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.

More Hard Questions

Note: It has been another challenging week for me. Aside from my mother’s continuing health issues, I am troubled by the violence in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. I do not subscribe to the narratives offered by the far left or far right in explaining what is going on there. I believe all the participants share responsibility for the violence and that they all need to change to come to peace. In view of these events, I thought it was a good time to revisit a book review I wrote a couple of years ago. The book, Salt Houses, was insightful and provocative and was written from a Palestinian perspective. Even if you haven’t read the book, I hope you find my discussion of it enlightening and thought provoking. It is clear that we, across the globe, all of us, need to find better ways to address trauma that has been passed down through the generations. We see the impact of failing to do so everywhere we look.

https://stories-i-tell-myself.com/2018/12/24/hard-questions/

Karma

To say it has been a stressful week is an understatement. But in keeping with my effort to reframe things, I’ll start with what I am grateful for:

  1. I can replace my destroyed laptop without enduring financial hardship. I know that many are not in that position. It would simply not fit in the budget. Laptops are expensive, but Gary and I can absorb the cost.
  2. Thanks to my daughter, my laptop was backed up to an external hard drive. A couple of months ago, Leah encouraged me to create a more professional office set up by helping me purchase and then connect the hard drive. I can’t begin to imagine how crazed I’d be if my writing had been lost.
  3. My husband didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow in judgment when I told him where I found the mutilated laptop. He didn’t add to my frustration, anger or disappointment. In fact, he was kind (not a surprise to anyone who knows him).

So where did I find the crushed piece of technology? In the middle of the righthand lane of Route 155, not far from where we exited the Albany International Airport an hour earlier. How did it get there? A reasonable question.

We were loading the car with our luggage upon our return from Florida when I put the laptop on the roof of the car. I got distracted by the various things I was arranging and left my precious laptop where I had only intended to rest it briefly. We pulled out of the parking spot, made several turns to emerge from the garage, went through the ticket booth, exited the airport and turned left on to Route 155, a four-lane divided highway. The laptop, in its purple polystyrene case, tenaciously hung on the roof through all of that – hoping I would notice its absence before the laws of physics became too powerful to resist. I didn’t notice. We picked up speed and drove home.

When we pulled into the driveway and unloaded the car, I immediately realized something important was missing. I thoroughly searched the trunk, as well as the front and back seats. I had a feeling I might have left it on the roof as I replayed my actions in my mind, but I wasn’t sure. Sadly, this was not the first time I had left something on the roof of the car. A large cup of Starbucks mocha splattered the back and side windows from one such oversight. In another case, which cost a lot more money than the mocha (though that coffee was expensive), I left my cell phone up top, only to have it smashed to smithereens by an oncoming truck. I seem to be leaving larger and larger items on the roof of the car. What could be possibly be next?

Though I had my suspicions as to the fate of my laptop, I returned to the airport to see if it was in the lost and found. Maybe it slid off in the garage and a good Samaritan turned it in? I retraced my steps, surveyed the parking garage, reported the loss to the airline and then got back in my car to go home in defeat. I exited the airport again and was driving in the right lane when I saw it sitting on the roadway. I maneuvered the car so it wouldn’t run over it and looked for a safe place to stop. There was no shoulder so I made a u-turn and parked in the cellphone lot. I waited for a break in the traffic and dashed across the highway. The case looked strangely swollen, not a good sign. I picked it up – saw black tire marks, heard and felt the crunch of broken glass as I lifted it. I didn’t even try to open the zipper – there was no point. I stood in the grass by the side of the road, silently cursing my idiocy. I waited again for a pause in the traffic and ran back across the road. I sat in the car contemplating what to do next. No solution presented itself. I drove home.

Though it felt like a Sunday, it was, in fact, Monday. When I came in and told Gary I found it and it was irretrievably broken, he asked, “Should we go to the Apple store?”

I realized that it probably was open, but….

“I’ll take care of it tomorrow. I can’t deal with it right now.”

I just needed to regroup.

Trips to Florida seem cursed. Though I have no one to blame but myself, I think it is karma. The Sunshine State is getting back at me for not appreciating it. Our visits to Florida, especially over the last 15 years, have almost always involved looking in on our aging parents who faced one health crisis after another. Though we wanted to visit them, and we would try to make time to catch some rays and enjoy the ocean breeze, I associate Florida with aging and as Zada, my maternal grandfather, said many years ago, “Getting old is not for sissies.” I am coming to understand the truth of his words more and more with each passing day.

It is now Wednesday afternoon. I had my appointment at the Apple Store. In the age of Covid you can’t just show up and shop. I bought a new MacBook Pro, successfully loaded my files from the external hard drive and I am back in business. Though our wallet took a big hit, I am lucky. The laptop is replaceable. People are not.

Three morals from this story: (1) back up any important files to an external hard drive, (2) don’t rest things on the roof of your car (especially if you are prone to distraction like I am), and (3) remember what is important.

Eccentricities

Nadal arranging his water bottles. Photo grabbed from https://www.tennislifemag.com/rafas-rituals-so-much-to-do-before-he-can-play/

Gary was watching tennis on television the other day. Rafael Nadal was playing. Aside from the fact that he is one of the best tennis players of all time, Nadal is interesting because he offers a host of ritualistic behaviors that are far beyond any other athlete I am aware of. All people have quirks and athletes typically have superstitions. Some pitchers won’t step on a baseline when leaving the mound to return to the dugout. Others have pregame routines that they try not to vary. Rafa is in a class by himself. From how he arranges his water bottles to the predictability of his sequence before he serves, he clearly has quirks. Gary noted when Nadal’s game was over and it was time to change sides, Nadal walked toward the net and made a sharp right turn to go to his chair – not your ordinary approach. These behaviors could be amusing little eccentricities. Or they could represent a disorder that interferes with his life. I hope it is the former or something in between that doesn’t create problems for him.

It is kind of funny that Gary was commenting on Nadal’s routines given that he is a creature of habit himself. I guess we all are to varying degrees. Gary’s habits are harmless and amusing (to me). His process for cleaning his glasses is a whole production – if he tells me he needs to clean them before we leave the house, I know I have plenty of time to sit down and read the newspaper. Not surprisingly, his glasses are far cleaner than mine. Once in a while I will ask him to give my lenses his special treatment. I am amazed at the difference – he clearly knows what he is doing.

I walk with a friend who used to need to circle the stop sign instead of just reversing course when we got to the end of the block. Snow could be piled up knee deep on the side of the road, but the walk didn’t feel right to her if she hadn’t done that. I remember when she decided she didn’t need to do that anymore. Humans are so interesting.

These rituals must give us some comfort, some control, or we wouldn’t do them. I have routines, too, though I can’t say I see them as quite so specific or engrained. I get up in the morning and do things in the same order – I think – go to the bathroom (TMI?), wash hands, brush teeth, take meds, make the bed, get dressed, head downstairs. I continue the process by taking my little hotplate out and plugging it in (a gift from Dan and Beth because they know I like my coffee to stay hot), pour my coffee, prepare my breakfast, open my computer and start with the New York Times Spelling Bee, then move on to the crossword puzzle and end with the mini puzzle. Next up, I clean the kitchen – most nights I have left the dinner dishes to be done in the morning. Then I start my day – up to my office to write, read and research. I’m okay, though, if my routine has to change – if I have an appointment, or if Gary hasn’t made the coffee that morning or whatever comes up. The routine gives some structure and a beginning to my day, but I am not married to it. It doesn’t cause me anxiety to do it differently.

Are there people who specifically choose not to have a routine? I imagine that there must be though I don’t think I know many. I wonder what that would feel like. From what I hear from friends, most are pretty devoted to their schedules.

I was taking my brother home from the hospital after his hip replacement surgery a couple of years ago. The nurse was going over the discharge instructions. Mark asked about climbing the stairs to his bedroom. They asked how many steps it would be. “15,” he replied with certainty (I could be remembering the wrong number, but the number isn’t the point). I looked at him, “You know the number of steps off the top of your head?” He looked at me quizzically. “Of course.” Later when we were in the car, I asked him about that. He responded, “Don’t you count the steps when you go upstairs in your house?”  “No, I have no idea how many it is.” Apparently, Mark counts things – and not just the typical things that we all count (like reps in the gym). My brother has his oddities, too.

You never know what might be going on in another person’s head. Well, maybe that isn’t entirely true. I know the thoughts in mine are quite different from my brother. I might be replaying my last conversation with my son or composing my next blog post while Mark might be constructing his all-time Yankee batting order, putting his love of numbers to good, productive use, or he might be thinking about how he might next tease me. Either of those thought processes are totally alien to me.

To the extent that we find our partner’s, family members’ and friends’ little quirks and eccentricities charming, amusing or at least not annoying, it works. When it drives us crazy or when it gets in the way of their functioning, then it is another story.