Year in Review, Part 2

On the last day of the year, we offer several more appraisals. You can also read the first installment.

Denmark

Copenhagen began the year hungover with guilt after the failure of the COP15 climate summit. But little fazes the Danes, and a little brunch made everyone feel better. The climate wasn’t so forgiving, inflicting the coldest winter in decades on the city. Despite heavy snow, we continued to cycle everywhere and fell down many times. Later in January we were shocked when an axe-wielding Somalian man shouting “revenge” and “blood,” broke into the Aarhus home of Kurt Westergaard, the man responsible for drawing the Muhammad cartoons five years ago. Westergaard and his granddaughter sheltered in a panic-room until police arrived, and shot and arrested the attacker.

In April an Icelandic volcano caused my flight out of the city to be cancelled, which was good because I didn’t want to leave, so I decided to stay. Workers at the Carlsberg brewery went on strike after their right to free beer at work was taken away. The restaurant Noma, where you can eat live shrimp and nothing Mediterranean, was named the best in the world at the S. Pellegrino awards. Most of us ate kebabs instead. July’s heatwave forced us to the city’s artificial beaches, which feature wind-turbines that feed a city with no air-conditioning. We ate ice-boats to cool off—the Vikings are remembered only by this ice-cream.

A one-legged boxer from Belgium accidentally exploded a bomb in a hotel bathroom, injuring only himself. His target was supposed to be the Copenhagen office of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published the Mohammed cartoons. In an electronics store a few blocks away, I watched the event unfold on dozens of HD TVs. Oprah visited the city and was amazed, “The more you earn, the more you pay in taxes? Wow.”

While the COP16 climate summit in Mexico was achieving success, Copenhagen’s police were ordered to pay $1.5 million in a class-action suit brought by COP15 activists. In a recording released at around the same time, police chiefs were heard issuing orders for officers to beat activists and journalists. At the end of the year, five men were arrested on suspicion of planning a Mumbai-style terrorist attack, again on the Copenhagen office of Jyllands-Posten. Snow fell earlier and rose deeper than last year. Again, my flight home was canceled. Walking in the middle of nowhere I saw two kids kneeling down in a field. It looked like they were giving thanks for the glorious bounty that the snow gods had once again provided.


Sarasota, Florida

I have seen nuclear sunsets. I have known a husband and wife that own a Prius and Hummer, respectively. I have seen beautiful brick planters removed from downtown parks so as to keep the homeless residents from resting on them. I have seen people fighting each other with campaign signs. I have heard a young man say to a young woman “The whole BP spill was blown way out of proportion. I mean, where’s the oil?” while powder-soft, bleached-white sugar sand squeaked between my toes and the sun fell into the sea. I have been told to “get the fuck on the sidewalk” while riding my bike on a waterfront road. I have seen thunderheads that looked as if they would wash clean everything that came before. I have watched people get tickets for feeding the homeless.

I live in a house filled with wayward young men who have no jobs and stay up very late singing songs and often fall asleep outside by the pool. I own a car for the first time in four years and hate it. I have watched an entire family’s belongings dragged out of a foreclosed house, put in trucks, and hauled away. I have more friends on unemployment than with jobs. I have been called a Socialist by those same unemployed friends and threatened with physical violence by their also unemployed fathers who have asked me to “Get the fuck out, if [I] don’t want to work for [my] money.”

I have slept in sandy sheets every night for four months. I have caught, cleaned, and grilled fish within a stone’s throw of my mailbox. I have stolen a dog from a drunk who kept picking the poor thing up by its throat, then like a coward gave it back. I wish him ill. I have walked to the front door of my childhood home to notes from the banks informing us we have a month to leave the property. I have gotten very good at starting bonfires. On the west side of Interstate 75, just south of Tampa, flies the World’s Largest Confederate Flag. I have seen it, through the passenger side window of a Ford Escape filled with every single thing I own in this world, and thought, “I’m home.”


Germany

Every country loves to be the champ. Watch Americans get excited about gold medals in sports they’ve never heard of. So it was with the Germans when they became World Champion of Pope in 2005. “We are Pope!” cheered Germany’s version of the New York Post, Bild, upon news of the election of Cardinal Ratzinger. I was living in Berlin at the time, and watched even friends who had grown up in East Germany—avowed atheists of Lutheran stock—celebrate the victory in the papal sweepstakes. “You have to go back to the seventies to find the last Italian,” crowed one atheist East German friend to me. You would have to go back to the 16th century to find a Catholic in his family.

The problem with rooting for a sport you don’t really follow is that you don’t understand the rules. Why was Apolo Ohno disqualified in that short-track skating race anyway? So while the Germans were holding a secular celebration for a religious victory, they failed to notice that the new pope represented not the German people but a conservative religion out of step with the secular society in the land of his birth. I was back in Berlin as the Times correspondent by the time the scandal over hundreds of child-abuse cases emerged in Germany this year, even reaching Ratzinger’s old archdiocese in Munich. I sacrificed a few good pairs of shoes to sloshing through the over-salted streets to gather opinions. As with the double-crossing Greeks and their secret debts, it was Germany’s year of breakups that never quite happened. Their reactions boiled down to, “One more chance. This time maybe it will be different.”

The collapse of the church, anticipated by some of the same outsiders who got a vicarious thrill from the novelty of a German pope, never completely materialized. That’s because the majority of the faithful were, like the Pope, playing by the religion’s rules. I turned to an old friend in Munich to find out whether he made good on his threat to march into the municipal office and declare that he would no longer pay the church tax levied on the Vatican’s behalf by the German government. He conceded that for a time he was sure he would go, but worldly concerns were outweighed in the final calculus. “I did consider,” he told me, “but kept paying, and still am, as I must be a Catholic on judgment day.”


Health

I have, unfortunately, spent too much time in the hospital over the past year, but I have learned a thing or three during that time.

It is difficult to be seriously sick in America, especially if you have no health insurance. In my case I’m self-employed, and I paid for (limited) health insurance until a few years ago, when a small move across an invisible state line raised my premium by over 60 percent.

Once you drop medical insurance you can never buy it again, if you are a normal middle-aged adult with a few preexisting conditions. Tens of millions of Americans know what I mean, though many of our politicians continue to pretend otherwise.

But, fortunately and nonetheless, many people still care, and are doing heroic work despite our harsh, impersonal system.

After two surgeries in the past year – one serious, one routine – I have begin to see the truth in the claim that “Doctors diagnose, but nurses heal.” And, I see more and more, that is hardly the end of it.

In fact, my health today – imperfect as it is, sometimes painful, sometimes frustrating, but much better than it would have been — owes much to thoughtful surgeons and dedicated doctors and kind nurses who asked for nothing. But equally important have been the social workers and physician’s assistants and the financial administrators who toil under the florescent lights. Here’s to you.

In the last two weeks of January I quickly began to lose my ability to walk. My legs ceased to work correctly and I staggered, often falling down. A weekend in the hospital – my third visit to the ER that month – finally revealed a spinal compression in my neck from bone spurs, and two days later a surgeon I had never met was spending hours trying to arrange for my care. Less than a day later my surgeon removed much of the vertebrae in my neck, replacing them with titanium rods.

Not one person asked me for a check or a credit card. I lay in the hospital in pain, and people I had never met and will never meet again took care of me and listened to my moans and my fear and impotent jokes. A social worker worked diligently to arrange for my stay at a rehabilitation home, again, with no financial questions asked.

Two months later I had to have an additional surgery.  In the hospital I reacted badly to a pain medication and, unconscious, with a tube down my throat, again relied on competent nurses and doctors on little sleep.

I still owe money to several companies, but the hospitals generously paid for most of my expenses. Perhaps you did too, via higher insurance premiums. I don’t like this system, but there we have it. I know how lucky I am, to be living here, in an affluent community, in an affluent state, in an affluent country, in a place where people care.

Doctors diagnose and repair. Nurses care and heal. Many others give and support. We need them all.

I just want the people who have cared for me to know, whether you remember me, whether I remember you, whether I owe you money, that I remember what you gave. Thank you for your help.

 


 

Skateboarding

2010 started with a set of light ankle sprains. Was it my new shoes? Winter slowness? I bought newer shoes, started taping my ankle. By the time I realized I might shave my ankle most of the hair was gone. I didn’t shave my ankle. I read on the internet that if you stand on one foot while brushing your teeth, it’ll strengthen the quick twitch muscles, preventing sprains. I did that. “Quick twitch” has an icky ring to it (no ring at all, really, that’s the problem), but the phrase got stuck in my head. Quick twitch. Quick twitch.

Over the summer I was seeing a girl I’d met at the bookstore where I work. She was a regular. Things were going well and then they weren’t. When things weren’t going well I would get beers with my friends. “What’s going on?” I would ask them. They didn’t know. After beers I would put my headphones on and roll around, pushing hard. Rolling over the Williamsburg bridge was best: big city view, lots of work and then coasting. I fell over a pebble one night under the BQE—other skaters have poured concrete and waxed the ledges—and opened up my hand in a few places. I worried about infection. It did not get infected. The girl moved back to California and I stopped skating at night.

After Thanksgiving, feeling sluggish and cold, I went for my first skate in a few weeks. I came off a wallride and took a bad step—I was sure I’d broken my ankle. I stayed on the ground, getting less sure. I could put weight on it, so I limped to L train and home. A half-golfball of bruise had pushed itself up into my foot, getting bigger. My girlfriend came over and she took a picture of my foot to text to her doctor mom. Her mom said I should see a doctor. I have an avulsion fracture: the muscle in my foot was wrenched so hard it broke the bone. (Or so I was told. I never saw my x-rays.) I was on crutches through Christmas, every Scrooge’s Tiny Tim at holiday parties. There are worse ways to end your year than being the butt of a joy-giving joke, but there are better ones, too.

Mike Deri Smith, Ashton Goggans, Nicholas Kulish, David Appell, and Sam MacLaughlin

Image: Snow in Copenhagen. Image by Christian Svanes Kolding.

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