Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Curse of Cursing

Early in my career I worked in a newspaper sports department, and there was a particular writer who cursed a great deal. At one point, we counted, and fully 3 of every 5 words coming from his mouth were swear words. He had a reputation for being a good writer, but listening to him for even a couple of minutes I lost any respect for him as a person.

The anonymity available on the internet has opened the door for the foul-mouthed to spew on social media. They create a false identity, then hurl invective at anyone with whose nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, financial status, or opinion with which they disagree.

Problem is, as I see it, their potty-mouth obscures whatever legitimate argument they may be trying to present. Who wants to have a discussion with someone who lacks the mental agility to come up with legitimate words to convey their ideas?

I now refrain, for the most part, from making comments on Facebook postings which seem to have a great many followers - newspaper articles, for example. Even when you post a reasoned comment, you invite personal attack. The one I thought the funniest was those trolls who mistook me for French when I commented on the Saudi king having a public beach closed during his holiday on the Riviera. When trolls guess I'm American, they ascribe to me everything they consider negative about the US - even if I had nothing to do with the situation and perhaps even oppose it myself. Some who know I lived in Texas nearly 20 years also ding me for anything that may be wrong about Texas.

I've been known to curse a time or twelve. Almost always in private. And almost exclusively reserved for something boneheaded I did to myself or perhaps railing against an obtuse or obstinate bureaucrat here and there. At the time, those words (and the way they are delivered) ARE carefully chosen and the effect can be temporarily cathartic.

Indeed, I can now even cuss in two languages!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Confessions of a Former Fox News Junkie

A recent comment from a friend on Facebook has caused me to reflect on my social media posts. In the sense that I have an eclectic group of connections - family, personal friends, business friends from past and current associations, writer friends, golf friends, friends of friends, etc. - and, depending on the nature of my post, whether it's a photo of breakfast or a screed against corrupt politicians and corporate executives, some will find a post amusing, some annoying, many won't care and will stream by. (The NSA will search for possible terrorist code words.)

My Facebook posts tend more to reflect personal interests and how-I'd-like-to-change-the-world peeves. My Tweets are almost exclusively aviation related, though I follow others of interest there such as journalist Glenn Greenwald. Haven't been too active on LinkedIn, as I'm not looking for a job, but I may start using that for selective "change" commentary.

For the record, or maybe just for personal reflection, I thought I'd summarize where I think I stand on some key issues. You may have already picked up on these from what I share and comment on. If you find you significantly disagree, you are free to Unfriend me and I won't be offended in the least. Though I will miss reading your thoughts.

When I lived in the States, the TV was routinely turned to Fox News. I thought they were over the top at times, certainly one-sided, but I saw myself as a "conservatarian" - a libertarian with a conservative flavor. The relatively few people I spent time with were conservative, leaning to Tea Party. To them, Rush Limbaugh was the political messiah. I had a few colleagues who saw the world otherwise - one called it Pox Ooze - and I was fine to be friends with them and agree to disagree. My Facebook friends range from uber-conservative to socialist; others I cannot gauge politically because most of their posts are about kids, which I also enjoy seeing as a glimpse into their lives.

I can't say that in the 20 years I lived in Texas that I ever critically examined what I thought I believed or was for or against. I was too busy trying to keep a job, pay the bills from having too big a house and too many 'things', and hope to have a little time left over to play golf now and then.

I knew relatively little about the rest of the world. An occasional tsunami. Constant wars "over there" somewhere. Fox didn't present much beyond politics, politics, politics. Bush good. Obama bad. Republicans are saints. Democrats are the devil. Clinton was Ross Perot's fault. I thought Hannity's red-face rants revealing but felt sorry for the token liberals on his panel whose thoughts were routinely interrupted or shouted over. O'Reilly, to me, was the most 'liberal' of the Fox snarl pack, but way too self-important. Megan Kelly was cute, especially with the shorter hairstyle, and quite tenacious. At least she stood out from the 100 other blondes on the network. Many of the guests interviewed seemed inept (from either side of the political spectrum) but maybe that was by design to make the hosts look good.

Living in Europe, we don't get Fox. We glean our news from a variety of sources - BBC and Sky in the UK, France24, even RT (Russia Today) and Al Jezeera, sometimes CNN when we travel. On the web we'll check Common Dreams and Comedy Central, and I still touch base with Drudge because he links to original sources (though his clever headlines sometimes mislead from the true story). In other words, we see a much wider variety of news from a diversity of viewpoints. Then make up our own minds as to what's relevant and what we think about it.

I've thought a great deal more in the past couple years about with I am willing to stand for and against.

In (relative) brief:

- I despise the corruption in the government, whether it's the US, the UK, France, or elsewhere. I think we need to get the big money out of politics and impose term limits on office holders, judges, and bureaucrats. Too many are entrenched, and the longer they are there they tend to pursue their personal wealth interests, not the long-term interests of the people they are supposed to serve. They are bought by billionaires. The three branches of the US government have become the Koch Congress, the Soros Green House, and the Adelson Court. Vote them out, you say? The process rarely allows a worthy candidate to even make it to the ballot. There may be a few good politicians, but not many; by and large both parties are riddled with unbridled graft. Cameron, Hollande, Merkel - no different. Puppets, not leaders.

- In the same vein, I despise the corruption in business and banking. This goes hand-in-hand with political corruption, and the system has been rigged to favor the very wealthy few. They flaunt laws with impunity, hide revenues overseas to avoid taxes, and then get bailed out with fiat taxpayer money when they screw up. The growing inequality is a serious issue that fuels the frustration of the populace and, I believe, will one day lead to revolutions in Western countries, or at least massive uprisings, including the US. Some of the laws need to be changed back to preclude the reckless risk-taking and wealth accumulation, and a few top bankers and corporate execs need to go to prison for their crimes as a deterrent to others. (Though even the prisons have become a corporate money machine.)

- America is drifting, with little consistent opposition, into a Police State. Unbridled spying by the NSA and other agencies on everyone. Police departments armed with intimidating military-style weapons. A seemingly growing number of killings by police, especially of minorities, with no apparent punishment or justice. Police confiscation of peoples' property without warrant or even arrest, much less conviction. BTW, similar is true of the UK and other countries. Yes, there are many good cops, but the number of rotten apples acting with impunity tend to negate them - can we agree the reputation of the police is not improving? It also surprises me how many people are willing to give up personal liberties for the false promise of security. 

- You may not be altogether shocked, then, to learn that I interpret the 2nd Amendment to mean individual citizens have a right to own guns. I do not like the trend to open carry. And I never owned a gun, mostly because I was concerned about a child or grandchild accidentally getting ahold of it. (And I figured I could do serious damage to a burglar with a well-placed 9-iron.) However, I believe I have a right to defend myself, my family, and my home from intruders. And I believe that citizens have the right to armed uprising against an oppressive government, much as the colonists rebelled against King Georgie. Should there be background checks for gun ownership to keep them out of the hands of nutcases - yes. Are the police and National Guard better armed than the citizens? Yes, but better to be poorly armed than completely defenseless.

- Living closer to "war zones," knowing people personally from Syria and other countries, I have become more anti-war. It seems much too easy when living in the States to be gung-ho for dropping bombs halfway around the world. It seems many wars are fought (and never 'won') primarily for the benefit of the arms merchants - the more bullets used, the bigger their bonuses. And then when the veterans come home, we treat them like pariahs.
 
- I have become much more conscious of what's in the food I eat. In general, food in Europe is not laced with pesticides, and more countries are banning GMOs. I find the DARK act which is working its way through Congress to be despicable - people have a right to know what's in their food, and if food producers do not provide it, then to me the food is suspect. (Just one more example of politicians sucking up to the money-grubbing corporations that pay them off.) I try to eat fewer pre-processed, packaged foods and make our own meals with locally grown veggies, etc. as much as possible.

- I'm not sure I yet believe in the certainty of climate change. I simply have not studied it enough, but I plan to. The science seems pretty overwhelming, but the climate change crowd has not helped its cause with the manipulation of data. The deniers fudge as well, especially when Big Oil and Big Coal money is involved such as the Koch Brothers. My take is that we would be better off applying alternative methods such as solar and wind power, and eliminate the pollution of coal and oil and the Three Mile Island / Chernobyl-style danger of nuclear. For sure the atmosphere will be much improved for everyone (except the dirty energy corporations.)

- I have become much more of a minimalist in terms of life style. Accumulating material things never was high on my personal agenda, though the size of your house and the brand on your car seemed to be the way success was scored. My wardrobe now fits in the space of a 3-foot closet. I drive a 16-year-old car with more than 200,000 kilometres on it, though we often go 2-3 weeks without ever using it. We take the train a great deal for longer trips, walk around Argeles, bus in Geneva.

- The older I get, the more I value personal relationships: family, family of choice, friends in the multiple places we are fortunate to live, respected business associates. There is immense satisfaction in caring and doing something for someone else - whether because they need a hand or just because. And it matters little to me where they came from, the shade of their flesh, religious persuasion, sexual orientation, or political leanings.

- Similarly, I have come to value experiences more than possessions. (Sometimes possessions, small mementos, are reflections of experiences, though.) Seeing the majestic beauty in nature or in grand man-made structures that are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Artwork of all hues and materials and subjects. No matter where you choose to live, there are places within reach - monuments, museums, parks - which are worth visiting for their educational and inspiration value. Take your kids, take yourself.

- One the current issues which is very personal for me - and for 8 million other Americans who live overseas - is the oppressive new US banking law known as FATCA. It is, quite simply, ruining normal life for us by preventing us from having regular bank accounts, credit cards, etc. at the local banks where we currently live. Most "Homelanders," as we refer to people who still live in the States, are not aware of this law or its impact. Nor do most care. But I advise you that you will see plenty of posts about this appalling overeach by the US government to the point of forcing other countries to change their laws about privacy, etc.

So the short of it - I don't trust Wall Street (or its weak-kneed regulators), nor Big Insurance, Big Medicine, Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Media, etc. Certainly almost no politician and no government agencies (in almost any country). I favor a simple, leave-me-alone lifestyle, spending time with the people we care about, doing those things which we enjoy, helping others as we are in a position to do so.

I recognize I am only one voice raising alarm on these issues. But perhaps others will join the chorus, and when our collective voices cannot be ignored, maybe change will start to happen. Edward Snowden, whom I regard as a hero, was one voice. Certainly he has made a significant difference, if not in the way the US, UK, and the other Five Eyes spy on the world, at least in the way people are now aware of the spying.

Thanks for reading through to the end. See you on Facebook.

Monday, July 20, 2015

My Head is Spinning

D-L and I are trying to decide where we want to live, or at least spend most of our time, long-term - Country A or Country B, both in Europe.

The lifestyles of the two are quite different, one a small village adjacent to beach and mountains, the other a manageable-size but very international city on a lake. We're considering such factors as healthcare (we're neither of us young), business environment, cost of living, even the expected economic stability of the countries' currencies.

Where the choice gets most complicated is taxes. Not just the tax structure in each country, but the tax "penalties" invoked by virtue of me being an American or us being married. For example, the US does not tax social security benefits - or at least not if you earn less than a certain threshold. However, if I am resident in another country, the IRS may decide to withhold 30% of the monthly payment ... just in case I might owe taxes on it ... and I have to try to get it back when filing my annual income tax return. In addition, both Country A and Country B impose a tax on US Social Security benefits (by treaty); if we lived in the UK, Ireland, or Canada, no tax on US SS in those countries.

Here's a weird one. In order to collect half my SS benefit amount, D-L and I must have been married a year. However, if we are only married 9 months (3 months fewer) and I die, she can collect my entire amount!

Factor in my life insurance, and she has about a one-month window of opportunity to cash in on both my SS and the insurance proceeds. (Maybe I'd better disappear for that month!)

What it really comes down to, though, as friend J so wisely pointed out, is where do we want to be? Where do we want to spend most of our time while we're together, and where do we want to spend the rest of our life if something happens to the other in our couple?

We're fortunate to have a choice. We're fortunate that the nature of what we do - writing - can be done pretty much anywhere in the world (with decent internet and phone connections). If we so chose, we wouldn't need any fixed-based "home" - we could just roam from place to place, spending a few weeks here, a few weeks there. Most of it at no housing cost if we did house-sits. (We'd still be taxed based on our country of residence, and I'll be taxed by the US no matter where I live.)

We both think it's important to have a "home" (not necessarily a house) - a place where you feel reasonably safe, secure, and at peace, away from the outside world.

With the current EU rules, we're also fortunate that we can change our mind in the future. Maybe we start in Country A, but in a couple of years switch our residence to Country B. The caveat there is I need continuous residence of at least five years if I wish to seek citizenship in either country. So switching in effect restarts the clock and delays the citizenship option. (And the option to renounce US citizenship and shed that annual tax preparation burden.)

It shouldn't be this complicated. I appreciate that there need to be rules for allowing visitors and immigrants to a country. People from other places shouldn't just be allowed to walk/swim/sneak across the border and stay indefinitely (oh, yeah, forgot they do that in the US). The EU rules, however, seemed designed to assume they don't want you, and you need to present an abundance of documentation that you are worthy to live among them. Right now, anti-migrant sentiment is rising everywhere - especially in Europe where the economies continue to struggle (more from banker manipulation and boneheaded, in-the-corporate-pocket politicians than the impact of Eastern Europeans and Africans who want a better way of life).

We've pretty much decided our country of first choice, assuming certain things happen in the coming weeks. If those things don't happen, we'll end up in our second choice. Both places are pretty wonderful, except for the bureaucracies, of course. So the spinning should stop soon and we can settle in to one or the other for the long haul.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Relief

We had talked about chemo. How the every-3rd-week treatment for four months would affect the plans we had made for the coming couple of months. Missed events. Missed friends. What had we left in Argeles that we'd really need to have in Geneva before the end of the year? Oh yeah, tax stuff; a trip would be necessary before the October extension deadline. Maybe some additional clothes for the Geneva fall and winter.

The surprises kept coming. The mammo showing and the biopsy confirming breast cancer ... again ... four years after surviving it the first time around. The PET scan revealing the gallbladder as an unknown hot spot. We already knew about the gallstones (at least since earlier this summer); we just didn't think there was an urgency to deal with them. That they might be cancerous created a high urgency. Then there was that unknown spot attached to the intestine - not a good place to get cancer (not that there is any good place). And something suspicious on the liver?

We talked about death. Probably thought about it more, separately, than we were either of us willing to express. Any time you have an operation, there's risk, even if the surgeon has done it dozens, hundreds, thousands of times. A bad reaction to the anesthesia. Cardiac arrest during the operation (one of the primary scenarios in the anesthesiology simulator I had helped market 20 years ago, but nonetheless rare) - though D-L's ticker has been confirmed multiple times as healthy. The absent-minded doctor who forgets to remove a scalpel from inside your stomach and they close you up. Infection afterwards. Any number of unexpected events that are drama for medical television shows. At least D-L didn't have the bizarre Greg House as her doctor.

Donna-Lane said she was at peace if it all went horribly wrong. Said she was worried about me, not herself. I thought briefly about where she'd asked me to spread her ashes and wondered whether the wood sculptures I had recently read about would be located nearby. I wondered where and how I'd spend my time when my world no longer revolved around this incredible person I married. I can imagine barely functioning, but if I did that I know her ghost would come back and smack me upside the head.

Interesting that D-L tended to expect and prepare for the worst-case scenario. She assumed cancer and chemo. I acknowledged the worst-case, wanted to understand it and all the other possibilities. But I did not think the gallbladder would be cancerous. Maybe because that's so rare. Maybe because we already knew about the gallstone issue, and why had it never shown up as potential cancer before? Maybe because I didn't want her to go through chemo and be sick and tired for months to come. (She was excited about the possible wig styles and colors she might get to disguise the hair loss.)

For the better part of a month our focus has been on medical issues, medical places, medical uncertainties. And a surprising portion about which family and friends we wanted to know what and when. What did we ever do before email and social media? I guess we'd be making a lot of long-distance phone calls.

The "trauma-tane" is not yet over. There's still surgery for the breast cancer. There's still the possibility of chemo there, as one of the tumours is in a lymph node. But maybe not. Hope not. Don't think so. But if it happens, she'll deal with it, and I'll do what I can to support her through it. Maybe two wigs.   

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Helpless

I did a search for an image to represent the feeling of helplessness, and one of the choices was the Greek flag. How appropriate. Those who live in Greece, and probably a few of their expats as well, are having their lives turned upside-down by economic tyrants in the EU and US who are well beyond the individual Greek's control. They must await the outcome, then adapt as best they can.

We (me, family, family of choice, friends) are in a similar state of helpless limbo this morning as Donna-Lane undergoes the first of what might be three surgeries. I am writing this because the alternative is lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what the surgeons are doing right now and what they are finding.

This first surgery is to remove her gallbladder, which has troubled her for years (though they thought until recently the problem was with her esophagus). They're doing it via laproscopy - small incisions and a tiny inserted camera to guide them. Depending on the biopsy, they may need to do a more conventional surgery - bigger incisions, longer recovery time in the hospital. The future second (or third) surgery would be a mastectomy to remove a recurrence of breast cancer.

Fortunately, D-L is under general anesthesia. But she'll have plenty of pain when she awakens.

My prognosis is she'll be better than ever when she recovers. I say this not out of blind optimism but knowing she is a fighter who makes the best of any situation.

We met with the anesthesiologist and surgeon yesterday. Both could be our children - perhaps in their 30s, certainly not more than early 40s. No doubt they have received excellent training, and they have ample experience. Certainly they seemed to know what they were talking about.

Both spoke to Donna-Lane in French, and she seemed to grasp what they were telling her, albeit with some explanation of technical medical terms. I picked up enough words and body language that I could understand the plan with only a brief summary in Anglais from D-L.

We're waiting for the phone call from the hospital that tells us she's out of surgery and in the recovery room and when we can see her. She'll be woozy for awhile, perhaps the rest of the day. At some point we'll learn from the doctors what they discovered and what comes next.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Life On Hold

I once worked with an artist who seemed to think that time stood still - at least while he was working on a project. The "deadline" was not a date on the calendar or an hour during the day; it was whenever he finished. When he was zoned in, it was as if the world around him was frozen in time.

For the moment, the world around us continues to move. Other people are going about their work, their friendships, their family functions. Life goes on.

For Donna-Lane and I, it is as if our life is in suspended animation, on hold, awaiting the results of her pending surgeries and how the doctors interpret what they find.

Each time we've had a medical meeting the past month, there's been a new "wrinkle." The spots on the mammo, which the subsequent biopsy determined were malignant. As D-L was tracking toward breast surgery, a PET scan revealed a possible issue with her gallbladder. We knew she had gallstones, discovered earlier this year - after thinking for years it was an esophagus issue - and knew something would probably have to be done sooner or later. But the spectre of cancer there had never occurred to us.  (And it may not be, but they will remove the troublesome organ and then do the tests.) The same PET scan also highlighted a small, yet unknown hot spot next to an intestine, so they'll extract and examine that too. Until they reach conclusions on the gallbladder issue, the breast surgery is in a holding pattern.

It's possible all her surgeries could be done by the end of the month, and we head back down to Argeles-sur-mer for most of August. Maybe still do the Scotland house-swap in September. That's best-case scenario.

It's also possible she'll require chemo to make sure there's no more cancer anywhere in her body. For that, we'll remain close to the hospital in Geneva, for the most part, for perhaps the rest of the year.

We'll have a better idea, we think, later this week. Fingers, toes, arms, etc. crossed for good news.

I would encourage you to check out D-L's two blogs:
http://breastisyettocome.blogspot.fr/
http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/

I know I sound syrupy at times, but Donna-Lane has an amazingly positive attitude, including when faced with adversity. She finds the fun and humour in any situation. Yes, she's scared about going under the knife and anesthetic. Yes, she'd rather be sitting on the beach watching the sun come up. Or exploring a museum or 12th-century castle. Or checking out the fresh veggies on the marche.

On Monday when she checks into the hospital, she'll get to know the doctors and nurses, as she does with taxi drivers, waiters, and strangers we meet on the street. In her way, she'll make them feel better about themselves and their roles. After the operation(s), when she's conscious again, she'll write about the experience so others may be informed, encouraged.

And, when she's healed and better than ever - however short or long it takes - we'll start the clock again on the rest of our lives. Full expecting that whatever we plan, there will be surprises to be dealt with.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Not a PET you'd want to have


I woke an hour before the alarm was set to go off, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. I knew the events of today would just be running through my neurons. So I lay there and let them run.

When the alarm finally trilled, D-L and I cuddled a bit, only briefly, as we needed to be on the road to avoid the downtown traffic.

That was 6 am. Now it’s not quite 9 and I’m sitting at a table in the HUG hospital cafeteria in Geneva.

Donna-Lane is one floor up in the nuclear medicine wing. She’s probably lying as still as she reasonably can, waiting for the radioactive dye to flow into the “higher-energy” parts of her body as the technicians prepare to slide her through the PET scanner. Positron Emission Tomography.

This is the fourth time she's been stuck with needles in the past three weeks: blood (not done well), biopsy, MRI, PET ...

Hopefully, those higher-energy cells won’t include any more cancer than the two small clusters discovered in her breast a couple of weeks ago. Last Monday in Perpignan - a place I have come to dislike for several reasons - we learned the under-10mm clusters were malignant. D-L had been sure they would be, based on her history.

If there’s no additional cancer, she probably won’t need chemo, which is the treatment she most wishes to avoid. Chemo is sickening and tiring and a drawn-out process every three weeks for four months.

This afternoon, we’ll meet with her oncologist to discuss what the scans show … or, hopefully, don’t.

She will have surgery for sure, a mastectomy next Friday. Best case scenario, that's the end of it; she heals and we get back to whatever 'normal' is supposed to be. I don't contemplate other scenarios, at least not out loud.

Those of you who know her know what an incredible warm, giving, talented human being Donna-Lane is.

To know a little more about her, I recommend you check out her blogs.

This one, The B(r)east is Yet To Come, chronicles her first cancer experience ... and has now been resumed:
http://breastisyettocome.blogspot.fr

The ExPat Writer offers daily observations on life:
http://theexpatwriteer.blogspot.ch