Archive for January, 2010

The Thinker

Death – much ado about nothing?

There is nothing like a long three-week convalescence to focus your mind on the impermanence of all things. Our bodies are infinitely complex biological machines. They work with freaky regularity and excellence until one day when, of course, they do not. In my case, it stopped on January 14th when I had tarsal tunnel surgery on my right foot and nerve release surgery on the right leg.

For the first week, I spent a lot of time hobbling from place to place either in crutches or gingerly on my right leg, wrapped in multiple layers of cotton and ace bandages. Since then, the crutches have been unnecessary. I walk where I need to go slowly but mostly stay indoors. The layers of cotton surrounding my leg and foot are gone. They were replaced with two layers of ace bandages on the foot, and now just a single layer. As I end this convalescence, my final accommodations are to keep an ace bandage on the foot and not to drive.

Thanks to the charity of friends and family, I have been fortunate enough to get to the office twice. Mostly I work from my dining room table using my employer provided laptop computer. Getting through our firewall at work remotely now means inserting my smart card into a USB smart card reader and authenticating myself using a PIN, although it hardly seems any more secure than using an ID and password. Conference calls are also more restful. I can hold the receiver in one hand while lying on the couch. Dagwood Bumstead would love working from home. Yet, despite its creature comforts, I still prefer the familiarity of the office.

As regular readers know, it is my belief that I have a soul, there likely is an afterlife of some sort and I am probably stuck in some circle of life, death and rebirth. Billions would probably agree with me. Millions would not. The latter believe that life is a highly improbable cosmic accident and the consequence of billions of years of evolution. When death arrives, all the lights go out. My friend Wendy, as well as one of my brothers, are in this group. For those of us who find life worth living, nonexistence is a depressing thought. However, because of my surgery, I am thinking maybe death (or non-existence) is not such a big deal. Maybe it means nothing at all. Instead, maybe we may choose to give it a status far larger than it deserves.

Life and death are interwoven into the universe whether we like it or not. As the Buddhists and others have long asserted, the only constant in the universe is change, so you might as well accept it. There are larger forces at work that can be lumped into one world: reality. Time is real, or is at least an aspect of living that cannot be denied. Even stars are born, age and die. Sometimes when they die, they throw their detritus out into the universe in the form of more complex matter. We are all literally the product of this star stuff. Moreover, we are destined to return to star stuff. Some part of our matter and energy was once in a star somewhere. Our matter and energy will once again be part of a star someday. In that sense, we are immortal and have been since the universe was created.

We have all already traversed the universe. Should mankind make it to another solar system someday, we will simply be retracing our inorganic roots. We are not just tied to our planet and solar system; we are tied to the universe. If some day we warp around space like they do in Star Trek, we are not exploring strange new worlds, we are returning home.

During my surgery, I was under general anesthesia for about two hours. Clearly, I did not die in those two hours. Whatever anesthesia I was given had the property of shutting down my consciousness for those two hours (or gave me the inability to recall any of it). I remember being on the surgical table and then, just as in death, the lights went out. Two hours later I was in another room, I was awake and the lights went on. During those two hours, I assume I was alive, but I might as well have been dead. Those two hours of non-existence, which might be more accurately described as an inability to remember anything or to act in any manner whatsoever, perhaps prove a point made by my atheist friends and siblings: death really does not matter.

While fear of death seems to be a human characteristic, perhaps it is all wasted energy. Not that it is easy to do, but perhaps we would all be much happier if we spent our time alive concentrating on living and forgetting all about death. After all, you cannot change the fabric of the universe or its rules. We are all caught in this incredibly complex space-time matrix. If being unconscious during my surgery is any guide, death, which for us humans seems to equate to non-consciousness, really does not matter.

Being infirmed of course matters, as I discovered. Dying matters as well as it is a progressively worse state of being infirmed. In either case, you are losing your tether to your known reality. Our species takes comfort in the known, safe and predictable. In my case, I missed the comfortable ritual of driving to and from the office, and inhabiting an office with a nice view of the Shenandoah Mountains five floors up. Working from home with one foot propped up was convenient and facilitated my recovery, but was awkward and different. Hobbling around in crutches for a week was also difficult, inconvenient and at times painful. It is understandable that I would have some petty grievances over my convalescence. However, when it ends on Friday, I should be back to better health than I was before the surgery. I hope that my life will become more comfortable and less painful.

I take some comfort in this expectation. I also take some comfort in the experience of being unconscious during my surgery, because the universe is also teaching me a lesson: neither my lack of consciousness during surgery nor death in itself are worth worrying about. Hopefully I will fully absorb these lessons and live my remaining life to its fullest in the time ahead of me.

The Thinker

Review: Horatio Hornblower, Collectors Edition

When like me you don’t watch much TV, you don’t have to be worried about being sucked into the latest TV miniseries. I knew about the Horatio Hornblower miniseries, but because I don’t watch TV I had only caught part of one episode on TV when it originally aired, and that only was because my sister told me about it. It was much more convenient for me, more than a decade after the first episode aired, to sit down and watch all eight episodes in a row over a few days while I convalesced.

Like with most miniseries, there is a mental disconnect between what you read in the books and the miniseries. My mental imagining of Horatio Hornblower was little like Ioan Gruffudd’s portrayal. Director Andrew Grieve’s version of the famous fictional 19th century British naval captain took some getting used to, but overall I very much liked it.

If there is a problem with the miniseries, it is that it covers the least interesting parts of the novels: Hornblower’s career starting as a midshipman through a commander. C.S. Forester actually started with the fifth book and wrote the novels that constituted his early years much later. To put it kindly, I suspect that like me most readers would agree that the latter half of the series was more interesting than the first half. This is in part because a naval captain can have a much more interesting time than a midshipman or lieutenant. The good news is that in the unlikely event that more of these adventures will make it onto film they should only get more interesting. This is because the finest novel in the series is probably the very first written, Beat to Quarters. The TV series ends just as Hornblower is promoted to Post Captain. Moreover, since Gruffudd is aging along with the character, if someone could produce Beat to Quarters, Gruffudd would be just about the perfect age to portray Hornblower, as Gruffudd is 36.

Turning a book into a TV series always involves a number of deviations from the books. If you have read the series a half dozen times like I have you will notice plenty. In spirit, the series is faithful to the books, and perhaps that’s what counts the most. The naval battles were rendered much better than I anticipated, as was life aboard a British naval ship at that time in general. If you watch the DVD extras, you realize the producers actually had to construct a frigate as well as a number of other ships. This is not an easy thing to do these days, as frigate building is something of a lost art. Moreover, constructing 19th century naval vessels is very expensive. So the same ship stands in for a number of ships because to really show the variation of naval ships would have been cost prohibitive. For example, most gun decks were below the main deck, not on the main deck. The ship in the TV series also looks suspiciously new and overly clean, which in fact it was at the time. Although sailors did their best to keep their ships shipshape, in reality most British naval ships of the period were creaky and barnacle encrusted.

Most of the characters are dead on. I particularly like Robert Lindsay as Sir Edward Pellew and Paul McGann as Lieutenant William Bush. Bush is a recurring character in the later novels. He becomes Hornblower’s sturdy and dependable right hand man. As for Gruffudd’s portrayal of Hornblower, his Hornblower shows a streak of friendliness as well as humanity that was absent in the books. In the books, we knew Hornblower felt this way, but he considered it unmanly to actually behave this way. In short, Hornblower becomes likeable, rather than the isolated and removed character portrayed in the books. As Forester made clear, Hornblower was a secret humanitarian (and by today’s standards would be a liberal) but in the British navy of the 19th century where discipline was foremost, it was frankly not allowed. Just as if you were a gay, you kept your humanitarian instincts deep in the closet.

It seems unlikely that more episodes will be made. After sponsoring eight episodes, A&E finally figured out they were too expensive to continue. The good news is that Gruffudd loved playing Hornblower and would be glad to make some more Hornblower movies. Presumably, he needs some underwriters. Sign me up to buy a few shares of any future Hornblower movies. It would be a pleasure as I age to watch Gruffudd act through the best part of the series. All the remaining books deserve to make it to film. Given the constraints of miniseries, they were not the epitome of a Hornblower realization for the screen, but they came close. My hope for a proper Hornblower movie with this cast is likely to remain a fantasy.

If you haven’t seen the series of eight you can always buy the DVD set, of course. By the end of the eighth episode, Duty, like me you might feel crestfallen that there simply are no more episodes to enjoy. The good news is that if you have not read the books, you will have the pleasure of reading them.

The Thinker

A few movie reviews (and re-reviews)

When you are convalescing and your domain does not extend much past your driveway because you cannot drive a car, you eventually end up watching DVDs and online movies. So here are some mini-reviews of movies I have seen while holed up.

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (1995)

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain certainly is an odd movie that is supposedly factual. It takes place in the fictional Welsh village of Ffynnon Garw, which is based on the actual Welsh village of Taff’s Well. There is a mountain just outside the village, or is it just a hill? Everyone assumes it is a mountain and boasts about their mountain (“The first mountain in Wales”) until during the First World War, two Englishmen come by to survey it for the government. One is Reginald Anson, played by the devilishly handsome Hugh Grant. Apparently, the RAF needs to know to make sure their planes don’t fly into it. The distinction between a hill and a mountain is apparently whether it exceeds one thousand feet. The village is crestfallen to discover that their mountain is sixteen feet below a thousand feet. Their village pride drives them to extremes, so they begin a major landscaping project to bring sod up the hill and make it big enough to qualify as a mountain.

There are a number of memorable characters in the movie, including Morgan “the Goat” (Colm Meaney). While the men are away at war he spends his time bedding most of their wives. There is also the Rev. Robert Jones (Kenneth Griffith), the revered village vicar who feels called by God to make the village hill a mountain. Anson and his colleague end up boarding in a room at the tavern, and meet up with Betty (Tara Fitzgerald), whose job it becomes to distract the men while the villagers try to turn the hill into a mountain. In the process, the country girl Betty and city boy Reginald fall in love. Overall this is a gentle movie that feels quintessentially British, although really it is quintessentially Welsh. For a movie, its premise does not sound marketable but it is at least unique. Overall, it is likeable enough movie, worthy of a rental if you enjoy gentle romantic movies. As a light romance, it hovers somewhere between a B and an A. So I give it a 3.1 out of four stars.

The Last Detail (1973)

I remembered seeing The Last Detail when it first came out but it obviously did not make much of an impression because all these years later I decided to watch it again. It might have been my first R rated movie, which, if true, meant I passed myself off for seventeen. The movie has only three characters of note, all enlisted U.S. sailors: Billy Buddusky (Jack Nicholson), Mule Mulhall (an African American, played by Otis Young) and Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid). Billy and Mule have a temporary detail to haul Meadows to a naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Their journey by bus and train from the naval station in Norfolk takes them through many of the cities in the northeast.

Nicholson only plays one kind of character, so Buddusky is the smart-ass world-wise sailor. He feels sorry for Meadows, who was sentenced to eight years for trying to steal from the commander’s charity fund. Meadows is hopelessly naïve if not stupid, and is also a virgin. Buddusky convinces Mule to make their trip north a long one to make sure Meadows has a good time and gets laid before being locked in the clink for eight years. An unpretentious and gritty movie, it looks like it was not directed at all. Mainly the movie feels like a movie wherein Nicholson gets to do what he does best: be kind of oily and repulsive. As you might expect, Nicholson chews up the scenery, leaving the other actors more like bit players than supporting actors.

Their adventures include a New York whorehouse, observing some sort of vaguely Buddhist chanting ceremony and a wasted trip to the house of Meadow’s mother in lovely Camden, New Jersey. Although in color the movie feels like it is in black and white as it is typically murky outside. Moreover, the scenery in the bus depots and train stations are as ugly as these three sailors. Overall, I wished I had not seen the movie again and should have realized I had purged it from my brain for a reason. Frankly, it’s not that good and I’m surprised viewers give it 7.5 stars. Perhaps this is the sort of movie only enlisted people can appreciate. If you have to see it, take the time to find the late Gilda Radner as an extra in one of the scenes. This was before Saturday Night Live and she was an unknown. Otherwise, avoid. My rating: 2.5 out of four stars.

The Answer Man (Arlen Faber) (2009)

I generally enjoy a light romance so figured The Answer Man would pleasantly kill ninety minutes or so. While certainly not a bad romance, it’s not a good one either, principally because of Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) is a character not unlike Billy Buddusky, and is hard to love. The movie must have been renamed because IMDB shows the name as Arlen Faber. Perhaps it was renamed because the movie did so poorly in the box office.

Faber is a thoroughly annoying author who twenty years ago wrote a book where he reputedly had conversations with God. It sold millions of copies but turned him into a recluse. He hides in an attractive row house in Philadelphia. About his only contact with the outside world is his agent Terry (Nora Dunn), who is trying to get him to appear on the 20th anniversary of the publication of his book. In fact, Faber never had conversations with God. He made them up, and when he truly needed conversations with God because his Dad was dying of Alzheimer’s disease, the big guy stayed silent.

Shortly after the movie starts, his back gives out. He ends up (literally) crawling down the street and into Elizabeth’s (Lauren Graham) newly opened spine clinic. He immediately is enchanted with Elizabeth. Arlen’s only hobby seems to be trying to get rid of copies of his many books. He tries to give them away to a young twenty-something bookseller named Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci). Kris is recently out of rehab and is back living with his drunken father. He tries to manage the bookstore but it is failing and it looks like he will lose the store. The three sort of come together because they all have Arlen in common. Elizabeth and Arlen sort of fall in love, then sort of fall out of love, and Kris’s father dies suddenly. Arlen tries to be a father figure to Elizabeth’s boy. It’s all way too predictable. As much as I tried to imagine that Elizabeth and Arlen might fall for each other, I just couldn’t make the connection.

The movie is mildly amusing but truly nothing special as romance movies go and five times easier to figure out than the typical light romance, which means the movie is very shallow. You don’t need to avoid The Answer Man but there is no particular reason to seek it out either. If looking for a light romance, pick something else off the shelf. 2.8 out of four stars.

The Thinker

Good luck with the budget voodoo, Governor McDonnell

In case you haven’t heard, not only does Massachusetts have a new senator-elect, but Virginia has a new Governor. Bob McDonnell, your typical grey haired white Republican male with a toothy smile and a blonde arm candy wife was sworn in a week ago. He won election by promising no new taxes (a position few find hard to argue with) but also by promising all these new services. Yes, he has a four billion dollar budget hole to fill, but somehow he’s going to cut spending and add services. This includes increasing funds to the Virginia Department of Transportation, which is already decades behind where it needs to be in providing sufficient roads to handle Virginia’s burgeoning population.

Good luck with that, Governor McDonnell. Not that I am wishing you any bad luck or anything, but you are hardly the first governor, Republican or Democratic, to promise all these magical new services without raising any additional taxes. In a way, it’s an easy promise to make. After all, you don’t have to worry about reelection. Virginia governors can only serve one term.

I guess it wouldn’t work to tell voters the truth: that state services, already cut to the bone, have zero fat in them already. To close the four billion dollar gap outgoing Governor Tim Kaine outlined, most residents are going to squeal when they see what it actually means. Virginia’s total budget is around $38 billion, so $4 billion is hardly a drop in the bucket and amounts to about ten percent of the budget. I doesn’t take an accountant to figure out that if you are not going to raise taxes, you are going to add services and you already have a large projected deficit, then you are going to have to further cut services somewhere. You already promised to give more money to transportation and increase the portion of state money given to fund teacher salaries. The only problem is that both the easy and the hard cuts were made years ago.

How crazy has it gotten? The last cut to VDOT budget was $42 million from the road maintenance fund. How much is Fairfax County getting from the state for road maintenance this year? Zero dollars. That’s right, despite being the most prosperous county in the state as well as providing more tax revenue to the state than any other county as well as tons of revenue in gas taxes which is supposed to go for things like highway maintenance, we will get zero dollars for maintenance. So either we just let the potholes get bigger or we raise county taxes to pay to fix potholes which hitherto has been at least partially a state responsibility.

Now as a frequent driver, I’m all for changing this, so I think it’s great that our new governor is going to add to VDOT’s funding but I just don’t see where the money is going to come from. Education, health and human services, and transportation, in that order, are the biggest consumers of state tax dollars. It doesn’t look like education will be cut, unless it is subsidies to state universities, which have already been dramatically reduced and have students howling over their tuition rate increases. You say that transportation will get more funding which leaves human services as a likely place to use your budget knife. These services of course have already been pared to the bone. It’s hard to see how you reduce spending more there. It’s not like Medicaid is optional. It’s a nice gesture that you and your senior staff are going to be taking pay cuts, but that’s all it is and will do almost nothing to address a four billion dollar shortfall.

As best I can tell, you are pinning your hopes on two scenarios. One: the overall economy will improve to the point where more tax revenues come in. I would not take that one to the bank at least for a year or two. The other is your hope to sell oil leases off Virginia’s coast in 2011 and using some of that money to fund the state budget. I’d say the odds are pretty long there too. First, you have to get the federal government to agree to do this. Second, you have to hope that oil companies will be willing to front the money. Lastly, you are assuming that environmentalists won’t tangle this up in the courts for years.

So good luck governor but as Virginia is not licensed to print money, it’s pretty easy to see what’s going to give. Since you promised not to raise any taxes, it likely means that our overstretched state services are going to be more overstretched, which is to say the state will have to stop doing stuff that states typically do and we’re already pretty much giving up on road maintenance. I think it is much more likely that you will find reason to consolidate prisons and let non-violent prisoners out early in an attempt to make your budget math work. You just have to hope Virginia voters do not notice. As costly as prisons are, you still won’t be able to cough up four billion dollars in savings from them.

One promise I can make is that when you leave office in four years we will be lucky if our transportation funding is where it is now and our public school teachers do not have an extra four or five pupils in their classes. As for my fellow Virginians, shame on us for falling for these lies once again. Just once, I’d like to hear a Republican run for office promising no lower taxes and fewer services because that’s what it always means. Virginians would be well advised to buy extra heavy-duty shock absorbers for our cars. There will be many bumpy days ahead.

The Thinker

Haiti is our harbinger

Perhaps it is just winter, always a dark time of year. Or perhaps I have spent too much time reading Joe Bageant who lives life without the rose colored glasses on so well he makes my head groan. Republicans winning a special election for Ted Kennedy’s seat didn’t help either. I am finding it hard to escape the feeling that our species is toast. We are rearranging the deck chairs on our Titanic. The ship is going down but conventional wisdom is it is good somehow. “You know, we are ten feet deeper in the water than we were an hour ago. But it’s good. It gives us more ballast. Gives the crew something to do pumping out all that bilge water. Another margarita anyone?”

Then terrible tragedies like the Haitian earthquake occur that reinforce that not only are bad things happening all around us but also that they are getting worse. The human toll from the earthquake is but a wild estimate at this point, but 200,000 deaths seem to be the current working number. For many Americans, or at least some Americans like that usual jackass Rush Limbaugh, it’s like who cares about the freakin’ Haitians? Oh, and by the way, Obama is using this for his political advantage. But what else would you expect from Rush? This same guy checked into a hospital in Hawaii recently complaining of chest pains. Of course, he used it as an opportunity to gush about how we have the most wonderful health care system in the world, at least for self insured multimillionaires. As for the rest of us, well since we are not multimillionaires I guess we don’t count. In Rush’s mind, we’re just Haitians. If a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck downtown Washington D.C., Rush would doubtless be calling for us to do no more than bulldoze the whole city under. God bless his compassionate soul.

Our world is rapidly devolving into the dystopia Neal Stephenson chronicled back in 1992 in his prophetic novel Snow Crash. Unable to afford to live in our own homes, or even an apartment, how long will it be before we, like Hiro Protagonist, call a room in a U Store It home. In fact, newspapers periodically chronicle people in my area doing just that. Ask any homeless Haitian and they would be thrilled to call a room in a U Store It a home. At least it is clean and in many cases heated. Those Haitians who are still alive are fleeing the capital Port-au-Prince. Tent cities full of refugees are emerging, but international aid can address just a tiny portion of the overwhelming need. Those who survived for the most part cannot find clean water and food. If the earthquake didn’t kill them, perhaps the cholera and dysentery which will soon be rampant will do the trick. It sounds like it would make Rush Limbaugh happy.

Meanwhile, Pat Robertson believes Haitians made a pact with the devil. That’s why they died in such large numbers. Seriously. This is what religion can do otherwise sensible people. And this guy somehow runs his own university. I guess that long established fault line running though Haiti had nothing to do with the earthquake. Or God told all the sinners to build houses right above it. Any illiterate and starving Haitian has more sense than this Robertson fool, including those who believe in Voodoo.

The sad reality is that hardly anyone without relatives in Haiti gives a shit about Haiti. We do our best to keep Haitians out of the country so their impoverished relatives won’t join us in the states and lower our property values. To the extent that we have cared over the years, we have used Haiti as an experiment in our capitalist values. Organizations like the International Monetary Fund loaned money to Haiti then turned the screws, making repayment virtually impossible.

It’s not like in the best of times their lives were not already miserable. They have the lowest standard of living and life spans in the Americas. They also sit in the middle of hurricane alley. When hurricanes arrive, like earthquakes, they tend to collapse an already fragile infrastructure. Now this: half of the buildings in and around the capital are destroyed or unusable. Of course, they could be rebuilt to modern building codes. Think that is going to happen? In your dreams! Building codes take money you can’t afford living on a dollar a day or less, and Rush Limbaugh certainly doesn’t want to give the ingrates any more. As for Robertson, it would be the same as giving money to the devil. After a year or so, we will have largely forgotten all about their plight, but they will still be as miserable and hopeless as always. Incredibly, when there seems no possible way to make their lives any more miserable, a subsequent disaster proves us wrong.

No, we will soon go back to ignoring Haiti, as will most of the world, because we will need to become xenophobic. As the health care debate has demonstrated, in America we believe in every man for himself, come hell our high water. We are not far from a time when we will leave the uninsured bleeding to death outside our emergency rooms because we won’t want to shoulder even their emergency room costs. With our national wealth quickly moving overseas to countries like China, America continues to be one big fire sale. Soon we are going to emerge from our collective hangover to discover that we are no longer a first world power. This is what happens when you neglect your infrastructure and human capital costs long enough because you are intoxicated by ever lower taxes. The whole neighborhood just goes to hell. We will realize that we can no longer afford our military, our international commitments, or even Social Security and Medicare because our creditor China says we can’t. And that means when we have no more means to beg or borrow, we move toward second-class status, which is sort of like Mexico. America will become a harder, meaner, more intolerant, more polluted place that will border on anarchy. The gated communities will go up just like in Snow Crash, but this time there will be armed guards patrolling the fence and manning the gates.

What we can do, like almost every country in the world, is keep adding recklessly to our population, which today guarantees a lower standard of living. More natural wilderness is transformed into ugly sprawl. With more mouths to feed, we have more reasons to punt issues like global warming because trying to maintain our standard of living will always trump over serious action on the environment. We are already there. The social contract is fraying. Living on social security alone means you are living in wretched poverty. At best, so long as you do not get sick you can afford to inhabit that trailer somewhere. However, there won’t be enough left over to fix that hole in the rusted trailer roof, let alone buy your heart medicine.

I see it in my own in-laws. To the extent they have a middle class lifestyle, it is thanks to a reverse mortgage on their house in a burb outside of Phoenix. It was not worth that much to begin with and is worth even less now. Most likely their equity is gone. When their air conditioner broke down, they were looking under the sofa cushions for money to get it fixed. About the only thing they can count on is Medicare and getting that monthly social security check. They allow them to exist, but certainly not to live. It’s been more than a decade since they took a real vacation. Instead, you eat light and watch a lot of Fox News.

A chain always breaks at its weakest point. In the western hemisphere, that has traditionally been Haiti. The conditions that caused Haiti are leaching all over the hemisphere. This includes here in the good old United States of America. As is well documented, in the 2000s when we had the bliss of Republican rule, our wages stayed flat, our net worth declined, our stocks lost value and we added no more jobs to the economy. Naturally, upper class Republicans did well. Their plan worked great, for them, as it always does because they are experts at screwing those who make less than they do and getting applause for doing so. Those jobs that we did add were at Wal-mart instead of IBM. However, our waists expanded. Perhaps that’s progress. All that extra eating and lack of exercise though helped cause health costs to explode.

No wonder that these days we prefer to escape reality, if not in traditional vices like booze and drugs, then, like Hiro Protagonist, in our virtual worlds in cyberspace. There we make our own pretend reality. We kill demons online in multi-user role-playing games while our first world status crumbles around us. It’s true in the U.S.A. but is also worldwide: collectively we have exceeded our resources which means we are all driven to figure out how to get a bigger share of a smaller pie. We already sense the truth. There is no magic technological fix. Anyone whiz bang new technology invariably brings with it other hidden costs. Nuclear power begat vast quantities of nuclear waste and tragic nuclear accidents. More recently, our new compact fluorescent lights carry the burden of all their mercury vapors, most of which leaches back into our already toxic atmosphere.

We are doomed and we are in denial, but in Haiti, denial is not an option. Eventually we too will have to acknowledge the truth. If we ever reach that point, it’s unlikely that we will be able to summon the nerve to actually change our situation for the better. Instead, we’ll be eyeing our neighbor trying to figure out how to make his life more miserable so we can profit from his misery. This is the new American way: ask not what you can do for your country; ask how you can profit at your neighbor’s expense.

We should weep not just for the Haitians, but also for ourselves for Haiti is our destiny too. The more we deny our connection to Haiti, the worse it will be for us and the sooner we will share their misery. We have already laid out that path in front of us.
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The Thinker

Brought down by the faux Democrats

It’s hard to have a Democratic Party when a significant number of “Democrats” refuse to, well, stand up for Democratic principles. For me this is the all too obvious conclusion from yesterday’s special election, which saw Republican Scott Brown wrest Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat. Brown campaigned vowing to kill health care reform, the cause for which Kennedy said he devoted much of his public life. Kennedy should be churning up the earth there in Arlington.

Yep, that’s what it amounted to because there are plenty of Democrats in Name Only (DINOs) out there. By now, you know who they are. “Independent Democrat” Joe Lieberman. Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson. Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln. North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad. There are plenty of them in the House as well. For these “Democrats”, being a Democrat means never having to tow the Democratic line when it gets the least bit risky or inconvenient. Their real interests are easy to see: they look out for the interest of those who are keeping their reelection coffers full.

The way it is supposed to work is that the Democratic Party stands up for the middle class, the workingman and the disenfranchised. This is because clearly the Republican Party won’t stand up for them. In reality, most Democrats in Congress will put their reelection before principle. You win reelection by being milquetoast, not by being controversial. You want voters to barely know who you are but you also want enough money in your campaign coffers to scare off any real challenger. What you really want are most of the voters to be apathetic and stay at home so you win by default. After all, the money is good, the perks are wonderful and the health insurance is great. Too bad the working class people in your district or state will not have the same privileges.

Voter anger in Massachusetts was visceral. Voters were not voting for Scott Brown because they agreed with him. They are angry that despite a year of having veto proof majorities in Congress, Democrats have done so little for them. Why reward demonstrated incompetence? The banks and Wall Street were bailed out. They were laid off. The best thing Congress did for them was extend their unemployment and COBRA benefits. Living on food stamps and moving into your parents’ basement is not “change you can believe in”. You need a job that pays a living wage. If you want to make the people who voted for you happy, you need to pass legislation that actually improves their lives. You can do it when you actually have veto proof majorities in both houses of Congress. That is you can do it unless those majorities are mere paper majorities. When push came to shove, we clearly had paper majorities. Instead of change we could believe in, we got endless dithering from both houses, but more so in the Senate and a weak tea health reform proposal that smelled so bad it was hard for anyone to like it.

The truth is that Senate Democrats really did not want health care reform. That’s why they were busily engaged in dithering it to death. Real health care reform takes nerve and will. In short, it is politically risky and ticks off those who are funding your reelection campaign. It is so much easier to engage in endless debate rather than actually accomplish something. In truth, most Senate Democrats are relieved that Brown won Kennedy’s seat. Now they have an excuse for inaction, which is where they prefer to be. The back peddling on Capitol Hill today is a sorry sight to see but oh so predictable.

It’s days like today that make me ashamed to be a Democrat. Franklin Roosevelt would not recognize his own party. No party really represents the working class anymore. Both parties claim to be all concerned about the working class, but not enough to do anything to actually improve their lots in life or address the increasingly serious problems that are beyond any one individual’s ability to control.

The solutions are hard and require risk, will and determination. If Republicans can have their tea parties, Democrats can and must have theirs, with similar passion but without the blatant bigotry and nonsense. They might start by calling out assholes like Joe Lieberman in public meetings. In actuality, it has been underway for years, but it obviously needs to be accelerated. It involves nominating and electing real Democrats, the sort that have demonstrated they have stood up for the working and middle class time and time again, the sort who do not wilt under pressure or compromise their principles for the sake of expediency. It means we need a party of Howard Deans and not Ben Nelsons.

The illusion was nice while it lasted, but if our blinders were on, they are now off. It’s real Democrats we must have to have real change, not a party full of DINOs. We have to nominate and elect the ones with fire in their souls and determination in their bellies. If a “Democrat” in Congress cannot stand up for the working class and the middle class when it counts, he or she is useless.

In 2008 Democrats merely got to the crest of the hill. In 2010, it’s clear that there is a much larger and higher mountain ahead of us and the barbarians (the Republicans) are manning the path to the summit. Only the dedicated and hearty are going to get us to the top so government can actually work for the people again.

The Thinker

Understanding Bubba, Part One

I am trying to retain a positive attitude during my convalescence. Rather than look at my recovery as a drag, I am looking at it as a reason to do more self-education. One of the things I have been doing is reading Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant.

Admittedly, reading this book is depressing as all get out. Author Joe Bageant frames the book in a town where generations of Bageants were born and bred: Winchester, Virginia. In the thirty years I have lived in the Washington metropolitan region, I have never visited Winchester, although it is only about an hour’s drive away. I had no reason to visit Winchester, nor was it on my way to somewhere else.

Winchester is like Binghamton, New York where I spent my formative years. Within its town boundaries, Winchester has about 25,000 people. Around 122,000 people live in the greater area. The City of Binghamton has around 47,000 people but add in the nearby communities of Johnson City, Endicott, Vestal and Endwell (where I grew up) and you get a similar sized area. According to Bageant, the one constant in Winchester has been its Rubbermaid factory, where generations of its working class residents have toiled. The plant is still there. The same cannot really be said about the Endicott Johnson Shoe Corporation in Endicott, New York. When I was last there in 2000, all the former factories, which for generations manufactured lower end shoes and sneakers, were idle. There was something resembling a corporate Endicott-Johnson office in a small building along Main Street. Also gone is IBM. During the time I lived near Endicott in the 1960s, Endicott was a manufacturing hub for many of IBM’s business class computers and processors. Essentially, Endicott is no longer manufacturing anything as evidenced by its crumbling roads and mostly empty downtown.

Unlike Endicott, which has had its soul torn apart when EJ and IBM left, Winchester has done a little better. The Rubbermaid factory is still there. Since the truck corridor of I-81 runs through Winchester (as it does Binghamton), the town also makes some money from truckers and tourists passing through. Working class men and women can get jobs in and around Winchester, but they are not great jobs. Bageant makes clear that today’s working class in Winchester are worse off than their parents who sweated through similar low-end jobs.

For example, Rubbermaid used to offer real middle class wages, benefits and a pension to its employees. Those days are long gone. Winchester remains a workingman’s city, but now jobs are particularly precarious and real wages are lower. Yet, its working class soldiers on because it must. Winchester is a city full of the white working class. They are the sorts who if they are not working at Wal-Mart are shopping there in what feels like a futile effort to make their $8.59 an hour wage stretch a little further. It is a city where the working class survives on their wits. For the vast majority of folks, you work two or three jobs to get by. No job or combination of jobs is likely to provide a ticket to the middle class. Most folks are but one major medical mishap away from financial ruin. It’s hard to build up a medical savings account when you are in arrears to a couple credit card companies already.

Winchester is the sort of place I might well have lived, worked and died in had not I been a bit more fortunate. According to Bageant, my family would be the exception in Winchester. Although my mother had working class roots, both my parents had college degrees. Moreover, my siblings and I assumed we were destined to end up in careers, not jobs. Yes, we sweated through our own working class jobs prior to (or in some cases during) college. We have a basic understanding of what this life is like. Our experiences informed us that this was a life to be avoided, if possible.

Bageant understands the white working class intimately because this is how he grew up. What makes Bageant unusual is that he awoke from his working class stupor. He also became a gifted writer. Through the prism of his experience, I can subsume myself into the world of Winchester’s working class. I can taste the draft beer at the Royal Lunch diner where Bageant hangs out with his kind. I can peer (however indirectly) into the souls of these people. Moreover, with Bageant’s help, I can see their world through their resigned and pragmatic eyes. It is a world where continually dodging life’s many landmines informs folk much more than some fancy pants education. It is an area where the gun feels as natural as the many sidewalk ministries in the town. It is a place where the town’s elite can keep the working class forever in control. For Winchester’s working class are largely unable to marshal the combination of family support and financial resources to really escape this lifestyle. Moreover, if you told them this was the only way they could escape, they would berate you for your silly liberal notions.

According to Bageant, the working class in Winchester earnestly believe that somehow by applying themselves just a little harder they will reach the next economic rung, despite mountains of evidence that it takes a supporting infrastructure of family and community for all but a handful of us to reach that next rung. It is The Big Lie they tell themselves which is also endlessly fed to them by their politicians. It causes them to vote for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush or more recently Bob McDonnell, who yesterday was inaugurated as Virginia’s latest Republican governor. Naturally, McDonnell is preaching the same old tired Republican soap that has yet to work: that he will somehow do much more with much less and in the midst of a recession to boot. Winchester will be lucky if its Rubbermaid factory does not end up in Mexico, where many of its other factories have gone over the last few decades.

If I feel like I do not understand their lives very well, the same is true with them and my life. I would feel awkward drinking beer with the locals at the Royal Lunch diner in Winchester. They would feel just as awkward bellying up at a local sushi bar or buying wholly organic food at a Whole Foods. In Bageant’s case, he got lucky. Remember The Great Society? Those of us of a certain age will remember. Back in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson earnestly tried to right longstanding class inequities. A few like Bageant were the beneficiary of the social experiment that for the most part failed in its goals. Thanks to some grants courtesy of The Great Society and despite the considerable odds, Bageant went to and graduated from college as well as did a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Those who attend a good college, like Bageant, finish with not only a degree but also with a true education on the complexity of our messy world. You might say the lens of his life opened up for Bageant, courtesy of Lyndon Johnson.

About ten years ago, he felt the need to return to his roots in Winchester. The result was this book, a seminal work on the working class unseen since the death of Studs Terkel. It takes those of us without the experience inside the lives and minds of the working class rednecks. As uncomfortable and heart wrenching as it is, it should be required reading for every progressive. For until we truly understand the Bubbas of this world, any changes we try to make to society are likely to be merely window dressing.

Bageant lays it all out for us. I hate to admit it, but Bageant is right about gun control. In the past in response to incidents like the Virginia Tech shootings, I have railed about the need for gun control. Bageant blows quite a few holes into the myths about gun control, while perhaps selectively ignoring a few pertinent facts. He points out statistics that show how many intruders are actually deterred because of the presence of a gun in a household. He documents how homicides in places like New York City have decreased as the rate of gun ownership has gone up. Where Bageant may have a blind spot is in dismissing the number of homicides facilitated among people who are related to each other because of the presence of guns. Where Bageant is unfortunately dead on (no pun intended) is the futility of even trying to control guns. It is like trying to put a genie back in the bottle. It simply cannot be done, no matter how much we might wish it so. We might as well wish to change our eye color. Guns are part of our national DNA and will be for at least many generations to come. If it happens at all, it will be long after any of us reading this are dead.

Gun control is really a knee jerk and ill thought out response to a much more daunting set of institutional and societal problems that Bageant outlines with a painful clarity that is hard to criticize. To truly move our country and our planet toward a sustainable future, we must be able to persuade people like the working class people in Winchester to embrace real change. As Bageant makes clear, the hour is very late and the odds are very long. For the rednecks of America have centuries of Calvinist Scots Borderer breeding in them. They do our nation’s dirty work for us, almost reflexively making them easy for politicians to manipulate as long as they pander to their fundamentalist beliefs in the sanctity of God, guns and autonomic patriotism.

Bageant’s book is really a series of long essays about who our puppet masters are, how they got in charge and why we let them remain in charge. Liberals as well as rednecks are at the hands of these puppet masters. Identifying who they are, understanding how they are manipulating us and developing the skills to actually change these institutional forces will give us the ability to create real and meaningful changes. More on this in future posts as well as more analysis of Bageant’s thoughtful book. Stay tuned.

The Thinker

Father’s Day

This original work of fiction was first written in 1981 for my mother, long before I met my wife or had any idea I would be a father. I was all of 24 when I wrote it. It has been revised a few times since then, most recently in 1993. I know one grown man who said it made him cry. It may be the best work of fiction I have every written. I should write more fiction. Enjoy. (c) 1981, 1988, 1993 by

His vision was breathtakingly real.

His heart pounded. His heaving chest, anxious for more air, throbbed in furious pace with his heart. He felt the bite of cold metal bars sear his hands. A crisp Fall wind on his face felt like a peppermint in his mouth. He was hanging, hanging from parallel bars. His hi-topped monotoned sneakers fell like deadweight toward the wrinkled blacktop of the playground below.

Suddenly he was up to his ankles in water. He walked slowly up a sparkling brook bounded by grassy knolls. A lock of his dark curly hair swayed back and forth in front of his eyes as he walked. He looked through the water and found his feet were tightly buckled inside a pair of black galoshes. They carried him slowly upstream, disturbing sediment and minnows where he walked. A powerful undertow made his every step slow and laborious. He raised a boot to move forward but the current nearly made him lose his balance.

Now the brook vanished. His heavy eyes cast a sleepy glance over a windy and snow covered suburban street. His torso was warm despite the arctic weather, thanks to a new wool sweater beneath his husky overcoat. But his uncovered head offered no comfort from a savage northerly wind which flowed through his hair. “Crimeanetties! It’s cold!” his boyish voice said. There was nothing he could do but stumble forward with both gloved hands buried deep into his coat pockets. He wondered how long he could negotiate four heavy textbooks in the crock of one arm before they spilled onto the snow. He forced himself forward again. If only he had remembered his stocking cap! A tear involuntarily emerged with the full force of another gust on his face.

He was in school and inside it was gloriously warm. Even so he found himself pressed against a radiator grate. Its heat desensitized him to the frightful noise from his arriving classmates. A cold, half opened eye noted his fourth grade teacher, Miss Devonshire, hunched over her desk grading papers. He glanced out the window. Row upon crooked row of townhouses wound around the nearby hills like a terraced garden. Virtually all of them put out a trail of white smoke into a frosty blue morning sky.

A cry from somewhere … shrill … insistent. He turned away from his class, only for a moment.

It was too late. They had grown. Their half-innocence, their soft-as-cottonball faces were supplanted by long chins and studious expressions. Their hair was much longer and unkempt. But it was their clothes which really seemed strange: bell-bottom trousers for the boys and tightly wrapped miniskirts for the girls. And beads, lots of beads draped around the neck. The boys had long and powerful legs with huge bony feet stuffed inside suede shoes. Their legs flopped out from beneath their small desks and into the aisles.

It was incongruous to keep hearing this muffled but insistent crying…

So he stepped back.

For an indefinite moment he was delicately suspended between two worlds, both real. Each had the firmness of a cobweb. In one world Mary Alice Jordan was fiercely scratching her leg above her sandal strap. In the other an unfocused eye dimly read a luminous dial saying it was just before two in the morning.

Someone next to him was slowly turning in bed. From far away a shrill cry was piercing the silence. His wife was turning in bed again. Her semi-conscious hand fell comfortably over his shoulder.

The crying was continuing, distant but still insistent.

“Honey. It’s your turn.”

Snap! The cobweb gave way. He was sitting on the edge of their bed, his two bare feet apathetically but dutifully planted on the floor.


Gary Howell had no intentions of settling down. He had dated many women but he felt both intimate and distant with them. For the most part his dates were satisfied with simple things like heartfelt whispers and passionate embraces. They never mentioned the word “love”, which suited him fine. He had plenty of school ahead of him. He had no time to fall in love.

But there had been special moments. One had been a moonlit summer stroll with a coed named Wendy along a quiet wooded path close to campus. His third date with Evelyn Offenbach recalled only the heady rush of manliness he felt when he rushed around the front of his car to snatch her door open. Once, for one fleeting and terrifying moment, he believed he was in love with Evelyn. But the feeling passed.

His first date with Sara Ann Coughlin had been an afterthought, a way to pleasantly unwind after concluding a tedious project at the lab. Sara struck him as an over-average sort of lass, and therefore an ideal date. Fun to be with, but no fuss. Her jet black hair was inordinately curly. She had a lean frame, deep sunken eyes and a too pointy nose. And Sara Ann had absolutely no taste in clothes. She preferred muted colors, rumpled sweaters and clogs (when they were in season.) Perhaps it was her consistently dismal apparel that made him think she was at the brink of poverty. That or the way her heels had become so worn she stood crooked.

During the dinner one of her false eyelashes made an unexpected appearance in her salad. Gary found himself trying to restrain a laugh and not succeeding. Sara gasped then threw her arms up in mock dismay at her horrible faux pas, much like an actress of the silent screen. Then she smiled sweetly, straightened herself and deftly removed her other eyelash. “Gary, you’ll have to forgive me. I will never be very good at being pretty. And I keep swearing I’ll never wear these things again. This is why, in case you’re interested!”

On their next date they journeyed to the cinema where they shared a large bucket of popcorn and each other. Their buttery fingers inadvertently found each others in the darkness. Instantly Gary forgot the movie. All he could think of, all he could feel was the joyful press of her hand in his. It was small and delicate hand and somehow familiar. Like Sara herself. It seemed impossible to remember any time so fantastically far in the past that she had not been there.

Their dates were riotous fun. They joked, they poked each other in the ribs, they pigged out on ice cream cones at Baskin Robbins, they talked, Lord they talked! But not often in words. A thousand lovely and delicate feelings were spoken from a mere sideways glance or a broken sentence. Some part of him was infuriated with Sara for causing this elation within him. He was a confirmed bachelor, dammit. He was studying for his Masters Degree, and it was good that Sara was graduating so he could concentrate on his studies. But a day apart from her was an eternity. A few minutes between classes doing something as dopey as holding hands sent him overflowing with energy and his spirit soaring.

How could it be that he could be so enamored by a woman, such a plain woman, as Sara Ann? So swiftly she grabbed hold of his heart yet so gently that he was hardly aware it was happening. The girl of his dreams was supposed to be tall and intellectual and refined. Sara Ann was none of these things.

He was not in love with her.

Oh god yes he was hopelessly in love with her.

In time his feelings did lessen slightly as familiarity set in. But they never went away. And one day he was surprised to find himself saying that he loved her, and she smiled shyly back and said she loved him too. He knew of no reasons to marry her except that he loved her and wanted to always be with her.

And even after a marriage and a child nothing really dimmed their magic.


Until he discovered his mortality.

His death was something he had always been intellectually certain would happen someday. But he did not worry about it because he had never felt old.

There had been warning signs. Getting married was in itself a sobering experience. It had been very strange to suddenly be referred to as “her husband”. When Sara announced she was pregnant he spent the better part of a week trying to accept the fact that he was capable of something so fantastic as reproduction. Adolescence had clearly come to an end.

But this feeling was altogether different. It was so powerful it caught him in mid stride as he ambled down the boardwalk by the lake. For a terrified moment he thought he felt his heart stop. Then it began to race abnormally. An involuntary shiver shot down his spine. His prescription bag spilled onto the dock. He stood for one long and painful moment hardly able to move with one hand cupped over his palpitating heart. From his brain the message was urgent and insistent. You are getting old, Gary. And you are going to die.

This is silly, he thought. I am still young! I am only twenty seven! But the message was overwhelming. You are getting old. You will die someday.

On a bench overlooking the lake, amid the squawk of the ducks and the splattering from the fountain, he grimly forced himself to do the arithmetic. He had lived over a quarter century; a full third of his life was over and unrecoverable. What he could remember of his past seemed squeezed into his brain with the brevity of a Fox-Movietone newsreel. The lesson was obvious: the rest of his life would fly by just as fast, maybe faster. And there was nothing he could do. He could not even slow it a bit.

“I’m not getting old,” he decided uncertainly. He stumbled forward, almost forgetting to retrieve his prescription. Alone in his living room, sunk deep into the loveseat, he stared blankly out into the cluster. The room was quiet although he was dimly aware of the chirps from the birds behind the open window. He was alone. God, he was so alone. He wanted Sara’s caresses on his cheek, he wanted to be held tightly and told that he was special and he was loved and especially that he was not going to die. But Sara had gone with their daughter Vicki to the pediatrician and would not be back for hours. And he also knew even Sara could not really help him. Nothing was forever, not even Sara.

His heart continued to race for a long time. But the utter terror of that moment would never completely go away.


“Gary. Please. The baby.”

With considerable effort he got on his feet. One hand firmly clasped the nightstand to secure his balance. With a conscious lunge he moved through the darkened bedroom and hallway and into his daughter’s room.

He cautiously lifted his child into his arms, subliminally aware of the press of her hot and vibrant flesh against his. He stroked her on the head while she continued to cry. “Don’t fuss. Bottle’s coming soon, I promise. It’s okay. It’s okay.” With his free hand he found her formula and placed it in the microwave. The timer rang. He tested its temperature with a dollop of milk on his hand. Just right. Into her tiny mouth. Her crying finally abated into grateful swallows.

Now they were in their darkened living room. Vicki was cradled in his arm busy swallowing her formula. There was a delightful pattern of moonlight on the carpet, otherwise the room was as dark as it was quiet. What little light filtered through the trees seemed as soft and gentle as his daughter’s suckling. She was then as he would always remember her: close and snug against his chest. In the dark room she was mostly hidden deep in the shadow, yet there were hints of her angelic appearance. He could make out faint impressions of her tightly sealed eyes and her small pouty lips. She hugged the bottle so gratefully.

And — how sweet! — she placed one hand around his small finger. She knew him even at six weeks: the man who gives her food, the kind gentle man who hold her bottle so steadily, the man who loved her so dearly: her father.

Father. He expected for a moment this thought would again unleash the terror of his mortality, but it did not. The gentle press of his daughter’s impossibly tiny fingers overwhelmed this morbid reflection.

It was two-fifteen in the a.m. and time had finally frozen. Just my daughter and I, he thought. The silence was as beautiful as a symphony. The oddball hour was curiously invigorating.

And as he sat nursing her he suddenly felt the warmth of his Mother’s arms and the moist, half-forgotten press of her lips on his cheek. How many years had that been? How long since she had died so suddenly? He was not sure; he knew it did not matter. Mom was here now. He sensed her gentle kiss again, now on his forehead.

He withdrew the empty bottle from Vicki’s mouth and gently smothered his daughter with his own gentle embrace. She reached forward and pawed at the stubble on his cheeks, but his abrasiveness did not seem to frighten her. Suddenly she was full and wanted to yield to instant sleep. She did not want to be put over her father’s shoulder. She was oblivious to her own burping and the stream of saliva flowing onto her bib. She fell asleep in mid pat.

At length she was back into her crib. He gave her a gentle kiss on her forehead. Would she someday remember too?

“Gary? How is she?”

“She’s fine.” Their words were swallowed up by the silent walls.

“Umm, did she take her formula?”

“Uh huh.” He slipped between the sheets again and unconsciously snuggled up to his wife. Oh! The press of her warm flesh against was still lovely to feel!

The silence and her warmth yielded to sleep.

And slowly he felt the cobwebs of the other world again and he had returned.

The Thinker

Laid Up

I wonder what the criteria are these days for an overnight stay in the hospital. They must be high. Many years back my wife had a hysterectomy and to save money the HMO sent her home the same day. She gritted her teeth and wailed all the way home from her many jostling sutures. It seems just about everything is being done outpatient these days, but if it is helping to control health care costs, it is hard for me to tell.

My relatively minor surgery yesterday certainly did not qualify for a hospital stay, which is just as well. I am more comfortable at home anyhow and Georgetown University Hospital is so far away from where I live. It took close to two hours just to drive there from our house near Dulles Airport. Much of that time was wasted creeping onto the ramps for the Dulles Toll Road and then trying to merge onto the traffic. It’s insane but just to make it more annoying they upped the tolls with the start of the new year. The Silver Line is going in, Metro’s latest controversial extension that will go through Tyson’s Corner and eventually to Dulles Airport and beyond. Money has to come from somewhere, so it comes from commuters on the toll road that have no other alternative. I am grateful I have to navigate the traffic on it so infrequently.

Parking at Georgetown University Hospital is always a hassle, but fortunately, my surgery was not. They must have finished patients ahead of me early. I had barely walked in the door and they were moving me back. I had doctors and nurses competing for my attention. They even skipped the traditional gurney ride into the operating room. My surgeon, anxious to get the procedure done with, had me walk into the operating room where the anesthesiologist hurried with my IV. One moment I was looking at the bright lights on the ceiling and suddenly it was ninety minutes later and I was in recovery. Huge bandages now cover my right foot and leg. Somewhere under all that dressing is a three-inch scar near my ankle where the tarsal nerve repair was done. Somewhere on my leg are three other incisions that helped release the pressure on those nerves. By 2 p.m. I was in crutches and on my way home.

Given a choice in the future, I would definitely consider Georgetown University Hospital again. The whole experience felt much faster and more professional than other hospitals we have used. The staff was excellent from the moment I arrived until the moment I left. I could not have asked for more professionalism and courtesy. Some years back after some back surgery, Reston Hospital wanted to give my wife some crutches, for which they wanted to bill her $200. What an outrage! Reston Hospital is a for profit hospital partially owned by Senator Bill Frist, one of the major stockholder of HCA. Georgetown, as a non-profit Catholic hospital (as well as a teaching hospital) charged me $44 for the crutches with no markup. It will take a while to see what my net bill will be but I suspect it will be lower than if I had the procedure performed locally.

Anyhow, I am home, and home is where I will stay for three weeks or so. My leg is bandaged in such a way that driving is impossible. Fortunately, I am reasonably mobile. I use crutches but due to all the gauze covering it, I can put some weight on the right leg. Nor really is there any pain. Yesterday I felt only numbness. It is clear that the surgeon wants the sutures to stay in place because the foot is wrapped so tightly that the whole foot feels numb, and it was the numbness (and pain) that I was trying to get rid of. At least one is down.

Home is where you heart is supposed to be but in truth, I am not much of a homebody. This means that three weeks at home will be something of a minor trial for me. I dread retirement because I feel like I need a place to go to during the day. For as long as I can remember it was always work or school. Even if I was having a stay-cation, should I feel the need to escape there was always the car. As I heal, I may be able to hobble around in my crutches up and down the block. This will be the extent that I will be leaving home.

To fill up the time I will first keep the foot propped up most of the day. Long naps do not seem necessary. I have a stack of DVDs I can work my way through, and there are books to read. There is also the web to surf, but for me surfing the web is always more fun after I have dodged and parried with the real world the rest of the day. Thanks to 21st century technology, I can effectively do 90% of my work at home, at least for a few weeks. So I plan to resume working next week, although my kitchen table is a poor substitute for the office. It has no becalming view of the Shenandoah Mountains, nor the convenience of the cafeteria and snack bars, nor the social life one can find in the office.

Somewhat begrudgingly, I think what I will miss most of all these three weeks at home is my office social life. I am no social butterfly. There have been consecutive days when the only one I spoke to was the guy who removes my trash. Still, it is nice to interact with people other than my immediate family. Here I have my wife who for a while will have to cater to me and who is always nice to have around, but she is a well-known commodity. There is also my daughter who sleeps during the day and who generally ignores me anyhow. There is also one friendly cat. To the extent I have a social life these next few weeks, it will be with my cat.

There are still bills to pay and work for clients on the side to do. That will help. I best double my dosage of Vitamin D because it will be awhile before I will feel the sun shining on my skin again. Being laid up is a part of life, and one I should get used to. It is perhaps something to be welcomed rather than feared. As for being one of life’s trials, it will be a minor one. Come early February, I expect I will be sick of it and will look forward to returning to the office. Until then, I must be a homebody.

The Thinker

Acts of mercy

For every Walter Cronkite who passes on, there are thousands of prominent people who warrant obituaries but rarely make the national news. Two notables in the Washington region passed recently, both of them developers. Abe Pollin was perhaps best known as the longtime owner of The Washington Wizards, but he made his fortune in the construction business. Pollin’s most notable achievement was probably building The Verizon Center in downtown Washington where his beloved Wizards played. Robert H. Smith though probably made a larger architectural impact. His buildings were rarely noteworthy, but he built so many of them (mostly look-alike upper end office buildings with marble faces, large windows and with adjacent multilevel parking garages) that they became ubiquitous. They house lobbyists along K Street and beltway bandits out in McLean, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland. Crystal City (which is not an incorporated city) is perhaps his best-known creation. The huge complex of office and residential high rises goes on for more than a mile. It frames the west side of the Potomac River and offers prime view of our federal city.

Of course, for every prominent obituary, there are many other thousands whose lives do not seem to merit an obituary. Sometimes the family will not even bother to pay for a death notice. Dying is rarely a tidy business. Fortunately, there is usually someone around responsible enough to do the hard work of caring for someone nearing the end of life. They are usually family. This is true in the case of my friend Lynn (not her real name).

More than eight years ago, she noticed that her sister was becoming difficult to reason with. Her sister has always been somewhat difficult and irascible. She did not take care of herself and smoked like a chimney, which unsurprisingly caused her to also develop emphysema. Still, giving up her cigarettes was unthinkable. Lynn has one brother who has family problems of his own. Since Lynn is sixty something, her parents have long passed on. As her sister’s faculties declined, she started to become a danger to herself. For example, she would forget that she was leaving lit cigarettes lying around.

Her sister also inconveniently lived fifteen hundred miles away in Colorado. Lynn had two choices: to let her sister to fend for herself or to rescue her. Her sister smoked constantly and everything she owned reeked of tobacco. To say the least, taking on the chore of acting as her sister’s guardian was not appealing, but love won out. Largely by herself, she relocated her sister to Northern Virginia, amongst much crying and cursing by her sister.

Her confused sister felt upset and betrayed. She did not want to come to the east coast; the Rocky Mountains were her home. For a while, they were uncomfortable roommates in her modest house. Finally, she found her an apartment in an assisted living facility a few miles from her house. Meanwhile, Lynn grappled to find her sister the medical and psychiatric care that she needed, with few ideas on how to do so other than to call the county’s office on aging. It took months to find her the right social workers and specialists so that her care was adequate and she was safe. For a few months, she visited her sister weekly and relaxed. However, with each visit her sister was more confused.

Recognizing that she could not depend on assisted living much longer, Lynn began searching for a nursing home for her sister. She discovered that most of the nursing homes were not suitable for her sister, or even most of the patients that lived there. Staffing was short. The staff looked hassled, overworked and underpaid. Care was substandard. She finally found one that she thought would work for her sister, but her sister refused to go. So they paid periodic visits until she began to feel more comfortable with the place. The nursing home felt more like home in part because she had trouble retaining long-term memories. Her mind was going. She recognized her sister less and less.

Eventually she settled into the nursing home. For a while, it was like scenes out of the movie Away From Her. She seemed quite happy and for a few more months, Lynn could relax and visit weekly. Yet, with each visit her sister seemed a little more distant. After a while, she forgot her name entirely. Surprisingly, she stopped smoking, in part because she forgot it was something she wanted to do.

She began drawing on the walls and sleeping in until noon. Then one day she fell out of bed. For hours, no one noticed until someone found her on the floor. She was in great pain. Lynn was summoned. Her sister’s hip was broken. She was quickly taken into surgery. The hip was replaced but she immediately made a turn for the worse. Her surgical pain was horrendous. She screamed for hours and no one in the hospital cared. Lynn spent hours trying to get the attention of doctors and nurses and was largely ignored. She stopped eating and drinking. They tried to force feed her but it all came out through her nose and mouth. There was also blood in her urine. By this time, she weighed less than ninety pounds.

Lynn eventually got her sister some excellent narcotics, but the doctors kept wanting to do more invasive tests and force feed her. Lynn retrieved copies of her sister’s living will, but it took over a week before she could convince her doctors that she would not sue them for negligence and that her sister did not want her life artificially prolonged. Tonight, her sister is in the final stages of dying. She hasn’t eaten in more than a week. Her body is rapidly failing.

Lynn chose to speak for her sister. At great personal pain, she made the awful decision to not artificially prolong her life. At great expense to herself, she stood by her sister, the same sister who so often treated her shabbily. There was no one else to do the dirty work. She did it both out of a sense of compassion and duty.

She cried last night in my covenant group while relaying her story. We held her hands, gave her hugs, and made sure she had all the time she needed to share her feelings and her story. It is ironic that at this very time a new man has entered her life, someone she met at the hospice whose wife died some months back. Sometimes moral support comes from the oddest directions.

As drawn out as her sister’s dying has been, her sister is blessed. Despite the odds, she has a compassionate and loving sister who cares for her for years while knowing that her end was destined to be bleak. Some of us die on street corners, others of hypothermia, and some alone in our apartments, unable to dial 911 and with no one to notice until the rent is past due and the landlord busts down the door. Some like my wife’s wayward father end up as an indigent in a hospital room with no one to notice their passing. Lynn’s sister at least had her.

Lynn’s hard work these last years is as notable as Robert H. Smith and Abe Pollin’s building and stadiums, if not more so. If no one else will do it when it’s Lynn’s turn go, I will do my best to be there for her, for she is childless and will likely be the last of her generation. Compassion should always be given out indiscriminately, but even with family, it is hard to summon the courage and make the commitment. Lynn has earned the compassion she too will need some day. I and the other members of her covenant group will make sure she receives it.


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