Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Football Referees Lockout

The internet was hopping after last Monday night’s football game in which the bumbling scabbing substitute referees mis-called the end of the game and cost the Packers a much-needed victory. Suddenly the lockout of the real football referees was the biggest topic of conversation on the ‘net. I noticed someone complaining on Facebook that she wished that people starving to death or being bombed or falsely imprisoned in other parts of the world could receive as much attention as the football ref situation. She was implying of course that there are much more important matters that should concern us than substitute referees in football. In fact the referee situation has broader implications that make it a serious issue, even though someone who has no interest in football might fail to see them.

The NFL locked out the professional, qualified, fully trained refs when contract negotiations broke down. Instead of working harder to resolve the situation and instead of agreeing to a compromise, the NFL brought in scab refs (the substitutes). Where I come from we call this union busting. The contract negotiations had two sticking points. One was a failure to agree about ref pensions (the NFL wants to convert the refs’ pension plans to 401Ks) and the other had to do with how refs are evaluated to decide whether or not they can keep refereeing (and how new refs are trained and hired). Serious labor bargaining issues any way you look at it.

The substitute refs are high school refs, community college refs, and refs who work in the women’s football league (affectionately nicknamed the Lingerie Football League or LFL). Some of these sub refs had actually been tossed out of prior ref jobs for incompetence. Not only were the sub refs botching calls like crazy, but they were also failing to call many penalties. The Monday Night game play in question hinged partly on a penalty call that was not made. With the sub refs letting a lot of penalties slide, many players were taking advantage of the situation and doing all kinds of things that the professional refs would have called them on because they knew they had a good chance of getting away with these illegal and unsafe moves. As a result players got hurt. For instance, more of the dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits now banned by the NFL were taking place. In my opinion, that’s exactly why the Raiders’ Darrius Heyward-Bey got knocked out cold last week. Fortunately he did not break his neck, as it at first appeared, but instead suffered a mere concussion. He is still out of the game. Lucky he wasn’t paralyzed from the illegal helmet-to-helmet butt.

The football ref lockout situation provides a cautionary tale about where Scott Walker of Wisconsin’s union busting activities will lead. Locking out the trained professionals instead of negotiating fair work conditions and benefits is a dangerous practice in many other arenas. Education. Health care. Construction trades. People fought and died for fair labor practices. The situation this past week with the football refs punched up once again the importance of honoring labor and supporting the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining. Fortunately, after the fiasco at Monday night’s game, the NFL quickly compromised with the professional refs, signed a contract, and had them back on the field by Thursday evening for the Ravens v. Browns game. And they are back on the job today and for the rest of the season.

Honestly, I love football. And the ref situation is a perfect example of why I love football. The game offers up life lessons every week. I know that I seem like an unlikely candidate to follow football; and that people can’t believe it when they find out what a fanatic I am. Well folks, get over it. One of my favorite footballisms goes like this, “It’s a game of inches.” One of the biggest football lessons that’s applicable to life.

In this image you see one scab ref calling a touchdown while the other scab ref 
calls an interception (at cross purposes for those of you who don't know football). 
Sad but also funny! A total oy vey moment.
Both of these refs completely missed a penalty that 
would have made both of these calls moot.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Republican Neighbors

Although I vote Democrat, even left of Democrat, I love my Republican neighbors and I don’t care who knows it. They are lovely, generous, thoughtful, friendly, kind people. We have a great time watching football together, eating popcorn and whooping it up when the 49ers score. They come to our parties and dance with us, share food, laugh. I wonder if they realize how deep they have wandered into liberal country when they come to our house. Like a mother hen, I keep an eye out for them when we have a get-together at our house to make sure that none of my more outspoken progressive friends corner them and harass them. I’m not sure that my political activist buddies have figured out yet that my neighbors are opposed to abortion and gay marriage and that they were thrilled to see Bush bomb the snot out of Iraq. As for me, I compartmentalize.

During the ’08 election campaign, we put an Obama/Biden sign on our front lawn. Within 48 hours our neighbors put up a McCain/Palin sign. I didn’t wish to make them feel uncomfortable, but I couldn’t very well ignore the “elephant” sprawled in the road between our two opposite signs. So I asked the wife about it. She replied that her family is Republican and has been for generations. “I’m a conservative and that’s all there is to it,” she said. She sounded apologetic, as if she hated to hurt my feelings by revealing that she disagreed with my politics. “So you think Sarah Palin would make a good vice president?” I asked her, unable to conceal my incredulity. “She’s a real bombshell,” she announced. “We love her.” The husband fought in the Viet Nam War. They have told me that they think “the topmost priority in this country is security.” I have not dug deeper to learn more about their views on the many issues that concern me. I have decided that I don’t want to know. Compartmentalization. They are my neighbors in one part of my life and my political views are in another part.

I try not to think about their political leanings. I avoid discussing politics with them at all. One time they came over for a BBQ and spent several hours eating and chatting with two of my friends who are a married lesbian couple. Much later, after they left, I revealed to my friends that these neighbors are opposed to gay marriage. When I mentioned that I never discuss politics with them, one of my lesbian friends chided me, “You should open a dialogue with them. You’re passing up a terrific opportunity to engage each other in a discussion about these issues.” She may speak truth, but I just don’t want to risk spoiling the comfortable relationship that I have with my wonderful Republican neighbors. Am I a coward? A wimp? I would like to think I’m quite simply a good neighbor.

Political candidates will come and go while my Republican neighbors and I will live across the street from one another through many elections. They’ll look after my cats when I go out of town. I’ll bring them tomatoes from my garden. They’ll bring chips and dips over and watch the Superbowl with us. I’ll call them when my plums come ripe and invite them to bring their grandkids over to pick plums. They’ll loan my husband a 4x8 sheet of plywood they have in the garage to help him with a home project. I’ll give my son’s long-abandoned bike to them for their grandson to ride when he’s in town. In short, we’ll live our lives as good neighbors and Washington can go to hell in a handbasket for all I care. I refuse to let politics insert its divisive ugly fist between me and my good neighbors. If the systems as we know them collapse, the politicians, powermongers, and leaders will be far away, and it will be me and my neighbors who will look after each other here in our little corner of the universe.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The High Price of Tailored Cancer Treatment

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. He reveals in the book that when his doctors diagnosed Jobs with cancer, he paid for an expensive and extensive analysis of his DNA to determine exactly what type of chemotherapy would correspond precisely to the variety of cancer he had. Until I read about this in the Jobs biography, I did not know about this dimension of cancer treatment. Not all cancer treatment drugs are made equal. Usually when a person receives chemo, they receive a cocktail of standard chemo drugs that attempt to cover a wide spectrum of cancer cells. This chemo blitz is hard on the body and is one of the reasons why people become so sick from the chemo itself. Every person with cancer does not receive a mix of chemo/drugs tailored to his or her unique body and specific cancer because it costs a fortune to pay for the research to identify which chemo/drug to use, based on the person’s DNA.

I recently read an article about genetic researchers in St. Louis who made a commitment to attempt to identify the gene that was causing one of their own to suffer from lymphoblastic leukemia. A beloved colleague, a young doctor who had been working on the genetic research project, was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia and the rest of the team determinedly set out to investigate the complete genetic makeup of him and his cancer. They fully sequenced the genes of both his cancer cells and his healthy cells for comparison. They also analyzed his RNA. They set aside their work on the human genome (the research project they had all been working on) and they ran a sequencing machine and a supercomputer 24/7 for six months. They found the rogue gene causing the doctor’s cancer; a gene that had gone haywire and was manufacturing large amounts of a protein that was feeding the cancer’s growth. So they treated the doctor with a selected drug that was highly likely to shut down the malfunctioning of this particular rogue gene. And it worked and now the doctor’s cancer is in remission.

I certainly rejoice that a man’s life was saved, but I also feel enraged. Even though the genetic analysis and tailored chemo program that Jobs bought did not save his life, it was more likely to have done so than any other approach. Also, the chemo Jobs underwent was the easiest on his system of any treatment he could have received because it was exactly matched to his cancer and not just a wash of chemo products thrown at the disease. The young doctor benefitted from the same type of research and the same treatment approach. It angers me that every single person who contracts cancer cannot access this state-of-the-art treatment that Jobs received, or that the young doctor in St. Louis received. Why? Only because it costs too much money. And so now we get down to it. The value of human life.

Medical researchers have confirmed that it is not the person’s tissue or organ (i.e., liver, brain, bone marrow, blood, intestine) where the cancer originates that drives a cancer but rather the person’s genes. Cancer treatment is most effective when it is tailored to the exact aberrant genes causing the disease. Thus, one woman’s breast cancer may have completely different genetic drivers from another woman’s breast cancer, and each needs to be treated with a completely different chemo/drug. This method of figuring out precisely which genes have gone whack and treating cancer based on that analysis is called “whole genome sequencing,” and it is presently not available to the everyday Joe. It is also not paid for by any insurance company. Only someone as wealthy (and well-connected) as Jobs could afford to pay for whole genome sequencing. Isaacson disclosed that it cost Jobs $100,000 for the sequencing and analysis of his genes to isolate those causing his cancer.

Medical researchers speculate that it will take at least another ten years before whole genome sequencing will be made available to most patients rather than just the wealthy few. When do you reckon that insurance companies will agree to pay for this at $100,000 a pop? Makes me wanna holler.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Juxtaposition of Events

At the beginning of last week I received an email out of the blue from a cousin with whom I have not communicated in about 35 years. I last saw him as a little boy in Ann Arbor. His younger sister was a newborn when I arrived at U. Mich. at Ann Arbor to study for my masters in English. His father (still living) is about 10 years older than I. His grandfather was my father’s first cousin. His grandfather and my grandfather both fled Poland before the Holocaust. My newfound cousin, now 40, emailed to ask if I would be willing to communicate with him and tell him more about the family. He and his sister have little knowledge of that branch of their family and they are now curious.

I spent some time this week emailing stories to this young cousin; stories about his grandfather and the relatives he has never known. I also friended him, his sister, and his mother on Facebook; and I sent a message to him along with a dozen other cousins from the Wachspress family. Many of them chimed in to say hello and welcome him back into the fold. He was delighted to make the connections. I have always remained fond of his dad, ever since I got to know him during my year at Ann Arbor. I guess his father never felt compelled to share much about the Wachspress family with his children for whatever reason.

Meanwhile, as this little flurry of communication and family connection was happening in my life, a family in our synagogue was sitting shiva (the week of mourning that Jews observe when someone dies) for their patriarch, whose name was Abraham (like the biblical patriarch). Abe was a Holocaust survivor, as is his wife Bella (who survives him). Bella was incarcerated at Auschwitz and survived. She was once put into a gas chamber but the gas chamber malfunctioned and she lived. On Thursday I went to their home for an evening service and to be with them when they said Kaddish, the prayer Jews say for the dead. Despite the horror they experienced while teenagers, Abe and Bella made a beautiful life together, with children, grandchildren, friends. Abe was 93 when he died. I did not know them very well, but I am deeply moved by their story of loss, survival, and triumph. They told their stories one year on Holocaust Remembrance Day at our synagogue. I have always loved to watch them together. Abe adored Bella and took exceptional care of her.

I have spoken often about how my father’s family was decimated by the Holocaust, and about how deeply I am affected by this family history. I wrote a book about it, for goodness’ sake. So as I sat in mourning with Bella and her family this week and then went home and responded to emails from my young cousin, I felt as though the two things were somehow connected. My cousin and I share the good fortune of having ancestors from the Wachspress family who left everything behind and came to this country to start over. By doing so they saved their lives and they brought us into the world, my cousin and I. Abe and Bella left their monstrous past behind and determinedly moved forward into a magnificent future. I am the product of people with that same courage, perseverance, and hope. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What Constitutes a Good Birthday Is What Constitutes a Good Life

This past week was a week of celebrations. I had another birthday go by quietly. I like to reflect in private on my birthday and not have a lot of hoo-hah so I keep a low profile and don’t publicize the date. I also celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary. Ron and I slipped off to the Coast for a romantic evening at an inn by the ocean, just the two of us. We could hear the ocean from our room. And also this past week was the 21st anniversary of our move from Berkeley to Mendocino County. Lots of milestones.

I had a wonderful birthday and I ask myself, why? What constitutes a good birthday? My husband Ron gave me flowers. I spoke with all of my children. Sudi came home for a visit and he and Ron took me out to eat delicious Thai food for dinner; my other children both called to wish me a happy day. My father called on his cell phone at the dinner table where he was surrounded by friends and he held the cell phone up and all of them sang happy birthday to me. So sweet. My friend Rajni, who lives half a world away from me but shares my birth date emailed me and I emailed her with greetings and a few notes about our day and our lives. My longstanding pal Linda called to fill me in on her recent trip North to visit her family. She caught salmon while fishing with her brother and she announced that her niece is expecting a baby. My brother, niece, and nephews filmed a silly and wonderful football-themed video and emailed it to me to give me a laugh.

I realize I have merely cataloged a collection of birthday greetings. Mundane. Perhaps boring. But those inconsequential greetings and communications, all put together, are what constitutes a good birthday. And they are what constitutes a good life. Family and friends. Getting on with their lives, thriving, sharing a moment of delight with me briefly on my birthday, on any day. So glad to be alive together in this time, however short it may be in the grand scheme. I am grateful for the friendship, good food, music, laughter. An exceptional slice of cheesecake. A funny video. A kiss. A flower. A story. A connection across distance. A memory made or in the making.

I live in a place of beauty yet untouched by the iron horror of war or the astonishing devastation of natural disaster. I am grateful for the gift of an ordinary day and the simple web of relationship with those I love.