On the Town

I did a lot of walking last week, through and beneath the streets of Manhattan. The first half of the trip was business, the second half, pleasure—spending time with my sister to celebrate our birthdays, which are three weeks apart. And celebrate, we did.

From dinner at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where the waitstaff are all Broadway hopefuls who belt out show tunes, to a walking tour of SOHO, Little Italy and Chinatown; from a lovely stroll up the High Line to a gourmet dinner and an outstanding performance of To Kill a Mockingbird—we had a great time. The weather was beautiful, for the most part. Our hotel off Times Square was surprisingly quiet. We discovered an excellent diner for breakfast and another for some of the best apple strudel I’ve ever tasted. And we started brainstorming our next trip together.

I’m happy to report that my new sneakers worked out pretty well. My feet certainly got tired, but not as tired as they usually do, and without significant neuropathy. Also notable: as I schlepped through the subway, to and from commuter rail, New Yorkers helped to carry my carry-on up and down steep staircases. Without my ever having to ask. Angels are everywhere.

Along the way, I enjoyed wonderful art, on the street and at the Met. Here’s a sampling for your viewing pleasure:

Art Deco with words for our times at Rockefeller Center

Also seen at Rockefeller Center

In front of 30 Rock

Street art in SOHO

Artistic and delicious pastry at Ferrara in Little Italy

Statue of Chang Kai Shek in Chinatown

Street art across from the Whitney Museum entrance to the High Line

Gardening on the High Line

High Line mural

Art Deco murals and design at the Hotel Edison

The Beatle’s original instruments at the Met’s “Play It Loud” exhibit . . .

. . . and some very decorative guitars

Berlin artist Alicja Kwade’s “ParaPivot” rooftop installation at the Met . . .

. . . and a spectacular view of the NYC skyline beyond Central Park

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

 

65 and 20

On Thursday I turned 65. And today marks the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death. Two milestones linked by memory and blooms.

Last week, in a burst of warmth and wet, all the trees unfurled their chartreuse buds, crabapples and weeping cherries blushed, forsythias gleamed. This is often nature’s gift near my birthday, the sudden, welcome spray of pastels. Winter’s subtle grays are forgotten, and the earth smells sweet.

I spent much of my birthday cooking, with Al as sous chef, for our Passover seder Friday night. The prospect had felt daunting, and less than welcome as a way to mark my 65th, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. I was simply in a good mood. We enjoyed each other’s company, preparing each course at a relaxed pace. Midday, we broke for lunch out, and Al—always the master of surprise—wrapped up our meal with a trip to a wonderful jewelry store, with an invitation to pick out whatever I wanted. Later, when all the cooking was done and the kitchen cleaned, we went out again for a birthday dinner. Throughout the day, I received calls from family and best wishes from friends. I felt thoroughly celebrated and well prepared for the holiday, renewed.

On my 45th birthday, days before my mother’s death in 1999, we spoke on the phone. She was in good spirits because my sister and her family were visiting. A rare and aggressive form of thyroid cancer had appeared suddenly in December, when she brushed a hair from her neck and first noticed a lump. The disease took her life in four months. I had visited numerous times during that winter and early spring and was with her when she passed. In those last moments, as she sipped her final breaths, I had the distinct feeling that she was simply slipping out of her body to somewhere unknown.

In many ways, there was much I did not know about her and have only learned since her death. For a woman of her generation and German heritage, motherhood was a mix of compassion and authority. We had many long talks during my childhood and adolescence, and I learned to be a good listener from her example. But she always maintained privacy about her innermost thoughts and feelings, and revealed little of her own formative years, beyond certain familiar stories of life in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis and her transition to embracing her American citizenship. With twenty years’ perspective, I now understand that the past was simply a place she wanted to leave behind.

Since Al and I traveled to Prague and Berlin as part of our summer vacation, to honor the memory of my great grandparents who were murdered in the Holocaust, I have been thinking of her more, wondering what she really felt during that time, wishing I could ask her. Miraculously, last fall, out of the blue, I heard from a cousin I have never met, whose nonagenarian mother is still alive and able. At the end of May, I am going to visit them in Florida. And so, I may get some answers from the woman who is my mother’s first cousin and the last living link to her generation. This is a great, unexpected blessing.

When we laid my mother to rest, a white cherry sapling had recently been planted in that section of the cemetery, in ground softened by spring’s thaw. It was too young to blossom, then, but casts ample shade near her and my father’s grave today. Its size always surprises me when I visit, a marker of how much time has passed. I like to think, even as she tried to bury her past, that my mother would be pleased that I am reclaiming it, not only for myself through my travels and studying German, but also for my daughters who barely knew her as children.

How much do we ever know our parents, let alone ourselves? I will give the last word to Rainer Maria Rilke, from Requiem for a Friend (The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans Stephen Mitchell):

I have my dead, and I have let them go,
and was amazed to see them so contented,
so soon at home in being dead, so cheerful,
so unlike their reputations. Only you
return; brush past me, loiter, try to knock
against something; so that the sound
reveals your presence. . . .

Ich habe Tote, und ich ließ sie hin
und war erstaunt, sie so getrost zu sehn,
so rasch zuhaus im Totsein, so gerecht,
so anders als ihr Ruf. Nur du, du kehrst
zurück; du streifst mich, du gehst um, du willst
an etwas stoßen, daß es klingt von dir
und dich verrät. . . .

 

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Paul Herwitz

Mud Season

It’s getting warmer and muckier here in Massachusetts—but not yet so consistently warm that the bugs are swarming. So, perfect weather for a walk in the woods this past weekend, albeit stepping carefully around muddy tracks and vernal pools. Life’s cycle of renewal always boosts my spirits in the spring. I hope it does for you, too. Enjoy.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Women’s Imaging

Monday morning. I am at one of my least favorite medical appointments: my annual mammogram. I am relieved to get through the test in a matter of minutes (even as it feels much longer when clamped in that sadistic machine). What strikes me most about this year’s visit is the new surroundings for the clinic, which has been relocated into a large medical complex. It’s the signage that gets me—a separate section within Radiology dubbed “Women’s Imaging.”

Why do they have to use a euphemism for Mammography? Is someone afraid that women are too embarrassed to go to a waiting area clearly marked for what we all know is screening for breast cancer? Do they think our sensibilities are too delicate to deal with acknowledging one of the major risks to women’s health?

I find it ridiculous. And demeaning. Being an intelligent health care consumer means being aware and informed about the realities of your medical conditions, treatment options and risks. It does not mean pretending or denying or ignoring that women have some specific health risks that merit our proactive attention.

I have made a conscious choice to follow my doctor’s recommendation for an annual mammogram. My mother had a benign cyst removed from her breast when I was in grade school. I suffer the discomfort because I want to know the results, even as the value of mammograms has come into question in recent studies. In particular, there are serious questions about whether women are being over-treated for small tumors in breast ducts that show up on the scans, but that would not actually threaten health if left untreated. (You can read more about that here.)

Fortunately, so far, I have never had to contend with a suspicious finding. I hope I never have to make a choice about such a result, but if I did, I would consult all the research to make a fully informed decision about risks of cancer versus risks of treatments. And I would want my physicians to be informed and direct with me about options.

So, let’s take women’s health seriously. Spare us the euphemisms and respect us as adults who can handle whatever life throws at us.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Arisa Chattasa

A Question of Identity


According to a well-known poem, March is supposed to bring breezes, loud and shrill, to stir the dancing daffodil, but so far, this most unpredictable of months just brought us a foot of snow. All area schools were closed on Monday, including the Goethe Institut in Boston, where I have been taking German classes since the fall.

I was quite disappointed. I look forward to my Monday night class each week. Not only is our instructor great, but also my classmates are a fascinating group of adults, from many walks of life, with many different reasons to pursue this singular goal: learning to speak and read German.

My own desire was sparked by our European trip last summer to honor the memory of my great grandparents, who died in a concentration camp near Prague in 1943. Our visit to Terezín and the Stolpersteine ceremony commemorating them in Berlin impacted me deeply, in ways that I found very difficult to verbalize and am still sorting out, months later. Upon our return, I suddenly realized that I needed to learn their language, the language of my mother and her parents and all my German ancestors, to process what is still beyond words for me in English.

This has turned out to be a highlight of my week. I am no foreign language maven, and I am forcing some rusty synapses in my brain to start firing again. But I am loving the challenge. Doing my homework—Hausaufgaben—is fun, a meditation of sorts that completely clears my mind of all noise and worries. There is just the puzzle to solve: How do you say that? What does it mean? How do these words fit together? How does it differ from English? Why are the words arranged that way? And how is the way that Germans think and express themselvesthe way my mother as a child and her family thought and loved and argued and dreamedhow is that defined by and encapsulated in their native tongue, in a way that was passed down to me without my even realizing it?

So much of who we are is framed and molded by the words we use to interpret the world. My mother and her parents were formal people in many ways. So when I learned that, in German, you use the formal version of ‘you’—Sie— for addressing someone older, officials, and anyone you don’t know well until you’ve met them a few times, it suddenly all made perfect sense to me. That careful adherence to rules of social etiquette conveyed to me directly and indirectly by my mother was the way she learned to understand the world from her first spoken words. Such is the power of language.

When she was dying, 20 years ago this April, my mother reverted to German. Over and over, she murmured, nein, nein, nein—no, no, no. I will never know what she was referring to. I wondered if she had traveled back to her childhood, when she had to leave her homeland to escape the Nazis. So many years later, I wondered, had a part of her remained forever trapped in a time capsule.

The search for identity is a lifelong quest. We can become mired in tragedy, loss, trauma, a chronic disease that profoundly alters our whole way of being, and let that become the focus of how we define ourselves. But I’d rather keep pushing, discovering, learning more about the world within and without. I don’t know where this new passion will lead me, but the journey fascinates.

So, until next week, auf Wiedersehen.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Berlin graffiti seen last summer near Alexanderplatz

High Wind Warning


Monday morning. I awake to wind, rushing and subsiding, like an angry tide. A quick check of the weather forecast on my phone reveals high wind warnings all day, with gusts over 50 miles per hour throughout the afternoon. I have to drive into Boston for an evening class. I imagine a tiring commute, fighting the wind, but am determined to go, despite plummeting temperatures.

As I make the bed and bandage my chronic thumb ulcers, I listen to the The Daily podcast by the New York Times. Today’s topic: whoever controls the incipient 5G network, which will integrate all things hooked to the Internet—self-driving cars, smart TVs, home security systems, communications networks, the power grid, artificial intelligence, our brains—will basically control the world. This is the new Cold War. The wind howls outside. I sit cross-legged on the floor, try to quiet my mind and meditate.

While cooking oatmeal and boiling hot water for tea, I call the lab that has sent me two invoices for recent bloodwork stating that we owe $150 because the claims were rejected by our insurance. This happened while our COBRA administrator had not yet told our insurance company that we had renewed our policy back in January, so I have to get the lab to resubmit.

I work my way through their phone tree until I reach the customer service line, which promptly puts me on hold. I put the call on speaker and stir the oatmeal. Winds rush through trees and around corners. I sit down at the kitchen table, sip my tea and begin to eat my comfort food. Peppy music crackles through the phone, interrupted momentarily by a male voice: We apologize for the delay. A customer representative will be with you soon. Your call will be taken in the order it was received.

Over the cycling music, another male voice cheerfully ticks off all the possible lab tests I could consider: prenatal screening with a non-invasive blood test that could inform expectant parents of any chromosomal abnormalities at ten weeks, an eight year risk analysis for diabetes, a comprehensive heart health profile. I wonder about lab test results in a world of 5G interconnectivity. Who will have access to what about me in the future? Who does already?

Eight minutes in, a woman takes my call. She asks for the invoice number, my name, address, insurance policy ID, group ID (name, rank, serial number). I answer. She goes silent. The wind rushes outside the kitchen windows. She tells me to disregard the invoices and that the claims will be resubmitted. I hang up, finish what’s left of my oatmeal, rip the invoices in half and text Al the good news.

I think about the bits of data shooting from my fingers through the Internet to his phone. I think about the digital footprint of this blog, drifting forever in cyberspace. I think about a video clip of three horses galloping away from a swirling wind turbine, seconds before it disintegrates in a powerful storm. As I type, the evergreen boughs of the yew beyond my office window chop and sway in the rushing wind.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Benny Jackson

First Attempt

I’m turning 65 this April. The time has come to apply for Medicare. Especially after a recent scare—when our COBRA plan failed to contact our insurance that we’d renewed our coverage for 2019 and we had no active health insurance for about a week—I don’t want to take a chance on missing any deadlines.

Back in December, Al and I met with a benefits counselor at our local council on aging to find out next steps. Since I have not yet applied for Social Security benefits, and don’t intend to until I’m 70, I did not receive a Medicare card automatically in the mail in January. The counselor advised, if that happened, to apply for Medicare in March. However, I recently read an excellent article in the New York Times that explained the rules in greater detail and found that I could enroll up to three months in advance.

Especially given the threat of yet another government shutdown this coming weekend, I figured I should take care of it this week. So down I went to the local Social Security office on Monday morning to apply. Al had warned me to get there early. I thought I was doing pretty well, arriving around 10:15 (I am so NOT a morning person).

What a mistake. The first sign that I had totally misjudged the situation was the parking lot. Every space in the upper lot next to the office’s front doors was taken. As I looked for a parking spot below, I noticed a steady trickle of people walking to the upper lot, and just a few coming back down.

Even with those hints, I was not prepared for what I found when I stepped inside. The place looked like a crowded airport terminal, with bland, beige walls and rows of people packed into every black vinyl seat. They were all waiting patiently, as if they had been through this many times before, facing a large video screen that streamed information about Social Security benefits and what number was next. I asked the guard who checked my bag how to get a number, and he pointed me to two kiosks. When I typed in my SSN, I got a receipt. My number was 74. On the board, the number was 23.

Within a few minutes, I was lucky enough to secure a seat. I was surrounded by families with screaming kids, a lot of adults chatting with friends or partners, and an atmosphere of pure drudgery. There were three staff members seated at desks only visible beyond glass windows in the wall that separated us from them. I started reading the news on my phone.

At least, when you go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, there are usually a dozen staffers, and you can pretty quickly judge how long the wait will be by how often someone is called up to a window. Here, it quickly became obvious that numbers didn’t get called in sequence (we went from 24 to 27 to 4), and the wait between numbers was at least ten minutes. I did a little math in my head. At that rate, it would take me at least three and maybe four hours to have my turn.

Now, when you are in a waiting game like this, you have to decide early on whether you’re going to invest in sticking it out. Any longer than about 15 minutes, and you begin to feel you’ve invested so much time already, you might as well go the whole way. I left.

When I got home after running a couple of errands (so the time spent wasn’t a total waste), I went online to find out how to make an appointment for my next venture to Social Security. Lo and behold, I discovered that I could apply for Medicare benefits online. Of course. I hadn’t even thought to look in the first place. I guess that’s because I’m almost 65 and still think in terms of doing important business in person.

The whole process took about 15 minutes. I can check status of my application online through my Social Security account. I assume I filled everything out correctly. We shall see. At least I applied with enough time (I hope) to correct any errors. And if I do have to get back down to Social Security in person, I will make sure to force myself out of bed early, get there when the doors open—and bring a book.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Social Security Administration via Wiki Commons

Too Cold for Comfort

It was bone-chilling cold here on Monday, zero degrees Fahrenheit following our first real snowfall of the season. Our street was plowed but remains covered with icy snowpack. Not my kind of weather.

But I had a follow-up medical appointment in the late morning, so I dressed in my warmest layers and set out, figuring that I would park in the garage and only be exposed to the elements for a brief few minutes.

When I arrived on time for my appointment, however, I was in for a much ruder shock than frigid air. The woman behind the desk asked me for my insurance card and ran it through the system. Then she informed me that our policy was inactive.

What??? She said she’d tried running it several times that morning and gotten the same status. She even called our health insurance provider to double-check, while I stood there, heart pounding. Same response.

Did I want to pay out of pocket for the visit? No. It could wait. My new objective was to get home and figure out what was going on.

A little background. Just over a year ago, Al lost his job at the hospital. He has since found a new job that he is really enjoying, thank goodness, helping people with intellectual disabilities live independently. However, his new employer does not offer great health benefits, and given my complex needs, we made the expensive decision to stay with our existing coverage via COBRA, while we wait until I’m eligible for Medicare, now just a few months away.

Back in November, we received a notice that we needed to re-up our enrollment in our health insurance for 2019. Al took care of the details, we continued to pay our monthly premium, and received confirming paperwork that all was well.

Apparently, however, as I discovered when I got home and made some frantic phone calls to both our health insurance plan and COBRA benefits manager, the COBRA people had failed to notify our insurance plan that we were still enrolled.

Just a minor oversight.

They assured me that any medical care we’d received so far in January would be covered retroactively once that notification slunk through the mail from Party A to Party B. This herculean feat should be accomplished sometime later this week.

Certainly, I was hugely relieved when I hung up the phone (and my blood pressure returned to normal). But for the drive home on slippery pavement and the half-hour it took me to get through to the right parties and ascertain that we had not be kicked off our plan, I was desperately trying not to freak out.

For something so essential, it just shouldn’t be this easy for anyone to lose health insurance coverage. I’m lucky. I know it. We have the financial resources to cover our medical insurance costs, even under COBRA, to wait out the transition to Medicare (which, thank goodness, still exists).

But a lost job, a missed enrollment notice, a missed insurance payment, a bureaucratic snafu can leave anyone so vulnerable, especially anyone with serious health issues. This is not a new or revelatory observation. It just hit me like a brick of ice on a very, very cold day.

Our nation needs to fix this. We must.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Nathan Wolfe

In Praise of Chocolate

It’s getting colder out. On Sunday, snow swirled down from the skies when it was supposed to be sunny. Monday we started off in the teens and never got above low twenties. Snow is predicted for Tuesday morning.

I find myself craving chocolate. Not milk chocolate or white chocolate, but serious, bitter-sweet, dark chocolate. Fortunately, Al must have read my mind, because he bought a bag of dark chocolate bark when he went grocery shopping on Sunday afternoon. God bless him.

Dark chocolate is good for you. I know this because the Harvard School of Public Health says so. The flavanols in cocoa help to lower blood pressure, which makes consumption of dark chocolate, which is rich in flavanols, essential these days, given all of the crazy, distressing news. Dark chocolate can also reduce risk of diabetes and heart disease. I’m all for that.

When I was a marketing director at a small New England college, I always had a bowl of dark chocolate sitting out in the department’s open office space. My staff loved it. So did our colleagues, who would come to visit and snag a few pieces. Chocolate makes people happy. It brings us together. Also a good thing at a time of such divisiveness.

Too much of a good thing, of course, can become a problem. If I eat more than I should, the caffeine in dark chocolate can trip my heart arrhythmia. While that’s pretty annoying, it’s also a built-in warning signal that prevents me from gorging and gaining weight from the stuff.

So, I’ll try not to devour that bag that Al bought before the week is out. A piece a day⎯maybe two⎯should ward off the cold and keep my blood pressure in check as the temperatures drop and the news roars on. Just as a preventative, of course.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Charisse Kenion

Winter Song

Many public schools around the country are struggling for lack of resources, and the schools in our city are no exception. But that hasn’t stopped a thriving music program in one of our high schools from training some talented musicians.

Back in May, I wrote about Al and my decision to donate my grandfather’s violin and his father’s viola to our local public school system. I haven’t been able to play the violin for decades as my hands have deteriorated. We hoped that the instruments would enable some deserving students to develop their skills. This past Thursday, those hopes were realized, as we got to see and hear our instruments making music once again

It was the annual Winter Concert at our local arts magnet high school, performed in the auditorium of the next-door middle school. I had never been there before, but we had been invited by the program’s director to attend in thanks for our donation. 

The building is drab, the auditorium cavernous, with wooden folding seats, a mediocre sound system and an aging grand piano that snapped a string during vigorous playing by the choral director. But the program was full of challenging selections, ranging from Bartók to Sondheim. And the students largely rose to the challenge. 

Most impressive was the string orchestra. Their director, who commutes from Boston, has clearly taught the students well.  It gave me such pleasure to watch and listen. All the violinists sat up straight, bowed their strings with excellent form and made lovely music. Our instruments sang again.

Equally as important to me, the string orchestra director treated his students and the concert with respect. He dressed smartly in a tuxedo with a red bow tie and cummerbund for the occasion. He had engaged a wonderful professional opera singer, clad in a scarlet gown, to perform Mozart with the group. The students presented her with a bouquet. There was shared pride in all that they had accomplished together.

We left the concert, which included band, choral and orchestra performances as well, feeling really good. Against significant odds, committed teachers are helping dedicated students rise to their full potential. I’m glad that our instruments have found a good new home.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Peter Lewis