Back

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I am sitting with a rather delightful pile of toys and postcards at the moment, in part thanks to the fact the on the Saturday after New Year’s my back went out and I spent most of the next ten days on my back in bed or propped up with pillows on our couch. This lead to a lot of television watching – I am very caught up on home renovation shows and TCM’s December programming; reading – finished all the Frances Hodgson Burnett adult novels I currently have access to and have moved onto the more obscure of her children’s fiction; and, lastly, spent a lot of time (and ultimately money) trolling ebay. So Pictorama readers will be in the clover with posts in the coming weeks. However, today instead I focus on the subject of my back.

I come from a long line of troubled backs. My father was 6’5″ and carried the weight of a small child in camera equipment every working day of his life. This combined with driving long distances, also for his job as a cameraman for network news, meant that periodically his back would blow and he would be recuperating for weeks. As noted above, Dad traveled a heck of a lot for his job and so, in some ways, aside from his summer vacation which was usually 3-4 weeks at a stretch, the most we saw of Dad for long periods was when he was recovering from one of these debilitating events.

However, over the duration of this recovery I reflected on poor Dad’s misery with his back. Being such a large man, my mom couldn’t possibly really help him get out of bed or out of a chair. His preferred chair for these spells was a very old Windsor rocker which, if it was summer, we would even move out into the yard for him to sit in, packed with pillows. That was once his back was good enough to walk at all, bent over but somewhat mobile, and sit in any chair. (I happen to be the current owner of this chair, which is suffering from a broken leg. Nevertheless, I also confess that after this recent incident, this choice of chair mystifies me somewhat. It is NOT what I would have chosen to sit in even if it wasn’t broken.)

Because of the ongoing problems, his back seemed to  have a feather trigger and I can remember it going out once when he reached for the salt at dinner. My mom always ribbed him about how it went out just as he began the project of changing the storm windows to screens one spring and she had to complete the onerous task. These were family lore about dad’s back. The worst (and most family famous) episode was during the Bicentennial when he was in Rhode Island for work, hanging from the rigging on a tall ship, camera on his shoulder when (perhaps not surprisingly) his back went out. I cannot imagine how they got him, and the camera, down in one piece but they did. He then had his colleagues pack him in pillows in his car, more or less immobile and he drove himself back him to NJ. As I remember, he was home for weeks on end that summer. In the rocking chair, in the backyard during the day, us kids, cats and dog, satellites of activity buzzing around him.

Dad with camera

A photo my mom recently found and gave to me. Probably taken of Dad at work at about the time I describe, mid-seventies. Apologies for the bad reproduction!

 

My own back woes harken to early adulthood, when cooking professionally, and a fall down a flight of basement stairs on the job (you’ve never really lived until you’ve cooked in a New York City restaurant in an old brownstone-type building and run up and down basement stairs all day) precipitated learning that I had arthritis in my lower back and hips. In my case it ties out as inherited from my maternal grandfather, who I called Poppy. Sadly treatment was limited in Poppy’s day and when he was still quite young his spine fused, and when I knew him he walked permanently bent at a 45 degree angle. Even worse, the years of cortisone treatment combined with a heart condition killed him when he was only in his fifties, about my age now.

Treatment has changed and improved radically since then with the advent of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and even over the course of my adult life with biological drugs on the market now. I amaze that I see commercials for cures for psoriatic arthritis now when for years I did not know anyone else with the disease. Are there more of us or are we just better known?

For all of that I have never before put my back out in the traditional sense before. This siege seems to have been brought on by business travel compounded by more than a week of solid evenings at work, frequently standing for several hours at each. Eventually the Christmas holiday arrived and Kim warned me it was a critical mistake when the day after I decided to (at long last!) turn our closets over, bringing up bins of winter clothes from the basement and sending the sundresses down in their stead. I sensed trouble with my back and tried to stay the tide by having a massage that Friday. (Kim has been very thoughtful by not saying he told me so – he did tell me so, more than once! This is something I love about my spouse.)

Saturday I was enjoying the Vija Celmins exhibit at the Met Breuer. She is an extraordinary artist and so glad I didn’t miss it! Anyway I was loving the exhibit when at some point I sat down – and realized that getting up wasn’t going to be all that easy. Pain!

I got myself home and there I stayed through into the New Year. (I tried a brief trip to the office but couldn’t make a full day.) Suddenly I was in the land of my forefathers and walking bent, unable at times to fully straighten. I thought a lot of about Dad and Poppy!

Ocean 1975 by Vija Celmins born 1938

Ocean 1975 Vija Celmins born 1938 Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the Judith Rothschild Foundation 1999 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P78336

 

I tried the usual remedies – Aleve, hot rubs, ice packs. A visit to my trainer who used a massage gun on me which with some stretching helped a little, but the spasms began again almost immediately. The doc was reluctant to use muscle relaxers and told me to keep on with the Aleve. A friend suggested acupuncture and I was surprised I didn’t think of it sooner. I had received acupuncture treatments on and off since the onset of the arthritis although have not been in a few years.

In the early years of pursuing acupuncture, late 1980’s, it wasn’t that easy to find someone and I got a referral to Dr. Ching Y. Ting from a colleague in the Asian Art Department at the Met – she had curvature of the spine which gave her back trouble. I saw Dr. Ting for several years. He spoke little English and smoked constantly. (So much for acupuncture resolving that habit!)

His operation was housed in a two bedroom apartment in an enormous white brick building in the East 30’s. Broken into a labyrinth, it was a rabbit warren of cubbies where numerous treatments were ongoing at the same time – ticking egg timers for each treatment luring us all to nap during treatment. Assistants coming to our rescue when our timer dinged. In addition to the cigarette smoke, there was always steaming tea being consumed and instead of heat lamps the heat in the apartment was turned way up, creating a steamy, smoky, exotic atmosphere which was just short of terrifying to my 23 year old self at first.

Dr. Ting was a very good doctor and I saw him as frequently as I could afford to, but sadly he died suddenly several years after I started to see him. (I heard that he just fell over after a family banquet at a restaurant in what was described to me as a good way to die.) Subsequently, I briefly saw some of his colleagues (treating an arthritic toe) over near Penn Station; followed eventually by a woman in the West Village (extremely capable, during an episode of frozen shoulder) whose location was inconvenient; and finally (during the second frozen shoulder) Eileen Chen who I turned to this time. She, like Dr. Ting, is a doctor fully versed in Chinese medicine. Her uptown location has closed, but she is still operates an office on 57th Street, which as it turns out, is about a block and a half from where I now work.

Eileen was unavailable over the holiday week for my emergency treatment so I saw a young colleague of hers, Hilary Zelner. I was unhappy about changing docs under the circumstances, but ultimately Hilary has done an excellent job, her style patient and chattier than Eileen, and she gets the credit for having gotten me back in shape. Needles have piled high with each of my treatments, more than I ever remember before. She mentioned how they vibrate and grow hot to the touch in my back.

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If you’ve never had acupuncture my experience is that it doesn’t hurt in the way you might think it would. The needles themselves going in are so thin you barely feel it if at all. However, the purpose, in the simplistic way I understand it, is to release energy and clear the path of flow. As nerves are activated there is occasionally a shock – more surprising than actually painful – although the ongoing movement of energy does hurt, as do some needles. You lie down, face down in my case, on a massage table and generally remain very still. The needles, after their placement, stay in for 20-30 minutes in my experience. She used a heat lamp on me during the duration of the time the needles are in.

I spend the 20-30 minutes in the dark, considering how I got my back in such bad shape and how long it will take to repair – and how not to do it again! You can feel energy traveling up and down your body. No sleeping during these treatments! I have thought about Dad and Poppy and wondered why Dad never tried acupuncture. I have thought about work and about what to make for dinner.

In all, the treatments, have been uncomfortable and exhausting, but after two (long) sessions I saw amazing improvement. I completed my third last night, preceded by a session with their massage therapist (new to me and entirely different from any massage I have had before; I haven’t made up my mind what I think yet), and I came home like jelly. Today I tackle a gentle work out at the gym and see how it goes. However, just in case, I also go back to Hilary on Friday!

 

 

 

Saving Something for the Swim Back

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Devoted readers of Pam’s Pictorama know that, outside of a few occasions when excessive travel overwhelmed me, I pretty much sit down at this computer every Saturday and Sunday and write. Sometimes you all are subjected to a diatribe about what is on my mind and today is one of those days. As I am surrounded by change today, the nature of change is very much on my mind as is my own role as the agent of it.

For readers who have been following it, the kitchen renovation is finally pretty much concluded. (Various aspects of that tale can be found here , herehere and, alas also here.) We are waiting for a microwave to show up, but otherwise it has finally come to rest and just in the nick of time before we lost what remains of our collective minds. All that is left is the unpacking which has commenced and am determined I will finish this weekend. Kim and cats had it hardest being here each day with the daily construction. While all the guys were nice enough it is a small space and it was a lot to have in your face every day. Cookie in particular had to have long conversations with me about it each evening in the beginning of it all.

The kitchen looks great and most importantly seems to be easier and nicer to work in which is after all the point of a kitchen. The cats have taken full possession of it – I find them rolling and stretching on the new floor – each taking turns being king or queen of the new space.

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Cookie captured mid-roll and stretch on the new kitchen floor. There is tangible relief for all that the cat dishes have returned to their former location in the kitchen.

 

I have a long held theory about cat memory which is that it is about two weeks long. At the end of two weeks it has more or less reset to the present being all they remember. Back when we had a cleaning woman who came every other week I figured she was an all new event for them each time – they didn’t really remember that this would keep happening. (However, my cat Otto really liked one woman who spoke to her in Polish leaving me to wonder if Otto had been Polish in another life or if all cats responded well to the language.)

According to this theory, there was a moment in the middle of the month-long renovation when the cats had pretty much forgotten that there was a time when the apartment wasn’t boxed up with kitchen stuff and workmen didn’t spend part of each and every day banging away and making a smelly mess of the place. By this notion, sometime after Thanksgiving, but well before Christmas they will forget that this is the new kitchen and it will just be the kitchen. This is how cats get along in the world, it is their own process for survival which has evolved over centuries of feline lives.

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Blackie taking his turn atop two cartons of Reincarnation Stories which turned up in the middle of the packed up chaos.

 

Of course for us humans it is ultimately the same, although our memories (for the most part) are longer, our awareness of the process probably deeper. (After all, who knows what cats really think?) I may have previously opined on having a cat-like dislike of change because it is my true nature. I come to it slowly and with trepidation, and there is some real reluctance if I have to be the actual agent of it, as I was in this case. Nonetheless, it is also part of my personality that if I make up my mind to do something I pretty much grab it by the ears and do what needs doing until it is done.

I don’t know if it is age or just my experience, but as I get older this tenacity has become more pronounced and it has come to my attention that there is a sort of take-no-prisoners aspect to my approach in these situations. It takes me a long time to rouse myself to action and my decision making process is prolonged. Once committed however, I am all in.

If I drift into contemplating my past lives I wonder if in one I wasn’t a rank and file, but especially tenacious, foot soldier in let’s say Genghis Khan’s troops. (For those of you who have missed my recent wifely review of Kim’s new book Reincarnation Stories the two-part review can be found here and here, while my own reincarnation tale can be found here.) Once I accept the bit in my mouth, reluctantly or otherwise, I am driven on all cylinders and there is no way around, only straight through. And I deeply suspect that the Genghis Khan reference may have resonance for some of this who work with or encounter me in this mode.

Combined Headshot 2 optimzed for website

 

In my office I put a quote up recently, save something for the swim back. It seems like good advice to consider, but hard for me to follow. Once let out of the starting gate I am pretty much at a dead run from beginning to end. As I sit, rather exhausted from my exertions both at home and at work for the moment, a sort of carnage both personal and professional piled up around me, I am contemplating the sustainability of this approach. Yet, like the cats, we are who and what we are and to some extent we have to accept that.

Raising Funds

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This weekend I am fresh back from a trip to Madison, Wisconsin. It was the first time I set foot in the state of Wisconsin and even for the residents of Madison, it was unseasonably cold and snowy. Manhattan was suffering from a modified version of the same, but it was a shock to my system nonetheless and required a scamper to find my snow boots (hidden under the cleaning products that generally live under the sink, but currently reside on the floor of the living room closet during the enduring kitchen renovation), and to retrieve my winter coat from storage. The chaos from the kitchen work has meant that the summer clothes have not been exchanged for the winter clothes here (a ritual of small apartment living) and the best I could do was to grab a few things from the basement containers, buy a few others and plan to layer a lot. (For those of you who are just tuning into my home renovation story you can find the origin post here.)

Leaving Kim and cats to fend for themselves amongst the workmen, I departed Tuesday afternoon for a whirlwind two days in Madison. This was originally meant to be a longer trip with the orchestra as they made their way to Chicago, but that part never gelled so I just zipped in and out of Wisconsin. (I will do the same in Milwaukee in December as Big Band Holiday tours the Mid-west. My prediction is more snow there!) Madison is the long-time former stomping ground of one of my colleagues and many of the people we were visiting were supporters of local Madison projects with whom she had worked for many years. Walking down the streets of Madison with her was like being with the mayor of that town so glad were they to see her back!

It was lovely to experience their hospitality and generosity. Several of them support Jazz at Lincoln Center now, largely in tribute to her, but also because they are interested in our music education programs (some in their community) and because essentially they are philanthropic people. Their support is evident in named spaces and on donor plaques throughout that town and the pride in what they have created is tangible.

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Interactive donor recognition at the Overture Center in Madison.

 

Madison, the capital of the state, is a city of about 260,000 people and a whopping student population at the university of 45,000, 10,00 of those doing graduate work year round. This makes it a little more than half the size of Minneapolis which it reminded me of in their devotion to supporting arts and culture in their community. (And not to mention winter weather.) The capital building, a slightly smaller version of the one in DC, is at the heart of downtown and I am told it is an area that teems with local life from a robust seasonal farmers market, to art fairs, music on the green and even as the starting point for their local marathon. I was also told that the building is open to the public seven days a week and in many ways this puts New York’s City Hall, increasingly inaccessible, to shame.

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Capital building in Madison, photo taken earlier this week. Even for locals the snow and single digit cold was early in the season.

 

It makes me reflect on how different it must be to raise money in an area like that – with a dedicated, but more finite donor base, sharing them with the other major charities in the community such as the hospitals, and of course the enormous fundraising machine that the university must be.

I can see pros and cons of raising money in that milieu, but at the end of the day it is a very different animal than the sort of day-to-day I experience working for an international performing arts organization in the heart of New York City. One conversation I had with someone, who spoke with great gratitude for the work my colleague had done for their city by raising money for two significant projects there, a student union and an arts complex, stayed with me in particular.

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A beautifully renovated theater from the 1920’s within the Overture arts complex in Madison.

 

While over the years individuals may have expressed gratitude for what I had done for them personally (access to the Museum’s collections, an opportunity to hear a concert for example) never had a donor expressed gratitude for the work done on behalf of the community. This struck me as an especially thoughtful perspective – imagine being thanked for raising money. Feeding the giant maw of need of one of these magnificent gems in the crown of Manhattan’s cultural life does not have the same resonance with individuals here and we are the facilitators are seen at best as a necessary part of the machine at best. Generous individuals see it as their responsibility to be philanthropic or even their pleasure, however never has anyone thanked me for helping keep the doors of the Metropolitan Museum open, nor for keeping the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra going. I must say, not that I would have expected them to either, but I was touched by the idea. It renewed my faith in my chosen profession.

While I enjoyed my stint in Wisconsin I do not pretend I am cut out for life in a small city. Enticing though space and pretty Victorian or Arts and Crafts houses in the downtown area were, I believe I would chafe quickly. Nonetheless, I will carry the experience with me and it makes me more reflective about the nature of my work. Meanwhile, I have returned contentedly to our one-room home, piled high with boxes of kitchen items for now, to deal with the newly purchased faucet with a faulty tap recently purchased and the microwave which was the wrong size and has to be exchanged. Eventually it will be finished and the winter clothes will be restored to the closets for the season and life on 86th Street will return to normal.