Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ayatollahs, Imams, Mullahs and God

I charged up the old cell phone, cozied up next to the land line on my desk and dialed God's unlisted number (see earlier post for the technical explanation). There were a number of clicks, some static, a faint whirring and finally a gender-neutral voice that sounded like Joan London channeling James Earl Jones.

"Hello, Boots." It was God. "I've been expecting a call from you.

"What happened to your receptionist," I inquired?

"Oh, that job is handled by a revolving crew. Answering my line for eternity is very boring so we try to rotate every billion years or so with the harpists. We're smack dab in the middle of a crew change so I'm doing my part to make things go smoothly. Besides, I knew it was you. Your antique Nokia phone creates a distinctive ring."

"So, what's on your mind." God likes to cut to the chase, none of that "How's your mom an' em" small talk. Besides, God already knows how your mom an' em are.

I told God that I had been following the Iranian Election dust-up pretty closely and was wondering about Heaven's take on the situation.

"Well, first of all, there are quite a few of those Iranian clerics who are in for some really, really unpleasant surprises when their numbers come up. I've got my nether world emissary arranging for some unique treatment. Satan takes great delight when we send down special requests. It gets the old boy's creative punishment juices boiling. I hear that there will be some virgins involved but certainly not in the way that those clerics day-dream about, heh, heh." God can generate a wicked little chuckle.

I noted that much of what the clerical leaders throughout the Middle East say and do, they say and do in the name of God; "Allah Akbar" and all that.

"And, that," said God, "is where they get their collective beards in the wringer. I defy anyone, cleric, theologian, Jew, Muslim, Christian or Oral Roberts to point to a place where I purportedly say it's O.K. to kill innocent people in the street. Ridiculous."

"The underlying problem,' God continued, "is that throughout the history of the earth, at least since humans have been around, some of them have tried to put words in my mouth. They do O.K. for awhile but eventually they botch it up big time. For instance, I never sent Saul and his army to slaughter all of the men, women and children of Amalek. How stupid is that? That was some man's agenda. I'm not about the wanton slaughter of innocent people."

"Muhammad didn't do any better in keeping some silly stuff out of the Koran," God continued. "Of course, if one hangs out in the Arabian desert for years and years all by your lonesome, one is likely to write some weird stuff. He was no exception."

I told God that I was confused by many of the Muslim titles and names that get bandied about in the press. I wondered what the differences were between an ayatollah, an imam and a mullah.

"Beats me," said God. "That just more of that man-made foolishness. One is either truly trying to be holy or not. As far as I'm concerned, it's far better not trying to be over-the-top holy and admit it than it is to slap a title onto your name indicating that you are particularly holy and then do a bunch of unholy things."

So, I observed, the differences are no greater than, say, than those between a preacher, a pastor and a priest.

"Pretty much," said God, "except, of course for the celibacy part, which, I'm pretty sure, the pastors and preachers want no confusion about whatsoever."

And, so, I continued, the differences between Sunni Muslims and Shi'ite Muslims are similar to the differences between Methodists and Episcopalians.

"Well, not exactly," said God. "Shi'ites try to kill Sunnis and vice versa because of some minor differences. Episcopalians and Methodists have minor differences, for instance, Episcopalians have nicer cars, but that rarely leads to gun play or beheadings."

"Look," said God, "it's not just the Muslims who let religious titles get out of hand. The Catholics are particularly culpable. They have padres, priests, deacons, monsignors, bishops, cardinals and a pope. Geesh. And, the more august the title, the sillier the hat. How would you like to sit behind the Pope on movie night at the Vatican Cinema 6?"

God seemed pretty steamed up so I tried to change the subject with a question about Joseph and Mary and the quality of their relationship once they had successfully dealt with the virgin birth deal.

"Hold on," said God, "I've got an urgent call from one of the parallel universes. We'll have to talk another time, Boots. Take good care."

The line went silent and I was alone with my thoughts. The "parallel universe" comment was intriguing and I intend to follow up on that subject.


Observoid of the Day: Although they both start with "A", the Appalachian Trail and Argentina are not the same thing but some folks apparently missed that day of geography class.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tree Bleeding, Volvo Hugging, Chardonnay Jerking, Pansy

It's come to my attention that some of my readers and not a small number of friends, acquaintances and enemies have labeled me (shudder) a Liberal. Most have done so with the thin lips and squinty eyes
associated with suspicious--some would say, "paranoid"--Conservatives. Without protesting overly much, let me adjust the lens and set the record slightly less ajar.

I have never once hugged a tree. Yes, yes, there was that time, tangled in snow ski bindings, poles and deep powder, that I used a tree to haul myself to a standing position. However, I never saw that particular tree again and we did not subsequently exchange Hallmark cards and breathy phone calls. Don't get me wrong, I certainly like a good tree, and there are many just outside my window, but I have no desire to hug one. In fact, in just the past month, I have directed that several of the really ugly, scrawny ones be taken down in favor of a more pleasing assemblage of ferns and such. The other, more elegant, surrounding trees seem pleased with the extra room and sunlight.

It's also true that in years gone by I owned a Volvo. This was back during the days when my children were car-seat bound and safety was a paramount concern. However, once Ford came along with their gas-guzzling Explorer, I went through a series of three of them, looking down with disdain from my high perch on the more lowly sedans, including the Volvo. I currently drive a Chevy SUV called the Equinox, a name that has celestial meanings unrelated to ground transportation. This is one of the reasons that GM has been nationalized--poor model naming. I must also confess that there is a 11-year old Saab in the garage. I tried to sell it several times but it is a hatchback 5-speed. Older drivers want four doors and younger ones can't drive a stick. I'm stuck.

I have been known to suck down the occasional chardonnay but I also enjoy Bordeaux, Italian reds, pinot grigio, mojitos (Hemingway's fav) and the ice cold Bud out of a long neck. I used to think that scotch was where it was at until it dawned on me that I really didn't want to be where it was at, or at least where too much scotch took me.

It should be clear by now that putting me into the Liberal pigeon hole is not entirely accurate. The question is, where do folks like me fit into the political bell curve, bracketed by Sean Penn on the wacko left and Sean Hannity on the nut-job right (I call this the Sean to Sean continuum).

As luck would have it, I recently came across a book review of Alan Wolfe's latest,
The Future of Liberalism, and it struck me that his description of a true liberal was eerily like me. This serendipitous discovery has allowed me to created a political label for myself that is neither too Sean nor too Sean; I am a Wolfesian.

Here, in brief, is what being a Wolfesian means:

1. I have a "sympathy for equality". This does not mean that I believe that the outcomes of people's lives will be equal or should be made to be equal. It does mean that, for those who want to try for better outcomes, artificial barriers should be eliminated so that they can have a go at it.

2. I have "an inclination to deliberate." Black and white solutions to social, political, religious and policy issues are exceeding rare. "You are either for us or you are against us" statements usually lead to poor outcomes instead of solutions. Most bumper stickers are evidence of narrow thinking and lack of deliberative thought. Real solutions printed on bumper stickers would lead to tailgating because the print would be so small.

3. I aspire to have "a commitment to tolerance" although I struggle with this one on occasion. There will many readers who will roll their eyes and think, perhaps aloud, "No joke, Sherlock." Go on, have your fun, I can handle it. I'm working through the 12-step tolerance program. However, in the end, I still won't be able to tolerate either Sean.

4. I "appreciate openness." This tendency toward candor, of course, has gotten me into much deep doo-doo over the years and is one of the reasons that I could never be elected to political office. Having lived in the South since 1972, however, I have learned the technique of being open with folks and then immediately soothing the sting so that they know that I have their very best interest at heart. An example: "No, those stretch pants don't make your butt look big, it's just that you have a big butt, bless your heart." See, honest but sympathetic.

5. I have "a disposition to grow." This is a reference to intellectual or knowledge growth. I have long since come to terms with the fact that I am never going to be taller. This ability to grow really means the ability to change my mind as I garner additional information. If I didn't do that, I would be stuck in some past ideological rut. Many of our elected officials seem tethered to ideologies from the past, ideologies that have been refuted with the illumination of additional information. This is true at both ends of the political bell curve, i.e. we didn't eliminate poverty by giving people money and the unmonitored financial free-market wasn't the holy grail of perpetual prosperity.

6. I have "a preference for realism." Here are some examples of conservative and liberal ideas that are not grounded in reality and so, either haven't worked or won't work.
(a) Promoting sexual abstinence will lower teen pregnancies and the spread of STDs. Posters in the classroom have no chance against raging hormones in the backseat. Bristol and Levi please step forward as Exhibit A. (b) Banning all privately-owned firearms will dramatically reduce gun violence in America. This Pollyanna dream will not be possible in a democratic society borne of a violent revolution. The independence and self-protection implications of owning lethal weapons are woven into the fabric of American culture. Neither is it realistic to allow the private ownership of shoulder-fired missiles, anti-tank weapons, Claymore mines, rocket-propelled grenades, fully automatic assault rifles with military-grade ammo and such. The realists among us must draw the line and the NRA has proven itself unable to play that role. (c) Universal health care insurance is socialism. No, universal and socialism are not synonyms. Universal health care insurance means only that. Our employment-based health insurance system has given rise to a whopping 47 million uninsured Americans, some employed, some not. Those Americans eventually receive health services and the rest of us pay for their care through cost shifting by the providers. Finding a way to get everyone some insurance coverage lessens the under-the-table cost burden on those of us who are insured. "Socialism" suggests that not only is everyone covered but that all of the providers are government controlled. What's up with that unrealistic conclusion?

7. I have "a taste for governance." Let me amend that slightly. I have a taste for "good" governance. Unlike Ronald Reagan and Libertarians, I do not think "that government is the problem". The problems come from "bad" government. In a government responsible for 300 million independent-minded citizens, there will always be pockets of bad governance...always. Generalizing that to mean that the problem is the entire government is simply too simple. The apostle Paul was a firm believer in having no ruling church hierarchy, an early Libertarian he, but his letter to the Corinthians indicates that things in Corinth got way out of hand in the absence of some governance. Anarchy is a lousy substitute for a governance structure that allows personal freedoms but sets realistic limits on same. (For the official record, neither do I believe that government is the solution for every social, financial or health care challenge that crops up.)

So there you have it, the labeling of moi and other like-minded citizens as "Wolfesians", a label that rests nicely on my psyche. Perhaps I'll get several million t-shirts printed up and sell them on-line. The slogan could be: Wolfesians Give Good Government.


Observoid of the Day: Unless one is a catcher, a baseball hat worn backward is the international symbol for "immature, vapid, knucklehead."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Da Leg Bone Connected to Da Very Pricey Hip Bone

Based on recent experience, let me share with you three basic observations regarding total hip replacement therapy: EECHA! OOCHA! OUCHA!

I recently entered and emerged from the great maw of the U.S. health care system, or as Senator Richard Shelby (R: Alabama) so glowingly called it in a brief TV appearance last week, "The greatest health care system ever created in the history of the world."

We should all remember that Senator Shelby represents Alabama, the birthplace of the toothbrush (else it would be the "teethbrush") and where, it has been reported, family reunions first rose to popularity as efficient hookup events for singles. (Hey, I'm only kidding here. As we all know, it was really Mississippi
.) These facts, coupled with the Senator's apparent inability to slowly back away from an unattended microphone, prompted him to make a statement so at odds with virtually every objective evaluation of the U.S. health care system as to defy categorization. Senator Shelby is either (1) ignorant, (2) a liar or (3) deeply dependent on campaign contributions from Alabama's sophisticated health care community. Being a Republican has nothing to do with it, although, in the current political environment, it may help.

I actually like Dick Shelby, and on many issues, particularly defense and financial services reform, I think that he contributes knowledge-based conservative value to the debate. His take on American health care , however, drips with hyperbole and reeks of special-interest snake oil.

Given my recent experience with our health care system, I can defend the notion that if one is to replace a major body part, an American hospital such as the Emory Orthopaedic Hospital in Atlanta, is a confidence-enhancing choice. My doctor, Doogie Howser, M.D., is well-trained in the latest joint replacement techniques. The staff is devoted to ensuring that the patient's experience is as good as can be, given the realities of slicing, dislocating, sawing through bone, pounding prosthetic devices into femurs, stitching muscle back together, et al. The equipment appeared first rate, the drugs were very magical indeed and the food was better than the airline version.There was an in-room TV problem but that was a minor annoyance.

Lest you think that what follows is the musing of an unhappy or unappreciative patient, let me be very clear: I am grateful for the expertise, advanced technology and caring that contributed to what appears to be a successful medical intervention. I am a lucky guy.

I'm also a lucky guy in that the eventual price tag for the procedure, headed north of $40,000, will largely be borne by private health insurance via my wife's employer. This price tag does not compare favorably to the cost of having the same procedure done in say, Singapore or Mumbai, in a first class medical facility, staffed largely with surgeons who trained in U.S. hospitals (currently $5,000 to $15,000). Going offshore to obtain quality but far cheaper medical treatment is known as Medical Tourism. (Safety tip for those considering such a tourist adventure: I wouldn't plan time for sightseeing after the procedure because of the "eecha, oocha, oucha" factor.)

The savings and successful outcomes associated with going offshore for expensive surgeries are substantial enough that some U.S. insurers are now encouraging the practice and providing travel reimbursement as part of the coverage. Compared to what they would shell out for a U.S. procedure, they still save money.

My rejoinder to Senator Shelby is this, "No, but we do have the most expensive health care system ever created in the history of the world."

If it were the greatest then (1) any American (not just the fortunate ones like me) who needed a total hip replacement in order to live comfortably could get one without fear of financial ruin, (2) the health care outcomes in the U.S. would be far superior to those of the rest of the developed world (they are not) and (3) the costs would be competitive (reasonable) instead of eating up 17% of our Gross Domestic Product and climbing.

The changes required to actually achieve Senator Shelby's vision are daunting but claiming, as he does, that we are already there doesn't move us forward. The various U.S. health care players have substantial skin in the current fragmented game and they will defend the status quo vigorously, likely with Dick Shelby's help.

So, as a convenience to you alert readers, I am developing a guide to parsing the health care debate as it slowly builds toward aircraft engine decibels. To start, here is a list of words and phrases which indicate that you are listening to someone who either has a financial interest in keeping our health care expensive instead of making it great or hasn't actually done much homework on a complex issue.

1. access to health care insurance for everyone is socialism
2. nanny state
3. bureaucrats, not doctors, will decide
4. health care rationing
5. Canadian wait times
6. British wait times
7. innovation will disappear
8. the free market works better
9. government run health care will be like the post office, the IRS, (name of your least favorite federal bureaucracy)
10. Illegal immigration is the root of the problem
11. It's all the _________________fault (insert one choice only: doctors', hospitals', drug companies', insurance companies', government's, technology's, Democrat's, or Republican's)

More of these fear-inducing catch phrases will emerge as the defenders of the current system dig in. As they do, I will keep you updated.


Observoid of the Day: When it hurts like the dickens to bend at the hip, the toilet seat is very, very far away.