Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Marked Woman

I don't usually wear my religion publicly. My crosses and my rosary are discreet. When asked what I did over the weekend, I rarely mention that I went to church, unless I joke about how Hubs and the kids wait impatiently for me while I greet and chat with friends. (After 20 years in the same parish, we have a lot of friends!)

So why do I go to church on Ash Wednesday and get marked with ashes? Why do I continue to wear them until bedtime? Why do I subject myself to the old joke, "Hey, you've got something on your forehead!"

There have been years that I haven't been able to get to Mass or an Ash Wednesday service. And those years I've felt that I've missed something important. Ash Wednesday is as significant as New Year's Day, without the football games. It's the start of another season, another time of reflection, of resolving to do better, to become more like Jesus.

I've always been fascinated by cultural anthropology. In the liberal, hedonistic city of San Francisco, the Catholic Churches overflow during noontime Mass on Ash Wednesday. The Paulists at Old St. Mary's hold a special service (readings and ashes) at the Hyatt Regency hotel at the Embarcadero that is standing room only. And then we marked people disperse outward into the crowd until, eventually, we stand alone in our witness, much as the apostles did once they left their room after the Pentecost.

I tend to forget that I'm wearing ashes, like I tend to forget that I'm a sinner, so remarks often catch me by surprise. Yesterday, my ashes reminded one co-worker that it was Ash Wednesday and that he should go to church. Another co-worker commented, "Well, at least this year, you can tell what it is!" DS#2 laughed when he saw me and said, "Oh, yeah, ashes!" (One of my favorite pictures of him was when he was receiving ashes in Second Grade. His eyes are downcast and he is oblivious to the photographer. The picture appeared in the local paper the next day.)

And I worry about my motives for receiving ashes in the first place and then leaving them on. Am I being too much like the Pharisee, standing on the corner and praying loudly? Are my ashes a silent rebuke to those who have fallen away from the Church or a mark of arrogance to those who do not believe?

The ashes are, after all, merely what's left of the palm leaves we waved last year on Palm Sunday. They have no power in and of themselves, except as ritual, except as reminder that, yes, I am a sinner, yes, I will return to dust, and, yes, Jesus Christ gave up His Life to save my soul. My soul.

And for that, I can put up with hearing the old joke about my forehead many, many times.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reflections on My Youth

Last Saturday I went to my 35th year high school reunion. 60 of us showed up to reassure each other that we are remembered and that we don't look bad for a bunch of 50+-year-old women.

I was making my usual wisecracks about my life, my husband, and our children when one of the listeners commented, "You are still as funny as you were in high school!" Uhm, I don't remember being particularly funny in high school. I mean, I wasn't the class clown. But I'll take the compliment.

Another person asked me where I worked and what I was doing. I have a real problem trying to describe my job in a meaningful ten-words-or-less way. So I was very general about it, although the words "database" and "web access" came up. "I knew you'd have some kind of technical job," the person replied. "You were always one of the smart ones." Me? No, there are some really smart women in our class, genius smart. I was in the second tier.

The reunion was held on campus, in one of the halls where we had class meetings. The floor is now parquet, but used to be carpeted, because we often sat on the floor, heedless of the fact we were wearing skirts (pants were not an option). Someone recalled the big class meeting that was called during our sophomore year because we were so "clique-y." I turned to a friend and said, "I don't remember us being so bad."

"That's because you were in the Photo Club Clique," she answered.

"Really? The Photo Club Clique was mostly the girls in the year ahead of us," I mused. I had never considered that I was in a clique. I always thought of myself as a "floater," one of those kids who is kind of on the B Team. I was one of three yearbook photographers. I was one of several in the Photo Club and the AV (audio-visual) club. I was on the swim team, although I never won a race. I heard of all the good parties--on Monday morning, in the bathroom.

I had a sense even then of who I was: a bookworm, a geek in glasses, with a poetic bent and a willingness to work hard enough to earn acceptable grades. I knew enough about my family's financial facts of life to know that I couldn't compete with cool clothes or the latest record collection. Hey--I came to the school as a freshman wearing Sugarplum Pink cat's eye glasses and left wearing the only-slightly-better fake-tortoiseshell cat's eye glasses. My family's car was an 8-passenger Dodge van, big and boxy and a stickshift. By the time I graduated everyone knew I was a Girl Scout because I was selling cookies out of my locker.

Fortunately, there were plenty of other girls either in my same situation or who didn't care. And because most of us were together for all four years, I learned that some of the "cool" girls were actually smart. And some of those who I thought had it together, didn't. So I go to my class reunions to see how everyone has turned out, to reconnect with those I shared some pretty significant memories and who I see only once every five years.

This year, the former Student Body President sat next to me at the table. Her life is pretty routine: kids, job, husband, house. "What can I say?" she quipped. "I peaked early." And we all laughed because, frankly, we all have moved on.

Even the Mean Girls have gray hair, laugh lines, and crow's feet.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Book Review: Divided Minds

The subtitle of this book is Twin Sisters and Their Journey Through Schizophrenia. The authors, Pamela Spiro Wagner and Carolyn S. Spiro, M.D., are identical twins. Pamela is the elder by five minutes and for as long as Carolyn (nicknamed "Lynnie") can remember, Pammie has been the first and the best. Pammie is the "smart one," destined to follow in their father's footsteps and become a doctor.

But Pammie has a secret she does not share with her identical twin: she hears voices. These voices tell sixth-grade Pammie that it is her fault that President Kennedy was killed. She is responsible. Pammie does not share this realization with anyone in the family.

Carolyn, on the other hand, is saddened by the President's death, but isn't really sure what assassinate means.

The book is written in alternating voices; first Pamela, then Carolyn. They are jealous of each other and yet recognize they have a unique bond. Their parents have assigned them roles in the family and Carolyn works hard to break out from her sister's shadow. They compete to see who can eat less, who can look most like Twiggy. Pammie was the dancer, but gradually loses confidence in her body and becomes awkward while Lynnie discovers that she loves dancing, going on to competitive ballroom dancing.

They are both freshmen at Brown University in 1970, deliberately not living with each other, but still nearby, when Pamela takes an overdose of Sominex. She spends most of a year in hospitals and halfway homes as doctors try different therapies. Eventually she is discharged, but there is no follow-up care.

Carolyn, meantime, decides to take a year off to dance in New York. During breaks between dance classes, she picks up a molecular biology book and discovers that she's fascinated. She transfers to Sarah Lawrence, graduates and is accepted at Harvard Medical. Pamela becomes stable enough to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Brown in English. But she still hears voices. She is officially diagnosed as schizophrenic and begins the trial and error of finding treatments that work that she will stay on, that allow her to write, that allow her to function.

Throughout it all, Carolyn remains Pamela's lifeline. Pamela calls her at all hours just to talk. Or to scream obscenities and abuse. Carolyn, who is now a psychiatrist, is frustrated with the system because Pamela's doctors won't listen to her suggestions about treatment for her sister, her knowledge about what has worked and what will not. The rest of the family is there, but Carolyn bears the brunt of the burden. She feels guilty and overwhelmed and tired. She knows there is no cure for schizophrenia, only a lightening of the burden.

Pamela's personal crisis comes during Y2K, forcing Carolyn to consider choices she would rather not have to make.

This memoir is brutal in its honesty. Neither Carolyn nor Pamela are saints. Their parents and siblings are rarely mentioned. Carolyn mentions her marriage, her children, and her divorce but does not discuss them in any emotional detail. I wondered how she was able to cope with her patients, her children, her unsupportive (and seemingly immature) husband, and her sister's crisis without having a breakdown herself. Does Carolyn have a therapist as well as several close friends? She mentions she converted to Catholicism, but there is no explanation. Is her conversion related to her sister's schizophrenia?

Pamela and Carolyn assert they are identical twins, and they look it, but I thought there was a genetic component (a genetic vulnerability?) to schizophrenia, and Carolyn does not seem to have it. I wondered if they had any DNA testing done to confirm if they are identical, since there are cases where identical looking twins were, in fact, fraternal.

Overall, I was mildly disappointed in this book. I felt it was lacking something--some insight, some feeling, some emotional connection between the sisters or between them and their audience. But I wondered where the rest of the family was, especially when Pamela didn't shower and wore the same clothes for a week at a time in high school. Carolyn noticed and badgered her sister into taking a shower and changing--but where was Mom? Didn't she say anything to Pamela about her greasy hair, her dirty blouse? On the other hand, Pamela records what was going on in her mind and it is truly frightening. Her demons never leave her completely; the best she can do is relegate them to the background.

On the March Hare scale: 2 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks

Friday, February 16, 2007


DS#2 turned in his proposal for his Eagle Project last night for what seems like the fifth or sixth time and it finally was approved! Yay!

I'm hoping he can have it done and awarded before we leave for Japan at the end of July. Maybe I'll just have one big Confirmation/Graduation/Eagle Award party and take care of all my social obligations for the year!

Nah--don't think that's going to work at all.

If I Only Had a Brain...

Sorry for the lack of posting. Real life caught up with me. Again. But now I think I have the solution: a spare brain! It's small, portable, and I can send it off on adventures without me. Or I can use it as an excuse: "I'm sorry, I left my brain at home today."

It's somewhat bigger than a stegosaurus brain, but it does fit comfortably in my fist. I even got a spare one for DD#2. (She was upset because I brought home gifts for the boys. A copy of Chemical & Engineering News for DS#1, who is currently taking chemistry and is hoping to get into an engineering program, and a mouse pad that had the "Periodic Table of Amino Acids" for DS#2, who is just being introduced to organic chemistry. (snicker, snicker) He also liked the mousepad that used the different abbreviations for the elements to spell out a message.

I know, I know--sounds like wild times at the Warren. Well, we do our best!

Postscript: A bit of clarification might be in order. There was a trade show in town, specifically for organic chemical manufacturers and associated industries (like people who make big, shiny centrifuges--see CSI). Many of our customers were exhibitors at the trade show. The show brought back memories of college--once again I was surrounded by symbols that I recognized but didn't understand.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Concierge Doctors

Imagine a doctor who doesn't make you wait in the office but actually see you at the appointed time. Imagine a doctor who knows your name, knows why you're seeing him/her, and remembers why you saw him/her the last time. A doctor who makes house calls, comes to see you in the hospital, and calls you at home after you've been hospitalized. (Slight correction and clarification made.)

Such a doctor is available--for about $1,500 per year. Plus.

They're called concierge doctors. They have made a conscious decision to see fewer patients but to charge more. "Managed care" does not satisfy them--it's not why they chose to become doctors in the first place.

Some accept insurance for office visits, although most insurance carriers will not pay for the annual fee. Some feel that the insurance carriers are the problem--they don't enjoy being second-guessed by a "bean counter." Most want to do more for their patients and would rather see fewer patients and do a more thorough job of finding out what is wrong than Managed Care, Medicare, or Medicaid allow.

They also want to spend more time with their families and to come home relaxed, knowing they have done their best for each patient instead of worrying about what they might have missed.

Of course, the flip side is those who worry who will take care of those who can't afford to sign up for a concierge doctor. They worry that doctors are betraying some sort of ethical code by not treating all who are in need, that they are, in fact, building a two-tiered health care system between the have's and the have-nots.

(Don't we have that already, between those of us who are insured and those who aren't? Isn't that what "HillaryCare" is supposed to abolish?)

And this trend may exacerbate the growing shortage of physicians in the country.

(Wouldn't the answer to that be to open more medical schools and allow more candidates in? Aren't medical schools turning away qualified applicants because they have no space? Florida State University has the only medical school built since 1982, according to And Medicare has further distorted the market for doctors by subsidizing only 80,000 medical residents per year.

(Why is Medicare subsidizing medical students or residents? Does the AG Office subsidize lawyers?)

Of course, these new doctors are going to work in high-tech, high-paying fields, located in cities where they have the professional support these specialties require. Instead of simpler practices located in small towns and cities in the hinterland where they are needed.

(Which scenario is more likely to allow the new doctor to pay off his medical school loans within his/her lifetime?)

Some of these concierge doctors would not have remained in medical practice had they not rediscovered the joy of treating patients as patients rather than case loads. And, if the supply of doctors was not artificially restricted by the government and by the AMA, there would not be a shortage--or a potential shortage. Scarcity increases prices, which is why specialists charge more than generalists.

Competition for medical school is fierce, which has been justified as a means of ensuring that only the best will become doctors. However, a math or chemistry whiz is not necessarily the best doctor, House notwithstanding. Seeing 30-60 patients a day does not make for good medicine.

If "concierge" medicine keeps physicians practicing who otherwise would not be, then that's good. If their concerns are heard and addressed, perhaps "concierge" medicine will become available as the pool is expanded and patient load reduced. That should be the primary goal, IMHO, and not trying to play to "class warfare" fears.

After all, not all of us can afford to drive a BMW.

The Dark Side of Gavin Newsom

Headline on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle: Newsom to Seek Help for Alcohol Abuse/In Wake of Scandal.

Gee, all he has to do now is declare that he is gay and his re-election is almost assured.

/snark off

Newsom had an affair with the wife of an aide who was also a personal friend. This came after reports that Newsom showed up drunk at San Francisco General Hospital after a police officer was shot. As many pointed out, Newsom was damned either way: damned for showing up drunk or damned for not showing up at all. And it's not like alcohol and politics are strangers. Nor is it unusual for a mayor to have a few when on his own time. (Although, like the President, a mayor is really never "off the clock.")

Unlike Pelosi, Feinstein, or Boxer, Newsom did not grow up rich. He worked hard and made some influential friends along the way. I wonder if he feels that somehow he doesn't belong or doesn't deserve his successes. I'm wondering if the idea of power got to him.

I will probably never know. Gavin Newsom knows what his demons are and he's going to have to confront and overcome them on his own.

At least, I hope he will. I hope this "alcohol abuse" is not a ruse to escape personal responsibility.

Meanwhile, I'll pray for him

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Please Pray For... MIL, who is experiencing Transient Ischemia (spelling?) Attacks. She has been hospitalized several times over the last week or so and has undergone several tests, but the doctors can find no reason for these attacks. They are worried that MIL will suffer a stroke if they can't figure out the reason for these attacks and stop them. (Paging Dr. House...)

My FIL has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He's still in the early stages and living at home, but he can't do anything and it's frustrating for him.

My MIL and I have had a difficult relationship over the last 30+ years; one result is limited contact between us. And Hubs is not very good at calling on his own initiative. So we're depending on his sisters for our information. Might be time for a visit...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Book Review: The Diary of an American Au Pair

Marjorie Leet Ford wrote a novel based on her experiences as an American au pair in Britain. In fact, the novel was originally published (in 2001) under the title of Do Try to Speak as We Do, recalling that well known aphorism: Americans and Brits--two people divided by a common language.

I expected this to be similar to The Nannie Diaries but with a European flair. However, it's very different and not all the differences are cultural.

Melissa was laid off from her advertising job in San Francisco, canceled her wedding, and lost her apartment. Looking for something different, she decides to become the American au pair for a Member of the British Parliament. Over the phone, the job sounds rather exciting: the family has a house in London and an estate in Scotland. They have three children: 11-y.o. Pru, 9-y.o. Trevor (who has a deep interest in the American Indians, specifically the Iroquois tribe), and 3-y.o. Claire, who is deaf. Melissa's job, besides bathing the children, washing and ironing their clothes, selecting and setting out outfits for them, feeding them breakfast, lunch, supper, and tea, is to teach Claire how to speak. And to make sure she gets sufficient time in the park, burning off her incredible amount of energy.

Her first night in the home of the H-E's, Melissa receives an important lesson in the differences between American English and British English. She asks Mrs. H-E where the bathroom is and is directed to a room with a tub and a wash stand. Several minutes of wandering about, Melissa finds the room with the toilet.

The next day, the family drives from London to Scotland, stopping off at the home of Mrs. H-E's parents. Little does Melissa know this is the last time she'll be warm for a very long time. The H-E estate lacks central heating. The water heater is so small that the family shares the bathwater--even Melissa. The "washer" has a hand-operated crank. There is no sun. Mrs. H-E tells Melissa she has "thin blood," a result of her soft life in America.

Melissa's only consolations are writing long letters and diary entries, eating, and her weekly (collect) phone calls to Ted, her ex-fiance, back in San Francisco. In her diary entries, Melissa details the differences she sees between Americans and the British as well as the subtle differences between members of the same social set.

Unsure of her position somewhere between servant and member of the family, Melissa tries to please Mrs. H-E and feels that she falls very short. It's not until she meets Nanny--who was Mrs. H-E's Nanny--that Melissa begins to get a sense of her employer.

Once the family returns to London, Mrs. H-E takes advantage of Melissa's easy-going nature and she finds herself not only the au pair but the housekeeper as well. But she does get her one day off each week and attends a famous cooking school. Melissa writes a letter to the food editor of the Chronicle. He loves her style and offers to publish her observations as a weekly column. Melissa's best friend, who happens to be married and live in London, introduces her to Simon, a friend of her husband. Melissa is attracted to Simon, but is torn between that attraction and her loyalty to Ted.

She is also making progress with Claire, gaining her trust and increasing her vocabulary. Pru and Trevor like her. Mr. H-E likes her. Mrs. H-E trusts her enough to go on a three-week holiday with Mr. H-E to a small village in Greece with no phone service.

Of course, tragedy strikes, beginning with Pru breaking her leg and Ted deciding to fly out to London to visit.

Although the book was written in 2001, I got the sense that it was set at a much earlier time, like maybe the 1970's or 1980's. At least, I think Central Heating is more common today as are electric washing machines. But I admit my first-hand experience is rather limited.

I enjoyed Ms. Ford's descriptions of the local fishermen in the Scottish village and of the staff of other families. Although chronologically an adult, Melissa has a lot of maturing to do and moving out of her familiar environment was what she needed.

This was an interesting book and a quick read; a nice break from the Endymion saga. I was left, however, wondering how many of Melissa's observations were still valid.

On the March Hare scale: 3 out 5 Golden Bookmarks

Monday, February 05, 2007

R.I.P, Miss Molly

Last Wednesday, political columnist Molly Ivins died from breast cancer. And with her died one of my craziest "dreams": a debate between Ms. Ivins vs. Ms. Coulter (preferably live and in person, rather than written).

Ms. Ivins was my personal litmus test--could I read someone with whom I disagreed on almost every issue and still enjoy it? Still appreciate her use of language, of metaphor, her skill in writing? For a long time the answer was "yes." Sadly, however, I found that Ms. Ivins' BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome) was becoming more and more severe and I was finding it more and more difficult to read her column and appreciate her style. I didn't know that she was suffering from cancer and that she knew this third recurrence was terminal. That would account for a certain amount of shrillness in her writing, a certain desperation in her attacks.

But, BDS aside, I also detected a growing attitude of dismissal for those of us who disagreed with her position on other matters, notably abortion. Ms. Ivins seemed to think that those of us who might object to on-demand abortion wanted to condemn women to a life of "breeders," who were not happy unless women were kept barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.

Funny, I'm not barefoot, pregnant, nor in the kitchen much. Nor have I ever been. I just happen to think that abortion is killing a human being and all the fancy Latin words and arguments of "embryo" versus "fetus" (or "foetus") doesn't change that. And because we are killing a human being maybe we should take a look at why. And how we can avoid it.

Kathleen Parker, over at Townhall, has a lovely tribute to Ms. Ivins that comes close to expressing how I often enjoyed Ms. Ivins' writing while completely disagreeing with her conclusions.

Unfortunately, some of the comments were not so kind. (But then I was taught not to speak ill of the dead--for one thing, they can't defend themselves.)

So, Miss Molly, I hope you find an unending supply of paper in heaven and that your pencil never goes dull. I hope you're able to let go some of the hurt and pain and see the Truth as it is--and that you're not disappointed.