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.
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.


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?

Tuesday, November 12, 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.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Gimme that old-time health insurance ...

Yes, President Obama said that if we like our health insurance, we can keep it

Yes, that turned out to be false for a few million people.

Yes, the President chose his words poorly. Whether or not health reform became the law of the land, there’s no way any President could have known if we’d be able to keep our health insurance from one year to the next.

And with the changes mandated by the Affordable Care Act, insurance continuity would be even more of a crap shoot. Companies would tinker with benefits and prices in hopes of keeping the cash flowing after the reforms kicked in. They would certainly cut unprofitable policies or raise their prices stratospherically, or both. This was happening long before Obama took office; surely it would happen even more as insurance companies were required to, well, insure people.

So President Obama should not have made a promise he couldn’t keep.

However, I don’t think the President intentionally lied. I don't think he was naïve about insurance companies. I think he was naïve about Americans. I suspect he had no idea that so many Americans would actually like and want to keep those individual policies that 
  • cost significantly more than work-based policies 
  • hire people for the express purpose of finding trivial reasons to deny payment on claims
  • respond to claims by shutting down people’s policies or raising their prices way beyond affordability
  • refuse to insure people with any pre-existing conditions (e.g., people who have been kicked off their previous policies because they actually had to use them)
  • set limits on how much they will pay that are way lower than the cost of treating most serious illnesses
And that pretty much describes most of the policies that have shut down as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

Oh, how they will be missed.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


On an autumn day in 2007, while I was visiting from California, my mother made a request I both dreaded and longed to fulfill. She'd just poured me a cup of tea from her Japanese teapot shaped like a little pumpkin; beyond the kitchen window, two cardinals splashed in her birdbath in the weak Connecticut sunlight. Her white hair was gathered at the nape of her neck, and her voice was low. She put a hand on my arm. "Please help me get your father's pacemaker turned off," she said. I met her eyes, and my heart knocked.

That's the first paragraph of Knocking on Heaven's Door, Katy Butler's memoir about caring for her parents in their declining years. If you have ever taken care of a demented or dying loved one, or if you know somebody who has done so, you should read this book. If your paycheck comes from the healthcare sector (now 18% of the U.S. economy), or if you find that even the reduced insurance rates under Obamacare are too high for your budget, you really should read this book. Like all good memoirs, it's about so much more than one person's experience.

Jeffrey Butler, a retired Wesleyan University professor of history, had dodged death several times--as a teenager, when he arrived seconds too late to jump into a car carrying several of his friends to a fatal crash; as a young soldier in Italy during World War II, when he nearly bled to death after a German shell blew off his left arm; and again in his late 70s, when a sudden stroke left him helpless.

His wife, née Valerie de la Harpe, was also a survivor. In her forties, she discovered a walnut-sized lump in her left breast. It turned out to be malignant, and her subsequent radical mastectomy--which removed not only the breast but also much of the chest wall and four cancerous lymph nodes--revealed the possibility of further metastasis. After enduring six months of radiation treatments, she chose to have her right breast removed as well. Her cancer did not recur.

Katy, their daughter, was no stranger to loss either. For much of her life she had an on-again-off-again relationship with her challenging parents and her semi-estranged brothers. After a divorce in her 20s, she had trouble committing to a new love. And yet, like her parents, she repeatedly picked herself up and kept going, creating a career as a memoirist and investigative journalist.

But experienced as the Butlers were in suffering and loss, they were not prepared for the technologically enhanced torments of old age.

Knocking on Heaven's Door tells what can happen when a person's mind and body endure a series of shocks that would naturally lead to decline and death--except that, through various technological interventions, the body is not allowed to decline along with the mind.

In Professor Butler's case, a major stroke wiped out most of his ability to function independently and set him on the road to dementia. At the same time, his heart was slowing down. A year after his stroke, over the opposition of his primary care physician, Butler was fitted with a pacemaker. His cardiologist strongly recommended it. He needed hernia surgery, the doctor said, and his heart was not likely strong enough to survive the operation. So he had the pacemaker installed, he had the surgery, and he was rewarded with another six years of increasingly hellish existence--not only for himself, but also for his wife and his daughter. His mind was shot. His body would not do what he wanted it to do. But his artificially assisted heart kept relentlessly ticking away.

Not long after her husband finally died, Valerie Butler, then 84, learned that her own heart was giving out. She would need a double-valve surgery plus a bypass operation, her doctor told her. Without surgery, she had a 50/50 chance of dying within two years. With surgery, she could live another six. There was, however, a risk of stroke ...

Valerie Butler said no. She died within months.
She died of old age, sickness, and death [Katy writes]. She died of a heart calcified and broken by six years of nonstop caregiving. She died of being eighty-four. She was continent and lucid to her end. She took back her body from her doctors. She died the death she chose, not the death they had in mind. She reclaimed her moral authority from the broken medical system that had held her husband hostage. She died like a warrior. Her dying was painful, messy, and imperfect, but that is the uncontrollable nature of dying. She faced it head-on. My brother Jonathan called it a triumph.
This is not a book about assisted suicide or euthanasia. Do not read it to find ammunition for or against whatever you believe about those ethical issues, because that is not why Katy Butler wrote it. It is partly a very personal memoir about an already troubled family who found caregiving much, much harder than they ever expected. It is partly a love letter to the father Katy alternately fled and adored, and to the mother she admired but could not get along with. It is also a look at what the contemporary American approach to healthcare is doing to elderly people and to those who care for them.

And it is a clear-eyed recognition of a truth so many of us try to avoid: that it is our nature to die, that there is nothing we can do to escape death. Thanks to technology, we may be able to postpone it. We may be able to make the dying process take a lot longer (and be a lot more miserable). We can choose to add weeks to our lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars to our hospital bills by dying in an ICU rather than in hospice or at home. But we can't stave off the grim reaper forever.

If we refuse to accept our mortality, if we are willing to pay any price and bear any burden to make our lives longer (though not better), if we continue to pass healthcare laws that refuse to subsidize doctors for discussing end-of-life issues but that give carte blanche to businesses that value corporate profits over compassionate care--then death will continue to be not only an enemy, but an increasingly ferocious one.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What do you mean, "middle-aged"?

[Stages of a Man's Life from the Cradle to the Grave, c. 1848]
Yesterday on Facebook I referred to my daughters, who are in their early forties, as middle-aged. One of their friends, who is 43, wrote, "Middle-aged???"

"For sure," I wrote back. "I know it hurts." But then I Googled middle age and discovered that its borders seem to be shifting. Once defined as ages 40 to 60, it is now often defined as ages 45 to 64 (though Merriam-Webster wants to have it both ways).

When I turned 40, everyone was talking about the midlife crisis, that scary feeling when people in the work force fear their careers may have peaked and when caregivers at home notice their nests are practically empty (except for all that stuff in the basement). Midlife hit at age 40 back then--a bit optimistic, perhaps, considering that U.S. life expectancy in 1988 was 74.9 years. Columnist Bob Greene may have been closer to the truth when he wrote that "middle age starts at 36."

American life expectancy has increased in the last 25 years: it's now 78.62 years. I suppose that makes the shift in middle-age limits understandable, especially since so many people nowadays seem to think adulthood doesn't begin until age 30. But still, isn't Bridget Jones a bit old to be having a midlife crisis at age 51? And what's with those Brits who, in a 2012 survey, thought middle age begins at age 55 or later? Brits do live longer than Americans, but only by a couple of years.

In her lively review of Patricia Cohen's In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age, Laura Shapiro suggests why the definition of middle age is so fluid:
Despite the fact that researchers have been studying middle age intensively for decades, the term itself seems to have no fixed definition. Nearly any span between 40 and dementia appears to qualify, depending in part on whether we’re talking about ourselves (“But I feel just the same as I did when I was 20”) or all those people who show up at our college reunions (“Everyone looks so old”).
This is probably why some people prefer a descriptive rather than a chronological view of middle age: see, for instance, Shelley Emling's article "40 Signs You Are Middle Aged." The list is amusing, but the really telling comment comes in her introduction, where she quotes Paul Keenan, head of communications for a healthcare provider. "People no longer see ‘middle age’ as a numerical milestone," he said. "I’m 54 myself, with the mind-set of a thirty-something--perhaps sometimes even that of a teenager!” If anything is a sure and certain indication of middle-age--or even old age--it's a remark like that.

Maybe it's because, at 65, I've just left the ranks of the middle-aged, but I don't see why people want to delay its onset. By the time you're middle-aged, you've probably finished your education and those painful first jobs. Chances are you're in a responsible position, earning more money than you were a decade or two ago. You're probably married. You very likely own a house. If you have children, they are becoming more independent. Your parents are probably still in reasonably good health.

At 40, you are well past the torments of adolescence and young adulthood, and you still have a long way to go before the serious trials of old age begin. You are at the midpoint of your allotted years and at the beginning of an excellent couple of decades. Why pretend to be young long past the time when anybody who is truly young would claim you?

Believe it or not, those truly young adults respect you. They think you may have learned something in the 15 or 20 years since you left college. At the same time, you're not in an entirely alien world like, say, their parents.

In 1935 Will Rogers starred in a movie called Life Begins at Forty. I suspect it still does.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Canadian who loves her health-care system

This morning a Canadian woman wrote such an interesting comment on an old post of mine, "Rationing is not a four-letter word," that I want to share it with you. I don't know the author, her full name (though she tells me her first name is LaVonne, so she's obviously a great person), or her contact information, so I can't give her full credit. But thanks, LaVonne-in-Canada: I learned a lot from you.

Here's what she wrote about how Canadian health care works for her. I've added a few comments in red, in case you want to compare the situation of LaVonne-in-Canada with that of LaVonne-in-the-United-States.
As a Canadian, I can't understand why a medicare plan such as we have is not feasible in the USA.

As a a retired person, I pay $65/mo. When I was working, it was less - employer paid a touch more than half. [As an American retired person, this year I paid $265.85/mo--that would be $104.90 for Medicare Part B (medical insurance), $44.10 for Medicare Part D (prescription insurance), and $116.85 for Medigap Plan G (to cover Medicare's very high co-pays). When my husband was employed, my insurance cost was half that amount because his employer paid about 3/4 of the total cost--but three months ago, the employee's cost for that policy at least doubled.]

Since 2008 I have had two major operations which didn't cost me anything except $35 per day for a private room in the hospital (my choice...a 4-bed ward would have been free). [In 2011, before going on Medicare, I had a major operation which cost me $2,111.35, which seemed like a real bargain since the hospital bill was originally $172,833.97. Insurance agreed to pay $116,748.28. Earlier this year--again, before going on Medicare--I had an outpatient procedure that cost me nothing, even though the hospital bill was originally $47,914.28. Insurance agreed to pay $15,763.77. It's a strange way of doing business.]

Moreover, no charge to Canadians for doctor's office visits. We don't have to delay need for care, might save worsening condition. [Because I bought a Medigap policy (Plan G), I first pay a $147 yearly deductible, after which I am not charged for doctor's office visits. Under our former Blue Cross Blue Shield plan, I was charged $20 to see my primary care provider and $40 to see a specialist.]

We have a population of less than 35 million. Our population can support a universal healthcare plan. The USA has more than 10 times the population of Canada. Surely 350 million people can support a universal health care plan successfully - many more people to pay into it, and as well, more healthy employed people than sick people by far to support the plan, I should think.

By the way, my $65/mo covers 60% of my dental care, too, however this is an option my former employee-plan (union job) allowed me to take. If I'd wanted to pay in more, I could have opted for 80% dental coverage, or 100%. Medicare without the dental would cost $57/mo.(rather than $65). [Alas, my $265.85 includes no dental coverage. And even though I pay for prescription insurance, I also pay out-of-pocket for prescriptions: in my case another $57/mo as long as I don't need anything next year that I'm not already taking.]

Do you think that if your legislators could corrall Big Pharma and Big Insurance Co., that maybe your country could get something even better going? The current Obama-care is not the whole way your President wanted to go (he wanted something more along the lines of the Canadian plan) but he was hog tied, he had to compromise.

We are not socialists in Canada. We have a capitalist system, too. However we don't fret at the thought of socially subsidized provision for people's health, and I think as a consequence we might have a healthier population. The Native Indian people in Canada have totally free healthcare - they don't have to pay any monthly premiums at all.
Now if you happen to think that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare, in spite of what Jimmy Kimmel's interviewees believed) will give us a Canadian system, please, please, please read "Obamacare vs. Canada: Five key differences." The two systems are very, very different--and the differences help to explain why I pay hundreds of dollars more a month than LaVonne-across-the-border, and get significantly less.

And if you're itching to point out that Canadians have to wait longer than Americans for health care, or that Canadians stream over the border to American hospitals, or that Canadian seniors can't get hip replacements, please, please, please read "5 Myths About Canada's Health Care System" and learn what is really happening across our northern border. It's probably not what you think. It's certainly not what the U.S. anti-health-care lobby wants you to think.

These are short articles. You have time.

The truth is, as LaVonne-in-Canada noted, the Affordable Care Act is not exactly what President Obama wanted. He had to compromise, and as a result, Obamacare is not nearly as effective as Canadian health care--though it's somewhat better than what we had before. And Canadian health-care benefits aren't as amazingly good as, say, French or Swiss benefits (which still cost considerably less than ours, by the way), though if our aim is to keep costs as low as possible while still insuring everybody, we still  might choose to imitate Canada rather than some of the more generous countries.

But until the American people come to realize that our current mishmash of a system is costing them a lot more than a more centralized system could--and until our lawmakers find the courage "to grapple in a systematic fashion with the overall inefficiencies in health care delivery and financing, the administrative burden of multiple payers, providers and plans, and the cost pressures of defensive medicine," as the "Obamacare vs. Canada" article suggests--we will keep on paying more, getting less, and regularly shutting down the U.S. government and (who knows?) maybe crashing the entire world's economy.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Let's talk about food: The body of Christ at the nursing home

[Pieter Breugel the Elder,
Portrait of an Old Woman, 1563]

Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength.
--Book of Common Prayer, from Eucharistic Prayer C

I would like to finish this series of posts with a story about what the Eucharist meant to me during a difficult time about 20 years ago.

My mother had suffered a series of small strokes. She had Alzheimer's Disease as well, and she was seriously depressed. I had moved her into a nursing home near my house so I could visit her frequently.

At that time I was going to Mass almost daily. I needed the solace of the quiet half hour every morning. When my parish offered to train people who wanted to become ministers of communion (parishioners who help distribute the bread and wine), I signed up.

Holding up the consecrated bread and saying "The body of Christ" was easy, as was handing the cup to each person in line so they could drink from it. But some parishioners prefer to have the bread placed directly in their mouths, and that's trickier. The idea is to put it gently on their tongue without getting bitten.

We practiced with one another, the pretend communicant opening her mouth and, ideally, sticking out her tongue; the pretend minister of communion laying the host on it. When we got the hang of it, our training session concluded, and I drove directly to the nursing home to visit my mother.

It was dinnertime at Sandalwood. Mother was in a wheelchair at her table, unable to feed herself, able to swallow only with difficulty. I was not good at getting her to eat, but no attendant was available. So I sat down next to her and picked up a spoon.

I dipped the spoon in the strained spinach and held it up for her to see. She opened her mouth. I put the spinach on her tongue.

I almost said, "The body of Christ."

As I think back on that moment, I see layers upon layers of symbolic meaning. I'm not going to list them or explain them. I'll just say that as I fed spinach to my mother, I suddenly understood a lot more about what I'd been doing in church just 30 minutes earlier.

This is the last in a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I led or will lead conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I posted about food every weekday between September 13 and October 4. The first post in the series is here.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Let's talk about food: Practicing the Presence

[Jordaens, The Supper at Emmaus, 1645]
And now back to food as sacrament--what we'll be talking about this Sunday at St Barnabas. In Monday's post I wrote, "A sacrament points to something beyond itself, but it is more than a sign. It has multiple layers of meaning, but it is more than the religious version of a symbol. A sacrament is a special kind of symbol that actually makes present the reality it evokes." The sacrament of bread and wine, then, in some way makes Jesus Christ present.

How does that work?

Catholics still use a medieval explanation called "transubstantiation." Lutherans speak of  "sacramental union." Calvinists talk about "spiritual presence." Other Protestants use terms like "holy mystery" or "real presence." Orthodox Christians like the word "mystery" and, as far as I know, don't try too hard to explain it. Many evangelical Christians celebrate the Lord's Supper but don't really believe in sacraments at all (my husband once referred to their theology as the "real absence"). Anglicans, as John Cleese wittily pointed out in his "Consumers Guide to Religion," have a democratic spirit--"if you want transubstantiation, you can have transubstantiation. If you don't want transubstantiation, you don't have to have transubstantiation. All you do is go down the road to another Church of England church and not have it."

I'm not going to argue for or against any of these positions. I rather like the quatrain that probably originated with John Donne but is usually attributed to Elizabeth I:
’Twas God the word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it,
And what the word did make it,
That I believe and take it.
Whatever our theology about sacraments, most Christians agree that
  • eating together fosters community
  • the Christian community is "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:27)
The earliest Christians "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Somehow when they broke bread together, Jesus was present with them and in them, and they were present in him.

Bread and wine are dynamic symbols. Sharing bread and wine is a powerful sacramental act. All explanations inevitably fall short, as the disciples on the Emmaus Road discovered. Only when they broke bread with the stranger did they realize who he was.

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Let's talk about food ... and wine!

[Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1596]
A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine.
--Brillat-Savarin, or maybe an Italian proverb
I enjoy wine. But I readily acknowledge that some people should not drink wine: recovering alcoholics, of course; drinkers who don't realize they're alcoholics; people taking certain medications; people who are about to drive cars or pilot airplanes; children; and so on.

To be fair, there are people who shouldn't eat bread, either, though not as many.

Yes, wine can be dangerous. In scripture and other literature, it can indicate evil and punishment and terror.

In the Bible, wine sometimes accompanies wickedness and judgment. For example, the Psalmist writes that "in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs" (Psalm 75:8).

St. John of Patmos says that Babylon--herself a symbol of corrupt governments and multinational corporations--"has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication" (Revelation 14:8; 18:3).

In "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Julia Ward Howe uses wine production as a double symbol, evoking both the Last Judgment and the American Civil War: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."

But more often, wine brings to mind abundance and contentment and friendship.

Hear Moses' final blessing on his people: "So Israel lives in safety, untroubled is Jacob’s abode in a land of grain and wine, where the heavens drop down dew" (Deuteronomy 33:28).

And the Preacher's summary of a good life: "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do" (Ecclesiastes 9:7).

And the delightful quatrain by Hilaire Belloc:
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino.

A drink that can evoke friendship and anger, blessing and corruption, joy and addiction, holiday relaxation and highway death, family harmony and family destruction--what a symbol!

In Prince Caspian, Book 2 of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis describes the Pevensie girls' reaction to a wild party with river gods, forest goddesses, maenads, Silenus, and Bacchus himself:
"I wouldn't have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we'd met them without Aslan," [said Susan].

"I should think not," said Lucy.

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Let's talk about food: What does bread mean?

[Salvador Dali, Basket of Bread, 1926]
Bread is an especially rich symbol (see yesterday's post about how symbols have many layers of meaning).

● a freshly baked, crusty baguette
● a thick slice of heavy brown bread, warm from the oven
● two loaves of challah at the beginning of Shabbat dinner
● scones with clotted cream and jam

--or, on the other hand,

● a dry crust
● crumbs
● day-old bread
Wonder Bread

I'm guessing you quickly moved beyond taste and smell to highly personal associations--places, people, feelings, stories evoked by thinking about bread. Symbols invite you to do that.

Consider also some of the many Bible stories that feature bread:

● Passover with its unleavened bread
● The manna that fed the Israelites in the wilderness
● The miracle of the loaves and fishes
● The Last Supper (a Passover meal) with its shared loaf

--or some scriptural statements about bread:

● "If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat" (Proverbs 25:21)
● "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?" (Isaiah 55:2)
● "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11)
● "Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life'" (John 6:35)

Ask yourself, what does the bread mean? You'll likely come up with multiple meanings right away. That's how symbols work.

Now think about bread, any kind of bread you choose--

● how its ingredients are grown, harvested, and processed, and by whom
● how it's baked, and by whom
● how it is served and eaten, and by whom

Can you see how bread might enrich your view of life, or Jesus, or God's providence, or ... ?  Again, you're seeing symbols at work--or at play.

I love the prayer in the Roman Catholic liturgy that echoes the Hebrew blessing over bread:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you:
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life.
A person could spend hours just parsing that prayer. Once you let symbols loose in your mind, everything looks different.

*   *   *

If you aren't yet convinced that bread is an extremely fecund symbol, find more layers of meaning (from the sublime to the ridiculous) in "The Symbolism of Bread."

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Let's talk about food: Signs, symbols, and sacraments

[Renoir, Le verre de vin, 1908]
We're into the third week of conversations about food at St. Barnabas. Week 1 we talked about celebration, because until we really believe that food is good, anything we say about food is likely to be skewed. Week 2 we talked about hospitality and the role food plays in fostering community. Now we're going to look at food as sacrament.

So, what's a sacrament?

If you are of a liturgical persuasion, you probably associate the word with the sacraments of the church, which, like the animals entering the ark, come in twos (baptism and communion) or sevens (those two plus confirmation, marriage, holy orders, anointing the sick, and reconciliation).

Let's back up for a minute and look at the concept itself, not the actions it's usually associated with. A sacrament is a kind of symbol - but not necessarily in the way we often use the word symbol today.

In popular parlance, a symbol is pretty much the same as a sign. Some academics, however, make a helpful distinction between the two words.

A sign stands for, reminds us of, or points to something else. That red octagonal thing on the street corner is a sign that reminds us to put on the brakes. Those yellow and orange leaves just beginning to show up on maple trees are a sign that autumn is here.

A symbol, by contrast, has many more--sometimes even inexhaustible--layers of meaning. That metal band on your finger is a sign that you're married, but it may also be for you a symbol of permanence or value or eternity or faithfulness (and you can keep coming up with more). A good symbol has rich personal and cultural associations. A really good symbol works for many people in many different cultures.

A sacrament points to something beyond itself, but it is more than a sign. It has multiple layers of meaning, but it is more than the religious version of a symbol. A sacrament is a special kind of symbol that actually makes present the reality it evokes.

Three theological examples:
  • Jesus is the sacrament of God: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14.9).
  • The church is the sacrament of Jesus: "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Corinthians 12.27).
  • Eucharist is a sacrament of the church: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Corinthians 10.17).
Back to food. A loaf of bread is not generally a sign. Hansel and Gretel used their bread as a sign, but for most of us most of the time, bread doesn't point to something else: it is what it is. (Some Protestants do see bread as a sign: something that makes them think about Jesus. I confess I've never found bread very helpful in that regard.)

Bread can be a symbol, though, and not necessarily a theological one. "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread--and thou" is not a depiction of Eucharist, but it is richly symbolic.

And bread can be a sacrament. More about that tomorrow...

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Let's talk about food: Building community one bite at a time

[Companions of the Round Table, 14th century]
For some 20 years two friends and I have gotten together at least once a year to celebrate our birthdays. Since 1995 we have called ourselves "Three Tall Women"--that was the year Edward Albee's play by that name came to Chicago. Our birthdays are in February, August, and November, but it doesn't matter. Whenever we can find a time to be together, it's birthday time.

For maybe 10 years two other friends and I have gotten together at least once a year, also to celebrate our birthdays. Since we are all Leos, we call ourselves the Lionesses, and we try to meet in August. This year, though, we're meeting in October. We do what we can.

When my friends and I get together, sometimes we bring gifts and cards, and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we meet in homes, and sometimes we meet in restaurants. Sometimes we share joys, and sometimes we share sorrows. But here's the one thing we always do: we eat.

Somehow, food and friends belong together. The word companion comes from roots that evoke shared meals. This is obvious in Latinate languages: "with bread" is con pan in Spanish, con pane in Italian, com pão in Portuguese, and cu pâine in Romanian. My companion is one with whom I break bread.

Breaking bread was a vital component of early Christian life and worship. Brand-new believers "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.... [They] broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:42, 46).

Though we're talking about hospitality this week at St Barnabas, community is what's really important. By providing food and inviting guests, hospitable people help to make community possible. So do gracious guests who accept others' hospitality with gratitude and joy, and households who make a point of gathering regularly around the dinner table, and friends who meet for lunch or coffee.

I think St. Barnabas' mission statement is slightly defective. "We are a Christian community that is focused on Jesus Christ, centered in worship and prayer, and committed to participating in God’s mission of reconciliation in the world," it says. It would be more accurate if it said "centered in worship and prayer and shared food." We break bread together at the Eucharist, of course (we'll be talking about food as sacrament next week). But we break bread together at lots of other times too:
  • every Sunday during the fellowship time after liturgy
  • several weeks a year with the homeless who come for dinner, a place to sleep, and breakfast
  • the second Wednesday evening of each month at a parish potluck
  • with Foyer Groups and at international dinners
  • at Lenten soup-and-bread suppers
  • at the post-Easter Vigil feast
  • at a nearby soup kitchen and at a halfway house in Chicago
  • when parishioners are ill
  • when parishioners have a new baby
  • at all kinds of church celebrations
  • and sometimes, just because.
What does all this shared food do for us? I love this description from Eat With Joy by Rachel Marie Stone:
We sit at the same time, at the same table, acknowledging our common creatureliness as we stop and do the necessary, joyful business of eating. The same food goes into each of our bodies, building up our cells, becoming, quite literally, a part of each of us. We make memories and get a little closer to one another as we laugh and talk.... Sometimes table chatter is nonstop; sometimes the only sounds are of contented chewing. But regardless, we're mysteriously bound to each other in the breaking of bread.

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Let's talk about food: Hospitality for shy people

[Mother and me, 1950]
Something you should know about tall women who seem reserved and even distant  - they may just be shy or socially awkward, and they may really want to be your friend. I've understood this all my life, of course, but I was well into adulthood when my mother told me she understood it too.

My mother was not the kind of woman who could chat easily with strangers or charm other people's children. She would not have survived as a social worker, therapist, or nurse. If she had belonged to a church that equated righteousness with personally comforting the deranged or the homeless or the dying, she would probably have changed denominations.

I tell you this only to point out that hospitality has many faces.

My shy mother did have close friends, and she was known in our small town for her unrelenting hospitality. During my grade-school years when my father was president of a small college, she invited faculty families to dinner nearly every weekend. It was the late 1950s, and the dinners were pretty formal: white Quaker Lace tablecloth, Noritake china, and Community silverplate. Stemmed goblets filled with Hawaiian punch and ginger ale. Individual Jell-O molds with dabs of mayonnaise. A centerpiece. The amazing thing is that, with virtually no help (my father and I were useless in the kitchen), she managed to make all the hot foods finish cooking at the same time.

This was hospitality, to be sure, but her company dinners are not what impressed me most about my mother's approach. Back in the 1950s and 60s, I've learned, most American social occasions were one big Noah's Ark: you came in pairs or not at all. I did not realize that at the time, because it wasn't the way my mother operated. She had friends whose husbands got sick, or left them for other women, or died. These friends were often at our house. Sometimes we all went out and did things together. I never gave it a second thought.

Years later several of my mother's friends told me that once their husbands became unavailable, most invitations dried up. Couples they used to go out with stopped calling. For a time my mother was just about their only friend who continued to have them over for dinner.

I was dumfounded. It had never occurred to me that the death or desertion or illness of a spouse would make a mid-20th-century American woman a pariah. I thank my mother - a tall, reserved, possibly distant woman - for keeping me ignorant of such heartless behavior. And I thank her for giving me a lesson in hospitality by treating her hurting friends with such dignity that even her daughter had no idea she was doing anything unusual.

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A prominent Republican's views on health-care reform - in 1974

[From Loma Linda University Scope, summer 1974]
This afternoon while looking through old file folders, I came across the opening page of a 1974 article by Caspar Weinberger called "An honest look at needed reforms in America's health care."

Weinberger was chairman of the California Republican party from 1962-68 and served as Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Defense from 1981-87. When he wrote the article I found, he was Richard Nixon's Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. His Republican credentials could not be stronger.

Here are some stunning paragraphs from Weinberger:
This can and must be a year of responsible reform for our nation's health care financing system. Right now, 25 million Americans have no health insurance protection at all. Millions more have coverage that is clearly inadequate.

Right now, medical costs are threatening to once again climb at a steep rate, following last month's ending of price controls.

Right now, there are communities and neighborhoods in our nation without doctor or dispensary....

What we need, to close the current gaps, is a national program of comprehensive health insurance.

Such a program must not only cover everybody. It must also ensure quality care, and end the wasteful misuse of our medical resources that our present patch-work coverage encourages.

This misuse is costing us heavily. And it is directly traceable to gaps in insurance coverage....
Nearly forty years ago, one of the nation's most prominent Republicans thought we needed - immediately! - a total overhaul of health-care financing that, truth be told, sounds a lot like what Hillary Clinton proposed in 1993, and far more radical than the Affordable Care Act.

So what has changed since 1974, when responsible health-care reform was urgently needed?

The percent of uninsured Americans has increased. In 2012, 48 million Americans were uninsured. That's 15.4% of the population, compared to the 8.5 percent that were uninsured when Weinberger wrote.

Medical costs have soared. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, "the share of economic activity (gross domestic product, or GDP) devoted to health care has increased from 7.2% in 1970 to 17.9% in 2009 and 2010. Health care costs per capita have grown an average 2.4 percentage points faster than the GDP since 1970."

We still have a physician shortage, and it's getting worse.

What has changed, it seems, is the Republican Party.

I wish I had the rest of Secretary Weinberger's article. It was published in the Summer 1974 issue of Loma Linda University's Scope, but their online archive does not include this issue. I have the one page only because it was the reverse side of the last page of an article by my father. Ironically, the title of my father's article was "A theology of hope."

Let's talk about food: Restoring soul to food

[Jan Steen, "Meal," 1650]
"Food has a profound capacity for meaning and fostering community."

So writes Thomas Moore in "Food for the Soul,"an article in Resurgence and Ecologist magazine (Nov/Dec 2008). Moore, a former monk, a psychologist, and the best-selling author of Care of the Soul (1992), believes that food is (or should be) much more than fuel. When we bring imagination to food, we allow it to enhance community, conviviality, pleasure, beauty, spirituality--and no doubt lots of other good things.

"There is always a place for a quick meal," Moore acknowledges, "but everyone also needs communion, the intimate experience of conviviality that only food can provide." Here are two paragraphs from the article that especially pertain to this week's conversation topic at St Barnabas, hospitality.
Food ... brings people together, mysteriously serving the emotional life. Say you have trouble in your marriage. You call a friend for help. Do you say, “I know a solitary place with no distractions where we can have a serious talk”? Or do you say, “Let’s have lunch”? On such occasions do you need the calories or the chemicals? Do you need to deal with your hunger? Or do you know deep down that eating together will intensify your conversation?
Perhaps the greatest challenge in this time of rapid technological advance and the shrinking of the globe is to create a world community. But that important task can’t be done in the abstract. Food can play a role. Food as community, not as a commodity. Whatever power allows lunch to foster friendship, wedding cake a marriage, and bread and wine a religion could make a community of the world’s population. But we need first to restore soul to food.
Moore's article is short but deep. Though my friends who have studied the 16th- and 17th-century Puritans will point out that his comments about "puritanism" have little to do with the behavior of actual Puritans (apparently the first Thanksgiving drinks included "beer, brandy, gin, and wine," for example), the word "puritanical" has taken on a life of its own and I'm willing to give Moore a pass.

St B parishioners, here are some questions we might talk about Sunday:
  • Think of some hospitality stories from scripture. What foods were involved?
  • How does food foster community?
  • Are some foods better than others at fostering community?
  • Do we ever use food as a substitute for community?
  • How might we pay more attention to the "soul" of food?

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Let's talk about food: What I love about St Barnabas

Here are some stories that show what I love about St Barnabas.

About ten years ago, my friend and former colleague Lucille, then retired and in her late 70s, fell in love with St B. A gregarious woman, she soon had many new friends there. A dozen of us gave her a confirmation party at Macaroni Grill (she's second from right in the photo).

Lucille became very active in the parish. She befriended a sometimes homeless, always challenging parishioner who contracted breast cancer. She also befriended the woman's estranged mother and helped bring the two of them together before the woman died. And then Lucille was diagnosed with cancer - first in one lung, then in her liver, then everywhere.

St B parishioners got together to talk about how to help Lucille. Some helped her deal with her dying husband. Some helped her find affordable housing. Some took her to her medical appointments. Eventually Lucille and a few of her friends from St B decided to join an Anglican parish, which was more in line with her conservative beliefs, but the caring continued from all of us. When in her last days she was moved to a nursing home, a St B member was with her. When she died, a former St B member was holding her hand.

That's hospitality, both given and received.

I too benefited from St Barnabas-style hospitality. In 2011, I learned it was time to have open-heart surgery to correct a birth defect. Rev. Donna anointed me during a Sunday Eucharist, and the whole congregation prayed for my healing. David and I flew to Cleveland for the surgery. Bob took us to Midway for the outbound trip, and Estelle picked us up and brought us home afterward. While we were in Cleveland, a priest friend of Fr. Matt's visited me in the hospital.

Once I got home and began my long recovery, St B parishioners were there to help. Sue and Shirley came over and walked me around the neighborhood. A lot of people prepared and delivered meals--Dick and Shirley, Dolores and Paul, Lisa and Bob, Richard and Cari, Mary and Dean, Jean and Bob, Phil and Ashley, Art and Gayle, Al and Sue, Katelyn, Mark and Monica, and others, I think, that I appreciated every bit as much but was apparently too drugged to write down.

I was completely overwhelmed. In a good way.

When we talk about hospitality next Sunday, there's nothing I can teach St B parishioners. I've learned from them, though, that the best hospitality isn't something I do--it's something we do together. I'm looking forward to talking about it together too.


This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Let's talk about food: Abundance vs deprivation--where's your focus?

"Diets don’t just reduce weight, they can reduce mental capacity. In other words, dieting can make you dumber."

That's the beginning of a fascinating New York Times article called "The Mental Strain of Making Do With Less." Its author, Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan, is coauthor (with Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir) of a just-released book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. I haven't seen the book yet, but the article ties in well with the conversation we had at St Barnabas this morning about food as celebration.

Mullainathan writes:
Psychologists find that dieters have spontaneous self-generated cravings at a much higher rate than nondieters. And these cravings are not the dieters’ only distraction. Diets force trade-offs: If you eat the cookie, should you skip the appetizer at dinner? But that restaurant looked so good! Many diets also require constant calculations to determine calorie counts. All this clogs up the brain.
The result of diet-induced brain clogging? A measurable decrease in "logical and spatial reasoning, self-control, problem solving, and absorption and retention of new information"--which tends to lead to self-defeating decisions.

If we want to relate to food wisely and joyfully, we need to start with abundance, not deprivation. That's true even if - especially if - we really should be eating less, or differently.

A couple of years ago two of my family members were living with major dietary restrictions. When I realized I'd be cooking a week's worth of meals for both of them, my first reaction was panic. But then I found a website that listed all the things they could eat. To my amazement, the list was long, and it included a lot of delectable foods. My attitude changed just as soon as I printed the list and displayed it on my refrigerator door. I no longer had to think about deprivation--what they couldn't eat. Here was abundance--far more than we could eat in a mere week. Four whole pages of abundance, with color illustrations!

Next Sunday at St Barnabas we'll be talking about hospitality. There are a lot of hospitable people in my parish, and I'm eager to hear their stories. I'll write about my experience of St B's abundant hospitality tomorrow.

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Medicare Part D: Another year, another huge price increase

I signed up for Medicare last month. In addition to standard Medicare, I added Part D, the prescription drug benefit. My 2013  costs, if they had covered the entire year, would have come to $529 for insurance and $330 for prescription copays.

Today's mail brought the rates for 2014. The insurance premium has increased to $650, or by about 23%. Copays have also increased, to $616, or by nearly 87%. The total increase - assuming I won't need any additional medications - comes to 47%.

I was not happy when President Bush proposed and AARP supported Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. The idea of insuring seniors' drugs was good. The resulting law, which specifically forbids the federal government from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies, was insane.

Well, "insane" is putting a good face on it. The financiers who supported the companies who bought the politicians who voted for the law were by no means insane. They were lining their own pockets, never mind the rest of us.

It's obvious, isn't it? If the government gives away money without limits and accountability, retail prices rise, insurance premiums rise, and consumers end up paying as much (or more) out-of-pocket than before the government stepped in.

Want proof? Take a look at this chart from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Notice that the U.S. government spends about as much of its GDP on healthcare as other developed countries (without, however, insuring everybody, as the other countries do). Notice that, unlike citizens of other countries, U.S. citizens spend a whopping amount in addition to what the government spends. The difference? Those other countries put strict limits on what pharmaceutical companies and other medical suppliers can charge.

Some Americans suggest that the government should just stop subsidizing things like health care and education. That doesn't make sense unless you think that only rich people should have access to schools and hospitals. But it makes more sense than subsidizing something without putting a ceiling on what the lucky recipients can charge for their goods and services.

I am going to look for a different Medicare Part D insurance company. I don't expect to find one that's much better, however, until our lawmakers learn to say Yes to middle-class and disadvantaged people and a loud, resounding No! to rich institutions and individuals who want to get even richer at our expense.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Let's talk about food: Maybe some of us should love food more

[Renoir, 1881: Le déjeuner des canotiers]
Q. What is one of the best ways to look good, feel good, and enjoy a long life?
A. Celebrate!

Yes, it's counterintuitive. Most Americans are convinced that if only we could eat little enough fat, ingest few enough calories, spend enough sweaty minutes at the gym, and drink exactly 5 ounces of red wine a day, then we might live forever--with enough expensive medical intervention, of course.

How dreary.

The French, par contre, are famous bons vivants. They enjoy butter, red meat, long loaves of fresh bread, and out-of-this-world pastries. They love their wine, they tend to avoid exercise, and they get 30 days of paid vacation every year.

In her bestselling 2005 book, Mireille Guiliano claimed that French Women Don't Get Fat. Some do, of course, but only about 18% (compared to 33% in America). Weight, however, is not the point, even though Americans are obsessed with it. Health is a lot more important. French women win in that category too, living to about age 85 (compared to 81 for American women).

How can the French eat so richly and live so long? Researchers call it the French paradox, and they don't agree about how it works. Here's my theory, for what it's worth:

If you really love good food, you'll stock up on fresh produce, fresh-baked breads, fresh meat and fish, scrumptious cheese, and homemade desserts (unless you live near a French pâtisserie). Why waste time on junk food, convenience food, or fast food? To quote scripture out of context, "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food" (Isaiah 55.2).

If you really love good food, you'll eat it three times a day. You'll suspect that people who snack on crappy stuff all day and then come home too ravenous to cook real food probably don't have their priorities straight.

If you really love good food, you'll turn your meals into celebrations. You'll eat beautifully, choosing a variety of colorful foods and, sometimes, putting flowers on the table. You'll eat mindfully, savoring tastes and aromas. You'll eat gratefully, giving thanks for farmers and cooks and grocers and friends.

You can celebrate whether you're at a party, at table with family and friends, or eating alone. Eating regular, beautiful meals of fresh food is not all that hard to do. It doesn't have to be expensive. It's a lot more fun than the usual American way of eating. And, oddly, celebratory eating tends to make us look good, feel good, and live long.

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'll be leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.