Health Care — A Curse or a Cure


images-1As recently as 200 years ago, if you stopped breathing, you were considered to have died, whatever the cause. There were few scientifically-based options to prevent or delay death.

A watershed moment in the history of health care came with the invention of the stethoscope in 1816 and the ability to register a heartbeat. But scientifically-based treatment protocols remained out of reach. For the next century, death continued to be, as it had been for much of western history, a part of “God’s plan” or—if you were of an atheistic or pagan persuasion—a matter of fate.

Until 1928, that is, when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. For perhaps the first time in history, man no longer had to rely on God or fate to determine the outcome of an injury or an infection. Over the last 90 years, our ability to triumph over illness has expanded exponentially.  Today, we can prevent most infectious diseases (even Ebola, it now seems), repair a faulty heart, excise a malignant tumor, or replace a failing kidney.

For much of the 20th century, medical advances focused on preventing “premature” death from infection or trauma. But these often seemingly miraculous discoveries had unintended consequences.  Most notably, our success in preventing or curing acute illness has led to steadily lengthening life spans, but also a greatly expanded population vulnerable to chronic—and costly—illnesses such as diabetes, COPD, cancer or Alzheimer’s.

Another unintended consequence is that the wonders of modern medicine are increasingly used to “manage” or delay conditions that were once considered normal signs of aging, e.g., sagging skin, declining fertility or loss of muscle tone.  Where is the boundary between preserving a healthy but age appropriate body and defying the natural process of aging? When does the effort to retard aging morph into an outright denial of the inevitability of death?

This urge to deny the inevitable has consequences to be discussed in a later blog, for long term trends in employment and education for our economy as a whole.  More immediately, it is reflected in the frequency with which high cost and often-intrusive medical interventions are employed to keep an aged body alive long after the will to live has gone and all-too-often in violation of the patient’s expressed wishes to be allowed to die.

As many people interpret the Hippocratic Oath (show the “utmost respect for human life”), doctors and hospitals feel they have an ethical obligation to treat your illness if they have the tools to do so. This prescription made perfect sense when there was little the medical profession could do to actually heal an illness or injury, when the role of health care professionals, like their clerical counterparts, was largely to give the patient comfort until God or the fates stepped in.

But what does “utmost respect” mean when science and technology allow the doctor to second-guess God or the fates … to decide, for example, that a failing heart is not a sign of God’s will, but a mechanical problem that should be “fixed” by implanting a pacemaker? Should a pacemaker be implanted in an otherwise healthy 35-year-old father of four? Most of us would instinctively say yes. Should one be implanted in an 85-year-old stroke victim whose mental capacity is permanently impaired? The answer is not so obvious.

These are not new questions, but they take on a new urgency as the baby boomers age. There are not enough health care resources—caregivers and care facilities as well as financial resources—to treat all the “ailments” of the over-65 crowd today, let alone the estimated 90 million elderly that will be clamoring for medical care by 2050.

The issue is not whether we should ration health care … we already do so, based primarily on ability to pay and/or seemingly arbitrary guidelines on what health insurance will cover.  The issue is how should we allocate limited resources in a way that is equitable and fair.

How should we, as a society, decide what kind of health care people should receive, and under what circumstances?  Should the decision be based on spiritual / religious precepts that are often ambiguous and controversial … or on a rational cost-benefit analysis that ignores the question of human dignity and the intrinsic value of life?  Who should make that decision?

What would you do?

Health Care – What is it?


Question-Mark-820x1024One of the goals of the Affordable Care Act was to expand access to regular and affordable health care for Americans. Underpinning this goal was a hard-to-argue-with notion that the nation, individually and collectively, is better off when its citizens are healthy.

Is that the same as saying that that all Americans have a right to health care? Even those who instinctively nod “yes” might qualify their answer, depending on how you define health care. Some types of health care are critical to good health, while others seem of marginal benefit.  Under the best of circumstances, the boundaries are far from clear.  And most types of health care are in limited supply, based on the availability of equipment, medical staff, facilities and drug supplies.  We can’t all have everything.

A starting point for the discussion might be the definitions given by the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2003:

    • Therapy: treatment of “known diseases, disabilities or impairments in an effort to restore a normal state of health or fitness.”  Included in this category are things like repair of broken bones, antibiotics for infections, surgical removal of tumors, pacemakers, and chemotherapy or radiation for cancers.
    • Enhancement: treatment “to alter the ‘normal’ functions of the human body or psyche so as to augment or improve native capacities and performances.” In this category are such things as discretionary plastic surgery, botox injections to remove wrinkles, or steroids to improve athletic performance.

This simple model, however, leaves many questions unanswered.

    • How do we classify vaccinations, annual visits to the dentist for cleaning, or periodic screenings for breast or prostate cancer? What about vitamins and exercise regimens, or anti-smoking campaigns. None of these quite fit the definition therapy or enhancement, but they are included in what is now called Preventive Medicine, a set of strategies to maintain health rather than cure illness.
    • Another challenge to this binary model is Palliative Care, which covers the spectrum of physical, emotional, spiritual, and social suffering that often accompanies illness.  Drugs and medical treatments are considered palliative if they relieve symptoms without having any beneficial or therapeutic effect on the underlying disease or illness.  Examples would be dialysis for kidney failure or Aricept for early-stage Alzheimer’s, both of which make life more manageable for a time, but do nothing to cure or reverse the underlying problem.
    • Yet another complication comes with Long Term Care, particularly for the elderly.  While everyday tasks like feeding, bathing and dosing out medications do not ordinarily constitute medical care, their absence leaves those with chronic illnesses and/or limited mobility prone to accidents or malnutrition.  These in turn lead to diseases or illness that may require acute or chronic medical care.

It seems reasonable, at first glance, to make therapeutic medical care available to all Americans. But should I have a right to any and all therapeutic treatments, regardless of my ability to pay?  Should I have the right to any and all procedures—a kidney transplant, for example—if I already suffer from multiple or chronic illnesses from which I will never recover?  Should I have the right to any and all procedures even if I am responsible—alcohol or drug additions, for example—for my condition? And should the standard of “normal” be the same for a 40-year-old as for an 85-year-old?

If your answer to any of these questions is “no,” you are left with even harder questions.  What types of procedures should be restricted or prohibited … and under what circumstances? Who should decide? Based on what criteria?

Similar questions apply to things that fall into the category of enhancement, preventive care, palliative, or long-term care.  Most would agree that pain-medication is a palliative treatment that should be available to anyone who needs it.  But what about Viagra, when it is used to offset a “normal” decline in physical function, but may help to restore emotional health.

What do you think?  Should health care be a universal right, regardless of the ability to pay?  Regardless of other health conditions?  If so, how would you propose to pay for the rapidly increasing costs associated with the aging baby boomers?  If not, what criteria would you use to decide who gets what?

Health Care and You



images-1Greetings!  I have returned after an extended and not-entirely intentional absence from the world of blogging. A significant factor has been the time required to prepare for a university level course, entitled “Comparative Religion,” that I began co-teaching as of September, 2015.

Readers of my blog could be forgiven for asking what qualifies me—a confirmed agnostic and an ex-Wall Street maven—to teach a course on religion. The answer is that a key element of the course is the recurring collision between modern health care and many religious traditions. My contribution is less on theology and more on bioethics—the many different ways in which religious beliefs affect health care, and particularly people’s end-of-life decisions.

As I noted in a blog last November, my interest in bioethics and health care was provoked by the prolonged and painful deaths suffered by both of my parents.  My father, bedridden with the complications of diabetes at age 54, repeatedly asked to be allowed to die. Sadly, four of the five time his heart failed, his doctor took extraordinary measures to get it pumping again. Even as a devout Catholic, he had the moral right to be allowed to die a year earlier, but he did not have the stamina to overcome his doctor’s refusal to let nature take its course.

By contrast, my mother romped through eight decades with élan. At age 70, while still of sound mind, she handed my brother and me detailed instructions from the Hemlock Society (now Compassion & Choices) for facilitating her death if she was no longer able to manage day-to-day life on her own.  Her advance directive, however, contemplated a stroke or terminal cancer rather than dementia. When Alzheimer’s unexpectedly stole away both her mental and physical capacities, there was little we could do.  No longer of sound mind, she did not meet the requirements for physician-assisted suicide in even the most liberal of states.

In my blog last fall, I initiated a discussion of several health care themes that seemed particularly relevant to the baby boom generation. Going forward, my focus will be broader, to include a host of issues that fall under the general heading of bioethics, and address health care issues faced by all age groups. Health care issues to be explored include the challenges posed by modern drugs and medical technology, as well as the challenges that many religious traditions face in this environment and the insights that they still have to offer.

Early health care topics will include:

  • How did we get to a place where aging has become a disease, something to be repaired and reversed … a place where we no longer seem to know what it means to let nature take its course?
  • Should health care be a universal right … and if so, what kind of health care?  If not, what criteria do we as a society use to decide what health care is necessary and appropriate?
  • Who should decide what kind of medical care we receive … whether to initiate or terminate treatment … based on what criteria?
  • What are your rights when medical treatment is deemed futile?  Can you … should you … override your doctor’s recommendation?  If so, under what circumstances.
  • What are the economic, financial and/or legal implications of the medical choices many of us will have to face … for ourselves and our families … for society as a whole?
  • Is there a “right to die” at a time and under conditions of our own choosing?  If so, does that imply a right to commit suicide … to have someone assist us with suicide?
  • What are the ethical implications of clinical research trials?
  • What are the pros and cons of “controversial” medical procedures: physician assisted suicide … clinical trials for new drugs and treatments … stem cell research … in vitro fertilization … organ transplants … designer babies?

As in the past, my goal is not to promote a particular point of view, but to prompt a vigorous discussion of the complex issues facing us all … not just the aging baby boomers, but the generations who come behind us, and must live with the consequences of the decisions we make—or perhaps even worse, the decisions we don’t make.

I hope you will join me — and bring your friends — on this journey.

Travel Tales


To my readers:

A grey kangaroo and her joey

A grey kangaroo and her joey

You may have noticed my absence in the last few weeks.

I had intended to maintain my regular weekly blog during my travels in Australia and New Zealand, but between the time zone difference and constant movement from place to place, the time available for writing seems to be in short supply.  It seems I have no choice but to take a break, probably until I return in mid-March.

If you want check up on my travels, click here for my Facebook page.

The "Twelve Apostles"

The “Twelve Apostles”

In the meantime, here are a few choice photos from our trip along the Great Ocean Road, a journey that rivals the Pacific Coast Highway in the U.S.

I will post others from time to time.




Rainforest near Cape Otway

Rainforest near Cape Otway

The Beach At Lorne

The Beach At Lorne


Death and the Meaning of Life


“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”      ~  John Updike

“To the wise advice that we live every day as though it will be our last, we do well to add the admonition to live every day as though we will be on this earth forever.”  ~ Sherwin Nuland


the meaning of deathAs I delve more and more into the medical and ethical issues of aging, I find repeated references to the tendency in modern society—and particularly America—to avoid the subject of death. I plan, over the next few months, to explore some of the social and cultural reasons for this pattern, but today’s blog is a personal muse on why death—the very fact of death—gives added and richer meaning to life and to the opportunities that await us.

Long-time readers of my blog (or readers of Sailing Down the Moonbeam) will know that a watershed event in my life occurred on a 35-foot sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After a week of sunny days with calm seas and a cloudless sky, a companion sailboat, aptly named Pacific, missed the scheduled meet-up on ham radio. Initially, no one seemed worried, as the yacht’s absence was easily explained by battery troubles or a broken radio antenna, either of which might take a day to fix.  No one saw any reason to call for help.

I did not view their absence with such equanimity.  What if it wasn’t a mechanical problem? What if Pacific had collided with a whale or a submerged container that fallen off a freighter, and the crew was drifting in a lifeboat? We were well outside the shipping lanes.  The odds of finding a small lifeboat floating in an unknown direction from an unknown starting point were almost nil.

When Pacific did not reappear on the second day—and still no one suggested calling for help—panic struck. From the beginning of our sailing voyage, I assumed that if we had a major problem, someone would come to our rescue, much as I had always assumed that an ambulance would appear if I had an accident on a New York highway.  Suddenly, I came face to face with the imminence of death, with the very real possibility that my life could come to an abrupt end on sunny day in a calm sea.

The watershed moment did not occur that day. Rather it came several days later, when I realized that imminent death had always been a possibility—that my faith in the appearance of the ambulance on the highway was as illusory as my belief in help at sea.

Once I accepted that the fact that my being was out of my control, I wanted to use my time and energy for things that mattered to me … to seize every opportunity …. to make sure I used every moment of my existence as if it were my last.

I wish I could say that I have always been true to this philosophy. What I can say is that the awareness of the fragility of life has been a constant reminder that I should not fall prey to what society thinks is important.  Since every moment could be my last—I could die before I even finish this sentence—every new moment is a new opportunity to live my life better and more wisely.

This muse was prompted, in part, by my interest in the subject of aging and death.  It was also prompted by a recent philosophy class in which we studied the often-controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger.  At the risk of oversimplification, Heidegger sees much of our everyday existence as “falling prey” to the social, religious and cultural mores imposed by those around us, as well as the generations that have lived before us. Even those who see themselves as rebels or revolutionaries or free-thinkers are doing little more than re-arranging the ideas and concepts handed out by others.

For Heidegger, the only escape from this “inauthentic” existence is death … not the actual death that terminates human life, but the possibility of imminent death. For Heidegger, the ever-present possibility that this moment will be my last also offers a perpetually renewing opportunity to live in a way that is meaningful to me.

Does the possibility of death add meaning—and opportunity—to your life?

A Nurse’s Reflection on End-of-Life Care


Much of my blog this year will be devoted to health care and aging … an increasingly hot topic as the baby boomers age.  I hope to offer some provocative perspectives that will help readers thread their way through the complications of aging parents and/or their own inexorable march toward death. As is my wont, I will pose many questions and offer few answers.

Today’s blog, by Kathleen Pooler, looks at end-of-life care from the perspective of a nurse practitioner dealing with her own health issues as well as those of her patients.  



end-of-life careEnd-of-Life care “refers to health care, not only of patients in the final hours or days of their lives, but more broadly care of all those with a terminal illness or terminal condition that has become advanced, progressive and incurable.”

We’re all going to die. Doesn’t it make sense to come to terms with our inevitable death, to prepare ourselves and our loved ones so that our lives can be fully lived until we die?

As a nurse, I have been present to dying patients of all ages and their families. As a family member, I have grieved at the bedside of loved ones. As a cancer patient, I have faced my own mortality and been fortunate enough to get a reprieve from end-of-life issues, at least for the time being.

How can we best prepare for death and ensure that end-of-life care is delivered in a compassionate way that incorporates the wishes of the dying person?

I will explore these issues from a nursing perspective.

Look How Far We’ve Come…

I remember feeling overwhelmed as a new graduate nurse in 1967 working in an Intensive Care Unit. Patients clung to life as monitoring devices signaled minute changes and ventilators and IVs provided life-saving oxygen and medications. The dings, pings, swishing sounds and constant alarms of all this technology seemed to interfere with the notion of delivering compassionate, patient-centered nursing care. It took a conscious effort to remain focused on the fact that underneath all those buzzing machines and multiple wires was a wife, mother, sister, brother; a human being with fears and dreams. I felt as if I had to fight my way through the maze of technology to “see” my patient.

I still feel that way. Technological advances, both in access to care and in the type of care available, enable people to live well into their 90s and even 100s. These advances have created steadily rising expectations among both health care professionals and patients that a wide range of ailments can and should be cured. With so many options for treatment, health care providers are faced with increasing challenges to deliver the best quality of care while considering the patient’s unique circumstances and personal wishes.

I am not talking so much about a patient with a good chance for survival and a will to fight for life. Rather, I am talking about a person who, because of age or circumstance, does not have a reasonable chance to return to an acceptable level of functioning.

For example, as a nurse practitioner in a family practice, I recently saw a mammogram report for an 84 year-old patient whose late-stage Alzheimer’s had left her incoherent and unable to function. The report showed a suspicious lesion and recommended additional views but the family refused. After discussing the risks of possible cancer and subsequent death from untreated cancer, the patient’s husband concluded that a lengthy and painful course of testing and treatment would not be in her best interest.

I saw my responsibility as helping the family to understand the risks and to make an informed decision based on the best interests of the patient. The fact that the patient had an advanced directive in place facilitated this process.

How do we ease this transition?

A Nurse’s Perspective…

The answers to this question depend on a wide variety of factors including one’s religious /spiritual beliefs. I can only offer my perspective as a health care provider and a recipient of health care:

1. We all have responsibility for our own health. Although my nursing education charges me to promote wellness and treat illness, I prefer to do this as a partner of the person seeking health care. Therefore, I see my responsibility as ensuring that each person understands their options and is given the opportunity to state their end-of-life wishes.

If a person’s wishes are not known, it is the health care provider’s responsibility to institute lifesaving measures. In such situations, the family is a key component in the decision-making process. In other words, we not only minister to the patient, we minister to the family of the patient.

2. Options are available: Advanced care directives—also known as living wills or personal directives—are legal documents that support wishes regarding end-of-life care. A growing focus on hospice and palliative care programs within hospitals has helped to promote death with dignity, although compliance with health care directives can vary from state-to-state.

Consumers of health care need to be aware that they are available … and follow up to ensure that they are observed. We have a long way to go as a society in putting these protocols into action, but it is a start.

Five Wishes, a “living will with a heart and soul,” is an advanced directive created by Aging with Dignity.  I find it particularly helpful for people who are not sophisticated about medical technology and treatment, as it includes:

• Wish 1: The Person I Want to Make Care Decisions for Me When I Can’t

• Wish 2: The Kind of Medical Treatment I Want or Don’t Want

• Wish 3:  How Comfortable I Want to Be

• Wish 4:  How I Want People to Treat Me

• Wish 5: What I Want My Loved Ones to Know

3. In her book, No One Has to Die Alone: Preparing for a Meaningful Death, Dr. Lani Leary promotes involving the dying patient in decisions related to their death. She cites that “most dying patients fear the isolation and loneliness of dying more than the pain or finality of death.” (page xiii, from the Preface)

Let’s talk…

While we have the legal mechanisms available to ensure that anyone in the terminal stage of illness will have the option of deciding the kind of death they want, we all know of cases where a court order had to be obtained because the patient’s wishes were not known and/or the family disagreed. Many hospitals have ethics committees to review cases where there may be a conflict related to end-of-life care or if the patient’s wishes are not stated or documented.

We’re all going to die someday. Why not have your wishes known ahead of time so when the time comes your transition will be a time of peace and healing?

I have seen it work both ways—with and without advanced directives. The difference is striking. When my beloved father died in 2010, his wishes were known and honored. The grief was there but the sense of peace and solace in knowing his wishes were honored carried us all through and remains a source of comfort to this day.

We all have the right to have our final wishes honored and to die on our own terms surrounded by those we love. Do you have an advanced directive?  Have you talked to your loved ones about the kind of death you want?

Maybe it’s time to start this conversation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this ~



KathyPoolerBrighterKathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner.  Her memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, published in July, relays how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments: domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure.

Her work-in-progress sequel, Hope Matters: A Memoir explores how her faith helped to live a life of joy and contentment.  Kathy has also been published in several anthologies, including The Woman I’ve Become and My Gutsy Story Anthology.

She lives with her husband Wayne in eastern New York.

She blogs weekly at her Memoir Writer’s Journey:


Twitter @kathypooler

LinkedIn: Kathleen Pooler

Google+ Kathleen Pooler



Kathy Pooler

Kathleen Pooler/Memoir Writer’s Journey


A Christmas Tale


As a special treat, I am reprinting a recent blog by my Irish friend David Lawlor, who offers an historian’s perspective on the Christmas tradition.


Santa—the Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly

                  He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,                                                           And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.                                                     A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,                                                                   And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.        
His eyes—how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!                                     His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!                        His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,                             And the beard of his chin was white as the snow.

(A Visit From St Nicholas)

Ah yes, we’re gearing up for that time when children all over the world await the arrival of the big man with the beard and the red suit – and that’s all that need be said to know of whom we speak. All I have to do is recall the movie Miracle on 34th Street and a warm fuzzy glow warms my tummy. However, it’s worth noting that a few steps had to be taken in Santa’s evolution before we reached that point.

In Germany, St Nicholas actually comes on the night of December 5-6 when little boots are filled with all manner of goodies and left beside children’s beds. We follow this tradition in our own house as my son was born on December 6 and his mum is German. So far, thankfully, our four young ones have not interrogated us too severely as to why other children in the neighbourhood miss out on this early visit from St Nick.

Of course the real St Nicholas would probably scratch his head in puzzlement at the whole Santa tradition. I refer, of course, to St Nicholas of Myra. Born in Petara (in modern Turkey), he had a habit of putting coins in people’s shoes as a gift and it’s from this practice that Father Christmas originated. St Nick is also the patron saint of pawnbrokers (some say bankers, too), which takes a bit of the gloss off his story, but we can’t blame him for that.

The book One Night Stands with American History claims that it was 17th century Dutch settlers who brought Father Christmas to America. Based on the Dutch winter figure of Sinterklaas, he was  “tall, slender and very dignified” and without even a bristle to be found on his chin.

Incidentally, the Dutch Sinterklaas is said to be accompanied by his servant Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) carrying a big bag of goodies for all the boys and girls. Some songs suggest that the bag is also useful or bundling naughty children into and hauling them away.

220px-MerryOldSantaLittle did he know it, but Santa was in for a major makeover. Cartoonist Thomas Nast set the ball rolling when he added the beard and the rotund figure in the pages of Harper’s Weekly towards the end of the 19th century.

The story goes that Santa got his popular colour combination due to an advertising campaign for Coca Cola. It’s certainly true that the company helped popularise Santa amongst the general public. In 1931 Coca Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — they were so successful they ran right up to 1964.

For inspiration, Sundblom read Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas in which Moore describes Father Christmas as being warm, friendly and pleasantly plump. However, Santa appeared in a red coat long before Sundblom put brush to canvas.

Washington Irving (1783-1859), author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, wrote a Christmas story about giving and generosity in which he described Santa as a large man in a red suit smoking a pipe.

Jolly old Santa is now so popular that in America 20,000 rent-a-Santa’s are trained every year to maintain that happy demeanour (no matter what the provocation). They are also given such practical tips as to avoid eating garlic and, er, beans prior to visiting their young clients – the last thing one would want would be for Santa to leave more than one present behind…

But there was a darker side to St Nick. Early illustrations depict him as a bit of a tough cookie. He seen as stern, commanding, and bearing a birch rod, with which he would punish naughty children. This description ties in with that of the Viking god Odin, who is somewhat of a precursor to the modern Santa. According to myth, Odin rode his eight-legged flying horse, Sleipnir in winter and gave out both gifts and punishments. Children would fill boots or stockings with treats for Sleipnir to feast on.

Neither of the above are very appealing forms of Santa (although I do have a soft spot for Billy Bob Thornton as the leering, booze-fuelled armed robber Father Christmas in the movie Bad Santa, which is absolutely hilarious).

If the notion of a bad, vengeful Father Christmas dishing out punishment to unsuspecting children is a little disconcerting then you’d better brace yourself…

krampusIn parts of Austria, Germany, Hungary, and some neighboring countries, a hairy, evil beast called Krampus replete with horns, hooves, a long tongue, and sharp claws is said to terrify children at Christmas. Since the 17th century he has accompanied Santa on his annual gift-giving trip.

Naughty boys and girls beware – Krampus’s job is to dish out punishment to them. He carries a large wicker basket on his back and kidnaps misbehaving children and brings them to Hell.

Never have the lines: ‘You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why’ been more apt.

Give me Billy Bob’s Santa any day. Happy Christmas.


I wish you all the best of this holiday season.

See you again in January.

Living in Free Fall


Free Fall A recurrent theme in my life is that you grow the most when you step outside your comfort zone. It is a heady feeling to realize that a painful experience that had you in free fall for a time has made you stronger and wiser … to realize that, using Bradbury’s metaphor, you have indeed grown new wings.

What’s easy to forget, once those new wings have grown and set, is just how rough it is when you are in free fall … when you don’t know where you’re trying to get to … when you don’t trust your own judgment … when you have no idea quite what to do next.

It’s all the harder when you are in free fall off a cliff you didn’t even see coming.

To put this in perspective, I will take you back to 2008. Depending on how you count, I had changed careers half a dozen times over the previous 38 years, including several times when I dropped off the corporate ladder for a period of years. Some transitions were harder than others, some more successful than others, but there seemed to be a consistent pattern, one in which my skills in one arena provided a temporary branch to hang on to while I grew new wings in another.

When I decided to give up finance to be a creative writer, I expected this transition would go smoothly. After all, I was an experienced business writer. I’d taken university-level courses on creative writing. I’d published a memoir about sailing around the world at age 40.

Friday, I was a financial consultant.  Monday, I would be a writer.  How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, as it turned out.

What I overlooked, as I launched myself into the writerly world, was the common thread that stitched my earlier transitions into a satisfying quilt … the opportunity to work with smart people who were big thinkers. My success lay, to a very large extent, in my ability to carry out complex projects that these big thinkers—whether mentor, client or husband—believed were important.

In 2008, however, there was no client or mentor or husband. I had lots of ideas, but no way to set priorities or assess whether they were worth pursuing.

And then, one morning, as I waited for the first edition of Sailing Down the Moonbeam to be delivered, I recalled one of those wing-growing experiences as we sailed across the Pacific Ocean. Most of the time, my husband and I were vulnerable to unpredictable winds and currents. Setting goals was an exercise in frustration, since we could not control our progress on any given day. The best we could do was set a course that took us in the right general direction. All too often, we revised our course several times. More than once, we had to change our destination.

The metaphor seemed obvious.  If I wanted to I be a writer, I needed to write and hope my words would cumulate to a writer’s persona. Write something. A blog. A book review.  An essay.  Anything. Now, today.

It was a eureka moment.

I’d like to be able to tell you that I grew my writer’s wings that day.  I didn’t. Those simple goals got me out of bed every morning, but it was months before I did so with any enthusiasm.  It was several long and painful months before my wings started to grow.

Now, six years later, I have a writer’s wings. A novel and a memoir. A regular blog. A steady stream of freelance work. Invitations to speak to book clubs, libraries and community groups.

But once again, I seem to be in free fall. How can I be a writer if I don’t have a meaningful story I feel compelled to tell, or an idea I feel compelled to write about? Having just turned 70, I’m intrigued by the personal and societal challenges as the boomer cohort ages.  But how much of my thinking is unique enough to be worth writing about?

Once again, I seem to be grasping frantically for a branch to retard my free fall … give me a few extra moments to develop the wings I’ll need for my next act?  But what’s that next act? A writer in her 70’s with temporary writer’s block. Or a humanist for whom aging IS the next act, whether you write about it or not? Or maybe something else I haven’t even thought about?

What do you think? Can we still sprout wings at 70??

The Ineffability of Aging


IMG_9068No so long ago, I viewed 70 as the beginning of “old age.”

Trouble is that today—my 70th birthday—I don’t feel old.  Yes, I have grey hair, along with wrinkles in some places I would never mention in polite society. I do get annoying muscle cramps more often than I would like.  But I can climb six flights of stairs several times a day, and the body that I see in the mirror looks a whole lot better than it did when I was 18. I have fewer aches and pains today than I did at age 50, a combination of eating better and getting more exercise. And good genes certainly don’t hurt.

Statistics tell me that I could live another 10-15 years; given my health and genes, it could be easily be another 30 (my mother lived to 90; I have countless friends with parents approaching 100).  I’ve been encouraged by several articles I read of late, including a recent editorial in the New York Times by David Brooks, that report on the “U-Curve,”–the pattern of changing levels of emotional satisfaction over the course of life.  Statistics on the U-curve suggest that happiness/ contentment declines from childhood to about age 50, and then trends upward more or less steadily. Given my own emotional pattern over the decades, I should be bordering on ecstasy by 100.

But do I really want to live another 30 years?

An interesting approach to the question of aging comes from physician, academician and bio-ethicist Ezekiel Emmanuel. In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, he coined the term “American immortal”—what he calls the obsession “with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.”  You can add to his list, of course, all of the various medical interventions—mechanical, surgical and pharmaceutical—that we use to mask the reality of our inevitable aging and mortality.

Emmanuel has concluded that he would prefer to die at age 75. In his view, that is plenty long enough to have lived a full and rich life with a satisfying career, a good marriage and a thriving family, including grandchildren.

It seems at first, to be a curious position for someone who opposes suicide, assisted or otherwise. But his argument is not that he refuses to live beyond 75.  Rather, he has decided that as he approaches 75, he will cease taking pro-active steps to retard aging or prolong his life. No flu shots, vitamins, or anti-biotics. No screening exams. No surgical or mechanical (e.g., a pacemaker) interventions. No chemotherapy.  No drugs (e.g., statins or blood pressure meds) to keep his bodily functions performing as if he was still young.

The only medical treatment he will consider is palliative care, if he needs it to keep him comfortable toward the end. In his words, “I will die when whatever comes first takes me.” This is, of course, what mankind has done for thousands of years … until medical technology took over the management of aging and death in the mid-1900’s.

I find his argument compelling, although I’m not sure 75 is the age I’d choose.  Perhaps 80 or 85.

And I also find myself pondering the boundaries of palliative care. Shouldn’t it include the repair—surgical, pharmaceutical or mechanical— of traumatic events that diminish the quality of life but will not kill you? A broken arm or leg?  A case of poison ivy. A hernia. And what about diet and exercise? Eating properly is its own reward, just in how you feel, regardless of its long-term benefits for your health.  Similarly, exercise stimulates brain chemicals that make you feel better, mentally and physically. Should I stop doing it simply because it has the age defying-ability to preserve muscle tone and bone density?

What would you do?

P.S. Emmanuel explicitly reserves the right to change his mind at any point along the way!

Respect – My Lai in Black and White


respectThe worst moment for me, in a string of horrible moments, was the sight of Lesley McSpadden standing out on the street on in front of the Municipal Court in Ferguson.  Like most of America, she was waiting to hear the result of the Grand Jury investigation.

But Lesley McSpadden wasn’t most of America. Lesley McSpadden was the mother of an unarmed young black man shot to death by the white policeman who was the subject of the Grand Jury investigation.

How is it that no one in authority in Ferguson had the decency to invite her into the Municipal Court where it was warm, to provide her with a place where she could sit down when she heard the news?

This is not so preposterous a thought.  Had Wilson’s guilt or innocence been determined through a public trial, McSpadden would have had a seat in the courtroom. She would have had been able to observe the faces of Wilson, McCullough and the jury when the verdict was delivered. Wilson, McCullough, and the jury would have had to observe her grief and shock. McSpadden would have been a participant in our (however flawed) democratic and judicial system.

But that Monday night, standing in the street, she was outside the democratic and judicial system.  She was an anonymous woman of no relevance to the stage show being performed by Robert McCullough inside the courthouse.

This small act—or non-act—of disrespect was not the first in the months since Michael Brown’s death. McSpadden was not allowed to approach him as he lay in blazing sunshine in a public street for four hours. Once his body was removed from the street, she was not allowed to see it for two weeks. Based on comments in a recent CBS interview with McSpadden, no one in Ferguson officialdom has yet found the time—or the empathy—to offer “personal condolences” to her or her family.

To all intents and purposes, the mother of Michael Brown—an unarmed teenager killed by a white policeman—was not seen by the authorities in Ferguson as a human being worthy of respect or empathy.

And that most un-human response–small gestures that would have be so easy for a compassionate person to do—reinforces my fear that Ferguson’s officialdom, in the secret dark recesses of their minds and souls, think that Officer Wilson did exactly what he was trained to do. The fact that Michael Brown was an unarmed teenager who appeared to be wounded is an incidental. What counted was that he had been behaving aggressively towards a white policeman.

The scene in Ferguson brings to mind My Lai, the 1968 tragedy in which the members of Charlie Company, an American infantry group, murdered hundreds of women and children in a small Vietnamese hamlet named Son My. While there are many differences between Son My and Ferguson, the soldiers—like Wilson—were trained to respond to potential threats. Told that the village was under control of the Vietcong, the Charlie Company responded to the threat by killing everyone in the village.

Years later, when the Son My investigation was completed, we learned that no one in the village ever fired a shot at anyone in Charlie Company.

Decades later, we know that Michael Brown did not fire a shot at Darren Wilson.

Who is guilty here?  Is it Darren Wilson? Or is it a system that trains a white police officer in a black community, when confronted by what appears to be an angry or aggressive black man, to shoot first and ask questions later?

Or is it those of us who sit by comfortably, with our evening glass of wine and our holiday reunions, as the Ferguson authorities sanction “official” violence based on old tropes about race … as those same authorities are allowed to be rude and disrespectful to a grieving mother because of the color of her skin?

What we should do?  What would you do?