Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Blue toes

I have a friend in Boston who always paints her toes blue.

Isn't that a quaint turn of phrase? "Paints her toes"?

Anyway, last summer, in a moment of absolute frivolity mixed with a tinge of 'homesickness' for Boston, I got a bottle of blue nail polish in homage to her - and, of course, The Blessed Virgin Mary - got a mani-pedi and had the technician "paint my toes" blue.

Don't laugh. Check out any statue of the BVM. Her toes are almost always painted blue.

Ever since that moment last summer I've kept my toenails blue. And now, like my friend in Boston and the BVM, I've become known for painting my toes blue. Well, okay, among those certain select people who have seen me barefoot.

And now, of course, you.

I have another friend who is known for being able to play tunes on her nose. No, seriously. Tunes you can recognize. Difficult tunes to play. Classic to rock 'n roll to R&B.

She's good, too.  Even if it's a bit gross.

I have yet another friend who claims to be double jointed. That's another quaint turn of phrase, isn't it?. "Double jointed".

Anyway, he can twist his writs around so that his hands look broken. But they're not, of course. He can do the same thing with his fingers and toes. They also look broken. But, despite the hissing and popping sounds his fingers and toes make, they're decidedly not broken.

He's just double jointed. And, it's pretty gross.

Everyone likes to be known for something. Something that sets them apart. Oh, I'm sure we'd all like to be known for something other that what we can do with our noses or writs or toes, but some of us are so enamoured with uniqueness that we'd do just about anything to achieve it.

Some of us take huge fashion risks. Others like unique cars. Others paint their homes - inside and out - in colors that may best be described in polite company as "interesting".

I've had several discussions with friends about why the Brothers Tsarnaev planted not one but two improvised explosive devices - or "IEDs," homemade bombs that were designed to maim - at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Besides various theories about religious (Muslim) and political (Chechnyan/Russian) views, the general consensus seems to be that they wanted to be known for being "The Boston Marathon Bombers".

Really? Does the human ego contain the potential for such weakness and distortion that otherwise "good people" who believe in and regularly worship God and love their mother and honor their father and excel at sports and apply for citizenship in this country and attend college on scholarship will cross the line and commit acts of heinous evil so as to leave three people dead (including an 8 year old boy) and over 200 people seriously injured - many with amputations of their lower limbs?

I suppose the theory has its possibilities.

Both boys came to this country after fleeing their war-torn home in Chechnya with their parents and two sisters. God only knows what they saw and experienced during that war. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, was eight at the time and is described by his father as "an angel". The older brother, Tamerlan, was was fifteen at the time and is described as a "misfit" by some of his friends. An uncle living in Maryland calls both boys "losers". Both parents are now living back in Russia where the mother says she believes both boys are innocent and were "set up" by the FBI.

No clues there, right?

Certainly, there walk among us obviously disturbed children and young adults, like Adam Lanza, the young man who took his mother's semi-automatic rifles into a school in Newtown, CT and killed 26 children and their teachers.

And who can forget the image of James Holmes the young man in Aurora, CO who sat in court in his maroon prison jump suit and pink hair muttering quietly to himself after killing 12 and wounding 70 people in a movie theater?

But, what of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold - the two young men who committed the massacres at  Columbine High School in CO?  Their senior pictures in their high school year book reveal the images of two smiling young men, breached on a bright future filled with promise and not the two who, together, killed 13 people and injured 24.

In Andrew Solomon's book, "Far from the Tree," a mother of a schizophrenic says with a sigh, “I was a lot more frivolous before I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of mental illness.”

I am often haunted by that sentence.

Bill Maher's take on the whole thing is this: “Isn’t the takeaway here that there are many bad things that can happen in the world, for many bad reasons, but the winner and still champ is religion?”

Is that it? Or, is that just the sarcastic sentiment of a man who has made a movie panning religion?

There's a part of me that wants to take every "good quiet kid" in for questioning. I mean, I'm not really worried about the kid who peels the tires of his car up the street. Neither am I really worried about the kids - tall, skinny, pimple-faced, jeans hanging past the point of decency on their butts, chain smoking each other's cigarettes - who congregate outside my local CVS.

I think they're just being "normal kids". It's the "good quiet kids" I worry about.

Here's my point - and, I do have one, in case you were wondering: I think there's a place in all of us which knows - or desperately fears - that we are, to the rest of society, 'losers'.  We all harbor this abiding sense that we are "nerds" or "misfits" or "queers" who otherwise don't fit in with the "cool kids" and will never - ever - get invited to sit with them at "their" table in the cafeteria.

I think even the "cool kids" set themselves apart from the rest because they are desperately afraid that we might discover that they are just like the rest of us. One of them even plays tunes on her nose and another can contort his fingers and toes and writs into weird positions.

That's not to excuse the horrific and horrendous acts that happened last week in Boston. It is, however, to try and wrap my brain around the central theological question of that tragedy: Why do seemingly good people commit acts of evil?

Obviously, I don't have my brain wrapped completely around the answer.  I don't know that I ever will, actually. People have been chasing the answer to that question for centuries.

Me? I paint my toes blue.  I take comfort that I'm not the only person in the world with her toes painted blue. My good friend in Boston does, as well.

There's an odd sort of comfort in being a little weird - okay, maybe even more than a little weird. You might even say, "Queer".  "Frivolous" is okay, too.

But, I'm not the only one.

Which may just make all the difference in keeping those of us who try to be "good people" on this side of the line of wherever it is we call "sanity" in a world whose geographical lines of madness seem to grow more and more blurry.

I just follow my blue toes.

Which, interestingly enough, usually lead me to Jesus. Who, I'm thinking, would have let Mary Magdalene paint his toes blue in his day. Oh, yes he would. In honor of his mother.

If you think that's weird, there's a seat waiting for you in the cafeteria where the "cool kids" sit.

Enjoy the illusion. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Walk humbly. Love mercy. Do justice.

"RJ Connections" is the weekly newsletter of RCRC ("Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice").
I'm especially excited about this edition which not only gives you a peek into the vitality of the work done by RCRC (Go, Harry Knox!) but also the theological foundation on which the work is done.

I love that we are using the narrative of people's lives as the source of power to transform lives. I especially love what Angela Ferrell-Zabala says about RCRC being the bridge between people and communities ("It’s incumbent on us to live into our goal of reproductive justice by listening to each community, and bring in resources and support to help amplify the work that is already being done.") and what Rob Keithan has to say about the Blues and the work of justice.

I've not read a better articulation of the work of a religiously-affiliated justice organization.

This is Michael Mitchell, RCRC Director of Communications. Harry is down south with Director of Field Operation, Angela Ferrell-Zabala and Director of Public Policy Rev. Rob Keithan, but wanted to make sure that we let you know what they were up to. When I caught up with them by phone, they were on the road from southeast Mississippi toward Jackson and were all recovering from an incredible feast that was pulled together for their visit. I had to sit through a minute or so of Harry going on about a life-changing gumbo and fried turkey.

MM: What are you doing down in Mississippi?

HK: As RCRC retools our work in order to deepen and expand it, we have decided to work this year in five strategic states: Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi. In the first two states, Ohio and Wisconsin, we have strong affiliates and we are supporting them in raising faithful voices against measures aimed at severely limiting access to comprehensive sex-ed, contraception and access to compassionate abortion care. We know that opponents to women’s self-determination and access to healthcare are targeting these five states and using their very conservative legislatures and governors as laboratories for new, restrictive legislation.

RCRC’s deep dedication to working with women of color and people living with poverty means that the three other states are naturals for us. In Florida and Mississippi, we’re building on work we did in the last couple of election cycles.

MM: Angela, you’ve spent a lot of time personally in Florida and Mississippi in the last few years. What have you learned that informs the work you’re doing to build power on the ground now?

AFZ: There are two big things that I pulled from that work. First, our approach has to be customized and come from the needs of the community. By that, I mean we cannot jump on a plane from DC, land in Mississippi or any other state with a plan written in stone under our arm, and throw it down for them to execute. Strategies coming out of Washington are not going to apply to local communities. Second, we cannot write off a place based on the hype that we hear from the media or current legislators in power. If we followed that formula, we would only be working in places where progressive issues already have a strong foothold. It’s incumbent on us to live into our goal of reproductive justice by listening to each community, and bring in resources and support to help amplify the work that is already being done.

When people aren’t connected to each other, the work feels very heavy. RCRC can be a convener of people who may not already be connected, and create a safe space for folks to really talk about the challenges and pull together our resources so solutions are customized to local challenges. RCRC’s faithful voice is a beautiful thing in those situations, as we can serve as a bridge between people and communities.

We’re creating a shared commitment, a shared strategy and a shared narrative.

MM: That’s really powerful stuff!

AFZ: It is powerful! It really is what wakes me up every morning to get to work. What drives me is being able to meet these people in their communities. When we’re sitting around the table sharing a meal with old and new friends, it’s a very spiritual thing. We’re building relationships, we’re building community.

MM: Rob, what’s your take on organizing in the South?

RK: The blues offers us a great model for both theology and organizing.

MM: Really?

RK: Oh yeah. A local blues historian from Jackson told us yesterday that old blues songs didn’t have a single writer, but were created by a community with each person adding their piece so that it was a living product owned by the whole community. What we’re here in Mississippi to do is find partners in the struggle and add RCRC’s unique piece.

We know policy change here and in other places is going to take time, and the only way we’re going to get there is through strong relationships, partnerships and collaboration. Amazing people are already doing courageous work here with limited resources. I’ve been so humbled on this trip to see the heart and soul that people put into our movement. We’re here to connect and amplify, not tell them what to do.

MM: How does this translate into policy change?

RK: It’s pretty simple. When people work in community and connect through each other’s stories, they access a great power that can then be directed to elected officials and other folks in power to make change. This trip is a good reminder of the power of local communities to make change.

It may take time, but change will indeed happen.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Boston, you're my home

I love Boston.

No matter where I live, Boston will always be my "home".

"I'm from Boston." That's usually how I introduce myself to strangers, even though I was born in Fall River, MA.  Who knows about Fall River, except the association with Lizzie Borden "who had an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she she had done, she gave her father 41"?

Besides, I spent most of my young adult life somewhere in the City of Boston - well, when I wasn't somewhere on one of the beaches and towns of Cape Cod.

When I was in nursing school, I did most of my specialty rotations at one of the many fine hospitals in Boston - Pediatrics at Boston Children's. OB-GYN at Boston Floating. Oncology at Dana Farber. Neuro at Mass General.

My senior paper was titled "Mass General Hospital Neuro-Surgical Unit: 101 Reasons Why It Should Be Shut Down." Long story short: I got an A+.

My undergraduate and graduate studies were in Cambridge, MA, a 20 minute ride on The "T" into Boston. I was a seminarian for two years and a deacon for 6 months at St. John's, Bowdon St., near Government Center and down from Beacon Hill in Boston.

The first time I went to a gay bar - no, not a lesbian bar; back in the day gay men and lesbians didn't 'mingle' much - was in Boston. I went with a group of fellow nursing students because we knew we could just have a drink after our shift and wouldn't be 'hit on' by the gay men there.

Later - much, much later - I would go to my first lesbian bar. In Boston. South End. Of course.

As a child, I loved going to the Fenway with my father and uncles and cousins to watch the Boston Red Sox play. We sat in the "cheap seats". $2.50 for kids. $5 for adults. Out in the open sun. Not far from the "Green Monster".

And, when you ordered a hot dog, you had your choice of ketchup, mustard, relish, mayo AND fresh, chopped onions.  Forget the "Curse of the Bambino". I swear, since they stopped serving fresh, chopped onions on dogs, the BoSox have been cursed.

Back in the late 60s and early 70s we sang "Dirty Water" during the 7th inning stretch - a a mock paean to the city of Boston and its then-famously polluted Boston Harbor and Charles River.  Many a time, I came home from a game and didn't have a voice for the next three days from singing (and, bumping and grinding in the stands) to that song.

"Frustrated women, have to be in my 12 o'clock (Women - but not men - in certain colleges and universities like ours had a midnight curfew)....... Oh, oh, Boston you're my home."

Now that the Harbor and the River Charles have been cleaned up, folks at the Fenway sing "Sweet Caroline" at the bottom of the 8th Inning. That's an ode to the Kennedy's of Boston - especially Caroline Kennedy, who threw out the first pitch at the 100th anniversary game at Fenway Park – the oldest ballpark in major league baseball – on April 20, 2012, a hundred years after her great-grandfather, Boston mayor "Honey Fitz," threw out the ceremonial pitch of the first-ever baseball game at Fenway.

I thought it was pretty classy when the NY Yankees joined every other member of Major League Baseball parks coast to coast and sang "Sweet Caroline" during their game, Tuesday night, as an act of solidarity with their rivals, the Boston Red Sox. 

I do believe that's the nicest thing I've ever said about the NY Yankees. That's because that's the nicest thing I think the Yankees have ever said or done for my BoSox.

It may not ever happen again, but that's the thing about tragedies, isn't it? The worst in others often brings out the best in us.

Here's the thing about Boston: Take away all the students - who study everything from medicine to business to science to politics to engineering to music to theology - and all the tourists, and what you've got left is just a sleepy backwater town.

There are still neighborhoods with strong identities - The Italian North End. Chinatown. The Irish in Southie. The African Americans in Roxbury. The Afro-Caribbeans and newly upwardly mobile in Dorchester. The three-piece-pin-stripped-suit-Lacoste-shirted-Lily-Pulitzer-dressed-WASPS and Yuppies and Buppies Guppies on Beacon Hill. The melting pot of ethnicity and culture in Jamaica Plains. The LGBT people and passionately liberal in the South End.

Yes, you can still go to an Irish neighborhood bar in Southie and parts of Dorchester and watch the hat passed to collect money to support the IRA "back home". And, yes, you can still hear racist language and see evidence of institutionalized racism in the transportation structures of the "T".

Like I said, underneath the sophisticated sheen of prestigious medical schools and universities and the polish of the high-end shops on Newbury St., Boston is really just a sleepy backwater town.

But, when it comes to what happened at the Boston Marathon on Monday - Patriot's Day. Tax Day - well, I think this particular terrorist picked on the wrong town.

We're scrappy. We're tough. Solid blue collar at the core, with all the attendant values of hard work and fair play and an appreciation for differences - just in their own place.

Yes, yes. When this terrorist is caught - and, make no mistake: he/they WILL be caught (but not quickly enough for anyone's liking) - and he/they'll spout off the usual political-religious insanity in "defense" of this heinous act of cowardice, we'll all roll our eyes and then roll up our sleeves and continue planning for next year's marathon.

And, don't expect anybody from Boston to be giving up any of his or her civil liberties in the name of "protection" of its citizenry any time too soon.  We got "cops". We expect them to do their job without taking away our liberties.

Yeah, this "nut job" may have gotten away with this atrocity. This time.  We may be a sleepy backwater town, but we also have a long history of dealing with treason and terror.

We're the people who threw all the tea in the Boston Harbor, remember? We were some of the original readers to be inspired by  Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis" pamphlet series (AKA "Common Sense"), which, when I was a kid, was required reading by every 6th Grader in the MA public school system. It begins with these words:
These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.
Yup, we got that.  It's in our DNA.

So, please join me in prayer for my home town. In a way, Boston is every American's "home town". The sparks of the freedom and independence we enjoy today and protect so fervently were ignited there. The American Revolution began there. The spirit of "liberty and justice for all" still lives there.

In the fabric of the soul of this country, we're all Bostonians.

It's not going to be easy to recover from this assault and insult to our identity, but we will.

With everyone's help and prayers, we will.

Boston, you're our home.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Hank and Rhoda

One of the really amazing parts of Hospice work is being invited into the stories of people's lives.

Like, Hank and Rhoda.

Well, that's not their real names, and I've concealed their real identities to protect them, but they could be one of many couples in the western part of Sussex County.

Or, any part of rural America, really.

In fact, I had never met either one of them before Hank died, but I was called in to officiate at Hank's funeral.  That happens sometimes in Hospice chaplaincy. People suffer with chronic illness, take a sudden turn for the worse and then, two, three days later, they're gone.

The family is stunned by the loss - and, stunned because they are stunned by the loss. And then, just as suddenly, there's a funeral to plan and nobody knows what to do.  Somebody asks, "Can the Hospice Chaplain help us?" and the next thing I know, I'm having phone conversations with relatives that begin with a sincere expression of condolence at the loss of this wonderful person and become filled with laughter and tears as amazing stories spill out about the deceased and their family.

The first thing one of his relatives told me was that Hank had worked for the same company for 36 years. Can you imagine that, he asked? Thirty-six years with the same company? It does seem pretty remarkable, especially these days, but I think that says something about Hank as well as that company, don't you? 

The second thing I was told was that Hank and Rhoda had been married for 57 years. Imagine that? Fifty-seven years with the same person. The person who told me this said it with a mixture of astonishment and yet like this was exactly how things were supposed to work but didn't so much anymore and he was a sad that it had all come to an end.

I was also told Hank enjoyed fishing, crabbing, riding motor cycles, shooting sporting clays and traps and had won many turkeys and hams for the freezer in trap shooting contests.

He had also worked as an assistant scout master, raising two of his sons to eagle scout. He loved tinkering in the garage with small scale airplanes and other craft projects - some, his niece explained with a laugh, he would finish and some are still in the garage. 

Sounded like your average, everyday remarkable human life to me.

Of all the stories I heard about Hank - this man I never met - these two about Hank and Rhoda became the bookends of all the stories of their 57 years of married life together.

Hank met Rhoda when he was 19 and she was 12. Rhoda was on vacation with her family in DE and when she and her two sisters walked to the dance hall they went by Hank's house where he was outside washing his car.

At the end of her vacation, Rhoda went back home to PA and Hank went into the Navy. At the end of his Navy career, he was stationed in Philadelphia and decided, just on a whim, to look up Rhoda.

He went to the addresses he had for her only to find that her family had moved. Hank started calling everyone with her last name that was listed in the phone book (remember those?), asking them if they had a daughter Rhoda. He called and called and called all day and into the evening until he found her.

He surprised her one night when she was leaving her job at the A&P store and showed up in his Navy uniform and won Rhoda's heart. At the time Rhoda was "engaged" but once she saw Hank in his Navy uniform, she broke off her engagement with the other guy and "Hank and Rhoda have been together ever since".

The second story is one that is more recent. A few years ago, Rhoda need to be admitted to a local skilled nursing facility for a few weeks of IV antibiotics. Once she had the does of medicine, she was allowed to come home for a few hours and had to be back to the facility by bedtime.

Hank was always used to Rhoda taking care of him, so when she came home he still expected her to clean the house, do the laundry and cook his meals. One day, while she was home, they had a disagreement and he was fussing and she decided that she was not coming home for the day anymore until she was discharged because she was just not able to do the regular houseowrk and he just did not understand.

That night, he called his daughter and daughter in law and wanted a family meeting. He wanted an explanation of what exactly was wrong with Rhoda and why she was mad with him and then, his family told me, he cried. His "girls" told him that maybe he needed to do something special for Rhoda to show her he loved her and they suggested flowers.

Hank became very upset. "She knows I love her and I have never bought flowers in fifty some years and I am not going to start now," he thundered.

Well, Rhoda wasn't going to give in either. She wasn't going to come home until Hank apologized.

The next morning, Hank called the florist and ordered "a dozen of their prettiest roses and he said he didn't care what the cost was". Then, he took the roses and his cane and went unsteady to the second floor of the Skilled Nursing Facility where Rhoda was staying.

The story was that no one was certain who cried more - Hank or Rhoda - but Rhoda called the girls that evening, crying happy tears and saying "in 50 plus years he's never given me flowers, much less roses."

The girls said, "This story just goes to prove that it's never too late to give flowers and tell someone that you love them."

Well, yes. That is one thing that story just goes to prove.

I think it also goes to prove that love comes in all different kinds to many different kinds of people, but the kind that holds a marriage together for 50 plus years is not necessarily the romantic love that first brought them together.

That's a much more complicated and complex mixture that grows stronger over time and having three kids together and doing projects in the garage and riding your motorcycle and cooking meals and doing laundry and going to trap shoots and winning hams and turkeys for your family freezer.

Even so, I've learned that the only three words stronger than "I love you" are the words, "I am sorry".

Add a dozen roses to the mix and you get a love story that is as timeless and eternal and extraordinary as it is everyday and commonplace.

The story of Hank and Rhoda is just one of those love stories. 

And I - lucky me - get the chance to tell a piece of it. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2013


It's been said that she was a "Mouseketeer's Mouseketeer." She was America's quintessential "girl next door." She described herself as "the queen of teen".

Yes, Annette Funicello was all that.

Then again, it was a different time in America, when you could, in fact, be all that. 

Her sweet, innocent face, deep-brown doe-eyes and soft voice captured something about pre-adolescence in the 50s and adolescence in the 60s that spoke to a generation of young people who watched her grow up as one of Walt Disney's Mouseketeers.

Actually, she was the last of the 24 original Mouseketeers chosen for “The Mickey Mouse Club,” the immensely popular children’s television show that began in 1955, when fewer than two-thirds of households had television sets.

Before long, she was getting more than 6,000 fan letters a week, and was known by just her first name in a manner that later defined celebrities like Cher, Madonna and Prince.

She is also known for the "Beach Blanket Bingo" movie series with Frankie Avalon. 

It was "good clean fun," said producer Walt Disney - who begged Annette to call him "Uncle Walt" but she insisted on "Mr. Disney" - with a little dash of spice. 

Bikinis were worn - well, okay, a two piece bathing suit - but no exposed navels. And, certainly no 'thigh high' cuts to the leg. Not even any real cleavage - except around the toes.

It was a different time.

It was a time when "fairness" was still something that was a goal in life - from relationships to negotiation.

We had no idea that "fairness" was also part of the Disney fantasy.  That, in fact, life wasn't fair.

I sent her a letter once. Really. She had that kind of personality with whom a young girl like me felt an easy rapport.  As I recall, I asked her advice concerning one of my younger sisters who, quite simply, hated me.

No, really. Far as I know, she still does. 

She stole my clothing and jewelry - not to wear for herself but to destroy it just so I wouldn't have it. She would order things in my name out of catalogs - like books or purses or trinkets - and giggled wickedly as I argued with my mother that I didn't - honest to God! - order that item and pleaded with her to help me to return it.

Finally, my mother caught on but for a couple of months, it was pretty awful. I was the oldest and had no one to whom to turn for advice. Annette was as close to an older sister as I was going to get.

So, I wrote to her and asked her advice.

I wish I had kept my letter to her and hers to me. I don't remember the exact content of either letter. What I do remember is my letter being distraught and desperate and, no doubt, dramatic. I remember her letter being kind and gentle and filled with practical advice and encouragement.

And, I remember it was hand-written. Honest!

What I remember most is that Annette advised that I not be "mean back" to my sister.  She said something like, "You are older than her and it wouldn't be fair. She'll eventually grow up and be as mature as you. You just keep your head high and set a good example for her."

Well, she was wrong, but it was absolutely what I needed her to say.

Well, at the time. She called me to all the ideals embodied in being a Mouseketeer: Fair. Mature. Holding your head high. Setting a good example for others.

Annette has suffered for the past 25 years with multiple sclerosis, a cruel, debilitating disease that robbed her of simple dignities like the ability to feed or dress herself, or talk.

All that sweetness and innocence and talent.

It just wasn't fair.

Then again, as we later learned, life isn't fair.

"Fair" was only life on television for 30 or 60 minutes at a time on programs like "The Mickey Mouse Club" - or for a little more time in movies like "Beach Blanket Bingo". 

Where fairness was part of the fantasy. 

And, it was a different time in America. 

I sure do miss Annette and all she represented.

I think I have - and will - for a very long time.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Plan A: Pay Attention

Headlines of news on the Reproductive Justice front screamed across two continents yesterday, which was enough to rouse my brain to full attention, foggy as it was with medications helping me recover from this bout of bronchial pneumonia.

There are actually three bits of news I've been considering.

The first news item is that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is putting up $100,000 to the best proposal for a more fun and pleasurable condom. The competition is part of its Grand Exploration Challenges, which has already doled out nearly $50 million for quirky but effective solutions to global health problems, like microwaves to treat malaria and an electronic nose to detect tuberculosis.

Okay, before you dismiss this as very rich people having way too much fun with money, let me rush to point out one thing about about condoms: They're cheap, discreet and can actually help prevent sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, as well as pregnancy.

They've been used effectively for centuries. The problem is that they are not used consistently because men say they interrupt the pleasure of sex. ("Like taking a shower with your clothes on." Or, so I've heard.). So the Gates Foundation is calling for new shapes, materials and packaging that "significantly preserve or enhance pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use."

I'm actually quite taken by the Origami Condom. Shaped like miniature accordions, the company's website claims that "these silicone rubbers fit loosely and aim to simulate the feeling of sex without a condom".

They also boast a 2.8 seconds "application time," says the website, which presumably means they go on easily.

Yes, well, right. Of course. That would be important. Of course.

Moving on in the news.......

In France, women are now entitled to a full reimbursement for the cost of their abortion and girls aged 15-18 are also guaranteed free birth control (both for the contraceptive pill and the implant).

This is major news - on both sides of the issue.

For those on the Religious Right, this is not an issue of public health, it is a major issue of morality and ethics. These Good Christian Folk bemoan that the government is not only playing "executioner" to the "unborn," but now also allowing their daughters to have sex whenever they wish, without having to consider the consequences and be the "moral barometers" of society to hold young men under some "restraint".

I am not making that up. That's the argument. Really.

For feminists and liberals, this is a major victory, giving women of childbearing age control of her own reproductive health. This is important on many, many levels, but especially because of the socio-political recognition that women still struggle to attain financial equality with men. As long as that playing field is not level, all others - including the freedom to have access to contraception and abortion - are not equal. When you live in a country like France where there is Socialized Medicine, allowing reimbursement for abortion care makes sense.

Since increasing access to birth control has consistently been shown to reduce abortion rates, French authorities are expecting to see a drop in the amount of women requiring abortions now that the law is effective.

Of course, others are predicting that, now that abortions are "free", everyone will want them - even those who hadn't considered it before. Or, if you've had one before, you'll want another.

You know, like free refills for your coffee or soda at fast food restaurants. You can hardly finish the cup you're drinking, just thinking about the fact that that next cup will be FREE!

Which is no doubt why, when the bill passed in October, the Minister of Health, Marisol Touraine, explained that it was a "public health choice" and she took the opportunity to remind people that abortion is "never a trivial act" for women.

Because, apparently, some people do need to be reminded of that.

Finally came the news on Friday that a US Federal Judge from the Eastern District of New York ordered that the most common morning-after pill be made available over the counter for all ages, instead of requiring a prescription for girls 16 and younger.

Not only that, Judge Edward R. Korman poked his finger right into the middle of the hornet's nest and accused the Obama administration of putting politics ahead of science. He concluded that the administration had not made its decisions based on scientific guidelines, and that its refusal to lift restrictions on access to the pill, Plan B One-Step, was “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.” 

He is right, of course. It was politics, unpure and complicated as politics always is. Or, in the judge's words, "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable."

At the time of the decision, Mr. Obama was campaigning for reelection. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that the manufacturer had failed to provide clinical evidence that the drug was safe for children under age 11, about 10% of whom are physically able to bear children.

A weak argument, to be sure, which might have been convincing if she and the FDA had not approved the large scale administration of the HPV vaccine to 10-11 year old girls, even though the vaccine manufacturer conducted exactly ZERO studies on the negative effects of the HPV vaccine on that young age group.

The folks from the Religious Right are predictably hysterical. You may remember Michele Bachmann's breathless report of the story told to her by the mother of "the poor little girl" who "felt forced" to allow her child to have the HPV vaccine and "now she has mental retardation".

These folks will stop at absolutely nothing. Not perpetuating ignorance. Not pandering to pseudoscience. Not fanning the flames of anxiety and fear.


The folks on the Religious Right have always called "Plan B" the "abortion pill". It is not.

RU-486, sold as Mifeprex, is a prescription drug for medical abortion. Mifeprex is used after a woman is already pregnant. Plan B is an emergency contraceptive. It is used to prevent pregnancy.

It does not "abort" a fetus because, 72 hours after unprotected, unplanned sexual intercourse, there is yet no fetus to abort.  Plan B prevents pregnancy from happening in much the same way that other oral contraceptives do.

Plan B acts primarily by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary. It may prevent a sperm from fertilizing the egg. If fertilization does occur, Plan B may prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb. If a fertilized egg is implanted prior to taking Plan B, Plan B will not work and pregnancy proceeds normally.

It's not rocket science. It's biology. It's the way the reproductive system has worked since the beginning. Nothing has changed except we now have a deeper understanding of how the human body works - including our ability to reproduce. 

Again, the issues surrounding this decision are fraught with overlays of religion and morality and conversations about parental control and responsibility. 

Which brings me to a point I want to make about all of this.

None of these things - Condoms, Government subsidized abortion and contraception, and emergency Plan B contraception available without prescription to anyone young woman who needs it - will ever replace Plan A: Education and Awareness. For parents and their children.

Yes, "boys will be boys" - and "girls will be girls". Adolescence will always be a dangerous time of pushing and testing boundaries and exploring identity and experimentation.  Even parents and kids with the best, open relationship will have difficulty discussing issues of human sexuality in general and sex in particular.

Here's the thing: The best parental responsibility is to teach our children responsibility by modeling that behavior. And, that includes allowing them a "Plan B" to which they have free access when they make a mistake - just as adults sometimes do.

Boys and men must take responsibility for their own behavior, just as girls and women. But, it's not women who are responsible for the morality of men, much less the whole of society. We all are. That includes providing medical prophylactic alternatives for reproductive choices for women and men - including condoms which men might actually use consistently as well as a medicine like Plan B which women can use when that is deemed necessary or imperative.

I'm sure of one thing: The personal will always be political, and there ain't nothing more personal than a woman's reproductive system.  Which is why it will always be political.

And, it's why news like this will always catch my attention, no matter where I am or how good or bad I'm feeling.  The progress in Reproductive Rights has always been the most difficult to achieve and the most tenuous to maintain.

Vigilance and persistence are key to preventing further erosion of the progress we've been able to make over the last 50 years since the Birth Control Pill was made widely available.

Which is why my personal "Plan A" is to pay attention. Always. And, everywhere.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Random acts of illness

Yes. I have pneumonia. Recovering, actually. Enough to have the strength to sit up and write this.

Oh, I've been sick before. Back stuff, mostly. And, some very bad colds - maybe even the flu, once - where you just feel more miserable than actually sick-unto-death.

I have never had pneumonia. I wouldn't recommend it. Ever.

See that symptom chart above? I had every single one of those symptoms.

Every. Single. One.

The high temps are the worst. 102.2. Feeling so cold on the inside and yet burning up on the outside causing your whole body to have a bad case of the shivery-shakes.  And then, in the middle of the night, when the fever breaks, you wake up in a cold pool of your own sweat.

Lovely. Um, not.

It's the worst - exceeded only by the fear that, as you listen to yourself wheeze and feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest, you are going to die. And then, you're afraid you won't die.

No, no. Wait. The worst is feeling like your arms have turned to stuffed sausage and every joint in your body - from your jaw to your elbows to your knees and feet - hurt.  Which makes you nauseous.

No, no. Wait. The worst is feeling all of this and hearing your doctor say, "You have to drink 8 glasses of water a day. You can't let the mucous get caught in your lungs or it will turn to cement."

And so, sick as you are, and as difficult as it is to breathe, as difficult as it is to remember the count (Was that the fourth or fifth?), you "push fluids". And, run to the bathroom every 20 minutes.

Despite my allergies, I have a pretty strong immune system. I take a daily multi-vitamin, plus supplemental Vitamin B, C and D as well as Calcium. I get regular exercise, good amounts of sleep and I eat quite well, thank you very much.

My doc says that I probably picked something up on the non-stop airplane trip I made to LA to see one of our daughters a week ago. That clearly wasn't helped by my allergies which went into overdrive with all the Easter lilies on the altar last Sunday.

So, here's the thing - the point of this blog post:  I know people who have had pneumonia. I know it used to kill people. Still does, in some places in the world. Today? In this country? Why, all you need is a good antibiotic, maybe some steroids, an inhaler, and, oh, yeah, lots of fluid.

I've been pretty blase about pneumonia. I mean, it's a very treatable illness with an extraordinarily high recovery rate. I am so sorry if I have been dismissive of those of you who have suffered with pneumonia in the passt.

I never knew that even the relatively short time from diagnosis to treatment to recovery could be so miserable. And, sometimes the parts of the treatment seem worse than the disease.

Oh, you probably never felt dismissed. At least, I hope not. I know how to be empathic. I've discovered that sympathy is better than empathy. Much better. I mean, empathy is a good thing, truly, but there's nothing like someone who has gone through what you're going through to really hear you and understand and communicate that understanding.

And, now, I can be even more authentic as I sit with you when have pneumonia. Which I hope never happens, but if it does, I'm your girl.

Maybe that's the point of this whole episode in my life. And, it must have a point. I mean, it couldn't just be a random thing, right? Like, I just happened to be sitting on a plane in the very seat where the person before me was harboring pneumonia, or breathing in the recycled air where someone on the plane was coughing and sneezing and I just happened to get it for absolutely no reason at all.

Look, I "do" randomness. I love randomness. I think randomness enhances life, if we are open to it and let it in. Yes, even the bad stuff.

I just don't believe randomness doesn't have a point or a lesson. That, in fact, is the best thing about randomness. It's like a pop quiz the universe hands you - except when the universe gives you a pop quiz, the only "right answer" is the lesson you learn from the experience.

So, that's why I wrote this post.

Oh, and because I got to complain and whine for a few minutes.

It's annoying, I know, but I'll tell you what: It's just as effective but feels much better than having to drink 8 glasses of water a day.

Random acts of illness. Just one of the universe's 'pop quizzes' where the only way to fail is to not learn the lesson it brought you. 

I thought that up all by myself. 

Which just goes to show what weird thoughts can flow through a water-logged brain after drinking 8 glasses of water a day.

Oh, and insufferable boredom.