Today I completed the third physical therapy session for my hands. I hadn’t been in a hospital in years, and now I’m going twice a week. Life is strange.
The photo shows how far I can bend the index and middle fingers on my right hand. It's farther than I could a week ago, even a few days ago. The progress with my left pinkie, the other broken finger, is even better.
One of the hardest parts of therapy is the constant reminder that you’re limited, that there’s something you could do before and now cannot. Something as simple as bending a few fingers.
But each coin has a flip side. In this case, physical therapy is a constant reminder that there’s room for growth.
One of the strategies to get through any stressful situation is to appreciate the process. Take a step back and gain a broader perspective. Listen to your heart beat, the faint hum of the refrigerator, the whoosh of a car passing on the street.
Valuing the process something I’ve long struggled with. I’ve always tended to be a Point A-to-Point B kind of person. It’s why I hate getting lost or getting stuck in traffic when driving. During my undergrad days at Susquehanna University, I had to make a lot of treks from one corner of the compact campus to another. Those treks usually would follow a straight line, across knolls, up hills and across roads. Sidewalks were obstacles.
But like driving or walking from one place to another, therapy is a process with a defined beginning and end. Life’s like that too. And if you don’t appreciate the growth, the process, then you the moments in between have no value and become empty spaces.
Last week, a Baltimore City police sergeant was sitting in his car, off duty and running errands near North Avenue and Bel Air Road on the city’s east side, when a man walked up.
The man shot the sergeant, Keith Mcneill, multiple times. On Sunday, 34-year-old Gregg Thomas turned himself in and was charged with the shooting.
We don't know what spurred the incident. But here's what we do know: 11 years ago, Gregg Thomas was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Yet he walked the streets as a free man in 2014.
In Maryland, people convicted of violent crimes serve, on average, only 60 percent of their sentence. They get out in some cases on parole, in others for "good behavior" as part of a program called "mandatory supervision."
That's how Arthur Jeter was able to serve only about five years of an eight-year sentence for his role in the Patterson Park beating death of Zachary Sowers in 2007. Last fall, police said, he was found in possession of a .380-caliber handgun. A felon can't legally have a gun, of course, and it was reported last week that Jeter is now facing a federal gun charge with up to a 10-year sentence. He's 24 years old.
In the United States justice system, imprisonment serves two functions. Punishment is the obvious one, but there is another: rehabilitation. But in far too many cases, neither is being served.
And the numbers back this up. On the punishment side, there’s the fact that violent offenders serve only about 60 percent of their sentence. Nonviolent offenders, meanwhile, are freed after about half. This undercuts the very purpose of sentencing. What is the point of a handing down a prison term if such a large portion of it won’t apply?
On the rehabilitation side, the prison system also is failing. According to a study by the Pew Center on the States, about 43 percent of inmates let out of prison in 2004 were back behind bars by 2007. Go back five years and the percentage is very similar. Yet total spending by corrections departments has risen to about $52 billion, nearly double the $30 billion figure from a decade ago.
More than 2.4 million Americans are in prison. That’s a staggering number; the city of Chicago has a population of about 2.7 million. To put in perspective another way, more than one out of every 100 adults in the U.S. is incarcerated.
I'm not trying to scare anyone or say that everyone out there is a criminal. There are myriad ways to look at every issue, and plenty of data show that violent crime is decreasing in the U.S. For example, the murder rate is at its lowest rate since the early 1960s. (Talking Points Memo has an outstanding chart that takes a big-picture look at that.)
But that’s not the point. Whether crime is rising or falling, it will always exist, and the justice system must serve its purpose to be effective in deterring it. Currently, too many people are being cycled through prisons, let out early to make room for the next inmate and put back on the streets with even less of a chance at improving their lives than they had before.
That more than four in 10 would quickly return to a life of crime shouldn’t seem surprising. But that doesn’t mean we as a society have to accept it as a given. That’s not fair to anyone, and it’s especially not fair to people like Keith Mcneill.
When things are at their worst, one of the best answers is going to a familiar place. A place you know. A place where everybody knows you.
For me, that meant going back to work. I’ve been greeted by so many people in the newsroom the past two days, I could barely keep up. Many of these people I see every day but, caught up in the hectic happenings at a newspaper, I’d never said a word to them. Some work in departments with which I’d had no interaction. I wasn’t sure that many of these people knew I existed. And now they are taking the extra step of saying how good it is to see me back in the newsroom.
They ask how I’m doing and how my recovery is going. It’s usually just small conversation, but it means everything to know that they care and stand behind me.
As I was driving to work yesterday (March 11), I naturally wondered how I’d feel when I walked into the Sun building. To me, it wasn’t a question of whether things had changed, but how much. Eight weeks had seemed like a very long time.
But as I strode past the photo department and down the steps, I started to feel that electricity that only a newsroom can inspire. If anything had changed, I couldn’t tell. I felt like I’d been there the previous day. When I got to my desk, all the back issues of the Sun, books, a creased Orioles ticket stub from last season and other accoutrements were in the same place, just as I’d left them, preserved like the items in a time capsule. The dictionary was still open to the same spot -- “fitted/flack” and “flack/flame stitch.” I scanned the pages in vain to see whether I could remember the word I was looking up the last time I had flipped through.
This is a very chaotic time for me, the most chaotic of my life. I’ve been confronted with changes in seemingly all aspects of my life and I desperately want consistency. That’s what I found yesterday and today at the Sun. The sense of camaraderie here, of family, is still as strong as ever. These are people who stick with you through everything no matter what.
This has been a humbling experience in many ways, and that’s a big one. I was never one of those people who’d sit down at the desk and ask everyone around me how his or her weekend was. Editing jobs don't leave time for it, and that kind of personality is hard to find in journalism anyway. Stay in the business long enough and the dry humor and sardonic wit that permeate newsrooms will coat you.
Dig below that layer and you will find another thing to be true about journalists: They genuinely care about people, and they deeply care about the people who sit beside them.
When I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland, a couple of my professors, Steve Crane and Adrianne Flynn, used "chrs" or "cheers" as the salutation in their emails. I'm sure they still do. I had never seen anyone use that term that before (or since), and I didn't really understand it at the time. What did "cheers" have to do with journalism?
But now it has meaning to me, though probably unintended. Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. And for me, that's the Baltimore Sun newsroom.
I officially return to work at The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday.
I've been away for nearly eight weeks. It's the longest I've gone without working since my senior year of high school.
During those years, I was paid $6 an hour to mow grass and weed-whack 40-plus hours a week at a golf course. Usually under an unrelenting sun and often with dimpled white spheres hurtling at me from all sides.
In college, I made $5.25 an hour, 10 cents more than the federal minimum wage at the time, at a work-study job in the communications department. I also wrote articles for $50 a pop for the local newspaper for a couple of summers.
Before long, I was in the real world. Even when I was laid off, which has happened twice at two different employers, I wasn't out of work for long, and the second time I had a part-time job to fill the gap.
I haven't been good at living without work. My time management skills have deteriorated markedly, and I've procrastinated more than I have since college. And I wasn't a big procrastinator in college.
I was talking to my oral surgeon, Dr. Smith, on Thursday, and mentioned to him that I am returning to the Sun next week. We agreed that work is an important element of life. Dr. Smith is in his 70s, yet he still practices his craft, and at a very high level. Not because he has to financially, I'm sure, but because he wants to. He loves what he does.
We all like to complain about our jobs; it's part of human nature and helps us to cope. But the truth is that we are built to work. It gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and without it we lose an essential part of who we are.
I'm looking forward to getting that part of me back starting in a few days, and I couldn't ask for a better group of co-workers to help me.
It's hard to talk about our own mortality in an objective way.
All of us -- OK, most of us -- know we're going to die someday, but that doesn't make the topic any easier for our amazingly complex yet limited human brains to comprehend.
The reason is that we understand things based on our experiences, yet when it comes to this subject we are limited to only one side -- the experiential side. And at some point, those experiences will end.
At least that's how it is and always has been. Now, however, technology has taken us to the point where we can begin to envision a possible form of immortality.
As physicist Michio Kaku explained last week on The Daily Show, the human brain operates very much like an incredibly powerful, incredibly compact computer, one far better than anything we currently could build. Yet eventually, we will be able to build it. Kaku says that in time, we will be able to download a "copy" of a human brain onto a real computer, in essence re-creating the brain in digital form. In the process, the human brain will be removed from the limitations of the rest of the body, which is built to live, on average, 70 or so years.
Watch Jon Stewart's interview with Kaku -- it's fascinating.
The notion that the brain can be replicated and "live" outside the body is backed by the most famous living theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking: "I think the brain is like a program in the mind, which is like a computer, so it's theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and so provide a form of life after death."
This possible milestone in neurology creates major questions, some of which deal with subjects we as a species may never fully understand.
These include: If the brain could be "downloaded," what would this prove about the soul? What a computerized version of your brain, sans body, be able to feel senses that a brain linked to a body can feel? If you were talking to the "real" version of a person, how would that compare to talking to (or otherwise communicating with) a computerized version of his or her brain?
Would we as individuals, and as a species, want to prolong our lives in digital form, if that form were indistinguishable from "real" life? And just as important, should we?
Some people buy themselves a new outfit or new phone for their birthday.
I just bought myself a new car.
It was an early present, since my birthday isn't for another nine days.
It had been a long time since I went car shopping. In fact, less than a week after I bought my last car, the Phillies won the World Series.
In some ways, that feels like decades ago. Especially when I look at the team's lineup for Opening Day, which I hear is only about a month away.
I had such a good experience with the world's most famous hybrid, the Prius, that I decided to get another one. One of the hard parts was finding one in a color I liked with the features I wanted, but one dealership came through: Thompson Toyota of Edgewood. My salesman was incredibly energetic, fun guy who, as I found out today, is a former golf pro who spent nine months in a coma and two years recovering after a horrific fall during his bachelor party. I told him that he is my new inspiration.
Whenever I buy a big-ticket item, I look for a place with great customer service, and that's what I got at Thompson. Which was basically the opposite of my experience at the dealership down the street, whose name I will withhold here. There, I met a salesperson who knew nothing about the Prius; when I asked basic questions about the car, he opened the glovebox and started flipping through the manual to search for the answer. I probably should have walked out right then and there.
Later, when I asked whether any Priuses (or Prii, if you prefer) with sunroofs were in stock, he said the sunroof was easily damaged and if I knew what he knew, I would have an aftermarket sunroof installed. That was some of the worst car salesmanship I have ever seen.
Now I begin another stressful period of owning a spotless new car. Being able to have one is fantastic in many ways, don't get me wrong. I've never been a materialistic person -- just look at my spartan wardrobe for proof -- but it's hard for a perfectionist like me to see a new or like-new automobile become imbued with its inevitable scratches, dings and scuffs. That pristine smell and shine go away before long.
But it will be easier this time, I am sure. As the old driver's ed saying goes, driving is a privilege, not a right, and after almost seven weeks off the road, I am glad to have that privilege once again.
And yes, I drove home with my splints on. That's my style.
I've received outstanding health care during the past six weeks.
I've also received an up-close look at what's wrong with the health insurance industry in the United States.
If I had any doubts as to the status of that industry, my dentist erased them during my first visit, weeks ago, when he said he hates insurance companies.
This, from one of the best dentists in the area, one with more than three decades of experience.
It's a shame that any medical provider would be forced to have such an adversarial relationship with people in an field with which he must work so closely. That is not how health care is supposed to function.
Red tape is a huge problem with the industry, and there is a gaping difference between the best possible care people should receive and the care they actually receive. For example: According to my dental insurance, treatment for a problem is covered only once in a three-year span. I lost six teeth in this attack. What is the best possible solution? Implants. But therein lies a problem -- the implant process takes six or more months from beginning to end. In the meantime, there needs to be a temporary solution -- in this case, dentures.
But my insurance company does not see it that way and will not cover both. For them, it's a case of treating the same problem within too short a span. Once the problem is "solved," insurance would like to wash its hands of it. Even if it would not result in the best possible care.
Thankfully, the dentists are working with me so that I get both treatments. But it's been more a case of "let's do our best and hope the insurance company will pay for implants" rather than "the insurance company wants the best care for you."
When I was at the oral surgeon's office on Thursday, I saw another example of the industry's flaws.
After undergoing a jawbone graft, I stopped at the front desk to pay my co-pay and schedule my next visit. A woman walked up at the other side of the desk, and I happened to hear her conversation with a secretary. The woman had just had a tooth pulled. The secretary asked for payment.
The woman, her jaw swollen and clearly in pain from the extraction, contorted her face even more. She clearly wasn't expecting to owe anything.
"I checked with my insurance company, and they said extractions are covered," she replied, clutching her jaw.
The secretary explained that yes, the woman's insurance company United Healthcare, *had* covered extractions ... for just a few days. The coverage began Jan. 1. It ended Jan. 9.
It became evident what happened in the meantime: The woman was told she had extraction coverage starting Jan. 1, so she scheduled one. Then the coverage was dropped just days later. Should she have known about his abrupt change in coverage? Maybe. Should someone have checked with her beforehand to make sure she knew that the procedure would come out of her pocket? Definitely. Should United have been allowed to do what it did? No.
As life expectancy increases and technology improves, we will all rely more on the health care system in the coming years. And we need to demand more from the insurance companies who broker that care. After all, their job is to work with us, not against us.
The past month has been unlike any other.
And one person has been here with me every moment she reasonably could ... and then some.
She came to the emergency room as soon as police got hold of her and spent the better part of two days there. Even though she was supposed to be at work.
She fed me in the hospital. Even though with the painkillers and mouth trauma, I had little interest in eating.
She brought her laptop to the hospital and watched half an episode of one of our favorite shows, "Parks and Recreation." Even though my mind was alphabet soup and I dozed off.
She has been my full-time caregiver after my discharge from the hospital. Even though with both hands in casts, I couldn't do much of anything.
I could go on and on about everything she's done for me the past month, from being a chauffeur to secretary to counselor to medical expert. All while working 40 hours a week plus overtime.
But I'll sum it up: She's my hero.
Happy Valentine's Day, Kacey.
One thing I've plenty of time for in the past month is thinking.
I've tried to find ways to get my mind off these events, and it's been probably the hardest task I've ever faced.
I've attempted to accomplish this is by trying to find ways of thinking that make sense, at least in a small measure, of why the past few months have been so chaotic and difficult.
The bad stretch seemed to begin just before Halloween, when I tripped during a run and fell onto my left leg, causing it to swell up like one of those stomach-turning photographs in a medical textbook. It was the worst injury I'd had since high school. Was.
Before I went to a hematologist for that, I had been to the doctor only twice in a span of seven or eight years.
How do we explain it when bad things happen to us in a short period of time? One of the ideas I've been drawn to since I first studied it in college is punctuated equilibrium. It's a theory that rocked the field of evolutionary biology when it was first proposed just over 40 years ago. According to punctuated equilibrium, species go through long lulls where essentially nothing changes. These lulls are called stasis. Then, suddenly, rapid change occurs in a short period of time, drastically altering the species. That is the change behind evolution.
Previously, the field had been dominated by the idea that species constantly evolved at the exact same rate, a theory that began with Charles Darwin himself.
I believe the theory of punctuated equilibrium is also a good model for thinking about everyday events. We tend to think of life as linear. We've even structured life that way, with time divided into seconds, minutes, hours, days, years and so on. But life really is not linear. There are long stretches where very little changes, and short periods where everything changes. There are a little over 42 million minutes in the lifespan of an 80-year-old. They all can't contain life-altering events. If fact, I'd argue that by far, most don't.
I've always had a personality type resistant to change. And I know I'm far from alone there. But the inevitable truth is that change will always come to interrupt our day-to-day lulls. Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's bad. Much of the time, like a species venturing from the safety of a cave to the unpredictable open plain for the first time, we cannot stop it and must adapt.
Yesterday Sun sports editor Ron Fritz stopped by to visit for a bit. I had no idea he was bringing me the best journalism gift I could imagine: a personalized poster from acclaimed cartoonist Mike Ricigliano.
Ricig is the best sports cartoonist in the business. I never dreamed that one day he'd sketch my face. When I was little, my grandfather used to pick up copies of USA Today Baseball Weekly for me, and I remember seeing the cartoons and noting the "Ricig" signature. Ricig spent many years at USA Today Sports Weekly and Baseball Weekly, and now you can see his work each Sunday in the Sun as well as at his website.
I also have to say thank you to my colleagues at the Sun for their card, signed by more people in the newsroom than I've met. Support continues to radiate in from other places as well. Ron brought me a note and check sent by an elderly woman in Towson. "The Sun papers have always been in my life," she wrote. "I hope you will recover rapidly." Short and to the point -- qualities an editor can appreciate.
Another thing that brightened yesterday was the letter and gift mailed to the Sun by the woman who spent many years at the Star Democrat in Easton. She sent something because she knows Adrianne Flynn, who was my editor at the University of Maryland's Capital News Service.
These are just two of the letters, Facebook messages and tweets I've received because of the industry in which I work. I've never been prouder to be a journalist.
I've received support from all kinds of people the past three weeks. And a cat too. He belongs to my girlfriend's family, and he goes by several names depending on whom you ask. Some, including his owner, officially call him Pierre. My girlfriend addresses him as Catman. I don't really call him either, though.
That was him stretching out and lying on the keyboard. He just hopped up onto the couch next to me. He craves attention, a trait he's been showing more the past couple of weeks. Pierre/Catman was a stray when he was found, and for the first week or so he was a lone wolf. He's very curious and active, as evidenced by the shower curtain liner he shredded while trying to climb it.
The other night, Pierre/Catman jumped onto the couch and ventured onto my girlfriend's lap. The behavior was highly unusual for a cat who tends to meow woefully and wriggle away when picked up. Then he began purring. which sparked a discussion of why cats do that. The conventional wisdom is that purring signals happiness, and that is true, but it's not the whole story. Cats also purr when anxious or injured. The frequency associated with a feline purr also happens to be the one at which muscles and bones best heal themselves. It turns out that a purring cat is a good companion to have during recovery. Now I just have to figure out how to make him purr nonstop.
I vowed to keep this page updated, and then came an unexpected obstacle: a petty thief in Canton. My girlfriend and I were at my house on Super Bowl Sunday, and she accidentally left her car unlocked with a laptop bag inside on the back seat. The bag contained not only an Acer touchscreen laptop that had been purchased a week earlier, but a sheaf of important financial paperwork. About a half-hour after we had exited the car and gone into the house, we went back to the car, which was parked in the alley, just feet from my doorstep. Just that quickly, the laptop bag was gone. It's something that could happen anywhere, but for it to happen in Canton -- right outside my door -- was extremely disheartening. The neighborhood is better than that.
So now I'm painstakingly tapping away on a laptop lent by my girlfriend's parents. Baltimore police have no leads as of this afternoon on either my car or my laptop, so it's safe to say they've dissolved into the criminal underbelly of the Baltimore-D.C. area. (I still call them "my car" and "my laptop," but possession is nine-tenths of the law. However, that phrase is a gross oversimplification. Point is, they're not here.) I'm hoping to head out in the next few days and buy a new laptop. Probably another HP.
In the shocking development of the day, I got my smartphone back from the police evidence department. Despite my best efforts at reacquiring it, it had been buried in their labyrinth for a little over three weeks. Sometimes bureaucracy is a bad thing. The phone, which is only a couple of months old, was not taken in the robbery; during the incident I took it out of my pocket and set it on the ground, where it stayed until police found it.
Everything else has been progressing this week. The blog Stay Classy Canton spearheaded a fundraiser last night involving about 14 restaurants in the neighborhood; a few other businesses took part as well. According to a few tweets I've seen, it was a tremendous success. I wish I could have attended and raised a glass, but I'm still feeling some effects from the head injury, including sensitivity to loud noise. I've never been a fan of noise, really, but now it's a whole new level of bad. Someday I'll meet the people behind the blog and show my gratitude. It's amazing how people you've never met can change your life for the better.
After two weeks, today brought a milestone: The casts were removed from my hands and replaced by a pair of splints. I'd had my fill of those casts on day one: I looked like an NFL lineman with taped-up battering rams for arms, and I felt slightly more self-sufficient than kid brother Randy from "A Christmas Story." The splints are not nearly as bulky overall, but they don't make typing any easier. In fact, the splint on my left hand is longer than the cast was, so the tap-tap-tap of my thumbs is even slower. The docs say the splints will be in place for four weeks, as long as the healing process proceeds normally.
The support continues to flood in, from Facebook to Twitter to regular old snail mail, and help keep me afloat. The Internet is truly an amazing invention that I appreciate more each day. Without the Internet, I don't think this story would have carried very far beyond my family, friends and co-workers. With the Internet, this has become a rallying point for Canton residents and, I hope, all of Baltimore. Things like this -- and worse -- happen in this city too often, and I myself became inured to it as a media member. It's been easy to write off these crimes and say "tsk tsk, typical Baltimore." But now it's time to make a stand and make them stop.
Tomorrow I have a dentist appointment. My hope is that he'll extract two of the loose teeth. One, on the top, is bent backward and very much an obstacle to eating -- and even other things, such as sneezing -- and the other, on the bottom, is pulled a good deal of the way out of the socket. Two teeth extractions for someone who's never had as much as a cavity. I had a terrible overbite as young child (turns out that no, I should not have sucked my thumb). Once, I tripped while running at my grandparents' and banged a baby tooth on the sidewalk. That required a trip to a specialist in Philadelphia for a careful extraction. Eventually I wore braces for about three years. I got to know the '80s/Easy listening music station at my orthodontist's office really, really well.
I'll post tomorrow and let you know how it goes.