Stories/Storytelling Archives

The pit crew of wounded healers

What do physicians have in common with NASCAR racers? What are the 3 essential skills today’s doctors need that don’t have anything to do with medicine? Read this from the New Yorker and find out.

Why is the Republican party no longer a comfortable fit for many doctors? Why do many doctors now support health insurance mandates and no longer care so much about limiting their own liability? Read this from the New York Times and find out.

As an aside, I’m always drawn to articles like these, partially because my paternal grandfather was a physician from the 1930s-1970s, but mostly because my mother was a RN in the 1960s-70s and told me countless nursing stories while I was growing up, which were far more enthralling to me than any story book she could have read to me. I suppose it’s not surprising that while I was in high school I picked up brochures from the guidance counselor’s office about anesthesiologists, oncologists, nursing, EMTs and physician’s assistants and fantasized about those sorts of medical careers. My father worked in insurance and those stories weren’t nearly as interesting, so that wasn’t on my list of things to do when I grew up.

Somewhat ironically, the closest I ever came to working in the medical field was when I worked part-time for an insurance company, of all places, during most of the 1990s. I was a unit leader and helped make sure the claims processors did their job correctly. I was certified as proficient in medical terminology and knew the most common procedure codes and ICD-9 diagnosis codes by heart. If only I had a dime for every 401.9 (hypertension), 250.00 (diabetes mellitus), 311 (depression) or 473.9 (sinusitis) claim I processed. I haven’t worked in that field for more than a decade but still remember many of the numbers and have visions of rattling off such numbers when I’m old and can’t remember the things I did five minutes ago. “Do the doctors think I have 290.20?” I’ll probably repeatedly ask my daughters. ;-)

Anyway, as dry as all that sounds, there were times I was able to glimpse the patient behind the insurance claim. When a claims processor in my unit would come upon a difficult claim that was as thick as a doctoral dissertation, he or she would usually slip into despair because processing that claim would take so much time it would make their speed percentage plummet (claims processors had to maintain high accuracy and speed percentages or, eventually, get demoted to the mail room). As a unit leader I was exempt from maintaining such percentages so I would usually take the claim off his or her hands and process it myself.

There were a few times I discreetly cried while processing those claims because the story the procedure codes and diagnosis codes told was a medical nightmare. I would feel terrible for the patient and his or her family. I carefully read those procedure codes and DX codes as if I was reading a novel. Page after page after page the story unfolded through the numbers. I made sure to process such claims with extreme care so that the claim would be paid correctly and the patient wouldn’t receive an erroneous bill, which would only have added yet more stress to their lives. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to taking care of a patient.

So I can see why the doctor in the New Yorker article I cited above says it’s pit crews today’s patients need. It can’t all fall onto the physician’s shoulders. And as Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen said in Kitchen Table Wisdom, “We are all providers of each other’s health… we are all wounded healers of each other. We have earned the wisdom to heal and the ability to care.”


“No more questions!”

Below is a delightful video of an 87-year-old Chinese-American woman as she’s being interviewed by her children. I love her impatience with the questions (“No more questions!”) and her frankness.

As she recalled some of her sassy behavior as a child, it occurred to me that the most interesting stories older generations tell are the ones where they did something unexpected, misbehaved, took a risk, made a huge mistake, or anything at all that isn’t from the Goody Two-Shoes playbook.

Whereas with our children, we aren’t so enthralled when they do things not from the Goody Two-Shoes playbook, and it won’t be until they have children and grandchildren that tales of these exploits will have a more receptive audience.

Here’s the video:

No More Questions! from StoryCorps on Vimeo.


Image and video hosting by TinyPicIf you’d like to get better at everyday communication… or want to improve the writing or speaking you do for the public, such as blog posts, lectures to students, sermons, presentations at work, etc… then the below formula will help you.

Every communication should have what Aristotle called: logos, pathos, and ethos.

Logos – Something for the mind. This could be a new piece of information or tip that the reader/listener can apply. It could be a story that doesn’t outright teach but lets the reader come to the conclusion himself. It is the substance of what you are saying/writing. Make sure you actually have something to say and don’t tell them something they’ve heard hundreds of times already.

Pathos – Something for the emotions. Ask yourself how you want the reader/listener to feel afterwards. Uplifted? Sad? Motivated? Angry and ready to take action? When your reader/listener is feeling that particular emotion they will be more interested in what you say.

People tend to remember how you make them feel more than what you actually say. Also, they are going to feel a certain way afterwards anyway, even if you give it no thought, so you might as well give this consideration while preparing.

Above all, you should avoid making them feel bored. Get to the point. If you have a clear beginning, middle and end to your communication, it will help you avoid the trap of writing/speaking in circles until you find something to say.

I have several blog posts sitting in my draft file because I don’t have a good beginning or middle or conclusion to them. I’ve ditched many drafts of writing projects for clients for the same reason. Perhaps the most common mistake I see is when a writer/speaker has only a middle and no beginning or conclusion.

If your topic is dry in nature, you can still alleviate the boredom by making it more fun by adding visuals such as a video, photos or clip art, or telling an interesting story associated with the topic. The fun factor doesn’t have to be of the “hahaha” variety, but simply anything that helps make your reader/listener feel more energized by what you have to say.

Ethos – Something for the imagination. The reader should be able to imagine how your message will apply to their life. It should be clear to them what they are to do with your information. Don’t leave them hanging.

Speaking/writing is a two way street: you communicate your message and the reader/listener runs with it. It’s not all about you.

The word “imagine” is one of the most powerful words you can use. Storytelling is the best device for engaging the imagination of your readers/listeners and for applying this entire formula.

(H/T – Getting The Word Out Hollywood Style)


Six Word Story #36

He put the sin in Wisconsin.


I realize the “he” in this story is vague, so, for fun, here are some possibilities:

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A politician:

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A thief:

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Or, more likely, a combination of all of the above. :)


What teachers really teach

Image and video hosting by TinyPicWhen my daughters talk to me about their teachers, they rarely talk about the subject matter but about something funny the teacher said, how the teacher made them feel, and the stories the teacher tells about his or her personal life.

I thought of this while reading how Carl Jung, while giving talks to educators, would tell them that teachers don’t teach their subject. They teach themselves.

I can’t recall a thing I learned in fifth grade, but I will never forget how my teacher made me feel at ease about being an introvert, as she was an introvert herself and never ragged on me about being quiet during class discussions, unlike the other teachers I had up until that point.

I also can’t remember anything I learned in my 8th grade math class but I will never forget how the teacher told us the story of the childhood wounding she received that made her decide to forever avoid men and become a lesbian.

I will always remember how to read music and play the violin, even though I’ve barely touched it in 25 years, thanks to the orchestra teacher I had for 7 years. I stuck with the violin that long, not because I was any good at it, but because I liked the teacher and his stories. He freely gossiped with us (I loved that), worried about us like we were his own children, and invited us into his home once a year for a spaghetti dinner that he prepared and served himself.

One day I entered my high school psychology class and noticed a Moonie there preparing to give us a talk. My best friend and I turned on our heels and marched directly to the office to tattle, as we intuited this was probably against school rules. Yep, it was, and she was reprimanded. We were quiet kids who usually didn’t assert ourselves like that and my boldness took me by surprise. The next time we had class the teacher came up to me and gave me the most sincere apology I’ve ever received. I had a great rapport with her the rest of the semester with no ill feelings. I can’t recall her name, or anything I learned in that class, but I’ll never forget what she taught me through her apology.

I still retain a smattering of French, and that is thanks to my high school French teacher, a reserved man with high expectations, but who also had a dry sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye that communicated more than his words did. I knew he liked me even though he never said as much, and even though I was far from proficient in French. I won’t forget how he showed up at my high school graduation and told me it was the first graduation he had attended. His watery eyes and quick hug said more than his words could ever say. I was deeply touched. The way he made me feel, and what he taught me about himself, is probably the reason I took far too many French classes in college.

My favorite high school English teacher taught me much about herself, including how a devastatingly dry wit can put teenage boys with huge egos in their place. She could even find something witty to say about Jonathan Edwards’s sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which was required reading in our textbook. I loved what she taught me about herself and I suspect that had a significant role in my choosing English as a major. Fortunately I had the opportunity to tell her that when I ran into her in a store several years ago. She died on Christmas Eve 2009 .

So it would seem the ability to be vulnerable and authentic is something the best teachers excel at and probably matters a lot more to our kids than the teacher’s credentials and it sure beats being lectured at. They also probably wouldn’t mind if all of us adults were more like that.


My 12 minute ultramarathon: the conclusion (or the beginning?)

Image and video hosting by TinyPicAs I indicated before, I’ve been afraid of running since I was a child, so five weeks ago I started using the 9 week Couch to 5K plan to see if I could finally run 12 minutes without stopping, something I was unable to do as a child.

Today was the day in the program where you run one 20 minute interval without stopping.

This was a big jump from Wednesday, when it was two 8 minute intervals with a 5 minute walking break in between. That wasn’t an easy time and the above toon is an accurate reflection of what it was like.

So since Wednesday I was dreading today, fearing I wouldn’t even make it the 12 minutes, let alone 20. I slept poorly last night and had a stressful dream about going to the gym this morning and forgetting to use the treadmill. Ha.

I went to the Milwaukee art museum with my oldest daughter yesterday and I became a bit winded after climbing the stairs to the third floor, so I said to myself, “Dammit, I can’t even climb three flights of stairs without getting winded, how the hell am I going to run 20 minutes tomorrow?”

I internally yelled at myself some more this morning: “What am I doing setting running deadlines for myself when I have enough deadlines in my life? If I couldn’t run 12 minutes as a child when it’s logical I should have had the energy to do it then, then why do I think I can do it now all these years later?” As you can see, I was still in the throes of my running complex, even as I stepped on the treadmill this morning.

I had planned to listen to part of a Janelle Monae song, three U2 songs and Madonna’s Celebration song (I figured if I was still running by that point I deserved to listen to a song with the word celebration in it) and guessed that those would add up to roughly 20 minutes. I didn’t dare look at the clock on the treadmill. I fussed with the TV occasionally for a diversion, switching back and forth from Today Show and Good Morning America.

What happened was nothing short of astonishing to me. The 3 U2 songsImage and video hosting by TinyPic rolled by effortlessly and I felt no strain. I thought to myself, “Wow, now I finally see what they mean when they call running ‘moving meditation.'”

During the Celebration song I worried slightly that maybe these songs were falling short of the 20 minutes, but at the end of the song there was only 10 seconds left of the 20 minutes. After I hit the 20 minute mark I had the overwhelming urge to cry with happiness.

Coincidentally, earlier in my run Good Morning America had a segment on crying at work, and they concluded it was OK to cry at work but I wasn’t so sure it would be OK to cry at the gym. :-) Ironically they also said by the time women reach their 40s they are pretty good at regulating emotions. Hahaha

I couldn’t completely suppress my tears so I went and sat in a corner on the BOSU ball where no one could see me, hid my face in my arms, and let myself cry for a while, but not as much as I wanted to. I wasn’t at all expecting I’d react that way, as I always reserve these types of tears for the achievements of my children and other people I know, and even strangers, when I read/hear their stories, but I can’t remember the last time I cried because of something I achieved.

I know, I know. Who gives a crap that I ran for 20 minutes, it doesn’t solve any world problems, people a lot older than me can run for so much longer than that, yadda yadda.

But here’s the thing: ultimately this had nothing to do with running, it had everything to do with deconstructing a fear and then overcoming it. Now that I’ve succeeded in doing this with one fear maybe I’ll be able to do it with others. And, more importantly, you can too.


Mr. Monk and the Kettlebell Murder (Mini-Saga #14)

Little did she know pursuing those six pack abs would mean she’d end up six feet under.

Too bad she didn’t question what was inside the kettlebell she swung to strengthen her abs, or why her personal trainer had only one arm. Mr. Monk did, after studying her autopsy results.


Wide Awake in Wisconsin

Image and video hosting by TinyPicThe last few weeks have been quite tumultuous for those of us here in Wisconsin.

I’m heartened, however, because last weekend 180,000 people gathered at the Capitol building even though the Governor had already signed into law a controversial bill. It shows we haven’t given up. The rally began with a tractorama of 50 tractors parading around the Capitol (click here to see a compelling speech by one of the farmers).

I think one would be hard pressed to find such positive energy in the aftermath of defeat at any other time in recent history.

As a result I’ve done more reflecting about my role as a Wisconsin citizen these past few weeks than I ever have before.

I live in Wisconsin because my great grandparents decided to move here from Germany in 1891. They settled in Tigerton, WI and worked a 50 acre farm to provide food for their 12 children. My great grandfather also worked as the church sexton, which required cleaning the church and digging graves. He was also a lumberjack. I suspect he performed other odd jobs too to keep the money coming in.

My grandfather was the youngest of the 12 children and, because they had been unable to go to high school, his older siblings wanted him to be able to go, so they made him enroll and then shielded his whereabouts from his parents during school days. He went on to graduate from college and medical school in Wisconsin and worked as a rural doctor in the years before insurance, so getting paid was often iffy, and when it was a 7 day per week job, requiring house calls at all hours and in all weather conditions.

The word “scrappy” always comes to mind as I ponder my great grandparents and their family and all the other Wisconsin immigrants from that time. A large number of my great grandparents’ descendants still live in WI and the surrounding states of IL, MN, SD and ND and thus I find myself here in WI as well, effectively making me a “placed person,” as they say.

A few days ago I checked out from the library a children’s book by Gretchen Bratvold about Wisconsin for one of my daughters to read and it’s interesting to note what it says about the 1890s in Wisconsin (the decade my great grandparents arrived) and compare it to recent events here:

By the 1890s, some of the state’s political leaders were thinking about how the government could improve the lives of Wisconsinites.

For several decades, the Republican Party had controlled the government. But many important Republicans used their power unfairly, carefully protecting their own interests in the state’s successful lumber and railroad businesses.

Some Wisconsinites were unhappy with the government of Wisconsin. They decided to split away from the Republicans and form their own branch within the Republican Party.

Headed by a man named Robert M. La Follette Sr., the new program was called Progressivism. It followed progressive, or new, ideas. The Progressives wanted to give more power to the people. They thought all Wisconsinites – not just a few – should have a say in how the economy and the government worked.

We’ve come full circle. (Because my great grandparents came from Germany it’s also interesting to note this article titled If This Happened in Germany Cars Would Be Burning.)

Last fall only 26% of registered voters bothered to vote and Gov. Walker was elected. Only 17% of adults over the age of 18 voted for him.

The rally last weekend is an indication that we are now wide awake in Wisconsin and I don’t expect to see that kind of lethargy at the polls next time. I saw a chart that said 85% of both Democrats and Republicans intend to vote next time.

There are elements in the bill that will affect almost all of us in the state in a negative way (from forced retirement of teachers important to our children, to reduced wages, to loss of programs that have made Wisconsin a humane place to live over the years).

I get discouraged as I ponder this yet, if I’ve inherited anything from my great grandparents, it’s their scrappiness, and if the rallies the past few weeks are any indication, many of my fellow Wisconsinites are scrappy too. Rather than mere observers who gripe about the climate and cheer for the Packers, we are now part of the Wisconsin narrative in a deeper way and that can only be a good thing. May it continue.


My 12 minute ultramarathon

I read Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner this weekend and could hardly put it down. I’m always drawn to stories about running, probably because I’ve always been scared of running.

I suppose that fear originated in elementary school, where we had to do 12 minute runs every year. Even though we worked up to the 12 minutes gradually in the preceding weeks, I never had the stamina to run 12 minutes without stopping. That, plus having to do it in the gym, crowded by other students, many of whom seemed to run effortlessly, made it the opposite of fun, as did the switch the teacher would flick at us if she saw we were being sluggish.

After one of those 12 minute runs my teacher the next period was so alarmed by my flushed cheeks she wondered if I should go to the nurse’s office and possibly be sent home. From that point on I believed that I just wasn’t cut out for running, that maybe something was wrong with my body in that regard.

Then came junior high and the basketball team. I loved basketball but the brutally long stair lap workouts dehydrated me to such a point that it damaged my body and I had to quit the team.

I had to confront my running fear yet again in high school as the track coach approached me every year and asked me to join the team because he thought I had the right physique for hurdles. When I found out the practices included long grueling runs, I had flashbacks to the 12 minute run and the basketball stair laps and declined.

I happily never had to confront running again, until last summer when I discovered barefoot running. Although I only ran short sprints, I found it very energizing – and painless – to run in bare feet on grass. But I still wasn’t convinced my body could handle anything more than sprints.

In UltraMarathon, Dean Karnazes said his high school cross country coach told him after he won a big race, “If it feels good, you’re doing something wrong. It’s supposed to hurt like hell.”  In the middle of a 100 mile ultramarthon a few decades later, an Indian chief told him, “Pain is the body’s way of ridding itself of weakness.”

This reminded of what author and Jungian analyst James Hollis says: “Surely one of the most telling tests of our lives is whether we are living in a way which is driven more by challenge than by comfort, one which asks more of us than we had planned to offer.”

So I’m going to try to run my own “ultramarthon” – a 12 minute run. Following this 9 week guide, and using a treadmill, I should be able to run 12 consecutive minutes in five weeks. We’ll see.


Six Word Story #35 plus a book recommendation

75. Divorced. Their history was history. – Six Word Story #35

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says before you write a novel you should come up with a situation for the story. The situation is best described in a “What if… ” statement in a sentence or two. He says don’t bother writing a story until you have a good situation.

For The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a novel I read recently, the situation is: “What if a wealthy 78-year-old man divorced his 75-year-old wife after almost 50 years of marriage?”

This situation intrigued me so I decided to read the book. Also, it’s set in Connecticut and I knew reading it would make me feel wistful for New England (in my 20s I lived in Massachusetts for four years) and I felt like revisiting New England in that way. Plus it’s February so I was in the mood for a book that wasn’t minds-on but that wasn’t mindless chick lit either.

Here’s a front page review the New York Times gave of the book and explains the Jane Austen type elements of the book, which give it a lot of charm. As the review says, “Schine is perceptive, and even breathtaking, in her observations.”

Now if only I could go visit New England again for real. Someday, I hope.