James Baldwin for Esquire Magazine in 1960

The below was posted by Kristin Howerton at Rage Against the Minivan. I decided to share it on my little blog as well. It’s sad that when you scratch the surface, there’s been so little change in fifty years. The below could have been written today.

JamesBaldwin-1960

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Thoughts on Obama and the Current Political State

I posted the following as a comment on a post by Fr. Ernesto. I thought I would go ahead and publish it here as well. It may make more sense if you also read the post, but I think most of the thoughts stand on their own.


 

I believe DecodeDC has a much better reality-based analysis, particularly comparing the results of statewide referendums with elections results. I also agree with their analysis that it’s extremely unlikely the GOP will actually get the voter message polling indicates, especially since, ironically considering the election results, GOP approval is even lower than that of the Democrats.

https://soundcloud.com/decodedc/episode-59-gop-wins-bigbut-theres-more-to-the-story

With that said, your comment about Obama going down as one of the 10 worst presidents strikes me as laughable from a historical perspective. History focuses on the major achievements and failures of an administration. So far, at least, Obama really hasn’t had any of the latter — certainly nothing like Nixon or some of the others in the bottom ten. And he has some major wins in the plus column. What do people think of first when FDR is mentioned? The New Deal, of course, of which social security is one of the enduring aspects. LBJ? The Great Society, with its linchpins of medicaid and medicare. And while it falls short of those two measures, the ACA is easily third on that list for the past century. At least, I can’t think of anything else comparable. And the ACA is here to stay. Witness the way Mcconnell had to prevaricate in Kentucky on the issue just to get reelected or the comments of Kasich in Ohio. Moreover, Obama knows it’s his signature achievement, so I expect him to defend it.

Outside that, though much less sexy, Obama did achieve moderate financial reform. Dodd-Frank certainly isn’t the return of Glass-Steagal, which is what we really need. But it does have some real teeth and is a significant improvement over where we were. The Treasury Department and other agencies do now have real power to act in a crisis, which was a major question and issue in 2008.

He’s been fairly typical of post-Vietnam presidents on foreign policy. He’s at least avoided embroiling us in a foreign ground war on questionable pretexts like his predecessor, so that’s a plus. That could change still, I suppose, but hopefully not.

I’m not a particular fan of Obama and really wish a different Democrat had been president these past six years. I don’t believe anyone would have been much more effective against the scorched earth tactics of the GOP, but someone more seasoned might have avoided some of the mistakes Obama made during the first two years when he actually had a Congress in which he could accomplish something. The comparison to Clinton in the 90s is really an apples to oranges one. The GOP he worked with largely knew it still had to govern and tended to set some of its rhetoric aside once elected. (That was true even of the firebrands like Gingrich.) It looks like many of the current crop actually believe the nonsense they spout and intend to actually try to implement it, which, as Kansas and Pennsylvania have demonstrated, is a disastrous course.

I would tend to rate Obama right now somewhere in the middle of our Presidents with one really big, game-changing achievement.

Given that the GOP is unlikely to hear the actual voter message and nothing in their underlying demographics changed in this election, I predict they’ll continue their current course. And 2016 looks likely to follow the course of the last two presidential election cycles. Hopefully Democrats will learn something, but I’m not particularly optimistic about that either. Everything has been reduced to winning the next election and pretty much anything else has fallen by the wayside. Not sure what it would take for things to change.

It doesn’t help that we’re mostly down to two or three wings of one party rather than two actual parties. Democrats have mostly become the Wall Street friendly moderate wing of the Republican Party (with a few exceptions like Al Franken here and there). That’s certainly where Obama lies on the political spectrum. I guess when the GOP purged all the moderates from their party, they had to go somewhere. The GOP now finds itself almost in a war between its far right conservative wing and radical right wing factions. That’s the reason Boehner has had such a hard time since 2010 and I don’t see things improving with this election. As they’ve repeatedly demonstrated over the past four years, to the radical right wing faction, ‘compromise’ means getting what you demand in full without giving up anything. That’s why the GOP leaders have continually been forced to renege on negotiations. Personally, I don’t think that’s been all bad, since I thought some of the compromises Obama and the Democrats appeared willing to make in 2011 and 2012 were phenomenally poor ones. We were saved by the radical right wing’s apparent inability to accept victory with a few token concessions. The problem with no meaningful, organized pull from the left is that the starting point for any ‘negotiation’ today is actually right of center. So today, moderate right-wing Republican policy victories like the ACA are decried as ‘liberal’ because they are somewhat to the left of the now almost entirely far right GOP. (For anyone wondering, the actual left wing position for health care reform has always been some form of Medicare for everyone.)

At this juncture, I think the odds are in favor of at least one more government shutdown next year and perhaps more. I don’t expect much else to happen and I expect the plight of the American people to worsen. And I think plight is a good term for the current state of things. Most Americans now believe the next generation won’t do better than their own. And unless things dramatically change, I tend to side with them.

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The High Cost of Being Uninsured

When people talk about the risks and costs of no healthcare insurance in the United States, they often talk about the risk of something catastrophic, such as a major illness or serious accident. Those risks are significant, of course, but I think there’s another major cost that isn’t being discussed nearly as much. If someone in the US doesn’t have insurance, they are effectively charged dramatically more for everything than someone with health insurance is charged. My wife has had a number of surgeries and procedures over the past few years, so I’ve been able to see that dynamic in action repeatedly, but it’s there with everything from ordinary doctor’s visit to prescription drug costs. If you look at statements, it’s usually called something like the “insurance adjustment” and it’s often massive. I’ve seen the adjustment equal nine-tenths or more of the billed amount.

Remember, this is the amount the charge is reduced before either the insurance company or the individual pays anything. And that single fact is massively important. Let’s say that an individual or family, even with the ACA subsidies, can only afford a bronze plan with a $5,000 or so deductible before it pays much. With subsidies, such plans tend to be pretty inexpensive and should be in the reach of most everyone. A lot of people look at that amount and think the plan doesn’t provide any benefits for them until they have more than $5,000 in health care expenditures.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Because of this hidden benefit of being insured, a single ER visit for a minor fracture with x-rays could end up costing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars more for the uninsured patient than for the insured patient even if the insurance company doesn’t actually pay a cent because the deductible has not been reached. Even the difference in the amount charged for a single, simple office visit will likely be more than a month’s subsidized premium for a bronze plan.

Now, if you think the above is a horribly broken system, then I agree with you. But that’s reality in the US today. And as long as that’s the case, the benefits of being insured in America don’t start when the insurance company begins paying. They begin immediately and you receive those benefits even if the insurance company never pays anything at all.

So if you still have no health insurance and either don’t think it’s worth it or don’t believe you can afford it, you need to reevaluate your decision. It’s invaluable and almost essential in the US as things work today and you really can’t afford not to have it.

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The Gluten Free Diet is NOT a Fad Diet!

I wrote the following as a comment on another blog after someone said they couldn’t wait for the gluten free fad diet to go away. Usually I ignore those comments. This time, for whatever reason, I didn’t. The words poured out and I decided to edit it and post it on my blog. So without further ado, here is my response to those who believe the gluten free diet is just another fad diet.

Okay, that’s going to prompt me to pull out my soapbox. ;-) I have to confess, I have mixed feelings about the current faddish aspect of the gluten-free diet. On the one hand, it’s educated the broader population. A lot more people now at least know what gluten is. That makes it much easier for me to explain what I can and can’t eat. Restaurants have become a lot more sensitive and knowledgeable about food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances in general and gluten specifically. (Even though what I have isn’t an allergy, the treatment is the same as that for an allergy.) And it’s now a lot easier than it was to identify a gluten-free food product with confidence. (Part of that is also a result of the labeling regulations the FDA has developed.)

With that said, it has also led to a widespread dismissive attitude by people who treat it like just another fad diet. Mostly I ignore it, but the stories of restaurant chefs and servers who deliberately contaminate food because they are irritated about this “fad”, though thankfully uncommon, are always in the back of my head any time we eat out. Even when someone isn’t malicious, they can still be careless if they think it’s just a fad. We’re very selective in the restaurants in the area that we know and trust, but there is always that first time you try a restaurant that isn’t already on your list. There have been times I simply haven’t eaten the food because something about the food or the service set off warning bells. ( I don’t make a scene based on a gut feeling, but I don’t like that I have to worry about it.)

Fundamentally, the gluten free diet is emphatically not a fad; it’s a medical diet. Nobody would dismiss a diabetic diet as a fad even if, for some reason, it gained a faddish quality among some people who did not have diabetes.

Celiac disease is at the top of the list of medical conditions that are treated with a gluten free diet. Celiac disease remains widely misunderstood by the general population, even when they’ve heard of it. It’s not an allergy or food intolerance. Nor is it limited to GI symptoms.

Rather, celiac disease is an autoimmune disease like lupus, type 1 diabetes, and a number of other pretty serious diseases. When a person has an autoimmune disease, their body produces auto-antibodies that attack itself rather than an invading pathogen. Unlike all the rest of the autoimmune diseases, we actually know what triggers the autoimmune response for those of us with celiac disease — consuming gluten. In a way, I consider myself fortunate. At least I have a chronic, incurable disease that I can keep in complete remission simply by maintaining a strict medical diet. People who have lupus, for example, aren’t so fortunate. All they can really do is try to treat the symptoms and keep it under control, but they are never symptom-free. And none of the medication is free of side effects. And if the first medicine used becomes ineffective, the next one is actually a chemotherapy drug. Similarly, I’ve known a number of people with type 1 diabetes. They have to follow a fairly strict medical diet, watch their blood sugar, and give themselves insulin shots. And their disease is never in remission or fully controlled.

A lot of studies have been done over the past decade or so, including a controlled study here in the US that tested something like 13,000 people in the general population across the country. So we know the rate of celiac disease. In the US, roughly 1% of the population has active celiac disease. That’s roughly the same rate as type 1 diabetes, making those two diseases by far the most common autoimmune diseases. Unfortunately, nearly 90% of those with active celiac disease remain undiagnosed. Moreover, other studies have shown that the rate of celiac disease in the general population has been increasing for decades and is still increasing. (They tested blood samples going back to the 50s and discovered active celiac disease back then had about a quarter of the rate it currently does.)

And that’s because celiac disease can be largely asymptomatic for years as it creates long-term damage. Or its symptoms can seem unconnected to each other and and can range across all the bodily systems. Since even most doctors still associate it exclusively with GI symptoms, if someone doesn’t present with those symptoms, they never consider celiac disease. In reality, celiac disease has over 300 potential symptoms ranging from the classical GI symptoms to neurological to diseases related to nutritional deficiencies and many more. The list is mind-boggling. Over the long-term, it can trigger other autoimmune diseases. It can cause depression. It can trigger ADHD or make it worse. Active celiac disease can even lead to cancer.

The presenting symptom for me when I was finally diagnosed was iron deficient anemia. However, I was then discovered to have osteoporosis in my spine (now almost completely returned to normal). I discovered the “aches and pains” I thought were just part of growing older largely went away. They were apparently the result of systemic inflammation. I was suffering from depression, which is now completely gone. I had mild neuropathy and “brain fog” now also gone. I was an extremely advanced case when I was finally diagnosed and even after almost five years, my body is still healing.

Active celiac disease will kill you. (Studies have shown it significantly reduces longevity.) And it will do so slowly and with significant suffering.

There is a strong genetic component to celiac disease. If you don’t have certain genes, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll ever develop celiac. As a result, though, that means that family members, especially first degree relatives, of someone with celiac disease are much more likely to have or develop active celiac disease than the general population. So after I was diagnosed, I let all my family members know, including my older children. (Unfortunately, except for my older son, I don’t think any of them have actually gotten tested.) My two younger children were both still minors at the time, so we had them tested as a precaution. We were shocked to discover they both had full-blown celiac disease. They were completely asymptomatic. Fortunately, unlike me, we caught it early with them. So they’ll never suffer the extensive systemic damage I did.

However, the diet is extremely strict. I forget the exact threshold, but something like 20-50 milligrams of gluten in a day will trigger a full-blown autoimmune response. (Yes, they’ve studied that as well.) And even smaller levels can trigger some autoimmune reaction. As a result, we talk about gluten as “parts per million” in any given food we consume to avoid reaching the very small daily thresholds. 20 parts per million is the threshold used in the FDA regulations, if I recall correctly. (Mostly I think that’s because we don’t have a test that will reliably detect lower levels of gluten.) But that means that food that has been fried in the same oil as flour battered items or has otherwise been in contact with a gluten-containing food is typically not safe for us to eat.

Moreover, once triggered by exposure, the autoimmune response can take weeks to completely subside and for the disease to return to full remission. (Generally, the acute symptoms from an exposure, if any, subside in a matter of days, but the autoimmune response itself takes much more time.) I recall another case study of a nun who strictly adhered to the gluten free diet except for weekly communion with only a small piece of the eucharistic wafer. Her celiac disease remained fully active even from that small weekly exposure. (I will note that both the Catholic and Orthodox churches hold that communion with either bread or wine alone remains the fullness of communion and can commune those with celiac disease with wine only.)

The doctors who research celiac disease are trying to get it added to the regular screening process like diabetes and cholesterol. Given that around 3 million people in the US have active celiac disease and roughly 2.7 million of them remain undiagnosed and since the disease can activate at any age, that seems reasonable. It’s especially reasonable since it’s so hard to diagnose from the symptoms and can even be largely asymptomatic for years as it damages the body. Moreover, they now have a blood test that is highly accurate and specific, so it’s relatively easy to screen. But the medical community generally moves pretty slowly on such things. Hopefully we’ll get there.

I’ll put the soapbox away now. But please, even though there is presently a faddish quality to the gluten free diet, don’t dismiss it as simply another fad diet. It isn’t. It’s a life-saving necessity for those of us with celiac disease.

 

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Elder Cleopa on Prayer

Every time I watch it, I’m struck by Elder Cleopa’s description of prayer, especially prayer of the heart. It’s a lot different than how many people today describe prayer, but the Elder describes something living and powerful. I don’t pray well or, as the reporter in the video notes, nearly as much as I should. But I do desire more. In the interim, I pray the Jesus Prayer in my own poor fashion and keep stumbling forward.

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I also note the brief segment in the video where the Elder describes himself as a “rotten old man.” I’ve mentioned in past posts the video I once saw of an old monk saying that all would be saved and he alone would be damned. I’ve never been able to find that video again, probably because I don’t remember any of the context. But the image of that monk’s face as he uttered those words remains fixed in my brain. It haunts me.

It often seems in the Protestant/Evangelical world that there’s often an air of confidence and self-assurance among its leaders that increases as they age and mature. In Orthodoxy, I see the opposite. The holier (at least in my perception) people become, the more conscious they seem to be of their own sin and need for repentance. They begin to see themselves as they truly are and not through the favorably distorting lenses we all wear when we examine ourselves. In Christ, they are able to see themselves in an undimmed glass without being destroyed.

Of course, all Orthodox proclaim themselves the greatest of sinners before receiving communion, following the path of the publican rather than the pharisee. But it seems like the more clearly we can see ourselves, the more we understand that the parable is true; it describes reality.

While I didn’t know it at the time, it appears the monk’s words from the video are deeply rooted in Orthodox monasticism. They appear to come from a story about St. Antony the Great. God told St. Antony there was a man in Alexandria, a cobbler, who exceeded him in holiness. Antony sought out the man, but he seemed perfectly ordinary in every way. But then the cobbler explained that as he went about his day, he thought of everyone he passed by or with whom he interacted that they would be saved and he alone would be lost. That story isn’t in St. Athanasius’ book, “The Life of Antony”, but I did find it referenced in a story of St. Siloaun.  It’s long, but an engrossing read.

Keep Your Mind in Hell and Despair Not

I particularly like the part where he realizes that the existence of mankind is inextricably linked to our own individual existence. “Our brother is our life.”

Indeed.

 

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Am I Saved? (Fr. Thomas Hopko)

Fr. Thomas Hopko discusses salvation.

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Are You Saved?

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware describes a time he was asked that question, what salvation means, and how he answered the question.

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Are You Saved? An Orthodox Christian Answer

I remember I listened to this podcast numerous times after it was released. I don’t remember if I had stumbled across the youtube version of it before. Molly Sabourin attempts an answer that at least exposes the depth and breadth of the question, “Are you saved?”

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Is Hell Real? And Reading the Real Bible

Fr. Stephen has posted two excellent posts. The first poses the question, “Is Hell Real?” I’ve made some effort to address that question in my own series on the topic which you can find in the sidebar under Hell. But Fr. Stephen drives right to the heart of the matter. And then he posted a longer commentary on the flat, literalistic reading of the Bible today and what we mean when we call something real. I strongly urge anyone who reads my blog to read those two posts if you haven’t already read them.

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Zilker Summer Musical – Little Shop of Horrors

Zilker Summer Musical PosterLittle Shop of Horrors!

Seymour! Audrey! And that strange and interesting plant, the Audrey II!

What time is it, everyone? It’s time once again for the longest running free summer musical in the country, the Zilker Summer Musical! Personally, I’ve been to almost every performance since the 80s. I know that since 1990, the performances in 1996 and 2007 are the only ones our family has missed.

As sponsors, my wife and I attended the BBQ dinner and preview performance on 7/11. The performance was wonderful. (If you’ve only ever seen the movie version, there might be a surprise or two in store for you.) The dinner put a slight damper on things. I could have sworn I read something that indicated Green Mesquite would be catering it again like they did last year and I had researched the food and knew what I could eat. As it turns out, though, Pok-e-Jo’s catered it instead. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice until after I had eaten the food. And while I saw after I checked their site that I could have eaten safely, unfortunately two of the items I ate were not gluten free. :-( Sometimes it sucks to have to celiac disease. It just reinforces that I always have to check and double-check every time before I eat anything my wife or I didn’t prepare.

I apparently didn’t get a ton of gluten, so while I didn’t feel great later that evening and yesterday, it wasn’t as bad as it has been in the past. Of course, I don’t tend to have as strong a set of acute symptoms as some people who have celiac disease, which is why I had such extensive systemic damage by the time I was finally diagnosed. Still, it didn’t ruin my evening. My wife and I loved the performance and had a great time.

After the dinner and before the show, we headed down to Barton Springs pool and stuck our feet in the water for a while to cool down. It really helped a lot, especially since my wife is sensitive to too much sun and heat.

Tomorrow I’ll be headed back with my youngest daughter and one of her friends. We’ve been doing Shakespeare in the Park and the summer musical for some years now. When we go, we make it a full day. We spend it at the pool, which has lots of space to lounge and read and relax between dips in the pool. My daughter and her friend never stop talking until the show starts! Even as teenagers, sometimes they’ll head over to the nearby Zilker Playground. We pack plenty of drinks and food and make sure to get our blankets out right at 6:00 (the earliest you’re supposed to place unattended blankets).

If you live in the Austin area and you’ve never been, try to work it into your summer schedule this year. It’s a lot of fun and you won’t regret it!

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