Friday, December 19, 2014

Compassionate Capitalism

     Is compassionate capitalism my impossible dream?  Perhaps trying to combine compassion with capitalism is like mixing oil and water. In today’s world of instant gratification, short-term profits, and “me-first-now,” the concept of compassionate capitalism probably sounds like an oxymoron to most business leaders. That’s why my daughter Sarah and others like her on the autistic spectrum are out of luck when it comes to finding jobs as adults.  It doesn’t matter that Sarah graduated from Pace University cum laude, or that she’s motivated, hard-working, and reliable.  Her social challenges make it nearly impossible for her to network, write cover letters, or “do well” on an interview. (See “Maybe Next Year,” 12/5/14).  Beyond the safety net of SSI, ACCES-VR and other government services, young adults with ASDs (autistic spectrum disorders) have been abandoned by American society.  Worse, unlike other minorities suffering from discrimination, the very nature of the social challenges of people with ASDs render them unable to appropriately organize protests, lobby congressmen, hire lawyers or voice their outrage.  Unless their parents are willing and able to advocate for them, the Sarahs of the world will be relegated to the sidelines, living unproductive and marginal lives. Oh, and did I mention they’ll end up in relief programs supported by taxpayers at a cost of billions?
     In one way, autism is big business.  Like many other childhood disabilities, autism generates a variety of expensive special needs services in the medical, educational, psychological and behavioral realms.  Parents feed many dollars into our capitalist system in order to receive these critical services for their children.  No wonder autism has generated a booming industry with: behavioral therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, developmental pediatricians, psychiatrists and pharmacologists. (And that’s just scratching the surface!) The demand for ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) alone—currently considered the most effective treatment for autism—far exceeds the supply.  On Google, I visited one ABA site where there were over 6,000 openings for ABA therapists!  And what about all of the special education teachers and tutors needed to work with 1 out of every 68 children born with autism?  Clearly there aren’t enough people to fill those jobs either. Even colleges have developed expensive support programs for students with Asperger’s Syndrome and higher functioning ASDs. In addition, the autism conundrum employs researchers and pharmaceutical companies looking for prevention, treatments and ultimately, a cure (however unpopular that idea may be to the neurodiversity movement).  Clearly, autism has become a billion dollar industry.

     But who’s paying for the lion’s share of this billion dollar business?  The parents, of course! I should know Henry and I paid for all the services listed above plus many more—most of them NOT covered by insurance.  And what do we have to show for our investment?  Our daughter: a lovely, brave, motivated young woman who managed to graduate from college, but who still has challenges as she longs to be independent. What she needs now is: a job, a home of her own (NOT an institution), some life skill support and a community that will embrace her.  But our capitalist society (mostly) doesn’t provide services to young adults with autism because THEY can’t pay for the expensive therapy and treatments previously funded by their parents. By the time these kids on the spectrum grow up, most of their parents have exhausted their resources in addition to being near retirement.  We are tapped out and worried about what will become of our “special needs” grownups when we are no longer around to watch over them. The neurotypical children who bullied or ignored our “different” kids usually don’t grow into compassionate adults who care about inclusion in the workplace.            

     Of course there are some intelligent and compassionate exceptions.  According to Business Insider, two MIT graduates Rajesh Anandan and Art Schectman recently founded ULTRA Testing, a software-testing company created ESPECIALLY to hire people on the autistic spectrum. (Bravo!)  Anandan has always believed that people with disabilities often have hidden talents that others fail to notice.  For example, he says, someone who born blind might have superior hearing and someone born deaf might have better-than-average sight.  The fact that people with autism and Asperger’s tend to engage in repetitive behaviors that many might consider boring is exactly what makes them uniquely qualified to stay focused on testing whether a particular piece of software works on different devices, operating systems and web browsers over and over again.

     By the end of 2014, ULTRA Testing expects to make $1 million in revenues and has already paid dividends to the employees on its team, (who are also earning a respectable $15 – 20 per hour). Unlike other similarly staffed non-profit software companies, ULTRA Testing is unique because it’s a for-profit business.  In the next three years, the company plans to expand to between 250 and 300 testers.
     With almost 80% of adults on the autistic spectrum unemployed, ULTRA Testing can receive 150 applications in 72 hours.   Unfortunately, Sarah’s talents do not lie in this area, so she can’t even compete for one of these jobs.  Anandan’s analysis is the same as mine: “Even in a best-case scenario where you have a protective family and an inclusive education system, when kids age out, there are no jobs, there is no opportunity, and if you’re not from an affluent family, it’s really bad news.” YES!!

     What should my daughter and all of her friends do?  I’m can’t hold my breath until more inspired and compassionate capitalists recognize the value of—let alone exclusively hire—people on the autistic spectrum.  I’m guessing Sarah and others like her will have to settle for volunteer jobs and whatever economic crumbs are tossed in her direction—unless somehow MY networking efforts connect her with meaningful, paying work.  Speaking of networking…maybe you know someone who knows someone looking for a very  attractive lyrical soprano with perfect pitch, who loves young kids.  She’s a hard worker, with a great memory, and upbeat attitude— who’s always on time.  Need your piano tuned?



Friday, December 5, 2014

Maybe Next Year

     Since my daughter Sarah was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum at age one, I’ve fought as hard as any Tiger mom to help her grow up to become as accomplished and independent as possible. Instead of striving for the “American Dream” — including owning our home— Henry and I invested our energy and money in our daughter’s future. We looked for the best schools, the best therapists and cutting-edge treatments, and paid top dollar for them in the hopes of giving Sarah the best chance of achieving her dream of going to college and becoming an independent adult. Always in the back of my mind was the idea that Sarah’s brain could keep growing and learning; maybe tomorrow or next year she would function more like a neurotypical kid. I always believed she would eventually learn to read, make friends, get invited to parties, have a boyfriend, graduate high school, college, and – find a job!  With Sarah’s spunk and determination, I was convinced she’d exceed the expectations of the curmudgeon therapists who’d long ago predicted she’d be doomed to live in an institution. But I also knew Sarah’s brain might take a very long time to grow up ….
     Early on I gave up on Sarah catching up to her neurotypical twin brother, Max. An intellectually gifted boy, he raced further ahead of his sister with every passing year.  Luckily, Dr. Stanley Greenspan—a renowned child psychiatrist—had warned me that helping Sarah would be “a marathon, not a sprint.”  Propping up my spirits along the way, he added that “one child might learn to write script at age nine, while another might not do it till age eleven.”  Of course all that mattered in the end was accomplishing the task, right? (These days script doesn’t much matter anyway). According to Dr. Greenspan, the plasticity of Sarah’s brain would enable her to continue developing until age 30, whereas her twin brother would probably reach intellectual maturity at an earlier age.

     Now nearly 24, Sarah has miraculously graduated cum laude from Pace University. (See “Miracle Milestone,” 5/25/14). She even has a social life, with friends (albeit on the spectrum) and a serious relationship for over a year. What she does NOT have is a paying job.  Instead, Sarah has managed to get volunteer jobs at a non-profit theater group, working with special needs kids and adolescents, singing to the elderly and assisting at the 14th Street Y with young kids. Currently, my daughter also takes singing lessons, (she has perfect pitch!), attends the Adaptation Program for Young Adults with Disabilities at the JCC. In addition, she works out at the gym and attends Co/Lab, a theater workshop for adults with disabilities.  In other words, she keeps herself busy.
     But as Sarah says, “It’s not good enough.” What Sarah wants—like other young adults—is a full-time job that makes meaningful use of her talents. Now that her school days are behind her, my daughter is looking for a new purpose—meaningful work toward meaningful goals.  Instead of good grades and teachers’ compliments, Sarah now seeks payment and positive feedback for a job well done.

     As a high-functioning young adult on the spectrum, Sarah is far from alone in her unemployment. Autism specialists are warning of a “tsunami of young adults aging out of school programs, with nearly 500,000 adults with autism expected to seek employment over the next decade.” Employment prospects for young adults with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) are dim, according to recent studies. More than half of young adults with an ASD had NO participation in either work or education two years out of high school, and even six years later, more than 33% were without work or higher education.  What a waste of human potential!  Many parents of children with autism describe leaving school as “falling off a cliff because of the lack of services for adults with an autistic spectrum disorder,” observed Paul Shattuck, an assistant professor of social work at Washington University.  (Yes!)  “So much of media attention focuses on children,” said Shattuck. “It’s important for people to realize autism does not disappear in adolescence. The majority of lifespan is spent in adulthood.”  (Amen).
     Speaking of media attention, the press has also focused on people such as Temple Grandin, with Asperger’s Syndrome, the mildest form of autism. Thanks to Grandin—the now-famous author and animal behavior expert—attitudes toward autism have improved somewhat. These days there is a neurodiversity movement, which views high-functioning autism not as a disability, but instead as a different mix of talents and human potential that can actually help companies improve. To some extent, people with Asperger’s Syndrome have even become media darlings. Surely you’ve heard journalists rhapsodize about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, speculating that their brilliance may be due to undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome.

     Of course, the most common forms of autism—like my Sarah’s PDD-NOS and other dubious labels—are a lot less glamorous and more debilitating. I don’t think Sarah’s likely to invent the technology of tomorrow or improve animal slaughtering methods, but does that mean she and people like her should be relegated to the sidelines their whole lives? People on the spectrum are human beings with unusual qualities who can still make meaningful contributions to society. Like other minorities, they cannot and should not be marginalized. Isn’t it cruel and hypocritical to include and support kids with ASDs in schools and college (all in the name of diversity and political correctness) only to abandon them completely once they graduate?
     Thankfully, there are a handful of small businesses and non-profits that are pioneering efforts to employ a variety of young adults on the spectrum.  One non-profit, Extraordinary Ventures, was founded by parents of young autistic adults in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to help their children find meaningful employment in a range of businesses from bookstores and carwashes, to a film production studio, a web service company and local bakeries.  Alas, Henry can’t practice law in South Carolina so we can’t move there for Sarah to avail herself of those employment opportunities. Plus I’m sure it’s a lot more expensive to start up one of these businesses in the Big Apple.
     The question is: Why should a company go out on a limb and hire someone with autism when there are boatloads of neurotypical millennials looking for work? Answer: Maybe a young adult with autism will love and appreciate one of those entry level jobs disdained or merely tolerated by neurotypical college grads. Further, young adults on the spectrum might perform repetitive tasks BETTER than their neurotypical peers, bringing more enthusiasm and an eye for detail because they are stimulated (rather than bored) by this painstaking work.

     Bonus: Who knows what businesses may learn, or how they might profit, from the unique perspectives offered by different kinds of minds?  (Remember Temple Grandin.) Furthermore, patience, kindness and a willingness to adhere to routine—qualities associated with many on the spectrum--might prove very beneficial to some employers.  If we’re going to have laws requiring ramps for people in wheelchairs and accommodations for the deaf and blind, don’t we have a moral obligation to provide people on the spectrum with opportunities to be productive in the workplace? Nurturing and educating people with disabilities have been critical first steps, but we MUST keep moving forward.

     Day after day, Sarah asks if I’m proud of her. “Of course I am,” I assure her.  But no matter how many times I tell her, she needs to hear it again.  
     “Why can’t you tell me I’m doing a fantastic, wonderful job?” Her tone is both plaintive and demanding. “Will you be proud of me if I get a paying job?” 

     Saying I’m proud of her whether she gets a job or not isn’t going to satisfy her. Like most neurotypical adults, Sarah can’t feel proud of herself if she’s not productive.  Can you blame her?

     I don’t need gifts this holiday season. What I want is for my sweet, hard-working Sarah is to find a paying job, (or even an internship that leads to one.)  Maybe next year.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Empty Nest Trifecta

     When I was single in my 20s, I dreaded the holiday trifecta: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.  The ordeal began on Thanksgiving, when my parents cross-examined me about my social life.  If I was dating anyone, they wanted to know if “the relationship was going anywhere.” If I didn’t have a boyfriend, they asked when, (where and how!) I hoped to find one. I was always thankful when Thanksgiving was over. Phew!

     Next in the holiday line up came Christmas. Honestly, I never felt all that merry, in spite of television ads that INCESSANTLY insisted that everyone must (merrily) join the frenzy of buying family gifts.  (Maybe I don’t get it because I’m Jewish?) Or call me Scrooge, but it STILL drives me crazy to be forced to listen to “White Christmas” and other holiday favorites over and over, on an infinite repeat loop, every time I enter a store.  (Last year it was inescapable on Madison Ave because someone had fiendishly arranged for piping Christmas carols onto the sidewalks OUTSIDE the stores.)  Going back to my single days, Christmas was a weird holiday for those of us too young to be children, but not yet parents. The wrong age and the wrong religion made Christmas a lonely holiday. If Christmas was bad, New Year’s Eve could be even worse. What if I didn’t have a boyfriend? What if I got stood up? One year my New Year’s Eve date never showed up because he was hit by a taxi.  I was left in lonely limbo and simmering with rage until after midnight when he finally called from the hospital to explain. Although I felt sorry for him, I’d already decided he wasn’t “the one” because only a week earlier he’d gotten drunk at his office Christmas party and really HAD stood me up.

     Once I got married and had a family of my own, I thought the holidays would finally be wonderful (or at least not dreadful.)  And –for the most part—the holidays did improve, passing in a happy-but-hectic way for many years. Once Henry and I were together, I didn’t have to worry about loneliness (or my parents making me feel like a failure for being single).  Then, after my twins were born—the day after Christmas—I felt a much more joyful about December.  I thought Max and Sarah would be my special holiday gifts forever. Or would they? For many years, our family lit the menorah, celebrated Hanukah together, and Howard and I enjoyed watching our kids open gifts. Often we went on winter vacation and watched our twins blow out their birthday candles on a tropical island. On New Year’s Eve, our family went to a hotel party; we watched midnight fireworks in the Cayman Islands, Barbados or Jamaica (if one or all of us didn’t fall asleep first).
     Even after Max and Sarah left for college, they still came home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.  Instead of dreading “the holiday trifecta,” I actually looked forward to refilling my empty nest. On Thanksgiving, my family ate turkey dinner together; for Christmas we favored Chinese food, (It’s a bona fide tradition!) and on New Year’s Eve, we ate steak.  On December 26th, we celebrated our twins’ birthday together as a family throughout their college years.  Of course Max and Sarah usually left Henry and me right after dinner to join friends or go to a party.  I was delighted that my kids had people to meet and places to go, especially Sarah, on the autistic spectrum, who’d been friendless for most of her childhood.  Seeing my twins over the holidays, catching up on their lives, and observing their maturation (or lack thereof), usually gave Henry and me plenty of smiles.  

     Now that both twins have graduated college, I can no longer count on holidays to be happy reunions or family celebrations. Last year Sarah decided to celebrate her 23rd birthday alone with her boyfriend, while Max unexpectedly joined a friend in Idaho to work on a television script. For the first time in my twins’ lives, Henry and I spent their birthday without them!  It was comforting to know THEY were both happy, but I still couldn’t help feeling sad.  Was their 23rd birthday the first of many family occasions we would celebrate apart or just a one-time disappointment?  Somehow I couldn’t help feeling my nest was on the slippery slope toward becoming fully empty all year round.

     It turns out I was right to worry. This year Thanksgiving—the non-religious, non-romantic, slam-dunk of family holidays—became a double question mark.  Would Max and Sarah prefer to spend Thanksgiving with their respective girlfriend’s and boyfriend’s families instead of with us?  Now that Max has fully moved out, and Sarah is busy every day and also spends half the week at her boyfriend’s house, it suddenly seemed important (at least to Momma bird) that we all come together for Thanksgiving dinner with my 87 year old mother. Unlike my parents, I don’t interrogate my kids about their respective romantic relationships.  (Usually, I learn more when I don’t ask). Anyway, in my family no news is usually the best news….
     This year, both kids are joining us for Thanksgiving. However, I’m not at all sure they would have participated if I hadn’t impressed upon them how important it is for us to be together now (at least for me).  Like many new empty nesters, Henry and I are living in an amorphous and peculiar transitional period.  Our twins are old enough to be in year-long, serious relationships, but also young enough not to be engaged or married. That means there are three separate families who each want their offspring home for Thanksgiving. All of us are willing to invite our kids’ significant others, but nobody is quite ready to include a second or (in our case) third extended family in their Thanksgiving dinner plans. (That’s an awful lot of turkey being shared by too many unrelated strangers who may, or may not, become family).

     As this year’s trifecta gets under way, I’m thinking it’s probably best to take future holidays (including birthdays) one year at a time.  Last Wednesday my daughter performed in her teacher’s Sondheim recital, and the title of her song struck me as what’s most important for now:  “No One is Alone.”


Friday, November 14, 2014

Nest Lift

     Despite being 50-something, I’ve allowed time and gravity to take their toll on my face.  No eyelid surgery, no neck lift, no jawline lift, no Botox, no fillers, no nips or tucks of any kind for me—so far.  Instead, I’m giving our home a nest lift.  As many of my readers know, Henry and I are converting our son’s room into a den, including a new rug, a convertible sofa bed, and a flat screen TV.  I didn’t want to look at a sad and cluttered shrine to Max and his dog, complete with assorted carpet stains left by both of them. (Sparky, Max’s Norwich terrier, died earlier this year. See “For Sparky with Love,” 1/31/14). No, instead of wallowing in nostalgia for the past, I prefer to celebrate the next chapter of my life with Henry. Improving our home is a fun project we can share: re-feathering the empty nest.

     In addition to creating a den in Max’s old room, we decided to make some other long overdue improvements, such as purchasing a new dining table and chairs.  (Our current dining room set is falling apart after almost 25 years of hard service.)   After starting the re-feathering project, Henry and I stumbled upon new living room chairs that we both decided we had to have. Of course when all the elegant and colorful furniture finally arrives, we’ll need some new lighting.  Every lighting fixture in our apartment is a quarter century old; most of them have been repaired more than once. Uh-oh, the bills are starting to add up to the cost of a good plastic surgeon. . . but isn’t redecorating so much more FUN than a face lift? Besides, it’s a better investment. Unlike a face lift, our furniture will probably look sleek and lovely a lot longer than my post-menopausal skin. If “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” I’d rather be the one beholding, and enjoy the beauty around me instead of trying to live up to some impossible ideal of youth in an effort to please others.

     Not that nest refurbishing is all beauty and fun. No, the first and most necessary step in nest rehab is a paint job. UGH!!  To make the experience more palatable (and less inconvenient), we skip painting our bedroom and our daughter Sarah’s bedroom, allowing us to move art, furniture and assorted odds and ends from the rooms being painted to the “undisturbed” rooms. This decision spared me from hours of bubble wrapping our-beautiful-but-seemingly-endless-collection of family photos and packing them in cardboard boxes.  Also, we have a sanctuary from paint fumes and dust (at least while we sleep and shower). The worst part about the paint job is being exiled from my desk. How can I write my blog on my computer and handle the details of our family’s daily life?  It’s only temporary, I tell myself.  Three days of paint-spattered guys with pony tails invading my space is not the end of the world, right?   Refurbishing is kind of like diet and exercise—no pain, no gain.

     Of course, once the painting begins, there’s no turning back. My furniture is piled—some of it upside down—in the center of my living room. My walls are naked, stripped of art and photos.  Worst of all, my desk and bookcase are swathed in plastic.  Ditto the kitchen. Clearly, we are well past the point of no return. Everything has been shuffled around the nest, stowed in our storage bin, donated to the Salvation Army or thrown away.  I’m afraid I may never find half the stuff I tucked here and there. Damn, this paint job is turning into hide and seek. 

     “Where are you, phone charger?” I beseech the empty nest to cough up its treasures.

     No answer.

      I decide to leave before choking on paint dust or tripping over a drop cloth.

     A friend has offered me sanctuary for a few hours this afternoon, including the use of a laptop so I can finish my blog. (Thankfully, she also has a compatible phone charger, so I will not be left incommunicado). Is this a mini-taste of how Napoleon felt when he was exiled to Elba?  (One of the painters actually admitted that HE would prefer ME to leave!) Of course I don’t take it personally, (even if it is MY home).  I don’t want to get in their way (even if they‘re getting in mine).  Now that I’m closed out of most of my apartment, I wonder if this is how our beloved Sparky felt when we ate dinner and locked him in a bedroom, so he wouldn’t pester us for scraps.  Speaking of dinners, the good news is that Henry and I will have to eat at a restaurant at least one extra night this week. After hours organizing and moving paintings, furniture, and 23 years of this-and-that, I’m delighted that somebody else will serve me dinner and handle the clean-up afterwards.

     By the time I post this blog, hopefully the worst of the paint job will be behind me and some—if not all—of my worldly possessions will be retrieved and returned to their original locations. (OK, I can always hope, can’t I?) Honestly, I’m SO looking forward to enjoying the clean, fresh “skin” on my apartment walls.  Already, I’m in LOVE with my “key lime green” bathroom.  The painter confessed that he “hated the color” when he opened the can, but “loves it now that he sees it on the walls.” (My walls!)  “It really DOES brighten things up,” he acknowledged.

     What the painter doesn’t know is that I wanted to keep the bathroom green because it’s Sarah’s favorite color, and I know she will love the cheerful shade.  When the paint dries, I’ll explain that key lime pie is a delicious dessert. That will definitely make my daughter smile, which will then make me smile…. 

     “Thank you.” I grin at the painter, showing him all my teeth.  He’ll be gone soon, hopefully tomorrow or the next day. And then it’s time to shop for new towels. Lavender, maybe?  Or perhaps melon?  Color is an anti-depressant and key to my strategy in empty nest lifting.  Will I enjoy the results as much I had hoped? Stay tuned . . .



Friday, November 7, 2014

Election Dejection

     Growing up in the ‘60s, I believed being born American was like winning the world lottery.  Our country was the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth! (Wasn’t it?) Other nations—particularly democratic ones—respected and envied our freedom, our prosperity, and our way of life.   I remember when the rags-to-riches “American Dream” was something many of us were taught to take for granted (especially white males).  If you were born in my generation, you probably know many people who started out in modest circumstances, graduated from colleges, and became more successful than their own parents.  And how many of you baby boomers remember the days when playground arguments were punctuated with the proud all-American declaration: “It’s a free country?” 

     Sadly, the USA is no longer regarded as number one among industrialized nations—at least not in areas where we can take pride.  Yes, we are 1st in the number of billionaires, but we are last in the gap between rich and poor.  We spend more than any other country on health, yet we are 16th in maternal mortality rates, 27th in infant mortality rates, and last in relative child poverty, according to the Research Library for “How America Ranks Among Industrialized Countries.”  Upward mobility can no longer be taken for granted as a birthright for all Americans. We are not a meritocracy, and even those who are well-educated and work hard may not reap the rewards we were promised growing up as children in the booming economy of the 1960s.  Just look at the depressing unemployment (and under-employment) rates of American millennials since the turn of the century. And how “free” is our country when minorities continue to be disproportionately arrested, when Roe vs. Wade is under perpetual attack, and women still earn less money than men for the same work (77 cents vs. $1.00)? Not surprisingly, the phrase “It’s a free country,” is one that I NEVER hear uttered by children or adults anymore.

     Statistics about where America ranks among industrialized countries are as depressing as they are surprising. Among 74 nations, Wikipedia ranks the US in education as 31st in math, 23rd in science and 17th in reading.  If our children are the future, what do these statistics predict for our once great nation?  In Wikipedia’s “Where to be Born Index,” America is number 17 for life expectancy, material well-being, job security, political freedoms and gender equality!  It’s time to move to Switzerland (#1) or Australia (#2).   In spite of long dark winters, lots of rain and freezing temperatures, all Scandinavian countries are currently rated better places to be born than here in the US of A.
     The good news (relatively speaking) is that we have only fallen to 3rd place in “global competitiveness,” after Sweden and Singapore, according to Wikipedia.  The bad news?  We are 23rd out of 74 nations in infrastructure. Even worse, Mark Rice’s “Ranking America” blog has reported that America is 17th in the world for our level of confidence in Obama (tied with Uganda)!  No wonder so few people bother to go the polls these days—especially for the ho-hum midterm elections. Apparently, political cynicism is as much of an epidemic in America today as Ebola is in Liberia.  After years of political gridlock in Washington, the GOP finally achieved a majority in the senate. Now, instead of nothing happening or a government shutdown, the Republican controlled senate can pass legislation and probably overcome an Obama veto. Is anyone out there excited? (I’m not). It’s possible that the newly elected governors and senators will actually show up for work and fulfill their responsibility to the citizens who elected them.  (Some people still believe in the tooth fairy too).  Yes, finally, we might see some much-needed changes. But will those changes improve the lives of all of us, or just some of us?  Hint: if you’re in the middle class, don’t hold your breath.

     Statistics and numbers don’t lie.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for our government officials, especially AFTER they have been elected.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Empty Nest Halloween

     Just because your kids leave for college doesn’t mean you have to stop celebrating Halloween. You can still put a pumpkin outside and decorate your door with cottony spider-webs or a cardboard skeleton.  Greeting trick-or-treaters can still be fun long after your own children have outgrown dressing up to collect candy.  When my twins were young enough for Henry and me to accompany them door to door in our apartment building, I always enjoyed seeing other adorable kids in costume and the delight on their faces as they grabbed as much candy as their parents would allow. For me, it was always interesting to see my neighbor’s kids grow and change. What costume would they choose this year? Was it home-made or store bought?  Cute or silly, scary or sexy, I wondered how each child (or parent) selected a costume.

      Of course, welcoming trick-or-treaters means buying those big, Halloween-sized bags of candy and paying a higher grocery bill.  Hmm…I wonder how much I’ll need this year.  What should I buy: Tootsie Pops, Milky Ways, Snickers, M & Ms or Skittles?  I find myself choosing my twins’ favorites—Milky Ways for Max and Skittles for Sarah.  At the last minute, I throw Tootsie Pops (one of my own childhood favorites) into my shopping cart.  Was I buying too much?  Now that my children are no longer at home to happily gobble leftovers, maybe I was going overboard.  Like many other calorie-counting moms who LOVE chocolate, I didn’t want a bowl full of sweets left over for ME to consume during November.  It’s bad enough (and fun enough) that I’ll probably nibble one of those Milky Ways on Halloween night. (Don’t we all?)  But after that, no post-menopausal woman in her right mind wants to be tempted to snack on candy, especially if she wants to fit into her skinny jeans.  According to my arthritic knee, I already take more than enough dance classes at Equinox.

     Speaking of dance classes, our lovable instructor Matthew Johnson incorporated Halloween into the music and choreography of his class this past week.  Much to the delight of his students, (many of us empty nesters), we danced to the Adams Family Theme and songs from the Rocky Horror Show, including: “Toucha Toucha Touch Me,” “Monster Mash” and “Time Warp.”  As a baby boomer, listening to the music from that cult movie brought back happy memories of dressing up in black make-up and getting wasted in the movie theatre during my college years.  Dancing “the monster mash” as a 50-something the week before Halloween has been almost as much fun as the old Rocky Horror days.  Best of all was Matthew’s Halloween class finale.  As “Thriller” played, our dance teacher slipped on a pair of dark sunglasses and a silver sequined glove— transforming himself into a convincing Michael Jackson, moonwalk and all!  So much FUN.

     Halloween brings back so many memories.  As a seven year old, I remember dressing up as Morticia Addams from the Addams Family (easy to do with my naturally, ghost-white skin and dark hair). (Maybe you were Uncle Fester or Gomez)?  When I got a little older, my parents dressed me as a flamenco dancer in a red and white polka dotted outfit, holding a fan, with my hair piled into a bun. (My mom still has that black and white Halloween picture in her long-empty nest).  I also remember creating what I believed would be the winning Halloween costume for a contest in my elementary school.  After hours of meticulously cutting, pasting and stapling construction paper and tinfoil onto oak tag, I became an Ever Ready battery. The logo with the nine came out perfectly! Unfortunately, I didn’t win the contest and don’t remember who did, but I was very proud of myself for that costume. 
     If you’re a recent empty nester and Halloween makes you sad, just forget about it.   Lock the door and go out for a sushi dinner with your spouse or partner. If you’re a pet lover, another alternative is to dress up with your pooch in matching outfits.  A middle-aged woman I know is planning to dress her Maltese in a “bad girl” costume to match her own.  But beware, cat owners! No self-respecting feline will submit to a Halloween costume without biting and trying to scratch your eyes out before you can say “meow.”  I tried to slip a costume on Pumpkin once, (my childhood calico kitty), and ended up with a bloody arm.

     Living without pets and children on Halloween isn’t so bad. It’s true that the days of cute costumes –and snapping adorable pictures of my children wearing them—are over.  But so too are the heated arguments with my twins over how much candy can be eaten in a single evening. No more waiting for our slow, overcrowded elevators on Halloween night, or sweating on stairways because we’re in too big a hurry.  If you don’t believe me, just check out my essay, “Halloween Hell,” published this week on-line at Halloween Hell | Wild Violet online literary magazine and you’ll see why being an empty nester on this holiday can be a pleasure. Although I will always miss Sparky (our Norwich Terrier who died earlier this year), I have fond memories of helping Max dress him as Wonder Dog one Halloween.  This year I will enjoy the steady parade of children and parents ringing my doorbell without worrying that Sparky might nose his way into a closet or cabinet to devour toxic amounts of chocolate and end up at an Animal Hospital (which happened twice).  I’m curious to see how many boys in my building are dressed as Ninjas and how many girls chose to be Elsa from “Frozen.”  According to Ricky’s on East 75th Street near me, these were the best-selling Halloween costumes in 2014.   (No, the Hazmat suits were not big hits, despite the arrival of Ebola in the Big Apple.)  Tonight I’m hoping to empty my candy container in less than two hours.  If I’m too tired to answer the door after that, I’ll just abandon the bowl outside, knowing that the contents will magically disappear by morning.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Newsworthy Nest

     How did one mommy blogger get plucked from the many to go on TV and talk about empty nests?  I got lucky when Fox 5 news reporter Jennifer Lahmers googled “empty nest blogs,” and voila! “The Never-Empty Nest” popped up on her screen.  In true 21st century style, Ms. Lahmers reached out to me on Twitter and asked for an interview.  I tweeted back “yes” (media savvy Mom that I am) and gave her my phone number.  It was a Friday morning, and in a matter of minutes I agreed to a Monday interview at my apartment.  It was as simple (and delightfully random) as that.

     But wait a minute—was this really happening to me?

     In my pre-mommy days, I’d worked in public relations.  Many moons before the Internet--I’m sure you remember that bygone era even if your kids don’t—I wrote press releases, arranged meetings, prepared media kits and followed up with phone calls.  I labored to get the attention of the press for my clients. Doggedly persistent (without becoming a stalker) I had to convince reporters and editors to shine their spotlights on my clients.  After weeks (or months) of effort (always practicing to perfect my pitch), I’d eventually succeed in securing a “media placement.”  I imagine PR firms today continue many of these labor-intensive activities— albeit with the help and speed of the Internet, Skype, Twitter, etc.

     Or maybe I’m wrong about what PR firms are doing these days. Come to think of it, I have NO IDEA how the media decides who and what will make the best story.   For 18 years I was a stay-at-home mom raising an unusual set of twins.  Even after they left for college, I was still busier than expected, helping them manage their complicated lives (especially Sarah, who’s on the autistic spectrum).  When I realized that my kids were still unexpectedly present in my life (even while physically far from home) I decided to blog about my “Never-Empty Nest.” 
     Of course, I had to overcome technological challenges and my lack of 21st century media know-how.  Five years ago, if someone had asked me: “What’s a blog?” I’d have stumbled over my answer. I remember thinking “blog” sounded uncomplimentary, a derisive term used to describe the work of people who dumped their ideas and words onto the internet without much skill or editing.  (Okay, so I wasn’t entirely wrong).  After all, “blog” rhymes with “bog,” “fog” and “slog,” so how could the  prose be any good?  My husband, Henry, who is old school, prefers to call my blog, a “weekly column.”  (Thank you, Henry).

     When I started “The Never-Empty Nest” 1 ½ years ago, I hired a “social media advisor.” Midway through 77 blogs, I decided to add pictures.  First I learned to use the camera on my iPhone. (Yes, I’m pretty late in that game). Next I mastered sending the pictures from my cell to my email, and then tackled  uploading  my photos  so they  didn’t appear sideways or upside down.  In addition to posting links to my blog entries on Facebook, LinkedIn and 8 LinkedIn sub-groups, I also compiled an email list.  But even that wasn’t enough social media.  Everyone told me Twitter was a MUST.  Try to tweet every day, I was advised.   
     Until last week, I wasn’t a big Twitter fan, I must confess. Who has the time and energy to compress their thoughts into a 120 character tweet? (I know, I know, many people LOVE basking in this semi-anonymous attention.) Also I’m also supposed to “follow” (Does that mean read?) other people’s tweets and hope that some of them follow me.  The goal is to acquire thousands of followers, (I have 50) with the hopes of building a “social media platform”—supposedly de rigueur in preparation for publishing my book, Picture Perfect Family, in 2015. Dutifully, I went through the motions of setting up my Twitter account (yawn), but I never understood how it could help me until last week when I got the notification from Jennifer Lahmers at Fox 5 News.  

     Now, I haven’t been on television since I was a toddler on Romper Room, and that was eons ago. Back then I couldn’t bear to watch myself on the small screen, and as soon as I appeared on my family’s black and white Zenith, I ran out of the room.

     For my second ever TV appearance, I wanted to look good enough not to flee from the screen when the show aired. “Are you getting your hair and make-up done?” My friends wanted to know. But I  had no time for movie star prep.  I just managed to shower and change (after my dance class at the Equinox) in time to meet Jennifer Lahmers and her cameraman.  Viewers of Fox 5 News with Ernie Anastos would have to see me with gray roots and self-applied make-up.  Of course, I felt even older and dowdier when the lovely Ms. Lahmers, (perfectly groomed and without a hint of gray in her lustrous, dark locks) entered my apartment.

     While looping the mike under my shirt and clipping it to my waist, I admitted to being horribly nervous.

  “Don’t worry,” the cameraman assured me.  “I make everyone look good.”

     The 45 minute interview flew by. I  spoke about becoming an instant empty nester when  both twins  left for college and tried to offer some upbeat advice to parents who are recent—or soon to be—empty nesters.  I also gave a short guided tour through the remnants of Max’s bedroom: family photos, sports trophies, the father/son soldier collection, and a forlorn and battered suitcase.  I explained that my son’s recently vacated room was transitioning into a den.

     Had I talked too much? I wondered when the interview was over. Had I yammered on about stuff I was going to regret later?

     “Not at all.”  Ms. Lahmers smiled warmly.  “You did just fine. It will all be edited down to a few minutes and should be on at the very beginning of the 6 PM show on Friday, unless there’s breaking news.”

     We were about to shake hands goodbye, but somehow we ended up in a hug.  Ms. Lahmers was every bit as friendly and kind as she was beautiful.  Dazed and floating, I returned to lunch in my dining room and ordinary life.  Could this interview be the beginning of my 15 minutes of fame as promised by Andy Warhol?  If you missed my interview live, you can still check it out at Is it too much to hope that the Huffington Post will notice me and pick up my blog as a “weekly column?”  Fingers crossed. Who says lightning can’t strike twice?