Our trip from Washington, DC into Sea Island, Georgia, in the midst of a May 2012 tropical storm seems now like an omen for the turmoil ahead. I had been looking forward to having a week with my husband, John, son, Daniel, and daughter, Nicole—a rare week when we could all be together, given that my children were in their twenties and away at school most of the year.
During the two-hour drive from the airport, I focused on the road ahead. My knuckles turned white trying to keep our rental car from blowing across traffic and off the Causeway into the water below.
We arrived safely and didn’t mind those first couple days of forced confinement. We read and assembled a near-impossible 1,000-piece “Paris by Night” puzzle on the living room coffee table, tropical rains pounding the roof, wind whistling through the fireplace. It was fine. We were cozy in our familial solitude. Cocooned in our house, our daily rhythms resumed, despite the past year apart. It was when the weather broke, oddly enough, that my tranquility did as well. The turmoil inside of me about our daughter’s upcoming departure for a semester abroad in the Middle East began to swirl.
After Nicole’s freshman year of college, she decided to forgo her five-year study of Mandarin and switch to Arabic, much to her dad’s chagrin. He felt certain that knowledge of Chinese would provide countless future job opportunities, but having taken a number of courses about the Middle East, she had become intrigued by its culture and history. She decided she wanted to spend her junior semester abroad in an Arabic-speaking country to further her language skills. As parents, we wanted to be supportive of her, whatever her pursuits, and we felt that, as a young adult, these decisions should be largely hers to make.
I wondered whether growing up in Washington contributed to her inquisitiveness about other cultures. Nicole has often commented on how she enjoys living in DC, listening to the mix of languages spoken on the Metro and in the streets, seeing the amount of racial and ethnic diversity. She also learned to appreciate different cultures and languages early in life: First, when we lived in Belgium for three years and also through the many trips we’ve taken with our children around the globe. But she had never experienced the Middle East, except in books and lectures.
She and I had many conversations her sophomore year about her study-abroad options. When she was back in Chevy Chase for fall break, I looked over her shoulder as she clicked on her laptop from one study-abroad program to the next. There was no disagreement that Egypt and Tunisia were out of contention. After the Arab Spring uprisings, things were too unsettled there. Morocco and Jordan seemed the most reasonable alternatives. Her research about different programs, the language dialects, and the political climate led her to her decision. “Jordan will be the best place, Mom. The Moroccan dialect is too different from the standard Arabic I’m learning.”
That seemed reasonable, and we felt somewhat comforted because Jordan has traditionally had good relations with the US. Even though Jordan has seen its own protests since the Arab Spring, it’s been a seeming oasis of calm surrounded by Israel and Gaza to the East, Syria to the North, and Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the West and South. Nicole had considered studying in the university town of Irbid, but its proximity to the Syrian border and the conflict there caused great concern for me. Ultimately, she chose Amman, Jordan’s capital. But our overall concern—allowing her to go anywhere in the region—hung over us like a cloud.
On the Wednesday morning of our beach vacation, when the sun finally burned through the clouds, we began our daily bike rides beneath the canopies of huge oak trees laden with Spanish moss. In the afternoon we lay on the beach, each of us immersed in the book of the day. I was engrossed in Reading Lolita in Tehran. As if I weren’t disturbed enough thinking about Nicole leaving for the Middle East, my anxiety heightened as I read about the treatment of women in Iran.
By Wednesday night, Nicole, too, became anxious about her much-anticipated fall semester abroad, but for a different reason. She hadn’t booked her flight to Amman yet, and she was getting emails inquiring when she would arrive. She did an Internet search for flights but quickly became flummoxed with all the connections, layovers, early AM arrivals, and varying prices.
We sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch, her laptop balanced on her thighs, and sifted through the myriad options, none very palatable. I didn’t want her to arrive in Amman at 2:00 AM, when no one from the program would be available to pick her up. I didn’t want her to spend seven hours alone at night in a foreign airport, waiting for a connection. I heard the panic rise in her voice and felt my heart palpitate, our nerves feeding off each other, jumping from one shoulder to the next and back again. It wasn’t just the flight. It was the four months to follow.
We finally found an acceptable flight and booked it. Despite my fears, I knew it was right to let her go. We have to let our children go, regardless of how much we love them—we let them go because we love them. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.
I tried to minimize my negative thoughts. She’ll be fine. It’s not like she’s going into a war zone, for God’s sake. She’s going to Jordan. She’ll be fine. But somehow, I just couldn’t quiet that opposing voice or forget the knitted brows of friends whom I’d told of her plans. Will she be safe? Will she be treated well? I had known this day was coming since the previous October, but now that the plane ticket had been purchased, the trip became real, and all my fears about her safety in that part of the world resurfaced.
I tried to tamp down my heart, so we could enjoy the rest of this vacation together. Nicole and I took a ten-mile bike ride to see the remains of a 1700’s fort and town. As we pedaled slowly back toward the house, exhausted from the heat, we decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant in a small shopping center. After parking our bikes near an outdoor table, we slumped into our chairs and gulped down the ice water the waitress poured. Looking around at the shops, Nicole commented, “We need to shop when we get back to DC. I don’t have clothes appropriate for Jordan.” True enough—skinny, tight-fitting jeans, shorts, and sleeveless blouses would not do.
“I’ll need some large scarves to cover my head.”
“Cover your blonde hair, so you don’t stand out so much.”
We discussed the two-page list of protocols from the study-abroad office. It said: “Jordan does not have decency laws or official dress codes. However, there are clear social norms regarding appropriate dress that students are expected to follow Women must avoid shorts, skirts above mid-calf, spaghetti straps, low-cut tops, sleeveless tops, bare midriffs, and any clothing that reveals upper arms, décolletage.” She would be dressing according to cultural norms, not the desert heat.
Along with proper dress, proper decorum was stressed. “Jordan is a traditional Arab and Moslem society with deeply ingrained social norms. However, because Jordan has a deceptively ‘western’ veneer, students can easily get fooled into thinking certain modes of dress or personal conduct are acceptable when they are actually Haram, forbidden or shameful.” My throat tightened.
Biking over the bridge back to Sea Island, I was on edge. The sidewalk was narrow, and the traffic was moving quickly just a few feet from us. I was worried about Nicole, recalling an infamous bike ride about ten years earlier, when I’d warned her about a tree coming up in the middle of the path and, so focused on its location, she slammed smack into it. This time, she was the confident one—I felt shaky and tired, anxious to peddle those last couple of miles home. Halfway across the bridge, I ran into the metal guard rail, bruising my leg. I decided to walk my bike the rest of the way across, lacking the confidence to ride any further. She stayed with me, concerned.
A few days later, back home in Chevy Chase, I purchased trip insurance for her flight—just in case. I envisioned some incident causing the entire region to explode. I could only hope that, if something like that were to happen, it wouldn’t be while she was there.
I knew the summer was going to whiz by. She was working at an office in the District, but we caught moments together when we could. We searched for clothing she’d wear for four months and then, perhaps, never again: long skirts; long-sleeved, loose-fitting, opaque blouses; headscarves. At night, we sat together, legs curled on the couch in our family room, eating Snyder’s sourdough pretzels and hummus, watching the news and mindless TV shows. Nothing special, but it was.
On June 18, 2012, we watched news reports about the Muslim Brotherhood having won the election in Egypt. A reporter from Cairo expressed his concern that the entire Middle East might erupt. I sat upright in my chair: I hated hearing these stories.
Nicole wondered aloud about the election choices in Egypt. I thought of Lara Logan, the pretty, blonde CBS reporter who was brutally attacked in Tahrir Square while covering an Arab Spring uprising there. I reached over and stroked Nicole’s waist-long blonde hair. It had always been her hallmark but soon, I feared, it would be the thing that would mark her. I gently kissed her on the cheek. She smiled.
A few weeks before her departure, on a Sunday afternoon, we were floating together in our backyard pool trying to escape the Washington heat and humidity. We faced each other, arms draped across a shared raft, legs dangling in the cool, blue water, the smell of suntan lotion permeating the air. We chatted about her boyfriend and the upcoming visit by her Vassar College friends. Then the discussion turned to more serious topics: the conflicts in Syria and Egypt and her safety in Jordan. The air became even heavier; my chest tightened.
“Get out of the area if you ever see a large crowd forming,” I warned. “Let’s think of a secret code to use if you find yourself in a bad situation. You can call or text it to me. Remember we did that when you were in high school?”
“Ok, Mom,” she laughed. “But you won’t be able to drive to Amman and pick me up. Seriously, don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I promise I won’t do anything stupid, like walk near the Syrian border.”
Then, she reached over to my face and with her pinky finger, gently lifted a fallen eyelash off my cheek. Holding it before my lips, she said, “Make a wish, Mom.” I hesitated for a second, trying to precisely formulate the wish I wanted, trying to encapsulate all my concerns for her and wish them away in one fell swoop. Then I blew as hard as I could.
The next morning, as soon as I got out of bed, I checked the weather on my iPhone. It was a habit: Everyday, I checked the weather in Washington and, during the school year, in Poughkeepsie and New York City, where Nicole and Daniel lived. That day, after seeing the local weather, I hit the plus sign to add another location. I needed to navigate through my internal storm and focus on the road ahead—the one Nicole would travel alone. I typed in A-M-M-A-N and added it to my list. It was 97 degrees there.
As I looked more closely at the screen, there appeared to be a tiny crack. It was an eyelash. I gently picked it up on my pinky finger and blew, making my wish once again, and watched it float away.
Desirée Magney is a lawyer for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project. She is married with two adult children, and she lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“No, mom, I’m not going to straddle the printer or anything,” I said, trying to explain to my technophobe mother the concept of ordering, but not receiving, sperm from an online bank. She didn’t get it. “You order it by selecting a donor online, but they ship the actual sperm to your doctor’s office,” I added. In this discussion ten-plus years ago, I told her, “It’s not like you get an AOL audio announcement, ‘You’ve got Sperm!’ and there it is ”
Still, it was a hard concept for my mother to grasp. It was hard enough for her to get that I was with Lisa to begin with, let alone how she would be getting her grandkids. I had known she’d have a hard time when I first came out to her. Lisa was, after all—in order of importance—not Jewish, not a doctor, and not a man.
Maybe my mom didn’t really get the gay thing because I didn’t I fully get it either. My coming out was not a torturous struggle to be true to myself, nor was it a gleaming moment of epiphany and pride. I had grown up in a liberal household, in an era where gay couples were visible. I had gay friends and friends with gay parents. In the zeitgeist of a crunchy granola high school and college, I conceptualized a fluctuating sexuality continuum, as did I life, mental-health, and sense-of-self-worth continua, which everyone moved on a bit during their lives. I dated men and women.
In my late 20s, though, a long-term relationship and possible marriage and children meant I’d reached a declarative moment. It meant announcing to the world that I was gay by virtue of my family—which meant that I would be a juggler of pronouns and others’ comfort levels, would never be in the mainstream, and would be without universal rights.
I cried. And cried. And cried a lot. Then I floated back to a place of higher self worth on my likert scale and became generally ok with it. The world would just have to deal. Now, in my 40s, I’m comfortable in my own undefined skin.
Oddly, I was worried that I wasn’t “gay enough.” Lisa used to ask me if strangers knew she was gay. “They’re not visually impaired,” I’d answer. She is, in a traditional sense, butchy, dykey, and well, lesbian-looking, if there is such a thing. I am not butchy. And I’m not chic enough to be a lipstick lesbian. I’m more the imperfect, middle-aged, Jewish, big-curly-haired, funky-earrings-wearing, messy, tired-mom, heavier-than-I-want-to-be-looking lesbian. Which requires a bit more explanation after heterosexual-by-default assumptions.
Without a declarative uniform, I find myself having to decide whether or not to announce my sexuality when people make assumptions that I am with a man. If I correct people, they sometimes apologize for their heterosexist assumption. Or they give me the awkward so-you-like-vaginas smile. They don’t get that that’s not it. Instead of explaining that I think of my body as a vessel for a deeper self, where sexuality and life are fluid and that, yes, I love Lisa, but I don’t define myself by that, I just smile, as if to say, yup, I like vaginas. But not yours. Really. You can sit next to me.
My mom got over the gay thing once she realized she might still get grandkids. She supported us in our long struggle with fertility and was pleased as punch when I finally gave birth to two beautiful girls.
When my oldest child was two, we were in the bathroom of a community center, when a random girl tapped me: “That little girl called you mommy and that other lady mama. Which one’s her mom?”
I responded with the ease and a grace of a stumbling hippopotamus. “Um, well, she, see ” The girl’s mother quickly interrupted, “Like your friend Ashley and your other friend Brianna she has two moms.” And I realized I could do the two-mom thing.
Laws are now catching up with progressive attitudes. The recent defeat of DOMA and the expansion of gay rights and gay marriage throughout the country are marvelous. Really. I have benefited a great deal from all the progress. I can be who I am and reap the legal benefits of true marriage in all senses of the word. But in everyday life, I still choose to be closeted. A lot. Not because I’m ashamed of who I am, but because I don’t wish to make folks uncomfortable. This is especially because, as of late, I’ve been hanging out with an octogenarian crowd.
“Ya married, dear?” Gladys* asks me as she sips her coffee, her mauve lipstick imprinted on a slightly cracked “Myrtle Beach” mug with a palm tree. We’re making a plan to help her sister stay in her home and out of a nursing home as long as possible. Gladys is 82 and her sister, Gloria*, is 87. Gladys lives in a different city, but she came to town to help, and she is staying with Gloria at her house. The sisters look strikingly similar, except for the fact that Gladys dies her hair red and Gloria’s face looks much more weathered. They have similar mannerisms, and both are chronic coffee drinkers with deep belly laughs that include snorts in variable intervals. They’ve both been retired for about 20 years—Gladys from the government and Gloria from being a magazine editor. Each was widowed twice. Gladys is sharp as a tack and Gloria, well Gloria is not so sharp. A pretty typical Adult Protective Services (APS) case, she was found confused and wandering in the street at 3 AM wearing only a pair of pants and one slipper. She hadn’t taken her medication in days, her place smelled like urine, and her fridge was empty. I was assigned as her APS social worker by Montgomery County.
“Yup, I’m married,” I answer Gladys, not mentioning that, according to federal law, I have only been married for a few hours. That DOMA was struck down that day, and my marriage to Lisa in Canada in 2004 is only now legally valid. I don’t mention that my whole financial and tax picture will change and that my young children won’t remember a time when we weren’t legally married.
“Well don’t get old and outlive your husband; its no fun,” she says. “I’ve done it twice.” All I can think is that if, God forbid, Lisa does die, now I could theoretically get her social security and vice-versa. I tilt my head and give Gladys my best “that must have been hard” look and touch her shoulder.
All afternoon, Gladys and I have been discussing such intimate matters as trying to obtain a urine sample from her sister to help the doctor determine if she has a urinary tract infection—a common cause of temporary delirium in older folks that can mimic dementia. I had also helped her clean her sister’s set of false teeth and get her sister into an adult diaper from the spare pack I had in my car. But there was no way I’d even hint to Gladys that I was married to a woman. There is intimacy, and then there is respectful professionalism—I’d only make her uncomfortable, and not correcting her does not diminish who I am. Maybe I don’t give Gladys enough credit for being okay with me being gay, but really, today is not about me, it’s about Gloria.
“Your husband is one lucky man,” Gladys goes on. “You’re such sweet gal to be helping me with Gloria.” I smile and think that I’m the lucky one to have this kind of job.
My wife says that “we” wouldn’t have gotten where we are today in gay rights if people stayed closeted at all—people have to be challenged in their homophobia or they will never change. They have to realize that their friends, neighbors, or daughters could be gay and would still be the same people they’ve known and loved, in order for their attitudes to change. And she’s right. I know. Unlike Lisa, though, I choose not to be out in every situation because, frankly, it’s easier. I am thankful I have that choice, though being closeted in some situations but not in others definitely takes a toll.
One recent Saturday evening, after a long day spreading our radical gay agenda by getting milk from Safeway and carting kids to play dates, we are all on an impromptu trip to Baskin-Robbins. I smile as I look at my sweet girls’ mint-chocolate-chip laden faces. I look at Lisa, and I think of all we have gone through to become a family. I want to hold her hand, but I know I can’t. Not here, not now. Not worth ruining the moment with strange glances from onlookers. I hold my little girls’ hands instead.
Liat Katz is a clinical social worker for Montgomery County Adult Protective Services. She lives in an estrogen-filled home with her wife, two daughters, and two female cats in Rockville. She is the author of an (as yet) unpublished memoir, Creatively Maladjusted: Essays of a Broken Life.
*The clients from Ms. Katz’s work have had details of their identities changed to protect their confidentiality.
Driving. That was one of the things I most dreaded when I married Liz and moved down to DC from Baltimore two years ago. I have my own issues with road rage, so I wasn’t looking forward to this region’s renowned traffic. I never imagined, though, that I would have to contend with DC’s other distinctions: A gold medal from an Allstate Insurance report about the nation’s worst drivers and a bronze from Travel and Leisure magazine for rudest city. Put them together, I’ve learned, and you’ve got a daily mash of macadam mania and animus that smacks of apocalypse now.
For two years, I have been negotiating Derby Dystopia, as I’ve come to think of local roadways, and up until now, it has only intensified my venom. But I should thank DC drivers. The motorists who are 112.1% more likely to get into an accident than the average American have unwittingly helped me do something I never thought possible—curb my own road rage.
When I first moved to the area, I was concerned that I might get myself or my family seriously injured on the road. At the very least, I worried that our toddler son, Macallah, might mimic the steady stream of invective spewed from behind the wheel. My road rage was just that bad. Even when Liz drove, I could barely contain myself; once I had to sit on my hands when the urge to push down Liz’s gas-pedal leg nearly overwhelmed me. A driver had suddenly appeared in the vanishing lane on Colesville Road and bullied her way into the merging lane, where we had been waiting—no blinker, no wave of thanks—nearly grazing our car. “Try visualization to calm yourself,” Liz said, ever evolved. I followed her advice, sort of: I visualized our headlights. Retrofitted with howitzers.
A psychologist once suggested that the road rage I've embraced since my 20s stems from taking other drivers’ misdirected aggression too personally. “It’s not about you,” she said. She was right. Mostly. This became clearer one morning when I was driving my 10-year-old stepdaughter, Aliya, to school in Northeast DC. She was learning about cultural conflict in school, and we were discussing the reasons behind King Philip’s War—a colonial conflict that occurred when Metacomet, sachem of the Massachusetts Wampanoags, lashed out against the Pilgrims’ land-grabbing descendants in an uprising that was doomed from the start. A woman in a Lexus swung from behind us on Sargent Road and passed us in the next lane over, the one intended for oncoming traffic. “See that?!” I screamed. “That’s a perfect example of what we’re talking about!” I sped up to catch the Lexus and saw it turn at the next traffic light. At the intersection, I struggled to open my window in time and from a slim crack yelled, “You—you Pilgrim!”
This was the source of my road rage: I was Metacomet. I didn’t care about personal trespasses. I cared about the larger, tribal ones. As I saw it, my rage bloomed into spear-waving stewardship. I needed to prevent these poachers, who believed that their private-property rights extended to the highway, from encroaching on the dwindling sanity and safety of our roads. It was the good fight, and it didn’t matter that mine was an ill-fated stand from the start. (The irony wasn’t lost on me. I knew full well that my vigilantism aped the corrosive antics of the very people I sought to rein in.)
For a long time, my Metacomet moments only deepened my resolve. Until recently. I was driving Macallah to his daycare provider’s home near Forest Glen, heading south on Georgia Avenue during morning rush hour. I signaled to turn left near the Woodside Deli and was met with a rash of blaring horns behind me. (I didn’t know that I couldn’t turn left from Georgia Avenue during rush hour.) I cleared my throat—something I do when I’m pressed for quick answers. Mistaking this for a cough, which warrants benediction in his two-year-old world, Macallah chirped “Blessh ouuu!"
The next thing I knew, a Ford SUV screeched up alongside us. It came to a stop, in the oncoming traffic lane, blocking my turn. I saw that it wasn’t a cop but another motorist, a balding, beefy guy with a beard. “Here we go,” I hissed, steeling myself. He screamed at me from behind his closed window, hands gesticulating violently. I rolled down my window, preparing for a clear verbal shot across my bow, and cleared my throat again. “Blessh ouuu!” Macallah chirped.
That was when a woman in a minivan appeared. Her van approached Beefy Guy head on and came to a stop—directly in front of his car. She, too, signaled to make a left-hand turn, essentially boxing him in. (The farcical skit was now complete.) Beefy Guy turned his rant toward the woman in the minivan, honking his horn, screaming and flailing about like some B-list silent-movie actor. At one point, he stopped ranting and looked my way, still from behind his closed window. In his window I saw our reflections: Superimposed over his flushed, seething face was my own face, stoic and serene.
Talk about a jarring moment.
For some reason I still don’t understand, I asked him a question, politely no less. “Am I not supposed to turn left here?” From behind his window, he continued to rant. Then he sped off. Apparently, the woman in the minivan had finally made her turn.
I made my turn, too, and heard Macallah sneeze through the bleating horns in our wake. “Blessh ouuu,” I said, relieved that this time my mimicry came from inside the car, rather than from outside of it.
When not taking to the warpath on local roads, Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University, works on a collection of essays, and shamelessly moons over his two-year-old son. He, his wife, and their family live in Layhill.
Rosemary High School Band, Andrews, South Carolina: the humble beginning of my musical journey. I would discover quickly that my real musical interest was in classical works. I could listen endlessly to the background music in many of my favorite television shows.
When I was an undergraduate, I enrolled in a music-appreciation class, where I learned the rudiments of the classical art, including definitions of words I had often heard such as concerto, sonata, and movement. I found myself fascinated by the backgrounds of many of the great composers and by the various interpretations of their compositions. Even more interesting were the class assignments that required me to listen to a composition, dissect it, and attempt to interpret it, summarizing my best guesses as to what the composer was thinking as he wrote. But the thing that really galvanized my interest in classical music was having to attend concerts and write reports about both the music and the orchestra. Since then, I have maintained an interest not just in the music, but also the performance.
After I began working in Washington, I decided to rescue my trumpet from its silent hiding place and begin playing again. With a level of enthusiasm I hadn't felt in ages, I enrolled at the Levine School of Music and later the Washington Conservatory of Music. I hoped to improve my understanding of music theory as well my playing techniques and skills. I began taking private lessons, and I now play in my Church’s instrumental ensemble, which affords opportunities for group performances.
Each of those endeavors has helped improve my level of proficiency and musicianship. However, nothing has come close to my experiences over the last two years as a participant in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) Academy for amateur and semi-professional musicians.
My goal is to become an accomplished, sought-after trumpet player. I love music; I want an audience to get as much enjoyment from listening to me play as I get out of playing.
The BSO Academy provides an intensive one-week musical workshop, including master classes, teaching, coaching, and classical performances. The week culminates with a finale concert, including pieces by some of the most preeminent composers ever. During the practices and performances, I have gotten to sit and play side-by-side with some of the world’s best musicians.
The experience has been a dream come true, but I can honestly say that the Academy and the BSO itself have far exceeded my expectations. I am a much better musician and performer now than I was leading up to my time with the BSO, and this experience has been a huge step as I work toward growing into the musician of my dreams.
Who would have imagined that a lawyer's musical journey, begun in a high school band in a little South Carolina town, would include a seat on the Meyerhoff stage playing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra?
Henry Green, a graduate of Howard University's School of Law, works in the district as a health lawyer. He lives in Maryland.
As a psychotherapist, I encounter many people who have everything they think they're looking for but no peace of mind. Their lives look exactly as they feel they should, yet they're unhappy. Some have all the things that money can buy, but they aren’t content—they can’t shake the overwhelming sense that something is missing.
According to Dr. Tibor Agoston, people experience feelings of emptiness in two different ways, often described as inner and outer. Inner emptiness is a void felt in the organs or occupying the mind. Outer emptiness is more concrete: financial or material shortcomings would qualify.
Often, my patients have searched for quick ways to fill the void but found only temporary relief. They've tried to quiet their internal noise from the outside, shopping excessively, overeating, overworking, and the like. For some, it can even become addictive—drugs, alcohol, sex, plastic surgery. Some turn to hoarding or collecting to fill their emptiness; like squirrels with their nuts, they take comfort in the idea of protecting themselves against running out of supplies. Others have found comfort in geographical cures, literally running away from their pain. Unfortunately, each of these approaches can only provide a superficial sense of fullness. The emptiness always comes back.
Feelings of emptiness aren't always straightforward, though. I've seen couples struggle to get pregnant and create a family, only to feel trapped rather than fulfilled when they finally do. They're confused by the paradox of getting what they want and then feeling ambivalent about it. The same type of thing can happen in the workplace: Patients obtain promotions they have longed for only to realize that they still feel unfulfilled. We think that big life changes will fix our feelings of emptiness, but divorcing, changing careers, moving, or having children will only bring temporary relief if we don't address the roots of our emptiness through understanding.
That's much easier said than done, particularly in today's world. Everywhere I go, I see people on their phones. It's so commonplace that I'm no longer surprised to see everyone focused on little hand-held devices in places once reserved for relaxation, quiet, or socializing. Restaurants are filled with people playing with phones instead of interacting with each other. Out at dinner with friends, I've almost stopped feeling surprised when I get pushed aside for a text or phone call that they claim just can't wait—though it certainly still feels dismissive. Instead of being emotionally with the people who surround us, we're all conversing electronically with people who aren't there.
Trying to understand this behavior is important. Perhaps it shows us how much trouble we have being alone or really connecting with other people, since so many of us find it easier and even more appealing to connect electronically across vast distances. I suspect that these devices manage our intimacy—no app can substitute for true connectedness, but if true connectedness makes us uncomfortable, perhaps that's why we turn to technology.
Smartphones are wonderful distractions that help us avoid sitting quietly, actually feeling the emptiness inside us. Today, most people jump in the car and get on the phone immediately in lieu of sitting quietly with their thoughts while driving. Being a psychotherapist, I know better than to do this, and yet I, too, find myself looking for distractions from the quiet of my time in the car. The silence of being alone with feelings and thoughts can be uncomfortable even for me.
The fact that our world never requires us to wait and be patient—after all, we can have anything we want with the click of a button—makes us even more anxious when potential quiet times present themselves. And rather than try to embrace them, we fill them up.
Recently, I went to see a movie, only to find myself bombarded by advertisements for other movies. Even at theaters, it seems, there's no space to settle into the experience for which we've come. Similarly, lulls in action at sporting events are so filled with entertainment, either live or displayed on big screens, that when the game resumes, there's almost less going on than during the breaks.
If we look at our own schedules, we'll find that we overstimulate ourselves this same way. None of us are just sitting and thinking in the few minutes between meetings—we're always trying to fit something else in. In my practice, I see parents who over-schedule their children and themselves this way. They leave no room for reflection on their thoughts and feelings, as that would open their minds up to intrusive thoughts or even loneliness. And on the rare occasion that these people would like some time alone, it's impossible to find—every space is overcrowded and every day too busy. So what do we do?
First, it's time to look inside for answers.
People often define their value by what they have and how they believe they appear to the outside world, and there is a great deal of societal pressure to do so. But this type of attitude prompts us to attribute our problems to our circumstances. If I had a better job, a better relationship, a better body, or a bigger house, we think, happiness would follow naturally. This kind of thinking comes from not understanding the real causes of our unhappiness. And if we don't address the actual roots of our feelings, we have no hope of changing them. We need to realize that much of our behavior comes from the unconscious realm of our mind, and only once we make sense of the unconscious and connect it to our conscious mind can we grow.
There are many ways of understanding feelings of emptiness, but two important factors seem to me like the most regular contributors. The first is a lack of connectedness. With modern technology offering a constant flow of opportunities to connect, we expect closeness to be more easily experienced, but I think that our contant use of technology to build and maintain relationships actually removes the intimacy of simply bonding with other people. Technology does not provide an opportunity to truly be seen, heard, or even held. It affords us opportunities to connect more frequently, but these connections are superficial, and they leave us feeling emptier.
Second and more complicated is a phenomenon referred to in my profession as repetition compulsion—the unconscious desire to repeat history in an effort to correct what went wrong the first time, hoping for a different. If we think of our lives as plays, we might think of this compulsion as the need to come up with better endings. People who have grown up in neglectful families, for example, often feel they were never heard or understood by their parents. When they have kids of their own, they might give them constant attention in order to make the kids feel valued, but ironically, this can create the outcome they are trying to avoid. In hovering, they can make their kids feel suffocated or controlled—still neither heard nor understood.
Fully grasping these quandaries can be difficult alone. And that's where psychotherapy can offer relief.
In my practice I see all the time how much more satisfied people feel once they're heard and understood. I get asked constantly what psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are, and I'm always disappointed to know how few people have a grasp on what mental health feels like and how psychotherapy and psychoanalysis can help.
A psychotherapist/psychoanalyst help patients to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the ways they contribute to their own unhappiness. When patients understand what causes their emptiness, they become better equipped to avoid behaviors that contributes to it.
Though psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are often thought of in cartoonish ways—the therapist falling asleep in her chair as the patient blathers on from the couch—studies have concluded that people who have had psychoanalytic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis maintain their progress over many years. This is because they develop the capacity to understand themselves better and to analyze new difficulties as they arise.
In my experience, true peace of mind and contentment come from connectedness and understanding oneself. I believe in the power of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis firmly enough to have dedicated my life to it, but even those who don't could really benefit from remembering to stay engaged in their own lives—to really connect with friend and reflect on experiences—and from putting their phones away.
Lisa Teitel Schlesinger has practiced psychotherapy in the area for 16 years and is currently in private practice in Rockville. She lives in Montgomery County.
“Do you think this is crazy?” I ask my husband.
“Why? Do you think it’s crazy?” he asks in return.
I throw a pillow at him and resume my morning ritual: getting dressed in the dark.
Swimsuit first, then sweatpants and fleece. The early mornings are challenging.
I'm a member of a Masters swim team—that is, one for adults only. Three times a week, we're up at the crack of dawn, swimming at least two miles before most people get out of bed.
The practices vary: Some days aren't too bad, while others consist of long sets of intervals. The hardest part for me is always the beginning, that first plunge into the cold water. It takes six laps or so before I settle into a rhythmic pace. I'm always so cold. My husband kids me about being a reptile—I could spend all my time on a hot rock in continuous sunshine—so why do I torture myself this way?
It may be the sense of accomplishment. On the tough days, I project ahead: I will be happier when I have completed my swim. On days when I don't go to practice—which is very rare—I am cranky and sorry to have missed the workout.
Or it may be the camaraderie. There are about twenty-five of us (men and women) ranging in age from early twenties to mid-seventies. We're like a family, spending time together in and out of the water three to five times a week. Most of us swim for fitness, though a fearless few are triathletes and open-water swimmers, and still others simply enjoy the social aspect. Working out with a group is fun. We talk and laugh, sometimes too much, and offer advice about everything from home repairs to meddling in-laws.
And a lot of us compete. At our meets, the relays are the most fun—we cheer each other on and act a bit like children, with team catchphrases and pep talks.
To non-swimmers, this can seem absurd—a bunch of grown-ups meeting once a month to race each other? Why? After all, nobody's vying for a contract with Speedo or a spot on a Division 1 college team. Our faces will never adorn cereal boxes. The Olympics are totally out of the question.
But the Olympics aren't the only sporting event worth attending. Masters swimming has its own schedule of international meets and its own record books, and athletes—previous Olympians and otherwise—take the competition seriously and break records each year. A few of my teammates have been to National and World Championships and say it's a sight to behold. Watching anyone over forty sprint effortlessly through the water in mere seconds is astounding.
And even for those of us not traveling the world, athletic competition is good. We're always racing the clock and savoring small rivalries. But we're adults, and we're gracious in victory and defeat. We cheer for the 95-year old woman swimming a 200-yard butterfly and we applaud the newest team member competing in his first race.
We're in this together, continuing to move our limbs as the water resists our every stroke. And as we weather life’s personal and professional challenges, my teammates and I gather in the pool, leaving the outside world behind and focusing on the task at hand. And our hearts and minds thank us.
Kristina Tatusko Henry is a writer who's contributed to Washingtonian Magazine, The Washington Post, and Maryland Life, in addition to penning four children's picture books. She lives in Easton, Maryland with her husband Mike.
The earliest colonists of this country longed to discover a navigable passageway from the Atlantic to the West. Though they never found such a Northwest Passage, the importance of establishing reliable and economical transportation to the heartland of what was then a primitive wilderness was never forgotten.
As the colonies formed a united group of states and sought to enhance their cohesiveness and solidarity, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was born. The canal would unite the country, they imagined, by reducing the time required for an east-west journey from weeks to a few days, and it would allow much larger loads of cargo to be transported at once, as merchants switched from wagons to boats.
Back in 1748, Virginia's Lord Fairfax had ordered a survey of all of his holdings in the western sector of the colony. A member of his surveying team was George Washington, then 16. It was the first of Washington’s many trips up the Potomac and westward, and it kindled his interest in the area and in the potential of the Potomac Valley to strengthen the stability of his fledgling nation.
After the Revolutionary War, Washington returned to Mount Vernon intending to retire from public service. But he owned multiple properties across the Appalachian mountains and believed the Potomac to be the best route to the Ohio river and the West, so when Thomas Jefferson asked him to be president of the Potomac Company, he agreed. He would work to establish a trans-Appalachian waterway.
In 1823, a committee of representatives from mid-Atlantic states met in Leesburg, Virginia and approved the concept of the canal. This decision provided the venture with strong political backing and access to funding from federal, state, and private sources. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company would be chartered in a measure signed by President James Monroe on his last day in office—March 3rd, 1825—and ground breaking would occur three years later, on the Fourth of July.
In 1829, work was begun on the Great Falls Tavern, which was to serve as both a lock-keeper’s house and a hotel. It was described at the time as: “A large hotel. The north addition was of three floors. On the first floor was a bar-room on the canal side, and a larger ballroom behind it. The second floor was divided into a number of individual and dormitory rooms, and the third floor houses a honeymoon suite. The south wing served as a quarters for the family of the lock-keeper. The first floor was used as a parlor while the second floor served as sleeping quarters.”
On August 7, 1829, the president of the C&O company nominated William Roberts to be the first lock-keeper at Great Falls. His tenure was remarkably brief by 19th-century standards. Local entrepreneur William Fenlon, who ran a packet boat ferrying passengers from Georgetown to Great Falls, wrote to the Company in November 1830 (sic): “ Your hous at the Grait falls if I coad connect it with the Packet Boat it would make more Room and Board. I could dine one hundred in the house at a time. If you make the same arrangements with me as your propose to make with Mr. Roberts I will keep your house in Stile.” In response, Fenlon was hired to replace Roberts on November 20, 1830.
In June 1831, US topographical engineers John J. Abert and James Kearney visited the Tavern and sent the following report back to the C&O Company: “At this lock we found an excellent hotel, kept by Mr. Fenlon. The house is built upon the ground of the Company, and with the Company’s funds, and it is a necessary, and great accommodation to those who visit this interesting work.”
Thirty years later, the Civil War began to bring trouble to the canal and its tavern. On October 4, 1861, the Montgomery County Sentinel reported: “A gentleman who was at the Great Falls, on Monday morning on business, informs us that a Confederate force, whilst passing up the Potomac on the other side, fired a number of shells across the river, the first of which passed through the Tavern at Crommelin, in which he was at the time. The second shell struck the lock-gate, near the house, killing four Federal troops, who were sitting on it. The troops scattered and ran all about the neighborhood. The officer in command ordered them to their guns, but they could not well get to them on account of the firing. Not a gun was fired from this side. We learn that eleven of the Federals were killed And this is the truth aboutthat battle.”
During the war, Union troops charged with defending the nation’s capital, were encamped near the tavern. The 71st Pennsylvania infantry regiment was bivouacked on this site, and as a Private named McCleary washed his mess kit in a stream adjacent to the tavern, he discovered gold.
After the war, in 1867, McCleary organized a group to buy the land at Great Falls where he had “struck pay dirt.” His company drilled a 100-foot-deep shaft and initially recovered seven ounces of gold. His shaft continued to be mined intermittently until 1951, but it never became a commercial success, and it was ultimately sold. Small specimens of gold are occasionally found in the area today, and the remnants of the original shaft remain visible a short distance from the tavern.
Through the war years and beyond, lock keepers at the tavern played a critical role in canal operations. They worked from “dawn to dawn” to lock-through approaching canal boats. They listened for boatman’s horns and cries of "HEY-Y-Y, Lock!" at all hours of the day and night. The actual locking-through of a boat meant consecutively opening, closing, and re-opening lock-gates, all the while using ropes to “snub” the boat, to prevent it from colliding with the gates. To make sure nothing went awry, lock keepers were required to man their locks at all times—they could only leave with the permission of a superior. And in their free time, they were responsible for maintaining the canal grounds. They even had to remove trees and dead animals that could impede navigation from the water.
In return, they made $150 per year, plus free housing at the tavern and permission to plant a garden on the premises. Given the job description, it's not surprising that alcoholism was common among lock-men!
The lock keepers weren't the only ones working long hours under less-than-splendid conditions. Transiting boatmen and their wives and children also lived tough, dangerous lives—in 12 x 12-foot boat cabins. They slept on hay mattresses and cooked over coal-burning stoves. They made 25 trips a year from Cumberland to Georgetown and back and made $25 per trip. A journey from Cumberland to Georgetown that now takes just over two hours by car took seven days (18 hours each) by boat. And since drownings among boatmen and their families were endemic, small children spent much of that time chained in place.
All of this hard work paid off for a while—the canal began to turn a profit after the war, and in the 1870s, there were as many as 100 boats a day locked-through at the tavern. But as the railroad system began to really flourish in the 1880s, revenues at the canal declined. In 1889, nature provided the final nail in the canal's coffin—a devastating flood in the Potomac Valley inflicted serious damage to its resources, and it never fully recovered. Some operations were maintained into the 1920s, and though the federal government acquired the canal in 1938, it wasn't truly saved until President Nixon designated it a National Historic Park on January 8, 1971.
Now, the storied tavern at Great Falls is a museum, from which visitors can take short mule-drawn boat rides through the locks or walk or bike along the tow path. And though the canal is sometimes called America’s loveliest failure, I think of it and the Great Falls Tavern as stirring examples of the vision, enterprise, and energy that seems to have always guided our country.
Dr. John F. Potter is a 1949 graduate of Georgetown Medical School and a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. He is a former National Cancer Institue researcher and Georgetown Medical School surgery professor, who founded the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1970. Now retired, he lives in Potomac with his wife, Tanya.
Did you know that nearly 50-million Americans have some sort of hearing loss? I'm one of them—I was born deaf in my left ear from genetic nonsyndromic senorineural hearing loss.
Hearing loss is actually the country's most common birth defect. In fact, two to three of every 1,000 children born in the United States are deaf or hard-of-hearing. And ninety percent of those kids have parents who can hear, like me. I wasn't fully diagnosed until I was a teen.
Perhaps even more interesting, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) says that only 20% of the staggering number of people who could benefit from hearing aids are actually using them. Hearing research and technology have made huge leaps and bounds since I was a child, and the 40-million people not taking advantage of them are missing an opportunity to hear much better.
So in honor of Better Hearing and Speech Month—which continues through the end of May—here are eight reasons to get a hearing check now:
1. You've probably noticed a hearing problem already but done nothing about it. Don't worry, you're not alone. People generally wait seven to ten years between the time that they notice a hearing problem and the time they actually make an appointment with an audiologist or ENT.
2. Even if you've had regular physicals and appear to be in good health, you could have a hearing issue. Only 16% of physicians routinely screen for hearing loss.* Since a hearing exam is not a standard part of most examinations, you typically have to make a separate appointment—and you may not have known to do so since many general practitioners don't suggest it.
3. If you are a recent veteran, chances are your hearing was damaged during your service. 60% of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan come home with hearing loss and/or tinnitus.
4. Hearing loss can cause learning delays, and your child might be among the 20% of preschoolers to fail a hearing screening*, but the earlier the problem is caught, the better.
5. Hearing loss can lead to depression and social isolation—it can affect nearly every aspect of your life. Treating hearing loss can help people re-engage with their communities and even be able to stay more involved with their families.
6. A recent study out of Johns Hopkins showed that people with mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia—a likelihood that increases with the severity of the hearing loss. Researchers are still searching for reasons for this correlation, but one hypothesis is that the isolation and depression caused by untreated hearing loss may contribute to cognitive decline. It's possible that, by treating hearing loss, we may be able to stave off dementia.
7. One in five teenagers now has a hearing loss. The supposition is that this is caused by toxic levels of noise from mp3 players. While parents have for years been encourage their teens to turn the music down (listening at maximum volume for more than 15 minutes a day can cause a permanent hearing loss!), it's also important to ask if they're having trouble hearing and get their hearing checked.
8. If you pledge to get your hearing checked, you can help the Hearing Health Foundation raise money. For each online pledge up to 10,000, healthyhearing.com will donate a dollar to the Hearing Health Foundation to help fund hearing research. And a bonus: the Foundation will help you find local audiologist and otolaryngologist and provide information about what questions you should be asking when you visit.
Elizabeth Thorp is a family travel expert and writer. She is the founder of Poshbrood, a curated catalog of mom-tested, upscale, family-friendly vacation properties. She has been navigating public affairs and communications in Washington for 20 years. Elizabeth lives in Bethesda with her husband, Almus, and three young daughters Isabelle, Lucy, and Penelope.
*Statistic provided by Center for Hearing and Communication, from data collected in New York City.
"How do you spell ensemble?" Sonya asks. Though this weekend phone call isn't exactly like run of the mille—they don't usually start off with spelling quizzes—it's not completely atypical either. I'm sure God blessed with me with a big sister for several reasons, but the most important of them seems to be that He knew she would keep me on my toes.
1,325 miles separate me from Sonya, but I can always count on her to drive me crazy somehow. Why would she expect me to know how to spell anything? Does she not remember my grades in school? Her baby brother, she seems to have forgotten, depends heavily on Microsoft Word’s spell-check when he writes. The sweat pours over my face from my crown to my chin. Adrenaline flows through my veins. Breathe. Some wordsmith you are, I think.
It turns out Sonya's five-year-old daughter is preparing to model the latest fashion at a church event, and Sonya has embraced this as a learning opportunity—my niece doesn't know what an ensemble is, but soon she will.
If only I can spell it.
I feel like Atlas with the world on my shoulder, until I'm finally able to provide the correct spelling and definition from memory, and relief sets in.
But why all the stress over a silly word? Why, when rejection letters mount, and I stare down a slew of documents covered in track changes, do I subject myself to the aggravation of caring so deeply about language?
I think it's because I've resolved to find my way through life using writing. As a guy who gets punchy proofreading PowerPoint presentations, it feels like the natural way to plod forward.
I can't sing, dance, or act. Sometimes, I become tongue-tied during staff meetings. I didn't inherit my mother’s sharp sense, my sister’s discipline, or my father’s rugged athleticism. Put my in a sporting event, and I turn into Charlie Brown—trying his best to kick the football over and over but always ending up on his back. What I do have is a vivid imagination and a library of fond memories that revolve around reading.
In the last few years, I have realized the value of learning through literature. From Cicero to Shakespeare, I find that carefully chosen words can spark the intellect and illuminate the imagination. Books can take readers to entirely new worlds. They can spark curiosity—in my case, a curiosity that, when coupled with hard work, led to internships and ultimately a job in Washington.
I spend my work life reading reports and sorting through data and interacting with policymakers, pundits, and wonks. And the longer I'm here, the more certain I am that regardless of politics or economics, our country will always need individuals who can write well and think critically. So perhaps I'm lucky that my curiosity, my desire to be a reader and a writer—the same things that make Sonya count on me for spelling help on the spot—compel me to stress over selecting just the right word every time.
The challenge may seem unnecessary, but ironically, I wouldn't have it any other way. And as I've embraced the blogosphere as a means of storytelling recently, I've realized that the gratification that comes from choosing words so carefully isn't just internal. The interaction I get there from other writers and bloggers is heartfelt. There's something inspirational about strangers being willing to provide feedback and encouragement regarding such a personal craft. It becomes somehow collaborative and doubly rewarding.
And the world of words does not care about ethnicity, income, or gender. Writing only asks for originality, and in return, it provides the opportunity to persuade, entertain, and inform. We all yearn for something greater, and for me, there is no greater freedom than the power of self-expression.
Donavan Wilson is a writer who lives in Germantown. He blogs about life and culture at Timon's Opus.
Last week, we asked area elementary schoolers to write to Kandula, Shanthi, and Ambika, the elephants who live at the National Zoo. They're moving to a new community center this month, and we hoped that the kids might be able to offer some guidance on moving or on conservation.
Some of the best letters we receive will appear here, and three writers will be invited to the Zoo to read their notes aloud to the elephants on March 21.
Today's featured letter comes from Wood Acres Elementary School third-grader Katie Sklaire, admittedly an elephant-lover since infancy. It's important to Katie that the elephants' wild counterparts are conserved for several reasons—read on to find out why.