Friday, November 9, 2012

In Our Children's Brains

            So a couple of weeks ago I wrote that having a Black President matters, in part, because of what it does to our children's brains.  Our children who have only ever known a President with brown skin.  "Imagine what their brains have the capacity to know, that mine cannot," I said. But when I wrote that I must have forgotten about a little internal mind-trip I had a couple years ago, a few weeks after we moved to Columbus.
          I was walking down to Franklin Park that day, Ankle Biter was on my back and Hot Shot on her scooter at my side.  We had read there was going to be some kind of health fair that afternoon and we were, at that point, game for any kind of public activity anywhere, since we didn't know anyone in our new town.
          As we headed across the park toward the amphitheater where the fair was going on, I could hear a man's voice coming over a loud speaker, talking about eating fruits and vegetables or some other sort of left-wing rhetoric.  And I thought to myself, that sounds like the President.  Of course I knew it was not the President.  The President would not visit Columbus for a humble little Health Fair.  But the closer we got, the more convinced I was that this voice was indeed President Obama's voice.  So when we crested the hill at the top of the amphitheater and looked down at the stage for the first time, I expected to see a screen projecting a video... of the President.
          But there was no screen.  There were just bunches of Black people giving out beach balls and jump ropes to bunches of Black kids.  And there was a man on the stage.  A man who was the head of some local health related organization.  Speaking into a microphone about the importance of fruits and vegetables.  And he was Black.
           Yes.  This is what I'm admitting to you.  I heard the voice of a Black man giving a speech and couldn't imagine it was anyone but the President.  Which is to say that the folder of speech-worthy Black men in my brain at that moment held only one resume on file.  Have I mentioned that my kids are Black?  My kids are Black!  I am the parent of Black children and that afternoon I heard a Black man singing the praises of fruits and vegetables and I assumed it had to be none other than President Barack Obama.  Who else could it possibly be?
          I thought about it for days.  Hung my head in my own private shame.  Took my only consolation in the fact that we had just moved to the East Side of Columbus for exactly this reason: our family needed to live among Black folks.  And it wasn't only our Black children who needed to live among Black people, we, their White moms, we needed to adjust our color lens too.  It was just further proof of what I already knew.
           But then, after about a week of brooding, I did find a glimmer of hope in my embarrassing mistake.  Because, yes, I did hear a Black man giving a speech and assume it must be President Obama.  But listen to what that means.  I heard the voice of a Black man and thought, "President."  I'd say, on the list of stereotypes conjured by the sound of a Black man's voice, "President," has got to be preferred.  I mean, hooray to my brain for intertwining these two concepts.  Black man.  President.  Black man. President.  Black man.  President!  So I guess it's not just our children who are learning a new way of seeing the world, there's still time for my neuron passages to fire some new connections as well. 
          But then guess what happened this week.  Oh right, I mean in addition to President Obama winning all the swing states and garnering a whopping 332 electors, and the number of women in the Senate rising to an all-time high of 20 including the first Asian American woman and the first out lesbian to enter that great chamber, and three states voting for marriage equality and one state saying "no" to those wishing to discriminate against gays, and another four years of not having to worry  if one of those old Supreme Court Justices keels we'll lose every freedom women have gained in the last 50 years.  In addition to all that, our son Moon Boy's preschool class held an election on Tuesday.  There were two contested races.  One for the presidency.  And one for the following day's snack.  President Obama and blueberry pancakes were the overwhelming victors and Moon Boy came home with a stack of exciting election day accomplishments.  Voter registration materials.  A chart he made on his own which seemed to indicate that President Obama really likes pancakes. And a coloring sheet showing Former Governor Romney and President Obama.  And here's the big guess what: Moon Boy colored them both brown.
          Let me say that again.  When my son was given the chance to color in pictures of the two people trying to be president for the next four years, he assumed that they were both Black.  Now, to anyone who lives here in the swingingest swing state of all, I'm sure you're asking, how can it be that my son has not been barraged with pictures of the very White Mitt Romney?  But we don't watch television.  And we read our news online after the kids are in bed.  So though Moon Boy has been talking about Mitt Romney for weeks, he may never have knowingly seen a picture of Mitt Romney.   And, apparently, all this time he's been picturing Mitt as a Black man!
          And even with everything else that's gone right this week, the coloring page victory may just be my favorite.  Because look what it says about the moment we are in right now and the moment that lies just twenty years down the road.  We won this week because the plurality is bigger than the homogeneity.   The sum of the Black folks, and Latinos, and Asians, and Native Americans, and White Women, and the gays, and the young people is greater than the sum of the White folks who are very rich, or very opposed to abortion rights, or really don't want my marriage to be legal.  We who believe in social justice are now a fantastically varied and rowdy majority.  Even when jobs and resources are scarce and we might be inclined to turn on each other, to blame one another.  Even then, we can come together from our widely disparate lives and agree on an agenda that will move us all forward together.
          And when we, the convergent majority, watch as President Obama's family gathers on a stage, with Michelle, and his sister, and her brother, and all of their children, and the grandmother, and then when the Bidens join them, we can't help but think: there we all are.  And when we look around at the crowds of people gathered there cheering them on: there we all are again.  And when we look at the crowd gathered to honor Former Governor Romney, there is just no mistaking: there we all are not.
          This is significant.  This is extraordinary.  And it begs the question: if you look around at the people on your side, and they all look like you, do you wonder if there's something you missed?  Does it occur to you that just maybe some people live a different life experience than you and just maybe they know something you don't?  With any luck, these are the questions that Republicans will ask themselves in the coming months and years.  Because this is the direction we are moving whether they like it or not.  We are increasingly more different than we are the same.  And if we can all acknowledge that reality, then maybe we can start solving some problems together.
          Because just look at what's coming 20 years from now.  In 20 years when Moon Boy is 25, we will have a generation of children who won't just think its possible for a Black man to be President once every couple centuries they will think it's possible--within the realm of normal even--to have two Black people running against each other for President.  Two Black candidates who have risen to the top of their parties because they have the most compelling and contrasting ideas about how to lead our country.  Our children will believe in and expect our plurality to spread broadly across the political spectrum and dig deep into solutions for the grave issues that threaten our planet and those who dwell here.  There will be no room for those who cannot play with others.  Those who cannot engage in constructive discourse.  Those who cannot understand that their way is not the only way, their experience not the only experience, their view not the only view.  This is the possibility that lies within the minds of our children.  That's where we are headed.  Because these last four years really have changed our brains.  And in the next twenty, our brains may just change the world.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Politics is as personal as ever, day 19: and ever and ever, Amen.

          It feels like the fifth of November.  My lips are chapped.  My feet are sore.  And I could have gone to the bed for the night at about 6:30.  I spent the day walking the streets of my neighborhood with a clipboard, a list of addresses and a stack of door hanging reminders.  Until today, the Ohio for Obama canvassers have been encouraging early voting, but it’s getting a little late for that now.  So today we were making sure people know the polling place for their precinct and have a plan to get there.  Tomorrow.
       It was chilly, sunny and blue in the Buckeye Nation this morning.  I had Ankle Biter with me for the journey because he hurt his foot yesterday and though the x-rays show no fracture, he was hobbling around like an old man when he got out of bed today, and then by the time Darling Virgo was ready to bring him to pre-school he was dragging himself across the floor like the woman in that Andrew Wyeth painting.  It seemed a little irresponsible to send him to school.  So he traveled on my back in the carrier for the day’s canvassing.
          I couldn’t help but think about the day before election day three years ago when we lived in Maine.  It was a low stakes year.  No presidential race.  Or congressional.  Just a few uncontested local races, a bond issue to repair the roads, the usual attempt at a tax cap.  Oh right, and a proposed "people's veto" of my right to marry.  The Maine Legislature and Governor had passed and signed equal marriage into law the previous spring, but our rights were put on hold until the people had a chance to have their say.
          Moon Boy and Ankle Biter were days away from turning two and one.  It was a cold, sunny, blue morning in Falmouth Foreside, a White, upper-middle class, largely Democratic community overlooking the waters of Casco Bay, just north of Portland.  The wind off the water chapped my fingers as I pushed the boys in the double stroller all morning.  It’s easy to feel lonely on the morning of election eve.  Not many people are at home.  It’s a lot of door knocking, dogs barking, and waiting.  Hang the literature on the door--please vote for my family--and move on.  If we didn’t take a break and roll around in the grass every half hour the boys would get restless and start grabbing each other.  So it was a long morning.
          After a couple of hours and still half our list left to go, I thought we’d probably done about as much as we could do.  I strapped the boys in their car seats, fed them steamy hot soup out of a thermos, and then started back toward the campaign office.  But Moon Boy fell asleep before I’d gone two blocks.  And Ankle Biter was out only a few nods later.  So I turned the Bobby McFerrin lullabies up, and the car around, and strategized about my remaining streets.   The addresses left on my list were all in fairly wealthy developments, not gated, but certainly sheltered from any traffic except those who dwell within, so it worked pretty well to leave the boys in the car and sneak in and out to the houses of our supporters.  After a morning of cold wind, I was pretty sure the boys would nap for a while, and the music made the inside of the car like a tropical fishbowl, filling it to the brim with waves of warm sound.
          These all-but-gated communities were a nice change from the morning of empty houses.  Here many of the people were seniors, so they were home, and happy to chat, and thankful I was out reminding them to vote.
          My precious little fish boys stayed asleep in that car for more than an hour as I inched us through those neighborhoods.  They were so beautiful, sleeping back there.  Necks askew, drool unplugged, soft whistles of air gusting out from their loosely puckered sleep-lips.  Had they seemed uncomfortable I would have aborted the mission, but their peaceful slumber was like a blessing to continue on in the cause of their rights.
          I knocked on my last door at about 2:00 that afternoon, and there appeared at the door a woman about my age.  Shoulder length blonde hair.  Blue eyes.  Make up applied.  Jewelry on.  I say she was about my age because a three-year-old peeked out from behind her legs, which meant we were in fairly similar life stages.  But her appearance made me feel like she was older, or at least my superior.  She had money, or she wouldn't be living in an upper middle class development near the coast, she had a husband (for his name was on my canvassing list, not hers) which meant there was someone in the family who could command attention, bargain for a higher salary, state his opinion matter-of-factly and have it heard, have it acted upon.  And she wore make up and jewelry at 1:00pm on a Monday.  Unslept, unshowered, ungroomed, I looked back at her and felt like a sloppy teenager.  Though I suspect my gray hair gave her a hint that I was not.
          "Shhh," she said, as I began to introduce myself.  "I have a sleeping baby."
          Now, rule number one of canvassing is that you’re not supposed to talk to people who aren’t on your list.  One person's presumed support does not mean that other's in the household are also on our side.  And we don’t want to stir up our adversaries, now do we?  But I’m pretty sure no one follows this rule.  Because it's just too exciting to get a live body behind the door.  A real person at two o'clock in the afternoon!  And here I was at the last door, having just spoken to a dozen seniors in support of equal marriage.  This woman was their neighbor and my age peer, presumably even more likely than her elders to be on my side.  But she wasn't on my list.  I chanced it, women being more likely to believe in my rights than their husbands.
          "I'm looking for Mark, is he in?" I asked her.  Knowing that of course he was not.
          “No,” she confirmed the obvious.
          "Okay, well maybe you can help me,” I began my transgression.  “I'm Liz.  I'm a volunteer with the No On One Campaign.  We're out today encouraging our supporters to vote.  Do you support the right for same sex couples to marry."
          When I first saw the scowl begin to form on her face, I wasn’t worried.  A scowl isn’t necessarily indicative of what side the door-knockee is on.  Some people don't like being bothered whether they agree or not.  Or they feel like the campaign is working too hard to get them too the polls--money and energy that should be spent on someone else.  Or they're sick and they want me to go away.  Could be anything really.
          But in this case it wasn't just anything.
          "I haven't decided yet," she said.
          I stared at her.  She was not my first undecided voter of the day.  There had been one other.  An elderly woman with an Eastern European accent.  We had talked together for a while and she listened intently to my warm invitation to vote in favor of my rights.  But this woman felt so different.  With her make-up and jewelry, and fancy home, and high-earning husband, and three-year-old clinging to her knee.  And delicate baby asleep somewhere in that painstakingly decorated world beyond the door.  She hadn’t decided.

          It was her sleeping baby that kept me from pleading my case.  Not because I was concerned I might wake the poor thing.  But because I was so mad at that baby dozing comfortably in its cozy little crib of privilege, that I knew if I began speaking, a stream of hot tears would pour down my face.  How dare she stand there, fully entitled to mull over just exactly what rights she thinks my family deserves, and all the while my babies are strapped in their seats for today’s neck-cramped-nappers-for-justice tour of straight-White-land.  She--who gets to be on her husband’s health insurance plan, and visit him in the hospital with no questions asked when someday he has his heart attack, and then collect his Social Security after he dies--gets to stay home on this chilly afternoon.  I get to knock on her door and ask permission to marry my partner of thirteen years.
          I couldn’t bear to look at her.
          So I returned to the car without another word.  I slid in as quietly as I could and was so happy to be in the warmth of that bowl, breathing the same air as my runny nosed little boys, I just wanted to sit there for hours.  Out of the wind.  And the cold.  To just occupy that space, on that street, out in front of that house.  To claim this land for our family too.
          We lost that year of course.  As we’ve lost every time our rights have been on a ballot anywhere in the country.
          But this Monday morning, November 5, 2012, my compatriots back in Maine were knocking on doors once again, as Tuesday’s ballot will again ask the citizens of that State to extend equal marriage rights to all.  Only this time, it may just pass.
          So I was thinking about them, as I was knocking on doors this morning in my new community where my neighbors and I are tasked with the responsibility of choosing the next President on behalf of the entire country.  And I was thinking about how there is so much at stake for each of us out there knocking on doors, and for all those who live behind them.
          Ankle Biter had on his Obama ski-cap, complete with glittery lettering that qualifies this article of clothing as the first official bling I have ever purchased for my children.  He was a great sport for most of the morning, riding up on my back and “helping” me read the house numbers.  But after we stopped home for lunch he wasn’t particularly excited about getting back on the Obama train.
          “We have to do some more work for the Presdient,” I told him.
          “But I tired,” he whined.
          “I know you’re tired.  But tomorrow is the day we decide if Barack Obama gets to keep being President, and it’s really important to make sure people vote.”
          “Aww,” he slumped.  “I bring a toy?”
          He chose Cookie Monster and we were back in action.  The streets left on our list were in a staunchly middle class area of our predominantly Black neighborhood.  The overwhelming majority of the political signs in these parts are Democratic.  So even though I was only visiting the homes on my canvas sheet, I wasn’t particularly concerned about encountering people who didn’t want me to be there.
          Except on our second to last street, when I noticed someone watching us.  We were walking from a house back toward our car and Ankle Biter was giving his sore foot a little test.  Seeing how it felt to put weight on it.  Running a few steps.  Picking and blowing a dandelion gone to seed.  So it was taking us a little time to make our transition away from this home and onto our last street.
          It was the AT&T guy parked in the driveway of the house next door who was watching us.  He was a White guy.  Middle aged.  Chubby.  Smoking.  Since he was not of our neighborhood, I didn’t feel like I had much to go on regarding his political leaning.  Well, nothing except my assumptions about White, middle aged, chubby guys who smoke.  I was aware that we were marked in several ways.  There was Ankle Biter’s hat.  My clipboard and stack of Obama literature.  And we were near our car, with the rainbow sticker.  And the Pro-Choice Ohio sticker.  And the Obama sticker.  So it was pretty clear who we were and what our agenda was.
          And then he started talking.
          I couldn’t hear the first thing he said because there was some construction nearby.  So I asked him to say it again.
          “Don’t forget to vote tomorrow!” he yelled.
          “That’s what we’re telling people,” I said with a smile.
          “Just make sure you don’t knock on the wrong doors,” he stage whispered.
          And then he was out of his van and walking over to us.  Clearly just compelled by the opportunity to be with people who felt the same way he did.
          “I don’t have any idea why this election isn’t going to be a total landslide,” he told me as he got closer.  “I tell that to everyone I know.”  He told me he doesn’t understand why people think Romney would be better for the economy.  Or anything, for that matter.  But then he just kept talking about all the things Obama has done that make him proud.  Equal pay, ending the war in Iraq, naming two brilliant women to the Supreme Court, creating “tons of jobs.”
          And then he told me about his daughter.  She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 20.  Her graduation from college coincided almost exactly with the September, 2010 rollout of the Obamacare provision for children up to 26 being covered on their parents’ health insurance.
          “I tell my mother,” he told me.  “Look how this man’s policies have affected your granddaughter.  Your own granddaughter!”
          But his mother doesn’t care.  She’s  just worried the President’s a Muslim.
          “He’s not a Muslim,” my new friend tells his mother.
          But she doesn’t buy it.  So eventually, he told me, he just gives up.  “Fine,” he says to his mother, “the President’s a Muslim.  But look what he did for your granddaughter!”
          This man has a bunch of Republican buddies.  A whole bunch.  “But I talk to them about it,” he said to me. “I can’t just let it go.  I tell them, ‘please, if you care about me, if you care about my family, think about my daughter when you vote.’  But they don’t care either.  They’re just worried about their guns.”
          There was quiet between us for a moment.  Even Ankle Biter wasn’t pestering me to get going.  We just stood together, the three of us.  And then I said it:
          “It’s hard not to take it personally.  Isn’t it?”
          “You bet it is,” he agreed.
          We talked for a little while longer before Ankle Biter and I went on our way.  I learned his brother is gay, and he wants him to have the rights he deserves.  And he’s taking the day off on Tuesday so he can wait in line as long as it takes.  He didn’t want to let us go.  It’s a lonely job I suppose, riding around in the AT&T van.  But it was more than that, I think.
          I think those of us who have these stories--those of us with pre-existing conditions, or adult children on our health insurance, or a house we bought with the adoption tax credit, or new roads, or an ounce of hope that our families will someday be recognized--we feel like if we keep telling our stories, someone will hear.  And if they hear these stories, if they really listen to how our President’s landmark policies have changed our lives, we can’t imagine they will refuse to affirm our stories with their votes.  We can’t imagine why this isn’t going to be a landslide.

          So here it is.  I started writing this on November fifth.  And now it’s Tuesday, November sixth.  The day is upon us.  Like thousands of others, I will be knocking on doors again all morning and afternoon. And with any luck, by the end of the day today, the 44th President of the United States will remain such.  He has a truly remarkable record that I have no doubt will only continue to expand.
          Here’s to a day of unfettered access to our most basic democratic right.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Politics is as personal as ever, day 18: Stop Diabeating Our Kids!

          Our daughter, Hot Shot, had Mrs. Fantastic for second grade.  She was incredible.  Not inspirational necessarily, or over-the-top creative, or academically innovative.  But she was effective.  Astonishingly effective.  Thirty students.  City school.  Kids who didn't know the sounds associated with each letter, and kids who could read Ramona, cover to cover in three hours.  And let me tell you, everything in the room was designed to promote maximum effectiveness.  Behavior communication folders filled out and signed everyday.  Personalized homework packets distributed and commented on weekly.  Reading library displayed and cataloged by level, subject, and genre.  Monthly school supplies for students with good behavior.  Quarterly parties for those who completed their homework every week.  When my partner volunteered in the classroom she was greeted with a print out of each student she was to tutor and what each needed to review.  This teacher used systems that work.
          And one of her most effective systems was "brain food."  As Hot Shot explains while students were working at their desks, or in groups, Mrs. Fantastic would walk around the room and slip Skittles to those students who were engaged.  "Keeps the brain working," Mrs. Fantastic would say.  Hot Shot loved this.  There aren't all that many candies she likes, but Skittles is one of them.  "How did Mrs. Fantastic know just what to pick?"
          We, of course, were not as crazy about this highly effective strategy as Hot Shot and Mrs. Fantastic were.  Mrs. Fantastic we loved.  Skittles not so much.  But to be fair, candy-as-behavior-incentive is a widely-used and entirely accepted norm.  But it doesn't take much common sense to understand that this practice, while effective, has no place in our schools.  And here's where I get to use my all time favorite Urban Dictionary entry: Stop diabeating our kids!
          The student population at our daughter's school is almost entirely African American.  And  African American elementary school age kids are almost twice as likely to be obese are their White counterparts.  And this has exponential ramifications.  Because African American adults are twice as likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes than their White counterparts.  And then those with diabetes are twice as likely to die from it.  So yes, the constant candy rewards may keep kids focused on their schoolwork.  But at tremendous cost.
          Well, Hot Shot is in third grade now, with another truly remarkable set of teachers, and guess what the new policy is regarding snacks in school.  "Healthy Snacks Only.  No cupcakes or cookies for parties.  Birthday treats must be healthy treats approved prior to bringing in to school.  There will be no exception.  No candy treats passed out to students."  And it's not just in my daughter's school.  This is a new citywide policy: no more bribing children with prizes that will eventually kill them.
          But wait, there's more.  Last year the Columbus City Schools made a bold change in vending machines, opting to eliminate all soft drinks, sports drinks, juices, and flavored waters, in favor of a one-beverage-fits-all policy.  Water.  That's it.  In every machine.  And there won't be as many Snickers bars at the ready.  During the 2011-12 school year, the City Schools reduced the number of "low-nutrient" snacks in vending machines to only 15% of those choices offered, while they increased low-fat and nutrient-rich snacks to 30% of the options.  During this school year and next, the empty-calorie snacks are scheduled to be phased out completely and replaced by a more nutritious spectrum.  This kind of move is rare among urban school districts, in part because it will amount to a decrease in revenue, at least initially, while students adjust their taste buds.  But hot damn, if this City isn't willing to take a cut in revenue when it means saving our kids lives.
          So what, you may ask, does all this have to do with the Obama Administration?  Well, nothing exactly.  Not anything completely objective and provable anyway.  Except that healthy living, including developing nutritious eating habits, has been a hallmark of the Obama family, as well as  Obama policy.  The Obamas have used their four-year moment of heightened visibility to intentionally model healthy living.  Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative is helping families, schools, and communities raise "a healthier generation of kids," promoting physical activity and whole foods.  And finally, this fall, the Obama Administration succeeded in passing the first major change to School Breakfast and School Lunch in 15 years.  You may have heard the folks at Fox News complaining about this government takeover of our kids' food options, but here's the deal.  Effective immediately, our kids get more (and a wider variety) of fresh fruits and vegetables everyday.  Half of their grains are now whole grains.  Only skim and low-fat milk will be offered.  And, there are no trans fats allowed on the premises.  But that's not all, by next year all grains served in school will be whole grains.  And over the course of the next ten years the salt content of our kids' food will be gradually reduced so that by 2022 they will be served 25% less sodium in their school breakfasts and 53% (!) less sodium in their lunches.
          Now you may have heard there are also new caloric limits on school meals based on the USDA guidelines for each age group.  And you may have heard complaints that kids aren't getting enough food.  That they are coming away from lunch hungry.  I've heard this both in the media and from a couple parents of athletes.  I'm not particularly ready to weigh in on this part of the issue yet.  But I will say this.  It's not a surprise to me that kids don't "feel full" of their new lunches.  Partly because it takes time to get used to eating foods you aren't usually offered.  And partly because a plate of chard and  baked chicken breast over brown rice feels different in the belly than a big slice of extra-cheese pizza.
          So these are bold moves made by the Obamas.  Nutrition and healthy living has been their own personal is political message to a nation struggling with obesity and diabetes.  And it's not always met with resounding applause.  Because we like the taste of french fries.  And the feeling of a stomach full of pasta slathered in I-can't-believe-it's-full-of-trans-fat and salt.  But they've done it anyway, because it's the right thing to do.  And I believe that in making these often unpopular stands, they are also making room for city councils and school boards to implement the same kinds of bold decisions.
          So Hot Shot is having a really wonderful year in third grade.  And as hard as it is to believe, she's getting by without anyone slipping her a Skittle every couple of minutes.  She's still embarrassed to open the thermos of fresh vegetable soup I put in her lunch box, because "Mom, don't you know, no one eats vegetable soup for lunch?!"
          But she doesn't know what I know.  She doesn't know what's coming down the pike.  "You just wait," I tell her.  "You just wait."

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Politics is as personal as ever, day 17: What would we have done without insurance?

          When our youngest son, Ankle Biter, was 15 months old he spiked a fever and started to cough.  This was not so unusual for February in Portland, Maine.  And it was a Wednesday, so I wasn’t very worried.  I called the doctor just in case there was something horrible going around that we should know about.  There wasn’t--just February--so we agreed the best thing was to give it time.
          Thursday was the same.  Temperature still elevated but no higher than the day before.  Symptoms unchanged.
          Friday was no different.  Except it was Friday.  So I called to ask if I should bring him in.
          “Does he seem like he needs to be brought in?”  The triage nurse asked me.
          I don’t know if she was annoyed, but I heard her that way.  I felt annoyance coming through that phone.  Which probably has more to say about me than her.  I felt like an alarmist bringing in my kids all the time.  Is there something we can do about the red bumps all over his body?  Is it normal for them to be wheezing like this?  Why do their bowel movements smell like sour yogurt?  It seemed like with three kids there was something to call the doctor about every week.  And we were still bringing them in for quarterly well child checks.  So I felt like she was calling me a bad mother.  Like I couldn’t figure out myself how sick my kids were.
          But it wasn’t just that.  Our income at the time was low enough that our kids were eligible for Maine’s version of SCHIP, the State Children’s Health Initiative Program. (Thank you Ted Kennedy and Orin Hatch.  Remember when a staunch Republican like Orin Hatch could work with a Democrat on landmark health care policy?)  So there was a little bug in the back of my brain that felt judged.  Like if I took my kid to the doctor because I thought he had an ear infection and it turned out he didn’t, then I was wasting the tax payers’ money on an  unnecessary office visit.
          So that Friday I heard annoyance and I decided to stay home.  We would see how our little guy did over the course of the weekend. 
           By Sunday evening he would do nothing but snuggle on my back in the Ergo carrier.  If I took him out he would lie down on the floor.  If I put him on the couch, he would lie down on the couch.  So by midday on Monday, when he lay in my arms, grunting at the end of each breath, I strapped him and toddler Moon Boy into the car and headed confidently into the doctor.
          And that doctor did everything right.  Honestly, I want to weep every time I think about how right that doctor was at each turn.  She immediately recognized his grunting as a sign of a blood infection.  (Who knew?)  She was ready to give him an injection of antibiotics right away to start fighting it off, but knew they’d need to get his blood before he received the antibiotics or else the sample could be a false negative.  But our pediatric office (like most) does not do blood draws on site.  We’d have to go to a lab for that.  Me and this beyond sick baby, and a toddler.  And it was about 15 degrees out.  Except here came the doctor, out of the supply closet with one of those tiny butterfly needles, the nurse staring at her in wonder.  Clearly this was not routine practice in this office, but that doctor got our tiny boy’s vein on the first stick.  So by the time we’d left the office and were on the way to urgent care for chest x-rays, he already had his first dose of antibiotics on board, and his blood was on the way to the lab.  When we arrived at urgent care they knew we were coming and took us immediately, and I had barely arrived home before the doctor was on the phone saying she’d seen the x-rays and admitted Ankle Biter to the hospital.  When we arrived twenty minutes later our room was ready and the doctor was in it.  Waiting for us.  She showed me the severe bacterial  pneumonia filling his left lung and confirmed the infection in his blood.  When I cried and told her how many days I’d put off bringing him in, she told me there were plenty of viruses going around.  They wouldn’t have treated him until the fifth day anyway. 
          As it turns out, we spent the next ten days in the hospital, my partner, Darling Virgo, and I switching off laying in the hospital bed, holding him in our arms.  After a CT Scan on Wednesday a half dozen MDs filed into the room to tell us his body was working its hardest to protect itself against infection, and had began forming what is known to the medical world as an empyema.  It was described to us as a barrier of pus the consistency of Vaseline, that forms a wall between the infection and the rest of the body.  If left to itself the Vaseline-like-gunk will form into something as hard as the white stuff on the inside of an orange peel.  And just as thick.  Presumably the body does this because it is helpful, but if that wall is going to compress your lung, then it’s not very helpful at all.  And that’s what was happening to our little guy.  So suddenly, laparoscopic surgery to remove the gunk was scheduled  for that Thursday afternoon. 
          And it was all beyond unnerving.  The doctors filing in, primary care, surgical, infectious disease, and then just the regular residents from the floor.  And a new nurse to get to know every 12 hours.  With a slightly different way of doing things.  And what can you do but put your faith in them all to know what Vaseline-that’s-going-to-turn-into-orange-peel looks like.  To know that cutting our son’s body open in three places, snaking in a camera and two tiny little shovels, is the best thing for your child.  The thing that’s going to make him better.  The thing that’s going to keep him alive.  It’s such a big leap. 
         But by the time Thursday morning arrived, there was no denying he needed this procedure.  His body was so swollen with fluids that he looked like a newborn with those huge puffy eyelids.  In fact, as I held him through the morning, I began to forget that he wasn’t a newborn.  He was so lethargic, so uncommunicative, I couldn’t remember that he could usually understand me.  That there were things that made him smile and laugh.  That prompted him to crawl across the room faster than a happy puppy. 
          And we had the most wonderful moment with the resident and med student would be assisting with the surgery.  They came to see us while we were waiting in anesthesia.  And suddenly, without the big wig surgeons around them, these two were just regular people.  Our generation.  Our style.  We learned the resident had a son about the same age as Ankle Biter.  We laughed together about our crazy toddlers and could just feel that as they were becoming real to us, so were we to them.  Ankle Biter would be a child to them, not just a patient.  As they stood to leave, Darling Virgo grabbed the resident’s arm.  “Imagine he is your son,” she told him.  “Just imagine if this were your son.”
          Well the surgery went perfectly, and when they wheeled that boy into the recovery room, there was so much tape holding his drainage tubes in place it looked like he was in a full body cast.  The nurse kept commenting on how excessive it was, but when the resident made his rounds he told us, “all I could think of was my son and how he’d pull those tubes out in a hot second.  So I just covered him with as much tape as I could get on there.”
          It wasn’t long before that boy came back to life.  They removed one drainage tube on Saturday, and the next on Sunday.  And by the time the morphine cleared he was crawling around the hallways with a brace on his arm to protect the IV.  Like a little happy puppy with a peg leg.
          He/we were in the hospital ten nights in all.  On his last day they put a PICC line in his arm so he could continue to receive IV antibiotics for two months.  Which meant two months of home-visiting nurses checking that line.  And return visits to the hospital for follow up x-rays.  And weekly blood-work to monitor the infection. And ongoing check ups with the infectious disease Doc.  And to primary care to remove the stitches.  And then of course, when little Ankle Biter finally learned to walk at seventeen months, he walked with one arm tight to his chest to protect his tender wounds.  And so then that’s just how he walked all the time.  And that’s how he ran.  One arm swinging along with his stride, the other cramped up against his body as if he were holding an important deposit under his arm.  So there were physical therapy consults.
          And all of this (you are a good sport if you’ve made it this far) is to say: What would we have done if we didn’t have health insurance?  Tell me what.  I mean, we did everything right.  And the doctors did everything right.  Everyone was taking care of this kid at every stage, and still, there he was with a mass of gunk about to compress his lung.  What if we’d had to worry about that very first call to the doctor’s office.  What if we had to think twice before making the appointment because we knew there’d be an office visit bill to pay.  And then an x-ray bill.  And then (bam!) in less then eight hours we were looking at a night’s stay in the hospital.  Day one of medical care and we would have been up to a couple thousand dollars at least.  What if we had to weigh the necessity of spending that $2,000 as if we were considering replacing a water heater that might still have a year left in it.  What if we’d spent even a day shopping around, while our son was getting sicker, while that stuff was hardening around his lung?  And even if we’d just gone ahead and done everything the doctors recommended, everything we actually did do, on that same timeline.  We would have been going out of our minds.  And that’s just it, we already were going out of our minds.  Our tiny little child was critically ill.  Imagine if on top of that we were watching as ten, twenty, thirty, forty thousand dollars in medical costs was tunneling its way through any hope of financial solvency.  Ever.
          So when I think about all those people who stand to lose their health insurance on Day One of a Romney presidency, it makes me so sick I might just need to schedule an appointment for myself.  Young people who are on their parent’s plans.  People who’ve reached their lifetime cap.  People with pre-existing conditions who have been emailing me since I started this series.  People with lupus, or a hip replacement, or high blood pressure, or diabetes.  These people who can’t change jobs because a new job would mean a new provider and a probable denial of coverage.  How is that supportive of free-enterprise?  How is our economy served when people are kept back from professional advancement because a job change would mean a forfeit of insurance coverage?
          I imagine these families, some of whom will one day cradle a sick child in their arms and kick themselves for worrying about the expense when all they want to worry about is their child.  Elders with Medicare vouchers who will think twice about calling the doctor, wondering if maybe they’ll feel better if they stick it out just a couple more days.  There are still plenty of families out there who are living this predicament as it is.  Why would we undo the progress we’ve made, instead of continuing the work of insuring every family against these kinds of dreadful decisions?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Politics is as personal as ever, Day 16: "I need you Ohio!"

          Okay, I fell asleep at the wheel the last couple of nights, and I haven't gotten to health care yet, or school lunch regulations, and there are only a few days left, but today I'm too Get-Out-The-Vote fired up to write about any of that.
          I dropped off the boys at preschool this morning and drove out to Hilliard, a predominantly white, working and middle class suburb west of Columbus, to hear President Obama speak.  I've only gone to see him once during this campaign and it was starting to feel like I wasn't doing my share, given how often he's here.  Because of course I despise the electoral college and it's weighting that favors all those White folks who live in all those socially conservative states with all that cattle.  And how it puts all the emphasis of the election on just a few people's votes.  But ultimately, here I live where the Obamas seem to be throwing a barbecue in my backyard every other weekend.  I might as well enjoy it.
          It was a rowdy crowd, which made it fun.  You know the type, packs of supportive hecklers that are so "fired up and ready to go" they can't help but interrupt the President with chants of "four more years!" every few minutes.  And of course President O. eats that kind of stuff up, with that fantastic grin and a "love you right back," and a "this guy here has had way too much coffee!"
          And it's not like I heard anything I didn't expect to hear.  I'm familiar with with the President's accomplishments, but I was moved by a couple of things.  First was that he didn't talk all that much about Romney, and when he did point out Romney's unwillingness to reveal the details of his plans until after election day, he followed it up with, "You know what I believe.  You know where I stand.  You know I'll fight for you and your families as hard as I know how." 
          Which really is exactly what I do feel I know about the President.  It's the kind of campaign promise I have no doubt he can keep.  And it's why I think the stream of praise New Jersey Governor, Republican Chris Christie has uncharacteristically honored the President with this week is so remarkable.  Because there is just no question that the President will do everything he can for the people of New Jersey.  Everything.  Chris Christie doesn't need to make nice in order to ensure the citizens of his state get the highest quality help FEMA can offer.  He doesn't need to pander to Obama.  Surely Chris Christie could be his usual growling, partisan, bulldog self and hog up all the I'll-come-to-your-rescue limelight, and still President Obama would make sure the federal government was doing everything it possibly could to help the people of New Jersey.  Which says to me that Chris Christie must really be feeling the love.  And the efficiency.  And the get-things-done energy of the Obama team.  The Governor must feel like he's getting exactly the help he needs in what is, most certainly, the biggest challenge of his life.
          The second Come-to-Barack moment for me, was after President Obama listed off all the people who need a "champion" in the White House.  People who will lose their health insurance, students who want to afford to go to college, veterans who want to come home and be taken care of, children stricken by poverty.  After going through this list of people he wants to keep fighting for, he said, very solemly, "That's why I need you Ohio."
          And it really felt like he was talking directly to each person there, myself included.  As if my given name actually was Ohio.  I need you Ohio.  As if he was saying, "you there, Ohio Rose-Cohen, you can hate the electoral college as much as you want, but it doesn't relieve you of the sacred responsibility that comes with being an Ohio voter."  I need you Ohio!  As if he was reminding us in the clearest possible way, that people all over the country are depending on our votes in order to keep their health insurance.  Or their right to organize.  Or their path to citizenship.  Or their food stamps.  Or their mortgage interest tax credit.  Or control of their medical decisions.  Or their right to marriage.  They need you Ohio.
          It's a pretty powerful responsibility.  One that prompted me to come home and sign up for four Get Out The Vote shifts in the next four days.  There's a lot at stake, and I feel thrilled and sobered by the responsibility.


          Oh, and I just have to share this bit of swing state news, because it's absolutely too marvelous not to spread around.  President Obama is hosting an event with Jay Z and Bruce Springsteen at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Monday.  Tickets are free, but you do need a ticket in advance to get in.  And guess where the one location to pick up tickets is.  Just guess.  C'mon.  
          Okay I'll tell you.  It's at 1701 Morse Road in Columbus.  And you have to come between 9am and 3pm on Saturday.  Fantastic, right?
          "Why is it fantastic?" you ask.
          Okay, well why don't you guess where the early voting site is for Columbus.  You know, the one in the enormous vacant department store with the long lines that move very, very quickly and send all those early voters on their way.  Want to take a shot at it?
          That's right.  1700 Morse Road.  Right across the street from the free tickets to see  The Prez, The Boss, and Jay Z.
          And to think our squlech-the-vote Secretary of State tried to cancel early voting for this weekend.  Take that Jon Husted.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Politics is as personal as ever, day 15: Wickid Big Government

          Is it just me or does watching coverage of the devastation in New York bring back haunting memories of September, 2001?  It's such a surprise to remember that a place with so much muscle can be as vulnerable as it is.  And this time at the mercy of nothing more than weather.  When I think about the experience of having a baby sick in the hospital (that will be tomorrow's post so stay tuned), I remember how exhausting it was.  How it just took all of our brainpower to make the right decisions that would keep our kid alive.  When I superimpose upon that experience Super Storm Sandy conditions--no power, no transportation, 85 mile an hour winds, streets flooded with water, sideways rain--and imagine my baby about to be carried down nine flights of stairs to an ambulance, and then to a different hospital, and through hallways a mile long, and elevators, and another room that needs to be cleaned before we can settle in...  Honestly, if I could give my heart to the parents of those children I just might do it.  Because I can't imagine theirs will last much longer than the generators.
         I grew up on the East Coast and remember only two hurricanes to speak of from my youth.  They were called Gloria and Bob.  Having never lived through a hurricane before, I was a little anxious about Gloria's arrival.  My mother comforted me with stories of the only really big hurricane she could remember in her lifetime.  That one was called Carol and it touched down in 1954.  And of course there are pictures of me beside towers of snow during the Blizzard of '78.  And my dad always talks about the Blizzard of '88 when his grandparents came over from Ireland.  That's 1888.
          So, I'm not a meteorologist, or historian, or climate scientist, but I do have a really good memory.  And by my count the number of natural disasters that have befallen our country during the life of my nine-year-old daughter outnumber all the rest that occurred during my lifetime plus those passed on through oral folklore from the entire previous century.
          I'm not kidding myself, I know I'm not the first person to notice all this, but I'm going to go ahead and say it anyway: seems like this is a trend.
          And as tempting as it is, I'm not going to tell you that Mitt Romney is so dumb he hasn't picked up on this trend and is going to throw FEMA in the dumpster with our big yellow-feathered friend.  He did seem to say something to that effect (see the transcript) but that was a year and a half ago.  And as tempting as it is, I'm not going to say that Mitt Romney could easily change his mind six times since June 2011, so there's no need to fear he'd get rid of FEMA.  I'm not going to say those things, because I don't actually think they are the real problem.
          Because the problem is not mind-changing.  Mind-changing can be a sign of growth after all.  And I want a president who can grow.  The real problem, as I see it, is always looking around to figure out what's popular instead of what's necessary.  Romney's position changes don't hint at growth; they speak more about the crowd he's talking to, or the State he's running in, or which part of the Party he's trying to win over on any given day.  And so it's a problem that we don't know what he really stands for other than wanting to be President.  But the bigger problem is that we have every reason to believe he will govern with the same haphazard and shortsightedness that he campaigns with.  That he will be for the military when he is with the military and the teachers when he's with the teachers and for ending pre-existing condition exclusions when he's with the voters and for keeping them when he's with the insurance companies.  That he will cut FEMA when he wants to look like a guy who knows how to trim a budget, and praise FEMA when they're heroically rescuing half as many people as they could have if they'd had a budget to cover the equipment and staffing they needed.
          My partner, Darling Virgo, works for Columbus Public Health, where she tells me there are rooms full of meticulously packed emergency kits.  Bunches of them.  And every year items in those kits are replaced because the expiration dates have passed.  And there are people whose job it is to think about those kits.  To think about whether the supplies could be packed in a way that would make the kits ten seconds more convenient for the person who will someday need to use them.  And whether those bins could be stacked in a way that would allow them to be shipped out the door more quickly.  And the Department has days where the entire staff responds to simulated emergencies, with hundreds of people role-playing possible different scenarios.  So they can practice.
          This is (as we would say back in my home state of Massachusetts): Wickid Big Government.  I mean, you don't get bigger government than stacks of annually replaced unused supplies, right?  And this is just in one city.  Imagine how many stacks of annually replaced unused supplies there are in this entire country?  It's enough to cause a Republican aneurism.   I mean, it just might be the least popular use of tax payer dollars ever. But here's the thing: that's what it takes to do it right.
          We don't always know when disasters, natural or otherwise, are going to strike.  One day New York City looks like the proudest place on Earth, and the next it looks the most humble.  If we don't have a government that shows up ready everyday, then we won't have a government that shows up ready on the day.
          For sure, President Obama has not delivered everything he promised.  But if he has proven anything, it's that he's got some serious multi-tasking game.  Two wars to end, an economy with a seized engine to replace, millions of people without access to health care... and he has kept everything moving forward.  That kind of leadership doesn't come from short-sightedness.  It comes from peripheral vision.
          So I've got my tornado supplies in the basement.  Fifteen gallons of water.  Piles of canned food.  Can opener.  Crank flashlights.  And a mattress.  But I may need someone to dig me out, and I want it to be someone who has his head in the game, not the polls. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Politics is as personal as ever, day 14: The shifting coordinates of women's health.

          I've never been the victim of rape, but I have dear friends who are not so lucky.  And these friends have taught me a thing or two during this election cycle.  While the rest of us gawk as would-be Senators opine about the hypotheticals of a woman’s body’s response to rape or the point at which God is present in the pregnancy resulting from a rape, while we forward on rape-related sound bites and articles and memes, these friends have been cringing in real-time pain, every time they see or hear the word: rape.  They’ve been tuning out the news, turning off their Facebook feeds, knowing there’s just no way to predict when that word will jump back out at them during this despicable open-mic-on-women’s-bodies election season.
          Rape, like poverty and unemployment and pre-existing conditions, is a real thing that happens to real people.  You don't just get to talk about it to rile us up.  To make some people angry and rally others to your side.  You may not use it for shock value or distraction.  And you are certainly not allowed to bounce it all about the vast landscape of American media, especially if you are endowed with the power to legislate.  Because anyone who would toss this word about so cavalierly, may feel just qualified enough, just entitled enough, to limit the right of rape victims to do whatever it is they must to survive.
          And if Mitt Romney, the apparent leader of the Republican Party, is so interested in being President that he’s not willing to stand up to these ignorance-wielding legislators, then we can’t afford to have him anywhere near The Oval Office.
          Because look what has happened, even as almost everyone gawks at the audacity of Ted Akin and Robert Murdoch, we are letting them succeed in pulling the vertex of the abortion rights conversation to their coordinates.  Because now, instead of standing strong in the 39-year-old right of any woman to control the medical destiny of her own uterus, we are filling up the air waves with incensed arguments about why it’s important to preserve this right for women who have been the victim of rape and incest.  See that?  See how they did that?  How we're all so caught up laughing at them for making such politically unpopular and bogus statements just days before the election that we don't even realize what they've done: taken us off our work of protecting the right of all women to control their medical decisions.  Preserving the right for all women to go to the doctor's office without bringing along the House of Representatives.
          This series of mine is supposed to be about ways the Obama administration has impacted, or will impact, my family.  And of course the truth is that every woman is at risk of being raped.  My partner, my daughter, and I are no exception.  But that’s not really what I’m concerned with here.  I’m concerned for my friends, and the millions of other Americans who already carry that horrible burden.  They deserve a government with the deepest, most sincere respect for their right to privacy.  A legislative body that would never dream of forcing them to prove they’ve been assaulted in order to end a pregnancy.  A majority party that will set the political agenda so far away from the coordinates of pregnancy-resulting-from-rape, that women need not worry the most traumatic moment of their lives will be batted about for public comment and perusal.
          We have the power to offer these women four years of peace.  Let’s do it.