Thursday, February 1, 2018

Empathy 2

Decent hospital art--though I did wonder why the column in back is the one in focus?!?

Cancer has been on my heart a lot lately. It touches so many people I love in so many ways. So, though this post has been sitting in my drafts for months, I think now is the time to publish.

I know my experiences reflect the experience of a lucky, well-insured woman in America. I know a lot of people have it a lot worse. I hate that anyone faces a lack of insurance. I hate that anyone faces a cancer diagnosis. And that’s kind of the point of the post.

Having my toes dipped, ever so slightly, into this pool has cracked my heart wide open for everyone who must swim in it.

Maintaining healthy breasts definitely has some pluses and minuses, at least in my experience. I meet some amazing people during the whole process, but, oh my word, the process just stinks.

I understand where it’s all coming from—I mean, I’m a well-informed, experienced (ie, getting old) adult who actually used to sell breast localization, aspiration, and biopsy needles. So I know the stats. (Skip this part if stats bore you.) Cancer causes the second highest number of deaths in women and breast cancer, the most common cancer women, causes the second highest number of cancer deaths. It’s a thing we need to prevent, if possible.

To get back to me, I have a family history of breast cancer. I also have fibrocystic breasts, aka lumpy breasts. That means that my self-exams do not involve checking for lumps. My exams involve checking to make sure that I have the same NUMBER of lumps, in the same PLACES, and roughly the same SIZE as last time. Except that they’re cysts, so they swell (and hurt like crap) sometimes. And swelling’s normal. Except when it’s not. Hurting is a good (non-cancerous) sign. Except when it’s not. It’s probably nothing. Except when it’s not.

So around about July 9, while out of town having a blast on a girls’ weekend, something swelled at the wrong time and in the wrong place. When I got home, I called my doctor to utter the magic words “history” and “lump” thus getting the next available appointment, which in this busy practice ended up being July 24. Seriously, though, that was pretty fast.

Spoiler: Let me just say that I’m fine. On August 9, one month later, I found out I’m fine. And they’ve now counted and mapped my lumps for future reference. Yay!

So my doctor (awesomely) gave me orders for both a screening mammogram AND follow-up imaging, just in case, to streamline the process. I set it up with a local hospital because I love the people there. And I got in on July 26.

I really do love the people there. Let’s just start with the outpatient registrar, who totally laughed when I said that, while I could 100% confirm the birthdate on my ID bracelet, I do not identify with the age that goes with it. Then she sent me down the hall to the infamous “door with the pink flowers”—I mean, really. We all know it’s mammography, but the subtly off-pink flowers in place of a sign give it an almost self-parodying Steel Magnolias vibe. Who doesn’t love that?

The mammography techs rock. They must give the same reassurances and make the same jokes a billion times a week, but they still do it. They make that utterly (udderly!) ludicrous process normal and quick, while keeping it human. But the one monkey wrench in the whole works comes after the techs do their good work: the radiologist.

I’ve been assured that he’s a genius and that “if I had to pick anyone in the world to read my films, it would be him” but… One, I’ve been in enough workplaces to be able to see that everyone works around this guy. And two, I don’t know if it’s hospital policy or what, but he MAILS results. In an envelope. In the mail. Like, the USPS (slowly) carries it to your mailbox. They call it snail mail for a reason, folks.

So both the hospital and my doctor have online records with a tab for lab results. I signed up and duly checked them every day…about twenty times a day. Seriously, the activity log for both accounts shows stalker-level check ins. Nothing. Well, that’s not true. My “radiology” tab showed a bill for the mammogram, so at least I knew it happened…but that was it. Nothing else. And do not even try to call for results. That’s not an option. The gods of medical records laugh at your feeble attempts to game the system that way.

A WEEK LATER, on August 2, I got an envelope from the hospital in the mail. I assumed it was a bill because, hey, that’s all that showed up in my electronic file. I opened it up to find a form letter. “Normally benign” blah-blah-blah, but “follow up imaging needed.”

Since my awesome doctor had given me the order already, I immediately called the hospital to schedule the ultrasound ASAP, for August 9.

I got there plenty early for the appointment (I wonder why?) and stopped by medical records to see what I could do about getting results some way other than IN THE MAIL. Turns out the only other way is in person. The kindhearted lady there also gave me about six copies of the release I need to sign to let my husband pick up my results as needed, since he works across the street. She even told me how to write my own release in case I ran out of forms!

Then things got fun. The ultrasound tech, Brittany, turned out to be even cooler than mammogram techs, if that’s possible. She kept me chatting about life with boys (our sons are about the same age) and told me fun stories of how much gel you get all over you practicing on each other in ultrasound tech school. She also told me I could feel free not to identify with age on my bracelet; she thought I was much younger. (She actually *IS* much younger, though, so that was cool.)

The best part? She promised to get me results before I left that day. Since that meant waiting, she suggested I’d be most comfortable in the “breast room” aka the mammography suite. I, of course, heard that as “restroom” and momentarily thought she’d lost her mind, but we had a good laugh. In the end, I was free to roam about the hospital. The radiologist had gone into a procedure unexpectedly, but the tech promised to haunt the door until he came out and then call my cell.

While I waited, I got an amazingly strong, delicious latte, expertly made by the lady in the gift shop. I mean, if your cysts are already swollen and sore, why not have caffeine? I also had the joyful experience of listening to a woman a little older than I am lovingly debate with her mother about whether the city of Charlotte is in North or South Carolina. The hysterical dialogue could have been from a Laurel and Hardy routine, but they were so sweet with each other.

In practically no time, Brittany the tech stopped by to let me know that all my cysts were just being their usual cystic selves. Freedom!

Of course, I did get my official results IN THE MAIL a week later. Both my doctor and the radiologist want me to do another ultrasound in six months, now that they’ve mapped my cysts. I can live with that. I may even name the cysts—I figure they’re like little constellations in there. Why not?

I gotta tell you, though—this stinks. I have a friend who describes the brain as a computer. Do you know how annoying it is when your antivirus or backup software runs ALL THE TIME, hanging up the program you’re using? Well, my Norton Cancer Anxiety program ran pretty constantly for that month, hanging up all the other programs in my brain.

I didn’t want to talk about it because what is there to say? But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either. The kids—feeding, driving, and chatting with them—distracted me pretty well, but otherwise I couldn’t concentrate. I could only do the necessities then read beach novels on my Kindle to calm myself. For a month. And this was my second time in two years.

I guess I need to work on being more zen.

But I had to think: I have insurance and I do not have cancer. How unbelievable paralyzing, all-consuming, and life-altering would this have been if either of those factors changed?

I hate that any person worries about medical bills while wondering if they have cancer. I hate that anyone misses a vital screening for financial reasons. I hate that anyone goes into debt to stay alive.

I’m going back to my Empathy post here. My experience doesn’t compare to others’, but it does give me a path toward empathizing with their experiences. And once I’ve done that, how can I not care?

If anyone in our country faces any of those completely avoidable financial stresses, our system is broken. We need to fix it. I don’t know how, but I’m looking. I’m listening. I’m thinking. I won't forget. And I will vote.

Postscript: I started the process of trying to get life insurance after my August all-clear. Through bureaucratic incompetence, the process took five months. As of this writing, three weeks before my follow-up ultrasound, I have just been denied life insurance. In a way it's validating--I'm not crazy for worrying--but in a way...well, the life insurance company doesn't think I'm a good bet. 

Too bad. I'm doing this thing called life! 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Tragedy of Passing

A little fine print to begin...This blog will discuss the movie, The Greatest Showman, as a work of art. Without touching on the historical accuracy of the story, I will consider the characters, plot, lyrics, and themes of the story as the theater and English major I am. I will use "passing" according to Merriam-Webster's definition 10c, "to identify oneself or be identified as something one is not."

Oddly, I noticed that my old blog, Exceptional, received two hits this week. Good! That's the blog in which I claim that any student considered average just hasn't been caught being exceptional. I'm going to double down on that claim. ANYONE considered average just hasn't been caught yet--they're passing as average and that is tragic.

I firmly believe that good art addresses the deepest wounds of the society in which its made. As The Greatest Showman sweeps the nation, let's think about why. What wounds does it expose in all of us? And what can it tell us about how to heal?

The movie's very effective structure sets up lots of contrasts among the characters--Barnum and Lind come from poverty, Charity and Carlisle come from wealth.  And, most notably, all four can pass as average, which the individuals--the freaks--Barnum hires cannot.

Barnum hires freaks for his show by selling them a community in which they can fully belong. He sings,
Come one!
Come all!
You hear
The call
To anyone who's searching for a way to break free

To quote the story's love song, "we're able to be/just you and me/inside these walls." Barnum sells his show as place to celebrate difference, to applaud each individual's uniqueness. In the beginning of the movie, it's implied that he may not be fully invested in that as a principle--it seems to be more of an opportunity to profit. By the end of the movie, in a powerful, traditional story arc, the salesman has sold something that's more real than knows. The illusion he sold to those who are visibly outliers becomes salvation for Barnum, who is equally, if less visibly, an outlier.

Barnum sees the status of Jenny Lind as the ultimate goal. A renowned, internationally celebrated artist, Lind moves among the upper class, even royalty. In the movie's story, Barnum and Lind come from similar impoverished backgrounds and so feel themselves to be outliers. Internally, their pasts mark them apart from average as much as physical traits mark Barnum's employees as outliers. Yet, outwardly, Barnum and Lind can pass. Given the right money, opportunities, connections, and talents, they can impersonate what they can never be, what no one can ever be: Average. Acceptable. Normal. Socially untroubling.

What makes a tragedy out of successfully passing? What we must do to pass. If we humans deny what makes us unique, if we try to amputate all the parts that don't fit into the cookie cutter, if we hide parts of ourselves as deadly secrets, we become walking wounded. We live lives ruled by fear of discovery, consumed by a cannibalistic level of the natural human desire for belonging.

Lind, in her insecurity, has lived alone. She sings alone. Her costuming is iconically cold and untouchable. Cold, solitary images fill lyrics of her song--she sings of stealing the cold, distant, unattainable stars, she sings of towers--solitary structures, she sings of a soloist's spotlights, she sings of how it will "never be enough." In the movie, she pushes too hard to seize on her tentative sense of belonging with Barnum and she loses him. She also triggers a crisis in  Barnum's life.

Barnum, in contrast, has unwittingly created a community--a community that welcomes all, without any requirement of passing. In crisis, he turns back to the people he worked with in the beginning, the team that created his success. Among them, he can be fully himself. He reclaims his unique place in that group and his sense of belonging in the song "From Now On."  With his community, he sings the driving refrain of "And we will come back home/Home again!"

Why does this story resonate so profoundly--and not just with the eternally alienated teen population? My husband, our fourth grade son, and I were as affected as our teen daughter. Maybe it's because each and every human being is an outlier. We are all unique. And we are constantly being told to fit the norm. To be physically standard with inoffensive thoughts and experiences. To speak what others accept. To be an acceptable weight with an acceptable education and income and possessions... I could list items we are pressured to police about ourselves until this blog ran a hundred screens long.

For the love of humanity, people, it will never happen! We don't need a normal ticket to belong in the greatest show. We just need to decide that we all belong in this existence. We all belong. In every beautiful variation on this planet, in every facet of uniqueness, every person belongs. We. All. Belong. As. We. Are.

And if you want a scientific pathway to the idea that average is the true fiction, look up the story of Gilbert S. Daniels and his 1940s research on pilot size for the Air Force. You can find the story almost anywhere--here's a good version.

Thursday, January 18, 2018


that inky soup
lies in puddles
you can see
and step around
or watch diminish
soaked in

you wake up
in the soup
no toehold
nowhere to breathe

Friday, January 12, 2018


the props are packed
the crutches kicked away
the milquetoast
thoroughly burned
I split open
my amanuensis shell
I pulse wings
to see
if circulation
sparks color

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Summer Perspectives

So, summer has fully arrived. Not just the weather, but also the joy of spending nearly every hour with our beautiful children.

And I love them! They constantly surprise and amaze me.

Just last weekend, as the four of us drove somewhere, Little A. said, "Mom?"

And I smiled. And I said, "Yes?"

And he mumbled something.

"What did you say?"

"I said, never mind!"

Well, okay then.

And then S. leans over in the backseat, not even really bothering to be too quiet, and says to him with delight in her voice, "I love doing that, too."


About two hours into the Great Road Trip of 2017, Little A. once again pipes up.

"Traveling is great for getting out into the world and...and...

Oh my gosh, this is gonna be good. All our efforts will pay off in chunks of wisdom picked up while traveling.

"I mean, it's nice to get out and see things in real life, you know. Things like, like ..."

This will be enlightened! Wise! Life-changing! Oooh, I can't wait...

"I really like seeing real things, like billboards for all the companies they advertise on the radio."


Speaking of signs, let's end on a positive note. A little contribution from one of our Philadelphia contributors to remind us that empathy is the key!

Friday, May 12, 2017

This is Sick*

This has been my view for the last few days. Notice the sofa-level angle on the picture? Yeah. I've been laid low by this bizarre virus that (while allegedly not the flu) lasts for days.

Honestly, if I hadn't seen my son go through it first, I wouldn't have believed it. But this bug sucked the energy right out of a nine-year-old boy.

Honestly, if the pediatrician hadn't told me half the town has it and it lasts 10-12 days, I wouldn't have believed.

And, honestly, I still might not have believed it if the all-around tough guy--also a great guy!--who trims our palms hadn't had to reschedule for a week later because *he* had it.

I felt a little bleh all weekend, so I then felt super proud of myself for making it through my PiYo class Monday morning. The downhill slide began when I picked up my phone after class and saw eight missed calls. Eight?!?! Turns out we'd sent Little A. back to school too soon and he needed to come home. No problem. I picked him up and got him settled.

The rest of the week passed in a blur of already scheduled home repair and/or maintenance visits and the subsequent follow-ups (see the list on the legal pad there?), attempts to remember when I last took Advil, and making really lame dinners for the kids. Oh--I also had to set an alarm on my phone to remember to give Little A. his antibiotics twice a day because it turns out he had an ear infection, too.

He's not a complainer and, usually, neither am I. But it's funny how you learn things about yourself when you have kids exactly like you, warts and all.

It's flippin' hard to take care of him! I never have any idea how sick  he is unless I catch one of his tells. His teacher sent him home because, after he was a total jerk to her about some instructions that he couldn't hear because EAR INFECTION, she caught one of his tells. He put his head down on his desk. I'm so glad she spotted that for what it was--a totally out of character moment of overwhelming misery--and called me.

Even then he argued with me later. "I ALWAYS put my head on my desk." Um, yeah, son? I'm not in class with you all day but I'm willing to bet that's a big negative, Ghost Rider.

So if I'd like him to be more aware of his symptoms and more open with the people around him, I guess I'd better teach by example. I'll try to do better at assessing my condition and sharing it with the people who have to deal with me. Here goes.

I've been sick, so sick that the dog barking gives me an adrenaline shot equivalent to... I dunno what. A triple espresso?  But it takes me roughly a half hour to recover and, with at least five companies scheduled to work on the house, plus one guy from a fairly major investment firm going door-to-door "not selling anything, just letting me know he's opened an office nearby" (?!?!?) this week, the dog has barked. A lot.

Oh, yeah--did I mention that Little A. spent his sick days surprising the dog with a remote control helicopter?

I've been so sick that getting up to get water makes my heart race. Notice I don't say "getting up to get hot tea with honey"--because that's too darn hard to fix when I'm this sick.

I've tried reading to pass time, but I have to stop when the story gets to action scenes because it's just too exhausting. If you know my reading habits, this is truly alarming.

Also typos! I'm so sick I'm not even getting close enough for Autosuggest to guess. I can't tell how many corrections I've made to this post. And I'm feeling better today!

*Here's where you find out this whole post has been a ploy to see if I can put together complete sentences and catch my typos. If I succeed, it's back to work for me!

Although, with no one scheduled to be at the house this afternoon, I may nap later...

Wishing you health and peace, my friends.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The World Is Wide Enough

The other morning, while solo parenting, I negotiated a sibling dispute. Slowing down my bright, quick, passionate children and engaging their frontal lobes rather than their brain stems took every ounce of attention, skill, and experience I possess. But when they’d settled things, I realized I’d just seen something crucial to our world.

Let me set the scene.

As we ate, the topic of circus came up. Shocking, really, considering S. spends AT LEAST twelve hours a week there. We talked about various different types of acts, then Little A. confidently proclaimed his opinion.

“I like ALL the clowns and ONLY the clowns!”

Now, I knew he was just playing with words. Once he said “all” he (subconsciously) created some parallel structure and cool contrast between “all” and “only.” He’s been doing that a lot lately—probably because he’s reading books with better prose lately. But S. didn’t like it one bit.

“That’s just wrong! Why would you say that?”

She probably would have kept going, but I cut her off. “Wait. Why are you upset?”

“I’m offended because *I* like other acts and he shouldn’t say that—” Her voice went up an octave.

I jumped in. “Whoa! Whoa! The world is wide enough for both your brother and you.”

Hamilton references always diffuse tricky situations in our house, so we were able to dial things down a bit. We went on to have a discussion about how Little A. can hold his opinion (and maybe even change it someday) while S. holds hers. They can be opposite opinions and that’s OKAY. What’s in one person’s mind does not negate what’s in another person’s mind.

And really, isn’t that the tragedy of Hamilton? Burr realizes, too late, that he and Hamilton could coexist without negating each other. “The world is wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”

And really, isn’t that the tragedy of our society right now? I’ve heard our political environment compared both to a sports league, where rivalries generate ratings and everyone’s a rabid fan of their team, and to dog fighting, where the powerful throw scraps down for the powerless to fight over—at least in part to distract the powerless from realizing they probably could break free if they stopped fighting.

And then I heard this phenomenal podcast. Essentially, it’s an interview with two South Carolina politicians—Jamie Harrison, chair of the state Democratic Party, and Matt Moore, chair of the state Republican Party--about issues affecting the judicial system. But the quality of the conversation struck me far more than the content. Not only do these two men have a fantastic rapport, but they clearly have profound respect for each other. And they actually discuss the unfortunate enmity between various groups in our society, the possible causes, and potential solutions.

And then I ran across this excellent TEDTalk on how to make that happen—a spiritual and political practice that could restore America, which is much more of a tossed salad than a melting pot.

Listen to these folks if you can. Even if you can’t, remember this:
The world is wide enough for both everyone else and you.