Monday, January 30, 2012

The Lesson Of A Dying Baby Boy

"Your daughter is so beautiful! How old is she?"

My wife and I were at the grocery store, where I ran into the lady who was the nurse at the school where I used to work. She had delivered what seems to be the mandatory greeting for anyone with a baby.

"Thank you," I responded. "She's seven months old."

That's when a voice from behind me interrupted the now-familiar dialogue.

"Seven months? Do you mind if I look at her? My son is seven months and I would like to know what that's supposed to look like."

I turned to find a young woman holding a baby, but I was immediately taken aback. The baby boy was limp in her arms, though his eyes were wide open, and tubes ran from a device in his mother's shopping cart into her child in various places.

"He wasn't supposed to live this long . . ."

. . . and I lost the rest of what she said as I stepped aside to let her admire my perfect, beautiful little girl, who was breathing completely on her own and totally tube-free.

I was speechless for only a moment, and thankfully my wife swooped in to make a fuss over the woman's little boy and tell her how cute he was.

Cute might have been a stretch, but his eyes were certainly bright and wondrous. I gave him a smile and he seemed to smile back, despite the fact that his mouth was taped up and unable to move. It was his eyes, I think. His eyes smiled back at me.

And then the exchange was over. My former colleague returned to her shopping and my wife and I walked away from the young woman with the struggling baby boy.

We looked at each other and tears came to our eyes. That could have been our daughter, our Riley. That could have been our perfect little angel, born with whatever ailed that little boy.

When we found out my wife was pregnant people would always ask me what I wanted it to be, a girl or a boy. My response was always the same: "Healthy." You see, my sister had a baby with extreme medical needs, and while he lived much longer than any doctor predicted, he didn't ever walk . . .or talk . . .or even openly smile. My sister had an amazing relationship with little Andrew and she mourned his death as she would any of her other four healthy children, but deep down inside I couldn't help but wonder if I would be able to cope half as well as she did.

I just wanted a healthy baby, regardless of sex.

I have had a baby girl for seven months, and every second of every day I have been grateful that she is healthy. I stop myself constantly to just look into her beautiful blue eyes and admire how perfect she is. Seeing that little boy in the grocery store, that little boy who is living on borrowed time at seven months, only made me appreciate Riley more. If ever there was a life lesson in the Power of Now, in taking nothing for granted, it was that young mother and her little bundle of joy.

I don't think I will ever take Riley for granted . . .even for a second . . .life is just too precious. And the miracle that is a perfect birth is not one I will ever take lightly.

That said, I will also never forget the way that young woman looked, the same way that my sister looked with her baby. The mother didn't see the tubes at all, only the beautiful face of her baby boy looking up at her, trying to soak every second of his borrowed time.

(Since I don't know the name of that boy I met in the grocery store, I will dedicate this post to my nephew, Andrew Carl Heusinger, whom I affectionately called "Boxes.")

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Is America Really a Democracy?

Ask the average person on the street what form of government is utilized by the United States Of America and they will most likely tell you it's a democracy. We The People, in order to form a more perfect union . . . and all that. Of the people, by the people, for the people . . .we can all remember, if not quote verbatim, all of those great lessons we learned in elementary school history classes.

But is America truly a democracy?

Let's take a look at a couple of definitions:

Government Type 1: A government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.

Government Type 2: A type of government in which huge corporations, through bribes, gifts, and the funding of ad campaigns that oppose candidates they don't like, become the driving force behind the executive, judicial and legislative branches.

Which one most accurately describes the American government circa 2012?

Your grade school memory is telling you to pick Type 1, which is, indeed, the definition of a democracy. If you're paying attention to modern government, however, there is a little voice in the back of your head that can't help but think that

Type 2 sounds eerily familiar. Type 2 is the definition of a corporatocracy, a relatively new word used to describe - that's right - the type of government the United States currently has.

Money has always been a driving force behind government, and those with money have been able to sway government or even sponsor and write legislation. But now, in a post Citizens United world, corporations and billionaires have free rein to grab as much political power as money can buy . . .which is one hell of a lot.

In reality, the Citizens United decision proved that even the Supreme Court can be bought.

Corporations were already very much in the lobbying business, but the C.U. decision opened the flood gates. Millions have been poured into elections since the decision, with billionaires like the Koch brothers - owners of Koch Industries - spending insane amounts of money to try and elect Republicans who will strip away all environmental protections, all labor unions, and anything else that would stand in the way of transforming America into a banana republic.

The ruling elites, you see, would prefer to keep the 99% from being involved in politics in any way. They use their money to make it more difficult to vote. They sponsor laws for poor people and the elderly - who can't afford a car or can't drive, and so have no need for a driver's license - to have to obtain a driver's license before they can vote. They use their influence to close voting locations in poor communities because, of course, the vast majority of poor people vote Democratic. They have spent millions to pass laws that say college students can only vote in their home communities, rather than on their college campuses, where they most certainly are in early November. College students, you see, are much more likely to punch the blue hole than the red one.

I could go on, but these examples are enough to give you an idea of what a corporatocracy looks like. More and more it looks a great deal like the U.S. of A.

Americans are not powerless to stop billionaires from dismantling the working class. Just look at what's going on in Wisconsin, where governor Scott Brown took power and immediately went to work making labor unions a thing of the past. The people of Wisconsin were so enraged at his policies that they have turned out in record numbers to demand a recall election to remove him from office. The Koch Brothers have poured even more millions into Brown's cause to try and dissuade voters, but to no avail. Not everyone can be fooled by misleading advertising and bogus "news" programming.

As it turns out, you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

What it's going to take for America to once again resemble a Democracy is for We The People to get our heads out of our asses and start participating in the process. We've got to turn off the reality TV long enough to see what our elected officials are doing. They love it when we don't pay any attention - just ask Texas governor Rick Perry, who used Texas taxpayer money to fund his presidential campaign. Perry has been funneling taxpayer money to his rich donors for years, but it takes a presidential campaign and a national audience for Texans to reach any level of outrage regarding our governor's pervasive corruption.

Take the first step right now - sign the petition linked here to reverse the Citizens United decision.

It's time to wake up America. If we don't wake up soon we won't have anything left to fight for. It will all belong to huge corporations . . .and they won't stop until they've destroyed everything we love about this country, all in the name of adding another billion to the piles of billions they already possess.

Greed is a disease, every bit as damaging as alcoholism. The cure starts with you, and you can start by adding your name to the petition. Just make sure it isn't your only step towards helping America find a cure. Spread the word!!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Prison: The Texas Education Solution?

In Texas, we have a funny way of looking at children who can't read on grade level at the end of third grade.

We decide they're going to jail.

Crazy, you say? I completely agree. But that doesn't make it any less true.

The story has gone viral now, but in case you've missed it, Texas and California are among the states who begin planning the need for more prison cells based on the number of third graders - specifically, third grade boys of color - who are unable to read on grade level at the end of third grade.

You see, statistics show that children who fall into that category - boys of color who can't read on grade level - are more than likely going to wind up in prison.

It's a startling realization; impressive, even. What is NOT IN THE LEAST BIT impressive is the reaction to the statistic. We identify a very specific group of children who are on a path to destruction that will damage society at least as much as  it will the children themselves, and our collective response is to start building new prisons?

Sounds expensive.

It sounds a heck of a lot more expensive than just spending extra time teaching third graders to read!

Setting aside for the moment that many prisons are private corporations, and thus make large donations to public officials who also make decisions about educational programming, let's take a rational look at what should be the obvious solution to this problem.

The estimated cost of housing a prisoner in Texas is roughly $15,000 a year, and that's not couting the cost of building the prison, merely the cost of feeding and clothing a prisoner for a year. That's money taxpayers are shelling out to provide room and board to someone who, 85% of the time, is functionally illiterate.

How many teachers could be hired with that money, considering the average public school teacher in Texas has something like 150 students under their care per semester?

Some simple math reveals that if we gave each reading teacher the money that would otherwise be spent making students future wards of the state, we could pay them something in the neighborhood of $150,000 a year if they only taught 10 students.

How many great teachers would return to the profession for that kind of money?

I know more than a few.

It would be more than a cost saving, of course, because if the program results in preventing crimes before they are committed there is a tremendous savings to society in the forms of crimes that aren't committed.

The other factor is that teaching third graders to read can be REALLY fun! I know. I've done it. Heck, I've taught ninth and tenth graders to read, and from the moment they decode their first word they tend to get hooked. Granted, I didn't teach this ridiculous word recognition method that so many schools use today. I used the good, old fashioned method of teaching sounds first and words second. There's nothing like a Dr. Seuss book to teach words like "cat," "hat," and "mat," and once you have kids excited about The Cat In The Hat the possibilities are endless.

So sign me up. Let's take that $15,000 a year we're spending to house illiterate criminals and put it to work preventing them from become criminals in the first place.

It makes a lot more sense than giving up kids after third grade, passing them through the education system so Rick Perry and his ilk can take campaign donations from private prisons and then use taxpayer money to run them.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Pro-Life, Or Pro-Quality-Of-Life?

I consider myself to be a pro-life person.

By that I mean I am basically against war, especially since they are usually fought over natural resources instead of human rights violations, which would make more sense. I tend to be a live-and-let-live type of person, understanding that the things that divide most people - religion, power, money - are all somewhat arbitrary, and only hold the value we decide to bestow upon them anyway. Why fight over them?

At the end of the day, we all want basically the same things. Christians, Muslims, Jews, agnostics . . .and everyone in between . . .we all want a roof over our heads, we want sufficient food to sustain us and our families, and we want a certain amount of freedom to live as we please, provided doing so doesn't impinge upon the rights of others to do so, as well.

That, in a nutshell, is what pro-life means to me.

There is, of course, another meaning . . .a political meaning. Most of the time, when you start talking about the concept of being "pro-life," someone automatically assumes you're taking a stand on the abortion issue.

First of all, let me say I don't believe anyone is actually excited about abortion, even those who make their living by administering them. It's viewed as a necessary evil by most mainstream Americans, those who understand that there will always be a case in which the vast majority of people agree that an abortion is appropriate. If the mother's life is in danger, if a rape results in pregnancy . . .there are circumstances in which abortion is the only humane act. My only feeling on the issue is that abortions should be safe, legal, and rare. The decision about having one should be up to the mother, first and foremost, with input from parents, guardians, friends, clergy and doctors also taken into account.

The government should butt out.

And it does.

The only time government gets overtly involved in the abortion issue is during an election year, when they try to make political hay by pandering to the 25% of America that constitutes the "religious right." There is a great deal of money to be made by saying you're going to outlaw abortion, so they say it and they rake it in.

What is idiotic to me is that the same political party is quick to espouse the government making medical decisions for women is also the party of small government - the Republican Party. They are also the party working hardest to make life as miserable as possible for the child in question once it is born.

To me, being concerned about the life of a child goes much further than fretting over whether or not the child will be born. It extends to the health care that child should receive, the education it is able to pursue, the chances of it getting a good job, and even the fitness of the environment it will grow up in. To be pro-life, in my estimation, also means being for a high standard of affordable public health care, a high standard of public education, a strong work force in which a living wage is easily attainable, and clean air and water are readily available.

For some reason, however, there is a stunning disconnect between these concepts in the world of politics.

While Republicans are clambering for money from the mega-churches and right-wing political action committees, they are also taking money from industry that wants to offshore every job that isn't minimum wage, privatize social security and education, and completely erase the Environmental Protection Agency from existence. They want those things so desperately that they will filibuster, block, and otherwise strip down any attempts made by the opposing party to bolster those essential aspects of life.

If you want to find people fighting for a child's lifestyle and not just it's life, you have to turn to the left side of the political spectrum. It's the Democratic Party that constantly (and meekly) fights for the quality of life of our children. They fight for health care, education, jobs, clean air and water, all the while being called "baby killers" by the extremists who seem to stop caring about a baby once it's born.

Can we really afford to stop caring about the life of a child past conception? Is that really the Christian/Muslim/Jewish/HUMAN way?

Of course not.

Next time you feel the need to vote based on a "pro-life" notion, make sure you're thinking beyond birth. Forcing a child to be born, only to rob it of any and all quality of life is surely more inhumane and certainly causes more suffering than a simple (early term, please) abortion. As you stand to applaud a candidate or politician who claims to be pro-life, make sure you stop long enough to ask where he or she stands on health care, education and the environment.

To be concerned with one and not the other is hardly being pro-life.

Now that I think about it, perhaps it's time for a new political label. Instead of saying we're pro-choice, perhaps Democrats should say we're "pro-quality-of-life."

You see, to me, the issue of what's best for a child extends well beyond whether or not they are born. In fact, the birth issue should be the least of our concerns . . .unless, of course, we know the pregnant party personally and are asked for our advice.

Want to protest abortion. Great! Line up at your neighborhood abortion clinic and volunteer to adopt a baby. If you're not willing to take that step, stop wasting your time and money and focus on what we can truly change: the plight of children who are born into an ever more self-serving and self-destructive society.


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