Wednesday, March 1, 2023

I don’t remember how to talk to people

It’s been three years since the country went into lockdown, and long since we resumed “normal” life, but I seem to have forgotten how to talk to my fellow humans. Part of it is self-consciousness. Isolation messed with my antenna. Worse, I’m a middle-aged white woman with resting librarian face—a Karen, one might assume. (Apologies to my cousin Karen, who is a lovely soul and doesn’t deserve the grief attached to that name.) I have to work extra hard to dispel the notion that I’m rude or entitled, which probably comes off as “too nice,” or fake, or patronizing. A trip to the store is exhausting. No one can see me smile behind my mask, anyway.

Yes, I still wear a mask to the store, and the airport. It seems like the least I can do, literally. Leaving the house, I’m mentally prepared for the moment when some red-faced stranger challenges my right to protect my own health. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m always ready for a fight.

Therein lies the problem. My perception of reality has been warped. The folks at my local grocery store are never anything but nice. Still, after dozens of videos of people fighting on planes and in check-out lines, it feels like we’re all about to be pummeled.

Or shot. The other thing I do at the store is rehearse what to do when the shooting starts. Being in any public venue—church, movie theater, concert hall—means checking exits and calculating run times. Let’s be real: my sprint was laughable fifty years ago. I imagine trying to talk the shooter out of killing me. My guess is he won’t look favorably on my views about gun control.

Any conversation feels dangerous these days. What aren’t we angry about? There’s no such thing as “small talk,” because you never know what will set someone off. I learned the hard way that trying to have an honest debate about a difficult subject can end a relationship. Here’s a partial list of hand grenades:

  • Covid
  • Vaccines
  • Balloons
  • Science
  • History
  • Healthcare
  • Public schools
  • Student loans
  • Voting
  • Laptops
  • Walls
  • Bathrooms
  • Statues
  • Disney World
  • Harry Potter
  • Names of sports teams and schools
  • Adjectives and pronouns
  • M&M candies
  • The unnamed state where I live

And that old standby, the weather? It’s the most dangerous subject of all. We can’t go anywhere near the fact that the planet might be melting. Add polar bears and icecaps to the list.

Are other people out there having authentic discussions, and it’s just me taking deep breaths and changing the subject? A YouTube psychologist advises that, when your aunt gets going at the family reunion, simply gesture into the distance, say “I’ll be right back,” and never return.

It’s the coward’s way out, but a “meeting of the minds” seems like a hopeless pursuit. Discretion is the better part of valor, as they say. I used to love finding out how other people thought. Now, nine times out of ten, it’s alarming. While working on a crown, my dentist of 30 years confessed that he doesn’t believe in vaccines. Any of them. I couldn’t excuse myself and run to the bathroom—he had his hands in my mouth. The other day, I joked to a friend about the moon landings being faked, only to realize he wasn’t laughing. “I’ll be right back,” I said. It worked.

Our versions of reality are drifting so far apart, it’s almost as if we’re speaking different languages. Which brings me back to my original issue. How do we talk about—and fix—the very real problems facing our world if we can’t even agree on what they are? We’re fighting on deck while the Titanic sinks. Meanwhile, I’m just running from one side of the ship to the other. My husband, who survived a brain injury, still believes in things like kindness, patience, decency, respect. He’s silly that way. And strangely, I can talk to him. (He does most of the talking, but you know what I mean.) As for everybody else, well—I’m trying. Maybe one day, before it’s too late, we’ll figure out a way to sit down and hash out our differences, like adults. We used to know how to do that, right?

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Thom Alan White 1990-2022

We lost a member of the family last week. His name was Thom. He was 31 years old. He died while mountain-climbing. It’s the kind of shock that rarely happens in our family. We’re farmers, not adventurers. We die of old age, in our beds. Frankly, I don’t know what to do with this. I barely knew Thom. He was my cousin’s youngest son. His father, Tedd, and I spent summers together, running through the fields in Hawley, Massachusetts, but that was fifty years ago. I remember Thom as a tow-headed kid, asleep on the back of his grandfather’s tractor. 

Thanks to Facebook, I can go back and trace Thom’s path through the last few years of his life. He farmed with his dad, the eighth generation of Whites to work the land, as he proudly noted in his profile. He was a whitewater rafting guide in the summers. He sang in a band, Thomcat and the Berkshires. He drove a cherry-red Mustang with a white racing stripe. “I believe in hard work and living a good life,” he said. “I’m usually doing something active or reading.”

In the fall of 2019, he wrote: “I live a very blessed and fortunate life. I am grateful for everyone that is a part of it, and my close companions. I have had no tragedies, or illness or immutable hardship. I have listened and heard from many this year that have, and I don’t know how they do it. I love you guys and I am here for you, as you have been for me.” 
February 2020: “Boy, I don’t know what it is but everything is starting to look very good...great times coming.” A month later, as the world went into lockdown, he reported, “Hope everyone’s doing well. My impression is people aren’t designed to be socially distant. I’m doing well up at the farm, and we’ll be working the fields soon.” 

He was excited about plans for his new house. “I’ll start building an A-frame on my 50 acre lot next year. Should look great. The White family are carpenters as well. Probably a project I’ll be working on in the evenings.”

As the election approached, he wrote a thoughtful piece about politics, breaking his personal rule not to talk about “negative” topics. “We must be able to communicate,” he said, “and we must be able to disagree.” He affirmed his belief that “people are inherently good,” and closed with this thought: “We must preserve our individualism and our love, because that is what will create the incredible future that happens next.”

Around Thanksgiving of that year, he rode his bike to the top of Mount Greylock. After Christmas, he set off for the Adirondack Mountains and celebrated New Year’s Day atop Mount Marcy. A few months later, he passed his annual physical for Zoar Outdoor, the rafting company he so adored: “Vitals are slightly high due to stress. They recommend I get a girlfriend if I don’t have one, or become single if I do.” 
June 2021: “Realized today I have everything I could want. Being 30 now I’ve streamlined my life. Finish my house in two years, find a romantic partner at some point. That’ll be it really, spend the rest of my days on the water and listening to techno music.”

That summer, he bought a new drone camera, which would play a central role in his soaring adventure videos. In the fall, he set off on a 450-mile bike trip to Maine to climb Mount Katahdin. He recorded it as “one of the most beautiful views of my life so far.”

In November 2021, he announced his plan to bike from Massachusetts to the West Coast along the “Northern Tier,” and climb the highest points of each state along the way. A few weeks later, he noted, “It’s interesting getting older, I can design my life to be exactly how I’d like it to be.”

That month, while buying office supplies at Staples, he witnessed a customer becoming violent with staff at the counter. “Fight or flight response told me I had to approach,” Thom said, “because other people were going to get hurt.” He managed to talk the man out of the store. Thom happened to be wearing his Superman shirt that day. His friends called him “our resident superhero.”

In January, he visited family in Florida and sketched out plans for his cross-country trip. “I’ll have to be careful for this one, because of the duration. Wind breaking and waterproof layers, with thermals that can be taken off.” He added, “Overall, I think it’s going to be a great experience. I see the importance now of new experiences and new people, and the perspective and opportunity it brings. There are a lot of great people and places in the world, and I can’t wait to see them.” 

On March 9th, he left home. “Gannett Peak, Borah Peak and Mount Rainier are the highest points of their states, and the most prominent of the trip. These are the three I’ll go for. The elevation of the summits in the northwest is higher than the mountains here in the northeast, at around 12-14,000 feet. I’ll acclimatize naturally on my approach to them. See you at the west coast, and some of the mountains along the way.” 
By March 11th, he was in Pennsylvania. “People are waving their arms as I go by, they seem happy.” By the 18th, as he reached Ohio, he’d covered 575 miles. On the 25th, as he crossed the plains, a storm drove him to shelter. “I’m having a great time. The weather has been pretty intense though. I don’t think I’ve seen the sun in four or five days. It’s been heavy torrential rains, and high winds.” 
South Dakota, April 15th: “The land has had remarkably no elevation change since Indiana, making travel easier. The headwind did have an effect, but with the land changing and foliage to break it up, it’s getting back to normal. I’ll buy some equipment and new clothes, and get ready for the mountain summits in the next states. This trip has given me the perspective I was looking for, and I’ve met great new people that have helped me along the way.” 
April 22nd, the Wind River Range, Wyoming: “I seem to be getting better. Mountains are straightforward, and fatigue is restored quicker. I’ll climb the high points of states further west, due to high avalanche risk from the recent weather here.” 

On May 1st, Thom completed his solo climb of Borah Peak in the Lost River Range, Idaho. 

Two weeks later, he reached the Pacific Ocean. He’d biked 3,145 miles. From Astoria, Oregon, he shot a gorgeous video of the coast, blue-green waves crashing on the dark rocks. In his last post, May 15th, he said, “It was interesting to see every terrain; the mountain ranges of Pennsylvania, the fields of Illinois and lowa, the high desert of Wyoming and Idaho, and the snowstorms on top of Mount Borah. Solo climbing approval from the states it’s required in has been on hold with the late winter in the mountains here, but I’ve had each unique experience I was looking for. I’ll come back another summer for Mount Rainier and Hood. It feels good in the sun. I’ll return home next week, and settle down for a while to build the A-frame.” 

Before he left, he had one last goal: to stand on the rim summit of Mount St. Helens. It’s the smaller sister to Mt. Rainier, almost half the height, a little over 8,000 feet. Climbers usually make the round trip in 7 or 8 hours. Snowstorms postponed his start for 2 days. The morning before his flight home, he finally set out. When he didn’t return that night, a friend reported him missing. He’d been caught in a freak white-out; rescuers wouldn’t find him for 2 days.

His mother, Lynne, wrote, “When he sat down, it was at the top. He had made it.” I can’t imagine the pain she and Tedd are going through. No parent should ever have to endure such heartbreak. To Troy, Jill, Mark, Willa, Lisa, and the rest of the family, I can only send my love. There are no words. Thom lived a life that many of us would envy. He never took a day for granted. What an epic adventure he had, and what a fine young man he turned out to be. If only we’d had more time to know him.

Here’s a song he posted, “The Road Home, by Stephen Paulus. May it bring some comfort. Thom is home now.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Florida’s Shame: The “Don’t Say Gay” Bill

How old were you when you knew you were straight? I had a crush on Danny Rollins in first grade. Then, a handsome student teacher named Mr. Hansen came along, and Danny was forgotten. I don’t recall ever making a “choice” to like boys. I either loved them or kicked them in the shins.   
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper says he first knew “something was different” around the age of 6 or 7. “I’m not sure I knew the word ‘gay’ at the time, but I realized something was up.” Imagine being a kid with questions about your life, and you live in Florida, where asking a teacher could get them fired. 

Does that sound like hyperbole? HB 1557/SB 1834, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, would prohibit classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity through the third grade. Parents can sue for damages—in a legal system already stretched beyond its limits. This vague law purports to be about parental rights. What if your parents are gay? In Florida, it’s perfectly legal (and admirable) for gay people to marry and/or adopt. But now, our state wants to prohibit any mention of that fact in school until a kid turns 9. Any of you with kids—how many questions do they ask in a day? How curious do they get about things you don’t want to talk about? Kids are smart. It’s the adults I worry about. Some of them seem to think it’s dangerous to teach kids to be decent human beings. 
GOP leaders want to go one step further with their censorship agenda by passing the “Stop WOKE Act,” which would prohibit work discussions of racial or gender discrimination. It would allow a white employee to sue for discrimination if he didn’t like what you, the business owner, wanted to say about fairness in the workplace. Apparently, constitutional rights only extend to the second amendment. 

Of all the problems Florida is facing—traffic, housing, healthcare, tainted drinking water, pythons taking over the Everglades—is this how we want our elected officials to spend their time? Gov. Ron DeSantis has already pledged to sign these bills when they cross his desk. Please contact your representatives and let them know how damaging (and lets hope unconstitutional) these laws would be.

Gov. Ron Desantis: (850) 717-9337

Senator Marco Rubio: (407) 254-2573 or (866) 630-7106

Senator Rick Scott: (850) 942-8415

To Find Your Florida Representative: Click Here

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Facing the facts

I was a journalism major. My first real job, after waitressing, was at the Rittman Press, a weekly newspaper in rural Ohio. I was the only full-time reporter, a lot of pressure. As we’d been taught in school, I followed the rules: find two sources, verify everything, double and triple-check my information. Some sources were more reliable than others. A photo was better than a statement. No one could argue with the facts. 

Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Fast-forward 40 years, and I’m being told by family members that my facts aren’t real, and I’m an idiot for believing them. This headache never goes away. I can’t for the life of me understand how we got to this place.

Here’s what I want to know. Officials in every state have certified the election. Representatives from both parties, and monitors from every walk of life, studied the ballots and signatures and deemed them valid. Courts reviewed 59 charges of fraud and dismissed them out of hand.

One judge, a Trump appointee said, “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.” 

But you think a bus pulled up at a polling place, stuffed with fake ballots, and every single person in the chain of command went along with it? Where is this flawless operation in every other phase of our government? We can’t even dole out vaccine shots. My dad used to be a poll volunteer. He would have decked anyone who tried to cheat. It meant that much to him. 

If this election was rigged, why are members of Congress fine with their results? Shouldn’t we throw out their votes too? Could it be they’re using this fiction to raise money? It’s estimated that the Trump campaign and allied GOP groups have raised at least $497 million since he lost.

Why on earth would Joe Biden want to be president, given the abysmal situation he’s inheriting? A $27 trillion debt. A raging pandemic. Record unemployment. A country at war with itself. 

I’ll be honest. Four years ago, I couldn’t stomach the thought of “President Trump.” His attitudes toward women, immigrants, minorities, the press, disabled and LGBTQ people were disturbing. Not what I wanted for the leader of our country. But as someone told me, “Sometimes you have to hire an assh*le to get the job done.” My dad said, “Don’t worry. He’ll surround himself with good people.” You know why I suspended my judgment? Because so many of my friends and family—people I respected—thought he was a good guy.

A good guy who cheated his contractors, cheated his tenants, cheated charities, cheated veterans at his fake university, and cheated on his wives, but okay. 

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” 

This president has a habit of lying. This is well-known. His supporters enjoy it, I think. He’s playing a game, and they’re winning. Unfortunately, he lost this last election. This is also well-known. But because he couldn’t admit to losing, he lied for two months. The election was only fair if he won. What second-grader wouldn’t recognize this tactic? 

He couldn’t win through voter suppression, slowing down the post office, and disqualifying mail-in ballots during the most deadly pandemic since 1918. He couldn’t believe he lost, because all of his tricks didn’t work.

Is it divisive of me to spell out the facts? “Agreeing to disagree” doesn’t fly anymore. I can’t give equal weight to complete fabrications. We were taught to be polite to people with different views, and that worked for most of my life, until Facebook came along. I miss the old days, when I didn’t know my Christian neighbors were kinda racist.

A Trump supporter recently told me she’s afraid of losing our freedoms. I agree. The Capitol is locked down so tightly right now, it looks like the Green Zone in Baghdad. She says she’s fighting to protect our rights. As Americans, our rights are protected by the Constitution. Which this president has done everything in his power to undermine.

Tomorrow, we inaugurate a new president. This has happened every four years since 1789. Sadly, it won’t happen with the same pomp and circumstance, due to the death threats from the ex-president’s fans. How do we move on as a nation, rebuild our economy, fight this virus, put people back to work, when half of the country thinks the other half is trying to destroy it? How can this be? We all want the same things: safety, security, peace. Freedom to live our own lives. If your first reaction just now was to think of all the ways the “other side” is doing the opposite, well, that’s part of the problem. We’ve gotten so used to this tit-for-tat, knee-jerk argument, we’ve lost the point. Do we want to win the fight or fix our problems? We’ve been trolling each other for four years, thanks to the troller-in-chief, and that has to stop. 

Here’s part of the oath that President Biden will swear tomorrow: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

We are not the enemy, you and I. We’re Americans.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

A Plea for Peace

Remember the days before Facebook, when you could go your whole life not knowing what someone thought politically? You could wave to relatives and neighbors, blissfully unaware that they voted for the Antichrist. (Yes, I voted for her. The email lady. Some folks will never forgive me.)

I don’t check Facebook much anymore, except to see pictures of my husband’s cousin’s dog, Joey, who is adorable. Otherwise, it’s too depressing. The other night, I accidentally caught a post from a friend, and it was like a knife to the chest. I hoped that four years of grift, graft and incompetence would change some minds. I was wrong.

My friend list is shorter than it used to be. In 2016, the mute and unfollow buttons became protection. I didn’t want to be that person, ending relationships over politics. This was different, though. Our choices reflect our values, and our character. A red hat is an in-your-face statement. Maybe it means more than you intended, but we can’t look past it. That bell can’t be un-rung.

I’ve been trying to figure out when we took up opposite sides of the fence, but who has time to re-examine four hundred years of American history? In my lifetime, Rush Limbaugh was the one who built the wall. His radio show went national in the late eighties, but he didn’t reach critical mass until the Clinton presidency. In fact, Rush was honored for his part in the landslide mid-term election of 1994, when Republicans reclaimed the House after forty years. It was a dark time to be a liberal. It was the first time I knew I was a liberal. Here was this man on the radio, braying the ugliest, meanest, most hateful thoughts out loud, and people ate it up. People I knew and loved. It felt like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” One day, I’d be talking to a kind, caring individual. The next, he was calling me a feminazi. As a joke, he said. Ha. Ha.

Rush certainly didn’t mean it as a joke. He’d say anything for ratings, but he tapped into a deep, dark vein of hatred toward women, people of color, and immigrants. By the way, he just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Up is down, down is up. I don’t understand the country we’re living in. But then, I’ve always been naïve. I grew up on a farm, believing in truth, justice, the American Way. My parents sent me to church, where I learned to Do unto others as you would have done unto you and Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. According to Rush, this made me the enemy. My dad loved his show.

As a monster liberal, what is my agenda? I believe in investing in education, childcare, drug treatment, and affordable housing, rather than paying $40,000 a year to house a person in prison. I believe in investing in healthcare—check-ups, cancer screenings, birth control, blood-pressure medicine—to keep our workforce healthy, and to avoid paying Medicaid to transport a patient to dialysis three times a week. I believe in paying my fair share of taxes, since I reap the benefits of living in this great country.

Honestly, it pains me to write this. America isn’t great at the moment—the slogan says so. I believe in the best of this nation—basic rights and care for all citizens—and apparently, that makes me a radical left-wing socialist. Here are some other socialist programs I endorse: public libraries, schools, roads, fire departments, subways, city buses, Social Security, Medicare, public universities, and hospitals. Lock me up.

Rush Limbaugh would have you believe that I, as a liberal, am the greatest threat this country has ever faced. Meanwhile, he helped elect a president who is bent on destroying our institutions, from the FBI to the CDC. At this moment, he and his cronies are working hard to strike down healthcare, gay marriage, voter rights, and a woman’s right to choose. Our national debt has exploded to $27 trillion. With a “T.”

But oh, right, I forgot—your taxes. That’s what matters. In a Biden presidency, your taxes will go up if you make more than $400,000 a year. Does that apply to you? If so, you’re buying lunch next time.

Sorry. For a bleeding-heart liberal, I get so mad sometimes. The past four years have been a nightmare. We watch our standing in the world erode. Our allies don’t trust us—they think we’re a joke. Our leader brags about the great job he’s doing. By the end of the year, a quarter-million of us will be dead of COVID-19.

We have a chance to change this narrative, to choose a president who is good, smart, decent, who works with people across the aisle to get things done. Being a politician isn’t a dirty word, unless you think it’s smart to hire a mechanic to take out your gallbladder.

Please, just this once, don’t do something just to own the libs. We’re owned. We’re permanently owned. The joke’s on us. You win.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

There Comes a Time When Silence is Betrayal

A great many people think they are thinking
when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

                     —William James

Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud, but I’ve always been prejudiced against white men. Growing up, they were the ones who took advantage—the liars, the cheats, the thieves. The rapist on my college campus was white. The doctor who conned my father-in-law out of his life savings was white. The lawyer who stole the deed to my neighbor’s house was white. The punks who terrorized my parents’ street, breaking into homes in the middle of the day, were white. The guys who cheated on their taxes, cheated on their wives, cheated on their way to the top—in my experience, they’ve always been white. Call me a racist, but I just don’t trust them.

All but one of our presidents have been white. Personally, I only felt safe when the black one was in office. The rest, at least in my lifetime, cared for nothing but power and money. That’s true of most white men, isn’t it? The architects of the 2007 financial crisis that wiped out trillions in consumer assets—those were white guys in starched white shirts. Greedy bastards. Look at the Forbes list of America’s billionaires, currently hoarding nearly three trillion dollars, and you’ll see a marked lack of pigment.

Frankly, when I see a white man coming, I hide my purse.

All of my bosses were white. The bullies, the harassers, the crushers of dreams and aspirations—you guessed it, white males. To finally have a woman in charge was a revelation. Here was kindness, fairness, problem-solving without intimidation. Sadly, she was the exception. Corporate culture, by and large, is driven by a need to dominate. Capitalism is a zero-sum game. I win, you lose.

The sad thing is, for all the winning that white men do, they’re never happy. It’s never enough. They get the benefit of every doubt, and they’re not even grateful for the privilege. Nobody questions their right to walk down the street, or drive a car, or shop in a store, or voice whatever dumb opinion they have, no matter how ill-informed. Nobody turns them down for a college application, or a loan, or a mortgage. Creditors practically give them money. They’re on the dole from birth, getting hand-outs left and right. Thanks to the GOP tax cuts in 2017, the wealthiest Americans and corporations received nearly two trillion dollars from the government for doing absolutely nothing. Welcome to the welfare state.
If you’ve read this far and can’t wait to argue my baseless generalizations, you might be a white guy. It’s a hard time for you, I know. Your portfolio is down almost ten percent, what with the global pandemic and all. You’re probably losing sleep. It’s not safe to walk the streets. How do you protect yourself, your home, your family? Is it even safe to call the police?

Photo by Richard Grant, Long Beach, CA
Could it be, at this moment in history, that you might be feeling a glimmer of empathy? I’d always heard that white men weren’t capable of it. Can you imagine that others in America feel this anxiety, this overwhelming fear, every day of their lives? Can you look beyond your safe existence to see that others never had your security? You’ve probably always thought that your ability to talk your way out of a speeding ticket had more to do with your charm than the color of your face.

If you watched the protests on TV and felt more outrage over damaged property than you did about a man slowly being choked to death while he cried out for his dead mother, I wrote this for you. Enough is enough. I look back now and see the fiction we’ve lived, the myth that the American Dream is the same for every American. We’ve always believed that cops were heroes. Sure, there were a few bad apples, but they were the exceptions, the aberrations. If an officer roughed you up, you must have done something to deserve it. After all, cops were always nice to us.

I went to a very nice school, paid for by my parents, along with a zero-interest federal loan. Some of my classmates were very successful weed dealers. Most of them went on to become successful lawyers. Young men of the same age but with slightly darker complexions went to maximum-security prisons for up to ten years. No college kid I knew could have imagined being stopped and frisked on the street. It was not the world we knew. How lucky for us, growing up in that America.

In our America, people worked hard to succeed. If we played by the rules, we were rewarded. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. What a joke, considering that our parents bought our shoes. For many of us, land and money were handed down, generation to generation. Our parents bought good homes in decent neighborhoods, with good schools. They could do that, being white. Nobody stopped them.

There’s a gentleman named Shola Richards, who lives in California. He owns a nice house in a nice neighborhood. He’s tall, athletic, black. As a black man, he never feels safe walking in his own neighborhood because he knows others perceive him as a threat. He always brings his wife or daughter along, and his fluffy little dog. To make us feel safe. How pathetic we are, as a country, to treat our fellow citizens this way.

But let’s get back to you white guys. Don’t get me wrong—some of my best friends are white. I sleep with a white guy. Maybe I’ve judged you too harshly, but then, you’ve been holding the reins of power here for four hundred years. This is your legacy. Innocent people are being attacked and killed in the streets on your watch. If you sit silently by, supporting the status quo because it’s good for business, this is on you.

Why am I off the hook? One, I’m a woman, and two, I voted for the woman. Every time I raise my voice, you say I’m too shrill. Rest assured I’ll vote again come November, braving a virus, martial law or nuclear winter to elect any and all candidates who support criminal justice reform, federal legislation to stop police violence, and programs at state and local levels to combat bias and discrimination. Is it too much to ask that every American be treated with decency and respect? If that means I have to start being nice to white men, so be it. Seriously, I love you guys.

Note: All references to white and/or melanin-challenged men are not meant to perpetuate racial stereotypes. This piece was written as satire, or metaphor, or allegory—I can never keep them straight. At any rate, I didn’t mean you. I mean those guys who tell us how hard they had it, growing up, and how they’re the good guys, and they don’t see color. You know who I mean.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Ain't That a Kick in the Head

Neuro ICU, Tampa General Hospital
This will make a good story one day, my husband says on the way home from physical therapy. He fell and fractured his skull six weeks ago. Oh, yeah, I say. We’ll look back on this and laugh and laugh. At the moment, I can’t even talk to my hairdresser without bursting into tears. It’s embarrassing. For friends and family who didn’t know about Graeme’s little trip to the Neuro ICU, I apologize. Chalk it up to denial and a loss for words. I couldn’t believe what was happening at first, and then, it seemed better to wait until the news was good. Today, I’m happy to report that Graeme is on his way to a full recovery. He’s back at work, though at a fraction of his old pace, which is probably a blessing. He lost hearing in one ear, can’t drive for a year, and his balance is shot, but he’s getting stronger every day. The doctors say he was extremely lucky, if you don’t count the fall.

It happened during his annual camping trip to Sebring Raceway. He wasn’t feeling well. He asked a friend to stop the car, took a few steps and collapsed. Doctors later blamed food poisoning and dehydration. He fell backwards, hitting his head on the concrete. His skull cracked on the left side. Blood ran out of his ear. He turned gray, stopped breathing. His friend Don admitted, “I thought he was gone.”

My brother-in-law was the one who called me. “Graeme’s being airlifted to Tampa” sounded like a stupid joke, even for these guys. “I’m not kidding,” Craig said, and I could hear the panic in his voice. “Alaine’s on her way to pick you up.” Fifteen minutes later, my sister and I were speeding down the highway toward the ER.

When we tell the story in the future, the confusion over hospitals will probably become a minor detail. At the time, it was terrifying. We drove across the state toward Tampa. Halfway there, one of Graeme’s friends reported that his helicopter was headed for the closer hospital in Lakeland, a level-two trauma center. GPS recalculating. As it turned out, the Lakeland helipad was busy that night with another accident. Graeme was rerouted back to Tampa, a level-one trauma center. As I juggled calls, trying to find out where he was, my phone rang again. It was the president of Sebring Raceway, asking what he could do to help. I’d never been more scared in my life.

Long story short, Graeme spent eight days in two different hospitals. The impact of his fall caused a brain bleed and seizures. He was in critical condition for a while. When he finally woke up, his short-term memory was gone. He remembered everything and everybody pre-fall, just nothing we’d talked about five minutes earlier. It’s funny now—we told him the helicopter story at least twenty times, and he was always impressed—but what did it mean for his career? His phone filled up with anxious messages. Alaine and I scrambled to do his work and ours between hospital shifts.

Graeme and his sister, Gayle
Thank God for my sister. I don’t know what we would have done without her. Or Craig. Or Graeme’s sister Gayle and her husband Rudy. In times like these, you find out how lucky you are for the people in your life. Gayle and Rudy, who happened to be on vacation in South Florida, cut their trip short to stay with us at the hospital. After Gayle’s month-long stint in the ICU in 2015, we couldn’t have asked for better company and medical advocates. When Graeme came home, Gayle flew back for another week to care for her brother and keep me sane. My parents delivered home-cooked meals and stayed with Graeme when I made office visits. They also drove us to the ER the second time, but that’s another story.

Speaking of driving, let’s go back to the president of Sebring Raceway. Wayne Estes called that first night and every day after to check on Graeme. I asked if we could leave our van at the track—it was locked, full of camping gear, and the keys were in Graeme’s pocket—until we figured out how to get it home. Wayne said not to worry. The next morning, his wife appeared at the hospital with a gift bag full of snacks and treats. (It fed us for weeks.) Rita held out her hand and asked for the key. Then, she drove back to Sebring, and she and her husband brought the van north, where Craig and Alaine picked it up. That’s eight hours of driving by people we’d never met. I’m still in awe of their kindness.

So many people to thank. Highland County EMS. The Aeromed pilot and crew who kept Graeme alive on the way to Tampa. The staff at TGH, one of the best trauma centers in the country. The neurology team at ORMC. Thanks also to my cousin-in-law Ellen, a former EMT, who gave us some invaluable advice, along with chocolates, puzzles, and a book on traumatic brain injury. At first, I hid it from Graeme, not wanting to traumatize him with the TBI label, but now, he reads a little every night. It helps, he says, to understand his new normal. Headaches. Dizziness. Fatigue. Insomnia. Bouts of fog and frustration. He wants to be better yesterday. He’s learning patience. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that pain means you’re still breathing.

My cousin Laurie and her husband Wallace have made three trips from Jacksonville to cheer Graeme up. They come, deliver hugs and lunch, and leave. That’s my definition of love. Graeme’s friends have been here from the start, although he doesn’t remember the first time Don, John, or Loredana visited him in the hospital. I took pictures, just to be safe.

Staff Meeting with Alaine, Graeme and Cato
We’re lucky for friends like Greg and Gary, our neighbors, who took care of the cats while we were gone. Dr. Carol Logan, who gave Graeme a new pair of glasses to replace the ones he lost. Nicole Broseman, Katie Miller and the rest of the Orlando Magic family. One of the first things Graeme said when he woke up was, “Did I miss a game?” (So far, he’s missed nine, and they’re on a winning streak.) As if we didn’t love the team enough already, they sent flowers, autographed jerseys, and a Christmas get-well message we’ll never forget.

Thank you to everyone for the flowers, fruit, cheese, crackers, cookies, candy and Whoopie Pies. Glucose is fuel for brain recovery, so sugar is exactly what Graeme needed. There will be personal thank-you notes when life settles down (did I mention tax season?) but in the meantime, please know that we’ve been blown away by your thoughtfulness and prayers.

One last thing. Thank you to the stranger in the elevator of the parking garage at two in the morning, who leaned over and whispered, “Don’t you worry, honey. Everything’s going to be fine.”