More ER Tales: The Good The Bad & The Ugly

IMG_0959More, even cruder stuff happened in that Emergency Room I spent four hours in and wrote about here. I didn’t tell it all in part because I didn’t think I COULD tell it without using the real language that I heard there.

But it wasn’t just the language I didn’t tell about it. 

I didn’t say that for my long, long wait I chose to sit by a man who woke that morning unable to move his leg from the knee down. I sat beside him because of his face, because of the expression he wore, that struck me as so socially ready and amenable in spite of the look of anguish that flashed across it now and then. Like me, he had come a long way to get here, and like me, he was alone. But his wife worked there at the hospital and he seemed to feel comforted by that knowledge and was with communicating with her regularly by text.

We sat together trying to ignore the behaviors going around us – like the fact that the dowager princess lookalike who had tripped on the cobblestones had actually called the city workers she blamed “fucking assholes,” an utterance that shocked me to my boots coming from a lady in her 70s with such an otherwise hoity-toity manner

She was eyeing me pretty good, I noticed and maybe it was what I had on, I don’t know. But when she saw the Gloria Steinem book I was reading she said, “Do you like that?” in a flat level way but then said nothing more when I told her yes.

The man with the dead leg and I really were right by the toilets, as I said, so after an hour or so I asked him if he wanted to move. “Sure,” he said, so with him in his wheelchair and I pushing, we rounded the corner to the semi-enclosed space that held the two tall guys I spoke about – only the chair would fit because an elderly lady wearing a sari and seated in her own wheelchair had been placed at the enclosure’s entrance in such a way that we couldn’t get him by it. It wasn’t my place to move her and I we could both see that. “I’m fine,” he said and wheeled himself back to where he had been.

Here in my new spot the first tall man I told about, who had reddish hair and who had what looked to me like cellulitis on the hand that was attached to an IV, told me they had to keep him hooked up here all night at least and maybe for 24 hours past that.  “It sucks because I have to go to Florida this week on a job!” I agreed that it sucked, which I didn’t say in the last post.

I didn’t say either that the sandy-haired, second, tall man, the one with the gash on his chin, had gone directly on from telling me that Gloria Steinem was a fraud to attacking what he called  “that whole Martha’s Vineyard crowd.” “Matt Damon! Fuckin’ Ben Affleck! You know his brother Casey Affleck? Guy’s an fuckin’ midget!”

I didn’t say that when the ER staffer brought in the homeless-looking man with the long grey hair covering his eyes he had leaned in to him and muttered, “Behave yourself now.” Thus I shouldn’t have been surprised by what followed when the two tall guys started to mock him to his face, calling him “Shaggy” and worse. I didn’t say that he finally sat up from his slump and called them both faggots before the rest of the F words began flying thick and fast.

“Guys!” I didn’t tell you that I said. “Guys, what about this lady hearing all this language?” I said, indicated the woman in the sari and who was 80 if she was a day.

“Oh don’t worry about HER!” snapped Shaggy. “She doesn’t even understand us! She’s an Arab! She speaks Arabian!” Then he shouted enough more bad things that the burly male staffer who had brought him in came flying into the room, took him by the elbow, hissed “I warned you!” and hustled him to a different area.

Just after that they called my name and I got seen.

Thirty minutes later I saw, in an exam room that they were escorted my quickly past, the man who had no ability to move a leg that was paining him terribly.

We waved to each other and though there was no opportunity to get it, how I wish I knew his name. 

Because me, I just fell down while running on wet tiles around a pool and got a compression fracture in my back; but this man? This man I can’t stop thinking about. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him to wake one morning with such symptoms and I so hope he’s ok today.





Lord of the Flies at the ER

IMG_0743After a bad spill I took a few weeks back, I spent four hours in a busy ER, where, after being ushered past Registration into the vast waiting area, my main thought was, “Where do I sit?”

I first saw a seat next to an elderly woman with a sort of Dowager Princess accent who was going on and on to her companion about the “horrid” job the city does in maintaining the public walkways. “Hmmm, not beside you,” I thought. Then I saw one by a guy I’d put in his late 30s who was scowling angrily and massaging his back. ”Maybe not beside you either” I also thought.

I walked clear to the end of the row, down by the two public toilets, just happy to sit down and open the new Gloria Steinem memoir that I had just received as a gift. But as time passed and people kept trooping in and out of these facilities not three feet from where I sat, I decided to do my waiting elsewhere.

I spotted a small semi-enclosed area with a television. “TV!” I thought, and entered it to find it occupied by two very tall men.

The brow of the first man furrowed as he showed me his swollen hand. “I have to stay here all night attached to this IV,” he told me, indicating the apparatus he was connected to.

The lip of the second one twisted into a sneer the second he caught sight of my book.

“Gloria Steinem!” he snorted, his hand covering a gash on his chin. “She made all that stuff up, I hope you know.”

“MADE IT UP? Seriously?” I thought, but said lightly, “Oh, I don’t know about that.”

Just then a third man with long gray hair over his eyes arrived at the entrance to this area and stood for a moment beside the staff member who was escorting him.

“Jeez will you look at THIS guy!” yelped one of the tall men.

“Hey, SHAGGY!” cried the other. “Get a haircut!”

“Guys, guys!” I whispered. “He can hear you!”

“Who gives a crap?” the first man replied. 

The man took a chair and slumped over an arm of it, cradling one hand against his chest.

“Hey FOOL!” said the second of the two men, at which point the newcomer sat up and let loose a barrage of curse words seldom seen in a family newspaper.

The two tall men cursed him right back. The air grew thick with profanity.

“People!“ I finally pleaded. “Can’t we all just get through this?”

“Come on!” replied the sneering man. “This is FUN!”

And that’s when I realized: Here I was making judgments about what I thought I saw in these others, never imagining that they were very likely making judgments about what they thought they saw in me.

And what did they see? Some kind of book-clutching post-menopausal woman in running shoes, a backpack and an ancient fur coat.

They didn’t know I wore the coat because I had travelled 100 miles, by bus, on an eight-degree day to get to this ER. They didn’t see the holes under its arms, or know that it had once been fiercely peed upon by my cat Abe, right through the bars of his pet taxi. They only saw someone resembling those two Jacquie Onassis relatives from that ramshackle house in the Hamptons. Someone who thought she could teacher-boss everyone into behaving nicely.

So I guess none of us knew very much about anything or anyone in that big ER on that cold wintry night; but it seems pretty clear to me now that no one understood less than the preachy lady in the ratty fur coat.

A Great Thing It Is

gloria steinem at the keyboard

one of my writing heroes, Gloria

A great thing it is to be a writer. An even greater thing to be a writer who never made it to the big Leagues, and so has an undefinable ‘audience’ if she has an audience at all. (Is it the mom of this brace of babies in the twin stroller here? That late-night web surfer looking for news about Jeremy Bentham? The people who clicks through from my column in any given paper to see the blog post I wrote that day because that paper is nice enough to provide the link to it?)

Last week on this blog I had a piece about April Fools Day bookending things on the Monday and a picture of my mother in her casket bookending things on the Friday. Yesterday I posted Ten Tips for Using a Public Restroom and later this week I will post a piece, tearfully composed on the anniversary of his death, about my husband’s elderly uncle who became my own best friend. What I’m saying is I realize the tone changes a good bit from day to day and I hope that’s OK with people.

On the Writer’s Almanac last week I heard Garrison Keillor quote something Gloria Steinem said that I identify with entirely. She said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

I feel just that way about writing and also, I’ll admit, about any time at all that I have with young children and any time I spend reading things either by or about 19th century American writers. (Does anyone KNOW anymore how amazing Walt Whitman was? Walt Whitman who said “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches; give alms to everyone that asks; stand up for the stupid and the crazy, argue not concerning God; have patience and indulgence toward the people; go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and the mothers of families….”)

I just tell what I saw, heard, felt. I may sometimes amuse people and sometime anger people. Sometimes I may make them feel more than they wanted to feel and maybe sometimes I just make them yawn.

But every time I write I too feel, like Gloria, and probably like the great Walt Whitman, that there is nothing in this world else I would rather be doing.

This is What You Should Do Whitman

Richard Nixon in a Wig

My cousin thought that was a picture of my wet bottom on the plane – see here – but that could never be me, and not only because it’s practically impossible to take a picture of your own backside.

It couldn’t be my bottom because I would never wear shorts on a plane.

Why not? Because I’m older than faxing, that’s why.

I may even be older than office photocopying. Wait let me check…. YUP. WAY older than office photocopying!

And when you’re old in this way you wouldn’t dream of wearing shorts when you fly. Instead you sort of dress up, a little, even today.

In the old days when a lady flew, she wore not just a skirt and heels but often a hat – a hat! And little white gloves, natch.

I just came across a few photos of me in my senior year of high school on a trip my family and I took to Our Nation’s Capital, which is what we called it back then.

I’m wearing the get-up I flew down in – well minus the hat because now we were touring around, in our high heels and our skirts and it was like 90 degrees although it was only April.

My mom had on this shawl-collared coat in fake cashmere. My sister Nan looked like Grace Kelly. And I looked like Richard Nixon if he dressed up as a woman.

Also a little like Imogene Coca. Remember her?

The point is we made this big effort and we made it because that was the expectation placed upon women: that we’d smile, and be charming and stoke male egos in all places and at all times. I remember weakling down a street when I was just 17, homesick, far from my family, getting plumper by the minute on the Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding Dinners the college kept serving us, accompanied by buttery homemade rolls and followed by puddings and thick chocolate cakes. I was dawdling along the street minding my business when a guy around 35 passed and said to me in this really nasty voice, “SMILE for God’s sake!”

It was the “click” moment for me all right, when the personal became the political, just like our Gloria described 40 years ago.

God bless Gloria! God Bless the Women’s Movement I say! And, sisters, if someone asks if you’re a feminist you just tell them, “You can bet the farm on it BABE! ”

The Man is a Prince: He Does the Dog

The phrase ‘the second shift’ refers to that whole second workday most women put in after they get home from their real jobs. I read a recently that nowadays  men are doing just as much around the house as their wives.  I certainly hope this is true.

They sure weren’t when Arlie Hochschild spent eight straight years conducting the research for her book The Second Shift. Observing daily life in the homes of 50 working couples with children, she found that only 20% of American men shared the extra work of chores and childcare while women put in an average of 15 hours a week on those tasks,  which add up to an entire month of 24-hour days. 

You could resent the heck out of your spouse living this way, but what many women do is create a ‘story’  that allows them to keep resentment at bay. One woman named Nancy explained that her husband Evan ‘did’ the downstairs while she did  the upstairs – only in their house doing the upstairs meant doing all the work relating to the kitchen, living room, dining room, bedrooms and bathrooms, while Evan, for his part, handled the garage.

Oh, and the dog. He did the dog.

But this  way of framing things allowed Nancy to think of Evan as pulling his weight. When asked by Hochschild to reflect on this, Evan said, “We don’t keep count of who does what,” quickly adding, “Whoever gets home first starts the dinner,” a statement which did not in any way line up with what Hochschild saw as a frequent visitor.

This was just their ‘story’, the ‘family myth’ as she calls it that they had devised to cover up the imbalance. “The truth was, Nancy made the dinner.”

Other husbands in her survey had stories of their own. One said, with a perfectly straight face, that he made all the pies.

“But I was brought up to do housework,” explained poor Nancy, in charge of every room in the house. “Evan wasn’t.”

And there’s the crux of it right there. As Hochschild puts it, “the female culture has shifted more rapidly than the male culture, and the image of the go-get-‘em woman has yet to be matched by the image of the let’s-take-care-of-the-kids-together man.”  

Or as Gloria Steinem said a while ago to a standingroom-only crowd of fellow Smith College graduates, “The problem is that when I go around and speak on campuses, I still don’t get young men standing up and saying, “How can I combine career and family?”

The day will come though, I feel sure – provided we work hard on raising up strong  and fair- minded little girls  – AND  get them the heck away from all that appalling sex-kitten apparel they’re showing these days in the stores.

Tomorrow I won’t be so crotchety, I promise. 🙂

Now I Ask You

Don’t some people just look better with eye makeup? I didn’t know until I began doing a little television that when I laugh my eyes just disappear –  Poof and they’re gone, engulfed by the folds of skin around them. In fact, last time I want to the eye doctor she lifted up one of my impressively iguana-like upper lids and said “you know you can totally get your eyes done and insurance will pay for it.”  “Really? How’s that gonna happen?“ I asked. “Well pretty soon you won’t be able to see out from under a lid like this.” (A Lid Like This – nice title for a book –  about haberdashery maybe.)

But look to your left here. In the top picture: the Plain Jane of all Plain Janes: Gloria Steinem as she looked graduating from Smith College in 1956 . In the  bottom picture: Gloria as she looks today with those signature dreamy eyes. It wasn’t until I met her in November and was given this book of some of her public utterances that I realized: sometimes what God forgets to give you, you can get from a bottle – or in this case a eyeliner pencil. I took a lesson I can tell you. Click on the “Play” symbol and see:

Glorious Gloria

gloria & president christGloria Steinem has a button that says, “The Truth Will Set You Free (But First It Will Piss You Off)” which is funny because I can’t think of anyone who seems to be in less of a pissed-off state than this activist/ feminist/ lecturer/ author who spoke to a sold-out crowd of fellow Smith College alums last night at a gala celebration of her 75th birthday.

SHE’S 75?” I said to myself when, lean and limber, she strode onto the stage at The Asia Center on the New York’s Upper East Side. That thought came right before I moved on to the equally silly “Could I possibly look like that at 75? If I gave up meat AND dairy AND wheat AND possibly Thanksgiving dinner too?” But within five minutes of the time she entered into her conversation with Smith President Carol Christ I was asking myself if I could ever BE like her, be like any person who carries her gifts this lightly, and with so much humor and heart.

“Empathy is the most revolutionary of emotions” Gloria once wrote and she sure feels like a person who has lived into that insight. Not that she never gets angry. When someone asked her last night what makes her mad today, she quickly said, “The fact that women are still doing two jobs, one at work and one when they get home.” And then she shared her most recent insight: “I figured out the other day that what women have are the jobs that can’t be outsourced. I mean to be a nurse you have to actually BE there, right?” But when at the end someone asked her to name the moment that had perhaps given her the most satisfaction, she described the morning she was crossing Lexington Ave. to get a bagel and a city worker popped his head up out of a manhole. “Hey GLORIA!” he yelled. “‘See that sign ‘People working’? It took us FIFTEEN FUCKIN’ YEARS to get it! Today my daughter is an electrician and makes as much money as I do! How great is that?’”

Pretty great, jaunty man. Pretty great, you Gloria of ours. Thank God for your 75 years here and may you get your wish and still be with us at 100.

gloria steinem

Be My Friend? Look, Here’s My Allowance!

 Yesterday I seem to have invited everybody in my entire Contact list to be my ‘Friend on Facebook’ talk about embarrassing, since some of my contacts are famous people. Like Gloria Steinem. And Garrison Keillor I think maybe. And the POPE! and the Center for Wart Removal in Atlanta, and OK yes I’m making it up about the Pope and the Wart Lab but not the others. I HAVE these addresses but I never use them – or I use them only sparingly.

For example when I was younger, see photo, that’s me in the chair sobbing, no of course not, that’s me the mother, sorrowing over the first haircut… When I was younger my mom died at a party right in front of us all just as we were toasting her birthday, and this highly shocking event caused me in the 2 or 3 years following her death to do all kinds of odd things: Like wearing hats, I think to channel her old jauntiness. Like CRYING while giving speeches that were suppose to be light and funny, making the whole audience cry too, talk about your Typhoid Mary. And like writing letters to famous people.

I wrote to Ronald Reagan and sent him the column I did about him when I saw him in Concord NH. I wrote to the Prince of Wales after seeing him at the 350 birthday of Harvard. I remember sitting in the Yard looking up at all those ivy leaves declining like Latin nouns down the sides of the old buildings and thinking ‘Damn you Ten Thousand Men of Harvard, why did you keep my kind out for like 99 % of your history?’

I wrote to Garrison Keillor when I applied to be the first Journalist in Space. I had mentioned him in my application essay and have always kinda figured that’s why I got to the final 40 in that contest.

I even wrote to the great John Updike when I read a short story of his in the New Yorker that made it apparent his mum had died too. I sent him a condolence note and a copy of the column I wrote about Cal’s dramatic death – that was my mom’s name, ‘Cal’, as jaunty a name as she was a person, a cigarette held tight in her teeth as she took the corners on two-wheels to get us to that convent school she enrolled us in by mistake where she was in a fight with the nuns from DAY ONE.

And they all wrote back, these famous characters: Ronnie R. wrote right back. The future King of England did too or at least His Honor Lord High-Fanny of the Royal Equerry wrote on his behalf. And Garrison Keillor and John Updike sent actual postcards, John Updike’s saying a thing so nice about my writing it pulled me up out of obscurity like the wave of the Bibbity Bobbity Boo wand of Cinderella’s fairy godmother. In fact just last month he had another story in the New Yorker, this one so beautiful I was forced to write him again and what do you think? Another postcard came, as gracious as the first.

Now 15 years had passed between my first letter to him and my second, that’s how careful I am. And I wouldn’t DREAM of writing to the Pope even if I had his email address, and the same goes for Lord High-Fanny who gave me some serious attitude in his letter just because my column said Prince Charlie wore the academic hood of his alma mater whereas in fact he wears the robes of the University of Wales just because he like OWNS Wales or some insignificant thing like that.

Gloria Steinem though? Gloria’s address I was saving for a special occasion, like offering myself to come be the jester at the next Inter-Galactic Women’s Conference. And now – agony!- my girl has called her girl if you can call an Address Book a girl and I seem to have asked her to be my friend on Facebook! The Queen gets invited to the worker bee’s after school party, Aaargh I could die! But, on the other hand in the last 24 hours I’ve heard from people I haven’t seen in decade and have admired their pictures and have written on their walls so why be embarrassed? Because really we’re ALL members of the Class of ’08, right? So really, why NOT write in each other’s yearbooks?