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.
Dr. Boudwin, Taking the Time to Listen
Last week, I mentioned that our family physician, Dr. James Boudwin, passed away last April from COVID. This reference sparked much interest and I appreciate all the feedback. Some asked how he contracted the virus. (Though he exercised caution, he apparently caught it very early on, before we fully understood the mitigation protocols.) But most thought it touching that I referred to him as our beloved family physician and appreciated that I included his photo. I’d like to share a story about him that speaks to the kind of physician he was, a doctor deeply devoted to his patients.
The Pandemic and the Healthcare System: Where do We Go from Here?
Recently, I was invited to write an article about the impact of the pandemic on our healthcare system for a SUNY journal, to be published in the spring. I wrote it just as we were approaching the year anniversary of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic. For a year now, our lives, our conversations, our relationships have been dominated by its all-consuming nature. A year ago, for so many of us, this new virus was a thing somewhere else, wherever that might be, maybe a nursing home in Washington or a confined community in New York. It was very real, yet also very abstract. Scary, for sure, but for the brief period in February and very early March, it was distant from most of us. That period lasted for the metaphorical equivalent of a minute.
Best friend or harshest critic?
Where does inspiration for a story come from?
Inspiration for a book comes in any number of ways. Sometimes from a long-held idea, other times from out of the blue. The idea for the book I’m currently writing came to me from the latter – when we brought my elderly aunt to come to live in our home at the end of her life. It crystallized both the joys and challenges of caring for an elderly loved one and opened the door to hearing similar stories from so many.
It’s never too late to tap into a passion
Since Primal Calling was published, I’m often asked how I came to write a novel. Apparently, it was something few who know me expected. I have always loved to write. But fiction was put on the back burner, partly because it was rough to find the time, but mostly because being a “novelist” felt outside of my own expectations. But doing it has been eye-opening. I had to research some subjects I was unfamiliar with. I learned a lot about oil exploration, searching for lost or unknown relatives, and international espionage (I know – sounds like totally different subjects, but they come together in the book). But of even greater value is what I learned about myself and life’s possibilities.