Monday, December 30, 2013

Forgiving Germany

Maybe it started when I chose to take German in the 7th grade. French or Spanish hadn’t seemed like languages that would roll off my tongue. Yet German did.  Back then, we learned the old written text and “high German.”  It seemed to plug into my sensibility. Later I came to think something about German grammatical orderliness tied into my being.

My family was Jewish, but my parents didn't participate in Jewish culture or religion. It was almost as if they went out of their way to avoid it. My father was an avowed atheist. His mother once informed me that there could be no God if there was a Hitler. We were Americans – we celebrated Christmas - that was all I really knew and religion wast part of our life.
When I first learned about Nazi Germany, maybe around age 8 or 9, I remember being frightened. We were in the middle of the cold war . What would I do if the same thing happened in the U.S.?   Why would I have to die for being "Jewish" when it meant nothing to me? 

By the time I headed off to college, that first pang of fear had grown to how could Nazi Germany have happened. How could that go on in a civilized society?  I majored in twentieth century European history to find out.  After lots of reading, the only thing that really struck me was that those who lived near the death camps and said they didn't know, were lying. Apparently it's impossible to deny the smell of burning flesh.  But I never sated my need to understand how people could do that - how so many people could sit by and watch that happen. Words like "genocide" weren't in my vocabulary then.

My Daughter and I in Dresden
Fast forward from the 1970s - until two years ago, when my daughter moved to Berlin for a job.  I really didn't want to go to Germany but I wanted to see her and there was also the gnawing hope that I could finally get a chance to speak my high school German.

When I first visited Germany last Spring, I found I could barely leave my daughter's apartment. I had glimpses or memories of what had occurred. The phrase “blood running in the streets,” ran constantly though my mind. My internal mental imagery was haunting. I found myself hating and angry, and frightened.

At any use of the word Jew, even in a street sign, or countless placards or exhibits, I felt I was being served up insufficient versions of history or apologies.  The bigger picture of Nazi aggression and oppression - beyond Jewish people - it didn't even make it onto my emotional grid during that visit. 

Walter Rathenau

Instead, I memorialized a quote by German Industrialist Walter Rathenau, which was posted in the Jewish Museum.  It resonated with me, because I had had similar experiences in my own life. Mr. Rathenau had served in an elite military regiment  in 1890 and became an influential person in German social and political life, until he was gunned down by Jew haters in the early 1920s. His quote:

In the youth of every German Jew there is a painful moment he will remember all of his life; the moment when he becomes fully aware that he was born into the world as a second class citizen and that no amount of virtue or public service can lift him out of that condition.”

When my daughter initially announced she was moving to Berlin, I gave a hesitant endorsement. In response, she told me harshly that this was my “baggage.”  Had she learned nothing about the world in high school? It boggled my mind that she could describe what happened in Germany as “my baggage?”  I thought her ignorance stunning. 

My first trip to Germany was memorable because my daughter and I shared some wonderful adventures, including a lovely day bike riding in Potsdam.  And I saw she was happy at work and in her life. But I didn’t plan to return. 
Schloss Charlottenburg Weinachtmarkt

But she remains in Berlin, which she loves, save for the city's mostly gloomy skies. And I find myself here again, now at Christmas time. On this visit – amid Weinachtmarkts and winter cold, I find myself warming up. I take more risks speaking the language, interacting with people and letting Germany in.

Schloss Charlottenburg

This trip, I see things differently despite myself.

As we drive from Berlin to Dresden, my daughter kindly reprimands me: "So many in your generation won’t give Germany a chance. Why can’t you just see that not everyone and everything here   is bad?  Not everyone here now can feel personally responsible forever for what happened in Nazi Germany!”

The Elbe Between Alt and Neu Dresden
With her words, I search for words and my resistance gradually ebbs. I shift in my seat and look out the window at the green rolling hills punctuated by windmills.  It is very peaceful.

I let my thoughts subside and feel myself breathe differently with this new thought.  My daughter is right. I have been so stuck in my cement thinking that everything is ugly about Germany. But it is not.

Weihnachtmarkt in Dresden

As we drive into Dresden I see the scars of Russian occupation and the war. The Elbe and the remnants of a grander culture remain beautiful.  How much Hitler’s lunacy and a misguided nation has cost this land. What an awful legacy this new generation has inherited.  For the first time I feel compassion for Germany and for Germans. This is a new experience.

I know from personal experience how challenging it can be to make a dent in how people think or what goes on in the world. How would I answer for a nation's history? Many things in my own country boggle my mind. And yet we all keep moving and time indeed marches on. 
The entry- Schloss Charlottenburg

By making Germany her home, my daughter has given me a great gift. I see I have to expand my capacity to forgive and move on. Realizing this in a foreign land and speaking a foreign language I love has made this lesson quite special. Who would have thought that I learned German all those years ago for this beneficence now?

My daughter is planning to make Berlin her home for some time to come - despite the often gray skies that plague Berlin.  She attributes the state of affairs to a micro-weather system that shrouds Berlin.  
I do hope it loosens its grip  and sunshine streams in soon. Maybe it's not God's punishment after all.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Paving Paradise…..for a Soccer Field?

Field Before Hurricane Sandy
The first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy has just come and gone. The wide open field next to our condo suffered. Over twenty 100 year old trees came down. They flanked the field where I walked my dog each morning and in an instant the field was naked, exposed, without them.  I had secretly named them “sentries” because they ringed an open field – as if guarding it from the wild brush and wetlands that lay beyond.

Over the past year, my dog and I got used to the increased eastern morning light that was left in the wake of Sandy. We adapted to the increased noise from the nearby heavily trafficked road.  The debris was cleared and new brush and grassy knolls remained.
In The Wake of Sandy

At least until a week ago.  Then the surveyors and landscapers began walking the field, and taking measurements. I saw some trees and evergreens and felt excited that there would be replanted. Instead,  two days ago, several majestic oaks and maples and pines which had survived Sandy, met their next predator. The Village of Briarcliff Manor which deemed a new soccer field more important than several mighty old trees who’d survived Sandy. They were felled in an afternoon – to make way for a “level field” for soccer.

Gone is the serenity of a natural state, replaced by some village planner’s idea of natural landscape. A “level” field ringed by shrubs and manicured plantings, instead of natural brush and gentle slopes and knolls.  Gone too is my cat Cody who happened to wander out that day and must’ve encountered the earth moving and the upheaval of it all.  I could only think of Eddie Murphy as Dr. Doolittle – trying to save the habitat for all the animals who once called the trees and forest and brush their home. Only this is no movie; this is my neighborhood.

The Latest Carnage
In my youth Joni Mitchell sang of paving  paradise to put up a parking lot. She was ahead of her time. Only now it is more than parking lots that are assaulting our lives. We have plenty of soccer fields, school fields and organized athletics. How much natural land remains for us to traverse and feel at peace and at one with the earth?

I miss my morning sentries –and with this latest assault, I feel the pain of the land that we continue to distort for ends that I don't see as "improvements." To me, it only moves us further from nature, spirit and grace of God.  And I'm not particularly religious.

With this latest upheaval I am determined to move away soon. I don’t want to live in a community where an administrative edict to serve a few, trumps Mother Nature. I miss the land as it was and I miss my cat who could no longer navigate the landscape he’d known for 5 years. 

Some things we can’t help – like Hurricane Sandy. But some things we can.  Moving our kids into ever constant sports, afterschool activities , celebrity acquisitive money grubbing culture – well to me it makes no sense.  When I was a kid – we just played in the yard and it was lots of fun. Not everything had to be organized, cultivated or manicured.

When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Long Term Care Planning: Lessons from my Dad

Medicare is health insurance for individuals age 65 and over who are entitled to Social Security retirement benefits (or have received Social Security disability benefits for two years.) When Medicare was enacted in 1965, the thinking was that working people would “pay in” during their earning years, so that illness in their later years wouldn’t eat up their life savings. 

And yet now, almost 50 years after its enactment, Medicare is not the panacea many had hoped. Why not?

Because Medicare doesn’t cover long term care which is what you need with Alzheimer's or Dementia. Medicare only provides coverage for acute care and skilled care.  According to “America’s Long Term Care Crisis,” in July’s Trusts & Estates Magazine,  13% of the population is now over age 65, and 1.8% of these  folks (5.7 million) are over 85. More than half of those over 85 need assistance with daily living and assistance is expensive

With home care cost now running $55,000-$75,000/year, and care in a nursing home costing up to $180,000/year, how does the unaffordability of long term care play out in human terms?

My Dad: A Case Study

My Dad worked for one company for 45 years. Between his pension, social security and lifetime medical coverage (lucky guy!) he could afford a simple life on about $40,000/year. But by his 85th birthday, after a series of fender benders and stairway falls,  Parkinson’s and Dementia  got the better of him.  My siblings and I forced him to surrender his car and figured we’d move him to an apartment with an aide in his neighborhood.

But my Dad vetoed the new ground floor apartments, mostly because he couldn’t handle the change and new floor plans.  This is a very big deal with Dementia. Without a car, and with increasing phone calls to bring him food, we took him to my home until we could formulate Plan B.

For two weeks, as I explored renting a house with him, getting an aide and senior living, my 20 year old daughter babysat him.  He had difficulty navigating our home and at night he plopped into whatever bed he happened upon. The full reality of his illness hit us and we now knew first hand how tough basic living had become for him.

 Within a few weeks, we felt “lucky” to have him safely ensconced in a senior living facility, for about $6,000/month. Since the layout was the same as his former apartment,  he got the hang of it quickly. In his lucid moments, he was enraged that his new digs were about a third the size and 4x the cost. He cursed me and thought me a lunatic to have agreed to such a thing. Mercifully, logical discussions about these subjects became less frequent as his disease progressed.

But even at this juncture,  the economic reality of my Dad’s situation proved quite sobering for his children. None of the four of us had had one employer for more than 10 years, let alone 40. Already in our 50s, our lives reflected the times we live in: several jobs, job losses, periods of unemployment; retirement benefits and IRAs cobbled together between mortgages and kids’ college education.  What would await us when we need long term care?

After about a year in “senior living,” my Dad took a fall and was given the “do not return” card from the facility.  Fortunately, because he was in the hospital for at least three days, and admitted to a rehab-nursing home with skilled care within 30 days after that, he was covered by Medicare in full, for the first 20 days, and then was required to pay a daily co-pay of $148/day for days 21 through 100. After Day 100, there is no coverage unless another illness crops up.  After 100 days in skilled care, then what?

Long Term Care Isn’t Covered by Medicare

Folks like my Dad who lived long enough to be debilitated by Dementia and Parkinson’s require care, but not the “skilled” care needed to secure Medicare coverage.   The rules regarding how much is covered for home care benefits etc., is limited, because the definition of medical necessity is limited.  So what happens next? 

In my Dad’s case, he couldn’t tend to his daily needs because he couldn’t walk, bathe himself or go to the bathroom on his own. He didn’t so much require “medical” or “skilled” care, but rather “custodial” care. And that’s not covered by Medicare.
Out of options, we felt fortunate to have found a clean safe nursing home where the monthly bill climbed to $12,000/month instead of the $6,000/month in senior living. 
By that point we had begun the 18 month process of securing Veterans’ Benefits for him (he was a WWII veteran), which were later paid retroactively from the date of application. With these new funds, we managed to negotiate a more affordable rate with the nursing home. His monthly income was too low to afford the place, but rendered him ineligible for Medicaid. A real tough "Catch 22."

It really made us wonder who has $12,000/month to pay for care! And we’re not talking about Ritz-Carlton care here. We’re talking about a nursing home where residents are in various states of dementia, disability and ability to care for themselves.   In this difficult environment, the care, health and well-being of the residents essentially depends on the caring kindness of very low paid workers.

Neither Medicare nor the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 covers care for long term chronic care. With Alzheimer’s, dementia and similar ailments on the rise for seniors, the promise of Medicare is a false one.  When a person runs out of money and needs care, not covered by Medicare, your next “failsafe” is Medicaid. Medicaid is another federal system, run at the state level, with rules, regulations, and hurdles. It is another subject for another day.

My Personal Long Term Care Plan

 After experiencing the process of watching my father move out of his home and move into the “system,” it became quite clear that unless I had a big lottery winning, there’s likely no way I’ll be able to afford long term care.

An apt analogy is college costs: When I was younger, college cost $5000 a year at a top school. Forty years later it costs $60,000/year.  If nursing homes cost $180,000/year now – there is no hope for me – even if I don’t need that “greener pasture” for another 20 years.

My Long Term Care Plan
 Instead I came up with my own plan. 

I'm holding onto a small ranch house in Florida with three bedrooms and two baths, all on one level, close to the beach and where handicapped accessibility is commonplace.  There will be enough room for me, an aide and a visiting child. And the sunshine will feel good, no matter my mental capacity. 

And with a little luck, my mortgage will be paid off and it will cost far less than $180,000/year.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Spiritual Lawyer's Advice

I think Perry Mason had more to do with my being a lawyer than anyone else. And watching Law & Order for the past ten or so years made me feel better about being one. But after 30 years of practice, I know for sure that truth and justice are not necessarily the American way.

The American way is more about getting one over on the other side and finding loopholes to pervert the intention of the law. While justice is something we all yearn for, in reality, it's expensive and hard to come by.

I gave a talk recently to business owners about the Top 5 Legal Tips  they should know.  I planned to talk about business formations and reading contracts before you sign them. And I did touch on that.

But I began to think more deeply about it and my advice boiled down to one piece of wisdom:
 Avoid contact with the legal system as best you can.

As a lawyer, part of the system and part of the problem, it's clear to me that  Justice  - with a capital "J" - is not only hard to get , but it will take longer and cost more than you think. So be prepared!

I've observed it's often better to step back and see what's really going on in connection with "the other side." In a partnership split, does one owner really covet the other's pretty wife and smart kids? When one sibling sues another about shares of a parent's estate, is it really about who was loved more, or whose life turned out better?

If you can come up with a spiritual resolution, you can save yourself a lot of legal fees. Maybe you just are jealous of your sibling or your partner. Whatever it is, work it out with a therapist before you sign a retainer agreement.

And if you do find yourself needing a lawyer, remember:
  • If you're at the point of a lawsuit, the lawyers may be the biggest winners.
  • If you're in a lawsuit, the winner is often the one who has the most money to spend.
  • There is no such thing as a non-litigious area of the law. Even house closings have "the other side."
  • Try not to sign something you haven't read. The fine print is written by lawyers and it can and will be used against you if a dispute arises.
  • Don't be afraid to negotiate to get a better deal or remove language that can come back and bite you later.
  • Trust your own gut reaction. If you don't want to annihilate the other side, maybe you shouldn't.
And who knows - if life is a mirror, and what is around us reflects us, maybe it makes sense to behave decently and you'll be treated decently in return.

If you need a lawyer, invest the time to find someone you like, who is competent and compassionate. Then if legal troubles cross your path, you'll have a trusted ally and advocate.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

JORDAN ALMONDS - Are They From Jordan?

That’s not what this story’s about – so here’s the answer. No they are not. Here’s a little history if you need a digression.

When my brother and I met up in Florida for the first time in about a year – to celebrate our fifty something birthdays – we  had our birthday dinner, and then we stepped outside into an upscale outdoor Florida mall – and happened upon an outdoor acoustic show, an ice scream store and something called  It'Sugar.

 Yes there is such a place and it carries exactly what you’d expect. Only unlike the mall candy stores I’d seen in the past – this place was supersized – and it carried fewer items – but seemingly picked by Martha Stewart because the colors in the various displays were so coordinated – with such abundance and sleek plastic looking  sugar coatings - that you couldn't help but approach.
And when my brother and I made our way around the plastic looking candy, walking quickly past the gummi bears, and tennis ball size jaw breakers, we both suddenly stopped at jumbo sized pastel colored Jordan Almonds. 
“I’ve  always loved them” we both said at the same time.

He immediately grabbed a bag and we surrendered to the type of indulgence one only confesses to family members or former college roommates who know the true you. We purchased some…..or I should say, my brother purchased some. A quarter of a pound to be exact.
I was witnessing a frugal Taurus, in action. I called him on it.
“Shouldn’t we get more?” I asked truly puzzled at the paltry 18 or so almonds in the clear plastic bag.
“But Sue “ he practically whined” they’re $6.99 pound. “

To me, being the overly indulgent Aries, abundance is key and this was falling far short. I piped up: “Who cares, they’re here and so are we. Do you think we won’t want more?”
He was certain we had enough and I didn’t want to look like the overindulgent person I am, so I said nothing further.

By the time we returned to the beach house, and mellowed into some 123 Boggle and mind-numbing tv favorites (e.g., Law and Order) and delicious laughs from “Modern Family” – the Jordan Almonds were gone.
Not only were they gone, by the next day – we started to make only slightly out of the way Jordan Almond runs.   CVS – which seems to be on every corner in Florida – didn’t carry them.

My brother, surprised me with abundant knowledge about food stocking - here was a family resource I was glad to tap into.... He accurately reported:”“Nah, no one carries this – CVS is paid to only carry the big brands – a one off item like this isn’t going to be here.”  Could he be right, I wondered. Surely at Easter we could find them everywhere.
But he was right. See for yourself:

                                                            NO JORDAN ALMONDS AT CVS
I was bewildered but as I perused the shelves –there was no doubt about it. There were no Jordan Almonds.  And that was true everywhere else we looked too.

Where are they from? Jordan?

Turns out we finally found them in the nut section of Publix – miracle of miracle and then had enough to sustain us for the next several days, as well as the car ride back to New York.
 Who would have thought this little Florida foray would have uncovered such a long held secret – hidden from a family member with the same DNA and same secret craving for these sugar coated delights.

I know that by the time my brother returned to California, he had given up the search for these lusty almonds. But me, well this was one familial common denominator – that once reactivated – was hard to suppress or repress.

Just as we had in Florida, I began searching for them. After all, it was the week before Easter so they should have been standly proudly beside the Little Peeps and the ever precious and wonderful Cadbury Eggs (the secret treat that Amanda and I share) – but no – the Jordan Almonds were nowhere to be found.

Not at the A & P amid the nut shelves, not in the off-major-brand drug store Value Drug – nor other places where I thought they may be – places not like CVS  which are nationwide and shut out minor brands….I learned CVS essentially only carries M&M products. I was searching for these precious nuts – not just for myself – but for my beloved brother too. He’d left some stuff behind and I wanted to surprise him by returning not only his random possessions – but also by enclosing some Jordan Almonds.

And then lo and behold – just when I had given up – there they were. Tucked on the bottom of the dried fruit and nut section of a local neighborhood gourmet store. Three little containers – incredibly overpriced (yes Richard – a lot more than the $6.99/lb) and I scooped them up – all three. (No Jessie, I didn’t leave any just in case some other desperate soul came in looking – sorry!)
                                                         HERE THEY ARE ON THE KITCHEN TABLE
So at long last I was ready to send off the little memento to my brother. But what do you think happened next?
I’d ask you to turn this upside down to read the answer, but I’m sure you don’t need to turn your monitors on end – nor do I know how to type upside down….

[Secret Answer: There is only one Jordan Almond tub remaining. I hope to send it to my brother soon– but I can’t swear to it.]
Happy Spring and Here's To Abundant Jordan Almonds - adding a sweetness to all of our lives.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Having Wrinkles in a High Def World

When Bruce Springstein took the stage at the 2012 Grammy Awards Show, he looked pretty much the same as he had 30 years ago when I saw him at Madison Square Garden. Born to Run and hot to trot. Clearly a little nip and tuck had been at play, but it was so nice to see him so energetic and seemingly still in his prime. Only he and God know whether his knees or hips were in extreme pain for the next few days.
Paul McCartney, whose big brown eyes and boyish face graced my walls for years when I was a teenager, looked not so much old as sad and tired. And no amount of flat dull matte brown hair color could change that impression. I was surprised the Hollywood hairdressers hadn’t done right by him, but even his music seemed to be missing some spark.

But none of it prepared me for the Beach Boys – the cute surfer dudes of my youth whose on screen close-ups were alarming. With their faces weathered and swollen from booze drugs and age, I barely listened to the music. Gone were the thoughts of their glorious musical genius and the happiness it brought.  There were no “good vibrations” on my end. My eyes were fixed on what they had become visually. Note to self, get to a plastic surgeon ASAP. Maybe Joan Rivers was right.
A few nights after the grammies aired, I saw a special about Lucille Ball and she looked wonderful, even as an older woman without surgery. Yes, there are wrinkles and all the rest of it, but she still had the sparkle she possessed as a young woman. Her eyes were bright and she brought a smile to my face and she was already over 60.

Many of the TV icons of my formative years were older people! Who didn’t want Marcus Welby as their doctor or Bonanza’s Lorne Greene, as their dad (or now as their lover!), or Donna Reed as their mother? Was it my perspective or was it ok to be older then?

The advent of high def for celebrities must be what "talkies" were for silent film stars.  When voice was added, those without good ones were axed.  Now that humans are to appear without wrinkles or signs of aging - what will happen?  Will today's hollywood moguls stop making movies or tv shows with anyone over 45? We would've never seen the Golden Girls!

After turning 40 as my eyesight started losing ground,I often thought maybe it’s a good thing. After all, before my glasses are on, I look pretty good in the mirror. 
As I insert my contacts lenses, and I come into clear focus, my own high def horror begins.
Lord put some make-up on that face – where did all those age spots and wrinkles come from? Maybe older people will just keep their hi def tvs a little out of focus to avoid seeing too much!

As an aging boomer, caught between twenty something children, and eighty something parents, fortunately I get another "reality" based perspective. My parents are residents in senior living places and through them I meet plenty of older people who never experience nip and tuck and look wonderful. It’s not all about wrinkles and face-lifts. Being able to laugh and smile is worth a lot more than a face without lines.

A human face sparkles if life shines within.

As these folks share their stories, I get the triumphs and the ups and downs that they  have experienced - that have molded them into who they are. I'm not focused on what a plastic surgeon might have fixed. Then again in the new high def world order, maybe that's how we're all evaluated?
Whatever....Making it through life’s ups and downs is achievement enough – fewer wrinkles or a slack chin don't matter so much at 80, any more than the indelible stretch marks that come with bearing children.

Even as I ponder the likelihood of me and plastic surgery, aging has brought me some special gifts. For starters, I've never felt as self-possessed and free to be who I am. It's been quite liberating to feel self-acceptance. Unlike many of my peers who want to turn the clock back, I have no desire to be 20 or 30 or even 40 again – even if I would be wrinkle free. Sure when I watch tennis players on TV I wish I could play as well, or at all for that matter.  But since I don't inhabit the high def screen, I can sit comfortably in the audience, with my glasses on, ogling the icons who stay forever young.