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.

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