Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ross Perot's approach is what we need to break the muddle over health care reform

Won't someone please inject some
facts and figures into the health care debate? 

The more the debate trudges on in Washington over health care reform, also known as the campaign to repeal Obamacare, the less I understand even the basic contours of the ruckus. 

So confused am I that I woke up this morning thinking about Ross Perot, the short and very wealthy Texan with a squeaky voice who ran for president in 1992 on the promise of bringing businesslike rigor to the perennially chaotic federal government. The "Straight Talk Express" Perot called his campaign and John McCain borrowed the phrase in his 2000 presidential run.

Perot went on television, on his own dime if I recall correctly, armed with colorful bar graphs, pie charts and other teaching aids, plus a short pointing stick, to buttress his arguments. 

Now, lookee here people.  
Perhaps at this baffling juncture in the health care debate we need Perot's didactic style of politics to bring together both parties and have them explain to the American people just what the heck is going on. Three years after his failed campaign Perot even wrote a little-noticed book on health care reform.  Maybe there's something in it we should reprise.  

These televised teach-ins could be conducted by Rep. Paul Ryan, or perhaps Sen. Rand Paul—both devout followers of Ayn Rand's catechism of minimalist government—or some other prominent Republican leader, and televised nationwide to probably a limited but curious and motivated segment of the American public. 

President Trump definitely would not be qualified—even Republicans would admit as much—because other than continually calling Obamacare a "dee-saster," he doesn't seem to have a clue about what's specifically wrong with the program or how to fix it. You're fired. 

Democrats would be expected to put on their own health care reform show too, presenters yet to be determined.   

My assumptions are that there is something seriously flawed with the U.S. medical system that cries for urgent attention: It's monstrously expensive, more so than comparably developed countries. Worse still, it leaves out millions of Americans (twenty, twenty-five million?) with no access to basic health care. Lots of money for not-so-great results. 

Sorry, Fox News, shunting sick but uninsured people to the nearest emergency room is not anyone's idea of cost-effective or rational health care. 

The cynic in me must confess that I, soon to be seventy years old, don't have a dog directly in this race. Basic Medicare, plus some add-ons, pretty much covers my health care expenses, and Stew and I have enough resources to cover other costs here in Mexico or back in the U.S.

Yet I cannot write off the plight of millions of mom-and-pop-and-three-kids American families squeaking by on minimum wage or thereabouts, and trying to find health insurance that won't kill them with high premiums or deductibles, or critical exclusions in coverage. That doesn't seem fair. 

So here is what I would like to know:

1. What exactly is wrong with Obamacare? Republicans talk about it as if it were some dreaded fungus about to eat America's brain. Obama being a Democrat and black, and an all-purpose voodoo doll for Republicans, hasn't made an objective debate any easier. 

Still, I don't honestly understand what's wrong, perhaps because I've never fully understood how it works. 

Obamacare's elimination of pre-existing conditions clauses sounds like a good idea, though I can appreciate how it exposes insurers to more risk and potential expenses. But that's what insurance pools and actuarial tables are for, no?

In fact, when we retired but were not old enough to qualify for Medicare, Stew and I took a stab at buying individual policies in the much-vaunted "free market" and what we found were not only sky-high premiums but explicit exclusions of anything that might actually afflict us. 

I had a retina operation: So insurance policies wouldn't cover anything related to my eyes. And so on to the point the policies didn't seem to cover much of anything other than getting run over by an eighteen-wheeler.

Obamacare is expensive alright, and someone has to pay for it. Obama tried to cover the cost by taxing the very rich and requiring individuals to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Taxes of any kind, particularly on the wealthy, are a mortal sin for Republicans, but what else is there? I'm listening. 

Time for Ryan, McConnell or Rand to have their Ross Perot moment and pull out their pie charts—or maybe flashy PowerPoint presentations—and explain why Obamacare is the worst, followed by the better ideas they have to replace it. 

Or if they believe in leaving health care up to the push and pull of the free market, I'd like to hear how that's going to work too. We need specifics rather than sermonettes about the horrors of big government. 

Cost-containment in health care must be part of the discussion. How's that's going to happen without some sort of government intervention? I want to hear how we're going to manage the clash of insurance companies, drug companies, hospital chains and other special-interest icebergs out to protect their profit margins. 

In fact, we have scant details about a Republican grand vision for health care for America. We hear rumors about obscure and contradictory legislative maneuvers, and last-minute fixes taking place but without the benefit of open hearings or public debate. It sounds like bubble, bubble, toil and trouble rather than an honest plan.

Democrats should get their show together too. How do we control federal budget deficits while adding another hefty line item to the expense side? What is wrong with Obamacare and how do you propose to fix it? And what about all those lobbyists for the medical-industrial complex banging at your door? 

So far Democrats have adopted the old tactic of standing on the sidelines watching the Republicans shoot each other. Recent talk about a single-payer system also sounds like fodder for a college bull session over pizza and beer, not a realistic plan. 

Who would present the Democratic vision? Please, no Nancy Pelosi, Dick Schumer or, God forbid, Hillary Clinton. There's got to be a new player in the Democratic bullpen. Looking for new faces and ideas itself would be a healthy exercise for Democrats.

Ross? Nah. He's 87 years old and happy somewhere in Texas counting his money.

###

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The debate over medical care in Mexico

There aren't many sure shots in life.
Medical care in Mexico is not among them. 
     The constant chatter among San Miguel expats about medical care reminds me of the fleet of old American cars cautiously sputtering, wheezing and farting along the streets of Havana.

Invariably there is something wrong with one of them and opinions abound, expressed with much gusto, about the best way to fix a malfunctioning carburator or gallbladder, and punctuated by a horror story or two about how someone's '57 Chevy expired recently, never to be revived again. Or the shock of a dear San Miguel friend who went in for a routine colonoscopy at nine in the morning and was dead by five in the afternoon, for reasons never cleared.

"If he had taken that car to my mechanic Víctor, he could have fixed it, I'm sure!" someone would offer during a post-mortem comida, only to be contradicted by another equally vehement person who'd argue that the best mechanic—or orthopedist or dentist—is not Víctor but Manuel or Dr. Gonzáles.

     One indisputable fact is that medical attention is very inexpensive in Mexico compared to the U.S.. That prompts many medically uninsured Americans to cross the border to get care, or sometimes to seek exotic treatments not available or illegal in the U.S.

Fancy this: Picture of the new MAC Hospital in San Miguel,
taken from its Facebook page. 
An eye exam with my our excellent ophthalmologist, for example, runs about fifty-five dollars. It would be at least double that in the U.S.

The flipside is that all medical and hospital care here is cash or credit card only, while in the U.S. Medicare would cover most or all of the bills, outrageously high as they might be.

     The imponderable clinker is competence: Does the doctor know what he or she is doing? Is the quality of care and facilities here comparable to those in the U.S.?

That's where opinions and experiences vary wildly among San Miguel expats and also what drives the popularity of medical evacuation insurance.

Doubts over competence are aggravated by lack of governmental or professional oversight. There is no malpractice insurance, a much-criticized and expensive safeguard in the U.S. that does push costs up—but also runs incompetent bozos out of business.

Expats often mention English fluency as a guarantee of professional competence. Having someone you can communicate with is reassuring but not necessarily a substitute for skills and experience.

In addition, there are no internet-based or other sources one can consult to determine the professional credentials of a medical practitioner or his malpractice record, or the medical specialties or mortality rates at a particular hospital for certain procedures.

In this fog of factual information, word-of-mouth and blind faith rule. Patient beware.

     Recently two medical facilities have appeared in San Miguel. One is a mid-size hospital on the outskirts of town; the other an "urgent care" clinic at a strip mall.

We don't know anything about either one except Mexican or multinational medical investors must perceive a viable market in San Miguel with its burgeoning population of expats and wealthier Mexicans. These are private, for-profit operations.

Our diminutive mayor during the opening ceremony.
  (From Correo newspaper)
During the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, San Miguel's mayor Ricardo Villarreal pointedly mentioned the city's growing population of foreign residents who'll surely take advantage of the new hospital.

New buildings and shiny machines, of course, are only as good as the people who operate them. And for testimonials about miraculous treatments or near-death experiences at these two venues we'll have to rely, again, on the grapevine.

     After living in San Miguel for more than ten years, Stew and I would rate medical care here as C-plus. We're confident enough with our medical contacts that we don't lose sleep about receiving appropriate emergency care. But anything more complex or long-term than that would take us to medical facilities on the Other Side. Pronto.

Stew suffered the worst mishap when a much-praised orthopedic surgeon—who spoke perfect English!—botched a carpal tunnel operation on his right hand that had to be redone in San Antonio. Stew's is hardly the only report of bungling by this guy. If he were practicing in the U.S. either his license or his malpractice insurance would have been cancelled long ago.

Apart from that we've run into botched treatments and just flat-out wrong diagnoses that have given us pause. Screw-ups occur anywhere and medicine is not an exact science. Still, we don't want to be part of someone's learning curve or take undue chances.

So here's our current plan. First we have established a relationship with a young doctor at the local hospital whom we would call in case of an emergency. We've used him before and he seems competent, thorough and most important, ready to call for a second opinion if he has any doubts.

We are also establishing a primary care relationship with a doctor in San Antonio whom we can visit for our annual physical and who will keep our medical records. Finally, we both have air evacuation insurance for an annual combined premium of approximately $1,000. Air evacuation to the U.S. runs about $35,000 and is not something you can haggle about in the middle of an emergency.

Meanwhile, Stew and I will be traveling to San Antonio next week to meet a potential family doctor at a major hospital who could be the new Dr. John Glynn, our primary physician in Chicago for about twenty years.

We expect to be doing some strategic shopping, restaurant-hopping and movie-watching too in between appointments.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Why is Mexico Mexico and Iceland Iceland?

The differences are legion, but respect for
the rule of law may be the most telling 

     Whenever Stew and I travel to a so-called First World country, returning to Mexico, our home for almost 12 years, is invariably a shock.

The taxi ride from the Mexico City North bus station to the airport, or vice-versa, is an hour of hopping and bouncing, and high-speed weaving and zigzagging, with scenes of urban grit flashing past the windows like a fast-forward slideshow. The first time the experience is a bit exotic, even exciting. Lately, it grates.

The views from the bus that takes us to San Miguel are no less jarring. As we approach San Miguel, on the right-hand side—and a stone's throw from the municipal building—we catch sight of the city's ever-expanding garbage dump—with no fences or boundaries, along with busted road markers and other signs of dilapidation, indifferent government, or both.

That hackneyed expression crosses your mind: We're not in Kansas any more, or Amsterdam, Lisbon or even San Antonio, Texas.  
     Definitely not Iceland, where Stew and I recently spent close to two weeks. It's a spectacularly beautiful, Kentucky-size island, with just 320,000 residents, that seemed so orderly and peaceful it could have been Switzerland as interpreted by Walt Disney. 

Reykjavíc, not Mexico. 
The topic of comparative politics and economic development has always been fascinating to me. Why does tiny Costa Rica prosper placidly in the middle of the perpetually violent and impoverished Central America? How come Haiti is such a pit of poverty next to the not-nearly-as-bad Dominican Republic? Why is there such a difference in per capita incomes among Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, which are next to one another? 

Certainly Mexico and Iceland are vastly different along every vector imaginable: size, history, natural resources, ethnicity, not to mention predatory neighbors and climate.

But for all their unfathomable differences, by all rights Mexico should be far more developed and prosperous than Iceland.
     Iceland brushes against the Arctic Circle and is kept from freezing solid by the Gulf Stream that comes up from Mexico, ironically enough. It straddles uneasily across two of the earth's tectonic plates, the North American and the Euro-Asian, that constantly shift this way or that and sometimes announce their moves by belching magma along with ash, smoke and rocks the size of midsize sedans. The climate? On a merry Christmas Day Icelanders might get five hours or less of diffuse daylight, never mind sun, and it'll take several months before the wintry penumbra dissipates and the night/day ratio is reversed. 

Unlike Mexico, Iceland doesn't have many natural resources except cod fishing—an ancient and perilous occupation—and more recently, tourism. Early this century Iceland suddenly erupted as a international financial casino, with billions of dollars, yens and euros flying in and out, a free-for-all that ended just as quickly as it began when all its three banks went bankrupt, presaging the worldwide financial crisis of 2008. 

An economic depression followed that lifted, miraculously, a couple of years later when the country took all the "wrong" steps toward recovery. It let the banks collapse rather than bail them out, and the government guaranteed the accounts of Icelandic depositors but stiffed foreign speculators, in addition to a number of other unorthodox measures. Unlike their colleagues in London and New York, banking executives were sent to prison for their role in the economic catastrophe.
     That last point may be the most symbolic and significant to Iceland's success: The country took the unusual step of sending crooked bankers to a remote prison, at the foot of a glacier and an extinct volcano, to work on their memoirs. That was gutsy move neither the U.S. nor Britain dared to take.

In you've lived in Mexico for a while you probably have gotten inured to top-to-bottom corruption and rampant disregard for the law.

There's the quotidian grind of spectacular killings and gang wars alright, but more corrosive is the lack of transparency, an element of civic morality that leads businesses to deal confidently with the government and each other according to established rules, and citizens to trust the authorities. There are rules clearly enunciated and respected by all the players.

In the 2016 Corruption Perception Index conducted by Transparency International, Mexico scores a dismal 30 points out of a hundred, and ranks 123 out of 176 nations studied. Tiny Iceland scores 78 points out of 100, and ranks 14 out of 176 countries—not as high as the hyper-straight Danes but miles ahead of Mexico.

The connection between lack of a rule of law and poverty—and which comes first?—is hard to unravel but seems elemental.

José Ugaz, chairman of Transparently International neatly described the problem: "In too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity.” Amen, José.

Mexico however might take a some solace in one regard: Icelanders seem to have discovered Mexican food. One restaurant we visited had a large section of the menu devoted to enchiladas, tacos and other Mexican delicacies and another offered tortilla chips and guacamole to nibble on before the main course. The guacamole—how far did those avocados have to travel?—tasted realistic enough.

###

A slideshow of my photos of Iceland is available at
https://www.flickr.com/photos/alcuban/albums/72157685943935123


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Amateur forestry thrives at the ranch

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.
The second best time is now."
               (Sent to me by Anita, a friend in San Antonio)

When we bought the ranch nine years ago, the first thing Stew and I did was put a fence around it. We'd been warned that property lines in rural Mexico could be fluid and contentious and that it was a good idea to put up a fence before the ink on the property survey even dried.

That was the first, and maybe the most important, step we've taken in our campaign to restore our three hectares to what they might have been like before man—and his goats, sheep, cattle, burros and other animals—ran roughshod over it and denuded the land almost down to bedrock.

The "Mexican Eagle" is actually a
falcon and its proper name is
"Crested Caracara"
With the hungry animals kept at bay, vegetation—nothing fancy, mostly weeds, cacti and wild trees and bushes—promptly popped up to create prickly, waist-high and nearly impenetrable jungle.

It covers the entire ranch except for about an acre on which our house and surrounding garden sit. Rabbits, snakes, rats, roadrunners and various birds—including Mexican eagles hovering overhead—seem to enjoy the new landscape.

We then used the native rocks to build small terraces, like necklaces delineating the gardens that would come later, to help keep the soil from washing downhill during heavy rains.

One of our three Michoacán pines, which
weren't supposed to grow around here. 
But the most important—and expensive and frustrating—part of our restoration effort has been to plant about two hundred trees, twenty percent of which have succumbed to our inexperience and the lousy eroded soil.

It's hard to picture that once, before the arrival of the plundering Spaniards, the hills around us were dense oak forests. Félix, who climbed those hills as a child says there are few huge oaks still standing and the occasional scampering deer.

Our experience as arborists being so brief and confounding, it's hard to suggest any rules to anyone attempting what we have tried to do.

One would be to buy large trees, two or three meters high, and dig ample holes—with a backhoe— twice the diameter of the root balls, and then backfill with good black soil mixed with compost. Planting spindly saplings in skimpy holes is largely a waste of time.

Yet contradicting this rule, and most any other rules of tree-planting, there seem to be an equal number of  exceptions.

Félix' allée, which he created from seedlings
from the Trueno tree in our front yard.
In the entrance patio to our house we have a Trueno tree, as it is called here. (I believe the real name is Japanese Privet, or Ligustrum lucidum.) It had a very hard time getting established and then took off. It now flowers and self-seeds prolifically. The bees from our hives love it.

Not one to waste any plant material no matter how insignificant, Félix set out to collect the tiny seedlings from under the tree and nurture them into scraggly foot-high trees. He then planted them along the driveway creating an allée of truenos now about two meters tall.

On the other hand, just yesterday we had to dig up two Sycamores, of good size and properly planted, that died after two seasons. We replaced them with two Boxelder maples (Acer negundo), to join another one we planted a couple of years ago and seems to be doing very well.

The peach tree and the smaller mesquite came out
of nowhere—we didn't plant them. The peach produced
about twenty five peaches this year. 
Another rule that has proven unreliable is to use either native trees or those that seem to grow around here, even if originally from somewhere else.

Our biggest success story is a trio of Michoacán pines (Pinus Devoniana) that we were warned would never make it in our dry climate. They are thriving, the long droopy needles dancing in the breeze.

One customer called Australian pine (Casuarina Equisetifolia), with long needles that seem to whistle when blown by the wind, has survived but not really prospered.

Two winners are the Greggi pines (Pinus Greggii), a dozen of which we bought from an abandoned Christmas tree farm down the road and are doing fine, and eight to ten cedars that seem to be happy also.

One of three olives, two arbiquina variety and
one mission. They have produced 
three olives—one each.
A very common tree to San Miguel called the Pirul (Schinus molle), also called the Peruvian pepper tree, has done so-so here. We have three or four that have lived and just as many that croaked. A huge pirul, the only large tree on the property, is thriving at the end of the drainage pipe from our septic tank.

Three Jacarandas have died during our windy and dry winters.

This is but a small selection of hits-and-misses from our campaign to restore trees to our land. Other winners are three fresnos (ash trees); several peach trees; mesquites; a magnolia (thriving); olives (growing but no signs of olives); two walnuts (very slow growing); four cypresses; three Chinese elms; an orchid tree plus an aster that has quadrupled in size since his arrival five or six years ago.
One of the two new Boxelders, memorializing my mom
and Félix's grandmom. Behind them are one of many
cedar trees at the ranch. 

Regardless of our tree-planting batting average, when I walk around the ranch I cannot help but be gratified with our efforts. The land isn't barren any more, and the thickening forest provides a natural privacy barriers from any future neighbors.

We can think of this mini forest as our legacy to Mexico and also to our forebears.

I told Félix I wanted to dedicate the two new Boxelders, one to my mom, Georgina, and one to Julia, his recently deceased grandmother.

Félix preparing the memorial stones. 
He had never heard of such a tradition but promptly endorsed it. He painted their names on two stone tiles we had in the basement and placed them at the foot of each tree.

We hope Julia and Georgina look after these trees from Upstairs and make them prosper.




###

N.B. If there are any readers who really know their trees, or want to help out with our forestry efforts, feel free to leave comments below.


Monday, August 7, 2017

When the lights went out and peace came in

Our solar electric system went on the fritz and
that brought us some unexpected blessings 

Our house is "off the grid"—the only external input is a refill of propane gas every two or three months—and the system worked well until last Friday afternoon when our solar electricity rig crashed, taking down with it all appliances and electronic gizmos. 

We bitched and fretted as Stew tried unsuccessfully to fiddle with the system's inverters and controllers. And so we just went to sleep on a blessedly cool, dark and breezy night.  

The inverter (DC>AC) and the three controllers. 
Lying in bed we marveled about the total silence. No whirring clocks, whooshing ceiling fans, humming refrigerator, no music or radio announcers to go to sleep with and most important, no internet as the WiFi router also went dead. 

It amazes how much electricity-generated noise there is in a house. 

No news either. Trump could have been blowing up the world while we laid in bed our eyes straining to spot through the darkness any feature or shadow on the bedroom ceiling   

The farm animals around the ranch didn't even moo or bray or stir either, as if out of respect for our newly discovered peace. Roosters and turkeys were either sound sleep or too far away for us to notice. 

All the lights went off: the outside spotlights, the LED light over the kitchen sink, the night lights on the hallways and the tiny red standby lights on the TV and the computer. 

Except for some moonlight tentatively peeking through the clouds, the outside was pitch black too. 

We should do this often, it occurred to me—shut off everything, including our mouths, and enjoy the sound of deep, unexpected silence. 

With your senses defeated—nothing to hear, see or smell—the mind turns inward, a luxury it seldom enjoys amid all the distractions The flickering of two votive candles added to the calm of the moment rather than cut through the darkness.

The next morning I woke up relaxed, but Stew, the compulsive fixer-upper, had to ruin everything by checking on the refrigerator, which had maintained normal temperature even when turned off.  

Our mini generator sitting in its
compartment outside the garage. 
Then he turned on the rackety emergency gas generator and promptly the electric gadgets flickered back to life, most disruptively the internet with its stream of news, emails and marketing messages. The coffee pot commenced gurgling.

The generator charged the batteries and brought our electrical system back to normal through Saturday. 

Brian Richards, San Miguel's ponytailed solar energy wizard, showed up early Sunday morning and found that one of our three controllers had short-circuited and would have to be replaced at a cost of approximately six hundred and fifty dollars. 

It's not too much considering the system has worked reliably for six or seven years, even as our neighbors often have been left in the dark, sometimes for three or four consecutive days, waiting for repair crews of the government-owned electric company to detect there was an outage, let alone fix it. 

We thought we were lucky to have uninterrupted electric service and all the noises and disruptions that come with it. 

I'm not so sure anymore. It might good for our minds and senses to turn off the juice once in awhile even if our photovolatic system is working perfectly. 

###

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Why do you go to church anyway?

Is it cynical to attend church
mainly to meet other people?
While in the U.S. church attendance continues to decline, during our eleven years in San Miguel we've noticed that English-speaking churches here seem to be growing almost as fast as restaurants and art galleries.

No doubt previous religious affiliations point some expats to certain denominations, but I suspect the chief driver of church attendance here may be largely social: To meet other expats and make friends as much as to formalize one's relationship with the Almighty.

Come by and meet someone. 
The largest and least traditionally God-centered congregation is the Unitarian Fellowship. It shuns even the word "church."

On a sunny Sunday it may attract almost two hundred people—a motley stew of atheists, Jews, lapsed Christians and others, along with ponytailed, gray-haired liberals still grousing over Vietnam War-era causes.  Another prosperous venue is San Miguel's Jewish Community Center.

Both groups supplement their religious offerings with discussion groups, lunches and dinners where people get to know each other, a particular attraction for English-speaking Americans who may feel disorientation, even loneliness, living in a foreign, Spanish-speaking culture.
Stew and I are irregular members of the San Miguel's Community Church, a relatively recent group that offers two services—a full-strength, Episcopal-ish liturgy at 11:00 and at 9:30 a small discussion group for a dozen or so people like us who prefer a lighter, less dogmatic sip of religion.

To this morning's early service someone brought Osa, an affable, beefy mutt, who insisted everyone rub her behind the ears while they discussed how to deal with chaos in their daily lives. It may sound like an arid topic but it proved quite thought-provoking, as were the comments from the floor which ranged from old-time religion to no religion at all.

For Stew and me, our views regarding God and His/Her intervention in our daily lives remain, hmm, very sketchy. Yet Stew and I enjoy thoughtful, if sometimes arcane discussions even when laced with Scriptural references. Exchanges are invariably cordial and respectful.

Just as much, though, we like checking up on the friends we have made through the church and supporting its charitable efforts which last year came to almost twenty-five thousand dollars, a significant bundle of cash in Mexico. The Unitarians also distribute around thirty thousand dollars a year to social service groups.

Are Stew and I cynical for attending church partly or largely for social reasons? Or for abandoning the Community Church on certain Sundays when the Unitarians may have a more interesting speaker, and touching base with our friends there?

Might we be on a slippery road to hell for our sham religiosity, spending more time conversing with our friends rather than the Person Upstairs?
For the flip side of this existential dilemma, check out a short video in this morning's New York Times of a drive-in church in Florida where congregants park their cars on a vast grassy knoll and listen to the service, in isolation, on a dedicated radio frequency.

I recommend the video, it's great: https://nyti.ms/2uhbdQ1

When you arrive, you are given a sheet with the order of service, a small plastic cup with wine (or grape juice?) and a tiny communion wafer that you're supposed to consume on cue.

The camera scanned past some of the congregants, including a large woman, her stomach pressing on the steering wheel, rapt with the minister's words; someone in a convertible with a black Lab, the dog's ears at full attention; and another person who brought a cat, all of them listening to a distant minister clad in a red polo shirt and speaking from behind a clear plexiglass pulpit.

Halfway through the service an usher on a golf cart drove around to take up the collection.

The visitors come to listen to the minister, maybe even God, but apparently want nothing to do with one another. At the end, everyone turns on the ignition and goes home with not even the benefit of a coffee hour during which they could meet other attendees.

How does this drive-in church handle more intimate affairs like funerals? Put the casket on the golf cart while the mourners mourn in their cars with the air conditioning and radio on?

And still, if the depressing existentialist philosopher who noted that "hell is other people" was literally correct, that would put the solitary churchgoers in Florida on a more direct path to Heaven than Stew and me with all of our friends.

I can just imagine St. Peter's charge against us at the Final Judgment: "Attending church under false pretenses."

###

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Forget emails. Just call.

"Now they tell me!" said
Donald J. Trump, Jr. 

During the past few days I've soured on that modern addiction to e-mails, a communication medium that frequently creates confusion and misunderstanding and can even get one of your mammaries in the wringer.  

Yesterday I called my friend Barbara to find out how she was doing after a nasty accident in which she sliced open one of her arms from her wrist to nearly past her elbow. 

I could have sent a short, hi-how-are-ya email, as I tend to do, that would have fulfilled my social obligation to inquire about the welfare of a sick or injured friend, but without really exchanging much warmth, emotion or detail. 

In other words, a formality, a way to communicate but not really.  

Instead I called her and we spoke for about twenty minutes—about the briefest conversation possible with a Texas talker like Barbara—in which she filled me in on the details of her recovery, how one of the Mexican neighbors whom she hardly knew took her to the emergency room, how good and surprisingly inexpensive was the medical care she received. 

We enjoyed communicating with one another, as they say, in "real time."

This morning we called Richard to wish him a happy birthday, the actual number of years at this point a closely guarded secret between him and his husband Don. Richard was out on some errand but Don said he'd pass on the message and I'm sure he'll call back and we will talk about movies and exchange gossip and jokes, anything but his age. 

The most insipid type of modern communications has to be the "e-card" prepared and sent, for a fee, by one Jackie Lawson, a mythical interpreter of personal feelings who's really a computer somewhere in South Dakota. 

It's the sappiest and most impersonal way to express any message, be it sympathy or congratulations. 
It usually involves an illustration with moving birds, trees or rabbits, harmonized with equally saccharine e-music. 

It would be a profoundly moving gesture if friends actually sat down and doodled the cards themselves, no matter how ineptly. But it's not: Instead you pick a topic from a computer-generated menu and for a modest fee—ka-chink!—Jackie will capture and transmit your most sincere and heartfelt feelings. 

I've been surprised how normally terse people can open up at the sound of a sympathetic voice. Recently our friend Don's wife Sheryl died—not "passed away"—and rather than an emailed condolence Stew called him in Canada. They spoke for about a half-hour, sharing loving memories of Sheryl that even the most eloquent email could not convey. 

There is also the grenade-like peril of impulsiveness in emails, which are not nearly as private as we think. 


I should have called first?
One time an explicitly amorous message between a woman working for me and my boss accidentally crash landed in my email inbox. Uh-oh. 

Another time a raunchy observation that I meant for one person got bollixed up by the "reply to all" option and went out to a hundred people I didn't even know. Make that a double "uh-oh."

In the old days of written correspondence, involving pen and ink, there was a lag time between the brain and the tip of the pen, and your feelings were tempered by the physical presence of paper and your words in front of your eyes, be they love or anger, or sleaziness or other lower emotions not suitable for third parties.  

Not so with emails. Just ask Trump Jr. whose impulsiveness, combined with his towering arrogance and dimwittedness—a volatile mixture—put him and his tweet-happy dad in deep trouble, as if they needed any more.

Maybe he should have pondered, hmm, who is this Russian Mata-Hari and why is she calling me? Maybe I should find out—call someone—before replying "I love it!," setting up meetings at Trump Tower, with however many people, and then having to spend several weeks discombobulating, dissembling, consulting with lawyers and trying to roll back what couldn't be. 

Next time, Donny, call first.

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