Avi

I met a man in Israel in 2001. (Yes, I did actually travel to Israel in 2001, leaving very shortly after the air traffic restrictions were lifted following the events of September 11, 2001.) This man’s name was Avi. He had a profound and enduring impact on my life, although I only got to be with him for a few hours.

When I met Avi, he was 94 years old. He lived in the area around Jerusalem. He made hummus for a living. He had the perfect setup: He owned a well, a plot of chickpeas, a grove of olive trees, an orchard of lemon trees, a patch of garlic, a patch of sesame, and a large block of salt. (The salt, which he purchased, was the only part of the final product that Avi did not produce himself.)

I was taken to see Avi by my tour guide. He thought Avi was really an amazing fellow, and he was right.

When I met Avi, he was up a ladder in his olive grove. Remember that Avi was 94? Yeah. That’s amazing. I asked Avi why he was harvesting olives around 30 feet in the air at the age of 94. He replied: “Someone’s got to do it, and there’s no one but me.” (Technically, this was not true. Avi was surrounded by family. His sons, grandsons, and great grandsons were there with him on the hummus farm. But he never let anyone touch his olive trees except himself. They were over 2,000 years old, and they were his pets.

Avi was a Palestinian Christian. Whether by virtue of his being a Christian, or some other means that I could never figure out, Avi survived the expulsion of the Palestinians from the area known at the time as Palestine by the Brits in 1947 – 48. He remembered it though. Very, very well. He did not like to talk about it very much. He called it the Palestinian Holocaust.

Anyway, Avi practiced a traditional form of Christianity similar to Catholicism. Given the language and communication difficulties, I never really figured out the exact type of orthodox, traditional Christian that Avi was, but I quickly learned that Avi’s Christianity was very different from mine. He had a much more interesting and nuanced view of the bible than I did at the time, for example. He was intimately familiar with many other ancient texts, especially those of the early Christian writers (whom he regarded with equal reverence as the works of the New Testament).

The most interesting thing to me about Avi was his attitude about work and money. He got up at 4 a.m. every day except Sunday, and worked generally for about 5 hours until 9 a.m. During that period, Avi did everything that he needed to do to produce his daily quota of hummus. And hummus it was! Avi’s hummus was a work of art: Literally so delicious that it made you weep. And talk about demand! The folks who had been buying Avi’s hummus had been doing so for generations, and no one else was allowed to access this treasure!

As an American, I quickly saw the potential. Wow! You have a great product! You have tremendous brand recognition. The path is obvious. Buy more land! Plant more olive trees, chickpeas, sesame, lemons and garlic. Make more hummus. Make more money!

To which Avi replied: I don’t want to make more money. I make enough money. And I am done by 9 a.m. every day. The rest of the day is mine.

I will never forget that moment. My American capitalist pretensions collapsed in a heartbeat. I saw immediately that Avi’s way of life was better than mine in every way: He was happier, more at peace and less stressed out. Simply because he had let go of greed. He did not want more than he had. He had enough for today, and for him, that was enough.

Avi had an interesting approach to investment and savings as well. He did not try to save money, olive oil, or anything else. If he had more than enough of anything he needed, he gave it away to his friends and neighbors. For Avi, this was a form of savings. Why? Because if Avi needed anything, he could go to his friends and neighbors and they would share whatever they had with him.

With our individualistic American self-reliance mentality, this form of collectivism is inconceivable. It’s all on me. I have no neighbor who will share with me. I envy Avi that, as well as the other aspects of his full, rich life.

More later.

Persistent Unreasonable Optimism

Due to recent events, I have discovered that I have a serious mental dysfunction that I am tentatively calling Persistent Unreasonable Optimism or PUO. To be honest, I see this one played out in lots of other folks as well, but I have had it really, really bad.

PUO is characterized by continuing to stubbornly believing that something is going to work, when it is pretty *&^% clear that it probably won’t. For example, in the 80s, I was employed by a company that I thought was going to make a zillion dollars. This was a technology think tank in Dallas officed in the Infomart. In every way, this company was cool except one: Their payroll checks had a tendency to bounce. I would take my check and dash to the bank in an attempt to get my check cashed before everyone else did. For several months, I continued to hang in there with this group, all the while my wife was looking at me cross-eyed. She was wondering (with great justification) why I was putting the family at risk by continuing to work at this job.

I simply could not admit the downside was now very likely. I ignored all of the signs. When the company was finally dragged down by the Pizza Inn bankruptcy, I was left high and dry.

That’s one example among many: I have had many crazy schemes in my working life. Most of these did not work out. A few of them did, but for reasons related to PUO, I was not able to fully exploit them. For example, I went to work for late-stage startup NetApp in 1997. Eventually, the stock options with NetApp were worth millions, but I stubbornly refused to sell them, convinced that the stock would keep going up forever. When the predictable business downturn in 2000 happened, the stock dropped like a rock, and we ended up with a million dollar tax bill. Eventually, we rode the market back up, and were able to sell the stock and cash out, paying off the tax bill. But we would have been sitting pretty if I had simply had the common sense to realize that it could not go on forever.

The effect has been that I have been spectacularly successful at times. I am very creative and hard working after all. But at other times, I have also been as spectacularly unsuccessful at seeing events which would be obvious to someone else who was not dealing with PUO.

The most recent event involved facts which I will not share here: They are too personal. Suffice it to say, I put myself and my family through a lot of trauma, stress, and needless suffering all because I would not, indeed could not, admit to myself that my mad scheme was very likely going to fail. It will be a while before we can dig ourselves out of the hole that I have dug.

But perhaps that’s actually a good thing, because I am now thinking more clearly. Now that I see the dysfunction, I can deal with it. Hopefull, if I can learn my lesson well, this will make it more likely that I will be wiser in the future. This would be good: I have a limited amount of time left in my working life and I need to take care of business at this point.

More later.

Health Care

There is a fundamental structural problem with the health care system in the US, and it is one which almost no one talks about: Health insurance is tied to employment. This is true in the US, and in very few other developed countries. Most countries seem to understand what I am about to say very well. In the US, not so much.

You see, my wife has been very, very ill. For more information on her situation, see my post on Seratonin Syndrome. Suffice it to say, she has had a life-threatening illness for at least 4 months, was admitted to UNC Hospital less than two weeks ago as I write this, and very easily could have died. During that period, my job performance suffered, understandably.

And herein lies the problem: One of the principle sources of job instability is health issues, either on the part of the breadwinner (which happened for me as well, more on this later), or on the part of one of the breadwinner’s family members. Yesterday, my boss called me, and basically chewed me out, threatening all kinds of dire consequences if my job performance doesn’t improve. And this conversation occurred, again, less than 2 weeks after my wife was discharged from UNC Hospital after suffering a life-threatening illness.

So here it is: Our system relies on the employer to be understanding, decent, and altruistic. For many, many folks, this assumption is false. It certainly is for me. So therefore this leads inevitable to the most predictable of all personal catastophies: First someone in my family gets sick, then I lose my job, and thus the health insurance for my family. This same scenario is being played out, over and over again, in families all over the US.

I have to say, Obamacare is a huge quantum-leap improvement in this very important area in ways that dramatically affect my wife’s and my daily life. We both have pre-existing conditions that cannot be used any longer to deny us coverage. Also, if I do lose my job, Obamacare makes affordable options available.

Folks who oppose Obamacare seem delusional to me now: Just wait until this most predictable personal catastrophe hits your life. You might have a different perspective at that point.

More later.

Normal

I have been watching a lot of the HBO mini-series The Newsroom lately. It’s interesting how these shows can connect with me. It’s kind of like they become my friends. I did the same thing with the shows Brothers and Sisters, Jericho, and Commander in Chief.

Anyway, the main character is Will McAvoy, a news anchor for an imaginary cable network. While in a therapy session, Will is confronted by his shrink about something odd he had done (I will avoid saying more to avoid spoilers). His therapist claimed that Will’s action was not “normal”. To which Will replied:

There are two kinds of people: Those who think they’re normal, and those who know there’s no such thing.

Which is my point exactly: Like Will, I fall into the second category. I am definitely not a “normal” sort of guy, and most likely, neither are you. But that’s OK. The folks that think they’re normal are the deluded ones.

More later.

Seratonin Syndrome

My wife is also a blogger, and I certainly do not want to tell her story. She is fully capable of doing that for herself, and I earnestly hope that she does. But I will tell my own story.

My life has been basically derailed for more than a year by a shocking (at least to me) medical issue. It seems that two of my wife’s doctors (a psychiatrist and a gastroenterologist) failed to effectively coordinate with each other well enough to avoid prescribing two of the same class of drugs called SSRIs. The result of this medical error was a well-known, potentially life-threatening problem called Seratonin Syndrome in which you have excessive amounts of seratonin in your brain. Effectively, these two physicians prescribed a potentially deadly toxic overdose of prescription medications to my wife.

In the process, my wife and I have spent thousands of dollars (still counting), innumerable hours, and enormous emotional energy for about 17 months, none of which we will ever get back. The stress on me was incredible at times: There were moments when I completely cratered and fell apart. Thankfully, our friends and family were there to support us. Otherwise, I don’t know what we would have done.

The emotions going on inside me right now are complex. As a result of the diagnosis and treatment (consisting of tritrating off of the offending meds), my wife is now feeling a lot better. She is eating, resting, and all that perfectly. She is fine. The way I respond to that is ebullience: I am giddy with happiness.

My other emotion is a bit darker, though: Rage. Two medical doctors, a psychiatrist and a gastroenterologist, committed serious malpractice, and in the process they severely injured my wife. In fact, if I had not gone completely postal in the shrink’s office last week, it is entirely possible that we would still be stuck in this quagmire, and my wife might very well have died. My response to that is wrath: You cannot hurt me, or my family, without incurring a great deal of of my rage. And these two doctors have certainly done that.

More later.

Strength

I have had several transformative conversations with my wife recently. One had to do with strength. She wanted to know why I have it, and what well I am drawing from.

You see, my wife is very, very sick. Her situation has gotten serious, and we are now trying to figure this out. In the process, my resolve has been tested, that’s for sure. I will say, amazingly, that I am holding my own. I do cry a lot. I won’t lie about that. However, crying is not necessarily so bad. I am kind of getting used to it.

Anyway, I used to have a pretty pat answer for the question of where my strength comes from: God of course!. Now, I am not so sure.

It is kind of like prayer. I pray a lot these days. I guess it goes with the territory of being a spouse of someone who is seriously ill. Oddly, in the process, I have kind of figured out why prayer works, and what religion is all about, at least for me.

You see, to me at least, prayer is not for God. Prayer is actually for me.

Since I have lived in a state of total doubt for some time now, I am not sure if God even hears my prayers. That’s another one: My wife asked me recently why God was a mystery. (I replied: “Wait! I know this one!”) Eventually, I did come up with the answer: Since God is completely unknowable, He / She is a complete mystery. Every experience I have ever had with God (and believe me, I have had some doozies) has been completely subjective. I mean, how can I be sure that my subconscious mind didn’t simply make it all up?

You get the idea. Since I don’t have much of what religious folks would call faith (which I regard as uncritically believing¬† propositions that are at best harmless lies), it may surprise you that I pray. But, again, I realize now that prayer is not for God. It is for me.

You see, when I pray for my wife, I let go of the problem a little. Since this is a problem over which I have absolutely no direct control (much as I would like to!), I simply must let go or I will take the problem onto myself. Therein lies the path which I cannot tread.

So, in a sense, I need divine help and guidance. I need the Strength of The Goddess. I rely on Her now. Even if I am not sure She hears me.

More later.

Dead Already

When my family and I traveled to Cozumel one year for a much-needed family vacation, I carried the book Shadow Divers by John Kurson. This book describes an incredible dive performed by Richie Kohler and John Chatterton to identify a German U-Boat off the coast of New Jersey. One of the divers was a Vietnam veteran, and described the set of rules for life which he developed while in Vietnam. I don’t remember them all (except that they were excellent), but one of them deeply affected me. This is the gist:

There is no force in the universe more powerful than a human being who knows he or she is already dead, and thus has nothing left to lose.

I found this transformational, you see, because I have been very, very ill, and at times was completely convinced that I was dying. I have psoriasis, which is pretty serious, but mostly not life threatening. However, I became very severe in 2012, and thus was in a lot of pain, and definitely not doing well. I will not belabor you with the gory details, but suffice it to say, I was in very bad shape at that time.

I am fine now, thank God. There are several reasons for this, one of which is my loving and beautiful wife who never ceased to pray and fight for me. Ultimately, I was able to find a treatment which has been remarkably effective, and I am now about 90% improved. In the autoimmunity world, this is called remission.

My son made an interesting statement to me recently: He said of all people, I should be the most happy, because I have cheated death. I have come to the edge of the abyss and backed away from it. I have looked the grim reaper in the eye and spit in his face. You get the idea.

I find that happy is not the word I would use to describe the experience. Certainly, I am grateful. I live in a state of continuous thankfulness. I give thanks for each and every breath I take, because I am aware that each breath is a gift.

Now, I am watching my wife go through a similar journey. I must admit that I find her courage inspiring. Yet I also desperately wish that it could be me, not her, that is sick. No matter. I simply have to be there for her now. She was there for me, after all.

In the end, there is nothing else. All we have is each other.