Sunday, February 22, 2004

Up is Down Rebutted

From today's New York Times:

Last month, the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution, 98 to 1, urging Congress to exempt Virginia from the law. (No Child Left Behind.) That vote came after Rod Paige, the education secretary, and other administration officials met with Virginia lawmakers, said James H. Dillard II, chairman of the House Education Committee.

"Six of us met with Paige," Mr. Dillard, a Republican, said. "He looked us in the eye and said, 'It's fully funded.' We looked him back in the eye and said, 'We don't think so.'"

"We got platitudes and stonewalls, but no corrective action," he said.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Riding the Rails

Each Amtrak sleeping car has its own attendant, kind of like flight attendants. For the first leg of our trip Cathy and I were on sleeping car 631, room 8, and Curtis was our designated attendant. The Zephyr line launches from Emeryville, about 2 miles from where we happily lived in Berkeley, so we were the first lucky folks to check into a sleeping car. As we walked towards the train car we asked the attendant standing outside the entrance if it was the right car. He smiled and said, “It sure is, and you must be Cathy and Chris!”

It was our man, Curtis, of course!

He took us to our room, a cozy, incredibly compact space and gave us the low down:

This is the call button. Pull it if you should need anything.
There’s water and juice always available down at the end of the hall. I keep the coffee going from 5 am until 11 pm. If you need any before 5 am, go ahead and make it yourself.
Let me know when you’re going to dinner and I’ll come by and turn your beds down for you.
There are 3 bathrooms in the lower level of this car. There is one upstairs and I usually ask people to try and avoid using that one because…well, the downstairs bathrooms have vents and the upstairs one, which is right next to my car, doesn’t…so you can imagine…
That’s a closet, there’s another light and here’s a place to hang your coats.

Compared to the salty old dogs who worked the dining car, Curtis was genuinely easy-going, attentive and fully apprized of the abundant riches offered to us on our train.

The train pulled out of Emeryville about 20 minutes after we had boarded. Cathy and I pressed our noses up against the begrimed windows of our cubbyhole and watched Berkeley pass by. Mostly we saw the backside of buildings, almost all of them tagged. This last fleeting glimpse of Berkeley was like a fresh batch of bittersweet. It was a beautiful day, in the mid-60’s, and here we were, suddenly and surreally, riding on the California Zephyr back to Chicago. We made the right decision, right? I felt terribly maudlin, saying goodbye to the back of Cody’s Books on 4th street.

We took the train to feel the distance. Airplanes, we both decided, are too unforgiving when it comes to letting go of community- to saying goodbye to the intimacies of the geography surrounding the place you had only just begun to call home. It’s too instantaneous and disorienting to leave one home and abruptly arrive 4 hours later to the prospects of a new one. Berkeley, sometime over the last 6 months, had finally come to feel like our home. Leaving it didn’t come easy. We wanted stillness and the chance to connect to the great expanse that lies between Berkeley and Chicago. We wanted to see the Sierra’s and the Rockies up close and to ride through those endless cornfields of Iowa while they lay enshrouded in a heavy crust of February snow. We hoped it might reveal something we both wanted- some affirmation and solace.

On the first night I awoke somewhere a few hours outside of Salt Lake City. It was a full moon, so I could make out most of the terrain, which sprawled out in prostration to a horizon superfluous with mountains. We were in that folksy terrain known as the middle of nowhere, big empty spaces infused with a poetic brand of absence. At what looked to be 5 or so miles away, I thought I saw a line of fires. Who’s out there? Not fires, but lights- placed in a straight line, one after another every few miles or so. The military? The train was long enough and our sleeping car placed far enough in the rear of the train, that when the track curved I could see the engine headlights permeating into the darkness. I didn’t want to go back to sleep. I kept thinking I should be listening to the new Harold Budd CD I had brought along with me. Those wide open ghost chords that Budd plays, with all their lovely thunder and heartache, would have fit this landscape perfectly. But I was too groggy, feeling small and displaced, and soon that initial jolt of awe was worn back down to sleep. I awoke briefly in Salt Lake City. I thought I saw the temple. “Fry sauce, it’s a Mormon thing,” I remember thinking.

We also took the Zephyr because, like many, we had long coveted the desire to take the train cross-country. This is known as the romance of the train. But trains take time, and unless you have a lot of it, traveling by such means is going to take a big bite out of your vacation. Nobody but the hardcore train enthusiast is looking to make travel by train the entirety of their vacation. We, however, had time. We wanted time. We wanted time to be slow and offer up majestic landscapes and to act as a balm on our wistfulness. We brought books, magazines, CD’s, DVD’s, paints, pens and a bottle of wine. We wanted to feel all that time intertwined with all that space.

It was surprisingly cheap to take the much beleaguered Amtrak. Comparable to flying, albeit much longer. The food was better and you can see more, though most of the windows on the train were filthy. This was unfortunate given that quite a few of the people taking the Zephyr are on it to enjoy the natural beauty of its route. It would have taken all of a hour or two for one person to have properly cleaned the windows, but as it was, they were dimly coated in grime at the start of the line in Emeryville. Can we include window washers in that next budget? The sleeping rooms, as I said, were small and hadn’t been remodeled in over 20 years. They had a funky charm, however. There was a lounge car made explicitly for viewing, with large windows on its sides and overhead. On the first leg of our trip a docent boarded the train at Sacramento and offered us occasional deep fried nuggets of history. All meals served in the dining car are communal, meaning they’ll seat you next to strangers who might be Amish. There were a lot of Amish riding the rails. We sat with 4 different couples, none of who were Amish. Here are a few of the things we talked about or listened to others talk about:

Scuba diving (the first couple was really into scuba, and it’s all the dude wanted to talk about. The subject would change but he’d always bring it back to scuba)
The latest film version of Freaky Friday
Kansas City
The Da Vinci Code

Who rides the Zephyr? Lot’s of old-timer’s and those aforemtioned train enthusiasts who will tell you that Amtrak is a nice way to travel but doesn’t hold a candle to those European trains. Those aforementioned Amish take it too. And people afraid to fly. The couple who won tickets at a holiday dinner party raffle, they took it too. Us.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Last Post From Berkeley

Well, the place is completely packed up and we board the train for Chicago in a little more then a hour. We're both feeling a little on the bittersweet side, though we're sure we made the right decision. Still, we're going to miss it here more then either of us could have imagined. Sigh.

I'm looking forward to these next couple days of train travel. To be still and look out the window as all that distance we originally travelled over 2 1/2 years ago is reclaimed.

It's time to go.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Next Stop, the Former Hog Butcher For the World

It’s pouring, the place is packed up and the movers should be here any second. The dogwoods bloomed last week, the hills are turning green and we said our farewell to the Pacific from atop Mount Tam on Saturday.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Five Hours and Five Stitches Later

“Don’t worry, everything is okay. Cathy cut her hand and I had to take her to the emergency room.”

So began the phone conversation I had yesterday afternoon with my landlord’s wife. I was attending a meeting (my last one) with the youth development organization I had been interning with for the past several months when one of the students approached me and whispered, “You’re neighbor is on the phone and says it’s an emergency.”

Here’s immediately what went through my mind: “Emergency? Christ! What happened to Cathy? Boxes? Did some boxes fall on her?” (We’re in the throes of moving and the boxes are piled mighty high throughout our place. Some could have fallen on her. They could have done some damage.)

In retrospect, I find it odd that the best I could do when confronted with this most dreadful of contexts (“…says it’s an emergency!”) was to envision Cathy trapped under an avalanche of component boxes. It could have been any number of calamities! Clearly, the move was on my mind. And sheesh, if you could see the state our place is in right now!

Anyway, turns out Cathy had accidentally stabbed herself while attempting to clean out an old candle-holder. Don’t ask. It was a hopelessly unavoidable accident (even if hindsight nagged her all day) but it left a nasty gouge in the palm of her left hand. Our landlord’s wife was upstairs and was kind enough to drive Cathy to the Alta Bates emergency room here in Berkeley. I arrived about 45 minutes later and found Cathy in the waiting room. Cedric the Entertainer was on the TV hanging from the corner of the room. The TV was up way too loud.

This is the second time in the past few years that Cathy and I have spent time in an emergency room. (The other time being when I nearly broke my arm a few days before our wedding in July of 2001.) Both times we spent roughly 5 hours from check in to check out. We also caught a sobering glimpse of the deplorable state of our countries healthcare system, namely the fact that those without insurance (43 million and counting) oftentimes have no other choice but to take advantage of emergency room treatment services. These are the folks for whom access to the high quality health care we have available in this country is not a given.

Most of the people joining us in the waiting room were sick (by no means calamitously so) and waiting to see an emergency room physician in order to receive some basic care, the kind most of us would get by making an appointment with our physician. We overheard a few folks discussing when the best time to use the emergency room would be, with the winner being kickoff time on Super Bowl Sunday. Who would ever be in an emergency room at kick off time on the Super Bowl? Maybe, they thought, it would be better to come back then? A mildly schizophrenic woman spent over an hour begging us all for quarters, pens and paper as she spoke to various people on the pay phone about getting her heart fixed. She had been there since early morning. (Later, after we had moved to an examining room, we heard her screaming that somebody was touching her.)

One of the only magazines in the waiting room was a copy of O Magazine, Oprah’s monthly syllabus for her minions. It included an article about Oprah retiring to her Indiana farmhouse with some of her gal pals for a silent weekend retreat. For 2 1/2 days she and her buddies would do yoga, meditate and enjoy chef Art’s turkey burgers and sweet potato pies without uttering a word! Oprah writes, “I first extend lovingkindness to myself, then to my family and friends. I’ve done the lovingkindness exercise many times before on my own, but it’s still a reminder for me to open my heart.”

Such flapdoodle aside, what really got me (beyond the fact that Oprah extends lovingkindness to herself first) was the awful disparity of the article, with all its sense of privilege and oozing warm glow, and the reality of the emergency room waiting area, where some of the same people who were there when we arrived, were still waiting when we left over 5 hours later.

Why can’t we come up with a practical, workable model in this country that ensures that everybody is properly insured and has access to equitable healthcare? I know there’s no simple answer to this one, but I also know that we can do far better.

Here is a summary provided by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation of each of the candidates’ proposals for expanding health insurance coverage.