Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cancer Treatment for Opus

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

Opus: Has Prostate Cancer
A friend of mine has cancer.  Odds are someone you know has cancer too.  People who know me well will quickly identify the person I'm talking about, but I'm going to call him Opus, after my favorite cartoon character, just over there to the left.

So Opus caught prostate cancer in September 2012 when a test called a PSA test detected elevated levels of some indicator.

"I talked to the surgeon on the day I got my diagnosis," says Opus.  "I didn't realize I was talking to the top surgeon in Canada at the time.  My other option was radiation and I investigated that, but when the radiologist heard the name of my doctor, he recommended the surgery."

Today from the mountaintop, we're surveying the land for decent healthcare.  I put in the mast-head (that's the picture at the top) a cut-out of a Michael Moore film, "Sicko," that itself causes medical conditions in some people.  Before we move on with Opus's journey through Canadian health-care, I want to point out to you that Moore's film is accurate.  It's assertions hold up under careful scrutiny.  The man is trying to help.  Opus is proof.

In fact, let's stop playing this idiot game of calling the Canadian system "socialized medicine."  Because it is a slur used by the conservative noise machine to denigrate a system that works better than the corporate model employed here in the U.S.  Let's just call it "Canadian health care," shall we?

Opus is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Ottawa since 1995.  He's got a family and holds down three jobs and makes $30,000 a year.  His wife makes more, but the point is these are not rich folks or, as Opus says to me, "I'm not important."

From diagnosis to surgery was four months and my friends' prognosis is good.    He had what's called a daVinci radical robotic prostatectomy.  If ya wanna see some messed up video, click the link.  I promise, though, you will not see Opus's junk.  His journey through Canadian health care from diagnosis to surgical cure at the hands of the best team in the nation was four months and it cost him... 

Wait for it...



Opus:  Junk Still Works
"This surgery in the U.S. can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $70,000 and that doesn't even touch follow up care," says Opus.  Imagine along with me if you're holding down three part time jobs in the U.S. how good the health care system might work for you.  It could eat up your house and your life savings and leave you flat.

But.  That's America.

Opus says he's walking around now and you wouldn't be able to tell there's anything wrong with him.  He says the surgery was so successful, the doctors are confident his junk will heal and he'll be able to ... um ... you know ... again.  Has something to do with damaging a key nerve in there.

There are drawbacks to the Canadian system, according to Opus.  He says you can wait for some things if they're not life threatening.  You might wait a couple months to get an MRI.

"When I called the surgeon back on November 25 having decided to book the surgery, I didn't hear back from him until January.  But once I booked the surgery, I went in on February 13th.  So it was pretty quick, altogether.  I was only  in the hospital one day.  I went in at 6, the surgery - a six hour proceedure -  at 8:30,  I was out the following day in the evening.  On Thursday, after six hours of surgery, I walked for an hour."

Opus says his medical journey wasn't exactly free of charge.  It cost his wife up to $13 per day to park at the hospital if she was staying longer than three hours.  

"The hospital uses that money to buy wheelchairs and stuff," says Opus. 

And his PSA test, which saved his life, cost him $35.

And you don't get private rooms in Canada.  You can, but they cost more.

"I had a semi-private room," says Opus, "And they cost more.  $180 per day I would have had to pay if I didn't have some work health care to pay for it."

So you're telling me you get some form of health care plan that goes with part-time jobs in Canada too?  Jesus.  How DO they DO it?

"We do pay 13% sales tax in Ontario.  But not on groceries," says Opus.  So the poorest of people don't get hit hard for the necessities.  Cool thing though, Opus says for a chocolate bar: 13% sales tax.  But for bread and milk and other necessary groceries, the sales tax does not apply.  Jeez.  It could drive a man from drinkin'.  It could make you eat healthy.  My GOD.

"The amount of income tax is not exorbitant here," he says.  "There are some write offs but not like in the US.  For instance, you can't write off the interest on a home loan here."

Of course, that write off helped me with taxes when I was paying for my home, but the thing here in the U.S. is that the other end of that deal is that's a big way for the very, very rich to hide their wealth.  You sink it into real estate and don't pay off your house and, voi'la!  Instant tax shelter.  It is how someone like Mitt Romney has umpteen bajillion mansions around the country.

And Opus says his taxes are manageable in Canada.

"My income tax is really low.   I'm a substitute teacher.  I work three jobs and my total income is $30,000 per year.  My wife's income is a lot higher.  My income tax is probably only 15% or not quite that."

Opus also points out that you might have a shorter wait in the U.S. but that the system, the way I read his statement, seems to discourage  hypochondria.  I know how often I've gone to the hospital just because I was having a panic attack when nothing was wrong with me except that I was enduring a lot of stress.  Apparently, in Canada, I'd have got there, waited around a while, felt better and then gone home.  No charge for that.

"You might have a shorter wait in the US.  If you are waiting for something that isn't major, or isn't life threatening, you can wait a while.  You can wait months for an MRI.  If you need something addressed quickly, though, you get the treatment.  They brought out two great surgeons.  Other surgeons observing.  Quite the team in the OR.  And I'm nobody particularly important.  So for me, it's been an absolutely incredible experience."


"Well," Opus qualifies.  "The biopsy was the most painful two minutes of my entire life."

Yeah.  Catheters up yer ying-yang can have that effect.

Goddam Canadians anyway.  Well, Opus is an American mooching off the Canadians.

"Yeah, I have to get around to applying for citizenship, I guess," says Opus.  "I'm considered a landed immigrant.  It's like having a green card."

And I'm wondering if you have to sneak across the border.  Or if there are walls being built to keep Americans out.

"I drove a car," says Opus, who launches into how he was downsized at a huge Canadian telecom but that came with a year's wages, which he used to go back to school and retrain as a teacher, which he loves.

And so now a non-Frech speaking American is living happily in Ottawa holding down three jobs and having earned three degrees.

"The educational system here is wonderful.  I've got a B.A. in History and English and a B.A. in Education and another bachelorate I got while working at the big telecom that they paid for," says Opus.

"School is very cheap here."

Oh, Christ.  Here we go again.

"It amounts to about $5,000 a year."


"And while I was retraining, I stayed home with the kids and went to school at night and..."

We leave our dear friend, Opus, as he expounds on the wonderful, low-cost, educational opportunities he found in the Great White North.  While we, in the U.S., deride the quality of care he got in many realms of his life as "socialist."

Somebody needs to go throw a brick through the window at Blue Cross / Blue Shield.  'Cause congress sure isn't listening.

Wouldn't it be nice if our country provided for its citizens the way Canada does for an immigrant?  How about we provide universal single-payer health care for all Americans and stop having wars all the time?  Probably be able to balance the damn budget at the same time.

Goddam Canadians.


Canadian Commuters Ice Skate to Work on Rideau Canal.
Housekeeping:  I know my friend, Opus, enjoys The Voice of the Mountain.  So he's reading me from way up north where the chief export is cold air.  (No.  Really.  They export that shit.  And, weirdly, they don't seem to feel it.  I mean, dudes put on ice skates and they skate to work down the frozen over Rideau Canal wearing business suits and carrying briefcases.  Weirdest thing I ever saw.  And they have festivals where they celebrate ice.)

But Opus is looking on and I bet he'd be willing to discuss with you his experience of the Canadian health care system.  He lived here in the states most of his life.  Worked here.  Went to the hospital here.  So Opus has a wider view on the issue than some do here stateside.

If you choose to ask your questions, leave them in the comments below and I'll try to get Opus to chat back with you.  I think we could use his "absolutely incredible experience" to evolve our conversation in the U.S.

Until next time.

Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Club Noir

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

It's six o'clock of a Thursday evening and the Osceola Mills Community Library is about to close.  Some are putting on their winter coats and getting outta Dodge while other more suspicious types drift in.

I'm middle aged and a bit flabby and I've taken refuge from the 18 degree temperatures outside in a ratty old brown winter coat and hood.  I've got holes in both knees of my unwashed jeans and a Uni-Ball vision pen clipped like a concealed weapon inside the collar of a t-shirt that is beginning to smell a bit too much like me.  A banged up pair of reading glasses clings there too by one of its stems as if my chest might be far-sighted.

Under one arm is a hard-bound edition big enough to require a wagon to carry it around.  Under the other is a green leather bound Kindle.  I roll in both worlds.

Another shifty character is over there in a brown parka trying to trade the cold for as much of the dry, musty heat of the dowdy little library as she can.  Underneath the massive coat she looks years younger than she might be.  She's carrying two volumes and tucked into a pocket are blank note cards and a cheap ball point.  She looks trustworthy.

A shorter, wise looking woman moves over to the entrance and locks us in.  She turns to us and looks at us through scheming, bespectacled eyes that hint of a liking of trouble.  Like she might be an informer or a double agent of some kind. And she cracks a half-smile and marches past me toward the reference room.

It's a dimly lit place but the walls are covered in this section by nicely bound books about and by the various Presidents of the United States.  We take up seats at a round table and take the measure of one another.

The woman across the table from me on the right is a tall drink of water of Polish descent and perfectly placed yellow hair framing bright red lipstick.  You wanna watch this one.  She's got a homespun looking bag that looks harmless as she pulls it onto her lap.  A hand drifts inside the lip and emerges with a bottle of Choco Vina.

"Its a good wine.  Flavored with chocolate," she says as her eyes dart around the table.  Some small plastic cups follow and the mood of the table warms.

The woman on my left claims to have been a school teacher.  I doubted her cover because she didn't have the crows' feet around the eyes or the worn down enamel of teeth grinding hard against each other like most teachers do.  I change my mind, though when she pulls a can of mace out of her bag and places it on the table to the left, a mystery novel which she places squarely before her atop three other paperbacks and a snub nose .38 which she places in easy reach on her right.  Obviously a teacher.

These are the dangerous types and thugs that you hang around with when you reach a certain dead end in life.  There are, to my knowledge, at least five book lovers in Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania.

A glass of the black wine is placed before me and I wave it off.  I'd been drinking Black & Tans earlier and a chocolate flavored wine would crash that party like a gorilla in a banana factory.  I couldn't risk it.  Too dangerous.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain
I screwed up my nerve and went first.  The thousand page tome I'd carried in was the Autobiography of Mark Twain.  The American humorist and author of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" dictated his autobiography extemporaneously in his waning years and had finally gotten the thing off his chest by the time he died in 1910 with the proviso that his story should not see the light of day until 100 years after his death.

Thus to save the feelings of friends and churls alike, I think.  What an odd and prescient thing to do, to free oneself and one's story from beyond the grave to better serve the truth.  The long view.  So to read the tome, which meanders around like the Mississippi of Twain's childhood, is akin to hearing the man, himself, talk.  First person.  About the world he was in just then from the time of the old south, through the odd newspaper coverage of western duels, through the civil war to the turn of the last century, it is as if the great talker transports you there to see for yourself what it is to step back 100 years and look around.

Next up was the trustworthy woman, who'd sat down to my right.  It was hard to pay strict attention to the books she brought to the table because I felt a need, probably rising from my many years as a G-Man, to keep an eye on the .38 to my left.

From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler is a Newberry winning story by E.L. Konigsburg for young readers about a girl, Claudia, who feels she isn't appreciated at home.  In order to give her parents a dose of "Claudia appreciation" she runs away with her younger brother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a wholly interesting place to live.

She also brought a book, Every Day by David Levithan, which has a tremendous premise.  The N.Y. Times bestseller follows the love story of "A," who wakes up every day in the body of a different person living a different life.

Things were getting going now, and the tall Polish woman who'd proffered the black wine unleashed on us a powerful true story about the lives of 250 women who fought in the French Resistance during World War II and who were transported to Auschwitz.

Our presenter noted her personal roots in that area as her father's hometown was the place where the infamous concentration camp had been built.  She noted that she'd even visited the places in the book.

The book is A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead and it reminded me of recent books of immense power on the subject of prisoners of war during WWII like "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand and "First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War" by George and Anthony Weller.

The double agent was next with a National Book Award Nominee, "Luna," by Julie Anne Peters.  This is the fictional story of a transgender teen, named Liam, who longs to be a girl.  And, with the help of his sister, he struggles for self-identity and acceptance.

The "school teacher" was next.  She fittingly presented us with a mystery in the Hitchcock vein.  "A kind of psychological thriller," she said without emotion.

"I'm an avid mystery reader," she said.  "And it irritates me when I know part way through."  She looked at the .38.

Sister is the first novel by Rosamund Lupton.  "I'm fond of debut novels," she deadpanned.  "The story is about a protective older sister who travels to London upon the disappearance of her younger sister and finds her dead, apparently by suicide."

"It kept me guessing right up 'till the end," said the teacher with the handgun.  I swear, I almost saw the corner of her mouth turn up ever so slightly into the hint of a precursor of a smile.

Osceola Mills Community Library
It had been a good night.  Spirits and stories had been shared and the chill of the long winter nights had been replaced by humor, mystery, tragedy and love.

We gathered our things.  Some books were left as donations so the library could lend these stories and more to a public hungry for danger or murder.  I'm told that at closing of the third Thursday of the month, these grim story-tellers convene at the library, which looks and feels haunted after sundown.  Bring your own protection.  Bring your own spirits.  And you'd better bring a tale worth telling.

I didn't see the teacher quietly pick up the gun and I got a chill.  One doesn't like to lose track of who's packing in tense situations like these.  In such close quarters.  We went up front and unlocked the front door and drifted off into the night.  Thinking.  Wondering.  About the stories we'd just shared.  About the dangerous types who'd shared them.  And who had wound up with the gun.

Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Waitresses of the World Unite!

This Chocolate Float with the Cherry on Top is Brought to You by American Slave Labor

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow
So I'm sitting at The Waffle Shop in State College, Pa. where I often have my breakfast:  a bowl of fruit, a side of bacon, coffee and water with no ice.  My order always comes out to $8.88.  A "generous" tip is considered 20% these days and that comes to $1.76.

While I'm checking out, I notice one of the wait staff, Robin, is pictured, her face plastered on a tip jar.  Robin is suffering a second bout with cancer and, if you happen to have enjoyed a nice breakfast in the Waffle Shop, don't be a jerk and walk by Robin's tip jar without putting something in.  I don't know Robin, but I've been worrying about her.

I've put in a $5 or a $10 on a few occasions.  But this got me wondering whether this poor girl had any healthcare.   I am happily informed that The Waffle Shop is one of the rare restaurants that offers a health care plan to its employees.  They do not, however, pay a minimum wage.

The national minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour.

This is not to criticize The Waffle Shop, which is a super good restaurant and I encourage you to go there.  Restaurants are an exception to the minimum wage rule.  And, since I know many people who have operated restaurants, - some successfully, some failed - I recognize the difficulties inherent to the business model.  Many restaurants employ wait staff "under the table" to avoid payroll taxes and other like obligations so they can make the ends meet.  But if the restaurant ownership is playing by the rules, you have to do a lot of business to keep costs down for the customers and still make a dime at the end of the week.

You should go to The Waffle Shop not only because the food's always good, but you should go there simply because they go above and beyond by offering health care to their employees.  Good on them.  Now, about that college fund...

I've worked in food service some.  I've been a cook and a dishwasher and I've waited tables.  And the wait staff has it pretty bad.  Let's say I screw up an order and the waitress takes it out and it's wrong and the plate comes back, odds are the waitress is watching her tip evaporate.  Worse, while the government sees fit to pay slave wages to wait staff, they amusingly find it okay to tax their tips.  Priceless.

Here's perhaps the most famous discussion of tipping in cinema history.  It's from Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."  (NOTE: The clip includes a lot of coarse language.)  And I'm tellin' ya, Mr. Pink is a jerk.

So, let's consider that you've got a couple Penn State Top Feeders - instead of the diamond thieves from the clip above - sitting there hogging up a waitress's section and they're having coffee all morning and the waitress smiles and is being nice to them and is refilling their coffee for, say, two hours, and when they get done they've not only deprived the waitress of better customers but they've also left one lousy buck folded under the cup of coffee - amounting to maybe a massive 50%.

Never mind that these guys are probably writing off the meal on an expense account to begin with.  Y'all are inconsiderate.  Go to the back of the line and sit with Mr. Pink.

The Mountain says if it's okay for the government to go along with paying wait staff less than minimum wage, then the government ought to get it's grubby mitts off their tips.  Fair is fair. 

We didn't have a lot growing up in my family, but one thing my father always instructed me on was never to be cheap with people.  You might be surprised how many ways a person of little means can be generous.

But here's the thing.  If you find yourself in a position to be sitting on one side of the counter, take a moment to consider the person on the other side of the counter.  You have enough that you can afford to have a servant come and feed you and you needn't lift a finger.  Why not hand the waitress a $10 spot right up front?  Then place your order.  Then you can be satisfied that she's made a living wage for at least one hour on your watch.

And you know what?  Here's another little kindness you can think about:  Tip in cash.  When you put the tip on your card, sometimes your waiter has to wait until the end of the week or payday to collect the tips.

Okay.  Waitresses of the world!  Unite and take over!

I'd love to hear your wait staff horror stories.  ("So a tour bus pulls in at five 'till closing....")  Feel free to type them in at the foot of this article.  Perhaps all our readers will become a more refined and generous wave of customers.  Perhaps a legislator somewhere will introduce the Waitress Tip Exemption.  One never knows.  And, if you've found the writing useful today, please feel free to forward the link on to your friends.

Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

State of the Union

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

You know you're getting older when you get a big bowl of popcorn ready to watch a State of the Union address.

The Mountain thinks President Obama had a little bit of his Bill Clinton on in that the speech was wide ranging and rather detailed; maybe not quite as wonky as Bubba used to get.  (I seem to remember some of Clinton's speeches going way past bed-time.)  I expected the man to talk a lot about the economy, immigration and about gun violence (check, check and check), but I was happily surprised to hear the man talk about the climate issue AS an economic issue.

HERE is the link to the full text of the President's speech for your use.

Obama started out with a tone of bipartisanship, saying the major political parties need to work together.

"The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem. They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can. "

The president was more polite than I'd have been.  (Insert long rant about bi-partisanship.)

Republicans hate any democratic president with extreme prejudice, but what they've shown Obama has been little more than obstructionism and party politics, the country be damned.  After the catastrophe of the Bush II presidency, with the country teetering on the brink of economic collapse and bearing the credit card expense of two wars, the republican legislature did everything in its power to stop anything from moving in the gears of government.  They simply could not allow Obama to get credit for anything and they had to make sure the lousy economy stayed lousy and was perceived as Obama's fault come election time 4 years down the road.

The GOP used the filibuster at an unprecedented rate on everything from appointments to good ideas that had once been sponsored by republicans.  Numerous republican legislators have been in the untenable position of voting against their own bills simply because Obama endorsed them.

No greater example is the Affordable Care Act which was the nearly identical plan implemented by Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts to good effect, but which became Socialism! when Mr. Romney ran for president.

And this myth that Obama is a tyrant and is acting unilaterally is a coin with two interesting sides.  When Obama came into office he constantly met with the opposition and constantly courted republican ideas and compromise only to get stabbed in the back.  Obama was so willing to compromise that he started out the health care debate by throwing the one thing the liberals really wanted - a public option - under the bus.

No.  The republican party was the intransigent party.  They wouldn't play ball not no way not no how.  They took extremist positions and wouldn't budge and used the filibuster to stop anything being done at a time when the country needed it most.

When it came to the budget ceiling debacle last year, the republicans refused to do something that had been done without question dozens of times for presidents for decades.  The republican shenanigans resulted in the downgrading of the U.S. credit rating which - surprise - devalues our dollar and drives up the debt.   Think of it as the republicans screwing with your retirement fund in order to make a political point.

So when the president finally gets fed up and signs an executive order or makes a recess appointment and Fox (News) starts yelling Czar! it's only because something has to get done and the republicans are not going to allow anything to get done.  It is a fact that the most recent congress has passed the fewest laws ever by any congress (at lest going back, say, 100 years) and has floated the most threats of filibuster ever by a very wide margin.

Hopefully that changes.  (End long rant about bi-partisanship.)

We were talking about the climate issue.  Here are some excerpts from the speech that caught my eye.

"Today, no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy. After years of talking about it, we’re finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years. We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar -- with tens of thousands of good American jobs to show for it. We produce more natural gas than ever before -- and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen."

"But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change."

"Now, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods -- all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it’s too late."

"Now, the good news is we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

I'm not denigrating the man's faith.  Just that the republicans see fit to put someone who does not believe in the scientific method on the science committee.

It would be like putting a tobacco lobbyist on a committee to discuss the dangers of smoking or putting a timber industry guy in charge of the healthy forests initiative or putting a fracking lobbyist on the committee overseeing water quality issues.

You get my depressing point?

But here's the thing.  I think the president can talk pretty on the climate all he wants, but getting action on the climate is another matter altogether.  The United States has failed to lead on the issue of climate change and has put this world we live in in very real danger.  One of the reasons the U.S. has done nothing is because of the powerful grip of the fossil fuel industry over democrats and republicans alike, but especially over republicans. 

And if the republicans won't wake up, we can all go to climate hell together.  And if I do have to live in climate hell because of these idiots who prise money over responsibility, I will hunt them down and hit them - repeatedly - with the Louisville Slugger of Reason until these chowder-heads finally admit how stupid they have been and how dearly they have cost everyone.

Maybe the president knows about the big Climate Protest coming to D.C. this weekend and he was trying to calm us down, but, you know, I'm hopeful and I'm not hopeful.  Because I believe in the power of people to effect positive change.  But I also believe in people's utter greed and stupidity spoiling everything.

As a side note, The Mountain is trying to get Mrs. Mountain's permission to go join that protest against the XL Pipeline this weekend, where they wrap a giant pipeline around the White House, but she won't budge.  (She's a republican.)  I've even promised not to get arrested and everything.  No sauce.  I really wanna get my protest on.  I think that would be fun to cover for you, dear reader, but the boss is agin' it.  Might have to go AWOL.

Later in the night, Obama aimed his big rhetorical flourishes at the issue of gun violence and he had the house rockin'.   He talked about the 15 year old girl who was shot a mile from his house in Chicago.  About Newtown, CT., about Gabby Giffords and vociferous cheers were loudly ricocheting around the chamber and it seems like at least some common sense proposals have a chance of overcoming the torpid conventional wisdom of the NRA.

That's a serious issue and something might get done about that.

He talked about fixing the voting system instead of the republicans' idea of, you know, FIXING the voting system.  I mean, really, do you think Tom Corbett and Dom Pileggi (scroll down: Electioneering II - Feb. 7) are really interested in fair elections?  Me neither.

That's a serious issue and something might get done about that.

But progress on climate change?  I'll believe that when I see it.  Progress on climate change requires republicans to wake up.  And they are very heavy sleepers.

Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Life in a Fishbowl - A Parable of Growth

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

My son came home from kindergarten and he had this small beautiful fish in a plastic bag.  Folks from the local pet store came and chatted with the kids about pets.  They made a gift to the kids of these pretty fish.
I had to buy a fish tank.  But that wasn't all.  I had to buy fish food.  I had to buy devices to heat the water and filter the water.  I had to buy replacement charcoal packs for in the water filters to be changed every week.  I bought neat little plants that would grow using fish waste.  I bought snails that would slowly scale along the inside of the glass, feeding off algae.  I bought cute little objects to populate the fish tank floor all covered with red and blue gravel.  I bought a fish tank light to put on top.

By the time we were done, we'd constructed a 10 gallon closed system.  An independent biome the variables of which we could maintain or change.  It was a science class in my kindergartener's bedroom.

We found out that the water from our tap was heavily chlorinated and this could be deadly to the fish.  So we learned about measuring pH and how to treat the water to suit the little biological world we were creating.  We wound up taking a great deal of care of that little world and we got the fish tank into a place where it was balanced in harmony that we could sustain with just a little bit of care.

Eventually, we decided to get some other fish for our aquarium.  We heard that you could have up to one fish per gallon of water in the aquarium, so we were pleased to bring home nine more fish of varying types and sizes.

Instantly, the balance of the ecosystem we'd created was radically changed.  There was a population explosion to the factor of 10 in our little closed world.  Suddenly there was too much waste in the water and we had to change the filters much more often.  This became expensive.  We had to purchase chemical treatments that would lock down the ammonia content in the water.

We found out the little fish that had been given us did not like other types of fish.  After some research we found that the extremely beautiful fish was, in fact, extremely aggressive with other kinds of fish.  We witnessed population stress occur in the little world we'd created and devoted ourselves to caring for.  Certain fish had their fins chewed ragged and went from being the beautiful creatures we'd purchased to being haggard and eventually died.

Some of the fish liked to eat the snails we'd purchased and so algae began to build up on the fish tank walls faster than the snails could eat it, so we purchased magnetic cleaning devices with which to keep the glass clean so we could observe the goings on in our little closed system.

One fish went mad and he was powerful enough that he found a hole in the top of the tank and kept propelling himself out the top and we'd find him on the carpet when we'd return home and put him back in the water.

Other fish began to develop lesions and their beautiful, shiny scales and gills would become ugly before they died off.

After more than a decade, when our last fish died, the return on that gift fish to a kindergartener had to be 1,000 fold to the pet store.  Smooth operators, the folks who owned it.  Good sustainable business model:  Give fish to kindergarteners.

But I had learned something.  If you think about it, the planet Earth is also a closed system.  And as human populations continue to grow, our planet, in many of the same ways of our little aquatic experiment, has also been thrown out of balance.  And many of the maladies experienced by Shaboogamu and Posseidon II can be seen in human populations:  excessive pollution, diminishing natural resources, myriad diseases, madness.

And our society grows more and more complex in the ways it throughputs energy, making our food chain and our biome more and more technological, expensive and stressful. 

You, dear reader, and I are just fish in a fishbowl.  

We exist in a closed system.  And we've added too many fish.  To the point that the very seas of the Earth are dying off.  The very base of the food chain is evaporating beneath us.  Cattle used to be raised on farms, now they are raised, sick and dying anyway, in mechanical feed-lots where they are fed on corn (instead of grass) and steroids and actually become hazardous to eat.  Don't even get me started on the chicken industry.  Or genetically modified "Frankenfoods" which are legal here in the U.S. but more closely regulated in the E.U. and other places.  You used to be able to fish for salmon:  Now you have to farm them.

Our society is largely based on an economy that calls for perpetual growth.  Our political leaders call for growth and development and the expansion of markets and the infection of all the other populations of the world with the capitalist paradigm of permanent growth.

Permanent growth cannot take place in a closed system.  My fish ran out of usable oxygen and produced too much waste and polluted their own world until they choked to death.  Humanity is doing much the same.

We cannot always call for more.  We must decide on less.

We cannot always go for bigger.  We must decide on smaller.

In the Christian Bible, God gave dominion over all the world to man, saying be fruitful and multiply.  But God is not changing the filter.  We've been told to husband the Earth, but what kind of husbandry have we practiced here?  If there is a resource, where is it written that we MUST exploit it?  Why can we not have a resource we choose not to use?

The paradigm of constant growth, dear reader, is a death race for our kind.  It must be replaced with an ethos of balance.  Of sustainability.  Of stewardship.

You'll have to excuse me now, dear reader, I've got to go.  My hands keep breaking out in the strangest rash.  Maybe some lotion.  Until next week, have a great weekend.

Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Electioneering II

Dominic Pileggi, Pa. State Senator, Wants to Rig Elections in Pa. to Favor Republicans

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

The shifty guy peering at you from the masthead above is Pennsylvania State Senator - a republican and Speaker of the Senate - Dominic Pileggi.

According to stories HERE and HERE among many others, Pileggi thinks the idea of changing the way Pennsylvania delegates electoral college votes would be awesome.  Instead of being a winner-take-all state, where whoever, you know, WINS the popular vote in the state gets the electoral votes, Pileggi would like to see the Commonwealth go to a proportional system that would split electors.  This is something only two other states, Maine and Nebraska, do.

Two things on this from The Mountain.  

One:  Pennsylvania has voted democratic in national elections since 1992, yet our state representation, despite a heavy democratic advantage in voter registration, is overwhelmingly republican.  You may find this hard to believe, but only 37% of Pennsylvanians are registered as republican.

Two:  You don't want Pennsylvania becoming an electoral joke like, say, Florida in 2000.  Or how about when the republicans screwed up the Iowa caucuses so badly in 2012 that they first came out and said Mitt Romney won.  Then they came out and said, no, really, Rick Santorum won.  And by the time the delegates were counted Ron Paul actually got 21 of the 25 Iowa delegates.

There are six "swing" states that are not really swinging:  Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.  All went blue this past election but guess what - all of them are controlled by republicans at the state level thanks to a concerted, organized gerrymandering process that allows republicans to win control even if they lose the popular vote.

Nationally, democrats won 1.1 million more votes for the House of Representatives but, guess what?  There is still a solid republican majority in the house.  Nationally, Obama won 5 million more votes and 126 more electoral votes than Romney, but the plan some sneaky republicans are putting forward would have turned an Obama landslide into a Romney victory.

Here is some pretty good reporting on the issue:
National Journal: The GOP's Electoral College Scheme

And some more:
Fair Vote: Electoral College Chaos - How the GOP Could Put a Lock on the Presidency

And here's a great analysis of the state of play in Pennsylvania from Nate Silver at Five-Thirty-Eight:
Pennsylvania Could be a Path Forward for the GOP

The reporting shows that republican policy makers have gotten together and decided to change the rules of the game.  And they've made noises in the aforementioned not-swinging-swing-states about upsetting the electoral apple cart and using their gerrymandered advantages and projecting the same advantage onto the national electoral stage.

With all the publicity, republican officials in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and Florida have all been carefully stepping away from the idea.

Pa Governor Tom Corbett: Not Leslie Nielsen
But NOT in Pennsylvania.  Nope.  When not even idiots like Scott Walker in Wisconsin can stomach the clearly partisan vote-rigging scheme.  When not even the nut-bag republican state officials who have twice passed a law (despite voters voting its repeal) to simply take over towns with appointed managers - when even republicans who truly don't give a shit about the will of the voters start to edge away from the idea...Along comes THIS guy (right) who may look like Leslie Nielsen but is nowhere near as funny.

Dom Pileggi: Stooge
And here (left) is the republican speaker of the Pennsylvania Senate, Dom Pileggi, who has been floating this idea for a while about changing the election rules we've always gone by.  This, dear reader, is what a stooge looks like.

Look.  The Mountain says there's nothing wrong with proportional vote counting, such as Mr. Pileggi advocates.  But there is something wrong with doing it selectively.  I would agree with the state senator if we were going to implement a one person one vote system nationwide.  Let's have proportional voting in Texas, because pretty soon that state ain't gonna be so red anymore and when Texas goes purple the republican party will be over.

Unless they cheat.  Which is possible.  It'd be like playing monopoly where the republican race car passes go and every other time around he also gets the democratic thimble's $200.  Couldn't even put a down payment on Baltic Avenue.

THIS is your state government on unlimited secret corporate funding.  You're welcome.  Look.  Republicans do this stuff all the time.  If they can't win out with their ideas, they just go and try to rig the game.  This kind of concerted, corporate scheme smells bad to anyone who believes in fairness regardless of party affiliation.  This is the republican party hurting itself!

And the republicans seem never to get tired of spending their money on the endless games of trying to overturn regulation or getting people into key functionary positions to cripple regulations that are in place for good reasons.  The money is bottomless.  And it is tireless.  And it just keeps on coming all the time.

My father always said that republicans were for the rich and that democrats were for the little guy.  In retrospect, I'm finding out he was always right.  And it's really more black and white now than it was when he was alive.  I used to think he was foolish, being so dogmatic.

Thankfully, even though republican money never sleeps, that money cannot make bad ideas into good ones.  And thankfully there are far more little fish than big ones.  The problem is the big ones are on up the food chain and everyone is afraid of them and they are buying up the government that is supposed to represent all of us.

But, you know, if Dom Pileggi gets his way, the will of the majority will no longer count for anything in his perfect world.  Thirty-seven percent of Pennsylvania voters are republicans.  And they get to call all the shots.  That's America.

Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Video Vault: Silver Linings Playbook

 Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

Today Vault returns with a bushel basket load of film for you to chew over.  I've almost got all my required viewing ahead of the Oscars completed with only "Argo" still escaping me. 

Top Picks of the week include one still in theaters ("Silver Linings Playbook") and one on video that you'll have a tough time finding ("Grave of the Fireflies").

Others in the hamper are a decent romantic comedy ("2 Days in New York") two decent action pics ("The Bourne Legacy" and "Looper") an unusually dark and original horror/drama ("Perfume: The Story of a Murderer") and a touch of politics ("The Billionaires' Tea Party").

It is easy to write nice things about "Silver Linings Playbook" on the back of its eight Oscar nominations.  Set in a normally off-putting rom-com frame the film brilliantly examines bipolar disorder in a way that is ultimately positive.

Most films of the kind would go for the cheap "crazy" laughs, but this film is better than that.  Its laughs are smart and avoid condescension because the actors, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro, who all portray characters with bipolar traits, are all playing it straight.  So the situations are funny but humane.

Director / Screenwriter David O. Russell, drawing from the novel by Matthew Quick, clearly understands the disorder which is typified by wild mood swings and individuals who focus like a laser on certain wants or desires.  In my life, I've dealt with many, many individuals with the disorder and I can tell you that the dialogue here is perfect.  It is clearly the best screenplay of the year just from the dialogue.

Cooper plays Pat, who's just out of an eight month stint in a treatment facility and dealing with trying to win back his wife who's placed a restraining order on him.  Pat Sr. (DeNiro) is his father who is obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles and really really really needs his son to enjoy the games with him.  Lawrence plays Tiffany who has, shall we say, other obsessions.

So, despite my personal difficulties with the form, "Silver Linings Playbook" is clearly one of the best pictures of the year.

Vault is going to be a bit lazy about this next film, which I found available on DVD from Netflix.  I'm a great lover of anime films and particularly of the great films of Studio Ghibli.  "Grave of the Fireflies" is a 1988 release that currently sits at #103 on the IMdB top 250.  It's the haunting story of a boy and his little sister trying to survive in World War II Japan.

I was going to write more on the film myself, but instead, click on the video above  and my favorite film writer of all time, Roger Ebert, will lead you through it.  The clip is from his Ebert & Roper show from a few years ago.

"Grave of the Fireflies" is one of those rare films that show what animation is capable of.  This is a war movie and it captures something about the subject that, say, "Saving Private Ryan" or "Black Hawk Down" cannot touch.  That is the microcosm of war.  The small detail that Spielberg got so well with the little girl in the pink coat in "Schindler's List."  The tiny detail that reflects on everything else.

On the action front, I got to check out two above average newer offerings in "Looper" and "The Bourne Legacy."

"Looper" is one of those time traveler sci-fi flicks that have been done any number of times, but there is something a little better here than the average.  I like the way that this film hints at bits of strangeness on the edges of its own reality - the way "Blade Runner" does but certainly not on the same scale.

The story is about Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis), who is a contract killer who travels back in time to murder people, thus eliminating the problems that they pose later in life.  The story is complicated when he is tasked to "close his own loop," or, kill his older self.

I have to tell ya, this movie sort of reminded me of a great little sci-fi short story by John Barnes called "Things Undone."  In this totally unrelated story some bounty hunters are looking to erase time travelers because time travelers are constantly re-writing history such that the current reality keeps changing in really unexpected but really important ways.  "Looper" doesn't do this, because the film would have gotten all "Inception" style head-trippy.  Point being, I would have liked it to go a little further.

By focusing on the Bruce Willis character, though, the film doesn't try for much and gets there nicely.

The fourth in the Bourne series, "The Bourne Legacy," is a good, watchable action piece that finds the franchise running out of steam.  If you really wanna see a Bourne flick, choose the first, "The Bourne Identity," which snaps with the electricity of a good story and features Matt Damon and Franka Potente.  (And, by the way, if you wanna see a really fun Franka Potente movie, try the 1998 "Run Lola Run" - or "Lola Rennt" - from Germany.)  And if you really wanna see a current A-Title in the action format, choose "Looper" over "Legacy."

Next up, here's a really original horror / murder / drama set in 18th century France.  It's more from Director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run" and most recently "Cloud Atlas") who seems on a mission to get my attention.  "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" deals with a boy who miraculously survives his birth and youth in 18th century Paris and who is endowed with the finest olfactory sense.  Finding his way to a famed but fading perfumer (Dustin Hoffman) the young man's desire to capture the perfect scent takes a wickedly dark turn.  It's a creepy movie.  Engrossing as it meditates on obsession.  The film also stars Alan Rickman (think Professor Snape from the Harry Potter movies) as the wisely protective father of a beautiful young woman.

"2 Days in New York" -   New York radio personality Mingus (Chris Rock) makes a fairly interesting foil for his French girlfriend Marion (Julie Delpy) as the couple endure the weekend visit of her Parisian family.  Yet another better than average rom-com, the movie looks at a clash of cultures between the sexually liberated French and the less libertine ways of life in New York City.

"The Billionaires' Tea Party" - This 2011 documentary is a 54 minute examination of the political Tea Party movement that makes the case that the movement was born in the rich industrialist boardrooms of Charles and David Koch and bred in the fertile ground of voter resentment to dupe a broad swath of people into fighting for policies that would benefit the rich.

Same as it ever was, right?  I mean, the Koch Brothers could do so much good in the world with their vast wealth, right?  But they choose to sew the seeds of mischief in our politics and environment.  To me, the Koch Brothers and their ilk need to be sought out and beaten with a stick.  The only problem is the only people who would resort to that kind of personal violence are on their side.

Anyway, if you're into political docs that reinforce what you already believe, "The Billionaires' Tea Party" is just right for you.

Housekeeping: The Mountain has been working on a number of stories and ideas over the last week or two and I have lots coming this week.

On the Boggs Township Landfill issue, I've had interviews with Pa. Waste LLC's President, Bob Rovner, who I found out once served as a republican state senator from the 6th district.  I also spoke with one of Pa. Waste's engineers, John Vargo, about the project.  You will not be surprised to find them in favor of the controversial landfill.  I also spoke with our new State Representative from the 74th district, Tommy Sankey, and have some details about the thing from his perspective.  For the record, Tommy told me he opposes the landfill but says he's not in a position to do much about it.

I would like to talk to Richard Huges, who has testified about a fault running across the proposed site.  I've gotten hold of the public documents at the Clearfield County Courthouse dealing with the 2,000 acre parcel of land's sale.  I have some questions for the State Department of Environmental Protection (The very name of the agency always fills me with angst.) about where this process sits currently.  And I'm researching the basic details about the relative safety - health-wise and environmental-wise - of landfills in general and once I gather all of it, I'll put it up for you, dear reader, in what I hope will be my last post on the subject.

The Mountain remains of the opinion that this project is a sore abuse of our land (What else is new in Central Pennsylvania?) and does not consider long-term health and environmental issues and will use the people here for the vast enrichment of a select few.

I am extremely peeved at State Senator Dominic Pileggi, another shitty Philadelphia lawyer who's trying to screw things up for the rest of us, who has introduced a bill to change the way Pennsylvania awards electoral votes to favor republicans.  You know, it's this kind of crap that actually hurts republicans.  If you can't win with your ideas, you just rig the process.  And given that our state has already begun trying its hand at voter suppression, I charge our illustrious Governor, Tom Corbett, as being the biggest stinker in the stink pile on this.

We'll get more into this in a couple days, but here's the rub:  Democrats won the recent presidential tally by more than a million votes statewide and Pa. has been going blue over the last six election cycles, but guess what?  Our representation is somehow overwhelmingly republican.  So creeps like Pileggi are trying to use their gerrymandered majority to try and rig the presidential voting too.  Nice.

You don't suppose the Senate Republican Leader does a shitty move like this without the Governor's support, do you?  Me neither.


So thanks for visiting the Voice of the Mountain today.  If you find the writing here useful, please feel free to share the link with friends.  And feel free to leave your comments below.  I ask that you sign your name to your comments if possible because your opinions gain strength if you attach your name to them.

Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Why We Grieve

 Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

I have been walking around the Mountain for almost a week now and have not been able to correspond, dear reader.  I can scarce put my thoughts together.

I've just lost my mother.  She was 86 years old and in a nursing home and she held on five years after cancer ambushed and made quick work of my father.  When you lose the one you've devoted your life to, you become diminished.  You fail.  Your mind stops working.  You shrink away into the night of life and become a shadow.

Maybe those of you who are old orphans like me have felt this way.  Maybe you know what it is, being all out of parents.

I have not grieved yet.  I'm not hurting.  I've not yet had that quiet moment when the tears come.  This is a disruption.  A remote control on terminal pause.  I can't seem to budge the frame forward.  I am emotionally stuck.  It is a void.  Perhaps, spiritually, I'm touching the hem of death.  Perhaps I am grieving and it just doesn't feel like anything.

Maybe we grieve because we know we are next.  

The clock is short so you better finish that painting, write that song, write your story so it has beauty and meaning when you go.  Help.  Someone.  You need to appreciate what you have.  You need to give away whatever you can.

For me, I'm feeling particularly cut off because I don't know my roots.  If you are walking across a mountain pass in Afghanistan and you come upon a goat-herd and you ask him who he is he is likely to tell you, in order, in about 15 minutes the names in his ascendency down a thousand years to the son of so-and-so, "who is me."

In my life, I knew my parents but I don't know what they were thinking.  Who they were.  I did not know my grandparents almost at all.  I don't know who they were and, thus, really have no foundation myself.

And if the root dies, what becomes of the leaf?

Time flies.  So I reach out to you, dear reader, to offer what kindness I can and maybe we can walk the road together a while.  Share a smile.  Make a friend.  Roll our eyes in the direction of the grey, greedy men who devour our world.

My father said greed was the real problem in the world.
My father told me I had to stop and smell the roses in life.
Mother shared her faith with me.

I'm listening.

Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

Now Hear THIS!!