Friday, December 31, 2010

Finding an Analogy for the Health-Care Mandate

Dear me. One in three federal judges feels that the new health-care law’s individual mandate – that everyone is required to buy health insurance – exceeds government’s powers under the Constitution.

The new health-care law is really complicated and abstract (a lawyer’s dream, in other words), so a lot of people have been using analogies to help bring the issues into focus for us simple folk. I’d been fond of the states’ uncontested right to force automobile owners to buy insurance for their cars. However, it turns out that really smart lawyers can distinguish this analogy into oblivion.

Those of us who remember our childhood civics classes will recall that the federal government only gets the powers enumerated in the Constitution. All other powers remain with the states (except when they don’t, but that’s another story). So the states can require insurance, but the feds can’t.

As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that there’s another flaw to the analogy with car insurance – compliance. We do know that there are people on the road in Philadelphia who actually have car insurance. We’re not entirely an endangered species, but if you have a collision at an intersection in this town, the likelihood of the other driver having insurance probably isn’t much better than a coin toss.

If compliance with the new health-care law looks at all like compliance with car insurance, we might as well go home now.

So the car insurance analogy is pretty much mangled. And with compliance levels being what they are, conservatives are unlikely to mount a 50-state push to repeal car insurance laws as an infringement on our liberties. Why bother? They’ve already won.

I thought for a while about the military draft. I had thought, when I was younger and there was a war in Vietnam, that the draft might be considered involuntary servitude, and therefore unconstitutional. But then it was explained to me that, in this country, government has a right going back to colonial times to call all adult males to the common defense of the community. How the right of the states to raise militias got transferred to the federal government is something I’m still a little hazy on.

But I’m thinking if we can force an 18-year-old man to charge a machine-gun nest, we really ought to require him to buy health insurance.

Or maybe conservatives should get a judge to declare the military draft unconstitutional. I’d love to see that one go to the Supreme Court.

Here’s another analogy that I came up with – the tax deduction for charitable giving. Government, as a matter of policy, encourages charitable giving. Remember those Thousand Points of Light? So if you give money to a qualified charity, Uncle Sam lets you pay less in taxes.

Well, they say charity begins at home. So if you buy a health insurance policy for yourself, you’re doing a good deed, and Uncle Sam doesn’t make you pay a penalty.

Apparently the distinction between a tax break and not having to pay a penalty is a big deal. I’m afraid I don’t see it. And there’s apparently a feeling that we shouldn’t be forcing people to give money to private organizations. Well, charities are private. And apparently the government has never punished people for not doing something. On this last one, I just have to laugh. Let’s do a little thought experiment. You receive a telegram from the United States government, one that begins with “Greetings.” It’s an invitation to attend a form of summer camp run by the government. You decide not to go, and you’re a bit rude and you don’t bother to respond to the invitation. What happens next?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Cure for Anger

A few days ago I was running my eleventh marathon, and I did something I’d never done before: I dropped out. It was a gradual decision. Early on I noticed a certain, highly uncharacteristic, listlessness, and then I started coughing, and feeling short of breath, and then a bit light-headed, and it occurred to me that I still had the cold I thought I’d shaken off a week previously. As I passed the 14-mile mark I decided it wasn’t worth it, and I stopped.

I wasn’t in a lot of pain, but running has taught me that pain is a language, and sometimes the messages spoken softly are the ones you need to listen to most carefully.

You might think I’d be upset about my first DNF (Did Not Finish), but I wasn’t. A few years ago I was reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and I came across this line: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” My son thinks this is very Buddhist, and I’m inclined to agree.

I confess I’d never given much thought to the distinction between pain and suffering. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the guy to be providing exact definitions of terms that clearly mean a lot of different things to different people. But here are some thoughts that have worked for me. I see suffering as a psychological reaction to pain. That’s why suffering is optional. With pain, you don’t get to choose: It just shows up.

I hasten to add that pain can be physical or mental. Years ago the grandmother of a friend said this to me about children: “When they’re little they tread on your toes; when they’re bigger they tread on your heart.” And in both cases, it seems to me, there is pain.

But is there suffering? Well that’s up to you, or, in the case of my first DNF, it was up to me. I decided not to suffer. I’ve been doing that a lot since I read Murakami’s book. It feels good. There’s a freedom and a clarity to not suffering. Also it allows you to focus on dealing with the pain.

There is a downside, though. Suffering clearly buys you quite a lot in America today. First of all, it makes you a victim. And everybody in America seems to want to be a victim. Even billionaire hedge fund managers feel free to announce that they’re victims. It turns out that people like me think the taxes hedge fund managers pay are too low. So I’m the oppressor, and they’re the victims.

And suffering gives you something else – anger. Which you are free to hurl at your oppressor whenever and wherever you choose.

I remember, during the last World Cup, watching soccer players unaccountably drop to the ground and start writhing as if in pain. This is apparently, on the world stage, how you try to convince an official that a foul has been committed.

It seems we’re a lot like that now. You might almost call suffering a national addiction.

I prefer the baseball player who gets hit with a pitch and trots nonchalantly to first base. Getting hit by a thrown baseball hurts quite a lot – I know this. I also know that that baseball player is not going to rub his arm while he’s standing at first base. Not gonna happen.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about lowering the level of vituperation in our public discourse. We all need to calm down and be less angry, we’re told by a variety of self-appointed hall monitors. But how exactly are we supposed to do that? Once you’re a victim, once you’re suffering, anger is pretty much inevitable.

Here’s my thought. Anger proceeds from suffering. Strong link, pretty much unbreakable in my opinion. Suffering proceeds from pain. It’s a psychological reaction, remember? And, I think, a pretty weak link. Cut that link, and nip the whole victim syndrome in the bud.

If you want to. It’s up to you.

So how do you do it? How do you slay the suffering monster? I suspect that each one of us is different. I’ve found laughter is very useful, and I’m planning to do a lot more of it in the coming months. And maybe I’ll enter another marathon.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rummaging in America’s Attic

A while ago, before the heat of summer, Lois and I were spending the weekend down in Wilmington, visiting her cousin Bobbie and Bobbie’s husband, Andre. After dinner on Saturday night, Andre mentioned that he hadn’t been up to the flea markets in Lancaster for a while. I mentioned that I liked flea markets and enjoyed going to the Brooklyn Flea when we were up in New York visiting the children. So then Andre asked if I’d like to go up to Lancaster Sunday morning, and I said yes and asked when we would be leaving.

Maybe I should have asked about the departure time before I said yes. Anyway, the sun did rise before we got to Lancaster, and Andre loaned me a warm coat that he kept in the back of the car.

I’m glad I went, for a number of reasons. First of all, it was fun. Andre is very good company, and he’s as fascinated by old tools as I am. The Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, N.Y., used to have a table of old tools whose use the museum had been unable to identify. Anybody could play What’s This For? Just fill out a slip of paper and put it in the box.

I’m terrible at figuring out the purpose of old tools. Andre’s quite good at it.

Anyway, we spent a good amount of time at the outside tables, rummaging through the contents of people’s attics and barns. Then we went inside, where the more established dealers have their stalls, and where the prices are a bit higher. I have never seen so many roll-top desks in my life. This was more like wandering through living rooms – grandma’s and grandpa’s living room, to be exact. I glanced at a handsome table and the bric-a-brac that covered its top. I’ve often wondered how the grandmas of the world managed to dust all these things, but they did. Near a corner of the table there was a small black & white photograph in a standing frame. I looked a little closer. It was a young couple, happy and well-fed – perhaps newly married some 70 or 80 years ago.

The SS at Home

I looked a littler closer. The man, presumably the husband, was round and smiling. He was wearing a military uniform – an SS uniform. Hitler’s Waffen-Schutzstaffel.

I decided not stare at my little discovery, and instead moved on. Around another corner was a stall given over largely to old firearms, mainly deer rifles that had seen better days. In a glass case, though, was the pride of the collection, lovingly cared for, recently oiled. There was a Luger – standard German army issue in World War I, and tons of them saw service in World War II. Next to it lay a Mauser. The Mauser is an even older pistol than the Luger. It’s one of the first automatics, and it looks clunky and hard to handle. Still, it also saw active Wehrmacht service in both world wars.

I was a little shocked. I don’t believe I’d ever seen an actual Luger before – just in the movies – and it had not occurred to me that I would ever see an actual Mauser. I looked a bit and then, not wanting to stare, turned around and looked across the aisle.

And that’s how I came to the flag shop. There it was, across the aisle from the guns. A festival of colors, and in the corner, on a table, under a bunch of flags I didn’t recognize, there was a red field peeking out, and just a bit of a white circle, and there, vanishing under the other flags, just a sliver of a square of black. The foot of a swastika. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t see it. Time for lunch.

James Carville has described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. Things are a little more complicated than that. There aren’t a lot of Confederates in the attic – Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania, after all. Instead we have in our attic – what? Well, we’ve got some paintings by Andrew Wyeth of his friend and neighbor Karl Kuerner. Kuerner was a farmer who had served in World War I as a machine gunner, and been wounded. He fought the war in a Wehrmacht uniform, and when he emigrated to the United States, he brought the uniform with him.

And Wyeth painted him in his uniform – the all-encompassing greatcoat and the iconic steel helmet made famous by two world wars and innumerable movies. My favorite is a late painting, from 1989, which I discovered a few years ago when I visited the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford. It’s called Snow Hill. It’s winter; Karl in his uniform and a number of Wyeth’s other regular models are dancing around a Maypole. It’s a bit out of season for a Maypole. There are a lot of weird things about this painting, but for me the weirdest thing is the old German guy dancing around in a uniform that those of us who are a certain age will never forget.

The Molly Maguires

I confess I’m not an expert on Pennsylvania history. I grew up in New York, where William Penn did not loom large in the grammar school curriculum. It was more Peter Stuyvesant – Peg-Leg Pete, we children called him. And, later, Boss Tweed and Jimmy Walker, all the lovable rogues who probably weren’t so lovable in person.

So I find that I regularly have the opportunity to learn something new about my adopted state. Here’s another example: The Molly Maguires. I’d heard of them, but that’s about it. It didn’t help that I kept confusing them with the Wobblies, who are something entirely different. There’s a 1970 movie called The Molly Maguires. It stars Sean Connery, Richard Harris, and Samantha Eggar. Appearing in a small role is Anthony Zerbe, better known to my daughter for his work on The Young Riders, where he played the old guy.

The Molly Maguires reminds me a bit of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, a work of fiction inspired by an unrecoverable past. That’s the basic problem with the Mollies. We don’t know much about them, and we’re not going to know. Pretty much everything we do know comes from the people who were trying to kill them. It puts me in mind of the Albigensian heresy in France, which led to an actual Crusade in the thirteenth century. Virtually everything we know about the Albigensian heretics comes from their Inquisitors. Talk about a thick filter. Nor were the Crusaders and the Inquisitors always concerned with the fine points of legal procedure. This is where we get the quote “Kill them all; God will know his own.”

Anyway, the Molly Maguires were Irish coal miners in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania, which is not very far from Philadelphia. Today the area is probably best known for the town of Centralia, which has been plagued for several decades by an underground coal fire that has resisted all attempts to put it out.

The events for which the Mollies are known took place shortly after the Civil War. Trade unions were in their infancy, and after the Panic of 1873 the country found itself in the midst of one of the worst business downturns in its history.

It was the era of robber baron capitalism, and even in gentler times the bosses have been known to hand the hardship of recession on to the workers, rather than keep it for themselves. The Mollies took exception to the practices of the boss class. In this they were hardly alone. But their response cut to the chase, as we say in the movies. While union organizers were talking about negotiations and strikes, the Mollies took to sabotage – apparently they sometimes used explosives, which look very pretty in the movie – and to intimidation and murder. They didn’t just kill underlings, either. They offed the mine bosses.

That is, if the Mollies actually existed. There are those who think they were thought up by the bosses, as a way to crush the nascent union movement. I’m inclined to think the Molly Maguires did exist. The mine bosses definitely died. If you want to organize an assassination program, you don’t necessarily need the CIA (although the Phoenix program in Vietnam is a classic of its type – it gave us the phrase “terminate with extreme prejudice”), but still such a program requires some planning and direction, and even I am not prepared to believe that the bosses organized the killing of quite so many of their own class.

I’m not convinced the Mollies ever dressed up as women, although that may have been the source of their name. Frankly, after watching Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks, rising from the tall grass to commit mayhem, all while dressed as a pioneer woman, it occurs to me that travesty, to use the technical term, requires both talent and an appropriate context. So I think the Mollies should leave the cross-dressing to Philadelphia’s Mummers, who dress up in odd costumes and parade on Broad Street on New Year’s Day. (The Mummers, by the way, used to be called the New Year’s Shooters, because they would wander around shooting off firearms – this after imbibing impressive amounts of alcohol.)

We must remember that it was an inchoate era. On the workers’ side, the various elements of entertainment, social welfare, trade unionism, and political assassination had not yet sorted themselves out. On the management side, Fortune 500 corporate management and the Harvard Business School have yet to put in an appearance. Instead, we have a clear nostalgia for England, where the local squire would be named justice of the peace as a matter of course, thereby binding economic with political power. Perhaps not so different, as a practical matter, from what we have today, but still the atmospherics are from a completely different place.

Interestingly, the two main characters in our drama are not Mollies. Instead, they belong to the management side. The protagonist was Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, which in addition to hauling coal was a major owner of coal mines in the anthracite region. His Sancho Panza was an undercover agent in the employ of the Pinkerton detective agency, James McParlan. Both of these men were Irish.

McParlan penetrated the Molly Maguire organization and forwarded regular reports to the Pinkerton agency, which as a matter of course forwarded them to Gowen. The information then seems somehow to have gotten into the hands of the local vigilantes, who proceeded with their very own assassination program.

I’m a little uncertain as to why Gowen didn’t just stick with the vigilante murders. They seemed to be going well, although the vigilantes did manage to shoot a pregnant woman to death. I think today we would call that collateral damage. At any rate, the vigilante approach avoided the nuisance of trials and the possibility of not-guilty verdicts. Perhaps winning wasn’t enough. Perhaps Gowen felt the need to be right as well, and to have his righteousness validated by the community. It seems that even robber barons can have their weak points.

For some time, Gowen had been engaging in a propaganda campaign against the Mollies that makes the run-up to the Iraq war look like an exercise in dispassionate policy analysis. So the ground was prepared and the show trials began, with Gowen himself serving as a special prosecutor (he had previously been district attorney in Schuylkill County). McParlan was the chief witness. In the end, 20 men were hanged to death, and the Mollies did a slow fade-to-black.

The world moved on. Or did we? I find the Molly Maguire story deeply unsettling. It seems that we in America are never many steps away from pure savagery, and we forget this at our peril. The Mollies themselves strike me as a personification of the unrestrained id, what someone with a more ideological bent might call the righteous anger of the proletariat. The bosses, on the other hand, seem to possess the righteous anger of the rich, and very little in the way of a superego that might restrain their baser impulses.

There’s something about the bosses, and their lust for unfettered power. I’m a city boy, and I’m used to things being run by a sclerotic oligarchy. But at least oligarchs have to answer to one another. Out in the country, in the coal fields, I see a yearning for true autocracy – unilateral control by one man, who answers to nobody.

Franklin Gowen, Autocrat of the Anthracite. And he just about was that, for a few years, until J.P. Morgan knocked him off his perch.

Muhammad Islam

The Germans and the Irish are the two largest ethnic groups in the United States, and it occurs to me that I don’t know them very well. Come to think of it, I’m no longer sure that I understand America very well. There are a lot of internal narratives out there; they can be highly particularistic and, it seems, extremely persistent. So much for the great American melting pot. And if we all agree on less than we were told in grammar school, then one casualty is the concept of the United States as a fundamentally middle-class country. Clearly there are those, like Franklin Gowen, who yearn for a country of rich and poor, with very little in the middle. By the way, Gowen wound up committing suicide by shooting himself in the head.

I’m thinking of a little boy named Muhammad Islam. I tutored him last spring, at an after-school program in South Philly called Mighty Writers. Muhammad is bright, cheerful, a hard worker, an all-around nice kid. He’s also black, and a Muslim, and, as my daughter remarked, Muhammad Islam – that’s a heavy name to put on a little kid.

Maybe he’ll be okay. Years ago, Johnny Cash did a song called “A Boy Named Sue.” Sue’s father gave him the name because he figured that a boy named Sue would have to learn early to stand up for himself. That sounds like a better strategy than relying on the kindness of strangers.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Some Things Actually Get Better

Francis has been cutting my hair for several decades. He likes to talk, and I admit I keep going back for both the haircuts and the conversation. The other day he said something that startled me. In between snips with the scissors, he suggested that, as we get older, our world gets smaller. We talked about it a little bit - the comfortable daily routine, dinner out at the same places, seeing the same friends. A few years ago, a friend of mine said, "I don't really want any new friends. I like the ones I have."

My initial reaction was that I liked the idea of a world that gets smaller, or at least more predictable. The familiar routine, people you like who are unlikely to surprise you. I didn't get very far, though, before I remembered my mother, who, around the age of 80, pointed out that friends have the unfortunate habit of dying.

And then there was also my own experience over the last year or so. Since I left CIGNA, my employer of 16 years, I think my world is larger, and, dare I say it, I think my life is better. Certainly it's more fun.

Is it the most fun I've ever had? Maybe, but I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for journalism. Before I went to CIGNA, I had spent most of my career as a magazine editor. I loved it. My job allowed me to talk to anybody about virtually anything. In my enthusiasm, I failed to recognize for many years that magazines were, in fact, a dying industry. By the time I got to CIGNA, I was just grateful for a steady paycheck.

My gratitude was tempered by the strangeness of this new corporate world that I found myself in. One morning, when I was still very new on the job, I got on an elevator in the CIGNA building and said good morning to the man who was standing next to me. He looked over impassively, as if I were a stone in the road, and said nothing. It turned out that he was a vice president, and I was not.

The class structure at CIGNA was overt and rigid, enforced at strategic points with locked doors and uniformed guards. Most of the people I worked with were very nice, but we engaged one another on a very narrow range of subjects. And at the end of the day we went home and didn't talk much about work.

The situation wasn't helped by the fact that our chairman, Bill Taylor, was so introverted that he would habitually get on the elevator, back into a corner, and look at his shoes.

I remember one occasion in particular. Our little group had managed to coopt an executive conference room for a wedding shower (yes, we did have small victories). The conference room was behind two locked doors that were guarded by a disembodied voice. To gain access you stood in front of the locked door and spoke to the voice. We had a lovely party, and when it was done we all went back to the elevator lobby. I believe our boss, Denise Hill, was carrying the remains of the cake. It could have been Todd Lane, but I think he was in charge of the silly hat made out of a paper plate and all the bows from the presents.

Anyway, the elevator opened, and it was empty except for a man standing in the corner, staring at his shoes. It was our capo di tutti capi, Bill Taylor. He didn't look up. We got on. I think I was carrying several shopping bags full of presents for the bride, who likewise had her arms full of loot. Denise had some rank in the organization; the rest of us weren't about to speak to Mr. Taylor, who continued to examine his shoes. Then, as I recall it, Denise turned on her thousand-watt smile, and I knew she was going to do something.

"Hi, Bill," she said. "Would you like a piece of cake?"

Bill Taylor, who could easily fire us all before we got to the ground floor, shuddered slightly and looked up a bit in Denise's general direction. "Um, no, thanks," he said bashfully, and resumed examining his shoes.

That was life at CIGNA. I do like things better now. Sorry, Francis. My world is bigger than it was, it is full of people who are often very different from me, and we talk about everything under the sun, from the trivial to the important. It's sort of like getting my hair cut, but I get to do it every day.

Recently I was part of a group visiting with a Pennsylvania State Representative in his district office. The Blue Cross organizations in Pennsylvania, as part of their charitable mission, had been funding a medical program called adultBasic, which provides coverage for people who, for one reason or another, don't qualify for Medicaid (or Medical Assistance, as it's known in Pennsylvania). The Blues, in a move of oafish high-handedness that borders on the despicable, announced that they planned to end their funding for adultBasic at the end of the year. The result will be the closing of the program, and 40,000 people, many of them desperately ill, will lose their medical coverage on December 31.

I don't think this is exactly what President Obama had in mind when he signed the federal health-care reform bill. In fact, you can look at the killing of adultBasic as a form of communication - the Blues giving their opinion of the new law. We had come to the Representative's office to ask him if something might not be done to rectify the situation. At one point in the meeting I found myself saying to the Rep, who was very nice and wanted to be on our side, "Sir, if we don't fix this, people are going to die."

In 16 years at CIGNA, I had never said those words, or anything like them. It felt good.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Having Fun Reforming Health

Recently a friend asked me what my favorite experience was, of all the things we did during the health care-reform campaign. As I started thinking, it occurred to me that we'd been at it so long I couldn't remember a lot of what we did. So I looked at my calendar and my old emails; we did a lot.

I joined fairly late. My first activity was a meet-up (this is a technical organizer's term that means meeting) on July 7 of last year, at the Locust Rendezvous near the Academy of Music. My first action (another organizer's term) was a rally the next week at a health center on South Broad Street.

Boy, did we do a lot of rallies. In September we rallied on short notice outside the Convention Center. President Obama was in town to attend a fund-raiser for the newly Democratic Senator Specter. The teabaggers were at high tide at this point – they'd been having fun at our expense, and it had only just occurred to us that we were going to have to counter-demonstrate if we wanted to win the war of words in the street.

Actually, the teabaggers weren't the biggest problem at this rally. It was the pro-lifers, who showed up with their dead baby pictures and a sound system that would have made a rock & roll band proud. We had posters, but no sound system. A lot of us got very hoarse that day, but we held up our end, and a few days later we had a bullhorn.

On a beautiful day in October we read the bill on Independence Mall, near the Liberty Bell.

I don't have a good count of the number of times we hopped in the HCAN van and drove down to Washington for one activity or another. It almost got to feel like a commute.

And, goodness gracious, we did a lot of phone banking. For me, this involved going to PUP's seriously overheated offices on North Broad Street. (I'd expand all these acronyms, but it doesn't really matter. It's kind of like being in the army – the acronyms are the words the troops understand.)

I don't enjoy phone banking, but I did it. A number of Pennsylvania Congressmen were on the fence about the health-care reform bill. Our strategy was to call people who lived in those districts and ask them to call their congressman. (Calls from people who are not constituents aren't terribly effective these days.) We had a phone system called Activate, which automatically dialed phone numbers for us, and then allowed us to transfer callers directly to their congressman's office, if they were willing.

It was a very effective strategy. Most people would say no, of course, but quite a few would say yes, and we ran up some significant numbers.

There are lots of old people in Pennsylvania. Many of them are sweet, and some are rather crotchety. We did most of our calling in the evening, which was when people were home. So it's late in the day, and it's cold outside, and it's a steambath inside, and I'm stripped down to my tee shirt, sitting at someone else's desk, using someone else's phone, feeling slightly light-headed, doodling around the hatch marks on my tally sheet, glancing at my watch, the wall clock, the clock on the computer, wondering why time is standing still. And the system beeps, and I have yet another voter on the line. It's an older man. I start in on my patter, and after a moment he interrupts, saying somewhat querulously, "You're bothering my dinner!" I immediately have a vision of a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. The meatballs are frowning, and vibrating with anger. Perhaps a sign that I watched too many Walt Disney cartoons as a child. Or maybe it's just time to go home.

I was going to say that my favorite experience was the walk to Washington in February. Certainly it was the most significant, and personally meaningful, and downright odd thing that I did during the whole campaign. Why would eight people walk 135 miles in eight days from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., even in good conditions, let alone in snow up to their hips?

But there's another experience, only a single day, that I find has stolen my heart. Possibly because it was, for me at least, a turning point. In December, President Obama went to Schnecksville, Pa., near Allentown, to deliver a speech. It was a perfect, crystalline day, and we got to stand on that beautiful green lawn under a blue sky and go toe-to-toe with the teabaggers while we waited for the president to show up.

I think it was then that I knew the teabaggers would lose. They didn't have anything. They called us Russians and Commies and sang God Bless America. And so we sang God Bless America with them, and then quite a few other songs on our own, and then some of our women danced. I believe we even challenged the other side to a dancing contest, but they weren't up for it.

These are people who want it to be 1950 again, and they don't believe that people who don't want that can possibly be real Americans. Well, they're wrong.

We beat them that day. The media couldn't say the teabaggers had highjacked Obama's event – we prevented that – and so they covered the president's speech.

And we'll keep beating them, because we're about the future, and they're about the past.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Of Parisian Marathons, and Many Other Things

I just spent a week in Paris. It may have been the best week of my life, and I've had some pretty good weeks.

It all started innocently enough. I was looking for a spring marathon, and I thought, why not Paris? Why not indeed.

Things snowballed from there. My son's girlfriend is Parisian, and shortly after I mentioned the marathon I found myself on a team running for a wonderful French charity, Autour des Williams.

So many parts of this trip were like a movie that I hardly know where to begin. Walking from the Arc de Triomphe over to the Rue Balzac before the start of the marathon. Saying bonjour to the policewoman watching quietly from a doorway, then turning a corner and walking into a crowd of people wearing the same jersey I was wearing. They were from a variety of European countries - I was the only American. They took pity on my French, and we mainly spoke English.

The connections came at odd angles, and were forceful. Williams syndrome involves being born without approximately 26 genes. As I read online about the characteristic elfin features and the "cocktail party" personality, I remembered being in College Park, Maryland, a few weeks earlier. We were eating supper in a parish house during the walk from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. This was part of my work for healthcare reform, and there, I understood in retrospect, I had probably met someone with Williams syndrome. He was very nice. Just a little off, and without the trip to Paris I'd never have had a clue as to why.

Christophe, at the morning meeting (we took a group photo), called it serendipity.

The team totaled 71. I, of course, was one of the slowest, but who cares? Not me. The weather was nearly perfect - sunny, in the 50s, and I had a great run. At kilometer 37.2 (out of 42.2) there was a cheering section for Autour des Williams. My family had gotten a bit turned around, and almost didn't make it. But then I heard, "Bill, Bill!" and running up behind me was Marie, my son's girlfriend, and then Ben, my son. You have to be 23 miles into a marathon, on a beautiful day, to know what that meant.

After the marathon, there was a lovely party in an apartment about a block from President Sarkozy's house. As Marie's parents were walking with us to the bus home, two of the police officers guarding the palace - one man, one woman - inquired about the medal on my neck, and with help from Marie's mother I managed to stammer through a very pleasant conversation. It was a bonding moment.

Did I mention that we ate very well? Marie's mother organized my personal pasta dinner the night before the marathon. And a few days later we had a superb dinner at a restaurant near their apartment, called Le Bouclard. Meanwhile, Ben and Marie steered us to several restaurants we'd never have found on our own.

Lois and I stayed at the apartment of Marie's sister, Loulou, and most mornings my daughter, Alicia, and her boyfriend, Alex, would come over for breakfast. They were staying at Marie's apartment. Did I mention that Parisian hospitality is astounding?

To round things out, yes, we saw the sights. The Venus de Milo at the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Rodin Museum, Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides. And simpler, less expected, things. Running along the Seine in the marathon, and looking left, and seeing the Eiffel Tower. It was so large I felt I could reach out my left elbow and touch it.

Or walking with Alex in the Jardin du Luxembourg. We had momentarily lost Alicia and Lois, and I suggested that he look for two brunette women wearing black jackets and sunglasses. And, he said, "Bill, you've just described half the people in this park."

How to end? Oh yes, the volcano in Iceland. We left Thursday morning, and didn't even know it had happened. Alicia and Alex left that evening. There's a rumor they were on the last flight out before Paris - Charles de Gaulle shut down. I don't know about that, but I do know that Ben was supposed to fly out Sunday, and instead wound up running his own marathon of sorts, finally getting home on Thursday, four days later than he intended.

Oh well. He was in Paris. Not a bad place to be stranded, really.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

One day a few weeks ago, I was walking on the shoulder of a commercial highway in Delaware. The weather was good, the footing less so. You may recall the snow and the ice. And, of course, snow and ice melt in the sun.

I was walking with a group of friends, some old, some new. We were walking the 135 miles from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to ask Congress to please – finally – pass a health-care reform bill.

It was a good group, with four to eight people walking at any given time. (I had to miss Day 1 because of a prior commitment.) As we walked along, we talked a lot, and we chanted some. “What do we want? Health care!” That sort of thing. But there were also quiet times, when I was left alone with my blisters and my thoughts as we walked down the road.

I found myself thinking of the Wizard of Oz. Or perhaps fantasizing would be a better word. As the cars whizzed past us, I pictured us walking on the Yellow Brick Road, on our way to Oz, where we’d meet the Wizard and get things fixed up. We had several Dorothies. I thought of myself as the Tin Man – quite stiff, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with an oil can. We needed a Toto dog in a basket. We talked about that a lot, but never got one.

We did better in the Wizard department. On Day 8 of our walk, we got to Washington, where we were joined by hundreds of supporters for the last leg, from Union Station to a rally in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

At the rally we were joined by six U.S. Senators – or Wizards, as I prefer to call them. Majority Leader Reid spoke to us, as did Senators Dodd, Harkin, Specter, Casey, and Sherrod Brown.

I was glad to hear their words. We walkers were all very tired, and our feet hurt, but there was a euphoria in that room. I heard later that a “virtual march” on Day 8 had generated 1 million messages – phone, fax, email – to Congressional offices in support of health-care reform.

I did this walk for my children. My wife and I have two, a boy and a girl. They’re both grown now, and living up in New York, where they have good jobs that they really like. My 30-year-old son, though, has a chronic medical condition. Almost all the time, he’s just fine. But on any day he can have a flare-up – without warning – that can land him in his doctor’s office or the emergency room. This is a kid who has to have medical insurance, and on occasion he’s had double coverage just to make sure that there were no gaps as he navigated from college to jobs as a paralegal and then to law school and his current job as a public defender.

Double coverage is expensive, but it’s a small thing compared to what might happen if he lost his insurance. If he loses his job, he won’t be able to get an individual policy because of his pre-existing condition. And in these economically insecure times, who can say that they will not lose their job, or their insurance? Certainly the budgets of public defender offices across the country are being cut, and cut again.

My wife and I talk about these things a lot. She tells me she doesn’t worry so much about his medical condition, because it’s manageable. What keeps her up at night, worrying, is his health insurance.

How have we come to this place in America? I hope the Wizards can fix it. In fact, I’m counting on them.