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Compassion Roundup, Part I: Who cares if your surgeon is a jerk?

Huckabee at the Republican National Convention

A few weeks ago, Mike Huckabee, making a medical analogy about the alarmingly jerky Mitt Romney, told Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast: ““The sicker the patient, the less important is bedside manner.  If you’ve just been diagnosed with a brain tumor, you honestly don’t care if your neurosurgeon is a jerk.”  Now I admit that Mike Huckabee is a personable, often funny, natural, and authentic guy, sort of the un-Romney, even though I disagree with him on nearly every political idea he ever expressed including this one.  I disagree with this one so much that it’s been stuck in my head for the last three weeks. Reason? My own personal experience with jerky doctors

Most commentators, including Gail Collins of the New York Times, commented on the weird “damning with faint praise” aspect of that quote, since presumably Huckabee meant to praise (if faintly) our Presidential candiate, who has proven himself even more jerky this week by among other things commenting on an ongoing violent international crisis before knowing the facts, and by suggesting that a statement put out by the American Embassy in Cairo condemning a hate film undermined American values.  Coming from a man who would be President in a highly dangerous, complicated, and non-black-and-white world, this was so misguided and jerky in so many ways that I can’t possibly mention them all in a blog in which I want to comment on Huckabee’s medical analogy.  So for the moment, I’ll simply wonder why Romney, or anyone, thinks it’s not an American value to ALWAYS condemn hate speech, counsel calm, tolerance and compassion, and support the forces of tolerance, understanding, and compassion in every situation and society.  To me this is among the highest of human values.  More about that in my next blog.

So back to Huckabee’s analogy. After endlessly fussing I’ve finally shipped off my memoir, “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories, to my adorable new literary agent.  While I’ve met many amazing and wonderful doctors during all my medical woes, the memoir details my experiences with some incredibly jerky doctors, including my late son Michael’s neurologist and the surgeon I call only “Plastic Man” whom I encountered during my breast cancer experience.  I think their jerkiness made them less rather than more skilled, that’s for sure.  I won’t talk about the neurologist here, but Plastic Man was jerky mainly because he lacked compassion, and I suffered mightily at his hands, not because he isn’t or wasn’t a skilled cutter. I assume he is, he certainly has a good reputation on that score. But bedside manner? The man was rude, stiff, abrupt, aloof, childish, petulant, and defensive, and became even more so when I developed an infection and became quite sick.  As I detail in my memoir, his jerkiness may have increased because he was afraid of being sued.  This doesn’t excuse it, of course, and in any case research shows that doctors who tend to the doctor/patient relationship lessen their risk of being sued. This makes perfect sense, of course, since people tend to give back what they receive.  The most important thing is, he made my situation even worse than it probably had to be, thereby affecting his skill not just as a cutter but as a physician, who after all should be a healer.  I say this not just because I was terrified and needed reassurance when I was so weak and sick and vulnerable, but because if that surgeon had LISTENED to me, his patient, as a good compassionate, non-jerky physician would do, he might well have been able to spare me all or at least some of that suffering, both mental AND physical.

So I say yes, I guess I’d prefer a jerky surgeon who’s a skilled cutter to a compassionate, non-jerky surgeon who isn’t a skilled cutter, but like almost all things in life it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an either-or, black-and-white choice.  Why wouldn’t we want physicians—and politicians, and filmmakers, and everyone else–to think of having compassion for the weak (ie non jerkiness), as an important part of their skill and to be BOTH compassionate AND skilled?  As Gandhi and others have said, “The measure of a civilization is in how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members.” Substitute the word “doctor” for “civilization” and “patient” for “member,” and I think you see how this applies to the medical situation on which Huckabee is commenting, in my view utterly incorrectly.

So here’s a survival tip I learned the hard way.  I put it in my (hopefully soon-to-be published) memoir, “How I Lost My Bellybutton, And Other Naked Survival Stories”:

Survival Tip #17:  Compassion and empathy aren’t luxuries for a doctor, they’re prerequisites. Especially if things go wrong or you’re really suffering and really need compassion and empathy. So if you have a choice, find one who has some.

Mr. Huckabee, I know your analogy was meant to suggest that Mr. Romney has the skill to fix the economy, thereby lifting all weak boats in the trickle-down sense, but I think that the weaker and more vulnerable the patient (or the citizen, for that matter), the more I need and want to be tended to with compassion rather than jerkiness.

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Gratitude: 11 of the many things I loved in Paris

I have painstakingly learned to count my blessings every day, a practice not particularly natural for an old cynic like me, but actually helpful in maintaining spiritual and emotional peace and calm.   I suggest readers out there make this a practice too.   I’m spilling over with gratitude right now, after my recent quickie trip to Paris with my husband, who had to travel there to make a speech. Here are a few of the many things I loved and felt grateful for in Paris:

1. Paris.

2. Everyone speaks French (and English).

3. The bridges over the Seine, which connect the Left and Right Banks, especially the glorious Pont Alexandre III, with its Art Noveau lamps and its golden winged horses, cherubs and nymphs, and the Pont Solferino, where lovers place locks on the sides of the bridge and throw the keys into the Seine to symbolize their undying love!  Where else but in Paris?

4. Reading “The Paris Wife” in Paris.  Now I’ll have to read lots more Hemingway.

5. Having dinner with my husband’s French publisher, Dominique Gilbert, a lovely and kind woman (and of course brilliant for publishing him), her husband, and another couple, friends of theirs, at La Fontaine de Mars.  This is the restaurant where President Obama ate with Michele and maybe snubbed Sarkozy????  Basque food.  I’m glad I tried Cassoulet.  It was very authentic, but might have been a little TOO authentic for me. (We’re talking beans, duck, and sausage.)

6.  Receiving an email while there from a theater workshop back here granting me an interview.  I’m hoping they’ll help me stage my play-in-progress, “Survival Instructions,” a kind of one woman autobiographical thing, with supporting players, based on my memoir. Do I have the acting chops to be the “one woman?”  We’ll see. The last time I was on stage was 30 years ago, when I played “Inez,” one of three characters looking for a way out of hell in Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.”  Also grateful for the other email I received, also while in Paris, that I now have an agent for that very memoir.  On the creative front, things are definitely moving along nicely.

7.  Watching my husband speak about his subject, entrepreneurship and customer development (His book is called, The Start Up Owners Manual.  Here’s the link to the book on Amazon.) Bob was a hit, even if most of his jokes were lost on the French audience.  I got the jokes however. (I’ve been getting them for 35 years.)

8. An authentic home-cooked meal in Versailles (the town, not the palace) at the home of the parents of our friend, Gregoire.  Gregoire’s mom must have been cooking for days, and she served each of many courses with great ritual and love. Also loved talking politics with the group.  Surprised to find a Frenchman advocating for a kind of United States of Europe.

8. The Rodin Museum, where you can walk right up to some of the most famous statues in the world.  Standing in front of Rodin’s white marble masterpiece, “The Kiss,” I found myself weeping.  Only one other artist ever did that to me before.  Jackson Pollack.

9.  The artist Muriel Stalaven, whose work we saw in a street exhibition, also brought me to tears.  (Wow. Two in one trip.) Here’s a link to her site, which includes a video that shows how she creates her figure drawings in ink in seconds.  I’m not exactly sure why I was so moved by her work.  Its simplicity, maybe.

11.  The Church of St. Surplice.  I love the churches of Europe, but I am always struck by how strange and ironic it is that the Catholic Church, the hierarchical and dogmatic church that erected such edifices (not to mention that often appears to be morally bankrupt, as in, say, the Inquisition, and the harboring of pedophile priests), could have developed out of the simple message of Jesus, who, it seems to me, preached only non-heirarchical kindness, inclusion, and love.

Short Take: Surviving the Wiseass Kid

So last night I was helping out my friend Tony D’Amelio, with his brilliant scholarship program for local teens going to college, Dollars For Scholars. (For info go to:  www.dollarsforscholars.org)  I had volunteered to be on the “Scholarship Committee.”  We (the committee head and I) had gone to our local JCC, where a bunch of teens and their parents had come to hear a panel talk about getting into college.  Standing at the table, we were ready with our brochures and our pitch as the kids and parents exited the college meeting.  Basically we were just trying to give them information about the program, how to apply for the scholarships, the website, etc.  Most of them were thrilled to hear, signed up for the email list, and took info on the program.

Except one.

I rounded up this particular boy and his Mom and gave them my shpiel, as enthusiastically and coherently as I could.

Mom turned to her son and said, “Why don’t we sign up?”

The boy shrugged and started to walk away.

Undaunted, I continued my pitch. “It’s based on need and merit….”

To which the kid replied, “I have no merit.”

(His mother was not amused, but what could she do?  She gave me a helpless look and followed him out the door.)

See now, that’s the kind of thing I probably would have have said at that age, wiseass that I was. Cynicism as self-protection.

Survival Tip Learned on Vacation

“Betty” says: What do you need psychology for? If you’ve got problems, just get over’em. If you’re captured and held captive for fourteen years by a psychopath…just escape. If your father is an abusive alcoholic, just hit him over the head with a frying pan. That’s what I did, and I turned out just fine.

The Bruised Muse sure learned a lot on vacation!!

Guns on Mars

Conversation in front of an exhibition of beautiful photographs of people and scenes in Israel, displayed in our local Jewish Community Center.  I’m standing in front of a photo of a man in an outdoor market.  In the photo, we see his back.  His shirt is up, and a large gun is strapped into a holster around his waist at the small of his back.  The gun is the focus of the photograph.

A woman walks by and says, in what sounds like an Israeli accent: “Is that for real?”

“What?” I say. “The gun?”

“Yes.  The gun,” she says.

“I think it’s for real.  I assume it’s for real,” I say.

“Scary,” she says. “Why is he carrying it in his shirt like that?”

“I have no idea,” I say.  “He must think he needs it for self protection.”

She shakes her head.  “What a shame.”

I sigh.  “Yes.  A real shame.  In my opinion, every single gun on the planet should be rounded up and sent to Mars.”

She laughs and walks away, and as she walks away I realize that I completely believe what I said. As far as I’m concerned, there should be a house to house, factory to factory, storage bunker to storage bunker search of the entire planet, and every single firearm, rifle, bomb (nuclear and regular), AK47, and every other exploding weapon, should be put on a spacecraft and shipped to Mars. Then no one would have them, and we wouldn’t have to “protect” ourselves from them. Obviously, we’d still be the same unevolved human race, characterized by our primitive, threatening behavior, but it would be a lot better, and have fewer global ramifications, if we used primitive weapons, like knives and spears, to express our primitive impulses.

I guess I’m out of step with mainstream, conservative America, huh?

BLOG: Fabulist Fun Fact #2: Michele Bachman, Feverish Conspiracy Theorist

Bachman the Great

My trusty Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which by the way is longer than everything except the Longer Oxford English Dictionary) defines “fabulist” as “someone who invents dishonest stories.” #2 Fabulist Fun Fact (via the NY Times): Michael Bachman, Republican of Minnesota, and those who believe the pearls that emerge from her mouth, thinks its an “interesting coincidence” that “in the 1970s swine flu broke out under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter.” Notice the charming word Democ-RAT, which has all but replaced the word Democratic and which Republicans and even some Democrats now use as the adjective form SOP.