Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Hidden HP History

April 1st, 2010

212 Fairmount Ave.

Nondescript 212 Fairmount in Hyde Park was the site of a social-activist nexus for Hyde Park, Boston and beyond — a century and one-half ago at least. Think abolitionists, suffragettes, Weld and the Grimkés (including the sisters’ half-black, former slave nephews).

Its nearby neighbors today are largely splendid Victorians. This is one of several clearly razed and replaced. No sign or wall plaque hints at the former buzz within.

In fairness to whomever redeveloped 212, that was what happened and not only in Hyde Park back then. One of Boston’s virtues is how many of its historic buildings it has kept. In contrast, in Manhattan far more important sites get that plaque if anything. However, Hyde Park was carved out of open tracts of Milton and Dedham and Fairmount Hill required either bushwhacking from the Mattapan train terminus or pushing across the bridgeless Neponset in a punt to begin settling the area. Such niceties as devoting resources to troubled houses could come later.

In fact, Hyde Park let herself go. The dangerous and dilapidated Fairmount House was totally gutted and rebuilt on Michael Tallon’s dime to become Townsend’s. The former grand inn lives only in a few pictures on the upstairs walls. Also, many of the grand meeting halls went down.

Moreover, the most known and distinguished building in this newest of Boston neighborhoods (1912) is Christ Church. While architects cite this Ralph Adams Cram building as the prototype for many other 19th Century works, it looks ugly to me and has mediocre stained glass.

Crusaders of Fairmount

Theodore Weld operated out of 212 Fairmount for the bulk of his rabble rousing career. In partnership were his wife, Angelina Grimké, her sisters, Sarah and Eliza, and eventually two of those those nephews, Archibald and Francis Grimké, They were a one-stop stop for freedom fighting for Black Americans and women.

The nephews became accomplished in their own rights, one after getting his Harvard Law degree. The lawyer, Archibald, also had a daughter Angelina Weld Grimké, who became a well-known poet and writer. She too had lived at 212.

The details of the sisters’ shock at finding their S.C. brother had continued to own slaves, fathered children with one of them, and then sold his sons is here.  Typical of today’s progressives, they did something, lots, about it. Their tale and Weld’s are in that and related documents on the link above.

So, out of 212 came tracts and activists on missions. Weld and the Grimkés were together and separately active writers, orators and organizers for abolition causes and what was known then as elevation of the Negro to equality. They were as passionate about women’s rights, and the suffrage action that didn’t take place in New York came out of Fairmount Hill.

Imagine the parade of women from 212 on election day, March 7, 1870, who went to the Hyde Park poll to cast the first votes ever by American women. Those did not count toward the total, but that was an inspiration for many.

There is a splendid period mixed theater to that episode as well. Each woman going to vote symbolically had a male escort, who had presented her with a floral posy. Each man held back at the poll to let the woman advance and place her ballot in the envelope for that purpose. So, it seems under the protection of men and with flowers, the women were at once demanding and fem.

Literally to the very end, Angelina showed her toughness and right-mindedness,  the stuff of a reformer. She had been frail and then lived her last years partially paralyzed from a stroke. She continued to write and made a poignant statement in her final note — I have purposely selected my oldest clothes to be buried in, that my good ones may be given to the poor, that they may do good after I am gone.

If there are any spirits around, it would seem that 212 would still have lots of Grimké/Weld mojo.

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Cardinal Pitches Wholly Holy

March 31st, 2010

Every priest a saint…right?

Well, to listen to local Archbishop, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, all that will take will be some focus.

Keen. Foolishly I had thought it might be time 1) to take legal and moral responsibility and 2) to rethink that father-come-lately mandatory celibacy thingummy.

However, at least the message he delivered to hundreds of local priests in his Holy Week homily was that even with proof that thousands upon thousands of their number are linked to child abuse and in a few cases heterosexual adultery and fornication, they can each and all live lives of holiness.

Cynicism aside, I note that he was a couple of steps above the simple-minded just-say-no rhetoric about drugs and premarital sex foisted on teens for decades. He had specific, detailed steps. Those include the three-part plan of:

  • Annual personal retreat “for silence prayer, and spiritual direction, and a review of our life.”
  • Supporting and holding each other accountable in regular activities.
  • Leading a balanced life.

Unfortunately, that balanced life is heavily edited for the priesthood. It does not resemble the self-help and development that has worked for billions of non-clerics for centuries. Instead, according to that Boston Globe recap above, that would instead be “setting aside at least an hour a day for prayer and meditation, allowing time for sleep and exercise, eating properly, and getting regular medical checkups.”

One might note that this strategy does not mention a fulfilling emotional and sexual side to life. Under strictures of being married to the church and Christ, requisite celibacy and sublimation, the urges of hormones and the thoughts and feelings normal to nearly all of us are flat out.

For the many Roman Catholic clerics, as well as the parallels in a few other Eastern and Western religious groups, a pivotal ideal dominates. The superior practitioner transcends the physical and mental drives. In the R.C. priesthood in particular, the guys are supposed to direct their thoughts, feelings, energies and actions to the service of God, the Church and their parishioners (and sometimes their orders or specific causes). That’s supposed to happen all day, every day and to become that life of holiness.

Well, in the few centuries since celibacy became mandatory, that endless ideal seems to have escaped the capability of many, if not most, of this group. Forgive my incredulity, Cardinal, but a three-part strategy to refocus seems scant ammunition and weaponry in a relentless battle against very human needs.

Cross-post: This appears at Marry in Massachusetts.

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Color Me UU: 2 and New

March 30th, 2010

Good timing, Globe! A short feature today dovetails with my recent post on UU hand-wringing over lack of racial diversity.

After 378 years in Cambridge, MA, First Parish will have a Latina minister, Rev. Livia Cuervo. In a religious group striving to mix up its very, very white membership and very white ministry, that’s good. Unitarians founded and ran Harvard from the start, but has somehow fallen far behind in diversity efforts.

Cynics may ask:

  • What took so long?
  • How serious is this for adding her as an associate minister?
  • How serious is this for hiring a 72-year-old?

Don’t sneer too long. The parent UUA most recently elected an Hispanic, Rev. Peter Morales, to its presidency.  Plus, the senior minister in Cambridge is Rev. Fred Small, who is also a hippy-dippy style folksinger (pretty good and pretty well known IMHO). I have no doubt he wants to build on this choice.

UU v. US by raceUUs are actively trying to diversify. They seem to be doing better in attracting and growing ministers of color than folks in the pews. See this chart from UU data with the maroon being they and the blue all US church goers by race in 2008.

Rev. Cuervo is coming in with a good attitude at least. The Globe‘s Lisa Wangeness quotes her as, “This is really breaking the tradition — it’s big for everybody…I want to help them nurture the dream they have.”

From my experience in the UUA and in particularly with the Arlington Street Church, I’m looking to see whether this will translate into more Latinos coming to a not-necessarily-Christian and pretty white church.  I think back to over 20 years ago at the ASC when we replaced the standard UU minister (white, male, graybeard) with a young, very out lesbian adoptive mother, Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie.

She was already well known in the LGBT communities around here as the minister at the P-town church. Very few of our members feared her presence might turn the ASC into an all-gay church; truth be told, we already had the reputation as the UUA chapel for the number of ministers and staff from HQ who worshiped there and we were already welcoming to all.

However, we were quite surprised in her first year at how many lesbian couples her ministry attracted, many adoptive parents and quite a few from Somerville. Most of those turned out to be tire-kickers as they say in the sales biz. When we asked those who stopped coming why, we typically heard that they’d rather sit in a café with the papers on Sunday mornings or that the 12 mile drive or subway seemed too much or that the kid’s classrooms were not nice enough for their children.

Rev. Cuervo might pack folk in by virtue of being a dynamite preacher, if she is. She might attract non-Catholic Hispanic worshipers. She might be just another good UU minister. Regardless, the calling was good. The effect and longevity are to be determined.

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Color Me UU

March 24th, 2010

A perennial source of Unitarian Universalist garment rending was an undercurrent last weekend in Brookline. The church there held a fabulous event that was an anomaly in several ways.

UUs do fret about many far too many subjects. Perhaps the greatest recurrent hand-wringing is over their incredible whiteness. Other Protestant denominations are also largely white, but UUs tally only  about 1% African American membership.

UU note: We refer to ourselves as an association and not a denomination. Despite both U and U’s Christian histories, our churches and church-like groups belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. It’s OK to be a UU Christian, but it’s not the norm and disdain of Christians is an unfortunate UU habit in many congregations. It’s a reaction to the long-standing Christian dogmatic exclusion, discrimination and worse that have set the tone.

Musical Bridge

Well last Saturday, the Brookline church was not only nearly full, it had a more U.S.-representative share of brown and Black folk. It is likely that won’t happen again until there is another special event centered on an African-American person or project.

This dinner and concert double event celebrated John Andrew Ross. It was:

  • a fundraiser for the restoration of the organ
  • a project organized and produced by his recently late sister Paula Ann Ross
  • a soul-food dinner
  • a two-hour concert featuring superb jazz and gospel musicians and singers performing music John loved or arranged
  • a largely African-American musician evening, with minor exceptions like single numbers by the church’s junior and adult choirs

John Ross, who died in 2006, became the church’s music director in 1997. He arrived already justifiably famous as composer, producer, director, educator and on and on. He made his “Uncle Langston” Hughes’ Black Nativity into a continuing national phenomenon. He led the Emma Louis School of Fine Arts‘ music and founded its remarkable choirs. So for the last nine years of his life,  he ran music at the church. He quickly picked up the title Minister of Music there as well.

Throughout his professional life, his sister promoted and often managed his career. She continued after his death, culminating in this project. She worked on it until a couple of days before the celebration, originating the project, driving it to completion and seeming to die in her sleep only after everything was in place.

Prima facie, one might suppose that nearly a decade of his musical leadership, performances and presence would have attracted more Black visitors and members than a typical UU church gets. That’s not so and there are only a few non-white members of any racial or cultural background.


That is a UUA-wide concern and trait. Again, this is the kind of thing, we UUs think, talk and worry about. In this vein, a couple of articles that cover the numbers and issues appear in UU publications. Try:

Note the related articles in the sidebars to these articles.

Many Protestant denominations are perfectly content to be almost entirely white. They speak of people being more comfortable with what they know, with their own kind. That is true of predominately Black churches as well. UUs don’t let it rest at that.

For a religion that does not proselytize, UUs nonetheless seem flabbergasted that  more and more types of people don’t flock to membership. As a UU of over a quarter century and having been involved in the polity and politics of various UU churches, I recall my own experiences with this.

The first time I saw a UU church nearly full of Black people was when Rev. Victor Carpenter got his fariend Rev. Jesse Jackson to preach at the Arlington Street Church.  They arranged for the choir of one of Boston’s largest Black churches to sing. The church seats about 1,000, was filled and for once, white people were in the minority.

In the next several year, I heard that question repeatedly about what we needed to do to attract Black, Latino and Asian parishioners to the ASC. I served on various committees and ran the board for a few years, so the question was often plaintive and also demanding when I heard it.

We’d have reports from membership-committee folk who were frustrated. I asked and had others go to visitors and friends with the question. Many times, the answer as far as African-Americans was concerned focused on two aspects:

  1. Our music is comparatively stultifying with that in Black churches
  2. Our non-creedal/non-dogmatic churches did not offer Christ as lord and savior or even hold out promises and threats of heaven and hell

As counterpoints to these likely intractable problems, Rasor’s article on the subject includes:

Multiculturalism is not simply about numbers, of course. The Rev. Taquiena Boston, director of Identity-Based Ministries at the UUA, reminds us that “diversity alone is not the goal,” and that developing a genuinely multiracial and multicultural identity “must be integral to the larger mission and ministry of the congregation.” Or, as former UUA President William G. Sinkford put it, “the objective of finding a few more dark faces to make our white members feel better about themselves is not spiritually grounded.”

I note for non-UUs that Sinkford is Black. Almost to a one, UUs tend to be inclusive. His skin color was not a problem. However, I heard numerous comments that mildly disparaged his overt Christianity.

The Possible

For music, yes, it’s true. I’m not very musical myself, but I can tell the difference. Our hymns are largely old Protestant tunes, with fine-tuned lyrics to enforce our openness and downplay God and Christ and lords over humans. Simply put, they don’t rock.

For the underlying beliefs, we in fact do not and never will push absolute answers in a dogma. Many people expect and need directive creed.

Instead, we have principles, which concern people and the larger world, and share the great goals and behaviors of many other religions. That is surely why many raised as Jews or Catholics are comfortable being members of UU congregations.

The cold fact remains that for many we lack the requisite trappings of what they demand from church. We may occasionally throw in some incense and sing old Christian hymns on Christmas Eve and Easter, but we can’t offer the music and dogma.

Thus, the UUA has just over 1,000 congregations and is likely to remain both one of the nation’s smallest religions and one of its whitest. I know that I am over fretting about what we can do to attract more members or even visitors of color.

I know that many of our congregations have a role as visitors to non-UU churches, as volunteers in community programs, and in co-hosting events. We get to know each other and our ministers often participate in social action and religious gatherings with those of other churches.

That’s gotten to be almost enough for me. I am certainly comfortable without dogma, but I would appreciate some snappier music.

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God Guy Wins Another One

January 21st, 2010

Faith in action can work just fine. We see that in a follow-up to the tale of the New Hampshire preacher who early last year took a paroled ex-con into his home…to the anger and horror of nearly everyone. See the original post on that here.

The ex-criminal, Raymond Guay, had a particularly gruesome record of torture, murder and kidnapping. Yet, the Rev. David Pinckney was, well, a lot more Christian than nearly everyone. After getting to know Guay, the minister was convinced that Guay 1) had gone through a born-again transformation, and 2) had truly paid his debt to society.

See the original post for the details and links to the backstory. The key component is that Pickney took the paroled Guay into his home, replete with the minister’s wife and kids. The idea was to find a more permanent setting and help Guay get work. In other words, this was both rehabilitation as the justice system claims to want and Christianity as the New Testament describes it.

Pinckney’s neighbors, even some not very close, were beside themselves. Loving forgiveness? Nothing doing.

In my follow-up, Pinckney and I exchanged email. He made his offer and commitment and took what many self-identified Christians said was a gesture doomed to failure and maybe death. Not so, sports fans.  Instead:

Ray is doing very well, living in New Hampton, NH with a Christian couple on a 60 acre spread at the end of a mile long driveway…   He stays very busy on this property helping the couple, and does side jobs when they come available (he’s presently replacing a kitchen floor for a couple in our church).  His craftsmanship and work ethic are unmatchable in my estimation.   He has been accepted warmly into a church in Meredith NH and continues to find great joy in his faith in Jesus.   We stay in contact regularly and I see him at least once a month. 

Having covered justice and jail issues for newspapers and having worked with former prisoners, that is what I hoped. Rather than assume all the incarcerated are lost forever and deserving of perpetual punishment, in and out of prison, we should know that some do just fine. Invariably though, the help they get on this side of the walls and bars can make that difference.

We can’t think this didn’t depend on Rev. Pinckney. Not only is he a religious sort who actually lives his faith, he was very discerning. Unlike those women who communicate with and meet prisoners, he didn’t fall in love thinking this is someone who will really need and depend on me. He accurately assessed the man. He almost certainly is a better judge of minds and souls than you or I.

Let us praise those who make life better for another and provide an example for us all.

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Praising Needy Volunteers

October 1st, 2009

Likely more than most, I was a volunteer before I had the volition. My mother ran Red Cross chapters. By elementary school, I was folding appeal letters and stuffing envelopes, graduated to hand tweaking mimeograph sheets with a stylus and then running the wondrous flier maker, and even playing the victim for first-aid classes.

On a pedestalMy volunteer line has few interruptions and certainly did not stop when I left my mother’s apartments. As a child and adult, it has been church, professional associations, civil-rights and other political groups, and of course teaching swimming and first-aid myself.

All of that is to say that there are reasons I am astounded by two attitudes. One is the adult who grew up in a non-volunteering household and is content to sit before a TV or computer nights and weekends doing nothing that I think of as worthwhile. The other is the needy volunteer.

I am not either of those. I have known many though. In my UU church work and professional association stints, I met and dealt with those for whom no amount of praise and honors is adequate. Each act of volunteering requires constant affirmation.

Some friends at my professional group (the Society for Technical Communication) had giggles at my expense at June’s end-of-year meeting/dinner thingummy. We always gang our mentions of and hand out certificates, plaques and such to those who gave energy and time over the year.

This time, I got one of the special awards, the Spirit of Volunteerism one. It’s a much lower key version of the lifetime achievement Oscar. I had been on a six-year leadership ladder, including the presidency of the Boston chapter, but I found getting the sculpture and honorarium embarrassing.

My mother taught me to let volunteers take credit for things, even if they were not the originator or driver for them. She also taught me to praise the volunteers while deflecting attention from myself.

What a Good Boy Am I


I thought of this very recently when we moved Boston neighborhoods. The fellow of the couple who owned the house was a needy volunteer. I was pleased to hear that he was also a cyclist, but puzzled by a few things. First, he only rode from late spring when it got warm and only to prepare for the Pan-Mass Challenge, a three-day ride to raise money for cancer research.  For maybe nine months, he didn’t ride. I try to ride every day it isn’t sleeting, snowing or pouring rain. He instead seemed to ride for praise.

Second, he wanted everyone to know he does this to do good. He seemed inordinately proud of this, despite the many hundreds of others doing the same ride for the same purpose.

Likewise, packing for his move, he gathered up books he didn’t want to truck to Texas. When a bookstore would offer him only about $100 for the lot of six boxes, he took them to a local college, who incorporated them in a book fair. He says they said they got maybe $600 for his share. Again, he went on about how wonderful and clever he was to have benefited the school.

We didn’t bother to say that for years, we give our books like that as well as other valuable artifacts to Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain. Their money goes for AIDS research, but we don’t need a pat on the head for our small share.

Of course, praising volunteers has realistic and reasonable rewards for the organization. After all, by definition and custom, volunteers do not receive pay for their work. In that sense, praise is in lieu of salary. Public acknowledgment in a newsletter, at an awards ceremony and orally in front of others is the right things to do in any case.

The problems come when volunteers get self-absorbed, self-righteous or demanding. On the cash end, a couple at my professional society said they would only help if they got a discount on their membership dues, in other words, money. On hearing that, a long-term board member sneered and said that perhaps they should look up the definition of volunteer.

You Can Fire Volunteers

More commonly though, emotionally needy volunteers want figurative head pats and to step on pedestals for doing what the rest of us do as a matter of course. They can be very high maintenance. These characters want constant and repeated recognition of their service and are not at all shy about telling everyone else how wonderful, kind, generous, wise, and philanthropic they are.

We didn’t see a lot of that in the Red Cross. There, a typical chapter has many hundreds of volunteers in blood drives, disaster preparedness, teaching home nursing, first-aid or swimming, motor service to ferry folk to care facilities and on and on. There, helping others seems to be its own reward.

Churches, on the other hand, seem to swell the ego and open the need gates for many. As well as ad hoc and committee service, I chaired committees and boards at UU churches. While our congregations have a great concentration of do-gooders and sincere volunteers, some constantly leap over that boundary into look-at-me land.

There must be theories about what makes some need effusive praise for what others do quietly.

When there is much to do as in many social activist churches, some volunteers are just too high maintenance. That can be unfortunate from many angles. I can recall music, social action, worship and religious education groups with praise hounds. That is amusing at a low level, and thus forgivable. Cranked to the extreme though, it can be a distraction to ministers, staff and committee leaders. When your hands are busy holding another’s, clapping, or patting their backs, you can’t do your own work.

In the past decade or so, I have seen numerous articles about how it is right and sometimes necessary to fire volunteers. Often, a minister or committee chair can detour the worst offenders into special projects or roles where their interaction with other volunteers is less. On rare occasions though, there is the painful message often best delivered by a minister that they are not working out and need to step back for a bit.

If committee chairs and staff have to stop constantly to praise and honor the neediest volunteers, someone with a larger, wider view might be assigned to those volunteer jobs instead. Recruiting folk is always a chore, but intense management of the most distracting is more of one.

On the other side, then District Executive Tim Ashton of the Mass Bay District dealt with us at the Arlington Street Church in his extremely respectful and pleasant way. Behind all that was a candor that made his an effective manager and pilot.

ApplauseOne thing he taught us while we transitioned from Victor Carpenter through Farley Wheelwright into Kim Crawford Harvie during the interim ministry was to praise efficiently and with purpose. He noted that the ASC volunteers didn’t have enough fun often enough. He said we were far and beyond the most socially activist church in the district, but we were too focused on all that needed to be done and not on what we accomplished on the way.

Rev. Tim suggested that we regularly stop to celebrate. He suggested that committees also have gatherings for fun and mutual enjoyment, with no intention of conducting any business or setting more goals. He never once suggested catering to the neediest volunteers or picking individuals to praise.

Yes, volunteers deserve thanks. No, they should not require that everything and everyone join in praising them for every deed.

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Broken Health: Part 2

September 3rd, 2009

shoulder x-rayAspects of our daily American lives call out for trust. We need to believe that our food is safe for one. Likewise, we long for the days when we just knew for sure that doctors could fix what ailed us.

With this nation now consumed with thoughts of health care, it is not always best to divorce the subject from the personal. This is the second of a multipart post relating my wee private experiences in the wonderful world of medicine, a field too often conflated with medical science. Part 1 on not having hip-replacement surgery is here. Part 3 on non-diagnosis of a more sensitive body part is here. I’ll cross-post this at Marry in Masachusetts.

Now, let’s consider my shoulder operation.

In my early 20s, I was used to full shoulder dislocations. While there is a cliché that swimming is an injury-free sport, ask a swimmer. I had been a breaststroker, which tends to bring with it damaged knees and shoulders, including dislocations. Both of us on the high school team ended up with full dislocations in which the shoulder would pop out of joint. Joel’s went up by his ear and mine down by my rib cage.

With the nerve, ligament, tendon and muscle damage, the pain of each dislocation is, how shall we put it, exquisite.

Moreover, I had very stupidly body surfed at the tail-end of a hurricane out in the Hamptons on Long Island. Catching a great wave, I jetted well over dry sand, only to find my fingers embedded like a spearhead while my body continued. That wrenched the shoulder into its components.

The catalyst for getting the dreadful modified Putti Platt procedure came less than two years later. I was helping a girlfriend move apartments. As it happened she was a Ph.D. in medicine and the woman with us was an M.D. They both saw me turn white from the pain as my shoulder popped down below the joint. I was wearing a tee shirt and they being medical sorts knew exactly what was up (or down).

The pain was blindingly intense. All I could think of was lessening the tearing of the body parts by getting the ball back in the socket. I grabbed my misplaced right upper arm with my left hand and pushed it away from my ribs. Sure enough, this caused the ball to be sucked back into the socket or rather yielded to the straining muscles to relocate it. In that moment, I went from agony to bearable severe pain.


Time for the big fix


My companion said it was time, past time, to stop avoiding the surgery just because I had never had any operations. Moreover, she did her research at NYU Medical and knew the best orthopedic people or professors who knew them. I had an inside track to the best evaluation and cutting.

She wangled an appointment with a famous joint surgeon for the evaluation. He literally wrote the books.

That didn’t start well. The man was a serious artiste. He heard my tale and quickly and very firmly informed me that I was totally wrong, that I could never have relocated the shoulder solo. In fact, he pulled out a text on orthopedics what proved that in writing. I would have had to have gone to a hospital, had weights applied to the limb and let the doctors guide the joint into alignment.

I looked at the front of the book to discover that he was the author, the expert. Yes, indeed, his circular citation was to convince me that my experience had no validity. My laughing surprised him but did nothing to change his mind. However, when he learned that the two witnesses had an M.D. and Ph.D. in medicine between them, he allowed as how this might be the first such case he had ever heard of for self-relocation.

Regardless, he did agree that the big cut and shortening of muscles and tendons was the only way to go. However, he limited his surgeries to wrists and hands, so he wasn’t the guy.

My girlfriend though personally knew the head of ortho at NYU Medical. He agreed to supervise the operation, unofficially doing it though the residents nominally performed these.

I was resigned, sort of. I was quite the drama queen about this, even having to travel to St. Vincent’s emergency room nearly my West Village apartment with the shakes a couple of nights before entering the hospital. Another girlfriend was there and went with me, only to hear that it was sheer nerves.

There was the tableau like a Viking funeral in the small hospital ward. I thought little of it because I was being so self-centered, but in retrospect it was absurd and theatrical for a small parade of current and former girlfriends visiting before the surgery to wish me well and bring me treats. Several of the men in the other beds later commented on how nobody was visiting them and I had enough attention for everyone.

The night before the operation, a nurse shaved my chest and arm. Then in the morning, they painted me with iodine solution and drugged me (demerol maybe?). The drug was powerful and I recall being paralyzed as they wheeled me to the operating room. The ceiling needed scraping and painting all the way down the long corridors.

Then in my diminished capacity I had the realization that my surgeon, the head of the department, should have been in scrubs, but I saw him walking toward me in street clothes. Wearing his wonderful, full smile too, he slapped me on my good shoulder before talking. He said they had discovered an infection two beds down and could not risk opening up my pecs and shoulder. He was sending me home.

My medical girlfriend was at her apartment a few blocks south. When I could dress and walk, I went to tell her. It was a tiny Rashomon moment. I ranted at high volume and speed, displaying my anger at being finally emotionally and intellectually ready for the scalpel, only to be cast out. She recalls as clearly that because of my heavy sedative and painkiller, I spoke and moved in extreme slow motion. It was all she could do to keep from laughing at me.

One would suppose given the seriousness and randomness of the dislocations, I would head in as soon as I could. However, a wreck intervened. While visiting a high-school chum in New Jersey, I was a passenger in his car when a drunk hit us as we parked. My friend got a broken hip but I just had another dislocation.

Another high-school acquaintance was a lawyer who advised us, telling me to get my shoulder looked at. I didn’t think that was necessary, but he convinced me. He sent me to an unusual orthopedic surgeon, one who specialized in children and one who didn’t like to cut unless necessary.

Until those visits, I had heard only the three different operations to prevent recurrent shoulder dislocations. The wrinkles were things like whether they also put in effect a hook and eye in the ball and socket to keep them mechanically fixed. No doctor had said there was any non-surgical alternative.


The cheap solution


This doctor, however, fixed me with a $25 chest expander — four large springs on two handle grips — like they advertised in the the back of comic books. Using it for long periods daily in effect did what Putti Platt’s operation went for. Tightening the pecs and tendons made it much, much less likely that the ball would disengage from the socket. I also learned to ease off if anything felt loose, as in opening my arms to spread a bedsheet or doing some acrobatic moves under those sheets. Stay still, tighten up and keep bones where they belong.

So, I have friends, mostly swimmers and including teammate Joel, who have had one or two of those operations. A lot of pain, permanently limited lateral motion and a long recovery (and some ugly scars) are included. The chest expander and hundreds of hours, maybe thousands of them, of exercise were a better deal.

So in this time of passionate concern of health care, are there any lessons from such anecdotes? I would think they might include:

  • It can be well worth standing up for yourself with any arrogant doctors, as the surgeon who evaluated me. He could well have badgered me into stifling my certainty and not getting apt treatment.
  • Pressing for viable alternatives may be as important as the proverbial second opinion. Everyone involved just knew that drastic reconstructive surgery was the only solution. Yet that turned out to be very wrong in this case.

There was a time when I trusted doctors implicitly. Of course that was the same period when I truly bought into the magic of transubstantiation. I was a kid.

As an adult moving to different cities and seeking physicians for preventative and curative reasons, I learned differently. I have also learned a hard lesson for a fairly introverted person. It’s tough, but you have to be your own advocate if you expect reasonable medical care.

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Ted Went to the Root

August 26th, 2009

Likely lost in the rush to gush over Sen. Edward Kennedy will be his relentless passion and insight in aiming for the fundamental. That he shared with typical progressives — voters, pols and activists alike, something I’ve experience for good and annoyance in volunteer spots at UU churches, and traits that clearly differentiate him from his political foes on the right.

One cut on that was from the President. In his immediate emailed statement on Ted, he wrote, “For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts. ”

Underlying all those and more was that shared view. Liberals and progressives can seem slow and indecisive in going for the fundamentals.  Rather than a cosmetic or quick fix so often favored  by the other side, Ted went to identifying and working for solutions that permanently changed and improved big situations.

In this, Ted Kennedy typified a good progressive in:

  • Refusing the comfort of inertia (like separate-but-equal facilities from the previous era or insurer/drug-company oligopoly of today).
  • Diagnosing the root causes of big problems and their effects.
  • Foreseeing and detailing short-term, mid-term, and long-term solutions.
  • Building political and public support for the necessary changes.
  • Doggedly pushing the solutions against opposition and with setbacks.

Ted understandably annoyed conservatives, reactionaries and the plain lazy and literal with his approach. Yet, he could not have accomplished anywhere as much without his eyes on the horizon and his mind on the details.

We’ll need another Ted Kennedy or two in his absence. We can’t be sure yet whether Sen. John Kerry can step up to Ted’s level of progressive dynamism. There must be another Senator or two capable though. They can’t emerge soon enough.

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Ready to Dance

July 5th, 2009

I have aged into more rituals than I had as a child in high church Methodism. Today involved no bishops or incense, rather a sward and farewell to legs (or at least leg tools).

F0llowing my nasty tib/fib breaks and the surgery to fix them, I was like the classic riddle of the ages of man.

  • For two weeks or so, I was only able to move in agony 30 feet or so from bed to office. Deciding to visit the toilet was a huge emotional and physical commitment. That all required a walker. (Kind of two human legs, two struts and two wheeled struts.)
  • For another several weeks, I needed someone to move the walker from one floor to another, while I thumped unsteadily down or up 13 stairs with every leg flexing producing colors before my eyes. (Three legs.)
  • Next it was two crutches, one on stairs with the other gripped horizontally in one hand. At the landing it was two crutches. (Four legs.)
  • When I could manage the four steps in or out of the house, it was one crutch, wobbling, but gaining confidence. (Three legs.)
  • At nine weeks, after x-rays showed sufficient tibia bone growth to dump the Aircast instead of just removing it repeatedly for airing and stretching the withered calf and foot, it was to the cane. (Three legs.)

Being my re-use/recycle mother’s son, I wanted to cleanse my psyche and house of these aluminum tools. They are considered junk, just another set of disposables in a throwaway economy.

I wouldn’t have it and eventually located a savvy and civic-minded gentleman who knew better and was like minded. At Ayers Handicap Conversion Center, Chairman Bruce Ayers, adds volunteerism and helping to his health-aid business. He collects and hands out just such tools to those who need them.  I won’t dwell on how Boston should be doing the same. Rather, let us praise him.

(I shall contact my Boston City Councilor and get something like this in the works here.)


Meanwhile, I happily am bidding goodbye to my tools — walker, crutches and cane. The Aircast is surely contaminated even after I scrubbed it, but I’ll ask about that too.

It took a time to find a decent meadow in the area. The arboretum has not cut its open leas, but Brookline’s Larz Andersen park is plenty grassy. Plus the delicate locals could not be expected to walk in vegetation above shoelace height.

I amused myself this morning by posing and shooting my tools. I thank them and hope they are useful elsewhere…and also for short periods of healing.

One pic is here. The series is on Flickr.

Glory of the Small

June 1st, 2009

thinwheel.jpgBob is unquestionably better at locating and extracting glass shards from tires than I am. Let us praise the specialized abilities of others. We can also hope that we offer such small talents that can help, but first, let’s us revel in these by another when we come across them.

During the Memorial-Day weekend retreat, we were off in a churchy clump cycling on the verdant and gentle Cape Cod Rail Trail. Right near the start, my rear tire went totally flat. I was not overly concerned, as I always carry a spare tube and pump.

After sending the horde ahead, I set to work, taking the tire off the bike and off the rim. I have done this before and knew to check the interior of the tire by eye and by running my fingers inside the tire. Over the years, I have located glass, an industrial staple and small nails in such efforts. I also checked the liner and rest of the inside of the rim. That was pretty quick as the bike used 25-mm tires with little real estate to check. I found no evil anywhere and reassembled it all with my new tube before pumping up and catching up.

Another seven miles away, I had second rear flat. Double damn. I had long ago caught up and as we were just short of the destination at Coast Guard Beach, I started work again beside the road.

Well, not only had I left my patch kit back at the retreat camp, I could not find anything to patch anywhere. Shortly after, I became away of kindhearted Bob’s special small talent.

He came back to help…with his patch kit. We agreed that it was odd 1) to find no cause for the flats and 2) that the leak in the tubes was almost on the rim side, like it came from a spoke head, although all those were well sunk and liner covered.

Bob’s talent showed that I was not as meticulous as I and others think of me. He opened the same tire I had searched several times in two locations. With great attention, he pushed from the outside as he turned what seemed a watchmaker’s eye to it. In about three minutes, he has located two minuscule glints. Each was a wee glass fragment, a tiny sharp shard.

One of them surely had snuck its way into the tubes and punctured them just enough for the leaks. Bob also had a knife with which he surgically popped the shards. Then we patched a tube and I returned to the camp, where I had and installed another tube and a new tire.

I do have an earned reputation personally and as a tech writer for attention to detail. Bob’s sharp eye and carefully inspection humbled me. I’m not sure that even if I had my glasses with me that I would have noticed those very small pieces of glass. He did and I was better off for it.

Let us praise the special talents of others freely given.

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