Love Is Forever II

Part 2: Hal’s Journey to Death

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By the time Hal entered the care facility, he hadn’t eaten for a couple of days, but I’m pretty sure he felt better than he had for a long time. His speech had improved drastically, and he had almost completely stopped coughing – both inestimable blessings. His attitude was remarkable, his mind relatively clear, and everyone saw surprising wit that was delightful, if disconcerting. The first morning when I arrived for a visit, Hal was eager to tell me what he called a great irony. “The first thing you see when you walk in the door of this place is the dining room, and it’s the biggest room in the place, but most of the people here don’t eat.” He chuckled, “Isn’t that something?”

The in-house salon was open for business, and Hal wanted a haircut. He chatted away with the stylist and when she asked if he wanted to make another appointment, he told her, “No. This is my last one.” I guess she assumed that he would be going home, because she wished him luck. He sent me a knowing smile.

When I met with the hospice social worker, she wanted to know the plan for after Hal’s death. I told her that he had long wanted to donate his body to science and that I had made arrangements with Wayne State University. She seemed unsatisfied and kept questioning me. Was I sure that was what he wanted? Why Wayne State instead of the University of Michigan or Michigan State University? She didn’t seem to like it when I told her that we chose Wayne State because it was free, and Hal loved free. I finally suggested she speak to him. Hal assured her that donating his body to science was something he had always wanted to do, and he was gratified that I had been able to work it out. She asked him what benefits he could see in donating his body. He thought for a moment, then replied, “I don’t really know, but that has to be more worthwhile than sticking it in the dirt or burning it up.” A bit shocked, she continued and asked him if he preferred UM or MSU over Wayne State. He was amused. “You know,” he told her. “It isn’t a football game!”

Hal had some company during his first week in the nursing home. Jeff and Jerry were regular visitors, granddaughter Lizzie arrived from Texas, and my kids came to say goodbye to “Uncle Pete.” I remember when my kids visited, Hal hosted them in the front parlor. They chatted for a couple of hours and eventually Geoffrey said, “Uncle Pete, we have to leave, soon.” Hal quipped, “Yeah, me too.”

Lizzie was Hal’s only grandchild. She was precious to him because of her sweet spirit, and because Lizzie’s mother, Hal’s only daughter, had died suddenly when Lizzie was just a little girl. It had always amazed me that grandpa and granddaughter were so close, because in all of Lizzie’s 20 years, they had seen each other only once each year. Lizzie had planned a surprise visit to her Grandpa Pete on her birthday, but moved the trip up a couple of weeks when apprised of his situation. Hal and Lizzie adored one another, and it was fitting that they were together during many of his last days. They spent hours and hours together that week, reminiscing, and perusing diaries and photo albums. Lizzie tenderly cared for Hal emotionally, as well as medically. She did for him things I couldn’t bring myself to do, and she stayed all day, so I could “get organized” at home. She entertained him, and tended him with great love and gentleness and devotion. On the night Lizzie said her final goodbye, I stayed away until she called for me to fetch her. I held her across the car console while she poured out her sorrow. I felt so sorry for her, because she was losing her last real link to her mother, as well as her Grandpa Pete.

By the time Hal entered his second and final week at the care facility, I started to get protective. I made a “no visitors” policy, because I noticed that whenever somebody was around, he wore himself out with his need to entertain. The visitors that second week were mostly hospice personnel: the nurse, the nursing aide, the social worker, etc. One of the few complaints from Hal came when the hospice aide gave him a bath. He was a bit frustrated, because he couldn’t seem to make her understand that he wanted hotter water. He never once complained about hunger or thirst. In fact, a new caregiver put a glass of water in front of him, by mistake, and he told her that he wasn’t allowed to have it. One morning when I arrived, I was met at the front desk by several alarmed caregivers. Hal had put himself into a wheelchair and wheeled himself down the hall to physical therapy, where he had asked to use the exercise bike. This seemed so bizarre to the caregivers that they were even questioning the medical plan. I asked if they had let him ride the bike and they looked at me like I was crazy. “He could fall!” they cried. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What does that matter, now?” I asked Hal about his rogue run in the wheelchair. He was dismissive. “I was bored. I just wanted something to do.” Well, buddy,” I told him. “You totally freaked out the staff.”pexels-photo-355302.jpeg

One of my most difficult tasks during the last two weeks of Hal’s life, was what to do about his only son. I spoke on the phone to Hal’s son just twice during all the years Hal lived with us. The first time was before Hal had even moved in. He told me he couldn’t  fathom that Jeff and I would move Hal into our home. “What about your privacy?!” I responded that it was a big house and we didn’t do it on the kitchen table, much anymore (eye-roll). The other time I spoke with him was years later when I called to say that Hal had a setback with his new hip. Never once, in all the years Hal was with us, did his son contact me to ask how his dad was doing.

During those years, Hal’s son visited three times. All three were tremendously disheartening. The first time was for Hal’s 90th birthday celebration. We had a big party for him and many people came to wish him well, even relatives from New York and friends from West Virginia. Hal’s son was flying in for a week, and naturally, he was staying with us. He arrived halfway through the party. Hal knew that he had been due to arrive the day before the party, and had been watching for him, but there was no way to make contact. A couple of hours after the party ended, Hal’s son left to visit some friends and that began the week’s routine: he’d stop by around 5:00 for a beer with his dad, shower and change, eat dinner, leave. I guess visiting his dad for an hour each day was the price he had to pay for free food and lodging (and alcohol) while he visited his friends.

The second time he visited, someone dropped him off at our house. Father and son enjoyed a beer together on the porch. Hal showed off his packages of new socks and underwear, which his son admired, saying, “Hey Dad, you don’t need all these,” and then promptly helped himself to four pairs of socks and four pairs of underwear. He spent a few hours with his dad that afternoon, and after dinner asked if he could borrow my car to visit some friends. The next time we saw him, three days had passed. No contact (no cell phone). No car. The third night, we locked the house up tight and I determined to report my car stolen the next morning. But when Jeff left for work, my car was in the driveway, Hal’s son asleep at the wheel. He offered no explanation or apology. I took back the underwear.

The last time Hal saw his son, more than two years before Hal’s death, was during another week-long visit to Michigan. According to his itinerary, he was in Michigan for three days before he visited his dad. Naturally, he wasn’t invited to stay with us (fool me once…), and on the only day he visited, I was polite, but made myself scarce. Father and son played Scrabble and went through photo albums. They perused the gardens and talked and laughed and reminisced. They went out for lunch. When I fixed Hal’s dinner that evening, I asked how it had gone. He told me how happy he was to see his son and what a great visit they had. He said he felt sorry for his poor son, though, who was just coming down with a terrible cold and was feeling really “rough.” That stopped me in my tracks: I was livid. What kind of idiot spends the day breathing all over a 91-year-old man when coming down with a terrible cold?! How could a 53-year-old man not have more sense?! Sure enough, two weeks later Hal was in the hospital with pneumonia.

Each Fall, it had been Hal’s habit to visit his son in Washington. By the time he was in his late eighties, his age made the trip unwise. He was getting a bit confused every now and then, and could no longer figure out a reasonable solution to even the smallest problem. I disapproved of the week-long diet of Lean Cuisine he was served there, and I worried fall-foliage-maple-leaves-autumn-colours-emerge-226007.jpegabout a potential medical issue like a stroke or a broken hip. What if he got stranded in an airport? What if I couldn’t get him home so I could care for him? I told him that he had visited his son for years, and that now it was time for his son to visit him. He agreed, but sadly admitted that he didn’t think it would happen. Hal was right, and to say that I held his son in contempt, is an understatement.

When Hal first entered the nursing home, I didn’t call his son. I was overwhelmed already, and I worried he’d make trouble. The two of them had a routine call on the third Wednesday of each month, so I figured if Hal didn’t make the call, I would get a text checking up on him. The third Wednesday came and went before Hal had even entered the nursing home. After Lizzie arrived, I was reticent for Hal’s son to show up and interfere with their time together. Lizzie and I discussed, at length, whether to call her uncle. We were both disgusted with him for his neglect of his father. We were afraid he wouldn’t have Hal’s best interests at heart. Neither of us trusted him. We decided to leave Hal’s phone accessible and check often for messages. If his son called or texted any of our phones, I would return the call and bring him up to date. Of course, if Hal asked for him, we would summon him, immediately. Hal never once mentioned his son during the last two weeks of his life, and no message ever came. By the time Lizzie left, I believed that Hal needed peace and solitude to let go. Right or wrong, I was single-minded in my purpose to do what I believed was best for Hal, everyone else be damned. Once Hal was unconscious, a visit would have benefitted only his son, and I wasn’t feeling very charitable about anybody but Hal. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t behave myself if his son did show up. I left it alone.

After Lizzie left, things started to get serious. Hal was much weaker and napped quite a bit. He spent a lot of time giving me lists of certain possessions for certain people, but most of it he had already disseminated. I stayed with him most of the time then, going home only to sleep.

One evening, as I prepared to leave for the night, Hal told me that he wanted me to do something for him. He wanted me to stop at “that big slab near the front door where people hang around in wheelchairs.” Ah – the reception desk. He said, “I want you to stop at the front desk and tell them that you have had it. Tell them you are all through. Tell them you have done your part and I’m their responsibility, now. Tell them you wash your hands of it. They can call you after I die.”
I was incredulous. “Hal. I’m not going to do that.”
Hal was testy. “But, I want you to.”
I was firm. “Well, I’ll do almost anything, but I’m not doing that.”

Hal tried to guilt me. “Even though I want you to?”             pexels-photo-424759.jpeg
I was adamant. “Yep. Not doing it.”
Hal was whiney. “Why not?”
I was firm. “We need to see this through, together.”
Hal was weepy. “Oh, good.”

From time to time over the years, people have made Jeff and me out to be saints for taking Hal into our home. We were not saints, and it has always embarrassed me, because it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I have always been very up front about the fact that I am no good with old people. I simply don’t have the disposition for the elderly. It was always kind of a private joke between my sister and me. I was always all about the babies. Before I was old enough to babysit, I was a mother’s helper for neighboring toddlers. When other teens were at the high school football games on Friday nights, I was babysitting for a teacher’s family. In college, I earned spending money babysitting professors’ kids, and later I was director of a daycare center, then a kindergarten teacher. My sister, on the other hand, was never comfortable with kids. She had one child, undeniably precious to her, but the truth is Kerry loved old people. She visited nursing homes and volunteered to serve on boards and committees serving the elderly. She was happiest visiting with her husband’s grandmother and later his mother. We always laughed about how life turns out: she got the grandchildren and I got the old man. Jeff and I were not saints. For more than half of his time with us, Hal pretty much took care of himself and had his own life. He sang in the church choir and played in an early music group at the university. He helped in the garden, cooked his own breakfast, emptied the dishwasher, and cared for the dogs and rabbits when I was traveling on business. He paid his own way, and sometimes he paid our way. We were not saints. The reason we invited Hal to live with us is that we were it. There was nobody close to him who even noticed that he was in need, and that he should not live alone, anymore. That’s it. That’s all. I remember Jeff’s mother was horrified when we told her that we had invited our elderly friend to live in our home. She shrieked, “Nancy, do you have any idea what you are getting yourself into???” My reply was simple and honest. “Of course not.” I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up to be Hal’s power of attorney, either, but here I was stumbling and bumbling my way through it. Many times, during those two weeks, I felt equal parts of horror and amazement, but if Hal could take this journey with such grace, I sure could support him.

A couple of days before Hal died, he asked me, “Is this it?” When I asked what he meant by that, he wondered if he was just going to lie there in that bed for months and months, no use to anybody, wasting my time, bored to death. (It had never occurred to me that dying could be boring!) I told him that he was down to days, not months, and he said he was glad.  He asked me how it would all come down. How would he die? I told him that I didn’t really know, but I figured he’d just take a nap at some point, and not wake up. He brightened. “Okay!” he said. “I’m going to take a nap now and not wake up. This is it. Good-bye.” I watched, bemused, as he folded his hands over his chest, made himself comfortable, and closed his eyes. I mean, I really didn’t think it could happen that way, but I had never imagined any of the circumstances of the recent past, so what did I know?  In about thirty seconds, one eye popped open and Hal peered at me. He said, “I have always loved you, even when you yelled at me.” I burst out laughing. “I have always loved you, Hal, even when I yelled at you.” He smiled and tried again. Again, one eye opened.  He fidgeted.  I assured him that he would die in God’s time and that he should not try to hasten it. He told me that when he had awakened in the morning, he had felt wonderful: no pain, no cough, no sticky mouth, and he thought that maybe he was in Heaven. “I hated to open my eyes to check,” he said. Then, he settled down for just a regular nap.

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LOVE IS FOREVER I

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“Life is now; love is forever.” –  Hal Peterson

Since my friend Hal died, I have intended to write about his passing. It has taken me nearly a year to process his death and dying, and to gain some perspective. When I finally began writing, I quickly realized that the task was enormous and that just one post would be so long that nobody would read it. And Hal would certainly want people to read it. How he loved to be the center of attention!

So the topic doesn’t overwhelm, I have settled on three installments.
Part #1:   Hal’s Diagnosis
Part  #2:  Hal’s Journey to Death
Part #3:  Hal’s Death and the Celebration of Hal’s Life

Hal was an academic and a musician. First and foremost, he considered himself a teacher. It would tickle him no end to think that somebody learned something from the fact that he chose to die the way he lived – with humor, acceptance and childlike trust.

Part 1:  Hal’s Diagnosis                                              pexels-photo-60372.jpeg                   

When Hal moved in with Jeff and me, he was already old.  He updated his will, and I agreed to be medical power of attorney. I assumed it meant that if he were comatose after a stroke or something, I would be the one to make the decision to “pull the plug.” Pretty daunting, but Hal was very clear about his wishes, and I was the obvious choice. What I never imagined is that I would be called upon to make a decision that would actually facilitate the end of his long life, and that many daunting and controversial decisions would be required of me until the end.  While I had wondered about how the end would come for Hal, I had never really thought about the process of his dying.

Hal was 94 when the beginning of the end commenced. I had just discovered that he was eligible for VA benefits and I needed his discharge papers for the application, so after breakfast I went into his room to get them. He was at his desk, writing a letter. He acknowledged that his perpetual nagging cough had tortured him throughout the night, but he seemed stoic. I asked about the discharge papers and he rose from his chair to fetch them. Right away, I could see that something was terribly wrong. Usually spry and scurrying, he clung to furniture to hold himself upright as he made his way across the room. I was alarmed and asked him what was wrong. Uncharacteristically, he snapped at me, “Is this a problem!?” I helped him sit down, and once he was seated, I plopped down into the chair he had just vacated.  Even before I spoke, I was distracted by the sight of his letter. It was completely illegible, not even words, but an array of symbols trailing down the page. I asked him about it and he told me that his penmanship had been “going downhill.” I noticed that his hands were shaking, and as I tried to discuss his balance and his hands, he really didn’t seem to register that anything was amiss. I called his doctor, and so began the remarkable 2 ½ week journey to the end of Hal’s long and exceptional life.

The trip to the doctor’s office led to the emergency room and eventually to an outrageously ill-advised discharge. I drove home in darkness, amid wind and freezing rain, with no idea how to get him out of the car, much less into the house. Jeff was away, I needed the prescription filled, and Hal needed some dinner. I called Jerry.

Jerry was Hal’s companion. He visited two mornings every week. Hal and Jerry played Scrabble, put together puzzles, went for haircuts, lunch and “field trips.” They gardened. When I called Jerry on that terrible night, he must have heard my panic. He said to give him an hour. Meanwhile, I picked up a McChicken and stopped for the medication. Once we arrived at home it got more difficult. I was sure I couldn’t get Hal from the car into the house, so I pulled partway into the garage and positioned a chair facing the front passenger door. Then, I eased Hal out of the car and pivoted him to sit in the chair. I used a table as a barrier to falling, backed out the car, and closed the garage door. I explained to Hal that he would have to stay in that chair in the garage until Jerry arrived. He was cooperative and seemed content. Even though our garage is heated, I kept him bundled up.  I washed off the little table and put his dinner in front of him. He thanked me, admitted he was “starving,” and asked about the dog. I brought Charley out to keep him company and sat down with him to wait for Jerry.   Then, I watched with alarm, as Hal disassembled his chicken sandwich and began to methodically wipe the entire tabletop with his bun. He said he wanted to clean up before dinner. This took a long time, but once satisfied, he ate what was left of his dinner. I waited with terrible apprehension.

At last, Jerry arrived. We quickly made a plan to move Hal into the house, bathe him, and put him to bed in an easy chair in the living room, so he would be upright for relief from his cough. Jerry would sleep on the couch next to him, because Hal couldn’t be trusted not to get out of the chair. Jerry half walked, and half carried Hal to the bathroom and sat him down to remove his clothes. As I helped, Hal reached out and carefully unfastened the buttons on my sweater. He thought he was unfastening his own buttons. My heart sank.

Hal hated that shower! He hollered that Jerry was “killing him” with freezing water (it was hot), but once he was settled, the night passed quietly, and in the morning he seemed much improved. He could walk under his own power and was lucid. When I got up, Jerry had him tucked into his own bed with instructions to call me when he woke. While Hal napped, I called his doctor. She was furious about his discharge the night before and alarmed by his condition. She ordered a visiting nurse, who immediately called to say she was on her way.

By the time the nurse arrived, Hal was awake. As she interviewed me, he arrived in the kitchen under his own power. She took his vitals, and all were normal. She interviewed him, and he responded appropriately. The two of them decided to enjoy a cup of coffee in front of the fire, but before he took even one sip, Hal began to sort of curl forward until his head was nearly on the table. He seemed to be sleeping. The nurse took his vitals, and with a look of dismay, called an ambulance. This time, I chose a different hospital.

While hospitalized for the next two days, Hal experienced varying degrees of awareness. Except for the cough, he was comfortable enough, but doctors couldn’t find anything really wrong with him. As usual, everyone raved about his perfect blood pressure and strong heart rate. The cough remained a mystery. Then, on the second afternoon, a speech pathologist happened to be passing Hal’s room and heard him coughing. She asked the attending physician if she could do some tests and just like that, after 15 years of specialists, there was a diagnosis. Hal had age-induced dysphagia: the inability to swallow.

Hal’s dysphagia was permanent and progressive, but treatable. Within minutes I was given helpful tools, like thickener for his food and drink. Eventually, they took him for more tests, and I snuck out to run some errands. As I checked items off my to-do list, I felt a profound sense of relief. Finally, some answers! Finally, somebody was telling us what to do about that damned cough. I returned to the hospital a bit rejuvenated, but when I swung open the door to his room, I faced an entire medical team.  They instructed me to sit.

The attending physician was clear: this was the worst case of dysphagia the hospital had ever seen. Nobody could understand how he had managed, since 90% of his food was going into his lungs. The situation was dire. Hal could no longer make decisions. The power of attorney was being invoked and I had three terrible choices. I could take Hal home, continue as before, and very soon he would develop pneumonia and die, or I could order a feeding tube to be inserted and he could live out his natural life. The third choice was shocking: food and water could be withheld to hasten his death. As the doctor outlined the choices, the rest of the team nodded agreement. Hal looked on, unaware. The doctor expected the decision to be made on the spot. I stalled by asking question after question. It was surreal.

Eventually, I told the team that I needed a little time to think it through. They gave me half an hour.  I tried to talk to Hal, but he just wasn’t “there.” I called his own doctor and she assured me that the attending physician was one of the best, and the team he had assembled was top-notch. Based on the information I gave her, she agreed with the choices. When the team returned, I asked about the feeding tube. If I made the decision to have a feeding tube inserted, could it be removed if I changed my mind? Yes. Okay, I decided. Go with the feeding tube. Buy some time. Arrangements were made for the surgery to insert the tube at 7:30 the following morning.

Driving home that night, I suddenly realized that I had made a terrible mistake. The feeling of wrongdoing was overwhelming. I thought, “What am I doing?! Hal would hate this! What am I thinking?! He has been very clear all along! Am I really going to put him through that? He always said that he picked me, because he knew I had the guts to do the right thing for him. He’s counting on me!” I called a friend who thankfully, just happens to be a priest. She told me she would pray, and she told me to wait five hours. If I still felt this overwhelming sense of wrong about my decision after five hours, I could simply call and cancel the surgery. That calmed me, and I was able to think it all through. The sinking feeling never left. I took it as an omen when, in exactly five hours, I received an unexpected call from the surgical team. I canceled the surgery.

I cannot adequately describe my mind-boggling personal ordeal of literally choosing death for someone. This was someone I had known and loved for more than thirty years, and I was called upon to separate feelings from practicality and do, as best I could, what Hal had wanted and what was best for him. Both Hal and I had practical views of death. Though sad, I don’t necessarily see death as a tragedy and neither did Hal. Obviously, it’s tragic if a baby dies or a young person, or one of our own children, because that seems unnatural to us, and is at odds with our deepest expectations of how life is supposed to work. It “rocks our world,” in the worst way. But years of tending perennial gardens and raising animals, generation after generation, has shown me that nature is part of God’s vast plan.  Living things are born and when they get old, they die. These are seasons that are repeated infinitely. Sickness and death are as natural a part of life as birth. I don’t believe God has a personal hand in what happens to each of us, so I think when we are tempted to cry out, “Why me?!” we could just as well cry, “Why not me?!”   Much of what happens to us, we bring on ourselves; much is a random result of living in the world. In other words, in the grand scheme of the physical world, sometimes shit happens. Like dysphagia.  

Hal believed that it was luck that had taken him into his nineties.  He didn’t pretend to understand and he didn’t take it personally.  He was at the end of his very long life and he didn’t believe that people should live so long that they can’t contribute to the world in which they live. Every day that I knew him he prayed, “Thank you, God for love and life and work to do.” He was grateful for the quality of his long life, because his greatest fear was burdening someone, but recently he missed the satisfaction of a day’s hard work. He wasn’t afraid of dying; he was curious about it. He didn’t want to die, but he was ready.

Still, it was too much for me. On Tuesday he was writing a letter to his friend, Lorelei and just two days later I was choosing to hasten his death. I had a terrible time wrapping my brain around it. I still do.

On Friday morning the hospital loaded Hal into my car for the drive to the care facility that would support him as his life ended. I drove the “back way,” through the country. It was a cold, sunny day. For most of the trip, Hal was silent, but suddenly he said, “Where are we going?” I looked at him and saw immediately that his mind had cleared. He was back, at least for the moment. I took a deep breath and responded. Thus ensued a conversation that ended with what was to be the first of Hal’s many noteworthy responses, commentaries and observations during his two-week journey to the end of his life. Some were poignant, some hilarious, some profound. All were significant. I sent up a quick prayer that I would handle this important conversation well. Hands gripping the wheel, heart pounding, I responded.

“We are going to the nursing home where you recovered from your hip surgery.          You know, right around the corner from our house.”
“Oh, that’s a wonderful place! Why am I going there?”
“Well, the doctors diagnosed your cough and it is very grave.”
“Eureka! FINALLY! A diagnosis! What is it?”
“It’s called dysphagia and it means you can’t swallow, anymore.”
“Do you have a pencil? I need to write that down. Spell it. Can it be treated?”
“D-Y-S-P-H-A-G-I-A. No. It’s going to kill you, Hal.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, I’m so relieved to finally know. How long will I be at the home?”
“You are going there to die, Hal. You are not going to be eating or drinking                     anymore, and over time, you will die from that.”
“Nothing?  Not even a drink of water?”
“No. Nothing.”
“Oh.”
“The alternative was a feeding tube or pretty much coughing yourself to death.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want that.”
“No, I didn’t think so.”
“How long will it take?”
“To die?”
“Yes.”
“Likely under two weeks.”
“Oh.  That’s not very long.”
“No.”
“I guess this is it.”
“Yes.”
Suddenly, Hal sat up in the car seat and smiled. He gave a great clap of his hands and exclaimed, “Well then, I guess we’d better get organized!!!”

SNOBBERY/YREBBONS

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I’m insulted when I see Facebook posts by snobs who imply that people who work in offices don’t work hard, love their families, or care about their fellow man. How utterly pompous! These memes accuse white-collar executives, physicians, lawyers and the like, of not being “real men” who don’t deserve the money they make, because they (supposedly) don’t work very hard. Congressmen are chastised for making more money than soldiers. CEOs are criticized for making more money than their employees. Professional football players are held in contempt for making more money than just about anybody.

And it’s not just about the money. Power and education can castrate a “real man” in the minds of the public. Beauty can disable a woman in the eyes of other women. I can’t understand why it is “bad” to be successful! I remember when successful people garnered admiration and leaders were role models; when another person’s success inspired. People went to school to better themselves and create a better living for their families, and that was admirable. People who made a lot of money showed us what was possible for ourselves. Now, the successful are suspect simply for being successful.

My grandfather died when my father was young, and my dad and his four siblings were raised by my grandmother (a single mother), who was a high school English teacher. My dad graduated from junior college and put himself through the University of Michigan engineering school. After WWII, he brought his bride (my mother) home to Michigan, took the helm of a commercial construction company and began to raise his family. He was very successful, and he brought it all upon himself. My father taught me that it is more blessed to give than to receive, that honesty and integrity are everything, that generosity is crucial, and that only your character can make you more than or less than anyone else. My dad was no snob.

My mother and her two little brothers were raised by her grandmother, her mother and her two maiden aunts, after her father abandoned the family when she was three years old. My mother’s mother died when she was thirteen. Mother graduated high school, went to a year of etiquette school, and worked as a secretary until she met my dad during the war. She became successful, because her choice was to “marry well.” My mother had no advanced degrees, but she made it her business to educate herself. It was my mother who taught me to speak my mind, to mind my vocabulary, to write stories, to take care of myself, to appreciate nice things, and to value education  and music and art and flowers. She taught me to knit and to needlepoint. She taught me how to set a proper table, write a proper thank you note and that good grammar is important. She taught me to love to read. My mother was beautiful and elegant, but she was not a snob.

My parents were white-collar, upper-middle-class country clubbers who lived a good life. They had two late-model cars, theatre tickets, a savings account, and college funds for their kids. My mother had a mink wrap, but not a mink coat. They socialized with some of the movers and shakers of the community, were active in and generous to their church, and volunteered in their community. They worked hard, lived within their means, and lived well. Neither of my parents came from much, but they made much of themselves and they never lorded it over anyone.

During the time my parents were working to build a good life, I attended Woodside Elementary School. Woodside sat smack on the border of two neighborhoods that were large and disparate. The school drew half of its students from a middle/upper middle-class mostly white neighborhood. The other half of the population was relatively poor and mostly black. In third grade, my best friend at Woodside School was Susan Cole. I envied her freckles and her blonde hair. I admired her mother, who was a seamstress for a department store and could make wedding dresses, when my mother didn’t work outside the home at all. Susan often came over to play and to spend the night (I didn’t go there, because I wasn’t invited). Our fathers knew one another, but I didn’t know that; I just liked playing with Susan Cole.

I attribute to my friend Susan, two third grade episodes that wised me up and broke my heart – two episodes that heralded the beginning of the end of my innocence and the beginning of my awareness of discrimination and snobbery.

One day on the playground, Susan and I were arguing about our teacher, when Susan got personal. Suddenly emotional, she fired at me, “You may be rich, but at least we have love in our family!” It stopped me cold. Of course, we had love in our family! My third-grade brain couldn’t process the slight, but I sure felt it. I cried all the way home from school.

Another time, Susan got mad at me because I had to cancel my plans with her. She pointed an accusing finger at me and yelled, “You’re so rich you have red carpets!” I had no understanding of her shaming, but again, I felt it. It was partially true. We did have red carpeting, but in third grade I had no knowledge of castles and mansions with velvet wallpaper and elegant red carpeting. (Our carpeting was red only because my mother liked red carpeting.) Again, I ran home in tears.

I will always remember my mother telling me that Susan’s shaming was a case of reverse-snobbery. This happened, she said, when somebody decided they were better than you, because they were jealous of you and didn’t know it. My mother said that maybe Susan envied my nice house, or maybe she resented that her dad worked for my dad. Maybe she somehow blamed me for the things I had that she wanted. Maybe somehow putting me down built her up. I was so young that I hardly knew what my mother was talking about, but it impacted me all the same.

Susan and I began to drift apart, because conflict in relationships can never be resolved if it can’t be discussed. In every disagreement Susan would eventually get emotional and as soon as she did, she would accuse me of some transgression I could not understand: a toy, a dress, our car, even the fact that my cotton anklets had lace around the tops. She saw these things as shortcomings. She resented me and blamed me for what she saw as my good fortune, and she shamed me for it. Susan was a snob – a reverse snob. She held me in contempt for what she thought she lacked. She broke my heart.

My parents were by no means rich, but they knew some wealthy people and they didn’t admire or disdain them. They knew that you don’t have to have money to have class, and that there is nothing wrong with having money or not having money. They knew that success is desirable, and is determined by the effort, discipline and tenacity with which you approach a task. They taught me that wealthy or not, I have a responsibility to be generous, to behave, and to present my best self. If success brings me power, I should wield it responsibly. Education is a good thing. Admire those who have it, because the more one learns, the more one can see his choices.

My parents taught me to respect people for working hard and being good at their jobs, whatever those jobs entailed. My dad could read specs, estimate construction projects and submit bids, but he couldn’t wield the hammer or lay the bricks and he knew it. My parents taught me to know my place when in the company of someone with skills or knowledge I don’t have. They taught me to respect others – to defer to them – whether their skills included performing delicate surgeries, grilling steaks, or gutting deer.

I saw a condescending Facebook post pointing out that members of Congress, the President, a physician, etc. make 10-100 times more than a soldier, “shame on them.” That post doesn’t even make sense. Salaries are determined by education and skills, experience, location and level of responsibility. Much is made of the disparity between the salaries of soldiers and the salaries of CEOs. It takes a high school diploma to be a soldier, and the “company” will train at no cost. It takes no experience to be a soldier, and supervisors have all the responsibility. Cost of living in your geographic area influences salary, but the armed services will relocate you, free of cost, and when you are all done you can go to college and get a degree to become a politician or a doctor or professor or anything you want, at no cost. And if the soldier gets sick? Who will take care of him? The physician. A doctor isn’t better than a soldier and a soldier isn’t better than a doctor; they are different. They are different in levels of education, levels of responsibility, skills and salaries.  Both made their own choices; they just made different choices.  The army may make a real man, but college doesn’t and neither does a factory. A soldier isn’t a great person just because she’s a soldier, and a politician isn’t a bad person just because she’s a politician, any more than a black person is suspect or admirable just because she’s black . There is no competition. Doctors have skills that welders don’t have and vice-versa. We need one another. A lot. We can’t afford to be snobs.

Many of the people I know of middle, lower-middle and lower economic status assume that people who are economically successful or educated or powerful, or even attractive, are worthy of contempt. I can’t imagine anything more pretentious. Some of these people are friends of mine and they feel entitled to steal from their employers, collect disability for more years than they worked, or lie for benefits. I know people who clean houses to earn their living, but resent their employers for not cleaning their own homes. They are reverse-snobs who dislike and are disrespectful to people, based on what those have, instead of what they don’t have. They are guilty of the same kinds of snobbishness they renounce, and it’s ridiculous. If a maintenance worker graduates from college would it erase her ability to fix a car engine? Would she naturally stop loving her family? Stop caring about her fellow citizens? If you won the lottery, would you cease to like yourself?

I could never convince Susan Cole, but I know that worth is not about how much education people have, how much power they wield or how much money they make. There are snobs in every walk of life. There are assholes everywhere.

If you chose not to go to college or trade school or join the armed forces, that’s on you. If you have become a card-carrying electrician, good for you, but you shouldn’t start discriminating against people who made career choices you like better. If you chose a career with limited income possibilities, stop whining about it. If you neglected to control your own fertility as a teen or young adult, you limited yourself, and you shouldn’t discriminate against people who made choices that made it easier for them to get an education. Or a job.  Or a savings account.  If you look down on people who have done “better” than you, you are a reverse-snob.

Susan Cole couldn’t have understood what my mother called reverse-snobbery, any more than I could at that age. Somebody taught her resentment, and it’s hard to accept that her father taught her to resent mine, when my father clearly held hers in high esteem.

If you feel insecure about your own income, education, social status, or looks, that doesn’t give you license to be snooty about my master’s degree, or the fact that I am conscientious about my appearance. I didn’t grow up rich and I didn’t grow up entitled, any more than you did.  Just maybe, the assumptions you make about me aren’t right.  It could be that you thinking I think I’m better than you, is your way of thinking you’re better than I.  Don’t belittle me because I have a nice home. Don’t be arrogant about my belief in the communicative value of good grammar. Don’t dare have the audacity to belittle me just because I don’t consider “comfortable” and “slovenly” to be synonyms. Just maybe I accept you exactly the way you think I should, and want to be accepted by you, too.  I can respect you no matter what you do to earn your keep and no matter how much money or education or status you have or have not achieved. I can guarantee that I will never look down on you for anything except dishonesty or irresponsibility or filth, because I can’t abide a snob – or a reverse.

The Cover on the Book: One More Thing

 

PigpenHow could I forget makeup?  Ladies, you need a little makeup for a finished look when you go to work.  Years back, the Ivory Soap Girl was the fresh-faced,  icon of beauty and purity.  She shined down from billboards and smiled up from magazines, makeup-free and beautiful.  But alas, it was all a lie.   The Ivory Girl wore makeup; she just wore it in a way that she didn’t look made up.

We women should wear a little makeup when we go to work.  You’ll look better, feel more confident, and instill more confidence in others, than you will without it. You will look better.  Come on, have you ever seen a makeover that didn’t include makeup?

When you are in a wedding or you get married, you get made up.  Why is this the only time you think you need makeup?  If you really don’t think you need it, you would never wear it.  But you should.

Every woman needs a little help to look her best and feel her best.  A light foundation evens out skin tone.  A little blush highlights your cheekbones and you look fresh.  A sweep of mascara gives your eyes definition.  Lipstick gives a bit of color and finish to your look.  Don’t be lazy!  Wear lipstick.

Makeup for work is not the result of a little extra time in the morning, it is good grooming.  It is part of getting dressed for work.  It is not optional. It should be routine.  (You wouldn’t leave off your pants or skirt and say that you didn’t have time, would you?  I hope not!)

Nails are part of making up.  You don’t need long claws or purple nails, in fact, that is not appropriate for work.  You do need self care and good grooming in the form of a weekly manicure.  Just.  Do.  It.

If you have never worn makeup, now you are grown and it is time. If you don’t know how, just go to any makeup counter in any department store and they will teach you.  Avon will teach you.  Mary Kay will teach you.  Elizabeth Arden will teach you.  I will teach you!

When I taught kindergarten, my class took a field trip with the pre-schoolers.  A young mother who looked like the original Ivory Girl, passed me her four-year-old, whom I had never before seen.  She slipped her hand in mine and never spoke a word, but when I sat, she snuggled next to me.  This kid turned her sweet little face up to me and stared. She stared at me for the whole bus ride.   She stared when we all climbed on the fire engine.  She even stared in lieu of sliding down the fire pole, and she stared all the way back to the school.  As we  disembarked from the school bus, still clutching my hand, she finally spoke.

“I just have to get you for my teacher, next year!” said she.  “You are just the best teacher in the whole wide world — I think it must be all that makeup.”

Out of the mouths of babes…

 

 

Turns Out a Book is Judged by Its Cover

In a 2010 national poll conducted by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania, “appearance” ranked second only to “communication skills” when respondents named qualities most often associated with professionalism.

A few years back, I was training first and second year teachers during the week before the new school year began. During the break, a veteran of year one came to me with a question. She was a 24-year-old high school teacher and she had trouble, she worried, commanding respect from her students, and maybe her staff. How could she get them to respect her? I asked a few questions to clarify her position, though the answer was so obvious, I couldn’t believe she was asking. This young woman was wearing leggings that sat low on her hips and left her navel exposed. Her shirt was a striped, tight half-top that showed cleavage and bra straps. She was dressed like one of her students – one dressed flirtatiously and inappropriately – one who should have been sent home to change. (I shuddered to think of the absolute mayhem I would have created in the school district if she were teaching my own teenagers – lousy role model for my daughter and titillation for my son. I think her administration had lost their minds to allow her to dress this way on the job.)

Another time, I was facilitating an elementary school “training of trainers.” I was shocked that one of the veteran teachers (and a future trainer) showed up in sweats. (Amazingly, the administrator had the guts and good sense to send him home to change.)

This past summer, I spent a day with a medical resident who was working under a prestigious retina specialist at Michigan State University. After hours of testing with the intern, I remember her only for her “accessories”: stylish, yet torn, scuffed shoes, and chewing gum. This doctor chewed gum, cracked gum, and even blew bubbles during my entire battery of tests! Thankfully, she was supervised by the specialist, because I would never have trusted her judgment.

Just this morning, a friend texted me her dismay as she sat in an auditorium watching fellow educators file in for the opening-day keynote speaker. She saw tank tops, jeans, torn jeans, flip flops, shorts, shoulder-baring shirts, baseball caps, cleavage, athletic clothes, tennis shoes, filthy tennis shoes. She was not only dismayed, but embarrassed. When the superintendent took the stage to welcome educators back, she lost hope for a desperately needed dress code: he wore shorts and a t-shirt.

Come on! Your job is hard enough without shooting yourself in the foot by undermining your own perception of your competence and the public’s perception of your competence, by dressing like a slob or a tart. You can be comfortable and stylish, and you can go inexpensive with a crisp, clean, unfettered and disciplined look that speaks of your professionalism.  You can dress in a way that your attire is the only message people remember (with chagrin) or you can dress in a way that takes nothing away from the message of professional value you need to communicate. Dressing up a notch can send others a message about you being successful, competent and confident in what you’re doing, and it sends yourself the same signal. You will garner respect from your clients, patients, or students and they will be more likely to buy what you are selling (product, services, health, education.)

When my kids were toddlers, I chose their clothes for them. When they were preschoolers, I had veto power over what they wore. When they entered school, they had “play clothes” and “school clothes.” They could choose their own clothes, but play clothes didn’t go to school and school clothes didn’t go out to play. (It never even occurred to me to tell them that pajamas didn’t belong in the public forum, but based on what I see today it might be important to add that one to the child-rearing curriculum.) As they grew, there were rules about dressing appropriately for an occasion. They learned as they grew. Since it appears that many parents were sleeping at the switch when they should have been teaching these lessons, I offer up a little specific instruction that everyone should have grasped before entering the workplace. However, better late than never.

Clothing you wear at the beach, to do yard work, to dance clubs, exercise sessions, sports contests, or bed is not appropriate for a professional appearance at work. (Camouflage, by the way, is for hunting.) Clothing that reveals cleavage – any cleavage – (The cleavage test is not a frontal view in the mirror; the cleavage test is bending over in front of the mirror.) your back, your nipples, your feet, your stomach or your underwear is not appropriate for any place of business. Nothing undermines a positive professional perception as leaving nothing to the imagination. Get noticed for your great work and your professionalism, not your boobs. Show a little modesty at work, for crying out loud.

Torn, dirty, or frayed clothing is unacceptable. Comfort doesn’t have to be nasty and this includes shoes. If you have gained a little weight, get some clothes that fit. If somebody notices your tramp stamp, buy a longer shirt.

Clothing that has words, terms, or pictures that may be offensive or controversial like liquor, politics, religion, or sexuality is unacceptable, since your students or your clients are a diverse group and you are there to serve them all. Cover up your cannabis tattoo, for Pete’s sake.
The clothes you wear to work should be pressed. Wrinkle-free on clothing tags, means it is easy to iron, not that it doesn’t need ironing. Please have the good sense not to freaking BRAG that you don’t own an iron. You are a grownup now, and a professional, and you ought to be embarrassed if you don’t own an iron and use it.

Clothes, accessories and even the footwear an employee chooses to wear to work help to reinforce or diminish skills and competence in the eyes of employers, co-workers, clients, students, and students’ parents. If you look like you don’t bother to get haircuts, shave or clean up your shoes, you look like you don’t bother about anything. Period. And the less you bother, the more you will defend not bothering and the more you will undermine your professionalism. You can argue for your limitations, defend them, and create a hundred “reasons” (excuses) for them, but all you get for it is limited.

If you do not consider yourself a “professional,” but are in the workplace, this still applies. Dress for the next job you want. Dress up a notch and you will get noticed and command attention. If you wear a uniform, you can still be well-groomed and pressed. And nobody wants to see your crack or your cleavage, either.

Once you are so renowned in your field that Hollywood makes a movie about you, or you are listed in the Top Ten something, you can afford to be eccentric and dress any way you wish. Until then, get your shit together. You are not Mark Zuckerberg!

 

 

 

My All-time, Favorite Quote

“We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of routine and of sin, with souls that made our souls wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Divinity School Address

You know, I believe that the most satisfying relationships in our lives are with people who “get” us.  We can love many people who don’t “get” us, but we can’t help but love those who do.

 

sohowaboutablog?

One of the first things I learned in my childhood is that I talk too much.  I learned that from my mother’s rolling eyes, my father’s admonitions not to interrupt (to no avail), and my sister’s friends paying me to get lost.  Year after year, teacher after teacher wrote on report card after report card, “Nancy talks too much.”  Over time, I learned that I could retaliate, get my own way, change peoples’ points of view, garner admiration or fury, or render people speechless, just by a bedazzling barrage of carefully chosen words.  In high school, I joined the debate team, and by college a turn of phrase was second nature. I became a teacher and a graduate student, and honed my skills.  Somewhere along the line, I realized that being a lifelong avid reader and writer (my first book was a handwritten and unpublished 250 page 6th grade work of fiction called Terri Bush and Friends) supported and enhanced my speaking skills.  Eventually, I became a public speaker and an author.  I have always been opinionated, but I learned in my thirties that some people valued those opinions.  My pre-adolescent children would marvel that people actually paid to listen to me, and sometimes they would wearily advise me that I needed to go give a speech in order to let them off the hook.

Continue reading “sohowaboutablog?”