Friday, March 26, 2010

Idée d‘jour

An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it. — James Albert Michener, novelist (1907-1997)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hooray For Our Side

Dave Collins

March 23rd I awoke to a deluge of reports and op-ed pieces proclaiming the “historic” victory for the forces of democracy and the well being of the 90% of men, women, and children in the United States that own less than 30% of its wealth. The passage by a vote of 219 to 212 of this glorious reform legislation has been seized on and is being celebrated by a great many of Democrats, “progressives,” “liberals,” “leftists,” and the majority of the pundits who purport to represent those political segments of this nation.

Makes me want to puke.

For me, what has just transpired at the hand of the President and the actions of Congress, and all the blather that has followed, is testimony to how pathetically distant this nation is from either a democratic republic or a humane society.

Please consider just a few of what, appears to me, to be obvious facts. First, and most obviously, this nation will continue to stand alone in the world of so-called developed nations (and most “developing” ones). We are the only one where the only way for the vast majority of the public under age 65 to seek financial protection from the ever rising costs of health care is by paying money to a private corporation required by law to put profit above all other concerns. But wait, “health care reform” goes one better; it makes it a federal crime to decline to purchase one of these “products.”

The revelers protest, “Well, our heroes made sure those health insurance corporations can’t turn you down for a pre-existing condition.” Whoopee! They forget to mention that there does not appear to be a single word that prevents those for-profit insurance companies from jacking the rates on all us poor slobs unfortunate enough not to make it all the way to the grave without some chronic illness. See, here in Texas , I get to buy insurance in spite of my “pre-existing condition.” No sweat. I get coverage, though with an astronomical deductible, severe limitation on how much reimbursed care I can get in one year and – drum roll, rim shot – by state law the corporation must charge me twice the prevailing market rate for that coverage, regardless of how much or little use I make of my “insurance.” Of course, all the taxpayers in Texas get the opportunity to kick in a few bucks for some hidden and mysterious subsidy paid by the state to the insurer as a bribe to “only” charge me that double rate. Sweet deal. Probably see more of that now.

“Yeah, but the President cut a deal with the health care industries and they are going to drive out a whole bunch of cost over the next 10 years,” protest the celebrating pundits and their acolytes. Oh. Was that deal recorded in the legislation with harsh fines and penalties if they fail to deliver? [Nope] But hey, we can trust those good profit hungry folks to keep their word. Wink, wink,

“Look, Rome wasn’t built in a day; this is a first step and soon we’ll be in the land of milk, honey and single-payer coverage,” protest the cheerleaders for the victorious team. Riiiiight. When we are offered examples of how this wonderful incremental approach has delivered the goods in the past, it seems the examples have all exceeded their “sell-by dates” by a few decades. News flash. The reason the only thing that could be squeezed out of Congress is a massive corporate give away cloaked by faux reform is that when incrementalism worked in the past, corporations did not own both political parties. They do now. Stay tuned; the mighty Supremes (not the ones from Motown) made it sooo much easier for Big Pharma and Big Insurance and Big Hospitals and Big Banks and all the rest of the Too Big to Fail Gang to simply buy their politicians outright without the bother of all the silly games. Games like the executives paying themselves bonuses they then use to fund their contributions to their corporate PACs; the cover story [currently] required to make the deal go down. Yeah, no sweat, it’s all gonna get better, don’t you know.

So, the for-profit insurance companies now have a federally enforced monopoly (very literally since in some areas one corporation controls as much as 80% of the market [e.g., Blue Cross in Oklahoma and California]). Repeal of the federal law allowing that literal monopoly was once a topic of reform promises and fevered discussion. Hear about that lately? Didn’t think so.

What about the underlying cost of health care? We never see much in the papers or on TV about how the US compares to the rest of the world in cost per person for health care. Once the watered down, likely DOA in the marketplace “public option” was stricken from the “debate,” so was any remaining discussion of the fact that a person here pays a whole lot more than a person in any of those other countries. You know, the ones with the demon socialized medicine. In some cases we pay twice as much. And, across the board, by every accepted measure, those folks in the other countries are healthier. So, what is the program to attack that little problem? Well, we have that promise from the corporations, the one with no teeth. And then we have…squat.

Just a couple more.

Are you on Medicare? Well, one slight-of-hand maneuver that is part of the historic reform is to find money in Medicare to offset the costs of subsidies to folks too damn poor to buy those for-profit products.

Congress and the President do not intend to cover all the cost of subsidies by stealing from Medicare. The industry must chip in also. Pharma, health delivery and health insurance corporations will be taxed. Now, how should we assume those corporations will cover the cost of these taxes? Well, they could cut into profits. None starter, huh? Or, they could cut into executive compensation. Sure, two days after hell freezes over. So, about the only remaining option is - jack the price of the product to cover the subsidies. Pretty nifty shell game, ain’t it?

There are other gems in this magnificent work of what the FT. Worth paper called the “Work of Decades” in its above the fold headline. For example, there is what happened to reproductive rights for women. The cheerleaders shout and the audience cheers. In the immortal words of Will Rogers, “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer and poor can always be counted on to help with the job.”

Those cheerleaders for the centrist wing of the Corporatist Party are tossing their pom-poms and shouting the cheers. Their team has scored a touchdown for the team owners. But, the owners know that if the players in our sports metaphor laden excuse for a political process ain’t pounding on one another, we might lose interest and maybe start demanding new bread and new circuses. So, the right wing of the Corporatist Party is busy designing new plays and the cheer squad is practicing new cheers and the game goes on. Meanwhile, us suckers just keep paying and dying, but we do neither quite so fast as the insurance companies would prefer.

Sorry. Gotta run, I feel the dry heaves coming on.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Everybody's a Jerk, Sometimes

I was visiting with Larry about two weeks ago. Larry had been talking about his experience serving on the board of a synagogue. I repeated my standard bon mot - that the quickest way to get a newcomer to leave a church is to put that person on the church board. Larry was a bit surprised by that comment, and asked why.

I replied that, in the Christian tradition, many naively believe people will always live up to the ideals we profess. That even a political structure like a church board will reflect the best of our ideals rather than the worst human traits. Disagreements will remain civil. There would be no infighting, no back room deals.

Now this is a challenge many find with Christianity. This is why people perceive that Christianity is filled with hypocrites: people do not live up to the ideals they profess. People barely live up to those ideals for the hour or so they spend in church, and generally don't live up to them in the work week. As if this failure were not enough, these people judge others based on the very ideals they fail to uphold. These hypocrites can, for example, condemn same-sex relationships at the same time they are lusting after someone else's spouse (see Mt 5:27 ff).

There is a popular shorthand term for this type of person: a jerk.

Once I realized this was a proper term for this sort of person, I had a surprisingly liberating thought: jerks aren't limited to Christianity. I've seen interviews with the Dalai Lama in which he seemed testier, at times, than one would think a "spiritual" person should be. Asymmetric tactics such as suicide bombs and airplanes used as missiles are just extreme examples of being a jerk. I have no doubt there were times Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were jerks.

Everybody is a jerk, sometimes. There are times we intend to be a jerk. There are other times when we only recognize that we behaved like a jerk in retrospect. There are, of course, times when others think we have behaved like a jerk and we're completely clueless. These are no more than a few standard variations of the human condition.

Everybody has a bad day. There is, inevitably, going to be a day we get up on the wrong side of the bed. When we feel puckish, and say "Stop" when everybody else says "Go". Those who are jerks 24/7 are pretty much in the minority, when you think about it. But everybody has a moment when s/he behaves like a jerk.

Ideally, if I recognize that I've been a jerk, I do my best to make amends. I make a mental note, and strive to avoid repeating the error.

If I think someone else has behaved like a jerk, I strive to let it slide. As a general rule, it's not my place to correct them or to point out what a jerk they're being. I don't know their story. I don't know if their behavior is intentional. In this situation, I have a choice: I can nurse a resentment, or I can let it pass. The former is the healthy choice.

So: some Christians are hypocrites. Who cares? They're a bunch of jerks.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Idée d’jour

A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Monday, March 08, 2010

My Cursillo Weekend

There is a folk axiom to the effect that it takes three positives to outweigh one negative. For several years, I allowed three negative impressions to color my opinion of the Cursillo movement. Now, I have attended a Cursillo weekend. I've waited to write about it because the whole weekend could be colored by one large negative: a severe allergic reaction.

It is probable that I encountered the allergen early Sunday afternoon, in the wooded area of our camp grounds. The reaction occurred about 12 hours later: swollen eyes. Both eyelids swole - the left eyelid completely shut - and the left eyeball itself swole. Steroids were prescribed to reduce the swelling. One of the side-effects of steroids is sleep loss.

I was already sleep-deprived from the weekend — more on that in moment. But, I trust you understand why the allergic reaction would throw a pall over my impression of the overall weekend.

Cursillo, which roughly translates as "short course", originated in the Roman Catholic Church in Spain, in 1944. It was partially inspired by the traditional pilgrimages to Santiago de Compestela. The intent was to train lay leaders in the church. See Wikipedia for more information.

The most positive experience I took from the weekend was confession, which may say a lot. I gained much from taking the time to do what AA calls a "painstaking inventory", as well as the process of sharing that inventory with a priest.

The inventory was facilitated by St. Augustine's Prayerbook, which lists the Seven Deadly Sins, and breaks down the many different ways those sins might be manifested. The psalmist says "protect me from my hidden faults"; this process helped me be more aware of hidden faults.

Although I was a stranger to the priest, she offered valuable "advise and counsel" as the Book of Common Prayer calls it. She did not give me formal penance, but I did take away two goals: spend time each day intentionally giving thanks, and seeking a spiritual director.

Another positive was being with people, and adapting to the crowd (20-30 in all). This is a challenge for me, being an introvert, so I am grateful for the opportunity to face that challenge. I met some old friends, and made a few new ones.

The next point is both positive and negative: the music. I was acquainted with the person leading the music, and was aware his style was less than ideal. Hindsight suggests the primary reason I was asked to attend this Cursillo is because the leaders are seeking new blood by way of music directors. One may not be on the Cursillo team (of which the music director is a member) if one has not attended Cursillo.

I approached George shortly after I arrived, and offered my assistance. I think I may have briefly listed my vitae - I've lead music for church services off & on for over 10 years. He kindly turned down my offer, saying this was a time for the attendees to be fed. As we were talking, someone joined us, and George talked about how nervous he was to be leading music in my presence.

The downside of this was the fact that the music often fell short, and was a frequent distraction. The most frequent problem was the community losing the beat of the music. This was likely due to the fact that the music director played his guitar behind us while he was sitting down. If he had asked for my advise, I would have told him it was best to lead music from in front of the community while standing up. That simple measure would have helped everyone stay on the same beat.

But he never asked my advice. I suppose this was part of the "care-taking" - so I wouldn't expend any energy worrying about the music.

The positive side of this was it gave me an opportunity to work on my humility. I strove, while there, not to judge George. I strove not to let the quality of music affect my appreciation of the other aspects of the weekend. Friday night, a few musicians jammed. This experience alerted me that I was out of practice. So, definitely in no position to judge George one way or the other. Again, an opportunity for humility.

There were five lectures each day, with opportunities to reflect and respond. These lectures did not offer much in the way of new information for me, but did offer new slants or new ways of seeing old ideas. Also, on the whole, a positive.

There were really only two major negatives: one person who was a jerk, and lack of sleep. The latter was primarily due to a heating fan which ran constantly, and never shut off.

The person who was a jerk had impressed me as the type to be a jerk early on, so I was hardly surprised when it happened. His comment did sting, but I don't hold the Cursillo movement responsible for the fact that sometimes people can say insensitive or ill-advised things.

I think there are two bottom-line questions: 1)would I recommend Cursillo to another seeker; and (2) would I be willing to serve as music director in the future.

  1. I think whether Cursillo is right for someone depends a great deal on where they are in their journey. If a person has been attending church regularly for more than 3-5 years, and is ready for an additional step, then they would probably gain from Cursillo. For someone like me, who is an information gatherer, I think it might help to know the titles of those lectures - that would have eased my anxiety. There's so much more to the weekend than those lectures. But keeping so much about the weekend secret makes the Cursillo experience look suspiciously like cultish indoctrination.

  2. As for serving as music director, I don't have an answer right now. Given the caveats I mention above, I don't necessarily trust my immediate gut response to this question. I hope I'm not faced with the decision for at least three months — which I hope will be enough time for the positives to out-weigh the negatives.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Idée d’jour

In the presence of eternity, the mountains are as transient as the clouds.
— Robert Green Ingersoll, lawyer and orator (1833-1899)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Idée d’jour

If I must have a label, I'd rather it be 'a story'.
— author Heidi Durrow, born of an African American father and a white
Danish mother responding to whether she calls herself biracial, mixed
race, black or white