Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Fair 2010

It's great even when abbreviated ...

This was year 27 of the Miami Book Fair International, and year 50 of its host, Miami-Dade College. I've been attending ever since year one -- even the year when most events were canceled due to severe weather -- and I'm ashamed to say how close to its beginning I attended Miami-Dade College. (Hint: it was the first year of South Campus when we had to attend classes at my old high school because the classroom buildings weren't finished yet).

I could only make it for the final day of this year's fair, but I appreciated all the more the few events I could attend. I started out with some levity in the Mateo Theater, an intimate space with a semicircular stage only about a dozen feet across. T. Cooper presented his odd little work, The Beaufort Diaries, about a polar bear who goes Hollywood. This graphic novel has spawned a video and might grow up to be a feature someday, especially with the attention it's gotten from David Duchovny and Leo DiCapprio. Here's what he showed us, as projected from his MacBook.

Then Vicky Hendricks, Miami's femme fatale of noir, gave us part of a story that takes place in Key West. Let's just say the place is going to the dogs. But you already knew that. This is from her new collection titled, aptly enough, Florida Gothic Stories, a follow up to her appearance in the collection, Miami Noir.

Finally Preston Allen, my old compadre from the Butterfly Lightning reading series (the website is gone but you can still view it at the Internet archive), read from his latest novel, Jesus Boy, about the steamy relations between bible thumper Elwin Parker and a lady old enough to know better. The book has a serious message that goes down more smoothly with its chuckle-provoking coat of sugar.

Fortified by this trio, I felt ready to face Writing On The Edge, an anthology of articles by fiction writers who were invited to witness the work of Doctors Without Borders. Tom Craig interviewed two of these writers, Damon Galgut from South Africa and Hari Kunzru from Great Britain. All the while they were accompanied by a running slide show of images collected from around the world, wherever the good doctors are involved in providing relief.

As the presentation progressed I began to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem. As it happened, the evening before I had attended a fundraiser for an organization called ProNica that assists the poor in Nicaragua. Coming from that narrow focus on a single locale in a single country, it was devastating to see the same scenes repeated in nation after nation. Just to give you an idea, here's a partial list that I jotted down from the captions in the slide show:

Armenia ... Assam ... Burundi ... Cambodia ... Chad ... Congo ... Morocco ... Palestine ... Sierra Leon ... Somalia ... Sudan ... Ukraine ... Uganda ... and as you can see from the gaps in the alphabet there are many more. One of the panelists quoted Harold Pinter, who said simply, "Most people in the world live in hell." What can be done? Well, if you're a doctor you can sign up for a six to nine month stint in hell, and wake up every day knowing that you will save one or more lives. If you're not a doctor, you can send them some money. It's not much, but it's a start.

After this it was comforting to get a longer view of history. Biographer Stacy Schiff's latest project is Cleopatra:A Life -- though, as she said, considering that her subject lived from 69 to 30 BCE, she wasn't sure if it was biography or paleontology. It's one thing when you can read all of Ben Franklin's letters or interview everyone who knew Richard Feynman, but quite another thing when 2,000 years have passed and the person of interest is a feature of ancient history. Schiff reminded us that over the intervening years the language, culture, religion, and calendar have all changed. Even the topography of Egypt is not what it was -- it's flatter -- and the Nile itself has moved over two miles from where it used to flow.

Given this, she appears to have done wonderful work by going back to the available sources -- what the Romans of the day had to say about Cleo -- and cutting through centuries of myth and romanticism. One notable correction is that the notorious queen was not known for her beauty but for her charisma. Hey, Marc Antony, you're going to love her -- she's got a great personality! She also had an unerring knack for who to get pregnant with, and when. Not a bad way to play the game when you're in the business of hereditary rule.

After grabbing a crepe in the food court I wrapped up my day with a duo of poets (Jim Brock, where were you?). Geoffrey Philp read to us from Dub Wise in his mellifluous Jamaican voice, and Nina Romano from her latest collection titled Cooking LessonsDon't let this title fool you, though. This is far from an episode on the Food Channel, and Nina evokes far more of life than the satisfaction of appetites. I was particularly taken with the poem about an encounter with a deer in its death throes on a high and dark mountain road. I still have the chills to prove I was listening.

Until next year ...
Times are hard ... anyone want to buy a paper?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Another Modest Proposal

My very own solution to the health care dilemma ...

One of the most bizarre spectacles I've ever seen in American politics was in the runup to our recent midterm election when crowds of protesters could be seen waving signs demanding "Repeal Healthcare!"

Huh? You mean you don't want any healthcare? No, of course that's not really what they meant. It's just that in our quest for soundbite brevity two words are better than three. What they really meant to say was "Repeal Healthcare Reform."

What? You mean you want healthcare to stay the way it is now? Unaffordable for many, unobtainable for some, easily lost for millions more? You mean insurance companies should continue to drop people as soon as they get sick? You mean people should continue to be required to bankrupt themselves before they can get any public assistance for medical issues?

Well, to be fair, I don't believe that's really what they want either. Mostly what they object to is the idea that they might be required by law to buy health insurance. It doesn't matter that we are already required by law to buy car insurance and required by banks to buy home insurance, and that our employers are required to purchase workers compensation insurance even though medical insurance is optional.

And it doesn't matter that a poll showed that 39% of the voters agreed with the statement, "The government should keep its hands off of Medicare." (True story!) It doesn't even matter that if those voters squinted carefully at their paycheck stubs they would see that they are paying the government for Medicare.

No, all they want is choice. And let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume this is not just a case of deep pocketed lobbyists managing to influence the electorate to vote against its own interests. No, these people are simply independent. They want to be able to buy insurance if they feel like it, and take their chances if they don't. Or, as many people below a certain income level do already, they might simply continue to report to the nearest emergency room whenever they get sick, relying on the public mandate that assures them of getting healthcare delivered in the most expensive way possible, and letting the rest of us pay for them.

My modest proposal is simply to add a provision allowing people to opt out of healthcare altogether. Don't want to buy coverage? Don't want to be taxed for it either? Fine. Just sign a release and you're on your own. But you don't get to change your mind when you get sick. And don't worry -- there won't be any government "death panels" advising euthenasia. That would be an unnecessary expense. There's already a place for you to go away and die. It's called "the street," and has been successfully tested nationwide for many years.

With this provision in place to remove any objections, the rest of us can proceed to join the other nations of the developed world in enjoying the benefits of assured, reliable medical treatment throughout our lives. The emergency rooms will be empty except for, um, emergencies, hospitals will not be overburdened with treating those who can't pay, and doctors will have time to talk to us again.

Here, I'll make it easy for you. Just clip this out and mail it in:

I, the undersigned, wish to exercise my freedom of choice to opt out of the hateful government mandated socialist Obamacare plan. I promise to purchase my medications __online / __ in Canada / __ in Mexico / __ at Walmart (choose one) or to do without them. I will find my own doctor and make my own arrangements to pay, thank you very much. In the choice between death and taxes my mind is made up.

I further waive my right to coverage under any current medical plan for preexisting conditions prior to the signing of this agreement. I'm mad as hell and I'm not taking it any more.

Signature: _____________________________
Effective Date: _____________

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Day After Veterans Day

It used to be called Armistice Day, and celebrated peace ...

I wanted to post something about my dad again for Veterans Day but didn't get the chance. Now it occurs to me there's something symbolic about celebrating a bit late.

Have a look at this dashing young army officer. Dad posed in front of the League of Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland, where he got to go on leave immediately after the end of World War II. Seems the picture of youthful health doesn't he? But the photo lies. This vacation was purchased at the expense of putting his body in harm's way and having it punctured by a bullet. Not to mention the rest of the horrors he had managed to live through.

His wound was treated, and it healed. The pain went away except that it ached in certain kinds of weather. But there was scar tissue in one of his lungs that made him susceptible to chest colds. Ten years after the war he spent two weeks in the hospital with pneumonia in the middle of a Miami summer. He recovered, but would come down with bronchitis every winter like clockwork. One of the things I knew him by as a child was his cough, so familiar to me that I can still hear it.

He got in the habit of treating himself with penicillin pills that a friend who worked at the VA hospital got for him. It's possible that by doing this he created his very own drug resistant strain of pneumonia. The disease hit him again at the age of 50, and this time it failed to respond to treatment. So you could say that he died from his wound 30 years after it had been inflicted.

This national holiday was originally called Armistice Day to commemorate the end of the First World War, "the war to end all wars." It was to celebrate a peace which was supposed to be kept by the newly formed League of Nations. Sad to say, the League failed largely because the United States did not join. So there we have my father visiting its mortal remains in Geneva, the tomb of a dream of world peace, with the blood and ashes of another war fresh upon him.

In his too short life he saw other wars from the home front -- Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, and a list of other "military interventions" too small to be dignified by being named. Armistice Day has become Veterans Day, and increasingly celebrates not just the sacrifices of soldiers, but the so-called glory of their achievements. The day comes wrapped in flags as well as wreaths and flowers. Misty-eyed we are supposed to march to the drum into the future, endlessly supplying new bodies eager for the grave.

But as our new crop of wounded veterans grows, we should attend to the hurt, and keep that foremost in our minds. We know now that pretty much everyone returns wounded from war, and that the effects last a lifetime. Brain damage, suicides, addictions, and homelessness are as much a result of military service as death in battle, and often harder for families to deal with.

When will there really be a war to end them all? Probably not unless there is a war that puts an end to everything, which was always the threat in the Cold War. But there could be a peace to end all war. And if that should ever happen we will really have an Armistice to commemorate.