Sunday, January 30, 2011

On the Eve of Unemployment

On Tuesday, I will file for unemployment. It is a situation that I never saw myself in, admittedly. This is the first time in my life, having been in the workforce since 1994ish, that I have left a job involuntarily. I am a bag of mixed emotions on the subject and about life in general really. But let me start from the beginning.

My last job was located nearly 3 hours from home. For a long time, I didn't have a car so I couldn't go home very often. When I did finally get a car, my job still prevented me from going home for visits except like 3 times a year. But then my dad was diagnosed with lymphoma. My mom would give me regular updates about how he was doing, but nothing prepared me for the first time I saw him after a dramatic weightloss. It was 2006, a few months after his diagnosis, and I brought a student and community member up to NKY to see how our nonprofit cable group operated. I hadn't seen dad in probably 6 months. He stepped off the bus and I teared up. He was just so thin, so frail. I turned my head to collect myself so he wouldn't see me cry. In that moment, I knew I had to find a way to get home to be closer to him.

For some reading this, it may sound odd. We seem to live in a society now where we are all so mobile and it is quite common to live far away from family. And when that family gets sick or old, we rely on others - sometimes even pay them - to take care of them for us. For the 7 years I lived away, I relied on my brother for this. But, I realized that simply wasn't fair anymore....for him or for me. I come from a family tradition, really more of a value system, where we take care of each other - especially in the older years. After my paternal grandmother broke her hip, we went over every Sunday and did her laundry and grocery shopping. During the week, my aunt and uncle helped her with any daily needs. We split the responsibilities. With my maternal grandparents, Mom and I did everything that we could to take care of them and their estate. Unfortunately, my mom was the only child nearby and responsible for taking care of them and I saw the toll this took on her. I don't want to see that happen to my brother. He deserves a life as much as I do and he shouldn't have to do all the lifting alone. So, I saw it as my responsibility to come home. But, I also saw it as a chance to make things right in my own life. I didn't want something to happen to Dad and to be left with "I wish I had spent more time with him." That was NOT okay with me. No job, no career, is more important than my family and the peace of mind that I have adequately loved and shown that love. So, the decision was made in my mind that I needed to find a way home.

In 2007, a friend and former colleague who was living in Greater Cincinnati emailed me that he found a job posting I might be interested in. He knew I wanted to be home and this job was in my career field. I saw it, career-wise, as a way to impact a greater amount of people and to be a part of a statewide effort rather than just one community as I had been. I was excited to have found something that seemed to be a good fit for me that took me, geographically, to where I wanted to be.

I knew within the first two weeks that I was in a difficult situation. I realized that my needs as an employee were not going to be met and that I was in for a full ride of personality collision. My new supervisor had never supervised someone full-time before. Having supervised an office by myself with a number of part-time student workers, a full-time volunteer, and a half-time graduate assistant, I had a pretty established understanding of what I needed from a supervisor and a work atmosphere. It became pretty clear from the start that I was not going to get that in this job. It was 90% administrative, which was counter to what had been presented to me in my interviews. This was mostly dictated by our budget. I was supposed to do site visits across the state, but had no money to do so. In addition, the atmosphere of the office I was in was not exactly socially-oriented. So I found myself solely in communication with people via phone or email. This is definitely not conducive to my needs. And yet, I kept trying to make it work because, quite frankly, I've never encountered a working relationship situation that I couldn't make work eventually.

These tensions, combined with personality and leadership style clashes, gave way to a couple of head-to-head conversations between my supervisor and I. These usually ended with one of us tearing up and both apologizing and promising to compromise more. By mid-2009, however, I had reached my limit. For the majority of 2009, I was in a major depression. This is something I hid from the majority of my friends and aquaintances. But those closest to me, and especially my family, knew that I was severely depressed. The situation at work had taken its toll, along with my dad's illness and having to work a part-time retail job just to make ends meet and have some spending money. The poor girl who worked for me, and who I am now thankful to call a friend, saw me break down more than once in the office. My mom expressed genuine concern about my well-being a number of times. I honestly think that the situation scared her. Everyone who saw me on a daily basis knew what was going on. My boss, however, was oblivious. Now, before I proceed, I do want to say that I agree that we should all predominantly work to keep our personal issues out of work. However, when you are working in a social services field, your mental well-being is incredibly important to ensuring you can perform your job well. And when there are 3 employees in an organization, I think that there should be enough exposure to each other and enough communication that you can at least acknowledge when one person is not doing well. Yet, my boss simply did not see nor acknowledge that I was struggling to just stay above water.

During the summer, things came to a head. I was placed in a difficult and embarrassing situation with a colleague that I did not appreciate. And then, in July, my boss and I had our final "battle." I won't go into everything that happened. But, it pissed me off enough that I was snapped out of my depression by a drive to get out of the organization. I was forced to sit with her, in the guise of "feedback" and "evaluation," to hear things that simply were not true about myself. I know, I know...that's something that people may commonly say after receiving feedback. But, I generally take feedback, acknowledge the truth in it and genuinely strive to do better. This, however, was not that kind of situation. This was an attempt to break me through desperate insults of me personally. It was someone saying things so outrageous and untrue that colleagues laughed at a majority of it...and not that uncomfortable laughter of being presented with truth you don't want to acknowledge...real laughter of "seriously? WTF?" I was so mad after that meeting that I crafted a new set of "rules" for myself, as I realized that my boss found me "threatening", not physically, but professionally. I also emailed my boss and told her that I would begin a job search immediately. I did not want to stay in a toxic atmosphere any longer. And I don't want to work in an organization where my boss finds everything I do or say as a threat against her job. I want to be partners toward a greater goal with those I work with. I will push and expect to be pushed toward that goal. I wasn't finding that to be wanted there.

And that is where I put the nail in my own coffin. I have been laid off. The particulars of my situation are a little complicated to explain. Our organization is funded solely by dues and federal grants. My program is a federal grant, supplemented by fees paid by universities. To put it as simply as possible: the federal government promised so many volunteer positions but didn't allocate enough money to fund those positions. When 4 universities failed to recruit for their allotted positions by August, they were forfeited due to the lack of federal funding. That left us $20,000 short in our budget. Then, we got word that our grant for the new year was going to be cut by 3 positions, leaving us $15,000 short. Simply, there was no longer enough money to keep me employed there. But, I do feel like my boss would have tried harder to find alternative funding to keep me on if we hadn't had so many issues in the past and if I hadn't have declared that I was searching for other positions.

So now I face Tuesday with a variety of emotions. Part of me is still really mad about the past 3 years - about how I was treated, about the hollow promises given when I was recruited, about all the things I feel like we could have accomplished if our leadership styles weren't so drastically different. Part of me is terrified because, quite frankly, I was struggling before and now I'm going to be pulling in about what I did in 2000 as a brand new professional. Part of me is anxious - I have no idea what I'm going to be doing next and I have great ideas and energy, but no where to put it. And part of me is relieved - to not have to deal with a sour situation anymore, to not have to walk on eggshells everyday, to not (as I have been doing since July) put on an act of being someone I'm not everyday just to keep the peace and my job.

Part of me is still broken from that meeting over the summer. And I have become a little disillusioned by this whole situation. But, part of me is more invigorated than ever. I am an excellent professional in my field. I know what I'm talking about. I have a great passion for the work that I do. I would be an excellent assistant director for a nonprofit....passionate, eager to learn, and ready to work. I just need the opportunity. I know this, despite that broken feeling I have and the doubt that creeps in with every week that goes by without a call for an interview.

And so here I am...on the eve of unemployment, wondering how making a decision to be close to my family led me to this day. I still don't regret that decision, though. I will take the lessons I've learned from these past 3 years and use them to make me stronger and better at what I do. That, as a Twitter-friend says, is "what you do." I hope to find a position that I can be happy in soon. In the meantime, I will take care of myself and my family. And I'll be thankful for having the time to do so.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Appreciating a Cultural History

Those who know me well know that I am fascinated by my family history and our cultural heritage. I am proudly very German and, it's my hope, to someday learn as much as possible about the area from where my family emigrated. But, as important as it is for me to know where we came from, it is equally important for me to understand where we ended up and how history shaped us and our cultural traditions. It's also interesting to me how my family fit into the cultural landscape of their neighborhoods, no matter how 'insignificant' our roles were.

A large part of my paternal family's story is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. My great-great grandfather was born in Germany around 1820. From what I have found thus far, he settled his family in the Mt. Adams neighborhood of Cincinnati, working as a laborer. I haven't found much more than that...simply one listing on an 1880 Census record. I would like to imagine that he was an early part of the great German immigration to Cincinnati in the 1850s, an immigration that sparked debate similar to that of the current Mexican immigration debate. That period in history really effected the cultural landscape of Cincinnati, as German-language churches, newspapers, and neighborhoods took hold throughout the city.

My great-grandfather was born in Cincinnati and lived there his entire life, though in various neighborhoods. He was a driver for a brewery (he was the beer delivery guy!), listed in Census records as both a Stable Driver and simply a driver, meaning that he likely delivered said beer via cart and horse to the city's bier gardens.

My grandfather, born at the end of the 19th century, grew up in Over the Rhine. OtR, as it's now known, was a cultural mecca of sorts for Cincinnatians of German decent. As an adult, he moved for a short time to Price Hill and later, with his new family, to Mt. Auburn. My father was born in a house that still stands on Dorsey Street in Mt. Auburn. They lived in that house until the mid-1950s when they moved to Northern Kentucky. My grandfather owned and operated his own business in Cincinnati. Frank's Coal and Ice was a delivery business in the days before electric heat and industrial refrigerators. Grandpa had a dump truck and would literally dump coal and/or ice orders into the cellars of businesses throughout the city. I am lucky to have a placard of his business that businesses would use to place their orders -- from their windows.

View Larger Map
The house where my dad was born/raised in Mt. Auburn.

The point of all this background is that my history, my family, has direct ties to the cultural make-up of Cincinnati. So, Cincinnati history and culture still means a lot to me. Sure, I live in the Cincinnati metro area so it should matter anyway. But, honestly, I live in Northern Kentucky and consider myself a Kentuckian before a "Tri-Stater". We're kind of like a little world of our own here in NKY. And, from the perspective of a suburbanite, it seems that many of the recent arrivals to our fair area have little desire to learn nor appreciation for the culture/history of the region. And yet, it is important - for understanding the early make-up of Cincinnati neighborhoods and the cultural traditions of families that have long ties to the Queen City.

Yet, part of my personal story took me away from Cincinnati. For 7 years, I lived in the heart of Appalachia in Knox County, Kentucky. I worked at a college there and was, despite my role in connecting the campus to community, considered an "outsider." Yet, I learned a great deal about Appalachian history and culture while living there. And I definitely came to appreciate the wonderful things about Appalachia, though I did long for "home." I was also blessed in my first year there to be able to connect my 'two worlds' of my "home" and my new home. As the community service director, I worked with a faculty member to arrange a service-learning trip to Cincinnati. The class was meant to be an introduction to Appalachian culture and the professor wanted to teach about both rural Appalachia and urban Appalachians, specifically those who were descendants of the the Appalachian migration to urban areas like Detroit and, you guessed it, Cincinnati. So, we travelled the three hours north and worked with the Urban Appalachian Council. They gave us a wonderful tour of neighborhoods, discussed the needs of those they serve, and introduced us to cultural and social issues for the 1 in 4 Greater Cincinnatians with ancestral ties to Appalachia. Our service was to paint the inside of a community center that they operated for local Appalachian youth.

Earlier today, I was dismayed by the local Twitter response to an article posted in the New York Times. In the article, the author says, "The old neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine still serves as a northern outpost of Appalachia." Somehow, this line offended people. The Cincinnati Enquirer posted this opinion piece in response. I mean, I get some of the backlash. After all, Cincinnati is on the defensive a little after a terrible article in Vanity Fair. No one likes the idea of an outsider coming in and writing a national piece that "picks on" Cincinnati. But, this anti-Appalachian stuff really got under my skin because of my aforementioned personal experiences. I even had one tweeter respond to me that she's never seen an Appalachian in OtR. Really? You can tell who is Appalachian by looking at them? I do have to give kudos to one prominent Cincinnati Twitter user who removed his posts about this topic when the stereotyping issue was pointed out, though it was too late to avoid the dreaded re-tweet of his main posts by one of his colleagues.

I guess the reason that I got upset about it was this: the culture of Appalachians is just as important to Cincinnati as that of my own German heritage. Everyone was focusing, it seemed, on the stereotypes associated with Appalachia rather than on the historical context from which the author was writing (funny, as the entire article was about history of the city and its baseball tradition). Throughout Cincinnati, there are residents who can outline their ancestry as I did above, but trace it back to the Appalachian Mountains rather than Germany. I was offended for the point where I felt the need to write after a year hiatus. I was also offended for the many friends I still have in Appalachia, those that have moved from the mountains to other places throughout the country, and my cousins who moved from Cincinnati to Appalachia. When you talk about Appalachians, you aren't talking about the fictional Clampets...we're talking about real people here despite your desire to stereotype.

I am, yet again, thankful to my high school classmate Jason over at The Cincinnati Man who, as always, can write a point-blank shot about the issue way better than I ever could (and more succinctly, obviously). He's done this on a couple of issues and I absolutely love seeing him weigh in on these items. (HINT: if you don't follow TCM, you should)

My point is, if you are going to espouse the virtues of a city and say, as the Enquirer piece does, that we have so many "cultural offerings," I think you might do well to include cultures of historical importance. I love seeing a strong influx of new cultures to our area and look forward to seeing the significance they will have in shaping the future of the region. But, we shouldn't trample on those cultures that have made the city what it is. To do so shows a lack of historical knowledge and, quite honestly, an insensitivity to a culture that you clearly don't understand and/or didn't know existed.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Weighing in on the End-of-Life Debate

It was 1993. I was 16 years old. And, we were sitting in the nursing home waiting for my paternal grandmother to arrive via ambulance from the hospital where we had determined that she could no long live independently due to being diagnosed with dementia. Prior to this decision, she had taken a laxative, then had a minor stroke. She hadn't answered my father's phone calls and, concerned, he drove the 15 miles to her house to find her alive, but unresponsive. Over the next week or so, she literally fought with the nurses at the hospital, giving one a black eye. In a semi-coherent moment, as she lie in bed with arm restraints in place, she tearfully looked at us and asked, "why are you doing this to me? You're my family; you're supposed to help me."

None of us had had experience with nursing homes to this point. My paternal grandfather, the only grandparent who was deceased at that point, had had a major stroke at home on my sister's 6th birthday. He died a few days later in the hospital at the age of 74. So, this was all new to us. I had personally only been in nursing homes through my volunteer work, having visited residents and performed Christmas carols as part of organizations in school. It was an uncomfortable place to be.

My grandmother was alert that day, and seemingly herself, as she was wheeled into the home on a gurney. She smiled at us and waved hello. We - me, my father, aunt, and uncle - were then called into the office of the facility director. During the course of the conversation, while she listed a litany of both services and family responsibilities, she asked us what our DNR decision was. We didn't know what that meant. She explained the "do not resuscitate" order and repeated her question. My father and aunt looked at each other and said, 'well, we'd like every effort to be made to save her.' I had been quiet up to this point...I mean, I was just a teenager sitting in on a very adult conversation. But, I had to jump in. I had seen news stories on television about people who had to go to court to get loved ones removed from life support. So, I asked, "if we did not have this DNR, then she would be put on life support, right? And, if that were to happen, would we be able to take her off when we felt appropriate or would we have to take legal action?" The director smiled and responded that we would, indeed, have to go to court to get her taken off should she be put on life support. That question and subsequent answer changed the entire course of dialogue. After all, my grandmother would not want to be kept alive as a shell of herself. And, she certainly wouldn't want us to go to court over it all. So, my aunt - grandma's power of attorney - signed a DNR and instructed that CPR could be administered, but she was not to be put on life support. After that meeting, my father and aunt both thanked me for asking that question, and for helping them to make an important decision at one of the most difficult times a child can face in the deterioration of a parent.

My family learned from that initial experience. Since that time, we've made conscious efforts to have those important conversations before the decisions are needed. I've known the wishes of my maternal grandparents and my aunt and uncle. I also know the wishes of my parents. There will be no question in my mind of 'what they would have wanted.' But, prior to that experience with my grandmother, we would have never have thought to talk about it.

Ours is a family that could have benefited from having an end-of-life conversation with a doctor, to learn of all implications of our decision, to understand how it would impact our entire family, and to learn what the common national standards were for such decisions. And, if that were available to us back then, I would certainly hope that it would be a meeting covered by our insurance.

To all of the politicians who are amping up this fallacy of "death panels" and who are threatening to take end-of-life counseling services out of potentially covered expenses for proposed health care reform: how dare you. How dare you spread lies, feed on fear, and hinder important conversations that we should be encouraging. How dare you use such an important issue that will, inevitably, impact every single American to further your personal political agenda. How dare you. And to the Senator who said, "you should be having these conversations 20 years before you die" and 'you should be thinking of your soul's salvation through Jesus'....a double how dare you. First and foremost, most families are too busy living their lives and, quite frankly, trying to simply survive nowadays, to have that conversation. It's a difficult one to have, Senator. And it's morbid, obviously, making it quite uncomfortable. Most Americans lack the personal funding to have a lawyer on-call, as I'm sure you have. And, we struggle to even get in to see a doctor sometimes, as I suggested in a previous post. Second, who are YOU to tell me who my salvation should be through? I am a Christian, as are all in my family. The paternal side of my family are devout Catholics. Yet, that didn't make this decision any less difficult in the case of my grandmother. In fact, that can complicate matters sometimes. However, Americans come in all forms, Senator. Please remember that your constituency - which in your position now includes ALL AMERICANS - includes not only Christians.

In addition to my disgust over the lies perpetrated over this end-of-life issue, I am more and more angered by the use of the term "Nazi." I have family who fought in WWII. They didn't overthrow the Nazi regime to have it, decades later, used as a political tool to discredit the President of the United States. If you want to pull the socialist card, fine...whatever. But, the use of the term Nazi, the painting on office signs of the swastika, and the portrayal of President Obama with a Hitler mustache all need to stop immediately. To continue to use these symbols not only shows your ignorance of what the Nazi movement was about in its entirety, but also your insensitivity to those who lost family members in European concentration camps, those who served heroically to free nations from that power, and every single American who today would be targeted by Nazi-following groups: the non-white, non-Protestant, and non-heterosexual. The only thing that does make me chuckle, just a tiny bit, is that those sub-groups who truly follow the Nazi philosophy are probably cringing at the idea of a black man being portrayed as one of them, in the symbolism of the dead leader they so admire.

This debate - the true debate - over how to reform our health care system is too important for this ridiculous behavior by both elected officials and their supporters. Yes, people are scared. Change is always scary and difficult. So, let's let those who are scared ask legitimate questions and let's answer those questions honestly. Instead, we're now seeing politicians and the industries who pay them play on those fears, using them as propaganda simply so they can continue to personally make money and/or get reelected. I have yet to find a politician against health care reform who has a true, legitimate argument against some sort of reform. I beg of our elected officials to take a serious look at this issue, to stop feeding the fear, and to compromise in the true interest of the American people -- an interest based on the health and well-being of us all, not just a select few or those who believe exactly what you do. And I encourage you to set the standard for your followers to protest, if they so wish, in a constructive, non-offensive manner so that their concerns and opinions can truly be heard instead of dismissed as fanaticism.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Unearthing Skeletons

I've been working on my genealogy for about 10 years. Inevitably, when I tell people that, I get the "how far back have you gotten" question. I generally grimace and respond that I have people in my tree dating back to the 1700s. But, what most people who don't do real genealogy don't realize is that it is so much more than just stretching your tree back as far as you can go.

For me, my genealogy is a big puzzle. And the big picture of the puzzle is not about dates and dashes. It's about people, my family. Their stories. It's about knowing who people were and what their lives were they lived, not how long. The dates are an important detail. But, the real fun is in finding out information that fills in that dash in between.

What I have discovered from this research is that there are a lot of secrets and many separations. Too many parts of the family just stopped talking to each other for seemingly stupid reasons, usually related to money. But, the items I want to discuss have to do with secrets that people just didn't talk about.

Growing up, my maternal grandmother was always tight-lipped about her childhood. We knew that she had grown up in a children's home, had 3 brothers that she hadn't seen since leaving the home, and that she was born in Ohio. That was it. As an adult, I bought her one of those books for grandmas to write memories of their lives to their grandchildren...she never touched it after opening the present. She wouldn't even tell me how she and my grandfather had met. It was like she just wanted to shut off everything, ignore the past. When she was at the end of her life, I tried to put all the pieces together on paper. I sent all of this information to the genealogy society in the county she grew up in (after having found the name of the children's home). I hoped I would get a response before she passed away so that I could say to her, "I know and I understand." But, the answer didn't come until 2 weeks after her death. It was a newspaper extract detailing the death of her father at the hands of her mother. It was sad and it was tragic. I haven't found anything since, as I need to travel the hour or so to the county to find things myself. I don't know if her mother went to jail or not. No clue. But, it did give me a glimpse into why she was so closed off from us emotionally. It's helped us heal some of the bad feelings we had toward her during her life. It's helped us understand.

On the day of my grandmother's funeral, I drove my great-aunt (my grandfather's sister) to and from the cemetery. During that time, we spoke a bit about my grandparents. I was amazed at the information she was giving me. I had been close to my grandfather. To this day, his is still the hardest death I've had to deal with and I find that I miss him even more than I did a decade ago when he passed away. Yet, I knew from my mom that he hadn't always been the man that I knew him to be. I knew that he had been a difficult and strict father, that he was reluctant to show love to his daughters and that this had all changed when he became a grandfather. I also knew, from his own lips, that he had had a difficult childhood himself and had run from home as a teenager. What I didn't know was that this man, who I had never known to touch alcohol, drank a LOT when he was younger and that he had gotten in trouble more than once because of it.

Last month, I did the fairly ordinary genealogical task of ordering the documentation of his separation from the Marine Corps. It was something he never talked about - his service experience. But, we all knew that he was a Marine and we wanted that recognized on his grave. Imagine my surprise when that document finally came in and I found out that he had been given a bad conduct discharge. My mom's first suspicion is that he drank and got into fights, as he was prone to do in his younger days. We may never know why he had such a discharge. This new information doesn't tarnish my grandfather's memory for me. Instead, it gives me a fuller picture of his life and a greater understanding of who he was and why he was the man that I knew. And that, in essence, is why I do this know the person beyond the dates.

I also have a great-uncle, brother to the above mentioned grandmother, who I knew had passed away while imprisoned. I haven't been able to find much on him, so I don't know why he was in prison. Records are expensive when you add them up, so I have to order them sparingly. Until a few weeks ago, this imprisonment is all I really knew about him save a few old photos of him in a military uniform. Then I got an email - someone had a purple heart with his name on it. I requested his military record to verify if it is his or not. If it is, it provides a deeper look at who he was. And, perhaps, I'll put some money aside to order some other records on him to put more pieces together. Again, it will help in getting to know the man rather than the dates and places of birth and death.

I guess the lesson I've learned from this work is that skeletons will inevitably be unearthed. I'm a spiritual person and tend to believe that my deceased family is watching over me. I often talk to them when I'm working, asking them to help me find information so that I can get to know them better. That may sound crazy, but it's my personal belief system. I also wonder, though, what they think about the information that I've found. I hope that they understand that I'm working to understand them better and that I'm not being judgemental about how they lived their lives. I guess I won't know until I join them someday. But, I do have a feeling that they are happy to not be forgotten by those they have left behind, even if that means that their "secrets" are made known.

Thinking About Health Care

First, I want to categorically state that this post will in no way be an intellectual debate about the various health care options being worked out in Congress right now. That debate, while incredibly important, is not something that I wish to enter into without knowing a great deal about it, which I don't. Quite honestly, the details of health care and insurance make my head hurt.

What this post is about is my personal experience with health care over the past decade or so of adulthood. It is this experience that leads me to believe that there is something wrong with our system, something that requires some sort of reform.

I want to begin with an experience I had outside of the United States. In 1998, I was blessed to have been able to travel to Mactan Island, Philippines (not far from Cebu). It was a 3 week service trip during my college's interim term and was a trip organized and sponsored by the university. We had three sub-teams to our team of 27: one to build a pre-school, one to present public health education (brush your teeth, wear condoms, etc.), and one to run a daily traveling health clinic. I was part of the latter. We had a doctor from Indianapolis with us who handled examination and diagnosis. We students filled prescriptions of basic over-the-counter medications such as cough medicine and topical lice lotion for scabies, as well as taking blood pressure and temperature. In fact, most of the people we saw during those long clinic days were children - large families, actually - with basic earaches, coughs, and lots and lots of scabies-infected legs. We also saw children who were classically mal-nourished. There is one story, however, that I want to share tonight.

One day, in a village whose name I don't recall, an older woman (maybe in her 50s) came in to see us. She complained of a pain in her breast. I was working side-by-side with the doctor that day, rather than at the medicine dispensory. We had her lay on a table on her back and the doctor performed a breast exam. He glanced at me sideways, and I knew from the look on his face that it was bad. He asked for my hand and placed it on a particular spot. "Do you feel that?" he asked. Yes, it was clearly a mass; there was no mistaking it. He then told the woman that there was a lump there, but without essential technology, there was no way for us to know what it was. He advised her that she needed to go to a doctor immediately. She looked up at us, with a surprising mixture of sadness and amusement. "I have no money for a doctor," she said. She went on to explain that there wasn't a public health care option for her...not even going into the emergency room as we do in America when we have no insurance. She left us that day with a feeling sadness and a sense of dread for her. I have no idea if that lump was benign or malignant. All I know is that that woman had no other options because she was poor. And, that fact has stayed with me all these years...that it is possible that that woman died prematurely because she, an impoverished individual, had no access to appropriate health care that could have saved her life.

It is so easy to argue against public healthcare if you've never lived without insurance, never seen a culture without access to basic services. The lines for our daily clinic were so long that we often stayed after our posted time to see everyone. We never had real breaks during the day, save lunch. We regularly, in single villages, saw over 100 patients. These were people without access simply because they were poor. That same fact is something I see, in part, in America. The poor are penalized, are deprived of the basic right to live, simply because they are poor. It is not nearly as bad as what I saw on my one international service experience. But, it's still an issue.

And what I don't understand about the current health care debate is that people don't seem to get that the poor are deprived of quality health care. One video I saw today showed a woman saying, "why do the 80% of us with health care coverage have to change for the 20% who don't?" I truly believe that this same woman would identify herself as "pro-life," arguing that there is an inherent "right to life." Do the poor not have the same right as the fetus that you so diligently seek to protect? Or does that person forfeit your passion for life after s/he is born? To me, it just seems to be a contradiction.

I digress. Shortly after I returned from the Philippines, I injured my knee at school. I was in a free weights class, doing step ups with weights that might have been a little too heavy, and the whole room heard my knee pop. It swelled that night and I had it looked at by an EMT who was dating a sorority sister. He helped me wrap it and I elevated and iced. I went to the school's health clinic that week and had it examined and x-rayed. I was in pain and the doctor suggested that I had a micro-tear in my ACL. He didn't think it would have required surgery, but said that I should have a specialist look at it. I was still on my dad's insurance at the time. That insurance was through his retirement from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Each year, they bid out their employee insurance and that year, funny enough, we had the same insurance carrier that I have now through my employer (also a state institution). They required that any visit to a specialist be referenced by the primary physician. So, one week, I bummed a ride with a friend to make the three hour trip home to see my family doctor. I showed him the x-rays and told him what the doctor at the university had said. Without even looking at or touching my knee, he said, "call the insurance company. I'll write any reference that you need. This is a case for a specialist." So, I called the insurance company and told them that. I went to school outside of Kentucky, so I needed a specialist near Indianapolis. The response? "That's not how it works. I can't give you an in-network specialist in Indiana." When I asked how it did work and what I needed to do, I got the run-around. To this day, that knee still has not been properly examined or treated. I imagine that the pain I feel with cooler weather and rain is from scar tissue now. But, it begs the question: why did we pay for insurance that wouldn't help me when I needed it? Other than that, the only other claims I had were basic annual visits and medication for sporadic bronchitis. That company made a LOT of money off of me, my family, and the state. Yet, I got no help when it was needed. And, I was too young to know how to navigate the system aggessively.

Since my experience in college, I've been lucky to have my own insurance through employer-provided group plans for which I pay a premium. So far, I've had no problems with my plans through the past 9 years, thankfully.

But, I do want to say something about the structure of the doctor's office and mention some experiences my family has had. One of the big arguments I keep hearing is "we don't want the government coming between you and your doctor." You know who comes between me and my doctor? MY DOCTOR! I found out the other day, from my father who got it directly from the doctor's office, that the doctor in our physician's group is to spend no more than 15 minutes with each patient. The last two times I've been in to see the doctor, I've been in and out in less than 1/2 hour. The last time, I actually had to stop my doctor from walking out the door while I was asking a serious question. But, what I want to say has more to do with my family than with me personally. I think the best way to do this is to list actual experiences...

Scenario 1: My mom had a surgery in the late 1990s. Since that surgery, she's struggled with stomach issues. She has trouble keeping down food and can only eat very small amounts. While, undoubtedly, some of this is due to her surgery, some of it is just unusual. She also struggles to lose weight despite the small intake of calories daily. So, she went to our family doctor. He told her it was possible that there was a mass and ordered an ultrasound. My mom, a 'glass half-empty' type, convinced herself following that consultation that she not only had a mass but that she had cancer. She was terrified. She was told that she would have results approximately 1-2 weeks after her procedure. Those weeks went by and she heard nothing from the doctor. She called and was told that the results had been in for a week but that she had to speak to the doctor directly. She called again in week 3 and finally was given the results -- that they found nothing. But, why on earth did she have to worry for 3 weeks to be given her results? Why didn't someone call her? Is this the type of "service" that we pay for??

Scenario 2: My dad had pneumonia. He ended up in the hospital for 16 days. They had predominately gotten rid of his pneumonia, but he still felt something was wrong. He felt a pain in his left lung. The man is 71, so if he feels something is wrong, he's not lying...he knows his body at this point. The family physician wanted to send him home. He had to argue with her to stay in the hospital and get the lung tested. She hesitated because of the insurance. But, he won out. And thank goodness he did. He had a fungal infection in his lung - something quite common in this area, but because his immune system was wrecked from the pnuemonia, he couldn't fight it off on his own. I guess my issue with this one is that my dad is one who doesn't go to the doctor for every cold. His pnuemonia was actually so bad because he waited too long to see a doctor about it. So, why on earth would you argue with someone like that when he is telling you that he clearly knows something is wrong with his body? Why are you putting insurance before the patient?

Scenario 3: My mom needs to have a knee replacement surgery. Desperately. She's been in pain for quite awhile, but hesitated to have the surgery because she's afraid that something will happen to my dad while she's in rehabilitation and she won't be able to care for him. With my brother and I so close, she's now okay with the idea. And, she's found out that it is now 90% deteriorated and is causing back problems, including issues with her spine and sciatica. So, she's ready. The specialist has green-lighted it and is ready to schedule the surgery. Before he can, however, she needs to be cleared by our family physician so that general anestheic can be used. So, the specialist contacted the physician to request this. A couple of weeks later, my mom goes into the specialist for what she thought would be the final visit prior to her surgery. He tells her that he still can't schedule the surgery because the physician won't clear her without a direct examination. That's fine. But, the doctor's office didn't call her to tell her this. So, she calls to set an appointment and they tell her it will be at least 2 weeks before she can get in! My mom argues until she's literally nauseous. My dad gets on the line and argues until he's furious. My brother hears about it an hour later and drives my mom up to the office and argues until he gets an appointment within a week or so. In the midst of this, he is literally MOCKED by one of the workers in the office. I hear about it that night and am working on a complaint letter to send to the office, its physician's group, and any groups/associations it is affiliated with.

My point of this is, quite frankly, that we aren't getting what we pay for. We pay thousands of dollars each year for insurance. When we have appointments, hundreds of dollars are charged to our insurance company. In scenario 3, my mom's insurance was charged $180 to be told by the specialist that the other doctor needed to make an appointment. And when this is pointed out, both offices state that it was the other's responsibility to notify her. What are we getting for our money? This system is broken. It is not efficient, with time nor money. It is contrary to the oath of doctors to serve the sick. It is about money, not about service. If it was about helping people, then my mom wouldn't have to be in severe pain for weeks on end simply because 1) someone can't pick up a phone and 2) they want to shuffle people in and out in 1/2 hour or less.

Okay, my rambling rant on this is done. I have no answers, only examples of how this system isn't working for middle-class individuals who do fall into the "80% of Americans who have coverage." I challenge our lawmakers to do the right thing and create reform. Reform that works for people. I, personally, look forward to an America where health is considered a human right - not something that only the rich can afford. And I'd love to see an America where doctors can work in the best interest of the patient, not in the interest of the insurance company or physician group stockholders.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lessons From My First Week in Retail

I haven't posted in quite awhile. The reason for that: I got a part-time job to supplement my income. For about a year or so, my budget has been too tight and this was a step I needed to take in order to dig out of the hole and try to get on track for future goals.

After one week on the job, I'm incredibly exhausted. I've worked 6 days straight, 4 of those while working my full-time job too. My body is neither used to the schedule nor to the long hours on my feet. It's also been nearly a decade since I've had an hourly position, so I'm getting used to what that means in terms of breaks and such. Unfortunately, that's not something that was covered during training, so I'm having to just ask co-workers along the way.

This new job is in retail. I'm looking at it as a means to an end. Obviously, it's not making me will supplement my income by a few hundred dollars a month probably. That will allow me gas and grocery money until my car is paid off around March. The next month or two, however, it will get me out of a hole of short-term debt. Then, if all goes to plan, it will generally just reduce the financial stress that has literally kept me up at night.

I am a reflector by nature. I generally assume that most people who write blogs are. So, throughout this first week, I've been making little mental notes of items to think about more deeply. That is the list that I would like to share with you tonight.

Without further ado, here are some of the lessons that I've learned this week:
  • My heart is most definitely with my career. My full-time job is in my career, not this job. I am a volunteer coordinator in higher education. Without being too specific, I used to be a community service director at a small college in Appalachian Kentucky. I had that gig for seven years and loved my daily work (just not the politics). I now work for a statewide organization, coordinating full-time volunteers to increase service-learning throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky. So, aside from the obvious part of just my heartstrings, what has made me determine that my career is the right one? Well, part of my volunteer coordination work is to design and facilitate trainings. I'm still developing my style and sometimes, admittedly, I throw things together simply because I run out of planning time with the million other things that I do. But, it's really sad when I'm sitting in training for the new job and am thinking to myself for 3 hours 'wow, I could do this training so much better!' Then, on the second night of training, we had to do a computer training with an interactive CD. I was sitting there thinking, 'I wonder how exactly they designed this CD because I'd love to have a training with this technology for my volunteers'. If I'm thinking about one job that much when training for another, it seems to me that my heart is in the work for the one my mind's on.
  • In this economy, there are a lot of professionals hurting. I have been surprised to find that I am not alone in working for this company as a way to supplement income. I've met several other woman who have full-time day jobs with firms and banks and then jet over to the mall to work part-time at night. While we are all thankful for still having full-time professional employment, it is telling of our capitalistic economy (in recession or not) that predominantly women are in such a position. It's quite ridiculous that one job - one that we're good at and are studied in - can't support us.
  • Building off of that point, there are a minority of people in this world who are rude and condescending. Most customers that I have encountered this week return the kindness and respect that we show to them. I did, however, have one woman who spoke to me like I was a third grader. This woman - get this - asked if we could iron a pair of pants before she purchased them. Then, she got mad and yanked the pants out of my hands saying that I was "making the wrinkles worse" when I was folding the pants to bag. She then said, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude. I know you're new and all." Excuse me? First, how do you know that I'm new? I didn't tell you that and I don't have a big blinking sign on my name tag. And, I quickly rang your order without having to ask questions of my coworkers or hesitating. Second, you're going to talk to me like that when you want a store to iron a piece of clothing before you purchase it? Take that item home and wash it before you wear you know how many people probably tried that on before you picked it up? Ewww. Anyway, don't assume that I'm stupid because I work at a department store. I have a bachelor's degree from a very good institution and I'm respected in my actual career field. You know none of this nor anything else about me. So STFU.
  • People go nuts - and cheap - when there is a sale. There was a major sale this week, along with a really good coupon. If you're getting a $75 suit for $15, don't argue about another 10% off. Seriously, it just makes you look lame. I mean, I like getting a deal as much as the next person, but let's just accept a really good deal while we have them instead of trying to gouge. I'd say 20% of the people I waited on in the past few days have been the type that argue about wanting to get an extra 15% off clearance items - like a $30 shirt that's already down to $3.59. Gimme a break.
  • People don't respect public places. If you bring a drink into a store, find a trash can...don't just put that down on the floor or leave the lid and straw laying around. If your kid knocks something over, try telling someone and apologize for your child's behavior, rather than just walking away without a word. If something falls off the rack when you are looking at the clothes, pick it up and hang it back up. This is not rocket's called common courtesy.
  • Some people do not respect time. If the sale ends at 1pm, don't come in right at 1pm and expect to be able to try on an entire arm's full of clothes. You had the entire morning to do that. And don't get pissy with me about this issue - I didn't program the computers. Also, do not come in 5 minutes before closing and then argue prices at check-out or expect to try on clothes. No employees are allowed to leave at closing until all customers are out of the store and the store is secured. You are keeping me from my life and are costing the company money for every minute you are keeping us past quitting time. Your one purchase is holding up hundreds of employees.
  • Criminals are creative. I won't get into this one too much because I don't think it's appropriate to 1) share the information provided to us nor 2) to give anyone out there ideas. But, I sat through a loss prevention talk that had my jaw on the floor. I mean, how do people even think of these ways to steal? I guess my mind just doesn't work that way, but I'm just incredibly taken aback by the creativity of these plots to shoplift and other various schemes to defraud stores out of money and/or merchandise. Honestly, it's shocking.
  • Older people are more willing to talk/share than younger people. I've had 2 women, in 3 days mind you, talk to me about their battles with cancer. One story was heartbreaking and the other was reassuring. Both of these women were over the age of 50. Thus far, I've noticed an overall trend that the older women want to talk and share bits of their lives with us. I suppose an argument could be made that many older people lack daily social interaction and feel the need to talk with someone. I'd make the argument that they are reminded of younger days...days when you had a 'relationship' with those who you shopped with. Younger women do not see stores in that light because, for us, it's all about getting in, getting what we want, and just quickly paying for our items. One of the customer service tenets for this company is to engage the customer in conversation. I've found that much easier with the older crowd.
  • I hate trying to explain my career. In a sense, I envy those who can simply say, "I work in a bank," or "I work for a CPA firm." How easy is that? No explanation needed, really. I've found it incredibly difficult to explain to people what I do. They ask, "where do you work." Oh, I work at the university. "Really? What do you do there?" Augh. No one seems to know that there are national service programs like AmeriCorps, let alone that there is an organized effort to increase civic engagement in the next generation. Why would they? I think I've only ever seen 2 commercials for National Service on TV in my entire life. And if they don't regularly watch cable news, they haven't heard of the Serve America Act. It's all just too difficult to explain to people who think it's crazy for people to take a year off away from school or work to volunteer. I really need to think of a way to explain it more succinctly.

So, there you have it! Those are the lessons that I've learned this week, my first week in retail. I hope to be able to write more - about the topics that I really take to heart - as soon as my work schedules gets settled down a bit. Right now, I'm taking as many shifts as they offer.

Until next time, take care of yourself!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Holiday Weekend

Somebody asked me today if I had big plans for the weekend. My answer, as usual, was no. The July 4th holiday typically represents a weekend of cookouts, parties, and fireworks for most Americans. But for my family, it's generally just a regular weekend.

My dad was a career and volunteer firefighter. He was incredibly devoted to this "calling" and I credit that with the development of my passion for serving others. But, it came with a price on a variety of levels for our family. One of those was the lack of normal holidays...particularly the July 4th tradition. Everytime that someone catches something on fire or nearly blows their hands off thanks to fireworks, someone's family member has to respond to that emergency. Similarly, everytime someone gets behind the wheel after one too many drinks and causes an accident, someone has to respond to that. That person, for 25 years of my life, was my father. July 4th is a very busy time for such emergencies and it was not unusual for us to not see my dad the entire night and/or weekend thanks to these emergency calls.

That said, my older brother stepped in quite a bit when I growing up to provide some sort of holiday celebration. He, like most boys, had an obsession with fireworks. I remember him having a desk drawer full of firecrackers. So, he and I would go out and light some relatively benign fireworks just to say we did it. And throughout the year, he would have bottle rockets...we would attach our Star Wars figurines to those and shoot them off. Poor C3PO hasn't been the same since. As adults, we have often regretted these actions in retrospect. Those original figurines that we blew up are now quite valuable.

So, this weekend will most likely just be normal. I do have a four-day weekend so I'll be focused mostly on getting my apartment in order. After living here for nearly 2 years, I still have a room full of unpacked boxes! I have had some time to deal with this before, but didn't tackle it as I had planned. So, I'm hoping to finally get it taken care of this weekend. And, of course, I'll most likely be heading over to visit my parents. I wish the weather wasn't so cloudy/stormy! I would love to have at least one day at the pool, too.

Happy July 4th weekend! Please be safe in your celebrations - for yourself, your family, and the families of the emergency workers who leave their own families to respond to your call for help.