Monday, April 30, 2007

So, Like, I'm Home

The trip back was as comfortable and trouble-free as the trip out was disastrous. Yay!

The $54 I spent for extra leg room was definitely worth it. I feel like a human this morning, and not like a pretzel. Also, I discovered that long plane flights are a terrific opportunity to catch up on old e-mail. I'm not entirely caught up, but almost.

My plane reading included the May issue of The Atlantic, which had a number of fascinating articles, including an extremely troubling piece about the current epidemic of group suicides with strangers in Japan. People who want to die look for each other on the Internet, and then they make arrangements to asphyxiate together, usually in cars. This has evidently become so common that it doesn't even get much press coverage.

My nephew and a huge percentage of my students are absolutely smitten with anime, and through anime, with Japanese culture as a whole. My nephew's planning a trip to Japan with friends. I really hope this love for all things Japanese doesn't extend to group suicide!

I also started reading Tolkien's The Children of Hurin. I'm enjoying it a great deal. I'd read the story before, in Unfinished Tales, but it makes a pleasing stand-alone, and I like it better on this second reading.

I spoke to my mother this morning; her fever's above 100 again, but she doesn't seem to feel too bad.

I'm delighted to be back home with Gary, my own cats, my own bed, and my own health club. Now I just have to catch up at work!

Update on May Book Signings

As previously advertised, on Saturday, May 19, I'll be reading at Borderlands Books in San Francisco at 5:00 PM.

Also as previously advertised, on Sunday, May 20, I'll be reading at The Other Change of Hobbit in Berkeley at 1:00 PM. But this has now become a joint event; I'll be appearing with the utterly fabulous Ellen Klages, WisCon auctioneer extraordinaire, whose first novel, The Green Glass Sea, has been racking up awards and nominations at a frankly terrifying rate. Like me, Ellen has a story collection just out from Tachyon -- hers is Portable Childhoods -- and I'm honored to be appearing in such impressive company!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Homeward Bound

I'll be leaving for the airport in about forty minutes. I have one very long flight to San Francisco, and then a short hop back to Reno; these are supposed to be on the same plane, although we'll see if it works out that way.

When I went to print out my boarding pass, I realized that I was way back in the plane in a middle seat. Of course, nothing else was available: that's the disadvantage of getting last-minute tickets. So I spent $54 to upgrade to "Economy Plus." I'm still in a middle seat, but I'm supposed to have a few more inches of leg room -- and if I'm going to spend eight hours in that plane, I think it's worth it. I'm also much closer to the front, which will be handy if this is indeed the plane I fly to Reno. I hate having to wait forever to get off a plane after having spent forever on it.

Mom's very tired, but otherwise feeling better than she has. Thanks to everyone who's e-mailed or commented with good thoughts and prayers for us. We really appreciate it!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Shaming the Patient

Last week in my "Women and Literature" class, one of my students gave a presentation on Lucy Grealy's powerful memoir of disfigurement, Autobiography of a Face. From there, we moved naturally into a discussion of body image and physical beauty.

Many of the students, all too predictably, had struggled with appearance, especially around issues of weight. We were talking about shame, and I mentioned how often, at the hospital, I hear medical staff lecturing patients about how they have to stop smoking, stop drinking, or lose weight. My sense has always been that the patients already know this, and that by shaming the patients about these subjects, doctors and nurses just make it more difficult for them to seek medical help when they need it. It's a lot harder to go to the doctor when you're ashamed of yourself, especially when you expect the doctor to try to make you feel more ashamed.

This offhand comment on my part loosed a passionate flurry of anecdotes from my students, who -- it turned out -- had felt shamed by all kinds of people who were supposed to be helping them. There was a series of stories about people at health clubs doing body-fat or BMI measurements resulting in a label of "obese." My students had strong, articulate opinions about why BMI measurements are inherently faulty, especially for anyone whose weight is primarily bone or muscle, rather than fat.

One student, who used to be anorexic but has successfully overcome her eating disorder and attained a healthy weight, talked about how miserable she was when a personal trainer at a health club told her she was fat. ("Fat," by the way, is the last word I'd use to describe her.) "They'd taken a health history. They knew I'd had an eating disorder, but they still told me I was fat. How could they do that?"

One of the most disturbing stories came from a student who has a medical condition that makes her gain weight, and also makes it difficult or impossible for her to lose that weight even on a restricted diet. "So my doctor told me I had this condition, right? And then I went back the next month or whatever, and he told me I was too heavy. And I was like, 'But you know why I'm heavy! You diagnosed it!' And he told me I had to eat less, and I told him I'd hardly been eating anything, only one small meal a day. And he said, 'No, no, that can't be true, or you wouldn't weigh this much.'"

Medical professionals live in the same culture that has shaped their patients' attitudes towards food, health, and beauty, and no doubt many of them struggle with body-images issues of their own. But it seems to me that shaming patients violates the prime medical directive of "First, do no harm." Shaming patients about something they can't -- or shouldn't -- change is counter- productive at best, and simply cruel at worst. Even when change is medically mandated, there must be healthier ways to motivate patients to achieve it.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Fate of Mice (Philly style)

I just got back to my sister's house after a visit to my dad's; my brother-in-law dropped me off at the El yesterday, which was very convenient because the train stops a block from my father's apartment. That way, I didn't have to attempt the nerve-wracking drive on new, high-volume highways in someone else's car.

My father lives in senior/disabled housing. It's a decent building, but it's pretty old, and like many older buildings in the east, it has its share of vermin. This doesn't mean that my father's a bad housekeeper or that the building's inherently dirty, just that various critters get into the walls and can't be entirely killed off. So Dad has a slew of roach motels scattered through the apartment -- they've taken care of that particular problem quite nicely -- but he also has mice.

So he has a mousetrap. It's a live mousetrap, because he's basically a kind person. He told me he's caught five mice. The first two were still alive, and when Dad called security, the guards came and released the mice in front of the building.

Dad baits the mousetrap with dark chocolate: he says the mice love it, although I don't know how he's figured out that they love the chocolate more than anything else. Maybe other kinds of bait were less successful. Anyway, I did some shopping for him today, and the first item on the list was chocolate. "Dark chocolate," he said. "Bars. Get big bars."

I teased him about his chocolate habit -- he also has chocolate pudding and chocolate cream pie in his fridge -- and he said, "The chocolate bars are mouse bait."

"Oh!" I said. "Then I won't get good chocolate."

"No," he said, "get good chocolate. I'll eat half of each bar and give the mice the other half."

So I got three big bars of dark chocolate: a Lindt, a Hershey's, and a Valor. My sister and father and I ate most of the Valor after a delicious poached salmon dinner, so there isn't much of that left for the mice. But I had to giggle, imagining how the mice must think about this. "Hey! Go to Apartment ____! That guy shares his yummy chocolate with us, and then we get a ride outside, where all the trees and grass are! And then we can come back inside and eat more chocolate and get another ride!" This has to be some version of mouse heaven, at least until the mice get so fat from the chocolate that they can't fit inside the trap anymore.

I told Dad that he should borrow one of my sister's six cats to scare the mice away, but he doesn't like cats, so he vetoed that idea. Gary said I should bring the mice back for our cats, but I'd rather imagine the mice leading a blissful existence involving chocolate.

It was nice to spend almost two days with my father; we had a good time. Unfortunately, my mother's started running a fever, which so far has peaked at about 100.5. Given her history of cellulitis in her bad arm, her doctor put her on just-in-case antibiotics, although neither the arm nor the surgery sites are particularly bothering her. But we're a little worried, hoping whatever this is won't get worse and necessitate another ER trip. And of course, everybody wants her to be feeling better now, not starting to feel lousy again.

I, meanwhile, am homesick. I love my family here, and my sister's cats, but I miss Gary and my own cats and the mountains and the dry desert climate. And my own bed: my back's been killing me since I've been here, even with exercise. It never entirely recovered from that brutal series of plane flights, and slightly-too-soft beds aren't helping.

I've gotten some nice e-mails from students and colleagues since I've been here, wishing my mother well. She just got a get-well card from the staff at her gym, who ask about her whenever I'm there. And this afternoon, I got into a conversation with the cashier at my father's grocery store; when she found out that I'd flown from Reno to Philly because my mother was having surgery, she asked how Mom was and said she'd be praying for her. Mom rolled her eyes when I told her this, but I was touched.

I'm glad I'm here, but I'm looking forward to being home!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mom's Home

It's been a pretty hectic day. This morning, we were told that Mom's sodium and magnesium were low, but that she might go home after 5:00 if those numbers improved. I got ready to zip into the city to visit my father, but at the last minute, he called and said that it wasn't worth it for me to come for an hour, and that he didn't want me to be so stressed out; he'd rather have me visit when I can spend an entire day and relax.

So instead of zipping into the city, I zipped to the hospital. While I was there, I made sure the nurse knew about the infection problem in Mom's arm. The nurse told me that Mom definitely wouldn't be going home. I also (with Mom's permission) read through her chart, and discovered some things that I hadn't known and that surprised me. I asked the nurse about them; she paged one of Mom's doctors, who -- to my surprise -- arrived immediately and graciously answered questions. He told me that the two diagnoses I'd found in the chart were mistakes, and that I shouldn't worry about them, and he listened carefully to my concerns about the arm. He said that they don't have her on antibiotics at the moment, but that we should watch carefully for even the slightest sign of infection. He also said that Mom might be going home.

Then I saw the doctor who's our family friend, and told him about my conversation with the other doctor. He went over the chart with me again -- slightly grumpy because one of the diagnoses was his, and was indeed accurate, although the other was just a leftover question from the ER -- and explained very well and clearly what all the terminology meant. He said that Mom would be going home if her numbers improved.

I left to go meet up with my nephew at my sister's house; it turned out that he'd been there since noon but could only stay until five, whereas I'd thought he'd be available from three (when I arrived) into the evening. My sister came home, and the three of us had an early dinner just in case Mom was indeed discharged -- and at 5:00, the phone rang and Mom said she was coming home. So my sister and I drove back to the hospital to pick her up. She curled up in the backseat and slept on the way home.

She's very weak, and I was worried about whether she'd be able to get up the stairs to her second-floor bedroom, but she made it. While my sister was out filling prescriptions, I helped Mom get undressed and fed her some applesauce and cottage cheese my brother-in-law had brought upstairs. I'm known as the klutz in the family, the person without hands-on practical skills -- this is probably a function of being the baby of my generation, combined with my genuine lack of physical coordination -- so I feel good whenever I can do something useful.

We're all tired and irritable, but we're also all relieved Mom's home. Oh, she told me that after I left the hospital today, an ER doctor came upstairs to talk to me because he heard I'd been asking questions. Jeez! I was impressed, although I'm not sure whether this was kindness or concern over the fact that a relative was reading the chart (maybe a combination?).

Anyway, all's well for the moment. My sister and I are both a little nervous, because the last time Mom came home after surgery (three years ago), she wound up being rehospitalized for an infection. We really, really hope nothing like that happens this time. For a week, Mom's been surrounded by people who are experts at sorting serious symptoms from trivial ones. We aren't, so it' a little nerve-wracking. But I believe the hospital's going to be sending a visiting nurse; that will take some of the pressure off us.

And as my sister said, Mom's certainly doing well for someone two days out of the OR!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Slightly Bumpy Day

I slept for twelve hours last night -- which I'm sure I needed after the flight fiasco -- and woke up only because a cousin called to see how Mom was. I had a pleasant workout at my mother and sister's gym and then went to the hospital.

Mom had been transferred from the ICU to a regular medical/surgical bed, which was the good news. The bad news was that her hemoglobin was so low that she needed a blood transfusion. Furthermore, they had to use her "bad" arm, the one that's so prone to cellulitis that she has a standing order for antibiotics if the skin gets broken. Medical folks never use her bad arm for anything, and there's a special armband on it alerting medical folks not to do anything to it, but they couldn't get a vein in her good arm -- so the bad arm it was.

My sister and I hope they're also giving her antibiotics, but we haven't been able to get a clear answer about this. We're pretty nervous about it; she's been hospitalized twice for infections in that arm, and it's easy to pick up an infection after surgery even if you're otherwise healthy.

We left pretty soon after the tranfusion, and the latest labwork hadn't come back yet, so we didn't know if her hemoglobin was back where it was supposed to be. The nurse said Mom wouldn't need another transfusion, but also left the IV in the bad arm -- I guess so they'll have an available vein if they have to do anything else. (And how can she know that Mom won't need it if the numbers aren't back?)

Mom was very tired today and had a bad headache, but, especially once the transfusion kicked in, she did seem more herself than she did yesterday. We cajoled her into eating a reasonable portion of a cottage-cheese and fruit-salad plate by feeding her forkfuls, turning it into a game where each forkful was for a different family pet (we went through generations of cats, including some I'd never heard of before, like Mom's grandmother's favorite cat, Big Kitty).

It was odd to be in the hospital as a family member; I haven't done that for a while, and I'd forgotten what it felt like to be treated like someone who doesn't know anything. All of the nurses were nice, but quite often they wouldn't finish listening to our questions, or wouldn't listen carefully enough to understand what we were actually asking. They'd answer some simpler question they thought we were asking, and we'd try to ask the more complicated one again, and they'd repeat the answer to the simpler one -- only more slowly, with dumbed-down vocabulary. *Sigh*

At one point, a strange man in a suit walked into the room. I said to Mom, "Here's your doctor." He said, "I'm not her doctor," and proceeded to remove her chart from a drawer and walk out of the room with it -- before I could ask, "Well, who are you, then, and what are you doing with my mother's chart?" A few minutes later, I looked for him to ask those questions, but couldn't find him. About forty-five minutes later, he walked back into the room, plunked the chart on a countertop, and left, again too quickly for me to ask any questions.

The CNA who was in the room, and who was the most informative person we dealt with today, told me that he was indeed a doctor, but she didn't know why he needed the chart. She did tell us not to be shy about asking questions. Well, I'm not usually shy about asking questions, but it sure helps when people a) bother to introduce themselves and b) hang around long enough for other people to formulate sentences.

I was supposed to drive into central Philly to visit my father after seeing Mom today, but I stayed so long at the hospital that I decided just to go back to my sister's. I did okay driving my brother-in-law's car on local roads, but I didn't want to attempt it on a new, complicated highway system when I was fighting jet lag and when I'd also have to find my way back after dark.

I think my father was disappointed by this, although he understood; he's now pressuring me, though, to get there tomorrow. The problem is that tomorrow's my only day to see my nephew, and I can't do that and go to two other places (in opposite directions from my sister's house) to see my parents. So I told Dad that if Mom seemed to be having a good day tomorrow, I'd go to his house instead of the hospital, but that if she didn't seem to be having a good day, I'd be at the hospital. That made him cranky. He cares about her, even though they've been divorced for forty years, and has called her in the hospital, and I'm glad he wants to see me, and I want to see him too -- but I can't bilocate. If their positions were reversed, I'd be spending more time with him.

From Thursday on, I should be able to divide my time more easily; especially since we're still hoping that Mom will be home by then. Having her home will be good news on many fronts!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Successful Surgery, Hurrah!

My mother's surgery this morning went very well. She's being monitored tonight in ICU, but they expect her to be sent down to telemetry tomorrow -- or she might even be able to go home, although she's not too enthusiastic about that idea at the moment. Her surgeon was really nice (everyone also says he's incredibly skillful), and we have a many-times-removed cousin-in-law who's a doctor at the hospital and on its board. He's been looking in on Mom every day, and hunted me and my sister down twice today to see how we were doing. He's been so attentive that Mom's ICU nurses thought he was her actual doctor, although he's not.

So trooper Mom has pulled through again! The first time we saw her, we were in the ICU waiting room and we saw her bed being wheeled in. We both called out "Mom!" and raced after the bed, and promptly got ourselves thrown out of the ICU by the nurses, who wanted to get Mom settled before she had any visitors. She was pretty gorked out then, though, because she'd just come from the recovery room.

We went back this evening and she was doing much better: drinking water and juice, commenting on our haircuts and earrings, and generally acting like herself -- although a very weak, sleepy version of herself, to be sure.

And now to bed. I got into Philly at 6:30 this morning after entirely too many hours in the Alternate Airtravel Universe, and I'm ready for a good night's sleep!

Tomorrow I get to attempt the adventure of driving around Philadelpia in my brother-in-law's car. I suspect driving in Philly may be more dangerous than vascular surgery, especially when the driver's jet-lagged. I keep telling myself that since I've survived many highly amusing highway adventures in the Bay Area, this will be a snap.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Leaving Las Vegas

Today's adventures:

Arrive at Reno airport in plenty of time for flight to Vegas. Check bag, go through security.

Learn that U.S. Air flight is delayed one hour due to mechanical problems, which will result in self missing connection to Philly. Am offered two choices: fly to Phoenix at 6 PM and connect to Philly flight arriving 6 AM -- too late to see Mom before she's wheeled into surgery at 7:30 -- or switch to Southwest flight which will make Philly connection.

Choose second option. Security rules now prohibit transfer of luggage between airlines: learn I'll have to go downstairs, pick up my checked bag, recheck it, and go through security again. Learn I'll have to do the same thing in Vegas, in the tight time between connections.

Go through security again with thirty seconds to spare to make Southwest flight. Because I'm a "late check-in," automatically qualify for "special security handling," including frisking and removal of all items in carry-on bags. Pleas with security personnel about family emergency fall on deaf ears.

Make Southwest flight anyway. Southwest flight delayed an hour due to bad weather in Vegas. Am assured that Philly connection will also be delayed.

Finally arrive in Vegas after horribly bumpy flight and bizarre holding patterns. Go downstairs to retrieve bag. Get bag. Go to ticket counter. Philly flight left on time, ninety minutes ago. Nice ticket lady looks for some other way to get me out of Vegas while sister confers frantically with me on cell phone. If they can't get me to Philly tonight, what about Newark, or even Baltimore?

Nice ticket lady finds flight that will get me into JFK at 2:00 a.m. Sister rejects this option.

Nice ticket lady books me on flight to Phoenix, making Philly connection that will get me in at 6 AM.

Go through security again, third time in one day. Record.

Am currently sitting in Phoenix, waiting for flight and already smelling like barnyard animal. Long night ahead.

Upside: Phoenix has free Internet! Yay!

Long Day's Journey

I'm now almost packed, and I'll have time to swim today before leaving for the airport, which will definitely be A Good Thing. On the long flight from Vegas to Philly, I got one of the last seats on the plane, in the very back row; as my mother reminds me, this means the seat won't recline. Ugh. So I'm going to take a big sweatshirt to use as a pillow. At least it's a window seat, which will give me something to lean against. I also have a goody bag of food so I won't have to buy the crud on the plane: a power bar, trail mix, dried apricots.

My sister and I are going to try to get to the hospital before the surgery tomorrow, to wish Mom good luck, which means we need to get up at 5:00 or 5:30, which means we basically won't get any sleep. My sister says we can nap in the waiting area at the hospital -- I'll bring my big sweatshirt there, too! (Pity we won't be able to curl up in Mom's empty hospital bed, although we may be too wired to sleep anyway.)

Yesterday I got some papers graded to return to students, and left them in the mailbox of the colleague who'll be covering one of my classes. That felt good. I'm also bringing a lot of work with me, but who knows how much I'll get done.

Time to swim.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Good News

Thanks to everyone who's sent e-mail or left nice comments. I really appreciate it.

I just spoke to my mother, who sounded very chipper. She's been told that the surgery will proceed as planned on Monday morning; the aortic calcification isn't severe enough to require treatment first, I gather. Also, they think they can put in a stent rather than doing a more invasive procedure. We're all going to feel a lot better when that aneurysm's repaired.

She's still very impressed with everyone at the hospital; when she was in another hospital for her lung-cancer surgery three years ago, she had a bad experience with one of the aides, so I'm glad nothing like that is happening here.

I probably won't get to see her before the surgery, though. My plane gets to Philly around midnight -- if it's on time -- and then there's the interminable wait for luggage and the forty-five minute drive to my sister's house. At that rate we won't get to bed until two at the earliest, and Mom's surgery is scheduled for 7:30 a.m. On the other hand, my sister and I may be so wired that we pop awake at 5:00 a.m. (although for me, the time change will mitigate against that).

Lots to do today to get ready to leave, so I'd better go do it.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Huge Changes at the Last Minute

Well, I managed to snag a relatively cheap roundtrip fare from Reno to Philly, leaving this coming Sunday and returning on the 29th, so I'm flying out. This is one of those cases where if I'm not there and something horrible happens, I'll never forgive myself; and if nothing horrible happens there, the worst that happens here is that my classes get thrown into slight chaos.

I'm scrambling around to cancel meetings and get class coverage, but I already spoke to my department chair, who's very sympathetic to family issues, and she was supportive.

My sister can probably pick me up at the airport, and there will be a car I can borrow when I'm there.

Mom's glad I'm coming, and was feeling better even before I booked the ticket. She says everyone at the hospital is so nice and friendly, and she enjoys having so many people to talk to.

I've got too much adrenaline in my system, though: must go swim now!


My mother did have her pre-surgery stress test today. After the procedure, the cardiologist came into her room and told her that there's some calcification on her aortic valve, which increases the risk of the surgery. He's going to talk to her vascular surgeon; she may need another test, which would delay the surgery, but she's scared of doing that because the aneurysm's gotten bigger even since the most recent CT.

She was crying as she told me all this. She's scared that the surgery will kill her, but she absolutely needs the surgery, because if she doesn't have it, the aneurysm will kill her. I reminded her that she's survived long odds her entire life -- beginning when she was five and her appendix ruptured -- and she agreed with me. But she's scared anyway.

I asked her again if she wants me to fly in for the surgery; she pointed out that we don't even know when it will be, and that planning for an out-of-town arrival would increase my sister's stress. "And if you were here, we'd only cry, anyway."

She had a nice visit from a doctor who's a family friend, but that was before she knew about the increased risk. She also told me that when she was in the hall waiting for the test, she saw someone who looked uncannily like my aunt, Mom's brother's wife, who died this past June. The woman saw Mom looking at her and stopped to say hello. "She was the chaplain! I told her that you were a chaplain. She was Lutheran. We had a nice chat, and she asked if she could pray with me." Mom's usually mortified by people praying for or over her, but this time, she said okay. "It was a little long, but it was nice. At the end, I almost cried, not because of what she said, but because I appreciated the thought."

I asked my mother if she remembered the chaplain's name. She didn't. After I got off the phone with her, I called the hospital switchboard to see if I could find the chaplain and ask her to go talk to Mom again. The operator told me that the hospital only has volunteer community chaplains, and paged any chaplain who was in the building, but no one answered. The chaplain who prayed with my mother must already have left.

I tried calling the hospital's volunteer office: no answer. I can't find a listing for a pastoral-care or spiritual-care office. So at this point, I'm stumped and frustrated.

My sister hasn't heard the news yet, but I'm sure she'll be going to see Mom this evening.

I'm going to go to the health club and swim. I don't know what else to do, and swimming is a prayer meditation for me, anyway.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Survivors (an essay in four parts)


This morning, I watched an online video interview with one of the hospitalized victims of the Virginia Tech shootings. This young man was a student in the German class where Cho killed Jamie Bishop and so many other people. This student spoke very eloquently about how glad he is to be alive and how grateful he is to the three other students who held the classroom door closed, once Cho had left the room, so that Cho couldn't get back in and finish off what he had started.

And then the student talked about Cho. "I just wish I'd known him before all this happened. I wish I'd had a chance to reach out to him."

The reporter interrupted, putting a hand on the student's leg. "You know how crazy that sounds, don't you?"

And the student said that maybe it did sound crazy, but that was how he felt. He said he's forgiven Cho, and that forgiveness is the beginning of healing.

I had mixed reactions to this: first, that it's easier to forgive someone who's already dead, and secondly, that forgiveness can't be rushed (and for some people, may never be possible). But my first and strongest reaction, when the reporter interrupted the student, was that no, the student's statement didn't sound crazy at all. A lot of people did try to reach out to Cho, as it turns out. Tragically, those efforts didn't work. But the futility of the attempts doesn't make the student's wistful regret any less powerful or poignant.

This wounded student was voicing his faith that loving people is the right thing to do, and that love can help heal people who are even more badly wounded, people consumed by hatred and despair. That doesn't sound one bit crazy to me. The reporter's judgment, though, is a logical response in a society that too often seems to consider compassion a limited resource, one to be rationed far more carefully than we ration water or wood or fossil fuels.

Very often, when I've expressed compassion for criminals, people have glared at me and said, "Don't you think you should feel compassion for their victims instead?" And my response has always been that of course I feel compassion for the victims; I try to feel compassion for everybody, although I certainly don't always live up to that lofty goal. This isn't an either/or situation, where one can only feel compassion for the victim or the perpetrator. It's both/and: one can feel compassion for both sides of the conflict, both for the people who've done the hurting and for the people who've been hurt.

I should probably define my terms here. Feeling compassion for someone doesn't mean that I approve of that person's behavior, or that I feel the person shouldn't have to atone for wrongdoing. It simply means that I sorrow for whatever conditions led that person to that behavior; that I hope for growth and love and redemption to be possible; that I resolutely try to keep sight of the human being even when that human has behaved inhumanely. It means that I wish that I, or someone, had been able to reach out to this person before the behavior occurred.

For me, compassion is much easier than forgiveness. I can feel compassion for people at whom I'm still angry, people I haven't forgiven yet. I'm able to feel deeply hurt by people, even furious at them, and still feel sorrow and regret for them. I'm entirely too good at nursing anger -- it's definitely one of my besetting sins -- but I've never consciously tried to hurt the people who've made me angry (although I'm sure I've caused them pain anyway). I don't want them to suffer. I just want them to get their acts together.

All of that probably sounds crazy too, but there you have it. I'm vast: I contain multitudes.


My hope in the possibility of growth and love and redemption is why, even when I believe someone should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, I don't believe in the death penalty. I used to be in favor of the death penalty, and then I was torn about it for a really long time, and then I stopped being torn about it and decided that I was against it. The catalyst for that decision was probably hearing, on NPR's All Things Considered, the radio documentary Witness to an Execution, "examining the effects that executing inmates has on the men and women of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. . . . the documentary is narrated by Warden Jim Willett, overseer of all Texas executions, and is told through the voices of the men and women who have participated in or witnessed as many as 162 executions."

These voices tell us that even when prison employees approve of the death penalty, even when they believe they're doing the right thing, the work of taking human lives takes a terrible toll on them. As I've said in an earlier post, I think we need to be very mindful of what we're asking when we ask others to kill for us.

But the line that most moved me in the NPR program came from a journalist who said quietly, "You've never heard a sound like the sound a mother makes when her son is being executed."

I've heard many survivors of murder victims say that they wanted to attend the murderer's execution, that this brought them closure, that it made them feel better. If they say it makes them feel better, I have to believe them. But after hearing the NPR program, I wondered: did any of them think about how the murderer's family felt? Did they hear the sound the mother made when her son was executed? How did that make them feel?

Of course, some murderers' families have written the murderers off in rage and hatred, just as the victims' families have. And some victims' families have taken the stand in court to ask the judge and jury not to use the death penalty, because the murderer's death won't bring their loved ones back or make them feel better.

I have friends who carry wallet cards stating that if they die in the course of a violent crime, they don't want the people responsible for their death to be put to death themselves. I'd have a card like that myself, if I were more organized about all kinds of end-of-life matters. (Gary and I don't have wills or advance directives, either. Hold the lectures, please. Yes, I know we need to do this. Nagging won't help, okay?)

I heard the NPR documentary in October, 2000, when it first aired, and it helped make up my mind about a notoriously difficult issue. But my convictions about the death penalty, while deeply held, were abstract and academic, worlds away from any real experience.


And then the debate came home with a crash. A few years ago, the deeply disturbed grown son of a close family friend committed a grisly, premeditated murder.

To protect the privacy of everyone concerned, I'm not going to provide any identifying details. But when my sister called me to tell me about the murder, we both instantly knew who'd done it. When I called my father, who's particularly close to the murderer's mother, he knew her son had done it. At that point, the police had the murderer in custody but weren't releasing his name, but we knew we'd recognize the name when it came out. And we did. We've never had any illusions about this man's innocence.

I haven't met our friend's son, and I can't say that I want to. The stories she's told us about him have convinced us that he's a pretty awful human being; he's physically threatened or hurt her on more than one occasion, although she's done nothing but help him. Like Cho Seung-Hui, he's a very intelligent person, especially good at math; also like Cho Seung-Hui, he's clearly mentally ill. We're now learning that Cho Seung-Hui endured terrible bullying as a child; I don't know if our friend's son did or not. Of course, many people endure terrible bullying without becoming murderers -- I was terribly bullied myself when I was a kid, and I've never killed anybody -- but in some cases, it does seem to be one causative factor.

No one in my family felt sorry for our friend's son. We were furious at him, and we all felt absolutely sick for the victim and the victim's family. But we also felt absolutely sick for our friend, the murderer's mother, who went through agonies of shame and self-reproach after the crime, and who's now moved hundreds of miles away from where she had been living, so she can be close to her son's prison and visit him there. He's still awaiting trial. She wonders whether she'll attend; she's been warned that it will be hard to take, that a very ugly picture of her son will emerge. She doesn't know if she'll be able to stand that.

She regularly talks to my father, who's an attorney. My father regularly talks to me. We both know that in this particular jurisdiction, this will be considered a capital crime. The prosecution will undoubtedly ask for the death penalty, and they'll probably get it. We think that if our friend's son were really smart, he'd admit his guilt to try to get life without parole instead of the death penalty. He keeps saying he's innocent. We all know he isn't innocent. And while we also all know that he's mentally ill, we wouldn't expect anyone to buy an insanity defense. We wouldn't buy it ourselves. This crime, like Cho Seung-Hui's, was too premeditated, too vicious, too carefully planned.

And yet, almost despite myself, I keep stubbornly hoping for the possibility of growth and love and redemption. "Everybody says he's really good at math," I told my father once. "He could tutor other prisoners. You know, prison education programs keep getting cut, and illiteracy and innumeracy are a huge problem for those guys. That's what keeps a lot of them from being able to get legal jobs. Even if he never gets out himself, he could help other people have a better chance when they got out."

My father's always been against the death penalty. It didn't take an NPR documentary to convince him. But he's also a realist. "It would be great if he could do that, if he could ever work well enough with anybody. But he's already been in solitary just because of stuff that's happened before the trial."

We both think our friend's son will get the death penalty. We wonder how our friend will survive this. She's furious at him too, and she hates what he's done, but she still loves him. She remembers carrying him inside her body before he was born, remembers feeding him when he was a baby, remembers funny things he did when he was a little boy. In the middle of the horror his life has become, the horror he's made of other people's lives, she clings to what's good about him.

I can't believe that's wrong. And I don't want to imagine the sound she'll make when she sees him being executed.

Ever since the Virginia Tech massacre, I've been thinking about her, and thinking about Cho Seung-Hui's parents and sister. By everyone's account, his parents are good people who worked very hard to give their two children the chance to succeed in a new country. His sister, Cho Sun-Kyung, graduated from Princeton, my alma mater. She spent three months as a State Department intern in Thailand because she wanted to observe labor conditions in a developing country, and gave a short interview about her experience to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin. It's hard to believe that the articulate, engaged young woman who made these comments is related to the Virginia Tech killer. I can't imagine what she and her parents are going through now.

If Cho Seung-Hui hadn't killed himself after killing all those other people, I'd definitely want him to spend the rest of his life in prison. But I wouldn't want him to be on death row. I wouldn't want to put his parents and sister through that torment; I wouldn't want to think about the sounds they'd make when they watched him being executed. I'd want to believe that love and growth and redemption would somehow be possible for him, even if only in the form of offering math tutoring to other prisoners.


No growth or redemption are possible for Cho Seung-Hui now, because he's dead. I'm sure many people are very happy about that, or at least bitterly satisfied; if he weren't dead, I'm sure that many people would want him to be. How can we blame them?

But I keep thinking about his parents and sister, and about our family friend. Last night I found myself wishing that I could put them all in a room together, so they could talk to each other. And that got me wondering if there are any support groups for the families of murderers, alongside the very necessary and important ones for the families of murder victims.

And that, in turn, led me to a Google search. And my Google search led me to Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, a coalition of families who oppose the death penalty even though their own loved ones have been murdered -- or because their loved ones have been murdered, and they know the pain of that loss.

MVFHR's home page quotes Bud Welch, father of Julie Marie Welch, victim in the Oklahoma City bombing: "The death penalty is about revenge and hate, and revenge and hate is why my daughter and those 167 other people are dead today."

Here's part of MVFHR's mission statement:
By definition, human rights cannot be either granted or denied by a government. By framing the death penalty as a human rights issue rather than a criminal justice issue, we are saying that whatever form of government a nation has, whatever the assumptions or policies of its criminal justice system, it should not be allowed to take the lives of its own citizens. Thinking of the death penalty this way takes it out of the realm of specific criminal justice systems and places it in the realm of international human rights standards, which transcend national borders and are based in our common humanity across the globe.

MVFHR believes that the anti-death penalty movement in the United States can draw strength from this international human rights framework and from solidarity and partnership with those who are working against the death penalty in other countries ­­-- and not just in countries that no longer have the death penalty, but also in countries that still retain it. In viewing the issue this way, we are building upon the work of human rights, anti-death penalty, and victims’ activists in this country and around the world.

We believe that survivors of homicide victims have a recognized stake in the debate over how societies respond to murder and have the moral authority to call for a consistent human rights ethic as part of that response.
MVFHR has produced a report called "Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind." They note in particular the impact of executions on the children of those being put to death by the state.

I have a feeling that MVFHR members would completely understand the student survivor who wished he'd had the chance to reach out to Cho Seung-Hui. I don't think they'd think that was crazy at all. And knowing that there's such an organization in the world makes it easier for me to have faith that I'm not crazy, either. There are other people who stubbornly hope for the possibility of growth and love and redemption, even for those who've hurt them most deeply.

I pray that Cho Seung-Hui's family will find the love and support they need. I keep thinking about the bereaved survivors of the Amish schoolhouse shooting, who reached out to the family of the shooter. Is anyone doing that for the Chos?

Unwanted Hospital Adventure

As I mentioned in a previous post, my mother's scheduled for surgery this coming Monday. I now have her permission to tell you that it's surgery to repair an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Her doctors have been aware of this for a while and giving her CT scans every six months to see if it's gotten bigger; her most recent scan showed that it had reached five millimeters, which is when they go in to do a surgical repair.

She's been having a bazillion tests to see if she can withstand the surgery, which we're all hoping they can do laparoscopically, since that cuts the hospital time down from ten days to something more like two.

Today she went to the hospital for a stress test. She wasn't allowed to take any of her meds beforehand, and my sister just called me to say that when Mom got to the hospital, she was out of breath and her heartrate was "a little fast." So she couldn't have the stress test; she was sent to the ER instead.

I believe this is the same ER where Mom had to spend eighteen hours three years ago, when she had to be admitted for a post-surgical infection but there were no beds. None of us have the fondest memories of the place.

All of this just happened. My sister said that my mother sounded basically fine, if upset. Aside from hoping that she's okay, which goes without saying, I also really hope that this doesn't delay her surgery. I hate the idea of her carrying that time bomb around in her belly.

It's been that kind of week; this past weekend, two of Gary's relatives were in the hospital, although things on that front seem to be going as well as they can.

I'll post updates when I have them; with luck, it will all resolve quickly. But first, I'm heading to the gym to work off some of my own stress!

Oh, before I forget, the latest Change of Shift is up. I wasn't organized enough to submit anything this week, but I'm looking forward to reading it!

My sister just called again to say that she's signing out of work to go to the hospital. I'm glad she's there, and I wish I could be.


Mom's been admitted to monitor heart symptoms, although she's still in the ER. They may do the stress test tomorrow if they can, and they may just keep her in the hospital until the surgery on Monday. I spoke to her briefly, and she's actually relieved to be admitted to the hospital; I think she's found all the tests extremely wearing. She and my sister were squabbling back and forth (good-naturedly) the way they usually do, which I take as a good sign.

It turns out that this isn't the hospital where she had to wait eighteen hours for a bed, although of course that can happen anywhere.

Early evening:

Mom's now in a room -- this is a hospital where all the rooms are private -- and has had an ultrasound of her legs which showed no blockages (I guess her legs are swollen). She's exhausted from the stressful day and has a headache, but says that she's received excellent care "on every account." My sister really likes her nurse, and one of the ED doctors commented that she has an excellent vascular surgeon.

She sounds more cheerful than I would after the day she's had; when I called, she was trying to figure out how to turn on the TV (her nurse was helping her). So I'm feeling more cheerful, too.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Six Degrees of Separation

Yesterday, I got e-mail from a fellow chaplain at the hospital. Her nephew's a graduate student at Virginia Tech. He's okay, thank God, but the shootings happened in the dorm next to his and in his engineering building, so -- like everyone there -- he has a lot of healing to do.

One of my colleagues at work has a friend who'd just been at Virginia Tech interviewing for a teaching job there. My friend thinks that one of the classes she visited was probably one where Cho was a student.

A student who came to my office for an advising appointment yesterday said that his wife was really rattled because she's a Virginia Tech alumna; he was going to go home to "be there for her."

Driving home, I listened to a list of thumbnail descriptions of the victims on NPR, and started crying. I was especially moved by the information about Jamie Bishop, the German teacher who was killed, and whose wife also teaches in the foreign language department there. Now I've learned that he was the son of Michael Bishop, an award-winning science-fiction writer whom I've met, and who's one of the world's kindest people.

This is like 9/11: everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who was there. Really, we're all connected, although sometimes we only realize it when something tears us apart.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Well, we now know that Virginia Tech faculty were aware that the shooter was "disturbed," and did indeed refer him for counseling:
The English major's creative writing was so disturbing that he was referred to the school's counseling service, officials said.

Professor Carolyn Rude, chairwoman of the university's English department, said she did not personally know the gunman. But she said she spoke with Lucinda Roy, the department's director of creative writing, who had Cho in one of her classes and described him as "troubled."

"There was some concern about him," Rude said. "Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things and you never know if it's creative or if they're describing things, if they're imagining things or just how real it might be. But we're all alert to not ignore things like this."

She said Cho was referred to the counseling service, but she said she did not know when, or what the outcome was. Rude refused to release any of his writings or his grades, citing privacy laws.
In other words, they did everything right.

I've had students hand in pretty disturbing stuff, and it can be difficult to know how to respond. I tell my students that if they write anything that appears to contain a threat to themselves or others, I have a professional and ethical duty to follow up. I've only had to do this a few times, and in each case, the student's response has been, "Wow, I'm sorry you took it that way; no, that's not what I meant, but thanks for asking."

I know of at least one case at UNR where a writing teacher was concerned enough about a student paper to alert the campus police; to everyone's immense relief, it turned out to be a false alarm.

Elliot commented, in response to my previous post, that it must be tough to be a professor in a situation like this. Yes, indeed. I just had a conversation with a colleague in the hall; she said that she has nightmares about violent situations on campus, wondering what she'd do, wondering what she'd tell her students and how she could try to protect them.

Ditto. I pray I never have to find out.

Grand Rounds, and VTech Despite Myself

This week's Grand Rounds is up, and I'm pleased to be included.

Meanwhile, it's hard to get away from the Virginia Tech horror, even without television. This kind of thing is one reason Gary and I don't have TV; it's too easy to be traumatized by endless replays of tragedy, and it's too hard not to watch the damn thing if you have one.

I wouldn't want to be a campus official there right now. The first impulse in this kind of situation, especially when the killer's dead himself, is to hunt around for additional people to blame, to try to impose sense on an inherently senseless event.

Whatever the campus police did or didn't do wrong, the fact is that there's no way to make any college campus (or just about anywhere else, for that matter) completely safe. If somebody with a gun wants to kill people and doesn't care about dying himself, there's very little you can do to stop him. Although I support gun control, I'm not sure more of a non-gun culture in this country would help, either. Canada has fewer guns than we do, and one bulletin board I read noted that the closest parallel to the Virginia Tech massacre isn't Columbine: it's the Montreal Massacre of 1989 (although gender politics don't seem to have played a role in Blacksburg).

Another comment I read on a bulletin board, by a college professor, said simply, "What can we do to help students before they act out this way?"

Yes, exactly. There isn't much info on the gunman yet. We know his name (Cho Seung-Hui), age (23), major (English), and nationality (South Korean). I haven't seen any statements yet from anybody who knew him, and I don't know if he had family in this country. Gary said last night over dinner, "What do you want to bet that it will turn out everyone thought he was a nice kid: very quiet, kept to himself?"

Since the dark ages when I was in college, schools have become much more aware of the need for mental-health services and intervention. I've done my share of referring students to UNR's counseling services. But in my experience, female students are much more open to that kind of help than male students are; and in the Virginia Tech case, I suspect cultural factors would have made that even more true. Even if someone had figured out that Cho Seung-Hui needed help, would he have accepted it? Or would he have done that "Thanks, but I'm fine" thing that even the twitchiest young guys use when professors or friends say, "You seem unhappy, and I'm worried about you"?

In my twelve-plus years of teaching on college campuses, I can only remember one male student I succeeded in helping, and that was a battle for other reasons. For two years before I got the job at UNR, I taught at Stevens Tech in Hoboken, New Jersey. It's a very high-powered, high-pressure engineering school; I was teaching a required freshman/sophomore humanities sequence there, and my students routinely said things like, "You're the only professor on campus who knows my name." (This wasn't because my colleagues in the sciences were uncaring, but because it's very difficult to learn names in a 200-student lecture course.)

So I had this freshman. We'll call him Bob, although that wasn't his name. He was very bright, very sweet, and very at sea. In the first few weeks of the semester, from things he wrote in papers and from class comments, I pieced together that his parents were right-wing militant survivalists -- think ammo and cases of food in the basement -- and that he was under intense pressure to get straight As at this very difficult school. He gave a completely inappropriate class presentation on the United Nations as instrument of evil. In his best essay, he talked about how homesick he was and how much he missed his cat, whom he described in affectionate and charming detail. He missed his mom, too, but his attitude towards his father seemed to be mainly fear.

I tried to talk to him. He had blinders on: all he could see was his need to perform academically.

His personal hygiene went steadily downhill until mid-semester, when he showed up late for the midterm. While other students were writing their exams, he sat in a corner, glassy-eyed, alternately sucking his thumb and rubbing his crotch.

I called the Dean of Student Affairs office. Oh, yes: they knew about Bob. They'd gotten complaints about inappropriate behavior towards female students during freshman orientation.

Freshman orientation? That was weeks ago! Why hadn't anyone done anything since then?

Well, we've tried, but the counselor's only on campus two days a week, and we haven't been able to connect with Bob.

Bob stopped coming to class. I kept calling the Dean of Student Affairs office. They told me, vaguely, that they were working on it, and thanked me for my concern.

The final exam rolled around. Bob, amazingly, showed up -- again late -- for this test he was now completely unprepared to take. He was a mess, gaunt and ungroomed. He picked up the exam, looked at it, and burst into tears.

I pulled him out of the room. We sat on a bench across the hall, and I hugged him while he sobbed and hiccupped about how he couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, how he was failing all his classes. I told him he sounded depressed, and that depression's a medical illness. He told me his parents were going to kill him. I told him that if his parents needed to talk to someone about how hard it is to adjust to college, they could call me.

Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out what to do. This was just before the era of cell phones. I couldn't call anyone. I didn't know where I could take Bob, especially since I was supposed to be proctoring an exam.

By the grace of God, the secretary of the humanities department walked by just then, and did a doubletake when she saw me. I said, "Call the Dean of Student Affairs and tell him to get somebody down here right now."

The Dean of Student Affairs himself showed up about three minutes later and gently led Bob away. I later learned that Bob had been hospitalized for two weeks for acute depression. I have no idea what happened to him after that. I hope he was, and is, okay.

I suspect that Stevens has gotten savvier and more proactive about student mental health since then; I certainly hope they have at least one full-time counselor, if not more. But Bob succeeded in getting help both because he was very evidently in distress and because a faculty member was advocating for him. I suspect he knew, on some level, that I wanted to help him; that's probably why he came to the final.

At UNR, we have a staff of full-time counselors, 24-hour hotlines, and training for faculty in dealing with disturbed and disturbing students. Even so, it's very hard to help students who don't want to be helped, especially if they're clearly troubled but not having catastrophic academic problems.

All we can do, though, is to keep trying, and to safeguard our own mental health in the meantime.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Nevada in the News

Please note that I don't plan to say more than this paragraph about the Virginia Tech massacre, not because I'm not horrified, but because there's nothing to say that isn't obvious. My prayers go out to everyone affected by this. May the dead -- all of them, including the shooter himself -- rest in peace, and may their friends and families find comfort.

On a much lighter but still distressing note, today's paper had a story on volunteerism noting that Nevada's dead last in the country in percentage of residents who volunteer. The statistics around here tend to be grim -- we recently had the honor of being declared the nation's most dangerous state -- but this one surprised me, just because I know so many people who volunteer.

Of course, when you volunteer yourself, you tend to know a lot of other people who volunteer.

I was heartened, though, to read that national volunteer rates among young people have been climbing.

When Gary and I discussed this, he pointed out brightly that in our household, the volunteer rate is 50% (if you don't count the cats). I pointed out that it's really higher than that; Gary's volunteered for various one-day events, and also regularly gives blood and donates his old clothing to various causes, including the hospital's extremely haphazard heap of clothing for indigent patients. I took a bag of his stuff over there just yesterday, and deposited it in the locked storage closet off the ambulance bay. That closet's a truly scary black hole of obscure garments in tottering piles, walkers, wheelchairs, and miscellaneous engineering equipment. It would make a great setting for a horror story.

If I were really a good volunteer, I'd get some people together to get that place organized and get the clothing sorted . . . but housekeeping's not my gift. I'm so much better at running around the ED, finding cute kids to whom I can give cute donated stuffed animals. We had two new bags of fluffy critters yesterday, and I was delighted. I even got an exceptionally plush stuffed lamb named after me.

But maybe I'll e-mail the volunteer coordinator and suggest that some brave souls should do something about that closet. I might even offer to help.

May Readings in the Bay Area

On Saturday, May 19, I'll be reading at Borderlands Books in San Francisco at 5:00 PM.

On Sunday, May 20, I'll be reading at The Other Change of Hobbit in Berkeley at 1:00 PM.

I'll definitely be reading from The Fate of Mice at these events, and may slip in a snippet from Shelter, too, since that's coming out in June. The Tachyon publicist specifically asked me to use my extensive blogging network (my what?) to stimulate interest in the readings. So if you're reading this and you live in the Bay Area, or know people who live in the Bay Area, please spread the word!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

In Praise of Security Guards

Over the two and a half years I've been volunteering, I've spent a lot of time talking to the hospital security guards. They spend a lot of time in the ED, and in the winter -- when I park in a garage several blocks away -- they give me a ride back to my car after each shift, so we've had time to talk. They're a wonderful group of people.

I've seen guards come and go; the younger ones tend to leave pretty quickly. But there's a core of older men who've been at the hospital for years, and they bring much more than muscle to their work. Of course they occasionally need to subdue an obstreperous patient, and they have the background for it. All of them have served in the military, and at least one's a former police officer. But I no longer think of them as backup bodyguards. I think of them as people who listen, and who help.

At our hospital, all psych patients are watched by security guards until they've been evaluated and referred to a mental hospital. This process can take hours; on occasion, it's taken up to a day. The guards spend more time with these very unhappy patients than anyone: more time than the doctors, than the nurses, than the referring psychologist -- or than the chaplain. They can often tell me more about the patient's background than the medical staff can, and they often seek me out to ask me to speak to a particular patient.

And they speak at length to the patients themselves; I suspect they're better at pastoral care than many of us chaplains are. Because psych patients are almost always so lonely and in so much pain, the compassionate presence of another person -- someone who'll be with them without judging them -- is especially important, and the security guards provide that presence. They're unfailingly kind, and often very wise.

Because the security guards function as quiet observers, they know a lot. They know the staff; they know repeating patients. They're an invaluable source of information and perspective. More than once, one of the guards has comforted me after a tough shift or after a difficult interaction. They always make me feel better. Before I started volunteering, I wouldn't have defined security guards as healers, but now I think they are -- or at least, the ones I work with are.

There are lots of unsung heroes in the hospital. Tonight I had a nice conversation with the guy who, week after week, keeps trying to fix a malfunctioning printer in the ED. The department would break down without its housekeepers and admitting clerks, without a small army of techs, without the people who wash tons of laundry every week.

But the unsung heroes I know the most about are the security guards. In addition to listening to the patients, and to me, they've unlocked doors for me, warned me away from dangerous patients, and helped me with my car in bad weather. We've chatted about our families over coffee. Last summer, we mourned the sudden death of one of their number to cancer; all of us attended his funeral, and one of the other guards tirelessly helped his widow, giving her daily rides and helping her with the bewildering mass of paperwork that follows any death.

Thanks, guys. For everything.

The Ringing of the Bards

Tiel Ansari is hosting the latest edition of the poetry carnival, The Ringing of the Bards. I'm pleased that she included one of my ED sonnets. She always finds some unusual, meta-poetic way to present the poems; last month, she took the first line of each poem and created a poem from that, and this month, she's paired off the titles of poems to create a dialog.

I've been trying to write more ED sonnets, but I've hit a wall. I'll post more when I have them.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Counting Blessings

I'm pretty tired right now, and I have far too much work to do in the next two days, and I'm moderately grumpy. Today I had three meetings at work followed by a potluck dinner and discussion at church: I did get to swim in the middle of all that, so I don't feel as pretzel-like as I ordinarily would after sitting in uncomfortable chairs all day. However, it's definitely time to list some blessings to restore perspective.

1. Earlier this week, I got good news from a student whose significant other had a really premature baby -- 25 or 26 weeks, weighing 1 pound 10 ounces at birth -- earlier this semester. The baby's doing beautifully: he weighs almost three pounds now and is off almost all the fancy NICU equipment. The student told me they couldn't have asked for a better scenario. They'd originally thought that the soonest the baby would be able to come home was June, but now it's possible that they may be able to bring him home in May.

2. In mid-May, I'll get to start going to the hospital during the week again, instead of Sunday evenings -- which will make my life much easier. I wasn't sure the shift I wanted would be available, but after a round of e-mails with the volunteer coordinator today, it looks like it will be.

3. There was a funny bit of slapstick at the church potluck this evening. We were meeting to chat with our interim bishop, Jerry Lamb (perfect name for a bishop!). I'd forgotten all about the potluck until this afternoon, and there wasn't time to bring something for everybody, so Gary cooked a curry -- lamb, as it happens -- for the two of us, and I brought my own portion to church. Bishop Lamb was late; I didn't want my food to get cold and I was also hungry, so I started eating when everyone else was still milling around socializing. Gary's a very good cook, so I wound up giving away portions of my meal when friends wandered over, said plaintively, "That smells so good!" and stared pointedly at my plate.

I suddenly realized that everyone else was standing up, and when I turned in my chair to see what had happened, this guy in a purple shirt was about eighteen inches away from me, staring pointedly at my plate. "I'm so glad you started," he said.

Everyone laughed. I turned red -- someone said, "Is Susan going to explode?" -- and then I said, "I'll just crawl under the table now," and proceeded to do just that.

Bishop Lamb, who was also laughing, pulled me out by my sleeve and apologized very nicely for embarrassing me, although he also said cheerfully, "I'll never forget having you groveling at my feet."

I gave him some lamb curry to show that there were no hard feelings. I hope he enjoyed it.

So those are my blessings, although I also have a prayer request. My mother's having surgery on the 23rd, a week from Monday; I'd appreciate prayers for her and her caregivers, as well as for me and my sister.

Carnival of Hope: Volume 1, Number 8

Welcome to the April 13 Carnival of Hope! I hope your Friday the 13th is very lucky indeed.

The next edition will be posted on Friday, May 11; the submission deadline is 5:00 PM PDT on Thursday, May 10. I don't yet have a theme for this issue, so send me your best posts and let's see what develops! You can either use the BlogCarnival submission form or write directly to SusanPal(at)aol(dot)com. Please include the permalink for your post and a two or three line description of what it's about.

This month, I asked bloggers to send me stories of how seemingly bad luck turned out to be good luck. Okay, so it's a pretty obscure theme. I did get some submissions that fit it, though!

Elliot shares some painful losses of faith in his post The Little Boy and the Egg. It's hard to keep having our systems of belief smashed apart, but, as Elliot reminds us, "I remember, though the memory doesn't necessarily bring hope, that a Faberge egg is an egg, and that sometimes, sometimes, when an egg gets smashed open... a little baby bird comes out."

Poet Tiel Ansari continues the theme of breakage in her haiku Misfortune, which succinctly explores the loss of narcissism made possible by splintered mirrors.

And Craig Harper learns the same lesson, in less metaphorical terms, when a shattering tragedy gives him a new perspective on What Really Matters.....

Perspective is also the point of Conan Stevens' Massive Size As An Actor -- Good Or Bad?. "Often bad luck or good luck is all a matter of perception. This is a personal story of how one person saw my height as a disadvantage but I had only ever seen it as an advantage." Good luck with your career, Conan!

Most of us would consider becoming homeless the worst luck we could endure. But as blogger J Bradley shows us in his podcast interview Rob 4/4/2007, living on the streets can be better than being in prison. This blog has some links to thought-provoking sites about homelessness, and I encourage you to visit them.

In her post Praise Be To God, Sundance argues furiously with the notion of giving thanks to God when other people's bad luck becomes our good luck. "We should not praise Him for the misfortunes of others, we should ask, 'What more can I do to ease their suffering?' We must change our perspective from one that is egocentric to one that is sympathetic."

To be able to do that, though, we need to heal ourselves first, as Walks The Edge illustrates in her own post about prayer, Prayer can be healing (whether or not you believe in “God”). She moved from being egocentric to being sympathetic, but first she had to understand -- and let go of -- the knots into which her ego was tied.

On a more everyday level, Riversider uses an ad campaign urging workers to Take A Preston Minibreak to remind us that "Green spaces are a great place to find hope, even on your lunch hour."

Rajesh.P.I tells us about another easily accessible form of healing in her post about the Hugging Saint. I've heard that six hugs a day can boost emotional and physical health. If that's true, imagine how much health this woman is spreading!

Another way to make people feel better is to tell them what you love about them, what they've done well. Families staging interventions for addicts are usually advised to use the opposite technique, to tell their loved ones everything they've done wrong. But Praveen advocates the first method in her post The Anti-Intervention, and I think I agree with her.

The Internet is a powerful tool for communication, and also for helping others. Kate shares her post Read this Blog for Charity: Week One, telling us, "Babylune is hosting a charity campaign to benefit mothers. For every 1000 page views served up at the blog between March 18 and May 13th (Mothering Sunday to Mothers Day), $1 goes to one of three charities of hope that benefit mothers as chosen by people who vote in the poll." That gives us exactly a month to put our browsers into overdrive!

And Zechary tells us about another cyber-humanitarian scheme in his post Chat to help people.

That's it for the April edition. Enjoy your spring, and please come back in May!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Lotsa Cool Stuff, With Visuals

Reminder: tomorrow at 5 PM Pacific Time is the deadline for Carnival of Hope, which will go up on Friday. Send me your posts about seeming bad luck that turned out to be good luck -- or, more generally, about moments of hope or gratitude in your life.

Now to get to some recent moments of gratitude in mine:

To understand the following story, you have to know that I attach extreme, and quite possibly excessive, importance to anniversaries. Gary always jokes that I'm the historian of our relationship, and of other things too; this is one reason I was so acutely aware of the Spring Curse I described in my Easter Saturday homily.

Two years ago on April 6, I learned about some less-than-completely-honest behavior on the part of two people I loved. They said that I shouldn't take this behavior personally, but I did anyway, and I was devastated.

Last year on Good Friday, my friendship with one of these people went irrevocably smash, after heated and hurtful words on both sides. The break was probably inevitable, but one of the things that made it so painful was learning that this person -- to whom I'd felt very close -- had never really liked me, and actively welcomed the chance to end the friendship.

In the meantime, I'd been feeling increasingly guilty about my lack of communication with a dear friend from high school. She'd called me a few days after the April 6 incident, when I was still fairly incoherent, to say that she and her daughter wanted to visit Reno that summer. I managed, as I recall, to stammer out that it wasn't a good time for me to talk, but I hadn't been in touch with her since, and I felt rotten about it; and, of course, the longer I went without calling her, the more rotten I felt, and the more resistance I felt to calling, and around and around we went.

This year, Good Friday fell on April 6. I told myself not to be superstitious about the date; I told myself I was being ridiculous. But that morning, I woke up with a knot in my stomach anyway.

So imagine my delight when these two things happened:

1. I got long, newsy e-mail from my high-school friend, pointing out gently that she hadn't heard from me in a while; and

2. I received the following e-mail from Kate McDermott, whose wedding I'd mentioned in the Maundy Thursday homily I'd posted the day before:
Hello Susan-

Your blog popped up on my Google Alerts just now. I am deeply honored that you have written a homily that includes mention of my compost wedding to Jon. It was a very meaningful day for us. The miracle of renewal is still something that I ponder each day. Life is so amazing!

All best,
Kate McDermott
The miracle of renewal indeed! Kate couldn't know how much those words meant to me. Yes, life is amazing, isn't it? Not to imagine the minor miracles made possible by the Internet. God bless Google!

When I wrote back to Kate to thank her, she sent me this wedding picture; I have her permission to post it, along with the e-mail.

Is this the world's greatest wedding photo, or what? Happy people who love each other making things grow: if that's not a model of the Kingdom of God, I don't know what is.

The rest of Good Friday went very well, too; oh, and during our Maundy Thursday service, I'd been paid the compliment of being invited to join the church choir (!!!) by a friend in our congregation. Since I can neither sing nor read music, I politely declined, but I was touched that she asked. (She tells me that she can't read music, either, but she can certainly sing.)

On an even lighter note, Gary responded to the "Jesus in spandex" motif in my Great Vigil homily by gleefully recalling a Jesus-as-Superhero cartoon he'd read in National Lampoon. He located it for me, and thoughtfully scanned it so I could share it with my blog readers. (If you're offended by irreverent undergraduate humor, stop here. If you aren't offended by irreverent undergraduate humor, click to enlarge.)

And today, I received my contributor's copy of Pandora, a German SF magazine that included a translation of my story "The Fate of Mice." It's always a thrill to see one's work in a foreign language, even if it's a language one can't read. Here's their illustration for the story:

Pretty nifty, say what?

So at the moment, I'm in a good mood. May it continue!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Grand Rounds

This week's Grand Rounds is up, and it's an especially well-organized and informative edition. Thanks for including me, Dr. Dork -- even though I not only submitted late, but have the "tongue-twistiest" blog name ever!

Monday, April 09, 2007


Like every ED, the one where I volunteer has its share of frequent flyers, patients we see several times a month, if not more often. Many, although not all, frequent flyers are the chronically homeless, often substance abusers who also have other psychiatric issues. Because patients with this profile consume far more than their share of social-service and hospital resources, several cities, including Washington DC and Seattle, have begun offering them free housing with no requirement that they become clean or sober. (To qualify for the program, recipients must have proven unable to maintain recovery.) While such programs are controversial among people who object to handouts, they're reportedly much less expensive than letting this population stay on the streets.

There's no such program here, although we certainly have our share of these individuals.

During a recent ED shift, I had a pleasant chat with one frequent flyer who always greets me with hugs and expressions of affection. I sometimes see this patient several shifts in a row, but I haven't noticed any ill will from staff.

Halfway through that shift, another frequent flyer -- someone I'd somehow missed meeting until then, but who was very well known to the staff -- arrived via ambulance, and I heard one of the nurses, within earshot of the patient, saying loudly, "Dammit, why doesn't he die? He's a worthless human being! He deserves to die!" That nurse told me that this patient has run up a staggering bill at the hospital. The hospital will never see any of that money.

We all know that the healthcare system is broken, but I've never seen a nurse being so hostile to a patient, even one who can't pay. Within minutes, another nurse was equally hostile to the patient. I assumed that the patient must have done something even more awful than running up a huge bill: assaulting staff, maybe? But he wasn't restrained, and nobody seemed unduly worried about violence. The security staff obviously knew him, but were laughing; a cop who'd come in with another ED patient obviously knew him, but greeted him warmly. "Hey, how you doing? I haven't seen you in a while. You doing better?" There was no indication of why a medical professional would have loudly wished him dead within his hearing.

I was bullied and called names a lot when I was a kid, and I'm also a kneejerk liberal, and I'm also a Parable of the Nations Christian, somebody who actively looks for (and usually finds) Christ in the "least of these." All of this means that the quickest way to get me 150% in your patient's corner is to condemn that patient as a worthless human being. Think red flags and bulls.

So I settled in for a good long talk with the patient. He told me about finding a friend's dead body in combat, and mourned the fact that he'd had to kill people he felt didn't deserve to die. He told me about the deaths of people in his family: he felt responsible for several of these deaths, and even when he didn't feel responsible, he told me that he wished he'd died instead, that he'd prayed to God to take him instead, because his loved ones who died were better than he was. Everything he told me about his past involved acute survivor's guilt, and I had to wonder what role the nurse's comment had played in that.

He also told me that the Holy Spirit loved me, that I was "God's good daughter," that I was a healer. He tried to give me something he was wearing as a gift; I explained that volunteers aren't allowed to accept gifts, but that the real gift was that he'd wanted to give me a gift, and that I thanked him for that. We prayed together. He clung to my hands, often squeezing them so tightly that they hurt.

The first frequent flyer, who was being discharged, came along and stopped to say hello to my patient and to wish him luck; they clearly knew each other. My patient took the other patient's hand and prayed aloud for God to protect him. When the first frequent flyer had left, the patient took my hands again, and told me that he was in a lot of pain, but that I'd made him feel better.

I said, "God loves you. Do you know that?"

And this patient who'd been talking so eloquently about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit fell quiet. After a minute, he said, "Are you sure? I've done a lot of things wrong."

"Yes, I'm sure. We've all done things wrong. God loves all of us."

And then the nurse who'd called him worthless showed up, saw me holding his hands, and snapped, "He has [horrible communicable disease #1]! Wash your hands after you talk to him!"

The patient was clearly hurt by the comment, which he shouldn't have had to hear.

After our conversation had ended, I washed my hands in the meds room. I'd have done that anyway, since I always wash my hands after patient contact, but I have to admit that I gave myself an unusually thorough scrubbing. The nurse came in, glared at me, and said, "He also has [horrible communicable disease #2]!"

"That's not transmitted through casual contact," I said.

"If you're bleeding, it is!"

"He wasn't bleeding," I said. I thought, but didn't say, And if he's so freaking contagious, why isn't he on contact precautions? "He was in combat; did you know that?"

"No, he wasn't in combat! He was lying to you! He's a liar!"

The nurse left. A minute or two later, a doctor appeared and said, gently, "Our friend hasn't done military service."

I've been volunteering since late 2004. This is the first time a doctor has gone out of his way to tell me something. A few are friendly, and I've been around long enough that almost all of them, even those who aren't actively friendly, will at least acknowledge my presence. But ED physicians, for obvious reasons, keep unnecessary motion to a minimum. For a doctor to walk from where he's been standing to somewhere else, to communicate with a lowly volunteer, is huge.

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"I know. I've been in the military. Several of us have. We can tell from how he talks about it that he's just making up stories."

"Okay," I said. (I'd wondered about some of his stories myself, but wasn't about to accuse him of lying.) "But look, all I know is that he's carrying around a lot of pain. The pain's real, even if he's making up false stories to explain it. It's not the kind of pain you can help him with, but I can. That's my job."

The doctor nodded. There may have been some grudging respect there. I took a breath and said, "And I have a problem with saying that patients are worthless people who deserve to die."

The doctor said, gently, "I'm not saying that," and walked away.

All of this happened at the end of my shift. I woke up the next morning fretting about it, wondering what in the world the patient had done to invoke such overt nastiness from two nurses, not to mention a physician's expenditure of energy to discredit him. I'll probably never know.

And I'm still wondering: can it really be that massive bill? The bill's horrifying, as much for what it represents -- the breakdown of American healthcare -- as for the sheer number of digits, but would a nurse take that so personally, however horrifying it is? Or has this patient become a scapegoat for the medical staff's frustration with a broken system, the target for all of their rage about too many patients and too few resources?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

God's Feet

Here's the homily I preached at the Great Vigil three years ago, which may be my favorite I've written (and to which the congregation responded with intense emotion). This isn't a piece I'd have delivered on Easter Sunday itself, when the people in the pews expect more conventional observances, but it was perfect for the small Saturday night service.

I've posted the Gospel passage, Matthew 28:1-10, in full below, because you can't make sense of the homily without knowing what it says. Keep in mind that the congregation always hears the homily immediately after the Gospel. Obviously, the line that snagged my attention in this passage was, "And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him." The homily, using the ancient Jewish technique of midrash, followed quite easily.

When I preached, I wore red -- Mary Magdalene's traditional color -- and ended the homily with a bit of performance theater by taking off the sandals I was wearing.

As for the picture with this post: yes, I know Jesus didn't wear Birkenstocks (although he probably would have if Birks had been available in the first century). But it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find photographs of men's feet in sandals on the Internet -- at least, on sites that don't cater to extremely esoteric tastes.

Last night's homily went very well too; all of the comments I got were very positive, and my friend Katharine cried.


The Gospel

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he* lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead,* and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

The Homily

Dear Mary,

I’ve been thinking a lot about that morning. I don’t think either of us could think very well at the time; we were too scared, and so was everybody else. We probably weren’t as scared as the guards were, because we’d spent enough time around Jesus to see some pretty amazing things. But even we had never seen anything like that: the earthquakes, and the messenger who shone like the sun and crackled like lightning, the one who would have blinded us if we’d looked straight at him. When he told us in a voice like thunder that Jesus had risen from the dead, that the grave was empty now, I thought I must be crazy again, that the demons Jesus had cast out of me had come back. Even when that shining messenger showed us the empty tomb -- the inside of it all lit up, because the messenger was standing there, shedding light like a lantern -- I thought it was a trick. I thought someone had stolen the body. That’s why the guards were there in the first place, after all, so no one would steal it, his poor broken body. Maybe someone had bribed them? Peter, maybe. That seemed like something Peter would do.

But Peter had nothing to do with it, and I wasn’t crazy, was I? Because when the messenger told us to go tell the men, when we started running down the road to deliver that impossible, heart-wrenching message, there he was, standing in front of us: the person we loved the most in the world. We’d watched him die. We’d helped lay him in the tomb.

I don’t know. Maybe it was easier for you to understand than it was for me. You’d seen a shining messenger before, the one who came to tell you that you were going to bear a child, and that must have been as terrifying for you as the morning of the empty tomb was for me. It was joyful, too, but the joy was still mixed with terror: terror that it couldn’t be true, that nothing so impossible could really have happened. It was what I’d wanted more than anything, for him not really to be dead. And when something like that comes true, you have to be scared, because even though it’s wonderful, it breaks all the rules that kept you safe before. If whatever held Jesus in the tomb was broken, were other things broken, too? Would whatever held our feet on the earth suddenly let go, and send everyone flying into the sky? That’s the kind of thing I saw when I had demons. I didn’t want that back again.

And so what comforted me the most was his feet. You remember: we both fell on our faces in joy and terror and awe; we fell down to worship him, and you grabbed one foot and I grabbed the other. His feet were real: we could feel them. They were flesh and blood. The pulse in his ankle beat quietly under my fingers. In all that chaos of earthquakes and blazing messengers and fainting guards, his feet were the only thing I could understand. He was there; he was walking around in the world again, getting his feet dirty. He was alive again, impossibly, but he wasn’t flying off into the sky, and neither were we. Some rules still worked.

His feet were small enough for me to hold onto, small enough for me to believe. The rest of it was too much, Mary: too much for me to grasp.

And the feet were his. As much as I loved him, I’d barely been able to look at his face. Fear and shock sent me sprawling on the ground. But I knew those feet, that foot. I had the left foot. You had the right. His left foot had terrible holes in it from the nails, but it also had tan lines from his sandals. I knew the pattern of those straps. I knew the callus where one strap crossed between his big toe and the next one. I’d washed his feet, cleaned them after the dust and grime of his journeys, the same way he’d cleaned our feet the night before the soldiers came to arrest him. I knew his feet.

And then I thought, “No one will believe me. Why did the shining messenger send me to tell anyone? They won’t listen. They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s Magdalene. She used to have demons. She’s crazy. You can’t believe anything she says.’” I prayed, as I lay there holding his left foot, my fingers curled around the ankle. “Lord God: please don’t let me be crazy. Lord God: please let it be true. Lord God: please open the ears of the others when I tell them.”

And then he spoke, and my fears and my prayers flew right out of my head, leaving only joy. I knew that voice. I knew his voice even better than I knew his feet.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, and I shivered a little, because that was the first thing the shining messengers had said, too: the one you’d seen before he was born, and the one we’d both seen that morning. God’s messengers always say that, first thing. By that as much as anything, I knew that he really had come back from God to be with us. And then he said, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The messenger had said that, too, but now it made my heart clench. Now it meant that we were being sent away -- away from him.

I didn’t want to be sent away. I wanted to lie there in the dirt, with my fingers around his left ankle, for the rest of my life. But I couldn’t. I felt you moving next to me, felt you touch my shoulder and tug at my robe. And then he knelt down and kissed the top of my head and started gently prying my fingers loose.

“Mary,” you said, “we have to go. We have to tell the others. It’s all right. Come on.”

I don’t remember standing up, don’t remember turning away from him. But then you and I were walking down the road, and you had your arms around my shoulders, because I was shaking. “They’ll say we’re crazy,” I told you. “They’ll say it must have been someone else.”

“It can’t have been anyone else,” you said. “I recognized the scar on his foot, from when he was a baby. Some cooking grease spattered on his right foot, just a little bit, and burned him.” I could feel you trembling, but you smiled at me and said, “I’m his mother. Who else even knows about that? They’ll believe us.”

I’m not sure if they believed us or not, but once they’d seen him with their own eyes -- once he’d broken bread and cooked fish -- then they believed. And then he left again, and the Spirit came, and signs and wonders and dancing flames were everywhere.

So we all believe now, but I still don’t understand. It’s still too big for me, all these years later. Thinking about how much love and power it took to empty that tomb can still make my bones quake, as if the earth is still shaking and the shining messenger is still thundering at me.

So I think about his feet, which I could hold in my hands. I find myself looking and listening for his footsteps everywhere, even though he’s gone again. And I see them sometimes, Mary, I do. I swear I saw his footprints in the dust last week, when I took some food to Dorcas’ sick friend; she had that terrible fever, the one everyone’s afraid to get, and I was afraid too, but I looked down and saw his footprints and followed them right into her house, because I knew he’d gone ahead of me. And sometimes I hear his footsteps when I’m lost or lonely, and I know then that he’s with me, even if I can’t see him the way I did that morning. I still don’t understand what happened; I’ll never understand it. But I know to watch and to listen, and to follow where he leads.

And every year on this day, I take off my sandals. I take off my sandals and get my feet dirty, because this is the day he walked on the earth again: the day the whole world became holy ground.