Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Last Time

A longtime cyberfriend announced that today she would be walking out of a classroom for the last time. She's retiring from work as a university professor. The first thought to strike me is how rare it is that we get to know that we are doing something for the last time.

There are probably hundreds, perhaps thousands, of important activities that we ceased doing without our noticing that it was the last time.

The last kiss received from or given to a certain lover, relative, friend. The last time you fed at your mother's breast, if you did at all. While most people remember the date of their last cigarette or bottle of booze, I'd doubt they recall the actual puff or sip that was their last.

Then there are those events that you may have anticipated without knowing. I distinctly remember wondering, for no reason, whether I was seeing my father for the last time on the last moment I saw him, hale and hearty, walking to his car. At the time I regarded my thoughts as oddly morbid and told no one. Several days later he was unexpectedly dead.

Yet I don't think I can recall the last lucid conversation I had with my mother. It's all very random, as folks say these days.

Think of the many lasts still ahead. When will you last go out to the movies or drive your car? Or breathe your last breath?

Do we need to be aware and know? Or is there some hidden beauty in the way parts of life simply slip away?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Obama's B+? Maybe with Grade Inflation

President Obama gave himself a B+ on 60 Minutes this weekend. Frankly, I think he was way overoptimistic. I won't say he has an F, but he's in C or D territory unless something happens between now and Jan. 20, which is really when the year's grade should be bestowed.

Obama promised change, but in domestic terms he's given us lots more of the same ... with nicer language and a more credible persona, of course. Internationally, he's been given a lot of credit -- including an undeserved Peace Prize -- that essentially amounts to an obligation to come through with something.

Don't believe me? Let's go down memory lane ...
  • The $787 billion stimulus package is not the failure Republicans say it is, but it was too small (I'm with Christina Romer's wish for $1.2 trillion), too much went into tax cuts and giveaways and too little got in fast-spending people's wallets. These flaws were painfully bipartisan in origin, but Obama signed the legislation when his political capital was at its peak and he should have bonked heads to get a better bill out of Congress.
  • The AIG bonus fracas ... ? It was embarrassing to watch .. and it began to make me wonder whose side he's on.
  • The first Obama budget was basically identical to what Bush's would have been if sane people had been in the White House during the first eight years of this century. The cockamamie stuff was gone, but nothing was fundamentally changed (... because the Obama folks said it was all in the stimulus). Memo to the WH: the stimulus is temporary; we need permanent solutions.
  • Speaking of which ... there's the health reform that never happened. Even if Harry "Jellyspine" Reid manages to pull off an alleged health bill, at most Congress will have made minor tweaks to health insurance. Millions of people will continue to die -- yes, to die -- because they don't have enough money to pay for a doctor's or health insurance executive's third home in the Bahamas.
  • And while we're on the subject of death, those 30,000 added soldiers in Afghanistan, while we're still not out of Iraq, were a real change from Bush, weren't they?
If Obama had been John McCain, well, sure, this would be a B- or even a B+. After all, McCain never claimed to have the human compassion and verve for change that Obama did.

Frankly, I can't imagine that the end result of McCain's first year would have been that different: we'd still have double-digit unemployment, increasing poverty, health legislation (if any) written by insurance company lobbyists and war without end.

So? What's B+ about that?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's Time for Me

I've been hearing this phrase with ever greater urgency from fellow Boomers for a decade or so. When Chani, in a recent blogpost, argued that she tore up the memo that "told me I was supposed to have low self-regard and take crap from people," I felt some response larger than a comment was needed.

Chani complained about a woman who was talking endlessly about herself (another creeping Boomer affliction, but also seen at all ages). The woman was admittedly spitting out negativity best left unspoken: TMI. She had also committed the cardinal sin of showing no interest in Chani's life.

Sound familiar? Yes, folks, men and women are the worst people around. No one really cares about you; everyone, including you, is really concerned with self-gratification and survival.

We are all about "me." (Actually, younger people seem to be more about "duty," but that's another post.)

Chani's complaint that she has lived "consumed with the needs and wants of others," which in my experience is not that uncommon a refrain among women, misses the mark. Living for the needs of others is not self-effacing, it is self-aggrandizing and self-affirming.

The put-upon nurturer is in reality saying, "I am the only thing standing between these people and utter chaos." One of the big gains of motherhood and similar traditional roles that I have observed is that women who may have been self-questioning gain enormous confidence as "executives" in the lives of others.

No one does anything except for gain of some kind. The nurturer gets something from nurturing, or else he or she wouldn't do it. Maybe it is approval, a sense of importance, feeling that one is "good."

A change that sounds more appropriate to me than to tear up the memo, is to realize that doing what one is told is no longer appealing. The "oughts" of the past no longer make sense to us; there's nothing in them for us any more.

That's because all our time, from birth to death, has always been really "for me" and "about me." Let's not fool ourselves.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

No More Waiting for the Doctor

In the past month I've had about a good half dozen medical appointments and at not one of them -- not one! -- was I ushered in without a wait, even though I was perfectly on time, often early. One time it was more than an hour. This morning I put my foot down.

When the receptionist deigned to appear, ten minutes past my 8:00 am appointment, cheerily asking how everyone was, I said loudly, "You're late."

Silence. Several late-coming jump-the-line patients edged over to her desk, so I called out "You're not going to ignore the clipboard on which everyone signed in order of arrival, are you?"

"Let me boot up the computer," she said.

"If you hadn't arrived late that would be done already," I replied.

What is wrong with these people?

They can't make an appointment even if you're sick for less than three weeks later, but when you arrive you have to wait for their royal highnesses to give you the service you pay for? There's 10 percent unemployment out there and it's catching.

OK, part of it is that it's an HMO, Kaiser Permanente, to be precise. "Better than nothing," as a cab driver told me. Not much.

Kaiser is imperious and quixotic with its rates, but short on service. They remind me of Helen Hunt's famous scene in As Good As It Gets:
CAROL (HH): Fucking HMO bastard pieces of shit... I'm sorry...
DR. BETTES: No. Actually, I think that's their technical name.
Health pseudoreform or not, I refuse to wait any more. If they make an appointment, they keep it.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Write-Right Rite

This week I banged out a story late in the day, tired and rubbing against deadline, and it came back from the copy editor without a scratch. "Perfect," she said. I realized then that I had become one of the geezer reporters of yore.

I'm talking about the days in which newsroom afternoons meant work in a deafening din of manual typewriter keys hitting on the platen behind the paper, mixed in with the "ding!" of carriages returning. When I started working, such places existed.

Every newsroom had some legendary grizzled man who arrived five minutes before deadline with a cigar in his mouth and the smell of gin on his breath, sat at his desk and banged out his requisite 700 to 1,500 words without ever having to x-out anything. His story was ready to print with a minute to spare.

Of course, the rest of us -- in particular, me -- had to compose ploddingly, cross out words, replace entire pages, curse and turn out something that would go through several eyes and red pencils before it was printed.

All that is gone. The Washington Post's closing of news bureaus in several cities and The Washington Times' abandonment of paid subscriptions augur the demise of newspapers in the nation's capital, where I live.

Yet the truly ominous writing on the wall is for standards of writing and, more broadly, language. In sum, the editorial process.

Of course, fact-checking arguably went out the window not long after Watergate in the major press.

Remember the lawsuit over entirely made up quotes in no less than The New Yorker? Iran-Contra, uncovered by small and independent publications, happened because no one in the major media was actually reporting news. The self-important news peacocks in the White House and State Department briefing rooms were all transcribing press releases.

Now the guardians of language are being tossed out. To cut costs, the Post and many other papers have eliminated copy editors, the people who fussed at punctuation, style and more grammatical rules than you ever knew existed.

These people turned every wannabe-novelist's inchoate thoughts into clear and precise statements that anyone with a modicum of education -- papers used to aim for 10th grade -- could understand. Now writing by people who can't tell the difference between "affect" and "effect" sees the light of day every day.

The news business has devolved to bad blogging that comes a day late on dead trees. No wonder it's sinking.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

"I Don't Want to Die"

What's with the near-obsessive repetition of this shriek of terror? It's ubiquitous. And silly.

‘Mommy, I don’t want to die. I love you,’ was the alleged plea of Louisiana nine-year-old Camille Hebert before her mother stabbed her to death.

"I Don't Want to Die of a Heart Attack When I'm 25," proclaims the title of a dieting blog.

"I don't want to die, ever," comments an anonymous blog reader in response to the post of a 95-year-old who proclaims his desire to live.

Why not die?

Were any of these people composing an immortal symphony when the thought of death came to them? On the verge of curing cancer? About to sign a treaty abolishing torture, nuclear weapons and poverty forever?

Did they think they were alone in this? By the time I started writing this, about 61,900 people had died this day on the planet.*

Life's a bitch and then you die. My preferred version of this urban saying is "life's a bitch and then you marry one." The image makes a better allegory. Life does treat us roughly and we are pretty much stuck with it, like it or not. The only divorce available is death.

So why prolong it? Are we all so rich, so healthy, so overwhelmingly happy, so virtuous that living is, itself, a philosophical good or a psychosomatic pleasure?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not proposing that we all engage in mass suicide. (The environment will take care of that, if nuclear weapons don't.) I'm just wondering if we can all just look at death in the face and behave with some semblance of dignity.

I am dying. I will die. All of us are dying from the minute we're born. At some moment in the future that we don't know, we will all be dead. Probably forgotten not long after. Our bodies will turn to dust.


When I was a believer in God I thought, of course, that there was something else on the other side. Some people do everything here thinking of that other side: they are "good" to avoid "hell." I didn't particularly care: I thought being good was worthy in itself, or being bad sounded like more fun at the time.

Now I doubt there's anything at the other side of death, at least not much more than there is on this side -- which is to say, not much at all. Cosmically, we are smaller than microscopic; in terms of the span of time in which we can estimate events to have occurred, our lives are shorter than seconds.

What's so important, precious, significant, worth defending about our particular lives?

Die. Die with some self-respect, not like a quivering fool.

* Note: as I was putting the finishing touches on this post the number of deaths today stood at more than 66,800. To paraphrase the movie disclaimer: 3,900 people have died during the writing of this post. Now there's a number that is more fitting. That would likely wipe out everyone I have ever known.