Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Mess We're In (Part II)

We hear stories these days, both on national and on local news, how some poor soul lost her health insurance “because of Obamacare.” These stories infuriate me because it makes it sound as though solid full coverage health insurance policies are being cancelled…just because President Obama pushed through a law designed to expand health insurance coverage.

The problem with these stories is at least two-fold. First, since we don’t know who these people are, we have no idea why they lost their health insurance or what kind they had before they lost it. Second, as anecdotes, the stories are engaging, but anecdotes make lousy policy. What makes good policy is understanding what the ACA is intended to do.

President Obama made a statement, that has been characterized as a promise, that "if you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it.”

What President Obama should have said is that with the ACA, if your health insurance is cancelled, that is you lose it, you can get a new policy. He most certainly misspoke. Sadly, his statement obscured something too many people do not know—before the ACA was passed, you could have your health insurance policy cancelled for many reasons. And before the ACA you might not be able to get new coverage.

Ezra Klein, in a recent blog ran some of the reasons why people can lose their health insurance.
If you're one of the 149 million people who get health insurance through your employer, you can lose your plan if you get fired, or if the H.R. department decides to change plans, or if you have to move to a branch in another state.
If you're one of the 51 million people who get Medicaid, you could lose your plan because your income rises and you're no longer eligible or because your state cut its Medicaid budget and made you ineligible. You could lose it because you moved . . .
If you're one of the 15 million Americans who buys insurance on the individual market, you could lose your plan because your insurer decides to stop offering it or decides to jack up the price by 35 percent. And that's assuming you're one of the lucky people who weren't denied coverage based on preexisting conditions in the first place.
So the outrage that some of the pundits on television are voicing is at best disingenuous, and at worst thoroughly misleading. President Obama, and the ACA, are NOT the true reasons people’s health insurance policies are being cancelled. The real reason is the standard practices of health insurance companies, and the hodge-podge system we have for health insurance.

What the ACA does—or perhaps it is better to say attempts to do—is provide a baseline of what an adequate health insurance plan would look like.

In the past, people in the individual insurance market, and perhaps even employers, shopped for health insurance trying to cut deals which would lower the premium costs. So some plans have been written with incredibly high deductibles—the amount a person has to pay before health insurance kicks in. Or some plans only cover certain services and exclude others. For example, excluding maternity services. Or excluding hospitalization all together.

The essential services required under the ACA are listed here. So, any plan that does not include these services would have to be rewritten to include them. That is a reason why someone’s health insurance might be cancelled now. Sub-standard and inadequate health insurance policies now have to meet a baseline of coverage, and if they don't, those policies have to be re-written to include the essential services.

What has really occurred over the last 30 or so years is an increasing fracturing of how health insurance policies are crafted. When health insurance began, the concept was simple. But with more and more add-ons, with increased specialization, with advances in medical technology, with new drugs being introduced, health insurance companies responded by offering to CONTRACT plans, rather than expand them.

Perhaps the most heinous practice that limited who got health insurance was the denial for pre-existing conditions. The result was a cruel Catch-22—just when you need insurance, you can’t get it because you need it.

As health policies undergo an annual review, and an employer is told what the premiums will be to continue to cover the employees, there have been many instances where employers have asked to help bring down costs. Reducing the number of services covered was one way to do that. Some areas of care have really been “nickel and dimed”, for example mental health services, or the rules governing how services can be accessed have been tightened. Many of us have experienced a health insurance plan that includes pre-certification.

Shana Alex Lavarreda, Ph.D., director of health insurance studies for the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, said it best when she pointed out that before the ACA was enacted, there was "a race to the bottom, with insurers cutting benefits to lower premiums. The essential health benefits set a standard for insurance. Anything below that is not true health insurance."

To lower premium costs, what health insurers were really doing—and what employers were accepting—is offering less for the same premium price. As more and more health costs were uncovered by health insurance, the individual was left having to pay but with no way to be able to pay. And people who had onerous health bills began to go bankrupt.

That is why the way the news coverage about the ACA drives me nuts. We have seemingly forgotten the people who have been bankrupted by out of control health costs. We have forgotten people who were denied coverage because they had pre-existing conditions. We have forgotten that, despite lofty statements that we don’t want a health care system that rations health care (which is how some people view a national health insurance system), we DO ration health care—if you don’t have health insurance you cannot and do not get adequate consistent life-saving health care.

(One more entry on this topic—I will share the findings of a report about how Americans interact with our health insurance system)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Mess We Are in (Part I)

A big chunk of my varied career was working in health policy. It’s a field of endeavor that I greatly enjoy.  Basically, health policy identifies health problems and needs and proposes intentional strategies to help address those issues.  I recall a story I heard that helps explain what someone in health policy does.

Imagine people standing by a raging river.  In the river are scores of people who have fallen in the river somewhere, and are struggling, in danger of drowning.  The people along the bank work frantically to pull them out.  Suddenly one of the rescuers stops, looks up-river and begins to walk that direction.  The other rescuers are stunned—where are you going, they shout.  I am going upriver to find out WHY people are falling in the river, and prevent them before they do.

Of course, this is a made up story—but the person who walks up-river to find out why people are falling in the river is a health policy person.  And today the river that people are falling in—nearly drowning or sometimes even drowning—that river is the lack of adequate health insurance.

Some years ago, I heard one of the premier health economists Uwe Reinhardt ( speak.  He opined that if you were to set out to design a system for providing coverage for health care you would NOT design something such as we have in the U.S.

The United States is the only industrialized country that does not provide universal coverage of health care for its citizens.  So how did we get here?  An NPR story, which aired in 2009, gives a good summary of the history of health insurance in the U.S.  You can read the whole article here.

What began as a simple way to attract people to stay in hospital beds (the beginning of Blue Cross) , over time morphed into the crazy quilt approach of today— to have health insurance, you basically have to be employed.  How did that happen?  The short version is that during World War II, when industry needed to attract workers, employers offered health benefits as sweetener for employees.  What began as less than 10 % of the population with health insurance in 1940, grew to 63% in the 1950s, and grew again to 70% in the 1970s.  Health insurance was firmly linked to employment and there was no apparent need for a national mandate for universal coverage.

Before the introduction of health insurance for hospital stays through Blue Cross, there had been efforts to join European countries in providing health insurance.  As early as the 1880s, countries beginning with Germany had introduced types of universal health coverage.  Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to actively support health insurance.  The Progressives advanced the concept of health insurance, and won the support of the American Medical Association.  Ironically, they were opposed at the time by some elements of organized labor who saw it as “an unnecessary paternalistic reform that would create a system of state supervision over people’s health” (See ). 

Other presidents tried to advance the passage of universal health insurance—FDR, Truman , even Nixon, and before Obama, the effort under Bill Clinton that was headed up by Hillary.  As we know, with the introduction of Medicare, the U.S. finally got health insurance for seniors—during President Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.  By that time, the American Medical Association turned from friend to ardent foe.  Medicare was as controversial when it was passed as the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is now.

And that, dear reader, brings us to the latest efforts to secure universal health insurance in the United States.  

(to be continued)

Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963

I am 18 years old.  My sophomore year in college has just begun in the small college I attend.  Friday afternoon, our college debate team of which I am a member will be leaving some time mid-afternoon to go to Fordham University for a debate tournament.

I am standing in Old Main, on a small flight of stairs leading to some classrooms.  Suddenly, the news comes flashing through--whether a student or staff member had heard it on the radio, I do not know.  But the word comes and it is shocking, earth-shattering.  President Kennedy has been shot and killed.

That breathless moment when everything seemed to cease.  Our world suspended. What to do? Not just what to do personally.  But what to do for the whole country, maybe even the whole world.

Television was still in a kind of infancy--even though President Kennedy's appointee as chair of the Federal Communication Commission Newton Minow had pronounced its being "a vast wasteland."  Our small college had only ONE television set available for public viewing.  That television was in the Commons area of Old Main.

For the next few days, while the country plunged into inarticulate mourning, we students gathered around that television.   CBS had made the decision to begin broadcasting and continue until the president had been buried.  So we watched while Walter Cronkite led the country in an extended wake.

We students did not spend the entire next four days in front of the lone television.  We went on with our student lives.  The debate team missed any Saturday news--we had agonized over whether or not to go to the Fordham tournament but in the end we went.  On Sunday, the college choir had a church service to attend, and so we were in the house of one of the church parishioners to have Sunday dinner when we saw on that television a man, named Jack Ruby, step up to Lee Harvey Oswald and shoot him.  The dissolution of any meaning in our world seemed complete.

On Monday, when the President was going to be buried, some students with cars drove to Washington, DC.  Most of us stayed on campus and continued our television vigil.  

This 50th anniversary--November 22, 2013--also a Friday.  As the grainy black and white footage from those four days of continuous broadcasting, sometimes interrupted by a few splashes of color footage from film, are replayed--I am transported back.  I am once again a college sophomore, standing on the steps in Old Main, conversing with fellow students on the Debate Team--the President has been assassinated.  

Now, fifty years later, I know how very young eighteen is.  How very innocent.  Yet on that day, November 22, 1963, our world changed.  And we were suddenly older--not old, maybe--but the brightness of life had been dimmed in an inexpressible way.  Things would never be the same.

And, of course, we were right--we still had so many fresh tragedies to go through--Vietnam, more assassinations including Jack Kennedy's brother Bobby, civil rights struggles, dogs lunging at people trying to secure the right to vote, Kent State, Watergate...

On and on.  What was lost that day was bright-eyed innocence. 

November 22, 1963.

Monday, November 11, 2013


The Allied Cemetery in Luxembourg (World War II)

November the 11th is a day for remembering.  Many people in the United States, Canada, the UK, and parts of Europe, those who were former Allies during World War I, remember this day as REMEMBRANCE DAY or VETERANS DAY.

But, there are parts of Europe where this day is not remembered--oh, perhaps remembered but not celebrated.

Several years ago, when we were on a trip through Germany, we visited Cologne.  This lovely city had been heavily bombed by the Allies during World War II.  It is now rebuilt, and even restored in many parts to its medieval heritage.  The famous cathedral stands again in all its imposing glory.  

As we walked around town, we passed a store front which was filled with costumes--you know, as in Hallowe'en type costumes.  We asked our city guide if Hallowe'en was popular.  He looked a bit puzzled and then replied--oh no, these are for Martinstag.  

Martinstag?--now we were puzzled.

Well, he explained--it's like Hallowe'en and harvest festival or Thanksgiving combined. We accepted that--adding a new celebration to our store of knowledge.  And when, we asked, is it celebrated?  He replied--on November 11.

Now, it was our turn to be puzzled.  November 11?  But, that's Remembrance Day, or Veterans' Day, or...Armistice Day.

Once again our guide looked puzzled--so we explained--the end of World War I, the treaty which took effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

But, of course, by now it dawned on us that it shouldn't be surprising that the defeated would not celebrate a day when victory came, but so did defeat.

Some people win and some people lose.  On this day, I always remember the sacrifices--those who fight have a cause they believe is right; they have countries they love and die for; and sometimes they are on the winning side, and sometimes the losing side.

Herewith John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Field"
In Flanders Field
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae, written 1915

The German Cemetery in Luxembourg (World War II)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Find a Penny

Here's a test--if you are walking along somewhere and spot a penny that has been dropped, do you pick it up?

I confess I do.  And my reason for picking it up has nothing to do with whether or not I want "good luck."  As in: "Find a penny, pick it up; all the day you'll have good luck."
There is an alternate version as to what luck a penny might bring.  Once when I found a penny lying on the ground and went to pick it up, my daughter, who was a little girl at the time, said  "Don't, Mom" she said--"it's tails--bad luck."

No, I pick up pennies because I figure any found money is....well, money.

I am not a child of the Depression, as my parents were, but I have a healthy respect for not wasting money.  My parent's generation was a model of frugality--emptying their dinner plates, not wasting food, not throwing something away simply because it is out-dated or broken.

I can recall times when I did something that resulted in my losing money--no, I don't gamble.  One such occasion was not long after our son was born.  My husband was teaching and, as a new mother, I had cut back my working hours teaching, becoming an adjunct college instructor.  Now, I realize how little adjunct instructors are paid, but at the time I didn't know that going to half-time teaching did not mean earning half my salary--it meant earning far less than half salary.  

Anyway, to be frugal I would buy meat at our local farmers' market--usually in some quantity that meant I repackaged the meat before I froze it.  After I had done up all my packages, and after a day had passed, I looked in the freezer for a flank steak I had bought.  It was nowhere to be found.  I was puzzled--and then it hit me.  In my repackaging, I had obviously missed that flank steak, and carried it out to the trash along with all the brown wrapping paper the butcher used.  I went to the outside trash cans to check--and, sure enough, there it was.  It took me a long time to get over having thrown away a perfectly good cut of meat.  All I could think was--what a waste of money.

Another time, I did in fact lose money.  For more than 20 years, my husband and I went to home football games for Penn State University.  It was great fun to get away, visit a lovely location--as Happy Valley is--and to have time with friends.  Over time, the rules for entering the football stadium got more restrictive and carrying bags into the stadium was forbidden.  So, one time, I tucked a $20 into my sock, thinking I would have a bit of money if I wanted to buy a snack or soft drink.

When we got home, I looked for the $20 since I hadn't bought anything.  GONE. Apparently, it had worked its way out, and presumably fell on the ground.  At least, I managed to get past this loss a little more quickly--I consoled myself by thinking that some student found a spare $20 lying on the ground, and was happy at the sudden "wealth."

So, found money--whether a penny or $20--I'll take it.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Again? It's Happened Again!

What, what?--you must be saying.  What has happened again?

A famous (or at least well-known) person has been caught plagiarizing.  Who, who? -- you say, waiting breathlessly.  Go ahead--breathe--I want to work up to this latest incident.

Now that I am no longer teaching, I do not have occasion to lecture students on the evils of plagiarism.  This topic was a regular cautionary lecture for me to deliver, usually early in a semester, and certainly as part of the instruction on conducting and using research. 

I have written about the topic in this blog--multiple times, I discover when I do a quick search on "plagiarism."  Here's how I railed on the topic previously:

Every semester I try and try to impress upon my students the need for absolute academic integrity. I use several examples of famous people who have been accused of plagiarizing--e.g. accusations made against J. K. Rowling (settled in her favor), against Doris Kearns Goodwin (who indicated that the plagiarism had been inadvertent due to a careless assistant), and against Stephen Ambrose (proven). I even used an essay written by Anna Quindlen about Wayne Newton plagiarizing her, until the students said--who's Wayne Newton, so I abandoned that example.

So, the long and the short of it is--yes, famous people do plagiarize.  And, if they are big enough, they own up to it.

So, herewith--it has happened again.  Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky, has been caught plagiarizing.  Several times, he has used wording, obviously obtained from Wikipedia, and has not credited the source.  Rachel Maddow has done a fine job in her show of "outing" the senator for his intellectual thievery and dishonesty.

And how does this tough, no-nonsense senator respond?  HE WANTS TO CHALLENGE RACHEL TO A DUEL.  Seriously.  Here's an MSNBC story on his response.  And, again, I have to say SERIOUSLY.  Senator Paul makes it sound as though the only reason he doesn't challenge Rachel to a duel is

"... I can’t do that because I can’t hold office in Kentucky then."

I am flabbergasted practically beyond words. Senator Rand Paul is upset because 1) he was caught plagiarizing; 2) he can't admit that he was plagiarizing; 3) he thinks he is being unfairly targeted and picked on for plagiarizing; and 4) he wants to challenge Rachel Maddow to a duel, but he can't because, then, he couldn't be the senator from Kentucky?

NEWS FLASH to Senator Rand Paul--you SHOULDN'T be a United States senator if you are so intellectually dishonest that you plagiarize, and then refuse to own it, and decide that you should challenge the person who publicized your dishonesty to a duel!

Monday, October 21, 2013

First World, Third World

Reading a post by my blogging friend Jayne today (go here to read it for yourself...and make sure you watch the video at the end of her post), I found these words: "First world problem."  Her post was making a completely different point, but it sent my mind back several years to my teaching at the nearby community college. 

I taught several course--the ubiquitous English 101--Introduction to Composition.  Since the community college curriculum requires that ALL students take English Composition, there were many sections of this course and many teachers.  English 101 was followed by English 102--Introduction to Argument and Logic.  I taught these two courses, but I much preferred teaching English 102.  (One other course I got to teach several times was Introduction to Literature--my favorite course!)

So, why did Jayne's words--first world problem--set my mind back to teaching?  Because as a final project, I required students to work in teams to explore a third world problem and whether or not the first world had any obligation to address that problem.

Before I describe more about this problem, I acknowledge that current terminology no longer favors the use of the terms "first world" or "third world".  These terms are relics of the balance of power following World War II--the former Allies, primarily the United States and Britain, were the first world; the Communist block was the second world; and the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America constituted the third world.  Eventually, the terms "first world" and "third world" came to indicated "developed" and "undeveloped/ developing" countries.  Of course, today, the Cold War has ended; and developing countries are rising--think India or Brazil.  So, the old terms don't work any more.

Here's what the project entailed.  I instructed each group to pick a "third world" country, and then identify a major problem in that country.  Then, decide what obligation, if any, the "first world" has to help ameliorate that problem.  The project involved an oral team report, as well as individual research papers.

The range of problems selected and countries researched was fascinating.  Oh, there were some amusing (and appalling) problems.  I had one young African-American woman tell me she wanted to study Africa.  I said--fine, which country?  She gave me a genuinely blank look which told me she had no idea Africa was a continent, not a country.  Once more informed, she and her team decided to study AIDS in Zambia--a worthy project.      

For several semesters running, I had projects on Haiti--you name it, Haiti has it as a problem.  I had human trafficking in general, and more specifically focused on prostitution.  I had water, or really lack thereof.  And I had many diseases--AIDS, malaria.  I had genocide (in Rwanda, of course).

Mostly, the students would argue that the "first world" should do something about these various problems.  No magical solutions ever emerged.  One group, that had tackled Somalia and its piracy, acknowledged that a lack of strong government was a major problem.  One student in that group turned in his research paper wherein he had argued, quite sincerely, that the country's problems would all be solved if they simply became Christian.  I pressed him hard on his paper--and in the end pointed out that he had not demonstrated a complete comprehension of what the country was like (for example, he didn't even enumerate how many people followed what faith traditions) and I pointed out that he had not convincingly argued for his solution.  Poor kid--he really thought that waiving Christianity as a solution was convincing--no need for proof.     

All in all, the end of semester projects were always a highlight for me.  My strong sense was that most of the students actually grappled, even for a short while, with large, perhaps unsolvable, problems.  And they had to learn something outside their own small worlds.  Plus they had to think about what it means to live in the "first world" when so many other people live in the "third world." 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Revising History

We recently visited Hilton Head Island (see previous post) and, while we enjoyed the beauty of the place, the sights we saw and the delightful weather we had, I was struck by how the telling of history can change.

One day, we went on a trip to the Sea Pines Preserve area, and took a boat ride to see alligators and various birds.  It was a dreary day with overcast skies--not conducive to bringing out lots of animals, but great for tolerability.  Our tour guide and boat captain--a transplanted Brit--kept up a running patter, pointing out flora and fauna.  At one point, we asked--was the lake on which we were sailing "natural or man-made."  Well, he said, it was where dirt was scooped up to create some of the golf courses on the island.  (There are more than a dozen.) The lakes are what was left behind.  So, they turned it into a wildlife sanctuary.

He went on to describe how in the 1970s, the island was a sorry place to be.  There was land here, but of no value.  Only a few people were living here, eking out a miserable existence.  (These aren't his precise words, but very nearly.) So, someone got the bright idea--build golf courses and give people a reason to come here.

I must say--that explanation struck me.  We had briefly visited Hilton Head in the mid-1980s.  At that time, I came away with the primary impression of lots of gated communities.  But, I had also read about the people who lived here, and how with real estate prices rising, and along with that property taxes, the original residents were being priced out of their native area.  And who were these people?

Two primary groups of people inhabited it--of course, originally native Americans did for centuries before European settlers arrived.  During the Civil War, Union troops occupied it and used it as part of their blockade of Southern ports.  As a consequence of the Union presence, ex-slaves moved to Hilton Head--hence the Gullah traditions in Hilton Head.  No doubt, some of the descendants of those ex-slaves were the ones "eking out a miserable existence" when Charles Fraser, and eventually others, began developing Hilton Head Island.

The full-time population of the island grew from 300 in 1950, to 2,500 in 1969, to 6,500 in 1975, to 12,500 in 1982, to the current population of 28,000.  Add to that the tourist population of over one and a half million each year.  

And the more recent "original" residents, the Gullah?  Well, their numbers are not precisely known, but their way of life continues to be threatened.  

Yes, we very much enjoyed our stay and my overall impression is most positive--a beautiful place, well designed, well maintained.  But, I always keep in mind the people who are dispossessed as others move in.  Perhaps, thus it ever was--it is just hard for me to reckon with.

OK--herewith a few photos of nature.

Fallen tree and birds

Hilton Head sunset

Sea Pines Preserve with alligator

Sea Pines Preserve--Heron in flight

Sea Pines Preserve with Great Heron

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Road Trip

For more than a decade, my husband and I have done almost all of our travels by flying. We fly to London and to San Diego to visit our children.  We fly to Europe for a vacation, usually once a year.  But we do few if any road trips.

When our children were younger, we did road trips for family vacations.  We drove north several times, doing a loop that included New England one time, up into Canada--Ontario and Quebec--another, south another trip to Disney World, stopping at some of the east coast islands along the way.  But it has been quite a while since we have done a road trip.

Recently our daughter asked if we wanted to join her, her husband and daughter for a mini-vacation on Hilton Head.  We took about two seconds (thinking about having that time with our granddaughter...of course, and with our daughter and son-in-law) and said SURE.

So, we are off on a road trip.

Driving south...

Long stretches of highway.  Lots of time for conversation, or listening to music, or looking around.  Big sky up ahead.

And then we arrive at our destination.

The piece de resistance!

Road trip?  Totally worth it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

To Sleep, Perchance... dream.

Of course, "to dream" is the continuation of the line from Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy.  But, there are times when I think the "perchance" applies to the "to sleep" part.  At least, that is what it seems to be for me some nights.

And last night was such a night.

When my husband and I had both retired, and were free--like water--to seek our own level, we found we have different body clocks.  Work requirements, of course, impose a body clock on any of us.  I am perfectly capable of getting up early in the morning.  In fact, after our son, our first child, was born and I was still teaching college, I had a 7:30 a.m. class.  So I got up at 5:30 a.m. on those days, got myself ready, woke up our son and got him dressed.  Then we headed off to campus, where one of the faculty wives living on campus took care of him.  I nursed him, then headed off to class by 7:30 a.m.  

But, when given the opportunity to go to sleep when I was ready, and get up when I was done sleeping, I found my natural timing was late to bed, late to rise (sorry, Ben Franklin).  I rarely wind down before midnight, and usually prefer to sleep to around 8 a.m.

As I have gotten older, a new dynamic has crept in--occasional insomnia.  It takes me a long time to unwind--make that, a L-O-N-G time.  I read at least a half an hour, then turn out the light and even then stay awake maybe another half hour before I finally drop off the sleep cliff.  I am doomed if I fall asleep a bit, then awake immediately.  That dooms me to an even longer struggle to go to sleep.  As I said, last night was such a night.  I turned out the light at 12:05 a.m., then fell asleep somewhat quickly, but awoke within 5 minutes with a tickling cough.  And that was it--I could not get back to sleep.  All told, it took me an hour and a half to get back to sleep.

My mind jumped from project to project that I COULD do--say, clean out a closet, or tidy up the basement.  But I made myself stay in bed.  However, my body seemed to think adrenalin was called for, which woke me even more.  Eventually, I got out of bed, went to where one of the cats was curled up, and snuggled up to her for a while--that is very calming.

The one thing I didn't do is read--because, frankly, reading just wakes me up.  Finally, I did get to sleep.

I find it humorous that one of the proverbial ways to drift off to sleep is to "count sheep."  My luck--I would end up shearing them, carding the wool, weaving it into yarn and then knitting a sweater--all before I finally got back to sleep.

Hope your sleep is less disturbed than mine.  Sweet dreams.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

A Sense of Place

I was an English major in college, and I soon learned that there is no way to be a literature major without being a student of history.  As it happens, I do greatly enjoy history.  While there are many ways to learn and experience history, for me, a sense of place adds a dimension that I cherish.

One of the benefits of traveling is that sometimes when we visit somewhere, I am able to get a sense of place that gives fresh insight.  After years of taking of family vacations mostly at the New Jersey shore, with an occasional trip to New England or parts of Canada, our daughter suggested, in 1996, that we should go somewhere abroad for our summer trip.  Thus it was that we headed off for our first "European" vacation--we did a somewhat grand tour of parts of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 

And that's how I had my first experience abroad of "a sense of place."  We were visiting Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh.  Our guide took us into one room and announced "...and here is where David Rizzio was killed."  Well, believe me, I took notice.  I had read the seminal biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Antonia Fraser, and had absorbed many of the details, including the account of the horrific murder of Rizzio, the private secretary to Mary.  Mary's closeness to him had engendered palace jealousies as well as rumors that he was the father of her child.  So a group of nobles murdered him right in front of Mary, who was pregnant.  The sense of place--that here was where a specific event in history had occurred--made my understanding of that event take on new meaning.

There are, of course, many such places around the world.  While I don't make that the only reason to see some place in the world, it certainly adds to my enjoyment.  My master's thesis research focused on the historical Thomas Becket, and how he was portrayed in two dramatic works.  So, of course, one of the places I had long wanted to visit was Canterbury.  On one of our recent visits to England, our daughter helped arrange a day trip for us to visit Canterbury.  Not only was I a Canterbury pilgrim for a brief day but I also got to stand in the cathedral that marks the approximate spot where Becket was slain by four knights who thought they were doing the king's bidding.  That actual altar in front of which Becket was slain no longer stands, but there is a candle in the floor marking the spot.

Another place where there is a palpable sense of what had happened there was in the cathedral in Worms, Germany.  We were on a family history tour in the year 2000 when we visited this cathedral.  It was to this place that Martin Luther had been summoned for the famous Diet of Worms.  (What budding history student hasn't giggled at such a thought....a diet of worms.) Luther was challenged by the pope's representative to recant his developing Protestant views.  Of course, the historical representation is Luther's famous speech:  
"Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

The historical record is not so clear that he actually spoke these words on that occasion, but standing in the Cathedral of Worms, the sense of place makes Luther's brave stand very real.

So it was that on our most recent trip, a cruise of the Baltic Sea with various stops along the way (see my prior post for the countries we visited), we stopped in St. Petersburg.  This is a city I have long wanted to see.  Many years ago, I read of biography of Peter the Great, who developed this marvelous city as Russia's outlet to the Baltic Sea and thereby eventually the Atlantic Ocean.  I had also read Harrison Salisbury's account The 900 Days: the Siege of Leningrad.  And, I have read many works about the last of the Romanovs--Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra.  

Prominent in their lives was their youngest child and only son--who would be heir to the throne, young Prince Alexis.  He was born after his parents had borne four daughters, and they were devastated when Alexis was found to be hemophiliac.  He was frequently gravely ill, suffering the bleeding episodes that threatened his life almost constantly.  Understandably, but not helpfully, his mother Alexandra was frantic.  So when an itinerant holy man--at least so styled--came into her life in the man of Rasputin and promised he could heal her son, she was primed.  Eventually, Rasputin insinuated himself into their lives and seemingly advised them on far more than Alexis' health.  The resulting jealousy and paranoia among Russian nobility led to a plot headed up by Prince Felix Yusupov, who along with his co-conspirators, decided to kill Rasputin.

So, another sense of place--on our visit to St. Petersburg, we visited the Yusupov Palace and saw the small basement dining room (complete with creepy wax figures recreating the scene) where Rasputin was lured to his eventual death.  He did not die quickly--he was first poisoned, then shot, then drowned--none of which caused his demise.  After being thrown into a canal to drown, Rasputin managed to crawl out, after his captors had left the scene and there he died of hypothermia, freezing to death in the cold Russian winter.

 A sense of place, indeed.

Where have you been where you had a sense of place for history?

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Sailing, Sailing...

My husband and I recently took a cruise in the Baltic Sea.  We began in Amsterdam, visited--in this order--Warnemunde (Germany); Stockholm (Sweden); Tallinn (Estonia); St. Petersburg (Russia); Helsinki (Finland); and Copenhagen (Denmark).

To get to all these locations, we had three separate days where we were at sea--sailing, sailing.

When you are at seas—there’s not much to do.  However, one does get to thinking—how travel has changed over the centuries, sailing especially.  One or two centuries ago, the idea of luxury cruising would have been madness.  Ships were utilitarian and passengers had some place to go, not just cruise.

But these day, sailing on a passenger liner seems to be purely for leisure.  The 2,000+ passengers on this cruise are interested in…eating…drinking…partying…playing.
Not one of us has to work to make the ship go where it is going.

Here’s a reflection on the Curiosities of Cruising
  • Quantity of food…it is obscene.  There are more meals prepared than there are people on board. 
There are 2,000 passengers, 900 crew members, and 3 meals a day.
Yet there are 9,000 meals a day prepared.
  • Opportunities to pay
While the basics are well-provided for—food, juices, coffee & tea, there are many extras for which you pay extra.  Including--
Soft drinks
All alcohol
And all are very expensive…make that profit centers.

  • Art

Not really art—we went to a lecture one day which promised “30,000 years of art in 30 minutes”—it was appalling, riddled with misinformation, including misspelling artists’ names.  Really the only point was to get us to buy some painting.

We were all handed lottery tickets at the outset, then at the end of the lecture, a “winner” was chosen.  My husband believes whoever won was a plant.  When the lecture began, there were only about 5 or 6 of us; but by the end, the back had filled up, and all the “winners” were sitting in the back.

As someone who has made 3 ocean voyages (in my youth) for transportation reasons, I am bemused at the current concept of cruising.  I can see its benefits for people who have spent a long time away from home—missionaries, diplomats, military service people—who need to re-acclimate culturally after years abroad.  Today that need has vanished--and cruising now seems aimless.   Destination bound, but potentially aimless. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Summer is for Reading...

...but then, so is the whole year around.

Now that I am retired, I have the luxury of reading whatever I want at any time.  The closest I come to "having" to read something is reading the selection for a book group I attend.  There was a time--when I was teaching literature--that I might be only one chapter ahead of the students.  And, then the pressure was to read what I "had" to read.

But, old habits die hard, and I still associate summer with a time to read.

So, herewith a couple of recommendations and one warning.

I have just finished reading the book The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.  This novel captures with stunning effect what it was like to live through the siege of Sarajevo, which began in April, 1992 and continued until February, 1996.  The novel revolves around a factual event--a cellist appears one day in a public place (keep in mind, the city is being bombarded with shells, and snipers in the hills that ring the city are shooting anyone), sets up a chair, takes out his cello and begins to play Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. The achingly beautiful music speaks to the pain and suffering the residents of Sarajevo must endure.  The impetus for the cellist is his vow to play every day for 22 days as a way to honor 22 people who were killed while standing in a bread line.

In the novel, three other characters' lives are slowly revealed in pieces.  You do not learn everything you could about a character.  You really have little sense as to how they looked.  You only learn first names, and the cellist himself is unnamed.  And yet, each of the characters is affected by the cellist.
A second novel I recommend is The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich.  I previously have recommended Erdrich as an author, having identified her novel The Master Butchers Singing Club.  And once again, she met my expectations.  The Plague of Doves draws on some of Erdrich's own background, as native American, and yet the work is far more complex than simply drawing on personal biography.  The book begins with a farm family being brutally killed, except one crying baby.  It is not until the end of the novel that you learn the identity of that baby.  Not surprisingly, the people who are seized and charged with the crime are several native American young men from a nearby reservation.

Erdrich moves across decades, intertwining generations and families, and only at the end does she gather up the many strands and reveal the final mystery of her tale.
In a completely different vein is the delightful and informative non-fiction work A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage.  Standage writes about beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola.  These six beverages, in chronological order, can be used as a means to view human development and history.  It is the sort of book you can pick up, put down, interrupt, resume--and not lose the train of thought of the author.  Along the way you learn many fascinating tidbits about each beverage.

Here's a quick example.  Did you know that beer was originally drunk from a communal bowl, with partakers drinking from the same vessel rather than individual glasses?  So, when you clink glasses with someone, and say CHEERS (or whatever), you are recreating the experience of the communal bowl.
This warning can be summed up in a quick sentence: don't trust the promotional blurb you get from Amazon.
Yes, dear reader, Amazon can phony up the description of a book, and can even have all manner of glowing reviews--and the book turns out to be crap.

So it is that I ordered No Regrets, Coyote by John Dufresne.  It was billed as a murder mystery (those can be fun summer reads, but you need a skilled author such as P.D. James or Tony Hillerman).  What it turned out to be was a foolish trifling melange of too many characters, ridiculous descriptions, totally confusing names, and an improbable plot that manipulates the characters rather than letting things develop out of the character's personality.  

Mind, if that's your kind of book--by all means, get it.  Otherwise, save your money...and your time.

How about you?  Do you have any recommendations?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Weddings and Funerals

Remember some years back when a surprise hit movie came out?  Four Weddings and A Funeral.  Such a fun movie, even though it was yet another vehicle for Hugh Grant to do his amiable bumbling routine.  

Of course we do love weddings, and even funerals.  These celebrations--of love, of life--give us an excuse, a reason to gather as family and friends.

Sometimes we go through spates of nothing but funerals.  For a time, it seemed our families--the families into which my husband and I were born--had nothing but funerals.  Grandparents died, and then my father-in-law.  So in a very short time, we had three family funerals.  That's a lot of sadness and grieving.  BUT it was also a lot of family gathering and reminiscing.

This summer, we have had two family weddings in two weeks.  The first was a Mennonite wedding, the second a Roman Catholic wedding.  Quite a difference in setting--one outdoors, the other in a church; in mood--one filled with congregational singing, the other with no congregation singing at all; one simple, the other a bit more ornate.  But both were filled with joy.  Children reveling in the occasion, the permission to dance all around.  Young people laughing, dancing, full of the promise of a future unruffled by life's complications.  Middle-aged and senior folks sitting, talking, catching up, watching young people.  All filled with the joy of family and friends.

It is tempting to think that weddings are better than funerals, but I don't feel that way.  They both provide times for people to gather and celebrate.  



Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lazy hazy days of summer

As we in the northeast U.S. swelter under an oppressive heat wave--almost a week of over 90 degree F temperature--I am so grateful for central air-conditioning.  Our house has a heat pump, which heats in cold weather and cools in hot weather.  So, the sweltering heat is bearable, because we are cool inside.

But it wasn't always so--and in many parts of the world it is not so.  Our daughter living in London knows that central air-conditioning is a rarity in homes.  Most of the time, the weather cooperates, but when it does heat up--well, obviously things get hot.

The advent of air-conditioning in the modern era occurred at the outset of the 20th century when Willis Carrier (yes, that's why there is a brand of air-conditioners named Carrier), who had recently graduated from Cornell University, set about to solve the problem for a printing company in Brooklyn, New York.  For several decades, air-conditioning was used in commercial settings, but not private homes.

Not doubt, many of you readers can recall a time without air-conditioning in your homes.  So, what did we do to stay cool?

Swimming--I have previously written about my memories of swimming in an old swimming hole.  Just as with little access to home air-conditioning, most people did not have access to private swimming pools.  So, off we went to municipal pools, or to swimming holes, or to creeks.  Nothing better on a steamy hot summer day than a swim in a bone-chilling creek.

Drinking Coca-cola--I spent one summer with my mother's sister, my aunt, and her family.  My cousin and I would walk a half a mile from the house to the corner grocery store in the little village where we lived.  Once inside, we would immediately head for the cooler for a bottled soda...or, I should say, pop.  Reaching around in the cooler, hands in the watery ice mix, selecting our choice, pulling it out, removing the cap on the bottle opener attached to the side of the cooler, paying for our prize, and then walking back home--ahhh!  That's the way to beat the summer time heat.

Sitting on the porch swing--wonderful old houses always had wide porches with overhanging roofs, and a swing hanging from the rafters.  Even on a hot day, you could always sit on the swing, gently rocking back and forth, creating your own breeze if there were no other breeze around.  For a time, porches (or verandas) went out of favor, but--thank goodness--they are back.  That's one feature I could wish our home had--a lovely porch.  With a swing, of course.

I am sure there were other ways we beat the heat.  Or, if we didn't, we just put up with it.  We sweated, we fanned, we rolled the windows down on our cars and let the hot wind evaporate our sweat.  We slept without any covers.  We managed.

Enough of this stroll down memory lane.  Frankly, as fond as these memories are, I think I'll stay inside on these lazy hazy days of summer....and enjoy our central air-conditioning.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

So, What's Different

Along with many other folks this morning, I am pondering the significance of the "not guilty" verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.

First, I must say that I wholeheartedly wish the news' fascination with this story would be focused elsewhere.  There are so many topics around the world far more worthy of laser focus than the story of one misguided "citizen" who patrolled his neighborhood on the lookout for "punks." 

But, we all know that the 24/7 news cycle simply needs, make that creates, these stories--or else the perpetual breathless approach to news might shrivel up and go away.  Oh, there's a thought.

Back to this trial and its perhaps all-too-predictable verdict.

I have been puzzling over the details of this story ever since it first emerged.  I have tried to understand what kind of neighborhood George Zimmerman lived in that he saw himself as the last bastion of civilization.  There he was, patrolling the streets of his neighborhood trying to keep the barbarians at bay.  And when he failed--after all, a young man still walked through that gated community for all Zimmerman's watchfulness--he decided he had to take "the law" into his own hands.  And since he was armed, he felt invincible.  

So, what's different about our neighborhood--the place where we live?

Perhaps we have not had break-ins.  That was part of the dynamic that George Zimmerman perceived that gave rise to his determination to patrol the neighborhood.  But, no, we too have had break-ins in our neighborhood.

We have had several break-ins.  At least one included a young man knocking on the door of one house in our neighborhood and, flashing a gun, demanding money.  Another break-in occurred while neighbors were at a family funeral (which alerted us to the fact that some people are so coldly opportunistic that they read obituary notices to see who won't be home). 

Perhaps we don't have young men walking through our neighborhood.  That too was part of the dynamic for George Zimmerman.  But we have young people, mostly young men, some of whom are white and some of whom are black.  So, in George Zimmerman's parlance, we too have "punks."

So what is different?

Well, for one thing we do not have a gated community.  We are bounded on two sides by apartment complexes, which makes our neighborhood seem like a convenient short-cut path.  Not being a gated community is just a small difference.

What really sets us apart, I believe, is the fact that we FEEL like a neighborhood.  I don't know everyone by name, but I know many people.  So, when I see someone walking through the neighborhood, I say "hi."  I realize I don't know everyone I talk to, but I want to be friendly in a non-threatening way, which carries its own message.  The message is "I am paying attention to you, and to who is here in my neighborhood."

When someone is away from his or her home in our neighborhood, we watch each other's houses.  In fact, for immediate neighbors, we frequently make a lap around the outside of the house, just checking to make sure all is in order. 

I am not naive.  Being neighborly doesn't shield our neighborhood from petty crime.  But not assuming that anyone who walks through our neighborhood is intent of committing a crime--well, that helps to keep things from escalating out of control, until someone arms himself, decides he can determine a passer-by's motivation, and with a side-arm to trail that person, and eventually "defend" himself.  That's what is different.

Might it just be that a mind-set of violence leads to a culture of violence which results in a commission of violence?

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

We, the People

Watching the news from Egypt, where a duly elected government has been deposed, we should be thankful—on this eve of the Fourth of July—that our founding leaders took care to enshrine some bedrock rights.

Herewith, the ten Amendments to the Constitution of the United States--these ten form our Bill of Rights.  Taken all together they have helped provide us with stable governments over our more than 200 years of history. 

These amendments are all important—there is not one that should overpower the others.  I could wish for greater clarity of construction—just look at the Second Amendment—so that subsequent interpretation would not be so difficult.  But, in the main, these ten statements capture the essence our the genius of our democracy. 

Would you vote for these today?  When the “man on the street” is asked about these rights, there are times when those who are ignorant that these rights are already secured sometimes answer in the negative to some of them.

Shame on us if we forget what these statements mean.  So on this Fourth of July, contemplate their meaning—all of them.  And be grateful.

First Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Second Amendment
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.[54]
Third Amendment
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Fourth Amendment
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Fifth Amendment
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Sixth Amendment
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Seventh Amendment
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Eighth Amendment
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Ninth Amendment
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Tenth Amendment
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.