Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The "Occupy" Movement and Healthcare

For the last several months, I have been actively supporting the now worldwide "Occupy" movement that has swept the world following the initiation of the famous "Occupy Wall Street" action in New York City. Here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my wife and I have taken part in marches, rallies, protests and teach-ins, and the "Occupy Santa Fe" encampment continues near downtown.

Although the issues broached by "Occupiers" throughout the country are seemingly disparate and multifaceted, I believe it is only through the communication of these different voices and concerns that central themes (and possible demands) can eventually be distilled.

As a nurse and healthcare professional, I have seen the face of the healthcare system up close, and it is (still) quite broken. With innumerable for-profit insurance companies dictating what doctors can and cannot do, and tens of millions of Americans living completely without health insurance, the system eschews the notion of universal coverage and leaves millions in the proverbial dust. And since almost every industrialized country in the world has some form of universal coverage, the United States lags far behind, not only in this respect, but also in infant mortality and other important markers of health and well-being of the citizenry at large. It is a shameful state of affairs.

Just today on National Public Radio, I heard a report quoting Republican candidate Ron Paul as he railed against the notion of universal coverage. When asked if an uninsured 30-year-old with a catastrophic illness should receive expensive care in order to save his life, Paul intimated that there are other ways for these sorts of people to be cared for (such as churches and neighbors). He stated, "That's what freedom is all about---taking your own risks." Although he wouldn't directly say that society should just allow this individual to die, some members of the audience loudly proclaimed that, indeed, this uninsured American's care should not be paid for and he should be allowed to meet his (uninsured) fate. A shocking notion, especially since doctors (and Ron Paul is himself an M.D.) take an oath to "do no harm". (I have always wondered about the relative similarity between the words "Hippocratic" and "hypocritical".)

When it comes to the "Occupy" movement, my sense is that a more fair distribution of wealth, corporate responsibility (in terms of taxes, etc), economic justice (an admittedly broad and relatively ill-defined phrase), jobs, the end of war, and the initiation of broader protections (such as universal health coverage) are some of the mainstays of the movement's demands.

As autocracies around the world crumble before our eyes, it was only a matter of time until such a popular people's movement erupted from its latent slumber here in the U.S.. People can only take so much, and when the number of uninsured Americans topped 52 million just last year (40% higher than in 2001), there was no reason for Americans to not decide to speak out and demand change. And if you couple the nationwide jobless numbers with the numbers of uninsured citizens (let alone the list of companies---like Wal-Mart---who are jettisoning their healthcare coverage), the recipe for popular unrest only grows.

Rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease are ballooning in this country, and childhood obesity and chronic illness are equally on the rise. As Americans get sicker and fatter, the nation's largest employers are cutting their healthcare coverage and leaving millions of American workers (and their families) in the lurch.

Meanwhile, the American right proclaims that "Occupiers" are dirty hippies, unemployed and looking for a handout. From my perspective, this is both unenlightened thinking and plain ignorant hyperbole. I have marched and rallied with retired schoolteachers, nurses, housepainters, unemployed laborers, and gainfully employed citizens from multiple sectors of society. Yes, some "Occupiers" are unemployed, but every unemployed protester I have spoken with simply wants a job and benefits for them and their family, and they're willing to pay taxes to get what they want. (They just want wealthy Americans and American corporations to pay their fair share.)

The noise and perceived "inconvenience" of massive protests will, in my opinion, continue as the movement galvanizes a broader spectrum of Americans and gains clarity as it works internally to crystallize its main messages. And as the protests continue, those 50 million Americans still languish without health insurance, millions more look for work that cannot be found, and the corporate and political powers that be bide their time in hopes that the restless citizenry will fall back into a television-induced slumber. Aside from a nationwide campaign to taint drinking water with Ambien or Lunesta in hopes of a sleepier and more ignorant nation, the chances of this movement simply being lulled into complacency is more remote than Wal-Mart offering its workers the benefits they deserve.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Food: A Rumination for Blog Action Day

On several occasions, I have participated in Blog Action Day, an annual event wherein bloggers from around the world post simultaneously about a chosen topic of global importance. This year, food is the topic of concern, and thousands of bloggers from more than 80 countries are posting about the subject food on this day, the 16th of October, 2011. The following is my own rumination about food, from the personal to the global and back again. You can read more entries at the Blog Action Day website and blog.
Throughout my adult life, I have generally tended to view food as being medicinal in nature, and this tendency has only grown as I have entered middle age. While food represents many things to many people---including culture, pleasure, sustenance, survival, identity, a sense of belonging---my connection with food remains solidly in the categories of health and well-being, with a generous helping of pleasure. 
Being from a family with a Jewish heritage reaching as far back as the genealogy can see, one would think that Jewish cultural foods would figure strongly in my predilections and preferences. While my mother did indeed make matzo ball soup and other Jewish foods when I was a child, that Jewish identity never really took hold, especially since we were raised, ironically, with all of the Christian holidays, albeit celebrated in a thoroughly assimilationist and secular manner.  So, with no real cultural identity per se, I was unleashed into the world to find my own gastronomic way, and, for the majority of my adult life, that road has been paved with health food.
The term “health food” is somewhat of a misnomer, since many foods can be readily associated with health, even as more and more foods have had the health literally stripped out of them in the processing plant. Still, health food conjures images of bins of granola, honey, fresh fruits and vegetables, tofu, and any number of items that can be easily lumped into that broad category. “Whole foods” is, in my view, a much more apt definition of the way in which I like to eat, but a very large health food corporation (which shall not remain altogether nameless in this case) has now trademarked that name for its own. Thus, telling someone that you eat a “whole foods” diet will only bring sneers and a chuckle, and perhaps a sense from the listener that you spend so much money on groceries that you probably have to give up other things like cars, gasoline, and a telephone. (They don’t call the aforementioned store “Whole Paycheck” for nothing.) Still, “whole foods” explains one’s dietary preferences much more aptly than “health food”, but we’ll leave the name issue for someone else to tease out.
For my wife and me, food is where the rubber meets the road in terms of our health, and we have generally opted in our two decades together to spend more on good healthy food rather than put our money elsewhere. While other families eschew organic produce due to its relatively high cost, we would much rather cancel our cable or cut back on other expenses rather than buy the mainstream non-organic alternative. We recognize that organic can be more costly, and we understand which foods are most important to purchase organically and which are safe to buy that are conventionally grown. We also recognize that many people simply cannot afford organic food, and as a health coach and nurse, I would far prefer that a client purchase non-organic produce, wash it well and enjoy it, rather than processed foods with little redeeming qualities. And in areas that are known as “food deserts”, many people simply have no access to fresh produce or even a supermarket, relying on fast food and highly processed foods from convenience stores.
Amazingly, the organic movement has grown (Wal-Mart is now one of the largest vendors of organic produce in the United States), and as demand has risen, prices have come within reach of more and more Americans. And as more Americans wake up to the fact that genetically modified foods grown with petroleum-based fertilizers on corporate farms are not in their best interest---or the country’s best interest, for that matter---demand will only continue to rise.
In a world where food insecurity is increasing, famine is spreading across portions of Africa, and topsoil erosion and access to water are increasingly problematic, the issue of food is central to our very survival. With free trade agreements decimating certain farmers’ ability to sell their crops at a profit, family farms being foreclosed in record numbers, and corporate agribusiness growing at an alarming rate, we are at a moment in history when the security, quantity and quality of our food supply is in jeopardy. It’s all well and good to espouse the benefits of a healthy diet, proper hydration and plenty of aerobic exercise, but there is no getting around the fact that millions of people around the world---many of whom live in your home town---go hungry every day, or simply don’t have the security of knowing where their next meal is coming from.
Food is a loaded issue, and it carries a great deal of baggage for all of us. My memories of my mother’s matzo ball soup may linger in my cellular memory until the day that I die, and meanwhile I have the economic privilege of buying just about anything I want at the grocery store (within reason), never personally knowing the stresses and concerns of those who cannot even afford to adequately  feed their children each morning. I can rail against Monsanto for genetically modifying corn and depleting the topsoil through poor farming practices in favor of profits and high yields, yet I also need to remember that some unknown neighbor of mine just down the street doesn’t have enough cash flow to stock the fridge as his children clamor for the sugary and marginally nutritious cereals they see happy people eating on television. 
Yes, food consumes us just as we consume it, and it is the future of food itself that should truly consume us day and night. “Give us this day our daily bread” should be our rallying cry, and if our collective moral compass was not somehow askew in this world out of balance, we would have already figured out how to feed every person on the planet.
In the optimism that I have cultivated---or discovered---in this second half of my life, I know in my heart that change is indeed coming. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is only one example of how the world is changing as people individually and collectively wake up to the many stark realities that we face on a global scale.
In my small world, it can feel like a crisis if I can’t find the item I’m seeking when I walk the aisles of the health food store or I forget something important during a shopping trip. But my personal crises hold no water in the larger scheme of things. Proportionality is the operative word of the day, and the proportion of hungry people in this world must be contended with, lowered, and eventually brought under control. As we mine the human genome and monitor the universe for signs of intelligent life, we continue to demonstrate that we have the collective intelligence and technology to solve the food crisis for ourselves.
What we need now is a collective will to feed the world, and to transform this crisis into an opportunity. We can indeed feed the world, and if we decide to do so, there is no force on earth that can stop us from moving unequivocally towards that goal. Be it “whole foods”, “health food”, or just simply “food”, the name is not as important as the intention. We know how to grow healthy foods, we know how to produce foods that are less processed, more nutritious, and more affordable, and we know that we have the ability to do so if we truly desire to. So we say again, “give us this day our daily bread”, and when we say “us”, we realize that we truly understand the meaning of that word.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Living, Loving and Dying

A few months ago, I shared here on Digital Doorway that my mother had died suddenly from a massive and unexpected stroke which occurred while she was giving a piano recital with some of her music students. Five weeks prior, my father-in-law suffered a major heart attack, dying in his easy chair after enjoying dinner with his beloved wife and a few friends on the Cinco de Mayo. Their deaths reverberate in our lives still.

In the weeks between those two significant losses, my wife lost an uncle and a cousin, and not long ago my step-son lost his step-brother on his father's side. Just yesterday, we learned that a dear friend with whom we had lost touch was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer on a Thursday this past August and died the following Monday, surrounded by family. Meanwhile, one of our very dearest and oldest friends is struggling in her eighteenth month of ovarian cancer and we're not sure we'll ever see her again---in this life, anyway.

Losing loved ones and watching others grieve as they mourn their losses puts life into perspective and allows for a different view of one's personal priorities. As a nurse, I have walked many patients through their own illnesses and the process of facing their own mortality, and there are those whose faces are as clear in my mind now as they were when I was providing their care.

In the course of our lifetime, we see dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths acted out in movies and television shows in the name of entertainment, some quite realistically. Meanwhile, the news media graphically report famine, war, disease, natural disasters and violent deaths, and this regular diet of death can at times inure us to the reality and potential tragedy of lives lost. Film and television depictions of death can move us to tears, and can at times even help us to process our own personal losses through the artifice of cinematic drama.

Still, there is nothing more realistic than holding the hand of a dying person and looking in their eyes as they face the great unknown. Five years ago, we were all at the side of my step-father as he died in his own home from pancreatic cancer, and it was an honor to be his midwife in that very beautiful and graceful process.

As a father and husband, I occasionally experience fear regarding the loss of my wife, son or daughter-in-law, and I know that I will likely one day face the death of my father, my mother-in-law, and perhaps even my siblings or other family members. At the time of a death of a loved one, it has often seemed that I simply could not walk through the passage of grief that had opened up before my very eyes. When a dear friend of ours was murdered in 2001, it seemed as if our lives had ended, and indeed our lives as we knew them certainly had come to a resounding close.

However, even in the midst of terrible grief and loss, the urge to survive---and even to thrive---persists, and we somehow manage to renew ourselves again and again. I am personally on that path of renewal, and while I have no doubt that death will make its presence known at some point in the future, there's nothing else to do but focus on love, acceptance, and the knowledge that strength will come from a powerful wellspring, whatever one may choose to call it or however one might acknowledge it.

My own death holds no fear for me, but the great mystery of that passage and its ultimate meaning is strong. For now, I focus on the meaning that death and loss have given to my life, and the relative unimportance of the myriad trivial issues that clamor for space in my mind.

We the living can continue to live, and the dead want nothing more than our happiness. I choose to embrace my life and my happiness, remembering the saying that living well is the best revenge. I am not a vengeful person, but we can all take revenge on the violence, fear and panic that seem to so often encircle our world so vehemently. We can resist the fear. Our loved ones who have passed on want this for us, and while we can't live for them, we can live with them---in our minds, in our thoughts, and in our hearts.