Wednesday, November 30, 2011

6 Days in Charm City

Earlier this month, I took a trip to Baltimore with DH -- work for him, play for me. Baltimore’s nickname is the Charm City. It’s a rough city, kind of down on its luck. Some call it the Harm City. It wasn’t too encouraging when we boarded the light rail from the airport to the hotel and found that the advertisers on public transit were bail bondsmen.

As someone who lives in a small city, the occasional big city trip is a treat. The Inner Harbor was lovely. It’s always good to be on the water, looking at the lines of boats. The American Visionary Art Museum was amazing. When I visit traditional art museums I may admire the workmanship, but the Visionary Art Museum made me want to actually make things out of old doilies and scavenged fabric and furniture.

Then there were the panhandlers. Everywhere. We didn’t even make it to the hotel before a woman on the light rail asked us for a dollar.

What do I do? Do I give to the elderly woman in the wheelchair? The crying woman who says she just needs bus fare to get home, who doesn’t look like she does this on a regular basis. The man who politely tells me he needs bus fare to get to the mental hospital? Am I making myself vulnerable, distracted by digging in my pockets for change or a $1 bill?

It feels dehumanizing to walk past and ignore them, try not to make eye contact. But there are so many, I am afraid to get pulled down into this city’s sucking need.

Oddly, I had been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin on this trip. The book talks about what we do when the person in need isn’t just an abstraction, but a human standing in front of you. Not some amorphous “the homeless” or “the unemployed,” but a man standing on a street corner saying, “Please, anything. Even a penny would help.” When we do help, do we embrace that person, or keep them at arm’s length, as Miss Ophelia does with Topsy?

Baltimore has a water taxi. One route goes around to the Inner Harbor tourist destinations,. Another is a commuter line, carrying people for free from their homes to their jobs at UnderArmour or Domino Sugar. A man and a woman were waiting at Tide Point with me for the boat that goes out to the farthest stop at Canton Waterfront Park, where I was headed.

I asked him if he lived in Baltimore, and he said he did, adding that they’d just lost their place to live. “Hard times for a lot of people,” he added.

“I know,” I said. “My brother lost his job the same time his wife got sick. He lost his house he'd been paying on for years.”

“You know what I’m talking about then,” he said.

“Something’s got to change,” I said. He asked me if I knew where the nearest mission was, but I didn’t. That was the only thing he asked of me.

We rode the boat across gray water, soft gray-white sky past huge ships and lines of yachts. He put a hand on the woman’s leg, squeezed it gently. I fingered the bills in my pocket, the mad money for doing touristy things.

They left the boat at Canton Park. I hesitated, then seeing they’d stopped to sit, pulled a bill out of my pocket, asked the man driving the boat if I had a minute. I ran up to them, “Excuse me sir,” I said. “I don’t want to insult you, but could you use a few quid for a good meal?”

“I sure could.”

I put the folded up bill in his hand, and found myself embracing him. “God bless you, sir,” I told him. I’m not a believer, but it felt like the right thing to say. May God, or the universe or just basic human kindness bless and protect you. As the boat pulled away again, he waved as I left.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Back from Baltimore

Even though I'm prone to start projects in a flurry and then abandon them, I've not abandoned this blog. I was in Baltimore for a few days, tagging along with DH who was traveling for work.

Lovely city, a little down on its luck. The first night there, a very funny woman at a party informed me that "Baltimore has the highest syphilis rate in the nation."

All I could think to say was, "Well that screws up my plans to have sex with random strangers while I'm here."

We came home after 6 days on the road to a backed up sewer. I am about as fecal-phobic as they come, so was greatly relieved that the man mopped up the utility room. Marrying a civil sanitary engineer means never having to clean up your own sewage.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

My favorite Halloween princess

A beautiful princess in pink came to my door on Halloween. Her mother helped her up one step at a time. With much encouragement, she pushed a button that said “Trick or Treat” for her. I handed her a small, orange and black bag of pumpkin- and bat-shaped pretzels. Her father handed me a slip of paper that told me she had Rett Syndrome, that she was doing her best and she wished me a "boo-tiful" night.

I found my way to the website printed on the paper, read what she and her family are up against, and began to cry. From there, I found my way to the Girl Power 2 Cure Facebook page and found this Halloween-night post:

“Tonight a lot of creatures will visit your door. Be open minded. The child who is grabbing more than one piece of candy might have poor fine motor skills. The child who takes forever to pick out one piece of candy might have motor planning issues. The child who does not say trick or treat or thank you might be shy or non-verbal. The child who looks disappointed when he sees your bowl might have an allergy. The child who isn't wearing a costume at all might have SPD or autism. The child who is screaming at the top of her lungs probably can't help it. Be nice. Be patient. Its everyone's Halloween.”

One of the fun things about being a wannabe writer is people-watching and pretending they are characters in a story. I can sit in an airport for hours and create whole backstories on the elegant middle-aged woman in a suit with slender legs neatly crossed at the ankles, the young couple in dreadlocks, the large woman with a beautiful smile

But as they say, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye -- when we start writing the stories that assume the worst about people. Then we start believing those stories and telling them to others. There’s the rotten mother story -- that one’s popular. The man with lung cancer who obviously (obviously!) smoked himself to death. There’s the horror story of the lazy, gluttonous, slovenly fat person -- that one’s a best-seller.

It’s been said that you should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Maybe we should also never attribute to weakness that which may be adequately explained by happenstance or just plain bad luck.

I don’t know what burdens others are carrying. Sometimes when I find out, I marvel at their strength.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The other cancer: lung cancer

Now that pinktober is over, we’re 9 days into the cancer awareness month that no one seems to be aware of: lung cancer.

This morning, I was digging through my disorganized jewelry drawer looking for my “hope” bracelet. It was designed by a friend who has been battling lung cancer for five stinking years.

The bracelet is all wood and some kind of green stone that’s said to  be healing (don’t know exactly -- I’m not good at the details on the groovy woo front). It has a small charm that says “hope” on it. She’s amazing -- I might have given up hope at this point, and she hasn’t. The least I can do is wear the bracelet and try to hope for her.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. It's another one of those diseases that have a stigma, that those who get it somehow “deserve” it. The question on everyone’s mind (or the assumption) is that the person in front of them with lung cancer did it to themselves with cigarettes.

You don’t have to smoke to get lung cancer. My friend certainly didn’t. And it kills more women than breast cancer.

And even if you smoked 3 damn packs a day your whole life, no one “deserves” to get sick.

A few months ago I read The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. In it, I read how cancers that used to be death sentences are now treatable. Lung cancer isn’t one of them... yet. But the book gave me hope.

We have enough stiff dick pills and botox for barely wrinkly women, and when I turn on the news, I’m sick of hearing about all the latest cure for overactive bladder. I want the latest cure for lung cancer, and I want it fast. There are too many people out there with expiration dates stamped on their foreheads (my friend’s words), and they need the research done and the drugs tested before the milk goes bad.

We need to race for a cure for lung cancer, too.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

One small blow for HAES

My employer has a wellness program. For the most part, it's pretty benign -- I don't mind reminders to floss my teeth or eat my veggies or go move. More and more, though, I've found myself getting annoyed with the focus on weight loss. In particular, this last program had a book that was well-meaning, but particularly egregious.

At the end of each program, we get a chance to evaluate it. Here is what I wrote:

The book lost me at “it’s time to throw out the Twinkies!” I haven’t had a Twinkie in probably 10 years. It’s a fallacy to assume that everyone who isn’t thin has horrible food and exercise habits, just as it’s a fallacy to assume that every thin person has healthy habits.

The more I learn about weight and health, the more concerned I am about the strong emphasis the wellness program puts on weight and weight loss. Calorie restriction and intentional weight loss have risks -- 95%+ of people who lose weight gain it back within five years, and about a third of those end up weighing more than they did initially and with negative impacts on their lipids, blood sugar and other measures of cardiovascular health. In fact, Dr. Arya Sharma, a bariatric surgeon and blogger, says that the quickest way to gain 25 pounds is to lose 20.  In contrast, a Health at Every Size approach (Linda Bacon) that puts the focus on healthy habits rather than weight is a saner approach. Those who follow it have improvements to their health and are more likely to maintain those habits and maintain their weight, rather than yo-yo-ing or gaining.

I can send you links to studies supporting this, as well as to the epidemiological study that showed that people in the “overweight” BMI range actually have fewer excess deaths than those in the “healthy” range. We need to stop scaring people who are “overweight” into dieting their way up the scale. We need to focus on health, not weight. The two are not the same.

I doubt it will go anywhere, but I felt better.