Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Goodwill, Health Insurance and Privileged Liberals

It goes around in circles that make me dizzy. The poor have more health problems, and therefore health insurance for folks with lower incomes costs more. Folks with lower incomes have more health problems for a number of reasons, prominent among them that they see doctors less often because – you guessed it – they lack health insurance. The illness that could have been avoided altogether by good preventive medical care is neglected until it becomes a crisis. Lacking a family doctor, the person in crisis must go to the emergency room, the most expensive place to receive health care. The medical bills resulting from this emergency care tip the already tight family budget into chaos, which means there is no money to see a doctor or dentist, much less to purchase health insurance, and the entire circle starts to spin around again.

Goodwill’s People Team (“HR” in most organizations) is now hosting “open enrollment” discussions in all of our sites. Surprise, surprise: the cost of health insurance has risen yet again. Our folks labored hard to secure the best possible coverage at the lowest possible cost, but we are swimming against a mighty strong current. Our employees will be hit with higher co-pays, and our bottom line costs are taking a big hit. All the things that make Goodwill the unique and wonderful organization it is, including our progressive hiring practices, conspire to make our health insurance costs significantly higher than those for most other organizations. Call me small-minded, but sometimes that feels like getting punished for doing the right thing.

In my conversations with our employees, I hear stories that make me proud, stories that break my heart, and stories that make me flat-out angry. I spoke last week with an employee in her late forties who had just enrolled in our health plan – at the most basic and inexpensive level possible – and will now have at least some health insurance for the first time in her life. Will her budget be strained? Terribly. But as she said to me, “I’m not getting any younger; I’ve got to start taking care of myself.”

Another team member desperately needs extensive dental work. She receives such health insurance as she has through the state’s BadgerCare program, and has been waiting months to receive approval to proceed. Even if they grant approval, they will pay for only a portion of this very expensive work. Why did she neglect her dental care so badly? Because for many years she has been making sure her children got to the dentist regularly, which left no money for mom to take care of her own teeth. I have heard versions of this story dozens of times: we have a lot of employees with missing teeth.

I remember when I was a kid and my dad was turned down by the bank when he applied for a small loan to replace our leaking roof. “Banks only lend money to people who don’t need the money,” he said to me with a trace of bitterness. He died many years ago, so he did not get to see the era where credit card offers arrived in the mail daily and banks became eager to lend money to people who had no hope of repaying them, throwing the poor into horrible debt and ultimately melting down the entire credit market.

But it remains true that the affluent, who live healthier lifestyles overall, have wonderful access to medical care while poor folks, who face greater health and lifestyle challenges, have very limited access to quality health care. The only real solutions are political in nature: our society must come together with a common will to say that this is not just, and it is not sustainable. Yet another reason to vote for Obama, and to hope that he has the courage to provide real leadership against the entrenched interests that will oppose meaningful change every step of the way. Bluntly stated, those “entrenched interests” include folks like you and me, who take our own privileged lives for granted. There are a lot of progressive folks who are eager to demand justice for the poor, but still have not figured out that this requires surrendering some of our own privileges. My 403B make be down for the count, but I still have all my teeth, and that is privilege.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why We Need Halloween

I have a particular gift for selecting the seat at a banquet table right next to the person I am least likely to enjoying having a conversation with: bores, braggarts and people who believe I will be fascinated by a recitation of their various medical conditions. It was during the last week in October some years ago that I was seated next to a woman who was delighted to learn that I was a pastor because she was certain I would support her cause, which was a national ban on Halloween and everything associated with it. Away with trick or treating! Down with jack o’ lanterns and cardboard cut-outs of witches on broomsticks! Be gone, ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night! In her eyes, Halloween was a demonic festival, propagated through the combined efforts of “atheists and devil worshipers.”

I cannot resist a quick aside here. Why is it that such folks believe that atheists reject Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism but think that “devil worshipers” are really swell people? If atheists reject the truth claims of all religions, why would they make an exception for devil worshipers? But I digress.

The woman was shocked, of course, to learn that I – a pastor no less! – had no objection to Halloween. I tried to explain to her that its pre-Christian history among the Celts had nothing whatsoever to do with Satan, but she wasn’t buying it. Someone whose mind is already made up has no interest in facts, so arguing with them is the equivalent of mud-wrestling with a pig: you just get dirty and the pig gets annoyed.

There are also folks who object to Halloween for non-religious reasons. Some see it as a celebration of greed and tooth decay. Others view it as another bit of consumerist hype, or an excuse for adults to drink too much and behave in a licentious manner (even our morally upright Goodwill stores sell fishnet stockings for sexy witches). There is a dribble of truth in all these objections, I suppose, but in the end they all amount to the same thing: some people get offended and upset by anything that looks like too much fun.

Halloween is when kids get to deal with the things that frighten them – monsters, pirates, ghosts, witches – in the healthiest way possible, which is to make fun of them. It is what sociologists term a “transgressive” festival, where we deliberately do things we normally do not. Small children should not be wandering the streets after dark, but on Halloween it is ok to do so (with a parent hovering nearby, of course). Small children should not accept candy from strangers, much less beg for it, but on Halloween we break that rule. Responsible adults with high moral values should not be dressing up like hookers and pimps. In a very real sense, we affirm our normal values and practices by violating them in small and safe ways for a special occasion. How will we know where the acceptable boundaries are if we never step a single foot outside of them?

Halloween is about being silly, about breaking the rules a little bit, about a tiny whiff of danger. It is about having fun simply for the sake of having fun. Children understand all of this intuitively, which is why they get so wonderfully excited. When times are hard and the economy is in the toilet, we need Halloween more than ever.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Homogeneity and Extremism

There is a growing and important conversation about the risks inherent in homogeneity, political homogeneity in particular. It begins with the “red state, blue state” phenomenon: increasingly we resemble two nations with significantly different perspectives on everything from hot-button social issues (abortion and homosexuality) to foreign policy, leaving a few swing states to determine the outcome of national elections. But even within local communities we tend to associate less and less with people who hold views different from our own. Churches, for example, used to be one of many settings in which conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, prayed, worked and broke bread with one another. Churches have now become far more politically and culturally homogenous: liberals attend liberal churches and conservatives attend conservative churches, where our existing views are reinforced. We increasingly make friendships and form social circles only with like-minded people. Not only are we less likely to have our views challenged, but we no longer feel constrained from expressing our views in strong terms because of the risk of causing offense to others.

Studies demonstrate that this growing homogeneity is responsible for greater extremism, intolerance, and the demonization of those who hold view different from our own. Perhaps the most disturbing example occurred at the McCain rally where a woman got directly in Mr. McCain’s face and told him he had to defeat Obama because Obama was a Muslim. The look on Mr. McCain’s face was amazing: he was clearly knocked for a loop and deeply troubled. McCain corrected her and said that Obama was a “decent family man” – how odd that only the man she was relying upon to “defeat the demon” had the opportunity to challenge her narrow views. McCain had no opportunity to address her unstated but clear conviction that Muslims are inherently evil: it would be fair to assume she has never met a Muslim herself.

Attack ads and negative campaigning reinforce this extremism and intolerance: folks who have already demonized the opposing candidate become more rabid with each new attack. Attack ads are not designed to change opinions. Rather, their purpose is to create discouragement and doubt in the minds of those who support the person being attacked while “firing up the base” for their own candidate. Increasingly we are a society that does not so much vote for a candidate as we vote against one. My hunch is that such ugly attack ads would not be nearly as effective if more of us moved in circles that were politically, culturally and religiously mixed and were forced to interact with people whose candidate or party had just been demonized by our own candidate.

There was a time when friends supporting opposing political candidates could rib one another in a light-hearted manner and remain good friends. Now we simply do not speak about politics with friends whose views differ from our own because it is almost impossible to maintain a light-hearted spirit.

Last month I was chatting with an elderly woman about all this. “Do you know who you are going to vote for?” I asked her. “I’m waiting to see who has the meanest, ugliest ad, then I’m going to vote for the other guy.” I think she may be onto something.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sex and the Economic Downturn

This will be one of the oddest items I post, and I shall endeavor to do so tastefully. Let me begin with an article that caught my eyes in Sunday’s New York Times. Several new hotels in Manhattan were being reviewed, and in one up-market, high tech hotel the reviewer was surprised to find that the mini-bar featured a “sensuality kit” that included condoms, lubricant, a small vibrator, and two strips of silk with pictures of handcuffs printed on them (presumably the hotel’s lawyers vetoed actual handcuffs). Price for the kit: $195.00. Recession? What recession? One can only hope that the purchaser leaves the vibrator out at room temperature for a bit before employing it.

This could easily lead to an essay on people’s behaviors in motels and hotels, but we will leave that for another day. I ran out to the All-Tel office this afternoon to renew our contract and pick up a new phone (my clunker again failed to alert me to an incoming call while set on “vibrate” during Rotary). As long as I was out there, I stopped next door to say hello to Evelyn, co-owner (with her daughter) of D’Von’s Lingerie, who I had not seen in nearly two years.

Evelyn first started D’Von’s in a cavernous space in the old Valley Fair Mall nearly ten years ago. Susan and I wandered in one day after getting flu shots and liked her so much that we worked hard at finding things to purchase from her: candles, as I recall, and a nightgown for Susan’s mother (we would not find anything for her mother in Evelyn’s current product mix, I suspect). I bonded with Evelyn around our mutual love for classic pin-up art, and would stop in from time to time. Three years ago or so I conducted the wedding of her daughter, Denise, one of the most grounded, solid young women I have ever met, and a wonderful mom to her kids (even if she sells “insertable pig tails” and other such gear). Both mother and daughter, in other words, are great people laboring in an interesting corner of the retail world.

So I asked Evelyn what was new and how the shop was doing. Her husband worked at the New Page mill, so is out of work, and business has been miserable. Halloween is normally a big season for shops like hers (I have speculated on where one would wear the kind of costumes she sells in public; parties we never get invited to, I suppose), but this year “the season hasn’t even started yet.” I asked her about her core customer base, the exotic dancers who work in local clubs (they get a discount). The dancers, she told me, have been complaining about poor business and lousy tips for the past six months. “They’re only buying shoes and panties, the things that get worn out,” Evelyn lamented. I decided not to ask a follow-up question on that one.

I told her I had thought that the sex business – and that is, in the end, what she and Denise are in – would be pretty much recession-proof. She paused for a moment. “What keeps us going are the toys,” she finally said. “Four years ago I refused to carry them, and now they are 75% of our business. They have become completely mainstream, and if you can’t afford a night out you can at least buy a couple of toys to make it fun to stay home.”

I told her about the hotel’s “sensuality kit” and she howled. “A hundred and ninety five dollars?” I could put together a much better kit for twenty bucks!” I’m sure she could, with or without the pig tail.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

On an Imploding Economy...

Our September brokerage statement arrived today, and at least I was courageous enough to open it. I winced, of course: about a ten percent decline in value for the month, and the carnage this first week of October has been much worse. There is a bottom out there somewhere, but right now not even the savviest pundits have a clue where it might be. Only those who put all of their assets into copper drain pipes and used manhole covers have been spared the pain: there are no safe havens when the very structures of the global marketplace tumble.

How interesting, and sad, that we seem to be without an inspiring leader to offer us a vision of stability, sanity and hope not just in the US, but in the world. Still-president Bush has fallen from "lame duck" to "completely irrelevant" status and clearly is aware of it: he is looking like a broken man to me. McCain and Obama are sniping about incidents in one another's younger lives rather than offering inspiration: perhaps tonight's debate will see one of them demonstrate genuine leadership, but I am not optimistic. There are times where I find myself wondering if this is, in the end, a financial crisis or a leadership crisis.

Something like -what? - thirty percent of the world's wealth has simply vanished in a very short period of time. Sometimes that concept seems absurdly abstract: there is no less "stuff," no fewer useful or beautiful objects, just a loss of confidence in what that stuff is worth in market terms.

Certainly I need to rethink things like plans for retirement, which I had allowed myself to believe was just a few years away (memo to self: the markets are not going to recover that quickly, bonehead!), but the impact on my actual day-to-day life will be modest compared to so many others. The poor, as always, are going to take it on the chin in multiple ways: more expensive goods, vanishing jobs, fewer resource available to the agencies and programs that have supported them, etc. And the highly-leveraged high-rollers are essentially screwed save for the few - and most morally offensive - who have already "gotten theirs" and salted it away. The hard-to-pronounce and difficult-to-spell German word for "taking satisfaction in the misfortunes of others" is getting a real workout referring to such folks, but it is an ugly place to take comfort.

Markets do some things extremely well, but they are completely and utterly without compassion: the do not care who gets left out or left behind - the elderly, the poor, the disabled -as they merrily (and, in theory, efficiently) do their thing. Which of course is why markets need to be regulated. Greed and hubris trumped wisdom and compassion, and now the piper has showed up with the bill.

A spiritually mature response to a collapsing economy is to repent of the idolatry that led us to invest entirely too much value in pretty, shiny things and focus on gratitude for the things of true worth than can never be lost or taken from us. Mature, but I am not sure it is going to play well on either Main Street or Wall Street.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Aristotle nailed it!

Susan and I have committed to co-authoring a book titled Aging Together: Community, Friendship and Dementia, so this week I have been reading, thinking and writing about friendship. The obvious place to begin is with Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, where he discusses three forms of friendship: friendships based upon utility, friendships based upon enjoyment, and friendships based upon virtue. In his view, only the latter is a "complete" friendship.

Aristotle believed that we could sustain only a modest number of such friendships because they will - and should - make real demands upon us, including the demand that we spend time with our friends. He therefore believed that we should be very cautious in forming a friendship, making certain that the potential friend shares our ideal of what constitutes "the good." Here I will quarrel with him a bit, not about the number of real friendships we can sustain, but on whether our deepest friendships are consciously chosen or are given to us as a gift. Certainly my deepest friendships are with a motley bunch, and in most cases it is hard to identify a moment where I chose to enter into them: like life itself, real friendship just happens. Or at least that is what I will argue. Pretty sassy, taking on Aristotle.

But it is interesting to ponder his views in the context of the culture of "social networking" - what in the world would Aristotle make of "Facebook friends" and "Twitter friends"? I now have more than 100 "friends" on Facebook, not all of whom I am certain I would recognize in real life: they ask, and I say yes if the request seems genuine. When I check into my Facebook account I can scan in 30 seconds or so what is new with many of these "friends." Rarely do I read anything interesting or important, but once in a while something stands out and I send a quick note. Is that "friendship" in any meaningful sense? I have come to believe it has meaning, even value, but it is a long way from Aristotle's "virtuous friendship" that helps us to form and live an ethical life.

One thing we are experiencing that reinforces Aristotle's argument is that as we get older our close friends become more dear and important to us, and that these friendships demand more of our time, which we are glad to give. Aging brings more challenges with our health, greater needs in our extended families, etc. - there are more occasions where people we cherish need the presence of a true friend to support and sustain them, especially a friend they have been close to long enough that we really know one anther's stories.

Which brings up the challenge of geography. Aristotle named five features of a complete friendship, and one of them is that we commit to spending time with our friends. How much time? Every month? Every week? Friends we cherish live in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon... Some we see once a year if we are lucky, others every third year. Can we truly be "present" to one another across the miles? Can phone calls and emails sustain Aristotle's vision of complete friendship? Increasingly I am thinking not: complete friendship requires regular "face time." This does not mean that we value geographically distant friends less, but rather than the nature of the friendship necessarily shifts a bit: we now know these friends less intimately, and we are not building a common story the way we did when we saw one another frequently.

Many, many Americans pick up and move on a regular basis, of course, forming new "friends" wherever they happen to land. Somehow, by the grace of God, a few of these friendships "stick" over time and are experienced as sustaining. But it is interesting that the same moment in culture that gives us Facebook and Twitter also gives us so many coffee shops. Many people sit in them alone tapping on a laptop, of course, but others are using them as a setting in which to be intentional about getting together with their friends. Aristotle would be pleased: the new lyceum serves espresso.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Baseball and Spiritual Virtue

“Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything's dying.
Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.”

(from Baseball and Football by George Carlin)

During the Brewers’ last regular season game I was a bundle of nervous energy. I needed to keep my hands occupied. I brought the kitchen “junk drawer” into the den and sorted it in front of the television. I took the radio into the back yard (tuned to the Milwaukee station; for some strange reason the local station was broadcasting a football game) and spliced wires that the squirrels had chewed through. Occasionally I would run to my computer to check on the score of the critical Mets’ game. Oh, and very occasionally I would switch channels to see how badly the Packers were losing to Tampa Bay. When the Brewers won (thanks to CC Sabathia and Ryan Braun) and the Mets lost, I was as exhausted as I would have been had I just run a marathon.

I am a Baseball Guy, which is an untreatable condition. I moved to Wisconsin in 1983, the year after the Brewers last appeared in the World Series. I have been waiting 26 years for my team to make it back to the post-season. Along the way there have been many heartaches and disappointments.

I was schooled in the ways of heartache and disappointment from a tender age. I grew up near Philadelphia. I was passionate about the Phillies and attended a fair number of games at Connie Mack Stadium. I once saw Richie Ashburn foul off 23 straight pitches. Another time I saw Wes Covington (“the kingfish”) hit for the circuit. The one thing I never got to see at Connie Mack Stadium was a winning game. I was just a kid: I assumed it was my fault.

Then came 1964. On September 20, the Phillies held a 6 ½ game lead in the National League with 12 games to play. They lost the next ten in a row, including several to the Cardinals, who snatched the pennant that was rightfully ours. I have no patience for the whining of Cubs’ fans: what do they know of pain and anguish?

A lifetime spent as a fan of losing teams provides profound schooling in the spiritual virtues. Among the many virtues that baseball has formed and shaped in me are:
1. Patience. Fans of faster-moving and more aggressive sports likely regard watching an entire baseball game as a torturous exercise, given that an hour or more can go by in which “nothing happens.” But within that nothingness resides the full range of human experience: exultation, disappointment, nail-biting anxiety, moments of grace and beauty – the universe in a grain of sand. Patience is living through the pre-season, 162 games, and – if the baseball deities smile upon you – the post-season with your team.
2. Fidelity and Loyalty. “Nobody loves a loser,” say the pundits. Nobody but a true baseball fan. Your team is your team, through good times and bad. A man who will not abandon his team during a protracted losing streak is likely a man who will not be unfaithful to his wife when the marriage is strained.
3. Compassion born of suffering. Only one who has known genuine suffering himself or herself can be fully present to the suffering of another: as Nouwen notes, we offer the gift of healing love out of our own woundedness. Devoted baseball fans are the most wounded people on the earth (except, of course, for Yankees fans: those arrogant bastards are finally getting what they so desperately need), and therefore the most compassionate.
4. Hope. Perhaps the greatest virtue of them all, and baseball fans have it in abundance. “If we can just get some consistency from our middle relievers we’ll be right back in the hunt.” “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.” And, of course: “Wait ‘til next year!”

The Brewers just lost the first game of their series with the Phillies. We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.