Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Thoughts

I’m feeling curmudgeonly today. It seems to me that Memorial Day glorifies dying for one’s country. It makes heroes of the men and women who have done so, and encourages the next generation to follow their examples.

I’m all in favor of celebrating and / or mourning the life of anyone who lived however briefly on this planet. That celebration and / or mourning makes sense for people who knew and cared about the deceased. If the deceased was a public person, then people who knew about her or him may feel inclined to celebrate or mourn.

But this public celebration in which new generations are taught to mourn for dead they never knew, and to celebrate their deaths, not their lives, makes no sense to me.

War results from a failure of communication, from greed, from disagreements over anything from religion to profits. It does not result from heroic men and women who are willing to sacrifice their lives. I don’t think we need to encourage our future generations to look forward to war. If a war becomes necessary, people will know it, without a childhood of propaganda.

It is often said that it is easier to die for a cause than to live for it. On Memorial Day, I would like people to resolve to make peace in their own lives with our own family and neighbors. If everybody could do that, I doubt we’d have wars. If we have learned not to hate our friends and families for the ways in which they have disappointed us or thwarted us or betrayed us, we will not be so quick to hate strangers for the same mistakes.

If we can start learning to make peace on a personal level, we will be preparing for a war-free future.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Post-Op Notes

Post-Op Notes

The night before the surgery, I got the call: be at the hospital at 5 AM. Of course I said yes. Then I checked the bus schedule. The buses don’t start early enough to get me there before 5:15. I didn’t want to be late, so I scheduled a cab. I could have been 15 minutes late, but I didn’t learn that until after my husband, the alien, and I arrived.

One other couple was there ahead of us. Oddly they were scheduled at the same time with the same surgeon. He was having a rotator cuff repair that was estimated to take 2.5 hours. Since my plate and screw removal was supposed to take 20 minutes, the man’s wife kindly said I could go first, but of course it wasn’t up to us. I thought it was sweet of her to offer.

The morning was a series of hurry up and wait. Get a bar-coded bracelet put on your right wrist. Then the man getting the rotator cuff had to have another bracelet made because his damaged rotator cuff was on his right side and his bracelet needed to be on the left.

Go to the room where they wash the incision site. Sit around. Put on the paper costume with impossible side ties. Put all my stuff, including my wedding ring, into a plastic bag that they bar-coded to match my bracelet, and said they’d lock up. Somebody came to take me to the next room. I had to remind them that nobody had washed my incision site, yet.

The woman who did the washing was curious about why my scar is nearly invisible. I told her about using comfrey oil. She said she has a scar on her belly from a kitchen accident in which she dropped a plate. Then slightly embarrassed, she said she wasn’t going to tell me what she wears when she cooks. I assured her she has every right to cook naked if she wants to. We both laughed.

In the next room my freshly washed shoulder got marked up with blue marking pen.

My surgeon’s resident came in, coughing. I asked if she was feeling okay – if she was catching something. She said she’s getting over something and it was just allergies. She was from India so I asked her if she’d tried a neti pot. She had never heard of one. I explained it’s a tiny tea pot that holds warm salt water that you pour through you nose. It washes the pollen out. She seemed interested, so I told her about where I bought mine.

My surgeon came in and asked how I was feeling. I told him “nervous.” I asked how he felt. He smiled and said “wonderful.” I had never seen him so happy before. This man must love his work. I told him he’s the one who needs to feel wonderful this morning, so I’m glad it’s him. He said he’ll be even better after he gets his 2nd cup of coffee. He says he runs on coffee. I told him he’s the one who knows his body. He gave me an odd look. I told him one of my physical therapists also runs on coffee, but I quit drinking coffee in 1968.

Then an anesthesiologist and her resident in training asked me for my birth date, height, weight, and how to spell my name. She told me that after the surgery, I’d feel like I was drunk. I told her I’ve never been drunk. This got me another odd look. I told them I don’t drink alcohol.

Then they tried to talk me into getting a shot in my neck that they said “would take the edge off” for 12 to 18 hours. I told them I’ll skip that. They said most people get it. I told them I don’t like needles. They said I could be sedated during the shot and I probably wouldn’t remember it. I had to refuse quite a few times before they gave up. I’m now about 24 hours after the surgery. The first 12 hours are not the worst. I’m more sore now than I was right after the surgery. I’m very glad I didn’t get a shot in my neck.

The resident anesthesiologist wiped a local anesthetic on the back of my hand before putting in the needle. It hurt a lot less than the needle I got at the physical exam to take blood, or the needle I got for the IV 10 months ago when the metal was put in. I wonder why nobody thought of this before. My dentist always uses a numbing solution before injecting me with novocaine. Why didn’t doctors come up with this before?

She also hooked up my paper costume to a tube that she said would turn my “gown” into a hot air blanket. She turned it on and it blasted me with cold air. I told her it was cold. She said it would warmup. Then she gave me a control dial and said I could adjust the temperature, but not to do it now because the air was going to warm up. I put my arm across my belly to keep the cold air from coming to my upper body, and eventually the air did warm up. It was so warm that I turned the dial down.

The resident said “I’m giving you your happy juice.” I asked what it really was. She gave me a polysyllabic gobbledygook answer, and cold stuff flowed into my vein.

The next thing I knew I was awake and hooked up to a monitor that had alarms sounding because I was only breathing at 7 breaths per minute. A nurse came by and told me to take deep breaths. That’s what I was doing. After a while she turned off the alarm. The machine had a graph showing the shape of my breaths. The deeper the breath, the higher the bump on the graph. And when I paused at the top and bottom of the breath, it made a flat line. The machine also counted my heart rate and every few minutes a cuff squeezed and measured my blood pressure.

I said I was thirsty, and a nurse brought me a spoonful of ice chips.

Eventually a man came to push my bed to another room. He told me that he meets a lot of people who aren’t special. I figured he was trying to start a conversation. I said, “You may not like them, but somebody loves them.” He insisted, “Some people aren’t special. My cats are more special.” For the rest of the ride, we talked about his cats. He has 9 cats now, but he used to have 23 cats. One of his cats recently had $300 surgery.

By the time we got to the next room, the anesthesia had worn off and I wanted a pain pill. The nurse in that room told me I couldn’t have one until I ate something. Then she brought me some cranberry juice, and asked if I would prefer graham crackers or saltines. I tried a graham cracker. It tasted worse than cardboard. “The anesthesia affects your taste buds.” I tried a saltine. It was almost as good as cardboard. The pain pill took about 20 minutes to start working. Then I was put on the list to get a wheelchair to be pushed out of there. I saw the man with the rotator cuff was ahead of me on that list. I know my surgeon hasn’t cloned himself, so I’m guessing that the resident did my surgery. The surgeon called my husband, told him everything went smoothly, and told him he could come up to be with me.

My wheelchair pusher told me about his cell phone plan. He pays $46 a month, and he has friends who pay $200 a month for their phones. I told him I pay $100 a year for mine, it’s a prepaid phone plan, and I don’t make many cell phone calls. He said he makes lots of calls on his.

As soon as he pushed my chair out the door, I got up and walked to the curb to catch a cab. I was not feeling strong enough to walk several blocks to bus stop.

It’s over. The metal is out. They took an x-ray, but they wouldn’t let me see it. Maybe I can see it during my post-op visit to the surgeon. I told my mom, I really want to see that x-ray to be sure all the metal is gone. She asked, “Why? Don’t you trust them?” This has become a family joke. Even the hospital seems to be in on it. There was a sign in the lobby where we first entered, entitled SPEAK UP. It’s main point is that you are your own primary advocate. You need to check on everything all the time.

Right now, I home and sore and sleepy. And I think all the metal is out, so I’ll be able to wear a backpack when my skin heals.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pre-Op Notes

I’m having surgery Friday to remove the hardware (yes, that’s what they call it) from my shoulder. I’ll be able to wear a backpack again. And I won’t wince when somebody pats me on the shoulder or stifle a scream when the teacher corrects my shoulder position in yoga class.

As part of the pre-op procedure, I had a scheduled talk with an anesthesiologist. No guarantees I’ll get this woman when I have the surgery, but I’d like to. She’s about my age. She loves her work and has chosen not to retire. We were able to talk about how great it is not to have periods any more, and have no worries about getting pregnant again. We talked about our grandchildren, and how we both don’t check luggage, but wear a school-sized backpack instead.

I told her not to freak out when the breath-counting machine shows only 4 breaths per minute instead of the standard 10 or more. This is typical for long time yoga students, but she hadn’t seen it before. She wondered if the slow breathing continued when I’m sleeping. I assured her it does. I kept triggering that breath-counting monitor alarm when I was unconscious in the emergency room after the accident. My husband made them turn off the sound, so nurses would stop coming in the room just because I was breathing slowly.

The surgery scheduling woman told me I was going to have a 3-hour complete physical exam. I’m having the surgery at a teaching hospital, so this is actually within the realms of imagination. I was terrified. The scheduler next to her was coughing repeatedly, juicily. I wish she’d gone home. She should set a good example and take care of her health. This is a hospital. Surely she has sick leave. Plus, nobody is allowed to have voluntary surgery if they have a cold or a sore throat. She should not be coughing on people who plan such surgery.

I hate physical exams. I hate being touched by people I don’t love. When are they going to invent that salt-shaker sized gadget that Bones had on Star Trek? Bones just had to hold thing a few feet away from the person he was examining and it told him everything about the person’s health.

Being touched by people who don’t mind hurting me is what I hated most about being mugged. Not the gun, or the bag of manuscripts that they took -- the touching – shoving me to the sidewalk, probing my pockets, pulling on my ring (which isn’t going anywhere because I’ve gained weight since my wedding), checking my ears and neck for jewelry...

I hate the entire physicality of it. 3 hours of that would be pure terror. I think I prefer being mugged at gunpoint. Doctors know even more ways to cause pain that muggers do.

The actual exam was nothing like I’d dreaded, except for the needles to take my blood. The only thing I had to take clothes off for was the EKG. I called the scheduling woman and left a message on her answering machine asking her never to frighten anybody like that ever again. It is a minimal exam – just finding out if you can survive the surgery.

Nobody did any of this before the first surgery – the one in which the surgeon put in the hardware.

I also had to get a new advance directive. They didn’t want one of those before the first surgery either. Mine says I if I have a terminal condition, I don’t want tube feeding or antibiotics. I want to be dead as quickly and painlessly as possible. Removing the hardware is a 20 to 30 minute surgery. For this, they have me jumping through hoops. The original surgery, which I did not request, was 90 minutes.

I'm being nice to the surgeon who will remove the metal even though it is partly his fault that I have it. He picked out my x-ray as one he wanted to do surgery on. When I pointed out to him the people who convinced me to have the surgery had shown me somebody else's x-ray to get me to sign the form, his only comment was, "yours was bad enough."

The one they showed me was shattered into 3 big pieces and about 20 little ones. Mine had a simple break into 2 pieces. It’s unlikely that I would have agreed to surgery if I’d seen my own x-ray, even though I was doped up on morphine.

I have talked with the President of the hospital and he has agreed to find out how this happened and do what he can to prevent it happening again. Meanwhile, for those of you reading this – demand to see your name on any x-ray you are shown. It is there and they can show it to you. I have asked the President of the hospital to make it policy to show the name by default.

What's done is done, There's no point in arguing with the surgeon and getting him upset. I need him to be calm when he takes out the screws and plates that he put in.

And I need to keep myself calm for the next several days. Stress is the major cause of disease. So, I’ll be spending lots of time meditating over the next several days.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Kind of Man My Father Was

My mother found out what kind of a man my father was on her wedding night. This was before the sex. They were in their compartment on a train, headed for their honeymoon, and my mother dropped the toothpaste cap down the sink drain. My father had a temper tantrum worthy of a 2-year-old. My mother thought she had to put up with it.

There have been many times I wish she’d told him a toothpaste cap is just a thing, and not worth getting upset over. Instead she was afraid of him and she taught her children to fear him.

I think the worst outcome of my father’s unbridled irresponsible outrages and outbreaks of violence was that for years I thought that was the way adults should behave. I longed for the day when I could get away with temper tantrums, sarcasm and insult, like he did.

In high school, I found I could get away with sarcasm during classroom debates. Oddly, sarcastic remarks got me some admirers who thought I was smart. People often perceive my father as smart. This was weird. I was doing something I resented when it was done to me – and I was being rewarded. The motto: I’m smart. I’m right. Things should be done the way I want is not how I want to live.

My father divorced my mother, after 28 years, and married an even more compliant and worshipful woman. That marriage lasted 5 years. Then he married a woman who laughed at him when he yelled because she’d bought the wrong brand of cereal.

He didn’t continue yelling. He got himself something else to eat.

This was a revelation – my father could get himself a meal. My father did not yell back when he was put in his place. My father wasn’t really a two-year-old. And most exciting of all – I no longer had to be afraid of him.

If only my mother had laughed at him when he became angry about that toothpaste cap. All those years I spent fearing a man who could be defeated by laughter.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pain and Suffering

I used to think that pain and suffering payments were illogical, and when I was called to jury duty, I told the plaintiff’s lawyers that money can’t compensate for pain. Being alive, we all are at risk for accidents that will cause pain.

When I went to the lawyer to get the insurance of the driver who hit me to pay for things it is required by law to cover, like my ambulance ride to the hospital ($500), emergency room care, wages for time lost from work over one week, I told the lawyer – do NOT go after more than the car insurance will pay.

I don’t want to risk costing this man his home, just because he made a momentary mistake and hit me with his car while I was biking.

My lawyer agreed to do what I asked.

The driver’s insurance is not required to pay over $5000 in medical bills. Pennsylvania is a no-fault state. Any medical expenses over that amount come from my insurance. If I owned a car, my car insurance would pay. Since I don’t, my medical insurance is supposed to pay.

The emergency room cut their initial bill of $80,000 down to $10,000. My insurance picked up the difference. The driver’s insurance is also required to pay up to $5000 in property damage and lost wages. They bought me a new bike and a new helmet. They paid for the clothes that the emergency room cut off of me. They paid for a few weeks of lost wages.

I have more expenses than that. I have co-pays for physical therapy and doctor’s visits, and chiropractor’s visits, and prescriptions. I have the full cost of massage therapy. Plus, all this healthcare takes time – time that I can’t be elsewhere earning money. Pain and Suffering is the only category I can ask the driver’s insurance company to look at when I ask them to pay these bills.

I’m not billing them for the pain in my hip that makes me limp around every morning, or the pain in my shoulder that only goes away when I do my morning exercises, stretches, and warm ups. I’m not billing them because I can’t walk as far as I used to. These things are intangible. I knew that cars hit bikes. I was taking a risk. I will live with the pain for as long as it lasts and no amount of money can change that. And I will continue to bike around the city, where I know another crazy driver might hit me.

I’m asking my lawyer to get my bills paid, and he can call it whatever he wants.

Next time I’m called to jury duty, I won’t tell the lawyers for the plaintiff that I don’t believe in pain and suffering payments.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How We Learn Lessons

My sister blogger Alison, recently recounted a story from our childhood – in which a teacher did not understand why I could not bring a Christian jigsaw puzzle home to my Jewish household. This incident changed my friend’s life – made her aware of differences that in no way limit friendships.

I learned nothing from it, and forgot it. If I learned anything, it was that standing your ground sometimes works.

But at 16, I relived this incident from the other side. I’m not proud of how I behaved, or what I thought. I think this kind of mistake is one of our truest teachers.

I was an aide at a Head Start Program. There was a little boy in my classroom who never wanted to do anything the other kids did. He didn't want to sit in circle for story time. He didn't want to get in lines for line dancing. If the program was serving Cheerios for breakfast, the other children ate them. He threw them. He was a nice kid, but he was a nuisance.

I tried all the standard -- if you don't like Cheerios, you don't have to eat them. If you don't want to listen to a story, think about something else. My 16-year-old advice didn't have any effect on this 4 or 5 year old boy.

Then one day the program sent home permission slips for the kids to get Sabin polio sugar cubes. The children were supposed to take them home, get a parent or guardian to sign them and bring them back.

A week later, I was told that all the kids had turned in their forms and I was supposed to lead them to the office to pick up their sugar cubes. The recalcitrant boy said he wasn't supposed to have one. This was unusual language for him. Usually, it was, I don't want to. I don’t have to. You can’t make me... NOT I'm not supposed to.

I told him it's not a shot. It won't poke him. He insisted he wasn't supposed to. I told him he had to talk to the teacher. He didn't want to do that. I dragged the kid to the teacher. She said she had his permission form. She got out the file. It wasn't there.

I called his mom to be sure he hadn't just lost the form. This boy was capable of deciding not to take the form home, just because all the other kids were doing it. His mother said, “No. I don’'t want him to have it.” He was right. He wasn't supposed to.

I had not believed him. I made him go to the teacher which he did not want to do. I embarrassed him. I did to him, what that teacher did to me.

I learned much more as the perpetrator than as the embarrassed kid.

In retrospect, I think the form should have had YES and NO boxes and the parent should have been given the opportunity to check one box and then sign the form. That way we’d have had a form on file and not had to call the boy’s home. Or, I could have called the boy’s home without dragging him to the teacher. I had to check. I had to do what the boy’s mother wanted. I didn’t need to drag him to the teacher in front of the class. This time, the boy learned that standing your ground sometimes works. And I learned the more powerful lesson.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mispronouncing Words

I have three language hangups.

1) I love words and try to learn new ones whenever they present themselves.

2) When I travel, I like to learn some basic rudiments of the local language.

3) When people mispronounce words, like nuclear, athlete, library or ticklish, it feels like grating fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears.

In trying to learn Mandarin, I’m the fingernail scraper.

I looked up the name for one of my favorite Chinese desserts – Bok Tan Go. Thinking I knew what I was doing, I went to the bakery in Chinatown and instead of pointing, like I usually do, I said, “Four bok tan go please.” The person behind the counter stared at me as if I’d just asked for nonsense. So, I pointed. “Oh,” said the person behind the counter. “Bok tan go.” I couldn’t hear the difference between what the person said, and what I’d said. But obviously I made an error so egregious that I couldn’t even be understood.

I at least understand nookyoolar or liebarry, or athalete or tickilish. But what I’d said wasn’t just a mispronunciation – it was nonsensical.

I tried again when I met a Chinese woman at Toastmasters who was going to China to visit her husband’s family. I asked if she was going to visit Guilin, which I pronounced Gwee-Linn. Again, the blank stare.

When I described the pointy green-covered hills, the long river, the caves, the woman finally said, “Oh, you mean Gwee-Linn.” That’s how I heard it. I cannot hear the difference between what I’m saying and what I’m hearing. But there must be a huge difference to native speakers.

So, I wonder if the people who mispronounce words in English can hear the difference between what they are saying and what is accepted as the correct pronounciation.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Purple Cows of the Medical Industry

I’d Hate to be a Phlebotomist

I hate needles. Even when I was doped up on morphine after the accident, the blood-drawing needles hurt.

Today I had to get more blood drawn as part of pre-op to get the metal out of my shoulder so I can wear a backpack again without pain.

This clinic was unusual. I was ushered into a room, given a comfortable chair, and told to sit there while people came to me. There was the nurse practitioner who was a whiz with the computer and managed to print out my x-ray so I wouldn’t have to get another one.

She measured my blood pressure which is usually about 115 / 65. I was dreading that needle, so it was 144 / 90. She didn’t worry. She’s seen people who are afraid of needles before. She assured me that the people who draw blood at this clinic do it all day long and they are good at it. Somehow, I did not find this reassuring.

There was the anesthetist who admired my biking helmet, and asked what they cost. Then she told me that muscle-chicks like me need more anesthetic than normal women. It’s muscles that need to be anesthetized.

Finally, in came the phlebotomist. He said, “I won’t hurt you.”

“That’s good,” I said.

“It’s the needle,” he said. He smiled like I was supposed to laugh at his joke. He repeated the joke several times because I didn’t laugh.

He asked where I live. I told him the neighborhood which is about 3 miles from the clinic. “That’s not far,” he said. “You could walk.”

“Yes, I could,” I said. “But I rode my bike.”

He gave me a look that said the idea of walking was funny to him. He hadn’t expected me to take him seriously. I showed him my helmet.

“I’m not calling you a liar,” he said. His face clearly said otherwise. Who would be out biking on a hot day like today with thunderstorms predicted?

As he put the 3rd tube on the needle, I asked, “How many tubes do you need?”

“Four,” he said. “This is number 2."

He wiggled the needle.

“Ow!” I said.

“It’s not me. It’s the needle,” he said again. He smiled. He seemed to love that joke.

Then he said, “I’ve been here since 3 AM..”

“That’s 12 hours ago,” I said. “You should go home.”

“I’m only part time,” he said. I couldn’t tell if that was another joke.

He put the 4th tube on and wiggled the needle again. “It’s not me. It’s the needle.”

Finally he took the sharp pain implement out of my arm. “Do you want another?” Again he smiled.

I guess nobody wants to see a phlebotomist. Needles hurt.

I wonder what stories they tell themselves when they go to work every day. Maybe they need to make bad jokes just to live with themselves.

It seems phlebotomists are the purple cows of the medical industry. I’d never want to see a phlebotomist. I’d never want to meet one. Anyhow, I’ll tell you now, I’d rather see than be one.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bitten by a Radioactive Bee?

I’ve got bumble bees in my yard, sucking nectar from my comfrey plants. Comfrey is the first plant to bloom in my garden after the tulips and daffodils. Spring is here. I find the sight of bees at work invigorating. I can make a new batch of comfrey oil. Bees promise that my newly planted pepper and tomato seedlings will be fertilized when they bloom. Buzzing bees mean, “all is well with the world.”

Other people see bees differently. I remember a picnic when I was about 5 years old. Adults ran from a buzzing bee. They screamed in fear if a bee landed on them. I’d seen my grandfather catch flies and carry them away from the house where their presence upset my grandmother. I figured I could do the same thing with a bee.

I climbed on the table, waited patiently for the bee to come to me, and caught it between my hands. It was so easy, I couldn’t imagine why none of the adults had thought of this. The adults stared at me in awe as if I’d just performed a heroic deed. Then YOW. It felt like I was at the doctor’s office, getting a shot. In my hand. I dropped the bee. Nobody was afraid of it any more. The adults seemed to be afraid of me.

Everything that flies is not a housefly. Bees just don’t want to be told what to do. Neither do I. Maybe I was morphed by that bee sting.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Stupid Details Day

Today was Stupid Details Day.

I rented a car to go to my appointment with the surgeon.

I showed up on time.

But our surgeon had moved to a different office two weeks earlier. Nobody notified me.
The receptionist at the old office called the new office and they said I still had my 8:15 AM appointment. The new office is biking distance from my house. I didn’t need to rent that car. But now I needed to drive downtown where there are never parking places, in order to get to the appointment on time.

I drove downtown to the new office.

Lo and behold – there was an empty parking space. I should have been suspicious, but I looked for signs and there were none.

I tried to feed the parking kiosk to get a timed permit. The Kiosk would not accept either cash or credit card. One of the other drivers assured me that parking was free until 10AM.
I went to the doctor’s appointment.

No, it was not scheduled, but the receptionist assured me that the doctor would see me.
Around 9:10, I was taken back to see the doctor.

He wants me to see a heart specialist to be sure my heart is strong enough for the surgery and spend about 3 hours in the pre-op center having who-knows-what done. Nobody will tell me what goes on in there. For 3 hours.

I got appointments with a heart specialist and the pre-op folks.

I went outside and my rented car, that I should never have rented, had a ticket. $51.
And it’s not my car. So I emailed the rental car company to find out how to fight it without getting them involved.

Meanwhile the rental car company is mad at me over my previous rental. My husband, the alien, who is NEVER early for anything was early picking up the truck we rented to get manure for our backyard garden. I know the car rental people don’t like it when you get a car back late, because that can make the next person’s schedule a mess. But I didn’t know they’d be angry about picking up a car 13 minutes early.

They fined me $30 for this infraction of rules. And when I complained, they said that the $30 isn’t just a penalty for picking up the car early. They need the money to pay somebody to explain why there is a fine. I wrote them back that the logic here is circular. If there was no penalty, then they wouldn’t need to hire somebody to explain the penalty. They claim the rules are available online and I should read them. I tried to explain that rules that make no sense should be dropped.

Today is not my day. It is Stupid Details Day.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Off to See the Surgeon

Monday, I’m going to see the surgeon who put the metal in my shoulder. I’m going to ask him to take it out. I want to wear a backpack again. And one of the screws is coming up.

I know many people who have broken collar bones mended with metal, keep the metal for the rest of their lives. I am not a cyborg. I refuse to live like a cyborg. There is always a risk of infection growing on the metal. That is not a risk I want to take. I’d rather take the risk of being hit again while biking. That’s a risk I take every day.

I also am not a doctor - fan. I do not like to go to doctors. I do not like needles. I do not like the idea of surgery. I’m not looking forward to another slice in my skin, and more time on painkillers. I’m not a hospital - fan. I definitely do not want to be in a hospital again.

But more than that, I do not want to keep this metal in my body – metal that is working its way out anyway. The rewards will not be immediate. Right now, if I push the strap to the side, I can wear a backpack with about 10 lbs in it. I will not be able to wear even that much for about a year after the surgery – depending on how quickly my bones grow to fill in the holes where the screws are.

But I want my life back. And my life means wearing a backpack with more than 10 lbs. I don’t check luggage. I carry every thing I need in a backpack. Yes, that includes light weight, collapsible exercise equipment like rubber band and inflatable balls.

I’m having trouble believing this is me. Going into a doctor’s office and asking to be cut open.
I don’t even know if this means I have to go to more rehab and learn more exercises. My shoulder is finally sloping like a normal shoulder again. I don’t know if it will puff up and look like a shelf, like it did after the initial surgery.

Yes, I know, the suitcase on wheels has been invented. But I want to wear a backpack, and travel easily. I want to stop cringing when somebody grabs my shoulder and accidentally grabs where that screw is coming up. And I do not want to be a cyborg.

I’ll know more after I talk to the doc on Monday.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Friend’s Husband is Dead

First he had shingles. Then he lost his energy and his appetite. When he had trouble breathing, my friend took her husband of nearly 40 years to the hospital. They put him in a regular room with regular monitors. They measured his blood pressure every 4 hours. The next day a nurse walked into his room and saw that his blood pressure was zero.

The hospital resuscitated him and put him on a respirator. But if the blood pressure is gone for more than 5 minutes, the brain is gone.

My friend called her husband’s family. They came. They said good-bye. My friend picked out a green burial site. Her husband had said he did not want to be cremated.. They asked the hospital staff to disconnect the respirator. He died. Again.

Since he died the first time, my friend’s life has been a string of details, arrangements, expenses.

I had lunch with her today. She said she cried when she watched a sad movie, but she’s calm most of the time, trying to take care of the necessary details. Her husband paid the bills for the 40 years of their marriage. She has to figure out where their money is, stop his social security checks, talk to the tax man who got an extension on their 2009 filing date.

She has stopped eating regular meals. She’ll eat a sack of lettuce leaves while she watches television. She still goes to her book group, her charities, her art groups. She eats with friends.

At the moment she’s acting like I do when my husband takes a trip. She’s in a holding pattern.

Her friend, the real estate saleswoman, is already pressuring her to sell the house. She likes the neighborhood. She likes her neighbors. The house has a 1st floor toilet, so if she’s ill and can’t climb stairs, she’ll be okay. There is no need for her to move. She has plenty to deal with. She doesn’t need to create new problems, like packing and moving, and unpacking, and learning a new neighborhood.

My friend asked me what I thought of the real estate lady. I told her that the real estate lady must love her job. I can’t think of any other reason to make such an illogical suggestion.

I watched my friend during lunch. She was just doing what she felt needed to be done, now. She’s financially okay. Her house is paid for. Social Security will only send one check a month to her house now, not two. But she only has to feed one person. She will do less laundry.

I watched her the way I watched women who had babies before me. How do they cope with the changes? This is a much more comprehensive change than getting married or having children. This is a disruption of 40 years pleasure and habit.

I find it disconcerting when my husband is on a trip and I come home to my house only it isn’t my house because my best friend isn’t there. I find myself looking for him, listening for him, thrashing around the bed in my sleep, feeling for him, smelling for him. He is as much a part of my life as my own body.

My friend never had children. Now, after 40 years, her companion is gone. She still does the things she’s familiar with during the day. But she goes home to her familiar house and her familiar world is gone.

I had more confidence that I could take care of a newborn baby than I have that I could adapt to a world without my husband.

I do not like picturing life without him. And honestly, there’s no value in doing so. Picturing will not make it easier if it happens. Picturing this possible future is like picturing any unpleasant future – it has no effect on the real world. Really, it’s a waste of thinking time.

But I watched my friend today. When she has good fortune, like selling a story to a magazine,I am happy for her. And I imagine I too might sell a story. Now that she has grief, I grieve with her, and I imagine a similar future.

Just because something is possible, even likely, that’s no reason to drive myself nuts thinking about it. I think of my mom who has survived divorce and the death of her long-term boyfriend, and all her siblings, and many of her friends. She keeps going.

Everybody wants longevity, until they have to live it. But there is something appealing about being alive – not just the unimaginable aspects of the unknown – what is death anyway – but the plans, activities, pleasures, adventures that being alive make possible. But when I picture these, I always picture doing them together with my husband. I don’t have a picture for doing it alone.

And that is what my friend now faces every day.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Memory from Ames, Iowa

By Alison

To say that Lois and I were little girls together in Ames, Iowa in the 50s is to say a great many other things, as Susan Allen Toth wrote in Blooming, her book about that very subject. It is to say that we were safe. Our parents were educated; most parents were in that college town. They were graduate students or faculty. We were not rich, we were not poor, we seemed not very different from one another in any way. We were white and had no idea this was to grant us privilege. We were female and had no idea this was to deny us privilege. We were just little girls. We probably met in the college nursery school where Child Development students sat behind a dark screen to observe us children at play, but I do not remember her there. We must have been in kindergarten, first, and second grades together but I do not remember her there either. Yet I recall that we were best friends, or almost best friends.
She lived too far away for us to visit daily. That is, the blocks in our neighborhood were long blocks, and though we both only had to walk two blocks to school, we were on opposite sides of the school; thus, our houses were four long blocks apart. Playing together was a Saturday event. I don’t remember if we could walk to each other’s houses on a Saturday and still get home before dark, or if we were driven by car. The visits had to be planned, so probably there were cars involved, and we alternated playing at each other’s houses.
I have no memory of Lois in my house. I remember her house. She only had one little sister while I was the middle one of five children, so her house was smaller and quieter and much neater than mine. Her mother was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and that was even counting my beloved second grade teacher Mrs. Winter. I remember her mother taught us to do a kind of knitting on a spool. I remember Lois would only ever eat shell macaroni with butter and peas. That was a favorite food for me, too.
I was afraid of Lois’s father, though I remember him being funny. He would roughhouse with us and call me silly names, but I remember once being terrified to be alone with him. Lois and I had been invited to another child’s party but at the last minute Lois could not go; she had received a vaccine and was ill in reaction. My father was on a (rare) trip out of town, and Lois’s father had agreed to take us both. When Lois got sick, he called to say he would take me to the party anyway. I remember crying and pleading with my mother not to make me go with him. My mother was unsympathetic (“He is a lovely man and he is taking you to this party even though his own child can’t go and you should be grateful!”). I remember clinging to the door on my side of the car going and coming, and alighting from the car at my own house drenched with relief that Nothing had Happened. Of course I wondered for years afterwards if he had ever been mean to me or physically hurtful, or worse, but nothing has ever surfaced from my unconscious on that score.
Lois and I played upstairs in her house, in a long attic that was a playroom. The only thing I really remember is that we played paper dolls. Lois had a paper doll that was a ballet dancer. Her legs were permanently in the arabesque position, and her name was Columbine. I remember that Lois’s little sister wanted to play with us and we didn’t want her to, but sometimes we had to let her.
Other than these things, I can’t remember a thing except something momentous that happened to us in third grade. I have never forgotten it my whole life, and I use it to explain personality traits I have now. When I lost Lois, after she moved away to California at the end of third grade, I looked for her wherever I went – that is, in phone books. She had an unusual last name. Her father was a well-known scientist. I kept hoping I would find her somehow.
In the 1980s I already had a computer. I had been writing on a (now primitive) word processor since it was invented. Then in the mid-1990s the Internet began, and my precocious son, an early teenager, was right on top of it. He and I had email before there was anyone else to write to and Web capability before there were any web sites. (A few years ago I met with a writing group in a community college art room. There were piles of old magazines on a table in the back; Smithsonians, National Geographics, and the like. I borrowed a Smithsonian one week and realized as I looked through it that the advertisements had no web addresses. It made me feel blinded and bound almost; if I wanted something from a company, and could not get on their web site, how was I supposed to find out more about their product or respond to their advertisement?)
Of course I looked for Lois on the Web. But she must have married because I never found her name. I had heard a rumor back in Ames that her parents had divorced. I did find out about her father, the scientist, on the Web, but he was retired and there didn’t seem to be any easy way to get hold of him. Furthermore, I remembered being afraid of him and didn’t very much want to contact him, especially if he was divorced from Lois’s mother.
Then it happened. Last summer, 2010, fifty-four years after I last saw Lois, I Googled her (maiden) name yet again and there she was. Her high school graduating class had finally developed a Web site, and her name was on it. Even more incredible, when I clicked on her name it took me to a website of hers! It turns out she was a writer and a blogger and a computer whiz; if I had known her married name I could have found her ages ago. We have renewed acquaintance, which feels like a broken piece of my heart sliding back into place, but this story is about when we were little.
Our third grade teacher was Miss Meyers. Lois remembers her fondly, but I remember her as a short, frumpy, older lady who scolded frequently. Her name, poor thing, was Mildred. She had been my older sister’s teacher and my older brother’s teacher and it seemed as though she had lived forever and would live forever. I don’t remember much about third grade either, but I do recall a chart up on the wall where we were to enter our bedtimes. I always lied and put 8 p.m. After all, I didn’t want my family exposed as a ramshackle family where third graders could stay up late. How could Miss Meyers ever find out the truth? She couldn’t.
I had two close friends in third grade: Lois, and Mary Jo. Mary Jo lived much closer to me and we had been playing together for years. At Christmas time, Mary Jo and I were allowed to walk to the little group of Campustown stores (there was a five and dime), and get our class Christmas presents. It worked like this: Girls got a present for a girl. Boys got a present for a boy. All were to be wrapped. On the last day of school before break, Miss Meyers would sit on a chair by the Christmas tree in the back of the classroom and hand out the boxes to us sitting on the floor, boy or girl (there must have been an even number of children!). Each would open a gift. I am not sure if the giver’s name was supposed to be a secret or not.
So Mary Jo and I walked down to Campustown and went into Mr. Peterson’s store to look for presents. There was a monetary limit but I have no idea now what it was. I got a dollar every year on my birthday from my grandmother, and that was a huge amount of money, so I doubt our gifts were supposed to cost that much. I don’t remember what I bought to give for a present. But I remember what Mary Jo bought. It was a puzzle, maybe 25 pieces or so, of a creche with Mary and Joseph and the animals and shepherds and the Baby Jesus. Mary Jo asked me if I thought that was a good present, and I said I thought it was very good.
The day of the gifts arrived. And here is what I remember, and it is all I remember. Miss Meyers handed out the boxes and gave Mary Jo’s box to Lois. I recognized the wrapping paper. I felt pleased that my two friends were connected by a present. Lois opened it and then – of all things! – she began to cry. She held the puzzle out to Miss Meyers and said she could not take this present. Miss Meyers was cross once she realized that Lois was actually turning the present down. “What is wrong with it? It is a lovely puzzle,” she said, and so on. Lois just cried and cried, her hair covering her face. She kept saying she just couldn’t take that present. Miss Meyers must have eventually subsided, clucking like a hen, never heard of such a thing, ridiculous, and I don’t know if Lois got a replacement present or not. I do know I felt stricken. I had told Mary Jo I thought the puzzle was a good present. Now, for some unknown reason, it was making Lois cry and it wasn’t a good present after all. It was a mystery, but I was not critical of Lois at all. I just felt sad and helpless for both my friends.
The mystery was partially explained for me months later. As I said, Lois’s father moved the family out to California that following summer. Before they moved away, maybe the day before they moved away, Lois called and wanted me to take a walk with her. Maybe we could walk to each other’s houses then. We walked on her street and she said she had a secret to tell me. A big secret.
I was already, in third grade, receiving some secrets. I wasn’t particularly close-mouthed, but I think I had then whatever open and supportive nature I still have that made me a good counselor and therapist when I was working in the field. I have a group picture of me from a party, very young, maybe six, and my arm is around the shoulder of the little girl next to me. I was very affectionate and I still am. I told Lois she could tell me her secret and I wouldn’t tell anybody. And as far as I know, I didn’t, until long after she was a distant memory and this story became a part of my biography.
She said, “I’m Jewish.”
I cannot imagine what I said back. I think it very likely that I said, “What’s that?” This was Ames, Iowa. I knew about churches: Episcopal (mine), Baptist, Methodist, Congregational, Lutheran, Presbyterian. That was it. Maybe Lois explained to me that it was a kind of church, only there wasn’t one in Ames.
I also think it very probable that I said, once I understood in some rudimentary way what she was talking about, that it wasn’t her fault, she couldn’t help it, and I didn’t hold it against her.
She moved away. Maybe in fifth or sixth grade I found the magazines hidden in my mother’s dresser with pictures of all the dead people, all the skeletal living people in the striped clothes with yellow stars in Europe in a place they called a “camp.” Maybe in sixth grade I read the Diary of Anne Frank. Over Anne’s face I superimposed Lois’s. I had bad dreams. I went all over the house looking for a place to hide, a good place, for when the bad men came to take me away like they took Anne/Lois. I knew it could happen anywhere, any time. They could kill you for the church your parents made you go to; for the religion you were raised in. No one was ever, really safe, if such a thing could happen.
I may have been in junior high when the Supreme Court ruled on the separation of church and state in the schools. I remembered Lois and I knew that without that stupid Christmas party, neither of my friends would have been hurt. I reviled Miss Meyers in my mind. How stupid do you have to be not to think of a certain name as probably – even possibly – Jewish? How stupid do you have to be to scold a little girl for saying, with complete truthfulness, that this was a present she could not take home?
When I got to high school, every spring there was a long-standing tradition called Friendship Week. It was a series of lectures and activities that should have been called “Christianity Week.” Two of my high school friends and I refused to go. But rather than just staying home (we would not have been missed), we presented ourselves to the principal’s office, saying that we were protesting Friendship Week because it was unconstitutional. We weren’t just being cute; we had already heard about the first lecture, in which a famous theologian told the assembly of high schoolers – and faculty – that Jews were like (foolish) people waiting for a train that had already left the station.
From there it was a short step to the Ames Youth for Equality, Mississippi Thanksgiving, SDS (I joined in high school) and majoring in antiwar activities in college. But the germ for all that, all my years of activism and idealism, came from Lois. It came from a little girl telling me her secret, with shame in her voice.
Lois tells me she doesn’t remember anything unusual happening in third grade where she was brave. I decided to write this as a way of telling her. It won’t surprise me if she doesn’t remember a single thing about it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

True or False: When You Poke a Balloon With a Pin, it Always Pops

I loved my 3rd grade teacher, Miss Myers. She always knew where to find the answers to my questions about asteroid belts and deep sea pearl diving and was there a difference between poison ivy and poison oak.

I actually believed she knew where to find the answer to anything. I held her up in my eight-year-old mind as a bastion of truth and knowledge, unlike my parents who often blamed me for things I hadn’t done, or punished me for telling the truth or doing what I was sure was right.

Then came the day of the True or False test. One of the statements was: When you poke a balloon with a pin, it always pops. The word always was a dead giveaway. Almost nothing happens always.

Apples that fall from a tree don’t always hit the ground. They might get caught in a lower branch. Climbing over the back fence doesn’t always get me in trouble - just if I rip my pants on the barbed wire.

I had poked pins into balloons and discovered that if I poke the pin in the dark area near the knot, the balloon usually doesn’t pop. If I poke the pin through the knot, it almost never pops. And of course, if I poke the pin through the tail end outside the knot, it never ever pops.

I marked False, completely sure of the truth of my answer.

My test came back marked in RED. Miss Myers, my heroine, didn’t know as much about balloons as I did. I protested. And fair woman that she was, she gave me a chance. We went home for lunch, and when we came back one of the other students had brought two balloons. I was assigned to demonstrate to the class how to poke a pin into a balloon without popping it.

I was confident that I could do it with only one balloon. I wasted the first one. I held the balloon up, aimed the pin at the big bulging side, and said, “If you poke here, the balloon will pop.” Then I demonstrated.

Then ! held the 2nd balloon. I thought about poking through the knot – but I thought the teacher might say I was cheating. And besides, balloons almost never pop when you poke beside the knot, in the dark area. You can even poke through the dark area on the top and usually get the pin through the rubber without popping the balloon.

I aimed the pin a the bottom of the balloon. “But if you poke here...” The balloon popped. Miss Myers said her grade stood. I had failed. Not just getting a question wrong that I knew wasn’t wrong, but I had failed in front of the class to prove that I knew more about balloons than she did. I had failed to prove what I knew was true.

I should have poked that pin through the knot. I should not have taken a chance. I should have brought my own balloons so I’d have had more chances. Miss Myers never gave me another chance to prove what I knew about balloons.

These days, I can poke a wooden skewer through the thick part of a balloon , and out the other end through the dark spot and almost never pop a balloon. I can put a piece of clear sticky tape anywhere and poke a pin through that. It never pops.

Okay, never is as big a catch-word as always. But I’ve never seen a balloon pop when I’ve poked it with a pin through sticky tape.

Sometimes you have to give somebody more than two chances. I gave Miss Myers other chances. She came through on most of them.