Mind and Body/Opinion

Practicing the art of reinvention

A brief guide for the perplexed in a time of great loss during the coronavirus pandemic

Photo by Harvey Wasserman

The news media covering the arrests at the 1977 Seabrook, N.H. occupation organized by the Clamshell Alliance. From left: Paul Langner, Boston Globe; Richard Asinof, The Valley Advocate; and John Kifner, The New York Times.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/5/21
A personal meditation on loss and reinvention in the age of the coronavirus pandemic.
If Ortho RI’s mantra is “think like a patient,” how many companies will change their mission to reflect the new reality, to think like a consumer who is if burdened by loss from the pandemic? How will the new writing and research on the plastisphere in the anthropocene era change how we define our relationship with our throw-away society? Do you have a favorite, go-to recipe for a meal that you have found as a comfort meal during the pandemic?
In Rhode Island, we are blessed with some incredibly talented journalists and photographers who have excelled in covering our current pandemic conditions, from Mike Cohea’s brilliant photographs that capture the beauty of light and darkness to Rebecca Altman’s insightful clarity in reporting on plastics that have inundated our world, our rivers, our oceans, and our own bodies. Steve Ahlquist’s indefatigable approach to capturing the news that lives outside the dominant narrative of our political world serves as a tool of constant enlightenment. There is always a surprising optimism and hope that flows through many of the stories written by Frank Carini at ecoRI News, even as he delves into often dread-filled world of climate threats. And the tenacious qualities of Nancy Thomas at RINews Today in her excellent coverage of the impact of COVID-19 on nursing homes, sharing the experiences of her aunt, translating the story into the human drama that it has become.

PROVIDENCE – Last week, for the first time in a year, I walked a distance of more than a quarter mile, using trekking poles to support myself, moving slowly along the city park path. All the others traversing the path quickly passed me by – there was a chocolate Lab pulling its owner along, followed by a family of five, with three young children scampering about, all surprisingly not wearing masks, while up ahead, a middle-aged couple, with masks, appeared deep in conversation, seemingly oblivious to everyone else. During the 20 minutes that I walked, four or five runners flashed by, all checking their pace on their Apple watches, as a nervous tic.

I thought to myself: How terribly strange to be [nearly] 70, as the Paul Simon lyric goes.

Thankfully, cars waited patiently for me to navigate the crosswalks as I made my way back slowly and safely from the park to my apartment building, without incident, with only a wobble or two, without failing. Mission accomplished. I thought, optimistically: if the weather holds, maybe I can do this again in the morning.

A year of great loss
During this year of pandemic, with so much profound loss from COVID-19 – the deaths, the disruptions, the isolation and lack of in-person contact, I try not to complain or to feel sorry for myself.

But, if I am being honest with myself, it has been a struggle. I have been struggling to cope with the steady loss of my ability to walk, the result of antibodies attacking a protein known as GAD 65, which are  eating away at the myelin in my spinal cord in my thoracic region. My condition has been officially diagnosed as auto-immune encephalitis. I hope that is not too much information to share with readers.

I have been taking infusion treatments in an attempt to arrest the antibodies that are doing the damage. To get the treatment, I had to overcome, not once but twice, the initial denial by the third-party authorization firm employed by my health insurer.

When potentially life-saving treatments are denied, treatments that have been recommended by the team of neurologists overseeing my care, it is stressful, to say the least.

At the same time, I have been diligently working with a physical therapist, once a week, to keep exercising my legs. In January, my health insurer began requiring co-pays again, after having suspended them in response to the coronavirus pandemic, beginning in August of 2020. News flash: the pandemic is not over, despite all the increases in vaccination, now up to some phenomenal number of more than 4 million a day.

When those who dwell in the Twitter-sphere kvell about running miles or climbing 4,000-foot mountains, I try not to react with jealousy or anger as I think to myself: I regularly climb up and down the three flights of 38 steps each day to my apartment, my daily marathon-like challenge.

It is my positive reframe. I attempt to push away my feelings of becoming old, decrepit, and disabled, and, as the old song goes, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Some days are better than others.

My life is more than my work
Much of my life had been about performing on a high-wire act, believing that I could make it across to the other side and a safe harbor, and learning, whenever I fell, how to pick myself up again and stitch together a new big dream. It was important to believe in myself, in my writing, and in my desire to speak up, in the belief that I had something important to say.

I have often quoted the lyrics of the song performed by the group, Bright Morning Star: My life is more than my work, and my work is more than my job. These days, my work in editing and publishing and writing stories for ConvergenceRI takes on new meaning with each issue: it is a way for me to double-check, like those runners on the city park path checking their pace, my mental acuity, my sense of humor, my tolerance for stress, my anger, and my own relevance as a journalist and reporter in our disrupted world spinning much too fast.

Last week I attended the grand opening of the new facility of Ortho Rhode Island, with its mantra of “think like a patient.” I am now fully vaccinated, having had both shots of the Moderna vaccine, the last jab being more than two weeks ago, and yet I still often wear two masks when I venture outside, part of being risk averse. The infusion treatments may have limited my immune response to the vaccine, so I am cautious about engaging with others unnecessarily.

I have avoided attending the weekly news briefings held by the Governors, both new and former, and the media gaggle and scrum that follows, believing that it represents a wrong-headed approach to news coverage.

It feels like watching the Weather Channel, reporting on changes in weather patterns, with an extreme prejudice toward “breaking news” – the be here now phenomena, with the reporters on the scene serving as arbiter of rain, snow, sleet, winds, and drought. How hot was it, Johnny? [Even that reference is showing my age – it was the response that sidekick Ed McMahon often gave to late night host Johnny Carson.]

Virtual versus real experiences
Indeed, Thursday afternoon March 26, was a busy news day: a press briefing by Gov. Dan McKee, the first press conference by President Joe Biden, and a rally by community activists, “Stop the Scrap,” on Allens Avenue.

On my way to the Ortho RI event, I listened briefly to WPRO’s Matt Allen to take the temperature of the intemperate. When Allen began to disparage the efficacy of wearing masks as an ineffective way to protect against the virus, I had to turn off the radio. My tolerance for bullshit is very low these days.

I was curious to see if either of the state's two leading political columnists, WPRI’s Ted Nesi or The Public Radio’s Ian Donnis, would make any mention of the “Stop the Scrap” rally. The answer was no; it apparently did not fit within their limited visual spectrum of “politics.” Steve Ahlquist from Uprise RI provided news coverage of the rally.

The opening of the new Ortho RI facility, which perhaps represents pne of the greatest challenges to the hegemony of the state’s health care delivery system and the proposed merger of Lifespan, Care New England, and Brown University, also did not make it into the political discussion by the columnists. Imagine, a health care enterprise that has a mantra: “Think like a patient.”

I did see where Michael DiBiase, the current executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and the former R.I.Director of Administration under Gov. Gina Raimondo, was interviewed on WPRI’s Newsmakers.

DiBiase was one of the principal proponents of UHIP, claiming when the boondoggle was launched that in September of 2016 that it would pay for itself in less than two years.

The question is: Why should we pay attention to what DiBiase has to say about the current budget in Rhode Island when he has never been held fully accountable for his prominent role in the UHIP debacle?

A sense of loss and reinvention
My intent was to write about loss, recovery and resilience – and the constant need to invest in reinventing yourself. “I have been one acquainted with the night,” to quote the opening line of a Robert Frost poem. Here are a few examples:

• My mother was killed and my father badly injured in a car accident on April 1 in 1980, as they were returning from visiting me in Massachusetts. In the aftermath, I had to walk away from my job as president of a startup television production company, the Western Massachusetts Media Workshop, and halt work on the production of our initial TV documentary on the separatist conflict in Quebec, in partnership with PBS TV stations in Detroit and Springfield, Mass. taking a job as a short order cook in a restaurant to pay the bills. I stopped writing for a number of months, having to reinvent myself – and my career, ending up working as the community outreach coordinator at the Wintergreen Cooperative Solar Greenhouse in Orange, Mass.

• When I covered the 1977 occupation of the Seabrook, N.H., nuclear power plant, where I was arrested by the N.H. State Police Colonel Paul Goyon despite having shown him my press credentials as he loaded me onto the back on a National Guard truck sometime early on Monday morning, May 2, my “reward” from the publishers of The Valley Advocate where I worked as managing editor was to try and avoid paying for my legal expenses.

My front-page story about the Seabrook occupation, “Behind the lines at Seabrook,” published on My 11, 1977, was chosen as one of the top stories ever to appear in the alternative weekly newspaper during its first 25 years. I also co-wrote a story with Steve Diamond about Seabrook for the national monthly, New Times,“Mahatma Gandhi goes to Seabrook.”

Forty-four years later, the entry on Wikipedia about the Clamshell Alliance quotes my story: “Richard Asinof wrote: The overwhelming success of the Clamshell Alliance’s occupation can be attributed to three factors; the planning and leadership of the Clamshell Alliance itself; the strength of the affinity group and the spirit and discipline of the occupiers; and the strong impact that women in key leadership roles exerted on the events.”

• First, there is a story, then there is no story, then there is. In 1977, I walked out of my job at The Valley Advocate, although it might be more accurate to say I was forced out, by the two teams of husband-and-wife publishers. I left to become a freelance writer, with the bold plan to write a story about the impact of nuclear poisoning in northwestern Quebec. I submitted the freelance story to The New York Times Magazine in October of 1977, it was officially purchased in December of 1977, I then rewrote twice, in March and May of 1978, the story was scheduled for publication in August, but then not one but two popes died, and the story was bumped. Then the New York Times went on strike, and the story existed somewhere in the ethersphere. It would finally be published two years after I first wrote the piece, on Oct. 21, 1979, “The Poisoning of the Indian Waters.”

There are many, many such stories I could share, but this is not meant to be a travelogue about my career reinventions.

The willingness to change
My struggle with my current health challenges has been informed, if that is the right word, by my own willingness to change, to walk away from mistakes, failures and personal tragedies, and to begin anew.

This time, however, I must be willing to accept the reality that my legs may never regain the former stability they once had – and I need to adapt a risk-averse approach to my day-to-day activities, which perhaps is my biggest challenge. That, and being aware that I am angry about what has happened to me – but not allowing that anger to intrude in my writing or in my interactions with others. It requires embracing a new sense of humility, modesty, and humbleness, traits that have never been my strong suit. I need to be able to depend on the kindness of strangers.

The path of my professional career has never followed a straight geometric line progression. Instead, often zigzagged across a landscape that resembled a jigsaw puzzle where the shapes and colors of the individual pieces kept changing, requiring a nimbleness to find new ways to fit things together.

Healing from trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic takes time, and we as a state – and a nation – have to be able to acknowledge that our lives will never be the same again, there will be no return to normalcy. The same is true for how we report on the convergence of health, a sense of place, and the ways that we belong to each other’s neighborhoods.

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