O Canada – Part 1

I’ve been thinking about Canada a lot lately.

I am told that, in my grandfather’s youth, greasing the right palms could buy you out of conscripted service in the Polish army.  By the time that I was a kid, however, draft dodgers simply ran away to Canada.  As I heard call-up numbers being read off lists on the local radio and watched burning draft cards on TV, I imagined draft dodgers as living in igloos somewhere on the frozen wastes.  And then I heard about something called “amnesty” that might allow some of these new Canadians to come back home.

As the years went by, the romance of Canada captured my young imagination.  The border was only about an eight hour drive from the town in which I grew up, but Canada continued to allure me with the aura of the exotic.  It was “not-here” and must therefore be totally different.

When I tried to explain to my Dad how I felt about Canada, he replied “the grass is green, the sky is blue, they have hot and cold running water.”  I wrote him off as a spoil sport.  Clearly he did not know whereof he spoke.  What about the Eskimos and the parkas and the seals and walruses and all that stuff from Sunday nights on Wild Kingdom?

I found a map of Canada and one night I tried my best to draw a smaller version to scale in a notebook that I kept for just such projects.  Look at this, they have provinces instead of states!  Imagine that!  And the names — whoa, baby!  Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island.  I imagined Indians galloping across the plains in pursuit of herds of buffalo.  I had never heard the term “Native Americans,” much less “First Nations.”  And who was this Prince Edward?  Was he banished from England?  Did he escape on a pirate ship in the middle of the night?  This Canada was one cool place, I tell you.

Using my trusty box of Crayolas, I attempted to give each province the shading that seemed appropriate to its name.  I filled in the major cities and drew a dotted line to indicate the Arctic Circle.  About that time, my mother saw that my desk lamp was still on and caught me red-handed.  It was two o’clock in the morning.

“He’s drawing a map of the Maple Leaf!” she reported to my father, incredulously.

I was constantly begging to be driven to the public library, my favorite place of refuge from my parents’ constant arguing.  There was a series of thin volumes about each Canadian province, and I sucked them up like soda through a straw.  Thanks to my library card, a thick coffee table book on Canada came home with me and sat proudly on my desk for a few weeks as I flipped through the glossy photos.

That was a lot of years ago, but I recently told my teenaged niece that, if I had it to do all over again, I would move to Canada immediately upon graduation from college.  After all, Canada doesn’t have at-will employment in the brutal style of the U.S., unemployment benefits aren’t cut off after 26 weeks, and our sensible neighbors have socialized medicine.

This last point has taken on a particularly poignant resonance for me lately.  Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I have now dipped my toe into managed care and I feel as if, somewhere a few miles back, I must have unknowingly crossed the Canadian border.

For most of my adult life, I worked for employers that provided health insurance as an employee benefit.  Sure, at one point I ran into a rough patch when I worked for a Mom and Pop (actually just Mom, as Pop had recently passed away) business that couldn’t afford to pay for the health insurance of its few employees.  However, most of us were either still young enough to latch on to our parents’ health plans or were old enough to qualify for Medicare.  Unfortunately, I was in my thirties and fell into our very own doughnut hole.  For a while, I purchased health insurance through Blue Cross/Blue Shield, but then my hours were cut back to three days per week and I couldn’t afford the premiums anymore.  It took me about a year to find another job that came with health insurance.

Eventually, I came to realize that it is ridiculous to tie health insurance to employment.  I suppose there must be an argument that, at least theoretically, everyone should be working, so as long as employers are insuring their workers, it’s all good.  The problem, of course, is that many employers don’t insure their employees, and that the downturn in the economy has forced a lot of us out of the workforce entirely.  I started hearing terms like “the single-payer system” and something called “socialized medicine” and then learned that every other industrialized nation in the world provides health insurance for all its citizens, working or not.

All of which brings me to the present time.  I was laid off last September, which amounts to seven months of unemployment.  The Affordable Care Act took effect four days after my layoff.  Not a minute too soon, I thought.  I didn’t apply right away, figuring I’d find another job before too long.  Wrong!  Then I applied and was turned down.  It seems I earned too much money last year.  Um, excuse me?  That was last year, when I was employed and had employer-provided health insurance.  What about this year, when I have no income at all (since my unemployment benefits ran out) and cannot afford to purchase health insurance?  A few months ago, I tried again and was approved based on my current (lack of) income rather than based on what happened last year.

This has been a blessing to my wife and me, to say the least.  I recall the endless arguments and bickering in Congress when the Affordable Care Act was being considered.  I remember the predictions of doom and gloom, that it would never work, that it would bankrupt America, that it was mighty close to being Communist.  The program earned the derogatory nickname of “Obamacare.”  Conservative Republicans tried every avenue to block the new health care law, even claiming that it was unconstitutional and filing suit in the Supreme Court.  I am very grateful that the law stood on its own two feet.  And so today I am moved to say:  Thank you, Congress.  Thank you, esteemed justices of the Supreme Court.  And, especially, thank you, Mr. President.

Together, my wife and I now pay the princely sum of four dollars per month for our Blue Cross insurance.  I continue to hear complaints that young, healthy Americans are paying for us old farts who suffer with a litany of health problems.  So let me say this to all the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings out there:  When the day comes that I am working again, I will gladly contribute my share.  On my new employer’s health insurance plan, perhaps I will have a bigger copay or more out-of-pocket expenses.  But I won’t be complaining.  After all, I have been on the other side.

So today I had my first doctor appointment in about nine months.  This was a pretty big deal, as I have more than a few chronic medical issues and have the pill bottles lined up on my bedroom dresser to prove it.  Pastor Mom recommended her physician, and amazingly, he was both a member of our group and, after some initial wrangling, turned out to be taking new patients.

We pay $15 for an office visit.  After my appointment, I headed upstairs to the lab to give my blood and urine.  The lab asked for no money.  Then I went to the local pharmacy to fill my prescription.  Five bucks.

Doc says he’s going to set me up with an eye appointment and that I need to get into one of those paper gowns and have me a colonoscopy.  I also need to see specialists about a couple of other things.  Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, all these uncomfortable, annoying and necessary things will actually happen to this unemployed guy.

Maybe I don’t need to go to Canada after all.

The Social Network, Medical Style

Both Denny’s and our local diner are gathering places where friends meet for breakfast and lunch, community groups hold meetings and neighbors run into each other and share coffee and gossip.  But the vibe at Duke’s oozes authenticity, while Denny’s gives off the distinct aura of kitsch.  After all, it is a national chain.  And as much as Denny’s aspires to the genuine, it can never be anything more than a poseur.

Case in point:  Denny’s has begun to decorate its restaurants with wallpaper silk screened with not-so-pithy aphorisms that approach the boundaries of idiocy.   Here’s what I mean:

  • “A diner is a restaurant with its shirt untucked.”  (Thank goodness for that.  Here in rural northern California, I was getting tired of dressing up in suit and tie for dinner at Lutèce every night.)
  • “Bacon and eggs:  All in a day’s work for the chicken, a lifetime commitment for the pig.”  (Please don’t insult my intelligence.  Disneyland is thataway.)

Then there are the sayings that focus less on the restaurant itself and more on its customers.

  • “A diner booth is the world’s smallest neighborhood.”
  • “A diner is the original social network.”

I get the message that Denny’s is attempting to conjure up an old-timey feel that probably didn’t exist back then and certainly doesn’t exist now.  The irony of using the phrase “social network” in creating an image of yesteryear is not lost on me.

But today I discovered that it’s all a lie.  It simply isn’t true that a diner is the world’s smallest neighborhood or the original social network.

The doctor’s office is.

Early this morning, I accompanied Pastor Mom to her cardiologist appointment, where she had radioactive dye pumped into her veins and her motor revved up way beyond the legal speed limit.  Last time, the procedure made her ill, so we wanted to be sure that she wouldn’t have to drive home.  Armed with my book, my phone and my water bottle, I spent two hours ensconced upon a leather couch in the doctor’s waiting room.

The first thing I noticed was that Pastor Mom was by far the youngest patient there.  She was called in right away and I had plenty of time to bury my face in my book while I surreptitiously eavesdropped on the conversations going on all around me.  And there were plenty of those, the cooking show demonstrating the preparation of eggs benedict and hash brown potatoes on the wall-mounted TV being universally ignored.

The two elderly gentlemen seated behind me were discussing the relative comedic merits of Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.  The two old ladies seated on the couch catty-corner to my own were lamenting the departure of Jay Leno from The Tonight Show, agreeing that the new guy, Jimmy Fallon, is strictly for the younger crowd.  Who can even understand the references that these young guys make?  Then the topic moved on to the Olympics, how spectacular the Opening Ceremonies were, and whether it’s better to stay up late to watch all the action or to record it and play it back early in the morning.

One patient using an oxygen tank waited her turn in a wheelchair; another came through the door using a cane and being supported by the arm of his wife.  Most were in the eighties or beyond.  I saw no iPads or PCs, few cell phones and plenty of old-fashioned, hard copy books.

Some of the patients appeared to know each other.  They inquired after the health of family members, catching up on who had moved out of town and who had died.  Perhaps they had met in this very waiting room on other occasions, or perhaps they knew each other from around town.

But what quickly became clear to me was that many of the grandmas and grandpas with whom I shared the waiting room had simply sat down and began conversations with their neighbors, taking advantage of serendipity and time to kill to make friendly connections with others who they may or may not ever see again.

So suck it, Denny’s.  You are not the world’s smallest neighborhood nor yet the original social network.

The cardiologist’s office is.