Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Traditional Chinese Medicine

I’ve known my friend Geri for over 40 years.  Our friendship dates back to the mid-1960s when she came from Taiwan to the west coast to study biochemistry at the University of California Medical Center at San Francisco.  

My parents had signed up for a program to host international students. I’ve no idea which one. I was not involved.  Their charge was to befriend this young female doctoral student and provide a temporary home for her until she could get settled on campus.  Naturally, their first task was to meet Geri at the airport.  

But there was a back story.  It was awkward and confusing.  I still wince when I remember it, at least the parts I can recall.  

I had just left home.  Two college girlfriends and I had rented an apartment in an old Victorian house, the three of us resolved to share these digs for our upcoming senior year.  Like school girls holding hands, we embarked on our road to independence by setting up house.

Not a big deal, really.  I was twenty, after all.  Just part of the process of working out my timid---by ‘60s standards---rebellion from parents, the middle class, and a small Catholic college.  Still a school for women and as yet untouched by student activism.

An only child, loved and cossetted, I had exhibited moderate promise in high school. Adept, but alas, absent some overriding talent or single-minded passion.  Now I was adrift in the liberal arts and close to college graduation. 

This apartment announcement alarmed my Mother and Dad.  Three years of private school tuition payments suddenly jeopardized. My grades had already dipped. And they did not know, I think, about the chilly interview I’d recently had with the college president---called in privately after some protest statement I can no longer remember. 

Even more disturbing for them was the shadow of the young man whom I was dating.  He was five years older than me, involved in the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations.  They supposed (correctly) that my apartment idea was bolstered by romance.  The lofty moral tone of “the movement” already pervaded my language in family apartment discussions.

Still, along with parental confused disappointment, there was the vacant bedroom I’d left behind.

Geri was about my age and, as things turned out, she helped fill the void my move created. 
Deeply absorbed in my modest rebellion, I have no memory of my parents’ preparation for their student guest. But I was on hand at their house that first day when Geri arrived after a twelve-hour flight from Taipei. 

In contrast to the recent months of family tension, this day my parents were upbeat with anticipation. Smiles all round.  A relief for me, but tinged with a creeping sense of my outsider position. 

Conversation was animated, arms gesticulating and eyebrows rising like commas to assist communication.  Moments of mutual comprehension eliciting bursts of elation. Getting accustomed to Geri’s accented English.

By late afternoon, Geri was exhausted; she had a headache.  My Mom’s offers of aspirin (in these pre-Tylenol days) were politely declined.  Geri retreated to her suitcases and boxes deposited in my old bedroom.  She delved into her pharmacopeia brought from home and produced a small hexagonal jar of a glistening, milky salve.  She rubbed it on her forehead and lay down to rest. 

Tiger Balm had entered our lives.  It never left my Mother’s medicine cabinet.  Decades later, when moving my Mom to an assisted living apartment, I found three jars in different strengths.  

Geri completed her PhD and then worked in research labs.  She too shared an apartment with her campus girlfriends.  She met her future husband, also from Taiwan, who had come to the US to study engineering. 

With longtime friends of my mother and dad as surrogate family, Geri was married in my parents’ garden.  My father gave her away.  I was a bridesmaid along with her Chinese girlfriends.

The Taiwan graft onto my family brought many joys to my parents in later years.  Photographs show visits with two little boys born in America bringing afternoons of boisterous family life to my parents.  

I was not there. I had married the unapproved young man.  The anti-war movement and the counter culture swallowed up the next three years of my life.   

But that was long ago.  

Geri and I are retired now.  When we meet our main topic is health.  

It is time for TCM, traditional Chinese medicine.  

At the computer, Geri rolls through screen after screen of Chinese text. After much searching she finds it:  a picture of ten hand exercises to stimulate the body’s meridians.  You know, she says, gets the chi going in the channels that govern our internal organs: the small intestine, large intestine, stomach, liver, spleen, kidney, heart, lungs, bladder, and gall bladder.  Then there’s “the triple warmer” (cavities of thorax, abdomen, and pelvis) and the governing and conception vessels through which yin and yang flow.  Of course.

The simple, black and white thumbnail sketches on the left side of the page are easy to follow.  The Chinese characters on the right?   Not a clue.
It looks like this: 

Every morning you firmly tap parts of the hand, punch the palm of the hand, and tug the earlobes and press the palms to your face.  And whatever else you can figure out from the pictures.  

Geri advises:  “You can just do it when you first wake up, when still lying in bed.  Gets you ready for the day.”   Your chi will decline in late afternoon.  No exercise after 7 pm. 

Several times a day Geri lies down for twenty minutes on a contraption to stretch her spine and legs.  It looks like a padded ironing board attached to a second board at a right angle. Keeps the hip joint flexible and extends the lower back.  We compare notes; my yoga poses have a similar effect.  

My partner Dennis is hugely skeptical.  Geri---a scientist---smiles subversively.  “You have to believe,” she says.

I understand.  

My own inherited health traditions have returned to me in later life.  Advice remembered from my southern grandmother.  Use cold pressed castor oil for all skin irritations.  Wear a broad-brimmed hat in the sun.  Choose an “osteopathic” physician over a medical doctor.  Remedies from her Kentucky childhood and her experience of married life in frontier Idaho.  She had a midwife for childbirth---three times. 

Not much compared to over two thousand years of TCM.  But it brings me closer to my forebears.  My grandmother was just a few years older than I am when she repeated her remedies to me---who ignored them.  

So I do the hand exercises and use the castor oil.  And think about traditional medicine.  I’m in another phase of change now.  Just one year short of 70 and once again things are awkward and confusing.  Funny thing, though. I’m beginning to look back more gently at my youth.  I think it must be TCM. 

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 in my Neighborhood

It’s end of the year time---you know, time for the year in review, lists and retrospectives. So I thought I’d check in with my favorite topic for hand-wringing: real estate.
Last year, in November 2012, I wrote an essay about Mott Park where I contrasted the calamitous real estate decline with the pleasures of an energetic neighborhood community.  [“Feeling a little subprime” at http://www.eastvillagemagazine.org/en/essays5/18749-essay-feeling-a-little-subprime].
An NPR blog in late October alerted me.  The national real estate picture has improved---measured by home prices through the first half of the year 2013. August 2013 was better than August 2012.  According to economist David Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee, S&P Dow Jones Indices, the
monthly percentage changes for the 20-city composite show the peak rate of gain in home prices was last April [ . . . ].  Since then home prices continued to rise, but at a slower pace each month. This month [October 2013] 16 cities reported smaller gains in August compared to July. Recent increases in mortgage rates and fewer mortgage applications are two factors in these shifts.
Detroit is in that 20-city composite list.  So is Las Vegas.  Two cities, one old and one new, with enormous real estate problems. If you like charts, see https://www.spice-indices.com/idpfiles/spice-assets/resources/public/documents/53129_cshomeprice-release-0924.pdf?force_download=true.

So how is my neighborhood, Mott Park, doing?

 “It’s true, the real estate market has improved over all, but while prices are still on the rise, there has been some slowing in the pace,” says my neighbor Ginny. 

A realtor with decades of experience, Ginny has sold a lot of real estate, both in Mott Park and throughout Genesee County.  She knows her stuff. We met on Sunday walks in the neighborhood. Organized by real runners, the Sunday walks get some of us less fit off the couch for an hour or so.  I pulled out some old track pants and got new shoes.  Some walkers take pictures for the neighborhood Facebook page.  Others pick up litter as we go. We learned how to roll plastic grocery bags so small and tight we could carry dozens in our parka pockets for litter pick up.  It is ground level struggle with neighborhood decline.

Ginny says the Mott Park real estate market is getting a little better, but slowly.  Foreclosures continue, but are fewer than before. Prices in the neighborhood have risen slightly.  And sales are moving faster.  

But it’s Genesee County that really looks better.  The average sale price is up---15 to 16 percent at the end of October 2013.  Real estate charts on Grand Blanc, Goodrich, or the fabulous Fenton are trending upward.  Areas with better school districts than city of Flint can be cautiously optimistic.  Genesee County has 31 school districts; buyers have choices.  

Mott Park loses in the school district sweepstakes, although it has two excellent private elementary schools: the Catholic St. John Vianney and St. Paul Lutheran. Ironically, families from better city neighborhoods drive their kids in.  

And another irony. This slowly rising market can mean frustration for buyers with cash in hand seeking to close on a bargain.  Banks calculate that it’s in their interest to move slowly and wait for the market to rise.  So short sale approvals remain in limbo; details about the sale pass from one asset manager to another, each supposedly checking some aspect of the sale.  Buyers wait and wait.

“It’s like the ‘Circumlocution Office’,” says Ginny. “You know, in Little Dorrit on Masterpiece.”  Little Dorrit is a Dickens skewer job on the economics and social safety net of Victorian England.   Two families illustrate who has fallen victim in the market place and who has profited.  The Dorrit family languishes in debtors’ prison; the Clenham family hoards a fortune made in textile imports.  Amy Dorrit (“Little Dorrit”) struggles with her father’s fate in prison---only a windfall gift can buy his freedom.  Arthur Clenham, scion of his family wealth, seeks to pay old Dorrit’s debt.  Arthur inquires at the Circumlocution Office about what Mr. Dorrit’s debt is. But the Circumlocution Office never answers any question directly.  Kind of like the banks.

As of mid-December, 17 properties in Mott Park are bank-owned.

Nevertheless, over sixty properties sold in Mott Park in 2013; a lot of movement in the ‘hood.  The picture is mixed. Buyers can be absentee landlords---uninterested, unscrupulous. Picking up properties sold as a package. But some are local investors, even neighborhood residents. A young couple on my block bought the house next door, provided a rental for an old buddy and guaranteed upkeep of the parcel next to them.  Good for summertime parties too. 

Renters are a mixed picture. Some are transient, bringing socio-economic challenges for Mott Park.   Others join the neighborhood Facebook page.  Their needs---from furniture, appliances, and children’s clothes to a Christmas tree---are shared on the page. They look for rentals for friends, post alerts about job openings, say farewell when they move out of state for work.     

The indefatigable Neighborhood Association elected new officers in December 2013, all women and two are new to the neighborhood.   A separate non-profit golf course group maintains the clubhouse and gets the course grass mowed in summer. Neighborhood gardeners maintain the flowerbeds.  In last year’s essay I concluded that despite the real estate challenges, the neighborhood was worth my living there.  

I still think so and I’m ready for 2014 in Mott Park.

Read more essays like this one in East Village Magazine at http://eastvillagemagazine.org/

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Good phone

It’s 9 AM and Dennis is on the phone.  Or rather, the phone is on Dennis---he uses lightweight, professional headphones and looks like a telemarketer.  He walks around the house with the headphones on, opens the windows, feeds the cat. The headphones fold up and can go into his pocket when not in use. A collapsible black plastic halo. 

Dennis is not telephone-phobic. Unlike me, he does not clench his teeth when the phone rings.  The phone rarely ruins his concentration.  As a rule, he picks up the receiver happily---he’s a marketing rep, a salesman.  He can talk to anyone.  

His talent emerged early.  He sold walnuts door to door when he was about eight years old. He pulled along his stock of unshelled walnuts (packaged in 1 pound bags) in his Radio Flyer wagon.  Regular customers developed; he had a route. The family dog, a wire hair mix named Dusty, learned to eat walnuts---she cracked them open with her teeth.

Until, that is, she discovered a hammer. But that’s another story. 

For Dennis, the phone means money.  The damn thing rings all day long; unfathomable strings of numbers fill the entire caller ID screen.  A pause and then---crunch, crunch, crunch.  Sales orders inch their way through his printer cum-fax machine.  Orders pile up in the paper tray, interspersed with the daily Sudoku puzzle. Money plus entertainment. 

What makes all of this possible, aside from Dennis’s skills and energy, is that marvel of contemporary life, the computer printer.  It’s an HP Pro, model number 8600.  It prints in colors and on both sides of the page.  It copies, scans and faxes.  It has an embedded web server. 

But this morning all is not well. The HP marvel is silent.  No chug-chug-chug. No orders and no Sudoku. Today it will not fax or print. It will not scan or copy. You know what that means; time to call tech support.  

For me, a calling tech support means personal drama.  Stomach-churning equivocation. Kishka-twisting indecision. To pick up the phone and call my trusted campus IT guy, I struggle for an hour. And this is a guy I know---whose voice exudes confidence and sympathy.  Who makes house calls and once arrived on a motorcycle during his lunch hour. For whose expertise I have gladly shelled out the bucks for many years.  

But toll-free help on the phone? I am more than averse; I am a petulant child who refuses reason.  A highly educated professional with decades of work experience, I revert to infantilism.

Dennis belongs to another species.  He embraces phones and automated phone systems. He knows their tricks.  And he is fast. When the automated system asks questions about his printer model, he has all the numbers ready. Then he energetically presses zero for a human voice.  On occasion, he just says “wah, wah, wah”---with much rising and falling intonation---into the receiver.  Any sound pushes the system forward to the next option.  

(“Wah, wah, wah” also works when calling Delta airlines, by the way).

Once contact has been made, Dennis remembers precisely what he did on his first attempt to get the printer to work; he also remembers everything he tried afterward, up to the point when he dialed to tech support.  He recounts his sad story efficiently---without fury, indignation, pathos (that’s my specialty).

This particular morning, tech support seems to think that the shift to Windows 8 is the root of the current fax and printer problem.  Various fixes deep inside the system are tried.  The correct driver has been found online.  The printer has been uninstalled and re-installed. Two test pages have been run. All signs are positive and I am on my second cup of coffee. Some ten minutes have passed.

But Dennis is still talking on headset. The good part has arrived at last:  the chit chat and laughter of what Dennis calls “good phone.”   “Where are you?” Dennis asks.  “Ah, Manila,” he repeats with satisfaction. “How’s the weather?” I’ve learned that location and weather are first two conversational gambits of professional phone people.  

The weather topic is rich for exploration, since anywhere on the globe there’s more variety than in temperate Los Angeles, especially near LAX where Dennis lives.  Tech support is saying something about rain (in the Philippines, about 86 inches annually) and heat (average temperature of 88 degrees).  Dennis is laughing---LA has 15 inches of rain in a good year and the temperature at the airport ranges between 65 and 70 degrees. Earthquakes?  It seems the Philippines has them too.  

Location and weather covered, the conversation’s moves on.  Dennis is telling about his time on a Navy carrier, the USS Coral Sea, during the Vietnam War.  About being stationed at Olongapo where the US Naval base had an “R and R” center.  About shore leave and water skiing off the base in Subic Bay.  The Navy had great speed boats.

The tech guy wasn’t even born then.  His parents weren’t even born then.  

But enough of the past.  Dennis has progressed to health care.  He once had a great experience with national health care in New Zealand.  “What’s it like in the Philippines?” he asks.  From Dennis’s end of the conversation, I learn that the Philippines have universal health care and national insurance; no tech guy opinion about its quality, however. 

Dennis explains that the United States is way behind; somehow the name Franklin Roosevelt has entered.  Does the tech guy know what the Tea Party is?  New friend across the sea breaks in to ask if Dennis will fill out a customer service report.  “Sure, happy to do it,” says Dennis.  Everybody’s happy now.  That’s what Dennis calls giving “good phone.”

Read more essays like this in East Village Magazine at http://www.eastvillagemagazine.org/