Carol Kaufmann

Writer, Editor, Etc.

Cautious Optimism January 27, 2010

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:45 pm

As election night unfolded, we heard a whisper of possibilities. We heard this not only in the speech of our President-elect Obama, but in the gracious words of the candidate who did not ascend to the highest office in the land. Senator John McCain called Obama “my president” and said that “These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.”

Obama, in turn, called for “a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.”

I hope these honorable intentions to gather unlikely corners of the country together will be realized and that it’s not too late.

Every American has her own prism through which she absorbed the speeches last night.  Mine is exemplified by conversations with three friends last week. Their words keep ringing in my ears.  These woman could not be more different: A New York banking executive who lives in Manhattan’s Upper East side and has an infant. A working mom in rural Virginia who has no health insurance and whose children are on Medicaid.  A high school friend in Kentucky who stays at home with her three elementary-age boys. These three mothers have little in common, save their gender and tireless work ethic. But in their own words, they all said the same thing.

Making life work has gotten too hard. Neither college degrees nor connections nor working multiple jobs seem to matter. Demands on them, like so many, are relentless. Taking care of ailing parents and sick kids. Paying for a roof and four walls. Buying food and the gas it takes to drive the kids home from after-school activities. Watching years of work, manifested in 401Ks and retirement accounts, dwindle and evaporate. When will we feel secure again?

In Barack Obama’s victory speech last night, there was real acknowledgment of this widespread pain—and a recipe for healing.  A humble plea to ban together, to listen, to understand differences, because we can’t figure it out alone. It was there in John McCain’s speech, too, in his public commitment to get on board and do what is necessary and in his acknowledgment that Obama’s path to the presidency is the story the nation needs right now.

As the President-elect pointed out, “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.”

I hope these words—this poignant call to unity in speeches certainly crafted by professionals long before election night, will take root.  I hope election night oratory was not just about a good show. I hope the millions of us who are trying to figure out how to make it all work will, in fact, begin to imagine new and creative ways for tending to what is necessary while also, actually, pursuing happiness.

I hope.

First appeared on November 5, 2008.

 

The Road Taken

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:43 pm

In the middle of this global economic meltdown and political uncertainty, my brother and his wife of three years came up with a genius idea: They would buy a white Chevy van, make it a home with some “minor” alterations, quit their jobs with benefits, sell their house, and go out on the road. For an indefinite amount of time.

As you might imagine, this plan met with considerable opposition. My “keep the homefires burning” mother was so flummoxed she couldn’t speak. When she did, she could only utter “health insurance!” Friends were skeptical. Reactions ranged from “Are you nuts?”, “Where will you shower?”  to my favorite  “Does this involve a Great Dane and solving mysteries?” (Non Gen-Xers go here for the reference.) Me? With a full-time job, two toddlers, and a pair of obese rescue cats to tend to, I’m their biggest fan.

With no children or pets and little else to tie them to bucolic Lexington, Kentucky—their both natives of the Bluegrass State and had pretty much lived there since birth—Steven and Jill had an insatiable curiosity to see more. An unscratchable itch. Perhaps, they thought, there’s another place for us to be now. With more fulfilling jobs. More things to learn. And we’re never going to know unless we Just Plain Go.

“Are we living the American dream?” Bro wondered aloud this past weekend. “Because if we are, if we found it, there’s not much to it.”

Now these are not fly-by-night folks. They toyed with the idea for well over a year, making financial plans, paring down their earthly possessions (again, so jealous), and researching campground and desireable communities all around the country. They alerted their friends they might be parked in their driveways. They developed mental lists of places they could settle in for a few months of seasonal work, like ski communities, for earning extra cash along the way. They popped in “The Van CD,” a modern mix tape made by my musician husband for the trip. No strangers to the tent-and-outhouse crowd, these marathon-running, rock-climbing semi-pros are used to the Great Outdoors and community showers. Maybe not for months on end, but there has to be some unknown in any adventure.

They set out last week. First stop: Our house in the DC area, mainly because of the aforementioned toddlers. Not a day after they had been here, they caught the miserable viral plague we had all had. And though we do have running water and a working air conditioning system, they opted to sleep—at least most nights—in the van. I know they’ll be just fine.

I think about that restlessness many of us felt after high school or college, the traditional time for geographical exploration. It’s even becoming commonplace for high-school grads to take a year or two off before college to “find their way,” or in the day of hyper-competitve college admissions, pad the application. But why should extended travel be limited to those seminal periods? The road is always there and despite sprawl, this country still boasts wide open spaces where you can hear your thoughts and the whispers of fluttering wings. I’m proud to know real examples of those who buck tradition and plunge right on in.

We’ve all read the classic Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” back in English lit in 9th grade and again on plaques at Hallmark, but pause for a moment, if you will, and give it another look.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Very seldom in life are we faced with the prospect of no choices. The not-so-logical road may be the best—at least the most interesting—path to take.

P.S. If you’re entertaining serious thoughts of taking it on the road, you can see exactly how a white Chevy van can be livable right here. Just click “Van Construction.”

First appeared on October 14, 2008.

 

The Drug Problem You Didn’t Know About

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:42 pm

I heaved a portable plastic drawer full of various drugs with “childproof” caps onto the top shelf of our linen closet. It had previously been sitting on the floor and was somewhat accessible to my quickly-growing toddlers. I moved the drawer the day I interviewed Jordan Neal for Reader’s Digest magazine. Jordan, a college student, lost her brother when he combined prescription drugs with over-the-counter cold medicine. A successful and popular high school senior, Harrison didn’t realize, Jordan believes, that he would never wake up again.

Cold medicine? Check. Painkillers? Many, from two Cesareans and knee surgery. A killing combination? Apparently.

I had no idea such a thing was possible. Neither did Jordan and her parents. But abusing prescription drugs is on the rise, big-time. One in five teenagers have abused a prescription drug; every day in the United States, 2,500 kids try this for the first time. Now, prescription drug use actually exceeds marijuana consumption among teenagers today. Jordan tells me how easy it is for high school students—even MIDDLE school students—to get their parents’ or relatives’ painkillers. If they can”t, pills are available for purchase on school campuses—for about $5 a pop.

But why prescription drugs? A couple of reasons. According to Steve Pasierb, president of the Partnership for Drug Free America, parents and kids alike believe prescription drugs to be a safer alternative to the more “dangerous” street drugs such as cocaine or meth. “But it’s just a different form of substance abuse,” he says. He also explains that in a recent study on teens and their drug habits, the Partnership learned that the Millennial generation isn’t necessarily taking the prescriptions for the high. They’re using the drugs to get by. These confident, aspiring millennials are taking drugs for “life management” reasons; to deal with the stresses of school and social life, to stay awake to study, or calm down when too many activities fill their time. These kids, who say they’d never do illegal drugs, are self-medicating. And parents don’t know it’s a problem. I certainly didn’t.

Shortly after her brother’s death, Jordan started working for the Not in My House campaign, sponsored by the Partnership for Drug Free America. She told me how simple it is to prevent this kind of death. Since so many of us have these drugs easily available in our medicine cabinets, I want you to know what I learned (in case you didn’t see our October issue!) You can also go to the Not in My House website for a much more advice on what you can do.

1. Lock up all your prescription drugs and keep an inventory.

2. When your prescriptions expire, don’t flush them; it will contaminate the water supply. Don’t just throw them away; kids can—and have—retrieved discarded pills from the trash. Rather, put them in a coffee can with the used grounds, kitty litter, or something else unsavory and throw away.

3. Don’t share drugs. Your doctor should have records of other drugs your currently taking and knows which ones don’t mix.

4. Talk to your kids specifically about prescription drug use. Show your interest in their lives. You never know what you might learn—or prevent.

First appeared on rd.com, October 3, 2008.

 

Cleaning Up Our Act

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:41 pm

Ever try and get a two-year-old to pick up trash? This was our goal this past weekend on a glorious, clear Saturday, the morning of the two-decades old International Coastal Cleanup. Once a year, volunteers from all over the country gather on beaches, baysides, and riverbanks to clean ’em up. The sponsor of the effort, the Ocean Conservancy, says that to date six million volunteers from around the world have taken over 100 million pounds of trash out of American waters. That sounded a little far-fetched until my little family of four, two toddlers included, spent a morning on the Potomac River.

We live a few blocks from the storied river. To many, the Potomac, the water that frames the nation’s capital, is a witness and carrier of history. But it’s also the lifeblood of the towns like mine that  it has carved out on its shores. The river is a community builder; along the Mount Vernon trail that runs for miles along the Potomac in Virginia, we meet more neighbors during the week than we would if we went door-to-door. Letting the kids run alongside the river where they can see ducks, osprey, kayakers, and sailboats stimulates fertile minds. To me, a walk or run along the river trail is serenity at the end of a hectic day.

We want to see the river sparkling clean. We also feel a tad guilty for not performing any kind of community service for the past two years as the kids dominated nearly every waking moment. So we strapped the kids into the stroller and walked over to Daingerfield Island, home of boat docks, soccer fields, and a great view of planes taking off at Reagan National Airport. The National Park Service ranger handed us three large trash bags, three sets of gloves, a long-handled “gripper” for snatching pieces of trash out of reach, and directed us to a portion of the trail where he’d seen “tons of garbage.” I still was suspicious.

But in a little over an hour, my hubby and I were overwhelmed with plastic cola bottles, rusted tin cans, countless itty-bitty pieces of styrofoam, tennis balls, water bottles, crates, and one size 13 Air Jordan shoe, lightly worn.  In about a 30-yard stretch—one we had trekked countless times—we had our bags filled to the brim, too heavy to transport back to the ranger while managing a baby in the stroller and a two-year-old who kept screaming TRASH! and running in its direction.

We discovered this river garbage can easily conceal itself in vegetation and in the mud of the banks. It can also hide in plain sight if those who put it there just don’t care. Simply put, this trash—or marine debris, if you want to be proper—kills. It destroys not only fish, other marine life and seabirds, but also their homes.

Thoughtlessly discarded on land or from boats in coastal communities, trash finds its way to the water—and bigger bodies of water, in our case, the Chesapeake and eventually the Atlantic—and voila! A garbage dump at sea. Much of this trash has real “staying power,” as the Ocean Conservancy calls it in their findings from a marine monitoring program, and resists decomposing. Fish mistake trash for food. Discarded fishing lines or nets entrap sea life, amputating fins or strangling them. Many marine ecosystems don’t fare well with rubber tires, paint cans, and disinfectants planted on the seabeds. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that a rusted can of DW-40 shouldn’t be dinner niblets for a stripped bass.

My toddler, Luke, spent the first hour mastering the gripper, his little chubby fingers manipulating the squeeze-handle so the tongs would grip the object of his focus. All told, he “gripped” two plastic bottles and successfully managed to place them INSIDE the bag.  The next day when we returned to the trail for a family run (a jog, really). When we approached our cleanup area, Luke’s eye widened as he exclaimed, “Pick up trash!”

That’s right, buddy. Good advice.

First appeared on rd.com, September 22, 2008.

 

The Youth of the Year

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:40 pm

One of the reasons I like working for Reader’s Digest is that each year I get to meet a handful of teenagers like Shonnetta Henry.

Today, Shonnetta became the Youth of the Year, an annual honor given by the Boys and Girls Club of America. The Club selected five regional Youths of the Year, truly amazing teenagers who, despite huge odds stacked against them, not only thrive academically and socially but have given so much back to their communities. The Northeast region chose Naquasia Pinchback of Glen Cove, New York. The Midwest club selected Jamaal Phillips from St. Louis. Ashley Turner of Portland, Oregon, represented the Pacific region and Felicia Arriaga of Dana, North Carolina, was the Southeast choice. The finalist were flown to Washington, given the full VIP treatment including a private audience with the President of the United States, and awarded a scholarship. The Reader’s Digest Foundation has sponsored this program for the past 62 years, the award is announced in Washington, and as a reporter in the DC office, that is how I was fortunate enough to be there. My boss, Carl Cannon, helped select the winner and got to know each candidate pretty well in the intense interview process. He lamented their only had to be a single winner, because all of them were stellar. All “gave me hope for the future,” he told me.

Youth of the Year

(Courtesy Boys and Girls Club)

I don’t use “truly amazing” lightly. To say 18-year-old Shonnetta Henry’s life hasn’t been an easy one is one giant understatement. Shonnetta grew up in poverty. Because of her circumstances, Shonnetta often felt alone and unsupported, but didn’t want her younger sister and two brothers to suffer like she had. She became “the mother of children I did not conceive,” as she explains. “I have to guide my siblings to a better way of life.” She did so by example.

She took Advanced Placement classes, though couldn’t afford tutors and study aids like the rest of her peers, and excelled at them. Her list of extra-cirricular activities would have exhausted most: She mentored incoming freshman. She worked to keep students out of the justice system and fought against immigrant bashing. She helped other kids find their voice through a creative writing club called Ink About It, where members write and share their poetry.  She hosted open mic nights and poetry writing sessions for a dance and poetry club. Shonetta also wrote her own poems, the expression important for her survival.

Shonnetta went to work for the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver, where she helped run the center so she could pay for bus fare, her siblings’ sports activities, her textbooks and school fees. The Club became more than a job; it became the embodiment of what she wanted her life to be—a way to help others from descending into a social abyss. She began volunteering more of her time at the Club, tutoring younger children and organizing community service projects. She taught a program called Words Can Heal which emphasizes how words affect all aspects of life and the importance of choosing them carefully. “Needing support was my biggest adversity,” Shonnetta says. “It almost destroyed my potential, but today I am thankful that my Club saved me by filling the empty seat in my life.”

One of her AP teachers in high school said Shonnetta, “… has had more work and responsibility thrust upon her than many adults…Yet in spite of all that’s been demanded of her, [she] seems entirely unbowed by the burdens.”

Youth of the Year
Shonnetta stands in front of the Capitol. (Courtesy Boys and Girls Club)

Along her rough and tumble road,  Shonnetta discovered “creative vents” as alternatives to being angry. Now, when she frustrated or furious, she dances, sings and writes poetry and songs. She’s also helped others do the same, observing first-hand how the arts can calm aggressive behaviors. Shonnetta wants to become a child psychologist some day and is now studying for a joint degree in psychology and world dance at the University of New Mexico. Her goal is to explore professionally what she’s observed first hand: Art therapy can take the place of medicating children.

I’d only met Shonnetta last night, when the18-year-old read a poem she wrote about her life story to a room full of Washington VIPS, Boys and Girls Club executives and supporters, and even their most famous alum, Denzel Washington. Her words were lyrical, bold, strong. A snippet:

I devote the duration of my life
To being that thing that went right
For the kids who need to be rescued
Tiny voices that say close to nothing
Have taught me everything
Denzel Washington

Shonnetta poses with Denzel Washington. (Courtesy Boys and Girls Club)
We all rose to a standing ovation after the 18-year-old petite Maya Angelou finished.  Today, I was lucky to be sitting at Shonnetta’s table at the breakfast when for the Youth of the Year announcement. Each year, it takes place in a grand Capitol Hill auditorium full of members of Congress and a hundred or so Washington notables. Shonnetta didn’t eat much. As the time of the announcement edged closer, I could see her fanning herself, fidgeting, perhaps she looking for the door. Then, the envelope was opened and her name was read. Shonnetta nearly collapsed. Her next year will be full of speaking engagements on behalf of the Boys and Girls Club, exciting trips talking to other teenagers (the 2007-2008 Youth, Demetrice Tuttle, just came back from a whirlwind European tour) and meeting countless people who can open doors she never before imagined. I know Shonnetta never expected this while she was busy trying to do what is right—she never expected any of it.

The amazing part of Shonnetta’s journey is that not only was she able to break a destructive cycle of poverty, but that she helped others how to do the same with an open and untarnished heart. Perhaps her great-grandmother had something to do with this. When her homelife became unbearable, she, her siblings, and four of her cousins all went to live with her great-grandmother Eunice. She thinks of her Grandma as her “security blanket” and “24-hour on call life coach.”  “Grandma gave me tips for life,” Shonnetta said in her Youth of the Year speech. “Change starts small and only comes through unconditional love.”

Have you met any other examples of people who make our shared space better? Let me know!

First appeared on rd.com, September 17, 2008.

 

Focus!

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:38 pm

Every now and again, a random email speaks to you.

I arrived back home in Virginia after two weeks of 25-hours-a-day non-stop politics at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. While the kiddos were well-cared for by hubby, I found the laundry situation overwhelming, the mail piled high, and many household questions that needed answering, such as, Can my son PLEASE start pre-school without the no-tread tennis shoes you require and not being potty-trained?

My email was also embarrassingly untended to. While piling through my In-box, I came across a question that seemed to be speaking to me directly:

“Are your personal matters getting in the way at work?” Of course they are.  I’m a living, breathing human.

Have you or colleagues of yours shown up for work recently even though under the weather or dealing with a family problem? the email asks. Are you kidding? My boss is hacking up a lung next door, our office manager is juggling child care while her husband straddles a job and a graduate school program, and I’m sleepwalking. But of course we’re here. Have you read about the economy?

I was about to send this letter into the cyberspace circular file when I noticed a new word: “presenteeism.”

Hm. This word, apparently, describes employees who are at work, but really aren’t. They’re sick, they’re distracted, they’re preoccupied with some other personal chaos. A survey conducted by CIGNA says that 61% of U.S. workers have reported for duty while ill or dealing with a personal crisis.

Really? Only 61%? Aren’t we all in the midst of some sort of individual drama, big or small?

What I really needed that email to do was give me some advice. Now. Advice I could use THIS MOMENT. So I poked around and found that the head of CIGNA’s health solutions unit, Dr. Jodi Aronson Prohofsky, a behavioral health expert, did indeed have some thoughts to offer. If you’re like me and head straight to any kind of magazine article that whiffs of  ways to get your life in order,  you may have heard a few these tips before. But I think in this day and age when being present anywhere at any time is a uphill battle, it does us all good to be reminded.

Staying Focused:

1. Make a list to gain control.  Writing “to do” items down on paper and prioritizing them helps you gain a sense of control.  With a dozen things clamoring for your attention during any given day, you’ll notice that some items on your list can wait.  Focus on the things that really matter and save the others for when you’ve got more time.

2. Manage your time and take breaks.  Once you have your list, try to maximize break times.  If you still have difficulty, talk to your manager about flexible work schedules so that you can handle your personal issues during normal business hours and still balance a full work schedule.

3. Stay active.  There’s no better stress buster than exercise.  Physical activity strengthens the body, invigorates the mind, and puts you in a better mood to face your challenges.

4. Eat well.  While emotional stress can take its toll on the body, physical ailments can also take their toll emotionally.  What you eat affects how you feel, so be sure to eat things that are good for you.

5. Recognize the mind-body connection.  Our bodies often respond to stress with physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, grinding teeth, insomnia, headaches, backaches, and digestive problems.   If you feel stressed for too long, it can result in physical illness and disease.  Ask for help.  Talk to your family physician or a behavioral health professional immediately to discuss these symptoms.

6. Get enough sleep.  While there are no hard and fast rules about how much sleep a person should have, the body typically requires about eight hours.  If your sleep isn’t restful or if it’s interrupted with bouts of insomnia, you may need to speak to your family physician or behavioral health professional.  It’s common for stress to interrupt sleep.

7. Make time for fun.   We all recognize that play is essential to the healthy development of children, but we sometimes forget that it’s just as important for adults.  Stepping outside the normal demands of the day to do something you enjoy helps maintain balance and perspective.

I find about the only time I’m fully present is during my yoga class. Yoga is all about being present, using “mindfulness and compassion,” according to my yoga teacher last night,  to connect with your own personal source of strength. (It also helps relieve stress, stretch out tight muscles, and provides one heck of a workout in my humble opinion.) The rhythmic movements really do help focus the mind on just one thing: Going to the next movement. I’m sure such a yoga-like focus can transfer to all aspects of life, I’ve just not been able to make it happen.

What do you do to stay focused? Please share! I—and many people I know—could use the help.

First appeared on rd.com, September 11, 2008.

 

Silent Suffering

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:36 pm

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that at the end of covering back-to-back political conventions I’m thinking about mental illness.

With the Sarah Palin vetting  process by the national media in full gear, I was glad to learn about one non-partisan effort to tackle a touchy problem—the nation’s sanity. I never thought I’d be at the Republican National Convention thinking about sanity, er, mental health. But here I am, mainly because I heard a story yesterday that won’t leave me.  At a Creative Coalition lunch, the actor/director Giancarlo Esposito related a tale of 27-year-old man who had it all: A great job that earned him a sweet salary, a nice house, a wonderful family. “He just can’t find a way to be happy,” Esposito said. Now, this certainly wasn’t the centerpiece of the speeches about mental health reform at that lunch. The speakers told of harrowing examples of mental illness like a mother, off her meds, coming at her son with a knife so he could join his sister, whom she had just sent “to heaven.”

But the example of the young man who just couldn’t find a way to be happy is the story that keeps ringing in my ears. This kind of subtle, unnoticed malaise masks the suffering of many. About 54 million Americans, I’ve learned, are plagued with various forms of various mental illnesses and depression. Some afflictions are out there and obvious, but many suffer silently, often not knowing what is wrong. They can’t get help because insurance companies put mental illness in an entirely different category, as if it’s plastic surgery or a Botox treatment.

Making it’s way through Congress right now is a piece of legislation that would require health insurance companies to cover mental diseases as any other affliction. After a decade of wrangling with the House, Senate, and all interests groups, this bill is close to becoming law. If it does, health plans must make benefits for mental treatments the same as other medical surgical benefits. No higher copayments and deductibles. No higher out-of-pocket expenses. A Government Accountability Office report shows that 90 percent of health plans do impose such limits on mental health treatments. That would end.

Republican Minnesota Congressman Jim Ramstad made a little news when he told us the bill is about three weeks away from going to the president’s desk for his signature (as soon as the House and Senate settle on an actual title of the bill! Of all the hold-ups…). Ramstad, a recovering alcoholic, co-sponsored the bill with Democrat Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who’s battled his own addiction. Once law, Ramstad says, insurance companies will treat “diseases of the brain like diseases of the body.”

Economically, this make a lot of sense. According to a Wall Street Journal and the National Institute of Mental Health, depression costs. It’s annual toll on U.S. businesses amounts to about $70 billion between lost workdays, lack of productivity and other costs. Additionally, more than $11 billion in other costs accrue from decreased productivity due to symptoms that sap energy, affect work habits, cause problems with concentration, memory, and decision-making.

Way too many people who function half-way, or not at all, because of an unexplained gray cloud that has permanently gathered over their heads I think about people who exist in this state all the time who may not be getting help because their insurance companies don’t consider this kind of problem worthy of the coverage they award a case of bronchitis, kidney stones, or high blood pressure. Perhaps the biggest message here is also a subtle one—total health includes what’s happening in your head.

First appeared on rd.com, September 4, 2008.