Fire Starter

Cobbe portrait, claimed to be a portrait of Wi...
Image via Wikipedia

A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.  ~Author Unknown

The tardy bell buzzed as if somewhere in the educational firmament a student contestant had incorrectly answered a $ 100 question.   It was the autumn of my junior year of high school and according to my older brother, the elective class – Creative Writing, would deliver an easy A for students who could string together a few coherent sentences and devour five novels of their own choosing over the course of the semester. He simply referred to it as “Creative Cake”.

The distorted grading curve of this class was not a well-kept secret and the faculty mistakenly perceived its popularity to be a function of its ancient educator, Mrs R.  I surveyed the crowded class – an entire back row was filled with football players – joking and shifting awkwardly in desks that could barely withstand their weight.  Unlike other classes that tended to filter students into a hierarchy of ability – electives did not seem to distinguish between those who were serious about English and those who spoke and wrote it as a second language.

Our teacher, Mrs. R, was missing in action.  She was well past her educational buy/sell date and was playing out her final years teaching a few elective courses.  She was a slow-moving creature whose sentimental detours and sepia fascination with the past, all but ensured that we would could pass notes and do homework while she waxed poetically about the Hemmingway or Melville.

Our classroom door opened and a plain young woman with hornrimmed glasses replete with thick celluloid frames moved to the closet.  Removing her overcoat (it was 90 degrees outside), she advanced quickly to the board and proceeded to decisively inscribe her name in chalk: Miss S – Creative Writing. A great panic swept the room as we realized that our sloth-like octogenarian with the benevolent grading curve had been relieved of duty by someone who appeared to be a refugee from the TV show, “Leave It To Beaver.”

She turned and stared at the befuddled knot of muscles, hair, dolphin shorts and surfer tee shirts.  “Je sais, mais une liberté et c’est la liberté de l’esprit.” We hesitated, hoping that she was the new French teacher lost and asking for directions.

She smiled and translated  “I know but one freedom, and that is the freedom of the mind. Ladies and gentleman that was written by Antoine de Saint-Expury, the author of The Little Prince.”

Having established her utter and complete intellectual prowess, this Bodleian Library refugee gathered up our mongrel band of misfits — verbally challenged and uninspired teens and marched us through a millennium of creative writers who had succeeded in transforming their pens into instruments of social and political change.

Miss S would scold us in French and quote the great writers like an evangelist might conjure scripture.  I once cut class and attempted to lie my way into avoiding detention.  She stared at me expressionless – enjoying my grand fabrication.  “ Facts and truth really do not have much to do with each other, do they Michael.  Wasn’t that William Faulkner brilliant?  Why he could have been your older brother the way he seems to understand how your devious mind works.”  She was particularly fond of Faulkner -a writer I found tedious.  She seemed to know this and would barrage me with his verse.  Others might recieve lessons from Steinbeck or Kerouac.  Why belittle me with this pedantic Southern bore?

She was blunt, unadorned and as plain as a museum curator. She chose long conservative dresses and a signature rain- coat irrespective of the temperature.  It was as if a seam in time had opened from the 1950s where she had been dispatched to ignite creativity in a flagging generation that could no longer see the rich garden of verse that lay before them like an endless fertile plain. She opened our eyes to writers who had moved before us like great shadows across the American landscape.

“ Oh, men do change.” she once confided to the female members of the class, “and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. John Steinbeck knew men…He understood that men evolve.”  The girls would sigh and then give us each a dirty look seeing us for what we were – a less developed species that could only transform with time and rigorous cultivation.

It was during that autumn of 1977 that my passion for English Literature was ignited like a grass fire. Over the course of the semester, we became poets, writers of mystical Haiku, authors of our own epitaphs and O’Henry novelists attempting to chronicle our sacred and profane tales of suburban life. She was our captain and like a Dead Poets Society, we were bound in leather and verse.

Each night, I would watch Miss S climb into her ’68 Ford Galaxy, the kind of vehicle that is never purchased but handed down until the day it simply dies.  She would disappear presumably into a spinster’s life of flickering televisions, 60 watt bulbs, poorly written papers and pop quizzes.  Our curiosity about our leader was never satisfied.  She was a shadow that one would easily pass by without understanding the riches that hid beneath its simple veneer.  She had no partner choosing to live with her adult brother and her parents.  She deflected all attempts to color in the bland lines of her own life.  It was as if we were her reason to exist.

A year later, I would win an award for English at our senior honors assembly.  I saw her later and she explained her preoccupation with Faulkner.  ” I will not use Faulkner on just anyone, Michael. You are intelligent enough to understand what he is trying to say.” The fire was now a conflagration that carried into college and a richer journey into the litturgy of man.  I would occasionally stop by the high school and she would be there – chirping in French and leavening an otherwise boring 5th period class with humor and perspective. 

It would be years later that my mother would call me across 500 miles to share tragic news. “Hon, there was a double homicide/suicide in an adjacent town.  Apparently, it was Miss S’ brother – he killed his parents and then homself.  I guess all these years she had been caring for her elderly parents and her brother who suffered from severe schizophrenia.  She found them all – – dead.  I am so, so sorry.  I know you were close to her.”

I remember sitting in that numb, angry, out of body purgatory where it is impossible to wrap your mind around senseless tragedy.  I could not understand a cosmos where dark deeds were allowed to reach in and savage such an innocent light.

She never did return to our school and vanished like so many of life’s refugees of tragedy.  I’d like to think she found a small town, nestled in a safe, cradled valley filled with kind neighbors who delivered food in times of trouble and who’d check in on you every so often just to be certain that everything is fine.  I imagine her starting another fire in the mind of some awkward teen, spoon-feeding him morsels of Faulkner and Hemmingway.

I stare out my window.  I am now gray and have seen the harder edges of life.  I cannot recall who won the 1977 Superbowl, World Series, NBA Finals or Daytona 500.  I cannot recall who held key public offices or even who appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.  But I can remember that teacher.  I see her face every day and I can hear her lilting voice as she perfumes the room with perfect French. I imagine every aspect of her intelligent and sympathetic countenance.  I hear her chastise me, “ Michael!” in exaggerated disappointment as I fail to answer a question.  And then I wait – – for a quote – a golden nugget harvested from the deep river of Harper Lee, or the gentle streams of William Shakespeare.

I like to think she is out there – – with that silly raincoat and those horn-rimmed, docent glasses.  Somewhere she is smiling at a student and quoting De Exupery. 

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

The Day After Tomorrow – Human Resources and Surviving Health Reform

Medicare and Medicaid as % GDP
Image via Wikipedia

As the first snowflakes of change fall on the eve of health reform, HR professionals may soon wake up to an entirely transformed healthcare delivery landscape.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) clearly will impact every stakeholder that currently delivers or supplies healthcare in the United States.

While the structural, financial, behavioral and market-based consequences of this sweeping storm of legislation will occur unevenly and are not fully predictable, this first round of healthcare legislation is designed to aggressively regulate and rein in insurance market practices that have been depicted as a major factor in our “crisis of affordability” and to expand coverage to an estimated 30 million uninsured.  However, fewer than 30 percent of employers polled in a recent National Business Group on Health survey believe reform will reduce administrative or claims costs.

Yet, it is unlikely that reform will be repealed.  For all its imperfections, PPACA is the first in a series of storm systems that will move across the vast steppe of healthcare  over the next decade resulting in a radically different system.  Whether reform concludes with a single payer system or emerges as a more efficient public-private partnership characterized by clinical quality and accountability remains obscured by the low clouds and shifting winds of political will.  One thing is certain during these first phases – inaction and lack of planning will cost employers dearly.

As the U.S. government struggles to rein in an estimated $38 trillion in unfunded Medicare obligations, the private sector and commercial insurance will feel the weight of the government’s efforts to reduce costs and impact our $12T of public debt.  HR professionals will have to act thoughtfully to insulate their plans from the inflationary effects of regulatory mandates and cost-shifting.

So while many HR professionals are getting hit from all angles – finding it difficult to  continue to transfer rising costs to employees, unwilling to absorb double-digit trends, under-staffed to intervene in the health of their populations and uninspired to assume the role of market catalyst to eliminate the perverse incentives that reward treatment of chronic illness rather than its prevention – they must forge ahead to address the intended and unintended impacts on the estimated 180 million Americans covered under their employer-sponsored healthcare plans.

To prevail over the elements, one must have a map and a flexible plan.  It also helps to have a qualified guide.  Consider the following as you brace for the “new normal.”

  • Think Twice When Someone Suggests Dumping Health Coverage – Many smaller and razor-thin margin employers will be tempted to drop medical coverage and pay the $2,000 per full-time employee penalty – essentially releasing employees to buy guarantee-issue coverage through health exchanges, which will be available in 2014.  Aside from impacting employers’ ability to attract and retain employees (consider how many of your employees will fall into the class of individuals eligible for federal subsidies), the assumption that the $2,000 will remain the baseline assessment per employee for those choosing to not offer coverage is a dangerous variable.  While it is clear that PPACA as it is currently constructed creates obvious incentives for employers to drop coverage and allow those eligible for federal subsidies to purchase through exchanges, it is unclear how the government can continue to subsidize proportionate contributions on behalf of those buying through exchanges when costs start to inevitably rise.  The General Accounting Office ( GAO) has already forecasted an increase of almost $500B in cost due to rising costs of subsidies as medical costs trend upwards. The forecasted CBO savings of $140B versus the GAO’s estimates of a $500B increase in costs have yet to be reconciled. Whether the $2,000 penalty was intentionally set low to entice employers to drop sponsored coverage and move America one step closer to a national system, or whether someone from the CBO missed a decimal, we expect the employer penalty for dropping coverage to increase as costs rise.  Employers should be certain to model their own costs to subsidize minimum levels of coverage today against an uncertain future of variable taxes that will only increase to fund coverage subsidies.
  • Pay attention to Section 105(h) now. – Many employers may be unaware that self-funded plans that discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees must comply with Code Section 105(h) non-discrimination rules.  As of the first plan year following September 23, 2010, these rules now will apply to non-grandfathered, fully insured plans.  Insurers may choose to exercise their right to either load rates for potential adverse selection or decline to quote because employers have failed to meet minimum participation percentages.  Section 105(h) testing is critical for industries, such retail, hospitality and energy that historically have excluded various classes of rank-and-file employees or provided better contributions and/or benefits to their top-paid groups. Penalties for not complying with the new regulations are $100 per day per employee.
  • Understand the sources of cost shifting pressure – As Congress and state governments wrestle with Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements and begin to focus on fraud, over-treatment and accountability for clinical outcomes, providers will feel the increasing pinch of reimbursement reform and will pivot in the direction of trying to shift costs to commercial insurance.  Physician hospital organizations (PHOs) and other integrated healthcare delivery systems – where health systems operate primary care, specialty and inpatient care – are accelerating – giving more clout to providers in contract negotiations and increasing commercial insurance unit costs, potentially exacerbating already conservative insurer claim trend assumptions.  HR professionals will need to better track employee utilization patterns for in-patient facilities especially in  high-use urban and rural commercial hospitals that also derive a large percentage of their revenues from Medicare. If a hospital derives 60% of its revenues from government reimbursement and 40% from commercial insurance, proposed fee cuts will impact facility revenues and create pressure to cost shift to private insurance.  An understanding of hospital utilization and consideration of tiered networks can help insulate your plans and drive lower costs.
  • Don’t be intimidated by self-insurance – Many employers underestimate the advantages of self-insurance and overestimate its complexity and risk.  But, in a post reform world, firms with more than 200 employees should give serious consideration to partial or total self-funding.  Aside from the total transparency of commissions, fees, administrative expenses and pooling charges, employers own their own data. The sooner employers get comfortable with self-insurance as a risk financing strategy, the sooner HR professionals can construct loss control programs that can mitigate claims costs. By self-funding, employers may better manage their population’s health risk; may avoid a myriad of state-based mandates legislated to fund potential shortfalls should local exchanges prove inadequate to contain costs; and may increase flexibility with respect to plan design. Be certain to understand the economics of your self insured arrangement.  A cheap third party administrator with weaker provider discounts and limited medical management capabilities ultimately costs you much more than services provided by a national insurer with better discounts.  In other cases, insurers may have more than one PPO network and assign the less aggressive discounts to their self funded TPA based clients.  Make sure you press for the best possible discounts.
  • Forget Wellness – Think Risk Management. – Wellness has become a broad-brush term to describe any sponsored effort at health improvement. Forget wellness. Population risk management (PRM) is the operative term to describe a process of understanding embedded health risks and structuring plan designs to remove barriers to care and keep people healthy. PRM requires access to clinical data, cultural engagement and designs that have consequences for employees who do not engage. If employers do not understand the risk within their workforces, it is impossible to improve results or be confident that plan changes will drive a desired result.  For example, more than 50 percent of claims arise out of modifiable risk factors and as few as five percent of employees drive 50 percent of claims.  The great news is PPACA actually increases employers’ ability to charge up to 30 percent more in premium for individuals who do not actively get and stay healthy.  Also, employers that establish comprehensive workplace wellness programs and (1) employ less than 100 employees who work 25 hours or more per week and (2) do not provide a workplace wellness program as of March 23, 2010 can take advantage of available government grants.
  • You are the “market forces” everyone keeps talking about and you need to use this power to influence on-going reform. – Employers purchase healthcare for more than 180 million Americans – about 60% percent of all individuals who have healthcare coverage, but ironically feel less empowered, informed or in control of their spending or their employees’ behavior as they access the system.  HR professionals must become activists for public health improvement and change – promoting healthy behaviors, transparency and accountability while putting an end to public-to-private cost shifting, overtreatment, fraud, abuse and clinical variability. Congress will only listen to employers because the other stakeholders have a perceived conflict of interest in how health reform is ultimately resolved.  Employers must build up the courage and resolve to begin to reshape the local, regional and national delivery models that result in overtreatment and lack of accountability for poor outcomes.

As we look out the window, the full force of reform is still swirling somewhere off in the distance.  As business hunkers down and adopts PPACA legislation, the question for many in HR is simply – will reform happen for me or to me?

Michael Turpin is Executive Vice President and National Practice Leader of Healthcare and Employee Benefits for USI Insurance Services. USI provides a range of business and risk brokerage, consulting and administration services to mid-sized and emerging growth companies across the US. USI is privately held and is a portflio company of Goldman Sachs Capital Partners.  Turpin can be reached at Michael.Turpin@usi.biz

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Santana
Image via Wikipedia

It was September and with four boys finally back in school, my mother acted as if she had just been informed that her life threatening illness was in complete remission. Nothing fazed her – not the early autumn heat waves, suffocating smog or chaotic evening routines filled with school forms, bike bags, books, homework assignments and back to school nights. It was, as Andy Williams crooned, “the most wonderful time of the year.” In 1976, we were officially on our own. She had declared her independence, no longer rising with us at dawn – choosing instead to sleep in and get my youngest brother off to school at the civilized hour of 8am.

It was the first day of my freshman year and I needed to wear something that made a statement about who I was. Perhaps a new girl would notice me or an upper class cougar would choose to toy with my affections. As I looked at my pathetically worn periwinkle Hang Ten tee shirt with its signature footprints, I knew I must take a calculated risk. I considered the suicidal thought of borrowing my older brother’s Carlos Santana tee shirt – yet, this was simply too perilous a move considering that we shared the same high school hallway. I was desperate. I needed to showcase that this middle school caterpillar had emerged from his summer chrysalis to become a teenaged tiger-tail. It was in this moment of imminent crisis that I made the fatal decision to “borrow” one of my father’s pinpoint Oxford dress shirts.

My father was a hoarder. He literally possessed and stored every piece of clothing he had ever bought. His dress shirts filled multiple dressers and several bureaus. Each drawer was filled with a prime color palette of neatly folded and bagged 16/34 dress shirts that easily accommodated my adolescent build. My mother stirred softly as I tiptoed in to survey his treasure trove of Brooks Brother Oxford cottons. In typically twisted adolescent reverse psychology, I resented his surfeit of clothes. He had so much and I had so little. I also considered the low probability that he would even know that one of his sixty shirts was even missing. I was wrong.

My father had been the eldest of two sons by eight years. He took little interest in his younger brother and considered himself an “only child”.  He inherited Midwestern frugality and understood the need to care for possessions to ensure they would last. The shadows of the Great Depression had only recently receded and the goal in any family of modest means was to get maximum utility out of any apparel, appliance, toy or equipment. When your shirt collars frayed, you reversed them and squeezed another two years out of the garment. Frugality was tough but at least as an only child, he never had to share.

When my father married and had four boys, he had no notion of how his organized, rational world would come unhinged. Life became a permanent freeway and he was living in its middle lane. He now seemed to understand why men died earlier than their spouses.

His home office became his castle and its door his portcullis. One could not enter this sacred chamber without knocking. At times, his door would be locked. One was forbidden to borrow a pencil, piece of paper, tape, scissors or any other item from this eight by eight man cave. My mother accepted his periodic self exile as a way for the “only child” to cope with the fact that he must now share everything. He loved his family but needed some place where he could work, protect his sanity and preserve a few precious possessions. He could not trust his sons to care for his things the way that he had been required when he grew up.

Weekends would find him justifiably ballistic as tools that he had wirebrushed and lubricated after each use were left to rust outside by a teen trying to fix a flat tire. He would see red as paint brushes were not cleaned as prescribed with turpentine and returned to their milk carton home – but instead discarded to harden like rigid punk rock mohawks. Bikes were routinely left on the front lawn and sometimes stolen. He could not fathom how this spoiled generation had so little regard for precious possessions. We were pampered, unappreciative, sloppy, and undisciplined ingrates who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.

His biggest peeve was how we treated our Sunday clothes. He would turn five shades of purple when entering our closets to see blue blazers and clip-on ties cast on the floor with grey slacks crushed under items that had been tossed into the closet when we were ordered to clean our rooms. For an ex-Army officer, our disrespect for clothes portended disregard for other things – work, authority and responsibility. To add insult to injury, our indigence came with a price tag as it was often necessary to take our wrinkled finery to the local cleaners to be steam pressed. My father hated paying for laundering dress shirts and dry cleaning.

My mother had gone on strike several months back refusing to iron or press anyone’s clothes. She had done the math and realized that her domestic obligations were paying her less than minimum wage. My father was convinced that some labor organizer in the neighborhood had undermined her commitment to Home Economics. This was a time of women’s independence led by Gloria Steinhem and the “I am Woman“, communist Helen Reddy crowd. Outsourcing something as intimate as the care of his clothing to a third party that charged an exorbitant .50 per shirt was anathema to my father. (Mr) Delsandro, the drycleaner proprieter, might just as well be wearing pantyhose over his face and wielding a gun. He was engaging in highway robbery.

Delsandro did not like my father. My father intimidated him. It was not uncommon to enter the cavernous cleaners and find the front counter unattended. The drone of rotating dryers, the hot breath of steam and the chemical smell of dry cleaning would conspire to push any kid outside. Through the front window, I would watch as my Dad would rapidly ring the small bell indicating a customer had arrived. The owner would appear from behind a mechanized clothes line of hanging garments and plastic bags. As soon as he saw my father, his pace would slow – the way a dog moves once it has been ordered out of doors. He would endure the detailed list of my father’s demands and specific requests for mending, spot repairs and pressing.

My mother had recently issued another edict that was ostensibly part of a grander plan to prepare us for when we went to college. It required that we wash and fold our own laundry – including washing and ironing our own shirts. In life as in politics, it is an accepted fact that when simple systems try to regulate complex systems, unintended consequences follow. As our fresh supply of laundered clothes dwindled, we chose not to wash our own clothes as instructed.  We instead began to steal clothes from our father and then slip the soiled goods back into his laundry hamper.  None of us knew that the others were also swiping his tightie whities and tube socks. I did not realize it but my brother had also crossed into the valley of death and taken several dress shirts.

On a bright Saturday morning, my Dad and I were doing errands and made an unexpected stop at the cleaners. A young girl came out to the counter and asked if she could help us. “Is your father here?” my Dad sarcastically inquired. There was a pause. She glanced nervously behind her. “He’s busy in the back. Can I help you?” To the rear of the building, hiding underneath an endlessly rotating line of hanging garments, my father spied two legs. “I know you’re back there, Delsandro!” He shouted. The man’s legs were frozen. My father feigned a smile to the young teenager and spoke over her shoulder. “Please, tell your father when he is no longer busy that he needs to call me. I am now missing FIVE shirts!” My heart nearly exploded in my chest. How the heck was he missing five shirts?  I had only swiped two.

Terrified that I would held responsible for all the missing shirts or would be implicated in the death of Mr Delsandro as my Dad stuffed him into an industrial dryer, I confessed to my mother that we had been stealing my father’s clothes. When she stopped laughing, she chastised me and my brothers ( who were not happy that I ratted them out ) for creating such tension for my father. She explained that he had been an only child and was very meticulous about his things. She told us each to wash and fold our laundry – the Catholic equivalent of five “Hail Marys” and three “Our Fathers”.  Once again engaging her Solomon-like wisdom. my mother “miraculously” discovered the five missing shirts.  She promptly took us clothes shopping and agreed to one weekly wash of clothes – if we consented to fold and iron our own laundry.

My father’s supply of undergarments and dress shirts returned to normal inventories. However, he still suspected that he was being insulated from the truth.  After years of broken buttons, misplaced garments and too much starch, my Dad could never bring himself to apologize to the dry cleaner. However like Holmes and Moriarty or Batman and the Joker, these two men needed each other.  While he could have patronized any other cleaners, my Dad seemed to delight in this strange game of cat and mouse with his Delsandro.

Like all adolescent recidivists, we continued to ocasionally sneak his clothes in times of crisis and lethargy.  As we grew older and all wore similar sized clothes, we actually had the audacity to argue with him when he caught us that the clothes were actually ours.  Dad finally broke down and lifted his leg on his entire wardrobe by writing “DAD” in indelible ink on every sock, pair of underwear and shirt that he owned. For years, my youngest brother thought “DAD” was a competing brand with Haines.

It is now decades later and my clothes are disappearing at the hands of thankless sons who covet my socks, gym shorts and tee shirts. I can now sympathize with the man who I initially wrote off as selfish and unreasonable. After chastising my oldest boy for stealing my shorts, he retorted, “they look a lot better on me than they do on you.”  Like the endless line of garments moving methodically around the dry cleaners rack, life was repeating itself.

It’s just like the man said, “What goes around, indeed, does come around again.”

The Mythology of Us

Inuit family, 1930
Image via Wikipedia

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge — myth is more potent than history — dreams are more powerful than facts — hope always triumphs over experience — laughter is the cure for grief — love is stronger than death.– Robert Fulghum

In Farley Mowatt’s Never Cry Wolf, a young wildlife biologist named Tyler is dispatched by the Canadian Wildlife Service to investigate whether the Arctic Wolf is to blame for the decline of the great caribou herds in the Alaskan wilderness.   Tyler’s adventure is a life altering journey through a looking glass where every preconceived notion of survival is cast aside by the harsh and cunning of the wild.  With the help of some local Inuit, the young biologist becomes one with the savage landscape and in doing so, he discovers that the arctic wolf, Canus Lupis Arctos, is not the indiscriminate killer of caribou but in fact, is culling the herds of its sicker and weaker members — all but ensuring the herd’s  survival.   In the vast emptiness of an Arctic twilight where  the summer breathes but a few endless nights of day, Tyler discovers the power of Inuit mythology.

As the acrid smoke of a burning fire creates broken shafts of light inside the makeshift Inuit shelter, a tribal elder recounts to some younger members of his Inuit tribe how the wolf came into existence.  In the form of native myth, the ancient sage, Ootek, shares with Tyler and the Inuit children how Mother Earth first created the People and then realized she must provide food to sustain them. In her infinite wisdom, she reached into an ebony hole in the ice and pulled out the Tuktu (caribou) to feed the Inuit people.

“Soon the tuktu had multiplied to such a level that food became scarce and over-population created a generation of sick and weak animals.  Their decline threatened the very existence of the People. The great Mother once again reached into the black hole of ice and pulled out the amarok (Arctic wolf) to whom the task fell to thin the overpopulated herds of the sick and weak thus ensuring a stronger generation so that the People might thrive. “

Ootek smiles a toothless grin and nods his head.   Tyler watches these lessons being handed down – worn gifts of insight wrapped in a timeless skin of mythology.  At that moment, he eases backwards, arms folded behind his head – pondering the brightest stars struggle through a permanent summer twilight. Beams of smoke and light escapes from a thousand seams bewteen the roof of broken pine boughs and caribou antlers. Tyler finally comes to understand through Ootek’s ancient mythology that Arctic wilderness is a last Garden of Eden, ingeniously balanced with each supporting actor playing a vital role in the symbiotic dance for survival.  Everything is here for a reason.  In the end, Ootek the old one, comes to accept Tyler as one of his own, teaching him the mythology and traditions that serve as guideposts for survival.  In Inuit society as in the life of the wolf pack,  there is no such thing as an orphan.

As the campfires of our own summers are now dwindling to tangerine glows, we reflect on the time  we spend trying to recapture the power of simple things – a gathering of our own tribe and perhaps the retelling of our own stories. These allegories offer lessons and foundations for our children.  For most, our memory of youthful stories and early American mythology has been erased. We have lost our all powerful talisman – a rabbit’s foot, a shark’s tooth or a ten banded Diamondback snake’s rattle.  Myths are no longer handed down and perpetuated.  As a society, we no longer wonder how we came to be and instead focus on what is yet to come.  Faith and wonder have been supplanted by anxious impatience for instant resolution.  In taming and deconstructing the natural world, we have marginalized the virtues of mythology as a way of understanding how we fit into this vast endless continuum of humanity.

Today’s tribal family no longer lives among multiple generations.  Our children do not enjoy as much access to or the patience to rest at the feet of an elderly relative who is eager to paint a picture with the patinaed colors of the past. With so much “reality” barraging us every day, there is no room left our own mythology.

We have moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  – – migrating from basic needs of shelter, immediate family, and stories that served as framework for living  — to a more permanent and material state of perpetual want.  Many families no longer dine together, spend time in the same room, or express curiosity about their own unique history.  The “snobbery of chronology”, as CS Lewis shared, is believing that we are superior to all that came before us because we have the benefit of hindsight. As a society, we seem to be moving away from our own mythology of self reliance, sacrifice, generosity, naive optimism and independence to a place where we are more cyncially defined by what we have today.  It seems success is our most celebrated virtue and that virtue itself is viewed as an almost orthodox sentiment.

Writer Umberto Eco once mused, “ In the United States there’s a Puritan ethic and a mythology of success. He who is successful is good. In Latin countries and in Catholic countries, a successful person is a sinner.”  Eco’s European view is borne from a very different life experience and a complex notion of how values, wants, needs, desires and expectations are reconciled when man by definition is meant to suffer in order to achieve wisdom and humility.  As Americans, we are a mass of contradictions.  We are modern families – fractured and yet, still hanging together by the threads of our own potential.   Yet, many of us have forgotten our own narratives.

The “mythology of us ” is a melange of truth and fiction, hyperbole and stranger than fiction parables of people, places and things. Some of us came to America as immigrants.  Others  rose out of religious persecution or abandoned lives in an effort to give their children a better opportunity for a new start.

I look for occasions to impart these stories to my children.  As they grow older they consider their own heritage and the mythology of their ancestors as trite and dated allegories that serve little purpose.  Yet, on the right evening I can still entice them with a wartime story of their British great-grandfather digging victims of a V-1 rocket attack out of a bomb shelter in London or a distant ancestor whose Ohio home was part of the miraculous and dangerous Underground Railroad.  They have learned of a mongrel heritage of confederates, saints, villains, nobility and cutthroats.  Our own mythology rises out of tragedy and often chronicles individuals who had the misfortune of being born in a time where they were overwhelmed by circumstances.  They were first generation Irish, German, French and English immigrants.  They were soldiers killed fighting for the English army with General Gordon at Omdurman.  Some died of fever and others endured physical and mental hardships. A famous uncle was the only cavalry officer killed as he rode with Jeb Stuart around the flanks of the egotistical Union General George McClellan.  A painting depicting the tragic  “The Death of Lt. William Latane” C.S.A hangs in the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia.

The kids get quiet as I paint a canvas of restless Irishman wearing Union indigo as he clutches his glistening bayonet staring across a frozen December battlefield at Fredericksburg.  There was once a Chicago inventor and entrepreneur.  Dan Canary ran a taxi service recognized for its unique color – bright canary yellow.  Years later, he would protest that John Hertz had stolen his idea of the Canary cab – launching the iconic Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company. Dan never won his case against Hertz and in the process, lost his first wife, leaving him widowed  with eight children.  Ever the resourceful man, he successfully met and married a considerably younger woman through a mail order bride firm. They had three more girls – one of which was my grand mother, Ruth Farr Canary.

Whether we were once Huguenots escaping religious persecution or indentured souls willing to risk everything for a new start – we have evolved from the DNA of stronger ancestors – – individuals who endured, suffered, refused to acquiesce and searched the horizon line for a better way forward.

These fireside moments are the times I cherish as I plant seeds of our history and leaven in healthy doses of our own mythology –  a bloated myth of how my father walked miles to school through snow in urban Chicago or how a mischievious uncle almost swam in a Florida alligator pond on a drunken dare.   I work  these moments to weave the sacred and profane together in an endless book of virtues in hopes that these seeds might one day germinate in a time of crisis or decision.

When I think of the attributes I want my children to exhibit when they finally released into the unforgiving wilderness of man, I wonder what have I done this week, this month or this year to plant those seeds of character and virtue – generously fertilizing these life lessons with myths, stories and the history of us.

Our personal and American mythology is a wonderful story of survival, noble deeds, redemption, human frailty and the progression from self to selfless. It is only through telling our stories again and again that we might transfer knowledge, courage and confidence to our children. Like the Inuit, these fables are intended to symbolically relate the physical laws of man and nature to remind them of their our potential as individuals and as a nation.  Our greatness has not been completely stripped, overdrawn, sold, stolen or spent.  It is here – waiting to be rediscovered in new places to be excavated, mined and processed into the virtues of patience, hardwork and courage to change.

Perhaps the mountain that looms ahead won’t seem so steep if our children come to understand the myths, legends and folklore of those that climbed before them. Whether it is coming to see our natural world as a living, breathing entity or realizing the impossible is a self imposed limitation, our mythology can teach an entire generation to reverse our self destructive course and speak up over the voices of the false prophets and political charlatans.

We need our mythology to survive. Robert Redford recently warned a small audience that time is running out, “I believe in mythology. I guess I share Joseph Campbell’s notion that a culture or society without mythology will eventually disappear and ( some might argue) we’re close to that already.