After the Mayhem

I’ve started blogs the past two weeks, but stopped short. First, I had a back problem that made it difficult to sit at the computer long enough.

Then, mayhem happened.

The blog I started before the mayhem was about the Kennedy Center Awards. Caroline Kenney introduced the evening with the words of her father. Who a country honors, he had said, was a reflection of your country.

I think that is true. The honorees reflected not just the diversity of our country, but the grandeur of the diversity and its creative force. Bill T. Jones, a tall lean gay African American honored for his choreography, moved gracefully in his seat to the music of Merle Haggard, honored for his Bakersfield sound, and who wrote “I’m Proud to be an Oakie from Muskogee.” Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury, and Carol Channing, defied the media-spun definition of beautiful women as they performed the music of Jerry Herman. Everyone rocked to the music of Paul McCartney, who had looked to the rock and roll of America for inspiration. Oprah Winfrey was honored for among other accomplishments, producing the works of African American women.

The range of honorees, I think is distinctively American. It is our diversity.

Then mayhem happened.

And I got depressed.

I was in my teens when Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy were assassinated, the three little girls were killed in a church bombing, civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi, fire hoses and attack dogs were let loose on American citizens peacefully assembling for their right to vote. I was getting ready for spring break in my freshman year of college when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and then finishing finals two months later when Robert Kennedy was shot and killed.

Over the last forty years I have seen the attempted assassinations of George Wallace, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. I lived in San Francisco when George Moscone and Harvey Milk were gunned down. I returned from the movie “9 to 5” to learn that John Lennon had been killed.

And then there are the mass killings at schools. How many have there been?

What surprised me the most about the Tuscon mayhem was how unsurprised I was. I have come to expect it.

And I don’t know what to do with that.

Yes, it was a deranged man who ended lives literally, and ended the lives as they knew it for countless others. There is no direct line between the mayhem and the vitriolic environment.

But words do lead to deeds.

The real demon, I think, even more than the gun metaphors, is the noxious notion, perpetuated with enthusiasm by the likes of Sarah Palin, that there are “real Americans,” and then there are the others who are trying to take America from them.

Brit Hume, with stunning ignorance, thought that the Native American blessing that opened the memorial service in Tucson was peculiar. He blessed the doors and reptiles Hume said.

I think we should not dismiss the discussion about vitriolic words that was begun after last week. I think we need to continue it.

Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Britt Hume have a first amendment right to speech. But I think we need to call their speech what it is: words from the tiny hearted.

The heartland of America is not located in the Midwest. It extends from coast to coast, from our northern to our southern borders. The promise of America isn’t the accumulation of wealth, but equality under the law, the mechanism that recognizes that dignity of the individual, rather than prejudice of a group, is the basis for law.

Sarah Kaufman wrote in the Washington Post that the work of choreographer Bill T. Jones showed us the “radiant beauty of the marginalized.”

In my January 20th post of last year, I quoted Raymond Carver:

“Remember, too, that little-used word that has just about dropped out of public and private usage: tenderness. It can’t hurt. And that other word: soul — call it spirit if you want, if it makes it any easier to claim the territory. Don’t forget that either. Pay attention to the spirit of your words, your deeds.”

If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is the tender spot we hold in our heart for the radiant beauty of the marginalized.

Through the Doors of Compassion

I’ve been on blog silence for close to three weeks now.
When I was a kid I watched a lot of naval war movies because my older brother was fascinated by them and because my dad had been in the navy during World War II. In the movies, the submarine would go on radio silence when it wanted to be undetected.
That might be why I’ve been on blog silence. I wanted to be undetected because I didn’t want to turn into a ranting blogger. So, hopefully, I’ve emerged from my lizard-brain fueled rage enough that I can start addressing the lizard-brain fueled brain activity around health care.
Once again, leaders of the Republican Party are tapping into fear, ginning it up, and using it to grab power. What they want to do with the power, other than to have it, isn’t really clear.
Ginning up fear is not community organizing. It is inciting mob behavior.
Let me say that again: ginning up fear is not community organizing. It is inciting mob behavior.
Community organizing is about empowering. Inciting mob behavior is about wielding power to suppress others.
I’ve been a hospice volunteer and the designated spokesperson for advanced directives for two people: my mother and Jeanette, an older friend I met through the Gray Panthers.
My mother ended up dying in an ICU. It’s not so much that she wanted to die, as that she was ready to. She had end-stage emphysema when her hip broke into four pieces. She decided to have her hip repaired, but then got pneumonia three days later. That’s when they took her to the ICU.
The ICU is no place to die. The purpose of it is to keep a body alive. There is no intimacy to the place. That’s not a judgment – it’s simply the way it is. When intensive care is required for the mechanics of the body – it’s the right place to be.
My mother worked hard the last three days of her life to decide whether she was ready to let go of her body. What she feared more than death, was losing her life. And the future for her was grim. She would have had to go to a skilled nursing facility to recover from the hip operation. Here health was already very fragile, so she faced the prospect of dying in the skilled nursing facility – which is a nicer name for a nursing home.
My father died in a nursing home. He had Alzheimer’s so the skilled nursing facility was where he had to be given that my parents did not have the financial means to have the twenty-four hour care a person with dementia requires.
It was a good nursing home. Staff was caring. And, my father was less isolated in there than he had been when he still lived at home with my mother. The social network falls away when dementia sets in. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just hard to maintain a circle of friends when one becomes a widow or widower before their spouse dies.
But a nursing home is a hospital. It’s for people who are too sick or frail to go home, but not acutely ill enough to require the care needed in an acute care hospital. Or, it’s for people whose minds are no longer their own. Who require the care and monitoring associated with that of a child. I asked my mother if caring for him was like caring for a child. She said no, because a child grows while my dad declined.
My dad forgot how to swallow. It’s what happens with end stage dementia. Pneumonia set in. My mother made the decision to withhold antibiotics. And so he died of pneumonia.
It was not a question of prolonging his life – but rather prolonging his death.
She opted, as my father had asked while his mind was still lucid, to not prolong his death.
My mother was adamant about not wanting her death prolonged. So when she said to me in the ICU, “I thought I was dying last night,” I asked if that’s what she wanted. She said yes.
I intervened on her behalf. It took a bit of convincing the staff that she knew what she wanted, and by then, her advanced directive had shown up in her hospital records.
We let her life come to the end she wanted.
With my friend Jeanette, it was slightly different. She had asked me to take the power of attorney on her advanced directive because she said, she trusted that I loved her, and that my decision would be based on loving her. When I asked her what she wanted, she said, “I want you to pull the plug.”
I came to understand that she kind of meant that literally—she wanted me to tell her when enough was enough.
And that’s how it ended for her. She had end stage Parkinsons. Against her will she was taken to a nursing home. The woman who had been her long time caretaker, and who had become her genuine family, was put in the awful position of being falsely accused of taking advantage of her. Jeanette, an old time lefty who fought passionately against injustice was so far gone with Parkinsons’ that she could not stand up for her.
The thought of Jeanette lingering in a nursing home along with the injustice with which her longtime caretaker was enduring was what helped me act on Jeanette’s wishes.
Pneumonia set in.
“Pneumonia used to be called the old person’s and cancer patient’s best friend,” her doctor, who knew Jeanette very well, said to me when I sought his advice about what to do.
Within a week of her entering the nursing home, Jeanette died.
Her dying honored the way she lived.
End of life is one of the most intimate of moments. It is not something you want to lose control over. Advanced directives give you the opportunity to articulate what your life means to you – and the difference between living and merely keeping your body alive.
Compassion. That’s what’s called for in those moments.
And what the Republican Party leaders are spewing has nothing to do with compassion. It is a raw attempt to grab power by playing on people’s fear to incite mob mentality. They provoke the lizard brain.
The lizard brain is incapable of compassion.
We do not want these people, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Senator Grassley, et al anywhere near the power they want to seize. They have shown their true character.
They are willing to sacrifice compassion on the altar of their egocentric need for power.
Power without compassion is dangerous.
Putting the lizard brain in control of mobs leads to genocidal horrors.

We cannot let these people prevail.