Does Your Job Define You?

(My newspaper column from The Beach Reporter 11/16/89.)

Quick: What’s the first question you get asked at a social gathering? (Besides “Do you know where the bathroom is?”) That’s right, it’s that perennial conversation-opener, “What do you do?”

Finding out what a person does for a living somehow gives us a handle on who that person is. Or does it? Does a person’s job define the essence of that person? Of course it doesn’t, but we do seem to be obsessed with putting labels on each other.

For example, if I am introduced to someone, and they ask me The Question, and I say I am a housewife, their smile freezes and they start casting about the room looking for someone who is more with-it. But if I say instead that I’m a writer, they look at me with keen interest. Continue reading

The Boy in the Photograph

(From my essay collection “Second Thoughts” – columns from The Beach Reporter. The original essay was published on 4/19/90.)

I didn’t know Ryan White, but I cried when I heard of his death due to complications from AIDS. I cried as a parent, who can’t imagine any worse anguish than losing a child. I cried because the world had lost a person of courage, conviction, and truth – qualities that seem to be in short supply these days. At least among people who make the news.

And in Ryan White’s too-short life, he had become news. In that way the media has of ferreting out what might be a “hot” story, they were on the White family’s trail from the beginning. Ryan became a People cover. He was the subject of a TV movie. He met with Presidents, movie stars, rock stars, and famous athletes. He met with other kids who had AIDS. It seemed he touched everyone he met.

But Ryan’s legacy isn’t just a brave smile staring out at us from a magazine cover. It goes deeper than that. Much deeper. Ryan’s legacy was that he forced us – the average citizens of the U. S. and the world even – to face up to certain unpleasant facts, and make unsettling decisions.
He might not be the one enrolling in your neighborhood’s school today, but perhaps another child will do so tomorrow. It could be someone you know. It could be someone in your own family. AIDS doesn’t discriminate.

So, we are forced to think, to question… What if… What would we do? Would we be one of the compassionate ones and embrace Ryan and his family? Or would we, out of fear and ignorance, demand he be isolated where he couldn’t come in contact with us?

If a friend’s child contracted AIDS would we still have that child over to play? I can certainly understand the desire to protect one’s own. There are not many stronger human drives than to do just that.

But what about the child? What about the person with AIDS? Most people seem to deal with their fear of AIDS by rationalizing that AIDS is something that happens to someone else. Someone gay, or hooked on drugs. Someone different. None of us really believe that we are going to be on the plane when it goes down.

The thing that made us identify with Ryan, right or wrong, is that he wasn’t “different.” He wasn’t one of “them.” He was the boy next door. The sweet-faced boy you see in the church choir. The boy at home plate with a bat in his hand and a determined look in his eye. He was your own son in a parent’s worst nightmare.

Ryan didn’t live his life as though he were in a nightmare. He simply lived his life as any boy would, dreaming of cars, sports, and rock music. He came face-to-face with the ugliest of human emotions, and the most beautiful, and he dealt with both gracefully.

Are there any of us who haven’t wondered how we would live our lives if given a virtual death sentence, as Ryan was? Would we sink through a black hole of despair, or would we rise to meet the challenge? Or perhaps a little of both.

Ryan showed us how it could be done. I’m sure he had moments when he felt he couldn’t cope anymore. I’m sure he had plenty of them. But I can’t picture that side of him.
I prefer to think of the boy in the photograph. An eager youngster carrying a satchel of books on the way to his first day of high school. The school that finally let him in.

I Find I Am Looking For Signs

Originally published on, the online news source for WHYY/ NPR in Philadelphia on November 11, 2011. Read here or follow link.

My father died from complications of dementia in 2004, and lately I find that I am on the lookout for signs that indicate I am also getting dementia. The reason I am so conscientious about this is that the big problem with getting dementia is that after you have it it’s too late. You won’t recognize the signs that tell you you have dementia, because you will already have it, and at that point even if everyone tells you you have it, you won’t believe them because… well, you know. One reason it took our family a long time to realize my father had dementia is because people with dementia are often cranky and irrational pains in the ass (they can’t help it), and since my dad was already a cranky and irrational pain in the ass much of the time, the diagnosis was harder to make.

Here are some recent occurrences that have me worried:
One recent morning when I went to the grocery store I had to take my husband’s car. When I got out of the store, laden down with my bags, I looked for my car where I thought I had parked it. I even remembered thinking when I parked how I had gotten a really good parking space, close to the doors for a change. But a quick glance in that area of the parking lot did not reveal my car. I did, however, spy a car that looked like mine (not exact, but close enough – very similar color), so I schlepped over there with all my bags, and when I got right up to it and realized it wasn’t my car, I very casually turned on my heel and went back to the area I had just come from. Continue reading

Men Who Diet and the Women They Drive Crazy

(From my essay collection “Second Thoughts,” columns from The Beach Reporter.)

I recently attended a support group for wives of men who are dieting. I wasn’t sure what to expect, since I’m not a support group type of person. But I was a desperate person.

I didn’t necessarily want to share my story, but I thought I might learn something from the women there. Something that would make me feel I was not alone. We wore name tags and sat in a circle. Normally I don’t like sitting in a circle and I don’t like to share things in groups.

Vanessa was the first to speak. She was a slim, intense woman who seemed friendly with everyone there. She said, “Well, thank goodness Howie is almost at the weight he was when we got married twenty years ago. I don’t think I could take much more. The last month has been a living hell. I mean, just because he’s on a diet doesn’t mean the whole family has to starve. I can’t have any food in the house that doesn’t come from the fruit or vegetable group.” Continue reading