Patience

One reason it’s good to have less money is that it forces you to be more patient.  A couple of weeks ago, my laptop took a turn for the worse.  Since I tripped over the cord, getting a good connection between the outlet and the computer is a tricky business.  Sometimes it requires repeated twisting and jostling, and sometimes prayer or cursing.  I’ve gotten used to that.

But then one night the incantations didn’t work– I gave the cord my special attentions, and when it was feeling just right, glowing the orange light for battery charging, I propped it on its side over night, using a heavy book and my ottoman to keep it in position.  In the morning– still dead.

I was so upset, it took me another week to realize this was probably the battery, a reasonably replaceable item.  I would not throw the laptop off a cliff, or go steal one from the Apple store.  Not yet.

What we gain in wealth, we lose in patience.  Patience is what is left after the money and anergy are gone.  Because I couldn’t afford to buy a new laptop (with real money anyway), I waited to calm down enough to figure out what was wrong.  Then I went to buy one (out of stock), and then I ordered one online (still waiting for it to arrive).   Patience, patience.

I can’t think of anything more useful to my work than patience.  Not to teaching, not to writing.  I see that people are disillusioned with President Obama.  I’m glad no one would judge my teaching by my first two years.  I had to be patient with myself, even more than with the students.  It was incredibly frustrating to know how important my job was, and know how poorly I was doing it.  So I feel for him.

I don’t understand why people associate Democrats with the deficit, rather than seeing the consequences of Bush’s tax cuts (less revenue) coupled with years and years of war (more expenditures).  Lower taxes on the wealthy don’t raise all ships.  If they did, we’d all be afloat right now.  And higher ones brought us into wonderfully prosperous times.  Do people not have the patience to follow events over time?  Looking at history takes patience.

I hope that our tough times can teach us patience, and give us the time to consider causes and effects more carefully, to think about how we got where we are, rather than just voting out of anger.  It feels good to throw a laptop off a cliff, I bet.  It probably feels good to vote out of anger, too.  But patience can take you further in the long run.  It encourages a spirit of kindness– which we all need through difficulties.

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Slow Leak/Quick End

Although you would expect a pants-on-fire liberal like me to freak out about the BP oil disaster, I found myself oddly unable to get riled up.  It’s true, I often compare oil companies to drug dealers.  They’re feeding evil, and not evil themselves.  I prefer oil companies, since they don’t directly feed cycles of violence and poverty in my neighborhood, and transportation and air conditioning seem like greater goods than getting high.

It also  failed to rile me because the whole situation made so much psychological sense.  For example, I think my last relationship was the BP oil spill.  Watching trouble burbling, I thought I could handle it.  Knowing there was danger, I went ahead anyway because I was trying to get at something important.  And then, even though the waste and the goo was getting everywhere, it took me a while to ask for help.  Maybe part of the reason America freaked out so bad was that it’s not just an environmental disaster: we all have our own oil spills, whose pollution we are powerless to stop.

A broken oil well, deep underwater, is a lot like a troubled romantic relationship.  No one knows what is going on down there, and no one really knows what to do about it.  Following this metaphor to its natural conclusion, I blame President Obama’s distraction with silly matters like the war in Afghanistan and our floundering economy for my breakup.

This week, some guy in Utah opted for the firing squad.  Go ahead, shoot me, he said.  Dick Wolf, of “Law & Order” fame, was interviewed on “Fresh Air” recently, and he mentioned that it’s a very bad idea to tell someone to shoot you.  While hanging out with cops and detectives, doing research for cop shows, he learned that when staring down a gun, many now-dead people had snarled, “Go ahead!  Shoot me!” And real people with guns, unlike television characters with guns, are only too happy to oblige.

They did shoot the guy in Arizona, while his friends were singing “Free Bird” in the parking lot.  Of course, your choices are limited when the state decides to kill you.  The quick method is the only one they’ll allow.  They don’t say, “Hey, we can give you a slow-growing cancer to suffer with for 10 years, or you can be lethally injected in 7 years and get it over with?”  I’d choose the cancer.

In fact, I’m so committed to the slow leak that I rarely consider the firing squad.  Sometimes it would be a great idea to go up to a problem in your life and blurt, “Go ahead!”  I’d rather throw rubber tires at my problems.  I’d rather send down an extra straw to suck up most, if not all, of the poison.

There’s another reason I can’t freak out at BP.  I know we’ve done screwy things to confuse nature, but here in the midwest, I see too much empty space, and too much nature working and working things out.  I am conservative about the environment.  Better safe than sorry.  At the same time, I believe in the power of time and the deep down urge of life to live.  Plankton want to live.  Birds want to live.  The ocean wants to work this oil out and grow things again.  If I’ve lived my own oil spill, over and over again, I’ve also seen my messes wash themselves out, gather and break down, dilute and dissipate.  With care and good intentions, it’s amazing what can wash out.

Firing squad article:

http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/06/19/20100619FiringSquad0619.html

Dick Wolf interview:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=96741775

Reforming

It was a very partisan car I was riding in.  I fantasize about having cocktails with FDR over his stamp collection.  The driver sitting next to me wishes he lived next to the Bush family, so he could mow their grass when they are out of town.  The House was debating health care reform in Washington, DC, and we were debating health care on I-35, north of Oklahoma City.

Our discussion in the car was painful.  Sometimes I had to send my focus across the southbound half of the interstate, to the Oklahoma pine trees wearing late spring snow.  Or I would see a nest in a tree and say to myself, hmmm, there’s a nest.

It was not easy to sit through the discussion.  Maybe the cancer histories of various relatives were invoked.  Maybe someone suggested that people who love European ways so much should go live there.  I absolutely did not endorse Cuban dictatorships or mob-fueled economic revolutions.  In fact, I joked about Cuba and coup d’etats.  Jokes, especially self-deprecating jokes, are an antidote for poison that creeps into conversation.

What saved us was that it’s hard to hate a Republican when he’s driving you in his car on a fabulous road trip.  And it’s hard to hate a Democrat when she just sneaked downstairs to the hotel lobby to buy you a bag of peanut M & Ms (your favorite).  Also, I kept reminding my pounding, impassioned heart that no one had a gun to my head.  Breathe deeply.  It’s just politics.

Health care reform is almost a miracle.  I was so afraid, so many times, that fear would win.  We can’t find the money.  We can’t try a new way.  It will only get worse.  We can’t let the government have more power.  They mess everything up.  We are too poor now.  Health care will bankrupt us. I do believe this will be difficult to pay for.  My insurance and health care costs are a significant expense.  They would be an impossible expense if I had a serious illness or lost my job, however.

It is also impossible to know what any complex government program will cost– we have merely projections based on theories.  But we will adjust.  We are tough.  We are cowboys.   We have rearranged and held together Medicare and Social Security with duct tape.  We have cut up welfare and sewn it back together.  Not because it was easy or cheap.  Because the value of a human being is not tied to her financial solvency, or her health.  Because we want to protect our greatest asset: our people, and their muscle and creativity.  They aint no good to us when they’re ailing!

I have to admit that later, when I saw the 6:20 pm update on the internet, I actually danced around my bedroom and made up a song about Nancy Pelosi and Obama and Rahm Emmanuel.  None of them have easy names to rhyme, let me tell you.

Health care reform is almost a miracle to me.  A real honest-to-God miracle, all partisanship aside,  is being able to discuss controversial political issues in a moving car without anyone screaming, jumping out, or bursting into tears.  A real miracle requires the strength to listen when your mouth wants to whip the other person’s argument senseless.

What if it even ended with people saying, “I love you anyway”?  Let me assure you: it happens.

Summit

I was called to a summit, representing the United States of Me in talks regarding Thanksgiving 2009.  I am not a very effective delegate, but unfortunately the people can’t find anyone else to do the job.  The only smart move I made was to stop for a pastry and a coffee on the way.

Because I have the metabolism of a hummingbird, my mother taught me never to attend meetings without food.  I had to teach myself to put on the armor of coffee.  It’s just not worth the risk to enter dangerous territory uncaffeinated.

Although I would be caffeinated and fed, I was completely out of ideas approaching the summit.  The only thing I was sure of was that I liked wearing my new pink shoes and black gloves with buttons.  It was chilly and the trees were naked and the light is so strange this time of year: the bent morning sun looks like evening to me.

I thought about some arguments that would really zing, and then I imagined some postures I could take that would give me the sheen of complete enlightenment (always a winning strategy).  I parked my car in the street and bumbled around the building with my coat hanging open.  There was a woman right inside the door, but she said, “Oh, I’m not in line.  Go ahead.”  And then I was standing right behind a soldier.

A guy in fatigues and combat boots, at least.  My whole family is fine, many of us would be together for the holiday, and my job does not include any expectation of gunfire or attack, no worry about being wounded or killed or lost.  So I felt like an ass, getting all worked up about the minor politics of my Thanksgiving and who ought to do what and how.

We waited.  Milk steamed, smoothies blended, newspapers whisper-turned.

I believe in peace, theoretically.  I just have a hard time keeping peace inside my own head, or between me and people I love with abandon.  I believe in peace, and settlements.  Achieving peace requires a lot of fighting.  I had a soldier in my head who had been employed a great deal lately, running defense and hiding and setting up booby traps and marching on the offensive.  I wasn’t sure I had been deploying him wisely.

President Obama has been trying to figure out what to do about Afghanistan.  I am so pleased that he took his time.  We recently witnessed the consequences of rushing into a war recklessly (or maybe we witnessed a carefully planned thing dressed up in the costume of carelessness– whichever).  I am happy to see that, even if his decision doesn’t pan out, he has at least taken the time to think it through.  You could say a lot of nasty things about the man, but thoughtlessness doesn’t seem to be one of his vices.

The soldier ahead of me ordered, and I then I wondered if I should thank him, or offer to buy his coffee or something, but then, wouldn’t that be awkward?  Maybe he’d feel weird having a measly civilian woman buy him coffee.  Or maybe he would feel weird about being thanked– I have had a guy just back from Iraq tell me he thought I was braver– he’d rather return to a war zone than teach high school.  Was his service more thank-worthy than mine, or the barista’s?  Or maybe he’s an extra for a commercial they’re filming around the corner, and not a soldier at all.

My brain whipped itself into knots, and he ordered two coffees to go, and took them, and then it was my turn to order, and I had no idea what I wanted.

I drove on, to the summit.  Sat on the couch.  Drank my coffee.  I didn’t give up any territory.  I got huffy.  Said ridiculous things.  Stood up.  Sat back down.  Sometimes listened.

Eventually, the Thanksgiving issues receded, relatively unresolved, and I agreed to have lunch.  Having lunch is always an important negotiating tactic, a clever strategic move in a long conflict, regardless of your metabolism, and especially if the offer includes chips and salsa.

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:

Reasonable Doubt

This morning, driving to work, I had an epiphany: we should put Dick Cheney in a room with the administrators who okayed an adolescent girl being stripped searched and see what happens.

I sometimes have to take a hiatus from morning radio.  Sometimes morning news causes me to shout things across my apartment at no one.  Like, “Yeah, you better fucking tell me what critical intelligence you got after torturing those people!”  And that scares my cats.

Just a week after Easter, it blows my mind that some of the same people who say we live in a “Christian nation” would say that in cases of torture, the ends justify the means.  In case you hadn’t noticed, Christianity was founded by a man who preached nonviolence and then got tortured to death.  (Jesus wasn’t against confrontation, or destruction of social structures, but he did not, ever, use violence.) 

The ends do not always justify the means.  And the ends are always what show the kind of person you are, the kind of country you are.  They show what you are willing to sacrifice for peace of mind, or physical security.  And there are some things that aren’t worth sacrificing. 

We don’t have peace of mind– our military is more at risk for violent treatment when they are captured.  We don’t have physical security, either.  I don’t want to live in a police state, no matter how safe it is.  Physical security isn’t worth giving up your values.  (See either, What would Jesus do? sacrifice physical security for values; or, What would Buddha say?  you’re going to die regardless.)    

I imagine Mr. Cheney saying something like, “Well, sometimes you have to do things that are reprehensible in order to protect innocent lives.”  And then the administrator says, “That’s right!  We were only trying to keep pills away from teenagers when we stripped that shy adolescent girl naked at school and inspected her!”  And then the administrator is startled by that remark, and suddenly insecure.  Startled and insecure is a great beginning for growth.  (Aside: adolescent girls use hidden ibuprofin because they are shy, and they have nasty cramps every month.)

I’m not an Obama worshipper.  I just like Obama because he seems so reasonable.  I love the word “reasonable” in our legal system.  It is exactly the right word.  Obama says, “Open up Cuba!  But only this much,” and I think, that’s reasonable.  Let’s take our time.  He says, “Let’s release the torture memos, but not prosecute anyone.”  I think,  that’s reasonable. 

Much as I might want to watch the breakers of international law, the spitters on the Geneva Convention, squirm as they explain why they HAD to threaten the security of our own military because our country might be attacked again (as if this were a brand-new risk and not a consistent danger), I have a James Brown quote that I will rely on instead. 

I can’t verify this at all, but once I wrote it down, so it probably is James Brown.  It is as follows:  “Do I get discouraged?  No, I do not.  I just keep working, because I believe in God’s justice.”  I always think a guy involved in civil rights in the 60s has more reason to get discouraged than I do.  Whether or not you believe in God, people who condone torture have to answer to their own consciences.  If they have them, they’re feeling what they need to feel.  And if they don’t, there’s nothing we can do about it. 

My larger concern is that this torture thing gets enough press and public outrage that it won’t happen again.  I feel satisfied with the outrage level, apparently 2/3 of Americans want more investigation.  That’s plenty of reasonable people, weighing the ends and the means.

I Used To Feel So Uninspired

Barack Obama makes me feel like a natural woman.  Especially this morning.

I’ve been preaching for years that education funding should not be locally funded.  If our goal in education is to equalize opportunity, it makes no sense to let poor kids in poor areas go to poorly funded schools and rich kids in rich areas go to lavishly funded schools.  (I say this, ruefully, as a child of one of the richest counties in America.  People there were willing and able to tax themselves like crazy to give me a great education.)  This additional federal funding is one more step toward equalizing some shocking gaps.  If it comes with additional federal oversight, I have faith that  it could be worth the annoyance.

And adding funding to Pell Grants?  I can’t imagine a better investment in our country.  Of course we should fund the college education of people with drive and skills but no money!  My fear about educational inequality is that some kid somewhere is born with the brains and creativity to cure cancer, and instead of going to med school, the kid is changing my oil at Jiffy Lube.  (Yes, very honorable work, but inappropriate.) 

Equal opportunity is not about compassion, or fairness, or any touchy-feely stuff like that.  It’s about cultivating the knowledge and talent we have in our country.  We’ve got to build up what we have.  (And incidentally, I don’t think anyone’s going to reject that cancer cure if the lead researcher was an illegal immigrant’s kid.) 

People from all over the world still come to the U.S. seeking education.  The fluidity and creativity cultivated by our educational system are unrivaled.  (To those people who felt stifled by their American education, I have to say: at least you weren’t born in Europe.  Or Asia.  Or Africa.)  The government here doesn’t control your major or your track in high school, and your studies here aren’t all about memorization and obeying authority.  That’s our weakness, but it’s also an incredible strength. 

Americans are a wildly creative bunch.  We might lag in math and science right-and-wrong tests, but we invent things like nobody’s business, gobble up and regurgitate everyone else’s languages, and mix cultures without killing each other a whole lot of the time.  Also, we’re good dancers.  That’s just my opinion.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/education/28educ.html?_r=1&hp

Finally, merely because I have been brainwashed to think in threes: does Obama’s election really change anything?  Could having a black president really influence ideas of race in a meaningful way?  If I hadn’t seen these researchers’ theories in action myself, I would think they were silly.  Here’s what they found: the black-white achievement gap disappeared in two sets of tests that was administered before and after Obama’s election.  I know.  It sounds nutty.   Again, touchy-feely, self-esteem worksheet crap.  Still, on my final exams, I always have students (all of mine are African-American) write something positive about themselves before they start the questions.  How silly.  Or maybe not.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/education/23gap.html