Believe it or not, some things are universal

A couple of articles caught my eye today. Like most of us (i.e. Boomers), I have more than a passing interest in issues related to health and longevity. Naturally, then, when I considered where to start reading this morning– Jeff Sessions confronting accusations of lying to the Senate, another accusation of sexual assault against Roy Moore, presidential pressure for judicial retribution against a former rival (yes, in the U.S.), or research showing yet more reasons that coffee is good for us– you can guess where I clicked first. Latte in hand, I began to read.

Time Magazine (time.com) reported on a presentation by the University of Colorado medical school on their innovative analysis of the data in the landmark Framingham Heart Study. The strongest correlation they discovered was the link between drinking coffee (up to at least six cups per day) and reduced risk for heart failure, stroke, and coronary heart disease. Well, that called for another espresso!

Even sweeter for yours truly was the next article, about Harvard researchers proclaiming that “eating too quickly may be bad for your health.” Slow and steady eaters are less likely to become obese or to develop metabolic syndrome, with its associated stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. This was welcome information because my own research had only confirmed that slow eating can really irritate those waiting for you to finish. Bonus benefits seem to be that slow eaters may burn more calories and that, by chewing and swallowing more slowly, they recognize that they are filling up and consequently eat less. I am less convinced about this last finding, having learned through determined training that it is possible to eat slowly and still eat a lot. Save when one’s plate is prematurely whisked away.

As much as I enjoyed reading articles that supported the wisdom of two of my habits (and don’t we all?) it also reminded me that for every research finding there is usually another bit that more or less contradicts it, sooner or later. My favorite commentary on this observation comes from the 1973 movie, Sleeper, after the protagonist awakes from a 200 year cryogenic slumber:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.

In spite of this, most of us do our best. Many or most of our generation are determined not to go gently into that good night. Eyes and ears always open for any new idea, book, or product to bolster our anti-aging arsenal.  But what efforts are going to be effective?

I spent some time with a friend last week who for the first time in his life has recently faced a couple of negative test results. This led him to take one of those interactive surveys that give you feedback on your health habits, your projected life-expectancy, what you can do to increase it, and by how much. I’ve done the same and his observation of the results was the same as mine: unless you are a smoker, are morbidly obese, or refuse to wear seatbelts, your increased life-expectancy if you make ALL the suggested changes amount to no more than a year or two.

Actually, there is one factor that the health questionnaires don’t address that would skew the results. The ones I’ve seen don’t ask the question, “Do you have good health insurance?” Their results are geared for those who do. Ah, you see where I am going with this, don’t you?

We want to believe that if we do all the right things, we will be rewarded with a long and healthy life. Research usually asserts that our individual choices do in fact affect our chances. A 5% lower risk of this or an 8% greater chance of that. Similarly, drivers who do all the right things and make good choices have better safety statistics and smaller risk of accidents. But, they still need insurance. Are mandated to have insurance.

When Massachusetts passed RomneyCare, or whatever they call it now, Harvard researchers found a 3% drop in the state’s mortality rate in the first four years of universal coverage. This in a state that already had a higher percentage insured than most others. The same source had this:

In 2002, the Institute of Medicine estimated that the death rate of the uninsured is 25 percent higher than for otherwise similar people who have health insurance. According to the study, 18,000 excess deaths occurred each year because 40 million Americans lacked insurance.

Of course, from listening to friends and reading the opinions of others, it seems safe to say that the quality of our lives matters at least as much as their duration. We would like a long life, but we would really like it to be as healthy as possible. So, whose quality of life do you predict will be better? Whose would you choose? Someone who has chronically deferred medical care due to lack of access or fear of financial ruin? Or someone whose annual physicals, lab tests, preventive and proactive care, and necessary surgeries have been a matter of routine?

For an individual to make smart, research-based choices for a healthy life is a baffling endeavor, a maze with conflicting signposts, detours, and dead ends. And, if we do well navigating that maze, perhaps we will live a little longer and hopefully more than a little healthier. Worth the effort and something we all can do.

But, we have no control over our DNA and limited control over the unforeseen accidents and other events that can derail the healthiest among us. And, by this point in our lives, most of us understand that everyone is derailed at some point, to some degree. If you have been there already, you know that you have never felt more vulnerable, never more dependent on others, never more naked. Everything else, except for the support of loved ones, is immaterial whether you are rich or poor.

While we live in a time that has reached a nearly-miraculous state of medical understanding and technology, we live in a country that somehow still struggles with the basic question of whether everyone deserves to benefit from it. It is clearly not a matter of whether it is affordable. It is a matter of values and priorities.

In its 2016 report, Universal Health Coverage and Health Outcomes, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked its 35 member nations for population coverage for core health services. 24 of these countries have achieved completely universal coverage, 22 of them totally with public funds. The United States had the smallest percentage coverage, except for Greece, falling short of economic powerhouses Poland, Mexico, Hungary, and 30 others. While we attained runner-up to the bottom with 88% coverage, 54% of our population have primarily private insurance and only 34% public. The nation closest to that mix was Chile, with 93% coverage, 19% private and 74% public.

Each of these countries has recognized that the health of its state can be no greater than the state of their people’s health.

Is it any wonder that politics of divisiveness and partisanship are rampant when we have failed to agree on this most basic of social compacts? Indeed, it has become a perverse ideological litmus test to destroy what progress has been made.

A demonstration of this is taking place right now. The Republican effort to salvage the legislative year depends upon passage of a tax bill that will embody their priorities. The most recent strategy for preserving the greatest possible reduction of corporate taxes and individual taxes for the wealthy, without obviously doing so at the expense of the middle class, is to include the repeal of the ACA’s individual mandate. This would save several hundred billion dollars and result in 13 million Americans losing their insurance. If it passes, it is more than possible that deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security are next, as deficits resulting from the tax cuts need to be offset.

So, there it is. It is a big deal. Affecting us, affecting our families. Affecting what kind of country we are choosing to be. What to do? Order that book on the new cleansing diet? Or demand that our representatives represent our priorities and work for the longterm health of us all?

 

 

Tips for combatting TFS (Trump Fatigue Syndrome)

Trump Fatigue Syndrome. Yes, it is a thing. I checked on Google. To be honest, it hasn’t made it to Wikipedia yet. But, even if this is the first time you have heard the term, you get the reference, don’t you? The condition is characterized by: weariness from the sheer volume (i.e. quantity) of Trump in the daily news; repulsion at the sheer volume (i.e. decibels) of Trump tweets full of all caps; depression from the constant reminders that this is only month 7, 8, or 9 of a 48-month term; impulses growing in strength and frequency to avoid print, tv, and radio news … sigh. There’s more, but just writing this paragraph is sapping the energy needed to finish this piece.

It is understandable that so much of the country might be affected by TFS. In fact, without using that term, I have written about it in this column a couple of times previously and a commenter gave a good description of its effect on her. One of the very first opinion pieces I read after the 2016 election was by Garrison Keillor. In the disoriented dawn hours following election night, Keillor gave his prescription for TFS long before the malady appeared:

We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long , brisk walk and smell the roses.
– Garrison Keillor, Washington Post, Nov 9, 2016

Hmm … Yes …  Well … Oh, sorry! I was drifting there for a moment. Tomatoes, beers, travel, and roses sound pretty good.

Of course, I am fairly certain Keillor was being sardonic with “we liberal elitists.” Those who oppose Trump cannot be summed up in a three word phrase any more than his supporters can. Yet, the man occasionally occupying the White House is doing his best to encourage such simplistic tribalism. It is what he does. It is who he is. It is US vs. THEM. If you are critical of him, he will demonize you, come after you.

That is another thing that contributes to Trump Fatigue Syndrome. It is thoroughly disheartening to witness the dishonesty and dumbing down of our discourse. And on important topics, too. How can we hope for intelligent conversation and the airing of rational disagreements when the public forum has been subverted and supplanted by Twitter? By a president whose “legitimacy” depends upon 30-40 million followers who hear from their chosen leader directly? By news media condemned as fake forced to treat the tweets as real?

So, TFS has an impact. We withdraw. We convince ourselves that there is not much we can do. That Trump and his supporters deserve each other. That we do not want to be drawn into the US vs. THEM paradigm.

Ah, let’s camp on that last one for a moment.

We were having dinner with a few long-time friends a week or two ago. Touching briefly and half-heartedly on some Trump topic or other, we were living evidence of the impact of Trump Fatigue Syndrome. Someone brought it up without naming it. Someone else observed that it seems that the “echo chamber” nature of today’s bifurcated media consumption results in everyone preaching to their own choir. So what, to put it bluntly, is the point of preaching at all?

This is where we come to the tips part of the column.

Unless you followed Keillor’s suggestions– you’ve spent all your time gardening, reading British romances, or traveling abroad for the past year– you are keenly aware that our party politics have begun to resemble WWI trench warfare. Furthermore, our stalemate began well before November, 2016. Trump was just the apotheosis who has proven masterful at amplifying divisions and disgruntlement.

I have come to believe that this instinctive genius is the plutonium that powers the president’s ship. Lacking the intellectual discipline that could harness that power, Trump is ill-suited to become a successful tyrant as he careens from crisis to crisis. But he could do a lot of damage before he self-destructs. (Incidentally, IMHO, this is what made Trump so attractive a candidate for Steve Bannon, whose ambition was and is the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”)

The inclination for “liberal elitists”, or anyone else horrified at the dismantling of democratic institutions and suffering from TFS, is either to withdraw as described above or to find a way into the Resistance. To be part of THEM against Trump’s US.

I have begun to wonder if these responses simply play into the hands of Trump, Bannon, and anyone who has practiced the politics of division and hate since the election of our first African American president. Either withdraw or get into your side’s trench. Go dig in your garden or dig in and start fighting. They relish making their enemies relinquish the field, but they need THEM, an enemy they and their side can target and fight and hate.

Most of those 30-40 million Trump Twitter followers have stuck with him in spite of the increasingly obvious fact that he and the Republicans and his hand-picked deconstructors in the Federal agencies are actively engaged in legislation and deregulation that will directly harm them. Aside from his blatant lies about that work is his (so far) continuing success in pitting US vs THEM with himself as their champion.

What if we started to find ways to leave the trenches, the pitched battles? Not to cede the field, but to outflank the other side? After all, we should be clear. As frustrating as it is for millions of our fellow citizens to be dug in against us, they are not our enemies. They want mostly the same things for their families and their lives as we do. And Democrats have for at least three decades done a poor job of listening to them, advocating for them, seeing them.

Our battle is against those, whoever and wherever they are, who use deception and division in order to keep wealth and power in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. They do so with little or no regard to everyone else, particularly the voiceless and disadvantaged. Saying they are all on the Right ignores many conservatives of integrity and compassion. It strengthens those who seek division. And it blinds us to the fact that there are plenty on the Left who do the same.

Let Trump tweet and rant, lie and misdirect. Let us focus on what he and his minions actually do. Or try to do. I will try not to react to his provocations, but I will react when he and his party present a tax package designed to further enrich the rich and burden our children with greater debt. I will try to set aside the sorrow and embarrassment I feel watching him debase and discredit our highest office, but I will speak against the epic assault against science and regulatory protections.

I believe I was wrong when I told my daughter last winter that supporting Bernie Sanders was too idealistic. The current trench warfare in Washington is not winnable and only benefits the status quo. I am ready to give up on conventional party politics, but not ready to give up.

I don’t have much more than that right now. I suspect there’s wisdom in the conventional: Think globally (or nationally), act locally. But mainly, act. I’m starting by writing. Perhaps there will be something more. But I plan not to be sidelined by Trump Fatigue Syndrome. I’m retired, not dead. The goal of this blog remains. Looking around, I can’t help thinking: we do not seem to be leaving this earth or our country in great condition for our children. What can we do about that?

Boys will be boys: a male perspective after the month of Weinstein

I suppose we could take some consolation in the October media storm over revelations of sexual predation by men in powerful positions and the cascade of women’s voices in response. I mean, at least it gave us some relief from everything always being about Trump … oh. Well. Never mind.

Actually, consolation might come in the form of fewer women being assaulted or harassed. That seems possible, perhaps even likely, given the strength and numbers of those voices. Ground is surely being gained. But the path is uphill and it gets steeper the closer you get to the top.

Why have women been fighting this uphill battle for so long and still we have countless, nameless Harvey Weinsteins and Bill O’Reillys in workplaces everywhere?

Why are women still fighting for autonomy over, and the safety of, their own bodies?

Why were the Suffrage Movement and the Feminist Movement not enough to have brought us further than we are? For essentially the same reason, I think, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement did not get us beyond the plaintiff cry that Black Lives Matter.

Martin may have been able to see the mountaintop, but his assassination illustrated the salient lesson. Those who already reside at the top will do everything in their power to prevent losing their place. Or even sharing it.

Though some deny it exists, “white privilege” explains a certain mountaintop status in racial terms. It exists in extreme form as white supremacism or the underestimated anger seething in many who helped elect Donald Trump. For most of us with proper skin tones, though, we tend to favor social and political progress so long as we sense no threat to our own personal place on the summit.

Then there is male privilege. When exercised to the extreme, women are raped and physically abused, harassed and demeaned. And subjected to ridicule and shame when they testify during a Supreme Court nomination. But, the “milder” form is even more pervasive and the foundation, the underpinning for sustaining our status as the ruler of the workplace, the lord of the castle.

The danger I see after this “month of Weinstein” is that winning battles against sexual predators, as vital as that is and as despicable as they are, might substitute for the progress needed on the far broader front. Here is what I mean.

I, like other men of my generation, grew up and came of age during the 50s and 60s, a time when Rosie had left riveting and returned to the kitchen and the nursery. Rosie and her husband modeled for their children the roles and relationships that they would internalize for later use. Of course, they also had TV and other media to reinforce their gender education.

Consequently, when I launched blithely into marriage, fatherhood, and work, I knew what to expect, what the rules and roles would be. It wasn’t exactly the world according to Mad Men, but it was a world where I never questioned my right to reside on the mountaintop. It was some years before I began to consider that the women around me may have grown up in the same world, but their rulebook and assigned roles were far different. The short version of the rest of the story is that, like Fagin in Oliver!, I have been “reviewing the situation” time and again ever since.

Those on top think they occupy the prime real estate, but they are deluding themselves. They may reside above others, but they have been focused so long on their status and on not being knocked off or crowded out, they have not realized that the mountaintop was not the actual destination.

In his last great speech, Dr. King said, “And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

He was alluding to Moses leading his people to the Promised Land and that damned mountain was just something in the way! They had to go over it to get to their destination, where there was plenty of room for all.

The wonderful woman who has been my wife for twenty-five years has helped teach me what a wide-open space there is for sharing our lives. We each have qualities that help compensate for what the other may lack. I am better with her than I am on my own. And I know we are not unique in finding the value of true partnership.

And why shouldn’t this principle apply elsewhere?

When men jealously guard their status and position in the workplace, they act to their own detriment. By creating an environment hostile to half the staff, they diminish themselves. By withholding opportunity and undervaluing contributions, they sabotage the potential that would benefit them all.

What if the ugliness of the Weinstein et al. disclosures could be turned to a milestone? It will require more than a few high profile stars speaking for all women. It will even require more than a movement. We have had those. It will require greater numbers of men who finally abandon the already crumbling ramparts of their supposed primacy. Not in surrender, but in recognition that we will do better as allies and partners. In our relationships and in our jobs.

And wouldn’t it be sweet to see little pockets of change taking place against the backdrop of Trumpian misogyny, where it is accepted and excused and even promoted that boys will be boys. It is about time for adult boys to become men.

Letting Trump be Trump

This is not what I expected or wanted to write when I returned to the blog. As the desire to get back to it has built the past few weeks, numerous delightfully non-political topics have paraded across my thoughts. All the while, efforts to ignore the orange-tinged elephant in the room (in my mind) have been futile. He looms there, demanding attention, just as he does in the consciousness of the nation. So be it. This is where I pick up.

Ann and I were in Chicago a few years ago, necks craning to admire the buildings being pointed out during the wonderful river cruise conducted by the city’s Architecture Foundation. Sliding past the Tribune Tower, with its splendidly Gothic Revival style, and the brilliant white terra cotta of the iconic Wrigley Building, we were confronted with the glass-encased Trump International Hotel and Tower. Inarguably grand, a significant architectural achievement, the second tallest building in Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Big Shoulders”, it was nonetheless diminished by the gaudy ostentation of the giant letters spelling T R U M P on a brightly lit background across the entire lower facade. Actually the letters spelled T R U M, as the P was inexplicably, but presumably temporarily, missing.

We chuckled and shook our heads. This seemed consistent with our perception of Trump at that time: wealth, ego, real estate success, but something decidedly off.

We took a different kind of notice of him when he co-opted the campaign to reveal Obama as a Kenyan pretender to the presidency. Now he was demonstrating the Art of the Lie to amplify the noxious racist undertones that had characterized some of the resistance to and rejection of the President. Now he was messing with our democracy.

When this national exposure led to his candidacy, the spotlight he so craved illuminated a man that most in the country recognized to be narcissistic, dishonest, uninformed, unfit. It was inconceivable that such a man could win the Republican nomination.

When he did, it was even more inconceivable he could be elected. Katy Tur’s book, Unbelievable, describes Election Day hour by hour and how virtually no one, including most in the Trump campaign itself, was prepared for his victory.

(Here, I imagine Fezzini fromThe Princess Bride, with his oft-repeated response to reports of being chased: “Inconceivable!” To which Inigo Montoya finally observes, “I do not think that means what you think that means.”)

Conceivable or no, Trump was inaugurated in January and the people who did not vote for him (a majority it turns out) held their collective breath. It was going to be bad, but the pundits floated various hopeful scenarios that might mitigate the danger. The day to day running of the government would continue to be in the hands of career professionals. Surely there would be some responsible members of the administration who would balance the imbalanced. The other branches of government would serve as a check on the executive. Simply occupying the Oval Office and confronting the awesome attending responsibilities would serve to restrain and perhaps even reform some of The Donald’s baser instincts.

Even such dire hopes have since dwindled and now might be described as Pollyanna-ish.

When I took a break for selling, buying, and moving residences, some four months ago, I was writing an opinion that I soon noticed cropping up and being developed in more worthy publications. Too much energy and time was being expended on daily reactions to daily provocations by Trump. It was exhausting and largely unproductive. Better to focus on issues and places where we can affect change or maintain social progress. He is petty and mean, incompetent and arbitrary. He will eventually self-destruct. Furthermore, the institutions of our democracy have withstood assaults before. Surely, he will not be able to continue on this course. Nor will he will have any lasting effect. Inconceivable.

Well, it IS conceivable, of course. But not because Donald Trump is a 21st century Machiavelli. He is merely what he has always seemed. No more, no less. J.K. Rowling aptly and famously proclaimed him a “little, little, little man.” But, he is not harmless. Driven by an impatient compulsion for the spotlight and the applause of his chosen audience, he is a master at pushing buttons to get his desired and immediate response. Thus his need for the ongoing “campaign” rallies. Thus his obsessive tweets. He has not changed. But, he has been given access, God help us, to a terrifying array of buttons to press.

What now? Our head of state is a con man, a bully, a narcissist, and a provocateur who has no skill or patience for governing. He is the Wizard of Oz, all show and flim-flam. Behind the curtain, like in the story, is a traveling salesman who landed in the capital city through a fluke. What is keeping him from being exposed and sent back to Kansas, um, New York?

It’s excruciatingly simple. His base, who are reshaping what the Republican Party will be, are still mainly behind him. (Understanding the confounding reasons for this is NOT simple and may hold the key to determining what kind of nation we become.) The Never Trump Republicans in Congress fear this base and are convinced their only chance of passing Tax Relief for the Rich and staying in office is to swallow their contempt for the president and let Trump be Trump.

Then this past week began with two former presidents giving unprecedented high profile speeches with detailed criticisms and warnings about the current administration. This was immediately followed by scathing denunciations by three sitting, albeit retiring, Republican senators. “Finally,” we sigh. “Maybe now courage will supplant cravenness in Washington.” Hmmm. Right.

Still, the dam doesn’t necessarily break all at once. Retiring or not, speaking out was not nothing. Republican voice has been given to protest and resistance from within Congress. Staying silent for lawmakers has lost the cover of conformity.

Senator Jeff Flake was especially eloquent in laying out what is at stake and charging all stakeholders, voters and elected officials alike, with complicity if they do not stand against this assault on decency, democratic values, and the common good. I encourage you to read his address and/or the fine summary and commentary by Amber Phillips in the Post.

The health of our democracy is at stake. It is time for all of us to find our own voices in our own ways and to demand the same from our leaders and representatives.

Alive and Kicking

The blog, which started in January, went on hiatus in June. Intended for 3-4 weeks, it has stretched to two months. I’ve had an occasional query and then a more pointed note from a friend this week. When I finished writing back, I realized my note might make a suitable update for the blog itself. For anyone interested, here it is:

Anyway, I got the gist that you were asking if I was ok, as it seemed I had fallen off the grid. The answer is yes, but this has been anything but a normal summer. Beginning in the first week of June, we turned our lives upside down when we decided to move back into Seattle. Except for 10 days in Vermont around the 4th of July, visiting daughter and grandkids, and coinciding with our house’s time on the market, virtually every day has been devoted to some aspect of selling our house and buying another.

Seattle house-hunting is crazy now, as you’ve probably heard. Finally, last Friday we were among 13 people bidding on a house in Ravenna/Roosevelt area and were successful. (I.e. successful at getting a house and at unburdening our children of any worries that we might leave them too much money.)

We leave tomorrow for a two-week trip to Ireland, come back with 5 days until our house closes and another week until we get into the house we’re buying. When we scheduled our trip, of course, we didn’t know we were going to enter the real estate zone. We cancelled the last 10 days of it, which would have been on our own in Southwest England, but couldn’t cancel the Rick Steves Ireland tour with friends.

As for the blog’s inactivity and disappearing from Facebook, time has obviously been an issue. But even prior to June, I had needed to hit the PAUSE button. One reason was a need to devote more time to the kids’ book I’ve been writing since January. Unintentionally, I had allowed the blog to crowd out much of the time I was devoting to the book. I had scheduled a (Wannabe) Author’s Visit with the 5th grade classes at Westhill, four days in June, and needed to make more progress on it. That was pretty fun.

But a bigger reason for the pause was a dawning realization that I couldn’t just continue to react to the Trump Diversionary Circus like I had been. Plus, I was getting the impression that the small readership I had was feeling the same way. So, I took a break to rethink the focus. And it happens that the decision to move into Seattle was influenced by my time writing the blog. I guess you could say all the “boomer conscience-raising” had affected how we were feeling about staying in our big comfortable suburban retreat. Grandchildren in the city and a desire to be more engaged in community were powerful factors in our decision to move.

So, we’ll get settled in our new home and then I plan to relaunch the blog, but with less focus on Trump himself and more on exploring what it is like to navigate life in an altered America.

Vandals in the White House

An oil refinery in Marcus Hook, Pa. The United States is the biggest carbon polluter in history. Credit Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

There are vandals in the White House. The past fortnight has made it clear. All it took was a little distance for perspective. A revealing trip abroad. A self-satisfied rejection of the Paris climate change accord, infused with contempt for 190 countries. Throw in a dramatic buildup to the announcement scheduled for the odd time of 3:00 EDT so it can play live, prime-time, in Europe.

There are vandals in the White House. The evidence has been there all along, but for me it took seeing it through eyes from outside this country to really get it. Our media paradigm can limit our understanding by its familiar narrative of left vs. right and our tendency to focus on national news, lacking a solid international context. It was unsettling, jarringly so, to read commentary and comments from Europe today.

I was embarrassed for our nation while Trump attended the NATO conference in Sicily. His signature heedless arrogance was distilled in the 20 second clip-gone-viral of his pushing past the Montenegro prime minister for the group photo. J.K. Rowling’s assessment, also viral, was apt: “What a tiny, tiny, tiny, little man.”

That was mere boorishness. More meaningful was his decision to substitute a scolding of the attendees for not paying their fair share in lieu of the requisite recommitment of the U.S. to the organization’s common defense. Even so, the European leaders managed to overlook his slights and obliviousness and tried to impress on him the overriding importance of remaining in the Paris climate change accord.

Yesterday my embarrassment was superseded by shame. The vandals in the White House smashed the agreement we had in collaboration with every other country in the world, save Nicaragua and Syria. But it was obvious today that the damage went well beyond that. Trump’s words, in his role of president, were so emphatically dismissive of any concern for the rest of the world’s population that they have been rightly seen as an abdication of moral and political leadership.

There are vandals in the White House. Like I said, the evidence has been there all along. Exhibit A is Steve Bannon and his ambition for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” It looked for a time that Bannon’s star was fading, but the recent turmoil over the Russia investigations have resulted in his reinstatement close to the president’s ear.

Bannon was one of the advisors pressing Trump to trash the Paris accord. He has also talked candidly about the need for the administration to deconstruct via the elimination of regulations, particularly those that were put in place during the Obama presidency. He even plainly said that many cabinet picks had been made for the express purpose of dismantling the regulatory authority of their agencies.

Naturally, that was only stating the obvious. Consider first those whose background showed them to be hostile to the agency they would lead: Scott Pruitt for EPA, Tom Price for Health and Human Services, Rick Perry for Energy, Ryan Zinke for Interior, Betsy DeVos for Education. Then there is Ben Carson, whose obvious lack of qualifications make his effectiveness to lead HUD questionable.

Rex Tillerson was a controversial, but defensible, choice for State. But since his confirmation, the department has been decimated of experienced career staffers and managed in such a way that morale is reported to be at an all-time low. Tillerson himself has made it clear he has little interest in the institutional memory and protocol of the department.

Jeff Sessions was an obvious pick for Attorney General only in that he was an early and loyal Trump supporter. His early pronouncements and orders have confirmed the suspicion that for him “Make America Great Again” really does refer to white America. Preferably pre-1960s.

It remains to be seen if Trump’s “Team of Vandals” will have any role other than demolition. Judging by the Vandal-in-Chief, it would seem unlikely. Coming up on 5 months into his term, there is little evidence of anything of substance that Trump proposes doing. Only what he wants to undo.

Of course, he talks in vague terms about infrastructure, tax reform, health care, and building a wall. But the only significant new policy he actually tried to implement, the Muslim travel ban, is still hung up by injunction due to its unconstitutionality. Infrastructure and the wall, tangible building projects that are at least somewhat connected to his past experience, remain nebulous and seem far off at best. His tax reform plan, when finally released, turned out to be a single page of bullets and tons of white space. But it had a White House letterhead. For months he claimed to have a really great health care plan. Naturally, he had no such thing, leaving it to the House Republicans to come up with it. He continues to demonstrate that, even now, he has little knowledge or interest in what is actually in the plan.

And so it is with the Paris accord as well. No one really expects that Trump has any meaningful knowledge of the pros and cons of the the climate change agreement. What we know for sure, though, is that he is offering nothing better. He said nothing during his speech about the threat of global warming. Nothing about the science. Nothing of our responsibility to future generations. Instead, his message was the equivalent of taking a can of neon spray paint to the agreement and scrawling  “USA! USA! USA!” across every page.

Way to go Mr. President. Everyone got the message.

 

Make America Great At Last

(Scott Threlkeld/AP)

A sense of our own greatness has always been part of the American psyche. And not without reason. A fresh start in a new land with unexplored but limitless potential. Manifest destiny leading us across a magnificent continent, brimming with resources– and pesky natives. Development of a robust economic engine, fueled in part by the labor and expendable lives of an enslaved population. The endurance of, and prevailing over: civil war, world wars, economic depression. The status of being the envy of the world for our democratic freedoms, standard of living, and independent, self-sufficient lifestyle.

A sense of this greatness diminishing was the basis for the Trump phenomenon in 2016. Trump identified the genuine and poignant plight of a segment of working Americans whose livelihoods and towns have been deteriorating in the face of advancing technology and world economic forces. He successfully exploited it with the time-tested strategy of scapegoating immigrants with different shade skin.

I first witnessed this strategy in action in January, 2016. My daughter lives in Vermont and has her office in Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. The Trump campaign chose this location, three blocks from Bernie Sanders’s campaign headquarters, for a January 7 rally. Stacy sent me links to coverage of the event, including a phone video that someone attending had recorded.

At that early date, the hallmarks of Trump’s campaign were already appallingly evident: the lies about crowd sizes (“25,000 people are in line outside” when it was actually 2,000); the xenophobic hate speech; the incitement to physical violence (“Get them out! Get them out!” to encourage physical removal of anyone suspected of not being a real supporter); the promise to make America great again.

The campaign unleashed racial resentment and hatred that had never disappeared from our society, but had been suppressed by judicial progress and evolving awareness and conscience among a majority of citizens. The victory in the election validated what the campaign had exposed.

We have seen this resurgence of racism in many forms. The emboldening of white supremacists. Violence and vandalism against Muslims and mosques. Physical and vocal antagonism in schools, north and south. Policies and budgets in Congress and statehouses that disfavor immigrants and the poor.

And it is playing out in the South over the issue of removing Confederate monuments from public spaces.

This is what I’ve been getting at. In an odd way, I wonder if there is a silver lining in the storm clouds. It is difficult to engage with attitudes that lie below the surface. But Trumpism has given “political correctness” a negative connotation, while simultaneously encouraging expression of long suppressed racial resentments. The controversy over the meaning of Confederate monuments is putting those attitudes on open display.

Charlottesville, VA, has faced protests to its recent decision to remove a prominent statue of General Robert E. Lee. State lawmakers have lined up on either side of the issue. About two weeks ago, white supremacist leader, Richard Spencer, led a protest in front of the statue, complete with torches but minus the robes. You may recall that Spencer achieved prominence with his “Hail Trump” appearance at a white nationalist conference in DC shortly after the election. This protest elicited many public denunciations and expressions of support.

Richmond, VA, the capital of the Confederacy, has also revived its previously unsuccessful campaign to remove six Civil War statues from its famed Monument Avenue. Public polls and media commentary abound.

People celebrating the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans on Tuesday. Credit Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
People celebrating the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans on Tuesday. Credit Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Perhaps New Orleans presents the most interesting example of this public discourse. As you probably know, the city council voted to remove four statues  in different parts of the city and relocate them in a museum to provide historical context. Fearing violent protests, the first three were removed at night. The last, a 16 foot bronze figure of General Lee, was removed in the light of day on May 19. No violence occurred.

Not that some did not think that violence was called for. The next day, state representative Karl Oliver, Republican, made this Facebook post:

The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, “leadership” of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State.

Let me restate that, to make sure you got it. A sitting state legislator called for the LYNCHING! of other public officials whose actions he disagreed with. Nicely symbolic form of execution, I’ll give him that.

I’m happy to report that Rep. Oliver has been roundly condemned for his post by members of both parties and stripped of his committee chairmanship. Racism boldly, and baldly, expressed in public is rarely an attractive thing, save to other die-hard racists. That is why I have hope, albeit slim, that the Trump brand of nationalism could result in a greater number of Americans seeing it more clearly and rejecting it.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech on May 19 regarding the meaning of removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans.

How might that look? New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a remarkable speech on the same morning the Lee statue was being removed. The vision he eloquently proposed is both aspirational and attainable. The entire speech is here. If you would like just some of the highlights, try here. But this is the part that best speaks to the point of this post (bolding is mine):

A friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.

I am aware that in some places and circumstances, I could be pilloried for saying or even implying that America is not great. It’s just that saying it doesn’t make it so. Neither does a slogan on a baseball cap. Neither, it turns out, does electing the first African-American President. If only it were so easy.

No, there are many many things about America that are great. And she has, perhaps more than most if not all other countries, the potential for greatness. But to realize that potential, to become truly great at last, the potential must be equally available to all within her borders. Because when some are denied, oppressed, slighted, or attacked, we all fall short.

This Can’t Continue! Can It?

I cannot believe I’m saying this, but it may be time to start thinking about the 2018 elections. “Sure,” I can hear you thinking, “right after I finish hot waxing myself and listening to a 2-hour compilation of Kellyanne Conway’s most irritating interviews.”

But, any American citizen who is appalled at the spectacle of immense power in the hands of an “infantalist”, as David Brooks called him, needs to think in practical terms about what it is going to take to get Trump out of office. And whether there is anything we can do about it besides wish.

We are starting to see the term “tipping point” appear with some frequency in the “failing” NY Times and the “dishonest” mainstream media in general. The reference is to the question of whether the self-sabotaging president has racked up enough offenses– against ethical standards, the constitution, intelligence protocol, etc.– and exhibited sufficiently shocking, irrational, unhinged behavior to spur Congress to finally fulfill its intended role as a check on an executive branch that is abusing its power.

It is my belief that, if the current avalanche of jaw-dropping events does not push House and Senate Republicans over that tipping point, it is unlikely to happen. Journalists are reporting that those legislators are increasingly expressing their dismay and concern off the record. But only the occasional lone voice, and none of the leadership, will publicly stand against the president.

Why is that? Primarily, you can chalk it up to three factors.

First, Trump voters don’t agree with you. Polls are showing almost no slippage in support on one vital question. Sizable numbers register disapproval for certain traits or actions, resulting in somewhat lower approval ratings since January. But 96% of those who voted for Trump still say they would vote for him now.

Again, why is that?! I expect you know. Read the polls (e.g. something like 85% of Republicans place more trust in Trump to tell the truth than the media) and listen to Trump voters interviewed about their reactions to current events. You find that they buy into the narrative that the president is trying to do what he promised, is being thwarted by (fill in the blank), and is being lied about in the press and by opponents.

Second, as long as this base does not erode, Reps in Congress believe they can’t afford to anger them and end up getting defeated in the primaries next year.

And third, they still have an agenda they know Trump will sign if he doesn’t get in the way of passing it: repeal and replace Obamacare, tax “reform” i.e. cuts, budget cuts, and regulatory cuts.

What it will take

If the current majority party does not act, the 2018 mid-terms become a referendum to elect to Congress those who will defend our democratic institutions and traditions, to say nothing of the constitution.

Every Democratic seat must be defended. Every current Republican incumbent must find him or herself challenged by the highest quality candidate possible. The process of identifying, vetting, and supporting those challengers needs to begin now.

If Democratic infighting can’t be banished, it at least needs to take a vacation. Encourage great local leaders to run. And to run positive primary campaigns that result in a general election candidate that enjoys united support.

There may be places where an Independent candidate emerges as the strongest option. There may even be situations where a moderate Republican who is also appalled at what has become of the party and the presidency turns out to be the smartest vote in order to oust the Trump-enabling incumbent.

The point is this. The portentous possibilities that were forewarned in 2016 of electing a man so unfit and unprepared are materializing with growing speed and impact. It should not be allowed to continue, but it may. If it does, we can shrug, console ourselves with Colbert, and gradually become desensitized to the new normal.

Or, we do what we can do. Support and read a vigilant press, keeping our opposition informed and intelligent rather than partisan. And act locally, while thinking nationally, to help elect a Congress who will be willing to fulfill its responsibility.

I would like my grandchildren to grow up in a great America. But excuse me if I choose Lincoln’s definition over Trump’s. That would be an America where the “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It survived the Civil War. I think it can survive Trump.

Avoid Difficult End-of-Life Decisions: Make Them Now

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Trumpbegone. Scanning the news of the last week for anything related to the Donald, I just don’t seem to find anything of significance. Well, there was some FBI flap, North Korea shooting missiles toward Japan, a Kissinger sighting and threats of White House “tapes” in case the firing wasn’t Watergate-ish enough already. Oh, and unplanned or not, the big f*** you to the country in the form of Oval Office smiles and back-slapping with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador. Yes, the same ambassador that was meeting and phoning Trump campaigners during the election and transition. That was the next day after the humiliating purge of the chief investigator into Russia’s attack on our elections! Yada yada yada. Same old, same old.

So, it seemed a good opportunity for a break from the depressing topic of present day politics in America to talk about something marginally less gloomy– present day dying in America. I know. I must have a natural instinct for building readership.

This fun idea did not drop out of the blue. There was a recent article in the NY Times by Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P., a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, titled “We’re bad at death, can we talk?”  If you are a (SSA) card-carrying boomer, I strongly urge you to read this article. Preferably after finishing this one.

A Personal Perspective

Ann and I made the decision eight or nine years ago to see a family estate attorney in order to prepare documents that included wills, advance health care directives, and durable POAs (power of attorney) for health care decisions and finances/property.

What we thought would be a simple matter of signing some papers drawn from boilerplates turned into several days (our time, not billable hours) of enforced consideration. Given numerous document samples to work with, and the option to add and edit, we faced hypothetical calamities such as cancer, car crash, and Alzheimers. We also acknowledged the certainty of death. Not the someday we really don’t expect, but the one day we know will come.

If you’ve done this already, you understand what I mean when I say it was a positive experience. Assets in a will are easy. Get it done and you can check it off your list and congratulate yourself. But, considering the reality of your own death is major league stuff, as is who will speak for you if you are incapacitated and how you will know they understand what you would choose. First, you will need to know that yourself.

For us, the process I just described was a big part. The consultation with an attorney who specializes in family estate planning helped to broaden our thinking and realize the vital issues at stake. Reading, revising, and choosing what to include and what to exclude in the advance directive required that we confront some of our fundamental beliefs, values, preferences, and fears. For example, near the end, do you want to be kept alive under any circumstances with extraordinary medical intervention? Or, under certain circumstances, at a certain point, would you prefer to be kept as comfortable as possible and have as natural a death as possible? At home or in a hospital? What are those circumstances and what is that point?

Another factor in our thinking was what we observed in the gradual decline and deaths of our own parents, two with Alzheimers or dementia, along with second-hand observations of the same experiences of friends and friends’ loved ones. What we have seen has ranged from refusal to think or do anything about it to orderly and loving preparation. It goes without saying which approach has impressed us as preferable.

We ended up with a portfolio of documents, with paper and electronic copies for our children and medical providers, that are our best effort to come to terms with the later and last stages of our lives.

If you don’t have a similar set of papers already, here is why you should. Not someday, but now:

  1. It is a gift to your loved ones that cannot be overestimated. It is like the credit card commercial: attorney costs for us 8-9 years ago were about $1000, having it accomplished, priceless. (I’m only focusing on the health care directive and POA. The will and the financial/property POA were included and equally important.)
  2. If you don’t start it now, when will you? Answer: someday. That day might come too late.
  3. The choices that must be made when you are in a hospital are usually during either a crisis, when you are least able to think clearly, or you are unconscious. Thinking you will make these decisions “when the time comes” really means you are passing the buck to loved ones who cannot read your mind and who may not be able to think very clearly at that time either.
  4. You may find, like we did, that facing up to your mortality now, and all that implies, is good for the soul and instills the confidence that you will be ready to face it in fact when the time comes.

A National Perspective*

In the last 6 months of life, Americans make an average of 29 visits to the doctor. In the last 30 days, “half of Medicare patients go to an emergency department, one-third are admitted to an I.C.U., and one-fifth will have surgery.” This, in spite of surveys indicating that 80% express a preference to avoid hospitalization, especially intensive care, at the end.

We spend 6 times as much on Medicare patients in the last year of their lives than all other patients over 65 combined, and that last year accounts for 25% of all Medicare spending. That has been true for the past 30 years.

And yet:

Patients who engage in advance care planning are less likely to die in the hospital or to receive futile intensive care. Family members have fewer concerns and experience less emotional trauma if they have the opportunity to talk about their loved one’s wishes. And earlier access to palliative care has consistently been linked to fewer symptoms, less distress, better quality of life — and sometimes longer lives.     -Dhruv Khullar, M.D., NY Times

So, there is mounting evidence that most people want access to palliative (i.e. treating the symptoms, such as pain, of a condition) and hospice care and that such care produces better outcomes, a better quality of life…and death. There seem to be two main reasons it isn’t more prevalent.

The most obvious reason is that many people fail to make that preference known, either in the moment or with an advance directive. The other reason is that the hospital either fails to honor the preference or simply does not have the facility or resources to do so.

I don’t have data, but have read of the reluctance doctors and hospitals have to stop efforts to extend a patient’s life as long as there are any avenues remaining, even if the best that can be hoped for is a few more days at the expense of more suffering and more medical bills. This inclination is likely to become stronger as medical technology continues to advance. Our challenge as a society will be to weigh the benefit of the extended days against the quality of the person’s life and the right of that person to determine how it is lived and how it ends.

The individual’s choice becomes moot when living in a state or rural area where palliative and/or hospice services are restricted or unavailable. For example, nearly 90% of New England hospitals have palliative care services, whereas only about 40% of those in the South do. And, if a hospital does not have a palliative care program, it falls to individual doctors to discuss options with a terminal patient and family. Nearly 70% of doctors say they haven’t been trained in palliative or hospice care, with many uncertain of the distinction between them. And about half of doctors say they are uncomfortable discussing terminal illness.

Most of us can relate to that. It isn’t as much fun as, well, most topics. But that is not an excuse. Not for doctors. Not for boomers. We have lived our entire lives thinking the rules do not apply to us or we should at least get to set the rules ourselves. DT is a boomer, remember? Sorry, Donald. You– we– aren’t going to weasel out of this one. Or buy, bully, or bluster your way out of it.

So, why not make our final curtain a class act? Set it up now. Do it right. Make it a farewell that is an expression of your love and care.

 

*The source for information in this section is the article by Dhruv Khullar, M.D., which was cited and linked above.

Just Turn the Lights Off: A Trumpian Metaphor

If it weren’t happening against the backdrop of a potential Constitutional crisis, it would be humorous. Well, it’s actually kind of humorous anyway. But it is also a perfect metaphor for the Trump administration, as you will see.

On Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to match his boss’s classy behavior in notifying Director Comey of his firing via TV news, Sean Spicer and staff kept trying unsuccessfully to inform the press of the same news via an email statement, according to an article in the Washington Post. Finally giving up, after three hours of technical problems, Spicer stood in his office doorway and shouted an announcement to the reporters who were within shouting range. He then ducked inside and his staff locked the doors.

The White House was reportedly taken aback by the speed and harshness of the blowback, with criticism building from Republicans as well as Democrats. Having previously said there would be no more statements, Spicer and two staffers “were suddenly speed-walking up the White House drive to defend the president on CNN, Fox, and Fox Business,” where their reporters and camera crews did interviews with the White House itself as backdrop. Upon completing those, the intrepid press secretary was facing a conundrum.

It was now after sunset and Spicer found himself hiding in the hedges in the dark, wanting to hightail it back to his office. But between the bushes and the building were “a swarm of reporters wanting to know why President Trump suddenly decided to fire the FBI Director.”

After a few minutes, he sucked it up and emerged, telling the reporters he would answer some questions. But only with the cameras off.

“‘Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,’ he ordered. ‘We’ll take care of this. Can you just turn that light off?’ Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness…with more than a dozen reporters gathered around him.” After ten minutes of Q&A, he abruptly turned and escaped.

See what I mean? Metaphor, ready made. (If I thought the president might read this, however, I would definitely spell it out. You know what I mean if you saw the May Day interview of Trump in the Oval Office by CBS’s John Dickerson. Dickerson commented on the quote by George W. Bush regarding the office being oval and having no corners to hide in. Trump agreed that there are no corners, so the room has a certain openness and anyone outside looking in the windows would be able to see him, but of course no one could get that close. Dickerson started to explain that it was a metaphor, but gave up.)

But, back to Spicer’s metaphor. This anecdote unintentionally encapsulates the Trump administration modus operendi. Everything will be fine if we can just shed a little darkness on it. Fine for Trump. Not so much for our democracy.

Democracy Dies in Darkness

James Comey was just the most recent career law enforcement official to be fired by Trump while engaged in unwelcome investigations. Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for Southern New York, and Sally Yates, the acting US Attorney General, were let go with similarly suspicious timing. They, like Comey, had reputations for independence and integrity and were seen as threats to his independence.

An independent investigation of Russia’s influence on the Trump election by definition would shed much needed light. In spite of his erratic behavior regarding Clinton email, Comey’s FBI effort was seen as the best hope for that light and an honest report. On the other hand, the president and the Republicans on the congressional committees charged with that investigation have made their target anyone who can be found who has leaked information.

If these actions weren’t enough to prove the point, Trump tweets spell it out. With increasing stridency, he broadcasts his demands to stop the Russia investigation and find those who talk to reporters instead.

The battle lines are becoming clear. The Washington Post ran a front page article on Wednesday to give a more complete picture of all that transpired in the previous 24-48 hours. They cited 30 sources from the White House, Justice, and the FBI. Thirty. 3-0. These people don’t like what they are witnessing and want the rest of us to know about it.

Ah, yes. The press. To be fair, it is a thorn in the side, a pain in the neck (and lower) to all administrations. Their job, when they do it well, is to keep the government honest by keeping klieg lights on its activities. No one likes to be that exposed. But that is the price of democracy. And the media isn’t perfect, nor are politicians, so at times we just muddle through and count on checks and balances to keep the country on the rails.

What is brand new in 2017, totally unprecedented, is that this Oval Office occupant has declared war on the press and is waging that war daily. Consider:

  • Trump used his rallies and tweets for months to repeat epithets and slogans to demonize and undermine the press. This message became gospel for his congregation.
  • The ugly language and constant refrain of “fake news” aimed at the media continued and was amplified after assuming office.
  • In this environment, the State Department was stripped of most of its senior officers and staff, and a Secretary of State installed who refuses to engage with the press in any meaningful way.
  • The president’s spokespeople reflect his contempt in their own interactions with the “mainstream” media.
  • Numerous federal departments, under Trump appointees, instituted gag rules, prohibiting staff to communicate with the press or even with Congress. Some but not all of these have been walked back.
  • Access by the press to Spicer’s communications department has been restricted, at times with favorable access rewarding favorable coverage.
  • Updated item on May 12:        

I mentioned the Washington Post earlier. If you have read it in the past couple of months you have probably seen their masthead. Since February, they have added a motto for the first time ever. I was surprised to learn that it has been in the works for about a year, so was not a direct response to the Trump presidency. But it could have been and it resonates.

The executive branch clearly hates the glare of the light. The legislative is in the hands of a party that has shown little interest in flipping the switch yet. Fortunately the judiciary has so far shown a willingness to stand up to the challenges it has received. And the fourth estate is under attack. But, it seems that many in the press see this moment for what it is. A time to stand in the breach. A time to just turn the lights on.