Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Death (or two) in White Bear Lake

2009 is a year I will want to forget, but will not.

It is the year in which my younger brother succumbed to lung cancer, after a too brief and too devastating few months.

It is the year in which my mother was taken by a slowly leaking aortic aneurysm, laying just beyond easy reach and salvation. By the time it was diagnosed, she could not have survived the surgery. And so, we passed the time with her as she passed away.

Many in my family take some comfort in their religious beliefs. My brother did in his; my mother in hers, in her way. While she rejected the trappings of the church in which she was raised and in which she baptised her 11 children, she died believing that she would be reunited with her husband and the two sons who had gone before her.

If only I, too, believed. But I do not now and will never again accept the tales I was told as a child. My brain gets in the way; my heart remains closed. A pity? Some would say so. I do not. It is merely the way things are for me, as much as they are for the sisters who know they will someday see our mother and brother again. As Billy Pilgrim might say, "So it goes."

I am sad. Some days more than others. It pains me to work toward the closure of my mother's estate. Each day, another page in that process is turned, the end comes a bit closer. My contacts with my brothers and sisters grow fewer, briefer. We turn from the words of comfort we offered only two months ago to conversations about real estate and taxes, the sale of personal property. We struggle to divide the spoils of our survival in ways that leave us a piece of our mother and brother without depriving others of what they require or desire. We are not always successful.

I will survive. I will recover. My wife and my son will walk me out of this time as they have done before. For that, I am now and will always be grateful.

Monday, April 27, 2009

If they did this in my name,

it better have been worth it.

My dad died of emphysema, a death that is often compared to drowning. As the disease slowly destroys the lung tissue, breathing becomes progressively more difficult. The damage to the tissue prevents the lungs from expelling one breath and taking in another. Less and less oxygen is available. Eventually, even those on oxygen become incapable of getting the oxygen their bodies demand. Instinct kicks in: breathe more deeply, breathe more often. But they can't. As they lay there gasping for breath, they know they are dying in that instant, only that instant lasts for hours, days and weeks.

Panic sets in. You can see it in their eyes. Their voices are stilled by disease. Their arms and legs flail as they try to swim to the surface of water that doesn't exist.

The standard treatment for this is liquid morphine, placed under the tongue of the victim. It does not improve breathing; it does not increase oxygen levels. It simply renders the victim unconcious in his final days.

And now I read in great detail how my government, in my name, intentionally subjected other people to this same experience, through waterboarding. In one case, every four hours of every day for a period of 31 days.

I know the arguments, the claims made in support of the approach. I do not accept the argument that this is not torture, for I have seen its equivalent. I have seen the eyes of my father as the most fundamental part of his brain told him he was drowning, despite all evidence to the contrary.

I understand that those subjected to this torture are said to have been guilty, to have possessed knowledge vital to the conduct of a war. That does not lessen my horror. Nor can I, a man who has been thought guilty of many things I have never done, believe that every person subjected to this torture was guilty of any crime or that any crime he may have committed warranted this punishment.

Damn those who justified this in my name, who sat in comfort at desks far removed from the conflict and the reality of torture and contrived legal and moral justifications for this abuse. Damn those who have placed me and my country among the wicked.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I want my DNA.*

According to the New York Times, "starting this month, the FBI will join 15 states that collect DNA samples from people awaiting trial and also will collect DNA from immigrants who have been detained — the vanguard of a growing class of genetic registrants. " Remind me not to talk to the Feds.

I don't plan on committing a crime any time soon, state or federal. Still, I don't care for the idea that a sample of my DNA may some day reside in a drawer in some vault in the basement of an obscure federal repository, against the day when I might leave a bit of spittle behind at a meeting of some-yet-to-be-identified group of subversive old men. (AARP, anyone?)

They've already got my birth certificate, my driver's license number, photo, social security number, and income information for most of the past 45 years or so. Probably much more, though I'll be damned if I'll spend the money to make an FOIA request to find out. They'd just add that to the file anyway. ("Why's he asking? What does he have to be afraid of?")

They (the state, the Feds or anyone else with the necessary interest) can buy a ton of additional information on me for a few dollars. They can listen in on my infrequent international calls.(Technically, I understand they already do; it's just a question of whether anyone says anything that piques their curiousity). If they had half a mind to do so, they could pretty readily track down most every thought I've ever broadcast on the internet, worldwide web, or using my secret decoder headband. They've already sought authority to get my library records on request, only to be beaten back by an army of grey-haired, middle-aged women wearing ankle-length skirts.

On second thought, I guess they can have my DNA. They've already got everything else.


* With apologies to Dire Straits.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Tax Man and Me

I finished my income tax returns early this year: 4 days before they were due. Some would say I procrastinate. I say I'm just cheap. I hate to give the Feds a dollar before it's due, even if I'm only going to make a few cents on it by waiting.

This year, I used TaxCut, H & R Block's tax software. It lets you compare yourself to other taxpayers in a very wide income range. Based on those numbers, I'm either an idiot, a cheap S.O.B., or a fool. Maybe all three.

It seems that most in my bracket pay a hell of alot more in deductible mortgage interest and donate a considerably greater amount to charity. Of course, I've lived in my house for a quarter century and a good deal of what we have to share with others goes in directions that aren't deductible. I gotta say, I can't imagine life with a mortgage that results in a $29,000 annual interest deduction. Or giving hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to any church. (Drove by one of those mega-churches last week; they had cops directing traffic miles away. Amazing.)

Yesterday, I paid my second half property taxes. Paying them directly keeps you in touch with exactly how much you're paying, to whom and for what. For the record, my total tax bill for 2009 was $3600, or about 1.5% of the value of my house, according to Ramsey County. One quarter of that goes to the City of Saint Paul, one-third each to the county and school district. The rest to miscellaneous things I'm not sure I've ever heard of. It's an archaic system, but I'm not sure that there's any better way to pay for local government. (I would love, however, to see the property tax exemption for churches and charitable non-profits eliminated. I'm not too crazy about being required to subsidize the operations of any organizations I haven't chosen myself.)

My mortgage payment will end soon, allowing me to put it toward my kid's college costs, if he goes and we pay for it. By the time he's done, I'll be fully retired, bagging groceries at the local market or doing anything but what I now do for a living to keep myself occupied. My little 1926 bungalow will continue to function just fine, although it will bug me no end to pay $300 / month (or more) in property taxes. (How is it that the value has increased by a factor of 5 while the taxes have increased by a factor of 9 since 1984?)

Like most people, I don't enjoy being faced with the amount of money I earn and the portion of it that's paid out to the Feds, State, County, City, etc. It comes to about 30% of our total income, not counting sales and other taxes that are paid a dollar here, a dollar there. But I don't really mind paying it, to tell the truth.

Why? Because I live in a reasonably safe community, in which I can count on certain services being available (even though I might quibble with the quality of some of those services). Because I know that my money helps pay for many necessary things, for many people (even though I know that not all that is needed by all who cannot provide for themselves is available). Because, by and large, the systems we have in place work and accomplish what it is we ask of them (despite the fact that some of us are never going to be satisfied with what is done or how well it is done).

Can it all be done better? No doubt. It's all done by human beings. Can it all be done cheaper? Ditto. Will it? Probably not so we'll ever really notice, for the same reason.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Deja Vu

(The following was initially published in May, 2008, by the Pioneer Press, St. Paul, MN. A new bill, subject to the same failings, is working its way through the Minnesota Legislature again in 2009. This time, I'm told, Pawlenty may sign the bill. Wrong result: wrong reasons.)


Governor Pawlenty vetoed an obscure bit of legislation on May 16, one which few Minnesotans have heard of and in which even fewer have any interest. But for tens of thousands of Minnesotans whose lives have been touched by adoption over the last 90 years, it was a significant event, one in which Governor Pawlenty reached the right result for all the wrong reasons.

Every birth in Minnesota is memorialized by a birth certificate. A second birth certificate is issued for any minor adopted in Minnesota. Since 1917, Minnesota has sealed the original birth certificates of those born and adopted in this state. Initially, the information was locked away only from the general public. Over the years, however, the law was changed to prohibit anyone from seeing the original birth certificate, parent or offspring, adult or child. Under current law, some adult adoptees have access to their original birth certificates, some don't. It all depends upon when they were born and whether one of their biological parents has told the state not to release that information to them.

The bill in question would have changed the situation slightly, allowing any adoptee at least 19 years of age to obtain an uncertified copy of his or her original certificate upon request, provided that one of the birth parents had not already vetoed the adoptee’s right to that information.

Neither the existing law, nor the bill vetoed last week by Governor Pawlenty, makes sense to this adoptive father. Why my son should be denied the right to obtain a copy of his original birth certificate from the state, while I have the absolute right to my own, is a mystery. Both of our births were public events, like virtually every other person in this state. Yet, the state decided at some point in the distant past that some adults in this state should be denied access to this most fundamental personal information: who they are and where they came from.

No one should have the right to tell the state whether or my son may have access to this information. Yet our current law and the failed attempt to modify it place that right in the hands of the man and woman who conceived him. Why? Because he was adopted after being born. Had he been placed in foster care, he would have the same rights I do. Whether he was born inside or outside of marriage, he would have the same rights I do. Whether he had been raised by one parent or two, he would have the same rights I do. But because he was adopted, the State of Minnesota has granted either of his biological parents the power to deny him the right enjoyed by every other non-adopted person in Minnesota: the right to know from whence he came.

The exercise of this power would not affect only my son. It would affect all those to whom he is related by blood and who may be deprived of the possibility of ever knowing him, his father, mother, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins. All because he was adopted.

Governor Pawlenty was right to veto a bill that would have perpetuated this injustice. Sadly, he did so for all the wrong reasons. His veto was based not on a recognition of the rights of adult adoptees, but on the erroneous belief that those who relinquished children for adoption were in some way promised that the fact of the adoption would be kept forever secret by the state. He also cited a report that fewer than one-quarter of biological parents contacted by a single Minnesota adoption agency preferred not to have identifying information released by the agency.

Fortunately, my son was born in a country which does not seal original birth certificates. He already has a certified copy of his. He knows his origins. But thousands of others adopted in Minnesota since 1917 (and their descendants) will never know theirs, so long as Minnesota continues to meddle in their private lives.

91 years of such meddling is more than enough. Perhaps our next legislature and our next governor will recognize that the state has no legitimate role to play in this area of our lives. Perhaps they will recognize that adult adoptees are indeed adults, not the children they once were. But they’ll need to hear from us to do so.

A eulogy, of sorts.

(The following originally was published, in slightly different form, by the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, June, 2006.)

Twila Brase's June 8 diatribe against Medicare hit my dining room table only a few hours after I had learned of my mother-in-law's death at age 91, of Alzheimer's. This political extremism requires a response.

Brase calls upon Republicans to "follow the enduring conservative principles of individual liberty and personal responsibility" in building a "new Medicare free generation." Brase writes either from ignorance or blind faith in mythical economic and political systems. She assumes that Medicare is the result of and encourages personal irresponsibility and that it somehow threatens personal liberty. Her assumptions are not just wrong; they slander generations of men and women who have struggled to survive and thrive in this society.

My mother-in-law, Alice, took responsibility for herself and others throughout her life. Born in 1915, the eldest of 14 children, she saw only 8 years of formal education before her father died. She went to work on neighboring farms to help support her family. She married and had four children of her own, as she and her husband, Bill, worked a small farm east of Crookston, MN. Before her husband died in 1991, they had moved to a small home in Red Lake Falls, MN, living off their tiny life-long savings and a meager social security check. But for Medicare, they would have received no meaningful medical care in the last decades of their lives. They simply could not have afforded it: not because they were irresponsible, but because of the time, place and economy into which they were born.

Jobs were never plentiful in the Red River Valley. Small farms abounded, homesteaded by immigrants in the 19th century, handed down in bits and pieces to sons and daughters. Poverty was and remains a constant in this and many other parts of our country. Absent Medicare, and similar government funded medical programs, Alice, Bill, and thousands of elderly or disabled citizens would have received no medical care in the last 40 years other than, perhaps, the emergency care required to save a hand or keep a heart beating.

Brase's imagined threat to individual liberty is merely paranoid rhetoric. There has never been and will never be a law in this country that limits what an individual may pay for the medical treatment he or she wishes to obtain. Virtually every medical care provider in this country charges a number of rates for its services, varying only with the person paying the bills. If a patient is covered by Medicare and a doctor chooses to treat Medicare patients, the Medicare rate is charged. If the patient is covered by a private health insurance plan and the doctor has chosen to treat that patient, the agreed upon rate is paid. That rate typically is higher than Medicare's. Ironically, it is those patients who are covered by nothing but their own wallets who are charged the most for medical services.

If Medicare, an HMO, or a private insurer does not cover a given procedure, a patient is free to purchase it on the patient's own. Most simply can't afford to do so. The claim that Medicare and similar programs limit what medical care there is to be had is equally baseless. If you can afford an existing treatment, you can get it.

In all the decades before and since the advent of Medicare, neither our medical profession nor our insurance industry has found a way to make medical care universally available and affordable. Our once widespread medical insurance system was largely a by-product of labor shortages following WWII. With the collapse of the labor movement, we have seen corporations unilaterally abandoning both retiree health care and pension plans, reneging on payment of wages already earned by years of labor. These actions are not the result of any lack of personal responsibility on the part of retirees. They do, however, guarantee increasing reliance on the plan that we, as a society, have undertaken to insure medical care for ourselves and our parents. There is no reason to believe that the future will be any different, whether shaped by Republicans or Democrats. We do know, however, that if we dismantle Medicare, we abandon older Americans to unnecessary disease and death.

It was 40 years ago today . . .

my maternal grandmother was laid to her rest in a cemetery not too far from where I sit. She had died three days earlier, on April Fool's Day. Some joke.

April 4 was my then girlfriend's 19th birthday. She was in Waukesha, WI. (Happy 58th birthday today, kid. I understand life's been rough on you.)

After the funeral, I was in no mood to play nice with the family. My grandma meant a good deal to me, despite her many failings. Of course, I wasn't that aware of her failings then. As a child, I'd never understood why she would spend her afternoons watching Jan Murray's Treasure Hunt and then bitch about him being a "damn Jew". I didn't even know what a Jew was at the time, much less know one. Most White Bear boys were in the same boat. Hell, a Jew couldn't even buy property in the privately-owned North Oaks, area to the West of White Bear Lake. Of course, I couldn't get in without an escort. But I digress.

So, I left town after her funeral. I called a few friends and headed West, to the town of Morris, MN, where a pal was a freshmen in college. We drove a 1965 VW bug, carrying 3 people and 10.57 gallons of 14.9 cent a gallon gas. It took more than a few hours to cover the necessary ground. You can only push a 69 CI, 24 hp, 4 cylinder engine so fast.

It was almost dark when we arrived. My pal, whose name will go unremarked for the protection of us all, shared a dorm room in Pine Hall, a co-ed building with guys and girls on alternating floors. His roommate, B., was preparing for a date. I'd met B. before, briefly. He struck me as jock-like but OK.

I met another resident shortly after I arrived: D. To this day, I don't know why he made me laugh, but he did. I couldn't be in the same room with him for more than a few minutes without cracking up, completely. I was powerless.

We cut and ran, heading to a concert in a small auditorium in the center of the campus. I have no idea who was playing. It wasn't any good to my ears.

The rest of the evening is a blur, now. All I know is that when it came time to call it a night, my sleeping arrangements required that share D.'s room. I couldn't.

We left town well before dawn, rolling south on Highway 9 and then East on Highway 12 to Minneapolis and a dingy 2 bedroom apartment above a NordEast meat market and laundromat. My buddy made us breakfast. We ate spaghetti and meatballs on a balcony overlooking the alley as the sun rose behind us.

Goodbye, Grandma. It was good to know you.


So, here's the deal:

There are a lot of things that piss me off. Some would say too many. From time to time, I've written a bit about those things. Some have been published here and there; others I've written for myself. I'll be posting many of those here, for the sheer self-indulgent pleasure of it. Feel free to agree or disagree. I'm not sure I care.