Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The burden of the might-have-beens

Might-have-beens are a bitch. They make you wonder about and sometimes regret many of the decisions you've made.

Might-have-beens can be constructive, yes, but less so later in life. Earlier on, and assuming one has an active learning curve, might-have-beens can remind you of the bumps on the road so you don't drive over them again.

Later in life, though, might-have-beens can feel fruitless and even disheartening, hindering rather than aiding one's ability to deal with present challenges. They can be a distraction as well as an opportunity.

After a ten-year lapse, I recently started attending A.A. meetings once a week. In a strangely counterintuitive way, going back to meetings is akin to rekindling one's toxic love affair with booze. I don't know precisely why I decided to go to meetings again, but I did bring a certain smugness into the room, feeling as if I were repeating high school English composition or some other subject I thought I'd mastered years ago.

Yep, this the a fork in the road. 
Instead, attending meetings again has been a whack to the side of the head, a reminder of how little I have changed even though I haven't touched alcohol or cigarettes for over thirty years. Listening to others talk about their daily struggles to stay sober—while reciting the all-too-familiar A.A. slogans, jingles and bumper stickers—took me back to my first meeting, immediately after I quit drinking.

I don't drink anymore but I'm still burdened by some of the circular patterns that led me to alcohol in the first place. Might I be in a different place today had I stuck to meetings all along and paid more attention, instead of abandoning that project earlier on because I "didn't need meetings" any more? Maybe, even probably. All I can say is that at least I don't drink or smoke today and that much must qualify as progress. And I'm still open to suggestions I hear from other recovering alcoholics.

An unexpected visit recently from a friend I'd met in my first job right out of graduate school in 1972, a year after Stew and I got together, led me to more second-guessing, mostly about my zig-zaggy career in journalism.

I actually didn't start working in magazines and newspapers until 1978, after I'd quit a cozy but stultifying stint deep in the federal bureaucracy—at the long-gone U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, of all places—and enrolled at Northwestern University.

Along with leaving Cuba and coming to the U.S. alone at age fourteen, quitting the feds was one of the most drastic decisions in my life. It wasn't just thinking outside the box, but going at the box with a chainsaw and starting over, with no job security or even job prospects in sight.

Even in the best of circumstances writing is a precarious way to make a living and yet the only way to get ahead is to keep taking chances. If your last novel bombs, you have to write another one, and if the best newspaper job you can land is in Carthage, Miss., or a relatively obscure publication in a big city, you go there and hope in a couple of years you discover a better gig or someone discovers you. It's the opposite of a job at the post office.

I'd always dreamed of joining the foreign service or getting a gig as a foreign reporter: There's a certain buzz I still get from landing in strange places and trying to figure out how people there live and work, and how they've developed their own versions if not of happiness, at least of reconciliation or resignation with their circumstances. Even today for me traveling is equal parts mindless sightseeing and a chance for a first-hand, albeit fleeting immersion in the politics, history and culture that has brought a country to where it is.

I was offered several opportunities to move to foreign places for various jobs and actually have travelled to numerous countries. Haiti was the one that intrigued me the most because of its intoxicating and unique brew of African and Western cultures, even its peculiar patois. Haiti was as fascinating and inexplicable as voodoo itself.

But every time an opportunity to pursue my foreign dreams arose, fear and endless what-ifs got in the way. My occasional foreign ventures ended up only whetting an appetite never quite fulfilled.

None of this says that by any means my career in journalism was failure. On the contrary, I have quite a collection of awards for my work that used to hang on a wall of my office until I got tired of looking at them: They reminded me of both my successes and my might-have-beens.

But the biggest of my might-have-beens—one I don't recall explicitly discussing with Stew—
is what it would have been like for us to raise a couple of kids. I'm quite certain they would have received as much love and attention as any child raised by a "normal" straight couple, perhaps too much so. I probably would have spent endless night trying to avoid the mistakes my parents made with me. The most attentive, insomniac parent in the world; that would have been me.

It's another might-have-been, which as all the rest cannot be relived. Life is video with no rewind button that allows you go back and edit—or redo—the scenes that didn't quite work out. All you can do is try to plan your next shoot a little better.

Before anyone think I'm on the edge of despair, worry not. I'm quite conscious of my good fortune, most of all having a loving husband and companion for forty-four years even if we weren't allowed to formally marry until three years ago, when the powers that be decided it was alright for us to get married, and no longer live marginalized in some second-class limbo called "domestic partnership."

We're comfortable; we live in what people keep telling us is beautiful home, and for the moment we have no financial or health worries.

So why do might-have-beens keep coming up? Maybe they are just markers, some times upsetting, other times inspiring, to remind us of where we are, where we came from—and what we need to do to best use the time ahead.

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Medical breakthrough in San Miguel!

It's tough to imagine an upside to the story of a friend from New York who while visiting San Miguel last week fell down in her room and broke her left humerus, the big bone that runs from the shoulder to the elbow. And it wasn't a hairline fracture you had squint at the X-Ray to notice, but a clear break a layperson could see even after three tequilas.

But indeed there was an upside: The accident led Stew and I to realize how much medical care in San Miguel has improved since our arrival ten years ago, during which we'd worried about all the what-ifs surrounding a sudden illness or other medical emergency here.

Here's looking at your humerus, sweetheart. *

Our friend's first recourse was the woman in charge of the bed-and-breakfast where she was staying, who in turn called a doctor who ordered an X-Ray of the arm. The X-Ray cost a whopping thirty-five dollars. After that, the doctor summoned an orthopedic surgeon from the nearby city of Queretaro.

The surgeon, a bearded, burly guy in his thirties whose first name was Zeus and who spoke enough English to ask all the pertinent questions, arrived later in the day and examined my friend. He put on a temporary cast and without further delay, loaded my friend into his own car and took her to the local private hospital and scheduled surgery at nine the next morning.

The hospital, now called H+ and completely refurbished, used to be called De la Fé or "Faith Hospital," an appropriate name for such an iffy operation.

Iwas a scary-miserable facility, lacking the most rudimentary modern equipment. I had an X-Ray with a machine that looked like surplus equipment from the Korean War. My friend Billie compared the ambiance in the waiting room of the doctors' office suite to a dingy bus depot. After an emergency landed him to De la Fé, the U.S. consul remarked to Stew and me that he wouldn't bring his cat there for treatment.

The most ballyhooed, and ridiculous, feature of the hospital was its hyperbaric chamber, a pressurized-oxygen machine used primarily to counteract decompression sickness resulting from scuba diving, an odd piece of equipment for a hospital several hundred miles from the ocean.

Except it must have been a money-maker: One of the hospital doctors suggested to Stew that he sign up for a series of hyperbaric "treatments."

"Would it help?," Stew asked the doctor, whose gloomy office looked more like a curio shop.

"Well, it couldn't hurt," the doctor replied.

A billboard on the approach to the hospital, since removed, advertised all manner of medical interventions for just about anything short of a brain transplant—plus the hyperbaric chamber, just in case.

Hmm. No thanks.

Despite its dilapidated interior, and refulgent exterior—the squat, two-story building was a shade of electric blue one would expect to find at a midnight paint liquidation at Home Depot—many expats never ceased to extol the miracles that unfolded daily at De la Fé. Given that for years it was the only game in town, perhaps such sanguine denials were the only way to imagine the possibility of one being taken there in an emergency.

But when Stew and I visited our friend following the surgery to install a metal rod to realign her humerus, the hospital we encountered was like a vision. Thanks to multi-million peso investment by an out of town chain, the old hospital had been completely gutted and refurbished. Brand-new equipment anywhere we looked. A hospital elevator installed to replace a steep ramp between the first and second floors that would have sent a patient on a wheelchair flying into the lobby if the attendant lost control.

Gone and best forgotten was a sad altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe, located on the second floor hallway and decorated with flickering votive candles and wilted flowers, that was not reassuring to non-believers like me who'd rather bet on modern medical science.

My friend, who stayed for two days in a private, air-conditioned room, couldn't stop talking about the excellent, first-class care she received, from the surgical team to the nurses. She had been through some serious medical crises and said the care she received here was comparable—and in some respects better, particularly the personal attention—to what she experienced at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York.

When we went to pick her up, I was afraid what the bill would be. I figured for such major surgery, operating room charges alone would be several thousand dollars. But the itemized statement, for the entire stay at the hospital and all the tests, came to only three thousand dollars—a bargain at three times that.

Now, I'm not encouraging anyone to fall down and break their humerus or a leg. But if you plan to, San Miguel may be the best place to do it.

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*BTW, what's that faint shadow between the skeleton's legs??




Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A cure for Trumpinosis

Coming on the heels of our two recent encounters with serendipity mentioned in my last posting, I may have discovered how to tune out the constant din of "news" about the presidential election scheduled to take place exactly ninety-seven days, fourteen hours, five minutes and two seconds from this writing. In other words, not a second too soon.

Leading up to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia Stew and I had been diligently, almost obsessively, reading the New York Times and Washington Post and watching the PBS NewsHour. We supplemented such serious reporting with peeks at CNN, with its usual lineup of six or eight babbling bobbleheads, a format reminiscent of the Hollywood Squares but without the humor. Then we had been checking the online Huffington Post which is to news what potato chips are to a balanced diet—addictive but of little nutritional value.

Finally, for perversity's sake, we've occasionally tuned in to Fox News for a dose of magical realism, such as Bill O'Reilly's timely observation that, after all, the slaves who built the White House were well fed and received decent lodging from the government. He was responding to Michelle Obama's speech at the convention, in which she mentioned how awesome it was to wake up in a house built by slaves. I guess O'Reilly couldn't bring himself to say that it was a beautiful speech and just leave it at that.

But following the Democratic Convention, political news has become a hailstorm of bullshit largely thanks to Donald Trump. The worst of it is not that he blurts out something offensive, ridiculous or just plain false, but that news providers feel obligated to repeat it, massage it and hold it up to the light as informational nuggets that need to be pondered for several days.

You're fired.
So we listened, ad nauseam, to reports about Trump saying Putin would not go into Ukraine, even though Russian had already annexed Crimea, which used to be part of Ukraine, in 2014. And on and on, sliding from one idiotic statement to the next, adding nothing to our knowledge of what needs to be done to address the U.S.' real problems of racial inequality, wage stagnation, the financial squeeze on the middle class and such.

It was at this moment, when Stew and I had nearly overdosed on potato chips, that Providence intervened with an unexpected solution—heavy rains, road construction and new and excellent Internet service at our home.

The rains and road construction have increased driving time to town from twenty minutes or so to over an hour, as traffic has been rerouted onto a muddy, out of the way detour that has the feel of driving through some remote part of West Virginia. So we've cut down our visits with friends in town, during which politics and much moaning and groaning about Trump is the inevitable topic of conversation. Zot!

A flash wireless Internet connection also has enabled us to download movies, documentaries and dramas that have preempted the constant political yadda-yadda from our TV schedule. We still record the PBS News Hour but fast forward past Judy Woodruff, Gwen Ifill and all the political hubbub and go directly to Jeffrey Brown, who's usually reporting about global warming or unusual plant species from the Maldives, Tahiti or some place where no one talks about Donald Trump.

Reading the Times and the Post online will require more self-control to slip past the political bloviation that consumes much of the news and opinion pages and go straight to book and movie reviews, science, travel, recipes, fashion, theater and other topics not likely to get us riled up.

In our reading, it's fiction all the time. No more "Black Flags: The Rise of Isis," by Joby Warrick, a terrific but depressing book that unfortunately reminded us of the war without end in Iraq and Syria, and the biggest debacle in U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam.

Stew instead prowls Amazon for detective or crime stories while I have settled on "Miss Jane," by Brad Watson, a novel about a girl in Mississippi born with chronic incontinence.

"Whoa! That sounds depressing!" some of you may say. Let me assure you it's a beautifully written and inspiring work, certain to take your mind off the presidential election in ninety-seven days, twelve hours, thirty-four minutes and thirty-six seconds. Make that thirty-one minutes, four seconds.

Just don't forget to vote.  

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