The Country is Sick

It has been a week now since returning from my month in the States and of the myriad of wonderful conversations and experiences and reunions, one topic has stuck in my mind: health care. Maybe it is because I came back home to a letter telling me my application for a “cure” had been approved by the national health insurance. That means that I will be spending three weeks in a “cure spa” in the mountains near Salzburg exercising with trainers, getting physiotherapy, eating healthy, and learning to replace my bad old sedentary habits with better and healthier ones. And yes, the whole thing is covered. My copay comes to $9.35 per day.

There are other reasons that health care in the States has been on my mind. In conversations with friends and family, the subject came up often. A lot of us are nearing or at retirement age, slowly winding down our careers and making decisions about “the right time to go”. In the case of two couples, the husbands were working into their 70s – putting off retirement till the day their wives qualify for Medicare. Another woman wanted to stop working and had saved enough of a nest egg to do so – she just couldn’t afford the private health insurance in the interim. One woman who was basically self-insured through her own business talked about how much those costs ate into the company’s earnings. Two more women – one with a pre-existing condition and another with a special needs child – knew that losing their jobs would have more than mere ripple effects – it would mean a financially ruinous tsunami washing over them.

“People like the health insurance they get through their employers.” How many times have I heard that statement since the start of the health care debate way back in the Clinton era? 100 times? 500? 5000? And I have never understood it. I know very few people with 100% job security, so if the employer decides whether or not you continue to have a job, don’t they also decide whether or not you continue to have health insurance? Doesn’t that yoke you to your place of employment and limit your own freedom and self-determination?

The last school year was not the best for me. There were even times when I considered leaving – to the point where we had a mini family conference about it. It would have meant bridging the last two and half years of my professional life with other “unofficial” work (tutoring, translating, etc.), but what to do about health insurance was not one of the considerations. I find myself wondering now what my situation would have been, if I were on my own and in the States . . .

 

https://smartasset.com/taxes/wisconsin-paycheck-calculator#eOxo4LJPs8

I decided to make myself a fictional 57 year old single woman with no dependents, living in Milwaukee and earning $50,000 a year. A nifty paycheck calculator online told me that I would end up with $3,196 a month to live on. Ouch! That seemed pretty low. I thought Americans paid a lot less in taxes, but this was only slightly more than the Austrian equivalent of this fictional woman would take home. In her case, about $700 a month would be skimmed off the top to pay for her health care and pension.

 

From there, I went to the Healthcare.gov website. After first figuring out what “deductibles”, “out of pocket” and “copays” meant, I entered my fictional information and clicked on “See Plans”. Of the 24 options, here were two at the opposite ends of the spectrum:

The cheapest Bronze Plan – “only” $709 a month. (Gasp!) But if I understand deductibles correctly, I would have to pay my own medical bills up to the tune of $650 a month before the insurance ever kicked in. So . . . why am I paying the additional $709??

 

The best of the Gold Plans. If I’m doing the Math right, I could technically afford this one with my $3200 monthly take-home pay – that is, as long as I never go to a doctor. Or take any medicine. Or own anything requiring maintenance. Or go on vacation. Or eat out.

Again. I don’t understand.

People protested last year to save this system. They camped out at congressional offices and marched on streets with signs saying “Don’t take my health care away”. They clearly supported this system in which they pay what seems like exorbitant prices to keep insurance and pharmaceutical companies profitable. I assume many of their employers have to pay such high prices too. It must make the cost of labor a burden on their bottom lines, which in turn incentivizes downsizing, relocating, outsourcing and all of the other euphemisms for “You’re fired!”

Navigating this system, making financial or life decisions based on this system, being constantly worried about losing this system . . . that all must create a great deal of stress in people. Anxiety too. Sleepless nights. Depression. All things that can lead to other, more serious illnesses . . . but never fear! The pharma industry is on it! Whatever your problem is, they’ve got a pill for that. What’s that? You don’t know what your problem is? Well, here’s an array of possibilities to choose from . . .

I only watched about three or four hours of TV during my month in the States – but that was more than enough to get a picture of what is going on. Rachel would do her 20 minute A block without interruptions, but from then on it was a constant flow of commercials broken up by sporadic 3 minute news segments. And it seemed like a third of those ads came from pharma companies. So here’s what the experience was like:

Rachel tells me about an explosion during a Russian nuclear missile test and how the radiation is spreading in my direction.

Then a nice woman in a commercial asks me if I ever feel anxious. If so, I should ask my doctor for xxxxx which, in some cases, might lead to dry mouth or mysterious sounding “sexual side effects”.

Then I see a short report about an immigration raid with desperate crying children, after which

a pharma commercial guy asks me if I am feeling sad. If so, I could try yyyyy  (but I should watch out for such side effects as fever, confusion, uncontrolled muscle movement, decreased white blood cells, seizures, impaired judgment, coma, suicide or death).

The next news report is about a recent mass shooting by a white supremacist, followed by

another nice lady asking me if I am having “racing thoughts” and trouble sleeping. I should try zzzzz (but beware of tongue swelling, memory loss, and/or hallucinations). Her successor knows what I could take for my “restless leg syndrome”, but it might increase my gambling urges or make me fall asleep while driving.

In the final news report, I hear that the pwesident is leaving to go on vacation. He has done nothing in his 2½ years so far to combat the country’s widespread addiction to painkillers, but never fear,

there is now a treatment for OIC (opioid induced constipation)! Just watch out for nausea, vomiting, stomach tearing and constant pain.

 

I think most people -me included – have a touch of hypochondria (aka “Illness Anxiety Disorder” or IAD) in them.  Who doesn’t hear of some new disorder and think briefly “Ooh! Maybe I have that!” So I wonder what the cumulative effect of all these messages must be. And then to continually hear these gruesome lists of possible side effects which often seem to end with “death”.  It’s unbearable. Four or five more hours of watching this stuff and I’d have started tearing my hair out.

Which, thanks to a sign in a Chicago el train, I now know is an official thing: trichotillomania or “hair pulling disorder”.

The industry is working on a treatment for it.

——————————————

I appreciate living in a country with a social welfare economy, but that doesn’t make me a Socialist. I also don’t believe in Capitalism for Capital’s Sake. From everything I have seen, a healthcare system that is privatized and profit-driven has every inducement in the world to keep the country sick. As long as it continues on like this, there will be no cures.

 

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Spillover

 

One of the destinations of the daily 10,000 step walks my sister and I take is Atwater Park in Shorewood, where one of my favorite pieces of public art sits waiting for us. It is called “Spillover II” by a Catalan artist named Jaume Plensa (thank you, google). Take a look for yourself.

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The artist explained his use of letters by saying we use language to commune with nature and the world, or something like that, which is very nice, but I have my own ideas. I see a guy who consists of a jumble of amorphous, incomplete thoughts swirling around inside and outside of him. As he stares at the water, concerns begin to drain away, slowly emptying his faceless, everyman head. The way he sits, hugging his legs, makes him slightly vulnerable, but the upright head puts him squarely in the world. It fascinates me to think how different the impression would be if that head were bowed, making him looked scared or fetal-like. As is, he’s got more communing to do and he’s going to stick around for a while.

I get the impression he is fairly universally loved by the local people, but, of course, it wouldn’t be art if there were no controversy. Some tourist inspected him, “discovered” the secret message “dead jew” among his ostensibly random letters, and then blogged about it. Scandalous! Outrage! To jump to the end of the story, the artist graciously offered to alter his piece, exchanging a letter or two, so that it could no longer be “misinterpreted”. (Correcting my misinterpretation would probably require more major changes, so I hope Jaume never gets wind of this post . . . )

 

While on the subject of public art, I’ll add another fairly recent addition to Milwaukee’s collection – one that clearly falls at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum.

Meet the (monstrous) “Bronze Fonz”:

 

 

 

 

I think I’ll skip the interpretation of this one and move right to the scandal. Some art director complained and said he would move his gallery if the Fonz went up near it. When that made the news, the phone calls started coming. The art director then recorded some of these messages – which he called “death threats” – and put them on a website. (http://www.hotcakesgallery.com/milwaukee-bronze-fonzie/) Three of them come from 1) a homophobe who somehow sees the statue critique as an insult to the Green Bay Packers, 2) a Canadian who is now seriously considering not coming to Milwaukee, and 3) the Fonz himself (sort of). At first I was a little wary about clicking on “Listen”, but then – as I should have guessed, this being Wisconsin – they were pretty tame. (What does it mean to “end like Dahmer”?) Still, it is beyond my comprehension how some people have the inclination, energy or time to be leaving insulting messages on a stranger’s voicemail. Henry Winkler would not approve.

The end of this sad story of schlemiels (“Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”) is that some musicians remixed the messages and set them to catchy beats. They made me laugh, but now I have this silly and bizarre song stuck in my head. “Gay boy. Dahmer gay boy. Gay boy. Go away . . .”

I think I need to go back to Atwater and look out over the lake for a while.

 

Reigning Cats and Dogs

 

One of the first places I went back to see again on this trip to Milwaukee was Black Cat Alley – a new discovery on my last visit. It looks pretty horrendous at the start, but once inside, there are treasures to be found:

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I have written about this place before, but a new element has been added. As you leave the alley at the other end and turn the corner, you find yourself in front of the Sip Purr café.

        

It’s a combination coffeehouse and cat shelter with a side room full of seating and mostly/usually sleeping rescue cats. For an extra eight bucks (for the cats), you can go in there to drink your $6 lowfat frappamochaccinomacchiato (or whatever), but only if you have a reservation.

     

There were no time slots left for us, so we just watched through the windows as the 1:00 o’clock group went in. Two young women marched right up to a table currently occupied by two sleeping cats expecting . . . who knows what. The gray cat immediately took a clawed swipe at one of the intruders and then both cats got up to find new sleeping quarters. If we had felt any envy for these women, it quickly subsided. Still! – the idea of the café was a nice one, even if maybe not completely thought through. Those cats are nocturnal and will surely stay that way. Some of the humans, however, will adapt – especially the caffeinated ones – and become night-active too.

 

It’s not just the cats that direct human behavior here. Dogs are a constant presence in every trip to Milwaukee. My sister’s house is across from a park that seems to be a particular favorite of dogs who own people. They traipse by from left to right and from right to left and from morning to night, their servants in tow. The humans make sure that their leashes don’t drag on the ground and that their poop is picked up. They are well trained.

 

As I sit on the front porch, I watch these odd couples pass by. Big burly man with little foofy poodle. Fratboy with wiener dog. Gay couple with pitbull. Grandma with nervous greyhound. California couple with Husky. Fashion plate with sheepdog. Pony-tailed, baseball-capped working guy with Chihuahua and Pekingese. That last guy is my favorite. He’s been showing up faithfully for about 10 years. It’s comforting somehow, because as much as I like to see what is new each time I visit, some changes bother me. For instance, I was appalled when the nearest iconic Milwaukee bubbler was replaced by this green atrocity:

                     

But then I noticed the ground level spigot and realized that the designers and city planners were thinking about the dogs. Sure enough, as I was taking the picture above, a dog came by and his person obediently turned on the water for him. Suddenly, I figured I could get used to this new fountain.

                            

I meandered back to my sister’s house, passing the park benches and reading their dedications. (Local sponsors pay for the benches so each one has a memorial plaque for some lost loved one.) Here is the one closest to the dog bubbler:

 

Batshit Crazy

Greetings from an Oasis of Sanity!  Also known as my sister’s house. This year I flew to the States ahead of my husband and daughters so that I could spend more time with my American family. I told people that I was going earlier so that my sister could give me some intensive therapy – a small joke, but like most humor, there was a bit of truth in there. As I wrote to her before I came: “I’m doing fine and so are (nuclear family members), but it seems to me everyone else in the world is batshit crazy”. She wrote back “I feel the same way.” (By the way, “batshit crazy” is not a term I would normally use, but I have a theory about why those words popped out of my mouth . . . )

It is Day Five in the Oasis now and healing processes are well underway. It turned out that for every story I told her from the last year – work conflicts, personal crises, relationship catastrophes, etc., she had a similar story from her experience or her various circles to relate. It seemed like an abnormally large number of our people were struggling with some serious problem. We kept wondering if something was generally wrong with the world.

And of course we laid a lot of the blame on the orange Occupant and the universal malaise in the country, thanks to his incessant trolling. We wondered when he would finally hit rock bottom; we considered the possibility that there is no bottom. We differed a bit in our theories on “what is wrong with him?!” and whether or not he is getting worse. Call me naïve, but I remain hopeful. I believe the arc of his mental decline is long, but it bends towards hospice.

These discussions happened during meals and long walks, on drives and on the porch, over coffee and while crocheting my newest project. Stitch by stitch, the world came to seem more manageable. My sister watched the progress as the form took shape, as it became an animal and then a metaphor. She asked me (in a sort of hopeful voice) what I was going to do with it when I was done.

As soon as the last loose thread was weaved in, I gave it to her for keeps:

 

Die Dicke Oachn

All sorts of little milestones and round numbers have been reminding me lately of time passing. My thirtieth anniversary is in less than three days. My sixtieth birthday and retirement(!) are in less than three years. My daughter graduating from high school made me feel – among other things – well, . . . . old. And what was the final diagnosis of my joint troubles of late? Apparently, I am just aging.

I have also now officially lived in this house on a hill outside of Loopyville for thirty years – since 1989 – so for more than half of my life.  In all that time, whenever we drove somewhere northward (and that was literally hundreds of times), our route took us through a little village and past a sign with an arrow and the words “Europe’s Oldest Oak Tree”. We never once turned off to look at it. That is, until a month ago, when the husband and I were returning home all refreshed and relaxed from our spa weekend. On a whim, we veered off toward the oak.

 

I can say with 100% certainty that it is the most un-touristy tourist attraction you will ever experience. It’s just a tree. In a field. With one little information sign. From that we learned that the tree was between 1000 and 1200 years old along with its height and diameter.

 

We also read that this tree had briefly made international news. After being struck by lightning in the 1970s, someone tried to save it by pouring concrete into the trunk. But that cure turned out to be more deadly than the original injury. In 1989 (the same year I was moving furniture and all my earthly possessions into my new home in a nearby village), a massive rescue attempt was made to remove the concrete and restore the tree’s natural drainage. And it was a success. Thirty years later, the oak is clearly thriving.

I walked around the tree, peered up into it, felt the old bark and thought about everything it had lived through. The ground beneath it had been ruled by the Magyars, the Romans, the Babenbergs, the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, the Russians, and the Freedom Party. It had survived Turkish invasions, two World Wars, acid rain, a lightning strike, Chernobyl, tourists with pocket knives and being called fat by the locals (“die dicke Oachn”, which means “the fat oak”). It had scars and missing limbs, but it was still going strong. It was clearly planning on sticking around for a while yet.

While I was contemplating all this, the husband took this picture – which I just love. Maybe because I look so young!

The World is Theirs

 

My three yearlong (!) quest to get the American citizenship for my adopted daughters reached its finale today. This last act began when we took a mini-mother/daughter trip to Vienna. Our first stop: the American Embassy where we had appointments to hand in their passport applications along with a bunch of documents and photos (no glasses!) and self-addressed stamped envelopes and . . .

The extremely friendly security guards greeted us with big smiles and asked us each in turn to put our bags in the scanner. When mine went in, a picture sort of like one this (taken from the internet) popped up on the screen:

I stared at it in horror. A string of theories about how a gun could be in my bag – all of them ludicrous – began spinning around in my head. The guard began to laugh and said “Don’t worry! That is a fake picture. It’s put there to test me – to make sure I am paying attention.” He handed me my bag.

I remained in a state of mild shock as we made our way to Window 1, which was probably a good thing, because it temporarily supplanted my nervousness. Almost three years earlier I had visited this place and it turned out to be an awful experience. I was scared that something would go wrong again – maybe I had filled out the wrong form? Should I have brought the birth certificates and adoption decrees? The girls’ baby teeth?

But the woman at the counter was both officious and friendly. She stayed patient as I confusedly fumbled through the documents and then handed one over for the wrong daughter. When she learned what our situation was, she peered at me knowingly and said “You must have had to do a mountain of paperwork!”

“You have no idea!” I replied. “I think when these passports arrive, I’m going break out in tears.”

“Please don’t cry in here!” she half-whispered to me and then glanced quickly back over her shoulder.

As the woman checked the application and all the documents, I pulled out one of the girls’ decrees granting them the right to dual citizenship and asked her if she needed that too. Her eyes widened a little at the sight of it and she asked “How did you manage to get that?!” Apparently, it is becoming nearly impossible to be granted such permission from the Austrian government. She said that she had had to deal with Austrians who became naturalized American citizens and were then rudely informed that their Austrian citizenship was being revoked. It was possibly the one saving grace of my last horrible visit to this embassy that someone made me aware of the need to apply for dual citizenship permission before taking the next step. I don’t remember this information showing up anywhere else in process and I am sure it wouldn’t have occurred to me on my own.

Once the paperwork was all handed over, we were sent off to Window 3 to fork over the cash and then it was back to Window 1. The girls signed their passport applications in front of the new official and he told us we could expect them in the mail in about 10 days. We were done. The whole thing had taken about 15 minutes. I was almost sorry to have to leave.

As we walked back toward the security guards and exit, I noticed for the first time that the place was entirely empty except for us. I had been at this embassy many times over the years and the waiting room was always packed. I wondered what that was about. The last thing we did before exiting was to pass by the pictures of Twump and Pence and Pompeo. I felt sorry for the guard sitting at the desk across from them – just imagine having to look at those three all day long every day!

My daughters and I had a nice day of shopping, had lunch, went to the movies (“The Green Book”) and stayed in a nice hotel. The next day we caught the train back home. That was seven days ago.

I confess I continued to worry that something could still go wrong.

But today, the world is mine again.

 

 

To the Poorhouse

 

Ireland 2018 – Part 3

 

I don’t suppose many of you readers will believe me when I say that I really did try to take a break from American politics while on vacation this year. I limited my news inputs to scrolling through headlines, reading a few breaking news alerts and watching one or two MSNBC videos a day. But seeing as how this trip to Ireland included more political content and history lessons than the last one, it was sometimes difficult not to note the occasional parallel or be reminded of current atrocities while learning about past ones.

One of those moments came when we took up my sister’s suggestion to tour the Portumna Workhouse Center. As an added enticement, the center also had an exhibit of works by the Irish sculptor Kieran Touhy,  who uses peat bog oak as his medium.  This is wood that is found underground in the bogs and can be 1000s of years old. The show was called “Dark Shadows” and poignantly conveyed the same themes as the workhouse tour. I’ve scattered some of his works throughout this post.

For my fellow historically-challenged people, I’ll start with a little background information on the workhouse (aka “poorhouse”) system in Ireland . . .

Even before the Potato Famine years (1846-51), Ireland’s problems with poverty, hunger and homelessness were severe and getting worse. Eventually, the government had no option but to find ways of dealing with the problem. Unfortunately, they did not see it as a problem of an inequitable economic system in which increasing numbers of people could not maintain a viable existence no matter how hard they worked. No, those in power and the position to “do something” saw the problem as one of “surplus people”. How do we rid the countryside of them?

One way was to assist emigration to Australia or North America. Another policy led to the construction of “workhouses” throughout the country. People facing starvation who had run out of options could enter these places and work for food and a place to sleep. Unlike those people in English workhouses, this was not stopover on the way to somewhere else – an interim after which they could leave and find work outside again. No, in Ireland, these houses were essentially the end of the road.

After this system was ended in the 1920s, many of these buildings were torn down or re-purposed; the one in Portumna remained abandoned, but largely intact. Now it is slowing being restored and turned into a sort of museum/education center. While touring it, out guide delicately pointed out some misconceptions about the system – making it clear to us why this was the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland”  as well as the general situation in the country at that time. One of the most significant points was that even though the potato crop failed, the farms were producing plenty of other crops – but much of that food ended up being sold and shipped off to England while the home population continued to starve.

 

Here, now, are some of pictures from the inside of the workhouse:

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The layout of the place was basically three rows of buildings around two courtyards. There were separate tracts for boys, girls, men, women, and nursing women with kids under 2 years old. The daily routines of the groups ensured that their paths didn’t cross in the courtyards or dining hall. The high windows ensured that they could not see the others when they were outside. The doors were locked in the evenings by the workhouse “managers”. So parents and kids could spend years just 50 or 100 yards apart from one another and never meet up.

At the end of the tour we ended up where we started and I looked again at the first display sign I had read on coming through the front door:

I asked our guide if the people who came here were all at the very end of their rope – desperate and with no more options. She answered yes.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”  I said. She nodded.

“When you hear about what is going on at the southern border of the US right now – about families being separated – does it remind you of this place?” I gestured toward the sign.

“Well, I guess it does . . . although you always want to think that we learn from history and won’t repeat things like this . . .” Her voice trailed off and she looked off into the distance.

 

– – – – – – – –

Back in the car and our way to Dublin, I scrolled through the days breaking news headlines.

“Trump administration falls short on reunifications before deadline”

“Gov’t: 650 children are ‘ineligible” for reunification”

Today, two weeks later, as I write this, there are still hundreds of state-created orphans in the US whose future is up in the air. And the government has just announced plans to put new limits on legal immigration as the second prong in their plan to decrease the surplus population. To rid the country of riffraff.