Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Party With A Purpose

(This was originally posted at NEED Magazine on Oct 2

“Masala” is a mixture of spices, a staple of Indian cuisine. Masala Jam is a spicy blend of musical talent that will take the stage at Gluek’s Bar in Downtown Minneapolis on October 13 to benefit street children in India.

The hot list of performers includes the smooth jazz and R&B of Wain McFarlane and Friends, reggae from Ryan Liestman and Ipso Facto, and gospel and soul from JD Steel. Internationally-renowned guitarist and composer Billy McLaughlin will toss in some acoustic zest. The sultry vocals of George Scott McKelvey, of Rhythm Jones fame, will sweeten the lineup. Shawn Douglas, Brian David Band, Michael Wright and many others lend a hand in the cooking of this spicy blend of entertainment.

Masala Jam will benefit Care & Share, a foundation dedicated to giving “children their childhood back” by helping to alleviate the devastating effects of poverty on orphaned and street children, in Vijayawada, India. Care & Share supports three children’s villages, where nearly two- thousand orphans are schooled, clothed, fed, sheltered and nurtured in a loving community. The kids can stay active with skating, biking and soccer that are also on offer at the facilities.

Care & Share receives funding mostly through child sponsorship. Sponsors donate a dollar a day to an individual child, and develop a familial relationship through correspondence with the sponsored child and organization. “Every penny, except for some flyers and mailings, goes directly to the kids,” says Julie Roberts, U.S. director for Care & Share. Two hundred children are sponsored by Americans and 5,000 by citizens of Italy, with the need growing everyday, as more and more children are now losing their parents to AIDS.

Daddy’s Home, the original of the three villages, is “the most joyful place I’ve found in India,” says Roberts, a Northwest pilot. She was a volunteer for 10 years before taking her current position with the organization, based in Venice, Italy. She said she was depressed each time she visited India by not being able to make a difference in the wretched lives of thousands of street children who suffered from malnutrition, neglect, abuse, and prostitution. Once she discovered the village, she committed fully to their work, sponsoring seven children and adopting two into her family.

In addition to the villages, which employ many villagers, Care & Share brings milk, food, medical care and education into the slums of Vijayawada. Approximately 30% of the population of the city lives in the slums, lacking hygiene, sanitation and clean drinking water. The organization estimates it provides 5,242 meals a day to the children in their care, as well as those living with their families in the slums.

Last year, the usually-reliable monsoon season never materialized, causing widespread drought. This has lead to food shortages and hiking food prices. “We’re in a panic. You can’t just have all these kids relying on you and say ‘sorry, no food,’” says Roberts. Masala Jam is a response to the call for immediate help to buy food.

Wain McFarlane, who is helping organize the benefit, said when he found out about the tragic lives of the street children, he had to take part. He said it’s important to help save these children, many of whom were living like slaves for “bad guys with negative interests” before being taken off the streets by Care & Share. “I expect it to be an incredible night of music that will set your soul on fire, and for a great cause.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Saving Lives, One Chair at a Time

(this was first published at NEED on August 26)

The dialysis clinic had just opened in Guayaquil, Ecuador, when Juan Carlos was wheeled in, clinging to life. He was so bloated, nobody could tell if he was a boy or a girl. Juan’s mother, learning of the possibility of saving her son’s life, “sold everything they owned, sold the chickens for bus fare” to get Juan to the clinic for help, said Ginny Mello, Executive Director of Bridge of Life (BOL), a charitable arm of Davita, a leading dialysis provider in the US. Until that day, Juan had felt he didn’t want to go on living, didn’t want to burden his family with expensive dialysis treatment from a private hospital. Within days of receiving the dialysis that saved his life, Juan Carlos said that he now wants to be a doctor.

The non-profit clinic in Ecuador was the first of several BOL would open in subsequent years in developing countries, where kidney disease means certain death for anyone who can’t afford the expensive, ongoing treatment. Mello, who was a full-time Davita employee, and her husband, who is the company’s Chief Operating Officer, founded BOL to share their knowledge and passion, to “take what we know that works here and transplant it to a place where it doesn’t exist” in developing countries, said Mello. Davita donates equipment, expertise and employee hours to get the clinics up and running, which takes about a year.

Our kidneys filter excess water and waste from our blood and make urine. The two leading causes of kidney disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, can damage the blood vessels, causing kidneys to shut down. In developing countries, another risk factor for kidney disease is lack of knowlege, causing poor people to become very sick before seeking care. In addition, lack of understanding of the disease among medical professionals decreases the number of patients who are properly diagnosed and treated in early stages of the disease. Instances of kidney disease are not well-tracked in developing countries, but are believed to be much higher than in the U.S., where millions suffer with the disease, according to The National Kidney Disease Eduction Program.

For Bridge of Life, choosing a partner in an under-served area of the globe is the first hurdle. Since BOL doesn’t operate the clinics, the in-country partner, maybe a small hospital, must be able to financially sustain the dialysis clinic, be geographically accessible, and be able to offer nurse and physician expertise. Once a partner is identified, BOL helps to build the clinic, bringing in nephrologists, nurses and technicians who donate their vacation time to train local staff how to operate and maintain the machines. BOL staff and volunteers return for a clinic review every six months for three years, and clinics should be self-sufficient thereafter.

Water used in dialysis has to be cleaner than U.S. tap water. Another challenge is identifying a location with an abundant water supply needed to run the dialysis machines, with a local supplier of parts for the water filtration system. BOL is overcoming these challenges and more, one clinic at a time, at clinics in Cameroon, India, Ecuador, Guatemala and the Philippines. “We are saving hundreds, not thousands, of lives,” said Mello, who admits there aren’t enough dialysis chairs in the world for all the people who need them. But she remains passionate about her mission to help as many people like Juan Carlos as possible. “Who knows what he will do with his life? He may touch another one hundred or a thousand lives.”

Sowing Seeds of Change

(this was first published at NEED on July 16)

In our fast-paced culture of product-based outcomes, one Minnesota group is cultivating relationships that break down the barriers to food justice for people of color, women and the poor, something you can’t hold in your hand.

The Minnesota Food and Justice Alliance (MFJA) is a loose affiliation of groups whose primary raison d’etre may be to cultivate community, mostly urban, gardens, but who also recognize the gardeners involved are mostly white and middle class. The groups “each have a special interest in training people of color to garden” and get access to fresh, healthy food, said Melvin Giles, a self-described community peacemaker and coordinator for MFJA. Tom Guettler, the group’s volunteer and workshop coodinator, said, “White folks show up first because we are already tapped into the system. But, there’s something more than just saying we want to be diverse.”

For the middle class, a grocery store that stocks locally-grown produce, eggs and meat, can be easily reached by car and might be taken for granted. But in economically-depressed neighborhoods, where many people of color live, the choices of fresh food are slim, driving high rates of fast-food consumption, leading to higher instances of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. The food justice movement is attempting to address these food access issues. Sarah Claassen, Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project organizer and MFJA member, said, “There are huge racial disparities in our food and agricultural system today. It’s working real well for some people,” referring to factory farms, “and not well at all for [small] farmers, for eaters, for people who want to grow our food here and for people who want to be in control of their food system.” But she believes that solutions have to be community-based. “Where there are the biggist barriers, there is the biggest innovation. A lot of the solutions being proposed aren’t being decided by those people,” such as how to grow a lot of food in the smallest space with very little waste. “I think the solution is different for every community. We need to maintain relationships with rural communities. I don’t see a food system where everything is grown in the city, but we do need to empower people to make those decisions.”

“Land is the biggest barrier” to urban community gardening, so forming relationships between stakeholders is essential, said Giles. For example, CSA (community-supported agriculture) is a program where local farmers provide what they raise to city dwellers who might otherwise buy supermarket goods that have been shipped from thousands of miles away. Giles said one neighborhood’s answer was to make a deal with a grower to allow them to pay for their CSA in installments.

“Education to action is something we’re committed to, not just talking to talk,” said Claassen. In this spirit, MFJA has agreed to sign on to Homegrown Minneapolis, an initiative to build a stronger local food system, with the stipulation that racial equity and accountability be stated goals. Giles, Guettler and Claassen also offer a workshop for community garden groups in which they talk about white privilege, encouraging the groups to create a safe place for conversations about the barriers to food justice in their communities. “Smart, white folks tend to take a world view of things. They externalize as opposed to looking in the garden and in themselves. Our goal is to get people to look inside and say, ‘What’s going on here? Who’s here? Who’s not here? What can I do about it?’”

Tom Guettler MFJA Coordinator 651-307-5691 (no website, but information will be shared on other group’s websites)

Tourism on Their Own Terms

(this was first published at NEED on July 14)

Sam Bailey was surfing his way up the western coast of Peru last year, taking advantage of the warm waters and hospitality. Crossing into Ecuador, he traveled through many interesting beach towns in various stages of development, and arrived in the small town of Canoa, on the north coast.

Bailey noticed that tourism in many of the villages had been taken over by outside industry, where big companies had come in and set up hotels and restaurants without concern for the natural environment or local customs. The fishing village of Canoa, which also catered to surfers, was still unspoiled, with most roads still unpaved, and where electricity goes out every once in a while. It was obvious to Bailey that tourism was coming to Canoa, but he hoped he could help the villagers build their industry on their own terms.

His idea was to start a camp for college-aged students, where they could learn to surf and take on environmental projects. “Surfing is a solitary sport. Surfers don’t see beyond themselves when they return to the beach,” Bailey said. He wanted to change that dynamic when he approached one of the locals, Daniel Velasco, a town leader and fellow surfer who runs a posada (small hotel) in Canoa. According to Bailey, Velasco didn’t trust the idea at first, fearing it was another way to exploit the village. But Bailey convinced him that he was sincere, assuring him the groups would patronize locally-owned hotels and restaurants, spreading money around in the local economy. Also, each group member would donate money to the local grade school. Velasco agreed to introduce Bailey to the community and helped facilitate what became Eco-Surf Volunteers.

The school, La Escuela los Algarrobos (named after a kind of native tree) includes English as a Second Language and environmental education in their curriculum. At the school, the ES volunteers facilitate arts and crafts sessions conducted in English. Moya Foley, the school administrative and financial director, a Canadian who has lived in Ecuador for 30 years, said the financial donation helped complete some construction on two new classrooms, and the volunteers “worked their butts off moving dirt, sanding, painting and generally doing whatever we needed done.”

In addition to helping out at the school, the volunteers lead the village children on beach clean-ups, to “get ahold of their attitudes about clean-up” early in life. The volunteers’ hard work – about four hours a day – is rewarded with two-hour daily surf lessons, given by locals. “I think the most important thing the volunteers talk back to their countries as an experience, is the cultural immersion they have and the contact with the community ,” said Velasco. He was particularly satisfied with the impression the volunteers made on the village children. “To see the volunteers working on the school activities and watching them as they walk to do beach cleanups, and collecting garbage on the street . . . they are used to seeing tourist partying or laying on the beach reading, maybe getting a wrong idea about life, but this way they can understand that life is not about that.”

The programs have been a big hit with the kids. “The first day we had about 20 kids and on the last day we had 90!” said Foley. They are “looking forward to the volunteer’s return. They stop me on the streeet, the older ones, and ask me when they are coming back.”

Bailey is planning several more camps through 2010, but envisions the people of Canoa eventually taking over operation of the camps themselves. “The town is still discovering what is needed. They want progress, but want to do it in a careful way. Their biggest concern is developing the tourist industry while maintaining cultural identity.”

Kids These Days!

(this was first published at NEED on June 23 and June 25)
was founded to dispel the myth that teenagers are apathetic, using “the power of the internet to help young people change the world,” and for 16 years has been empowering them with money and tools to do good work. Each week the organization gives two $500 grants, one for seed projects and one for disaster relief. Each year, they give $10,000 grants to several young finalists whose vision and effort have really made a difference. A grand prize is awarded to one of those finalists to continue their work. This year, on June 4, Maggie Doyne won $100,000 for her Kopila Valley Children's Home in Nepal, which she built using babysitting money. The other 2009 finalists – the rock stars of social change – are Marvelyn Brown, David Burstein, Eric Glustrom, and Darius Weems. Read on to learn the awesome stories of these young people who don’t know the meaning of “apathetic.”

Maggie Doyne – Kopila Valley Children's Home

A vision, a shovel and a stash of babysitting money was all Maggie needed to build a children’s home in Nepal. At the end of her senior year in high school, Maggie says she took what was supposed to be a year off to travel to learn her purpose in the world. One stop was an orphanage in India, where she had been told volunteers were needed. From there she traveled to Nepal, where she met hundreds more street children without the most basic necessities. “I’d seen orphanages that were causing more problems than helping,” Maggie said, where kids are more susceptible to disease than they are on the streets. “They come out with no skills and end up right back on the streets.” She resolved to build a children’s home, and talked to everyone who would listen about how to make that happen. She then identified a piece of land in a valley beside a stream. When she found out the asking price - $5000, exactly the amount she had in the bank – she knew it was meant to be. Orphans who truly have nobody to turn to are taken in at the Kopila Home, where 26 children, ages 3-10, learn sewing, gardening and husbandry, skills they will need in their region of Nepal, where subsistence farming is the norm. Maggie believes the road to peace is through children. “Until we start looking at the lives of children in countries where violence is prevalent, violence will prevail.”

Marvelyn Brown – Marvelous Connections

At 19, Marvelyn was having a good time. She partied and hung out with friends, without a care in the world. She started flirting with a guy from work, and was flattered to be considered his lovely, sexy “accessory.” That is, until he infected her with HIV. In high school, when HIV had been discussed, Marvelyn had shrugged off the information, thinking HIV was an infection reserved for drug users and prostitutes. So when an unrelated hospital visit prompted tests that came up positive for HIV, she was shocked. Marvelyn met others who were infected and realized she “wasn’t the only one who had missed the information” about HIV. Ignorance was affecting more than just her. As word of her diagnosis spread quickly from friends out into the community, she understood the impact her story could have on other young people. “I realized the power of my voice.” These days, as the head of her own consulting agency, Marvelous Connections, Marvelyn goes around the country into “high schools, colleges, universities, churches, sweet 16 parties, anywhere I can get the word out” because, she says, young people need an example. “They need to see someone who has it, how easily they can get it, that it’s not the image that you think.” The Marvelous Connections 2009 tour is aimed at reducing the stigma of HIV and influencing 5,000 students to get informed and tested.

David Burstein – “18 in ‘08”
David wasn’t old enough to vote when he realized his generation was underrepresented at the polls. He was 16 during the 2004 elections, and the story that was repeating over and over on TV was that today’s youth don’t get involved in politics. He decided then and there to do something to spur his peers – “a generation that has so much at stake, ranging from education to college tuition, from health care to global climate change” – to get involved in the 2008 presidential election. “Whatever way they get involved, we don’t take sides. That they get involved is what’s important to us.” David launched a non-partisan campaign aimed at launching activism and encouraging voter registration, featuring young people and politicians alike. The first tool, a documentary targeting 17 to 24-yr-olds, was sold across the country. The Los Angeles and New York City school districts bought the film to show in civics classes. Sales of the film funded the making of public service announcements featuring celebrities and policy forums that were held around the country. The campaign encouraged 25,000 new voters, said Burstein. But he didn’t stop there. Since the election, “18 in ’08” continues to spur political participation through policy forums that spark discussion and ideas about how to solve the problems that will be facing his generation for years to come. “Young people are increasingly drifting away from party, moving toward ideas, beliefs. As a political observer, I think that’s a good thing.”

Eric Glustrom – Educate!

Eric was told he was too young to go Africa alone. He’d only ever been to Canada. His parents had misgivings about sending him to Uganda to execute his idea, to make a video about life in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement. It was the summer after his junior year of high school, but Eric, 17, would not be deterred and his parents finally consented. The first person he met when he stepped off the bus would become his best friend and the catalyst for an initiative to educate people to become leaders for social change in their country. Benson Olivier had lost his family and was now living in the refugee camp and dealing with the challenges all refugees face: malnutrition, poverty, malaria, threat of violence, and hopelessness. Benson said he needed an education so he could help solve these pressing problems, and Eric made a commitment to help, paying for Benson’s education. Since 2002, Educate! has evolved into a network of U.S. high school and college groups that mentor Ugandan students, ages 16 to19, through the two-year leadership curriculum. The first students to graduate have taken their leadership skills and “started an orphanage, sent 70 kids to school, and raised over $10,000 from farming,” to fund it all themselves, Eric said. They have “directly impacted 9,000 people, about half the people” in the settlement. But, he says, the biggest thing Educate! has done for the people of Kyangwali was to believe in them, to give them confidence to create change.

Darius Weems – “Darius Goes West”

In the summer of ’05, Darius and his buddies took a road trip. Twelve guys, most still in high school, jumped in the van and headed west, from their home in Georgia to California, in the hopes of getting MTV to pimp Darius’ ride. Video camera in hand, it was a typical adolescent lark, except for one thing: Darius suffers with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and Darius’ ride is a wheelchair. DMD is a genetic disease that causes the deterioration of the voluntary muscles, eventually leading to heart failure, usually before the age of 30. Darius hoped that an appearance on a national TV show would bring much-needed attention to the disease that is 100% fatal. He didn’t get on MTV that time, but they have since offered to produce a news special about Darius and DMD. Darius’s friend, Logan Smalley, the videographer for the cross-country trip, spent a year editing what became “Darius Goes West,” a documentary that has won 28 film festivals awards worldwide. When they began to get requests for copies of the movie from around the country, they decided to sell the DVD, donating proceeds for DMD research, which so far amounts to $1.6 million. “It’s not always about what you do for yourself,” Darius said. “Putting a smile on the faces of parents with kids with this disease, giving them a little hope, makes me want to keep on fighting. It won’t save me, but these kids are the ones who will discover a cure in the future.”

Vigilante for Social Justice

(this was first published at NEED on June 6, 2009)

Eric Klein was mad as hell. On the December day in 2004 when the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, Klein was hit by a drunk driver. Klein didn’t realize it at the time, but the two events would change his life. Along with the rest of the world, Klein watched as billions of dollars poured into relief organization coffers for the devastated people of Sri Lanka. Six weeks later, little of the money seemed to be getting to the people on the ground, the villagers whose lives had been swept away by the storm. “The biggest relief effort in history, over $7 billion, and we had no idea how the money is being spent.” Klein says he couldn’t find Sri Lanka on the map, but was determined to help out with some of the settlement money he got from the car accident. He and two of his buddies would go there to help however they could. He asked himself, “How hard can it be?” What he found were untouched stacks of supplies in a warehouse across the street from needy villagers. What was intended to be a 5-day trip turned into a 4-month relief effort. He worked with several villages on things they needed: he helped build houses and public bathrooms; he bought simple necessities for the hospitals, shoes and toiletries for the villagers. He helped them organize to rebuild their communities.

From that experience CAN-DO, or Compassion into Action Network-Direct Outcome, was born. CAN-DO has helped communities by supplying provisions in the wake of the hurricanes that have slashed the gulf coast, flooding in Iowa and Rwanda, and power cut-offs in South Dakota, on the Crow Creek Reservation. On the reservation, Klein says he saw the worst poverty, where people earn less than $4000 a year, a place where the average life expectancy is 44 years. The utility company in the region had begun to shut off the power of residents during days of extreme cold – even against the company’s own cold-weather policy – because residents were overdue on their power bill. “I’m not some white guy going in saying, ‘here, take this, do this.’ They say what they want.” Lisa Lengkeek, whose brother worked with Klein to expose the power cut offs, said Klein came to them through an “act of the universe.” He wasn’t able to get the company to give the residents any breaks, but he is helping them to realize a dream: CAN-DO and a tribal organization called Tree of Life are partnering to build a women’s crisis center that will also house a commissary that will provide essentials like food, diapers and other dry goods. They still need $7000 to complete the project.

Klein said in the beginning he used to fly under the radar, just go out and help wherever he could without looking for publicity. After competing on Oprah’s Big Give, he realized the value of self-promotion, that to get the attention of funders, you need to get noticed. “People think we’re this big organization, but we’re not,” Klein says of CAN-DO, which is made up of a few of his friends and his mother and father. When they hear about a community in need, they pool resources and jump in to help. “We don’t have a religious or political agenda. We don’t cut checks for salaries. We have a low overhead. All the [donated] money goes into the communities we serve. We get the community involved,” says Klein. Along with spending his own money, he has received grants or supplies from Oprah Winfrey, North Face, the Airline Ambassadors and other groups. To measure accountability for people’s donations, CAN-DO has created the Virtual Volunteer, “the first online, interactive real-time video web site which allows millions world wide to Watch LIVE and interact via chat as you personally witness your contributions make it into the hands of those in need.”

Klein can be reached at 646-228-7049

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tick, tick, tick

(This article was published in the summer 2011 issue of Lyme Times)

Anne Myre remembers the day she woke up with aching muscles and severe joint pain. It hurt to turn her neck. Within days, her feet were so sore, it hurt to walk, and an overwhelming fatigue set in, making it nearly impossible to drag herself out of bed. Although she showed her doctor the bull’s eye rash she had developed after being bitten by a tick, she was told she had arthritis, bursitis, flu, plantar fasciitis, and depression. Her job was threatened for taking so many sick days. She was 24.

She also remembers the day many months later when she saw Lyme Disease being discussed on a talk show and recognized her symptoms. It was a relief to be able to name it, she says, a relief to realize she wasn’t going crazy. After 10 days of antibiotics, her doctor told her she was good to go. And she did feel better – mostly. But foot pain, insomnia, fatigue and depression would return sporadically over the next 20 years.

Then, in 2005, Myre tested positive for Chronic Lyme Disease (CLD). Wanting to find others who were dealing with the frustrations of this confounding disease, she traveled from her home in Forest Lake to support group meetings in the Twin Cities, but only a few people attended. In her disappointment, she took steps to form her own support group. “I don’t know why I started it, because I’m not a public person at all. I was moved. I needed support myself and there just wasn’t anything around here.” Members of her parish, the Hosanna Lutheran Church, helped her get started and provided a meeting place. She hung flyers around town and posted an ad in the local paper that invited “you or anyone you know with Lyme Disease” to come to the meeting. Myre was nervous before the first meeting, fearing nobody would show up. “But when people started to come in I was exhilarated. I couldn’t believe there were that many people in this little town of ours” with Lyme Disease. “I cried the first several meetings because, finally, there was somebody out there like me.” As Myre sees it, the support group’s growth has gone far beyond the initial hope that she could learn more about the disease with others. “It’s just been phenomenal.”

That was three years ago, when Myre founded the Minnesota Lyme Action Support Group (MLASG). Based in Forest Lake, one of Minnesota’s epicenters of Lyme Disease, the group draws membership from a wide radius: Milaca, Duluth, Hudson, Taylors Falls, Osceola, Hayward, Stillwater, Woodbury, the Twin Cities. And today it has become a locus of activism. Membership has grown from 15 at that first meeting to its current mailing list of 276. MLASG is known by people in the Minnesota Lyme community as a leader because of their efforts to raise awareness of this misunderstood disease. They have hosted seminars that feature Lyme experts for the public and health professionals, and hold a once-monthly support group meeting. To fund these efforts, they organize an annual 5K walk/run, which, last year, brought in $10,000.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reported 1,239 cases in 2007, the most recent reporting year. Those who study or treat Lyme believe the true number of cases, including those that go unreported or misdiagnosed, could be 12 times higher. Melissa Kemperman, an MDH epidemiologist, said suburban sprawl has created ideal tick habitat with lots of forest edge, such as the area in and around Forest Lake, where ticks thrive in the cool, damp shade of the underbrush and leaf litter.

This is what we know: When someone is bitten by a black-legged tick in Minnesota, they have at least a one in three chance of being infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease. An MDH survey of black-legged ticks (in Minnesota, these are mostly deer ticks) once found mainly in eastern Minnesota, finds them moving across the state. Doctors agree that a person who is infected by a tick bite has a good chance of warding off disease if they are treated within several days of the bite. But here’s where the issue gets thorny: Many doctors either don’t know what to look for, and some don’t even believe in CLD. For one thing, they are conditioned to expect to see the tell-tale bull’s eye rash, but not all Lyme rashes display this characteristic. Thirty percent of those infected never develop a rash at all. Because ticks carry other bacteria that may complicate a Lyme infection, symptoms vary from person to person, often mimicking symptoms of other diseases. For these reasons, Lyme can go for many years without being properly treated, compounding the symptoms as the bacteria multiply and invade many systems of the body, including tissues, organs and brain. This is the late stage known as CLD.

Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” Maloney is the group’s advisor and a frequent speaker at MLASG’s public presentations. She devotes most of her waking hours scouring the Lyme research and findings of doctors who have treated CLD. Maloney’s self-imposed education mandate also extends to the medical community. She has developed classes for registered nurses and physicians to make them aware that CLD is real and rampant in Minnesota, and that the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) guidelines for diagnosis and treatment – the accepted law of Lyme Land – are inadequate and inappropriate. For starters, the diagnostic blood test most commonly used doesn’t detect all forms of the disease. It is based on the assumption that, if a person is infected, they will develop antibodies that can be detected. However, the test only searches for a selection of the antibodies, those that would be present in Lyme arthritis, and not others that are present in other manifestations of the disease. These antibodies take time to build up. In some patients, the antibodies themselves elude detection because they’re bound together in so-called immune complexes. And patients with neurological symptoms, such as dizziness, numbness of limbs, blurred vision and headaches – common in CLD – tend to have a muted immune response. The tests could miss patients at any state of the disease.

Maloney and other Lyme-aware doctors, believes Lyme Disease is best detected by clinical diagnosis. “Diagnosis of Lyme . . . should be done by listening to a patient’s history, knowing that they live, work, play in an area where Lyme is, by doing an exam. People always think that tests are infallible, because, by gosh, it involves technology and technology is great! But the Lyme tests were created by people and they are not perfect. Unlike the HIV screening test, which has . . . to catch 95% of all HIV cases, the Lyme tests don’t have to prove it and they aren’t catching it.”

Treatment protocol is another dispute. Dr. Joseph Burrascano, an icon of the Lyme community who has been treating CLD in New York State since the early 80s, admits in his 2008 treatment guidelines, that while long-term antibiotic treatment has been effective, the type of drug and dosage will “vary for different people based on multiple factors.” These include how long the person has been sick, whether they have co-infections or immune deficiencies, whether they have taken medications that can aggravate the Lyme infection (like steroids, which are often prescribed for arthritis), their age, weight, tolerance to antibiotic treatment, and other factors. The IDSA calls for a single, short round of antibiotics and contends that long-term therapy is dangerous.

With all this disagreement, it’s no surprise that insurance coverage should become another bramble, causing long-term antibiotic treatment to go underground. Insurance companies have placed doctors who defy the IDSA guidelines on state medical board watch lists. Burrascano himself was brought in front of the New York State medical board and forced to defend his treatment protocol. Unlike others who have been similarly persecuted, he did not lose his license. Because of this threat, it’s not easy to find a doctor who will administer antibiotics long-term. For this article, I spoke with a dozen people being treated for CLD. Not one wanted to “out” their doctor.

A main driver behind MLASG’s work is Jan Thietje, who came to the group when she learned that some family members where diagnosed with Lyme and was looking for information on the disease. Immediately she saw the need for more organization. “They were very open to suggestions, very willing, very tired, very ill.” She recommended the group form a board of directors, register as a nonprofit for fundraising purposes, and get on their legislator’s radar. She explained, “I come from Illinois, and in Illinois if you want to get anything done you have to get close to your legislators.” The first guest speaker Thietje brought in was Pat Smith, the national Lyme Disease Association’s president, for a three-day symposium, which she coordinated with the Forest Lake mayor. Both state legislators from the district were in attendance.

Ray Vandeveer is the state senator for district 52, which envelopes parts of the suburban counties of Anoka and Washington, containing Forest Lake. He knew people who were dealing with a variety of health issues that seemed unrelated to each other, and if “they went to three different doctors they got three different opinions.” Some of them believed Lyme might be the culprit. So, when he was invited by MLASG to learn more about Lyme, he readily accepted. At group meetings he has attended since then, he has talked to many people, who, prior to long-term antibiotic treatment, had to quit their jobs, “quit doing things most of us do. When they got the long-term treatment [for CLD], they got better. Some were health professionals themselves with a lot of credibility. These people weren’t running around looking for ways to be sick. Their experiences were documented and very persuasive.” Vandeveer’s interactions with the group have convinced him that long-term antibiotic therapy works for many CLD sufferers, and that doctors need to be able to provide that treatment. At the group’s request he has co-authored a bill, currently awaiting a committee hearing at the state legislature, which would provide doctors protection to do just that.

The hope for the legislation is that doctors who are now cautious about long-term antibiotic therapy won’t feel so at risk, which would increase the number of doctors willing to provide much-needed treatment. Brenda Morency, the board treasurer, was given the run around by doctors who failed to connect the dots of her various ailments, which included extreme headaches, Bell’s palsy and blurred vision. Allowed to go untreated, the nerve damage to her left eye and left side of her face is irreversible. Finally, five doctors and 14 months after the symptoms began, she started antibiotic treatment for CLD. Morency was given treatment for five months and declared “cured,” when most of her symptoms went away. But within two months she started to lose feeling in her legs, or they would feel as if they weighed “a thousand pounds each,” causing her to fall a lot. She went back on antibiotics, which she credits with keeping her out of a wheelchair. But she can’t always depend on being able to get in for a doctor visit. There are so few in Minnesota who treat so many CLD patients, waiting lists can be six months long or more. Plagued with fatigue, Morency wonders, “How can I drive three hours north or south for treatment without falling asleep behind the wheel?”

In addition to being debilitated by sickness, many CLD sufferers are also devastated by the money they shell out for their expensive treatments. Kim Mitchell, whom I met at a MLASG event, is a well-paid engineer and business entrepreneur with good health coverage. He and his wife, who also has CLD, have been on intravenous antibiotics as well as oral dosages, natural remedies, like probiotics to offset the effects of the antibiotics, and vitamin supplements. Insurance companies don’t pay for these alternative treatments, and Mitchell figures his out-of-pocket costs in 2008 were $40,000.

Eight women currently serve on the board of MLASG, and all but Thietje struggle with CLD’s confounding symptoms. Despite their various disabilities, the women work doggedly toward their educational goals. They have hosted public events that showcase experts from the Minnesota departments of health and natural resources and experts from around the country, and they staff booths at home shows and physicians’ conferences. To increase the number of doctors who recognize Lyme and know how to treat it, they have sponsored attendance for two doctors at the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) annual conference. ILADS recognizes CLD and works to improve the standards of treatment for the disease.

It’s a Thursday night in the Forest Lake Area High School media library. Forty or so men and women and a couple teenagers sit around rectangular tables, many furtively taking notes of Maloney’s presentation about the diseases ticks can inflict and what to do if they get bit. Myre, Morency and three other board members sit together by the door, greeting people as they arrive and handing out literature. They are wearing last year’s 5K T-shirts, lime green with “Tick Tick Tick Lyme Disease!” printed in black across the front. Because high-season for ticks in Minnesota is June through August, Maloney suggests that if anyone gets what feels like a summer flu, they should get to a doctor. A young woman who was recently bitten by a tick asks, “If you get treated for Lyme, are you guaranteed to get better?” Although optimistic that research will lead to better treatment, Maloney pauses, and, with resignation in her voice, responds: “No. There isn’t a guarantee. I think your odds are very good, but no, there is no guarantee.”

Lyme Warrior

(I'm still trying to get this published . . . )

About 15 men and women are stretched out on brightly-colored sticky mats in a carpeted meeting room in which chairs and tables are stacked in a corner. A woman with clear blue eyes and sand-colored hair pulled back with a head band speaks with a conversational lilt as she warms up the class with a few seated asanas.

It’s Monday at the University of Minnesota and this group of students and staff is releasing the stress of their day in a free lunch-time drop-in yoga class. Jeanne Bain, who has taught yoga here for five years, informs the class they will work up to a headstand today. The attendees look around uneasily, but Bain assures them they may only do as much as they feel capable of doing today, building strength and correct posture to accomplish the full pose . . . eventually. “The intention is to get to the full headstand, but that may be next week, next year, or in the next life.” Bain demonstrates how to “build the pose,” starting from dolphin pose. She quickly falls over laughing, explaining that she can’t actually hold the pose for very long, but assures the class it can be done. Bain then hops cheerfully from person to person, helping each one through various stages of the headstand.

By all appearances, Bain is a healthy, joyful, enthusiastic woman. This is a good day. But on a bad day, she can’t drag herself out of bed. Bain has Lyme Disease, a tick-borne bacterial infection that causes a seemingly endless array of symptoms, from muscle and joint pain to dizziness to disabling fatigue. Taken alone, these symptoms could signal any number of common ailments. But Lyme Disease victims suffer from a combination of these symptoms and more, which can compound and worsen if not properly treated. If one is lucky enough to find a doctor who will prescribe the needed antibiotics, treatment can stretch on a year or more.

Although Bain was only recently diagnosed, she believes she has been sick with Lyme for half of her 44 years. She has seen a slew of doctors over the years – an endocrinologist, a neurologist, a cardiologist, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and a hormone OB/GYN/menopause expert – to figure out what was wrong with her. They told her she was just anxious. “I had a major personality change,” she says, recalling the time when she was 20, when she believes she contracted Lyme. “I went from being totally bubbly and full of life and joy to being Goth.” On the bad days she describes herself as “Masha Jeanne,” after the dark, despairing character, Masha, in Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

Bain may feel dark on the inside, but from the outside people see light; she smiles often and moves at a clip from one task to another. She and her husband, Robert Haarman, decided not to replace their car after it was totaled in an accident, and Bain used her bike to get around for almost a year, logging about 15 miles a day. In addition to teaching yoga at several venues, Bain, with a theater degree and a master’s in human development, facilitates creative writing classes of 4th to 12th grade homeschoolers, and is a contributing writer to a Minneapolis women’s magazine. She also raises two sons, four and 12, with Haarman, who is a dancer, waiter, singer and clown. Both boys have Lyme, adding guilt to her burden, because she suspects she passed the disease to them in utero.

The clash of the drugs with the bacteria can be more painful than the disease. Known as a “herx,” (from Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction), Bain describes the die-off of the bacteria as going “backward through your life with Lyme,” experiencing all the symptoms you’ve had in your life in reverse. “There is a squeezing pain in random places. Then depression waves. Then anxiety. Then the ankle goes out. Can't put any weight on it. Then it passes. Then my blood hurts. Feels like it isn't flowing. Pains in my rib cage. Is it my heart? Then the hip seizes up and I can't walk.” She has been on the drugs for three months and doesn’t know if or when she will feel completely well.

Since being diagnosed, Bain has become aware of dozens of other people with Lyme, all who have faced similar obstacles trying to get to the root of the problem. Haarman calls Bain “the Erin Brockovich of Lyme” because she has fervently researched Lyme at the library and on “Dr. Google” and shares her findings through a Lyme support group. She recently arranged a screening of “Under Our Skin,” a terrifying documentary that follows a hand-full of Lyme sufferers for several years through their battles with the disease and the stonewalling of the medical establishment that insists their symptoms are all in their head.

Through it all, yoga has been an antidote to the sickness, which Bain practices at least four times a week. “I feel like I’m pulling a sled around, 24 hours a day, even while I sleep. And my arms are broken. On that sled are my two kids, my husband, all the doctor appointments, the supplements, the drugs,” Bain explains. “Without yoga, I wouldn’t have the strength or courage to continue.”

Vigilante for Social Justice

(Posted on NEED Magazine blog June 4)

Eric Klein was mad as hell. In December 2004, on the same day that a tsunami crashed into Southeast Asia, Klein was hit by a drunk driver. He didn't realize at the time that these two events would converge to shape his life's mission. Along with the rest of the world, Klein watched as relief organizations collected billions of dollars to help the devastated people of Sri Lanka. Six weeks later, little of the money seemed to be getting to the villagers whose lives had been swept away by the storm.

Klein determined to help out with some of the settlement money he got from the car accident. He and two of his buddies would travel to Sri Lanka to support the community however they could. When they arrived, they found untouched stacks of supplies in a warehouse across the street from needy villagers. What was intended to be a five-day trip turned into a four-month relief effort. Klein helped build houses and public bathrooms in several villages. He bought simple necessities for the hospitals, and shoes and toiletries for the villagers. He helped them organize to rebuild their communities.

Because of that experience, Klein founded CAN-DO, or Compassion into Action Network - Direct Outcome. CAN-DO has helped communities by supplying provisions in the wake of the hurricanes that have slashed the gulf coast, flooding in Iowa and Rwanda, and power cut-offs on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. On the reservation, where people earn less than $4000 a year and the average life expectancy is 44 years, Klein says he saw the worst poverty. The utility company in the region had begun to shut off the power to residents' homes during the extremely cold weather - even against the company's own cold-weather policy - because residents were overdue on their power bill, for amounts less than $100.

As he did in Sri Lanka, Klein asked the tribe how he could help. Peter Lengkeek, the Crow Creek member who brought the power cut-offs to Klein's attention, said, "What CAN-DO is doing is incredible and is the right way." Lengkeek said many people have tried to exploied the tribe for self-promotion or worse. "CAN-DO is coming here and working beside us. They have given us a voice we've never had before." Unfortunately, the power company denies they are doing anything wrong, and campaign to find a solution is ongoing. To spur economic development on the reservation, CAN-DO, Lengkeek and others are partnerning to build a thrift store, among other projects, where residents can purchase at low cost essentials like food, diapers and other dry goods. Another project is a greenhouse, which viewers can watch take shpe via live webcam June 7th through June 15th.

"People think we're this big organization, but we're not,"Klein says of CAN-DO, which is made up of a few friends and his mother and father. When they hear about a community in need, they pool resources and jump in to help. "We don't have a religious or political agenda. We don't cut checks for salaries. We have a low overhead. All the [donated] money goes into the communities we serve. We get the communty involved." Because he founded CAN-DO out of outrage over the inefficient use of relief money by some large relief organizations, he is committed to open communication with his organization's supporters. To measure accountability for people's donations, CAN-DO created the Virtual Volunteer, "the first online, interactive real-time video web site which allows millions world wide to watch LIVE and interact via chat as you personally witness your contributions make it into the hands of those in need."

Friday, May 22, 2009

Lots of work and nothing to show for it

I know it seems like I'm just slacking, not having posted anything since forever. But really, I have been working my ass off in my magazine writing class (for which I got an A, tyvm). Besides the Barbie essay, I have written a profile of a yogi with Lyme Disease and a long feature (almost 3000 words!) on a Lyme support group in Forest Lake, among other tidbits. I am trying to get them both published, so they won't appear here until I know one way or t'other.

But suffice it to say I have learned a lot about Lyme Disease!

Here is a primer:

*Lyme Disease has been reported in every state in the US, and is the fastest-growing infectious disease in the country (maybe the world!)

*Black-legged ticks carry a spirochetal bacteria, a cousin to syphilis, that carries Lyme and other nasty infections.

*In Minnesota, 1 out of every 3 black-legged ticks carries the infections.

*Summer is Lyme season, so do your tick checks every day

*If you get bit, get to a doctor for some doxycycline (or similar) asap. Make sure you get at least a month's worth.

*The Lyme spirochete, Borrelia berdorferi, is the DEVIL. It can change shape and escape detection. It can infect every system in your body -- blood, muscles, tissue, organs, brain.

*There is evidence showing that LD can be passed from mother to child in utero

*Many people suspect it can also be passed to sexual partners, like its cousin, syphilis, but there isn't enough time or money in the world to do the research that would prove it.

*There is no guarantee that antibiotics will kill all of them.

*Conventional wisdom would have you believe that a bull's eye rash is a sure sign that you have LD. That is not wisdom but a MYTH. Some people who contract LD don't get any rash, and they are not all bull's eye-shaped.

*Very few doctors know how to recognize LD symptoms because the symptoms mimic those of a lot of other diseases. But if you get a combination of any of these and you have been in tick habitat (which is almost anywhere these days), suspect LD.

*Prevention is the only guarantee - DON'T GET BIT!!

*There are products to repel and/or kill ticks before they can bite you. Use them!


Meanwhile, I've started an internship blogging for NEED Magazine. My first story -- possibly posted next week -- is about a guy who uses his rage at the ineptitude of relief organizations to fuel his own humanitarian/social justice efforts in the US and around the world.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Barbie and me

Barbie and I are the same age. We both turn 50 this year. I don't generally find kinship with Barbie, believing her to be an anti-feminist symbol that promotes the objectification of women as pretty, plastic play things with little substance. But what kind of feminist would I be if I judge a girl on her looks and reputation alone?

So I considered a less superficial characterization of Barbie and compiled a list of attributes that Barbie and I share. We were both born blond but appreciate the freedom to change our hair color whenever the mood strikes. We have flashy convertibles and love the beach. We are independent-minded and have changed jobs many times in our lives, always following our aspirations for more meaningful, fun work. We have both been a teacher and flight attendant, among our many careers. We both love a party. We are fiercely loyal to our friends, counting some ex-lovers among them (Ken and Barbie broke up several years ago but still see each other casually). We have both traveled the world and speak a few foreign languages. We don't cook or do our man's laundry.

But here is where I still have a problem with Barbie: She has remained wrinkle-free for half a century, while I have not. I have tried just about every product known to woman to slow the inevitable decay of the flesh, but the wrinkles keep multiplying. When I was in my 30s, I believed by 50 I'd have moved beyond the superficial and not care what I look like. I also believed in my early 20s that nobody in their right mind would want to live beyond 30, when they would sell out and become part of "the establishment," so there you go.

It's not like 50 hasn't forced on me more practical concerns. I have to stretch every morning before I can stand upright. It's impossible to relax my hips in downward-facing dog while trying to clench my butt cheeks against my now-chronic flatulence. Even the sub-zero Minnesota winters can't cool my frequent hot flashes. But the wrinkles are what keep me up at night.

The first wrinkle treatment I tried was something I found in a book of natural beauty secrets. It had me heating a spoon under a hot water tap, dipping it in olive oil, and "ironing" my forehead and around my eyes and mouth. I was 19 and didn't have any wrinkles yet, but that didn't stop me. I started wearing sunglasses when Reagan became president, not because those Foster Grants made me look like a movie star, but because they would keep me from squinting, keeping the crow's feet from creeping in.

In the past 30 years or so I've been bamboozled, as my husband puts it, by every huckster selling anti-aging miracles. I'm a sucker for infomercials with celebrity endorsements of skin care lines that promise to restore that coveted youthful appearance. When channel surfing between PBS documentaries, if I land on such an infomercial, my husband switches channels and hides the remote and credit card. I have tried umpteen skin care lines, all touting their miracle ingredients: albumen from bird eggs, squalane from deep sea sharks, ionic stimulation, the miracle make-up secrets of the stars.

When I heard Paul Newman's secret to gorgeousness was washing with cold water, I incorporated that into my cleanse-tone-moisturize routine. I can't remember where or when I heard about facial exercises, contorting into all manner of convoluted expressions to firm and tone the skin and muscles of the face, but I do them while driving -- without shame. I take vitamin E daily. No, not to enhance my sex drive, but for the antioxidants that fight the free radicals lurking out there, invisible, gunning for my skin. There are antioxidants in red wine, too, so I make sure my diet contains plenty of that.

There are some things I won't do, though. One of my girlfriends uses tape to keep wrinkles at bay. She puts pieces of stiff brown packing tape between her brows and near the edge of her eyes to keep creases from forming there while she sleeps. OK, I admit I tried it once, but the tape just ended up on my pillow.

I know it boggles the mind that a reasonable woman would spend so much time and money combating the inevitable. Come to think of it, worrying about wrinkles is probably self-defeating. Not to mention the contradiction of a self-proclaimed feminist buying into the mainstream culture's obsession with youth and beauty as a valid measure of self worth. But I will not be deterred. Barbie knows the secret to vanquishing wrinkles, and, damn it, I'm going to find out what it is.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hard Body, Yoga Mind

As an exercise fanatic, Shannon Leavitt has pushed herself to extreme tests of strength and endurance like long-distance cycling, triathlons and body-building. As a yoga instructor, she has incorporated strength training into her classes, calling the synthesis "YogaLift." With 20 years experience as a certified personal trainer, Leavitt knows the positive effects strength training has on bone density and metabolism.

At first, Leavitt worried that yogis wouldn't embrace weight lifting, but she feels her conscientious approach has convinced many of its merit. "Strength training is about noticing, honoring and becoming aware of your body," Leavitt says. But strength training alone can cause people to "get very tight and muscle bound." Leavitt believes that strength training is yogic, too: "Effort and letting go, this is the balance of yoga." Reaching out while grounding toward the earth, ascending and descending energy --these are common to both disciplines, she explains. "I can extend myself, but it's more effective because I'm grounded." This principle has practical application in our daily lives, where we can extend into the world, knowing we always have a safe place to come back to, Leavitt says.

Leavit begins and ends her classes with meditation, with roughly 40 minutes of hatha yoga and 10 minutes of strength training in between, focusing on correct posture. She believes in honoring the classic poses -- "our body weight is enough," she says -- and brings the weights our toward the end of class to work on muscles is the back, shoulder and arms that support good posture. Leavitt's theory is "Everyone needs to work on their posture. Most people have desk posture."

Leavitt now believes yoga is more about being than doing, but admits, "It took me a long time to notice that there was a spiritual component. I'm just beginning to understand how powerful that can be," she said. "We use the physical to teach us the emotional and spiritual. What do we need to be in touch with our spirit? we need balance. We need strength. We need tenacity. This is what's cool about yoga; it's conscious exercise."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A new day in America

Inauguration Day, Bar-style

January 20, 2009, was a momentus day for us all. About a week ago a friend from the Tavern said he was planning a little party at the Muddy Pig, and had convinced owner to open early enough for a small crowd of us to watch the inauguration. Since election night was somewhat anti-climactic for me, I was excited for the chance to proudly watch our new president be sworn into office in a more celebratory atmosphere. When those plans fell through, I started searching the web for other locations to watch where I might also enjoy the fellowship of joyful citizens. As of yesterday morning I thought I was going to be watching it at my desk when I received the Secrets of the City daily email with a list of the days events around town that included the notice that The Bulldog would open early for us anxious Nordeasters.

I approached the door at 10:35 and asked a staffer who was going back inside after her cigarette break if they were open. "Nah, but we're letting people in anyway. Just drinks, though, until 11:00." Inside, the place was sparsely populated with about 10 people, situated at tables and angled to best take advantage of one of the seven large, flat-screen tvs that circled the room. I pulled out a stool at the bar that was, so far, vacant. I exchanged some frets about not having enough quarters for the meter with the black man who entered behind me. We each got change, fed our respective meters, and then bellied up to the bar side by side. More people came through the door, filling up four-tops and bar stools. The man beside me said, "I hope you don't mind if I sit here next to you." I responded, "I'm glad you did. That's why I'm here. I didn't want to witness this alone." He introduced himself as Earl and apologized in advance for getting emotional. "If I start crying, don't think I'm a wimp. Don't be surprised if a few tears start falling down my face." I nodded and said I was feeling pretty choked up myself.

By the time the first and second families began to make their way through the adoring throngs to the podium where they would be sworn in, there were about three dozen people settling in, ordering drinks, and getting ready to toast the new administration. When Obama pledged to uphold the constitution, the bar was packed as a Friday happy hour . . . and dead silent.

The mostly white, mostly Gen x and Baby Boomer crowd remained quiet, rapt with attention and awe while Obama gave his inaugural address, applauding when our new president said things like, "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met. On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics." The camera was turned on Bush at that moment, and I think I saw him slink down in his chair.

I don't think I heard ever word of the speech. My head was filled with the awesomeness of the ocassion and my heart was brimming with pride and joy and love and hope. Then came is closing words:

"So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."

The bar erupted in whoops and applause. Everyone raised their drinks and clinked their neighbors or held them up in a cheers gesture to folks not within their reach. Smiles and tears flowed in abundance. Then the normal hubbub of bar chatter took over as everyone turned away from the tv screens and engaged with their companions. A table of about 8-10 boomers with greying hair donned floppy red, white and blue Uncle Sam hats. Blue metallic pointed party hats appeared on other revelers, and I'm pretty sure I heard a noise-maker or two honk above the din.

A couple had taken seats at the bar to Earl's left. He introduced himself and found out that they had take the day off to celebrate the event. I asked the bartender, John, whether they were prepared for this many customers, if they were usually this busy on a Tuesday. He said, no, not on Tuesday. They had opened early on purpose but didn't really have enough staff. He said there were people waiting inside the empty bar when he arrived to get the bar set, the manager having let them in when she arrived much earlier. "Do you think most people are here to watch the inauguration?" I asked. "All of them," John said emphatically.

Some time later, when the Bush's stood waving on the stairs of the whirlybird that would whisk them from the White House lawn, the bar crowd huzzahed and hollered "good riddence" and let their own big middle finger birdies fly! John flashed a crooked grin and said, "I think that got a bigger reaction than Obama's speech!"

Monday, January 12, 2009


Meet Opie.

Opie is our new puppy, my first dog. I didn't think I was a dog person, but Mason convinced me otherwise.

Sometime after Mason left, we fostered a little pug, whom we called Betty. She was really sweet and funny and cute, and we really loved her, but I couldn't get my mind around having a dog full-time. But after 2 weeks the only reservation was that my neighbor and friend, Anne Marie, is highly allergic to animals. She can come into my house for short periods, but if we were to add a dog, she would not be able to come in at all. She was in a house with a dog and cat recently and her throat swelled up and she lost her voice for 2 weeks. Her allergist confirmed that it was allergy-related. So I was really torn about making a decision that would keep her out of my house permanently. I even had a talk with her about it on the day Betty went to meet a potential family, before I knew that was my last day with her. She just laughed and said, "of course you wouldn't base your decision on me" but that was really weighing heavily on me.

Once Betty was gone to her permanent home (with a new big sister, another pug named Emma, so that helped me to feel like it was the right thing), I missed her like crazy. I was literally pining for her for several weeks. During that time I was talking about her to another friend, who told me his mom had 2 pugs and, yes, they were all that sweet and cuddly. I think that's when the deal was sealed. I got online and started searching the rescue websites for a pug, and I found a pug-terrier cross. I emailed the foster mom and found out that he was calm and good with cats (which, I understand, most fostered dogs are), and she had me fill out a pre-adoption form. Then we went to meet him at a pet adoption event at the nearby PetCo. There were dozens of dogs and even more people crammed in their parkas and boots, filling up the joint. I found him immediately and we held him and walked around with him; he was quiet and still and didn't seem scared but probably was overwhelmed. And when Pat started crying at the sight of all those homeless dogs I knew I wasn't going to be leaving without Opie. Learning that Opie was found with another puppy in a recycling bin by the garbage of a "humane" didn't make it any easier to leave him behind.


There's some conflicting information about his age. We heard 8-10 months, 3-4 months and 9-12 months. He just lost a baby tooth, so I guess that makes him young yet. But he is already neutered, has had most of his vaccinations, and we are trying to get him into a potty-training routing. Some luck with that, but also some "accidents." We are pretty happy with him, although it's still scarey to think about having all that responsibility. Cat's are so easy by comparison! I'm hoping that, with the terrier blood, he can avoid some -- if not all -- of the ailments that pugs are prone to.

He sleeps a lot and is very cuddly, which from what I have read is a common pug trait. As he gets more comfortable with us he is getting more playful, too. He's already learned how to sit (for payment, of course). And when he was told repeatedly that he couldn't chew his rawhide on the couch he chose to leave it on the floor and chew on us instead. What a smart dog!

We've had him a little over a week now, and the rescue folks say they will be adjusting for up to 4 weeks. He hates being crated and cries and barks as I'm walking out the door in the morning, even though they also said that foster dogs are crated most of the day. I guess in a new home it all starts over for them.