Monday, December 26, 2011

Pro Bono

No, I am not a big U2 fan. I am not big fan of attorneys, either. But sometimes the lawyers do get it right.  “Pro bono” is a term derived from Latin translated “for good.”   Modern thought has it that it also means "for free," since it is work done for good for free. 

It’s hard to imagine the legal profession giving me anything this holiday season, but it has given me this one thought. For the good, the better and the best gifts in life are truly free.

There is no cost of a smile, a hug to reaffirm a connection, a well-deserved compliment, a true belly laugh after a dirty joke or a good deed for a loved one.

Just a smidgen of money is needed for an unexpected phone call to an old friend, a well thought-out letter on real paper or email, a sarcastic Facebook post (okay maybe just from me) or the running of an errand for someone who can’t or won’t do it for whatever reason.

Some would argue that it all involves time and “time is money,” but we waste so much money anyway.  Just go to any store this holiday season. In fact, go to a store today and see the bargain hunters or the lines for returns.  Do we really need a salad shooter? This year’s toy?  Or anything that will end up in a garage sale in a short six months?

So as I clean up the living room floor, organize new clothes and hand-down the old ones, figure out what needs to be kept or returned, I leave you with this:

                        The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.
                                                                -Ralph Waldo Emerson

For the last two months or so I have give you my thoughts, my words and some of my hopes and fears.  The rest I do save as a return gift to the legal profession.  But most of all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson so simply but eloquently put it, I have given you myself. Pro bono.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The First Noel....

The First Noel, the Angels did say

Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay

In fields where they lay keeping their sheep

On a cold winter's night that was so deep.

There is nothing like new life to bring down sorrow, grief and an unhealthy dose of self-pity.  I just adopted a 6 month-old black labrador retriever and her name from the rescue is Noel.

A fitting name given the season.  Wikipedia, my quick yet often inadequate peripheral brain (It mirrors my own!) , tells me Noel (also spelled Nowell or Noël) is the alternate word for Christmas. The word comes from the French word Noël derived from the Old French word noël, a variant of nael. The Latin origin is the word natalis ("birth"). Ah, Mr. Kaster my old Latin professor and general sadist would be so proud.

Me, the poor shepherd needs help in keeping my sheep.

Yes,  it is time for “birth”  or perhaps the  “rebirth” I so desperately need.  We will change her name according to my girls' wishes.  They settled on the name “Darcy” meaning “dark’ in Gaelic. Our trip to Ireland in December 2008 had a certain celtic influence.  The name also conjures up a certain “Mr. Darcy” every literate female’s idea of a perfect man.  But I will keep the Noel and abbreviate her name as N. Darcy similar to my favorite romance author. 

She will of course have “Nana” as a middle name.  Someone needs to take care of me, the shepherd, after all.

Welcome N. Darcy Nana.  Good thing I waited on replacing the living room rug.  May you find peace, happiness, love and an endless supply of chew bones under my tree for many years to come.  And help keep the  flock away from all those wolves.

Joyeux Noel!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dances with Skeletons

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance."
                                    -George Bernard Shaw

 There are so many skeletons in my ethnic family closet, they are having a dance-off to the Charleston, disco, polkas, waltzes and even hip-hop.  And I am delighted by their moves.

I do genealogy.  My inner nerd is not so inner I’m afraid. I am not sure it was hidden in the first place.  I have spent hours in dusty library stacks, blinded by microfilm readers, sloshing through graveyards both here and abroad, and on-line for hours to uncover generations upon generations of Polish and Irish relatives.  Some have lived glorious lives.  Some have died homeless and had to be identified in morgues.  It is my gift to succeeding generations as both a personal history lesson and a warning.  Someday, maybe my great-great grandchildren will appreciate the efforts.

My sister and I started on this journey some 20 years ago now.  It began with us looking at an address book of my late mother.  We could not identify many of the people in that book nor their relationships to our relatively small immediate family.  We had wonderful help though.  Our aunt had a near encyclopedic memory of her large Polish family, even down to the many permutations of their ethnic surnames and even the strange nicknames they picked up along the way.  We had “Cookie” and “Junie”, “Stanley” became “Charlie," and the best story was how a very Polish surname became “Burke”.  It seemed in the Irish-controlled railroad industry of the early 1900’s, only Irish were hired.  My Polish grandfather and his brother were American-born and spoke English without accents. They also were both blond-haired and blue-eyed.  Overnight they became the “Burke Brothers," assumed new identities,gained employment and fed their families.    Their obituaries  reflected both names.  I admire their survival techniques. Without such guile, I am not sure I would be writing this today.

It's hard to tell the saints from the sinners in this vast ethnic cast of characters. Their stories could spin either way.

Ironically my Irish side were not that creative even though they arrived in the United States early in the 1870’s.  My mother often talked of “The Tombs” in New York City. "The Tombs” was the colloquial name for the Manhattan Detention Center  known for its deplorable conditions.  Little did I know that she had at least second hand experience.  I have spent hours in the NYC Municipal Archives and finally found the reason for her stories.  My great-grandfather spent many years as a guest of the NYC municipal government for petty crimes.  This side of the family had a different approach to feeding its family it seems. My great grandfather was not the only one, unfortunately.  There are very personal reasons why a fourth cousin writes gangster and espionage books. I wish that he would write that thinly-veiled roman a clef he spoke to me about sometime ago.  Or perhaps he has?

More of the cast include prominent government figures in Poland right up to the presidency, people who perished at the hands of the German occupation of Poland, Irish Jesuits priests who founded missions in Kansas,  famine victims, attorney generals and so on.  All in all, my family’s story is a very personal companion to the dry history often found in books. I delight in telling these stories to my girls. Someday I am hoping to organize it better than the messy binders in my home office. If I am really ambitious, I hope to digitalize everything.  I better live to a ripe old age because I know that will take me a lifetime.

So dance skeletons.  You don’t scare me.  Just pick a good tune from any generation. Maybe Trent Reznor's new haunting version of Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song?" I am not sure how one dances to heavy metal except head banging.  I am doing that aplenty anyway lately. Just be assured that someone is listening, watching and soon will have some digital notes. You are not truly dead if you live in the thoughts of the living.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Beautiful Strangers

Every family has them it seems.  Relatives who, for whatever reason, are estranged.  My late mother never talked to her sister in the twenty years I had with my mother.  I never met my only first cousins as a child.  It was not until I was 34 and doing some family history that I was brave enough to write a simple letter to my aunt explaining who I was, what I was doing and why I contacted her. 

We met in her house back in 1996.  She could not have been lovelier.  I met for the first time her husband, my uncle and one first cousin, who had a delightfully infectious laugh. My aunt was gracious and kind and had the same Bronx accent of my mother.  I also noticed she had some of the same eerie mannerisms of my mother: the way she drank her coffee, cleared her throat and even the way she wiped her lip with her napkin.  We shared stories of my crazy grandmother, her even crazier brothers and even my pious grandfather.  It was an amazing day.

We have had several lovely dinners together since and have become good friends. She never forgets my children’s birthdays or Christmas.  My aunt was one of the few people who called me to make sure I was okay after my father’s death.  Like a few close friends, it meant so much to me.

Why do we do this to each other?  Are our differences so great that years don’t diminish whatever silly argument started the first rift?  How can blood be thicker than water yet often can separate out like oil and water?

I have heard other families with similar stories.  Are we just too proud to admit mistakes? Are we just so intolerant of others’ ideas or lifestyles and the fact we are related make those ideas or lifestyles even more intolerable? Are we so interested in "saving face" that we become strangers?

I asked my Aunt what happened between her and my mother.  Her answer was glib and seemed to indicate that my grandmother was behind the “whole thing”.  No particulars were offered. Neither my grandmother nor mother is alive to collaborate any story.  I didn’t push. Maybe some things are best forgotten.

I will simply never really know.  But I treasure the time that I can spend with my aunt as a mother-substitute and good friend.  Next time I will bring the coffee and napkins as long as she supplies that wonderful Bronx accent.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Unoccupied Main Street

Just a minute... just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was... why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what's wrong with that? Why... here, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You... you said... what'd you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken down that they... Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you'll ever be!

-George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life

My father was a pack rat.  Digging through his papers is like a walk through time.  I found his certificate for being a crossing guard in 1939, my siblings’ immunization records, a recipe for baby formula vintage 1959 and a 1964 Tax return.  Do I have a job on my hands.

I have scouted the area for various consignment stores to unload some of the more non-collectable things.  I don’t think I have the time nor patience for Craig’s List or eBay.  What I have noticed in my scouting is such an abundance of empty storefronts.  If that is not a sign of the economic times.  Locally, an entire Mall will be demolished.  It was one of the malls where Saturday Night Live would parody the “Scotch Tape Store”.  In the boomtown 1980’s, pre-on-line shopping, these stores cropped up like mushrooms on a cloudy day.  Thirty years later we are left with the aftermath.

Going back to my father’s bountiful paper booty, I found the most curious thing.  It was a loan note for my grandparents’ first house bought in 1949.  It was not a bank note but rather a loan from the “The Sons of Polish Charter” for $5700.  It was a promissory note with full details of payment and penalties.

It made me think of both “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the bank troubles today.  We have long left a society where ethnic groups help one another. We have “progressed” to financial services that few of us understand and perhaps only 1% profit from.  There’s derivatives upon derivatives and financial “products” that seem fine on paper but try to collect on it and the mountains of paperwork are staggering. There is always some penalty or fee that diminishes the real return.  Meanwhile, the theory of ‘micro-loans” in other countries wins people Nobel prizes.

I am not a financial wizard by any stretch of the imagination, but when you take ordinary people out of the equation of savings and loans, it leads to a system of abandonment, just like those empty storefronts. We are just cattle. George Bailey knew his customers and neighbors because they were the same people.  My grandparents were members of the the Sons of the Polish Charter. You are less likely to default on your neighbor or friend.  Does Bank of America know you?

Monday, December 5, 2011


Some other parents make me crazy.  Parent meetings at various schools can be nightmares.  Parenting in 2011 seems to  involve a one-upmanship on how to be an ass.  I go to meetings and quietly sit. A lot of what I hear in conversation is what they restrict Johnny or Jane on today. I am quiet at these meetings.  I embarrass my children enough. The noes are drowning out the yeses.

“Johnnie’s on a gluten-free peanut- free sugar- free nutrition- free diet!”  We used to wonder, “What Johnny reads?”  Now I wonder what Johnny eats. Johnny, by the way, is 300 pounds.

“I limit TV to only 2 minutes on alternating Fridays when there is a new moon.” Meanwhile Jane just had a bat mitzvah and hired Justin Bieber (actually true in my daughter's school). Apparently there is no restriction on the cost of entertainment.

“Vaccinations?  I told my pediatrician that I need to have an alternative schedule that will be completed upon Johnny’s eighteenth birthday or death, whichever comes first.”  Johnny just had a case of whooping cough and infected three other restricted kids.

“I restrict the Internet to 4 minutes per day and only on educational items.”  Jane got the most out of her 4 minutes and just paid an online service to write her history paper.

With the exception of  the Justin Bieber story, these are exaggerations.  But the sentiment is there.  It’s a competition on being a more stupidly restrictive parent.  Are they getting this from some App? Available on Siri? They no longer talk of Johnny’s or Jane's accomplishments; They talk of their own unfounded boundaries like it’s a badge of honor. This is not the way iParent.

I remember being at a Christmas party about a year ago and I made a marbled chocolate cheesecake. It actually came out right for a change, no large cracks, underdone middle or funky crust. There was a toddler there happily eating some off her mother's plate.  Another parent seemed aghast at the small child eating such a treat.  "I would never let my child eat cheesecake!" she exclaimed.  The toddler's mother and I each gave each other a puzzled look as if to say: "Okay, you get the gold star for today’s limitations." Has anyone heard of moderation lately? Now what does Jane and Johnny really do?

The funny thing is that the kids are always going to be two steps ahead.  I know mine are and that’s the way it should be. I was always two steps ahead of my parents. It's not a lack of vigilance; it’s the law of nature. It's called progress.

I am a liberal parent.  I parent in the "why not" as opposed to the "why." Restrict too much, they will either go crazy when they have freedom or worse, not know how to handle stressful situations.  No,  I don’t censor.  Go ahead use the Internet. See R-rated things.  Most good movies are rated R. Better on the screen than in a real life drama. You see most of that violence on simulated video games anyway.  The sex? Well, that can be tricky. If you don’t understand something, ask.  Ask me, a teacher or someone else who might know the answer. Google it.  It will be your peripheral brain. I certainly do not have all the answers. Be curious. Go ahead and taste everything.  ( I consciously made them drink any kind of formula as babies, eat everything as toddlers and ignored the forays of eating dirt or having Purell® in a holster whipping it out every time  they touched any surface.) Have pets. Visit zoos and barnyards. Your immune system will thank me.  Please go on sleepovers, camping trips and every school outing.  If I didn't trust the other parents, teachers or counselors, you wouldn't be going. See how other people live, eat, and sleep.  You will be a more tolerant person. Trust me and I will trust you. Most of all trust yourself. Read everything you can. Including warnings, many warnings. And the consequences if you don't heed those warnings.  Make sound and educated judgments.  See the world.  Make your own decisions.  I will not be here,  nor do you want me to be here,  all your life. Most of all,  make mistakes.  That is the only way to learn.  Maybe someday it will be uParent and that better not be too soon. Remember the warnings. Yes, sex can be tricky. Sometimes the noes make the yeses even better.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Middle Ages

“I like middle age.  There’s no time for bulls**t.”
                             -famed Romance novelist Gwyn Cready

No, this is not a history lesson.  Bad history teachers in high school turned me permanently away from studying any history beyond the state required American History in senior year.  I still have nightmares that I never took a history class.  Subsequent scary stories of people camping out to get a particular history professor in college also turned me away. I was never into idol worship. I read history on the sly now.  No tests involved. No grades to be worried about. Sam Cooke was right:  "Don’t know much about history"…..Well, maybe. Just don’t test me.

No, this is about Middle Age, the time when you are numerically a bit past the mid-part of life. Think of the Roman God Janus, where the name of the month January is derived. He is two-faced, looking ahead yet also looking back.  He symbolizes transitions, doorways, and thresholds. January happens to be my birth month. What irony. My next birthday is not going to be pretty.  It’s a pivotal one.  Not for the faint-hearted.  Suddenly, I am old.  I get AARP mailings. 

I worry about the things most middle-aged women worry about.  Aging certainly has its advantages but obvious disadvantages. Two-faced Janus again.  You think more, are less judgmental, less critical and sometimes learn to keep your mouth shut.  You are open to more things. You are less tolerant of other things. But then you look at yourself.  The wrinkles stare back.  You entertain the thought of plastic surgery but fear you will end up looking worse then when you started.  I think of Priscilla Presley.  Yikes. Good thing Elvis is dead or her plastic face would have killed him by now. Your body doesn’t feel nor act the same way anymore.  Besides the menopausal nonsense, clothes don’t fit as well, shoes seem to get flatter and uglier.  Forget the “F**k-me” pumps for so, so, so many reasons. Manolo Blahniks?  Anyone who would spend greater than $400 on one pair of shoes needs to have a bridge sold to them. You dread having to shop with your teenage daughters.  Forever 21? No one stays 21 forever, my dear.

Careers start to change.  You reach a certain point and wonder if I will be doing this same thing for the next 17-20 years. Some people in my profession start to think about not recertifying in their specialty, contemplating the end of careers. Given the direction of American Medicine, I don’t blame them. It’s easy choosing that route given that recertification now requires so many steps. Ultimately, it ends with fingerprinting, photographs and now palm imprints every time you sign into the exam after breaks.  Not fun but probably necessary. Some pre-meds never grow up.

Should I have been more open to other things in college, not only history, but other subjects instead of having pre-med tunnel vision?  I took a course in economics a few years ago.  I stayed away from Econ in college.  It was a typical introduction to Macro and Micro-economics at the local state university.  I loved the courses.  I got a very satisfying A in both. Goody for me. But did I really learn to maximize my utility? 

Many people get sick, really sick.  Slowly, you hear of friends undergoing real illnesses and dying.  As a young physician, you always seemed somehow protected from illness. You studied the enemy for years, witnessed its formidable consequences and someone else's research gave you the tools to fight.  It was always them not me. Not so much anymore.  Those tables are turned now. We are the ones with the cholesterol in the 200’s, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and osteoarthritis.  We vainly try to stave off these maladies by suddenly eating right and exercising. It helps, but it's just one more minute-to minute struggle and regret of the years when we ate foolishly and sat on our asses.  The clock is ticking. You can’t drown out the noise.

Our parents are leaving us just as our children exhaust us.  Sometimes, you are no longer someone’s child anymore.  Not truly an orphan but you miss their remembrances and guidance even if it involved screaming matches and fist-pounding. You have stepped up to the front of the line whether you like it or not. If that’s not enough, you parent the next generation.  Now two sets of child-like behaviors to worry about.  There’s nothing like the ends of the driving spectrum to keep you up at night: a newly minted 16 year old driver and a 92 year old aunt who just renewed her license.  I am not sure which one is the scarier. At least my aunt doesn’t know how to text and drive.

Many marriages don’t survive this reflective time or in the ones that appear happy, there seems to be an undercurrent of self-doubt.   The old Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is?” comes to mind.  Maybe there is more out there?  Maybe there’s more in here? Maybe “just keep dancing...... and break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all, there is.”

Maybe I do know something about history Mr. Cooke.  Mine certainly. I have seen my past and it doesn’t predict the future.  I am old now. Not sure I like it yet though. Time to grow up. No more bulls**t. If that’s all there is.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Boldly Go...

Today is November 30th.  It’s funny how times flies when you are not having fun. Any day spent in a US government office is dismal at best, but there are papers to be filed, receipts to be received and endless flat screen TV’s to be watched while waiting for your number to appear. I was at Social Security Administration Office this afternoon turning in my Dad’s last check and ordering a new card for myself, which I lost in college.  It’s never too late to redeem one’s self to the government.  Honestly,  no one has asked to see the card in the last twenty years, but I figured while I was there…

Two and one half hours I spent in this bureaucratic hellhole watching an endless loop of Social Security sponsored promo in which George Takei and Patty Duke advocated the “Boldly Go” campaign to use online services.  They used an old Star Trek set and the actors were both curiously dressed in Starship Enterprise costumes.  What Patty Duke had to offer this scenario is anyone’s guess. I surmise that Baby boomers would recognize her from “The Patty Duke Show.”  I watched that show although was comforted in the fact it was in syndication at the time.  Whew.  Am I that old?

I watched endless television when I was a child.  The best babysitter in the world was probably my mother’s thinking.  It started as soon as I sat up and was able to stay seated in one position in the famous red “jumping chair” my parents used for me and all of my siblings.

Like some surreal photo album, my childhood could be documented by what was programmed in TV Guide.  I know I started watching “Romper Room” as a tot.  Miss Louise was my favorite especially when the “Magic Mirror” dazzled the viewer into some sort of submission as she called out the names of children in “Televisionland.” I must have sat through years of that show moving vertically not horizontally in that chair waiting for my name to be called. 

Cartoons were always welcomed.  Who could forget “Winky Dink and You” and the plastic “magic drawing screen” you had to adhere to the TV to draw with “Winky Dink. “ Somehow I think my older sister didn’t wait for that instruction because I do remember pen marks on the Console TV.  I, of course, was stuck in the jumping chair and couldn’t be blamed for that misadventure.

Besides, Winky Dink, most days were spent with a cast of characters.  “Deputy Dog”,  “Underdog”, “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and of course the endless loops of “The Little Rascals.”  You never noticed the deleted episodes until the “Cabin Fever” series came out.  No, as a child, you were subjected to bad films of Our Gang comedies that occasionally used to burn right on camera until WPIX would switch to either a commercial or a “Technical Difficulty” caption.  As a kid, you didn’t mind.  You ate a snack or went to the bathroom until the loop reappeared.

The daytime reruns were always watched too.  “The Munster’s”, “Flipper”, “Daktari”, “I Dream of Jeannie”, “Beverly Hillbillies”, “My Mother the Car” rounded out a full rainy day of most of my childhood. My sister liked “The Patty Duke Show” so I was subjected to those ‘incredible cousins”, “who walked alike, talked alike, you could lose your mind.” No doubt with so much TV and radiation.  Never liked “Star Trek.”  Sorry Mr. Takei.

 On sunny days we were shooed out the door with the nondescript instructions "to go play.”  It might as well have been the “Boldly Go” command.  I think from age 5  through age 11, my mother had no idea where I was, what I was doing or with whom I was doing what with.  No supervision, no lunch breaks, just urban air, pure imagination and girlish energy.  What I wouldn’t give for one ounce of that today and to not worry about Social Security.

As I think ahead to summer activities for next year, I am always asked by my three “What kind of camp did you go to Mommy?”   I always would answer “F-Troop.”  No, it wasn’t Girl Scouts, but it did involve some lazy summer afternoon planning and TV Guide reading.  I would love to just shoo them out the door and say “Boldly Go. ” But no one does that today unless they mean "online."   I am old,  but now with a new Social Security Card in the mail.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Going Long.......

I seemingly always have library fines.  Somehow I haven’t figured out that I can renew things online or just make a notation about due dates.  The last one would have cost me about $76.00 for an overdue book my daughter had out all summer.  I surreptitiously blamed her sloppy teenage ways and the sympathetic librarian bought the story. The fine was reduced to $16.00.  Whew.  Dodged a budgetary bullet there.

I have since checked my local library account online.  It has many updated features, which I was unaware.  The research databases are amazing now and so are the personal account services.  What surprised me the most was the expiration date on my library card.  It was 3/31/2107 nearly 96 years away.  I will be 145 in the year 2107.  Will I make it?  Has medical science progressed that much?  Do I want that kind of longevity?

With my father’s debilitating illness, I have cautiously warned my children that if I were to be that impaired, “Please just take me out at 50 feet.” Perhaps my humor is a bit dark for most audiences.  The older ones rolled their eyes as usual, as my younger daughter told me “sure I’ll take you out to dinner Mom.”  What a sweetheart.
But his illness raised certain questions on the course of the rest of my life  (In which I'll bore you with in other blogs) and certainly choosing options for my death.

Do we all want to live that long?  What would be the cost to society of that length of living? What would be the cost to my loved ones?  Now I understand what actuaries actually do for a living or for the living.

As a physician, you often see people kept alive after catastrophic events such as strokes, car accidents, cardiac conditions, etc.  The cost of an average ICU stay mounts to thousands to tens of thousands per day.   Whether the Republicans like it or not, we all bear this expense in the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, Federal Taxes, or private insurance.  It’s political slight of hand on whose pocket it actually comes from. The talk of “death panels” gave a grim spin of this rationing of care.  But is it rationing or just rational?

Giving the Republicans a break for a change (just this once), I do give them some credit for the notion of self-determination.  We all should have the right to decide our fate to some extent, certainly in such personal decisions as death.  This brings up the topic of Advanced Directives.  I just signed mine and you should too. As a pitch for the opposing team, President Obama was the first United States President to sign an Advanced Directive in 2009.

Advanced Health Care Directives are also known as Living Wills, Personal Directives, Advance Directives or Advanced Decisions.  They are instructions to the medical personnel or the family on what actions should be taken when a person is no longer able to make decisions for themselves.  Another form is a Health Care Power of Attorney or Health Care Proxy, which is a specific person, designated by the patient to make decisions on behalf of that patient when they no longer can.  They are simple forms, easy to complete but vary from State to State.  I will leave the legal stuff to the lawyers to argue incessantly about.

I was my father’s health care proxy given my medical background.  I knew he didn’t want extraordinary means to keep him alive.  Medically, given his condition, I knew that aggressive therapy was not rational.  And I was by no means rationing. Just as an aside: Hospice care was wonderful, exemplary and should be an option for any family faced with impending death.

Every adult should think about these important decisions. Whether you are middle aged, young adult or more importantly elderly.  It takes much of the guilt out of the equation of death, especially among the living.

I probably won’t face a firing squad when my time comes. I already face my daughters on a daily basis in the carpool line when then are usually ready to shoot me for my cursing, singing with my iPhone or weasel driving habits, but at least now they know what do with me whether my death is soon or in 2107. In the meantime I hope to be checking my online library account for those damn fines. Given my habits though, I could rack up quite a boodle over the next 96 years.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanks, ladies

When I was a child, I needed adults. I knew I was an adult, when I needed children.
   -not sure if I heard it or made it up myself-so sue me (please don't) or google it yourself !

For anyone with children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews, you have undoubtedly sat through the usual graduations speeches thanking the obligate family members who “got them through” school.  I have sat through many too.  Starting in preschool and now high school, they are monotonous; occasionally tear jerking and mostly annoying.  They are first given by small children who have memorized their lines and read in a monotone staccato or high schoolers who are embarrassed and laugh all throughout the well-worn speech. It always ends with an "Ahhhh", clapping and some sort of self-satisfaction on everyone’s part.  I am not done with this ritual.  Only about 10 more times to go.

The children have no one to thank.  It’s us, old farts who have them to thank for everything.  I am glad I have touched the future.  My children are the ones who have taught me so much:

Tolerance of teenagers' messy rooms, papers that are due at 8am but “can you just look it over” at 12 midnight, of late weekend nights and sleeping to the obligatory noon hour, questionable friends, toddlers who decide that the cat would look better with a Sharpie® doodle on it’s back, middle schoolers who have their first foray into dating with a school dance and giggle in the backseat about some boy who dropped his pants, dogs with green toenails, of crazy do-it-yourself haircuts of six year-olds that take two years to grow out, shattering an iPhone after it's been unknowingly dropped (in the damn carpool line) and “it’s your fault because you drove over it”, of candy wrappers hid between mattresses and box springs, rejecting what is made for dinner by commenting “do you have any back-up?”, dirty size 6 underwear found tucked in the back of a closet when you know they are at least a size 12 now and of course,  them knowing something academic that you don’t or can't remember. That bites the big one.

Patience of teaching your child who needs extra help with her ABC’s, waiting in endless darwinian carpool lines, toilet training (say no more), of urgent text messages that don’t get through because “I left my phone in my locker, Mom, ” repairing a bed that has been used again for a trampoline, calming a dog down who had peas put into her ears,  and them returning some real patience as they teach you the new iPad features.

Restraint in eating brownies, cakes, cinnamon buns, snicker doodles, tollhouse cookies, oatmeal cookies, smores, hamantashen (no latkes!) and every other sweet that seemingly gets made or brought into my house every single week. The big one doesn't bite them anymore.

 Joy in watching your child walk for the first time, talk for the first time and drag their backpack for the first time.

Pure Inner Peace with the quiet rhythm of rocking a freshly bathed and fed newborn to sleep and watching her for the next twenty minutes thinking “It doesn’t get better than this.”

Real Fear of having your child get wheeled into an operating room, of falling off a horse of 17 hands height, getting their first stitches, their first time out with the car alone or with the car and THAT boy alone, rejection, or by being made fun of by children whose parents haven’t mastered the tolerance step yet.

My girls have taught me tolerance, patience, to find joy in life, to treasure inner peace and to only fear fear itself to which I am eternally grateful. This is far from a comprehensive list; I haven't been taking notes. I still have so many lessons from you ladies to go. I'll try to be a better student.  No need to say grace this Thanksgiving.  I say it everyday, sometimes without expletives.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lost: One Stray Owner

Looking foolish next to the tree in a one o'clock rain: 

umbrella aloft, the leash in my other hand- 

I wanted my late-coming neighbor to understand 

that dogs are worth the expense, inconvenience, and pain;
their tails are truthful, no coiled rebellion beneath 
a loving look; they are quick to kiss you, and quick 

to fetch for you, and-should you raise a stick 

threateningly-they are quick to show their teeth;

and better still (but this I never revealed),
when you bring downfall home, the death of a hope, 

their nonchalant manner does more for you than a drink; 

and best of all, when triumph's to be unsealed, 

such lack of respect they show for the envelope, 

-your fingers halt, the brain cools, and you think.

                                    Dogs in Rumshinsky’s Hat and House of Buttons by Aaron Kramer

She was really my first ever dog.  Sure I had childhood ones but they were family dogs; I couldn’t really claim ownership.  I always had cats.  Every size, shape, personality and color.  One even got me kicked out of my dormitory in college.  I was such a rebel.

The decision to get a dog was an easy one.  I was working nights and home alone during the day with my developmentally delayed daughter.  It was lonely, scary and I needed company. Her thrice weekly physical, occupational and speech therapists were often the only adult contact during the day.  I looked into therapy dogs or near therapy dogs-the ones that don’t quite make the top tier- but the wait was at least three to four years.  I am patient but not that patient.

I knew I wanted a Labrador.  Their temperament and the short hair had a certain appeal.  And I knew I couldn’t handle a puppy.  Blessed be the various Labrador Rescue websites. I inquired about one dog, a “gentle giant” but he was already promised to another family.  Weeks went by when another dog popped up.  Her name not only described her coat color but also a popular "fireside alcoholic drink”. She apparently had puppies at one point and was found wandering the streets. 

I quickly called the foster mother.   She described that she was a sheer delight in the house with her other two larger male dogs but she was alpha to those beta males. That had a certain appeal. The boys always allowed her to eat first.  She was a snuggler, gentle but protective of children.  Also good with cats. But then she said the magic words “I’m going to miss her.”

I drove the 100 miles to “just see” under the pretense that I had a medical conference to attend.  The minute I saw her and she me I knew she was the one.  The whole love at first sight thing I guess. I should be so lucky with men. Her coming over to put her head on my lap sealed the deal. Her middle name became “Nana” like the dog in Peter Pan.  I needed someone to watch over me.

We had eight and one half wonderful years together. I never doubted her intelligence or allegiance to my children or me.  It hurt that my husband never petted her. 

She trained our new puppy a year and a half ago.  She had that motherly instinct.  My puppy seems lost without her now and often wanders the house with a rawhide bone in her mouth looking for her fellow chewing companion. I wander around the house often in the same way.

I am a lost stray owner now.  I go to lab adoption fairs but no one yet has picked me.  Still looking for my next best labby friend. Her middle name too will be “Nana.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Crazy Woman

I shall not sing a May song.
A May song should be gay.
I'll wait until November
And sing a song of gray.

I'll wait until November
That is the time for me.
I'll go out in the frosty dark
And sing most terribly.

And all the little people
Will stare at me and say,
"That is the Crazy Woman
Who would not sing in May."

                        -Gwendolyn Brooks

Despite the cold winds, I closed my garden down this weekend. Procrastinated yet again. The zucchini had been plentiful, but my heirloom tomatoes were not good despite the best care.  The feathery asparagus canes were cut down preparing for a bigger harvest for their next and third year.  Blueberries and blackberries were acidified and mulched despite their uneven showing. I can still harvest some thyme, parsley, sage and rosemary here and there for the Thanksgiving dinner. And the cats will be happy since the catnip bush is still abundant. Mind-altered cats: nature's housebound court jesters! The harvest is in.

I love this time of year.  There are still faint hues of gold, red and brown left in a few trees.  T-shirts give way to sweatshirts and wind-breaking fleece. The gloves come out of hiding.  The grass no longer needs mowing.  Logs do need to be split given our poor power grid and in anticipation of heatless but snowy nights. Duraflames will be bought just in case for back- up. There’s that sense of snow in the air with low lying clouds but still uncooperative temperatures. The only thing left blossoming is the pilgrim in my soul.

Bulbs need to be planted, being careful not to use the ones which hungry squirrels feast on. Daffodils seem to fair best.  I don’t dare do tulips. Geraniums are cut down and stored since they do come back if properly planted in the spring.

Oh me and my worms.  Voracious devils those red wigglers.  Feed them vegetable scraps, old shredded newspaper and they make the best soil ever.  It’s getting too cold outside for their bins so I have thousands of new pets in the garage.

Winter coats come out of storage.  My older girls still fit into last years but there’s always the hand-me-down scramble for my youngest to see what assorted coat of her sisters’ she can wear.  She got lucky this year. A coat my oldest never wore “because it was purple” was carefully put away only to be resurrected as new. My youngest  daughter's favorite color is purple.  Magician yes, extravagant Mom, no.

We see fewer rabbits in the yard, even fewer squirrels than last week as they sense the weather change.  Curiously, not many acorns again on the old oak in the back. The smashed pumpkins will certainly make up for what the oak trees lack. The deer have lessened too despite me throwing out stale bread.

It is a time for preparation. Hunkering down. Moving inward not only for nature but for myself, for I am not sure what the winter and spring will bring. Hope springs eternal they say.  I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I will sing most terribly with my iPhone.  You’ll all be glad that the car windows will be shut because of the impending cold.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


There is no doubt that exercise makes one happy, healthy and wise.  After my recent troubles, I began to exercise  regularly out of sheer anxiety.  Spending weekends at my Dad’s house near a shore, I would often escape to  a certain boardwalk to just walk, think and often just stare at the sea.  

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

                                             -Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Ah, Mr. Melville.  It has truly been the damp, drizzly November of my soul and muscles.

That particular boardwalk is exactly 0.75 miles long and I would often just walk up and down so that could get at least 6 miles in.  Just me, my iPhone and sometimes a book after the mileage. On beautiful summer nights, it was glorious; cool, clear and not crowded.  I hate the beach during the day.  To much skin, UV radiation and the annoying smell of sunscreen.  The hot sand burns my feet. Lying in the sun seems like such a waste of time, energy and melatonin.  I am more of night beach person.  I had plenty of company too.  The young male surfers were delightful to watch, ahem. A squadron of older ladies would walk, chat, laugh and enjoy their slow strolls in unison.  Older gentlemen would be sitting enjoying poker at one of the tables.  If you’re lucky a friendly dog would come visit for a nice pet.

I continued this regimen once at home at a nearby trail seeped in history.  It's an old railroad track that conservationists have turned into a biking, jogging, and walking trail. You can even take your horse.  It is glorious too and runs along a small stream.  The flow of water adds a certain calming effect just like the sea. Occasionally a blue heron will delight the scene.

But life started again. Schedules to keep.  Stop exercising for 3 days or so and you feel like the kids on Wonderama.  You freeze.  Ah, Wonderama.  Wonderama was a Tri-state children's staple on Sunday mornings on WNEW (Channel 5) TV.  Broadcast for 3 hours, interspersed with cartoons,  everyone watched it.   I even knew two classmates who went on the show. What celebrity!  One of the many segments featured the "Exercise Song."  Even at my age I still remember the lyrics:

                                              Exercise, Exercise, come on everybody do your exercise
                                              Exercise, Exercise, come on everybody do your exercise
                                              Then freeze........

Freeze after the music stopped and if you move again, you lose.  Sounds exactly like my situation.

Only this time, I lose if I don't move again.  I have to overcome this inertia . Stop the excuses that seemingly come out of the woodwork-the phone calls to be returned, the massive amounts of paperwork, the laundry, errands, etc.  Ignore your flower bed of habits and life has a nasty way of encroaching like wanton weeds.

Where’s Bob McAllister when you need him?  If you find him tell him to bring some pruning shears.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Breaking Good, Breaking Bad

Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey
                     -Lennon and McCartney

We are all complex human beings.  I don’t think anyone of my friends knew that I wrote poetry.  Some good, some bad.  The English language is truly so delicious. It’s sometimes good to play with your food.  Someday I will share. Probably some even think I plagiarize this blog. With the exception of one short but vague sentence (Thanks, S!),  I don’t.  It’s me.  Those who really know me detect the underlying snark, mixed with over the top sentimentality and unending curiosity and opinions.

I think of many of my friends.  Who knew that my MBA-degreed former roommate had a secret desire to write steamy but very funny romance novels?  Who knew my then grad student lab mate now microbiologist also teaches a course on the misuse of biology in movies and popular culture (think DOC films)? Who knew that a buttoned down college dorm mate really could paint amazing Southwest scenery? Who knew that a hematologist suffering from his own hematological nightmare could write such humor? Who knew that a former midwestern college kid could write such great instrumental music? Who knew an old friend from "the hood", now an attorney, had an interest in Civil War weaponry? (Okay, given THAT neighborhood and THAT profession-maybe THAT  is believable.) Who knew that one former residency mate sews designer quilts, another has an amazing blog about art and illustration  and yet another is becoming an episcopal priest?

I have such interesting and amazing friends.  

I love the TV show “Breaking Bad”.  I don’t watch much TV but this show is certainly “must see.”  It tells the complex story of Walter White, a downtrodden high school chemistry teacher who, when faced with his own mortality, starts synthesizing methamphetamine and becomes a sinister drug lord. The term 'breaking bad' is apparently a southern colloquialism. According to Wikipedia, it describes  a person  who has taken a turn off a usually straight and narrow path

It is violent, disturbing, but most of all, a character study of the best kind.  No one is really who you think they are.  They start out as one stereotype, but through extreme stress, greed, and death- the once mild mannered is now blowing up a drug kingpin.  The once high school drop-out is now a millionaire but in a covert beaten-up station wagon.  The once righteousness wife has an affair with a former boss then blackmails him so that her own sordid financial situation isn’t exposed. 

And it all takes place with the sunny background of suburban New Mexico.

Ah, those suburbs!  Artificial turf of the finest plastic.  Lots of monkey business.

Next time you really think you know someone, dig deeper.  You might be surprised. Hopefully pleasantly. Sometimes not. Some are breaking good creatively and some just may be creatively breaking bad. I am breaking good lately , finally (although nothing Walter White bad!), and leaving so much of other's bad behind.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Car Talk without the Tappet Brothers

"We have met the enemy and he is us." 
                              -Pogo by Walt Kelly

Morning commute is morning hell.  Getting my three each at different schools in three different directions is often fraught with yelling, fist pounding and expletives.  And that’s just in the driveway.

But seriously, it is a time when I reconnect with my brood. 

My middle daughter has the longest “car time”.  She shares my odd sense of humor.  It’s either that or perhaps a survival tactic.  Hard to tell.  But the other day she was telling me about her freshman high school course called simply Alcohol, Drugs and Sex. ADS for short. Pretty comprehensive I might say.  But it is taught by exactly the wrong person.  The teacher is a church lady type.  Most of the kids ignore her preaching.  My daughter this week has a choice of going to a rehab center or math class.  Boy is that an easy decision.  I would do geometry over seeing the depths of the human condition any day.

My daughter states that the church lady talks down to the kids. Explaining the subject matter is one thing but the “Just Say no” campaign was kind of corny, unrealistic and went out in the 1980’s. It was promoted by Nancy Reagan and LaToya Jackson: ‘nuff said. People are naturally curious.  You just need to show them when curiosity becomes a bad thing, when bad things become an addiction and when the horrible consequences of that addiction happen.

In other words, you want to scare these kids shitless.  My theory is if you scare them enough they’ll never want to do any of those things or hopefully do some of the things with some foresight and extreme moderation.  It’s not enough to just say they are bad.  You want them to see Harry the Heroin addict with rotted teeth, smelly clothes and blind from talc emboli to his retina.  You want Crystal the crack whore with dentures at age 27 who starts soliciting the young men and the ladies for a “quickie.” That will get them out of their seats in a jiffy. Best of all, bring Al the Alkie with live moonshine demonstrations and side of squirrel -skinning.

Better yet is to do what my medical school did for us much more mature med students (hah!)  It was just a short lecture about the statistics of the problem, blah, blah, prevalence, incidence, blah, blah, blah but it ended with a mild mannered stockbroker.  He was perfectly groomed with an expertly tailored suit. He spoke eloquently on how he has been a heroin addict for the past 10 years despite his education (an alumnus actually), great job, upstanding wife and his one child.  He could have been us.  That was truly scary.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

horses, horses.......

The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run,
but the movie kept moving as planned
The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker,
He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny
The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started laughing hysterically

When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he's being surrounded by
horses, horses, horses, horses
coming in all directions
white shining silver studs with their nose in flames,
He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.
                                                                                                -Patti Smith

I see horses every other day.  Real ones.  My daughter rides them and they are majestic creatures.  But the ones I see have a certain sadness in their eyes.  Some have strange behaviors. Most of their peculiarities are from their time on the track.  One horse is spooked by plastic flowers.  The other is easily scared of bells and must wear earplugs.  Another cannot have a regular saddle because of cruelty. Most are former racehorses that have been retired and retrained to become school horses for equestrian events.  They are docile now, trained to walk, trot and canter.  If you are lucky some days, you do get to see them in the field in full gallop playing with their buddies. It is rare but grand to see. They seem finally free.

These are the lucky ones.  Their friends may not have been.  Just think dog food and glue factories.  Once bet on, tampered with and shown with pride, they are victims sacrificed for man for a game with high stakes. The industry is fraught with cheating.  The inbreeding to win, drugs, etc are to produce the fastest animal yet. Everything is on the line to win, place or show.  When they don’t, they are discarded. One can  hope to a school riding program to be fussed over by high school girls.

I think about the Penn State case.  A parent's worst nightmare.  Society's worst nightmare. Pure evil incarnate and complacent people  who ignored the many warnings as to not ruin their own reputations, money and football.  Cowardly Nittany Lions. They rode on high horses that team.  When any institution sacrifices children we are all losers.   You have victims now that are docile, damaged, never to really gallop again. I never really paid attention to college football, now I most certainly will not.

I wonder what Mr. Sandusky’s victims thought of when being molested and raped.  Those children are  the horses, abused and now broken.  They will never be free of the horribleness inflicted on them.  Ask them if they gave one “for the Gipper”. They most certainly did but probably without cute cheerleaders, generous scholarships, special dormitories, special dining halls and every other luxury afforded to a winning college team. Maybe they thought of horses. Beautiful concept sometimes, but better when they are truly wild and galloping.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sibling Reverie

From the Book of Ecclesiastes, Pete Seeger and the Byrds:

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to be born,

Fall is  the time of my greatest joys and my greatest sorrows.  All my children are fall babies: in rapid succession- September, October then November birthdays.  It’s one big gift giving season all leading up to Christmas. They are my everything as W. H. Auden said it best:

My North, my South, my East and West, 
My working week and my Sunday rest, 
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; 

I would do anything for them, but as teenagers and near teenagers, I can’t let them know that of course. They already walk all over me.

a time to die…
Death usually comes to my door in fall too.  My brother, my aunt, my uncle, and now my father all died  within a two week span in late October and early November.  I am down to one original immediate family member now.  It’s strange to be that alone.

My brother’s death was so unexpected.  One minute he was a vibrant, 34 year old working (legitimately!) in the pharmaceutical industry.  The next minute the police were tracking down my Dad at 3am announcing his passing in a neighbor’s car as he desperately scrambled for help.

My brother was unlike my sister and I.  He was a free spirit in a ethnic world where boys were still treated differently.  I don’t know how many times I heard he didn’t have to do something “because he's  a boy”.  Oh, Y didn’t have to help with the laundry,  "because he's boy”.  Y didn’t have to pick up his socks, “because he's a boy.” Y didn’t have to set the table “because he's a boy.” “Boy” did I have penis envy at age 12 without ever needing to read Freud.  His laissez-faire attitude extended to his academic work too.  He just got by, went out with friends, goofed around in school.  I remember one historic trip to the principal. Sirens were going off outside his classroom and he yelled to his teacher, “Hey Sister A, they’re coming for you!” My parents had to stifle their laughter as they handed out some very lenient punishment.

He hid bad grades in piles of sidewalk leaves until my sister caught him one day. He broke things, especially my things.  Barbie dolls mysteriously had posterior punctures after his friend got an arrow set for his birthday. He and his friend Anthony, also lost two pairs of vise-grips. What 10 year old boys do with vise-grips I’ll never know.  My father went ballistic.  That incident was the longest running joke of my family. “But he's a boy!” was the real punchline.

I remember one trip while I was in college and he still in high school which drove me crazy with jealousy.  My parents let him and a friend go see “Blondie” at CBGB’s in NYC.  He was only 15.  "Why did you let him go?" I asked my Mom.  You already know the answer.  

He carried this attitude to everything he did.  He was casual with girlfriends, eventually engaged to two of them then suddenly breaking it off.  He borrowed exorbitant amounts of money from my Dad for whimsical cars, camping equipment, a trailer and even a gun (yikes). “Let him have his fun” my Dad would say with a wink, met by my frequent growls.  “He’s a boy.” One of his last acts was cashing in his 401K for a new 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee.  “It’s okay, I need a car and it’s really cool.”

He could be carefree, reckless, and exasperating, but my baby brother always made me laugh.

Maybe he knew something we didn't know that autumn.  Maybe he knew that his life was going to be shortened by a myocardial infarction of his left main coronary artery ("the widow maker") that crisp crystal clear fall night exactly thirteen years ago today.   Maybe he knew he didn’t need retirement. Maybe he didn’t really want any widows.  Maybe he just wanted to be “a boy” forever. Boy,Y, I miss you. Where are those damn vise-grips?