Thursday, July 14, 2016

Working on Getting More Compassionate With Each Passing Day

Sometimes I have revelations that are laughable. Things that I feel like I ought to have known or accepted years ago, but have only just recently sunk into my bones and opened my heart and mind up just a little bit more.

I had a boyfriend in high school that marked a huge turning point for me - a shift in the way I saw myself and the world. I think that's not unusual. I know many women who made choices that were seemingly unlike their previous personality; a "rebel phase," you could call it for some of us. It wasn't a bad relationship, but it ended badly and it went on longer than I was comfortable with and for many years afterward, my impression of the entire time we were together was colored by sadness and resentment that I had wasted so much time.  Over the decade afterward, I moved on, boldly and purposefully, and determined to never repeat the kinds of mistakes I made during that time. As I moved forward, my characterization of my ex became softer and more understanding. I began to take responsibility for my mis-steps and the ways in which I contributed to the unhealthy dynamic of our relationship - at least in my own head. We had no contact until one day several years ago when I got a Facebook friend request from him.

I declined it without hesitation.

A week later, there it was again. This time, I looked at his profile, curious to see what his life was like, and what I discovered was that many of our mutual high school friends were connected to him online. My sister was his Facebook friend.

I declined the request again.

A few days later I got a message from him asking why I was declining the requests. He was incredulous that I hadn't moved on, forgiven, gotten perspective on how young and stupid we had been. And the thing is, I had done all of those things. And I still didn't want to be his Facebook friend. I think I dashed off some message to the effect that I had no hard feelings toward him, but that my life has changed significantly and I am only interested in relationships that offer positive energy. I imagined the eye-roll when he read it. Hell, I probably even rolled my eyes at myself when I wrote it, but it was enough to stop the requests.

In the last several years, I have occasionally seen his comments on my friends' pages and thought not much of it.

Today, I saw something that my sister posted that reminded me of their friendship all those years ago - a shared love of skateboarding and punk rock music and aspirations for a particular lifestyle, none of which I had in common with them. And that's where the revelation came in. While I never begrudged any of my friends or family for not banishing him from their lives when I did (and I did, albeit in a very sloppy way), I never really considered what he may have meant to them. I didn't think about it. I never entertained thoughts of what he might have represented for my sister or another friend, what role he played in their lives, and how important it might have been. And as I sat and thought about it, I was struck by the notion that each of us means something unique to the people in our lives. The person he was with me is not the person he was with his skater-friends or his co-workers or his mother. All these years, I've been seeing him only through the context of my relationship with him and, while that was an important step in my own personal development because it taught me to define personal boundaries and honor them to keep myself safe, it is not the extent of the person he is. In terms of my personal relationship with him, it's fine for me to see him through that lens, but in terms of a definition of who he is as a person, it's unfair.

I know he meant a great deal to a lot of people I care for and it occurred to me that the more I can see each and every person I encounter through that lens, the better. Simply knowing, in my bones, that we all are so much more complex than we seem offers me an opportunity to open to compassion and understanding. If I can remember that everyone has the capacity for love and caring and likely offers that to someone in their own life, that each individual is important to someone else, I can begin to put less stock in my impression and allow them more space to show me those things.

I was in no position to do any of that in high school, to be certain. I was also incapable of seeing myself as a whole, complicated person, if I'm being honest. But the realization that different people can mean very different things to the people in their lives finally sunk in today and I think it has given me a higher perspective from which to see the world.

"Our goal is to have kind consideration for all sentient beings every moment forever." Katagiri Roshi

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Welcome to the Most Fearful Nation

Slowly but surely, inexorably, every step this country takes pushes us farther into a corner. It didn't start with 9/11, but it certainly accelerated our descent into fear, and we are now reaping what we have sown. A populace who succumbs to the shouted words of its leaders to "protect yourselves," "be alert," "report suspicious activity," and complies, putting police officers in schools, adding security protocols layer by layer, selling military-grade weapons to local police departments - this populace has come to this: snipers on rooftops shooting at peaceful demonstrations, punching each other at political rallies, spending millions of dollars attempting to block individuals from using public restrooms.

How can we be surprised? When we have all listened to the rhetoric that warns us about the Other?
How can we feign shock when we have been conditioned to look for what separates us and be on guard?
When our politicians increasingly skip over the step of diplomacy and build coalitions to "bomb the shit out of [insert country/terrorist group here]," can we not see how much of our collective American psyche is built on fear?

The thing about fear is that it is necessarily reactive. We like to think it is proactive, that we are simply PROTECTING OURSELVES, but the act of protection means that there is something we are afraid of. And in protecting ourselves, we build walls, we isolate ourselves and retreat into tight spaces where often the only recourse is to fight our way out. We have bought into the idea that in order to be safe, we must be feared ourselves, and so we arm ourselves with weapons and hateful words to be used against others.

And this fear takes on a life of its own - it prompts someone to report a suspicious character simply because of the way he or she is dressed or to be kicked off of an airplane for being middle eastern and doing math.

It takes us to the point where we are so fearful of sharing a public restroom with someone who doesn't look like us, act like us, think like us, that we try to enact laws to keep transgendered people from peeing in the stall next to us.

Every time an unarmed person of color is shot by a police officer, we live the result of that fear.
Every time a non-binary-gender-conforming person is killed or beaten, we live the result of that fear.
Every time we choose violence over dialogue and assume that the only way to protect ourselves is by shooting first, we reinforce that fear and paint ourselves farther into that corner.

The United States has become a country whose primary focus is on protecting itself, whose primary motivation - by default - is fear. It will only get worse from here unless we make a conscious effort to elect officials who come from a place of community, openness, shared humanity. The only thing we will get from fear is more fear.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Requiem for the Living

I read somewhere a reminder that everything is simultaneously living and dying. And, of course I knew that, but we do our best to think otherwise, don't we? We either work to ignore it or reverse it in almost every act we take. But the end is part of the beginning as much as green is born with shades of blue embedded in it.

And it made me wonder whether the best thing to do is simply to float along in full acknowledgment of this minute
 this moment  
 this adventure
Or should I work to give the living a little more advantage? Stretch out the living part a bit more? Use my energy to tip the scales?

It's easy to go back and forth from camp to camp. So that's what I do.

Sometimes I live in memory, stacking up joyful moments like gold bars, hoping that once the dying is done I will have this wall to lean back upon. And sometimes I realize that so much stacking means I'm not appreciating the living that is happening behind my back, and I set aside my blocks and turn around.

Spending time surrounded by the awareness that what is here now won't be forever makes for a certain quality of awake-ness that is uncomfortable. It requires me to be mindful of emotional connection instead of physical action.

"I love you" versus "let me do this for you" or "let's make new memories."

It is also difficult to define the world in terms of Not-me. That is, to not process every potentiality and new situation with regard to what it requests and requires of me and how it makes me feel. I have to float back and see myself as one part of the whole and that both humbles me and reminds me that I am an important piece of the puzzle. That in any moment I can choose to turn my back, shore up the living, or accept my place and experience what is. Perhaps the beauty in that is that I do. I choose. Among the breath and the pulse and the movement and the slowing and the dying, I choose. And the more I can remember that it is all beautiful and glorious and a gift that I am here, part of it, for a while, the stronger I feel.

Monday, May 30, 2016

When "Owning It" Is Harder Than it Sounds

Because how do you write about the things that aren't yours to tell? How do you begin to separate what is yours and what isn't?

It is a tricky proposition, this. And not only because of the risk of hurting someone I love, but because of what it means to me. Sorting through the seminal memories and moments in my life means really looking hard at where my head was, where my heart was, and what I knew and wanted at the time. It would be easy to look back with the accumulation of experience and wisdom riding shotgun and nod knowingly in the direction of what should have been, but that doesn't make for a true story. It smacks of justification or pity-partying and paints a picture of Right and Wrong that doesn't exist in life, to be sure.

The hardest bit is in the owning of my entire, smelly backpack of crap and roses.

Own it, someone says, urging us to stand up for ourselves and not be ashamed of who we are. It sounds empowering - a battle cry for my generation. Owning it is frightening.

Owning it means I acknowledge an attachment to the story and once I'm attached to something, the idea that it could be taken away is frightening. Something owned can also be un-owned. Writing about other people's shit is the epitome of non-attachment. It says, "That isn't mine, but I'll tell you all about it and together we can exchange looks expressing how happy we are that it isn't ours." There is a complicity inherent in telling someone else's story. Telling my story - owning it - feels very lonely and vulnerable.

Owning it also opens me up to the risk of becoming defined by the story I tell; having it morph into a shorthand by which other people describe me or think they 'know' me. The complicity has shifted to include everyone else but me as soon as I own my story and tell it honestly.

I've discovered that it is so much easier to solve someone else's problems than it is to deal with my own. I once told a friend. She agreed. And now, when I sense the urge to find the cracks in someone else's armor, I am prompted to wonder whether it is because I am ignoring my own.

Ultimately, the only lens through which I can see life is my own, and that means that the only story I have the right to tell is mine. Anything else is just make-believe. And, it turns out, I'm not much of a fiction writer, so I guess I'll just keep sifting through to find the stories that are mine.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Stream of Consciousness Morning

Saturday, Sunday, Monday I had hours for writing. The luxury of time meant that I woke early, poured coffee, sat at a rented desk and pounded the keyboard until I had 60 pages. Walks along the beach, more coffee, shuffling pages of memories and piecing things together.

Tuesday and Wednesday I was back in my normal life - driving, cooking, shopping, working at my 'other' job which doesn't entail writing so much as networking and trying to hawk what I've already written. But this morning, I could see a way clear to more writing.

First, the tasks that launch the day - packing lunch, toasting bagels, walking the dog.

My mind drifts and swells. I marvel at how much of my writing happens while I smear cream cheese on the bagel, tug the dog along our familiar route, stand in the shower.

I pass dogwood tree after dogwood tree, loaded down with so many blossoms that I can't see the leaves beneath them. I am struck by the sheer weight of beauty, how it weighs down the branches, the stems of peonies curving to rest the flowers on the sidewalk, their scent rising up to me. These plants with their short-lived bursts of shocking glory are my favorite. The ones with the less showy, compact blossoms that live on sturdy stems and branches barely merit a glance. What does that say about me?

There is a Frito-Lay truck parked along our route to school and I think about how, sometimes, I have an uncontrollable craving for potato chips. Not often, but when it comes it is intense. I imagine being the driver of that truck, pulling over to a quiet alley, climbing over the seat to get to the boxes and boxes, ripping open a bag and plucking one paper-thin chip out and then another and another. Wiping the grease on my pants.

We pass an apartment whose living room window frames a birdcage and I think, "Do people still keep birds as pets?" I remember my sister's parakeets - one blue and one green. The biting, ammonia smell of their cage, the wooden swing, the way she had to put a blanket over it at night to keep them quiet. What would have happened if we had simply turned out all of the lamps and let the actual night take over? Would they have slept?

Everyone else is gone for the day but there are imprints everywhere. Stray shoes, crumbs on the counter, a favorite pencil on the kitchen table. I am alone to write but the end of the day calls. What's for dinner? Are there towels clean? What time is my guitar lesson?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Does Anyone Else Drive Like This?


 
It seems that every new milestone my kids hit offers me an opportunity to examine why I do the things I do. I often fall into the trap of thinking that everyone does things the way I do, simply because I've always done it that way. Fortunately (?), my kids challenge me on that every once in a while.

In the past year, Lola has begun commenting on the way I drive. I don't know if it's because she is watching her sister learn to drive or because she is old enough to sit shotgun or if it has something to do with her drinking coffee and wearing makeup these days. All I know is that she gets annoyed with me for not stopping on a dime.  In the morning, the route to her school is pretty bumpy with potholes and lots of construction between here and there. She often brings a cup of coffee with her to drink on the way, but because of the condition of the road, it's a dangerous proposition to try and drink it unless the car is fully stopped.  Putting lipstick on is pretty treacherous, too, if you only want to apply it to your lips. And therein lies the rub.

I never really paid attention to it, but there is this game I play with myself when I drive that started back when I was a teenager driving a stick-shift. This game got more compelling when I started driving a hybrid car. The goal is to never come to a complete, full stop and avoid using the brakes if at all possible.  When I was driving a manual, I would try to slow the car by anticipating the traffic in front of me and simply downshifting, and I considered it a win if I could successfully slow down enough for a red light to stay in second gear and come up on the car in front of me (or the light itself) just as the light turned green, so I could begin to accelerate without ever hitting the brakes. I got really good at it.

Don't judge me.

When I got my hybrid, I was fascinated by the display screen that indicates whether the car is using gasoline or the electric battery. When you're coasting or apply the brakes, it shows you that you're recharging the battery, and when you accelerate, you can see that you're using gas or gas plus the electric battery.  In the first few weeks I had the car, I watched (probably WAY too) closely and loved the idea that I could coast to a stop - or nearly a stop - without using any gas at all. The game intensified.  I have nearly perfected my technique on the routes I normally drive, unless there is a huge traffic jam. I watch for pedestrians, cyclists, and cars ahead of me and gauge when to take my foot off the gas and begin coasting so that I can merely slow down and then speed up at the next opportunity, depending on whether it's a red light or a person crossing the street.

While it isn't necessarily forefront in my mind (I've been driving for nearly 30 years, so it's pretty second-nature at this point), there are times when I'm aware of it and I mentally congratulate myself for a particularly tricky maneuver. But it's all in my head and, until recently, I was the only one who knew what I was doing. Unfortunately, while I'm busy patting myself on the back, Lola is in the passenger seat, thermos or lipstick at the ready, anticipating her next opportunity to pounce and get a little satisfaction. She doesn't dare put anything to her lips unless I'm totally stopped for fear of wearing hot coffee or smearing makeup across her cheek as I accelerate.

Eve asked me to take her out for a practice drive yesterday and I was laughing as I told her how Lola yells at me every morning, saying, "Mom! Seriously! Just stop already, would you? Quit slowing down!"

I explained the game I play and Eve's hands squeezed the steering wheel hard, her knuckles turning white. She slowly turned her head toward me.

"That's why you always freak out when I stop at the last minute behind another car, isn't it?"

"Hmmm. Oops....  Sorry."

"Geez, Mom. Not everyone drives like you. Maybe nobody."

She might have a point there. When I think about it (which, frankly, I never really did before now), it's pretty obsessive and more than a little weird.

I wonder what other things I do without realizing that they are odd.
I suspect I'll figure them out as the girls get older.
Crap.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Two Reasons I Think Single-Payer HealthCare Needs to Happen

Warning: Rant coming in 3, 2, 1

There have been times in my life when I have been so f%*king DONE with our country's convoluted system of healthcare that I wasn't sure whether to cry, throw myself on the floor and pound my fists until they're black and blue or scream bloody murder from the highest peak I can find.

I know lots of folks who can relate.

Seriously. Socialized medicine, folks. I mean it.

I know it won't make everything easy-peasy, simple and clean, but it can't make things worse.

When I went to college, I was determined to become a pediatrician. That's all I had wanted to be since I was in elementary school and I could see it happening. I took organic chemistry, cell physiology, medical ethics classes. I struggled with some more than others, but I loved them all. My senior year, I studied for and took the ridiculously long MCAT and spent hundreds of dollars applying to medical schools and then decided to take a year off to work in the field before deciding whether to go ahead and go.

I ended up working for several years as a surgical assistant for a small group of doctors and I learned about the other side: the business of medicine. I hung out with the business manager and discovered how to tweak our diagnosis codes and pore through the (then) printed catalogs of allowed procedures to bill things so they would get paid for. When patients came in for emergency surgery, after the OR was scrubbed of blood and every last instrument was cleaned and put in the sterilizer, we convened for a quick meeting to determine just how to position the procedure to whichever insurance company might be involved so that we could have a higher chance of being paid. This not only determined which codes we used to bill, but it often meant that the doctor had to dictate his notes in a particular way so that, in case the insurance adjuster (not a physician or a nurse in most cases) asked for them, they would fully support the billing we submitted.

During those years, I discovered that if what I truly wanted to do was build relationships with patients that impacted their lives and their health, going to medical school was not the way to do it. As the surgical assistant, I spent more time with the patients than anyone - pre and post-op - and heard about the other things going on in their lives as I changed bandages and removed stitches. The doctors, while they may have liked to have more time to spend with patients, spent the majority of their time maximizing insurance payments by dictating notes, seeing a ridiculous number of patients per day, scheduling back-to-back surgeries to maximize OR usage, and occasionally getting on the phone with an insurance company who was refusing to pay for more than two scalpels or two hours of anesthesia to defend their choices.

Needless to say, I chose not to go to medical school.  And in the next several years, I spent time fighting with insurance companies for a physical therapy business, a dermatologist, and the state mental health division, not to mention myself and my family. I learned just how insurance companies make rules that increase their profits and narrow choices for their customers. I discovered that the high-level relationships that are made between drug companies and major hospital groups and insurers almost never benefit the health or wellness of a customer unless it happens to be in alignment with the bottom line of the companies involved.

A few weeks ago I called a doctor's office for a family member to get diagnosis and procedure codes for an anticipated surgery. I then called the insurance company armed with information to ask whether these codes were considered covered procedures. After nearly an hour on the phone I came away with a vague answer that included information about the deductible and the potential coverage depending on a number of variables over which we have no control.  If the doctor is "in network" (he is), his services are covered at X%. If the hospital is "in network" (they are), their nursing and OR services are covered at X%, as long as it is a day-surgery. Overnight stays are covered at X-Y%. If the anesthesiologist is "in network" (we have no control over that and no way of knowing until the day of the surgery who that person might be), their services are covered at X%, but if that doctor is "out of network," services are not covered at all. Not only that, but on "out of network" providers, the amount the patient pays is not applied to the deductible or the out-of-pocket maximums for the year (presumably because we had the audacity to go rogue - even though we have no choice in the matter). There are further decisions about OR supplies (one would think that those would be considered part of the surgery facility charge, but, no, it seems they are billed separately), so if the surgeon chooses a more expensive bandage or stitches, it is likely those won't be covered at all.  I could go on, but you get the gist.

This morning, I phoned our dentist's office to discuss a particularly high bill we received and after another hour of talking with them and the insurance company, I was told that Lola's emergency dental procedure last summer while we were on vacation was not only not covered (out of network), but none of the $500 we paid for it were applied to our deductible (out of network). I calmly asked the representative,

"So, this was literally an emergency. As in, the plane touched down, we stopped at the pharmacy to get pain killers for our daughter, and as soon as we hit the hotel we asked the concierge to recommend a dentist who could see her ASAP (Saturday morning in Hawaii). First of all, does your insurance company have in-network providers in Hawaii? And if so, am I expected to call all of the islands to find one who happens to practice on the weekend and is willing to see my daughter? Is that a thing I should have done?"

"No. It's not a thing," he says.

"Explain that to me, please."

"Was it a medical emergency? Because if it was, you should have run it through your medical claim instead of dental, and then it might have been covered even if it were out of network. But it wasn't, and it's too late now. It was processed as out of network and that's how it's going to stay. And, no, we don't have any in-network providers in Hawaii."

So, ultimately, it's my fault that I didn't sell it as a medical emergency? Or is it the dentists' office fault? The dentist who got up on a Saturday morning and spent three and a half hours with Lola patiently tending to her and then calling us that night to make sure she was ok.

And why wasn't my out of pocket amount applied to the deductible? Because we went rogue. Because we didn't follow the rules. Because, if it had been, the insurance company (Premera Blue Cross, btw) would have been on the hook for all the rest of the follow up procedures that have taken place as a result of this situation in the last nine months. But they aren't, because it all started with us needing dental care somewhere else in a hurry.  When I pointed this out to the representative this was his response:

"Well, you just really want to have your dental emergencies when you're at home. That's the best way to do it."

Duly noted.

Socialized medicine, folks. Single payer. The same rules for everyone.

Health care (even dental care). It's a basic need.
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