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Thursday, September 4, 2014

What I've Done Over the Past 11 Years With My Gift

On this date in 2003 I had my second kidney transplant.  The first one failed earlier that year.  Unlike the first time, the second one came from a living donor not related to me.  The date was set and I focused on it with anticipation.  There was no waiting for the phone to ring, no mad dash to the hospital.  It's one aspect of my donor's generosity that is often overlooked--the fact that I didn't have to live with so much uncertainty leading up to the big event.

 Me and my donor, Connie, summer 2003

After six months of hemodialysis, which made my vision worse (long story) and having to stay with family because I was too sick to be on my own, my life in suspended animation was about to end.  It was as if someone had hit the Pause button and on September 4, 2003 someone hit that button again to restart my life. 

Soon after being released from the hospital I fell into a deep depression.  Now I know that it sometimes happens to people after a major surgery.  That may have been part of it, but for me it had more to do with losing a significant part of my vision while on dialysis.  I’d lost vison before and I’d had kidney failure before, but never at the same time.

I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to do much with my life, even with a kidney transplant.  Take a look at the list below and you’ll see just how wrong I was.  Since 2003 I have:

Learned to live with less vision than I had when the latest round of kidney failure/dialysis/transplant began in early 2003.

Moved back to Fayetteville, where I worked at a full-time job for the first time since my vision loss began in the early 90s.

Joined a critique group and started my writing career.

Published my story of life with Type 1 diabetes and how I adjusted to the challenges it caused.

Published a book of humor about Northwest Arkansas—a place I know and love so well.

Survived cancer.

Traveled to Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Portland.

Reconnected with dozens of old friends from both high schools I attended, as well as friends I knew in the various places I’ve lived since then, via Facebook.

Found d success in public speaking.

Recovered from a few hernia surgeries and gall bladder removal.

Learned to live with Type 1 diabetes again after my transplanted pancreas failed.  It gave me 14 years of freedom and I still miss it.

Experienced the mental and emotional advantages/intensity of sorting through all my possessions and letting go of a lot of them.

Moved 2,000 miles and 2 time zones away, to Portland, Oregon just in time for my 50th birthday.

Purchased my first smart phone and learned how to use it.  No simple thing for someone with my eyesight and lack of patience with technology.

Learned how to navigate an unfamiliar but extensive transit system.

Those are all things I couldn’t have (or at least wouldn’t have) done without a working kidney.  It hits the highlights but omits all the little things I have been able to do because of the generosity of another.  I don’t know what the next 11 years will bring, but I know it won’t be dull.
 Me August 20, 2014

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Seeing Red: Braves, Chiefs, Redskins, and My Grandfather

When I was 8 years old I learned three interesting facts, two of them about my family.  The man we called Grandpa Elam was actually the father of the man we called Grandpa Jack.  This made him my great-grandfather, a term I’d never heard before.  The second thing I learned was that Grandpa Elam was an Indian.  It was hard to believe because I never saw him wear feathers or war paint.  The only time I ever saw him wear anything but faded overalls and a long-sleeve shirt was at his funeral a few years later.  The third thing I learned was that modern-day Indians (now referred to as Native Americans) wear clothes just like everybody else.

There were two hit songs on the radio that summer.  Both of them about Cherokees--Cherokee People by Paul Revere & the Raiders and Half Breed by Cher.   It didn’t take long for me to figure out that some of my ancestors treated some of my other ancestors pretty badly.

But I tried to put that out of my mind and just enjoy the fact that it wasn’t hard for me to get a good tan.  
My junior high mascot was The Indians.  This made perfect sense because the only other junior high in town was The Cowboys.  What better mascots for cross-town rivals?  Now I had a connection to my school mascot.  School spirit was a bit more personal for me.  At sporting events and pep rallies the school band played the song Cherokee.  It also made sense that our school colors were red and white.  The only problem with that is whenever I wear something bright red I look like I have sunburn.  Or like I’m blushing.  Or both.  The school colors at the university I graduated from were also red and white.

Sometimes I didn’t like the red that was always under the tan.  It wasn’t that I was ashamed of being part Cherokee.  Far from it.  I just would have preferred some shade of tan or light brown.

But I still enjoyed tanning quickly and easily.  You can almost see it get darker if I’m out in the sun for fifteen or twenty minutes.  I don’t have to worry about burning within a few minutes like some people do.  Thanks, Grandpa.

It’s not that people take one look at me and think, “He’s an Indian.”  I ended up with blue eyes and enjoy all the privileges of a white American.  There's Irish, Dutch, and plenty of English flaoting around in my DNA.  But none of them have ever been oppressed in this country.

You can't always tell by looking if someone is part Cherokee. Photo source

A number of years ago there was a controversy about the Atlanta Braves fans doing “the tomahawk chop” at baseball games.  Native American groups were upset about it.  I didn’t understand why they had a problem with it.  It was just some chopping motion people made.  

I don’t remember if they had any problem with the name Braves.  Brave is a compliment, right?  The controversy quickly faded.

I’ve never heard of any controversy regarding the KansasCity Chiefs mascot.  Chief isn’t an insult.

Redskin is a different matter.  Some people don’t understand why it’s a big deal.  You’ll never hear of a team named the Detroit Blackskins or the Houston Wetbacks.  But somehow it’s OK for the Washington Redskins to keep using that name even after many people have voiced their opposition to it.  Some sports announcers have wisely stopped using the term.

Redskin is defining a race of people solely by the color of their skin, as if nothing else matters.  A chief is a person.  A brave is a person.  But a red skin in an object.  It dehumanizes.  It’s an archaic term left over from the days when, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

Probably the main reason why Washington has been able to get away with using this name for so long is because there aren’t enough Native Americans left to riot in the streets the way other ethnic groups have.  This is especially true on the East Coast, where the British and then the American military did such a thorough job of killing them or pushing them out of the way.  Here in flyover country, it’s common to find other Americans who are some fraction Native American like me.

When I started losing my vision it got harder to tell some shades of color apart.  Blue has been the holdout.  I can see a wide variety of blues.  Greens, browns, and reds masquerade as each other.  When my vision decreased again in 2003 the problem grew worse.  The world isn’t black and white, but colors are muted.
It was mid-summer 2005 and the sun had ripened my skin just as it always has.  I was wearing a light grey T-shirt and glanced at my arm.  Next to that dull grey was this beautiful, earthy mixture of light brown, burnt orange, and copper.  Two things happened at that moment.  I got to enjoy a rich shade of color I hadn’t seen in a few years and I truly fell in love with the color of my skin.  It’s just too bad it took being deprived of brilliant colors and wearing a grey shirt to make me appreciate what was right there in front of me—on me—all along.  

I wonder if a paint store could match a color of paint to me.  Now I feel like I could have a paint swatch named after me.  I claim it—all of it—the tan, the pink, the white, and the red that went into making this American mutt.

Oh, Washington.  When your politicians and dysfunction aren’t pissing us off, your team mascots are.  In both cases it’s due to your unwillingness to look beyond the bubble where you hide and ignore the rest of us.  I know you’ve already bought all that merchandise with Redskins on it.  But you can donate it to poor people in Africa who have no idea what any of it means.  Every year, thousands of garments proclaiming a certain team to be the champion of their league are manufactured in advance in anticipation of jubilant fans snatching them up.  But there can only be one winner and those unused T-shirts end up being worn by people in countries where football just means soccer.  So don’t tell me you can’t do anything with all that stuff.

This could be your opportunity to pick a mascot honoring your city’s history like San Francisco’s 49ers.  Or you could give a nod to the heritage of some of your residents like Minnesota’s Vikings.  I’ve got it!  You could do both with the Washington Blowhards.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Is It Time to Move Thanksgiving?

Happy 2014.  Now all of the holidays are behind us.  The Christmas decorations have been taken down, the New Year celebrations are over and resolutions are fresh in our minds.  Thanksgiving seems like a distant memory, even though it was barely a month ago.  We blame it on the whirlwind of activity since then, but maybe there’s another reason why it’s blurry in our minds.

It’s being eaten by Christmas.

Last year Thanksgiving had the nerve to occur on November 28th, which cost the American consumer SIX WHOLE DAYS of shopping convenience.  But, some retailers took a bigger bite out of Thanksgiving by opening that day.  We saw it coming.  They’ve been looking at it and drooling for years, taking a bigger portion and thinking nobody was paying attention.  You know—like Aunt Helen thinking nobody noticed here sneak an extra dinner roll or eat a second piece of pecan pie.

I guess we can’t blame them.  Thanksgiving is so good everybody wants a taste.  Everybody, that is, except the hordes of people camping for days on end in front of the big box stores, hoping to lead the charge in shopping battle known as Black Friday.  

But Black Friday has turned in Grey Thursday.  I guess if you’re being forced by your employer to skip that time with your family and friends so you can ring up sales for greedy, often violent consumers, Grey Thursday is the right term for the holiday formerly known as Thanksgiving.

I know I’m going to sound like a crotchety old man for talking about the 1980s when I worked in retail.  The stores were closed on Thanksgiving but we still got paid something for that day, depending on the average number of hours we worked per week.  Black Friday meant we opened an hour early and closed an hour later than usual.  There were no stampedes, pepper spray, injuries, or parking lot tent cities.  Yet, somehow, people got their Christmas shopping done.

Here’s one reason why people in other countries hate us: those videos that go viral that show Americans shoving each other out of the way and trampling each other like their lives depended on being the first one to lay their hands on a Play Station.  We don’t have soccer hooligans.  We have competitive shopping hooligans.  Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

I propose we move Thanksgiving before it is absorbed by Christmas.  Maybe early October would be far enough away to save it, though I’m not even sure about that.  Stores already have Christmas decorations up at Halloween, which is downright creepy when you think about it.

Some might argue November is the traditional time tor Thanksgiving, but you can buy turkey, cranberries, canned pumpkin and everything else you need year-round thanks to canning and freezing.  There’s nothing traditional about how the holiday is currently observed.  

The day was set aside to be thankful for what you have.  A good way to do that is with a feast, not working in a crowded store for minimum wage, waiting on people who haven’t bathed in a week because they camped outside for a week.

I’m not trying to be morally superior here.  I’ve been just as guilty as anyone about stuffing my face and having my tryptophan coma in front of the TV without a shred of gratitude.  But, in recent years I’ve made a conscious effort to spend at least part of the day feeling thankful.  

Black Friday stampede.  Photo:

Another reason to move Thanksgiving: winter weather.  Every year we see new stories about people stuck in airports or their cars because snow or ice crashed the party.  Here in the northern hemisphere the weather can do some tricky things that time of year.  It only adds to the stress some people have over the holidays.  Let’s have Thanksgiving at a time of year when over the river and through the woods can’t turn into over the ice and through the blizzard.

Think of Thanksgiving as a car parked next to a big box store that’s being expanded.  Move it or lose it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

We Lost Two Humanitarians That Week

There are some people who were born to help others.  Not just a few, but multitudes.  A couple of weeks ago, the world lost two of them.  One was Nelson Mandella.  I don’t need to tell you about him.  A Google search turns up 1.5 billion results.  I’m going to tell you about someone lesser known, but who made an impact of countless lives, including mine.

He was Don Williams.  No, not the country music legend, just somene well-knowd in and around Greenwood, Arkansas.

He and his wife, Ann, were the first friends my parents made when we moved to the small town when I was almost 2 years old.  They and their three kids are part of the ever-shrinking group of people who knew me since before I can remember.  They’ve been like an uncle and aunt to me ever since.  The two families often went on camping trips and other activities together.

When I was in 1st grade, Santa Claus knocked at our door.  My brother, Mike, was three years old then and we were both ecstatic.  Santa sat on in front of the fireplace and we took turns sitting on his lap to tell him what we wanted.  I noticed Santa had shoes just like Don’s and thought Don must really know how to pick a good pair of those if he bought the same ones Santa wore.

The next year at Halloween the Williams family decorated their 3 bedroom ranch house as a haunted house.  They didn’t even charge people to go through it.  It was the early 70s.  Tmes were different and Greenwood was much smaller then.

Even after my family moved to Fayetteville a few years later, we never lost touch with them.  When we moved back seven years later, the friendship with them was like we’d never been gone.

In 1998 I was listed for a kidney/pancreas transplant.  When Don and Ann found out I needed to raise $50,000 because the pancreas wouldn’t be covered by Medicare, they organized a fund-raising committee.  A couple of weeks later, the first event took place.  They worked at that one and several others.

On that life-changing day in April, 1998 when I got The Call that a kidney and pancreas match was available, they actually beat the surgeon, who had to harvest the organs at a hospital a couple of hours away, to Oklahoma City.  More importantly, they waited with my parents during the 7 hour surgery.

When I woke up in ICU, the first two faces I saw were those of my parents.  The next two were Don and Ann.  How appropriate that they were there when I stopped being diabetic.  They drove two hours to visit me in the hospital when I was first diagnosed in 1977.

 I presented Don and Ann with the Greenwood Citizens of the Year award in October, 1998.  Pictured from left are Don, Ann, my mom, me, and my dad.

The list of humanitarian deeds Don did is long.  Even those closest to him probably couldn’t name them all.  Most of them had to do with helping those less fortunate.  Much of it was part of the United Methodist Church.  Others were as part of other organizations or on his own.  

Is it fair to compare Don to Nelson Mandella?  Well . . . yeah.  Okay, he never spent time behind bars, justly or not and his impact was on a much smaller scale.  But they shared a spirit of selflessness.  They both did all they could to lift up others.  Don was a Christan and the embodiment of the phrase “faith in action.”

I’ve often wondered if people who die around the same time are more likely to run into each other in the hereafter.  Maybe there’s some kind of orientation they do, kind of like freshman orientation at college.  Or maybe kindred spirits are naturally drawn to each other there.  I can picture Don in heaven, swapping notes with Nelson Mandella.

This isn’t the first time I’ve lost someone who had a positive impact on my life.  I know from experience that one of the best things you can do to keep someone’s memory alive is by doing things they did.  It doesn’t’ matter if you’re as good at it as they were.  Do it in rememberance of them and you just might feel their presence.  Since I’m talking about humanitarians, you know what I’m going to say next.

Uplift others whenever you can.  

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