. unagidon

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Life Without Charley

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the removal of my cancerous prostate, and I'm not sure if I should celebrate it with a special cake or a good cry.

The operation itself went well enough.  The doctor opened me up with some sort of robot, but then compensated me with some really  good pain medication.  True, I also awakened with a catheter installed (which turned out not to be as pleasant a thing as I had been led to believe).  But after the catheter came out in a couple of weeks, it was time to get to work on the side effects of the operation.

The first of these was that my bladder leaked like a sieve and I had to wear an adult diaper.  "Without a prostate you will have to learn to hold your bladder like a woman" said the urologist.  "But most women manage it and you will learn how to also."  And he was right.


My nickname is Pat, but the Egyptians named me Mr. Bat, since Arabic has no “P” sound and they liked to pretend that they couldn’t pronounce the letter.

When I went to Cairo in 1976 to visit my high school friend Ken (known to the Egyptians as Mr. Kent), I was an uptight Catholic working class boy. Although I had grown a beard to annoy my boss at work (and to hide what I thought were my overly youthful features) and although I had long hair like everyone else in 1976, I was no hippie. I certainly wasn’t a confirmed pot or hash smoker. I was very straight-laced for the time.

I expected the Egyptians to be straight laced too. If I can put a word to what I expected, that word would be austere. Although I was aware that Egypt was a more open society than, say, Saudi Arabia, I expected it to be chaste and humorless, rather like Massachusetts in the 17th century.

This is probably why it took me about two weeks to get the first joke that was played on me. The morning after I had arrived, I noticed that Ken was still wearing a gallabiyah (a robe like outfit that most non-Westernized Egyptians wore). He usually did so in the apartment. It seemed cool in both senses of the word, and I asked him if I could borrow one. He readily agreed and he loaned me three of them for my own use. I was delighted and I put one on immediately.

What he didn’t tell me was that the three that he loaned me had belonged to his ex-girlfriend Shelley. There are subtle (to a Western eye) differences between a man’s and a woman’s gallabiyah that I didn’t see and for two weeks Ken and his friends and neighbors enjoyed the spectacle of me dressing up as Ken’s girlfriend. I now understood why I got such strange looks from the postman, the doorman, the garbage collector, and the laundry man.


Sticker Shock Bandwagon

Did Obama lie?

Whether he did or didn't, there are several million angry people out there who are getting "pay more or be cancelled" notices from their insurance companies for 2014.

So what's going on? On the RIght, of course, Obama was caught in a bald-faced lie, having given his personal guarantee that all Americans could keep their current insurance if they wished. On the Left, technically Obama wasn't lying, because there is nothing in the PPACA (Obamacare) statute that says that insurance companies have to cancel policies or that anyone at all has to be forced onto the exchanges. But Obama can't control the insurance companies and their own business decisions. So it's their fault.

Everyone is spinning as fast as they can. What's really happening?

The Art of Groveling by Gao Lee Ji (translated by Sir Charles Peckerwood)

“The man who grovels makes a much smaller target.” (Gao Lee Ji, c. 475 BCE)

There has been an explosion of interest in the humanities in the United States recently, and one of the major contributors to this has been the Business Sections of airport bookstores.  Management book sections in particular have become the primary American source of knowledge about Asian cultures.  The shelves almost overflow with serious scholarly works on the thought of the Chinese sage K’ung-Tzu (Confucius), the general Sun Tzu, the master dog breeder Shar Pei, and the philosopher Bruce Lee.  The public’s voracious appetite for Oriental wisdom that can be applied to practical business situations is so great that the book Go Rin No Sho (The Book of the Five Rings), Miyamoto Musashi’s esoteric 17th century handbook on Japanese sword fighting has been among the most frequently gifted management books at office holiday parties for over thirty years. 

It was therefore with great anticipation that we awaited the release of the new translation by Sir Charles Peckerwood of the fifth century BCE Chinese business classic The Art of Groveling by the immortal Gao Lee Ji (Panopticon Press, 2013, 554 pages).  Although little known outside of China, Gao Lee Ji was the first Chinese sage that directly addressed what later became known as “business ethics”.

Gao Lee Ji (c.550 BCE – c.476 BCE) was the Prime Minister and Commander of the Armies under the Li Ping Emperor of the state of Wang Chung located in what is now the province of Kwangtung, in southern China.  He rose from obscure origins (several contemporary biographies of him survive, all contradictory but all pretty good) to become the de facto ruler of Wang Chung in 509 BCE.  At that time, the state of Wang Chung was the most prosperous in China and possessed the largest and most modern army.  But due to a series of unpredictable and unavoidable events that could have happened to anybody, by the eighth year of Gao Lee Ji’s management the kingdom had been utterly laid waste and conquered and the Emperor himself had been impaled on one of his own banners and his body mounted over the main gate of his capital city.

Gao Lee Ji, surveying these events from his opulent retirement palace in the peaceful city of Ho An, 500 miles to the north, decided to take up his writing brush and over the next 25 years of his comfortable existence he penned miscellaneous anecdotes of his life and the lives of the Sages as well as words of wisdom to guide future generations.  These were collected after his death and published in a volume called “The Art of Groveling”.

Although some scholars can see the influence of Gao Lee Ji running through all subsequent periods of Chinese history, the manuscript of “The Art of Groveling” was only known through second hand references by other historians and philosophers.  It was presumed lost until its unexpected discovery in the luggage of the last Manchu Emperor Pu Yi by the famous modern historian Hu Nu as he was helping load the bags onto a truck in 1923. 

Solidarity, Subsidiarity, and the Problem of Good Customer Relations

The more we learn about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (called “Obamacare” by the popular press), the more we realize that the act ignores the core principles of solidarity and subsidiarity that make organizations and systems function effectively.  Initiatives that reject these principles are rarely successful.  Consequently, I don’t hold much hope that Obamacare will ultimately accomplish its goals of improving access and reducing costs.

Brian Engelland, Ph.D. (Solidarity, Subsidiarity, and the Problem of Healthcare)

Professor Engelland’s criticism of Obamacare is more interesting than the run of the mill despite the fact that he so completely mischaracterizes Obamacare that one is hard put to believe he is acting in good faith.  (No, Obamacare is not a system of price and cost controls and no it does not reorganize the entire health care system and no the government is not reasoning that it can dictate what medical procedures are covered  and how much reimbursement is paid out.)  Still, his argument is such that his own substantive criticisms of Obamacare are basically irrelevant.  All that really matters to him in terms of his main argument is that Obamacare is a government program.

As Catholics we need to take seriously any accusation that a major social program violates the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.  Our first question should be how does Engelland define these?  He gives us a hint in the first few sentences quoted above when he says that Obamacare “ignores the core principles of solidarity and subsidiarity that make organizations and systems function effectively”.  To him, the principles are functions that promote efficacy.  He is in dangerous territory, because stated this way, the “principles” become part of the group of functions of the system or organization and the goal of the organization becomes the primary thing to which the functions are subordinated.  Let’s see if this is what Engelland really means.

Perspective and Spirituality

It took me about three weeks to get from my strangely embarrassed general practitioner's admission that I have gotten some bad numbers on my prostate cancer blood test to the Big Day when I got the definitive biopsy results.

“Don’t worry too much” the urologist had told me during the biopsy as he punched another needle into my prostate.  (It made a sound like someone pulling the trigger on an unloaded gun).  “With your blood test numbers you have about a thirty percent chance of actually having it.”  I found these words reassuring and tried very hard to only be thirty percent terrified for the next ten days.

On the Big Day the urologist came into the little room where my wife and I were waiting and he was brimming with optimism.  (But why not?  He is a surgeon, so even if the news was bad I’d still have an opportunity to get surgery).

“Now let’s see.  We did 12 biopsy cores and 11 came back entirely benign.  But the 12th one had cancer.”

Seeing the shocked look on my face he hastened to reassure me.


It was the Bicentennial in Cairo and our plan was to go to the Embassy and eat American food. My friend Ken, with whom I was staying, had heard that the Paris and London embassies were putting on giant spreads, so on the Glorious Fourth we went to our embassy in Cairo looking for hot dogs, fried chicken and Budweiser.  But the guards at the gate had turned us away, firmly but almost politely.  Egyptian capitalists and government officials only, thank you very much.  Get your lowly proletarian butt out of here.

So we had taken our lowly proletarian butts to Ken’s favorite American restaurant in Cairo --- a Wimpy’s.

When someone takes me to his or her favorite restaurant, I expect that the food will be good, or at least edible.  But the Wimpyburger was a pathetic lukewarm paste made up of breadcrumbs and some material that might have once been part of an animal, but chances are the animal had not been a steer.  The parfait that came with it seemed to be made out of dyed cotton wool and even the Coke tasted like the laxative my mother used to give me as a child.  What on earth was special about this place?

I asked Ken, but he was unresponsive and just kept staring up at the ceiling.  Or so I thought.  He was actually staring out of the windows that were mounted just below the ceiling, since the restaurant was in a basement.  At a certain angle, one could look up the skirts of the women passing by on the sidewalk.  Ah.  I understood.  I saw that the restaurant was full of guys just like him paying premium prices for shit sandwiches so they could watch the floor (or ceiling) show.


All Things to All People?

If you want to infuriate yourself over your morning coffee, read a couple of pages of Steven Brills article Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us in Time Magazine on the outrageous costs of healthcare in the United States. (h/t to Margaret Steinfels). The article follows the story of seven well and truly screwed Americans who are among the tens of millions who were un or under insured when they faced some kind of medical crisis (real or suspected).


In deep middle age, a close friend of mine finds himself immersed in a love affair. I find myself a bit (just a bit) envious as I observe the white heat of his intimacy (which I don't use here in a sexual sense). How can I characterize this intimacy? The question of intimacy as such is important to me, and it seems to me that what he is going through is no more and no less than a conspiracy.Love as conspiracy; in a society obsessed with political conspiracies we forget that that the original sense of the word was not negative.

The Mosque of Hussein

The Mosque of Imam Hussein is one of Cairos holiest shrines. It contains the tomb of the Prophets grandson. It sits on a clean well lit little square next to the ancient bazaar.My friend Ken and I were to meet the Ustez (Professor) near the entrance closest to Fishawis Coffee Shop, our ultimate destination. But we were early. And since the Ustez was reliably late to everything, we were very early.The mosque is a beautiful simple building that looked gray in the indirect light cast by the surrounding shops. I glanced inside.