Thursday, September 12, 2019

Playing with Feeling: Cody Bondra

(From The Way-Back Files:  A&U, Oct. 2018.)

What strikes you first about with Cody Bondra is his earnestness; what strikes you next is his instinctive feel for music. That’s not surprising: after all, the guy does vocals and guitar for his five-piece country rock and soul group, Cody and the Contraband. But for him, it goes way beyond simply playing the music – it’s about “focus[ing] on feeling the music…the rest will come naturally. Listen to the music, don’t just hear it.”

Jack Lemmon once said pretty much the same thing about acting.

“Good music, to me, is storytelling,” the Avon, Connecticut musician explains. “The song has a theme with all the characteristics of a compelling novel pressed into just a few minutes. You have to feel what you’re playing.”

But it goes further than that for Bondra. He is also an LGBTQ ally and an HIV/AIDS advocate; and as such, he makes a point of promoting awareness of the disease and of Project ACHIEVE at his band’s concerts.

Project ACHIEVE was started back in 1995. It is part of the New York Blood Center’s Laboratory of Infectious Disease Prevention and is located in the Lindsey F. Kimball Research Institute. The Project’s goal is, as their website puts it, “to effectively find ways to prevent HIV infection. To achieve this, we work with many populations in the New York City area, including men who have sex with men, transgender persons, and heterosexual women and men.” Part of the group’s thrust is working with the Columbia Research Unit on HIV-preventative medical trials. The other is educating the community at large about awareness of the disease and “build[ing] acceptance for HIV-affected individuals, and nationwide support for HIV research.”

Bondra became aware of the organization when he was checking out the vendors at an exposition at the Javits Center about four years ago. He had worked at a hospital, but he hadn’t really given the disease a lot of thought. “Growing up, my image of HIV was Magic Johnson and Freddie Mercury because I love sports and music,” he says now. “Fortunately, Magic Johnson’s still with us[, even though] Freddie Mercury has passed. We know not it’s not automatically a death sentence.”

His conversation with the Project ACHIEVE people lit a spark, and he began plugging the organization at his concerts outside of New York City. “We just try to spread the word. One of the reasons I like Project ACHIEVE is that they focus on the educational side of it, which is what turned me on to it.

“We’re becoming more enlightened about HIV,” the musician continues. “For me, the stigma is the first thing to go. I don’t think that you could ever erase the stigma completely. Ideally, you want to, but you’re always going to have people that don’t want to be educated, and they’re just going to have that set viewpoint.” Because of its emotional charge, “HIV might be the most powerful three letters in the English language.”
Bondra has been promoting Project ACHIEVE through social media for the last three years. He would “like to incorporate them into shows because we have an audience we can reach. We’re no celebrities by any means, but we can offer information. Whether they take it or not is, unfortunately, beyond our control.”

His next comment echoes his earlier one about music and listening. HIV education “also starts by being willing to listen,” he insists. “Because you can have all the facts, all the statistics, but you have to want to learn about it. You can film a great movie – or cut a great record – but if nobody watches it or listens to it, does it really exist? For me, it all starts with wanting to learn about it.”

His advocacy work has made him “more conscious about what I’m doing. My whole approach is that as fun as sex can be, you have to be safe.” He’s also more cautious now because he realizes that “at any time, it can affect not only you but somebody you love. If, God forbid, it does affect somebody you love, you can help them.”

Bondra’s not entirely sure why he was drawn to Project ACHIEVE’s work with HIV/AIDS awareness. He doesn’t know why it “clicked” with him, but it did. “I think that part of me wanted to erase the stigma. It’s just something I became very aware of. I mean, there are other diseases – STDs [sexually-transmitted diseases] – but by learning more about it [HIV/AIDS], you understand how important it is. I’m trying every day to learn more, and every day, I’m learning the importance of it.”

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

No Boundaries: Dr. Daniel Baxter

                       (From The Way-Back Files:  A&U, August 2018.)

                           Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.

                                                                   -- Prince

            He is known for his work within the AIDS community in New York and has written about some of those experiences in The Least of These My Brethren:  A Doctor’s Story of Hope and Miracles on an Inner-City AIDS Ward (1997).  “I am not Mother Theresa,” Baxter said in an interview at that time.  “There are many other people who are doing the same sort of work.” True, but over the years, he has developed, in the words of author Thomas Moore, “a perceptive approach to his patients and the stories he told about them inspired me.  Here was a doctor who could draw on genuine spiritual resources without all the baggage of excessive piety and anxieties about belief.  He [Baxter] understood that the spiritual component is part of what a person is, and in gritty ways he struggled with his difficult patients to unleash their own kind of spirituality” (The Care of the Soul in Medicine: Healing Guidance for Patients, Families, and Those Who Care for Them, 2010).
            In 2002, Baxter traveled to Botswana in Southern Africa to work with the HIV/AIDS Treatment Programme; he left in 2008, only to return five years later as a Lecturer and Specialist Physician at the Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital.  His new book, One Life at a Time:  An American Doctor’s Memoir of AIDS in Botswana, is a powerful and to-the-point account of those experiences:  in it, we see Baxter as Moore saw him.        
Q.  Before going to Botswana, you worked at the Spellman Center for HIV-Related Diseases in NY.  What led you to become as involved in this field?  Would you say it became a calling of sorts?  If so, when did you realize it?
A.  Although the science of HIV was fascinating—a tiny invisible virus infects the body’s most crucial immune cells, destroys them, and causes terrible infections and cancers—it was the ethical and philosophical aspects of the pandemic that interested me most. I was appalled how HIV-infected people were treated like lepers, stigmatized and rejected by family, friends, the churches, and even hospitals. My work at St. Clare’s made me realize that we all are HIV-infected in this weary sojourn called life—that is, regardless of whether our HIV test returns positive or negative, we are all on the sliding slope to the grave, pulled down by disease and illness.
 Q.  It was your decision to give up a high-profile job and go to Botswana, where you became involved in the recently launch HIV/AIDS Treatment Programme.  You discuss your reasons for doing so in your new book One Life at a Time:  An American Doctor's Memoir of AIDS in Botswana.  But for the sake of our readers, could you describe some of the strongest ones?
A.  I had always wanted to work in a developing country, and because by 2000, the HIV crisis in America was coming under control, with newer drugs with fewer side effects, I felt that I had a moral obligation to help people less advantaged than me. However, after I arrived in Botswana, I soon realized that my motives were naïve and even self-serving. Much of my book is about this deconstruction and then restoration, played out in Botswana’s immense time and space.
 Q.  You went back to Botswana as a lecturer and Specialist Physician at the (then) new medical school in 2013.  What changes in the treatment of HIV/AIDS in Africa?  How much, if any, of the stigma surrounding the disease had been chipped away at during your absence? 
A.  On one hand, by the time I returned in mid-2013, Botswana’s HIV/AIDS Treatment Programme had put nearly 100,000 people on life-saving HIV treatments. But, as I soon learned, there were still too many people falling through the cracks, ending up in the hospital with serious complications of AIDS because stigma had prevent them from being HIV-tested. Stigma was less than when I first arrived in 2002, but it was still widespread, along with the shame and guilt of being infected. It will probably take another generation before this stigma is fully extinguished, both in Botswana and in America.
 Q.  In your book, you contrast the treatment of the disease in Africa with its treatment here in the States?  Is the gap between the two as wide as it was when you first went there in 2002, or has it lessened somewhat?  Would you say that patients are gradually becoming more empowered?  My impression from the book Powered by Love:  A Grandmothers' Movement to End AIDS in Africa is that this is case, at least in parts of the country.
A.  At present, the HIV drugs used in Botswana are exactly the same as the ones here in America, but the level of in-patient care in the country’s hospitals still lags, as chronicled in my book. Moreover, a major challenge facing the country is the need to seriously address non-HIV medical conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes, problems which afflict far more people than HIV. For the past 15 years, the country’s mobilization against HIV/AIDS consumed it resources, to the detriment of these other medical problems. In terms of patient empowerment, perhaps the greatest change has been the lessening of gender inequality, which, throughout Africa, has fueled the pandemic.  Human rights organizations have highlighted the need for young women to be able to protect themselves from HIV infection without fear of retribution or violence from their male partners.
 Q.  Albert Schweitzer once told the graduates of a nursing school that service "will not always be a comfortable companion but it will always be a faithful one.  And it will be able to lead you to happiness, no matter what the experiences of your lives are."  He also spoke of the "fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain."  Would you say that either -- or both -- of those statements have any bearing on your experiences in Botswana?  And if so, how?
A.  This is a vast and complicated question. I would always tell my medical students and residents that their goal in medicine should be to someday reach that state of grace where your patients give you more than you were able to give them. That is, your experiences as a doctor should give you a deeper understanding of yourself and your own suffering as well as the uniqueness of every human life. In Botswana, I gradually realized that the only person I could ever “save” was myself—if I was lucky—and that all I can do as a doctor is give my patients precious extra time for them to save themselves and to put things right in their own lives.
Q.  In One Life at a Time, you share the stories of various patients.  Looking back, would you say that any one person changed you and/or your outlook on the disease more than the others?  If so, how?
A.  Yes, it was Dolly, a 20-year-old woman who was comatose and dying from AIDS at Marina Hospital, the country’s main referral hospital where I headed up a team of medical students and residents. When I first took over her care, the only thing I knew about her past life was that she had been raped by her pastor at age 13. For reasons I later learned, her two aunts -- the only family she had left -- were trying to change her name in the hospital records. Although I didn’t know for sure, it was highly likely that after her rape, her life took a sudden turn for the worse, with shunning by family and friends, perhaps even her church. Dolly was the tipping point in my eight years in Botswana—it was the moment when I finally understood the universality of our suffering and how no one’s suffering, not even Dolly’s, was greater than anyone else’s. This realization also allowed me to later return to New York to happily treat patients there -- patients who, in my prior arrogance, I had regarded as entitled, spoiled, and demanding.
Q.  Early in the book, you write about "science collid[ing] with ignorance and denialism" in Africa back in 2000.  When did that change?  Has it changed in your opinion?
A.  My comment was specifically in reference to the 2000 Durban AIDS Conference, when South Africa’s President Mbeki, who was educated enough to know better, spouted the nonsense that HIV didn’t cause AIDS, that poverty was the cause of AIDS. His intellectual conceit probably cost the lives of at least 300,000 of his countrymen since it delayed for several years the country’s own HIV treatment program, which now is the largest in the world. For the most part, Botswana welcomed scientific innovation and knowledge.
Q.  This is going to sound simplistic -- naive, even -- but do you think we'll ever see the end of the AIDS pandemic in Africa?
A.  Yes, I believe that the combination of HIV treatment and the promotion of pre-exposure prophylaxis will markedly decrease new infections and will allow the continent to address other serious public health problems. I remember when HIV treatment was felt to be beyond the reach of most Africans, who we thought were doomed to extinction on a massive scale. But with resolve and patience, Africans are doing it, rescuing people from the abyss. And who knows? Perhaps when medical science discovers a “cure” for HIV, it might someday even be available in Botswana!
 Q.  What would you like readers to take away from your book?
A.  In the face of incredible adversity, the human spirit has the ability to persevere and survive, but we must also feel and respond to the suffering of others and not turn away. And such suffering, as has happened with HIV/AIDS, must be addressed one life at a time.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Arriving Where I Started

And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.
                                                                                -- T. S. Eliot

I began writing when I was seven or eight. Picked up a pocket-sized memo pad and some BIC pens -- red, black, and green -- and haven’t stopped since. My first stories were about a stray cat named Miss Kitty, and they came complete with illustrations. She was a black cat with green eyes – partly because my oldest brother had two black cats and partly because, hey, I had the black and green pens.

Miss Kitty and her kittens had all sorts of adventures but eventually ended up in a good home. Those adventures are pretty blurry to me now, but I do recall that they got to be indoor cats. This mattered greatly: our cats lived outdoors in the toolshed back then, and a lot of them got hit by cars or simply vanished. So, seeing as I couldn’t have indoor cats in real life, I was going to have them in my story.

Years passed, and I got into journalism. (I also got indoor cats.) One of my very best favorite writing gigs was with Nancy and Bob Hungerford, who had started a newsletter called Just Cats!. They were incredibly supportive editors and even ran an excerpt from my novel Houdini long before it ever saw the light of publishing day. I did reviews for them; a few series (“Cat Artists,” “Cat Writers,” and “Out-of-Print Cat Books”); and a column called “Making a difference…” I loved writing that column. I got to interview lots of folks who were helping cats in so many different ways: Cleveland Amory, writer, activist, and founder of The Fund for Animals; Gigi Kast, an animal communicator; Annie Kimberlin, a romance novelist who worked cats and dogs into her storylines and who donated a percentage of her profits to an Ohio-based animal-welfare group; and Judy and Jim Morrow, who ran the Wildcat Valley Sanctuary in South Dakota for lynxes, bobcats, servals, caracals, and cougars.

Around the same time, I joined a newly-formed organization called the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA). A number of the pieces that I’d written for Bob and Nancy won Certificates of Excellence from the group; and “Making a difference….” won a couple of Muse Medallions. I was suddenly being recognized for something I’d been doing almost from the moment I could hold a pen: writing about cats. It was all very gratifying.

Just Cats! ceased publication in 2001. But I kept on writing stories about the cats in my own life. Those stories found their way into various journals and anthologies and eventually into a little book called Catsong. That book ended up winning the 2007 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award at the CWA Contest. I can still see myself hanging up the phone after I got the news and staring out the kitchen window, utterly dazed. If the other awards had been gratifying, this one was humbling. Catsong had done what I’d hoped it would.

The buzz from the award eventually died down, of course, and it got very quiet on the cat-writing front. The publications that had loved my stories about all things feline had gone the way of Just Cats!. Things had peaked, and the only place for them to go now was down, as my late husband Tim would’ve said. (Tim, an electrical engineer, had been very big on graphs.) So I finished working on A Time for Shadows, my World War I novel, and began my Sketch People blog and book. And after a lot mulling it all over, I let go of my CWA membership. My cat-writer days, I told myself, were done with.

Only sometimes things aren’t done with you. When I did book-signings or sold my books at craft shows, Catsong and Houdini were almost always my best sellers. Then my good friend Alina Oswald – aka Alex and a powerful writer and photographer in her own right -- sent me a lead on a writing job. A website called Petful was looking for a cat behavior columnist. I applied and got the job.

It was almost like having my “Making a difference….” column back. There was more research involved and a word limit; and gone were the informal over-the-phone brainstorming sessions I’d enjoyed with Bob, Nancy, and my other feline-inclined editors. But it felt good to have a regular writing gig again; and I managed to weave occasional mini-interviews in along with my research and the “life experience” I’d gained over the years. Cat-sitting sagas, fostering for various rescue groups, and doing Reiki sessions with my own and other people’s cats -- it all came together in my columns.

A few months ago, my publisher Dave Baker e-mailed me about submitting some of my Petful articles to this year’s CWA Contest. That in turn led to some e-mailing back and forth between Wendy Christensen, the organization’s secretary, and me…and long story short, I ended up re-joining the CWA with Wendy acting as my sponsor. There’d been changes, of course.  But everybody was friendly and welcoming.

Then the certificate came.

It was for my article “Dealing with Traumatized Rescue Cats” and the first Certificate of Excellence that I’d seen in years. And whereas the original ones had been relatively plain affairs, this was a medley of colors – red, gold, blue, green, and (just a little!) black – with some Old English lettering and a gold seal.

You could, of course, say that it was just a pretty piece of paper. But for me, it was much more than that. It was a sign that I had come full circle – that I was indeed back where I belonged.

 (With Fey, one of the Office Cats.)

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Companionship & Connection: PAWS

                       (From The Way-Back Files:  A&U, September 2017)

There’s no way around it: we’re not in Mayberry anymore. We lead fragmented often isolated lives. So we look to our pets for the companionship and sense of connection that neighbors and others used to provide.

This is doubly true for people with HIV/AIDS. Despite all the research that has been done, there’s still a stigma attached to the disease in some quarters. “Animal love is so special because it’s so non-judgmental,” observes Kaushik Roy, executive director of Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) in San Francisco. “And for some of the people who have lost a lot of their friends, their networks, their chosen families, they’re facing deep isolation.”

PAWS came into being as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. Back in 1986, volunteers at the city’s AIDS Foundation Food Bank quickly noticed that their clients were turning around and feeding the donated food to their pets. So, the volunteers reasoned, there was a need for a different kind of food bank -- one that would offer these devoted cat and dog owners a way to obtain pet food and supplies without skimping on the necessities of life for themselves.

The result was PAWS, which emerged in October of 1987 as an independent non-profit organization. It was, Roy explains, probably one of the first non-profit groups in the world that was designed to specifically “keep companion animals together with their owners, who might be sick, disabled, or home-bound.” It was certainly the first organization of its type in the U.S. and “a catalyst for many other organizations.” Much later, in 2015, PAWS became part of The Shanti Project. “We were really excited to have PAWS join forces with us,” Roy recalls, “because it was the best way to keep PAWS going strong. It was also a good mission fit.”

Strangely enough, “[t]he roles that companion animals play in supporting people living with HIV have been historically overlooked,” according to a 2015 article by Allison Kabel, Nidhi Khosla, and Michelle Teti. The studies they looked at showed “that pets provide PLH/A [People Living with HIV/AIDS] with an avenue for love, support, physical activity, and perhaps even social interactions with others, all of which are beneficial to the owners.” In their own study, which involved HIV+ women from two cities in the Midwest, Kabel, Khosla, and Teti discovered that the subjects’ pets were often regarded as spiritual guardians “looking out for or watching over someone from beyond the tangible realm.” They were also seen as an “unconditional source of support,” giving “devotion and absolute loyalty that is not subject to the influences, prejudices, or stigma of the outside community.” Last, but not least, companion animals provided these women with “a sense of purpose and feeling [of being] meaningful or significant.”

Roy seconds these observations, remarking that “animals are often the biggest source of support and compassion. Our pets are part of our families. For PAWS clients, they’re often their only family – often the only reason they have to get out of bed.”

Isolation is, he adds, “a considerable factor in terms of health. One of the things we’re delving into more is the long-term survivor community, which has some special challenges.” And one of those challenges is the “accelerated aging process from being on the meds. So a lot of the people who have been on the meds 20-plus years might be in their 50s but have a 70-year-old body.” Many of them are also on fixed incomes, a fact that puts them at higher risk for eviction.

All of these factors make their pet companions doubly precious. So, over time, PAWS has expanded its services. The two major services are, of course, free pet food and vouchers for veterinary care. But now there’s a critical illness fund for more serious issues, such as cancer and surgery. Another program, “Ask the Vet,” allows clients to do just that regarding routine health issues so that they “can save money. A lot of volunteer vets are contributing their services.”

The organization also provides free cat litter, “cat stuff,” and dog washes as well as free prescriptions and flea medications when possible. And there are more than 500 volunteers in the San Francisco area who do emergency foster care and dog-walking.

Some of the clients have been coming in for so long, there’s a real bond between them and the volunteers. So the latter go out of their way to help. Case in point: one client was on the East Coast when it became necessary to put his dog down before he could fly back home. PAWS arranged for the client to have face time on the computer so that he could say good-bye to his old friend.

The organization also makes a point of supporting clients in the days following their bereavement. “When somebody loses a pet, there’s obviously a grieving process,” Roy muses. “We try to be there for them. But when they’re ready to look for a new pet, they can get re-enrolled.”

But all too frequently, it’s the human who is “terminal, and we bring the cat in to say good-bye. And if the human doesn’t have arrangements or anyone to give their pet to, we make arrangements so that the human can pass away knowing that that’s been taken care of.”

In the end, we’re talking about an emotional lifeline. Yes, there are health precautions that must be taken but not as many as you might think. And they’re pretty obvious ones. Steve Weinstein, a journalist who has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early 1980s, goes through some of these. Stick to cats and dogs and forgo “reptiles or exotic animals such as ferrets.” Make sure those cats and dogs are healthy. (“There are already plenty of people willing to take on the responsibility of helping a sick animal.”) Don’t let your pet lick your face or any cuts you may have. Make sure that somebody else changes your cat’s litterbox.

The benefits outweigh the possible risks, however. Having a pet is “grounding,” Weinstein maintains, adding, “If you’re laid up in the hospital, knowing that there’s a pet waiting at home to be taken care of – and to take care of you – provides as much a spur to getting well as a bookshelf of self-help guides.”

A vet friend of mine worked with the A.I.D. a Pet program -- a smaller version of PAWS -- at The Living Center in Hartford, Connecticut back in the 1990s. “It’s obvious that there’s no shortage of love on the part of the owner for these dogs and cats,” he told me in an interview we did back then. “In a lot of cases, the cat or dog keeps the person going. You know, put yourself in the place of someone who’s been diagnosed with this illness, and you’ve got to be depressed. And they’ve proven that having a cat or dog goes a long way toward combating the depression that goes with being diagnosed with H.I. V. They [the animals] love you unconditionally.”

Non-judgmental…unconditional…unconditionally…These words keep coming up in the dialogue about people with HIV/AIDS and their animal companions. And that’s why there are now so many variations on PAWS nationwide. Some provide low-cost spay/neuter surgery and veterinary care, while others offer pet-food banks and other services. But they all have one common goal: keeping that lifeline going.

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Calling and More: Carol Marsh & Miriam's House

                      (From The Way-Back Files:  A&U, September 2017)

For Carol Marsh, starting Miriam’s House was something that she felt called upon to do. “It felt like coming home,” she recalls, “and I think that is the hallmark of a calling.”

Marsh founded the Washington, D.C. residence for homeless women with HIV/AIDS in 1996. But in many ways, she had been moving toward this kind of work since her teen years, when she’d read Catherine Marshall’s Christy. The 1967 bestselling novel about a young school teacher doing her damnedest to bring education to children in Appalachia had fired Marsh’s imagination: she’d seen herself as being “a benevolent helper of others” and making sense of all “the cruelty and inequity” in the world. There’d been comfort in “dreaming of a life of service in which I would make things perfect for some small village or group of children. For that they would, of course, love and appreciate me.”

But the path to our true callings is seldom a straight one. We take wrong turns, get waylaid, or lose sight of where we’re headed. “I lost that vision for awhile,” Marsh admits. “I moved to Washington, D. C. at 35, and that’s when I re-connected with a passion that had been mine as a teenager.”

She threw herself into the work of bringing her vision of Miriam’s House to life. She “didn’t want to create a cookie-cutter program that forced women to comply or leave,” Marsh writes in her memoir Nowhere Else I Want to Be (Inkshares 2016), “so we opted for an open-to-the-possibilities, organic kind of growth that, while it achieved its goal of allowing residents to help shape this new program, also left us in chaos much of the time.” She started out “with a few rules about sobriety and violence and being able to live cooperatively in community but soon realized that they needed to go beyond that.

For the disease was, she saw, only part of the story that each woman brought with her. The other part of the story – call it the back story or the subtext – was even more disturbing. (At Goucher College, she was, Marsh explains, encouraged to dig deeper and go “underneath the stories.”) Juanita, for instance, had begun shooting up at 14 in an attempt to escape from a reality that included savage beatings by her own mother. Alyssa had been pimped out by a drug-addicted mother when she was 12; despite that, she still loved and kept reaching out to the parent who never came to see her during her time at Miriam’s House.

Being with Juanita, Alyssa, and the others “transformed me,” Marsh reflects now. “Their generosity of spirit was a major part of that transformation.” The living situation at Miriam’s House was, by its very nature, often volatile. “I was never able to embrace the volatility, but I learned to accept it.” She cites a quote by journalist and social activist Dorothy Day -- “Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily” -- and comes up with her own variation on that particular theme. “I say to myself, 'Don't gloss over the difficulties and the challenges and suffering -- the sorrow of Miriam's House.' Since I can't do the work anymore, it would be easy to sentimentalize. Especially when I think of the women living together, watching each other get sicker and die [or] sometimes get better. So the women who were declining were watching other women improve, and the women who were improving were watching the other women decline and were being there for each other. So there's that dichotomy. That can't be sentimentalized, and it shouldn't be."

She learned a lot about herself in the process. “I had to crash through barriers of low self-esteem and anxiety,” she says. There were other barriers, too: the sense “of not being a good leader and having judgmental, prideful feelings about the way the women and my staff spoke, cooked, and held conversations….I had an image of myself as a kind, compassionate, understanding person and thought I knew how I’d be in relationship to the women – as a member of the community and as a leader.” Gradually, she found it easier to step outside of herself and be present for the women, accompanying them to the emergency room or sitting by their bedsides when they were dying. To just be with them, no matter how difficult it was.

Marsh never lost that sense of her work there being a calling. But she also came to realize that that doesn’t necessarily mean being led “to some small and easy place. I think that’s a hallmark of a calling – it takes you into the broken places, your own included….You have a mountain-top experience when you get a calling – and everything feels good, possible though scary – but then there’s the descent. As you descend, you need to translate the mountain-top experience into ordinary daily life.”

Marsh captures all this in her book. But she also shows us how her teenage Christy-like ideal gave way to something more grounded and how “being in service to was gradually transformed into being present to. It changed into a kind of companionship that, while never in denial about the very status differential between us, made for an easy camaraderie of reciprocity rather than always a giving/receiving exchange in which I had all the power.” There was “transformation in changing an adult’s diapers and learning to do it lovingly, without ego or hidden agenda.” It was in bringing an Easter basket to a resident in hospital, only to find that she’d just passed away; in trying to make a feeble elderly man understand that his daughter had just died of the virus; and in “patt[ing] the cold, swollen hand” of an intubated woman who was no longer aware of anything in this world.

“That was the thing about Miriam’s House,” Marsh reflects wistfully. “You had to keep giving it permission to break your heart….Over the years I had come to terms with the feeling that the needs were too much, the resources – mine and the world’s -- too few, energy and will in too short supply.”

Despite all the emotional wear and tear, she thought that they would all somehow manage to keep on keeping on. During the years at Miriam’s House, however, Marsh’s chronic migraines had become more debilitating. Finally, in 2009, she decided to step down from the directorship. She felt that it was a good move from both “a personal perspective and an organizational perspective since the women were not getting what they deserved from me.”

Miriam’s House is still in operation, but it’s no longer the place that she described so vividly in Nowhere Else I Want to Be. “The staffing, program, and purpose are different because AIDS is, thankfully, no longer a death sentence. There is effective treatment.”

In the prologue of her book, Marsh talks about “tak[ing] dictation from my heart.” That was, she says now, “part of the grieving process after I had to leave. I didn't want to forget the women and how they'd changed me....But when you're grieving, you're kind of immersed in a whirl of feelings that make it easy to romanticize the past. That kind of sentiment, however, did a disservice to me and to all we went through together at Miriam's House.”

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Fosters & Foster Failures

When you do rescue work, you quickly learn that there are fosters and "foster failures." The "failures" aren't, as you might think, the cats or dogs you can't manage. No, they're the ones who creep into your heart and set up shop. Permanently.

Cora, a Ruddy Abyssinian, was my first foster. She had been pulled from a murder-suicide house in another part of the state: she then landed at the local Animal Control, where her time was running out. She was about 9-years-old, miserable, and her name wasn’t originally Cora. But Cora Martino of Pitter Patter Feline Rescue, Inc. in Stamford found out about her and contacted a friend in the Connecticut branch of Siamese Rescue, who in turn contacted my friend Susan Graham of Atlanta Abyssinian Rescue. So, figuring that a fresh start was in order, I decided to give the frightened Aby girl her benefactor’s name.

Cora the cat lived in my study, and for a long time, I didn’t see much of her. She hid under my mother-in-law’s secretaire, only coming out when she absolutely had to. Then, slowly but surely, she began slipping out and huddling in the space between the window and the low bookcase. Hawkeye, Phoebe, and Fey wandered in and out – they were, after all, the Office Cats – but they didn’t pay her any mind.

Then, one afternoon, while I was sitting at the computer, I glimpsed something Ruddy and quick-moving out of the corner of my eye. I turned, and there was Cora perched on the wide arm of my captain’s chair. She began butting her head against me. She was ready to trust again.

Somehow I had never felt that Cora was meant to stay with me. But I knew someone that she was right for: my old friend Cel. So, when the time was right, Cel came and got her. Cora made the transition beautifully. I saw her a few times before she and Cel moved down to Arkansas: she was happy and loved, and she looked years younger than she actually was.

Cora died a couple of years ago. I was saddened when I heard the news. With rescues, you always want them to have more time with their forever people…time to make up for all the bad stuff that came before. But then I reminded myself that Cora had had three incredible years with Cel – years that had wiped away all the horrors she had gone through.

Dulcie the Ragdoll showed up at my house the following summer. She was, Animal Friends of Connecticut (AFOC) Director Judy Levy had initially been told, in her late teens, and she didn’t get along well with other cats. There was also a disturbing story about her having been kept in a “box” (a cage?) by her original owners.

Well, the Ragdoll who arrived at my home wasn’t elderly. Middle-aged, maybe, but cat years away from collecting Social Security. She also didn’t mind sharing space with other felines. She didn’t interact with them much, but that probably had more to do with her having been kept in some sort of kitty solitary confinement at her old home.

Which brings us to the “box” story. That might’ve been true. She walked very stiffly and had some trouble jumping up on the cat trees at first.

Happy in her new environment, Dulcie shone. She was an affectionate, gentle-natured cat, and I was deeply tempted to keep her. (Ricky, Zeke’s Ragdoll-cross and another AFOC alumnus, would’ve seconded that emotion: he had a big crush on her.) There is something incredibly moving about a cat learning to trust again. It’s like watching a rose unfold.

When a cat like Dulcie shows up in rescue, a lot of people see it as a chance to get a free purebred. Lorrie was different, and I knew that almost from the get-go. “We just lost our Maine Coon a few months ago,” she explained over the phone. “Then I saw this cat on the website, and…well, I had a Ragdoll years ago, and I’ve always wanted another one.” We talked for awhile longer and agreed that she and her husband should come by and meet Dulcie.

They clicked immediately. “Are you ready for somebody to spoil you rotten?” Lorrie asked Dulcie, who was lounging atop the cat tree in the breezeway. Dulcie was. Within a week, she left for her new home in the most elegant carrier I’d ever seen. I missed her, but I knew that she had found her person -- someone who was going to love her the way that her previous owners hadn’t. 

Things were fairly quiet on the foster front for awhile. Then, in the fall, Judy called me. They had just rescued a lot of kittens from a feral cat colony in New Britain. Could I foster four of them?

"I can foster two," I replied firmly.

I went to the Avon Veterinary Clinic, where the furry little refugees were staying. Zeke was working at the kennels there, and he'd already checked them out. "Take the plushy gray one," he'd advised me, "and the tortoiseshell."

Well, I followed his advice in part: I took the stocky gray male kitten. Then I saw his smaller inkblot of a sister. She was hauntingly like Bandit, the big black cat we'd lost to cancer a few years earlier. He, too, had been a velvety little inkblot when I'd gotten him for Zeke....

So she, and not the tortie girl, came home with me. Zeke named the big gray guy "Thor"; and I, determined that his sister should have some goddess power to match, named her "Freya."

The kittens, blissfully unaware of their foster status, decided that they had traded up into a much nicer cat colony. Thor, who was very much “a cat’s cat,” liked hanging out with the older cats. Freya – whom I’ve always suspected of being a Siamese in disguise -- was more people-oriented and followed me around a lot.

There were a few calls for them. “I think Freya and Thor need to go together,” I told Judy. “I’ll miss them when they go – but I’ll feel better if they’re together.”

Shortly after that, a woman called, expressing interest in both of them. We arranged for her to come see them. She never showed.

The little ripple of interest in Freya and Thor died away. Finally, I called Judy. “About the kittens--,” I began.

“You want to keep them, don’t you?” she replied.

I did, and four years later, they’re still here. They are my foster failures, and I don’t think that I’ve ever failed so happily at anything.


The next batch of foster kittens came the following summer, right around the time that Zeke and his girlfriend, Jordan, moved into their apartment. There were four of them: Milo, a red tabby; Pip and Oblio, two orange-and-white guys and spitting images of the late great Derv Sr.; and Mr. Rochester, a study in gray and white. The boys were able to eat on their own but were still relatively young, so I put them in Zeke’s old room.

Phoebe, whose mothering instincts had remained strong, checked on the boys periodically. One morning, she wandered in to discover that Rochester couldn’t quite get the hang of purring and that somebody else had forgotten to cover up in the litterbox. Mama Phoebe swung into action. First, she took care of the mess in the litterbox; then she sat down to work with Rochester. Within a half-hour, he had the beginnings of a very respectable kitten-purr, and everybody had gotten a firm but kindly lecture about The Importance of Covering Up. Only dogs did not cover up, she told them. The kittens were very impressed and took her lecture to heart.

I was impressed, too. Phoebe, I told a friend, was a combination of Elizabeth I and Mary Poppins. Actually, I think that the Elizabeth part of the equation was strong. I could just see her in a farthingale and ruff, fending off her own version of the Spanish Armada…..

The kittens became a blessing. I was having a bad case of empty nest syndrome, and their playfulness distracted me. And early one afternoon, I came home, utterly spent, and headed straight for their room. Gremlin – the gray-and-white kitten that Zeke had dragged home from a tag sale back in fourth grade – had just made his last trip to the vets’. He’d suffered from irritable bowel disease for years, and Tom suspected that the IBD had paved the way for lymphoma.

I can’t say that Gremlin had ever been one of my kindred-spirit cats; but in the last few years, I’d come to understand him better through our Reiki sessions, and that understanding had led to a deeper affection. I’d held him as the needle went in, and he’d crossed over, purring….

I sat down on the hardwood floor now and watched the brothers tumbling over each other. Rochester in his gray-and-white fur suit stood out from the rest. In fact, he looked very much as Gremlin had at the same age.

I was still sad, but the kittens had managed to take the edge off that sadness.

They placed fairly easily. Milo went to live with a retired professor named Lou. Lou was in her 70s, but the folks at the clinic knew her well: she’d brought her other cats there, and they would see to it that Milo had a new home if anything happened to her. Zeke adopted Rochester as a buddy for Ricky.

A couple came by one Friday evening with two children to see Pip and Oblio. The children were young but not too young, and they were very good with the kittens.

Pip or Oblio? The family couldn’t make up their minds. Pip was more outgoing; Oblio was shy but very sweet. Both were pretty boys. I held my breath. And then the mother looked at the kids and smiled. “How about we take both?” she asked.

It was better than I’d hoped for. The two orange-and-white guys went off with their new family. The room seemed kinda large and empty, but I was pleased that no kitten had been left behind.


The room didn’t stay empty long, though. Within a few days, I had an elderly Maine Coon named Boris living there. His person, an AFOC member, had died, and nobody wanted him.

He was a nice old gent – friendly and still handsome, his coat a sort of root-beer color. At first, he stayed in this new digs full-time; then he started to mosey around the house during the day. He always returned to the room at night. I think that he missed his human very much and couldn’t understand how he'd ended up in this strange place. I’d sit with him before going to bed, and some of the other cats would stop in, too. He enjoyed having the company of his own kind. But he tired easily – he was about 18 -- and he always looked relieved when they left.

Boris had chronic kidney disease (CKD) and the beginnings of kitty dementia. He was fine as long as he kept to a small area: if he wandered down to the cellar, say, he’d get very agitated and begin miaowing until I came and got him. So I tried to keep him on the second floor as much as possible.

He was gone in a little over two months. “We knew this was coming,” Tom said quietly, as he went to get the needle. I held on to Boris while we waited: the day was overcast, but the examination room was suddenly filled with light. For a moment or two, I seemed to see a younger, more vibrant Boris flickering in and out of the room while Old Boris was still breathing….

His actual dying was very quick, very peaceful. I patted him gently and left. Somewhere, I felt sure, his spirit-self was bounding over the bridge to meet the woman who had loved him so much.


The 14-year-old Bombay came the next summer. He had lost his best cat buddy and sunk into a deep depression, which was compounded by a move to a new house. He began soiling and wetting outside the box: that led to his being confined to the cellar. When the problem didn’t get better, his owners began looking for a new home for him. Somebody put them in touch with Judy, and she put me in touch with them.

That’s how he ended up in my study one hot Saturday afternoon. After his people left, I went into check on him. He lifted a miserable little black face up to me and hissed. His world had fallen completely apart, and humans were not high on his list just then.

I threw out his plastic dishes and got him some nice bowls from the kitchen. Then I changed his name. Ever since Cora, I’ve done that with most of my fosters, feeling that it gives them a fresh start. And, honestly, I usually hate  the ones they come with. I’d always had a weakness for the name “Merlin.” (There had already been Merlin, the stray that Tim and I had fed down at his parents’ place on Carolina Beach, and, of course, Ms. Merlyn, Zeke’s very first cat.)  Somehow I felt that the sad-faced Bombay needed a magical name. So “Merlin” it was.

“But sometimes,” Cynthia Rylant writes in The Van Gogh Café, “magic takes a little while longer to get where it’s going.” In Merlin the Bombay’s case, magic seemed to have missed the train completely. He hid in a part of the study and came out to eat and have diarrhea on my work table. Hawkeye lost the mail basket that he’d slept in since becoming Chief Office Cat, and I – well, I learned to shut up my papers in my desk.

The diarrhea stopped after a couple of weeks – it had, after all, probably just been a combination of nerves and getting used to a new food. He came out more. But his spirits were still very low.

Around this time, I got the chance to do a phone interview with author and cat therapist Carole Wilbourn for my on-line cat behavior column. I had read her book Cats on the Couch many years before, so I was pretty excited about this. Carole was, I found out, very easy to talk to; she was also trained in Reiki, which gave us some common ground.

Merlin was hanging out in the study with me, of course. I told Carole a little of his story. At the end of the interview, she surprised me by suggesting that we send Reiki to his situation then and there. I’d never done a joint Reiki session with anyone before, and it was a powerful experience.

Shortly afterwards, Merlin and I had a breakthrough of sorts. Thinking he might be ready for a buddy, I moved him into Zeke’s old room with Titan, my Aby stud cat and all-around sociable guy. I set up Merlin’s bed and dishes and the cat bed in what had been the closet. He could get in and out of it easily since one door no longer shut.

He seemed pretty content there at first. Then, the next morning, he slipped out of the room with Titan; when I tried to catch him, he went feral on me and bit and scratched the hell out of my hands. Finally, I got him back into his little closet lair and went downstairs to treat my wounds.

I came back upstairs a little later to check on him: it was important to mend the breach as soon as possible. Merlin let me pick him up and burrowed against me. He knew that he’d messed up and looked…well, like I wouldn’t love him anymore. I held him securely and said gently, “It was much too soon.” Then I brought him back down to the study and set up his things where they’d been before. I think he was relieved. He had abandonment issues, and he also probably hadn’t been held in a long time.

So we understood each other a little better. It was kinda like that moment at the pump between Anne Sullivan and little Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” The Anne Bancroft version, of course.

While all this was going on, my friend Leza put me in touch with a friend of hers in Seattle – another Lori, as it so happened, just a different spelling. Leza had seen Merlin’s pictures on Facebook and shown them to Lori; the latter was, in turn, taken by his resemblance to a black American Shorthair she’d once owned. There was messaging back and forth, followed by a long phone conversation.

She was the right person for the sad little man-cat, just as the other Lorrie had been the right one for Dulcie.

We made arrangements for my transporter friend, Donna, to fly out to Connecticut to pick Merlin up. Donna did one better: she got a rental car at the airport and drove out to my house on a Friday night, much to my relief. I’d been worried about him freaking out and getting loose in the airport.

The flight out of Hartford was an early one. So I brought Merlin back up to Titan’s room; then Donna and I sat down and had a good chat. But it wasn’t just a matter of catching up. We wanted Merlin to get used to Donna before they boarded the plane.

It must’ve worked because he even let her slip the travel harness on before she went to bed. And he was, she told me afterwards, incredibly good during the whole long flight, even letting her take him out of the carrier and pet him at one point.

He took to his new human and her other cat right away. Part of this was due to Lori’s having a good handle on what Merlin needed. The other part was simply that he now had

The faces of rescue (top to bottom):  Merlin; Cora; Mr. Rochester in a cat bed/boat built by Zeke; Dulcie; Freya with Mama Phoebe, a former stray herself; Boris; and Thor.

what he had been desperately missing – a cat friend. After all, Merlin’s troubles had started with the death of his original buddy.

Fostering is a curious thing. Most of the time, it’s just a stop along the way, a chance for a rescue animal to detox before finding its forever home. Sometimes it becomes hospice, as it did in Boris’s case; and sometimes it marks the beginning of exciting new (and hopefully long) lives for some abandoned kittens. And sometimes the fosters don’t go anywhere, as Freya and Thor can testify. But when it’s handled right, the magic does indeed get where it needs to go.

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Tree Army & a Godsend: The Civilian Conservation Corps

(An updating of a very old piece from The Way-Back Files –The Farmington Valley Herald, July 1979.) 

“I propose to create [the CCC] to be used in complex work, not interfering with abnormal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects. I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite, practical value, not only through the prevention of great present financial loss, but also as a means of creating future national wealth.”
                               -- Franklin D. Roosevelt 

Roosevelt’s Tree Army. That’s what they called it. In April 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps were established by executive order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Always passionate about conservation – what else would one expect from a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt? – he had set up a smaller but similar program in New York when he was governor and knew that it could work on a national scale as well.

The CCC became one of the most successful and most popular of all the New Deal relief programs, providing unmarried young men between 18 and 26 across the country with work, housing, and food. During its nine-year run, it supervised such projects as the construction of roads and trails through state forests; fire prevention and control; and forest planning. Other projects involved re-seeding grazing lands; soil-erosion control; stream improvement; the erection of fire towers; and the building of wildlife refuges, fish-rearing facilities, and animal shelters.

There were also educational programs in the camps. The success of these programs “was determined by the initiative and qualifications of the Educational Adviser stationed in each camp,” observes the National Association of the Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni. “The attitude and cooperation of the camp commander was also important. These programs varied considerably from camp to camp, both in efficiency and results. However, throughout the Corps, more than 40,000 illiterates were taught to read and write. Since most of this training was on the enrollee's own time, undoubtedly each gained that for which he worked the hardest, be it high school diploma, learning to type, or wood carving.”

In Connecticut and New York state, workers doggedly fought the gypsy moth epidemic, Dutch elm disease, and the European pine shoot moth. When the Colt Dike in Hartford burst in the spring of 1936 and flooded one-fifth of the city, the CCC offered its services to Governor Wilbur Cross.

The state “turned CCC men out of camps to help wherever they could,” recalled former State Forester W. F. Schreeder. The program was, he added “cheap for what they [the government] paid.”

Schreeder, who had worked for the CCC as a surveying engineer, said that when the program began, each state had the “privilege” of maintaining camps. There were 20 of them scattered throughout Connecticut.

George Mueller, one of my parents’ oldest neighbors, had worked in a CCC camp as a young man. The work was, he told me, “a wonderful opportunity for the boys who liked it. Jobs were nil – there just weren’t any.”

Mueller had worked on gypsy moth control with the CCC in upstate New York for a year. He remembered going through given sections of the woods, checking each tree, and cutting down infested brush. Forest rangers would occasionally put up false egg clusters made of clay to make sure that the men were doing the job thoroughly – and they “raised particular hell if they found out you hadn’t.”

The program was semi-military in its insistence on following regulations. Inspections were held in the mornings, and “if you took a day off, you were AWOL, same as you were in the Army.” Repeating offenders would be dropped from the CCC: there were always more men looking for work.

The army “actually ran the camps,” feeding, clothing, and housing the men, Schreeder explained. They received $30 dollars a month: $25 would go home to their families, and they’d keep $5 for personal expenses.

One camp in Connecticut was, Schreeder recalled, made up entirely of World War I vets. They more than appreciated the work. The Hoover administration had denied them their bonuses, and they had suffered heavily from public disapproval of American involvement in the war.

“After World War I, Army enrollment lowered,” Mueller corroborated. “The government didn’t want a big standing army. Being assigned to the CCC camps was good duty for them [the vets].”

Both he and Schreeder agreed that the program was run satisfactorily for the amount of time and money put into it. “If we had a program like that today, the state would be better off,” the latter declared. “It took the boys off the streets, taught ‘em to work, and made men out of ‘em.”

Mueller compared the CCC favorably to some of the current Comprehensive Employment and Training (CETA) programs, which he viewed as being sloppily set up and a waste of money. Perhaps, he speculated, being run along military guidelines kept the New Deal program from taking a similar turn.

“I’m not sure if young men would work for those wages now,” he remarked. “At the time, we thought it was a godsend. People were able to say, ‘I’m still working and supporting my family. I’m earning what I’m getting.’”

Schreeder took a slightly more wistful tone. “I wonder,” he said in a letter written after our interview, “how many people realize that many of the facilities they now enjoy at state parks and state forests were originally provided by the work of the CCC.”