I Really Hate the Medical Profession! ( Part 1, Probably)

There is a reason for those two snakes on the caduceus!

A few weeks ago, I endured what is euphemistically termed a sleep study.  I haven’t the slightest notion under the frigging flaming sun as to why it would be called that, since the whole convoluted process would be more correctly titled a sleep deprivation study.  There’s no way in Dante’s Hell that any normal human being could sleep under those contrived circumstances, and certainly not someone like myself, afflicted with mild claustrophobia.  Sci-Fi androids probably have fewer wires than those that were slapped on me that night: a giant metal surge protector slung about my neck connecting hundreds of tiny twisted cables; nasal cannula jammed up and drying out my nose; sticky electrodes lining my body from my scalp right down to my calves.  And all of this in a stuffy windowless box of a room.  Sleep? Who could sleep?!

Even more hilarious were some of the questions on the paperwork I had to complete prior to the study.  Do I snore?  How the devil would I know?  I live alone.  My cats haven’t complained.  What did I weigh in high school?  Are you kidding me?  I’m 68 years old.  I sometimes can’t remember if I ate breakfast today, and they’re asking what I weighed in high school?  A lot less than I do today, was my somewhat-acerbic answer.

Despite this absurdity, the medical powers-that-be somehow determined that I suffer mild sleep apnea.  A CPAP machine was recommended.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, because I wasn’t really thrilled with the whole idea), in keeping with everything else  that is unobtainable/scarce/in shortage during the Covid era, CPAP machines are globally unavailable for six to nine months, as I was informed by a phone call from the medical provider’s office.  Having told me this, this same provider’s office then scheduled a follow-up appointment just three months down the road.  Excuse me?  If I’m not receiving any treatment for this condition (of which I remain unconvinced, anyway, considering the bogus environment of the test), why would I fork over yet another $176 fee to learn…what?  Nothing?  Sorry, doc, I don’t feel called upon to contribute to your next Caribbean vacation cruise.

All of this madness was, I should probably explain, in service of determining the cause of a worrisome heart arrhythmia.  So that night of sleep deprivation was followed by yet more ineptitude with a stress test.  (“Can you walk?” the cardiologist asked me, and I answered in the affirmative.  I enjoy walking.)  Unfortunately, she asked the wrong question.  She should have said, “Can you jog?  Sprint?  Run?”  Nope, and, suffering asthma, I’ve not been able to do so for perhaps 35 years or more.

The tech inserting the IV in my arm helpfully wrote “ASTHMA” in big warning letters across my paperwork before I was handed over to two techs who had, quite obviously, never encountered an asthma patient in their very young lives.  I suggested using my rescue inhaler first, and was voted down.  Bad move.  I always use my inhaler prior to exercising.  So, tucking the inhaler into my clothing where I could reach it easily, I hopped up onto a treadmill set to what they described as a “brisk walk”, with no warm up preceding the rush of movement.  Uh…  What they termed a brisk walk, I called at least a trot.  Not a good idea, without a warm-up, for most older people–joints, you know; for an asthmatic, a very, very, VERY bad idea.  Within three minutes, I was suffering a full-blown asthma attack and (since they refused to pause the machine to allow me to use my inhaler) the whole test had to be scuttled.  Three hits of my inhaler later, they proclaimed, “You’re having an exaggerated blood pressure response”.  Uh, a colossal asthma attack and three blasts of albuterol—ya think?

One week later, while speaking with the physician’s assistant who had received my test results, she complained that I’d been unable to exercise long enough to get accurate readings.  “I had an asthma attack,” I protested, and she was surprised.  That fact hadn’t been mentioned in my results.

Finally, reading the conclusions posted to my online chart, I sat, stupefied as I scanned the information.  My heart, I learned, was structurally sound.  There was no evidence of blockage, heart attack, or arterial disease causing the palpitations that I was experiencing.  “Continue with your treatment plan until your next appointment,” the letter concluded. See you in six months….

WHAT treatment plan?  Wasn’t that what all these tests were in aid of determining?  I had no treatment plan.

For two years, Covid gave me an excuse to entirely avoid the medical profession and seek natural treatments for any problems I experienced.  While l, along with the rest of the world population, would really, really like to see Covid become a faint and fading, distant memory, I’d still genuinely appreciate another such perfect justification to never see another doctor—never, ever again, for the rest of my life.

If you appreciated this little rant, I’m sure you’d enjoy “Aging Is Difficult Enough Without…”, which I published on July 29, 2020.  You can scroll down to the Archives, below, to locate it.

Lessons Learned

With the youngest memory of our family taking the first step of her educational journey today, I was reminded of this post from January 25, 2018.

As I mentioned in a long-ago post, we all have memories of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Sometimes, too, those memories are a mixed bag, such as when we received shabby treatment from a teacher we liked.  We all have those stories.  These are two of mine.

I adored my fifth grade teacher, Miss Shireman. Looking back through time using the eyes of an adult, I can see that she was one of those rare teachers who not only genuinely enjoyed teaching, but liked children, as well.  She devised endless wonderful projects and creative ways to engage us in learning.

But what eluded me completely in childhood was that, like all of us, my beloved teacher was human.  She had good and bad days, and sometimes those feelings affected her teaching.

One such bad day occurred during our study of Indiana history. Miss Shireman had assigned us to draw a map of Indiana and its counties, and given us a weekend to complete the assignment.

Draw a map of Wyoming or New Mexico – a cinch. But draw a map of Indiana, with its squiggly lower border and 92 counties?  Not so simple.

I sweated over that map. I carefully drew and erased and redrew that noxious bottom border, and struggled to fit in all the weirdly-shaped counties.  I worked as hard on it as I had ever done on any assignment, and felt pretty proud when I turned it in that Monday.

A few days later, I was shocked when Miss Shireman stood in front of us and slammed the handful of maps down on her desk, declaring her disgust over the poor work we’d all done. We were going to do the maps over, she announced, and this time, we’d better do them well.

I was devastated. I had tried so hard! I’d been so proud!  It took everything in me not to cry. But pride came to my aid.  I redid my map by tracing the one I’d already done.  I knew it was already my best work, and I wasn’t about to redraw the whole darned thing.

It was not the first time I’d been scolded by a teacher for poor work when I knew I had tried my hardest, but, probably due to how well I liked Miss Shireman, it is the most painfully memorable.

Then came seventh grade.  Our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whom I didn’t dislike, but had no special liking for, either) encouraged our creativity and language development by having us write short stories.  In this, I was in my element.  I loved it…until the day he told us to choose an incident from American history as the basis for our story.

Wham! Writer’s block. I HATED American history.  It seemed to me nothing but a series of bloody battles and hypocritical old white men trying to circumvent the Constitution and get rich by trampling the bodies and spirits of others (sort of like a recent Administration).  I finally landed on one possible theme: the mysterious disappearance of the entire colony of Roanoke, Virginia.  That incident did intrigue me.

Once again, I sweated over the assignment. I wrote and rewrote that story, quickly learning that writing without inspiration was like slogging through knee-deep swamp mud.  I wasn’t precisely proud of the version I at last submitted, but I was satisfied.  So it was quite a slap in the face to receive my graded story back with a poor mark and the caustic comment written across it: “This is a very poor effort for you.”

Poor effort?! Did that jerk not understand how hard I had worked on that story?  It was my absolute very best damned effort under the circumstances, and he didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.

(Yes, it still makes me mad.)

There are numerous other memories of unhappy moments with teachers bopping about my memories of my years in school. I daresay everyone has memories like that.  And if these two stand out so prominently in my thoughts, it is mostly because of a sense of injustice.  I had done my very best, and was belittled despite it. But that in itself was a really important lesson for life, although probably not in the school syllabus.

I would need to use my fingers and my toes and then start on the strands of my hair to count the number of times in my working years that I was unjustly reprimanded. Small people given a little bit of authority often prove Lord Acton’s statement about the corrupting qualities of power. Being unjustly reprimanded by a boss at the office is a sad fact of life for most workers.

The most important lessons we learn in school are often not part of the curriculum. But they are probably the lessons we most need to prepare us for reality and for our future.

Happy first day of preschool, sweet Morrigan Lynn!

If you appreciated this essay, then you’d probably enjoy a post related to the many times in my working life that I had to rely on that childhood lesson of being unjustly reprimanded.  You can find “Tales of the Office: Jackass Bosses I Survived!” by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published April 27, 2022 

Hiding in Jane Austen

I hide from reality in well-loved stories that gloss over all the evil of those bygone centuries.

A lifetime ago, when I was a little girl in the third grade, astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth three times. And despite the dust and decrepitude that has settled over me in the intervening decades, I still recall that morning (oh!) so clearly. I vividly picture my mother, sitting on the right side (her side) of that ugly Nile green brocade couch in the living room, eyes glued to the old black-and-white TV, as she braided my long hair. I can almost hear the voice of the announcer (Walter Cronkite?), talking, talking, talking, as the mission ensued. I remember my dismay at having to leave to catch the school bus—a dismay that, for once, had very little to do with how much I disliked school or the fact that I wanted to concentrate on my upcoming birthday, just two days away. I recall the almost-contagious excitement of my teacher, Mrs. Dryer. And finally, I remember my mother describing to us children the wonderful gesture of the residents of Perth, Australia, who turned on every light in the city, hoping that Glenn would be able to see the illumination from space.

But beyond all my memories of that day, I recall a feeling of pride; intense pride, and hope. Hope for the future—my future, the future of my someday-children; the future of the world. Space, the final frontier….

The world has turned many, many times since the day of Glenn’s orbit, and the once-astronaut, later Senator, has passed on, while I have grown old and, well, beneath the L’Oreal, white-haired, not grey. But my spirit—my spirit has greyed. The pride I once felt in my nation has evaporated, bludgeoned from existence by undeclared wars and unending lies; by revelations of historical genocide; by horrific mass shootings; by the hypocrisy of generations of politicians; by watching miserably as the democratic experiment that was America crumbles in waves of divisiveness and burgeoning fascism. And despite the recent, magnificent photos from the Webb space telescope, the hope my child-self once experienced for the future has dwindled. Space exploration has done nothing to prevent the glaciers melting, the forests burning, while we remain trapped on this scorched pale blue marble, winging its way through the solar winds.

Depressive, I know. Grim. But grim is what I feel most mornings, as I scan the latest news coverage. Oh, there is the occasional heart-warming human interest story scattered here and there throughout the carnage. But the rare story of kindness or environmental protection fails to overwhelm the simple, unutterable awfulness of it all.

And so, unable to continue, I ditch both the reports and the TV (where breaking news might interrupt any pleasant viewing I manage to find) and pick up my books. Eschewing even my favorite, light-hearted cozy mysteries, I take refuge in tales written a century or two ago: Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters; Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. I escape to Avonlea and Pemberley; to Mansfield Park and Misselthwaite. I keep company with Anne-with-an-E Shirley, and young Mary Lennox. I worry not over the latest police brutality, but whether Sunday travel is really a permissible activity. I weep over the death of Anne’s firstborn, rather than children dead in a school shooting. I empathize with Jane Eyre’s inability to capture her visions in her paintings, rather than stress over how poorly my own written words convey my meaning.

The worse the world becomes, the more I hide.

When Covid was in ascendancy—when there were no home testing kits, no vaccines, and the only available masks were those we cobbled together from teeshirts and elastic and coffee filters—when we all dwelt in our separate spaces in lockdown, I hid in movies; specifically, superhero movies. The Avengers, Wonderwoman, Thor, Guardians…. Again and again, in 90 minutes, they saved the universe, the planet, their friends; struggling their way through battles, joking their way past villains. But watching movies palled; there are no superheroes to rescue us, and I can only suspend my disbelief so far, even for the purpose of respite and entertainment.

And so, now, as the world around me contracts and worsens; as forests burn and species dwindle; as the curtain is pulled back on revelation upon revelation of treasonous behavior by a former national leader; as blood and death are visited in my own backyard in such innocent venues as the mall where I shopped as a teenager and the park around the corner from my home–I hide. I hide in well-loved stories that gloss over all the evil of those bygone centuries; that touch only lightly upon lies and hypocrisy and faithlessness and cruelty and wrongdoing. I hide in a gentler version of life that probably never, in truth, existed beyond those printed pages.

And it comforts me.

If this sad little missive appealed to you, you might also appreciate the post, “Miss Happiness and Miss Flower”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below; it was published on April 22, 2020.

Everything Ends, and So Will This Tea Party

There were other phrases which I could have taken as a lifetime mantra, but…

One of my all-time favorite novels, which I’ve reread multiple times since first discovering it on my mother’s bookshelves over 50 years ago, is Desirée, by Annemarie Selinko. The book (and it’s important to note that I’m speaking of the novel in its original, 1953 translation from German to English; later translations completely lost all the charm of the original), is the fictional diary of the genuine person, Desirée Clary, the first and callously discarded fiancée of Napoleon Bonaparte, who later married General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and finally became Queen of Sweden.

I absolutely adore the story, which traces Desirée’s life from the age of 14 until her coronation in 1829. It is, as I said, charming, delightful—and also sad, funny, and thought-provoking. It was a perfect novel for my then-17-year-old self to be reading; it is still the perfect anodyne for my 68-year-old-person to a world now gone as mad as the one in which the real Desirée dwelt.

But of all the captivating scenes in the book (and there are many), one of my favorites is the moment in which Desirée, confronted at an afternoon tea by three still-living former Queens of Sweden, endures a host of censorious and disapproving comments, criticizing every aspect of her behavior, antecedents, and person. Unable to defend herself against their combined and determined condemnation, she simply folds her hands into her lap and shuts out the vitriol by observing silently to herself, “Everything ends, and so would this tea party.”

Everything ends, and so would this tea party.

The first time I read that line, it both drew a smile and a gasp from me. As a victim of both childhood abuse and of school bullying, I’d so often told myself, “It will all be all right when I grow up and get out of here”. (Not true, but that’s a subject for another blog post.) However, at the time, reading those words and smiling just a little over them, I realized that, historical fictional or not, this woman—no, everyone—had something: something awful, something painful, something degrading, something humiliating—to endure in a lifetime. Even being a queen did not protect one from ill-treatment. (Or a princess. But I was still decades away from seeing the abuse that would be heaped upon the heads of Princess Diana and Duchess Meghan, events which simply confirmed the truth of my long-ago teenage analogy.)

I decided then and there to take the line, almost as written, as my mantra. Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Mistreated by teachers and bullied by fellow students; stormed at by temperamental supervisors; verbally abused or neglected in relationships: Everything ends, and so will this tea party.

I found that I could apply those words, also, to my tendency to become easily overwhelmed when responsibilities and onerous tasks piled up seemingly without end. The mantra served me a lot better than a deep breath, or even several deep breaths. I could tell myself, “It will all get done, eventually” until the cows came home, but that did not serve to relax me, or to remove the sometimes-crushing burden of overwhelming responsibility from my shoulders, not half as well as my longtime mantra. I could mutter it under my breath, and nearly laugh.

Administrative Assistant to a group of 103 people, each of whom needed something from me, usually at the same time? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (It did; the 50-plus temporary staff were discharged when an immense paperwork backlog was at last cleared away.) My mortgage transferred by the lender to what was possibly the worst mortgage servicer in the country? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (I paid the damn loan off.) Dealing with the drunk who lived next door? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (He moved, and the new neighbor was, is, a gem.) Bored absolutely out of my mind at a ridiculous required employment training session: Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Wading through the pain of family members who seem bent on controlling and causing hurt and harm? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Horrified beyond belief at a governmental administration? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (Unfortunately, not soon enough, and not without immense damage to our country.)

As a lonely teenager, I read constantly; still do, as an adult. Rather than the one I chose, there were many, many phrases I encountered in the endless books that I read which I might have taken as a personal refrain to guide me through the reefs and shoals of my existence.

But I chose the one that spoke most clearly and simply to me. And as lifetime mantras go, it hasn’t been half bad.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Lessons in the Thimble”, which was published July 17, 2018. You may locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

The Cat Who Thought He Was a Dog

The Cat Who Wanted to Stay has finally left me, departing to dwell in the everlasting grainfields of the Egyptian afterlife, Amenti. There he’s taken up residence in the great city of cats, Bubastis, no doubt lolling at the feet of the Goddess Bastet. 

In March, 2021, when the docs said Puffy would die, he rakishly flipped them a claw, giving me another 15 months of the joy of being his human. Every day I had with him was a gift. In his honor, I am rerunning this column from 2018.

I am owned by a big orange tomcat who somehow missed that memo about cats having staff. He approaches his contact with humans using a very different mindset. I think perhaps he believes he is a dog. Although he hasn’t yet learned to wag his tail, he has totally perfected the doglike stance of sitting in front of people and staring up at them adoringly. Added to this is his propensity for licking. Fingers, hands, cheeks, noses—he literally rains kisses upon any human who will sit still for his affectionately rough tongue. When a friend sat in my home crying one day, he climbed up her lap and licked a few tears from her cheeks. Finding that it wasn’t helping, he began to kiss her nose repeatedly until she finally collapsed into helpless giggles, exclaiming “I think he’s trying to turn off the tap!”

PS Pic

Puff (full name, Puffy Socks Dragon, Esquire) is a “porch rescue”. Thrown out at the tender age of one year by a despicable owner who moved away and left him to fend for himself, he survived four years on his own in a harsh environment that included the second hottest summer on record in the state of Indiana, and one of the worst snowstorms ever to grace a January landscape. I honestly don’t know how he did it. If anything, I attribute Puff’s survival during those harsh four years to his ability to sweet-talk and manipulate strangers into caring for him by worshipping them.

I became aware of Puff’s existence when, as I babysat my then-four-year-old twin great niece and nephew, he began to come visiting.

PS 6 Pic (2)

It was they who graced him with his unusual name, deciding that he resembled cats owned by their grandparents (Puff) and great aunt (Socks). “Dragon” was tacked on as a caveat to their favorite song, Puff the Magic Dragon, while I, feeling that “a little more made no never mind”, added the Esquire (in British form) to indicate his status as a gentleman cat.

PS5 pic (2)

In any case, every Wednesday that summer the twins would arrive at my home and we’d head out to the back porch, since they (unlike so many of their counterparts) could not get enough of the great outdoors. And Puff would hear them and come running. I mean running! “The twins are here!” At that time, he’d made a den beneath the minibarn of the neighbor whose backyard abutted mine. I would hear the telltale rattle of lumber that the neighbors kept stored outside the mini-barn, and then Puff would appear, dramatically leaping their stockade fence, Superman-style. All he lacked was a little red cape. He would then rush to the twins and twine around and about them as they held and petted him in a mutual display of affection and admiration.

When summer ended and the twins went home, I caved. After an abortive attempt to find Big Orange another home, I brought him inside and commenced the frustrating challenge of introducing him to my already-overcatted household. “The Girls”—Zoe, Bella and Lilith Cats–did not take kindly to the male interloper in their midst. There followed a number of interesting months, but with patience (and a lot of yelling) Puffy Socks finally became a member of the household.

I would say that I have never regretted it for a moment, but there are times when, looking at the tatters of my formerly favorite curtains, I threaten Puff the Claw with a return to his friendless open-air existence. But then I sit down, and the big old orange guy climbs up my chest and, purring like a little engine, begins to kiss my nose. And I crumble.

As a child, my family always owned dogs. Dachshunds, beagles—we were dog people. I still adore dogs. I constantly buy new toys for my daughter’s Husky.

But, I have to admit, a Cat Who Thinks He Is a Dog, while he may not win a blue ribbon in the Dog of the Year contest, places pretty close—especially in my heart.

Puffy Socks Dragon, Esquire
July 10, 2022

You might also enjoy “The Cat Who Wanted to Stay”, which you may locate in the Archives, below, from March 23, 2022.

Minimizing is Not a Bra, Redux!

     Prelude: Just slightly over a year ago, on June 27, 2021, my Dad was admitted to the hospital with what would prove to be his final illness. The six months that followed passed in a haze of surgeries, doctors, care homes, visits, pet care, errands, and stress, all culminating in his death in December. At the time this post originally appeared, on June 30, 2021, I had no idea of just how awful things were about to become! I only knew that Dad’s illness followed a host of other personal crises: the death of my favorite cat; the unexplained, nearly-fatal illness of another beloved pet; Covid quarantine with my toddler granddaughter while both her parents suffered the virus; being cruelly excluded from family gatherings because the vaccine wasn’t yet available to me. So I wrote this post under a swirling cloud of angst.
     Now, recalling it just a year later, my feelings haven’t changed.
     No, Jack. No. It absolutely is NOT all just small stuff.

Kindness never minimizes another’s need.

I know several people who will nod in sage agreement when I admit that I’m a person who falls easily into the trap of listening to and accepting other’s opinions about my life experience, often to my own detriment and peril. But I’m learning. Late in life and slowly, but I’m learning.

One such event occurred not long ago when, asked during a Zoom meeting about how I was doing (a question that, in this case, was not just the usual social nicety, but intentional), I commented that I felt I was just lurching from one crisis to the next. Another of the meeting attendees quickly chimed in, pointing out that, from the perspective of the universe and over the course of a lifetime, nothing I was experiencing was a crisis. Everything was “small stuff”; just a challenge to be met or a learning experience, not a calamity.

The critical individual lives 300 miles away. He was quite clueless as to what personal disasters I was referring, or what I, along with my family members, had been experiencing. I’m sure he thought he was helping me regain perspective by his comment. But his remark was, nevertheless, intentional minimizing: diminishing the importance of not just what I was experiencing, but my feelings about the situation. By doing so, he was also shaming me—letting me know that my emotions were excessive and inappropriate; “bad”, if you will. Leaving entirely aside the fact that his remarks smacked of the male habit of denigrating female moods (that’s a subject for another blog post), the simple truth of the matter is that feelings are neither bad nor good; it’s what we do with them that counts.

Amazingly, though (and this NEVER happens), I did not fall prey to his inappropriate comments. In what was, for me, an astounding feat of standing up to being bullied, I quickly snapped back, “Oh, bullshit!” My critic was visibly startled, for he is one of those self-assured, clever types whose comments are rarely challenged. For once he had no quick comeback. Some of the others in the meeting quickly diffused the incident by joking and laughter, and we all moved on. But I did not apologize, nor feel any need to do so. If anything, I believed his apology was owed to me.

To be totally honest, though, and much to my shame, I have to admit that I, too, have behaved this way to others in the past. I have minimized their experiences, shamed their emotional responses, and gifted them with my “superior” knowledge and understanding as to how they could better handle their personal pain and disasters. Not only does this behavior smack of narcissism, it is simply rude; rude, thoughtless, uncompassionate, and bullying.

When I face even more uncomfortable truths, I know that when I have minimized others’ experiences, I have done so as a self-defense measure. Minimizing puts a barrier between us and the problems or pain of another; it assures us that, even if we were to experience such an event, we would not respond to it with angst or tears. No, we are strong; we would rise above the situation! Minimizing props up our fine opinion of ourselves: “If I could get through what I have done without complaint, then you have no right to feel sad or anxious, or to speak your feelings.”

But when we muzzle another person, even those who are certifiable whiners, we diminish not just their humanity, but our own. Yes, there are those people who simply wail. There are hypochondriacs who moan about every real or imagined ache or pain. There are individuals in our circle of acquaintance who drive us half-mad because they refuse to take any action to free themselves from terrible situations, instead continually lamenting their misery. There always exist feeble individuals for whom life itself is simply overwhelming—even when it’s not.

But that does not indicate that we are free to diminish their experience. We can make the choice to acknowledge their distress without being enveloped by it. Rather than shame them, we can act with true consideration and compassion by responding gently: “I’m sorry you’re going through this”, or, “That’s a harsh series of events. I hope things will be better for you soon”, or even straightforwardly, “Is there some action you can take to resolve this problem—something that will help you feel better?”

In the final evaluation, it all comes down to courtesy. To minimize and shame another for their emotional reaction or admission of a problem is rude; it is aggressive and narcissistic; it is the behavior of a bully. Even worse, it is counterproductive. Rare is the individual who ever took her or his courage in hand, stood up resolutely, and solved a problem as a result of by being tormented and oppressed by those who should have provided support.

At some point in our lives, we all need encouragement and kindness. Kindness is never overrated. And true kindness never minimizes another’s need.

You might also enjoy “Feeling Our Feelings”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from October 14, 2020.

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

I’d planned another post for today, but in view of the iniquitous decision on June 24 by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding Roe vs. Wade, I chose to rerun this blog (with edits) as both pertinent and necessary. Please scroll to the end for useful information regarding the reality and risks of self-managed abortion.

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show during which the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which are now common. As an example, the speaker mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, commenting that the seeds of this non-native plant were inadvertently carried to these shores, hitchhiking in blankets and caught on the clothing of European settlers.Queen-Annes-Lace11

I could not stop laughing at such blatant ignorance. I was well aware that the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace, taken as a morning-after tea, were the most effective of all the early forms of birth control–at least since silphium was hunted to extinction by Roman and Egyptian women desperate to prevent conception. The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace weren’t ferried to the Americas accidentally, hitchhiking on property, but quite purposefully, by women who preferred not to be worn out or die due to too-frequent childbearing.

For centuries, knowledgeable midwives instructed the women they served in the lore of birth control—difficult, and not totally reliable, but not completely impossible in the centuries before the development of the diaphragm and the contraceptive pill. And, yes, their knowledge also included methods of abortion, customarily using herbs. Compounded from celery root and seed, hedge hyssop, cotton root, Cretan dittany and spruce hemlock, mistletoe leaves and horseradish, cinchona bark, ashwagandha and saffron, mugwort, wooly ragwort, castor oil, blue and black cohosh, evening primrose, and even the remarkably dangerous (if used wrongly) rue and pennyroyal and tansy and ergot of rye, herbal abortions were common when contraception failed. Though those recipes have been lost to time, the concoctions were so prevalent that ads for patent medicines to cure “delayed menstruation” were common in women’s magazines throughout the 1800s—that is, until the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873 (both written and passed by old White men, of course) criminalized even the possession of information on birth control.

The world has turned many times since the Comstock Act, through the invention of the contraceptive pill, to the self-help clinics of the late 1960s that instructed women in the practice of menstrual extraction, through Roe vs. Wade. The morning-after and abortion pills were introduced, a chemical solution at last replacing that centuries-old use of abortifacient herbs.

I absolutely do not, will not, debate the wrongness or rightness of any of this, from contraception to 50 years of a constitutional right to an abortion. To my way of thinking and understanding, decisions regarding birth control and abortion remain always a choice best made by the woman involved, in accordance with her conscience, her faith, and her personal situation; while human life begins at the point at which full activity of the fetal brain’s neural connections (indicating the capacity for human thought, and thereby a conscience, a soul), finally develop between the 27th to the 30th weeks of pregnancy.

But what struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned, by men, to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, is at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of great ignorance, yet it was then that midwives—wisewomen–practiced, sharing their expertise and knowledge with the female population at large; easing the pain of childbirth and preventing many maternal and infant deaths by their skill. And it was then, too, that such women were hunted down as witches, tortured and burned and hung, effectively silencing their knowledge for generations. Women were left in the hands of male doctors who, shrugging casually, pronounced, “Maternity is eternity”, carelessly accepting that a majority of women would die in childbirth (wives were easily replaced after all) and reconciling countless numbers of women and infants to easily-preventable deaths as babies were delivered in filthy conditions with unwashed hands.

Circle the world a few times on its axis, and enter the 1900s, when horrific deaths by botched back alley abortions were common. Young and desperate women bled to death, died horribly of septicemia, or were rendered forever infertile. Circle again, and information on contraception was readily available, along with new forms of birth control. Contraceptive creams and condoms were sold over the counter. Legal abortion gave a measure of safety to the procedure. The morning after pill became available for those who had either been careless or experienced the horrors of rape.

History, they say, always repeats itself. And so as so much of society swings perilously close once more to the era of illegal and back alley abortions, so it may also oscillate to women who reclaim the ancient knowledge that gave them power over their own reproductive processes: to the natural methods that provided women a way to make their decisions in accordance with their conscience.

The morality of these decisions is not truly the question, for no matter what is legislated, women will continue to fight for and gain absolute control over their own bodies. They will continue to make their personal choices regarding reproduction. The Pendulum of Queen Anne’s Lace, you might call it. History will, genuinely, always repeat itself.

No form of abortion is without risk, but it is vital that anyone considering self-managed abortion should first thoroughly do their research, and not rely on Facebook and TikTok “information”.  A few reliable resources for self-managed abortion are listed below.

“Eve’s Herbs” by John Riddle provides a comprehensive, well-researched history of contraception and abortion in the ancient world until the Middle Ages, also explaining how and why this knowledge was stolen from women.

“Natural Liberty: Rediscovering Self-Induced Abortion Methods” (Sage-femme Collective) is available as a free PDF download at: https://we.riseup.net/assets/351138/22321349-Natural-Liberty-Rediscovering-Self-Induced-Abortion-Methods.pdf

Henrietta’s Herbal Homepage, Herbal Abortives and Birth Control, https://www.henriettes-herb.com/faqs/medi-3-7-abortives.html

“The Herb Book” by John Lust (out of print; difficult to find) contains comprehensive information on several abortifacients and emmenagogues.

It’s a Peculiar Little Language!

Most of us prefer either what we grew up hearing, or what sounds most euphonious to our ears.

I have always read a lot of British mystery, and it is perhaps for that reason that I often prefer verb formats that differ from the American. But (and in this way, I adhere to the “rules” of the English language, which seem to be that there really are no rules at all, since every rule has an exception), I’m not at all consistent in my preferences.

For instance, I dislike the British verb “leant” used in place of “leaned”, yet prefer “knelt” to “kneeled”. I much prefer the American “dove” to the British “dived”, and “scarfed” to “scoffed”—what, after all, does sneering and jeering have to do with gobbling up one’s food? And yet when it comes to “dreamed” vs. “dreamt”, I’m easy with each of them, using them interchangeably.

Perhaps it is the archaic flavor of the original British English which sets my preferences. I will always prefer the ages-old “wrought” to “wreaked”, while it’s probably best that no one question me on “shone” as opposed to “shined”!

I sometimes even extend my eccentric preferences to spelling. The spell-checker constantly reminds me that “theatre” is not American; I prefer “succour” to “succor”—and the French pronunciation to either, which in English sounds so unfortunately like “Sucker!”.

And that, perhaps, is the reason for my wacky taste in verbs: sound. One verb form simply sounds more euphonious or melodic to my ears than another. As I pointed out in “Mispronounced, Revisited” (October 19, 2018), there are words that I have mispronounced so long that the correct pronunciation sounds uncomfortable and wrong. The sound of a word, even as much as its form and spelling, is incredibly important to me.

Perhaps that is why I totally reject having the word “cisgender” applied to me. It is not that I rebuff the concept that I inhabit a body the gender of which, assigned to me at birth, I totally accept and practice; it is that cisgender is such an unattractive, ugly, uneuphonious word, reminding me of bullies in my childhood who called people sissies. I refuse to be called cisgender because I so dislike the sound of such an atrocious noun. Besides, it seems to me that if others can demand concessions to their gender identity, even going so far as to use the multiple pronoun “they” in place of the singular “he” or “she” — well, if others can demand such concessions to their preferences, then I have the right, also, to insist that I be called by my preferred descriptor. I am, therefore, either “birthgender”, or simply and straightforwardly female, just woman, just “she”, and not cisgender, thank you very much. You be whatever you want to be, and I will, also.

But then, not just the English language, but all languages, it seems, are having a hard time coping with and adjusting to the changes in social consciousness and recognition of gender fluidity. No doubt this mess will have shaken down in a generation or so, by which time I shall not be here to worry about it, in any case (she says with obvious relief).

Returning to the question of preferred verb forms, though, I have often found it hilarious when either British or American authors try their hand a writing a book or story set in one another’s countries. While familiar with the most egregious differences (i.e., lift vs. elevator; flat vs. apartment; chips vs. fries), each group invariably misses out on the more minor deviations, despite their best efforts. As I pointed out in a review of one novel, an American does not go on holiday, but on a vacation; nor do we go to hospital, but to the hospital. We eat cartons, not pots, of yogurt, not yoghurt, and are much more likely to cover our beds with a comforter than a duvet—although we might enclose that comforter in a duvet cover! We tend to eat candy, not sweets; desserts, not pudding, and we sprinkle that dessert with powdered or confectioner’s sugar, not icing sugar. It is these tiny differences that trip up an out-of-country writer every time, and make me wonder why they didn’t just track down an American colleague to scan their work and correct the more noticeable oddities. Nor does the shadow fall only on one side! While reading a novel set in Australia but written by an American writer, I noticed a few peculiarities myself, later collapsing in mirth at the snarky corrections helpfully provided by Australian reviewers of the book.

It’s no wonder that a non-native speaker of any language, no matter how fluent, is rarely able to converse in their new tongue with a comprehensive grasp of the nuances and subtleties understood by those who have spoken the language since birth–not when even those who learned the words in childhood sometimes find the whole darned process convoluted and ridiculous!

You can find the previous blog on the peculiarities of the English language, “Mispronounced, Revisited”, by scrolling below to the Archives. It was published October 19, 2018.

Love Travels Backward

It is never too late to say what we need to say.

Practical Magic is one of my favorite movies, which is particularly intriguing as I didn’t really like the book. There you have it, though, as almost everyone has experienced: loved the book, hated the movie; liked the movie, despised the book. It’s pretty rare to enjoy both equally.

But I’ve gone off on a tangent. Among the many reasons that I favor the movie is a single line at the end, when character Sally Owens’ asks in a voice-over, “Can love travel backward in time to heal a broken heart?”

And the answer to that question is, as I have only recently learned, a resounding yes.

You see, when my mother died in 2010, my family was, and had been for some time, sundered. Maternal problems compounded of mental illness, unending lies, drug use, physical abuse, and alcoholism meant that one of my brothers had not spoken to anyone in the family other than myself and my daughter for twenty-plus years, while my other sibling, dealing with a raft of personal issues that had resulted in poverty and homelessness, was also usually incommunicado. My daughter and I, declaring ourselves Switzerland, stubbornly maintained neutrality in the midst of all this dissension. (Unfortunately, unlike Switzerland, we didn’t have all the family money holed up in anonymous bank accounts!)

But being neutral often also meant rarely seeing or hearing from most of our family members except at holidays. It was a lonely position to uphold, but we would not cut ourselves off from anyone.

Finally, about a year and a half after Mom passed away, my older brother and my father reconciled at last. The relief I felt was palpable. Our Dad wasn’t getting any younger, and I did not want him to go down into the darkness without his oldest son as part of his life. Meanwhile, following another rocky couple of years, my younger brother found his feet at last, and, moving to another city, got a good job and found a stable relationship, finally seeming happy and secure.

Enter 2021… Dad, who had been terrifically healthy until about his 89th year, had been visibly failing as he moved into his 90s. Hospitalized in late June, he quickly spiraled downward, never returning home, and finally dying in December of that year.

The burden of his care during those months fell primarily upon my older brother and me, although we found ourselves fortunate enough to have relatives and family friends who pitched in to help. I honestly do not know how people without friends and family survive situations like this. Even splitting the ticket, the work was relentless, and it did not end with my father’s death, for we still had to clear his home of 58 years’ worth of accumulated possessions before it could be sold.

Eventually, though, all was completed: funeral held, estate inventoried, bills paid, possessions distributed, house sold—all the painful minutiae of a person’s passing completed, finalized, finished, done.

It was during this conclusion that my older brother explained to our younger sibling the final distribution of funds according to our father’s will. He described the co-executor’s fee that Dad had included, explaining that it meant I would receive a little extra from the estate. Concerned that there might be some misunderstanding over this, he’d prepared a straightforward explanation: not just that I had been there to help throughout the six months of our father’s dying, but had stepped up to do the majority of the work in cleaning out Dad’s home.

It was at this point that my brother said the words that, for me, lifted a burden that I had not even realized I’d been carrying for twelve long years: he acknowledged to our sibling, “Neither you nor I were there when Mom died. Our sister handled it all: the weeks at the hospital, the funeral, cleaning out all mom’s hoarding, and taking care of Dad for months until he was back on his feet again. Now that I’ve been through it, I’ve got a real appreciation of what she handled all alone. That’s another reason why she deserves this extra money.” Perhaps not surprisingly, hearing this, our younger brother completely agreed.

But for me, that acknowledgement—not the money, but the words—lifted an almost unbearable weight that I did not even know I had been shouldering.

With my older brother’s admission, and my younger brother’s agreement, love—appreciation, respect, acknowledgement—travelled backward in time to heal the portion of my heart that I was unaware had been broken during the excruciating weeks that my mother lay dying, and the painful aftermath of her passing.

Twelve years later, my heart is lighter. The memories of lonely responsibility are cleansed. And all because the words, words I did not even know I needed so desperately to hear, were spoken at last.

Love travelled backward in time to mend my broken heart.

It is never too late to say what we need to say. And it is never too late to hear what we need to hear.

You might also enjoy reading “The Speech of Angels”, which you may locate in the Archives, below, from October 24, 2017.

Vintage Treasure

Two friends are celebrating  significant birthdays this month. So for them, I am reprinting this essay from September 18, 2019. Happy Birthday, Kim, and Belated Happy Birthday Dani!

My late mother-in-law, Mary, was a world-travelling, spirituality-seeking whirlwind. She was bright, intelligent, graceful, and had a marvelous sense of humor. I absolutely adored her. The destructive evil that is Alzheimer’s robbed Mary of all these qualities, but until that happened, the woman I lovingly nicknamed “La Comtesse” was everything I wanted to be as I aged.

One of my favorite memories of Mary stems from the days when she was still a healthy woman who travelled extensively. Arriving home from a cruise, she related a story from her vacation, and to this day I recall the look on her face as she concluded the tale. At the time, Mary was on the far downhill side of 60, rapidly ziplining toward her next decade. One of her shipmates on this seniors’ cruise was a silver-haired lady, tidy, quiet and retiring, who participated in few of the ship’s activities. This quintessential little old lady, Mary remarked, observed a birthday during the cruise, and La Comtesse asked her which birthday she was celebrating.

“Oh,” the little old lady replied, “this is the big one! The big Five-Oh!”

I had cause to recall the irony of this story not long ago, when an author whose books I generally enjoy put dreaded words into the mouth of a youthful character: the young woman referred to an aged character as an “old biddy”. Judging by this youthful writer’s perspective, my beloved La Comtesse would have qualified as an “old biddy”. Yet nothing could have been further from the truth! Then, with dismay, I recalled that “old biddy” was actually the very phrase my own Grandmother used to reference those in her age group who’d stopped really interacting with life; who spent their days bemoaning their aches and pains while disparaging everything modern and recalling the past in a pink-tinted haze of inaccurate nostalgia. (Grandma, too, was a whirlwind, one who drove everywhere in her huge yacht of a car, couponed madly, fed everyone home-cooked meals no matter what the time of day or night, drove to work at an office until she could no longer shovel her car out from the snow in harsh winters, and generally had a rip-roaring good time.)

I have walked a few weary miles since the days when I was a mere teenager, sitting through a boring classroom lecture about semantics: the value of a word beyond merely its definition; the weight and worth of meaning given to it by opinion and understanding. And so as I now deal with the reality of my own aging, recalling Mary’s humorous tale of her “old” shipboard companion and my life-loving Grandmother’s behavior, while encountering demeaning phrases in books and being treated with thinly-disguised impatience by the very young, I’ve had reason to truly mull those long-ago lessons in semantics. I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s often sadly true that those in the latter half of life are treated with disrespect and contempt in modern society. And I’ve decided that some, perhaps many, of those attitudes center less around one’s personal behavior and ability than around the semantics of the word “old”.

We treat merchandise with disdain when it is merely old. To be old is to be outmoded or outdated; unfashionable. We begin to appreciate it when it becomes vintage, but it is not until it is antique that we regard it with awe and reverence. When we speak of “elder” it is with respect; i.e., “the elder statesman”. Yet to be elderly conjures up a picture of frailty and infirmity.

Old is old-fashioned; out-of-date; old is an outlook that is behind the times. Old is a pensioner, a senior, a geriatric—yet mature is a superior condition. Songs can be “oldies but goodies”; cars can be classics. Yet attitudes can be scathingly considered traditional and even archaic. Aged is a sad condition, yet historic is valued, while ancient or antiquity are regarded with wonder. Old, though, is time-worn, hoary, antiquated.

With all of these words firmly in mind, each of them denoting a different semantic variation of that which is old, I’ve decided that I shall never, ever again refer to myself using the word old. I will not even disrespect myself by remarking that I am aged, or aging. The words I use to refer to myself need to be free from heavy and unintended meaning, weighting me down with subconscious consequences.

So from this point forward, I plan to be Vintage. Vintage is treasured, special, worthwhile, valued, appreciated. Vintage is desirable.

I’m not nor ever will be an old biddy. But I’m already Vintage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay “Dying to be Seen”.  Scroll to the Archives, below, and you will locate it published September 4, 2018.