Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Surprise Ending

"And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

 

                                                      The Surprise Ending

Gordon Smith turned his head and coughed as the doctor instructed him. He had never been comfortable with the process of getting naked with another man, even when that man was his doctor, but over the years he had developed a successful manner of distracting himself during these exams, a simple exercise in which he imagined himself at the beach, in the sun, away from the stresses of his busy workday.  As he coughed again, he felt the sun's warmth upon his face, felt the hot sand between his toes, heard the soft lap of the waves as they washed up on the beach.

A few weeks later, Gordon sat in the same doctor's office, this time with his wife by his side. He had always discouraged his wife's attendance at his appointments, even after the kids had left the nest and she had more time available, more time to spend with him. But she insisted this time, having heard some of the conversation and seen his face when the office had called to schedule the appointment, and explain the reason behind its necessity.  Blood test anomalies. 

As Gordon sat and waited, his wife clutching his hand in her lap, he allowed himself to once more drift off to the beach, his safe place.  But this time, he was less successful in blotting out his anxiety.  It annoyed him that lately he had found himself revisiting in his mind, the highlights of his life.  He had always thought himself different from most men, special, and he felt that this kind of reminiscing was the "normal" reaction to such news as he had received.  

Still, today, he found himself oddly tranquil as he ticked off the business accomplishments of his life.  The early days when he was just learning the ways of the financial world.  His mentor, who would later become his partner, schooled him well.  As he grew his circle of associates, the opportunities increased exponentially.  No deal was out of reach, no shot for financial success too long.  Whether he required a loan, a zoning change, or an inside track, he had a contact which would provide the funding or remove the obstacle.  While he may not have been available for his children's activities, he provided more than enough money for them to attend good schools, and for his wife to remain at home to raise them herself.

Gordon was a success, everyone said so.  Even his parish priest seemed to seek out his company; of course, his monetary donations didn't hurt, even if Gordon didn't attend mass as often as his wife desired.  Gordon glanced at his wife, as she sat with a worried look on her face.  He wanted to reassure her that everything would be OK, that men like him, with his resources, his contacts, were immune to the vagaries of life that doomed lesser men to unforeseen events.  He has always made his own way, always took on any battle and emerged victorious, and this one would be no different. Gordon had always told her just that, hadn't he always prevailed?  He wondered why she should even be worried at all, and instead of comforting her, he withdrew his hand from her grasp.

Six months later, Gordon Smith pulled himself up against his pillow, and pushed the lift button on his hospital bed.  His family was to visit today, wife, son, daughter.  They all had stopped by individually in the last few weeks, his wife almost daily, the kids when they could find the time, but this would be the first time all three came at once.  Their visits, though pleasant, had often reminded him of his illness, more than reminding him of their love for him.  He despised, no, that was too strong of a word, he preferred not to see the sadness in their eyes, didn't want to acknowledge that he was, in fact, dying. Denial was a strong feeling, and one which Gordon had mastered many years ago when the slight prickling of his conscience would try to distract him, try to remind him of what was really important.

It was if, were they not to visit, he could pretend that this time in the hospital was just the result of a simple procedure, a temporary blip in the path of his life, a minor stop in his continuous and successful rise to national importance and substantial wealth.  When his now ex-business partner stopped by to express his condolences and support, Gordon remembered the day when he had outmaneuvered his partner, had learned the tricks of the trade even better than this man who had first been his teacher, wresting control of their company so that he was out, leaving Gordon in control.  As the man left, Gordon couldn't help but wonder if there was more to the visit than discussed.  Gordon couldn't shake the feeling that his former partner might have been seeking reinstatement, perhaps a public expression of support or a designation of succession.  As if Gordon would consider such a thing just because he was sick.

When the day came that Gordon passed from this world, it was not unlike any of the previous 30 days.  Gordon awoke, just a bit more tired than yesterday, a pattern that had started recently.  He barely acknowledged the hospital staff person who delivered his morning meal, just as he had barely interacted with this young woman during most of the transactions when she would deliver his meals.  In the background, the TV glowed with the same business information that was always displayed, numbers scrolling across the bottom, experts bemoaning the latest government regulation which placed undo obstacles on wealth accumulation, or extolling the virtues of the most recent corporate merger announcement, another mega company being born to monopolize another industry.  Even his wife's visit seemed routine.  He was no longer able to read the unspoken messages in her eyes, no longer able to accept a love that she gave unconditionally, despite the lack of such a love being returned to her.

It was the very nature of this routine, however, that startled Gordon when he was suddenly no longer in his hospital bed, no longer surrounded by the anti-septic smell of the room and the soft glow of Business Today on the TV.  Instead, he was sitting across the desk from a middle aged man who was engrossed in a folder of papers which he had in front of him.  While Gordon was uncertain of the circumstance, he was quite certain that he was on the side of the desk to which he was unfamiliar, the subordinate side.  When a few more moments passed without recognition for his presence, Gordon cleared his throat in just the way which he had always done when he wanted someone of lower status to pay attention to him.

"Ah yes, Mr Smith.  I was just reviewing your file.  Do you know where you are?"

Gordon snickered.  "Not in the hospital", he said.  Gordon had always found that should he find himself in a situation in which he was unsure, a scornful declaration of what he knew was the best response.  

"Yes, you are quite right.  You are no longer in the hospital.  Would it surprise you that you are no longer on Earth?  Or to put it more bluntly, that you are no longer alive"?

Not one to show any sign that he could somehow be caught off guard or not be in control of any situation, Gordon sat up in his chair as straight as he could and with a half smile that said, there is nothing that you could know that I didn't already guess, he said "Not surprised at all.  It is rather evident".

The man behind the desk did not flinch however.  He was used to this kind of response, this kind of man, unfortunately so because that is the only type that he had faced, would face, for quite a long, long time.

"Mr Smith, your life has been reviewed.  I have here a synopsis of your accomplishments, your business acumen, your wealth, the recognition you have received by men like your self".  The man behind the desk looked up from the folder, and smiled.  It was a smile that Gordon was familiar with, a smile that he shared often with other men of business, a knowing smile, a smile that disarms those less knowing in the ways of men who eviscerate, with a smile.  And, although he hadn't admitted it to himself, Gordon relaxed for the fist time since he had "arrived" in this office.  He had been a bit on edge, had felt a slight twinge from that part of his mind that he had long since disabled.  But now he felt at home, with a kindred spirit.

"Gordon Smith, you have led a successful life, full of monetary gains, robust deals which brought fame and recognition, and relationships designed to create even more wealth.  Congratulations, you are a wonderful example of a man who understands that earthly possessions, no matter how they are acquired, is the goal of men who do not seek anything beyond material success.  You have earned a unique place in eternity."

Gordon rose from his chair.  The wisdom of the path of his life, his unrelenting goal of more wealth and power was now confirmed.  He felt a growing sensation in his mind, a tingling, pleasing sensation unlike anything he had ever experienced.  As he reached out his hand to accept congratulations from the man behind the desk, the sensation in his mind burst from within him.  Total consciousness, as Bill Murray's character in Caddyshack claims he will have upon his death in lieu of a tip from the Dalai Lama after 18 holes of golf.  

Sadly though for Gordon, while total consciousness was the reward he earned, its details were not the reward he expected.  For in that moment, that moment that would play over and over again for eternity. Gordon realized that his wife's love for him was never appreciated, his children had always longed for his time, not his money, his business associates only respected him as much as they could use him for their own gain, and, in the end, his former partner and mentor had visited, not too garner future favor, but to express his friendship despite Gordon's actions towards him, for he had had his own burst of conscious in the years since their partnership.

The man behind the desk released Gordon's hand, and pushed the small, red button on his desk.  Two men of similar demeanor emerged from a nearby door, and escorted Gordon into a void that could not discerned.

_____


Gordon was surprised by the judgement he received at death, yet should he be?  It's not like he hadn't heard the warning message from his childhood as a Roman Catholic when the dangers of excess wealth had emanated from the pulpit of various priests, or even from his own dear wife and children who often reminded him that money was nice, as were the things that financial success could procure, but that without family and friends, it was all false. And that when someone put wealth accumulation above humanity, well, that lead far too easily to a life lived in antithesis of the message of Jesus.

I have had many discussions with family, friends, and work acquaintances, concerning the percentage of people who believe they will "go to heaven", or the equivalent of whatever belief system to which they proscribe. I tend to think that at least 95% of people believe they will attain a heavenly reward, while, strangely, many aren't as confident about other people, generally condemning a host of "types" of people to eternal damnation, whether those people hold different religious, political, sexual preference, or even national affinity. It reminds me of the staunch GOP politicians who are 100% sure of their recent victory in the 2020 election, and exhibit no doubt that election integrity is not an issue in their state, yet aren't quite so confident in those other states where the Democratic candidate was victorious.

I have a few, what may be called alarming, theories about who will spend eternity with God, or more precisely, who may not share eternity with Her.  

The first is that all those born of a specific time frame, say all those born between 1945 and 1965, will be judged as a unit.  Each life, as they end, will generate a positive and negative score, that score being the net accumulation of good deeds and bad deeds. Oddly, the designation of what is good and bad, is relative to the time.  For instance, an act that was acceptable to the majority of people during the 19th century, yet became unacceptable during the 2nd half of the 20th century, would be valued appropriately, when it occurred, not in retrospect based on a shift in the morality of a new age.  This theory might be labelled as the all-for-one-one-for-all theory of Judgement Day.  The unfortunate aspect of it is that those who behave in a truly horrible way can be saved by the good works of their contemporaries.  It allows for those who behave abominably to find eternal reward because, as it turns out, they are the exception that proves the rule, that most people are good and so that cumulative goodness saves everyone.  This theory also gives reasons for goodness to those who might wonder why bother, there is so much evil in the world, what can a few good works by me accomplish in the face of such badness.  Well, it is precisely those good deeds that counter the badness, making it the duty of those who understand the difference of good and bad, to be good.

The second is similar to the first, in that it results in a group Judgement Day, except this one is broken down by country and culture.  After all, to be judged under the same standards when born in the United States as those born in South Sudan just doesn't seem fair.  I am not sure how God is going to separate us within those varying cultures and countries, but I imagine it will be just, as I assume that fairness is a trait of the Creator.  I do expect however, that the standards will be a bit higher for some cultures/countries.  That the bar will be raised for those who were blessed with advantages at birth that others did not receive.  Sort of like a sports team that has 4 or 5 superstars will be expected to win the championship, or at least come close, while a team with much less talent might be deemed successful just by making the playoffs. Unfortunately, this theory places a larger share of burden on those who won the "birth lottery", specifically most of us who reside in the developed world, especially us Americans.  Should this be the case, all those who routinely espouse selfish philosophies, America first, party over country, take care of No 1, might be surprised when reminded that how we treat the least among us could be the bar against how we are measured. 

Speaking of a bar, my third theory is reflected in The Surprise Ending.  The bar, in this case, is wealth. Those who die with huge amounts of money and possessions are automatically rejected, condemned to hell as Gordon Smith seems to have been.  Again, this amount would have to be relevant to the times.  Perhaps as simple as, anyone with an amount of wealth that is 1000 times more than the poorest of the time, is... well you get the idea.  I like this theory a bit more than the other two.  In those two, there is some kind of good vs bad deed evaluation,  The "too much money" theory that Gordon fell victim too, merely follows the advice that Jesus gave when asked about riches.  It's actually simpler too, if you think about it.  Sure, work hard to attain financial comfort, but never lose sight that the point of life is to reflect the love of the Creator who has demonstrated such love through the gift of life.  Or more to the point, that money and power are false idols. Kind of like the Clint Eastwood character in Pale Rider, when the rich villain offers him a church and big collections on Sunday if he would move to town and stop defending the farmers he wants to drive from their land.  Clint's response, a version of Matthew 6:24, reminds the man that one cannot serve mammon and God, mammon being money, so the offer just won't work out. Can you imagine the sheer volume of people who will find themselves on the wrong end of this yardstick?  But what about those who inherit a lot of money, you might ask? I would expect that someone with the advantage of superior resources could figure out a way to disperse that money.  Still, I can imagine that some consideration might be given to those who use their wealth to improve the lives of others.  What concerns me with this caveat, is that many of those who accumulate large sums of money do so in nefarious ways, by harming or taking advantage of many others.  Do they then get a pass when they use their ill-gotten gains to buy their way back to heaven?  I would prefer that we evaluate the super rich on how they got that way, not what they did afterwards.  And, since this is my theory, I believe God does as well, although being far more merciful than I, perhaps the Creator allows more wiggle room than I do.

So there you have it, a few simple theories about the next step after death.  Thoughts on who might be rewarded, who might not.  And, if I may be so bold, a bit of a warning to those of us who spend far too much time cheating and lying and fighting to gain more money to make their heaven on earth, not realizing that all that effort produces rewards that are not only fleeting, but could very well condemn you to a far longer time of despair and agony. 

Oh yes, one more thing.  Did you catch the attitude of the man behind the desk in the story?  He seemed quite saddened, perhaps even depressed by the fact that assisting in the judgement of men like Gordon Smith had long been his only occupation, and would forever be so.  You see, the man behind the desk was not sent to hell as Gordon was.  He had been condemned to an even worse fate, that of informing men and women innumerable who had behaved exactly as he had in his life.  His hell was to see a reflection of his own face across the desk each and every time he revealed their fate.

  


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Selfishness and Patriotism

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

I assume that most of my readers will recognize this quote from JFK's inaugural address in 1961. (Yes, you may find some interesting tidbits on the true origin of this quote, speculation that JFK may have heard it from his headmaster in school or that it may have been partially conceived by JFK's speech writer at the time, but I will look past those stories for this post, as it is the point of the quote that I choose to discuss).

It may be hard to imagine the political and social environment of the 1960's when JFK spoke those words, but it is not hard to imagine his meaning.  If you wish to read his entire speech, I have provided a link below and I encourage you to do so. His words encourage cooperation among the nations of the world, acknowledge the vital role that the United Nations could play in that arena, admonish those nations and people who use tyranny rather than freedom to govern, and challenge each citizen of America to participate in the improvement of our country.  

https://www.ushistory.org/documents/ask-not.htm

As a child of the 50's, part of the baby boomer generation, someone who can distinctly remember the assassination of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, not to mention the 58,000 plus Americans who died in Vietnam, I am acutely aware of the sacrifices that have been made by some of my fellow citizens since those words were spoken.  Which makes it all the more puzzling why selfishness seems to have now become a patriotic trait of many people today.

Upwards of 800,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, yet the simple act of wearing a mask is too much to do for a significant percentage of our population. Every day they scoff at the notion that they should do something for someone else, that they should participate in stemming the spread of this deadly disease for their country. And getting a vaccine, which is free and effective, is far too much for this selfish crowd who prefer to believe internet podcasters and political pundits who value ratings above lives rather than the scientific community that, chances are, have helped develop some cancer or heart disease or breathing difficulty treatment, that has saved their lives or those of their loved ones.

We can't just put our nation, or our state, or our community, or our selves, first, at least not always and without exception.  If your neighbor's house is on fire, do you ignore it, not care if the fire burns out of control, and worry about it only when the fire spreads to your home, or do you CARE about them, do what you can to make sure the fire department has been called, perhaps even do what you can to reduce the flames? Do you act selfishly or with an understanding that we improve and prosper as a group?

Do you do unto others as you want done to you, or do what you want because you are "free"?

There seems to be a lot of talk lately about reclaiming our country from those who seek to stray from our Christian values. Seems to me that doing what is necessary for those in your family and community who are sick might be a christian act, which makes me think that wearing a mask and getting vaccinated might qualify as such an act.  

A little bit of sacrifice such as this pales in comparison to those who gave their lives willingly, to fight for our common beliefs, or via an assassin's bullet.  Are those unwilling to do what is needed to help America, guilty of murder when their words or actions result in even more people needlessly dying from Covid?  Perhaps that sounds over the top, but is it any less damning than someone who stands idly by while someone is strangled in front of them?  

At least someone who freezes when confronted by an act of violence, and is unable to act to save a life, has the excuse that they were afraid. In comparison, someone who refuses to wear a mask or get a vaccine because it is a violation of their freedom, could be called selfish, and a coward.

I don't place all the blame for the apparent belief that being selfish is patriotic on the  former president. While he certainly emboldened many to act selfishly through his example, someone who refused to remove himself from his business interests while holding the highest office of public servant in America, someone who willingly has inspired doubt in our election process just because he is a poor loser, the millions of Americans who continue to sit at his feet wouldn't do so if they had a stronger sense of patriotism, and a weaker belief in doing whatever I want to do.

I truly hope it is not too late for us to take America back to a time when its citizens were willing to ask what they could do for our country and then strong enough to listen to the answer through a filter of cooperation rather than selfishness. I guess only time will tell.  

 

 




Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Old Ship, New Library, Non-famous Hero

I binge read the November edition of the Smithsonian earlier this week. Found the following three articles extremely interesting.

The first was about a 500 plus year old warship that was recently found off the coast of Sweden.  The ship in question, called the Grubshunden, is believed to have been the flagship of King Hans who reigned over Denmark and Norway from 1481-1513.  Apparently, at the time of King Hans' rule, Sweden had broken away from an agreement called the Kulmar Union which had been in force for over 100 years. Hans was attempting to bring Sweden back into the fold.  Towards this end, he had commissioned the Grubshunden. Unfortunately, it is believed that a freak accident befell the great ship (the King was onshore at the time), then lay off the coast of Sweden from 1495 until 1971, when it was discovered by accident.  Even then however, the significance of the find remained unknown for another 30 years, when one of the divers who originally spied the wreck's protruding timbers, alerted local archaeologists.

The truly amazing part is that this particular ship was of a design totally unexpected.  In northern Europe at the time, boats were built by riveting overlapping planks to make a waterproof shell as compared to those made in southern Europe in which hull planks were placed edge to edge.  This "carvel" design enabled boats made in southern Europe to put more and heavier guns on their ships.  

So, not only is this the only ship of its size found intact, the Grubshunden has a "carvel" design.  In other words, it is the only example of the boat the type of boat used to make all the great "discovery" trips of the age.  This find also indicates the extent of communication between shipwrights of the time, and the global nature of boat building.

The second article was about a sea change taking place in some of our nation's library systems. The particular focus of the article was the system in Memphis, Tennessee.  Imagine going to a library to cut a music video, or make a short movie, or create a podcast.  Or start and run your own business.  The main thrust is to make the library more of a community center for everyone to gather, build contacts, improve their lives, and read a book, if so inclined.  Additionally, an outreach program has also been developed which brings the benefits of the library into the community to people who can't get to the physical building.  

After reading this article, learning about the many people who contribute as well as receive, it reminds me how "soft" infrastructure, a concept that seems completely foreign to the current version of the GOP, reaps a much better return on the dollar.  We sign off on the $750 billion dollar Department of Defense tab with barely a blink of an eye, but fight and scream about temporary deficits that might occur if we spend even one thousandth of one percent of that amount on improving communities and inspiring creativity in our children.

The third article was about Aristedes de Sousa Mendes.  This gentlemen was the consul general from Portugal stationed at the Portuguese embassy in Bourdeaux, France at the time of the German invasion during WW2.  The main point of the story is that Sousa Mendes issued visas to thousands of fleeing refugees, the vast majority of those visas being in contradiction to Portugal's dictator at the time, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.  Ostensibly, Portugal was neutral in WW2, but Salazar knew that his future depended on who came out on top, so this neutrality flowed from one side to the other as the war raged.  At this particular time in history, Salazar was reluctant to appear to help those fleeing Hitler's armies, so Sousa Mendes' actions did not please him.

Should you do some library research on this topic, you will read, unfortunately, that Sousa Mendes did not emerge from the conflict as a hero.  On the contrary, he was stripped of his position and his pension by Salazar, and spent much of his later years in poverty.  Although those he rescued by issuing those visas in Bordeaux, and two other nearby towns, were certainly grateful, there was little to connect all those people to know of the existence of so many like themselves.  It is only recently, through the work of some of the descendants of those who were saved by Sousa Mendes, that the true scope of his efforts have been understood.  

Such an inspiring story, both for its actual accomplishment in that literally tens of thousands of people alive today, owe their existence to his actions, either directly in indirectly through progeny, and the sometime hard to accept realization that doing great deeds does not guarantee great fame, or even any kind of public acknowledgement.  The actions themselves and the knowledge of the extent of the good that has been done may be the only "reward" one gains, yet still, everyday, unheralded heroes act in this manner, without fanfare or fame.  Thank goodness for that!   

Monday, November 22, 2021

Lies, Lies and More Lies

We had some friends at our house a few weeks ago, and one of the topics we discussed was the prevalence of lies in our lives.  My contention is that we have become so numb to all the lies that are presented to us on a daily basis, that, not only can't we discern lies from truth, we are losing the desire to even care about what is true. Or, better put, we are losing the will to find what is true because it is becoming just too hard to do so.

Since retiring, I have a lot of time on my hands.  My goals are to write more, Nora and I have a lot of plans for the house, we are researching and finding many new places to see, many new parks and land preserves to walk, and I am attempting to communicate with my friends and family more.  And we have binge watched a few TV series.  Still, I have lots of time, and, so far, have not worried if I spend it playing games on my phone, something I rarely did before this year.

Since the games are free, they include ads.  Many of the ads are for weight loss products, and one in particular promises to "melt away" fat overnight simply by taking a pill before bed.  The ad shows various people who have lost 40, 50, 60 lbs in a few weeks, and, of course, it does not require any real work on one's part other than taking this wonder pill.  Of course, the ad doesn't mention that rapid weight loss has all sorts of negative consequences, let alone that this miracle pill is not certified by the FDA, but it does mention that it was shown on the TV show Shark, so it must be good, right? 

That pill, and the vast majority of commercials on TV, the internet, etc, are, at best, gross exaggerations, at worse, flat out lies.  There are many groups out there, with good intentions, that rail against violence and sex on TV, but few, if any, that fight against the constant bombardment of lies that we, and our children, are subject to from the business community towards selling us their products.  

Have you see the Free, free, free ad by one of those tax companies? I would bet they say the word free at least 20 times, in addition to scrolling the word across the screen another 20 times.  But is the service really free? Yes, the first year.  After that, you have to pay if you want the program to remember your data from last year. The ad is total bullcrap, yet it is run, over and over again.  

Lies are a part of the business model for the vast majority of companies, yet we just accept it as normal. At least the ads for all the new drugs are honest about the side effects, everything from nausea to death, but that is only because they are regulated; they have to display a modicum of honesty.  Virtually every other product can be advertised with very little concern for truth.  What is truly sad, is that most people know commercials are a bunch of lies, yet they work.  Advertising works, despite the lies, despite our knowledge of the lies.

And then there is politics.  Nothing is off limits, there is no truth meter, no federal regulation that restricts speech, regardless of accuracy.  Donald Trump tells people that President Obama was not born in America, knowing that that message will resonate with a certain demographic, and he faces no consequence, cannot be sued for libel.  Even worse, the lie is packaged as some sort of truth that nobody wants us to know, and it is believed by even more people, less racist that the original bunch, because it appeals to their sense of distrust in the system, or the government. Imagine that, a flat out lie told to attract the most bigoted of Americans, becomes a secret truth that only those wise to the lies of our leaders believes.

Is it any wonder why lies about massive election fraud, that climate change is a hoax, that green energy programs will kill our economy, that children wearing a mask is child abuse, that teaching the good and bad about our history is unpatriotic, that we can't afford to spend money on child care, enhanced senior benefits and  education, yet have plenty of money to spend on a bloated military budget, that the young are lazy and don't want to work, that immigrants are killers and rapists, and that it is OK to willingly travel into a dangerous situation with a loaded automatic weapon, kill 2 people and claim self defense, are so easy to accept?      

Conventional wisdom says that all great countries and powers, were defeated from within.  Whether you attribute it to losing the edge that made the country great, or a lack of desire to persevere despite the obstacles, and to invent, innovate, improve on what was achieved by those who came before, it is undeniable that history is filled with great civilizations that are no more.  My fear is that we are neck deep in a time which could mark the beginning of a decline in our great experiment in government, in our path to understanding true freedom.  Not because our leaders are weak, not because we are no longer intelligent or inventive, not even because we are on a path which seems to be elevating selfishness as a defining virtue of patriotism.

Our rot is much more subtle, much more simple.  We are allowing the line which separates lies from truth to be blurred to such a degree that it is becoming harder and harder to see.  And worse, we are becoming less willing to sharpen those lines because seeking the truth is so much more work than checking out facebook, or tuning into our favorite source of propaganda.  

Even deeper than this, I worry that the path we are on will lead us to a place where we can no longer identify the truth, even should we find it.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Worker's Rights

I am pleased to see that conservatives are defending worker's rights when it comes to vaccine mandates, although it certainly makes me question whether this is a one-time defense or a sudden change of heart for the GOP and the right.

I have only recently left the workforce, but do have 40+ years of labor in all types of workplace environments, public and private, union and non-union. My experience has demonstrated the pros and cons of having collective bargaining protection, as well as the pros and cons of being able to negotiate for myself when raises and benefits are on the line.

I was fired twice in my lifetime.  The first time was all about a young person who did not respect the authority of his boss.  While what I did was not that bad (I certainly didn't put a cartoon on public media in which I killed one of my co-workers), bit it was disrespectful.  Yes, that particular boss had not established any real credibility with the staff, was all about his new power as opposed to what was good for the company, but, nevertheless, I deserved to lose my job, as much because I wasn't willing to obey a direction from my boss as because it was probably time for me to leave that employer, as indicated by my willingness to draw the ire of my boss over a very small manner.

In the second situation, I made the historic mistake of questioning the work ethic of the daughter of the owner of the company.  I was not young, I should have know better, but I also knew what I was saying was true, not realizing that truth was not even close to the issue when one questions the boss's daughter's work ethic.

In both cases, I was not protected by a union although in the 2nd case, when my ex-employer tried to fight my unemployment by accusing me of gross misconduct, I was protected by common sense and a copy of the review I had received 30 days previous to the firing. 

Having union protection would have certainly prevented me from being fired in that 2nd instance. But, up until that moment, I had received raises over 10 percent 2 out of 4 years, because I had earned those increases with exemplary work as opposed to just having been breathing in the office for those 4 years.

Fast forward to my days in a union, and I was often saddened when a person who clearly deserved to be let go, was retained due to some kind of paper or procedural oversight.  The union seemed to defend people who should have been jettisoned, as if quantity was more important than quality. 

Yet, I also received some substantial raises per the collective bargaining agreements, especially as I moved into the upper levels of management.  Oddly, once I attained the level of GM3, a manager at a store in the top half of all stores in terms of revenue, I was no longer represented by a union. I was on my own if there was a complaint against me, but still earned a salary as dictated by the published salary scales with a nod to seniority, a ladder with years of service on one axis, job title on the other. Yes, you earned steps along one axis through excellence, but were paid the same as every other person on that axis who had the same title.

Just for the record then, I support unions, despite the problems that exist with the execution of some of its decisions, and even despite the ceiling that can exist when excellent performance is tempered by chronological time within that level or position. 

I say this because the pros outweigh these cons.  The pro which provides a level of protection from being fired because you stated the wrong truth, or merely because someone's nephew needs a job. And the pro which provides a livable wage and family-friendly benefits for the working people of that particular company.  Wages and benefits that allow them to stay in the same job, even a retail job, and be able to have a share in the American dream.  Compensation that was not all that different than those at the top of the company, less of course, but not 100 times less.  

So, back to the new fad of GOP support for workers.  I say new fad, because it has been the theory and practice of conservatives to smear and break unions since its heyday in 1979. Union memberships as a percentage of workers, has declined by half in the last 40 years.  One of the most insidious methods was the "right to work" laws that exist in almost half of the states today.  This is the law that says that union members don't have to pay union dues, even though they are benefiting from the union's collective bargaining contracts. I say insidious, because it wasn't about workers' rights, it was about starving the unions of dues so that they would fail. Which, of course, would lead to less union contracts which provide livable wages and family-friendly benefits.  Breaking the unions was the sometimes stated, certainly desired, goal of the GOP and they have been very successful.  Since 1983 there are almost 3 million less union workers even though the labor force of American workers has increased by 50 million!

In addition, whether one wants to speculate that the wealth of the top 1% has ballooned since then while the actual buying power of the middle class has stagnated, there is certainly some evidence linking the two.  The GOP, in coordination with the business community, has eroded worker's rights in all kinds of ways, from requiring drug tests which not only says you are guilty until proven innocent but also restrict your activities in your private life, to grading applicants on their appearance not the least being skin color, to making the "business" decision which pretends that paying livable wages and providing good benefits is cost prohibitive which, to me, translates to workers be damned, I own the company and if they don't like it, they can go work somewhere else.

Not sure why "if you don't like my work rules, go somewhere else" doesn't currently apply to health care workers, fire fighters, teachers, police, even retail workers during a pandemic when over 750,000 Americans have died, but I don't expect this defense to be applied to workers striking for better wages, or workers suing for gender discrimination, or workers who our sexually harassed. But, again, I am happy there is some concern over workers being exhibited by the party which fights every policy and proposal to assist the American worker, from minimum wage hikes, to equal pay rules, to paid maternal leave (do you know we are one of only 6 countries in the world which doesn't offer paid maternal leave?), to providing health care benefits, to all the wonderful family and worker friendly ideas that are currently being held hostage in the Build Back Better "negotiations", negotiations which are not inter party as ZERO Republicans will vote for that bill.

I have said in at least one past blog that one of my dreams is that one day every "essential" worker in America wakes up and doesn't go to work.  That it is way past time that the American worker thumb their collective nose at the powers that stop at nothing to keep wages suppressed and benefits at a minimum, all the while taking full advantage of the legal tax laws that allow them to benefit from all sorts of corporate welfare, or worse, by hiding billions of dollars in off-shore accounts. 

While I believe that people who interact everyday with the public should be required to be vaccinated unless there is a documented medical reason, I applaud this example of the GOP acting off script to protect workers even if it is more about a displaced sense of freedom and an overactive sense of selfishness than a sincere defense of worker rights. 


Sunday, October 31, 2021

Receding Democracy?

I recently commented on an excerpt from the Friendship edition of the Lapham's Quaterly. What I didn't mention is that the edition before that was called Democracy.  At the time, I had left a few markers within the magazine, in expectation that I would comment on them in future posts, but, as you know, I haven't been posting all that much lately.

So, let's get back to two of those marked passages.

First, from "The Dogs Held an Election", by Lame Deer as related to a reporter from Life who was collecting Native American stories and myths.

As the tale goes, the dogs were trying to elect a president.  One of them nominated the bulldog for his strength. But the bulldog was rejected due to his slowness of foot.  After all, what good is a fighter who can't run? 

Another dog then nominated the greyhound who was certainly a fast runner, but when it was pointed out that while he could certainly catch an enemy, once he did he would get the hell beaten out of him, he too was rejected. 

Then an ugly little mutt spoke. "I nominate that dog for president who smells good underneath his tail".

Immediately, all the dogs started sniffing each other under their tails, but as one they realized that no dog smelled good in that area.

And so, to this day, if you watch the dogs in the park, or in your neighborhood, you still see them sniffing each other under the tail, in search for a good leader, as they still haven't found one.

The other item I encountered was a Democracy Index as rated by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a report issued by The Economist, something which this organization has done since 2006.  See below for a link to the Wikipedia site which includes a chart which reflects the history of this Index.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index

In a nutshell, the index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories measuring concepts such as pluralism, civil liberties and political culture from which the index ranks each country, while also categorizing each in one of 4 types: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. 

Of course, this is just one index, assembled from one set of criteria.  Still, it has 15 years of data which allows us to look for patterns, whether they be individual, regional or global.  The sad news is that globally, we are experiencing a slight retreat in democracy as the overall grade (from 0 to 10) has dropped for 2 consecutive years, 2019 and 2020. with averages down for all geographic areas except Asia and Australiasia.  

For the United States, our rating since 2006 has fallen from 8.22 to 7.92, which equates to 8 spots on the index, from 17th to 25th.  

Where are the better, full democracies? Western Europe which includes the Nordic countries of Norway (1) Iceland (2), Sweden (3), Finland (6), Denmark (7), Australia (tied  9) and New Zealand (4), Canada (5),     Ireland (8), and the Netherlands (tied 9).  The worst, or authoritarian regimes (assuming you believe that one person in complete control of a government is bad), are spread out mostly in Africa, the Middle East and some in the Asia/Australiasia area, most notably China and North Korea, although Venezuela is classified as an authoritarian regime as is Cuba, in case you suspect some kind of left leaning bias in this index.

Another interesting statistic from this index regards the percentage of world population that lives under each grouping.  Sadly, only 8.4% (23 countries worth) live in a country rated as a full democracy.  While 41% live in flawed democracies (52 countries), that leaves a bit over 50% of the world population living in a hybrid government (35 countries) at best, and under authoritarian rule (57 countries which represent over 35% of the planet's population).  

In other words, over half of those living today, do not have the kind of political freedom that we take for granted, despite the fact that the US rated as a flawed democracy, as is currently ranked 25th in the world.

So, what can we do to improve those numbers, both here and abroad.  First, perhaps we should stop invading other countries in hopes of transforming them.  If you check the chart, you will see many familiar names of countries living under authoritarian regimes; Vietnam, Laos, Libya, Cuba, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Should I add up the number of American soldiers who have died in those places in the last 60 years? 

Leading by example might be the obvious path, but here too we seem to be losing ground.  Rather than creating a national voting day, reducing the effect of money in our campaigns, expanding access to voting through more in person days, and the expansion of mail voting, making the registration process more automatic, eliminating the concept of gerrymandering which has created far too many "safe" districts, and, perhaps rethinking the filibuster tradition in the Senate which allows Senators representing 25 to 30 percent of the population to delay and restrict the passage of policies which are supported by 65 to 70% of the citizens, many of which were included in the Voting Rights Bill that did not have enough votes in the Senate to pass, we are fighting with each other over the right to vote as a partisan political battle.  In essence, we are fighting with each other over whether we want to protect democracy or allow it to falter.

Folks, it is clear that faith in democracy is receding, both in America and globally.  Some of that doubt is deserved.  Here in our country, we have been bombarded with far too many stories of politicians lining their pockets, and corruption which diverts too many tax dollars into the wrong hands.  Currently, we have a former president whose only platform seems to be that the 2020 election was stolen, a claim without merit, a claim which did not exist until this particular person began fomenting it.  As a result, the example of democracy that shone from our shores, has dimmed.  How can we justify telling another country to create a more democratic political system, when we can't even agree that our own elections are free and fair?

Perhaps it is time to start sniffing under the tails of those who pretend to be leaders while creating obstacles to the right to vote.  Remember, once you allow restrictive voting laws to be enacted to limit those you don't like or whose perspective you don't agree with, you risk the loss of your own right to vote when the winds change, or the new dog doesn't agree with your views.

 

Monday, October 25, 2021

Questioning the GOP Long View

As any reader of my blog knows, I am a lifelong Democrat.  I support the majority of the party's agenda, from tackling climate change by reducing our greenhouse emissions, to rebuilding the purchasing power of the middle class through reducing the cost of child care and education to providing dental and vision care to our seniors, to protecting the voting rights of all Americans through creating a national voting day holiday to addressing the gerrymandering of our districts which guarantee far too many public servants an easy path to reelection, to rebuilding our national infrastructure, among just a few of the main goals of the current administration.  

Yet, I also know the importance of having a strong 2nd political party (if not a third one if that makes sense) to provide give and take among our elected representatives to fashion the best policies and laws to promote both our continued freedoms and the understanding that we can only move forward together, by cooperating, as opposed to our out of control partisanship. 

That being said, what exactly, is the long term view of the current GOP which is clearly under the thumb of one person, the former president?

For instance, the GOP in conjunction with the evangelical arm of its party, has had a clear goal of reversing Roe vs Wade since its inception.  A long term goal which, perhaps within the next year, will be realized. There were many moving parts which have brought us to this point, not the least being the purposeful manipulation of the Senate rules which enabled an open position on the Supreme Court be held that way for 8 months, purportedly because a presidential election was nearing, which resulted in the confirmation of a right leaning justice, only to have a 2nd justice rushed through the confirmation process within just a few weeks of the 2020 presidential election.  Nothing illegal, mind you, just a bit hypocritical.  But the point is that the GOP had a plan, and worked tirelessly for almost 50 years to accomplish it.  

What is the current long view?

While I know that there are some people who believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax, most people have come around to the view that the current pandemic is real, as over 700,000 Americans have died (more of our fellow citizens than any other event in our history, including both World Wars, the Spanish flu, and, depending on your source, the Civil War), and that we should continue to engage in various mitigation measures, from vaccines to masks. I say most people because almost 220 million dose have been distributed in America, resulting in almost 2/3 of all Americans being vaccinated, which includes the population of children under 12 who are just beginning to be eligible.  And people are still wearing masks, even some who are vaccinated, as I see when I am out shopping in my neighborhood.

Yet, the vast majority of those against masks and the vaccines identify themselves as Republican. There are still many US House Republican representatives who not only actively fight any mask or vaccine mandate, but also promote conspiracy theories about masks and vaccines, deliberately telling their constituents not to follow proven mitigation measures.  In other words, they are encouraging their rank and file voters to take an unnecessary chance with their very lives, which is contributing to the death and long term sickness of those same voters.  What is the long term view of that kind of plan?  

Then there is the recent desire by some GOP controlled states to mandate pregnancy.  Now, let's not kid ourselves, those laws are meant to force those with the least political clout in these "red" states, minorities and other people of color, to have babies, because we all know that the those with means, upper middle class and above, will still get their abortions, with little or no worry of repercussions.  Perhaps I will be proven wrong, but I am not anticipating a bevy of law suits being filed against rich white people who travel out of state or send their kids out of state for an abortion.  Which means that the GOP party in these states is forcing the voters who may lean left, to have babies.  Babies who will one day vote.  What is the long term view of that plan?  

And, of course, there is Donald Trump, a candidate who turned a GOP controlled Congress and White House in 2020, to a Democratic controlled Congress (albeit the slimmest of margins in the senate) and White House in 2024.  Only 4 years, yet a complete reversal of power. I would think that loss like that would inspire the rethinking of a leader, but instead the GOP has bought into the lie that the former president did not lose the 2020 election, despite, not just the fact that there is no solid evidence of mass voter fraud, but that in court, various promoters of this lie have admitted that either, they made it up, or they heard it on the internet, so it must be true. 

First, if the basis of your platform is that elections are no longer free and fair, how do you walk that back should you actually win a presidential election?  How does any elected GOP representative currently serving in Congress continue to stoke the false accusations of election fraud, yet claim their personal victory in the last election, or any election, is legitimate?  I remember laughing out loud when I heard a GOP Senator question the results of the presidential election, but, when asked about her victory, said that fraud wasn't a problem in her state.  Right, it only exists in states that vote for the other party.  How is that a long term plan to gain the votes of the independents of our country, or even those Dems that might occasionally vote for candidates across the aisle? 

And, second, most critically, Donald Trump is 75 years old.  He will only be a viable candidate for, at most, a decade, and that assumes he changes his diet.  He is not the future of the party, just like Joe Biden is not the future of the Democratic party.  However, Biden will willingly support some future candidate, just as all current former Democratic presidents have done.  Donald Trump only supports Donald Trump.  He has indicated many, many times that he will not support any GOP candidate that doesn't kiss his ring, just as he has disparaged every former GOP presidential candidate, both winners and losers, who are still alive. Not to mention his own vice president who he was willing to sacrifice, literally, so he could still be president.

What is the long term plan when he is gone?  I know there are some candidates, such as Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Ron Desantis, etc, who think they can inherit the MAGA crowd, but, as I have said in past posts, Donald Trump, for all his psychopathic traits, has mobilized the GOP base like no one else in recent political history, and Cruz, Hawley, Desantis, etc are no Donald Trump.  

Perhaps then, knowing all this, is makes sense that their play is suppressing the vote as we are seeing emanating from state houses all across America.  But even then, eventually, you have to actually gain the trust of the American people, don't you?  Remember, the current growth of our population is mostly a result of non-white people.  Just like 100 years ago when the WASP population of America feared the influx of immigrants from Europe, who claimed that America's blue blood heritage would be contaminated by the culture and religion and bloodlines of the Jews, Waps, Micks, Krauts, Poles, etc from across the ocean, it didn't take long for both parties to embrace various portions of these very same people to increase their voter roles.  How does creating obstacles to voting, especially, via gerrymandering and rules which disproportionately target minorities, going to woo those same people to vote GOP, as they become a larger proportion of the voting electorate?  Again, what is the long term view?

Perhaps, in 20 years, it will be obvious to me that those running the GOP knew all along what they were doing, and I will have to eat crow.  Or, perhaps by 2040, the GOP will have altered its path and adopted some viable long term plan.  Or maybe it just won't exist out of necessity of needing to change its name so as to create a hard separation from that future party and the GOP of today.  Only time will tell, but it certainly escapes me to discern any long term view of a party that encourages its followers to engage in unsafe actions, forces those who vote the other party to have babies, and has tethered its wagon to one man, an old man, at that.  

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Friendship

The Spring Edition of the Lapham's Quarterly is entitled Friendship.  Since I am no longer working, oh, that's right, I haven't mentioned that I retired as of last month, receiving my last "employment check" this past Friday, and so I am reading much more than before.  What normally might take at least a month, perhaps even two depending on past work activities, I am zipping through my reading material, the standard monthly Smithsonian, National Geographic, and the Quarterly mentioned above.  I was given 2 books as retirement gifts by my wonderful daughter-in-law, but will soon be into them so I may have to start buying some early Christmas book gifts for Nora, and I am thinking about signing up for a newspaper subscription.

Anyway, I digress.

There are two particular entries in the Friendship edition that I wanted to discuss.

The first details what one author believes are the seven kinds of people who make bad friends.  

- the man of lofty position 

- the young man

- the man of robust constitution who had never known a day's illness\

- the man fond of liquor

- the fierce soldier

- the liar

- the miser

Interesting list, I thought, especially in light of the fact that the author created this list when he wrote Essays in Idleness, in the year 1330.  Yes, almost 700 years ago.  Of course, that explains the fact that he uses the word man to reference men, and, I assume, not because he is using man to represent all people, but because he is only focused on men.  But, putting that aside, the author, Yoshida Kenko, has created a list of people, or perhaps a list of stereotypes, that reflects what he believes are the types of men in his lifetime who most likely are incapable of real friendship, the kind of friendship that, like love, equates the interests, needs and happiness of one's friend with those of oneself.  

In other words, I interpret Kenko's list to remind us that many men who have attained lofty positions, consider friends through the filter of whether or how much they assisted in the attainment of that position. That men who are young have not the wisdom or experience to be true friends. That men of robust constitution may lack the empathy to be a real friend.  That men fond of liquor may only seek those who share that interest. That men who are fierce soldiers (and I think he uses the word fierce to be specific) may lack the compassion needed from a friend.  That men who are liars cannot be trusted in any situation, friendship being only one of many.  And that men who are misers, value money and possessions above all else, including friends.

While I would not necessarily disqualify any person for my friendship based entirely on Kenko's advice, I certainly have made choices not to deepen a friendship with people who are extremely money hungry, are liars to the extent beyond most people, or who believe that force and violence is appropriate in most situations.  I can't say I have encountered anyone high in political office, or whose income is in the top 5% of all people, but I will comment on one particular person who resembles that description later in this post. As for young men, I still have one friend from my childhood with whom I am friends, very good friends, so perhaps that one is a caution rather than a rule.  I would have a similar take on the man of robust constitution, although I do see people in high office who show very little concern for those of poor constitution, perhaps because people with little resources have very little influence on our public servants, perhaps because they just lack empathy.

The other essay in Friendship comes from Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, by Etienne de la Boetie.  This excerpt focuses on friendship with a tyrant, or more precisely, why it is not possible to have a friendship with a tyrant, as Kenko alludes to when he refers to a man of lofty position, times a hundred.  

Without going into too much detail, de la Boetie details all the advantages one may gain via a friendship with a tyrant, position, influence, wealth, but then systematically demonstrates how those gains enslave the person to the tyrant, making them subject to any form of whim that may come into the mind of a tyrant which would turn that friend into an enemy.  

Not surprisingly, the former president came to mind as I read this excerpt.  Even during his administration, "friends" of his, campaign managers and handlers, appointees in his cabinet, spokespeople, supporters for his candidacy and agenda, personal lawyers, even, were disavowed, ridiculed, rejected, once they dared to say or do, or even not say or do something that the former president wanted.  While there have always been tell all books released after a presidential administration, the number of "behind-the-scenes" books that have been released in the past year about the former president and his actions, is astonishing, especially those written by former "friends" who were either fired or quit on their own.  

Are you an elected GOP public servant who has gained their position in the last 4 years?  You now have 2 choices, kiss the ring at Mar-a-Lago, or leave the party.  There are no other options, when one tries to become friend, or in this case, fellow Republican, of a tyrant.  Do you believe in traditional GOP values? That's fine, as long as you also believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.  Even former GOP presidential candidates, Romney, McCain, and Bush 41 and 43 are persona non-grata due to their outrageous claims that the GOP should be a party of values and policies, not a cult of one person.

What is really startling, and sad, is that de la Boetie wrote his Discourse... over 370 years ago, when tyrants and rule by birth was the norm.  When gaining favor and power, especially in the area of ruling a country or kingdom, was all about who you knew.  We thought we had evolved over time, had insulated our democracy from the effects of a tyrant, even if still susceptible to autocratic tendencies.  Hopefully, our recent experience is the exception that proves the rule.

Friendship is considered by most as a person to person relationship.  But perhaps we also need to think about our relationship with our country as a type of friendship.  An affinity in which we value the success of our country on par with our own.  We see our country in terms of what we can do which will advance the nation, but which, when you break it down to its basic essence, means what can we do to help each other.  Can you imagine if we, at least considered if our actions would improve, not just our own lives and situation, but those of others as well?  Or more specifically, if you are someone who would not steal from his family, or neighbor, or friend to become more wealthy, or would not purposefully endanger those same people just to make yourself feel better, it might be easier to choose to wear a mask to protect your friends, or get vaccinated to protect your family, or vote for another party's idea if it is good for your constituents.   

Maybe we just need to think about how we can improve our friendship with our country.




Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Diphtheria and Other Successful Vaccines

Great article in the October edition of the Smithsonian about the devastating effects of diphtheria and the process and eventual development of a vaccine for this deadly disease.  Without going into too much detail, diphtheria appeared in America in the early 18th century and spread throughout the colonies and then southward, almost stripping towns and cities of its children.  Many families lost multiple children, and even for those who survived, there were lasting effects that caused the early death of multiple generations of Americans, as if the disease weakened the body making it more susceptible to future immune system threats.

It was the leading cause of death among children in the world for quite a while as the death rate could be as high as 20% in some areas.  An interesting site to visit for more detailed info about the history of this disease and a timeline for its identification and eventual decline through the use of (primarily) vaccines can be found at:

https://www.historyofvaccines.org/timeline#EVT_102203

The actual treatment for diphtheria which was developed before the vaccine became widely available, requires the use of horses, which are injected with a weakened version of the toxin which makes diphtheria deadly.  This causes the animals' immune system to recognize and fight the invading bacteria. When the blood cells from these immunized animals' blood is removed, the remaining serum can be injected into other animals giving them immunity.  Eventually that process was applied to humans, resulting in the first ever Nobel Prize in Medicine being given to this medical innovator.  Interestingly, that is still the primary source for the serum to combat someone infected today. Fortunately, research is ongoing to eliminate the necessity of using animals, and worldwide cases of diphtheria are rare.

Smallpox is another example of a deadly disease that killed millions for centuries, only to be virtually wiped out through the development of a vaccine.  And Polio, which killed upwards of 500,000 people worldwide for 20 plus years, has also been virtually eradicated since the development of the Salk sugar cube then vaccine.  

And then there are the less deadly diseases that cause more discomfort than death, measles, mumps, chicken pox, etc, but for which vaccines have been developed to reduce the likelihood of experiencing those maladies.  For those who believe that it is best to make children tough by letting them get sick, or those that believe that if the creator wished their child to die from one of these childhood diseases, well, his will be done, there is some resistance to getting these vaccines, but for most people, one of the rites of passage for children is the series of needles that allow them to navigate the ups and downs of early life without worrying about dying from a preventable disease.  It is these and all those vaccines listed above, that make the composition of local graveyards lean more towards the oldest of our citizens, as opposed to those from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries that include far too many headstones detailing life spans less than 10 years old. 

Even the flu, which still kills tens of thousand Americans each year, is less deadly than years past due to the yearly flu shot.  It is one of those great paradoxes that a vaccine that will reduce the chances of a person getting the flu, getting seriously ill, being hospitalized or die, is only a yearly routine for barely half of all Americans over 6 months of age.  The good news is that almost 7 out of 10 people age 65 or over were vaccinated for the flu during the 2019-2020 flu season and another 50% of those aged 50-64.  One can only hope that that percentage will continue to rise, if even by only a few percentage points, as it has over the last decade. 

Which, of course, brings us to the Covid-19 vaccine.  My gut feeling is that history will hail it as one of the greatest medical efforts in history.  Perhaps even the former president will be mentioned as having encouraged its development, despite his selfish motives for reelection. We will most likely pass the 5 million mark in worldwide deaths by month's end, but the application of the mRNA process to develop, manufacture and distribute this vaccine within 18 months of the identification of the disease will undoubtedly be credited with saving millions of lives, not to mention the world economy which has been recovering, albeit slowly, from the devastating effects of a virtual global lock down.  While we still had to make the calculation of which is worse, loss of economic stability or millions of lives, we've had a powerful weapon at our disposal which has allowed us to sacrifice far less people in the name of the economy.

While we still face the question, how many children (and the teachers, custodial staff, administrators, nurses, etc who operate the learning institutions which they attend), are we willing to sacrifice to the cause of  returning to normalcy, not to mention the misguided belief of some who equate wearing a mask to losing one's freedom, I expect that public health decisions will eventually win the day when vaccines are available to all school age children, and deaths among our children will remain below the acceptable level.  

Make no mistake, that is what we are debating, how many children's deaths to tolerate.  I wish all those who gain You Tube fame through their school board rants, or tik-tok videos, or facebook viral opinions, would preface their anti-mask and anti-vaccine rhetoric with the number of children they are willing to sacrifice in the name of their personal gripe against vaccines, masks, the government, the president, etc.  At least we would know that they understand that resistance to common sense health measures will kill children.  

Thankfully, in the end, we will experience a number far below the level of child deaths that were experienced for most of America's history before the development of vaccines, sparing the children of all of us, even those whose efforts to discourage vaccines is ongoing.




Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Ozone Layer and Other Environmental Success Stories

I recently saw a post on Facebook which mentioned the ozone layer from the perspective that concern over the ozone layer was just another false crisis that has been created by the environmental movement in the past 50 years.  In other words, the person who posted it was insinuating that our current concerns about climate change will eventually disappear just like ozone layer concerns did when first "discovered" in the 1980's.

Sadly, this person is one of those climate change deniers who prefers to post statements and opinions without actually researching the issue being attacked.  In that vein, I thought I would do some brief research on the most important environmental success stories of the past 50 years, since this past April marked the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1971.

Within 15 minutes of research, I was able to find dozens of examples of how environmentalists have made Earth a safer place to live for all life, human as well as animal.  Since it was the comment on the ozone hole that inspired this post, I turned to info about that subject first. 

The hole in the ozone layer was first suspected in the early 1970's when measurements indicated that there had been a reduction of overall ozone in the atmosphere, and much larger annual spring time decreases in ozone in the stratosphere over the polar regions.  Eventually, the culprit was found to be the use of manufactured chemicals, especially manufactured halocarbon refrigerants.  Once the link had been confirmed, efforts to ban these chemicals eventually resulted in the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1989, which phased out the manufacture and use of these ozone depleting chemicals. By the late 1990's, ozone levels had stabilized.  In 2019, NASA reported the lowest size of the ozone hole since its discovery, and conventional wisdom indicates that the ozone layer will continue to recover, eventually reaching pre-1980 levels this century.  

In other words, we don't hear about the hole in the ozone layer because the nations of the world listened to the scientists, joined together to enact a policy to address the issue, and appear to have been successful. I hesitate to wonder how many of those who saw the post referring to the ozone hole with a disparaging tone towards environmentalists, just clicked "Like", rather than actually investigating the subject. Perhaps some of them will see this post...

Other wonderful accomplishments of the environmental movement include:

The elimination of leaded gas to power our vehicles which has reduced the amount of lead in the average person 90%, and which also lead to removing lead from paint and other everyday items that caused lead related damage in our children.

The creation of the Clean Water Act which was inspired in part by the literal burning of a river in Ohio which had so much trash in it that it caught fire.

The creation of the Clean Air Act in reaction to the realization that acid rain was harming our national monuments, not to mention polluting our food chain through harm to plants and animals.  Of course, placing scrubbers, etc on towers that emitted toxic fumes into our atmosphere was fought tooth and nail by those responsible for harming Americans, but over time, acid rain, like the ozone hole, was addressed by understanding the science, and implementing regulations to reduce the pollutants causing the deadly issue.

The creation or the Superfund program to allot monies for the cleanup of toxic chemical sights, some from old military installations, but most from private companies who did not blink an eye when they decided to pollute the surrounding communities' land and ground water rather than reducing their profits by containing their chemical waste.  Of course, much of that damage was not actually illegal, at the time, but hey, we all know that businesses, when left unregulated, always do the right thing.

The creation of federal fuel standards which encourage car manufacturers to produce vehicles that improve their energy efficiency, which produces less air polluting particles.  These standards, again, originally resisted by the industry at the root of the pollution, have resulted in not only average miles per gallon almost 3 times that of 40 years ago, but the boom of electric vehicles.

The removal of DDT and other dangerous pesticides when the decline of bald eagle populations was linked to thin egg shells caused by exposure to DDT.  One would think that all patriots would know of this success story, the literal saving of our national symbol but I guess there are some patriots who love pesticides more than eagles.  In any case, in conjunction with the Endangered Species Act, and other wildlife friendly regulations, innumerable species have been saved from extinction, an extinction which in far too many cases was caused by the animal at the top of the food chain who pretends to worship the creator of all life but has become the most dangerous of all creations towards the rest.

And there are many more.  Which makes me wonder how an intelligent person believes that the environmental movement is, at best, an annoying bunch of tree huggers who get in the way of economic progress, at worse, anti-capitalists who hate America. Perhaps they think that the cliche, money buys happiness, is actually true, so anything that gets in the way of a good profit should be disdained.  Perhaps they have perfect health, and so have no empathy for all their fellow citizens who have been sickened by the callous actions of those who seek money about the well being of our planet, let alone their communities.  Perhaps they are just stuck in a paradigm that prevents them from seeing that without good health, a person, a family, a community, a nation, a planet, can not prosper.

Fortunately for people like those who post anti-environmental opinions without spending even a few minutes researching those issues, they have been helped by all the above mentioned environmental successes just as much as those in the movement who fought for those victories.  Perhaps some day, those who fight against policies that promote clean water, clean air, reduced use of pesticides, reduced illegal disposal of toxic waste, assistance to endangered species, and the fundamental idea that we should take care of the planet that our creator provided, will realize that they are on the wrong side of this debate. 

  

Thursday, September 23, 2021

My Time as a Juror 2

In my last post I summarized the 4 weeks I spent as a juror on a medical malpractice case.  As I said, it ended unsatisfactorily, as we deliberated for about 2 hours on a Friday afternoon (starting at 4:30), then were instructed to return the following Tuesday (Monday was Labor Day), only to receive a phone call from the judge's clerk informing us that the parties had settled.  My assumption is that since we were to decide first, guilty or not guilty for 2 medical professionals, then, if guilty, did their negligence result in the bad outcome for the baby (born with brain damage), then finally, how much money per year to award the family if we found either or both culpable, it may have been the defense which improved their offer, as it makes sense that the longer we deliberated, the deeper we would have penetrated into the money issues, which would have been good for the plaintiff.

Overall, my impressions, assuming the course of this case is similar to other medical malpractice cases which occur everyday in America's courts, of both our legal and medical systems in this area was not positive.  A few of the medical experts who testified seemed like the child's best interests was important, but most did not, especially those of the defense whose expert opinion blamed the child and mother in the guise of a poorly functioning placenta or some type of defect in the womb.  Obviously, those on one side disagreed completely with the experts on the other side, but in addition, a part of the defense's strategy seemed to present those radiologists who read the child's MRI at all the hospitals involved as not being very good at their jobs, even though they worked for the hospitals in question.  To me, they were saying that if you get an MRI at any of these places, don't expect it to be read correctly unless you can pay for some outside expert to do so.  And, by the way, those experts were paid in the range of $300-600 per hour.  

I was not swayed by the experts on the defense side, but can easily imagine that many of these cases are determined, not by the truth, but by the best hired guns' and their ability to put doubt in a juror's mind that there was negligence.  When one considers that hospitals and insurance companies might tend to have the most resources to get the best "experts", while the plaintiff needs to assume some kind of compensation will be forthcoming to afford their own high priced experts, it is also easy to imagine that many cases of negligence are found for the defense, even when some negligence or malpractice occurred.  

As for the lawyers, again, the truth of what happened did not seem of primary concern except for where a portion of the truth could be used to gain or avoid a large settlement.  So often, witnesses were not allowed to answer questions that to us, the jurors, might shed some light on the trial due to pretrial agreements and legal mumbo jumbo that allows lawyers to only seek the truth that reflects positively for their clients.  One of the most critical pieces of evidence, did the nurse and hospital staff know that a plan to limit pushing to 30 minutes, then perform a cesarean section was agreed to by the OB-Gyn practice and the patient, was never addressed, just alluded to in the 4 week long trial.  Perhaps a separate law suit had been or was intended to be filed against that OB-Gyn practice for both not informing the attendant nurse of the plan, and for not being followed by the attendant doctor, but the jury was never told one way or the other.  In our deliberations, we felt almost as one, that the patient's primary doctor seemed negligent in some manner, but he was not one of the defendants.  

Whether the plaintiff's lawyer filed an additional suit, or just filed against the wrong person, we don't know, but after 4 weeks of testimony, more than one of us on the jury felt that our time had been wasted.

My first big question is, assuming that this was an act of God, meaning the mother did not do anything that harmed the baby in the womb, and the doctor's did all they could do once the baby's heart tones dropped precipitously, who should pay for the life time care of this child?  We know that very few, if any parents, have the resources to shoulder the $75 to $100 thousand per year cost to care for the child.  (That is the range provided by the defense and plaintiff witnesses who were asked to provide an estimate for us to consider, should we find anyone liable).  Is there not some type of standard amount that is offered to a family who experiences such a devastating occurrence, or is suing someone, anyone, the only way to pay for such a misfortune?  If there is no such established guidelines, then should there be?  In the end, we the taxpayer, through various local, state and federal assistance programs, pay for some of the cost.  Could there not be a fund created that monetizes such horrible outcomes, so that a family does not need to wait 3 or more years (this baby's birth happened in 2018), to get some type of compensation?  I know that each side spent tens of thousands of dollars, at least, to prepare their cases and hire expert witnesses, so it is not like there is not money out there already designated for this situation.  

Perhaps there is, perhaps an offer was made and the plaintiff decided to sue for more?  Fine, but that kind of decision must preclude the idea that the standard offer is now off the table, come what may.  Perhaps it sounds cruel to talk about assigning values to a child's lifetime, or someone's ability to work, or a couple's chance to have more children, or any of the innumerable acts of God that occur which render a person handicapped or disabled, unable to attain what might be considered the normal chance of happiness and self-fulfillment, but if what I witnessed is the only form of recourse, it was not very effective.

There seems little doubt that there is plenty of money in America,  When we an afford to spend a billion dollars on a sports stadium, afford to pay top level athletes and businessmen tens of millions of dollars per year in salaries, when we spend without any real debate $700 billion per year on defense yet have had to pull out of two third world countries in my lifetime after having failed to meet our military objectives, when there is literally nothing that can't be bought since everything has a price, why it is so horrible to standardize compensation for those Americans who suffer horrible accidents or events through no fault of their own?  And why isn't there, not just a call, but a demand, that such funds exist, paid by contributions from the medical field (in lieu of or as part of their malpractice insurance), the hospitals (in similar fashion as just detailed for medical professionals), and even the taxpayers who would probably feel comfortable knowing that should an unexpected disaster occur to themselves or spouse or children, they wouldn't have to fight for help in handling the disaster, or testify 3 years after the fact, only to relive the pain and suffering of the original event.  

This is not to say that when true malpractice occurs, a lawsuit might be justified.  But, for me, I would rather that the suffering family or person not have to go through what I witnessed concerning the family in question, but rather a set amount be distributed, and, separately, should malpractice be involved, the medical professional be judged to establish if it was true negligence or just a mistake.  Perhaps then, the victim and victim's family is able to move on in a reasonable time frame, and the offending doctors, should they be found negligent, be removed from the profession.  

While there is no way to avoid bad outcomes, perhaps by addressing bad actors who are involved multiple times in bad outcomes and removing them from medical responsibility, we might avoid some of those outcomes.   


 

Monday, September 13, 2021

My time as a Juror

On August 9th, I traveled down to the county courthouse in West Chester to respond to a summons for jury duty.  My past experience with jury duty was not very memorable, in that I spent the day reading and checking my emails while sitting in a jury room.  I was not chosen to serve on a jury so I was excused at the end of the day.

In this case, I, along with about 100 other perspective jurors, were separated into two groups after being assigned a number. (I was 57).  Eventually, we were told that the people to the speaker's left who were chosen, would serve on a civil case which would last 2-3 weeks, while those on the right would serve on a criminal trial which would take about 2-3 days.  I was among those who wished to be on the other side.

After a few informational videos, my group was taken to court room 11.  We were then asked a series of questions by the lawyers, one for the plaintiff, two for the defense, to determine various possible reasons to be not chosen, such as familiarity with the lawyers, the potential witnesses, the family suing as well as the medical professionals being sued, and, whether a 2-3 week commitment would be an undo hardship.

As it turned out, those jurors who had vacations planned or needed to take a child to college, or were themselves going to college, were eliminated first.  Very few people with work reasons or even family care taking obligations were excused.

Finally, as the day ended, 12 of use were selected to be a part of the next process.

The next day we reported to the same court room to await the next group to be questioned and interviewed.  At first, the nine of us kept to ourselves, mostly playing games or reading on the phone, a few with books. But as time passed, we began to chat so that by the afternoon when the next batch of chosen jurors were brought in, we were rather boisterous.  It was kind of funny to see the faces of the newbies as they joined us, and in the next few hours.  A few of them seemed almost alarmed at our perceived lack of respect for our temporary home.  But when it became clear that the judge still wanted another few people from which to select the eventual jurors, and the recently arrived folks heard our story of being in their place yesterday, we began to meld into a bigger, shared situation, group.  

Eventually, a few more people joined us, swelling our number to 26, from which 16 would be selected, 12 jurors and 4 alternates.  We were then called to a separate room for questioning by the lawyers, then reassembled in the court room for the finale.  I was chosen, and assigned the unlucky (in this case) number seven.  By now it was pushing 4:00, so the judge sent us home, to return on day 3 to start hearing testimony.

The parking garage is across the street from the courthouse.  Everyday, we drove up to level 3, pulled up to the wooden gate which indicated jurors, and were told to park on level 7, the very top, exposed to the weather.  As time went by, there were occasional days when we were told to park on level 6, or the attendant said nothing.  On days with rain or strong sunshine, many of us parked on 6 to avoid the wrath of the elements.  Curiously, by the end, most of us parked on 6 out of belief that we were entitled to do so.

The general details of the trial is that a baby was born with a bad outcome, and the parents were suing one of the doctors and the attending nurse.  The plaintiff's lawyer was a bit of a showman, using white boards on an easel to make some of his points.  More than once we secretly planned to remove his boards from the court room, or at least make sure all his markers were dried up.  But he was also very good, alert to any fact, trivial or important, to turn into proof that the damage to the baby's brain was caused by a poorly executed medical procedure, or a missed sign that trouble was brewing.

Since the plaintiff went first, I must admit that it seemed like a slam dunk.  All kinds of signs were missed which may have resulted in an earlier birth which might have eliminated the extent of very low heart beat which lasted about 12 minutes, a situation which was directly caused by a placental abruption.  After a few extensive testimonies by defense "experts", and testimony from the defendants themselves, I was eager to hear what direction the defense would take, above and beyond the defendant's statements that everything was done that could be done, once the baby's heart tones crashed.

Unfortunately, it took the rest of week one, all of week two (minus Monday when there was a Covid scare among the jurors that prevented court to be held, but which turned out to be a false alarm), and half of week three.  To say that the process seemed interminable would be an understatement. In the meantime, like many of my co-jurors, I was working most days on the weekend, and driving from West Chester to work in Wyomissing to arrive around 6:00 then closing the store at 10:00, then home, then back to court the next day again.  While I only did double duty twice each week, I only had off from both court and work twice from August 9 to September 3.  It was a long month, no less so because sitting in a court room listening to testimony that ranged from interesting to boring to extremely repetitive on pseudo comfortable chairs, was no picnic for my mind, or back.

Finally, in week four, after more than 3 hours of final statements by the various lawyers which summed up the same points we had just heard for 3 and a half weeks, the judge charged us with the law and our responsibilities and sent us to deliberate at 4:30 on Friday, 9/3.  We were quick to find the doctor innocent of negligence.  This, to me, was a very good measurement of how seriously we all took our jobs as jurors, as I  am sure that many of them thought as I did, in the beginning, that everyone messed up.  But we listened to all the testimony, well at least most of it as there were a few times when various jurors slipped off to sleepyland, and did not come to any conclusions before hand.

With a civil case, there only has to be 10 of 12 jurors to make a decision, it does not have to be unanimous. The defense's experts focused on after the fact analysis of MRI's done of the baby's brain to make the claim that the child had a problem in utero which caused the bad outcome, and that the mother's placenta may not have been as nourishing as it could have been.  I was not convinced of these explanation in light of all the doctor's reports at the time of delivery that stated that the damage was caused at birth, so when we voted 8 to 4 for the nurse in question, I was one of the four.  

After 2 hours of deliberations, and another vote which tallied at 9 to 3, the judge called us back to the court room and asked us if we were close to a decision.  Our initial response was yes seeing that we were one vote shy of the necessary 10 to acquit, but when he asked if we could finish in 15 minutes, we all knew that wasn't going to happen.  At that point, he told is to go home and come back on Tuesday (Monday being Labor Day).  Needless to say, no one left the court room happy in the knowledge that we would start a 5th week in court.  

Out in the parking lot, a few of use were chatting.  One of the 3 had become upset during the last 30 minutes of deliberation, even going so far as to say, "OK, I change my vote, let's go home".  Again, to our collective credit, we did not allow her to do that, even though there was not one person in that room who didn't want the ordeal to end.  As we talked, I tried to make my fellow juror realize that I was also one of the 3, that I certainly wanted to not come back next week, but I wasn't going to change my vote, that I truly felt that the nurse missed some signs, and that I certainly wasn't going to cave in just to be free.  She seemed less upset by my words and those of another juror who was part of the nine.

When we parted, I called work to tell them I would not be coming in at that point, knowing I wouldn't arrive until at least 8:00, and while I was chatting, my phone rang, unknown number.  After hanging up, I dialed my voice mail to see if a message had been left.  And there was:

This is the assistant to the judge for whom you are a juror.  The parties settled, so you don't have to come back next week, you are excused.

It was over! Yet in an extremely unsatisfactory manner.  After 4 weeks of repetition, at least a dozen white boards, two video testimonies, 2 testimonies that were read, various experts that claimed that everyone involved in the case was wrong, and that every expert on the other side was only offering an opinion because they were being paid to do so, after an agonizing 20 minutes where the child (now 3 years old) appeared in court for us to see her limited abilities, and heart wrenching testimony from the mother who feels that her child does not know that she is her mother, after all that and more, we were not asked to render a decision!

Was it a colossal waste of time? It is hard not to say yes.  Did I learn some disappointing things about our medical professionals, about how medical malpractice cases are conducted, about how the legal process involves testimony and topics that are not discussed, and finally about whether the whole point of the trial was to find the truth?  I will comment on some of those questions in my next post, but it is certainly clear that the truth was not the goal of the trial for which I served as juror this past month.