Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunday Reading

Flashback — Twenty years ago I was living in Longmont, Colorado. As I noted last week, on February 1, 1989, I broke my ankle and spent the next twelve weeks with my leg in a cast. A friend of mine suggested I write about the experience. Back in those pre-blog days if you wanted to tell the world your points of view, you called up talk radio or wrote a letter to the editor. I wrote the following article for the Longmont Times-Call, and it was published on February 26, 1989. Thanks to modern scanning technology, here is the article.

On Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 7:30 in the morning, I slipped on a patch of ice in my driveway, fell and broke my ankle. With the help of my housemate and his father, I was taken to the emergency room of Longmont United Hospital.

Later that day I had surgery to implant three pins in my leg. The surgeon, Dr. Darrah, told me that my injury was not extraordinary and I have an excellent chance of full recovery. I spent the night in observation and was released the following morning wearing a cast on my left leg and learning how to walk on crutches.

While my injury may be a textbook case to the medical profession, it was a traumatic incident to me. All of my life I’ve been blessed with excellent health and this is the first time I have ever broken a bone or required emergency care. The people at Longmont United Hospital knew this, and that made all the difference.

That morning was the first day of the “Alaska blaster” cold wave and the emergency room was busy; some patients with minor injuries, others with more serious damage than mine. This did not lessen the care and human contact that the nurses, doctors and staff showed to each of their patients.

For the nearly five hours I was in the emergency room – first for my diagnosis and the remainder awaiting surgery, I watched as they went about their business and took care of us in a friendly and caring way. My fears – and they ranged from the panic aroused by the injury to my practical concerns about insurance coverage – were dealt with, and throughout my stay in the hospital I felt that I was in good hands: the care of friends.

To go from an active and busy person to an invalid in one quick slip is a shock, needless to say. The universe changed. My daily routine was destroyed for a few days while I recovered at home. My work schedule must now accommodate my handicap and it will be several weeks before I can return to my regular exercise schedule (which is probably the most frustrating aspect of all).

But the change has also opened my eyes to a world that I either ignored or merely acknowledged without full comprehension. I now have a vivid understanding of what people with disabilities go through all the time. When on crutches, little things like making a bed, or getting a bottle of soda and carrying it to the couch to watch TV require planning and skill, and door-closing devices become your sworn enemy. Having handicapped parking spaces at your disposal is not a luxury but a necessity. My employer has generously set aside a space for my exclusive use and last week when an able-bodied driver “didn’t see the sign,” I felt no sympathy when he returned to see his car being dragged away tail first.

I have also learned something about human nature. I spent a Saturday at the Denver Home and Garden show in a wheelchair and found the experience enlightening. As I expected, there is a limit to what you can do and where you can go in one of those things, but I also discovered that other people treated me quite differently. Some looked at me as if I was a pet and gave me a little smile. One or two looked at me quickly and then looked away, seemingly embarrassed. The ones who noticed the cast and realized I was not permanently disabled had one of two reactions. They either smiled and asked what happened in an overly familiar manner or they looked relieved to see that I was only temporarily crippled.

To some I represented a threat. One gentleman getting off an elevator slammed right into my cast and when I yelped in pain, he turned, looked for an instant, and then went on his way without a word. As always, children had the most honest reactions. They either stared (and I always smiled) or asked what was wrong with me. One solicitous mother jumped in and told the inquiring mind, “He’s hurt,” as if I was incapable of reply or emotionally unstable. I suppose it would have upset her had I demonstrated that I could speak for myself. Perhaps she expected me to loll my head and drool.

The temporary handicap parking permit given to me by the state will expire in May, but I will be back on two feet before then. But I doubt that I will ever forget that for a comparatively short time in my life I have had a unique view of the world.

Those among us who are permanently disabled have always told us that they wish to be treated as normal people. I add my voice to that. And those who are concerned about the high cost of health care might do well to remember that the art of medicine, like any art, translates poorly into dollars and cents. How can we put a price on health? I have no answer to that, except to say that the care, concern and dedication I saw at Longmont United Hospital is worthy of our respect and worth every penny. I wish I could thank each one who helped me … but I think I just did.

Draining the Swamp — Leonard Pitts on the perils of trying to change the ways things work.

”I screwed up.”

— President Barack Obama,

Feb. 3, 2009

Wait a minute. He said that? There were cameras and microphones? Somebody caught it on tape?

Presidents don’t say that. Bill Clinton never said that. George W. Bush would have cut off his tongue with rusty gardening shears before he said that. But you’re telling me Barack Obama actually said it? These are the words that came out of his mouth in a series of interviews with network news anchors?

Oh, my stars and garters. Dylan was right. The times, they are a’changin’.

As a reader told me the other day, ”I was almost unnerved by how refreshing it was to have a president openly make, correct and admit a mistake. What unnerved me is that I almost didn’t care what the mistake was.”

For the record, the mistake had to do with Obama undermining his own ethical standards by nominating former Sen. Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services and standing by him even after it was revealed he had neglected to pay over $128,000 in federal taxes. Daschle withdrew his name from consideration the same day Obama ‘fessed up.

Two hours later, would-be chief White House performance officer Nancy Killefer also packed it in because she, too, was tainted by tax troubles. All this after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s nomination was nearly swamped by the revelation that he owed $34,000 in back taxes. And, leave us not forget the administration asking for and receiving a waiver of its own ethics rules restricting lobbyists so that William J. Lynn III, a former lobbyist for Raytheon, could be installed as as deputy secretary of defense.

Taken together, it adds up to a worrisome pattern for an administration that campaigned on a vow to reform Washington’s ethics. As Obama himself put it in one of the interviews, ”. . . it’s important for this administration to send a message that there aren’t two sets of rules.”

Yes, every president arrives in Washington with a promise to drain the swamp. And every president eventually finds the swamp draining him.

Inevitably, there comes a moment when the soap bubbles of campaigning meet the hard macadam of governing. The soap bubbles break, lofty promises and best intentions giving way before pragmatism and the need to get things done. It will happen for Obama, too. But the president must be more thoughtful than he has so far been in choosing when and how those moments come. Do it for healthcare, perhaps. Do it for the economy. But for Tom Daschle and William Lynn? No.

Like it or not, the rules are different for this president.

Don’t believe me? Take a spin around town. Pick up a piece of chocolate sculpted in Obama’s likeness at the candy store. Buy a copy of Spider-Man with Obama on the cover at the comic book shop. Pick up one of the dozens of Obama books at the bookstore. Stand among the people clad in Obama T-shirts and hoodies at the bus stop. Head over to the souvenir stand and load up on Obama calendars, cups, caps and key chains.

When is the last time you saw a president so . . . beloved? This is the source of Obama’s great political power. It is also his political kryptonite.

Not to mix superhero metaphors, but as Obama’s friend Spider-Man could tell him, with great power comes great responsibility. Barack Obama is seen as something new. The worst thing he could do is to act like something old — a politician cutting corners and talking from both sides of his mouth. Should that happen, the heights of the nation’s adulation will be mirrored in the depths of its scorn. So he must be what he said he was.

Last week’s moment of sparkling candor was a timely reminder, then, of the traits that are supposed to make this president different. Some of us needed that reminder.

Maybe he did, too.

Both Sides — Two views of the housing situation in Florida. First, Damien Cave at the New York Times tells of despair as foreclosures mount in the Fort Myers area.

“I knew it was coming,” said Gloria Chilson, 56, the former owner of the house, as she watched strangers pick through her belongings. “You take what you can; you try not to care.”

Welcome to the American dream in high reverse. Lehigh Acres is one of countless sprawling exurbs that the housing boom drastically reshaped, and now the bust is testing whether the experience of shared struggle will pull people together or tear them apart.

The changes in these mostly unincorporated areas outside cities like Charlotte, N.C., Las Vegas and Sacramento have been swift and vivid. Their best economic times have been immediately followed by their worst, as they have generally been the last to crest and the first to crash.

In Lehigh Acres, homes are selling at 80 percent off their peak prices. Only two years after there were more jobs than people to work them, fast-food restaurants are laying people off or closing. Crime is up, school enrollment is down, and one in four residents received food stamps in December, nearly a fourfold increase since 2006.

President Obama is scheduled to visit Fort Myers on Tuesday to promote his economic stimulus plan. But residents here tend to view it as the equivalent of an herbal remedy — it can’t hurt but it probably won’t heal. Instead, in church groups and offices, people call for “industry” and repeat one telling question: “What do we want to be when we grow up?”

“That’s one of the things we struggle with: What is our identity?” said Joseph Whalen, 37, president of the Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t want to be the bedroom community of southwest Florida; we don’t want to be the foreclosure capital.”

On the other side of the state, however, Monica Hatcher reports in the Miami Herald that people who could never afford a home are now buying them.

It’s a spacious 2,500-square-foot stone-and-brick-facade home with four bedrooms, a walled-in yard and an efficiency apartment in the back.

Three years ago, someone paid $240,000 for it. But in about 45 days, Carline Jeudy, a single mother of four and a renter until now, expects to close on her purchase of the bank-owned foreclosure in Opa-locka for just $90,000.

For many South Floridians, there is an upside to the otherwise brutal downturn in real estate, with its flurry of foreclosures, personal bankruptcies and spreading economic pain.

Housing is suddenly affordable to those with average income — without risky teaser rates or subprime mortgages or cooking the numbers to qualify.

”I never thought I would be a homeowner because of the money I’m making,” said Jeudy, 33, a buffet attendant at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami, whose take-home pay is about $22,000 a year. ”I never thought I could afford it by myself.”

Dirt-cheap foreclosures and a sluggish market have pushed prices down by much as 43 percent since they peaked in 2006 and 2007. For the first time in a long while, thousands of homes are listed for less than $150,000 — even less than $100,000 — putting them snugly within the affordability range of police officers, teachers and others long priced out of the South Florida market.

At the peak of the market, affordable housing was so scarce that companies had difficulty recruiting workers from outside the region.

While the pickings are more plentiful now, borrowing hurdles are daunting, often including demands for 20 percent down payments and stellar credit scores. Buyers are also being held back by fears that housing prices will sink even more and by concerns that they could lose their jobs in the deepening recession.

”I need a few more weeks to get to 20 percent,” said Thomas Krusin, a sea-freight broker for an international transportation company. Krusin, 30, has ridden his bike through Surfside, admiring houses that two years ago were selling for twice as much as he hopes to pay — about $350,000. And that’s for a place close enough to the beach that he can walk to it.

Doonesbury — What would it take to get you into this car today?