Pensive monkey

Photo by Paolo Nicolello via Unsplash.

Monkey Mind is a Buddhist term for mental noise.  It’s what can happen when (if you’re lucky) you are having a massage and trying to enjoy the experience.  If you are like I am, focusing on a massage is difficult because there is so much swirling around my brain:  to-do lists, the sound of steps in the hall, the masseuse’s breathing, my itchy nose and–the granddaddy of them all–self-reproach for the inability to relax and enjoy the experience.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a morning meditating with my son and daughter-in-law and 20 of their fellow-Buddhists in a zendo in the Sierra foothills.  The meditation period was divided into four 30-minute segments with 10-minute breaks between each of the sessions.  If your idea of Buddhism is that it is an easy-going sort of practice, scotch that idea immediately.  The sessions are precisely timed, the meditation cushions are set out in a pattern around the room and there is a gong for every segment of the proceedings.

Clearing one’s Monkey Mind is difficult.  To make it easier, many meditators count their breaths.  One breath in, one breath out:  1-1, 2-2, 3-3—up to 10.  I use this system when I go to sleep at night and it works well.  But at the zendo there was so much noise in my fevered brain that I would get up to 23 or more before I reined my thoughts in and went back to one.  The brain noise felt literal:  a marching band of worries, physical discomfort from sitting still, self-recrimination for being unable to concentrate and repressed giggles at the various digestive noises in the room.  When the occasional period of clarity made an appearance, it was exciting (in a calm kind of way, of course).

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Lots of words

Photo by Jon Tyson courtesy of Unsplash

As readers of this blog know, buzzwords really get on my nerves.  Luckily, buzzwords fall out of favor after a year or so; unluckily, they are replaced by other annoying buzzwords.  Here is a sampling of current irritants:

If you are “woke,” you are aware and likely sympathetic regarding a current issue.  It is commonly used to describe a man who is a feminist.  Ex: “He is so woke!”

Here’s another irritating one.  As Brian Sullivan of CNBC points out, “Curating used to be a word we only used in museums. Somewhere in the last year ‘curate’ has morphed into a word people are using anytime they pick something and want to sound like it’s more than just picking something.”  As long ago as 2012, Scott Simon of NPR wrote, “How do I love thee? Let me curate the ways…”

Formerly applied to situations involving suitcases, to “unpack” has come to mean to examine in detail.  Ex: “We really need to unpack this concept before we pursue the idea further.”

There is a lot of talk about tribes on cable news.  It does not refer to Native Americans or residents of African countries. In its largest sense, it seems to refer to Democrats and Republicans.  If you “unpack” it further, it can include Tea Partiers, Bernie followers, Elites, Never Trumpers, blah blah blah.

Recently someone thanked me for “reaching out” to him.  I had either called him or sent an e-mail.  I had reached out as far as my phone or my keyboard.  I put “reach out” in the same category as “sharing” (i.e., conversing).

If you are one of my tribe, you are woke to the fact that I curate my weekly blogs so that when I reach out to my readers, I write in such a way that these little essays are easy to unpack.

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Llamas in Ecuador

Llamas in Cayambe, Ecuador by Adriana Leon

I took my first Spanish lesson in college 53 years ago.  This past month I have been reviewing advanced beginners’ Spanish in preparation for a trip to the Amazon, still struggling with the difference between llevar and llegar.  I am what you might generously call a “lifelong learner,”  though time might be running out on fluency.

I have taken night classes, online classes, internet classes, classes by CD—the whole enchilada. On long drives I used to enjoy Coffee Break Spanish with Mark Pentleton, a congenial Scotsman with a terrific Spanish accent and a command of several languages.  I have tried Duolingo (meh) and Babbel (pretty good).  The method I have used that works best for me is unfortunately the most annoying:the  Michel Thomas Method.  Touted as “The Language Teacher to the Stars,” Thomas uses a format that involves himself as the teacher and two students—one a fast learner and the other a real dummy.  I’m not quite sure why he chose that method unless it was to make listeners feel like they weren’t quite so stupid after all.  Also, it gives Michel more time to make the slow learner try repeatedly to get it right.  The funny part is that The Language Teacher to the Stars is easily and obviously exasperated with the hapless student.  Listening while I drove to Sacramento recently, I began to feel quite sorry for the hapless student and, conversely, resentful of the smug smartie.

What makes Michel Thomas’s method better than others I’ve tried is that he focuses on a few commonly used nouns, verbs and prepositions so that it’s possible to string them together in useful, comprehensible sentences, even if you know only 25 or 30 words of a given language.  [Once, after only a week of French with Michel, I was able to ask a sales clerk, “Avez vous des jeans plus grands?”]  I bet you can figure that one out.

This week, in preparation for life in the Amazon I am practicing Spanish for “Is that– snake, spider, llama–dangerous?”  (Es la serpiente, añana, llama peligrosa?)  Good luck (buena suerte) to me!

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Funerals and FUNERALS


Funeral candles.

There are funerals, and then there are FUNERALS.  This past week we watched two public ceremonies, both wonderful send-offs in different ways.

John McCain planned every detail of his three funeral ceremonies and he must have had a hell of a time doing so. Thursday his memorial service was held in McCain’s church in Tucson and the friends he asked to speak were a diverse group—multi-cultural, multi-racial, from different walks of life. They didn’t disappoint.  There were tales of his bad driving, salty language and even—from Joe Biden, no less—a story about McCain dancing on a tabletop and knocking back tequila shooters with Jill Biden.  This I find difficult to picture.  What surprised me the most, however, was the ease with which McCain’s friends talked about how much they loved him and how often he said “I love you” to them. There hasn’t been a lot of love in the national dialogue lately.

At Aretha Franklin’s services, the form was similar:  a row of older male friends in chairs behind the podium—Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton and former president Bill Clinton, among others—and speeches about the deceased.  Sharpton’s speech was feisty, just like Aretha.   Clinton’s eulogy was surprisingly short and ended with a heartfelt “I just loved her.”

The service in Detroit was different than the one in Tucson:  less formal with more comings and goings, more music and—my favorite part—people rising from their seats to rock along with the performers.  As with McCain’s ceremony, Aretha’s farewell was multi-racial and multi-cultural.  Eight hours after the funeral began, Stevie Wonder concluded with a plea to “Make Love Great Again” and set the place rocking with a beautiful rendition of “I’ll Be Loving You Always.”

I don’t know if  Franklin and McCain ever met, but if they did,  I am sure they loved each other.  Both of them went through challenging times.  Both their lives were inspiring because of their courage, independence and the high standards they set.  For several hours over three days, it seemed that it just might be possible to Make America Love Again.

RIP, Aretha and John.

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Here's to you, Mom!

Here’s to you, Mom!

NOTE:  In memory of John McCain, who died yesterday in the place he wanted to be, surrounded by his family.  (Originally published July 20, 2015).

The four best things a doctor can say to a patient facing a health crisis, real or imagined:

One: “This isn’t serious.”
Two: “We can fix this.”
Three: “You will get better.”
Four: “If I had a magic wand, what is it you would wish for today?”

The first three “good things” are simple sentences that can do as much to alleviate pain and anxiety as any medication. They give patients hope and confidence that they will receive the care they need. The fourth “good thing” refers to a different medical situation, but it, too, provides similar comfort. Dawn M. Gross, MD uses that sentence—“If I had a magic wand, what is it you would wish for today?”– to illustrate what doctors can say when caring for terminally ill patients. You can read the entire New York Times Opionator, “The Error in ‘There’s Nothing More We Can Do’” here.

In my experience, very few doctors are comfortable telling patients that there’s nothing more to be done. Instead, because they are dedicated to fixing what’s wrong, they are reluctant to “give up” and so recommend more treatments, medications or procedures that often ruin the quality of a patient’s last days. I certainly understand how difficult it must be for a doctor to tell a patient there is nothing more to do. What Dr. Gross, a hospice and palliative care physician, knows is that there is always more to be done and that patients know exactly what more they want, if only they are asked.

When my mother’s treatment for lung cancer stopped working in the Autumn of 2012, my siblings and I needed to convince her that we didn’t think she was a “quitter” because she wanted hospice care. Once she was reassured that she wasn’t letting any of us down, she had a few wishes: to see Barack Obama re-elected (check!); to be at home with her family(check!); not be hospitalized (check!) and to die before Thanksgiving so as not to “ruin the holidays” (check!). She was efficient, my mother. As difficult it was to lose her, she got what she wanted because she was able to answer Dr. Gross’s question: “What is it you wish for today?” She had one other wish. Though Mom never much cared for alcohol, in her last years we convinced her that Cosmopolitans tasted pretty darn good and she asked that after she died, we toast her memory with a Cosmo (check!). We miss you, Mom.

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A Real Lady’s Workplace

When I was growing up in the 1950’s, there was a lot of emphasis on “how to be a lady.”  This behavioral guide was drummed into my girlfriends and me at home and in Catholic school. NOT being ladylike encompassed chewing gum, eating noisily, talking loudly, arguing with adults and being a show-off.  As best I could tell, being a lady meant being soft-spoken, obedient and demure.

It has taken a lifetime for me to negotiate the often-fine line between being a lady and being a doormat, to stand up for what I believe while keeping a firm grip on my temper. Enter Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “The Notorious RBG.”  I was taken aback a few minutes into this fine documentary to hear Justice Ginsburg say that her mother taught her that she should always be a lady. Ruth Bader Ginsburg—one of only nine women in her Harvard Law School class of 500+, champion of equal rights, role model for thousands of female attorneys?  How could she be all that and “a lady” as well?  I learned that her mother’s definition of being a lady included never allowing oneself to be overcome by useless emotions like anger and always to be independent and able to fend for yourself.

You can now see in theaters and by streaming video what RBG’s definition of being a lady encompasses:  tolerance, civility, dedication, hard work, and an unwavering commitment to fairness. And it doesn’t hurt that she obviously adored her husband. RBG’s life story will lift your spirits.


Photo by Claire Anderson via Unsplash

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Not particularly worried.


Several years ago I heard one of my doctor friends refer to “The Worried Well” and I began to, well, worry that I was one of them. I asked my personal physician about it and she told me she “didn’t think of me that way.” There is definitely a benefit to having someone around who can tell you that you are fine—absolutely fine.  And if there are reasons for doubting the reassurance, that’s normal for The Worried Well, too.

Look up “The Worried Well” on the internet and you’ll find dozens of fun facts describing the phenomenon:  one in four physician appointments is taken by a healthy person. The Worried Well often suffer from depression and/or anxiety; social isolation may be a component of their hypochondria.  Certainly some of my friends who live alone tend to be more concerned about their health than those who live with other people.  I know from experience that if I go too long without talking (or, more correctly, “unloading” my concerns) to a friend, anxiety creeps in.

A case in point:  last week I was alone for several days, a period that coincided with a dear friend’s third anniversary surviving Pancreatic Cancer. As night fell, I began to notice a few abdominal pains. One thing led to another and I spent a few hours researching symptoms while my abdominal pain shifted here and there. I didn’t meet many of the criteria for Pancreatic Cancer, so I symptom-surfed Gall Bladder disease.  It was kind of plausible but the more is read, the more I came to realize that abdominal pain can be caused by just about anything.  When my husband returned days later, I greeted him with my grab bag of maladies and he told me that I was fine—absolutely fine. There wasn’t any medical evidence for his opinion but that didn’t matter.  I felt better immediately.  Which just goes to show, it’s good to have a friend to tell you exactly what you need to hear.

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If only it worked.

If only it worked.

As I get older, I have much more to look back on and feel guilty about. Yes, yes there’s no point in feeling guilty.  I could go into what has made me like this, but who cares? When I can’t sleep, an army of misdeeds invades my consciousness: overtures of friendship I casually rejected, thoughtless criticisms, insensitivities.

A while back it occurred to me that I could right some of these wrongs. I decided to clear the decks of guilt. I began to call people I had offended in order to apologize. After the first three calls, I stopped. None of them remembered what I was so torn up about. They were baffled, incredulous and/or amused. Though that was a relief, I came to understand that I wasn’t so important after all. I might have been the hero (or villain) of my own life, but I sure wasn’t of anyone elses.

Guilt Gems” is a story by John Updike that has stuck with me over the years. It concerns a father named Ferris who thinks back to the many times he has been cruel to his children. He describes a softball game in which he felt forced to tag his ten-year-old daughter and recalled “…she looked at him with a smile, a smile preserved as in amber by a childish wild plea on her face. She was out.”

One of my guilt gems is the time I tried to prevent my four-year-old daughter from calling me into her bedroom in the middle of the night. The routine was that she would wet her bed, then call me and I would get up, change her pajamas and put a dry pad over the wet spot. I was a single working mother, tired all the time, and it seemed reasonable that Sara take care of this herself. As I was tucking her into bed, I put a fresh pair of PJs and a pad at the foot of her bed and stroked her head as I explained that when I was a little girl, my mommy had me change clothes and use a dry pad whenever I wet the bed. First she looked shocked, then frowned and asked in a quavery voice, “But did she just come in one night and tell you she was never going to come into your room again?”

Sara has a small daughter of her own now and she’s collecting her own treasure chest of guilt gems. Unfortunately, and contrary to my other experiences, she remembers the night I came into her room quite vividly.

Sleep well, dear readers.


*Back by popular demand!

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Do your friends trust your judgment in books?  I am often asked what I have enjoyed reading lately.  The problem is, I haven’t been enjoying many prize-winning books. I feel sad saying what no one wants to hear: “I’m reading **** but I don’t think it’s very good.”

A couple examples: Little Fires Everywhere shot to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list for Fiction and was named Amazon’s Best Novel of 2017.  The Sympathizer, which I am currently plodding through, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Surely it is sufficient to trust the judgement of the boards and readers who award these prizes.

When I attended the first meeting of a newly formed book group, I alienated the other four attendees by saying that Little Fires’ characters were stereotypes, there more to serve the plot than to be believable.  No one showed any trust in my judgement and eventually I decided it might be best to find a less-easily-offended group.  To my surprise, when later I looked up reviews for Little Fires,  I found that The Guardian’s review included:

“The plot hinges on a series of coincidences that
don’t stand up to scrutiny:they are too neat and too many…
it’s too clever, too complete, to be entirely plausible.” 

While the rest of the review was positive, at least part of my evaluation wasn’t off.

Of The Sympathizer, the Washington Post reviewer has virtually nothing negative to say about it. Though I avoid reading reviews prior to reading a book, maybe I should have with this one.   Because I feel guilty (a subject for a different blog) reading fiction during the day, I save it for bedtime, not the best hour to decipher sentences like this one:

“Killing the extras was either a reenactment of what
had happened to us natives or a dress rehearsal for
the next such episode, with the Movie the local
anesthetic applied to the American mind, preparing it
for any minor irritation before or after such a deed.”  

I can barely get through that sentence in the morning after two cups of coffee.

Maybe if I overcome the guilt problem, I will be able to recommend some novels in the future.  Up next:  My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley.  I trust I will enjoy it.


Photo courtesy of Kyle Glenn via

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Some days it just isn’t possible to concentrate long enough to write a 350-word blog.  Sunday was one of those days.  However, a lot of wonderful things have been happening on the South Coast of Massachusetts and beyond that caught my attention.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that my father’s family came from Croatia (yes, they were immigrants!).  Croatia’s performance in the 2018 World Cup has been thrilling for Mekjavichs on three continents, so it was sad today to see our team lose, even though they played well.  I am consoled by a reminder from my Croatian cousin Victor, who was born and raised in Argentina: “The really important thing is not winning.  Croatia is an example of work and sacrifice on and off the field of play.”

My friend Christina Bascom and several other women got together and developed Lighting the Way, an educational program that explores the historical impact of women from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds who shaped their South Coast communities, the nation and the world.  The launch of the Lighting the Way Walking Trail was on July 12 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and included a bus tour of the residences of those women as well as a Lighting the Way Trail Map, a Mobile App and the introduction of the program’s website. In 2019-2020 the program will provide participating local schools with new ways to engage students in a more inclusive (women’s roles!) telling of history.

This past week brought the 22nd Annual Buzzards Bay MusicFest to our small town of Marion, Massachusetts.  A total of five concerts, free to the public, were held at Tabor Academy’s Fireman Performing Arts Center.  Concerts included classical pieces by a full orchestra, chamber music and an evening devoted to “The Great American Songbook” performed by a swing band.  Local families have the opportunity to host musicians in their homes, a system that makes for a community-wide experience for musicians and residents alike.



Photo credits, all via Unsplash:Soccer ball:  slava-keyzman; Lantern: conner-carruthers; Musicians:  kale-bloom

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