Empty Garden

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Today was the day I finally remembered to buy a digital copy of “Empty Garden” by Elton John. He and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote it in tribute to John Lennon. I’ve seldom heard this song on the radio, and when I do, it tends to happen in scenarios plagued by poor radio reception, like waiting for a stop light to change between two semi trucks. I’m surprised that I haven’t had a dream that I’ve been airdropped in wilds of Alaska with a transistor radio tuned a station a thousand miles distant, and I can barely pick out that song through the fuzz. In the dream, I’d have the volume turned all the way up just to hear Elton John, but some moldly oldy like “Precious and Few” by Climax would break in from a closer station and temporarily deafen me with its sweetness.

I didn’t pick “Precious and Few” at random. Something like that did happen to me about 30 years ago when I was travelling across Wyoming. I was thrilled to hear “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, another song that used to elude me on the radio, and I had the sudden, impossibly loud interruption of “Precious and Few”. Since my ears were too shocked to listen to much, I talked one of my travel companions into singing “Precious and Few” with me for the next 20 miles, an annoying feat which we repeated in the absence of radio reception several times over that cross-country trip. How we knew the lyrics and key change is a mystery to me. Perhaps we knit this knowledge from various K-Tel album commercials.

I’ve lingered too long on the foregoing tangent, so I will return to the Elton John’s song that I remembered to buy today. Hearing the song more clearly has lessened a bit of its mystique for me. It kind of reminds me of when I was a student at Duke and first saw Christian Laettner in person. Since writing and mailing letters was still common in those days, I wrote a letter to a friend letting her know that Laettner wasn’t as attractive in person as he appeared on television. Her reply to my claim was memorable: “Don’t f*ck with the fantasy.”

Thus in buying the song I’ve accidentally diminished the production quality of a daydream I harbored in the early 80s. In that waking dream of my eight-year-old self, I wondered how the world might be different had the fates of two famous victims of gun violence been reversed. What if Lennon survived and Reagan perished? Their shootings happened very close in time, less than four months apart, and these stories loomed large in my grade-school world.

Now that I listened to “Empty Garden” several times today, I realize that question still intrigues me. How would the world be different if the fates of Lennon and Reagan had been reversed? Would George Bush the Elder have continued Reagan’s agenda so early in the regime? Would Lennon have gracefully landed in the realm of Has-Beens? Would labor unions be in such decline in the U.S. had Reagan not been around to quash the air traffic controller’s strike that happened later in 1981?

I suppose there’s not much point to exploring such veins of alternate history. The best scenario of all would be if neither shooting had happened. It’s possible John Lennon could have created his best work in protest of the Reagan era.

The In Between

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Our national political landscape grows more polarized at a blistering pace. I had hoped that the bizarre results of the presidential election could be an opportunity for a bipartisan restoration of sanity, but it looks as if the opposite is happening.

In my lifetime, I have had the opportunity to travel through 40 states. I have witnessed so many regional differences that I believe it is a daily miracle that our national union persists. This nation could not have survived 200+ years if we did not value compromise.

I find it hard to imagine that one political party is so natural a fit for anyone that it could become worth tearing this nation apart. I have some view points that make me politically homeless, forever in the in between. I have no choice but to consider the merits of the right and left on some issues.

I am a pro-life Democrat. I abhor abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty equally. I am a lapsed Catholic, but my liberal Catholic education branded me with valuing life from conception to natural death. I grew up hearing that Dorothy Day should be canonized for sainthood, and I read the National Catholic Reporter weekly as a teenager.

On these three vital issues, I believe it is impossible to move forward without compromise between the right and the left. On the matter of abortion, I think it is far more important to reduce the demand for this procedure than to prohibit it. It is a legal reality that our right to privacy allows abortion. No matter how much I value life from conception, it is not my business if my neighbor gets pregnant, or what choice she makes. If she would decide to stay pregnant, I wish for social and governmental supports to help her and her family raise that child if necessary. I don’t want any woman who’d rather have a baby get an abortion because of fear she can’t afford to raise a child, find child care, or keep her family safe.

There are stories from the trenches of polarizing issues that we do not hear, tales of success despite ambivalence and ideological diversity. My life contains one of those stories. Almost sixteen years ago to this day, I began an unplanned, high risk pregnancy 2,000 miles away from home in Washington state. Who helped me find the services I needed to make motherhood a reality for me despite being broke and needing to free myself of a semi-hostile domestic situation? An informal coalition of pro-choice and pro-life women reached out to help me.  These women all maintained that I had the right to choose between abortion, adoption, or keeping my baby. The pro-choice women were open to assisting me with the all three options while the pro-life ones didn’t wish to help with the first option but knew it was my right nonetheless. I wanted to maintain my pregnancy and keep my baby, against all odds. These women all helped me succeed with my choice.

There is value in the in between. When we as a nation are so polarized, we salt this fertile ground.

I Think Entirely Too Much About Health Care Reform

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I suppose that the topic of American health care reform occupies too much of my mental energy, considering I am a fairly healthy person whose day job has nothing to do with the subject. Since I’m getting a MRI tomorrow, the subject feels even more urgent than it usually does. It’s not that I worry about paying for this procedure nowadays. Had I needed this procedure a few years ago, it would have presented an outright threat to my finances. My path to self-sufficiency was very dependent on my family having minimal medical expenses along the way.

How did we get in this mess of spiraling costs and how can we stop this madness? I think we can find inspiration in the world of transportation. To fix our health care system, we could try combining the best aspects of car insurance with a supporting public transportation-style structure. Imagine what transportation problems we’d have if car insurance had taken the same trajectory as health insurance. The price of almost everything related to car ownership would spiral out of control because car owners would be insulated from out-of-pocket price increases. Very few people would know the actual price of a gallon of gas. You’d just go fill up at the “in-network” gas station for your car insurance company, just for the cost of a co-pay or nothing at all if your deductible was satisfied.

If car insurance were like health insurance, most people without employer-sponsored insurance would be priced out of driving. The cost of providing this insurance would be so high for employers that it would dampen hiring and stagnate wages. Millions of people would have little to no access to transportation, except for vulnerable populations whose survival depended on the government letting them borrow a used car.

Next the government tries to partially rein in the system by opening a marketplace where uninsured people can buy car insurance. This reform reveals how expensive car insurance has really become. The press reports that the price of gas has swelled to $25 a gallon. Oil changes cost $500. Of course the public is outraged.

Thank goodness car insurance did not go the way of health insurance. Why not try making health insurance more like car insurance? Reduce the cost of health insurance by reverting it to what it originally was: protection against catastrophe. Then bolster this plan by creating a public transportation sort of public health infrastructure to deliver preventative care to all and comprehensive care to vulnerable populations. This could create a market where consumers respond to price, yet there is necessary care for all.

Health care is just as vital to our nation’s economy as transportation is. We have a vibrant, innovative market for cars, yet we also see the value in funding public transportation initiatives. Such a transportation-inspired plan would require that those who have insurance pay for office visits and prescription drugs out of pocket, but I think consumer awareness of these costs would help drive down the price. As for those with chronic conditions, they could have those specific conditions treated more cost effectively through a public health infrastructure.

As for the MRI I am getting on my leg tomorrow, I have no idea of what price will be billed. My out-of-pocket expense will be the same no matter which insurance-approved clinic my doctor chooses. The price still matters. If the clinic bills too much, they will declare that loss to pay less tax. If the price is good, I have no way of comparing price to recommend it to others looking for a deal. No one is looking for a deal, so the price for those without coverage is hopeless.

P.S. The vulnerable populations would be anyone who qualifies for Medicare and Medicaid coverage, and we would also cover the treatment of chronic conditions through expanded public health services.

On Why I’m Willing to Give Donald Trump a Chance

Update 5/16/17: My hope has grown dim. I look back at this post and wonder how much of it was fueled by delusion or hedging my bets in the event of a future purge of all who opposed him online. My hope was about as wishful as thinking ice cream is a slimming food. It reminds me of the time my sister grasped at straws and tried using a vacuum to inflate a sagging blow up pool. The resulting implosion made my nephew inconsolable, kind of like a protest of one. Conclusion of the foregoing.

Original post:

I’ve been quiet lately online, wondering if I should even acknowledge an outcome which managed the rare feat of being both surprising and inevitable at the same time. The tail end of this campaign echoed the very early days of my unplanned pregnancy, that span when you know you are pregnant but it cannot yet be medically confirmed. Against all polls to the contrary, I felt in my heart that Trump was going to win the election. I literally dreamt of its reality while I slept. I share this YouTube clip because it captures the exact reason I’m not in a panic about a Donald Trump presidency (and my apologies in advance to the faint of heart):

I first saw this Mel Brooks film at a critical age, and this scene forever after influenced how I see politics. I cannot stomach an agenda that capitalizes on hatred of the poor. The poor will always be with us. I can handle a Trump presidency because he was not a “f**k the poor” candidate. He acknowledged that large segments of Americans are poor or live with the threat of poverty. He offered to work on poverty through measures like job creation rather than hating the poor on principal. He recognized that poverty is rampant here in the Rust Belt because of crappy job opportunities for people lacking a college education. He didn’t take the right wing stance of making necessity the mother of invention or the left wing stance of dangling a college education that saddles the previously poor with such mind-boggling debt that they think they may have been better off just staying with that one pot to piss in.

I wish him the best of luck and hope that his economic policies help uplift the poor. I’m willing to give him the chance to help revitalize communities like the one in which I live. My city is so poor that it met the criteria for all city public school students to receive a free lunch, even during the summer months. We have crumbling homes stuffed with mulitple generations of family living together. If they are lucky, two generations at once will find temp, restaurant, or retail work. Or there could be three generations in one home panicked at the possibility of the main aging breadwinner dying, the one person who has held onto a good job. Or there are adults who still live at home and have found skilled work, but they have so much medical or student loan debt they can’t afford to move out.

This desperation is not confined to the Rust Belt. I think of the heartbreaking story of my late sister-in-law Genie, who worked two full time service jobs for 18 years in Kentucky until she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Her first stage of medical “leave” was quitting one of her jobs. She continued to work full time for 20 months while being treated for advanced cancer. She kept working to keep her health insurance and have some hope of leaving something behind for her family besides medical bills. She didn’t leave her job until she was certain that she had just 12 weeks or less to live. A month before she died, she confided in me that she was afraid she might live long enough to lose both her health and life insurance. Such worries should not exist in a country as prosperous as the U.S.!

We desperately need more good jobs in towns like Lima and all over this country. I hope that Donald Trump can help us. This may seem impossible, but so did his election.

I will close with something I heard that captured the Bill Clinton years with great wit, “The economy is booming. I can find all three jobs I need to make ends meet.”

We’ve Only Just Begun

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On our drive home this afternoon, my daughter and I were talking about the growing crop of “Make America Great Again” yard signs in our town. I told her that I doubted America had stopped being great. Her reply blindsided me.

She told me, “Maybe America never has been great. At least not yet.”

She was born two months after 9/11. Our country has been at war for her entire lifetime. Her earliest memory is visiting Washington, D.C., to see her uncle leave for war in Iraq. The Recession hit the prime of her childhood. The lens of current events has undoubtedly clouded all she has learned of our country’s past.

Still she hopes for better. Her uncle came home from Iraq alive. She has witnessed our country’s slow recovery.

And she knows that I am oddball enough to make “We’ve Only Just Begun” the theme song for her thoughts on the “Make America Great Again” slogan.

The Benson and Hedges Bias

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My Honda CR-V in opal sage metallic

I am inclined to reflect on the past, and I have uncovered a benefit to looking backward: detecting bias. My recent post about Columbia House helped me identify another irrational preference. I considered how 70’s and 80’s magazine advertisements led me to imagine being grown up and smoking a particular luxury cigarette brand. When I looked at my car today, I realized that I had chosen a vehicle in the same color as that brand, Benson and Hedges Menthol. Thirty odd years after first seeing those cigarette ads and being awed by the luxury and minor hedonism shown in them, I still gravitate toward the color of that product.

When I picked out my car a couple years ago, I looked at its metallic sage green paint and thought it showed a bit of grace and indulgence against the chaos of this life. That’s the same thing I thought about Benson and Hedges Menthol back in the 70’s! I’d imagine smoking them on a penthouse balcony, safe from all the bustle on the city streets below.

That bias is fairly benign, setting aside that I did become a smoker. My taste for pale green did not lead me to exclude people or opportunities. When I painted rooms that color, I wasn’t letting that bias guide me at the ballot box, for instance.

Some biases can be self defeating, such as my presumption that I would be forever rotund. In the penthouse daydream of my youth, I’d picture myself as a semi-plump woman trying her best to look like Sheena Easton in pumps and a slimming black pant suit. I wore the self defeat of that I-will-always-be-fat bias every I went on many yo-yo diets. People have asked me how I memorized the calorie content of so many foods, and I tell them this information comes naturally to a person who has been on as many diets as Oprah has.

After I had surrendered completely to this problem, I had the lucky accident of delerium that showed me what I’d look like if I were a supermodel. This image of me without the extra weight busted that bias, and my weight was reasonable for the first time at age 40 (actually for the first time since I imagined that I’d grow up to be a heavy woman).

What you truly believe will come to pass. Once I reached the sometimes cold, hard reality of adulthood, I assumed that facing some adversity meant that I would always struggle. I would never prosper. Circumstance dared me to do better. I didn’t think I’d ever own a car that runs, let alone drive a CR-V the color of Benson and Hedges Menthol.

I’m also glad my youth gave me opportunities for biases that sweeten my perspective. When I was in grade school, I had a dear friend whose parents had a wall display full of political buttons of the past. The one I held most dear was the button that proclaimed, “Remember Harvey Milk.” I feel blessed that I learned about him when I was so young.

As the election approaches, I will take the time to learn more about the candidates, sniffing out what they really stand for as opposed to the biases they might be wearing to promote an empty brand image.

Church and State

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Time and again I hear the claim that the loss of prayer in our public schools was the first omen of the disintegration of American society, a portent of future decadence and inevitable chaos. When I hear such sentiments, I appreciate the ardor of the speaker’s faith, but I disagree with the argument. Keeping religion out of government and its agencies such as schools does not weaken this nation. The separation of church and state is among our best defenses against enemies both foreign and domestic.

When I was a child, I asked my mom why prayer had been taken out of public schools. She told me, “Who would choose which prayers will be taught? There is no guarantee that Christians will always be in the majority. Would you want your future children or grandchildren to go to a school where they must say that Jesus was just a prophet or that Buddha is a god?”

I am a Christian, but I believe that I would do wrong by my faith and this country by insisting that my religion inform our laws. Once religion becomes part of a government power structure, religious freedom becomes vulnerable to the whim of the changing electorate, and that electorate could vote away some of its freedom or security. Think of all the dysfunctional regimes who were powered in part by the restriction of religious freedom. Here are just a few of them: the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the Taliban and now ISIS.

Adding a religion to government may seem to be a win-win situation, especially when that religion values compassion and the sanctity of life. In practice, we have imperfect people picking and choosing which fragments of that religion to uphold. People have tried to use the Bible to justify all sorts of cruelty, like homophobia, sexism and capital punishment. Whatever happened to “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”(Matthew 7:1)?

There is no promise that Christianity will hold the majority into our country’s future, and majority does matter in a democracy like ours. I don’t want to imagine how another religion could be used to justify oppression, and I do not need to tap into my imagination in this regard. Just think of how ISIS is using an extreme caricature of Islam to justify all manner of atrocities.