Sunday, October 25, 2009

Upside down and backwards

I just finished watching Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, a nice film about the extraordinary life and talents of Dr. Ben Carson, perhaps the world's leading pediatric neurosurgeon. His story is incredibly inspiring, to say the least. But the inspiration is not what is gnawing at me at the moment. The movie suggests that Dr. Carson has been handsomely, materially rewarded for his brilliant life's work; that was hardly a focal point of the movie. Yet, it occurred to me that perhaps doctors are not paid enough.

Oh, sure, many doctors in our society have nice homes and nice cars. They "rake in the big bucks," as Joe Six Pack might say. This is not the time and place for a full blown discussion on the matter, but there are a lot of doctors that will tell you it is getting harder and harder to make a nice living practicing medicine. The shortage of primary care doctors and nurses we keep hearing about in the discussion of health care is, my guess, due in part to salary. How much money do you have to make to repay $200,000 in student loans? The answer: a lot!

I recently heard a so-called "expert" on health care and insurance matters weighing in on the health care reform debate. With regard to insurance, he in essence said that it should not function with a profit element. I've heard others over the years suggest that doctors themselves make too much money, either stating outright or implying that they should work for the good of mankind.

The juxtaposition between the movie and some of the talk coming out of the health care debate struck me. Doctors don't make enough money. What could be more important than our health? If you're humanistic and you assign the highest value to your life on earth, one would suspect that your health -- and the health of others -- would be your highest value. After all, if you don't have a quality life, or life at all, you have nothing. It seems simplistically obvious, but doctors and other health care workers provide us the goods and services we should value most high. One would think, then, they we should pay the most or most generously reward those that serve our highest values. Our society is not like that, though.

We reward professional athletes, TV and movie stars and popular musicians most richly. We also talk about them more. I, frankly, had never heard of Dr. Carson and his amazing contributions (in God's name) to mankind. But I did hear that Madonna supposedly had an affair with A-Rod and that Jessica Simpson's dog was carried off by a coyote. All those folks I mentioned -- and probably their pets -- are worth more than just about any doctor you can name.

This suggests to me that entertainment is our highest value or at least a higher value than our physical and mental health. Tom Cruise makes $20Million for each bad movie he does, but bright kids don't go to medical school because they can't make enough money to pay back what it costs for the education.

Instead of socializing medicine, could we please socialize entertainment? Let's expand the paygrades and payscales of athletes and actors and actresses across the board. Pay them a comfortable wage for entertaining us and make entertainment more affordable. It seems more in line with the values we give lip service to if we were to pay a dollar to see a movie and $40 for a visit with my doctor rather than to pay $10 to see the movie and expect someone else to pick up the cost of the office visit.

There are things more immediately necessary to our well being than even medical care. Food, clothing and shelter are much more basic needs and they are universal. Yet, we have not taken the profit motive out of any of those. Do you think Gap would sell clothes if it were not allowed to profit by doing it? Would chain grocery stores stay in business if they were expected to operate at break-even levels? Would builders manufacturer homes to feel good about themselves? The answer to those questions is the same: no. Since we have no problem letting others make profit by providing these essentials, why do we complain about doctors or hospitals operating for profit?

Thankfully, there are still great people out there practicing medicine. Let's hope that we continue to reward them, perhaps more graciously than we do.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


A society of Jimmy Jets

Like Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, eyes pried open, the images are unavoidable. Murder, sex, economic downturns, famine, lying politicians, spoiled-brat professional athletes, kids floating away in spacecraft-shaped balloons – human misery. It's all there, no matter where you go. The only relief from the retinal assault is the momentary splash of the drops on the eyes.

Oh, it's not quite that bad. One can hide in closets or maybe in the shower, I suppose. But dare venture out in public and you will be bombarded with flashing, flickering, blinking images? Why, because there are TVs everywhere

  • Gas pumps
  • Elevators
  • Bathrooms
  • Hallways at fine inns and hotels
  • Restaurants
  • Churches
  • Mini-vans and SUVs
  • Even in attorneys' offices (not the lobbies, the offices themselves.)

  • If someone came here from the past he'd find a very Orwellian-looking world, with “tele-screens” in places once thought unimaginable to most rational people. It's not so much that Big Brother's watching us, but we're certainly watching him. We can't even eat a bite of food or even use the bathroom free from “news” and information, the overwhelming majority of it having nothing whatsoever to do with our daily lives. There's just too much TV.

    Americans try to slow their racing minds by Yoga, meditation and some very enlightened-sounding practices. They might not have racing minds if they weren't cluttering what is left of their non-working time with TV. Dr. Timothy Leary once famously said, “Tune in, turn on and drop out.” Apparently his listeners thought he was talking about television. It's too bad he didn't say, “Tune out, turn off and drop it out the window.”

    All of this reminds me of the almost prophetic brilliant little poem by Shel Silverstein from his collection, Where the Sidewalk Ends, "Jimmy Jet and His TV Set"

    I'll tell you the story of Jimmy Jet --
    And you know what I tell you is true.
    He loved to watch his TV set
    Almost as much as you.

    He watched all day, he watched all night
    Till he grew pale and lean,
    From "The Early Show" to "The Late Late Show"
    And all the shows between.

    He watched till his eyes were frozen wide,
    And his bottom grew into his chair.
    And his chin turned into a tuning dial,
    And antennae grew out of his hair.

    And his brains turned into TV tubes,
    And his face to a TV screen.
    And two knobs saying "VERT." and "HORIZ."
    Grew where his ears had been.

    And he grew a plug that looked like a tail
    So we plugged in little Jim.
    And now instead of him watching TV
    We all sit around and watch him.

    Friday, October 9, 2009

    Out of the mouths of babes

    An often misquoted and misunderstood biblical phrase, “out of the mouths of babes,” is loosely used to convey the sense that children, perhaps unfettered by world-weariness, often express wisdom that is beyond (or at least forgotten by) their elders. Sadly, in my experience, that is not often enough the case.

    I read a nice article in today’s Plymouth Observer entitled “Sending a Message: Kids divided on texting while driving ban.” You can read the entire article here:

    The article is quite an eye opener. Oh, it’s not shocking that kids would text while driving. Maddeningly, I see this happening almost daily. The people who can least afford to be distracted on the road, inexperienced drivers, yack on their cell phones incessantly and text with an alarming frequency. I’m actually surprised these days when I pass a teen driver that is not on his or her phone. And I’m not exaggerating.

    What did shock me in the article is that some of them, knowing the danger they are putting themselves and others in by distracted driving, think a ban on driving-while-texting is a bad idea or it goes too far. Here are some of the more disheartening quotes from some local high schoolers:

    Kristyn Sturtz, a 16-year-old Plymouth High School junior, said she has stopped text messaging while driving, but she opposes a federal ban because “people are going to do it anyway” and she believes the law would be ineffective.

    Still, Sturtz said, “I know people who have gotten in crashes (while texting). No one has gotten hurt, but cars have been totaled.”

    Ah, the old “people are going to do it anyway” reason for not passing laws. I suppose we should take the drunk driving statutes off the books because people continue to drink and drive.

    This young lady admittedly texts while driving but won’t stop unless the feds step in and ban the practice:

    Kara Bongiovanni, a 17-year-old Canton High School senior, said she doesn’t typically initiate texting while driving, but she reads and responds when others text her. “I try to make it to a red light before I respond, but I do read it while I’m driving, though,” she said.

    Still, Bongiovanni said she would stop texting while driving altogether if state or federal lawmakers impose a ban — an idea she supports.

    Apparently it seems advisable to her only to read texts while driving but not actually respond until she is at a red light. This is at least a step in the right direction.

    This boy perhaps expresses the most startling sentiment of all: he regularly texts and drives but the law should find a “middle ground” to regulate his behavior. An all out ban, he seems to suggest, would disconnect his poor soul during his commute:

    Alex Gravlin, a 16-year-old Salem High School junior, said an outright ban goes too far. He suggested efforts to find “a middle ground” in the controversy, although he isn’t sure what it would be.

    Gravlin said he often prefers quick text messaging over formal phone conversations, and he said it’s a practice he engages in “from the time school gets out until I go to bed.” He conceded he texts while driving “every now and then,” but he usually tries to do it when he is stopped at a red light.

    I hate to sound like a finger-wagger, but this is a safety issue. Drivers that feel this way could kill themselves or others.

    There’s another issue at work her, too. People just can’t seem to unplug even for a few minutes, teens in particular. This thinking is lost on me. Why is responding immediately to some inane teen jibber-jabber more important than paying attention to the road for a few minutes?

    Now this kid gets it. She seems to have a head on her shoulders:

    Amy Paladino, a 17-year-old Canton High School senior, said she has completely stopped sending or reading texts while she is driving, and she supports a ban.“I never text while I’m driving. I just let them pile up until I’m done driving,” she said, adding that she became fearful after seeing stories about people who have died while texting and driving.

    “I don’t want that to be me,” Paladino said.

    See how simple that is? If only more of her peers would listen to her.

    Friday, October 2, 2009

    unOriginal Sin

    I'm a Christian and consider myself more or less a fundamentalist. In my case that means I believe the Bible is true and tells literal, objective, truths. Like many things in life, though, that's not without qualification or exception. Even the most conservative Bible believer would have to admit that some things in the Bible are not intended to be taken literally but, rather, are figurative, symbolic or allegorical. It is hard to imagine that most of what is in the Book of Revelation will occur exactly as it is written and described. Jesus told parables to explain principles, but they weren't stories that had actually occurred as told.

    For the last few years, I've had to come to grips with this issue as it pertains to the creation story told in the Book of Genesis, man's origins, God's role in our creation, evolution, etc. Lately I've settled comfortably into accepting that the Bible as a whole, and Genesis in particular, can be (and is) true in its essence but not literally true in every respect. Being frank, I do not believe, for instance that the entire earth and all the creatures on it were created in 6 (human) days within the last 10,000 or so years. I do not take as scientific fact that woman was created from the rib of man or that Adam and Eve lived in a garden paradise.

    There's no place here to say why I no longer believe those things, but let's just say my doubt about the literal truth of the creation story goes back to this: there was no one there witness creation unfolding as it occurred. Who was around to see light created and set apart from darkness? How are we to know when the creatures of the earth were created since that occurred before life was breathed into Adam? Unlike the life of Jesus, which was witnessed and observed, no one was around to see the void that was the earth before God set his hand to all the finishing touches.

    Certainly, I have no problem believing God created us through processes that the Bible never intended to describe nor which its authors could have understood or explained. Darwinistic randomness makes no sense to me at all and "intelligent design," or something close it, seems the best explanation of how things came to be.

    Because so much of the creation and origin of man story in the Bible is, to me, figurative, I do not buy that sin necessarily originated in two people. The amazing thing that hit me the other day though is whether or not Adam and Eve literally ate from a "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" in the Garden of Eden is beside the point. Whether or not sin originated in those two naked people, somewhere in Mesopotamia, really doesn't matter a whole lot. What matters is that sin did originate somewhere. It's here and there's no getting around it. There's no denying it. There's no avoiding it. Only a fool could look at the whole of human history -- or even the last few months of news -- and conclude that sin does not exist.

    Even beyond that, what struck me for the first time in my 38 years of life is that I am daily confronted with choosing between God's plan for my life or my own plans. I am daily tempted to eat from the proverbial tree, disregarding the warnings of dire consequences. Often times I do not eat; other times I do. The "fall of man" plays out in me continuously. I will not be able to give an account to God that pins my failings on Adam. I am tempted, I have ate and, but for God's grace, I would be expelled from paradise. The story of the fall of Adam and Eve is story. It's my story. It's our story. It may not have ever happened -- or it may have -- all those thousands of years ago somewhere in present day Iraq, but it happens daily with me. I have to choose between God's system and man's system. I pray for the strength to choose wisely.

    Go State!

    Tomorrow's MSU's biggest (football) game of the season. The Spartans take on the hated Wolverines of the University of Michigan. Michigan's off to a great start this season and MSU to a not-so-great start. But the winner of this game is not decided by past records or even what has happened so far this season. The game will be won or lost on the field (obviously) tomorrow. Throw out the record books! Throw in every other ridiculous college football cliche that comes to mind.

    As bad as State's season has been so far, a victory over Michigan wouldn't shock me at all. MSU's probably not as bad as the record suggests and UM's not as good as its record suggests. Gun to my head, I'd pick the Wolverines to win. But I have a pretty good feeling about this game. I say it's a 55-45 chance UM wins. Why? I don't know. Even people that know alot more about college football than me often get these things wrong.

    Go Green! Go White! Go State!