On Pesky “Women’s Problems”

It would be easy for me to ignore the issue. Should employers affiliated with religious institutions cover the birth control pill for females under their health care coverage? I am tempted to say that I don’t care. My children are grown. I am a grandmother. Even if I hadn’t had a hysterectomy nearly 10 years ago, it’s a safe bet that I’d be through menopause by now, anyway. My childbearing days are over.

So why, at this point, should I bother weighing in? It all goes back to an incident that just seemed wrong. Uncomfortable. Unworthy. Undignified. A time in my life when, in my late 30s, I was forced to explain something that, on a very personal level, I should never have had to explain to anyone, save my doctor.

I worked for a Catholic university. It was, by far, the best professional experience of my adult life. I was given as much as I gave. And there aren’t many employers you can say that about. Except for one experience.

I had been told by several doctors that I would eventually need to have a hysterectomy. I was living with symptoms that went beyond unpleasant. Yet I just wasn’t ready. I dreaded major surgery and I had often read that hysterectomies were one of the most unnecessary procedures performed. My doctor at the time was understanding. She suggested I go on, and stay on, the birth control pill. It would curb the worst of the symptoms and give me more time to reconcile myself to the inevitable. I agreed.

My employer, unfortunately, did not.

When I went to pick up the prescription, I was told the University’s health insurance did not cover birth control. But it wasn’t prescribed for birth control, I explained. (The same condition, doctors had told my husband and me, made it dangerous to add to our family of three children, and we had long before opted for a permanent birth control measure.) The pharmacist suggested I talk to the University’s Human Resources department.

I didn’t want to make the call. But we honestly couldn’t afford the medication unless it was covered. I had to try to make it affordable. I called Human Resources over the lunch hour, while my officemates were out, but the woman I needed to talk to was also at lunch. I tried again in the afternoon, when the office was quiet, but she was away from her desk. I had no choice but to leave a message. Of course she called when, not only were others present, one of them was my boss. I had to excuse myself, asking if I could borrow her private office. She agreed, with a curious, concerned frown.

As soon as I said I’d tried to fill a prescription for the pill, the woman from Human Resources interrupted with a calm, condescending voice. Mimi, she said, you work for a Catholic institution. The Church does not condone birth control.

I felt the heat rise up my neck. I was really going to have to explain, to a total stranger, my very personal, very intimate problem, and wait passively while others decided if it was morally acceptable to get help for it. It didn’t matter what my doctor recommended. It didn’t matter that it was a treatment I had decided was proper. It didn’t matter that I was 39 years old, living by my own moral code and raising children to be productive members of society. I was a supplicant. I had to ask permission. And suddenly I felt like a first-grader, raising my hand to be excused to use the restroom. Was it a number 1 problem? Or was it a number 2?

I felt my eyes fill with tears as I set my jaw and launched into a detailed (and graphic) explanation of why I needed the medication. But even then, it wasn’t enough. Call your doctor, she told me. The doctor could submit, in writing, a verification that the pill was being used as a medical therapy and not for birth control. I wasn’t to be believed. I had to offer this higher authority an equally high authority.

When I talked to the doctor, she apologized. She knew of the University’s requirement, but forgot I worked there. She would submit the paperwork to the insurance company. I do it all the time, she told me. Even for women who really are using it to prevent pregnancy, she said, explaining that she did so because most of her patients couldn’t afford the full price.

But her words didn’t take away the sting. I was a grown woman. I shouldn’t have had to explain why my doctor and I had settled on this treatment. I shouldn’t have had to wait for that treatment, while the insurance company decided if that explanation met a moral criteria set up by people I did not know and who didn’t know me.

I remember hanging up, wondering why we had to play such games. At what point did the Church’s right of freedom of religion circumvent my freedom of religion? I didn’t then, nor do I now, think birth control is wrong. Moreover, when had this ceased to be a matter between my doctor and me? When did the Church’s moral high ground become more important than my privacy? When did it override what was best for my health?

I’m sure some people will wonder why, if I felt so strongly, I opted to work for a Catholic institution. That’s a valid question. My only response is that then, as now, finding work wasn’t that easy. And there were many, many good reasons to stay in the University’s employ with only a few reasons to fault it as an employer. At heart, I suppose, this is the only fault that still hurts on a very personal level.

In the end, the University’s insurance covered the prescription. The medication was put into my reach, and it did help. And it only cost me my privacy, my dignity and my copay.

My Iowa Dad’s advice to Stephen Bloom: Find the common ground

I’m just going to admit it. Stephen Bloom is on my bad side.

It’s true that I don’t know the guy. Even though my husband did some work for the University of Iowa’s journalism school a few years ago, I never met Bloom and Steve can’t recall whether he did. I’ve seen Bloom’s picture, but I doubt I could pick him out of a crowd.

So what’s the deal? Well, first he dissed Iowa, my home state, in the Atlantic. Then, when Iowans became upset about it, he just went on and on. Good people have rebutted what Bloom wrote, including my friend Ken Fuson and my spouse, Steve Buttry. But since Bloom just keeps adding fuel to the fire, I figure why not strike my own match?

I’m willing to give Bloom a small bit of due. He is probably right that the majority of the 30,007 Republicans who voted for Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucus have deeply held, strict, Christian convictions. But consider this: The population of Iowa is 3,046,355. Even if each and every one of the Santorum voters had conservative Christian ties, that’s not quite 1% of a population that Bloom insists, “views the world through the prism of religion.”

The fact is, while most Iowans declare themselves Christian, like the rest of the nation, church attendance is dropping. In a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Iowa ranked in the bottom half of states in three of four measures of religious attitudes and practices. In worship attendance, Iowa ranked 21st at 40 percent, just one point above the national average. But in three other measures, Iowa ranked below the national average: 28th in the percentage who say they believe in God with absolute certainty (70 percent), 32nd in the percentage who say religion is very important in their lives (51 percent), 34th in the percentage who say they pray daily (53 percent).

Why Bloom thinks, “All of the networking is done in church,” when fewer and fewer are attending services of any stripe is a mystery.

It wasn’t until I read the Washington Post story on Bloom that I realized the heart of his animosity lay in his Jewish religion versus what he perceives as Iowa’s “in your face” Christianity. He told writer Sally Quinn, “You constantly feel like an outsider. If you’re different you are viewed askance, as an alien.” And oddly, that is where we have some common ground. My family was also viewed as different.

My father, the son of a Southwest Iowa farmer, served in the Navy during World War II. Getting Wesley back down on the farm wasn’t really a problem when the conflict ended, but when he returned to the Swedish Lutheran community of his birth, he brought a first-generation, Italian Catholic girl from Bayonne, New Jersey, back as his wife.

Yes, she was different. She “tawked” funny. She smoked. She knew how to make all kinds of cocktails. She used colorful language, and chanted Hail Mary’s aloud on her thick black rosary, while she streaked down the rutted country roads in her green Chevy. And when she cooked up a storm, which was often, most everything she made looked odd and had strange Eye-talian names.

By extension, her five children were also different. When we vacationed, we went to visit my mother’s people “out East.” I was the first in my tiny class of 40 to see the Empire State Building and visit Washington, D.C. My Uncle Sonny (yes, that’s really what we called him) took us to see the World Trade Center as it was being built. He’d drive us around Manhattan and taught us how to spot the hookers on the streets. (Thanks to him, I was also the first in my class to know what a hooker is.)

And while Catholics are not uncommon in Iowa, in my little town of Essex, they were rare. I was one of two in my graduating class. Yes, my young Protestant friends asked about my Catholicism. “Does that mean you can’t dance?” I’d answer no, but, sadly, had to admit I couldn’t pin that on the Church. I remember explaining to my friend Paulette what a bagel is, and laughed till I cried when my friend Melanie asked me what country my mother was from because of her Jersey accent. As a young adult, I’ve stood in an Iowa grocery store and tried to explain the Italian voodoo that is eggplant Parmesan to a curious, elderly farm woman who seriously asked, “Now what are you going to do with that?”

Sometimes, how we stood out in our little community was bothersome, especially when I was a teen-ager and all I wanted was to fit in. But I got lucky there. My mother, the very source of our differences, would have none of my self-pity. You have friends, she’d tell me, true friends. When they ask questions that means they’re interested in you. They care. They want to understand you better. That’s a compliment. And Mom always reminded me that if I stood out, I still belonged. Be glad, she’d insist, that you are unique among the many.

Turning to my father didn’t get me any sympathy either. One night, in full teen-drama-queen mode, I cried, “Why do I have to be the different one?” That Iowa farm boy, whom Bloom would have you believe saw no further than the east pasture, lowered his paper and fixed me with his deep blue, Swedish eyes. “Mimi,” he said, “it’s been my experience people are pretty much the same everywhere. Don’t blame others if you’re uncomfortable. You have to find the common ground.”

Keep in mind this was all in the 1960s and 70s. I’m well into my 50s now. The last time I lived in Iowa was for 2 years, beginning in 2008. Much had changed, including a population that was more worldly. But some things were the same. The culture is still based in agriculture. There was still a lot of discussion of the weather (Cedar Rapids suffered the worst flood in its history) and crop prices. But religion? No. I met and became friends with many people. I couldn’t tell you the religion (if any) of a single one. It just never came up.

So, when Bloom puts himself in the position of a native Iowan and says to the Washington Post, “When you look at someone in the local grocery store you’re thinking, ‘What religion is that person?’ ” I can only put it down as a very quirky paranoia. Why does he think, “Religion is right at the forefront of every discussion,” when fewer than half the population say they attend church regularly?

I understand that Stephen Bloom’s Judaism, both by faith and culture, is outside the Iowa norm. And, in spite of his obvious hyperbole, he probably has been approached by an evangelical or two. Just as I have – in Nebraska, Kansas, Virginia, New York City and Washington, D.C. In fact, in my experience, the person who most strongly challenged my Catholic upbringing and proselytized me to the point of tears was my own mother-in-law. And she would have told you up front that she was no Iowan. Proudly born and bred in the diverse city of Chicago, she was a military wife who traveled the world. She would also be the first to take offense at her son using the phrase, “Come-to-Jesus meeting,” that Bloom holds up as evidence of Iowans’ pervasive Bible-thumping. FYI, Mr. Bloom, the deeply devout find that a use of the Lord’s name in vain. If you really hear it that often, it’s being said by us unrepentant sinners.

If, after 20 years living in Iowa, Bloom still feels like an outsider, maybe the time has come for him to look inward. My mother was just as different. But she embraced her neighbors. She generously answered their questions. And if one or two were put awkwardly, well, she reminded herself that they forgave her inborn bluntness and city-bred impatience. Sure, there were times when she felt uncomfortable. But she knew clods are not unique to Iowa, and if she let a few make her feel bad, that had more to do with herself than them. She found her own, special way to be part of the community, a gem among them, loved for the very differences that could have been so divisive. When she died she was sincerely mourned and deeply missed.

Mr. Bloom, my family was different by Iowa standards. Just as different as yours. And yet somehow, no matter where I live now (and being married to a journalist, I seem to always be on the move), I still consider Iowa home. I still love it, with a gut-level sense of belonging that can only be described as a family tie.

I suggest, Mr. Bloom, you follow an Iowa farm boy’s advice. Don’t blame others for your discomfort. Oh, and by the way, that farm boy owned many dogs but never took one of them hunting. They were family pets. Just like yours.

The Heart of a Stranger

We were in New Haven, Connecticut. My husband was working with the editors of the Register and I set up camp in our “studio suite” at an extended stay hotel just down the block. A few weeks earlier a writing coach had agreed to look at some of my fiction and I spent the early part of the week happily deep in the writing cave, updating the work before I sent it off to him.

By Wednesday night I was done, although Steve and I were still in the process of reading it out loud to one another, something I’ve found invaluable when it comes to catching flow and tone and rhythm. At dinner, when Steve asked about my day, I laughed and reminded him I’d spent three solid days at the desk, not even bothering to clear out while the staff came in to empty the trash and bring fresh towels., And I wondered what I’d do with myself now that I’d finished.

Take the car, he suggested, noting he could easily walk to the Register. You could go to one of the beaches, or drive up along the Sound to see the fall colors. Mystic was only about an hour away, he said, and it’s a pretty town. He’d been there before, but I had not. I remembered the movie, “Mystic Pizza” but thought it was a long drive just to pick up a slice for lunch. I wasn’t sure it could be much fun, going alone. But, after a few rainy days, the sun was out the next morning, and the prospect of being out and about after days of solitary work made me glad he’d left the car.

The drive up was just as pretty as you’d expect New England to be in the fall, and I enjoyed it as I sipped my coffee and sang with the music on my iPhone piped through the stereo speakers. I was in a good mood as I followed the well-marked signs, and found easy parking outside Mystic Seaport, a collection of museums meant to give visitors a peek of what life used to be like in the days of tall-masted sailing ships and whaling vessels.

I had a nice chat with the woman at the information desk and two other lady visitors from New York. The discussion wandered from the exhibits in 19th century village ranged along the waterfront to shopping options and the quality of the local pizza. As I stepped away to buy my ticket, one of the New Yorkers told me they were opting for downtown shopping. Did I really think the museum was worth the price of admission? I shrugged. It was a pretty day for walking the grounds and I was intrigued at the idea of exploring a genuine whaling ship and watching the people who are restoring her.

As I walked the decks of the Charles W. Morgan, I immediately began thinking of my father. He was a man with undying curiosity about how things were made and the way they worked. And as helpful docents answered my questions and pointed out interesting things I would have missed, I said to myself again and again, “He would have loved this.” But if Pop’s curiosity was endless he, sadly, was not. He died quite some time ago. Walking along the docks I smiled a little to myself over the fact that I could still so deeply miss a man who’s been in the grave for 18 years.

I almost walked past the little Shipsmith Shop. When I did glance back over my shoulder at the sign I almost didn’t go in. I had seen blacksmiths’ shops before. But then, I recalled, that several people in the little town where I grew up in Iowa, called my father a blacksmith. He was an expert welder and a craftsman when it came to working wrought iron. As long as he was haunting me, I figured I should step inside.The smell of the place alone was like a step back in time. Hot iron, dust and smoke, it’s a unique scent that met us at the door of my father’s shop and clung to his clothes and hands when he came home at night.

A man named Bill Scheer was at the fire, talking to observers as he worked. The really important thing is the temperature, he explained as he pumped the bellows. Too high and the metal burns, too low and you can’t work the iron. And he asked, how do you suppose they judged the heat?
“The color of the fire.” I was surprised when the words came out of my mouth. Bill shot an appreciative grin at me. That’s right, he said. What I’m looking for here is a nice cherry color.


With a pair of iron tongs he pulled a glowing red heart out of the fire. As he worked with it, he went step-by-step through a process he clearly not only understood, but loved, the way only a true craftsman loves his work.

And suddenly I was verbally incontinent. I don’t even remember how I hijacked the demonstration, I just knew I was talking. I told Bill about how, when I was in first grade and my class was studying the wild West and cowboys, my father took me to his shop one night. He explained step-by-step, just as Bill was now, using many of the same words, the process as he heated thick black iron until it glowed red and bent it with a precision I still don’t understand into my initials: MJ. He made me a branding iron that night, to take to school for our history unit. It was just me and him that night. He was still a young man then, and I can see him clearly as he reheated the metal when he was finished, telling me how important it was that thetemperature be just right, so that he didn’t ruin the work he’d done. When the iron was a light, glowing red, he turned and pressed it into a block of wood that sizzled. He smiled as he drew it away, and watched my mouth become a round O to see the initial letters of my first and last name burned there.

I came back to the present with a jolt as I said the words, “I still grieve that I let that branding iron get away from me. I sure wish I had it.” Bill nodded, still working, and I glanced around nervously to see that the others who had been watching him had left. The kind man had listened patiently to the sentimental ravings of nostalgic, middle-aged fool and I began to stammer, trying to form an apology even as I shuffled to the door. But Bill held up a finger and turned to dip something into the water trough. It sizzled.

He came to me then, and held out his hand. His heart was in it.

I’m sure he had no idea that I would burst into tears. I mumbled something like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” but with a wink he pressed his heart into my hand. “You paint this now,” he said, kindly ignoring that I couldn’t speak, “or it will rust.”

Isn’t that what a craftsman always does? Put a bit of his or her heart into what they make, and then offer it up to another? And if the lucky recipient is smart enough, or old enough, they recognize the trueness of the gift.

I painted the heart, Bill. And this time, I’ll hang on to it.


I envied my son embarking on his Washington adventure, and then …

Everyone has their 9/11 story, and each is important. Mine is one of the milder ones, a quiet one. A lucky one. I was over 1,000 miles away from the cities where terror rained down, in Omaha, NE, sitting in my calm, peaceful office at Creighton University. I believe when a coworker stuck her head in to tell me the news, I even had my feet up on my desk.

A year before, my oldest son, Michael, graduated from Creighton with a degree in Political Science. More than one friend sniffed at his choice of major, asking “Well, what’s he going to do with that?” What Mike did was go to work as a communication aide for a United States senator. In Washington, D.C.

If I was a little envious of the boy, it was because of the city. It was where my parents met during WWII and the stage for the great romance that launched our family. We’d visited in my youth, and later in Mike’s youth, and I loved the city for its beauty and mystique. I was (and still am) proud of my son. My husband worked for the World-Herald newspaper at the time, and a colleague at the paper’s Washington bureau told me Mike’s senator was a tough guy, saying he went through aides quickly because “he chews them up and spits them out.” More than a year in, my kid had proved resilient, learning how to navigate a huge city and a demanding boss.

As I walked out of my office on that pretty fall morning, to a meeting at the Student Center that would last until noon, I heard that the second plane hit. And any small hope that the country wasn’t under attack was gone. It was a painfully quiet, distracted group that met, and it was clear that a few of us near the door were trying to hear what the giant TV that hung over the atrium outside was saying. When we took a break, the group moderator told us before we walked out that another plane had struck the Pentagon. It was unclear if there were any more to come. All I could think was Washington, DC.

I ignored the video of the burning towers on the huge TV monitor and went to the nearest office. I commandeered a phone without even asking the woman who sat at the desk and called my husband’s number at the World-Herald. When he answered the first thing I said was, “Where’s Mike?” He told me everyone on Capitol Hill had been evacuated. “Was Mike with them?” He couldn’t tell me. “Evacuated where?” He didn’t know. He interrupted me to say the towers had come down and I turned to look out the office windows to see film of the first tower falling. A young student worker behind me gasped, “Cool.” I don’t think she understood she wasn’t watching a movie special effect. Then my husband started to say he had a story to write and my temper broke. “Find him,” I snapped. He started to stammer, groping for words, but I didn’t want to hear them. “You know how to find things out, Steve. Find him!” And I hung up the phone.

Somehow we went back to the meeting, although I didn’t pay a bit of attention and to this day couldn’t tell you what was discussed. Shortly before we finished, a woman from my office came in. I watched her cross the room, her face blank, and I knew she was coming for me. It was something about Mike. She leaned down as I turned toward her and she whispered, “Your husband called. Someone from the DC bureau found Mike. Mike asked him to call his dad. He’s fine.” When I looked up with a shaky smile the whole room sighed in relief. Mike and I finally talked later that night. He told me it took him hours to drive from the Hill back to his Alexandria apartment, the gray haze from the Pentagon fire hanging in the air. The next morning he drove past it in the pre-dawn and saw the flag that had been draped there. It was, he still says, a watershed moment.

The Friday after the attack Mike flew into Omaha. The plane he took was one of the first ones out of Dulles. The Nebraska senator he worked for had planned the trip earlier, and they were trying their best to pick up their work. His father and I met him at the airport. Intellectually I knew my son had changed. He had told me so himself. But I didn’t expect to see it so plainly in his face. When he saw us coming toward him, he stopped and leaned a little on the wall, exhaustion in every line of his face. But something else was different, something about his eyes, that made me start running. But I was too late. Much too late. His eyes had changed days earlier, when he stood in the Lower Senate Park and watch the smoke rise over the Potomac.

It’s hard to describe what had gone from my son’s eyes. If there’s a word for it, I don’t know it. The closest I can come is lightheartedness. It’s a spark of assurance that nothing can be so bad, so serious, so dark that it cannot be overcome. It is a look that all the young have and some lucky few of us never have to outgrow. I had seen it in my son’s eyes from the time he was a little boy. That night I realized it was gone forever. Here was a man who was left with no choice but to accept the unacceptable, who understood that there is no way to understand a day where people jumped from skyscrapers, rather than endure the horror within. As he hugged me close and whispered, “Mom,” it seemed in that instant that he was suddenly older than me.

I know that my story is a lucky one. Mike went on to fall in love and marry. He and Susie gave us our darling grandchild Julia a year and a half ago, and now there is another baby on the way. But when I watch Mike with his daughter, see him hold her close, or rock her with a gentleness I never suspected, I sense there are memories that haunt him. Every parent needs to believe they will always stand between their child and disaster. But Mike and I both know it’s all a matter of fate. Insisting down a phone line, “find him,” didn’t help. Watching the smoke across the river didn’t change anything. The only thing we could do was ride it out.

Our light hearts were broken that day, when my son and I both grew up.