“It is coercion of the strongest kind, because it appears in the guise of a self-evident necessity and is thus not even recognized as a coercive force.”
Ludwik Fleck, “Genesis & Development of a Scientific Fact”
I started 2017 with a post about making this a “no bullshit” year. Seing it out with a post about being a racist in recovery might be as “no bullshit” as it gets.
Attorney, mom, and all-around powerhouse Sandy Broadus introduced me to the term when, during a particularly heated social media discussion, she referred to some of the posters as “racists in recovery.” I may have been included in that group, I may not have. I don’t know.
What I did know was that it was a total hand-meet-glove moment and mine was in the air, waving wildly while yelling, “YES! THANK YOU!!!! THAT’S EXACTLY THE RIGHT TERM FOR IT!!!!”
In my mind, I saw the hashtag (#racistinrecovery). I saw myself wearing the T-shirt. Then I saw myself trying to explain to an angry mob that I had never worn a white sheet, pointy hat, set a cross on fire or dropped the “n-bomb” in casual conversation.
That’s racist behavior. Racist in recovery behavior is something else altogether.
Racist in recovery behavior is what happens upon realizing that the result of growing up majority culture means you have absorbed some default prejudicial beliefs you don’t even know you’ve absorbed. But knowing they’re there bothers you enough to try to undo the damage, at least as much as you can and more if possible. Which is tricky, because you don’t even know where it all is or when or how it’s gonna crop up.
I explained to someone this way: It’s like you’re a tea bag, and you live in a cup full of water. Everything around you is tea. Why would you think there was anything else? How does a tea bag know that there’s a whole different kind of world outside a teacup? (I realize that this assumes sentience on the part of the tea bag. For purposes of this analogy, that assumption is correct.)
Being a Racist in Recovery means stepping far enough out of your comfort zone to trust someone else’s view of how what you are saying comes across. It means being willing to let go of notions you took for granted. It means taking the word of people’s experiences as people of color at their word, not challenging, minimizing, apologizing or denying those experiences. It means standing quietly and listening, and it means speaking up in situations where you hear someone who might want to be a racist in recovery or who is just a straight-up racist say something racist.
I’m not a big New Years resolver. I want to get more exercise and drop a few pounds, clean my house, write more, play my instruments more and waste less time 12 months of the year. But I would love to see #racistinrecovery become a thing in 2018.
When The New York Times recently ran a front page story about China’s effort to combat “gray rhinos” –large and obvious problems that are often ignored until they become crisis– I was beyond excited to see one of my dearest friends getting some well-deserved props.
The closest the reporter got was this phrase, “an eponymous business book that has become somewhat popular this year in China,” 11 words of a 22-word sentence.
Subsequent stories further twisted the meaning into something that restricted the term to a specific kind of Chinese company. Every time I read one, I wanted to hurl herds of foam rhinos at my monitor, which was problematic because I don’t own any foam rhinos. (On the upside, CNN Money. Bloomberg. South China Morning Post mentioned the book and even spelled her first name – one “l,” not two – right.)
I remember when Michele first started talking about the book, and I remember when she was writing it. I forget a lot of stuff, but I’m pretty sure would have remembered Chinese banking crises if they’d been in mix for inclusion. Greek defaults and the Argentinian financial debacle were. China, not so much. (It would have qualified, but it hadn’t happened yet.)
So, a brief review:
So what’s a gray rhino? In disaster avoidance parlance, to paraphrase the book’s subtitle, a gray rhino is an impending and avoidable threat to which you can respond. They do not have to be big international banking crises. A gray rhino can as simple as walking through your kitchen and noticing that the sugar canister is down to less than a tablespoon.
I was dealing with one when Michele was working on her book.
‘Woman with with weird resume seeking soft landing’
Ten years ago, something happened at my grant-funded job that made it pretty clear its days were numbered. Ironically, a large component of my job involved helping other people address the fallout from their up-ended lives. I helped them figure out what their best next moves were, then did what I could to see them through those moves. Given that, it would have been pretty hypocritical to pretend I didn’t need to start casting about for my own best chance at a soft landing, which turned out to be enrolling in a library and information science graduate program.
I got laid off the year after I walked across a stage to pick up my master’s degree, spent the following 11 months of non-day-job work applying for day jobs, editing dissertations, writing freelance newspaper and web-based stories and indexing a book. Then, one of those applications panned out and, to my great delight, I landed a job as a public librarian.
Michele loves that story. She keeps asking me to blog about it. But I want to blog about a different gray rhino.
Mom has been in a nursing home for almost four years. Before she actually ended up in one, ending up in one was her biggest fear.
Rhino avoided….for awhile
I have vivid memories of nursing home visits to elderly relatives with 50-something Mom. That woman was vibrant. She ran from morning ‘til night. She worked, volunteered, played bridge, was active in her synagogue, a regular at book group and still found time to travel the world with her sisters and host friends at her house on Cape Cod.
We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Then, there’d be the sights en route to our destination, usually someone’s room. Near-comatose old people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sitting in wheelchairs in the halls, or arranged in rows in common rooms in front of a TV. Some would stare at nothing, some were aware of us. Some babbled weird things that were unintelligible or if intelligible, more closely resembled random word strings than coherent thoughts.
We’d find our person and have our visit. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation of the same declaration.
“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”
I’m pretty sure that 50-year-old Mom would shoot 89-year-old Mom.
Eighty-nine-year-old Mom, however, is not nearly as upset about her current situation.
There are, I think, several reasons for this, many of which involve a veritable herd of Michele-style Gray Rhinos. If Parkinson’s disease had not derailed her well-laid out plans, she’d be living quite contentedly on Cape Cod, using her yearly required withdrawal from her 401K to travel. She’d still be living off her pension and social security checks for daily expenses. Parkinson’s disease was the gray rhino that led us, ultimately, to what Mom – and the rest of us – didn’t think existed.
A good nursing home experience.
After nearly four years, it dawned on me recently that my family is having one. In a very real sense, we were damned lucky to bumble into it. But we also did – and have continued to do – things to maximize the “good” ness of our situation.
How to have a ‘good’ nursing home experience
I could write for days about this, but no one wants to read that much for that long. So I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Here are four tips, two of which I have never seen in any book about nursing homes.
Their casa is your casa
Before I elaborate, though, a disclaimer. A lot of what went down in the decade or so preceding Mom’s decision (and it was her decision) to move to a nursing home had reassured her that as far as my sister and I were concerned, she was still in charge. Losing mobility and stamina did not mean losing the right to have her wishes honored while she was still intact enough to make those decisions herself. That still stands now that I am in charge of making decisions on her behalf.
So, without further ado, this, based on our experience, is how to have a great nursing home experience.
If possible, try to build some buzz around your person’s arrival. Think “PR rollout.” We didn’t plan or intend that, but it turned out to be a lucky and very happy accident.
Mom, having made the decision that the nursing home was where she needed to be, opted to blow town and visit her sisters, leaving me to divest of what wouldn’t fit in her new room and choose what would and should. She flew off to California to spend three weeks with her older sisters. (My daughter was headed out there for a conference, so she stopped and picked up Granny on the way; my sister flew from Canada to California, then brought Mom home to her new room.)
I spent the next three weeks cleaning out her apartment, the latter two of them moving things over to her new place, which was in an adjoining building. In the process I got to know the people on her unit. I found out that many of the CNAs had been there for years, a very good sign. They exclaimed over her artwork and listened to my stories about Mom. There was something exotic about her being in California, and the idea that she’d be arriving on a night in the future, like some movie star on tour.
I hadn’t intended the three weeks she was gone to be a buzz-building campaign, but that’s how it worked out. By the time she arrived, everyone was really excited to meet her. Note: I also decorated her room somewhat strategically, placing her United Way ‘Self Above Service’ award and other recognitions she’d received over the course of her life for teaching and synagogue involvement in view of the entrance to her room.
I had the luxury of working a mile-and-a-half from Mom for the first two years she was at the Home. But if you can’t be the person who pops in between four and five times weekly (more often even), try to get someone else to do it for you. These don’t have to be extended visits. Sometimes the trip there and back took more time than the quick hello, hug and kiss for Mom and a ‘Hi!’ to other residents and staff people.
Now that I work on the other side of town at a much less flexible job, I’m only there a couple of times a week. But everyone knows why. My sister arranged for her to have a companion two nights a week, so even though I’m not there as often, Mom still gets outside attention.
One of my proudest moments some two years into Mom’s being there occurred when she, more lucid then, reported that on a bathroom run in the middle of the night, the attendants were talking past her (which happens, sadly). One said to the other, “We have to take care of her right away, otherwise she’ll call her daughter.” If you can’t win ‘em over with kindness, making them afraid of you is the next best thing.
By the way, about the staff people: Learn their names. And if you are that kind of person, learn their stories. My sister and I have both worked as reporters. Reporters are curious people who are genuinely interested in other people and their stories. If you’re not built that way, find other ways to be kind to the CNAs and caregivers. Figure out what’s in your comfort zone and show them you appreciate what they’re doing for your person.
Debby and I have ended up making some lovely friends. We also have gotten unofficial calls from staff who’ve let us know when Mom has needed something specific and/or something has happened of which they think we should be aware. To say that we’re grateful doesn’t begin to express our feelings of appreciation and respect for these amazing people.
Don’t treat it like an institution.
You may have to sign in and out and your house probably didn’t have elevators, CNAs and nurses (unless the latter two were your parents and/or siblings) but don’t be shy about treating the place like home. There was the time a new nurse-practitioner was looking for ice and asked a busy staffer. I knew where it was and got it for him. My attitude? Yeah, it’s a nursing home. But my mother lives here. So it’s my mom’s house. That goes whether I’m rummaging in the kitchen for cups, straws and tops during an ice water run, fetching a towel or a wheelchair from the storage closets or helping out when dinner’s being served.
Even though I thought I knew this, I didn’t. I do now because of something I said earlier: “Get to know the staff people.”
I have promised Mom a beautiful, easy death. Which is why, last month, I signed papers with hospice care. Mom gets to stay where she is, and a bunch of new people now come in to see her (social worker, nurse, personal care workers, music therapist).
She’s not at the point where anyone needs to swoop in as what my dear friend Julie (who spent a month in hospice before heading off to the Great Mysterious Beyond Place) referred to as “the pharmaceutical death factory.” But when it does, the hospice people are going to be right there to catch her.
What I didn’t know was that if those papers and that plan isn’t in place and your loved one in a nursing home takes a sudden turn for the worse, the lag time between contacting doctors and pharmacies might well mean that your loved one suffers and dies in pain.
That’s what happened recently to someone on Mom’s unit. The family hadn’t made any arrangements; their loved one did not have the easy death that would otherwise have happened. It tore at the hearts of the staff to watch someone they had come to love and care for suffer when that didn’t have to be the case.
There is a lot of talk on social media about not letting the barrage of crazy shit coming out of the White House overwhelm us into paralysis.
The best of these messages came from my pal Flo, who I will quote here:
“The important thing for all of us to remember is that we must not let our ‘shock’ define the narrative here. That is, the founding fathers had this scenario, among others in mind, when establishing judicial, legislative and other remedies to counteract this type of behavior. Our job is to make sure the checks and balances are utilized to the fullest extent by those we elected to govern.”
Bless Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for their words on Saturday. Other members of the legislative and judicial branches need to join them in growing a pair. The Legislative and Judicial branches of government standing up to the Executive is our only non-violent alternative to the damage Presidents Bannon, Conway and Trump are working to create.
So, People, drag out your words and start writing. I just dashed this off to Senator Ron Johnson. It might not be a masterpiece, but that is not the point.
Dear Senator Johnson:
I am asking you to remember our system of checks and balances, and to stand up for what is right.
This country was founded by men of their time, men who were forward-thinking, men who had lived under oppression and who came together to form “a more perfect union.”
Their vision was messy, but it has endured (and survived a Civil War) for more than 200 years.
Now, our union is again under attack from the inside. As a citizen, I can raise my voice and stand up for the America I love – the America that provides opportunity for all regardless of race, creed or circumstances of birth. An America that provided public education and welcomed my four grandparents, who fled Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. Family members who did not lie in unmarked mass graves, killed by the Nazis.
You, Sir, can do much more. You are in a position to stand up for what is right and to use your voice to stop the slide from the Democratic Republic envisioned by the Founding Fathers to an authoritarian regime.
I love my country, Sir, and am deeply concerned at the events of the past week. I do not support Betsy DeVos, Rex Tillerson or Jeff Sessions and am appalled at the lack of forethought that appears to be emanating from the executive branch.
I ask you to think deeply about history and to stand up to the administration around policies and individuals that threaten the future of our country and the world. The recent ill-considered decisions regarding immigration and health care policy would be good places to start.
Any time you want to meet to discuss these things in person, I would be willing, able and grateful.
Ever been told to be careful about that sour expression on your face because “It might freeze like that?”
The truth is actually simpler and more complicated, and I offer up as Exhibits A (male) & B (female) our current mess of a president and one of his “counselors.”
Look at Donald Trump’s and Kellyanne Conway’s faces and try to imagine that you’ve never seen them before.
Now, picture yourself in a situation where you need to ask a stranger for some small thing – standing on a corner in a strange city and not being sure whether to turn left or right to reach your destination, wanting to know what time it is or whether you just missed the bus you’re waiting to catch.
Do they look like people you’d want to ask?
Over the past five years, I have been spending a lot of time hanging out with old people. And by “old people,” I mean the 80-plus set.
Back when 30 seemed like 100 and I blew out the candles on my eighth birthday cake, those people looked unimaginably ancient. Now, those eight and 30-year-olds look at me and see what I saw back then.
[Confession/digression: I kind of like it. Sure, mass media is all about youth and beauty, and it might be fun to be firm and wrinkle-free and all. But the truth is that learning to steer older has been a fairly smooth ride.
Benefits include the ability to call out someone with nothing more than a smile and a kind word or two. There’s zero attitude and the exchange often moves on from there, ending on an upbeat note for everyone involved. Which is, I think, is directly connected to my sense of entitlement – or lack thereof.]
An angry co-worker at a previous job once accused me of thinking I owned the world, and in my head I was l all, “Well, yeah, and so do you!”
Also at that previous job was an older female co-worker whose features could have settled into something pretty, or gentle, but didn’t. She looked mean. Because she was mean.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then observing old people – and that was way before Mom went to the nursing home. The result is my Old People Hypothesis.
Old People Hypothesis: As we age, we tend to look more on the outside like we are on the inside.
In other words, that mean-looking older person (assuming they haven’t had “work” done or been caught up by some disease that changed their physical appearance) is likely to be a mean older person. Conversely, the one whose default expression is soft and kind is also likely to be soft and kind.
I see it with the residents in Mom’s nursing home, and I see it now with Kellyanne Conway, who, at 50, already is well on her way to a truly gruesome old-person face. Then there’s her boss. Who, at 70, looks on the outside the way he is on the inside.
The Old People Hypothesis doesn’t extend to spreading that ugliness around. But after his first week in office, I’m pretty sure of one thing for those of us out here on the ground.
Killing ‘em with kindness has never mattered more.
By this time tomorrow, a Giant Bowl of Id and his minions will be running the country. I’m anxious and I know I’m not alone.
We need to band together and work to make sure this doesn’t happen in four years, including making sure mid-term elections head us in that direction.
But demoralized, depressed people don’t band together. They isolate. We can’t afford that.
So here are five ground rules for living in the orbit of a volatile, inconsistent narcissist who is doing his best to implement a system that has the power to mess with your equilibrium and potentially derail your life – without letting him.
1. If you don’t already have a support system, find one. Friends make a difference.
2. Choose at least one thing that is entirely yours and guard it with all you’ve got. It can be as simple as a 10-minute head-clearing walk every day, keeping a journal, joining an athletic team or learning to play the ukulele. Something small, simple and sanity-inducing that is completely within your control.
3. If engaging with someone difficult or toxic, keep communication simple. In a potentially adversarial or threatening situation, the smartest and best thing is to listen carefully, then RESPOND ONLY TO WHAT WAS ASKED OR STATED as briefly and succinctly as possible. Do not color outside the verbal lines.
4. Be water. Water can reshape itself, moving into places where other things can’t go, seeping unnoticed into corners and crevices and, over time, cause irreversible changes.
2016 is in the rear-view mirror. Last night, we attended a New Year’s Eve party at a house we’ve been lucky enough to be invited to for the past several Dec. 31sts. The host (a guy about my age) remarked that, “We’re old enough that the people who influenced us are starting to die off.”
At last year’s party, I didn’t have a job. This year, I do. That alone is worth cake.
My first run at this particular cake – four layers with lemon curd filling, covered in seven-minute icing – was a month ago for my book group. It turned out well, but I wanted to try it again with a few tweaks. (ie: Upping the tart factor to showcase the lemon and getting the icing to not be so runny. I succeeded with the former, not so much with the latter.)
There’d be a guaranteed gluten-free dessert, which could be my little secret.
The party seemed less crowded this year. One difference was the absence of vote trollers. Last year, going into an election season, there were a lot of “bright young things” (quotes intentional) sparkling up the front room, willingly engaging with anyone they considered worthy (each other) and pretty much ignoring the rest of us. I’m not entirely sad that the only bright young things there this year were the regular wonderful ones, and not just because (huzzah!) it meant more grilled tenderloin for the rest of us.
Tenderloin and cake aside, it’s good to assess where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what’s happening around us at various points along the way.
Which, for those of us old enough to have children in their 20s, 30s and 40s (whether or not we actually do), might be causing a few … twinges.
Those children are adults, with all the responsibilities and privileges that word carries. And, at the same time, as Kevin wisely observes, the generation-up people we saw as heroes and role models – and some similarly-situated age peers – are dying within the time frame of a normal life span. (Some are at the younger end of that spectrum, but still within the boundaries of “normal.”)
Getting old enough to die at the point where no one is shocked at how “too young” you were is a strange rite of passage. I don’t spend a ton of time brooding about what that means, but I would be lying if I said I never thought about it at all.
As what is shaping up to be a surreal and potentially interesting interval in the life the world as we know it, or to put it more succinctly, 2017, commences, I’m trying to keep an open mind about things.
One certainty that is becoming clearer is making the best use of the time I have in front of me. Part of that involves making more words, more cake, taking the best possible care I can of the people I love and of the world in which I live.
Regarding that last, loving the world in which I live means doing my bit to create the one I want to leave for everyone else. Seeing the world as it is and not as I want it to be isn’t easy. Talking honestly about it isn’t always politic. But unless you’re willing to look at – and call by name – what’s happening in front of you, you’ll never be able to change it.
So, 2017, here’s a toast. L’Chaim and no bullshit.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).