Gary Tetz

At the request of no one, let me pull back the curtain on how a typical “Things I Think” is created.

It’s 4 a.m. on a Thursday morning. A bald, bleary-eyed Canadian (me) stumbles in the darkness to his red leather recliner and flips on the light. A mug of either tea or vodka is at hand, depending on the long-term care topic. Laptop on my lap top, fingers poised, I wait for inspiration to strike. And then sometimes wait. And wait.

Hours later, as deadline approaches and desperation sets in, the expectation of simply being a passive vessel through which the gods will speak diminishes, and I’m left with a stark, sobering, realization: “Oh, I have to actually do this on my own?” Paralyzing panic ensues, followed by deep self-doubt and despair, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that all is lost and I’ll never write again.

On mornings like that, I thank the benevolent forces of the universe for McKnight’s Long-term Care News, where I can scan the headlines and perhaps stumble across a relevant subject on which to ramble. Two Thursdays ago, that’s how I found out about the new CMS podcast. It had everything I was looking for — timeliness, an easy target and some low-hanging fruit on which to snack and snark.   

So I tore into the topic with gusto, made a few hopefully harmless jokes and submitted the piece and went on with my life. At least until an email from my editor arrived, notifying that my article had been retweeted by none other than Seema Verma, the CMS administrator, herself. She of 20,000-plus Twitter followers.

My first reaction, right after, “People read this stuff?” was fear. From the tone of her tweet, she seemed to be taking it all in stride and a spirit of good-natured fun, but what if I’d blurted out something in the blind pursuit of a laugh that was unfair or offensive? I raced back to the article to see if I’d said anything that could wound, offend or inspire an IRS audit.

Consulting the org chart of American government and noting that she’s just a cabinet secretary removed from the President himself did nothing to allay my concerns. If I made her mad, is He Who Shall Not be Named going to start tweeting about me? Will I get a pejorative nickname like Lyin’ Ted or Crooked HIllary? Testy Tetz perhaps? Glabrous Gary? Yuck the Canuck?

Now that time has elapsed and federal agents haven’t paid me a no-knock morning visit, I’ve relaxed a bit. But after further reflection, it’s actually a helpful wake-up call to always keep a bigger, more compassionate picture in mind. When I’m just a guy sitting in my red chair at the crack of dawn making silly remarks about faceless entities on the other side of the country, even behemoths like CMS, it’s too easy to forget that behind the edifice are real people who care about what they do just as much as I do.

We see this dynamic at play all the time in article comment threads. Any business or individual with any sort of public face has had their share of these messages from anonymous strangers — caustic, trolling outbursts where it’s hard to fathom what the author was thinking. Do they not know, or just don’t care, that there’s an actual person, with actual human feelings and emotions on the other end?  

The worst part is the destructive cycle that then ensues. The initial comment lands like a grenade and provokes an attempted epic take-down in response. And before you know it, bombs are falling on Pyongyang and Seattle.

The main teaching moment for me from all this is that If I have to choose between compassion and respect on the one hand, and getting a good laugh at someone else’s expense on the other, I should at least pause a moment, repeat, “There’s a real person there,” 10 times, and re-evaluate my position. I might still make the joke, but not before at least considering the human impact.

Because, apparently, words matter and people actually pay attention to what we write and say.  Who knew? Even Seema and her colleagues are reading this stuff, and I’m grateful she can take a joke.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.