"My Story Lives is a cornucopia of hope and optimism in the midst of challenging and sometimes dark circumstances. You're doing great work!" Dr. Mel Waldman, Psychologist'

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Dark Journey" -- A Therapist's Life Can be VERY Scary!!

By Dr. Mel Waldman

One day, almost 40 years ago, I was working as a young, innocent counselor in charge of a locked ward in a prison euphemistically called a rehab center.

The patient population consisted of substance abusers and criminals. A patient had been sent upstate to do time. I approached this patient on the ward and naively wished him good luck. Unsophisticated and unaware of the power of words, I unwittingly became a target. The patient went berserk and assaulted me, pummeling me and banging my head against a nearby wall. The security guards took their time coming to my aid.

A month later, something even more horrific happened. I was co-leader of a therapy group. Unfortunately, my partner, a parole officer, was out sick. I ran the group without him and was left alone on the locked ward with a group of desperate men. In the middle of the session, one of the men told me that I was their prisoner. “We are holding you hostage. Give me the keys or we will hurt you.” I looked into the leader’s dark, frenzied eyes and knew my life was in grave danger. I gave him the keys. They escaped from the ward that day but were eventually captured. Even now, I sometimes remember the madness in his eyes and the hot, sizzling threat of death. Sweat pored from my forehead in the claustrophobic room that seemed to get smaller and smaller as it swirled and whirled around in my head.

Of course, the above mentioned incident occurred in an inpatient facility. But I discovered later in my career that both inpatient and outpatient settings often lack adequate safety measures.

Most people, I believe, will automatically acknowledge that police officers, firefighters and soldiers have dangerous jobs. Who would disagree? But there’s another profession that is hazardous and life-threatening and it’s my own.

Yet often, people do not realize the dangers faced by psychotherapists like myself. It is a mysterious profession that anoints its members with the title psychotherapist. This diverse profession includes psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, psychologists, social workers, family therapists and mental health counselors.

Working as a psychotherapist is dangerous for sundry reasons. The process is a dark journey into each patient’s psyche and soul, demanding that the therapist perceive and experience the world as the patient does, at least for the therapeutic hour.

During this dynamic process, the therapist will often hear horrific stories of evil and trauma. Many patients present some degree of danger for the therapist.

With recent changes in outpatient mental health clinics licensed by the Office of Mental Health, psychotherapy patients may carry a long history of substance and alcohol abuse and criminal behavior. These clinics are now mandated to treat these patients. Even therapists in private practice are frequently confronted with patients suffering from severe psychiatric disorders. Moreover, the stereotypical notion of the wealthy Park Avenue psychotherapist treating neurotics is a moribund image. Although there are a small percentage of psychotherapists who treat a rich clientele, they too find themselves treating more disturbed patients.

A few decades ago, a former supervisor, who called himself an existential psychoanalyst illuminated the nature of psychotherapy for me. This kind, paternal man -- a gifted therapist -- is the person who suggested that therapy involves taking a dark journey into the universe of the patient. “It’s an act of courage,” he said. “You’ve got to trust that you can let go and join the patient in his or her reality, knowing that you will return intact at the end of the session. That is, you won’t go mad and you won’t die. During the dangerous metamorphosis that occurs during the therapeutic hour, you won’t lose your identity.”

He compared the seasoned therapist to a great actor who is willing to take enormous risks and explore his or her character completely, even if that means going to the edge of the psychological cliff and confronting one’s own demons. Indeed, any artist has to take risks to achieve something of significance.

Emotions are contagious. And when therapists treat trauma victims and/or survivors, they may experience vicarious trauma. In other words, because of their empathy, they may have some of the same symptoms that their patients experience.

At some point in treatment, many patients induce disturbing thoughts and feelings in the therapist.

As previously noted, therapists now treat violent patients in outpatient mental health clinics and in private practice. These patients pose real physical threats to therapists. And in many clinical settings, there are inadequate safety measures in place.

In the early eighties, I treated an ex-police officer who secretly carried a gun on him during the therapy session. When I discovered that he had brought a gun into the session, I ordered him to lock it up until he completed his therapy. Initially, he refused. Then he agreed to get rid of it. But he postponed doing so. I did not feel threatened by this man. However, my supervisor told me that my life was in danger. What would the patient do when he developed a negative transference toward me? That is, what would happen when he projected negative thoughts and feelings that he had about significant figures in his life onto me? My supervisor ordered me to give the patient an ultimatum. He had to get rid of the gun or the therapy would be terminated. The therapy ended. And I reflected about the defense mechanism of denial. I felt safe but my life had actually been in danger. Now that’s a frightening phenomenon.

In the early nineties, I worked for a large mental health organization in the Bronx. A young therapist I knew had completed his doctorate in psychology and had also met the love of his life. We worked in different clinics in the same building. From time to time, I spoke with him. He seemed happy, especially when his girlfriend moved in with him.

One of his patients overdosed on drugs. Someone found him and called 911. The young therapist blamed himself for his patient’s attempted suicide. In addition, he believed the patient was going to die.

This young therapist committed suicide. His patient lived. For days, months, and perhaps years, I’ve thought about this psychologist who took his own life. What happened in the therapeutic process to make him go over the edge? Could he have been saved?

The dangers of being a psychotherapist are not limited to inpatient settings. They exist in all therapeutic environments. Threats are both external and internal. I recommend in-depth therapy or analysis for all therapists, as well as individualized coping techniques to expel the emotional poisons that therapists inhale during each session. I used to play a lot of tennis and jog. Now, I exorcise my demons by writing murder mysteries and horror stories. Today, psychotherapists are faced with more dangers than ever before. Nevertheless, although the therapy session is a dark journey, I embrace it in an act of courage, trust, and hope.

Dr. Mel Waldman, a regular contributor to MyStoryLives, is a psychologist, writer and singer/songwriter. His stories have appeared in numerous literary reviews and commercial magazines. He can be reached via email at mwaldman18@earthlink.net. Recently, he wrote about his miraculous recovery from a disease doctors had said was fatal.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Journey We Take Together -- Part Two


Note to Readers: For many weeks now, writer Alexander "Sandy" Prisant has been writing a very moving series, "The Journey We Take Alone," about his lifelong struggle with illness. Now, his wife, Susan, is writing separately about the adventures they have lived as a couple for the last 47 years (they eloped at age 18.) Part One of this series ran on June 7, 2011.


By Susan Prisant

Now all we had to do was figure out how to actually pull off this wedding thing, finishing what we had started.

Sandy – my husband for the past 47 years – and I had a six-week whirlwind courtship. (Read Part One to catch up on this remarkable story.) And then one fall weekend in 1963 -- wearing white gloves like a proper girl would – I visited Sandy at the University of Wisconsin, where he was a freshman, flunking out because he was so miserably lovesick.

That memorable weekend ended with Sandy proposing in a taxi as we headed to the airport (I was supposed to go home). I accepted. We were 18 years old. And wild about each other.

What did we know about that big world, beyond the dorm’s glass staircase of love? First, we had to concoct a story for the parents, or my father would surely kill us. I could just picture him, waiting at JFK for me, the daughter who was never coming home.

As Sandy and I drove back to the dorm from the airport, abandoning plans for me to fly back to New York, we realized what we had to do: we already felt like we were MARRIED, so now, we had to make it legal! Or at least, that’s what we decided to tell our parents.

Yet the more we thought about it, fear for our lives took over. Sandy found the courage to take the phone and with a strong, confident voice, he said:

“Hello….Dad? Hello, Mr. G.?”

My father was screaming back: “Who is this? Who is this?”

Fortunately, Dad swallowed the whopper. Whole. He believed Sandy when he said we were already married.

Well, we were. Sort of. We were that much in love.

Then we called Joe, Sandy’s father and best friend. In full oratorical splendor, Joe began reciting what sounded like The Gettysburg Address.

Sandy interrupted to keep up the sham: “Dad, I just got married; you’re not addressing the nation!”

It was a dorm mate, John Kirchmeyer, who came to our rescue. He claimed: “Iowa was the place to get married.” What did we know? John took care of all the arrangements. We would leave the next morning, drive to Iowa in his 1952 Chevrolet and sleep at his uncle’s dairy farm.

We piled into the jalopy, drove for hours over snowbound highways, making our journey feel like the first wagon train forging the Mississippi and the Great Plains.

The County Clerk greeted us with a gift pack from the State of Iowa. There was Tide washing powder, Ivory Snow soap, Saran plastic wrap and many other goodies. It was our first wedding present; I was overjoyed.

The clerk began filling out the license: “Susan, your last name and age? Sandy, your given name and age?”

“EIGHTEEN! No, young man, you cannot marry in the State of Iowa.”

The walls were closing in. What were we going to do now? And NO, I’m not giving back my first wedding gift.

We drove back through town—one DX gas station. It was very quiet in the car on the way to the farm. Not married and no idea what to do next.

Our hosts were delighted to welcome the supposed “bride and groom.” Sandy and I sat on opposite sides of the room, praying for an unknown God to help us. We slept that night in the “honeymoon suite.” It was 30 below with a piece of cardboard in place of a window pane.

The next morning we faced the deathly-fearsome drive back to Wisconsin. Now we had to lie to everyone. We were too caught up in this fictional, fantastic fairy tale wedding.

It meant we returned to a huge celebration. An array of gifts and hundreds of people who wanted to be a part of The Story.

Meanwhile, my parents had been invited over to Sandy’s house to discuss this teenage marriage. I could imagine my father’s sober face as he drove down the long driveway. I could practically hear his voice: “No problem. We’re getting rid of our daughter. And they’re rich.”

Joe, with his instantly warm feelings for me, decided that I would always be there for his son. But he wanted my parents to know that Sandy’s delicate health made this marriage a gamble. However, his wise words were: “If you stop them, you will never know if you’ve made the biggest mistake of our lives.”

Having already called home to claim we were married, we now had to get our parents’ consent to actually do it.

Sandy was on the phone with another lie. This time he claimed it was our witness who was underage and the State of Iowa had declared our marriage null and void. But while we agonized over getting consent, our parents were already printing reception invitations.

Our never-ending marriage finally took place in Madison, Wisconsin, at Sandy’s alma mater. November 26, 1963. The wedding was just the first episode in the incredibly exciting adventure we’ve had for almost half a century.

Thanksgiving holiday arrived. We and all the New Yorkers at school piled on the plane as if we were coming home from summer camp, but we grew more and more anxious as we descended the staircase. We moved through long corridors directing us to signs that welcomed us to JFK. Parents seemed as if they were awaiting their children from the long, hot summer days of color war wins. There were smiles and armfuls of hugs and kisses.

And there, separated from the rest of the crowd, stood the two fathers-in-law.

Writer Susan Prisant created interactive reading and writing programs for children, writing eight children's books to use with these programs. The courses she led were sanctioned by the State of California and later, she taught them on the East Coast and also, in the American School in Israel.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is Your Boss REALLY in the Business of Creating Jobs? Or Making Money?


By Richard Kirsch

Spinmeisters for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican politicians like Speaker John Boehner like to call businesses "the job creators." But what every American knows, if he or she thinks about it, is that unless you work for a small business, your boss will only create a new job if there isn't a cheaper option: force you to work longer hours, hire a temp, purchase new technology. Or if you work for a big company, get the work done overseas.

I was thinking about this after reading a recent article in The New York Times ("Companies Push for Tax Break on Foreign Cash"), which described how corporate America wants to be able to slash the taxes it pays on overseas profits that it returns to the United States from 35% to 5.25%. The corporations are selling this as job creation, saying that the billions of dollars they would bring back home will be invested in jobs. Who are they kidding? These are the same companies that are already sitting on nearly $2 trillion in cash, which they clearly are not investing in jobs in the United States. What will they do with the money if they get to bring it back on the cheap? Last time the corporations convinced (translation: "paid") Congress to give them a repatriation holiday, 92% of the cash was rewarded to shareholders in the forms of dividends and stock buybacks.

Even if they did need money to create jobs, there's little chance corporate America would locate those jobs in the United States. Apple has $12 billion in profits waiting offshore to be repatriated, but it's clear that bringing that cash home won't mean more jobs for American workers. Apple's entire U.S. workforce of 25,000 is dwarfed by the 250,000 workers who make Apple products for the Chinese company FoxConn. Apple is far from alone. From 2005 to 2009, IBM expanded its international workforce by 100,000 while cutting 29,000 U.S. Employees. All told, U.S. multinationals cut their U.S. workforces by 2.9 million during the 2000s while adding 2.4 million employees overseas.

Last February, President Obama embarrassed himself by going to the Chamber of Commerce and pleading with corporate executives to invest some of the $2 trillion in cash in the United States. The President appealed to the Chamber to respond to forecasts of "a healthy increase in demand" and invest in job creation. He even declared to the lobbying association that had led the fights to kill his signature achievements in office -- health care and financial reform -- "we're in this together."

No, Mr. President, we're not in this together with corporate America. Corporations are in it to maximize profits and boost CEO salaries, not help the U.S. economy or put people back to work.

With no "healthy increase in demand," on the horizon and unemployment heading back up, the President has talked more about government-led solutions that would actually create jobs in America. Near the end of his address on Afghanistan, and in a full-throated pitch at a Democratic fundraiser in New York City the next evening, Obama called for investments in education, infrastructure, and clean energy at home.

Democratic leaders in Congress have also started to sharpen their focus on the failure of corporations to create jobs at home. Nancy Pelosi's reaction to the Majority Leader Eric Cantor's walking away from budget talks was, "Yes, we do want to remove tax subsidies for big oil, we want to remove tax breaks for corporations that send jobs overseas... "

The Republican leadership in Congress has taken investing in job creating programs and closing corporate tax loopholes off the table in the debt-ceiling negotiations. But if the President is to be reelected, he needs to make it very clear to the American people that he is doing everything he can to create good jobs at home. He should oppose budget-cuts in the debt-ceiling talks that kill jobs, including cuts in education and Medicaid. Moreover, he should insist that any debt-ceiling deal include closing corporate loopholes that encourage profits to be used overseas and invest those savings in measures to create U.S. jobs. And when Republicans charge that doing so would hurt the "job creators" he should ask Americans a simple question: "Is your boss in business to create jobs in the United States, or to make as much money as he can?

Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. His new book, "Fighting for Our Health," will be published in January by SUNY Press. This article appeared first on the Huffington Post and was cross-posted in the Roosevelt Institute blog, called New Deal 2.0.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Flamenco Book Party in Lenox!! What great fun!



Flamenco.
Food.
Sangría.
Fiction.

What great fun Sunday's guitar-book party was in Lenox, MA!

Big thanks to flamenco guitarists Lee Rausch, left, and José Miralles, for making Sunday's flamenco book party such fun! And thanks to all who came!

It was a bustling afternoon in The Bookstore in Lenox, MA. The café there, called "Get Lit," was chock full of visitors drawn to the sweet sounds of alegría, soleares, bulería and other beautiful flamenco melodies.

Thanks to Jo Ann Losinger, who owns the painting, "Shattered Cups," the Seeing Red reading was held in the presence of the marvelous painting by Pittsfield artist Kellie Meisl that adorns the book's cover!! This is a painting with an amazing story behind it!

In the photo below, Kellie (left) enjoys a glass of sangría with Jo Ann (center) and musician Sandy Lord.





Sunday, June 26, 2011

WAS REPORTER JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS WRONG TO LIE AND BREAK THE LAW? What do you think?


Don't miss the New York Times' magazine piece today on Jose Antonio Vargas, the former Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post reporter who admitted this week that he is an undocumented immigrant and that he's been lying for years about his immigration status.

NPR did an interview with Vargas Friday afternoon, and listening to it, I cringed. NPR host Michelle Norris asked Vargas very pointed questions about why he lied; she told him too that he never said "I'm sorry" for all the lying he did over the years.

After hearing the NPR interview, I immediately read the Times' piece, in which Vargas begins by explaining how his mother woke him up one morning in 1993 and when he was 12 years old. With no warning or preparation she handed him a jacket and stuck him in a cab and sent him off to the U.S. to live with her parents. Vargas was in the sixth grade. He proceeded to grow up in Mountain View, California, loving his home and family, and feeling like an American citizen.

Reality struck with a vengeance a few years later: "One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. 'This is fake,' she whispered. 'Don’t come back here again.'"

Vargas tells a heart-wrenching tale that got me close to tears. It's the story of how, for the past 14 years, he's lived a complicated life full of lies and strategies to keep employers and the government from finding out that he is undocumented. To my mind, this is a life he had no choice but to live, as he was trapped in a situation that he hadn't asked for. His solution was to try to be as successful as possible. He writes: "I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it."

One thing is clear: he has worked hard enough. I had the pleasure to meet Vargas in the spring of 2009 when I was teaching a graduate journalism class at Georgetown. Vargas agreed to speak to my class. He was a lively, provocative guest speaker. It was clear to me and others that he was deeply driven. Looking back, and knowing now how tortured he was by his situation, his somewhat frenetic personality makes a lot more sense to me. And I've got a lot of sympathy for him, and the predicament he faced.

By coming clean about his status as an illegal immigrant, Vargas opens himself up to legal prosecution. His lawyers advised him not to go public, but he explains in the Times' article that he is tired of living a lie. "I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore." He also admitted not too long ago that he is gay.

Vargas is what is known as a "Dream Kid," an immigrant children brought to the U.S. as a child, without documentation. The DREAM Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year, failed in the Senate because of the filibuster. The law would give citizenship to young people who are undocumented immigrants who have grown up in the U.S. Vargas says he hopes to help lead the fight to get the DREAM Act passed.

In the NPR interview Michelle Norris challenged Vargas, asking him if this story of his lies and lawbreaking wasn't just going to be about him. Vargas responded: ""This can't be just about me. I'm hoping to use this conversation in a broader sense. I want to look at this issue as holistically as possible and not play political football with it."

Reading the story, I for one think we need to cut Vargas some slack. The fact that he's come forward and confessed took a huge amount of guts. It's a big legal and emotional gamble and I am of the mind that it was the right thing to do. What do you think?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Dear Sandy, Here's a Story of Another Man's Healing Miracle, May It Inspire You!!

Note to Readers: I wasn't planning to post this letter. But it is such a remarkable story, I just had to! I chose to use this image of the Omega Nebula because when I look into the night sky and see the endless stars, I am always astonished at the power of the universe. This nebula measures "several light years across." Incredible. CR


June 25, 2011

Dear Sandy Prisant:

Throughout my life, I’ve had this persistent need to understand why. This relentless need has driven me to develop my scientific mind, dominated by my left hemisphere. But logical thinking did not empower me to explore the really big questions of life. What is the meaning of my life? What is my purpose? Why am I here? Is there a G-d? If G-d exists, what is His nature? Both good and evil seem to exist? Why? Why does a loving G-d permit evil? Is there a loving G-d? Why do good people suffer? Is there life after death?

The universe with all its laws and complexities seems, at times, to be a splendid design created by the Great Designer with intention and inevitability. At other times, it seems to be a whirling, swirling mass of chaos. In my darkest moments, I wonder if the universe is governed by chance and nothing else. What is the truth? For me, the truth lies in my poetic mind, dominated by my right hemisphere.

And when I immerse myself in imagination, an ocean of magnificent waves of illumination, I become connected to a beautiful Source of love and joy and creativity. Thirteen years ago, I embarked on an exciting and life-changing journey. I began my second marriage with a memorable honeymoon in Puerto Rico. We went for long, romantic walks on the beach, inhaled the tropical ambiance, and embraced beneath the sultry sun. I felt strong and healthy and happier than I had been in years. When we returned to Brooklyn, I had a routine appointment with my doctor. He told me he had some bad news. I had a fatal disease.

This esoteric illness was progressive. Over the next few years or sooner, I would become very ill and die a painful death. There were some treatments. But none were effective. And if I underwent these treatments, most likely I would suffer a lot. I wanted to ask him, what do I do? I said nothing. I went home to my bride and waited to die. A few years later, I took a leave of absence from work and began the daily treatments. These treatments were brutal. I became the living dead isolated from the outside world and alienated from my joyous self.

I thought I would die from the treatments. I didn’t. But something else happened. After several months of Hell, I was cured! Cured? I didn’t believe it. My primary care physician didn’t believe it. Yet the specialist confirmed that I was cured. Years have passed. I’ve been tested and retested many times. Miraculously, I’m cured. I’m a survivor. Why me? Why me and not them? I’ve tried to make sense of this. I’ve suffered from survivor’s guilt at times. Why? Do I deserve to live? Did the others deserve to die? Is it simply a matter of chance, the roll of the dice? Like you, Sandy, I’ve learned to cherish the moment. I try to live in it as often as possible. Sometimes I get sidetracked by future goals or heartrending memories. But I keep trying. And I write! I love to write. Writing is my joy and my salvation. It’s my lifesaver!

Dr. Mel Waldman
Psychologist, Director, Writer

Dr. Mel Waldman lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Journey We Take Alone? Part Ten


By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant

What do you do when you’re in the middle of an ultrasound and the technician is brought to tears by what she sees in your organs? That’s what happened to me last week at the University of Miami, now upgraded to a major university teaching hospital. It’s staffed by highly experienced pros, cherry-picked from across the country.

When Jenny’s tears started to well up, I tried not to look. You lay there, very still. You say nothing. But you start to wonder…is this the worst she’s seen? This week? This month? Ever? It’s the Mother of all reality checks.

And it’s part of a sort of twisted social etiquette that comes with life-threatening illness. The best analogy is Air Crash Hysteria. Passengers look out to see an engine or even a whole wing on fire. The worse they feel it is, the more likely they are to do what I did—sit still. Say nothing. The threat of embarrassment sometimes trumps life.

I don’t know if they’ve identified the chromosome that controls this, but it sure feels instinctive. And it’s an extra burden for patients. It’s not enough that we must waver back and forth between life and death (in our minds, apart from our bodies). We’re expected, or believe we’re expected, to do it with some style.

My father, Joe, was a larger-than-life character with European charm. He was socially adept and vigorous and loved to play to the crowd. When he’d get a local traffic ticket, he’d actually invite all in his friends to the local magistrate’s court to watch him star as the often successful amateur defense attorney.

When he was suddenly diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas at 60, it was considered the cancer with the highest mortality rate and amongst the most painful. What happens to European charm then? Almost 40 years ago, the same unwritten code of conduct kicked in for my father as it did during my ultrasound.

In addition to the outright pain, pancreatic cancer makes eating almost impossible. In the final stages, you are dying as much as anything from malnutrition.

But human instinct often motivates loved ones to express care and concern through offerings of food. My mother-in-law, God bless her, cherished my father and her special recipe potato soup, straight from the Old Country. She brought pots of it to my father, as his weight nearly halved from 155. She seemed oblivious to this. It was his job to praise the soup lavishly and regularly, when he could not hold down a spoonful. An earnest, compassionate woman wanted so badly to help.

These natural reactions often mean it’s the patient who’s left to help the family cope. (Doctors often won’t—when we got my father’s terminal diagnosis we asked his doctor far in advance to alert us when we were nearing the final stage—he never said a word.) This extra role for the sick can be hard work. Even on good days.

Having more often been patient than on-looker, I try to encourage families to keep their equilibrium. After all, the patient knows how every inch of his body feels, better than any test. Most pain is now controllable. But the concerned loved ones can only imagine. And invariably they imagine the worst—far worse than the patient is experiencing. Few of us can block this kind of neurosis when it’s someone we really care about.

So those of us at the center of these events sometimes feel a sort of obligation to cheer up their fan base. Who knows why? Other species go quietly off alone at the end; we tend to draw a crowd. Yet even then, there remains an invisible barrier between the infirm and the “normal people”.

In a sense, we are taking a journey alone, but it’s often with more on-lookers than we used to see in a week.

Sandy Prisant, who has lived and worked as a management consultant in Barcelona, Israel and other parts of the world, is waiting for a kidney and heart transplant. His series, "The Journey We Take Alone," began in March. Part Nine ran on Tuesday, June 21, 2011. Part Eight, which ran on Sunday, June 12, 2011, has links to all previous posts in the series. PIctured above is Sandy's father.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fascinating Insight into Wal-Mart's "Authoritarian" and Anti-Woman Management Style


By Claudia Ricci

Wal-Mart has become the mega-successful retailer it is today by relying on an "authoritarian" corporate culture and a management training system that make it very difficult for women to become store managers.

This is the insight offered by Nelson Lichtenstein in his fascinating op-ed in yesterday's New York Times.

Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, describes the "authoritarian culture" that has fueled Wal-Mart's expansion ever since it opened its first stores in the Ozarks back in the 1950s and 1960s. "A patriarchal ethos was written into the Wal-Mart DNA," according to Lichtenstein.

Example: at one executive trainee meeting back in 1975, a banner read: “Welcome Assistant Managers and Wives.” That men-centered Wal-Mart culture has been a central reason for the company's success (according to Wal-Mart's own Don Soderquist, the company’s chief operating officer in the 1990s). Despite what the Supreme Court ruled on Monday -- throwing out a giant sex discrimination class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart -- those keep-women-in-their-place rules are still operating strong for the retailer. As Lichtenstein explains it, if you want to step up out of the ranks of the hourly worker, and become a salaried assistant store manager (and plenty of women do) for Wal-Mart, you have to be willing to move hundreds of miles away to work in another store. More often than not, women -- because they care for children and older family members -- are just not in a position to do that.

Says Lichenstein: "For young men in a hurry, that [move is] an inconvenience; for middle-aged women caring for families, this corporate reassignment policy amounts to sex discrimination. True, Wal-Mart is hardly alone in demanding that rising managers sacrifice family life, but few companies make relocation such a fixed policy, and few have employment rolls even a third the size."

Even when women do become managers, they fight gender discrimination, as I discussed in Tuesday's Huffington Post.

In 2007, pharmacist Cynthia Haddad, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts,won a $2 million lawsuit against Wal-Mart, where she had worked for 10 years. In that case, Massachusetts lawyer and employment practices expert Julie Moore testified on behalf of Haddad, suggesting that Wal-Mart's policies and practices "contributed to the gender discrimination that culminated in this pharmacy manager's termination."

The retailer fired Haddad claiming that a fraudulent prescription had been filled when she left the pharmacy unattended.

Haddad was able to show that Wal-Mart had axed her because she had demanded that they pay her the same manager's salary that her male colleagues earned. Oh, and about that fraudulent prescription? It was filed a year and a half before Haddad was fired -- she'd never even been told about her so-called mistake.

In 2009, Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court upheld the verdict in this precedent-setting case.

The idea that an individual woman could sue the wildly powerful Wal-Mart and WIN $2 million is one heck of an inspiring story in a small Massachusetts town. Haddad, the mother of four children, told Business Week magazine that the lawsuit was no picnic. Still, Haddad had a lot going for her. She was a relatively well-paid professional and her husband, Bill, is also a pharmacist. She had the education, intellectual wherewithal, financial independence -- and the guts -- to complain in the first place, and then to mount a lawsuit after she was unjustly fired.

But that's not the situation for so many other low-income cashiers and hourly employees who aren't in such privileged positions. So many women don't have the luxury to dare risk losing their jobs by filing a complaint. Those are the women who have been screwed by the Supreme Court's ruling Monday in the sex discrimination lawsuit. The court, ruling in a 5-4 decision, blocked a giant class action lawsuit on behalf of 1.6 million women who accused Wal-Mart of systematic gender discrimination.

What a court.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How A Massachusetts Woman Won $2 milllion in A Gender Discrimination Suit Vs. Wal-Mart


By Claudia Ricci

If you believe Justice Scalia, who wrote for the Supreme Court's majority opinion in Monday's Wal-Mart ruling, there is "no convincing proof of a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy."

Tell that to all the women who have worked for Wal-Mart. The company has gotten away with its discriminatory culture by playing it both ways: it has a policy on the books barring discrimination but it leaves individual store managers operating in a culture where discrimination is widely accepted.

One case in a small town near me stands out -- and I learned of it first from my own mother, who is acquainted with the family involved.

In 2007, pharmacist Cynthia Haddad, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts,won a $2 million lawsuit against Wal-Mart, where she had worked for 10 years. In that case, Massachusetts lawyer and employment practices expert Julie Moore testified on behalf of Haddad, suggesting that Wal-Mart's policies and practices "contributed to the gender discrimination that culminated in this pharmacy manager's termination."

The retailer fired Haddad claiming that a fraudulent prescription had been filled when she left the pharmacy unattended.

Haddad was able to show that Wal-Mart had axed her because she had demanded that they pay her the same manager's salary that her male colleagues earned. Oh, and about that fraudulent prescription? It was filed a year and a half before Haddad was fired -- she'd never even been told about her so-called mistake.

In 2009, Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court upheld the verdict in this precedent-setting case.

The idea that an individual woman could sue the wildly powerful Wal-Mart and WIN $2 million is one heck of an inspiring story in a small Massachusetts town. Haddad, the mother of four children, told Business Week magazine that the lawsuit was no picnic. Still, Haddad had a lot going for her. She was a relatively well-paid professional and her husband, Bill, is also a pharmacist. She had the education, intellectual wherewithal, financial independence -- and the guts -- to complain in the first place, and then to mount a lawsuit after she was unjustly fired.

But that's not the situation for so many other low-income cashiers and hourly employees who aren't in such privileged positions. So many women don't have the luxury to dare risk losing their jobs by filing a complaint. Those are the women who have been screwed by the five men in the court's majority.

Well, so, when we have this conservative Supreme Court handing down rulings like this, we need more inspiring stories. But it's hard these days to find stories. Or hope.

This article appeared on June 21, 2011 on the Huffington Post.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"The Journey We Take Alone" Part 9


NOTE TO READERS: Writer Sandy Prisant had sent me Part Nine in his series and it was scheduled to run. But then on Saturday he got one of the worst phone calls imaginable. He quickly wrote a substitute piece and here it is. Life is as fragile as a dragonfly's wings. We all know this. Why is it so hard to accept it? Why is it so difficult to understand?

By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant

And then today, this happens:

It’s midday. Hot. Unbearably hot. I’m at my desk, looking at the week’s medical appointments. The phone rings. It’s my sister-in-law.

“How are you?”

“Hot.”

“Mike’s dead.”

What?? This is my brother’s closest friend and business colleague. They’ve been glued to each other for two decades. Mike runs a major health company. He’s in his 50s and in good health himself---still occasionally playing ice hockey.

Also a serious bicycle rider. Apparently, this morning in Norway, up near the Arctic Circle, Mike was on a long, slow touring ride along a highway. One minute he’s fine. The next minute a car runs him over.

That’s it. Mike’s dead. Not critical. Not waiting for a transplant. Not scheduling a biopsy. Mike is just... dead.

For my brother, for Mike’s multiple siblings back in Minnesota, for all those who rely on him, for that girl who wants to marry him, for the board of his company, today is an unalloyed tragedy.

But for the rest of us there is also a lot to think about.

I’m pondering many things: Am I supposed to feel lucky? Or is that distasteful? Why Mike and not me? This has been happening to me for years. Perfectly healthy people just keep on dying and I’m still here, fighting to survive. I’ve outlived some of my doctors. I’ve already lived longer than my father did.

How can we make sense of any of this? Those who keep going up against the odds -- and winning -- wonder at moments like this: what is protecting me? Or, am I here for a reason? Do I have tasks that I must finish before the end?

Ah, but those instinctive thoughts come from the desire for an orderly, coherent universe. And today, that’s not how the world feels.

Because we humans can adapt to most things -- even dreadful ones-- it’s instinctive for most of us to settle into an environment by habit. Even as things are taken out of our lives, the new normal can become somehow comfortable or acceptable, because it’s our own little world with a routine we know intimately.

That strange feeling is not really comfort in uncomfortable situations. It’s complacency. And complacency is the enemy of our mortality.

Maybe what’s most clear today is that this is how life really works. All the comforting suggestions, ironically saved for the seriously ill, are the best antidote for complacency—for all of us. Live in the moment. Make every day count. Focus on the present, rather than the past or future.

And try damn hard to do what you really want to do. That was exactly what Mike was doing on his bike, near the Arctic Circle, on his last day. That day we lost him.

WRITER SANDY PRISANT, A FORMER MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT WHO LIVED AND WORKED ALL OVER THE WORLD, NOW MAKES HIS HOME IN FLORIDA WITH HIS WIFE, SUSAN. PRISANT, WHO HAS HAD A SERIOUS KIDNEY DISEASE ALL OF HIS LIFE, IS NOW WAITING FOR A HEART AND A KIDNEY TRANSPLANT. PART EIGHT IN HIS SERIES, "THE JOURNEY WE TAKE ALONE," CONTAINS LINKS TO ALL PREVIOUS POSTS IN THE STORY.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Son Noah Sends Photos From Northern Vietnam!!




In general, I make it a practice not to live vicariously through my children. But I hope I will be forgiven for imagining myself traveling alongside my son this past week as he and a friend motorbiked through Sapa, the very northern region of Vietnam, only about 50 kilometers from the Chinese border. He shot photos of ducks and goats, water buffalo and wonderful butterflies. He met children and old people. He stopped by the side of the road and stood in yoga poses.

Yesterday, in a Skype call, he took his father and me slowly through his Facebook photos. I really felt like I was there.

I also felt something else. Here is my son, age 22, able to take a relaxing holiday in Vietnam, not far from Hanoi. I can't help thinking back. I can't help thinking about all those soldiers, American and Vietnamese alike. All those young men, loved by their mothers, who fought a crazy and awful war in Vietnam. So many young men suffered and died. Their lives, lost. For what? My heart just aches thinking about this. I close my eyes and think about all the mothers whose sons left for Vietnam and never came back. I am deeply humbled.

And then I look at these photos. I see the man smiling here. He was a soldier who fought for South Vietnam. His name is Mo. Noah stayed in his guest house in Ho Chi Minh City. Mo is smiling. And so, I am smiling too.












Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why the Economy is So Screwed Up, in 135 Seconds


If you're like me, you don't really know why the economy is so screwed up. You feel like there is nothing you can do about it.

You worry about whether you'll have to work until you're 95. You see people you love come dangerously close to losing their houses. You see your friends and family unable to sell their houses and you wonder if you will ever be able to sell your own house, or buy another one.

You see your friends lose their jobs and go through horrifying turmoil because they can't find another one. You see young people, including your students and the children of your friends, unable to start careers, or even, in some cases, find summer employment. You see stores in your town closed and shuttered.

You see huge cutbacks at the university, with whole departments being slashed. You wonder whether your own department might be next.

You look around and sometimes you get this very very scary feeling that

this recession/depression or whatever it is is going to go on and on.

And you wonder. WHY? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

And then you hear former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich explain the problem in a video circulated by MoveOn.Org.

It's quite amazing how smart and insightful this guy seems to be.

Check it out. Here. It will only take 135 seconds of your time.

Friday, June 17, 2011

There is Sick and there is SICK...


Dear Sandy,

I need to apologize. You will probably say that an apology isn't necessary, but I think it is. It is important to me to say "I'm sorry for being rather insenstive."

Sometime this morning you emailed, asking for feedback on Part Nine of your remarkable series, "The Journey We Take Alone." You gave the email the subject line "So?" and began by writing:

"Okay, I'll admit it, neither sleet, nor snow, nor diabolical illness stifles our yearning to achieve." Then you went on to ask for "constructive criticism."

Meanwhile, I woke up this morning feeling, for lack of a better or more delicate word, like shit. I had a splitting headache and my neck hurt so much I couldn't hold my head up. I had a funky stomach, too. No doubt I picked up a virus from my parents, as I was tending to my mom's illness yesterday.

So I just wrote you back an email saying I hadn't had a chance to read Part Nine. I wrote back to you saying today was a "stay in bed" sort of day and that I would get to Part Nine shortly.

About four minutes after I hit the send button, I was standing at the stove in my bathrobe boiling up some elbow macaroni. That's when it hit me:

SANDY PROBABLY WAKES UP EVERY MORNING FEELING LIKE SHIT. Or worse. He's got a "diabolical illness." He's on self-administered dialysis. He is anxiously awaiting a transplant of both his heart and kidneys.

It is so easy for us -- for me -- to forget what it means to be truly sick. Even though I endured a long and grueling treatment for cancer nine years ago, and know all too well what it's like living with day-after-day agony, it takes no time at all to forget. It takes no time at all to go back to taking our good health for granted. It comes so easily to regard a day like this, one that presents a nasty virus, as just so unfair. Or such an inconvenience -- I've got to skip a concert tonight.

Why I want to apologize Sandy is that I said this was a "stay in bed" sort of day (and it is, I'm in bed writing right now.) But chances are, I'll be up and at 'em again tomorrow. I'll resume my jogging and yoga. My stomach will be all right again. And a few days from now I probably won't even remember the fact I was sick today.

Not so, for you.

And so I am sorry for being rather insensitive. Because if you let yourself give into your illness, each and every day would be a "stay in bed" day. And there would be no way you'd be writing the marvelous material you are writing here. (By the way, Part nine is another winner, so so moving!)

One last thing. Just before I read your email, I was reading the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness, a fabulous book. Just by coincidence (although I wonder if there is such a thing) I opened to the chapter entitled, "Finding Meaning in Pain and Suffering."

I was marveling at the Dalai Lama's suggestion that when we are sick, or facing pain and suffering, we usually try as hard as we can to avoid it. " But he suggests that there are better ways to deal with pain and suffering and illness. He suggests that "suffering can serve to toughen us, to strengthen us...at other times it can have value by functioning in the opposite manner-- to soften us, to make us more sensitive and gentle."

Indeed, the Dalai Lama encourages us to use our personal suffering to "enhance" our compassion, by practising "Tong-Len," a visualization practice in which we take on another's pain and suffering. "When you undergo illness, pain or suffering, you can use that as an opportunity by thinking, 'May my suffering be a substitute for the suffering of all other sentient beings. By experiencing this, may I be able to save all other sentient beings who may have to undergo similar suffering.' So you use your suffering as an opportunity for the practice of taking others' suffering upon yourself."

As always, the Dalai Lama's teachings are profound and inspiring. Here he offers a simple way of finding "meaning" in illness; he is offering us guidance on how to develop empathy and compassion for others in pain. He takes what otherwise would seem pointless -- a bad headache, a stomach ache -- and he makes something positive out of them. He gives our suffering meaning.

So now. I am going to close my eyes and try the Dalai Lama's suggestion. I am going to attempt to do Tong-Len. This afternoon, Sandy, I am going to see if I can do what the Dalai Lama is suggesting. He recommends that with each in breath, we "receive" the suffering of another, and with each out breath, we give our positive energy and resources over to one who is ill.

I will do that this afternoon. I will recite this saying:

"May my suffering be a substitute for the suffering of Sandy Prisant, and all other beings who are ill."

I am not suggesting that I will alleviate your suffering in this manner. But at least today, Sandy, know this.

Today, you are not suffering alone.

Big Hugs to you and Susan,

Claudia

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Menopause Woman


By Jo Ann Losinger


Note to Readers: Some women might be drived to wail or scream over menopause. Writer Jo Ann Losinger took a far more creative approach. She wrote a poem. Actually, it's a song, to be sung to the tune of Billy Joel’s "She’s Always a Woman to Me."

She can kill with a scowl
She can wound with her eyes
She can ruin your day with her cramps and her sighs
She reveals too much, what you don’t want to see
She cries like a child
She’s Menopause Woman (That’s Me!)

She can lead you to lie
She can take you or leave you
She can bark for the truth
But she’ll never believe you
She’ll turn the AC to a setting called freeze
And she sweats like a hog
‘Cause she’s Menopause Woman (That’s Me!)

She won’t take care of herself
She can’t wait for the flash’ end
She’s behind her prime time
Oh, and she never goes out
She never gives in
She just changes her mind

She’ll never forgive
The post Garden of Eden
Then she’ll silently curse
The fact that she’s bleedin’
She’s rarely her best
But the worst she can be
Blame it all on someone else
‘Cause she’s Menopause Woman (That’s Me!)

She’s frequently hot
Then she’s suddenly cold
She just wants to sleep, she feels so damn old
Her temperature’s up by at least 10 degrees
And watch what you do, she’ll throw daggers at you
She’s Menopause Woman (That’s Me!)

Writer Jo Ann Losinger planted a firm footprint in commerce development for the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts during a 9-year tenure as Director of Earned Revenue. Her rule-defying ideas have enhanced the visual and performing arts, as well as the retail industry. Stay tuned for her book, "Memoirs of a Marketing Madam."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why Writers Write the (Sometimes) Crazy Stuff They Write


By Claudia Ricci

From time to time I marvel at the fact that I keep writing the book that I am writing on-line. I also marvel at the fact that there appear to be actual human beings out there who are reading it. Or at least, they keep visiting the site. Maybe they are fascinated by the idea that a person would demonstrate her own insanity, day after day, in words, in the way that I have.

Or maybe they just want to read the story.

Why writers write what they write is an endlessly interesting topic, or at least it is to those of us who spend our lives writing.

My good friend and fellow writer P.M. "Peg" Woods has pointed out any number of times (and always laughing that raucous laugh of hers when she does) that the biggest mystery about Sister Mysteries is why I've spent 16 and a half long, long years writing it -- first pouring it out on reams of paper, and then, more recently, pouring it out on the Sister Mysteries blog.

I agree with Peg. It's not just mysterious. It's nuts. But then I hear about people who have "second lives" on-line, a kind of virtual existence to live out their fantasies. Apparently, these second lives have turned lives upside down And destroyed marriages.

So I think, what am I worrying about? All I'm doing is writing a crazy story about a nun accused of murdering her cousin. So I keep going. When Peg and I met yesterday, for one of our wonderful writing sessions, she was amazed when I told her that I'm now writing Chapter 45. I told her I felt like a little bit crazy doing it. But like I said, there are worse things in the world.

Meanwhile, another writer friend has another explanation for why we writers write the sometimes completely bizarre stories we write.

Eugene Garber, an award-winning fiction writer, author of a marvelous new novel called O Amazonas Escuro and one of my best teachers ever in grad school at SUNY Albany, explained it to me one day in one word: "displacement."

He might not even remember this conversation, but we once were chatting about a novel that he had recently completed. I recall him saying that he gazed at the great stack of paper that was his finished manuscript, and began to realize that within that stack of pages was a whole world of wild and crazy ideas and images that had poured forth from his brain (I'm sure he said this with much more grace and style.)

Anyway, what he was saying is that all of the sometimes dark and disturbing ideas and energy contained in his novel might have driven him mad, had he not chosen instead to displace it all onto paper in the form of a novel.

After Gene said this to me, he probably laughed his wonderfully raucous laugh, a laugh I really love, a laugh which is right up there with Peg Woods' laugh as one the world's most infectious guffaws.

I guess I'm now ready to face up to the fact that, as Gene Garber suggests, my writing, like his, is displaced craziness (my word, not his.)

Sister Mysteries is the story of a nun, Sister Renata, who from time to time does an about face. She trades her starched white wimple for a wild red ruffled dress. Renata is both a devout Dominican novitiate and an erotically-charged young woman dancing flamenco and seducing her nutty cousin, Antonie.

Why would someone invent such a character?

There is a relatively simple answer, or at least one that makes a lot of sense to me. It involves a rather famous French anthropologist named Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was once described in the New York Times as "a towering intellectual" who "transformed the West's understanding of what was once called 'primitive man.'"

One thing Lévi-Strauss did, and it was no small achievement, was undertake a study of the myths of indigenous (or so-called "primitive") peoples all over the world. What he discovered was what he called an "astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions" of the world. Indeed, Lévi-Strass found that myths had underlying them a kind of universal "binary" structure, that is, in plain language, the myths all were fundamentally stories about pairs of opposites: love and hate, life and death, good and evil, black and white, female and male, large and small.

What's more, he discovered through his wide-ranging and exhaustive study of myths (including stories like the Oedipus tale), that "mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their resolution," which in plain language means simply

a story or myth seeks to, in one way or another, make peace between the binaries it presents.

This was one brilliant insight. And I have, through my own experience as a writer, and my experience as a reader, I have come to believe that Lévi-Strauss was right. There is no question in my mind that stories do exactly what Lévi-Strauss suggests. Stories, which often emerge out of deep archetypal images in the subconscious, tend to present binaries, opposite forces, forces that the author is trying to resolve in his or her psyche.

It isn't such a surprise then that myths should all resemble each other, because, after all, each and every one of them was produced by a human mind facing the same kind of challenges in surviving.

It is fair to say that the job of a story is to find a resolution, though language and imagery, for whatever binary forces the author is juggling. We writers are at the steering wheel, but most of us feel that we aren't really in control of that vehicle that happens to be our story. The language and images and especially, the characters, have a life of their own, and at some point, they really do just take over.

In my first novel, Dreaming Maples, the binary forces that fueled the work were two competing roles for women: women as artists and women as mothers. In simple terms, a woman as an artist should be supremely selfish. As a mother, a woman should be supremely self-less. It is no wonder that most of the women in my novel abandoned their children. (This you might say was me safely displacing my urge to do the same thing.)

By the time I had finished writing and editing that book, I had figured out a kind of compromise in my competing roles as mother and writer/artist.

Now, in this curent story, Sister Mysteries, the binary is also clear, and it too presents competing images of women, the so-called virgin/whore dichotomy. Feminist writers frequently chastise patriarchal society for relegating women to this sort of demeaning representation. Like all women, I have been "acted upon" by societal narratives that construct women in these either-or roles. But for me personally, specific life experiences have fed into this binary, and these are mine to negotiate as well.

I have a set of photos that will help tell the story underneath the story.

As a picture is worth at a thousand words, two pictures are surely worth at least twice that. These images are both from my childhood.

The first one is of me, at perhaps age six or seven. It was taken at Saint Anthony's Catholic School, in Bristol, Connecticut, a school that was ruled by nuns, and a priest.

I now see that there may be a reason that I named Renata's oppressive cousin...Antonie.

In this photo, I am standing in a devout and innocent pose, hands clasped in prayer. There to the left of me is my first cousin Lorry and we are standing next to the statue of the Virgin Mary. It is the month of May, when we always celebrated Mary. You probably cannot smell those lilacs on the table, but I can. All I have to do is close my eyes and I am back there in the classroom, with those scuffed wooden floors and those dusty chalkboards, and those very, very strict nuns.


The second photo is of me as a flamenco dancer. I am about ten or eleven, judging by the ironing-board shape of my chest.

It was probably May, judging by the flowers in my father's rock garden behind me. It was definitely my ballet recital day, orchestrated by my teacher, Mildred Ruenes, who forced us, or tried, to memorize each and every ballet pose in French.

On a very basic level, you might say that Sister Mysteries emerged out of these two images.



Well, so, lately I've begun to actively deconstruct the binary forces underlying this book. I've begun to consider the various "narrative selves" that gave rise to this story. In some sense I've become more interested in the underlying narratives than the one I've toiled so long to tell. (Well, so I have written 44 chapters, and we're running close to the end.) I wonder if perhaps I fear that the book will end before I'm finished with it.

Does that make sense?

If you think about it, a book might be considered a kind of collage of interconnected stories, one superimposed on another.

In this complex collage, the author is representing in words a character or characters. But the author is also representing his or her "self" or selves.

There is the story or stories being presented. But just like this painting, the book has embedded in it layers of other stories. You could say that each story contains within in it, hidden if you will, a set of stories of the narrative "selves" underlying the book. You could say that these narrative selves are responsible for giving rise to the book. You could argue that an author imprints or displaces her narrative selves, in layer upon layer, into her story.

More on this as we go forward. But for now, these thoughts:

It is quite a miracle, storytelling. It is quite a miracle, the act of writing.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Journey We Take Alone: Part Eight


By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant

By age 20 I had already been married two years. I was at the university and working in journalism. All full-time. Why was I cramming in so much, so fast? From the beginning had my subconscious been telling me “you don’t know how much time you have?”

For decades, the importance of the kidney was wildly underrated. The National Kidney Foundation used to have a campaign theme: “It’s Not Just Another Disease. It’s the Fourth Major Cause of Death in the United States.” Over the years, medicine had found that the organ handled scores of functions, many of them life critical: from tirelessly filtering poisons out of our blood to promoting red blood cell generation. The kidney even impacts our physical growth. Having only 40% kidney function from birth produced a body, in my case, that was not quite right—sturdy legs supporting a frail torso. That left me chronically short of natural muscle, causing the usual problems for any schoolboy. Nonetheless, Dr. Swick would have been shocked to see me playing varsity soccer and baseball.

My adolescence had been fairly uneventful. For a while, the family and I almost believed I was becoming normal. Then at 16, I got my first kidney infection. There was some fever and a little discomfort. It was easily treated by a nephrologist who concluded his examination with an almost offhand remark: “you’ll probably need an operation when you’re about 50.” Somehow this man was seeing 33 years into the future. He was talking about an operation that did not yet exist—a kidney transplant. And he turned out to be right.

But that one incident was quickly forgotten as I moved through my teens. With work, university and a loving wife, sleep for me was as optional as for any 20-year-old. The crushing fatigue of advanced kidney disease can take decades to develop. But the consequences of chronic renal failure were already appearing. Before I could vote, I’d already developed high blood pressure—a quarter century sooner than most people did, but a common situation for kidney kids.

At first I was on three or four pills a day. That grew to more than a dozen; it’s been an evolving pharmaceutical cornucopia everyday since, as new symptoms appeared and new frontline drugs came along to counter them. “Everyday since” now comes to almost 17,000 days and counting.

Poor kidney function means all your organs are trying to survive and work with poor body chemistry. Every day. The effects can range from coronary artery disease to diabetes to stroke.

One afternoon when I was nearing 30, my mother was passing by a bathroom at the family home that was a magnet for all four of us--as boys, then men. I had carelessly left my pill bag open on the bathroom counter. She looked at the bottles and blister packs and slumped onto the toilet seat. My mother was a loving person, but she didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. I can only remember her crying twice; once when she phoned me, in shock, to bemoan the slaughter of Martin Luther King. The second time was when she sat in that powder room, looking at the mountain of meds keeping me going.

Now I’m up to 18 pills a day, but it’s like anything you do every day; it becomes as routine as pulling on your socks. I’ve learned that these things often seem more horrific to observers than patients. As I’m tossing a dozen pills down with a single gulp of water, I’m thinking about sports, business or dinner. Mostly, it’s loved ones, not patients, who are left in tears.

Because there has never been any other life but this one, uncertainty and mortality have always been too close to be feared. But with few overt symptoms and no pain for decades (making kidney disease more insidious), I’ve still had all the normal ambitions; to ponder what I could achieve and what adventures might lie before me. I’ve been fortunate to work for governments and the Vatican and to tackle challenging projects on four continents.

And possibly more easily than some, the medical reality deep inside has helped me to do what all of us are always urged to do—to live in the present. To feel the moment. Every day.

Writer Sandy Prisant is a survivor. His story, "The Journey We Take Alone," which began on MyStoryLives in March, tells the tale of a person who has lived with a serious kidney disease all his life. Part Seven appeared on May 31, 2011, and there are links in that post to all previous installments. At this moment, Sandy is waiting for a heart and kidney transplant, and he is in good spirits!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Costa Rica Suits This Writer Well!!


Note to readers: Artist Jan Hart grew up in southern California, and later lived in New Mexico. I "met" her when trying to rent a house in the Santa Fe area -- she was pulling up roots and moving to Costa Rica, where she now lives in a gloriously beautiful retreat. She describes herself as "writer, teacher, artist, adventurer," and teaches art classes. Judging by her blog, Jan's Front Row Seats, she has her later years all figured out. The view from her lounge chairs is astonishing! An inspiring woman, to be sure! Here is an except from her blog, in which she talks about dealing with aging:

"We who have grown up in the United States are fixated on a continually upward trajectory that appears not to have an end. Everything worth having is Better or Faster or Smoother! We are fed a continual smorgasbord of technological wonders and new breakthroughs that make us feel behind if we still have last year’s model. The economy has to be growing to make us feel happy with our lives and confident in our leaders. Many of us begin our days with a cup of coffee in front of the financial news from Bloomberg on cable – and the market direction dictates our state of mind. Up is up. Down is down. Given that we are a nation of Viagra and Prozac it seems that we also have a fixation on rising body parts and moods. We get face ‘lifts’ and breast ‘enhancements’ and ‘body augmentations’ while we tune up, fix up and dress up. Any mention of a “downward spiral” thrusts in our mind’s eye an image of a plane crashing to earth."