Monday, August 31, 2009

National Illness

I’m not sure what to conclude regarding the current state public discourse in this country has recently sunk to. I am talking about the unruly ranting going on at some town hall meetings conducted by US senators and congressmen in their home districts. Here many have been assailed with angry mob-mentality down and dirty mud slinging. Some claim that these demonstrations are planned and staged by entities opposed to change. I am not so sure – I think Americans over the recent decade have generally lost any sense of what is acceptable and appropriate behavior. We’ve completely lost our manners, as if it is now our Constitutional right to act boorish.

Most ludicrous among these demonstrations is the assertion that the Obama Administration is leading the country into fascism. Excuse me?! It was the Bush Administration that introduced warrant less wire-tapping, extraordinary rendition, “enhanced” interrogation techniques, disregard for the rule of law and contempt for the Constitution. As only he can, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” took on these fascism nut jobs saying: “It was an election and you lost – it’s supposed to taste like a "sh*t taco”.

However some of the blame for the breakdown of discourse can be laid at the feet of President Obama. How many of us actually know what the medical reform package he is proposing actually looks like? I don’t have a clue – I certainly can’t talk about it with friends or opponents for that matter, I just don’t know what the plan is. The one thing I do know is that the thing most people fear more than change is uncertainty. We have this in spades at this moment and its the Democrats and the President who are responsible for the very unclear lack of message at this point.

But there is enough stupidity going around to continue fueling this debate through the next presidential election. Scanning the letters to the editor of my local paper, I am AMAZED at how many people don’t recognize Medicare as a single-payer government medial program. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare”, one moron wrote. Clearly many more are ambivalent because their employers are picking up the costs (for now) of their medical coverage… so it’s simply not on their radar. If an issue doesn’t hit an American directly in their face, it’s not an issue. Who cares if your neighbor doesn’t have medical insurance coverage!

From a personal perspective myself, I was hoping for some relief for the $1,200 each month that comes out of my meager retirement in medical insurance premiums – roughly a third of my income. I have already given up hope of any reform happening in my lifetime; or at least, by the time I reach Medicare age. It apparently doesn’t seem to trouble the local Republican small business people that me, and thousands others like me, have $1,200 less to spend in local stores and restaurants. I watch the “for lease” signs pop up in the window fronts downtown and shrug my shoulders.

I have been told that one of the measures of intelligence is the ability to make mental connections to related ideas in order to understand the bigger picture. It’s why very bright minds are working on understanding the unifying theory of cosmology with String Theory – uniting the infinitely large with the infinitesimally small. Or on a more practical scale, how would our economy benefit if consumers didn’t rely on bankruptcy to deal with overwhelming medical bills.

Americans say they love innovation, the spirit of inventiveness. Then apply that to the medical insurance debacle. All the other civilized industrial countries have figured it out, why don’t we just peek at the test questions of the county sitting next to us and claim we came up with the answer?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Birds don't talk.

Recent reminiscing about my 6th grade experience conjured up some other long repressed childhood memories. Back then I used to pal around with several close friends -- there was Steve S, Steve E, Steve B and Craig. [Side note: my mother once revealed to me that she had considered naming me Steve when I was born. Bullet dodged there!]

As with most kids, I was interested in almost everything science – I wanted to know about the natural world in the most detailed way. My parents bought me a set of illustrated encyclopedias; and a human body book (the identical book was given to my wife by her parents when she was my age). This encyclopedia explained barometric pressure, photosynthesis, the light spectrum of hidden colors and about animals, vegetables and minerals. I couldn't get enough.

My world was filled with exploration and discovery. I had a rock collection, a butterfly collection, a bottle cap collection (ok, so the last one may not be science). My father allowed me use of his tools so I was free to indulge my imagination and build things from scraps of wood gleaned from local construction sites.

At this time I was also receiving my mandatory religious instruction: catechism classes taught by Mideval looking nuns at my dad’s Catholic church. Instruction here had little to do with learning beyond memorizing strict rules and odd prayer rituals. In church, it appeared, my world stopped making sense.

Buddy Steve E was also Catholic and so we spent a lot of time together. It was not unusual for us to kneel together to receive communion on Sunday. Steve seemed to share my enthusiasm for making things and exploring. One day I related an observation to Steve E -- I had been noticing bird calls. I made a particularly exciting (and at the time, I thought unique) discovery when I noticed the increased racket some birds made when they noticed a neighborhood cat had been in the yard. The usually happy singing bird calls had changed into alarm-sounding squawks at the presence of the cat. I formed a hypothesis: bird calls were not just random sounds but actually a form of animal communication in a language unique to their species. The birds were "talking" to each other. As with so many things I learned, I shared my hypothesis with my friend Steve E.

The following day when Steve E and I got together to play, he was quite grim; he seemed rather upset, actually. He said he had told his mother what I had discovered about birds. He was anxious to set me straight: “I talked to my Mom about what you said. She is a Sunday School teacher and she said that birds don’t talk.”

I was taken aback… this ran counter to what I had observed about birds reactions to danger. But what troubled me more was how would being a Sunday school teacher give Steve’s mom prerogative to denounce such an idea with such absolution? The concept of birds communicating with each other appeared to be threatening from a religious perspective. I was deeply troubled by this response.

I had already been taught the early stories of the Bible; Genesis and God’s [supposed] creation of the world. From my most earliest years I already assumed and accepted these as "generalized" stories crafted back in a time in history when there were no microscopes, telescopes, prisms, or any tools for that matter whereby man could measure and observe nature larger or smaller than the capabilities of the human eye. The Bible stories were merely allegories; I understood that. But to deny real world observation because it allegedly contradicted the “holy book”!

That incident set me on a path on which I remain to this day. I believe that the universe is infinitely large, that the particles comprising atoms are incredibly small – and I believe there is substantial evidence that birds do indeed "talk"... and eloquently so.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Paradise lost

There was a trite little book circulating a few years back: titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. It is a gimmick

Although much of my childhood years have faded from my memory, I still recall three valuable lessons which have served me over my adult lifetime -- memories recalled from my 6th grade year at Clifford Elementary School:

One day a kid running across playground knocked me down into the mud. I stood up and defiantly leveled a newly acquired insult in his direction. Pointing directly at him, I loudly denounced him a “F#*er”. A teacher quickly ran over to where I was scraping mud off my pants and insisted I immediately stop calling him that... name. Somehow it was me, and not the kid who knocked me down, who was now in Big Trouble. Later, after school after my Dad got home from work, he calmly informed me of the true derivation of the “insult” I had leveled on the school yard. Oops.

On yet another day all the girls were taken out of class and moved to a neighboring classroom. The boys from that class were ushered into ours. We were all a bit perplexed; a classroom of all boys? Before long the 16mm projector was wheeled into the room. When the lights went dark, we boys were shown an industrial film about how Bauxite is mined manufactured into Aluminum. It was pretty cool. Still, questions remained about why girls were deemed unworthy of knowing the secrets of Aluminum manufacturing… and what exactly what could possibly be going on in the girls’ only class? At recess we pressed the girls to reveal the secret. Though we hinted about revealing what girls might be able to do knowing the secret of Bauxite, they simply nervously laughed and ran away. Once again after school, it was to my Mother this time to whom I disclosed the mysterious event of the school’s gender-distinct instruction. Mother explained what the girls had learned. Oops

However the most difficult lesson learned was when a girl on whom I had a tremendous crush, Leslie, came into my class room. Back than teachers often communicated with each other by sending notes between class rooms, usually entrusting one of their favorite students with the task of courier. Beautiful Leslie entered the class room delivering one such communiqué to my teacher. She then headed back down the aisle to return to her class. As she approached my desk,
I stood, blocking her path, and seized with adolescent passion, both hands on her shoulders, looked her squarely in the eyes and I said: “Leslie, I love you.

The moment the words left my lips I knew instantly the impetuousness of my act had doomed me to a horrible fate. As the bell rang for recess, I walked out of the class into the bright California sun – whereupon I was surrounded by a cadre of 6th graders classmates taunting me with: “Leslie lover, Leslie lover”. My life was completely ruined.

I don’t recall coming out of 6th grade with a particularly useful set of social skill which I could apply to 7th and 8th grades. Junior high was actually more about learning playground survival skills than anything remotely to do with academics. -- But over the decades I eventually realized that I came away from my 6th grade with tangible life knowledge that would sustain me well during the remainder of my life: 1. Don’t use words when you don’t comprehend their meaning, 2. that love, painful though it may sometimes be, is what makes life worth living, 3. and Aluminum is cheaper to recycle than to manufacture from Bauxite.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Best in film: "Touching the Void"

My friend William had been trying for some time to talk me into seeing a favorite film of his titled “Touching the Void”. When I inquired about the story, he told me it was about two mountain climbers in South America and what happened to them when one of their climbs went horribly wrong.

I was not enthused about seeing the film. But he insisted, reassuring me; “…nobody dies”. Not what I would call a ringing endorsement, but I relented – a glad I did; this film had a profound influence on me and an important message about our choices in life.

The film would be considered a docudrama about young British mountain climbers, Simon and Joe. Young, impetuous and blithely unaware of their own mortality, the two experienced climbers scale Siula Grande in Peru. The ascent goes according to plan, however, during the descent, Joe slips and falls, breaking both his legs. They are now both in very big trouble.

They begin the painstaking process of trying to lower Joe down the steep face of the mountain. As fate would have it, Joe is lowered over the edge of a cliff… there is not enough rope to bring him safely down. Now Joe is suspended over the face of the cliff; Simon retaining hold on the rope on the cliffs edge. With two broken legs, Joe cannot climb up, and he is literally at the end of his rope. Simon can only hold on; which he does, but time is running short. Now the weather turns worse; cold, frostbitten, they will both die if they don’t do something – there is no alternative, Simon cuts the rope. Joe falls helplessly down the mountain face and into a crevasse.

Simon makes his way down the mountain to base camp. He is in mental and emotional turmoil about the choice and action he has made and cannot bring himself to leave the base camp.

Deep in the crevasse, Joe has survived though lodged on a narrow shelf of ice. He pulls on the rope above… which falls untethered into his lap. He inspects the end of the rope – it has been cut. Hopelessness settles in. Joe decides that he must do something; anything. In great pain he begins to inch his way down deeper down into the crevasse. The pain of any movement of his legs causes agonizing pain, yet he pulls himself along, inch by inch; moving forward.

I will not give away the remainder of the story of this true story, Touching the Void is a film well worth seeing and one I have recommended to many people. The underlying value in this story is that, given insurmountable odds, in a position of hopelessness, there is always “something” you can do – the critical thing is to keep making decisions, making choices. The story of Simon and Joe is a testament to the importance of trying even when facing the most desperate circumstances. It is an important allegory for facing the trials that life throws at us. When we are faced with the most insurmountable barriers there are always choices we can make. The secret to survival is to keep making choices no matter what.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Once a cliché, always a cliché

Unlike some of my friends’ dads, when I was a kid, my father didn’t have a subscription to Playboy. My buddy Steve’s dad would dispose of his old magazines in the trash; easily retrievable to our youthful delight. One day my father caught me “practicing” with a copy of the magazine. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going convince him I was really interested in the article about Gore Vidal. He summarily tore each page out of the magazine one-by-one and burned them in the fireplace; but not without gazing at each page momentarily before submitting them to the flames.

Though even back in those early days of the budding Sexual Revolution, the young Hugh Hefner seemed like a cliché to me. Who in the world stood around in pajamas all day wearing a smoking jacket? And just what exactly is the purpose of a smoking jacket anyway? But Hef and the beautiful young women and the key clubs and the Playboy mansion helped move us somewhat adroitly through a time of sexual Renaissance. And for that contribution he should be admired.

But that was then and this is now; Hugh Hefner is now 83 years old. So why the hell is he still being seen with women young enough to be his granddaughters hanging on his arm? Why is it seemingly OK for Hef to age, but not the women he surrounds himself with? Quite frankly, I don’t like the implication. The message of Hef, in my mind, has gone from cliché to perverse. And it doesn’t move us as men forward to a higher plane regarding our relationship with women.

There have been myriads sociological studies published hypothesizing about how women likely evolved behaviors to seek out the most viable mate for their potential offspring; how men seek the most fertile and healthy women to carry on their genes. Women manifest these traits in terms of seeking men possessing wealth and power. Therefore powerful men like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton continue to attract younger women in spite of their age.

Yet to me, age difference is a significant barrier to success in a relationship. Putting aside the psycho-sociological aspects of child bearing attributes, what else do two people have in common beyond sexual compatibility? The answer is: hundreds of things. A common shared culture and history, for one – sharing similar goals and values is also crucial.

When I married my second wife, we soon discovered that our parents had given us some of the same identical childhood books. As we merged our lives along with our household items, we found we both had many of the same record albums (although mine were more scratched-up than hers). There exists a common thread between two people of similar age that is often built from nothing more profound than simply being on the planet at the same time and place. Hef may be able to recall what he was doing the day John Kennedy was shot; but likely his current girlfriends’ parents probably were not even born yet.

I have been fortunate to have been married to two lovely ladies (both blondes, by the way) during my lifetime. Both of these women have become accomplished and successful and wise over the intervening years. And through the passing intervening decades, they both indeed remain quite physically beautiful women.
I still notice beautiful women, though now, often it’s a shapely lady with grey hair walking down the street who can turn my head. My step-son observed such a diverting glance one time and admonished: “Bob, you are a married man!” I replied, “Jesse, it’s when I STOP looking at beautiful woman that your mom needs to start worrying.”

I have lost what little respect I had for Hugh Hefner. His message, once important, has become extinct in his continuing to perpetrate this cliché. I would respect him far more if he were to present the many bright, beautiful and accomplished older women today on his arm rather than young “girls” a fraction of his age. In truth, much of what makes a woman attractive is the confidence and sensuality she exudes from her mere presence. These qualities are achieved only over time and through experience – that, and a little touch of grey, I find incredibly sexy.
After being married for 40 years, I took a careful look at my wife one day and said:

"Honey, 40 years ago we had a cheap apartment, a cheap car, slept on a sofa bed and watched a 10-inch black and white TV, but I got to sleep every night with a hot 25-year-old gal.

“Now I have a $500,000.00 home, a $45,000.00 car, nice big bed and plasma screen TV, but I’m sleeping with a 65-year-old woman. It seems to me that you're not holding up your side of things."

My wife is a very reasonable woman. She told me to go out and find a hot 25-year-old gal, and she would make sure that I would once again be living in a cheap apartment, driving a cheap car, sleeping on a sofa bed and watching a 10-inch black and white TV.

Aren't older women great? They really know how to solve your mid-life crisis.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My worst nightmare

From the news desk - my worst nightmare:
NAPLES, Fla. (AP) - Florida officials have arrested a woman for allegedly practicing dentistry in a garage she converted into an office with a drill set and black reclining chair. Rosa Maria Toledo, 56, was arrested Tuesday. In her garage deputies found a cabinet containing dental castings, molds, dental crown glues, partial dentures and bridges.

They said she had a ledger containing information for hundreds of patients. Deputies said they had information she had practiced as a dentist in Mexico before moving to the U.S.

Toledo was charged with practicing dental hygiene without an active license and being a non-licensed person leasing or operating dental equipment.