In Reading My Mind, former broadcaster and communication professor Roberta Cole shares provocative observations on the ever-changing landscape of our innermost thoughts. In this collection of narratives, she explores both the breathtaking and heartbreaking moments of a life - an enviable radio and teaching career, the haunting memory of family and friends, rituals of the daily grind, the EastCoast/WestCoast experience, retirement and the passage of time.
Cole also takes on the rewards of nature and travel, as well as the social subtext underlying technology, communication with physicians, treatment of the elderly, homelessness, restaurant behavior, and even hair salons.
The essays in Reading My Mind help us navigate the barrage of stimuli surrounding us and let us know we are not alone. They also provide a helpful look at what lies beyond the obvious-a seductive peek at what we would make of things if we were to read each other's minds.
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READING MY MINDA Collection of Essays
By Roberta Cole
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Roberta Cole
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRiverside Drive
"There goes another Pontiac, Daddy. Is it black or dark blue?"
"I call it blue," he said.
"What color car would you get, Daddy? Could we get one?"
"We don't need a car in the city. But why don't we rent one and go for a drive in the country next weekend?"
I looked back with glee as he gently ushered me away from the curb, back to the safety of the bench.
It was late spring that night we sat on the drive. I was seven, maybe eight. We'd gone there many times before. Riverside Drive stretches along the perimeter of Manhattan's western urban oasis, Riverside Park. My childhood was spent on the fourteenth floor of one of the prewar fortresses lining the other side of the park.
With one small hand clasped in my dad's, keeping the other free to manage a tower of strawberry icicles dripping onto a cone of sugar, we cataloged the traffic as it went by. Those evenings usually ended with the promise of a day outside the city. I knew just how it would go. We would glide along the West Side Highway, slowly and deliberately heading nowhere. My mother would be there too, but my guess was that this was not her idea of recreation. Upon arriving in some town far enough north of Westchester to be considered "the country," we'd disembark and walk slowly through the village streets, our arms twisted around each other to enclose us from the rest of the world. Before leaving, I was always able to coax them into buying some trinket to commemorate the day. It rarely lasted through the trip home, but the thought of it lasted much longer and continues to play a sweet refrain in my reverie of all that has been lost. On the ride home, with the sweet orange overhead pouring its juice into the twilight air and my thighs clinging to the moist vinyl upholstery, I would lay my head against a crevice of the car and let the rocking motion seduce me to sleep.
My childhood was mostly uneventful: a repetition of tender mercies and bewildering challenges. It was filled with the agonies of figuring out just how much like real life my life was, while keeping current with pop tunes, skirt length, and, whenever possible, my homework. My parents captivated me. My father had Clark Gable looks but seemed to negate the macho stereotype of his generation. There was a complexity about him at the same time that he appeared relaxed and serene. He had no patience for artifice. He screamed at injustice, cried at songs, and seemed not to say much at all to those he considered "strangers"—that is, anyone who was not part of his inner circle. From time to time, his passion caught fire. When he hugged me, it was with a gusto seen only in Italian opera—"Mack, you'll hurt her," my mother would say. She was right. He spoiled it for me; I have never been hugged that way again.
Sometimes I had trouble making sense of his behavior. On Saturday mornings, I would observe a curious ritual: he would stand by the window of our large living room, busily arranging the draperies to allow a peek of golden light to cast a shadow on an otherwise somber interior. Outside, the craggy gray facade of the building across the courtyard would become visible. When he did this, it was with the kind of determination that suggested that he had no choice. It drove my mother crazy. "How will you get them back in place?" She would ask with concern. Every Monday morning they were back in place.
It seemed as simple as his needing to let some light in. As I grew older, I understood that need and wondered how different it would have been had music or literature been his chosen work rather than becoming a physician. Suppose his hands had waved wildly to Beethoven instead of neatly adjudicating medical claims at the Veterans Administration after he left private practice? My mother, on the other hand, had none of his intensity. She was governed by good common sense and was well adjusted to a fault. Her only excess was a boundless capacity for kindness. Unlike my father, my mother did not have flamboyant good looks, and I certainly didn't get the impression that she thought so. The only awareness of her ability to attract that I ever observed was her trip on board a ship to the Panama Canal. In a photograph proudly displayed in her bedroom, she was outfitted in shorts and a halter. She surely had been told that the costume flattered her, even made her look beautiful. But I never really saw her as beautiful—that is, until I learned something about life.
I was just shy of fourteen when a virulent cancer took hold of my father's body. My father the physician became my father the patient. I remember when my mother told me the news, straight and direct at a back table in Schrafft's with only a butterscotch almond sundae to cushion the blow. I kept looking for signs, for something to tell me where we really stood. There were none—just one crumpled tissue in my mother's clenched fist. I had been watching my father. In the past, he would approach me with his black bag at the sign of any minor symptom. I worked hard to conceal evidence that would curtail my adolescent escapades. Suddenly, a persistent cough could go easily unnoticed. That black bag was needed to measure my father's steady decline. The more I witnessed the signs of his deterioration, the more I chattered on the phone. Shakespeare would have to wait. My grades fell as his white count fluctuated. Slow walks were taken from his bedroom to the dinette. Very slow walks. Grand and gracious hand-me-downs from my grandmother's lavish West End Avenue apartment were moved aside to make room for the furnishings of illness. My mother struggled to concoct some form of edible material that would heal. Nothing helped. Everything changed. The starched taffeta fabric my mother's deft hands had been slated to turn into the prom dress to turn heads lay neglected on the closet floor. There was work to do, and it wasn't pretty. Periods of restored hope were punctuated by bursts of agony. At night, I would pull my trusted blanket over my delicately developing body and wonder where I would be when the end came. Would I be taking a final or kissing my first boyfriend?
When the end came, I knew. My mother's face spoke sadly: there would be no more evenings on the drive. And so we started, ever so slowly, to pick up the pieces and to reinvent ourselves. My mother knew a new life beckoned, away from the dreary days of waiting in the cavernous old apartment. We moved to Queens—the Queens of tennis championships, the Queens of the World's Fair, but not the Queens of my mother. It was a foreign land to her. We might as well have gone to outer Mongolia. My new school was majestic and welcoming at the end of a leafy road adorned with low houses, far from Riverside Drive. Great halls of glitz lined the boulevards—places where it was possible to hold events honoring life's milestones that were elaborate enough to rival a presidential inauguration for the price of a package deal. "Where are we?" She used to say. Some of my classes in Queens were as big as my entire grade in the private school I had left. All the rules had changed.
My mother took a job at Bergdorf Goodman, an emporium of good taste to match her own, and there she flourished—first as a salesperson and later as manager of a high-end French fashion boutique. I can't remember how many times I visited her there, only to be presented to the legion of widows and divorcées working at various outposts in the store. "Meet my Roberta," she would say, beaming with pride. It seemed a new kind of self-expression had begun to define her existence.
"I need a passport right away," was the cry on the other end of the phone one Sunday morning. "They're sending me to Paris." Or was it paradise? Her voice sure sounded like it was. Breathless excitement was not something I witnessed very often in my mother's life. But I heard it that day, and I filled with joy at the thought that this dear soul had been recognized by the very population that commanded her attention. Dressing the grand dames, being part of a world of beauty and elegance, and knowing that she was admired and respected by her colleagues gave her great satisfaction. And it wasn't merely about a man, as it was for so many of her generation. No, she wasn't interested in spending her time "washing some old buzzard's socks."
Too bad it all came so late. My mother continued to work until her legs gave out. Nearly eight decades on this earth were enough to make the case for an ottoman and some pampering. And so a new chapter began. It was a time to step back into the role she knew best—the role of nurturer. My daughter and I were the beneficiaries. She was a mainstay in our home. From my daughter's earliest discordant cries of colic that had us bouncing off the walls to the birthday parties with too much cake and too many disappearing rabbits, Grandma was there. She picked up, dropped off, and stayed the course when we were so tired we were near delirium. And we all grew older. And then there were times when we got our signals crossed, when appointments were missed, when urgent staccato messages were left on my answering machine. And then there was that day. We had planned to meet at our favorite local watering hole. Walking had become such a struggle for my mother that I stationed myself close to the corner to help her from the bus to the restaurant. Two hours later, I was still visible, but not to my mother. She was nowhere. I tried calling her lobby, my lobby, her phone, my answering machine. I ran through every imaginable Enquirer headline. "Frail, elderly widow attacked in broad daylight." What had gone wrong? What had stopped her from making her way to the Chinese restaurant as she had countless times before? Eventually, I called her building again and heard from her doorman that she had been sighted in the lobby and was on her way upstairs. When I finally made contact with her and questioned her about her whereabouts, she was belligerent. There was a tone in her voice that I had not heard before. I knew that this was the beginning of a new time. Now when I looked behind myself, there would be no safety net. The hand I would hold would be my own.
My mother became a grand dame. Her auburn curls turned silver, and she didn't get around much anymore. A confounding dementia took hold and swept away everything but her spirit. She began to sing more than she talked—a lilting refrain of "Ooh la la." Maybe something she picked up in Paris. Eventually, even the singing stopped; everything stopped.
Now, a lifetime later, whenever I pass Riverside Drive, I feel both a comfort and uneasiness. It's been many decades since those evenings on the drive, and it has taken me this long to understand the unique balancing act between the pull of my history and the slow, steady motion propelling me forward. I frequently take the bus when I am there. When I emerge, I simply stand and watch. The cars are different. They are bigger, higher, bolder, but the colors are more somber. I try to count them, but they are moving much too fast.
Chapter TwoThe Doctor Will See You Now
It was a crisp fall morning when I, resolute and psyched for the cure, headed into my new periodontist's office. He had been highly recommended by my general dentist, and that was all I needed, for the choice was no longer my own; my gums had journeyed a greater distance from my teeth than was thought humanly possible.
"Hi" was the greeting from the perky receptionist as she slid past the celebrity memorabilia on the wall dividing those working from those waiting. After completing mountains of disclaimers, I was escorted to a cubicle with enough stainless steel to give "high tech" new meaning. I sat down, the chair reclined, and the periodontist appeared. A perfunctory greeting was delivered. My mouth opened on cue. No time was wasted; we got right down to basics: the X-ray. A barrage of numbers was bellowed as if I were at an auction. In no time at all, the periodontist was gone. In his place was a bevy of assistants busily conducting the "business" of my mouth, bickering noisily about the speed at which it was being done. I began to wonder—would things have been different had my photo graced the waiting room wall?
When the periodontist reappeared, I attempted to obtain the most basic information about my prescribed treatment and was briskly dismissed with the words, "That will all become clear at your next visit." Still attempting to clarify why I was there and what to expect, I was reminded, as one would remind a recalcitrant child, "Now what happens at your next visit? We just went over that."
What's wrong with this picture? Are we as patients no longer being seen, merely being serviced—and poorly at that? When we are addressed hastily in restricted codes or with unnecessary circumspection, what happens to our feelings of comfort and confidence? All too often, we wait interminably in some small cubicle so our doctor does not have to wait, watching apparitions in white glide by without even a perfunctory acknowledgment until it is officially our turn. Certainly, this behavior does not promote healing. It is no secret that the inability of many physicians to speak intelligibly, using language understandable to a layperson, has negative consequences. Would any other service provider speak German if the recipient of the service only understood English? Various studies have actually shown that more than ninety million of us don't adequately understand basic health information when we leave a physician's office. This poor health literacy leads to increased emergency room visits, higher rates of hospitalization, and heightened medical costs. So why is a move to humanize health care only recently being put on the radar screen? Today there are actually programs joining art and medicine that train medical students to fine-tune their powers of artistic observation in the hope that those skills can then be transferred to patient care. More recently, several medical schools are implementing the multiple-mini-interview application process, which is the equivalent of speed dating for medical school applicants. This process requires candidates to analyze an ethical question with which they might be faced as doctors. An interviewer listens to the response within eight minutes. The candidates then move on to the next situation, providing rapid-fire answers. Only time will tell whether this is of any value, but the very fact that it is being incorporated into the process is significant and only underscores the need for more responsiveness and better communication among medical professionals.
I remember when my mother was hospitalized in a teaching facility and was expected to endure an onslaught of students descending on her room, ignoring any wish for privacy that she might have had. As she pulled her covers up around her neck, what would have been wrong with asking, "May we observe you today?" Every physician has the right to ask; every patient has the right to refuse.
We are talking about empathy here—about reading a person. That is the only road to true healing; there is no shortcut. And it is not about idle chit-chat, which serves only the doctor, not the patient. I have actually been to a gynecologist whose lips, while nestled between stirrups on which I placed my feet, kept moving incessantly, sputtering and chattering nonsense. Is that behavior more for the doctor's benefit or the patient's? We also do not need to know, while lying prostrate, about our doctors own personal medical nightmares. That is way too much information. Such disclosures do not build rapport; they are merely gratuitous, self-indulgent exercises that are better left out of the exam. There is only one sure-fire way to build rapport, and that is to listen and, yes, to empathize—to take a moment to pause, to reflect, and to ask the question, "What does this person really want to know?" And, of course, what kills rapport faster than the doc assuring us that all questions are welcome as he or she escorts us toward the door?
Just the other day, I had another experience to rival the one at the periodontist. As a result, my misgivings about the present state of health care and the proliferation of large-group medical practices have been confirmed. There was a time when a solo practitioner took the time to get to know a patient, particularly a new one. As a result of the relationship that evolved between them, that physician would be more acutely aware of the underlying medical issues that the patient might have. Examinations were not perfunctory exercises administered by anonymous assistants in large rail-station—like facilities. That style of practicing medicine simply does not work for me.
Excerpted from READING MY MIND by Roberta Cole Copyright © 2012 by Roberta Cole. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Doctor Will See You Now....................9
Lessons of a Christmas Cactus....................19
Lady in Red....................27
Aunt Miriam and Uncle Max....................31
When Ninety Becomes the New One Hundred....................35
Once Upon a Time....................41
Ode to a Weekend House....................51
In Praise of Florida....................55
The Last Time I Saw Paris....................59
See You Now and Again....................63
EAST MEETS WEST....................67
A Touch of Zen for the World Weary....................69
New York, New York....................77
Nature and Nurture....................79
A Place of the Heart....................83
Jury Duty: The Wright Way....................87
Capri Close to Home....................89
Capri Far from Home....................91
Sampling Paradise in a Cup in Kauai, Hawaii....................93
Nobody Sends Letters Anymore....................101
Picking Up Signals....................109
A Certain Necessary Thing....................117
The Rule of Cool....................121
The Short List....................125
Pancakes on Monday....................127