Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Million Dollar Work-Up

After a year of testing, the curious doctors at UPMC probably have more of my DNA than I do.
by Shawn K. Inlow

Part 2 of a series on living kidney donation.

Most people get a check-up when they turn 50.  Usually this includes a cursory visit to your regular doctor and they tell you to cut down on salt and get some exercise.  If you have a health care plan, you probably go and get a colonoscopy, that pleasant rite of passage into your golden years.

For me, it was different.  My brother, Chuck, who you may have met in the last post, was getting to the point in his life where he would need dialysis.  A medication he'd relied on most of his adult life was known to damage his kidneys over time.  So a little over a year ago, my siblings (I'm number 6 of 7.) began getting blood tests to see who among us might be a suitable match to donate a kidney.

So my check-up, then at the age of 51, was possibly going to be a little more extensive.

When you first get the idea that you might have to become what they call a "living donor," you have a little trepidation.  It's the part of the movie where everyone is drawing straws and you kind of hope you don't draw the short straw but you have to man up and pick.

I had to go and get a preliminary blood draw on the same day that my brother did and the samples were to be sent off to the lab at UPMC Montifiore in Pittsburgh.  My preliminary match was good and this began a process that I and others in my family would begin together, but that only I would complete.

I was in contact with a living donor coordinator by the name of Mary Gorinski and she was to be my tether to the whole process.  We'll talk about Mary more later, but your donor coordinator becomes a pretty important person when you are thinking about donating an organ.  And I began to learn from her that just being a match wasn't necessarily good enough to become a donor.

I received in the mail a medical card so I wouldn't have to pay for the kinds of lab work that would follow.  I was to present this card to providers wherever I sought to get testing done, etc.  This was, ostensibly, to make the testing more convenient for me.

A letter accompanying all the scripts I'd receive tried to explain to the rural Pennsylvania providers that I was not to pay for any of these tests, but the billing was to be through the account on the medical card.  Well.  Billing is apparently complicated and I'd gotten more than a few oddball looks at the inpatient desks while staff tried to figure out what numbers to punch into what computer.

Suffice to say, it did not go well.  Some of the stuff, like a blood draw (there were many of those), were pretty straight forward and the staff at the local health care facilities genuinely wanted to be of help...

... When you are donating a kidney, people think you are an ok guy and it is humbling to be looked at in that way or to be told you are doing something wonderful...

But when it comes to collecting jugs of your own urine and storing them in the fridge?  That really slowed me down.  First off, I went and got the proper containers - big orange things - from Geisinger in Philipsburg.  But when I got home and read the instructions I found out I couldn't just take a leak into the container.  I had to get ANOTHER container and pee in it first and then pour it all ("every drop") into the big orange container and then I had to put that in the fridge.  Gross.

So I'm lookin' around my house for a piece of expendable Tupperware or something that I can piss in without spilling any and I finally had to go and buy a Tupperware that seemed to suit.  And I collected every drop of my urine for a day or two.

I guess this was all to test my "flow."  Not my badass rhymes, oh-no.  This was all about the total volume of urine I produced in an exactly measured amount of time.  I had an awesome flow.  I was a beer drinker at the time (more on that later) and I had some heavy orange jugs at the end of two days that I turned in at the local lab.

But the pure prospect of keeping jugs of piss in the fridge really slowed me down.  This was not because I was hoping my oldest sister, Punky, would hurry up and match first.  This was because putting piss in the fridge is weird.  But I did it.

In April of 2013 I went and got my own colonoscopy because I didn't want this hassle of going through getting one "for free" with my new medical card.  And I have to say, despite the "prep work," I rather enjoyed the colonoscopy.  It was probably the best day of rest I've had over the remainder of the intervening year and I woke up refreshed, if a little squishy in the boot.

The nice thing about this process is they really, really wanna make sure you don't have any form of cancer.  So.  Y'know.  Whoo!

After a few back and forths with Mary where I asked if I could just come down to Pittsburgh for a day or two and do all the tests they wanted, UPMC actually changed their protocol to try to do just that.  So after months of farting around, I was scheduled in September of 2013 to spend two days in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh for testing.

I didn't stay at the hospital.  I stayed at this charming thing called "Family House."  More on that later.

In this process, you begin to really evaluate yourself.  The doctors are looking at you right side up, up side down, inside out and every which way.  These facts.  These scans.  These measurements.  They make you feel like you aren't good enough.  And you begin to wonder.  You begin to hope that you are indeed good enough.  At first, I wasn't good enough.

Walking into these tests, I weighed about 215 pounds and stood just a little taller than 5' 7".  I was fat.  Oh, I still am, but I've lost 23 pounds in the four weeks since the operation... More on THAT later.  In my defense, I AM big boned.  For real.  My chiropractor once took a look at my x-rays and told me my bones were about 10% bigger than normal.  It makes me kind of thick for as short as I am.

When I was 30, I was called into the doctor's office at Fort Indiantown Gap during my cadet days in the Pennsylvania State Police because my weight, 174, was too heavy for my height on the chart.  Back then, if you were a fatty, they'd just boot you out of the six month training program.  The doc there took one look at the chart and one look at me and told me to go back to training.  There wasn't an ounce of fat on me.  Like I said... I'm big boned.

But the discovery of alcohol in college, beering myself through the hair-band 80's, and two decades of heavy self-medication as a State Trooper had done it's best to destroy what was left of a once supremely fit college soccer player.

The two-day testing process checked everything.  I walked back and forth from Family House to UPMC and was taken in and glided from test to test.

First it was height and weight and vitals.  Then the first of crazy amounts of blood draws all put into tubes with different colored caps.  Then it was off to a stress test where they made my fat ass run uphill at full-tilt-boogie with wires hanging offa me and my right arm extended straight out to the side with a blood pressure cuff.  It sucked, but I used to run a lot so, I guess it was okay.

Then there were ultrasounds of my torso.  Then they stuck me in a donut that imaged my torso completely.  I so wanted the pictures.  Then more blood draws.

Then there was this battery of interviews.  Met the guy, Doctor Tevar, who might do the cutting.  He told me that, you know, with any surgery you can die.  He told me that if I needed a reason to be rejected as a donor, he'd give me one.  Said I could stop the process the whole way up to the moment of the operation.  Met an "advocate" who wanted to make sure I was not being coerced into donation or that I was not getting paid (More on THAT later.  It is illegal to sell your organs.)  Someone else told me I could no longer play ice hockey and stuff.  Someone told me I had gallstones but they weren't getting in the way of anything so they'd just leave 'em be.

My favorite was probably the psychologist.  No, really.  They wanna know what's in the head of people donating organs.

"Why do you want to donate your kidney," she asked me.

"I don't want to donate my kidney," I said.  "Who wants to donate their kidney?"  I explained to her that any good person who could help another person should help that person.  It was more a moral compulsion.  I had to ask myself, what kind of person would leave his brother hanging?  I didn't want to donate my kidney, I had to.  There was no choice in the matter.

I was pronounced the pillar of mental health.  And let me tell ya, that was a load off my mind.

And they presented me to the transplant team to donate my kidney and this team went over my entire medical record line by line.  I flunked.

They had concerns.  They told me that there were two things.

One was that I was a fatty.  One of the things that raises a red flag is that you can't have a person with one kidney becoming pre-diabetic as diabetes really can hurt your kidneys.  So it wouldn't do anyone any good for me to donate a kidney and then need to receive a kidney myself.  Plus, my organs had fat deposits in them.  I had a fatty kidney.

The other thing was that they detected an abnormal amount of iron pooling in my liver.  When you're talking about donating a part of the organs that filter your blood (Think of a car's air and oil filters.  When they clog up, things go wrong with the car.) you need all of your filters working well.  And this unusual pooling of iron - They described it as the opposite of anemia.  My blood was really rich. - could be genetic or something else and they needed to know what.

It was explained that this pooling of iron would have otherwise never been detected until it killed me.  A treatment for the condition is to simply donate blood regularly, so my body would have to use up the iron to make more blood.

The cause, sometimes, is alcoholism.  They tried to be nice about it and say some north-western European cultures (read: Irish, which I am) tended to have this genetic predisposition.  But they wanted to get to the bottom of this condition.

This made me feel lousy.  I felt like I'd failed.  I wasn't good enough.  And, worse, that the bad decisions I'd made my whole life, drinking too much and overeating, had robbed me of the chance to help my brother.

So in November of 2013 I underwent a liver biopsy to get to the bottom of this condition.  It turns out I did not have this genetic predisposition.  So it was something else.  They said, despite my other "numbers" (you know, cholesterol, blood pressure, all that) being good, this was a worry and I was denied a second time to be a donor.

So they put me on the wagon.  No alcohol for three months.  A prick's trick, to be sure just before Thanksgiving and covering both Christmas and New Years.  And if I came back in three months with no alcohol and I was improved, maybe then I could donate.

This past winter was a hard one.  It wasn't that I'd given up drinking.  Somehow over time the television commercials convince you that you love beer.  I found giving it up was easy.  The hard thing was the walking.

I decided I'd walk three to six miles every day all winter long until this next test.  Weirdly, I didn't lose any weight.  And it got cold this winter.  And every day I'd look at the thermometer and look outside and ask myself the same question:  "Do you love your brother?"  And I would leave my house wrapped in infinite layers regardless of the conditions because the answer to the question was easy.

And man, I was strong on my pegs by the end of it.  Even at 215 pounds, I felt like a new person.  I could run with the indoor soccer kids for the first time in years.  And I went back for more testing.

On February 18th of 2014 - three months to the day from my last refusal by the transplant committee - I went back and my numbers were spectacular.  I was pitched to the committee a third time and was accepted.  All that remained was a final (blood) cross-match, which came back good.

From the date I was told the final match was good to the time of the transplant was three weeks.  It could have been sooner, but it was a matter of personal schedules.  And on March 13, 2014, my big brother and I went down to UPMC Montefiore and shared an operating theater.

We are about a month or more post-op now, and I want to tell you that Chuck and I are doing pretty well.  He came home only two days after I did and he has not been to the dialysis center since.  But there was so much more to this experience I want to share with you.

Next time, we'll talk about the wonderful "Family House" set-up they have at UPMC and I'll want to introduce you to the amazaing community of people there; people whose stories make mine pale in comparison.

I'm also planning posts on the procedure itself and the recovery.  But for now, I want to leave you with this:  This Million Dollar Work-Up has been the most comprehensive 50 year old checkup anyone could possibly imagine.  I have discovered health issues that could have killed me, but that now I can do something about before it's too late.

So, while I did not "sell" my kidney, I did get paid.  I have never received such royal treatment in any healthcare scenario nor have I ever learned more about myself.

And I think back to my visit with Chuck at the dialysis clinic on Turnpike Avenue in Clearfield, Pa.  And I think of all those other people who were there and I wonder how they are.  Have they been as lucky as me and my brother?

And I think to myself: shouldn't everyone of that certain age around 50, when you're going to get that checkup... Shouldn't everyone consider contacting a donation coordinator and beginning the evaluation process?  Your road will probably be less complicated than mine.  And you will get the most thorough checkup of your life.  Maybe you donate your kidney to a stranger and become what they call an "altruistic donor," but how lovely is that?  You can save someone.  At the very minimum, you are doing at least one truly good thing with your life.  In the final accounting, you will have helped someone else.

You do get paid.  In ways that are far richer than you might think.

So if you're one of those people of a certain age whose reckless days are maybe behind you;  if you need to go and get that 50 year old check-up and don't have the kind of health care plan that will do you much good; if you know someone who needs help, be it liver or kidney donation perhaps, or better still even if you don't... I can tell you there are a lot of souls waiting for help...  then I offer you this phone number:  1-412-647-5800.

When you call the Thomas E. Starzl Transplant Clinic, you get one of those messages about pressing 1 or pressing 2, but all you have to do is wait it out.  They don't have an option for "Person who wants to donate a kidney."  So you wait it out and a real person answers and you tell 'em you'd like to become a living donor.

When you meet Mary Gorinski or one of the other donor coordinators, you will be better for the experience and, likely, so will someone else.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Turnpike Avenue

Literacy:  Pop bottles found along my brother's paper route paid for my early comic book collection.
by Shawn K. Inlow

Turnpike Avenue runs through my life like connective tissue.

Turnpike is a long, narrow, straight road that runs from the downtown at one end, where the junior high school was, the whole way out to a place called Paradise, where my father was born and raised and went to a one-room schoolhouse.  It connects the entirety of Clearfield, Pennsylvania's west side like one long yard stick.

Here is Robbie Spingola's house, where we'd stop on the walk to school and play bumper pool and watch Robbie and his sisters Deanna and Valerie fight over God knows what until they'd wake their father from his third trick slumber and he'd come down in his underwear and threaten them all.

There was Tim and Bobby Cline's house up a pair of steep steps by the Clearfield Taxidermy where we played "Green Growth" as kids.

Here, at the corner of Turnpike and McBride was "The Wall."  The Wall was our street-corner hangout, probably much to the chagrin of the Rowles family who lived there and somehow tolerated us.  McBride Street was simply called, "The Street," and we were its punk kid inhabitants.  When you were going "Up the Street," you were heading roughly to the 700 block of McBride, where I lived.  For some natural reason the older boys who my big brother, Chuck, hung out with:  Boyd & Dave McKenrick, Scotty Duckett,  Barry Angstadt, Dave Beauseignor, Dave Potter, Spiff, Frog Moore - also hung out there.  Those guys were awesome.  Frog had a "Super Bee" muscle car.  Spiff was a nice dresser and a handsome guy and he had a hot girlfriend.  Dave had a dirt bike that we'd hot-wire and take for rides in the strippins.

Further up Turnpike was Ed Billotte's Star Grocery and the Clearfield Hospital, where I was born and where most of my family at one time or another worked.  Further out was my Dad's homestead.  In Paradise, where he has returned, God rest his soul.

I want to tell you today two stories about my big brother that took place on Turnpike Avenue.

Story 1.  1967.  A scrawny 6 year-old in jeans and a raggedy t-shirt is walking in the roadside grass along Turnpike, just past the hospital.  I'd spied the old bottle of Mountain Dew glittering green in the sunlight and I liked the cartoon logo of the hillbilly with the hole in his hat and his rifle raised.

I galloped up alongside Chuck and traded him the bottle for a newspaper that he drew out of a large white canvas bag he had slung over his shoulder.  The bottle disappeared in the bag and rattled against several others we'd found.  He handed me the paper, folded just so.

"The green house over there.  Put it in the mailbox," he said, and off I raced across the road, helping my big brother do his job.

I don't remember who lived there in 1967.  In the mid 1980s a pretty good drummer name of Tommy Rowles lived there.  We walked out Turnpike together, two blonde-haired boys cut from the same cloth ten years apart.

On the return trip, with a bag empty of The Progress and full of pop bottles we stopped into Ed's, a kind of neighborhood store that no longer exists anywhere.  We'd cash in the bottles at something like 10 cents each.  A small fortune.

On the way back up The Street I'd carry the comic books we'd got from the rack.  Chuck would share his bottle of pop with me after the day's work and would hand down the comics too once he'd read them.   My love of literature came from these comics.

Chuck was a DC guy.  He said he didn't like that the Marvel comics were serialized and you had to always buy the next issue to finish the story.  I, however, had my eye on the very cool looking issues of "The Incredible Hulk."

My brother would never go to Vietnam.  His shin had been broken completely in half in a Babe Ruth game between Dufton's and McGregor's.  Chuck was playing second and the throw down from the catcher made him leap high over the bag and when he came down, the would be thief's spikes literally cleaned his leg out from under him.

I guess the steel plate by which my brother's shin was put back together kept him out of the war.  A fortuitous play at second.  I don't remember Chuck's baseball accident.  He can still tell you the name of the base stealer, but I think you have to thank the catcher too for a lousy throw.  I don't remember much about the 1960s.  I did not know about Vietnam.  I missed The Beatles.  The Big Things, to me, were my big brothers, Chuck and John, who loomed large in my world, a paper route, pop bottles, comic books.

And the world turned on its axis.

Story 2. 2013.  I parked my car in the parking lot where that green house along Turnpike had once stood.  There are medical offices there.  I was passing by and I knew it was Chuck's dialysis day and I thought to go in there to sit with him.  Chuck has to go on the machine every other day or so.

Over the years, my brother had come to depend on a medication that slowly destroyed his kidneys.  And the time had come and members of my family began to get tested to become donors.  A preliminary test showed I was a match.  A possible donor.  And I'd thrown myself deeper into the testing procedure - which I'll tell you about another time - so as to hurry and help my brother.

But this visit is my second story.

The dialysis room, once they let you in and give you things to wear so you don't cause a mess, is really clean.  And quiet.  And square.  And cold.  Almost refrigerated.  Around this room were eight or twelve comfortable chairs, with a square white machine beside each.  Most of the chairs were full of people, most of whom were dozing.

I sat down beside my sleeping brother not bothering to wake him up.  He was snuggled under a useful if unadorned blanket.  A tube red with his blood ran out of his right arm and into the machine and back again into his body.  It was a chilling, austere and sad thing.  And I looked around at all the others.  Never had I thought that there were "other" people like my brother, who needed dialysis to survive.  And I wondered what Chuck's chances were.  I wondered who would be there for all these others.  What were their chances?

The healthy don't think about the sick unless somehow the sickness intrudes on their world.  Being in the dialysis room was a sharp awakening for me.

My big brother stirred and awakened too.

"Hey, Shawn, how you doin'?"  He sounded weak and tired but glad to see me.

"Doin' okay, Chuck.  Gonna try to get you offa this machine."

He had had a book open but he didn't get far before the cold and quiet conspired to make sleep.  And we passed some time.  I couldn't stay for the rest of the two-hour session.

When I pulled out of the parking lot and turned toward town on Turnpike Avenue, I accelerated, passing between the hospital and the upper parking lot that used to be a field where we played football.  Where I'd found a green pop bottle once.  I drove past where Ed's Star Grocery used to be.  In it's place is now a hideous looking square, brown doctor's office.  Across from The Wall is another parking lot where Duckett's Field used to be, where we played wiffle ball.  Another hideous looking doctor's office stands where Scotty Duckett's house once was.

Everything is turning into lousy doctors' offices and parking lots.

The world turns on its axis.

But everything isn't shitty.  Here's the thing.  Chuck and I are going to the hospital in Pittsburgh this week and we're going to share an operating theater.  After almost a year and a million dollar work-up and a great deal of learning about myself and the donation process, we're going to share an operation.

And to my brother, who handed me down everything from clothes to comic books, who taught me how to box and how to wrestle, well, finally, I'm going to give him something back.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sleepless Night

by Shawn K. Inlow

I was first to bed last night.

It was almost midnight and my family was quiet.  Mrs. had drifted off in front of the teevee.  Boy was under headphones and thinking about music and art.

The stories I did not write today gnaw at me every night.  They visit me when I lay down and I think of where I left them every night before I drift off to sleep.  Someone is trying to tell me something.

I awoke at 4 a.m.  Sometimes the fear of life grips me and to settle myself down I open a book and read until I can no longer keep my eyes open.  Lately, though, I have felt fine.  Right.  Good with things.  But still I lie awake.

I open a book and read a few chapters under a tiny light and transport myself into someone else's story.  I put the book down.  Turn off the light.  And lie awake looking at the dark window.

And everything comes back.  My stories return to say, "Hello, and you've been given another day."  I think of my father.  Gone.  My mother.  Gone.  I notice the woman beside me who came to bed while I slept.  I think of the love story between us.  How I sang at her doorstep.

The ribbons of memory and startling, breathless tendrils of joy curl out from my body as the window frame hints a shade lighter.  The world between the sleeping and the waking, you can breathe in it.  You can feel in it.  You can remember who you are.  And be glad.  And be grateful.  And so deeply, deeply in love.

I sit on the side of the bed and put on my Sunday clothes.  Impossible sleep, I am the first out of bed today.  I quietly make some coffee and I can see the dim white of snow outside.

I have been given another day.

The dawn breaks and I walk into it fully alive.  Not knowing what's next or how this story turns today.  But something woke me and whispered in my ear.

You have another day.
You have another day.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Video Vault: Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls: Evocative low budget film may have helped shape the zombie genre.

 by Shawn K. Inlow

Anyone who's seen a lot of cinema can quickly note the antecedents of and precedents set by today's tidy little horror masterpiece.  Perhaps the little film has never got its due, but it reminds of a very good Twilight Zone episode and foreshadows films like "Night of the Living Dead."

What sets this small budget 1962 indie apart, though, is its thoroughly eerie atmosphere.  Even scenes of very normal every day life seem uncomfortable to the viewer.  And the movie isn't a shocker.  It's ... idunno... ominous?  

Mary Henry
Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

Candace Hilligoss is a poor man's Janet Leigh, a pretty-ish blonde who manages to crawl out of a river (at right) after a terrible car crash.  She doesn't remember anything about the crash or others who might have disappeared in the water, but she decides to continue to a small Utah town where she will take up employment as a church organist.

Mary Henry is a woman on a very strange journey.

"Date!  Yeah!  That's the ticket!"

She distances herself from people and seems not to know how to mix in.  She doesn't know what to do with the lothario, John Linden (played by Sidney Berger, he's the spitting image of a young John Lovitz' "Liar Guy" who's taken a step right to the edge of creepy.) who boards at the same house.  Despite working in a church setting, she does not take religion seriously.  (On the cusp of the moralist 1950s, I can see this being a glaring road-sign more then than now.)

Completing the picture of isolation are these unnerving sequences when the film goes utterly quiet in an otherwise mundane setting and Mary feels like nobody can see her.  A psychologist explains her fright by noting she's had a recent shock.

Zombie #1?
Zombie #1a by Romero?

And then there's this guy.  Herk Harvey, until then a director of industrial educational films, used egg white on his face to transform himself into the quintessential pallid phantasm who seems to pursue Mary.  The use of this image, through a car window, or submerged in shallow water puts a cherry on top of this film's atmosphere.  Harvey's phantasm (left) perfectly imagines the nattily dressed, freshly buried zombie (right) from the opening scenes of 1969's zombie classic by George Romero, "Night of the Living Dead."

An abandoned music pier seems to call out to Mary Henry. Drawing her toward her uncertain fate.
One of the principle locations used in the film is an abandoned amusement park, set shadowy and broken down on a music pier.  The place looks byzantine in its affect, with domed spires and Arabian arches.  Like some broken down Coney Island, it echos a past liveliness gone to seed.  This location seems to call out to Mary and peak her curiosity.  In the way a clown can look laughable or lurid, this setting was a nightmare come true for Herk Harvey when he was able to use it at no cost.

And "Carnival of Souls" makes gorgeous use of its black and white.  The lighting and the use of shadow in this film propel the film like a broken wheel-chair careening downhill toward spooky-town.  There are countless still frames here that bear pausing the grinder and pouring over the image.  Add this to a soundtrack that can soothe or jar the senses.  The use of heavy doses of organ music makes obvious sense in the plot and the way it darts between sacred and hellish adds nicely to the film's themes.

I run the risk of giving this little late night gem too much credit.  But I cannot escape the thought that it is one of those little movies, like "Targets" (1968) or "Last House on the Left" (1972), that helped change the genre, bridging the gap from classic Universal monster mashes and Hammer horror to the nascent stages of what we have today.  The fright went from being external (a monster) to being internal (fear and uncertainty).  Or worse, the horror of the perfectly normal.

Candace Hilligoss portrays Mary Henry - A woman on a most unusual journey - in today's feature, "Carnival of Souls."
THANKS & DEDICATION:  This post was the result, albeit a late responding one, to a reader somewhere in the northeast.  She'd dropped me an email and I don't have it anymore asking for a treatment of this film, so I got right on it.  Within the week I'd gotten the Criterion disc from Netflix and studied the film for about three days, doing a shot by shot viewing and producing dozens of pages of notes.

So my apologies to that reader for taking so long and I hope this post reaches you somehow.  I doubly apologize for letting your note slip such that I couldn't remember your name.  My bad.  But your taste in film is good, at least by this example.  And this was a fun film to study. 

So if anyone else wants to put a delicious film on the Voice of the Mountain list, please fire away in the comments below and I'll be happy to oblige.  I especially love finding the little films that people may have missed.  And to the nice lady who suggested "Carnival of Souls," please drop me a line again and let me know your reaction to the post.  For now, accept this review as my thanks.

Until next time, Enjoy!

Monday, February 3, 2014

State of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

I worry too much.  Or do I?

To say that one worries too much implies that maybe there's nothing to worry about.  I care a lot.  I love a lot.  I laugh a lot.  And I worry a lot.  How's that sound?

The Artist, I was telling someone in church this weekend, feels the weight of the world more keenly than most.  Do you ever feel that tidal wave of melancholy?  All the beauty and sadness of this life just wailing on you?  It is, if you are well balanced, a wave that knocks you topsy-turvy and then, when it ebbs, it has by contrast the effect of making all the good things even brighter.

It is, my friend Julie would say, the Libra in me; constantly out of balance and constantly seeking it.

I am opening to you today, dear reader, a larger window on things that has been brought on by my recent thinking on politics, expressly the president's recent state of the union address.  Everybody and their brother had a "response" to the Obama speech.  And they generally all missed the boat.  This is my response:  The State of the Mountain Address.

The Mountain abides.  As my old friend Lao Tzu might say, those things that are not born do not die.  The life on or about The Mountain, though, is in constant turmoil.  Constant change.  We, dear reader, are the little things clinging to life.  The Mountain owns you.  You don't own it.  You may think you do, but one day you return to it.  Your waking life, though, is one of precarity.  Mr. Obama was talking about the ten-thousand things, all of which are reflections, I think, of two basic things:  Economic Problems and Moral Problems.  The two, on a real level, are the same thing.

The sickness lies in an economic paradigm that prizes profit over sustainability.  Profit even over common decency.  Continual growth and increasingly complex energy throughput and waste over simplicity and health.  This world of human affairs is sick.  It is out of balance.  We need to strike a balance.

Continual growth is impossible.  The Mountain is, after all, finite.  There is only so much coal you can dig and so much natural gas you can frack.  Meanwhile the waste heap grows higher and higher, poisoning the air we breathe and the water we drink.  More energy.  More power.  More things.  More pollution.

There are too many people for everyone to live like Americans without us toppling off the Malthusian cliff.  Thus Americans, rich and in the driver's seat of the best of warplanes, can and should lead the world.  But how?  We must decide if we're going to be heroes or villains (the moral question) in the equation.

The words are scary:  Communism, Socialism, Terrorism.  Show me a new "ism" and I'll show you a new war.  The words are scary because you've been propagandized to have negative feelings about these when all they are is ideas.  Capitalism and Imperialism have probably caused more death and destruction in the world.  Communism, Socialism and Capitalism, after all, are just methods of accounting; ways of counting what we have and determining who gets most of it.

We need to think about Idealism.  Altruism.  We need to think about ways that we can share our wealth in ways that improve the world around us.  For instance, I would, with all my money, figure out a way to start an electric cooperative and build a solar or wind farm to help supply my town's needs and use the overage to do the same for other towns.  I could still make some money for my trouble, but is there a need to make a killing?  How much do I need to live well?

We need to shift from a purely capitalist system which demands unsustainable growth to one that includes slow growth or possibly zero growth models for the common good rather than the individual massing of wealth. 

Capitalism has done very well, thank you, at creating wealth.  Since the founding of the USA and through the industrial revolution, the capitalist paradigm magnificently lifted the masses to a quality life.  This wealth has been built on a seemingly endless supply of natural resources.  But the wars are now raging for possession of those dwindling resources that are left.  All over Africa and the Middle East the last fateful gold rush is on in the selfish death spiral that is capitalist, imperialist perpetual growth.

There are big businesses rushing to establish electrical grids in tribal regions of Africa not to enlighten the people but to gain access to their resources.  Soon a tribal person in Africa won't be able to see the stars at night for all the blinding light.  The people will begin to have abnormal rhythms as their days become longer and more "productive."  Then they will get sick and seek medicine.   Can we not just leave them in peace?

I think Cargill and Monsanto and other giant agri-businesses have already changed our DNA with their genetically modified foods and they spend millions of dollars to prevent you, the consumer, from knowing what Faustian bargains they've made to engineer food.  These kinds of companies are destroying farms, destroying soil, and poisoning habitat.  The fossil fuel industry, though it has been hugely beneficial, needs to be grandfathered out because with global warming we're now paying the piper.  And don't get me started on the bankers.

NAFTA unleashed a tidal wave of cheap corn on Mexico and drove whole generations of farmers from their fields, where their labor no longer turned a profit, to the cities, where there was nothing for them, and then, finally, to cross in wave upon wave across the American border to find some way to survive.  This is how an economic decision has caused, not only an immoral disruption of a way of life, but the shattered families of illegal immigration as well.

NAFTA was touted as being great for everyone but it turns out it was a shitty deal for almost everyone.  NAFTA, the North-American Free Trade Agreement, 20 years since it was instituted has been hellish on decent American jobs but very, very nice for corporate profit margins.

And now President Obama wants "fast track" authority to execute another, far worse, "free" trade deal in the Pacific Rim, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.  We are waging global economic capitalist warfare, a destructive brand of economics that will negatively affect much of the population, be a bonanza for corporate ledgers and simply stab the working man in the heart and wreak havoc on the world's climate.

Unless.  Go and read the Dr. Seuss book "The Lorax."  Unless.

We must pull back on the reigns of the runaway engine that is unbridled capitalism.  Capitalism, I heard someone say, must serve democracy rather than impede it.  And given the price of a congressman nowadays and the ways in which corruption and bribery have become the rules of the road, the United States is in no position to lead.

Men like Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch spread disinformation and sew the seeds of scientific illiteracy.  Men like Charles and David Koch are seeking to buy out the government to free themselves to continue their wanton exploitation and ruination of the environment.  There are so many corporate interests lobbying Washington that it is clear that capitalism is hurting democracy.  The government no longer serves the voters.  The government serves the wealthy.  For the love of God, the only people claiming responsibility today are terrorists.

The world's answers cannot be had without American action.  And the villains in this game have have tipped the balance in their greedy self interest.  In fact, they may well have broken the scales entirely, making the societal choices that are needed impossible to come by via common governance.

Time is short and America is unable to move.  Its emperors are fat and lolling on beds padded by legal bribery.  The lock on the doors of power must be broken and the scurrilous bastards who have put us here must be confronted.  They must change or be removed.  Otherwise, these greedy fools will take us all down with them.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

State of the Union Rebuff

Congress at SOTU:  Answers?  They Don't Even Know the Questions.

by Shawn K. Inlow

So I'm watching the President give his state of the union address.  I wasn't going to watch it, but, there I was and it was on and so I watched it.  The funny thing is that immediately after you watch a speech like that, commentators come on and begin to explain to you what you just saw.  That's well enough, I guess, while you're waiting for the republicans to come on and explain to you what you just saw.

In the Obama years, the republican response has been a bit of an adventure.  This has been a great deal of fun for non-republicans.  I mean, you had Bobby Jindal the one year and then you had the water break moment last year of Marco Rubio.  They had Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels a couple years ago and rather than continue in politics after that he took the cushy job of being president (of Purdue University).  And then there was the rising star that was Virginia's "Governor Ultrasound" (Virginia, apparently, is NOT for lovers anymore.) Bob McDonnell, who the feds were good enough to allow to leave office before they indicted him on corruption charges.

I love this stuff because A) the republicans keep trotting out whatever short list of people of color they can find in hopes of looking like anything but what they are (a party full of rich, old white guys) and B) you're taking someone your party ostensibly has high hopes for and your tossing him out there to follow perhaps the greatest natural orator in presidential history.

Used to Pick Apples

Well the other night, they sent out this nice church lady from Washington state.  She was pretty and nice and had absolutely nothing of substance to say.  And, of course, she had the worst case of cotton mouth on record since I woke up from that woods kegger back in 1978.  God lover her, she kept dry gulping in the middle of every sentence but you just know she wasn't gonna pull a Rubio and dive for the water bottle.  

Though she wasn't a person of color, she was that Stepford Wife of the republican party.  She was a woman and, unless you haven't heard, the republicans are waging a "war on women."  So they trot out Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers to prove how pro-woman they are.

Then the republican rebuttal machine doubled down by rolling out Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen because she's a Cuban Woman.  And she talked in SPANISH.  Republicans love women, you see, and sometimes they let them talk. 

And then it got weirder.  In recent years, it just hasn't been good enough just getting a republican out there to fall on their face after the president hits another clean winner.  Nope.  Not good enough.  Lately, we've been treated to the endless pleasure of the "Tea-Party Response."  Because, you know, it's important we let Rupert Murdoch and the Koch Brothers have THEIR say too.  And boy-howdy do THEY know how to pick 'em!  Michelle Bachman a couple years ago.  (Superstar!!!) and Herman Cain, who culled passages of his presidential stump speech from one of the Pokemon theme songs (no joke).  At least Herman Cain was entertaining.

Senator Mike Lee (Rhymes with "Tea") of Utah took to the interwebs and talked about how the tea-party marched from Boston to Philadelphia over the space of 14 years a couple hundred years ago and wrote the Constitution.  To be fair to Lee,  though, he's probably the only one, President Obama included, who managed to touch the actual third rail of the truth about what's really eating Gilbert Grape.

Needs to Read Steinbeck
"This inequality crisis presents itself in three principal forms," said Lee.  "Immobility among the poor, who are trapped in poverty by big-government programs.  Insecurity in the middle class, where families are struggling just to get by and can't seem to get ahead.  And cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic insiders twist the immense power of the federal government to profit at the expense of everyone else."

Lee, in The Mountain's view, is wrong about the first of his three assertions.  Anti-poverty programs like food stamps and public assistance don't trap people from rising up the economic ladder:  They prevent people from plummeting down through the cracks and becoming destitute.  The rich should consider these programs as insurance.  Take them away and watch the crime rate soar as more and more people get more and more desperate.  There ARE no jobs out there and taking away someone's SSI or welfare check is not going to create them.  Some of these people need to put down "Atlas Shrugged" and pick up a copy of "The Grapes of Wrath."

But Lee rings true in his second and third assertions.  It IS hard to get ahead anymore and the power structure at the top is there there like a vampire to suck the marrow out of the dry husk of the American dream.  Lee, though, wants you to distrust the government but trust the big money.  The Mountain says you have to dismantle the mechanisms that allow big money to OWN the government.

Ayn Rand
And then came Rand Paul, the half-sensible / half-baked-potato who, let's face it, can't carry his daddy's jock, who trots out on social media to give a rebuttal to the rebuttal to the rebuttal to the state of the union speech.  

Dumb ass starts out invoking the petrified Ghost of Reagan before segueing into a glorification of the story of the virulent anti-gay far right darling, Star Parker.  The upshot:  More money for rich people is good.

Christ, Almighty.  If these chumps can take a whack at it so can I.  The Mountain will post its first-ever (and hopefully last-ever) state of the union address tomorrow.  The Mountain senses a need for clarity.  People are running around shouting arguments at each other that do not address the real problems.  The Mountain is not a candidate and so has nothing to lose or gain.  Maybe you, dear reader, will begin to think about what the serious questions are instead of the superficial political ones being posited by those with ulterior motives.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Video Vault: French Cancan

French Cancan
1956 - Jean Renoir
NR - 105 minutes
Vault Rating: 6

Jean Gabin - Henri Danglard
Francoise Arnoul - Nini
Maria Felix - Lola
Anna Amendola - Esther Georges
Jean-Roger Caussimon - Baron Walter

Netflix Summary:  Nineteenth century Paris comes vibrantly alive in director Jean Renoir's exhilarating tale of the opening of the world-renowned Moulin Rouge.  Jean Gabin plays the wily impresario Danglard, who makes the cancan all the rage while juggling the love of two beautiful women - an Egyptian belly-dancer and a naive working girl turned  cancan star.  This celebration of life, art and the City of Light includes a rare cameo by Edith Piaf.

Well.  The Netflix summary above should be blushing.  While the film and its auteur are considered among the cinema greats, the "exhilarating" film, to me, only managed to climb into the range of pleasantly affecting.  So why bother?  Read on.

Perhaps I was asking too much of myself.  For example, this was a musical comedy.  Not something Vault generally prizes to begin with.  But in French with subtitles I found it difficult to enjoy the humor while absorbing the actors while they gave their pleasantly affecting performances.

One of the few times subtitles have affected my enjoyment of a film.  Part of this difficulty also arises from some of the film's strengths.   The sets were interesting to look at and my eye was constantly wandering to one pleasantly affecting detail or another which Renoir cleverly litters about his frames.  So.  Grain of salt.

And the way of the film takes a while to fall into.  It's a bit of a slapstick almost quasi-musical-comedy, so getting into the vibe (in French) takes some patience.   I'm sure, at the time in France, this picture was the shizzle.  That it holds its own nearly six decades hence is a testament to its quality.

More interesting is that this is a film less about the famed Paris nightclub and more about those who made it tick.  This film studies its show-people in a way that is very realistic.  Very straightforward. Vault is not much for show-people films either.  But the two principles, Danglard and Nini, have two story arcs that are surprisingly unsentimental.

Danglard is the man behind the Moulin Rouge and, as a finder of talent, and a weaver of dreams, as a lover of women and a showman, he draws beautiful people into his sphere and uses them to create.  They play in his world.

And this struck me as honest.  Having a good deal of experience in theater and having performed, written and directed plays for decades, I could identify strongly with Danglard in the film's climactic sequence.  Nothing gets him off like the audience's joy and approval.

Nini's character arc is also strong and honest, tracing a path from ingenue to showgirl in a way that most musical comedies can't grasp.

The rest of the film is about various trysts and relationships that hit and miss.  Couples don't just wind up together to give us the obligatory happily ever after.  In fact, the speed with which its subjects fall in and out of love is almost cartoonishly reminiscent of, say, a Shakespeare farce.  Like the cancan, it is a weird dance to pull off gracefully.

And legit cancan, pulled off recklessly with a cheeky amount of fishnets and bloomers, high kicks and flying splits (Oooh!  Doesn't that HURT???), certainly can can bring a smile to your face.  Keep those hemlines high, girls!

In all, the film is worth your while.  As I reflect back over "French Cancan," I'm thinking a second look would find me notching my Vault Rating a tad higher.

by Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

Now Hear THIS!!