Sunday, November 29, 2009

You got disappearing railroad blues?

In 1970, Steve Goodman wrote a great song called The City of New Orleans. I know you’ve heard it. Arlo Guthrie sang it and it became a hit.

The song is about a long ride on an old train. Have you ever taken a long train ride on an old rail clunker? If you have, perhaps you’ve experienced a pang of what Arlo describes in the last verse of the song: “This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.”

Old trains are like old starlets; your thoughts seem to swirl around, not what they are, but what they once were.

A hundred and fifty years ago, you see, trains were the movers and shakers of emerging technology. They were like iphones are now (except iphones cannot take you anywhere.) Great mad beasts bellowing steam and sound—the trains came bursting forth on the world stage in the mid-1800s. They were the iron horses of industrial hegemony, the thundering herd of collective progress, the unstoppable enforcers of manifest continent-wide destiny. Trains didn’t halt their hubric trek from down east to sagebrush west until they reached the Pacific Ocean; and there they dumped every genre of American adventurers—carpetbaggers, scalawags, gold-seekers, desperate immigrants, ramblers, gamblers, cowboys, Indians and even a few regular people. It seems the belching railroads dumped their restless passenger loads in LA and Frisco until airplanes could, several decades later, scoop the travelers up and extend their westward sojourns across the vast ocean where west morphs into east.

Locomotives were the kings and queens of industrial revolution transportation until mid 20th century, when cars and trucks captured our imaginations and our payment schedules.

Here's something to think about.

In a train, the conductor drives while everybody else rides.

In a car, each person becomes a conductor, guiding their own itinerary.

That’s what, I think, slowed the trundling of trains in America to a crawl—everybody wanted to do their own thing, control their own destin(y)ation. I can relate to that.

But we lost something when we waved those trains ‘bye about sixty or seventy years ago.

One line in Goodman’s The City of New Orleans song describes rolling past “graveyards of rusted automobiles.” That’s something to think about; there are megatons of extracted resources in America that, having endured the slow scourges of moth and rust, still exist beyond their ten or twelve years of utility; now rusting in the hidden corners of our properties and memories, they lapse to being just more junk. You see a lot of it if you do happen to ride on one our modern trains; the ride comes with a close-up view of civilization’s arse-side that you don’t get when you’re whizzing along on the freeway. You notice that obsolescence generates piles and piles of fashionable stuff that nobody seems to want. Have you been to a flea market lately? But I digress.

Cars, you know—they seem so convenient. But are they really?

I’m beginning to think they’re more trouble than their worth.

What’s inconvenient about operating a car is you can’t do anything else while you’re driving. You’ve got to keep eyes on the road, and remain attentive to what you yourself are doing and of course what all those other freaks on the road are doing.

No reading a magazine, no laptopping, no cellphone talking. No!

Haha. No cellphone talking!?

The roads are full of cellphone retards. (Don’t bug me about the use of the word; I chose it carefully.) Have you ever spotted a cellphone driver from behind? It makes you wonder if they should take a breathalyzer test. Some of them are even texting while they drive. They are a national menace.

You shouldn’t eat fast food while driving either! Guilty here.

If they were riding on a train, they could do all texting they want, all the yapping with Aunt Sally they want.

We should revisit trains. Their second wind could prove an impressive growth industry when we desperately need one.

Friday, November 27, 2009

What's ironic is that Republicans are protecting Medicare, a program that originated in 1965 as a Lyndon Johnson extension of the Newdealian Social Security entitlements.
Great Societies make strange bedfellows. Forty years later, the Repubs endorse patients' end-of-life choices by protecting what already exists as government-financed health care.

As one concerned recipient famously objected: We don't want the government messin' with out Medicare.

The Dems, bless their bleedin' hearts, want to enact new programs (of course) so that everybody, young and old, rich and poor, can have immediate, subsidized access to the system. It's a noble idea; but the government-wary conservatives ask: will that public option thing really work as cost-effectively as you predict? The repubs don't think so, and believe that it's just a slippery slope into more bureaucracy, taxes, and probably poor health care.

But the Dems are pretty dedicated to this thing. They're searching out ways to locate the obligatory, deficit-defeating appropriations (at least on CBO paper) to legitimatize their proposed near-universal coverage. Meanwhile (back in September) the Washington Post reports that "a quarter of Medicare costs--totalling $100,000,000,000 a year--are incurred in the final year of patients' lives, and 40% of that in the last month."

So the progressives take a hard look at that big pile of Medi-money that we just know is wastefully expended to keep the elderly extended.

The repubs bellow and get all melodramatic about death panels when what they're really hittin' on is: advanced care planning consultations, palliative care and hospice care replacing extreme interventions where appropriate, medical councils setting policies to reprioritize taxpayer money spent on both artificial and authentic life supports.

And thus do we Americans discover that government health care programs are not unlike artificial life support. Dead if you do, dead, sooner or later, if you don't. Either way, you're a goner. Or aunt Em. Question is: how long does it take? And who pays for it? I mean, there are kids down in the ER just dyin' to get into this place.

Up on the fifth floor, here's an old guy strung up in a high-tech hospital bed. His feeble, comfort-seeking attempts to dislodge self from those irksome tubes and wires is, medically speaking, ill-advised.

The family hovers at the bedside; they're unsure of what to do. Perhaps they've never been in this situation before, or maybe they've seen it all before in some other relative's slow demise. Either way, their decisions are not easy.

The doc walks in. He's doing a good job, protecting that elusive, electrified heartbeat, enabling that regular intake and output of precious oxygenating air. In the back of his mind, tucked strategically behind the costly medical knowledge (expensive to acquire and expensive to dispense), he feels vaguely threatened by the ever-present possibility of a malpractice suit. It could be lurking anywhere between the pulmonary edema and the abdominal aneurysm; even now it could be adjusting its briefs in preparation to impose shock and awe upon a hapless jury. Or the doc could be preoccupied with someone down the hall who's in even worse shape than the unfortunate guy that he's now smiling at because the family is in the room and how many times a day does he have to do this, and doc's mind is troubled by the dim awareness that there's something he forgot to do, or some question he forgot to ask while in that other patient's room an hour ago. The busy doc doesn't really have sufficient time to spend with each patient and family in order to thoroughly discern their unique requirements and intents and end-of-life preferences and accompanying documents thereof and after all he's only human and how much more hectic and depersonalized would this pace become if it was all "socialized?"

Meanwhile the nurse palliates and monitors, with the aid of her arsenal of life-extending paraphanalia. She keeps the old guy hydrogenated and his electrolytes balanced. She facilitates the ongoing operation of bodily functions, some of which are quite disagreeable, just like the patients from which they efflue. She dutifully administers the meds, but only, of course, the ones that doc allows, even though she knows in some cases doses are inappropriate and orders are obsolete or insufficient. On this particular day, she may be my wife. But that's not my point.

The pressure's on. Life and death situations are hitting the fan every hour.

Downstairs in the ER, more patients are sitting in chairs, delauded by the droning TV, opiate of the people up on the wall. They wait expectantly to receive what the hospital has to offer; they're limping in with wounds, dragging in with their diseases, some with cancer who don't even know it yet, some with nothing more than sprained ankles.

On the third floor, the hospital's financial legions are trying to reconcile the bills--the hospital's own and also the ones being sent out to cover the complicated expense of all those life-extending services. Statements are being prepared for the patients and their families, their insurance companies, their Medicaid and Medicare, blahblahblah...

Oops. There goes an alarm. It's a code being called. The appropriate personnel gather and do all they can, but one on the sixth floor slips away in spite of their skillful efforts.

"Goodbye," she whispers.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

From old Thanksgiving mythology to new?

On the day before Thanksgiving, I heard Mara Liasson talking on the radio about Thanksgiving. She described a few turkey day traditions as shared by NPR listeners. One woman's email described an after-the-big-meal family gathering around the TV to watch the entire Star Wars trilogy.
And so I was thinking about people sitting on the couch, unwinding after the feast, viewing movies that project a kind of modern mythology of interstellar diversity and fantastical space travel.
We've come a long way from celebrating the peaceful union of alien European settlers whose viands were combined, almost 400 years ago, with the amaizing native fare of "Indians." That whole turkey and pumpkins scene has become an idealized ritual of familial sharing and neighborly goodwill. It has become a part of our national heritage.
But it's slowly becoming our old mythology; now we're replacing it with a newer set of fables, like Star Wars, or football, or Twilight at the local megascreen, followed up the next day at the mall with sacrificial oblations of ecstatic acquisition. And now that we're in the Great Recession, those black Friday organized expeditions of spending become expressions of patriotic confidence. Consumerism and entertainment overshadow the quaint monotheism that once enfolded our gratitude into prayers of Thanksgiving to a transcendent God.
How quaint now are those old tales of Pilgrims and native Americans in New England.
While Mara read the email on the radio about the family watching Star Wars, she included a statement that in successive years other families or persons had joined in the popular after-turkey viewings. She used the phrase en masse to describe how relatives and neighbors were establishing this new tradition of gathering to celebrate the adventures of our new intergalactic heroes-- Obi-wan and Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and all those other characters who never really existed.
Mythology, you know, en masse.
It's a little like going to mass in the old days, or prayerfully expressing thanks to an unseen Creator, or sharing bitter herbs and lamb while passing along ancient histories of deliverance from oppression.
Our ancient talebearers stand aside while a new cast of characters takes center screen. But what d'ya say we leave a place at the table for Elijah, for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Or for the spirit of those Pilgrims and Indians, or even Jesus. Maybe they'll show up again someday.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Life is worth living.

With the most vigorous economy in the world, and the greatest potential for expanding domestic consumer markets, you'd think that the party cadres in China would lighten up on their micromanaging just a little. You'd think they'd allow citizen moms and dads to jump in bed, have a little makin'-whoopee fun, and procreate that second or third child to thereby provide a sibling for their child already born.
But no, the population-control bureaucrats are still so intent on manifesting the postmodern thanatos zeitgeist that insists this world is not predictable and safe enough for children to be born into. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean...
"A woman pregnant without permission has to surrender her unborn child to government enforcers, no matter what the stage of fetal development."
These quoted words were written by Kathleen Parker last Wednesday in her
Washington Post column. They represent a statement from Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of the Frontiers Group.
This statement from Ms. Littlejohn grabbed my attention when I read it in Kathleen's republished column today, Monday, 11/16/2009 in the Charlotte Observer.
I appreciate Kathleen's boldness in highlighting this issue, even as our President negotiates with Chinese leaders about important economic issues. In honor of her courage, and the courage of any women in the world who choose to give life to children and properly raise them, I include in this posting a pertinent passage from my novel, Glass half-Full.

From chapter 24:

But now the plane was landing, the time for reflection suspending. Life must go on.

The first familiar person that Lili saw on the ground was her housekeeper, Pao, who had dutifully secured a cart for their luggage. Pao was smiling broadly, glad to see them. After David had gathered their baggage and stacked it on the cart, she directed their attention to a Chinese woman who had watched their reunion activities while patiently sitting nearby. As the young lady stood up to be introduced to them, Lili could see that she was pregnant.

Wang Chuanxin had managed to do what few women have done: she had escaped the draconic bureaucracy that sought to extinguish the prenatal life of her second child. By the ministrations of a devoted husband and a few well-placed bribes, she had managed to board a plane out of China, to Honolulu, and so the child was still alive within her. Now she was in a foreign land with a foreign fear and nowhere to go. But at least her child was alive. She had been sitting in the baggage claim area for three hours, waiting for someone she didn’t know.

Pao introduced her as Wang Chuanxin, who had just arrived from Beijing that very day.

"Chuanxin is a friend of my friend Chen. She has eluded the party officials in her home province; they had conspired to abort her child."

Lili had not expected an encounter such as this in a routine airport arrival. She looked at the waifish mother with alarm and curiosity. "How did you manage to get out of there?" she wondered aloud.

"She speaks no English. I will translate," Pao said.

As Pao spoke to her in their language, Lili noticed the fearful look on Chuanxin’s delicate face as she responded to Pao’s question with rapid Mandarin.

"She says that her husband bribed some officials in order to get her on the plane that brought her to Honolulu. She still doesn’t know how the situation will be resolved, or how she will reunite with her husband."

"Ask her where she is going to stay."

Pao’s translation was followed by a quick, two-word reply.

"She doesn’t know."

Lili looked directly into her housekeeper’s eyes. "Pao, how did you know that she would be here today?"

"I received the phone call last night from my friend Chen. He asked me to help her."

"And who is Chen?"

"We are in church together."

"I see." Lili’s queenly heart was moving her toward a response of compassionate action. I was a stranger and you took me in.

"Ask her if she wants to come stay with us for awhile."

Pao spoke to their new friend energetically. Her plan was actually working out just as she had anticipated, for she knew her employer well. Chuanxin replied happily, with a large smile suddenly appearing on her formerly-strained face.

Pao did not bother to complete the verbiage. She grabbed Chuanxin's two bags and slung them on top of the loaded cart, there being just enough space for them.

Then David spoke to Pao, "We’ll wait here while you bring the car around."

"Yes, sir," she affirmed, and was off to get the car.

Lili sighed. It had been a long couple of weeks.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Slippery Slope of Securitization: poem

You, O America, are the nation of nations.

And wherever on earth the people dwell,

or the icons of the web do sell,

and planes of air descend,

you inspire their poverty to end.

Then do they bid you adieu, like they did the British

before you.

Your golden-headed ingenuity hath inspired them all;

still, do you evade the final margin call?

In days of old, your silver-shielded inclinations gave breath to greatness.

Not hateness.

With your strong-armed enterprise enabling masses to bust the hardscrabble,

O America! how your simple speech doth strive to overcome the Babel.

Back in the day, your bronzen halfbacks scampered,


through smoke of kamikazis

past the ghoulish camps of Nazis

which now you accuse each other of becoming.

You're so cunning.


Oh iron-legged one, who runneth at the game

and at the mouth,

in all directions north and south,

what will you do now upon your feet of iron and clay?

Shall I compare thee to a tragic play?

Entropy doth assail thee like a worthless m-b-s,

which thou doth seek to unload before it can digress.

Yet it sachs thee to the ground, bearly stearns thee round and round;

with jolting, bofa torts, you fall like ponzied citicorpse.

Oh! quoth the raven evermore,

upon thy credit-defaulted shore:

Prosperity, prosperity, burning bright

in the newshours of the cabled night

what financial convoluting instrument

can forestall thy fateful detriment?

What prophetic lens or scope could foresee such slippery slope?

Upon what back of mortgaged securitee

will he who bailed the bank bail thee?

But wait! What light through yonder window breaks?

What hope, what blessing, for what

God's sakes?

Arise! and go, and fly with me

into uncharted