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.

Neat or Messy?

Note: I am changing the names in this essay to protect the innocent! I don’t want to embarrass anyone or tell tales out of school, but I am sure that many can relate to the topic.

“Would you drop clothing on the floor – you know, let’s say you’re tired or whatever and want to get to bed?” Samantha asked.

“No, I don’t do that. It’s simple enough to put it in the hamper or hang it up,” I answered.

She nodded.

She followed up, “Can you go to sleep with a dish in the sink?” I had to smile. “Uh, yeah! No problem,” I said. She rolled her eyes. Clearly, my cousin could not imagine it.

My cousin, and her adorable, precocious and kind 6-year-old son, came to visit from New Jersey. In honor of their making the long drive, local family gathered in my backyard, and we had a small pool party. Somehow the topic of how we kept our houses came up. A range of philosophy and practice was represented among the five households present. Some among us struggle to keep things organized, others are fastidious. Samantha needs things to be just so, she told two stories that illustrated her point.

She and her son arrived at a friend’s house to babysit and upon entering the living room, strewn with toys, her son blurted out, “We need to clean this room up!” Samantha was embarrassed. And proud, too; he had clearly absorbed her lessons. After you finished playing with a toy, you put it away before taking out another. Though many moms try to get their kids to abide by that rule, most are not as successful as Samantha. They proceeded to help clean up the room, much to the genuine delight of her friend.

Samantha’s other example involved the time she invited some of her friends over for a housewarming. Her walk-in closet was arranged by color. Her friends thought it would be funny if they took a white blouse and put it among the blue, mixing up some of the carefully arrayed items. Samantha laughed about it, then she put everything back where it belonged.

I explained to Samantha where I fell on the continuum of neat to messy.  “I would say I’m in the middle – I am certainly no neat freak. But I can’t abide chaos in my house either.”

In some households this issue can be a bone of contention. When I was in college, my roommate, Merle, kept things neat as a pin. I was messier back then. I wanted to believe that saying that a ‘messy desk is the sign of a creative mind.’ We both compromised. I tried to do better, she took a deep breath and lowered her expectations (as least as far as my side of the room went).

This was not so much of a thing between Gary and me. We seemed to be on the same wavelength. At least I think that is the case. The truth is that for all the time we have lived together he has been immersed in his career – first medical school, then training, then treating patients. I have been responsible for ‘keeping house.’ One of Gary’s great qualities is that he knows better than to criticize when he isn’t in a position (or maybe he isn’t willing) to do it better.  I don’t recall us ever having an argument over the state of the house. Now that we are empty nesters, our house is considerably neater. Children make the battle against mess infinitely more challenging.

One nephew of mine, Jonathan, married a very discerning woman who wanted a well-organized, clean, and orderly home. In the home of Jonathan’s youth neatness was not emphasized. He simply didn’t have the skills. He was a willing learner, though. Jonathan made the transition and is fully capable of maintaining their lovely home. I was not privy, nor do I need to know, what went into that process. It may have had its ups and downs, but they have arrived at a meeting of the minds.

One of my nieces grew up in a very orderly home. Neatness did not come naturally to Elizabeth. She gave up trying. She found a partner who is fastidious. They are in the process of working that out. Elizabeth has upped her game considerably, but they are still negotiating what is reasonable. They were laughing about it poolside as we all compared notes.

Another nephew, Jonah, who grew up in the same house as Jonathan, and was similarly challenged in the cleaning and organizing department, married a lovely woman, Margaret, who is also stationed on the messy side of the continuum. Margaret rebelled against the demands of her mother who kept the family home very neat. Margaret prefers to put her energies into fun activities. Add babies to the mix and you have a ‘situation.’ Jonah’s father jokingly offered to pay Samantha to organize their house. Samantha’s eyes lit up. The challenge appealed to her – she loves to create order out of chaos. “Let me run back to my house and get my label maker! I’ll be right back!” Samantha laughed. She lives four hours away. That will have to wait for another day.

When my mother-in-law, Paula, who kept a dust-free home, visited back in the days when my children were young, was very diplomatic about how I did things. She never criticized me and never appeared to judge me. In fact, I remember one visit where I apologized for the disarray, and she told me not to worry. “You are spending time with your children, that is more important.” How kind was that?

I do recall another visit when Paula relayed the wisdom of her mother. “My mother told me, ‘before you go to sleep, clean the kitchen, do the dishes. This way when you get up in the morning, you start fresh.’ It feels good.” I told her I appreciated that, and I would try, but I wasn’t sure it would work for me.

These days after dinner is my time to hang out with Gary. Whether I am using that as an excuse or not, I don’t know, but the dishes are still there in the morning. If I have trouble sleeping, it has nothing to do with the dishes in the sink. Cleaning the kitchen has become part of my morning routine

I think for some keeping your surroundings orderly is one way to stave off the anxiety of the chaos in the world. Maybe it isn’t that complicated and some just find it more peaceful to live in uncluttered spaces. How do you navigate it? Is it a source of friction in your household?

My sink this morning. I slept fine!

Successfully Replenished

Thank you to all who responded to last week’s post. Many of you shared, here on the blog or on Facebook, what you do to de-stress and refill yourself. So many good ideas were offered: physical activities (for example, bicycling and yoga are two that stay with me), talking to family and friends, sleep (of course we need to be rested!), cuddling with animals, grandchildren or spouses (not necessarily in that order) and crafting were some of the many suggestions. I am grateful to have more tools to call upon, though I know some are not a good fit for me.

Some crafts would be stressful. Anything that requires patience and fine motor skills is just going to frustrate me. Sewing, knitting and the like, which I have tried, are definitely not for me. I respect those who are creative in that way. I appreciate the product, but the process would make me crazy. While painting and drawing may be done more successfully if you have excellent fine motor skills, I think they can be done without that. Watercolors appeal to me. I may be signing up for a class or looking for some Youtube videos in the near future.

The idea of talking to friends or family is interesting. I definitely benefit from venting sometimes or from processing an issue with someone I love and trust (most often that would be Gary or Merle, though I have called upon others), but sometimes talking is the last thing I want to do.

Though no one mentioned this idea in the comments, we spent time with friends this past weekend who turn to their faith. I am quite sure they are not alone in calling upon God or whatever higher power one believes in. I think many pray for guidance and find it helpful. I believe our friends, in times of stress, call upon their pastor. I have heard and read of folks who believe that through prayer or reading the bible they received guidance through a sign or a peaceful feeling coming over them. I have not had that experience. Prayer is one of those things about which I have contradictory impulses. Intellectually I don’t believe in the power of prayer. I don’t judge anyone who does, in fact I envy them their faith. On the other hand, when I am most challenged, I find myself praying. Maybe it is like that saying ‘there are no atheists in foxholes.’ When my father was dying, I must have silently asked for strength to get through it, for the wisdom to know the right things to do for him and for mercy on him so he didn’t suffer, ten times a day, at least. I can’t say doing it comforted me or refilled me, not consciously anyway. But I did it, so maybe it served some purpose. Or maybe it was a form of meditation that centered me. At the time I believed that the best way to comfort myself was to sit by the ocean for ten minutes (it was a few minutes drive from the hospital) or taking a walk in the bird sanctuary that was also nearby. Either way, I did find my way through it.

This past weekend, spent with friends from medical school, was replenishing. Though their life experience is so different from Gary and mine, and their faith is so strong and central to their lives in stark contrast to ours, we have lots of common ground. We were in Cooperstown, New York which is a lovely, charming town and home to the baseball hall of fame. It also has a large lake, named Glimmerglass for a reason. A museum (not an art museum, but a museum nonetheless) and nature – two of my favorite things. Plus laughter, friendship and good food. Now back to real life, a bit tired, but refreshed.

Some scenes from our visit:

To whoever planted that field of sunflowers – thank you! We came upon it as we drove out of Cooperstown on our way to the AirBnB and we had to pull over to take it in.

Letting Go

Being able to let go of something – a person, a belief, a dream, a habit – is terribly difficult. I can’t say I have done it successfully very often, certainly not as often as would be healthy for me. I was thinking about this the other morning when I woke up feeling lighter. It was not because I had lost weight (I wish!), at least not in the physical sense. But a noticeable heaviness had lifted from my shoulders and heart. It happened while I wasn’t looking; snuck up on me. It was not a conscious decision, but rather an accumulation of thoughts and actions.

As I reflect on the times that I have successfully let go of something that was dragging me down, I realized that this was my pattern. It wasn’t like I could just decide to move on and, boom, I did. It was more subtle and required sustained effort. I would be making progress and I didn’t even realize it – until I did.

The earliest I remember it happening involved my first serious boyfriend. That relationship lived in my head and heart far longer than was healthy. It was clear that it wasn’t working. We were too young, he wanted to be free to see other people, I wanted commitment. I couldn’t let go of what I saw as our potential future together. I blamed myself, I thought it was some deficiency in me.

Finally, after months of mourning and wallowing, I consciously put my energy into college courses, nurtured new and existing relationships and took better care of myself physically. Eventually I got the payoff. One night, long after we had officially broken up, he called because something reminded him of me. I realized, in that moment, that I didn’t feel hurt or longing when I heard his voice. I could have a conversation with him, but I wasn’t invested in some outcome. I was okay where I was – I was free. I couldn’t tell you when it happened. It was an accumulation of all the actions I had taken – some of them awkward and painful, some more rewarding. But, the combination of time and effort, did its thing, and I moved on.

I had a similar experience in graduate school, though this time it had nothing to do with a relationship. I was torturing myself that I wasn’t doing as well in my classes as I expected. The breaking point came when I got a B on my Cost-Benefit Analysis midterm. I was devastated. A B might not sound like a bad grade but, in my experience in graduate school, it is more equivalent to a C. It felt like failure. The fact that I had a 17-month old baby and was pregnant with my second was no excuse. I went to see the professor, trying hard not to cry. I told her I was very disappointed in myself. She assured me that no one in the program, I was in the public administration doctoral program at the State University of New York at Albany, thought I was a B student – regardless of the grade I got on that test. I tried to let that sink in.

I was still overwhelmed – our house was a mess, toys, laundry, and piles of paper everywhere. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, but I expected more of myself. Gary was in his third year of his residency program in internal medicine and was stretched to the limit. My parents and friends tried to talk sense to me. My folks paid for a cleaning service to come to our house every other week to help ease the burden. It was helpful, but I had to clean up before they could do their work!

I couldn’t turn off the pressure until something clicked. While I wasn’t conscious of the moment, one day I realized the critical voice in my head had quieted. I accepted that I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough.

A year and a half later I took a leave from the doctoral program. Gary and I realized that financially the ends were not meeting, we did not want to accumulate credit card debt, so I went to work for the state. Family had been called upon enough to help. Ultimately, after working for a couple of years, I decided I didn’t need or want to complete the doctoral program. I had done the coursework and taken the comprehensive exam, but I would still need to write a dissertation to finish. I concluded that I didn’t need the credential for my career. I didn’t want to be a professor.  To work in government, a PhD in public administration didn’t add much value, I already had a master’s degree. I made the decision to leave. I let it go without regret and haven’t looked back.

More recently, when I awoke that morning feeling lighter, it dawned on me that I had let go of the dread and helplessness I felt about my mother’s health. It was not that I wasn’t still worried about her or that I didn’t care – of course I did and do. But I had been carrying a sense of responsibility for her condition that was causing great stress. After months of trying to find an explanation and treatment for Mom’s breathing problems, I finally accepted that it wasn’t in my control. Gary, my husband the doctor, who has been advising me throughout this journey, pointed out to me repeatedly, “If different cardiologists and pulmonologists, who have years of training and experience, can’t come up with an answer, don’t you think it is unreasonable to expect you to?” As much as I wished I could fix it, or at least understand it, I couldn’t. The first three times he asked me that question, it didn’t take. I knew the answer, but I had to internalize it. Finally, when I wasn’t consciously aware, I woke up that morning realizing that I had.

I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough. It is hard enough to deal with the losses and disappointments that life brings us. Adding blame and guilt, when it is misplaced or unearned, is a burden too much to bear.

Now if I could only figure out how to let go a bit sooner, I would be grateful. But, as they say, the only way through it is through it.