It’s a gruesome yet beautiful, redeeming love story about this crazy homeless liberal dude with long hair, one set of clothes, and dirty sandals who possesses an open heart, and an open mind, and then He opens doors and cares for immigrants (He was an immigrant himself), plus the sick and poor. Lepers.
His best friends lived hand-to-mouth and stank of fish.
Wealthy “conservative” Pharisees and Sadducees don’t give a damn about the sick and poor who have already been born — they make it as hard on women as they possibly can — and they absolutely HATE the liberal.
They try to “own” Him several times, but His wit makes them turn away in shame.
“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.”
They accuse Him of being “woke” after His Sermon on the Mount opened everyone’s eyes with the concept of grace: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
The story is set in the past and the Pharisees and Sadducees don’t have AR-15s yet to turn Him into Holy Goo (not to be confused with the Holy Ghost), so they have to nail him to a tree.
But He wins in the end!
You’ll have to read it to see how.
It parallels exactly what you see on Fox, but with the lies cut out. And it gives you comfort when you read the END OF THE STORY.
A few years later these immigrants didn’t want to work so hard — and they loved the cash that free labor cotton raked in — so they enslaved 10.7 million fellow human beings. A team of these slaves built the White House and Capitol building under the immigrants’ lash.
White supremacists — the seed of these same immigrants who sucked down the generous natives’ food supply, enslaved fellow humans, and now slaughter school children — nearly finished the job by stabbing Capitol policemen in their heads with American flag poles and grinding democracy into the dirt with a gigantic Big Lie.
Mission almost accomplished.
Only one more insurrection and white supremacists will be free to build chimneys and eliminate all those who believe the sky is blue and water is wet.
I teach creative writing two days a month at a local state prison: Northeast Correctional Complex, Mountain City, Tennessee. I wrote a column here about The Lifer's Club, and how they serve the community.
A letter recently arrived from one of my students, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. It's been sent to every major newspaper in Tennessee, and several in Virginia and Georgia. One reporter asked for my phone number in an email, then never called. No one else responded except a reporter in Memphis who said he was "too far away" to do anything about the situation.
If you have any connection to power, possess a conscience, and wish to alleviate the misery these fellow human beings are experiencing, please help.
At this point, I cannot reach anyone who cares.
To: Tennessee Newspapers and Fellow Christians
From: Anonymous Inmate, TN Prison System, NECX
Date: 3 March 2022
Dear Media Representatives and Fellow Christians,
This is my first time writing a letter imploring help due to institutional issues. The Tennessee Department of Corrections is in a state of crisis. Staffing has been in decline for roughly the past ten years due to the depredation of our previous commissioner, Derrick Schofield. His successor, Tony Parker, made no changes to Schofield’s policies, and thus nothing improved. Parker has announced his retirement effective November of this year.
The staffing issue came to a head in 2021 with COVID’s fallout, and most Tennessee prisons are in a perpetual state of pseudo-lockdown. Our facility had faired the best in the state until recently, and actually maintained a state of semi-normalcy until October 1st.
Our staff began leaving in droves this summer due to issues with our current warden, Bert C. Boyd, who has been in charge of this facility since mid-2019. Simply put, he treats his staff like garbage but Nashville won’t can him. At the “town hall” meeting outside the prison on September 30th, community members and ex-staff aimed their grievances at Boyd. Whatever was said, about seventy more staff, each with a year’s paid leave built up, didn’t show up for work the next day.
We’ve been in lockdown since October 1st. Boyd calls it “restricted movement” because “essential” inmate workers still get to work (i.e., kitchen, laundry, suicide watch, and of course, the TRICOR industrial plant). For purposes of this letter, I’ll refer to it as a lockdown. I am an inmate who leaves his cell less than eight hours a week and has to defecate three feet from another man with a sheet in between.
Since October 1st there have been no religious programming, no educational programming, no parole-mandated pre-release programming, no incentives, no leisure time or law library access, and we are fed three cold meals a day on Styrofoam trays.
Some weeks we are allowed out of the cell on weekdays for a few hours. Other weeks, we are allowed thirty minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a shower and a phone call. On weekends and holidays, nobody comes out of their cell unless they have a visitor.
The few remaining officers are often made to work sixteen-hour shifts, and there is only one officer to watch two units. The emergency call buttons have been disabled since Schofield came into power, so if you have a serious medical emergency while the officer is in the other unit, you die. One man had a stroke and wasn’t able to get attention for thirty minutes. Then, medical refused to send a wheelchair so it took another thirty minutes for him to reach the infirmary with assistance. Apparently, medical has been told: “not to respond unless the inmate is non-responsive”. Thankfully, this particular individual survived.
As staff continues to resign, gangs have gone wild. It turns out the locking mechanisms on the doors are extremely easy to defeat, so gangs move about at will.
Holes were found pried in the complex’s fences, allowing gangs to rob the “incentive” units. The administration responded by adding padlocks to the cells (in violation of fire codes), which the “problem” units promptly jammed or broke.
The inmates’ legal aides were considered “essential” workers for a few weeks, to absolve the administration of denying us access to the courts (four legal aides can’t serve the function of access for over 1,500 inmates). However, on November 4th, the gangs broke into the library and stole surge protectors and other equipment, and since then, even legal aides have been denied library access.
Before legal aides were given the boot, one created a flyer supplying information about civil rights complaints filed against Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi for analogous circumstances, as well as contact information for the U.S. attorney’s office.
Our assistant warden saw the flyer and said: “I’ll nip this in the bud,” and made a beeline for the mailroom. The mail has been noticeably delayed since then.
On November 22nd, a gang staged an uprising in Unit 11 and took control of the unit for the day and part of the night. The local sheriff’s department and the Community Emergency Response Team from Nashville had to be mobilized to regain control of one unit.
If the gangs had coordinated, they could have easily taken the prison and staged a mass escape. The incident was reported on the news as: “Fight at Northeast Correctional Complex” leaves one inmate hospitalized”. A friend of mine was on the cleanup crew and spoke of bloodstained shirts, pepper-spray-soaked blankets, and hundreds of rubber bullets strewn about the unit.
I intended to file a grievance over denial of access to the courts, but it turns out the grievance sergeant is among those who have abandoned ship. When the associate warden was asked how grievances will be resolved, he responded: “We’ll do the best we can.” Our facility now has no system for resolving internal paperwork.
The mental health of the inmate population has declined severely with this ongoing situation. I serve from time to time as an inmate observer (suicide watch), but I resigned due to a shift-hour change and the horrific conditions to which observees are subjected.
They are often kept in cells with feces-smeared walls, dressed in nothing but a paper or cloth gown, and sleep on a bare concrete slab. Guards neglect and sometimes even mock the detainees. One man was so mentally out of touch that he would lie on the slab in his own waste, and when a guard told him to get in the shower, he stood in the shower for an hour without turning on the water. I personally heard a mental health administrator cuss out a man for being on his third trip to the program for cutting his wrists.
Those still serving as observers say the caseload has doubled, and the smell is so bad from the mentally ill flinging waste through the door cracks that the observers have to be stationed in a break room outside the corridor.
Now our warden is planning to restrict our phone accounts to only allow one ten-minute call per day because he can’t stop inmates from breaking out of their cells to make calls. This will further restrict our ability to contact lawyers, as well as our families during the holidays.
The situation is being covered up to keep the public blind to its severity, but if this continues unabated, something bad is coming. We see no light at the end of this dark tunnel. The feds or the National Guard should have been called in long ago.
Thank you for your time and attention.
(Name withheld in fear of retaliation)
The following letter was sent to Tennessee State Representative Scotty Campbell after the inmate's letter arrived:
Dear Senator Campbell,
My name is Michael “Gene” Scott, and I volunteer two days a month to teach composition at NECX. The enclosed letter was written by one of my students, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.
This letter will be published openly on my website (genescottbooks.com) for the world to see.
Prison officials at TDOC were also contacted, and we expect them to ignore the issue until something really bad happens. We want to be on record that we contacted everyone with influence before that occurs.
Copies of this letter have been or will be sent to every major newspaper in the state.
Should you doubt the veracity of the enclosed letter, please investigate. We’d love to learn of any more truths that need to be exposed about NECX, its warden, and elected officials sitting on their hands while gangs run free inside. We stand by this account and welcome an investigation into the truth of the matter.
Thanks for showing a little interest last month, but the situation has deteriorated markedly while the public waits for positive action. Each new day equals new horrors pressed onto human beings inside NECX – both inmates and staff – humans you swore an oath to protect.
Please let me know what you are doing to keep the people of Johnson County safe when it’s only a matter of time before the bloodshed spills over the walls.
Fifteen years ago, a close friend of ours in Southern Illinois, Dana Simpson – a dedicated nurse who devoted thirty years to caring for others – came down with COPD.
This disease chewed her up one inch at a time while her husband labored around the clock, sleeping three-sometimes-four hours a day, feeding, bathing, bath-rooming, the whole nine yards – until she passed in December 2020.
Hospice came and went over the years as she’d battle back, only to slip away, over and over again. Her range extended to the whole house at first, an oxygen concentrator droning away twenty-four-seven and reeling our yards of tubing, but the circle drew tighter until she was eventually confined to a hospital bed next to a portable potty.
The prolonged suffering to both patient and caregiver would eliminate most humans in a few months, but Dana had the spirit of a pissed off Viking, and Brad Simpson’s nickname is “Trooper” – earned by combat service in Vietnam – so he sucked it up and carried on fourteen years while simultaneously battling PTSD, dark dreams of explosive death invading those precious three hours every night. Words are inadequate for a true description of his ordeal.
Brad and Dana vacationed around the Caribbean and Mexico before her sickness, and they’d always dreamed of visiting Costa Rica. After many conversations during her illness, they decided to spread her ashes there. When Brad’s turn to join Dana arrives, their son Jesse will spread Brad’s ashes on the same Dominical beach overlooking the Pacific where Dana now rests.
Brad spent last year grieving.
When he decided last fall to spread Dana’s ashes, he dialed me up for the wingman position. We arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica on 4 January 2022.
Sixteen years ago, my son turned sixteen and his marvelous high School Spanish teacher arranged a Costa Rican adventure for the class, and several parents joined the ride. We made a DVD of the experience, which opened my eyes to what a nation can do for itself.
Oddly enough, Costa Rica declared war on Japan the day after the Pearl Harbor strike. But Costa Rica disbanded its military in 1948 and began investing in healthcare, education, and the environment. The rewards are still raining down.
“Costa Rica leads the Latin American and Caribbean region in health and primary education, having the second-lowest infant mortality rate after Chile and a 98% literacy rate, according to the 2016-17 Global Competitiveness Report. This tropical country, home to the greatest density of species in the world, takes pride in its ecologically friendly policies that attract tourists to its lush jungles. It also enjoys a standard of living that is about double that of other Central American nations except for Panama, which profits from the Panama Canal.” -- USA Today.
After a half-day in San Jose, we hired a private van for the three-hour ride north to La Fortuna, a village of 15,000 that exists mainly on tourism.
Driving is tenuous and expensive in Costa Rica, and most locals either walk, ride bikes, or pilot motorcycles. We used Uber almost exclusively in La Fortuna, though we caught an expensive cab one night after staying late at Ecotermales. But the cab driver was insanely funny and full of Pura Vida, so we got our money’s worth.
The whole country exists mainly on tourism, German-owned electronic factories, cultivation of ornamental plants, coffee, bananas, mangos, and pineapple – the juiciest, sweetest pineapple imaginable.
We witnessed the tourism link firsthand at the San Jose International Airport, where people line the fences and cheer as each load of cash-carrying gringos alights on the runway. There is a park right next to the major landing zone and entire families spend whole Sunday afternoons lazing on the grass, picnicking, flying kites, and applauding the injection of life-giving dollars into their economy.
We arrived at the Arenal Manoa Hot Springs Hotel on 5 January and immediately fell in love with the place and the people who worked there. Built on a working cattle farm and dairy farm, the grounds and walking paths seem endless, flora and fauna burst out everywhere, the entire experience capped by a view of Arenal Volcano off the front porch of our little unit. The artistic maid, always pleasant and accommodating, created a new fantasy figure out of towels each day. The entire staff throughout the venue were genuinely happy to serve and interact with the guests.
One worker completely captured our imagination with his sunny disposition, Pura Vida attitude, willingness to help others and to learn English as we tried to learn Spanish. We noticed him riding in to work one day, and I took a picture of his Yamaha motorcycle’s bald tires with exposed cords.
Are you married, Renaldo? I asked him.
Yes, he said.
Do you have any children?
Does that have anything to do with those bald tires?
We’ve been mostly out of work for the last two years, he said.
When we left at the end of two weeks in paradise, he found a signed letter with enough cash inside to replace the tires and to fix the seat ripped with overuse. Brad and I are nothing but working men like Renaldo. People who came up poor and were mentored into prosperity by others who took a little time to care. We recognize the type. He’ll pass it forward the next chance he gets. He’s that kind of guy.
La Fortuna Adventures
There are more things to do in Arenal than can be accomplished in two weeks, but we spent lots of time downtown eating excellent fresh food and enjoying professional massages for only $30 — the septuagenarian masseuse and I laughed when I pointed to the sign about “no sexual harassment” — but there is an underground sex cult in Costa Rica that attracts the lowest of characters. That’s probably true of all Central American countries and Asia. Beware of sleaze bags. Some of this may be cultural.
When I visited Bangladesh for a month back in 1999 it was a custom for the Muslim population to break a child’s legs early in life so s/he could make a living as a beggar. But in Thailand, poverty-stricken Buddhist parents simply ship their daughters off to Bangkok for prostitution. There is no limit to worldwide deplorability, it appears.
La Fortuna and the Arenal area barely registered on the world’s cultural map before 1968 when the volcano erupted and wiped out Tabacón, a small city on its northwest slope. When scientists from around the world arrived to study the phenomenon, paths and swinging bridges were erected to accommodate the work.
Since the infrastructure was in place after the scientists retreated, poor but-visionary farmers became entrepreneurs, pastures returned to the jungle, and tourism boomed until the recent COVID outbreak.
Having read about this town full of ex-pats on Lake Arenal, we hired an Uber driver and headed over, only to run across a sloth moving down a tree (they potty once a week) and a family of coatimundis eagerly begging food.
Our driver didn’t know the area and almost wrecked his car on washed-out roads, so we headed back with no real sense of the town. But after seeing Lake Arenal, we booked a wine-and-cheese boat tour later in the week.
One of the most amazing aspects of this Arenal area is the vision local entrepreneurs projected at the turn of the 21st Century. Twenty years ago people allowed fields to return to the jungle. These secondary forests now attract all kinds of flora and fauna, and people pay $40 apiece to creep in at night with a flashlight to photograph them.
I took close-ups with a cell phone. My I-phone 13 does not come with the macro lens, but a software purchase turned the two existing lenses into macros.
Baldi Hot Springs
I visited Baldi (accent on the second syllable) sixteen years ago when it was relatively fresh. But now it’s a little seedy. Worth the experience, but there is no limit on people they let in, and the cheesy decor is overripe. The bottoms of the pools are lined with ceramic tile, so you can easily bust your tail if you’re not careful.
Something hilarious happened, however, at the very top cascade. Several macho Central-American males hogged the area, posing over-and-over for strutting muscle shots, but I stepped into the background at the last second and photobombed them with a big protruding American belly.
Several locals nearly drowned, fizz foaming out their noses, laughing aloud at the spectacle.
The best hot spring experience we enjoyed in La Fortuna was across the road from Baldi, and it’s special because they limit the crowd to 150, the dinner buffet includes all the chef-prepared steak, seafood, salad, and chicken you can eat, and everyone’s laid back and friendly. The grounds are clean and spacious. At one point a giant black bird — the great-faced curassow — walked right in front of us and then wandered off into the jungle.
Open during the day, the animals in this secondary forest next to La Fortuna are difficult to locate without a guide, but we paid the extra money and ours showed me how to take cell phone pictures through a telescope.
Lake Arenal Boat Ride
We enjoyed a spectacular panorama on Lake Arenal at sunset, wine-cheese-hors d’oeuvres, and a great conversation with a guide who spoke perfect English and knew all the political, geographical, educational, financial, and historical backgrounds of the nation. We highly recommend seeing the lake and volcano from this perspective, and the tour guides just make it better.
Lake Arenal tripled in size with the construction of the Arenal dam in 1979, which exists at the eastern end of the lake. This hydroelectric project exists at the western end of the lake and is strategically important to Costa Rica, initially generating 70% of the country's electricity, now closer to 17%, and was also a driving force behind Costa Rica's green energy policy. -- Wikipedia
We did not visit Arenal Volcano National Park with its hanging bridges constructed for scientists in 1968 after the latest volcanic eruption, but we ran into a Canadian ex-pat who moved to La Fortuna three years ago from Calgary after his mother passed and he told us what to do on the next lap. Brent Munro lends some excellent advice and historical background here if you want to lose yourself on volcano trails.
Travel Cures Your Head
One of the best things about travel is meeting new folks. Americans from Northern California, Kansas, and New York City immediately befriended us, Canadians from Calgary and Alberta bought us lunch, told stories, shared dreams, and shook heads at the ugly divisiveness back home. We never met a negative, aggressive, ugly American, Asian, European, or Canadian the entire trip.
But the ugly people at the top – those who respect dollars more than physical health and spiritual well-being – tend to radicalize the glazed people at the bottom, those whose view of the world is shaped by zero travel and a television screen full of talking heads spewing false information for fat corporate dollars, usually pharmaceutical companies with a monetary incentive to keep them blazed and perpetually camped before the TeeVee.
An endless cycle of pill commercials, consequent brain death, and insular dissatisfaction. Alert!
All of that negativity turns to vapor …
When you travel. When your eyes open to the truth about other people in other lands.
Because they are exactly like you and me.
Brad and I parted in San Jose, but he Ubered down to Dominical and had his special moment on the beach with Dana. Looking through tears as I write these last paragraphs, I know that Trooper did all he could. People with integrity take wedding vows seriously. No matter what it takes.
“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” -- Winston Churchill
One of our church pastors – we’re blessed with a tag-team, a hard-working couple with big hearts, and vivacious children – decided to make a video on biblical justice for a sermon series, and asked me to contribute due to my involvement in a prison ministry. Here’s the original script with details that hit the cutting room floor. The video turned out well, and it’s included here, but the context always helps.
Tampa Heights, Florida: 1980
The concept of biblical justice is so broad and detailed that I can’t cover it in three minutes. But I can tell a couple of stories that illustrate the idea.
In 1980 I worked at Tampa Heights Hospital in Florida, a psychiatric facility eerily resembling the novel/movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The gloomy, unclean building was a dark stage for constant drama. My pay was $3.20 per hour for wrestling unhinged people to the ground while nurses shot them up with Thorazine.
On my first day at work, a woman in her eighties struggling with severe dementia arrived in an ambulance. She’d been living at home with eight dogs, eating fido-food out of their dishes, sleeping with them in piles of rags, and defecating on the kitchen floor. Suddenly I was the only aide left standing there during her intake. I wondered why the others melted away. Looks like you get to clean her up, said the doctor. I donned three layers of plastic and tossed her into a hot tub filled with suds. On the third bath, fleas still jumped off as she giggled like a three-year-old.
A few months later the federal government decided to cut off financial aid to all those seeking psychiatric hospitalization, but couldn’t pay for it themselves. The ink was still fresh on President Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act – which supported and financed community mental health support systems – but newly elected Ronald Reagan killed it with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981, sending people to the streets.
President Reagan never understood mental illness. Like Richard Nixon, he was a product of the Southern California culture that associated psychiatry with Communism. Two months after taking office, Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, a young man with untreated schizophrenia. Two years later, Reagan called Dr. Roger Peele, then director of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where Hinckley was being treated, and tried to arrange to meet with Hinckley, so that Reagan could forgive him. Peele tactfully told the president that this was not a good idea. Reagan was also exposed to the consequences of untreated mental illness through the two sons of Roy Miller, his personal tax advisor. Both sons developed schizophrenia; one committed suicide in 1981, and the other killed his mother in 1983. Despite such personal exposure, Reagan never exhibited any interest in the need for research or better treatment for serious mental illness. -- Wikipedia
Patients were told they could re-enter the now “private” facility if they forked over $250 cash.
No one had the cash.
They didn’t have their wits, must less the cash.
We dumped everyone onto the street. To my perpetual shame.
I looked up Tampa Heights Hospital to see if it still existed. Using an address I found for the old location, I discovered an article saying investors bought the place and turned it into a high-dollar drug rehab facility for rich customers. Ka-Ching.
Fast forward forty-one years and now I’m a Kairos volunteer.
Kairos is an organization that carries the knowledge of the saving grace of Jesus Christ to people in prison. It’s extremely successful because those who come to Christ change their lives in a positive direction, as shown in recidivism rates.
I visit the prison four times a month, teaching creative writing and attending Prayer and Share Tuesday night services with Kairos Weekend alumni.
When we’re in the prison on a Kairos Weekend twice a year, we view the medicine line, where prisoners are dispensed their psychiatric drugs. The line wraps around the building. Lately, thugs from gangs are beating up people in wheelchairs so they can get to the head of the line.
People inside tell us that uncountable inmates suffer psychiatric problems. Here are the official statistics:
The numbers are even more stark when parsed by gender: 55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, but 73 percent of female inmates are. Meanwhile, the think-tank writes, "only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates who suffer from mental-health problems report having received mental-health treatment since admission." -- The Atlantic
Those hurting folks we dumped onto the streets during the 80’s – and those we’ve denied psychiatric treatment since – often live nightmarish prison lives.
From 2001 to 2018, the number of people who have died of drug or alcohol intoxication instateprisons increased by more than 600%, according to an analysis of newly-released data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In county jails, overdose deaths increased by over 200%. -- The Marshal Project
This is a biblical justice issue.
I really enjoy teaching creative writing at the prison because most of the writers are lifers. That means they will be in jail for life. They will never be set free.
Because of that, they’ve all been set free.
Why? They are believers in Christ Jesus.
They tried everything else in the world, and none of that worked. I mean everything.
And now that they’ve found grace, they are free to be what they were meant to be in the first place. And who offers grace? Our Lord and God.
No other substance, travel destination, guru, or religion can afford its cost.
Only one person in the history of the world could afford, pay for, and offer free to all of earth’s inhabitants the path to salvation through grace.
Freedom, in its purest form.
I’ve lost track of how many inmates have told me that they’re thankful for ending up in prison because they never would have met Jesus in the free world.
The “free world” of drugs, alcohol, prostitution, internet pornography, political disunity, ad infinitum.
They were saved by prison.
Because you sent in volunteers.
Because you baked cookies.
Because you prayed as the Body of Christ for four straight days 24/7 when lost souls needed it most: when they were at the crossroads of their lives on a Kairos Weekend.
That’s not his real name. But “DeWayne” is from Middle Tennessee and was fifteen when he was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.
He will never be set free.
I didn’t know this when I first met him when he joined our creative writing class two years ago.
After watching him interact with others, seeing how he takes care of everyone else but himself, after reading his excellent prose, after admiring his work with the Lifer’s Club, which uses its prison-earned money to buy backpacks and lunches for needy kids, I had to ask him.
What are you doing here? I can’t imagine you pulling off a crime.
DeWayne said he was fifteen and had just walked in the door after baseball practice and found his drunken step-father beating his mother with his fists. Again.
He’d witnessed these beatings over and over and it made him sick to his stomach.
This time he was holding a baseball bat.
DeWayne told me he’d been in prison for two years before he realized what he did was wrong. Then he gained two hundred pounds and weighed in at 380. Three-hundred-eighty-pounds.
This is a common side-effect of guilt.
Then he met Jesus on a Kairos Weekend and he’s been selfless ever since.
Lost one-hundred-fifty pounds. Weighs about 230 now.
DeWayne grows daily from reading, writing, praying, singing lead in the prison gospel band, and helping others.
Giorgia – a graduate school girlfriend – elevated her quiet nature into an imminent road hazard whenever we strolled down the sidewalk. Male drivers – necks straining, eyeballs bulging—often smashed into telephone poles or clipped fire hydrants as we sauntered down the avenue, heads up for automotive danger.
Living on the same dormitory floor— we knew each other by sight — but never talked until the night I got blind drunk after breaking up with another undergraduate, an artist who drove race cars.
Can you drive me home? I asked Giorgia, dangling keys in front of a nearly-flawless face slightly smudged by a deviated septum, a casualty of early Cocaine Wars. She sat talking to girlfriends at the last bar I stumbled into and laughed a yes with smiling eyes before leading me to the car.
I thought you were never going to talk to me, she said, after I blurted a lame excuse to lay the back of my head down on her lap while she drove.
Too forward for a sober man, but acknowledging my condition, she laughed and acquiesced, giggling as I looked skyward, vision blotted out by anti-gravity projectiles. I’d grown up on a dairy farm and remained unimpressed with mammaries, perhaps making me attractive to such fine specimens.
Giorgia made extra money tutoring “special needs” college students, so I knew there was a beating heart under the quivering mamilla.
We enjoyed each other in countless ways, but then I drove off to Chicago to try out my new degree, and she stayed behind, three years younger and needing attention.
Then Christmas arrived.
Her parents, working-class Italian immigrants with World War Two in the rearview, lived in the suburbs, so we met there, six months of my neglect shading the day. I drove out from the city and she drove up four hours from the school. She didn’t need to announce the new attitude sparked by my six-month absence. The slumped shoulders, the sad turn at the corner of her mouth, and the failure to meet my eye screamed infidelity.
I sorely missed my own family during this precious holiday – turkey, gravy, red wine, brother, parents – as I sat down to a Christmas dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. Pizza.
And when her mother bent over to retrieve a box of frozen shrimp sweating under the icebox – it says right on the cover, keep under refrigeration! – darkness turned to light.
Varicose veins, yellow smoker’s teeth, boobs running over knees, forty-five extra pounds. Unassisted grease farts lifting a faded house dress in a hot kitchen.
When we kissed goodbye and Giorgia swished back to whomever now shared her collegiate bed, I felt the weight lift, the spirit rise. A window opened.
Glowing skin, radiant eyes, gravity-defying bazookas. Under refrigeration, crammed into bras, or blowing in the wind, they could not defy gravity. Forever.
May they attract a better man while they can, while they stand — a man who can go the distance — I prayed.
Someone who neither contemplates expiration dates, nor the continuous emotional support of a sad-and-saggy princess.
A letter and booklet arrived in the mail this morning from the little Midwestern town where I grew up, the village mortician reminding me that a year has passed since my mother’s death.
I did not need reminding.
This mailing did not upset me – quite the opposite. The mortician had already buried my brother and cremated my mom and dad – I am now the only remaining remnant of our small brood, up next for the treatment. One of the benefits of growing up in a small town is that everyone knows everyone quite well. And that may be one of its limitations.
But this particular funeral director is a jovial, authentic person who’s always treated our family and friends with dignity, and we’re lucky to have him. His booklet Hope and Renewal explains the grieving process and how to combat negative feelings.
“Sometimes well-meaning people will encourage you to ‘get over it.’ Please ignore them. Even though you have come a long way toward healing, the road you are on is your own. Friends can walk along with you for a while, but they can’t make the trip for you. It will take as long as it takes.”
Tips are offered on how to move forward, how to reach out to others who also grieve for your loved one, and letting the tears flow as they may.
“Focus on rebuilding your life, taking time to re-organize and re-energize,” it instructs. “The point isn’t to replace your loved one, but to find new people or activities for the feelings you used to give your loved one.”
We cannot hide from memories, good or bad.
My greatest hurdle this year was dealing with mistakes I made during mom’s passing. Overall, things went well. After hearing the bombshell diagnosis – lung cancer has spread to bones and brain – she languished in a nearby nursing home for three weeks under COVID restrictions.
But we were able to bring her home for the last month of her life and she was comfortable with hospice, whom she’d praised and admired during my dad’s death in the fall of 2015 to colon cancer. We even had a few laughs with the hospice staff. One middle-aged female was British, and I asked her if she had any trouble acclimating.
“One lady asked if I could speak American,” she said. “I didn’t say anything, but I considered ramming a white-hot poker into my ear and dashing out half of my brains to accomplish the task,” she giggled.
Mom passed with my wife and I by her side – along with her minister – who visited nearly every day and became a godsend when we needed to draw on his spiritual strength.
But my mom and I are much alike – born to debate – and we could have been kinder to each other over that last month. Some of the old bugaboos flared up at the end, aggravating us both.
We never let them fester and we loved each other as much as a mother-son can love – but the fact that they existed at all tormented me over the months until I finally sat down this morning almost a year later and wrote her a letter, leaving all the regrets on the page before I lit the paper and sent it to heaven via black smoke signals.
An hour later the mail arrived with her answer in the mortician’s booklet.
“Your memories of your loved one will be both happy and painful. If some of your memories are still very painful, let yourself experience them anyway. You can’t run away from them. The best way to take the sting out is to recognize, accept, and express them. At the same time, try to tap into happier memories. Remember birthdays, holidays, vacations, celebrations, and milestones. Sharing memories can multiply the healing. The more you share happy memories, the more power they will have, and the more healing you will gain.”
Here’s the way the Big Guy works:
My wife and I “just happen” to be reading Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing about Grace? for a devotional. This is what he had to say about the lack of grace this very morning:
“Ungrace does its work quietly and lethally, like a poisonous, undetectable gas. A father dies unforgiven. A mother who once carried a child in her own body does not speak to that child for half its life. The toxin steals on, from generation to generation.”
-- Philip Yancey
You’ve seen ungrace in your friends’ families, maybe even your own, and you know the accompanying pain.
But if you believe in a Higher Power, you may also be familiar with grace.
“The proof of spiritual maturity is not how pure you are but awareness of your impurity. That very awareness opens the door to grace. I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.”
-- Philip Yancey
Thank you, Mom, for reading my letter and sending your answer within an hour. I know you believed in grace, too, and are experiencing it now. Forever.
“One who has been touched by grace will no longer look on those who stray as ‘those evil people’ or ‘those poor people who need our help.’ Nor must we search for signs of ‘love worthiness.’ Grace teaches us that God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are.”
-- Philip Yancey
As the only remaining family member, I can honestly say that going forward with life on earth is impossible without grace.
At least for me, it isn’t.
Please don’t wait until a graceful mortician mails that idea home to you.
In 2017, 1.7 million Americans had substance use disorders with an addiction to prescription opioid pain killers. A little over 650,000 Americans had a heroin addiction (with some overlap between the two).
In 2017, approximately 47,000 Americans lost their lives due to opioid overdoses.
National opioid prescribing rates started increasing in 2006 and peaked in 2012 at 255 million with a dispensing rate of 81.3 prescriptions per 100 Americans. In 2019, the dispensing rate had fallen to 46.7 per 100 persons with over 153 million opioid prescriptions dispensed. However, some counties had rates that were 6 times higher than the national average.
Opioid overdose deaths increased from around 21,000 in 2010 to nearly 50,000 in 2019.
Roughly 21-29% of people given prescriptions for opioid pain relievers misuse the medications. Up to 12% of people who use opioids to treat chronic pain treatment go on to develop opioid use disorder.
Around 4-6% of people who misuse prescription opioids later go on to abusing heroin.
8 out of 10 heroin users started out by first using prescription opioid pain pills.
OPIOID ABUSE STATISTICS IN THE UNITED STATES
1.6 million Americans have an opioid use disorder.
10.1 million people report misusing opioids at least once in the past 12 months.
Among opioid abusers, 9.7 million people misuse prescription pain pills, 745,000 abuse heroin, and 404,000 abuse both prescription pain pills and heroin.
STATISTICS ON OPIOID-RELATED DEATHS IN THE U.S.
Every day, 136 people die from an opioid overdose in the United States, including prescription and illicit opioid drugs.
Overdose deaths in the U.S. involving prescription opioids (including methadone and semi-synthetic opioids) numbered around 3,500 in 1999 and increased to over 17,000 in 2017.
From 2012 to 2015, there was a 264% increase in deaths related to synthetic opioids.
In 2019, more than 71,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. Of these, over 70% (roughly 50,000 deaths) were overdoses involving opioids, including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
From 2018 to 2019, the overall opioid-involved death rate increased by over 6%. While prescription opioid-involved deaths and heroin-involved deaths declined by 6-7%, the synthetic opioid-involved death rate increased by more than 15%.
Between 1999 and 2019, nearly 500,000 Americans have died from an overdose involving an opioid drug.
STATISTICS ON COST OF OPIOID ABUSE IN THE U.S.
Misuse of prescription opioids alone costs the U.S. more than $78 billion a year, including healthcare costs, lost productivity, criminal justice costs, and addiction treatment.
My first album will be released Friday 12 March. Available at the outlets below. Had no intention of doing this, but two factors led to its creation: 1) the closing of libraries that thwarted the novel I was working on; and, 2) An old friend planted a bug in my ear. I’d written a couple of songs and he said might as well do an album. Arg. Spotify links arriving on release day.
Where are we now?Where has America gone?Where are we now?Is this the swan song?Where have the morals gone?Taught from above?Where are the morals now?Where are truth and love?Where are the Christians now?Since lies are King?Where are the Christians now?Does money mean everything?Where are the brains now?That death and ignorance reign?Where are the brains now?They took the chump train.They took the chump train.
They took the chump train.
They took the chump train.
People sat on their hands in ’16. Didn’t care much for the Democratic Queen. But now their eyes are open once again.
(Turn Around) And they turned out in droves to defend. What makes America the greatest land. Egalitarian law. We are a beacon. Once again.
When 2024 rolls around, They won’t send in another clown. No, the next guy won’t fool around.
(Turn Around) A death grip will choke out the truth. Hate and fear will again rule the roost. He’ll invent a new Jim Crow and crew. Imprison anyone who won’t eat the stew. Once again.
Freedom is never really free. Takes vigilance from people like you and me. We can’t wait around or we’ll be sacked.
(Turn Around) Got to keep the Boogey Men off our backs. Keep lights shining on science and facts. Justice will only prevail. If we join hands: Female and male. Black and white. Yellow and red. Once again.
The church I attend is extremely generous with its time, talent, and resources, but it wasn’t always this way. When my wife and I joined in 1990, many of the congregants were “intellectuals” from the university (myself included) who thought highly of the impoverished, but didn’t do much to help them physically. We threw money at them, mostly. Kept our distance.
After catching up on REM’s for a couple of years during blah blah blah sermons, I told my wife I was bored.
“Maybe if you got off your butt and DID something, things would get better,” she said.
Uh. This is why I love her. No one else stands up to me this way.
So I joined a group in our Pathfinders Sunday School class working the Appalachia Service Project, and that first year we repaired the Ferguson family home in Sneedville, Tennessee. Mom worked at Hardee’s, Dad fixed cars out of the garage next to the house, and two male children attended elementary school.
Hank and AJ.
Our crew — and others throughout the summer — upgraded their home, which was in sad shape. The Fergusons made just enough cash to put food on the table and clothes on the kids’ backs, but home repair fell outside the budget. Appalachia Service Project’s motto is warmer, safer, drier.
The first day I removed a ceiling tile and about two gallons of dead bugs poured out onto the white kitchen table cloth.
Fast forward thirty years.
My wife and I happened to be in Sneedville a few weeks ago, visiting relatives. We asked about the Fergusons.
“Both AJ and Hank work for Mahle in Morristown,” they said. “Making specialty parts for NASCAR racing.”
These types of jobs require engineering knowledge and pull in good money. AJ has already purchased a farm and home outside Sneedville. He’s married and has a son in high school.
A freshman standing 6’6″ weighing 240 pounds.
Our crew was just a tiny piece of that success, but it still brings tears to our eyes. That was the firstof our fourteen ASP years, each with a story like the Fergusons. Since then I’ve been a part of local, national, and international service projects.
But it’s not about me. I’m just a tiny cog in the vast machinery of Christians working together, heads down, mouths shut, hearts open, wallets ready.
Three weeks ago I attended a Kairos One-Day Retreat with sixty-six residents of NECX, a maximum-security prison near Mountain City, Tennessee housing 1,800 inmates. I sat next to two gentlemen, Harold and Larry. Both had attended Kairos Weekends — similar to Emmaus Walks — earlier in their prison lives.
Harold’s old prison name was Thumper. Why? If anyone looked at him funny — or if he thought you looked funny at him — you got thumped. Inmates asked permission to cross the threshold of his jail cell. One fledgling guard actually quit his job after Thumper threatened to kill him and all of his family.
Incarcerated three times, Thumper’s last conviction was for homicide. After decades of trying everything that doesn’t work (drugs, alcohol, several world religions, violence, gang life) he eventually came to a Kairos Weekend, met Jesus, and felt he could not turn his back on Him any longer.
Reclaiming his given name, Harold cast Thumper into the dust bin of history. Then went to the phone and called the prison guard.
While telling me this story, Harold whistled and a young dewy-eyed officer came over.
“Yeah, I quit when Thumper said he would kill me,” he said. “But now I’m back at work feeding my family.”
“Because Thumper no longer exists. “
Larry is also a lifer — a euphemism for those serving a life sentence — and he told me he helped organize The Lifers’ Club.
Then he told me what they do: a) publish a monthly newsletter supporting each other and the community; b) build a positive reputation with the local and regional citizens by giving back through public and community service; c) strengthen public awareness about truth in sentencing, uniform sentencing, and appropriate parole guidelines. And the final plank?
Lifers pool their limited resources to help others.
They’ve purchased wheelchairs for handicapped kids. Clothed and fed the homeless. Purchased backpacks and sent money to impoverished kids trying to attend school. Larry rattled off all they’ve done the last six months, but I couldn’t write them down fast enough to enter them all here.
Furthermore, they’ve put together a correspondence course — outside of any help from the state — to help each other cope with life in prison.
I read through the course as two of my creative writing students contributed chapters, and it’s extremely well-written with excellent advice on how to improve yourself once you know you’re spending the rest of your life behind bars.
One of the amazing aspects of the Kairos Ministry is getting to know inmates and Lifers who are actually freer— we’re talking between the ears here — than half the folks you meet on the street who eternally lock themselves into personal self-constructed hells — anger, unforgiveness, bad finances, bad relationships, drugs, alcohol, dead-end careers, poor diet, no exercise, insufficient sleep, ad infinitum.
Since I’m at the prison a lot — two creative writing classes and four Kairos prayer-and-shares a month — I’m getting to know what kind of homes produce Lifers. And that’s ugly.
To my amazement, Lifers I’ve met remain positive, even hopeful. Here’s an example from one of my creative writing students who grew up in a home that most of us would not survive. Yet, through Christ, he has gained another view over twenty years of incarceration:
I don’t know about you, but when I read stuff like that, my own problems are diminished, and my faith is strengthened.
We may be free, but do we cherish it?
Do we free-world folks increase the value of our freedom by taking time to help others not-so-lucky? You don’t have to go into a prison to do that. There’s more than enough work to do, as folks in need appear almost everywhere we look — often on the same block where we live.
We are designed to think outside of ourselves, according to our Creator:
We all can lift ourselves. By simply lifting others.
While living up to the standards of the Lifers’ Club.
My son and his fiancé asked us over for a tasty mid-morning outdoor breakfast –– her parents were visiting on their way to Texas –– so we enjoyed smoked bacon, mixed fresh fruit, and recently-gathered eggs next to a large lavender bush. A monster.
Which reminded me of an ancient National Geographic special I’d seen thirty-some years ago, featuring an African pygmy village built around a giant marijuana bush.
The men either stood before the patch red-eyed swaying back and forth between bong hits, intermittently tending to plants, or sat in the community shed eating grasshoppers –– they popped the heads off first –– between bong hits.
All the physical labor and child care fell upon the women (imagine that) while the village population dwindled in the same downward trajectory as sperm health.
The military drove the Pygmies out of the Congo’s national parks in 1991 –– indigenous lands since time immemorial –– so now they’re clinging to the fringe of those parks, hiding small pot fields here and there, selling weed illegally, and barely eking out a living while constantly dodging “authorities”.
This week’s local paper reported that although opioid prescriptions are down thirty-percent, the death rate holds firm. Folks simply switch over to street heroin or fentanyl and die just the same.
The global village is now built around the Big Pharma Bush
Although recently discovered to be a significant part of human culture since 500 BC, weed carries health risks that cannot be ignored as injecting smoke into your lungs is always risky.
Positive effects are legion, but the only canary-in-the-coal-mine on current public display is Willie Nelson, who recently said that weed saved his life and kept him vital, avoiding the alcohol/tobacco-reaper that gathered so many of his Outlaw buddies.
However, if marijuana separates the user from family duties, job responsibilities, friends, or personal growth, then those negatives must be confronted.
Which is true of all drugs and obsessions.
Big Pharma, however, is about to gobble up the fledgling legal marijuana industry –– the same way corporations have gobbled up agriculture –– and dominate a legal market valued at nearly five billion.
Similarities between the pygmy pot-bush and Big Pharma’s Mega Bush abound. Blazed Americans –– minds awhirl on opioid-alcohol mixes –– stare at television screens (ironically showing other people exercising for outrageous amounts of money ) while blowing themselves up on refined sugars, alcohol, and processed food.
Simultaneously, their befuddled brains absorb self-prescribed “news” squirting from CNN or FOX, twisted fabrications of the truth sharing the same genetic code: keep the gullible gulping.
And like weed-soaked pygmy sperm, American spunk is losing its pop as birth rates plummet to forty-year lows.
At the same time white male suicide is off the chart: 69.6% of the total. Reports link this atrocity to increasing numbers of women graduating from college, superseding their male counterparts in the workplace, and subsequently earning higher wages and filling essential jobs while leading corporations in higher numbers.
As a male teacher comfortable with strong women in leadership roles – my favorite principal, and her evil opposite – were both female, teaching me that people are people. You take them one at a time.
Big Pharma owns innumerable super branches reaching out to dangle dozens of pills –– including sleep-aids –– in front of the eyes of the overworked and weary. A popular small business owner in our region has trouble shutting of his mind at night, so his doctor prescribed Ambien.
A month or so later his wife found him in the garage sitting in the driver’s seat of his running truck –– at 2:30 AM with the garage door closed –– loading a pistol with live ammo.
“I was asleep the whole time” he told me.
Like any fast-growing yard-dominating plant, the real work goes on underground, evil spreading in all directions unseen by the human eye, trillion dollar roots which won’t perish with legalization.
Chopping down the bush is a pipe (stuffed-with-weed) dream. Ain’t going to happen.
A capitalistic nation is never going to abandon tons of tantalizing cash held high in the hands of its citizens, even addict-citizens seeking rehabilitation. When this much money is involved, death rates will increase into a dark future.
Packing up the truck and moving sober Clampets away from The Big Pharma Bush may appear to be prima-facie practical, but in reality, it’s a world-wide-phenomenon, pills waiting for all Clampets in both Beverly and Beijing — the only escape being internal, self-generated discipline.
We see people all around us avoiding unnecessary medicines, pills, tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals thrust at them every commercial break, people who exercise regularly, eat right, stay hydrated, and live vigorously through their 80’s and early 90’s. As I typed the first draft of this piece a 101-year-old runner made national news.
However, a sad majority live in a global village built around the Big Pharma Bush. Seven-in-ten Americans swallow over-prescribed prescription drugs on a daily basis. That soma-drenched brave new world predicted by Aldous Huxley arrived as expected with only a few self-discipled-sweat-soaked naturals remaining unscathed.
And waiting for the majority of macho American males to summon enough inner strength to reach as high as an …
The visual world — shared through photographs since its invention in the mid-1820’s — affords free travel for all to locations and perspectives previously unimagined.
And because we’ve been awarded an ever-changing visual display of diversity — if there’s anything God loves, it’s diversity — we need to note and share it, which is one more way to spread the peace and love of our Creator.
Unlike Francis Collins, the renowned American scientist who came to faith from an atheistic background, I was an early convert. A one-banana monkey.
At age seven I found myself alone in the woods where every branch was encrusted with a quarter-inch of fresh ice, the result of a slow, freezing, overnight rain. Lying on my back upon encrusted snow, I witnessed the clouds parting, the sun arriving, the most wondrous light show appearing, the wind nudging branches in slow kaleidoscopic circles while my young brain popped with sensory overload.
This spectacle could not have created itself, any more than all the other spectacles to follow, witnessed by seven billion different ways through seven billion different perspectives, all changing each half-second.
Francis Collins had to map the human genome to “get it”. But this simple country boy was poleaxed by a simple ice storm.
My paternal grandmother put a camera in my hand when I went to college — a 60’s era Leica — and I wore it out, along with dozens of digital models over the years. Several file drawers now bulge with negatives and prints, and the safe is stacked with hard drives instead of cash.
Because there is no end to the ever-changing display of visual bounty He’s gifted the world.
One doesn’t need to be a photographer to enjoy the show, but one should notice, and share the experience — conversation works — and to feel a little gratitude for the gift.
I’m now teaching a creative writing class to an interesting group of folk who spend large portions of their day reading and scribbling, so they’re better writers than I am.
No surprise there.
After thirty years in the classroom, I admit that I’ve never been the smartest guy in the room, even when left alone with the kindergarten for twenty minutes when I was a computer repairman at the local elementary school.
Five minutes later, they were everywhere, lips on everything, fingers poking everywhere, pencils heading for electrical outlets, grins on every face. They knew lack of authority when they smelled it.
This new creative writing class wants to work on both fiction and non-fiction, so I started with something short and challenging:
Write a love story that includes a plumber and a marshmallow.
After hearing what they’ve already written, I know a doozy or six will emerge, and perhaps I’ll publish one in this space. We’ll see. In the meantime, you can’t lead from the back. Here’s my flash-fiction piece:
Staring sadly at the grey gruel on the tan prison plate, Stan falls back into his habitual daytime reverie: green marshmallowly Fruit Loops floating in a blue enamel bowl, a sweating glass of orange juice, a black English bulldog with a Winston Churchill grimace rubbing its red butt on the Oriental rug, back and forth, back and forth.
A plumber in another life before imprisonment, Stan spent
years looking at the world from dog-level.
That’s what attracted him to Margaret.
Stan, on his back with his upper torso jammed under Margaret’s sink, notices her slim ankles, which lead to shapely legs when she walks up to the sink and asks how the work is going.
“No problem. Outta here in twenty minutes,” echoes Stan’s
A few minutes earlier, Margaret seemed unspectacular. Dressed in a brown corduroy work suit, she appeared at the door like a banker demanding identification before a large withdrawal, but now she’s changed into tennis clothes before a light lunch of breakfast cereal, and the transformation bewilders Stan so much he bangs his head on the cabinet frame while rising to turn the water back on.
“That must have hurt,” she said.
“Sometimes I think I’m too big for this job,” he said.
They stood together looking out the kitchen window into the backyard.
Margaret’s second dog, a beagle, was hiking up a leg to pee on Stan’s truck
“Why a beagle?” asked Stan. “Too stinky for the house.”
“True,” said Margaret, “but we hunt rabbits on the grounds
here, and he runs them right past you.”
“Ya’ll like guns?” asked Stan.
Margaret’s eyes flash, a crooked smile exposing her dark
soul, and she takes his rough hand into hers and leads him deeper into the
mansion, down into the basement, where the arsenal spreads across the entire
wall in gleaming walnut racks, touting every kind of firearm, legal or illegal,
Stan could imagine.
They both turned to look at each other, blood rising.
Staring back into the dark plate of greasy gruel, Stan daydreams
of Margaret, her bright incarceration on that tiny pink-sand-beach Caribbean
island, a slave to motorized sailboats and critical monthly shipments of steak,
gin, and coke from Key West. A skinny brown plumber under her sink now, he
Stan ponders that shimmering blue water inside his head, gigantic cumulus clouds floating by like fat white pigs as the cacophony of a hundred prisoners rises to the cement ceiling, echoing in circles, but failing to alarm the unperturbed cockroach, who slowly breast-strokes out of the center, clears his eyes with a few blinks, rolls over onto his back, and glides across the plate in a lazy backstroke.
My energetic wife and I retired years ago, and we’re good at being together. A big house helps, and we both like holing up in our own space for long periods.
We genuinely like being together, debating current events, comparing books, taking long walks, traveling, riding bikes, and motorcycling.
She hikes at least twice a week, scaling Appalachian mountains with a close group of friends, and I work out daily and jaw-jack down at the gym and pool. We volunteer frequently and love working outdoors while the sun shines.
And we’ve been cooped up far too long.
But this February, darkness clouds the soul as rain continues to fall in sheets. Lakes and rivers are out, and it’s dangerous to travel country roads through low-lying areas.
The canary in the coal mine is Angeline, a British short hair female alley cat rescued fourteen years ago and named after the petulant female in James McMurtry’s sad lament about East Texas.
Angeline, even more ancient then we at seventy-two, gets wound up like a clock spring after days of indoor living, rocketing through the den, springing up on the stereo speakers, diving behind the TV stand, ripping out electrical cords, gnawing on live wires, jumping up onto cane furniture and clawing the seats, climbing into wastebaskets, and splashing water out of the toilet.
My wife runs frantically around the house – cleaning, cooking, ironing, scooping poop out of the cat box, chopping vegetables, whipping up brownies, unloading mousetraps, all that fun maintenance stuff – but after an hour or so her blood gets up and she’s perspiring, and she walks into the den where I’m reading comfortably, peers at the thermostat, pivots like an NBA point guard, jumps up and down theatrically, and screams: “It’s seventy-five degrees in here!”
The gas logs are looping a small flame and my mind instinctively turns to melting Montana glaciers that won’t exist in ten years, and I get up and walk to the kitchen, placing the fireplace remote in a large brown artisan-hand-crafted pottery mug sitting on its lonely shelf. I’d mindlessly chipped it a couple of years ago and was lambasted into cup-phobia; I now use my dead uncle’s sacred brown clay-baked coffee mug. Will break my own heart, and spare my wife’s, when I chip this one.
The benefits of cabin fever are legion.
Most days it takes effort to pry myself out of the chair and jump into gelid over-chlorinated greenish community center pool “water” filled with obese wrinkly-sausage-like septuagenarians, but now I can’t wait to smell those nose-hair-burning locker-room chemicals scorching the soles of my feet as I pad toward the odoriferous urinal. Other benefits of cabin fever include:
• endless cheese sandwiches chased with cups of tomato soup • books, books, books, magazines, books • basketball, basketball, basketball • making up with the wife means … you guessed it. Smile. • drawing
Grape-land never made our bucket list. We assumed it was hot, humid, dirty, overrun with tourists, smelly, and rife with Gypsies rifling pockets.
All that’s true …
Then a life-long friend retired, snagged a timeshare in Cortona, Tuscany, and invited the old gang over for a June holiday. Within hours of our arrival, the people, history, food, wine, and physical beauty of this travelers’ paradise won us over.
Lana and I arrived in Rome and immediately broke European travel guru Rick Steves‘ taxi rule: “If you can, get a taxi from an official taxi rank. It lowers the chance that you’ll wind up in unregistered taxis, which are notorious for not playing by the rules.”
After the ten-hour flight and twenty-hour day torched our brains, we stumbled into Roman sunlight, and a portly middle-aged driver — smiling ear-to-ear so happy to see us — uncloaked at the airport curb, tossed our bags into the back of his grimy black unregistered car, drove twenty minutes in circles, then deposited us in front of our hotel for 20 Euros. We wondered why his happiness doubled with a small tip until we caught a taxi ride for the same destination eighteen days later: 10 Euros.
The gregarious hospitality of the happy swindler story was worth the 15 Euros, we figured, and then we got nailed again a few days later in Florence.
Walking down a lightly populated boulevard, we were approached by a well-dressed middle-aged man asking for change. Within two minutes he had his fingers in Lana’s pocketbook playing the I’ll trade-this-two-Euro-piece for two singles … and when we asked him what he needed the change for, he replied: the telephone.
Although it took reserve to keep my Keen-clad foot out of his Gucci-covered posterior, I laughed at Lana when she said later: “I’d give him another Euro just to show me how he got his hands in my pocketbook.”
Rome at First Glance
We spent the first day walking around the Trevi Fountain , enjoying the shops and restaurants vibrating with international students, noticing Napoleon’s statue in disrepair and disregard, spying armed guards holding military-grade weapons in front of banks and government buildings, dodging ubiquitous motor-scooters swarming around stoplights — Vespas racing wide open from green to red by suited professionals of both sexes — watching homeless folk washing feet in public fountains laced with exquisite statues, seeing graffiti sprayed on architecturally perfect limestone buildings throughout the city, ogling grandiose Vatican wealth walled next to Muslim immigrants selling shawls to bare-shouldered-naked-kneed tourists not minding Guru Steve’s advice:
Entry to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Gardens is permitted only to appropriately dressed visitors. Low cut or sleeveless clothing, shorts, miniskirts and hats are not allowed.
Once lusty shoulder knobs and bony knees are tastefully hidden, one may enter St. Peter’s Basilica and view roughly 50,000 portraits of naked folk. We discovered this at the end our our adventure. The second day we bused to Sorrento via Naples.
The bus driver stopped and let us stretch our legs at an overlook for ten minutes and then hustled us back inside and barreled through town as though a plague lay in wait.
We didn’t understand his motive as the view out the window was astounding, but days later when our wine tour sommelier told us Naples held the reputation as the drug and crime capital of Europe. Like East St. Louis, West Oakland, and the South Side of Chicago, I reckon Naples contains streets to avoid.
The ocean-hugging romantic getaway across the Bay of Naples was abuzz with tramping tourists, but its lovely weather and cleanliness relative to Rome led to a wonderful stay with unending photographic possibilities, gourmet food, shopping, museums, architecturally unique churches, beautifully maintained walkways, and seaside-views that attract honeymooners from around the globe.
Our friends Mike and Chris — gang of ten members — were in Sorrento with their daughters Bridgette and Cami, so we dined on fresh seafood and pasta and headed back to our respective hotel rooms to gather energy for Capri and Pompeii.
The Pompeii exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum blew my mind back in 2005, but the actual setting places one smack dab in A.D. 79 in one of the prettiest places on earth, and quite modern in its day with running wells, cisterns, toilets, bath houses, shops with “hot plates“, brothels, and a drainage system that cleansed the streets during a rain.
Pompeians — enjoying the ultimate in culture and high living at that moment in history, living on a seacoast and hosting trade from the known world while enjoying the amenities of balmy weather and a robust citizenry — had no idea the hammer was coming down. They didn’t even know that the nearby Vesuvius was volcanic.
On August 23rd A.D. 79 the city celebrated Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.
He rewarded them with a hammer blow the next day,burying the city in six meters of volcanic ash.
The size and scope of the Pompeii site — plus its history and high culture that catch you unaware — make it a must-see, and British friends tell us that nearby Herculaneum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site lying in the virtual shadow of Vesuvius, is even more impressive.
It must be duly noted that Lana spent countless hours planning this trip, picking out the best bus tours based on customer ratings and comments on a half-dozen web sites, coordinating hotels, museums, trains, and airline tickets. She read / compared / looked up / analyzed and put together a vacation that unfolded perfectly with few unpleasant surprises, as she has so many times before. All I do is take pictures, write up the story, and admire her ability.
Waking to rainfall, we feared Capri — just a twenty-minutes from Sorrento via the Tyrrhenian Sea– would be a wasted day, but the sun came out on the voyage over, perfect conditions because only 5,000 tourist scampered around the island instead of the usual 10,000 that swarm the island daily.
Sasha, our red-haired tour guide boasting Italian-Russian parentage, met us at the dock and kept us thoroughly amused with historical anecdotes and insights throughout the day, pointing out an Italian Fascist redoubt from the WWII built on a jutting cliff side, and noting that the Greeks believed Capri was the end-of-the-earth. A siren still sits above the rocks luring vessels to her open embrace.
Capri’s known around the world for its blue grotto, a limestone cave that intrepid tourists take turns entering and enjoying the way sunlight reflects off the white stone.
The day –starting with rain and high seas — negated the blue grotto, but our boat driver poked into several other grottoes-not-so-deep-and-famous and gave us the grand tour of the island.
Another highlight was the tram ride up to Alta Capri (alta = above) where the views not only took my breath away but jolted me with vertigo, a sign of age perhaps.
The Tyrrhenian Sea continuously cycled through different shades of blue as the sun filtered in and out of the clouds. Few people chose the path below, but folks of all ages rode the tram to the top and rubbernecked a 360 degree view that startles the senses with its beauty via changeable light and islands winking in and out of the horizon.
We took the bullet train to this famous hill-town, but beware boarding trains in Rome. The schedule displayed for passengers shows trains arriving at certain sidings. But in reality, high speed trains arrive so quickly they usually beat arrival times, then sit idle on the tracks outside the city while the station assigns them a last-minute arrival siding not listed correctly on the schedule board in Rome. Which means unaware Americans must run like like O.J.’s leaping luggage to the correct boarding spot at the last second. Not so much fun for geriatrics with metal knees.
The word Tuscany is derived from the Etruscan culture, which flourished in mid-Italy from 700 BC until Roman assimilation virtually erased it in 400 BC.
During the Middle Ages, [Tuscany] saw many invasions, but in the Renaissance period it helped lead Europe back to civilization. Later, it settled down as a grand duchy. It was conquered by Napoleonic France in the late 18th century and became part of the Italian Republic in the 19th century.
Orvieto, like Cortona, is a hill town in Tuscany. At first glance, the military advantage of the high ground is obvious, but many of these villages also avoided the swamps covering the low ground, and this is why the region grows such luscious fruit: the bogs were drained a mere 200 years ago.
The city had a love-hate relationship with the Papacy during the Middle Ages, when it reached a population of 30,000. However, five Popes lived here for a time for “political and strategic purposes.”
In other words, they were run out of Rome and had to wait for the heat to die down before they could re-assume the Vatican.
Major Orvieto attractions include: the Duomo di Orvieto 14th century Roman Catholic cathedral is one of the most spectacular in Italy; the Orvieto Underground leads you through subterranean medieval caves, tunnels and Etruscan wells; the Torre del Moro 13th-Century clock tower chimes on the hour, half and quarter hours; and, Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick’s Well). Dating to 1537, this well is 62-meters-deep and features two spiral staircases.
Is naturally associated with famous homeboy Francis, a.k.a. Francesco Bernardone, who lived here around 1200 AD. This simple friar bridged the gap between Jesus and Martin Luther, calling attention to the materialism of the times and the decadence of the Catholic Church during one of its darker periods.
Today, eight-thousand permanent residents occupy Assisi … while six million tourists stampede through the streets each year. The commercial aspect is a bit daunting, especially when a Saint Francis “statue” springs to life and thanks you for tips.
During his day similar throngs of buyers, sellers, and endless sinners seeking penance crowded the streets and wore out poor Francis. However — like Jesus rowing to the far side of the Sea of Galilee — Francis would walk forty-two miles through the country to Cortona and relax, meditate, and write at Le Celle (The Cell).
Lana didn’t like Assisi due to its intense commercialism, and heavy crowds. But once she understood it was always this way, and beheld the actual monastery near Cortona where Francis retreated into nature, well.
It all came clear.
Tears flood the eyes and hair stands on the back of your neck when you enter Le Celle.
I’m not a jealous person by nature, but Skip mentioned that he often hikes up to Le Celle to read and contemplate. What a blessing!
This vibrant city is best viewed in the late fall as June is rife with tourists. At one point a hundred-plus Mexican students paraded by lustily celebrating their soccer victory over Germany, and every restaurant and cafe hummed with activity late into the night.
Jammed with architecture, sculptures, marching bands, entertainers, the best steaks you’ve ever melted in your mouth, and much more, Florence is a must-visit.
Besides the mandatory hackle-raising view of Michelangelo’s David at the Medici family’s Galleria dell’Accademia, check out the Uffizi Gallery (housing Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, and Rembrandt’s Self-portrait as a Young Man.
We loved walking the city at night, watching couples enjoying the romantic atmosphere, seeing the architecture in street light, reveling in the gourmet cuisine, and listening to the street musicians earning their keep into the early hours of the morning.
This ancient hill-town reaching back to 700 BC Etruscans is a jewel in any visitor’s travelogue-memory.
Fetchingly portrayed in Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, the town’s vibrancy, history, architecture, museums, gourmet restaurants, geography, and kaleidoscopic light combine to hold you spellbound for the entire length of your visit.
Our hosts Skip and Virginia propelled themselves into international-living via elbow grease, perseverance, and brains (is there another legitimate path?) and reside on the northwest side of the city facing sunsets, near the Etruscan wall, on a Roman road overlooking the Cimitero della Misericordia (cemetery). The Roman road leads south to city center, or north through an ancient arch down a quarter-mile stroll to our hotel overlooking the Val di Chiana, or Chiana Valley, where Hannibal destroyed a Roman army in the Battle of Trasimene in June 217 BC.
Here’s a ten-second video taken at dusk with bats scavenging mosquitoes on the pink horizon, Lake Trasimino shining in the background, and the gang-of-ten enjoying a gourmet meal at Ristorante Tonino, which featured a series of post-dinner solos by inspired opera singers.
Three couples bunked at the timeshare, while Mike, Chris, Lana and I vacationed at the Locanda i Grifi, a sweet hotel just a quarter-mile down the Roman road, an inn we highly recommend due to the nice rooms, great views of the valley, and the hospitality of chef Cristiano, who held a cooking class for us one mid-morning.
Warning: If you really want to enjoy these Tuscan hill-towns, make sure you’re physically up to the challenge of walking up and down 14% grades. Actually, this applies to any kind of foreign travel as the unexpected always occurs, usually involving a physical challenge. Furthermore, driving isn’t feasible in town center due to the inclines, and there’s little room to park. Only the the intrepid locals attempt it.
We enjoyed a leisurely lap around town one sunny morning, passing by Francis Maye’s famous home and the Roman road next to it that’s a shortcut to city-center, all-of-which overlooks the Chiana Valley.
The Piazza della Repubblica is the heart of town, where we lunched and people-watched while discussing the length of the trip between gnawing on our mother’s ankles under the kitchen table in the late 1950’s … to this spot where Saint Francis hung out for recreation and Hannibal slaughtered the Romans.
Cortona is so packed with delights that it would take a decade of living there to search them all out. We jammed in as much as possible, however, and never lost the idea that we were on parade as well.
Living in a small Italian hill-town, and having lived in a small town in south Georgia, I understand that you can recognize a family gene pool by the lift of an eyebrow, or the length of a neck, or a way of walking.
-- Francis Mayes
The Villa S. Anna
We visited several Tuscan wineries and all were unique, but Villa S. Anna Winery — owned for nearly two hundred years by Simona Ruggeri Fabroni’s family near Montepulciano — tops the list due to Simona’s wonderful personality, storytelling ability, and deep knowledge of the business from five decades of managing all aspects of the enterprise.
After serving a wonderful lunch, Simona lead us through the grounds and cellars, sharing insights other wineries lacked — e.g., instead of removing cellar wall mold, it’s maintained at a certain humidity so the wine ages at a steadier rate. Newer wineries avoid this hassle, but the results are less predictable.
Sometimes the Scottish blood is an inconvenience. For example, sane people toss out most of their wine while sip-sip sipping throughout a day-long wine tour.
But if pinching pennies and looking for dimes on city streets is a natural inclination, then drinking all the wine poured out at wine-tastings is elemental.
Our dream days in Cortona ended with a wonderful lasagna dinner at Skip and Virginia’s followed by several hours of joyful banter, video-making, and wine-tasting. Then it was time to plan for the next gang-of-ten rendezvous, followed by hugs and farewells. The blessing we have in each other is lost on none of us, and a week together in Cortona deepened the bonds even further.
We returned to Rome for the last two days, viewing the Vatican, walking as much as possible for photos, and loving the seaport at Fiumicino, next to the airport.
The Vatican is so vast and full of unending surprises that no blog of this size could explain it. The picture above captures the average reaction upon entering The Papal Basilica of St. Peter, the main hall reaching a height of 448 feet.
Our university-art-school-trained guide lead us through a maze of huge rooms and hallways filled with artwork, spilling thousands of interesting tidbits that my mind couldn’t fully process, but I do remember that during Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel, Pope Julius II was plagued by some minor official’s poor behavior, so when Michelangelo asked Julius who needed to fill the hell space in the bottom right corner, the Pope suggested the same minor official — and then added that this guy needed a viper attached to his scrotum for all eternity. The sort of thing males remember from art museums.
We spent the last two days strolling arm-in-arm through the streets of Rome and across the beaches of Fiumicino, watching women jostle over sale items, enjoying one last gang-of-eight meal, and watching the fishing boats arrive and unload the day’s catch.
Don’t underestimate this sleepy little city next to the airport as it jumps alive to the sound of fishing boats returning — reminding me of the Hannibal, Missouri of Mark Twain’s youth — and there are dozens of excellent street-side cafés, restaurants, and bars to explore while public beaches allow blue-collar travelers a gander at the blue-collar locals.
Don’t let preconceived notions keep you from enjoying Italy as its pleasures far outweigh the hassles for 52.4 million visitors per year, but go physically prepared for international travel.
Italy provides more to do than several lifetimes of exploration could cover, and the mix of ancient history and current vibrancy intoxicates the senses beyond the legendary food and drink. Enjoy it with old buds if possible, then savor those times together whenever you reunite.
An old friend never can be found, and nature has provided that he cannot easily be lost.Samuel Johnson
Obama picked Janet Yellen to lead the nation out of the an economic depression caused primarily by greed, which the present Orange Tweeter drinks with a ladle.
Regulations continue to die by the handfuls as we drive the economy right back into the 2008 hole hedge fund managers drove us into, a hole now ready for a second suck since we’ve already forgotten the purpose those regulations had in the first place.
Janet Yellen, first female federal reserve director and the leader of the rebound, lost her title to a Trump appointee despite the fact that previous presidents — who exhibited realpatriotism — retained successful federal reserve chairman regardless of party. She’s declining her seat on the reserve now that a sacred white male wears the crown. If it ain’t broke, Trump’s bound to fix it.
Trash talkers assailed Michele Obama because she’s healthy and eats well, yanking veggies from school cafeterias in a fit of misplaced revenge — who needs health care? — while their corpulent spawn returned to the trough, happily sucking pizza and inhaling grease to their diseased hearts’ content. At least they can’t talk trash with their mouths full.
Trash talkers so lazy and greedy they couldn’t drive to their fabulous oaisis, paying Amtrak to haul their sorry butts over to the Greenbrier, lying just a day’s drive from Washington, all transportation and lavish opulence foisted onto the backs of Everyman tax payers.
Enter trash truck.
Note: it was nice to see Republican office holders attempting to revive (unionized?) trash truck employees forking over payroll taxes for fully-subsidized Congressional health care and luxury trips.
This writer salutes all manual laborers across America run over by the government train in uncountable ways each and every day, just as I mourn those lost in the tragedy.
Which is one more reason this monstrous irony requires a spotlight.
You have to hand it to the Grand Old Popinjays.
Democrats remain rudderless because they lack a true leader.
Democratic Congressmen make “suggestions.”
Here's how weak Democrats are at the root level: one of the first things President Obama did after his inauguration was speak to all the school children of America. At the time I taught black and Hispanic high schoolers, so I projected the speech on the big screen and said when it was over:
"I know it's not a level playing field yet, but this has to be encouraging."
After a short pause, one of the black males in the back yelled in reply:
"He ain't black!"
The reason Republicans dominate? They have a simple plan and they are entirely unified around it.
Destroy anything Obama ever did.
(Regardless of the needs of fellow citizens).
It’s something small, and completely contrary to their own perception of patriotism, but at least it’s a semblance of organization, a mighty weapon in the face of none.
Benjamin Franklin had his faults — ask most conspiracy theorists — and it was a known fact that he admired young women.
But when it comes to having a clear vision on accruing wealth, Poor Richard nailed it:
There are two ways of being happy: We may either diminish our wants or augment our means -- either will do -- the result in the same; and it is for each man to decide for himself, and do that which happens to be the easiest.
If you are idle or sick or poor, however hard it may be to diminish your wants, it will be harder to augment your means.
If you are active and prosperous or young and in good health, it may be easier for you to augment your means than to diminish your wants.
But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time, young or old, rich or poor, sick or well; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.
-- Benjamin Franklin, statesman, author, and inventor (1706-1790)
First, Franklin starts the “American myth” that happiness is tied to the pursuit of property. We have more stuff therefore we win begins here. But it is true that we decide our own financial fates, and Americans differ widely on their pursuit of savings.
The advertising industry raises its ugly head in paragraph three, making stuff a “need” in the hearts of North Americans and fanning the fire of want. Ironically, one of Franklin’s many nicknames was The Patron Saint of Advertising, which he mastered early on.
Apply the last paragraph to your life and its ongoing change of circumstances and good things will happen. The Millionaire Next Door hit home with many who’ve since reaped the benefits of Franklin’s (and Stanley’s) advice. There are now more than twice as many millionaire households than there were in 1996, and 10.1 million US households now report a million dollars worth of assets.
Here’s how to apply Franklin’s commonsense rules to runaway government spending.
We have to ask ourselves, do we need to police the globe? Has doing so improved world peace? Or has it fired up the military-industrial complex to thrive in a Brave New World of Endless War?
It’s obvious that our military wants exceed our taxpaying grasp, especially with new cuts about to favor billionaires and corporations. But does the average American really want to police the globe?
Since endless wars come at such a high cost, shouldn’t we fall back, assess the hot spots, employ better technology — in terms of rooting out evil, not nuking the earth into oblivion — and emasculate the bad guys with focused strikes?
I’m all for rooting out the bad guys, both foreign and domestic. But instead of spending on R&D for pinpoint technology, we’re filling our docks with billion dollar warships and our airfields with million dollar airplanes to fight conventional wars that no longer exist.
On the Other Hand
Here’s how we relate to a few other countries when it comes to saving cash:
What’s made America uniquely bad at saving? Perhaps America’s mix of wealth and diversity, the very staple of the American identity, is the culprit of its spending habits. In 2008, several researchers studied the stereotype that minorities spend more than whites on “visible goods”—like clothes, shoes, jewelry, watches, salons, health clubs, and car parts. They discovered that, even after controlling for income, minorities save less than whites and spend more on such conspicuous consumption goods. But the story wasn’t just about race. White people in poor U.S. states spent more of their income on visible goods than whites in higher income states.
The Atlantic, 2016
Let’s look at that again: ” White people in poor U.S. states spent more of their income on visible goods than whites in higher income states.”
The sitting president, however, is all about lifting up the elite at the expense of the rabble.
The Orange Tweeter, exhibiting bouts of sociopathy mixed with narcissism, seems incapable of focusing on any issue longer than a nano-second, and his sinking popularity now represents roughly 31% of the electorate.
Draw your own conclusions on what percent of this group falls into the “rabble” category (those still smarting from the deplorable slap), and what percent of Trump supporters are billionaires wanting to rake in more loot in the short term.
My personal guess is that moderate Republicans hoping to work across the aisle to solve the many pressing issues of the day would be a minority within that 31%.
Just a guess.
Yet the nation continues to treat world and domestic affairs like a football game — we win, you lose — without considering the simple fact that we’re actually all on the same team.
Yes, we can nuke any nation on earth into oblivion. Then the fallout blows over on us.
Yes, we have conventionally bombed nations into near-oblivion, but then they thrive after we go home, though most of the cash ends up in the hands of the upper-class.
You can’t enjoy small government and big military simultaneously.
But Trump voters aren’t interested in logic. The rabble still believes they’ll grow fat on the scraps tossed down from the elite’s tall table of big tax cuts and military-industrial-complex stock-and-bond windfalls.
They’re throwing commonsense to the wind, these lower-middle-class lovers of commonsense.
Our current health care mess is more a political debacle than a substantial challenge to the intellect when it comes to solvency.
We can do better by providing excellent health care to allAmericans while lowering the overall cost, though it may slightly burden the wealthy and middle-class folks in order to reach the prize of truly affordable health care for all.
In the 90’s I taught at a local community college and one of my students – who was abused as a child and neither fully-supported nor fully-educated – struggled her entire life with health issues, racking up hundreds of thousands of tax-payer-swallowed medical bills over the course of her too-short life.
Multiply this situation by millions – many citizens are now hooked on opiates – and one can see how this particular demographic could force a single-payer Medicare expansion into near-future reality.
While I was researching this article, it was obvious that
the “facts” coming from sites linked – in one way or another – to private insurance companies were quite different from those emanating from neutral sources.
The insurance-linked information sites apprised the cost at $32 trillion while the neutral sites announced it would actually lower costs. The truth often lies at the midpoint, a hefty sum indeed. But our current direction, and the soon-to-be-announced Obamacare Lite are simply untenable.
Limiting Congressional health-care benefits to their own
plan for the rest of us would be a start. But don’t expect a sitting Congressman to write that bill. And now Republicans are replicating the major mistake Obama committed in his first term, which was to push a secret backroom inviable bill into law while briefly holding the majority and babbling they’d better pass it first so “you can see what’s in it” later.
Fast forward to today and it turns out that the ACA is actually a step above what the current Trumpcare plan offers the truly needy, a plan that boils down to “the rich get richer”.
An alternate path – leading away from the debacle of Obamacare/ Trumpcare – is fairly simple and workable: expand Medicare using a single payer plan while dropping Medicaid altogether.
“So what is single-payer health care? Essentially it involves expanding the present Medicare system to cover everyone and eliminating private insurance (with the claimed accompanying savings of hundreds of billions of dollars).
"Additional features would include the absence of means testing, no concern for pre-existing conditions, the restoration of independent doctors and hospitals who negotiate with Medicare and would be chosen freely by consumers and one public agency processing and paying bills.
“Because it would be unneeded with this system in place, the present Medicaid program for the indigent and its associated administrative costs would be eliminated. Proponents suggest that costs could be contained and quality maintained through more efficient review by the single insurer. Costs would be financed through a progressive income tax.”
Sounds good, aye? Well, unless you’re a millionaire and break in to a cold sweat at the clause “costs would be financed through a progressive income tax”.
Like me, you’re probably reading between the lines here.When “eliminating private insurance” pops out, one’s mind – if the slightest bit of pragmatism is embedded there – questions the odds of cash actually drying up in the UnitedHealth, Kaiser, Humana, Aetna, and Cigna Rivers.
“In the 2012 election cycle, the insurance industry contributed a record $58.7 million to federal parties and candidates as well as outside spending groups. Of the nearly $55 million that went to parties and candidates, 68 percent went to Republicans, who have long been the recipients of most of this category's giving.”
Admittedly, private insurance companies may suffer at first with a single-payer plan, but people with cash would buy supplemental insurance beyond Medicare basics and sustain the industry; jobs would shift to government positions aimed at administrating the new system and would therefore mitigate unemployment.
With the GOP in power, we’ll likely get Obamacare Light if they can scrape up the Senate votes, which fattens the coffers of the already-wealthy while neglecting the truly needy.
However, the worm may turn in 2018, and if a new Congress actually functions, we’ll be able to bring down costs and increase quality with a single-payer Medicare expansion while simultaneously closing the income gap.
Today I’m simply re-posting recent articles — written by others — directly related to the opioid epidemic, which is the subject of my recently published novel.
New readers are signing up almost daily to receive this blog, and many are medical students or political science majors interested in the topics and the accompanying research. Perhaps this will help.
Look for original pieces arriving in the next few days.
First, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch 4/3/17:
Social change and economic disappointment create an epidemic of ‘deaths by despair’
Two years ago, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton disclosed a shocking finding: Between 1999 and 2014, middle-aged (45-54) white Americans with a high school education or less died at a rate never before seen in a modern industrialized society.
Alone among every other demographic group they studied, this group’s life expectancy was shrinking. The group’s annual mortality rate jumped from 281 per 100,000 to 415 per 100,000 during the 15 years studied.
Big reasons: Striking increases in the number of suicides, drug overdoses and liver disease caused by alcohol poisoning. Case and Deaton called them “deaths by despair.”
Now the two scholars have returned to try to explain why this is happening. In a report published by the Brookings Institution, they suggest that while income inequality and wage stagnation may play a background role, a lifetime of “cumulative disadvantage” catches up with this demographic.
They are the slice of the population who hit the job market as low-skill jobs were being mechanized, computerized and globalized. They grew into adulthood as cohesion-building social institutions like marriage, family and churches became weaker. Often they didn’t have spouses, pastors, work buddies or kids to back them up.
They did have opioid painkillers, which Case and Deaton say “added fuel to the flames, making the epidemic much worse than it otherwise would have been.” They cite a study from the Boston Federal Reserve that found that among men not in the labor force, nearly half are taking pain medication, most often by prescription.
Case is a professor of economics and public affairs; Deaton, her husband, was the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics. They admit their research is not a “smoking gun,” but it has ominous implications:
“This account, which fits much of the data, has the profoundly negative implication that policies, even ones that successfully improve earnings and jobs, or redistribute income, will take many years to reverse the mortality and morbidity increase, and that those in midlife now are likely to do much worse in old age than those currently older than 65.”
Obviously the same forces affecting low-income middle-aged whites also affect poor educated middle-aged blacks and Hispanics. But mortality rates are decreasing among those groups and they don’t suffer high rates of deaths by despair. The authors speculate that expectations may be higher among whites, leading to greater disappointment when things don’t work out.
Many of these folks put their faith in Republican promises of help, and the GOP owes them something. Addressing opioid addiction is a place to start. So is keeping the social safety net intact. GOP politicians can boast about bringing back jobs and passing right-to-work laws, but voters must hold them accountable if they make things worse for the people the corporate economy has left behind.
Dallas Morning News 4/6/17
At the heart of our opioid crisis: the doctors who overprescribe them
President Donald Trump held a “listening session” about opioids and drug abuse at the White House last week. The gathering included former addicts, parents of children who had overdosed, top federal officials and others. Trump vowed to make drug treatment more widely available — a worthwhile goal with bipartisan appeal. He also spoke of strengthening law enforcement and dismantling drug cartels.
But there is a cheaper, low-risk tactic for curbing some opioid misuse that was neglected: changing doctors’ prescribing habits and better educating patients. A recent study found that for every 48 patients who receive an opioid prescription in the emergency room, one will likely become a long-term user. A more cautious approach to prescribing could save lives.
Across the United States, health care professionals wrote 249 million prescriptions for opioid pain medicines in 2013. In 2015, about 22,000 Americans died after overdosing on some form of opioid drug, legal or illicit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those deaths, 15,000 were attributed to prescription opioid overdoses. In fiscal 2015, Texas pharmacies dispensed almost 7 million prescriptions for the opioid painkillers hydrocodone or oxycodone alone.
There is no medical explanation for the rise in opioid use. Sales of prescription opioids nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, even though Americans don’t report having more pain now. Prescribing rates vary widely among states, even though health conditions don’t. Even among doctors working in the same emergency room, some prescribe opioids much more frequently than others.
The federal government — along with some states and professional associations — has produced extensive prescribing guidelines. Opioid medications are not the preferred option for managing chronic pain; doctors and patients should try other approaches first and carefully weigh risks before starting prescription opioids. For acute pain, such as after surgery, doctors should prescribe the lowest possible dose of opioid for the shortest duration. Prescribers must be especially careful with older adults because opioid painkillers can put seniors at higher risks of falls and fractures.
Pharmacists and patients have an important role. In Texas, lawmakers are considering a bill, SB 316, which tightens the state’s prescription drug monitoring program. The bill would make it easier for pharmacists and regulators to quickly spot patients who fill multiple prescriptions for addictive medications and doctors who prescribe inappropriately.
And the public can help, too. How do most people who misuse prescription pain medications get them? One large study showed that about half obtained them free from friends or relatives. So, if you have pain pills left over from surgery or dental work, drop them in the toilet. Really. These medications are so dangerous when misused that the FDA recommends flushing them down the sink or the toilet if you can’t find an official drug take-back event. That will keep everybody in your home — you and your friends, relatives, kids and pets — safe.
What you can do
April 29 is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, which aims to provide a safe, convenient and responsible means of disposing of prescription drugs, while providing education about the potential for abuse and medications. To find a drop-off location near you or to learn more about the program, visit dea.gov or call 800-882-9539.
Endless prescription: Suboxone, Subutex plaguing region
For many, they mean nothing. But they are at the heart of a disturbing trend which has seen people move to the area just to obtain them, caused doctors to leave other jobs to prescribe them and left hundreds of drug addicts with an endless prescription.
It is a problem law enforcement has seen explode in the last five years.
“We routinely arrest people for drug offenses and find them in possession of both buprenorphine (Suboxone or Subutex) and some other powerful narcotic (heroin, opiate-based pain pills, etc.) that buprenorphine is supposed to be weaning them off of. This phenomenon directly contradicts their intended purpose,” said Kingsport Police Department Public Information Officer Tom Patton.
“In an ideal world, buprenorphine could arguably serve a legitimate purpose. But we do not live in an ideal world, and we are probably seeing more harm than good out of these drugs at this point.”
The intended use of buprenorphine, the main ingredient in Suboxone and Subutex, is to help people addicted to pain pills achieve sobriety by providing an alternative to their drug of choice. Counseling and therapy are supposed to be provided along with the prescription.
Over time, the dosage should be reduced gradually until the patient is completely drug free.
That is not happening.
“I started going to a doctor in 2006 or 2007, somewhere around there,” said a Suboxone patient who wished to remain anonymous. “The first time you take it and the second time you take it, it feels great. Then it just turns into maintenance.”
He said he is disappointed because he was told by a healthcare professional that a tapering off would occur, but never did.
The patient, who is currently homeless, said he spends $160 a week to visit a doctor and fill his prescription. He readily admits he could spend that money on an apartment if he were not on Suboxone.
It is a cash-only business because his doctor, like many buprenorphine prescribers, does not accept insurance.
And cash only not only applies to patients, but to everyone, including law enforcement agencies that buy the drug for use as health maintenance for prisoners.
“All clinics do cash only,” said Christy Frazier, the health administrator for the Sullivan County Jail. “The ones I worked with here only take cash, even from us.”
Frazier said in just one week, approximately 75 percent of those coming into the jail had abused Suboxone or Subutex. She said at least two inmates told her they moved to Northeast Tennessee for the express purpose of obtaining the drugs.
Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus said almost every single drug case before a recent grand jury involved the selling of Suboxone or Subutex.
“It’s a real danger to the community,” he said. “I attribute that to overprescribing.”
Patients are not the only ones getting in on the act. Doctors are reportedly leaving their current work to start prescribing buprenorphine.
“Greed is taking over,” said Dr. Randy Jessee, senior vice president of specialty services for Frontier Health. “We are hearing stories about doctors quitting their ER work, quitting their practice and going into the Suboxone business.”
According to the Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, there are 94 buprenorphine prescribers in the greater metro areas of Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol. And that number could be an underestimate because prescribers decide whether they want to be listed in the DSAMH locator, according to the 2015 DSAMH “Medication-Assisted Treatment Substance Use Tool Guide.”
It would never be obvious to anyone driving around town that so many buprenorphine prescribers exist. There is a reason why.
Many of the clinics or prescribers do not advertise the prescribing of Suboxone or Subutex. They also have unassuming names, calling themselves a rehabilitation center or family treatment center. Many users find out by word of mouth.
The Suboxone patient who talked to the Times-News was handed a card directing him to a clinic by a friend nearly 10 years ago.
“My friend at work gave me a card that was $25 off the first visit,” he said. “At my first visit, he (the prescriber) gave us cards to give out. We were pretty much advertising for them.”
He said he’s gone from being able to see the doctor at any time to having to wait up to two hours for a visit. Suboxone and Subutex are being prescribed so much in the area that pharmacies are either running out or reaching their federal limit on buprenorphine.
The patient said he’s had to drive to every Walgreens to try to get his prescription filled, only to be declined. Many smaller pharmacies refuse to accept new patients who are being prescribed Suboxone.
Once someone is given a prescription for these drugs, it becomes very hard to stop using them without tapering off because the withdrawal symptoms are worse than with regular opioids.
The Suboxone patient is stressed out because he was robbed of some cash and his entire prescription four days ago. He has not had Suboxone in three days and is starting to feel the effects. He has experienced withdrawal before and is not looking forward to going through it again.
“I feel like I woke up with the flu,” he said. “For 11 or 12 days, I feel really, really bad. Then I won’t feel right for about 30 days.”
He said he is currently $35 short for his next doctor’s appointment, meaning he needs to find the money so he can get his prescription. That means borrowing money from someone, usually with the promise of giving a pill or two in return.
Subutex is more popular on the street than Suboxone because it does not contain the overdose drug Naloxone. Users can take Subutex and get higher than they could with Suboxone.
Suboxone is going for about $25 to $30 per dose on the street while Subutex is selling for between $40 and $70.
The Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill in 2015 that said only pregnant women and those allergic to Naloxone can get it. Frazier said this had led to women getting pregnant on purpose just to obtain Subutex.
Subutex and Suboxone use on the street has become a huge problem and many blame the prescribers. The patient interviewed by the Times-News called it legal drug dealing.
“We’re giving doctors the money instead of drug lords,” Frazier said.
One of our US senators, Lamar Alexander, once ran for governor and won the hearts of Tennesseans by walking across the state — from Mountain City to Memphis, over a thousand miles — wearing a red and black flannel shirt and meeting with and listening to folks along the way.
Abe Lincoln, reborn.
But now after fourteen years in Congress he replies to personal letters with pre-programmed robot mail because the office in question — secretary of education — was pre-sold to the highest bidder.
A friend of mine wrote and asked me to pen a note begging LA to rethink the DeVos nomination. So I took several hours, researched a bit, and produced a letter.
For security, I cut and pasted the letter into his website, the current way he’s receiving public mail. The paper letter never garnered a response.
And his team was smart enough to not send their robot letter back a nano second after my personal letter hit the server.
Their response drifted back the next day. Savvy. As if they’d read it.
Anyway, it’s interesting to follow the order of events. Here they are: the original letter, the robot response, and my follow up at the end. Let’s set this down for posterity, as Lamar Alexander’s legacy rides upon the way our government is behaving at the moment.
Dear Senator Lamar Alexander,
My favorite American, Ben Franklin, perhaps the most inventive and prescient of us all, made it clear that he trusted neither the elite, nor the rabble. 
You, sir, sit in control of present day American history. With your influence and pen, you may turn a pillar of America freedom – public education – into a pile of desecrated ash.
Or, you may preserve a way of life that has successfully blended the melting pot into the powerhouse of capitalism, prosperity, and equal opportunity known as America, a richly diverse mix of blood, religion, creed, and ambition – all imbued with a love for family and civic pride that sweeps the nation while transcending political parties and narrow ideology.
The egalitarian principle upon which we’ve built our culture – that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and equal opportunities – already cost us the inestimable blood-soaked trauma of the most horrific of all wars, a war where only Americans perished, a war that came to a head at a wall on Missionary Ridge.
And yet, we sit looking on while another wall is erected, a wall pitting the resources of the private education scheme against traditional melting-pot public schools in a land already seething with a discontent for the unending privileges of few at the expense of many.
Senator Alexander, Betsy DeVos is unqualified to serve as the Secretary of Education for three reasons. First, she is a member of the billionaire class who has never worked in a public school, has never earned a degree in education, and never saw her children attend a public school. Experience? Zero.
Second, Betsy DeVos advocates “school choice” privatization schemes. When schools become business-driven for-profit entities mainly rewarding stockholders, they’ll immediately drain resources from public schools, which will wither and become “alternative schools” or in other words, a well-oiled feeder system for the burgeoning for-profit prison system even more than the outrageous present – where 40% of our prison population is comprised of a single racial group equaling only 13% of the general population. 
Which rewards for-profit prison stockholders.
The vicious cash-churning cycle may buy yachts and classy real estate for a few, but it certainly poisons millions of youth while darkening our moral landscape to the point where civil-rights-rebellions are glimpsed on the mall the day after inaugurations.
Lastly, Betsy DeVos is unqualified for the post because she threatens the loss of civil rights and opportunity for those who won’t be able to scale the elite-inspired walls erected by private for-profit schools.
And once schools are effectively re-segregated, the elite will be ensured a never-ending supply of government-created-Soylent-Green-cash in the form of education-deprived public school self-created “rabble” permanently excluded from the egalitarian dream of equal rights, equal opportunity.
Following the Civil War, lawmen in the South rounded up black “vagrants” and funneled them through the penal system and instantly regenerated the once-lost-now-found system of slavery-by-another-name. Incarceration.
So the choice is yours. Ben Franklin’s history is set. Yours is about to be written.
The future of the nation depends upon your decision. May God guide your hand in egalitarian Christian  love for those whose destiny will be determined by that act.
Michael “Gene” Scott
 Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, An American Life, (Simon and Schuster: 2003), p. 112.
 T.R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas, And the Texans, p. 629.
Christian egalitarianism (derived from the French word égal, meaning equal or level), also known as biblical equality, is a Christian form of egalitarianism. It holds that all human persons are created equally in God’s sight—equal in fundamental worth and moral status.
Senator Lamar Alexander’s Robot Letter Response
Dear Mr. Scott,
Thanks very much for getting in touch with me and letting me know what’s on your mind regarding President Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos to become the next Secretary of Education.
Betsy DeVos is an excellent choice. The Senate’s education committee will move swiftly in January to consider her nomination. Betsy has worked for years to improve educational opportunities for all children. As Secretary, she will be able to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new law fixing No Child Left Behind, just as Congress wrote it, reversing the trend to a national school board and restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities. Under the new law, the federal government may not mandate or incentivize states to adopt any particular standards, including Common Core.
I also look forward to working with her on the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, giving us an opportunity to clear out the jungle of red tape that makes it more difficult for students to obtain financial aid and for administrators to manage America’s 6,000 colleges and universities.
Improving our schools has been one of my top priorities in public service, both as a U.S. Senator and during my earlier service as governor, president of the University of Tennessee, and U.S. Secretary of Education. Better schools mean better jobs, which is why I have worked to support states and school districts in improving education so that our students have the tools they need for success.
We are unleashing a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement—one that recognizes that the path to higher standards, better teaching and real accountability is classroom by classroom, community by community, and state by state—and not through Washington, D.C. I appreciate your taking the time to let me know where you stand. I’ll be sure to keep your comments in mind as this issue is discussed and debated in Washington and in Tennessee.
Thanks, Lamar. You’ve effectively trampled American-forged melting pot education with your Almighty Buck boots while sporting an old flannel shirt turned inside out.
Your legacy is now set in cement for those future Americans who can afford to read it.
Logically, one should abstain from indulging in news the first thing in the morning.
Soaking up death, stabbings, arson, child neglect, fracking, meth-lab explosions, sex slavery, environmental disasters, racist cops, neglected infrastructure, enduring slave wages, endless CEO profit raking, idiotic politicians blubbering pie-in-the-sky promises with no intention of following through … mixing all those nauseous facts with prodigious amounts of caffeine … well.
That can’t be good for the psyche.
But the routine never varies.
Out of bed, slurp coffee, devour news, cautiously turn to the obituaries, brace for the blow.
A recent law-school grad with a long history of academic success, a loving family, and a promising future. Twenty-seven-years-old. Here’s a brief paraphrase from the obit:
God protected him many times when his parents were unable. His earthly life ended unexpectedly but his everlasting life has begun.
We’ve watched the font-size of our local print paper decrescendo for thirty years to the point where it’s barely readable.
After all, they have our subscription money, and we’ve read the news on our iPhones and internet feeds, old print news takes up valuable paper and ink, so we’ll minimalize it, shrink it with a pissant font, and look for other revenue streams.
To balance the loss of readership and revenue to online outlets, our local newspaper doubled the size of its obituary text, colorized large head shots of the recently-deceased, and unknowing created a daily parade of local folk now leaving eternal digitized images.
If you plan ahead, love to scribble, and can afford to throw even more cash at a local newspaper publisher, up goes your twin column half page manifesto, a.k.a. bird-cage lining.
Obituaries sell local papers. Furthermore, the family of the deceased wanting to run an obituary is billed up to $600— approximately five times an annual subscription price — to purchase the publication of their loved one’s death notice.
And newsprint corporations will continue to milk grieving readers until obituaries naturally migrate whole herd onto the “everlasting” cloud — which is subject to evaporation any second of any day.
So we slurp coffee, wipe crust from our eyes, and suffer the dark parade of endless young-people obituaries — two or three “mysterious passings” per week — digitized head shots projecting health, vitality, and promise … while the shocking dissconnect of truth and image confounds the thoughtful reader.
Cancer victims either declare outright the nature of their earthly battle, or direct donations toward eradicating the scourge, which indicates the cause of their passing.
But prescription or illegal opioid drug deaths — cloaked in self-painted societal shame — lie hidden between the lines of the family-or-funeral-home-produced death notice.
We’re talking perhaps 2-3 opioid-connected deaths per-week in a region supporting a newspaper circulation of 43,000.
National statistics suggest nearly fifty-two Americans perish every day from prescription opioid overdoses — eighty per day if you figure in heroin— so two-or-three deaths a week in such a tiny demographic seems outrageous.
Heroin deaths are linked to the pill trade because recently skyrocketing street-prices of prescription opioids allow cheap heroin to flourish across the land, hitting rural states and Appalachia especially hard due to decades of high unemployment and a culture slow to raise education standards, though the epidemic appears to cross all lines, racial, religious, geographic, and socio-economic.
Many of our locals succumb to fentanyl, fifty times more potent than typical street heroin. They go to a party, try a little, forget how much they’ve taken, dab a little more, and before the dawn appears …. the sun sets on their precious lives.
Opioid availability first soared (in recent history) after 26 states and D.C. legalized weed in some form and jerked market out from under Mexico, who made up the loss by dumping cheap heroin and opioid-laden chemicals on an already addicted North America poised to dull the pain with ever increasing amounts of opioids, a class of drugs that has debilitated us since the Civil War.
One family, six months ago, actually came clean in the second paragraph of their boy’s obituary, saying that the deceased fell victim to prescription drugs after losing his father two years prior. The son couldn’t bear the loss.
That’s the only self-admission I’d seen in thirty years of obituary reading, though I must confess that for twenty-eight years I only skimmed obits for astounding stories of WWII vets who’d conquered the world and returned home to build new lives.
The truth remains: we all wear a mask.
This concept came home to me thirty years ago when I taught Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veilto a class of honors English students in a suburban Chicago high school.
A small village church must deal with their minister, Mr. Hooper, who takes a notion to don a black veil covering his upper face — much like a widow would wear at an old-fashioned funeral. Everything goes south when he chooses to leave it on.
He becomes a better minister after this decision, ironically, and though his fiancé breaks off their engagement, she watches his entire life and comes to be with him on his death bed, where he admits all of us wear a mask. Upon his death, Mr. Hooper is buried with the veil in place.
Let’s look into the mirror.
When we’re at Sunday school, we wear the Sunday school face. Job interviews conjure a competent strong obedient flexible yes-sir face. Thursday night dollar-draft-beer Raccoon Club meetings at the local sports bar requires a special façade.
And since random acts of unprovoked violence occur in this crazy world — say the unexpected death of a child through accident or SIDs — well, that means perhaps even God wears a mask.
No one is immune from the natural instinct to project a happy face while masking reality through omission.
Facebook is simply a party-line on steroids, a party line with enough bandwidth so a billion users may share photos, text, videos, music, and fake news.
For whatever psychological reason, the vast majority of us prefer to keep the laundry in the closet and to project the shiniest image of ourselves and our loved ones, clean photo-shopped textually-tweaked images of success and prosperity.
Let’s face it, we’re all the billboard producers of our archived lives, turned digital and pulsing across the electronic social universe — Google Plus, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, et al. — social media entwined through massive servers grown muscular through carrying an ever-increasing crescendo of porn to the sex-starved masses. Thirst begets thirst.
Irony. Cleanliness afforded by dirt.
As a result, we can now Photoshop and video-edit our pimples and purple lives while projecting sanitized, filtered, smiling, I’m so happy, self-assured-selfies, eternal masks frozen in digital clouds of memories, gigabytes juggled in “perpetuity” for dollars a month.
Even when people freak out, breech social barriers, and reveal their dark sides on social media, it’s often ignored until the post mortems roll in.
When an individual’s mask slips down, the tribe doesn’t WANT to look, or doesn’t want to acknowledge some of us actually DIDlook and failed to respond.
Which brings us back to the Double-O-Demons.
Jellybeaners is a topical novel about opiates and obituaries, and the fact that shame drives many of our decisions.
And until we supplant shame with grace and help people recover from addiction through counseling, financial incentives, and work opportunities, well.