Archive for March, 2010

Two friends have died in recent days. One expected. One not. I’m wresting with both losses.

I’m no stranger dealing with death. Loved ones have died; I covered many tragedies during 40 years as a reporter; I’ve been a hospice volunteer and board member. All involved issues of death. And the process of dying.

When we live longer, death becomes more a fact of life. As our friend Maxine says in her cartoon wisdom “being older means having less peer pressure.” Of course that’s because there are fewer older people in our lives we feel we have to respond to. But, as in the case of one of my friends, he was younger and his death was out of the normal sequence of life.

Parents who have stood by the grave of a child know what I mean by “sequence.” The natural order of things: children bury parents, not the other way around. We expect death to be “in order” like the Dewey decimal system in a library. When that “order” is interrupted, it seems to jolt us even more and magnifies the loss. It’s just not supposed to happen that way.

The death of younger people also sharply points out to the older our own vulnerability. I’m never more aware of my age than when someone I know dies who’s many years younger than me. The rest of the time, the number of candles on my most recent birthday cake is just that: a number.

There is also the question of selection. Why him or her? Why not me? In the order of things, they should be reading my obituary; not me reading theirs.

Few things in life are as universal for everyone as death. Yet grief is as individual as we are. On confronting the news, some are overwhelmed while others seem to take to the role more slowly. I’ve also found the severity of grief has little to do with how close someone was or how often our interaction. I’ve shed more tears for some acquaintances than for some family members; for people I hadn’t seen in years rather than some who were around every day.

I’ve been told by professionals the holes left in our lives by loss will eventually be filled. That has not been my experience. For me, the holes are still there even if we reorient ourselves to new people with new experiences and new relationships. We make room for them. But there is still the large cleft in death of a loved one that remains unfilled. The pain is ever sharp. Even if we’re open to new people offering love and hope, they don’t replace the previous. They can … and I believe should … co-exist.

How a person dies and at what point in his or her life also affects my grief. In these most recent experiences, one friend was nearly 80-years-old and had one health problem on top of another for several years. For him, I feel a sense of gladness for relief from suffering and for his family who had sacrificed so much being caretakers. Death, in his case, prompted a grief tinged with joy for all concerned. His release means freedom.

The other friend was 10 years my junior. While being diabetic, he was faithful in diet, medication and exercise. Married to a health professional, he was the longtime executive of a state association of physicians. He had many medically-involved people in his daily life to help keep him on track. His health was otherwise fine. Except, one recent day, riding his bike, his heart stopped. Suddenly.

My grief in his case is a mixture of shock, sadness, curiosity, loss and that sense of out of “sequence.”

One can look at these examples and say, “When I go, I hope it’s sudden so I don’t wind up lying in a bed with all sorts of health problems.” Yes, death … sudden or otherwise … can be talked of in such a dispassionate manner. When in the abstract. I’ve done it, too.

But when you factor in the will to live, the desire to continue when others would have given up, the discussion of death is no longer dispassionate, no longer clinical, no longer just thoughts off the top of our heads. Living, for most of us, will mean the exertion of all our strength and the exercise of all our will to continue as long as possible.

To you who’ve read this, thank you for participating in my loss. To Frank and Bob, while the pain is sharp, thank you for participating in my life.

It’s the bottom of the ninth inning at Safeco Field. On the fourth pitch, Ichiro puts the ball in the right field bleachers and the Mariners beat the Twins 5-4. Game over.

But wait! The Twins are taking the field for the tenth. Their manager is motioning for the Mariners to come out of the dugout. But the Mariners are going back into the tunnel to the clubhouse. Game over.

The Twins’ manager wants to replay the top half of the sixth inning. The Mariners manager refuses. Suddenly the Twins’ players start tearing up the bases and ripping holes in the sod! They’re throwing things at the crowd and shouting to Mariners players to come out.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Sounds dumb. Tempers flare even though the rules of the game were followed. Sounds a lot like Republicans in Congress, doesn’t it?

When introduced to politics many, many years ago, the first lesson learned was you campaign, you work, you present the most forcible facts you have, then conduct the vote. If you lose, you accept the outcome as binding and get on with life. If you still feel strongly, you prepare for the next election and begin working. That’s democracy.

The issue here is not health care or economics or national debt. Those are topics for another time; another campaign; another vote.

The issue here is the fundamental concept undergirding this nation’s survival as a democracy. Or republic, if you will. When the 51% makes the decision, the 49% have the obligation to accept the outcome; accept and abide. That is both our history and our key to lawful self-governance. Without it we would’ve succumbed as a nation centuries ago.

I’ve been on the losing side in political contests. After weeks or months or even years of hard work, it’s never easy to accept defeat. You want to keep fighting while insisting if those on the other side really knew the facts or even knew what you know, they would have voted differently. Loss in the face of deeply held conviction is not easy.

But congressional Republicans, and much of the party’s leadership, have undertaken a most dangerous course. And they know it. In their petulance, by refusal to abide by rules and law, by heated rhetoric and verbal threats, they have created an atmosphere for violence and lawlessness. And when those events happened, their surprising silence and distancing themselves has lent credence to the actions of the lawbreakers. And they know it.

I know of no one from president to peasant who is entirely happy with the new health care law. No one. But, with good minds and honest labor, the new law can be reshaped into what will serve the nation best. That’s the process. That’s how it works.

But congressional Republicans are poisoning the process. And the system. After more than a year in which to participate, they’ve offered nothing and have become dedicated to killing what they refused to help create. When they could have written their own ideas into bill form and offered an alternative … as the process allows … they chose not to.

But the real cause of my concern for the future is not with them. Their child-like tantrums, defiance and refusal to work within our two centuries old system is not uppermost in my mind.

What is … and what should be in theirs … is the distorted and tragic view of our democracy they are portraying for young Americans … those who will lead the country next. Majority rule, legitimate dissent, working within the lawfully adopted process, losing an issue but continuing to work for your own beliefs … these building blocks of democracy are being undercut by people who know better. They know better.

Good parents teach their children from early age the issues of work, competition, honesty and fair play. They use these values as lessons to be learned in the maturing process. Schools reinforce them in classrooms, sports and competitive activities.

There is nothing honest, fair or undertaken as legitimate competition in the picture now being presented by the leadership of one of this country’s two major political parties. The actions … and the dangerous results we are seeing … are directly contrary to the lessons we want our children to learn. And how we expect them to live.

When the ball game is won in the ninth inning, there is no tenth. When the vote is taken, the game is over. For now.

As I write these thoughts, it’s a day or two after passage of the historic health care bill by the U.S. House. And I’m numb.

For several years, I’ve believed a national health system guaranteeing access to care was a responsibility we’d taken too long to meet. I’ve been an advocate for changes in the system to streamline access while cutting costs; seeing higher reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals while opening doors to Americans who previously could not qualify or pay for care; stopping the national premium rape at the hands of insurance companies; reducing waste and loss.

A lot of that’s going to happen now. But I’m still numb. The euphoria of achieving all this … and more … is being trumped by the accompanying disgrace in the actions and words of many members of Congress. It’s being overcome by reprehensible actions inside and outside the walls of the U.S. Capital. The joy of accomplishment is overshadowed by the arrogance and outright ignorance of men and women who should know better.

And it’s not over.

Now come expensive and likely futile court challenges to the powers of congress. At a time when all state budgets are being sliced thinner than lunch meat we will see tax dollars by the hundreds of millions spent to assure lawyers lifetime incomes while millions of non-lawyers are homeless and hungry. This is not America at it’s best.

Few people with any personal experience will disagree the system of health care access and delivery in this country needs fixing with more people included. The basic issue has only been how. Maybe this is the answer. Maybe not.

What all who watched this at times torturous process must recognize is something was needed to start the process; something had to be on the law books. There is much not to like about some of this legislation. I certainly don’t care for all of it. Some parts … especially those that were payoffs for votes … anger me most.

Still, we would go no place until there was something in law. Now we’ve got it. Imperfect; possibly still allowing wasteful programs and practices; incomplete; short of announced goals. But it should be looked at as “a work in progress” needing continual tweaking and an occasional overhaul. If there are portions that truly are not in the national interest, they should be amended. If the language to accomplish the necessary ends is not what it should be, change it. Perfecting a comprehensive law can take years.

The subject of health care is no longer in the eye of the beholder. We now have a body of law that is … and should be … perfected in line with the national consensus under which our country operates. For far too long it’s been this bill, that bill or the other. Now we have a law. Now we can examine it, perfect it, throw out what doesn’t belong and move on to other issues. We had to get to this point.

But how we got here is another matter. However you view the issue, the lies, defamatory words and charges, the shouted “baby killer” and you lie” shattering the decorum of our political structure, the tactics of distortion and obstructionism offered as discourse should offend us all.

We’ve become a coarser culture allowing words to be said without holding speakers to an accepted standard of civil responsibility. We’ve allowed disruptions to process without accountability. We’ve left unchallenged baseless accusations and lies. We’ve used the lowest common denominator when judging some candidates for public office. The events of recent months underline and confirm all of that.

No one … no one … comes out of the health care battles of recent months with accolades and honor. From the White House to Congress to the streets and back again, the cacophony has been a national embarrassment. Other nations where arguments over citizen rights and access to health care were settled long ago have watched our national battles with astonishment and disappointment. As we so often do, we washed our dirty linen in public but it was our reputation as a world leader that was, again, hung out to dry.

From here on, as this new body of law is examined and amended, we must expect … and demand … higher standards of political discourse. There is much work to do. It must be done as necessary. It must be done accurately. It must be done civilly. Those that don’t approach the task accordingly should be ignored.

It is important that it be done so. It is, after all, the work of the people.

Barb and I had an experience this month that angered us and gave us feelings of frustration we’ve never known in our rather lengthy lives. We were refused major credit.

Now you may have had this happen to you and, when it did, were as put out as we are. That’s not the way the process is supposed to work. You live responsibly, pay your bills on time, handle credit honorably for 50 years while creating not one angry creditor. So the process of getting credit in keeping with your modest lifestyle is just one of the expectations of being a good citizen. Well, Virginia, not any more.

I won’t bore you with all the details. Let’s just say with a credit score near 800, no consumer debt, a manageable house payment, an untapped line of credit at a local bank and secure retirement incomes, financing an RV through a nearby, longtime reputable Oregon dealer would seem a slam dunk. So we thought.

That’s not the way it is in the new reality. Now, if you have it and don’t need it, you can get it. But if you don’t have it and need it, you likely can’t. Regardless of previous history.

We’ve heard a lot about banks we bailed out with our taxes refusing to lend much of the cash infusion back into the economy. Yet we’re being hammered by TV and newspaper ads telling us of the billions those banks are putting back out every week. Week after week. So which is the truth? Depends, I guess, on whether you’re a shareholder or a consumer. Or gullible.

The recreational vehicle business has been a major casualty of our recent economic calamity. In Douglas County, boat builders and sub contractors took the brunt and some disappeared. Lane County suffered heavily because of manufacturing and supplier jobs that disappeared at Monaco, Country Coach, Marathon and others. The ones still there, along with many dealers, quickly refinanced debt, dumped inventory, cut back nearly everything and hunkered down.

Because of those realities, I suspect our initial rejection was tied somewhat to the large RV dealer who doubtless took a major hit, and to his relationship and creditworthiness with the lender. No outfit in the large RV business with that huge inventory could be unscathed. Just looking at consolidation of sales lots and reduced staff speaks volumes.

Bankers want you to be buried in these major purchases. If they can get you in 30%, for example, then their exposure is no more than 70%. That means if you default the first day, they can go to auction and likely walk away with little to no loss.

Well, that may be good business for them. But it’s too large a pill for this consumer to swallow. Not only do we have a long list of enviable, responsible credit documentation to put on the table, we’re also one of the millions of families whose tax dollars kept some of those major institutions afloat and saved their shareholders butts when they were the ones making risky loans and overextending their own resources. Which, after all, were our resources … we depositors.

For our part, Barb and I long ago severed lengthy ties with large national lenders we banked with for decades and are once again in a more comfortable … and personal … relationship with a fine Oregon-based institution. Some of these smaller banks remained relatively healthy through the maelstrom and a few seem more so than a year or two ago. Umpqua Holdings, for example, has even grown by taking on the assets of some smaller banks that went under.

All of us find ourselves in new economic circumstances after the near crash. With layoffs and cutbacks, some have heavier loads to carry than others. But there are many real changes for each of us. While I’m not your cockeyed optimist, it seems safe to say we’ll survive but with many adjustments.

A similar successful adjustment process can’t be forecast for all big banks. This is where political power needs to be used. After all, we … you and I … put up the bailout dollars and we own sizeable chunks of some of these institutions. We’re shareholders. With rights. And among those rights are expectations that, while banks will lend more responsibly, they will not cut off credit to responsible consumers. That turnover of dollars is what makes our economy work.

If the government hammer needs to be used, I say swing it!


Postscript: Took some jawboning but we were eventually approved. Better terms, too. But the experience still hurts.

When Tea Party marching began a few months ago, I was quick to jab it a bit and dismiss the street noise as another gathering of fringe hangers-on, misfits and assorted malcontents. I may have been too hasty in some ways. (At this time, I’ll turn to the far right and utter a soft (partial) mea culpa.)

But the truth is, while some honest, angry folks are part of the mix, it contains many of the aforementioned and likely will for some time. The movement is in its infancy. Because it has no real, grassroots leadership, effectiveness is questionable and it could likely fall on its collective tail.

Fringe groups have a long history of failure because they “eat their young.” Robert Welch, Liberty Lobby, the Birch Society and others got just so far down the road then, because of the conspiratorial nature of the participants, they began to distrust each other, splintered and lost their way. There are already competing “tea parties.”

At the moment, the biggest problem facing the Tea Party is the only real structure is being provided by people paid to stir things up … people who have been very shaky with truth and facts. If the group wants to be effective, it has to get away from the paid, far right element trying to steer it and the far right money used to bankroll it.

It also has to find a niche in the mainstream of the two party system. It will never be successful from outside because finding a place on the ballot in many states is impossible. Or illegal.

Ironically, the reason I’m willing to cut the tea group some slack is because of the new Coffee Party. This loose collection of some 350 “chapters” (so far) has emerged from the center. Or maybe a bit left. Its avowed purpose is to get the discord and deadlock out of our politics and promote consensus issues from the center. As a registered independent, put me down for a membership card.

Given the mess Republican and Democrat parties and most current members of congress have created … and seem determined to perpetuate … I think a focused, more moderate, legitimately led group could be effective. But only working within the political structure the nation has adopted. And only after an election or two. Or three.

Call me a dreamer, but what if some of the responsible members of the Coffee and Tea Parties, real citizens and not paid hacks, got together and spent a few days getting to know each other and did some brainstorming? What if they could put on the table the things they agree on and temporarily put aside the issues that are near and dear to their hearts?

Suppose the dialogue started this way: “The two parties have created an unworkable mess; congress is not responsive to our needs and today’s economic conditions; a piecemeal approach undertaken by small outside groups from either side of the spectrum will not be successful; we need … we demand … more bottom-up solutions and less top-down bureaucratic direction; we want civility and bi-partisan cooperation, working together for several national cycles we can elect new faces with new ideas who … at least initially … will be more concerned with governance than job security.”

Neither group … nor any other … will succeed alone. Today it takes not only tried, true, experienced leadership but big bucks, access and really effective organization. It also requires extremely intelligent use of the latest electronic technologies to effectively reach the widest possible audience. It takes tools and access no small “party” has no matter the sincerity of the cause.

Having been involved in politics for a long time as a reporter, lobbyist, campaign worker and manager, I can tell you a lot more progress is made when people with honestly-held opposing views get together over a good burger. Or even a beer. Or two. When you work face-to-face from the basis of what you agree on rather than what separates you, it’s amazing what progress can be made.

The worst problems we have in congress and both parties now is division and entrenched positions. Democracy was never intended to be lock step. “My way or the highway” was not found in needlepoint on the walls of that first congress. Slavery … a more divisive issue than any we have today … was dealt with not to the satisfaction of all but in ways that didn’t stop the progress of forming a nation.

Tea Party or Coffee Party. Your choice. But commonality will beat ideology every time.

If you’ve been in a profession or active in a hobby for many years, no doubt you’ve had many times when you knew something in your gut even though you didn’t have evidence to prove it. That’s the feeling I’ve had in mine for the last several months about the hotly debated issue of national health care.

Now, little by little, what my gut has been telling me is being borne out by more and more evidence; good evidence provided by people with no axe to grind. The latest comes through a journalist friend of long standing, Randy Stapilus, our inestimable host here at Ridenbaugh Press.

Several weeks ago, he reported on this blog, an independent polling agency in Washington State was hired to take the public pulse on government-backed health care. Voters were asked if they favored or opposed the specific reform bill passed in the US Senate. You’ll recall that bill did not contain a public option to allow people to accept or refuse some type of government care program; the one on which every Republican senator voted “no.”

Results in this Washington State case: 39% favored, 54% opposed and 7% were undecided. Solid rejection. Straight forward question and the outcome seemed likely reliable.

But, when asked a second question, whether the same people favored or opposed “the national government offering everyone the choice of buying into a government-administered health insurance plan, like the Medicare those 65 older have, that would compete with private plans,” what do you think the numbers were?

Well, turns out, 66% liked the idea, 24% opposed and 10% were undecided. How’s that for a turnaround? Same legislation; same government option; same people being polled; different question seeking the same information. A very different result. Likely just as reliable.

That’s where my gut’s been on this issue for a long time. The problem has been that many supporters and avowed opponents of what’s on the legislative heath care menu have used pollsters asking questions designed to get a specific answer: for or against. All sides have been doing that. Then tilted results hit the media.

Such polling is called “push” polling. “When did you last beat your spouse” or “why did you beat your spouse” are two questions on the same point that can yield different answers. Which you ask depends on what you want your poll to show. You can predetermine outcome.

Stapilus makes the point … and he’s absolutely right … when you talk about government-backed health care, you have to know how the questions were asked. By whom. And why.

Back to my gut. It’s been telling me if people across the country were approached on this issue with unbiased information and offered a legitimate choice, we wouldn’t have the useless and divisive national cacophony of nearly a year. Most people are being eaten alive by costs of care; many others can’t afford it and the current system is not only in danger of collapse but is also threatening our national prosperity. We can’t go on this way. Period.

Barb and I have had Medicare for a number of years. We also carry “medigap” policies to take care of some costs Medicare either doesn’t pay or won’t. Not once … not once … have we had a problem. It has worked so well I wish all our kids and their families had something like it. While I have no doubt some of the anecdotal stories of individuals having negative results with Medicare are true, I can’t help but feel there were other contributing factors influencing the outcomes. As a general statement, we’ve found it works.

I’m not advocating a strict Medicare approach for all. But I do advocate individual choice for all. And if Medicare works, I truly believe we can design a similar approach to better use of our health care dollars and can fix what’s broken. If someone wants to go the other way and pay rates for strictly private insurance, great! Go for it!

The miscreants who say government can’t run the post office or AMTRAK or the VA are avoiding the real issue. They’re blowing smoke. We HAVE a system of government backed care that works and most often works well. Turn private industry loose to co-develop a bifurcated program … or multiple programs … and I know it can be done.

We’ve enjoyed a combination government-private insurance program for years in our family. I strongly believe it can be the matrix for a workable, sustainable national system.

Common sense … and my gut … say so!

THEY’RE BAAACCK! Those damned turkeys are BAAACCK!!!!!

Since the column last summer about my attempts to teach turkeys there are other parts of Douglas County to explore, I’m often asked how the venture has gone.

A failure. A miserable failure from the git-go! Not only have the couple of dozen we had a year ago returned, they’ve brought along relatives … at least two dozen more. I’m sure some are illegals. Can a turkey be an illegal? Or is that ill eagle?

Whatever. November and December were pretty quiet. Only a couple of sightings of a pair now and then. A little pellet in the posterior seemed to encourage them to continue their travels to other parts of the neighborhood. Situation seemed well in hand.

Then about three weeks ago … BOOM! An explosion of turkeys. Now it’s a herd of 45-50! No youngsters from an out-of-season hatch. All full sized … all noisy … all messy … and all in our yard. No small invasion. Last year’s crop apparently got mad, went out and recruited help.

This turkey tribe has to be the dumbest bunch of birds that ever was. They are absolutely untrainable. Look out in the long driveway, there they are. Or, if you get there right after they’ve been there, your shoes tell you of their recent presence. Leave the garage door open and the floor has to be swamped and disinfected. Go out on the large deck and it’s slip-slidin’ away time.

Now there is a new disappointment. The pellet in the posterior is no longer effective. There’s a jump and a squawk and life just goes right on. None of the other birds seem to notice that one of their number has just had a sharp pain. Even the one that lost a leg, apparently to a neighborhood dog or cat. They just keep on keepin’ on.

A couple of days ago I thought I heard the sound of heavier artillery from the other side of the hill. Louder and more permanent sounding than a pellet pop. Maybe one of the neighbors over there has taken the next step up in turkey avoidance and brought in a more permanent solution. Maybe our herd will be smaller in weeks to come. One can only hope.

Whenever I think of Ben Franklin’s efforts to have the wild turkey be our national emblem, it terrifies me that a man so otherwise smart and inventive could be so terribly, terribly wrong. Franklin didn’t lose very often. Thank God John Adams led the charge to defeat the idea.

As for my battle, I’m going to wish the unseen but noisy neighbor well and continue my own little relocation effort. It’s not even summer yet and the swamping has begun. But my accuracy is improving.

I am becoming increasingly irritated with something I run into on an almost daily basis. When calling a company to do business on the phone, one of the first things I often hear is “If you’d like to continue in English, press 1.” Or “For English press 2.”

Now, meaning no disrespect to those who want to do business in another language, the last census tells me more callers will speak English than any other language. At least currently. National demographics bear that out. Given that’s the case, why should a majority of us wishing to do business in our country in the “mother tongue” be instructed to do anything? Why can’t we just keep talking while others make their choice?

I realize the changing times. I’m told one of these days English may not be the language spoken by most Americans. Well, if that happens in my lifetime, I’ll make the adjustment. Until then, every time I’m asked to make a choice, it’s just damned irritating.