Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Doctor Will See You on Gallifrey Now: My Dream of Universal Health Coverage

It might have been something I ate, but my wife is pretty sure my dream came from using the DVR to watch "House" back-to-back with several episodes of a certain long-running, sci-fi show from BBC America.

"From the way you were mumbling," she said when I woke up, "it sounded like you were dreaming about a TARDIS."

"As a matter of fact, there was a TARDIS in it. And he still called himself 'the Doctor,' but it was because of his knowledge of internal medicine, not the outer reaches of the universe. At least that's what I thought at first."

"Tell me about it."

And so I tried, peering through the mists of sleep and relaxing the hand that only a moment ago had seemed to be clutching my insurance card…

"What's happened is that a rupture in the time-space continuum has opened up between the frontal lobes of your brain, which will lead to a complete metabolic shutdown if we don't find a way to close the portal."

A door in my head? Is that what he was telling me my problem was -- this animated, bow-tie-wearing medical professional who had only just met me, bursting into his own office as if expecting to catch me fiddling with a knob located just above my left eye? OK, I was feeling a little dizzy, probably because I kept having the odd sensation that the examining table where I was sitting was moving. But impressive as it was, his split-second "brain portal" diagnosis would have been more convincing if I hadn't been coming to see him about a nagging cough.

"And by the way that doesn’t sound too good either," he said after my chest had heaved in several noisy convulsions.

But I was too stunned by all his mad-scientist palaver to say anything more than, "Do you really take my health insurance?"

"Universal coverage," he said, waving a medical chart at me.

"I don't think I have that one. My health insurance is very particular about what doctors it will pay for and which ones are out of network."

"No, no, I'm not talking about some faceless bureaucracy but the universe itself, which insures each and every one of us down to the last particle of our being. The key is not to interrupt the flow of Omega corpuscles. Now let's have a look-see at your chart!"

While he glanced at it, I nervously scouted the walls for a diploma of some kind. "Omega corpuscles" was the sort of answer I used to put on biology tests I hadn't studied for. The most I could come up with, though, was a certificate from the Gallifreyan Institute of Cosmic Studies, which sounded like a place for doctors who couldn’t get into real medical schools. Still, even one of those could manage to prescribe a simple antibiotic.

"Immunizations up to date – no history of plague –Aha! Now that's very curious. Would you mind stepping into my vehicle? It's parked just outside." In a sudden burst of impatience he'd flung the chart aside.

"But you haven't even listened to my lungs."

"On the contrary, I can hear them quite well from here."

"But your stethoscope –"

I had been semi-reassured to see one hanging on the wall near some of the other equipment you'd expect to find in a normal doctor's office: thermometer, blood pressure machine, and a large, revolving eye. But I was bothered by a few things, too, like his talk of listening to my lungs from afar and the way the blood pressure cuff seemed to be expanding and contracting on its own.

"Extra-sensory auditory calibration," he explained. "Every time you come here, the sound of your lungs leaves an impression in the fabric of space. So there's already an echo from your last visit –"

"Except this is my first one." Did he even bother with medical records at all? Next time I needed a physician I was going to hold out for a real referral.

"But what a puzzle this is turning out to be! If those weren't your lung impressions I just heard, I wonder whose chart it was I tossed on the floor. Must have you confused with someone from the other planet Earth. Unless –" he seemed to be struck by some medical insight, "No, but it couldn't be – but that would mean – no, no, they couldn't be back. They were banished several millennia ago by the High Council."

"To tell you the truth, doctor —" After some more hacking I recovered enough to continue. "I haven't decided if I'm coming back. Could you please stop with all the obscure medical jargon and say something in plain English?"

"Then in plain English: if you don't do exactly what I say, you only have 72 more seconds to live." I hadn't thought my cough was quite that serious, but he sounded pretty sure of his new diagnosis. And if he was right, there was no time for a second opinion. "Listen!" I thought this was for more lung sounds, but he went on to explain. "They're inter-galactic cyber-case-managers sent by the insurance company to drown us in unnecessary paperwork. And I do mean quite literally 'drown.' So I'm afraid we've got to hurry."

Inter-galactic cyber what? But feeling the examining table start rocking beneath me again, I decided to put off questions for now. And I soon saw who, if not exactly what, he meant. From one end of the hallway outside his office, a group of figures was advancing upon us in ominous lockstep. I would have thought they were nurses if it weren't for all the tentacles writhing up from under their starched uniforms.

At the opposite end was – of all things – a blue phone booth that looked as out of date as my doctor's bow tie. It hadn't been there when I arrived so I figured he must have brought it with him to spruce up the d├ęcor.

With the tentacles writhing closer, I was soon barreling down the hall like a runaway IV machine, trying to follow not just my doctor but also any signs I could find to the nearest "Emergency Exit."

"In here!" he shouted.

In where? There were no signs, just the blue box.

"But Doctor!" I cried out as a tentacle nearly lassoed my ankle. "I have my cell with me."

"There's no need to clone just yet. In here, I said!"

Maybe the plan was for us to make a 911 call to the creators of "The X-Files."

But the phone booth turned out to be his vehicle, parked in what I could only assume was his reserved "Doctors Only" space. Even cooler, though, was that the interior of his vehicle was fitted out with all sorts of advanced gadgetry and seemed to offer its own simple yet elegant solution to the problem of overcrowded hospital facilities: they just needed to be much bigger on the inside than they were on the outside. In fact, this one was so roomy inside and its walls were covered with so many buttons, levers, and blinking lights that all I could say was, "No way my insurance is going to pay for this!"

"Not to worry. So long as we've left the case managers in the inter-galactic dust, we can just bill it to the universe. Now which part of it do you want to see first?"

"How about a pharmacy?" I suggested while my lungs gave vent to more loud, unhealthy impressions. But he seemed to have picked up some kind of distress signal because we were off in another direction altogether.

"I'm not sure they had pharmacies in ancient Babylon, but we'll certainly look," he promised as he began adjusting the controls to set our course. "Now hang on tight because it's going to be a bumpy ride."

Universal health coverage, I sighed. It might be seriously flawed after all.

Monday, January 30, 2012

P.S. 61 Revisited, or First Day of Kindergarten Blues

"You could feel the old world go, and the new one beginning."
Bob Dylan Chronicles.

They've got me seated next to this kid named Harry, who keeps asking for his mommy and checking to make sure he's still got his bus pass. I bet he's never been stoned a day in his life.

School is a room full of uptight midgets and a squint-eyed queen in charge. The queen says we have to call her Mrs. White and tell her what we want to be when we grow up. Harry wants to be president. But when I raise my hand, she acts like being a free-associating singer/songwriter isn’t a real career.

"Bobby, don't you want to write songs people can understand? How will you support a family if you sound like someone who's talking in his sleep?"

America the Beautiful where the poets have to be in bed by 8 and the transportation freaks grow up to be president. Where the inmates aren't just running the asylum. They're renting it out for parties.

In this place, if you have some ideas of your own, want to do things the slightest bit differently, they brand you as a troublemaker and write your name on the blackboard. Then if you still don’t want to sit in their circle and play their mind-control games, they'll up the ante by sticking you off in some corner by yourself, then calling home and finding out they've got the wrong last name up there on the board.

The folks will say it should still be Zimmerman. No one gave you permission to change it or knows a thing about you reinventing yourself as some kind of "modern-day troubadour."

Am already sure if I ever do meet someone interesting around here it’s going to be on the blackboard.

At recess asked if anybody was into Woody Guthrie or Big Bill Broonzy, but the kids are still listening to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Row,Row, Row your Boat." They're the ones living in a dream world.

Top 40 is all they play is in this one-radio-station town. After lunch the squint-eyed queen has her assistant Jezebel, Miss Betsy, take out her guitar and make us sing a song about some spider crawling to the top of a waterspout.

When I said the song wasn't very different, in fact, sounded like a lot of other stuff out there and that "itsy bitsy" wasn't exactly the language of field hands or striking coal miners, Miss Betsy became all upset. She told me the song was about persistence and not giving up. I said she should really be singing about the Spanish Inquisition. Those guys with their thumbscrews didn’t give up either.

She said at least her song rhymed as if a future free-associating singer/ songwriter wouldn’t know how to do that. I said that if she wanted rhyme –

Ma, I'm too young to die of boredom
Please don't send me back.
All day at Club Inquisition
Just down from the railroad track.

That made Miss Betsy lower the neck of her guitar. So I added a few more verses: about how kids were being shoved into boxes and mailed off to Never Never Land, how Picasso and Houdini were hiding under their desks during bomb drills, how somebody had kidnapped Mary's little lamb and was keeping it locked up in afterschool detention along with the rest of the misfits:

And somewhere the Queen is smiling
While her trigger-finger is dialing
The number to say, “He won’t be home no more.
Ma, he won’t be home at four.”

That's as far as I've gotten with it, but Harry and this other kid started to cry. And after the whole hootenanny was over, Mrs. White took Miss Betsy aside for a long private talk, then came back with some news.

They're skipping me a grade.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Suburban Train Times

Suburban Train Times

“Attention Mountain Creek:

Due to downed electrical wires and slashed budgets, we may be experiencing some disruptions on our westbound lines. At this moment it looks as if the only trains affected will be the 7:59 to Pine Ridge and the 8:15 to Glenwood, which will be arriving in reverse chronological order. But in the past we have also had problems with trains switching to a weekend schedule even though it is only Monday. We thank you in advance for your patience and apologize for any inconvenience.”

“Attention Mountain Creek:

The 7:59 to Pine Ridge has fallen very far behind indeed. Passengers hoping to reach Pine Ridge are now being urged to walk the short distance to West Strayton Boulevard, where it is our understanding that they can catch a cab. Otherwise, they can wait for the 9:30 to Hinleyton Arms and transfer at Little Falls station, which we are hoping to renovate someday.
Again, we thank you for your patience and apologize for any inconvenience.”

“Attention Mountain Creek:

We deeply regret if any Pine Ridge passengers have already set out on foot for West Strayton Boulevard. It has just come to our attention that the distance is a good 4 or 5 miles and cabs are expensive.
More gloomy news is that the 9:30 train to Hinleyton Arms does not seem to be going there after all. Or if it is, it is taking a very roundabout route, making none of its usual stops. We will let you know as soon as we have more information.
One last time (we hope) we thank you for your patience and -- well, you know the drill.”

“Attention Mountain Creek:

In a development that has even surprised us, the 9:30 train to Hinleyton Arms, if that's what it ever was, has gone AWOL, taking with it the 9:24 train to Morris Plains. If anyone has seen either of these in the last ten minutes, we would appreciate a text. The good news is that the 7:59 train to Pine Ridge is catching up to up to the 8:15 to Glenwood. As of now, they are both due to arrive at the same time on the center track.
We thank you for your inconvenience and apologize for your patience.”

“Attention Mountain Creek:

No status change. The 9:24 train to Morris Plains has been reported in the vicinity of Tyler Springs. We are actively investigating.”

“Attention Mountain Creek:

A train is now boarding on the center track. We will not bore you with all the details. We will only say this. It may be going to Pine Ridge or even Timbuktu, for all we know. (Hey, sometimes we get frustrated too.) But we would be pretty surprised if it were Hinleyton Arms or Morris Plains.”

“Attention Mountain Creek:

False alarm. There is no train boarding on the center track. We repeat: no train that we know of is boarding on the center track. Passengers boarding on the center track do so at their own risk. Passengers are advised only to board on a track where they see a uniformed conductor. And a train. That is important too.”

Monday, November 7, 2011

Rules of Engagement for the Purple Room

1. The purple room is not the green room. Nor after last year's renovations is it the blue room anymore. We all need to recognize this and move forward.

2. The purple room has its own code. Here we raise our hands -- and only our own. To raise somebody else's hand is disrespectful.

3. We don't take someone else's toys. And we especially don't take them if we're planning to sell them on eBay.

4. It is not assumed that everyone can read or tell time. We should all, however, be able to figure out which way north is without relying on a GPS.

5. We celebrate our diversity – but each of us on different days. This is not confusing but a source of strength.

6. Any dangerous toys that find their way into the purple room will be confiscated and sold on eBay. The proceeds will go to the scholarship fund.

7. Construction paper and crayons are examples of acceptable media for arts and crafts projects. Clay is also available on Mondays and Thursdays. Toilet paper glued to the door of the snack refrigerator is NOT art.

8. The bathroom is not for casual use. Only go when it is an emergency.

9. If during the day you become confused about what to do next, look for someone who is facing north. Then help the next person to orient him- or her-self.

10. In the event of damage to something, the last one to have touched it will be held responsible.

11. Don’t even think about touching the glass wind chimes.

12. FYI, the ceiling is not about to collapse. We just haven’t finished all of our renovations yet. So if you see something up there that worries you, don’t go around reporting it. Ssh. Keep it to yourself.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Dad's Blogging

"My dad can't come to the phone right now," I heard one of my kids tell a caller. "He's blogging."

Wow, I thought as I finished another post, we as a society have come a long way. Time was when Dad had to have a much better excuse for not doing things than expressing himself online. Dad had to be out chopping wood or killing whatever animal was going to be on the menu for dinner.

Now I know several dads who blog, and the consensus seems to be that it is a highly reputable and valuable activity for men, like playing golf or fishing. In an effort to test this theory, I tried it on my wife.

"Are you finally going to get around to moving that table to the garage?" she asked me the other day.

"I'm sorry but right now I'm blogging."

"Come on! I've been asking you for weeks."

"I'm also pretty far behind on my blog," I said in a grave voice.

As our eyes met over the screen of my laptop, i wondered if things were about to change between us. I also couldn't help but wish that the internet had been around during the early years of our marriage.

Then, however, her own tone of voice turned grave, even ominous.

"Ok, but just wait until you see my blog. I've devoted several posts to you."

I was up off the couch in no time.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Love Letter from Shakespeare

“You’re a writer. Why don’t you do a Valentine’s Day piece about how to write a love letter?” my wife suggested to me the other day.

“Oh, is Valentine’s Day coming up?”

I could see why she had thought of me for the job. Actually, I am not much for composing letters of any kind. What may have been the last one I wrote went like this:

"Dear Aunt Sylvia, thank you for the baseball mitt you gave me for my birthday. Fifth grade is fun. Love David"

Now technically this could be called a “love letter” since the word “love” does appear in it. But it didn’t seem quite the right model for an expression of feelings on Valentine’s Day. Some spark of romance was still missing.

“If music be the food of love,” I murmured to myself as I turned on the radio to help me concentrate. The collected works of a certain famous playwright happened to be on my desk, and in the midst of deep thoughts about how to begin a love letter, it occurred to me that “if music be the food of love” wasn’t half-bad. But if music be the food of love, then what? Then “you will always be in my top 40”?

No, that didn’t sound quite right either. Still, maybe if I tweaked it a bit, I might have something.

"If music be the food of love, then it shouldn’t matter that I forgot to pick up the pizza for dinner."

Now we were getting somewhere.

All of a sudden I knew what advice to give about writing a love letter. Borrow from Shakespeare, but add enough words of your own so as not to arouse suspicion. Sure, I dimly recollected that Shakespeare had said something about being neither a borrower nor a lender. But then again hadn’t he also borrowed most of his plots from other writers?

Figuring he’d understand, I sat down to work. I was going to write a love letter from Shakespeare that was also from me.

"Hark! What thing through yonder window breaks? Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it – what ho! Arise my love and kill the moon."

Clearly, he had as much to gain from our collaboration as I did."

“Why are you reading Romeo and Juliet?” my wife asked when she came home to find me still at it.

“It’s the one with all the romantic lines in it. At least in comparison to the other plays. I mean ‘my kingdom for a horse’? ‘First let’s kill all the lawyers’? You can’t send those to someone – not unless you’re trying to break up with them.”

It dawned on my wife what I was doing.

“Isn’t there something in Shakespeare about looking into your heart and writing?” she hinted.

“’To thine own self be true.’ Great sentiment. But as a Valentine’s Day message, it almost sounds suspicious. Like you’re saying, ‘At least I hope you’re being true to yourself because you’re incapable of being true to anyone else.’”

We both pondered my project for a moment. Papers were strewn everywhere on the top of the desk. Stuck to its rim were several post-its with lines of iambic pentameter on them. Peeking out from behind a coffee mug was a plastic figurine of the Bard that we had brought back as a souvenir from England.

“Next time just thank me for the kids,” she finally said.

Monday, January 17, 2011

How to Act Old

With all the advice out there about acting young, staying hip, etc, you’d think the other thing was easy – acting old, that is. But few of us are born knowing how to do this. It’s a learned skill, like whittling your own furniture or tying an Alpine butterfly knot, and like these it will soon be a vanishing art.

Yes, that’s right. We may soon live in a world where everyone is young. This will be because no one knows how to be the other thing anymore. The dignified pause as one struggles to remember what one was just saying; the peace and freedom that come from accepting that one can no longer keep up with the internet; these are becoming obsolete. So too are references to popular songs that one’s children and grandchildren have never heard of. How is today’s aging population supposed to make such dated references when a fabulous foursome whose heyday was fifty years ago are once again back in vogue?

But a world in which everyone goes around humming “When I’m 64” is a world where no one does. The very essence of hipness is to distinguish one generation from another, but, if “social climate change” continues, the pundits report with alarm, it may no longer be possible to do so. By 2050 not only will the polar ice caps have melted, but, right before being washed away, the trendiest clubs will be full of seniors dancing the Macarena along with their grandchildren.

In an effort to avert some parts of this apocalyptic scenario in the little while that remains, I have decided to revive the lost art of acting old. Here are a few secrets I have picked up over the years:

1. People acting old go to sleep early and wake up early, in fact, just in time to greet their teenage children as they try to sneak in after breaking curfew. At this point, the early riser does not wink knowingly at the late-nighter, as if to say, “Oh yeah. I get you. Out studying with some friends, huh? I did plenty of that too when I was your age. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Ok, that last part was acceptable old-speak, but better is “If you were studying, where are your books, young lady/man?” This will give the youth in question the opportunity to groan at your ignorance. “Books? This isn’t the 1990s. We study on our phones, Dad…”

2. People acting old regularly embarrass their kids. They could almost seem to take a malicious delight in doing it. Or so any well brought-up child will think. If intergenerational phenomena like the Beatles and the TV show “Glee” make an air of being awkwardly out-of-step harder to achieve, the determined oldster does not give up. No, these oldsters go back as far as it takes – to the show tunes of the 1890s if necessary – for their cultural references. “Knocked’em in the Old Kent Road” is a guaranteed eyebrow-raiser, one that, for all his own favoring of hits of the past, Mr. Schuster will probably not be introducing to New Directions anytime soon.

3. People acting old are nostalgic. “Remember the restaurant that used to be
on that corner? I had a great BLT there in 1989.” That sounds old, not “I’m glad they tore it down and put up the bistro instead.” This applies to people as well. “I liked her first husband” is preferable to “third time’s the charm” just as “he used to have such a wonderfully explosive temper “ beats “the therapy has done him a world of good.” Just remember not to overdo it with the slang of yesteryear. Like songs, words and expressions have a way of coming back into circulation so that by the time you get around to saying, “Attaboy, ducky, don’t take any wooden nickels!”, you might well run the risk of sounding like a hipster.

4. A certain number of years should bring with it the worry that life is not a cycle, just a bumpy road with a sudden drop at the end. This is of course not good news. The old, however, take their consolation from the fact that, if they are lucky, they will not be around to experience the worst of global warming.

But if we as a country are willing to wake up fast to looming catastrophe, we may at least be able to reverse social climate change before it is too late. We can return to a world where elders are met with looks of utter incomprehension whenever they address their juniors, where to those over 50 the singers on “Glee” seem to be heading in some very “new” directions indeed. It will not happen overnight. Democrats and Republicans will have to put aside their differences and work together on this one. But I think we can all agree that a large and sustainable generation gap is a bipartisan issue.

So go to it, one-hundred-and-twelfth congress. Attaboy!