My father’s hair had grown wild and unruly, and I told him, “You look like the mad Professor”, hoping for a smile from this working class guy from Buffalo turned local revolutionary hero. His strands of thin, white hair lingered in mid-air with nowhere to go, suspended in time and place, as his body recuperated from hip surgery that was probably a bad idea at age 94. Instead of feeling hopeful, he was despairing, wondering whether he had made the right decision, all the while trying to convince himself that he had. I couldn’t help but join him in this sentiment. I tried to be positive, reminding him that you can’t gauge improvement on a daily basis. It would take weeks, maybe months. But at his age, that’s playing with fire. Why the hell he insisted on having the surgery was beyond me. And why the hell his doctor didn’t say no just made me mad.
Over the years, I had become his make-shift hairdresser, a role that I relished. It was a way to connect with him in a contained window with a dollop of distance. For my atheist father, getting a haircut from me was a little like going to church, a solemn occasion filled with contemplation and calm. For me? I felt purposeful, able to help this man who had been such a stalwart support for so many years. The truth was that there was very little actual cutting of hair involved, but the ritual called for a slow pace and gentle hands. Using my scissors gingerly, I always started on the sides where the hairs were most prominent. The top hairs were next; they were sparse and the task of cutting was only a prelude to what would come later. I lingered at the back of his head because he knew it was almost over. And for the finale, I finished the job with an electronic razor to smooth it all out.
As I look back on this simple act of love, I relish in the peace I was able to bring to him. A firebrand in his day, he was losing steam, at times wondering if life was worth living. That was the hardest part for me. But this pure connection momentarily stripped away his cares and mine, and allowed us to be in the room together. When I stepped back to assess my work, I would always find wild hairs I missed. There is no perfection here. Only a work in progress. In the end, my father was quietly grateful. Not a man given to ‘thank you’s’, even in the best of times.
For the past six years, sometime in early fall, I don an apron, which I place on top of a (borrowed) flowery shirt-waist dress, tie my hair in a bun, and call myself “Betty”. That’s Betty, as in Mrs. Crocker, the mythical 50s mom who graced the boxes of many a cake mix. A woman – or at least the character of a woman – who is the opposite of the mother I grew up with, who hated being a “housewife” and hated being in the kitchen. But I digress. Betty invites neighbors to an “apple bake-off”, a contest in which everyone “competes” to have their “entry” judged as the best baked apple treat. (Spoiler: In case you didn’t know, there never was a real Betty Crocker.)
Here’s a little backdrop: I live on a street with many traditions. My neighbors have been putting on a Halloween extravaganza for many years that attracts a thousand children and their parents – yes, 1,000, I kid you not – which involves gory surgical skits with manic doctors and bloody body parts, lots of chocolate and a “honk” band that marches up and down the street playing New Orleans jazz. We have block parties in the fall and pot lucks throughout the year, and we even occasionally sojourn out of the neighborhood to go apple picking or to visit a museum together, caravanning with a string of cars if necessary. So it is in keeping with the (very) social world of my street that Betty decided to make a visit.
After the first successful year, Betty decided to come back the next year and the next, and the bake-off officially became a new tradition. I guess that is how traditions are created.
If the bake-off were in rural Tennessee or even Western Massachusetts, it would not be such an anomaly. But it turns out that the real-life country is not required for a group of friends to compete with one another to see who can make the most delicious baked apple treat. In fact, bringing the country to the city may be part of the appeal. We can “do” country in the city, but then we pop on the subway to see a play downtown. The competitive spirit in the bake-off kinda comes with the territory, but in our bake-off, the competition comes with a fair amount of tongue-and-cheek. Although each year, I have noticed that a lot of people seem to up their game, and that benefits everyone’s palate.
To determine the winners, an “elite panel” of young people (i.e. awesome kids) sit in judgment, evaluating each entry with a tough set of criteria that appears to be borrowed from TV cooking shows. The truth is that this discerning band of judges is ruthless. So we decided to narrow the possible score they can dole out, from a 1-10 scale to a 7-10 scale. Yes, 7 is now the lowest number an entry can receive. But they take it very seriously, to be lauded; they do a great job; and everyone has fun. The bottom line is that no one loses too badly, and pretty much everyone is a winner, or as a native Bostonian would say, a “winnah”. This year’s 1st place winner received a cheesy, but effective, trophy. But everyone who bakes gets either a 1st or 2nd place ribbon.
In the widely popularized pop-novel, “Bowling Alone”, Robert Putnam argues that the fabric of our social connections has dissipated, leaving us alone and isolated from one another. When the book came out in 1990, a number of critics said that just because people aren’t bowling together, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t finding other ways to come together. Civic activities have continued to flourish in other forms, they argued, from youth soccer leagues to book clubs to going to church or mosque or synagogue. Nonetheless, people are working longer hours, either in salaried jobs that have a “longer hours” culture, or by juggling more than one job in order to feed the family. Putnam says that these longer hours pull people away from their communities, and he’s probably right.
Technology and social media are now being deemed as the culprits, stealing time from in-person communication. In fact, ironically, there are even blogs and YouTube videos lamenting how people spend too much time on their computers.
A lot of people, myself included, believe that people are still hungry to feel a “sense of community”. According to one extensive study published in the American Sociological Review (McPherson, Smith-Lovi and Brashears, 2006), there has been a huge drop in the size of our social networks. As a result of having smaller social networks, we have lost “discussion partners” or people with whom we can share confidences, either within and/or outside of our families. Moreover, given the implicit and explicit racial and class divides in our society, the potential for broadening our social networks beyond people who look like us is stymied.
Which brings me back to Betty, and a lot of other community-building events located in my neighborhood, and I’m sure many others around the country. For example, we have a very cool event in the ‘hood called JP Reads, which is “a community-wide literary celebration” where people read and discuss the same book, and get to meet the author (http://www.jpreads.org/).
And there’s Wake Up the Earth, a local festival in May that begins with several parades coming from a number of locations in the neighborhood and ultimately merging together on an expanse of greenery next to a subway stop, where live and local entertainment erupts.
And then there’s the ever-magical Lantern Parade, which was happening when my 23-year-old daughter was a kid, where young and old walk around the local Jamaica Pond at sunset carrying decorated lanterns with candles inside that reflect off the water.
Or most recently, a new tradition, the Jamaica Plain Porchfest (www.jpporchfest.org), where musicians play a wide variety of musical styles on porches all over the neighbhorhood. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the organizers of this last event, along with my buddy, Marie.)
I’m wondering about your communities. Do you feel a “sense of community”? Is your community “place-based” or is it virtual or both? Is your community defined by work or family or a particular interest, or all of the above? If you don’t feel a sense of community, do you want to? And if you do, do you have any good ideas? I’d really love to hear…
Meanwhile, here are some photos from this year’s Bake-Off! And the winner is…
Photo credit for the Bake-off pictures: Joni Lohr
Photo credit for JP Porchfest pic: Sam Sacks
The men in my family were easy sleepers. It wasn’t uncommon to see my father and his six brothers lie down on the floor after a big meal and just nod out. Of course, that left my aunts to clean up, after they had also cooked the meal, and I bet they could have used a nap too. At the time, I figured that taking a post-meal snooze was the “way things were” for the men in the family. But gradually, as I developed a feminist consciousness, I resented these lazy guys. As my age gradually crept up to where theirs were back then, I have begun to appreciate their supreme capacity to sleep just about anywhere, anytime. My father was also one of those people who could nod out for five minutes – taking a so-called “power nap” – only to emerge refreshed and able to fully re-enter the conversation when he awoke.
Later, when he was in his 90s, he began to experience serious insomnia, lying awake for hours and hours throughout the night, going crazy with boredom and frustration. While I sympathized with his dilemma at the time, it wasn’t until I experienced my own sustained insomnia – after a back injury – that I understood how horrible it is to not be able to sleep night after night. I discovered that sleep deprivation steals one’s energy, one’s optimism, and sometimes even one’s sanity. With increasing lack of sleep, the exhaustion compounds and the world becomes slightly, if not majorly, off-kilter.
Insomnia is a lot of things, which includes having a hard time getting to sleep, as well as waking up early and having a difficult time getting back to sleep. Not surprisingly, it isn’t a contemporary phenomenon. No, we in the so-called modern world didn’t invent it. Insomnia goes way, way back. The term “insomnia” first appeared in 1623, and means “want of sleep”. One of the biggest causes of insomnia, stress, is something that people have been struggling with for eons. It’s just the nature of stress that looks slightly different these days, compared to a few centuries ago. But if you think about it, there are a lot of similarities.
We’re stressed because we work hard or we don’t have enough work. We’re stressed because we live in a violent world that is unpredictable. We’re stressed if we experience social isolation or prejudice. We’re stressed when we don’t have enough to eat, and don’t know where the next meal is coming from. We’re stressed because our jobs are too demanding or not challenging enough. We’re stressed because we worry about paying our bills. We’re stressed because we don’t feel loved enough, or because we have tension with our partners or our friends. One might call these universal problems, and these stressers will vary based on your economic situation as well as your race, gender and sexual identity. And maybe a few centuries ago, we might have also worried about predators or major diseases that wiped out entire swaths of people. All of these stressors can lead to loss of sleep.
A lot of famous people are recorded as having suffered from insomnia. Sir Isaac Newton suffered from depression and had difficulty sleeping. Winston Churchill had two beds because if he couldn’t sleep in one, he would try the other. Thomas Edison, like my father, was a cat-napper, because he couldn’t sleep at night. Some insomniacs turned to drugs. Marcel Proust and Marilyn Monroe took barbiturates to help them sleep. English writer, Evelyn Waugh, took bromides to induce sleep. As we know, Michael Jackson died because of a lethal cocktail of medications to help him sleep, including propofal, used for sedation before surgeries, lorazepam, used for anxiety, and a host of other meds, including midazolam, diazepam, lidocaine and ephedrine. He was obviously so desperate to sleep that he was willing to try them all.
Author and columnist Arianna Huffington calls insomnia a “feminist issue”, and has written columns in Huffington Post lamenting her lack of sleep from jet lag. Another Huff Post columnist, Dora Levy Mossanen, calls insomnia a “smart, devious virus that mutates and changes form every season like the flu virus. Except that this tricky bugger is tuned to our circadian rhythm and is able to change and disguise itself at whim to confuse the heck out of us”. Mossanen does all the “right things”: She doesn’t drink caffeine, goes to bed at a decent hour, drinks hot milk before bedtime, takes warm baths, reads non-stimulating books, listens to guided meditation on her i-pod, and imagines serene seashores. And yet she says, “I toss and turn at the beginning of the night, counting backwards and forwards so many times that if my mind was prone to mathematics, I’d have solved all the mathematical problems of the world by now”.
For the most part, my insomnia has cleared, but every so often it rears its ugly head. While in the midst of a minor insomniac “relapse”, I asked my friends and colleagues for their insomnia narratives. I wanted to know how long their insomnia lasted, why they thought they were struggling with sleep; what they did when they were awake; how it affected them the next day. I learned that the main causes of insomnia are:
* Anxiety, the everyday kind like preparing to teach a class, and larger anxieties, like worrying about keeping a job;
* Depression, which impedes relaxation necessary to fall and stay asleep;
* Medications, because some meds like decongestants and pain meds keep us awake. Antihistamines might initially make us groggy, but they can cause excess urination which gets us up a lot during the night;
* Alcohol, which may make you more relaxed, but prevents deeper stages of sleep and can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night;
* Chronic pain, which is distracting and worrisome and can lead to anxiety, which prevents sleep;
* Medical conditions, like arthritis, cancer, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease, which are linked with insomnia;
* Poor sleep habits, like weird sleep schedules, or an uncomfortable sleep environment;
* “Learned insomnia” – which is worrying too much about not being able to sleep, which makes it hard to get to sleep; and
* Eating too much before sleeping or eating the wrong snack, which can give you heartburn and make it uncomfortable to fall sleep.
In response to my call for insomnia stories, only women replied. I know that isn’t because men don’t experience insomnia; but perhaps men don’t want to reveal their sleeping problems publicly, even though I promised confidentiality. (It’s not too late, for my male readers!)
One woman said, “You do realize you’ve opened the floodgates, yes? Amazing topic. Of course, I’m too sleep-deprived and deep into end-of-semester madness to respond right now! Maybe during my next bout of insomnia (perhaps tonite). ;-)”
Here are a few responses from other insomniacs:
One woman says, “Funny you should ask, as I am suffering from insomnia just now, maybe a week long bout this time, but by far not the longest ever. I wake up about 4am and cannot fall back asleep if my life depended on it. Not sure why I have such a hard time staying asleep, maybe it’s hormonal (menopause) or maybe it’s all the craziness at the office (new department chair, no office support as the old secretary retired, research lagging, …). Often I am not the only one awake, as my spouse is also a stressed-out insomniac. I typically try to fall back asleep, but if it doesn’t happen, I get up and read in the living room until I feel exhausted from being up at 4 am. What sometimes works is counting backwards from 100 in another language. Needless to say, the next day I feel a bit out of it, but nothing like the “zombieness” I did when my child used to wake me up. I am not desperate yet, but may try to find my melatonin from the previous bout to get me back on track. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t”.
Another woman says, “My insomnia stories are boring. I get up and clean the house, read, catch up and/or get ahead on my work. That makes me feel like I am not wasting my time trying to fall asleep. Usually that day I am racing, energetic and feel good about all I have accomplished. By that night I am crashing and I pay the next day in bodily aches/pain. Not very exciting…”
Another says, “I have had quite a few episodes of insomnia. There were times when I would go days or even a week without adequate sleep. I would either fall asleep and then wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to bed, or I would just simply stare at the ceiling until I finally fell asleep, only to wake up about every half an hour for the rest of the night. Either way, insomnia sucks! I eventually couldn’t take it any longer and sought medical help. Come to find out, I have general anxiety disorder and that was greatly affecting my sleep. Even now – I am on medication- I still have bouts of insomnia when I am highly stressed. My mind is constantly going, so when something important is coming up I find myself having trouble sleeping. In the middle of the night I have tried a number of things: read a book, go to the gym (thank you, 24 hour fitness), eat, watch TV, and try and go back to sleep. As a student, during the day I am pretty much reading, writing, researching, or preparing for a class I TA for.
“After a night of insomnia, I usually feel terrible the next day. Even if I am tired, I don’t try and nap because if I do, the likelihood of getting a good night’s sleep decreases. If I go a few days or even a week without sleep, my brain has pretty much checked out. I go through the motions but I don’t feel like I am really all there. Hopefully that makes sense. Insights? I would say that everyone is different and should try different things to help them sleep. I hate taking medicine, even when I am sick, so seeing a doctor was the last thing on my list. I tried doing yoga, eating better, not watching TV or reading at night…but nothing helped me. Being put on medication was a great relief because I sleep really well, for the most part”.
And finally, one of my neighbors says, “Sometimes I look out the window to see who else might be up in the neighborhood. I am tempted to text them or call and get together, maybe we should start an insomniac club”.
That sounds tempting… I suppose that one strategy I’m employing is writing this post. Maybe “outing myself” as an insomniac will help diffuse the potency of this insidious problem. If I were to characterize my current “brand” of insomnia, it’s “learned insomnia”, meaning that I begin to fall asleep and then just as I’m fading into a hazy fog, my brain says “you’re falling asleep”, at which point I’m awake! Luckily, the problem has lessened since I first put out the call for insomnia stories. May it fade away!
Tell me your insomnia story! What has helped you overcome your sleeplessness?