Recently, I was searching online for a birthday gift for a friend, something involving his two main interests, music and cooking. I entered those words in the search and up popped loads of images of salt and pepper shakers, many in the shape of musical instruments. One pair, white porcelain and adorned with musical notes, brought me back to an unforgettable moment from my childhood. I had accompanied my parents to a Saturday afternoon lunch at the home of Keith and Jane, their longtime friends. I must have been about ten years old and can’t recall why I was included in this outing, though I suppose we were heading somewhere directly from their house. A few minutes into lunch, a terribly awkward incident occurred. Ever since, whenever I see a white porcelain saltshaker I think of that day.
In Good Hands
Two months ago, I closed the door behind me as I exited my home office. I had been holed up in there with our dogs as work was happening in the kitchen. Walking the few feet toward the stairs, I was suddenly startled as our hound-mix, Dolan, brushed past me. Apparently, I hadn’t been as careful as I thought when closing the door. In an effort to catch him, I pivoted, losing my balance. I twisted around trying to right myself by awkwardly – and futilely – grabbing for the cat tree in the hallway (we have a cat and two dogs, and yes, they all get along). I fell backwards, luckily landing just before the top step. A sharp, shooting pain in my shoulder overtook any surprise I felt. I spent a few seconds trying to convince myself it was nothing serious, but the impulse to deny was no match for the pain.
A Simple Word That Made Sparks Fly
“You have just insulted everything I have done for the past twenty years,” a member of the audience shouted.
“… it’s that kind of narrow thinking that created the mess,” the speaker retorted.
Those words were hurled between a speaker and an attendee at hospital conference I recently attended. It all started with the use of one word. A single word. Not any of the words that imply hate or racism or misogyny or violence or political innuendo. Not even close. It was as seemingly benign and uncontroversial as any word could be. This incident gave me insight into a way that words matter that I hadn’t fully considered.
Happy Birthday, Roberta
At the time, I thought it was hands-down the most boring thing I ever had to sit through. I was nine, and my sister, Roberta, took me to a Bunraku play, a Japanese stage artform in which dolls act out a dramatic story. We were sitting way in the back of a dark theater on Canal Street in Manhattan, and it was difficult to see the action on the stage. Plus, I couldn’t follow the story. I tried not to fidget since I could tell Roberta was enjoying the play and I didn’t want her to think I didn’t appreciate her taking me. When I was young, Roberta took me to many events. Baseball games were the most fun, the circus a close second. She was nine years older than I, and in her presence, I somehow felt older than I actually was. Looking back, I think it was probably because she didn’t treat me like a child. She respected my opinions and seemed to value everything I had to say. I learned so much from Roberta, possibly more from her than from just about anyone else.
The Dog Park - a Great Place (and Not Just for Dogs!)
On a recent visit to the dog park, Dolan, our hound mix, was off in the distance playing among a group of five dogs. I was standing next to a woman named Leigh whose yellow lab was one of Dolan’s favorite companions. After a few minutes, Leigh realized it was time for them to leave. “C’mon, Max,” she called out. It was to no avail. Max was not ready to go. Leigh pulled a treat from her pocket and waved it. Max caught a glimpse. There was no mistaking that signal. Max bolted toward Leigh at Mach 3 speed with the other dogs in hot pursuit. He slid into an abrupt halt directly in front of her, his weighty tail wagging so fiercely it created a breeze that could be felt up to a few feet away. Though panting heavily, Max couldn’t contain his exhilaration at the thought of the morsel, his rejoicing suggestive of lottery winning jubilation. I’ve come to appreciate how important the dog park is these days. And not just for the dogs.
Uplifted by Maria's Spirit
I have a clear childhood memory that was rekindled in recent weeks. I was about six years old, and my parents were excitedly preparing our home for a cousin’s forthcoming visit. It was not one of the cousins I already knew, and I could feel the heightened anticipation in the air. My parents seemed very eager and happy to be welcoming her. Maria lives in Poland, they told me, and this was to be her first visit to the United States. I also remember hearing them discuss the great lengths it took to arrange the trip. Much of it, I later learned, was planned by my father’s uncles in California, which is where Maria would spend most of the time on that trip as well on subsequent visits to the U.S. My parents also said that Maria would be bringing her son, Staczek, who was about my age, and I was excited about that. As I would come to learn, Maria was a remarkable person with an extraordinary life story.
A book club question that evoked an embarrassing memory
Recently, a book club invited me to speak about Primal Calling, and there I was asked about my high school experience. Since Primal Calling begins when Jack, the main character, is finishing high school, the question flowed from a discussion about the ups and downs of that period in our lives. The questioner got more specific, asking about my best and worst high school moments. The best, hands down, was graduating. Then I shared the worst.
Letters from my brother
In preparing for our move to a new house next spring, Amy and I have been slowly cleaning out our basement. Poring through the mass of boxes we have not opened since we moved into this house many years ago, it’s been like stepping into a dusty time machine. Two weeks ago, during one of our clean-out sessions, I came upon an old black briefcase – its laminate exterior flaking off from age – tucked away between plastic bins filled with our kids’ baby blankets. I hadn’t opened that briefcase in decades. But I did know what was inside. Since I was sure it would evoke strong feelings of nostalgia, I thought it best to open it some other time, when I could look through without feeling rushed. But at that moment, I couldn’t help myself and vowed to indulge in nothing more than a quick glimpse. The rusty latches were difficult to pry open but as they did, the briefcase, swollen with memorabilia, practically exploded, the contents spilling out.
What Alicia’s visit to the ER says about our health care system
I was recently on a panel discussing the direction of health policy. At the Q and A following our presentations, a member of the audience asked each of us to share a personal experience that had influenced our views on health policy. I instantly recalled a late-night encounter I had quite some time ago with a young woman in the emergency room of the hospital where I worked. Her story has stayed with me as it touched me deeply at the time and did much to crystallize my thinking about how our health care system is broken.
Ryan – A Dream of a Dog
In my last post, I wrote about the tragic Big Thompson Canyon flood of 1976. I received an outpouring of response, with most focusing on the heartache of Amy’s and my parents when they thought we might have been lost in that horrible deluge in Colorado. Some readers also asked about other aspects of that cross-country trip, like what was our favorite place to visit and any other memorable events. So, here’s another story from that trip. After recounting the tragedy of the Thompson Canyon flood, it’s time for something a little lighter. It’s about our first dog, Ryan, a Golden Retriever whom we got in California during that trip.
The Big Thompson Canyon Flood of 1976
I recently heard about a 45th anniversary memorial service for victims of the Big Thompson Canyon flood. Here’s how the flood was reported in the in the Coloradoan: “On July 31, 1976, the skies opened up over the Big Thompson Canyon, setting off the deadliest natural disaster in Colorado history that claimed 144 lives... A year's worth of rain fell in 70 minutes. Clouds piled 12 miles into the mountain sky unleashed a deluge, setting off the most powerful flood since glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. The chaos along an otherwise trickling Big Thompson River… carved out a chapter in the history books as Colorado's deadliest natural disaster.” Amy and I were there on that fateful day. And as much as that day has become powerfully etched in my memory, so is a phone call I had about the experience three days later.
The angst of secrecy
Primal Calling is about a young man named Jack Davies, who discovers his never-before-seen birth certificate and, on it, the name of the father he never even knew he had. His life is thrown into a tailspin. Jack embarks on a secret search to find him, fearful of telling his Mom out of concern that she might try to stop him. Along the way, he learns the stories of others with similar life predicaments, people engaged in all-consuming pursuits to find a lost loved one or a parent or child they never knew existed. I’m often asked if the anecdotes in the book are fictional. The answer is yes. Well, mostly. One of the more astonishing stories that Jack comes across is true and is based on distant relatives of mine.
A teacher I'll never forget
I was recently asked to contribute a piece to Story Time Teen, a website featuring letters from authors to their teenaged selves. I wrote about an experience that has stayed with me for over 50 years, from the time that my family made a short-lived move from our Queens home to a Baltimore suburb. The story is about my 7th grade teacher who taught me what real strength looks like. Among my most vivid memories, I think of it as a most transformational moment of my childhood. Many who read the original posting on Story Time Teen wrote to me, saying that it triggered memories from their childhoods, spurring them to re-evaluate the meaning and influence of those experiences. These readers also encouraged me to share it here, in my blog.
Vincent Van Joe
My father-in-law, Joe Fishman, passed away last year, three weeks after his 96th birthday. This is his birthday month, and his was a life worth celebrating. Joe worked his way up from a mechanic who serviced large industrial printing presses to become the company’s national service manager. He dabbled in carpentry and art from the time he was a young man. He loved to paint the great masters, favoring Gaugin and Van Gogh, but he took the greatest pride in the frames he built for them. In his later years, he also learned how to create stained glass art. We have some of Joe’s art in our home, but one painting especially stands out, although it almost got Amy and me into big trouble.
Shooting straight from the hip
My friend, Sam, was recently hospitalized for hip surgery. The day after he was discharged, I called to see how he was feeling. He was relieved that it was over as the surgery was a long time in coming. Just after recovery, the surgeon told him that the procedure was straightforward and there were no complications. However, Sam told me that he was troubled by a comment made by a surgical resident the morning following surgery, shortly before he was to be discharged.
Learning from the return of the cicadas
Last week, I read an article in The NY Times about cicadas, now emerging in various parts of the country after having been buried deep beneath the soil for seventeen years. According to the article, cicadas have an undeservedly bad reputation, often mistaken for locusts bent on destruction. Actually, cicadas are harmless and, in fact, are not even related to locusts. Once above ground, their only goal is to mate. A couple of days after reading about the cicadas, I met some colleagues in the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx for a work/social visit. It was a perfect spring day, and with the magnificent weather and the relaxing of COVID-related restrictions, the gardens were brimming with visitors. There’s something about the cicadas that helped me to appreciate what I observed that day.
In a supermarket recently, I passed a woman who was using a motorized shopping cart. I might not have taken notice since she did not seem to need help. But since the pandemic hit, I have been conscious of keeping distance, so I’m more aware of those around me, especially indoors. The woman seemed to be in her fifties, was masked and was wearing a black sweater and dark green pants. She was petite, and the scooter seat was quite low, presumably set that way to make it easy for her to get on and off. As we passed, I happened to glance in the basket affixed to the front of her scooter. There was something about the collection of products that struck me, although for the first minute or so it didn’t quite register why. But as I continued navigating the aisles, I realized what the collection of items in her basket brought to mind.
Making a difference in the Bronx, one patient at a time
From time to time, I’ll be posting profiles of students who completed my program, the MBA in Healthcare Leadership, at SUNY Empire State College. Today, I am highlighting Anne E. O’Keefe, clinical director of Montefiore Medical Center’s community-based long term care program. Anne and her team have made important strides in bringing health services directly into Bronx communities that have a long history of being highly underserved.
Remembering My Father
Decades ago, my father, George, and I got into a stalemate over an essay I implored him to write. I often reflect on that moment, but especially now as this is a milestone year, the year he would have turned 100. He died eighteen years ago, and I think of him so often. Remembering the impasse over the essay helps me to understand the kind of father he was.
Every patient wants to feel that they, not just their symptoms, matter
Last week I shared a story about our family doctor, adored by many, who lost his life to COVID. Several readers wrote saying how wonderful it would be if all doctors were like him, so I thought I’d share one more story about a visit to another doctor. In this situation, things got off to a good start, but at some point went awry. What could have been a positive experience turned out to be quite different. It involves my aunt Doris, whom I wrote about a few weeks ago. What makes this story extraordinary to me is just how ordinary it is.