Who Cares?

With all the petitions going around I’m getting a bit dizzy. I won’t go to the doctor though, since I think Trump may be a pre-existing condition. In any case, seeing all these petitions gives me an idea for one of my own. I suggest a petition that says members of congress should not have a health plan. Now wait, hear me out—I’m not vindictive, just practical. Apart from the fact that some of them have been kept alive and active well past their sell-by date, these are people who are supposed to represent us, right? How can they represent what they don’t understand? For a few years after being sent down from Nashotah House I had no medical insurance. Cobra was rightly named because it was more fatal than a bite of its namesake snake. If I had anything go wrong, well, dying was always an option. How many of our “representatives” understand that? When’s the last time they had to stick their fingers between the seats on a public bus to look for change? It’s far easier to pull it out of your constituents’ pockets.

Like everything out of the White House since January, this hasn’t been thought through. Let’s see if I’ve got this right: the rich want tax breaks so they take away the healthcare of the poor people who work in their factories. The poor people die. They can be replaced with cheap labor from south of the border, but we need to build a wall to keep them out. And all of this is going to cost quite a bit so we have to tax the poor people to pay for it. Wait, the poor people are dead. Look, guys, you’re not rich unless you have someone to compare yourself against. I’ve never been to the country club but I bet it’s pretty hard to putt if your green looks like my front lawn.

Hm, death may be a pre-existing condition…

If the government wants to lead, it needs to consist of people like us. That’s why I say we should petition the members of congress to forego their own health care. The day after the House vote I had an email from my Republican representative. He said, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for it.” Well, we live in a day of government-sponsored prejudice. All Republicans are alike. Enjoy it while you can, 45 sycophants. Midterm elections are coming up and I’m going to send a petition to the newly elected Democratic majority. If I’m feeling faint in the meantime I’ll just put my head between my legs. That’s what our elected officials are doing.

It’s My Body

Those who believe mythology is dead have to look no further than the Supreme Court. Amid pictures of women protesting religious freedom to be told what to do with their bodies, the Court decided that employers may withhold rights to birth control under the rubric of religious belief. The ones who raise the issue, however, biologically never carried a baby to term. One gender making decisions for the other. We all know that the official stance of Roman Catholicism, closely followed by radical Evangelicalism, is that God intended sex only for procreation. Those women who find themselves on the receiving end of unwanted conception are helpless in the eyes of the law, depending on who their employer is. Blind justice indeed. Obamacare is intended to help level the playing field. Too few people have any real control over what medical treatment they can afford. I know more than one fixed-income person who suffers chronic pains due to lack of adequate treatment. I also know people who have used the system for plastic surgery before a trip to the beach. It seems that your employer now has the right to decide—but only if you’re a woman, and only if it involves what might be euphemistically called your “private parts”—what care you deserve.

Legislating morality, we religion majors debated even when I was back in college, cannot be effectively executed. If you presume there is a God, then enforced obedience is no obedience at all. Even conservative undergraduates could see that. Now our “Supreme” Court, with its male majority, has followed the lead of closely held corporations (doublespeak for certain patriarchal, Evangelically based companies) and declared that half the humans in America don’t deserve the same health care as the other half. The reason? Closely held companies don’t want women to have access to birth control. Our courts strike a blow against freedom and justice for private religious interests.

Within days of one Christian denomination declaring that gay marriage will be—should be— sanctioned, our own judiciary sides with the right of upper management in private corporations to discriminate based on gender. At least the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga can sleep better at night knowing that they’ve prevented women from having their basic rights upheld. And metaphorically crawling into bed with closely held corporations are a male majority of supreme court justices who believe one man’s religion (yes, man’s) has the right to overturn the freedom of his employees. With the blessings of a male God. A situation like this prevailed, it seems to me, until 1863, also with the backing of scripture. Only in those days the argument was, I believe, that God is clearly Caucasian.

Looks balanced...

Looks balanced…

Shut Down? Shut Up?

So, what does it mean really?  Can you tell the difference?  Although it is undoubtedly a pain for many government workers, and a huge, colossal waste of tax-payers’ money, I guess the Tea Party showed us!  Over something as simple and humane as healthcare, the neo-cons have shut down the US government.  To be honest, I can barely recall the last time this happened.  Why do I suddenly feel the need to sit on a rocking chair on the front porch and kvetch? Perhaps we don’t pay them enough to care?  Maybe the poor just aren’t worth saving?  What can possibly be going through the minds of elected officials who are willing to punish the entire nation just because they can’t pack up their marbles and go home?  Of course, I am presuming that they have marbles to pack up.  As a tax-payer of over thirty years (pushing on forty), I think I have earned the right to say, “Children behave!”  The Tea Party shenanigans have been childish from the start, trying to co-opt the spirit of rebellion against tyranny in a country that plainly has too much.  Too much time on its hands, among other things.

I often ponder how a nation with the resources of the United States can proudly tote one of the most inhumane healthcare systems in the developed world (and I’m not talking about Obamacare!).  We live in a country, if best-selling author John Green is to be believed (and I’m a believer), we pay more for healthcare than countries with socialized medicine and get less out of it.  Why do we put up with it?  Tea, anyone?  Who has the actual gumption to climb aboard a ship and throw the cargo overboard?  Today we call it piracy—hey! Stop that download!  And we throw people into jail for it.  But shut down the government?  That’s okay.  The bus still runs and I’m still expected at work.  Oh, and I work for a UK company.  The irony of it all. When I lived in the United Kingdom, people complained about the healthcare, but I will say there was no child left behind, if you get my meaning.

Our military, I see, remains open for business.  We won’t cut off the life-support of the Tea Party’s favorite department.  We have our priorities.  Somebody has to defend the millions that can’t afford health insurance.  There was a time when Christianity was all about healing and taking care of people.  Of course, in those days it wasn’t yet called Christianity, or even the Tea Party. It was just a guy and his healing touch.  Today, some of the most abstract tenets of a fully corporate religious infrastructure determine who it is that deserves health care and who does not.  Call it morals or call it marbles, we have a right to decide who can be afforded and who cannot.  And anybody who tries to start legislating fair treatment better not try to stand in the way of our comfortable worldview where those who can afford to withhold compassion can do so under the rule of law, and the unborn smile until they become born when they will soon have to fend for themselves with a government that demands monetary exchange for bodily health.  Gee, my blood-pressure seems to be up.  Good thing the doctor’s office is open.  At least I hope it is.

Outside the United Nations

Outside the United Nations

The Computer of Dr. Caligari

TheAtlanticTo be human is to be ethical. Not always in the best way, unfortunately. Nevertheless, our moral sensors are pretty much constantly running as we try our best to make the right moral decisions. This thought occurred to me while reading Jonathan Cohn’s article, “The Robot Will See You Now,” in this month’s The Atlantic. Having been a sideline watcher of FIRST Robotics for about four years now, I have heard countless stories of how robots perform some surgeries more efficiently than clumsy humans can. Cohn’s article starts off with the impressive potential of IBM’s Watson to sort through millions and millions of bits of data—far beyond any human capacity—and make more informed recommendations about medical treatments. After all, Watson won on Jeopardy!, so we know “he”’s smart. But he isn’t really a he at all. Still, in our reductionist world where humans are just “soft machines” computers and robots should be quite capable of helping us heal. To survive longer.

I am a veteran of Saturday afternoon science fiction movies and weekday episodes of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (original series, both). The present is starting to feel like that impossible future I watched as a starry-eyed child. But what of Dr. McCoy? I remember literally cheering (something I haven’t done much in recent decades) when DeForest Kelley’s name appeared on the opening credits of Star Trek when season three began. Bones was always one of my favorite characters—the doctor who didn’t trust the machines upon which he relied so heavily. He was a down-to-earth country doctor, who seemed to feel out of touch with the human (and occasional alien) element with machines interposed between them. Medicine is, after all, a very personal thing. Our bodies are our souls. I know; scientists tell us we have no souls. Embodiment studies, however, suggest otherwise. That robot coming at me with needles and scalpels may know how to heal me, but does it have my best interests at heart? Where is its heart? Its soul?

Better health care is certainly much to be desired. But in a country where our lawmakers continually debate whether the poorest should have access to Watson and his ilk, I wonder where ethics has gone. Robot doctors, I’m sure, will not accept patients with no insurance. Does not compute. Having gone without health insurance myself for several years, despite holding advanced degrees, I know that if I’d had a health crisis I’d have been rightly ranked down there with the blue collar folk that I consider kin. You see, to be human is to be ethical. That doesn’t mean we’ll always make the right decisions. It’s a safe bet that Watson can play the odds mighty finely. And the soulless machine may be making the decisions about who lives and who does not. Now that I have insurance again, when I’m on that cold slab I may have a shot at seeing a robot doctor. If that ever happens, I’m going to hope that Dr. McCoy is at least standing in the corner, and that those waiting outside the comfortable walls of affluence will somehow enter Watson’s scientific calculations with me.

Moocher Man

Influenza seems to be going around. Since I spend at least three hours a day on a crowded bus I get to observe all kinds of uncouth behavior. Not that I’m always Mr. Manners (New York has a way of doing that to you), but I do cover my face when I cough or sneeze and sometimes I feel that I’m in the minority. My wife, concerned with supplies dwindling, made an appointment for me to get a flu shot at the local clinic. I went in and took a number. I guess I’ve been cursed with good health, and that may be a good thing. For my first five years in New Jersey I couldn’t afford health insurance—this was known as Bush Care—and hadn’t needed to see a doctor. Yesterday was my first time in the clinic. Although I had a confirmed appointment, a kind of argument broke out in the office (this is, after all, New Jersey) because non-patients weren’t supposed to be given the inoculation. Or they were, but they had to pay for it. Or their insurance would be charged and they could get the shot as long as they had insurance. Or why didn’t people just go to Walgreens instead. In the midst of the melee, a nurse called my name and a few minutes later I was being jabbed and sent on my way.

In all of this, one of the largest ethical issues of this country is highlighted. Who has a right to basic medical care? Among the conservative crowd that even includes some who can’t afford insurance, there are those who decry moochers. I grew up without health insurance. My mother relied on welfare to help raise three boys whose father had disappeared and our medical care was very, very basic indeed. Maybe people just didn’t say it in front of kids back in the 60’s, but I never heard anyone grousing that the poor should be left to fend for themselves. That took Reaganomics. In any case, working as hard as I could to break out of that lower class, I earned a Ph.D. only to be turned out of a job by a devout worshipper of George W. Bush. No medical insurance. Again. Now with a child of my own. What I’ve heard since the new millennium is that for those who can’t afford insurance—too bad! Just get a job, bum!

JesusHealing

I often think about those who make such statements and how they valorize the Bible. If I recall correctly, Jesus handed out free health care. Socialized medicine existed in his corner of the world twenty centuries ago. And we in one of the most prosperous nations on earth argue about who can get a flu shot. In the end, I paid for it; I’d even taken my checkbook along with that intent. Nobody thought to ask me. But as I sat there within full view and certainly full conversational distance, I was objectified by the medical system. I wasn’t a guy who sits on a crowded bus with people who don’t cover their mouths. I was a moocher. A liability. In the waiting room around me I noticed patients tucking away passports and green cards. This is New Jersey, after all. For many, however, despite the cold we’re experiencing, it might feel like a much, much hotter place indeed. A place where, the Bible intimates, nobody cares about anybody else and the flames never die.

Sleeping with Darwin

Although I’m hardly capitalism’s biggest fan, it would be difficult to overestimate how much the closing of Borders last year has affected my life. It is formidable to explain, as I sometimes must, to friends who don’t find books as irresistible as I do, how the simple pleasures of knowing a friendly bookstore was in town could make the world seem a little less cruel. There were towns that I instantly identified with the Borders located within their borders. Towns I rarely visit any more. All of this is by way of preface to explain the book I just finished. As the last desultory books lugubriously lined the shelves, my wife and I went through picking up titles we supposed we might have not found any other way. One of those titles was the little travelogue Darwin Slept Here by Eric Simons.

My admiration for Charles Darwin began when I realized that the Creationist venom I’d been bloated with from early days had been misguided. There was a fascination with this “evil” of evolution I’d been taught to shun. As I began to read more objective accounts, I realized Darwin possessed a keen, if tortured, mind that could not rest with half-truths and theological figure-fudging. In his account of following Darwin’s tracks in South America, Simons’ narrative not so much takes evolution any further, but presents a portrait of a world that has continued to evolve. In lives filled with uber-capitalism, where would a young person find five years to sail off on a voyage of discovery? Where would the health insurance come from? The 401K? The dental? As a species, humanity has been utterly domesticated.

Once in a while I dream of the Galapagos. I think of Easter Island and smile. So many places I will never be able to go. I spent three years specializing in Ugaritic studies and I will never make it to Syria—not on an editor’s salary. Not as an American. The world that we’ve constructed opens travel to the young who rarely have the resources to enjoy it. After seminary I spent six weeks in Israel. Young and healthy and heavily in debt, I at least glimpsed the sun setting over Jerusalem before getting hog-tied into the economy. Simons’ little book will not make him a millionaire, but as I read his reflections of rainforests, youth hostels, and rental cars on the Pampas, I thought where our world would be now had Darwin not been of a family of means. So much of our health care is based on understanding evolution. We would not be chained to our desks by threats of a slow, painful, and perfectly legal death without health insurance. We would be subject to biblical literalists who rejected the tenets of science— Come to think of it, perhaps we’d all better make tracks while we still can.

Spare Change

The vernal equinox snuck up on me this year, and I learned that it can also be what those in medieval Europe used to call a “dismal day.” The sun was out and the temperature was unseasonably warm, but beginning with breakfast and all the way until bed-time, things just didn’t go according to plan. My mother had been admitted to the hospital, and I live some 600 miles away. When I called to see how she was doing, I spoke with a bureaucratic nurse who could neither “confirm or deny” that she was even there. I wasn’t aware that my mother had connections with the military, government, or covert operations. When I said I was just looking for my mother I got read the riot act including—this is the truth—having the Hippocratic Oath cited at me. I think, in all honesty, it might be spelled Hypocritic. Don’t get me wrong—I think it is important to protect people’s rights, and I sure the duty sergeant—excuse me, nurse, was only worried about lawyers and lawsuits. We have constructed a country so insidious that a boy can’t talk to his own mother. Eventually she put my call through to the patient’s ward where one of the patients answered the phone and went to find my mother for me. We call it civilization.

I’m not the most technical of guys. Think about it—I majored in very dead languages. When my wife surprised me with an iPhone for Christmas, my brother-in-law kindly agreed to get in on the surprise and took care of the details. We went into the Verizon store after the holiday and switched the phone (with the phone number I’ve had for years) into my name. Nearly four months later, when I tried to change some plan details, both he and I had to call Verizon several times to get the mess straightened out. One of the communications giants seems to have made itself so technical that it can no longer understand a simple request. When the Verizon representative asked if I understood the user agreement I said yes. Have you ever read one? No one without a law degree could possibly understand. Even Moses didn’t have a cell phone. I had to spend an entire evening getting my own phone back under my own name. Our society has taken what should have been a two-minute phone-call and made a mini-series of it.

So, is it because the vernal equinox is so early this year that my world went haywire for a day? We live in a society where it is nearly impossible to prove you are who you say you are. And children are not allowed to speak to their own mother. Lawyers have taken the law meant to shield us and made a bludgeon of it. Communications experts obfuscate. It may seem random, but these two phenomena have the very same evil as their root. They are twin trunks springing from greed. The nurse can’t put me through because a lawyer may sue. My phone number can be reassigned to my name, with added costs, approved by lawyers that only corporate giants can afford. Human need has been reduced to terms of cash. The trees are budding. The air is warmer. Flowers are in bloom. But it certainly doesn’t feel like spring to me. That chill you feel is cold, hard cash. We are all just spare change.

The weight of a human soul, legally.

Divorced from Doctrine

Spirituality and religion have never been so far apart while being so close together. While many people describe themselves as non-spiritual in any sense, whether it be for materialist, humanist, or atheist sensibilities—a great number of people still feel the compulsion to believe in something more than the everyday world we all know. In Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger columnist John Farmer laments the disparity that continues to persist between women’s opportunities to benefit from religious dictates while religious leadership continues to remain a male preserve. As Farmer notes, it is a thinly disguised case of men determining what options are open to women. He notes the recent government about-face exempting religious organizations from the new health plan as a case in point. Does the mewling. special pleading of Catholics oh so concerned about the rights of unborn males outweigh the right of women to unfettered healthcare? You betcha!

Election-year politics are among the most ripe for those who wish to keep women “in their place.” Appear too progressive and you’ll lose the Catholic vote for sure. Of course, despite officially teaching that evangelicals are not real Christians, Catholics will be glad to glom onto their votes, taking advantage of their Hell-bound compatriots in order to keep women from ever truly enjoying freedom. The theology behind their reasoning is late and based on such convoluted logic that a layman can’t hope to follow it. Isn’t it just easier to accept that Rome declares it so? One gets the sense that longing for the old Roman Empire isn’t as rare as good-old human compassion.

Does it not seem ironic that anytime a bill comes forward to promote true equality among humankind the first to stand it line to bring it down are the religious? Christianity likes to trace itself back to Jesus who never intimated that women were inferior and who never spoke a word about homosexuality. He did, however, advocate free health care. Church leaders long since discovered that the first stone is easy to throw, and after that the others come with even more celerity. The cost to spirituality, however, has never been calculated. The same church that consistently declares sexuality is only for reproduction has never made a public outcry against Viagra. After all, we must leave some room for miracles.

These keys were made for lockin'

Biblical Sex

Legislation covering female reproductive health maintenance has finally passed. Even in a nation where equality is highly touted, women will have, until 2013, been treated as more expendable than men. A few years back I read Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. There I learned that even as of the publication date of her book, many aspects of the female reproductive system were still poorly understood. The reason: lack of interest by (mostly) male scientists. Of all the great equalizers of humanity, it might be expected that religions would step in to champion the cause of citizens routinely treated as objects and chattels. Instead, the opposite has been the case. Most religions, and even until the last century Christianity in the forefront of them, relegate women a secondary status to men. Religion is all about power. Now that legislation will allow women basic reproductive rights without extra fees, Catholic hospitals are concerned about the implications. “They defied the bishops to support President Obama’s health care overhaul. Now Catholic hospitals are dismayed the law may force them to cover birth control free of charge to their employees.” Thus begins an article in today’s paper by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of the Associated Press.

Instead of cheering equality, the church is muttering about medieval conceptions of conception. The entire idea that life begins at conception was not even possible in the biblical world where sex did not involve sperm and ova—such things were unknown in those days. The Bible has a few clues to when human life begins, and generally it is thought to be at first breath. Semen should not be wasted, however, since it was thought to be the full set of ingredients to grow new people. The uterus was simply a waiting area, a comfy place to grow with regular womb service. Men were the creators, women were the deliverers. That idea of reproduction formed the basis for all biblical and other ancient legislation on the subject. Comprehending “conception” as now scientifically understood, was only possible with the invention of the microscope. In response, a sexually underdeveloped church decided that the new data strengthened the male hold on ecclesiastical authority. Once the seed is planted, there’s no uprooting allowed. What male, after all, has ever had to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term?

Female religious leadership was recognized in many early societies, and even in some branches of early Christianity. No legitimate rationale exists for saying half the human race is disqualified on the grounds of basic hardware. After all “male and female created he them.” Concerns of “purity” for an age when menstruation was not understood could be marshaled to the cause of male supremacy. That mystery was solved when conception became clear. An unequal result emerged nevertheless. Since women couldn’t be discounted on genetic grounds, they could on the basis of “impurity.” And here we are two thousand years after pre-scientific Christianity was conceived, still waiting while a coterie of all-male bishops castigates normal health care for females. Believers like to suppose that their leaders receive special word from the mouth of God. Those leaders tremble in the face of true equality for the very first word the Bible has to say on the subject is “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

Who's superfluous here?

Take Your Medicine

Sanofi-Aventis is a local pharmaceutical company. I drive by their massive campus on my way to Montclair a couple times a week. The facility is immense: it has its own three traffic lights on a state highway. Nestled in the center of this large sanctuary to engineered improvements to natural life is the Sri Venkateswara Hindu Temple (it too has its own traffic light). The first time I saw this temple – it is still under construction – I almost drove off the road. It is a stunning structure to see in the edges of rural New Jersey and it is a testament to the religious diversity of the state. Being small-minded in matters of zoning and construction (I’ve never owned property or a house), I wondered how this fascinating building came to rest in the center of a major pharmaceutical company’s strip.

As I considered this juxtaposition, it occurred to me that I was seeing a living metaphor. In our country of (admittedly uneven) advanced healthcare, an industry driven by science and its wonders is still penetrated by a religious institution. A temple to ancient Indic gods surrounded by a temple to human accomplishment. We can lengthen life, if there is cash on the barrel-head. Being technically unemployed, I do not receive healthcare benefits. According to bravado wafting from the governor’s office, other state employees may soon be joining me. Yet it is the cost of healthcare that has consistently caused the stagnation of some sectors of the economy. According to this month’s Harper’s Index, since the year 2000 Massachusetts has allocated $1,200,000,000 (yes, one-billion, two-hundred-million dollars) to decrease class sizes and to increase teacher pay. Of that amount, 100 percent has gone to cover rising healthcare costs. Kali have mercy!

Those of us in central New Jersey, like our Hindu temple, are surrounded by pharmaceutical companies. I have, because of my robotics avocation, been inside some of the facilities of a couple of these companies. Their visitor lounges surpass any faculty lounge I’ve ever witnessed in both opulence of appointments and sense of wealth. Yet I know that legislators refuse to tap these shoulders when it comes to taxes. Those wealthy beyond compare have already paid their dues. Besides, these guys have the keys to life: bad heart? Overweight? Sexual malfunction? All can be cured, given the cash-in-hand. Yet in the center of the capitalism’s campus stands a temple for a time-honored religion. Where your heart is, there will be your heart medication also.

Catskill Waiting

Catskills epiphany

We’re back from the Catskills and all they imply. One of the more obvious implications was a lack of internet access – one of the many reasons I like to frequent remote locations. I had planned this little get-away with some vague hopes of enlightenment of some kind. The quote from Melville in my last post is more than just nice prose; it is the essence of spiritual striving. I know those aren’t scientific words, but they embody the spirit of several nineteenth century American novelists I’ve read and reread. I did see a Catskill eagle while there, but I returned home still seeking an epiphany.

While briefly away from the constant demands of teaching, the bigger picture starts to come into focus. We visited Ellenville on the day of their Wild Blueberry and Huckleberry Festival – we’d just picked huckleberries ourselves in the mountains outside town – and religious groups were represented aplenty. I had noticed the many churches in this rural region, and one of the feters handed me a tract that informed me “If you have said ‘Yes’ to these three questions [have you ever sinned, lied, or stolen] (by your own admission), you are a lying, thieving, adulterer at heart; and we’ve only looked at three of the Ten Commandments.” And also, John Lennon is dead. Nothing like a little self-righteous judgment with your blueberry pie. Sirens began to blare and a fair-goer collapsed and had to be airlifted to a regional hospital. It was very dramatic.

This is where the big picture came in. When there is an accident, we take astounding measures to save the injured, suffering, or wounded. A fair-goer flown by life-flight to the hospital. At the same time, our society condones, encourages even, an unemployment scenario where even highly trained individuals are cut off from health care and self-esteem as well as income. Left to die a quiet death of desperation. As long as we don’t have to see it, death by redundancy is sanitary and sanctioned. Has this great society ever sinned, lied, or stolen? I have seen that Catskill eagle and I am still awaiting an epiphany.