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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wisdom from the Movies

From “Moonstruck”: “Everything is temporary!”

From “Mickey Blue Eyes”: “Never chase the bid.”

I had a third one in mind but can’t remember what it was.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Unnatural Animals

Picture an animal with the body of a lion and the head of a rhinoceros. Grafting the business model onto higher education produces just such a strange animal. Students, paying tuition to attend classes, are considered “customers,” but what are they buying? While they can pay for the time and talents of their instructors, they cannot buy knowledge or expertise: these they must work to acquire for themselves, and for this reason they cannot buy degrees or certification. When things work out well and students achieve the desired certification, when they are granted the degrees they seek, they themselves become “products” of the institution.

Here it is, then: A successful student goes in one end of the processing plant as a “customer” and comes out the other end as a “product.” Economics aside, when one looks at it carefully, isn’t it obvious that education cannot be considered industry and should not be run along the same lines or judged by the same standards?

Health care regarded as business produces another such unnatural animal. What can “customers” of health care purchase? They cannot neither buy health nor an alternative to death, the eventual inevitable end of us all. They receive time, attention, advice, access to medications, the ministrations of technicians and specialists who poke them with needles, inject them with chemicals, cut away pieces of their flesh and often send them on to other technicians and specialists for more of the same. Sometimes the desired results are achieved, and the person paying for services is relieved of pain and other ill effects of disease or patched back together after great physical trauma; however, as with education, the “customer” often has as much responsibility for and input into the result as the health care provider.

In health care under the business model, we must ask again the question we asked of education. What is the “product”? How is successful delivery of the “product” measured? Financial benefits to providers are measurable, but at the other end--? Those enamored of the business model see no difficulty in allowing a “market” in health care to accommodate higher and higher prices. They do not see a widening gap in health care delivery, the gap between those who can afford it and those who cannot, as a problem. This is how the market operates. This is the law of the jungle, the law of natural selection.

I ask again: What is the “product” in a health care “industry”? I do not have an answer.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The First Ones

There they were, modestly blooming their little hearts out, so easy to miss across the sea of mud. Sandwiched between the Ides of March and St. Patrick's Day, Wednesday's crocuses seemed to deserve a holiday of their own. At least, that's how I felt when they burst across my field of vision. Don't we need once in a while a spontaneous holiday, one not declared ahead of time, one that can't be predicted at all?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On Failing to Make the Leap

Memory tends to exaggerate. Memory takes an event that occurred once and perhaps was repeated two or three times and converts it to “always.” Thus memory tells me that my birth family, the nuclear family of father, mother and three little girls, was “always late.” The annual event that stands out in memory's files is arriving late to church the Sunday in spring when we should have set our clocks ahead an hour. It cannot really be the case that we forgot to re-set the clocks throughout my childhood, consistently, year after year, and yet that is how I remember it. I remember (painfully) our family arriving after the service had already begun, having completely missed the preceding Sunday School classes, and having to walk past the entire congregation, down the center aisle, to the only remaining empty pews, those in the first few rows of the church. In later years, during my adolescence, we were able to use the side aisle, but our embarrassment (I speak for myself and my sisters) was hardly mitigated, as all five of us sang in the choir, and all five—one bass, one alto and two sopranos—had missed the processional, and so we had to find our way, a tardy little robed-up quintet, into the choir corral (which must have another name, but it was not a "loft," not elevated in any way, just up in front of everyone) after the rest of the choir had marched in together and been seated on schedule.

This is my association with the “spring forward” time change, which I recall as being “invariably” neglected in our family household. We girls burned with shame. The family tardiness was hardly restricted to one day a year: that day simply stood out for reasons of its special noteworthiness and the annual--or not--repetition of the failing.

In adult life, determined not to repeat family history, my sisters and I developed a habit of allowing extra time in transit and arriving early for any and all appointments, usually with a book to read until the person we were meeting would show up on time. We didn’t mind waiting before the appointed hour. (Past the hour was different.) Our concern was not to keep anyone else waiting. I must admit, however, that when a friend described me as “punctual,” intending a compliment, I perceived the dismissive back of a hand. Who wants to be praised with such a goody two-shoes adjective?

Today is Sunday, the 13th of March, and I had a three o’clock appointment this afternoon. I prepared carefully, assembling representative books from and photo images of my sweet bookstore. David and I got to town early and made our usual rounds. I noted the time on the car clock countless times, calculating when we should turn toward the chosen rendez-vous.

We entered the bookstore downtown with what I had calculated was “plenty of time” for my meeting in the cafe. I looked at the clock. It was confusing, disorienting. Was it one of those trick clocks that some bars have, with the time shown backwards? No, I tried mentally flipping the image, and it still wasn’t right. Had the clock stopped? No, the minute hand was still jerking at intervals to show the passage of another sixty seconds. How long did it take me to decipher the face and realize that the time was 3:50? How long did it take me to remember that I should have----?

Yes, I had forgotten to spring forward. I had failed to make the leap. Confident in my preparations, all day I had labored under a delusion, now too late to correct. Oddly enough, at the time I should have been walking through that door, I had been talking to my mother and telling her I had a three o’clock appointment. But her days of having to hurry little girls to church and music lessons and 4-H meetings are long past. It’s up to me now. Most of the time I do pretty well. Not today, though. Rats!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Practicing Self-Denial

As everyone knows, today is Mardi Gras, the festival preceding the 40 days of Lent, but while Mardi Gras has become synonymous with orgies of self-indulgence, Lenten observances have mostly fallen by the wayside. I can’t help wondering: what is the point of a stand-alone Fat Tuesday?

“The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, Christian growth, penitence, conversion, and simplicity,” reads another site I found online. This site likens Lenten observance to a “spiritual spring cleaning.”

Even without Christian theology, a period of spring self-denial can make sense. In earlier centuries, winter stores were probably pretty low by March, and tightening belts was a way to get through until planting season. For spoiled and self-indulgent modern Americans, on the other hand, it can be as simple as a diet to shed unwanted winter pounds. What is “given up,” doesn’t have to be food, of course, but the basic idea is disciplined self-denial.

My first idea was to give up complaining for Lent, but after a few days’ reflection I realized that complaining is something I should give up, anyway, not something good to deny myself temporarily. Still, it wouldn’t be self-denial if it weren’t something tempting that has tremendous power over me. What could it be?

I’m thinking coffee. It’s a big step, but I want to take a big step. I want to clean my spirit along with my house.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Leeks vs. Daffodils

The emblem of Wales is the leek, arising from an occasion when a troop of Welsh were able to distinguish each other from a troop of English enemy dressed in similar fashion by wearing leeks. An alternative emblem developed in recent years is the daffodil, used and preferred over the leek by the English government [my emphasis added] as it lacks the overtones of patriotic defiance associated with the leek.

St. David's Day meetings are not boisterous celebrations of democracy and freedom in Wales, but rather the subdued remembrance allowed a captive nation under colonial rule.

You can read more about St. David and Welsh history here. One of my friends in graduate students at the University of Illinois was Annie from Wales. I called her “the girl with the aubergine hair.” You couldn’t help but notice Annie, and I’m sure no one who ever knew her could forget her.

Annie was incensed when an undergraduate in one of the classes she taught objected to her philosophical views, calling her “too liberal.” (What was he thinking?) “I’m not liberal!” Annie informed him hotly. “I’m radical!”

I cannot imagine Annie exchanging leeks for daffodils.