Monday, April 14, 2014

Killing people is hard to do

[Moose's last photo]
Twelve years ago we took our beloved Maltese dog, Moose, to the vet and came home without him. Moose was in the late stages of congestive heart failure, and many times each day he was wheezing and crying out in pain. While my daughter held the little dog, the vet gave him a shot. It was over very quickly.

Why don't we treat death row prisoners at least as well as we treat dogs?

"Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths" is the headline on an article in yesterday's New York Times. Back when executioners wielded axes, they tended to wear hoods so people wouldn't recognize them. Nowadays states still conceal executioners' identities - and much more. "In the past year, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and other states have expanded the reach of their secrecy laws to include not just the execution drugs used, but even the pharmacies that supply them. These laws," say the authors of the article, "hide the information necessary to determine if the drugs will work as intended and cause death in a humane manner."

Too often they don't.

European drug manufacturers, opposed to capital punishment, have stopped producing the drugs that once killed American prisoners quickly and painlessly (read about it here and here). Americans have tried a number of substitutes, causing a lot of pain in the process.

The problem isn't that it's hard to kill someone without inflicting pain. Our vet could do it. 

But of course he wouldn't. And most of the world's drug manufacturers wouldn't. And of those who would - some American lawmakers, some American prison officials, some American executioners - few want the details made public.

The problem is that killing a fellow human being, even one who has incontrovertibly committed heinous crimes, is  a disgusting business. Even for people who favor capital punishment.

In his newest book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power,  President Jimmy Carter points out that "the United States is the only country in NATO or North America that still executes its citizens, and Belarus and Suriname are the only exceptions in Europe and South America."

Maybe our aversion to knowing the details about capital punishment is a first step toward joining the rest of the world with a more humane policy. Maybe instead of closing our eyes to what we are doing, we should open our eyes wide - and then stop doing it. If we are too humane to ask veterinarians to kill prisoners painlessly, let's be too humane to kill them at all.

Life in prison is punishment enough. And though it's expensive, it's not nearly as expensive as execution. As Fox News has pointed out, "Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Liminal Living vs The Impossible Dream

[A. Casolani, 16th century]
We are househunting.

Will our new place be a relatively new condo with no exterior maintenance, plenty of storage, an open floor plan, lots of bathrooms, and no stairs?

Will it be a city rowhouse that is older than we are, has arches and built-in cabinets and red oak plank floors, and is walking distance from a university, bookstores, and libraries?

Whatever we dream of, will our retirement income be sufficient for both the house and, say, groceries?

And will we still be able to live in it when we're crippled, incontinent, and demented?

I've been asking myself that last question with every house I inspect, which is probably why I've been getting more and more depressed. Medieval folk kept cheerfulness at bay by contemplating skulls. An afternoon of looking at potential retirement homes, I've found, also works.

Last week I blogged about our liminal lodging - the apartment we've rented for a few months to tide us over until we find our, um, final resting place. (Snap out of it, LaVonne!) This morning I had one of those blindingly obvious insights that you sensible people have understood all along: Life itself is liminal.

As I mentioned last week, it's good to put a threshold between one phase of life and another. Living in our  rented apartment is allowing us to do that. But I'm deluding myself if I think our next house is going to be permanent - just as suitable to our life in 30 years, when we're 95 and 96, as it is to our life today. I'm glad I figured that out, because I'm not all that excited by houses that would presumably appeal to nonagenarians.

In my search for the permanently perfect place, I've been driving my realtor to distraction ("I keep getting mixed messages from you," she says, and then five minutes later she says, "But you have such specific requirements"). Bless her, she persists in spite of me. She's even cheerful, or at least pleasantly resigned.

However, she did tell me about a friend of hers who made himself miserable for years because he wanted so badly to give up smoking and thereby live forever, and he simply couldn't do it. At age 42, having stopped to help a stranded motorist, he was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The threshold : making space for the new

[Our former living room]
It has been three months since I posted on Lively Dust or wrote a book review. I was not ill. I did not die. But I did exchange one life for another, and that took all the energy I could muster.

This is a picture of the living room of the house I lived in for nearly 26 years. When I moved into that house, the floor was covered with a dog-stained gray carpet and the walls were light blue. The fireplace was surrounded with shiny gray bathroom tiles. My daughters were 15 and 17.

When I moved out 17 days ago, the floor was hardwood, the walls were Benjamin Moore's Manchester Tan, and the fireplace was surrounded with marble tiles and a hand-crafted oak mantle. My grandchildren are 15, 17, almost 19--and two-and-a-half.

Benedictines use the word threshold a lot. They say it's a good idea not to plunge directly from one experience into another, but rather to pause, recollect, and gather strength before moving on. A threshhold allows each situation to be what it is. It gives a person space to take a deep breath and let go.

We are now living in a threshold apartment while we look for a more permanent place.

In our liminal lodging we don't have a lot of space, but that's OK because we don't have a lot of things either. (Well, a few miles away there's a book-packed storage unit with our lock on it. We don't plan to stay on the threshold forever.) We gave away and threw out a lot of stuff before leaving Illinois. To our surprise, we have also given away and thrown out a lot of stuff after arriving in Maryland. Downsizing is easier when you have no place to put things.

As it turns out, we still have more than we need. Under what scary circumstances would two people need three bathrooms?

I am not a pack rat--I can and do throw things away. I am not a shopaholic, I do not collect things, and I fancy that I live simply. In 65 years of living, 46 years of marriage, and 26 years of being in one house, however, I still managed to accumulate thousands of pounds of unnecessary stuff. How?
  • By hanging on to things I didn't really want. Did I wear that orange sweater in 2013? Yes, once. Did I enjoy wearing it? Not at all. Do I plan to wear it in 2014? No. Out, out, orange sweater!
  • By buying something new without tossing whatever old thing it was supposed to replace. Do I need several dozen mismatched drinks glasses, the unbroken remnants of long-forgotten sets? Only if I plan to invite 30 people for cocktails. Out, out, old glasses!
    [Our threshold living room]
  • By buying a specialized item when I already owned a general item that served the same purpose. Do I need an apple corer, a mandolin, and a food processor when I already have knives? Well, maybe need is too strong a word, but I do enjoy using them...
Right. Even we downsizers don't have to toss everything that isn't strictly necessary. Some non-utilitarian things--my framed French posters, for instance--seem even more important as the old inexorably recedes.

It feels wonderfully light, though, to be free of so much unwanted stuff as we stand on the threshold, looking back at the cherished old and ahead to the exciting new.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

This is not the Facebook-mediated list of books that have "stayed with you"

If you're on Facebook and if you devour books, you have undoubtedly been asked to list 10 books that have "stayed with you" - and then to ask 10 of your friends to do the same. I got a barrage of requests all in one afternoon, accompanied by formidable book lists heavy on theologians and literary novelists.

No way was I going to join that game of intellectual one-up. I was feeling too much like Charlie Brown in one of my favorite Peanuts cartoons. Linus and Lucy have been discussing what they see in the clouds: the map of British Honduras, for example, or a profile of the sculptor Thomas Eakins. When they ask Charlie Brown what he sees, he replies, "Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind!"

Still, I started wondering what my book list would look like, should I be brave enough to post it. It wasn't going to be easy to find out: faced with such a question, my mind goes completely blank. I couldn't peruse my bookshelves, since nearly all my books are in storage (we're getting ready to move). Fortunately--since I have a hard time remembering what book I read last week and therefore can't make intelligent conversation at parties--I've been keeping reading lists since 1997.

So I read all 17 of my lists and was amazed at how many books I've apparently read that I can't recall ever hearing of. I was also amazed to see that a book I discovered just this year--Kate Atkinson's Case Histories--was also on my list from 2005. No wonder I wrote in a review that it "sounded eerily familiar": and here I thought it was because I'd seen it on Masterpiece.

Clearly if a book sticks with me, it must be great. Or not: I do remember Jill Conner Browne's Sweet Potato Queens Big-Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner, but I don't think I'd put it among the all-time greats.

Eventually I came up with a list after all. It's not an entry in the Facebook game. For one thing, it's not off the top of my head, since no books reside there. For another, it includes way more than 10 books. Besides, my list is annotated and has subheads and links!

Fiction and Poetry
Being quite capable of getting depressed without outside assistance, I prefer books (and movies) that make me happy--especially if they involve mythical places and bygone days.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder, the entire Little House series, discovered when I was 8 and read over and over to myself and eventually to my daughters. I still own a hardcover set and will probably read them again one of these days. I have never analyzed their appeal.
  • L. Frank Baum, The Land of Oz and The Tin Woodman of Oz. My strong-willed Great-Aunt Blanche gave me these books when I was 10 years old. My mother disapproved of fantasy, but she approved of politeness. Besides, she was just slightly afraid of Great-Aunt Blanche. My heart leapt up when I saw the books but instantly subsided at the thought of my mother's likely reaction to them. I looked to her for guidance, and she was vigorously nodding. I accepted the gift with joy, and never feared fantasy thereafter.
  • C.S. Lewis, the entire Narnia series, but especially the first and the last books (though the Bacchanalian feast attended by Aslan in Prince Caspian is hard to beat). Aslan on the stone table, Aslan romping with the Pevensie children through fields of daisies--what more theology does anyone need?
  • J.K. Rowling, the entire Harry Potter series. I want to go to Hogwarts, especially if Slytherin could just be shut down.
  • Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April (I'm so excited--I just got it free on my Kindle!). I fell in love with the movie before I knew there was a book. The book is better: funnier, and the humor has more bite. Also, it has staying power: it was published 69 years before the film version.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night. It's refreshing to read about a woman who is loved more for brains than for beauty.
  • T.S. Eliot, Complete Poems and Plays. To be honest, I haven't read the plays, and I don't understand most of the poems (the Book of Practical Cats being an exception). But I love them and keep coming back to them, and would probably take this book with me if I had to be stranded on that mythical bookless desert island.
Wisdom
My fantasy-averse mother (see comment on the Oz books above) eventually relented and let me read fiction (even if Great-Aunt Blanche wasn't there) as long as I balanced it with an equal number of nonfiction books. The nonfiction category I came to prefer could loosely be called "wisdom literature" (my favorite biblical book is Ecclesiastes). If fiction could take me away from my daily life, nonfiction could help me live more fully in it. Here are some enduring favorites.
  • C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. What stayed with me about this book was not its chronicling of Lewis's grief or its wisdom on how to handle grief. It was Lewis's deep, passionate, heart-rending love for a bristly, brilliant woman--a serious version of Lord Peter's passion for Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night. For a gangly girl raised in the 1950s, better at academics than at flirting, this was wonderfully affirming.
  • Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. This book would make my list if only for its title (I also own a book called The Joy of Not Working). It's not about laziness. It's about making time for what truly matters.
  • Niles Newton, Maternal Emotions. If you want to read this one, you'll have to get it used. It's a 1955 monograph, probably a dissertation, subtitled A Study of Women's Feelings Toward Menstruation, Pregnancy, Childbirth, Breast feeding, Infant Care, and Other Aspects of Their Femininity. I read Newton when I was teaching childbirth classes. She opened my eyes to the important distinction between being female and being culturally feminine.
  • Jacques Ellul, Money and Power. Amazon is mistaken: I didn't edit this book, I translated it. I'm glad I did, because I was forced to pay close attention to what Ellul was saying about the near-demonic power of money as it subverts the kingdom of grace. If you want to know why you can't serve God and Mammon, read this book. Ellul often sounds impractical--but then, so did Jesus.
  • Elton Trueblood, The Common Ventures of Life (another book you'll have to buy used). I first read this when I was 16, reread it when my first child was a baby, reread it again once the kids had left home. In a few years I may have to read it a fourth time: the "common ventures" Quaker philosopher Trueblood discusses are marriage, birth, work, and death. A very grounding book for someone at home in Narnia and Hogwarts.
Back to the ducky and horsie: though these are the books that have stuck with me, my everyday reading doesn't look much like this list. Right now, for example, I'm reading the newest Bridget Jones.

Monday, November 18, 2013

But Americans don't have to wait for health care ... do we?

[Lovis Corinth, Self-portrait with skeleton, 1896]
The Commonwealth Fund's just-released annual report on health care in 14 developed countries shows that, once again, America spends more than anybody else on health care--50% more per capita than the next-most-expensive nation, Norway, and 182% more than the least expensive nation in this survey, Italy.

Well, yes, say some proud Americans, and we get what we pay for. We have the best health care in the world.

Maybe not. Other surveys regularly report that Americans die younger than people in other developed nations. Commonwealth reports that America leads the pack in avoidable deaths per 100,000 population: 96 in America compared with 55 (France) to 83 (U.K.) in the other nations surveyed. I was surprised to learn that America has fewer doctors per 1000 population than all the other countries except Japan.

OK, say defenders of America's health care, but people in those other countries have to wait much, much longer to see a doctor, and they wait nearly forever for elective surgery such as hip replacement.

Nope.

Commonwealth surveyed wait times in eleven of the countries, and here's where America stands:
  • If you're sick and need a same-day or next-day appointment, you're more likely to get it in Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, or the U.K.
  • If you need care after hours, you're more likely to find it in Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, or the U.K.
  • America has a lot of specialists, but you're still more likely to get a speedy appointment with one in Germany or Switzerland.
  • America is quick to schedule elective surgery, but not quite as quick as Germany and the Netherlands. France, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States are all a little slower than those two, but not by much.
Ethical question: If a nation has poor access to basic health care but good access to expensive specialized health care, what does that say about its priorities?

Practical question: If Germany, which spends about half of what the U.S. spends per capita on health care, can insure nearly everybody and still maintain speedier access to all forms of health care, why can't we?

Monday, November 11, 2013

In the bleak midwinter (or dreary midautumn) - watch a British TV series!


[Foyle's War - one of the best!]
Yesterday I posted this update on my Facebook page:

During the months when it's too cold to walk my little dogs, I ride an exercise bike planted in front of my TV. I love watching long British TV series while I pedal: Upstairs, Downstairs, Doc Martin, As Time Goes By. I just finished Foyle's War. Any suggestions for what I should watch next?

The response was amazing - more than 70 comments to date. I decided to make a list for future reference, and I thought you might like to see it too.

First, to keep the list focused, I weeded out Irish, Australian, and American productions as well as stand-alone films, though some good ones were recommended. Then I added links for all the series that made the cut. As I was doing this, I remembered more UK series I've enjoyed--Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Miss Marple, the House of Cards trilogy with Ian Richardson, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, Fawlty Towers (of course), Inspector Morse, Cadfael ... and the names keep coming.

Here are the British TV series my Facebook pals recommended. Ones I've watched and enjoyed are in bold.

Seven friends recommended Call the Midwife. I started watching once but forgot to continue. Tonight I re-watched the first episode, and this time I'll persist. It won't be hard. I read Jennifer Worth's first book last year and enjoyed it very much (see my review here).

Four friends recommended Prime Suspect. Yes! One of my all-time favorites. Helen Mirren is fantastic.

Three each suggested Lark Rise to Candleford, Miranda, and Rev. Winter in Illinois is long. I'm glad to have these to look forward to.

Two each mentioned Ballykissangel, The Bletchley Circle, Broadchurch, Downton Abbey, Dr Who, The Inbetweeners, Inspector Lewis, Luther, Monarch of the Glen, and Sherlock. I watched the first episode of The Bletchley Circle tonight. A bit grisly in places, but promising.

These made the list too:

At Home with the Braithwaites, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Black Adder, Bleak House, Brideshead Revisited, Cranford, Father Brown, The Grand, The House of Eliott, Hustle, Inspector George Gently, Jeeves & Wooster, Kingdom, Land Girls, Little Dorrit, Lovejoy, Misfits, Mr Bean, New Tricks, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Our Mutual Friend, Parade’s End, The Promise, Rosemary & Thyme, Rumpole of the Bailey, The Sandbaggers, Seven Up (a film series, really, but close enough), Sharpe, To the Manor Born, The Tudors, Vera, The Vicar of Dibley, The White Queen, Wives & Daughters, A Year in Provence.

And then there are the wonderful Adam Dalgleish series starring Roy Marsden, based on mysteries by P.D. James, and the Inspector Lynley series based on Elizabeth George's sprawling novels, and ... well, there are just too many to name. They almost make me want to ride my stationary bike--or at least sit in the recliner in front of the TV.

Friday, November 8, 2013

"We hate the government, except for the large part of it that helps us"

[Colin Woodard's map of 11 American nations]
I just got back from another nation.

According to Colin Woodard, author of American Nations (and this recent article summarizing that book's thesis), the United States comprises eleven distinct cultures. By upbringing and acculturation, I belong to two of them, The Left Coast and Yankeedom. Earlier this week, I got together with friends in The Far West. I am still scratching my head.

Some of these friends hate the federal government, especially its Democratic representatives, and particularly the Obama administration. My views about government, Democrats, and Obama are radically different from theirs, though I understand why some people fear government overreach, I accept that good Republicans exist, and I occasionally disagree with President Obama myself.

But here's what baffles me. Everyone in the group of Far West friends I saw this week is a huge fan of VA hospitals, even though the US Department of Veterans Affairs is the second-largest department of the US government, and even though, as T.R. Reid points out in The Healing of America, VA healthcare is one of the world's purest examples of "socialized medicine."

Everyone in the group is also a huge fan of Medicare, even though Medicare is a US government program that closely resembles Canada's National Health Insurance, often derided by Obamacare opponents.

When I suggested that it would be nice if everybody in America had access to healthcare as good as that provided by VA hospitals or Medicare, everyone nodded. I think they were agreeing with me, though perhaps they were just being polite.

The thing is, we wouldn't have VA hospitals or Medicare if we didn't have a strong federal government.
  • The Veterans Health Administration, established during the Truman years as the Department of Medicine and Surgery, today "operates the nation’s largest integrated health care system."
  • Medicare, signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson with Harry S Truman by his side, accounts for 14% of today's national budget--and that's without including the government's healthcare programs for the poor. Add Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and you bring the total up to 21%.
Of the seven of us gathered around a table at El Adobe Cafe earlier this week, five get Medicare, one gets VA benefits, and one is a caregiver. My friends love these programs because they need them, and they know what their lives would be like without them. At the same time, some of them hate the federal government that makes the programs possible.
I don't get it, but I've learned that arguing gets me nowhere. Even if these people are biting the government's outstretched hand, I'm glad they're getting fed. And speaking of food, El Adobe Cafe serves some of the best Mexican food I've ever eaten. The Far West gets some things exactly right.