Self-Care

If I spent all my time taking care of myself, following all the doctors’ directions, therapists’ advice, self-help manuals, I wouldn’t have time to actually DO anything! And I am a retired person and my children are adults who are living on their own. If I had a full-time job and young children, it would be nearly impossible.

Since last May I have been dealing with chronic hoarseness. After a number of exams and scoping of my vocal cords, I was referred for speech therapy. Fortunately, that testing didn’t find any growths, but noted a combination of the effects of reflux and muscle compression. The speech therapist did a thorough evaluation and recommended vocal exercises. She also gave me papers with foods to avoid (two pages worth) and foods that are encouraged (a small list). I also received some stretches to focus on loosening the neck muscles. I am supposed to do the stretching and vocal exercises 3 to 5 times per day. The protocol takes about 5 to 7 minutes. So far, I have been managing to do it twice a day and feel pretty damn proud of myself.

Another part of the routine recommended by the ENT, to help with congestion, is to use a netti pot and saline spray. I do the nasal rinse once a day and the spray twice. These take another 5 minutes. I’m also supposed to use a humidifier. Setting that up and taking it apart each day is another 5 minutes.

All of the stuff to try and deal with these throat and ear difficulties add up to at about 45 minutes each day.

In theory, these are the other parts of my self-care routine:

  • Waking up – brush teeth, take daily pills, wash face, comb hair – 10 minutes
  • Make the bed – several advice gurus stress the importance of starting the day by making the bed – I subscribe to that idea – 3 minutes
  • Exercise (at least 20 minutes but I actually do 35 either walking outside or on the treadmill) – if it is vigorous enough, it requires showering after, so add another 20 minutes. I am quick in the shower, so 25 minutes allows for getting dressed, too. I also play tennis once or twice every other week, each time 90 minutes (add another hour for driving to and from the courts).
  • Meditation – 10 minutes
  • Shower or bath – if I haven’t exercised and showered, then I will do that and take more time with it – more like a half hour
  • Moisturizing – face, skin, nails – 10 minutes
  • Journaling/affirmations/gratitude journal – 15 minutes (at least)
  • Eating healthy meals (with preparation) – I don’t know how long, but way longer than grabbing fast food. For three meals, it has to be at least 2 hours each day, including the time to eat and clean up.
  • Getting enough sleep  – 8 hours

Some of the things on the list above are aspirational.

I can’t accurately add up the time for those activities because it is so variable, but it is a large chunk of the 24 hours. And, again, that is as a retired person who only takes 10 minutes to get ready in the morning! Most people take longer. I wear no make-up. I don’t do anything special with my hair. I spend next to no time picking out clothing. All of those things could be part of a person’s self-care regime, requiring more time and attention.

My exercise routine is minimalist – better than nothing, but not the amount of time a truly fit person devotes to working out. For someone like, let’s say Jennifer Aniston, it is a full-time job to look like she does. Not that I would choose her as a role model. I don’t make a living on my looks and never did. Unfortunately, though, we live in a world where we set up unreasonable expectations of what we should look like, but the vast majority of us can’t take that much time to nurture ourselves.

Many people face other types of health challenges that require more daily attention. I’m very lucky. Other than this annoying thing with my voice, and the usual minor aches and pains that come with age, I am healthy. In the past I have had occasion to go for physical therapy (for a frozen shoulder or a tweaked back) and there were stretching exercises prescribed. Those kinds of regimens can be hard to stay faithful to.

So, what is my point? First, that doctors and therapists of all sorts need to be realistic and work with folks to figure out a program that can be followed. Second, we need to be honest with ourselves – what are we willing to do? What do we have time to do? Do we believe in the regime that is being prescribed? Lastly, let’s not expect perfection. There’s nothing good about beating ourselves up over falling short of our goals – that can lead us to spiraling into negativity and being more self-destructive.

I want to be able to sing to my grandchildren – that is my main motivation for working on my voice. That and I don’t want to annoy people with my constant rasp. My throat doesn’t hurt, my voice just sounds bad. In a more general way, I want to be proactive about my chronic congestion to help lessen the number of sinus/ear infections I get and preserve my hearing. I will try to stick to the program, but I will also try to follow my own advice. I beat myself up enough about all kinds of things. I don’t need to add this to the list.

Other aspects of self-care: relaxing, reading a book, drinking coffee and spending time with my kitties-now kitty 😦

“We Are Here”

I have read quite a bit about the Holocaust. Recently I read Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, which reported on the trial in Israel of the Nazi who was responsible for the transport of Jews to concentration camps. I also read Fugitives of the Forest by Allan Levine which profiled Jewish Partisans who fought and survived in the forests of Poland during World War II. Any reading about the Holocaust is challenging because you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the evil that was perpetrated and these two books are no exception. It is hard to wrap one’s brain around the breadth and depth of cruelty and viciousness.

            This past week offered an opportunity to look at another dimension of the Holocaust, one that reminds me that in the midst of evil, people can express their humanity, they can still be moved to affirm their faith in life by creating beauty. On Thursday evening I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City that included music, song and poetry created in the ghettos and camps during the Holocaust.

            The evening was conceived of and co-produced by a friend of my brother Mark, Ira Antelis. Ira became aware of a series of songbooks published just after the war ended that memorialized music created in the camps and ghettos. He wanted it to be heard, to bring awareness to its existence. It was originally performed in a Chicago synagogue last April, and they brought it to New York to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The evening was appropriately entitled “We Are Here.” Broadway performers, renown cantors and elite musicians contributed their talents. Each piece was introduced by a prominent individual, for example David Gill, German Consul General to the United Nations, another by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of the Diocese of New York. These introductory remarks gave context: who the composer and lyricist were, some information about them was shared and where they were when they wrote the piece.

            I didn’t know what to expect of the music. One might imagine that it would be quite dark, and some of it was. But, most of it wasn’t. The music was beautiful, often hopeful, sometimes even upbeat. The lyrics could be sad, reflecting the reality of the pain and loss they suffered. But, all of the works represented acts of defiance. The Nazis may have wanted to wipe the Jewish people and culture from the face of the earth, but these artists were leaving a legacy. Perhaps it was an expression of their faith, or a need to reclaim their humanity by creating beauty in the face of ugliness.

            One particularly meaningful piece for me was the Partisan Anthem (Zog Nit Keyn Mol), “Never Say You Have Reached the Final Road, We Are Here,” which gave its name to the whole program. When we went through my in-laws’ house several years ago as it was being cleaned out in preparation for sale, I found a notebook with pages of Yiddish writing. On one of our visits with Paula and David, we hoped they could tell us what it was. It looked like it might be poetry, given its structure. They recognized it immediately. The first page were the lyrics to this song. They began to sing it. More than sixty years after they had likely last sung it, they were able to recall it. Paula, whose had lost most of her ability to make conversation because of Alzheimer’s, joined in. At the time, David provided us with a rough English translation.

            These are the lyrics (in English):

Never say you are going on your final road,
Although leadened skies block out blue days,
Our longed-for hour will yet come
Our step will beat out – we are here!

From a land of green palm trees to the white land of snow
We arrive with our pain, with our woe,
Wherever a spurt of our blood fell,
On that spot shall spurt forth our courage and our spirit.

The morning sun will brighten our day
And yesterday will disappear with our foe.
But if the sun delays to rise at dawn,
Then let this song be a password for generations to come.

This song is written with our blood, not with lead,
It is not a song of a free bird flying overhead.
Amid crumbling walls, a people sang this song,
With grenades in their hands.

So, never say the road now ends for you,
Although skies of lead block out days of blue.
Our longed-for hour will yet come –
Our step will beat out – we are here!

Lyrics by: Hirsh Glik  

Music by: Dmitri and Daniel Pokrass

            The performance of the song on Thursday night by a group of talented vocalists was stirring. It was not the only profound moment of the evening. Another song was introduced with the explanation that it originated in a cattle car to Treblinka when a man started singing a known prayer to a new melody. Somehow the melody was passed on and eventually published. Though the composer didn’t survive, the melody did. Cantor Yanky Lemmer sang it so powerfully I got goosebumps.  The prayer, Ani ma’min (Never Shall I Forget), is based on the writing of Maimonides in the 14th Century (in English, it was sung in Hebrew):

I believe with all my heart

In the coming of the Messiah,

And even though he may tarry,

I will wait each and every day

For his arrival.

I believe in the sun

Even when it is not shining.

I believe in love

Even when I do not feel it.

I believe in God

Even when He is silent.

Melody by: Adriel David Fastag

            The evening of music and song was not my only reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Another artifact found when cleaning out the Bakst house was a small spiral notebook. Each page had a separate entry, some in Russian, some in Polish, others in Yiddish. Some of the notes were accompanied by crayon drawings. It wasn’t until I brought it to YIVO a few weeks ago that we learned what it represented. It contained notes to Paula from friends at the displaced persons camp, Ranshofen, in Austria. It was created as a keepsake of the relationships established during the almost three years that Paula was at Ranshofen. I look at that notebook, even without knowing the translation and I see the spirit of teenage girls that I might have grown up with. Paula was 14 when she arrived at the DP camp, after living in the woods for 4 years. After all they had been through, they still could make fanciful, colorful, hopeful drawings. Here are some of the pages from the book:

            In sharing this, I am not minimizing the horror or suffering. It is not to shift attention away from the enormity of the loss. It is essential that we not become numb to the tragedy – or the tragedies that continue to be perpetrated by those who are evil and the many more who are indifferent. But, it is also essential to have hope. These creations, these melodies, lyrics, gestures, and notes are expressions of hope and beauty. They are remarkable.

Note: If you would like to learn more about the concert, please go to http://www.wearehereconcert.com

Using our Voice

As is often the case for me, I was sorting through papers (oh, the endless supply of paper!) and found something I wrote early in 1994.  To give some context, Leah was in first grade, Dan was in pre-k (daycare at the Albany Jewish Community Center) and I was working full-time for the state Department of Taxation and Finance.

January 24, 1994

Leah ready for t-ball in 1994

Leah came home from school saying she felt sad. After talking about it for a bit, Leah explains that she feels left out – her teacher isn’t paying that much attention. She gives a concrete example of an oversight by the teacher. She ends by asking, “Would it be okay if I told Mrs. Brennan that I feel left out?”

Sometimes Leah asks really hard questions. On the one hand, I am pleased that she is willing to consider the possibility of speaking to the teacher herself. I couldn’t imagine having the confidence to do that – fearing rejection or humiliation. On the other hand, I am concerned that Leah not come across as whiny and demanding. It is also a reality that children who are capable will not get the close attention that those who fall behind get.

The other issue is that Mrs. Brennan has been teaching the class for only one week – since the original teacher went on maternity leave. I urge Leah to give her a chance to get settled.

Leah doesn’t heed my advice. Good for her. She spoke to Mrs. Brennan the very next day in fact, telling her she felt sad and left out. She tells me she feels much better and has no complaints for the remainder of the time Mrs. Brennan handles the class.

I later learn from Mrs. Brennan that she had been overcompensating with Leah – consciously not attending to her out of concern that she would be showing favoritism. She said her heart sunk when Leah approached her.

So, Leah’s instincts were right. She spoke for herself and resolved the problem. What a great lesson! I hope she always has that ability to speak up for herself – to get her needs met. What a terrific skill – but there are certainly going to be challenges ahead. How will she fare in adolescence when attitudes towards girls change? She will need to be strong to retain the identity she seems to be carving out for herself now. I hope she has the strength. I will try to support her. So much pressure to conform, though, to not be difficult…She is a treasure – a hope for the future. Keep your fingers crossed.

—————————————————————

I read what I wrote and I have to smile, remembering how precocious Leah was. (When is it you stop being precocious, anyway? Safe to say she wouldn’t be described that way now, almost 30 years later). But, she was always attuned to her feelings and could put words to them, even as a two-year old!

I would take issue with at least one of my observations. I’m not sure that children who fall behind get more attention. As I watched my kids go through school, I think it is more accurate to say that children at either ends of the spectrum, those that are most capable and those that are truly behind get more attention, and the ones in the middle most often get overlooked. But, maybe you can’t make generalizations about any of that.

My fear that things would change as Leah got to adolescence were well founded. Things did change. Perhaps as much because Leah, like most girls, became much more focused on her peer group when she got to middle school. The approval and acceptance of friends became more important than the judgment of teachers. She still wanted to do well in school, but negotiating her social interactions absorbed most of her attention. Those relationships were much more fraught and complicated than her communication with Mrs. Brennan. Her self-confidence definitely took a hit in those middle school years. If only things could have remained so straight-forward!

Things may have gotten more complicated, but like her mother, Leah retains her voice. Like me, in settings where opinions are solicited or being shared, she is not shy. Her father and husband, among others, can attest to her strong-mindedness.

I do think some progress has been made for girls, especially compared to my mom’s and my generation. I believe girls have taken incremental steps toward expecting to be heard and respected in different settings – school and the workplace particularly. We haven’t arrived at equality, obviously, and there is work to be done in improving the lot of both men and women, but I believe things are better for my daughter and granddaughters. I hope they will continue to take steps forward.

Burnout

I have a running joke with the guy who prepares our taxes. When I call to make the appointment he responds, “Now I know tax season is done! I am in the homestretch,” he says with delight in his voice.

The joke is that I am almost always the last of his clients to call, usually with only a few days to spare until the deadline. This year I called on April 5th, a little early for me. Last year he was in shock when I called, and it was still March.

We have been working with the same guy for roughly 30 years, since Gary went into private practice and our taxes became too complicated for me to do myself.

Anyway, the point is not that I am a procrastinator, though I am that. My point is actually the conversation he and I had when we met this time. Over the years we have had many discussions, including an annual update on our respective families. I have always enjoyed our session – as much as one can when the ultimate purpose is to figure out our tax bill.

In all those years, we both understood that we do not share the same political affiliation. He is aware of the organizations I donate to – the usual laundry list of liberal causes, though they are mainstream compared to some of the more leftwing groups out there.  I know he is more fiscally conservative, befitting a CPA.  

Somehow during this visit our conversation strayed farther into the political realm. The Covid relief program came up and he shared his perception that it was ill-conceived, with folks who didn’t need assistance getting it. His message was, “if you saw what I saw, if you knew what I knew, you would agree with me.” I acknowledged that it is entirely possible that the program wasn’t designed appropriately – I know little about it, and I have no personal experience with it. I don’t doubt that our government is capable of mismanaging a program. The difference between our perspectives is the motives we ascribe to it and the conclusions we draw.

I think he sees governmental ineffectiveness and believes it is proof that there is corruption at the root, that inherently it will be flawed, and we shouldn’t support those programs. I see ineffectiveness and I want us to try harder, do better, build oversight mechanisms to ensure the money goes where it is supposed to go.  

What was interesting to me about our interaction this year was that it was more pointed but fortunately it didn’t get unpleasant. We agreed that we have different priorities. As a bottom line, I am more concerned about civil rights (including reproductive choice) than I am about our economy. He is more focused on our nation’s finances and what he perceives as a diminishing work ethic among our younger generations.

Before we got to the point where we concluded that we would agree to disagree, we touched on a wide range of subjects in addition to Covid relief,  such as police, U.S. support of Israel, Hunter Biden, Ivanka and Jared. Don’t you talk about that stuff with your accountant? With each topic, we quickly came to a dead end. We shrugged and kind of laughed. We were not going to come to a meeting of the minds. In between we returned to the task at hand – my (and Gary’s) 2021 tax return. We ended on a reasonable note, appreciating that we could have the conversation since so many could not.

Naturally, as I drove home, I pondered our divide.  Aside from understanding that much of it came down to differences in our respective priorities and foundational beliefs, I had another thought. We are creatures of our environment and experience. Being an accountant for all these years, watching the endless (absurd? irrational? circular? targeted?) changes to the tax code, interacting with a certain segment of the population, would shape one’s perspective. My accountant may not have seen the people for whom the Covid relief program was a lifesaver. This is true in all professions – high school teachers, doctors, police detectives, the list goes on. When you do a job for a long time, you may not even realize that your view has narrowed. You may think you’ve seen it all, but it is still a narrow slice of humanity.

I think about Gary, who is an endocrinologist (he treats many diabetics). He has patients who are non-compliant – maybe they drink too much, eat an unhealthy diet and/or don’t exercise. There is a danger that he could become cynical about people’s ability to manage their disease – I don’t believe he has. I believe he has maintained his compassion, but it would be understandable if that faded. It would not be acceptable, and it wouldn’t be good for his relationship with his patients if he were to prejudge them, but I can imagine it happening.

Or take another issue that all doctors face: insurance and the bureaucracy that has developed around medicine. Having negative experiences with insurance companies, where they look for loopholes to deny coverage, could color one’s perspective. It could lead to giving up more easily before getting the patient the treatment they need. The quality of care can be compromised if one isn’t vigilant.

Both challenges can lead to burnout among practitioners.

I think about my dad who was chair of a social studies department of a New York City public high school. He retired as soon as he was eligible at the age of 56. Not because he was tired of teaching or because of the students – he still enjoyed being in the classroom. It was all the red tape, all the obstacles, and the lack of resources that drove him to end his career. I think it is fair to say, after over 30 years in education, he was burnt out. Today we see educators leaving the field in droves, long before getting their 30 years in.

Every profession is susceptible to it, and if not burnout per se then being so entrenched in the negative that it becomes the lens through which you see the world. I knew it was time to leave school board service when my frustration intolerance got the better of me after nine years. But that was a volunteer position – I could step back without consequence to my family’s well-being. Not everyone has the luxury that I or my father enjoyed. He had a good pension; he could move on.

In some instances that jaded, cynical perspective can be dangerous. I’ve written before about the hazards police officers face, on many levels. Police officers see us at our worst. The consequences of approaching a new interaction with a citizen expecting the worst is problematic. I imagine, after years on the job, police officers may not have the most balanced view of humanity. I’m not blaming them, I think it comes with the job.

The question then is: what can we do about it, if anything? How do we keep our perspective broader than our circumstances allow, whatever profession we practice? How do we guard against the creeping cynicism that may be inherent in any work we do? Self-awareness may be the first step. We need to admit to ourselves that we are susceptible to the bias in the field in which we work, and then we need to pursue professional development or other experiences that keep us fresh. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one.

When I got home and told Gary about my visit with our accountant, he looked at me incredulously. “You had that conversation with the guy who is going to tell us how much tax we owe?” I nodded. I choose to maintain my faith in humanity.

Duality

As has often been the case recently, I got to thinking after attending a talk at the University at Albany. Anthony Ray Hinton, author of The Sun Does Shine, was the featured speaker at the annual MLK Celebration. Mr. Hinton served 30 years on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Through the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative, and his own forbearance, he was released from prison in 2015.

Mr. Hinton’s speech was both inspiring and heartbreaking. I find myself noticing that a lot lately – the duality of good and evil in this world. The tragedy of the injustice of Mr. Hinton’s prosecution, the racism and cruelty he endured, is countered by his faith and the steadfast effort of good people. Mr. Hinton told his story through tears. I found it painful to hear, it was uncomfortable – but we need to bear witness to the damage done when our systems fail, when people entrusted to carry out justice fail. I am no psychiatrist and won’t pretend to be one, but I have to guess that Mr. Hinton suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. How could he not? The fact that he isn’t in a constant rage, he shared his humor and compassion, not just his tears, in his speech, is a testament to his strength. To be willing to relive his trauma so that we may learn from it is a gift.

As I sat in the audience, I thought about the courage of individuals who come forward after experiencing something so harrowing, those who are willing to expose their suffering, to live it again, and I am humbled. I don’t know what to do with all the emotion. I want to fix it – I want Mr. Hinton to be able to heal. I want to prevent another person from experiencing the injustice. It feels overwhelming. But, if I don’t come away moved to action, even if it feels inadequate to the task, then Mr. Hinton’s willingness to dredge up his pain will be for naught.

We ask a great deal of survivors of trauma. We ask them to tell their stories so that we might learn. We ask them to not make us too uncomfortable while they tell their truth. We ask them to continue to function in this world, despite the fact that they have seen and experienced the ugliness of mankind. I think of my in-laws giving testimony as part of Spielberg’s Shoah Project. I have written many blog posts about their journey. It took a while for my father-in-law to recover from the process of giving testimony. There was a personal cost to doing it. He wanted the story known, he wanted it documented, but he paid a price in reawakening pain, depression and anxiety that had been pushed down. I believe it was worth it to him and to my mother-in-law, their experiences are now preserved for the ages, they cannot be erased from history even after their time on earth expires.

When we hear the stories of survivors, it often includes a message of hope. People who stood up, who made survival possible. In Mr. Hinton’s case, he had the emotional support of his mother and best friend, as well as Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (and the staff of that nonprofit). My in-laws were aided by their families, ‘righteous Gentiles,’ and luck. I am thankful for those forces for good, Paula and David would not have survived but for their efforts and their stories would be unbearable if not for those acts of courage and kindness.

I watch the war in Ukraine unfold and I see the same duality. The barbarism unleashed by Putin, countered by the resolve and courage of Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people. Gary and I attended a local prayer vigil in support of Ukraine. The Archbishop of the Albany Diocese, Edward Scharfenberger, spoke, cautioning us to not give in to despair. He said despair was a tool of the devil. While I don’t believe in God or the devil, those aren’t words or ideas that resonate for me, I do believe humanity has the potential for good and evil. I think he is right to say that if we let despair win out, then we cede ground to the worst among us.

It is daunting and frightening to open one’s eyes to the pain and cruelty abundant in our midst. It is easier and tempting to bury our heads in the sand or focus on our own immediate needs (like worrying about the price of gasoline), but that is shortsighted. That’s how evil wins. I also come back to Mr. Roger’s seemingly simple statement to look to the helpers in times of crisis. I think that offers comfort, but it isn’t enough. I myself need to be a helper in whatever ways I can. I am not José Andrés, the remarkable chef who has made it his mission to respond to humanitarian disasters around the world. But, I can donate to his organization. I can write this blog and maybe move others to take action in whatever form available to you.

We need to bear witness and we need to do what we can to do good in this world. I hope you will not let despair get the better of you and together we will do the work necessary to ensure, to paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King Jr, that though the moral arc of the universe is long, that it bends towards justice.

The Ukrainian National Flower – in solidarity – picture taken in Cooperstown, NY August 2021

‘Learn-how-to-meditate-January’

I think the whole country, the entire U.S. of A., should take up meditation. I had this epiphany the other day after I finished the 20th of a 30-day class – each session is only 10 minutes –  offered through an app called Calm. I realize this is an impossibility on so many levels, but I’d like to make the case.

Much of the divisions in our country are caused by people feeling aggrieved. Some folks believe they are unseen or unheard by our government or by the rich and powerful. Some are bitter because of sour relationships. Others are angry because they think many in this country have been swallowed by a cult causing us to drift (speedily swim?) toward authoritarianism. Whatever the source of the grievance, I think the practice of meditation can help because it requires that you become more neutral, you need to adopt a stance of equanimity to sit quietly for ten minutes. I don’t mean to simplify something that is quite complex. Both the problems that have led so many to feel alienated/angry and the practice of meditation are complicated. But, they are simple, too.

Sitting quietly and breathing slowly and deeply for ten minutes each day is both the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. Quieting your mind, allowing emotions to flow through you but not possess you, takes practice. I am a novice, but I see the benefit of having done it for about a month (and, full disclosure, I missed some days during the month). Some people did a ‘dry January,’ I did a ‘how to meditate January.’

I was motivated to try this because during these last couple of years during the pandemic, I have found myself easily riled. I go from zero to sixty emotionally in seconds. I felt agitated much of the time. I read a headline and feel my stomach churn. I can’t say that my meditation practice has changed all of that, but there is noticeable improvement. I still get anxious at the prospect of taking Mom to the doctor, and I still feel my blood pressure start to rise when I read about Donald Trump’s latest rally, but I feel more in control. If it can do this for me, I can imagine what it would do for all the people out there who are living on the edge.

The practice allows you to acknowledge feelings that you might prefer to push down. Generally, I am pretty self-aware. I think for others who are not so blessed to be in touch with their emotions, it might be uncomfortable at first, but it would be a step in the right direction. When you don’t acknowledge what you are feeling it comes out in unexpected and unpleasant ways.

Another positive is that there are no religious aspects to meditation, unless one wanted there to be. I think it is harmonious with all faith traditions.

We are fixated with solving societal problems from the outside in – we enact new laws, fund programs, do research, require others to take action, and talk issues to death. Many of those steps, other than talking things to death, are admirable, and necessary. But, maybe, we need another approach as well. One that starts from the inside of each individual. Maybe if more people took 10 minutes a day to sit quietly and breathe deeply, there would be less hostility and better mental health. Just an idea.

I plan to extend my practice beyond ‘learn-how-to-meditate’ January.

Frankenstein

The edition I read

Apropos of Halloween, our family book club recently read and discussed Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I had never read it before. I have seen the movie versions, the iconic one with Boris Karloff from 1931 and Mel Brooks’ version. For the record, I recommend Young Frankenstein.

Reading the book, I was surprised by how relevant the story is even though Shelley wrote it in 1818 (when she was 18 years old!). I was anticipating a difficult read. I expected the language to be dense and unfamiliar. I was pleasantly surprised to find it accessible. In parts it was quite beautiful and expressive. At other times I found it overwrought, though I suspect the author may have intended it to be. It is quite a melodramatic tale. The members of our book club differed in their judgment of the writing; some ended up skimming because they found the focus on details off-putting, while others reveled in the lush descriptions. I fell somewhere in the middle. I appreciated her ability to convey depth of emotion and paint a picture of the ‘creature’s’ experience as he entered the world, but sometimes I found it overdone and was ready to move on.

Apart from the writing itself, the story led to spirited discussion. It is so rich with themes that transcend time: the nature of man, the balance of progress (scientific discovery) and ethical obligation, the danger of unbridled passion/ambition. It was nearly impossible to contain our conversation to the scheduled one hour (we meet on Zoom). Interesting takes on the story were offered: that it was really a parable of mental illness (perhaps the ‘monster’ wasn’t real at all). Another perspective suggested that it was reflecting on the fears of that age that God had turned his back on man the way Dr. Frankenstein abandoned his creature.

We talked about the role of appearances. The creature’s appearance engendered so much disgust, fear and violence that he became the monster that the people feared. Had the public responded differently, he might never have become destructive.

In terms of the risks of progress, we agreed that the book offers a cautionary tale. We talked a bit about whether Mark Zuckerberg was a ‘Dr. Frankenstein.’ While there are differences in that Zuckerberg has not abandoned his creation (far from it), there are relevant parallels.  Progress, without due consideration of the ethics and consequences, is dangerous. Today universities have structures in place to assess the ethical impact of an experiment before it is funded. Private tech companies need to put more emphasis on ethics and consequences before steaming ahead with new applications. How to make that happen remains an open question.

In the story Victor Frankenstein, during his studies at university, becomes obsessed with breathing life into something dead. His research convinces him that he can achieve this, and he becomes single-minded in his pursuit of that goal. He sleeps little, isolates himself and slaves away in his workshop until he succeeds. Most of the story focuses on what happens after that ‘eureka’ moment, but I was interested in exploring that aspect of the narrative.

I wonder whether that level of intensity is necessary for great breakthroughs, for great scientific achievements. My daughter, who is a neuroscientist and has worked in several labs at different universities, offered that she thought meaningful scientific progress can be made by people who have lives outside the lab. She has observed researchers who have families and hobbies and still manage to produce important work. I was heartened to hear that because I am predisposed to think that it requires if not obsession, close to it.

When I raised that question at book club my cousin responded that it is a myth that big discoveries are achieved by single-minded, hardworking geniuses. He pointed out that those accomplishments are the result of collaboration or appropriation of the work of others; though individuals may claim the credit and history may celebrate that person, that isn’t the reality. We didn’t get to examine his point in depth because time had run short. I want to investigate this idea further here.

I have not read the histories of Edison, Ford and others who are credited with huge advances, but it makes sense to me that their work was built on ideas and contributions of others. I think it does us a disservice not to acknowledge that. The mythology of one man, and most often it is a man, forging the path or having the ‘aha’ moment, creates unreasonable expectations and fails to give due credit to those who provide the conditions that permit the discovery. Putting aside the cases where the idea may have been outright stolen or appropriated, wherever you look, in whatever field of endeavor, geniuses need support. These days, even in an individual sport like tennis, the winner of the tournament thanks his/her ‘team.’ Roger Federer, a genius on the tennis court, acknowledges his coach, his physio (I didn’t know what that was until recently), and his family because he recognizes that even if he was alone on the court, others contributed to his victory.

I took my cousin’s important point to heart; it still didn’t exactly answer the question I was posing. Both things can be true. Great accomplishments can require collaboration (acknowledged or not) and an obsessive devotion to the effort.  I was pleased to hear Leah’s observation; I still wonder. Though I can’t say I have seen geniuses work up close, I have worked with folks who are at the very top of their field, very respected, sought-after practitioners of medicine, law and public policy. I think it is fair to say they have bordered on obsessive. They certainly put in many, many hours of work and mental energy. They may have families and even a hobby, but it isn’t in balance. I can’t think of anyone in that esteemed position who didn’t prioritize their work (family might share equal billing, but nothing else comes close). I made a choice early in my career to seek out balance, I wasn’t that ambitious. Or maybe I was, but my ambition was to have well-adjusted children. I certainly put time and energy into them. I have come to no conclusion on this. Can a person live a balanced life and still achieve greatness? Of course, it begs the issue of defining greatness, but I’m thinking about major contributions to their field, whatever it might be.

The issue of scientific breakthroughs without due consideration of consequences and whether those engaged in that work need to be obsessed are likely connected. The obsession or unbridled ambition may lead to the inability to consider impacts beyond their own achievement. We need mechanisms in place that balance the drive for innovation with concern for the greater good. The concept of a greater good has proven difficult for folks to agree upon.

In sum, if you have not read Frankenstein, I recommend it – especially for a book club.

Note to my fellow book clubbers: If I have not done justice to the ideas shared, please add your comments. Or, if I have done justice, but you’d like to chime in, please do. If your thoughts rise to the level of a full essay, I’m happy to post it. I extend that invitation to other readers, as well.

Of A Piece

How many lives have you lived?

I was listening to a podcast the other day, as I often do when I am on a long drive in the car. Marc Maron, comedian/actor and host of WTF, during an interview, said, “That was another life, I’ve had many.” He was referring to a period of time early in his career when he was performing as a stand-up comic traveling a circuit of gigs in New England.

I thought about my life. I have had only one. I understand Maron was speaking metamorphically, but it doesn’t feel to me like I’ve had different lives. It is all of a piece. I imagine that for someone who has had very different careers or lived in different parts of the country or world, or perhaps has been divorced, it might well feel like different lives. Nothing that dramatic has happened to divide mine into definable segments.

Other than living in Pittsburgh for 3 ½ years, I have been a resident of New York my whole life – less than half of it in Brooklyn, the rest in the Capital Region. I have been with the same partner for over 40 years. I have held a variety of jobs, but all were in some aspect of public policy. These are threads that bind the tapestry of my life.

In a way, I feel jealous of those who have had more variety. Sometimes I’m restless; I want a change of scenery. I remember being on vacation in San Francisco, enjoying the natural beauty and cultural offerings, and wondering ‘why do I live in Albany?’ I’m fully aware of the downsides of the city by the bay and the upsides of New York’s capital city but I felt a sense of longing, for a different climate, new surroundings, something new. I’ve never seriously considered moving, not with all that would entail: Gary starting a new practice, uprooting the kids, being so far from our families who are almost entirely located in New York and New Jersey.

There’s a group on Facebook that I am part of called ‘View from My Window.’ Folks from all around the world post pictures from a window in their home. Many have fabulous views of mountains or oceans, but there are mundane views, too: An ordinary tree in the front yard of a suburban home or an up-close look at an apartment building exterior with fire escapes and windows. I see those pictures and imagine if it was my view. I have no complaints about the one I look at most often – the window above my kitchen sink that looks out at our backyard. The same view I have looked at for almost 30 years. As lovely as it is, I crave something different.

The view from my kitchen window this rainy, autumn morning

I’m sure others, who have moved around a lot, would envy my stability.

For some, like Maron, phases of their lives may be demarcated by periods of sobriety and addiction. That, too, is foreign to me. I can imagine that, perhaps more than any of the other changes mentioned above, living life sober would be different on a very deep level as compared to being in the throes of addiction. Perhaps one almost feels like a different person in recovery, before and after, on the wagon or off – I’m just speculating. I am happy not to have gone down that road.

Living in different places and having different careers holds appeal.  It seems so much more colorful. One of my colleagues in a writing group has lived in far-flung places in our world, not to mention different regions of our country. It sounds so much more exciting than my path.

If I am honest with myself, there is a reason my life hasn’t been that exotic. When I was younger, I was afraid of change. In college when some considered studying abroad, the idea intrigued me, but I was too insecure to do more than read through the explanatory pamphlet. I told myself I couldn’t afford it, but I don’t think that was actually the case. Looking back at it, I don’t regret it, I wasn’t ready. In some ways I wish I could go back to college now; I would be so much less tentative, more willing to take risks. Someone said youth is wasted on the young. I see the truth in that now.

The question is what will the future hold? Will Gary and I make a ‘new life’ if he ever retires? I suspect, whatever we do, it will still be of a piece with what has gone before. That’s just who we are, even with my pangs of restlessness.

Do you feel like Marc Maron does, that you have lived multiple lives? Or is your experience more like mine. I’m curious to hear if you are willing to share.

Compassion Anyone?

A flash of insight can come at the most unexpected time. I was driving to my poetry group on Saturday and I was thinking about why I was so agitated that morning.  Why was I feeling so ‘judgy’ of others? I suddenly understood something that maybe should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t.

            Here is what I understood: If I don’t feel the emotion that the person is sharing, I am prone to judging them. If I can feel, really feel, the emotion, I am less judgmental.

            I think of myself as an empathic person. When someone shares their troubles with me, I usually feel their pain or frustration. Sometimes too much. However, there are instances where I don’t, especially these days. I was attributing that to being spread too thin and my general sense of frustration with the state of the world. It occurs to me, though, that isn’t the complete story. I have been ‘judgy’ before the pandemic.

            When a friend or relative is sharing something I can relate to, perhaps have experienced myself, I am able to recall the emotion readily. The disappointment or sadness or anger comes flooding in. When that person shares an experience or feeling foreign to me, that’s when I am predisposed to judgement. If I can’t connect their reaction to my own, I am left to intellectualize – then judgement can follow.

            I may not express it– I usually know enough to keep those thoughts to myself. But I stew in it. I’ve been stewing a lot lately. I won’t say to the person that I think they are wrong or over-reacting, but it is what I am thinking. My powers of empathy are more limited than I care to admit. Sitting in judgment doesn’t feel good, though. I don’t want to be a harsh appraiser, especially of those I love. Plus, I think it is counterproductive. Even if I don’t outwardly express it, it creates distance, or it may leak out in other destructive ways.

            Thinking about this as I was driving, the ‘aha’ moment hit me: maybe if I can’t feel what the person feels, there is another path to empathy. What if I imagine what it feels like to be that person? Not through the prism of my experience, but through theirs. So, if a person is expressing their terror of getting Covid, something I don’t feel to that degree, rather than thinking about whether they are justified and thereby trying to convince them they shouldn’t be so afraid, focus on what it feels like to be terrified. Being terrified is an awful state of mind – I can empathize with that irrespective of the cause. During the conversation, I may share some information that I hope allays their fear, but it would be delivered from a place of compassion, rather than judgment.

            Maybe the divisions among us would be helped if we tried to understand the emotion first, acknowledge and connect to it. Maybe if we named the other person’s feeling – fear, anger, hopelessness – and remembered what that emotion feels like even if it was in a different context– we could start a more fruitful conversation.

            For example, anxiety is something I have experienced, but I have had only one panic attack and that happened when I was an adolescent. Others experience panic as a regular expression of their anxiety. And, I may not be set off by the same triggers, nor have the same physical reaction, but I still know how horrible it is to feel panicky.

            My anxiety manifests in rumination, as I wrote about last week. But, even at the worst of times when I was living in my head, I was functional. Not as productive as I wanted to be, but I wasn’t paralyzed. If someone was to share their experience of ruminating, I would reflect on my own. If they were so tied up in knots that they couldn’t get out of bed, I would feel sorry for them but wonder why they couldn’t manage to get it together. While listening, it might instead be more helpful to imagine myself in my bed so overwhelmed that I can’t get up– how terrible would that feel?  – rather than thinking about whether I would react in the same way as my friend did.

            Maybe we can’t help but see things through the prism of our experience, but it is too limiting. This might be one way to be more open to others.

            I wish I could report, having had this insight, that I was free of judgment the rest of the weekend. It probably isn’t reasonable, or even desirable, to suspend all judgment. There are times when it is appropriate to criticize. Sometimes a person is so dug into their emotional state that they have lost all perspective. A compassionate loved one can offer another view. It likely won’t be well-received if it is delivered in a judgmental tone – the compassion is key. The problem is sometimes I don’t feel much compassion and that is the point of this whole essay. How do I find the compassion?

            It takes some work to locate it and I have to be willing to put in the effort. Yesterday, once again in the car, I passed two lawn signs that got me angry – a kneejerk judgment. Having had the insight the day before, I tried to test my ability to find compassion.

            The first sign read “Fuck Biden.” Great way to advertise your politics! Why would I want to have compassion for someone, why would I want to try to understand someone, who puts up a sign like that? They are entitled to their view, but in putting it out there like that, it invites anger. Should I do the work to look beyond that, to understand their rage? That is a big ask. The answer, for me, was no, no compassion. I stayed angry. My anger met theirs, metaphorically.

            The second lawn sign demanded “Unmask our children now!” My first reaction to it was to mumble ‘asshole’ to myself (actually Gary was driving and I had to explain I wasn’t calling him that). This one was easier to swallow. I could envision having a conversation. Though I am not a parent of a school-age child (I am a grandparent of a preschooler), I can imagine the frustration of dealing with the pandemic and the desire for my child to go back to ‘normalcy.’ It is unlikely that I would come to a meeting of the minds with the parent with that lawn sign, but the starting point wasn’t as hostile. As I mulled it over, my stomach muscles unclenched a bit. I would call it a semi-successful effort to find compassion.

            These two examples aren’t quite the same thing as listening to a friend or family member express something I don’t feel, but there are parallels. My goal is to walk around holding less hostility in my gut. Does my suggestion hold any water for you? If you have other ideas for how to do that, I’m all ears.

Am I Paying Attention?

The last public event I attended before the pandemic shut everything down was an appearance by Scott Simon, the NPR broadcaster, sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute. He talked about his career in journalism and the book he had recently written. In the course of the discussion, he said something I made note of and continue to think about. He said, and this may not be an exact quote, but I believe I got it, “If you have the same convictions at 42 as you had at 22, you aren’t paying attention.”

Hmmm, I wondered, do I agree?

As I sat in the auditorium, I think I construed convictions as equivalent to values. And, my values have not changed over the years: honesty, integrity, kindness are steadfast principles and always will be. So, at first, I rejected his premise. Subsequently, I looked up the word conviction: a firmly held belief or opinion. Ahhh, that is a different question. Have my opinions changed?

What were my convictions when I was 22?

When I was 22, I had just graduated from the public administration master’s program at Columbia University. It was 1982, an important year in my life that I have written about here. What did I believe?

I was a Democrat and, though Ronald Reagan was popular, I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 (it was the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote). I didn’t believe in Reagan’s message – he campaigned on small government, tax cuts, trickle-down economics and the whole ‘greed is good’ mentality. I didn’t buy it. I still don’t. That is one conviction that hasn’t changed.

Over the many years since then, even with the disappointments in our government, all the instances that corruption has been uncovered and scandals revealed, I still believe in the potential for good governance. I was 12 years old during the Watergate hearings; old enough to understand the implications.  I knew big corporations were just as problematic, though, if not more so. Over the years my understanding has become more nuanced, but I grasped early on that the common denominator was human nature. People could abuse power and money in any setting. Justice and fairness are best served by checks and balances. I stand by the notion that elections and oversight from journalists and governmental entities are more effective mechanisms to ensure the greater good than the “free” market. The market has its benefits, and I still call myself a capitalist, but a strong government is essential for the common good. That opinion has not changed. 

In 1982 I believed in Gary, and our future together. That hasn’t changed either. I believed in the importance of family. My thoughts on one aspect of that has changed. Forty years ago, I thought I could be a career woman and a mom at the same time. I no longer believe that, at least for myself. In fact, I had to let go of that conviction to maintain my sanity. I honestly think I was headed for a nervous breakdown if I didn’t adjust my expectations. It took a long time, a solid decade or more, to not blame myself for not achieving the dream of a successful career and happy, healthy children and husband.

As time passes, I see just how challenging it is for women to balance the competing demands of career, motherhood and all the other roles we play (wife, friend, daughter, etc.). I was not able to – at least not at the same time. Sequentially it might have been possible, but not all at once. Perhaps the particulars of my circumstances conspired against it. Gary’s career was, and is, all-consuming. I didn’t see how both of us could be pursuing work that demanded so much of our respective energy and still attend to our children appropriately. We weren’t rich enough to pay for nannies or housekeepers. We didn’t have a support system of family and friends that could substitute either. Something had to give. Maybe I could have sustained a job, but not a career. I was fortunate in that I could make a choice. I left the workforce, except for some freelance assignments, for ten years.

I also had to come to terms with the fact that my career wasn’t what I envisioned anyway. When I graduated with my MPA, I hoped to make meaningful contributions to public policy. Early on I found myself working for Pittsburgh’s Department of Finance and a decade later I was at the Department of Tax and Finance for the state of New York. This was not what I had in mind. I believed in the importance of an efficient and effective system of taxation, but when I thought about ‘public policy,’ I wanted to help people more directly by improving the quality of community life or helping people move up the economic ladder. That was quite a stretch from what I was doing buried in the bureaucracy. My career path was unfulfilling. It made sense to step off it. I am very glad I did.

I think there is truth in what Mr. Simon said. Our convictions should evolve. We need to be paying attention – to other ideas, to new information, and other perspectives. We need to test our beliefs to see if they hold up. Sometimes it is painful to let go of a closely held belief. Unfortunately, these day too many of us don’t do the work of examining our opinions. We are entrenched in our ideas, stuck in our echo chambers. One constant for me, at 22, 42 and now as I approach 62, is I am always wondering, questioning and thinking. In answer to the question I posited in the title of this post, yes, I am paying attention. Many of my opinions have remained, some have evolved.

Have your opinions changed since you were 22? Which ones? Care to share? It would be interesting to hear how and why your beliefs evolved.