Tuesday, March 9, 2010


We are creatures of habit. We adhere to schedules, both because they comfort us and because they are necessary, but sometimes those schedules bind us. They dull our vision and let us settle into the stupor of familiarity. It takes something...different to get us to pay attention and begin thinking once again.

The stoplight was part of my routine. At an intersection less than 15 minutes from home, it is a light that I have been waiting at for the past 14 years. Familiar territory, a space where my primary thought is safely navigating the snarl of traffic on its way to the K-12 school down the road. I don't pay much attention - it's a similar scene day in and day out.

This morning I sat there, nursing my travel mug of coffee and waiting for the light to change, sparing an occasional habitual glance to ensure the hood behind me didn't come too close to my bumper. And then I heard the sound of music from another vehicle nearby. Really, at an intersection less than a block from a high school, that's not unusual. I'm quite accustomed to being jarred by the vibrating bass of someone's car system blasting out rap. But this shared musical selection stopped me in the middle of a sip of coffee. Someone, in the immediate area, was blasting opera loud enough that I could actually make out the words. In Italian.

Jarred out of ritual, I began, circumspectly of course, craning my head in an attempt to find out who on earth was blasting...opera. It took only a moment to determine it was a blandly beige Toyota behind me to the right. The windows were tinted, preventing me from glimpsing more of the driver than a lightly conducting hand in the window.

The light turned, and I watched with considerable amusement as, to the applause following the aria (still audible in my car), the Toyota peeled out of its spot, speeding past two cars and pulling in a few spaces ahead of me, cutting off a high-school driver. I followed more slowly, eventually finding myself behind the car again, drifting along in the wake of a rousing choral number until the driver again sped ahead, this time on his way to tailgate a school bus.

Sometimes I forget, in the ritual of habit, what amazing creatures we humans are, how quirky and how diverse, not merely in skin tone or culture or physical characteristic, but in who we are and how we choose to express ourselves. I wish all the best to the Operatic Kamikaze, and I thank him for starting my day, instead of with ritual, with a smile.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Death of Responsibility

It’s bubbling up again. The questions of health care and the debate over its reform is once again finding its way onto the air waves and into the “top headlines” on my Google homepage. The debate has thundered on for months, each side seemingly believing that volume rather than substance will win support. Yet in all of the voices I’ve heard promising plenty and predicting pogroms, only one has made perfect sense to me.

The person interviewed was, surprisingly enough, a doctor. Questioned about the practicality of the lumbering behemoth of a bill that was, at the time, working its way through the legislature, he gave his interviewer a single, simple answer: nothing will fix the problem as long as demand is so outrageously high. He went on to explain that, in his opinion, much of the difficulty with healthcare, and the reason that American healthcare is proportionately outrageously priced and overloaded is that Americans expect healthcare to take care of every problem they or their family might have, and doctors want to make money, so they meet demand with supply. He also pointed out that doctors feel the need to meet demand because they fear legal repercussions from failing to test everything and provide the medication results promised in a pithy television advertisement.

I remember the doctor’s words because he reached beyond political partisanship to point out a deeper, simpler truth. Part of the problem with healthcare is cultural, not financial. We can legislate the hell out of our system, but until we can change cultural attitudes, costs are not going to drop.

The cultural attitude that costs us so much in medical bills is one that frightens me. It is an attitude of entitlement; a slide of responsibility out of individual hands and into the hands of some, not quite defined beneficent power that has, despite its human origin, risen above human concerns to absolute altruism.

Practically, such an idea sounds ridiculous. Ask just about anyone, regardless of political leanings, whether they trust the government, and you’ll get a hoarse laugh and an incredulous look. Trust the government? Of course not. Yet many of those same people are more than willing to allow the government to assume responsibility for their safety, their medical care, and their job security. That rising gap between practical understanding and government responsibility is chillingly visible to me. Every semester my students tell me that the constitution guarantees them the right to happiness; they justify everything from gay marriage to carrying a gun under that promise. You can chalk that up to the failure of our education system; you can laugh at student ignorance, but in the end, I believe that the mistake is the highest form of Freudian slip. It represents an increasingly prevalent attitude in American society; we have the right to be happy, and someone needs to make it so. Whether that happiness is the result of financial disbursements of money, the guarantee of safety for a small price of privacy, or pills to make us happy and well behaved, more and more people believe that happiness is a right, not a responsibility.

In those three small words, “the pursuit of,” the founding fathers definitively put happiness in the hands of individuals. They guaranteed us the right to chase our dreams, to pursue happiness with all of our substance, but they did not guarantee we would get it. Obtaining happiness is, in the end, up to us. It is our individual responsibility and choice – and in the grander scheme of things, history teaches us that it is often the pursuit, not the obtaining, that makes men great.

Yet that greatness is increasingly lost. Many authors have speculated on the impact of antidepressants on creativity and suggested that many of the great artists in history, had they lived today, would have been medicated out of their misery and, along with it, their creativity. More and more often, our culture focuses on a top heavy structure of responsibility that promises the right to happiness guaranteed by a well organized social system that increasingly combines with science to take the place of religion. Individual greatness and heroism is good, for what it is, but such greatness (particularly when based on actual actions rather than media creation) is damaging, for it makes others more responsible and less happy, wishing for something they may not have. Take, for example, the attempted bombing at Christmas this past year. The bombing was foiled by individuals on the plane, individuals who took responsibility for their lives and that of their fellow passengers. Those women and men acted heroically. Yet I do not know the name of a single one of those people. Instead, modern culture immediately sought a hierarchical response. Rather than focusing on the heroism of the individuals who stopped the bomber, cultural media immediately began contemplating what part of the machinery of airport security had failed and how the government could step in to guarantee safety. It was not enough to honor the idea that individual responsibility saved lives. It was the job of some great benevolent machine to prevent the need for individual heroics because, of course, individuals cannot always be counted upon to be heroic.

On the radio several weeks ago, I heard a commentator discussing an article which examined the overall negativity of American culture. “I don’t see a difference,” he declared, “being critical of the country and its leadership is a healthy part of our culture. We’ve always done that.” Indeed, we have, but as I told my uncaring radio, the sense of helplessness, of loss of ownership, has never been so intense. As we lose individual responsibility as a cultural value, we also lose our sense of cultural empowerment. The idea that the government actually represents the people in any meaningful way is fading, replaced by a sense that there is an inevitable power structure, having very little immediate connection with the people, whose purpose is to enable the individual right to happiness. There is a rising sense of fate, a notion that the leviathan of government is far too massive for individuals to influence, and that notion of accepting the inevitable seems to be rapidly tumbling into nationwide depression and the evolution of a culture of systemic, rather than individual, responsibility.

Ironically, that loss of responsibility finds expression in practical terms as well. We find ourselves in the grip of structural responsibility, in a place not unlike that created by Soviet authority. In his book The Unquiet Ghost, Adam Hochschild tours a Russia emerging from the shadow of Stalin, and he notes the general state of collapse of the cities and even the public areas of the apartment buildings. He writes that in stark contrast to the squalid public areas, Russian homes are immaculate; those spaces are theirs. It is their “feeling about public property that was the problem. Until this changes, real democracy in Russia, a democracy that does not just go through the motions of holding elections but is built on people’s confidence that they themselves control the state, and not somebody else, is far off” (187). Sadly enough, the same could be said of modern America. We have lost the confidence that the people control the state. Instead, we feel impotent, coddled in the promise of happiness provided by the state, yet frustrated by the endless ineptitude of a bureaucratic dragon we feel we cannot slay. We are not emerging from the shadow of some tangible regime; we are sliding into the shade of cultural irresponsibility, seeking happiness that we view as a right, yet have no desire to pursue and make our own.

So when the radio begins to tell me about the impact of healthcare reform, I switch to the 80s station. It is not that I don’t care – quite the opposite. It is simply that I do not believe that healthcare, or much of anything else, can be meaningfully reformed until someone has the courage to face up to the cultural illiteracy that lies beneath the partisan dog and pony show. Until Americans realize that they are responsible for their own health and that their time is better spent in pursuit of happiness than pursuit of populism, legislation isn’t going to change a thing. People will continue to demand pills to solve everything and social safeguards to protect them from failure – and from spectacular success. As long as we live in fear of the effort and risk it takes to pursue happiness, we’re never going to catch it, and we’re never going to be mentally or emotionally healthy from the effort of the pursuit – no matter what they legislate.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


It juts up out of the earth, silent, stark. No one heeds it; it is part of a forgotten landscape, a footnote in a cow pasture along a side road. A palm tree grows along its base, crowding against the thick swell of its emergence from the sandy soil. Cows graze around it, oblivious to “might have been” in their essential animal concern with sustenance. Yet it remains.

It stretches out of the ground, gnarled swells like arthritic joints, curving upward at an unlikely angle, its tip shattered, stretching toward the pale blue of the Florida sky. In this primal place, it feels as though the past is not so far gone. Its magic still clings to the saw edged leaves of the plants and the thick morning mist. The spirit of the land still moves here, barely lulled to sleep by the encroaching anesthetic of car exhaust and chemlawn, and sometimes one is reminded of the magic below the surface, the magic that the modern world reminds us not to see.

I call it the giant’s finger, the broken twist of tree bone, jutting harshly out of the open pasture behind barbed wire and road shoulder. It curves upward, forever caught in some final rigor, reaching for the sky. I know that its owner is long dead, claimed by the triumph of rationality, the glory of Lilliputian man over the primal giants of the land. Yet there remains a chilling vitality to it, a stretching of the gnarled, arthritic finger joints, an appeal to the pale sky above and the live oak behind. There is memory there, in the last remnant of the fallen titan, silhouetted against the sky. There is determination, still stretching from the ground, reaching for the stars it could once almost touch. I look at it in awe, remembering that there are things beyond our ken, things greater than mere human logic.

The field was empty on the frosted morning when I crept out of my car, braving the strange looks of the drivers whizzing along the narrow strip of pavement in the middle of nowhere. The iced weeds along the road fringe crunched under my boots, and I shivered. Leaning low, I pushed the button on my camera, the click of the shutter loud in the still, cold air of the morning. Practically, there was no reason to stop, no reason to shiver in the cold air, but I needed to take the picture, to remember the honored dead. And I needed to remember that for the giant, even in defeat and death…it was still important to reach for the sky.