Tag Archives: Middle Age

Back to Blogging

22 Jun

For the Blog

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post that explained my three week absence from blogging.  At that time a friend of mine asked on Facebook, “Am I expected to read a blog about why you didn’t write a blog?”  Good question, and I suppose he didn’t have to read my blog, but as a good friend, he did.  So I apologize to that friend in advance, because, once again, I write this blog to explain why I haven’t blogged.

 It’s been a long time since I last wrote and posted a blog….a very long time.  By my count it’s been about 10 months, when I announced the result of September’s Petscan. A lot has happened since then. In personal news, my daughter travelled to Israel, where she lived and studied for nine months.  Amy and I learned to live in an empty nest without too much trouble.  The New York Giants had an awful season, revealing their complete lack of an NFL caliber defense.  And I have spent much of the past academic year teaching California history at a local university part time, which is fun, but also very time consuming and frustrating.  In the broader world….well, you all know what’s gone on in the broader world—a dismaying election cycle that seems to signal the rise of the demagogue as a legitimate type of candidate in American politics, a growing divide between rich and poor that makes our current age seem very much like the late nineteenth century’s gilded age, and never ending violence and terrorism at home and abroad, just to name a few.  And all of this Emma’s trip, the changes to our household, the teaching, the election, all of it, has kept me from blogging for the past ten months. Let me explain.

First, I have found it difficult to blog for personal reasons. Like I said, a lot has happened over the past ten months, but not all of it happened to me.  My daughter has learned a number of important lessons about life and living on her own. My wife spent much of the Fall getting back on her feet after her terrible bout with pancreatitis and the other issues that arose from that horrible illness.  And Amy and I both spent nine months without a child around figuring out what married life is like when parenting is no longer the prime directive. All of these experiences are filled with stories—some painful, some funny, some depressing, others uplifting—but most of these stories are not mine to tell.  They happened to someone else, or they are personal moments that I shared with others, and so to tell those stories feels wrong, like I would be violating someone’s privacy.  That was never the intention of this blog.  Over the past few years the point of this blog has been to share my thoughts, my concerns, my fears, and my happiness and to see how that public sharing is received and how it helps me learn and grow.

The election has kept me from blogging too.  To be clear I have discussed politics regularly—especially on Facebook—but I have not found the experience beneficial. I have spent the past ten years or so of my life trying to keep my discourse and engagement reasonable and respectful, but these days American politics knows no reason nor respect. This is true for the politicians and the public, and for the right and the left.  Naturally Donald Trump and his supporters are the most severe examples of this new political tone, but one cannot ignore the vitriol hurled at Hillary Clinton from the left nor the frustrated jibes from Clintonites (like me) aimed at Sanders and the Sanderistas. Since the New York primary many of us believe that Bernie’s campaign and the actions and outbursts of the so called Bernie Bros have been driven by destructive hubris rather than productive care and concern, and our language has reflected that frustration.  I have gotten into a number of discussions and debates this election year, and each time I do I feel angry, frustrated, hopeless, and even a little dirty.  I am not naïve enough to believe that American politics are historically decent and noble, but these days the rules of political engagement seem to have changed considerably. People are angrier, meaner, less respectful, and when I find myself in the midst of these debates I feel angrier, meaner, and less respectful too.  I surely have no desire to spend my time blogging angry and feeling awful, and so politics have been off the table as well.

Even if I could find an appropriate topic for blogging, I have had very little time to dedicate to such an enterprise.  As I mentioned above, I have been teaching this year, this in addition to my full time job at the museum.  I have taught three back to back quarters of California history, which has been great fun, but my preparation, grading, and the demands of my students have taken up a lot of my free time.  As Amy can attest, I have spent most Monday evenings grading quizzes and most of the rest of the week grading papers or reading the week’s assigned readings.  Sure I have read this material in the past….numerous times, but I am also 51 and my memory is less photographic than I would like, so every week I read the homework assignments along with my students—well along with those students who actually take the time to read…there seem to be fewer and fewer of those students every year.

Throughout it all, Emma’s trip, the election, the teaching, and everything else that has happened this year, I have wanted to blog.  Blogging connects me to my broad network of friends (particularly those who live a great distance from me). Writing in a format lengthier than the average Facebook post helps me think things through, and as always, there is a lot to think about.  And of course, blogging has been a way for me to share the never ending saga of the lemon sized tumor in my chest and my, now, annual requirement to have my body scanned to see if anything has changed.  One of my greatest concerns about my failure to blog is that my little corner of the virtual universe will become merely a place for me to share test results. Indeed, sometime this week I will reach out to my oncologist to arrange my next Petscan (the first one in ten months). 

But I want this blog to be more than that.  I want to return to my earlier focus on writing, on the ability to communicate well, to be more vulnerable and honest, and to share my thoughts and thinking.   Recently one of my yoga teachers (yes I take yoga now, and I love it) described the practice as an investigation into two essential questions—what is my purpose? and what makes me happy? (I probably got that wrong, but I think I captured the essence of her statement).  Prior to her comments, I had always thought of yoga as bound up in other questions like, “Why does that hurt so much?” or “Will I ever be able to bend that deeply?” and other such inquiries.  But my teacher’s point resonated with me. Whatever its outward rewards, when I am at my most relaxed and engaged, yoga helps me to focus and think more clearly, and in my most successful moments of yoga I have had some initial thoughts about purpose and happiness.  I think our purpose in this world is to be as fully present and fully engaged with the moment and the world around us as possible.  Too often our ability to appreciate life and each other is obstructed by our inability (or at least my inability) to think about the here and now.  Too much of life, mine and the lives of other people I know, is bound up in endless worry about things that have happened or may happen in the future.  I think we are at our happiest when we can appreciate the moment, any moment, more fully.

Yoga helps develop the focus and calm necessary to being fully present and engaged (to say nothing of how great it’s been for relieving the many aches and pains that come with aging and being overweight), but blogging helps, too.  Sure, very often my blogs are obsessed with the unfixable past and the unknowable future, but the process still keeps me deeply engaged with my thoughts and the process of thinking. And coming to really know and understand my thinking has a beneficial effect on me. Writing a blog is a days-long enterprise.  I take an idea and I work it out on the page.  The more I write, reread, and edit my work, the more in tune I become with my thoughts, the clearer my focus becomes, and I am able to articulate my ideas more clearly and fully.  Overtime, I begin to understand things about myself that I did not know, and the comments from friends and other readers reminds me just how lucky I am to know so many wonderful, thoughtful people. It’s a kind of meditation, one that I have missed.  For the past ten months I haven’t had that experience in my life, and I really would like to regain it.  For now, I suspect, my blog will once again focus on my upcoming Petscan, but I am going to do my best to get back into the process of thinking and writing.  I apologize in advance for those of you who feel obliged to read my work.  I appreciate your patience and willingness to spend a few minutes reading my latest rant, and I thank you for your time and your friendship.

 

As always…stay tuned.

In Memoriam

19 Jan

lost-overnight-in-woods

About two months ago—just before Thanksgiving—one of my closest and dearest colleagues died after a lengthy battle with cancer.   For a number of reasons I have not written about her untimely demise on my blog—until now of course.  First, there was my own medical condition and my new PET scan to discuss, which came up shortly after her passing.  Lazily, or selfishly, I figured that since the original purpose of this blog was to share my ongoing health saga with all of you, that topic took precedence over sharing my feelings on the loss of this extraordinary woman.  Perhaps of greater importance, though, until now I wasn’t quite sure what to say about her passing.  I have found so little comfort in my own encounters with loss, and while my religious tradition’s communal response to death provides a wonderful network of support, I find very little in Judaism that directly addresses how individuals can or should process the loss of loved ones. At the very least, those kinds of prophetic and rabbinic insights seem inaccessible to an interested, though undereducated, layperson.  Ultimately, the single most insightful commentary I have heard on loss in the past few months comes not from a rabbi or other sage, but instead from a recent viewing of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  In that musical’s finale, Sondheim reminds us that “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.”  That’s it.  No mystical or holistic reasons for loss, no majestic communion with the Almighty, no useful instructions on how to cope with the passing of a loved one, just a factual assertion that loss exists.

And yet I cannot shake the phrase from my head.  Day after day I sing the passage to myself, partly because of the beauty of Sondheim’s melody, of course, but also because I am beginning to believe there is great wisdom in this simple assertion—sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.  And while this may seem cold, though it is certainly not meant to be, I have come to see that any statement about a person’s passing is inescapably banal. Death is the one act we will all undertake someday.  To be sure, it can be a terrible and frightening thing to consider (it sure messes with my head), but it is also one of the most common events among living things, something we share with every being on the planet.  Plants die. Earthworms die. Dogs, lions, great blue whales…they die. And humans…we die, too.  What matters more, I think, is how we lived, and what that life has meant to those who surround us (I know, trite…but invariably true).  And so while I was first inclined to write about the great nobility and strength my friend demonstrated in her battle with cancer (and believe me, she was incredibly brave), I have come to see that any fitting tribute should recognize what a glorious and blessed coincidence it was that I should meet her in the first place and how, together, we did some really wonderful and meaningful things—actions and projects that have and will continue to have a positive influence on countless young people in Los Angeles and beyond.

While this may seem somewhat Pollyannaish, I can honestly say that it was a miracle my friend and I ever met—one of those everyday miracles we take for granted too often.  Had each of us followed the career paths we had envisioned for ourselves in our young adulthood, there was really no reason my friend and I should ever have met.  She came from a line of successful advertising executives and made a career for herself in that field.   I began my professional life (such as it was) as a singer and actor and had the kind of middling success that enables one to continue to perform for a little bit of money and still less recognition.  Had she continued in advertising, and had I achieved greater success on stage and screen, we never would have met.  But that’s not where life took us.  One day while working on the original ad campaign for the McRib (that’s right…McRib…I shit you not) my friend met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband.  It was love at first sight, he has told me, and apparently she must have felt the same way because the group dinner where they first realized their feelings for each other was arranged by my friend as a way to spend more time with her future husband (something she confessed to later in life).  After a year of long-distance romance—her in Chicago and him in LA—my friend moved to Los Angeles and within a few years was married.  I wound up in Los Angeles in the fall of 1990. My future wife and I came to the city after spending several years working in regional theater in the South.  She found work almost immediately as a scenic artist, and within a few months I had a long-running gig at Universal Studios.

So we were both in LA. Still, our career paths (those of my friend and I) were different and divergent. But parenthood changes everything.  As my friend’s children grew, she took an interest in arts education and developed an extremely successful arts program in her children’s school district. And fatherhood altered my career path, as well.  Over a few years I weaned myself off of show business and studied history, planning to teach the subject in high school.  After a series of twists and turns we both wound up at the Autry National Center, though initially at different times and in different departments  In 2009, though, when I was offered my current position, my soon to be colleague was already one of the most valued employees in our department, and I was about to be her boss.  Kismet!

And yet, as with all great buddy films, we really did not like each other at first.  My colleague was extremely driven, often to the point of being defensive and inflexible, and I, as I so often can be, was very full of myself and what I knew (or thought I knew) about how to run my department.  But within a few weeks, after I had observed her in action, I came to realize that I was fortunate enough to be partnered with a force of nature, an extraordinary educator, a caring and formidable mother, and over time a good, good friend.  As one coworker recently observed, no one who met this person could ever forget her.  She was a small, compact woman bursting with energy.  She had a missionary zeal for creating engaging and educational experiences for students of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. We both believed in the power of education to transform.  We both believed that children rise to the level of content and the expectations placed in front of them.  We both believed in the power of second chances, and we both believed that talented teachers were excited to find new ways to approach tried and true subjects.

My friend took a nascent partnership with eighth grade students at a local magnet school and provided the kind of forethought and scaffolding it required to become one of our more successful and respected programs–an award winning, living history program in which we trained our eighth grade charges to teach younger students (fourth-graders) about the life, labor, class, and gender issues on a 19th century Mexican rancho.  The program was popular, engaging, intellectually rigorous, and of greatest importance convinced students of the importance and excitement of research and teaching. Indeed, oftentimes our program was the only reason some of the poorest performing students bothered to come to school.  The structure and novelty of the project certainly played a role in the students’ love of the program, but I have no doubt that one of the most rewarding parts of their experience was the time they spent with my friend and colleague. She made those kids feel special, important, valuable, competent, and intelligent.  Indeed she made everyone she came into contact with feel that way.

Over our almost five years together, my friend and I took on new projects for the museum.  We partnered with an organization in LA that offers arts education to at risk youth, and my friend played an important role in training their teaching artists and providing support for their classroom teachers.  Together we hired an extraordinary staff of bright young people, many of whom continue to change the lives of the 50,000 or so students we see every year.  And though she had no previous experience in the field, my friend soon became the education lead on all exhibitions relating to the cultures and histories of Native Americans.  I assigned the task to her because I knew that she would immerse herself in the topic with extraordinary depth and passion.  Indeed, after my friend’s passing, I had to notify several members of the local Native community because she had worked so closely with them for so long.

And now she’s gone.  She left us halfway through the wood, with so many things to do and projects to oversee.  I know that she desperately wanted to stick around, and I know, as well, that she would give me a very hard time for the sentimentality (and length) of this post.  And so I will just close by saying that I miss my friend very much, and I hope that, over the coming years, my work will be a positive legacy to her memory.  And I hope, as well, that I will stumble into some new friend on this side of the wood and that we come out the other side together.

As always…stay tuned.

On the Loss of Old Friends

12 Jul

HHS

 

Throughout my recent cancer scare, I have, quite naturally, been confronted by the idea of my untimely death.  Let’s face it, when you’re talking about cancer, people speak to you about survival averages, and those averages account for those who live through and those who die from the disease.  To be clear, though, pondering my premature passing was not some newly discovered habit of mine.  Indeed, it is a deeply entrenched, longstanding practice (some may call it a personality flaw).  Worrying is one of my most notable habits of mind, and to a professional worrier like me, premature death has always been a major cause for concern.  I wouldn’t say the thought of dying keeps me up at night, but it certainly finds ways to seep into my thinking throughout the day.  Recently, even before the current war with Gaza, I was confronted with news that would, to some extent, shake me out of my foolishness and remind me that while I navel gaze and contemplate my imaginary death, real people are dying every day.  And what is worse, some of those real people are friends and colleagues.  Worse still, some are the very same age as me, making their passing extraordinarily untimely, unexpected, and unfair.  Don’t get me wrong, I knew that the folks I went to high school with, those who graduated from, say, 1980-1985 would begin to die, but I assumed that process would begin later, as we entered our 70s or 80s.  Sadly, though, the process began just a few years after our graduation, and has continued sporadically over the past thirty-plus years.

Quite recently this cruel eventuality —the premature deaths of my schoolmates—once more became a painful reality when I learned of the sudden death of a onetime friend.  He was a nice guy.  He was one of a few neighborhood kids I hung out with in the 7th and 8th grades.  In high school we kind of went our separate ways, but he was always around and was always a nice person.  About two months ago he reached out to me on Facebook and I was delighted to see that he had a rich fulfilling life and a wonderful family.  All of that came to a screeching halt when he and his wife were involved in a terrible car accident, a crash that took his young life (he had just turned fifty a week or so before) and left his widow in ICU.  Although I had not spoken to him in years, and had not been close with him since our brief stint in a youth soccer league back in the late 1970s, I have found that his death has had an unexpected emotional impact on me.  I mean, sure, one can feel bad about this sudden and cruel loss of life, but for some reason I spent the weekend after his passing utterly devastated by the news.  My heart breaks over his death and for the loss and pain his family will have to endure.

Sadly, this old friend was not the first of my former classmates to die.  Nor is the loss of Harrison Huskies from the 1980s a recent phenomenon.  Their passing began within just a few years of our graduation.  The recent loss of my old friend, and my upcoming birthday, I will turn 50 very soon (God willing), have got me thinking about those who have passed over the decades, and I feel compelled to write about them here in this public forum as some kind of memorial to them.  I realize that any words I can offer are insignificant, and that even my interest in sharing their stories is evidence of my colossal hubris, as if somehow my little blog is capable of providing a worthy memorial for the passing of these young men and women.  It can’t.  Still, they were good kids, good people who, to my knowledge, went on to be good (and possibly great) human beings.  The world is diminished for their passing, and we are all likely better for being reminded of them and their lives.  I suspect that others from my class have passed of whom I am not aware, and I may have even forgot some names (my memory is not what it used to be), but to my knowledge, below is a list of my former classmates (or the spouses of classmates) who have passed away over the past 30 some odd years.

The first classmates’ deaths I can recall came just a few years after graduation. One night two friends were driving home from a bar and were in a terrible car accident.  He was an eccentric, former military school student with a charismatic personality and a shock of dark hair. He smoked Phillip Morris unfiltered cigarettes and spoke like George C. Scott in his role as General Patton.  He was a hoot, and I liked him very much.  She was a lovely and talented young woman who sang in the chorus (we were good friends in 9th grade).  She married young and was taken from us young.  The other driver was apparently under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and as is so often the case, he lived while my classmates died.  I wish I could say that I still think about them all the time, but I don’t.  My brain is too filled with other memories (happy and sad) to recall too much from my childhood.  Still, I do think about them from time to time, and it breaks my heart to know that their lives and potential were cut so short.

I think the next person we lost too soon was the wife of a close friend.  Forced to deal with incredible physical pain, she took her own life.  My friend, her husband, has somehow carried on and has become a regional leader in the fight against suicide.  I cannot even imagine the magnitude of his loss, and I continue to marvel at his strength and conviction.  But, then, I always thought he was the bravest of all of my close friends.  He proved it too!  He served on numerous police forces across the country (as did his wife) before switching careers (another incredibly brave act). As for his wife, she was beautiful, loving, a wonderful mother, and from what I understand a damn fine cop.  Her family and the rest of the world are diminished by her passing.

Then there was the little red-haired girl who I sometimes sat next to in ninth grade humanities class.  Apparently she grew into a beautiful and brave red-haired woman who gracefully fought and with equal grace succumbed to lymphoma—the same disease doctors originally believed that I had.  Her passing gives the lie to so many physicians who told me that, “If you must have cancer, this is the cancer to have.  The tumors just melt away in chemotherapy.”  Apparently not.  Her friends and family have created a charitable foundation in her honor.

Then there was my close friend who died of AIDS. His is an unimaginably sad story.  Orphaned by the age of 15, he was raised by relatives (including his barely legal brothers) until he reached his majority.  Fortunately he was also cared for by a number of very fine and decent parents in town, including my own.  Indeed, my dad helped him with his college applications.  He was accepted to school out here in LA, and pretty much left without much of a trace.  In LA he came out of the closet and, regrettably, found himself part of the generation of gay men who became ill with AIDS long before people knew much about the disease or how to treat it.  And yet, he somehow survived for a decade with the disease.  About a year after I moved to LA, we got back in touch and became very close. My wife and I, and he and his partner (a wonderful, caring, older man who deserves a great deal of credit for his care and support) became good friends—spending time in each other’s homes, enjoying the holidays together, etc. Eventually, though, the good times came to an end, as my friend began to be squeezed between the symptoms of his disease and the side effects of the drugs used to treat him—this was just before the widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs.  The night before he died we said goodbye and promised to come back in the morning, but before we could make it there, he was already gone.  Dead at 31.  I still miss him very much.

I know that these are not the only people in the world to have died these past thirty-plus years.  I know that others have suffered greatly.  I know that there is a war in Gaza right now that has and will claim hundreds of people’s lives, many of them very young.  I know that my sense of loss may seem selfish.  But the loss of average, everyday people, people not caught up in war or some other kind of violence…their deaths matter, too.  And whether the sentiment is selfish or not, I miss these people, and am both saddened and angered by their premature departure from this world.  And above all, I hope that those of you who read this (including me, I guess) will stick around for a long time.

 

As always, stay tuned.

Stuck in the Middle

9 Jun

Scarecrow Both Ways

 

After weeks waiting for my doctor’s referral to be approved,  I finally made my appointment for my June Petscan, Thursday, June 12th first thing in the morning.  Also in June I will see a rheumatologist, make a second visit to a pulmonologist, likely see my oncologist (who referred me for the scan), and make weekly visits to a physical therapist (to help ease the effects of some pinched nerves in my neck).  It seems that as I approach my 50th birthday, I have become a regular consumer of the health care system.  I have become one of those people who likely costs the insurance company so much money that I require younger, healthier Americans to sign up for insurance to bring some financial stability to the system (that’s how insurance works, folks, no matter how you feel about Obamacare).  I am not sure what to make of this phenomenon.  I have always associated having numerous medical professionals on speed dial with old people, but I am surely not old.  Am I?  As I noted above, I have not even hit 50, yet.  My birthday is July 14th (yes, Bastille Day for all of my Francophile friends).  I haven’t even taken the somewhat obligatory step of joining the AARP.  And yet my life is filled with regularly scheduled doctors’ visits, with minor aches and pains, with a sense of nostalgia for 1980s and 1990s, with numerous regrets about roads not taken, and everywhere I go, people call me sir. No, I’m not old….yet, but I think that I have hit middle age.

It’s an odd term, yes, middle age?  At the very least our use of the term, which we generally employ to describe men and women in their fifties and sixties, is either wildly inaccurate or incredibly optimistic.  If I am, as Dante wrote, “midway along the journey of our life,” then I should be about 100 years old at journey’s end.  I’m not sure anyone reading this blog believes that I will hit the century mark.  I don’t really feel like I’m in the middle of anything, except maybe my career.

Instead, I feel very much like I’ve come to the end of numerous life circumstances and the beginning of others. Two years removed from my hooding ceremony, I am no longer a graduate student, and what is worse, most of the young historians I met in grad school have also received their Ph.D.s. And so even my younger friends have come to the end of one road and started down new paths.  On the other hand, this year I have been on television a bunch of times as a, so-called, professional historian. In fact, just this past week I taped two episodes of a new show, and so perhaps I am on the cusp of becoming one of those talking heads we see when the history channel actually chooses to broadcast shows about history.  Who knows?  I feel as if I am coming to the end of my time as a football fan.  While I love the game, I am not sure I can continue to watch young men destroy their brain function for the sake of my entertainment.  I have tried to take a look at other sports and see if I possess a shred of the passion that I have for the NFL in general and the New York Giants in particular.  Truth is, though, that I am not drawn to any other sport in the way that I’ve been drawn to football for the past 45, or so, years.  Perhaps I will dedicate my Sundays to something less competitive.  And, of course, as Emma enters her senior year, Amy and I are fast approaching the end of our time with a child at home, and will soon begin our lives as “empty-nesters.”  Thankfully we have been preparing for this development for years.  While Emma’s time in summer camp may have been a kind of preparation for adulthood, it was also an opportunity for Amy and I to see how we got along as a couple, and I am happy to say that most of the time I don’t annoy her too much.  

Indeed, much of the past year, which I count from the death of my father-in-law last May through Emma’s completion of 11th grade, has been a year of endings and beginnings. As I just noted, last May we lost my father-in-law.  This past fall my mother sold her house in Harrison, New York—once the center of all social and family life for countless friends and relatives.  Just recently my sister has ended her lengthy employ with a well-known department store chain.  Yet another niece has finished high school and is on to college (USC, no less….the horror). And Amy has taken the bold, but very attractive, step of abandoning dyes and embracing her gray hair.  Endings and beginnings seem to hit me wherever I turn. 

Perhaps that’s the real meaning of middle age, not that we’ve reached our chronological midpoint, but rather that we’ve reached a turning point, a moment when one a set of circumstances that have come to define our adult lives come to an end, and yet we have not fully embarked on, or embraced, our new paths.  We’re like Dorothy, standing in front of the scarecrow, asking for directions.  And as those of you familiar with the movie already know, his assistance is none too clear….”Some go this way, some go that way, and of course some go both ways!” Very helpful.  Nevertheless, that’s how I feel these days, stuck in the middle of massive change, but uncertain which way to go, which path to follow, and with absolutely zero sense of where any one path may lead.  That must surely be the definition of middle age. And by the time I get it all figured out, I’ll be an old man, which is a lot better than the alternatives, I guess, but it’s still frustrating.

Well, maybe the AARP will be able to explain all this stuff to me when I join, next month.  Who knows?  What I do know is that Wednesday I eliminate all carbs from my diet, Thursday morning I drive over to the scanning place—a place I’ve been to so many times that they actually remember me—then I take my radioactive sugar, get undressed, climb on a gurney, and let some big electronic doughnut scan my body.  Great fun!  Once I know the results I will, of course share them with all of you.  Until then, I hope that all is well for my many friends, family, and casual readers of this blog. 

Thanks for reading, and, as always….stay tuned.