Trying To Make It Real Compared To What: Stories From Higley Hill

At first my husband didn’t want to join me in Hartford to protest the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He’s a Democrat who always votes that way, but that’s about all he does. He votes. Even in the midterm elections, so I’ll give him that.

This protest directly effects his well-being. He’s had two DVTs (deep vein thrombosis). The last one occurred when we lived in Florida and was a huge clot that ran almost the entire length of his leg. He has Factor 5 Leiden, a genetic clotting disorder. A preexisting condition. A couple of days ago, at one-thirty in the morning, the Republicans voted against an amendment to keep the provision of the ACA that protects consumers from an insurance company charging more or even possibly denying coverage for a pre-existing condition. Rich also now has a prescription for a blood thinner that without ACA would cost $600 a month.

My husband’s misery was compounded by two herniated discs in his lower back. He ended up out of work for six weeks. With the loss of pay, deductibles, and co-pays, our credit card took a beating. We were on COBRA at the time. Two nights in the hospital on a blood thinner drip cost $17,000, that’s just for the bed and other sundries. The doctors’ bills were paid separately. There were also bills from the technician who reviewed the CAT scan and the blood tests. With our deductible we owed 10% of every bill. That’s $1700 for the room alone. You know the drill. Or maybe you don’t. That’s why I’m this sharing story. The issue of health insurance in America needs a human face.

Everything that makes man’s life worthwhile – family, work, education, a place to rear one’s children and a place to rest one’s head – all this depends on the decisions of government; all can be swept away by a government which does not heed the demands of its people, and I mean all of its people. ~ Robert F. Kennedy

Rich does not like to discuss politics. I am a fiery, opinionated, political junkie. I convinced him to join me by explaining his real life consequences if the Affordable Care Act were repealed without a reasonable, fair replacement. I also suggested we have a late lunch after the rally at Max Burger in West Hartford, a place we discovered when we worked in Connecticut as innkeepers. It was the olive branch of burgers, beers, and bloody Marys that won him over.

We chose Hartford because it is closer to our home in Southern Vermont than Burlington. And after all, I don’t need to send a message to my Vermont senators. Bernie Sanders is leading this charge and this is an American issue. As we approached the city listening to an old Les McCann tape I made thirty years ago I too wondered “what was wrong with the Godddamn nation”. The lyrics were hauntingly prescient. Rich said it was the theme song of the day. He was coming around.

We parked near the train station and walked to the Capital. I expected the entire Bushnell Park to be filled with people. It was a blue sky day, a Sunday afternoon, crisp but not too cold. I started to get angry. There are at least 20 million of us whose health insurance is on the line. Paul Ryan and the Republicans are talking vouchers and access to health insurance. That’s not much help with the monthly premiums that can run as high as $1200-$1500 a month. We have access to health insurance, we need affordability. Words matter, listen carefully when a politician is speaking.

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Where the hell was everyone, I wondered. Two older gentlemen and a woman were asking themselves the same question. “Well, we’re here anyway,” one man said. The other man agreed. “We’re doing something and that makes us feel better.” I asked two ladies with Justice for Women signs if they were going to the march in DC. They told me they couldn’t get out of work but  thanked me for representing them. We encouraged each other to keep up the good fight.

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One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the top of the hill a gathering of people was beginning to grow along the steps of the High Victorian Gothic style State House designed by Richard J. Upjohn. Made of marble from East Canaan, Connecticut, granite from Westerly, Rhode Island, and accented by a gold leaf dome, it is an impressive edifice. Connecticut was the first state to implement a consumer advocacy program to help patients with their insurance disputes. It became a model for the grant money the Affordable Care Act provides for healthcare advocacy programs across the nation.

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Later in the day, the Hartford Courant reported over a thousand people attended the rally. Rich forged a path through the crowd and helped me make my way to the steps of the Capital where I could take better photos. We were on the shady side of the building and I was working with my old IPhone 4. Before the speeches began the battery died after I took a short video of the crowd chanting “A-C-A, A-C-A”.

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Four Americans shared their healthcare stories. Jonathan Miller was born with cystic fibrosis. In a voice close to tears, he told us he would be bankrupt or dead without the ACA. “It’s not anyone’s decision to decide who does or doesn’t get healthcare,” he said.

I was reminded of a Facebook discussion I recently got embroiled in. One commenter thought he shouldn’t have to pay for obese people’s health insurance. “Why should otherwise healthy people who make healthy choices be asked to foot the bill for others who do not and most importantly do not care?” he asked. Cystic fibrosis also came up. Someone replied there are only 3,000 cases in the United States. I’m not sure about the point he was trying to make but I Googled this and discovered: “To have cystic fibrosis, a person must inherit two copies of the defective CF gene — one copy from each parent. Approximately 30,000 people in the United States have cystic fibrosis. An additional 10 million more — or about one in every 31 Americans — are carriers of the defective CF gene, but do not have the disease.” That’s the thing with the Internet. You need to be vigilant.

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Jonathan Miller has been in and out of the hospital all his life. He currently takes 15-20 meds a day. “Illness can happen to anyone,” he said. “If you want to work through the Affordable Care Act and dismantle this … I want you to hear this from the bottom of my scarred, diseased lung. You will not hurt families — you will ruin families. You will kill people,” Miller said. ” The consequences will be fatal.”

Another speaker, a former drug addict who was able to get the care and counseling he needed through the Affordable Care Act shared this, “A miracle is not walking on air or water, but on this earth.” He is now a college graduate with a good job and a desire to help others.

Isabelle Endicott shared her story of having excellent health insurance through her employer when she gave birth to her second child who was born with a congenital heart disease. Before his first birthday his medical bills had reached a quarter of a million dollars, 25 percent of his lifetime cap. In a panic, she called her insurance company and they told her because of the Affordable Care Act there is no longer a cap on lifetime medical bills. Since the election, she is now worried once again about her son’s future. “It is our faces and voices that will win this fight,” she told us.

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.” ~ William Faulkner

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I looked for my husband in the crowd. I was afraid he might have left and gone for a walk, protests not being his thing and all. I walked through the cheering crowd and eventually spotted him somewhere in the middle, clapping. My daughter and her boyfriend drove from Providence and were standing with him.

When the rally ended we drove to West Hartford and celebrated democracy with those promised burgers, bloodies, and beer. Overall, it was an excellent way to spend a day in the land of the free and the brave. Like one of the guys I met earlier, we felt better.

I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. ~ Pete Seeger

***Isabelle Endicott is right. If you can’t attend a protest or a rally, please call your representatives. JOIN ME. Share your stories with me and I will share them here on my blog.***

Happy Martin Luther King Day everyone. “One life can change the world.”

 

A Hard Day’s Night: Stories from Higley Hill

“I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.” ~ Woody Guthrie

Two days before the unpredictable, somewhat frightening new year began we stopped by a friend’s for an early New Year’s toast. The happy hours are held in his garage. It is a very large working garage, the size of a barn, where he repairs cars and trucks. There are rows of bins with nuts and bolts and hoses. Large books line a reference shelf, a library for the mechanic. The fridge is stocked with Coronas.

Tonight the guys had been plowing for almost twenty-four hours. Most of them work for themselves. If you’ve been self-employed, then you know you are responsible for finding your own health insurance in America. My husband and I have been there, done that, and are still there. One of the guys in the garage that night has a wife whose job provides health insurance. I’ve been that wife. For many years I did that after I gave up running my own bookkeeping business because the two of us couldn’t afford to be self-employed .

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~ Martin Luther King

There has been many a stormy winter’s night when I’ve heard the plows drive by. It’s a mundane scene. I am awakened by the beep beep back up sound or the plow scraping along the icy road. The blinking red or yellow lights flash across the bedroom wall. I snuggle under the covers, safe and warm, and think about the guys driving the trucks that pave the way to a safe morning commute for the rest of us.

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Over a couple of Coronas we heard a few of the stories of how dangerous this work can actually be. One of the guys plows the steep mountain roads and many a dirt road where there are few if any guardrails. He told us a story of the night he hit a patch of ice along a section of road that curved along a steep drop-off up on a mountain ridge, and he just had to ride it out, hoping for the best. One of the guys we were  with that night is still out plowing at the age of seventy-two. Another guy passed on the beers, he was heading out to work a second job, delivering pizzas now that the roads were clear. I didn’t ask why they did what they did — plowing late at night at the age of seventy-two or delivering pizzas after driving a plow all day. We weren’t discussing politics or personal economics. The Coronas had us thinking about tropical vacations and making plans to take a walking tour of the Amalfi coast. I am well aware of the fact we all do what we have to do in the land of plenty.

The winds howl here some nights. The snow blows like a blizzard across the freshly plowed streets and driveways. Sometimes the phone rings, an irate customer calls to complain about the driveway covered with new snow shortly after the plow guy finished his rounds and has just rested his head on his pillow at eight in the morning after a hard day’s night of plowing.

“At least I had frost on my nose, boots on my feet, and protest in my mouth.”
― Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

We had a lot of company visit during the holiday week. My nephew came to ski with some buddies of his. He is twenty-six, works as an independent landscaper, and is now off his parents’ health insurance plan. He has Affordable Healthcare.

On New Year’s Eve we went to a bonfire with some friends. Before we headed out into the snowy night we shared a dinner of fettucine alfredo with scallops and shrimp and discussed our concerns about losing our health insurance. Our friends are a self-employed stonemason and the director of a non-profit art school with only three employees on the payroll. The rest of the help are volunteers and the school doesn’t provide health insurance. My husband is a self-employed house painter and I am currently looking for work while writing from home.

The bonfire was down a tree-lined road covered with snow and was the picture of a Robert Frost poem. It was a beautiful night and the house was filled with like-minded people worried about the coming years. I am sure to some people it would be the stereotypical scene of a group of left wing, hippie Vermonters but we all shared very ordinary concerns. One woman was battling ovarian cancer, another worked as a nurse and doula and met lots of people with insurance concerns, and one other was a cancer survivor. Affordable healthcare frequently came up. So did our children’s college loans and heating bills in the winter months.

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Walk into that fire

A very old friend of ours showed up on New Year’s Day. He asked to borrow my laptop to file something for his Affordable Healthcare. He’s had some career ups and downs over the years including owning a restaurant that went under during the Great Recession. Since then he’s worked as a short order cook and an Uber driver. His ex-wife has a job with insurance but her employer only co-pays the insurance for the employee. The employee pays full price to cover a spouse and the kids, and in addition the company charges for each and every kid you have. It’s not a traditional family plan. I’d never heard of this before but my friend was adding his daughter onto his Affordable Healthcare plan. It was more affordable that way.

My daughter and her boyfriend were here for several days. She recently interviewed for a job where they didn’t offer health insurance. They hired everyone as sub-contractors working for commissions. They also didn’t pay for the first two weeks of training. I told her to forget about it. It didn’t sound like a good opportunity. It didn’t even sound legal.

Healthcare isn’t a right in America. If Americans are self-employed, work part-time, or work full-time by cobbling together more than one part-time job, or work for a small business or non-profit with under twenty employees, they have to buy their own health insurance.

“One day we’ll all find out that all of our songs was just little notes in a great big song.” ~Woody Guthrie

The next time you’re lying in bed one dark and stormy night and you hear the plow guy drive by, before you close your eyes and drift back off to sleep think about him and his family and how they might obtain their health insurance. The Republican Congress has had eight years to come up with an alternative. They say they will repeal and replace but none of us has seen or heard any details regarding the replacement. There are 20 million Americans whose health insurance is on the line. I met several of them this past week and I know many more. If you don’t understand the implications and the seriousness of this issue, you need to get out and meet your fellow working Americans.

I hear from a lot of people who tell me they no longer watch the news. They can’t pay attention to politics. They can’t get all worked up. It’s stressful. The election took too much out of them. Some even say they’re exhausted. Exhausted? Took too much out of you? What about the young men and women who gave their lives to fight our wars? What about the veterans who served our country in ways far more difficult and demanding than the average American who watched the election of 2016 unfold on their TV screens? The veterans who returned home with PTSD, missing limbs, and other difficult problems?

When I was working at the Inn last year I attended a concert that raised money for homeless vets. Wrap your head around that idea. How can someone who makes the ultimate sacrifice to fight our country’s wars return home to find themselves homeless?  Then tell me how much this election took out of you.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” ~ Martin Luther King

Yesterday We the People scored our first victory. The new incoming Congress wanted to gut the Ethics committee. They held a late night, closed door meeting and agreed to bring it to the floor as their first order of business. The media woke up and finally did their job. They reported the news and social media lit up. The phone calls and emails to representatives began. The Congress was bombarded with protests from constituents. Hours later Trump sent a tweet saying the Ethics Committee was unfair but now was not the time to address it. The Congress shelved the bill.  Don’t let Trump fool you.  He didn’t win this battle. We did that. We the People.

#bebrave #speakup #nowmorethanever   JOIN ME. Share the blogs, comment below, and share your stories.

A New Year’s Revolution: Stories from Higley Hill

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New Year’s Eve 2017.Goodbye 2016. Marlboro, VT

Speaking of the happy new year, I wonder if any year ever had less chance of being happy. It’s as though the whole race were indulging in a kind of species introversion — as though we looked inward on our neuroses. And the thing we see isn’t very pretty… So we go into this happy new year, knowing that our species has learned nothing, as a race, — that the experience of ten thousand years has made no impression on the instincts of the million years that preceded. ~ John Steinbeck’s letter written on January 1, 1941 to Pascal Covici

If any great author inspired me to write, it was John Steinbeck. I discovered him in high school when I read Of Mice and Men. By the time I graduated I had read all his books. The powerful ending of The Grapes of Wrath has stayed with me to this day. After all the struggle and sorrow the story told, it was that simple powerful image of a woman offering her breast to a starving man that I would never forget. This was the power of great literature.

E.B White once wrote “a writer should lift people up, not lower them down”.

During the last days of the awful year of 2016, I went back through my blogs looking for typos, editing repetition, and correcting run-on sentences. I don’t want to change anything major. I am intent on keeping the spirit of my early attempts at learning to write in public.

Here in the Green Mountains the last days of the year were snowy and cold. Epic icicles hung from the roof, but I was back in sunny Florida reading about those first days and months when we lived in the tropics. It has been interesting to look back at the things I was writing in 2013. Public libraries and the loss of public beaches along the Gold Coast shoreline caught my attention.  Unbeknownst to me, and most of the world, I had my finger on the national zeitgeist. From the very first days when I started blogging back in 2013 I was drawn to the stories of everyday Americans like myself. I was repulsed by the opulent wealth and income inequality I saw all around me in South Florida. The anger and frustration of Election 2016 that came as a big surprise to so many came as no surprise to me.

My favorite pieces to write are not the stories about myself but the stories of average Americans I meet as I go about my everyday life. I like to keep my eyes wide open. I pay attention and I think empathy is a quality we all need to work on. The stories I’m attracted to are slice of life stories of everyday struggles, nothing unusual or heroic. I am not one of those confessional bloggers who talks about my personal struggles. I don’t find myself that interesting or insightful. What I’m trying to do is place myself in the spirit and mood of the times I live in. My generation, my particular time in history. Of course, the stories are told through my eyes and my personal perspective but what I discover is that most people I meet share the same problems I struggle with. I try to present the facts but often my opinion slips in. Just the act of choosing the stories I share is a political act but as I repeated quite often in the Florida blogs, politics have real life consequences.

Although some of the stories are about Me I prefer to write from the perspective of We. Some bloggers are very comfortable with confessional stories about their struggles with marriage, mothering, self-actualization, and living in the present. There are a lot of writers writing about sobriety right now. Although I have frequently written about living in the present, I prefer the perspective of We, as in We The People.

“Hard times are coming…we will need writers who remember freedom” ~ Ursula Le Guin

Steinbeck described his drive to write as a desire to make people understand each other.

“There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused…..At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?”

Despair is not an option. Hiding and going back in your hole is not an option. Not for me anyway. However small my voice may be, I have a voice. And so do you, dear reader. If you hear a story that moves you, please send me a note and I’ll share it in a blog. Names can remain anonymous, or if you’d like a shout out I’ll gladly credit you as my source. It could be a story about your cousin or someone you overheard in a supermarket check-out line. It could be your own story.

However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows… We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human. ~ Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times

These are the stories I’ll be writing in the new year. I have a voice. Although it may be rather small, I intend to use it. I also plan to help out at a local food pantry and find other ways to help the people who will surely be hurting in the days ahead. I will share those stories too, beginning with the Women’s March  in Washington, DC on January 21st. If you can’t join us check for local marches in your area.

I am working on the premise that entertainment – writing, movies, books, or music – can provide empathy and understanding, something we desperately need in these very divisive times we live in. If you like some of the blogs I write please share them. Real news will be a rare commodity in the coming year. We have a president who is going to tweet his own version of the story. So join me by volunteering, doing whatever you can, and helping spread the word.

Thanks for all your support over the last few years. Together we can change things for the better. Now is our time. Together we are writing history.

#bebrave #speakup #nowmorethanever.  JOIN ME.

“When things go wrong, don’t go with them.” ― Elvis Presley

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A Present From My Dad: Stories From Higley Hill

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My Dad’s Christmas gifts arrived two days after the holiday. He had obviously recycled the manila envelope they came in. My address was written on a yellow Post-it note taped over the previous address.

My eighty-four year old father is concerned by the fact I receive my mail at a post office box. He’s never lived in a rural area and every time he sends me something he asks, “So you still have that post office box?” Then he calls back, “What’s the number again?”  This time he also wrote the box number along the right hand margin. At the top he wrote FRAGILE in capital letters.

Inside were gifts for my daughters, too. We all received a red envelope with our names on it. Two small packages were wrapped in Christmas paper. There was also an unwrapped whistle and a hand-written note.

Dear Sheila,

The package contains the Christmas money in checks and a little gift (not meant to be funny but probably will be) for you and your two girls. Years ago British bobbies did not carry guns, just a billy club and a whistle for protection. Remember I gave my 3 girls pepper spray some time ago (probably  they don’t know what happened to it). It’s a dangerous world we live in. You always need to be alert and prepared.

Merry Christmas Happy New Year ~ Dad

P.S. The checks are inside the Christmas cards.

It was four o’clock when I left the post office. I decided to call while I was still driving through town and had phone service. Whenever he sends a check he worries about its whereabouts and will call a day or two later, and keep calling, until the money arrives safely. He spent his life teaching U.S. History and although during summer vacations he delivered mail, he no longer trusts the U.S. postal service. When my mother was alive she made him deliver the checks in person. This presented a problem when I lived in Florida.

My Dad no longer trusts anyone and with good reason. He is still not back in his condo. It’s been ten months since the fire. The entire affair has been a story of gross negligence, incompetence, insurance stonewalling, and local corruption. Over the past ten months my father has moved three times, lost my mother, and been diagnosed with bladder cancer. I have been in touch with a reporter at a local news station but my father keeps wavering over whether I should  or should not blow this story up. Last night when I called he was in rare form.

He started with an update on the status of the condo’s renovation. A fire inspector had come by and claimed the firewall had been installed improperly so the new sheetrock had to be torn down. Months ago my Dad had received a promised move-in date of January 10th. It looks like that isn’t going to happen.

“I told you I’d go to the news reporter again,” I said.

“Aaagh. I know, and we should, but I told Father Gagnon this is killing me and I’ll soon be joining your mother. I’m too old for this battle.”

“I told you I would handle it, Dad.”

He wasn’t listening. Instead, he was off and running. He moved on to politics. He’s a difficult man; impulsive, opinionated, critical. He is also the man who taught me about democracy and the constitution. If you want to know where a lot of my political opinions come from you need look no further than my Dad.

He started with Trump and went on from there. Not wanting to lose the connection, I pulled into the Valley Market where skiers with New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut license plates filled the parking lot. The sun had set, the night was dark. I sat and listened.

They’re killing the New Deal, you know. That Ryan wants to take away Medicare. They killed the unions years ago. It’s all about the rich. That Trump is an arrogant idiot. The Republicans stole that last Supreme Court justice, you know.  And those Catholic judges. It’s all about abortion with them. It’s none of their business. That’s between a woman, her doctor, and God. And these cabinet appointments!

He obviously had the evening news on in the background because he interrupted the monologue to give me some breaking news. Ah geez, Carrie Fisher died. You remember who her parents were?

“Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. But then he left her for Elizabeth Taylor,” I replied.

“Aaah, that bombshell.” Then he was back to the condo fiasco followed by more crazy news of people disrupting shopping malls across the country on the day after Christmas.

“See, I know you might think the whistle is a crazy gift to give someone but it is a dangerous world, and only getting worse. I bet you don’t remember that pepper spray I gave you years ago.”

“No, I do. I remember it. It’s a sweet thought, Dad. It is a dangerous world.”

“I bought them in an Army/Navy store somewhere. Can’t remember now where it was. I don’t think you can buy it anymore. They say you shouldn’t spray it in someone’s eyes but that is exactly where you should spray it. It doesn’t blind you, it washes out but that’s what you need to do to disable the guy.”

It was hard to end the conversation so I listened as he went back to politics and the threat of fake news, Fox, Sean Hannity and that pompous ass Bill O’Reilly. It’s not like I didn’t agree with every thing he said and I knew he was lonely in the tiny AirBnB rental he’s been staying in since the insurance money for temporary housing ran out after six months. When we finally said goodnight, I drove back up the hill, poured myself a Jameson, and turned on the news. I saw the tributes to Carrie Fisher and the throngs of people running panicked in shopping malls from Texas to New York. I shut the TV off.

I thought about the places my Dad took me when I was a kid. The Lincoln Memorial, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Dearborn Village, Appomattox, and Valley Forge. I thought about the future of democracy and I thought about my Dad, a man who received the GI bill to pay for his college education, who had a strong teachers’ union throughout his career, helped put his kids through college, retired with a pension. He’s watched it all slip away, get torn apart. He’s watched the rich get richer, and the middle class shrink. He’s also watched the folly of a misinformed public let the fox into the hen house.

Twice a year, he sends my siblings and I a check on Christmas and the Fourth of July. It’s not a large check but always arrives when it’s most needed and certainly helps. Tonight he admitted to me, “Sometimes I wouldn’t tell your mother I was sending the money. She grew up poor and you know she was in that orphanage for awhile. She was always worried about money. I’d tell her we were fine, we did good. Even if I died first she’d be okay. She never believed me. She was worried about being a bag lady. I don’t know what the world’s come to anymore. I’m getting tired. I’m too old for this fight.”

Sadness overcame me. A sadness for my Dad, for ideals like democracy and the Bill of Rights that he tried to teach, back when Civics was a subject still taught in public high schools, and for my daughters, his grandchildren, and the future they will live in. I’m turning sixty in 2017 and I’m tired too but I’m not too old to keep fighting. I should have told my Dad, “It’s okay. I’ll carry on. You can count on it.”

So much in life is fragile, even the gift of a whistle in a manila envelope that carries a wish for safe passage in a dangerous, fragile world.

 

 

JOIN ME. If you are reading this and you are a writer or a concerned citizen, I have a few ideas about what we can do in the days ahead. Please contact me at my email to the right of my blog page or comment below and I’ll be in touch. We can do more than whistle in the dark. #bebrave #speakup #nowmorethanever

 

 

 

 

Walking ~ Days 94-97 In Search of the Intracoastal Among Other Things

A Florida Flashback from three years ago. I now understand why i supported Bernie, reluctantly voted for Hillary, and was not surprised by Trump. I’ve been out there observing it for years. Where were the mainstream media and the politicians? As a new year dawns, I will be writing by the words of Ursula Le Guin – “Hard times are coming…..We’ll need writers who can remember freedom.” #bebrave #speakup #nowmorethanever

Sheila Blanchette

Time got away from me. My daughter was here for a week. I was entertaining her, catching up, having fun. I got a second temp job which I thought was going to be one day a week but the guy hadn’t entered anything in Quickbooks for a year, so I worked two days and we’re still not caught up. Everything needed to be entered; checks paid, deposits made, credit card statements to expense. All sorts of fun stuff. We were reinventing the wheel. I was bleary eyed by the end of the day and couldn’t sit down to write.

Other things were happening. We backed out of the offer we made on the house. The appraisal came in lower than our offer. We did some investigating. The neighborhood was lovely but it was a small little pocket in an area that was going nowhere. That happens a lot here in…

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A Night In The ER: Stories From Higley Hill

It was a chilly night in November 2008. My oldest daughter and I were in Albany, New York visiting Sienna College. She was a junior in high school, the MVP of her lacrosse team, and Sienna was a D-1 school. Fast as grease lightening and tough as nails, she and her best friend also broke the gender barrier at Exeter High School when they earned a spot as the first two females on the boys wrestling team.

In the afternoon, we took a tour of the campus. She was hesitant about the Franciscan brothers wearing long rope belted brown robes and Jesus sandals. At the entrance to every dormitory was a cross that made her feel uncomfortable. She wasn’t raised with religion although we attended a Unitarian church for a short time. I was raised Catholic so I told her what I knew about St. Francis of Assisi, his vow of poverty and his love for all God’s creatures. At the reception in the cafeteria I dragged her over to one of the Friars and asked what percentage of the students were Catholic and how prevalent was the religious life on campus. He reassured us the college welcomed everyone and no one was required to attend mass.

We left the campus, checked into a Fairfield Inn, then drove to a cozy neighborhood restaurant. She had been complaining of a headache since the cafeteria reception. I told her it had been a long day, she probably needed something to eat. I convinced her to order some soup but she barely touched it. On the drive back to the hotel she curled up into a ball and started crying. When I say this was very unlike her, I truly mean it. I started getting scared.

Several months earlier she’d had a sharp pain in her calf. It wouldn’t go away. She called me at work complaining it was getting worse and nothing she did would relieve the pain. I called her pediatrician, Dr. Loh, the most wonderful doctor I’ve ever met. He was there when both my children were born and to this day they both wish he was still their doctor. I called her back and told her she had an appointment in a half hour. “Can you drive yourself there?” I asked. She said she could. Two hours later I got the word Dr. Loh had sent her over to the hospital for a CAT Scan and she had a DVT in her calf. He later did some testing and discovered she had Factor 5 Leiden, a genetic blood disorder that causes clotting. We soon learned my husband and several other family members, including my younger daughter, also have Factor 5 Leiden. It is what the insurance industry calls a preexisting condition.

This all unfolded after I was laid off from an accounting job I had with a developer whose office was five minutes from my house. I worked four days a week and had health insurance but then they sold the pool company they also owned, the company that provided my insurance, and they laid me off. I spent fourteen months on unemployment but rarely collected the checks because I kept busy with Accountemps. Temp jobs don’t offer benefits and my Cobra payments were $1250 a month. I had to use the small 401K I had to make the payments and this cost me a huge tax hit, too.

Two weeks before Lehman Brothers filed bankruptcy I scored an accounting job in a cubicle forty-five minutes from home. The benefits plan wouldn’t kick in for three months. By October, the 401k was depleted and my Cobra insurance had run out. I’d never been without insurance but I thought we could survive two months.

So now it was November and I was in Albany with my daughter curled up in a ball in the passenger seat beside me. I asked her to describe how bad the pain was. “Bad,” she said.

“Really bad? Like maybe we should go to the hospital?” I felt like the bad mother worrying about a trip to the ER without insurance.

“I don’t think we need to go to the hospital. I just need aspirin.” The thought of a blood clot or an aneurysm outweighed the financial concerns. I pulled into an all night convenience store parking lot, bought a bottle of water and some Tylenol and asked the Arab man behind the counter where the nearest hospital was. He tried to give me directions but his English wasn’t very good. He finally said, “Just take a right at the light. You see those blue signs with letter ‘haych’. You keep following. You get there.”

“Is it a good hospital?” I asked.

“Best,” and he added, very clearly, “Albany Medical Center.”

Back in the car, I gave her the aspirin and the bottle of water. She took it but then moaned, “I think we should go to the hospital.”

I followed the instructions the guy at the convenience store gave me, my hands gripping the steering wheel, my legs shaking, and found my way to the emergency room. When we checked in they asked for my insurance. I still had the card in my wallet so I handed it to the woman at the desk. I waited nervously as she typed the info, afraid of being rejected, but she finally looked up and told us to take a seat, someone would be with us shortly. I knew I’d have to deal with the bills another day but we were in the door.

A half hour later they moved us to a room. A doctor put my daughter on an IV to hydrate her. I explained the Factor 5 Leiden situation. He said they were ordering a CAT scan but it might be awhile. Saturday nights are very busy in the ER. She fell asleep and I sat in a hard plastic chair straining my neck to watch the eleven o’clock news on the small TV hanging from the ceiling.

The doctor was certainly right about Saturday nights. At eleven o’clock all hell broke loose. I heard a commotion out in the hall so I stood in the doorway and watched as a very loud, angry black woman wearing a fur coat and a Russian cossack style fur hat was escorted to a room. She was swearing and screaming, “Don’t you touch me there.” Two male nurses joined the fray and they finally got her settled in a room down the hall. My daughter moaned and I rushed back to her side. She was thirsty so I filled a cup with water from a pitcher. She took a sip then fell back to sleep. I stroked her hair for awhile.

Another commotion arose in the hall. This time two EMT’s and two nurses were rolling a young white man on a stretcher into the room across from me. The four of them got ready to lift the man from the stretcher to the hospital bed. One of the EMT’s shouted, “On the count of three. Gunshot wound is on the left. Ok, one, two, three…lift.” The wounded man moaned. I overheard someone in the hallway say, “Drug deal gone bad.” I stepped out to go to the ladies’ room, passing the room where the woman who arrived earlier was sitting on an examining table, still wearing her hat and fur coat. She was being questioned by two men, one a cop. Someone had taped paper signs to the door and the glass walls. “Keep out. Contamination.”

I walked faster, past a father with his young son whose face was bright red. “He pitched a fever about an hour ago.” The dad spoke with an Hispanic accent. “Last I checked it was 105.” We were all here tonight in the Albany ER. Black, white, Hispanic. Poor, struggling middle class, law-abiding,  and law-breaking Americans. I picked up the pace. The last thing I needed was to pitch a fever of my own.

An aide finally arrived to take my daughter down to the basement where they do the CAT scans. I got on the elevator with them and held her hand, waited outside while they did the procedure, and then we returned to the ER room. It was cold and the nurse brought two blankets, one for me, but it was hard to get comfortable in the plastic chair. An hour later, a doctor arrived and told me the CAT scan looked fine. I asked him if maybe I had overreacted. He said, “If it were my daughter, with the factor 5 situation? I would have done the same thing.”

We got back to the hotel room at three in the morning. There were two double beds in the room but I crawled into her bed, wrapped my arm around her waist and fell asleep.

I’ve experienced American healthcare in all its glory and infamy. I’ve had self-employed insurance and work insurance and for two months of my life no insurance. I’ve had high deductibles and in 1992 discovered my insurance didn’t cover pregnancy. When my second daughter was born two and a half years after her sister I was still paying the bills for my first delivery. We had better insurance by then so thankfully the second pregnancy was covered. My husband has a prescription for a blood thinner that without insurance and the help of a kind Walmart pharmacist would cost $650 a month.

My husband and I recently started watching Breaking Bad. I don’t know how we lived in America for so long without having seen the show. I’d heard so much about it but it was always described to me as a show about a chemistry teacher who starts making crystal meth. During the very first episode, I turned to my husband and said, “This show is about health insurance in America.”

I am not sure if the writers of Breaking Bad succeeded in eliciting empathy from the American public regarding the issue of health insurance, so I don’t know why I even try except for the fact I don’t know what else to do as we careen towards January 20th. What happened to me and my family in Albany can happen to almost anyone on any given day in America.

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are itching to gut Medicare. During the campaign, Trump promised to overturn the Affordable Healthcare Act. If he succeeds, roughly 20 million people stand to lose their health insurance.

A month after that night in Albany, the $3700 bill for the four hours in the ER had arrived, and my health insurance finally kicked in. I already knew I hated the job in the cubicle but I ended up spending four years there sitting for healthcare. The start date for my insurance was December 25th and I put the individual cards in everyone’s stocking that Christmas.

H.L. Mencken may have been right when he wrote, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Unfortunately even those of us who didn’t want this will have to share in the misery of breaking bad.

***Please share your American healthcare stories in the comments below and let your representatives know if you have concerns about repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act. I am only one small voice but together we are stronger and louder.***

#bebrave #speakup #stayinformed

Waste Management: Stories From Higley Hill

Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each new thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

We’ve been dealing in waste management lately. My husband and I work together on Mondays. It’s not easy, he and I working together. We have more in common than not but when it comes to work habits we live on different planets. I am a bookkeeper by trade, a “numbers person”. I like to get things done in an orderly fashion. Debits equal credits. Everything balances. No gray areas, no wasting time. Let’s get in, get it done, and get out.

He is easily distracted. He grew up in an era when no one even knew what ADD was. I still have issues about whether it’s a real problem or it’s an excuse for people who have bad habits. I apologize in advance if you happen to take this the wrong way, but honestly I can’t tell you how many times I have told my husband to just pay attention and get his shit together.

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One of the elderly gentlemen who work as crossing guards in Brattleboro, VT

The world is on edge. Maybe not the entire world. A few people seem to be happy with the outcome of the election. Putin is one of them. Others have moved on. They are out there posting happy pictures of perfect lives to share with us, as if nothing happened and everyday life will go on as usual. Really? Haven’t they been paying attention to Trump’s cabinet appointments?

I post pictures on social media, too. I have books to sell. I am struggling with how I present myself in a time when I believe not just artists but all of us need to speak up. An author friend of mine posted a comment on a piece I shared about a McCarthyesque questionnaire targeting the climate change opinions of workers at the Energy Department. A few brave employees leaked the survey to the New York Times.  In her comment, my friend said she was finding it hard to be brave. When she recently refuted a right-wing Facebook claim, she was blasted to the point that she was worried for her safety (someone looked her up and mentioned her husband by name). She also admitted she was selfishly concerned that these people would then go to her Amazon page and trash her novel. “The first concern is ok,” she said. “The second makes me rather ashamed of myself, but at least I will admit that I felt that way.”

I reassured her I have those same thoughts every time I post or write something. Am I annoying people? Am I turning them off from buying my books? But there’s a fiery, rebellious side of me that says if they can’t be open-minded they aren’t the audience I’m looking for. If you’re pleasing everyone, you’re doing something wrong. Despite my bravura, anytime I get a nasty, aggressive response my heart beats faster and my hands shake. But if we allow ourselves to be bullied, what happens next? That’s what I ask myself and then I try to be brave. It’s awful it’s come to this, the fact that freedom of speech – civil discourse – requires bravery. But then again, I believe it always has.

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ARIA Event at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in Cranston, RI

I was in Rhode Island to attend two book events during the first week of December. The first was a fundraiser for World Aids Day at Barnes & Noble in Warwick. The purpose seemed more important than ever and I dedicated the day to my cousin, Andy Morrisroe, who we lost to this awful epidemic. As Donald Trump’s potential cabinet nominees file through Trump Tower and make the headlines, I am reminded of this on a daily basis.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services has a trillion dollar budget and oversees Medicare and Medicaid, the Affordable Health Care Act, the Centers for Disease Control, and regulations over the nation’s food and drugs. Tom Price, a Republican congressman from Georgia, has been nominated for the job. He is regarded as the leading voice against the Affordable Healthcare Act. He is also staunchly pro-life, opposes funding for groups like Planned Parenthood, is against the healthcare mandate that insurance provide birth control, and is opposed to same-sex marriage.

I sat at a table with two other Rhode Island writers and we became fast friends. I also met Oz and Jay. Jay rides a van for 211RI.org  that through the United Way provides services to homeless shelters, needy families, addiction counselors, senior services, elder abuse, and so much more. He has been politically active since the 60’s. In his day job as a benefits counselor he helps people applying for Medicare and Medicaid. On some days he calls himself a wise, sage elder and other days a cranky old guy. Oz was using Jay’s van that day to provide Free Fast Anonymous HIV Tests. In the coming days, we are going to need more heroes like Jay and Oz to help make the world a better place.

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Oz and Jay helping out on World Aids Day at Barnes & Noble in Warwick, RI

But let’s get back to waste management. In September, my husband met a property management guy while playing golf. This guy was a friend of a friend and needed someone to check ski condos on a weekly basis. Things like making sure windows aren’t left open, a toilet or a skylight isn’t leaking, the heat is set at fifty so the pipes don’t freeze. If smoke detector batteries are beeping, Rich replaces them. It also includes stocking the woodpiles and picking up the trash.

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The view from a ski condo at Mount Snow, Vermont

A lot of units were occupied over Columbus Day weekend, but other than that it was pretty quiet and the owner of the management company started sending a lot of work Rich’s way; a bathroom remodel, painting an entire condo, renovating a family room that was flooded from a burst pipe, and in one condo setting up wall mounts for flat screen TVs in all the rooms. (Shouldn’t families getting away for the weekend play Scrabble instead of heading to their separate quarters to watch TV? Or am I revealing my age?). The checks were getting in the way of other work better suited to Rich’s expertise, so I  started helping for a couple of months while the manager looked for someone else to do the checks. We’d drive around the neighborhood lined with duplexes, hop out of the truck, and Rich would inspect the A unit while I did the B unit.

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A short order cook at the No Name Saloon in Park City, Utah

Monday was our last day. It had snowed on Friday so a lot of people came up for the weekend. They created an enormous amount of trash. The bags were packed full, including bottles that weren’t separated for recycling. They were heavy and hard to remove from the trashcans. Sometimes a last minute pizza or beef stew or open take-out container was tossed on top of the tied up trash bags. It was a mess. My hands smelled like spaghetti sauce and lo-mein. One condo had six full bags. In three days these people filled six large black bags with trash! Another unit had water bottles in a recycling bucket, most of them almost full, like someone just took a sip or two then tossed the bottle. Another family brought trash from home -an old stereo system, a box of cassette tapes, and about fifty old magazines in a bag that weighed a ton. It got me thinking about the environment, the careless waste, and how thoughtless some people can be regarding the people who do their dirty work. We’re a disposable society and we have little regard for people who do the necessary jobs that pay little and often lack dignity. When people talk about the minimum wage (full disclosure here, we were making a lot more than minimum wage) they say these low income workers should have got an education, they should have gone to college or acquired better skills. But then who mows your lawn, picks up your trash, plows your driveway?

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Getting ready to plow at a lumber yard in Wilmington, VT

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my lifetime from crunching numbers to running the brake on a roller coaster at Rocky Point Amusement Park  but I’ll admit Rich and I were both pretty cranky at the end of the day. We got a late start because of an overnight snowstorm. It was 3:30 in the afternoon by the time we emptied the truck bed of trash and tossed it all in the dumpster. “Boozy late lunch?” he asked when we climbed back in the truck.

I didn’t hesitate. “Yes.” So we drove to The Saloon in West Dover where we got a reuben and the special of the day, a personal mini-pitcher of any beer on tap for five dollars. The place was crowded with skiers just off the mountain and locals who like those individual pitchers. Some of them didn’t even use a beer mug, they just drank straight out of the pitcher.

 

“Well, that wasn’t all that bad,” Rich said. “Helping out when they needed it earned me some goodwill and now I’ve got a lot of good work coming out of it.”

“Another one for the resume,” I laughed. We started bouncing back and forth names for our job title. Garbage Man? Waste Manager? Sanitation Engineer? Yes! That sounds right.

“It’s not like we haven’t done it before,” I said. “Remember those rooms at the Inn? The bridal parties who left cases of empty beer bottles and dirty champagne glasses? Cleaning the whirlpool tubs and the toilets? The laundry?

“Ugh, a thankless job.” I knew he was thinking about the owners of the inn, not the majority of guests we met. I didn’t go there because we can get off on that subject for quite some time. Instead I nodded my head but it got me thinking how maybe everyone should once in awhile spend a day walking in someone else’s shoes. Maybe then people would have more of something that is sorely lacking these days. Empathy. Maybe if more people knew what someone’s else’s work was like they’d be more sympathetic to an increase in the minimum wage. Spend a day behind a fast food counter slinging burgers, tend bar, plow driveways, pick up trash. Maybe they’d recycle their bottles and think about how much trash they make in a weekend.

Maybe.

The Secretary of Labor enforces and proposes laws involving unions and the workplace, including safety conditions, hours and wages, and unemployment benefits. Trump’s nominee for the job is Andrew Puzder, the CEO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardees fast food chains. He was also an advisor and contributor to Trump’s campaign. He has argued against raising the minimum wage over $9 an hour and opposes an Obama administration rule that would expand access to overtime pay. 

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A late night cubicle dweller. Friday night in Providence, RI

“Great Spirit – Maker of Men – Forbid that I judge any man until I have walked for two moons in his moccasins.” ~ Indian Prayer

In 1980, researchers found someone in the top 1 percent earned on average the equivalent of $428,200 a year in 2014 dollars — about 27 times more than the typical person in the bottom half, whose annual income equaled $16,000. By 2014, the average income of half of American adults had barely budged, remaining around $16,000, while members of the top 1 percent brought home, on average, $1,304,800 or 81 times as much.

That ratio, the authors point out,  “is similar to the gap between the average income in the United States and the average income in the world’s poorest countries, the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Burundi.” ~ The New York Times