Episode 20 Transcript
Coming up on "Life (Part 2)," how to survive-- even thrive-- when bad things happen. And later, she took on Don Imus with strength and dignity. Rutgers' women's basketball coach, Vivian Stringer, on mentoring the younger generation. Plus, inspiration from a former Mr. Big Bucks who found salvation behind the counter at Starbucks. All coming up on "Life (Part 2)."
(woman) Major funding for "Life (Part 2)" was provided by The Atlantic Philanthropies-engaging many to improve the lives of and achieve health and economic security for older adults. And by MetLife Foundation-- celebrating the wisdom, talent, and experience of older adults. MetLife Foundation proudly supports "Life (Part 2)."
[bass, & plucked strings play in playful rhythm; bright in tone]
(Robert Lipsyte) Welcome to "Life (Part 2)," I'm Robert Lipsyte, and I am not a better person for having had cancer. For a while, I was even a worse person. I gave myself permission to be short-tempered and judgmental, always in the cause of righteousness. Right! I remember once in the hospital, I was in robe and slippers, my chemo bottle swinging from an IV pole, I chased a cigar smoker out of the cafeteria. It was years later, having calmed down to my everyday level of repressed rage, that a little retrospective empathy creeped in. Who knew what demons that smoker was trying to blow away, what family member was sick upstairs, how that cigar might have been his only solace. If cancer was such a path to enlightenment, I would have tried to offer him some comfort. I guess cancer might offer a way back to who you really are. Some of your defenses have been cut away, masks have been burned off, basically nice people often become nicer, nasty people, nastier, but I can't help feeling suspicious of the happy talk from psychologists and patients and even doctors, who present cancer as an opportunity to start fresh, find self-love, and write a memoir about it, as I did. Surviving cancer, surviving any kind of major disease, is not about self-improvement. It's about getting back as quickly as possible to everyday life, to health, to who you were before your cells went crazy. It may be consoling to think every tumor has a silver lining, but I think that only works for people who feel the same way about clouds. As for cancer, just get over it.
I know, easily said-- stuff happens, suddenly you're seriously ill or you lose your job or you lose a spouse. Some people manage to survive and even thrive. With us are 3 people who can offer us advice I hope we'll never need, but just in case. Kate Braestrup's husband, a state trooper in Maine, was preparing for a career in the ministry when he died in a car accident. She took up her late husband's calling and became a chaplain for the Maine Game Warden Service. She tells this story in her memoir, "Here If You Need Me." Cheryl Gore-Felton is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine, where she studies the effects of stress and posttraumatic stress on health and recovery. Dr. Stephen Kopecky, a 2-time cancer survivor, is Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, where he specializes in cardiology. Welcome everyone, to "Life (Part 2)." Steve, I know that unlike me, you became a better person after cancer. [chuckles] Could you tell us about that?
(Dr. Stephen Kopecky) Well, the first cancer I had, I was in medical school, and I was unmarried, had no kids, and it was just kind of an inconvenience. The second one, 15 years ago, I had three kids under age 7, a wife, a career I was working on, and it was very different. And I went through a lot of the stages that you get. First you deny it, then you get very angry, why me? And you're kind of in shock. I finally said okay, I've got this, now what does it mean to me? It really meant to me, in a simple phrase was, every day was like Christmas. If I made it through this thing, every day is a day I can open up and just enjoy.
(Robert Lipsyte) Did you do this all by yourself?
(Dr. Stephen Kopecky) Well, I had some help; I had a lot of help from a chaplain.
(Robert Lipsyte) Who helped you?
(Dr. Stephen Kopecky) I remember one of the priests at Rochester Hospital helped me. And my biggest thing was the guilt. I was designed to work and do things, all that. I said the problem I have is I'm not working, I'm not being the breadwinner, I'm not doing these things I'm supposed to do. He said listen, you have a board of directors meeting tonight in your brain, and you call everybody in there. You're the chair of the board, you call the board in, it may be your grandmother, your father, your third grade teacher, whoever it is who's telling you you have to do these things, and say you need to get yourself better. When this is all over, you'll go back to work. I thought that was the craziest thing I ever heard, I did it that night, and it was one of the best things I've ever done.
(Robert Lipsyte) Kate, do you believe that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger?
(Kate Braestrup) No, I don't, and I'm very careful about this because I'm often presented to people, even in the field by game wardens. They'll say well our chaplain's coming and she's really nice and she lost her husband. Which sometimes means I'll show up and the person will say, I'm so sorry about your husband. [laughs] Okay. But I think that I'm often-- one can be presented as sort of a model like you can be like this too, and I am always very careful to tell people yes, I lost my husband, I had 4 small children, he died suddenly, but given that, there are law enforcement widows that I've met, who, their husband was murdered. They had a whole range of other things that were layered on top of just the straight loss, that made, to me, looking at them, they were "thriving" just because they could get up out of bed in the morning and keep going. That was so impressive to me, given how much that they carried with them.
(Robert Lipsyte) Now Cheryl, some people seem to recover from trauma, illness, abuse, loss of a loved one, more easily and more quickly than others. Is there a profile, or a set of characteristics, is there a kind of person whom we know is going to bounce back faster?
(Cheryl Gore-Felton) That is the question and it's the stuff that research is made of and we are busily trying to find the answer to that. But what we do know is that it's probably a biological, a psychological and a social framework in which we look at. So there's a biological component, genetics, predisposition, those sorts of things. There's a psychological foundation and component that we know, factors such as attachment, how you were raised.And social, what kind of support you have. All of those things matter when one is faced with trauma.
(Robert Lipsyte) It's an amazing laundry list. I mean you can't just look at somebody.
(Cheryl Gore-Felton) No, you certainly cannot.
(Robert Lipsyte) Yeah, but you look at a lot of people. Somebody's waiting by the water's edge with you while the game wardens are out to see if the kid fell through the ice and died or not. And being with the family, being with the father and mother, do you have the sense of whether these people are going to-- a hug is going to be enough, or there's going to be a big problem there?
(Kate Braestrup) There are things that I find, that I look at as signals of where they're going to go with this. And I actually define survival as coming back to the place where you can love again, where you can love more ideally. And one of the things that I am looking for and I have to say that I usually find, is that they are able to look for love and accept love even in the context of this awful waiting, either for news or for the body. And what I look for is, and what I usually get is, that here are these people who are waiting for news I don't want to even start to imagine, they will look around and say I didn't know there were this many people who were willing to help us.
(Robert Lipsyte) That's one of the psychological components that you talked about.
(Cheryl Gore-Felton) That's exactly right, that's exactly right.
(Robert Lipsyte) You must have seen people who have more or less the same diagnosis and prognosis in your mind, kind of have very different outcomes.
(Dr. Stephen Kopecky) Oh boy, that's so true. Some people's hearts just don't pump well, and one person does wonderful and lives for years and years, the next one just dwindles. I think a lot of it really is attitude and how are you going to accept this. A lot of it's physiology, but beyond, if the physiology is the same, the disease is the same, a lot of it's attitude. You have to somehow accept it and say, listen, I've got this thing, now what do I need to do to really make myself better and get through this?
(Robert Lipsyte) And also the idea that some people feel somehow victimized and singled out rather than certainly in the case of many kinds of illnesses, it's kind of a random drive-by.
(Dr. Stephen Kopecky) Yeah, and the ones that can't get through that, and we all feel victimized. When something happens, you say why me, why my husband? Why whatever-- we all feel that way, and hopefully that's a finite amount of time. It's the ones that it keeps going on and on and on, and you say wait a minute, you've got to get over this, you've got to deal with this. And they can't-- those are the ones that really need the help.
(Cheryl Gore-Felton) We really look for some cues in terms of who's going to likely do well and who's not. And it's not 100%, but for people who are hysterical in the midst of hearing either some traumatic news or experience it, and they're not able to recover from it rather quickly, those people we worry about because they're not able to process what's happened and put it into perspective or meaning that's going to allow them to do something with it that's going to be helpful to them. But we also worry about the people who are uncharacteristically quiet or subdued. And those are the two people that I want to go to and really draw out.
(Robert Lipsyte) But it does seem that those are such characteristics that one can't really prepare not to be passive, not to be hysterical. I mean, that's going to happen, isn't it? Is there anything that you can do to give the person the right attitude, or is it too late?
(Cheryl Gore-Felton) Oh, it's never too late. The old adage you can't teach a dog new tricks, that's not true. I had an aging dog and we taught her new things every day! When we are faced with a trauma, there's an emotion type of coping and there's a problem-focus type of coping. And the emotional coping things that we do are things like praying, things like wishful thinking. And all those things are very, very important. But there's a practical side of coping too, and that's what do I need to do? Do I need to take my medication, do I need to get to my doctor's appointments, do I need to stop smoking, do I need to diet and exercise? And we really need both of those in play.
(Robert Lipsyte) How important is the family around one?
(Dr. Stephen Kopecky) The family is extremely important because in the heart disease issue as compared to cancer, you get cancer and you know you're going to have it and it's years and years. Heart disease, half of all heart attacks, that's your first symptom, boom, heart disease. And half of those people are dead within an hour. And so the family's extremely important, and they have to come from all over the place. They're at work, they're across the country, whatever. It's not like cancer where people are kind of there waiting. And the family is so important to support people. And you mentioned just like when you, the families that see all the people helping them, I remember when I was in church and they would say we're going to pray for Steve, that's a huge, huge power you get from that, all these people, even just a simple thing like we hope you do better, we're praying you do better. That social support is so important.
(Robert Lipsyte) Well, the two things that I really come of this is one, be in the best shape that you can, and have as many really good friends and loved ones around you as possible. Thank you all so much for joining us on "Life (Part 2)."
(Robert Lipsyte) A heroine of mine is Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers' Women's Basketball Coach who made headlines for her fearless, straightforward defense of her team after sexist slurs by radio personality Don Imus. Where did that strength come from? Her recent memoir, "Standing Tall," is a story of a woman who overcame great adversity to become a mentor as she puts it, "to the next generation of leaders." And that's the story we focused on when we sat down to talk. Vivian Stringer, welcome to "Life (Part 2)." In "Standing Tall," something that really touched me very deeply was when your husband died, leaving you with 3 children, one with special needs there, it was the first time that you really understood what your mother had gone through, who was about the same age, in her 40's, when your dad died.
(Vivian Stringer) Yeah, I never-- we were all devastated as a family when we lost my father, father was such a young man, and realizing that my mom, my mom was 45 or 46, but we were close to the same age. My father and my husband died on the same anniversary, Thanksgiving, 20 years apart. So that in itself is enough to never let you forget Thanksgiving. But having said that, my mom was such a strong woman, because I never heard her cry; she never asked for anything, she just got another job. And she continued to keep the family together and I just remember the real devastation and the very scared feeling that I had and the feeling of inadequacy, like I didn't know where anything was, and I'm thinking I had far more resources than what my mom did. And I just have the greatest appreciation for who she has been, and thank goodness I've been fortunate enough to always appreciate her and try to show her every opportunity that I've gotten.
(Robert Lipsyte) It's interesting how some other coaches, male coaches, soon after your husband died, they were, well Vivian, you've got to start dating again.
(Vivian Stringer) Yeah, yeah.
(Robert Lipsyte) As if you ever have time, but what was your thought about that?
(Vivian Stringer) I thought that they, I was glad to at least hear it, because I wondered what people were thinking, just in terms of, people would just come by, "Hey, how you doing?" But this guy was like, you're a young woman, you need to start dating again. And I thought, I really don't have time, just as you said. I have 2 sons and Nina, who has 24-hour, 7-day-a-week care, and with this basketball that is so consuming, that I didn't. But my thought is that I think if it were to happen, I would welcome, I would know it, but I think that it would be difficult, because as we all form our lives, and my daughter's always going to be a major part of my life, I think that it's much more difficult because there are not too many people that are willing to embrace all the issues. Because I have a lot of things that I'm dealing with.
(Robert Lipsyte) A lot of us are dealing with younger people in the workplace. Sometimes our bosses, unfortunately, children, how do you deal with younger women, understanding their culture, their language, where they're coming from, without losing your authority? You're the coach.
(Vivian Stringer) It's interesting. I think that I understand quite a bit from the young women that I work with considering that they're between the ages of 17 and 22. I have to be, and I am into as much as possible with the young people because that's the group that I need to inspire and motivate and certainly, I continue to ask them questions, because I want to know about the things that they come in contact and the ideas that they come in contact every day.
(Robert Lipsyte) You've been doing this obviously throughout your coaching career. Have the young women changed? Has the culture changed?
(Vivian Stringer) Yeah, and I think that it's changing rapidly. The Internet and the ability to exchange ideas and to see the world quickly and to see news as it happens. It allows people to form opinions and to move and change very quickly. I definitely see a change.
(Robert Lipsyte) Have the changes made it harder or easier to create dynamic teams?
(Vivian Stringer) I think that it's made it more difficult. And the reason why I say that is because years past, when you talk to a young person about the family concept, that is that we make sacrifices and we do everything that we can for the sake of family, I, my reference was that I came from a family, a mom and a dad, if you will, a traditional family, hard working, nothing was more important to me than to make my parents proud. But young people today, don't have an opportunity to sit down as much at a dinner table where to see both parents, because if we are fortunate enough to have 2 parents, those parents many times are exchanging hi's and good-byes as they're going out from one shift to the next and through the door. It almost seems, to a great extent, that family is a rather foreign concept in the true sense of that, but I can tell you that young people, as has always been and as I do believe will always be, want to be embraced and they want to be a part of something that they consider to be special. And once they understand how to truly give of themselves and commit, I think that that is the greatest accomplishment and the greatest sense of pride that we all have.
(Robert Lipsyte) In a sense, one of your roles then is to create the team as family...
(Vivian Stringer) Very much so.
(Robert Lipsyte)...and yourself and your assistants as parent figures.
(Vivian Stringer) Very much so.
(Robert Lipsyte) How do you give Vivian Stringer a time out, or can you?
(Vivian Stringer) What I've tried to do in my life is try to be resilient, allow people to embrace me as well as I embrace them. But I'm also trying to be a little more wise, that is to prioritize the things that are really important. And what I've learned, if nothing else is that a long time ago I had control of my life, I just didn't know it, I just kept moving and just moving as fast as I could. And now I'd like to just sort of reflect and try to dictate at least where my hours and what I'm going to spend my time on.
(Robert Lipsyte) You're getting wiser as you get older?
(Vivian Stringer) Hum...I think so.
(Robert Lipsyte) What about physical energy? You're also in a kind of physical job. Certainly during practices, you're moving around. Do you have better moves, are you...?
(Vivian Stringer) [laughs] No, you know what, I stopped playing a long time ago, but what I do know is that if I were to exercise more I'd have more energy. So this is an example.
(Robert Lipsyte) So?
(Vivian Stringer) Okay, so here's an example of what we're talking about. I haven't done that because I've used an excuse. So I'll write a speech, or I'll have something else, so I'm sitting there, I'm frustrated with this because I have always been an extremely active person. But what I've decided is, you know what, guess what? I'm going to take time to eat the right foods because it will make you feel better, I'm going to take time to exercise.
(Robert Lipsyte) Wait a minute, you haven't been up until now?
(Vivian Stringer) No, I haven't done that. I should-- not the way that I should. Maybe better than most people.
(Robert Lipsyte) But being on this broadcast that woke you up. I mean, why are you thinking about this now? You look great, I mean, it's...
(Vivian Stringer) Thank you. I want to have more energy because I've got to find 27 hours out of 24 a day. So in order to to that...
(Robert Lipsyte) So what are you going to do, if you do it right, what are you going to do?
(Vivian Stringer) The basic thing is not eating the salt and cutting out all the sugars and being more conscious of the kind of food that I eat.
(Robert Lipsyte) But you're in a hurry, you throw stuff in your mouth.
(Vivian Stringer) I'm not one that eats a lot at all, in fact, I eat very little. It's just that if I'm writing a speech and it's 10:30, 11, 12:00 at night, I'm going to pick up, I'm going to eat something, you know what I mean--just things that I shouldn't do. But I think that I've just been having so many things recently that it's spilling over and I can't get the rest that I need and I'm thinking, what the heck is wrong. So that's okay, I'll stop for a second and...
(Robert Lipsyte) I think it's time for a time out. Coach, thanks so much for joining "Life (Part 2)."
(Vivian Stringer) Thank you so much.
(Robert Lipsyte) Here's a very different survival story. Michael Gates Gill was born into the sort of privilege that usually guarantees conventional success. His father was the legendary New Yorker writer Brendan Gill. Michael attended Yale, he became a successful advertising executive. But in "How Starbucks Saved My Life," he explains how he achieved his version of true happiness in a very unexpected way. Here's the small, or tall version.
(Michael Gates Gill) I'm so grateful to be talking with you today. Having been diagnosed with a rare form of brain tumor, I now live with a new sense of gratitude for every magical moment just being alive. My brain tumor has turned into a surprising kind of blessing, just one of many surprises that have come my way with advancing age. At 53, I was surprised when I was fired from my 6-figure salary job at an advertising agency. I realized too late that I had made a fatal career mistake-- growing old. Shortly afterwards, I got divorced and lost my big house. Then I made another major mistake. I went for a routine physical at 63. At 63 there is no such thing as a routine physical. My doctor discovered that I had a rare form of brain tumor. Walking out of his office in a state of shock, I granted myself one last treat, a great cup of coffee. I went into a Starbucks. I happened to sit down next to a young African American woman, who was hoping to hire someone. She said, "Would you like a job?" Without thinking, I said, "Yes." After a few weeks of cleaning toilets and mopping floors, and serving coffee, I made a surprising discovery. Working hard with people of every age, race, and background, to serve others, I was happier than I had ever been. Today, I live in a little attic apartment rather than a 25-room mansion. I have let go of the strain of maintaining a lot of heavy status stuff-- a big job, a big house, even the pretense that I might live forever. By embracing the simple joys of serving coffee to others, and the daily sense of how short life can be, I have now granted myself the greatest gift, the freedom to be me. I have discovered so late in life the surprising truth that every second is to be savored and enjoyed for itself, not for the stuff it can bring. Having lost so much external stuff, I have found a new kind internal happiness. Today I live each moment with the deepest sense of gratitude and a new surprising joy I would never have imagined.
(Robert Lipsyte) Some strong thoughts to sip and savor, hot or cold. For now, that's it for "Life (Part 2)." Thanks for joining us. I'm Robert Lipsyte. See you next time, older and better.
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