Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A promise to Dolores

I can only remember one time in my professional career that I cornered myself with a promise - and as terrified as the experience made me feel - I am so much richer for having made a promise to Dolores.

Dolores had mild learning disabilities and some motor clumsiness. She and her brother were being raised by their mom who was a single parent. Things I remember about this family focus a lot around their names: Dolores, Wally (brother), and Hazel (mom). All of these names are uncommon today, but as uncommon as the names were they fit this family well, because the names reflected precisely on the way that they did not exactly 'fit in' with most of the other people around them. The family was quite poor, and perhaps a little socially awkward, but at the same time the kindest people I have ever met.

Dolores wanted to learn how to ride a bike - she was clumsy and could not coordinate her balance with the motion of her legs. In therapy we worked on developing these skills so that she could ride - and eventually she had improved to the point that I asked her if she had tried riding her bike lately. I will never forget the sadness that she looked at me with as she said, "My bike is broken, and now even if I knew how to ride it I couldn't."

I felt my heart melt right there on the spot, and without any hesitation I told her to bring her bike to me next time and I would fix it for her. There really was no other response to offer other than making that promise.

The next time that they came in I walked them to the parking lot after the session to get the bike out of their car. Their car was quite old (of course) and from the trunk I pulled out an ancient, rusty, and dented Schwinn Western Flyer.

I took the bike home that evening and stripped it down to the frame and air-brushed it a brilliant yellow that I knew Dolores would love. It took hours of work, and I even had some parts soaking in a solution of weak oxalic acid to try to get off all of the surface rust. I found a store that had some pedals that fit, and found a new seat as well - I was really making some progress!

Unfortunately I got hung up on the ball bearings and locking nuts around the pedal mechanism that were impossibly stripped and made the bike un-useable. I almost had a friend machine me the parts but I just kept thinking that this bike would be useless again if anything else ever broke on it. Parts for this bike were just not easy to find.

Dolores asked me each session that she came in, "How's my bike coming, how's my bike coming??" Her mom would gently shush her and tell Dolores that I was busy and I had my own kids and that she should never ask me such things - that it was nice enough of me to even offer to TRY to fix it. After hitting a dead end with the parts I needed, I felt defeated. Then the final blow was delivered when she told me one day, "It's OK, really, I am just glad that you even tried to fix that rusty bike for us."

Dolores' words echoed in my head as I drove home into the sinking sunset. I felt that if I stayed on the road long enough the sun just might swallow me whole and take me with it - to wherever it goes after the day is completed. All that existed was the road. And me in the car. And the sun looming as large as the promise I made, threatening to swallow me whole with each passing moment.

At this time I saw where the earth and the sky met, with no geographic barriers that would limit my perception. The Earth curved outwardly in all directions, and the sky was equally large but in a conversive orientation. As I drove I remember thinking how beautiful it was, how large the sky was, how the earth and sky moved in and out in congruence with my breath. I prayed for an answer.

When I got home I stared at the bike in my garage, wondering what I should do. I could not find the parts I needed. But I promised her I would fix it. PROMISED her. How many people ever promised little Dolores anything? How many people ever came through for her in her short life? The answer that kept coming back to me was "No one does. And no one has." But I knew that I had to.

Here I have to be very thankful for my wife, who understood the mess I got myself into. At the time it certainly wasn't an easy solution, but together we went straight to the store and bought her the best bike that we could find. It was a beautiful pink girl’s bike with a plastic basket that had flowers on it. It was everything that the old Western Flyer was never going to be again: the bike of some child's dreams. And of course, I purchased a matching helmet.

Dolores is a young adult by now. I have always thought that I didn't need to see her again - and that I wanted to remember her as an eight year old little girl, kicked around a little too much by unfair circumstances, and with an innocence of humility and understanding that most eight year old children don't have.

I'll never forget the wonder in her eyes that saw her old Western Flyer magically transformed into this brand new bicycle. "Oh how did you do that?? How did you make it so new??" as she and Wally ran with the bike to try it out.

It may be the best promise I ever got to keep.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Annual update: Another massive hike in health insurance rates


Is anyone surprised?

We received our new rates for the cost of the health insurance that we offer to employees. The single rate increased 21% and the family rate increased a whopping 27%. I surveyed other WNY health insurance plans and they all have similar increases.

Click here for the ongoing documentation in this blog on the issue. If you can stomach it.

This is not a local New York phenomenon - you will begin hearing a lot of press on this issue now that the October and November rates that reflect mandates from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ('so-called ObamaCare') are being implemented. Headlines out of a neighboring state are similar. Insurance companies claim that removal of lifetime limits, removal of pre-existing condition waiting periods, and assorted other mandates are responsible for driving up the costs.

What this will mean, of course, is that fewer families will be able to afford insurance - which will lead to the accelerated collapse of a medical system that is trying to provide care for people who can no longer afford coverage. If people try to afford health insurance plans they will opt for plans that provide fewer and fewer benefits - and the real kick in the teeth is that even the tax benefits for some health FSAs are being reduced - which is another sucker punch delivered directly at the middle class.

Our politicians/social engineers couldn't get a national health plan in the front door, so this is the next best thing from their perspective. When no one can afford to purchase insurance (employers or their employees) I suppose everyone will fall into some version of a government option.

Bottom line: People had options on who to elect, and then people learned that elections have consequences, and then the system consumed the people who elected it and ironically has taken away all of their options. Sad.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Somewhere that's green.

This entry is another study in parenting occupations, and in studying how children help to make meaning for their parents and in turn for themselves. So this is for Caleigh.


To say that I wanted to tame the yard wouldn't be entirely accurate. That would place the yard in a subservient position to myself, and that isn't really how I felt about it. Rather, I wanted the children to be able to live in it and to play in it, and in its state at the time it just wasn't a habitat that was conducive to children's play and development.

One of the immediate problems was that in the back yard the ground that was ten feet closest to the sliding glass doors wasn't graded properly, so water would tend to puddle against the house. The previous owner was dog-sitting a large golden retriever that got left outside a lot - so that caused the space in front of the sliding glass doors to be a giant mudpit of dog prints. No grass grew there. I tried growing some grass when we moved in but as it was an area of high traffic it just didn't seem to work. I tried to re-grade some of the slope but I didn't have the machinery or enough soil to accomplish the task. It was a circular problem: if the area could grow grass then it would drain better and the grading problem would not be so severe and I could grow grass - but it could not grow grass. Most importantly, the kids couldn't play in that muddy mess.

I am a simple person and I like to approach problems with simple solutions. I had no grass, and the soil nutrients and drainage wouldn't support grass, so I needed to do something that would fundamentally alter the growing conditions. I decided to feed my lawn. The lawn never called out to be fed, and in fact I was always a little frightened by the original Little Shop of Horrors movie but I kept the Seymour-references in mind as I fed my lawn and was always happy because I thought its diet would remain relatively simple.

The solution of feeding the lawn spoke to my sense of order because in turn it solved other problems. Now that we had a septic tank we could not have a garbage disposal and that meant that we couldn't blend table scraps down the drain. That meant I had to throw out lettuce, or onion peel, or carrot and potato skins or other vegetable matter into the garbage. It made no sense for me to throw vegetable matter into a plastic garbage bag where it wouldn't naturally decompose, so instead I liked the idea of feeding the leftover vegetables to the patch that couldn't grow grass. This was an excellent solution because I am fundamentally opposed to feeding chemicals or unnatural products into my living space. For over a year I took all that vegetable matter and dumped it into the dirt - with a lot of complaining from my family who was not on board with the plan. My wife was certain that it would attract animals, but I also knew that dumping the onions and mixing in a little hot pepper would repel skunks - and so that solved yet another problem that we were having. I was so pleased with this plan because it addressed so many problems: not growing grass, not being able to have a garbage disposal, finding a way to avoid use of chemicals or fertilizers, and not wanting skunks around the house.

Within two years grass (and clover and other native weeds) filled in the whole area. The root systems bulked up the soil and we didn't have drainage problems any longer. I still fed the grass with onion peel and other cut up vegetable waste because it just seemed like the right thing to do. I think that my golden retriever might have eaten some of it though. I'm not sure.

The grass was green, the lawn was dry, and the children could play - and for many years I thought that was the end of the story.

The unexpected conclusion is that many years later my daughter Caleigh played the lead role of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors when she was a high school senior. At the end of the play she sang her solo and got consumed by the plant and my smiles and happiness were mixed in at the multiple layers of meaning that were all realized in her lifetime around that song. Now that it's all over I wanted to give her this full story so that now she understands what went into her being able to really live and play somewhere that's green.