Friday, November 10, 2017

My Medical Me-Too Story

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, I am having my first consult with an allergist--thinning hair, glasses, white coat. Fiftyish, like me. The treatment room is small, and my chair is next to his desk. He is taking my medical history and with each question his chair rolls a little closer to me. "Are your symptoms worse in the spring or in the fall?" he asks. I am about to answer when I feel something pushing against my knee. I look down: it is his knee.

I look up and his eyes hold mine for just a second. I move my knee away. "In the fall," I say.

"And have you had much exposure to molds?"

When the history is complete, it is time for the physical. I am sitting on the edge of the examination table and he approaches, tongue depressor in hand. "Say aah!" he says, and as he peers into my throat I feel the pressure of his pelvis against my knees.

Why am I still in this room with this creep, you ask? Because the part of my brain that is capable of observing reality, drawing conclusions, and taking action has shut down completely. It has been replaced by an oddly reassuring voice that says, "He is a doctor. You are a patient. Therefore, this cannot be happening." Zombie-like, I get through the rest of the visit, suppressing the desire to run screaming out of the office, or to kick him in the...shins.

He prescribes a series of allergy shots that, fortunately, are administered by his nurses, so in the following months I don't see much more of him.

One day, long after my treatment is over, I am sitting in the metro next to a woman I know from work. She has curly red hair,  and she giggles a lot. She's always struck me as a little flighty and flaky, and I suspect that, as the French say, she did not invent the mouse trap.

As we chat, she sneezes a couple of times, blows her nose. "Sorry," she says, "it's my allergies. I can't find a good doctor. I went to Dr.__ [and she names my knee-pressing guy], but I couldn't stand him."

"Really? How so?"

"Well," she says, putting away her tissue and flushing with anger, "you won't believe this, but the first time I went to see him, he kept pushing his knee against mine!"

"Wow! That's terrible. What did you do?"

"What do you think?" she says, clenching her little fist. "I did what any intelligent person would do: grabbed my purse and slammed the door in his face. And on the way out I told the receptionist that if she charged me for the visit I would report him to the AMA!"


Monday, November 6, 2017

Just Animals

I was watching Rachel Maddow the other night when I heard an odd splashing in the Japanese fish tub. The female of my pair of fantail goldfish was swimming on her side, twisting and writhing, clearly in pain. Instantly Rachel, Russia, and even Trump vanished from my mind. What was wrong with my fish? What if I couldn't cure her and she died? What if I had to euthanize her?

Was I overreacting? After all, it was just a goldfish, the sort of creature that people used to bring home from the fair, decant into a brandy snifter, and when it expired a few weeks later, dump unceremoniously into the toilet.

Those were also the days when newly-hatched chicks, dyed pink or blue for Easter, were given to children to play with until the birds perished from stress and their limp little bodies were thrown out with the garbage.

For that matter, when pets roamed freely in suburban streets, before spaying and neutering became the cultural norm, well-meaning people routinely drowned unwanted litters of puppies and kittens. After all, they were just animals.

Today, of course, Easter chicks are a thing of the past, and unwanted puppies and kittens are placed in foster homes, their reproductive organs are excised under anesthesia, and would-be adopters are carefully screened before they're allowed to take their new pet home.

Now there are leash laws, and no-kill shelters, and fines and jail sentences for animal abusers. Stories of people's dedication to their pets' welfare are everywhere. I have a friend who for years had to rush home from work to give her diabetic cat his insulin shot, and another whose day revolves around meeting the needs and wants of his ancient, arthritic, almost blind Lab.

This new-found sensitivity extends beyond our pets. Every winter Americans spend millions on seeds and suet for the birds, and I could name half a dozen people who, if they find a spider in the house, carefully trap it under a glass, slip a piece of paper under it, and take it outside (I am not among the latter. I clobber large spiders to death with a broom, and drown ticks in the toilet). Thanks in great part to the genius of Temple Grandin, cows and pigs can now aspire to death with at least a measure of dignity. And most grocery stores stock eggs from cage-free or even pastured hens.

There has been a sea-change, within the last half century, in our attitude towards animals. The wall between "them" and "us" has become progressively thinner, until it is an almost transparent veil. The hen on her nest, the cat at the window, are not mere machines, as Descartes infamously maintained. Thanks to Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Jane Goodall and others we are beginning to see ourselves in them, and them in us.

Hence my preoccupation with my ailing goldfish, my friend's commitment to her cat, and the growing number of people who refuse to eat "anything with a face." There is nothing childish or silly about this, on the contrary. On days when it seems like human civilization is going down the tubes, I see in our compassion for the beasts a major reason for optimism, for it is in recognizing our kinship with the animals, and with all beings on the planet, that we finally become truly human.

Goldfish update: with the help of Google, I diagnosed swim-bladder disorder, withheld food for 24 hours, and she is now her old self again.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Some Things I Miss...

Some things I miss from my previous life:
Two goats
Ten hens
Nine garden beds
Four apple trees
A sloping hay field
A tumbledown stone wall
A swamp
The woods behind the house, and the thrush that sang in them
The imprint of fawn hooves on the driveway in mud season
The squeaky-door song of the phoebes at dawn
The frogs in the frog pond
The black bear at the bird feeder
The ermine in the garage
The milking pail, the cheese press
The me who believed she could keep it all going.

(photo by Alison Cobb)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Always on the Moon

I am folding laundry when a quote by William Morris comes wafting out of my subconscious, "The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life." Morris was ahead of his time. These days everybody, from mental health  professionals to Buddhist monks, tells you that staying in the present is the key to health and happiness, peace and sanity. Unfortunately, I find staying in the present almost impossible to do.

Even as a child--and children are supposed to have a special talent for being "in the now"--I couldn't do it. "Es lenta," (she's slow) the nuns at my school used to complain to my mother. But that was because it took me a while to come back from the edge of the universe to whatever I was supposed to be doing. 

One example: I am marching single file with my class after recess when suddenly I perceive a strange silence around me. I return to earth to find my classmates gone and the yard deserted except for a single nun. Her hands hidden inside the sleeves of her long white habit, she is watching me and shaking her head: "Benejam--siempre en la luna" (always on the moon).

More than half a century has passed since that day, however, during which I have read a lot of books by Buddhist monks and psychiatrists and logged quite a few hours on my meditation cushion, so I should be able to be present and genuinely interested in folding the laundry, right here, right now. 

I pick up one of my husband's undershirts. Feel the cotton, I tell myself. Feel its softness. Notice the Fruit of the Loom tag, and how it has curled. Look at the color of the shirt--it is slightly yellow. It is not terribly yellow, but it would be less yellow if I didn't do my laundry in cold water. But it's the least I can do, in this era when the environment is going to hell in a hand basket, to save a bit of energy. There really should be a law against washing clothes in hot water...And I'm off to the moon again, or rather to the halls of Congress, lobbying for environmental legislation.

When I land back in the present, the underwear is in its drawer. 

Next, I attempt to take a genuine interest in the socks, of which there are many. Some are brown, some black, others navy blue. Some are thick, some are thin--who cares? 

Why am I having so much trouble with this?

It's not that I can never focus on what I'm doing. There are a couple of things that force me to pay attention--one is writing, and the other is playing the recorder (and even during the latter sometimes my mind wanders in the easy passages). But with almost all the other "details of daily life"--taking Bisou for a walk, brushing my teeth, cleaning Telemann's litter box--I am, as that long-ago nun used to say, always on the moon.

Sorting socks, I fantasize what it would be like to be in the moment all day, every day, taking a genuine interest in whatever was in front of my nose. I would probably be a more relaxed person, a nicer one for sure. Maybe if I were more like William Morris I would be able to draw like him... How unfortunate that I've been cursed with this drive to inhabit the moon.

My mind grinds on laboriously, ruminating on what-ifs and might-have-beens, until I realize with a jolt that time has passed and all the socks have been united with their mates, like the beasts in Noah's ark. Not only that, but I have written this entire blog post in my head.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Of Flags and Feelings

We Catalans have always been a hairy people, so it's not surprising that we owe our flag (la senyera) to a 9th-century count of Barcelona named Wilfred the Hairy (Wilfred el Pilós). The story is lost in the mists of time, and historians love to poke holes in it, but we Catalans love to tell it.

It seems that Wilfred was helping the king of France, Charles the Bald--or perhaps his son, Louis the Stammerer--in a battle against the Visigoths (or perhaps the Moors). With Wilfred's help, Charles (or Louis) won the battle, but Wilfred was wounded.

The King wanted to show his gratitude, and Wilfred asked him to put a mark on his coat of arms, which was plain gold. With a sense of the grand gesture, Charles (or Louis), dipped four fingers in the blood of Wilfred and dragged them from top to bottom of the coat of arms. And that is how la senyera, also known as the four bars of blood (les quatre barres de sang) came about.

If you have watched Catalans marching and voting for independence in recent weeks, you may have noticed, in the ocean of waving senyeres, people holding up their hands with four fingers extended. They are duplicating the gesture, thirteen centuries old, of Charles the Bald (or maybe Louis the Stammerer) on the coat of arms of Wilfred el Pilós.


Most news reports attribute Catalans' desire for independence to financial matters. And it is true that Catalans pay the highest taxes in Europe and get precious little of that money back from the central government in Madrid. But it is much more than that. The secessionist impulse is based on a deep sense of separate identity, an identity whose clearest emblem is the Catalan language.

No one understood this better than Franco, and after winning the Spanish Civil War in 1939 he immediately forbade the use of Catalan in public fora. My generation was not taught to read and write Catalan in school; we did not see it in newspapers or street signs, or hear it in church or the radio or anywhere outside of home and the corner market. Franco imported the dreaded Guardia Civil from other parts of Spain to keep order in Catalonia. The guardias did not speak Catalan, and when addressed in the language would bark, "hablad cristiano!" (speak "Christian").

When Franco finally died in 1975 and Catalonia was granted a certain degree of autonomy, there was an explosion of feeling for all things Catalan, but especially the language. I have never known a population so obsessed with their native tongue. In a vegetable market in Barcelona in the early 1980s I overheard two old ladies, their net bags overflowing with the day's shopping, arguing about the proper Catalan term for "carrot," whether it was pastanaga, or safranòria.

So the Catalan desire for independence is not just about money, but also about history, tradition, language...and something else. It's an attachment to that fertile triangle tucked between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean and coveted in turn by Greece, Rome, the Arab caliphate, and France, not to mention Spain. It's about the human towers wobbling against the sky, the geese in the cloister of the Barcelona cathedral, the sardana (as different from flamenco as a dance could be) danced by young and old on the city square. And through it all flows the sound of the language, long forbidden and reviled and all the more loved for that.

I heard a young Catalan on the radio today. "Why are you for independence?" the interviewer asked. "It's not the money," he answered. "It's more than that. I don't know. It's just a...a...It's a feeling!" he concluded, triumphantly. Many listeners probably found him inarticulate, but I know just what he meant.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cat And Dog

People laugh at me when they hear his name--who would name a kitten after an 18th century composer? But I must have done something right, because I have never had a cat, or a dog for that matter, who so faithfully and eagerly comes when called. Telemann, from the first couple of days, he had mastered that envy of all dog trainers: the perfect recall. All I have to say is "Telemann, Telemann!" and, out from under the bed or down from the top of the bookshelf, he waltzes into my presence, tail held high, its tip curved into a question mark, "You wanted me?" 

He is the most dog-like cat I have ever had, learning not to jump into the litter box while I'm cleaning it, and not to even think (please God!) of dipping his paw into the Japanese-style tub that is home to my two fan-tailed goldfish, But his most canine quality is his compulsion to be near me: in the sink (yes, in--he adores water) while I brush my teeth, on my lap as I try to type (why do you think it takes me so long to write a post?), on the bed when I take a nap.

If naps with Bisou were lovely, naps with Bisou and Telemann are divine. The minute they see me take the cozy gray comforter out of the closet they both jump on the bed. Bisou settles next to my left calf. Telemann, purring mightily, kneads the comforter for a bit, then licks my nose and subsides against my right ribs. One hand on Bisou's haunch and the other on the curve of Telemann's back, I fall asleep with the odd but restful feeling that I am a member of a weird interspecies litter.

But he is nevertheless a cat, a member of the tribe of tiger, and our cottage often becomes a miniature Serengeti, with Telemann as apex predator and Bisou as hapless wildebeest. He watches from under the bed skirts, then leaps out on top of her, flings his arms around her neck, and tries to deliver the killing bite. She shakes him off, then runs back to see if he will do it again, which he does.

They paw at each other, stand on their hind legs and wrestle, leapfrog over each other. But in the evenings, when Rachel Maddow alternately mocks and bemoans what is happening in the country, Bisou and Telemann sleep aligned like spoons on the sofa next to me, one of the wildebeest's legs draped casually over the former predator's neck.

On the days when CFS nails me to the bed, and the news--Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, and my country, Catalunya--sits like a stone on my chest, I give thanks for the two fur-bearing persons who, in exchange for room and board, are content to lie close to me in silence, and watch the afternoon light fade a little earlier each day.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rock or Lion?

Every morning, while my uncle hitched the ancient farm horse to the cart, my grandmother would come out of the kitchen to supervise. "That horse," she would say, shaking her head,"is going to kill somebody one of these days." No matter that the horse hadn't broken into a trot within living memory: disaster could strike at any time.

Years later, I am in college and living at home. I am warming up the engine of my Renault Dauphine to get to my morning class across Birmingham, Alabama, when my mother runs out of the house and thrusts a hard-boiled egg through the driver's side window. "Here. Eat this on the way. You don't want to faint at the wheel and cause a tragedy." No matter that I have never fainted in my life, but it is best to be prepared.

Both my grandmother and my mother had lived through the terrors of the Spanish Civil War, so they had an excuse for their hyper vigilance. And they were convinced that it worked: after all, the cart horse never did kill anybody, and I never fainted at the wheel of that tiny car.

Unlike my mother and grandmother, however, I have led a peaceful existence, free (so far) from wars and other disasters. So there is no apparent reason for my own deep-seated conviction that it is only my constant watchfulness that keeps the world from falling to pieces.

Here is what goes through my mind on a routine trip to the market. At this season in Vermont the roads are rife with cyclists. What if one of them swerves in front of my car? What if, in the fruit aisle, the grapes I put in my cart are contaminated with a deadly bacterium? What if, at the checkout, I find out that our credit card's been hacked and we are now penniless?

When he was an old man, Mark Twain said that he had lived through many catastrophes, most of which never happened. Like the women in my family, Twain suffered from what scientists call the "negativity bias," a tendency towards pessimism and anxiety engraved in our DNA over millions of years by natural selection.

Say you are an early human wandering on the African savanna. Behind a tree in the distance, you see a beige-colored mass. It could be a rock, or it could be a lion. If you optimistically assume that it is a rock but it turns out to be a lion, you and your potential descendants are toast. If, on the other hand, you are an anxious type like Mark Twain, you will take to your heels immediately and, regardless of what the beige object actually turns out to be, you will live to pass on your genes, which will include a tendency to expect the worst.

The problem in our time is that, with lions on the wane, the negativity bias causes unwarranted stress and militates against the health and well being of millions of us modern Cassandras. It may even work against reproductive success, since deciding to become a parent requires at least a modicum of optimism. So the lesson for people like me might be to learn to imagine fewer lions, and trust in the ubiquitousness of rocks.

But the thing is that, for both optimists and Cassandras alike, there will ultimately be a lion behind the tree. It will be no use pretending that it is a rock, or hoping that it is old and toothless. That lion will catch us no matter how fast we flee.The closer I get to that final encounter, the more I think that the trick is not to run or struggle, but to face the beast and respectfully ask it to deliver the killing bite as quickly and kindly as possible.