Monster in the Closet

Somehow, we continue to dither about how or if to change our health care system.  We have shown great leadership at some times in our history, but when I read about how we compare with other countries today, I worry that we are stuck in fear.  The other industrialized nations of the world have shown us a myriad of ways to create public health systems, and shown us the strengths and weaknesses of various systems.  Still, we are not ready.  We want to suck our thumbs and cry.

A poll cited in the New York Times today reported that “75 percent of respondents said they were concerned that the cost of their own health care cost would go up if the government did not create a system of providing health care for all Americans. But 77 percent said they were concerned the cost of health care would go up if the government did create such a system.”

What kind of craziness is that?  It’s like a little kid telling you, “Don’t close my closet door.  You’ll make the monster angry.”  And then, “Don’t open my closet door.  The monster will come out!”

This hardly seems like an American reaction to me.  I thought we were a nation of risk-takers.  Many of our people are here because they struck out for new places, took a big risk.  And this public health insurance thing is hardly the biggest risk we’ve taken.  Richard Nixon had a similar idea.  And that was, like, a long time ago (before I was born!), and he was not exactly a commie feel-good croissant-eater.

Almost a year ago, a lot of Americans were all hyped up about having our first African-American president, and we were all cooing about how times had changed, and how wonderful it was, and what it all meant (even Republicans).  We make one reasonable leap forward (let’s not be racist in our voting!), and the next summer we’re too afraid to entertain possibilities for fixing one of our most glaring problems.

But the fear is enticing: oh, the government will tell you what medical procedures you can have!  (Instead of your insurance company or your bank account balance.)  Oh, the government will waste our money, indebt us!  (Unlike those kind, gentle corporations, who never waste our money or extort us for bailouts rather than go out of business.)

I’m not afraid of public health insurance.  I’m hopeful.  I hope that my friends who live with the fear of illness or injury causing financial catastrophe will get some piece of mind.  I hope that people who have already been unlucky enough to have cancer can live merely with the fear of cancer, not the dread of knowing it’s impossible for them to get insurance again.

I hope that this country will recognize that almost none of us are wealthy enough to afford every medical procedure that we might ever want.  That having the choice of every doctor on planet earth doesn’t mean a lot if you are laid off and have no insurance and run through your savings.  And that if you think your health insurance and income keep you safe from catastrophic medical bills, do a little more research, and find out you are wrong.  (Except for Warren Buffet.  And probably Brad Pitt.  Pitt does have a lot of kids, though.)

It just breaks my heart that the same country with the balls to take on the British Empire and Adolf Hitler is shaking in its boots over taking a step that a struggling place like Thailand attempted in 2001.  I mean, seriously.  If Thailand can deal with both political instability and universal health care, then the U.S. can give it a shot, too.  We are embarrassing ourselves by shying away from the mere attempt.  This is not the stuff we are made of.

The Times reference:

March to April

In March, I went to the computer to subscribe to the New Yorker, and found out one of my students had been shot.  He was dead.  I was having another one of my seizures of certainty that I could not be an educated person, a writer, a worthwhile human being, without subscribing to the New Yorker.  And now he was dead, which was hard to believe, so I had to call someone and tell him the news, to try and convince myself, and the New Yorker was sort of a nonissue.

My sister came over that evening and we watched “French Kiss” on television.  I had never seen it before.  I thought it was terrible.  I could not for a minute believe that Kevin Kline was French.  He’s clearly British, I argued to my sister.  Um, no he’s American, my sister said.  Later my boyfriend came by and showed us the new lens he had bought for his camera.  It was a high-powered, long-distance thing, and someone referred to it as “the elephant cock.”

The following Monday, I sat on the bleachers in the gym, next to the senior class.  I had taught them twice, their freshmen and junior years.  I had known them three and a half years.  The kid who had died had been a senior.  It was incredibly quiet in the gym that morning.  Usually we have to scowl and threaten to get the kids quiet for assemblies.  On that Monday, you heard every foot shuffle, every kleenex swish out of the box.

I felt like I could hear the hum of eyes staring, the static of eyes sliding around dumbly.  And then one of the senior girls started sobbing like she couldn’t stop.

I held my coffee cup.  I thought, I’m not allowed to bring coffee in here.  I looked up at the school mascot painted on the wall.  I looked at the places where the wooden floor had been clumsily patched.

It was hard to tell the story of what had happened, because people might be freaked out that our school was dangerous or our students were dangerous.  And just to hear about the death of a 17-year-old kid is scary for people.  But someone said to me, “You know, when my daughter was in school, they went outside to take their 8th grade graduation photo, and saw someone get shot to death right across the street.  It was horrible.  It was just horrible.”  This story, oddly, served to encourage and comfort me.  I was grateful for it.  It was hard to fall asleep.  I had two violent nightmares.

In April, I drank a giant glass of a latte, and then I walked down the street to hear Victoria Williams sing.  She sang wearing ugly brown linen pants and a giant white blouse that went down almost to her knees.  Her voice wavered between sweetness and country whine, and she flapped her arms like a chicken while she sang.  I thought, this is what makes her good.  How weird she is.

And I went home and wrote a little about what happened with my student, and about the Monday after he died, when I sat in the school parking lot and I knew I had to get out of the car and go inside, and I really thought that I couldn’t.


I finally visited my grandmother, showed her my photos of Rome.  She asked me three different times if I had seen the pope.  She’s trying to politely inquire about my recent vacation.  But her brain is going, and she loses access to her “I just said that” file, and even the “grandchildren’s names” file, from time to time.  Mine has not been lost, so far, but it might help that we share a name (my first is her middle).

About two years ago, her memory blips and holes and loops were about the same, but she was much more frightened by it.  She showed her fear by snapping at people, insisting on the truth of her clearly zany proposition, or blaming someone else for her lost key.  Lately, that seems to have eased.  She’ll now say, “I can’t remember.  But oh, well, it’s not important.”  Usually it isn’t, really.  Who cares what year she got married?  We could look it up if we really wanted to know.

I drove home from the visit playing scenes from conflicts I’ve had with a friend.  Friend did this.  Did that.  I did this, which wasn’t good, but not nearly as bad as what Friend did.  Some of the scenes I played did not even include Friend.  I set up an ideal relationship, or a nightmare relationship, and then puzzled out how our conflict looked in contrast to ideals and nightmares.  About as productive as a Shakespearean bear baiting.

My grandma is moving out of the world where events connect logically, and you create a story for your life, and keep the events connected causally, and sort out current personalities and experiences according to your taste.

She is slowly dropping parts of her life story.  She can pick them up again for a minute, but they are too slippery for her, and they fall away again.  Events in her life are still connected causally, but with the holes, she has become more accepting of illogic.  Even her tastes seem to come and go.  While she will always like reuben sandwiches and dachshunds, her opinion of mandarin oranges varies wildly.  She may love them or hate them, depending on the moment.

Her world is so different from my world, where I will require restitution and reconciliation to heal my hurt feelings.  I will require conversation, and time, and the effort of forgiveness.  I will remember my anger, and why (to my taste) the conflict was bitter.  After being with my grandma, I wanted to say, look, why can’t I just drop things, let go, and move on?  While running all the churning mechanics of memory, I know that I can’t.

… in a Box.

I was disappointed to learn that the pope is not keeping God in a box at the Vatican.  Or if he is, that it was not part of the tour.

I didn’t realize it until I had been there, but my half-Catholic blood is always secretly hoping that the Catholics have a direct line to God, while I am politely relegated to the Protestant voice mail system.

After three separate attempts (feast day, papal parade, papal parade aftermath), I finally got myself inside St. Peter’s, theoretically the capital of Christianity, and I was like, This is it?

It’s similar to the way a person can secretly hope that anyone wearing a collar is God.  Even if you have clear, early experience to the contrary, of how not-God clergy are, it still burns in your belly.  Perhaps this person is God!  My priests and pastors have shown me their flaws, sometimes boldly, and I’m grateful for that.  

I should have been innoculated from disillusionment in Rome.  It’s not like I am unacquainted with the gorgeously rebellious joy of the American Catholic church, which downs its birth control pills and ducks its head just below the radar of the current, conservative leadership– both Roman and local.

God resists being put in a box, of course, which is one of the things I like most about God.  The thing that will get you a second date with a person like me is not being able to fit in a box.  And so I’ve been in a long-term, quite fractious relationship with God

I found the Vatican the most disappointing of the European treasures I’ve been so lucky to see.  When you are hoping for God-in-a-box, though, that is a setup for disappointment.  St. Peter’s is very white, and very huge, and very clean. The whiteness and hugeness, I guess, I could deal with, but the cleanliness were really not right.  The more worn and falling apart and used a church looks, the better I like it.  I don’t want to be praying someplace where nobody ever confessed to adultery, or begged for relief from a hangover on Ash Wednesday, or fought matricidal thoughts.  I need to know that very real, messy people have struggled with crazy, stupid problems.  Preferably in that exact pew.

I started attending one of the older churches in my hometown here, and was probably the only person sad to hear that they were refinishing the 100-year-old floor.  At least the pews kept their patina.

When I saw the pope waving hello, and the glamorous interior of St. Peter’s, all I could think was, this is politics.  Politics and power games, which interest me, in their own right, but don’t have anything to do with God, and quite often obscure any spiritual elements.

I still wish that God would get in a box somewhere, so I could go visit.  But then God wouldn’t be so hard to get.  And if God’s not playing hard to get, let’s face it, I probably would lose interest.

The Stairs and the Pick-Up

After sweating through my red Hawaiian dress, walking the Palatine and the Forum, listening to The Great Nerd, Mr. Rick Steves, podcast into my ear, the dark coolness of these open doors called to me.  I should not really have gone in.  I had to pee in a very serious way.  

As I approached the doorway, the woman who had been sitting there, supervising a donation box, got up and walked away.  So I sneaked right in, feeling the joy of sneaking was greater than the shame of not donating.  It was.

Inside the stone-walled room was an altar.  The room was underground, as this structure (a church, I guess) was built into the hill, above the Forum.  

I was impressed by how Rome is all built on top of each other, and my Vatican tour guide later reminded me that the Romans had to stop excavation for a new subway line because there was just too much crap down there.  If they dug it up, they’d have to study it and put it in a museum, and after only a few days in the city, I realized what a pain in the ass that would be.  Rome is a great reminder that you don’t have to dig up everything.  Metaphorically speaking.

To return: around the corner from the altar there were some steps going down.  The first honest-to-God European dungeon style stairs I ever encountered were going down to the crypt at Paris’ Pantheon.  I saw them and I was like, whoa, I can go down those stairs?!  These were the same deal.  Uneven stones tumbling down into darkness, an wonky iron handrail–stairs that Americans would never allow you to attempt out of fear of lawsuits.  

Downstairs they were keeping some kind of column, which was part of some kind of miracle that Peter and/or Paul did.  I think it had to do with floating, for some reason.  I don’t understand Italian.  I just thought it was nice that they were holding onto the thing.  And I threw half a euro at them on the way out.

That afternoon, on way to the Colosseum, I was finally hit on by an Italian man.  I was nervous that this might not happen, and I would have to return in shame.  Luckily, some dude forces his conversation on me: my smile is so beautiful (it ought to be, for the dental work I’ve invested in), and he would love to have dinner with me.  

What a relief.  Even if I didn’t have an A-plus boyfriend back home, my Italian admirer speaks so little English that he can tell me his job is, “In a bank,” but when I ask, “Oh, and what do you do there?”  He says, again, smiling: “In a bank.”  So yes, even if I didn’t manically love my boyfriend, I have very little patience for such stumbly conversation.

It was also on this day that I decided not knowing Italian was perfectly okay.  I felt guilty, since I’d had some third-grade French in Paris, “Sesame Street” Spanish in Mexico.  And I’m always trying to show everyone how polite, careful, kind, and good-looking Americans are, all media evidence to the contrary.  

But here’s the thing: Romans spread their language around the entire world as far as they knew it.  And everyone learned to speak it, and there were certain benefits to that development.  So I decided if Romans had Latin, I had English, and my pathetic “bon giornio” and “grazie” were okay for one week.

Rome II


Your first day alone in a city where you don’t speak the language is relatively terrifying.  I decide to go check out the Vatican City, since churches and art museums are places I feel perfectly at home, and the Vatican has both.  I also decide that I will walk down to the Tiber and follow the river through the city.  This seems like a foolproof way to not get lost.  Apparently the river has been there for some time.

The trees along the Tiber look like they have leprosy.  Trees with peeling-off bark are my favorites.  They always look half dressed.  This day is the feast of St. Peter and Paul, and the city is as sleepy as I am.  Religious people are inside being religious, and the unreligious have escaped the city to relax.  Most, but not all, businesses are closed.

Bernini’s circle of columns slurps you right into St. Peter’s piazza.  I love this.  I do not love that the Vatican, completely insensitive to my love for both Peter and Paul (okay, mostly writer spitfire Paul), has not invited me to their holiday mass.  In fact, I cannot even enter St. Peter’s church on his special day.

The Vatican City redeems itself by offering me my first Roman cappucino.  After pointing at various foods in a cafeteria line, a boy carries my tray of food up to a table.  He sets down my tray at a table that is already occupied by five British assholes.  At first, I think, yay– they speak English!

Then, rather than saying hello to me, they proceed to complain at length about how there were plenty of other empty  tables and that boy had no reason to seat me with them.  I assumed the boy does this for mysterious Italian reasons, or perhaps because he was aware that at any moment, one thousand Catholic pilgrims might blast through the door, needing ten tables.  I pull out my New Yorker and ignore that Brits.

Eat pasta, drink wine, and then begin my cappucino, which is one of the top culinary experiences of my life (I need to admit they are rather limited).  It flusters my tongue with its lightness and bathes my whole throat in mild brown coffeeness on its way down.

Suddenly I don’t care about the British.   Suddenly I decide that red wine and cappucino will punctuate every meal I eat in Rome, damn the euros and the heat.  (I am the only person I ever see drinking red wine in Rome, actually.  All the Italians seem to drink chilled water or cold beer, and the foreigners drink white wine, like reasonable people would when it’s 85 degrees outside.)

Next, I head for the baby drop at the Vatican hospital.  My guidebook says that Martin Luther, when he visited, was deeply moved by the numbers of women who were forced, by their poverty, to give up their babies.  The Vatican set up a revolving sort of dumbwaiter to accept these babies.

I find myself looking at the iron grill over the opening, its barrel now revolved in.  Presumably they are no longer accepting babies at this hospital.  I have always loved Luther, he has always been one of my heroes.  How many guys had the balls to The Pope, “No, I’m not going to hell, as a matter of fact”?  To stand exactly where he stood, and imagine him engaged in visiting the Vatican, wondering and worrying about what God thinks of all this, just blows me away.  I manage not to burst into tears, since I am an American Protestant, after all, and public tears are not part of my culture.

That evening, while eating dinner, near my hotel, a woman who appears homeless, crazy, and deformed argues with my waiter.  Of course this is in Italian, and I am enjoying that lovely foreign country experience of letting language flow around me like water, without any judgment or questions (especially great for a wordy type).

She must have lost the argument, because she proceeds to cross the alley, lift her skirt up over her ass, and piss against the wall.  I lift my book to hide her flesh from my view.  I am trying to eat.  But it’s nice to be in a real city again.

Note: The baby drop is in my Facebook Rome photos.  I’m not yet smart enough to figure out how to post its image here.

Rome I

On the Atlantic flight, my seatmate is actually Italian, Pisan.  He works for a chain of fitness centers that are just expanding in Italy, and I rudely suggest that I thought European women didn’t exercise.  The chain is like 24 Hour Fitness, or Curves, he explains.  Yes, I’ve heard of them.  Do I belong?  I laugh: no, no, I am not fit!

In a freak occurrence, the sandals I wore all over Disney World without trouble give me blisters just walking around the airports, en route.  So my first Roman purchase is acid green flip-flops, at Termini train station.  

Sleep deprivation and jet lag always hit me hard.  When a taxi driver at the train station explains my ride will cost 20 euros, I demand my bags back, muttering that I will take the Metro.  After fifteen minutes of dizzily studying the bus situation, I humbly return to the street and accept a 20 euro ride gratefully.  I can handle a subway on no sleep, but buses are too much for me.

For dinner, just around the corner from my hotel, I eat spaghetti with pepper, on a bed of fried cheese. Weird, but not bad.  I sit in a perfect gooseneck cobblestone alleyway, around the corner from my movie-set hotel.  When you live in a place that almost never appears in the media, it’s surprising how Europe looks like movies of Europe, or New York City looks just like “Law & Order.”  It’s easy to forget they build sets to look like Rome or New York, and not the other way around.  

An old man at another table reads in Italian.  A quartet of retired Americans and Brits chat.  Another couple gets on a motorcycle and rides away.  Tomorrow morning, this cafe will have disappeared like a speakeasy, the outdoor tables and plants and signs sucked back inside until the evening.  I surreptitiously look up how to say, “The check” in Italian.