Lives of Quiet Desperation

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

Caveat: Got carried away here. Stuff that’s important to me, but long.

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper

Alienation is killing Americans and Japanese. The age of American despair. American life expectancy has dropped again. This is what life without retirement savings looks like.

Nope, not me. Headlines from articles I noticed over the last couple of weeks. Part of the story is told in the three factors most related to American decline in life expectancy: obesity, suicide, and drug overdoses. Summed up: living lives of quiet desperation.

In Japan the kids have disappeared and left the country to the old folks. People die alone. Unnoticed. Unseen. Unknown.

Ross Douthat, NYT conservative columnist and a voice I listen to, has this paragraph in his article, The Age of American Despair:

…the simultaneity of the different self-destroying trends is a brute fact of American life. And that simultaneity does not feel like just a coincidence, just correlation without entanglement — especially when you include other indicators, collapsing birthrates and declining marriage rates and decaying social trust, that all suggest a society suffering a meaning deficit, a loss of purpose and optimism and direction, a gently dehumanizing drift.” Douthat, NYT, Sept. 7, 2019

Douthat also says, and I agree with him, that: “Despair as a sociological phenomenon is rarely permanent: Some force, or forces, will supply new forms of meaning eventually.” op cit

He’s a Roman Catholic and a conservative so his hope will be that religion and traditional institutions like the family can reassert their culture shaping roles, provide forms of meaning relevant to this crisis.

Another conservative writer, David Byler, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that conservatives have already won the culture war. His argument rests on the positive opinion Americans have of the police, the military, and the continued strength of marriage, the family, and religion. These core institutions, beloved of conservatives, are ok, he says, and prove that conservatives have “the winning hand” in the next election.

Can this despair can be handled by leaning into the familiar, the tried, the true? Seems unlikely to me since marriage and the family, religious institutions exist now, are readily available, and yet the despair rises. And, neither the military nor the police can answer because their roles are defensive, reactive to social forces. They’re not shapers or builders. They’re enforcers after the fact.

I see this despair as a disturbing inflection point created by a world in dramatic transformation. Interlocked global economies. Populations shifting locations, putting immigrant pressure on receiving societies and draining resources from the sending ones. A planet shifting from one climate regime to a less forgiving one for humans. Nativist and xenophobic politics which express the despair through anger, rage at the other upsetting democratic institutions worldwide.

I appreciated Douthat’s reminder that despair is rarely permanent. New forms of meaning will arise, as he projects. But from where? Not sure I know.

Scott Nearing, economist and author of a favorite book of mine, Living the Good Life, proposes a mixed economy. The issue is not one, Nearing argues, of a single economic model to rule them all. Rather, we should be making decisions about what aspects of culture belong to which economic model. Roads and infrastructure, schooling, law enforcement, the military, the legal system operate within a socialist model where we all chip in to assure ourselves of educated children, decent roads and bridges, protection against criminals and foreign enemies. Selling cars, fast food, jewelry, books, bicycles and the like operate within a capitalist model. But what about affordable housing and medical care? What about support for the unemployed or the victims of Schumpeter’s creative destruction?

As in Nearing’s approach to economics, I believe the answer to the despair engendered by a transforming global culture lies in a mixed political response. That is, we need to support some institutions conservatives love: marriage, the family, law enforcement, and the military because they are core to a sense of social security, a feeling of safety. Let’s set aside religion for now. We don’t have to support those institutions in the same way conservatives would. That is, we can favor marriage between persons who love each other while recognizing the non-binary nature of human sexuality. Similar thoughts can apply to the other three.

But, these institutions exist in political and economic contexts that have profound effects on their well-being. Is housing affordable? Is there work for you that pays a living wage? Can you get the medical care you need when you need it? What it will be like for you when you retire? Can you retool yourself for a new career? Are your children receiving the sort of education they need to thrive?

Let’s return now to religion. And, the arts. Bread and roses. “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” Rose Schneiderman, an organizer for the Women’s Trade Union of New York. Bread and Roses wiki

Positive changes to the economic and social conditions of oppression are, said another way, critical and necessary; but, they are not sufficient. The spirit must be fed, too. Everyone has a right to realize and live out their ikigai.

What religion does, at its best, is help folks develop a coherent view of life’s meaning and create a support system to help them realize it. At its worst religion pretends to have found the only meaning and creates a phalanx of enforcers for that view.

The arts also feed the soul. But they are often kept behind an elite curtain wall of high ticket prices, imposing museum corridors, and a presumed sine qua non of education to appreciate.

If we’re looking for areas outside the rough and tumble of politics for dealing with despair, both religion and the arts can play significant roles. It is here, I believe, that new meaning will arise, will begin to integrate world economies, help us adapt to climate change even as we fight its worsening, enable us to see the other not as a threat, but as a potential new friend, fellow worker, marriage partner.

Accounting

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

MiguelAlmagro, on Deviant Art

A hot August, the third hottest on record for Denver, boiled over the border to meteorological fall. Too warm yesterday even here on the mountain top. Neither Kate nor I like the heat, wait for the cold weather.

Labor day weekend special meal. Ribeye, asparagus, heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella, bay leaves and balsamic vinegar. Garlic bread. I love to cook, would like knowing more.

SeoAh and Murdoch

SeoAh is in Korea. Murdoch is in doggy university for 28 days learning how to be a canine good citizen. Joe’s home alone at Robbins AFB. Mark’s in Phnom Penh getting a visa for Vietnam. Mary’s in the classroom in Singapore. We’re up here on Shadow Mountain.

Yesterday was the 1st of Elul, the last month in the Jewish lunar calendar. Elul is a month for heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of and for the soul. When Elul ends, the High Holidays begin, starting with Rosh Hashanah, New Year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

This corresponds well to my own inner work which begins to get grittier and intense as the night creeps up over daylight. Picking up this idea, going to use Elul for my own heshbon hanefesh.

An accounting of the American soul would surely include consideration of mass shootings. Our complicity in carbon emissions. The mess we’ve made of a once revered style of governance. How we’ve pushed ourselves into red tents and blue tents. But, too, the daily mitzvah’s of thousands, millions. The energy of our hope, our resilience. The vast diversity of our body politic. Those who still stream toward us from places of violence, of desperate poverty, of authoritarian regimes. Our wonderful, wild public lands.

When the book of life closes on Yom Kippur, will the USA be in it or not?

Once and Future Denver

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

Into Lakewood yesterday, Colfax Avenue. For those of you from the Twin Cities, Colfax is Lake Street. Really long, with several interesting transitions as it passes through Denver to the east and west. An A&W Rootbeer Stand had an America’s Road sign on it. Colfax is also U.S. 40, a coast to coast highway from the days before Interstates.

Denver begins at Sheridan, several blocks further east from Kipling which I took up from Highway 6. In that stretch was, when Alan grew up, old Jewish Denver. On Friday, he said, it looked like Brooklyn with women hustling to get their shopping and shabbat cooking done. Then, lots of folks walking to their schuls. Jewish Denver concentrates now to the south and somewhat east of downtown, a long ways away from Colfax Avenue.

Dino’s has red checkered table cloths, booths with naugahyde backs, and waitresses scurrying around in black uniforms. Pizzas. Heros. Spaghetti. The smell of tomato sauce and Italian sausage. On this Sunday afternoon Dino’s has a crowd, folks waiting thirty and forty minutes to get a seat. From the crush of people in its overdone lobby you couldn’t tell Dino’s would soon fade away like old Jewish Denver.

The owner has decided to close. A place of nostalgia and lots of folks want their last pizza, their last salad, their last coke leaving a wet impression on the oil cloth. Cities change, sometimes too much, wiping out their past in an effort to accommodate the future.

As some of you who read this know, I’m a city guy as well as an exurb guy. It’s special to me that Alan has chosen to share his love of the old spots from his youth. It gives me a sense of Denver as it was, often hard to see in this rapidly growing first in the West metropolis.

Going Nuclear

Summer and the Radiation Moon

Debra came by yesterday with chicken, couscous, cucumber, and a swiss chard topping. We ate the meal with her. I’ve not seen Debra in some time, wanted to catch up. The mitzvah committee at CBE has gotten traction with the meals. Gratitude.

In other news. Trump still occupies the Whitehouse. I think occupies is a good word here, since it feels like an unfriendly invasion. With Boris Johnson becoming Britain’s Prime Minister, Trump will have competition for xenophobic, racist, generally clueless utterances. Must be that special relationship?

On the downward slope with the radiation. Twenty-four fractions given, eleven more to go. Since the bed bug incident moved my finish date to August seventh, I will now complete my treatment between the anniversaries of the atomic bombs: Hiroshima on August sixth and Nagasaki on August 9th.

Left-Hiroshima, Right-Nagasaki, photo credit

Consider atomic bombs, nuclear tipped missiles, the “club” of nations with nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants generating electricity, axumin and other radio isotope scans, radiation treatments for cancer. Nuclear engineering has had a big impact on the world though its negatives often (usually?) overshadow its positives.

Malignant uses multiplied after WWII. Most nations tacitly agreed nuclear weapons should never be used again after the horrors of Japan, yet nuclear weapons themselves became the apex of military power. There are uneasy, even dangerous situations right now that involve nuclear weapons: North Korea, Iran, India/Pakistan. Those old enough to remember the Cold War know, too, that whenever relations with Russia sour, the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals have humanity ending power.

The first light bulbs ever lit by electricity generated by nuclear power at EBR-1 at Argonne National Laboratory-West, December 20, 1951. wiki

The peaceful uses of nuclear power seemed to hold a lot of promise. Nuclear power plants generate electricity without the burden of adding carbon emissions to the sky. Yet Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima proved that potential problems with nuclear power can become awful reality.

In my own opinion nuclear power should still be a part of the transition to renewable sources of energy. Nuclear power plants built with adequate safeguards can help move us beyond fossil fuels. Yes, there’s the question of nuclear waste, but it’s a solvable problem, at least in the short term. Nuclear power and renewables can be a bridge to a world where nuclear fusion is our dominant energy source.

The medical and industrial uses of nuclear engineering have proven themselves over the decades since WWII. I’m glowing proof of that.

One small step

Summer and the Radiation Moon

Let’s see. Heat waves. Bad ones. The moon landing at 50. 50? And, of course, Send them back! Send them back! I really tried to stop it in the biggest way. Nobody could have tried to stop it harder. Nobody.

Consequential. Each of them. I still remember the first time I was in Phoenix. 107. Might have been August or September. Walking from the motel a few blocks to experience the heat I could feel the sidewalk through the soles of my shoes. The air was still.

Downtown Phoenix had several places that had misters, spraying a sheen of water out and over sidewalks, open air cafes. Fans aided the cooling effect. It was delicious. A revelation. But. It was still hot.

On a CME venture with Kate early in our marriage we went to Mexico City where Kate saw Rigoberta Menchu. Afterward we went to Oaxaca and Merida. We stayed at Casa de Balam, the House of the Leopard, in Merida. Our bodies have conditionings of which we are unaware until they are challenged.

Merida

It was hot. And, humid, unlike Phoenix. In the afternoon rain clouds gathered over Merida. Rain fell. And the heat and humidity got worse. It was like an open air steam bath. Rain washes away heat. After the rain comes a cool breeze, a sigh of relief. Nope. Not in Merida. Not that day. It shocked my body before I even realized what was odd.

Both of those times stick in my mind (plus that trek across Singapore’s Botanical Garden in 2016) as outliers, extreme situations occurring in places I visited infrequently. Now, Merida is coming to a city near you.

The moon landing. July 20, 1969. College was done. Judy and I had a small apartment in Muncie. It was hot. No AC. No misting water. Just sweat. I put aluminum foil on the rabbit ears of our tiny television, waved them through the air to find our best reception. The most complicated electric appliance in our apartment was my Selectric typewriter, the one with the ball.

We wore as little as possible. The moon was new that night, so the sky was starry. I remember the scratchy voice of Walter Cronkite saying something. The scene, like a set from a 1950’s sci fi movie, had a strange desolation, Buzz Aldrin would the call the moonscape, “Magnificent desolation.”

NASA

Cold beer. A joint. As night fell, we began to wonder if the astronauts would ever come out. The Eagle had landed at 3:17 pm and now it was nearing ten. Then, the hatch opened, a bulky white suit emerged and went slowly down the metal ladder. A human about to touch a surface other than earth’s. “One small step for a man, one giant step for mankind.” (btw: correct quote according to NASA and Armstrong.)

Our chests flew open, all of us, that night. We saw the unimaginable. We were alive when the first human walked on the moon. I was 22, drunk and stoned. But high, too. Up there. With Buzz and Neil.

No visa required. No passport control. No detention centers in the Sea of Tranquility.

the apple, the tree

Our current sadness. The smallness of the fearful white person. Fed by the orange would be Julius. On July 20, 1969, the federal government gave us a moment of wonder, of awe, a moment shared with the world. On the 50th anniversary of this remarkable human accomplishment this once great country now separates families at detention centers. Its President tells four U.S. citizens to go home. He encourages the cries of his base base, Send them back. Send them back.

And that heat. Study shows opening up Federal lands to oil and gas exploitation will increase climate change. Huh? Really? The administration has silenced scientific analysis, by government scientists, on the risks posed by climate change. Including the military, which sees climate change as a national security issue.

NASA

Oh to slide back into the wonder of the moon landing. To imagine a world where feats of human innovation still wow us. Where government fights racism instead of propogating it. That’s a backward look though. Let’s look forward instead. To a new, cooler time with awesome moments still ahead.

A Birthday Wish

Summer and the Radiation Moon

Another Yankee Doodle birthday. SeoAh turned 41. The U.S.A. 243. SeoAh’s birth culture is thousands of years old, as is Joe’s.

A Chinese
classical novel

We’re such a baby from a historical perspective. Our relative youth is on display in every interaction we have with China, an ancient civilization like Korea and India that has lasted into the time of nation-states. One commentator I read a while back refers to China as a civilization state, rather than a nation state for that reason.

China engages the world as a regional hegemon, a role its held for most of its long history. It abuts so many different cultures, unlike the U.S. Vietnam, India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Himalayan kingdoms, the Stans, Russia, North Korea, even Japan if you see the South China Sea from China’s perspective. It does not share the great geopolitical advantage of the U.S., world ocean moats on both eastern and western borders.

The dynastic period of China, begun during the mostly lost in the mists Xia dynasty, only ended in the 20th century with the Qing ending in 1912. Thus, there are patterns and assumptions built into even the Chinese Communist party that reach far, far back in the Middle Kingdom’s political experience.

Among them is strategic patience, a trait sorely missing from U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. The Chinese waited until its 99 year lease on Hong Kong was up, then reabsorbed this city-state. Not without difficulty, yes, but even the one country-two systems policy has Hong Kong, like Tibet, as an administrative district of the larger nation. They are also waiting to absorb Taiwan, sometimes patiently, sometimes not.

The world is big enough for China and the U.S. as regional hegemons, not big enough for either of us to dominate. China knows that. I’m not sure we do.

If I could have a birthday wish for the U.S.A., it would be a leavening of our foreign policy with the wisdom of history. Hard to pull off when our supreme leader doesn’t read, I know. We, as a citizenry, may have to exercise strategic patience with him and his followers. Trump and his base are not the vanguard of a revolution, rather they are equivalent of the village peasant in traditional societies.

By James 4 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61859662

They are defensive in posture, that’s what America First means. You only wish for America First if you believe we’re already somehow less than others. I don’t.

DJT and his cult hold onto economic givens long out of date. Manufacturing and its supply chain, though still crucial to our economy, we’re #2 in the world after, guess who, China, has been in steady decline as an employer since the 1990’s, continuing a long slide begun in the 1940’s. see this Wikipedia article. Tariff man reflects a belief that the U.S. is somehow getting screwed on a regular basis.

They hold onto social givens like fear of the other, affecting immigration, race, and gender identity. The unearned privilege of the white American male is still regarded among them, and their leader, as a privilege given by hard work and innovation, rather than a teetering social contract based on patriarchy and ruthless oppression of minorities.

This is a passing phase, often at its strongest when its proponents sense their weakness, perhaps for the first time. Strategic patience involves doing everything possible to align their national political influence with their actual minority status. It means working against the Proud Boy in the White House and for politicians existing in today’s world, not yesterday’s. It also means not succumbing to despair or nihilism.

That’s tough, I know, especially with the climate crisis literally breathing hot air on our necks. But one way to not succumb is to do what is possible politically while focusing on those local and state level initiatives that will position us later for strong climate action.

Standing with you all in this, our 243rd year of a grand national experiment: Can a nation be built on political values rather than culture?

The Greatest Spectacle in Racing

Beltane                                                                                        Cancer Moon

Start of the first Indy in 1911

Today is the Indy 500. The 103rd. A long time. I’ve written here before about this race. Growing up in Indiana there are two sporting events that create a life-long spot in the heart, the Indy 500 and basketball, especially high school basketball. At the beginning of May the Indianapolis Star would start running articles about the racers, the crews, their preparations. The build up would peak pre-race on qualification day.

On race day those who didn’t get tickets would gather around their radios to listen. If you chose to go to the race, you already knew about the horrific traffic jams ahead of your trip to Speedway.

Speedway is a western suburb of Indianapolis which, according to Mapquest: “The town of Speedway was developed as a city of the future. Meant to be a testing ground much like the famed race track which is its namesake, Speedway was designed to be a city that was hospitable to the car. In a time when Indianapolis streets were often narrow orange brick thoroughfares… the town had homes with garages for cars.”

Borg-Warner Trophy

On the F1 circuit, the winner stands on a podium with the second and third place drivers, opens a bottle of champagne and sprays his fellow drivers and the crowd gathered around. It’s a media event. At the end of the 500 the winning driver is alone in pit row, like a thoroughbred at the end of the Kentucky Derby, which runs not far away in Louisville, Kentucky. Also like the Derby the 500 winner gets a floral sash.

This Indiana dairy farmer will present today’s winner with an ice-cold bottle of milk

The 500 is a race with agricultural roots, a car race held about as far south from Detroit as it is north of the Derby. A blend. Nothing shows that more than the winner posing with the huge Borg-Warner Trophy and chugging down, not champagne, but a quart of milk. From a glass bottle.

In 1965, the same month I graduated from high school only sixty miles from the speedway, Jim Clark and his Lotus changed the look and feel of the race forever. Jack Brabham brought the rear-engine European designs from F1 to Indy in 1961. 5 years later Jim Clark won in his Lotus-Ford. After that rear engine cars dominated the race. And still do.



Tear Down That Wall

Beltane                                                                        Cancer Moon

cancer who decidesNo scan. AARP Secure Horizons denied payment. When I asked how much it would be as a self pay. Pet scan, $2,600, axium dose somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000. Nope. And, I made the decision for the same reason AARP probably did. The scan’s accuracy is around 60% and that goes down the lower the PSA. My PSA is well above the reemergence marker of .2 at 1.3, but it’s still pretty low for imaging studies.

What makes me angry about this is that I scheduled this scan on April 25th. That’s twenty days ago. If they’d come up with these problems even last week, I’d have had a chance to call the insurance company and Dr. Eigner, Dr. Gilroy, see if something could be done; or, if it was clear no payment option existed, what new imaging studies I could have. Now I still have to do all that, but 20 days after I put this study on my calendar. Meanwhile those little cancer cells don’t care. They just go right on chasing immortality at the expense of my health.

I had an image yesterday of our health care, that is, doctors, nurses, labs, hospitals. The entire province of folks and structures who provide medical services. They’re all there, most of them competent, capable people who got into medicine to help people, to cure illness. Now. Imagine all of those people and their support behind a huge wall, a really huge wall, the best wall possible.

cancer universal health careOn this side of the wall, where you and I are, is the money used to pay everybody in medicine. If you are a one percenter, there’s a special gate you can walk through anytime you need it. You can access all of the excellent care that is available. If you’re the rest of us, no money passes through the wall unless several corporate, bureaucratic entities and individual people within them, say yes. Those entities include private, for-profit health insurance companies, medicare, medicaid, non-profit health insurance, banks, credit card companies.

According to this CNBC article, $3.4 trillion dollars pass from the money side of the wall to the health care delivery side of the wall each year. That’s $3.4 trillion. In this interesting nyt article, author Matt Bruenig makes a case for treating health insurance premiums that employees pay for company insurance plans as taxes. He makes this claim: “Moving from our system to a European-style system would make our overall system of taxes and health insurance payments much more progressive for the majority of Americans, because the elimination of private health premiums would more than offset the rise in formal taxes for all but the wealthy.”

cancer insSuch a shift would eliminate all of the corporate gate-keepers who have an interest in profit for their company. Perhaps they could all go work for the TSA and use their previous employment experience to annoy the hell out of travelers.

Would such a change mean I get my scan? Not necessarily. There would still be assessments made about the appropriateness of particular care; but, those decisions would be made by people who have my health and the health of our medical system at heart, not the wallets of investors. In that case I’d trust a decision to withhold the scan as a considered one based on those criteria, not on what’s best for United Health Care’s bottom line.

Long. Strange.

Spring                                                                      Rushing Waters Moon

whatWe hit month 7 since Kate’s bleed yesterday. (To quote the Grateful Dead.) Procedures and imaging. Trips to the emergency room. Trips to doctors. The gradual shift in roles at home. Things have gotten clearer, some solutions have appeared, but nothing certain right now.

I remember saying to Rabbi Jamie in October, “Three weeks! It’s been three weeks. I know a lot of people have it worse, but three weeks…” Kate had been at Swedish for two weeks and Brookdale for one at that point.

As we enter the eighth month of Kate’s ordeal, I believe we’ve found a useful rhythm, a way to be together as this all winds its way toward whatever conclusion can be had. We know who does what. We’ve made some gains towards healing her illnesses. There’s a community of folks, wide spread, from Saudi Arabia to the western burbs of Minneapolis, to Singapore who care about her, about us both. The dogs, fortunately, have been healthy the whole time. A whole winter has come and gone.

The Celts originally had two seasons. The fallow season that began on October 31st, Samain, and the growing season which begins on Beltane, or May 1st. Here’s to a hope that the growing season, which starts in two days, can release its magic for Kate’s continuing improvement.

Rigel and Kep

Rigel and Kep

Rigel continues her odd habit of eating a bit, then going to the back door, which is mostly glass, and looking outside. She stays there 30 seconds, maybe a minute, turns around, comes back and continues eating. Kep, or Kep the Inhaler as Kate has dubbed him (she just finished a book that had Vlad the Impaler as a key character), finishes first, always. Gertie is pretty fast, too, but not as vacuum like as the Kep. She’s blind in one eye, it has the cloudiness of Odin’s, missing a canine, and has a bum left knee but she wags her tail, runs up the stairs to the loft, and can still catch a treat thrown directly to her. Dogs understand wu wei, perhaps Lao Tze learned it from a dog.

Kate’s coronation begins today. She gets the prep work done for four crowns. Sjogren’s, which dries out the mouth, reduces saliva, the natural mechanism that fights tooth decay. Since 1994, we’ve been on our own well, too, so no fluoride. And guess what? We’ve maxed out our dental insurance. Sigh. Whenever I’ve gone in for a crown, I’ve had an old hymn as an ear worm, “Crown him with many crowns.”

gunSynagogue shootings. Mosque shootings. Church shootings. I’ve not read of any Hindu temple shootings, but if they’ve not happened, it seems inevitable.  A Southern Baptist clergy said, “…no one should be gunned down in worship.” NYT  Well, No one should be gunned down. Not in school. Not at worship. Not in a McDonalds. Not at a mall. Not a college. The gun is a curse on our culture and the NRA is its pimp.

When will we take on the NRA, the terrorist organization responsible for more American deaths than Al Qaeda, ISIS and all terrorist attacks worldwide since 1995? According to the National Consortium for the study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 3,685 Americans have died from terrorist attacks worldwide between 1995 and 2016, with 2,908 occurring on 9/11. In 2017, 39,773 Americans died in gun violence. NYT. That’s right, 10 times the number of deaths in only one year! No wonder the world shakes its head. We are, in many ways, our own worst enemy.