Four Pearls of “Wisdom” We Should Outlaw TODAY

April 14, 2014
Grandma wasn't always right. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Grandma wasn’t always right. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Ready to tell me I’m over-thinking this and being too negative? Too bad. I’m a writer deep in a depressive episode. You are welcome to rebut my take on these aphoristic affronts to the psyche on your own blog, with lots of smiley emoticons.

Image: © Nevit Dilmen. Found at Wikimedia Commons.

Image: © Nevit Dilmen. Found at Wikimedia Commons.

1)       “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.”

The person who came up with this one probably never suffered anything worse than a runny nose in his whole life and thinks his existence is the standard by which all others should be judged. Or it was a person grasping at inspirational straws in her quest to keep choking down $9 gluten-free kale crackers.

I understand the sentiment here: you get only one body (until medical science can re-grow body parts in procedures 50 years from now which will cost $400 in Europe and $7,800 in the US). You should appreciate your health now because next month you could have a stroke or ovarian cancer or end up in rehab from whiplash after some texting 17-year-old idiot rear-ends you.

But as a person with a chronic mental and physical illness, I see this saying for the smug claptrap that it is. It’s demeaning to people who live and work with mental and physical challenges every day. If you don’t have Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, or bipolar disorder, someone in your office probably does. Try telling that person, “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything,” when she’s pulling her weight at work and at home, just as well as you are, with the help of a good doctor, the right medications, and a hell of a lot of internal grit.

If you don’t have your health, you don’t have your health, and you live your life anyway. That’s it. It’s not like everything is either a mild cold or that episode of House where a girl almost dies because she gets a deer tick in her vagina.

1859's "The Kiss" by Francesco Hayez. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

1859′s “The Kiss” by Francesco Hayez. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

2)      “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

This howler could not have been coined by anyone who was ever actually in love. The saying should be, “Living with a partner acclimated to your verbal or physical abuse means never having to say you’re sorry.”

If the original saying is true, it would have to rest on one of two premises:

a)      People never, ever do anything, on purpose or by accident, that hurts or offends their lover.

b)      People in love automatically forgive any transgression, without the need for acknowledgment or communication.

I dare you to share your life with someone and never get on their nerves the teeniest bit (though I admit I’m a maladjusted individual – irritability is a symptom of depression). You are not perfect and you will make mistakes. You move forward by apologizing to the people you hurt. Don’t assume they’ll happily ignore your bad behavior because they love you.

From the mouths of (rabbit) babes.

From the mouths of (rabbit) babes.

3)      “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

The first time I remember hearing this gem, Bambi’s rabbit pal Thumper was getting an earful from his mom.

This one really rubs me the wrong way, because I’ve been scolded for writing about too many negative topics instead of something funny and nice, when my intention was to address a serious real-world injustice. Tell me how many problems we’ll solve if we all clam up unless we have something “nice” to say.

I get the message: tearing other people down or complaining just for the sake of it isn’t kind or productive. And I might not mind this one so much if, in my experience, all the people sharing variations of it on Facebook weren’t women.

Because women are particularly vulnerable to the poison of this mindset: that we shouldn’t open our mouths if we’re sad, or frustrated, or hurt, because nice girls smile when you ask them to and have good manners, no matter what. Readers and people in my own circle have said, as if they’re confiding something painful and surprising, that I seem “angry.” Well, guess what? I feel angry sometimes. But I get the feeling that that’s a crime because I’m a woman.

1)      “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

I’ve had some arguments with my esteemed friend and colleague Kile Smith, a writer and composer, but when I read his recent piece in Broad Street Review, where I’m the associate editor, it was like he took the words right out of my brain.

“All these decisions are small, but all work is small. (‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ is poster bilge, salve for indolence),” he writes of the minute but deeply consequential tinkering of the successful creative process.

Right on, Kile. Next time someone asks me how I became a writer, I’ll tell them it’s because I sweated the small stuff that sets me apart from a thousand wannabe writers.

Again, I admit the kernel of truth. Keep your sights on the things that really matter: your family, your health, your marriage, and salted caramel ice cream. Don’t have a coronary because some jerk cut you off in traffic.

But the truth is that any kind of success, especially career success, is all about sweating the small stuff: the details that make you excel. I’ll tell you who isn’t sweating the small stuff. Magazines that don’t pay on time. Writers who can’t meet deadlines. PR associates who don’t pick up the phone. Restaurant servers who can’t remember to put the dressing ON THE SIDE. People whose dogs have matted, dirty fur. Able-bodied people who park in handicapped spots.

Is this the ranting of a psychotic perfectionist?


I admit I’ve never read any of the Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff self-help best-sellers by Richard Carlson, Ph.D (now deceased) and his wife, Kristine Carlson, but I really enjoyed perusing their website.

The couple’s other titles include Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff in Love, with tips like “appreciate your spouse in new ways” and “look out for each other.” Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Women touts tips for “debating effectively with spouses and partners” and “dealing with children and friendships.”

There’s also Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Men, with tips to “relieve stress, and gain more peace and joy.” These include, “learn about life from golf,” “spend more time with your kids,” and “have an affair.”

Yes, really. It’s on the website.

Now I can see why Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Women also offers hints on “learning to laugh when all else fails.”

I guess a woman who gets upset when her husband cheats is sweating the small stuff. Because he never has to say he’s sorry, and if she can’t say anything nice, she doesn’t say anything at all.

What are your least favorite words of wisdom?

I’ll teach you the meaning of pain! (A primer for doctors and people with chronic pain)

April 2, 2014


Medicine has changed since Thomas Eakins painted "The Gross Clinic" in 1875. Right?

The practice of medicine has changed a lot since Thomas Eakins painted “The Gross Clinic” in 1875. Right? 

Sometimes you pick up a book about your own chronic disease (which is such a pain in the ass that you don’t usually feel like reading about it), and you have a real holy sh*t moment.

I wouldn’t say I’m battling the bladder disease known as interstitial cystitis (IC), because that implies at some point, one of us will win or lose. This isn’t meningitis or one of those cancers with a halfway decent prognosis. IC is neither fatal nor curable, and we’ve been in a stalemate since I was diagnosed about twelve years ago.

I have written before about urologists and their technicians and my pet theory that they are all sadists. But a book by the Interstitial Cystitis Association, titled IC & Pain: Taking Control, helped me realize “sadist” really isn’t the right word, because doctors don’t enjoy my pain. Many of them just don’t seem to care about it.

But “Epidemiological studies reveal…that IC patients score worse on quality of life measures than patients with end stage kidney disease on dialysis.” Later, on the severity of IC pain, IC & Pain adds, “Research indicates that the pain of interstitial cystitis may be more severe than that of some forms of cancer.”

A new view of pain

I don’t trivialize or deny the suffering of people with terminal or acute illnesses. My point is the medical profession is starting to realize that, even for patients who are otherwise stable and somewhat ambulatory, chronic pain is not a side-note you can safely ignore. Chronic pain is debilitating, depressing, and downright dangerous. For example, IC itself won’t kill you. But as IC & Pain notes, “intractable pain has resulted in suicides each year because patients are left to live with severe, debilitating pain and have nowhere to turn for help.”

The shock I experienced from reading this was not the revelation that IC is a terrible thing to live with. I’ve known that for years. The shock was that it was the first time I have ever read or heard any outside affirmation that my pain really is that bad. For example, I’ve seen a so-called expert in the treatment of IC shrug when I said I was still in serious pain after a few months of his prescriptions. I’ve also heard that pelvic trouble is just something women have to deal with.

Instruments of torture

I’ve written about a diagnostic procedure in which I was catheterized and then pulled to my feet and hooked up to a machine with wires that pumped my bladder full of fluid from the outside in. My job was to tell the physician’s assistant the exact moment when I could not stand another drop.

For a healthy person, this (while humiliating) might not have been so bad. But for me, the pain was horrible.

The PA was annoyed. “It’s not pain,” she said. “It’s discomfort.”

Doctors and nurses have been frowning and palpating my abdomen and prescribing ultrasounds for years because they can’t reconcile all my wincing and gasping with my total lack of tumors or appendicitis or renal failure or something besides IC. They can’t accept the fact that so much pain is not coming from an acute condition that needs chemo, surgery, or at least a couple of Vicodin.

Please rate your pain on a scale of one to five. We might believe you.

Can anyone hear me?

IC & Pain says that it can take the average IC patient up to seven years to get an accurate diagnosis. I would add that even after that, doctors still may not believe what they read in your records, or what you say about how you feel.

Over the course of a few years, I went to three urologists in a row who each insisted on their own battery of different diagnostics to come to the same conclusion, actively denying that my medical record or my own description of my symptoms was an accurate basis for any treatment they could prescribe.

“Wow, you’re a textbook case,” the third urologist marveled when his tests were finished.

Unfortunately, when you’re in a hospital gown and are facing a team of medical assistants who just finished measuring the exact volume and velocity of your urinary tract, you’re so demoralized that it’s hard to chant, “I told you so!”

I was in a similar situation when a urinary tract infection landed me in the ER several years ago (yes, people with IC can still get UTIs, and they are epic on the pain scale). From the hospital bed, I explained that the pain was so severe because I was not the average UTI patient – I had IC. But they still poked and frowned and ordered completely unnecessary tests for sexually transmitted diseases, despite my medical record detailing a chronic pain syndrome that explained my symptoms perfectly.

Another doctor, administering a work-related physical, conflated “interstitial cystitis” with simple cystitis (a bladder infection) despite my attempts to explain otherwise, and told me to drink cranberry juice — a beverage that may help prevent cystitis, but wreaks havoc on IC patients. Sort of an important distinction when you’re giving dietary advice to your patient.

To ignore or not to ignore?

At 30, I am just now learning that when it comes to pain, you have to be your own advocate.

I wrote recently about getting an MRI for lumbar spasms of the “kill me now, God!” variety. My primary care doctor, who had seen me weeping in her office, unable to sit in a chair, chose to ignore that distress when my MRI analysis turned up, to her eye, (mostly) normal.

She said my sacroiliac joint was probably acting up and sent me to physical therapy. When I wound up in unspeakable agony again a few weeks later, she finally referred me to a pain specialist who took one look at my MRI report and pointed out a small annular fissure — a tear in the lining of a lumbar disc — which my other doctor had ignored.

My new specialist says that some people experience those fissures without too much pain, while others feel pure torture. Unfortunately, I’m the latter camp.

If you end up here, always remember who is living inside your body: YOU.  Image via Wikimedia Commons.

If you end up here, always remember who is living inside your body: YOU. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Pain’s Bill of Rights

You can’t measure pain like your heart rate or blood pressure, but IC & Pain presents an interesting concept it calls the “Pain Care Bill of Rights,” as proposed by the American Pain Foundation (APF).

It’s worth noting that the APF, which closed down in 2012 due to a professed lack of funding, weathered controversy because of alleged financial ties to opiate drug manufacturers and its position that chronic pain sufferers should be getting more narcotics, not less, despite questions about the drugs’ efficacy, side-effects and addictive nature.

But APF insisted it was a patient advocacy group, and reading over its “bill of rights,” I realized my own “rights” as a patient with chronic pain have been violated repeatedly.

For instance, as you can see, my “right to have [my] report of pain taken seriously” has often been ignored.

“In treating interstitial cystitis, the following definition of pain taken from a nursing textbook is the most useful,” IC & Pain says: “Pain is whatever the experiencing person says it is, existing whenever he or she says it does.”

Bottom line? You decide your line between discomfort and pain — not the doctor.

Back on the bill of rights, you also have “the right to be informed by your doctor about what may be causing your pain” and the pros and cons of any possible treatments. In my case, my primary care doctor chose not to mention the annular fissure on my MRI to me, even though she knew I was in extreme distress.

Later, I insisted on getting a print-out of the MRI report for myself from my specialist. It mentions a disc protrusion “which encroaches upon but does not definitely contact” the adjacent nerve roots. My former doctor told me my spine was fine and my pain had no clear cause. But my new doctor, instead of ignoring my pain, took it into account and guessed that that “encroaching” disc was indeed causing trouble, along with the fissure. He was probably right: He quickly administered epidural and steroid injections (covered by my insurance policy) that reduced the swelling, stopped the spasms, and lessened the pain (restoring my will to live) in about a day. Weeks later, I still have some pain, but getting out of bed doesn’t make me scream and cry.

Now that you know all my business, what’s the point?

Why write all this? Is it just some self-pitying litany of complaints from a chronically ill person?


But what I really want to say here is that if you or someone you know suffers from acute or chronic pain that has been minimized or dismissed by healthcare providers, you’re not alone. The right doctor may be able to help you — a doctor who understands that pain should not be downplayed or ignored because it doesn’t have an obvious, common, or directly life-threatening cause (or because you’re a woman).

So speak up for your body. Speak up for yourself.

Have you had a similar experience with a little-known chronic illness, or back pain? Share your story in the comments.

This isn’t a blog about illness — it’s a blog about what I want to say this week. If you want to be in on the next discussion, visit the homepage to subscribe, or find me on Twitter

Why Writers Are the Chicken Rex

March 18, 2014

Maybe you’ve heard that writers are dinosaurs.

Workers from another era whose profession is doomed in the age of the Internet.

As I have been preparing to speak on a March 18 freelance writers’ panel at Philly’s Pen & Pencil Club, sponsored by the Online News Association and the Editorial Freelancers Association, as well as teach my first class about blogging (happening in Cheltenham, PA on March 20), I’ve been thinking a lot about my process, my work, and my brand. And I say rise, writers. Rise!

I originally drew the comic you see above for a post about dinosaurs I wrote about two years ago. Back then, it was just an illustration of some science that really tickled me. It’s the truth about dinosaurs: they never really died out. They turned into birds.

Studies claiming to discover and mass-spectrometer-ize T-Rex collagen and link it to proteins in modern chickens are sketchy at best. But the more we learn about dinosaurs’ bones, the more we notice that dinosaurs and birds share skeletal features (both in their body structure and in the make-up of their bones) that no other animals have in common.

So when you chow down on that bucket of KFC, you’re enjoying some dinosaur’s long, long, long, long, long-lost cousin.

But something about that cartoon kept tugging at me. I used it for my Twitter profile. I even thought about putting it on my business cards. Why?

Do I just like science that much, even though I’m an arts and culture writer?


I like that giant, scary chicken because she’s me.

People have questioned my choice to be a full-time freelance writer instead of pursuing a “traditional” career.

Well, I say, the core work of what a writer does and the value of what a writer does has not changed. The rest of the world has. Our industry is evolving at light speed and a writing career today does not look anything like it looked in past decades, but that doesn’t mean what I do is any less worthwhile. From the outside and even from the inside, it can look and feel like you’re scrambling for impractical scraps while everyone else has the good sense to get a 9-5 office job or at least look for work in restaurants.

At every turn, people and companies who want to exploit your valuable skills as a writer will try to make you feel worthless.

Like you should write for the byline.

Like you don’t need to be paid if the “exposure” is good.

Like you should work for the “experience.”

Like your expertise is worth nothing but the price of a dinner out.

But you’re still someone with a skill that the modern world, from business to politics to science to the arts, can’t do without. You can still be a force for good with the words you write and you should receive fair pay for the work that you do.

There goes the chicken, clucking in backyards and filling sandwiches by the million. That chicken doesn’t know it, but she is the closest thing to a T-Rex we will ever see in real life.

Too often, in the eyes of the world, writers are helpless factory-farm chickens who used to be Tyrannosaurs. Dinosaurs that got respect. Dinosaurs with a say in the food chain.

The world might see you in a very different way than it did a few years ago. People might tell you that nowadays, writing is not a “real” job. But remember your writer’s DNA. Remember that dinosaurs never disappeared. They just carved out a whole new life for themselves right under everyone else’s nose. Be the Chicken Rex. And tell the world who you are and what you’re worth.

Get on the bandwagon, even if you’re not a writer, a T Rex, or a chicken, and visit the homepage to subscribe. Or keep up on Twitter.  


This marketer is trying to use my blog to sell pills to you

March 10, 2014
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

You, my dear, dear readers, or more specifically, the number of you, mean I get a lot of e-mails from marketers who would like to advertise their products to you. You have no idea how many sketchy products and websites I have protected you from over the last several months. Most of these e-mails are good for nothing but a snort and the “ignore forever” file, but a few really rise to the top, deserving to be read, shared, and answered. In public.

So that’s what I’ll do for one of the marketing e-mails I got yesterday, titled “Review and Giveaway Offer.”

Here goes. The original text, in its entirety, is in bold.

Hello Alaina

[Hello! That’s my name! I can already tell that you’ve really done your research.]

Shakespeare called memory “the warder of the brain.”

[More research?! Dost thou ken my love of Shakespeare? Thou quotest Lady Macbeth in Act I:

…his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only: when in swinish sleep
Their drenchèd natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
The unguarded Duncan?  What not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?

Never mind that the line you’re quoting is actually about getting two servants so drunk that you can murder a king and then smear them with his blood to frame them. If that's your lead, is that worth considering for a slogan? "Take these pills and no-one will be able to pin a horrible murder on you!]

Our brains are constantly being attacked by the stressors in our lives including environmental pollution [have you tried the market in Beijing?], internal toxicity [you mean like my depression and vicious perfectionist complex?] emotional strain and a lack of proper diet and nutrients [how could you have seen me eating that Whopper Junior from the Delaware House this weekend?].

Brand-name pills product helps maintain optimum sustainability [is anyone else enjoying that spectacular bit of redundancy? “Maintain optimum sustainability” *snort*] of the molecular environment of the brain [ooh, science-y science-ish stuff! I bet you have a stock photo of a guy in a white coat on your website], enabling us to retain our ability to think cognitively and improve our memories. [“Think cognitively”? Somebody’s going for the Redundant Gold Medal.]

I’d like to send you a complimentary thirty-day sample [how kind!] for review on your site [phooey, I didn’t realize getting free stuff meant I had to swallow thirty days of pills whose copy is sell-it-to-ya-ese for “zero proven health benefits”, and then write about it for free]. I can also provide a handful of additional samples you can use as a giveaway. [OMG thank you!!] Finally, [there’s more!?] I can give you a link you can share on your site for anyone to click through and get a free sample for a minimal shipping and handling fee of only $1.98. [So...does that mean that when I give away the "handful" of samples to you guys, I'll have to pay whatever it costs me to mail it? Do you mind if I charge you?]

[I’m pretty sure this is the deal of the century for all of us. I mean, just for reading this blog, a couple of you get brain pills your doctor never heard of, made up of caffeine, Ginkgo Biloba Extract, Phosphatidylserine, Phoshatidylcholine and other shit I can't pronounce, and I get to turn my own website into a free marketing platform for a company hawking shady health supplements…waaait a minute...]

Please get in touch if you’d like to take me up on this offer or if you have any questions.  

[O God, I have an ill-divining soul.
Methinks I see thy pill-slinging pitch
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.]

Best wishes,

[I bet! You too!]

 Name withheld

Visit the homepage to subscribe, or find me on Twitter, and I will continue to protect you from links to companies like this. 

Blood, sweat and tears: my dates with anesthesia

March 5, 2014
The pain scale would be more accurate if a screaming face, not a crying one, topped it off.

The pain scale would be more accurate if it didn’t end with a crying face. A screaming one would be better. 

Before the deep, stinging burn slid under the skin of my right hand, the nurse smiled at me. “This is the drug that Michael Jackson made famous,” she said. Is that what they say now before they shoot you up with propofol?

It all started last Monday, when I thought a cool shower might help my migraine (I hadn’t been able to eat for 24 hours). Weak and dizzy, I slipped a little getting out of the tub.

My mom describes back spasms as having your muscles electrocuted. I say imagine holding a blowtorch to your spine. The spasms plague my low back once or twice a year, and this was the second time they’ve landed me in the Emergency Room, incoherent with agony.

Problem patient

To the chagrin of most doctors, I am narcotics “non-tolerant.” One Percocet and I’m a sweating, shaking, tragically nauseated wreck. So once the hospital techs took my blood pressure and temperature, botched one IV line and then started another for fluids and migraine meds, Chad the ER doctor at Abington Memorial Hospital stood with his hands on his hips while the IV bruises spread across the backs of my hands.

“Well, if we can’t give you any narcotics, what do you want us to do with you?” he asked.

The honest answer was that I wanted him to find a quiet corner of the barn and shoot me with the family rifle, but all I could do was cover my eyes against the fluorescent lights. They wheeled me out one Valium later, still shrieking with pain.


On Wednesday, a lumbar specialist took a second look at a recent MRI and pointed to a herniated disc, and, for good measure, another disc with a fissure in it. Unable to sit, stand or walk without more tears than I cried while watching Titanic at age 14, I needed a “heavily sedated” epidural, stat.

The next morning, about four nurses helped me into a hospital bed at S.E. PA Pain Management. They looped an oxygen tube under my nose, explaining that the plasticky-cool gush of air was because the anesthetic might depress my breathing.

Going under

A recent Radiolab segment examined the history of anesthesia, from early 19th-century amputations on conscious patients, performed on the top floor of hospitals so passersby couldn’t hear the screams, to modern doctors’ theory that anesthesia may work not by knocking out the brain’s functions, but by preventing different sections of the brain from conversing. We’re still not sure why anesthesia is so different from sleep, which doesn’t rob us of a sense of the passage of time.

While the nurses prepped me for my latest date with oblivion, necessary for my spinal injections, I thought about my past run-ins with the miracle and mystery of anesthesia.

The first time I was ever sedated was when I had my wisdom teeth out. When I climbed into the chair, I remember thinking I should have gone to the bathroom first. And then, suddenly, nothing mattered at all. Even when the dentist’s instruments blocked my airway, I didn’t worry. I just waved my hand a bit and then resumed breathing.

Later, frequent bouts of strep throat sent me for a teenage tonsillectomy. I remember the ride to the OR on my back, the chill, the white blaze of the lights and a burn up my arm, and then the lines between the ceiling tiles began to droop and swerve like a Dali painting.

The next thing I remember is suddenly becoming aware of the darkness behind my eyelids, followed by the fire in my throat.

My next date with the anesthesiologist was the order of a rather sadistic urologist who wanted to see the inside of my bladder but kept me conscious for the catheterization — the agony of which is a hallmark of the disease he diagnosed. I was never so grateful for darkness, and the next thing I remember, the good doctor was standing by my bed in the recovery ward.

“You won’t remember anything I say now,” he said. “You have interstitial cystitis. I could see your bladder bleeding.” He walked away, and I began to sob.

Water it down

Why? I don’t know. I cried and cried. The nurse handed me a box of tissues but otherwise ignored me. Since then, I’ve learned that many people weep as they come out of anesthesia, though a few friends have told me they woke up in fits of laughter instead.

Last week, I felt the squirt of propofol burn up the middle of my lower right arm. Five seconds later, I felt deliciously sleepy.

But then the nurse took the oxygen line out of my nose.

“Hey,” I said. “I thought I needed that. Aren’t you going to tell me what happens as you go?”

“Honey,” she answered, “it’s all done.”

My emotions squished like a busted gel-pack. I don’t remember going to sleep or waking up, but the doctor had picked me up, rolled me over, injected steroids into my spine, returned me to bed and disappeared. An hour was gone. Just gone.

“Why are you crying?” the nurse asked. I took the Kleenex in shaking hands.

“I don’t know what happened,” was the only thing I could think of to say.

Have you experienced anesthesia? What did it feel like to you? Share your story in the comments, then visit the homepage to subscribe or keep up on Twitter

Gay Rights and Christians and Kansas, Oh My! When liberal tolerance goes too far

February 16, 2014
The Bill of Rights in stick figures. Illustration from "The Violation of the Bishops." Click the sticks to read.

The Bill of Rights in stick figures. Illustration from “The Violation of the Bishops.” Click the sticks to read.

Ready, set, GO! Tolerance contest!

I’ll go first. I believe that gay people ought to have equal rights under the law, and I ALSO believe that the law should protect the right of religious people to say bad things about gays and not to associate with gays, because I make room for all viewpoints and creeds.

Can you beat that?

The pundits’ curse

We writers are easily distracted. We’re motoring along, arguing about the merits and implementation of civil rights, and then suddenly we begin pointing fingers at each other over whether we’re real conservatives or real liberals.

Conservatives who claim to love small government and citizens’ personal agency shock us when they try to legislate what happens in people’s bedrooms or stop the family of a brain-dead person from removing life support.

On the other hand, fellow writer Damon Linker schooled me on Twitter yesterday: “Haven’t any of you people ever heard of the liberal principle that we defend people’s freedom to be wrong?”

As Andrew Sullivan explains in a recent piece, “What The Hell Just Happened In Kansas?,” “true liberals” make room even for religious people who think homosexuality is “Satanic.”

So liberals who scorn others’ sincere Biblical devotion aren’t being liberal at all; they’re just engaging in another form of discrimination. You can join the Twitter skirmish if you want.

Damon and Daniel duke it out

Linker, who says he’s not a conservative, has written a series of pieces arguing for respect and legal protections, as a matter of religious freedom, for people who object to gay marriage. I responded in Broad Street Review last year; writer Daniel Wright also replied recently on his own site with a thought experiment about a fictional cultural group whose sacred text outlaws left-handed people. If that group came to power, would they be justified in making laws against the use of the left hand for everyone, because their doctrine means so much to them?

What the hell did happen in Kansas?

The stakes for the question Wright asks are even higher than usual, since the Kansas House of Representatives passed a bill that could result in de facto segregation of gay people. The law would support any individual, business or government employee who refused to interact with or render services to anyone they suspect may be party to a gay relationship.

This is Kansas’s response to the threat of “discrimination” against Christians — discrimination here meaning, presumably, being required to serve a beer, rent an apartment or provide medical treatment or social services to a gay person against your Biblical conscience.

Who suffers more? The Christian restaurateur who is galled by gays but gives them a table anyway, or a hungry gay couple who sees a sign reading “Heterosexuals Only”? Kansas lawmakers think it’s the former.

Racism vs. homophobia

Linker and similar commentators don’t go that far in defense of free speech and religious freedom principles, but the bedrock argument seems the same: racists who can’t throw a black person out of their stores have not had their rights trampled in the way that religious objectors to homosexuality would have their rights trampled if they couldn’t refuse service to gay couples.

At heart, Linker and I agree about at least one thing: free speech is a two-way street. Even if it tried, the government could not force a single perspective on everyone, and nor should it. (I try to strike a balance between Rush Limbaugh and Yo, Is This Racist?.) New York City could make a law stipulating that retailers must roll a red carpet out whenever a gay person approaches the store, and that wouldn’t abridge people’s ability to speak and write about their objections to gay marriage, rally outside the store, or boycott New York City businesses.

So write on, Mr. Linker. Even though you’re not right on.

Cuz I said so

One thing Wright doesn’t ask in his hypothetical narrative about religious objections to left-handed people is whether there is any objective measure of religious belief versus bigotry.

Is there any way to prove that someone’s objection to gays’ equal rights is founded on religious principle, and is not just a personal or ingrained cultural prejudice, like racism, that is then justified by religion (as segregation used to be)? When there are plenty of devoutly religious people in America who support gay rights or who are gay themselves, why are we so sure that objectors to gay rights are acting on a categorical religious principle that should get special respect from the rest of us?

I’m perfectly willing to admit that I get antsy here and may not be as liberal as I like to think I am, by Linker’s definition. To me, the question of whether or not certain human beings are “less than” under the law is not equivalent to a conversation between, say, a vegetarian and a meat-eater, or a home-birth advocate and a woman who prefers the hospital. The latter cases are matters of personal choice that don’t infringe anyone’s human rights and deserve equal attention. The former is about whether the Constitution really does apply to us all, and it pisses me off faster than bad customer service. But opponents of gay rights (and worse, liberal supporters) keep pretending that the matter is like any other civilized difference of opinion.

After Loving vs. Virginia

Logically, I cannot understand why people who otherwise support gay rights spend their breath (or keyboards) on burnishing the Constitutional rights of the objectors — not because the objectors don’t deserve those rights, but because they already have them, as they should.

Want proof? The US Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage in 1967. But the Ku Klux Klan thrives today, especially in my home state of Pennsylvania, with the full protection of the First Amendment, as long as they don’t actually commit violence.

Why should it be any different for gay marriage objectors (most of whom aren’t nearly as bad as the KKK) once marriage equality exists in all 50 states?

You thought Obamacare was bad…

Call me a faux-liberal if you want. Call me anti-religious. To me, Kansas’s new bill is like an ER without triage.

Since it chose to shield so-called Christian consciences instead of gays’ human rights, the Kansas House of Representatives is like a hospital that sends people with sprained ankles to the ICU while telling heart attack victims to wait in the car.

When American Christians are regularly bullied, beaten and even killed for being Christian, when so many Christian youth are forced out of their families that they make up almost half of the young people living on the street, when Christians face eviction or firing without legal recourse because of their faith, or when being Christian is a matter of birth and not choice, then we should raise a ruckus about protecting their rights equal to the ruckus we raise about protecting gay people’s rights. Until then, liberal detours to promote the Constitutional right of religious objectors to denigrate gay people are just a bunch of political and philosophical hot air.

It’s not always about Twitter wars. But sometimes it is. Over 1,500 people have already visited to the homepage to subscribe. Find me on Twitter @AlainaMabaso 

A Poetic Polemic: Winter 2014

February 15, 2014

Oh you Winter of Twenty Fourteen
More snow and ice than we’ve ever seen.
The kids’ve forgot what school even means
Cuz trailers jackknife and commuters careen.

What is your deal, Winter Twenty Fourteen?
It was warmer back in the Pleistocene.
Next blizzard hits soon as you get the car clean
And I can’t remember the shade we call green.

Take me anywhere but Winter Twenty Fourteen.
I’ve booked the next starship to Tatooine
I wanna eat figs alongside the Qartheen.
Why oh why wasn’t I born Argentine?

Whaddaya want, Winter Twenty Fourteen?
Yeah yeah we’re pussies beside Buffalo’s scene
But the mid-Atlantic ain’t made for snowstorms umpteen.
Shit, power’s out again, there goes my screen.

It’s not always poems. But sometimes it is. Visit the homepage to subscribe.

“Homosexuality is immoral”: the Ultimate Spiritual Shortcut

January 28, 2014
Pro-gay-marriage protesters inside the state capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2012. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons..

Pro-gay-marriage protesters inside the state capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2012. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Someone messaged me last night because people from my family’s Christian community launched a typhoon of a Facebook thread about homosexuality.

In what may have been my only stroke of good luck for the whole week, the brouhaha missed my feed, but my friend said that if I felt “the need to be particularly RAGEFUL” I should read it.

“All I want to do is tag your name in a post and let you school all the morons on that thread,” the person added.

Thanks but no thanks, I said.

But I couldn’t help watching many friends on either side lick their wounds the next day

“Just spent way too long reading through a thread of some pretty heavy anti gay and anti gay marriage commentary,” a classmate wrote. “I think if you truly truly love someone who is gay, you could never feel the way these people feel.”

A more conservative classmate couldn’t resist reopening the argument: “I think I really, truly, deeply love specific individuals who identify as gay. And yet I still question the morality of living a homosexual lifestyle.”

You can argue and argue to prove that homosexuality is a biological reality and shouldn’t signify second-class status, or that you can criticize the gay “lifestyle” without disliking the gays themselves. But I’d rather point out the spiritual shortcut anti-gay folks are taking when they define morality by a refusal to do something they would never be tempted to do anyway. How convenient.

However gently you couch your “love the sinner, hate the sin” opinion, when heterosexual people call homosexuality immoral (referring to a “behavior” or “lifestyle” doesn’t get any traction in my book because that subverts the truth that homosexuality isn’t a choice), they’re elevating themselves and their lives over gay people and gay people’s lives. If straight folks call homosexual people immoral, the inevitable subtext is that the straight folks are born morally superior.

It’s like praising your cat for cutting cupcakes out of her diet, when science tells us cats are the only mammals on earth that can’t taste sugar anyway.

I hate to hear people preaching about points of morality when they have absolutely no concept of the so-called temptation they’re fixated on. This doesn’t mean a priest who’s never shoplifted can’t counsel his congregation against stealing. Surely, at some point in his life, he or someone he loved felt the urge to pocket something that wasn’t his. Avoiding the silent squirm of covetousness isn’t some biological lottery. We all know what it feels like.

It’s easy to pat yourself on the back for not doing something you’d never want to try anyway. But it’d be like giving Lifetime No Accident trophies to people who don’t know how to drive, which is just as ridiculous as giving straight people tacit moral accolades for wanting partners of the opposite sex.

Calling homosexuality immoral when you define a moral relationship as what your brain and body are hard-wired to want anyway actually belittles the hard work of a spiritually upright life, fighting the temptations that attack all of us and the pitfalls that require true repentance.

No real meteorologist is going to call for a blizzard in the Sahara. And I don’t think anyone who’s really concerned for others, gay or straight, would warn that the “homosexual lifestyle” is immoral – i.e.,  waiting to trap anyone unwary enough to fall into it.

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MRI Survival Tips: what your doctor won’t tell you

January 26, 2014

Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

The first thing any self-respecting hospital does is disorient and demoralize you as much as possible while you’re still alive.

Feeling like a rat in a maze is an important first step for an outpatient procedure like an MRI. At Abington Hospital, the radiology registration desk is so far from the actual radiology procedure area that they give you a sheet with typed directions.

There was a beautiful fish tank in the MRI waiting area, but I didn’t have time admire it, or even finish filling in the lines on the intake form for every surgical procedure I have ever had. The hospital really wants to be sure about this before it sticks you in that tube.

“Have you ever had any surgeries on your head?” the staffer asked when I called to schedule the test.

“I’ve had my tonsils taken out,” I said.

She sighed. “Out of your head?”

“Well, my throat.”

OK then.”

Forgive me; I never learned where, for medical purposes, the definitive line between neck and head is — and if I recall, it was an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist who recommended the tonsillectomy in question, so clearly I’m not the only one to lump the lymph nodes of the throat in with features of the head.

Last summer I wrote about a back injury and my troubled, nauseous relationship to narcotics. This week’s MRI was because a few weeks ago, I had another round of agonizing low-back spasms. I was stuck in bed for a week and fantasized a lot about death as a release from the pain, but went to the doctor when I improved enough to leave the house.

I hadn’t had an MRI since I was about ten years old. As a person who works to keep her heart-rate down in elevators, I had hoped never to go into another MRI, but at least I knew what to expect.

Once I was sufficiently disoriented from locating the MRI facility, the traditional systematic humiliation of the hospital gown followed, sharpened by the presence of another MRI patient (a middle-aged man, of course). A smiling blond tech showed us a row of lockers and handed him one hospital gown while I got two — an apparent concession to female modesty — and waved us to a pair of dressing rooms.

She told us both to take off everything but our underwear, shoes and socks. She moved away fast so I had to ask while the man was still there – could I keep my metal-free sports bra on?

I went into my cubicle, happy for the first time ever that it was -9 degrees outside and I was wearing four layers of clothing. I didn’t want to sit around next to a strange man with nothing but those infernal little hospital-gown ties holding us both together, hoping nothing was showing through the cracks. So I took a long time peeling off my jackets and fleeces and leggings, listening until the man had left his cubicle.

Once I was in the hospital gowns — one worn backward and one forward — I realized that

a)      I had to walk into the waiting area in nothing but the gowns and my Timberland hiking boots.

b)      I had not shaved my legs since before my injury.

But there was only one other person (albeit fully-clothed) in the waiting area, and she tactfully ignored me while I crossed my legs and bent over my clipboard. At least my bra had been cleared.

It was only a few minutes before a cheerful tech named Sue appeared to collect me, which was great, because the sooner I got done the sooner I could put clothes back on, but it was also terrible, because the prospect of the MRI tube made my guts clench.

Sue took my glasses and the world blurred, though I still clutched my newsmagazine like a talisman. Its staples set off the metal detector where I twirled around, step by step, in my Timberlands.

My old Timberlands. If you think they look good here, imagine them with a knee-length hospital gown.

My old Timberlands. If you think they look good here, imagine them with a faded knee-length hospital gown.

“I see you’re claustrophobic,” she said with a sympathy that surprised me, after I had assured her one more time that no, I had never any pieces of metal removed from my eye, and no, there was no chance that I was pregnant. There was actually a box on the form for claustrophobia, but I hadn’t expected any mercy to come of it, given my usual experience with diagnostics.

I was surprised by how little the MRI chamber had changed from twenty years ago, from what I could see. Sue helped me untie my shoes (which takes me a long time on my own ever since my back went out), patiently helped me onto the stretcher, propped something high under my knees, and draped me with one of those no-nonsense hospital blankets that immediately begins to bake your own heat back at you. I even got a puffy pair of headphones and my choice of Pandora stations.

“Bet you didn’t get any music back when you were a kid!” Sue said.

With the plastic panic bulb secure in my hand, Sue asked if I was comfortable.

“As comfortable as I’m gonna get,” I said. “Go ahead and put me in.”

My bier began to slide head-first into the tube and I realized what a horrible idea the whole thing really was. The curved yellowy-tan plastic pressed down a few inches from my face. The tube was much smaller than I remembered.

I pressed my eyes closed so I wouldn’t see the tunnel sliding over me. You are bigger than you were at ten, that’s all, I told myself. The tube was not collapsing in on me like a Chamber of Doom booby trap.

“Alaina, are you all right?” I heard Sue’s voice from outside the tube.

“It’s very small in here,” I quavered. “It’s a bit scary.”

“Look backwards,” she said, “Look at the space right out here.”

I craned my eyeballs and saw her face framed by blessed, fluorescent-lit space less than a foot away.

When you’re in an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine, you’re actually inside a giant super-conducting magnet made of vacuum-insulated, liquid-helium-bathed wire which, when you pass an electric current through it, has a magnetic field thousands of times more powerful than the earth’s own (now you know why you can never, ever wear any metal into an MRI machine).

Non-helium resistive magnets, incredibly heavy permanent magnets with a small but constant magnetic field, and three lesser-powered gradient magnets which create a variable magnetic field focused on a certain part of the body also lend a hand. The magnetized body tube causes a huge “magnetic moment” in your hydrogen atoms (let’s just say that since we’re mostly water, there are a lot of those), taking them out of their customary random spin and lining them up, meaning an equal number of hydrogen protons point to your toes and to your head. But for every million or so obedient hydrogen atoms, a few, for whatever reason, just keep on spinning.

Now, radio frequency (RF) coils poised close to your injured body part send in RF pulses that only affect hydrogen. That pulse makes those still-spinning atoms “resonate,” or spin at a particular frequency in a new direction, apart from the MRI’s magnetic field. While this happens, the gradient magnets are quickly flipped on and off, changing the main magnetic field in the body part (“slice,” yum) your doctor wants to look at. When the RF pulse ends, the affected hydrogen protons respond to the MRI’s magnetic field again and give up the energy they took from the pulses. The coils are waiting to transmit this energy to the MRI’s computer.

A formula that is surely beyond me, called the Fourier transform, turns the affected protons’ signal from mathematical data into an image of your insides, because each of your body’s tissues offers a slightly different signal.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ah, you see? Magnetic. Resonance. Imaging. Here is the resource that helped teach me.

MRIs are magical. But they have a few drawbacks — one being that each second of a 25-minute MRI session costs approximately $8.7 billion, so insurance companies are often loathe to authorize them. Another is that all those thumping magnets make a lot of noise that no music can cancel out. A third is that the small space required to make the images sends most people’s autonomic nervous system off a cliff: we evolve for millions of years looking down from trees and striding the open plains, and then some genius doctor decides to diagnose our ills by trapping us in a 24-inch tube. It doesn’t help that you have to keep absolutely still for each five-minute segment of the test.

If you’ve never had to get an MRI, imagine that you’re in a plastic coffin on the roof of a house having a Dubstep dance party so loud that the neighbors are about to call the police.

MRI inventor Raymond Vahan Damadian also failed to address what is now known as Confined Space Itch Syndrome (CSIS), which is especially dangerous to claustrophobic patients like me.

As Sue’s voice in my headphones checked one more time that I was ok, and the machine’s grinding thumps began to reverberate through my spine, a terrible itch crawled like a worm down my right ear canal. Even though my eyes were closed, I knew that even if I was allowed to bring my hand up to scratch my ear, there was no room to do so.

Quicker than the Missouri in flood, cortisol gushed from my eyeballs to my ankles and my heart began to pound.

I remembered an old meditation technique and concentrated on the breath whooshing in through my nose and out through my nose and in again. I imagined that I was lying in a large room. The CSIS intensified, with the itch moving from my nose and then to my left big toe and then back to my ear. Woken by the stress, my low back began to throb.

As soon as the first segment of the test was done and I could hear the music again, a commercial for Turbo Tax came on my Pandora station.

Come on, Abington Health. You’re probably charging upwards of $1,000 for this 25-minute MRI. You can’t spring for a $4/month ad-free Pandora subscription?

Because tell me what could be worse than lying in an MRI tube with an un-scratch-able itch in your ear while you’re reminded that it’s almost time to file your taxes.

“Are you ok in there, Alaina?”

“Yea-a-ah.” I tried to keep my voice from shaking.

As the next round of thumping began I forced my mind over to my notes for the magazine feature I was writing this week. I scanned them in my mind’s eye, looking for the lede.

After about half a day, Sue’s voice in the headset informed me that the first ten minutes were already done; there were only fifteen minutes left of the test.

Ordinarily I don’t think I’m a very imaginative person. I am the only writer (possibly the only person) in the world who is not working on a novel. But I concentrated on the idea that the tube is not there. I was just lying in a room with my eyes closed, my body vibrating with a terrible phump-phump-phump-phump-phump.

Finally, the RF pulse released my hydrogen protons for the last time. The little traitors never even knew what was happening to them. As the body slab began to slide back out of the tube, I felt like a five-year-old coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. Every itch disappeared and my heart pumped with joy. I was so grateful I would have waltzed to the bus stop in my gown and Timberlands.

Walking me back to my locker, Sue asked if I knew my way out of the hospital.

Of course, I said. Do you know how many times my grandparents have been admitted?

Before I got completely lost trying to find my way from the dressing area to the nearest hallway, I stopped in the dressing room’s bathroom to pee in total darkness because the only switch I could find from the light of the hallway was labeled “EMERGENCY.”

My doctor called less than 24 hours later. Yes, there is a herniated disc. But my lumbar spasms are probably from muscle strain and a bad sacroiliac joint. Physical therapy will help.

Besides the slow, painful work of recovery, the MRI left me with two lingering concerns. A close friend, texting with me after the procedure, helped to dispel my fears on the first.

“You’re a blond,” she pointed out: My unshaved legs couldn’t have been that bad.

There may be no help for the second worry. Twenty-five minutes is a long time and the body lives to betray us. Can the Fourier transform tell if you farted in the tube?

Now that I survived the MRI I will continue to write. Visit the homepage to subscribe if you want to know what happens next.

Elderly male religious figurehead says it’s OK for women to breastfeed. Thank God that’s settled.

January 14, 2014

Women across the world rejoiced this week when they learned, courtesy of Pope Francis, that God and their fellow worshipers would not heap shame upon churchgoing mothers if they discreetly exposed a breast to the open air for the purpose of nourishing an infant.

Media coverage of the Pope’s astonishing announcement, made on Sunday during a mass baptismal ceremony in the Sistine Chapel, emphasized the imposing nature of the setting, where Michelangelo’s super-serious frescoes of God and man in all their best half-clothed Italian Renaissance contortions should make any good lady want to button up a little tighter.

“If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice,” the shockingly progressive pontiff declared of any baby who might whimper in hunger during the sermon.

Particularly in the United States of America, women are used to powerful, elderly male figureheads (both political and religious) using their status to make demeaning and unhealthful demands of the female body. But women this week were shocked to hear a positive, nay, encouraging word about a natural function of their feminine forms.

“If culturally and politically dominant men are going to dictate everything about our reproductive health in the name of religious principle, I guess we should be glad that on one day of the year, at least, we get a positive message about how we choose to use our bodies,” American women said when they had gotten over their initial shock at a Christian leader advocating something that benefits the comfort, health and self-determination of women and families.

Women all over the globe who worried that folding back that nursing patch between prayers would offend Jesus can now rest easy. Just as elderly men know best about what NOT to do with our bodies, we can count on them to tell us what’s right. So eat up, babies. What a relief!

Now that the breastfeeding issue is out of the way forever, visit the homepage to subscribe and keep up with what’s next, or find me on Twitter @AlainaMabaso


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