Blessings of the Renter from Hell

“Please come right away, I cannot live here.” May*, the new tenant in our rental apartment, called Tuesday, pleading desperately. The previous tenant, let’s call him Lucifer*, had left the place in complete shambles, and she was overwhelmed. They had made arrangements directly that he would leave a few things in the apartment while transitioning to his new place. He told her it would be out of the way and ‘not affect your living space,’ and she could get the keys from the sub-letter. As they were both from China, May thought this was reasonable—help out your fellow countryman, out of courtesy. Since they had made their own transfer arrangements, my husband and I assumed he would prepare the apartment for the new tenant—clean up, basically. None of us could have imagined the wretched mess he would leave her when she arrived.

His stuff was everywhere—bookshelf crammed tight, closet fully hung with clothes. Dirty dishes and half-used remnants of ginger and garlic lay on the kitchen counter. A five foot-high pile of boxes and bags cluttered the far corner of the living room. The opposite corner housed a broken vacuum cleaner and another tangle of cables, trash, and more empty boxes. A vast array of shoes and slippers occupied seven square feet of living room floor. The hallway carpet had acquired a three inch border of decorative dirt on either side, and the kitchen floor looked as if someone had writhed on it after bathing in 5000 mile-old motor oil.

Lucifer’s kitchen

The more I looked the more offended and angry I felt. This had been our home for eight years. My best friend from college helped to install the hardwood floor with my husband when we first moved in, after hubs took out the old, gross, green carpet himself. We shared our hardest years of training here. I watched TV coverage of 9/11 while my husband was on call, hoping Chicago would not become another target. Hubs had laid the kitchen tile himself, freeing cherry hostages from the refrigerator for me every day because I was too pregnant to fit between the repositioned appliances. We lived out of the living room for three weeks and had new, plush carpet installed after the main water pipe burst behind the master closet—also while I was pregnant. It was our son’s first home, where not just his formative memories were made, but ours, as well. How could someone treat it like this? How did we let this happen?

On Wednesday I called my friends’ cleaning lady, Saint Anne*, who agreed to come Thursday. After 5 hours she could only make a small dent in the grime. She spent all day again on Friday, much of it on her hands and knees, sweating through her shirt and inhaling noxious fumes of the cleaning products she donated to the project. I brought lunch between errands and made arrangements for Stanley Steemer to come the next day. May stood by, still shocked and appalled at the conditions of her first home in the US. Saint Anne and I could both see the abject horror in her demeanor, wondering if she should stay another night or board the next flight back to China.

Saint Anne was a woman on a mission. She did not see this as just another cleaning job. She was contributing to the reclamation and restoration of my home. She was helping a poor, young student, new to this country, find her bearings in untenable conditions. She established a bond with both of us, instantly, through her dedication and unwavering commitment. I stand forever grateful to her for this, and will call upon her for any and all cleaning needs as long as I live.

I tried to reassure May that I would do whatever was necessary to make the place livable again. The stove was broken. The air conditioning unit had died. I found myself saying to her, “Please know, whatever I do, I do as if I were living here myself.” On Saturday I waited with her for Stanley Steemer to come, that tedious four hour service window. Saint Anne had done all of the heavy cleaning, GOD BLESS her, and there were still some stains on the kitchen walls. May and I found one pair of rubber gloves, each took one and a rag, and started to wipe things down together. It was the least I could do, to help her feel more comfortable and cared for.

She told me how rudely Lucifer had treated her on the phone, saying he would sue if she threw out any of his stuff, and interrupting her as if she were the nuisance for calling him on his vacation. We agreed that he had taken advantage of both of us, and we would look forward to having him out of our lives forever. We shared stories of growing up, and discussed the differences in lifestyle between America and China. We talked about respect, courtesy, and helping out your fellow human.

That’s when it dawned on me. Of course, it’s about relationships. Everything is. I let Lucifer trash my place because I saw my relationship with him as merely transactional. I never knew him as a person in the two years he destroyed my apartment; he was just ‘the tenant.’ He never knew me beyond the stranger to whom he paid rent. He had no idea that this was my home, and he had no reason to care. Granted, I think he is likely an exceptionally slovenly and oblivious individual, but still, I played a role in this mess.

Relationships take work to establish and maintain. I realized this week that this apartment is not merely a unit that we let out for extra cash. Our tenants are not just strangers who happen to live there and pay rent. The place is our home and the renters its caretakers. Beyond the terms of the rental agreement, if I really expect tenants to take care of my apartment, I have to give them a reason. They must know that I care about them, too.

On Friday I had offered to take May shopping, and invited her to my house for dinner. I wanted to make up for the horrible state of things, which I had a hand in creating. She politely declined. I sensed that she felt uncomfortable with the offer, despite her desperate and forlorn situation. Of course. Shopping and dinner are not things that tenants and landlords do together! But we can choose to define ourselves as more than this. Through this experience, I had started to see her as a little cousin. I felt compassion and empathy for her, and imagined how I would feel in her shoes. Our mutual mistreatment by Lucifer connected us.

By the time the Stanley Steemer guys had finished on Saturday, the place was not quite shining, but infinitely more pleasant and livable than just 48 hours before. She had told me about an upcoming conference gala, and we agreed she needed a dress, in addition to bedsheets and a box fan. We picked up my kids from their friends’ house, got dinner in the oven (she had her first shortcut cooking lesson—seasoned-chicken-thighs-over-frozen-vegie-bake with rice), and headed to Ross for a very successful, if brief, shopping trip. Dinner tasted great after all that work, and we had watermelon for dessert. She borrowed our box fan and took some leftovers to tide her over until the new stove arrives next week.

I made some mistakes in dealing with Lucifer these past two years. I paid the price this past week—several hundred dollars and a lot of time and energy. I also made two new friends, and gained important insights. We may think of landlord/tenant relationships as strictly transactional, and that may work in many cases. It failed this time, and it felt bad. Why not make a new friend if I have a chance, and why allow anyone I would not be friends with to live in my home? When it comes time to find a new tenant, now I know better how to look. I will meet people in person, and tell them the story of the apartment and how much it means to me. I will assess their sincerity in agreeing to treat it as their own. I will convey to them that I see myself and my place as contributing to their pursuit of their dreams. The new people may still trash it—this is always a risk. But at least I will know that I did my best to connect, and the potential human payoff from that makes me positively giddy with joy.

*Not their real names

Physician as Trainer

“No way, are you kidding me?” I would have said, if asked to do uphill sprint intervals this time last year. I also would never have ridden a bike through traffic and then up a training hill (or ridden a bike at all, really—biking has always scared me), or tried walk/jog/running from the bottom to the top of Ryan Gulch Road in Silverthorne, Colorado, an 800 foot climb over 2.5 miles.

How is it then, that this summer, I did all of these things? I credit my relationship with my trainer, Melissa. I started seeing her in January, 2014. I had thought for a (long) while that I needed to start exercising again, but after 15 sedentary years and two pregnancies, I barely recognized my body or its capabilities. I thought I could train for a few months and be back in shape, doing all things I used to do.

Little did I know what lay ahead in the actual training. First I had to identify some dysfunctional movement patterns I had developed over the years (wait, what do you mean, ‘fire your glutes,’ I’m supposed to be able to do that?), and correct them before loading them with weights and speed. I had to accept how out of shape I actually was, and reconcile the long, uphill path to physical health. And I am not an unhealthy person! I have no chronic medical problems, sleep well, and take no medications. I experience minor aches and pains that are generally attributable and transient. But last year I was afraid to start an exercise program on my own—I knew I needed help.

The first few sessions were fantastic, full of learning and potential. Turns out you can learn to fire your butt muscles in a one hour session—gluteal amnesia can be cured! But as each meeting revealed yet another pattern to be corrected, I got discouraged. How can there be so many things wrong with me, and when can I work out for real, already? After our first interval training session I wound up on the floor, dizzy, nauseated, and disgusted with myself. Later, Melissa demonstrated 14kg kettle bell swings. She told me I would do them, too—yeah, right (smirk)!  And, over time: Turkish get-ups, first ‘naked’ and then with weights, TRX lifting, Rip Stick swinging, planking, running in Kangoo Jumps, jump roping, kettle bell swinging and snatching, hill training on a bike, and, finally, metabolic circuit training that really gets my heart rate up—without ending up on the floor—I have actually done it all.

Why is the relationship key? From the beginning, Melissa has made it safe for me to show up every week, however I’m feeling and whatever is happening. It’s okay to tell her that something we did last week caused me pain. If I feel apprehensive about something she wants me to try, I can say so. She does not judge me, look down on me, or belittle me for what I cannot (or will not) do. She also does not judge herself. That I have pain is not necessarily her fault. Neither is the fact that I push myself to the point of dizziness and nausea. She holds the space for me to bring my concerns, without blaming or getting defensive. She states her observations objectively, of both my movements and how my personality and attitude affect my training. I have a hard time pacing myself, and she helps me monitor for and manage my tendency toward overexertion.

She gives me permission to just bring what I got. We go from there, wherever it is, and see how far we get. I often surprise myself with what I can do! As a result, my confidence and motivation have dramatically increased. These days when she offers a new activity, I say, “Great, let’s try it out!” It’s okay to fail, if that’s what you want to call it, because I always learn something to apply next time. Through it all, I know she is there to coach and support me, without judgment, and always with love.

It takes time and practice to acquire new skills and habits—‘way more than I initially thought! But now I think differently—hills are challenges rather than enemies. I look forward to what I will be able to do next, including uphill sprint intervals at 9000 feet—maybe next time—this time I did them at 5700 feet.

Melissa helps me stay on course in training with knowledge, application, openness and compassion. I can do the same for my patients and their health. When I withhold judgment about patients’ physical and motivational limitations, I make it safe for them to bring their fears and aspirations to every visit. I can meet them where they are each time, and hold space for the inevitable roadblocks: medication side effects, obstacles to behavior change, complications of treatment. We can then find a way through together, because we both know we’re in it for the long haul. Physicians and trainers may have more in common than we think.

I Am A Lone Nut!

At the end of my recent physician burnout/resilience presentation, I stood wondering if it meant anything to anybody. I did my best to follow Nancy Duarte’s structure in her book, Resonate: Make the audience the hero, contrast what is and what could be in story with texture and emotion, sound the call to action and describe the blissful future! Every time I give this talk I feel energized and passionate by the end, but most of the audience looks positively neutral. Thankfully, a few usually approach me afterward with words of praise and I feel somewhat validated. I remind myself, if only one person is moved, then I have made a difference and it was worth presenting.

When I spoke to editors, writers, and instructors at the Harvard writing conference, they said I should not write for both patients and physicians, I had to pick one. They told me to identify my audience (but keep it broad), and then differentiate myself from all the other authors writing for that audience. It feels like opening a retail shop. What will I sell? Who do I want to shop here? What is my purpose? It’s not to make money; it’s to make a positive impact on the community, to fill a need. Some people will walk in, look around, and walk out without buying anything. That’s okay. If I stay open long enough, they may wonder, ‘What’s so great about her store that she’s still in business? Maybe I should look again.’ They may eventually make a purchase, if they see something of value.

Others will enter, feel immediately at home, and linger in the aisles, soaking up the aesthetics, wishing they had more time to spend. One shiny piece will catch an eye, they’ll snatch it up, and come back as soon as they can, looking for more treasures. They belong here, and so do I. Now I know, I’m not simply writing for patients and physicians; I’m writing for those patients and physicians who, like me, believe that our healthcare system can thrive again only if we all work to reclaim our relationships.

I aim to start a movement.

But one does not accomplish this by barking a generic message to everybody who walks by. Doctors come to noon conference as a routine, a social and academic ritual. We earn one hour of continuing education credit for showing up, staying to the end, and completing the requisite evaluation forms, regardless of how much we actually engage with the presentation content. It occurred to me this time, that there are always a few in the audience primed to receive and respond to my message—they are my tribe. While some parts of my talk may resonate with some people, the whole talk will resonate deeply with those few. They are my target audience. Why? Because they are the ones who will take up the torch, hail the call to action, and participate in the movement now. They feel, like I do, a visceral agitation for this change.

To the attendees who don’t feel it (yet), I must seem like some lone nut, roaming the room and flailing my arms about. They may remember something I say and apply it for a short time, and forget me in a few days. But for my fellow tribe members, my waving and shouting (I don’t really shout) stirs something kindred and profound. They want to wave and shout back, “I get it, I get it! Hallelujah!” They will carry my message with them and share it with anyone who will listen, because it is their message, too. I know because I get this way when I hear someone speak who believes what I believe. It happens at professional meetings; I call it the Hippie-Zealot Conference High.

I get the idea of the ‘lone nut’ from Derek Sivers’ TED talk, “How to Start A Movement.” Sometimes I feel like the one on the amphitheater lawn, dancing unabashedly, provoking expressions of ‘weirdo’ from others. But there will be tribe members there, the townspeople who love my shop. They will get up and dance with me, if only I can connect with them. Maybe all it takes is eye contact, a welcoming smile, or an exuberant gesture to join in. Once they stand up and start dancing, pretty soon the gawkers may feel our collective energy, shuffle cautiously at first, then let loose and get down with abandon. We will all be in relationship for the better.

Derek Sivers calls those tribe members ‘the first followers.’ I prefer to think of them as fellow lone nuts. Lone nut status, especially with a microphone (or megaphone) can feel special, and it also gets lonely. I would much rather live and work among mixed nuts, with complementary and mutually enhancing, yet unique, contributions to the jar.

From now on, when I present on physician resilience, patient-physician relationship, or any other passion, I will make a concerted effort to acknowledge my fellow lone nuts. I will call out to them especially loudly, and invite them personally to join the movement. Then we will all feel empowered to rally the masses, one small circle at a time, until everybody’s up and dancing, happy, strong, and together.