Saturday, August 20, 2016

One hundred years of memories, and I can't wait to hear more

My grandmother Teresa, the one with the tiny chair 

I visited my dad's 100-year-old cousin today. (First takeaway from the visit: Please, God, let me have those genes. Not just the longevity, but the one for great hearing and beautiful skin. She looks fabulous and is sharp as can be.)

I've seen Jennie once or twice over 50-plus years, but Dad had a lot of cousins and everyone was scattered, so the children and grandchildren of those cousins don't all know one another. I recognize the surnames; besides Lavias, there are DeFinos and Sodas and Romeos and Punellis and many more that I can't recall. I'm friends on Facebook with first and second cousins I've seen probably only once, if at all.

I'm curious about this side of the family. On my mom's side, we were closer; I grew up very attached to my aunt and saw my Nana quite often. I look like that side of the family, and for whatever reason, I feel more connected to them.

But the Lavia genes are in there, too. The curls. The tendency to ruminate. The slender-ish legs and big bellies. The introversion. No doubt I'm my dad's daughter.

But Dad didn't talk much about his family, and I've always wanted to know so much more. So when Jennie sent me a photograph of my paternal grandparents after she cleared out her house to move into an assisted living community, I wanted to do better than send a thank-note.

She seemed happy I wanted to visit. I hope that when I left, she was as happy as I was that I had come.

I was delighted to listen to her talk. She showed me photos of her family, told me of her childhood in Des Moines and Chicago and about a boy who was sweet on her when she was 15. She told me about my dad and his brothers as young men -- "good-lookin', every one of them."

She brought to life relatives I'd never known. My paternal grandfather, her uncle and godfather, who died when I was 4, was a carpenter at Mercy Hospital just north of downtown and walked to and from work; sometimes she'd meet him on the sidewalk and talk to him a little before she reached his house. He was so talented with his hands and could build anything, she said. (This made me laugh at the memory of my unhandy dad, who relied an awful lot on duct tape.)

She loved my uncle, my dad's oldest brother -- the one my dad seemed to see and speak to in the days before he died. His name was Emilio, but he was called E.A. or Tony or Milly; in World War II, he was a prisoner of war in Japan. He survived, but died young, in his 50s. I was 9.

"Tony was the handsome one; since he lived in California, you know, he probably could have been in movies," Jennie said. "We were the same age, so he would have been 100, too. And probably would have still looked good."

She remembered, vaguely, my dad's little sister, who died tragically at age 5, and that the family was never quite the same afterward.

My dad, she said, was the funny little one who followed his older brothers around and was close to his mother, who died when he was 16. In what was, for me, the sweetest part of the conversation, Jennie described the grandmother I never knew as being "tired, you know, with all those boys running her ragged, and with cooking all the time, and she was sick so much."

She brought my grandmother to life for me by describing the tiny rocking chair that was hers; she was only about 4 feet 9 or 10 inches tall, and it was a chair made for a child. She would have rocked my dad in that little chair.

Jennie talked about her life, too; how difficult it had been a few years ago to bury her son, who died of lung cancer; how much she still misses her parents and the siblings she's lost. How difficult it was to leave her home on the south side, to sell or give away many of her possessions and try to find space in her tiny apartment for the others she couldn't bear to part with. How the new place is fine, but it's not home.

When I was young, I had relatives in, as we called them then, nursing homes. I didn't visit those relatives enough. And although I saw my dad several times a week, there were instances in which I complained about visiting him because I believed myself to be too busy.

Maybe it's because of the degree to which I miss him, and my aunt, and my grandparents, and all the others who are no longer around to tell me the stories I crave hearing. Maybe it's because in my line of work, I understand the value of older adults and their stories. Whatever the reason, I'm unspeakably grateful for today.

And I'll keep going to see Jennie as long as she'll have me.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"You Really, Really Mattered."

He had me at horse heads.

It was my first day at my new job. First day in a new industry. I was nervous. Had I made the right decision? Would people like me, and would I like them?

I walked up and down rows of cubes, my manager introducing me to my new co-workers. And at the end of one row was a dark office.

"Charles sits there," my manager said. "He's traveling, but you'll meet him soon. Charles is a character. You'll like him."

I peeked inside the partially open door and saw ... horse heads, At least a dozen of them. Not the heads of real horses, thankfully, but various and sundry heads. Ceramic ones. Plaster ones. Drawings. Paintings.

I had noticed no one else kept a lot of personal effects in their work spaces. I planned to, so I knew that in spite of the fact that I wasn't really a horse person, I'd likely have something in common with this guy.

It took about a second to realize my hunch was right. Charles showed up a week later, an imposing figure in a too-big sport jacket and too-big pants. I was in the break room, putting together my breakfast.

"Girl, that looks good!" he said, eyeing my food. "I'm Charles Hall, and as you might guess, I like to eat."


We talked that morning as if we'd known each other for a long time. I learned he was in the midst of losing weight -- he was down 50 pounds despite almost-constant travel, and as I had some upcoming travel on my schedule as well, he shared some tips.

He told me that yes, he loved horses, and his children, and his grandchildren, and his work. He was a nurse who served as the organization's director of clinical excellence, and his passion for his job was evident.

I quickly came to realize passion was an integral part of Charles. Whether it was a team member's birthday, recognition of an award someone had received or simply a sunny day, Charles celebrated.

He delivered handmade birthday and anniversary cards to every team member, and probably to every resident in every community our company owned. He was a giver of gifts -- meaningful ones -- and he expected and desired no recognition for his generosity.

He was the first to volunteer to help with a project and the last to leave an event. Often, whether or not the occasion called for it, he wore a tuxedo, He owned three, he told me, in various colors.

When Christmastime drew near during my first year in that job, Charles became aware that a team member was in the midst of some personal difficulties, including financial issues. Charles didn't ask for details -- all he needed to hear was that because of a situation beyond a child's control, that child probably would not have much under the tree on Christmas morning.

Quietly, he slipped the team member an envelope of money, enough for presents and a tree. He insisted the team member accept it, and his only demand was that no one be told.

It doesn't matter who knows now, sadly, as Charles isn't around to hear the praise that would certainly surround and embarrass him. He passed away this week, after a cancer battle that he fought with a few trusted friends by his side. He had limited any news of his daily struggles to a small group, so as not to trouble anyone or disrupt life at the office, and his quick decline was devastating to many.


Companies often invest a great deal of time and resources in something they call "culture." I've worked for a lot of organizations, and all of them either took pride in or were working to enhance their cultures -- essentially, their environment. Their ambiance. What it feels like to work in that space. The "face" team members show to each other and to the external community.

It struck me as Charles fought his fight that although the people who loved him would surely miss his compassion and passion and consistent drive to make everything and everyone around him better, entire groups of people -- whether their members knew him well or not -- would be deprived of the way Charles impacted entire cultures. And that's a shame.

It also struck me that companies could learn much from the example that Charles didn't even know he was setting. Everything was organic with him; it wasn't "let's put a plan together" to improve this or that.

It simply came down to the fact that he was a naturally kind and loving person. His faith was a part of that -- not just what he believed, but the way he lived that faith. It was with selflessness, a deep desire to do unto others.

And then, it was the fact that it didn't occur to him, thank goodness, to censor himself. He loved, genuinely and openly. He didn't care who was watching, or whether he might be judged.

Charles also didn't care about being right. He probably didn't care a lot about being successful as "success" is defined by others. He dressed professionally, but didn't care about labels. If he wanted to wear cowboy boots, he wore cowboy boots. He was proud of his bald head, saying -- along the lines of the Velveteen Rabbit -- that he had lost every hair worrying about someone he loved.

Charles wasn't about exteriors. He cared about making others feel loved. Valued, Treasured, even.

Three months ago, I left the company at which Charles and I had worked together, Business is business; needs and positions change. Opportunities present. People leave jobs, and the world goes 'round.

But leaving was tough, and I was hurting. I missed many people with whom I had formed close relationships. Charles and I had exchanged notes, and he understood and validated the reasons for my sadness.

One day shortly after I started my new position, I arrived home to find a gift on my front porch. I opened it, and it was personal and lovely.

The card, though, is something I'll carry with me always. It's something that will influence the way I treat people. The way I view and try to influence that intangible thing we call "culture."

It was handmade, of course, and signed with a flourish.

"Don't forget," Charles had written, "that you really, really mattered."

Charles: I dearly hope that you know, from your new vantage point, how very much you did, too.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pass the cake, please, but only after you put all 53 candles on top.

With my grandma when she was the age I am now.

I remember when my grandma turned the age I'll turn this month.

That gives me pause.

I'm not ashamed of my age; how is it even possible to be ashamed of an age? It's simply something you are. And what I am, soon, is 53.

Still, though ...

Fifty-three. When you consider the fact that I certainly have more life behind me than ahead of me, the number is startling.

I remember, as a child, thinking 50-year-olds were elderly. I also recall my first husband's dismay on his 25th birthday as it occurred to him he was halfway to that milestone.

But my own 50th, strangely enough, was a happy day. I was in the process of taking off the weight that had dogged me for 20 years; my kids were in good places in their lives, one having graduated college and the other one about to do so. We were all healthy. Life was good.

We're all still healthy, thankfully, and life is still good. But for some reason, I'm feeling a sense of urgency I didn't feel three years ago; Fifty-five is right around the corner; 60 (60!) won't be far behind. I used to assume I had expanses of time to while away; now, of course, I know that's not true.

So I need to get a few things done while I'm still young and healthy enough to do them. But I also feel the need, more strongly than ever, to communicate a thought or two, especially to those who can't conceive of themselves facing down 53 candles on a birthday cake.

What does it feel like to be turning 53? a young co-worker asked me this week. 

I didn't have an answer for her when she asked, but I thought about it, and here's what I want her to know about turning 53, and about gratitude and common sense and other things I've learned as the birthdays have run together.

  • Turning 53 feels like turning 23 or 33. Inside, I'm still young; so much so that when I look in the mirror and see the face of an aunt I think of as being perpetually 50, I'm startled.
  • In some ways, I'm nicer than I've ever been, and in other ways, I'm far less nice. Life now consists of more gray areas than I'd ever believed possible, so I truly try to walk in others' shoes before I judge. At the same time, I'm more likely to cut someone off at the knees if that person is behaving in a discriminatory, unkind or otherwise unfair manner. 
  • Older bodies can do amazing things. I took up running at 50 and ran 22 races in two years; I'd still be out there if my hip and foot had cooperated. Still, though, I walk at least a 5K every day. I lift weights. For the first time in my life, I can do real push-ups. Most days, I feel capable and strong.
  • Older bodies can also be attractive. Desirable, even (sorry to gross you out, kids). Sure, gravity does its thing, but confidence can offset any perceived physical flaw. 
  • People my age can be adept at technology -- more so, sometimes, than millennials. Two workplaces ago, my boss was told to hire a millennial to help us with social media. We did, and she came to me for help in understanding Twitter.
  • We know we can't mistreat our bodies and expect them to last as long as we need them to. We're more likely than younger people to practice vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. We eat donuts sometimes, but not every day. We take our vitamins and our low-dose aspirin and drink our water, and we cross our fingers.
  • As we get older, we want to make a difference. This can manifest itself in the need to realign our personal or professional lives to make sure what we're doing feels right to us. 
  • We talk more because we have more, borne of life experience, to share. But we also listen more because we understand the value in a disparate point of view. My politics lean left; one of the co-workers I'm closest to is a conservative retired Marine. Ideologically, we're pretty far apart, but he has a huge heart and a desire to always do the right thing. We look past our differences and enjoy our friendship. 
  • I'm less apologetic about the things I don't do well. Work in Excel, for example. I try, but navigating that program is not my strength. I also hate football with a searing passion and don't feel the least bit compelled to pretend otherwise.
  • I'm also less apologetic about who I am. I'm impatient and easily bored; I'm sensitive and prone to worry. I overshare and wear my heart on my sleeve, and when I love someone, I love big. I spent much of my life trying to censor myself, and I don't feel the need to do that anymore. 
  • We understand that plastic surgery won't make us look younger; it will just make us look as though we've had work done. Some friends have chosen to do it anyway, and we all support each other. Same with hair color; people know I'm gray. Whether I choose to show them is up to me. 
  • For me, my friendships with women are more important than ever. I adore, value, and yearn for time with my friends, and I come away from that time rejuvenated. 
  • Those of us who are parents never stop being our kids' moms and dads. At the same time, though, we enjoy reclaiming ourselves once our kids are raised. I'm still as committed to my kids as ever, but I also delight in seeing them make their own paths and excel in their own careers. I also feel responsible for demonstrating to them that people can continue to grow and thrive as they age.
I'm in a line of work now that reminds me daily of all the good things about aging. What's not good is the prejudice our society extends to older adults. As long as people feel the need to lie about their ages, there's work to be done.

Let's own our ages, shall we, and the good things that come with them? As the cliche goes, growing older is a whole lot better than the alternative. And it rings true: My mom was only 42 when she died. For me, every year beyond that has been gravy.

So happy next birthday, whenever that may be, to any of my over-50 brothers and sisters who are battling what they may feel is a collective attack on their relevance. We're as relevant as we think we are, and I don't know about you, but I'm planning to stick around for a while and to be as impactful as I can while doing it.

Pass the cake, please. But first, put all 53 candles on top of it. Maybe even one to grow on. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Two years later, keeping off the weight's no piece of cake

With my Weight Watchers leader, Kim, on my goal day. Why do we look so sleepy?

Two years ago next week, I reached the culmination of my decision to no longer be heavy. Sixty-five pounds gone, I stood with my Weight Watchers leader for the photo above. Aside from the days my children were born, I don't think I'd ever been so happy.

After seven months of eating fruits, vegetables and lean protein and staying far away from restaurants, I'd reached my goal. I'd transformed myself outside and inside; I knew, I just knew, that I had beaten my food demons, and that life would be different. 

Now, two years later -- I'll be traveling on the actual anniversary, so I'm observing it now -- I agree with my prediction that day in the meeting room. Life is different. Good-different, mostly; I'm healthy. I'm at home in this smaller body. I like the way I feel.

But the rest of it is the hard kind of different. Much like friends who have to work on their sobriety every moment, I have to work on this. I had given lip service, as I was losing weight, to the fact that the plan I was following constituted a lifestyle change, not a diet. That is, and was, true. But I was treating like a diet. Still am.

I'm not sure how to adjust the part of me that views food in such an adversarial way. And I know I'm not alone.

I'm in awe of people who can simply eat -- who don't have to think about calories and points and sugar and carbs. Even when I was heavy, I was conscious of those things and cared about them, but didn't know how to stop eating to excess. More accurately, I wasn't willing to stop.

And then one day, shortly after turning 50, I was willing. I knew, though, that I would need accountability and structure, so I sought some. The timing was right, and everything came together. 

And there I stood that Sunday, having lost nearly a third of myself. (I'm still not sure where that one-third went, as the "loss" of body mass is still a concept that befuddles me.) And I knew, just knew, I'd never be heavy again.

I don't know why I was so breezily confident. I had lost and gained weight before, albeit never that much; I knew how easy it was to ease oneself out of the "zone," fall back into old habits and watch the weight creep back. 

But I was just so joyful. I never wanted to stop feeling that way.

Two years later, I no longer feel that way. I realize I've defied the odds in keeping the weight off for a while, but I've also had to fight like hell to limit my regain to five pounds. Slowly, I'm chipping away at those, and they'll soon be gone. And I'm still essentially "at goal," in the parlance of the plan I follow.

But I'm not counting on magic to keep me at this weight; the work will be mine and mine alone, and it will be constant. 

The fact that this will never be easy really frustrates me. Sometimes it makes me angry.

As I've learned along this road, not everyone who's heavy is a food addict. But for those of us who exhibit addictive behaviors around food, maintaining a weight loss can be stunningly difficult.

Much like the alcohol addict who talks herself into believing she can drink occasionally, I had decided I'd keep my weight off by adopting the "cheat day" mentality. For a long while, that strategy worked at the scale, but it didn't work for my psyche.

My system worked this way: For six days, I'd adhere perfectly to my point count (like a calorie count, but different), sticking to whole foods. Eating cleanly. But on the seventh day -- Katy, bar the door. There were few limits to my appetite or to the foolish ways I chose to sate it.

So I began living for Sundays, weighing in at my meeting and then starting the carb-and-sugar frenzy on the way home. The rest of the week, I'd deprive myself to make up for the calories I'd consumed on my cheat day.

So I'd retained nothing I'd learned about the healthy way to maintain a goal weight. I was gaming the system. But, hey, I reasoned -- it's working, so don't mess with it.

Until the week it stopped working. And it stopped because of, again, my faulty reasoning. "I'll eat what I want this whole week, but then spend the next seven weeks depriving myself to make up for it," I decided. 


I was traveling that week, and I had used travel as an excuse to eat indiscriminately. And the next week on the scale, I was horrified to see I had gained seven pounds.

Seven pounds.

No more cheat days, let alone cheat weeks, for me. 

I've since chipped that seven-pound gain to a little under five, but given the way I'm feeling about the extra weight, it may as well be 75. 

To be honest, some days I'm just so tired of it all.

I was talking with my husband about my struggle one day. He assumed he'd found my answer. "Just have a little bit of things," he suggested. "Have one cookie."

I laughed long and hard.  

I've fantasized from time to time about becoming heavy again. About allowing myself to eat what I want, to be less diligent about exercise, to simply relax. As my friend Bob wrote me a few months ago about my internal struggle, the body is simply a vessel for the mind and the soul.

True enough, but I don't want that vessel to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol again. I want to be able to exercise the way I want to, to move confidently and comfortably. For the first time in a long time, I like my body and want to continue to enjoy the way it looks and feels. Plus, I'm a small-framed person; when I'm heavy, I don't feel like myself. 

So I'll persevere. "Discipline" isn't a popular word when it comes to dealing with changing behaviors, because it implies that you're not getting to the root cause, just covering it up with authoritative behavior. But for me, weight maintenance is largely a matter of discipline. No, you can't have the donut, you can't have the pizza, I remind myself. Why? Because you don't have an "off" switch.

But staying away from pizza and donuts will certainly be worth it in the long term, I also tell myself. When my kids have kids, I want to be the nana pushing the jogging stroller, the grandma watching my grandkids wave little "congratulations" signs as I cross finish lines.

Why am I sharing something so personal, something that makes me sound as though I really don't have my act together? I'm sharing it to remind myself that I don't want to give up the fight. Some of the most important people in my life these days have never seen me heavy -- a fact that blows me away, really. I like to think those people know the real me, but the real me is also the "me" who's got some deeply rooted vulnerabilities around food. 

The other reason I'm sharing this is to ask anyone reading this not to shame heavy people, certainly, but also to try to refrain from judging them. Science doesn't fully understand what makes some people gain weight more easily than others; the conventional wisdom is it's a combination of nature and nurture. Whatever the root, just know it's a struggle. Food is everywhere. 

I'm hoping that when my three-year goal anniversary rolls around, I'll truly view it as a sobriety anniversary of sorts because I will have conquered some of the behaviors that cause me to be unable to stop at one donut.

The ability to stop "eating my feelings," as they say? A lofty goal, but I think I can get there. With awareness and acceptance come understanding and change. Things don't have to remain a certain way simply because they've always been that way. Behaviors can evolve.

Let's help each other. If you're struggling with this issue, I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

"I'll Remember You"

When it came to just about anything, Jarrett and I didn't agree.

That proved to be a bit problematic, given that he was my boss.

Jarrett hired me to work for him in 2003. He was marketing communications manager in a department that functioned as an internal agency for a large financial-services provider. My job: to write about health insurance.

Exciting? On even the best day, no. But I had two children. Obligations. The company was highly regarded. The pay was good. My skill set, as they say, was a match.

So, onward and upward. I reported for work and planned to have a pretty easy time of things. But soon it became clear: I hadn't planned on Jarrett.

Ah, Jarrett. First impressions: The guy was nice. Nice as could be. Also enthusiastic. Eager as a Boy Scout, he wanted to help me succeed. He wanted to help everyone succeed.

He also really liked details. And spreadsheets. And internal deadlines. I quickly realized that simply because I had a deadline that was a month away didn't mean Jarrett wouldn't be checking daily to see how I was doing.

It didn't take us long to realize the road ahead was likely to be bumpy. The more he encouraged me to do things a certain way, the more I balked. The more I urged him to allow me to do things my way, the more nervous he became.

"I like the final product," he would say. "But I need to know how you got there. I need to know your process."

"For the love of God, why?" I'd respond. And then, often, just: "No."

Looking back, I have no idea why I thought being so insubordinate was OK. I have no idea why he didn't fire me. Maybe he tried, but probably not. He was that nice.

I had bonded with Jarrett's boss, and I sought his counsel. Although Dale and I were friends, his allegiance was, as it should have been, to the department.

"Stop being so hard on him," Dale said. "My God. He's a good guy. Just do a little of what he wants. Just a little."

Maybe Dale wore me down. Maybe I was tired of fighting. Or maybe I realized that if I wanted to keep my job, I'd have to compromise. So for a project I was working on, one that had many parts, I went in on a weekend and created a spreadsheet.

I left it on Jarrett's chair. Monday morning, he stopped by to see me. I thought he was going to weep.

"This is beautiful -- amazing!" he said, "All your collateral is here. All your deadlines." And then: "Let's just brighten up the colors a bit. Here, let me help you." And he sat down at my desk and turned my spreadsheet into a work of art.

And the worm turned.

As easily as we had become adversaries, we became -- well, not adversaries. And then it became clear: We were becoming friends. And as we began to like each other more, I worked harder to please him. And as I worked harder to please him, he eased up on the busywork.

We discovered a mutual love for bad '80s music and John Hughes movies. We'd quote lyrics and dialogue back and forth. I met his little daughters, whom he often brought into work late in the day or on weekends. And I heard often about his wife, Melanie, whom he summed up this way: "I can't believe she married me."

He studied the tchotchkes with which I decorated my office, and added to my collections with trinkets here and there. We collaborated on projects, and we laughed loudly and often.

One day, working with him in my office on a project that involved a challenging client, I also realized I was learning from him. We were commiserating, and I parroted one of his frequent pieces of advice back to him: "Once in a while, it's OK to let the other guy win."

"I couldn't have said it better," he replied.

Although we had become friends, our relationship also possessed some elements that resembled sibling rivalry; he won an award for a project, but had neglected to add my name to the entry, even though I'd worked on it. I sulked.

And once, after he had given up Diet Mountain Dew for a whole year but was continuing to crave it, I decided to test him. It was his birthday, and I bought an extra-large, extra-cold bottle, tied some ribbon around the neck, walked into his office and set it down in front of him.

I heard the hiss of the opening bottle cap before I'd walked six paces. He told me I was evil, but he drank the whole thing.  

One day in 2008, Dale called me and Jennifer, another team member, into a meeting. Jarrett was already in the room.

"Jarrett has accepted an opportunity outside the company," Dale said. "He's leaving."

I started to cry.

For the next couple of weeks, I wouldn't let him talk to me. Then, one day, he sent me an email. I still have it.

"I want to tell you about this. Please," he wrote. "You'll be so happy for me. This job is perfect."

And he did, and I was, and it was.

His last day, we went to lunch. Over barbecue -- side dishes for me, ribs for him -- we laughed about our journey. I made light of things, as I often do when I'm sad or nervous. I didn't want him to go.

As we went to leave, he said, "Let's not go back to work."

He's still my boss for the rest of the day, I figured. So, OK.

We ran an errand first; Melanie had seen a door she liked at the second-hand home-improvement store, so he went to buy it for her. He was excited to surprise her and talked, again, about having "married up."

And then we just drove.

We headed up to the area north of town where he had grown up; he pointed out landmarks and told his patented "Jarrett stories" -- long, with embellishments. We stopped for ice cream. And, of course, we tuned the radio to an '80s station.

"I Remember You" by Skid Row came on. He opened the windows. The wind blew us around. We sang at the top of our lungs on the way back to the office.

As he was dropping me off at my car, I felt I needed to somehow put a cap on things.

"I was hard on you," I said. "I shouldn't have been. But we got past it. I've always wondered if maybe you looked at me like one of your projects. I was a challenge that you knew you had to try to solve."

He smiled. "Something like that, at the beginning," he said. "Now you're just my friend."

Jarrett and I stayed in touch. The last time we talked was a year ago; I wanted to tell him about my new job. He was doing well, happy at work, happy with Melanie and their girls. He was planning, always planning. Working on a deck. Creating a spreadsheet, naturally, to help Melanie pack for a camping trip.

He was Jarrett. And a week ago, unexpectedly, he died.

At the funeral, I sat next to Dale, who had so long ago urged me to cut Jarrett some slack, and I thought about all the lessons I'd learned through that experience: My way is not always the best way. Winning is not always the most important thing; above all, proceed with kindness.

And strive to possess the grace of this man who sought to win me over when I was behaving too badly to deserve to be won.

I left the church and started my car. The radio came on, and I sat in disbelief: "I'll Remember You" was just starting.

I rolled down the windows, I let the wind blow me around, and I sang at the top of my lungs.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Talking about your body parts could save your life. Really.

When I became a mother, I was determined not to use euphemisms in teaching my kids the names of their anatomical parts. I reasoned things out like this: If your elbow is your elbow but your penis is your pee-pee, eventually you're going to grow up and realize that your penis is, in fact, your penis, and you're going to wonder why your parents shrouded that particular part in the mystery of a fake name.

That strategy worked pretty well for the most part, except for the time Scott, at 2, began pointing and announcing to everyone in the grocery store, "He's a boy! He has a penis! She's a girl! She has a vagina!" And then there was the time he drew a penis on his gingerbread man at preschool much the way he had drawn elbows and a nose.

But for the most part, I was glad we had called things what they were, and neither child seemed to feel any shame or weirdness about any portion of his or her anatomy.

I grew up in much the same straight-shooting way, as did a lot of people I know; I was a kid in the "Free to Be You and Me" early '70s, after all. But it struck me this week that for some reason, as we reach adulthood, many of us seem to regress, shying away from calling things what they are. And that reticence can cause problems for some of us; believe it or not, it can even indirectly cost us our lives.

(A note here: If you're squeamish or hate it when writers volunteer too much information, you're going to hate this post, so you'll want to stop reading now.)  

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed an abnormality that I knew would need a doctor's attention. I made an appointment, but the doctor was busy, so it would take two weeks for me to be seen.

So, hypochondriac that I am, I filled those two weeks by reading everything I could about my particular issue. Of course, I ended up certain I had cancer, the way I always believe I do.

But I also was struck to learn this:

Because women are reluctant to check the areas gynecologists typically pay attention to -- and because once they find something strange, they're embarrassed to see a health-care provider about it -- many cancers of the reproductive tract are diagnosed so late that the prognosis is frequently horrible.

Let's think about what that means. Because as women, we shy away from checking parts of our own bodies -- and because we're reluctant to call the doctor's office and use the words "vagina" or "vulva" -- we risk our health. How can that be OK?

And it's certainly not just women -- according to many articles I came across, men are worse. And when it comes to digestive issues, both sexes are equally skittish; colonoscopies are such an effective tool, but because we can't bring ourselves to talk about our bathroom habits, we shy away from scheduling them.

Why is this? Chances are, it's at least partially because the puritanical ethics on which our country was founded have been passed down, intact, from generation to generation. Most of us don't consider it polite to talk about certain body parts in mixed company.

And we know the reason for that: sex. The body parts we feel uneasy talking about are the ones involved with sexual acts. And that's really ironic and really unfortunate because, unless you're truly an exception, those parts spend most of their time involved in things decidedly non-sexual. 

Who decided we can freely talk about elbows and noses but not about vaginas or testicles? If we're using those words in non-sexual contexts, what could possibly be offensive about them?

For years now, Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues has been doing beautiful job of expressing what I'm trying to say here. By teaching ourselves to feel comfortable monitoring, and talking about, our own anatomies, we can only enhance our reproductive health. But hard as Ensler may have tried to change the landscape, we have a long way to go.

We're doing better when it comes to our breasts: Organizations that raise money for research have sought to de-sexualize breasts in recent years and urge a focus on breast health. Activists like my friend Bridget Pargulski tirelessly lobby legislators to legally require radiologists to indicate if a woman has dense breast tissue that could hide a suspicious mass on a mammogram. We're talking about breasts in ways that are not at all titillating, and that's certainly as it should be.

We need similar activism around the health of our reproductive organs. Here are some sobering statistics: When it's diagnosed early, the five-year survival rate for one type of cancer of the reproductive area, vulvar melanoma, is 82 percent. But because it's almost always diagnosed late, only 16 percent of women who have it actually survive five years. Similarly, according to the National Cancer Institute, by the time most cancers of the vagina are found, the mean survival rate is only 57 percent.

Both these cancers are rare. But if you have one of them, or one of your loved ones has been diagnosed with one of them, the fact that they're rare is of no consequence.

We can do better, starting with our parenting of young children; the website A Mighty Girl helps parents talk to young girls about their bodies. We "girls" who are a little older can find help from such resources as What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist if She Was Your Best Friend by ob/gyn Lissa Rankin. (And if you don't like those, just Google and find a million other resources.)

I'm not perfect when it comes to this stuff. Often, when I find something odd on my own body, it takes me a few days to muster the courage to make a doctor's appointment; in my case, it's because I always assume the news will be bad,

But as my doctor and I were finishing our conversation today, she said, "You did what you should have done; you checked your body, and you saw something wasn't quite right, and you got here right away. We can't ask for more than that."  

Sometimes that's not enough; many diseases are way too cruel to care how vigilant a person is. You can monitor yourself and still miss things; you can catch things that are so aggressive that your carefulness is of no consequence. 

But any time we can stack the deck in our favor, we need to do it. Check your body, use the words, and, if you need to, call the doctor. It's not always that easy, but sometimes, it really, really is. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

This election cycle, I'm promising a politics-free zone on social media. Won't you join me?

I am a Democrat. I'm a liberal Democrat. And chances are very, very good -- ridiculously, amazingly good -- that in the 2016 presidential election, I will vote accordingly.

And from now until November 9, 2016, that's likely the last you'll hear from me about politics.

That's not to say you won't see photos of me at campaign events here and there, and that's not to say I won't post the occasional diatribe about an issue that's important to me.

But I won't be haranguing you about my candidate and why I feel you should vote for that person; I won't be getting down and dirty in long Facebook exchanges with people whose views are different from mine. I won't post sarcastic missives about the other party's candidate, and I won't post jokes that poke fun at that person.

Why all the promises?

Leading up to the 2012 election, I was all about sharing on social media the many reasons I felt my candidate should be elected. I posted facts and figures and memes and anything and everything from Nate Silver; I cajoled and harangued and battled with friends who championed the opposition. I hurt some feelings, and my own feelings were hurt. I was "unfriended" a few times, and I put a lot of time and emotional energy into trying to convince others that my opinion was the correct one.

Don't get me wrong; I still feel my opinion is the correct one. But as I spent time on Facebook last night and saw friends' reactions to Hillary Clinton's announcing her candidacy, I initially wanted to enter the fray. But then I thought: Not this time.

Here's why: because being politically obnoxious on social media yields no return on investment. When I think of my most-diehard-Republican Facebook friends, I wonder: If I lean on them really, really hard about my candidate's wonderful qualities, will I change their minds and affect the way they vote?

And of course the answer is a resounding "no."

So, then, what would my reasoning be for being politically active on Facebook? To show others how astute and aware I am? That's not relevant; my friends would expect that of me, as I'd expect that of them. To try to incite controversy? Nope, I seem to do enough of that in real life.

When others post nasty things about the candidate I support, their posts don't make me think, "Gosh, maybe they're right, and perhaps I should change my party affiliation and vote the way that person wants me to vote."

They make me think, "Wow, that person is kind of obnoxious, and I sure wish he or she would respect the fact that we all have different opinions." 

I like to be politically active. I'll volunteer to help with my candidate's campaign. I'll be the anonymous voice behind the phone call that reminds you to vote, and I'll "like" friends' posts that remind us all to exercise our Constitutional right to do so.I'll talk enthusiastically with others who share my views, but at the office and online, I'll fly under the radar -- not because I'm ashamed or afraid, but because I'm determined to respect others' opinions the way I'd like them to respect mine.

No candidate is perfect. Jesus doesn't love you more -- at least I don't think He does -- for voting for one over the other. No elected official can win over 100 percent of the population and effect total domestic harmony. Life will not be perfect under Rand Paul or Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio or Elizabeth Warren. We have a variety of candidates every election cycle because we have a variety of opinions, and that's as it should be.

If you want to know whom I'm supporting, you can probably guess; if not, ask me. Either way, you won't see it on my Facebook page. You may very well end up blocking me because of my opinions on books or music or dogs or running or cell-phone providers, but it won't be because I'm trashing your candidate.