How we got here with health care

I was seventeen when I had my first brain surgery. I’m an extremely lucky unlucky person because my issue was easily fixed with “a machine,” really a shunt, that I just had to trust to keep working. I got to leave the hospital to live as a healthy person, but I have a vivid memory of my doctor telling me to get a job with a big company and be sure to keep it.

At the time, I had no intention of building a life around making sure I maintained health care coverage. I mostly forgot about the machine that kept me alive. Then I got a nagging headache and my health history came back to mind. I decided I better pick up health insurance. The preliminary information some company sent me had a list of ailments and mine was on there, so I called and asked what that meant. I would go into the high-risk pool. My health insurance would cost close to two-thousand dollars a month. That headache turned out to be nothing, but my life plan of not building a life around maintaining health insurance went mostly out the window. Since then I’ve worked for two big companies and stressed about maintaining the average hours necessary to stay on their health care plans, which wasn’t always easy and would have been impossible if I’d had a condition that caused me to miss work. I’m a lucky unlucky person.

I was a naïve kid when that doctor told me to get a job with a big company and keep it. What he was essentially saying was that I’d better be careful because I’m going to turn out more expensive than I’m worth. He was right. My various insurance companies have spent way more on me than they’ve gotten back in premiums paid by me and my employers. But I’ve helped. What people who haven’t been sick probably don’t know is how much of the burden of paying for health care falls on the sick. My brain machine broke on separate occasions six months apart but on separate calendar years. I paid my maximum annual deductible both times, at that time $5,000, for a total of $10,000, out of my pocket.

The easy scapegoat is insurance companies, certainly where I directed my ire for many years, but insurance companies are just forced to maximize profit, like every other company. The problem is capitalism. Fitting health care into a capitalist system is like putting your washing machine under the cupboards above the kitchen counter where the microwave goes. The pressure has been mounting for decades in the form of rising premiums and more cost put on the sick. There is something synergistically devastating about being sick and getting the mail and finding bill after bill that you don’t know how to pay. There are people who stop taking the care because they don’t want to face the bills. Some of them risk stroke by not taking prescribed blood thinners, others just let themselves get sicker and sicker and then die.

The Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” didn’t solve all these problems. It wasn’t perfect, but it improved the situation by getting health insurance to a record number of Americans. These are all people who, when they get sick, are now able to go to the doctor and not the ER, which costs more money for worse long-term care that has to be covered by all of us. The claim by the GOP is that the American Health Care Act will give more choice to Americans but if you look at the details its real aim is just to fall back on the old way of hiding the problems with our health care system by leaving them for the sick minority to worry about. One of the details that stuck out to me in the new plan is a projected sixty percent hike in what insured people who get sick will have to cover themselves. The “death spiral” Paul Ryan always says “Obamacare” was in, even though the CBO reported it was not in a “death spiral,” is expected to hit especially older Americans most likely to need care. People sixty-years-old would be forced to spend half of what they make on premiums, which means they’ll forego coverage. Our ERs will have to accommodate that. People will get worse care at ERs at a higher cost that will be covered by everyone else when they can’t pay all so that a tiny percentage of the richest Americans can receive tax breaks.

The hunting and gathering days often get romanticized. When a member of a tribe, family to many of the rest of the tribe, got sick and couldn’t hunt, the tribe shared. They expected that member would get better and be back to helping the tribe and when someone else got sick the help he or she gave would be returned. Some members of these tribes were surely wounded or sick past being able to return to help hunt. That’s when human empathy kicked in. The human instinct to sacrifice to give aid but there are other human instincts like greed and selfishness. Sometimes those instincts won out. Some of these injured or sick ancient peoples were almost surely dragged out of the village and left for dead. If the countries of the world are the different villages and communities of ancient days, America is lagging in accepting the challenge of committing to caring for everyone who is a member of our village. The passage of the Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction. The GOP’s bill is going backwards, leaving more of the sick to die unnecessarily.

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Gabby: A Tribute to My Neighbor’s Dog

A few years ago, a dog across the street, often out while I was writing, became my surrogate pet. I went over and met my neighbor as a ruse to meet her. She was an old dog, she couldn’t see or hear. The man told me she didn’t know I was even there but that I could pet her. I pet her and it startled her. One day, she was no longer there and I knew why. I went over and offered my sympathies to the man. He said he sometimes still heard her in the house. I sat on my porch and wrote about Gabby, and I liked the piece, so I typed it up and gave it to the man. I never heard anything else about it. I returned to the piece later and didn’t think it held up to how it felt when I wrote it so I never did anything else with it, and I was a little embarrassed I’d given it to him.

Cut to a couple weeks ago, that house is for sale. I thought the man had moved but he’d died. I thought he’d lived alone, maybe he did, but his wife talked to me. I told her I’d visited with him, a few times, and talked to him about his dog, Gabby. She said, “Oh, are you the one that wrote him that letter? That was really nice.”

I’ve gotten a lot better over the years about floating my writing out and not worrying about what reactions it gets or if it gets a reaction or if I find out about it getting a reaction. But finding out that my tribute to Gabby at least meant enough to the man that his wife ended up knowing about it, got me to revisit this piece and now I like it again. This is what I gave the man printed out on a sheet of paper.

Gabby

A tribute to my neighbor’s dog

I became a watcher of my neighbor’s dog. I went over and introduced myself after asking my neighbor, first, if I could pet her. He said sure. “She’ll be startled, she doesn’t see or hear anymore, but she won’t mind.” Her initial lurch when I put my hand on the top of her head and then relative calm as I ran it down her back let me feel she enjoyed it, but when I returned the next day my petting her startled her again. I would always be a sudden hand on her in the familiar square of front yard she knew and trusted without use of her senses. I would always startle her.

The man was retired and this was Gabby’s hospice care. He let her out often and she must have enjoyed exploring the same patch of grass past the front steps—perhaps her dwindling senses made every visit feel different—because she would spend ten to fifteen minutes each trip rooting in the grass and under a nearby bush before returning up the porch steps to be let back in. Some days she couldn’t propel her hind end up the steps and had to wait with her front legs on the steps and her hind end in the yard for the man’s help. I wished I could be the help she needed instead of sudden hands behind her startling her and shoving her forward. I would have even simply waited with her if I could have felt, to her, like familiar company. Watching from my porch I would say, “poor girl, poor girl,” softly to myself, imagining that once she was a puppy who would have scrambled up and down steps like that in a yippy blur of fur. That she once kept vigil over her square of territory emitting barks that would sound friendly to family and friends and ferocious to strangers. And that now she gets startled by a hand sneaking onto her back.

Gabby didn’t recognize aging and think of her dwindling senses as loss or she did and possessed grace. Because I’m human or lack grace I could never help aching for her as I can’t help staring over at her empty yard and missing her.

If Jesus Rose from the Dead Why Doesn’t My Mom?

I’ve probably been to Catholic Mass as many times since my mom died as I’d gone with her since returning to Ohio from Seattle, several years ago. I always felt like an imposter when I went. Everyone worshipped so sincerely and I felt like I detracted from that energy, the way a non-participant in laughter therapy can ruin a session. I went a few times with her as her illness progressed because I felt like she wanted me to and I got something out of it, but I liked to stay home and write while she and her husband were at church and then have breakfast ready for them when they got home. Mom came to understand that represented me better and she respected that.

Now I’ve been to her funeral Mass, another bereavement service, Christmas, and Easter. I go so her husband doesn’t have to go alone, but I also go for me. Mom’s there. I drift in and out of paying attention. I’m mostly communing with the mystery, where Mom’s gone, to the mystery of being. Our presence proves the mystery of being. My conflict with religion is that it attempts to unravel the mystery by attaching specifics I don’t relate to. What Joseph Campbell taught me is that all religions are true. They’re metaphorical of something. What’s happening to Jesus should be happening in your life. Whether Jesus rose from the dead or didn’t, that was almost two-thousand years ago. I relate to it as a story. Jesus died and rose from the dead, as a metaphor. My mom died but I think of her sitting in her church with her husband, as I always think of her, but being in church brings me closer to the mystery of being, where she is now, and I commune with her. She has risen. It’s well known that that’s blasphemy, in some thinking, but in other thinking that is the point of religion to recognize that God is in you and your loved ones and everyone you meet. Joseph Campbell says, “Jesus ascended to heaven but what is heaven? Heaven is no place. He ascended to heaven through the inward space which is where you must go.” Sitting in church, I travel to the inward space and be with my mom. I enjoy that.

David Foster Wallace: Where an Obsession Begins

I tell people to check out David Foster Wallace but always qualify it with “but be careful where you start,” which isn’t very specific, so I’m listing his books in a recommended reverse order.

9. Infinite Jest

I posted a review of I.J. I’ll link below but just for fun I dug through and found a line that I often think of and giggle. The dad of two of the characters moves a bed and is complaining about how dirty the floor is and says, “Under what presidential administration was this room last deep-cleaned, I’m standing here prompted to fucking muse out loud.” There was probably a lot of context that made that stand out as so funny. Here’s the review: https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/infinite-jest-brilliant-and-hilarious-tedious-and-self-indulgent-five-stars/

8. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity

D.F.W. studied math, as in super high level math theory, and wrote about infinity. I read every word of this book and understood hardly any of it. But the opening was interesting. He talked about how a word, like “chair,” can be repeated until it stops denoting, which is that weird feeling you can give yourself by picking a word you’ve known since you were three and wonder why it’s called that. Why do we call chairs chairs?

7. Brief Interview with Hideous Men

This was the first book of his I read, and I actually listened to it. The second story was “Forever Overhead,” which remains my favorite short story. If this collection hadn’t included that story, I might have stopped here. I don’t recall liking very many of the others, though I intend to try them again at some point.

6.The Broom of the System

I enjoyed this book. It doesn’t seem like his other stuff, though. He hadn’t hit, yet, on the unique style that makes him him. It’s definitely worth reading, I just wouldn’t say you’re getting the best sense of him from it. The best parts were these supposedly terrible short stories students had written and the teacher of this class describes the stories to his girlfriend and the stories are actually bizarre but kind of awesome, as summarized by the character.

5. Girl with Curious Hair

This is a story collection. Little Expressionless Animals was fantastic. Here and There I also really liked. Some were, like Infinite Jest, great in parts but tedious at times, overall. The last story, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, felt like a precursor to the approach he would take to Infinite Jest. That’s probably the only thing he wrote that is close to like I.J.

4. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

This is a collection of six essays on a variety of subjects, a report on a tennis player trying to make the pro tour, a piece on the movie Lost Highway being made by David Lynch, where he discusses Lynch’s earlier movie, in depth, Blue Velvet.

The probably most relatable essay is his report on taking a cruise, which is the essay the collection is titled after. This includes the line, “Temperatures were uterine.” He describes the cruise as being sad and inducing despair: “It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”

As I mention in my review of Infinite Jest, his writing is dotted with insights, either through characters or through his author persona, that feel like they must have been drawn from his mental illness, a combination of anxiety and depression, that led to his suicide in 2008, but I’ve never read anyone that’s made me laugh out loud more while reading.

3. Consider the Lobster

Another essay collection. The title comes from an essay he wrote about lobster, which poses ethical questions about how we treat the animals we eat with such thoughtful consideration to both sides, and he did eat meat, I would recommend anyone who’s thought about this issue, which is most of us, give it a read. And what’s even cooler is he wrote it while covering a lobster fest for a food magazine. It’s available online. A few others stood out, in these politically polarized times as thoughtful and careful looks at both sides, one on the politics of usage dictionaries, which was surprisingly entertaining, another covering John McCain’s 2008 campaign, and another piece on a right-wing radio talk show host.

2. Oblivion

The reason I always tell people to be careful where they start is because David Foster Wallace is so dense in his writing style, if you hit on something not to your interest you’re likely to be overwhelmed. The stories in Oblivion, more so than the ones in Girl with Curious Hair and much more so than the ones in Brief Interviews, were all enjoyable. Mr. Squishy was a story about the marketing strategy for a snack food, which presents the idea that the market will push healthy foods but then turn and then use the exhausting pressure they are responsible for to push unhealthy foods as a break from the pressure.

Antitrend Shadows they’re called. “…the rather brilliantly managed stress that everyone was made to feel about staying fit and looking good and living long and squeezing the absolute maximum productivity and health and self-actuation out of every last vanishing second…”

(skipping some stuff. This leads to the turn for the snack foods push even though they’re unhealthy)

“(the snack foods) said or sought to say to a consumer bludgeoned by herd-pressures to achieve, forbear, trim the fat, cut down, discipline, prioritize, be sensible, self-parent, that hey, you deserve it, reward yourself, brands that in essence said what’s the use of living longer and healthier if there aren’t those few precious moments in every day when you took a few moments of hard-earned pleasure just for you?”

(then skipping some more really good stuff, there is a description of) “ads that featured people in workout clothes running into each other in dim closets where they’d gone to eat (these snacks) in secret, with all the ingenious and piquant taglines that played against the moment the characters’ mutual embarrassment turned to laughter and a convolved espirit de corps.”

Then there is Good Old Neon, which is narrated by a character who has committed suicide because he felt like a fraud, which is obviously tempting to take as very autobiographical, which maybe is unfair, but either way is a fantastic story of a human being under extreme duress from dealing with issues we can all relate to, to some degree, that everything he presents to the outside world hides who he really is deep inside, of course also aware how cliché and banal he is for fixating on this when everyone does. A hero on the internet read the entire story and posted it on youtube if anyone would rather listen.

1. The Pale King

Initially I swore I would never read this. It’s an unfinished novel, at about 500 pages, and while no one could guess how long it might have been, it sounds like from the notes left behind it would have been a second Infinite Jest type of length. Most of the chapters introduce characters who will work together at an IRS facility. Chapter two is a guy on a plane studying for the CPA exam and getting constantly distracted by everything around him. Boredom as a form of anxiety is one of the big things he was exploring. He was taking classes on taxes as research. Another chapter was a character who broke out into sweats if he started to think about sweating, or if he started to think about thinking about sweating, which left him in a pretty much constant pickle. D.F.W. broke out into panic sweats in high school, according to his parents, so again there was likely an autobiographical element to that character. He’s also in the book, in an author foreword that starts on page 68, where he claims the book is actually nonfiction. He apparently was hired at an IRS company but his name David Wallace was common enough that he got mistaken for a different one. To keep that from happening again he started using his middle name and somewhere he writes, I have to paraphrase because I couldn’t find it, “once you pick a nom de plume you’re kind of stuck with it, no matter how pretentious it sounds.”

There were also odd chapters, like one about a kid who devotes his life to doing stretching exercises with the goal of being able to kiss himself on every part of his body. (He’s going to worry about the back of his head later.) And another one about a guy who decides to record a month of TV on twelve channels and then watch it over a year. And as they’re discussing endlessly the logistics of accomplishing this, there is one character who keeps breaking in and asking, “Why, though?”

If you can take it for what it is, the last writings of honestly one of the greatest writers to have ever lived, which sounds ridiculous but is accurate, and not focus on what it isn’t, The Pale King is just a super fun read. I bought it for my sister as her introduction to David Foster Wallace. She hasn’t read it, yet.

It should go without saying but I’ll say it, this is all just one reader’s opinion on his books. And it’s worth noting that this reverse order is closer to the order I actually read them in. I went from Brief Interviews to Infinite Jest and worked my way down this list reading Pale King second to last and Oblivion last. Which could also mean I largely learned to read him as I read him. It will be interesting to reread Brief Interviews and see if I enjoy it more the second time.

How Obama’s Blackness Led to Trump

The Persistence of the Color Line by Randall Kennedy has a subtitle different from the one I gave to it as I was reading, which I used as the title of this post. Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency is the real subtitle, but I think that’s only because the book came out in 2011.

The book begins with the feeling in the country that the election of our first black president signaled the end or at least the beginning of the end of racism in America. Then it suggests that race influenced how Obama was perceived and evaluated and the author presents this as happening on both sides. From the introduction:

Racial liberals supported Obama more than they would have backed an ideologically similar white candidate while racial conservatives opposed Obama more than they would have opposed an ideologically similar white candidate.

At one point in Obama’s 2008 campaign, Obama launched an anticipatory attack on McCain, by preparing the public for a racialized line of attack from McCain. Including they would remind voters not to forget he was black. Randall Kennedy criticized that: “If you are going to indict someone for the social crime of racial wrongdoing, you should be careful about doing so, which means identifying with specificity the misconduct to which you object. Obama did not do that.” The author also credits McCain. “McCain’s record on racial matters is considerably less impressive than what one would like to see in a leading American statesman. Running for the presidency, however, and to the dismay of allies, McCain imposed upon himself a code of conduct that precluded taking full advantage of his opponent’s racial vulnerability.”

Randall Kennedy’s ability to objectively analyze all angles comes through clearly in his in-depth look at the case of Gates, the black Harvard professor neighbors reported for trying to break into his own home, July 16th, 2009. Gates reacted strongly to being approached, feeling his blackness was the cause, which was unfair to the police officer, Crowley, responding to the call. Although Crowley then overreacted by arresting Gates for disorderly conduct, a charge later dropped. [This is the author’s opinion but I agree. Police officers are trained to control situations for public safety but need to recognize instances when their presence is the instigating factor in a volatile situation and defuse that situation by exiting the scene. Gate’s reaction was extreme but understandable. So let him yell at you, let him yell about your mother. It’s not personal.] Kennedy called the beer summit that followed “lamentable,” but thought Obama’s response was fair. “The first black president must simultaneously address supporters who will be tempted to see racial bias in opposition—whether or not bias is actually present—and detractors who will be tempted to see opportunism in all complaints against racial prejudice—whether or not the complaints are justified. Obama seeks to appease the latter more than the former. He is deeply hesitant to claim that a criticism of him is in any way racially discriminatory. He is keenly attentive to the reality that racial discrimination is often hard to identify clearly and that the very effort to make the identification is often politically costly.”

He follows this case with the simple, generic case of a black customer in a store being treated rudely by a white cashier. Couldn’t the white cashier be dealing with personal issues or just a jackass to everybody? Of course. Couldn’t the white cashier, maybe, be a closet racist who treats black people rudely but hides his or her tracks? Also of course. “The problem, though, is still more complicated. People who engage in racial discrimination not only hide their prejudice from observers; they also often hide their prejudice from themselves. Many who engage in racial discrimination believe with all sincerity that they do not.”

As I said, this book came out in 2011, so the author never connects any of this to the rise of Trump but everything about it felt predictive of the 2016 election outcome. I think Obama had little to do with that, but our response to Obama, to his blackness, had a lot to do with it. Obama was just doing his hard job of being president, reading his daily briefings and making the best decisions he could for the country. And the vast majority of Americans aren’t racist and didn’t evaluate Obama based on his blackness. What I do think happened is people in agreement with Obama pointed at those opposed by finding the few whose criticisms were racially based and lumping them together. Meanwhile those with legitimate criticisms of Obama sincerely believed that his supporters were missing what was going wrong because they were overly sensitive to his blackness. All of this set the stage for Trump’s rise.

Obama avoided the fate of other black leaders, like Al Sharpton, who developed a reputation of always making everything about race, which creates an aggressive-cried-wolf perception among people. This racial sensitivity fatigue leads to the wrong-headedness of believing everyone else’s racial sensitivity couldn’t be sincere but must be the result of “political correctness” going too far, which led to misreading Trump’s racist and hateful, and essentially dull, rhetoric as refreshing. We were ready for a black president and we were ready for a woman president. What we couldn’t handle was a black president followed by a woman president. That was going too far.

The title of the post is provocative because these are disheartening times, for me and many. Those who think we’re overreacting to Trump’s presidency will criticize it, I imagine, but to be clear, all I said is that this subtitle for this book came to my mind. Nowhere have I ever suggested Trump voters are racist. That’s absurd. I don’t lump Trump voters all together and hope Trump supporters don’t lump all of us in protest of Trump together. In a close election myriad factors swung the result. This reaction to the perception that racial sensitivity is political correctness going too far is one of those factors that did swing this election. As Van Jones said on election night, “I know it’s not just about race, there is more going on than that, but race is here too and we got to talk about it.”

Mom Says Goodbye to Her Most Valuable Possession

Mom always said, “Time is your most valuable possession.” We thought of this as a “Mom Quote.” Some famous philosopher probably said it first, but we still think of that as hers. Mom chose to value her last months, resigned that the progression of her illness would lead to her death, but letting the knowledge enhance the joy of living. Not easy to do, I don’t imagine, but if I’m fortunate to have that kind of time for myself I’ll now have a model for how to manage. She said goodbye to visiting Seattle in the Fall, goodbye to Florida in the Spring. Expected final visits started coming early in the summer as people visited from far away. These goodbyes were always emotional, heartbreaking even, but she also found them nourishing.

The goodbyes came more bunched as her health deteriorated. The first I recall was trips to the basement. One weekend we were talking about installing a better hand rail for those rickety steps and the next she told me she was done going into the basement. They had an old house and a purely functional basement. It contained the water heater and furnace and the washer and dryer, a work space scattered with tools. Mom only went down there to do the laundry, to do a chore. But it hit me to pass that door and hear her say she was done going down there. I read recently that when people know death is imminent they run through lasts: last time to see a sunset, last time to see the snow, last time to feel the wind. These aren’t even always last pleasures but even last chores, like doing the laundry. When I read that I immediately thought, I wish I’d known. I was so focused on Mom’s health, I thought of her as thinking, I won’t be able to go into the basement to do laundry ever again, but maybe she was thinking, I won’t go into the basement to do laundry ever again. Maybe she wasn’t regretting losing these pieces of her life but simply saying goodbye to them.

What I read makes sense even on a less significant scale. When I quit waiting tables in Seattle, I still remember nearing the end of my last shift and thinking of how that was the last time I would run food, drop checks, fill drinks, etc. Repetitive tasks I’d certainly had my fill of after seven years, but I focused on them, a form of meditation maybe. Certainly life is filled with repetitive tasks we’ll one day say goodbye to stunned at the degree of low current pleasure we received from them. When we do, we have options. We can fixate on what’s being taken away or we can reflect on the pleasure they gave us and say goodbye.

When I initially read that, I got hit with a brief but potent feeling of regret. If I’d read about that in time, I could have been more with her for those goodbyes but that feeling quickly passed because my behavior wouldn’t have changed. I was with her and she was showing me how to live, it just took this long for me to understand the lesson, which means she’s still teaching me.

First Christmas

What if we remembered our first Christmas? Even babies born in the last six days of December lacked the verbal skills by their first Christmas to be at all prepared for the smorgasbord of stuff suddenly pressed on them accompanied by a showering of gleeful attention from those big people we’re learning love us. Remember, up to a certain age, young children think anything that moves is alive. I don’t remember getting a train that would flip every time it bumped a wall and move in the opposite direction until it hit another wall and flip again and head to a next wall until its batteries drained, but I’ve seen videos of me sitting up with chubby legs and tracking it enraptured.

Then we attach this magic to a guy named Santa Claus, who is either a myth or a lie. The choice is ours. The myth is a stand in for Christmas Spirit, itself a stand in for holiday cheer and good feeling, people doing nice things for each other. When we discover there is no Santa Claus we aren’t surprised. We kind of knew, not all along but by then, that our parents were behind the whole thing. Our parents have conjured magic for us at maybe the only time in our lives we’re capable of fully buying in. After we realize Santa didn’t bring us anything, our parents, maybe sometimes with money that didn’t come easily, bought us this stuff and gave Santa the credit so we would believe in the magic, the curtain is drawn back but the magic remains.

This will be my first Christmas with both my parents gone. That’s been on my mind pretty steadily since about two weeks before Thanksgiving. People say the holidays are tough when you’re grieving, but I keep thinking back on how great my parents made every Christmas. The TIE Fighter I found under the tree the year I woke up at three in the morning and snuck into my room to play with for five minutes before going back to sleep, the electric train set going around the tree I know my dad must have been excited to buy his only son, the copy of Infinite Jest my mom got me a few years ago after I dropped only one hint about wanting it more than a month before Christmas. I keep thinking of how magic Christmas felt long after the illusion of magic was gone because my parents always made it special not with stuff but with effort and care. That’s the magic that lets me, about as anti-commercialism as one gets, work in retail and not focus on shopper frustration around the holidays but see mostly people in good moods excited to buy stuff for people they love to make them happy by the thought behind the gift. That’s the same magic that lets me, a not religious or even spiritual in the typical way person, feel like my parents are with me this Christmas.

The Electoral College Should Vote Clinton over Trump because They Can

Clinton won the popular vote. Trump’s supporters’ constant reminders about the Electoral College are designed, whether consciously or not, to diminish the significance of Clinton winning the popular vote but it is significant. More people who voted wanted Clinton to be president. The Electoral College was probably never a perfect system, it was probably arrived at through a series of compromises among people all dead now to balance the voting in a country that looked much different. Now we have people who work for the same 10-20 companies in identical clusters of businesses in different states whose votes have more weight by a factor of as high as five. This made sense when some sparsely populated regions made up most of the nation’s farmers or plantation owners. (Remember, the South used to count slaves, considered property, as three-fifths of a person when figuring voting influence, so clearly this was being patched together as they went along.) It makes less sense now.

This isn’t enough to seriously argue that the Electoral College vote in Clinton over Trump because that’s simply changing the rules after losing, but it’s all important context for the argument. Trump is a security risk to the nation. He is fragile and his response to feeling wounded is to attack. It appears to be his only move. His campaign demonstrated this but people still voted for him based on a combination of his lies and false promises and an attack on his opponent fueled largely by misinformation, we now know propagated, in part, by Russian interference. But here’s what Trump’s done since he became president-elect. He’s claimed he would have won the popular vote but for the millions of people in California who voted illegally. He stated this with no evidence. The CIA said they have overwhelming evidence that Russia tampered with the election to try to help him win, and Trump’s response was simply, no, they didn’t. We learned through his campaign that even little things that hurt his easily hurt feelings he claims are just made up. Now the stakes are higher. He is not holding up well to the pressure. And he’s falling back on his same character flaws and lashing out. Lashing out at the CIA of the country he’s about to lead. Again, with nothing but the fact that what they found hurt his feelings. People have said if his collusion with Russia could be proved that would be enough to prevent him taking office. Well, we all heard him tell Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. I have a friend that likes to say “Words are important.” People want to dismiss Trump’s outrageous comments as Trump being Trump. This is the president-elect. Why are we not holding him accountable? His responses are never measured, they’re all about how he feels, and that is a gigantic security risk. Numerous checks and balances are built into our government. The Electoral College is one of our protections. The Electoral College should recognize that Trump is unfit to be president. What’s missing is public support. Trump’s supporters are cheering themselves for their accomplishment of getting an anti-establishment candidate all the way to the presidency. They view the criticism of him as criticism of them and I’m sorry for that, but an honest evaluation of Trump needs to finally be done by the people who voted not for Trump but against Hillary. A president wins the presidency and becomes a civil servant. He or she may hold the highest office in the land but still serves the citizens—all of them. Trump serves only himself. People who begrudgingly voted for him need to admit that’s true and then voice it. We need them.

The Stigma of Suicide (A Pale King Metaphor)

We have a lot of compassion for people feeling suicidal but often too little for those who have taken their own lives. With good intentions, we use phrases like “giving up” or “throwing your life away.” The goal is to remind the living that their lives have value, but the result is a pressure on those struggling to persevere as they suffer emotional turmoil. They feel guilty for not appreciating life, the way others do but really the way emotionally healthy people enjoy life, which exacerbates their anguish.

David Foster Wallace voluntarily left this world, also leaving a novel-in-progress. They found close to six-hundred pages of completed, publishable chapters and notebooks of ideas and free write chapters all bundled under the title The Pale King. I think of the passion and dedication and perseverance required to do all that work and I don’t think of someone for whom “giving up” or “throwing his life away” fit. This was someone who recognized the value of his life but was driven by inner turmoil to the escape suicide seemed to offer during a moment of crushing despair. The Pale King isn’t proof of his value but works as a metaphor. The Pale King isn’t evidence his life had value, each of our lives has that. We don’t need accomplishments—not books or children or jobs we enjoy, not even relationships with other people—to have lives we value; we just need to each find our unique way to make our mysterious presence resonate.

From what I’ve read, David Foster Wallace didn’t discuss his mental health much, publicly, but according to an interview his parents gave, after his death, he suffered from panic sweats in high school. The Pale King includes a character who agonizes over starting to sweat and how starting to think about starting to sweat will make him sweat but trying not to think about starting to sweat is too much like thinking about starting to sweat and so he starts to sweat—we’re talking visibly dripping sweating sitting in a lecture kind of sweating. Often his characters experience occasional bouts of mental anguish, which doesn’t make those characters him but it seems likely he was drawing on his own experience. In Infinite Jest there was a line that people don’t jump out of buildings to die, they jump out of buildings because the building they are in is on fire and then they die.

The existence of The Pale King, what we have, makes me think of the many times David Foster Wallace must have rescued himself from his severe anxiety and depression and from the brink of suicide rather than the final time he didn’t. We’re indoctrinated to the idea that life is a gift, which translates to an obligation when our troubles feel insurmountable and unending. Life isn’t a gift or an obligation. Life is an opportunity for discovering our reason for choosing to be here. This is the beauty of a human life, is that we know we’ll die but we don’t let that marginalize our time here. We celebrate it. This is easier for some than others. The message to those feeling despair and tempted by suicide shouldn’t be “Don’t do it,” the message should be “Delay. Seek help.” This is why suicide guards on bridges are proven effective because delaying suicide increases the likelihood that the person will seek help. (That bridges often don’t have them despite how cheap they are to install reflects the stigma of suicide. The Golden Gate Bridge, a suicide destination for some twenty people annually, still doesn’t have one.–See link below for an older blog about The Bridge, if interested–People don’t understand the point of them because they can’t believe someone wouldn’t simply find another way, but suicide is an impulsive act. Even when suicide follows a period of despair, within that period suicide was resisted, delayed, and then committed impulsively. Sometimes a delay of twenty minutes can result in a change of perspective that might prevent suicide.)

I understand the temptation of the flip side. He was in the middle of a great book. How could he not finish it? Even on the selfish level of me wanting to read it, I can feel angry. On the less selfish level of America needing his voice now more than ever, I can feel angry. I can imagine his friends and family, who loved him, experiencing grief and think, Why? But I just don’t go there. Not because I think having empathy for him is the right response, this isn’t the equivalent of “being politically correct,” but because I do have empathy for him. I’ve glimpsed what maybe he was feeling because his immense talent as a writer showed me characters experiencing anguish utterly unknown to me as an emotionally healthy person. So anger just isn’t my response. It would be wasted anger, anyway, except worse than wasted because it would feel directed to people living who are experiencing those levels of anguish and would be internalized as a threat: Don’t do it because we’ll think less of you afterwards, which would add to their struggle.

These are just my opinions and I’m not an expert. Thinking about suicide isn’t a sign of a problem. Typically people will think fleetingly about suicide, this is actually life affirming. We’re reminding ourselves we’re choosing to be here. Contemplating suicide could be a sign of a problem. Seek help, now, and acquire coping skills so that if an impulsive moment comes delaying will be easier. Avoid keeping a gun in the home. Call this number, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

I’ve touched on this subject in both my review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and in my review of The Bridge. I’ll link both below.

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/infinite-jest-brilliant-and-hilarious-tedious-and-self-indulgent-five-stars/

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/the-bridge-thoughts-on-suicide/

Links below from wordpress. Thank you for reading.

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A Peaceful Exit

Mom made it easy for her doctors to deliver bad health news. I was with her on one of her scan days when her doctor had to tell her the treatments for her liver cancer weren’t helping. There was such care in the look on her face she gave him to ease his burden of informing her, probably the least favorite aspect of his job but also something he does frequently. She picked him up or she was picking her husband and me up. That was St. Patrick’s Day and on the way home we stopped at Mavis Winkle for dinner and then hit Steak and Shake for Shamrock shakes. I told her despite the bad news I enjoyed celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, and she said so did she.

The doctor offered her a next medication less likely to work and more likely to include side effects. She wanted opinions from all of us but promised to made her own decision. We didn’t give them lightly, not entirely sure our mother would be capable of deciding to discontinue treatment if her children and husband wanted her to continue. We were unanimous in wanting her to take the treatment which wouldn’t be a cure but might give her two or more years more of good quality of life. She seemed to be leaning that way, too. She wasn’t lucky, but she was a little lucky in that her first treatment made her sick but they were able to treat those symptoms and take her off the drug with limited, lingering effects.

We started planning final visits. My sisters and all their kids were out the Christmas before, expecting the possibility that it would be the last opportunity for a Christmas and New Year’s Day with her. They all came again in the summer. Mom worried she’d feel sick and that her illness would pervade and lead to a somber gathering, but she felt well enough or felt well enough to seem well enough that we had a wonderful visit. This is the visit that included the Yahtzee game where Mom scored a few points shy of the max possible in a game whose magic felt symbolic of our union, as you might imagine. (Sometimes real life resembles roll-your-eyes fiction.)

Mom gave these intensely sad goodbyes to things and then let them go. Places, first: a last Seattle trip took place in the fall, a last Florida visit in the spring. (My sisters’ homes) Mom’s basement steps were absent a handrail. We looked into putting one in. Mom was still walking pretty well but was just unsteady enough that I worried about her on those steps, but she didn’t want to give up washing clothes. I asked her not to go down alone at least until we got a handrail installed. But next time I came she had passed this chore on to her husband. She said she was done going into the basement.

Another weekend I was over, she asked me to move a chair up to her bedroom. She was already limiting trips up and down the steps in the house and knew she’d soon be done going down those stairs as well and would want to receive visitors from her bedroom. She worried her husband would, understandably, put off taking the chair up feeling like the action was moving us toward where we were going anyway. I was able to isolate these tasks. I could tell myself I was just taking a chair up to a bedroom. I almost took on the persona of a hired furniture mover to accomplish this. My next time over we spent all afternoon up in that room. We discussed spirituality, we looked at old pictures. She had me read a passage from a spiritual trilogy she’d been reading. It was a fictional account of the devil describing how he/she/it talks people out of a relationship with God. Starting with using atheism as a tool and progressing up using people’s religion against them. The essential point being that a relationship with God is the ultimate goal, religion being the tool. So the devil would keep people stuck at the tool stage. This being a Catholic book, the sort of top tier religion, in this devil’s mind, was Catholicism. So the interviewer’s last question was about how the devil managed to keep even Catholics from God. So the devil, who from the dialogue one got the sense had to wipe his horny brow, answers as though these Catholics are his greatest challenge. But gives the same answer about keeping them stuck in the tool stage.

So realizing my mother is weeks from death and spiritually preparing herself for a journey she would rather delay, is afraid of but is also partly excited for, I understand she’s just shared a passage with me because it meant a lot to her and while I mostly liked it, that bit about the Catholics being “a tough nut to crack,” which the devil actually said, in this fictional account, gave me a pretty significant eye roll moment I didn’t think I could leave out of my comments about the passage Mom was waiting for. I did think about it. But I told her the full truth. I told her that I liked it and the idea reminded me of Joseph Campbell but that the part about the devil treating Catholicism as nearly an invincibility shield against temptation seemed a bit much. She grinned. “Yeah, that got a little embarrassing.” We had several nice laughs about that.

When I left that day, I hugged her goodbye. As I was leaving her bedroom, she said, “Greg, this was so pleasant. This is just what I imagined it would be.” I looked forward to a repeat of that long afternoon but the next time I stopped over she spent most of the time asleep. I told her goodbye and she apologized for being so tired. I told her not to worry and get her rest and I would be back the next day. That weekend my one sister was flying in. Both my sisters had flown in since the family visit over the summer and visited with Mom sick but well enough to enjoy visiting. Really she never got too sick to enjoy visiting. They wanted to be there for the end. My other sister was planning to fly in early the next week but a hospice worker told me to have her come now.

Sunday morning Mom woke up wanting hugs. I went in to greet her and I asked her if I could get her anything. She said, “A hug.” I hugged her and asked her if I could get her anything else. She said, “I still need that hug.” I hugged her again. My sister came in for hugs and then she wanted her husband. We called him up. She said after repeat rounds of hugs, “I think I’m going to die today,” with a serene singsong intonation.

I told Mom I was leaving to pick her other daughter up from the airport. I followed up to see Mom’s face light up when she saw her. She was reasonably alert and coherent through the morning but slept through the afternoon and into the evening. I told my sisters mornings were best for catching her most alert. She spoke that next morning and even ate a little. The hospice nurse told us it could be that day or the next. By midmorning she had already slipped into that twilight mode, a combination of the morphine controlling her pain and the progression of her illness. That afternoon my sisters and I were all in the room with her. We’d all already told her goodbye, thanked her for being our mom, and given her permission to leave us. She’d given little indication of consciousness for some time. We had a portable CD player by her bed with her collection of Elvis Presley hymns. I played her favorite “In the Garden.” The three of us laid our hands on Mom, and Mom’s eyebrows lifted. They lifted and fell and lifted but the impression was that they kept lifting. She lightly moaned, a sound that didn’t seem pained and might have been her trying to speak, but she was done with words and we didn’t need any words. I put the hymn on repeat. I’m sure we were all crying and telling her goodbye and that we loved her and telling her it was okay for her to go, but my main memory is of her eyebrows, that illusion of them perpetually lifting.

We all went down to the family room, all of us except her husband who rarely left her side, for a break. Final moments aren’t exceptionally important. Mom felt us all with her and whether she died one moment or the next she was leaving this world with all the love in her life, which is really how it always happens. (Really death isn’t a happening at all, that’s a limitation of language.) Although I told my sisters that would have been perfect timing, had the end of her life coincided with one of those twenty-some repeats of her favorite hymn.

I found in Mom’s journal, from when she had lung cancer way back when her grandchildren were just babies, where she wrote that she hoped she was able to die as bravely and with as much dignity as her father. I hope she didn’t feel burdened by that hope. I told her many times I didn’t want her to feel like she had to be brave for us, but I don’t know that that would have stopped her. That evening, her labored breathing ceased, the quiet waking my one sister, who called me and my other sister up. Her husband said a prayer over her and we all cried and told her we loved her in case she was still there to hear us. It was very peaceful and a lovely memory. We were so well prepared. She prepared us so well, our mother.