Conversations on Health

Podcast Episode Page

Conversations on Health: How We Get There is a monthly podcast series about health care, health care systems and the connections we need to make them better. Through health professionals and patients – each podcast will explore a different aspect of health or health care. Or a different country’s health care system as it compares to ours in the US. As a veteran reporter – I want to know why so many Americans still don’t have access to the comprehensive health care so normal in other advanced countries. And if, after the disastrous response to COVID 19, the US and other nations are now prepared for another major public health crisis.

I hope you’ll enjoy the podcasts which will be quite wide-ranging. Look for new ones on the 3rd Tuesday of each month unless otherwise announced, And please, DO subscribe so you won’t miss any. Thank you so much!

The podcast is available as a video on YouTube

And also as an audio podcast on Podbean and the Podbean App, on the Apple Podcast app, on Google Podcasts and on other platforms.

Episode #1: A Conversation with Dr. David Marx, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

Episode #2: When Writer Steve Fisher Nearly Died in Prague, CZ

Episode #3: Pam’s Healthcare Nightmare


EPISODE NOTES

Episode # 3: Pam’s Healthcare Nightmare

Most of us have had some experience with the mish-mosh of health care in the US which substitutes for a real health system – the European kind you learned about in episodes 1 and 2. Both dealing with health care in the Czech Republic. But here in the United States – it’s not so simple. If you’ve had to navigate the maze of doctors, hospitals, health care alliances and insurance in the US – you probably have a horror story. Like my friend Pam Cookson.  Who lives in St. Augustine, Florida. Pam’s struggle to get a simple bladder infection treated – something millions of us have also done – is eye-opening. And sadly – likely to sound familiar to many of you.

Episode #2: When Writer Steve Fisher Nearly Died in Prague, CZ

Steve Fisher is a friend of mine who lives and works in the Czech Republic. A few years ago he got very sick and is very, VERY grateful for how well the Czech health system took care of him. It’s a very dramatic story.

Episode#1: A Conversation with Dr. David Marx, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

I started with a typical European, mostly public health care system in the Czech Republic because I spend a lot of time there. You can compare it to your own experience in our very fragmented PRIVATE system in the US. Like all the European and Scandinavian countries and the United Kingdom – working Czechs and their employers pay a lot in taxes and insurance fees to support most of the overall health care system. EVERYONE has similar, solid coverage. To get an overview of how the system works – I sat down with an internationally known expert on health care – Dr. David Marx – in his office in Prague. He heads the Department of Public Health of the Third Faculty of Medicine – part of the renown Charles University Medical program.

Episode #4 will drop a week late in December – on Tuesday December 20, 2022. With the help of a health care professional – we’ll start looking at what passes for the US health care “system” – delving into the mix of private insurers, doctor groups, regional hospital systems, Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Health Administration and supposedly, a federal and state public health system- which together are considered the US health “system”.

Anxious? Isn’t Everyone?????

The Scream – Wikimedia.org

Maybe you saw the study that came out a few weeks ago. About how anxious we all are? That we’re so anxious doctors should screen us when we come in for a checkup? I mean, this is news?

Think about it. COVID is still a threat, even though countries (except China) have mostly given up enforcing even basic efforts to contain it. And because people don’t seem the least bit interested in getting additional vaccine shots for winter – we’re probably all going to get it. Then there’s Putin’s war against Ukraine. And his repeated nuclear threats. And I’ve only just begun.

The stock market is falling with many stocks back in a bear market – down more than 20 percent as they were in June. Mortgage and credit card rates are soaring. Inflation – except for gasoline prices – remains stubbornly high. Rents are beyond crazy. Food prices are absurd. At the supermarket or even in a lowly diner. The Holidays are coming. What about the Thanksgiving turkey? Christmas toys for under the tree? Ye gods – what about the TREE???

And if all that isn’t enough – The Federal Reserve – and national banks of most advanced nations apparently intend to keep raising interest rates until the whole world slides into recession. Yah – THAT should help cool inflation – when only the rich can afford to eat. Do you think THEY’RE anxious??? Did they even ask any rich people in that study? “Oh hello! Are you anxious about your hedge fund today?”

And if all that isn’t enough – oh wait – I already said that. Well I may have to say it a few more times. Because there’s a soon to be HUGE hurricane bearing down – at this writing – on Florida’s Gulf Coast. And from there – who knows. The hurricane before – Fiona – ripped up Canada’s eastern seaboard last week. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland? Labrador? A hurricane???

Anxious??? We’re all out in front of our homes at night – baying crazily at the moon.
Most of us would be down at the local pub having a few cold ones, and then maybe a few more. Except who can still afford even one? Oh – yes. Those rich people who might be anxious about their hedge funds probably could still afford one. At least one.

Reading about that study did one good thing for my communal anxiety. After I stopped screaming, “Whaaaaaat??? You’re spending money studying WHAAAAAATTTT?” I started to laugh. A very loud laugh. And isn’t a good laugh perhaps the antidote to anxiety? I mean if we’re ALL anxious about – mostly – the same things — maybe we should just start passing that laugh around. You know – to the guy who is anxious about crossing the busy street. Or the woman who is anxious about having to go back to the office 3 days a week. Or that rich guy again who is anxious about taking the elevator up 45 floors to his pencil thin penthouse.

Maybe if we realize we’re pretty much all in this anxiety mess together – and we started a laughing chain – we could help each other a little. And then maybe we wouldn’t be yelling at each other so much about some of those really, REALLY big political issues. We might EVEN be able to get together to fix some of the stuff that’s making us so anxious in the first place.

I’m not sure the laugh would work for Vladimir Putin though. He’s so anxious about losing his hold on Russians that he still might nuke all of them along with the Ukrainians and the rest of us – just to be the last man standing. For a split second anyhow. But then again — does anyone know one of his henchmen? You could try…..

Queen Elizabeth Is Gone

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Most Americans are probably quite tired of so much media coverage of Queen Elizabeth. And her somewhat unexpected death at 96 when only 2 days earlier she met with the UK’s outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to accept his formal resignation and then the new Prime Minister Liz Truss –  “asking”  her to form a government. All according to British law and custom. Both Johnson and Truss traveling to Balmoral Castle in Scotland for the nearly back to back meetings. Which of course were private. But we all saw the photos with Truss and the Queen’s trademark, delighted smile.

Since I wrote that first paragraph late last week, there have been memorial services in Scotland after the Queen’s Royal Standard draped casket traveled slowly through the towns and countryside to Edinburgh. Large crowds paying their respects along the route. After a flight to London, the Queen was driven slowly through the streets of London to her official home at Buckingham Palace. More mourners from all parts of the UK and beyond lined the way. Then – just a day later, with her children and grandchildren walking behind her casket – her final ride from the Palace to the oldest part of the Parliament Buildings – Westminster Hall. Which dates from the 11th century. Where ordinary people from all over the world can file by Queen Elizabeth’s casket 24 hours a day until the state funeral on Monday. As I write this – the online Queue Tracker Live estimates the line extends 4.9 miles. A wait of at least 9 hours. Update going into the weekend — the Queue Tracker Live warning of 24 hour waits and a cold night.

September 16, 2022 London time

I’m an Anglophile so if I could – I’d be in that queue. But I’m supposed to be working on my soon to be launched podcast. So here I am at home – watching BBC, Sky News, and CNN coverage wall to wall. Watching the BBC ‘s live international stream now and then of the Queen’s coffin lying regally in that ancient hall while so many of those ordinary people – old and young, some tearful, some bowing or curtsying – walk quietly by. Hard to turn away when my heart is in London. I’ll pay my own quiet virtual respects over the weekend.

The first alert that the Queen had died came over my iPhone. From Sky. The print looking very small and lonely on that screen. It said simply, “Queen Elizabeth has died”. I said quietly – almost viscerally  – “oh no”. There were no other alerts. For more than 5 minutes the screen was quiet. I was watching BBC. Nothing. I quickly began streaming Sky News on my iPad – in time to watch the reporter at Balmoral read the announcement which had just been handed to him. He almost couldn’t get through it. It took BBC at least 5 more minutes before the anchor read his own, halting announcement. Perhaps the delay was to give the on-air people a moment to digest it. But they couldn’t.

I had an overwhelming feeling that everything familiar had just ended. That the sky was falling. A feeling some of the reporters later said was common among older Brits. She was their queen yes. But at 96 she had become the world’s grandmother. A constant in a world changing so rapidly that when we went to bed at night we no longer knew what it would look and sound and taste like when we woke up in the morning.

I don’t think my husband – who grew up in a small New Jersey town – has the same relationship as I do to the British Royals. He didn’t grow up in Boston. Where so many of the stately old brick and cement homes in Back Bay and on Beacon Hill were built to resemble the London neighborhoods many early 19th century Americans once knew. Where the streets I walked on had the same names as those in London. I doubt my husband read the same historical novels in school. And I know he never wanted to live in London. As I always did.

The historical films and tapes of Queen Elizabeth from her girlhood have been fascinating. Her grainy black and white coronation is the first nearly live international TV many Americans can remember. I always thought it was live – actually the first live international broadcast. So did my husband – who also recalls the grainy shots. But more important – it was my first personal memory of Queen Elizabeth and the modern British monarchy. In Boston we studied tons of British, Scottish and Irish history but never, seemingly, anything current. At least I don’t remember it. (Or much of the history).

There’s been lots of discussion during the coverage this week about the future of the British monarchy. Even though so many young people have come out to honor the Queen. But of course they are honoring a person. A special woman who seemed part of everyone’s family despite being the Queen. Will they also honor her son?

I’ve heard and read many more eloquent words about the Queen than I can ever write. But – like so many other people – eloquent or plain spoken – I feel the door closing on an era. MY era. Life will go on. Charles will be the King he was raised to be. William will succeed him if the monarchy survives. But it won’t be the same. There will be no delighted smile on our Granny’s face. No one dressed in bright colors who always does and says the right thing. No constant in our spinning ever faster world. Queen Elizabeth is gone….

Rant #1,475+/- International Airline Travel

Have I said this before? Probably. But so many of the long-standing security rules in international travel are simply absurd! Especially for flights to the US. Moreover, the rules aren’t even universal. They’re country by country. The European Union has its own requirements. And now the UK does also – having fully “brexited” now. Its citizens have been learning the folly of their leap backward this summer as they wait in long lines everywhere just to get OFF their island.

I have a knee replacement. Had it for 13 years. And for 13 years I’ve had to experience the same insane, insulting indignities. Even in airports which use body scanning, millimeter wave viewers as well as metal detectors. AND I have TSA Pre!! Meaning I went through a security background check and paid a fee to get faster, less invasive airport screening. Which includes keeping my shoes on.

Every time I fly I do the same thing. Right off – before I even walk through the metal detector, I tell a TSA officer or their overseas equivalent, “I have a knee replacement.” I point to it. We nod pleasantly to each other. I walk through the metal detector. And then it begins.

Now typically I very purposely wear very form flitting clothes. Slim jeans or jean-tights. A torso-hugging, no-room-for-even-a-Kleenex top. A basic, minimal bra with no wires or padding. Plus anklets and running shoes. But nooooo – I still could have something strapped to my 5’ 1” tall, 103 pound body SOMEWHERE. So first there’s a wanding. The metal in my right knee is evident. But on the way to Prague last month from JFK,  the wand was turned up so high it picked up the 2 tiny metal grommets on the perfectly flat front of my jean tights as well as the ones on the (also empty and perfectly flat) back pockets. Triggering the usual, jailhouse pat down. For which I have to wait for a female TSA officer. It’s become routine for me – with or without grommets.

On the EU-bound trip I noticed a lot of older people (like me) – the ones more likely to have knee or hip replacements – being put through the same indignities. Also not unusual. Also totally absurd and insulting.

But wait, there’s more. Not satisfied with finding nothing, I’m directed to remove my obviously well-worn running shoes. So they can be tested for nonexistent (and of course non-visible) explosives powder. Seriously. 21 years after the infamous Shoe Bomber. This typically entails another 5-20 minutes. Including the unlace-re-lace phase. Meanwhile – in the very crowded security area – my exposed laptop (thankfully still in its carrying case), backpack with EVERYTHING important in it, iPad and carry-on are left unattended at the end of the security area. 3 bins full. Instead of letting a well trained (key words “well trained”) security person use just a little bit of common sense.

Then- there’s the return flight. The one I’m on as I write this. The one and only direct flight from Prague to the NYC metro area. Your TSA Pre is useless outside the US. So EVERYTHING electronic has to come out of your suitcase and backpack. And out of their covers and carry cases. To be left in easy reach of someone’s super-quick hand while I go through another, senseless rerun of my outbound experience. This time they didn’t find the grommets. But the pat down – in typical EU style- is even MORE demeaning. Fingers of the agent slipped under and around the top of my jeans. Very hands-on. And on and on and on. It’s always that way in the EU when flying to the US. And this time AGAIN – merely because of that knee replacement – the shoes must go to the explosives’ powder detector. While all my irreplaceable electronic devices still sit – and sit – at the end of the security area. With not even a security guard to watch them.

In the EU, the security check usually comes at or near your flight’s gate. Now I am a US citizen. And at this point in the process I’ve already gone THREE TIMES through a passport control. And – along with my husband – already answered a bunch of questions asked by a very nice DELTA employee designed to show I’m mentally stabile and not planning to cause ANY kind of trouble. I’ve taken this DELTA flight for many years back and forth. And always some version of the questions. Including the old “did you pack your bag yourself?” And it’s equally aged sister questions.  I don’t recall such hackneyed grilling on the one stop United flights I take when the Delta flight is on its winter (or more recently COVID) hiatus.

Obviously there are some rules here which should be reconsidered in the electronic age. When I’m carrying my QR Coded boarding pass on the airline’s iPhone app. Meaning my passport and past flight history (a long one) were already digitally reviewed and approved when I checked in from home. And then that QR Coded boarding pass has already been electronically read by a scanner-gate before I even get to the official passport control in the country I’m leaving (in the case of flying INTO the US).

With every airline desperately urging people to jump back into international travel, these agencies which apparently never talk to each other either in the US or abroad ought to take a good look at the pile of rules and regulations developed since hijacking and later the September 11th attacks changed air travel decades ago. Some should go or be modernized, some should be kept. But continually discriminating against people with joint replacements merely because we HAVE them – and that’s millions of us in every country – needs to be stopped. Use the metal detector. Use the body outline machines. Look at a person’s age and flight history (right there in the passport stamps). Most of all – JUST USE A LITTLE COMMON SENSE!

It’s not fair to the security workers and cabin crews, who already have enough to put up with, to get a grumpy, annoyed and deeply insulted group of older folks as well. Sounding off to the poor security workers who are only doing their jobs. Enough already. Stop. Desist. Just plain cut it out!  Having a  joint replacement is NOT a criminal activity!

OK. Rant over. Until my next flight.

The Concert at the Castle

Once upon a time– there was an empire centered in this city. The King and Queen lived at the castle with their family and a retinue of sycophants and servants. And sometimes – the Royal couple had a party for their servants. To thank them. They were a very nice, kind royal couple. And then one day- there were no more royals at the castle. The country became a republic. Twice. But the castle remained the seat of power with the President of the Republic living there. The President also had sycophants. Lots of them. Unlike the Royal Families of old, he had to pay his employees. And seldom if ever did the President hold a party at the Castle to thank anyone.

There were – and are many old European capitals to fit my parable but right now I happen to be in Prague – the ancient capital of what is now the Czech Republic. And as the seat of a kingdom or a Republic it has always been a city always full of music. Except for a dreadfully dismal detour into the gray-black world of communism and the Soviet Union. But since 1989’s Velvet Revolution, Prague has been its old self. With a new, modern overlay. And at least once a year there is still a party at the castle. For the people of the entire city – as many who wish to come, sit on the old courtyard cobblestones and lose themselves in the magic of the night.

Concert for the People

And so – for the third time – my husband and I were among those standing or sitting on the cobblestones recently on a perfect summer evening, at the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s traditional free concert ending its formal, concert hall season.

It was a huge crowd. Old, young, babies in carriages. Many drinking beer bought from the tiny pub on the edges of the square. Beer they held carefully as they picked their way through the rest of us to find a cobblestone or two of their own. There were a few relaxed guards at the castle gates. But not a police uniform or car to be seen. Most of us didn’t know each other. Or even speak the same language. But we all smiled. And smiled. At the music, each other, the little kids – and the dogs. As we all peacefully shared this party at the castle.

A Dog’s Life at the Castle

A few weeks later there was another “party” you might say. In the Old Town Square in the oldest part of the Old City of Prague. Which dates to the 14th century. Or even earlier. The Bohemia Jazz Fest – which – like the Czech Philharmonic concert at the castle – hadn’t been held for two COVID-restricted summers. And is also always free. As in pull up a cobblestone or two, maybe grab a beer – and just groove. 

Old Town Square, Prague

For Czechs – it’s normal. But for me – who lives most of the time in the too often violent US – it’s downright amazing!

Yes, there were probably some undercover police mixed among us. At both concerts. But if so – they weren’t needed. We were all there simply to enjoy the music. Free in an increasingly unaffordable world.

Maybe it’s the magic of gathering in a place that’s withstood so many wars – big and small – over the centuries. Not to mention the fires which plagued so many old cities.

Bohemia Jazz Fest 2022

You can feel the ages, almost physically wafting from the buildings, seeping up through the cobblestones. Even as the Jazz Fest employs the video, lighting and sound tricks used at most concerts now – in 2022. Incongruous yet perfectly normal. The old merging with the new. In a country with a difficult history – which includes the murderous Soviet Union and the deadening burden of Communism after World War 2 – a burden the Velvet Revolution threw off in 1989.

Whatever the reason – I cannot imagine such peace at ANY gathering in the United States. Czechs are allowed to own guns to defend their homes. They have their political differences and often don’t mix well with others’ cultures and histories. But there are no explosions of rage ending in massacres at these celebrations of life in what is now their own, free country.

So I groove to the music, and suck up the vibes. Two peaceful moments in a turbulent time. How perfectly lovely.

Student Loan Forgiveness

I never had a student loan. I think my mother would have fallen over dead at the thought of ANY kind of college loan. Instead – I knew as a high school student my mother had put every money gift I had ever received into a separate savings account. When it came time to apply to a college or two – that 17 years of savings was the determinator. Not me.

I wanted to get as far away from home (and Boston) as humanly possible. My dream school was UCLA. Northwestern a close second. I wanted to major in journalism or communications or TV production. Maybe all of them. And also get discovered by some talent agent. Maybe sitting – Lana Turner-like – at some coffee shop counter. It didn’t matter that I wore thick glasses and couldn’t sing, dance or act. Or had seen too many old Hollywood films.

And then my mother told me how much money was in the cookie jar – so to speak. Enough for Boston University tuition if I lived at home. Or Syracuse University in upstate New York. If I lived with my irascible aunt and her stamp-collecting husband. Either way, I would have to keep working to pay for my books, transit fares and lunches. Despite my inflated opinion of myself – I didn’t qualify for an educational scholarship to a top tier school. And that was the only kind of non-loan financial help available then.

Dreams. Dashed.

So I sucked it up and went to Boston University. Since I already knew my way around the broadcast world in Boston and had a great part time job. I’m not sure exactly what I learned at BU – except to question everything. Maybe the most valuable knowledge anyone can take away from any advanced education. I developed the only live jazz show in Boston on the then BU-owned FM station. DJ’d a jazz show on a rival college FM station as well. And when I graduated and got a job in New York City and then a studio apartment with a friend – I owed NOTHING. To NO one. Who needed UCLA? Or even Harvard across the Charles River – which we downscale BU students so loved to hate. And after that first job – no one ever cared WHERE I had gone to college. Just that I could do the job – and was more than willing to give it 200 percent.

So now it’s 2022 and a raft of college graduates with varying degrees and job skills owe an eye-popping $1.75 TRILLION for their education, according to the latest Federal Reserve data. The average college grad owes $36, 510. Private school debt averages $54,921. For which many graduates are not-so-humbly demanding forgiveness. For ALL of it.

The Education Department is already poised to cancel $5.8 Billion in debt for about 560,000 students who enrolled in the for-profit Corinthian Colleges. The largest loan-forgiveness ever by the Federal department. Corinthian folded in 2015 after a Federal investigation. And there is great pressure on President Biden from his own party’s self-named Progressives to forgive at least the $10,000 per graduate now being actively discussed in the White House.

So here comes the rant. ARE YOU KIDDING? Didn’t any of these former students or their parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles KNOW what taking out a 4 or 6 or 8 year college loan meant? Has anyone ever had their home mortgage loan just “forgiven”? How about that car loan? And consider the amount of credit card debt almost all of us carry. If you know a bank that’s willing to pretend it never existed — could you please tell the rest of us? And particularly all those former students who have – dutifully – done what they knowingly signed up to do. Pay off their student loans.

Now it’s one thing to knowingly take out a loan for a specified amount of money. And it’s quite something else to have to pay off twice or three times the actual loan — because of the often usurious interest charged for all student loans. At least I think it’s usurious. And it’s something no one ever seems to talk about. Cancel the loan? No way. Cancel the interest? Totally.

And let’s say you take out a loan when you go to college at what even I might think is a reasonable interest rate. Next year it probably won’t be quite so reasonable. Because Congress sets new rates for the loans every year. And if banks are raising rates — you can be sure the Feds will raise them also. Which is how many people end up paying off their original loan 2 or 3 times.

So here’s my proposal. Keep the loans. Cancel the interest. Yes, ALL of it. Why should anyone have to pay INTEREST to be educated? But those who took out the original loans should still have to pay them off. Like all the rest of us have to pay off OUR loans of any kind. And while we’re at it – let’s limit the amount of loans allowed for attending private, for-profit colleges and universities. Some of the best universities in the US are state or even city-run. And before states started cutting the money they put in their budgets for education – tuitions to those really good state schools were actually affordable. Especially for those who actually lived in the state.

And while we’re at it – how about limiting at least some loans for graduate school as well – to cut down on the education mission creep that contributes nothing to most jobs except, perhaps, slightly inflated salaries. You don’t need a graduate degree, for example, to be a good journalist. A careful review of primary school spelling and grammar might be good, however. I’m sure the kids in summer school would love to help you.

Dear Elon!

So for days I’ve been listening to all the analyst dissection of your $44 billion plan to buy (or not to buy) Twitter. And reading your tweets about counting bots and creating open source algorithms and having “fun” by opening the platform to just about anyone no matter the lies or misinformation or disinformation. Like reinstating President Trump. And his buddies. All of whom were banned for life after the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol.

So Elon (I hope you don’t mind my using your first name – kind of what to expect when you restore that old soapbox to Twitter). Anyhow – Elon – you say you want to take a public social media platform private. But I’m not sure you really understand about Twitter. You really CAN’T own it. Nor -actually – can the current shareholders. Nor the board members who represent them and whom I’ve been told never actually use the platform.

Seriously Elon. WE own Twitter. Really. All of us who use it. That, of course, includes you – but no more or no less than each of us. And have you actually looked at who “us” are? Well there’s me of course but I really don’t count. And all the yahoos who think they’re being really cool by being snippy and snarky and just plain stupid. You know – like a lot of them who tweet back at you. No – I’m talking about literally every leader in the modern world – except perhaps those who have banned Twitter in their countries because it IS owned by the rest of us. In fact I would call Twitter the newsfeed for the world. Presidents and Prime Ministers and Kings and Queens make their official policy announcements on Twitter. Movie stars and rap stars and universities and companies — and on and on — tell their Twitter followers first. With all the rest of us watching.

Twitter is too important to belong to one somewhat erratic, imperious but brilliant entrepreneur Elon. It’s not Facebook or Instagram or Telegram or any other social media app. It’s too important to the world to be judged on Wall Street’s standards of new monthly users or total advertising dollars. Maybe it started that way but it’s morphed into something very different now. Something quite unique. Something which is the center of official and unofficial world information.

So – Elon – you really can’t have it. It’s not your plaything. Give it back to us. To everyone who thinks or writes or governs or sings or has a winning tennis swing. Just go back to getting us to Mars . It’s really more interesting and needs your genius. Twitter doesn’t. It just needs everyone who matters in the World – including you – to keep tweeting. So those of us who don’t matter quite so much can continue to feel a part of something really, really BIG.

Spring, Ukraine and Me

Photo credit: Bilozerska.info

If somehow you haven’t noticed – it’s finally spring. Even up here in the Northeast. The forsythia and early daffodils are finally giving way to the flowering fruit trees and even a tulip or two. The lawns of suburialand are that perfect, spring green. Not quite kelly green. But that crisper green that eventually gives way to the deeper, summer green. If you walk around the neighborhood without your AirPods – and really look – you’ll see it.

So yes – it’s spring. But far away from my greening landscape is another one. It’s spring there also. We can tell from the live shots. The trees leafing out around the horribly gray, bombed and shelled-out buildings. Spring in the land Russia’s Vladimir Putin is trying to obliterate in the name of recreating the Czarist Russian empire he alone yearns for. Spring in the destroyed land where so many Ukrainians have already died, where so many lives have been unalterably changed, where so many futures have been destroyed. Where the bombs and shells just keep falling.

Does anyone else here in our comfortable America feel as guilty as I do? Walking every day in the warming beauty of Spring, hearing the birds singing and calling to each other to mate and produce the next generation? There will be no bombs to frighten them away or pulverize them in their nests. As always, spring will just slowly turn to summer here – with its more mature beauty. Yes there will be storms and localized floods – even tornados and later, hurricanes. But they will be random – with no pre-programmed, evil intent to destroy an entire people and its country.

How can I immerse myself joyfully in the annual ritual of spring when on the TV each morning and evening, or streaming from my phone or tablet are those searing images from Ukraine?

How can I smell the young grass and the blossoming trees and rejoice in their colors after the drab gray winter when I see the still gray, pulverized city of Mariupol? When I think of the people who used to live there, in a then modern city quite similar to ours here? And who are now dead or gravely wounded or forever traumatized by Putin’s marauding, undisciplined army of unschooled Russian conscripts?

And so for me at least – this is a very different spring. One in which I constantly ask myself and anyone else who will listen – how can so-called human beings, the ones who power our Western world, have allowed all this to happen? How could they have been unable or unwilling to stop Putin’s medieval siege and blockade of Mariupol and its last holdouts in the steel factory on its outskirts? For Ukraine it’s far too late now to even care about the answers of course. Mariupol is finished and – tragically – the last-ditch defenders left in the steel factory nearly so. But still – I care. I need to know. Because even if spring still comes every year – one year it may be OUR cities demolished, OUR citizens killed. By some undisciplined army, led by some other megalomaniac. Drunk on ancient visions of glory. Green shoots in front of OUR pulverized buildings.

Remember – almost no one thought it could happen to Ukraine either.

Stress

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a reporter who loved stress. She called it “good stress”. And it was mostly about making deadlines and finishing marathons. Interviewing, writing, live shots, telling people’s stories – that all got better under the good stress.  Knowing there wasn’t an option NOT to train for a marathon got her out the door those cold snowy mornings. Before work. And after just four hours sleep.

Ahhhhh good stress. How I miss it.

Stress now is mostly about the endless pandemic. Covid-19. And variant after variant. Almost 2 years of fear, grief, lockdowns, masks, travel bans and Zoom.  Families in mourning. Families divided. Friends not speaking. Children in hospitals.  Vaccine passports. Vaccine mandates. Tests to fly to a foreign country. Tests to get back home. Rules changing overnight. Anti-vaxxers clogging up hospital systems through rounds of different variants. Jobs lost. Or maybe – The Great Resignation. Live events – theater, concerts, clubs – cancelled or restricted.

Only big league sports escaped the shut downs. Even before vaccines. Perhaps because there was so much money at stake. But then this month – as the omicron variant flared – the money suddenly stopped talking.  As the ultimate bad boy story unfolded. Tennis star Novak Djokovic – adamantly unvaccinated – got tossed out of Australia before he could defend his title. For lying on his visa. More or less.

Inflation is soaring, the supply chain has been broken for months and months, The Federal Reserve still seems paralyzed, the withdrawal from Afghanistan was and still is a tragic disaster and President Joe Biden – elected to fix what his predecessor had broken – seems – along with his dysfunctional party – unable to walk and chew gum. Meanwhile the democracy most Americans have cherished for hundreds of years looks ready to collapse under the weight of social media-driven misinformation and Trump-world QAnon lies and conspiracy theories.

You want to talk about stress?

A few months ago I read in a health report that collectively – Americans’ blood pressure has risen markedly since COVID-19 enveloped us.  I know mine has. I’m angry all the time now. So is everyone I know and seemingly, everyone I DON’T know. It’s an inchoate anger.  At everything that keeps going wrong. At a rickety health system where doctors, nurses and other hospital staffs worked until they collapsed and yet somehow loved ones and friends died. It’s an anger that more than a year after vaccines started going into arms – the now militantly UNvaccinated have made it almost a Trumpian religion to stay that way. Even as Trump himself has finally begun touting the virtues of getting the vaccine his administration actually produced. It’s an anger that keeps building because once again the hospitals are full, health workers are exhausted and at least 80% of those on respirators now are unvaccinated. Many of the rest just didn’t bother to get their boosters.

There have always been lots of things which stress us out. They’ve usually varied – person to person. Often in the past, money – or rather the lack of money – has been the biggest stressor. Now – it’s all tied up in COVID. Somehow, in some continually frustrating way, the virus is at the heart of everything. Sometimes it seems we’re not just wobbling under this burden of stress. We’ve all gone down that rabbit hole in some way. Descending into a fragmenting world where everyone seems not just stressed but after almost two pandemic years – almost mentally ill.  Every week it seems we hear of someone pushed onto the subway tracks. Or knocked over from behind on a busy city street. Or shot for literally no reason at all.

Meanwhile the confusing rhetoric from health officials continues. About the omicron variant and masks and maybe a fourth vaccine shot when so few have even gotten the third…..and on and on and on and on.

I yell all the time. At my husband (who yells back at me). At the poor cats. In my car. As everyone else in THEIR cars seems to be doing the same thing.

When will this end? HOW will it end? Where are the psychologists on cable TV or even on Twitter who can explain us to ourselves.  Tie it all together and tell us how to make it stop?

There is seemingly nothing in this world right now (except perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aberrant dream of recreating the Soviet Union) that is not based on or caused by or related to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the way our officials handled or didn’t handle it. And the way we in the free world are reacting to losing the personal freedom we all once believed could never be ripped away.

Irish Brown Bread

Those who know me know. I. Don’t. Cook. I haven’t joined the national mania for baking bread. I tend to live on open face cheese sandwiches on toasted Indian NAN or flatbread. Or on whatever my husband cooks – something he has learned to do really well during the pandemic. As he says, protectively. To stay alive.

My local supermarket is part of a chain owned by Ahold Delhaize – the huge European company which owns so many supermarket chains. And in my small suburb – my Ahold outpost has a UK section. A bunch of shelves with all kinds of wonderful  (to an American) everyday British and Scottish and Irish foods. Including I discovered – an Irish Brown Bread mix to which you only add water, knead a bit and bake.  Actually it’s a soda bread but close enough.  I grabbed it.

So. It was supposed to snow – again – the next day. A lot. Like maybe 30 inches. We’d already gotten the pre-storm call from the power company.  I know it by heart now. “We have you listed as a well water customer. A (fill in the type)storm is forecast for tomorrow.  You may lose power. Collect extra water in bottles. etc.” OK, fine. I’d better bake my brown bread tonight. Continue reading Irish Brown Bread