September 2009

On What Ails America.

This is my death . . . and it will profit me to understand it. Anne Sexton

I attended a party last weekend with nine liberals sitting around the dinner table mostly chewing on the issues. I asked if anyone wanted extraordinary efforts to prolong their lives at life’s end? Not one. Someone requested that I be on hand to ensure that just that does not occur. I’m already committed to being several of my friend’s best death buddy.

The sentiment about not going gently into “that” dark night is quintessentially human and I admire the notion. But at some point, your number is up and its decision time. How you die is important for any number of reasons. Not the least of which is what your dying (and how you die) means to those who care about you.

And our hearts . . . like muffle drums, are beating funeral marches to the grave. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

At about the age 20 or so, I determined what a raw deal death is. Seriously, it is. It’s unfair. It doesn’t discriminate. Alas. How “fair” is that? It is the only human event where equality is a given. And it’s relentless. Age twenty is when it crystallized for me that I am not special when it comes to death. I am not charmed. Blessed. Or exempt. Death taps us all on the shoulder and says, “So sorry, nothing personal.” Yet, death remains to many a genuinely frightening event. This is inexplicable to me. I attribute fear of dying to ignorance and religion (synonymous?). If you fear death, you’ve probably found life a challenge as well. Religion promises eternal life but deep down in our DNA, we intuitively know that’s just Pixie Dust sprinkled by charlatans and goofs.

If we are lucky, we live healthy into our 80s. I’m personally shooting for anywhere between 81 and 83. That leaves me about 21 years. Healthy is the operative word.

Death and dying is all the rage at the moment because former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin coined the expression “Death Panels”—a simplistic mischaracterization of what healthcare reform would include. I try and imagine what that means to those susceptible to Sarah Palin’s point of view.

Let’s create one scenario. You’re 95 pounds overweight, a woman who has smoked since she was 16 and you find yourself at age 72, a wheezing diabetic—a life reduced to handicapped parking and riding one of those motorized grocery store shopping carts with oxygen tanks in tow. It was particularly difficult to not watch your favorite TV show Jerry Springer when Sarah Palin was on TV campaigning for Vice President but, hey, you did. Skip Springer for Palin. You’re a patriot. And now those liberal-commie-fascist-Nazi-socialist Democrats are going to put in place “Death Panels” and give “your” healthcare to someone else! Is that the fear?

Aside: If capitalism is such a great model for our healthcare system I’ve a couple of ideas. Let the market speak when it comes to organ transplants. To the highest bidder. Let the market dictate the value of a heart or a liver. Is that not capitalism at its purest? And why not let the market “collect” an organ from a donor for a fair price? If Juan Valdez down in Columbia has a bad coffee crop and is approached for a kidney and wants to sell it (kids to feed, don’t-cha see), isn’t that market driven capitalism at its very core?

Why not profit off the organ market? Seriously. Insurance companies profit off every form of illness and sorrow. Administrative fees, don’t-cha see.. That is America’s For-Profit healthcare system.

What specifically is wrong with our health system saying to me, “Mr. Jepson, how do you want to die? Given “A” diagnosis and given the odds of living with “A” diagnosis, to what extent do you want the medical establishment intervening to, literally, keep you breathing?”

It is the duty of a doctor to prolong life. It is not his duty to prolong the act of dying
. Lord Thomas Horder

And then you have all the issues related to “quality of life.” If I had a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, I’d be determining quite quickly my rate of decline and at what juncture I would take responsibility for the orderly end to my life. There are many scenarios in life that are repugnant to me, but being reduced to healthy vegetable matter ranks right up there as the most repulsive. I cannot imagine leaving a “living” shell of Chris Jepson for my children to mourn. There are times in life when death is the far more honorable choice.

No, Jepson, you’re totally missing the point on “Death Panels.” They’ll say, “We cannot afford such and such treatment and then I won’t have access to the medical care that I require.” Is that the issue in a nutshell? That you’ll be denied healthcare because of financial considerations.

Ha! Too funny. That is pretty much the system we already have in place. The only difference? It is the insurance companies that are running the “Death Panels.” Darth Vader for Insurance Commissioner! What’s that? He’s already in charge!?!

The ordinary course of a cure is carried on at the expense of life; they incise us, they cauterize us, they amputate our limbs, they deprive us of food and blood. One step further, and we are completely cured. Michel de Montaigne.

Think of America’s healthcare system as a patient on a gurney, on life support. The IV drip of dollars is running out and we seem incapable and/or unwilling to play doctor. This is one of those “Physician heal thyself” scenarios that is applicable to so many segments of America, healthcare being but the most complex and costly.

The fact that we seemingly cannot come together as a people and conduct a meaningful discussion on what ails us is more troubling, to me, than our declining healthcare system.

The history of man is a graveyard of great cultures that came to catastrophic ends because of their incapacity for planned, rational, voluntary reaction to challenge. Erich Fromm

“My goodness, feisty little monkeys!”

These are puzzling times to me. And I “feel” they shouldn’t be. There is a part of me that is like the Jack “Just the facts, Ma’am” Webb character. Webb was a realist. About human behavior. History is the continuing narrative of human behavior. I’ve read a lot of history all my life and one of the “nice” things about the human experience is that we’ve been around such a damned short period of time. A reasoned individual can get their hands and mind around our story because there really isn’t a lot of it.

We came out of Africa. Not so long ago. Some say it’s been 60,000 years since “Roots, Part One” began. That’s a chip shot. In years.

And here we are in 21st century America, seemingly at a crossroads of sorts. In between it has been one relentless slog. Really. Truly, it has. The casual alien observer in space, detachedly watching human evolution, our history might justifiably comment, “My goodness, feisty little monkeys.”

We know “empires” don’t last forever. None have. None. They come and go. Sometimes there is total extinction. Other times you have the example of the French, British, even the Russians transitioning from empire status to something “less.” One moment you are on top, then you are not. Think Percy B. Shelley, “`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains.”

I think if I had been created in God’s image I’d about be in despair today. Seriously. Think about it. This is the best we can do (as a species) and you’re going to insist all this was intentional. That on such and such a day God grabbed a hand of earth, liberally sprinkled on the pixie dust, violently shook and skillfully “Bakelited” Adam to life, much as the Ginger Bread Man came into being. Well, excuse me if my imagination of what constitutes an all-powerful God doesn’t have us (humankind) doing a little better. Ya think?

Question: whether it is better to have been created or to have evolved? That’s fodder for another column.

I’m torn between shock and awe. Not “that” shock and awe! I’m shocked at exactly how unthinking humans can be. Infinite examples abound. It’s a long list. A long list. That’s one hand, on the other hand, I am in awe of humankind. We are awfully neat. Really, we are! Our science suggests we’re the only thing like us in this neck of the Milky Way. We make art. We make love (and all that that implies). We organize and create order. We build. We improvise. We create. We imagine. We be fun. We laugh. We think. We consider. We act. All qualities I so relish in our species.

And so it came to pass, that America was “found” and “created” and the Founding Fathers said, “This is good.” And the Fathers set in motion the game we call the United States and over time—in another historical repeat—it became imperial and had armies and empire. It took on the imperial ways. Its people became both literally fat and profligate.

And so America arrives in 2009 broke, battered and bewildered. And a great cry of befuddled indignation goes out, “How can this be?” The “Becksonians” march in righteous indignation on Washington to crucify the strawman of liberalism. “THEY did this to us,” the resentful roar goes out.

And socialist and traitor and “loyalty oaths”—to Adam Smith be true—have become the accusations and rallying cries of a Howard Beale America, “That we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” Not realizing, of course, that being mad as hell and shouting “traitor” really doesn’t forward the conversation of how, indeed, did America arrive at this juncture and what is required to turn the ship?

To use an overused metaphor, America is like a large ocean liner, to change course to “a” more desired national destination (solvency, healthy, industrious, prosperous, sustainable, peaceful, etc.) requires “considered” course corrections.

Aside: I ask those “First Class” Americans what good is a “punched ticket” to the top deck, what good “deck chairs” on the Titanic? The fluffed pillow?

America will not last forever as the nation envisioned by our Founding Fathers. This is an undeniable fact. No nation (or religion for that matter) in the history of mankind has indefinitely sustained itself in its most powerful iteration. Egypt. Rome. Christianity. Islam. Spain. Britain. Nazi “For a thousand years” Germany. We come. We go.

But that doesn’t mean America’s day has come and gone and we are incapable of changing direction, of righting the ship and sailing on strong into the foreseeable future. Why not?

Why not? Because we seem incapable of a rational discussion as to what even the facts of the “problem” are. We genuflect, as one example, before the shrine of capitalism and say, interestingly so, “That it’s not the most perfect system but, by gawd, it’s the best system we got.” That may be the case, in those instances when capitalism (one economic system among a number of possibilities) is, indeed, successful but really, must all human transactions be based on making a buck; who says someone has to profit from illness?

Oh, I can hear the indignation now. Jepson’s a socialist! Not necessarily, I simply can imagine a better system. Of accountable capitalism. Of inclusive healthcare. Of sustainable welfare. Of “empowering” reproductive choice. Of peace and national security. Of individual responsibility. Of collective organization and individual initiative. Or, of at least discussing what rationally might work.

All of us arrive where we are having been taught to “quack out” any number of platitudes, homilies and bromides. It’s a safety net of sorts. I’ve got mine. Indeed.

What are yours and how do they further the conversation to what besets the nation and the possible solutions.

Land of the free, home of the brave. My country, right or wrong, my country. Remember the Alamo! D-I-X-I-E! Love it or leave it! Death panels! Quack. Quack! Quack!

Can we talk? Can we act? Rationally? Reasonably? Intelligently? Expeditiously?

If we do not, it’s been a nice ride.

Oh, and first class? Plenty of room. Still. Deck chair, anyone? Fluff your pillow? One small mint?

The Women Of Our Dreams.

Social science affirms that a woman’s place in society marks the level of civilization. Elizabeth Cady Stanton

How do you get the kind of woman you want to be around? This is a question which could/should be legitimately asked of men, too. But for this essay, I will confine my thoughts to what is involved, from a societal perspective, to achieve self-assured, confident, fulfilled women.

I was watching Bill Moyers on Sept. 11 (PBS at 9:00 PM) and he had on his program journalist Nancy Youssef. She reports from the Pentagon for the McClatchy Company. She’s covered Jordan and Iraq. She was absolutely mesmerizing in her analysis of events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Youssef was lucid, perceptive, rational and analytical. An absolutely first rate mind. The woman exudes competence, knowledge and confidence. I sat transfixed by her analysis of our wars and our options. When she said in passing that her parents were from Egypt, I inwardly gulped and thought, “Whoa! What would have become of this wonderfully talented, bright woman if she were living in Egypt? What would be her life options?”

If you read my column with any regularity you know I do not respect the Middle Eastern “culture” primarily for its treatment of women. If you do not believe it takes a “community” to raise a child, look no further for proof than how the Middle Eastern community raises and treats its female citizens. Primitive. Repressed. Too often misogynistic.

In America, we, too, have a culture that raises its female children and facilitates their growth and development and it is that environment I would like to discuss.

My first child was a daughter. I was quite a young man in 1970, the year of her birth and I confess that I had not seriously thought about the process of childrearing from the context of “as the twig is bent so grows the tree.” Or, from any context for that matter. I had the unusual experience of being home with her (and in graduate school) for the first four years of her life. In hindsight, it was one of life’s incredible gifts. I matured as much as my beloved Jocelyn grew. What becomes abundantly clear to the first time parent is that you want absolutely “everything” for your child. And to that end you strive.

I had a wonderful, lifelong example of what it means to be female in my mother. Yes, she was a “product” of her times but she also transcended them (her generation’s expectations of women) with drive, ambition, determination and intelligence. She was a “Just Do It” kind of a woman with the uncanny ability to not lose focus of her goals. She had her 11th Commandment: “Thou shall not sweat it.” And, by gawd, she lived it.

My expectations for my daughter were initially unspecified but I knew she could/can do anything she set her mind to accomplish. I remember an occasion that makes me shudder today. Genuinely so.

When she was barely three years old, we were at the municipal swimming pool just before closing time. This pool was a grand facility built in the old ways. A deep, deep end with a high, high, high diving board with a ladder that went straight up to the board. I grew up swimming and swam in competition for 14 years. I told Jocelyn it was time for her to climb that ladder and jump off the board. That she could do it.

Over she trotted and with my verbal “You can do it” encouragement she started up the ladder. It went straight up and my little girl, methodically, foot over foot climbed up, stretched and grabbed the top two support rungs. She walked to the end of the board—by this time everyone in the pool realized something highly unusual was happening and literally, a hush came over the pool— and at the end of the board my little blond-haired angel hesitated, reflected, and then dove in head first. Head first! My voice literally jumped out of my throat.

I think that is the message of Feminism. That females left to their own initiative, in a societal environment of equality, can and will achieve their dreams. Two things hold a woman back from achieving her dreams- her own inner voice telling her what is possible and the obstacles to equality a society imposes or constructs.

If you have the dream and the inner toughness (resoluteness), what society places in front of a woman, at least in America today, is often little more than low hurdles. Unfortunate, yes, but hey, who said life was easy?

The inner dream and drive component is actually, to me, the more difficult (in America) hurdle to overcome.

Women (men, too) are sexual objects. I could devote columns to the sexual subject/object conundrum (the challenge as well as the wondrous phenomena) and how that affects our culture and the status of women. We want to be desirable to the opposite sex. I believe that is a genetically driven fact. From a young age. Each culture determines what is sexually desirable but there are universal standards. Regardless, we need to say to our children sex is great, it’s a fact of life and appealing to the opposite sex is normal and part of what it’s all about in being a human being.

That said, a healthy sense of self dictates what you will and will not do or tolerate when it comes to being your own person, your own woman.

Feminism is healthy, good and desirable. Look at graduate school numbers, professional school attendance and sheer workforce percentages. All are rising and that is excellent for America. What women gain is not a loss for men. All men gain every time another woman achieves her dreams. What is good for the goose is, indeed, good for the gander.

How do you get the kind of woman you want to be around? By expecting (educating) all parents to raise their daughters to dream big, equip (prepare) them to pursue their dreams and encourage (and expect) them to do just that.

How do you get the kind of woman you want to be around? By building a civilization that ensures a culture of absolute, unequivocal respect for all women (and their aspirations) and for the many contributions that women bring to life. Life. In every sense of the word.