Red Cross: you donate, they sell

Did you know that the Red Cross sells blood? I didn’t.

I was talking to a Haitian friend of mine about charitable contributions and I mentioned that my husband and I make annual donations to the Red Cross. She gave me an earful about how after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the money that was supposed to arrive from the Red Cross – didn’t. The very next day, a childhood friend of mine, Stephen Engelberg, Editor-in-Chief of the independent, non-profit, news outlet, ProPublica, alerted me to this article: The Red Cross CEO Has Been Serially Misleading About Where Donors’ Dollars Are Going.

It said, in part, “Most of what the Red Cross does is take donated blood and sell it to health care providers. Of the more than $3 billion that the Red Cross spent last year, two-thirds was spent not on disaster relief but rather on the group’s blood business.” Come again? The Red Cross sells blood? And it uses the money that unsuspecting do-gooders donate to pay wages and benefits to the people who manage the business? I’m shocked! And I’m not saying that with my Jon Stewart voice: I really am shocked.

I visited the American Red Cross website to educate myself. If selling blood is big business, it can’t be too hard to find out about, right? Well you’re not going to hear about it from the Red Cross. There is zero indication on their web site that they sell blood. As a matter of fact, the page that has their mission statement clearly says, “The Red Cross is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain.” I’m confused. If that’s the case, how come they’re selling blood?

Still feeling foolish, I kept exploring and came up with this article, The Business of Blood, from 2006 on Slate. That article explains the trail of blood. It also says, “The system of blood distribution hasn’t always relied on volunteer donors. Until the 1970s, a major portion of the nation’s blood supply came from paid donors. But a government study found that volunteered blood was much less prone to hepatitis contamination. From then on, blood banks had to label their packages “paid” or “volunteer,” which had the effect of eliminating paid-donor blood from the national supply.” So, it’s our collective fault that people are donating blood, out of the goodness of their hearts (and circulatory systems), that other people then sell?

Perhaps this is not news to you. Maybe you saw the article in a July, 2012, issue of Forbes, The Guys Who Trade Your Blood For Profit, that outlined the difficulties a startup blood distributor had competing with the American Red Cross. And maybe the scandal about where donor’s dollars are going isn’t a surprise either, because you saw the article on in January, 2012, Red Cross Responds To Documentary’s Charges Of Haiti Aid Failure. But I had no idea, and now I feel like a child who just found out that the tooth fairy isn’t real.

Reservations about my reservation…

We invited another couple to join our group for dinner Saturday night, so I called the restaurant to change the reservation.

“Hello, I have a reservation for Saturday night for six people and I’d like to change it to eight.”



“Just a moment, please,” he said. There was a pause and then, “Okay, I’ll make that change for you, no problem.”

“Can you confirm the time of the reservation?” I asked.

A slightly irritated sigh, followed by, “That’s in the other computer. Hold on.” After a moment he picked up the phone again and said, “All set, 8 people at 7.”

I hung up feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Our plan was to go out to dinner after an event that ended at 7. I was certain I would have made the reservation for a bit later, so I called the restaurant back. A different voice answered the phone.

“Hello,” I said. “I was just speaking to someone about my reservation for Saturday night.”

“You wanted it changed, yes I know.”

“Wonderful! Could you please check the time for me?”

“Your reservation is for 7.”

“It should be 7:15,” I said.

“Well it’s for 7.”

“Alright, but I’d like it to be for 7:15, which is when I made the reservation for,” I said, patiently. I was sitting in a bank, waiting for an Assistant Manager to confirm that the phrase jointly and severally on the power of attorney meant that I could make decisions on my own. Severally sounds like it should mean more-than-one, but in point of fact, in legalese it means the opposite.

The person on the other end of the phone asked, “For tonight?”

“No, for Saturday night,” I replied.

“Last name?”


He said, “Open Table shows the reservation is at 7pm, with a request for a quiet table.”

“That’s not my reservation. I didn’t request a quiet table,” I said reasonably, all things considered.

The voice got huffy, and firm. “I’ve been working with Open Table for twelve years, and…”

I interrupted. “I didn’t use Open Table. As a matter of fact, I hit the reservation button on your web site and was surprised when it didn’t go to Open Table. It went to a different service, and when I tried to use it to reserve my table, it said there were none available and to call the restaurant, which I did. I spoke to a woman. And in any case, I don’t care what it says; I’d like to change the time of my reservation. Can you do that?”

Still clearly annoyed, he went off to see what could be done. When he got back on the phone he said, “The reservation is for Irma Zinc. That’s not you.”


“There is no reservation for you.” A moment of silence. “Name?”


“First name?”


“This is for Saturday?”

“Yes. At 7:15, for 8 people.”

“Okay, sorry for the confusion. You’re all set.”

That remains to be seen.

Forgotten words

Words are getting sneakier. Halfway through a sentence, the operative word will see me coming and slink back into the crowd. Slipping away like a master pickpocket in a crowded London train station, the word disappears among the rest of the flotsam in my brain. Cleverly, it does not hide among other, similar words. I stand with my mouth open in mid-sentence waiting for the possibilities to reveal themselves. But nothing comes. There are no synonyms, no alternatives, just a blank, empty space waiting to be filled with the singular word that has escaped.

If I have provided enough context in the sentence I was in the middle of, a helpful listener might take over for me and pluck the absent word out of his own gray matter. A quick, grateful nod and I’m on my way again. If, however, the listener is not a mind-reader, we will face each other helplessly while I get increasingly agitated at my inability to capture the word I need. An impatient listener will try to maintain an indifferent demeanor only to drop the pretense and radiate aggravation, thereby increasing my desperation.

One expects to forget names, or where they put their keys, but where do these words go? There does not seem to be any commonality among them, although the lousy memory I have had all my life precludes my stating that as absolute fact. So let us assume that I am right, that the words are all strays, unrelated to any grander lexicon. What makes a seemingly innocuous word turn feral, afraid to join its brethren even when it is desperately desired? And is there a way to coax it back, or is it better to let it go, abandon the thought that required it and move on?

I worry about what this means. As far as I can recall, neither of my parents ever have trouble producing the words they need to flesh out their thoughts. It’s true, my father will sometimes ask to go home when he is sitting in his house, but he’s quite articulate. And my mother will repeat something she told me earlier, but with admirable lucidity. My word loss strikes me as a more serious problem. I like to talk, and tell stories. If my speech comes to resemble Swiss cheese, dotted with holes where important words should be, who will listen to me?

It would be a kindness, a mitzvah, if those of you who are also of a certain age would assure me that I am not alone. That you, too, misplace words the way other people misplace car keys. And if it takes you a moment to find the words, I promise to wait patiently.

Lessons from the waiting room

My father’s SPECT scan (single-photon emission computerized tomography) was scheduled for 7:30 in the morning. We rushed to get to the hospital on time only to find out that the Nuclear Medicine department hadn’t seen the order yet and therefore didn’t have the radioisotope they needed for the scan. The technician said he could have it delivered by noon if we wanted to wait. It was a difficult decision. Dad had one other test scheduled for that morning. The additional down time would make the wait just long enough to be seriously aggravating, and just short enough to make a round-trip home seem like too much work. Our assistant, Nana, my dad and I opted for the aggravation.

We found an empty waiting room to hunker down in. Before long we were joined by a couple who appeared to be roughly my age and a younger man in his twenties. The young man tapped on his phone and the couple chatted. I gathered, through shameless eavesdropping, that the couple’s daughter was the patient and she was pregnant. I couldn’t deduce, however, what specific problem had brought them to the hospital. None of them seemed unduly upset so I assumed it was not a big deal and resigned myself to playing games on my iPhone to pass the time.

After a bit, the young man left and then the older man. A nurse came in, looking for someone else, and the woman said, “Is there any news on my daughter?” The nurse said she’d check. She returned a few minutes later, while the woman was still alone, and said, “They took out her appendix and the baby is fine.” The woman, who had been the picture of equanimity, burst into great big, wracking sobs. The tension exploded out of her. Her face got bright red and she sobbed into her hands. This was in response to the most wonderful news she could have hoped for. The force of her raw emotion made me want to run over and comfort her. While I debated the appropriateness of that move, the men returned and provided all the hugs she needed.

When I was a little girl, I would sometimes go with my dad to the hospital on Sunday mornings when he did his rounds. (The nurses would exclaim, “You’re Doctor Mintz’s little girl!” like I was someone special. I loved the attention and it made me proud of my dad.) One time, he parked me in a waiting room for a bit. There was another little girl in there with a man. I don’t know what the relationship was, but he was telling her something in a quiet voice, to which she responded, wailing, “But who will take care of her money?” Even though I have no memory of anything else that was said, I’ve always known that the man was telling her that her mother had died.

As I child, I was confused and distressed by that little girl’s response. As an adult, I understand that emotional responses don’t always look or sound the way we might expect them to. But to this day, I am bothered by the fact that whoever that man was, he didn’t sweep that little girl up in a great big hug.

Apples vs. Humanity

If you’ve raised kids in the last twenty or so years, or were grandparents to said kids, then you’ve probably played Apples to Apples. If not, here’s how it works. There are two sets of cards, green ones with an adjective on them, and red ones with nouns. Each player draws a set of red cards for their hand. A green card is picked at random and then each player puts down a matching red card. The player controlling that hand chooses the best match. A random sample from the “junior” version of the game that I have on my bookcase looks like this:

Green card: cozy

Red cards: water guns, the library, cheese sandwich, getting a haircut

If I was playing with a child, and it was my turn to judge, I’d go with the library. If I was playing with a bunch of tipsy, fun-seeking adults, and we were aiming for deliberate irony, I’d probably choose water guns.

Cards Against Humanity is the X-rated version of Apples to Apples. The play is the same, only instead of adjectives the black cards have a fill-in-the-blank phrase or sentence and the white cards sport a mix of nouns, adjectives, complete sentences, and other bits of grammar I can’t name. The only way to play Cards Against Humanity is ironically. Anyone expecting otherwise will be quickly disappointed, and possibly enraged. A sample from the creators’ website:

Black card: I never truly understood _____________ until I encountered _____________.

White cards (2 required for above sample): The Big Bang Theory, Bill Nye the Science Guy

The mere concept of Applebees, the morbidly obese

An M16 rifle, actually getting shot

A bitch slap, the four arms of Vishnu

Depression, drinking alone

Quivering jowls, Dick Cheney

That was kind of fun, right? You can picture playing that with your folks can’t you? Well, not so fast. Here are samples of other white cards you might have in your hand: fisting, fiery poops, double penetration, anal beads, coat-hanger abortions. Many of the cards are more-than-politically-incorrect, lots of them are gross, a ton of them are sex-themed and some I don’t even understand (mostly from that last category). Still want to play with Mom? My daughter did, and we had, if not a good, at least an okay, time.

The fact is, I thought Cards Against Humanity was pretty funny and I’d be happy to play again—with like-minded peers. As outspoken and filter-free as I am, I still can’t quite picture playing this with my in-laws. But then, I’m pretty sure my in-laws and I were not the intended audience for this game. I picture the creators as young, hip, social-media-savvy kids in their twenties, dressed in black, who created the game for their peers. I was vaguely familiar with the name when I was invited to play, but had no idea what it was about. My daughter, on the other hand, had played the game before. I don’t think she was the intended audience either, but she’s a lot closer to the target than I am.

The Cards Against Humanity website bills it as, “A party game for horrible people.” Judging by how well it has sold, there are a lot of us out there.


Poison or purring?

Cats don’t drool. That’s one of the reasons that cat lovers are not dog lovers. If a cat drools it is usually a sign that they are sick. You can read all about ptyalism (excessive drooling) in cats at PetMD. In short, it can be caused by a tooth or gum problem, or something harder to diagnose, a metabolic or gastro-intestinal disorder. Or, it could be the result of accidental poisoning. Harper, our not-quite-one-year old tortoiseshell, has been drooling.

It’s hard to say just how long Harper has been drooling, because it took me a while to realize that was what was happening. The first time a drop appeared on my arm while I was holding her I looked around wondering where it had come from. The next time I assumed her coat was wet; she likes to play in our shower after it’s been used. The penny dropped when I noticed several damp spots on my shirt after a prolonged cuddling session. So if cats don’t normally drool, what was going on?

For several months, Harper has been pulling pink insulation out of the ceiling in the basement. The embodiment of the curious cat, she’s been quite thorough in her exploration, and destruction, of the perimeter of the ceiling. The long term plan is to cover the exposed insulation. In the meantime, we try to make it harder for her, but she outfoxes us. She doesn’t eat the insulation, but it’s reasonable to assume that she licks fiberglass and who-knows-what-else off her paws. Her pursuit of insulation has been going on much longer than her drooling, however, so we don’t think it’s the cause.

Recently, she had been gleefully attacking the dried eucalyptus display in the downstairs bathroom. When bits of it appeared elsewhere in the house, we did a quick Internet search and discovered that eucalyptus is poisonous to cats. We threw it out and hoped we’d discovered the drool-inducing culprit. It’s been a couple of weeks, and Harper is still drooling.

Earlier, I said that drooling is usually a sign that a cat is sick—but not always. According to WebMD, a few cats will also drool when they are purring and very relaxed. So maybe we haven’t poisoned Harper after all! I started to check her chin when she wasn’t sitting on me to see if her drooling was indeed associated with purring. Below is a picture of her lying in one of her favorite spots. Despite a tiny bit of tongue protruding, there is no evidence of drooling.

harper reclining

To put the above picture in context, and give equal time to Scout, here’s another photo:

h and s for blog2

Despite this new-found evidence, I am not entirely convinced that Harper has happiness-induced drooling, so at the first sign of any other symptom I will whisk her off to the vet. And if it turns out that she is one of those rare cats who drool while purring, so be it. I’m willing to put up with a little dampness to have such a beautiful kitty favor me with her affection.



Short fiction – Burying the past

The sun was hot and I was sweating. The velvet chair cover against my bare thighs felt strange, like wet dog. The Rabbi finished herding the guests into a semi-circle behind the chairs, which were reserved for family, and began to speak. The gist of it was that we were all invited to help bury the deceased. I’d been to Jewish funerals before so I knew the drill; we’d file by and toss some dirt onto the coffin. According to this Rabbi, though, it was “…customary to put in three shovelfuls and to turn the shovel upside down for the first one.”

How did you shovel upside down? Did you hold the shovel end and balance a bit of dirt on the handle? I tried to picture that and instead flashed on the first and only time I’d seen Deborah doing drugs. She’d forgotten to lock her bedroom door and I opened it just as she used her very long pinkie nail to scoop up some powder, bring it to her nose, and inhale. I was too young at the time to fully understand what I was seeing, but there was no mistaking what she did next. She put her index finger up to her lips to indicate that I wasn’t to say anything. Then she narrowed her eyes, pointed at me, and slowly drew that same finger across her throat. That I understood. I was only six, but I knew what she was capable of.

That was a lifetime ago. I’m forty now. Deborah had just turned fifty. My parents were quite young when they had her; it was a shot-gun wedding. You would think, with a ten year separation between us, that I had been a mistake, and you would be right. That was never one of the family’s secrets, nor was the fact that Deborah was their favorite. I glanced to my right. My mother had her head on my father’s shoulder; his arm wrapped around her. I couldn’t hear her crying, but I could see my father’s arm moving up and down as her shoulders shook. He sat stoically, staring at the Rabbi, with tears streaming down his face. I flicked a fly off my skirt, unmoved.

Deborah’s drug problems consumed the family. They chipped away at us until there was no family left. Even after she moved out, ostensibly to go to college, she absorbed everyone’s attention. Her absence was as large as her physical presence. In and out of rehab she bounced, ruining lives along the way. During one rehab intermission she lived with my grandmother in Rockaway. When she left, all of Grandma’s jewelry went with her. She stole from everyone and sometimes when she wasn’t in rehab she was in jail.

The Rabbi touched my father on the shoulder and gestured toward the grave. My father stood up and pulled my mother with him, propping her up as they walked the few feet to the mound of dirt next to the hole in the ground. My father let go of my mother long enough to take the shovel, turn the rounded side up, and stick it into the pile of dirt. Now that I saw how it was done I felt foolish. I may even have blushed a bit in my secret shame. My father handed the shovel to my mother and she flinched as if she’d been burned.

“I can’t,” she moaned. “I can’t.” And then, just loud enough for the family in front to hear, she whispered, “I can’t bury my favorite child.”

My throat tightened, as if there were an obstruction that made it impossible for me to take a breath. I stood up, peeled my skirt from my legs, and did what I should have done many years earlier. I walked away.

A writer’s responsibility

Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, once said, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Quoting a Nobel laureate makes me sound terribly erudite, doesn’t it? The truth is, I’d never heard of Czeslaw Milosz until I read Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure. Shteyngart used that quote in his book and it’s been rolling around in my head ever since.

It’s certainly true that we writers often use our families for material, if only because we draw on our experiences, many of which, particularly from our formative years, are inextricably entwined with theirs. If we borrow physical aspects or behavioral characteristics from a family member, the average reader will never know, but the borrow-ee will. Nervous family members may even find resemblances where none were intended.

In my blog, I often write explicitly about my family, making no attempt to hide a subject’s identity. I try not to “out” anyone’s secrets, or get too close to a subject that I think will upset someone, although it happened once. I wrote a post that hurt someone’s feelings and I was chastened, even though it wasn’t intentional and certainly not done with malice. I think if you’re going to claim as Milosz did, that the family is finished, the writer’s intent should be considered before guilt is assessed.

As a writer, I am intrigued by the feeling of power the quote gives me. As a reader, it is the phrase, the family is finished, that tugs at my heart. It sparked this thought: When a family member leaves, the family as you know it is finished. Since my first blog post in January, 2010, I’ve been remarkably restrained when it comes to writing about my estranged sister. A search of my posts confirms that not only have I never mentioned her by name, but this is the first time I’ve used the word estranged. When I read Milosz’ quote, the writer in me got tangled up with the child in me. I always thought that if I wrote about my absent sister I would be blamed for upsetting the family. And the fear of that has always been stronger than my urge to use her as material. But I’m over that.

In the earlier years, my sister was estranged from everyone in the family—except me. In deference to my other sister’s feelings, the absent sister was not spoken of at family gatherings; she was effectively “disappeared.” I was desperately unhappy with that decision, but no one seemed to care. That period was very painful for me, even when I, too, eventually became persona non grata.

My sister’s withdrawal from the family changed all of us. Her absence even had an impact on those who had not yet been born when she left. In her absence, the family reinvented itself. We are smaller, but no longer diminished. It’s been almost eighteen years since I last spoke to her, and I no longer want to. My heart was broken, but it has healed. I’m not interested in a rapprochement.

As a writer, I’m grateful for the material she left me with. Perhaps it’s true that, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” but my original family, the family I knew as a child, was not finished off by this writer.

No need to curb my enthusiasm – spring is here!

It’s time to take a break from all the recent negativity and let a little of my spring-induced joy leak out. Andrew and I went to visit the Arnold Arboretum on Lilac Sunday, which coincided with Mother’s Day. Maybe that happens every year, I don’t know, but it was just the leverage I needed to get Andrew to agree to go. Sadly, it held no sway with Hannah, who opted to stay home.

We took the MBTA to the Arboretum by way of Downtown Crossing and the Orange Line. I’ve only been on the Orange Line a few times in my life and since it passed through stations I had only heard of on the news, the ride itself was a mini-adventure. Our end-of-the-line destination was Forest Hills. I didn’t even know Boston had a Forest Hills; Forest Hills is where my cousin lives in New York. In any case, I enjoyed the ride and at the end we followed the crowd to the entrance of the park; a short walk from the station.

What a beautiful place the Arboretum is; gentle hills, curving paths, and lots of trees. We weren’t too far into our walk when the first lilac trees came into view. I sniffed the air in happy anticipation and smelled—fertilizer. Andrew thinks it was mulch, but I like mulch and that’s not what it smelled like. Even up close, with my nose almost buried in the blooms, I was disappointed by the lack of lilac scent. (Mind you, I’m not complaining, just observing.)

I always thought that the Boston Public Garden was our urban oasis; Boston’s answer to Central Park. Now I know better. At twenty-four acres, the Public Garden is less than a tenth of the size of the Arboretum, which is almost 300 acres. The website says it was established in 1872, “…planned and designed in collaboration with Frederick Law Olmsted, the Arnold Arboretum is a National Historic Landmark…” You don’t have to spend much time there to see why. Even though it’s a bit of a schlep, I certainly plan to go back. There’s something vaguely magical about taking public transportation through the city to such a glorious place.

A final note while celebrating the arrival of spring; about a year ago I wrote a post called, Appealing for a curb, in which I described our plan to have a curb put in front of our house. Peeved that the town wouldn’t pay for the work, I wrote, “I’ll be dogging the contractor every step of the way to make sure we don’t give up one iota of lawn that we don’t absolutely have to…” Well, not only did we not give up any lawn, we gained a whole bunch more.

See the large tree in the foreground of the photo below? That’s where the road used to meet our property. Our Arlington landscaper, Joe Cusce of Black Diamond Landscapes, increased our lawn in order to line up our property with the neighbors across the intersection. And the best part is that the curb worked as desired and protected our property from the snow plows. We’ve started spring without the usual grousing about the shape of our front lawn. And I love the way the curb looks. If you’re tired of redoing your lawn every spring, call Black Diamond. It will be money well spent.