Stories

Is This the Right Time?

           I picked an interesting time to stop taking my antidepressant! About two months ago I started the process of weaning off Zoloft. Two weeks ago, I completed the process. I was on it for years – certainly more than a decade. I began to consider stopping about a year ago. I noticed that I felt ‘flat;’ I wasn’t experiencing pleasure in moments that I expected to, like being with my granddaughter or going on vacation. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy those things; I did but I wasn’t fully engaged. I wanted to feel more, even sadness. I understood that Zoloft was likely protecting me from real lows, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the tradeoff anymore.

            The reason I started taking medication in the first place was not because of depression, per se. I am fortunate in that I have never experienced the debilitating effects of clinical depression. My problem was that I would ruminate – I lived in my head, and I was tired of it. I remember telling my therapist that I felt stuck. I would ruminate about unsatisfying social interactions or relationship problems. Sometimes I would get stuck on fears, even silly ones. A low point was when I was on the teacup ride at Disney with Leah and instead of enjoying it – she was – I was imagining the headlines when it crashed. Anxiety was more of an issue for me than depression.

            All these years later, when it dawned on me that I was kind of numb, I thought maybe it was time to try life without Zoloft.  Even with the craziness of Covid, which has introduced another layer of challenge for our mental health, I wanted to give it a try.

            In one sense it was a good time to consider the possibility of going off the pills. When things started getting harder managing Mom and Aunt Clair’s health care about six months ago, I returned to therapy. After a few sessions I posed the question: Could the medicine be stifling my emotions? Was the dullness I felt caused by the drug? I wondered if, by virtue of being on Zoloft for so long, my brain had rewired itself. Maybe the pathways that led me continue to re-live the same conversation a hundred times had been rerouted – not to stretch the metaphor too far. She said that the flatness I was describing was a known side effect of medication and it was possible that my brain changed such that I would be less susceptible to ruminating. We discussed the process of discontinuing the medicine and what I should be on the lookout for in terms of side effects as I went forward. I also checked in with my primary care physician since my therapist is not a psychiatrist – my primary care doc actually prescribes the medicine. Having consulted with the two of them, having a plan in place, I decided to do it.

            With all that continues to go on with my mom and aunt (not to mention the relentlessly negative news from the world at large), it might not have been the wisest time to do this experiment. I think, though, it is also important for me to feel the pain of this part of the journey. Though I am only a couple of weeks into this, instinct tells me that it was the right step to take. I may change my mind – I haven’t disposed of the remainder of my pills – I reserve the right to go back on them. But, I think this feels more natural. I should feel sad that Mom is not herself. I should get angry and frustrated at the failures of our health care system. I should feel joy when my granddaughter runs at me to hug my knees, turning her bright, beautiful face up to mine, flashing a huge smile that melts my heart. I want to feel those emotions.

            It has been a dramatic welcome back to the world of emotion. People sometimes talk about oscillating between one feeling and another. My experience is more like the hour hand of a clock sweeping across an array of them – fortunately it isn’t the minute or second hand! That would be unsustainable. Anger, confusion, frustration, love, hope, despair, powerlessness, appreciation, grateful are all part of most days.

            As expected, anger is prominent. There is a lot to be angry about, and I have a shorter fuse now. I’m not sure that is a great development. Since Gary is often the one igniting the fuse, I have checked in with him to see if I’m being unreasonable. So far, we’re managing, or should I say he is. Isn’t he lucky! Seriously, though, I am working on handling my temper. It hasn’t been a problem, but I do notice a difference.

            Another expected emotion – sadness. Each time I am faced with the fact of my mom’s new limitations, I feel it. I am still not a crier. I wish sometimes I could get that release. Oddly, I find it comforting to be sad. Being numb to what is happening isn’t living. If I don’t dwell there too much of the time, I think it is healthy.

            If the last two weekends are any indication, the joy has ramped up, too. I spent time with my children and granddaughter two weekends in a row! One of those weekends was my birthday and we managed to combine all my favorite things: family, nature and art. I was more fully present. So far, so good.

My Gallery of Joy:

            I do notice some increase in anxiety. Stray thoughts about unlikely accidents (like my teacup ride) creep in, but they aren’t taking up residence. They aren’t getting in my way. At least not yet. I am hoping they won’t.

            Some may wonder why I am sharing all of this. It does feel a little weird to put this out there. But I want to ‘walk the walk’; I believe we need to destigmatize mental health issues and how can we do that if we don’t bring it out into the open? Maybe we’ll get to the point where it becomes a nonissue, then I’ll stop. We aren’t there yet. This is part of my journey, and I am choosing to share it. Hopefully it will help others who may be experiencing some of the same challenges. And, if not, maybe it illuminates what it feels like for those who have not been down this road.

Note: If any reader is considering stopping medication, please do so under the direction of a doctor and/or therapist. There can be serious side effects, especially if it is done abruptly, that need to be monitored.

First Impressions

Note: I am returning to some of my earlier blog themes by exploring the beginnings of Gary and my relationship. I continue to work on a book which will examine how generational trauma (the Holocaust)shaped our respective lives and influenced the family we created together. That book is taking forever to complete and keeps getting interrupted by life, but I keep chipping away at it.

            Gary and I were home for the break between semesters of our senior year of college when I was invited to Shabbos dinner at the Baksts. I had been raised to know enough to bring something when you go to someone’s house for dinner – wine, a box of chocolates, flowers. I wondered:  what to bring? Of course, I wanted to make a good impression. Though I had met his parents once, this would be my first extended interaction. Wine was not a big thing in my family life, and I didn’t think it was for Gary’s either, and I didn’t know anything about it, so I eliminated that as an option. I thought it would be nice if I brought a homemade dessert. Mom had a recipe for cheesecake, maybe cheese-pie is more accurate, that I loved and was always a big hit. I decided to make that.

            It was not a complicated recipe. The base of the pie was Philadelphia cream cheese – how could it go wrong? I bought a pre-made graham cracker crust. I topped the cream cheese mixture with canned strawberry filling and fresh strawberries. It looked good. I was pretty sure it would taste good, too.

            I arrived at the Bakst home in Rosedale, a neighborhood strikingly similar to my own in Canarsie. Mrs. Bakst greeted me warmly. I gave her the pie, she thanked me and asked if it should be refrigerated. We agreed that it should, and she put it on a shelf in the refrigerator. We joined the rest of the family in the living room.

            I sat down next to Gary on the couch that was encased in plastic. I took note of the furnishings, so different from my parents’ living room. Aside from the plastic coverings, the style was more formal and classic. My Mom’s taste ran to the modern (for 1979); we had a red shag carpet and black and white houndstooth drapes in our living room. We chatted for a bit, Gary’s older brother and younger sister were there, too, and then we were called to the table.

            The dining room table was set with a cream-colored tablecloth. I didn’t know if the dishes were china, but they looked fancier than everyday plates. Before we sat down, Mrs. Bakst lit the candles, reciting the prayer and then covering her eyes as I had seen my Nana do years before. Mr. Bakst made the blessings over the wine and challah.  Mrs. Bakst served the first course, chicken soup. “I cook without salt,” she explained as she set the steaming bowl down before me, “because David has high blood pressure. If you want to add it, you can.” I nodded and thanked her. “I don’t think it needs it,” David said. “It’s better without all that salt.” I didn’t add any, though my tastebuds were accustomed to lots of salt. I didn’t know if my mom or dad had high blood pressure, I did know that Mom wasn’t shy about including salt to her recipes – especially chicken soup. I was impressed that Mr. and Mrs. Bakst were so disciplined about his diet. Diet and discipline weren’t connected in my family.

            Everyone took a slice of challah. I looked around the table for butter or margarine and saw none. It was dawning on me that the Baksts kept Kosher. Gary had probably mentioned that to me, but his eating habits at college didn’t strike me as all that different from my own. I didn’t have milk with meat either (though I had been known to have a cheeseburger now and again). I didn’t yet realize that there was much more to it than that. I was about to learn quite a bit more  – much to my chagrin.

            We finished dinner. I got up to help remove the dishes.  When I stood, I was horrified to see that there were two pink smudge marks on the tablecloth where my elbows had rested. I was wearing a burgundy chenille sweater. It had not occurred to me that the color would run on to Mrs. Bakst’s pristine cloth. I think my face turned the color of my shirt.  I briefly thought about whether to say something or to try to cover it with my napkin.  “Mrs. Bakst,” I stammered, “I’m so sorry, but my sweater….look.” She looked, “Don’t worry. It will come out when I wash it.” “Are you sure?” Among the many things I knew nothing about at 20 years of age was how to get stains out. “It’s okay,” she reassured me. I made a mental note to tell Gary to let me know if it didn’t come out so I could buy a replacement. Oy. I wasn’t making the impression I hoped.

            After clearing the table, we returned to sit and continue chatting. After a bit, Mrs. Bakst offered tea and suggested serving the pie. Though, we had talked about refrigerating it earlier, we had not specifically gone over its ingredients. I realized there might be a problem. I explained to her that there was cream cheese in the mixture. Mr. and Mrs. Bakst conferred and decided that we had waited long enough after dinner to have it. According to the laws of Kashruth, I would later learn, you wait a certain number of hours before consuming dairy after meat. Not everyone observes the letter of the law. I felt badly that I had put them in that position. But, it was going to get worse.

            Mrs. Bakst removed the pie from the refrigerator, and I noticed her looking at it carefully. She was reading the label from the pre-made shell which was still affixed to the plastic cover of the pie. “is it okay?,” I asked.

“I am looking to see if the crust is kosher,” Paula explained.

I didn’t know that a crust could be unkosher. I had not yet learned that food products came with symbols to indicate whether they were rabbinically supervised and if it contained meat, dairy or was pareve (contained no ingredients that were meat or dairy and could be eaten with either). If the crust included animal fat it could indeed be unkosher. Given that there was no symbol on the label, it was likely that it wasn’t kosher.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. If you don’t want to have it, I understand. I can just take it home.”

Mr. and Mrs. Bakst conferred again.They decided we would have it on paper plates with plastic utensils. I felt embarrassed.

            As I drove my father’s car back to our house in Canarsie, I reflected on the evening. How many things could I get wrong? The remains of the unkosher pie sat on the passenger seat. I knew it would get eaten in my house. Though I was born Jewish, there was a lot I didn’t know. And my lack of manners was on full display! Not only were my elbows on the table, but they had stained Gary’s mother’s linen tablecloth! Hopefully the smudges would come out. I hoped Mr. and Mrs. Bakst saw some of my positive attributes – I did help clear the table….

            Writing this 43 years after the fact, I am mostly amused by my ignorance. At the time I wondered if it would be a fatal flaw in the eyes of either Gary or his parents. Obviously, it wasn’t, but I had some work to do, including understanding how Gary felt about Judaism’s rituals and practices and whether I wanted to integrate them into my life.

Gary and I survived my inauspicious debut with his parents. Five months later we were graduating from SUNY-Binghamton 1980

The Albany Book Festival to the Rescue

I thought this week’s blog post was going to be titled “The System is Broken.” The system I am referring to is elder care. It was motivated by my visit to my aunt at the Amsterdam Nursing facility. I will write that piece, but not today. Fortunately, I was rescued from that dark place by some uplifting experiences, and I decided to focus on those.

First, I will note the value of friendship. In the midst of my distress, I had a lovely dinner with my almost-life-long friend (we met when I was 14), Steven. We commiserated over our respective painful experiences of seeing our elderly parents, relatives and friends go through the indignities that aging can bring, especially when coupled with the limitations of the health care system. We found much to laugh about even as we covered those difficult subjects. We ate outside on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a refreshing breeze washing over us. A strong cocktail improved my mood. It was a much-needed respite. Thank you, Steven.

This was followed up later in the week with a zoom call with Merle. We lamented the state of our country, but then focused on our gratitude for the good fortune we both enjoy.

The crowning event, though, in shifting away from writing that disturbing blog post, was attending the fourth annual Albany Book Festival. Last year it was limited to a virtual event due to the coronavirus. This year it was a mixture – virtual and live. I was concerned about attending an in-person, indoor event and wondered whether they would be taking appropriate precautions. I read the Covid information on the website and my worries were eased. I assured Gary that if they weren’t enforcing the rules and the environment felt unsafe, I would leave promptly.

My well-thumbed program

The morning fog had burned off, leaving a bright blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds, as I drove the short distance to the SUNY-Albany campus. I parked my car and ran into an ex-colleague from my days working at NYSSBA. This was a delightful surprise, as I had not seen her in several years. We caught up as we walked to the campus center. Purple signs, SUNY-A’s color, directed us. As we entered the building, I was relieved to see each and every person masked; not just masked but wearing them properly, fully covering their nose. There were a lot of people, but the area was not overcrowded. So far so good.

I perused the program and decided to head to the auditorium to hear Nathan Philbrick talk about his new book, Travels with George. It is a combination history, travelogue and memoir; the George in the title is George Washington. I had not read the book, nor was I familiar with Mr. Philbrick’s earlier work, but I thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed but informative conversation that was facilitated by moderator, Paul Grondahl. Mr. Philbrick, who has written multiple history books about early America, talked about Washington as a flawed but great man. Sprinkled in were amusing and interesting anecdotes about Philbrick’s own life. To conclude the session, Grondahl asked the author about his prediction for our country’s future, in this difficult and contentious time, given his knowledge of the past. Philbrick reflected on other perilous times in our history, including in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s election when the United States was first forming as a nation. He responded, “I have faith in America.” He pointed out that it may take a while, likely years, to weather the current storm. He admitted that though he is a pessimist by nature, he still trusted in our institutions. My spirits lifted. I felt better. I realize he is just one person, but he struck me as well-informed, intelligent, and knowledgeable. I bought his book.

I picked another session to attend. This one featured a conversation with the newly-named New York State poet and author, Willie Perdomo and Ayad Akhtar, respectively. Again, I was not familiar with either man’s work. I am not well read in poetry.  I am always promising myself that I will read more of it, to no avail. I left this session motivated once again. We’ll see.

Both men were well-spoken, good-humored and insightful. It is no wonder that Mr. Perdomo is a poet. He spoke lyrically, expressively and meaningfully about his life-journey. I could have listened for another hour. Mr. Akhtar didn’t project the same warmth, but he too was insightful. I bought his novel, Homeland Elegies, which according to Barack Obama is ‘a powerful and searching examination of contemporary American politics and attitudes.’ I value President Obama’s book recommendations and look forward to reading Mr. Akhtar’s work.

After that session, I wandered through the exhibit hall, taking in the offerings of other authors and publishers. I looked out the window and saw the brilliant sunshine. I decided I wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather rather than attend more sessions so I headed home.

I was invigorated by the talent, intelligence, and diversity I had witnessed at the book festival. Though I cut my stay short, I had gotten what I needed: a reminder that there are creative, smart, interesting people who are engaged with complex issues. It made me feel better about the world, about the future. Though it doesn’t change the fact that ‘the system is broken,’ I felt more hopeful and energized. Next week I can write about elder care.

Yom Kippur

Last Wednesday evening was the beginning of Yom Kippur; it turned out to be a particularly poignant one. As many know, Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is a solemn day of reflection where we ask for forgiveness for our transgressions from our fellow humans and from God. Those who doubt God’s existence, even avowed atheists, can find meaning in the holiday. We look inward to see how we can do better in the year to come. Sometimes the observance of Yom Kippur resonates more than other years. This one did, perhaps because it has been such a difficult year on so many levels.

The ongoing health challenges facing my mom and aunt have been hard with so many decisions to make; coming to terms with problems that are beyond my ability to solve, has tested my spirit. I hope I am meeting the moment. The limitations COVID has placed on us, which makes dealing with everything yet more complicated, has been another test. I am not the most patient person, but I have had to be more so than ever. The sense that our country is at odds with itself, with no healing in sight, adds to the strain. Well over 650,000 Americans have died of Covid – an unfathomable number. It didn’t have to be this way.

As I look back on the year, there were bright spots. The country did elect Joe Biden (for some readers that may not be a bright spot, but for me it was). An even more positive thing was our daughter’s wedding. Despite the obstacles Covid introduced, we had a magical, intimate weekend of celebration.

From our magical wedding weekend

We were also able to have a family vacation at the Outer Banks. Sometimes I lose sight of the bright spots, so it is good to reflect and remind myself.

The beach at Duck, North Carolina

One of the reasons this Yom Kippur may have been more poignant was that it is the first since Gary’s Dad, David, died. Though we had not actually spent the holiday in person with him in many years, we were very connected. Gary would call just as we concluded the evening meal before attending Kol Nidre to wish David and Paula an easy fast, and then when we broke it the next evening, he would call again to wish them a happy new year and compare notes on how the fast went. This was his tradition with his dad for all the years that I have known Gary unless we were physically all together. There was a painful emptiness where David would have been.

Once again Gary and I livestreamed the service from a Manhattan synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun. Gary was not comfortable attending our synagogue in person due to the continued presence of Covid in the community. We participated from home. I downloaded the mahzor so we could recite the prayers – actually Gary recited, I listened.

Our new-fangled observance: Gary davening while I listened

Part of the Yom Kippur service is called Yizkor. It is focuses specifically on remembrance of those who have died. In preparation for that part, the rabbi suggested that those at home have a photograph, or an item associated with their loved one close by. Gary grabbed an old polaroid of David in which he is surrounded by the family at his home in Liberty. I took a wool cap that was my dad’s that Gary continues to use. We put those items on the coffee table next to the computer screen. It surprised me how much emotion they evoked.

Before the actual Yizkor prayers, the rabbis, there were two conducting the services, shared poems. One was especially powerful.

Michiko Dead

BY JACK GILBERT

He manages like somebody carrying a box   

that is too heavy, first with his arms

underneath. When their strength gives out,   

he moves the hands forward, hooking them   

on the corners, pulling the weight against   

his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly   

when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes   

different muscles take over. Afterward,

he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood   

drains out of the arm that is stretched up

to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now   

the man can hold underneath again, so that   

he can go on without ever putting the box down.

I thought the box was an fitting metaphor for grief. We have all had the experience of struggling to carry a heavy load and grief is just like that. Though we learn to cope, we adjust, we never put it down. The experience is fresher for Gary, but it is a message that resonated for me, as well.

I think we don’t talk about grief or loss enough. It makes us uncomfortable. I don’t want to dwell there, but those emotions are powerful and an important part of our lives. As soon as someone mentions a person who has died, or talks of their sadness, the impulse is to gloss over it and change the subject. Maybe if we didn’t do that the grief would be easier to bear.

One other thought on grieving that we don’t speak about. It is the grief we feel when someone we love is dying. They are still with us, but they might have a terminal illness, or the aging process is taking its toll. Sometimes our mourning begins before they are gone. That is even more of a taboo subject. We don’t know how to talk about death, unless it is an abstraction, or even if we should. There must be a healthier way to live with the certainty of death rather than ignoring it or dressing up our feelings so we can store them tidily away.

Random Thoughts on a Holiday Weekend

Yesterday I spent well over an hour online trying to initiate a Medicaid application for my elderly aunt. I had no success. I learned one thing. After completing the first part of what I thought was the correct process, I found out it was not. Buried four clicks in, and after filling out two preliminary forms, and after receiving several error messages and a rejection notice, they finally explained how to initiate an application for someone over 65. After all that, I learned that you are supposed to call the helpline or visit a Medicaid office! It seems that little tidbit could have appeared on the very first screen. A pretty major piece of guidance, if you ask me. Who designs these things? I will call the helpline after the holiday and find out how to proceed. Let’s see how convoluted, complicated and frustrating this process will be. I have such high hopes.

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It may seem odd to be writing about the passing of Ed Asner, but I need to say something. He reminds me of my dad, in the best way possible. He always has. When I watched the Mary Tyler Moore show back in the 70s, and I loved that show for many reasons, I noted the likeness. Some of it was physical. My Dad was built similarly, that burly, Eastern European thing. They both were also balding with a heavy beard. My Dad could probably have shaved twice a day. I suspect Mr. Asner could do the same. But more than that, it was the sense of decency Mr. Asner radiated. The gruff exterior belied a tenderness. Maybe I read too much into Lou Grant and other characters he played, but that is what I sensed.  And that was at the heart of my dad. These last few days, as tributes came through my Facebook feed, each time I felt a pang of loss. Dad was not granted the length of years Mr. Asner was, he is gone more than 16 years, but I still feel it acutely. I mourn Ed Asner’s passing, too.

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I have spent much of the last week under the weather. I don’t want to assign blame, Daniel, but I caught a cold. Of course, since we are in the midst of a pandemic, I was concerned that maybe it was actually Covid. The delta variant has been spreading locally. I tried to make an appointment for a test and found it difficult to get one. All the area pharmacies were booked. I could get a slot the next afternoon, but I’d have to drive half an hour. I took it. In the meanwhile, I asked my husband to try to pick up an at-home test on his way home from work. He called around and found one at a CVS in Schenectady – not that far away. He brought it home. I read the directions carefully, followed them, waited the 15 minutes and found out I was negative. These tests are imperfect, but my son and granddaughter also tested negative, so I took a measure of comfort in that. The cold though wasn’t deterred by that information, it has gone through its various stages relentlessly. Sore throat, headache, sinus pressure, my nose running like a faucet (throw in a couple of bloody noses), then the cough. The cough is the worst part for me and takes the longest to resolve. I know I shouldn’t complain. So many others have it worse. But whenever I am under the weather, I get mad at myself. I take it as a personal failing. So, in addition to feeling poorly, I am angry at myself. I have been down this road many times and I still do it. I am disappointed in my lack of productivity while I am ill. I shouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place! I will not cough!!! The refrains in my head are singularly unhelpful. Maybe now that I have written it down, it will stop. Or it will stop when the symptoms pass…any day now.

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Two more covid -related complaints. We are once again trying to plan the celebration of Leah and Ben’s marriage. We are now three and a half months out. Once again, we are plagued by uncertainty. I am angry. It didn’t have to go this way. My other gripe is of the ‘first world’ variety. Most people are faced with lost opportunities due to the pandemic. College kids deprived of the full experience. Youngsters wearing masks as they start school. Cancelled proms. Job loss or forced career changes. Folks with other health problems having to navigate getting care. Seniors enduring damaging isolation. So much fall out. My issue isn’t serious, but I find myself resentful anyway. I am missing prime-time travel opportunities. Gary and I are in our early sixties. Thankfully still healthy. This would be a time for broader exploration. We are lucky enough to be financially able to do it too. I love travel – minus the hassle of air travel itself, that part sucked even before the pandemic. But that aside, who knows what the future will bring? There are so many places I want to go. Okay, I’m done whining. I know it pales in comparison to the price others have paid, including loss of life. But since I am venting, I thought I would put that out there, too. I invite you to vent, as well. It can be therapeutic – as long as it isn’t directed at an innocent bystander. A journal, online or on paper, may be best. Feel free to use the comment section below.

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!

“Most Likely to…”

Ever wonder what became of the people who were voted ‘most likely to succeed’ in your high school class? I don’t have to – I was one of them.  Alan Schick and I were selected from the Canarsie High School class of 1976. Though I don’t think Alan is famous, I certainly don’t hold that against him, neither am I. Success and fame are not synonymous in my estimation. We are Facebook friends and as best as I can tell, he is a successful attorney and family man. I hope he feels he has a fulfilling life. [Alan, if you are reading this and would like to chime in, please do!]

I’ve been thinking about it recently and, naturally me being me, the designation raises lots of questions. I wondered if anyone has ever done of study: were those folks predicted to be successful by their classmates actually successful? How did their lives turn out?

Not withstanding that question, why do we select classmates as most likely to succeed in the first place? Who came up with the idea? All of those ‘senior superlatives’ are tricky and they can be controversial, too. I looked back at my high school yearbook.

my high school yearbook

We had some interesting titles: Mr. and Miss Canarsie, Mr. and Miss Soul, Class Flirt, Class Fox (separate from cutest boy and girl obviously).  What were we thinking with class flirt and fox? Popularity surely plays a role in all the selections. Why do we vote for any of the categories? I suppose it is fun, but is it?

Since I had all these questions I went to the font of all knowledge – Google. I typed in: Are people voted most likely to succeed successful? Voila! I found a piece addressing some of my questions on NPR (from 2011). It reported the following:

“A recent poll by the high school reunion networking site MemoryLane.com found nearly one-third of those named most likely [to succeed] came to regard it as a curse…” [Please note, it was not offered as a scientific study/]

Only 1/3, that doesn’t sound too bad. Apparently, another third of those polled said the designation had no significance at all, some had even forgotten about it entirely. One person quoted in the piece reported finding motivation in it. When things got difficult, he thought back on the confidence people had in him and it helped.

I can’t say I found it helpful, but I also wasn’t burdened by it. I do remember having some trepidation about attending our 30th high school reunion. I wondered how I would be judged, if people would be disappointed when I reported what I was doing. It turned out to be a nonissue. Though I chatted with people about my life, I don’t recall anyone commenting on whether I measured up to the label.

At the root of this lies a more important question: what does success mean? When 17- or 18-year-olds choose a classmate, what are the metrics of success they have in mind? According to that same NPR piece, most people polled said ‘rising to the top of your field,’ making a lot of money and becoming famous. By those standards, I wouldn’t make the cut. I didn’t have a field, per se. I worked in different government/nonprofit positions. I didn’t make a lot of money and I am not famous either (at least not yet, perhaps this blog will go viral, though I have been at it for five years and it hasn’t happened. Besides, fame is not my goal.).  Not mentioned as criteria: having a long, loving marriage, raising children to be productive adults, maintaining friendships and family ties, continuing to grow and learn. If those were the measures, I’d be solid.

Whether one was voted most likely to succeed, another senior superlative or if one escaped high school without a designation, everyone deals with the weight of expectations. One way or another, we have to sort out what our parents want for us, the hopes of our family and community and what we want for ourselves.

Some may have to overcome a lack of expectation; feeling that no one has hopes for them. We all have challenges making our way in the adult world.

Should high schools continue this tradition? I’m under the impression that some have stopped. Did you get voted one of these titles? How has that impacted your life, if at all? I hope you’ll share. I’d love to get a conversation started.

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.

Remember to Replenish

“Make sure you replenish yourself,” the doctor said. She wasn’t talking about fluids or food. This was advice I received from the therapist I started seeing (again) when things got difficult these last months. I took her words to heart, and it has made a difference.

My mom and my aunt face life threatening illnesses. I have been involved in their care, requiring hours in hospitals, doctor’s offices and on the phone. It is draining. My mother-in-law is also struggling. On a happier note we are again planning our daughter’s wedding – well, not wedding since they got married last December but the joyous celebration we should have had last year. And, while I enjoy the preparations, it too introduces stressors. And, then there is the usual stuff of life that takes time and energy. It has been a lot to juggle.

The therapist’s advice is not new to me. I have long been aware of the importance of not getting emotionally depleted. Making choices that are healthier than eating a sleeve of Oreo cookies (which is soothing while I’m doing it, but just creates another problem) doesn’t come naturally to me. When I am tense my first thought is almost always food related. Recently I have made better choices. I was particularly proud of myself when I didn’t turn to an old favorite, Mint Milanos, when I stopped at a minimarket after I left Sloan-Kettering. I got a bottle of water because I was thirsty, not hungry, and then I hightailed it out of there for a walk. It was a lovely evening for a trek across Central Park. I felt tension releasing from my shoulders as I skirted the lake and then headed uptown to our apartment.

What is replenishing? It is easier to tell you what is not. Years ago, when I was doing Weight Watchers, I went to many meetings where the discussion included ideas for stress relief. Taking a bath or other self-care practices were suggested. I tried that but I never found them helpful. I can enjoy a bath, but it doesn’t nourish my soul. Getting a pedicure is pleasant and seeing a fun color on my toenails makes me smile – but doesn’t hit the spot. I know for some of my friends, retail therapy is a good option. I find shopping stressful so that would clearly be counterproductive.

I have learned that seeing beautiful places and things works for me. Taking a long walk in nature is restorative – that walk through Central Park fit the bill. A walk doesn’t work quite as well if it is in my suburban neighborhood. I don’t have to be out in the woods or on a remote beach, but I need to be away from the ordinary, someplace quieter, where there aren’t reminders of all that needs to be done, where I can breathe. Going to the SUNY-Albany campus, which is a five-minute drive from my house, is sufficient. But, it is even better if it is someplace new, better yet if it is beside a river or stream. The sound of gurgling water and light reflecting off the surface is heartening.

My relationship with nature is funny. I love being in the sun. When I was a child, before effective sunscreens were on the market, I had to be very careful to avoid sun poisoning, wearing long sleeves and long pants at picnics, and limiting my time in the swimming pool or other outdoor activity. In a tropical sun, I had to stay in the shade; even if I was covered, it wasn’t enough. I don’t know if it is the lotions or age, but my skin is not as sensitive. Now I can enjoy being at the beach or pool, as long as I take proper care. I’ll even get a bit of a tan! So being out in nature is something I can enjoy more easily.

One catch though is that I am afraid of most animals. Some people hike with hopes of spotting a bear or a snake or whatever. Not me! I like birds (as long as they aren’t aggressive – Gary and I were once chased from a picnic table by a flock of hungry blue jays), chipmunks and squirrels don’t scare me either (I am so brave). Otherwise, I want to see animals in their natural habitats on television. I love CBS Sunday Morning’s moment of nature – it’s always too short. Despite my reluctance to engage with insects or animals, taking a hike is energizing, but it isn’t always an option. Time may not permit it.

Driving on backroads, checking out scenery and small towns, also works. It takes me out of my head and brings my attention to others’ lives. It is especially enjoyable when the town has charm, cute shops and something other than chain restaurants. But, even when the village is down on its heels, it is interesting to me; to imagine the lives being lived there.

Seeing art is another activity that fills me up. Outdoor sculpture gardens are a favorite. The creativity, the shapes and colors, the beauty can be inspiring. I love museums. Most offer lovely quiet spaces where you can immerse yourself in the paintings or objects. If a given exhibit is too crowded, I will seek out a less populated one. I’m not one to read every description or explanation, I prefer to just take it all in. Of course, going to a museum isn’t always an option either.

I have not listened to music as a way to decompress and refill myself. Given that the other activities I have mentioned take more time and effort, I should probably give music a try. With my I-phone a constant companion, it could be even more convenient than cookies!

Sometimes, when I am at my most stressed, visiting Mom or Aunt Clair in the hospital (I don’t like hospitals, does anyone?), just stopping to breathe and think about what I will do (the walk I will take) or reflecting on what I most recently did (watching the sunset on the bay at the Outer Banks or cuddling with my granddaughter) can help. It is a habit of mind I am developing – a way to comfort myself. Maybe that is the key. In that difficult moment, rather than imagining what treat I will pick up on my way out of the hospital, I can recall a moment of nature and beauty, or anticipate the next one, and get through the challenge. Fill myself up that way.

It isn’t easy to change patterns of thought that have been part of me for most, if not all, of my 61 years. But, I’m not giving up on being healthier. The coming year will likely bring continuing challenges, my mother and my aunt won’t be getting younger, and who knows what else may come down the pike. I can cope but I can do a better job of coping. If you have suggestions, especially those that don’t involve empty calories, I would love to hear them. What do you do to recharge your batteries? What refills you?