EYE SURGERY — Improved Vision and Attitude Adjustment

by Kevin

I was amazed to feel as good as I did 24 hours after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery. Minutes after taking this photo I removed the bandage. At first my vision was blurry, but three days after surgery I could see better than I did the day before surgery, and my eyesight will improve in coming weeks and months.

I was amazed to feel as good as I did 24 hours after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery. Minutes after taking this photo I removed the bandage. At first my vision was blurry, but three days after surgery I could see better than I did the day before surgery, and my eyesight will improve in coming weeks and months.

Life is a school and daily events are lessons in how to live better. Some weeks serve up whole courses, employing some rather unique instructional approaches. Then there are those days when you get sent to the principal’s office. That was the case with my eye surgery last Friday. On Tuesday I visited retina specialist Dr. Roy Brod in Lancaster, PA, to evaluate the status of my macular pucker — extra epiretinal membrane tissue growing over my right retina and progressively obscuring the vision in that eye. He had told me three years ago that we would need to wait for the right time to do surgery — when the unwanted tissue was massive enough to remove, but before it was too well established.
 
Seven Tactics for Successful Surgery, Improved Vision, and Attitude Adjustment:
 
1. Motivation: Last Tuesday Dr. Brod finally said, “It’s time.” He had a cancellation in his Friday surgery schedule. We’d have to hustle through some preliminary lab tests and forms, but I could have the slot if I wanted it. I said “yes,” and three years of hypothetical dread of eye surgery became suddenly sharp and clear.
 
I said “yes,” because my vision was getting so bad that It was affecting my ability to work, make art, drive, negotiate stairs, and engage in daily activities. I may be 65, but I don’t feel finished yet. I’m not done working or making art or doing all sorts of normal activities. I cherish my vision as much as everyone else does, and that is sufficient motivation to sign up for surgery. But now I had to figure out how to survive the actual dreaded cut and peel procedure, especially since I would be awake for it. How was I going to hold still and be a good patient? Hell! How was I going to avoid bolting and running screaming out of the operating room?
 
Nobody can abide the thought of sharp objects near or in their eyes, and I am no exception. It seems to be a primal fear, like falling or being eaten by wild animals. I suppose humans have been accidentally poked in the eye by sharp sticks throughout our history, and that collective memory grosses us out — every one of us.
 
We have even turned this ancient fear into a childhood chant. When we want someone to make an excellent promise we require them to repeat: “Cross my heart and hope to die! Stick a needle in my eye!” The threat of a sharp object in the eye is sufficient to enforce any difficult commitment. But I had signed on for the dreaded poke deliberately and voluntarily, and I knew I was going to need more than just the motivation of better vision to get me through it.
 
2. Trust and Confidence: It was clear to me from the start, that you have to trust the guy with the sharp stick or there’s no hope. The “eye principal,” Dr. Roy Brod, is the best of the best in his field. Everyone says so. Along with a few bona fide saints, he is one of the most respected individuals I have ever encountered in any field. And he’s an incredibly nice guy. He’s just so amazingly kind to everyone. You can’t help wishing he lived next door. He’s a prince of a man who inspires confidence and trust with every look and word. And his touch is almost magical. When he gently places a hand on your shoulder or brow, you feel instantly comforted and strangely at peace. This quality is essential in someone you are going to trust with sharp objects close to and in your eyes, believe me.
 
3. Great Drugs: Nevertheless, I strongly recommend that you make damn sure there is a wonderful anesthesiologist with miraculous drugs at hand, whenever you go into surgery. They hooked me up to an IV and pumped God knows what into me throughout the procedure — a sedative? — a mood elevator? I don’t know… but whatever it was it worked. AND they totally knocked me out for the two minutes it took them to administer shots directly into my eye, so I was not awake for that choice moment, thank goodness! The rest of the time I felt so calm that I had NO trouble holding still, and I was basically just fascinated by the whole process, including the visuals, like a good movie playing right inside my retina.

I’m so grateful for those great drugs, because I was awake and could see the entire procedure. I was watching the needle-fine instrument when its tiny jaws opened and grabbed the largest piece of my extra epiretinal membrane tissue to peel and pull it away and out of my eye. I was quite calm and intrigued, and my only thought was, “There goes my problem!” When Dr. Brod administered iodine drops I was mesmerized by the beautiful swirling magenta patterns in my field of vision. And when it was all over I realized that it had been a walk in the park.

4. Support of Friends: Oh sure… It’s a picnic when it’s all over, but what about the suspense beforehand? How do you deal with the adrenalin surges every time you realize, “Oh my God! I’m having eye surgery in two days!” How do you cope with the terror associated with eye torture when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep? I decided to tell people about my surgery, not because I needed the world to know, but because I wanted as much moral support from the positive thoughts, prayers and hopes of friends and loved ones as I could get. And it worked! I could really feel it powerfully. It helped so clearly that the day before my surgery, even without any drugs, I was already flying. My profound thanks to everyone who said a prayer or sent me a positive thought.

5. Attitude Positioning: The day before surgery I decided that this procedure was a cosmetic luxury afforded only to the rich (people with some means, Medicare and supplemental insurance like me) who happen to be living in modern times. As such, it seemed to me that it was like going to the spa for a professional massage, shampoo, haircut and facial. I adopted that attitude. I was there to be pampered, and I remained in that frame of mind throughout. When Dr. Brod entered the operating room I was blindfolded, but I raised my hand and said, “Thank you for coming to my party!” He laughed and said, “Yes! Let’s have a great party!” I really like Dr. Brod so much. He is so generous with everyone. That helped with my “spa pampering” attitude positioning. Dr. Brod was my personal masseur and spa master who was there to spoil me and make me feel special and wonderful.

6. Surrender: From that attitudinal perspective it was easy to lie back and relax. Living in the woods, I have noticed that when the animals are dying or in dire situations, they surrender and become still and quiet. They let go. I thought often in the few days prior to my surgery about specific animals I have witnessed in these kinds of situations and how deeply instructive their behavior was. I decided to imagine that my circumstances were much more dire than eye surgery — What if I were scheduled to be unfairly executed in the morning? What attitude would I want to adopt in that case? I thought of other dire cirumstances. When I returned to the reality of eye surgery, it did not seem so difficult or frightening after all.

This is my 4 x 7 ft oil on canvas, "Poseidon's Prophecy," in progress. I'm looking forward to getting back to work on it with improved vision.

This is my 4 x 7 ft oil on canvas, “Poseidon’s Prophecy,” in progress. I’m looking forward to getting back to work on it with improved vision.

7. Divine Intervention: But I still had one ace up my sleeve, and the day of the surgery was the time to play it. Much of the time before, during and after the procedure, I managed to chant to the Divine Beloved, and to think of five very saintly individuals I have been so fortunate to meet or know in my lifetime. I called upon them to stand with me. This was very calming, reassuring and helpful. I was especially aware of one of them holding my right hand where the IV was inserted. Whenever I was tempted to feel afraid or stressed, I focused on The Infinite Beloved in the forms of these five saints, and  was at peace instantly. The stress left my body and I became pyscially relaxed and still.

My brother, Dr. Chris Miller, picked me up after the surgery. Dr. Brod called him to say that the procedure had gone extremely well and that I had been a perfect patient — didn’t move a muscle. Chris was very kind to me and allowed me to rest quietly in his beautiful garden or sleep in his recliner. He made us a fantastic lunch — grilled vegetable and fried egg sandwhiches on whole grain toast. Yum!

Then Chris took me back as Dr. Brod had requested for a post-op evaluation six hours after the surgery. The doctor was so excited when he analyzed the results of his own work that he was almost jumping up and down. He said, “Just for the fun of it, let’s take some more images. I won’t charge you for them. It would just be so interesting to compare the images immediately before and after surgery.” He was so pleased with the pictures that he said he might write a paper about my case.

I described my visual experience of the procedure and he was fascinated and delighted. When it was time for me to leave, Dr. Brod admonished me not to do any strenuous activity or lift anything heavier than 25 lbs, and to leave the bandage on overnight, before starting to administer drops four times daily. I asked if I could pick berries, because it is high berry season in the woods. He said “yes.”

We have a bumper crop of berries on our 12 acres this year, and I was relieved when Dr. Brod agreed to allow me to pick them. I wore big sun glasses to protect my eye from thorny berry branches and glaring sun, as I picked a half-gallon of ripe berries two days after eye surgery.

We have a bumper crop of berries on our 12 acres this year, and I was relieved when Dr. Brod agreed to allow me to pick them. I wore big sun glasses to protect my eye from thorny berry branches and glaring sun, as I picked a half-gallon of ripe berries two days after eye surgery.

I have not had one minute of discomfort through this entire experience. The doctor wrote me a prescription for a heavy duty pain killer and said that I would very likely have to use it to get through the pain that would eventually come. But there has been no pain whatsoever. Well… okay… I did have a few moments of rather exquisite pain yesterday when I was picking berries two days after the surgery. I unknowingly stepped on the home of a colony of ground-dwelling bees. They swarmed and five of them stung me on my right arm within five seconds. Now THAT hurt! It hurt infinitely more than anything I experienced during eye surgery.

The bee strings made me realize that sometimes the pain we think we feel is imaginary. We feel it whether it really is painful or not, just because we perceive the circumstances to be hurtful — like a needle in the eye — because of how awful it looks or seems. When I analyzed the actual pain of the bee strings, as opposed to the perceived pain, that wasn’t as bad as I had thought either. In fact it was entirely gone within minutes, and a few hours later there was no sign of the very understandable assault by the poor bees against whom I had trespassed.

Today, just three days after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery, I can already see much better than I did the day before the procedure. And Dr. Brod has assured me that my vision will continue to improve for several weeks and months. I am excited to discover how much of my original visual acuity might return and to experience what that will mean when I am working, making art, driving and just living daily life. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity, and aware that not so many decades ago it would not have been possible. I would have gone nearly blind in my right eye and coped as best I could with one remaining eye.

A close-up view of this summer's berries.

A close-up view of this summer’s berries.

Life is a school, and I learned some important lessons in this Course on Vision: I learned that it isn’t just Dr. Brod’s incredibly steady hands that make his practice so successful, but also his obvious joy and pleasure in his chosen vocation. That intrinsic love of his work inspires confidence in his patients and insures positive outcomes. I also learned that there are at least seven tactics that patients can adopt to help doctors perform successful surgeries, but more importantly, those same tactics can be applied for a more rewarding life in general. Well… okay… when it comes to #3, “Great Drugs,” at least in my case, this is primarily about my ongoing efforts to moderate my morning tea and evening cocktail intake… and come to think of it, that really is quite important. So all seven of these principles apply to life in general, for me anyway.

Another week… another course in the School of Life… another step closer to clear vision. By the way, in case you were wondering, attendance is compulsory in the lessons and courses offered by the School of Life, until graduation, when we shall see all things clearly. Until then our job is to be attentive students. Don’t be afraid to challenge the authorities and ask really hard questions. When the opportunity presents itself, be generous and offer to help others with their studies, especially if they are struggling or fear they may even be failing. Finally, the wise student will pause regularly to express private inner gratitude for the invaluable and rare opportunity to learn and progress in this School of Life.

 

HOW MANY IS TOO MANY, OR HOW OLD WILL YOU BE IN 36 YEARS?

By Paul

Climate change is in the news once again. And well it should be. The Huffington Post has reported that May, 2014 was the hottest May in recorded history, almost a degree and a half warmer than any previous reading for that month.

The good news, and there is a little, is that the Obama Administration has begun to take action. The President himself gave a speech over a year ago in which he laid out his own action plan. This was in part because efforts to get Congress to move in any positive way to make changes that would benefit the earth have come to naught. Many members of Congress, Republicans chief among them, deny either that the globe is warming at all, or that, if it is, the reasons for its warming have anything to do with human activity. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), for example, is on record as saying that “man-made global warming is a hoax.” Broun is also the same individual who said: ‘All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.” And Rep. Broun, it should be noted, currently serves on the House Science Committee!

Small wonder, then, that the Administration has taken matters into its own hands in making attempts to mitigate climate change. Just this week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and others from the White House are meeting with Tom Steyer and Hank Paulson, co-authors of a new report entitled “Risky Business,” which addresses the economic costs of climate change. Steyer is a billionaire activist and Paulson was Secretary of the Treasury under Pres. George W. Bush. Steyer has also pledged to spend 100 million dollars of his own money supporting politicians who take on issues related to the warming of the globe through his political action group NextGen Climate Action. Additionally, Secretary Lew, along with Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate are holding talks with insurance company representatives regarding the anticipated impact and cost of atmospheric warming. The Environmental Protection Agency has also issued new guidelines related to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere permitted from power plants, and the Supreme Court has recently determined most of these rules to be constitutional.

But while this may be the good news, unfortunately, plenty of bad news continues on unabated. I have recently been reading an interesting book called “Countdown” by Alan Weisman (also author of “The World Without Us,” which imagines the world, and its resurgence, after human beings become extinct). Weisman has a lot to say about where we are and where we are headed in regard to the effects of out-of-control population growth on climate change. What follows references just a small part of that report.

One essential question to investigate is: what is the optimum human population of the earth? This sounds simple enough, and to an extent it is, but it requires examining several other considerations before coming up with an actual number. The first of these prior questions has to do with the kind of lifestyle we are talking about for these earth inhabitants. And how, in fact, do we even measure something like lifestyle? One way that scientists have devised is by determining how many “terawatts” we use. A terawatt is a measure of how much energy is consumed by human beings (one terawatt equals one trillion watts). In 1993, a total of 13 terawatts of energy (13 trillion watts) were used by the earth’s 5 and a half billion people. In order to put this further into perspective, on average 7 and a half kilowatts of energy per person were used that same year by individuals in industrialized countries, and 1 kilowatt was used by each person in developing countries (all figures cited reflect standard forms of energy production, such as oil, natural gas, etc.). If these numbers are extrapolated and we assume continued current population growth, sometime this century (projected at the moment to be around 2082) there will be 14 billion people on the earth. Just for fun, go to www.census.gov. and take a look at something called the World Population Clock. You will note that right now we are at 7,174,896,000 people, and counting. It’s amazing, not to say daunting and even frightening, to see the numbers fly by on this clock, as you sit and watch.

But let us take a smaller number, say 10 billion people, and let us posit as an average 3 kilowatts per capita of energy usage. This still puts us at 30 terawatts (again, 30 trillion watts). At this level, and possibly even before, world systems begin to teeter. Indeed, some scientists predict a complete breakdown of the ecosystem. When will we reach that 10 billion number? No one knows precisely, as there are so many variables to calculate, but estimates put us somewhere between 9 and 9.7 billion people on the planet by the year 2050. That’s just 36 years from now. How old will you, or your children, be in 36 years? This is a question each of us should be asking ourselves, and we ought to be wondering what kind of world we will be living in at that date. And remember, these figures are relatively conservative, in that they posit a decrease of energy usage by some 4 and a half kilowatts per person for those in industrialized countries. This number is, however, actually achievable, if we continue, as we have, to work on ecologically friendly alternatives to energy production.

But we still have not answered our initial question, namely, what is the optimum world population? Again, we must make certain assumptions, the most important of which relates to the kind of lifestyle we wish to live. The 3 kilowatt per person figure mentioned above is not a bad one for such purposes, in that it is probably achievable, and it evens out energy usage between the industrialized world and the developing world. And surely we must assume that billions of people in the developing world (e.g. China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, just to name a few) are going to want, even to demand, more and more of what people in industrialized countries have for decades been enjoying.

For us to use 3 kilowatts of energy per person in order not to irreparably damage the ecological systems of the planet, that is, for us to expect a sustainable future for ourselves and our children, the optimum world population has to be about 2 billion people. This was approximately the number of people on earth in the year 1930.

In that year, the world used 2 terawatts of energy. But, we should bear in mind, it was also a world without all of the gadgets modern people have come to expect as part and parcel of a modern lifestyle: televisions, computers, cars and air travel for the masses, smart phones, tablets, central heating, air conditioning, and on and on. All of which are enormous energy consumers.  Calculating all this together, we reach an even smaller sustainable number of individuals on the earth. In other words, if we wish to continue using our cars and our computers and all of the rest listed above, the number of kilowatts needed gets raised to 4 and a half per person. And at 4 and a half kilowatts per person, the sustainable population of the earth drops to 1 and a half billion people!

How we are to bring the earth back to such numbers, particularly with the Rep. Paul Brouns of the world in charge, is another question. But clearly something has to be done. China started that process decades ago, and has made great progress with its one child per family policy, but is the rest of the world willing to put up with this kind of social engineering?   And religions abound which label it as sinful to “artificially limit” the size of one’s family.

Yet another question we have not explored is, if we presume that we will not reach this sustainable world population of 1 and a half billion people, or at least not any time soon, and if we continue on more or less as we are, what will human dominance of the planet look like in terms of space for other species? And here’s a self-centered question, if ever there was one, although it’s equally germane to human survival: if we have to say that some species on the planet “must go,” which ones go, and which ones do we allow to live, precisely because they are beneficial to human life? These are not just hypothetical questions at this point in history. They are real queries that will need to be answered, and answered before too long.

It is also true that the figures given by Alan Weisman are not necessarily the only numbers that scientists can spin. Even so, it does not take an advanced degree in demography to be able to see that more people means more demands on a limited number of resources. At some point, whether it’s in 2050 or 2082, or a bit sooner, or a bit later, some kind of tipping point will be reached. Maybe you will not be living at that time. I think I can say pretty surely that I will not be. But what of your children, and their children, and what of the other creatures on the planet, who have done nothing to contribute to the current mess we are in?

What can be said probably without much doubt is that, absent an almost inconceivably disastrous population reduction due to war or plague, a day of reckoning will finally come. And would it not be better to take steps now, while we still can, to stave off what none of us wants to see our offspring have to deal with?

FRICKING AND FRACKING AROUND WITH THE PLANET

By Paul

The word “fracking” has come to be used as a kind of shorthand abbreviation for the more technical term “hydraulic fracturing,” but I’m really not sure which of the two sounds more ominous and pejorative to me. The technical expression brings images to mind of cracking and breaking things apart, which, in fact, is exactly what happens. It is a process whereby millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are injected under high pressure into the ground in order to break apart, or “fracture,” the rock below. The fissures so created are then held in place by the sand, and the released oil or gas is pumped to the surface. In one sense, even to the layman, this sounds simple enough, and that’s the message that large oil and gas companies most definitely want to project: simple and safe.

“Fracking,” on the other hand, has become the term more favored by environmentalists and others opposed to the process. Personally, I can’t help thinking of Frick and Frack every time I hear it. And while that may sound as if I’m minimizing or trivializing the concerns of those who question this highly invasive and toxic procedure, I don’t mean to. Most people don’t even know anymore who Frick and Frack were, it seems. They were actually two real people, believe it or not, two Swiss gentlemen to be precise, who came to this country in the mid-1930’s, and who then became a famous comedic act performing in the Ice Follies. They skated and horsed around and made a lot of folks laugh, which no doubt was a good thing in the throes of the Great Depression. They soon became so well known that the term “Frick and Frack” entered into the language in a couple of ways. One was as a general reference to two guys who were constantly hanging out together and who came to be seen as almost indistinguishable. The other meaning took off from the first, but added another layer, that is, two guys frequently seen together, acting like “bozos” or clowns.   In the new 21st century context, I like to think of “Frick and Frack” as the modern take on Big Oil/Gas Companies and – sorry to say – government.

I say this because Big Oil or Gas can’t really go fracking around without government permission. And it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anybody that Big Money, which Big Oil and Gas most definitely have lots of, often goes to grease the wheels of government. I’m not talking about outright bribes, although I can’t say I would be totally “shocked-shocked” to hear of that too, but more so about the lobbying efforts that bring favorable bills to the fore in Congress and in state assemblies, to say nothing of the big bucks that go to getting “the right” representatives elected to these bodies in the first place.

Still, I suppose we really ought to try to be fair about things. Companies that do hydraulic fracturing claim that there are safeguards aplenty in place to protect the environment. I know that this may smack of the old “trust me” plea, akin almost to “the check is in the mail” scam, except that this time the checks are at least ostensibly in place beforehand. But shouldn’t we at least listen to what they have to say? Here is what one company, in fact, states: “Casing and cementing are critical parts of the well construction that not only protect any water zones, but are also important to successful oil or natural gas production from hydrocarbon bearing zones. Industry well design practices protect sources of drinking water from the other geologic zones of an oil and natural gas well with multiple layers of impervious rock.” Later on, referencing the chemical component of the injected slurry, they comment that “(t)he composition of the chemical mixes varies from well to well.”

The latter makes it sound as though this chemical mixture is a minor afterthought, and one that benignly varies in a simple sort of way merely to accommodate local requirements. In actual fact, companies almost never tell us exactly what these chemical additives are, although other sources report that they are often highly toxic and can cause cancer. Much of the language above reflects and reminds us of that used by other companies with a “trust-us-not-to-harm-you-or-the-environment” approach. Didn’t Exxon say similar soothing things to the people of Prince William Sound, for example, just before the huge oil spill (which was never supposed to happen) in 1989, and which still today, 25 years latter, continues to negatively impact the lives of humans and animals alike? And what of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of April, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico? We were similarly assured by British Petroleum, Haliburton, and others to “trust us” about this well, that all safeguards were in place and that technology had so advanced that anyone would have to be nothing more than a foolish fear-monger to worry. Technology is always touted by way of allaying the fears of those who fret, and we are always assured that modern science and engineering has taken care of “all those old problems.” So, stop worrying!

Well, I say, worry on. Just this week, geologists in Ohio have found “a probable connection” between fracking and several earthquakes in the region. The state shut down Hilcorp Energy Company’s fracking operation there because of five earthquakes near the Pennsylvania border, including one that registered 3.0 on the Richter scale. According to an article in the April 14, 2014 edition of the Los Angeles Times, scientists have found “a significant relationship between the initial blast of fluid and the earthquakes shortly afterwards.”

And in one sense, earthquakes ought to be the least of our concerns. There have been multiple accounts of a connection between fracking and contaminated ground water (apparently in spite of the “casing and cementing”), as well as greatly increased air and noise pollution, to say nothing of the enormous amounts of fresh water that are needed for the process. Between 1.2 and 3.5 million gallons are needed for the fracturing and completion of a well, and for larger wells, as many as 5 million gallons of water are required. As one expert has noted, “Shell gas wells completed in 2011 across the United States consumed on the order of 135 billion gallons of water.” And what to do with the contaminated water afterwards with, you remember, those toxic chemicals in it? Pump it back in the earth, we are told, but there have been many examples of this noxious mishmash leaking out into surrounding lakes, streams, and even reservoirs.

All this, and we haven’t even spoken about the specious underlying rationale of extracting yet more and more oil and gas out of the earth, with both the process itself and the results of it flushing more and more dangerous hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, thereby causing yet greater pollution, and ultimately warmer and warmer temperatures around the globe.

President Obama says we need “all of the above” in order to meet our energy needs for the 21st century, meaning that we’ve got to go on relying on “old technologies” that continue to pollute, while we are exploring and creating newer ones that do not. Even if there may be some truth to this, we have to think about drawing the line somewhere. And maybe fracking is where the buck ought to stop. Our two old Swiss friends made a lot of people laugh with their antics, and God knows we still need humor. But fricking and fracking around with the earth and the environment isn’t really a laughing matter. Let’s make a decision to stop this nonsense, and put our efforts where they can really do some good. We can no longer afford to clown around with whatever bozos care more about the bottom line than they do about the planet.

THE BEAUTY OF AMBIGUITY

By Paul

I’m currently reading a book (Brian Greene’s “The Hidden Reality”) that in part discusses whether or not the universe is finite or infinite.  For theoretical physicists, much depends on the answer to this question.  For example, if it is infinite, then what follows is a whole host of possible other parallel universes that logically must also exist.  Still, let us admit right off the bat that for most of us it doesn’t really make all that much difference.  This is especially so when we consider even the observable universe as we know it, that is, the billions of galaxies that swirl and speed away from us in all directions (the universe is expanding, we do know that much for sure).  Even if this universe is finite, distances are so unimaginably immense that it would be hard for most of us to tell the difference.  Personally, my money, for the little that’s worth, is on the infinite side, but again most of the time this doesn’t seem to change much in our every day lives.

Because the universe appears to the majority of us (non-scientists) as incalculably big anyway, we might even be able to say that it is both finite and infinite at the same time.  I know this seems like a contradiction in terms, but think of it this way: even if it were theoretically possible to measure space, which of course we cannot do, human beings would still never be able to fully explore even the visible part of the universe and “see the end of it.”  So, we may as well think of it as infinite.  I like this idea of holding two diametrically opposing ideas in mind at once and feeling comfortable with them both.  It’s so much the opposite of the black or white, up or down, good or bad kind of thinking that usually characterizes human interaction.

This same ability to tolerate uncertainty, the Beauty of Ambiguity, I call it, applies to the religious vs. non-religious debate.  Is there a God?  Why not let the answer be both yes and no?  Yes, there is a God, if we are at a point in our lives where our thinking demands that we worship a being such as Christ, who is, as the Catholic Church decreed centuries ago, both human and divine.  The Church, in fact, dealt harshly with the Nestorian heresy back in the 5th century, when it declared that Christ was simultaneously both human and divine (the so-called hypostatic union), while Nestorius had preached that Christ was born human, and then took on the divine nature later on.  As much as this may seem like a pedestrian distinction today, it was a very big deal back in the 5th century, and there were those who were willing to die for it.  So, we see immediately how uncomfortable people get with holding two opposing viewpoints in mind at once.  The other side of the bigger question is why not equally posit no God at all, or at least one not limited by the normal categories we typically assign to him, and say that he (it?) is far, far beyond ordinary human understanding?  In that sense, then, he does not exist, not according to the rules of our normal perceptual and cognitive abilities anyway.

My own view is that we are all Gods, even if we have no idea we are.  Most of the time, we think of ourselves as very human, which includes all of the things that go to make for human greatness (love, compassion, self-sacrifice, the ability to give to others etc.), but including at the same time all of the profound flaws of humanity, as well.  If there is a God, even one beyond ordinary human understanding, would his essence not be imbued in every galaxy, every star, every molecule, every atom, every photon, and every quark of his creation, a kind of materialization of his Divine Essence?  From this point of view, then, we are either all Gods (or “parts of God,” if we can use that terminology), or we are mere accidental stardust left over from a Big Bang that itself had no beginning and no cause.

Which brings me back to Brian Greene’s book on the nature of the universe.  How anyone can look up at the night sky and see the seemingly endless stars (even if they may not actually be endless), and not feel a sense of utter awe and wonder is beyond me.  And yet, that is just the beginning.  Humans have always longed to understand more and more of what this all means, and we have made great progress just in the last 300 years, or so.  During this short period of time, we have gone from thinking that the earth was flat and the center of the universe to understanding that it is a minor planet circling a very ordinary star, stuck on one of the farther-out spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy.  And what is more,the Milky Way is but one of millions and billions of other galaxies, each with billions of stars and multiple billions of planets.

Beyond even this, we now understand that this visible universe of ours actually had a beginning, a birth as it were, some 13.7 billion years ago.  All of the material that we know today as making up matter was created at this juncture, and is still floating around the cosmos.  As things cooled after the stupendous heat of the first blast of the Big Bang, things quickly began to slow down.  It was this cooling process that allowed for the stars and planets to form.   Even light itself was effected; it cooled, but could of course not slow down.  Light, by definition, always travels at the same speed, never faster and never slower.  That well-known figure is 186,000 miles per second, or 700 million miles an hour.  Instead of slowing down, when the photons of light cooled, their vibrational frequencies slowed, causing a shift first of all in color (from violet to blue and ultimately to red), and then into the infrared category, and finally into the microwave range.  We see this in what is called the “cosmic microwave radiation background,” the actual remnants of the Big Bang that can be measured and perceived today.

The ambiguity in all this is that we can understand any of it at all.  Stephen Hawking famously referred to humanity as a bunch of very clever monkeys.  We smart simians are, in fact, doing some extraordinary things.  For one, we have the ability to look up and wonder, to think and hypothesize, and to test hypotheses.  We have made art, educated ourselves, created technologies that serve us in every conceivable way, and have extended our lifespan enormously from what it was only a hundred years ago.  We even dare to try to create life itself, a thing we once attributed only to God.  But note what our same Stephen Hawking has said in this regard: “I think computer viruses should count as life.  I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive.  We’ve created life in our own image.”  That image obviously is one that can be extraordinarily ruinous and devastating.  In other words, whether or not we will be able to think our way out of what might be called our lower selves, that is, the selfish, ignorant, greedy, self-centered side of who we are, the side that cannot see beyond our collective noses, is certainly another question.

For now, at least, we will simply have to live with this ambiguity, wondering if we will actually make it past the adolescence of our human evolution into a greater maturity.  To quote Hawking one last time: “I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space.  There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet.  But I’m an optimist.  We will reach out to the stars!”

Unfortunately, these “accidents” Hawking refers to are all too often of our own making.  Yet, in spite of all, I say with him that I’m an optimist, and I’m willing to live with the present state of our own ambiguous and contradictory natures (what other choice does any of us have?).  Let us hope, then, that God will smile upon us, or if you prefer, that we will smile upon our own selves, and upon each other, and upon all life.   Uncertainty and doubt surely may be our lot, but so is faith, and trust, and an optimism that never stops hoping that we will do what is right for ourselves and for all of life on the planet.  Maybe, in the end, we’ll reach out to the stars, not because we have to, but just because we can.

THE PASSING OF THE PASSENGER PIGEON: A MORALITY TALE

By Paul

Human behavior is ever fascinating, even if not entirely unpredictable.  Among its most basic, bedrock features are a marked propensity toward shortsightedness and an equally strong penchant for egocentricity.  What I mean is that we have a great tendency both not to think through what the consequences of our actions may be, and as powerful a motivation not to care, but instead to concern ourselves only with what appears to work for our own good in the immediate moment.

It could also be argued that these are traits that have served us well in the past, that they are in the main responsible for our success as a species, and also that no other species on earth has demonstrated any greater foresight than we, or any less selfishness, for that matter.  It’s just that one of the things we humans like to do is to think well of ourselves, sometimes to our own ultimate disappointment.

I was recently reading an article in The New Yorker that in part deals with a review of a book about the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It’s an amazing story.  There were not mere millions of these beautiful creatures (and by all accounts they were gorgeous birds), but billions of them.  Yes, that really is billion, with a “b.”  It was reported that one observer saw a flock that obliterated the noonday sun, and that this flock then took three days to pass by!   Such a recounting at first may sound like myth and stretches credulity for us today, until we learn that it came from no less a reliable a source than John James Audubon.   Another observer reckoned he saw a flock containing in excess of two billion birds.  They were so numerous that, when roosting, their combined weight would regularly crack the limbs off of trees upon which they landed.

And yet, within the space of a mere fifty years, this country went from a place where there were billions of passenger pigeons to one where there was zero.  How, we may well ask, could this have happened?  How could our ancestors have allowed such a tragedy to occur?  The answer, I’m afraid, harkens back to human shortsightedness and egotism.  Just as we do today, people back then did what was in front of them to do.  They ate and slept and raised their children; they worked, they made war, they made peace, they made love, and occasionally they played.  In other words, they did their best to survive, and they tried to have as good a life as possible while doing so.

And who, I suppose, could blame them?  After all, the very basis of the country is founded on the pursuit of happiness, is it not?  And of course no one set out consciously to destroy an entire species.  No one ever sat down one fine day and said: “Let’s devise a plan whereby we cause the mass extinction of this entire population of passenger pigeons.” And yet, there can be no denying that this is exactly what we wound up doing.  We even know when and where the last wild bird was killed, by a boy in Ohio, who shot it out of a tree with a twelve-gauge shotgun in the year 1900.  A few other birds languished on for a while in zoos, but these were creatures whose entire evolutionary history had prepared them to flock together in enormous groupings.  Ought it to be a surprise, then, that a few isolated pairs here and there, in a sense, lost heart and no longer reproduced?  Finally, on the 1st of September, 1914, ironically the year that also witnessed the beginning of mass massacres of hundreds of thousands of human beings in the World War I, the last passenger pigeon on earth expired.

There’s irony aplenty involved in all this.  And tragedy, as well, of course.  I can well imagine that the humans who had originally witnessed billions of these birds flocking together thought that there could never be an end to them.   And yet that end came, sooner than anyone ever could have guessed.  Just as, perhaps, we today think that there can never be an end to the human civilizations we have created, bound up as they are with and dependent on fossil fuels and ever expanding populations.  But there is no guarantee of that, either.

Another irony ought to be noted when it comes to the passenger pigeon, this time a more modern one.  There appears to be a movement on to “de-extinct” the bird.  De-extinction has actually become a useful word in today’s biological lexicon, a neologism that accompanies human over-reliance on and adulation of technology.  I suppose it’s obvious what it means: it is an effort to use DNA from long-dead pigeons which, when injected into chickens, would produce as close a replica as possible to their extinct forebears.  Whether or not these manufactured passenger pigeons could themselves reproduce is not clear, although it is highly unlikely.  And even if they could, once again, would they wish to do so?  This seems all the less likely, given the disinclination their zoo-confined ancestors demonstrated in the past in this regard.  And even if they did reproduce, would we actually want enormous flocks of hungry pigeons alighting in our fields of wheat and corn, now that so few of their original primary foods (acorns and beechnuts) are themselves available?  Would we, in fact, be creating a monster that we would have to “render extinct” all over again?

All this brings up questions regarding how we human beings relate to our environment.  The extinction of passenger pigeons is not so far removed from the continued extinction of numerous other species the world over that still continues to this day.   The passenger pigeon went extinct for two very good reasons.  One had to do with the fact that they apparently tasted good, so people hunted them and ate them, and two because humans have largely removed the favorite choice of food for the pigeons from the environment.  As noted above, they lived mainly on the nuts of hardwood trees such as beech and oak that abounded in the pre-contact (i.e., with Europeans) forests of North America.  There are far fewer of these trees today.

One of the things that we humans like to do is to fiddle with our environment.  We have never been satisfied with it the way it was, but wanted (and needed) to create housing to protect ourselves from the elements, to clear fields of pesky trees in order to plant grain, damn rivers, build roads and bridges and towns, and eventually make cities and now mega-cities.  To the point where most people today have lost touch entirely with untrammeled nature.  Is there even such a thing left in the world as a true wilderness?   Most of what we like to call wilderness consists of mere isolated parcels of what was once the endless forests and plains that stretched from coast to coast on any given continent.   We are left to “manage” our forests, a thing that hardly seems compatible with the notion of real wilderness.

In the meantime, countless other species continue to go extinct.  The passenger pigeon is but one of many, if a mega example of the process.  And we are not just talking about the dodo and (very nearly anyway) the North American bison, but also – just in the last ten years – the golden toad, China’s Baiji dolphin, the Hawaiian crow, the Pyrenean Ibex, the West African black rhino, and many other “lesser creatures” that do not even make it onto our lists.  What, we have to wonder, will make humans less shortsighted?  What will make us more concerned with “the other,” and less focused solely on our own immediate good?

I am not sure I have a very satisfactory answer to these questions, but I do think that we must ponder them.  We must in the end find a way to somehow coexist on this planet with other life forms, giving them the space they need to live, while we, too, live our lives.  Otherwise, while we concern ourselves blindly with our own day-to-day existence, we may suddenly realize that we have somehow wiped out whole legions of other creatures we thought would always be there.  And who, in the end, will one day protect us from ourselves?  Who will be there to stop us from creating our own demise?  We have, unfortunately, seen that it does not take long for billions of once successful creatures to entirely vanish.  Even if we see it only from the human point of view (and how else can we see it?), let us if nothing else remember that no law says that extinction cannot happen to human beings, too – those most powerful and most successful of creatures upon the face of the earth.

 

HEALTHCARE.GOV WORKS!… Warning: May Cause Ruminations on Mortality

by Kevin

When I succeeded in securing health insurance on line at  healthcare.gov, the thought fluttered through my mind that now, with REAL health insurance, I would live forever in good health.

When I succeeded in securing health insurance on line at healthcare.gov, the thought fluttered through my mind that now, with REAL health insurance, I would live forever in good health.

Virtually all the news commentators throughout the known media universe have been screaming for months about how the Affordable Care Act enrollment website, healthcare.gov, has not been working perfectly. As a 64-year-old man with an analog brain, who NEVER manages to get electronic technology to work the first time, I was not surprised or alarmed that the website wasn’t working well in October.

Even though I am one of the millions of Americans whose health insurance companies deliberately downgraded our insurance to junk status so that it would be cancelled for not meeting ACA standards (scroll down several posts to read the whole story,) I figured I had until January 1 to secure REAL insurance through the Affordable Care Act, and if the website did not work for me, then enrollment by phone or an actual person-to-person interview would certainly do the trick. What was all the fuss about anyway? Smells like sour grapes to me.

The administration said that most of the website glitches would be resolved by the end of November, so I waited until the day before Thanksgiving to make my first attempt at starting to secure REAL health insurance on line. After only three hours I had managed to create my profile and my account, provide my financial information, and study the details of some of my early leading candidates for health insurance. No problems whatsoever. I was impressed. And, by the way, if an old technophobe like me can do this without any difficulty, then the website is extremely user friendly, and most people will succeed in a fraction of the time I invested.

The day after Thanksgiving, while others were shoving and punching each other to gain an advantage in the Black Friday super-consumer frenzy, I quietly resumed my online health insurance quest and was once again very pleased with the experience. I spent a grand total of about seven hours on healthcare.gov, mainly reading about the scores of possible insurance programs I could consider. During that time I probably logged on and off about seven times without any difficulty.

Between sessions I made two calls to the Affordable Care Act phone line: 1 800-318-2596, to ask some basic questions. They were very helpful. I also called several insurance providers to clarify their options and make sure my local doctor and hospitals accepted their coverage. I ended up getting in my car and driving to my doctor’s office to talk face-to-face with his receptionist. I really like Dr. Carl Brango, and I wanted to be extra sure that the plans I was considering were okay with him.

I was sorry to see that dental and eye care insurance did not seem to be offered by any of the plans, but finally, I made my choice, triple checked it, and clicked on “ENROLL.” A message immediately flashed on my screen – something like, “Are you aware that you are eligible to select very similar group plans that are more affordable?” Well… no… I had missed that part of the information, because I had just assumed that the more expensive policies would be more comprehensive. Not so. I voided my first choice and did more research, discovering a very similar plan for $110 less per month than the one I had originally selected, offered by the very same company! But the best news of all is that after many years of paying over $550 per month for fake health insurance that could be cancelled or changed at the whim of the insurance company, as it was recently, I will now have much better health insurance for half that price.

Icing on the cake: After I made my final health insurance selection, healthcare.gov delighted me with an option to buy affordable dental insurance as well. I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t been to a dentist in years, despite some pretty serious dental problems. Now for less than $23/ month, I will be able to see a dentist as often as I wish.

I clicked “CONFIRM” to activate all my choices and received congratulations from healthcare.gov, telling me that I had successfully enrolled in health insurance and dental insurance that would begin January first. Ironically, on January 15th I will begin researching my healthcare options all over again, because I will be eligible for Medicare starting March first, since I will turn 65 in March, and they recommend beginning the process of applying, choosing a plan and securing supplemental insurance, six weeks before the program starts.

I don’t mind. I am just so relieved to have REAL health insurance after decades of paying high prices for fake insurance in the individual market. I will no longer have to lie about my family health history or hide my own pre-existing conditions from my health insurance provider. I won’t have to go to free clinics or university health studies or pay for secret medical services out of my own pocket to prevent my health insurance provider from finding out about a condition and potentially canceling or changing my policy. I will have REAL health insurance that I can use without fear of cancellation or policy change for two months through the Affordable Care Act. Thank you President Obama! And then I will be covered by Medicare for the rest of my life. Thank you President Johnson!

When the congratulatory statement from healthcare.gov appeared on my screen, I was elated, and for just a brief instant I felt the invincibility of youth again. I sensed just a hint of a taste from the Fountain of Youth. The thought fluttered through my mind that now with REAL health insurance I would live forever in good health. After all… that is certainly what REAL health insurance would do for us, right? It would insure that we’d live from now on in a state of perfect health. Alas, the fantasy lasted only an instant before reality closed in around me again – mortality.

An old monk once told me, “The body has to find some excuse to go.” And besides, the science of medicine may be doing some wonderful things, but it is still in its infancy. Too often today’s cures are as lethal as our diseases. Sadly, health insurance does not insure our health yet. But at least it may finally begin to insure that we can all get the basic healthcare we deserve as a human right, when we are physically ill or injured. This tremendous benefit has been a long time coming. From my point of view it was well worth the short wait while a few website bugs were resolved. Check it out… healthcare.gov works!

 

OBAMA CARES ENOUGH TO FIGHT FOR “OBAMACARE”

by Kevin
 
President Obama’s strategy behind his news conference yesterday, Nov 14, 2013, was brilliant. The untold story of this botched “Obamacare” role-out is the opportunistic actions of the health insurance companies who created the cancelled policies part of the problem. They lunged at the opportunity to purge undesirables from their client ranks by simply rewriting their policies to levels below Affordable Care Act compliance, so that those policies had to be cancelled.  This is exactly what they did to me and many others. I think I will frame my cancellation letter as proof that we in the individual market have never had real insurance, because our health insurance companies could change or cancel our policies any time they wanted to. That’s not insurance… it’s a scam!
 
Mr. Obama is smart enough to know that he could not just directly expose the health insurance industry as the culprits behind this part of the ACA role-out debacle without creating a booming outcry about sour grapes and buck-passing. So, instead, he very wisely took all the blame on himself, appearing and sounding more contrite than any other president in my lifetime, even though almost every single one of them had many more reasons for sincere contrition than the current president.

President Obama’s self-effacing and self-sacrificing platform of humble contrition allowed him to say that if the insurance companies wanted to reinstate us — the 2 or 3% of self-insured Americans whose policies they have cancelled — and if the state healthcare commissioners will approve it, then he is all for it. In one deft move Mr. Obama shifted the blame for these cancellations from himself back to their rightful source, the insurance providers, and he did so without appearing to try to pass the buck or deny his responsibility for this mess.
 
Of course the health insurance industry began screaming bloody murder within minutes of the president’s statements. They thought they had gamed the system to get rid of old farts like me, who are bad risks, without taking a public relations hit. Now the onus is back on them, where it has always belonged, and they don’t like it. They thought they had found a free windfall, but now they are whining that they may need to raise everyone’s rates if they have to keep people like me on their roles, again trying to blame the president for their own greed.
 
Well, I have good news for them. I have no intention whatsoever of remaining a client of Blue Cross, who sent this old fart a cancellation letter. I will plunge into the ACA open market and find a new provider, even if I have to pay more. Why? Well, first and foremost, because I want real insurance that cannot be cancelled or changed at the profit-mongering whim of an insurance company. If I were to remain with the grandfathered fake insurance policy, I would not have the ACA protections. I would still be in the old healthcare system, which was a lie. I would have to hide any serious conditions from them for fear of cancellation.
 
I am healthy now, but for 17 years I struggled with chronic Hepatitis B, and I hid it from my health insurance companies in the independent market, because I didn’t want to be cancelled and denied insurance, which is exactly what would have happened if I had let them know of my condition. Instead I paid for healthcare out of my own pocket on top of my health insurance premiums, and I sought the secret services of free clinics and university medical studies. I know many independent contractors who can tell this same story. That wasn’t insurance. I wasn’t really insured. It was a lie.
 
And besides, now that these virtuous and altruistic health insurance companies (sarcasm) have downgraded policies for old farts like me, it would be dangerous to keep them, because they wouldn’t provide sufficient coverage in the event of hospitalization. We need real insurance and they aren’t providing it now, even though I am paying $7,000 per year for it and I am in good health approaching age 65.

In fact, health insurance companies have never provided real insurance to the American public as a whole, while they were denying people coverage for pre-existing conditions, charging women more for the same coverage, cancelling policies when people became sick, and raising premiums 10 or 20% every year so that 40,000,000 Americans could not afford coverage. That was shameful! No civilized society behaves that way.
 
The only sin President Obama has committed in regard to this healthcare debacle was deciding not to direct the role-out of the ACA website personally. He thought he should delegate that responsibility to Internet experts, because he had a few other things to do — chief among them, making sure that real healthcare insurance for all Americans survived its journey through the legislative swamp of Capitol Hill. But no good deed goes unpunished, they say, and President Obama is living proof of that axiom.
 
I predict, however, that a year or two from now, only the most hardened right-wing ideologues will want to return to the days when nobody had real health insurance and the whole system was a lie. The Affordable Care Act will become as cherished and untouchable as Social Security and Medicare, because it will provide a pathway to health and higher quality longevity for scores of millions of middle and lower class Americans who would not otherwise be able to provide it for themselves.