Observations on an Eclipse

I saw the eclipse. A few millions of my fellow Americans did as well.

I argued and fretted with a company who contracts with me to allow me to arrive about twelve hours earlier than required in order for me to view the eclipse. They fretted and argued back and thus it was that I ponied up the extra $645 to make it to Saint Louis at 9:45, after nearly missing my connection in Atlanta due in part to a cabin attendant who must have been trained by the Gestapo.

I got to the car rental joint and stood in line for forty-five minutes to get my Corolla. 11:21:15 Apparently, I am not the only one who had made an assignation with the moon. Heading south, absent breakfast and lunch, I was contemplating famishment, going through my carry on, one-handedly searching for my emergency strip of wintergreen chewing gum to stave off hypoglycemic coma. I had chosen the hamlet of Festus, Missouri as my goal. Nearly along the line of maximum duration, Festus had the advantage of being off the beaten track. After a short repast at the local Burger King, I made for Sunset Park, attracted by its public status, ease of navigation, and absence of tree-cover.

I chose well. When I arrived at 12:15, a little over an hour before the Event, a few dozen people had already set up. I donned my bona fide sun gazer’s goggles and could already see that a good solid bite had been taken out of the sun’s disk. The air was hot and humid but in my gypsy lifestyle, a large selection of garb is not generally possible. I lounged in my trousers and long shirt on the grass, a victim to small crawly things and sweat. The crowd swelled to maybe three score. Listening to a green-haired siren with a voice that could etch glass, I learned she had driven down with her unfortunately bearded companion from Chicago. She interrogated those within my earshot. The winner of the distance contest was a dark, intense and constantly busy man from Dubai who had set up shop on an abandoned basketball court. I heard Mandarin spoken from a small group behind me. A middle-aged guy with three daughters had brought a Sunspotter Scope, projecting a six-inch image onto a paper screen. He was the star of the show.

12:47 Closer. The bite had become a gulp and now the slice of the sun is about half gone. Nothing else has changed. The sun feels just as hot. The sweat is as sticky. I lie back to view through my glasses, over-warm but still comfortable except for the sweat. The crowd is no larger even as Sunspotter Man holds forth about sunspots as they are eclipsed. Dubai Guy is quietly busy, taking photos with a large camera, holding his generous sun-filter in front of the lens with each shot. I tried the same with my cell-phone with no success.

13: 15 The slice has passed through sliver to become a serpiginous smiley-face. Cicadas and cricket have started up. It has become cooler, a breeze has sprung up. My place on the grass is quite comfortable. The Mandarin boys are impressed. The light is odd, seemingly just as brilliant but without there being enough to go around. The grass under the trees is dappled with flights of overlapping crescents. The street lights have come on. I turn back to the smiley-face and discover I am wrong. The smiley face is not a smooth line but has become knobbly, the extremites almost like a string of beads, in this case, Baily’s Beads. The sun, shining between the high passes in the mountains of the moon, seen in profile blossom into brilliance along the thin limbs of the decreasing crescent. It is cooler now. Momentarily I am happy for my long-sleeved shirt. A voice over a loudspeaker counts down the last ten seconds to 13:17:07. I watch as the sun’s light is turned down, as if by a rheostat, until it is dark. Inside my goggles, I can see nothing. I rip them off to see the magnificent corona, unsuspected until the last of the last sliver is obscured. It shines out against a dark sky where a few stars peek out. I think I can see Mercury. The light once more has changed, not twilight, odd, the sky still giving it illumination, if only slightly. The corona, a ring around the absolute black of the moon, changes while I watch, almost as if on fire. The loudspeaker cuts in giving a countdown for the last ten seconds to 13:19:45. I regret I did not drive fifteen minutes further to have it last 3 seconds more. The light breaks out as if anxious to escape. Immediately, the light changes again, brightening second by second to what looks, but does not feel, like full sun. People arise and collect their blankets, walking under the hickories and their flights of crescents.

Green-haired Girl and Beard have left Dubai Guy, Sunspotter Man and me to the remainder of the Event. I rise to leave, looking up briefly to see the other parenthesis has appeared, to join, belatedly and unsuccessfully, the first one.

Driving back through the celestially-created traffic jam, I have more than enough time to contemplate. Millions of American have spent the greater part of a day to view a transient solar accident: almost three minutes where we can actually look at our life-giving sun without protection or damage. During any of the other 12,107,280 three-minute periods of my life, looking at the sun for even a few seconds would have struck me blind. Yet, without this deadly irradiation, our world is itself dead, cold, airless, waterless and desolate. When I thought about it, however, we cannot live long on most of this globe we presume to call home. We can stay but hours aloft and mere months afloat without assistance from the smallest portion, dry land. We cannot breathe water, although other creatures do. We cannot even drink from the largest collection of water, it is a poison to humans, driving us mad before we die. Vast portions of the water are unusable even for travel during much of the year, frozen into a hazard we can barely maneuver within. Any water we do drink must be carefully treated and tended lest the effluvia of our fellow creatures kill us.

Air is available in immense quantities without purification or storage, yet a man can walk to the very edge of breathability. We dwell at the bottom of a shallow pool, five miles deep or so, the distance a “wee stretch of the legs” for a fit person.

The inherent hostility of our dwelling, like a hammock over a viper-pit, should be telling us something about the care put into our creation, and upkeep.


Boll Weevils, Generic fiction and the Final Edit

I just got through the final editing of the second book. This involved the Great Semi Crusade, the rewrite of “Jesse and the Meteors” and a few minor fixes in continuity. Against my vociferous objections, I was required to add a raft load of semicolons from the first editor. I dismantled sentences to avoid using them, and, truth be told, gave in a lot. This final editor asked me to remove all the semis I inserted and replace them with good plebian commas. I readily accepted the challenge, reducing the semi-load to about average for US lit as far as Ngram is concerned. I feel clean again.

The Sub-chapter, “Jesse and the Meteors,” started off at 2300 words in the chapter “The Deal.” In contrast to my first book with its sixty some chapters, the new book has but ten, mimicking a hand of poker. After rereading the sub-chapter, I realized I was wasting a lot of dramatic capital which I had tried to invest in proceedings for most of the previous 50,000 words. Therefore, I did what editors really really really hate you doing: rewriting a chapter instead of just editing it.

I did it anyway, adding another 1200 words.

I am much happier with the outcome. The bad guys still get their comeuppance and the good guys still win through in the end. The suspense is drawn out a bit more.

Continuity, for those of you who are unaware, is the term used for making sure all the events line up right. Effects do not awkwardly precede their causes. The flipping months on the calendar don’t hiccup unexpectedly and the Great Archduke Philburt does not know stuff he is not supposed to know until he gets the mysterious letter sealed with crimson wax thrust under his door in the third act. All that stuff is “continuity.”

As most of us are aware, fiction deals with the awkwardness of continuity frequently by the use of indefinite times. Authors are taught to be non-specific and talk about spring, evening, next week, after-hours and any number of indefinite periods and designations of time. It is meant, I have been told, to universalize the prose, making people see more locations and times than one might with concrete times and places.

I am having none of it.

I am setting my speculation in a concrete time and place in the near but unobtainable future. One reason, of course, is to ensure I will be well and properly dead before any of my predictions will be shown to be just the silliness of a man who ought to know better. Secondly, however, I would really hate it if, when I describe lovingly how the rising moon gleams off the limpid water through the willows, some smart-ass doesn’t come up and tell me that the moon, on that date, had already set by the time our lady was supposed to be observing it. If I say that the moon is full, I want to be darn sure it is full and hasn’t taken up her skirts and scuttled away for a quick smoke. It would be just like a moon to do that.

Therefore, all my chapters are lovingly set in a real place and time, sometimes down to a second of time and a fraction of a second of longitude. Some places, like Sun Prairie Wisconsin, are located quite exactly where I say they are by longitude and latitude. You can look it up. The night sky is accurate to the requirements of the trade thanks to online apps which give a future sky with precision. If Jesse says the star is Antares, believe it.

Am I losing out on making my fiction more universal? Perhaps. The generic “Smallville” has been done, however.

A book about Africa I have read starts with the line “Any book that starts with ‘Africa is’ is wrong.”

Every place is someplace to someone. Enterprise, Alabama has a bronze statue to the boll-weevil ( the wee blobby thing on top). I know why and it makes me feel proud to live in the same state with these peoples’ progeny. Lives are made up of incident, the daily going and coming of humans and how they deal with trials of nature and each other. If so now, it will be so in any imagined future I might write about.

So, I ignore the advice and tediously work on my continuity to make it all fit together without embarrassing inconsistencies.

Exiles Escape should be released in about 8 weeks.

American Healthcare Should Adopt the Cocaine Standard

We Americans have a certain schizophrenia about health care. It is “mom-and-apple-pie” to bemoan the wait times, the hours of operation, the check-in, the lack of house-visits and primarily the cost of care. Nevertheless, people view it as a utility. No, that is certainly not correct. Utilities are paid for. The more electricity, water, sewer service and television channels one gets, the more one expects to pay. Medical care in the USA is viewed as a right, like clean air, without even an EPA-like agency to safeguard its continued availability.

Like expecting free water, free food, free housing and free services of a local business woman of negotiable virtue, free healthcare is a myth. It is a personnel-intensive, material-intensive industry which suffers under harsh regulations.

Healthcare is valuable.

Currently, 18% of American GDP[1] goes to providing healthcare.[2] For an average gross income of $52,000, therefore, this amounts to $9300/year. All receive healthcare yet almost half of Americans pay NO income tax.[3] So the current healthcare debate could be rightfully changed in regards to a national free healthcare scheme to:

“Why should about half of Americans pay for ALL of the healthcare?”

There are some obvious answers:

  • Epidemics of preventable disease are costly to all people, not just the victims.
  • Aesthetically, unnecessary disease and death are unpleasant for all.
  • Prolonging a useful career is beneficial not just to the individual but the society.

I understand that this is not the usual argument, which is couched in terms of a moral imperative.

The question is why anyone with enlightened self-interest should choose to lose one’s possessions and livelihood, earned by their own labor, to help another.

If one chooses to be charitable, the argument is no longer a political one and outside the realm of this article. There are numerous opportunities to donate and have been available for over a couple millennia.

The issue is one of political compulsion, and for extraordinary actions, that of using the bayonet of government to extract payment from a free citizenry to supply a service which is otherwise available, extraordinary arguments must be mustered. That is the standard which must be met before “free health care” becomes reasonable for a free and democratic society.

Contrary to fright tactics, healthcare is provided to all in the United States. I am not saying all care, all the time, in all places and for all the levels of care to which a patient might desire. I am saying that free care is provided. People do not die in the streets and have not since the Spanish Flu of a century ago.

What care is provided?

Specifically, every hospital is mandated to evaluate all those presenting with a potentially emergent condition. (Think chest pain, MVA, pregnancy). On-site care must be provided and transfer to a higher level center if that care is indicated. This is not “dumping” as that is prohibited. (See COBRA regs). The hospital and doctors eat the cost.

Newborn infants, even those requiring months of intensive care, are covered with no cost to parents. (Over the years, over half of my patients fall into this category.)

Specific diseases, such as congenital heart disease, are treated gratis by teaching hospitals.

Childhood immunizations are provided free.

Is this enough? For an “immortal” twenty-something, generous in the extreme, as he needs none of the services except the removal of inconveniently-impaled skateboards on occasion. It is hardly surprising that as a group they view compulsory medical insurance as an unfair tax. It is.

For those of us with fewer years ahead than behind, not so much. We all will need health care unless we make arrangements to die in another bizarre skateboard-related mishap. Disease, while not being avoidable, is nevertheless unpredictable. Catastrophic costs visit the provident as well as the foolish. It seems reasonable to insure only against the unpredictably catastrophic and not against what should, for a provident person, be viewed as the “cost of doing business.”

Where then can costs be cut?

Litigation is a runaway train. The USA is blessed with more lawyers per capita than any nation in the history of the world. We have more living lawyers than all of history back to Hammurabi with scant improvement to a more just society.  American juries seem to vie with each other to add zeros to judgments. Outrageous claims are made for “pain and suffering” which have no monetary measure nor recompense. Money is passed out wholesale for illusory injuries such as loss of psychic powers.[4] Even after juries have come to a decision to acquit a capricious lawsuit, jurors still inquire whether they “might give some money to the plaintiff.”[5] From whence comes this supposed charity? Presumably from the innocent doctors.

The whole medical system is canted to the idea that fighting a malpractice suit is futile. No matter how trivial the mal-occurrence, or how avaricious the plaintiff, the doctor will always lose. Applications for hospital credentials give copious space to record each suit but do not even allow the likelihood that a suit would go to trial and the doctor be found innocent, asking again and again “So it was settled?” rather than conceiving of the chance that the defendants prevailed. Wasting weeks in trial and years of litigation does not serve to reduce the price of medical care nor the availability of doctors.

This dubious success of the legal trade has spawned another costly extravagance. Regulation upon regulation attempt to institute by fiat what can only be accomplished by professionalism. Every time a surgery starts, even for a cesarean section, a “time out” procedure must be done. This was instituted to ensure that appropriate legs were removed when needed. I fail to see how one is going to open the wrong uterus. The procedure generates one more piece of paper that is never subsequently looked at. After multiple dozens and dozens of pettyfoggingly silly regulations, you create a huge patient chart that has all the forms required and is yet impossible to discern any medical judgment therein. Lawmakers, lawyers to a man, feeling neglected, have instituted all their pet peeves into requirements such as the Congenital Heart Disease Screening, a simple-minded rather insensitive test which any pediatrician worth his salt would ignore in favor of a good stethoscope and a quiet room. The false-positives of the screen generate $9000 every time it fails. I know of no infants it has discovered and many it has failed to discover who had real heart disease.

In a larger sense, the patients’ attitude in regards to healthcare must change if any savings will ever be realized. ER visits are certainly abused.[6] Misapprehensions about the appropriate use of emergency rooms are rampant, with Medicaid and Medicare recipients leading the pack. Fully 64% of ER visits are too inconsequential to justify its use. At the cost of $1200+ for each cold ( disease an infant will get about six times a year normally), they are a waste of money. Considering the 4-hour wait (compared to 20 minutes for an urgent care center and even less for a doctor’s office), they are as burdensome for the patients as they are wasteful.

Abuse of emergency rooms is seen most often by people who are unaware of the value of healthcare. If healthcare is free than a visit to and ER is as good street theater as any.Healthcare is valuable.When no value is ascribed to it, it is treated as if it has no value.

What does have value are illegal drugs. We are beyond the tipping point when 90% of the circulating currency has been used in a drug buy at one time or another.[7] The narcissistic abuse of illegal drugs by an overly wealthy, indulgent and non-introspective population creates its own health care problem. Nevertheless, it is a cash market amounting to $110billion in 2013 and $125billion today.[8] While not anywhere near the cost of national healthcare, it is a fair bit of change.

To dissuade these feckless suffering victims of America’s health care crisis, I propose that they EACH patient fork over a dime bag of cocaine before seeing the doc, a real object lesson in the value of health care.

I suppose that arrangements could be made for the user’s drug of choice, say 10 grams of weed, a couple oxycontin, or a few tabs of MDMA. Conversion table could be posted, giving the waiting public something to do in the interminable wait of overcrowded waiting rooms.

With luck, this would allow patients to accurately assess their needs for professional hospital care. It would provide a fund forthe hospital to cushion any perturbations in the payments cycles, selling off the cocaine as needed to make ends meet and doing in small part what needs to be done to make American Healthcare the envy of a troubled world.

[1] 17.95 trillion USD (2015)

[2] https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/sites/danmunro/2015/01/04/u-s-healthcare-spending-on-track-to-hit-10000-per-person-this-year/&refURL=https://www.google.com/&referrer=https://www.google.com/

[3] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/45-of-americans-pay-no-federal-income-tax-2016-02-24/

[4] http://lawhaha.com/plaintiff-sues-for-loss-of-psychic-powers/

[5] 2013, Floyd Co. Ga, Duke vs et al.

[6] http://blog.bcbsnc.com/2014/04/5-emergency-room-myths-busted/

[7] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/08/090816-cocaine-money.html

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illegal_drug_trade_in_the_United_States