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Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

You don’t have to look hard to see them alongside the road. They aren’t even always on the sharpest curves or the steepest hills.

There, along the median or over there, by the right side of the road, are the homemade crucifixes, the flowers, the stuffed animals and the personal effects of people who never made it wherever they were going, their lives ending on or near asphalt as other vehicles collided with theirs.

My family recently took a road trip, where we easily could have become another statistic, and our family or friends could have just as easily been visiting the spot where it ended for one, two, three or all four of us.

I was driving during a recent weekend, excited by the open road and eager to remove the family from the neighborhood patterns that have defined our lives for well over a year.

My wife navigated, checked her email, exchanged texts with friends, and regularly asked if I wanted her to drive, if I needed a drink, or if I was hungry.

Our son was napping behind me, his head tilted back and to the left. Our daughter was immersed in virtual interactions with her friends, head down, a Mona Lisa smile plastered on her face.

With my peripheral vision, I traced the flow of the taller and shorter trees that passed by, the familiarity of the Texas, Indiana, Ohio and California license plates on nearby cars and trucks, and the click, click, click of the road that churned beneath our wheels.

Up ahead, the driver of one of the thousands of SUVs that dot the American landscape hit his brakes. My wife instantly saw it and closed her eyes. Unlike me, she typically hits her brakes as soon as she sees the red lights at the back of the car in front of her.

I immediately take my foot off the accelerator, where it hovers over the brake. As we rapidly approached the car in front of us, I applied the brake with some force, coming to an almost complete stop just feet before reaching the bumper.

I exhaled in relief, while immediately hitting the hazards. I wanted the cars behind me to know I wasn’t merely touching my brakes, but that I, and all the other cars around me, were stopping.

For a moment, I chatted with my wife. I have no idea what she or I was saying, when I noticed a truck coming towards at an incredible rate of speed.

“Hold on! This isn’t good!” I shouted, waking my son and drawing my daughter away from her phone.

I reflexively tapped my accelerator and drove my car directly towards the nearly stopped SUV on my right side. The truck, meanwhile, dove into the thin shoulder.

As it flew by, the truck somehow missed us completely. The car next to me honked in frustration, as the driver, who must have moved to her right, glared. I wanted to tell her that a truck might have crushed our family if the driver and I hadn’t each made last second adjustments.

Her lane kept moving, and she likely didn’t give my sudden maneuver another thought. With my hands in a vice grip on the wheel and my breathing rapid, I stared at the truck in front of me. I wasn’t sure whether I would have liked to punch or hug the driver, who didn’t notice me slowing down, see my hazard lights or leave himself enough room to stop. At the same time, though, he — and it could have been a woman, because I never saw the driver — turned onto the small shoulder, finding just enough space to squeeze past me without destroying my car, my family or my life.

For the next several minutes, I struggled to drive, as the image of the speeding truck with nowhere to go in my rear view mirror replayed itself in my head.

“Are you okay? Do you need me to drive?” my wife asked anxiously.

My family and I were okay. We weren’t a part of a sad story that ended on an American highway. Skid marks left on the road weren’t a marker for the final seconds of our lives.

We are grateful for the combination of factors that turned a close call into a near miss. Perhaps this happened for a reason beyond giving us more opportunities to extend the journeys of our lives. Perhaps one of the purposes is to provide a warning to everyone else to remain vigilant, to brake early and to stay sharp and focused on the roads.

Pixabay photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Here we go again. I have had another encounter with a tick, but this time, to make the story more interesting, the villain is a white tick. At least it can appear white when it is engorged with blood. My blood. Just the thought of it is enough to make one’s skin crawl, right? 

Well, it’s tick season particularly now, and you don’t have to go into the woods to find them. They can be in the beautiful lawn at your house or in the bushes that you brush against when you take out the garbage. Unless you are wearing long pants that are tucked into your socks and a long sleeve shirt and hat, you could be a victim. More likely, your dog could appear to a tick as a delicious steak on four legs, and if bitten, the dog can inadvertently carry the tick into your home. I think the white tick found me as I was sitting on the cement edge of a pool and wearing just shorts and a short sleeve shirt in the recent 90-degree weather. (Chicken that I am, I found the water still too cold to jump in.)

We all know that ticks can carry Lyme disease. But there are other diseases that could potentially be transmitted through their bite. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is another, and despite its geographical designation, this malady can occur throughout the United States and yes, even on Long Island. A local  internist I know tells me he has seen several cases in the course of his practice. 

RSMF, as it is sometimes referred to, is a bacterial disease that typically begins with a fever and fierce headache. A few days later a rash develops, made up of small spots usually starting on the wrists and ankles. Other symptoms may include muscle pains and vomiting.

To my surprise, when I had routine blood work done for an annual check-up a couple of years ago, I discovered that I had indeed had RSMF from that previous tick bite but with no symptoms.

Asymptomatic versions do indeed occur, and I was one such example. Now I have again been bitten, and the question is whether I could get the disease again, if the tick carried RSMF, or if I have antibodies sufficient enough to make me immune. Then again, I cannot be sure that this recent tick did not carry Lyme disease or some other microbial agent of infection.

What to do?

It never helps to have a medical problem on a weekend. I apparently was bitten on Saturday afternoon and found the tick behind my right knee on awakening Sunday morning. My hand was drawn to it because of a severe itch. At first, because it was small and white, we thought it was a skin tab that had spontaneously appeared. But upon pulling, it came off and began crawling away. Since I had experience with a tick bite before, I knew to capture the tick in a plastic sandwich baggie and save for the physician to send for testing.

As the day progressed, I could feel a tiny lump where I had been bitten, and the area around the lump became red and warm, with the same intense itch that had originally drawn my attention. By Tuesday, I had an appointment with my physician, and I had more than only the tick to show him. The red area had increased from the size of a silver dollar to that of my palm. I am now taking doxycycline, the antibiotic of choice, as well as an antihistamine for what is probably an allergic reaction.

I share this with you as a cautionary tale to urge you to check yourselves daily for ticks that might have targeted you as a good meal. And further, don’t just assume a tick on you will be black and therefore readily spotted. Take heed from my experience. They can also be white.

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

I’m not much of a planner. I put together professional plans, creating a schedule for stories I’d like to research and write, and I coordinate calls and meetings all week, but I don’t tend to go through the calendar to figure out when to visit socially with friends and family or to attend cultural events.

This summer, however, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to look at the calendar and consider a wide range of activities that would have been difficult or impossible a year ago.

I’m delighted to plan to visit with my extended family. I haven’t seen my brothers in over 19 months. I have visited with them on the phone and zoom, but that’s not nearly the same thing as seeing them in person, throwing a ball with them, flying a kite off the beach or just sitting on the couch and having a free-flowing conversation.

I am also delighted to consider planning a trip to museums. On one of our first dates, my wife and I went to the Metropolitan Museum, where we wandered slowly through the exhibits, continuing to build on our relationship even as we studied the artifacts left behind by the generations that fell in love and married hundreds of years earlier. I recall wandering through those wide hallways close to a quarter of a century ago, listening to my wife’s stories and delighting in laughter that, even now, provides validation and meaning to each moment.

I am hoping to travel to Washington, D.C., this summer, to see the air and space museum. Each of the planes hovers overhead, and the space capsules from the early days of the NASA program are inspirational, giving me a chance to picture the world from a different vantage point, seeing the shimmering blue waters that cover the Earth.

I have watched planes fly overhead throughout the pandemic, but I haven’t ventured to the airport or onto a plane. I’m looking forward to the opportunity that flight provides to turn trips that would take over 10 hours into one- or two-hour flights.

Visiting family, friends and strangers in different areas, eating foods that are different and unfamiliar and experiencing life outside of the small circles in which we’ve restricted ourselves opens up the possibilities for the summer and beyond.

My son can prepare for the start of college and my daughter for a return to college with the hope that they can enjoy more of the academic, social, extracurricular and community service experiences that they imagined when they envisioned these years of growth, development and, hopefully, independence.

I spoke with a scientist recently who told me that the inspiration for a work he’d just completed came from a conversation he had during a conference a few years ago. He had been sitting in an auditorium, listening to a speech, when he and a stranger exchanged thoughts about the implications of the work. From that interaction, he started a new project that became a productive and central focus of his research efforts. As soon as conferences are back on the calendar, he hopes to return to the road, where such unexpected and unplanned conversations can trigger inspiration.

To be sure, I recognize that the realities of travel and planning don’t always dovetail with the hopes and expectations. I recently visited with our extended community at a social gathering, where I stood downwind of someone who wore so much cologne that I couldn’t taste the food I was eating.

I’m sure there’ll also be lines, traffic jams and literal and figurative turbulence as I leave our home cocoon. 

Still, this summer, I’ll be grateful for the opportunity to do so much, including and especially, the chance to plan.

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

A few weeks ago, a Chicago White Sox player named Yermin Mercedes did what he was paid to do, hitting a ball far. His manager Tony La Russa was furious because his player broke an unwritten rule, swinging at a 3-0 pitch from an infielder for the Minnesota Twins when his team was already winning by 11 runs.

The next day, La Russa seemed fine with a Minnesota pitcher throwing a pitch behind the knees of Mercedes as punishment for a violation of that unwritten rule.

So, what are other possible random unwritten rules regarding life sportsmanship and what should the potential punishments be for violating those rules?

For starters, if you’ve lost a lot of weight, you don’t need to ask other people who clearly haven’t lost any weight, or perhaps have put on pandemic pounds, how they’re doing on their diet or if they’ve lost weight. They haven’t lost any weight. We know it, they know and you know it. You don’t need to contrast your success with their failure. The punishment for that kind of infraction should be that you have to eat an entire box of donuts or cookies in under a minute.

If you rescued a dog from the vet or the pound or from a box beneath a bridge in the middle of an urban war zone, you don’t need to ask where I got my overpriced and poorly trained dog. We get it: you did something great rescuing a dog, while those of us with designer dogs are struggling to get them to be quiet while we repeat the few answers we get right to the questions on “Jeopardy!” The punishment for such self-righteous dog ownership should be that you have to pick up the designer dog’s poop for a day. If you’ve been over virtuous, you also might have to compliment him on the excellent quality of his droppings and send other people a TikTok of your poop flattery.

If your kid just won the chess championship, you don’t need to wear a different T-shirt each day of the week that captures the moment of her triumph. The punishment for over bragging is that you have to wear a tee shirt that says, “Your kid is just as amazing as mine and certainly has better parents.”

If you’re in first class on a plane and you board first to sit in your larger, more comfortable seat, you don’t have to look away every time someone might make eye contact or, worse, through your fellow passengers. You aren’t obligated to look at everyone, but you can make periodic eye contact or provide a nod of recognition to the plebeians from group six. The punishment for such above-it-all behavior should be that you have to echo everything the flight attendant says as others board the plane, offering a chipper “good morning” or “welcome aboard.”

Finally, if you’ve taken a spectacular vacation, you don’t need to share every detail of your trip, from the type of alcohol you drank to the sweet smell of the ocean breeze to the sight of a baby bird hatching just outside your window. If you overdo the unsolicited details, you’ll have to listen to every mundane detail of the person’s life who was home doing his or her job while you were relaxing. Afterwards, you’ll have to take a test on his story. If you fail, you have to listen to more details, until you can pass.

Maybe Mr. La Russa has a point: unwritten rules could be a way to enforce life sportsmanship outside the lines.

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

After setting the American record for the longest consecutive streak of 340 days away from Earth aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Scott Kelly returned and flopped into a pool.

While we all haven’t been away from Earth for any length of time, we have been living in a modified version of the normal we knew.

Like Kelly, we have spoken with our close friends and family through electronic devices that beam them onto a screen in front of us.

We have watched some of their drained faces, as they isolated themselves for a month or more, battling through the cough, fever and discomfort of COVID-19.

We have also seen our relatives at much greater than arm’s length as we celebrated landmark birthdays, the birth of new family members, and socially-distanced graduations and limited-attendance weddings.

In two weeks, I am anticipating the familiar feeling of diving into a familial swimming pool. That’s when I will see family members I haven’t seen in over a year.

We worked around our busy schedules not only to get vaccinated before we saw each other in real life, but also to do so long enough in advance of that meeting that our immune systems would have time to arm themselves against viral spike proteins.

This is the longest period my wife and I have ever been separated from our parents. We know how fortunate we are that our parents didn’t get sick.

We took nothing for granted, staying away from our parents and extended family. We might as well have been on the International Space Station, which was probably among the safest places people have ever lived, given the limited social contact in a controlled environment 254 miles from the nearest pool, family member or pizza restaurant.

We feel so much closer to a more familiar life than we have in over a year, as we anticipate seeing our parents and family members who can attend our son’s graduation. The planned visit has become a dominant and daily topic of conversation in our house. We are wondering what food and drink to serve, how to move everyone from nearby hotels to socially-distanced seating at graduation and what games to prepare in our backyard for our grown children to play with their cousins.

These questions and decisions might have seemed like a responsibility prior to the pandemic, as hosting anyone requires attention to detail and consideration for our guests. That responsibility has transformed into the kind of privilege we might have taken for granted in other years, before the pandemic disrupted family gatherings and turned the calendar into a reminder of delayed gratification of family gatherings.

While we will likely engage in the Texas two-step, trying to gauge how close we can get physically to each other, it’s easy to imagine that hugs, kisses and appreciative smiles will bubble up from the excitement of a backyard that has hosted more routine gatherings of birds, squirrels and chipmunks than of the people who stare at flickering screens in our home.

As we prepare to dive into our own family pools of support, affection and love, we are incredibly grateful to everyone who made such a return to normal possible, from those who explored the basic science that led to the vaccine, to those who developed and tested the vaccine, to those who treated family and friends, to those who stocked the shelves with the food and drinks we needed to take us from the uncertainty of the pandemic to the anticipation of a celebration. Absence made our hearts grow fonder for family and increased our appreciation for everyone who allowed us to reunite with the most important pieces of ourselves. In just a few weeks, we look forward to diving into a more familiar world.

Mockingbird. Photo from Unsplash

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

This is the time of year when our five senses go into overdrive. Let me enumerate. In no particular order of delight, I’ll start with sound.

The birdsong is sometimes loud enough to provide dance music at a wedding. There are all kinds of musical bars put forth: crooning, warbling, shrieking, hooting, gurgling. There is an incredible range of notes, from high soprano and countertenor to tenor and baritone, even bass. Sometimes the birds seem to be singing in a chorus, other times at counterpoint. If your bedroom window is open, they can wake you up at first light. There can be many birds in the trees or there may just be one mockingbird pretending to be an entire flock. 

The sight of the birds is as much a treat as the sounds, if you can spot them among the leaves. They can range from a nondescript small brown chick, who nonetheless utters the most melodious songs, to crimson or orange-breasted or blue-tailed or grandly multi-colored varieties of different sizes and shapes that perch briefly on the porch railing or snack on the front lawn. They can seem the model of purpose as they deliver food to the open beaks of their newly hatched offspring or of patience as they sit quietly atop the eggs and wait for the next generation to appear.

Speaking of sight, we go from the early purple of crocuses and joyful yellow of forsythia and daffodils to the lush pink of dogwood and cherry blossoms to the deep red of tulips and azaleas. All of that artwork is provided against a bright green backdrop of new leaves on the bushes and luxuriant attire for the tree limbs. Branches on either side of the road unite in the air overhead, creating sun-dappled tunnels as we drive the back-way routes.

The waves at the beaches are calm now, climbing the sand with rhythmic whispers, and the seagulls fly low, looking for a fish dinner in the clear blue water. Too soon, there will be motor boats and jet skis on the harbors and lawn mowers and leaf blowers keeping the landscape orderly — but not yet. The magic and peace of early spring are still, however briefly, with us to be treasured.

The smells at the beach of salt in the air and blossom-scent on the breezes are intoxicating harbingers of the season. Lilacs, that always know when it is Mother’s Day, perfume the neighborhood. And among us humans, there are always those early-bird few who fire up the grill and begin to barbeque on a sunny weekend afternoon. If we play our cards right, we might be invited to share in this primitive treat. The taste is so much better than anything cooked indoors.

Taste is tantalized by early fresh fruit, like locally grown strawberries, and by vegetables like baby asparagus and snow peas. Several different kinds of dark green lettuces are also ready for dining early in the spring.

As for touch, there is the sweetness of a gentle breeze, reduced on a rare spring day from a stern wind to a caress against the cheek. It carries with it the promise of a summer day and the seduction of a summer night.

Add to all of that, the temperature in spring can reach a universally perfect range. Now I know some people like it hot, really hot, even up in the 90s when they can happily sweat. And some people like it cold, even freezing, during which time they can feel energized and stimulated to ski and ice skate. But all humans feel comfortable moving about in a temperature of 75 degrees. Knowing that could be found most months in San Diego almost prompted my husband and me to move there some 50 years ago. Of course, there were other things to consider, and we ultimately moved to Long Island.

Not for a moment do I have any regrets. My five senses are glad we live here.

Photo from Pixabay

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Strange as it may seem, I always wanted to be a mother. Even before I was in elementary school, I remember hoping someday to be a mother. Thinking back on my early years, I was really more of a tomboy, playing stoop ball and stick ball on the block with the other kids. I did have one doll that I loved. It was quite a progressive doll for its time. I could give it a bottle, and it would subsequently pee. My mother would make sure the baby bottle that had come with the doll was filled with water and not milk. But other than that, I wasn’t particularly given to imaginative girly games like playing house or cooking. I just knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be, among other pursuits, a mother. The idea, of loving a child, teaching a child, nurturing a child, made me happy.

Then I grew up, married a man who also loved the prospect of having a child, and in a short time, we had three. That is, we had three boys within four years and two days. Ever hear the old adage, be careful what you wish for? On the one hand, I adored my boys. I fed them, bathed them, dressed them, played with them and hugged them a lot. On the other hand, I well remember a moment when I sat at the kitchen table, my head down on the crook of my arm, and cried. The three of them were screaming “Mommy!” and chasing each other around my legs with two of them needing diapers changed at the same time. There were dishes in the sink, the next batch of dirty laundry was behind me in a pile, waiting to be put into the overworked washing machine, I had not had a chance yet to change out of my nightgown, and I was seriously doubting I would ever get out of the kitchen alive. This from someone who was never much for crying except in sad movies.

They were exceptionally good communicators. I was convinced that they caucused every night before bedtime and arranged for each to wake me up during the night with a loud scream at a different time. One of my neighbors, catching sight of me putting out the garbage one morning, commented to another neighbor that he had never seen anyone look so tired. Yup, that was me.

But then there was the other side of the experience. They got a little older, made friends who, it seemed, always lived at the farthest reaches of the district, and of course I drove them frequently to play dates. It gave me a chance to meet lots of other mothers. I drove them to weekly music lessons, which enabled them to join the school bands and orchestras. We proudly attended their initially cacophonous concerts that over the years turned into remarkably good classical music and jazz performances. They played baseball, joined the swim team and the tennis team, and we thoroughly enjoyed cheering each at bat, each match, each meet, even if we sometimes melted in the heat or froze in the cold.

Their academic efforts gave us great satisfaction. They studied diligently and sometimes won contests and awards, which gave us vicarious joy. Of less satisfaction would be a trip to meet with the teacher for discussion of any less than perfect behavior.

Then it was prom time. And suddenly, for it seemed sudden, they stood before us in tuxedos, with young women on their arms who they were squiring to the dance. They were all grown up. It was the signal that they would shortly be leaving, eagerly leaving the nest and their parents behind. Yes, they came back regularly from college to have their laundry done and for some good meals. And I like to think for some great hugs. But they were off now, busy with their exciting lives, developing their careers, finding the women they would marry. And the best prize: grandchildren.

How lucky I am that my wish came true.

The IRS and the New York State Dept. of Taxation and Finance have extended the due date for personal income tax returns and related payments to May 17, 2021 due to the continued impact of COVID-19. METRO photo

By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

In 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act increased the federal estate tax exclusion amount for decedents dying in years 2018 to 2025. The exclusion amount for 2021 is $11.7 million. This means that an individual can leave $11.7 million, and a married couple can leave $23.4 million dollars to their heirs or beneficiaries without paying any federal estate tax. This is a good thing because the federal estate tax rate is 40 percent.

Despite the large Federal Estate Tax exclusion amount, New York State’s estate tax exemption for 2021 is $5.93 million. Prior to April 1, 2014, the New York State estate tax exemption was $1 million, and many estates had to file New York State estate tax returns and pay New York State estate tax.

With the current exemptions, there would technically be no requirement to file either a New York State or federal estate tax return and no tax would be due. However, the inquiry does not end there. For example, if one spouse survived, and has approximately $5 million dollars in assets, it is recommended that he/she file a federal estate tax return to elect “portability” to capture the deceased spouse’s unused $11.7 million-dollar federal exemption. This would be necessary in the event of the living spouse’s assets appreciating over time and/or the federal estate tax exclusion decreasing leaving him/her with assets valued over the federal exclusion at the time of his/her death.

For those dying after December 31, 2010, if a first-to-die spouse has not fully used the federal estate tax exclusion, the unused portion called the “Deceased Spousal Unused Exclusion Amount,” or “DSUE amount,” can be transferred or “ported” to the surviving spouse. Thereafter, for both gift and estate tax purposes, the surviving spouse’s exclusion is the sum of (1) his/her own exclusion in the year if death, plus (2) the first-to-die’s ported DSUE amount.

In order for the surviving spouse to be able to use the unused exemption, the executor of the first-to-die’s estate must make an election on a timely-filed estate tax return. A timely filed return is a return filed within nine months after death or within fifteen months after obtaining an automatic extension of time to file from the IRS. Normally a federal estate tax return is only due if the gross estate plus the amount of any taxable gift exceeds the applicable exclusion amount (up to $11.7 million in 2021). However, in order to be able to elect portability, a federal estate tax return would have to be filed even if the value of the first-to-die’s estate was below the exclusion amount.

The problem occurs when the first spouse dies, and no estate tax return was filed. In that event, the second to die spouse could not use the deceased spouse’s unused exemption. What if the first spouse dies, no estate tax return is filed, and no election was made on a timely basis? Does the surviving spouse lose the exemption?

In June 2017, the IRS issued Revenue Procedure 2017-34. The Revenue Procedure is a simplified method to be used to make a late portability election. The IRS made this procedure applicable to estates during the two-year period immediately following the decedent’s date of death. This gives you 24 months to file rather than 15 months.

To be eligible to use the simplified method under the Revenue Procedure the estate must meet the following criteria:

(1) The decedent: (a) was survived by a spouse; (b) died after December 31, 2010; and (c) was a citizen or resident of the United States on the date of death;

(2) The executor was not required to file an estate tax return based on the value of the gross estate;

(3) The executor did not file an estate tax return within the time required; and

(4) The executor either files a complete and properly prepared United States Estate (and Tax Return) on or before the second annual anniversary of the decedent’s date of death.

If more than two years has elapsed since the date of death but all other criteria of Revenue Procedure 2017-34 were met, then the Executor would have to request a Private Letter Ruling from the IRS to obtain an extension of time elect portability and file a federal estate tax return.

For those that had spouses pass away after December 31, 2010, portability can be a valuable estate planning tool to save a significant amount of federal estate tax on the death of the second spouse. If a surviving spouse has assets that are close in value to the current federal exclusion amount, it is important to examine the records of the deceased spouse to make sure that a portability election was made on a timely filed federal estate tax return. If no return was filed, and no estate tax return was required to be filed, based upon this IRS Revenue Procedure it may not be too late to elect portability.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office. Visit www.burnerlaw.com.

Photo by Pixabay

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

I have two friends whose sons are contemplating important choices. The first son, Matt, is trying to decide where to attend college.

He has gained admission to two elite schools. He can’t go wrong, as his parents have told him repeatedly, with either choice. Making this decision in a normal year would be hard. In a pandemic year, it’s almost impossible.

Matt can’t stay over at each school for a weekend or even attend a few classes. He can’t get much of a feeling for the “vibe” of the school because he can’t go into most of the buildings, even with a mask and with his letter of admission.

He can compare the national rankings from U.S. News and World Report, check college guides, talk with his guidance counselor, chat with graduates from his high school who attend each school and stroll around each campus. 

He can’t, however, fully try on the school, the way he might a tailored suit. Masks cover the faces of most of the people at each school, which makes it impossible to search for smiles on the faces of his potential future classmates.

He recently found himself leaning toward school A. The same day, his father spoke with a friend of his whose daughter was attending school B.

His father showed a picture of his friend’s daughter to Matt. The friend’s attractive daughter caused Matt to rethink his tentative decision.

That brings me to my other friend’s son, Eric. In his mid-20s, Eric has been caught in the same social world that has limited the options for everyone else.

Eric has been dating a woman for over two years and is considering the future of the relationship. He is not sure whether it’s the appropriate time to consider living together or getting married.

Eric is incredibly attached to his girlfriend, who has been one of the few people he sees regularly in real life during the pandemic.

Eric is not sure how long this altered reality, in which he works from home, speaks with family and friends virtually most of the time, and sees his girlfriend during his limited social hours, will last. In the meantime, he’d like something in his life to move forward.

Matt and Eric are weighing their options. For Matt, the choice of college may well come down to the last picture of another student he sees before he pushes a button.

Choosing a college can, and likely should, involve more significant factors. Then again, both of the colleges line up so well that he is likely to have a similar experience, albeit with different people around him, at each school.

Eric’s decision, however, isn’t so interchangeable. It involves a leap of faith that those of us who are married have made that relies on our own criteria. We can consult family, friends, and counselors as we weigh the pros and cons, but, ultimately, the responsibility and opportunity rest with us.

Coming up with his own questions and his own scale to evaluate the relationship is challenging, particularly when everything seems somewhere between good and great right now. He can’t possibly know what life will look like in two, five, 10 or 20 years from now.

I don’t envy either Matt or Eric as they contemplate these decisions. I do, however, agree with Matt’s parents: he can’t go wrong. For Eric, the decision has more significant longer-term ramifications and likely reflects variables that are difficult to imagine, particularly amid the uncertainty of the present.

METRO photo
Leah Dunaief

By Leah S. Dunaief

Would you like to be different? Would you like to change your personality? Perhaps you would like to be more extroverted. Or more open to new experiences. Or even just more organized. Well, thanks to the pandemic, here is your chance. 

People can and do successfully change their personalities even as adults. Now we are about to emerge from the isolation of lockdown and quarantine and rejoin the larger world. The stage is set for a new you. But this transformation will take work. To start, one could embrace the “As If Principle,” proposed by Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire in England. This would require one to behave as if one were already that different person, and after a time, the new behavior and the person would sync. Famously, that is the story the debonair Cary Grant told of his early life, which started on the Bristol docks as Archie Leach and wound up at the pinnacle in Hollywood. “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me,” Grant said, according to the British newspaper, The Guardian.

An article in the April 11 issue of The New York Times took up this subject. Headlined, “You Can Be a New You After the Pandemic,” written by Olga Khazan, the story states the following. “Researchers have found that adults can change the five traits that make up personality — extroversion, openness to experience, emotional stability, agreeableness and conscientiousness — within just a few months.” 

Another psychology professor, this one at Columbia University, asserts a similar theme. Geraldine Downey, who studies social rejection, has found that “socially excluded people who want to become part of a group are better off if they assume that other people will like them. They should behave as if they are the popular kid. Getting into social interactions expecting the worst, as many socially anxious people do, tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.” In another example of change, “people were able to become more extroverted or conscientious in four months just by listing the ways they’d like to change and what steps they would take to get there,” according to the NYT article. If one wants to be more outgoing, one can make a list of upcoming events in which to interact or persons to call for lunches, and after enough such efforts, the act becomes natural.

It can help in this transformation to see a therapist, research recommends. One such example described a person with neuroticism, “a trait responsible for anxiety and rumination.” After a short burst of therapy, in which the “warm, comforting presence” of a therapist encouraged the idea that the client is a valued person, neuroticism receded, and the studies showed the effect lasted for at least a year.

But not everyone can afford a therapist. Mirjam Stieger, a postdoctoral researcher at Brandeis University, and her colleagues developed an app that “reminded people to perform small tasks to help tweak their personalities, like “talk to a stranger when you go grocery shopping,” to prompt extroversion. The app then asks them if they had done that. According to the study, after three months, the change had stuck.

Agreeableness, by the way, involves “greater empathy and concern for others.” And so, being agreeable after this pandemic could mean being gentler toward one another. We now know, for example, how much essential workers sacrificed during the pandemic, many even their lives. That would suggest greater kindness and patience toward someone who, during the pre-pandemic, might just have been dismissed as annoying. We don’t know what exactly has been that person’s recent experience. At least that can be a conscious thought to modify behavior in what otherwise might have been a contentious situation.

For those who wish to change or live differently, as the NYT article says, “your personality is more like a sand dune than a stone.”