Is The Price Right? – An Early Look Into H.R 2300 – One Proposal for GOP Replace and Reform

This overview is a very early attempt to get you up to speed on the areas of health reform that are likely to emerge from the confirmation process of Rep Tom Price. There’s a temptation to dismiss everything being discussed as rhetoric or too early in the regulatory process. However, there are key themes and elements that will impact employer-sponsored healthcare that are likely to survive. In addition, other market trends are unlikely to change and as a result, require our continued vigilance and strategic discussion. In other words, the cavalry has not arrived in our battle with rising costs.

Tom Price’s Empowering Patients First Act (H.R. 2300) is of particular interest. It is unlikely to be accepted as a “replacement” bill but it offers keen insights into the GOP mindset guiding the notion of “repeal and replace”. It is likely if any legislation is approved, it would take years to completely implement and not unlike the ACA, reform could be whipsawed by another sudden political shift. Given the profile of the 2018 mid-term elections, its unlikely the GOP grip on the WH and Congress will change – at least until 2020 – more than enough time to drive a new legislative solution.

H.R. 2300 is important because its the only GOP-authored proposal that incorporates many elements of a “repeal” plan; and, despite the partisan acrimony of today’s confirmation interviews, Price is likely to gain confirmation and guide Health & Human Services and those charged with setting policy for commercial insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

It’s impossible to summarize H.R. 2300 in one page but we wanted to underline and key talking points for you should you get cornered by anyone requesting a point of view on what employers should expect over the next four years. With the help of a recent Kaiser Foundation white paper, we want to offer an opinion. Clearly, it’s going to be a challenge to confidently predict whether the new administration will/can meet its promises. Yet, we are taking the liberty of staring deeper into the crystal ball and offering some insights. In no particular order:

H.R. 2300 Key Elements: Repeal ACA entirely, including individual and employer mandates, private insurance rules, standards for minimum benefits and maximum cost sharing, and premium and cost sharing subsidies. Provide refundable tax credits of $900 to $3,000 based on age to individuals to purchase insurance in the individual market. Require insurers to offer portability protections for people who maintain continuous coverage. Pre-existing condition exclusions and rate surcharges based on health status can otherwise apply. Implement state high-risk pools with federal grant support for three years. Establish Association Health Plans and Individual Membership Associations through which employers and individuals can purchase coverage. Permit sale of insurance across state lines.

Encourage use of Health Savings Accounts. Cap the tax exclusion for employer-provided health benefits and permit employers to contribute toward workers’ premiums for non-group health policies. Permit enrollees of public programs, and employer-sponsored group health plans to opt out of coverage in favor of private non-group insurance with tax credit subsidy. Repeal Medicaid expansion. Repeal Medicare benefit enhancements, savings provisions, and premium for higher-income beneficiaries, taxes on high earnings, and quality, payment and delivery system provisions. Eliminate certain constraints on private contracts between physicians and Medicare beneficiaries and the amount that can be charged for services. Individual mandate no requirement for individuals to have coverage

Commentary: This legislation is about establishing universal “access” to the individual market and to create a robust range of products whose coverage and cost will vary dramatically – well beyond the percentage of AGI and actuarial values mandated by the ACA. The creation of tax credits and vouchers to purchase in the individual market and guarantee issue based on coverage continuity could create opportunities for employers to offer financial incentives for employees to opt into coverage pools other than those of the employer. H.R. 2300 relies on financing much of the legislation through a cap on the taxation of benefits

Premium subsidies to individuals – Provide a refundable, flat, tax credit for the purchase of health insurance in the individual market ($900 per child, $1,200 age 18-34, $2,100 age 35-49, $3,000 age 50 and over; indexed by CPI.) Tax credit can be applied to any individual health insurance policy sold by a licensed insurer, including short-term policies, but not excepted benefits (e.g., insurance only for specific disease); excess credit can be contributed to HSA. Permit individuals eligible for other health benefit programs to receive a tax credit instead of coverage through the program. Repeal ACA cost sharing subsidies.

Commentary: It’s likely the number of those insured under reform will reduce if the government moves toward less generous tax credits as well as grants Medicaid block grants to states to manage those expenditures as they see fit. The increasing of uninsured and a greater emphasis on high deductible plans could lead to higher incidents of bad debt and increases in unreimbursed care.

Benefits Design/Reporting – Repeal ACA essential health benefit standards, preventive health benefit standards, mental health parity requirements for individual market and small group market policies. Repeal ACA prohibition on lifetime and annual limits. Repeal ACA limits on annual out-of-pocket cost sharing. State flexibility to mandate benefits; state benefit laws preempted for policies sold through associations, or by insurers selling across state lines. Proposed Price bill/legislation is silent on self-insurance exemption for larger self-insured employers.

Small employers can buy coverage through association health plans (AHPs). For fully insured small group AHPs, state rating laws and mandated benefits are preempted. Self-insured AHPs permitted; for federally certified self-funded associations with membership of at least 1,000, State regulation is preempted. Maintain dependent coverage to age 26. Repeal ACA minimum loss ratio standards, rebate requirements for insurers with claims expenses less than 80% of premium revenue (85% for large group policies). Repeal ACA right to independent external appeal of denied claims. Repeal ACA transparency standards, including requirement to offer standardized, simple summary of benefits and coverage, and requirement to report periodic data on denied claims and other insurance practices.

Commentary: Insurers are likely to benefit from specific changes although Price has historically been at odds with insurers – particularly in areas where insurers attempt to intervene between a treating physician and a patient. Employer reporting requirements should be simplified and the most cumbersome elements of the ACA are likely to be eliminated.

Employer requirements and provision – No requirement for large employers to provide health benefits that meet minimum value and affordability standards; repeal prohibition of excessive waiting periods. Cap annual tax exclusion for employer-sponsored benefits at $8,000 for self-only/$20,000 for family coverage, indexed annually to CPI. Require employers that sponsor group health plans to offer employees an equivalent defined contribution for the purchase of health insurance in the individual market. Permit employers to automatically enroll individuals in the lowest cost group health plan as long as they can opt out of coverage. Wellness incentives up to 50% of cost of group health plan permitted. Encourage use of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) with one-time refundable tax credit of $1,000. Also raise annual tax-free contribution limit to $5,500; Allow tax-free transfer of HSA balances at death to any beneficiary. Repeal ACA prohibition on pre-existing condition exclusions. For people with at least 18 months of continuous prior coverage, no pre-existing condition exclusion period can be applied. For people with less than 18 months of continuous prior coverage, exclusion periods up to 18 months are permitted, but must be reduced by prior continuous coverage.

Commentary: Capping the annual exclusion for health benefits at $8k/$20k is credible foreshadowing that the taxation of benefits is on the horizon. Those that breathed a sigh of relief that delay and subsequent change of POTUS meant the defeat of the Cadillac tax, must be prepared to review the value of their plans. Taxation could set in motion a mass migration toward high deductible plans. Offering an equivalent defined contribution to employees to purchase on the individual market could give rise to associations and individual purchasing groups competing with or attracting employees into alternative purchasing groups. The emphasis on defined contribution could further accelerate the move toward private exchanges.

Health system performance- Health care professionals engaged in negotiations with private insurers and health plans over contract terms are exempt from federal antitrust laws. Create a health plan and provider portal website to provide standardized information on health insurance plans and provider price and quality data. Provide states with funding to implement the standardized health plan and provider portal website.

Commentary: Doctors can now organize purchasing cooperatives and in doing so likely to drive up unit cost through more collective bargaining with insurers.

Tax revenues – Repeal ACA tax changes, including the individual and large employer mandate tax penalties, Medicare Health Insurance (HI) tax increases on high earnings, Cadillac tax on high-cost employer-sponsored group health plans, and taxes on health insurers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and medical devices

Commentary: Revenue increases from new cap on tax exclusion for employer-sponsored group health benefits

Source of policy insights on H.R.2300: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation http://kff.org/health-reform/issue-brief/proposals-to-replace-the-affordable-care-act/

Breaking News: Overweight Humanism Party is Announced 

We’re forming a new party. It’s called Overweight Humanism. So far, it’s just me and my buddy Bob. But we have big plans and even larger appetites. 

We believe that big is beautiful and that actions speak louder than words. Where we can convince individuals and corporations to actively seek to help solve some of societies issues, we can and should shrink government. 

We believe the Kardashian family should be deported to Alaska where they must live with The Palin family. 

We advocate value added and consumption taxes. Our focus is on reducing corporate tax rates if domestic jobs are created and the return of manufacturing as a percentage of the GDP to 30%. We want the ratio of public to private workers to be reduced by 25% in the next decade. 

Bob and I have also decided to run for POTUS and VIP. If elected to office, we will ensure:

Vin Scully’s photo will be printed on every US five dollar bill 

We will pick three national social priorities and give an unlimited tax credit for contributions to any prequalified federal or community based agency that serves our troika of public need. Tax deductions will continue for other non- profits serving essential needs. Our first three priorities will be unemployment, drug/alcohol abuse including non-violent offender incarceration alternatives and our aging infrastructure. 

The definition of Body Mass Index will be changed to 40 to define obesity. You have to be an ex-POW to qualify as having a normal BMI with your company wellness plan. 

Affordable housing will be a required part of every community receiving any matching federal or state funds with priority will provided to all emergency and law enforcement employees who serve the town. 

Reality shows can only be aired between 1 and 5 am. 

Every kid will be taught the safe word, “Trump” to be used as a social 9-1-1 when they feel threatened. 

Any medical student that choose to study and practice primary care medicine can receive free tuition from their home state medical school — provided they practice and serve an acceptable ratio of Medicaid, Medicare and commercial patients within their state for four years following after graduation. 

Any film starring Pauly Shore or Carrot Top must be destroyed. 

News channels must be reclassified as “Views” channels unless they can meet non partisan reporting criteria

Our Congressional and national election primaries will last two months followed by a four month general election. Overturn Citizens United decision and reduce corporate influence on election cycle. 

Claw back provisions will be built into the compensation agreements of all municipal, state and federal public officials where up to 20% of pay will be forfeited in a subsequent year for their inability to achieve a balanced budget. 

Cargo pants will be outlawed. 

Anonymous comment threads will be considered malicious libel and subject to prosecution. No police blotter reporting for anyone under the age of 21. 

All fines associated with white collar crime will help finance investment in non violent crime alternative incarceration, education and offender rehabilitation. 

The nation’s focus will be on equal opportunities not equal outcomes. 

All states and municipalities must tender a four year plan to balance their budgets and to fund to 80% of remaining pension obligations. This includes a 10% pay cut and hiring freeze until target is achieved. 

All air conditioners will be calibrated to weight instead of temperature with default of 220lbs. 

Division 1 athletes will be eligible to participate in dividends equally to 20% of university income arising from athletics. No more clock stoppage after a first down in college football – except in the last two minutes of a half. 

Prayer will be allowed in all public schools. 

Every national bank will be required to establish a domestic microfinance arm that offers lower denomination loans to underserved communities. Families can also sign up to sponsor tax deductible domestic and immigrant families to support their efforts to assimilate in our communities. 

The corporate tax rate will be decreased for targeted industries such as domestic manufacturers and service based firms employing US workers. 

Medicare will be offered to everyone as a public option in insurance exchanges. Medicare must operate at a loss ratio of 90% to avoid having tax payer dollars underwrite sustained low ball pricing to gain market share and jeopardize the private market. 

Employers can offer incentives to employees over 50 years old to opt out of the employer plan to purchase insurance in public exchanges. 

Every high school senior must read and demonstrate understanding of the following books:

1) To Kill A Mockingbird

2) The Road To Serfdom

3) Chaos Monkeys 

4) The Diary of Malcolm X

5) The Killer Angels

6) The Grapes of Wrath

7) Leaves of Grass

8) A Tale of Two Cities

9) A Confederacy of Dunces

10) Bonfire of the Vanities 

Finally, every student will serve one year between high school and college in public service or a non profit activity. This can be deferred until after college or if the individual has a full-time job. 

 Anyone recieving social assistance in the form of healthcare or economic aid must have at least one annual physical at a primary care providers office and consent to an electronic medical record. 

The Grateful Dead will be inducted into the Hall of Fame and Pete Rose will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

That’s about it. Be sure to write in the Overweight Humanists. Future fundraisers will be held at Krispy Creme and Dunkin Donuts. Our mantra is “overweight humanism and underweight self interest”…

See you on CNN. 

Sharknado 2016 – The Anarchy

I guess it was about 4pm on a humid east coast afternoon when the cop stopped me on Elm Street. It was the day after the GOP convention and I was was talking to myself – waving my arms in what the police later described as someone “engaged in a threatening debate with the an imaginary combatant.” The cop rolled down his window.

“Sir, have you been drinking?”

“Drinking? Hah!” I scoffed. “There’s not enough alcohol to medicate my reality — or yours, Officer…” I walked over and searched his chest for a name tag.”…Officer Blue.”

“Sir, you’re spooking the locals and exhibiting  erratic behavior. It’s bad for business and you’re being a public nuisance. Are you on any medications ?”

“I’m just tired. Hell for all I know, I may have the Zika virus. Feels like my brain is shrinking. Speaking of Zika, the way our athletes are dropping out of Rio, I may be named the third alternate on the US archery team.Actually, officer if you must know I’ve been watching the Republican convention. It’s an orgy of D list celebrities and people who get their instructions from space ships. The only guy they did not trot out to endorse The Donald was Carrot Top.”

He could see I was legitimately troubled. I had been hiding at home for almost a week tweeting inane comments on Morning Joe and The Hill under the name “Carlos Not So Dangerous”.  I had been waiting for some post convention sanity to return like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. The Democratic gathering had not been much better but I had to admit they stayed more on message. The days of civilized debates hosted by a spinsterish librarian from the League of Women voters had been replaced by a Jerry Springer paternity fight  The dignified party conventions of my father had declined into a mud-slinging WWF show-down.

The cop tried to commiserate. “Sir, everyone is upset with the potential that Hillary Clinton could get elected but we can’t act out in public.”

“Hillary?” My head whipped around to confront the young officer. “What about freaking Trump?”

“Well I just assumed if you lived in this town you were a Republican.”

“Frankly, I don’t know what the hell I am anymore. I’m not L,B,G,T,Q…E-I-E-I-O!  I’m feeling kind of left out of the funny farm.”

He looked through his windshield and sighed. “Yeah, I hear ya. Law enforcement can’t trust anybody — our Union or the public officials. They reneg on retirement and benefits commitments. They kick the can down the street and refuse to fund retiree plans. It’s a tough gig being dressed in blue right now. We don’t know who to trust.”

I nodded in sympathy. “Hell, I hear you. There is no worthy Presidential candidate. One is a corrupt, public trough piglet who has fed on the public dole teat for years while the other is a dangerous self promoter who make outrageous statements like he invented the question mark. He gets a permanent get out of jail free card granted by his constituents. I’m in a permanent state of disbelief at what Trump is doing to the electoral process. He has immunity from accountability and says whatever comes into his head. By the way, there’s a lot of room in there for garbage. No one seems to give a shit if he doesn’t make sense.”

The cop tilted his head toward a woman pushing a stroller.

“Sir, your language.”

The officer glanced at his watch and smiled. “You remind me a lot of my old man. He’s retired in Florida. He’s home every day with the TV blasting the Fox Channel while he writes large-font emails to my sister and I and everyone he knows about how the world is going to end. I guess I get it. Listen, why not follow me over to Zumbachs and we can grab a cup of coffee.

A half hour later I was spilling my guts to this thirty something. He could feel my frustration.

I looked out the window as the Metro North blared its ubiquitous horn.

“It’s official. We’re screwed. We’re living in a bizarro world of opposites and doppelgängers. Nothing surprises me. Anything is now possible. In the old days, once you betrayed the limits of authenticity, you lost the People. Presently, I can no longer separate the sacred from the profane, truth from rhetoric or Sunnis from Shias. Truth is optional.”

The officer shook his head. “It’s even worse for us. People are actually shooting us. We are expected to serve and protect. I used to work some tough areas and did two tours in Iraq. I know a lot of about what hyper-vigilance and anger can do to anyone in enforcement. The anxiety and resentment builds and can flare up during a routine traffic stop. Being a cop in certain areas is like assuming the role of a UN peacekeeper. You can’t afford to live where you are policing or you don’t want to. Now, its like we’re soldiers returning from Vietnam. They give us that baby killer look. Hell, I was rescuing a cat from a tree the other day and the kid who called filmed it on his phone and ager said I was rough with the cat. It’s total BS.”

“Tell me about it. My son told me he hated capitalists and then asked me for $100.”

I held up two fingers to Will, the friendly barista wearing the Choose To Be Happy tee short. “I guess the good news is I believe anything now. Halloween and Christmas will be fun this year. It also means 70 % of all TV is now available for my viewing pleasure. Last night I watched Sharknado.”

The cop perked up. “You too? Hell, I found myself crying when Fin jumped into the maw of that cyclone-spun great white to rescue Tara Reid. Man I thought she was a goner. You know she still looks pretty good.  If I wasn’t married…”

I elbowed him as two high school girls walked in. “Sir, your language.”

I laughed. “Remember the scene where Fin used that chain saw to cut his way out of the 20 foot megaladon, it was awesome. You know, I want a chain saw for Christmas.”

The officer sipped his coffee.

“Same”

I perked up. “Megaladon” is actually a perfect portmanteau word to describe Trump.”

The officer rolled his eyes. “I actually don’t know who I’m going to vote for. I think Trump would be better for cops but as a father and citizen, he scares the crap out of me. Hillary’s a dirt bag but she’s just better at corruption than the average official who has long forgotten politics as public service and the art of compromise.”

I smiled.”Look at it this way. The world is a more dangerous and magical place now. We have stepped off platform 9 3/4 and are on a train to Hogwarts. We can now believe in Santa, the tooth fairy, Valdemort, and the lost city of El Dorado. Maybe the next time I go to the market to buy some groceries I’ll meet someone with some magic beans. I’m ready to take on a giant and a beanstalk.

We sat across three more coffees and compared notes on the polluted political process we call two-party democracy. His dispatch called and he sped off to interrogate a man who was arguing with the traffic attendant over using a handicap spot to get a quick latte at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Yes, life had become Sharknado and it was getting more bizarre with each week.

My world is leaching with the pollution drift of dislocated people, terrorists, disease, social fault lines, greed, corruption and demagoguery — and that’s just in youth sports. “Remember”, my friend Carll reassured me. “It is all just the buzzing of flies.” Maybe so but where there are lots of flies, there’s usually a pile of something else.

I am now in mid-life shuffling toward my next doctors appointment and the snap of latex glove. “This may feel a little uncomfortable.” I am searching for a new tribe — Perhaps there is a Facebook page for October Ovines — middle aged smart-aleck, slackers who can’t lose weight and wont watch Game Of Thrones. I secretly want to attend a Day of Rage March so I can rail against the man — even though it is clear that I am now the man. Friends are fleeing our overmatched Governor to new homes in the Carolinas, Florida, Texas and other far off red state economies where the ratio of public to private workers remains tolerable and the fiscal spending is not so disjointed as to portend calamity.

A staggering 40% of Americans over age 50 have zero saved for retirement and another 20% have less than $100k. I suppose one will work until they die. And in a world where artificial intelligence has jumped from the pages of Assimov to the world of knowledge workers, I’m not sure what dislocated generations of Americans will do for a living wage.

Why is it that the most affluent among us suffer from fear — self centered angst about losing what they have or not getting what thy want. Fear permeates everything these days and makes any optimist look like a buffoon drunk on the nostalgia of some old movie where the bad guys lose and social fractures are healed. Boy gets girl. Kid learns valuable lesson. Clarence gets his wings.

Depend upon it, Sir,” said Dr. Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I’m focused again but I still can’t believe what I’m seeing. Tomorrow night they are debuting Sharknado 4. Perhaps I’ll be able to find some answers.

I’m Building A Safe Place And You Can’t Come!

             So the kids are coming home – from college, from new jobs in far away cities and out from underneath a mountain of college applications. The age-old axioms still hold true. While life is ephemeral, this time of year is a cunning psychosocial re-run that is as perennial as Jimmy Stewart racing down the snow covered streets of the mythical town of Bedford Falls, NY.

My eldest is now a businesswoman and has developed a range of opinions. Her latest revelation is the 38% withholding being faithfully absconded from her bi-weekly paycheck. To her fraternal grandfather’s delight, she is rethinking her political convictions. Thanks to Obamacare she can almost bridge the period where our insurance and Medicare cover her so she might never have to actually purchase it for herself. Yes, George Bailey, it really is a wonderful life!

My college sophomore arrived in a cloud of dust – disgorged from a massive SUV full of teens, filthy laundry and a cacophony of coughs that was reminiscent of a TB ward. He is the middle man on the homo sapien evolutionary chart — not quite upright. He can hit a jump shot from thirty feet but cannot seem to find a trashcan or hit a toilet. As with all mid-semester collegiates, he is paler than a cue ball and unaware that most people go to bed before 3am. Within moments of his arrival, the foyer looks like an alleyway in Mumbai as discarded clothes and food wrappers litter the floor attracting an adoring entourage of cat and dog who will swim under him like pilot fish for as long as he is home.

My final child, a high school senior, is in the process of breaking up with us. We recognize all the signs – curt but polite  responses, unreturned texts, and a palpable annoyance at the littlest peccadilloes like my breathing or how I chew food. Between the avalanche of completing his college applications and a young person’s burning ambition to march toward the front-lines of manhood, he is ready for reassignment.

Holiday expectations quickly morph into resentments and I’m getting annoyed that no one is paying attention to me. Even bribery to spend time together is not working as they have their own money. Most years, I become a grump – silently wallowing in self-pity, overeating, and talking to the dog as he sympathetically receives my latest Martin Luther list of complaints about the decline of the modern pater familus.

Yet this year, it’s different. There is a movement across America that is warming the mud of my holiday self absorption. Contrary to some people’s opinion that I am wearing a garland of pity fashioned out of misguided self-interest and rice-paper sensitivity, I have learned that I am actually a victim of discrimination.

I knew it – ageism, mildly overweightism, suburbanism – you name it; these subtle forms of overt exclusion seep from the pores of a hyper-judgmental world. After carefully reading up on the demands of a legion of determined students across America’s universities who are bravely confronting the meanness and unconscious prejudice of their cocooned educational institutions, I declared my own independence.

After emerging from football hibernation in my man-cave on Thanksgiving Day while my wife had been spending her day in the kitchen, she had the audacity to ask me to peel potatoes. I was naturally upset as I did not expect a request for support – after all, food preparation is traditionally women’s work. My wife is also British. I explained that since half of my family was Irish, I could not understand her insensitivity to asking me to peel potatoes. Having immigrated to the US during the last potato famine and having endured the poverty, racism and tyranny of English colonialism and US slum lords, I was appalled that she would be so culturally unrealistic to expect me to peel a few praties on the graves of my ancestors.

As she smirked and raised an eyebrow, I stomped my foot.

“I won’t stand for this micro-aggression. Your making me relive my forefathers’ humiliation as they stepped off the boat at Ellis Island.”

She handed me a bowl and the peeler. “You’re lucky that we both love the same person.”

Church was no refuge. The stewardship sermon encouraged me to reach deeper into my pocket to support those less fortunate. This made me feel bad. I don’t like it when people make me feel bad and I made a mental note to petition the Worship committee to be more understanding that sermons should not discriminate against anyone who does not feel like helping poor people. The worship challenge now is to find a lowest common denominator subject that can appeal to every soul in our hyper-heterogeneous congregation. My suggestion included a primer on how to operate a lathe or make a bird feeder – but perhaps I was now being bigoted because some members may not know what a dowel is.

Micro-aggression was everywhere. Clients wanting me to work on their projects without regard for how I was feeling or what I had going on. “Look, Homeland is on tonight and I’m feeling kind of fragile today.”Bosses expecting me to meet deadlines and conform to their definition of performance. Like who knows better than I do about how I perform? Later, while deep in thought at a traffic light, a woman bullied me by honking her horn. Here I was worrying about Kim Kardashian’s latest pregnancy and I am attacked.

The micro-aggression storm grew in intensity as my supposed “Friends” did not press “like” on my latest posting on Facebook. The accountant called. The IRS, ever the aggressor, was expecting me to pay increased taxes to keep funding our inefficient and dysfunctional government. The biggest insult arrived from my son’s safe haven college asking me to remit this semester’s full tuition – a bloated payment that helps fund a majority of other students who are on financial aid. Gratefully, I learned that many of those receiving my support were my brothers and sisters in self pity.

 I was depressed. It seemed wherever I looked, ageism, body-ism, sectarianism ( I’m convinced Methodists and Catholics keep secrets and won’t share them ) and discrimination followed me like cheap cologne. I declared to my family that I needed a safe place (aside from my bathroom) where I could feel unthreatened.

I emailed our First Selectman to ask if He would consider converting the local teen center to a fat-guy, judgment-free zone where late boomers could watch football, play Christmas music year round, eat pie, smoke a cigar, not have to answer client calls, or help anyone with anything unless we felt like it. I would want the front desk clerk at this Shangri-La of lethargy to weigh 300lbs to make us feel thin. Best of all, I’m going to demand that someone else pay for this as compensation for years of dislocation.

My Selectman wrote me back.

“Thanks for the terrific suggestion. I’m not sure where things stand with the re-purposing of this location but we will certain circle back to you. I can completely understand how you feel and want to better understand your issues. Sincerely, Rob”

His note was riddled with undercurrents of aggression and sarcasm. How you feel? Clearly he was singling me out. Understand? What, I’m not speaking well enough for you to comprehend my concerns? I bet you think I have a couple of Krispy Cremes tucked in my cheeks? It’s because I’m over fifty? Or maybe you don’t like the fact that I’m in healthcare or drive a Ford. Note to self: Demand his resignation. I’m not going away.

I’m going to find my safe place and when I get it, he won’t be invited. In fact, I’ll make sure all those people that made me feel like a middle aged, silver-haired baby will be in the parking lot being told they can’t join my carnival of conceit. I’ll show them that it does not pay to be judgmental, exclusive and close-minded.

It’s sad that they will never understand what it means to be me. Once I’m in my safe place, I’ll never have to waste time away from Homeland trying to explain it to them. They will be out of my life – expunged by the segregation that they once subjected me to.

I may need to find a new job, new clients, maybe even a new family, and well, a lot of stuff. But I’m not going to be intimidated. I’m going to demand someone reimburse me for all those things.

By the way, has anyone seen my U-9 participation trophy?

 

 

Why Conservatives Bother Listening To Trump 

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I recently published a post ( The Orange Man Inside of Me ) on why I think Donald Trump is bad for America and how “Trumpism” is tainting public opinion and polarizing parties.

I admit that my politics are a mongrel confusion of liberal and conservative beliefs based on personal experiences and influenced by the true north of Karma and the practical GPS of different moral and real world coordinates — data points provided by my friends, my own education, upbringing, sense of justice and my business experience. My DemoIndependican views do not fit neatly in a box and at times, are at war inside of me as the fiscal conservative battles the open-minded altruist for a solution where peace and prosperity can reign supreme. Human nature does not always allow for happy endings. Sometimes we have to choose between civil liberty and national security. It’s not always simple to know the right answer.

I love my friends because they care enough to engage. One close friend, Kaleb, chose to take some umbrage with my recent manifesto about Trump — although we both agree we would like Trump to go away. He felt the need to defend the core of the Conservatives. Interestingly, many of his views and beliefs guided my early years and to this day, give me a healthy respect for those Conservatives like my father who have stuck to their guns. It seems everyone’s message is being attacked these days. You can’t raise the public’s political IQ without giving equal time to help us all find the truth in the middle.

I’m reprinting Kaleb’s response as it is articulate and spot on in reminding us of a platform that has not been able to get traction in Wsshington despite a majority presence for Conservatives inside the beltway…I yield the floor to my colleague from California.

“Turp, Conservatives are not mad because the number of minorities are increasing. We’re not racist, sexist or homophobic. We don’t hate nature or love war. We believe in American exceptionalism, law and order, and liberty and equality under the law – not in the fairness of an outcome. We have observed in human history that progress is made when energy, intelligence and free markets pick winners. Governments are incapable of doing that for long. We have a wise approach to solving the world’s problems that is based in reality and achieving results, not sitting in a coffee bar and enlisting support of “do-gooder” causes that are actually counterproductive to addressing the causes – rather than the symptoms – of many socio-economic problems.   

We view people as individuals, not as members of tribes or groups incapable of thinking in ways other than identified by the mass media. With remarkably few exceptions compared to the mounds of demonizing crap heaped on us by the Left, we don’t demean our opponents or impugn their integrity or motives unless they do it themselves. We can win on the merits of our own social and economic arguments and don’t need to resort to Clintonesque tactics outlined in Rules for Radicals. 

So here’s the background for understanding Trumpism. Trump is an egomaniac and an ass. The only reasons he’s given prominence by the left wing media are because he “sells papers” and more important, his approach will do long term damage to the GOP campaign prospects by pitting “law and order” Republicans against those who have a more common sense approach to immigration issues. He’s the perfect candidate for the left wing media. Through the Trump campaign they can cover and embarrass Republicans while feeling good that they have been “fair” in covering the waterfront of political positions. 

“Trumpism ” is about Republicans who are pissed: not about losing power – but about having gained it and having it not exercised in Washington for conservative solutions. We have the largest number of Republicans in Congress since Hoover, a majority in the Senate and on the US Supreme Court, 31 governors, the largest # of state legislatures under GOP control (68 of 98 partisan chambers) and the most GOP legislators ever elected. Yet the taxing, spending, regulating, Constitutional lawlessness, record borrowing, executive orders instead of legislation, withdrawal from international obligations, using moral equivalency to undermine allies and support terrorist organizations, implement treaties w/o Senate approval, impose more federal mandates, use government intimidation of conservatives … it just keeps going on and on. So Trump calls BS on this, as someone needs to. Good for him. I hope he now gives way to someone responsible who can win the presidential election and turn the tide so that those majorities rule. Isn’t that what democracy is about?”

Mr. C’s America

imagesI never thought of him as a bigot. For as long as I can remember he’s been an opinionated old man. Half the time, I didn’t really get the specific issue he was ranting about. He was just my neighbor, “Mr. C”. It was not until years later that I was old enough to recognize the fear and uncompromising distain that tinged his political diatribes.

He never seemed concerned that I heard him swear or cast aspersions on a particular ethnic group or politician. If it was happening on his property, he behaved like he had a sovereign’s immunity from consequence. We’re both older now — he well into eighties and me in college. I still go over and talk with him. I tend to cut older people slack and excuse any outburst as a symptom of mental deterioration — a circle of life where an adult once again passes through adolescence on his way to an increasing dependence on others. It’s got to suck, you know — getting older.

I fundamentally don’t agree with his views or the way he plants them like posts that support a barbed wire fence. We all make choices and should not be given a free pass to say whatever comes into our head without regard for others feelings or facts. People sometimes hide behind physical or emotional limitations and use them as an excuse to be exempted from social consequences. We too often give old people a get out of jail free card if they express hyper-orthodox views on sex, religion and politics.

Octogenarians don’t seem to care what they say. Hell, some older people don’t even zip up their pants or wipe their butts. I suppose I’d be cranky too if my body was failing me and the society I grew up in was moving away from the values that had served me as such a reassuring set of guideposts. I guess I’d feel everything was going to hell and I’d look to blame someone for the decline of the world, as I once knew it.

Mr. C was brought up by depression era immigrant parents – a silent generation where everyone feared everything and for good reason. There was high unemployment, poverty, diseases and other immigrants taking jobs. Every town had some kind of social hierarchy based on economics. Your goal was simple: stand on other people’s shoulders and use your God given talents to meet or exceed your parents’ standard of living. If that situation persisted today, it would weigh heavily on me. I’m used to the instantaneous resolution of a pill or a computer app. Today’s average person does not abide by lack of resolution and persistent uncertainty.

It seems his generation had to muscle through difficult times and accept uncertainty as a constant companion. In those days, a guy had to run over fear or be paralyzed by it. Mr C. clearly spent his life running shit over. He went into the Army to finance his college. He hated the Army but honored his commitment. No one ever gave him anything. He had to work for everything. As a result, he has little empathy for people who blame society for letting them down.

“A ‘victim’ is someone who is dead. Any one else is a survivor and must dust themselves off and get on with life. The world is not fair. There’s no such thing as society letting you down. Only you can let down society. The more we make it about ‘me’ and less about ‘we’, the closer we are to the moral decay of ancient Rome.”

I liked listening to him talk to nobody particular. Mom hated that I hung out at Mr. C’s but he paid me $4.00 an hour to weed his yard.

“Listen, charity is important part of any society but helping one’s fellow man is a personal decision and should be driven by those who feel the need to serve. Legislated charity is a slippery slope. It starts with the best intentions as a critical safety net for the less fortunate but when we introduce government into the mix, it quickly becomes a hammock. Beware of those with good intentions. It’s human nature to stop working hard if you can get things for free.”

The condition of dependence and rationalized victimization seem to my Mr. C to be most prevalent among American blacks. He points to Asians and Latinos as more cohesive communities that are anchored by a strong work, family and religious ethic. Bolstered by stronger values, they do not suffer disproportionate incarceration, poverty and mortality rates.

“I don’t know what happened to the black community. They can’t seem to elevate themselves above their circumstances and don’t realize that liberal politicians have kept them in perpetual bondage by validating their misguided sense of being victims. Give them welfare and buy a vote. Jesus, slavery ended 200 years ago. When are we going to stop allowing them to use Jim Crow as an excuse and take responsibility for their inability to win their own futures? ”

Nowadays, Mr. C’s political diatribes are prompted by an email forwarded to him by one of his retired friends or the Fox Channel that blares in his house every day like a loud speaker in some Pol Pot political reeducation camp.

He seems to fit all the traditional definitions of being prejudiced. He clearly has a problem with blacks as he feels they represent the most broken part of our society. He is quick to point out that blacks have much higher rates of incarceration, single parent homes and kids being born out of wedlock. The high school drop out rates are staggering and college graduation rates are sickeningly low. The mortality rate for urban African American men under the age of 25 is as high as Marines in Iraq.

I wonder why. Did we do this to them or did they do this to themselves? Who is responsible? Is it someone’s legacy? When does the current generation own their circumstances? Is that fair? How do you break the cycle of poverty and prejudice?

For someone who shows me so much unconditional love, my neighbor has no empathy for people he feels won’t help themselves. It’s a strange paradox to be loved by someone who is not family and at the same time, has so much disregard for and sectarian fear of others. I see so many things in him that I admire and I also see this great stain on his heart.

I guess it’s natural to see contradiction in people, as you become an adult. It’s that way with your own nation too. As a child, you idolize your parents. They are the center of your universe and they can do no wrong. Their views are your views.

Eventually, you develop your own opinions and values formed out of experiences. These nascent interpretations come in conflict with the dogma you so easily accepted as a child. You question and occasionally challenge adult’s simplistic views to complex issues. Some of these views are insensitive to the realities of now. One day, you come to the realization that you still love your parents but now see them for what they are — human beings with contradictions and biases influenced by their own lives.

It can be the same way with America. You love your country but as you mature and become more well read about alternative forms of government and the diversity of the world, you don’t fully buy into American actions with unequivocal support. You begin to question things and at times, disagree with Monroe Doctrine manifest destiny and the claim that we permanently occupy moral high ground because we are a free market democracy.

Yet, that’s the beauty of freedom. You aren’t required to be black or white, right or wrong. Much of life is indeed a color bar of shades of gray. The only sure way to raise your intelligence around racial, social, moral or political issues is through experience and informed debate. You must seek to understand people before being understood. I suppose bigotry is at its core, the refusal to engage in any other point of view.

I don’t know what’s happened in the seventy years that separates my Mr. C and I. I know that the 1960’s were a time of great social upheaval. A new generation tore away the fabric of nuclear family, white picket fence suburbia that had defined their generation’s goals and held them together during WWII and the Korean War. Mr. C deeply resented this disregard for American ideals and felt threatened by those that actively questioned the institutions that he felt made this country great. They had yet to pay the dues necessary to earn the right to bite the hand that fed them.

The further from crisis a society grows, the wider the generation gap between those that lived it and those who are raised on its distant mythology. Mr. C and I clearly use a different yardstick to measure success and progress in life. My generation wants to be happy and is not hung up on social conformity or political solidarity as a basis for belonging. We have been brought up to celebrate diversity and to cut other people slack for being different instead of challenging them to conform to a moral and social two-party system that does not adequately represent today’s diverse society composed of so many different voices and views. I don’t care if you’re gay, straight or transgender. You have a right to choose and to not die broke paying off a healthcare bill. It’s your life. Be happy.

I can see his eyes narrow and react to my occasional Rachel Maddow bleeding heart commentary. He calls me a “commie” even though Communism has passed the scimitar to Islamic fundamentalism as the greatest threat to the West. It’s clear to him that I’m not buying in to his generation’s notion that the best societies are Darwinist meritocracies where people must have the discipline to succeed or reinvent themselves to better compete. Yet, many who fail don’t reinvent themselves. They become wards of the criminal justice or welfare systems.

Prisons are supposed to rehabilitate men as they pay back society for their crimes. Welfare is intended to be a stopgap hand up until one becomes self-sufficient. The linchpin to his system working is personal transformation — private change with as little help from government as possible to ensure public debt does not grow and personal and corporate taxes stay low to enable to strong economy. “Jobs do more for self-esteem than a welfare check.”

It all sounds great but this change does not seem to be happening as more wealth gets concentrated in fewer hands and jobs get shipped overseas. The trickle down economics of Ronald Reagan seems to be drying up for the majority of the U.S. middle class.

I encourage my surrogate grandfather to read Jill Leovy’s book, Ghettoside, a non fiction detective story which helps deconstruct and frame the tragedy of unsolved murder rates of young black men in South Central LA. It provides an explanation for the rage in the black community as it deals with institutional urban neglect and the effects of uneven policing. Sometimes the problem is not aggressive policing but the lack of resolution investigating and prosecuting the murderers of young black men. When the community feels nothing will be done and that crimes will go unpunished, the community takes the law into its own hands and lawlessness reigns.

He listens to my statistics and my facts regarding the cycle of poverty and the stacked deck of social and economic barriers that make it hard for young black men to rise above their own circumstances. He can’t hide his racism. It’s subtle, the way a white man unconsciously pats his back pocket for his wallet when he sees a young black man walking towards him and then argues that there is no such thing as racism. “We have a black President, don’t we?” Dude, your bigotry is deep and its still in there. When you deny it, you just make it that much more real.

Ironically, blacks don’t help one another as much as they could. I read in sociology class that when many blacks beat the odds and succeed, many leave their communities and never look back. They believe they are worthy role models by the simple virtue of the fact that they overcame overwhelming odds. When they leave, they don’t rush back to their community. They depart for good — leaving others behind without a rope to climb out or an experienced hand to help. The class shared the story of an affluent black couple that tried to patronize black only business for one year. In the year of this noble experiment, the couple found there was one black owned grocery chain in the entire state of Illinois. Prior to the passage of Civil Rights Act, there were thousands of black owned businesses patronized exclusively by blacks. Ironically, when given the opportunity to eat and shop at white establishments, many blacks abandoned their own businesses to patronize white establishments. The forbidden fruit was now in their reach and in buying white, a generation inadvertently condemned another to decline and economic struggle. Ironically, the law that was passed to level the playing field, tilted it further in the wrong direction.

Harper Lee once wrote that bigotry and faith are disturbingly similar in that they both begin at the same place — where reason ends. I’ll always care for Mr. C like a grandfather but I realize that we have chosen different paths to interpret a world that often ceases to make sense.

I choose faith – faith in the better nature of people and optimism that I can find a new tribe that works toward an inclusive solution governed by a colorblind justice and economic system.  My old friend’s fear blinds him to any solution other than tougher laws, longer sentences and punitive consequences for the bad choices that young men make each day in these communities. Self-centered fear seems to be the trigger for many of the unattractive aspects of the human condition. It’s clear that while fear and faith start at the same place, they can’t occupy it at the same time.

It’s time to leave Mr. C. I throw a few weeds in his green garbage bag. We hug and I can see he is proud of my independence – the son he never had. Unconsciously, he betrays his belief that eventually I’ll convert to his cynical ideology. If he’s right, I will find myself one day at war with a government that wants to tax me and redistribute my money to those who won’t work. “Welfare is a trap to ensure the poor’s continued dependence on politicians and social re-engineers.” It’s a cynical way to see the world but he’s been walking the earth seventy years longer than I have. I can’t dismiss him as a heretic without first accumulating my own experiences as data points to refute him.

Somewhere between his rigid conservative ethos and my altruistic belief that change is possible, the truth stirs and struggles to the light. Victor Hugo said that the truth will always find the light and the deeper you tried to hide it the more explosive it is when it’s finally revealed. Truth rests in the shadows and along the black and white edges of reality. It’s ironic that when it comes to black and white, the issues and solutions always seem to be gray. It takes courage to define them and to not allow ideologues to hijack the truth to pander to those who are afraid.

I do not doubt for a moment the pride he feels as he as he lives my life vicariously. He is now watching me leave and enter the world of men. We are so different. Sometimes, I wonder if I am as strong as him. Am I a more evolved version of my neighbor or a naive changeling that will eventually come to see the world on his rigid terms

To have the capacity to love someone who has such a different point of view strangely reassures me. It validates my belief that love is a stronger force than hate. We are all humans on a spiritual journey and in my case, I’m taking my first steps in search of meaning and purpose. It begins with my trying to navigate and understand the black and white landscape of Mr. C’s America.

A Visit from The Yule Goat

Joulupukki
Image by esaskar via Flickr

In the northern hemisphere, winters arrive like a black dog breathing permanent midnight.  The gray threadbare days weave into a thick woolen canopy that never seems to lift. Despite the reassuring lights of Sloane Square, ice skaters in Mayfair and the annual grand Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square, Christmas is a more muted and reverent affair in England. Each December 24th, St. Martins of the Field church broadcasts its medieval Christmas carol concert urging all the masters of the hall to rejoice and pray.

Along the cold and wind-swept Thames, a city hibernates waiting for the resurrection of spring.  As an ex-patriot navigating life among millions, thousands of miles from the moorings of family, Christmas Eve was a hard time to avoid melancholy self-reflection.

Having been wrested from parents, neighbors, friends, familiar institutions and cultural touchstones, our young family was dispatched on a three-year odyssey that would test us and stretch our ability to cope.  Without the traditional support structures, we were reduced to our lowest common denominator – us.

As we had sought to build a new life, we met other displaced diplomats. Out of mutual necessity, we forged deep connections to this diaspora of the disconnected.  Over long dinners and timeless cups of tea, we would share the daily anxieties of international living where life had become a succession of indignities roaring past you in the middle of a motorway with no exit ramps.  Change was everywhere – tugging at your elbow, tearing the side mirror off your car, visiting some mystery illness upon your family or delaying you in a foreign airport due to a sudden labor strike.  It was mad cow and foot and mouth disease closures of a verdant but now forbidden countryside.  It was an unexpected dog bite and the night terrors of a child unable to cope with the massive change of an international move.  It was a washing machine the size of an Easy Bake Oven and a dryer that could only dry five pieces of clothing at a time. It was an alpenglow sunset in Zermatt and a pink pastel dawn in Provence.

We joined an international brigade that had voluntarily been assigned to new lives on a distant, fatal shore.  Our new and extended “family” was a United Nations blend of ex-patriots and locals possessing passports from Peru, Columbia, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Australia, India, Ireland, England, Scotland and Poland. In another place and time, we might have had less in common with these global travelers and passed one another like ships.  Yet, alone on this great ancient island, we found each other and watched as our children moved freely across narrow language barriers and cultural tightropes. Within months we had forged a multinational support network that would sustain us through every conceivable life event.

Holidays were initially the hardest of times. On this December 24th, the darkest corridor of the year, the ancient Druid festival of winter solstice would be celebrated. Christmas in England was a time of evergreens and hard frosts. A pale, frigid mist would settle on the Great Wimbledon Common and across the ancient headstones of St Mary’s church graveyard.  The bleak mid-winter world stands still as the countryside settles into a deep sleep with  the rolling hills of Newlan’s Corner and Box Hill sitting as silent citadels over the South Downs and Kent. In the Cotswolds, wool, market and cathedral towns with names like Chipping Camden, Broadway, Stow on the Wold and Upper Slaughter become fairy tale retreats for the wealthy with roaring fires, curiosity shops and antiques.  It is a quiet, somber time filled with very personal celebrations of resurrection and renewal.

Each Christmas season, we visited with our friends and as we entered each rented home or flat, it would be adorned faithfully with native touches and talisman of their home countries.  One day we might meet a koala with a Santa hat and the next week encounter rich religious icons of Latin America – – Madonna with Child, nativity figurines, candles and white papered gifts — grand colorful offerings of love and sentiment to be offered to those less fortunate at midnight mass..

At this time of year, it was important to keep our own traditions alive. To discard or ignore a cultural touchstone was to defile it and potentially sever another tie with your own past.  It was inevitable that the longer one lived abroad, the more likely it was that one would morph into an international citizen – an odd changeling that was often less wedded to their nationality and more content to be considered part of the global melting pot of mankind.

Christmas was a time of year where I was left with the nagging feeling that I was denying my children some quintessentially American experience. I was obviously superimposing my childhood on to my international children and when those feelings would not fit them, I came away feeling as if I was somehow stunting their growth.

Our youngest was already exhibiting signs of advanced internationalism. Having moved to the UK when he was one, he was not being raised on the empty carbohydrates of Disney movies, American commercialism and a ruddy-faced department store Santa that smelled of Brut and bourbon. My son spoke with a lilting English accent, watched Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob The Builder. He wore a uniform to school and was frighteningly well mannered. He expressed curiosity about  Father Christmas and wanted to “know him better.”

On this particular Christmas eve, I was feeling a wave of yuletide melancholy when the phone rang. It was our Finnish friend Robert.  Bobby and his Peruvian wife, Laila, had joined our extended family after falling in with us on a wild and unforgettable family vacation to Morocco. Bobby was a towering bristled blond Nordic with a rapid-fire mind and a clear, practical lens to the world. The unusual union of a Finn and Peruvian in this international enclave was typical of our circle of friends – a merger of disparate cultures and genetics that produced perpetually clashing perspectives and two gorgeous children who spoke Finnish, Portuguese and Spanish.

According to Bobby, Christmas was first and foremost, a Finnish tradition. All Finns claim that the Lapp mountains of Korvatunturi, not the North Pole, are the true home to Father Christmas. This rugged winter landscape populated by the Sami people is a frozen wonderland of midnight lakes, deep conifer forests and sweeping mountains of ice. It is a magical destination where on certain clear December nights, the aurora borealis swirls and dances on invisible solar winds.

The Finns are stoic culture – except after a few shots of Vodka when they may break into song or break every piece of furniture in your house.  They are a remarkably resilient people and have a fierce history of independence dating back to fated Roman efforts to subdue the tribes living in the “land of the cloudberries.”

“Michael, I have a dilemma,” Bobby said in a thick, educated accent. “Every year, my Finnish friend, Opi and I rent a Father Christmas suit and visit each other’s children, give them gifts, sing with them and then put them to bed” He hesitated. “Opi has abandoned me this year and has taken his family to Lapland. I have no one to play Joulupukki for my children. Could I get you to come over to my house, dress as Father Christmas and visit with them?” It was getting dark and in my late afternoon lethargy, I was feeling more like Scrooge than what the Finns refer to as “  Joulupukki- The Yule Goat”.  Yet, there was an unspoken ex-patriot protocol that when someone in your foxhole needs help, you rise to the occasion.

Within an hour, I was barefoot in a frozen side garden, slipping on boots, a red suit, and a white beard that would have made ZZ Top jealous. I slipped on a long elfin hat and moved across the condominium parking lot in search of their flat. An elderly Englishman walking his Westie looked at me with curiosity and shrugged, “a bit lost, aren’t you?”

I could not see very well through my beard and white bangs. I tripped over a potted plant and thumped against the front door. I could hear someone whispering in Finnish and squeals of excitement inside. Laila opened the door and I greeted them in butchered Finnish.  Bobby was taking pictures as I sat down to play with the children.  They jumped into my lap and sang a traditional Finnish carol.  The beard was gratefully disguising the fact that I had no idea what they were saying. I literally just bobbed up and down speaking gibberish.

The children hugged me with the strength of ten men. I felt myself slowly filling with that elusive goodwill and peace that perfumes the lives of those who choose to serve others. As I drove home, I suddenly saw this winter world for all its charm and tradition. It had lost its depressing decay and tired history. Our village was adorned with evergreens and white faerie lights winding down lampposts and across the eaves of brightly lit pubs. I was finally home.

I returned home to find  my own children restless and unable to sleep. Filled with gratitude and a recognition that Christmas was about my own rebirth, I settled at the edge of the children’s beds to lull them with a yuletide tale of medieval England.  The phone rang downstairs. “It’s Bobby” my wife yelled.

“Michael, I am around the corner now in the costume and was wondering if you wanted me to come in or just climb up on the roof and walk around” I had not expected this Finnish quid pro quo but eagerly encouraged him to come and inspect the house from the street as if he was sizing up how to land his sleigh on our narrow slate roof.

The children were still awake waiting for their story-teller when I instructed them to get up and peer between the indigo blue drapes to the street below where they might see something extraordinary. On this Christmas Eve, a 6’5″ Finnish Father Christmas visited my children on a dark and forgotten English close. “He’s so tall” My daughter squealed. “Santa tall?” my youngest asked rhetorically.  Outside, the oversized elf strained, continued to look for ways to enter our chimney.  The children watched mesmerized as The Yule Goat finally made his notations and disappeared into the night.

“Now quick” I whispered. “Get to bed before he sees you.” They leaped into their bunk beds and after twenty minutes of discussing Father Christmas, they fell into a satisfied sleep that carried them right into morning. It seemed that Christmas would find us after all, and came on the shoulders of a tall stranger from Lapland.

As my children progress into adulthood, I remind them of the visit from St Nicholas and hope they will carry this memory through the years until one night they might find themselves far from home and feeling disconnected from the spirit of the season.  Perhaps then, they will remember that misty, frigid night when they first caught a glimpse of Joulupukki and their own father discovered that Christmas happens wherever there are people.

The Cat Who Came For Christmas

“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes

white-cat1

 It was Christmas time in England.  The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost.  I looked out the window and sighed.  After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.

 Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception.  In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed.  Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits.  Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead.  The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.

 My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub.  I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.

 “Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed.  He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants.  “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds.  That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas.  It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings.  “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.”  The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.

 “Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”.  “ 180 sterling ?  You have got to be kidding me ?  It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy.  “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl.  Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”.  I asked him if he could wait a minute.  It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman.  I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms.  The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin.  I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal.  Or, you can rescue this poor creature.  She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )

 This was not the way it was supposed to go.  This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas.  We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared.  He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor.  “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes.  I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.

 The drive home was a disaster.  The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough.  Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck.  The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb.  I collected myself.  It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down.  My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.

 With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her.  As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”.  She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap.  “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered.  I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face.  Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.

 After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom.  For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom.  Christmas Eve finally arrived.  The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas.  The cat would not cooperate.  The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house.  All night I tracked and captured the animal.  About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning,  both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket.  Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee.  “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself.  She’ll never know it was me.

 I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship.  I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck.  The ringworm was already beginning to appear.

Hit Your Bottom, Find Your Top

Cover of
Cover of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

You’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants

There are some, down the road between hither and yon

That can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go, though the weather be foul.

On you will go though your enemies prowl

On you will go though the Hakken Kraks howl

Onward and up many a frightening creek,

Though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak…”

~ Theodore Geiser aka Dr Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go

Stephen Covey once said, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.”  It is inevitable that while on this existential expedition of Life that we will miss sign posts, lose our way and occasionally end up in a ditch.  It is buried in the fine print of the human condition that we will periodically hit a bottom.  The proverbial nadir can come in the form of any physical, emotional, spiritual or mental stimulus that compels us to make very important changes in our lives.  A personal abyss can be filled with nasty nightmares where worst case scenarios keep playing in our heads like a 24 hour horror festival.  An incubus can be tinged with painful humiliation or gut-wrenching spiritual doubt.  While no light seems to escape from these metaphysical black holes, it is within them that souls are often reborn through life altering personal epiphanies.

Some people get lucky.  They make rapid course corrections following moderate miscues.  We call these fortunates ” high bottoms” — those who have had mild brushes with consequence and in doing so, make alterations that avoid the deeper canyons of catastrophe.  Others are hard-headed and need to be tossed around in  life’s white water before finally gaining perspective.  Sometimes the most successful among us lack the basic ingredients of humility and self-awareness to see a bottom coming.  Their spiritual GPS is still “searching for the satellite” as they speed through one of life’s guardrails.  These advocates of self determination tend to rely on their own best thinking and are certain that if there is a God, he or she must look and think alot like them.

Just ask the endless parade of celebrities and power brokers who have seemingly had it all — only to sabotage their own lives.  Each low is determined by a simple psycho-social equation: “The Probability of Change Is Inversely Proportionate To The Pain One Is Willing To Endure Before Taking Action.”  How bad does it have to get?  What needs to occur to cause someone to change the way they live?  Not all crises of the soul are self-inflicted.  Bad things happen to good people. Yet,  life changing events test the very foundation of any person’s belief system.  Often people find true spirituality and religion in these midnights of mortality.  If you subscribe to the doctrine that life is a “testing place and not a resting place,” bottoms are critical ledges that can catch us and redirect us in a new, more positive direction.  For those in the thick of crisis, Churchill offered sage direction: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Hubris and humility anchor the opposite ends of a spiritual continuum that begins as a perilous, high velocity rapid of self worship that eventually widens into a peaceful river of unconditional love.  Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is merely thinking of yourself less of the time.   It is in our tormented moments that we come to the conclusion that only a power greater than ourselves can lift us into the light.  Often that higher power manifests in the form of real people — individuals who see beyond our imperfections and focus on our possibilities.  They reward us with their simple acts of  forgiveness and love.  In giving us grace, they receive it.  They understand that we are all strands in a rope of compassion fashioned out of servants helping others rise from the ashes of their own spontaneous combustion.

It’s these acts of humanity and unconditional support that we see ourselves as part of a community of souls. We realize the greatest gift that we can give is ourselves to others.   “Sinners make the best saints.”  Bill Wilson often remarked when he was asked about the miracle of Alcoholics Anonymous.  It all started for Wilson by sharing his bottom with another person in the throes of their own despair and in that moment of raw humanity, they discovered grace.  Grace is everywhere and lines the pockets of every living soul.  It is a currency that never depreciates.

A catalyst for transformation might be getting fired, a divorce, an arrest, being caught in a lie, hurting a loved one, an illness, the death of a friend, getting into trouble or the painful recognition that one is materially rich and spiritually bankrupt.  Any relationship challenge or crisis can become a critical turning point in our belief system.  When we fearless inventory our part in a fiasco, we often find our own egos skulking in the shadows — trying to convince us that we are victims and not responsible.  Pain leads to humility.  Humility leads to surrender. Surrender is followed by the revelation that we simply do not have all the answers or control.  The recognition that there is a God and we are not him/her leads to a thirst for a theology whose principal tenets are anchored in serenity, humanity and tolerance

A soldier once said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  Most of us have bargained with God for intervention or relief from a problem and usually reneged on promises once the crisis passed.  Yet, sometimes a bargain sticks.  Every religion is filled with examples of faith found in the midst of fear.  It can take a crisis to shake us out of the illusion that somehow we’re exempt from life happening to us.  “Life,” John Lennon said, “is what happens while you are busy making plans.”  How we react to life — and whether we take life on life’s terms — ultimately determine our progress as human beings.

Ultimately, a bottom is a good thing.  If for no other reason, we are taught to appreciate the peaks of our existence.  Be of good cheer and remember that we never get dealt more than we can handle.  Strife, pain and low points also allow us to know who our friends are, confirm our values and see that life can be so much more than we might see in our limited view.  Travail shakes us from her chrysalis and we eventually take flight as butterflies — lifted on the gentle breezes of forgiveness and redemption.

It is Springtime and a time of rebirth.  It is a time to remember, however low we go, we can always find grace.  Enter Dr. Seuss, “…On and on you will hike and I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are…and you will succeed?  Yes, You will indeed (98 and ¾ guaranteed)…and oh the places, you’ll go!”

The T-Rex Takes on Healthcare Reform

images “Americans have always been able to handle austerity and even adversity. Prosperity is what is doing us in.” James Reston

His emails arrive at night and land like scud missiles. He is an Old Testament retired CEO who is appalled at the state of America and as a thirty year healthcare system veteran and dutiful son,  I am expected to interpret the complicated tea leaves of the Affordable Care Act ( ACA) and warn him if Armageddon (any form of change) is imminent. He needs three hours notice to hide his coin collection.

Today, his instant messaging is in large case font; He has forwarded an email that was forwarded to him from a friend of a friend of a friend – all retirees convinced that our current President is an operative for a hostile foreign government.  I have to give high scores to his email chain author for his/her detail, veracity and creativity.  Many of the stories are purportedly authored by retired Generals, Navy Seals, and in one case, a dead President.

I often scroll down these emails to see if I can find its genesis and author – perhaps it is Karl Rove or someone incarcerated for white-collar crime.  The email offers me “the truth about Benghazi” or a grainy photo of the President giving out nuclear codes to Al Qaeda operatives behind a District of Columbia Stop & Shop.  I am not always inclined to believe these missives but I love my Dad and his loyal concern for America.  At 83, his draconian solutions are not always politically feasible and carry a decent chance of arrest if one actually tried to act on them. However, he has a 160 IQ and understands economics.

With my status as a registered Independent voter, I remain a point of frustration to my father – a lost sheep naively wandering in a forest of good intentions not understanding how close I am to the wolves of Socialism.  As an ex-CEO who made many freshman mistakes, I am a tad more sympathetic to anyone dumb enough to want to run America, Inc.  To assume the role of CEO for a company that is losing $1T a year, sitting on $17T in debt, massive underfunded retirement liabilities, a dysfunctional board of directors, angry, bargained employees and a confidence rating of less than 35% – is a job that only a masochist or megalomaniac might aspire.  And even someone as naively altruistic as moi would not have chosen to take on US healthcare as my signature legacy.  There is a reason why it has been viewed as the third rail of American politics – “you touch it, you die.”

My father and his friends have a huge stake in the future of healthcare as their day is spent inventorying each creaking part of their own frail physiology, wading through a confusion of doctor appointments, specialists and endless prescriptions. He is now messaging me wanting to understand how the inept roll-out of Healthcare.gov will impact the future of Medicare.  The email message appeared with a large “ping” as it thumped into my in-box.

“FWD: FWD: FWD: FWD: MICHAEL, IF THIS IS TRUE WE ARE ALL IN DEEP (You fill in your favorite noun)”

The note went on to ask if his Medicare policy and supplement might be cancelled as so many individual policies had in the last month.

“OBAMA SAID PEOPLE COULD KEEP THEIR POLICIES”

After two strokes, caring for my Mom with Parkinson’s and a bout with prostate cancer, he is a grizzled veteran of the system but he still does not understand it. He wanted to know why millions of policies were cancelled and now being rewritten at higher premiums.  In some cases, single men were seeing their lower cost ala carte policies replaced with higher cost coverage that included such essential benefits as maternity coverage.  Other than male sea horses, it would be hard to find someone who purchased a bare bones policy with eyes wide open willing to support a new plan that would cause their premiums, in some instances, to double.

I wrote back with earnest detail.

“Got your IM.  The botched roll-out won’t impact Medicare.  There are no provisions in ACA to modify Medicare benefits although at some point, the government will begin to change how they pay doctors for the services to try to slow spending and improve quality.  The public exchanges you are reading about are being created in every state in the US to cover the uninsured and subsidy eligible Americans.  Where a state has refused/declined to create their own exchange, the federal government is stepping in with their portal, Healthcare.gov. It’s been a disaster as the technology has not worked.  In addition, the government got an even bigger black eye because Obama promised people they could keep their policies but did not realize his own legislation would force insurers to cancel, rewrite and charge higher premiums for his new and improved minimum levels of coverage.  His announcement to delay the policy cancellations for a year will create huge problems for insurers and put them once again in the position of being bad guys if they decide they don’t want to reinstate policies they have eliminated.  It’s a huge mess!”

“A CLUSTER IF YOU ASK ME. WONT ONLY SICK PEOPLE JOIN THE EXCHANGES?”

“Yeah. The first few years you will see only those who had no coverage and those who were overpaying for policies due to age or health status will benefit by purchasing through community rated public exchanges.  Yet, community rating only works if young people join and don’t use the benefits. The problem is the penalty for not purchasing insurance is only $95 a year in 2014 and the cost to buy a bronze level plan (the lowest cost policy approved by ACA) could cost up to $300 a month. 50% of the uninsured are under 30 years old and think they are invincible.  My guess is they won’t join the pools initially and the public exchanges will have to be subsidized by the reinsurance taxes. The government expected some of this and will assess employers a reinsurance fee as of January 1st to create a fund to reimburse insurers who end up losing money on the expected adverse selection.  The taxes last only until 2016.  It will prop up the exchanges for two years possibly giving exchanges the ability to argue they are working. Once the reinsurance fees run out, public exchange loss ratios will deteriorate and costs will increase.”

”IS IT A COINCIDENCE THAT THE EXCHANGE GETS PROPPED UNTIL HILLARY GETS ELECTED IN 2016?  I NEED TO THROW UP.”

“Seems suspiciously well-timed.”

“THEN THE DO-GOODERS RAID THE PUBLIC COFFERS TO SUPPORT THE FAILED PUBLIC POOLS? LENIN WOULD BE PROUD!”

“Careful, remember you are also benefiting from this messed up system.  You and Mom are enrolled in a nationalized healthcare plan called Medicare whose cost is being subsidized by future generations.  You love the coverage because you can go to any doctor you want.  You have more specialists than Imelda Marcos had shoes and no primary care doctor calling the shots.  Your kitchen looks like something out the TV show Breaking Bad with scales, baggies, pill sorters and enough drugs to medicate all the animals in the LA zoo.

Your Medicare contributions bear no relationship to the true cost of the benefits you will receive in your lifetime. CMS still collects premiums under actuarial assumptions that expect retirees to live to age 68.   We now are living into our 90’s.  Medicare is $50T underfunded. We only have two workers for every retiree versus 6:1 when we started in 1964. Medicare makes the cost of Obamacare look like a dime store candy.  Between our sovereign debt and Medicare, we are witnessing the greatest intergenerational wealth transfer in the history of the country.”

“ALL ENTITLEMENTS ARE PONZI SCHEMES. THE ROAD TO SERFDOM IS PAVED WITH DEBT.  IT’S TIME FOR TOUGH CHOICES.  NEXT, NANCY PELOSI WILL BE PROPOSING TO MOVE ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS INTO OUR HOMES.”

“Well, Dr. Zhivago, at least the stock market is up.”

“I’M IN T-BILLS AND BONDS. I DON’T TRUST WALL STREET”. There is a pause. I can almost hear the television blasting in the background as he cranes to hear someone yelling at him from downstairs.

“YOUR MOM WANTS TO WATCH SOME MOVIE I’VE SEEN BUT CAN’T REMEMBER.  A DIVIDEND OF OLD AGE.”

“Glad you feel better.”

“GET OFF YOUR BUTT AND DO SOMETHING.”

“Love ya.”

“You too.”

I realized he had sent me his final message in lower case font. I typed my next email in upper case.

I was now fired up.

If You’re Gonna Be A Jerk, At Least Be Funny

Cover of "The Devil's Dictionary"
Cover of The Devil’s Dictionary

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  Oscar Wilde

Mitch Horowitz recently penned a piece in the NY Times that took a coat hanger to the rear end of the digital age, blaming the rising incivility in our society – at least in part – on faceless emails, text messaging and anonymous social media that allows individuals to engage in “consequence free” on-line hostility.  As I was reading Horowitz’s thoughtful lamentation, I could not help but sheepishly think about the scud missile emails that I have sent over the course of my career (hardly without consequence) and those other misspent missives that still gratefully rest in my draft box like idling ICBMs.   

Email certainly makes it easy to be a jerk.  I don’t have to see the reaction on the other person’s face or deal with their legitimate reaction.  It’s like throwing oranges over the fence at cars when I was a kid.  It also seems to be getting worse. Somewhere along the way, we have allowed ourselves to get gerrymandered into orthodox enclaves of opinion that refuse to even acknowledge the other person’s point of view.  News channels have been replaced views channels and news anchors have morphed into iconoclastic shock jocks who belittle anyone who offers an alternative opinion.  Worst of all, the insults and personal diminishment lack imagination and humorous punch.  They are petty and sophomoric  – much the way a schoolyard disagreement might end with “I know you are, but what am I?”

Acidic discourse is hardly new and uncivilized communication has been a plague on our houses since the first rock was thrown anonymously into the other guy’s cave.  Anger is a manifestation of self centered fear – fear of not getting what you feel you deserve or fear of losing what you have.  While it is natural to become annoyed with those who do not share your point of view, it is also inevitable in a world that is becoming global and more diverse that the odds are increasingly higher that we will encounter people with views different than our own – convictions that threaten our version of what we believe to be true.  We can always choose to respond like Dan Akroyd in his iconic SNL Point/Counterpoint debates with Jane Curtain.  Yet, the basis by which we choose to resolve our differences defines our emotional intelligence as a society.  As we become more transparent in a digital age and become more diverse in a hot, flat crowded world, we find ourselves under siege with change and the conflicting points of view from people who do not share our enlightened sense of what is right.

It takes a lot of restraint to stay open to issues and to resist making up your mind until you have heard all sides.  I remember the sense of injustice I felt growing up in the house of my iron-clad father.  “That’s not fair.” I would complain. 

“I’ll tell you what’s fair,” was always his response.

It made things easier being told what to believe in.  It became more complicated later in life as I formed my own points of view based on my experiences. The internet certainly enables faceless, poison pen snarkiness in a society consumed with schadenfreude, but this is nothing new.  Before the computer age there were Scarlet Letter gossip campaigns that were the centerpiece of small town blood sports. Social media supercharges our innate penchant for self promotion and bold disagreement.  Yet, the internet is merely a new medium for mass character assassination and not unlike a bomb dropped from 30,000 feet, it is deviously impersonal. 

Horowitz points out that while disagreement is a natural part of intelligent discourse, distain is destructive and dismissive.  It’s as cancerous today as it was when citizens had no internet and wandered the streets looking for somebody different to lynch.

As a writer who trades in the currency of sarcasm, I have to admit that the Horowitz article got me thinking.  Growing up in an unfiltered home whose patriarch routinely eviscerated anyone whose views were different than his own, I became somewhat desensitized to those that were ridiculed for their obvious lack of understanding of the issues. As I grew up, I was drawn to society’s cynics and iconoclasts who found humor in magnifying imperfection.  Yet, the best of these curmudgeons taught me to first laugh at myself before everyone else.   

Ambrose Bierce is among my favorites – a scathing critic, writer and all-around troll.  The impossible author wrote the quintessential primer on sarcasm known simply as “The Devil’s Dictionary”.  He became synonymous with mordant commentary and serial disregard for society’s conventions and institutions.  He lived a difficult life having survived the Civil War and the suicide of his own son.  Some of his more deliciously acerbic quotes:

 “History, n.  An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

“Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.”

“Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision causes him to see things as they are, not as they ought to be

Bierce disagreed with people early and often.  He was his generation’s literary angel of death.  To William Randolph Hearst, he once retorted,”  “Mr Hearst, I collect words and ideas. Like you, I also store them. But unlike you, I keep them in the reservoir of my mind.  I can take them out and display them at a moment’s notice. Mine are eminently portable, Mr. Hearst.  And I don’t find it necessary to share them all at the same time.”

Another one of my favorite snarks, was Richard Blackwell, aka Mr Blackwell whose annual list of worst dressed celebrities became a brutal primer on sartorial misadventure.  His legendary insults on wardrobe malfunctions included:

“She looks like two small boys fighting under a mink blanket.” (Liz Taylor)

“She dresses like the centerfold for The Farmer’s Almanac.” (Martha Stewart)

“Stretch pants on angel food cake.” (Jane Fonda)

 “She looks like a gypsy abandoned by a caravan.” (Meryl Streep)

Okay, Okay…It’s a tad mean but you have to admit it’s funny.  I suggest if you insist on being critical, at least make it clever.  Sure, there’s lots to be mad about – deficits, low growth GDP, a declining middle class,  class warfare, unemployment, foreign wars and the incredibly hateful and uncivilized comments that often weave their way anonymously into the Internet.  Remember our kids don’t do what we say but certainly emulate what we do.  We don’t want to leave these open-minded millennials  “a coarsened and crippled way of interacting” that will handicap them well into the next generation.  We must try to find a starting point, preferably a funny one, to lead us out of the polarizing desert of dissent and toward a more civilized detente. 

If you are going to be bitter, lampoon yourself first.  Show you can take it as well as give it. Lurking like a spider across an endless web of comment threads is the realm of the petty and the reptillian.  Resist the temptation to take pokes at someone who is down or who can’t defend themselves.  Any bully can toss a rock through a window and drive off in the night.  Anonymity might mean you never get caught by other people.  But remember, someone did see you.  You did.  And I guess if you still believe that nobody saw you, well that would make you….

…a nobody.

Searching For His Clubhouse

There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.  ~Alexis de Tocqueville

My son recently approached me as he worked his way through a Government assignment at school.

“Dad, I need to write a paper that outlines my political ideology and shares what party best represents that point of view.  I kinda know but there’s so much stuff and I am not sure I agree with all of it.”

“Welcome to the real world.” I said with a mouthful of food.

I am now only asked to kill spiders, give out car keys or money.  This was a rare bridge building moment for father and son. We all get nostalgic when we see our children clawing at the chrysalis of their hermetically sealed suburban life — trying to understand the bigger world picture and define themselves.  What should I say?

I hesitated, plunging back into the ancient waters of my own adolescence and a similar conversation.

“Dad, I have a project where I need to share what my political views are and why.”

“Let me see that? Who gave you this assignment anyway?  Was it that new teacher, that commie Berkeley grad with the long hair?  Tell Professor Trotsky that as long as you breathe, eat my food and live in this house, you are a $#@! Republican.  Is that clear?  If you would like to join any other party, I suggest you sleep outside near the garbage cans so you can get used to the life that you will be living if you vote people into office who promise you something for nothing.”

“Okay.  So we are all Republicans?”

“Yes. We are not simpleton, do-gooders who give away other people’s money.  We don’t want to live on the public charity.  We work for a living and believe that small government and low regulation creates a vibrant economy and jobs for everyone who is willing to work.  If you won’t work, get the hell out of here and go live in Europe where they give you free stuff in exchange for your votes.  We believe in God, a strong defense, small government, no debt, low taxes and personal responsibility.”

“What about poor people?”

“Well, if they can work, they need to work.  If they can’t, we help them.  If they won’t, we throw them out of the lifeboat. Can’t feed everyone on the lifeboat, you know…”

After submitting my paper, my Social Studies teacher gave me a passing grade.  It was a safe and politically correct gesture for a liberal teacher in a homogenous, conservative suburban middle school.  He clearly wanted to give my father the middle finger and my paper a “D+”.  Instead, he offered me a “B” and a perfunctory smile.  He had carefully written questions at the bottom of the paper.  “Good paper.  Think about the other side of every argument. Why is welfare a bad thing?  Do you believe people born in poverty like being poor?  Does a kid born in Downey have the same chance at success as a kid born in San Marino?”

I showed my father “our” paper and the B.  “Jesus H Christ, the commie gave us a B!”  He seethed as he read the commentary. “Jesus, Ruth – (we all thought at one time or another that our mother’s name was really Jesus Ruth) – the district is dredging the bottom of the LA River with some of these pinko teachers.”  Once again, there was a Communist in the woodpile. I had heard enough at dinner to know that a pinko was a Stalin-loving, freedom snatcher and not someone afflicted with conjunctivitis.

Over the years, I would cling to my father’s views and wear them like Kevlar – protecting myself from all the unseen forces that conspired to strip me of my hard-fought gains in life. It was not until I moved abroad that I began to form an almost unwelcome and more complex ideology that did not fit neatly into an orthodox two-party bucket.

I would now sit down with my son and hear his views on a variety of social, fiscal and geopolitical issues.

He glanced at his cell phone for messages. “Well, for starters, I don’t see what the big deal is about gay rights, abortion or immigration.  We need to be more tolerant. “

I interrupted. “Okay, well it sounds like you are a Democrat.”

“Yeah, but we have also been talking about the debt.  I don’t like the national debt.  I mean I have to pay for it when I get older and I didn’t even get to enjoy it.  It’s gonna be hard to find a job when I get out of college and the government is still spending more every year than it has.”

“Hmm.  You sound like a Republican.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we should be involved in foreign wars and we should cut defense spending.  We should become energy independent as long as we don’t trash the environment trying to achieve it. I don’t want to have to worry about the Middle East.  It’s just oil, oil, oil and terrorists…”

“Yes. Good points. So maybe you’re a….”

“And, when I make money I guess I’m willing to pay higher taxes to support disadvantaged people but I want people to show some responsibility and work.  I don’t think we should make it easy to not work. I think we should spend more on roads and education and less on bailing out banks and Wall Street.  Big companies seem like they are ripping us off and the government can’t do much about it. Small government is good but only if you can trust Capitalism.  I’m not sure we can. And I don’t even understand the healthcare stuff.”

Neither do I…and I work in the industry.

“Well, son, you have just summed up the American conundrum.  We are socially sympathetic but fiscally conservative.  People want jobs and they don’t want to pay for anybody else’s problems unless they are in real need.  If government is small, it falls to business and individuals to try to solve for the holes that inevitably occur in society. If you can’t close those holes, they widen causing more people to fall through until one day, the minority is the majority and then, the tables get flipped.”

He looked at me with a bored, vacuous expression. “What? So, which party is closer to all that?”

“Buddy, I have no freaking idea.  But, if you find their club house, will you let me know?”

A Passage to Italy – Part One: Just Don’t Look Down

[Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy] (LOC)
[Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
It had been raining for several weeks in Rome – a lingering and inconvenient wet cotton hangover of a hard winter.  As our plane touched the tarmac, the valley of the Tiber shimmered under its first sustained spring sun.  The fields were filled with blood red poppies and yellow mustard.  The April air was honey scented citrus, hyacinth and jasmine. Spring had arrived on a smile from Jupiter and an entire nation now rushed outside like children escaping school at the final bell.

Our trip had become a pilgrimage of sorts – my chance to prolong the adolescence of one of my children by escaping to Europe for one week.  In a time of tangled earphones, bent heads glued to smart phones and castrated dinner conversation; I was gambling that these trips might yield some precious memories and a chance to sew a few seeds of wonder.  The children had almost forgotten what it was like to be lashed to the same mast – an ancient mariner and his apprentice sailing together across a deep strait of water far from the distractions and conveniences of home.

Italy is a brilliant orchestra with no conductor.  It is the perfect place to reconnect with those things that may be missing or not visible in life.  The heart is always dreaming of the beyond and we often neglect our imaginations and our capacity to fill our days with childlike fascination.  Any pilgrimage is about the journey and those you meet along the way.  It is a chronology of life moments in which one travels, clearing the mind of the temporal and seeking the deeper insights only found in other people and in places where our significance is subordinated to a greater purpose that pulses around us.

For a nation whose debt makes the USA’s fiscal cliff appear more like a children’s slide, the Italians seem to shrug off the mounting complexities of their excesses and roll their eyes at the austerity measures that must now reshape public and social policy if Italy wants to remain a part of the euro and the European Union. For many, taxes and debt are a way of life and with a government that has the life expectancy of a housefly, it seems useless to spend a sunny day worrying about the horizon line clouds. In a nation where history and tradition are knotted together like tangled kite string, complications are a fact of life.   In the last few months God’s emissary on earth, a standing Pope, has resigned for the first time in the history of the church. He is now creating complications, as the government has never had to allocate pension payments to a Pope.

To make matters worse, there is no government because the Italian Parliament cannot agree on a coalition that would be legitimate enough to preside over anything other than a food fight. Gas is $11.00 a gallon but the biggest complaint is over the use of a new Autostrada digital camera system designed to photograph and fine the nation’s notorious speeders. This is a huge problem for a country built on its genteel infidelities.  Divorce courts are filling with wives who now have proof that their husbands are cheating on them.  Imagine a wife’s surprise as she opens the mail to spy a ticket and photograph of her husband and an unknown younger woman near Sorrento when he was supposed to be north in Bologna on business.  Mama mia!

Lazio and AC Roma are wallowing in the middle of the pack of the Italian champions league while hated Juventus has moved into first place.  This is of much greater concern than national debt, mounting taxes or the possibility that Silvio Berlusconi who makes Caligula look like a Trappist monk, is still trying to worm his way back as prime minister.

In Rome, we visited new appointed Pope Francis at the Vatican, enduring throngs of genuflecting pilgrims.  Like attending a Notre Dame football game, it just all makes you want to become Catholic.  It’s like being part of a huge dysfunctional royal family with secrets and power. To be a Catholic is dwell at the feet of Popes, Saints, Templars and martyrs.  Rome is a pantheon to rich historical paradoxes – incredible charity and hidden vice, personal sacrifice and hypocritical indulgence, generosity and profligacy. The new pontiff has promised more open leadership. Most like me, are just hoping he might share the remaining secret of Fatima, which might provide a hint as to whether the Jets might make it back to the Super Bowl, or the GOP will take back the White House.

My youngest son and I spend much of our time with my close friend Vincenzo, a Roman native who has been a friend for over fifteen years.  He loves his city and speaks in emphatic broken English as he regales us with legends, embellished facts and scrupulous details of battles from his beloved Punic Wars with Hannibal.  We walk slowly devouring monuments to pagan Gods, organized religion, imperial empires and theocratic republics. Enzo hesitates after regaling us with stories of the great Roman commander Scipio and his Carthaginian nemesis, the genius Hannibal.  He shakes his head and waves a dismissive hand as if to indict the present as a time of profound decline – the nomadic and cynical offspring of a once great civilization.  “Incredible.” He blurts out to no one in particular.  “Our country is like a beautiful woman with dirty feet. If you want to stay married, you just must learn not to look down.”

Enzo concludes this evening’s dinner with a story that relates to his country’s debt crisis. “There was a man who was plagued by his debts to his neighbor and he could not sleep. Every night, tossing and turning.  His wife, annoyed up with her husband’s walking of the floor asks him what is the problem. He looks at her and brings his hands to his face.  ‘I have such a big problem. I owe our neighbor so much money and I cannot repay him.’ The wife listens and calmly walks across the room and opens up the window facing their neighbor’s house.

“Signor. Wake up. My husband can not pay you back your money!”

She turns to her husband and smiles. ‘Go to sleep.  It is no longer your problem.  It is  now his problem.’”

Okay Dad, Hand Over The Credit Card!

English: Federal Debt Held by the Public by U....
English: Federal Debt Held by the Public by U.S. Presidents and party control of Senate and House, 1901 to 2010; source for debt data is Congressional Budget Office, “Federal Debt and the Risk of a Fiscal Crisis”, July 27 2010, http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/116xx/doc11659/07-27_Debt_FiscalCrisis_Brief.pdf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The front door slams and a man with graying hair looks up from his book over rimmed glasses as he sits in an adjacent room. A young woman in her early twenties drops a duffel bag on the wood floor of a well-lit foyer.

Father: You’re home! How’s grad school?

(The girl looks irritated and says nothing)

Father: What’s wrong, baby?

Daughter: (The girl hesitates and then holds her hand out in front of him) Okay. Hand it over!

Father: What are you talking about?

Daughter: The credit card. You and your kick-the-can-down-the-road generation have bankrupted my future. (The girl drops a NY Times on the coffee table and becomes sarcastic) It says in here that the Fiscal Cliff has been averted. Ha! They might as well have announced that the Easter bunny is real. I just finished Michael Lewis’ Boomerang and Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning and I’m depressed.

Father: Haven’t got to those books yet. Since November, I have turned to Merlot and escapism. I’m reading a bestseller about the 16th century. (Pointing to the newspaper, smirking) Cheer up! The Paper reports that the fiscal cliff is a bunny hill and Paul Krugman says spending our way out of the deficit is the only path back to prosperity. I hear Barney Frank may come out of retirement.

Daughter (looking incredulous): Are you kidding me? They only agreed to delay the debt ceiling discussion for 60 more days. Then they are going to ask Congress to raise my credit card limit. Even if the president got all the taxes he wanted, he’d have raised what, $80B of revenues? Where’s the other $15.92 Trillion going to come from? Government made a bunch of promises back in the 1960s in the form of Medicare that they no longer can keep. We’ve known it for a while, but we are hiding it like Enron. If the US government was a public company, the executives would be in jail for accounting fraud and the country would be in receivership. In the real world, you don’t pay as you go! There is bi-partisan dishonesty about the budgets and how dire our situation is. There is a deficit, all right. It’s a deficit of honesty, vision and courage in our public officials and it’s a deficit of public willingness to accept responsibility for managing a problem that has landed in their laps. Winter has arrived and you jerks keep spending the next few generations’ money to avoid a few cold nights.”

Father: It’s not us. It’s that damn Obama. He has created more debt in the last four years than all the Presidents that preceded him. He passed socialized medicine and now he wants to raid Medicare to pay for it. He’s added at least $7B of public debt and he wants to raise the debt ceiling and spend more money. He’s never worked a day in the private sector and can’t balance a lemonade stand.

Daughter: Dad, get real. The guy inherited a nightmare and a constituency that can’t face reality. This is about facing the fact that our healthcare system is broken and literally sinking the country. At some point, no one will lend you money. Congress and the White House have never shown fiscal discipline. We have recorded a budget surplus just five times in the last fifty years. Four of the surplus years came together from 1998-2001, President Bill Clinton’s last three years in office, and President George W. Bush’s first year in office. By the way, our publicly stated debt counts only current cash obligations. The real debt we are facing is more like $75 trillion dollars because we’re not adding in $45T in underfunding for Medicare. Every politician knows this but it is a radioactive secret. Both sides keep up their “Medi-Scare” rhetoric because they want support from retirees who fear they will lose benefits. Face it, Medicare is the biggest single drain on our budget and we have to deal with it.

Father (getting mad): There’s no damn way I’m going to let them raid Medicare to pay for nationalized Obamacare.

Daughter (smiling condescendingly): Dad, Medicare is unmanaged, fee for service, nationalized healthcare. The government controls Medicare costs by rationing reimbursement to doctors and cost shifting to the private sector. It’s the greatest generational rip-off from young to old in the history of the country. Medicare was established when there were 16 workers for every retiree and the average life expectancy was age 68. In 2030, we will have only two workers for every retiree and will have 80 million retirees, four times as many as today. The math does not work. Social Security is not the problem. We have to cut Medicare and make some tough decisions about how we deliver care in the last few months of life.

Father ( getting angry): Oh, now you want to euthanize me and your mother? This is not about Medicare. It’s about a socialist President who wants to redistribute wealth. We need to elect some fiscal conservatives. The Dems won’t make tough decisions. They are give-away artists who pander to Unions, illegal immigrants and anyone who feels they have gotten a raw deal. The GOP needs to win back the White House.

Daughter: Dad, don’t hold your breath. Try running on a platform of fiscal austerity when the new majority is being told that there was a big party from 1998-2008 that they did not attend but that they must now pay for. The demographics in America are changing and a large enough percentage of the GOP’s base has seen their standard of living decline that they have begun to identify with moderate Democrats joining an increasingly heterogeneous group of pro-Democratic voters. The GOP has not been able to convince non-Caucasian voters that they would benefit under their leadership.

Father: Jesus, you’re depressing. Do you have any good news to share?

Daughter: I’m taking Mandarin and I have a summer internship with an Indian microfinance firm that is trying to expand into China and Africa.

Father (trying to appear encouraged): Well, that’s great. Although it sounds like you are going to have a hard time finding a good cheese burger. (Looking bemused) My kid’s going to have to immigrate to another country to find a decent management job.

Daughter (hugging her father and laughing): Not necessarily. We just have to show the resolve to confront healthcare spending and the weight of our entitlement obligations. If we do that, we can be competitive as a country. The way I see it, we have four choices: default on our debt, raise taxes that only delay the day of reckoning and slow down our economy, create a centralized rationing regime in the form of a single payer healthcare system or migrate to a defined contribution premium support model where people receive help buying public or private insurance. I don’t think we want number one or two. So that leaves three or four. We’ve got to get honest – fast and (looking stern at her father), we have to cut up your credit cards.

Father (grabbing his daughter’s bag): How in the hell did you get so smart?

Daughter (smiling and putting her arm around her father): Four years of economics. I have your ear for BS and Mom’s ability to balance a checkbook.

Father (nudging daughter with shoulder): So, you going to tell me who you voted for in the elections?

Daughter (grinning): Ron Paul, I wrote in

Father (making a face) : That was a wasted vote

Daughter (pretending to look offended): Hey, last time I checked, this was still a Democracy.

My Blackfoot Whispers

AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River
AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River (Photo credit: Doug kueffler)

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.  ~ Norman Fitzroy MacLean, A River Runs Through It

In the summer of 1981, I worked as town boy and ranch hand for a small guest ranch tucked into a great stand of cottonwoods, aspen and pine at the confluence of Montana’s Blackfoot and Clearwater Rivers.  I was given this gift and, like so many that are wasted on the young, didn’t fully appreciate it until the experience had been swept from my hands like so many granules of sand. 

Montana is a rugged place.  The Blackfoot valley was carved by an ice flow fist formed in the Pleistocene period by a great glacial lake.  In this less traveled part of America, people live in respectful harmony at the foot of mountains that can be penetrated only by logging roads and on horseback.  Some places in the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness remain untamed and only tolerate those who choose to pass through.  And for the experienced angler, the Blackfoot ranks among the Madison, Frying Pan, and Fire Hole as sacred places to practice the mystical art of fly-fishing.  

I had fished for perch, blue gill, sunfish and trout in local lakes as a boy, but never held a 9 weight switch of graphite rod that whipped neon line out across the water in a great rolling sine wave.  My first day on the river, I watched spellbound – the last of a fisherman’s line hesitated, silent in the air, his monofilament leader attached to a microscopic artificial caddis fly that would alight gently on the ripples.  As he stripped his line toward the shore, a flash of brown and red shot through the green riffle of water as a brook trout rose to attack.  There was no bait, no shrill cry of victory nor creaking of a rusty reel.  There was only sweeping wind, a splash and an ancient struggle as the angler landed a three-pound, 18-inch fish on a silk thread capable of snapping once two pounds of pressure had been applied. 

Netting the fish was as much an art form as the act of hooking him.  Yet, within minutes, his creel was opened and the fish was deposited to be served within two hours for dinner.

The Blackfoot is a magnificent and reckless flow of water that cascades 137 miles down from Rogers Pass atop the Continental divide — some of the wildest land in the contiguous United States.  Fishing consumed my waking hours.  My friend and I called it “Stalking Big Daddy.”  Although chores on a working ranch never truly conclude, on brief breaks and on our one day off a week, we would ride rusted bicycles down long dirt roads through sagebrush and chaparral, bumping along with fly rods, creels and nets.  We carried an insect net fashioned from a metal coat hanger and cheese cloth, which we would sweep beneath stands of cottonwood along riverside reeds, catching insects and hoping to match our fly patterns to the color of the captive bugs. Big Daddy was the term we used to describe the biggest fish in the river – a fifteen pound brown that lingered in the shadows of the cut river banks near our ranch. 

Our heroes that summer were curmudgeonly anglers who would don neoprene waders and work the river’s edges and runs — whipping home tied, wet and dry flies with the precision of a lion tamer.  As the trout would jump, tail and sip at the confederate lures, we would stand at a respectful distance trying to emulate the effortless bullwhip strikes of line that would extend across the water, dropping flies into places no larger than a postage stamp.  Big Daddy was there, watching us from underneath a shelf of rocks and branches. 

Fly-fishing was our new religion and these ancient fisherman had become our reluctant clergy.  They would shake their heads in condescending contempt as we shook at branches and tore at tree limbs that had snagged our back casts.  A retiree named Bud patiently taught us roll casting and how to read a dead drift. It seemed an innate obligation that they pass on this knowledge to the hungry neophytes who caught more leaves and sticks than trout.  John, a local rancher, scolded us to understand that each day the river changes, so you need to know how the water will guide and place the trout you want to catch and release.

We became part of that river, spending hours wading its shallows and sand bars, often stopping to watch an osprey, eagle, moose or white-tailed deer hesitate for a moment then melt back into the deep forest.  Each trout that rose to our fly had the potential of being Big Daddy.  If you were fortunate enough to hook a phantom brown or cagey cutthroat, your fishing partner would stand in silent envy, torn between not wanting to acknowledge your superiority as a fisherman but tortured by the need to know what fly pattern you were using.  “Black ant?” he would say nonchalantly, looking down river.  “You say something?”  I would smile, and then finally confess to the Wolf Hair Caddis. 

Twilight lingers forever in the Montana summer.  The dry, warm air slowly rises, giving in to small pockets of cool air that rush like phantoms down across the river at night.  The “early evening boil” was something to behold, as the trout would once again rise to feed.  We stood, silent silhouettes, swaying rhythmically with dark cords lashing quietly against a pink and purple sky.  Suddenly it would be dark, and we would pedal by moonlight to the cabin we shared with wranglers who worked the corrals and led the guests on horseback rides. 

Late that summer, I arose at four to take guests to the airport for an early morning departure and saw what looked like great wavy spikes of white light rising into the sky.  Dawn was still an hour off, but these beautiful sheets of light moved and swayed – blown by some magic celestial wind.  It was my first glimpse of the aurora borealis, and it is burned into my memory against the jagged skyline of the great Swan range.

As I get older, many of my senses have dulled while others have seemed to sharpen.  I sometimes stop to just listen as the wind rakes pine trees that guard the adjacent woods. I can almost hear the dry Montana wind sweeping down  pushing the tops of the pines, and shaking cottonwood and aspen leaves until they quake with exhilaration.  The river moves tirelessly and is restless, always eager to lean somewhere beyond the bend of an adjacent dirt road.  The Blackfoot is like the course of my life, creating new banks, patterns and places for others to hide and watch. 

The river provides for everything that lives along it and ministers to anyone who takes the time to listen closely to its sacred theology.  It flows back to me at night in my dreams.  I am always standing in the river, the weak morning sun streaming over the trees.  Just out of the corner of my eye, a faint riffle and flash.  A trout rises.  I roll a cast across the sequined water, squinting to see if I landed the fly on the narrow run that eddies into a deep pool.  A large brown belly turns as the white mouth gapes for the fly.  It is only eight in the morning and the Blackfoot whispers to me that there is no rush.  We have all day.