via 21. Done. Kaput.
via 21. Done. Kaput.
As we collectively and individually hunker down in COVID-19 self-quarantine, where everyone’s lives are on hold and a single hospitalized life hangs in the balance, it got me Web surfing and deep diving once again about my own mortality. Here’s what I discovered:
In 21 years, I should be dead. How do I know? The U.S. Government said so.
So, if I do the math based on that song from Rent, all that remains is 11,037,600 minutes. 11,037,600: Probably the number of people who know that song from Rent.
You may say—well, that’s the average. What if you beat the average? Most people successfully navigate pandemics, misplaced toys on the floor or parking-lot accidents. And I agree, that could be a real possibility. But I am a middle-aged, middle child, middle-management guy who got mostly Bs and B+s in school. I think I better be prepared.
21 years to go. I find it kind of ironic, though. When you are young, you aspire to milestone dates. When I was 13, manhood was mine (or so my rabbi told me). At 16, I could get my driver’s license. At 18, I could vote, or be drafted. But 21 was the big kahuna. It meant you were legal to do whatever you pleased … drinking, gambling, all the stuff a responsible adult aspired to do.
So, with the second hand counting down, how will I approach these next 11 million minutes? Will I construct another life, another existence to perfume the incomprehensible, or like the corporate man I am, use Excel to actuate, formulate and calculate the inevitable?
In the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot says, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Yes, coffee spoons but also morning alarms and daily showers. A year’s worth of commuting to and from work. Glasses half full, and half empty. Time clocked in, and life clocked out.
Again, how will this man, this middle-aged, graying me whose been measured by miles and mortgages, make these remaining 11,037,600 minutes matter?
I will work … a lot. I still have a kid in college and retirement funds are scarce. No trendy gold Apple watch for me. I will work until some millennial takes my job, which may be in a couple of weeks from now.
I will have “Big Chill” moments with my friends. Weekends of barbecues and boisterous banter. Disco, Doobie Brothers and Devo. Both Elvis’s – Presley and Costello. Dance all night and do nothing all day. Just be with the people who know me inside and out, and still like what they see before time runs out. And I will chip away at those diminished minutes, even hours, to recover… my joints require it.
I will construct no Facebook-fueled bucket list built for mass consumption. Instead, on a beautiful day in the hopefully not-too-distant future, my wife and I will fill our grandchildren’s buckets with sand as we erect towering castles and briny moats. I am confident the sands of time may trickle down a little bit slower in those moments of connection.
Instead of Tahiti and Tibetan treks halfway around the world, I want to transverse every note of the American Songbook. I want to read once again John Updike’s Rabbit series or even more Faulkner and Bellow, all from a veranda overlooking the ocean. I want glorious words, not whirlwind adventures. I am fine with Kerouac and Tom Wolfe serving as the tour guides of my mind.
And instead of a sports car where my thinning hair takes off with the wind, life’s remaining miles should be about traveling back in time and light years ahead. Eliot said it best: “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future…”
Let there be no more baggage filled with regret and recriminations. Let me embrace big change as the strands of my life grow shorter. And let me keep up the good fight for what’s right with the remaining time I have left.
Two days before COVID-19 defined life as we live it, I buried a friend. He was 57. A year younger than I am now. He did not get his chance at even 21 more seconds or days, let alone years. There will be no Fountain of Youth for him, for me, for any of us. There’s only the truth. And sometimes that truth hurts, like when you lose someone way too soon or when you realize “nobody’s permanent, everything’s on loan here.”
So, if the numbers add up, and I only have these 21 years left, the 11 million minutes that cascade down as I write, let me play with the table stakes time has probably given me. If that means Solitaire or Two-card Monte now, let me be fine with the hand I have been dealt. Many, like my friend, are gone; but, I’m still in the game. Yes, we are all so lucky to be still in the game.
(as appearing in The Good Men Project)
Today, Breast Cancer Awareness Month begins. Millions of women will take to the streets and the airwaves to share their stories. With pink ribbons affixed, tattooed and emblazoned, they’ll give voice to the memory of those lost and lift up the survivor.
And it won’t just be women marching down Fifth Avenue or racing for a cure in cities around the world. Husbands, sons and brothers will don the pink, give their time, raise money and hold their loved ones’ hands in a collective “rage against the dying of the light.”
I am one of those men. My mother has metastatic breast cancer. My stepmother has had breast cancer twice. My high-school best friend who is more sister than friend had a radical mastectomy in her ‘40s. My other friend has had fought breast and ovarian cancer for decades. I am sad to say I know more statistics about Tamoxifen, IBRANCE, neuropathy and stereotactic radiation than I know about NBA stats.
But here is one stat most men and women with their pink ribbons don’t know… while an estimated 286,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be in diagnosed for U.S. women in 2019, during the same period, 174,650 U.S. men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer over their lifetimes while one in nine men will receive a prostate cancer diagnosis. In 2019 alone, over 41,000 U.S. women and 31,000 U.S. men will die.
But for men with prostate cancer and for those who have survived, there often are limited corporate outreach programs or major ad campaigns. No ribbons to wear on our chests … or down below. We will march, run and race, but not for ourselves.
I am a prostate cancer survivor. I was diagnosed six years ago, at the age of 52 after a totally unplanned PSA test showed a score well above normal ranges. After another PSA, I was sent to a urologist for a biopsy. While I would never attempt to compare my experience to my wife’s stirrups-and-speculum gynecological exams, it was painful, humiliating and bloody. Less than two weeks later, without even a curt hello or the shutting of the office door, it was announced I had a Gleason score of seven. I had prostate cancer.
It has been suggested to me (with research indicating a positive correlation) that the same genetic blueprint that resulted in my mother’s breast cancer may have manifest as prostate cancer in me. BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are often high for people of Eastern European Ashkenazi heritages. So along with potential heart disease and a high propensity to enjoy chopped liver made with chicken fat, prostate cancer likely was my fate.
But as I soon found out after receiving my diagnosis, a thirst for knowledge and kinship was limited, at best. No Susan G. Komen or Avon Foundation for Women to turn to or click on. A weekend soccer tournament turned up no t-shirts promoting a cure for what ailed me. To be blunt, there were no pink balls for my balls. “Pink out” left me out of the game.
While there were noted figures such as Joe Torre and General Norman Schwarzkopf who openly talked about their cancer, it wasn’t until two years after I put my “blue balls” on the proverbial digital table that I found someone in his ‘50s like me, Ben Stiller, telling his story. And it is only in writing this story that I found out about Movember. For the past six years, I have felt lost in a wilderness where if you fell, no one would hear you.
I know there are men like me who have received the news but know little beyond the diagnosis. In the past month alone, two close friends have confided in me that they have prostate cancer. Like me, these middle-aged men must now make difficult decisions about radical prostatectomies vs. radiation, active surveillance vs. unconscious denial.
And what do I tell them? Do I go into details about incontinence that lasts for years or that Cialis will cost them as much as their kid’s summer camp? Am I honest about the fact I lament not producing sperm or that you must calendar urinal time? Breast cancer survivors share their stories from podcasts to prime time. Prostate cancer survivors – millions of them from Ivory Coast to coastal California – often ponder penial purgatory in silence.
Olivia Newton-John says, “Men need to be aware of the health of their bodies, as well – prostate cancer and breast cancer are almost on the same level. It’s fascinating to me that the correlation between the two is almost the same – people don’t talk about it so much, but they are almost equal in numbers.” With prostate cancer being the second leading cause of death after lung cancer, and the most common form of cancer for men after skin cancer, maybe it is time for men to stop the covert chatter and start real conversations about the facts and fiction regarding prostate cancer. Maybe instead of a ribbon, we can start with sharing the fabric of our collective experiences. Over a beer, on the field or in the virtual world we inhabit.
This October, when you physically, politically and personally stand up and for the women in your life, and all the women who have died, survived and have yet to be diagnosed with breast cancer, stand up for yourself. Stand up for the 31,000+ men that will die this year from prostate cancer or the nearly 175,000 who have or will be diagnosed this year.
And when November comes, do more than forget to shave. Take the first step in our march to finding a cure.
as appearing in The Lily/Washington Post
As appearing in The Lily/The Washington Post
As I made my way to an aisle seat for my synagogue’s services, I noticed how my suit jacket hung so far from upper thigh. How I had to keep tugging at my belt to keep the pants from becoming low riders. Hmm, I thought, need to get this taken in.
My normal anxiety of whether my shirt and jacket were too tight, or that my pants would split if I dropped my prayer book and had to bend had dissipated. It’s amazing how losing pounds can add miles to your confidence, and hopefully life.
I took my seat, waiting for services to begin. Just then, I saw a man I knew from the gym. Our children had gone to high school as well as religious school together. He came over to say hello.
“Hi Brian, happy holidays.”
“Happy holidays to you. I guess there’s no gym for us today.”
“I know… tomorrow, after we eat a lot tonight. I must tell you. You look great. Really great.”
“Thanks. I’ve been dieting, and I try to work out at least five to six times every week. Just have to keep that portion control under control.”
“I can really see the difference. You’re doing an amazing job. Keep it up. See you at the gym tomorrow.”
My suit swelled with confidence, and my butt in my seat shrunk within the confines of the seat’s dimensions. I felt celestially high on these highest of holy days. All from my high-intensity workouts and low-carbs, high-protein diet.
As he turned away, I saw his wife marching toward me. The type of person who even as she talked to you was staring down the room for someone more congregationally desirable.
“Hey, you look amazing. Like a totally different person. It’s startling, the change. I hardly recognized you.”
“How much weight have you lost?”
I pondered the question. Not because I didn’t know but because I didn’t know if she really wanted to know.
“65 pounds,” I said with waist sucked in and chest puffed out.
She scanned me up and down like I was someone at Customs trying to hide a block of imported cheese under my belt.
“You have to be kidding. I would have guessed at least 150 pounds!”
I looked at her agape. Had I really been that fat? Had I been an impending episode on TLC? Was I one degree of separation from Dr. Oz?
Suddenly, I had a nightmarish vision of the rabbi stepping to the altar, grabbing the microphone, and like a bad, Borscht Belt stand-up comedian, calling out to the congregation…
“Brian was SOOOOOOOOO FAT…”
And then the response…
“How FAT was he?”
I returned quickly to my conversation, hoping to end it with as much dignity and deflated waistline as possible.
“No, just 65 pounds. I plan to lose even more over the next couple of months. I’m almost there.”
“Well, you look great,” as she worked the room with her eyes.
Phew… conversation over. Tie straightened. Pride in place.
“Hey, I also thought you were taller than you are. You’re much shorter than I remember.”
God, grant me the strength…. Better yet, pass me a string cheese and a kettle bell.
Hmm… 10pm… time for my midnight snack.
What to eat? Cold chicken? Leftover spaghetti? A quick index finger through the peanut butter?
“Or better yet… just a glass of water. You’re on a diet… at least, you were on a diet.”
This had better be a dream because my mother’s voice seems to be emanating from the refrigerator.
“Yes, it’s me. Don’t you recognize your own mother’s voice? Plus, it’s 10pm… I know where my child is… in front of the fridge overloading on carbs!”
This has to be a nightmare. My mother lives 1,500 miles away, not in my vegetable crisper. I must be hallucinating… what is friggin’ in Lipitor?
“Sweetheart, you’re not dreaming though I often daydream about how wonderful it would be if you visited more. But that’s guilt for another day. Tonight, I am your connected conscience!”
“My connected WHAT?”
“You’re the hi-tech marketer. I’m just a retiree hooked on edibles. But I did see a segment on The Today Show that said all appliances are now connected to the Internet. So, if I can’t be there in person to talk you down from that cake, I can at least mother you from the meat bin.”
“I know about the connected world, mom. Mobile ordering, yes. Mother’s voice ordering you to go to bed, no.”
(Or was this a new line from GE… Guilt Gear for the Wayward Child?)
“Would you rather talk to Siri or Alexa? They’re artificial intelligence, Brian. I am the real deal… and you should see the deal I got on bread at Publix today!”
“And by the way, tatala… I have an axe to grind but I will let the Vitamix talk for a while.”
“Yes, go talk to the Vitamix… it has something important to say.”
“Why did you skip the burpees this morning? It was supposed to be ten burpees after the 25 sit-ups. And you need to get your pulse up… no pun intended.”
“Who else would it be? Remember, three protein shakes tomorrow. Add extra whey.”
First, guilt shaming from the fridge and my now my personal trainer whipping me into shape. What was next… the electric can opener?
“Did you say can opener?”
Oh god, it was my therapist.
“Yes, Dr. Mendelson here. My job is to open your subconscious, exposing the tuna… I mean, your inability to rip away from your mother’s apron strings. Think of me as digital Freud.”
“What the hell is that discount store can opener talking about? I am a great mother. I made brisket on Tuesdays. I helped you make a diorama. Let me at that can opener!”
Holy moly… my refrigerated mother was about to rip apart Dr. Mendelson, the can opener.
“Everyone… I mean, everything calm down. All connected appliances unplug. I need to think.”
What was happening? I was in a virtual electronic minefield, taken cyber hostage by Viking.
I started to panic. What was awaiting me at the top of the stairs?
My nutritionist in the scale? (“Only two pounds this week?”)
My dentist in the electric toothbrush? (“You’re not flossing!”)
I stormed back into the kitchen, confronting the stainless steel with my steely glare.
“Okay… Time for some rules!”
“I will be here every night for a nosh. You have 15 minutes to cajole, criticize and kibbitz with me. There will be no intra-appliance feuding. Otherwise, I am hitting the circuit breakers and pulling the Wi-Fi plug.”
“Wah, Wah… tell it to the juicer!”
“Who’s they? I asked about Kat.”
This conversation with my eldest daughter was a millennial Abbott-and-Costello-routine gone bad. I was asking about “who” and instead was hearing about the whole infield: Who, What, I Don’t Know and I Don’t Care. I really was starting not to care myself.
“Why are you answering me in the plural when I am asking just about Kat.”
“I am answering you this way because that is how they refer to themselves now.”
The incandescent light bulb… I mean, the LED light bulb suddenly flashed above my head. I had entered a brave new world of gender identification. I quickly took a mental note to delve into Wikipedia the minute I got home.
“Dad, it’s hard to explain. I don’t always know the right words, myself. There are cisgender, genderfluid, z, agender… it’s hard to know how each person wants to identify.”
“And for you, it’s probably even harder especially when you’re coming at this from a place of white male privilege.”
“Whatcha talkin’ bout, Willis?”
(Note to self: It’s a potential comic minefield when you’re a 50+ suburban dad citing a young African-American catchphrase to a Gen Y or Z-er who most likely thinks Gary Coleman is a character from Avenue Q. Plus, my interpretation comes across more like Garry Shandling than the impish Arnold Jackson.)
As we drove in silence for the next ten to fifteen minutes, I started to experience my own proverbial seven stages of grief… not from the loss of life but about the undeniability of no longer being relevant or cool. So as we passed one exit after another, I began my mental journey toward acceptance of this anachronistic fate.
First stage: Shock.
The shock of using a Diff’rent Strokes reference to a person consumed with podcasts, NetFlix and YouTube. If anything, I should have been hip enough to quote The Office.
Next stage: Denial
Denial that I was being perceived as a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal or, even worse, a Fox News sycophant. Heck, I voted for Hillary… don’t I get gluten-free brownie points for that?
Third stage: Bargaining
If I stopped and got my daughter some Starbucks, my “woke,” liberal mojo would be back as quick as a barista could whip up a no-cal, extra-foam mochaccino.
Fourth stage: Guilt
Oy, I had a millennium or two of that to spare. Plus, I had admitted to actually watching Diff’rent Strokes back in the day. (Oy, again… the guilty pleasure of using the phrase “back in the day!”)
Good… just three steps left: anger, depression and acceptance.
Since I was too depressed about the first four stages, I decided to move straight to acceptance. Plus, according to my daughter, I had “white male privilege.” What did I have to be depressed or angry about?
But as I tried to navigate through that curve straight into acceptance, a sudden, unanticipated anger rose from the very soles of my overpriced loafers to the tippy top of graying hair. “White male privilege?” What the f*** was she smoking? (ingesting… vaping? I was still stuck in the bong and bongo age!)
I abruptly pulled off to the side of the road.
“I DO NOT have white male privilege… YOU DO!”
“I said, you are the one with white male privilege… the privilege of being an overindulged, suburban millennial with a latte in one hand and an iPhone in the other. All paid for by this middle-aged man driving you home from college”
My daughter looked at me aghast… well, I think she looked at me, in between her social media clicks and likes.
“That’s right… you have all the privilege and I have all the bills. While your donning your pussy hat and eating overpriced acai bowls, I’m precariously navigating a corporate ladder where low-cost, under 30 digital man-buns are trying to push me out. While you were traipsing across Italy last year on your junior year abroad, I was having a senior moment in the supermarket looking for buy one, get one free pasta! And while you’re waxing your eyebrows and getting highlights, the highlight of my week is a cortisone shot and a trip to Costco!”
I would not be stopped.
“Put down the phone and look at me! I am the first person in my family ever to go away to college… the first one to own a house… I lived on public assistance while you go to a private college with a vegan option. This 1960’s man with the alleged ‘privilege’ spends half his week taking out the trash and the other half dealing with corporate garbage. I got lifestyle creep up the yin-yang, and the creeping feeling I’m one step away from hip replacement.”
“And further more…”
I could have gone on for days, weeks, years, a decade or two. My middle-age rant spread like my stomach across my belt buckle. I was finally having my men-o-pausal moment, all hot and bothered with no way to cool down.
I paused to look at my daughter, staring at me with watery eyes.
“I’m… I’m so sorry, dad. You know how much I love you and appreciate everything you do for us. And… you’re right… I do have white male privilege. I just never thought of it that way. I am just as confused and scared as you.”
Seventh and final stage: Acceptance
Finally exhaling for the first time in a very long time, I pulled back onto the road and began the long journey home. To that one place where some things may need to be fixed, but nothing of real value is ever truly broken.
You know, sometimes acceptance comes when you least expect it, most often need it, and from someone far wiser and more “woke” than you. And that’s a privilege of fatherhood I fully embrace.
As we finished the last chorus of “Dayenu,” my wife leaned in, whispering ever so sweetly in my ear.
“Check the salmon. I’m ready to serve the soup.”
We had decided to grill salmon for this first night of Passover. First, it was healthier than brisket. Second, the motley group sitting at our dining room table had so many dietary rules, it would have been easier to herd a house full of Katz. We had vegetarians, lactose-intolerant pescatarians, no-carb dieters, gluten-free allergies, and a teenager who gagged at the sight of gefilte fish.
Third, salmon was only $7.99 at Costco… I mean, keeping Passover can cost a quasi-observant Jew an arm and a leg of lamb. And, as I had rationalized to my wife, didn’t the Hebrews fleeing Egypt grill in the Sinai? Maybe not salmon, but there was an open flame.
As I left the table, it occurred to me that Passover in the millennial age was not your grandmother’s Seder. Everyone today has an opinion about everything and anything. Forget tradition… guests would rather fiddle with their cellphones. All the non-stop mishegas and tsuris could make you plotz… or order Chinese take-out.
The 20-minute service was too long… the 10-minute service was too long… why all four questions? Forget the ten plagues… Locusts and wild beasts were quite preferable to ten impatient Jews whining about the prayer over the wine!
But I digress… back to the salmon.
As I walked onto the deck, I was greeted with a fire roaring out of control. Flames shooting into the sky.
I quickly realized I was face-to-face with my own burning bush. On this night, different from all other nights, I had become my very own proverbial Moses of the suburbs.
Damn! It was that salmon skin that had set the barbecue aflame. The last and most important of the four questions was now mine to answer… how do you grab the salmon and put out the flames before anyone finished their matzoh-ball soup?
As if from on high, the answer was clear… kosher salt! I mean, it was Passover, right?
With Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by my side, and my supersized box of Morton’s Kosher Salt in my right hand, I reached into the towering inferno and hoisted the Ten Commandments, I mean, the charred salmon onto the platter. The box of kosher salt – the whole box – doused the fire, sending plumes of smoke toward the heavens.
Through singed eyebrows and cloudy glasses, I looked at the salmon, its pink, medium-rare flesh shimmering through the blackened crust. It was cooked to perfection, worthy of any Iron Chef or Jewish mother. The angel of salmon cooked to death had passed over my house.
And in my relief that this night would be as I imagined it could be, it quickly became clear to me. I had dutifully followed the most sacred of all the commandments any Jew hosting Passover dinner could ever hope to live by:
Thou shalt not burn the main course. Man and pseudo-vegetarians cannot exist on chopped liver alone.
As I cleaned up from another teenage get-together, I scanned the room. Half-filled water bottles, crumpled napkins, smudges and sprinkles on everything, and everywhere. What’s a dad to do on a Friday night in the frosty suburbs?
On a perpetual diet of greens and protein shakes, I avoided the temptation of dragging my finger across a velvety cupcake or shoving a boatload of pretzel Goldfish into my mouth. I kept moving, piling the take-out boxes on the counter, ready for the mad dash to the trash cans and back.
But as I opened the trash cabinet, my eyes came face to face with my final hurdle before going to bed. A single slice of uneaten pizza calling me from a plate strategically balanced on the rim of the trash bin. I froze in place, balancing cardboard boxes in one hand and a primal desire to grab that slice with the other.
Suddenly, a voice from above… salvation.
“Can you turn the dishwasher on before you come up?”
“Sure. Just taking out the trash.”
“Great. And don’t eat before you come up. You’ve been so good.”
It was the food police, the woman with eyes that could see, hear and smell my intentions from up the stairs and across the house. The slight rustling of Reynold’s Wrap being surgically opened. The Tupperware whispery burp. The muted crunch of Ritz Crackers. The too-obvious garbled answers I gave as I gnawed on leftover steak. Wonder Woman had nothing on my wife.
As I began to say goodbye and good riddance to that midnight snack, my cholesterol-laden spine grew a backbone. Diet or no diet, I paid for that pizza. If I wanted it, I should have it. Wasn’t I the king of my castle, the man of the family, the big kahuna? Even if I got divorced right now, I was entitled to at least 50% of that slice. But how to chew without clues, crumbs or commotion…
But as I fixated on my prey with carb-deprived eyes, my legs and mind turned to jelly (which would be quite nice right now with peanut butter). I was caught between what was right in front of me and what was wrong for my middle-aged heart. And so the debate began… with the low-calorie angel food cake on one shoulder and the calorie-laden devil food cake on the other.
Angel: “It’s time… for you to take out the trash and go to bed. Tomorrow is another day… another day filled with heavenly burpees and lunges, squats and medicine balls. Almond milk by the ounce… Time for dreams of a 34” waist and fields of blueberries.”
Devil: “It’s time… time for that slice of pizza. Look at that crust… so crunchy. Celery doesn’t crunch like that… and you can always do a few more crunches in the gym tomorrow. Plus, your grandfather was Italian… pizza is in your genes. Forget how your blue jeans fit and grab that slice.”
Angel: “Don’t listen to that shmaltzy Neapolitan long song of pasta days gone by. Think of the Armani suit waiting for you once you lose your weight. Think GQ, not DQ. Free yourself from the fire-roasted plum tomatoes of Hell.”
Devil: “Tomatoes… hmmm, how about potatoes… mashed, fried, baked? Aren’t you tired of cloudy protein shakes and promises of inches gone by? Live for the present… and what a slice of heaven this pizza would bring to your salivary glands. Pizza today, pizza tomorrow, pizza forever!”
It seemed the rich chocolate, frosted devilish cake on my shoulder was winning. I reached over, my hands inches from the now-cold slice of heaven.
Angel: “I leave you with one final thought… it’s suburban Connecticut pizza, not Original Ray’s or Original, Original Rays, or Original, Original, Original Rays! At least get in the car… we can be in Manhattan in less than an hour!”
A bolt of immediate weight lightening hit me like a ton of brick-oven pizzas. The angel food cake was right, even if it had appealed to my most basic food instincts… a bad tasting meal is not worth an extra pound of flesh. Any true food aficionado knows that much!
I took a deep breath with tied-up garbage bags and pizza boxes in hand. And I remembered… when dieting, one can easily be caught between the Devil Dog and the Deep Blue Sea Salt Tortilla Chips.
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