I’m a writer/editor, living in Central New Jersey–but I’m not really a Jersey girl, because I grew up in Yonkers, New York… making fun of New Jersey. But I admit it: I surprise myself with my love of the Garden State, despite the many things wrong with it. So it’s fine with me if everyone from outside of New Jersey believes it’s like the turnpike corridor moonscape. That way, they won’t come here and crowd my beautiful beaches or Delaware River bike path. When we can retire, I hope you’ll find us living the dream in a shack Down the Shore, sleeping on the beach, riding the waves, and eating at Surf Taco.
Recently, my son’s cat went missing. Dmitri is my favorite of Joe’s cats, a skinny, friendly little guy who I bonded with during my occasional cat-feeding duties. Dmitri is the cat that will nuzzle your face and pay attention to you beyond his desire to be fed. So when Joe called one Sunday night in October to say that Dmitri had gotten loose and not returned home, I promised to help in any way I could.
Joe emailed me a Lost Cat poster with a picture of Dmitri. I went to Staples and printed out about 50 copies. We met at Joe’s house and walked methodically around his neighborhood with a staple gun, and put the poster on every telephone pole for several blocks in all directions. A few neighbors who saw us at work with the staple gun commiserated and said they’d keep their eyes open and call if Dmitri turned up in their yard. Several people pointed out where homeowners were known to feed stray cats, and suggested we look around their yards.
At one point a car pulled up and two young women said they were certain that Dmitri had been meowing loudly on their back porch the night before, but when they went outside, he ran away. The good news was that they lived only two streets away from Joe’s house. Well, we reasoned, Dmitri was sweet, but he wasn’t the brightest bulb. He could get lost that close to home. But at least there was hope he was still nearby.
Joe had to go to work so I continued stapling posters until all of them were up. As I was finishing stapling the remaining posters, I spoke with a nurse coming home from a night shift, a man raking leaves, a young woman getting high in her car, and one of the homeowners who fed stray cats. All were concerned and promised to keep their eyes open for Dmitri. It was hard to believe that people who don’t know Joe, or his lost cat, ungrudgingly spent 10 minutes outside in the cold talking to us about this small personal tragedy, rather than running inside to get warm.
For two more nights Dmitri was out on the street somewhere. The temperatures plunged into the 30s and it was windy and damp. I had trouble sleeping, thinking about Dmitri being cold and wet, hungry, and scared, or worse. Joe said, “I hope if something terrible happens, it happens quickly and he doesn’t suffer.”
In the late afternoon on the sixth day after Dmitri went missing, a man called Joe to say he thought Dmitri was in his yard hiding under a tarp. A short time later, Joe got Dmitri –lost only two blocks away from home. He was skinnier, dirtier, and hungry, but seemed OK.
The next day I went back to Joe’s neighborhood and took down all the lost cat posters so people would stop worrying about Dmitri. A number of people who saw me pulling them down asked if I’d found the cat, and seemed genuinely happy to hear we had.
The whole series of events around Dmitri getting lost, and then found, were a rare occurrence in my life these days–an arc of events that from inception of the problem to its resolution took less than a week to play out. Problem identified, steps taken to address the problem, problem resolved. I can’t think of any other problem or challenge facing me over the last 5 or 6 years that has had such a satisfyingly brief resolution, and it isn’t because the problem of a lost cat may not be on the scale of other things I worry about. For weeks after the Lost Cat arc was completed, I kept thinking about it. I realized just how much I hungered for an arc that resolved so cleanly and happily in any other part of my life. An arc in which my efforts could actually have a positive effect. A problem that posters, staple guns, and telephones could solve.
For the last year the words on the sign in this picture have been like constant background music. The expression sums up many feelings I have as a parent, watching my children make their way. I try to be more detached as they’ve become young adults, but in reality, I am anything but. I’m so invested in my children that I can barely stand “watching” them. A few weeks ago I read an article in New Scientist that began, “Mothers always have their children in the back of their minds – now it seems that this is quite literally true.” It seems that scientists found fetal DNA in mothers’ brains many decades after their sons’ births. They hypothesized that because fetal cells escape the placenta, they entered the mother’s brains and remained there literally for decades–discovered when the women were autopsied. Is this why I never stop worrying, feeling their pain? Judith Shulevitz recently wrote that “sociologists sometimes call the management of familial duties ‘worry work,’ and the person who does it the “designated worrier,” because you need large reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of it all. Maybe I am not as dispassionate as I need to be. Maybe one of my friends was right when he more than hinted that I was complicit, a drama junkie.
But I keep thinking, at least with the younger generation, they’re on a path with many years ahead to figure things out. And, as conventional wisdom has it, as you get older you learn from the bumps in the road, and sometimes they help you in ways you don’t expect. “It takes a lifetime” can be a comforting thought as long as you think there’s hope for an upward trajectory.
But after a recent call from my father, I told my brother that I’d been reconsidering. “You know that question, ‘Why does it take a lifetime?’ I’ve been thinking. A lifetime, it turns out, is not actually enough time to figure things out.” Great age does not, “ipso facto,” as my father used to like to say, get packaged with deep understanding despite a lifetime’s worth of experience. The 84-year-old Warren Buffett may still be on top of his game, and The New York Times periodically runs articles featuring amazingly active, marathon-running elderly folks who are still, in their late 80s and into their 90s, happily hiking, painting, writing, and playing drums. Articles about these amazing elderly people usually search for clues to how the “old masters,” as one article called them, got to be so old but still so good–the subtle implication being that we too can be old masters, if we just do things right. And we will be among the blessed old but good, right? Eat right, exercise, stay fit, do crossword puzzles, and think positively!
Well, my mother was pretty much the picture of the active, very healthy, happy, serene, old lady, who loved her life and was proud of her life’s work as an elementary school teacher. Four years ago, my mother was still swimming far enough out in the lake that my father felt he had to follow her in a rowboat. Only she got Alzheimer’s disease two years ago and is pretty much unlearning everything she knew. This quite simply has unraveled my dad, a lifelong planner and anxious person, who is unprepared and unable to fathom the situation he now finds himself in. “I feel like I’m riding in a speeding car without a steering wheel,” he told me. Our discussions are painful and often a reversal of roles. I’d like to believe I’m going to be one of those old masters too, but in reality we are all driving without a steering wheel, whether we admit it or not. My generation is particularly lousy at imagining, much less admitting, that there are things not in our control, and I lose patience when yet another study or well-meaning person tells me what things I should be doing to increase the chance that I’ll have a serene and healthy old age.
The elderly people in my life aren’t hiking or writing books or showing up for work every day in a suit. For a variety of reasons, both externally and internally driven, they have little agency and an overwhelming, crippling amount of fear. Fear rules their entire world, and when fear rules, it crowds everything else out because nothing else has room to breathe. This is why FOX News and the Weather channel have so successfully owned the older generation, prompting a friend to ask, “Can we just have only one channel allowed for everyone over age 80–the Happy Channel? Only good news and good weather reports?”
I recently came upon the following passage from a speech by Andrew Solomon, and I am keeping his words in mind as I navigate the two sides of the generational ridge I find myself standing on top of.
“While all old people have been young, no young people have been old, and this troubling fact engenders the frustration of all parents and elders, which is that while you can describe your experience you cannot confer it. It’s tempting, nonetheless, to pose as an expert—and in another way it’s tempting to say, ‘I know nothing that you don’t already know.’ Neither of those postures is right. Every stage of life longs for others. When one is young and eager, one aspires to maturity, and everyone older would like nothing better than to be young. We have equal things to teach each other.”
This ridge is a hard place to inhabit. No longer young, not yet old; young enough to still have a hard time imagining I’ll ever be like my parents, but old enough to know it may be no better when I get there. It may not be possible in a lifetime to come even close to learning what you need to, but right now I just have to get better at walking this tightrope.
In the days before cable TV, the Internet–VHS and DVDs, for that matter–I couldn’t miss the weekly hour on network TV with Mr. Spock and the crew of the starship Enterprise for fear that once gone, the loss would be irretrievable. My parents restricted our TV time to 30 minutes on weeknights, so my brother and I pooled our time and watched the 1-hour Star Trek together.
It’s hard to explain to people what the original Star Trek and the character of Mr. Spock meant to me when I was a kid. I didn’t have onerous challenges to surmount –I was a middle-class white kid with well-educated parents and much love. No, what made me feel like an outsider was pretty much being Jewish in Yonkers, NY, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with parents who gave me piano and violin lessons and as many books as I wanted to read. It was a time when (and few people believe me when I say this) each Wednesday afternoon, the entire public elementary school I attended was released from school to attend “religious instruction” at a nearby church. I should amend that statement to, “the entire public school except for 3 kids (2 Jewish girls and one Chinese-American girl), who remained behind to clap erasers together, clean the desks, and wash the chalkboards with the teachers. The next day when the kids came back to school, they’d sometimes talk about what they learned in “Religion” and it was certainly a source of wonder for me to ponder, or decode, the puzzling imagery their words produced: crosses, ascension to Heaven. The downside to what they learned “in Religion” was the occasional remark about Jews killing Jesus Christ or the called-out chorus of “Jew! Jew!” during cafeteria food fights. This was likely the beginning of a life-long predisposition toward alienation from larger groups I might have otherwise been part of.
So Mr. Spock and the multicultural/multigender crew of the USS Enterprise was a revelation to me. I’m not the first one to say that, obviously. The actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhuru, tells of being contacted by Martin Luther King, who begged her not to leave the show because her prominent presence on the crew (albeit as a glorified telephone operator) meant so much to the African American community, who rarely saw an African American actor who was not playing a maid or slave. No one said it, but Mr. Spock was obviously a Jew as far as I was concerned. The big ears were instead of a big nose (yes, a stereotype but…), his heart being in the wrong place, his blood being a different chemistry, these were ways to codify Spock in fact being “OTHER”: Jewish, bookish and intellectual (“logical”) in the less-than-brainy environment I found myself growing up in.
Years later Mr. Spock’s Judaism was confirmed for me when I read that Leonard Nimoy had himself added the now-famous V-shaped hand signal he made when saying, “Live long and prosper!” Apparently, when he was a small boy he had seen the rabbi gesticulate this way with both hands toward turned backs of the assembled synagogue congregation while he blessed the Torahs in the arc behind him. And what about Mr. Spock’s parents–one Vulcan, the other an Earthling–the two cultures at war within him, making it hard for him to feel fully identified with either half (which is how I felt). If one needed any further evidence that Spock was a Jew, it was easily found in the episode called “Amok Time,” when Spock returns to his home planet for a mating ritual that is presided over by the matriarch T’Pau, who is perhaps best described as the world’s biggest-ever Jewish Bubbe (grandma).
Nowadays kids like me would “find community” on the Internet, would discover like-minded people in far flung places who could be united online because they have common interests, concerns, beliefs, and shared weirdness. We didn’t have that in 1968 or 1970. We had to find community in some really bizarre ways. My way was Mr. Spock.
When Leonard Nimoy died today, my son sent me a tweet from a woman my age who said she carried Spock’s picture around in her notebook when she was a kid. “Helped me a lot as I was a kid not like the others,” she tweeted. “I remember knocking on a neighbor’s door one evening when our TV wasn’t working. It was SO important to me.”
Farewell, Mr. Spock, and Leonard Nimoy. You did live long, prosper, and make a lot of people feel less weird and alone.
The latest entry on Pilcrow is written by Robert Nortrup. Robert is an engineer and stone sculptor who lives in Frenchtown, NJ. He wrote “The Web” some weeks ago after visiting his sister, Helen, then in hospice. Helen died last week. Robert kindly gave me permission to publish this.
by Robert Nortrup
She’s tired, and has rolled over to take a nap–which can be fifteen minutes or fifteen hours. But in hospice, you’re free to do whatever. When we were young, occasionally my mother would tell me, “Go wake your sister, you’re going to be late for school,”… argh, maybe with a catcher’s mask in case she threw the clock (admittedly, this is much more family lore than truth, but still, it warms me to tell it). But now, for Helen, napping is her right, her day.
Last week, when I was leaving to go home from a visit with Helen, I went out to my car and found a perfectly formed spider web between the car antenna, the window, and the trunk. I have a VW Passat sedan, where the antenna is at the back of the roof just before the back window, and slanting up and back about a foot and a half. She had climbed up there, as high as she could go, and weaved magic in the air while I was inside. And now, I imagined, she was looking at me, wondering–what was next, from this giant shadow of a being, paused before her work. But all I could say was good luck, and hold on.
She tells me her short-term memory is gone, as her gaze wanders off into space, searching for an answer–lost somewhere between the extraction of the tumor in her brain, the follow-up radiation to the head, and the chemo. They tell me that the radiation stopped the growth of the tumors in the brain, and the chemo stopped the tumors in the abdomen and lungs. But nothing seems to have affected the cancer in the liver. When I mention to my friends that it’s in her liver, they just get quiet.
When I get home, after hours of driving, I look, and in the moonlight I see her, huddled down at the base of the antenna. She’s a big one, the web long ago blown away by the long drive. But she’ll find a good home here in Frenchtown, a small New England-ish town nestled on the banks of the Delaware River, an idyllic corner of an otherwise overly abused state, sandwiched between two great cities but possessing neither. The bridge
over the river, with its lights and endless swirling bugs, is spider heaven.
She’s lost all her hair, of course, again–the first time had been during the chemo following the breast cancer surgery. But that time, her hair grew back all fresh and curly. She called it her chemo-hair, and she loved it. But this time, her head is as bare as her arms and feet, cast against the deep blue of her hospital pajamas and the white of her bed linens—with the hum and exhausting huffs from the oxygen machine, the only sounds.
In the morning, Saturday, I walk out to the car for some morning errands, and there she is, sitting at the center of another perfect web, staring back at me, both of us recalling the last time we stood, gazing at each other. This ride wouldn’t be as long as the last, but my first stop was the carwash. I love a clean car, the tires all shiny. It was another beautiful day, with a strikingly blue September sky. She had worked all the cool night through, and if I had risen earlier, would likely have been treated to a dew-adorned web, all fresh and glistening, with her as a waiting star center. But now, I imagined she knew what was coming, there waiting patiently.
They tell me it could be three days, or three months. No telling how long the liver will last, as the cancer inevitably grows. I still see my sister in there, staring back at me, half here, and half there, with both of us knowing. But I can still crack on her, with a joke, as if we had all the time in the world. When she still reaches out to smack me on the arm, now just a hint of a motion, but both still feeling the contact – the smile hanging alive for a moment in her eyes, frozen in my memory from so many years. I’m filled with who she is.
Halfway to the carwash I think of her, out there, hanging on, her web blown away again. And I pull over next to a farmer’s field, and get out. This time she’s way out on the end, as if imagining her exit; we stare one last time. I unscrew the antenna and carry it over to the field, bending down and sweeping her into the grass, and she’s gone, so quickly out of sight–as if she where never there.
She’s still sleeping, the machine still huffing and humming.
On November 30, 2011, my father-in-law, Norbert (Bert) Freedman, passed away at the age of 88. He was an inspiration to all who knew him–a man who lived life more fully than anyone I’ve known. Despite the many difficulties he encountered in his life, including fleeing Germany in 1940 at age 17, becoming blind, and losing his first wife to cancer when his children were very young, Bert forged ahead and never complained. He married my mother-in-law, Joyce, more than 30 years ago, and was working as a practicing psychoanalyst up until the last days of his life. The moving eulogies at his funeral from both family and colleagues were testaments to the lasting effect Bert had on so many.
Bert lived large before that term was even used. He loved to eat, drink good wine, use too much salt, tell jokes, schmooze, and entertain. His apartment was sometimes a hotel for European visitors. Although he was blind, he commuted from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Brooklyn on the subway to his office at Downstate for decades. He embraced technology in a way few people his age did, even those who were sighted. A few weeks before he died, he was getting ready to consult the “Geniuses” at the Manhattan Apple Store to find out if the latest iPhone with the talking assistant Siri could make his life easier. He was a force.
In December 2008, Bert recorded the story of his experiences as a young man in Hamburg, Germany, in the 1930s, and how his family had to leave Germany because of the rise of the Nazis and the growing anti-Semitism they faced. In the recording, Bert tells of his family’s painful realization that they had to leave their homeland. His was a highly assimilated Jewish family that was not religious, and they felt as German as any other citizens. But beginning in 1932, Bert’s world changed when he first encountered anti-Semitism from his soccer teammates, who became violent towards him when he scored a goal. Between 1932 and 1939 his parents took a series of steps to prepare for the family’s exodus from Germany. They learned other trades and improved their foreign language skills in order to be able to make a living in what they hoped would be the United States. They had to travel separately and by different routes to reach the United States. In 1940 Bert and his mother left Hamburg, finally traveling on the Trans-Siberia railway to Yokohama, Japan, and then across the Pacific to Seattle, Washington.
The posted audio file of Bert’s story is long (53 minutes) but it is well worth the time spent listening to it. Thank you, Sam, for turning a narration from a hand-held dictaphone into an MP3 file and posting it for me!
Addendum, July 2020. A transcript of this interview is now available.
This week there have been many eloquent and moving eulogies and articles written about Steve Jobs, his life, work, and genius. Many articles noted the place Jobs came to occupy as a visionary who changed the way we live and work. I am among his many admirers and a user of quite a few of his company’s products, and I agree with much of what has been said about Steve Jobs in the days following his untimely death.
But something about the overwhelming celebration of Jobs’ genius, the many stories about his unwavering and unusual approach to the things he was passionate about have given me pause. Not because they weren’t true—no, it is more the gaping discrepancy they expose between how we celebrate him now versus how he and others like him are treated when they are younger. Because when we call a mega-successful man like Steve Jobs a visionary genius–despite his famously “difficult” and “flawed” personality—we can safely celebrate his quirkiness and uniqueness and break-the-mold attitude. But when that same Steve Jobs is a kid, let’s say, or a difficult pre-teen or teenager, how does our educational system typically treat him? In most cases, not too well.
By now it’s something of a mantra that the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and other “geniuses” dropped out of college or had great difficulty even completing high school. The fact is, many of these (now) visionaries were “square pegs in round holes,” who were unable—and often unwilling–to “go with the program.” And often they have a miserable experience in school, where the way they learn best is not accepted or tolerated, and they are generally viewed as a big pain in the butt and a daily challenge to accepted (easier) ways of doing things. While these kids are frequently acknowledged to be smart, they may not perform especially well on tests and they don’t always follow convention. In short, kids like this are often viewed as more trouble than they’re worth—and unless we are lucky, that genius is squashed.
Steve Jobs was said to be a “turbulent” child who didn’t care much for school. In 4th grade he had a teacher who saw something special about him and bribed him with candy and her own money to encourage him to learn math. He excelled, and actually skipped the 5th grade, entering 6th grade in a new middle school. In this new school he was bullied. Steve Jobs came home and told his parents he was going to stop going to school completely unless he was sent to a new school. His parents apparently agreed, and had to move to another city to find a school he could attend. That city was Cupertino, which we know was an incredible bit of fortune for Steve Jobs, and for all of us.
In Steve Jobs’ commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford, he explains why he dropped out of Reed College after a short time, but then hung around the campus for another year and a half, sleeping on friends’ floors and couches so he could audit classes that interested him—at least one of which (calligraphy) he said had a tremendous impact on him and the later development of the Mac. What drove him from Reed was the rigid system of required core courses—which students must in many cases “get through” in order to graduate. I’m not going to debate the wisdom of a core curriculum here, but I do think that the rigid structures of some university core requirements, as well as the test-driven, requirement-laden educational system, are counterproductive for many who need a different approach. There’s a difference between exposing students to different areas of learning and imposing an often-arbitrary set of courses believed to be enriching and “necessary” for a “well-educated” person. Moreover, many times alternative courses or paths in high school are discouraged in favor of a college-bound curriculum that can be measured and standardized.
A few years ago I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal about the young Bill Gates, and his difficult path through adolescence and high school. His intellect had taken off around age 11; he read the entire encyclopedia on his own, and became very interested in international politics, business, and the nature of life. However, he resisted control and needed a great deal of freedom to follow his interests, and he was a trial to his parents. Eventually, however, they realized that the status quo wasn’t working, and enrolled Bill in a private high school that allowed him much more freedom, and where he coincidentally discovered computers. Bill was allowed to take some school nights off to enjoy use of computers at the nearby University of Washington, and during his senior year of high school he took a break during the year to work as a programmer at a power plant in the southern part of the state. Gates thrived on the freedom he had been given.
Now we find these men, their passion, their drive, their individualism, remarkable, but they’ve already been successful, so it’s an easy leap to make. However, there are countless kids like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, growing up right now, who may have a similar potential but who aren’t lucky enough to find themselves in places where they have a chance to become the next remarkable visionary.
(Episode aired April 5, 2011) Having received a request from Starfleet Command to voyage to the offices of a remote employment agency to follow up on previous online submissions of resume and personal data, our hero finds herself confronting a hostile life form, fellow voyagers, and a young account lieutenant with whom she must interpret the New Order.
A little background is called for. On March 8, 1968, the original Star Trek series aired an episode called “The Ultimate Computer,” in which a computer does a better job (at least temporarily) of running The U.S.S. Enterprise than Captain Kirk.
Captain Kirk is called “Dunsel” by a colleague and walks off the bridge fuming and hurt. “What in the blazes is Dunsel?” Bones demands. Spock explains, “Dunsel, Doctor, is a term used by midshipmen at Starfleet Academy. It refers to a part that serves no useful purpose.”
These last few months have been discouraging for me, confronting, as I am, the reality that within a 5-month period my three biggest and long-running freelance writing/editing jobs evaporated, one after the other. The first, and perhaps worst, blow was the demise of the women’s health magazine I’d been the managing editor of for the last 5 years. It was not only my main source of income, it was also a source of pride, a well-regarded publication among the physicians who read it, and in many ways, a part of my identity. It wasn’t the first women’s health magazine I’d worked on, but like the others before it, it was my focus and I loved working on it. I worked with scores of interesting people all over the world, and had a great working relationship with several virtual colleagues. I’ve met many of the authors and board members at the association’s annual meeting, and made some friends among the colleagues I saw every year.
The death of this journal can be blamed on many things: steadily declining revenues resulting from a lack of advertising from pharmaceutical companies, especially after the reversal of fortunes for hormone replacement therapy; the movement of drug ads from doctors’ journals to magazines for consumers; changes in the journal’s leadership; and, of course, the big shadow cast by the Internet’s dominance over the antediluvian bound and printed page. I had other ongoing projects, but over the last year, several ceased to be viable or no longer could support freelance workers.
In the previous several years I’d weathered the end of a series of journals that I worked on. Even when publications remained afloat, several were purchased by new owners who brought with them a new crew that did not want to use freelancers who had previously worked on the publications. In one instance, I was told that all freelancers “left by the old ones” (another Star Trek allusion, my apologies) were being put on notice that if they wanted to continue with the publication, they had to agree to work within a new rubric: no more “scientific-y” articles, they were now going to be based on interviews with patients and would be more “human interest-y.” I’d done many interviews before and figured I could weather the storm. And I thought I passed the test: my first story was on the cover. My second story was on page 2. But after that, I never heard from them again; my calls went unanswered and emails unreturned. The editors I worked with had left the company. I had worked for this publication for more than 6 years, and had lunch with its editors in New York. I found out much later that every single staffer who had been with the publication prior to the installation of a new executive was gone within months.
There were other ominous signs of the way things were going. When someone did want to give you work, it was at 1980 prices. I say 1980 specifically because that was the year I got my first job out of the college. So I’ve come full circle. I’m making the same hourly amount I did when I was 22.
Another trend has also emerged. Experience and a long resume is no longer a plus. You may be set in your ways and not fun to work with. Also, you might require a living wage. And you might get on the phone to discuss something because it will take half the time of sending 10,000 emails back and forth that only deepen the confusion. I can’t escape the feeling that some of the young people now in positions of account managers and editors, who I’m now looking to for work, are uncomfortable with the idea that I could be their …mom.
So by the end of December, things had reached a new low. I had hardly any work. Phone calls placed to former colleagues who once gave me work ended the same way. One friend with whom I’ve worked for 15 years on different projects in a variety of different companies said, “Do you want the full-length nauseating version or the shorter nauseating version?” The short version was bad enough. Not only did the long project I was to work on fall through, the editor had also essentially lost her job, was half-time now, and was doing the little available work herself, so there was no need for freelancers.
I got a call in late March from another underemployed freelancer, who suggested that I join LinkedIn. She said she’d gotten one job out of it because a colleague from years ago saw her there and called her. So I did join LinkedIn, but the very first day three of my new connections wrote to tell me they were out of work, too; not too good for networking, but we did have fun talking again.
A couple of weeks ago I finished up a writing project, the last thing that would be contributing to my bank account for some time to come, and a few days after I sent it in, I got some really nice feedback from the client, very complimentary and very hopeful about future work. It was a much-needed boost. I was telling my husband that the article was well received and that it might turn into more. “That’s great!” he said. “I think you were feeling like Captain Dunsel.”
A disclaimer: I am not one of those Trekkies who goes to conventions and collects Captain Kirk dolls or wears Spock ears. But I did and do still love the original Star Trek series. I love the campy, over-the-top, preachy themes and the egalitarian and world-oriented depiction of the future –as it was imagined in 1968. In 1968, I was 10 years old, and my parents only let me watch 30 minutes of TV on certain nights. But if my brother and I watched the same 1-hour show, we could pool our time. Besides, my parents liked Star Trek, too. My brother and I looked forward to the night the show was on, enjoying all the famously low-budget aliens and the hokey transporter beam. (Well, maybe my brother was waiting for Yeoman Rand and her micro-mini skirts, but I was waiting for the Captain and Spock.) But I forgot who Captain Dunsel was! My husband feigned shock and was smug about his superior knowledge of Star Trek. He reminded me about the episode with the M5 computer, and it all came back to me.
So, in short, Yes, I have been feeling like Captain Dunsel!
The week before the Captain Dunsel epiphany, I registered with a temp agency on the advice of another of my unemployed publishing friends. I did most of the registration online and attached my resume and waited to see what happened. I got a call asking me to come in for an interview. That’s where this blog began.
Stardate 2011.4 (Episode aired April 5, 2011) Having received a request from Starfleet Command to voyage to the offices of a remote employment agency to follow up on previous online submissions of resume and personal data, our hero finds herself confronting a hostile life form, fellow voyagers, and a young account lieutenant with whom she must interpret the New Order.
Sitting in the waiting room where the hostile life form (receptionist) did a great job of further deflating any self-esteem remaining among the group of hopeful job candidates, I had a chance to do some self-assessment of my externals. I came up short: hair (no style), nails (not painted), brows (not shaped), clothes (old), age (not young). The young woman who interviewed me was very nice, upbeat, and high energy, but I was out of practice:
• Was I a writer or an editor? (I was pressed to pick.)
• Have I written email blasts? Web banners?
I guess I survived, because she’s given me a good lead and some work has resulted from it. But I felt very Dunselish—only I was still a week away from realizing that it was Dunsel I was channeling. Driving home, I took a detour for a cappuccino at my favorite coffee shop. I needed fortitude. It is a good place to go when you need to see a middle-aged, style-challenged person or two.
When I got home, I checked my email. There was an email from MediaBistro, which sends job listings in media. They also advertise their online seminars and courses. This one caught my eye:
“Reinventing Print Content for the Web: This class …will help you stay current with demanding online audiences. You’ll learn how to WEBIFY magazine articles…[the] instructor was a ‘rich media ninja’ [in a previous company]…”
And here’s the important part:
“This course is an eye-opener for anyone who has been preserved in the amber of the print world.”
Oh, wow, that spoke to me! I AM THAT PERSON! I emailed a few of my friends to let them know I had just found out what my problem is, or how the world saw my kind.
A relic from the Jurassic, preserved in amber, like an unfortunate trapped fly of millennia past. “Is the young stuff so much better than print amber?” asked my friend Bob. “Is a rich narrative no longer the ticket?”
I can’t answer that. Maybe down the road, at a future stardate. In a different installment of The Adventures of Captain Dunsel.
About 10 years ago a teacher at my sons’ school asked the students in his class to ask their older relatives if they had lived through the Great Depression and were able to tell the class what it was like to be a child during that period of US history. My father, who has always been an enthusiastic student of history, was a boy in New York City during those years, and he volunteered to make a tape about his experience. My sons’ friend, Juan, is the boy who had this assignment, and as he had not been born in the US, and none of his relatives spoke English, my father volunteered to make a tape about his experiences for Juan to use.
At the time of this recording, Juan was 12 years old. Now he is 22 years old and serving in the US military. My father is now 83, and still has vivid memories of the Great Depression. Given the current economic situation and some of the recent discussions about social programs like Social Security and Medicare, which were created in response to the Great Depression, I thought it was interesting to listen once again to my father’s recollections so we might remember how difficult things were when there was no “safety net.”
The recollection is quite long, but worth listening to. For those who need to limit their listening time, it might help to know that at around the 19 minute mark, the discussion shifts from a general discussion of what life was like in those years to one that is more specific to his experience during the Great Depression.
Last summer my family doctor sent all his patients a letter saying that he was sponsoring a telephone-administered questionnaire, and asked if we would answer the survey questions should we receive the call. His letter said that the answers we gave to the questions would be used to help him improve his practice. What we did not understand at the time was that the practice would improve—but only for the doctor and about 25% of his patients. The other 75% of us would be “fired” because we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay a high yearly fee to “join” what would become his new practice.
Welcome to “concierge medicine.”
We didn’t realize it at the time, but the survey was a tool that would be used to create a problem that could then justify a radical repair. The next letter we received from our doctor stated that the results from the telephone survey of his patients confirmed exactly what he suspected: that patients felt rushed, they wanted more advice about preventive health care, and they really didn’t like to wait in the waiting room. I don’t recall the letter stating how many patients were actually questioned and what percentage of them said there were problems. No need for specifics, we were just to take it on faith: There was a problem.
In fact, we had never waited long in our doctor’s waiting room or for an appointment or felt rushed. I rather liked the fact that the waiting room hadn’t been redone in at least 10 years—it showed that the doctor had the right priorities. We had what seemed like relaxed, unhurried annual physicals and visits. The doctor talked to us at length, and discussed individualized preventive health care and lifestyle changes. We always felt that our doctor was accessible. He called us personally to discuss test results or answer questions. The only complaints I ever had involved members of his front office staff, but they were minor.
Maybe we had low expectations for our health care. So I asked a friend who had been seeing this same doctor for many years, and he too felt that none of the problems applied to his family’s care. So it was news to us when the doctor announced that he needed to make changes in his practice in order to be able to provide…exactly what he was already providing.
The letter informed us that as of January 2011, our doctor would be changing his practice so that these “problems” were no longer an impediment to the health care we deserved–and that he wanted to practice. He was going to be joining a larger practice called MDVIP, and would be “limiting” his practice to the first 500 of his current 2000+ patients to sign up and “join” the practice. Patients who joined were promised greater accessibility to the doctor, more individualized preventive care, same-day appointments, no time spent in the waiting room, and appointments that lasted a minimum of 30 minutes.
I read the letter over a few times. There had to be a catch—money, fees, something. The letter referred me to the MDVIP website. The website was filled with smiling, happy people who were bursting to tell you why they switched to MDVIP, and how pleased they were to have done so. I was invited to click on the kind of patient I am: a frequent user of health care? A once-a-year type? Someone who needs to go more often? Hear their stories and you’ll recognize yourself, and better yet, imagine yourself with MDVIP! Still, all I was hunting for was the answer to one question: how much money was this going to cost?
The answer shocked me: $1500 per year, per person. So that would be $3000 per year for my husband and me. And that fee doesn’t mean I get to stop paying for health insurance, because although $1500 covers all the preventive care I’d need in a year, if we get sick, that’s not typically covered, nor are hospital costs or medications. Not to mention our children, who are not covered by MDVIP at all.
Five hundred patients multiplied by $1500 per year adds up to a nice bottom line start to the year for the doctor: $750,000 … minus whatever percentage MDVIP takes off the top.
What is MDVIP?
MDVIP is a Florida-based, for-profit provider of “concierge” (also called “boutique,” or “retainer”) medicine that was founded in 2000 and acquired by Procter & Gamble in 2009.1 MDVIP is the largest of the concierge medicine providers. As of October 2010, there were over 430 MDVIP-affiliated physicians in the United States. MDVIP has grown by more than 40% since 2008.2
The cornerstone of the MDVIP program is the annual comprehensive “executive-style” physical and a detailed, customized wellness plan.2 MDVIP also restricts which doctors are allowed to join their provider group. According to MDVIP, affiliated physicians are “carefully chosen through a rigorous screening process.”2 They must score highly on the company’s patient questionnaire to be considered in the first place. So that phone questionnaire gets you coming–and going—or should I say “leaving.” You, the patient, say how much you like your doc, and then he or she can qualify for MDVIP, and dump you when you can’t afford their membership fee. It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode when Elaine’s boyfriend, a medical student, breaks up with her:
Elaine: What? You’re breaking up with me? But I sacrificed and supported you while you struggled. What about my dream of dating a doctor?
Ben: I’m sorry, Elaine. I always knew that after I became a doctor, I would dump whoever I was with and find someone better. That’s the dream of becoming a doctor.
I went to the section of the MDVIP website dedicated to my doctor’s nascent MDVIP practice. There was a place to respond whether or not you were interested in signing up to the new practice. I wrote that I certainly was not signing up because of the high fee and added that I was really disappointed to see my doctor, who I had liked very much, going this route, effectively jettisoning all his middle-class patients.
Less than 10 minutes after hitting the send button, I got a phone call from an MDVIP operator, who essentially said, “Don’t let the door hit your ass on your way out.” He checked us off his list.
Next, I wrote a letter to my doctor explaining why we were not staying in his practice and expressing disappointment in his decision to join MDVIP. A few days later, he called. Our conversation was not rancorous, but neither of us ceded ground to the other. He stuck to his talking points. (I now know they are talking points because the more I read about MDVIP, the more I see the same statements, over and over. “It’s about making your health a priority.” “It’s just $4 per day. That’s the same as what you probably spend at Starbucks.” My doctor improvised, changing Starbucks to Dunkin’ Donuts in our conversation. My town is more of a Dunkin’ kind of place. Still, his comments about Dunkin’ Donuts irritated me because they so trivialized our (and so many others’) situation.
I told my doctor that we had already made health care a priority, and spent a great deal of money to pay for health insurance, deductibles, and our many uncovered or out-of-network costs and medications. He countered that his $3000 fee could be covered by a flexible spending account. I told him that we already deplete our account every year paying for our many uncovered expenses. (We no longer have this benefit anyway.) “Should I stop paying our tuition bills in order to join your practice?” I asked. He didn’t answer.
“I’m not doing this for money,” he said. “This change won’t mean more money for me.” I hadn’t suggested it. Okay, I thought it. I still think it.
Coming Soon, to a Doctor Near You?
Concierge medicine currently affects only a small percentage of Americans. We are just lucky, I guess. Nationwide there are estimated to be 3,500 concierge doctors treating 1 million patients.3 In my state, New Jersey, it is estimated that there are 100 physicians practicing concierge medicine.3 In some areas of the country, primarily urban areas, concierge medicine is more prevalent.
But it is a movement that is growing. In my area, seven doctors recently switched to concierge medical practices, forcing thousands of patients like my husband and me to find another family practitioner.3 It’s not as simple as it sounds because some practices are closed to new patients and there are always questions about which doctors take your insurance. And now there are at least 1,500 more patients from my doctor’s former practice who are, like us, searching for a new primary care doctor.
Doctors who join concierge practices undoubtedly like their new practices. What’s not to like–500 patients underwrite a several-hundred-thousand dollar base each year, and they tend to be more health-conscious patients who are also healthier to begin with. The only national survey of concierge practices, done in 2005, found that these patients have lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure than the general population of patients.4
For the patients who can afford to belong to a concierge practice, it’s a nice arrangement: instant medical gratification–and no waiting rooms. While there is very little evidence as to whether concierge patients have better long-term health outcomes than those in traditional medical practices, concierge practices advertise this to be the case. MDVIP’s 10th anniversary press release states, “We are satisfying the demands of our patients who want to prevent disease and live healthier, happier lives.”2 And now for the naked ambition part: “As a result, we expect our double-digit growth to continue for the next decade.”
I guess it’s understandable why patients who can afford to do so sign up for concierge medicine. But is it ethical for doctors to be (as a headline in my local paper put it) “putting some patients at the head of the treatment line” because they paid for the privilege?1
Writing in the Annals of Internal Medicine last year, Michael Stillman, MD, a self-described “regular” physician, notes that while he understands why patients are attracted to concierge medicine, he’s less charitable about the physicians who offer it.5 “Each of us has vowed to ‘treat without exception all who seek [our] ministrations,’ and limiting one’s practice to several hundred wealthy patents undermines this tenet of our profession.Even though economic realities and scheduling limitations dictate that some physicians maintain a certain payer mix…I am certain that the legendary physicians of our profession would be embarrassed by the criteria some of our colleagues have used in selecting which patients they will and will not see [emphasis mine].”6
Critics of concierge medicine say it is less ethnically and economically diverse than the general population, with fewer African American, Hispanic, and Medicaid patients,4 and that such practices cherry-pick the wealthiest and healthiest patients, “leaving behind a comparatively sick population to be absorbed by others in the community.”6 Concierge medicine not only creates (or, some would argue, worsens) a two-tiered medical care system, it makes it more likely that the rest of us have less access to care. Because each time a medical practice “goes concierge,” there are more than a thousand patients who flood other primary care practices, already overloaded as they are.
No one is saying that traditional medical practices are perfect. We’ve all likely had less than wonderful experiences and we do have to be vigilant about our loved ones’ (and our own) care. But nothing is going to improve if a segment of patients can pay their way out of the system, either.
I’ll end with a quote from Dr Stillman’s excellent article:
“Physicians who opt out of the current system by expending their energies catering to “patron patients” rather than helping reform a flawed health care system or energizing a beleaguered professional community should re-enter the fray. There are patients to be cared for, both wealthy and underprivileged; ideas to be proposed and exchanged; and policymakers to be educated and persuaded. These difficult times call for engagement, not isolation and retreat.”