Saturday, April 25, 2015


There's this thing I like to do. It's very simple. I've liked doing this for as long as I remember.

It starts with a particular kind of rain. Not a hard, torrential downpour. That would be boring.

The kind of precipitation I'm talking about ranges from misting to a very light sprinkling. If I'm outside in it, I don't use an umbrella.

I'll sit myself inside, in front of a window. It works best when there are no reflections.

I'll let my eyes get adjusted. I'll look at the trees, people, buildings, or whatever is in front of me out the window. Then slowly, I'll adjust my eyes a different way.

I'll gently look this way and that then still my gaze until I find the rain. I don't force it. It helps to utilize a plain, relatively dark area out the window. But a variety of scenery will work. I've done it with brick walls, expansive lawns and tree trunks.

The rain is soft and light. It can be a challenge at first, but an appealing one. There is that moment when I find it. Then I'll hold my gaze on the delicate rain. Everything but the rain will go out of focus.

Sometimes it's a conscious decision. Let me try that thing with the rain. But mostly it's not. I'll notice it in progress. I'll realize I'm sitting at Starbucks watching the rain and only the rain. How long I've been doing it is anyone's guess.

It's a pleasant, calm activity.

If you see someone just staring out the window, don't make any assumptions. Maybe they seem to be doing nothing. But they might be pretty busy.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What Support Looks Like Now

Everybody needs support. I'm no exception in this regard.

I've always had support. I know how wonderful it feels to be supported. It's one of the best feelings in the world. I don't take it for granted.

I also know what it feels like not to have support. For me, this feeling is usually temporary. The sense of free fall or flailing is uncomfortable, but eventually I will find the help I need or it will find me.

Support is important in regular day-to-day life. If there's a particular ongoing challenge then it is of upmost importance.

For me, support takes many forms. It can be friends, Jeremy, close family members, doctors, social workers, therapists, teachers. It can be support groups, retreats, seminars and lectures. It can be books, blogs, podcasts and even TV. It can be Facebook and Twitter.

It can be designers, carpenters, painters, or a fantastic professional organizer.

It can be medication, exercise, particular foods, and extra sleep. It can be a smile from a stranger, the right words, an unexpected gift. It can be a kick in the pants.

There are times when arranging support for one of my children also feels like support for me because of the peace of mind it gives me.

Sometimes I seek out support, and sometimes it just lands in my lap. I will say one thing. I must be very lucky because the universe seems to have plenty of it to go around.

When it comes to inanimate sources of support - things like books - I don't have to worry about wearing out my welcome. I can re-read the same chapter, put a post it note there, or memorize the words.

When it comes to people, I am mindful not to go to the same well too many times. I don't want to be a nuisance. I don't want to be cringe-worthy.

So far, I've been talking about being on the receiving end. I also give support. Oftentimes this feels natural. I am competent because I offer support in areas that represent my strengths. In other words, I might offer to cook, babysit, listen to you, go to a meeting with you, help you organize your stuff, talk about your art, or make recommendations. I can help you find the silver lining.

I won't offer to fix your car, put together IKEA, bake a cake, or drive you somewhere because I either dislike doing these things or have no competency in them. But I am resourceful. I can match you with someone who is good at it.

I can listen to you vent but if it goes on too long, I'm going to shift gears and be solution-oriented. Some people find this annoying.

I recently found myself in the uncomfortable position of seeking support from two different sources. I'm not going to say more than this about particulars. It may have been a who or a what. It may have been a place or a thing.

The who, what, place or thing used to be supportive. Now unexpectedly they were not.

This felt bad. Then I felt bad about feeling bad.

This got me thinking more deeply about the concept of support. Once I started thinking
like this, I felt better about it. Thinking differently about support started feeling like an actual support.

Here's what I came up with.

It's easy to believe that when a place, person, food, thing, book or group has been so supportive that they will keep on being so. Sometimes this is true.

But sometimes without warning that who, what, where will no longer be there for you.

The reason could be concrete. It is discontinued. You no longer qualify. The person leaves. The resource lost its funding. The store closed. There is no more pecan pie.

The concrete stuff can sting. But I manage. There are other pathways. There are other resources.

Other times things are nebulous. The chemistry is wrong when it used to be right. The book that was a tonic feels lacking. The group is there but no longer a fit. What used to work doesn't. The friend is permanently distracted. The doctor has too big a caseload.

Sometimes its not the who, the what, or the where. I can't figure out why, or I decide that there is no good explanation. Sometimes it's not any of this. It's me.

The book hasn't changed. The institution is the same. The dose is unaltered. The person is present. What happened is that I changed.

What felt like support one week or one year ago isn't. It's inadequate, not enough, off target or off kilter. It may need a tweak, a nudge or a complete makeover. It's either untenable or somewhat negotiable.

What was good for point A isn't for point B.

Here's something that came out of my analysis. Wanting support isn't a sign of weakness. It doesn't make me a hopeless neurotic. Self-awareness will hopefully keep me from being a pain in the neck. Frequent thinking about support will keep me from barking up the wrong tree.

Using my talent to give support to other people means that the river flows in more than one direction.

Thinking about support this way takes the critical voice right out of it.

Today, I accepted support from someone whose advice was razor sharp. Because of her, I feel revitalized and excited by my next steps.

I served as a combination of the voice of perspective and a distraction for a different individual.

I am ordering some good books to augment my talks with people. I've said this before. When the going gets tough, the tough get reading. The time may be ripe for a support group. I'll be researching that as soon as I'm finished with this.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Advice For Myself: It's Only Lunch

Oftentimes, I find myself at home for lunch. Sometimes the matter of what to have for lunch is a no brainer. I'll have leftovers from the night before. It's already been planned. I'll have this for lunch tomorrow I’ll think while eating dinner.

Then there are the other times.

I have no prepared leftovers. But there are a myriad of other healthy options. I could make tuna salad or egg salad. I could have a ham sandwich. I could make a cheese omelet with feta or cheddar. I could have a tossed green salad inspired by a Greek salad but not slavishly so.

I could have any number of options on an open-faced sandwich, a closed sandwich, or a bed of greens. I could have a baked potato with fixins’. I could have an Amy's Frozen meal.

I could fashion last night's chicken breast into a gourmet chicken salad. Or I could simply heat it up and have it just as I prepared it.

I decide against pasta salad because it will take too long. I decide against scrambled eggs because I had that yesterday. I'm saving the hummus and the avocado for something else. Bagels with cream cheese and lox or peanut butter on whole-wheat toast beckon.

I think you probably get the idea by now.

This type of back and forth will eventually start to announce itself to me. I will recognize it for what it is. I have spent between two and five minutes contemplating lunch. I will not have spent 10 minutes on my lunch menu because I've never been at it that long before catching myself and giving me some much needed advice.

It's only lunch.

Once I say it's only lunch I switch gears. I pick something and have it. I realize how lucky I am to have plenty of food in the house and choices. Not everyone has this. I realize that this is not my last meal. There will be lots of other lunches.

I realize that what I don't choose today I can have tomorrow. I realize I should be saving my mental energy for more important matters. There are decisions that merit contemplation. Lunch is not one of them.

I've taken this advice from myself so many times that I don't usually need the reminder. I'll just give myself the advice at the beginning of the lunch preparations.

It's only lunch is a construct that can be applied to a great number of things. It's only shoes. It's only eye shadow. It's only a diner menu. It's only an evening out. It's only a throw pillow.

It helps with the bigger decisions too. Decisions with farther reaching consequences. I've done my research and doing more research would have diminishing returns. After being thoughtful and thorough I decide and then see what happens. If it doesn't work out, I'll have more decisions available at that time.

There a few things in life where there is one crystal clear path that is perfect. There is usually more than one good option. There are forks in the road. The dead ends are few and far between.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

The Emperor Of All PBS Documentaries

Besides being a parent to two healthy teenagers I am also a cancer mom. Cancer mom might not be the nicest way of describing it. But it does get the point across fast.

I'm Jacob's mom. He went through surgeries, chemotherapy and stem cell transplant with Jeremy and I at his side. He died at the age of two and a half from a type of childhood cancer that confounded his medical team with its voracity.

I can understand why cancer moms such as myself might not want to watch Cancer: Emperor of All Maladies on PBS. It could be too close for comfort. I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't want to watch.

It turns out that I did want to watch. I watch it and I'm rapt.

The Emperor of All Maladies is based on a book of the same title by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I didn't read the book. I'm a big reader, so initially it was surprising why I didn't. Watching the documentary made me remember something important about myself. Maybe you'll be able to relate to what I am saying.

When it comes to loaded topics like cancer, I like to get my information from people rather than the printed page. When Jacob was diagnosed and treated, the Internet was up and running albeit differently from today. Other cancer moms at the hospital and clinic would stay up at night looking things up. I didn't.

I didn't read books either. My one experience was with a resource guide given out by a children's brain tumor organization. Right after his surgery, I read about Jacob's tumor type in there. The neurosurgeon practically had to talk me down from the ledge. He told me that the information was outdated. He said that there were details in the book that didn't pertain to Jacob. I wouldn't read that book if I were you, he said.

I had plenty of questions, of course. They'd occur to me during oncology meetings, surgical consults and follow up appointments. They'd come up during blood transfusions, in the MRI suite and the recovery room. When I was at home I'd write the questions down and ask them when I saw a member of the medical team.

When I asked my questions, I was never brushed off, rushed or seen as silly. People took their time. They shared their knowledge. One of the things that Jeremy and I discovered was that, oftentimes, excellent doctors are also gifted teachers. Same with the nurses.

The compassion they showed, the empathy, their choice of words, their analogies, their drawings, their ability to explain and their willingness  to actually be present with us at our toughest moments is still something I think about daily.

The Emperor of All Maladies reminded me of this. The oncologists profiled were serving patients and families in every way. Yes, this is a documentary about cancer. It is just as much a documentary about people.

The doctors, researchers, historians, patients, writers - some of the people were one of these things, some were most of these things - were teachers that I could understand and relate to. Learning about cancer from these people made it something I could hear.

I read about a lot of things. It can be deeply satisfying to be scholarly and alone. Reading about cancer is an exception. Reading about cancer makes me a lonesome scholar. When it comes to cancer, I need inspiration, faces and conversation. The Emperor of All Maladies gave me that.

I hope I don't get cancer. I do some preventive things in an attempt to avoid cancer. I follow screening recommendations in hopes of catching any cancer at an early and optimally treatable phase.

I hope that no one else close to me gets cancer. But there are no quotas. There is no one in charge of cancer. Just because Jacob had cancer does not mean I'm finished with cancer.

The statistics are clear. One out of three women will be diagnosed with cancer. One out of two men will. It seems like a no brainer that some of the people I am close to will get cancer. I might get cancer.

Now that I've seen the Emperor of all Maladies, my perspective has shifted. I carried some assumptions now that I no longer have. For this reason, I anticipate having different, more nuanced and complicated questions than I would have before watching the documentary. That oncology meeting will have a smarter and more connected person in the passenger seat. Or the driver's seat, if I am the one with the cancer.

I've already written about the Emperor of All Maladies from the perspective of a cancer mom who likes a human connection when it comes to learning about cancer. But this isn't everything. There is more to be admired than just that.

The Emperor of All Maladies is a masterful documentary both apart from and intertwined with the subject matter. I expected it to engage my intellect, my cancer activism, and my concern. It accomplished these things. But it also connected with me as a creative person.

Rich imagery and lots of it. Vintage photographs and film clips that brought the history alive. Knowing when to be quick and knowing when to linger. Engaging with my aesthetic sense. Weaving it all together with beautiful music. A feast for the eyes and ears while never losing the gravitas or mission.

As a documentary it's right up there with the best of them. It's an education and a work of art rolled into one. No wonder it had my undivided attention.

Read or watch The Emperor Of All Maladies.

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Sunday, April 5, 2015

This Book Will Mess With Your Head

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

A few months ago, Jeremy was invited to join a book group. I'm glad that Jeremy enjoys book group. But it turns out that there's also something in it for me. That something is a steady infusion of new books. The book group selects a different book every month. Jeremy reads the book. If it strikes my fancy, I read it when he's finished.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova struck my fancy.

It was lying around the apartment. I read the description on the back cover. I kept asking Jeremy if he was finished yet. I bothered him about it. As soon as he was done reading that book I grabbed it.

The book is about a woman named Alice who develops early onset Alzheimer's disease. That's it in a nutshell.

If you've already seen the movie Still Alice, then you might want to skip this review, scroll to the bottom, and read some of the other book reviews I've written there. I haven't seen the movie yet, in spite of loving the book. I've been extremely busy. I'll see it at my first opportunity because I've heard it's excellent and I love the acting of Julianne Moore.

If you haven't seen the movie or read the book you can decide to read it or not based on my experience. I meant to write this post earlier, before the movie came out. Like I said earlier, I've been busy.

Lisa Genova knows her stuff. She's a neuroscientist. But she's also a gifted writer and a true storyteller. If you're anything like me, you will not be able to put the book down.

In my case, I found every excuse imaginable to read the book. On an extremely crowded rush hour subway, I had it suspended above my head, using the same hand I used to hold the pole to prop the book open. I read it while eating. I read it at night until I couldn't keep my eyes open. I used the book as a reward for completing unsavory tasks. All of the time I would have been on Facebook and Twitter I spent reading the book instead.

As a result of this binge reading behavior I finished the book about 24 hours after I started it. For me, the hook was that it was the combination of a great narrative with elements of a thriller, and a relatable main character that's fictional but so vividly drawn that she seems real.

I loved getting to know Alice. She's a brilliant Harvard Professor, a wife and mother. I found out what it is like to be smarter than I am.

I'm a big believer in multiple intelligences. When I say that Alice is smarter than me, I mean that in an IQ way. Pre-Alzheimer's she's extremely gifted at learning information quickly, imprinting it and accessing that information and learning immediately when needed.

Alice isn't smarter than me when it comes to emotional intelligence, social skills or creativity. She has some qualities that get her into hot water. It isn't the Alzheimer's. It's Alice. She's a fully formed character with foibles. If she were a real person and I were her friend, I'd have some things to say about her interpersonal skills.

I'm IQ smart. The difference between Alice and me is that I need what I call scaffolding. I have lists. I need more exposures to new information, in more than one modality. I need prompts to find the information. I have always been this way. The thing that makes me smarter than I used to be is anticipating what I need. Once I have these things, I'm golden.

I could tell from reading the book and reading between the lines of the book that Alice didn't need any of this before the onset of her disease.

One of the classic themes this story is mining is the idea of falling from a precipice. In this case, tumbling down from a tall ivory tower.

Here’s the part that messed with my head. At first I thought it was just me. I'm empathic, and apparently this feeling extends to people in books.

Then Jeremy told me that it messed with a lot of people's heads at book group.

Alice is realistic. She's my age. The forgetting she does at the beginning of the book is reminiscent of things that have happened to everyone. Then, slowly, and then more quickly things take a turn.

Because things are subtle at first I became hyper aware of any forgetfulness, inattention, stupid thoughts, misplaced items and my lifelong poor sense of direction. Things that usually pass by unnoticed were front and center for a few days.

This was really uncomfortable.

What saved this book from being just a sad sack and sorry tale was its complexity. Obviously, what is happening to Alice and a lot of real people is tragic. I've read articles and memoirs by caregivers in the Alzheimer's community. But I've never read anything where I got such a clear sense of what It could be like to have this disease from the inside. The person with the disease.

Most things get worse. But a few things get better. It allows you to think about what makes you you. Intelligence is a lot. For some people it can seem like almost everything. But memory isn't everything. Being independent isn't everything.

Things happen in this book that are amazingly touching and accommodating. It stretches the idea of what people can accommodate within themselves. It stretches the idea of what other people can accommodate.

Even if it's painful, even as it made me feel paranoid for a few days, even as I was sad for Alice and her family, for me, learning more about other people and their experience always trumps all of this. There is a richness and a humanity to this story that keeps me engaged. Greater understanding of other people always feels worthwhile. The book inspired this understanding exceptionally well.

The book allowed me to walk in Alice's shoes in a way that was tactile and emotional. Still Alice made me experience the urgency of what needs to be done. It raised my personal awareness. That sounds like a cliché because the word awareness is used in so many contexts. It's not an ice bucket challenge. It’s a really-engrossing-story challenge. This book may just be the start of something big. I hope so.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

White Seamless

I was a still life photographer. People sought me out and hired me because of my creative vision. If you wanted a photograph of a product - say a shoe - and you needed that shoe to be elevated through use of lush fabrics, rich colors and a keen sense of composition, you would call me. If you wanted to infuse the shoe story with a sense of humor, fun and quirkiness, then you'd also dial my number. You either liked my work, or you didn't.

Notice that I wrote dial and call, not text, email, or Facebook message. This was the late eighties and nineties. You spent a lot of time on the phone back then.

If you wanted something very straightforward, just a really simple, conventionally lit shoe, then you'd dial someone else's number. There were people who did this very well. It would behoove you to call one of them.

The photographers who did this really well had some things in their studio to help them. They had rolls and rolls of white seamless paper. If memory serves me correctly, it came in 9-foot rolls and 5-foot rolls. It would be propped up against the studio walls.

The photographers would unfurl the white seamless and they would have a perfect, clean, anonymous surface for the product shot. They'd employ multiple light sources and these reflector cards.

I might not have been a fan of white seamless at first, but I always loved reflector cards. I like to think of my still life photographs as very beautiful, but what my audience didn't see were the reflector cards, propped up at jaunty angles, sometimes precariously, around the perimeter.

I'd check carefully to make sure that none of them were in the frame. There was nothing more embarrassing than having a gorgeously crafted photo with a reflector card peeking in at the edge. The reflector cards were genius at getting rid of the harsh shadows I hated. If a corner of the photograph were receding into a dull shadow, the reflector card would bring that right up. If I wanted the texture of my crushed velvet or handmade paper backgrounds to come forward, instead of stuck in the murky shade, the reflector cards would fix that situation.

When I was first starting out, I refused any assignment that did not meet with my creative vision. After a while, I realized this was silly. Sometimes an art director needed something straight forward done very quickly and all the other photographers they liked were booked. I'd do the assignment on white seamless. It was fun being so minimalist once in a while. It was fun getting that product to look like it was floating in whiteness. It was fun earning a paycheck while pursuing more high-minded work.

I took ballet lessons for many years. I was not destined to be an elite ballerina. Still, I learned a thing or two. When I enter a room so quietly and gracefully that I startle people, or notice my ears over shoulders over hips carriage in a mirror, I always say the same thing. You can take the girl out of ballet, but you can't take the ballet out of the girl. And so it is with photography.

I haven't done still life photography for clients for a very long time. The pictures I take now are very different. I'm usually outside.

I'm writing this on the heels of a very snowy winter. I think it's over, but I can't be sure.

I was going about my day about a month ago. I was walking outside from one place to the other. I was noticing some lovely things happening with freshly fallen snow. I took a moment or two to examine the flowerbeds near my building.

The light was very calm and even due to the cloudiness of the day. This was very pleasing. I took some photographs.

As I was riding the train, the experience had a sense of the familiar that was hard to put my finger on. Later, it came to me while I was doing something else. The experience I had in the flower beds reminded me of commercial still life photography. The entire winter reminded me of commercial still life photography. It reminded me of white seamless. It reminded me of reflector cards.

I like having fresh snow around for several reasons.

Things that are beautifully shaped might fade into the background of grey and green and brown when there isn't snow. When there is snow, many things get covered up. But the things that are lovely that are not covered up have a white sweep. They get to be the star. They get to be, in the 1970s still life parlance that much preceded me - the hero.

The seamless effect would only be apparent with brand new snow. Even if it didn't get dirty later, older snow takes on a more pebbly and granular texture. This patina has a way of announcing itself. It's great for some pictures. Just not for the ones I'm talking about today.

Soft, new, light, non-reflective, not dampened down - that is hero-making snow.

The diffuse, cloudy light that is so common in the winter is a gift. It's bright enough to agree with the iPhone camera at the same time that it is softened up and forgiving. It's even better than the translucent material called Toughspun that I used to put over my lights in three layers, as a professional.

The Hero

There is less color around outside in the winter. But there is some.  A good, outdoor, colorful subject in the winter is a sight to behold. It can be a good subject for me.

There is a bit of magic that happens along the edges of my photographs with so much snow around. Brand new snow is best, but any old snow will do. If there is enough snow on the ground it will serve as a giant reflector for my subjects. The shadows are filled in. The colors become saturated. There is better color separation. The snow isn't in the photograph. But it contributes.

I work quickly. The same gift of snow that pretties up my subjects brings harsh temperatures and cold fingers. I decide on things fast. Sometimes a strong gust will blow my photography materials around in ways that are hard to anticipate. I'm prepared to get what I need in one take. Variations are a luxury the winter doesn't always allow.

I didn't invent snow. I didn't invent white seamless paper, Toughspun, or reflector cards. I did connect the dots.  Sometimes you go to the photography store to get what you need. Other times it falls from the sky. It's in the recognition. It's in making your move before it’s gone.

The snow outside of the frame served as giant reflectors, intensifying the colors, softly filling the shadows and casting a brilliant glow.

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