Thursday, July 24, 2008

Let's Hear It for Health Care, NOW!!!!


Here's a heartbreaking health care story for you, and one more good reason why Americans need a solid, affordable national health care plan.

The story comes out of Bartow, Florida, near Tampa. It was reported by Tampa Bay's Channel 10 (TV) news.

A young woman named Caitlin Jackson, age 19, was recently diagnosed with a rare brain disorder called Chiari Malformation. The condition gives Caitlin horrible headaches and unpredicatable (and dangerous) fainting spells. Down the line, the disease could destroy her motor skills and her memory and maybe even end her life prematurely.

"I constantly have to have somebody around me. I can't even stay at home for five minutes," Caitlin told TampaBay 10 News' Melanie Brooks.

Caitlin's condition required immediate brain surgery, and she was scheduled for it.

In fact, she was just a few hours away from getting it. Then what happened is what so often happens in the world of modern American Health Un-Insurance. The insurer --Aetna-- began its "Do Not Want to Cover anything that costs money" dance. At first, Aetna dragged its feet approving the operation. When the OK finally came, it was 15 minutes too late. Caitlin had lost the operating room to another patient and had to be rescheduled.

Worse things were in store, however. Aetna changed its mind! The company informed the Jackson family that they would not cover her brain surgery at all, that somehow her benefits -- along with her luck-- had run out.

So what was the family to do? They faced a stunning $113,000 hospital bill if they were going to pay on their own. Get this: the hospital, Tampa Bay General, wanted a whopping $55,000 down, and the rest after the operation. Yeah, sure folks, let me get my checkbook.

Finally, after Tampa Bay’s 10 News brought the issue to the fore, Aetna reversed itself once again and Caitlin had the surgery she needed. Apparently, it was a successful operation.

Unfortunately, the media isn’t always around to embarrass health insurers into doing what they should be doing.

That’s why a revamping of the nation’s health insurance system is so urgent. Earlier this month, a new campaign supported by a number of progressive and labor organizations got underway to press for a national health care plan.


The group, Health Care for America Now, was launched on July 8th, with activists in more than 50 sites around the U.S. joining leaders in Washington, D.C. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that one of those leaders in D.C. is Richard Kirsch, my husband, and the National Campaign Manager for the progressive coalition.

Health Care for America Now is made up of more than 100 organizations and received its initial funding from 13 groups that are part of its steering committee as well as an impressive $10 million grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies. Members of the steering committee include, the American Federation of State Community and Municipal Employees, the National Education Association and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, among others. (A full list can be found on the group’s website,

HCAN is not taking a specific stand — not yet anyway — on the health care proposals offered by presidential nominees McCain and Obama, but it is pretty obvious that the impetus to guarantee affordable health coverage for all Americans lies far heavier in the Democratic fold. Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards, is perhaps the most visible supporter of the new organization.

Elizabeth Edwards is a strong health care reform advocate. The fact is there are millions of health insurance horror stories out there. And they aren't going away.

So let's all say a prayer today for those people like Caitlin Jackson who are fighting with insurers to get the treatment they so desperately need. And let's say a second prayer, or better yet, let's start writing letters and lifting our collective voices, so that all Americans get the health care they so rightly deserve!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Change is always possible

By Cynthia Ringer

Change is always possible.
She says that to her husband one night
at dinner.
He looks up from a puddle of
thick yellow polenta on his plate.
He blinks.
Sure it is, he mumbles.

She brings her goblet of wine
to her lips
in her two hands.
Steadying her eyes on his,
She sips.
The air around them turns warmer.
Almost like the table is burning.
Almost like the sun has gotten closer.
Or more focused.

I mean it this time.
She nods a little as if to make her words
Stand out. Sharp. Like the sauce that covers the polenta.
A red splash. Spicy.
The sauce he doesn’t eat
because it gives him such heartburn.
He scoops the corn mush up onto his spoon,
And for a while he busies himself
bringing the spoon back and forth to his mouth.

I wonder sometimes, he says,
mashing the polenta over his tongue,
enjoying the warm comfort of it.
When we stopped being nice to each other.
He swallows. And why. Sometimes I just wanna know.

She shrugs. Her lids slither slightly lower.
I might wonder that too, she says in a hush.
But then I just know.
We just stopped. A long time ago.
And so what?

She hasn’t touched her plate
the polenta he fixed
the polenta she hates
just sits there now
as round as yellow
as that noon day sun
on that day
in August so long ago
when she stood
beside the laundry basket
gazing at the diapers
and the socks and sheets and
the T shirts with the mud spots
still in them.
She washed
that laundry
she hung it out to dry.
Just like every other morning.
But then, that day, she stood
it flapping in the back yard
in a steady hot breeze.

She knew
that day
a hard fact:
life isn’t easy.
It’s a study in unhappiness
where change is always possible
but as unlikely as it is

She inhales now. She gets up and
crosses the room
her bare feet slapping the wood floor.
She searches a kitchen drawer for her cigarettes.
She comes back to the table.
Bends one knee. And sits on her foot.

She lights one of the cigarettes
She had promised she wasn’t
going to smoke anymore.
On her plate
on the polenta
she hates.
Is that splash of sauce
he ladled out of a jar,
he thought she might enjoy.

The sight of it now
makes her shudder.
It brings to mind
Plain and simply,
blood. An animal, no, a man,
lying on the side of the road,
a carcass struck by a careless car
roaring by.
She sees him now, sees the pain
Twist in his face. Sees his eyes.

The cigarette dangling
from her lip,
she stands,
hurries her plate
to the sink where she forks
the mess on the plate right into the sink.
She runs the cold water. A fleck of bright ash
Falls into the water, goes out.

I’ll do those up, he calls out to her.
No matter, she says.
I have time. She reaches for the apron.
And ties it behind her waist.
And sets the cigarette in the charred shell
she uses as an ashtray.
She sets her hands to the sink.
And he carries his plate to her.
And he burps.
And she thinks,
Change is always possible.
I think.

Cynthia Ringer is a pseudonym for a writer living in upstate New York.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

Oakland in My Memories

By Camincha

This is the way things happen when you are nineteen, with all your tomorrows ahead of you and all you have to do is just be. This is the way Oakland happened to Mirna. She was on her way to college –– her father’s wish. She left Peru for the US in the Yaravi, a ship with great passenger accommodations and a cargo of precious minerals to be delivered to the Northern neighbor.

Mirna’s travel companions included Rudy, who was returning to Oakland, California where he had lived the last five years. There were also Billy and Willy, who, like Mirna, were going to the US for the first time. Mirna’s destination in Oakland was the home of her father’s old friends, the Leiva's. They had kindly offered to put her up.

Mirna, Rudy, Billy and Willy arrived in the US at Portland aboard the Yaravi. And there they all boarded a Greyhound bus. They sat in the back seat to better view the unfolding scenery of green mountains, tree groves, luscious valleys, meadows, rivers, small towns. Symmetric, charming, romantic. Ahead, the ribbon of asphalt unfolded taking them from Oregon to California.

When they got to Oakland, it was June. It was warm and sunny all the time, a welcome surprise after cold and grey Portland. Across the bay, San Francisco was not only cold and grey but foggy.

After Mirna got situated at the Leiva's homeand, her former shipmate, Rudy, came to pick her up and show her around Oakland. Sunny Oakland was sprawled out and casual. Very few men wore suits. Women wore short sleeves or sleeveless dresses and sandals.

Mirna babysat for the Leiva's occasionally; they also invited her to waitress at their Mexican restaurant, EI Sombrero. "With your nice smile," Juanita Leiva said, "you'll earn good tips. It'll help you save for college in September." Mirna began waitressing. She had never had Mexican food.

Oakland will always be tied up with every tortilla, enchilada, and Dos Equis she served or ate in that restaurant.

Oakland will also always be tied up with the painting of a wide-brimmed, straw sombrero that a man brought to the restaurant to sell one afternoon.
Manny Leiva looked it over with his half-business, half-fun smile. Mirna
praised the painting, "A sombrero." SOMBRERO! The name of the restaurant! So Manny bought it and hung it high on the back wall. That sombrero was
the first thing you saw as you entered the place. It greeted everyone
who entered.

Oakland has always been the many small stores, restaurants bus lines crisscrossing the city along 14th St.

Oakland has always been evenings of balmy weather that welcomed her on weekends when she got back from San Francisco.

Oakland has always been an enormous drugstore with a tempting perfume counter at the comer of a city block.

Oakland has always been sunshine, some days so hot that Mirna and the little girls she knew, Rose, Ophelia and Gladys, would take their brown bag lunches to Fairy Land, the Marina, or the air conditioned, magical Møntgømery Wards.

Oakland has always been Lake Temescal:

its lovely rose garden, willows, water lilies, swimming, sunbathing, picnicking, fishing, hiking and a plaque posted at the main entrance that says:

"Prior to 1868, Lake Temescal was but a creek. Along its
shores lived the Costanoan Indians, who bathed and swam in the cool water.
Franciscan missionaries named the creek 'Temescal,' a name derived
from two Aztec words: Tema (to bathe) and cali (a house). In 1868
hydraulic engineer Anthony Chabot constructed a dam to create a reservoir for
the then tiny Town of Oakland. It first opened as a recreational area
in 1936."

Oakland, in short, will always be, for Mirna, a time and space of mind, a very special place of being, nineteen, and full of all possibitiy.

Camincha is a pen name for a California-based writer.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

One tiny step...

img_0585.jpgIt's a very little thing, I will admit. But I did it. I faced the fear. And I will take space here to cheer for myself. And to publicly thank my amazing doctor.

OK, so a couple of weeks ago, I had my first blood test in three years.

What's the big deal, you ask? The big deal is that I have been, until now, absolutely terrified to have anyone come near me with a needle. Two rounds of chemotherapy, six and five summers ago, did a number on my veins, i.e., it is real tricky to get blood out of me. But the chemo did a worse number on my brain. I came out of treatment, thankful to be alive, but traumatized to the core: terrified of doctors and medicine and bloodwork and IVs and CT scans and MRI's and Pet scans.

In 2005, I said goodbye to my oncologist. Every time I would go in for a follow-up visit, I would tell him that I was doing daily yoga and meditation. I would tell him that I was eating meticulously (all kinds of organics, tons of greens, etc.) and that I was relying on herbals (including green barley powder) to boost my immune system. Most of all, I would say that I was focusing on keeping an optimistic point of view.

He would kind of chuckle, as if all this alternative, mind-body stuff didn't mean much.

Then he would examine my lymph nodes (I had been treated for lymphoma). He would touch my neck, looking for lumps. He would feel under my armpits. He would check my abdomen. And then he would put his stethoscope to my lungs. Finally, he would step away and look at me and say (these are his exact words), "You are disgustingly healthy."

Oh, and then he'd send me on my way to get the dreaded blood test.

I was traumatized by having cancer, but honestly, I was even more traumatized by most of the doctors who treated me. I could tell you horror story after horror story. I could tell you about the cocky doctor at Sloan Kettering who, as I was about to start chemo in July of 2002, prescribed Bactrim, an antibiotic, to prevent infection.

"But I'm allergic to Bactrim," I told him. "I throw up when I take it."

"Prove it," he said. And yes, THOSE were his exact words.

Instead of challenging him, as I should have, I took the Bactrim. And the chemo.

A day later, after throwing up non-stop for hours and hours and hours, I landed in the emergency room, sick as a dog.

The cocky doctor called the next day to say he was sorry he hadn't listened to me.

Well, so, that was just the beginning. In a previous post, I wrote about this same doctor INSISTING that I needed a stem cell transplant in 2003. Fortunately, by that time, I had learned something. I had learned to listen to my body. AND to my intuition. I resisted the stem cell, and insisted on a second opinion (he said there was no need for one, since he was the "national expert" on my disease.) Finally, I sought the opinion of another, older (kinder) and more experienced doctor at Dana Farber who also happened to be a specialist in my disease.

This second doctor agreed with me, that I did NOT need the stem cell. This same kind-hearted man also clued me in as to why the doctor at Sloan was so keen on doing a stem cell transplant on me: it was, in part, because I would have fit in so very nicely with a research project he had going at Sloan, one that looked at how stem cell transplants "helped" patients who had "failed" treatments for lymphoma.

The doctor at Dana Farber told me (his words) this: "you know, Claudia, when you are a hammer, you look at the rest of world as if it is filled with nails. I'm afraid the doctor at Sloan is a hammer. And you were his nail."

Nice, huh?

Well, so, you can see maybe why I got so skittish about doctors.

But in 2005, I found a new doctor, one I trust completely. He is smart, skilled, caring, sensitive and insightful. The kind of practitioner everyone should have.

Ron Stram, originally trained to practise emergency room medicine, decided a few years back that many of the people who landed in the ER wouldn't be there if they'd had better preventative medicine. He also started to take a good hard look at so-called "alternative" therapies. That led him to do a residency in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona, under the direction of Dr. Andrew Weill.

When he finished, he set up the Center for Integrative Health and Healing, in Delmar, New York.

The first time I visited Ron, three years ago this month, I spent most of my time in his office crying. I explained all the horror that had been inflicted on me by the doctor at Sloan, and by another oncologist locally.

Ron, accompanied by the naturopathic physician in the office, sat there. He nodded, and he listened, and he listened, and he listened some more. He examined me, very calmly, and he told me that I appeared to be very healthy. He asked me how he could help me to move forward, to heal. He asked how he could support my efforts to stay healthy. He put absolutely no pressure on me. At the time, I was about to leave for a long trip. I was headed to Spain, to Andalucia, to explore a region that is close to my heart (and my love for flamenco guitar!) I told him I wanted to go on that trip, and I did not want to think about cancer, or blood tests, or treatments. I wanted to spend time with my family, and enjoy life to the fullest. I told him I would come back and see him again, and when I did, we would talk about a plan for "treatment."

Well, so, I did go back to see Ron, several times, but every time the subject of blood tests came up, I froze. I just couldn't face it. I just couldn't handle the idea of anything the least bit invasive or scary.

Ron gave me space. He let me take the lead. He told me he was there for me in any way I needed him to be. He told me to trust what I was doing to stay healthy (he also made many suggestions too.)

I should say that in the last four years, I have had maybe one or two colds. Period. I've been totally energetic, and healthy.

About a month ago, I woke up one morning and thought to myself, you really ought to get your cholesterol level checked. And your thyroid levels, too. And so, without much fanfare, I made an appointment at a hospital lab. I fasted, and early the next morning, I went to the lab and had the blood test. It took two technicians to get my blood. And I had a bit of panic waiting for the results.

But it all worked out fine.

Yesterday, I made an appointment to see Ron. To begin to talk about what else I might do or need to ensure I stay healthy.

To Ronald Stram, I say, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for standing by me. Thank you for being such an extraordinarily caring and talented practitioner. Thank you for starting the Center for Integrative Health and Healing. Thank you for giving me the space I needed. And for encouraging me to trust myself in the journey to stay healthy. You are one very special doctor. And I am one very, very lucky patient.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Where There is Prayer...

There is great power in prayer.

And as photographer Gregory Shafiro's exhibit, "The Power of Prayer," demonstrates, there is great power in images of people praying, and in the ancient places where people pray.

Shafiro, who traveled to Israel to shoot the exhibit, writes, "Jerusalem, the city of peace, stands as a spiritual lighthouse to the entire world. Despite a history of turmoil, one can still see the city's light continue to shine through its architecture and residents."

Visit Shafiro's website, and a gallery of stunning photos taken in Israel!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Where the Hell is Matt?

And how did he come up with such a brilliant idea for a video? You will enjoy this more than you know. Be sure to watch it in "high quality" so you can see the faces of everyone





Thursday, July 03, 2008

Bush's Bull Goes for a Big Old Busride!!

By Claudia Ricci

We know all too well the ugly mess we're in: the war from hell. Gas prices gone bananas. Millions in danger of losing their homes. Millions more without the health care they need and deserve.

Oh, and the national debt? It's at something like $9,007 trillion. Can you even imagine the number?

We read about the disastrous Bush legacy daily. We see it on TV and listen to it on the radio. Worse, we live it every time we go to the gas pump, or hear of another mother or father losing a beloved son or daughter in Iraq, or another young soldier coming home without limbs or with the worst PTSD imaginable.

Yes, we all know. But now, two terms' worth of Bush bullshit is riding around on a bus, rolling across the U.S. for all to see. A coalition of progressives called Americans United for Change -- the same group that lead the successful fight to defeat Bush's efforts to privatize Social Security three years ago -- has hit the road on a magnificently outfitted, high-media styled, big blue bus.

Inside the bus (no windows) are some rather remarkably sophisticated museum-type exhibits (interactive, sound, video, buttons to push!) that lay out in painful but awfully pretty detail Bush's failed policies as President.

Oh, sure, we all know too well the mess we're in. But honestly, when you're standing in this bus, and you're seeing it spread out all around you -- the ugly desert war (complete with a pair of sand-crusty boots!), the disastrous response to Katrina, the economy in shreds, the gas prices headed for Mars (and displayed on an old-fashioned gas pump!) --

Well, I'll tell you, it's one helluva bus. The Bush Legacy Bus tour launched a week ago in Dayton, Ohio, and wound its way through cities in Pennsylvania and New York before landing on the steps of Albany's state Capitol. It was headed up to Bangor, Maine for the Fourth of July Weekend.

Visitors drawn inside have plenty of praise for the bus, and plenty to say, bashing Bush.

"I think it's great to show us what a scumbag he is," says a woman named Diane who was studying a set of photos of Bush administration officials. "They're all scumbags. We already knew of course, but just look at them. Look at the mess we're in now."

Diane's companion on the bus tour, Suanne, picks up where Diane leaves off: "Yeah, and we're not going to get out of this mess, either."

Julie Blust, press person riding the bus, says the media response has been "amazing."

"Everywhere we go, we get four or five outlets covering us," she says. "And the coverage has been really positive."

Blust will be traveling with the bus for the next few months, as it snakes its way across the U.S. blasting the Bush record. It's a bit like on one of those rock star tours, minus the rock star.

Blust laughs as she is asked where the whirlwind tour will take the bus next.

"I'm losing track," she says. "I'm lucky if I know what day it is."

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A woman making love to a TREE?

By Claudia Ricci

Oh please. Not this. Not this woman standing here, her body plastered against a tree.

Picture her, in her pale green running shorts, a sky blue tank top hugging, hands stroking the bark...

My God, is she really trying to make love to a TREE?

Crazy, crazy. Pathetic even. Except it's a helluva lot safer than sexing that Latin guitarist named Jesus.

Or that blonde pony-tailed house painter she saw the day she...

Oh forget it. Just let yourself enjoy the damn tree for heavens' sake. What's the big deal?

The big deal is that it should be necessary.

I guess it's time to explain.

My anxiety disorder gets off the wall coo coo sometimes. There are reasons enough: I have three grown children, the latest of whom has now fled the coop for college. I love my husband, and he loves me, but his job is exceedingly demanding right now, and he's out of town two or three days a week, and...

OK, OK, so there's more to that story, but let's leave it at this: my anxiety gets boiling so hot sometimes that it feels like I could single-handedly light and heat all of New York City. I have tried anti-depressants. They work, except they leave me, shall I say, rather sexually-frustrated.

Sometimes I feel like Mt. Saint Helens. Sometimes I just feel like hell.

And no, I would reallly rather not feel this way.

Last week, I went to a writing conference in the Rocky Mountains. The first workshop, held in a park under the snowy peaks, had each of us writers, "Meeting a Tree." The naturalist writer who ran the workshop stressed that trees are living creatures with strong energetic fields. "The tree is breathing: we are breathing. Fluids are flowing within the tree: fluids are flowing within us."
Our assignment was to venture out into the park and approach a tree "thoughtfully" and respectfully. She wanted us, as she put it, to develop a "relationship" with a tree.

Some of you are probably laughing at this. Go ahead. Laugh. Laugh at me. Laugh at her. But today I went running and found myself in an intimate relationship with a tree. Keep reading please, even if you think I'm crazy.

Before I left the house, my anxiety was wild high. I wanted to swallow a dozen ativan. I cannot tell you how painful (and pitiful) it feels to have energy flooding your arms and legs and chest and the rest of your body. It's gut awful bad.
But I told myself, just go running and hold off on the ativan until after the run (and only swallow one.)

I went on the jog, and as I was coming up the familiar hill, I was, quite unexpectedly, drawn to a slender maple about half my girth. A tiny sapling was growing from her base. I felt the impulse to touch the tree. Without thinking much about it, I stopped and set my bare chest (in the tank T) squarely against the rough grey bark. I held on for dear life. Oddly enough, I felt a kind of surge go through me. Call it my imagination. Call me crazy (many have, especially when it comes to maples trees.) But I swear I stood there for several minutes with the tree energy passing in waves through me, through my hands, my arms, my shoulders, my heart, my chest, the rest of me. I kept holding on, feeling more and more serene. I looked up into the foliage, and I just stood there, and then it occurred to me that so much of my anxiety is just plain physical: I don't have the touch and feel of my children's bodies around me anymore. I don't have my husband's body to wrap myself around two or three nights a week anymore.

An end to the active phase of mothering is a time of great transition, and I wasn't at all ready for the blow. Foolishly, I thought because I had an active writing and teaching career that I was exempt from the feeling of deep loss that hit me. Foolishly, and rather arrogantly, I figured all that empty nest stuff was the terrains of stay-at-home moms.

Call me dumb and clueless. Clearly.

In many ways, the empty nest is a great opportunity for women to find themselves anew. But I'm having a hell of a time doing that. It's a time to redirect one's energy and passions towards new pursuits. But I'm stuck, not sure what to pursue. It's a time to find more freedom and pleasure with your mate, and we have. We've been traveling and getting out on dates and plotting, even, a temporary relocation to Washington, D.C. next spring to promote both our careers.

Here are other advantages of being actively de-mothered: not having basket after basket of laundry, and grocery carts heaped with food, and day after day of cooking. Oh yes, and I don't miss the endless driving of kids to soccer and basketball and piano lessons and the houses of their friends.

But still, I'm a mess. And in the end, I've decided that the empty nest is really an end to so much physical comfort. Pure living presence surrounding me. There are no more young people upstairs, listening to music. No more kids lying on the couch in the den, watching TV. This summer there is no one to snuggle with while reading a novel on a blanket in the lawn. No one to swing back and forth with in the hammock beneath the maple. There are no children splashing and playing out there in that beautiful and perfectly still green mirrored pond.

Gone forever are those lazy afternoons when the kids rode horses, or fingerpainted, or put on funny plays in weird little homemade costumes. Gone are the days when somebody, or some bodies, were upstairs, doing homework, or gabbing on the phone, or outside playing hoops, or...

I better not write anymore or I'll just start to cry.

"You have to face the fact that they are never coming home again, not in the way that they used to be there," announced my therapist, her voice kind but firm, her eyes fixed on me.

I am still a mother. And a wife. But my body aches like crazy with this wrenching grief. The loss of a life. The loss of the loved ones who used to people my day-to-day life. I have work, and plenty of friends, but still, I don't have something that fills in for that missing life. I know it's time, I've got to switch my energy, substituting other activities for the time I spent so diligently caring for my children. But the problem is, nothing yet comes close to giving me the satisfaction that the kids brought me. And so I sit here, right now, writing, and crying my eyes out. And missing the feel of them. The smell and touch of their hair. The joy of their smiles. The pure reassurance of their eyes, sparkling, and the comfort of their flesh.

I keep walking through the second floor of the house and it is completely neat, and completely


I will be OK. I am getting better, I think, slowly. Day by day. But meanwhile, I need to turn to other living creatures for some sense of surety. Some feeling of security. (I know what some of you are thinking: Lady, just get yourself a dog. We had one, our dear dear Bear, and he died at age ten, I'm not sure I'm ready for another.)

So, for now, I will, instead, touch, hug and if necessary, be that ridiculously promiscuous lover of trees.

This post appeared first in The Huffington Post, at