Civic Engagement

A few miles outside of Virginia I pulled my Prius into a snowy gas station to refuel on coffee and gasoline.There was a paper sign taped to the coffee maker that read Please pay for the coffee whether you like it or not. Too many people are dumping it out without paying. I felt uneasy but the coffee was cheap. After forking over ninety cents, I eased the Prius back onto the highway. Seven hours earlier I had opened my eyes to the inside of a cold and frosty tent. I tried to pack up as much as I could while staying in my sleeping bag, but eventually had to unwrap myself and tumble into the black morning air. It was 6:30 am Monday morning, the day after the Army Corps of Engineers  denied the easement on the Dakota Access Pipeline. I took down my tent, packed up my bags, and bombed out of camp without stopping until I was past Fargo. The bad coffee was the second stop on my nine hour drive back home from working as a medic at the Standing Rock Native American Reservation. I’m still figuring out how and whether to write about that experience.

Now I’m back home in Ely  and continuing to humble myself. Three days ago I was sitting in an exam room with a congenial patient afflicted by the ever more common metabolic syndrome. While scanning through his charts and discussing diabetes, weight, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia, I asked him if there was anything else that he’d like to follow up on. He nodded and said that his knee had been bothering him lately, especially early in the morning. Thinking nothing of it, I absentmindedly reached down to palpate the knee while simultaneously checking his labs for his latest hemoglobin A1C. My fingers ran over a kneecap that was hard, boxy, and unlike any I had ever felt. Can you tell me a little more about your knee? Anything precipitate the pain? I hadn’t gotten to his past surgical history in my chart review. He pulled up his pant leg with a smirk. I just had a little surgery, no big deal or nothin. I found myself staring down at a 2,000$ prosthetic holding up a right BKA.

I’m dead serious about what I do, but I’ve given up on taking myself serious. The nurses and patients seem to have given up on that too. Sometimes I think the patients can smell it on me.Last week I walked into an exam room and was met by a bleach blonde 65 year old woman who was a retired long-haul trucker. I usually don’t have much trouble guiding patient interviews, but her stories blitzed me and I found myself trapped in her musings about her “36 inch all American stems.” When I finally corralled the conversation back to the HPI, she told me she woke up with chest pain. My stomach dropped as my mind flitted through a vast differential and images of her dropping dead on the floor in front of me. Yeah, the chest pain was bad but then I looked down and realized I was standin on my nipples! I groaned as she grinned up at me.

Whether it’s the nurses changing my contact picture to an anal speculum or the doctors feeling comfortable enough to have me close up hernia repairs, I feel like I’m integrating and getting in the swing of things here. I might have put that all in jeopardy on Tuesday night after I got a phone call from my mom. I was making a snowy trek to the grocery store and the laundromat when she called to ask about my weekend in North Dakota. After I talked for a bit about the camp, she told me about a comment that was posted on Facebook by a newly elected member of the Ely City Council. She’d read about it in the Star Tribune and saw that the next Ely City Council meeting was scheduled for that night to discuss it. Councilman Forsman’s post read as follows: Do you suffer from Trump Acceptance Rejection Disorder (TARD)? Ask your doctor if suicide is right for you. I was furious. Not only is this a disgusting statement that uses a slur for people with different abilities and makes light of suicide, but the writer is an elected official who insinuated that if you’re upset with the election, you should go kill yourself.

I googled the when and where and found out that the council meeting was 3 blocks away and started 5 minutes before I got my mom’s call. I paid my grocery bill and jogged over. Once inside City Hall, I pushed my way through a packed room and found a spot along the side wall of the chamber just in time to hear Mayor Chuck Novak address the assembly. The mayor was seated at the center of the council in order to facilitate the meeting. Before the conversation started however, the mayor made a few things clear. First, he argued that people need to understand that there’s a difference between private and public life.  And I’ve known Danny since he was a boy, and he’s not a hateful guy. He finished by turning up the folksy accent and saying Some people are even calling for me to resign. Well I ain’t going nowhere! Dan Forsman then made a brief apology and that was that.

I walked out of the chamber as my blood boiled. The mayor had just delegitimized the concerns of roughly half the people in attendance through faulty logic and a blatant appeal to nativism. Not only that, but the hall itself felt threatening as a group of six or seven young white men stood cheering in the back clad in red “Make Ely Great” hats, Trump paraphernalia, and American flag cutoff t-shirts. I stood off to the side and watched the crowd, waiting like everyone else for the open forum at the end of the meeting. The group of guys in the back kept looking over at me, eyeing me and trying to decide whether or not I was part of their in-group. I leaned back against the wall hoping they could sense that I wasn’t. Finally, the people who had signed up beforehand were called up to speak. In the interest of time, I’ll just leave it at this: the (mostly women) who spoke out against the hate speech all thanked Forsman for his apology and argued that this was a moment to learn from, while the (all men) who spoke up in his support told him to stay strong against the bullies in the room and questioned as to how we got so politically sensitive and serious about a joke. I’m sure that Forsman received some horrible hate mail, but I didn’t see any bullies in the room that night and I didn’t hear anyone tearing him down. I did however see people asking the mayor and the council to hold a man responsible for his actions.

When it was my turn to speak, I tried to keep it simple. I introduced myself as a new Ely resident and thanked the town for welcoming me in. I then talked about how I’d taught 5th-11th grade in the peace corps before starting medical school. I said that both in our country and abroad, we teach children that they will be held accountable for hurtful things they say in class or post online. When a child punches another child on the playground, we don’t pass it off as I’ve known this kid since he was in 1st grade, or she’s not a hateful 5th grader. We hold them accountable for their actions so they can learn from their mistakes and so that we set a precedent in the school community. If we hold our children to this standard, we should hold ourselves to it as well, let alone our public officials.

Insinuating that people should commit suicide and making fun of people with differing abilities isn’t about being overly serious and politically correct, it’s about having the bare minimum of decency and social graces. The people who I most often hear malign our culture of political correctness are usually those with no idea what it means to have a politically correct conversation that stifles intellectual thought. They’re immature individuals who want to continue to get away with saying shitty things that hurt and frighten our marginalized communities. I looked at Mayor Novak when said I that I specifically disagreed with his distinction for elected officials differentiating public and private life in regards to social media. I thanked Forsman for his apology, thanked Ely for welcoming me to town, and stepped back from the mike.

I looked towards the group of men in the back as I made my way back to where I’d left my coat and groceries. They didn’t look friendly. I’m not sure why it struck me as funny, but I couldn’t stop smiling when I thought about them as I walked back to the laundromat. I think the idea of white men feeling disenfranchised is just too ridiculous for me to handle anymore. I want people to be straight up and say what they really mean. White men (myself included) have always had all the seats at the table, and now many of us are pissed as hell that we have to give some of them up to brown people and women. We’re pissed that we can’t just say whatever we want to anybody we want without incurring consequences. These angry white men don’t get it, they don’t feel disenfranchised, they’re pissed that brown people, immigrants, and women are being enfranchised. Yes, poverty in rural America is real, but that doesn’t mean that we need to keep using false pretenses to cover up fear, misogyny and racism.


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One Response to Civic Engagement

  1. Janice Martland says:

    You go Collin! So proud of you for speaking up on behalf of the people who can’t and for holding people accountable. (AND, I’m also glad you didn’t get beat-up!;-)

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