Friday, August 11, 2017

"THERE ARE MORE THINGS IN HEAVEN AND EARTH, HORATIO . . .


 . . . THAN ARE DREAMT OF IN YOUR PHILOSOPHY."

That line from Shakespeare's Hamlet reflects how I feel about this blog entry.

Coincidences? Instinct? Fate? Sometimes, things in life get a little spooky, and though we---as rational people---try to explain away what's happening, the specter of Fate tiptoes into the room, tickles us behind the neck, laughs in our faces.

And that's where I'm coming from right now.

I should begin by explaining why this entry was somewhat delayed. It's a narrative known only to my family and my closest associates and friends. For a year now I've had a health issue, culminating six weeks ago in my having major lung surgery to remove a malignant tumor in my right lung.

(Let me jump in quickly to say that I'm fine. The tumor is gone, I am cancer-free, with no need for any chemical or radiation followups---only CAT scans from time to time.)

As I look back, I'm sure I didn't believe in Fate, but maybe it was there, in the back of my mind all along. And maybe it explains my odd cold-bloodedness from the very beginning.

I never for a moment worried about dying, even though all indications were that the tumor on my lung was, in all probability, cancer. Though friends and family were in a semi-panic sometimes, I didn't mind. I was aware of the possibility of dying, of chemo, of radiation. I wasn't in denial, but none of it fazed me. Totally neutral. Couldn't figure out why. Because I've lived a rich life and was content, no matter what? I didn't know. Even joked to my daughter the day before surgery that, because of all the outpourings of good wishes I had gotten from so many people, that---if I should die---there would be hundreds of people at my funeral! (Poor dear. She was not amused, and I apologize to her now for my thoughtless levity.)

But maybe it was Fate speaking to me at some gut level?

To begin, I had a mild cold last year. No big deal. A little sneezing, a bit of coughing. But when my slight fever kept coming back, I went to my doctor. Fate? Having come from an era where we pretty much took care of our sicknesses on our own and only saw doctors when it seemed to be important, I don’t know what persuaded me to go to my GP. Still don’t know what pushed me.

But maybe it was spooky Fate at work. That whatever was happening was meant to be. That I was making connections and decisions that were fated.

Called my local Primary Care physician. He was on vacation. His substitute was a pulmonary specialist. (Coincidence?) That doctor's diagnosis was that I had a mild case of pneumonia, which necessitated a chest x-ray, which then showed something on my lung. Scar tissue from my years of smoking (I don't want to hear it, people. Have been filled with my own regrets---don't want guilt trips from others, if you don't mind).  And on the scar tissue was something that looked like a tumor.

I'm aware now that if 1.) I hadn't come down with pneumonia and 2.) if I hadn't somehow felt impelled to visit a doctor, my life five years from now might have been vastly different. 

I had preliminary tests in my neighborhood. Follow-up tests in labs and hospitals. Doctors seemed fine, but something held me back. (Inconvenience? Personnel? See UNDER MY SKIN---AARGH EDITION for some of the less pleasant experiences.) Went for repeated tests over months, because things just didn't feel right. Primary doctor and lung specialist were both urging me to go for a biopsy, to schedule lung surgery to remove the tumor, etc. But I resisted. Why? Fate again? Instinct?
It wasn't a sense of denial---that if I ignored it, it would go away. I knew I had to have the biopsy and possibly the surgery. 

Finally asked my ex-husband for a referral for a second opinion since he had had medical contacts as an attorney through the years. He gave me the name of a pulmonary specialist at NYU-Langone in New York City. Don't ask me how we got on to colleges but, within fifteen minutes, that doctor and I had discovered that his family, like mine, were Brown University graduates. More than that, he had graduated from pre-med at Brown with my physician niece, in the same year. Innocent coincidence? Or Fate?

He sent me for tests, then we scheduled the biopsy. This time, I had no hesitation about agreeing to it. Why? Instinct again? Or Fate?

Biopsy showed it definitely was cancer. Arranged to see the surgeon who would perform the operation. Met first with his Nurse Practitioner for preliminary questions, explanations, etc. She took one look at me and said, "Why do you look familiar to me?"

I suggested that perhaps we had met when I made the rounds of the hospital for all my preliminary tests. "No," she said, indicating that she wouldn't have been in the section where all the tests were done.

Half as a joke (since I do sell wedding dresses at Macy's Bridal Salon), I said, "Have you had any connection with weddings lately?" (I guess I figured she might have come in with a group for bridesmaids' dresses, or something.)

She gasped in surprise. "Macy's!" she cried. "You showed me all those veils last month!" (Another eerie coincidence that's too coincidental? Or Fated?) She didn't buy the veil, but she remembered me. (And she married four weeks ago! I send her my congratulations.)

Then I met the surgeon who would perform the operation. We spoke of the operation, then chatted for a bit. It turns out he's a writer, with a published book to his credit. (Do check it out on Amazon---it's wonderful. Moving, inspiring, creative, funny. Super Performing At Work And At Home by Robert James Cerfolio MD, MBA.) And, basically, it's what I write here on this blog. He basically writes Life Lessons for the Professional, as opposed to the more general, motherly advice I give. But we're clearly on the same page. Another spooky coincidence? He played baseball in college. Well, so did I, and got a college letter for it. He has three sons. Well, so do I. 

I'm not trying to say I'm on his level of competence---he's at the top of his profession. But the coincidences were overwhelming. And so, when I was wheeled into surgery, I never for a minute thought I wouldn't come out of it. Because Fate had brought me to that moment and that place.

Coincidentally (???), while I was recovering at home, I watched a lot of old movies. And in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) , one of the older characters spoke this line: "As a man grows old, he begins to believe in Fate." And I knew that line was meant for me.

What's the Life Lesson here? Sometimes you have to put aside reason and accept that "There are more things in Heaven and Earth . . ." that are more than just "coincidences". And just roll with them.

Now I know that I'm usually more light-hearted than this. So I thought I'd close with a spooky "coincidence" story that is fun (but no less eerie, anyway!).

This happened some years ago. I had already written seven books that had been published. (Three by my first publisher, four by my second.) But the second publisher had closed down their division and I looked around for another publisher. I found a young editor at a new house who loved my latest book proposal. She signed me to her publisher for a four-book contract. She was a lovely young woman, about the age of my youngest son, Roger, I guessed. (He was 30 at the time.)

We worked together for months as the book was put together, edited, revised, discussed, etc. At some point she wanted me to meet her at the editorial offices on a Friday afternoon to go over something (can't remember what---not important). 

"I can't," I said. "I'm going up to my University that weekend for a seminar on Women and Popular Culture. Will be speaking there."

"Where did you go to college?" she asked.

"Brown."

Her eyes opened wide. "Oh my God!" she cried. "You're Roger's mother!"

Not only had she been in Rogers's class, she had also been in Roger's dorm! Moreover, because I had first become a published author while Roger was at Brown, the young editor had been in the common room of the dorm the day Roger had rushed in and announced, "My mother just sold a book to be published!"

Oddly enough, until that moment, she had not put that memory together with my name. We laughed about that spooky coincidence for a long time!




















Thursday, May 18, 2017

A RICHNESS OF EMBARRASSMENTS

Let's talk about being embarrassed.

We've all goofed off in the past, or done something stupid or had something humiliating happen to us. But I've learned, through the years, that it's how we react to the embarrassing situation that matters the most.

Do we cringe in humiliation? And suffer for ages over what has happened? Do we put a sign on ourselves that says, "Kick me!" because I'm stupid? Do we allow others to bully us and humiliate us with their knowledge of our lapse? Do we lie and pretend it never happened?

Really, people. No one is perfect. EVER! We all screw up, or get caught in unexpected situations. And I've learned that the best way to deal with embarrassment is to laugh at it, to share it with others as a funny situation, to refuse to be put down by others because of it. To admit our stupidity with a shrug and a laugh and move on. And to accept it as just a silly blip in our daily lives.

I've had my share of embarrassments, and perhaps by sharing with you all, I can help others come to grips with the seemingly "terrible" things that have happened to them.

I'm in college. All of 19 or 20. This is 1953. Full petticoats have just come in to fashion. I had a lovely one---stiff pale yellow crinoline (actually, cheesecloth that had been heavily starched---polyester hadn't been invented yet, or at least not in commercial use yet)---fastened with a button at the waist. Smoky blue rayon dress with a velvet collar to wear over it. Both pieces brand new,

College boyfriend---later husband---taking me to Philharmonic concert. Very posh. We usually took a bus downtown from College Hill, but he announced that, because he had sold some books, we would take a cab. I am already feeling beautiful because of my outfit. But a cab, too? Wow!

Get to Philharmonic Hall. Doorman rushes forward to open cab door. I step out in my most royal manner. He rushes ahead to open Philharmonic door. As I sail through grandly, I hear a pop. Button rolls across the floor. And around my ankles? Several yards of pale yellow crinoline. "Oh, my!" I say. I step out of it, throw it over my arm, and race for the ladies' room, where I cry for about two minutes, then get a pin from someone to fasten the waistband of the petticoat.

Because I had moved fast, boyfriend never realized what had happened. But for the next couple of days, I told all my dorm-mates, with great good humor, what had occurred. No one made fun of me, because I preempted them by making fun of myself, and downplaying the "drama" of the situation.

(Loved the story so much that, many years later, my heroine in Forever Wild by Louisa Rawlings, got drunk on her way to her wedding and then, having eaten too much, saw her petticoat button pop and dump the garment at her feet!)

Fairly recent story. I own an old-style, basic flip-top cell phone that my children insisted I have, for emergencies. Still have trouble figuring it out. (And when people ask me for my cell number, I decline to give it, because I can't always figure out how to retrieve a missed call! I DO take the phone with me for friends and doctors, since all my numbers are in it.)

Anyway, I dropped it in my apartment and the battery fell out. Put the battery back in, but the darn thing wouldn't work. Was meeting a friend that afternoon  Stopped by AT &T before I met her to get it fixed. Techie jiggled something, briefly attached it to a gadget in her hand, and it worked again. I mentioned the incident to my friend when we met later.

"Oh, she said. " If the battery comes out, you have to plug it in and recharge it."

Fast forward a few more weeks. Dropped the phone again. Battery fell out again. Put it back in, then, remembering what I had been told, plugged it into the charger. Except that nothing happened  Phone still wouldn't work, though it even flashed it's green light at me! Really pissed now! Was going off to work but stopped at AT & T on the way home to see what was wrong.

Clerk took the phone, did something, and handed it back to me.

"What did you do?" I asked.

She pointed to a button on the phone. "I turned it on."

Did I cringe in embarrassment? Hell, no! I not only told it to my friend, I shared it with my snarky children, who loved twitting me for days over it!

The larger lesson? It was something I DIDN'T KNOW! So what? What's so terrible about admitting that? I have dealt with supervisors/managers at work who felt they had to know EVERYTHING. If they didn't, they felt they had to cover up or even lie, as if saying  "Sorry, I don't know" makes them less important in their own eyes.

I learned through the years that people who  know MORE are more able to admit things they don't know than people who know LESS, who feel the need to bullshit and pretend they know everything. (I suppose it's a matter of insecurity, but beware of the person who comes across as all-knowing---they are probably just covering their deficiencies).

Too many people today think they have to be perfect, and so they set themselves up to fail, to be mocked, to be bullied.

My advice? Roll with it. Get over it. Laugh about it. DON'T cringe or look vulnerable---in this day of vicious social media, there will be someone who tries to humiliate, "shame" or  embarrass you,.

Only you can fend that off, by ignoring it or laughing about it.

A couple more silly anecdotes.

I am a young mother, after several pregnancies. My "bosom" was slightly deficient at a time when you were supposed to look like Marilyn Monroe, and the close-together pregnancies hadn't helped me! (Two raisins on an ironing board was my self description!)

Need new bras after latest pregnancy. Decided to go to a Corsetorium  (specialty shops that were popular when older women were still wearing full-control garments). Perhaps they could make adjustments in the bras for my woefully sagging breasts.

Mind you, I am still a young, shy woman from Massachusetts and clerk is a tough Brooklyn battleaxe  of unknown age. After showing me half a dozen bras, while I timidly suggested they could take in a  few stitches here and there, she vanished for a very long moment.

Then she reappeared with an armload of padded bras. (The '50s kinds---thick, padded foam-rubber cones.) Mind you, I am standing there stripped to the waist when she appeared again.

"Oh, do you think I really need them?" I asked tentatively.

She gestured in disgust at my sagging breasts.

"What? With those rags?"

So I bought them!

(And laughed and told the story for years!)

I could have been embarrassed over my rather flat chest, but I would have given other people power over me, the power to bully or humiliate me.

My final anecdote is only tangentially attached to the theme of embarrassment, but I love it!

It was many years ago. My daughter was 8, and had begun taking ballet lessons. Baryshnikov had just defected from the Soviet Union and had come to New York to dance.

 My daughter and I saw him in "Giselle", with Gelsey Kirkland.

Very excited, my little daughter wrote to him the next day and said that she was a dancer and that, someday, she would dance with him! (Just to creep you all out---she wound up dancing professionally with the Erick Hawkins Company and, nineteen years later, Baryshnikov DID dance with them for their Gala!)

Anyway, when she didn't get an answer back, she wrote again. I wish that, in those days, we mothers thought to make copies of things like our children's letters, because hers was a doozy---and definitely intended to embarrass Baryshnikov!

Basically, what she said was, "Didn't your mother raise you to be polite? I wrote to you and you never answered!"

I don't know whether the great dancer himself was embarrassed (I suspect he didn't speak enough English in those days to have even seen her letter!) but his entourage was!

She got an autographed photo of him by return mail!




Saturday, February 18, 2017

WHO'S SORRY NOW?

Since we're a month or so into the new year, with resolutions that may already be fading, let's talk about guilt.

It's one of the most powerful---and sometimes destructive---emotions we can experience. Often it comes from others, but sometimes it's self-inflicted, and can encompass unrealistic demands on oneself as well as regrets.

Guilt and regret are really two sides of the same coin. Guilt is imposed on you by others---social conventions, political correctness, etc. Regret is the guilt you impose on yourself, often serving as your worst, most unrealistic critic. (Oh, those painful  "Would-haves/Should-haves"!).

But it's debilitating, whatever form it takes. And perhaps, if we recognize it in its many manifestations, we can shake off a bit of its negative burden on our lives, both in how we react to it, and in how we unconsciously use it on others.

Mother Guilt, of course, is the ne plus ultra of guilt. It's a way to make kids behave, and it starts early. "Clean your plate, because children are starving in . . . wherever." And the child learns to overeat, so as not to disappoint Mama. And gets obese down the road because he/she has learned to let his/her emotions rule at the supper table, instead of his/her stomach.

My nutty mother (see JUST FOR FUN) had a difference approach. She never put too much food on our plates, telling us we could always take more if we wanted. And her mantra was: "Eat what you can, and what you can't we'll can." She was a remarkably non-guilt-inducing mother, for which I will always be grateful. We obeyed because she made it fun, or because she was firm in her demands, NOT because she made us feel guilty.

Keep that in mind when you're raising your kids, people. If they tend to say "I'm sorry" too often (even when it's scarcely necessary), it may mean that you're burdening them with lifelong guilt.

But of course just being a parent comes with its own brand of built-in guilt. If the child screws up, did we do the wrong thing? Was it somehow our fault? Makes for many sleepless nights, even if we are realistically "not guilty."  And of course, in today's households, where both parents often have outside jobs, the guilt is multiplied. So we coddle our kids, buy them too much stuff, let them get away with all sorts of errant behavior. And then feel even more guilt, seeing the self-involved, thoughtless children we've created!

(Note to first-time new mothers, or mothers-to-be----please DON'T feel guilty in the first few weeks with the baby, when you're not getting enough sleep and the kid won't settle down, etc. Feeling overwhelmed and a bit pissed off is NORMAL! You look at the kid through bleary 4 A.M. eyes and wonder why you ruined your life. Trust me. Around three months, when the kid smiles at you and is suddenly a human being not a noisy blob, you will know exactly WHY you're happy to have the kid!)

But the sense of guilt manifests itself in the larger social world, as well. Because of Political Correctness, a lockstep code of conduct largely unknown in former times, we don't want to appear judgmental. We don't want disapproval FROM others, so we don't want to disapprove OF others. We don't want to get sued. So---social cowards that we have become---we tolerate all kinds of anti-social behavior that our forebears would not have endured.

Political Correctness is really a passive/aggressive guilt trip. With a dual purpose. We not only make others feel guilty for saying/doing/expressing the WRONG thing (as we and society see it, of course), we get to feel so very noble that WE are in the right and they are not! And the hypocrisies abound. Smoking a cigarette is not only unhealthy, it's proponents are somehow EVIL. However, it's fine, and even cool, to smoke pot. Ugh!

And, these days, being "wrong" in society's eyes even extends to guilt by association! So if you express approval of someone on the WRONG side, you are equally guilty. Double Ugh!

I guess the life lesson of this blog is this: Regrets and guilts are wasted energy, and ultimately destructive

Learn to recognize when others are trying to use it on YOU, and refuse to be intimidated.

Make a conscious effort to note when YOU use it on others, and try a more positive approach.

And, most important of all, people, be kind to yourself! Don't take on needless guilt (unless you have a secret desire to be a martyr!). Don't burden yourself with imagined guilt. And if there IS something you're genuinely sorry about, resolve to do better next time.

Just don't use guilt as a crutch or a weapon.

Since I usually have a few silly anecdotes to accompany my blog entries, I thought I'd close with a couple of old memories.

Late '60s. We were wearing polyester. Also, newly invented pantyhose. I am in slacks. Polyester. PLUS full pantyhose underneath (knee-highs hadn't come along yet and we never wore shoes without stockings unless they were sandals or flip-flops). Sitting with the family in IHop. Eldest son, 10  or 11, sitting across from me. Usual large pot of coffee on the table. (Don't know whether IHop still does this, but it was a staple on every table in those days, without being ordered.) Woman with large shoulder bag passes our table and turns. Bag knocks over coffeepot, spilling it onto my lap. I am in extreme pain, because it is hot as hell. Jump up, run to ladies' room, pull down slacks and pantyhose. Really too late, because two layers of scalding hot polyester on my thigh have already kept the coffee on my skin long enough to create second-degree burns. (Large blisters for a week or so.) Off to hospital with husband. Leave kids at IHop to eat meal. (Eldest very responsible---had already allowed him to take care of brothers for a few hours at that point. And small note---husband took me to hospital, dropped me off at home after I was treated, and went to pick up kids. IHop had already presented boys with the bill for the food!!!)

The guilt part came when son, suffering from "should-haves", told me that he immediately thought to toss a glass of cold water on my lap, the minute the coffee hit (which of course would have negated the serious burn!). So why didn't he? Because he felt guilty about throwing something at his mother! (Of course we reassured him, and loved him all the more for his sensitivity.)

Final guilt memory. I was, for many years, strictly a night person. (Probably still am, but I've learned to adjust to my daily schedules.) Also had low metabolism and low blood sugar. Could barely function in the morning until I had my cup of coffee.  Kids knew to sort of keep out of my way until then, because Mom was sort of scary before the coffee!.

One morning, when youngest son was about four, I staggered into the kitchen. Son rushed to the stove and turned on the burner. I saw a mug next to the stove, half filled with instant coffee and the rest with sugar. Almost to the top! He had even managed to fill the kettle with water. Talk about feeling guilty! From that point on, I managed to be a little more human to my kids, even before the coffee!

Guilt can be helpful, but more often destructive, Be aware of it and deal with it.