Friday, July 31, 2009

July 31, 2009--While The Blue Dogs Were Barking

While the Democrat congressional Blue Dogs, more concerned about their reelection prospects than genuine healthcare reform, were nipping at the heels of aspects of the emerging bill in order to make sure that the insurance companies would continue to fare better than patients; and Republicans were doing all they could to bring down the Obama administration, paying more attention to his birth certificate than covering the uninsured; while all of this was occurring—including the co-called Beer Summit at the White House between Harvard professor Skip Gates, the police officer who arrested him, Barack Obama who really stepped in it, and Joe Biden (Joe Biden?); and the apparent resolution to the negotiations about the future custody of Michael Jackson’s children—around the world, substantially not covered by the media because none of it is equally sexy, a bunch of things were happening.

Let me in brief try to catch you up. All from the July 29th New York Times:

In Iraq—remember Iraq—commanders of the multi-national forces there have a looming nomenclature problem. As of today, July 31st, besides U.S. troops there will no longer be any other soldiers there from any other country. Thus, undercutting the meaning of multi. Sort of like in the old days when, also distracted by the sexy, we were confused about what the meaning of “is is.” Or more recently, the meaning of The Coalition of the Willing. As Karl Rove said about that—inspired undoubtedly by President Clinton’s parsing of the ontological meaning of is—“The truth is what we say it is.”

I suppose the good news is that Defense Secretary Gates recently said that since it is getting less safe for our soldiers to remain in Iraq now that they have agreed to withdrawn to their bases and get off the streets so that the Iraqi forces can take full control of their own country, this has made it somehow less safe for our men and women and thus we will be withdrawing them faster than previously planned.

Related to this, also from the July 29th Times, the top commander of the uni-national-non-coalition declared the other day that after all our troops withdraw, “The Iraqis will be unable to handle their own air defenses.” This not only is upsetting because by the time we are fully withdrawn we will have spent at least a trillion dollars of money we borrowed from China to invade and occupy Iraq and make them capable of governing and defending themselves, but also because I can’t think of who might be threatening Iraqi airspace. Weren’t we the ones who did that with our Shock and Awe raids? Or are we worried that Iran will invade Iraq as soon as we are no longer providing air cover? So this is both disturbing and perplexing.

Meanwhile, also in sort-of Iraq (I say sort-of because we and the Brits and the French created Iraq back in 1919 by literally drawing lines in the sand in order to protect our collective oil interests), a virtual country that includes in the north a portion of still-borderless Kurdistan, there is a new president of this semiautonomous region who just rejected a UN proposal to “resolve Iraq’s explosive internal border disputes,” because he wants to proceed with a move to create their own Kurdish constitution, effectively rejecting the one that we forced on all Iraqi factions four years ago.

That doesn’t seem to be working out; and after we leave, back to that, we can expect to see further moves by all of the region’s Kurds, very much including those in eastern Turkey, to declare themselves a separate country. Which, when you think about it, makes historic and cultural sense. Certainly more sense that what the map-makers concocted in Paris at the end of World War I, while downing many jeroboams of claret.

In the same Islamic world, in Pakistan, meanwhile, in the Swat Valley things are not going all that well. Remember the Swat was always in the news before Michael Jackson OD’d because the Taliban had pretty much taken control of it and were thus very close to and threatening the country’s capital, Islamabad? In a report from the Swat Valley the Times reported that a police constable who had been kidnapped last week was found beheaded near the town of Mingora. In Pakistan a single beheading rarely even makes the front pages of Pakistani papers. But in this case it did because it demonstrated that the Taliban are far from defeated there, as had been claimed by the government, and as a result most of the large landowners in the area—who are the source of virtually all economic activity there—have pulled out, leaving the people in desperate circumstances and likely to turn to the Taliban to take care of them.

On a brighter note, things are looking up with regard to Syria. Recall, before we got all involved with Skip Gate’s arrest in his own Cambridge home and that birth certificate business, the Obama administration was making nice to President Bashar al-Assad in the hope that by flattering him with attention (including dangling the prospect of an Obama visit to Damascus--don’t hold your breath) and appealing to his fear that Islamic militants in his own country would soon come looking for him (they should check for him at his flat in Paris), that by having Hillary Clinton and her team meet with him, we might be able to peel him away from his client relationship with Iran. As an indication that progress of this sort might be occurring, the Obama administration said Tuesday that it is taking “new steps to ease American sanctions against Syria on a case-by-case basis.” We will dribble this out to Assad and will expect him to reciprocate by taking a series of baby steps away from his patron. Of course, if this fails, there’s always the Right Bank.

Not entirely unrelated to this, we hosted a series of economic and diplomatic meetings earlier this week in Washington with our own patron—China. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Peter Geithner say glumly by (you need to look at the pictures of them on the Internet), the Chinese Finance Minister lectured them and us about our profligate ways. China of course has a keen interest in this and the larger U.S. economy since they hold $1.5 trillion (with a “t”) of our Treasury securities and they are more worried about our expanding debt than we. As Xi Xuren put it—in oriental passive-voice style—“Attention should be given to the fiscal deficit.” As the New York Times more directly put it, Clinton and Geithner being lectured in public “underscored a subtle shift in power between China and the United States, one in which the Chinese are showing a new assertiveness.” Indeed.

Finally, since Peter Geithner’s name came up, also this week he hosted a meeting of the nation’s leading mortgage lenders to beseech them to help people with troubled mortgages restructure them, using the billions the Treasury has set aside from the TARP appropriation for this purpose. While they squirmed in their seats complaining about all the paper work the government requires (yes, they are being asked to do a little due diligence, something they didn’t feel was important while inflating the real estate bubble by giving away no-doc mortgages to anyone who walked through their doors), while trying to wiggle off the hook as to why they weren’t moving more quickly while hundreds of thousands more homeowners are moving toward default, it was reported in the Times that the real reason they have been lagging is not because of the paperwork but because they make much, much more money by having people miss mortgage payments so that they can dun them for additional interest and collect penalty money. This predatory behavior you must read about yourself since I assume by now you are doubted my veracity. Thus, I have linked it below.

Indeed it had been quite a week. Now let’s get back to what Michael Jackson’s father claimed yesterday—that Michael has a fourth child. This one biologically his. How does Joe Jackson know—to sort of quote him, “He looks like a Jackson, he sings like a Jackson, he dances like a Jackson. So he’s a Jackson!”

As Uncle Walter would say, “And that’s the way it is.”

Thursday, July 30, 2009

July 30, 2009--"Only Tenure"

The case for tenure for teachers, guaranteed lifetime employment, rests on the following argument--

It protects them from unwarranted and wanton dismissal for doing unpopular things such as failing influential students, becoming a whistleblower, union activity, writing unpopular articles, and school board politics.

Anyone who fears, it is claimed, that tenure protects teachers if they engage in child abuse or other crimes need not worry because they can be dismissed if they are proven to commit any of them even if they have the protection of tenure

Where the rubber meets the roads, however, is what to do in cases where teachers are deemed to be incompetent after they have been awarded tenure. We should not to be concerned about this either, tenure proponents say, since there are procedures in place to monitor teacher performance and there are ways to dismiss teachers who have been shown to be ineffective in the classroom.

Theoretically this may be true; but in practice it very, very rarely happens that an incompetent teacher with tenure is dismissed for these reasons. It is always such a complicated, cumbersome, and litigated process that few principals even begin the process. At best they shuttle these teachers around from school to school so as to spread the pain among a wide range of students.

The tenure issue has come up again recently as the Obama administration turns up the pressure on public schools to get serious about school reform efforts. There is $4.3 billion tucked away in the stimulus package that is available to schools through an Educational Innovation Fund. But unlike funds of this kind in the past, where the emphasis was on the innovating—doing new things—this time around school districts will receive funds only if they can demonstrate with data that they are instituting reform activities that have objectively improved student achievement, adopted higher standards, built credible data systems to keep track of student learning, and recruited and retained demonstrably effective teachers. (See linked New York Times article for the details.)

It is this latter requirement that is causing all sorts of problems—how to determine if teachers are effective. And has elicited outcries from many educators and especially unions that represent teachers. They see this as a threat to the tenure system—what will happen, they ask, when as a part of the effort to tap into this federal money it is found that some tenured teachers are ineffective?

Rather than state this this directly, opponents of this kind of teacher accountability requirement are trying to make the case that because of the ways schools are structured it is too complicated to link student achievement outcomes with individual teacher’s efforts.

Since most accountability systems are based on how students do on achievement tests, opponents of the Secretary of Education’s plans to link federal money to student outcomes and teacher quality contend that to rely so heavily on tests distorts the complexity of the teaching and learning process. These tests measure achievement in too limited a way. And also, since students are often taught by teams of teachers, how can one expect to hold individual teachers accountable?

It is relatively easy to counter the concern about team teaching since for the most part it is untrue. From kindergarten through sixth grade students pretty much are taught by just one teacher; and then later when math teachers teach math and English teachers teach English, why wouldn’t it be possible to assess the effectiveness of individual math teachers by how well his or her students do on math exams?

In fact, in states where teachers unions hold local legislatures by their wallets, laws have been passed to not permit student achievement test scores to have any effect whatsoever on teacher tenure considerations. When in New York this has been questioned, the chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tish (all of whose children have attended private schools) shrugged and said, “It’s only about tenure decisions.” In other words, only about the most important of all education decisions—to award lifetime protection to teachers to whom we assign the education of our most precious resource.

And so if not by using tests how would opponents of high-stakes testing propose to hold teachers accountable? And if some teachers after repeated opportunities to improve were still deemed to be incompetent, especially those with tenure, how should they be dealt with?

What is at issue is how poorly in general our schools are doing. More than a third of all public school students—at least 15 million of them—are assigned to dysfunctional schools. The consequences do not just involve them as individuals (though that alone should be enough to get us to be serious about real reform) but there are also dangerous consequences for our country—how can we compete in a global economy where our trading partners and opponents are doing a much better job than we of educating their next generation? Now we’re really talking high stakes.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

July 29, 2009--There You Go Again, Joe

When he was in Moscow recently President Obama did not look into the eyes of President Dmitri Medvev and declare that he saw his soul. But he did say that that he wanted to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations. That there are many important and dangerous issues in the world where our mutual interest suggests it would be better to work together than at a chilly distance.

The soul-peerer, George Bush, who famously said this about his soul after his first meeting with then Russian President Putin, and then declared him a “good man,” subsequently decided that Russia’s criticism of our invasion of Iraq and threats to Iran no longer made them a partner to be trusted. And from the Russian perspective, they saw us meddling in internal politics within their sphere of influence. They were especially upset by our open support for restive regimes in Ukraine and Georgia. They felt, like the fallen but still upwardly-aspiring superpower they once were, that this was a blow to their national pride. And, further, wondered how would we feel if they sent their vice president (Cheney initially) to Mexico and Canada and got behind political leaders there who were anti-American.

So, if Obama and Secretary of State Clinton want to start again with Russia, as they both have repeatedly said, what was Vice President Joe Biden doing in Georgia and Ukraine last week? And more puzzling and upsetting, what in God’s name was he saying about Russia in an interview in the Wall Street Journal?

OK, so he went to these countries not only to represent the administration of which he is supposed to be a comfortable part but because during his long years in the Senate, from his senior seat on the Committee on Foreign Affairs, he has a special interest in that region. Fine, but did you see what he then said, while still there, about Russia? Our new best friend?

I understand—he is restless and wanted to get out of Washington and do some overseas traveling now that he has his own big plane to fly around in. It must feel a little confining for his expansive personality—to be the invisible second-banana in a White House where all those young and bright Chicagoans swirl around Obama while poor Joe can hardly get a word in edgewise. And we know how he likes to get in a word or two or a thousand.

So why didn’t they send him to Italy where he could have met with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and commiserated with him about his latest bimbo irruption? Remember those? And even meet with the Pope? I’m sure Joe would have a lot to say to him. But, no, they let him go to the simmering borders of Russia and while there he really stepped in it. So deeply that even Hillary Clinton on Sunday on Meet the Press needed to reinterpret the meaning of his comments. Though I’m sure she took a little perverse pleasure doing this.

In case you missed what Biden said to the WSJ some of it is included in the article linked below. Let me, though, give you a few of the lowlights.

He began by saying that we would make no compromises in exchange for better relations with Russia. This, within weeks of Obama’s visit there where he and Medvedev agreed to reduce our nuclear stockpiles and the number of our offensive missiles. But let’s chalk that one up to tough love. Our VPs are often asked to play the bad-guy role. Dick Cheney won numerous Academy Awards doing that.

But then he went on to offer scathing criticism of the state of the Russian economy and corrupt political culture. In this he sounded more like Rush Limbaugh than Barack Obama. In his own words he said:

They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.

Some of this may in fact be true, but to state it so publicly and bluntly when your boss is trying to cool the leftover Cold War rhetoric to get better relations going so we can perhaps get Russia to help us with Iran suggests that Biden forgot to pack his meds and muzzle for the long trip.

Then there is an irony in what he said—take out Russia and insert the United States in his comments and they also ring true. Don’t we too have a “withering economy”? Aren’t our financial institutions still in grave danger? Can he assure us that all will be well with our banking system in 15 years? Aren’t we too in our continuing overseas adventures also “clinging” to notions of American power and exceptionalism from “the past”? For example, is he oblivious to the concern that expanding our military role in Afghanistan feels preternaturally similar to what the Russians got disastrously trapped in during the 1980s?

This from a man who prides himself in knowing the nuanced ins-and outs of foreign policy and claims he is steeped in world history. Further, isn’t he the person Obama put in charge of overseeing the implementation of the stimulus program? Particularly the part that is supposed to save or create millions of jobs? Well, how’s he doing with that? It’s not easy to keep an eye on all the supposedly shovel-ready projects from Georgia, unless you’re hanging out in Atlanta and not Tbilisi.

Therefore I suggest taking the keys to Air Force Two away from him and sending him to I-95 where not much is happening. It needs fixing, the money’s there to get the job done, but very few are thus far at work.

So, Joe, you’re grounded.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

July 28, 2009--Fee-For-Service

As the debate about healthcare reform drags on, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is why we in fact spend so much money for the system we currently have. It’s the one thing no one wants to talk about, starting with President Obama.

Forget for the moment whether or not we spend more per capita than other countries and get less for it; put aside disagreement about overcharging by pharmaceutical companies, let’s not argue about insurers who only want to cover healthy people so they can maximize profits, temporarily ignore how much providing a public option may or may not save, and set aside for now disagreement about the cost of medical malpractice insurance. Though all of these things have cost implications—big ones—they are not why we pay so much and are on a healthcare spending trajectory that will not only bankrupt the country but make the current federal deficit look like petty cash.

The real reason we spend more than any other country is because of the way we and our insurance companies and Medicare and Medicaid pay for the care we receive. It’s our unique fee-for-service system that’s at fault. Here’s how it works:

Pretty much everyone pays their bills (or their insurance companies or the government does) service by service. We get billed separately for every visit, for every test. If we are hospitalized we get an itemized bill when we are discharged that not only includes the cost of our room and the medications we received but also every in-room doctor visit, every dressing that is changed, every conversation with the social worker, and even every tongue depressor used.

Now this may seem fair because isn’t that the way we pay for every other service we receive? If we bring our car in for repairs we pay for the oil by the quart that is put in the crankcase, we pay separately to have our tires rotated, we pay for the grease that is squirted into our ball joints, we . . . You get the point.

Though this may make sense when it comes to servicing an automobile, does it when it involves medical care? Some would claim that even in regard to how mechanics charge there are opportunities for abuse. If he tells you that you need to repair your alternator and that that will cost $450, without the expertise to challenge this you never will know if the repair was really necessary. And if it isn’t and you agree to have the work done, you are being ripped off. But it’s “only” for $450.

If, on the other hand, your doctor says that she or he needs to do a string of tests on you digestive system, since among things these will be paid for by your insurer or the government, you lie down and let them stick things in you. Again, you do not have the expertise to question the diagnosis, you are left to trust the integrity of your physician. But unlike the auto mechanic, among other reason, because of the reimbursement system for payment it doesn’t feel as if you are being cheated. Someone else is picking up the bill.

But there are credible studies that show that if doctors have their own testing facilities they are up to ten times more likely to order tests than doctors who have to send you to labs in which they do not have financial interests. If the insurance company will pay for the endoscoping, open wide because a tube is heading your way.

According to experts it is this fee-for-service approach to ordering and paying for medical treatment that is at the heart of the matter. Most physicians of course are honorable people but this way of charging for services offers overt and subtle motivation for them not only to do everything they can to treat and cure you but also to over-test and treat you because of the financial incentives for them. To put it directly—the more they see you, the more tests they order, the more money they make.

An argument in favor of this approach is that doctors are not just physicians but they are also businessmen and they operate (pun intended) within a capitalist system. Therefore, what’s wrong with them making a lot of money? Aren’t the fees they charge ultimately controlled by both the market and so-called third parties--the insurance companies and the government?

Yes and no. The fees may be negotiated and set but for the most part this does not inhibit or restrain doctors from essentially being in charge of the treatments and tests they provide. They may have at times to persuade insurers to authorize this or that test, but for the most part they get their way. They are in charge.

It is largely because doctors act so autonomously and get paid for every service they provide that we wind up paying so much for the care we receive.

If true, why have the president and other advocates for reform ignored this issue? Because, according to recent polls, three quarters of the public are either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with the care they receive and thus for him to take on the way doctors are paid would be politically daunting. Since almost all people with health insurance pay in indirect ways, many thinking that they don’t pay at all (either employers provide coverage or Medicare does), anything that looks like tampering with the system as it exists would be political suicide.

The president, though, while not confronting the major cost issue, has attempted to do so indirectly. By citing the good, cost-effective care provided by the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics, where doctors get paid salaries and not by the individual services they provide, he is suggesting that these are good models that should be emulated. (See linked New York Times article for more details.)

We know what the AMA thinks about this. When internists can make upwards of $400,000 a year practicing in a fee-for-service medical environment, how many are eager to get just a salary? Well, at Mayo and in Cleveland the salaries they receive are competitive; and since there is no financial incentive to order up unnecessary tests or those that have significant side effects, fewer are administered and their patients are on average healthier.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to take note of that 800-pound gorilla because soon he’s going to weigh 1,000 pounds and he’ll have us even more intimidated.

Monday, July 27, 2009

July 27, 2009--Day Off

I'll be back tomorrow.

Friday, July 24, 2009

July 24, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Basal Cell Carcinoma

“I’m calling to see how he is doing.” It was my 101 year-old mother who lives at Forest Trace, a retirement community near Ft. Lauderdale.

I was in the midst of a project and for a moment didn’t know who she was referring to. She sensed that, “I mean your brother-in-law, how is the treatment?”

“It’s completed. He’s through with it. He handled it magnificently. And now he is on the road to recovery. Just yesterday he said to me that he was able to eat some French toast; and that he ate it, as he put it, ‘in normal circumstances and in normal style.’ I was so impressed by the news, including how he described this, that he and I have been talking about the meaning of things being normal. How, if we are fortunate, we take normal for granted; and that . . .”

She cut me off in mid-sentence, “To tell you the truth this is not why I called.”

“Go on.”

“I care about him. He is a very fine young man,” fine being her ultimate compliment.

“So why did you call? Of course,” I raced to add, “I always love hearing from you, talking with you. It’s always my . . .”

“They tell me I need to have Moose.”

“What? Moose?

“The Moose operation. Surgery. On my face.”

“Back up a minute, mom. I’m having trouble understanding. I know you had a doctors appointment. I forget which one you have so many doctors.”

“Just five. My internist, my cardiologist, my ophthalmologist, the one who prescribes my antidepressants, and him.”


“And of course I have my dentist. I forgot him. He’s a doctor too.”

“But the last one you mentioned. The one you called ‘him.’ Who is he and what happened, I am assuming something did, when you saw him?”

“When I saw him last week he’s the one who scheduled the Moose surgery. My dermatologist. He saw something he doesn’t like. On my face. On my right cheek. He set up an appointment to do the operation.”

“Ah, I’m following you now. You mean Mohs surgery. M, O, H, S.”

“Yes, that’s it--Mohs. I keep telling you I’m losing my memory.”

“I hope when I’m ‘only’ 90 I’ll have a memory like yours.” In truth, about that and abut almost everything else with her, she has lost remarkably few capacities. Her worst affliction is some arthritis in her left hip and a little unsteadiness when walking. All she really needs is a cane. As much for security as to help her walk. “Tell me mom, what happened. Start from the beginning.”

“I will tell you, but I want you to know, before I start, that I really want to talk about Obama and health insurance. I’m thinking of writing to tell him what he should do.”

“Fine. But let’s first talk about the dermatologist.”

“He said I have a basal cell carcinoma there and he needs to remove it with the Mohs.”

“That’s the procedure, isn’t it, where you go to his office and he takes off a layer of skin, cells actually, and in the office does a biopsy; and then if he hasn’t gotten all of the ones that are pre-cancerous, he takes another layer, tests it, and then if necessary removes a third one, and so on until he has it all? Right?”

“Exactly! You see, I told you you should have gone to medical school like your brother did.”

“This sounds like a lot to put you through.”

“I’ve experienced worse.”

“But . . .”

“Be patient. I’m not through. I saw him on Friday and over the weekend I thought about it. I was having second thoughts about the operation.”

“Procedure, mom, procedure.”

“You can call it whatever you want; but to me, at my age, everything is an operation.”

“I understand. So why didn’t you tell me about this, but more important what did you think about over the weekend?”

“Whether or not I should let them cut up my cheek. Among other things I’ll have a big hole on my face for the rest of my life.”

“But, mom, if you need to do this you should . . .”

“That is my point--do I really need to do this. So I called him yesterday, when he has office hours, the doctor, and he got on the phone himself, which never happened before. Maybe because I have a son who’s a doctor he extended me a little professional courtesy. And when he got on the phone I said ‘I won’t keep you more than a minute,’ you see I had written down what I wanted to say to him, ‘I am calling,’ I said, ‘to ask if as a 101 year-old I need to have the operation.’ He said, ‘When you have basal cell I always remove it.’ I said, ‘I understand, but in my case how long, how many years will it take before what I have becomes a melanoma?’ In other words a big problem. And he said to me, ‘Oh, many years.’ So I said, like I told you I had written this down, ‘So why don’t we wait those “many years” to see what develops?’ He didn’t say anything, so I said, ‘At my age that could take forever.’ Do you get what I meant by that?” This was directed at me.

“Yes, I understand what it means--that you’re 101 and in all likelihood, you will . . .”

“No need to complete your thought. We both understand.”

“Agreed. So what happened next?”

“We cancelled the appointment for the Mohs and agreed I would come to see him three times a year and he would monitor the situation.”

I was relieved to hear that. “This is excellent. I’m very impressed with how you thought this through and handled the situation. I wish I was as good as you in dealing with my doctors. I always feel so intimidated by them.”

“This is not all.”

“But I thought you cancelled the procedure, sorry, operation, and that you would make appointments to be monitored and . . .”

“That’s really my point and what I want to write to Barack Obama about.”

“Again, I’m not following you.”

“Why, I want to know, should a 101 year-old have a dermatologist?”

“Well, if you have . . .”

“Exactly if I have a melanoma or something else very serious. Psoriasis. Which is not as bad, obviously, but still then I would need to go to see him. But for this? What’s to monitor? And why three times a year?”

I was beginning to see her point. It was going to be about healthcare tests and procedures.

“An old lady like me, unless as I said I have a serious condition, should not ever see a dermatologist. Anything I might develop is not going to kill me before time kills me.”

“Mom, why are you talking about yourself this way?” Even though she’s 101, I have difficulty imaging her no long here. Much less thinking about her being killed, even by time.

“Because as the ladies were saying over dinner last night, you know us, we love our doctors—where would we be without them-- and we worked so hard to get our benefits; but take Anna for an example, there’s really nothing wrong with her except a little this and a little that. She goes to the same internist as I do—in fact I was the one who recommended him to her. Her doctor didn’t have the time of day for her. To him she was less than a number. In and out, in and out. That’s what going to him was like. So I got her to switch to mine. She loves him, of course. But I already told you that. I’m sorry. I’m rambling again.”

“You haven’t been rambling mom. I know this is an emotional subject—your health.”

“It’s really not about my health. I’ve been blessed. I know that. I still am. And that’s my point. The girls feel, I feel that we all should have the best healthcare in the world. This is America. Why should they have better other places? And why should we have to pay so much for it? More than any other country. Bertha thinks her Medicare costs nothing. She keeps saying, “It doesn’t cost me anything! Isn’t this a wonderful country?’ Poor thing, she is losing her mind. I keep saying to her that it’s not free. That we paid for it when we were younger and we are paying for it now with our taxes. And with the government borrowing. Nothing is for nothing.”

“And so what is it that you want to write to the president?” I wanted to help steer her back to what she had told me was the real reason she had called.

“Yes, that. I was just setting a context. From the girls. Those of us, I want to tell him, who need all kinds of doctors and tests should have only the best. But those like me, and younger people too who are on Medicare who have nothing really to complain or worry about, for us they should just do what they can to keep us healthy. He is talking about that—prevention. And that is good. But with my dematologist. What I first told you about. Tell me why I should be seeing him three times a year? Or anyone without a serious condition?” Before I could speculate she added, “Because that’s how many time a year he can get reimbursed for seeing me. Three times. You’re good with research. Look it up. I’m sure that’s what you’ll find. That Medicare permits that and so I have three appointments already scheduled. One in October, another one next February, and then another one I forgot when. As I said to him on the telephone, ‘I should live so long!’”

“Well, of course I’m glad you’re fine and that the growth on your cheek is really nothing to worry about, and that . . .”

“For someone my age it is nothing to worry about. About you it’s another thing. And on that subject I hope you’re going for your regular checkups. Including with the skin doctor. You sit out in the sun too much.”

“I do. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“You’re telling your mother not to worry about her son? I’m still be worrying when they put me in Mount Hebron.”

“I wish you wouldn’t . . .”

“But again I’m digressing. I have one final thing to tell you.”


“He thinks I’ll be coming to see him in October and then more times next year. Well, little does he know that I won’t. As soon as I hang up with you I’m calling to cancel all those appointments. He’s a wonderful doctor who took very good care of your father and me—your father really needed him he had so many basal cells—but I’m another story. I never sat in the sun, and I’m 101. So I’m going to begin—I want to write this too to Obama—I’m going to begin rationing my own healthcare. He didn’t answer that question honestly at his conference on Wednesday. When the reporter asked him about what people will have to give up so those without insurance can have it and how we can cut the cost of Medicare. The honest answer is rationing. He didn’t say that. I understand why. But I’m going to ration myself. I plan to tell him that. The president. I have trouble holding a pen now with the arthritis in my thumb so it will take me a few weeks to do it. But I will.”

“I hope so mom. I wish I was there to help you.”

“I wish you were here too. But I want to do this on my own.”

“And I promise to do the research you mentioned.”

“What research?”

“About how often Medicare will pay for you to see Dr. . . .”

“Forget that. We already know the answer. And as I told you—I’m rationing myself.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 23, 2009--Second Best?

My cousin Chuck, who was a serious student of things strenuous, always said, when comparing the most challenging activities, that the Tour de France bicycle race was by far the most physiologically demanding of athletic contests.

It takes place over 23 days, unfolds in 21 separate stages or daylong segments, and in total distance covers more than 3,500km or 2,171 miles. It virtually circumnavigates France and crosses hot summer valleys and winds its way through the snowfields of both the Pyrenees and the Alps, ending always, on the last Saturday of July, in Paris, along the Champs Élysées. This coming Saturday.

Chuck always said, as evidence of how strenuous the Tour is, that to complete it is the equivalent of running several marathons a week for three weeks.

There is no dispute about who is the greatest of Tour champions—it is the American metastasized cancer-survivor Lance Armstrong who, between 1999 and 2005, won the Tour an unprecedented seven times in a row.

Controversy surrounded him as it does all world-class cyclists. Many, including the 2006 champion, another American, Floyd Landis, have been caught using forbidden performance-enhancing drugs. It is generally assumed that almost everyone cheats, including--the French especially say--Lance Armstrong. But like everyone else, he is tested for doping constantly both during the Tour and at other times of the year and has never been found to be using any illegal substance. But still, again mainly the French persist in claiming that he has somehow figured out how to beat the tests. (See linked New York Times article for additional details.)

In part to get away from all of that and to rest on his considerable laurels, Armstrong retired three and a half years ago. But the lure to compete—perhaps to prove himself again and to wipe away any lingering stigma—he returned to competition this year at for this event the “advanced” age of 37 and is passing all the drug tests and . . . doing remarkably well. With only four stages remaining he is unlikely to win—which would be truly amazing—but he has a very good chance of finishing second. Also amazing.

Then, last weekend, in Scotland, the world’s best golfers gathered for their sport’s ultimate test—The Open Championship. What we in America call the British Open but in Britain it is referred to as just The Open because since golf was invented there to Brits, though there may be other major championships, including the U.S. Open, there is truly only one Open.

The courses where The Open is contested are all among the worlds most daunting. They in no way resemble the rolling suburban, country-club kinds of courses in America where the other three majors are played, including with all due respects in Augusta where the Masters is held. In Britain The Open is always held on turf courses, essentially wild fields and meadows, settings where the players are not only tormented by the narrow fairways and roughs, which resemble unmowed hayfields and by fairway bunkers that look like World War I bunkers—pits with fiercely vertical walls--since these courses are all perched right by the sea, players also have to deal with the wicked and unpredictable weather conditions that are characteristic of these northerly latitudes. Lashing rains and gale force winds are frequent companions.

It was claimed by my cousin, though on the surface most professional golfers do not look like finely trained athletes—some even push around considerable paunches—playing in The Open is the most psychologically demanding of all sporting events. It stretches out over four days, with the competitors during the first two often feeling casually light spirited. But by the third day, always a Saturday, considering what it means to them to win this ultimate championship, it is not hyperbolic in golfing terms to claim that there are even metaphysical stakes for those golfers in contention—for those at that time within half a dozen strokes of each other and then especially on the final day, for those in the last two or three twosomes--it is nothing short of mental torment.

To be in the lead, to be within a shot or two of the lead, after 68 of the 72 holes is to face in an unmediated way either sports immortality or the abyss. It is that existential.

Made more so by the fact that championship golf is the only major sport where competitors are not part of a team and where the opponent they most ultimately face is themselves. Yes, they are competing against the field, if they have or are close to the lead on that final day, they have others who they need to defeat, but as they stand over an eight-foot put on the 72nd green, knowing that “all” they have to do is sink it to take home the coveted 139 year-old Claret Jug, they are as alone in the world, before 40,000 spectators pressing in close and many millions more watching on TV, in that lonely crowd it is just one man against the forces of destiny.

Golf at this level is almost always sport for young men who not only have all the required physical tools at their command but—perhaps because they have not yet come to the awareness that time, in all things, is the unconquerable enemy—the psychological pressure is less on them than it would be for a player with victory in sight on that final hole who is past just 45. Fully conscious of the consequences—This is certainly my last opportunity to win a major much less The Open--the mind asserts itself and takes over from the body. That eight-foot put, ordinarily not much of a problem for golfers at this level, looks endless. And while the green on which the ball sits is in fact rather flat at that location, to the older player with everything at stake, it looks as roiled and undulating as that of the nearby ocean.

Thus it is no surprise that the oldest winner of any of the four golf majors is Julius Boros who won the 1968 PGA Championship at 48 years, 4 months. And the oldest winner of The Open is the aptly named Old Man Morris who took home the Jug way back in 1867 at the not-really-so-old age of 46 years, two months.

But then this past Sunday, confronting history and immortality, standing on the 18th green of the 72nd hole, with a seemingly safe one-shot lead, was Tom Watson, winner of five previous Opens, who at the ancient age of 59 and 10 months was almost 12 years older than Boros.

He was not only on the cusp of history but also on the edge of the green, perhaps 20 feet from the hole. All he needed to do to become immortal was take two strokes to hole out. Routine for even golfers of less skill and experience. His first putt was not distinguished and left him with eight feet remaining. He had been making putts of this length and longer all week long, including on Sunday.

This eight-footer, though, was not just about winning it was about doing something no one else had come even close to achieving. The announcers, all experienced and accomplished former champions, said, again not hyperbolically, that if Watson sinks this putt it will represent the greatest achievement in the entire history of golf.

Feeling unfathomable pressure, he missed the putt, was forced into a four-hole playoff, and lost it, coming in second to Stewart Cink, who is a mere 36.

Armstrong and Watson. Both in one week! Second best? You decide.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

July 22, 2009--Tax & Spend Liberals

It’s getting rough out there. The rhetoric about the healthcare bill is heating up. It is becoming violent.

Conservative columnist Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard told Republicans on his blog Monday that they need to resist the temptation to work with Democrats to find a solution to our health care crisis. "This is no time to pull punches," he wrote. "Go for the kill."

 And to make sure you hadn’t missed his gory point, he concluded: “Throw the kitchen sink at the legislation now on the table, drive a stake through its heart . . . and kill it.”

On Friday, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, on the floor of the Senate, the World’s Most Exclusive Club, intoned: "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

I can only imagine how these only slightly coded messages about killing are being received by the lunatic-Right. Note that they are taking about breaking him, not just defeating healthcare legislation. And do you really think that the heart through which they are wanting to drive a stake is that of the bill or Obama’s?

The Kristols and DeMints of the-under-the-rock world know exactly what they are up to. And it’s very ugly and dangerous.

But then on the other side—the Democrat side—it’s getting rough in its own more-muted ways. In fact, from a political perspective, Obama may be getting more seriously wounded by members of his own party than by the fanatical wing of the GOP. By the so-called Blue Dog Democrats in the House and especially in the Senate. There are nine Blue Dogs in the Senate; and since a supermajority of 60 votes is necessary to bring healthcare legislation to the floor for an ultimate up or down vote, Obama needs all of them to come on board for something about which they (and he) can agree.

Such is the state of our democracy. The Republicans want to break and kill him metaphorically while key members of his own party, six of whom he helped sweep into office in November, are holding him up for ransom.

This is not about the ins and outs of the healthcare bill that is becoming stalled in the Senate—about that there is abundant opportunity to disagree (it may be the most complicated domestic issue ever to face this country)—but about how things work and don’t work in Washington. The very business-as-usual Obama campaigned against and the people, by elected him, said they want to see ended.

So I am wondering about these Blue Dogs. As noted, six of them (Hagen ([NC], Shaheen [NH], Udall [CO], Begich [AK], Warner [VA], and Bennet [CO] come from traditionally Red States which Obama either won or in which he did very well, and they personally benefited mightily by his showing. With the exception of Bennet (who was appointed to replace Senator Ken Salazar after Obama named him to be Secretary of the Interior) none will face reelection for five and a half years so for them any votes they cast now will be long forgotten by 2014. So isn’t it time for them to step up and help win one for the new Gipper?

I am being too cynical to think that these freshmen senators after only six months in office are already thinking about a second term. They do presumably have legitimate concerns about the emerging healthcare bill and want to see them addressed. Let me cite just one of these as described in yesterday’s New York Times (full article linked below).

Taxes—they are concerned about the proposal to tax the currently-untaxed healthcare benefits received by some people. The current mark-up of the bill calls for individuals earning more than $280,000 and couples with taxable income of $350,000 to pay tax on some of what employers pay to insure them. (The actual estimated out-of-pocket cost to couples would be about $2,000 a year.) To most Democrats, including Obama, asking the top 2 percent of earners to pay a little more in taxes seems fair, considering that it would help offset coverage for the 45 million who are currently not insured.

But the Blue Dogs are resisting this. Instead they seemingly want to raise the income thresholds of those who would have benefits taxed to $500,000 for individuals and a full $1.0 million for couples. This, they feel, would allow them to go back home and tell their constituents that they are not “tax-and-spend liberals" but are watching out for the little people--at least the top 2 percent of them.

To be clear they are not showing all this concern about those who have assets of a million, but couples who have an annual taxable income of a million bucks.

These Blue Dogs are Democrats, mind you, who are worried about our absolutely wealthiest fellow citizens. Why even a lot of compassionate-conservative Republicans might get behind something like this. Maybe, then, this is then what bipartisanship means.

I hope Obama is busy twisting a few arms and banging a few heads. But, listen to me, here I go making physical threats and beginning to sound like Jim DeMint and Bill Kristol. Shame on me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

July 21, 2009--Tory Time

Trying to follow the healthcare debate, including what I think the legislation should and shouldn’t include and how to pay for whatever emerges, I am coming quickly to feel that nothing of significance is going to happen.

Our current system is too confoundingly complicated to be reformed in large part because so many with power and influence are happy with the healthcare they currently receive and those who provide it are making so much money that they have an even greater fear of change—actually loss of income and profits—than those who receive it. And these organized groups of providers and profiteers have so many strings connecting them to key members of Congress that even those who would like to vote for some sort of reform are reluctant to bite the proverbial hand that feeds them.

Then, on top of everything else, assuming at least the Democrats in Congress--really in the Senate—can come up with something, anything about which they can agree, they have to round up 60 votes to get it to the floor for consideration and an up-or-down vote. Theoretically they have those 60 votes from just among themselves—if independent Senators Sanders and Lieberman vote with them and they can literally wheel onto the floor of the Senate the gravely ill Senators Byrd and Kennedy.

(See the linked New York Times article for a fuller discussion of some of these issues.)

But both President Obama and Democratic leaders in the Senate want the ultimate bill to have bipartisan support. Not just because that is a nice thing to strive for—a sort of congressional kumbaya moment—but because that would cloak it with the cover of joint ownership and provide political protection for those who wind up supporting something that no matter what anyone tells you is not ever going to be fully paid for and will likely require some sort of rationing of medical services and, God help us, taxing a portion of healthcare benefits (now non-taxable) for at least those couples earning several hundreds of thousand of dollars a year. So no one wants to be out on a political limb by him or herself. It is not exactly profiles-in-courage time in the U.S. Senate.

I know I am oversimplifying things; but to try to discuss any aspect of this dispassionately and in a non-partisan way, it must be oversimplified because the current system and all the proposed reforms are too complicated for anyone to understand much less adequately summarize or put a price tag on.

But one thing about which I am certain, and which I fully understand, is that to have any chance of moving a healthcare bill along without a firestorm of partisan filibustering and gridlock for the next four years will require a so-called 60-vote supermajority.

Though I do not understand why the Senate imposed this extra-constitutional straightjacket on itself. Well, let me correct myself, I actually do understand how it happened—

It used to be that to carry out a filibuster a senator had to speak continuously until the rest of the Senate gave up on a piece of legislation or the filibustering senator collapsed. Think of the Jimmy Stewart character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But in 1919, at the request of President Wilson, the Senate passed Rule Number XXII. This allows debate to be cut off, cloture, with only a 60-vote majority rather than the 67 required prior to that. But, and this is significant here, under this rule, just the threat of a veto requires a 60 vote supermajority. Only one senator announcing that that he or she will engage in a filibuster triggers the 60-vote requirement.

So, in recent super-partisan years pretty much every significant piece of legislation to move forward has required 60 votes in the Senate. A daunting task since rarely does one party have 60 votes of its own. And if they do, as now, it is nearly impossible to get all 60 to agree to anything. As someone said, to get votes in the Senate is like herding cats. Thus, ironically, this rule, which was designed to help move legislation along, has made it even more difficult to do so.

Which brings us to healthcare-reform limbo.

There is, though, a way out of this quagmire—something called Reconciliation. A sleight-of-hand that the Senate majority leader can use to break gridlock. It is intended to allow a so-called “contentious budget bill” to be considered for a vote, after only 20 hours of debate, without being subject to a filibuster.

Don’t struggle with this one too much, but trust me that a healthcare reform bill could be labeled by the majority leader as a bill of this kind and it would then not be ruled by either an old-fashioned or new-fashioned Rule XXII filibuster. It would require just a simple, 51-vote majority. Or a 50-50 vote with Joe Biden, as Vice President, constitutionally able to break the tie—the VP’s only functional constitutional role. And, thus, we would have healthcare reform of some kind. And an energy bill and an education bill and an immigration bill and . . .

But we won’t. The Democrats are afraid to use Reconciliation because they know it would signal the end of the little bipartisanship that currently exists; and, perhaps more important, it would set a precedent for Republicans for when they return to power, as they some day surely will, to ram things down Democrats’ throats.

Which brings me to one of my least-favorite senators—Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. You may know him as the diminutive senator pretty much joined at John McCain’s hip during the recent presidential campaign. At the Sotomayor hearings last week, though one might have excepted Graham to oppose her confirmation (he may still do so), he said that “Elections have consequences,” including the last one; and that presidents should have their way when it comes to appointing judges.

He though didn’t go on to say that these consequences should also allow administrations to have their way when it corms to significant legislation such as healthcare reform. But still, this got me thinking—Why not?

If this were Great Britain or France or Spain, their chief executive would also be the leader of the majority party and the parliamentary system is such that he or she would have little trouble enacting the programs for which they campaigned and for which people voted. I know well the history of the framers of our Constitution, and how more than almost anything else, concerned about the tyranny they abhorred and recently fought to overcome, how they wanted not to allow the government they were establishing to have much concentrated ruling power. Thus all they did to lace myriad checks-and-balances into the structure of our federal institutions.

That was then—and it was a good and understandable and profound idea; but this is now and the system that made so much sense then makes very little now. We live in an interconnected world where information and money and threats move in nano-seconds at the speed of light, a world in which an intentionally hobbled governmental system such as ours does not allow us to be light on our feet or to respond nimbly and wisely to opportunities and crises. Call me a pre-revolutionary American Tory, but I think we should have a Constitutional Convention and rethink the system we have and consider bringing it fully into the 21st century.

Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20, 2009--Mid-Coast: Search Dog

We were in town and after morning coffee wandered from store to store tracking down items we had on our shopping list. The weather was cooler than I had anticipated and since I hadn’t packed enough warm clothing I wanted to stop in Reny’s to see if they had any fleece vests on sale or maybe a couple of long sleeve pullovers. Then Rona planned to make buttermilk biscuits but since the house we were renting did not have a baking sheet she thought maybe we’d find one, also at Reny’s. And tucked away back of the parking lot on the east side of Main Street there was a small, very personal shop that among other gourmet items and local fresh herbs carried crusty sourdough bread that we had tried late last week and since it went well with the fish dishes we had been preparing, we thought we’d buy another loaf. And of course we needed to pick up the Times and the weekly county paper. They were available in the Book Shed and while Rona was paying I could rummage among books that were remaindered. Up here one could never have enough to read.

We then crossed back to the parking lot by the harbor where we had parked because I was anxious that we might be in danger of getting a ticket. We were in a two-hour zone and I had been warned that the police had stepped up their enforcement, chalking tires with abandon because, in the current economic climate, unwilling to raise taxes to pay for dwindling town services they were raising money by pouncing on any car that was parked for even a few minutes beyond the limit.

But Rona said relax, we’re on vacation, that we still have lots of time so why rush when there were a few other things we needed to get done. She had spotted a gift shop and wanted to look for birthday cards to send to friends and family members who have August birthdays. Cards appropriate for the occasion but maybe with a Midcoast theme. She wasn’t thinking about anything with lobsters embossed on them but maybe there were some nice note cards with starfish or sailboats. Salty but not too kitschy. “Don’t worry so much about the car. It will still be there when we're done. This isn't Manhattan. They won't tow it away. We’re here to unwind after a rough May and June.”

It had been a difficult time. We were struggling along with a few people close to us who have serious illnesses. They were thankfully doing much better now, but it had been harrowing earlier. In spite of this, clearly Maine was not as yet working its wonders on me. Nonetheless I said, at least half-meaning it that I was in fact determined to seek inner peace, “I am getting there. But, you’re right. I do need to relax more.” I caught myself acknowledging that and quickly added, “But I am. I am becoming calm. Really.” Rona looked at me with understandable skepticism. And to demonstrate how I was more laid back I said, “Why don’t you look at the cards and I’ll hang out here on the street and look through the paper in the sun. The sun is good.”

“That’s fine,” Rona said, “but I don’t call reading the New York Times exactly being relaxed. Even in the sun. All you’ll find there is bad news about the economy, the Middle East, healthcare, and everything else. But do what you want.”

“But,” I protested, “I’ve got the local paper and it’s full of all sorts of good community news. Like book talks and farmers’ markets.” I didn’t tell her that the lead story was about a 72 year-old man who had been killed on US 1 when he crashed his motorcycle into the back of a pickup.

“Whatever,” she said and disappeared into the shop.

I hung out there, facing the sun, thinking more about what a 72 year-old was doing riding a motorcycle on Route 1 than about tomorrow’s farmer’s market, where there was hope that the first local corn would finally be available. Should someone that age be out on a Harley? Then again, maybe that’s the way to go.

While lost in these less-than-calming thoughts I noticed, coming down the street toward me, a man with what looked like a seeing-eye dog. But as he got closer it was clear that the man was not blind—I could tell that by how he was checking out things on the street and in the stores that they were passing. Perhaps he’s training him, I then thought. Though that seemed unusual for a small town. I had only seen dogs of this kind in cities. But that’s in part why we are here—to have some new experiences. Relaxing ones, I reminded myself.

As they drew closer I could see that the dog was wearing a bright yellow plastic vest; and when they were just a few yards away I could read printed on it, on both sides--Search Dog. The New Yorker in me was immediately drawn back to 9/11 when police departments from up and down the east coast had sent dogs of this kind to help find survivors buried in the rubble and then later, after things turned even more hopeless, body parts.

But since I was trying not to allow myself to continue to be mired in thoughts of this kind, to the man who I assumed was his handler, with some awkwardness, avoiding even a hint of anything disturbing or grim, I said as brightly as I could, “Is he looking for me?”

With barely a glance and without a word they passed right by me and I was left to watch them work their way up the street. I noticed that they both had the same deliberate gate, as if practicing stepping over dangerous piles of rubble from a bombing or a . . . But I quickly, just as was instructed to do, cut that thought short and leafed through the paper to see again what they were reporting about what would be in this week’s farmer’s market. The first black currents, I noticed. Maybe Rona would turn them into a compote that I could then use as a marinade for some nice broiled loin lamb chops with . . .”

When I looked up again, still straining to stay in sunlight, I saw the policeman and the dog working their way back in my direction. Clearly training was going on, I was relieved to realize, and that they were not searching for a lost or kidnapped child, or anything tragic like that. And this time the trainer allowed the dog to come up to me and give me a good sniffing. Not in my crotch, which most non-search-dog dogs would do, but more my trouser cuffs, socks, and shoes.

“You asked if he was looking for you. Right?” I nodded. “Well, if it’s all right with you I thought I would have him search for you.”

I was confused, “But he’s found me, no?” I pointed down at him where he was giving me a good going over. “How would he search for me since he’s already found me?”

“You see how he’s sniffin’ at your pants leg? He’ll now remember that. From that he’ll remember you. And, again if you’re willin’, we’ll head back that way,” he pointed way up the street, “and then when you’re done that paper—nothin’ much good in there to tell you the truth—you can go wherever you want in town, you can even hide if you want to. Actually, that’d be good. And then in about 15 minutes or so, I’ll have him search for you. To see how well he’s doin’ at that. We just got him and are trainin’ him. To tell you the truth, he’s not comin’ along all that well. So this would be good for him. how does that sound to you?”

I very much liked the idea and said, “Sure. Sounds like fun and maybe it will be helpful. He looks like quite a nice fella.”

I bent to pat his head but his handler stepped in to stop me. “One thing—no one who isn’t workin’ him should ever touch him. It only confuses things. Understood?”

“Yes. Sure. Sorry. My wife’s in the store and as soon as she comes out we’ll go and hide somewhere. Is that OK? I mean hiding?”

“Like I said, whatever you want. If he gets trained proper I can’t tell you the kinds of things we’ll be havin’ him doing.”

I very much wanted to know but Rona later will be proud of me for again retraining myself from asking. I was under orders to stay away from these kinds of disturbing matters.

“You know,” I added, half-kidding, “I’ve been trying to find myself for years. Maybe this will help with that.”

Clearly he either didn’t understand my pseudo-existentialist comment or in fact did and thought it not worthy of response. And thus, for whatever reason, without another word they headed back up the street and I folded up the paper, very eager now for Rona to finish her shopping. I thought the only things remaining on our list were the cards and that as soon as she came out we could spend the full 15 minutes hiding ourselves.

My first thought was to find a place down by the dock where they bring in all the fish. It would be full of conflicting smells and thus would be a good test for the dog. But as I thought about this I realized maybe Rona wouldn’t like what I had agreed to do, feeling that I, with my aggressive big-city ways, had imposed myself on the policeman. Her style was more to fit in by not making us too obvious, too seemingly eager to meet and befriend people. Especially local people who were welcoming to outsiders but also were clear about wanting to maintain a separation between themselves and us. At least on initial encounter. And if she felt this way about what I had agreed to, she would be more than half right.

So maybe, I thought, I wouldn’t tell Rona what happened. That I would say, “You know we never walked along the docks. Since it’s a nice morning, maybe we should do that.” And then whatever happened or didn’t happen with the dog I would deal with. After the fact. I felt that it was at best fifty-fifty that they would find us, I mean me--that the handler had said the dog wasn’t doing very well--and that if they didn’t, as I expected they wouldn’t—especially if I could find us a good hiding place--I would have nothing to explain to Rona. If they did, I would hem and haw and then eventually say wasn’t it cool. I felt sure she would come around to that. After all, she liked dogs, though she would be frustrated that she wouldn’t be allowed to pat him.

And with that Rona bounced out of the shop and rejoined me on the street, excitedly showing me a box of note cards she had bought with tasteful pictures on them of various seascapes. Very nice. Not at all tacky. Since she was in such a good mood, I suggested a walk down by the boats. She said that sounded nice and off we went.

It was midmorning and there was very little activity. The fishing and lobster boats had set out much earlier and wouldn’t return for some hours. As we passed through the parking lot to get to the moorings, I had some fleeting anxiety again about our car but put that quickly aside since I was now on a mission to help with searches and rescues.

After a few minutes, Rona stated the obvious, “There’s not much going on here. Maybe we should come back one afternoon when the boats come in and we could even buy some fresh fish or lobsters.”

“That sounds like a good idea to me. But let’s walk a little further. There’s a pile of nets I wouldn’t mind checking out.” I was stalling for time and also thought that behind the smelly nets would be a good place to hide.

“I don’t know what it is with you and fishing nets,” Rona said, reminding me that whenever we are anywhere in a port, here or overseas, I seem to have this fascination with nets.

Again, seeking to buy time, I ruminated out loud about this peculiar interest of mine. “I don’t know why. I think it may be because when I was a kid my father used to like to take us to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, down by the fishing piers, and we would wander around among the boats and stalls. I remember fantasizing about working on one of those boats. Hauling nets or something. For some reason this always . . .”

“You know, it’s getting late. We have some things in the car that we should be putting into the refrigerator. We can come back here another time. And you can visit your nets.”

“You know how most kids like me back then dreamed about being firemen and . . .”

“You mean boys.”

“Yes, boys, and . . .”

I interrupted myself because, as Rona and I were going back and forth about my fascination with fishing nets, up toward the street, just beginning to turn down toward the docks I spotted a glint of yellow—the sun’s reflection off the search dog’s vest. He was clearly sniffing his way along, leading his handler right toward us.

I grabbed hold of Rona’s sleeve and began to pull her toward the mountain of fishing nets. “What are you doing?” Rona squealed. “You’re tugging on my sleeve.”

“I know. Sorry. I just want to get a closer look at those nets. I’ve never seen any like them.”

“I think you’re crazy. I thought Maine would have a good effect on you, a calming one; but now look at . . .”

“Please, just this once, let’s take a look at these. Trust me they’re really special.” Rolling her eyes up in her head Rona relented and followed me behind the pile. I pretended to scrutinize them while she stood aloof with her arms folded, impatiently tapping her foot.

Even though I was bent low, out of the tops of my eyes I could see her waiting, aggravated but indulgent, while I pretended to examine the floats on the nets, crouching ever lower and lower. I was trying to curl up into a ball to better hide myself.

But huddling as I was against the nets, thinking I had successfully made myself virtually invisible, as they drew even closer, I could also not fail to see the search dog and his handler.

They came to a stop a few yards from me and the dog promptly sat on his haunches. I had expected he would leap at me, growl, and then bite at my trouser cuffs. But he and the policeman remained where they were, totally still, without moving closer.

What I was really up to was about to be exposed to Rona and thus I began fumbling in my mind to concoct an explanation and also what I was certain would need to be a seemingly-sincere apology.

“Did you find yourself yet?”

“What was that?” Rona said, more confused than I. After all I at least knew what they and I had been up to.

“Oh, nothing,” I said with as much matter-of-factness as I could muster.

“Nothing? But didn’t you hear what he said?”

“Not really,” I lied.

She turned to them for conformation about what she had clearly heard, but they had already retraced most of their steps back up toward the street.

“Well, I never,” Rona said, exasperated.

I didn’t right then try to explain anything or look directly at her, but promised myself that when we were back at the house and all the groceries were safely away, I would tell her the whole story. Or at least I though I would.

Friday, July 17, 2009

July 17, 2009--Speak Capably, Say Little

This is the advice for their Senate conformation hearings Supreme Court nominees have been given since at least 1987 when Ronald Regan's nominee Robert Bork got, well, borked--beat up and rejected. (See New York Times article linked below.)

Sonia Sotomayor took this advice so well to heart that after four days of hearings I know nothing more about her than I did a month ago. And that's too bad.

This bright, tough-minded, complicated, aggressive, and yes passionate and empathetic person came across as so vapid, so numbingly boring that while watching the hearings on TV I kept falling asleep. And not only when Arlen Specter was droning on. Rather, during Judge Sotomayor herself's so-called answers. And to tell the truth, news and political junkie that I am, I couldn't watch more than a total of a couple of hours of it.

What has brought us to this point? Years ago these hearings were feisty, intelligent interchanges between Senators who actually know something about the Constitution and the law and nominees who were distinguished legal scholars, judges with noteworthy records of published opinions, or political leaders of substance. Not all, to be sure, but enough to make one, after listening to or reading about the hearings, feel that the person about to join the Supreme Court, agree with him or not, was a person of thought and gravitas.

But then President Reagan nominated Robert Bork and everything changed. Within literally 45 minutes of that nomination, Senator Ted Kennedy took to the floor of the Senate and said--

Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is -- and is often the only -- protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy... President Reagan is still our president. But he should not be able to reach out from the muck of Irangate, reach into the muck of Watergate and impose his reactionary vision of the Constitution on the Supreme Court and the next generation of Americans. No justice would be better than this injustice.

Bork went on not to be confirmed by a vote of 42 to 58. And now we have hearings like the one that was held this week with the Senators posturing and pontificating while the nominee declined in a monotone to say anything specific about even her own record of decisions; and she was so over-coached that she spoke relentlessly in generalities and wound up effectively disavowing who she was and is. I know the drill--she is a shoe-in to be confirmed and didn't want to screw anything up.

She is in fact an unusual post-Bork nominee--she has been a federal judge for so many years that she has participated in about 3,000 decisions, a record Democratic senators couldn't restrain themselves from proudly pointing out at least 20 times, making sure everyone knew that we haven't seen anyone this experienced in "almost 100 years" (actually 80)--because others nominated since that ugly Bork battle have been so uncontroversial (with the exception of Clarence Thomas who was credibly accused of being a sexual harasser) that there is nothing much on the record about which to pick them apart. It is as though these jurists from the time they left law school began dreaming about one day being nominated to the Supreme Court; and, with Bork in mind, spent decades avoiding doing or saying anything, forget controversial, anything about the hot subjects that could get them in trouble during a confirmation hearing. They have been exquisitely careful not to lay down any tracks about what they might think, or worse rule, regarding abortion, affirmative action, judicial activism, privacy, sexuality, executive privilege, gun rights, or the death penalty.

This I can live with--it is not appropriate to say much about specific issues that are likely to come before the court. But shouldn't the senators and the rest of us at least get a glimpse of a nominee's quality of mind, how she or he thinks about a complicated subject, how philosophically they would approach and interpret the Constitution? A little sharing of one's intellectual history and core values would be good to know about.

What a week of civics lessons that would have been. A refresher course on the Constitution and the institutions that are at the heart of this nation. How laws are made and interpreted and reinterpreted. The shifting relationship between the government and the people. In other words, a sprightly debate at the highest level of discourse--just what we should expect from the people who represent us.

But then the Congress and the media would not have had the gotcha opportunity to talk and ruminate endlessly about what she really meant when she said that being Latina gave her a valuable perspective on cases that have come before her and whether or not she has a "temperament" problem of the sort that Lindsey Graham patronizingly said she needs to "work on."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

July 16, 2009--Make Believe You're Osama bin Laden

Offline yesterday, in response to my blog posting about how the Bush administration is not telling the truth when they continue to claim that they kept us safe for the full eight years they were in office (9/11 happened on their watch seven and a half months into their first term), one of my best and smartest friends gave me a lot a grief, saying that because the Clinton administration for five years prior to that knew about the al Qaeda threats while Bush at worst only knew about them for seven months, Clinton was therefore 87% responsible for the attack on America and Bush bore only 13% of the blame. And therefore by blog was “unfit to line [his] bird cage.”

I responded, saying that his ratio of percentages showed that math can sometimes obscure the truth, sometimes “numbers lie”—they are not always objective and absolute: what they apply to counts a lot. And no matter what Clinton failed to do—he at best carried out some “pinprick” attacks on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden--Bush and Cheney and his daughter Liz are simply not telling anything resembling the whole truth.

I went on in my blog to claim that the Cheneys right now are scrambling to sell their version of revisionist history because Cheney has recently been exposed in the act of perhaps committing a crime—authorizing the formation of a secret assassination squad to go after “suspected terrorists” (note the “suspected”) and ordering the CIA not to inform Congress about it, which is required by federal law.

Not so subtly, though not admitting to this directly, Dick and Liz Cheney are justifying this potential law breaking because, at the time, we were in a national crisis, we were at war against a stealthy enemy who didn’t pay by the rules, and thus in order to “keep us safe for eight years” (their direct quote) we had to do some equally stealthy, “black” things. If we had told Congress, they have been implying, noting how traditionally leaky members are, news of this assassination unit would have been published on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. Remember the Pentagon Papers.

OK, let’s grant them that. A member of Congress, undoubtedly a liberal (though conservatives who believe in the Constitution and the supremacy of law should be the first to be criticizing these practices) would have leaked the news about the hit squad to the press and it would have appeared above the fold in blaring headlines. Osama bin Laden (still at large after eight years of Bush-Cheney and almost six months of Barack Obama—I suppose my friend would thus say this is 16-times more Bush’s fault than Obama’s), OBL, it was feared by Cheney, would see this in his cave-delivered copies of the Post and Times and say, “Wow, the CIA has this new operation. I’m probably their prime target. If I don’t want to be killed by them I had better be even more careful than in the past.”

A few things—Doesn’t bin Laden already have a pretty good record of keeping himself safe even though he and everyone else knows that the U.S. government has placed a $50 million cash bounty on his head? And, if you were bin Laden wouldn’t you also know, since at least 1998 when Bill Clinton went after you with cruise missiles in Afghanistan, that the U.S. military as well as the CIA has been hunting for you? And if bin Laden hadn’t been paying attention didn’t he hear, after September 11th, the famous swaggered comment by George Bush about bringing him in “dead or alive”?

So what would be the big deal if Bush and Cheney had obeyed the law and informed Congress of this charge to the CIA? Even if it were leaked. Didn’t the Black September terrorists who killed 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics know Israel had this kind of assignation squad, and that even with this knowledge they couldn’t protect themselves? All but one have thus far been hunted down and killed.

From this experience, knowing how the CIA for many years bungled their attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, rather than foolishly, as the Bush administration did, turn the capture of bin Laden over to the Afghanis, shouldn’t they instead have hired the Israeli Mossad? In fact, if they had done so they could even have informed Congress because it would not have made a difference—though the Times would learn about it and publish the news, bin Laden would by now be dead.

Now that would be an example of keeping us safe.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

July 15, 2009--"Safe For Eight Years"

The obvious needs restating—The Bush administration did not “keep us safe for eight years.” This requires restatement because his vice president, Dick Cheney, and his daughter, Liz Cheney, among others, have been scampering about the media again lately making that bogus claim.

Rather than the full eight-year assertion, if you exclude the thousands of those killed and maimed in two wars of choice, at best they kept us safe seven years, four months, and two weeks. This was a good thing, of course, but they failed to protect America during their first seven and a half months in office. And that counts. Big time.

To say, as Bush administration officials continue to claim that they did what they did to keep us safe for all of the eight years they were in office is to forget September 11, 2001. By that time they had been in office for many months, had been adequately warned that we were about to be attacked by al Qaeda, but then failed to keep at least 3,000 of us safe. The ones murdered on that fateful day.

The Cheneys are now running around attempting to revise history because the former VP is above the fold again (see linked New York Times article) since Leon Panetta, the CIA director, recently disclosed that Dick Cheney himself ordered the CIA not to inform Congress about a secret assassination project that he wanted the CIA to carry out. An operation that would allow them, in spite of the U.S. law that forbids covert operations of this kind, to track down and kill suspected terrorists.

This is not just a headline because of the content of the CIA unit’s assignment, assignations—an assignment they apparently bungled the way John Kennedy and his brother Bobby failed to have the CIA murder Fidel Castro—this is an important story because the CIA by U.S. law is required to inform Congress about operations of this kind. Thus, Dick Cheney, if all of this is true, may have violated the law.

The Cheneys frantic defense is that we were in continuous imminent danger and that the Bush administration needed to do all sorts of extraordinary things to protect us. Thus they got Congress to authorize quasi-constitutional surveillance programs, held so-called “enemy combatants” without trial in Guantánamo, tortured prisoners, and who knows what else. All were required, they say, to keep us safe. Again, failing totally to mention how we were not kept safe during the first eight months of their administration.

We can argue reasonably about the need to listen into cell phone and email traffic among the bad guys, or what rights detainees at Gitmo should have, and even about the alleged need to employ “enhanced interrogation techniques” to gather real-time information about soon-to-be-carried-out acts of terrorism. And, I’ll grant you, it may, reluctantly, be appropriate at times to keep certain things from a leaky Congress.

But, and it is an enormous but, though Americans have a short attention span, and seem to have little interest in even recent history, one thing we know, and about which there is no dispute, hard as it may have been to protect us on 9/11, Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Liz did not then keep us safe.

Consider the obvious restated.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

July 14, 2009--Attila the Hun

“Above all,” we were told shortly before arriving at our cottage, “don’t call me or the town highway officials about the road. We like it just the way it is. We just let nature take its course here.”

This admonition seemed strange. Why wouldn’t folks want the road leading up to their houses to be in good repair? We had never heard of anyone actually preferring things to be in disrepair. But for two months right on the coast of Maine we could put up with pretty much anything. We had heard that there was a deep strain of eccentricity among Mainers and thought perhaps this was just an example of local color. Isn’t that part of what’s involved in “getting away from it all”?

But then as we turned off onto Loop Road, a hilly, twisting version of a gravel road that threaded its way among a scattering of shorefront homes, after a record wet spring and early summer, we saw what nature taking its course could do to a surface of unmaintained dirt and aggregate.

The twin tracks that had been cut into the surface by years of use and benign neglect were also further pitted at every turning point. And though it hadn’t rained for a few days, all of these holes were filled axle-deep with standing water. Our rented Hyundai, decidedly not an off-road vehicle, slid down the sides of these mini-ponds and jolted side to side as we inched forward, glad to be tightly belted in so as to keep us from slamming as we bounced along into the doors and windshield. Fortunately our house was only a few hundred yards down this battered road but it caused us to wonder as we approached it if it too might have been left to the forces of nature and thus we would finding standing water not just on the grounds but also in the living and bedrooms.

We skidded into our driveway and were glad to notice it was smooth, level, and dry. All good signs. And the cottage, full of authentic charm, was perfect. Sighing with relief, we hugged each other to celebrate our good fortune—we had rented this place sight unseen after making only a “virtual tour” on a real estate broker’s website; and after experiencing the Loop, not a part of that tour, felt fortunate that the place was in such good shape. We would only need to go out to town or to explore the area once or twice a day and would somehow figure out how to negotiate the road. Maybe, I thought, I’ll be able to skirt some of the deeper ruts and holes by driving on the road’s margins or dodging some of them by weaving my way around those that might cause the car to bottom out and tear up the muffler or transmission. I could always call Avis for a tow if all else failed. Or turn in the Hyundai for a Subaru. Or, not very Maine, a Hummer.

As we were unloading the car a neighbor who was walking on the Loop with his golden retriever, stopped to nod hello, smiling I think more at our car than at all the luggage and cases of wine we had brought with us. Was he thinking that we weren’t being sufficiently, New Englandly minimalist or was he more likely amused at the thought of us trying to get by with a vehicle more suitable for short hops in cities or suburbs than along the rugged shore on the Pine Tree State, whose motto is Dirigo, I direct?

Later in the day, after settling in, though we planned to do lots of cooking in the spacious and well-equipped kitchen, without food yet in the house, we both needed and wanted to go to one of the local fishermen’s co-ops for a couple of lobsters and a few ears of corn that we knew we could eat at dockside in the setting sun. This of course meant we would have to make our way back up the road to get to the highway that would take us to Muscongus Harbor. It would be, I felt, an opportunity to try my drive-on-the-margins-weave among-and-between-the-potholes strategy. Might as well get right to it. So off we ventured.

It worked pretty well except when I got close to top of the steepest incline, where I not only needed to keep from sliding back down but simultaneously had to turn sharply to the right, just as I was about to successfully coordinate these moves we were jolted almost out of our seats when the car slammed into a boulder that was protruding from the road, right by the margin I was headed for to avoid a series of deep ruts.

The exhaust system seemed still to be intact and the gears were still shifting so I hadn’t caved in the transmission and I made careful note that next time we went out I would take great pains to find an alternate course up and over that hill. In fact, when returning from dinner I would have an opportunity to do so. No wine for me, I said, I need full concentration when we head home.

The food, the setting, the sunset were just as we had hoped and imagined; but all the while I was cracking lobster claws and struggling to extract the last morsels of sweet meat, a part of me was distracted, thinking about the Loop and that boulder.

I said to Rona, “I don’t want to rush you, but it’s starting to get dark and I’d really prefer not to have to . . .”

Without my having to finish the sentence Rona was up off the picnic table bench and heading toward the car. We drove in silence with the windows half down though it was chilly. The car filled with the scent of pine and briny air. It would be the end of a perfect day if only I would be able to get us home without . . .

I tuned slowly into the Loop and eased the car forward, avoiding all of the worst of the ruts and water-filled holes as I approached the top of the hill, which I then needed to get us to descend. I remembered the boulder was on the right when we left but also remembered that there looked like a clear margin next to it that I might be able to use in order to avoid the stone itself. It wasn’t protruding, I recalled, more than three or four inches and I could get the car to clear it if I managed not to have us bouncing as I steered a little off to the side of the road. I slowed to less than walking speed and got us in just the right alignment to avoid another frame-wrenching encounter.

With the boulder traversed, the rest was simple—just swing right a bit and allow the slope of the natural hill to guide us to the bottom. It wasn’t that steep, now that I was heading down it a second time, and though the gravel was loose I had control. Here I was already allowing myself to be guided by the natural pitch of the hill—nature taking its course, as the locals might say, was now working for us.

At the bottom of the hill, before making a final left turn as the road approached our driveway, I slowed down even further for a moment to take stock of the situation, to chart the best course for my final hundred yards; and as I was doing so, in my rearview mirror, I caught sight of a rather massive women, with hands on both her hips, up by the boulder, glaring down at me. I could see that clearly as the last of the setting sun poured light directly onto her face, illuminating her eyes which I could distinctly see, in fury, were bearing down on me.

I couldn’t imagine why. More eccentricity? Having a bad day? Who really cared. I was at the end of a good day and I looked forward to making a fire to take the chill out of the house, have some wine now that we were safely off the roads, and crawl into the sumptuous bed stacked with quilts. Again, just what we had been hoping for. I slept without even one disturbing dream.

The next morning, as were heading out to get some coffee, the same neighbor who the afternoon before had been out walking his dog, was in the road and this time he didn’t just nod but stopped to say hello and welcome us. “I see you met Attila the Hun last night.”

Without our caffeine neither Rona nor I are much good that early and so I muttered something, though still trying to sound friendly. “Up there where she lives.” He pointed up toward the top of the hill. “That’s what I call her, Attila. She owns that big house right there at the top. A monstrosity don’t you think?” I didn’t say anything though I did agree it was out of character for the area. But I didn’t want to get into the middle of any feuds—we were here for only two months and wanted to have peace and quiet. “Never should have let her build that place. Looks to me like a pile of junk.” He laughed to himself at that. So heartily that he soon was racked with coughs.

When he regained his breath, he winked and said, “Drove right onto her property last night didn’t you?” He was standing behind our car so there was no way we could, as neighborly as possible, simply get in and drive away. “I saw that.” My heart began to race, thinking I had violated some Maine trespass law and that our stay here was going to turn into a nightmare—I tend to have these dramatic thoughts early in the morning before I’ve had my coffee.

As I was about to try to explain, he waved at me, ”You didn’t do nothing wrong. We all do it.”

“What’s that?” I finally managed to say.

“To get ‘round that big boulder, just like you did, we have to swing a little toward her place. We’re not doing any trespassing,” he had sensed my concern, “You see we all own parts of this road. Like where you’re staying, you own half the road in front of your place and I own the other half. There’s a property line drawn right down the middle.” He pointed at the muddy road, squinting as if to be able to better see the actual line.

“You mean this isn’t a town road? But it has an official-looking street sign and everything.”

“Well, it is and it isn’t. It is but it’s up to us to take care of it. Such as it is.” He pointed, smiling, to all the ruts and holes where we were standing. “You’re wondering, I know, why if we’re responsible for taking acre of that it looks like this. And it’s not because we had so much rain these last few months. Record amounts. It’s ‘cause we like it this way. Sort of natural. But it also slows us down. We want that. What’s the rush? Where you’re trying to get to that’s so important?”

“But if you own this half of the road doesn’t that mean that she owns half of the road by her place?”

“That’s true.”

“Is that why she seemed so angry at us last night? Because we were driving on her piece of the road?”

“That may or may not be true. Though we all own parts of the Loop we and anyone else is allowed to drive it. Like I said, it’s a public road, though we own it. It’s one of those Maine things.” He smiled even more broadly.

“But why do you call her what you called her?”

“You mean Attila the Hun?” I nodded. “Well, she is. She’s the meanest thing in the whole Midcoast. Don’t know what’s her problem. She’s got all the money she’ll ever needs. And though I hate that pile of stuff she calls a house, it’s a big place and worth a fortune, even in these times. She’s also got a bunch of nice kids. All married well and happy. But this is just the way she is. ‘Specially about what she thinks of as her property. Why none of us could get up that hill there without breaking an axle without driving just the way you did last night. I saw you. What you did was all fine and perfectly legal. But she just has a you-know-what up her you-know-what.” He laughed at that again and the fierce coughing resumed. His dog starting barking and he said he’d see us again and, moving aside, let us get into the car and pull out onto the road.

Over coffee I said to Rona that as a little project, while we’re here, why don’t we try to be friendly with Attila. Rona looked at me skeptically as if to say, “We’re here for a short time. These kinds of things here go back years, maybe decades, and so what makes you think you can befriend her? Who needs any aggravation? Just drive up and down the hill as you heard you’re allowed to do and ignore her.”

“Well, I want to try,” I said, reading her thoughts. Rona just smiled at me and shrugged.

Wouldn’t you know it but I had my chance almost immediately when we returned to the Loop after breakfast and stocking up with groceries.

As we approached the hill I slowed down to get us onto the right trajectory and saw her standing there like a sentinel with her ample legs apart and her hands again on her hips. As I steered the car up onto the margin near her, to avoid the boulder, when I felt we were on the right track, I looked up at her—she was no more than a few feet from the car and my window—and with enough coffee in my system to make me feel alert and civil, I looked right at her, smiled, and waved.

In a moment frozen in time, stolid and immobile, she stood there looking back at me with a proverbial if-looks-could-kill glare. As we slid by, when we reached the bottom, Rona, with a sly smile, as if to herself, said, “Quite a project. Quite a little project.”