Friday, February 19, 2010

Olympics, Fashion Week and Westminster Dog Show: What they Have in Common

It's the convergence of contests, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (a Scottish Terrier named Sadie was Best in Show), the Vancouver Olympics (Evan Lysacek took figure skating), and Fashion Week in New York (yesterday was Calvin Klein and Isaac Mizrahi).  Reading about these diverse but equally publicized events brings several thoughts.

First, the people, like Judy Davis, profiled in the Wall Street Journal for her devotion to her line of Samoyed show dogs, mesmerized by the politics and competition of breeds and handlers, are unlikely to be the same crowd jockeying for seats in the front row of designers' runways, perched next to Lady Gaga or Sandra Bullock. Fans at the frigid winter Olympics are a completely separate group, valuing speed, agility and endurance...of a very different sort.

Personally, I'm not much for sports, and you couldn't say our household is on the sartorial cutting-edge.  We also don't have a dog at the moment, though that doesn't keep me from being captivated by the astounding tenacity of owners, breeders and handlers investing hundreds of thousands of dollars with no payback just to see their breed or pet win.  A story in the NY Times Business section Sunday detailed the "campaigns" run by champion pooches' deep-pockets owners, including magazine ads, hiring famous handlers, and extravagant indulgences, all of which brings to mind one of my favorite movies of all time, "Best in Show."

This gem, written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, who both also star in the film, is the source of many running gags in our home.  I can't recommend it too highly; each time you watch it, you'll see new sources of hilarity.  (Guest, by the way, played Nigel Tufnel in the classic "This Is Spinal Tap," the only film that could lift me out of pain and distress as I suffered with pneumonia during my pregnancy with my son in 1992.)  Guest does it again in "Best in Show" as Harlan Pepper, drawling owner of champion bloodhound Hubert, but he's just one of an ensemble of wildly diverse and unique contestants in the show.  Movie moments memorialized in our family lore include the shrewish, braces-clad owner of a Weimaraner who demands from a petshop clerk an exact replica of a lost squeaky bee, and the misstep of Norwich terrier-owner/handler Cookie Fleck moments before the big entrance.  Her two-left-footed spouse fills the breach--and "color" announcer Fred Willard (who I've loved since "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman") exclaims his notice.  Rent this if you haven't guffawed lately.

And that's what these three cultural events share--they're each the climax of complex plots, of winnowing out losers and revealing winners. It's the same fascination that draws viewers to the Oscars.  It's the way life imitates literary art--the denouement is riveting, the process and struggles only as fascinating as their personalities.  But the people who choose to put themselves in these singular spotlights, to strive to separate themselves above all others, share a drive and industriousness that makes them inherently compelling.

They're also a reminder that we humans are social creatures; we crave the validation and inspiration of like-minded others.  Also, Darwinians aside, we are not animals, who, by and large, spend their time exactly the same as others of their species, seldom in any kind of creative endeavor.  We humans, made in the image of God, have the Godly spark to excel, to push toward something new and different, and we cheer each other on as we're striving.

Finally, we are reminded how blessed we are to have the leisure to choose dog-grooming, figure skating and dress-designing, rather than searching for potable water and our next meal.  It's our communal enterprise, the essence of business, that not only fuels these contests, but allows us to take for granted all the basics we rely upon--from the beds in which we sleep to the airplanes that carry us across nations and oceans to come together in these most diverse and amazing competitions.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In Defense of Valentine's Day

I had to defend Valentine's Day, after guests at my Chinese-New Year-themed Shabbat table looked incredulous when I distributed heart-decorated paper napkins with dessert.  I'm used to defending Halloween, but Valentine's Day is so innocuous, so American and so un-religious, I've never before been called to its defense.

My response is that any day that encourages expressions of love and appreciation is fine by me.  Scoffers who disdain commercialization, and lonely hearts who find the day a reminder of their sad status choose to use the occasion to reinforce their existant negativity.  They could hand-write a loving note rather than make purchases, or spend the time cheering up ill or infirm neighbors, or ignore the holiday altogether, rather than wallow in glass-half-empty dourness.

My husband romantically brings me a daily bouquet from the grocery store that he picks out on his way home, and I didn't expect or want any special gift Sunday.  But I see nothing wrong with "constructive guilt" if it spurs husbands (and wives) normally remiss to take a few minutes and spend a few bucks on a token of love.  I consider it a good thing that our sorry economy can receive a temporary boost from balloons, flowers and even jewelry selected to please--or even placate--someone important.

It's a Jewish concept to repair negative feelings by investing in the object of your displeasure.  So the little effort made to select and deliver any kind of Valentine works to improve relationships.  Choosing and giving bring people closer. Very simple. No downside.

My Jewish friends don't like the day's association to Catholic Saint Valentine.  Though he was added to a list of saints in 496 for being a martyr, even at that time it was noted that nobody knew exactly who he was or what he'd done. Geoffrey Chaucer apparently came up with the association of Valentine with love in a long love poem he wrote in the late 1300s, "Parliament of Fowls:"  "And there was not any bird that is created through procreation that was not ready in her presence to hear her and receive her judgment. For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate."  Yes, it's a poem about birds.  I find this an unconvincing reason to assume all the elementary teachers festooning their classrooms with red hearts are performing religious service.

Now, I can see why curmudgeons eschew the power of dreaded social authority to dictate when or how they will express their love.  On the other hand, curmudgeons are by definition crusty, ill-tempered and disagreeable. Fat chance they're demonstrative the rest of the year, either.

On the other hand, I personally consider it a bit unseemly to make frouffy home displays for the holiday, even if Valentine decor is the only thing in stores since Dec. 26. I make hand-made cards for my children and a few select others, and consider it a luxury to spend my limited time creating something specially for each of them.

What's wrong with celebrating love? We could all use more of it.

(above: St. Valentine receives a Rosary from the Virgin, by David Teniers III.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

ObamaCare and the Return to Marcus Welby

Obama's urgent need to confiscate tax money to cover everybody's health care is an indicator of how far medicine has come since I was a kid.  His pressing insistence has a basis in the same technology that brings you this blog, and the apps on your iphone, and your music and photos and games and Kindle--and there's no way we'll ever retreat.

Way back in the far reaches of my memory was chicken pox.  It was a disease your mom made sure you got, by sending you to play with some spotted friend, because you needed to "get it over with" lest it strike with greater force once you became an adult.  Kids don't get chicken pox any more. They get MMRV shots as babies, ending the social delight of intentionally exposing youngsters to "childhood diseases" that are no more.

But when my siblings and I were in the midst of "getting it over with," the pediatrician, as part of his normal duties, showed up at our front door.  I vividly remember him--a stranger to me, really--coming into the bedroom I shared with my similarly-stricken sister, his leather black "doctor's bag" in hand; his cold stethoscope on my chest.  They used to call those visits "house calls."  They didn't cost extra.

In those days, families paid for just about everything outright.  You got a bill from the doctor; if you couldn't pay it all at once, you worked out a payment plan. Yes, there was insurance, but it was private (Blue Cross), not very expensive, usually only for really catastrophic situations, and most people didn't have it.  Certainly no employers paid for it.

Until the 60s, when governments and unions used coverage for bargaining and as perks for employees.

Then, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, in a fit of liberal largesse, sought to provide retirees with government-sponsored health coverage.  At that time, most people retired at age 65 and looked forward to rapid decline, surviving at most another decade, as US life expectancy was only 70 years.  Medical care was just starting to get technical; pharmaceuticals were becoming more sophisticated and proprietary.

Without universal retirement plans, a new class of oldsters who weren't being taken care of by newly mobile children got attention in Johnson's "War on Poverty" after exposes about their subsisting on dog food.  Medicare filled in where Social Security left off, followed by Medicaid, the national program for non-elderly poor. But the key there is that it's not federally-managed--each state controls its administration locally. 

Really, it's only been in the last 20 years that HMOs and employer-subsidized health plans became de rigueur, severing all direct connections to local doctors and inserting middlemen at faraway desks, insulated from customers by powerless phone personnel.  Ask a kid what a doctor's bag looks like--he'll shrug.

Do we customers like dealing with huge corporations who determine our premiums, our co-pays, our deductibles?  Do health care providers like that their fees are negotiated and set by the same corporations?  Ever get an "EOB" (explanation of benefits) from a health insurance company that lists a doctor's charge, and then the "adjustment" he makes because the insurance company decided his fee was more than they've decided to pay?  What is this game?

It's the stuff of consumer backlash.  Because if taxpayers know one thing, it's that adding layer upon layer of government bureaucracy onto a system that's already rife enough with regulations, strategies and middlemen isn't going to streamline anything. Instead, it will complicate and worse, cost much more.

By the way, I'm incredulous that thousands of American citizens die each year due to inability to afford health insurance.  Emergency rooms do not turn away indigents.  Medicare, Medicaid and local governmental programs do exist. And private charitable institutions do a tireless job. College and university students have campus resources. And 1,200 free clinics, staffed by generous physicians, exist in every metropolitan area.

Can we ever go back to the friendly Dr. Welby of the olden days? Of course not. We now demand medical science provide magic pills and room-size equipment that hardly fits in the traditional physician's bag.  We seek specialists for second opinions, and form our own analyses by scouring the internet, sometimes spurring expensive lawsuits, served by eager lawyers.  Health care is increasingly complicated, and we now expect to live a lot longer than before. Into our 90's, actually. 

The US spends 16% of its GDP on health care; more than any other modern country.  It's not going to drop--either with feds controlling potential profit or with the status quo, because free enterprise is already so tamped down by government regulations and laws that shape the structure of the insurance industry. What's the answer? I'm not in a position to speculate, but getting back to catastrophic insurance coverage, with individual management of relationships with doctors would be much better than the interminable phone waits and impersonal rulings on payments that we all now face--which would be much, much worse controlled by the biggest bureaucracy of all, the federal government.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Groundhog Day Redeux

It's overcast here. Punxsutawney Phil would not have seen his shadow today, and we would have delighted in the prospect of an early spring.  Yesterday, however, we got some sun, and apparently, so did the groundhog in Pennsylvania, portending more chill.

The 1993 Bill Murray film "Groundhog Day" is one of my all-time faves, because  of its novelty and its message.  Murray plays Phil Collins, a narcissistic TV announcer sent with his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) to cover the official result of the animal's appearance. Stuck in town due to a blizzard, Phil finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over until he gets it right.  Even suicide attempts fail as he again awakens in his hotel bed to the strains of Cher singing "I Got You, Babe" on the clock-radio.

During the course of the film, Phil transforms from self-centered to altruistic, from viewing time as his own to seeing his place on earth filled with possibilities.  In the most miserable of weather, in the most mundane of locations, Phil realizes that the six weeks of winter the rodent portended was his means of emerging from hibernation into the sunshine of experience.

I often wish I could repeat days and get them right.  When, like today, a gray sheet of damp, dismal clouds encloses my view, I have to force myself toward gratitude and accomplishment.  Sunny days, on the other hand, energize and uplift me, pulling me outside in exuberance.

So I wasn't thrilled when I heard that we're in for a typical winter, six more weeks of dreary chill.  Time for some attitude revision on my part.  It may be Groundhog Day, but it's also a new opportunity, if I just step out of my narcissistic stupor.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In Denial of our 25th Anniversary

There are plenty of articles out there about Boomers in denial.  OK, it's tough for me to admit I've been married a quarter-century.  Supposedly after 25 years, you're eligible for your quarter-life-crisis.  That's after 25 years of living.
    I look at the people who are my children, and feel like they ought to be my peers; their friends and I should be jumping in the car to go shopping and to a movie, but what is this? They don't want me along.  Somehow against my will I landed on the wrong side of the generation gap.
     As January 27, our anniversary, approached, I told my husband to just ignore it. "It's an important milestone," he protested. "No," I insisted, "every day is our celebration. We don't need a big deal."  It's such chutzpah to throw yourself a party, like everyone should fete you just for staying together.
     So my hubby arrived home from his business trip this week to find our house decorated (partly by a dearest friend who snuck in on our anniversary day and strung streamers and balloons while I was at the gym, wildly embellished by me).  I'd wrapped up my romantic gifts of two shirts and four pair of pajamas.  (Now, he'd been asking for pajamas.  I really meant it when I said I wanted to minimize the occasion.)
     Our close friends asked us out to a dinner celebration; I demurred, saying my hubby had mentioned a private escape, but when Hubby suggested we accept, I caved.  Yesterday it dawned on me: Surprise party.
     Oh yes. All the pieces started falling into place.  And sure enough, as we neared the restaurant--Indian food our hosting friends despise--I saw far too many familiar cars.  As I walked in to the chorus of "Surprise!" and the smiles of all our friends, I felt both honored and exposed, because proud as I am of our 25 years married, the idea of being more than 25 years old myself seems impossible.
    Misgivings dissipated amidst hugs and good wishes from friends I love, all of whom share a precious corner of my life. Their children have grown along with mine; living in proximity in our Jewish neighborhood, they have spent Shabbat afternoons in our home and shared graduations and birthdays and the dreary weather and snow days and heat spells.  That so many years could have mounted is mystifying, but the depth of ecstacy in sharing them is undeniable.
   We Boomers may never grow old; we may never admit our physical limits or open AARP solicitations, but we'll claim the friendships and recollections that sit like snapshot signposts of our satisfactions.  As my rabbi frequently reminds us, there's no word in Hebrew for retirement; to admit to maturity could slow us down as we collect marathon t-shirts, earn added diplomas and take on major projects.
   Thank you to all our friends for an unforgettable 25th Anniversary; to see my husband beaming with childlike glee at pulling off his surprise was almost as priceless as your presence, the context of our very blessed lives.