Category Archives: Relationships

Handshakes, Hugs and Cheek Kisses

If you and I were to meet I would likely shake your hand. The next time we crossed paths maybe we would greet each other with a smile and a hug. Perhaps a cheek kiss? Anything but a fist bump. These greetings are situationally and culturally determined.

I work in part, as a physician communication consultant: I help other physicians learn how to better connect with their patients and other colleagues. Often when doing this work I refer to something called the “Four Habits Model.” This model guides physicians through a patient visit and helps them understand ways they can communicate that will ease the interaction with a patient. Riva Greenberg, in a Huffington Post article about this model, explained that:

The model teaches four key habits, or behaviors: 1) Invest in the beginning of the visit and build rapport, 2) Elicit the patient’s perspective, 3) Demonstrate empathy and 4) Involve patients at the end of the visit in designing a treatment plan. The pay off: physicians become more effective and successful in their work and patients get better health outcomes.

I believe in this model of interaction – it works! This success seems to come especially from the very first step: the greeting. “Invest in the Beginning” gives advice for a struggling physician about how to quickly connect with another person: smile, sit down, acknowledge their wait, greet everyone in the room and shake hands – if culturally appropriate.

Ah, but that last bit is hard to get right! How we greet each other – for work or with friends – is more difficult than it appears on the surface. Both inter-culturally and within my own (white, professional, highly educated, middle-aged mother of three.) Many of my colleagues are not “hand shakers.” I am. They seem uncomfortable with the intimacy. I enjoy starting a patient visit with the connection of touch. Perhaps doing so eases the way towards the more intimate or invasive touching that I need to do as a physician with my patients?

Socially and in business settings Americans tend to shake hands with a firm grip and a few firm pumps of the hands. To convey extra warmth, we often use our free hand to cover their shaking hand. In a social setting with friends and families the handshake can evolve into a hug. Or, the handshake can be skipped altogether and replaced directly with a warm embrace. I am a hand shaker and I am also a hugger.

Once at a funeral, a friend whose mother had died spoke. She said that through the weeks surrounding her mother’s death she had learned a few things about life. She had learned how short time was. She had learned that her mother had many friends she’d never met. She learned that she too had a wide group of friends ready to support her. And, she had learned that “Jim Davis is the best hugger ever. When he hugs you it feels like you are safe and loved.” She was right. This friend of ours Jim stands six-foot six and is truly the world’s best hugger. I have learned through him how much a hug can mean. At the end of a dinner it can mean the most genuine of thanks. When my dog was hit by a car it meant that he was hurting with me. When I was frustrated beyond belief by doing taxes for the first time as a 50-year-old, it meant he had my back and knew how to help so – calm down.

All of those messages mean so much. As does the simple “I am so glad to see you” that comes with a big smile and hug as we greet friends. Or, the “I can be trusted and I care about you” that comes from a handshake and a smile when a doctor meets a new patient.

I am at work a hand shaker and in my private life a hugger. Both make me feel more connected to those around me and this connection makes me far happier with my life. Now, I am learning to be a kisser – a cheek kisser. In Europe social greetings involve cheek kissing. In the U.S. at least in major metropolitan areas, a single cheek kiss is becoming more common. Some sophisticated sorts even kiss on each cheek – right then left. Or is it left then right? My attempts to use cheek kissing as a greeting are not meant to mimic European sophistication but rather to bond with my boyfriend’s European friends and siblings.

I have had both many siblings and none. To be clear, I had three step siblings, three half siblings and married into 5. I was however, raised as an only child – usually wishing for some company and always wishing I fit in with all those part-sibs. When I got married it felt like I’d won the lottery but joining that pre-made family did not turn out to be a simple process nor did the marriage last.

Now years later, I have a wonderful relationship with a wonderful man who has two sisters. Meeting them for the first time was nerve-wracking. When I was a child I wanted so much to connect with my father’s three other kids. Before seeing them I would think hard about how I looked and what I wore. I would worry about how I acted and wondered if I was thin enough for them? Surprisingly now, as a normally confident and happy adult I found myself wondering the same things about meeting my boyfriend’s sisters.

He is Swiss, I am decidedly American. Europeans have an odd relationship with Americans. They want to visit our cities and beaches. They want to see our enormous national landscape and to shop in our stores. However, they cringe at our politics, manners, too ready smiles, white socks and sneakers. They think we are cool and… decidedly uncool. When I met his sisters I wanted to fall on the cool side of that spectrum. Clothing-wise I knew I would be fine (I own no tube socks.) I had spent enough time around him to be clear on manners. My politics are in line with theirs. But there was one smaller thing left that worried me.

Greeting people here at home is effortless. Handshakes and smiles around. A one-cheeked kiss with close friends or in big cities. Who thinks much about it? However, I knew in Europe they had a complicated cultural thing about cheek kissing. European women always look so stylish (with perfectly tied scarves) as they warmly greet each other with cheek kisses. No hesitation (right side or left, two or three, noise or no?) and they certainly don’t end up lip-locked. How’s an American gal meant to keep up?

I even went so far as to Google “cheek kissing in Europe” to find no less than 525,000 entries. Turns out there’s even a Wikipedia page explaining the custom. I found numerous blog posts and videos demonstrating how an American could learn this foreign ritual. My research, though, did not really guide me. The number of kisses depends on where you are – not just which country but within each country! Some areas start left, some right. Some make contact and some make noise.

I gave up trying to perfect the local custom. I gave up trying to be sure I fit in and just decided to be terribly American and… smile, shake and hug. The cool part? They did too. They smiled and kissed and laughed at my ineptness. Now, a few years later, he says I am “family” and they make me feel like it is true. They laugh and tease me every time we greet. And I am still not sure, if in the German part of Switzerland, it is two kisses or three.

So, I am at work – a hand shaker. In my social life – a hugger. Now I throw in the occasional cheek kiss – giggles and all.

 

 

 

 

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Cheeky Kisses

I have had both many siblings and none. To be clear, I had three step siblings, three half siblings and married into 5. I was however, raised as an only child – usually wishing for some company and always wishing I fit in with all those part-sibs. When I got married it felt like I’d won the lottery but joining that pre-made family did not turn out to be a simple process nor did the marriage last.

 

Now years later, I have a wonderful relationship with a wonderful man who has two sisters. Meeting them for the first time was nerve-wracking. When I was a child I wanted so much to connect with my father’s three other kids. Before seeing them I would think hard about how I looked and what I wore. I would worry about how I acted and wondered if I was thin enough for them? Surprisingly now, as a normally confident and happy adult I found myself wondering the same things about meeting my boyfriend’s sisters.

 

He is Swiss, I am decidedly American. Europeans have an odd relationship with Americans. They want to visit our cities and beaches. They want to see our enormous national landscape and to shop in our stores. However, they cringe at our politics, manners, too ready smiles, white socks and sneakers. They think we are cool and… decidedly uncool. When I met his sisters I wanted to fall on the cool side of that spectrum. Clothing-wise I knew I would be fine (I own no tube socks.) I had spent enough time around him to be clear on manners. My politics are in line with theirs. But there was one thing left that worried me.

 

Greeting people here at home is effortless. Handshakes and smiles around. A one-cheeked kiss with close friends or in big cities. Who thinks much about it? However, I knew in Europe they had a complicated cultural thing about cheek kissing. European women always look so stylish (with perfectly tied scarves) as they warmly greet each other with cheek kisses. No hesitation (right side or left, two or three, noise or no?) and they certainly don’t end up lip-locked. How’s an American gal meant to keep up?

 

I even went so far as to Google “cheek kissing in Europe” to find no less than 525,000 entries. Turns out there’s even a Wikipedia page explaining the custom. My research, though, did not really guide me. The number of kisses depends on where you are – not just which country but within each country! Some areas start left, some right. Some make contact and some make noise.

 

I gave up trying to perfect the local custom. I gave up trying to be sure I fit in and just decided to be terribly American and… smile. The cool part? They did too. They smiled and kissed and laughed at my ineptness. Now, a few years later, he says I am “family” and they make me feel like it is true. They laugh and tease me every time we greet. And I am still not sure, if in the German part of Switzerland, it is two kisses or three.

 

Choosing to Laugh

I watched another dumb movie recently. I have a penchant for unchallenging, predictable, movies. Best of all? Dumb romantic comedies. In this one a man and woman who are finding that they care about each other, are out at lunch. He invites her “to spend some time getting to know each other better.” As they sit, leaning in to each other, she asks a question about his work. Then another and another. Then one more. We know she is curious and cares to understand him; we can see she is nervous. He answers but, after a bit jests pointedly, that he feels as if he is being interviewed. She stiffens, looks hurt and sits back abruptly.
Even in the best of relationships there pass small moments of friction. Socks on the floor again or toothpaste left in the sink set us on edge. A comment about what the partner is wearing or their hair color that  triggers some deeper insecurity. A word carelessly said. Or not said. Most of these moments should be allowed to pass by; they are not worth making much of. But, so often we chase them down and chew them apart and, in doing so cause unintentional injury.
Often i feel these moments creeping up me, hanging in the air a with sense of tottering balance. I can choose to respond with a not intended vitriol that somehow in these stupid moments can fly out of me. Or, i can choose to let them float by without response and take a deep breath of air full with understanding that the little things are just that. I would wish for a warm humor at those times. An ability to shrug my shoulders and laugh at myself and ask, “why take life so seriously?” Socks on the floor, toothpaste on the sink and questions about hair color are just socks, messes and curiosity. They are not more. 
 
While watching the movie I momentarily held my breath. I could see myself there on the screen, (as the leading lady of my own life) and knew the response to his jest could go one of two ways. I would understand her retreat back into the chair, her stiffened chin and internal kicking of herself for going overboard in her attempt to understand him. I could see myself doing just the same defensive retreat. It was a relief to see her pause, and then laugh and say that “yes, she had a way of going too far when she felt nervous!” What a gift – to accept and lightly laugh at oneself! 

Love and “Non Sequitur” Defined (or, A Weekend Alone)

What does a working mother of three do when she finds herself home alone for three days? Well, true story, I can tell you the answer:

Bake, lots. Clean, prune and organize. And think. Lots.

Turns out though that I wasn’t completely alone. I had two rambunctious, trouble-generating puppies to keep me company.

Okay, I baked. First though, I started to clean the kitchen cabinets. As I cleaned I found bits and pieces of things that needed using up. The first was a jar of soy flour from… well, a while ago. So, I baked 8 dozen pumpkin muffins using the soy flour (there was more to use up than I thought.) Then I found a tube of almond paste left over from making stollen this Christmas so, I baked an almond pound cake. I found 3 half bags of chocolate chips. You guessed it – cookies.  Then a bag of golden raisins, a 1/2 box of currants, and some walnuts? Oatmeal cookies.

I thought about the meaning of love – after all, it was Valentines Day this week. Turns out, when you look on-line for a definition of love you may find out that

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 

The dogs certainly challenged this definition; I may not have been endlessly patient. I may have angered. I’m afraid I can list their wrongs (they got in the chicken coop – twice, vomited on the rug – once, peed on the rug – once, made a hole in the fence – once, escaped through their new hole in the fence – once, woke me at 530 – three times). And, I did boast a bit when a nice lady complimented my ability to walk two young labs at the same time (didn’t mention that I had run them in the fields for two hours before she saw us limping home.)

I watched TV and learned, from an episode of  “How I Met Your Mother”, that

opening yourself up to another person means opening yourself up to going a little insane

Okay, that definition of love I’ve got covered.

 

I looked up the meaning of the word non sequitur.

I did some laundry (I may have been alone but, I do have three kids.) Pruned the roses. Organized the freezer (to fit in all the baked goods) and then felt compelled to eat all the odd bits of frozen things there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Read the NY Times all the way through. Looked at Twitter despite planning to take a “holiday” from social media. And there I found this definition of love:

Love, I’ve recently recognized, is that moment when you desperately need forgiveness from the one who inspires your best self for having just been, in some small, petty way, your base self.

I walked the dogs again. Made the beds. Cleaned a closet. Sorted through the CDs; listened to lots of Alexi Murdoch, Macy Gray and The Cure. And, spent several nice hours on the phone talking with a handsome man from Switzerland who has always inspired my best self. My Swiss friend asked me – It is hard to live alone isn’t it?

Its going to rain Tuesday.

 

2pooches

Puppies and Love (or seriously? you ate that?)

I’ve been struggling all week with what to write about. All that comes to mind is the vomiting dog. So be it.

Last Sunday I did not have to work. For a Pediatrician in flu season that is a big deal. On top of that I woke up early while the kids slept in. I let the puppy out, fed him, made coffee and let him out again. I got the papers from the driveway and proceeded to do the very, very uncommon thing for me, and go back to bed. I curled up with my coffee and started to read. Ah.
I heard the rustling but chose to ignore it.
So about the dog, it all starts about 2 years ago when a stray puppy poodlish thing showed up on our door step one night. Cute and without anyone to claim him he became ours. Now, I had never owned a dog before. I had owned mice, cats, gerbils, fish, an octopus, guinea pigs, many cats and 6 darn chickens. No dogs. They were nice but honestly, I did not understand them. Then “Percy” showed up. He was as much a pain as he was fabulous. Who knew how great a dog’s love could make you feel? It did not matter how hard the rest of life seemed, it did not matter how rough the day was, Percy was there at the door wagging, licking, sneezing in joy to greet us. He healed us and, one day, suddenly and wrenchingly he was gone.
Last summer a sweet friend offered us a chance to own a dog again. The financial cost was more than I was able to bite off. She arranged to have it lowered. The emotional risk felt huge. How could we love again? But, after much midnight thought and loads of dinnertime conversations with my kids we all decided to take the leap again. We now have wagging, licking, happy 4 month old  “Zeus”. He is jet black with soulful eyes and he is here teaching us all to trust again. Which brings this rubber band story back to the rustling sounds.
I was in bed enjoying some article about the terms “husband” and “wife” and looking forward to reading about the latest travel recommendations when I finally decided it was time to see what was going on below me. Good decision made too late. Zeus had by then devoured 1.5 pounds of dry rice with a side of corn meal.
The vet advised that I administer a chaser of hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting. I did, Zeus didn’t. We looked at each other. He licked me. I threw the ball. We waited. Then the vomiting started. After an hour of cleaning up puppy-brewed risotto I heard my 13 year old wake up. She had been feeling ill the night before and now, suddenly felt rather queasy. So I ran a bowl up to her bedside while thinking to myself “Seriously?” She sleeps with one of the cats, a sweet, timid kitty who loves her more than Friskies. As I hugged my girlie and held the bowl, the tortoiseshell kitty on her bed started retching. I moved the cat to the floor just in time.
I mopped up the rice. The girl used her bowl. The dog? Well, he cleaned up after the cat.
The paper remained unread.
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Real Friends Would Iron For Me

I am fortunate to have a wonderful group of women as friends. They form several overlapping and intermingling groups. My “birthday group” – six women who meet for dinner on the six birthdays. (Well really five, one gets slighted every year since her birthday is on 12/29; somehow we are all so relieved to have survived the holiday season and all of its joyful work, that we can never quite coordinate to meet on her day. She’s awfully sweet about it and teams up with our January birthday.) My book group, together since early 2000 with many additions and departures but with a core that has stayed from the beginning. I have a group from when our kids were all at the same parent-cooperative preschool. Our families meet for dinners, holidays, camping and gather to each others arms in times (too many lately) of loss.  My bunko group. Bunko? Really? Well, we haven’t actually played for years. We evolved instead, to host nice dinners monthly for each other. Then when that began to seem like an unnecessary amount of work added to our already too-busy lives, we started “Bunko-lite” meant to be just drinks and dessert. Last night, we had even better – just went out to a local pub! Perfect.

So, I do have two or three dear, close male friends. One recently asked me what all these women talk about when we get together. Men? Kids? Jobs? Sex (he said hopefully)? Hmmm… what do we talk about?

So, last night…. We did talk about men some. Sex was mentioned. Our kids too of course. And our parents, jobs, puppies and in-laws. But what captivated our attention? Ironing.

One wonderful woman, a skilled R.N. by training and super-mom by love, was telling us about how she had been inspired by my recent blog post How the Grinch Got it Right to let some things go. Like ironing the sheets. Ironing the sheets?! We giggled over that and decided that must be a nurse-thing since my mother does the same at times (and they both miter their corners nicely also). Then we all joined in the laughter as another friend told us about her son showing her an iron he had found in the closet once and asking what it was. A few of us remembered a comment one friend’s grandmother made: “I’d rather whore than iron” – a comment that has stuck firmly in my mind; it has such earthy wisdom about it. One gal then volunteered with a twinkle in her eye, that sometimes as she flat irons her hair, she touches up her shirt as well! We all liked that time-saving, practical,  modern-mom tip. Another remembered that her family had an ironing lady when she was a child. When I asked the friend next to me if she was an ironer she responded simply “no”. Ah, why would she… her husband irons. And cleans. (now that is a man to talk about).

I have ironed. I was able to say proudly, that in fact I ironed last month. And, almost exactly four years before that. I ironed while watching Obama’s inauguration and this year, while watching the election returns. Generally though, I subscribe to Erma Bombeck’s theory:

My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.

Erma Bombeck was also wise about the value of friendships. As she suggested, I have friends who would tell me to eat dessert, never defend a husband who gets me an electric skillet for my birthday and who will definitely tell me that

they saw my old boyfriend and he is a priest.

I have friends who have brought me countless dinners when needed, cared for my children and held me while I cried. But, darn them, I just can’t get them to come over and iron!

The Incredible Lightness of Self

On my far too long flight home from Zürich recently, I watched a dumb movie. I love unchallenging, predictable, movies. Best of all? Dumb romantic comedies. In this one a man and woman who are discovering that they care about one another, are out at lunch. He invites her “to spend some time getting to know each other better.” As they sit, leaning in together, she asks a question about his work. Then she asks another and, another. Then? One more. We know she is curious and cares to understand him; we can see she is nervous. He answers but, after a bit squirms and jests pointedly , that he feels as if he is being interviewed. She sits back abruptly.

Even in the best of relationships (romantic or parental) there pass small moments of strife. Socks on the floor again, toothpaste left in the sink set us on edge. A comment about what the partner is wearing or their hair color that  triggers some deeper insecurity. A word carelessly said. Or, not said. Most of these moments should be allowed to pass by; they are not worth making much of. But, so often we chase them down and chew them apart and, in doing so cause injury. Unintentional injury.
Often as they build, I can feel these moments creeping up on me. There hangs in the air a sense of tottering balance. I could respond with a not really meant vitriol that somehow in these stupid moments can fly out of me. Or, I could choose to walk by the moment without response and take a deep breath. A breath full with understanding that the little things are just that.
If I could wish, I would wish for a warm humor at those times. An ability to shrug my shoulders and laugh at myself and ask, “why take life so seriously?” Socks on the floor, toothpaste on the sink and questions about hair color are just socks, messes and curiosity. They are not more.
While watching the movie I momentarily held my breath. I could see myself there on screen (as the leading lady of my own life) and knew the response to his jest could go one of two ways. I would understand her hurt retreat back into the chair, her stiffened chin and internal kicking herself for going overboard in her attempt to understand him. I could see myself doing just the same defensive retreat.
It was a relief to see her pause, and then laugh and say that “yes, she had a way of going too far when she felt nervous!” What a gift – to accept and to lightly laugh at oneself! What lightness!

Trying on The Coat

I spoke with a patient’s mother this week. She said that she was sure doctors hear this all the time but… “thank you.” She explained that it seemed what we do must become commonplace in our minds. That we could not really grasp the meaning to her as a parent, of the work we do. She thought I could not understand how much it means that her child is alive and I found it hard to answer her. “You are so very welcome” of course came to mind. Beyond that I felt a bit tongue-tied.

A friend of mine lost a beloved family member recently. The tragedy is overwhelming. So overwhelming that when I was talking earlier to a mutual friend he commented that it was bringing up his own past struggles. He said he felt as if he was “wearing her coat” of pain along with her.  Yes. Exactly.

I have at times shouldered that same coat. In random dark moments my mind slips into thinking about my children’s mortality. Just last night as my eldest drove off in the minivan (a hot date car for certain), I called out to him to “please drive safely!” As if that call out could prevent anything. But still, as my mind wandered towards the worst, I tried. Last year a child I knew (out side of work) died in a heart breaking way. It took me months to stop waking up on the occasional  dark, early morning in a cold, silent panic imagining the pain that her family must feel. I imagined the tragedy, the event. I dipped my toe into their shoes. I wore their coat for a bit.

How could simple words tell my patient’s mother how well I understood her thanks? While I have not walked in her shoes, I have tried her coat on at times. Doing so gives me the strength to reach out and help her more fully. And to answer her that “No, what we do is not commonplace at all. I too feel the wonder of a life helped.”