Elevator Pitch for a Very Slow Elevator

This is a follow up to yesterday’s post about elevator pitches. I’m using one of the standard formats below. The first step is to find a really slow elevator.

Who am I?

I’m a retired consultation psychiatrist, slowly evolving beyond that backwards in time to something else I’ve always been. I’ve been a writer since I was a child. My favorite place was the public library. I walked there from my house. I stayed there as long as I could. It was place of tall windows where I could look out and see trees which swayed like peaceful giants. I borrowed as many books as I could carry in my skinny arms and walked all the way back home. Then I picked up a pencil. I wrote short stories which I bound in construction paper. I read them to my mother, who always praised them and called me gifted whether I deserved it or not. I lived inside my head. My inner world was my whole world.

What problem am I trying to solve?

The problem was that I forgot who I was as I got older. I forgot for a long time about being a writer. I evolved into the outer world, adopting other forms. I put down the pencil, but never for very long. I changed what I did and made, but I always lived in my head. People told me “Get out of your head.” I tried, but didn’t know how. I wrote less and less. When I did write, I realized that I was no genius, not gifted—but still driven to write. I was so busy in college, medical school, residency, and in the practice of consultation psychiatry, I didn’t write for a long time. But later I returned to it as the main way to teach students. I even co-edited and published a book, Psychosomatic Medicine: An Introduction to Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry, with my former department chair, Dr. Robert G. Robinson. On the Psychiatry Department web page, in the Books by Faculty section, the book is in the subsection “Classic.” Inside the cover of my personal copy is a loose page with the quote:

A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.

Mark Twain

I’m pretty sure I put it there. Part of the preface was my idea because of my admiration for Will Strunk, who I learned about in an essay by E.B. White (“Will Strunk,” Essays of E.B White, New York, Harper Row, 1977). We informally called the work The Little Book of Psychosomatic Psychiatry:

The name comes from Will Strunk’s book, The Elements of Style, which was, as White says, “Will Strunk’s parvum opus, his attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin. Will himself hung the title “little” on his book and referred to it sardonically and with secret pride as “the little book,” always giving the word “little” a special twist, as though he were putting a spin on a ball.”

I guess our little book was, in a way, my own parvum opus.

Obviously, I don’t write the way Strunk would have wanted. But it’s my way, and I’m finding my way back to it, back to the path I was on in the beginning of my life, back to who I am.

What solution do I propose?

Almost two years ago, my solution to the challenge of rediscovering who I am, I suppose, was interrupting my medical career, but that would be dishonest. I did it because of my chronological age or least that was what I told myself. Burnout was the other reason. That said, despite my love of teaching students, I missed something else. And I knew if I kept working as a firefighter, which is what a general hospital consultation psychiatrist really is, I might lose what I loved best, which was writing for its own sake and for sharing it with others. It sounds so simple when I say it. Why has this been so hard, then? Obviously, I’m not going to recommend to those who are writers at heart lock themselves in a garret and do nothing but write. We would starve.

I think this is where mindfulness helped me. I couldn’t ignore my love of writing. I was better off just accepting it. But until I learned mindfulness in 2014 as a part of a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which I took mainly because I was struggling with burnout, I would either just ruminate or act on autopilot. I still do those things, just less often. Mindfulness is not miraculous. It’s not for everyone. It can be a part of transitioning to a healthier life. I exercise too. I don’t rigidly always without fail adhere to my schedule. I miss some days. I accept that and just go back and try again.

What is the benefit of my solution?

I think the benefit of adopting mindfulness and other healthy practices, at least for me, is that sooner or later (in my case much later), I made a sort of uneven peace with the loss of my professional routines, my professional identity, my work, as the single most important way to live. I still have a lot to learn, including how to be more patient, how to listen to others, how to get out of my head for what I know will be only a short time. Most of all, I’ve reintegrated writing into my life and it brings me joy. If you’re going through anything like that, then maybe seeing my struggle, my wins and losses, will help you keep going. It gets better.

This elevator pitch is way longer than 45 seconds.

Featured image picture credit Pixydotorg.

Snow Moon Reflections

I’m having a little trouble keeping all of the different moon names straight. Last night was the Snow Moon. I managed to get a snapshot of it. It doesn’t look different from any other full moon. It’s called the Snow Moon mainly because February tends have the winter’s heaviest snow fall, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. It’s also known as the Hunger Moon or the Bony Moon, because this time of year could mean starvation for some back in the days when you had to hunt for your meals.

I got that mixed up somehow with the Wolf Moon—which was in January. I missed that one. On the other hand, you can think of being hungry as a wolf, or the wolf being at your door, meaning not having the means to fend off starvation. Anyhow, that’s my excuse for getting the Wolf Moon mixed up with the Snow Moon. However, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, some Native Americans actually called the January full moon the Snow Moon.

We did get a lot of snow in both January and February. We shoveled a lot of it. I guess there’s no official name for the problem I have flexing my stiff, sore left ring finger, which I’m pretty sure results from my grip on the snow shovel handle. I also occasionally get a stiff, sore left big toe, which I can’t flex. I believe this is from the way I tend to lean into my left instep when plunging the shovel into a big snowdrift.

Before you get after me with critiques about my body mechanics when snow shoveling, let me say this: I quit twisting my back and throwing the snow over my shoulder this season.

That said about the basic meaning of the Snow Moon according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, there are other interpretations. This can be a time for reflection on transitions in one’s life.

There have been a lot of big and little changes in my life, the biggest one recently being retirement. It has been difficult to release my grip on my identity as a psychiatrist. I’ve been a doctor for a long time. It’s hard to remember what I was before I started medical school in the summer of 1988, which was a pivotal time for me. I joined several other students who were members of minority and disadvantaged groups, including but not limited to African Americans, in the summer enrichment medical school program. It has since developed into what is now the Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP) at the University of Iowa.

In fact, it was a pivotal time for the University of Iowa College of Medicine. Leaders, including Philip G. Hubbard, were trying to navigate the controversy surrounding the concept of affirmative action. Not everyone accepted the idea with open arms at the time.

These days, I sometimes find myself remembering how I’ve changed over the past several decades. I recall the sometimes-awkward feeling of being a freshman at Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University) in the mid-1970s. I had grown up in in a small town in Iowa, where I was often the only Black student in class.

When I was a child, I was lucky enough to have role models from both sides of the apparent racial divide. Although Paul ‘Blackie’ Espinosa was not African American, he took me and my younger brother to a Twins baseball game. While I don’t remember much about that day except that it was fiendishly hot—I remember how kind Blackie was to us.

I remember Al Martin, who was an African American artist in the community where I grew up. He took me to an art show where he displayed some of his paintings. Here again, while the Iowa weather was a small distraction (it was a very cold fall day), I looked up to Al as a leader.

I also remember a local pastor, Glen Bandel, who was white and who came to our house one terrible night when my mother was very sick. He stayed all night watching to make sure she didn’t need to go to the hospital. He slept sitting up in a rocking chair. I googled his name the other day. Much to my surprise, he’s still alive and is in his 90s. There was a news item announcing the celebration of his 90th birthday a couple of years ago.

As I try to stitch my past to my present, I keep finding that the strongest thread over the last 43 years has been my wife, Sena. I don’t know where I would be without her. I don’t like to contemplate it. I don’t know how I’ll navigate the changes that are surely happening even as I sit here and, in turn, dread or welcome them. Change will happen, no matter what the shape or tint of the moon, and whether I want it or not.

New Mailbox

Well, it has been almost two weeks since my last day of work. That was called my “termination date,” which strikes me as an ominous term. We now have a new mailbox because we moved in June. The mailbox is a sign of moving away from the old way of life and moving toward a new life as well as a new home. A new beginning follows the termination.

There’s a lot of stuff coming to the new mailbox on the curb outside. We’re getting a mix of new things in the outer mailbox—the same is happening in my inner mailbox. Sorting the mail in both is definitely a challenge right now.

I’m still working out how things will be in the new home, and in the new life stage. I’m wrestling with a lot of new goals, both practical in the outer world and psychological in the inner world.

There is good news in the mailbox, and some not so good. Retiring meant moving away from a daily work schedule which kept me occupied and focused on being a specific kind of person for a long time. I was a psychiatric consultant in an academic medical center. I played a specific role, had specific tasks and challenges which brought specific rewards and frustrations.

That mailbox was always crammed full of stuff and, while a lot of it was good news, some of it was junk mail. I was often rewarded for my work as a consultant and as a teacher. On the other hand, my focus was frequently on work, which left an imbalance elsewhere in my life. Work itself was often full of obstacles.

Now, the new mailbox is full of surprises. Many of them remind me I have a new skillset I need to develop as a retiree. The junk mail consists of things like anxiety about the change in my identity (fireman to retiree), boredom, and frustration over the need to learn how to fix a loose faucet handle instead of catatonia.

There will always be psychological junk mail. The thing about that kind of junk mail is that I can’t just toss it in the garbage. In the last month, I’ve lapsed in my mindfulness practice because of all the tasks of moving and making the transition not just to another home—but to a new identity.

I’ll be working on getting back to mindfulness, although I remember the message sent by the UIHC director of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). It was prefaced by a quote:

“I am thankful that thus far today I have not had any unkind thoughts or said any harsh words or done anything I regret. However, I need to get out of bed and so things may become more difficult.”

Sylvia Boorstein, Mindfulness teacher and author.

My mindfulness mat is rolled up in a room downstairs. My mind is also rolled up—tight around thoughts that are impossible to avoid or deny. Another quote from Sylvia about self-talk:

“Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax, take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening; then we’ll figure out what to do.”

Sylvia Boorstein, Mindfulness teacher and author.
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