Sunday, June 6, 2021

Joys and Concerns: Guy in a Wheelchair


About a month ago I was visiting a patient at a facility that recently reopened to me. We were sitting in one of the common rooms, chatting, watching TV together. A resident I didn't know was wheeling by and as he passed the door he said, "Chip? Chip Mahr?" I said, "No, I'm Bob," and showed him my badge and repeated, "I'm Bob, I'm the chaplain."

He came in and said, "Your name's not Mahr? You're not related to him?" I said, "I don't think so." Then he started talking about how much he enjoyed living at the facility and what good care they took of him. He was younger than the usual resident, late 60s, early 70s, and looked in fairly good shape. He mentioned that his house was visible from one end of the facility.

At some point, he made reference to what brought him there. "Just this January, this happened," and he dropped his head to show a large impression, like someone had stamped it, in his skull. His hair was just starting to cover it over. "I was just walking down the street and the next thing I know I'm waking up in March at the hospital. I had slid on some ice on the sidewalk and been knocked out. Brain bleed, coma, all the good stuff." He was pretty okay with it, he said. He had lived alone and didn't have any family and now he was here and they were making up his new family. He repeated that the food was good and they took great care of him.

I asked what he had done for work and he said he'd delivered packages. "Here 's the funny thing. I used to deliver to places like this and I'd walk in and I didn't know anyone. But pretty soon someone would come up to me and just start talking. I'd end up sticking around longer just to talk to them, you know, they didn't have any family or friends visiting, so I just felt good talking to them about anything. And now here I am, one of those guys I used to talk to."

Working in hospice, we often deal with people who have been ill for a while or whose ailment has been apparent and can be traced back. But it isn't always that way. Sometimes what changes our lives is as simple as an unseen patch of ice that puts us in the position of our patients. As with a lot of things, that's neither good nor bad. No warning, sudden change. It happens. I'm not suggesting we keep an eye peeled for the unexpected, that'll drive you nuts. Just being aware it can happen to us and the people we love is sobering.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Flashy queer stuff


A new patient this morning, a retired funeral home director, said to me something along the lines of, When you're older you start reminiscing more often. He thought it was funny that, some 20+ years younger than him, I was already doing that. But it's true that much of my time while driving or doing crosswords is spent with the equivalent of 16mm film clacking in the back of my head. 

In 1973, I was a fat, ungainly, probably acned tween, although the term wasn't used then, on the way from middle school to high school. In the next year I'd start acting in school productions, reading pulp novels, and lose my virginity. But at 13 I was just a schlub who, on Friday nights, stayed up late to watch The Midnight Special. 

Most of the artists they played were pretty good, if not terribly innovative. I mean, I was just starting to listen to groups like the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan and appreciate the comedy of Monty Python. But Mac Davis and Anne Murray were more the stuff I'd see, and they were all right, although I could hear them in regular rotation on local radio. But in November they played the David Bowie 1980 Floor Show. 

I can't say if I knew Bowie was appearing on that show or not. I'd heard "Space Oddity" of course. It had penetrated even the stodgy AM wasteland of rural upstate New York. There had been something to the sound that appealed to me, so it's possible I was paying attention that he was headlining. 

But the first minutes of the show, a videoed version of the two night farewell to Ziggy Stardust Bowie performed at London's Marquee Club that previous October, did not prepare me adequately for the moment as he began the title song "1984" and two of his backup singers stepped forward to rip the gaudy gauzy costume he was wearing from him to show he was actually wearing a spangled bustier with fishnets and garters and high heels. That moment smacked me across the forehead with a force it would take me decades and my first experiences with LSD to identify as pleasure in the unexpected and unexplainable. 

I would go to bed that night having sat on the edge of my dad's padded rocker for an hour and a half hearing sounds and seeing things I couldn't articulate to anyone. On Monday, no one I knew or asked had remained with the show much beyond the first minutes. "You kidding, that flashy queer stuff? What was that, anyway?"

It was flashy queer stuff, no mistaking. And while my response was not equal to the imagined reaction of Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine, it was a solid, rock hard love that's lasted my life since. Bowie's sexually charged pas de deux with strutting Mick Ronson awakened feelings in me I couldn't articulate and certainly couldn't act on for years. My first Bowie was the Changes One album bought that week at Barker's, the local department store that everyone knew had the better selection, and played deep grooves into the nylon. 

Decades later, teaching the Orwell novel, I tried to introduce it and make its messages relatable to classes by playing cuts from Diamond Dogs for them, trying to explain what seeing the songs acted out was like. But it left them staring at me like I was showing them nude photos of their mothers. I suppose some things, like the life-altering media experience one goes through at that certain age, are  untranslatable. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

What is done in the dark will be brought to the light

Over the weekend I was asked what the trial of Derek Chauvin, and the potential if finding him guilty of 2nd degree unintentional murder, 3rd degree murder, and 2nd degree manslaughter, might change anything. And it's to my shame I said, "Nothing."

It isn't exactly true, of course. For Chauvin and his family, for George Floyd's family, for many of the protesters and arguers on both sides of his guilt and complicity, much will change if he's found guilty. But in general nothing will change. It may be jaded but I've lived for 60 years and the number of innocent and guilty people killed by guns has ebbed and flowed but never stopped completely. As a nation, we are too enamored of our weapons to ever give them up. As long as they exist in our homes and garages, they'll get brought into our schools, our churches, our stores and post offices. And they don't need to leave those homes to kill our most innocent or guilty. 

My shame is not the jadedness of that belief of mine but that I have done little to change that long line of murdered dead. The litany of people killed by police is too long to post, even if I wanted to limit it to those killed this weekend, this month, this year. I don't know how long flags have been at half staff this year, but it seems it's been continuous since last summer. It may be that we haven't gone more than a week without flags at half staff. Surely, that's a condemnation of us. Surely, it's a reason we are being cut down. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

We will not be forgiven

 I want to focus on one paragraph in this essay: "These are desperate people who have been waiting for an opportunity to migrate for a long time, so it’s not clear whether that kind of messaging ['don't come to the US, stay and apply for asylum in the future in your home country'] actually resonates." 

When many of us voted for Joe Biden it was in the clear knowledge that, distinct from The Former Guy, he would be amenable to doing the correct, humane thing when it was pointed out his policies were harming people. I continue to believe this. At the very least, the policies mentioned in this article, Biden's sweeping aside building a wall and reuniting separated families, point at a recognition of the basic dignity of asylum seekers. 

But troubling elements remain. No matter how you phrase it, "reports of children in the facilities sleeping on gym mats with nothing but mylar blankets to keep them warm and not being permitted to go outside or take a shower for days at a time" is indefensible. We opposed it under trump. It is wrong no matter who it happens under.

I don't have a solution to what's happening on the border with Mexico. I don't know much about the region or its history, and I don't even speak Spanish. But I recognize wrong and separating families, whether it's done by our government, another government, even by desperate people hoping the sight of a lone child on a bus or with other kids will give that child a better chance at being accepted, is wrong. People in desperation to leave a place where they and their children are at risk will do desperate things. They can be forgiven their desparation. We can't allow their desperation to allow us to do wrong so we look like we are doing something. We will not be forgiven.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Joys and Concerns: Wonderful Life

Part of my work since we've been isolating and locking down is to write a weekly message for the rest of my healthcare team. I call it "Joys and Concerns" after the UU check-in at each service. This is my most recent one. The links aren't in the original because my readers don't have time to click on them.

We reached a couple milestones over the weekend that will have a tremendous effect, I think, on our future. The first is particular to us, as healthcare workers. The US reached the half million mark in covid-19 deaths. Figures from Johns Hopkins University tell us we are at the top of the list of countries with coronavirus deaths, followed by Brazil, at nearly half the number. There are many articles out there helping people to visualize 500,000 people, but I'm going to use an aid that, in our media-saturated culture, might have some power left. It is as if Thanos' snapping his fingers, decimating the universe by half, had happened. Slowly. And to people you know.

The second milestone is also important, and it's relevant to how we think about humanity. NASA safely landed the rover Perseverance on the surface of Mars. Consider the ingenuity that took, the ability to create, not only machines that mathematically make it possible to figure out how to do it, but machines that deliver and release--and this is critical--the rover, full of delicate instruments, without doing it damage. Surely, such creativity, turned to the development of vaccines, has helped us to perhaps cross thresholds undreamt of.

I've been thinking about this song all morning. It's by Black, an especially obscure one-hit wonder of the 80s. It's kind of schmaltzy, both in its lyrics, its style, and even in the images in its video. But maybe milestones sometimes demand schmaltz.  

Monday, February 15, 2021

Under the Pressure

 Not so long ago someone asked me what songs helped me get through the past 4 years. This is one of them. It was released some 3 years before trump's ascension; nonetheless, the music and the video helped me cope. Particularly in the video, from the intensity of Adam Grunciel's staring out the window, to the near blissful looks on Robbie Bennett's face, it has given me some sense of the historicity of this moment, how it will not last, how we can transcend it. It's harder to explain than I thought it might be. That may be what art that helps you through hard times does, gives you reason to hope in unexplainable ways. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

"And I'll be there with you"

This must not be lost down the memory hole. We risk this violence becoming the norm--as the Senate managers say, "our future"--if we do nothing or minimize it. While it's a certainty, given the numbers of Rethuglicans already on record as saying they will not vote to convict, that trump will not be held to account for his months-long incitement that led to it, his actions and his words must be remembered and their result become infamous.