Sunday, October 31, 2010

Closing the Can

So on the 21st, I opened up a massive can of worms here on the blog.

It was a bit of a risk, but I'm glad I did it. As I've said before on this site, the downfall of many blogs is when they become too me-me-me self-indulgent and thereby lose the interest of would-be readers. I have made, and will continue to make, exceptions for major life milestones or stories rooted in personal experience that can have some kind of larger meaning or importance.

See the distinction? I would never presume to waste YOUR time by writing about how long the line was at the ATM today, or about how the milk in my cereal seemed a bit sour. To reverse shoes and feet, if you wrote about those things, I can assure you I would re-divert my time and energy.

All that said, I do have some happy news to wrap up what I wrote about last week: I have since received the pathology report from my surgery and there was no lymph node metastasis.

Long-story short, I am now cancer-free. I will definitely make a point of blogging from time to time about worthy causes and charities for cancer research and awareness, I may post some relevant articles, and I will post during May (that's National Oral Cancer Awareness Month) about simple steps you can take during your regular dental exams and cleanings to screen for oral cancer.

But that's sort of it. My new tongue will become normal again, and my tracheotomy will continue to heal. It may take a few months, but I'll speak at a 100% level.

And in the meantime, I will have plenty of chances to blog about local elections, word origins, charity dinners, Lowell DNA meetings, civil-military relations, funny interpersonal observations, and whatever else seems interesting at the time.

I'm greatly looking forward to it..

Thursday, October 28, 2010

CTI Dinner @ Lenzi's

Last night, Community Teamwork Inc. hosted its annual Heroes' Night, at which seven local heroes were awarded: The Student Cadets of LHS JROTC (collective award); Francis "Frank" O'Malley; Rebecca Duda; The Late Edward A. Fish; Stephen Greene; Members & Volunteers of Lowell Telecommunications Corp (collective award); JoAnne McQuilken; Ashley Toland; and State Senator Susan Tucker.
A fuller description of each of the awardees can be found on Richard Howe's site.
If you'll pardon the poor quality of my iPhone camera (and the fact that the shot is of a screen which was behind our table), the pic here is of Pam Howland, wife of Stephen Greene. Stephen Greene is Vice-President of Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association, in addition to serving in leadership roles with Keep Lowell Beautiful and the Green Buildings Commission. He was not present to receive his award last night because a work-related project for his consultancy took him to Baltimore instead.

Two local bloggers presented awards last night. Richard Howe and Paul Marion, both of, presented awards to Dracut History Teacher Rebecca Duda and the LTC, respectively.
One point that Paul Marion made about LTC really stuck with me -- it's one of the only organizations in the city that really looks like the city. As anyone who has worked in the non-profit sector knows, the Big Elephant in the room sometimes is the disparity between the organizations themselves and the populations they serve. That's not necessarily anyone's fault -- it's a familiar story across the country -- but it is remarkable when groups like LTC can break that mold.

Monday, October 25, 2010

LDNA Tonight, 25 OCT

Yup, it's the fourth Monday of the month, all over again. Now that the Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association has moved from the Revolving Museum to Caffe Paradiso to Middlesex Community College, many downtowners may not be familiar with the new meeting location. It's in the City Building (the tall, red brick guy @ 33 Kearney Square). The room # is LC109.

On tonight's agenda are introductions of new City Development Services Managers, a discussion of the notification process for downtowners during snow emergency parking bans, and some open forum time.

If you haven't paid dues since February 2010, it's $5 if you're between 18-70, and $1 if you're outside the southern or northern boundaries of that age bracket.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

One Lawn, Undivided

In the spirit of pre-election bipartisanship, I had to stop to take a "happy snap" of this lawn on Carriage Drive when I walked past it this afternoon.

Pardon my iPhone and its lack of zoom capability, but the sign in the background is for Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell), candidate for the 1st Middlesex Senate District.

The picture in the foreground is for Jon Golnik (R-Carlisle), candidate for the U.S. 5th Congressional District of MA.

Just as is the case with a region, ethnic group, interest group, or any other constituency, a household open-minded enough to consider "split voting" deserves the attention of BOTH major parties in future elections.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Context for 12 Tours

Okay, so back to another theme here -- civil-military relations.

Recently, a 29 year-old Sergeant First Class from the 1/75 Ranger Regiment was killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan while serving on his twelfth tour of overseas duty.

There has been a lot of emphasis put on this number in the media (including Bob Herbert's column today), and a lot of genuine curiosity on the part of people who wonder "How is that possible?"

First of all, it is an amazing, impressive testament to the sacrifice this soldier has placed above so many other areas of his life...not just personal, but even his professional military education (ironically enough, right?). He didn't look for desk jobs to hide out in stateside to work on his degree. Essentially, he has been either at war, in reset phase, or in workup phase to go back, for the past decade.

But back to the question -- it's important for people to know that not all *tours* are created alike.

The first time I went to Iraq was in May of 2006. I took a small plane from a small base in the American southeast to a place called Fort Campbell, KY, which sits just outside of Clarksville, TN. I was with just a couple guys sent out to augment another unit, and the ride we were hitching was courtesy of a unit called the 160th SOAR. Just to make small talk, I turned to the guy next to me in the back of the C-17 and I asked, "So, how many times have you been over to Iraq before?"

His answer: "This is going to be my thirteenth time."

No typo there. And again, bear in mind that this was 2006. By now, this guy may have easily passed the quarter-century mark. The reason why is that his unit is a Special Operations Aviation Regiment that rotates equipment, helicopters, pilots, and mechanics in and out of "theater" on a constantly-rotating basis. He might go in for two weeks, help install replacement parts on four of his birds, fly back home to knock out administrative work at the unit, and then be back in Iraq before the calendar page even turned once again. The marginal cost of all this is very low, by the way, because the heavy birds are going to be doing their inter-theater thing regardless.

All the people I got to know said they really didn't mind. In fact, if you ask any soldier, sailor, airman, or marine a question along the lines of, "Would you rather have to say goodbye for your family ONCE but for an entire year, or do it four times, all spread out, for three months at a time?," almost every single response will show a preference for the latter.

The Air Force, which tends to be the most personnel-friendly branch, *gets* this. Air Force personnel can deploy, get to know their Army buddies on a base, finish their own deployments, come home, work up again, and then deploy AGAIN back to that same base...and yes, those Army Joes are STILL there, still on their same *pump.*

Special Operations units, which operate at a breakneck optempo, can't deploy people in the same way that a conventional National Guard unit does.

A few years ago, a helo mechanic made huge waves in the headlines by screaming to the media about the Big Bad Army forcing him out the door on his 5th deployment. "Five is just too many!" was the rallying cry he and his wife made. But closer analysis showed that the TOTAL amount of "boots on ground" time the guy had spent was less than that of someone from a conventional unit who had gone twice.

In sum, anyone who has been deployed 12 times since 9/11 is an amazingly noble, dedicated servicemember who repeatedly placed himself or herself in harm's way despite several opportunities for "outs." At the same time, so is any conventional "green-suiter" who has done four standard year-long tours. One is less eye-popping than the other, but the overall sacrifice is similar.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hey, What's the Matter With France?

Plenty. This story from Yahoo breaks down the situation, in which there are dire fuel shortages, infrastructure blockages, and threats of much greater civil unrest over this central tenet of pension reform: upping the benefits-collection age from 60 to 62.

Of course, there are all kinds of conspiracy theories to go along with the proposal, such as the idea that it's a first step in someone's Master Plan to start stripping away all benefits from all workers (slippery slope, eh?), or that it's a targeted way to stick it to blue-collar employees.

Nowhere in all the chanting, the sloganeering, or the screaming that are visible to us (well, at least when our news networks are taking a break from bullying in schools or the war on cholesterol), is anyone talking about intelligent ways to keep the math equation working as waves of workers retire and there just aren't enough young workers to keep the Ponzi scheme working.

I know this is starting to turn into a hobbyhorse of sorts for me, but who cares? I think it's important enough to keep mentioning how scary it is to me that we could be sliding towards something like this in the States.

Regardless of how you self-indentify politically, I'll assume that you "care deeply about the future of the country." If asked on a poll, who would disagree with that? No one, and that's why I'll assume you wouldn't, either.

Well, the lesson that keeps popping up across the Pond is that when you engineer generous public-sector benefits package (even with perfectly good intentions) you might be creating an unsustainable monster. Once that happens, if people were able to recognize that monster, and then calmly, coolly, and rationally step away from it, this wouldn't be such a big deal.

But where is the calm rationality in all these French protests? WHO is answering the question about why you wouldn't want to *slightly* tweak benefits for one generation of workers in order to keep an entire system sustainable for generations down the road?

It just scares me a little bit that more of these French unions aren't seeing it that way.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Would You Like the Can, Sir?

No thanks, I think I'll pass.

So I just got back today from my extended stay at the Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary. I can't speak, I can't fully use my left arm, and I have a ridiculous beard that I can't shave until my tracheotomy and neck dissection scars start to scab up.

But everything is relative...I'm pretty thrilled to be in this position right now. I'm extremely grateful to be recovering, to have Tricare, and to have been under the care and supervision of the medical equivalent of the 1985 Bears' Defense.

I haven't written about this yet on the blog -- I purposely decided to wait until after the surgery. On September 15 I was diagnosed with cancer -- specifically, poorly-differentiated squamous cell carcinoma of the oral tongue. On October 12, a seven-hour surgery most likely removed not only the malignant tumor itself, but quite probably the rest of the cancer as well. I will know more by late next week, but when one of the Top Docs with more letters after his name than I could recite backwards tells you that things "look good" you can respect it.

From the 15th to the 12th, I was biospied and scanned nine ways to Sunday. On the 12th, I had 1/3 of my original tongue removed, which was replaced with live tissue from my left forearm, which was partially replaced yet again by a small part of my left thigh. I also had a radical neck dissection, which means, yes, another cool scar. I've been breathing with the assistance of a hole in my throat (seriously) because of the inevitable swelling issues associated with the glossectomy and radial forearm flap.

When I found out, I just completely skipped the denial stage, the woe-is-me stage, or even the why-me stage. Instead, I went right to the "act" stage, which is important, because there are things I can help you with should you or someone in your family ever get a similar diagnosis.

And if you're wondering, there is not a single epidemiologist or oncologist in the world who can definitely conclude why an otherwise healthy 29 year-old American male with no risk factors develops an oral cavity cancer.

Anyway, back to the diagnosis -- I also promised myself not to either become the "pity party" guy in the corner OR to become the guy with 10 yellow bracelets on his arms who constantly talks about "Lance" like he's my best friend, or uses the term "survivor" every few minutes in self-reference.

ALL THAT SAID, this does fall under the "significant item" header, and it does offer some learning opportunities for anyone who reads this blog, which I might call roughly synonymous with people interested in concepts for their own sake and the real big picture. I will still blog primarily about little ways in which I see the world here in Lowell and beyond, but will also interject medical and cancer stories in whereas I wouldn't have before.

Here are two thoughts for the moment: (1) Everyone should educate himself/herself to some sort of baseline level to better understand what cancer is, how it affects people, and how the blanket term 'cancer' doesn't mean the same thing for all people who get the dreaded diagnosis. For instance, I had no idea what the five year survival rates were for breast, testicular, and prostate cancer until I started doing my own research. Right off the bat, you should know how different those are from esophygeal, pancreatic, or lung cancers. One, it's just one of those "general education" things that people should sort of *have.* (Like whether the 1st Amendment calls for an explicit "Church and State" separation...that's not a trick question!) Two, it will help you get some proper perspective when someone close to you shares a cancer diagnosis. (2) Everyone should take a brief moment to think about how they might react if they received such a diagnosis, or if someone close to them did. The military calls this some variant of a rock drill and I'm sure that businesses go through similar "what if" exercises. As I said earlier, what might seem *right* should vary based on the inevitable medical questions about staging, metastasis, and tumor location. But here's a huge, huge clue that I think some people who instinctively *get* don't need to be told -- just be empathetic. You might feel shocked, saddened, surprised, or whatever when someone shares a diagnosis with you -- now is not the time to become Confucius, to share your vast medical expertise, or to question the person for deciding to "come out." Now is the time I say three words: I am here.

The means through which you do that -- written words, artwork, music, flowers, humor, or whatever else is entirely between you and the friend or loved one, but the message should be simple enough for even a small child to understand.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rick Sanchez, Jon Stewart, and Minority Status

Now that Rick Sanchez is making all the right apologies and saying all the "right" things, he is angling to get his job back with CNN.

If you haven't been following this one, Sanchez went after "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart during a radio interview, implying that Stewart could not possibly understand how someone like Sanchez, a minority member, felt as an American professional. Sanchez did not stop there, however -- he went on to say that because the people who run media organizations are "culturally similar to Stewart" (read: Jewish) that Stewart had the upper-hand. Sanchez even went further, questioning whether a group of people with disproportionately high education and wealth could be considered an oppressed minority in America.

My first reaction to all this is that I never heard Jon Stewart describe himself as a member of an oppressed American minority group.

My next reaction, though, is to turn some of this back on Sanchez -- as a wealthy, good-looking, light-skinned guy who came to the U.S. at age 2 and speaks unaccented English, just exactly whose boot is on this guy's head? If America is such a terrible place, and the *other* Americans are so out to get him, how did he walk away from drunk driving situation in which he left the scene of an accident and the *other* guy eventually died?

One of my long-term fears for our country is that we're going to allow certain people to write blank checks for self-indulgence and thus stifle all debate and sense of personal responsibility. At some point, no matter what you've gone through -- racial discrimination, accent discrimination, PTSD from a war zone, physical disability, disease, accidents, unemployment/job frustration, divorce/separation, drug addiction, and so on -- it's important that people be empathetic -- but only to a point.

Because from this author's vantage point, there's only so much empathy I can extend to a highly-pampered, vain millionaire with a mediocre level of talent. I *get* that he has overcome difficulties in his life, but that doesn't make him automatically right...or CNN automatically wrong.

If it did, wouldn't that be a little bit condescending? Bringing kid gloves and allowing an automatic *halo* around any figure who can check the right status boxes seems like the furthest thing from equal treatment that I can imagine.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Buying a Ticket

"And these signs shall follow them that believe...they shall speak with new tongues." -- Mark 16:17, King James Bible

"Yo! You best protect your neck." -- RZA

There is an old story/legend/parable about a man who interacts with either God or St. Peter (depends on the version being told), where he wonders why, despite his daily prayers and devotion, God did not let him win the lottery. The punchline is some variant of "You could've met him could've bought a ticket." One version is pasted in here below:

One day Georgios Georgiou prayed, "Good Lord, I just received a notice from the bank that they are going to foreclose on my restaurant if I do not make a payment right away. I do not have the money. Good Lord, you are Greek and I am Greek. Help me to save the restaurant that's been in my family for three generations. Panagitsa, help me when the lottery." Mr. Georgiou did not win. The next week, Georgios prayed again, "Thee mou, didn't you hear me? This is your obedient servant. I must win the lottery to save the restaurant. Please, O Kyrios, help to win the lottery." He didn't win. The bank repossessed the restaurant. In tears, Georgios prayed again, "O Lord, why did you let me down? The restaurant is gone. What am I going to do? Oh, why did You fail me?" Suddenly, a voice came from the clouds, "Georgaki, you could have met Me halfway. You could have bought a lottery ticket."

I've heard it told many times, and I love it for the same reason I love the "Ask, Seek, Knock" message in Matthew 7:7 -- if you believe, as I do, that God created the world and built humans in his image, then you might agree with me on the importance of living in the world as a part of it, rather than apart from it.

I don't write here about my faith often -- maybe because it's personal, or maybe just because it's so automatic that I don't even think to discuss it. But when I do, I should also add that I have faith in many things that I can't necessarily see or touch, but believe in. I have faith in people's basic sense of honesty and decency. I have faith in the orderliness of the society around me. I even place faith in Jim Harbaugh's ability to call plays from the sideline when down in the last minute.

None of those run counter to my faith in the Almighty or my belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. And neither of those runs counter to faith in medical innovations which, within just half a generation's timespan, can change a situation from certain permanent disability to a high probability of full recovery.

If you like to hold dangerous reptiles, speak unintelligible words, walk on coals, or whirl like a dervish, that's your choice. If that's how you express your faith, then so be it.

I'll be okay with the less-dramatic, but far more spectacular, miracles made possible by things that exist in the world around me.

In other words, I'll be the guy making a beeline for the ticket window right after the "Amen" is said and the hands come unclasped.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Defending Niki's Choice

First, I'm no advocate of class warfare. Even more important, I might add, I'm no advocate of class it concerns warfare.

I hadn't heard about the brouhaha concerning Niki Tsongas' ad about her support for veterans until Democratic activist Jack Mitchell mentioned it during lunch today in Wakefield. Apparently, some peoples' hides are chapped that the son of renowned author Doris Kearns Goodwin and presidential advisor Richard Goodwin availed himself of the generous Post-9/11 GI Bill Benefits to pay his way through law school.

Two of the chapped hides belong to Independents currently running for the 5th CD.

"One of Tsongas' challengers, Dale Brown, an independent from Chelmsford, said he is a strong supporter of the military, but said Tsongas should have chosen someone else for the advertisement. "I think it would be more acceptable if she would use somebody who did not have quite the resources he might have," Brown said of Goodwin.

Bob Clark of Berlin, a second independent running against Tsongas, said voters have the right to ask questions about the ad.

"We might also want to ask the taxpayers who paid for Mr. Goodwin's education if they are glad they could help," Clark said in a statement. "Many of these taxpayers are currently struggling to pay their bills or even find a job."

The bottom line here is very, very simple. Joseph Goodwin raised his right hand and signed a check that could have been cashed with his life.

Because he did that, he is eligible for the benefits. No ifs, ands, buts, or class warfare rhetoric needed here, thank you very much.


There's nothing in the legislation about who one's parents are, how much one's family takes home in royalties, or where one's ZIP code falls on the prestige scale. As there damn well shouldn't be.

Mr. Goodwin is 32 years old. Who am I, or anyone else, to presume that he receives any form of "Economic Outpatient Care" from his family?

I know I don't. My parents were successful enough to buy a large home in a leafy suburb, send me to great public schools, and pay the lion's share of five years' worth of higher ed. I am deeply grateful for that.

But guess what?

I haven't benefited from any other such transfers in my adult life -- not for a car, house down payment, wedding, or any other milestone. I have never inherited a single dime and I don't stand to ever do so. That might really surprise you, but if you'd like to take me up on the offer, I've got a stack of 1099s and 1040s sitting in a shoebox somewhere.

And guess what else?

I'm applying to full-time MBA programs this fall. I'm on my own financially, so you better believe I'm extremely grateful for everything that the post-9/11 GI Bill stands to offer me.

For the record, I'm also quite grateful for the top-notch health care that I get courtesy of Uncle Sam. I certainly hope Dale Brown and Bob Clark don't think that veterans like Goodwin or myself should be footing the full bill for their medical care, either.

As would a world without the Post-9/11 GI Bill, that wouldn't leave me with too many options!