but it makes me stop and think. There is virtue in simplicity. Maybe I should consider Buddhism! The way I understand one of its central tenets is that you shouldn’t become attached to things or ideas – you need to let go of expectations. I don’t know if I can do that.
Or maybe I need to figure out how to not let these things get to me; figure out a way to acknowledge the worry, but then set it aside, especially when there isn’t something to be done.
But, it is so easy to lose perspective. Over the last couple of months, we have been enmeshed in the process of buying a condo in NYC. That’s the reason for so many trips to the city. Filling out the paperwork for a mortgage and shepherding it through the process felt like a full-time job. How blessed am I that making this purchase is even an option? But it is also a source of anxiety. It is a huge investment, the numbers are scary. But then I would remind myself that if it fell through, there was no real loss. And, if we successfully closed on it, and it turned out to be too big a financial commitment, we could sell it. So why did it feel so stressful?
In part, I blame Trump. You may ask, what is the connection? As I was driving down the Thruway, mulling things over, I realized that another large piece of my anxiety came from worries about our country’s future. I happened to be reading a novel, Ready Player One, set in a dystopic future that was all too imaginable to me. I have no faith in Trump, he has appalling judgment and is intent on sowing seeds of hate and fear, and Congress isn’t willing to take him on. The threats of climate change, of civil unrest rooted in the growing divide in this country, of America losing its footing, are all too real. Not to mention the tragedy of gun violence. Making such a huge investment in a time like this feels like a leap of faith, but my faith is shaken.
This unsettled feeling about our future was reinforced by an experience I had on that trip. On the day I was driving, a video went viral of a white guy going on a rant in a New York deli because the employees were speaking Spanish. It is the type of thing that seems to be happening a lot more in this age of Trump and ubiquitous cellphones. One of the reasons I was making the trip was to be at the new apartment for the guy to install cable and wifi. The guy arrived, at the appointed time, and, as is often the case, it took quite a bit longer than expected for him to successfully get things running. He was there for a couple of hours. At one point, while we were waiting for technical support people (he was on hold with his office) to try and fix things on their end, his personal phone rang and he asked me if I minded if he answered it. “If I do, I will be speaking Spanish,” he explained. “Of course you can answer your phone,” I responded. He shrugged sheepishly, as he answered. I moved toward the kitchen to give him space.
As I reflect on this interaction, I realize that I would feel differently if he had been in the middle of explaining something to me, then it would be rude to take a personal call, regardless of the language he spoke. But at that point we were just waiting awkwardly. I had no problem with him taking his call. I thought it was a sad commentary that he felt the need to explain that he would be speaking Spanish. It was a personal call, it wasn’t my business to understand his end of the conversation anyway. When he got off the phone I said we had come to a sad place if he needed to ask if it was okay to speak Spanish. He gave a small smile and another shrug.
During my 2 ½ hour drive and as I continue to think about my state of mind, I have come to a better understanding of what’s been going on. Not surprisingly, most of the issues are out of my control. I decided I need to focus on what I can do to manage it.
These are the strategies I came up with:
Avoid reading dystopic novels (at least for a while).
Reduce the number of times I allow myself to look at Twitter and Facebook to two times per day. Look at blocking some of the more vitriolic sources from my Facebook feed.
Find an organization or campaign that I can volunteer for that is in concert with my values. (Or, alternatively, assuming Dan and Beth will allow/need, help with the baby!)
Devote more time to productive activities, whether it is clearing clutter in my home, doing research for my memoir or talking to friends, spend more time doing constructive things so I don’t dwell in worry.
I hope that isn’t too ambitious. It doesn’t seem like it should be. If you have suggestions, please share. I’ll report back.
When Leah called me back in January and asked if I wanted to do the 5 Boro Bike Tour, my answer was a definitive and excited yes. For those of you not familiar with it, this is a 40 mile bike ride through all five boroughs of New York City. I thought it was a great idea. I love biking – it is an awesome way to sightsee and get exercise. I would plan it and get to experience it with my daughter, we would build memories together. It was a full four months off so I could train for it and get in shape. All of which turned out to be true, except for that last one about the training.
Spring came very late to Albany, in fact we had a number of Spring snows, which made biking outside very difficult, if not impossible. I admit that I am a fair-weather bicyclist. I did up my walking/jogging routine. And when the weather finally permitted, I cleaned up my pretty red bike, Gary put air in the tires, and I took to the road. The longest ride I managed, though, was 14 miles. A paltry amount compared to the 40 the tour would require. But, I was determined and that would count for something.
As the date of the tour approached (it is not a race! all the promotional materials make a point of this, I think mostly for safety reasons), I found myself increasingly nervous. I had butterflies. Aside from the inadequate preparation, I was worried about a few things, in no particular order:
potholes – New York City streets and highways, especially in the Spring, are a disaster. I worried, with so many bikers, would I be able to avoid them?
the weather – Rain was forecast. While I don’t mind the rain generally, the idea of slick roads and obscured potholes (see above), was frightening.
bike malfunction – The tour materials suggest bringing a spare tube because flats are common (again, see the first bullet), and I didn’t get one. Also, I didn’t get my bike tuned up, which was also recommended. So, I was concerned that something would go wrong and I didn’t know how that would work out.
my 58 year-old body – I do exercise regularly, but I still manage to be quite overweight. In addition to the lack of preparation, I worried about how my various parts would handle such a long ride.
logistics – I read and re-read the online information about the tour, but I still worried about all the logistics, like getting to the start on time, getting back to the apartment, getting separated from Leah, etc.
disappointing Leah – I wanted this to be a fun experience for both of us, I didn’t want to fail or be a drag on her.
I think that about covers the sources of my anxiety. I was surprised by how nervous I was. Looking at the list of my concerns written out, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Anyway, I plowed ahead and did it anyway, and I am so glad I did. Here are my thoughts and observations on taking a 40 mile bike ride through potholed streets and highways with my daughter:
Leah is the best teammate ever! She is fun, encouraging, fierce and strong (in every sense). I could rely on her. She remained in good humor (with one brief exception I will get to later – which wasn’t directed at me, but at circumstances beyond our control). She took pleasure in the sights. She believed in me. Yay, Leah!
The weather was perfect. Cloudy and a little cool, it was awesome for biking. Maybe some sunshine would have made some of the dingier parts of the city look better, but cloud cover was wonderful. We learned later from Gary that there was rain in every direction, but the city was spared. We were in our own dry bubble.
The ride up Sixth Avenue from the the financial district to Central Park, and then into the park (in full bloom), was exhilarating. With no automobile or truck traffic, we had the wide avenue to ourselves (and thousands of fellow bicyclists). We passed through different neighborhoods and could appreciate the architecture, sculpture and people as we passed. Central Park was in all its glory with flowering trees and clumps of tulips and green grass.
Seeing Gary waving us on as we exited Central Park at 110th Street was a great surprise. Seeing Dan and Beth, in her ninth month (!), at the side of the FDR at 120th Street was encouraging and so very cool. It’s funny because Leah and I were passing 106th Street a few minutes later when I said, “You know we passed Beth’s school (where she teaches), but I didn’t note it or mention it. Oh well.” I was making a point of mentioning landmarks or places related to our family history. Beth told us later they were standing in front of her school! Obviously I so excited to see them, I didn’t notice anything else.
We heard only one lewd comment. We were riding up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard when a man on the sidewalk yelled out, “Oh, I wish my face was a bicycle seat!” Leah and I laughed about that for a couple of blocks, and periodically throughout the rest of the race.
Water is essential! Somehow we had neglected to bring a water bottle. Since this event was ‘eco-friendly’ the water stations offered no cups or containers. We used our hands the first time. When we got to Queens, I suggested we pull over and I ran into a bodega and bought a large bottle of water. The guy in the store took one look at me, and pointed down an aisle, “The water is over there.” What a relief! We refilled it as necessary.
The experience of riding with so many people was almost entirely positive. Some riders had blue tooth speakers set up with music blaring. That created camaraderie and gave us a boost. Plus there were real musicians along the way – we heard every type of music. Gospel, bluegrass, rock, jazz. There were also cheerleaders – we had no idea what team they represented, if any. It isn’t like the NYC Marathon where spectators line the route, but that was fine. At times there were bottlenecks, a particularly bad one exiting the FDR and approaching the Queensboro Bridge, where we had to dismount and walk for a while. Most people were courteous. We did see some accidents, but thankfully nothing too serious. The organizers of the tour did a good job – there was lots of support and people giving directions.
Riding on the FDR and BQE was an eerie experience. The BQE, in particular, was strange because there isn’t much in the way of scenery to appreciate, it is hard to gauge progress and the road is textured so it created a lot of vibration. My body, from head to toe, did not enjoy that. It also seemed to feature a lot of gradual uphills. Nothing dramatic, just enough to feel really shitty when you’ve already gone 28 miles. This was the most challenging part of the day for me. My legs were not happy and my spirit was sagging and I knew we had a demanding uphill to come (the Verrazano Bridge). We pulled over, I drank some water, took some bites of a power bar, and Leah gave me a pep talk. We resumed the trek.
I told Leah that I might have to walk some of the way on the Verrazano, my legs just may not carry me. I knew I would finish, but I didn’t know if I could ride all of that. Leah wanted to ride it – she was fresh as a daisy (she may not say that exactly, but she was in good shape). We made a plan to meet at the finish and agreed that she should do her thing. Later when we compared notes, I was so impressed with her. The climb up the bridge was tough. I was pleased with myself because I stayed on my bike. I thought I had reached the point where the downhill would begin, but alas, it wasn’t! There another stretch of uphill (at a slightly lesser grade, so it appeared from a distance that you had already crested the hill). What a disappointment! I got off my bike and walked the last part of the uphill. Leah had the same experience of expecting the end of the climb, but fierce woman that she is, she just pedaled harder.
We started at 8:45 a.m. and ended around 1:30 p.m.- a bit slower than we hoped, but we had no complaints.
We met after we got our medals at the finish line and walked our bikes through the festival area where there was music and concessions. For probably the first time in my life, a cold beer sounded very appealing. We wanted to get back so we didn’t partake, just followed the hordes of people to the exit. We re-mounted our bikes and rode to the Staten Island Ferry. The ride started out pleasant enough. But then it kept going and going. I got angrier and angrier. Where was that fucking ferry!?! I was muttering and cursing. I was not mentally prepared for the four mile ride to the ferry! This was truly the worst part, for me. For Leah, the next part was the worst. Waiting on line to get on the ferry. She was facing a four hour drive back to Boston and was eager to get back to the apartment, get changed, eat and get on the road. She handled her frustration well. It was probably close to an hour of waiting on line before we got on the ferry. I was never so happy to sit down!
Gary was waiting a short distance from the ferry landing with the car. We walked less than two blocks with our bikes. He was parked right next to a hot dog vendor, so clutch! I bought a soft pretzel and a Diet Coke and climbed into the back seat. Delicious! Leah and Gary secured the bikes to the car and, other than hitting some traffic in lower Manhattan, we got back to the apartment in reasonable time.
What a day! I was pleasantly surprised that I could still walk. My 58 year old body didn’t fail me. I took a hot shower. Leah and I debriefed a bit with Dan, Beth and Gary. I shared a long hug with Leah before she got on the road.
As I sit here writing this, I am not in agony – everything is a bit a sore, but certainly tolerable. I will carry great memories, and, as always, great appreciation for my family. Their encouragement and pride are a constant source of strength and joy.