How I Got Screwed By The Tooth Fairy

Noah needed some oral surgery. This fact alone made my wife, Paige, and me feel terribly guilty. What had we done wrong? Too many sugared snacks? Not enough brushing? A sign of some more fundamental flaw in our parenting? We met with our great surgeon and he confided that his own son had needed the same surgery when he’d been in dental school. That made us feel better. Still, the whole event felt deeply unfair in every way for everyone concerned (except for the dentist who’d be making a few grand from the surgery and the anesthesiologist who charged $600 an hour). The injustice of it all served as the launching point for what would turn into something of an emotional journey, and I think I wanted to stay there on the dock, only mildly irritated, rather than let myself sail off into genuine fear.

The night before Noah went in for his oral surgery, Paige and I realized that neither of us have ever been put under for any medical procedure. She didn't tell me she was worried, so I didn't tell her, for fear I'd cause her concern. That was ridiculous. Paige is a worrier. I should have assumed she was concerned. Instead, I stayed up long after both if them were asleep, wrestling with my fears alone. I kept myself occupied with my normal late night insomniac pastimes; reading the op-ed pages of a digital handful of newspapers, listening to podcasts, opening just one more can of caffeinated soda and expecting to curse myself for going to bed with it half full, then cursing myself for finishing it. When I finally lied down I went into full-freak-out mode, allowing the worst kind of fantasies to play themselves out as waking nightmares in the darkness.

The next morning, we brought Noah in to the oral surgeon’s, after a forty-five minute drive from our small town to the slightly larger town up the highway. We were escorted into a little room and Noah sat on my lap while the anesthesiologist deftly gave him a shot before he knew what was going on. I held him and asked him to read the names of cities on a map of the U.S. on the wall, but in less than a minute his eyes glazed and his head lolled. He looked amusingly confused, but wasn't quite asleep when I laid him on the chair and left for the waiting room.

I couldn't sit still there for long. I stepped outside to grab some air, and I called my mom. When I confessed that I was nervous, she told me that Paige had posted a status update about her nervousness on her Facebook page before we'd left the house that morning. In a way, that made me feel better. My anxiety was validated, but it also gave me a job. It's my roll to be the one who says, "I'm sure it will be fine." Paige handles the worrying. Now I could focus on actively feigning confidence. I'm not sure how better poker players view bluffing, but for me a large part of bluffing involves not turning my brain off (which might appear different) but really turning it on and using the focus to make sure I don't do anything out if the ordinary. I did tell Paige about the call, and that I knew about her nervousness. Part of me wanted to let her know just how much I shared the feeling, in order to let her know she wasn't alone, as I'd felt the night before. I split the difference, telling her I was also nervous, but betraying nothing more about my anxieties with my voice or gestures.

To pass the time, I tried to shift my nervous energy to anger and disdain for Reader's Digest. I noticed a cover article about "The 100 Reasons Why We Love America". I flipped to the article, expecting a piece of piss-poor journalism. List articles are notoriously lazy. Also, I thought the theme of the piece would dictate something either painfully schmatzy or infuriatingly jingoistic. It tended toward the former, but it didn't disappoint in the piss-poor journalism department. I took notes to rail about it later on my blog, but when I told Paige about it she said it just sounded cruel. Which it was. But I still stand by my disdain for Reader's Digest.

Unfortunately, with the air drained out of my anger balloon, and with all the gears whirring in my head, I found myself contemplating the most horrid possibilities, outcomes so terrible I can't bring myself to describe them fully here. I wouldn't go so far as to say this was some kind of preemptive grieving. Instead, I imagined my own inability to participate in that kind of grief. It was like an extended trailer for an epic film about catatonia.

Then, Noah had the gall to draw things out further. The surgeon came out to tell us all had gone well, but Noah was choosing to take his sweet time in waking up. He came out a few more times to give us updates on Noah's continued unconsciousness. At this point I'd stopped worrying, but my anxiousness to see my boy grew and grew. It reminded me of those nights before my family would go to Disneyland when I was a kid; I'd lie in bed and remind myself that I needed to sleep to maximize my fun the next day, but I'd also be aware that every passing second of consciousness brought me closer to that moment when I'd see the Matterhorn rising above the skyline of Anaheim. Noah, half awake and wanting to be held by his daddy: That was my Matterhorn now.

Eventually the surgeon told us that, though most kids take about twenty minutes to wake up, in some cases it could be much longer, and the anesthesiologist had even called a colleague who told her about a case where the kid slept for seven hours. Noah didn’t break any records, but he slept for 900 more dollars of the anesthesiologist’s time.

After putting four grand in his mouth, Paige and I now had to calculate how much the tooth fairy would leave under his pillow that night for the teeth we’d paid to have removed. My next task is going to be haggling with my dental and medical insurance companies to convince them that they should take on some of these costs. So far they’ve covered $1500 (the $4000 is beyond that) of the surgery and refused to touch the anesthesiologist’s bill, on the grounds that it was elective, as though a five year old would have sat still under local anesthetic while a couple of his teeth were removed. I think, in the name of justice, the insurance companies should not only pay for the surgery and anesthetic, but because of their initial refusal, the time it will take to argue with them, and the stress at having our savings entirely depleted, if and when they finally relent they should have to hire someone to break into my house in the night (with any costs of damage added to the total) and silently slip a check under my pillow. That would really be the only fair way for the story to end.

the_tooth_fairy - Share on Ovi

Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part II

2. Teachers are overpaid.

Critics of teacher’s unions like to claim we’re overpaid. This is a convenient claim, because it’s impossible to refute exactly without a clear sense of what we’re worth. They aren’t lying if they think we’re essentially worthless, which many of them seem to do. I suspect these kinds of critics have very little sense of what we do each day, and I would love to change jobs with one of them for just one day and see how they succeed with my 170 students. Unfortunately, because these vague claims about our compensation are repeated so often, many rational people who value education and educators come to believe we are overpaid, while filtering that notion through their own conception of fair payment.

One of my best friends was working as a tax attorney for a private firm in Portland, and overheard his boss complaining about how little teachers are paid. “They only pay them eighty thousand dollars a year,” the boss informed everyone. My friend, whose wife is a public school teacher, bit his tongue. The boss was trying to argue for teachers, but had no idea that we make far, far less than that. Starting pay, on average, is in the low thirties. In places like Oregon, it tops out in the mid sixties. This is slightly on the low end for national averages. California’s average is $64,424, while South Dakota has the bottom spot with an average of $36,674. This wouldn’t be so bad, if one could get a job teaching right out of high school, but many of us have masters degrees we’ve refinanced for thirty years so that we can still pay the rent. That means we are making student loan payments for, in many cases, our entire careers. This particular boss, a lawyer, probably paid a hefty sum in student loans for his education. For that large amount he received one more year of education than I have (unless he went on for an LLM). As a consequence of that education, he made so much money that he considered that mythical $80,000 a year teacher paycheck laughable.

Critics often bring up our benefits. It’s true, we’ve accepted salary reductions in exchange for the security of fixed retirement plans (usually provided by our states) and better medical plans. But I can tell you that all the school districts I’ve taught for try to chip away at these with higher out-of-pocket expenses and co-pays every time our contracts are renegotiated. Without our unions, we’d be working for our health care coverage alone.

Some point out that teachers earn more, per hour, than many other white collar jobs. That’s true. So, how can teachers earn more per hour when we earn less per year? Because, even though we work vastly more hours than we’re paid for, technically we’re unemployed for months out of every year. More on that tomorrow.

Now, one can certainly argue that all things are relative. Compared to a teacher’s salary in, say central Africa, I’m rolling in dough. But compared to most Americans with a similar level of education, I’m a shmuck if pay is the measure of success. I tell my students I do my job because I enjoy it and think it’s important, not for the paycheck, and that’s true. But every time someone implies that my paycheck is too large, I admit I enjoy my job just a little bit less.

Tomorrow, Myth #3: Teachers get lots and lots of vacation.

Great response to my whiny-ness

So, I posted this as a status update; "Just went and saw District 9. It's great! And depressing. I asked Paige if it made her lose faith in human beings as a species. She said no, it just reinforced her already low opinion. I love my wife."

One of the responses from a former student was; "I saw it and thought it was a really good movie! =] and i did loose some faith in humans, but i was very surprised to see that we didnt just kill them all, so from that i got a smidge back.."

So then I launched into this depressing tirade: "Yeah, I guess there's something to the qualifier "We're not all bad, just the most powerful/wealthy of us" that makes me feel a bond with my fellow (poor/powerless) man while not inspiring much hope for us as a species. After all, if we've set up a system that rewards the greediest and most ruthless among us with more money and power, we're really all to blame for what they do, right? I don't know, I've just been in a very anti-institution mood lately, and I feel like our need for safety, order, and stability drives us all into the clutches of the people who can take the maximum advantage of the worst aspects of the status quo. Whether it's weapons manufacturers trying to take advantage of aliens in a movie, or insurance companies and rich people trying to scare middle class people out of better health care in real life, it's the same impulse that pushes us to allow ourselves to be abused, right?"

And how great was her response? And I quote, in its entirety: "sure! =]"

Is there a better way to respond to a cranky old man? Perfect!

On that note, let me share this post from the blog "News From Hell" on the T-Shirt Hell website. Rather than a link, I'll just post it all here, because I don't want anyone to feel tempted to click on the comments section on the page and see the horrid, hateful, racist, painfully idiotic responses this got. Just enjoy the pick-me-up it provides:

"Please Tase Them Bro

In the past few weeks there has been a rash of protesters disrupting town-hall meetings with angry outbursts critical of proposed health care reform. Many claim these outbursts stifle intelligent debate while others say they are merely giving voice to a neglected segment of the population. But more important than either of these points is that these outbursts are highly entertaining. Below are some of the "greatest hits" of these outbursts.

West Virginia - Tuesday, August 4

President Obama: The thing we must consider is the cost of inac-

Crazy Lady #1: What da gub'ment gon' do 'bout my kids! [pause for response] I wanna know what da gub'ment gon' do 'bout my kids! I got all these damn kids... I don't believe in no birth control and my husband likes ta get drunk and fuck. That's why I got all these kids! What you gon' do 'bout that! I can't be watchin' 'em all da got-damn time. Gub'ment need ta help my kids! I pay my taxes!

Idaho - Friday, July 31

Nancy Pelosi: We understand times are hard, but to turn things around some sacrifi-


NP: Uh... I don't know to what exactly you're referring, but obviously tax dollars are used for funding. That just goes hand-in-hand with living in a democra-

CL2: DON'T FUCKING LIE TO ME! This guy on the TV was like "They want to take your money!" He wasn't too clear about who "they" were, or how they would take my money or how much they were taking or what they were taking it for, but he was, like, really mad - all red-faced and struggling to breath. It scared me to the point where I'd do any crazy fucking thing he told me to. That's why I'm here yelling at you about whatever it is you're talking about. I pay my taxes!

Utah - Thursday, August 6

Rahm Emanuel: If we don't act now it may we may very well lose this opportunity forev-


South Carolina - Monday, August 10

Hillary Clinton: This isn't going to be fixed overnight. This is going to require years of dedica-

Crazy Lady #3: I deliver unto you a message from your Lord and Savior, Werewolf-Jesus! He sayeth unto me, by way of the tape recorder I found under my dead daughter, that you shouldeth leave health care to big business. And all females are to cut their uteruses out and sew them together to form one super-gina that will produce all of America's babies. You should also crossbreed your poop with falcons, so your poop can fly and you won't need a toilet. I pay my taxes!

Alabama - Friday, August 14

Joe Biden: [Approaches podium]

Crazy Guy #2: [Reaches down back of pants and flings stool at Biden. Throws female journalist to ground and humps her left boob. Throws himself to ground and does that thing Curly did where he walks sideways in a circle on the ground while going "Woo woo woo." Pulls out a hatchet, cuts off his own foot and starts eating it. Suddenly stops and takes a seat] I actually forget to file last year."

Okay, now admit it. How far into that did you get before you realized none of those were real? Isn't that telling? See, human beings aren't terribly evil. They're just hilariously stupid. Does that make me feel better somehow?

"sure! =]"

Channeling my Cynicism

I am losing hope in this attempt at health care reform.

No, that's an understatement. As a consequence of this health care reform effort, I am losing faith in the ability of an informed electorate to make educated and wise decisions.

Nope, that's an overstatement. I'm losing faith in a craven and selfish electorate's ability to make decisions that are in their self-interest.

No, maybe that's too generous. I'm starting to believe the majority of Americans prefer lies to facts and actively participate in maintaining their own ignorance.

Anyway, this pretty much sums up where I think we're at right now in this debate:

Selfishness and Sacrifice: An Honest Health Care Reform Debate

Congress is now up its neck in a debate about the nature of health care reform. From out here in the sticks, it looks to me like about a third of the representatives and senators are worried they'll pay a heavy price if they don't produce real health care for everybody, another third are worried they'll get clobbered if they produce anything resembling a tax increase or a cut in health care for the super-covered, and the middle third are worried about both. The most likely outcome, as I see it, is that they will all come to a consensus that the easiest position to defend is to do nothing of consequence and figure out how to blame the other side come election time. And they are probably right. And people will die early or unnecessarily as a consequence. And that is preemptively pissing me off.

Now, I've made it clear that I'm an Obama supporter, but that doesn't mean I'm some liberal version of a Rush Ditto-head. One of my beefs with Obama is that, too often, his attempt to usher in a new era of more polite politics devolves into a situation in which people get to pull the same kind of crap they always have, but they aren't called on it because they are so busy trying to be nice. And I'm not just talking about the Republicans in congress. The stimulus bill was a bunch of pork-laden crap, and there were really good reasons to oppose it, but these weren't the reasons I heard Republicans voicing. I think they were trying to figure out a way to be nice and enter into this new era of politics, so they criticized it for increasing the national debt. Now, the national debt is a real long-term problem, but no one should take a single Republican who was in office during the Bush presidency seriously on that front, since they all approved a couple wars and massive tax cuts at the same time. If the national debt is a serious concern, you whine about it during a debate about an unnecessary war, or you mention that when you're considering tax cuts for the rich. During an economic crisis, you either point to your consistent track record on the issue, or you shut the f--- up. No, the Republicans should have been shouting because the stimulus plan was misdirected. If that amount of money had been turned over directly to tax payers in the form of a progressively devised direct payment, the Republicans could have called it a tax cut. This would have been better for them, since a tax cut for the neediest Americans might open the door to a group who (let's face it) is wising up to the fact that the Republicans have not been working on their behalf for the last thirty years. Big win for them when they are looking to broaden their demographic appeal. Meanwhile, the Democrats could have touted the progressive structure of the stimulus as a sign that they took their mandate to heart, doing what the Bush gang did in spinning the bad polling about moral issues into a right wing mandate, only in reverse. They could have satisfied the far left, who they will certainly disappoint on other issues, and shown the lower-income red-staters just what a progressive tax structure might look like for them: a check. Instead, the Republicans essentially voted against Pelosi, making them look like "The Party of No", and the Democrats pushed through a stimulus plan that heavily favored the "too big to fail" CEOs, making them look like "The Party of Guys with Matching Priuses and Ferraris". Now, imagine a stimulus bill that, a year ago, had taken the form of significant checks, skewed significantly toward the lower and middle class. What do us poor folks do with that? The less responsible go out and buy TVs, tickets to Nascar, whatever. Good: that's some needed economic stimulus. The more responsible buy things like first homes or cars. That makes a significant dent in the housing crisis and helps bail out the auto manufacturers. The most responsible pay off their credit cards and put their checks in the banks, which helps to rescue the balance sheets of the banks themselves. Would it have created as many jobs as giving money to state governments to build roads? Possibly. Would that stimulus have hit the economy more quickly? Certainly. Consequently, it might have created more jobs, and better, more permanent ones, and it also would have prevented those super-massive bailouts for corporations. Now, as congress considers a second round of stimulus, the argument will not be about whether we should do this, because now folks are concerned about their jobs so they will put that money in the bank, and the banks are one of the sectors we've already rescued. Instead, the debate will be about the debt, which both sides have no real moral authority to gripe about. And that brings us back to health care.

When it comes to the health care debate, like Stimulus I, the debate will be about the wrong thing. It will be about whether or not we should have a public option, and the alternative of the status quo will be presented as revenue neutral and economically viable. And that pisses me off.

Now, I know the danger of over-simplifying an issue. We see it every time the issue of abortion comes up. One side tries to paint the other as a bunch of sluts who kill babies as birth control willy-nilly or, alternately, as a bunch of stupid religious zealots keeping women in some kind of chauvinistic sexual bondage when they aren't busy killing doctors. Both these positions might exist on the margins, but they are in such infinitesimal numbers that any popular vote to enact either side's agenda would be a loser. Imagine a ballot measure to charge any woman who had an abortion with homicide and lock her up for thirty years, even if the baby would not have survived and possibly threatened the health of the mother. Beyond the immorality, talk about a budget nightmare. No way that would pass. Or imagine the inverse; some kind of schema of mandatory abortions for some women. Would either initiative even come close to passing without people being deceived by some campaign to mask the true nature of the legislation in ridiculous rhetoric? Of course not. So any debate about abortion needs to be about the two things we're most uncomfortable confronting: the fact that we will have abortions (which we're all uncomfortable with) and we will have unwanted children (which we're also all uncomfortable with). That's a much more complex debate, but it's the one we need to engage in.

The health care debate, on the other hand, needs to be simplified to some degree, to get us away from the wrong argument, so that we can get to the real debate, which will be complex, but far less deceptive and heartless. We live in a country that, despite its economic woes, can afford to provide health coverage to every single citizen. We simply can. We have a system that is increasing in cost at an almost exponential rate, and it will eventually get to a point where we can't afford it. Health care is already one of the leading causes of personal bankruptcies, greatly harms many businesses' competitiveness if not their outright success, and will eventually bankrupt the government as well. And yet, the debate is about whether we can afford universal coverage. That's simply infuriating. We can't afford not to have universal coverage... or we have to change the law so that people without coverage do not have to be served by hospital emergency rooms, and can be allowed to die.

This may sound like a kind of modest proposal, but it's not an exaggeration: as long as our system requires that people with no coverage be provided with care, we have to figure out a way to provide them with coverage and get them to pay in while they are healthy. We already have universal health services. They're just really unequally and inefficiently delivered. People without health insurance don't pay, but they cost a lot. People with the most resources pay for their own care, but do not pay enough to cover the uninsured. That's clearly not sustainable. So we need to decide, will we let the uninsured simultaneously bankrupt the system and die unnecessarily in the process? Or, will we figure out a means by which the people with more resources pay more but receive two pretty significant bangs for their buck; they get to live in a country where their businesses and government can continue to be successful, and they don't have to live in a country where people are dieing unnecessarily all around them?

Now, here's something you will not hear coming out of the mouth of any congressional representative or senator who opposes universal health care, or its little brother, the "public option", or its bastard child, the public co-op: "It is more important that the wealthiest among us maintain both their incomes and the quality of care they've become accustomed to than that the government remain financially viable and poor people live."

They may say part of it out loud. They'll say we must maintain the quality of care. Fine, but if we expand that to everybody it costs money, and if we don't people die and the government goes bankrupt.

Or they'll say we can't afford to insure everyone. Fine, then we need to stop serving everyone at more expense in emergency rooms than we would if they had individual doctors and preventative care, and simply let them die.

They may say we're classists, or socialists, or Marxists, or some new slur for people who recognize that some people make more money than others, if we try to make wealthier people pay more of the cost. Fine, then we can have a flat tax on everyone, which poor people will not be able to pay, and it won;t be financially viable and we're back where we started, or we're back to letting the poor people die. I suppose there's another option there: We could let the poor go to debtor's prisons for not paying their health care taxes, then provide them with care there, driving up the costs for everyone, and create universal health care at a much higher price that way.

Universal health care is not only the one option which prevents a lot of unnecessary death, but, if done correctly, it's also the more financially sustainable choice. Anyone who says anything else is really saying their current coverage, at their current price, is worth more than both the lives of poor people and the quality of their country as a whole. I know the hard-core, Adam Smith capitalists truly believe in the virtue of selfishness, and I commend them for their strength of their conviction, even if I don't agree. I just want someone to marry the courage of their dogmatic adherence to capitalist virtue to the courage to say so publicly and clearly, especially on an issue where the intrinsic winning-and-losing nature of capitalism, the vaunted "creative destruction", results directly in people dieing. These quiet, seemingly compassionate capitalists are a bunch of hypocrites and cowards, and that's the nicest way I can put it.

Now, this kind of bald truth might not fit well in Obama's new, more polite politics, but it has to be said if we'll move to the real debate, which will still be incredibly complicated and will require politeness and decency. See, once we get beyond the acknowledgment that we have to move to some form of universal coverage, we still need to figure out exactly who is going to sacrifice, and how much. Health insurance companies, unless we leave in a bunch of unnecessary redundancy, will have to shrink down to efficient distributors or cease to exist entirely, and that's a significant sacrifice, though it's only from a small group of people. I expect those folks to fight to the bitter end, though they have to be able to see that they're doomed eventually. Doctors will want to make sure they get to maintain their salaries, though many will be grateful they get to spend more attention on treating patients than on haggling with insurance companies. Individuals outside the health care field will want to make sure they still have the options they currently enjoy. That's reasonable, as long as they realize that some fifteen million people have zero options, so they may have to make some sacrifices, too. (Over all, I think this gripe is greatly inflated. Does anyone really think that if only one government run insurance plan existed, their personal physician would not accept it, and would only serve patients who chose to pay out of pocket? Show me that doctor, and I'll show you a cosmetic surgeon.) Individuals will also have to acknowledge that there will be forms of rationing, probably in the form of delays of non-life-threatening elective procedures, though even here I expect some compromise situation can be developed where people can choose to pay extra to have procedures expedited so that everyone receives a baseline of care and the wealthy can get better care at their own expense. Developing the system, and addressing these concerns, will be difficult and will require courage. In fact, the more courageous we are at the outset (closing down insurance companies, for example, rather than leaving them in to add a profit margin to the cost of health care) the better the entire system will be in the long run.

But the one thing that we simply cannot accept is the kind of cowardice that allows Congress to push this off into the future, toward an immoral and unsustainable end. And that, I fear, is exactly what we're going to see over the course of the next month as this false debate is used to push the issue down the agenda. And it begs the question: Why are the people in Congress working so hard to avoid pissing off some of their constituents and losing their jobs, if they really want to make someone else deal with these issues anyway?