Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Man's Worth

After walking aimlessly throughout the grocery store, it became apparent to me that I had no business being there. The “fish out of water,” cliché doesn’t nearly fit into the reality that I was in. In a sense, I felt like a zombie, walking the aisles stone faced, looking for any signs of my girlfriend who was doing the “real shopping.”

I was more than out of my element this time, I was in a place where the females had the home court advantage and the rest of us so-called men were there to merely push the cart. As I looked at my fellow Y chromosomes in the checkout lane, I saw a look of acceptance in their faces that whatever happened to be in that cart, was A) good for them and B) regardless was what they were going to eat for the next week or so.

Lately, it’s been more than the grocery store that has led me to the conclusion that women have more control than men. For me, it’s been every time that I look around my immaculate apartment after coming home from work. It’s when I look into the laundry bin and see that all of my dirty clothes have been cleaned. And it’s at dinner time when I smell the fresh aromas of cooking in the kitchen. Each day, I am more and more thankful for the chores that my girlfriend has taken up. I realize that while I may have the higher income, I am by no means the “head of the household.”

The females in my life (grandmothers, mother, sisters, friends and girlfriend) are incredible. I could detail everything that they do on top of their jobs that keeps their significant others going but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m in somehow going back 50 years by commenting on gender roles. Instead, I would like all of the men to appreciate the crap (and yes that is the appropriate word here) that females put up with on a daily basis save childbirth which is immeasurable to me at this point.

I don’t have to study the millions of females around the world that do the types of activities that make a man’s world as convenient as possible. All I really have to do is to look at my own home and see how easy I have it.

I suppose this post is more or less an ode to women but more importantly my girlfriend, who cooks, cleans, goes to school and holds a part time job all the while putting up with my constant BS. Additionally, she also gives some great advice. When I asked her what I could do to make my blog more appealing, she quickly replied, “Keep it short.”

Point taken.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Black Hole?

There’s nothing sexy about the country of Sudan. It’s not a place that most journalists, tourists or policymakers choose to visit. Its geography is largely dry and flat with nothing more to offer the world than modest reserves of crude oil and strife. The name Sudan is derived from Arabic “Bilad-al-Sudan,” literally meaning, “land of all blacks.” It is that translation that perhaps resonates most for Americans as it is seen as a country of little to no value to the western world.
If you don’t want to know more and want to continue to live in the blissful ignorance that you have become accustomed to, then I would suggest that you stop reading here. It only gets worse. To continue reading would seriously jeopardize the neat little safe haven that you are comfortable with. The truth is that Sudan along with many other countries in Africa (that get even less publicity) are in dire need of outside help and if assistance is not given to them in the immediate future, then their place in the world will perish and the rest will be history.

It should come as no surprise that 20% of young Americans believe Sudan to be part of Asia, even though it is the largest country in Africa. And while Hollywood has been making strides towards awareness by marketing the genocide within the country with popular movements such as “Save Darfur,” “the enough project,” “Not on our Watch,” and “Live 8, the conventional wisdom has still been to ignore the continent of Africa in its entirety and to discard it as a land of hopelessness.

Since 2003 experts have estimated that over 200,000 men, women and children have died at the hands of government sponsored militants known as the janjaweed in Darfur. What’s more is that this number is low balled from estimates that have the death toll well over 350,000 with an equal number projected to die in the coming months according to the United States Agency for International Development. If broken down that would be more than 500 killed each day or 15,000 a month. Additionally, of those who have survived this brutality, 2.5 million have been displaced from their homes, many of whom are women and children who are suffering from malnourishment.

The story does not end here though.

Internal conflict is not exclusive to just Sudan. Similar displacements to the tune of 1.4 million are escalating in Uganda where young boys and girls known by some as the “invisible children,” are abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to join their ranks.
The United Nations largest peacekeeping force is not in Sudan or Uganda but rather the Democratic Republic of Congo where last year 500,000 were displaced and 45,000 die each month. Stories of women and children are also routinely reported for the horrendous sexual torture that is forced upon them.

I could go on with a laundry list of examples of countries under the same plight but out of fear that they would be treated as just that by viewers (a laundry list) where people would wash themselves clean of the horrors that affect millions of people, I’ll simply list them and allow the readers to look up their backgrounds at their leisure: Angola, Algeria, Burundi, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Rwanda.

So the questions that I can never find answers to are; Has this blog reached anybody that will do something useful with their time to change the life of maybe just one human being in Africa? Do numbers and statistics reach our conscience? Do pictures and images of slaughter and rape push us into action? Are eloquent words about humanity and suffering worthless? Are trendy Hollywood ambassadors useful? Ah…the rub?

Maybe we do need Paris Hilton and Britney Spears to visit Africa to bring attention to the world. I think that if the paparazzi were to follow them down there and see for themselves the violence that is afflicting Africans all over the continent, then maybe they would put their cameras to good use and enlighten the rest of us. As much as it pains me to see Kanye West saying anything other than “Welcome to the good life,” perhaps his presence in Darfur could open our eyes and awaken our consciences.

Then again, the Live 8 concerts had a remarkable turnout and produced little in terms of putting pressure on the Sudan government to halt its practices of backdoor support to the janjaweed or demands on the Chinese government and major corporations to divest from Sudan. No, I think this is one problem that not even Bono will be able to fix. The intervention required will take the serious attention and interest of western populations that care to look at Africa not as a continent infested with civil war and AIDS but as a place where human beings have the right to live.

I haven’t gone into gruesome detail of violence that I have read so much about. Nor have I given a thorough background paper on what is actually going on in parts like Darfur. Instead, I ended the last few paragraphs talking about celebrities just like the rest of the news; I’m no better. And for that, I like the others who have tried to reach a tiny cross section of the world have come up short.

My main point which sometimes gets lost in the convoluted and at times incoherent sentences of mine, is that we choose not to act. It would certainly be one thing if we didn’t know about the crisis out of the lack of reporting or information at our disposal. The reality is that any search engine with the word “Darfur, Sudan, Congo, Uganda etc…” will bring up a myriad of hits that talk to the heart of the matter. Americans cry apathy far too much, citing elections as just one example. I don’t buy it in this case. Genocide is a cause we can take up and is the exact word that the US and UN have used repeatedly to describe parts of Africa.

For once we need to listen to our President who in the past may have led us astray in his leadership but in case is spot on, "I promise this to the people of Darfur: The United States will not avert our eyes from a crisis that challenges the conscience of the world.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

America Strong

The sweat dripped down my face as I put one foot in front of the other. Cars zipped past the side of me on their way to the beautiful ocean view that was giving me my last bit of inspiration.

Slowly, I jogged up the steep incline with my eyes staring at the pavement moving beneath me. As soon as I looked up I saw another runner coming my way down the hill. In an ever subtle gesture he gave me a nod of acknowledgement and then a ‘thumbs up’ as if to encourage me. In that split second exchange, we had connected on a similar level; a runner’s level. I knew he had just been where I was a few minutes before and he knew the pain that I was enduring.

On my way back down the hill I encountered several other runners embarking on the same climb that I had just done. Without hesitation and without a sense of obligation, I gave a small wave as we crossed paths. Call it a runner’s thing, a symbol of unity or whatever you wish. The bottom line was that we were all trying to get up that hill.

Running is very much an individual activity and even though there are running groups here and there, the vast majority of runners like to go at it alone. Some people do it competitively in marathons while others just go out to get in shape or to give themselves an excuse to get out of the office. Despite the reasons why people choose to torture their knees for long periods of time, there is one common denominator; the struggle. It is that struggle that connects us, that bonds us.

That instance when I was running up towards Diamond Head and got a motivational thumb’s up is not unique. Almost every time I go out for a run, I encounter similar signals, whether it be a wave, a wink, a big smile and of course the ‘thumbs up.’ The point is that runner’s like to see other runners out on the roads, putting in work when everyone else is at the beach or watching TV. There is an instant sort of brotherhood that is unspoken but understood.

After my last run, I began to ask myself if I had similar experiences in other aspects of my life where complete strangers offer signs of deference out of the blue. For whatever reason, that guy who reached out and made that simple notion to me made me realize that although running is an individual activity, I was by no means out there by myself. I thought for a minute on my descent and then immediately thought of work.

Whenever I enter the gates to work, I am greeted with a sharp salute. Over years of military custom, the salute has begun to mean a lot of things. The most important of which is mutual respect. Salutes are common in the military and for most of us they are second nature. Whenever I see a troop coming my way to salute me, I return a crisp one back without ever thinking twice. Along with the salute comes the verbal greeting (morning, afternoon, evening) and if we are really motivated that particular day, a “Hooah!”

The salute is not a gesture that civilians do. It’s a special sign of solidarity between military folks that is a constant reminder that, “we’re in this fight together.” Like runners, military men and women are easy to spot out in our uniforms. Even outside of work most store owners can spot us a mile away with our short hair cuts and demeanors.

Some storeowners identify me as one of them even.

Whenever I visit a Korean owned store, I’ll call out “on yang hay say yo,’ –one of the few phrases that I know in that language. Right away, I am in their graces. For the most part, they have already identified me as one of them and my broken Korean if anything, lets them know that I would be talking in English as I do business.

I love seeing the old Korean ladies light up as I walk into their stores. I know that I will get some extra unfair hospitality and occasionally a discount. I also know that 9 times out of 10 if they have a daughter, they will probably show me pictures of her. I love Koreans.

On my way back from my deployment (a plane ride lasting over 36 hours with layovers) I met a very nice flight attendant. Maybe too nice. “Are you Korean?” She asked as she handed me my meal. “Yes,” I replied. Her smile grew large.

After she had seen I was done with my meal, she had another one in her hands steaming hot. I politely tried to refuse as I pointed to my stomach to try to tell her that I was full, but she left the tray there anyways. Out of embarrassment and respect I ate the meal and put it on the empty seat next to me as I closed my eyes.

A half hour later she was back. “Are you still hungry?” she asked. “No thanks, I’m really full,” I replied. I knew that my response was not the end of it. And sure enough, plate number three came my way. I looked around to see if anyone else was getting the “hook up,” and to my guilt, saw nothing of the sort. By the time the plane landed in Hawaii, I was full and wide awake. For I had gotten a great night of sleep thanks to the additional pillows and blankets that she had given me throughout the flight as well as the constant service.

Thinking about the runners, the military folks and Koreans that I come across on a daily basis, I began to wonder whether Americans have anything that we do collectively to show that we are Americans.

I am an American first. And although I wear many hats and belong to various social circles, I am proud that no matter where I am, I am a part of a great nation. That great nation though, does not show its solidarity as well as it probably should. We are constantly divisive on ethnic, religious, economic and political matters. The more I walk around and see the face of America today, the more I begin to see a clear line between the “haves and the have nots.”

I turn on the news and see commentators yelling back and forth at one another about differences of opinions. These debates solve nothing but are the epitome of this hatred and resentment that is everywhere.

Other than the national anthem that is played before ball games or the 4th of July, is there ever a sense of belonging for us all. Most of us are too busy with ourselves and too wrapped up in our self interest to think anything of our fellow Americans who have less.

So what is an American? Is it the man who cuts his fellow driver off on the freeway so that he can get home five minutes earlier? Is it the guy who refused to hold the elevator open while he looks away and pretends that he didn’t hear you chasing it down. Is it the real estate agent preying on the elderly to purchase a reverse mortgage? Is it the car dealer who sells a lemon jus to spin a profit? Or how about the southerner whose family immigrated to America two generations before but now acts as if immigration is this terrible thing now?

I’m not suggesting we wear red white and blue everyday or that we salute one another as we pass by. All I’m saying is that we can be more cordial, treat people with respect and dignity…as equals! We must overcome our bitterness towards people who don’t think the way we do or even act it. America is more than a piece of land in the northern hemisphere. To me, it is an ideal of democracy, a shining city upon a hill that can be recognized as a beacon of hope for all of those around the world. Together we are united and above we are “indivisible.”

“His foreparents came to America on immigrant ships. My foreparents came to America on slave ships. But whatever the original ships, we’re in the same boat tonight.”

Rev Jesse Jackson

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Take a number!

It was November 7, 1950 and Earl Warren was on the verge of winning a third term as California’s governor. Instead of celebrating in the governor’s mansion, Earl and his wife Nina were at the bedside of their youngest daughter Honey Bear who had come down with a case of infant paralysis. Shaken and unusually somber, Warren isolated himself even when the election returns came favorably pouring in. As Governor, Earl Warren’s health plan covered his family (six children and wife), an acknowledgement that Warren felt a deep appreciation and gratitude for. In response to the abundant medical care costs, Warren remarked to a reporter, “What would the average family do if afflicted this way? They wouldn’t have any resources to take care of it.”

And so was the turning point for a governor who would become one of the greatest Chief Justices in American history. A man who began his law and political career as a conservative from the Republican party to a compassionate overseer of justice as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. From that event forward, Chief Warren would take off his wingtip shoes and try on a pair from the working class citizen’s perspective.

Chief Warren never did get health care coverage for all of his constituents. Instead he was as he put it, “glad to be going to the supreme Court because now I can help the less fortunate, the people in our society who suffer, the disadvantaged.“ President Eisenhower would remark several years after his appointment of the Chief to the bench “was the biggest damn fool thing I ever did.” With irony as our witness, just as Eisenhower thought of Chief Warren as his biggest mistake, history has claimed the Chief Ike’s greatest success.

My perspective on health care does not come by a sob story of struggling to fight an HMO. I have never once been denied medical help nor do I have inadequate coverage. I’m not one of the fifty or so million adults without health insurance that we hear so much about. I make this argument because I wonder like Chief Warren, “what happens to all of those who are not covered by the government?”

It would be very easy for me to stay out of this debate. I’m a government employee as a member of the armed services where I get 100% health care coverage at any time of day for any illness. I could get on the phone right now and be seen by a doctor today, tomorrow and for as long as I so choose. I’ve had every vaccine that exists and even get priority for the flu shot. A year ago if you recall there weren’t even enough to cover all senior citizens (the ones who needed them the most!). The scars on my arm are a constant reminder that I am one of the privileged few who will be taken care of at no cost to me by Uncle Sam. For that alone I feel grateful, but also in a great sense; guilty.

The bottom line is that I’m a healthy 25 year old adult male who has a health plan that more than covers my needs. I’m very fortunate that I pay nothing into this system whereas many like my parents pay upwards of $15,000 a year. I mention all of this as a means to brag by the way. I’m not being modest. I want everyone to know that I could walk across the street to CVS to pick up a prescription of pain killers or skin products without paying a dime. I talk to my physician regularly and have seen a doctor more times than I can count in the past year. Oh, another thing, I’m not even sick. I haven’t broken any bones or anything of that nature. I just have the taxpayers of America to thank.

I would also like the American people to know that the US is the only wealthy industrialized nation without a universal health care system. That’s a fact. We are surrounded by countries who provide for their citizens, from our neighbors to the north, Canada to the south such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay…even Cuba! Oh and Mexico will probably have it in a year. There are more; Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Brunei, India, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that this is a revolutionary concept though.

It would be hard for me to imagine how I might react if I had a terminally ill friend or relative who sought medical care but were refused due to health insurance technicalities and disqualifying preconditions. I know for certain that I would not walk away. Therefore, before it even gets to that point in which I do as Denzel Washington did for his son in John Q or before I cross the border to Canada for generic drugs or renounce my citizenship so that I could fly to France and come under their plan, I think we ought to re-look the situation.

The politicians we hear debating this issue so tenaciously are the same elected officials that receive congressional health care. Your taxpayers ensure that if they are sick, they will be treated. As far as I’m concerned, they are hypocrites for even having a say in the discussion. Many of these people also receive substantial amounts of money from insurance companies and pass legislation to protect the lobbyists that line their pockets and provide for their campaigns. but don’t take my word for it.

The problem as I see it is not that our hospitals are broken. The problem is that health care is not affordable. Millions of Americans do without because they must choose between pills or food. Doctor’s must turn away potential patients who are sick because they don‘t have an insurance card. Families must choose between life saving medical procedures or death all because of money. Is that how far we’ve come? Have we devalued the human being by putting a price tag on his or her body? Since when has that been what medicine was all about? Call me naïve, but I always assumed one of the reasons doctors went into medicine was to help people. If given the choice, I guess I’d rather be a doctor in a country that didn’t have to worry about these petty things.

These are awful options but they are reality. Even those who have insurance plans are not covered sufficiently enough and are often given lesser and more cost efficient treatments at their own health’s expense.

Some of you may be thinking I’m throwing a political pitch your way. I can guarantee you that I’m doing no such thing. I can only guarantee that the facts that I have presented are true and as a consequence, the people who deal without health care are real.

I ask whoever reads this the following questions: Why a country like Cuba-communist and sworn enemies of the US-has health care for all of its citizens? Why can criminals in federal prisons get health care and the rest of the law abiding Americans cannot? Why can all of the countries aforementioned find innovative ways to provide a basic service while the US refuses? Why have we as a nation become so selfish that we would rather turn a blind eye to this injustice?

I state injustice because that is surely the word that Chief Warren would use in this instance. Health care is more than a problem, it ought to be our mission. It transcends political indifference and supersedes that overarching goal of individual prosperity. It is the linchpin of the right to life and is in the fundamental catalyst that drives our pursuit of happiness. Health care is a civil liberties issue not a partisan one. It is a fight worthy of our attention. As the ole’ Chief might say, “if it isn’t worth fighting for, it isn’t worth having.”

We are a nation held together by a common set of values. Our bond is only as strong as the weakest link. That weak link is health care. Let’s do something about it.