Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mr. Politician, Shove Your Budget Cuts

I'm tired from too many colleagues jumping the South Carolina Department of Mental Health ship before it sinks completely. I'm tired from really, really caring about my clients but having too many to keep up with.

But I think equally tiring is hearing commercials for politicians promising to cut taxes because too many people are getting things they don't deserve. Too many people are on the government payout wagon. "Vote for me! I'm going to empower the individual, not government. . . blah blahdee blah."

You've saved us some bucks by cutting mental health services. But did you know that your constituents include some really undesirable folk? Some of them even have (cough) mental illness.

Now sure, in your world I understand these people do not exist. They are disposable. And people with mental illnesses don't vote, do they? They don't count. Those people with serious mental illness should buck up, get a job with benefits and off the government dole. I understand the way you think. You're just looking out for your job. After all, I'm used to dealing with people who make less than perfect sense.

But don't you dare tell me that cutting the mental health budget is a good way to save government money. You, Mr. Politician, are the one being supported by the government. I don't know one single person with schizophrenia who wouldn't trade benefit packages with you. Why don't you cut your staff?

Hey, I'm working hard in the mental health "system" trying to make bricks with no straw. Just keep cutting, Mr. Politician. Do you realize that people in need of involuntary hospitalization (those are the ones, Sir, who are a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness) have to wait in an emergency room until there is a bed available in a psychiatric hospital. They have to do that, Sir, because you and your buds have closed wards in the hospitals. Yes, yes you have.

Now, if I worked in an emergency room I'd be pretty pissed at you. But those people probably just don't understand your job the way I do. Of course, if you slip and break your toe, Sir, you might have to wait in an ER waiting room for a while in moderate discomfort because the ER staff are all trying to pretend to be a psychiatric ward.

But hey, I must say, your idea about letting the really mentally ill people hang out in local jails is a great idea. Sure, they don't get the help they need, but they are out of sight. And after all, you don't personally know any of them.

I'll bet you're tired, too, Mr. Politician. All that juggling and posturing and politicking. And the commercials! Whew! It sounds simply exhausting. But in all due respect, Mr. Politician, kiss this!

You are supposed to be a representative of the people. You know. . . . the people. All of them. Not just the nice, clean, middle class conservative chums of yours. But be careful, Mr. Politician. All people (except, evidently those who are professional politicians) are affected by mental illness. Not just those with the diagnoses.

I'm really, really tired of you.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

65 Years Ago: Belzec

Sweet little Hannah, letting the old man brush her chestnut hair while she sat on his knee, couldn't have known she opened the door to Hell with the innocent question.

"What did you do in that big war, Great Grandpa Joe?

The old man choked on the lump that rose from the depths of his soul to his throat. He fought hard to keep that door shut tight and locked for 65 years and had done a damn good job of it, too. He hadn't discussed it at the few reunions he attended in the early years after the war. He had avoided the memory - no buried the memory - as deeply as he could, polishing the merely horrible stories he shared with only his closest friends and then only after too much bourbon. He pretended that's all there was to it for so long and with such ferocity that he had nearly come to believe it himself. Nearly. He protected those he loved from the vision, denying he had any part in it, even during Memorial Day services that people seemed to insist he attend proudly.

They did not know. He did not want to know.

But sometimes, when sleep was loath to come or when it came and sank too deep, the memory came. The tired soldiers entered on foot, two trucks of German soldiers nearly knocking them down as they sped out through the big gates. The trucks were gone before the tired GIs could even raise their rifles.

It was a silent vision, but he could see in tormenting detail the sharp bones nearly piercing the gray papery skin and the empty faces of the nearly dead stumbling, sometimes crawling, toward them as they entered the camp.

He could not not see it now. Hannah was confused when he gently pushed her off his lap, away from poison that seemed to seep through his pores like death.

What would it take to push away the memory of that day? The photographic detail of the people. Hardly people any more. Impossible to tell many of the dead from the nearly dead.

But worse than the vision of the broken bundles of bones and skin stacked like cord wood - just like cord wood - was the stench. This camp (what was the name of the camp, he wondered. Why couldn't he forget other details rather than just the name?) This camp didn't have an oven. The Nazis had just poured gasoline on stacks of corpses to burn them. The job was not complete when they left in such a hurry.

"We were not prepared. We did not know," Joe muttered to no one but the dead and dying in his mind.

He had always hated the term liberators when people referred to the GIs who first reached the camps. They didn't know what lay beyond the gates. He wished they never knew. He felt like an accidental, unprepared, impotent witness. Part of him disolved in the ash and bits of bone.

He could feel the nearly weightless body that fell against him like a dry twig in a breeze. The man was the same age as he. Twenty-four. And tired as Joe was, the man was no burden for him to lift. Egg shells. Even at the time, Joe wondered at the words that came out of his mouth.

"Egg shells."

Empty, broken, fragile, used up.

The man died in Joe's arms, no weight lost when the soul left the body. Surely the soul had been mostly gone already.

And Joe stood there holding a lifeless, broken shell until Cleveland shook him and said something about saving who they could and the rest of the time was mercifully gone from his brain. Joe didn't even write to Cleveland after they got home. Too much. Too much. Joe didn't even know how he knew the man was 24. Maybe he didn't know it. After all, the man was hardly recognizable as human and they had no conversation save the eye contact that had lasted 65 years.

Then the crushing pain in Joe's chest. Was that then or was that now? He didn't know. But the man - the egg shell man - looked up at him and there was life in his eyes.

The man said, "I have not forgotten either." And he smiled at Joe as softly and peacefully as a downy white feather against his cheek.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Losing Divine Virginity

What if on the very last day of seminary, the head dude takes everyone aside and makes them swear never to divulge what they are about to hear, then tells them that the whole thing is a big bunch of water trough scum? What if the powers-that-be have figured out that religion really is the opiate of the masses and that nearly everyone on Earth is a hopeless addict.

Perhaps the true power behind every throne is a group of various religion professors. They would know better than to let the majority of the population go through withdrawal at the same time. If you've ever seen anyone in the throws of opiate withdrawal you'll know what I mean. It's enough to make a nun puke on Sunday morning!

So maybe just a few people are being detoxed at a time. Those recovering souls are then equipped to help others up those twelve steps to the clear part of the windows.

The newly graduated seminarians would of course keep the secret. They may do it because they'd invested so much of their lives studying the elaborate scam, or maybe because they could see the danger in letting the cat out of the bag. Maybe they'd keep the secret because they'd have a chance at real power if they did. Or maybe all the Kool-aid they drink over the course of their education makes them forget any new idea three seconds after they hear it.

Detox and recovery is seldom pleasant - often down right dangerous. But once someone has a fairly firm recovery going in this area, she's not likely to relapse. In fact, I've never known anyone who's made it to the top step, go back down. It's sort of like losing one's virginity - sort of difficult to go back and why on Earth would you want to?

One recovering friend of mine told me that there's nothing worse than a reformed whore. She was reacting to my telling her to quit smoking. Pretty soon after quitting though, a new non-smoker learns to be pretty selective about quit-smoking messages for fear of driving smokers to drink.

I guess it's the same with all recovery. It's one day at a time. First things first, easy does it, yadda yadda yadda. It's very good to have a support group. (see Universal Pantheist Society) I'll shut up when I see a bumper sticker that says, "I'm a friend of Fay C."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Horny Mother Earth

I live to garden lately. I rush home from work to make raised seed beds in the veggie garden, plant, prune, dead-head, weed, water, and talk to my plants. So when the weekend comes, I'm out there playing in the dirt.

I collect old coffee grounds from work for my blueberry bushes and see carrot peelings and pulled weeds as treats for the compost pile. I tell earthworms to encourage their friends to move to their neighborhood. Fallen leaves are potential shredded mulch. My rain barrels all have names. Yay! I love, love, love playing outside.

So imagine my dismay when I couldn't go out and play in Nature this weekend because of. . . well, Nature. I have never seen so much pollen at one time all trying to get into my lungs. Mother Earth is evidently very horny this weekend. Pollen is visible in the air and covering everything with a yellow film. She laughs at deeds and mortgages.

So all the windows are closed and the AC is on just to filter the air. I'm medicated and curled up in bed with Earl Grey and Blanche, my Shitsu nurse.

Yesterday, before my face began trying to explode, I did get the inside of the house cleaned. It had been sorely neglected by me lately. If it's between playing in compost and dirt or vacuuming and dusting, there is no contest. Never has been.

I know how fortunate I am to have a house to clean, air conditioning to filter the air, a Shitsu to nurse me, and a half acre to play in. I am truly one of the most fortunate people on the face of the Earth. I have medicine and a neti pot to relieve sinus pressure. Pollen means life, after all. Sort of like labor pains I guess.

So bring it on Mama! Remind me I'm not in charge here.

Friday, April 9, 2010

As You Like It

At a staff breakfast last week at a state agency, someone asked someone else to give a blessing, which he almost reluctantly did. It was a Christian prayer.

Two days ago I was in the ER and someone came in to ask me a zillion questions, mostly concerning my ability and intention to pay them in case my insurance company goes belly up before paying. But the lady also asked me what my religion is. I just sort of looked at her. Twelve inch flames were crackling off my back at the time, so I wasn't totally focused.

She clarified, "I mean are you Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist . . . Catholic?" It seemed a rather irrelevant question to me as the room filled with the smoke of my burning flesh. But I answered, "None of those," and she hurried out of the room. I reckon she didn't want to be caught hanging with a heathen if the whole room went up.

What is strange about this is that neither of the incidents made me angry. I think I'm becoming tolerant. Could that be? Mellowing in my golden years? Seeing the good or the potential for evolution in all people?

A friend once said something about not liking Pantheism because she wanted to be able to pray. I didn't get a chance to answer her and that's always sort of bothered me. I wanted to be able to explain that I pray. One doesn't need a steeple to pray.

In fact, all my thoughts are prayers. And yes, I love the Jesus of the Gospel According to Matthew. I love the Buddha who taught that nothing in this world can be enjoyed forever. I love Muhammad who tells us, "Be the compassionate, be the merciful." I love the God of the Old Testament who said "I am that I am." I love the stars, the water, the trees and their magic. I love you. I love me. I reckon we are all the Universe which is divine.

So am I a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, a Jew, a Flying Spaghettian? The world is full of people divided by labels, even though we must have all come from the same place. The problem with religious labels is that rules come with them and the rules are made by people, not by God the Universe.

So don't come at me with a religious label and I won't come at you with one. If you must call me something, call me whatever it is that makes you most comfortable. Just don't expect to see me under your steeple.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The End of Skin As We Knew It

When my friends would "lay out" in the sun to get a tan, I never joined them. I knew better. I wanted a tan, but it wasn't going to happen. My skin can be super white or it can be red. It doesn't do tan unless it's tan-from-a-can.

Once, in high school I really wanted a tan. My brother had recently had reconstructive surgery on his face after putting it through a windshield, and as part of his healing he used a sun lamp. (This was a while before tanning beds were invented,) I thought the instructions were one foot away for three minutes. Turns out it was three feet away for one minute. I had to go see the good Dr. Shoenher for that one. I got some cream, antibiotics and a lecture.

Once on a vaca at the beach, I learned that waterproof sunscreen doesn't really stay put while boogy boarding. I had a heck of a sunburn in time to drive 12 hours home. Fun. I really learned my lesson that time.

But a few years of apartment and condo living left me salivating for vegetable garden planting day for a long, long time. Sunday was the day.

I started out with sun screen on my face and arms and sleeves in the morning. But, dang it was hot. I was having so much fun! I was talking to the plants, admiring the soil that had been lovingly built up with compost, shredded leaves and sweat, and just enjoying the wonder and priviledge of planting. I really didn't think about it when I changed my shirt for a tank top. Before I knew it, it was 4:00 p.m.


That was two days ago. I can't even give myself sympathy, let alone expect any from anyone else. It's not as if I didn't know that I can't be in the sun without protection. South Carolina sun is much more wicked than Wisconsin sun. And I am taking some medication that says something about being careful about being in the sun. I sometimes behave like an idiot.

I thought yesterday would be the worst day, but I was wrong. Today has been anything but funny. Think being massaged with a hot metal brush. Now think of pouring some alcohol on that. It feels sort of like that. Nausea and headache are adding to the interest.

I've been very thirsty and have drunk twice as much water in the past couple of days as my usual eight or nine glasses. I'm keeping ice packs on my back whenever I can. They melt quickly.

My daughter and siblings have rather olive skin. But my skin goes with my Scots name. My son has my see through skin, but he has blue eyes to go with it. He's also had skin cancer. I don't suspect I'll get skin cancer since I'm fairly sure I'll have no skin left on my back by the time this is over.

So yeah, I know this is my fault. I knew better. But if you could feel sorry for me - or even pretend to - I'd appreciate it a lot. I'm sure this is the worst sunburn in the history of sumburns.

Friday, April 2, 2010

School Dazed

A few years ago I was allowed to follow a dream and teach high school English in a public school in Appalachia. I was part of a program that exists in lots of places in the country now which encourages non-teachers to teach. I think this is an excellent example of thinking outside the box – get some people who really want to teach and who have real world experience in doing/using whatever it is they are going to teach. They get paired with an experienced mentor teacher and have support as they do their thing. I thought the idea was to bring some different perspective to the teaching career. As it turned out, the school didn’t really want that. They wanted someone to teach the same way things had always been taught.

In spite of many obstacles, my classroom was full of energy and activity, and ok . . . probably too much noise. Many of the students I was supposed help explore literature didn’t read beyond a second grade level. I tried all sorts of strange things because I didn’t know any better. I assigned homework, and the students thought I was crazy. They didn’t get homework from other teachers!

I got visits from irate parents who said “My child has never had a C before! You don’t know how to teach!” I feared they might be right because lots of these kids were just scraping by in my classes grade-wise, but for the most part they seemed to be having fun.

I got little lectures from the department head. Once or twice at full volume. My teaching style evidently was less than acceptable.

But guess what. At the end of the year when the students took their achievement tests that are supposed to measure their mastery of some basics such as word use, grammar, sentence structure, comprehension, blah, blah, my students broke the record for the school. We blew them out of the water.

I was pleased but not surprised and my students were proud. My department head was confounded and my principal, who had told me two days before the test results came back that my contract wouldn’t be renewed, was embarrassed. I was relieved that I had time to resign before they canned me.

I learned all sorts of things that year. I heard teachers talk about doing the minimum because they had tenure. Yes I did. I heard them talk about and to students in ways that were disrespectful, vulgar, and ignorant. Not all of the teachers, of course, were like that. Many were really good teachers who were there because they wanted to teach and deeply cared about the success of their students. But these good teachers weren’t the majority.

I learned about a group of students who are just expected to drop out. They can’t read and they don’t have proper clothing and well. . . . they are disposable. I learned that the worst thing that can happen to teacher is often tenure. I learned that if it’s between new books or a new football field, it’s going to be the football field every time.

And I learned that if what you are doing isn’t working, then ANYTHING you try has a better chance of working that the same old thing that doesn’t work.

My students learned that Shakespeare was pretty out there. They did family therapy sessions with Hamlet’s family. They translated bits of Romeo and Juliet into Appalachian. They learned to say “That Scottish play,” instead of “Macbeth.”

They wrote exceptional haiku on paper towels that had been water colored while wet, creating a dreamy, Asian look. They identified different styles of poetry in their music.
They read lots more of the Canterbury Tales than was assigned because I told them much of it was just too racy for them.

A couple of the disposable kids in my class wrote and illustrated a book about a super hero. It was better than lots of the stuff I see on store shelves. Much better.

I happen to think we can provide excellent education to our children. In fact, I think we’d ding dang better start soon.

For crying in a bucket, what’s up with tenure? What other job is there in which after you’ve been there for a while you can’t get fired? It’s insane. Reward good teachers and fire bad ones. How tough is that? It isn’t rocket surgery.

Figure out what the school’s primary purpose is. Put your time and money on the basics. I think athletics are important, but they aren’t the most important part of school. Chances are most kids are going to need communication, computer, and math skills more often after graduation than football or cheerleading skills.

Expand the school day. Do we really think that high school students can’t tolerate a day longer than 6.5 hours? Expand the school year.

Teach when you get a chance. By that I mean studying Shakespeare can be an opportunity to teach communication skills, geography, music, history and psychology as well as literature.

Get out of the classroom. Classrooms are probably the least natural place to learn things. Go to a restaurant and ask a chef how she uses math. Or have students explain the ripples in water when they drop a pebble in a pond. Take them to a tree and show them how to estimate the height by the shadow. Study an ant hill. Teach wonder. Without wonder we’re doomed.

Make sure kids can read and have basic skills before you pass them on to the next grade. Who wins when someone who can’t read graduates from high school? Every person who graduates from high school should either be ready for college or trade school or have already mastered a marketable trade.

If a kid causes trouble and keeps other kids from learning, kick him out. We need to make sure all students have the opportunity for an excellent education, but it’s not realistic to teach them that no matter what they do they’ll still be welcome. The real world isn’t like that at all and we are supposed to be getting them ready for that. We should all have the opportunity for an excellent education. What an individual does with that opportunity is up to the individual and her family.

Use uniforms. Schools that use uniforms report less distraction and conflict. As Forrest Gump would say, “Good. That’s one less thing.”

And don’t teach one thing in the classroom and another in the cafeteria. Don’t feed students junk. Get the soda and candy machines out of the schools. Don’t serve iced sweet rolls for breakfast and hotdogs and French fries for lunch and expect any of them to take nutrition or health seriously. And speaking of health – bring back P.E. Let’s educate the whole student.

We’re graduating too many illiterate, obese, lazy people from our high schools who have no marketable skills.

I think pulling in people from the business world to teach – even if it’s just for a year or two is a great idea. They don’t know the “rules of teaching” and that’s the whole idea! The “rules of teaching” often don’t work. Just give someone with energy and excitement to teach a classroom full of students and see what happens. The worst thing that could happen is that the kids don’t learn much that year in that class. This is not a big risk since that’s often happening anyway. And the best thing that could happen is that a love of mathematics or literature or biology gets into some students and grows like a perennial in their brains.