Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Eye do...

As humans age, so-called modern medicine makes it possible for us to replace our worn-out parts with new and more supple ones. My beloved aunt was rejuvenated with two new knees, eliminating pain and adding a bounce to her step as she was able to walk up and down stairs once again. My father, a cousin, and a few friends have acquired new hips, which allowed them to walk, dance and even play basketball. And a number of people I know now have new lenses for their eyes, with the removal of their rheumy and unnecessary cataracts and the insertion of a new and modern 20/40 monocle. I am about to join this particular club. As these new body parts clubs go, this is apparently a fairly easy one to join. With the promise of a 10-15 minute surgery, you get a new eye and better vision almost immediately, or so they say. When asked, will you, Mindy, take this new body part into your eye socket, honor it in sickness and in health all the remaining days of your life, I gotta respond “eye do”.

For the following few days, I will be journaling my experience in preparing for and securing my new lens.

Day 1: Eye drops
Holy crap, this is real! The promise of a new eye is dizzying! No more blurry headlights. No more overusing my left eye in order to write, read and well, basically, see. And yet there is a touch of sadness to say goodbye to something that has influenced my vision for several years. New parts mean leaving old parts behind. Time to move on, but am I ready? How many artists’ vision of the universe were clouded, but made more interesting, by an abnormality of their vision? Picasso? Manet? Van Gogh? I wonder if life will become less interesting? But this thought is fleeting, as I recall that I am not an impressionist artist and this cataract has become more like a veil that obscures the show.

The set of three eye drops, four times a day, for three days – first daunting in their little bottles with complicated names – are simple to administer.

Day 2: The video
I foolishly watch a video of my very own doctor performing cataract surgery. I know two people who have had their cataracts taken out by him, and 100% of my small sample is very pleased. The literature is only positive about cataract surgery. Only positive outcomes for the large majority of patients, and I’ve been told that I am a candidate for a perfect outcome. Watching the video is both fascinating and terrifying. Think Clockwork Orange-scary, when a “probe” – aka small knife – goes into the eye, with viscous liquid shifting about as a new foreign object is ultimately inserted. I am thankful for the drugs that will blunt my fears and make this an “uneventful” experience, maybe even a happy one. We shall see. 

Meanwhile, I’m thinking of new names for my eye. At the moment, since I’ve opted for a lens that will give me terrific long-range vision, I like the name, “eagle eye”. 

Day 3: Sad
This morning, I feel sad, and cannot figure out why. Nothing is feeling right, and then my partner suggests that it may have something to do with the surgery. Can that be? Early buyer’s remorse? By the end of the day, I am totally fine.

Day 4: THE DAY
Getting up at 5:30 a.m. is an adventure. I’m scheduled to arrive at the doctor’s office at 7:00 a.m. and I am exactly on time. The instructions were “no food after midnight”. Check. And “only clear liquid until 5:00 a.m.” Easy-peasy. But somehow when I get on the subway to go downtown for the appointment, the stomach rebels and screams, “feed me”. Once settled in at the office, I discover a stream-lined system in which patients are taken from the outer mahogany-finished office into a sterile-looking clinical area, where around eight of us are seated in comfortable chairs that recline just a bit, but are soon to become operating tables that lay flat. One-by-one, our vitals are taken by kind and efficient nurses. It turns out that my cousin’s cousin is one of the nurses, and she looks out for me, telling everyone “you gotta treat her right”!. The banter is reassuring, but I can’t imagine that if I didn’t have that connection, I would be treated “wrong!” 

One by one, we are hooked up to an IV, and fairly quickly taken to the next way station, a private space separated from the masses by curtains, where an anesthesiologist comes in and asks a few questions. This is where things get a little hazy, because a combination of valium and pain medicine kicks in. I am now officially happy! I’ve read that during the surgery, the patient might see bright colors, but instead I am covered by a lovely, white, silk-like shawl that seems to wave throughout the surgery, as I look up at it in fascination. I see no nasty probes, although at one point, I do hear the whirring of a machine. I harken back to the &%* video I had watched, with my doctor performing this exact surgery, and I think I know what’s happening to me too. But la-la land takes over and I really don’t care. 

Soon, I am whisked back to the original clinical room, but this time, I am wheeled over to the other side of the room, where I sit with a patch on my eye – pirate-style – and “recuperate”. Nurses offer me packaged muffins or packaged peanut butter crackers and juice. By now it’s a veritable party! I watch other discharged patients walk out with a kind nurse holding their arm, and I am waiting for my special departure, but when am told I can leave, no one hops to my side. I hope that’s a good sign that I look capable and I prepare to exit. Standing up slowly, I start to wonder if it’s a good idea, but discover that my legs do, indeed, still work. 

The final station is back at the start where people sit in the mahogany-finished room, all patched up and waiting for their rides. I chat with a guy who runs a trucking business. We talk about work stuff, because I know someone who did this thing called "network mapping" for the trucking industry. The brain is functioning, albeit with a patched eye. 

Later in the day: THE REVEAL 
After getting home, I putter around, navigating the world with my left eye, which is what I’ve been doing for a year or so anyway. Not much is different, except that I’m a lot more mellow than usual. Valium will do that. Finally, at noon, I am ready for the “big reveal”, when I take off my patch and wah-lah, the universe will come into focus! My daughter calls and I decide to video-tape the event with her on the phone. Slowly, I pull off the patch and gradually open my right eye. But instead of clarity, the universe is double-visioned and blurry. I momentarily forget the large caps on my discharge papers that say, “DOUBLE VISION OR TILTED VISION IS COMMON WHEN YOU FIRST REMOVE THE PATCH”. The video captures my restrained panic, as I say, slowly, “Wow, this is really weird!” I re-read the discharge papers, after an unnecessary call to the doctor’s office. The reassuring nurse on the other end of the phone manages not to sigh and tell me, “read the g-d paper”, and I’m grateful. Several hours later, as the temporary (and agreeable) mellow is fading, the universe is finally coming into focus. 

The rest of the healing is pretty straight-forward. A follow-up appointment tomorrow, and a bunch of eye drops. A few things to pay attention to for the next 24 hours: no sleeping on the side of the operation, no bending from the waist or lifting anything over 10 lbs, and no getting the eye wet. But that’s only half the glass. It’s fine to work, to read a good book, to walk around the pond, to watch a great (or crappy) video, and eat ice cream and talk on the phone with friends and family and more…

Day 5: The morning after… 
I open my eyes and I am, indeed “eagle-eyed”. All right, just in one eye, but alas, there is one eye with vision that is crystal clear. It is bizarre. It is fun. It is unbelievable. Mission accomplished. 

Day 6: Follow-up visit 
When I return the next day for a follow-up, I re-meet my trucking biz friend, and he looks about 10 years younger, post-surgery. I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s that surgery, even minor surgery, can make a person more vulnerable, and that shows. We are joined by three others who also had their surgery the day before, and I learn that the doctor performed 55 such surgeries in one day. Multiply that times a week, times a year, times all the other doctors’ offices where these surgeries are performed, and you have a veritable stadium full of new eyes. 

How fascinating that we can improve the quality of our lives, even in this simple way, as we live longer. Just a few decades ago, when people had their cataracts removed, they were not supplanted with sharp lenses that improved their vision. Instead, they wore “coke-bottle” glasses that were clumsy, unwieldy and distinctive. A tell-tale sign of age. And probably in another few decades, this seemingly simple exercise in vision improvement will be even further improved. Now we can replace body parts – new eyes, hips and knees – that make our bodies hybrids. A 17-year-old eye or a 20-year-old hip or knee matched with a 50- or 60-year-old brain. The adage that we are all the ages we have been becomes even more powerful… 

As Betty Davis once said (and I paraphrase), “old age is no place for sissies”… 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Even the General says…

I don’t know about you, but for a few days – well maybe a week – I was obsessed with the soap opera that unfolded with General Petraeus, Paula Broadwell, and the Kardashian-look-alike twins who throw champagne-infused parties for the military elite. Who knew that this world even existed?! It was temporarily intoxicating. That said, this is not a James Bond story, where seduction and hot sex are intertwined with power and our country’s national security. This is the everyday horror of people making terrible personal mistakes. And I’m not surprised that as readers try to make sense of the un-reality of “the facts”, a number of narratives about who to blame have been dusted off and brought to bear once again. 

According to one narrative, the blame goes to the evil temptress, a Harvard-trained intellectual and top-of-the-line athlete (read: good in the sack) who brings down the CIA chief. Think Fatal Attraction, where the woman is in charge and the man is uncontrollably gripped by her charm and power, with no alternative but to succumb. In another narrative, the blame goes to the high-level spy who takes advantage of – no, seduces – the lower-level acolyte, and just cannot keep it zipped up, despite all his medals to the contrary. Think Bill Clinton, driven by self-destruction, someone who acts first and thinks later. Hardly the image one wants to conjure up for the head of the CIA. Less prominent, but implicit among these narratives, is the role of the spy guy’s wife, who is subtly blamed for not satisfying her man. This narrative blames her because she’s middle-aged (read, unattractive), with the assumption is that she no longer has the goods. Narrative three then morphs into narrative two, which combines with narrative one, in which said high-level spy has no alternative but to explore younger, more supple, women, and one of them just happens to be out to get him. A perfect storm… 

While there might be some bitter truth in all of these narratives, I’d like to focus on that last one, which capitalizes on the notion that older guys get more sexy, in contrast to older women, who get more dowdy, wrinkly and saggy as we age. This narrative has it that as women get older, we lose our appeal; we no longer shine; we fade; we become less attractive. And barring heavy use of botox and liposuction, that so-called “fact” is justification for our men to rove. 

Now back to the Petraeus “affair”. Thankfully, the media is not exploiting Holly Petreaus’ story, only to say that she is furious. (Wouldn’t you be if you happened to be married to this adulterous four-star General? Okay, maybe you find it hard to imagine that you’d marry this dude…) But according to military spouse and marriage consultant, Jacey Eckhart, this telenovella (melodramatic soap opera in Spanish) has fired up fears among other military spouses, who are worried that their marriages will follow suit.

While Eckhart, a competent, articulate military spouse, knows rationally that she has nothing to worry about in her own relationship, she says the scandal has “reduced me to a wet towel and tears”. Why? Because she says that men, as they age, become more like Cary Grant, and women become more like the older “Tony Curtis”, meaning old (and kinda gay). Granted (no pun intended), military families endure enormous strains because they move frequently, and often it is the spouse who helps their family settle in a new area while the military “member” is off fighting a war (or hopefully keeping peace somewhere in the world!). 

Moreover, repeat deployments place even more strain on the family, both when the military member is gone, as well as when s/he comes back, after having been traumatized by the experience of war. But separation of military spouses and their families – and ensuing loneliness – is the issue, not whether a woman can stay hot enough to hold onto her man. 

Eckert laments that “history isn’t enough to keep a long military marriage together”. At the same time, she notes that military marriages end at the same rate as so-called civilian marriages. So what’s the big deal?! The problem isn’t that men will be men, and women should quiver in their boots for fear they will be cast off for a better model. The problem is that we gals sometimes internalize the societal notions that our shelf lives have expired once we hit 40 or 50 or 60. Instead of buying into – or internalizing – these lethal notions, we need to embrace the woman we are becoming, our all-inclusive selves, including our wisdom about people and life, and even the tell-tale wrinkles and sags and possibly even the dowdiness. Let’s not compare ourselves to younger women and feel self-critical. The reality is that we are all the ages we have been, and so much more. Of course, it’s important that we take care of ourselves – that we eat well, and remain active intellectually and physically; those lifestyle choices are critical if we want to live a long life. But ultimately, our worth should not be measured by our youthfulness. Even the General is now saying it was a big mistake… 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Straight answers from one of the smartest (and funniest) economists I have ever known…

Around fifteen years ago, when cell phones were becoming more commonplace, I was still a hold-out. But there were those moments, initially maybe every few days and then eventually more often, when I really wished I had one. I called those “cell phone moments”, and when my “cell phone moments” were strung together like a pearl necklace, I finally succumbed. Lately I’ve been having another type of “moment”, only this one I call “wish I had an economist to ask that question” moment. These moments are becoming more and more frequent as I listen to the news. So instead of depriving myself of an economist, as I had done with my cell phone, I reached out to one of my favorites, Dr. Randy Albelda. Randy is a professor at University of Massachusetts in Boston who I’ve known since WAAAY back in the 1980s. At the time, she was heading up the Massachusetts State Senate's Taxation Committee and then later the legislature's Special Commission on Tax Reform, and I was running a program called the Massachusetts Women’s Budget Project.

The Women’s Budget Project brought together advocates representing thirteen different social and economic programs affecting women and children, in an effort to coordinate our advocacy efforts. While we had become great at articulating the amount of funding we wanted from state legislators for our programs, we had no idea where the funding would come from. Consequently, our advocacy efforts were undercut when politicians told us, “Sure, I agree with you, but we don’t have the funding”. We knew had to get savvy about the revenue side, to understand how money could be generated to pay for the critical programs and services we were fighting for.

In walked Randy, a brilliant economist who helped us make those links, so that when we spoke with the politician who said, “Sorry, no money”, we could return with, “Well then, we need to generate tax revenue fairly so our programs can be funded”. Maybe these days, more people understand that the funding side of the budget is connected to the taxation side, but it’s still pretty complicated.

Lately, as I’m listening to the economic policies of candidates in our Presidential election, I have had more than a few “wish I had an economist to ask that question” moments. So I wrote a note to my favorite one, and she has kindly agreed to answer three top questions about the economy. In order to select the top three – because there have to be at least ten or twenty or more top questions – I queried my sociology colleagues from the national feminist sociology organization, Sociologists for Women in Society In response to my request for questions, a number of people (see list at end of post) offered some excellent choices. Randy and I have selected the ones we think are most on people’s minds.

By the way, after reading this post, if you’re interested in reading other writing by Randy, she has published some very cool books that address labor economics and women’s economic status, including: Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits (with Tilly), which I’ve used in many courses I have taught, as well as others like Unlevel Playing Fields: Understanding Wage Inequality and Discrimination (with Drago and Shulman) and Counting on Carework: Human Infrastructure in Massachusetts (with Duffy and Folbre). 

Question # 1: What is trickle-down economics and does it work? 

Dr. Albelda: Trickle-down economics is an extension of University Chicago style economics that argues if you give rich people more money (mostly through tax cuts for the rich) they will invest it in new plants and equipment and create jobs. The latest incarnation of this is to talk about the 1% as “job creators.” It hasn’t worked in the recent past, isn’t working now and won’t work in the future. In the 1980s I co-authored a book called “Mink Coats Don’t Trickle Down” which summarizes the problem. Speculative activity, Cayman Island off source accounts, and buying up of smaller firms, do not create jobs. In fact this activity is more likely to destroy jobs. More importantly, trickle-down economics as tax cuts for the rich has increased the deficit in non-productive ways. It promises to do even more of that, providing the ammunition to cut government spending that does create jobs and make productive investments in the population. 

Q: You say that trickle-down economics as tax cuts for the rich has increased the deficit in non-productive ways. I kind of get that. But what is a productive way to tackle the deficit? 

Dr. Albelda I reject the idea that the large deficit is the biggest problem we face. Deficits are not bad if they are the result of borrowing to keep the economy afloat and to make the kind of investments we need in human and physical infrastructure. So, as the economy improves the deficit will be reduced. We do NOT need to slash social security, Medicaid, Medicare, Food Stamps, and aid to states and localities. Indeed, to do so will reduce economic growth. We do need to increase taxes on those who can afford. 

Question #2: How can sustainable growth be enacted that can benefit the whole population rather than the 1%? 

Dr. Albelda: Economic relations and activity are socially constructed, not unlike race and gender. In short, they are what we make them to be. There is nothing “natural” about the way we organize the production and distribution of goods and services. In that sense it is all man-made (yes, I meant to say “man” made). They are contested. But they are hard to change because those that gain from the current system (and care little about sustainability) fight to keep it. Further, there are powerful symbolical and embedded views about the ways in which our current systems work that are hard to change. The way to enact sustainable growth is to mobilize, reshape the debate and demand it. 

Q: I don’t mean to open up Pandora’s Box, but can you say what you mean by “powerful symbolic and embedded views about the ways our current system works”? 

Dr. Albelda:  What I mean is the unquestioned faith that markets work well for everyone and that the “economy” can only be understood by particular experts. This ideological reverence to mainstream economics is incredibly detrimental to the bottom half of the population and to women. For example, paid care work – mostly done by women – is typically low paying, despite its importance to families and society. This is not difficult to understand or show. Yet, when advocates argue to include home health aides under the purview of the Fair Labor Standards Act to be covered by the minimum wage, businesses pull out what are essentially ideological (i.e. what they believe, not what the evidence shows) arguments that will reduce employment dramatically and hurt the very people it is intended to help. They muster up market-based theory to justify and promote inequality. 

Question #3: What is the connection between women's reproductive control and the economy?

Dr. Albelda: Women’s reproductive control allows women to take economic control over their own lives. Timing the birth of children provides women with more control over education, marriage and employment decisions – the keys to women’s economic well-being. There are larger economic implications as well. Certainly population growth, which has all sorts of economic implications, is tied to women’s reproductive control. 

Q: Can you give a few examples of the economic implications of population growth and women’s reproductive control? 

Dr. Albelda:  In developing countries, there has always been concern about over-population. Indeed, economics got its reputation as the “dismal science” due to 19th century economic writings that argued the population would grow faster than food production inducing widespread famine and death. So there has always been a concern over women’s reproduction and population size. Currently, Japan and many European countries are concerned with low fertility rates and economic growth. But instead of reducing women’s reproductive control, they have enacted more mother-friendly employment policies. 

Question #4: Is there any hope for creating meaningful work for people without college degrees in the US or globally? Is it possible to have an economy where everyone goes to college and gets a high skill job? 

Dr. Albelda: The quality of jobs – even and especially those held by people without college degrees – are not pre-determined. They are created and contested. I would argue that cleaning buildings is far more meaningful work than managing a private equity firm. Yet, the pay and job conditions are vastly different. There is dignity in most work, so that is not the issue. I do not think it is possible or desirable for everyone to go to college – especially when it is so costly. Instead, I think we can do a much better job at training – including a public education system – and we can improve the quality of low-wage work. This can be done by increasing minimum wage, by providing paid time off, retirement plans, and mechanisms to bargain over flexibility. This is an issue of distribution. There is mounting evidence that reducing inequality in the US will actually increase growth. While unchecked growth is likely detrimental, growth in and of itself is not inherently bad. Shared growth and sustainable growth is a desirable outcome. We only get these when we make economic production more democratic that it currently is. 

Thanks to the following sociologist colleagues for their questions (in alphabetical order):   

Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD Student, Sociology, Emory University; Manisha Desai, Associate Professor, University of Connecticut; Karen Kendrick, Associate Professor, Albertus Magnus College; Anastasia H. Prokos, Associate Professor, Iowa State University, Visiting Scholar, Florida State University; Jennifer Torres, University of Michigan

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Aging and human connection in the conference room...

I walk into the sterile conference room, realizing that everyone there is “of a certain age”. If I had to choose a demographic descriptor for this crowd, I’d just say “old”, and they’d probably kill me if they could read my mind. A young, as in twenty-something, woman approaches me with a clip board and we exchange forms. She assigns me number three, which I hope means a short wait, and tells me I can find a seat at the rectangular table. My fellow brethren look up at me, each new arrival becoming momentary entertainment until embarrassment or distraction takes over and they go back to their own little worlds, reading a magazine or looking at their phones. I rummage through my briefcase and discover that the piece of work I meant to bring with me is still sitting in my printer at home. Darn! This is not good! And then I remember that I, too, can plunge into my iphone universe. Oh, the glories of technology, shielding us from boredom and communication with others. 

We’re all here to get a vaccination for shingles, which is a painful and horrific thing, according to my sister and my father who both contracted this virus-driven skin rash. I watched them suffer, so I’ll do anything to dodge that one. I smile at the couple sitting kitty-corner to me, and mindlessly say “how’s it going?” Expecting little in return in this sea of silent waiting people, I’m surprised that they want to chat, telling me that they had their shot and are waiting the prescribed 15-minute window to make sure they don’t have a reaction, which ranges from nothing to headaches, fever, diarrhea and a stuffy nose. “You look fine to me”, I quip, as they smile, a few minutes later picking up their bags and happily leaving this ad hoc club. 

The shot itself is uneventful, and the guy giving it – the second young person in this cohort – is pleasant, sweet and maybe even a little handsome. For the same reason I am here – my age – I had a flu vaccine last week and that was also no big deal. In fact, I’m pretty good at this, I think, as I indulge in feeling proud of myself for something that requires little skill. Just as I am about to settle into my 15-minute window, an agitated man enters the conference room and when I tune in, I hear him arguing with the young woman, telling her that he doesn’t understand what she’s saying about insurance coverage. I have time to kill – at least another 11 minutes – so I listen, and then realize that I actually understand his problem and can help him. And so I do. The young woman seems relieved that someone else is handling him and walks away. 

As soon as I step into the conversation, the man stops shouting and listens to me, his body visibly relaxing. Soon, armed with a couple of questions I have supplied him, he goes out into the hallway to call the benefits gatekeeper at his insurance company. He is decidedly less agitated and more focused, and I think about how anxiety is a horrible thing when it makes it hard to think clearly, and that this man’s confusion and upset was clearly getting him nowhere. He returns to the conference room in about five minutes and seems relieved. “Did you get the information you needed?”, I ask him from my seat at the head of the conference room table. The space between us is beyond the cultural norm for communicating with a stranger in a sea of unknowns. But I ignore the norms that define this space as a silent waiting room. He shouts back to me, joining this normatively rebellious moment, saying, “I’m all set, but they’re crazy over there!” I nod in agreement. Most institutions – including health insurance companies – produce crazy rules and the employees who have to follow them often lose perspective, so he’s lucky that this call was an easy one. 

Once my 15-minute period is over, I get up to leave, passing this guy on the way out. He thanks me again for the helpful advice, but I know that it was the human connection that made the difference. Then, with a touch of worry in his voice, he asks if I had any reaction to the vaccination. Anxiety is a painful thing. And as I’m about to reply, he looks at me with a smirk and says, “Look how big your hair got!” I realize he’s joking, and I reply in kind, “Before the vaccine, it was this short”, gesturing a quarter-inch measurement with my thumb and pointer finger. We both laugh, and I think about the importance of being seen, of breaking through anonymity in social circumstances and ignoring the norms that mitigate against human connection. And I think about the saving grace of humor, as it slices through anxiety to produce a shared experience. And I have a feeling that as I age, that all of this will become even more important. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Living in multiple time zones: from hitchhiking across America to living vicariously

When I was in my early 20s, I spent a summer hitchhiking across America. I was with a good friend, Ingrid, who was ready for an adventure, and off we went with our forty-pound backpacks, starting in New York State and landing a few months later in California. Each driver who picked us up presented another set of wonders, as we listened with fascination to stories about their lives, and shared stories from our journey. One driver who picked us up in Kansas told us all about her research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which required that she travel across three states to visit research sites. A young person anxious to find a career, I was blown away with how cool that sounded, but we were nearly blown away when her tire exploded. Luckily – and luck was what you needed when you were hitchhiking – we were just pulling into a gas station. Unluckily, it was July 4th and the mechanics couldn’t fix the tire until the next day. We slept in the car that night inside a stuffy garage, which was offered to us as a safe haven. 

When we were moving up the coast of California, a driver picked us up in a mobile home he was hired to transport. When we hopped in, we discovered two other hitchhikers, and soon found that both of them had just been released from a local prison. They had committed minor economic crimes, or so they said. Another ex-convict joined us along the way, and we all slept that night in the van. But something obviously went awry during the night, because we woke up the next morning to our driver speeding down the road and screaming at high volume to one of the women, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you!”.

Ingrid and I never found out what that bone was, but we mousily asked to be let off at the next rest stop because we said that was our destination. As he drove away, we hid behind a bush, waiting for him to leave, and then went back out on the road with our thumbs ready to find our next ride. He knew we were lying and drove around in a circle, finding us back out on the highway. We did not get back into his mobile home, and survived to tell the tale.

Hitchhiking in America was pretty standard fare for a sub-culture of counter-cultural Americans in the 70s. And two young women going on the road “alone” wasn’t considered outrageous, because we were caught in the tide of a rising second wave of the women’s movement where females could do (almost) anything. While we knew we were dancing with danger, we had youth on our side, and the sense that we could handle whatever we encountered. Later I took my travelling skills to a nearly year-long trip in Europe, and continued to welcome adventure along the way. Sometimes I think my sociological imagination was birthed on these trips.

Now I am a mother whose young adult daughter is travelling – not with her thumb – but with a bike and a girlfriend – through Europe. Unlike my travels which happened sans parental approval or even knowledge, I am in the know about this trip, thanks to a very different kind of parental-child relationship in this 21st century, and a smart phone that supports that. I am caught between experiencing vicarious thrills and experiencing terror, because I know that sometimes things can go very right and sometimes they can go very wrong.

They have been biking for over a month, and still, every morning when I wake up and look at the clock, I add six hours, and imagine what my daughter and her friend are up to. Are they on a beautiful, winding country road, biking next to sheep grazing on the side of the road? Or are they on a jagged, narrow road where cars are, at best, only nearly missing them? Have they encountered the kindness of strangers? Or have they experienced “near misses”?

Both of my trips were much less structured than my daughter’s. If I ever feared for my life during my hitchhiking trip across the U.S, it vanished the second we moved on to the next ride. Even when one of our drivers had a bayonette on his dashboard, I felt invincible and maintained my faith in the goodness of people. With my trip to Europe, which I had spent one whole year saving up for, I was part of a sub-culture of young travelers like myself, populating hostels, walking the streets with our oversized backpacks, and finding bargain meals to stretch out funds for as long as possible. My daughter and her friend are more like speedy turtles, carrying minimal clothing, a tent and other supplies on their bodies and bikes, as they follow roads through small villages and towns, and bike along the side of lakes and rivers. 

When they get a flat on the side of the road, they are only more fully a part of the scenery, and even a conversation piece for the locals. They are couch-surfing, taking advantage of a miraculous network of people who offer their homes to strangers, supported by an on-line forum where people post their availability and travelers contact them. Former couch-surfers can review their experience so that prospective ones can evaluate their options. Couch surfers even evaluate the travelers too. My daughter told me that after they left their first couch surf home, their host posted that she and her friend were “like sisters and made me smile the whole time of their visit”. For the most part, life for them has been pretty darn good, even great.

Unlike with my trip, where I didn’t talk to my parents at all, my daughter and I talk every few days, thanks to Skype, and when there’s a problem, we talk more than once a day. Forty years ago, I didn’t want to talk to my parents, and maybe because it wasn’t an option, I didn’t miss it one iota. Now I can’t imagine being on my parents’ end of things, not knowing where I was or what I was doing for many months at a time. I am relieved that I can check in with my daughter, and that she has a blog page that narrates her travels with glorious pictures! I doubt that I did more than send my parents a few postcards. At the same time, just because I can stay in touch, the challenge is to not hover, because the reality is that if there is a problem, there is very little I can do from thousands of miles away, other than listen and maybe help them solve it themselves.

As our children grow up, I “get” that we need to let go, to allow them to spread their wings and learn from experiences, both good and bad. But it’s a scary world, and sometimes I’m just frightened. I’m not na├»ve about the potential dangers out there, but at the same time, for two young women to explore the world – especially from the vantage point of a bicycle – it is just incredible. Some friends have told me how cool I am to “let her go” on the trip; others tell me they would never have approved a trip like this. But I did. (Did I really have a choice?) And in good part, I did because my parents didn’t stop me from exploring, even though they had no idea what they should have protected me from.

I imagine that for the next few weeks – the amount of time remaining in this trip – I will calculate the time zone differences and imagine where they are in their journey. I will control the amount of contact I initiate, but will steadily follow their blog and Facebook posts. I know that the life lessons gleaned from this challenge will be more potent without mommy. And I will continue to be caught in this odd place between vicarious pleasure and terror.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

First job after college: dancing precariously into the future…

As our daughter goes into her final year of college, I have begun to feel a sense of trepidation about what comes next. The seniors I taught this past semester are already going into panic mode as they face a very uncertain future. Regardless of all the internships and community service experiences they are accruing, there’s no avoiding the dour statistics for young college graduates. When one student came to me, asking for advice about applying for a consulting job that was way beyond her reach, I found myself counseling her about the virtues of working in a coffee shop. So what if she’s an international relations major!

My first “real” job after graduating college was working in a state psychiatric hospital. This seemed like a “natural” place to be, since one whole side of my family was riddled with serious psychiatric disorders. Between an aunt with agoraphobia who never left her house, an aunt and an uncle who had “manic-depression” (now called bipolar disorder, a much more “respectable” name), and a mother who struggled with clinical depression and alcoholism, I was quite at home working in an institution for people with severe mental health problems.

I had been a dancer for many of my young years, and my professional goal – if one could call it that– was to somehow combine my interest in helping people with my passion for dance. I lucked out, since the field of dance therapy was just emerging, and one of the first certified dance therapists in the U.S. was willing to train me during my senior year of college. When I graduated, the state psych hospital was hiring tons of young college graduates. This was the early ‘70s, when thousands of patients, people who had spent years, sometimes decades, living in inside the walls of state hospitals, were released into the community in a move to “de-institutionalize” them. The motive was humanitarian, but the upshot for many of the patients was downright cruel. Nonetheless, it did mean that a lot of my friends and I had jobs.

I was hired as the institution’s dance therapist – and worked with people who were still living “inside” the institution, as well as out-patients that were being transitioned into a day treatment program. I fell in love with schizophrenics who were smart and spoke in metaphors that seemed poetic and deep. Because I was a professional dancer in a mental hospital, many of the institution’s rules did not seem to apply to me. Or at least that’s what I thought and how I behaved… More than once, I led a group of patients in a snake line through the hallways, and we seemed off-limits to criticism, as this “crazy” activity was “therapy”! It felt downright revolutionary!

While this experience – working in an institution – wasn’t where I “landed” professionally, it was nothing short of a profound experience. I will never forget one of my out-patients, a diminutive woman named Ruth, who had spent her entire adult life imprisoned in the psych hospital. Ruth held her body like a tight fist, and stood all day, rocking rhythmically back and forth. I still feel teary when I think about her. There was another man who is seared in my mind: a tall, broad gentleman in a perpetual cowboy hat who people called “the Captain”. He was a man of few words, and those words were garbled, but he had a jovial demeanor. One of my most glorious days with him was when I took him for drive in the country, with two other patients. Outside it was minus forty degrees; but inside the car, with sun shining through the windows, it felt warm and protective. He said little throughout this drive, just smiled…

By the time I had been hired to work as a dance therapist at the state psych center, sociologist Erving Goffman had already published his seminal book Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. One of Goffman’s greatest contributions was his critique of what he called “total institutions”, which included mental hospitals and prisons. Goffman argued that total institutions had a high degree of regimentation, and an elaborate privilege system. He described relations between staff and patients (or inmates) as caste-like, with detailed “rules” of deference and demeanor. One of the my favorite co-workers at Hutchings, a friendly and clever guy named Willie who was the janitor, surely understood Goffman’s analysis when he changed his first name from Willie to “Doctor”. Whenever anyone wanted his services, they would yell “Doctor” and he came running with a smirk on his face.

I knew nothing of Goffman while I was working in an institutional setting. But now, as I reflect on my first post-college job, and after studying this brilliant sociologist in graduate school and using his analyses in a class I now teach about the sociology of aging, it all comes back to me. First, I lived what Goffman described and then I was able to understand his theoretical frameworks, drawing upon my own experience. As my father used to say, everything we do in life accrues and has meaning. This has to be true, as well, for college students who are graduating to a lousy economy and a dearth of employment opportunities that “fit” with their majors.

Despite the draw of my first job, I realized within a year that I wasn’t going to last. I was too young, too inexperienced and too critical of the institution to stay. While I found the out-patients I was assigned to counsel interesting, I had no real training. And even though I was a good listener, I fought back tears every time a “client” expressed sadness or joy. What drove me to work at this state psych hospital – working with really troubled people – ultimately became the reason I had to leave. Ultimately, it wasn’t the right fit, even though it seemed right at the time. With a far more robust economy than we have today, I had saved up enough cash that year to travel in Europe for nearly a year, and that’s what I did!

While my career as a dance therapist came to a halt, my original passion – dance – continued to be my life-line for decades until around ten years ago, when I experienced a serious injury. For a year, I was in persistent pain and could barely move, much less dance. With the sudden loss of the activity that centered me and gave me such joy, I plunged into a deep depression and felt overtaken by panic, fearful that I would never heal. Like many back-pain sufferers, I bounced around to various practitioners, many of whom got frustrated with me because I wasn’t getting better. In one pain clinic, a doctor yelled at me, saying that I was fine. In another back healing program, a doctor challenged ME to figure out what the problem was, because she could not. Other practitioners told me that I wouldn’t heal if I stayed depressed and anxious. A true chicken and egg problem…

During this time, I had a glimpse of what my patients from many years before had experienced. The one person who comes to mind, in particular, is a young woman who was around my age and had participated in an ongoing dance session I held for outpatients. I never knew what her story was; only that she was struggling with depression and had obviously spent time in the hospital itself, which meant that she had been in the role of “patient”, complete with the dehumanization that comes with that experience. She came up to me after one of our dance sessions and thanked me, saying it was the one thing in that setting made her feel “normal”.

How are young, college-educated people dealing with this lousy economy, saddled with debt and poor prospects for a job? A number of young people I know are living at home, and working in unpaid internships that they hope will lead to a paid job. I know one young person who dropped out of college in her freshman year and learned how to do organic farming. Now she’s running a business where she creates peace gardens for interested clients. And I know another young person who couch-surfed for a few months, and then got a job sailing someone’s boat down to the Virgin Islands. At one point, during an intense storm, he wondered if he was even going to make it… I can imagine that he is not the only one feeling that way.

Over time, I have come to realize that we humans are drawn to different types of work at different stages of our lives, and often there is a reason. I happened to work at a mental hospital because it grabbed me emotionally – and that’s where there were jobs. But even then, when the economy was decent, that first job out was hit or miss. The thing that sustained me was dance. It continues to be my way in, and my way out. When I think about my own daughter – and all the young people I encounter these days – what I wish for them is the courage to follow their passion, and then feel okay about whatever job or internship (or whatever) they find, knowing that those things may not be the same thing. At least for now.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

I met her on a plane...

Sitting next to the young priest, I am shocked when he confesses to me that he is lonely. He says he has considered giving up the church to be with the woman he loves. They met when he officiated at her husband’s AND her father’s funerals. Through this deeply painful experience, he has fallen head over heels for her and the feelings are reciprocated. Alas, she rejects taking any action on her feelings and he is confused. I do not know this man, but, as I listen, I wonder if this is a common conundrum among priests, if he's making it all up, or if it’s a rare and tragic dilemma. 

I shrink when he asks me what I think, shocked that he is seeking out my advice. We have known each other for no more than 30 minutes, and moreover, who am I, a secular Jew, to advise a priest about something that I imagine is considered blasphemy. I offer my reflections… because we are from very different worlds; because we will never encounter one another again; because there is nothing to lose. When I get back home, I cannot resist googling him, because I have my doubts he is for real. And there he is, exactly as he has portrayed himself, a suburban priest, working in a traditional parish that has a choir and a social action committee, and a successful capital campaign he has described to me.

I get to thinking about the people I’ve met on planes with whom I’ve had intimate conversations. In fact, the reason I started this blog is because of an amazing blogger – Ann Handley - who spent a few hours as my seat-mate from Boston to LA, extolling the benefits of blogging. She is my only plane friend with whom I have maintained contact. (see Ann's book, co-authored with C.C. Chapman, called Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, eBooks and Webinars -

What is it about that suspended time spent with a stranger, tens of thousands of feet above the ground? Perhaps it is the anonymity of the relationship. Or maybe these immediate zing-like bonds are inspired by a basic fear of flying, allowing us to use our potential last moment of connection to share the story of our lives. Or perhaps it’s simply to fend off sheer boredom, a way to make time pass quickly, or a way to experience adventure in a closed capsule where nothing can go horribly wrong. I’m not always up for a chat; there are certainly times that I appreciate the solitude of plane time, where it is easier to concentrate on work or a book or knitting without interruption. And I'm certainly not alone there, as tons of travelers dig into their ipads and spread sheets.

But I often welcome these contacts, and occasionally they "pay off" unexpectedly. I once told a woman with whom I was chatting in the back of the plane that I was considering leaving my consulting work and getting a stable job. To this total stranger, I posited that I should probably be “settled” into a “regular” job sooner than later. Why did I divulge this internal dilemma that I hadn’t shared with anyone else? We had known each other for a sum total of 20 minutes. But she listened well, and her advice was pivotal in my thinking. Either she was a quick read or she was very lucky, but whatever she said clicked, and I am forever grateful.

My friendships have extended to the flight attendants. On the way to Minneapolis, one flight attendant sold me a pair of orange-y glass earrings right off her ears that I love – designed and created by her daughter. On the way back from New Orleans, another flight attendant confessed that she hated her job and asked me to keep a look-out for her. And yet another gave me great advice about how to find a deal on his airline. It’s likely that I’ll never see any of these people again, and that is the beauty of it.

I used to hate getting on a plane because of my fear of flying. Many trips later, I now anticipate the opportunity to observe a slice of the universe, trapped together, as we all are, in close quarters.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lessons learned about fear and fearlessness...

I was on the treadmill at the gym the other day, frantically trying to undo a day of sitting and staring at my computer, when a casual “gym friend” joined me on an adjacent treadmill. She noticed that I hadn’t been there lately, and wanted to know why. I don’t know her well and could have manufactured some story, but she had always been so warm and friendly, so I decided to tell her the truth, that my 97-year-old dad had just passed away. Her response was immediate and kind, as she empathized with how hard it is to lose a parent. Then she looked up to the ceiling of the gym, and as I followed her gaze, wondering what had stolen her attention, she said in a reassuring voice that he was in heaven now, and then looked back at me with a smile. Not knowing how to respond, I smiled wanly and increased the incline on the treadmill. I wish I believed that he was in heaven and as my partner says, I hope to be happily surprised…

She then asked about the funeral, and I explained that we had it right away because I’m Jewish and that’s what we do... Apparently, distracted by the realization that I was a Jew, she then said that she had many arguments with her Catholic friends who believed that “the Jews killed Christ.” (Wait a minute – where did that lovely empathy go?!) Just as I was thinking about an exit strategy, she came back to earth and said, “It’s crazy that people of all faiths don’t get along.” And as I was mentally excusing her for that detour, she added, “except for the Muslims”. Again, I was hooked, and as I looked at her, I know I must have appeared surprised because she looked back at me with a slightly uncomfortable smile. And then went on to say that she worried that Muslims – presumably all Muslims – were terrorists. Wasn’t it time for me to leave the cardio area and work on my abs or something? But no, I couldn’t leave now, as this was a “teachable moment.” 

I said that the media would like us to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, but most Muslims are peaceful people. And she asked me, didn’t I think that the “Koran incites Muslims to commit terrorist acts?” I replied with certainty, with whatever knowledge I have accumulated since 9/11, that that was untrue.

This really bugged me, a kind-hearted, well-meaning person swallowing Fox News whole. And it really upset me that the media is so compelling that good people can believe such nonsense.

I learned the hard way from my father not to run away from difficult conversations and to stand up for my beliefs. In the 1950s, and again in the 1960s, he was called before the Senate House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) to answer the now-infamous question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party (CP) of the United States?". The first time he was subpoenaed before the committee, he challenged its legality. And the second time, he used the first amendment, declaring his right to freedom of speech. As a result of the first committee hearing, he was “blacklisted” from work in the U.S., and ultimately sold life insurance for 15 years through a Canadian firm. He also became a prolific playwright, writing about his experiences within the labor movement in attempt to give voice to working people.

It was not until I was well into my 30s that my father admitted to me that he had been a member of the CP, but had wanted to protect me in case the FBI approached me with that question. That might seem like crazy-thinking, but the FBI actually did follow my father – and consequently, our family – for half a decade, employing agents to observe meetings where my father spoke, reviewing documents he wrote, including plays and memoirs, and even observing the fall-out we experienced in our family, as a result of being persecuted by the government. 

When I left for college, my father warned me that I might be approached by an FBI agent, asking about his political activities. At the time, that seemed ridiculous, the product of narcissistic, paranoid thinking. But in my junior year, a guy from the Dance Club – in which I was very active – began asking me questions about my dad. Through some research, I discovered that he had been working out in California, trying to sabotage the Cesar Chavez grape boycott. I realized that maybe my father’s paranoia wasn’t so crazy after all. Using the Freedom of Information Act, my father ultimately received roughly 5,000 pages of FBI notes, with many of the words redacted (meaning crossed-out!), supposedly to “protect” the identity of the agent who was following him. I spent hours pouring through these files a number of years ago, and was stunned to read that the FBI knew that my sister and I were being ostracized by our so-called friends because of my father’s political beliefs, and that my mother lost many dear friends and family members to the fears they had about being associated with “a Communist family”. You can read more about this in Colin Dabkowski's article in the Buffalo News:

After my mother died, my father told me another reason why he left the Communist Party. He didn’t want that admission to have negative repercussions on his CP colleagues and friends. He was a working class Jewish man who had strong convictions and was loyal to his friends, risking a lot to stay true to them. He wasn’t trying to overthrow the government, although he was challenging an economic system that, even more so today, creates haves and have-nots. He was simply a very effective labor organizer who mobilized workers around issues of wages and benefits and fair treatment on the job. In doing this work, he was simply executing his first amendment rights to speak out about his beliefs. I believe that the world was a better place because of people like him.

So what to say to my friend at the gym, who seems to have drunk the kool-aid of misinformation in the right-wing media? What to say to many of my fellow Americans who are now stumped about whether to support a wealthy businessman for President whose personal and political interests are intertwined or an evangelical politician who would happily turn our country into the United Christian States?

There are many ways to fight disinformation and work for a better, more equitable world, through organizing, writing, teaching, and just speaking to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. And we must not be afraid to do so.