Tuesday, January 21, 2020

On Kindness

*WARNING* This is not a post about books in any way, shape or form. But it's something I had to write and want to share publicly. Feel free to skip it. My sisters gave me permission to share it here, and I probably have the details wrong about the diabetic stuff one of them needs, but the point still remains. 

Several days after my mom died, my dad asked me to go into town and get a copy of the state and local papers so he could see her obituary. It was a cold and damp day in January. My car was in the driveway; my parents' car was in the garage, and multiple rain jackets hung in the coat closet, but for some reason, I set out in the drizzle on foot wearing only a light jacket without a hood. My decision making skills were at an all-time low. Between the two of us, we couldn't even figure out what a reasonable amount of money would be to buy two newspapers, although we did realize I'd need coins. I simply loaded up my pockets from the cigar box my dad had kept his change in my entire life and set out.

The drizzle quickly changed to rain, then to what even we Oregonians will admit is a downpour. By the time I reached the main street of their tiny town, I was drenched. I stood shivering in front of the newspaper boxes and jammed coins into them with fumbling fingers. As I tucked the newspapers inside my jacket to keep them from disintegrating before I got back, I peered into the window of the storefront I was standing by. It was a coffee shop. A warm drink sounded good, and a break from the rain sounded even better, so I went in.

I stood there, dripping on the counter, trying to count change and match my total against the menu board posted above. "What would you like?" asked the man behind the counter, politely ignoring the water cascading off every part of my face, hair and body onto his clean floor and counter.

"I think I have enough here for a medium cup of coffee," I replied, still trying to get the numbers to stay straight in my head long enough to differentiate between the amount needed for a small or a medium.

"That's not what I asked," he answered. At this, I looked up. "What would you like?"

I'd like to say I protested enough to be polite, but I suspect I simply answered directly. "A large latte."

"That's the perfect amount then," he told me, scooping my coins up and turning to make my drink.

I was too numb to burst into tears, but nine years later, I still mist up every time I think of that moment. This man had no idea my mom had just died. Despite my state of confusion and damp, I was still clearly a middle class, middle aged white lady, not someone down on their luck and unable to afford a latte. There was no reason for him to extend me any particular kindness. But he did. I sat in the café with my latte, and read the obituary I had written with so much love in my grieving heart. When I finished my drink, I folded up the papers and tucked them back into my jacket. It wasn't raining as hard on the way back to my parents' house, now just my dad's house. When I told him the story, he did cry, but then, he cried so easily the last few years of his life, all masculine reticence gone in the aftermath of mini strokes that rewired him emotionally. But for a few moment, they were tears of gratitude. That someone would extend such grace. That the world wasn't a completely shit show in every way. That even without my mom, we wouldn't always be left to fend for ourselves.

Nine years later, nearly to the day, I'm standing helplessly in the middle of Costco while my sister, hunched against a giant box of shampoo, sobs into her hands. She just found out that the diabetic pump that she needs costs over $800 even here. Someone had told her Costco had a much better price, and she'd gotten her hopes up enough to ask me to take her in to check. She is what's sometimes known as a Type III diabetic: someone who developed diabetes as an adult, but who is insulin dependent no matter what "lifestyle changes" she makes. Her blood sugar has always fluctuated wildly, seemingly unaffected by her food and exercise. She'd never been able to afford a pump--hell, her insurance wouldn't even cover the difference between needles and the more efficient pen for her twice daily shots--but when she developed macular degeneration and her doctor told her she had to get her blood sugar under control to save her eyesight, she had splurged on the machine.

At the time, she thought the thousand dollar charge was part of her deductible, and that when she needed her three month replacements, insurance would cover it. But it turns out that her insurance will never pay for the pump, since it's more expensive than taking insulin manually. Even though the time she was using the pump was the first time in over fifteen years she'd started to get a handle on her highs and lows, even though her optometrist told her her eye condition had stabilized during that period and could start to recover if she continued to control her diabetes better. The Costco pharmacist had tried to help her problem solve--"Can you call the company directly?" Tried that. "Can your doctor prescribe it?" Already did; insurance company doesn't care. "What if you called the company-?"

"NOBODY CARES. I know it's not your fault, but NOBODY WILL HELP ME."  She made it a few steps away from the pharmacy window before sagging against the shampoo display in agony.

What if some good Samaritan passing by had decided that instead of paying coffee for the person behind them in the Starbucks line, instead of buying the milk for the family in front of them at the grocery store whose wallet was forgotten at home, they were going to do The Most Outstanding Random Act of Kindness Ever and bought my sister's diabetic pump for her? Wouldn't that have been amazing?

Except it wouldn't have addressed the problem. Even for her, it would have only given her a three month solution, and it would have done nothing for every single other person in a similar situation. My other sister is in chemo right now, and without insurance, it would cost $57,000 PER SESSION. When she told me this, I looked at her anxiously for a moment, and she said, "Yes, that's three zeros," because everyone knows I sometimes say "seventy five hundred" instead of "seven hundred and fifty" or "seventy five thousand." She has insurance, good insurance, so her company told the hospital they capped that treatment at $37,000 per session, then the insurance paid $34,000 per session, so my sister only has to pay $3,000. Per session. For six sessions. $18,000 out of pocket. With good insurance, not the crappy kind our other sister has.

Do you have $18,000 stashed away that you could pay a hospital if you were diagnosed with breast cancer tomorrow? I sure as hell don't.

What do these two stories have to do with each other? I've been reading a lot lately about kindness, and what it means to be kind versus to be nice, and whether kindness is a privileged buzzword that lets people avoid real responsibility for each other. Is it more important to be kind on an individual level, or do we sometimes have to be unkind in order to push forward real change? If person X says something racist, and person Y calls them on it, do we really give a rat's ass that person Y was unkind about it? Or do we worry more about the society that let person X develop and say something harmful to others in the first place?

I'm with my friend and mentor Beth Woolsey on this. It's both/and, not either/or. The kindness of the man in the coffeeshop will always stay with me, and keeps me ever mindful that we don't know what others are going through. It wasn't a meaningless gesture. That very human and personal gesture helped me with a human and individual burden.

My sister's insurance nightmare is certainly personal as well, but it's also societal, and we can't rely on personal gestures to fix a societal problem. Healthcare can't rely on GoFundMe campaigns. One sister has the luck of being in a family that earns enough money to save quite a bit. Another made the painful decision to dig into her small retirement fund now in order to be sure she lives long enough to retire. Other people all around us don't even have that option, and they lose their homes to medical debt, or they simply die needless deaths. It's not remotely acceptable, and yet we accept it.  This is not a problem that can be fixed by kindness.

But kindness still matters.

Monday, January 13, 2020

TTT: Great Books With Few Reviews

 TTT (Top Ten Tuesday) is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl .  If you want to quadruple the size of your TBR AND find a bunch of great book blogs to follow head on over and check it out!

The topic this week is: most anticipated books of early 2020. But I'm still in a review and reflect mode, so instead I'm bringing you Ten Books I Really Liked Last Year That Have Under a Thousand Reviews on Goodreads.  Not as catchy, but equally important, right? These are the books that got a 4 or 5 star rating from me in 2019, as found when I organize my "Read" shelf on Goodreads in reverse order of number of ratings.  I didn't bother listing those I'd already listed in previous Best Of lists this month, so I could feature some new titles. 

1. Dodger Boy 40 ratings
I would be more surprised that this sweet MG novel about a Canadian tween and the American draft dodger she befriends hasn't gotten more love, but it has a cover that looks like a kid drew it in crayon because their teacher made them. 
Dodger Boy

2. One Lie Too Many . 48 ratings
This solid teen thriller is about a girl who agrees to pretend to have psychic powers in order to "rescue" a girl who has been "kidnapped." Then people start to die. Great for fans of Karen McManus and Justine Larbalestier.

One Lie Too Many

3. Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, a Monumental American Man  157 ratings
I read this for Cybils judging last year, and was very impressed (and educated) by this biography. 

Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, a Monumental American Man

4. Oddity 208 ratings
My classroom was matched with author Sarah Cannon through #KidsNeedBooks. It seemed only polite to read her book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Think Night Vale for middle grade readers. 

5. Barely Missing Everything 311 ratings
This is a tough YA #ownvoices story about a kid named Juan who's trying to make it through high school and out of his small town Texas life.
Barely Missing Everything

6. Run, Hide, Fight Back 324 ratings
April Henry is a mainstay in my classroom. Kids love her books. She's a local author and a friendly presence on Twitter, her books are quick reads, so I've read pretty much all of them. This one, the story of a group of disparate teens thrown together when a shopping mall is attacked by (domestic) terrorists, is second only to her Girl Stolen in my mind.
Run, Hide, Fight Back

7. Scary Stories for Young Foxes 346 ratings
I adored this creepy yet whimsical story-within-a-story. When Mother Fox cautions her kits that they are far too young to listen to the Old Fox in the cave tell her scary stories, of course they dash off when she's not looking to listen. The stories gradually come together into one overarching story. The foxes make very sympathetic characters, and the dangers they face are pretty intense.

Scary Stories for Young Foxes

8. Grand Theft Horse 424 reviews
A fascinating, nonfiction graphic novel about a woman in LA, the author/illustrator's cousin, who stole a horse in order to save its life.

Grand Theft Horse

9. Spin 458 ratings
This is another one where I just don't understand why it has so few ratings. Lamar Giles is great, and the world definitely needs more #ownvoices books that aren't "struggle books." This is a straight up excellent mystery, and while it matters that the characters are black, it isn't about that. It makes great use of the "enemies forced to work together" trope too.

10. Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens 640 ratings
This is a truly excellent anthology that covers a range of genres and styles as well as a wide range of disabilities. It also has a super cool cover.

Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens

Friday, January 10, 2020

Best of 2019

I already posted about my favorites of the decade, but that left out many of the best books I read in 2019. Here, then, are my favorites from the past year. (Because that's really what I mean by "best.") Some of these were obvious choices; others were tough and I could easily have made a different choice. But yes, these are all books I loved this year.