Indelible Hate

It’s finals week. You have two papers due and that one lab report the professor said you could rewrite. There are three tests that will require three all nighters of memorizing and untold pots of coffee. Everyone is fighting a cold and a little bit drunk on exhaustion and holiday break anticipation. Somehow, there are still parties happening, and you don’t want to miss those, either. You’re hardly out of your teens, but real life is happening soon and this week counts. Big time. Grad school admissions officers, future employers, and likely your parents (who are paying big money for all of this) are expecting results. You get up early to caffeinate, or go running, or email that professor for another extension… and there it is.

The word. That word. And it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere and they’ll wash it off and paint over it and say sorry and condemn it and make feeble excuses for the feeble mind that wrote it, but it won’t matter. Black Lives… don’t.

And it’s finals week. You didn’t need this right now. You don’t have time to fight this one (but you will). You don’t have time to field the “I’m sorry/omg/don’t know what to do or how to help/I love you” texts from your friends who care, but cannot really get it… not unless those ugly words were aimed at them, too.

I don’t know what it’s like. What I do know is that students of color at Boston College have already been marching and organizing and engaging with leaders (some for a few years) to say, “Hey, this is happening… can you help?” Is there the smallest bit of consolation that this latest transgression is so egregious, so specifically racist and hateful? I mean, they cannot ignore this, can they? I mean, they’ll DO something this time, right? They’ll have to.

But when you’re white. Like, super white like me, maybe your first thought is that the bigger issue is our failure to treat mental illness, or to blame the current administration for emboldening crazies, or to put this incident in a box of outlier-type events. That’s where my mind wants to go. But that’s… unhelpful. I’m not an insider to an entire community that could laundry list similar gut punches to their humanity. It doesn’t matter why this happened; it matters how. And when a leader in that community—a community that is angry and hurting and still needs to take finals— asks you to discuss it in yours, that’s one small thing you can do. And I can try to do that without “white guilt,” which is unnecessary and vain, or guidance from black friends, who are not obliged to provide a primer for appropriate status updating to prove I’m one of the “good guys.” Especially now, when the wound is fresh… and there are still finals.

When I listen to, honor, believe, and even attempt to imagine that lived experience, I’m saying Black Lives Matter. Was this the crime of a traitor in the midst of a majority of students who believe all of The Right Things… or is it more insidious? How could you not assume the latter when you see the word. That word. Everywhere.

I cannot apologize on behalf of all white people for insane, hateful, unimaginative racists who do horrible things. But I can listen more and pray harder. Catching one bogeyman with a Sharpie might not feel like any sort of justice on campus, but rather proof of so many more hiding in dark corners.

Thinking of you, Savannah. Your strong voice, leadership, and unflagging faith are powerful. Our ears, hearts, minds, and arms are open. We’ll try harder and more often to shine light into dark corners. We’ll try harder to take up the slack.

You have studying to do.

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Christmas in 1982… by Al Norton

Al is the author of Al Norton’s Two Tivos to Paradise, my real estate agent, and most importantly, my friend and one of my favorite personalities on social media. This morning he posted a memory snapshot that was so lovely, I made him turn it into 5 paragraphs and let me publish it. Merry Christmas, friends!

In 1982, I was 11 years old… and I had my own TV. Kids of today watching a relatively new blockbuster movie on a handheld supercomputer that also makes phone calls may not find this impressive, but this was an enviable, shocking possession for a little kid in the ‘80s. Dad acquiesced to my obsession with television early on and created chores so I could earn the $100 I needed to buy it from my stepmother’s friend. It was a “portable” (like, with a handle on the top to carry it), the red model with a black and white screen hardly bigger than a lunchbox. It was all mine and I loved it. I lugged it back and forth between houses on the T every two weeks, following custody agreements of the day. I wish there was a picture of that 11 year old carrying a TV on the D Line.

Having my own TV wasn’t enough; I really wanted my own VCR. But they weren’t a thing yet. So I did what I did when making mix-tapes from my collection of 45s: I put my tape recorder up against the speaker of the TV and recorded my favorite episodes, and then I’d listen to them as I fell asleep at night. The one I remember best is the first ‘Dear Dad’ episode of M*A*S*H, which took place at Christmas time. At one point in the story, Hawkeye’s plans go awry and he sings “…if only in my dreams.”

I was driving my kids home from dinner last night when a lovely version of that song (Josh Groban) came on, and when he got to that line, I was 11 again in my childhood bedroom. I could hear that tape and the familiar but forgotten hum of a black-and-white TV, and I felt warm and secure and far away from all the stresses that come with adulthood. I could swear Mom and my stepfather were stringing popcorn and cranberries together in the living room. The smells and sounds of the season are powerful. Though I frequently entertain a fantasy of seeing Mom again, it’s always with the knowledge that she’s going to die before I turn 24. But in this more seasonal, nostalgic sort of time travel, I’m merely 11 again, with no awareness of the world to come, only the joy of family, the anticipation of Christmas, and… my very own TV.

And then I blinked, the light changed, and I was back on the highway, using the rest of the trip home to explain to the twins why ‘John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together’ is the one true holiday album/special. Maybe someday they’ll be in the car with their own kids, hear John Denver and Rowlf singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and remember this drive home. Maybe, someday.

I hope that you all are feeling similar spirits of the season, reliving old memories, and making new ones. I love my family. I love Christmas. I love television.

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Television, ’80s style

 

Question 1 Confusion: an argument for “No”

If Question 1 merely restricts the number of patients a nurse is expected to care for, why are so many nurses urging you to Vote No on 1? Some thoughts from a former surgical resident reminiscing about early implementation of the 80-hour work week… and why an inflexible law regarding patient care has no business at the bedside.

In 2001, I began a General Surgery residency at a well-known hospital on the Upper East Side. At that time, many programs were attempting to enact an 80-hour workweek for surgical trainees, ahead of the ACGME*-mandated law that would be enforced after July of 2003. During orientation, we were warned sternly (and with more than a modicum of sneering derision from our Chief Residents) to keep track of our work hours. After all, they had put in 110-hour workweeks for years without complaining. As they passed out the little cards, we knew they already thought we were “soft.”

Certainly an 80-hour workweek is not worthy of you’re-so-lazy eye rolling. And here is exactly how much we were “allowed” to work in the words of the ACGME:

“The new requirements include an 80-hour weekly limit, averaged over 4 weeks; at least 10 hours of rest between duty periods; a 24-hour limit to continuous duty plus up to 6 more hours for continuity of care and education; 1 day in 7 free from patient care; and in-house call no more than once every 3 nights averaged over 4 weeks.”

So, you know, easy peasy (eye roll). If you do the math, you’ll notice a 30-hour day was well within the rules, and for us, didn’t include the extra hour of travel time to an outside hospital rotation. In any case, these work hour restrictions did not make residency easier… because no one was working that little.

After I turned in my first little stack of time cards, with faithful tracking of all hours I was in the hospital or home answering the beeper (and often going back into the hospital), the assistant to the Chief of Surgery called me at my apartment.

“Britt, we need you to come in to talk to the boss about your time cards.”

“Did I do it wrong?”

“Well, you wrote that you are working 100 to 110 hour weeks. We need to discuss with you why you are unable to finish your work in a timely fashion.”

“Oh! I definitely did it wrong. I’ll hand in new ones tomorrow.”

I thought they were going to fire me. Eventually, and probably before the actual law rolled out, my program figured out how to have residents actually working less instead of just lying about it. One way programs tried to solve the work hour issue was to assign a resident the “night float” beeper. After each service finished evening rounds, they would arrange to meet with the Night Float who would hold its beeper and list of patients until rounds the next morning. It’s a great system, unless you are Night Float to a program with six services.

On a slow night, there were still probably 30-40 patients scattered over a handful of pages with instructions to check on a few who had gotten out of surgery late, or who needed labs ordered or drawn. Busier nights, which were far more frequent, meant running from floor to floor to answer questions about patients I might have only learned about six minutes before and whose chart I’d never seen. It was such a night when a patient’s daughter insisted she speak with The Doctor about her father who had just endured a rather messy gallbladder removal. There was a bile leak requiring a drain, and maybe this hadn’t been explained well by the surgeon, or maybe this was an entirely different daughter than the one in the PACU, or maybe Dad oozing green was just plain alarming. Either way, this woman wanted answers. Now. From The Doctor.

Enter Night Float Britt, The Doctor. The intern assigned to the service had “signed out” to me before this patient landed on the “floor.” This Dad wasn’t even on my list. I introduced myself to the anxious family members and confessed that I was the Night Float and would need a minute before I could answer questions.

“So you’re telling me that you are the physician in charge of my father tonight and you have no idea what is going on?”

“Yes. But I promise—“

“SHAME ON YOU.”

I’ll never forget it. Shame, indeed. She wasn’t wrong. The system was wrong. In order to adhere to work hour restrictions, the very people who were in the operating room with her dad were required to leave. Ultimately, I was able to flag down a Chief Resident to explain the green oozing and by the end of the night was on good terms with the daughter. But there were many times I watched residents fudge the work hour rules not only because it was in the best interest of the patient, but also because we cared about the patient and we were there to learn. And that night, strictly following restrictions designed to protect us, an intern was unable to follow through communicating with the family and trust between patients and providers was compromised. That night, following the rules wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do.

Patients with their unpredictable diseases cannot be expected to adhere to even the most well-intentioned timetable, nor should their doctors be forced (by law!) to abandon them. It is called the Art of Medicine for this reason, and the quality of its delivery is diminished by inflexible rules regarding the hours it can be practiced. Ask any doctor about a pivotal moment in her training and I’ll bet 80% of the time it happened during hours that would be considered “overtime” in any other profession.

In Massachusetts on November 6th, citizens will be asked to vote for a similar sort of restrictions for nurses. Though limiting the number of patients any one nurse should be allowed to cover sounds reasonable, all of the best nurses I know want you to vote against it. (And I know many, many nurses.) Voting NO on 1 means we trust that nurses and their administrators know the limits of their services. No on 1 means we have our best patient advocates, our nurses, deciding how to allocate care with informed adjustments. No on 1 might mean fewer family members saying, “Shame on you.” Patient load restrictions intended to protect our front-line care providers may undermine their judgment and hamstring their talent, instead. And you can go ahead and make comparisons to pilots or daycare workers whose profession is certainly safer for law-mandated restrictions, but when it comes to caring for a vulnerable human at the bedside, well, it’s just different.

Admittedly, the 80-hour workweek was ultimately good for surgical residents. Once they worked out the kinks, it was shown to improve quality of life and decrease “burnout” without affecting the quality of care delivered. However, there were many studies that revealed how restricting hours had a negative impact on metrics of “continuity of care” and contributed to a “shiftwork mentality” in a profession that had always prided itself to condemn. But with a bit of “give” in how work hours could be adjusted to be in compliance with ACGME guidelines, surgeons in training still have the option to see the aortic aneurysm repair to completion, check an x-ray, or even say goodnight to a patient and his family– because mandated work hours can be averaged over time.

However, a “Yes” on 1 has no such leniency and would (rather paternalistically) deny nurses any autonomy over their patient load. This is the most worrisome aspect of the ballot question because it reduces humans to mere numbers. Never included in examples around Question 1 is how a nurse with a patient that requires all of his time, faculties, patience, and skill might be asked to take on a few more because his quota is not filled. Or how the ER nurse who knows your “frequent flier” asthmatic son best might have to hand him off because the kid with a sports form that needs signing “counts” as a patient. Also, preliminary data regarding patient load-limiting for ICU nurses has shown that care was not improved after implementing restrictions. Meanwhile, both sides will agree that enforcing strict nurse staffing ratios will be difficult and very, very pricy.

Box checkers do not belong in medicine. I am wary whenever people who have never taken direct care of a patient have power over how it is practiced. I hope I have illustrated here how the argument is nuanced, and why there is so much confusion over Question 1. Some limits are good, even necessary. No one wants to, or even can sustainably, work 110-hour weeks. But anyone who has taken care of a patient in any medical capacity knows that blanket, one-size-fits-all restrictions go against the human aspect of doctoring, nursing, healing. The only people who should be calculating nurse to patient ratios are those delivering the care, and it’s a delicate balance that changes daily, hourly. At times a single patient is too much, other times 8 means you still have time to pee. I worry that strict mandated law will undermine the “art” in medicine. And here, in Massachusetts, and especially in Boston, we can trust our nurses to know how to get the work done responsibly and safely without a law telling them how to do that. Here in Massachusetts, our nurses anything but “soft.”

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Posted on FB by my favorite nurse… who is voting No on 1.

*Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education

 

 

 

Sexy Halloween

Nicole was my bosom-est buddy and roomie for a handful of graduate school years. We became close only at the tail end of college when, maybe, she decided to brave my off-putting seriousness or nerdiness-charading-as-snobbery and finally talk to me. (Apart from my true blue writer and musical theater friends, college was a lonely time.) Most stories worth reading describe a Nicole: exciting, interesting and interested, funny, whip smart, and crazy sexy. When I think about us in our 20s, I remember her as… bursting. Her easy confidence with boys was a tactile one, and I saw her literally nibble on a few who found that experience titillating. Even her nervous energy manifested as adorable hilarity. An utterly irresistible Italian girl, Nicole was all hair and curves and hugs and pinches. Ultimately, this untamable juggernaut of charisma and beauty settled down with the only boy smart and lucky enough to interest her for the next two decades.

But there were many years of dating that occurred between the moment she spotted him and the dramatic presentation of rings and promises, and what I remember fondly and vividly is Halloween. There were plenty of beer-ponging costume parties scattered around our Boston neighborhoods and hosted in our crappy apartments, and a few quite famous soirees with our very, very RISD artsy friends in Providence. The idea that we planned elaborate outfits and drove hours to attend a one-night-only party is unfathomable until I remember once upon a time we had zero children and an entire weekend to nurse a hangover. Carla and her then boyfriend once arrived from NYC as tin toys; and the next year after they had eloped, returned to the same party as mullet groom and pregnant bride. Everyone (but me) was extremely creative and delightful.

This was the ‘90s. Naturally, I dressed as Britney Spears because I could rock that look, and also because I already owned some version of a Catholic schoolgirl uniform that I wore every day until grunge took hold. I bet I could still find a plaid miniskirt in my closet. Another year I borrowed Nicole’s extreme cleavage dress with the silver fishtail silhouette, attached seashells to the busty velvet bodice with sticky tape, and was Sexy Mermaid. (The fact that I hadn’t asked Nicole if I could do that was testament to our friendship, or her inability to stay angry with me.) I don’t remember other clichéd costumes I cobbled together, though I’m sure they were all designed around wearing more makeup than usual and trying to look cuter than usual. It wasn’t until after I married Bernie that I was pulled out of my vanity rut and we went as Jay and Silent Bob. As I said, it was the nineties.

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Already a favorite among my oldest friends and wildly popular with my newer acquaintances in medical school, Nicole attended many of these monster mash-up parties with her future husband. One time, she was The Karate Kid with authentic competition garb. Sexy Daniel-san, this was not. Another time, as arguably the coolest girl at the party, and likely the spiciest gal in three towns, Nicole dressed up as Jimmy Buffet: hairy prosthetic belly protruding out of a horrible Hawaiian shirt, shaggy beard, bird perched on her shoulder… god, did she have a cheeseburger? This was no Sexy Parrothead costume. I’ll never forget giggling with her date over his half-lamentations regarding costumes that included more body hair than he had. Maybe next year, she wouldn’t dress up as a dude? I think we both kind of loved that she didn’t want to sex up her Halloween costume, preferring to be kind of gross or funny instead. Only a girl with that much confidence chooses not to be cute for Halloween.

(She was totally cute as Daniel-san.)

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I wonder if Nicole is still pulling these punches and adding realistic, rubbery warts to her Witch Crone getup. I wonder if her adorable daughter has inherited this trait and has made plans to be Groot or Morty or Post Malone instead of Wonder Woman or Cardi B. Truth be told, that year dressing as Jay to Bernie’s Silent Bob was the most physically comfortable I’ve ever been at a party. As Cher ruminated famously, “… party clothes are so binding.”

This past weekend was spent strolling down memory lane with my parents as they celebrated 50 years of marriage. Nicole’s name came up a few times, as you can imagine (see description, paragraph 1). And in that spirit of nostalgia, enjoy these ridiculous pictures of other, completely un-sexy Halloween outfits. Yes, that is I, an inexplicably pregnant 7 year old (wtf), an elementary school “scullery maid” (hand to heart, that is what mom called this), Frenchman (why), and a good Do Bee!

 

SHOW ME YOUR UNSEXY COSTUMES.

 

 

Cold and Hot

The biggest compliment I ever get is, “Hey, write something again, already.” Actually, it’s not the BIGGEST compliment. That one is awarded to a certain teenager who thinks his charm will be compensated with unlimited egg sandwiches and brownie sundaes. “Britt… have you lost weight?” Sit down, kiddo, I’ve got steaks for dinner. A similar kindness was delivered during Curriculum Night Cocktail Hour, which is a thing… a very good thing. Sweet, funny, cool, brilliant Michelle reminded me that I have this little virtual journal over here that’s been languishing in the back-to-school hubbub. Michelle encouraging me to write was a compliment, indeed… and she’s not even expecting egg sandwiches.

And now I find myself with some time. I’m currently shivering in a Chicago hotel room waiting for my thermostat to win the battle against refrigerated public spaces. I loathe air-conditioning nearly as much as spin class. Even air travel is a dreaded, trapped eternity where we are squeezed into small spaces and kept chilled like Diet Cokes in a Coleman. As I wait for the room temperature to approach room temperature, I’m fondly reminiscing about my last hot yoga class. Yes, exercise and “fondly” in the same sentence. That is how much I love being hot.

Vinyasa flow landing on Yom Kippur meant most of a local high school girls soccer team could trade Trig and turf to downward dog with a room full of moms who take this class for far more frequent, physical atonement. We couldn’t help ourselves from asking them who they were. It’s unusual to see physically perfect teenagers with high ponytails and borrowed mats at the 9:15 class, filling our quiet sanctuary with poorly stifled giggles and chitchat. But goodness, they were beautiful: bursting with youth and vigor and everything-ahead-of-them-ness. It was hard not to stare at them, harder still to not want to be them for just one humidified hour in clingy clothes. Finally, places were found, the room quieted, the yogi said his ridiculous yogi things (fodder for another post), and class began.

And the girls… those toned and tanned and lovely girls… they SUCKED. And it was delightful. They were inflexible and off balance, mock chagrined and truly embarrassed. Their make-fun-of-this stage whispering we could all hear was another bonus. Young pretty soccer girls were flailing and falling and flummoxed by exercises minivan moms and AARP cardholders do regularly, with ease. There was sweet beauty in that. I wondered if the other 9:15 regulars were having similarly ungenerous, stay-in-your-lane thoughts as we toweled off in shared spaces. Or, maybe other people who do yoga aren’t horrible people. But it was my favorite power hour ever… even with the far too many ohms at the end.

I hope all of us went back to closets and mirrors and scales with a little more kindness toward our (older) selves. How odd to look through the eyes of girls in their own physical prime and find ourselves elevated in the comparison, if for only one morning on a hot mat. It’s a big enough compliment to reward yourself with an egg sandwich. Bagel. Extra cheese.

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One of the reasons I do hot yoga…

Stupid Spin Class

I definitely have another 5 paragraphs to write about stupid spin class. If the goal is to stay on the beat of the music, but only 7 super fit front row people can actually do that and the rest of us are out of sync but trying our best (well “our” is used loosely, because I’m not working that hard for anyone), WHY GO SO FAST? I spent one class stomping on every other beat during fast songs, and afterward overheard a woman say to her friend (about me… it’s dark in there and they didn’t realize it was me), “Sorry there wasn’t someone good in front of you.”

SORRY THERE WASN’T SOMEONE GOOD IN FRONT OF YOU. Nice, Soul Sisters.

I will never be a whoo-hooing exerciser. Even at my peak of athleticism as a 12-year-old state champion-winning gymnast, my coaches would chastise me for having zero stamina. I would try to stifle my gasps for air after one floor exercise routine like some sort of preteen smoker. If the coaches noticed, it would land me 10 minutes of jumping rope or terrible sprints between leg lifts and pull ups. And it never worked. My body prefers rest. I’m endorphin-resistant.

Last night I made Kyra’s jerk chicken dinner for 5 yummy-sound-making boys. (Secret recipe shared only with those in her lucky inner circle.) Handsome Bernie drove 2 hours to spend 10 with me and I am loved. I woke up with the birds completely energized and happy, and I mounted that bike with all of the best intentions. But after only 10 minutes of hellll yeaahhhhs from a tattooed 20 year old shouted over frenetic club music and I was outta there. Am I the only nutcase whose mood is crushed by cardio? Maybe not. Maybe that’s why they keep it so dark in there. One shared FUCK THIS look with a fellow cycler, and I could Pied Piper a whole gaggle of moms out of the studio and over to Dunks.

I’ll get back on that bike again. I’ll never love it, I’ll never whoo hoo, and I certainly will never pair skin tight leggings with a half shirt and call that an outfit. The adorable, taut-belly-baring desk girl asked me if everything was OK as I was ripping off the Velcro sneakers (and gasping and sweating) after only three songs. It took every bit of restraint not to say…

“There wasn’t someone good in front of me.”

Left right left right left right LEFT SPIN CLASS EARLY…

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I sat down immediately after this leap.

 

 

Patrick gets married

My brother got married last weekend. After a few glasses of wine, and with a bunch of tears, I delivered this speech to a patio of people who love Patrick and Jenni as much as I do.

For over a decade Patrick has only ever referred to Jenni as “the love of my life” or “my best friend.” We Stocktons will admit it took us longer than it should have to realize that maybe that was, well, enough. In fact, it is probably much more than many have after a decade of traditional marriage. But because we are lame traditionalists, and Patrick never seemed to be ring shopping, and maybe he was dating Joel or Shane and that would also be fine, or just because it’s, you know, PATRICK, we kind of aborted any notion that we would ever be here in a room full of people who love both of them fiercely… with the white dress and the snazzy suit and the vows and everything.

But here we are.

Only Patrick and Jenni can tell you how we got here. I have my theories. For sure Paige and I have only suggested this yearly, and then more frequently after they bought a freakin’ house together and we could assault him with more practical arguments about tax advantages. But for these two, for Patrick in particular, this moment was all about romance. And on his terms, but on her birthday, my baby brother gave Jenni a ring and his heart, which frankly, she’s had all along.

This wedding is a joyous proclamation of love that already has roots, a history, a mortgage. This celebration is also a unique time when our muddled assortment of family that are friends and friends that are family are thrown together for the first time, or the first time in a long time. For me, half the excitement of flying out here was to meet all of the fantastic weirdos Patrick has been talking about for 20 years. Because growing up, Patrick’s friends were the funniest, scene-stealing characters of my high school days. Half of them were half in love with all of my girlfriends, and there was always one or five hanging around. Even more during the Band Practice Era as Symptoms of Hate, Appetite for Destruction, and finally the mellower Roger’s Tribe irritated all of the neighbors. Patrick has always attracted smart, zany, talented, and almost universally super attractive people into his orbit.

And look at all of you. All gorgeous and whatnot. Typical Patrick.

On our hearts and in our minds today are those that would be here, but cannot in any sort of chicken-or-fish RSVP way. The Stockton side aunties and Walter and Gertrude. Grandma Mid. Uncle Ray. Joe Burke. Chris Horn. To know what stories Chris could have told, to hear Joe’s booming laugh as he made fun of west coast weirdness. To watch Patrick sneak out for a smoke with the cousins or hear Aunt Billie call the bride just the cutest thing west of the Rockies. While we keep them in our hearts in this moment, we get them for a second or two. Or maybe they’re a little bit here for us, because we’re loving and missing them especially now, when there is this huge news to tell:

PATRICK AND JENNI ARE MARRIED!

(Chris is doing his can’t-see-his-eyes smile, I’m sure.)

And now, I will leave you with a funny story from our youth so that we’re not crying into our cocktails. And this one is called Pizza in the Tree and is mostly about how our mother is bonkers.

Back in high school for a year or two, Aunt Sharon, mom’s twin, was living with or near us in Pennsylvania. This meant, when mom and dad went out of town for a conference or long weekend with the Coys or whatever, Aunt Sharon would come over after school to make sure we didn’t burn the house down. If you know Karen Stockton, you know she was absolutely certain we would burn the house down. Too many boxes in the basement or attic? It’s going to burn the house down. You’d better get rid of that stack of magazines or it’s going to burn the house down. Those Jenn-Air grills that work indoors? No way. Plus, the counter splatters would require her to Bounty roll paper the entire kitchen… and all of that paper toweling? Well, that’s going to burn the house down. Teenage Patrick smoking furtively in flammable corners of the home gave her nightmares. You see how this goes.

Naturally, mom’s strict rule when she was away, and frankly mostly when she was home, was that we were NOT allowed to use the kitchen. Ever. And she had kitchen hours, like, if you wanted a sandwich at 10pm, you’d better be crazy stealth about it. It’s like Mom could literally hear crumbs. But when you are a teenager, if you’re not full, you’re hungry. And so one day after school when our parents were away, we made the insanely insubordinate decision to bake a frozen pizza. This was breaking a bunch of rules. The oven? We totally could have burned the house down. Also, crumbs. But we were starving and really wanted that DiGiorno’s.

It was an uneventful pizza baking and eating event. But there were leftovers that no one could eat and now Aunt Sharon is calling saying she’ll be home in 15 minutes. We stuffed the uneaten pepperoni slices into a Ziploc bag and immediately decided it would be too obvious in the trash. There was no time the bury it. Patrick made the bold decision to hurl the plastic bag of contraband off of the deck. Into the woods. Where it immediately gets snagged on a branch and ends up dangling right in front of the family room window. It’s like oh look Days of Our Lives and to the left, Pizza in a Tree. Only 6 minutes to Aunt Sharon.

We start launching everything we can to knock the ziplock-ed bag of our sins out of the direct view of anyone watching TV. Mom, if you ever wondered why you were missing so much silverware… we’re coming clean. But nothing worked. Still it dangled there. Finally… the hose. We hooked up the garden hose, pointed, aimed, and Aunt Sharon pulls into the driveway. A well-directed spray dislodges the arboreal pizza and it disappears into the woods just as Aunt Sharon is sing-songing through the kitchen, steps out onto the porch, and sees her nephew pointing the nozzle of the garden hose into the thick of the woods.

“Kids? What are you doing?”

“We’re, um… watering the trees?”

Patrick and I then collapse into fits of laughter we could no longer contain nor explain and Aunt Sharon tells us to stop being silly, to put away the hose and come inside already. If she ever smelled the pepperoni, she never told. And I don’t think she did, because the next thing she said threw us into another spell of mouth-gaping, soundless laughing:

“Do you kids want to order a pizza for dinner?”

These are the stories of my youth with my little brother who found all of the same things funny that I did. Many times we exasperated our older sister, Paige, who told us repeatedly on long car trips that we were not funny at all. Our inane nicknames for everyone, inside jokes carried forward through so many years I cannot remember their source, and always our shared inheritance from Dad: the inability to keep a short story short. And to be fair to mom, both of us now act like total Karen Stocktons in the kitchen. I buy those enormous packs of Bounty paper towels that don’t even fit in the cart.

Today, we raise a toast to Patrick and Jenni, who found in each other a best friend, a life long love, and someone to laugh with…. someone who will host impromptu dance parties and would definitely help you dislodge pizza from a tree. We are so happy you found each other and invited all of us to share in it. Congratulations and cheers!

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My baby brother before the bride…

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Patrick gets a wife… I get another sister. 

Vibing

Most mornings this summer, I’m up with the birds. In order to be on time for the OR, Bernie often needs to leave the Cape by 5:15am. This means Bernie’s alarm is set at 5:12. So I groan out of bed, assemble some sort of sad breakfast he eats over the sink, hand him an overlarge travel mug of coffee, and kiss him goodbye. Because he voluntarily extends his daily commute by 3 hours to see me (us), it feels a bit unfair to go back to bed after he pulls out of the driveway. So, I’m up with the birds.

The 4th was Bernie’s birthday, and you know, America’s. Summer birthdays cannot be beat, and when yours lands on the 4th of July, even better. Every year we say the fireworks were the best we’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s because everyone is a 5 year old under fireworks. This was the first year I noticed everyone standing with hand over heart for the national anthem. Here, in Massachusetts, where every other Prius still endorses Hillary and encourages us to Resist, citizens are concerned and angry and fearful and waiting out another two years, but we still love this land. Maybe we still love each other. Or maybe it was the little kid anticipation of a past-your-bedtime light and sound show. But we stood: proudly, reluctantly, defiantly, impatiently, or resolutely, but probably as some sort of mixed cocktail of these.

The 4th of July feels like the true start of summer here in New England. It’s finally hot. The light lasts so long that dinners are delayed. More lingering happens. I forget to check door locks, read emails, and check toothbrushes for signs of use. My boys, however, are acting like Labor Day is right around the corner and are trying to fit in a gazillion activities and movie nights and sleepovers before that friend goes to camp, or that one to visit relatives, or the other kids to pre-season sports practices. This year, in particular, my boys are very keen on time.

In response, these boys are begging us to let them be. It’s easy for me: they want to be at my house. But for the other moms also trying to make summer memories (and prevent cavities), fetching their boys from the Lee’s to drag them home might be a bit exasperating. Mostly, we let them spend every minute together and acquiesce to an umpteenth Fortnite marathon sleepover. And occasionally, like last night, all of us lounge around the dining table sharing stories, making fun of each other, and challenging Alexa to play the most sing-along-able song. As one of my fave Cape kids put it: “We’re totally vibing.” And we were.

Next summer, half of these kids will be driving. In a handful of years, they’ll be in college. Last night we talked about all of the embarrassing stories we have memory banked for Markie’s rehearsal dinner, certain we’ll all be together for that faraway life milestone, and (for the moms) maybe getting a little teary about how lucky we are to still have singalong nights now, in these moments… fleeting in the lingering light.

Happy Summer, friends. Hope you’re vibing.

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Nostalgia

My kid graduated from middle school. This is, like, a thing. I know I know I know, it’s not high school graduation or any sort of milestone that we ever celebrated with sheet cake aplomb way back when, but Brodie has been at the same school for a decade. It was his last day there. I guess I wanted to cry, because I dug up those first day pics when he was posing with a nervous bus stop smile in his little Velcro shoes. Oof. That boy is now almost 6 feet tall. I’ve been writing about being in the sweet spot of parenting for a number of years, and somehow, it keeps getting sweeter.

You know that scene in Lost in Translation? Bill Murray’s monologue about his kids? I’ve always loved it. These small people do get more interesting with every year and inch. They become the best people you know. Brodie crossed a stage and became an official high schooler. But the night before, he fell asleep next to me on the couch after poking fun of my inability to SnapChat. (I’ll never get it.) Teddy asked me if I was one of those moms in texting threads with tons of emojis. I lied. As I find them ever more fascinating, I become infinitely more embarrassing. This is, I’m told, the natural order.

I’m practically pickled in end-of-year nostalgia. I used to think I romanticized teenagers because I didn’t have them, myself. And now that I do, I love them even more. They seem so much more exciting than my own Laura Ashley, white pump memories of being on the cusp of… something. I guess I wanted to cry (again), so I watched the Parkland kids sing “Seasons of Love” that had been shared oodles of times by moms annotating with heart eye emojis. It has been The Year of the Teenager in my own house and in the world.

I am a volunteer teacher for a rather incredible immersive Biology course taught to high schoolers at Harvard Medical School. MedScience uses an interactive mannequin to simulate ER settings to teach basic systems in a clinical setting. Last week’s topic was addiction, and I summoned my most dramatic teen persona and gave them a coked up 17 year old having a heart attack. Behind a one way mirror, I voiced the dummy and answered their questions peppered with drug-addled songs, paranoia about the whereabouts of my boyfriend, and a bunch of 80s movie references for my own amusement. They didn’t giggle when I told them my name was Julia Gulia or when I busted out my best Claire when they asked me if I was sexually active with Johnny:

“No. NO I NEVER DID IT!”

But they were super protective of me. Even after the diagnosis had been reached—that my tombstoning EKG was the result of a line-snorting afternoon– they were sure that my boyfriend was the peer-pressuring culprit. They held my hand and called my mom and told me they would take care of me. Medical schools and residency programs had just begun teaching empathy and sensitivity training when I was a fourth year. Are teenagers today tuned in a bit better? After the year they have had, perhaps.

Just as I’m feeling all mushy about teens in general, and mine in particular… they are gone. A week without children is how Bernie and I are beginning the summer, knowing Brodie is having fun with his cousins (and praying Teddy doesn’t tumble into the Grand Canyon). I’ve already purged their bedrooms of a semester of Latin tests and so many pants and shirts that didn’t keep up with their limbs. And then there it is. Brodie’s pre-K class picture. He dug it out to post on Instagram after Prize Day. Brodie never posts on Instagram. Do teenagers feel nostalgia, too? I guess so.

Seasons of Love (sniff sniff). Enjoy the milestone moments, friends.

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Boys in Velcro shoes…

 

**For those who found us through Steve Safran’s wildly shared and well-received essay about suicidal ideation and a rather wonderful message of empathy… welcome to Blooms and Bubbles. 

Depression Isn’t Sadness and Suicide Isn’t a Cry For Help… by Steve Safran

Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. Two gut-punching suicides that have people asking “Why them? They had it all!” Sure, Bourdain lived a hard life, but Kate Spade, the queen of whimsy? She was wealthy, adored and…

Depressed.

We need better words. One of the biggest disservices to the field of mental health is to call the diagnosis of “depression” by the name “depression.” Everyone “gets depressed.” It’s a commonplace word: “I’m so depressed the meeting I planned fell through.” “The ending of that show was too depressing.” “He’s too depressing to be around.”

None of these examples has anything to do with the psychological definition of Depression.

People who live with depression are wired differently. Our brains perceive life differently than those who do not have depression. Let me put it another way.

Suppose you were born left-handed in this predominantly right-handed world. Suppose that was considered OK from time to time, but generally not an excuse to use your dominant hand. Righties would say “Why are you using your left hand? Your right hand works perfectly well.” Or, “I had a cousin who was left handed, but with a lot of work, he forced himself to use his right hand.” Or, “Why not just use your right hand? You wouldn’t need the special scissors.”

But I’m still a lefty, you’d say. I’d like to be a righty, but everything comes out all wobbly and it’s so uncomfortable. Can’t you just understand I’m part of the 10 percent of the population that is left handed?

Depression is exhausting. And it’s cruel. It tells you terrible things about yourself. That’s why Ms. Spade and Mr. Bourdain died. I can’t speak for their experiences, but I can speak for my own and what I know to be true from many other patients with depression: our minds become ruthless bullies. They tell us the meanest things about ourselves. They stockpile ammunition and open fire. And we have to sit there and take it because, well, it’s coming from our own brains.

45,000 people committed suicide in 2016. Suicide rates are up 30 percent just since 1999, according to NBC news. Only about half of those victims were known to have a mental health diagnosis. We do not talk about this issue enough, and when we do, we don’t really know what we’re talking about, or when we do, Depression is conflated with “feeling depressed.”

News organizations have taken to posting suicide hotline numbers when they run stories about suicide. That’s a responsible act of journalism, but it’s like running the number for 911 in an article about a car accident. People with depression know there is help, but their brain is telling them it’s time to die. The evil mix of ill-behaving neurotransmitters and whatever they have been through in life lands on a singular message: You must kill yourself.

Even in that moment, they know they have friends they can call. They know there are hotlines. But they are not interested in anything other than stopping that message, stopping the pain.

I suggest much more empathy in this area. As someone who has lived with anxiety and depression since the days of mixtapes, I’ve heard lots of well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) people say it all: “You’ve got a great life. What do you have to be depressed about?” (I don’t know. What do you have to be left-handed about?) “There are lots of people who have it worse off than you.” (Yes. And I still have depression.) “Just smile. How hard is it just to be happy?” (As hard as it would be for you to become left-handed while people insisted you use the regular scissors.)

My personal experience with this rotten condition has been horrid. I am certain I would have been more successful in my career without depression. For years, especially when I was younger, I wasn’t treated properly. As I got older, I was blamed for the illness that gripped me, as though it was a choice I made. I was called “lazy,” and put on meds that had me gain a ton of weight. People I loved mocked my illness, likely out of discomfort they may have it themselves. (They’re not much in the picture anymore.) In any case, there was not a lot of empathy.

We can’t stop suicide and depression. But we can understand it a lot better. I raise money for Movember, which supports research for men’s cancer and also the depression that can accompany it. This is something tangible I feel I can do. But all of us can do this: we can stop telling people with depression to “cheer up.” We can be more sensitive to this very real, very misunderstood disease.

Those of us with depression do not want to be treated as a protected class. We don’t want special rights or to be treated gently. You can’t make me depressed any more than you can make me a lefty. Empathy and acceptance are an enormous gift to those struggling to ignore the mean messages from their own minds.

Think about Robin Williams. Think about Kate Spade. Think about Anthony Bourdain. Think about the joy they brought you in their unique ways. Think about what you would have said to them, knowing they were going to take their lives. “Don’t do that” would not have worked. Instead of shameful, head-shaking whispers, let’s acknowledge suicide as the growing epidemic it is, and insist health care do more to support mental health.

Depression is not about what we have; it’s about what has us.