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Freedom of Choice in Health Care

health10-2Three years after the signing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), fiery debates still rage over the weighty issues of its constitutionality, its cost and the scope of its effect on American society. Liberals argue its humanitarian necessity while conservatives protest its collectivist control, but neither political camp considers that 1) America’s current medical system, with or without insurance, caused the current health care crisis in the first place, or that 2) it actively prevents citizens from choosing effective, less expensive forms of medical care.

The problem began 100 years ago. To raise and improve standards of medical training and practice, the AMA’s Council of Medical Education began a nationwide survey of medical schools in 1904. By 1908, insufficient funds and disagreements among the council members brought the project to a standstill, and the Council requested help from the Carnegie Institute.

The Institute funded the remainder of the survey and appointed Abraham Flexner, an Institute employee, to complete it. The brother of the Rockefeller Foundation’s director of chemical laboratories, Flexner traveled across the United States for the next two years, observing and assessing medical schools for the purpose of improving them. Published and widely disseminated in 1910, The Flexner Report criticized every form of medical treatment except the “scientific,” which at that time referred exclusively to chemical research conducted by pharmaceutical companies. Regardless of anecdotal evidence of cure rates, Flexner condemned all medical practices that did not begin and end with the prescription of pharmaceutical drugs.

Although instrumental in raising medical education standards, The Flexner Report also opened the door for outside control of medical school curricula. Heavily invested in pharmaceutical companies, The Carnegie Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation began donating large sums of money to those medical schools which agreed to teach that pharmaceutical drugs were the only legitimate approach to disease. Both organizations eventually withheld all donations from medical schools that resisted. Without equivalent funding, most schools that continued to offer courses in chiropractic and osteopathic methods, naturopathy, homeopathy, electro-medicine and nutrition were unable to compete and were forced to close. The result was a new generation of medical students who learned nothing about the benefits of varied holistic treatments or clinical nutrition.

Today, 100 years after the publication of The Flexner Report, the AMA is populated by doctors who have inherited the belief that pharmaceutical drugs are the only valid approach to sickness. To their credit, some MDs have begun to practice integrated or functional medicine, both of which approach patients more holistically, but in general, doctors follow standard diagnostic/pharmaceutical recipes. Physicians openly state that while in medical school they studied neither the causes of disease nor the mechanisms of recovering health. Instead, they were trained to diagnose illnesses for the sole purpose of prescribing pharmaceuticals. They further admit that with the exception of antibiotics, their written prescriptions do not cure disease, but instead alleviate symptoms. Consequently, today’s John Q. Public – falsely assuming that his doctor understands health – depends on pharmaceuticals to address illness, can’t afford those pharmaceuticals without insurance, and thinks that living with chronic disease is normal.

The modern phrase “health care” is a misnomer. “Disease management” or “symptom relief” would be a more accurate name for America’s current medical system. Political considerations notwithstanding, the PPACA will throw good money after bad by perpetuating an expensive, inherently ineffective system rather than examining a less expensive, health-focused model that often results in complete cures and the restoration of good health.

Big Pharma’s conditional funding of medical schools continues today and produces graduate physicians who have been erroneously taught that holistic medical care is sub-standard. Doctors have embraced “pharmaceuticals-first-and-only” so completely that in 1987 a federal court found the AMA guilty of slander perpetrated against chiropractors in an orchestrated 10-year smear campaign. Although ordered to pay $25,000,000.00 in damages, the AMA continues to disparage other medical disciplines, and an official arm of the AMA is still dedicated to discrediting and preventing naturopathic practice. Such opposition is arrogant when viewed in the light of a report published in the April, 1998 issue of the AMA’s own Journal of American Medical Association. The report, conducted over a 30-year period, states that 106,000 people die in hospitals each year (one every five minutes) as a direct result of pharmaceutical drug reactions and/or medical error. Despite their own published statistics, the AMA still holds that all other medical approaches are “alternative” – alternative not to high cure rates, to the improvement of American health or even to the safety of patients, but to the myopic pharmaceutical paradigm that they hold sacrosanct.

The pharmaceutical industry’s financial influence over medical schools extends beyond the funding of operational costs. Besides providing vast sums of money for research grants, Big Pharma also pays professors tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to be pharmaceutical consultants. In 2009, a first-year student at Harvard Medical School became concerned when a pharmacology professor touted the benefits of cholesterol medicines and then berated a student for asking about their side effects. The alarmed student later discovered that in addition to being a full-time staff member of the medical school, the professor was also a paid consultant to ten major pharmaceutical companies, five of which produced the cholesterol drugs that he praised. When queried about a possible conflict of interests, Harvard officials stated their concern over the complexities of becoming independent from Big Pharma’s influence while remaining dependent on their funds.

Just as daunting as its influence on medical schools and doctors’ practices is the powerful sway that Big Pharma holds with the FDA. Fees charged to pharmaceutical companies pay more than half of the FDA’s operational costs. In turn, Pharma pressures the FDA to hasten the release of new drugs, even if test results are incomplete or dubious. Having earned the legal right to withhold complete findings from both the FDA and the public, pharmaceutical companies regularly receive FDA approval for new drugs that are incompletely tested and potentially dangerous. The FDA’s website reports that over 2,000,000 adverse drug reactions occur each year. It also reports that prescription drugs are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, yet Big Pharma continues to value patents over patients. Though largely unreported by the mainstream press, several charges against large pharmaceutical companies were filed in 2012: two Merck scientists discovered and reported that higher-ups were boosting and falsifying vaccine data by putting animal antibodies into the serum; GlaxoSmithKline was fined three billion dollars for bribing doctors, falsifying information submitted to the FDA and fraudulent marketing; large pharmacy retailers sued Pfizer for an alleged anti-competition scheme to boost their profits by preventing the production of generic medicines. The FDA can hardly be the USA’s watchdog if Pharma’s fox is guarding the drug henhouse.

In his book, Politics in Healing, author Daniel Haley recounts ten well-documented stories which detail the systematic suppression of breakthrough treatments originating from non-pharmaceutical sources. Seven of those treatments addressed cancer far more successfully than today’s radiation and chemo therapies, and one of them cured various cancers with a single injection. With the exception of Stanislaw Burzynski’s antineoplaston therapy, these treatments are not available today in the United States. Court records and congressional transcripts chronicle the methodical squelching of them all: first, authorities (some combination of the AMA, FDA and Big Pharma) recognized the value of the new treatment; next, the same authorities tried to obtain all rights to the treatment by buying or taking it from its inventor; and finally, when the inventor refused the terms of the authorities’ offer (which in several cases included the authorities’ refusal to deliver the treatment at a reasonable cost), the three powers joined forces to discredit and destroy the inventor. In several of these cases, the FDA admitted under oath that they skewed test procedures or lied about test results in order to produce unfavorable results and discredit the discovery. Today, the same FDA regularly approves ever more toxic chemo therapies from the laboratories of pharmaceutical companies, despite a study published in Volume 16, Issue 8 of The Journal of Clinical Oncology stating that chemotherapy is 97% ineffective for all adult onset cancers.

Something is amiss in American medicine.

The public’s full access to other medical disciplines would go a long way toward eliminating many of the problems intrinsic to American medical care, including its exorbitant price tag. Unfortunately, full access will not exist until all medical disciplines and independent researchers have equal protection under the law. Regulated but unfettered practice of naturopathic and holistic methods is consistent with free market competition, and free market competition is a foundational American principle. No one denies that free enterprise, built on the law of competitive supply and demand, efficiently delivers what people want at the most reasonable price. Why, then, is the AMA allowed to dictate which medical disciplines are or are not worthy of practice? How can Big Pharma get away with controlling who can or cannot research cures for disease? Why is the FDA unmonitored to the degree that it approves new drugs whose side effects spawn millions of dollars’ worth of class action lawsuits each year? The answers lie in the political and financial alliances among the three powers in question. The simple truth is that the current system is lucrative for them, and they like it that way. Americans’ freedom to choose holistic forms of health care is a threat to the bottom line of their bank accounts.

Currently, only sixteen states, the District of Columbia and two United States territories allow licensed, regulated naturopathic practice. The regulation requires graduation from an accredited, four-year, residential naturopathic medical school and a passing score on an extensive postdoctoral board examination for licensure. In all other states, citizens have access to MDs and DOs only for their primary health care. In most of those states they can also legally seek the auxiliary services of chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists, but they no longer can consult naturopathic physicians. Naturopaths, educated to address the causes of illness and to cure them with non-toxic treatments, emphasize disease prevention and work to promote the body’s own natural healing abilities, yet they are forbidden to offer their services in most of the United States.

In Florida, for example, the state’s constitution contains a privacy clause that suggests a desire to prevent federal intrusion, but the state’s health care statutes reveal the Florida Medical Association’s distaste for competition. Pressured by the FMA, the Florida legislature ceased all new licensure of certified naturopathic doctors in 1959. The same legislation allowed all previously licensed naturopaths to continue practicing, which ironically reveals that law makers found nothing wrong, dangerous or harmful in the practice of naturopathy. The Florida Naturopathic Physicians Association (FNPA) is currently working toward making naturopathy a part of Florida’s health care system again, but several attempts to reinstate licensure have met with strong, successful opposition from the FMA.

Recently, Florida law-enforcement agencies have engaged in a state-wide effort to prosecute anyone suspected of “practicing health care without a license.” In 2005, Anita Bruce, a nutritionist, was arrested for recommending vitamins to a client. She was exonerated, but not without significant legal costs and financial loss. The charge may have been frivolous, but not to Ms. Bruce.

In 2012, Donald T. Monus, owner and operator of The Monus Research Foundation and co-author of What’s Killing You and What to Do About It, was raided by the Florida Health Department, the Largo Police Department and other agencies simultaneously. A bio-chemist and naturopath by education, Monus holds numerous patents for environmental and biochemical inventions. Although no complaints of harm or dissatisfaction have ever been filed against him by the public at large or by clients who have sought his expertise, Monus was arrested at gunpoint. He received no warning, citation or cease-and-desist statement before the raid. His microscope, computers, professional papers, cell phone and automobile were seized, and his bank accounts were frozen. Cash and personal valuables were removed from his home. Monus claims that he did not practice health care, but health education. “Before I set up shop, I asked the local police what I could do legally,” he says. “They told me that I could educate people about health care, and that’s what I did. When people came to me for more information after reading my book, I gave it to them. I taught them how to go home and take care of themselves.”

A retired federal judge who heard about the case called Monus with the information that a Florida MD was gathering names of people with naturopathic leanings and submitting them to local authorities. The judge deemed the MD’s efforts manipulative and was concerned about the covert assault on personal and public freedoms that they implied. Whether or not the MD is operating as an agent of the AMA/FMA is a matter of speculation. Monus’ trial is pending.

Big Pharma, the AMA and the FDA have created today’s archetype of health care, and collectively they rule it with an iron fist. The system is so faulty and expensive that the US government has assumed its management with the most sweeping and costly legislation in American history. Although Obamacare portends vast changes in the funding and delivery of health care, it will do nothing to repair the system’s cracked foundation, which is its intrinsic lack of emphasis on restoring, building and maintaining good health. Instead, PPACA will force Americans to participate in a system based on the dispensation of costly, non-curative and often toxic prescriptions that will keep them comfortable enough to remain sick while Pharma lines its pockets.

America needs to shift its health care paradigm, and a strong grassroots movement is the only force powerful enough to make it happen. If citizens would insist that federal and state legislatures stand up to the FDA, AMA and Big Pharma, private medical innovations would flourish, naturopathic physicians would be free to practice in all 50 states, and Americans could choose between disease-focused and health-focused medical treatments. In due course, the successes and failures of each discipline would speak for themselves, and people would gravitate to whatever works best. General health would improve, medical costs would drop, and citizens would be free to choose the medical care best suited to their needs.

As it stands now, state and federal legislators turn a blind eye toward the FDA’s inconsistencies and obligingly cave to financial and political pressures from Big Pharma and the AMA. In doing so, they not only prohibit independent medical discovery and contribute to the rising cost of medical care, but they also deprive citizens of the freedom to examine and choose among a wide variety of effective medical treatments.

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Posted by on May 16, 2013 in Day By Day

 

Wakey, Wakey!

Mornings are difficult. Despite countless mental tricks that I’ve tried to play on myself, my first waking thoughts too often center themselves on the most unsatisfactory part of my personal history, which is that the pillow on the other side of my bed has remained chronically empty for 30 years. Nights are generally better than mornings, probably due to a day’s worth of effort at viewing my glass as half full. By bedtime I can always muster the faith that I will awaken to Hope’s wings fanning the air above me, but when my eyes open in the morning, the poor bird is usually dead.

Today began almost like any other, except that I wasn’t alone in the house, and sunrise was still an hour away. In a portable bed in the corner of my bedroom, my two-year-old granddaughter was snoring between the tiny little sucking noises that came from her pacifier. Her four-year-old brother was in bed with me and was beginning to waken. I lay very still, listening to them breathe and watching their beautiful little faces dance across the backs of my eyelids. “They don’t care that I’m getting old and lumpy,” I thought to myself. “They just love me.”

Little stirrings interrupted my musings. My grandson half-consciously felt for my hand, then pulled it close and held it to his chest. Bit by bit he nestled into me—he burrowed his head into the crook of my neck, stretched his arm across my chest, flung his leg over my hip. “I love you, Mah Jo,” he said.

I pulled him closer and I whispered so I wouldn’t wake his sister, “I love you, too.”

She heard the whisper and stood up in her little bed. “Mah Jo’s bed,” she said, and she extended her arms to me after making sure her pink blanket would come with her. The three of us lay there together for a while, emerging slowly from our sleepy cocoons. “Mah Jo’s bed,” she repeated, and snuggled close.

“My God,” I said to Him. “Both pillows are so full.”

I wonder which voice will rouse me tomorrow morning. Will I hear hoarse counsel that the day will be like all the others and then spend too much energy fighting past disappointments? Or will I watch my feet touch the shiny wooden floor and listen to myself call into the empty house that today I will drink from a glass that is always overflowing?

This morning’s sweet silence whispered a secret into my ear: If I learn to embrace every moment of every day— listen to every soft breath and feel each tiny movement—the bird will not just flutter above me, but will roost on my shoulder and nest in my hair.

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2011 in Day By Day

 

Dad’s Home

I have posted this piece about my dad before. My thoughts of late have turned more and more toward the concept of legacy, and because Fathers’ Day always puts me in mind of my dad, I will probably re-post it every year even though I’m not satisfied with it. My dissatisfaction no doubt stems from my inability to find words to adequately describe the terrible, wonderful man that he was. Still, it’s what I’ve managed so far, and as I said in my first post, it’s time for me to capture my thoughts.

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My father died several years ago – in December of 2008, three days before his 87th birthday. Last Sunday was Father’s Day, and all day long I caught myself thinking that I ought to figure out the right frequency or dial the right number to wish Dad a happy one. He was that strong a character.

Grief, the consuming fire kindled only by death, has overcome and nearly debilitated me twice in my life, but not when my father died. My eyes sometimes sting when I think of him, but my gut has never been gripped either by abandoned weeping or the anguish of loss. I’ve never felt guilty about it, either, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Dad’s last days were so extraordinary that I almost envied his passing. He saw an angel in the corner of his room, asked my sister to go with him to heaven (which was just beyond that field of purple flowers) and reached a wizened hand toward a vision that only he saw, which he described as “Love. All that love, and there’s so much freedom in it.” For another thing, both the intensity of his personality and the power of his influence were so strong that his absence seems less like losing him than like knowing him in a different way. Dad is still so much a part of me that thinking about him is like going home.

My father was bigger than life. He walked into a room and filled it up – with fun, with intellect, with spirit, with rage, with laughter, with discontent, with opinions, with irritation, with brilliance – with whatever was gurgling and roiling at the time, but always with gusto or command. The mood of our household hinged on Dad’s state of mind. I’ve lived all over the world and met hundreds of people born of manors and mangers, but I’ve met few who shifted the atmosphere as my father did.

Dad was a decorated military pilot – not just a soldier, but a warrior. He was a B-26 navigator in the European theater during World War II, he served as the United States’ Air Attaché to South Korea during The Korean War, and he flew F-4 fighter jets in Vietnam. His Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross still hang above his desk, and somewhere in Mother’s Fibber McGee is the issue of Life magazine that featured his reconnaissance photos of North Vietnamese convoys moving soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam. He took those pictures on one of more than 100 missions “through the barrel,” the fighter jockeys’ label for flying through the heaviest concentrations of anti-aircraft artillery. Dad’s veins coursed with the hot Irish blood of a die-hard patriot, and when he didn’t have an authentic enemy to fight, he made it his business to find one, even if it meant making merry little wars at home.

When I was 21, I accompanied my parents to a change-of-command social gathering at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, where for the first time Dad met the men who would work for him in his new command. After everyone mingled for 30 or 45 minutes, Dad stood at the mic. He smiled, and then chin after chin dropped as he visually circled the room and vocally greeted every man at the banquet tables by their first and last names – about 100 of them. A young officer who sat across the table from me leaned toward a cohort and said, “I don’t know if I want to work for a man like that or not.”

The cohort replied, “I do.”

Dad was as tender as he was tough, both jovial and unpleasant. He laughed from his belly, loved from his huge Irish heart, fumed from his core and ruled with an iron fist. Often he’d come home from work, toss his flight cap onto the kitchen table and call, “Where is my Lolita?!” Finding my mother at the stove, he would put his arms around her, bend her backward while her wooden spoon dangled over the makings of supper, and then kiss her in a way that paled John Wayne. When I was a little thing, he’d place my feet on top of his own after putting music on the record player, and then he’d waltz me around the house, singing badly with great enthusiasm. When I was a very innocent 13, he restricted me to the yard for six months because I failed to ask for permission before walking home with my boyfriend after a dance. When I brought report cards home with anything less than straight A’s, he’d sniff and declare what seemed to him obvious: “This is a good report card … for someone else,” and then return to his newspaper without so much as a glance in my direction. From as early as I can remember, he elevated me with his left hand and crushed me with his right. Whether he meant to or not, he taught me to think, to laugh, to cry, to speak out, to swear, to be brave, to be afraid, to value right and disdain wrong, to look beyond the obvious, to love words and to dissect ideas. He insisted that a woman’s place was in the home, but he also hoisted me onto his hip and taught me how to find Orion, the Pleiades and the North Star, which seemed to both of us more interesting than the kitchen. To this day, distant lights and far away mysteries call to me, and it was Dad who first pointed me toward them.

My father spilled magnificent and terrible passions; his was an undeniable and sometimes formidable presence. Everyone either loved him, hated him, or both, but when his name was mentioned, no one ever shrugged and asked, “Who?” I almost miss him, but I can’t, because before he made a new home in that Love place beyond the field of purple flowers, he made a permanent home in every fiber of my being.

He’s still here.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in Looking Back

 

The Signet

The table was big enough to seat twelve. It had been surrounded by all seDad 001ven of the children in her family, then their children, and lately their children’s children. Her father had always sat at the head of it, which was more than symbolic. He had headed everything in the house, including all seven of them – headed ‘em up and moved ‘em out, then welcomed them in again. The table had always been the forum: ideas weren’t just offered and exchanged during meals; they were passed, tossed, hurled, chewed, pulled, torn apart and reassembled there. Morality and virtue were expounded and examined; the day’s comings and goings were inquired after or discovered. Over all things around that table her father had presided, and he had insisted that it be set with a table cloth every night and that the entire family be together for dinner. It was so, and Dad saw that it was good.

This time she sat at the table with only her mother, who had placed a manilla envelope on the blue table cloth. “I brought these with me because I couldn’t decide at the home,” she said, and she pulled out several pictures.

The sting of tears made its familiar trip from her throat to her nose, then stopped short of her eyes. “Mom,” she said, “I never dreamed I’d be picking out Dad’s coffin.”

Her mother’s voice broke a little. “I know,” she said. “He was bigger than life, and a box is such a small container. They don’t make one that fits him.”

Her mother sat in her father’s dinner chair and spread out the pictures. The Old Oak seemed to be the best choice. Strong, informal wood, iron hardware and pleats rather than ruffles in the linen lining.  So odd to make this decision, she thought. Imagine that Dad’s end would be like everyone else’s. A box.

“I have some things of your father’s, and I wonder if you might be interested in any of them,” said her mother. “I’ve given his guns, his military medals and his golf clubs to your brothers, and I gave his fighter pilot helmet to Chris. I sold his tractor and I’ll worry about the truck later, but I still have some smaller things. His military insignia is interesting, and I saved his sterling uniform buttons. I have two fountain pens that he liked, and I have his ring.”

“Oh, Mom.” She drew in her breath. “His ring. I would love to have his ring.”

Her mother disappeared into the bedroom and returned with a small box. She took the ring from it and placed it in her daughter’s hand.

For a long time she cradled the ring in her palm, turning it over and over, remembering it on her father’s left hand. How many times had she sat on his lap and twisted the heavy gold of it around his finger? How many times had she touched the cool, smooth black onyx centered in the letters PILOT USAF? How many times had she run her fingers over its embossed wings and stars?  It had been her father’s ring, always on his hand, as much a part of him as his curly hair, his fierce eyes and his ready laughter.

She slippedPerfectPhoto_image the ring onto her own finger. “Mother,” she said, “it fits. It fits me perfectly.” She was surprised. How strange that her fingers were the same size as his. “Thank you, Mom. I’ll treasure this. I can’t even glance at it without thinking of everything he was.”

She let herself cry quietly – not for the sadness of losing him, but for the depth of legacy, both terrible and wonderful, that he had left behind. On the finger that signified union she wore her father’s ring, a signet embossed with a tribute to man taking flight. The golden wings and stars were on her own middle-aged hand now, and she wondered where and how she might still fly, how brightly she might still gleam, and if her own legacy would soar or shine like his.

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Posted by on September 9, 2011 in Looking Back

 

Night Light

Girl At the MirrorAt the time there were five of us, and Mother was expecting the sixth. I was 14. My brothers clocked in at 12, 9 and 7, and my baby sister was nearly 4. As far as I was concerned, a throng of siblings was nature’s design for the norm; it never occurred to me that the size of my family wasn’t the object of widespread envy. I was convinced that households with only two or three children felt somehow deprived or unlucky, and I suspected that they secretly longed for the rigors of bountiful dinner tables rimmed with chattering children. How sad for them that they couldn’t sing six-part harmony on road trips or form in-house teams for balloon baseball tournaments. How did small households manage to seem cheerful despite their empty hallways?

We were a military family, something of a traveling road gang. That particular summer we lived in the treeless, windswept heartland of Nebraska’s prairie, settled in Air Force base housing. Our home sat on the round end of a cul-de-sac carved from the crest of a hill. In the evening of the last day in June, my parents and their burgeoning sixth addition were attending a cocktail party and had left me in charge of the younger children.  When darkness fell, we joined the other neighborhood kids in the middle of the cul-de-sac for our summer night games: Hide & Seek, Kick the Can and Spud. My favorite part of these summer nights came after we played, when sufficiently sweaty and spent, we perched or sprawled ourselves on the grassy top of our private GI hill, absent-mindedly gazed across the militarized prairie and talked. Sparsely placed street lamps, lights shining from nearby windows and huge runways in the distance threw enough light on our late-night gatherings to illuminate the closest friendly faces, but we all found it dark enough to say things that we couldn’t or wouldn’t utter during the day.

Without warning, the lights – all of them except the stars – suddenly flickered out, and the night went black. Simultaneously and in unison the neighborhood gang welcomed the first of the summer power outages by becoming a mock cheering section for the nameless dolts who were responsible for running the generators. We celebrated our wittiness by laughing together and then settled into feigning clairvoyant predictions of the exact moment that our world would be re-lit. I pulled my little sister close and issued a “stay put” order to my youngest brother, who was infamous for his mischief.

One of the older boys who lived down the hill began taking bets on how long we’d be without light. My youngest brother remained still, but his eyes never stopped moving, and he was the first to see headlights winding up our street. “I bet we get some lights right now!” he hollered. “I win!” He waited for us to jeer him for cheating. We did, and he reveled.

The headlights belonged to my parents’ car, so my brothers and I raced to our driveway with our little sister in tow. We circled the car like so many baby chicks, feeling certain that Mom and Dad had come home to see how we were managing in the dark. Grinning and jovial, Dad stepped out of the car and made the announcement. “Well. Your mother has decided that it’s a good night to have a baby. JoAnn, can you take care of things until I get back?”

“Sure, Dad, but the electricity went off. Do we have any candles?”

Mother stopped her cautious waddle toward the front door and slowly turned toward the conversation. Her voice was gently resolute. “No, Walter. Not the boys – alone – with candles.”

And so it was that the whole family piled into the Chrysler for a night ride to the hospital in downtown Lincoln.

Visitors and out-patients had jam-packed the parking lot, and Dad circled it three times without finding a space. “No room at the inn,” mother chuckled. Undaunted, Dad drove to the back of the hospital and pulled into a slot reserved for Dr. DeWitt, who was wisely elsewhere. Dad helped mother out of the car and escorted her toward the building. I was left in charge of the children again, this time to supervise them during what was shaping up to be a more intriguing summer game than usual.

From Dr. DeWitt’s space, we were afforded a non-public rear view of the L-shaped hospital. From an upper floor, three giant windows looked over the doctors’ parking lot, and in the crook of the elbow where the two wings of the building met, a screen door marked the entrance to an exterior staircase. Gravel crunched beneath my parents’ feet on their way to the stairs. The door squeaked open and slapped shut, my parents disappeared, and the five of us were alone with the crickets, waiting.

Waiting wasn’t unusual for us. Dad had often made it clear that we were free to wait for our own children if that’s what we decided to do when we became productive adults and assumed ownership of the world. In the meantime, he said, the world belonged to him, and his children could do the waiting.

At first it was an ordinary wait. We each sat in our places inside the car, wriggled against the cramp of it and complained about each others’ infringements on the invisible boundaries that marked off our seat spaces. With no adult to arbitrate, we abandoned our boring argument in favor of lackluster silence, and when the quiet became more intolerable than the border disputes had been, we opened the doors and spilled out of the car to make the best of the parking lot without breaching Dad’s steely imperative not to horse around.

Light from the huge window directly above us suddenly flooded the parking lot, and we blinked up at the glare. The bottom quarter of the window was frosted for privacy, but above the privacy strip we could see a brilliant theater lamp shining from the room’s ceiling and the heads of several people in surgical scrubs. We watched them move around the room.

While we were gazing up at the immense window, Dad appeared from behind the little wooden door, and he crunched across the gravel between the building and Dr. DeWitt’s midnight squatters. “Everyone is having babies tonight,” he said, “and all the delivery rooms are full. They’re using the surgery rooms for overflow.”  He pointed to the window that we’d been watching. “Your mother,” he smiled, “is in that one.”  Then, reassured that all was well and that all his ducklings were in a row, Dad crunched his way back to the stairway and disappeared again.

With one finger pointed upward, our father had transformed ordinary waiting into a night vigil. The five of us needed to arrange good seating, so we climbed onto the hood and roof of the car, and each of us picked out a perfect vantage point. This time we drew our invisible boundaries close enough to overlap, because we wanted to be close enough to touch one another while we watched.

For the second time that night we became a gambling cheering section. The boys organized 25-cent bets on the gender of the baby, and predictably, we all engaged in a good-natured battle of the sexes. My brothers put their money on a boy who would increase their ranks, and I explained to my sister that girls should risk their allowances on Mother Nature, whose justice would surely balance the gender scales with another girl. We all thought of clever, rude remarks for the opposite team, laughed, watched and waited for news.

We had several false alarms. The first few times Dad came down to check on us, we were sure that he’d settle our wagers, but his treks were simply for crowd control, and when he’d assured himself that we were safe and well-behaved, he re-climbed the stairs to Mother.

I was the first to see all the medical people moving toward the window. If I knew my dad, he had told the delivery team to have a look at the Peanut Gallery. “Hey, you guys,” I said, “they’re coming to the window. Let’s wave.” We waved happily toward the four figures lined up at the window. Three of them waved back. The fourth was preoccupied with something beneath the privacy strip. He glanced over his glasses at us, then refocused on what he was doing. He positioned himself carefully, then slowly lifted his arms above his head to show us what had been occupying his attention.

In Kunta Kinte fashion, the doctor stretched his arms upward and presented us with our new baby. He held it high for a few wonderful seconds and then lowered it. He looked at us for a moment, and then walked away from the window and out of sight. The boys yelled like clamouring football fans. I didn’t. I was transfixed.

Dad came down to us quickly – too quickly. “What is it?! What is it?!” we whooped. “Boy or girl?! What?!”

“It’s not born yet,” he said. “Almost, but not quite.”

Dad didn’t know – not only about the gender but about the whole baby. It had arrived during his last trek from the third floor to the parking lot. How he managed to decipher what we were saying through our animated yammering I’ll never know, but when he realized that he’d missed the main event, he sprinted back to the little door. It squeaked open, slapped shut behind him, and we returned to our seats on the big-finned Chrysler for one more wait.

Energized, the boys rekindled the wagering, but something inside me detached itself from our summer night adventure, and I became a rapt observer from a new, inner vantage point. I was suddenly aware that the main character in this drama was my mother. Dad had the power to move closer to the action, but he was still an outsider. The doctors were assisting and the five of us were actively anticipating the outcome, but Mother was the only one who wasn’t peering either in or out of that enormous window. She was up there doing it, pushing life into the world, and everyone else was part of either the stage crew or the audience. With that new realization came another: womanhood was a heroic state. And another: I was to be a woman.

The familiar squeak and slap of the door brought me back to earth, and I surprised myself by letting the boys beat me to Dad. Strangely, I was only mildly curious about the baby’s gender because I no longer felt a personal stake in it. I now had a strong new stake in my own.

Dad was delighted and grinned wide. “Get your wallets out, Boys. You have a new sister, and she’s waiting for us upstairs.” Amidst masculine groans of defeat, Dad led the ragtag foot march. We followed him across the crunching gravel, squeaked the door open and tromped up the stairs ourselves for the first time. In a little reception room at the top of the stairs, a smiling, tidy little nurse was waiting for us with baby Jeanne in her arms, and as we approached her, the nurse pulled the blanket away from our sister’s face to give us a better look. She was perfect.

The boys seemed satisfied to know that the baby was real, and after a few moments began challenging each other to walk on the floor tiles without stepping on a crack. I, on the other hand, gazed at my round, pink sister until the nurse apologized for telling us that it was time for her to lock the doors.

I never collected my winnings from my brothers; I had won enough already. My new baby sister had balanced the family gender scales: where we had been three against two, we were now three plus three. And I was delighted that, like me, Jeanne had been lucky enough to be born a woman.

***********************************************************************

Few memories have stayed with me like the night of Jeanne’s birth. The experience was formative. Not only does it still play vividly in my mind, but it continues to reveal itself in layers. The subtleties of feminine worth and power that dawned in me that night are with me to this day despite my divorce, my challenges as a single mother on the work force and countless idiotic affronts to women in general, often from women themselves. From the time I first understood what Mother was doing beyond that window until now, I have harbored an enduring belief that what men don’t respect about women is their loss and that what women lament about their femininity is a tragedy. I’m not about to prove myself to men by trying to beat them at their own game, nor will I ever admire women who burn their bras. Such an attitude may never produce public glory, but it has already garnered for me considerable personal victory.

In retrospect I see the experience as a scale model of my parents’ values. Rather than allowing their lives to be defined by the difficulties of feeding, clothing and housing a big family within an itinerant lifestyle, they chose companionship over convenience and built their foundation on the belief that the human heart always has room for more. They lived out their great love for life and for one another by extending it to people around them and presenting the world with more people like themselves. By the time they had five children, the oldest of whom was a snitty adolescent (me), my parents had no illusions about idyllic Walton-like living. We had one bathroom! and they had more children just the same. They believed and taught by example that the only decent way to live is to “think on the good, the pure, the kind, the lovely, whatever is excellent and of good report.” Mother has said to me that if she had life to live over again, she’d have two more children.

My brother Jim is a graduate of The Air Force Academy and Harvard Business School, and is a wealthy investment banker in California. My brother John teaches secondary English in Texas during the winter, and in summer he explores marine life in his boat, Schoolmaster, when he isn’t keeping the grounds at a local golf course. My brother Terry, the mischievous one, was a dean’s list student in every undergraduate major he tried (and there were many), and is now a published author and an east coast consultant for companies who seek his expertise in streamlining business systems. My sister Marilyn is a published author, a wife, the mother of four including a set of twins, the grandmother of six and the principal of a Christian school. Jeanne, the baby in the window, is a degreed geologist and has four children of her own. I am a retired English teacher and dyslexia therapist, and to put teeth in my newest role as a hot rod granny, I’m currently searching for shoes that light up when I walk. Together, my siblings and I have presented our parents with a continuation of their legacy: 22 grandchildren and step-grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren and step-great-grandchildren. The beat goes on.

My brother Matthew, a prince of a man, was number seven. He was born six years after Jeanne while Dad was fighting the Vietnamese War. I drove Mother to the hospital, but that’s another story.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Looking Back

 

One Monday Down, Fifty-one to Go

Day 1 was a success. I carpéd the diem.

Happy to report that I body-slammed the first of 52 Mondays in my Thick and Tired of It project.  What could have breathed like any other discouraging Monday has remained obligingly, gloriously dead all day long. No signs of life, no pulse. A doornail.

The hardest part was planning the murder, because it meant going to bed before 11 and getting up in time to exercise at 6.  If I said that Ben Franklin’s ditty about becoming healthy, wealthy and wise made it easier for me to love the early-to-bed and early-to-rise part, you’d have every right to tell me that my nose is growing. I can tell you, though, with no fear of nose-morph, that I retired and arose early enough to put a dagger in the heart of The First Monday. This was no small feat for me, because deeply embedded in my genetic code is the belief that God invented sunrise as a daily reminder to roll over and hit the snooze button.

So. I early-to-bedded and early-to-rised, and though the horsemen of health, wealth and wisdom have yet to arrive, I can hear their hoof-beats in the distance.  They sound like bare feet hitting the floor at 5:45. They keep rhythm to Beach Body’s SlimN6 Part II: Ramp It Up. They thump like water from a good shower head pounding against a fiberglass tub.  It would be great – even poetic – if they clanked like silverware in a heaping bowl of fresh peaches for breakfast, but they don’t.

Today was a good start. By 8:00 AM I had already upped, exercised, showered, eaten, washed my dishes and made my bed. I had a little time to spare before babysitting, so I swatted three pesky flies that had worn out their welcome and then swept the front porch.  After lunch (a big, fat, skinny salad) I did some sewing for my friend, Tim, and just before delivering his order I ate a satisfying if uninspired dinner plate of grilled chicken, sliced tomatoes, steamed green beans and a rye crisp spread with hummus. In the last 24 hours I’ve slept well, exercised hard, eaten right, read a little, written a bit, prayed some, laughed a lot and loved much … and it’s still a half hour before bedtime.

Hot Rod Granny – 1, Mondays – 0.

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2011 in Thick and Tired of It

 

The End of Monday

The EndWhen I’m up to it, which may be some distant Monday, I’ll spill the reasons I’ve started this whole thing.  For now, I’m just going to start.

Everyone who isn’t a fitness goon knows about the Monday that never comes. Monday I’ll start exercising. Monday I’ll start my diet. By Monday the chocolate pie will be gone, and I’ll never bake another one. For sure I won’t ever buy another package of Double Stuffs, but I can’t waste the ones in the cupboard. This time I’m really going to do it. I’ll start on Monday.

This past Monday was different for me. No, of course I didn’t start. Instead I ate organic blue popcorn for breakfast, with plenty of foamy, melted butter poured over it, then climbed into the shower before heading out to babysit my grandchildren. While I was washing my lumpy thighs and what’s left of the scant, gray curls south of my Mason-Dixon line, a new question invaded my privacy: at my age, what might the limitations of physical improvement be?  I’ve known for a long time that my bikini days are over unless I spring for surgical help, but the steam of Monday’s shower opened up a different neurological pathway: I found myself seriously pondering whether or not a protracted focus on health and fitness could make the old girl look good in a nice pair of shorts and a tank top. This was different from making up my mind to get a little stronger or lose a little weight. This was the desire to discover limitations rather than identify them ahead of time. This was wanting to find out what might happen if I pushed my own envelope. I’ve always assumed that mature people should expect to carry fifteen or twenty pounds more than their high-school graduation weight, but what if that’s a cop-out? What are the chances of building enough muscle mass to weigh 128 pounds without looking like a picked chicken or a male droid? Could I ever work up to three or even five men’s pull-ups? Fifteen men’s push ups? Could I build the strength and muscle support to run a seven or eight-minute mile without beating my old knees into mush? Could I support my own weight on a rope swing long enough to heave myself into a swimming hole? Bo Derek I’m not, but how close to an aging, fit “10” could I get in 365 days? I intend to find out.

My entire life has been one of externally imposed calendars. Schools run on a schedule, and I married the day after I graduated from college. My husband went to work at the same time every morning, and until I learned that it disagreed with him, I was up with the rooster to send him off with a good breakfast. My firstborn taught me that motherhood was 24/7 and life was no longer my own. When I divorced, I became a single mother of three active children and went to work full-time, first in business and then in school settings, and I learned that busy bosses and public school bells wait for no one. From the time I entered first grade in September of 1953 until I retired in January of 2010, I had meetings to attend and promises to keep, and breathing room was snatched on the fly.

That was then. Now I’m a lady in retirement, and only two obligations demand my time. The first is watching my beautiful grandchildren four mornings per week while their mother, my beautiful daughter, exercises. Second, I pray for the sick at the free medical clinic on the first Wednesday of every month. That’s it. Those are my only carved-in-stone commitments, and if I wanted to (I don’t), I could toss them and have absolutely nothing to do. For the first time in my life I have a truckload of time to spend as I see fit, and though I do some free-lance editing and a bit of sewing for fun and for hire, mostly I procrastinate installing curtain rods while deciding what to read at bedtime. Believe me, it’s more attractive in theory than in practice. The time/money continuum is characteristically problematic, and at this juncture the marker on mine is much chummier with extra time than with extra dollars. Other than keeping my cute little house cozy and my utilitarian underwear clean, much of what I dream of doing requires money, which is in relatively short supply. Nevertheless, the advantage of having a dance card with plenty of open slots is that I can do anything that doesn’t flatten my wallet.

Back to Monday’s shower. Standing in it, I decided then and there that for 365 days I would focus on finding out how my 64-year-old body will respond to very deliberate care, keeping, and challenge. Wisdom dictates good utilization of resources, and I intend to use my super-size-it portion of time to steward God’s gift of a healthy constitution. I completed P90X twice last year, but I’ve let six months go by without doing anything, and 13 of my once-lost 40 pounds have now been found. Because my goal is loftier this time, I’ll have to do what all the gurus suggest and start slowly. Because my target has no defined bull’s-eye, I’ll be obliged to put a well-aimed bullet between the eyes of the zero-tolerance philosophy. My short-term goals will have to evolve, because I too often fall prey to all-or-nothing thinking, then collapse after failing to give my all on a tough day. Rather than picking myself up and dusting myself off, I tend to berate myself for not doing what I think an evolved person should do and then give up until next Monday. No more of that, Granny. No more.

See? That last dictum is an example of all-or-nothing thinking, so I’ll try again: we’re going to work on that one, Granny. You’ve done some great stuff in the last 64 years; now let’s see what you can do with the idea of a 365-day project when it’s housed it in a good, sound brain wrinkle and fed by your spirit. We need to slam our door on the intolerance that demands product and offer 5-star accommodation to the patience that accompanies process. A new trick, Old Dog, but you can do it.

Better.

It’s Friday night. I have Saturday and Sunday to plan and shop for my resurrected commitment to clean food. I already know that limiting refined carbohydrates suits me best and that I feel like a million bucks when I eat lean meats, fresh fruit, and bowls of raw and steamed vegetables. Within the next three months I’ll save enough money to invest in a really good juicer that also makes nut butters and whole fruit sorbets. I have a membership to the Y and a few BeachBody videos to get me back in the groove, and the idea of buying a bicycle is lurking just behind the part of my brain that controls sneezing and mumbling. I will coax it out of hiding after I’ve established routine, and to celebrate its debut I just might buy a pair of cycling pants with flames embroidered on the thighs – a subtle suggestion that they go for the burn with or without my enthusiasm.

I’m going to chronicle the whole thing, too, which my 40-year-old son says may turn into more self-discovery than I’m bargaining for. He’s usually right about such things, but even if he is, I won’t lapse into contemplating my navel. I’ve done that before, and what I discovered was mostly lint.

So, Monday morning at 6:30 it begins. With high hopes of giving the Saturday night of retired life a major makeover, I’m giving Mondays the boot once and for all.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2011 in Thick and Tired of It