Ordinary people

This week and last I’ve been spending my mornings at McDonald’s. It’s a familiar place that is also foreign. It’s a place from my past. My mother would take me there for lunch when I was a teenager, picking me up in front of my high school and treating me to McChicken sandwiches and chocolate shakes, just the two of us.  India and I stop there sometimes for french fries or ice cream when we are on long road trips. It is a place that offers comfort and familiarity to people who need it. A lot of them come alone.

It hasn’t been comforting to me this week though. It’s a place of last resort, the the only place close to my son’s camp that has wifi and coffee, so I’ve been logging three hours a day here. The other hour he’s at camp I spend running. I am not a runner, but I am trying to get in shape again after four years of not being in shape, and so I run.

At McDonald’s, a man sits alone and prays softly over his pancakes, a prayer that goes on and on. A mother hisses threats at her toddler, grabbing his arm with unnecessary force every time he stands up to look out the window. A small man with a nasal drawl recounts the details of his car accident to a friend: “I hit her car and I panicked, I thought, I gotta get out of here. But she got my plates, and they charged me with a hit and run.”

The people who sit in McDonald’s during the day are unemployed or retired or lonely.  They take care of small children, or they need somewhere to go.  A friend’s elderly mother used to take the bus to the downtown McDonalds in Seattle every day to have coffee. I knew a man from France who ate lunch at McDonald’s every single day he was in the States. It becomes a ritual.  Yesterday a woman with sad eyes and fragile skin sat across from me and fell asleep over her meal. Today two men in baseball caps and florescent yellow vests sit next to each other, eating burgers and speaking in Spanish. Beside them is an elderly man wearing a bright pink polo shirt and baby blue cap, perched on a stool, swinging his feet like a child.

This is a picture of the McDonald’s we went to when we were in Barcelona. It’s across from the Sagrada Familia, It was a welcome oasis in a sea of too much olive oil and water that tasted like boiled eggs and hostility that was probably racism but could have just been bad manners. We went to McDonald’s in Paris, and the boy had a ham and cheese sandwich and I had a coca lite, and it was a relief to be sitting among regular people.

For years I hated McDonald’s. One time when my father visited me in Montreal, I complained I was hungry and he offered to buy me a pizza from McDonald’s. I got so offended I got out of the car and slammed the door. I thought that it offended my morals. But now I realize that my former hatred of McDonald’s and Walmart and going to Chuck E Cheese for kids birthday parties isn’t so much about ideals or calories or unfair labor practices. A lot of the time it was just about trying to set myself apart and not wanting to be an ordinary person.


Summer in the south





It’s summer in the South. It hasn’t been that hot this year, at least in North Carolina. Our air-conditioner is broken, but it hasn’t mattered yet, the wall of heat that has usually descended by now has mercifully stayed at bay, allowing us room to move and breathe. But it’s during summer that I start to feel that I am in the South, really feel it. It’s the heat, I guess, because it is the heat which is its defining characteristic.

The heat, and slavery, of course. This summer, Paula Deen is getting in big trouble. White Americans always act surprised at racism, especially the blatant kind.  But it’s all around us all the time.  Like, have you ever been to Savannah? That place is haunted. It is full of ghosts and places like Plantation House of Pancakes. I took this picture in Myrtle Beach this spring, but these places are everywhere in the South. So Southerners aren’t surprised at blatant racism. Because they eat their breakfast at places called Plantation House of Pancakes.

This week  I sent my son to YMCA camp. The room where the kids play has no windows and grey industrial carpet, and Disney radio plays in the background. For their craft they glued goldfish crackers to a paper plate. It’s not as nice as his preschool, where they made their own paper and had only seven kids in the class, and learned about cabbage whites and why it’s important to add details to your self-portrait.. But the big difference is that not all the kids in his class are white.  The preschool was all white, except for my boy. He was the only brown kid in his class. There was one other kid with curly hair, and for a while Sacha was confused. He thought Timothy was brown too.

On Friday, I will turn forty. I’m going up north so that I can turn forty in Northern Ontario, in the same town where I turned four. Summer up north is different. I’ll need to remember to bring my jacket.



Have you heard of this website? It belongs to Satya Khan, a fantastic writer who creates one or two paragraphs of beautiful prose five days a week, and emails it to you if you sign up for hew newsletter.

I love this idea. She writes for an audience. She sets the bar high and low at the same time: she writes every weekday for publication, but it only has to be a couple of paragraphs.

I think that’s good for your health.


Friday News Roundup: Hi-Tech Edition

Happy Friday!

Here are three stories about how technology can be used improve health:

1.  Follow up is important to prevent re-hospitalization: “In a pilot test, her hospital is sending special telemedicine monitors home with certain high-risk patients so that nurses can make a quick daily check of how these patients are faring in that first critical month.”

2.This is a little scary:  “Dr. Topol speaks of a not-so-distant future where human beings are digitized through sensors in the bloodstream. He explains, “By having a sensor in the blood, we can pick up all sorts of things, whether it’s cells coming off an artery lining [indicating heart attack], whether it’s the first cancer cell getting in the bloodstream, whether it’s the immune system revving up for asthma or diabetes or you name it.  All these things, will be detected by sensors in the blood which will then talk to the phone.”

3. Seems like since all our other information is now electronic, it wouldn’t be too hard to make medical records electronic too. But for some reason, this has been very hard to achieve. Here’s one explanation. 

Have a great weekend, see you back here on Monday!

Five Women’s Health Organizations that Deserve Your Love



Happy Valentine’s Day!

I hope you are full of hearts (as my son says). This morning we had heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast and he brought a box of heart-shaped cookies for his preschool classmates. I made dozens of cakes and cupcakes and delivered them to other people’s sweeties around town. It’s a sweet day.

You know what else I love? Organizations that really advocate for women’s health. They deserve your love. They work hard on tiny budgets trying to do things like change Medicare eligibility and revise FDA guidelines for Plan B.

So this Valentine’s day, check out these fantastic organizations. Send them your money, forward the links to your friends, donate your time, subscribe to their mailing lists:

1.  Breast Cancer Action. “The Bad Girls of Breast Cancer Activism.” They focus on environmental causes of cancer, refuse to be wooed by the empty promises of the pink ribbon, and create some really thought-provoking materials.

2. RH Reality Check. For when you want a dose of reality with your news about reproductive health.

3. National Women’s Health Network This one’s been around since the 70s and you don’t hear about them enough. They are always working on policy initiatives, and are a great resource for information about women’s health in general.

4.  Big Push for Midwives A fantastic grassroots organization that is working tirelessly to pressure states to pass legislation that allows midwives to be certified and practice independently throughout the country.

5. The Mautner Project. Originally focused on providing resources and services to lesbians with cancer, this organization has expanded to address a wide range of health issues and is tailored specifically to the concerns and priorities of women who partner with women.

Share the love!


How to Start an Epidemic


A cholera epidemic was just one of the unnintended consequences of UN health workers

In 2010 there was a terrible earthquake in Haiti that caused unprecedented destruction. Thousands of people died, homes were destroyed, and what infrastructure existed was decimated.

Shortly after the earthquake, the country experienced a devastating cholera outbreak. There had never been a case of cholera on the island before.

Cholera is a nasty disease that can kill a healthy adult in as little as three hours. It is easy to treat, but thousands of people in Haiti died before health workers were able to control the  epidemic.

How can this be?

Yes, Haiti is poor and the infrastructure was in disarray. But surely the people who planned the response knew that cholera was a possibility?

It bears repeating that although infectious disease is spread from bacteria and viruses, there is always, always a social component to disease. As Charles and Clara Briggs wrote in their excellent ethnography about a cholera outbreak in Venezuela,  Stories in the Time of Cholera: Racial Profiling During a Medical Nightmare: 

Epidemics are ‘mirrors held up to society,’ revealing differences of ideology and power as well as the special terrors that haunt different populations[…]

Cholera created a charged, high-stakes debate about the lives of the people it infected, and competing stories bore quite different policy implications.

So what stories were being told about the cholera outbreak?

At first, the international aid community including the UN tried to blame poor infrastructure.  Health workers stepped up education campaigns about clean water use (which is kind of a joke in a country that was completely ravaged by the earthquake). The response tended to emphasize   existing problems with the water delivery system, poverty, poor hygiene, and living conditions that were ripe for this type of epidemic. The UN launched a major cholera aid package that some say was just repackaging an aid effort that already existed.

But in the end, they had to own up.  It turns out that UN aid workers brought it with them. Not on purpose. But still. They were actually the vectors.

It’s fitting, I suppose, that this is the conclusion. After all, the history of Haiti is an endless story of outsiders bring poverty, violence, disease, devastation.

So how do you create an epidemic? Act first, think later. Don’t ask for advice. Don’t consult an anthropologist. Hope for the best. Rely on old worn-out narratives. Emphasize feeling and emotion. Charge  in to save the day.

Cholera was the most vivid example of the latest tragedy visited on Haiti, but surely there were more. What about the American aid workers who went to save the day, like this guy, but came back feeling disappointed when people on the street just wouldn’t stop begging for money:

It’s very frustrating because, again, it’s this strange combination of being dependent, but also expecting it. And that can be very disheartening because the reality is no aid project is going to work if you don’t have people that you’re trying to help bought into it in wanting to help themselves.

Or the  foreign aid that often benefits companies from the US while at the same time undermining local economies.  Or that fact that medical aid organizations can sometime swoop in without trying to integrate themselves into the existing medical system, with the unintended consequence of leaving the local healthcare system in worse shape than they found it.

Haiti is trying to sue the UN for damages. Here’s hoping that they win.

Three blog posts I wish I’d written

Not sure if this would really  be that helpful...

Not sure if this would really be that helpful…

Mondays are hectic.

There’s no preschool, my sweetie leaves town for the week to go to work in a town two hours away, and I always have unrealistic expectations of what I will get done. I found out from this book that having unrealistic expectations is a common characteristic in people with my personality type (is it useful to know that it is common? I’m not sure).

I sat down to write this blog post three times. I know it was three times because I’ve been keeping track of everything I do all day in an effort to figure out where my time goes. This guy swears by the technique to help you boost your productivity.

Today I:

Made breakfast, did laundry, wrote a grocery list, made beds, tided bedrooms, cleared up breakfast dishes, had a 20 minute call about a freelance editing project while the boy listened to a story on his Vtech thingamajig. Drove to the far-away-but-clean library, read seven books that were mostly about Christmas, took him out for a grilled cheese sandwich. Went grocery shopping. Put groceries away while cajoling him to come into the house for a minute. Chased behind him on a bike ride around the block. Finally convinced him to come inside. Hung out the laundry, played trains, cleaned the bathroom, made dinner, showed him how to cut up mushrooms. Ate dinner, bribed him (with ice cream) into finishing his dinner, loaded the dishwasher, played cars, made a cake for customer, put him in bed. Read him 5 books. Got up and made him a sandwich. Went back to his bedroom. Got back up to get him an Orgain shake (bougie alternative to Pediasure)  because “If I don’t have a shake I’m not going to sleep.”

Cleaned up again.

Took the cake out of the oven, filled out the order sheets for cakes for Valentine’s day. Sat down to write.

I think Darren Hardy is right. I’ve figured it out in one day. In order to boost my productivity “at work” I need to hire a maid.

Here are three posts I started to write today:

1. A response to this article.

2. Why healthcare needs to come with an actual price tag.

3. Can a Checklist Really Save Your Life?

But even though I didn’t write any of them, it was still a good day.