Monday, February 29, 2016

Transcranial Brain Stimulation, Part 1

I want you to know that you can call me Jim (not his real name), he began. I'm often wary of people who seek to immediately gain my trust by using casual informality. My first thought was to dismissively label him a dude-bro and then reflexively discount everything else he had to say. But the doctor seemed to be genuine enough. He was surely young, almost my age, barely forty if he was that. In spite of my skepticism, I found that I liked him, in spite of my first few reservations.

He clearly wanted to be viewed as cool and cutting-age, intentionally throwing out a few choice profanities and hip references to pop culture. He was a rebel with a medical license, but made sure that he could never be confused as an unprincipled practitioner consumed with profit at the expense of patient safety. He knew the rules and didn't deviate from them, but didn't want to be stuffy, pedantic, and overly consumed with professionalism. It was a nice change from the routine.

The FDA approved transcranial brain stimulation for treatment resistant depression in 2013. I neatly fit the established parameters for candidacy and began my sessions immediately following evaluation this morning. If I was feared to be in danger of developing mania at any point, I would have been disqualified. Mania is not a truly natural state for me. It is created artificially by antidepressant usage and now I'm beginning to wonder whether my diagnosis as bipolar is even accurate. The psychiatrist I consulted today believed that I'd been misdiagnosed all along. Now I have more questions to ask to a very different set of doctors.

In time, I'll hopefully begin to experience the cumulative effects of each day's treatment. Between 67% and 80% of those who undergo TMS experience a net gain. Exposing the brain to concentrated bursts of magnetic force feels a bit like an extended MRI. I know today that something of consequence occurred, but I can't say for sure what it is. As almost goes without saying, brain function and dysfunction is not understood well by modern medicine. After a while, I'll make a few credible educated guesses regarding my treatment, but those will have to suffice until humanity has a greater grasp of the matter.  

In an expensive specialty clinic, a doctor and his staff have license to work at their own pace. No one was rushed or hurried. Customer service was spectacular and it was clear that everyone who was employed there was glad to have such a cushy job. Most psychiatrists out in the greater world have substantial caseloads, tons of stress, and are required to be jacks of all trades. I can better understand now why doctors enter specialty practice fields like these. No matter what reform legislation and policy is adopted, it will be impossible to prevent doctors from taking this avenue. The everlasting dollar will always speak loudest.

I felt, if you want to know, spoiled rotten. I know that in most respects I'll never be rich enough or well-connected enough to know the trappings of luxury. Yet, in only one area, healthcare, I have the health insurance and ability to pay for lavish, but effective treatments that can be ill-afforded by most ordinary people. This is not a frivolous undertaking, but it is a treatment modality that simply isn't an option for the average person.

I fully expect to see overwhelmingly positive results in a way that medication cannot provide, but the air of exclusivity that goes along with the privilege is what troubles me most. Only in America does a single ambulance ride cost $500 and a single aspirin at an emergency room cost $20. This is what has to change before we attempt any subsequent reform, single payer or not.  

I don't want to be seen as protesting too much. It, quite simply, bothers me how much money factors into the equation. A not-for-profit system would be hard pressed to keep up pace with private coverage. We already see this with private carriers versus Medicare.

This particular clinic has one function and one function alone, to perform a single procedure. A conventional doctor of any specialization must treat a broad spectrum of ailments and complaints. He or she usually has to work within the highly bureaucratic confines of a hospital or medical system. Private clinics like these eliminate the middle man. Without insurance, each TMS session costs $250. A full set of thirty-six procedures costs $12,500.

An hour long synopsis of the ins and outs of the procedure came first. I was asked to choose between two machines that performed a similar function, but in two very different ways. The older method took between fifty and fifty-five minutes from start to finish and was limited in how it targeted brain function. The newer method, developed three years ago by Israeli engineers, took only twenty minutes and stimulated more than one particular area of the brain. I couldn't decide between them and was assigned the most recent advancement by the psychiatrist who oversaw my case.

The sensation is peculiar. It reminds one of a pulsating out-of-control metronome or a chicken pecking aggressively upon one's head. The process increases brain activity, but primarily focuses on the area of that crucial organ that the forehead and cranium conceal from sight. Before anything proceeded, I was donned with a form-fitting blue cap that made me look like a Apollo-era astronaut.

A plastic bubble was placed around my head. At the count of three, magnetic impulses pulsed through the brain in quick bursts, causing everything from my scalp to my bottom set of teeth to briefly flex and then swiftly snap back into place. Though uncomfortable at first, the brain quickly adapted to the sensation.  

Twenty minutes later, the process was over. The brain felt fatigued in some weird way. I staggered out the door into the bright sunlight, feeling the impact. In a relatively short period of time, the brain had been, in effect, forced to run on a treadmill. I'll return to the clinic every day during the week, Monday-Friday, for a little over a month. My commute to and from the office is going to be extremely familiar for a good long while.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Vulnerability and Honesty

At a weekly support group for people with depression and bipolar disorder, heartbreaking personal stories from complete strangers are routine. A core of regular attenders shares company with a revolving door of people who are struggling mightily to hold everything in their lives together. Since my arrival on the scene, two months back, I have made silent bets with myself as to who will return the next week. Often I am disappointed when interesting people with compelling stories don't show up again.

This past week, one young woman discussed the recent end of a relationship, blaming herself fully for the breakup. The details she shared were harrowing and bleak, a tale of prolonged and intense emotional abuse at the hands of a lover. Her lack of recognition and habit of constant re-victimization did not sit well with me. She gave him every benefit of the doubt, faulting herself instead. This is a fairly routine and textbook case of domestic abuse. She rationalized that the treatment at his hands was somehow justified, as she certainly had her own flaws.

Her former boyfriend, who was quite controlling, had even forced her to stop taking medication for his own paranoid reasons. To him, she wasn't being as authentic and honest as she could be. It sounded like a clear case of projection on his behalf. As a result, she plunged into a depression, a hardly surprising outcome. She catered to every one of his whims, and even three months after they parted ways was still holding herself entirely at fault. Even though, yes, he had a history of abuse himself, it doesn't excuse hateful, hurtful conduct. This is what she will have to learn herself.

It's a story as sad as it is commonplace. I could have been furious at his behavior, but I knew that anger alone would not have solved her problem. It would have cranked me up and guided my advice and feedback in very unhelpful channels. In situations like these, people I've known feel that encouraging rage is the best medicine. I disagree. The details were presented in a rambling, wincing sort of way, an approach that constant second-guessing and low self-esteem produces. I listened in shock and concern more than anger. I have learned over time a bit about what works and what does not work.

Hate might be an understandable reaction in this context, but simple compassion seemed a better approach. She was a sensitive soul with an enormous amount of inner work left to be completed. If anger is a phase in personal development, then bully for it, but I sincerely hope it remains a state of time-limited transition for everyone.

One of my resolutions for the New Year was to keep my temper in check. For the most part, I think I've succeeded. I don't mind hearing these stories of desperation and vulnerability. When I'm able to provide helpful insight I do, but I try my hardest to tamp down on a bad habit. It's possible to be paying full attention and yet not be outraged. Listening to people unburden themselves in a public forum is vastly more powerful than any of the divisive campaign year electioneering, more meaningful than the multitude of persuasive essays posted daily on my Facebook feed.

One man always speaks about trying to be a good father to a child he has to share with his ex-wife. The two are barely on speaking terms, their custody arrangements very much still a court matter. He agonizes about every move, every protracted fight, and whether he will make enough money to produce child support and alimony payments. That is a kind of desperation I will never know myself, as I never intend to have kids, and it shows how challenging it is to be a parent.

Another woman speaks about maintaining sanity in ultra-competitive law school. Having been in grad school myself, I know what it's like to fight to keep one's head above water in an academic setting. If I were her, I'd drop everything for the moment and take enough time to heal, but she will have to reach this conclusion on her own. Many anecdotes I've heard will require extensive self-reflection before they ever are fixed or brought to any successful conclusion.

Most people arrive wanting to be heard. A few here and there want to be cured. Lessons to be learned are numerous. I appreciate that the group is receptive to new faces. In many other areas of my life, I've encountered cliques and elitist attitudes. I'll take meandering autobiography over snobbery any day. Vote for Bernie or Vote for Hillary, but you won't find my endorsement for either on this site.

Quote of the Week

You know, it doesn't really matter what the media writes as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of ass.- Donald Trump

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Saturday Video

Whatever gets you through the night 'salright, 'salright
It's your money or your life 'salright, 'salright
Don't need a sword to cut through flowers oh no, oh no

Whatever gets you through your life 'salright, 'salright
Do it wrong or do it right 'salright, 'salright
Don't need a watch to waste your time oh no, oh no

Hold me darlin' come on listen to me
I won't do you no harm
Trust me darlin' come on listen to me, come on listen to me
Come on listen, listen

Whatever gets you to the light 'salright, 'salright
Out the blue or out of sight 'salright, 'salright
Don't need a gun to blow your mind oh no, oh no

Hold me darlin' come on listen to me
I won't do you no harm
Trust me darlin' come on listen to me, come on listen to me
Come on listen, listen

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Community: Or Why You Should Quit Your Day Job

10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”- 1 Corinthians 10-12

Ours is, we say, a leaderless faith. And yet, patterns of leadership arise quite naturally in all of the democratic back and forth. We don’t have leaders until we do. We are of one voice until multiple voices grab control of the microphone and the floor during Business Meeting. We are proud of the weighty Friend who, during Worship, always condenses every message that came before into an inspiring synopsis. We like our favorite speakers and dislike the ones that seem to us to ring hollow, or to challenge our preconceptions.

Proclaiming that we don’t have this often uneasy range of emotional response simultaneously married to cold logic is in opposition to the facts. It is slight of hand, mere magical thinking to believe otherwise. Better that we swallow hard and admit that while all Friends are equal, some are more equal than others. In that same spirit, all arguments are persuasive, but some are more persuasive than others.

The courses of action undertaken to resolve concerns also reflect who we are and what we believe. Problems are routinely brought to a resolution not within ourselves, but by way of intermediaries. Need an objective voice? Hire an expert. More often than not, we rent-a-Quaker from an adjacent Monthly Meeting or Yearly Meeting. This sounds proactive enough, but it serves as mere window dressing when a full makeover is required.

I often hear ineffective resolutions excused by saying that novices, not experts have sought to resolve them. Under this line of thinking, mediocrity is and should be tolerated because Meeting work is no one’s day job. This is not an incorrect statement, but the logic is faulty. Friends did away with the clergy and left the responsibility to the rank and file for good reason. Doing what needs to be done with precision and accuracy is not good enough for government work, so to speak.

I am not unsympathetic towards the challenges that face such an exacting, careful standard. The larger a Monthly Meeting or Yearly Meeting, the more difficult it is to keep good intentions from grinding to a halt. The anonymity of a megachurch will work in a programmed setting, but it would be a dismal failure within unprogrammed Worship. Imagine straining to hear the ministry of a worshiper from the upper deck, seeking to locate a speaker who seems to you to be about the size of an ant.

Growth is a desired state, but it is my opinion that Monthly Meetings for Worship ought to be restricted to a certain size, then split neatly in two. The really hard work is in developing strategies for people to truly get to know each other. This is why many Protestant denominations have placed such reliance upon small groups, conceding that Worship alone is not sufficient for building real, not superficial community.

Recall, if you will, that Community is one of our Testimonies. It proves to be the most difficult to grasp for many Meetings and, indeed, many individual Quakers. Should one read the First Epistle to the Corinthians, one might make a strong case that Community is what the church was lacking most acutely. Though not as immediately appealing to Quaker eyes as Peace or Simplicity, it should not be overlooked.

It was fortunate for me that I first found Quakerism in a Meeting with only ten to fifteen regular attenders. My first few plaintive attempts towards vocal ministry were accepted and nurtured, not callously discarded or silently ignored. I was made to feel a part of a larger ecosystem of believers. Most of us, I would hope, are familiar with this family environment, this intimacy in communication. For every person added to the rolls, success requires we take their own unique cares, causes, and personality into account. No one said this was easy. The very fact that it is not simple is why many fall short of the mark.    

As I give the troubled church in Corinth one more read, I’m reminded of something that’s always kept me curious. We know the problems, the charismatic figures, and the theological diagnoses. What is unknown is whether or not Paul’s words made a dramatic difference either way. Certainly had the first attempt succeeded, there would have been no need for a second. Scholarship over the centuries has suggested that there might very well be a third letter to the Corinthians that has been lost over time.

By way of an exercise in critical thinking, what critique do you think your Monthly Meeting would receive? Some relatively new Quaker meetings have an institutional memory of their founders, a person or persons who remembers the beginning and the building up. Other Meetings have been around for hundreds of years, leaving behind them only a dimly recalled historical record. The Pauline Epistles would cease to be relevant to the current day if organized religion wasn’t such a formidable challenge.

But this does not let us off the hook. Our fore-parents adopted a radical course of self-denial and morality. We inherit a legacy that stretches beyond five days a week, eight hours a day. Leaders without ego are needed. They will step aside when planting is done, tending to new shoots and leaves. Newcomers will be welcomed with open arms. Quit your day job. Don’t give your religious life short-shift. It takes everyone’s effort.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Out or Not?

One of my mentors broke down the whole of LGBT expression and identity into two categories. To him, there were queer professionals and professional queers. We know which is which without having to use too much brain power. Boy George is a professional gay, as is k.d. lang. Your trusted physician or pharmacist is most likely a gay professional. Only a few of us have the ability and desire to shape public perception this openly. I personally see these individuals as a necessary evil, since they frequently overreach. At times they have embarrassed me and others.

This argument may be an oversimplification in terms, but it works well enough for now. I've never had the confidence to be as outspoken as some. If I were to be fully gay, I think I would shrink from being labeled a gay writer or a gay anything. I choose not to drape myself in a rainbow flag and rarely attend Pride. Nevertheless, there is a part of me who would gladly be identified in bold terms and in hyperlinks at the bottom of a Wikipedia entry.

I've always been torn between which path I should choose for myself. Bisexuality is invisible enough by itself and I know this far too well. If I speak up and self-identify, others know about it in the form of my personal presence. Ever since I can remember, some intangible something has fueled my interest and enthusiasm, and even now words often fail me. Often I am seeking to elucidate the part of me that identifies more strongly with women than with men. And yet, my pursuits and interests do not always make me as feminine (or more so) as any woman. Those who I have deliberately informed about my sexual orientation are not surprised if they have given the matter some thought. That said, I escape detection from most everyone else.

I think there's a place for outspoken LGBT expression, but aside from a few subtle references here and there, I'm never going to wear it like a badge. Whether this is fair or not, a part of me is simply not interested and very much conflicted. In the whole of my adult life, I've known men who, like some women, secretly harbor desire for unattainable relationships. That's safe for them, though it promises absolutely nothing besides fantasy. This is the opposite extreme, and I'm not nearly as repressed as they. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Those who pursue this course live lonely lives.

Many people don't realize how educated I have become in a specialized field. They fail to notice, as well, that I am no stranger to queer-friendly terminology and even have a personal history to share, if I wish. Let me put it another way. An acquaintance of mine once pursued a career as an engineer. As is true with many in the so-called STEM fields, she was enrolled in a field vastly outnumbered by men. For her own reasons, she chose a different path altogether, changing majors in midstream.

Her adviser, also female, was irate. Her prized pupil was viewed by her instructor as almost traitorous. The student was not doing her part to swing the gender balance towards a fairer, more equal setting. What the adviser did not recognize is that her own private dream was simply not the same as her young protege. The pupil did not owe her professor or American womanhood anything.

This is an example of what happens when we view any issue through only one lens. I myself have been shamed by impatient reformers in the same way that befalls brave gender pioneers like these. The same tactics are used by radical outers, shoving the closeted outside into the bright sunlight. The good news is that a new permissiveness has gratefully made it easier to exit the closeet. Now we are fighting to give someone the right to be out or not out, which to me will always be a personal decision.

I don't want to view myself only through the lens of sexual orientation and expression. Activism often invites this kind of navel-gazing, but I don't want the whole of my identity to hinge upon one metric alone. In 2016, it may be finally legal to marry someone who shares your gender, but it is entirely possible to lump all sexual orientation into two and only two categories. Frustratingly enough, I do the same thing myself. If a woman is dating another woman, I automatically assume she's a lesbian. If she's dating a man, I assume she's straight.

Being mislabeled doesn't bother me as much as it once did. I can own who I am, finally. Well-meaning heterosexuals that try much too hard to be inclusive get to me most these days. But in the same spirit, I'm sure for people who identify as transgender that I've been guilty of the same offense. I want to be a good ally and I want them to know that I've clearly done my homework. Without meaning to do it, I've committed the same overreach. A more successful strategy for myself and everyone else is being much less concerned with exteriors, even though this seems to be a challenge for everyone.

Exteriors are what this entire post seeks to address. The most powerful forms of communication arise when we see our commonalities, not our differences. Liberals overdo this sort of thinking very easily, consumed as they are with being inclusive and diverse. Individuals who identify as a minority once again face the same conundrum.

How open and out do I want to be? Should I demand recognition on my own terms, or instead take a step back and examine how I am perceived? These are rhetorical questions. The only valid answer is this: it depends.  

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Quote of the Week

Well, they’re Southern people, and if they know you are working at home they think nothing of walking right in for coffee. But they wouldn’t dream of interrupting you at golf.

-Harper Lee

Rest in Peace.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Saturday Video

I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down
I feel my heart start to trembling
Whenever you're around

Ooh, baby, when I see your face
Mellow as the month of May
Oh, darling, I can't stand it
When you look at me that way

I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down
I feel my heart start to trembling
Whenever you're around

Ooo, darling, when you're near me
And you tenderly call my name
I know that my emotions
Are something I just can't tame
I've just got to have you, baby, uh huh huh uh huh huh yeah

I just lose control 
Down to my very soul 
I get a hot and cold all over 

I feel the earth move under my feet 
I feel the sky tumbling down, 
Tumbling down, tumbling down...

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Harper Lee Story

Harper Lee, the famous writer of To Kill a Mockingbird, has passed away at the age of 89. The book was a critical and commercial success, led to an equally successful movie, and has been read by high school students for at least the past fifty years. Among Southern novelists, she has few peers. It's astonishing that her reputation rests upon a single book. It made up her sole literary output until last year's critically panned sequel, Go Set a Watchman. Many believe that Harper Lee did not agree to its publication in sentiment. She might not have been mentally functional enough, due to advanced age, to prevent someone from cashing in on her name.

I met Harper Lee almost in passing. This was nearly a decade ago, in the auditorium of the Birmingham Public Library in Birmingham, Alabama. The occasion was meant to showcase the photography of the folklorist and author Katherine Tucker Windham. Largely unknown outside the South, Windham was considered a local legend. Both she and Harper Lee were Alabama born and bred, and apparently the two were friends from way back in the day. Turnout for the event was high, as was the enthusiasm.

The notoriously reclusive Lee had taken a special trip from her home in South Alabama. By this time, Lee was confined to a wheelchair and required constant care. It was clear that her health was in great decline and she would not last much longer. For most of the event, she sat obligingly, saying nothing to anyone. Her attendance had been deliberately unscheduled and unannounced in an effort to not draw too much attention. I was pushing an older man in a wheelchair, and the four of us shared a quiet elevator ride. I didn't even know who she was at first, and I wouldn't know until I observed the fawning behavior of the audience.

A young woman gushingly approached Harper Lee as the latter was wheeled down to the stage.

"You're such an inspiration! I want you to know how much your work means to me!"

Harper Lee, who had been previously sitting sullenly in silence, craned her neck upwards. Before that instant, she had not made eye contact with anyone. One might have made an incorrect assumption that she was deaf or mentally impaired.

As it turns out, Lee was her typically crabby, cranky self.

"I came here to support a friend, not to be idolized," she spat.

That was all she said or was going to say. The young woman, her feelings clearly hurt, quickly departed. After that, no one else dared ask her a question or to make any comment at all in her company. This was not atypical behavior for Harper Lee, who valued her privacy to such an obsessive degree that she was openly scornful of the hosanna-shouting public. A person more comfortable in the spotlight might have feasted on the idol worship, but not her.

Anyone who know much about Harper Lee will not be surprised by this anecdote. Fanatically protective of her public visibility, Lee lived the life of a shut-in on nobody's terms but her own. This made no difference to the millions of people touched by her novel. Southern liberals and reformers see her as their champion, as her words made a strong case for racial tolerance and Civil Rights. The virtuous lawyer Atticus Finch was her own creation, played by Gregory Peck in the acclaimed film that followed.

Adding any new and relevant critique to her work is almost impossible. Her novel has been dissected in a million different ways over the years. The book's deceiving simplicity makes it easy for adolescents to read and everyone to love. To Kill a Mockingbird was a seminal work and would have been a tough act to follow. Even so, the public clamored for more, even a slow trickle of short stories. Like J.D. Salinger, who is a contemporary of Lee, she became withdrawn and secretive. It was plain that she never courted, nor anticipated superstardom.

Now she has departed this earth for the afterlife, remaining a figure shrouded in mystery. Lee did it her way or no way at all. A sensitive soul could only have written such an idealistic and noble work. She disappointed many readers and adoring fans along the way. A particularly persistent rumor insisted that her close friend Truman Capote was the real author. Though one could make a case for it, the book's author is almost assuredly her. I wonder if we'll still be reading To Kill a Mockingbird for another fifty years.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

And Now for Something Completely Different...

In an ongoing quest to make myself as healthy as possible, I will start a period of transcranical magnetic stimulation tomorrow. It is a month-long, intensive treatment that will require me to participate five days a week for a month. Transportation costs will be high, my commute time will be lengthy, but I'm tired of waiting for antidepressants to work. TMS in combination with medication has proven effective to many in clinical trains and on an outpatient basis.

The procedure itself is relatively low-risk, much more so than the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) that I was given in my teens. Medical science has revealed that the brain communicates by way of electrical impulses. It is postulated that people with depression and bipolar have faulty wiring, if you will. TMS seeks to establish a healthy brain balance that people like me were simply born without.

The procedure was developed thirty years ago, but it hasn't been used extensively until recently. I'm fortunate in that my insurance will fully cover the procedure. Many private psychiatrists and physicians take no insurance and insist upon fees upwards of $200-$300 a session. This is an unfortunately commonplace occurance for mental health services in general, but I'll save that rant for another post.

I can say that I engage in this course of action unafraid and hopeful. The worst that can happen is that I'll receive no positive gain at all. As is always the case, it took me turning over a variety of stones to find a provider who didn't charge an arm and a leg. My second condition was to ensure that their office wasn't located outside of the reach of public transportation. As it stands, I have an hour and a half one way trip upon which to look forward, but I'll manage.

My goal is to share with you the results I obtain or do not obtain here on my blog. Truthfully, I have no idea what to expect and, if you find my commentary interesting, you'll participate in the same discovery I will. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to feel the gain as each day's procedure adds to the one before it, and the one before that. These might be the most productive days I've known in a long time.

My mind is perpetually overstimulated. I know I have limitations and I don't expect more than I will receive. I know I will not be cured, but perhaps my day-to-day existence will be improved. I'm tired of waking up depressed and having constant mood swings from the moment I rise until I go to bed in the evening. A proactive stand has always served me best over time. Here's another to add to the list.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Pathological President

This week I spoke offhandedly to a psychiatrist on the subject of politics. I wasn’t expecting the precise topic to be raised, but was grateful for the insight provided. It was her learned opinion that anyone willing to be President had significant psychological and pathological issues. As she put it, those who would put that much stress and pressure on their shoulders had to have holes and substantial personal problems. Her view was that the egocentric conceptions of self that are commonplace with our high elected officials are balanced uneasily with a kind of outright masochism.

I can’t say I disagree with the doctor’s hypothesis. We are, as we know, in the middle of another contentious election year, where numerous important questions are being raised. I’d love an unguarded moment with every significant candidate for the office. If I was granted that degree of trust and access, I’d like to ask why they were running. In a debate format, I know I’d receive a carefully nuanced and mostly meaningless reply. Off the record, I wonder what drives and motivates those who have placed themselves willingly under a microscope.

Most people I’ve spoken with over the course of my life have no desire to be President. It was once fashionable to say, in all seriousness, that any boy and girl could grow up to be our Chief Executive. That may be so even today, but along with a mere willingness to run is an always unasked follow up question. We know the stated objective of our politicians, but what insecurities and yes, holes, are responsible for those who seek what can be such a thankless occupation. The stakes are high, the reward as elevated as the risk.

Historians have sought to probe the real factors at play. Any number of posthumous biographers dig deeply into a life to answer that very question. They have the benefit of hindsight at their disposal. And even then, some politicians keep their cards close enough to their vests that no one ever gets an authentic peek at who they really are. The narratives their campaigns choose are often adopted part and parcel without questioning. Those who are good at the game might forget who they really are, underneath it all. In their line of work, one is forced to equivocate and dodge, to bob and weave, and those pugilists who last into the late rounds usually become career politicians.

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are known quantities. We are encouraged to believe their campaign stop chatter, embrace their visions of reform, and pick sides accordingly. This time around, Bernie’s banter is viewed as somehow more authentic. That’s an upside, but what personal lacking would have him take on the highest office in the land? Hillary Clinton has a reputation, deserved or not, for being transparently power-hungry, a label that has fed the high negatives she has never been able to effectively shed. We want our President to provide what he or she espouses on the stump, which is partially a reason why Donald Trump’s campaign cannot be derailed.

It is very sad that we’ve become cynical enough to excuse boorish behavior and bluster as somehow being proof positive of authenticity. Trump’s supporters want a return to the good old days and will follow any leader who makes a different set of promises. They expect him to make good on their investment with him. We don’t know for sure that Bernie will provide free college education or establish a single-payer form of health care, but we want to believe. Conversely, we want to believe that Hillary will accomplish a few incremental, cautious changes to an increasingly complicated political reality.

Why would anyone want the burden of expecting a phone call at 3 am? After the spin and constant analysis, the speeches and baby kissing, the handshakes and fundraising, can we honestly say that our candidates even know who they are? If the compulsion to be President is a kind of pathology, the absolute horror of campaigning and then governing to follow will surely drive a person insane. We observe the weather-beaten look and grey hairs of our Presidents from the moment they take office until the day they leave.

This is why we should be careful, why we should peel back the veneer before we cast our ballots. The best orators and politicians will appear as though they know us, and we will allow ourselves once more to believe that convincing line. We will believe that, to our chosen candidate, each of us is the most important being on the face of the Earth. The passage of time will grant us some greater understanding and revelation, but many of our leaders will stay inscrutable from start to finish. I hope at the end we receive what we really need.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Quote of the Week

Art is an experience, not the formulation of a problem.- Lindsay Anderson

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Saturday Video

Just a little lovin'
Early in the mornin'
Beats a cup of coffee
For starting off the day

Just a little lovin'
When the world is yawnin'
Makes you wake up feeling
Good things are coming your way

This old world
Wouldn't be half as bad
It wouldn't be half as sad
If each and everybody in it had, yeah

Just a little lovin'
Early in the mornin'
That little extra somethin'
To kinda see them through

Nothing turns the day on
Really gets it dawnin'
Like a little bit of lovin'
From some lovin' someone like you

This old world
Wouldn't be half as bad
It wouldn't be half as sad
If each and everybody in it had

Just a little lovin'
Early in the mornin'
(Just a little lovin')
(When the world is yawnin')
Just a little bit of lovin', ah
Oh, in the morning
Nothing turns the day on
Really gets it dawnin'
Make a little bit of lovin'
It's so good, its so good

Friday, February 12, 2016

Engagement Complications

What follows is personal reflection, a break from serious short essays.

I'm engaged. A wedding will follow in three years' time, since I am having $20,000 in student loan debt forgiven. One of my doctors signed a form for me which I then sent to the company in charge of loan payments. The document noted the severity of my illness and why I am unable to pay off the remaining balance. The loan company doesn't want to give up that much debt easily, but as long as my income from freelancing is this minimal, I have an incentive to stay poor. Soon I will owe nothing to no one, which will be a weight off of my shoulders.

I've gotten my credit in line. My youthful exploits and irresponsible credit card binges have been wiped away. I've done all the things that responsible adults are supposed to do before nuptials are underway. I work on myself daily to manage bipolar disorder, chronic pain, and a severe anxiety disorder. These take up a lot of my time, but I manage them with the same surgical precision. I have no other choice.

I can control my finances and my relationship to an extent, but I have no control over my extended family. This is where matters get very complicated. I haven't really allowed myself to think about wedding plans until the last several weeks. The ceremony itself will be simple and to the point, in the Quaker fashion. That part doesn't bother me. When the time grows ever closer, my partner and I will placidly begin the process of preparation. I see that being a calm and relatively straightforward process.

Here's the problem. Both of my uncles are self-absorbed and not terribly friendly people. Over the years, I've tried to understand how their dysfunctional upbringing influenced their behavior. The two of them don't even bother to justify their conduct, showing a complete unwillingness to be introspective. They grew up in a family where emotional displays were to be kept to a minimum. This was the exact reverse from how I was brought up, which is part of my confusion.

I don't think it was ever acceptable for them to express their true feelings for any reason. In adulthood, I recognize that my grandmother certainly bears part of the blame, herself the spitting image of WASP depression-era stoicism. When she was still living, the two of them marched to her drumbeat, but she has been dead now for over a decade. One of her sons, my uncle, is struggling with his own slow decline, his own ultimate demise from Alzheimer's. I should be more compassionate, but I'm not.

My uncles never learned healthy ways of expressing themselves. They've certainly never taken an active role in my life. Inviting them to the wedding would imply that I want them there, and the truth of it is that I don't. When one of my sisters got married, she invited the entire clan in the hopes of securing an expensive present. No present can buy the affection I craved and needed. They have money beyond my wildest dreams, more money than I will probably ever make in my lifetime, but it doesn't take the place of genuine sentiment and tenderness. To them, things are more important than people, which is a lesson my uncles will never learn.

If I have my way, I'm bound to bruise feelings. I want to invite one set of cousins, their significant other, and their kids. That will be it. I do not want to invite anyone else from that side of the family. My uncles have never made time for me and I'm tired of being tight-lipped and tolerant for their sake. Part of being a family member is being there for the little things, even if they're comprised of quite ordinary trips to the grocery store or moments watching television together. My uncles could be coerced out of guilt and obligation to spend time with me, but that's not exactly love for love's sake.

When word gets around, I expect I will have to defend myself. Mostly I just want to be left alone. This is my day in the sun, the culmination of dreams I was beginning to worry would never come true. I will be close to forty years old by the time I actually say my vows, which is late even for these times. In the conservative South, people get married much earlier, and by now the first flood of early divorcees is leading my contemporaries into second marriages. I hope mine lasts longer than theirs did, but no one can say that I married too young.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Faith, Power, and the Role of Women

The candidacy of Hillary Clinton creates by its very nature very predictable arguments about sexism. Over the course of the next several months, voters will be asked to discern what sexism is and where it is found. Certain instances are glaringly obvious, others much less so. Personal experience fuels the debate, but until now, no compelling and unfair Anti-Clinton argument or tactic has been brought forth to the American people.

Though it is true that the United States has never had a woman President, women have taken active roles within large structures of their creation. Clara Barton was motivated enough by her traumatic experience as battlefield nurse during the Civil War to found the American Red Cross. Any number of other examples of women’s leadership can be cited. Desperate times beg for desperate measures, but despite what candidates in 2016 might tell you, we are not in the midst of upheaval anywhere near that profound. Chaos, not necessity is the mother of substantial and effective invention.

Women have dominated religious settings for generations. Conservative faiths which insist that women be subservient to their husbands have nevertheless been enriched by major contributions. Women might be asked to cover their heads, but they are allowed to open their mouths and put pen to paper. As a person of faith, I know some of what a society run by women would look like. Women have made up the majority of religious gatherings for a very long time. As long as I can recall, women much more than men regularly attend and eagerly take leadership roles.

Unsurprisingly, there is significant historical precedent for these mostly selfless gestures. Three faith traditions actively value and have been significantly enriched by the contributions of women. There are probably more than that. Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy. The teachings of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church were nurtured by the writings and example of Ellen G. White. My own faith, the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, was skillfully directed and guided at its very beginning by Margaret Fell. All three of these could be characterized as Radical Protestant, since each took a sharp departure in practice and in theology from more established faiths.

Two of these are distinctly American creations which have their beginnings in the 19th Century Great Awakening. Another dates back to revolutionary England of the 1640’s. Quakers, in particular, sought to draw no distinction between the voices of women and the voices of men. Complete equality between the sexes, however, was still a few years away. Men and women were seated together during Worship, but separated by gender when it came time for Business Meeting.

American society would be quite different if the roles were reversed, but I am cautious of going out too far on a limb. What I will say is that politics might be far less directly confrontational if women’s voices spoke loudest. It could potentially be less violent in practice and in policy. This is, of course, no hard and fast rule. Women like former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher have been eager hawks during their tenure. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard recently that Hillary Clinton is too cravenly warlike to be trusted. Peace churches like my own always seem to find themselves as outliers during times of military action, and I expect to be on the outside looking one more time should she be elected.

It may be too much of a stretch to compare faith groups with politics. Even so, struggles for power and influence within both are prominent and constant. Shut out of active governance, ambition and an altruistic desire to improve conditions for everyone, male or female, led many women to found their own organizations. Several of these exist to the current day, peopled by cause women who have, over time, pushed hard over the years for Prohibition, women’s suffrage, the Equal Rights Amendment, and now, an increased profile of women in positions of power.

It was no accident that these self-identified groups did not divorce their cause from religion. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, as the name would suggest, used the language of Christianity to further its aims. One could argue that these groups came of age in more religious times, and while that is indeed true, few of their contemporaries ever complained that these highly motivated women were violating the separation between church and state. The two were forever intertwined, in their minds. Moral crusades must reflect morality, and organized religion preaches it from every pulpit.

Colossians 3:23 reads,

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.

When we go astray from this maxim, we lose.

Moving to the current day, Gloria Steinem’s recent remarks show the desperation of aging boomer women. They want to see a woman in the White House in their lifetime, but, as we know today, that outcome is nowhere near a given. We should always give careful consideration when sexism is invoked, but we should also consider the instances, like this one, where it is transparently self-serving. I agree that it’s past time for a woman to occupy the Oval Office, but the fight now ongoing for the soul of the Democratic party is legitimate and does not come at the expense of sexist cheap shots.

Quakers, by in large, have passionate opinions about politics. I have learned to remove myself from these arguments, especially in an online environment, because they quickly go off the rails and never end up anywhere productive. My hope is that those who share common purpose like me would devote half as much effort towards their personal spirituality that they do in over-analyzing soundbytes. I am a man of God first and a liberal Democrat second. I never forget the proper order.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Quote of the Week

Criticism should not be focused on Nazi Germany alone but extend beyond to include physicians in democratic countries, as well. Physicians outside Germany before the war, in the United States in particular were well aware of the evolving racist thrust of the health care system. They chose to remain silent.- William E. Seidelman

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Saturday Video

Everybody's doing a brand-new dance, now
(Come on baby, do the Loco-motion)
I know you'll get to like it if you give it a chance now
(Come on baby, do the Loco-motion)
My little baby sister can do it with me
It's easier than learning your A-B-C's

So come on, come on, do the Loco-motion with me
You gotta swing your hips, now

Come on, baby
Jump up
Jump back
Well, now, I think you've got the knack
Wow, wow

Now that you can do it, let's make a chain, now
(Come on baby, do the Loco-motion)
A chug-a chug-a motion like a railroad train, now
(Come on baby, do the Loco-motion)
Do it nice and easy, now, don't lose control
A little bit of rhythm and a lot of soul

Come on, come on
Do the Loco-motion with me

Move around the floor in a Loco-motion
(Come on baby, do the Loco-motion)
Do it holding hands if you get the notion
(Come on baby, do the Loco-motion)

There's never been a dance that's so easy to do
It even makes you happy when you're feeling blue
So come on, come on, do the Loco-motion with me

You gotta swing your hips, now
(Come on)
That's right (do the Loco-motion)
You're doing fine!
(Come on, do the Loco-motion)
Come on, babe
(Come on, do the Loco-motion)
Hm-hm-hm, jump up
(Come one)
Jump back (do the Loco-motion)
You're looking good
(Come on, do the Loco-motion)
Hm-hm-hm, jump up
(Come on)
Jump back (do the Loco-motion), yeah yeah yeah

Friday, February 05, 2016

Blogging: Past and Future

Ten years ago I began blogging. It was a new platform for personal expression and I'm grateful for the experience. In the beginning, I was part of a group of fifty or so motivated and creative bloggers. We were a tight-knit bunch who coalesced around a nakedly self-promoting writer who used her Ivy League credentials quite productively. Even with the exposure and ample hits, she rarely made much in the way of revenue. Nor did any of us. We were writing for the love of it, and maybe to even win an modest audience for our troubles.

I've recently learned that blogging still isn't profitable in the conventional sense. Many of us have hoped otherwise, only to eventually abandon our hard work in frustration. A few companies, mostly small potatoes start ups, peddle content in the hopes to win advertising dollars. I was recently employed briefly by one of them, who simply stopped e-mailing me assignments without bothering to tell me why. A more professional entity would at least have had the courtesy to say thanks, but no thanks. Fly-by-night organizations like this one are about the best a person can hope for in today's climate.

Any number of public relations firms have contacted me with the promise of free work. For a time, I pursued these as a means of boosting my profile. The problem, among many, was that they were getting paid for my troubles and I wasn't. I can't count the number of bad self-published books I reviewed over a two year period. Interviewing the writers was sometimes very painful, and there were instances where awkward phone conversations could simply not be used.

Plum assignments were hard to come by, but I appreciate the ones I received. I was given the opportunity to interview former Illinois senator Adlai Stevenson III. In addition, I had the opportunity to examine the writings of a young Kurt Vonnegut. Naturally, none of these assignments even paid me a dime. Breaking through is not a one-step process. One quickly finds that many ceilings have to be broken through on a consistent basis, and the process never really stops.

The signs are not promising. Professionals who have been to journalism school and have specialized training are fighting for paid gigs. If a person can manage to find a single publication that will routinely feature his or her content, he or she considers it a coup. Any number of others are given highly sporadic work, but not a regular column. Be it known that I recognize the challenges and steady headwind that faces me. In an over-saturated environment, who you know is more important than talent.

We may think that the internet is the great leveler, the triumph of democracy. It is, and it isn't. It has eliminated jobs as frequently as it has created them. I've sought to keep alive the first generation of blogging, which takes time to craft an argument and requires full attention. With time, our arguments have been broken into smaller and smaller bits. As we know, Twitter limits a person to 150 characters or less. The trend is towards shorter and shorter attention spans. I try to keep my contributions to the discourse to the point, never laborious to read, and still informative.

I think there is a market still for a carefully constructed stand-alone piece. I wouldn't continue writing if I didn't think this was the case. But be it known that I don't expect much in the way of financial compensation. Most of us will be known by our name, never our face. We will pass unrecognized on the street. We will only be as good as our last column. Along the way, if we're lucky, we'll win a few followers and regular readers.