Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Now I Understand


When I was a young woman, a new college graduate and first living in NYC, I learned of some people who had survived the Holocaust. I don't remember who they were. They may have been some older, distant relatives of Jeremy's. They may have been the grandparents of friends of friends. I never met these people. But I heard about them.

One holocaust survivor was a woman. The other one was a man. I don't remember if they were married or two separate, totally unrelated people. It doesn't matter.

After the holocaust both people came to live in the United States. They assimilated and for the most part, lived normal lives. However, the woman never went anywhere without a can of tuna and a can opener.

The man could go out without food. However, he had amassed a stockpile of guns that he kept in his basement. If Jews were going to be rounded up again, he was going to be ready.

I couldn't pretend to understand what these people endured. I was out of my depth even thinking about it.

I felt sorry that the people who survived the Holocaust were not able to feel safe once they were living in the United States. It was difficult for me to understand why. The evidence for feeling safe seemed obvious to me. But I had enough perspective to know my limitations. In other words, I could understand why I couldn't understand why.

A level of understanding would come years later with the death of my son Jacob.

I can't liken what happened to me, to Jeremy and to Jacob to the holocaust. The two are not the same. Even the word overlap feels like too much comparison.

But when my son Jacob died, it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. It's the worst thing that could have happened in the context of my particular life.

Right after Jacob died, I said to myself that I had just experienced my quota for bad news. I took some measure of comfort from this realization. That good feeling lasted for approximately 10 minutes.

Then I realized this entire construct was wrong. The very idea of a quota implied that there was a sense of fairness and order. There weren't any of these things. No one was organizing this and deciding that I had my lifetime limit of bad news. This was random. There was no rhyme or reason to it at all.

I can't walk in the Holocaust survivors’s shoes. They can't walk in mine.

One person stockpiled guns. Another carried tuna. I became watchful. I already had another baby when Jacob died. I would go on to have one more. I want to watch them grow up. All parents worry about something terrible happening to their children. For me, it's just a lot easier to imagine. I have a clear point of reference.  Hyper-vigilance was the price I paid for the gift of these children.

Jeremy was not as afraid about the same things I was. But he had his triggers. The good news was that our triggers were usually different. That way one of us could help the other one.

When bad things happen, everyone changes. No one gets off easy. There are people who emerge from trauma with their worldview somewhat intact. There are people who feel that lightning can strike twice. Like just about everything, people can be mostly one way or the other, or a mix.

Every time I explain this, it feels clunky. I'll try anyway. 

For me, Jeremy, the lady, and the man, bad things happening showed us what was possible in terms of bad. Bad things happened and none of us had any illusions going forward. The bad things that already happened opened the floodgates of bad possibilities.

I'm talking like it’s only the four of us like this. I don't like to think there's more, but that doesn't make any sense. There's hundreds of thousands of people walking around having experienced the aftermath of trauma.


If you're one of these people carrying around your own version of tuna and a can opener, know that other people get it. I get it. That's a small thing, but it's something. I can't speak for the woman or the man, but I can speak for me. Time, living, and experiencing good things eventually impart a new perspective. I'm proof that it can get better.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Blessing Of A Long Commute


 A significant part of my job as a mother has been a kind of matchmaking. I'm not arranging my children's marriages. They can pick out their own partners when the time comes.

What I am doing is matching the kids to summer camps and activities that dovetail with their interests and personalities. Because this is NYC, I am doing the research in February and March. Then I present both children with their options. I give them enough vetted choices so that they will feel a sense of ownership of their summer, but not so many as to overwhelm them.

Proximity is not the first criteria I look for in matching my children with activities. Sure, I could sign them up for Tennis Camp and that would be a five-minute walk from home. The fact is that I don't have Tennis Camp type kids. But if they change their minds, I'll be all over that option.

I'm not willing to travel by subway, bus and ferry for activities in Staten Island. I have my limits. What I am willing to do is take the A train from uptown to a downtown neighborhood so that Noah can participate in an exquisitely well-run computer science camp.

As I get on the subway with Noah in the morning, I have a sense of what one writer calls Time Abundance. Noah and I settle into our seats for the duration. One plus about this particular commute is that it is a straight shot. We don't have to transfer.

In anticipation of our commute, I've packed a large tote. This oversized bag combines spacious practicality with a whimsical pattern that matches my fashion aesthetic. Combining these two priorities was not easy, but I think I managed it nicely.

Noah has done his own packing. A book. A handheld video device.

Today's commute was a mixture of activities. There were times when Noah and I were sitting side by side, each engrossed in our own books. I’ve done this commute before, and in the early days I didn't anticipate how much reading I could do during this trip.

One time, I finished my book and had no reading material for the trip home. I picked up five or six free newspapers on the way to the subway, but they were so bad that reading the stuff of interest only took me about halfway home. I should have bought one really good magazine instead. I learned my lesson. I now pack reading and back up reading.

Noah and I also had a conversation. Like most of our talks, he initiated this one. It was a rather scientific discussion about primary and secondary colors and what can happen when you mix the colors together.

I have a few blog posts started. I worked for a while on one. When I got to a good stopping point with one, a switched to another one. Eventually, one of the three will feel finished. That's the next one that I'll post.

I also did some list making and schedule tweaking.

I dropped Noah off at camp then got back on the A train to do the same trip in reverse. I edited some photographs that I took between Noah's camp and the subway.

I blogged. I read. I discreetly listened to the conversation between two women. One of them is getting married soon and plans to start a family immediately.

I had a sudden idea and started a fourth blog post. I don't usually have this many going at once. Long subway rides are my Think Tank.

There is a luxury to all of this commuting. Time is moving at a different pace. I'm a captive to the subway train in a good way. The train travels as it will. I have no control over that, and no way to hurry things. My big bag, with my books, iPad, and iPhone are all I need for a rich life.

Fifty percent of the time Noah is with me. I am available for conversation when he wants that, when he doesn't, we travel together in companionable and comfortable silence.

The next two weeks of camp commuting stretch before me wide open and full of possibility. For some, it's a beach vacation or a spa. For me it's the subway.

After camp is over, that particular commute will be too. There will be days to spend in the neighborhood or out of town. But soon enough there will be other places to go. When you live far uptown like I do, long commutes are a way of life.

The title of this blog post was inspired by the excellent book, The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise ResilientTeenagers, by Wendy Mogel Ph.D.

This blog post was written during a subway commute to and from computer science camp.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Jeremy Doesn't Get Writer's Block


My husband Jeremy is often described as a Renaissance Man. There is also something a bit mysterious about Jeremy. That’s fine. Its one of the things I love about him.

If you spend any time with Jeremy at all, you’ll notice that he is passionate and extremely knowledgeable about music. Although I am accustomed to Jeremy by now, he can still surprise me with the depth of his musical scholarship.

I will find myself asking, How does he know all this stuff?

Jeremy combines his love of music and his talent for writing in a blog he created called AnEarful.

One day, I really noticed something about Jeremy.  It’s been true since he started his blog, but it took me a while to put my finger on it.

Jeremy doesn’t get writer’s block.

He does his writing the same way someone else might do the dishes or get dressed. When its time to write he writes. That’s it.  

My curiosity to led me to conduct this interview with Jeremy. He is speaking from the perspective of a music writer, but the application is there for anyone who creates anything.

A typical scenario goes like this: we organize our schedule to make uninterrupted time for your writing. You leave the house on Sunday morning right after breakfast, go to a nearby coffee establishment and write until dinnertime. You have never once said that you were uninspired, blocked or not feeling the muse. Why do you think that is? What's your secret?

For one thing, I take that time seriously since I know it is carved out of all the other things we want and need to accomplish. For another, I’m always writing in my head. AnEarful is my way of engaging more deeply with music. It gives me the opportunity to deeply examine my response to it, research the people behind it and search out historical context. Since I’m always listening to music, there’s always fuel going into the fire.

For example, if I’ve decided I want to write about an album, after a few listens the opening line of my review will come to me so I’ll store that up until it’s time to write. Same goes for concerts or anything else. Sometimes I have whole paragraphs ready to go by the time I sit down. I also always have a backlog of potential subjects so if one thing doesn’t work out I’ll quickly move on to another idea – emphasis on the “quickly.” I don’t have time to waste.

You are a very busy person. You have your full time job at Hope & Heroes, are an involved and engaged father, and an accomplished baker. You wear many hats. What would you say to writers who "don't have time to write?"  Do you think there may be a paradox involved in your output? Something counterintuitive?

If we didn’t make this time, I probably wouldn’t get as much done. In fact, I know I wouldn’t. In 2010 and 2011 combined, I published a total of 19 articles. In 2012 and 2013, however, after we started scheduling it in, that number jumped to 88. If it comes down to “not having time to write” there really is only one solution: make the time. It’s like exercise. Doing it infrequently but regularly is a massive improvement over not doing it at all. This means that even if the demands of your life prevent you from writing more than once a month, DO IT that one day a month, every month. You’ll probably find your writing time increasing.

We've discovered together that leaving the house to go to a lovely coffee establishment seems to aid in getting your writing done. Can you describe the particulars of this? Can you offer any advice?

Watching me write might be very strange. I’m tapping away for a time and then I’m reading up on something on Wikipedia or checking the credits on a CD.  I might even look at my email or make a Scrabble move. But the whole time I’m listening to what I’m writing about and formulating the next thought. I might have to listen to part of something several times to clarify how I’m going to write about it, so that looks a lot like fiddling with my iPod or iPhone.

Since it doesn’t look like I’m writing, all of these moments make it easy for my concentration to be broken. Even if everyone at home is being completely respectful, it’s natural to make conversation or mention something that just popped into your mind, or ask that question that you just remembered. And this goes both ways, so removing myself from the house makes me more productive since there are so many more distractions at home, little projects calling my name: organizing my sock drawer, making ice, searching for that CD at the bottom of the basket just because I haven’t seen it in a while…the list goes on.

You do much of your writing during designated uninterrupted time. However, you've also mentioned other smaller blocks of time where you get writing done. Can you describe this?

This often happens after a concert, where I’ll start writing about it on my phone on the subway home, just because I don’t want to lose touch with the immediate experience. I might also do this if my backlog has grown too deep or if I’m on a self-imposed deadline, such as wanting my review to hit on a certain day. The subway is a good place to write, except if you need to Google something – and even that is improving as they add more Wi-Fi to the system.

You're an easygoing person with a sunny disposition. You seem to not fit the cliché of the tortured and suffering writer. You're not drunk, smoking or moody. You aren't burning the midnight oil. Can you speak about this? Do you suffer while you write? Is there a romantic notion about suffering and writing?

One of my favorite quotes is from Red Smith: “There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Writing is hard, no doubt. Conveying things in a concise fashion that makes sense to other people and is fun to read is a never-ending challenge. Sometimes I get physically uncomfortable with a stomachache when I just can’t get that thought to coalesce on the page. That’s the extent of it – can’t really call it suffering. I think things get worse when you worry about your audience. Obviously I want other people to read my stuff, but that’s not my focus while I’m working.

Any other snippets to give other writers?

Use technology. Programs that allow you to access your writing across many devices help you avoid the excuses: “I’m not at my computer.” “That file is on my iPad.” It’s always there, ready for that next brilliant sentence. I use Blogsy on the iPad and BlogPress on my phone.

Don’t say no during the first draft. Write once - revise twice.

Jeremy Shatan is obsessive about an omnivorous array of music. He works at Hope & Heroes, enjoys skiing, and is the proud father of three and loving husband of one - Karen Capucilli, of course!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Incentives


There are things that I enjoy doing very much. Some of these things include reading, spending time with my family, watching TV, taking photographs, writing, making collages, hiking and socializing.

Then there are things that I don't really like and would rather not do. Some of these things, like swimming when it is below 95 degrees, zip-lining, watching the World Cup  and skiing, are things that can be easily avoided.   

Then there are things that I don't  like, but really should do them for my own good. One of these things is having a mammogram. Another one is having a Colonoscopy. 

We don't have much control over who gets cancer and who doesn't. I hope I  don't get cancer. However, the next best scenario to not getting cancer at all is to catch the cancer while it still very treatable. That is why I have these tests. 

The other reason I have the tests is because if I didn't, the doctor would talk to me about them too often. 

I have a great doctor. I don't want to use his real name, so I am going to refer to him as Dr. Isaac Moscowitz. He shares an office with his twin brother, who I will call Dr. Nathan Moscowitz. The twin brother is  a pulmonalogist. The part about the identical twin doctors is true. You really can't make this stuff up.

I could see the writing on the wall. I'd be going to Dr. Moskowitz with a sore throat and he'd be asking me about the colonoscopy. The man can be very persistent.  I don't want to talk with Dr. Moskowitz about my colon when I am there for a sore throat. So I just went ahead and made the appointment. I've already had the colonoscopy.

When it comes to mammograms, I'm more used to that. I've been going for the last 10 years. I used to get really worked up before going. I'm better about it now.

There are many reasons I am more relaxed about mammograms than I used to be. One of my coping mechanisms has to do with my deliberately working out a  system of incentives attached to going to the mammogram place.

There are incentives I have implemented for  before and during the mammogram, then additional incentives for after the mammogram. In addition to incentives that I've established on my own behalf, I've also discovered that there are certain rewards attached to the actual mammogram facility that I enjoy, but did not initiate.

Here is a typical mammogram experience.

I wake up in the morning, and I do my usual things except that I don't put on any deodorant, because the mammogram place doesn't want you to do that. I pack my deodorant for later.

Then I take the subway and then the bus to the mammogram place. That's where the first incentive kicks in. I am not allowed to do anything useful, like respond to email, make lists, work on Noah's IEP or research enrichments for the kids. I get to just read. I read whatever I want. 

I might read books or magazines, as long as they are not about ADHD, Autism , the NYC public school system, launching a career or attempting to renovate a small apartment. In other words, I get to luxuriate in totally useless, pleasurable reading. If I want to spend a long time on Facebook, I do it. 

I also love going into a special email folder called Blogs to Read which is exactly what it sounds like. The last time I had a mammogram, I read  what Gwyneth Paltrow wrote about Conscious Uncoupling. I read that I my iPad on the way there, then while I was in the mammogram room waiting for the radiologist, I read about Gwyneth Paltrow's uncoupling some more in a People Magazine they had in there.

Which brings me to the mammogram place itself. I always plan my mammograms for when my children are in school. One of the best things about the mammogram place is the lack of children. I've discovered that I can really get some solid peace and quiet in there. 

The lighting in the waiting room is dim and calming. They have some really good magazines there as long as I avoid any medical literature. The people are really nice.

By the time I'm actually having the mammogram, I'm reminding myself of the incentives I've planned for after the testing. That is because I am either contorting myself to get my breasts inside the machine, or waiting for the technician to talk with the radiologist and for the radiologist to ask her to do more views. The first couple of times this happened, I almost had a heart attack but now I'm used to it. The radiologist is just very thorough. More on that later.

Usually what happens is once the radiologist has enough views, I sit and wait for a bit, then Dr. Greenburg comes in to say that everything looks great. He always looks very cheerfuI while he is sharing the news that I don't have cancer. I  think it's very nice that he cares one way or the other.

His enthusiasm is contagious and It is with a sense of celebration that  I get dressed, put on deodorant. and then go to Shake Shack for lunch. Shake Shack for lunch is my reward for having gone to the mammogram place, contorted myself, traveled about with no deodorant on, had multiple views and then waited for Dr. Greenburg without freaking out.

I order whatever I want at Shake Shack without regard to any dietary guidelines or health implications .

There are situations involving the mammogram place that call for additional incentives.

About a year ago, I went to the mammogram place and the technician did many views at the request of the radiologist. Then instead of the usual routine they asked me to go into a separate smaller room. Dr. Greenburg came in and explained that there was an area that he was concerned about. He wanted to get an ultrasound of the area. 

I asked him a couple of questions. Did it look like cancer? He said that he wasn't yet sure what to make of it. Was the area in question big or small? He said that the area in question was very tiny. Okay, good, I said. It isn't some out of control, enormous, wildly metastatic cancer. 

He felt that my assessment of the situation was accurate. He also facilitated an immediate ultrasound. 

The people working there are always nice. But once they think there might be something wrong with you, then they are extra nice. They kept on checking on me while I was waiting for the ultrasound room to free up. They also said complimentary things about me to one another in hushed voices. One of them used the words chatty and cheerful.

While I was waiting, I thought a little bit about the possibility of cancer. I felt surprisingly calm about it. My hunch was telling me that I didn't have cancer. I figured that even if I did, it was a very tiny cancer. I'm always a glass half full person. I was thinking that a tiny cancer was better than a larger, more challenging cancerous area.

I was aware of becoming bored waiting around. I then noted how much my medically triggered PTSD has improved, after some self congratulation, I took out my iPod and began reading some enjoyable blogs. 

I did not google tiny breast cancer lesions. 

What I did do was read about some hipster urban homesteaders. I read about someone's mom crush. I posted some photos that I took on the way to the mammogram place to Facebook. I did not post to Facebook about waiting for the ultrasound room to free up because I wasn't looking for that kind of attention.

The ultrasound technician was really nice. I decided  to watch everything she was doing on the  big screen. She took pictures of the tiny areas after blowing them up to enormous proportions on the monitor.  I checked in with her to make sure that this did not represent the actual size. We shared a laugh over that. There is nothing I like better than an ultrasound technician with a sense of humor.

I also shared my medical opinion with her. Those look like cysts I said. I was basing this on the fact that they were very round and regular looking. There were no jagged edges. 

The technician concurred with my medical opinion. After some more explaining and reassuring about cysts, I got dressed and waited for Dr. Greenburg. The ultrasound experience reminded me of the time that I watched Dr. Oz get a colonoscopy on TV. Dr. Oz decided to forgo the anesthesia so he could watch and narrate the entire thing. He never stopped talking during the procedure.

The next thing I know, I'm looking at scans of my cysts with Dr. Greenburg. These are very common at your age, he said. I'm not worried about this at all, but I still want to follow you very closely. Because of my OCD I'm always extra careful he said smiling.

I couldn't tell if he was revealing that he has OCD or was joking and exaggerating like people do. Whether he has OCD or not doesn't matter. Let's just say that he's detail oriented. Even on a good day, he takes multiple views. If you are going to have OCD or be detail oriented, radiology is a good field for you. I also hear that the hours are good.

He gave me some paperwork to take home and wrote the words not cancer and underlined them.

I made my appointment for four months later and went to Shake Shack, where I ordered a delectable combination of food and drinks in giddy disregard for sugar and fat content.

After Shake Shack, I decided that this mammogram experience while not horrible was deserving of a little extra in terms of rewards. And that little extra was a trip to Sephora. I gave myself some pleasant browsing time. Then I settled on a tinted lip balm from Fresh. The color is called Rosè and it's become a favorite of mine. I also used my VIP points to get some samples. 

So now, I have a multi-tiered incentive plan for when I go to the mammogram place. Any procedure other than a basic mammogram calls for a trip to Sephora for one makeup item plus samples. That is in addition to the basic incentive package of reading whatever I want, and lunch at Shake Shack.

So because I needed ultrasounds the next two times I went to monitor the cysts, I now have a lovely new blue eye shadow and some anti aging skin care samples.

If anything truly ambiguous happens at the mammogram place, then there's going to have to be more compensation. Like I've said before, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Lady Asked Me For Some Advice


It was Saturday. Noah and I were at the pizza place. We were there having lunch. We do this a lot on weekends.

I had ordered some regular slices to stay. Noah was already seated at a table. I was standing around waiting for the pizza guys to heat the slices in the brick oven. There were other people gathered there, waiting for their orders.

The pizza guys were watching the World Cup on an enormous TV that they hung close to the ceiling for this express purpose. A lady who I presumed to be waiting for pizza talked to them a little bit about the World Cup.

The woman was what I would describe as late middle aged. I'm making this distinction because it would be a stretch to call her a senior citizen. I am middle aged, but would describe myself as mid-middle aged. This woman is someone I perceive as older than me, but still in the middle aged category.

After chatting about the World Cup she then turned her attention toward me. I need to ask your advice about a board game I'm inventing, she said.

I've never seen this woman before in my life. I mentally noted that this was a surprising conversation opener. However, one of my greatest talents is something I call being conversationally flexible.

I asked her if the board game was all finished or if she is still working on it. She said that she's still working on it. I've gotten pretty far with it, she said. I need your advice about what to do next.

At this point, I'm wondering if the woman is a psychic and has what a friend of mine calls the gift.  I am very interested in entrepreneurship. I also like to think that I give people good career advice. In any case, whether you like my advice or not, no one could argue that I'm quite fascinated with people's ambitions.

The first thing you need to do is extensive research into the board games that already exist. I told her. This should go way beyond perfunctory, I said. Before spending any more time on the creation of this board game, it's important that you make sure you're not working on something that effectively already exists.

She nodded. I've already done that she said.

There was something about the lady that made me doubt this. I doubted that she had really done an exhaustive amount of research. I imagined that she did less research than I would do if I were in her position. But in spite of these feelings, I decided to take her at face value and proceed with the rest of my advice.

I asked her a little more about the board game. Is it for kids or adults or both? She told me that as long as you can read, you are old enough to play this game. The game can be played by children and adults alike.

If you are sure that you have an original idea, I said, then the next step is for you to create some focus groups. She looked mystified. Then she asked me to elaborate.

You need to get some people together to play your game. I said. You invite people over. You could serve some coffee, drinks, dessert. You will ask people to play your game and observe them. Are they having fun? Do they seem confused by the rules? Would they play the game again?

You need to prepare some questions beforehand. When they are finished playing the game, ask them for their honest and unvarnished feedback. You need to be open and prepared to listen to everything they say. Some of what people say could be used to fine tune and improve your game.

It's very important that you listen carefully in the spirit of non-attachment, I said. Getting defensive and digging in your heels would negate the purpose of the focus groups.

Once you get feedback, you hone your game until its better and better. Keep having people over to play it. Focus group. Improve. Focus group. Improve.

At this point, I noticed that the lady looked very excited. She had never thought of a focus group before. She looked like she'd just hit the jackpot. It was as though Seth Godin himself had walked into the pizza place and was offering free advice.

But where do I find people for the focus groups? She asked. She indicated that she couldn't afford to pay anyone.

You should invite different groups of friends over, I said. You make it like a little party, and tell them beforehand that you want to serve food and drinks and also have them test out your new game.

I suggested different focus groups. Have groups of adults over from different age groups and demographics. Have friends bring their friends.

Make sure you have young adults over - the grown up kids of some friends. These people spend the most money. They’re the sweet spot for marketers. You can also have families of four over to get a sense of a family game night. If you know people with young kids you can have a group of the children or grandchildren over.

The kids will tell it like it is. I said. If your game sucks, they'll let you know.

At this point, I decided to start making eye contact with the employees of the pizza place. I find that the people who work at this particular establishment are very distractible. They lose focus quickly, forget about slices in the pizza oven and never remember if your pizza is to stay or to go even though I tell them this information when I order.

The enormous television with the World Cup broadcast was not helping with their focus or work ethic. In spite of this, some regular slices were served and I grabbed some napkins to take to our table.

I consciously adopted a body language of quickened activity and purpose. This was to indicate that my time of being a creative guru was coming to a close.

The lady seemed to get the idea, but shouted over one more question as I was sitting down with Noah and turning my attention to him.

What if some of the people in my focus group try to steal my idea? She asked.

If your idea is truly that original I said, you might want to look into a patent or consult with a lawyer. This is not my area of expertise, I added. I know when I'm out of my depth.

As I sat across from my 13 year old gamer Noah, I pondered the matter a little more. Even the best new board games will have an uphill battle. It would take a lot of convincing to pull Noah away from Minecraft or Mario to play a board game at this point.

It was at this juncture that I noticed that the lady wasn't eating or ordering pizza. She'd gone back to talking with the pizza guys. Maybe she'd had a slice earlier. Or maybe she was just there to network.