It's been a medical week.
First, I finally caught The Year Of Magical Thinking, the one-woman show based on Joan Didion's best-selling account of her reaction to her daughter's mortal illness and her husband's sudden death. I wasn't as impressed by the play as I was by the book. It was less a play than a recital, or a reading—at one point, literally so. The show has been updated to include events that occurred subsequent to the book's publication, which I found both interesting and somehow upsetting, too complete. The presentation was minimal to the point of being quite a challenge—but shoot me if I ever become one of the queens in front of us who rolled their eyes at each other when the show ended—and, as Gaza's my witness, Vanessa Redgrave was unspectacular.
I know. She's given some truly amazing performances in her time. In this case, I felt she was saying the words, sometimes with very unnatural breaks. It's possible Joan Didion speaks exactly this way. But it didn't work for me entirely.
I did still enjoy the show despite its static nature. It intelligently retained the most powerful observations from the book, and those words are worth a thousand visuals. When Redgrave returned to the stage to bow, she was absolutely radiant and seemed totally different than she'd seemed a moment before, suggesting to me she'd been in character the whole time, even if it had seemed like the character had been lost in the actor.
Next, I had my first MRI, for a rotator cuff ailment. Now I know it stands for "Matthew Rettenmund's Internment." I knew in advance it was considered an unpleasant experience and not fun for the claustrophobic, but I've never had a strong sensitivity to small spaces so figured I'd sail through it. I arrived at the NYU satellite facility at 5:30 p.m., filled out some papers and then waited...and waited...and waited. One other guy was there before me, and two others waited behind me, and the thuggish white dude in a ponytail who acted as the receptionist listened to rap music and talked loudly on the phone to friends about what pizza they'd eat later and how filthy the Chinese are in preparing their food. "They, like, sneeze into their hands, man," he said from the tiny office he'd retreated to for a false sense of privacy. And then he sneezed into his own hand before returning my insurance card.
I didn't get called in until 6:45, and could hardly understand the kindly little old lady doctor (Israeli?) thanks to her thick accent and exasperated speech. I gathered I was to strip to my underwear and socks, don a gown, secure my belongings in a locker and sit right out in the open in a waiting room like that until she returned. This genius system safeguarded my jeans and sneakers while taking my dignity for granted. An annoying man had gone in before me, a lanky dude who made weird small talk with everyone (loudly pointing out a penis-shaped hot dog cooker in New York Press to the attendant), and he strutted past me when he was done. In spite of my closed eyes, he felt the need to say, "You should take drugs before you get into that thing, man!" I did like his red briefs.
As I stepped up onto the MRI machine, I realized I wasn't going to sail through this. It's not enclosed, but it's close. I was given an emergency plunger to squeeze, a pair of old-fashioned headphones blasting Dido was placed on my head and I was informed it would be ultra loud and take 25 minutes. As I was mechanically slid into the tube, I remembered wedging myself under a low dresser in my childhood home and becoming stuck, screaming for help. "Don't breathe too deeply, keep it shallow," the technician had warned, "and don't move." I was strapped in, the top of the chamber was directly above me and no amount of daydreaming kept me from wanting to gulp air.
What if there's a blackout? Could I escape? Is this what it would be like if I were buried alive? Wow, if I were buried alive, there's, like, no way I could will myself asleep to lessen the mental anguish.
Finally, 25 minutes later, I was removed. I was told, "You did very well. You didn't move at all." Of course not—I was immobile and barely breathing. If I had big boobs I'd be starring in a major Hollywood movie.
As I left, I got to see the cute, preppy straight guy I'd been next to in his gown. Nice legs.
Thoughts of how much it would all cost (I'd stressed that I needed to stay in-network after having to pay over $700 for an annual physical) drove me to see Michael Moore's SiCKO, which released a week early in New York. The theater was jam-packed with a truly diverse cross-section of New Yorkers, including the elderly (for the first time, I witnessed handicapped seating used by the handicapped), the young, the gay, the straight, men and women. It was sold out. So much for the ill effects of illegal downloading that's been occurring.
I loved the film, which is no surprise; I have loved all of Moore's films. I tend to agree with him on most topics, though he's a bit too "fuck the system at all costs" for me. For example, in his film—a damning indictment of the healthcare system in our country—he doesn't hesitate to criticize Hillary Clinton for having been silenced on her one-time pet issue, implying she's been bought off by the healthcare conglomerates. Even if it's a fair criticism, I'd probably have shied away from it, seeing her as vastly preferable to any Republican. But that's me. And this is him. And he's right to criticize her.
The film gives a voice not only to Moore, but to many people who have insurance but who have been failed by the system—on purpose. Horror stories of people being forced to give up limbs, suffer in silence and refuse life-saving treatments, all over money, do not strike you as worst-case scenarios, but as skimming the surface. Moore uses Canada, France, England and—most controversially—Cuba as shining examples of how universal healthcare works. As he makes fun of our government's history of demonizing Cuba, it begins to feel like he's gone too far into a political area, where he will lose potential viewers. But in the end, I felt the point was not to hold up Fidel Castro as a great man—in fact, he notes that Castro is mainly hated by the U.S. because he replaced the other despot, the one who was in our pocket—but to point out that even a shithole like Cuba has amazing healthcare. It's damned embarrassing that an island with cars from the ’50s has better healthcare, longer lifespans and a lower infant mortality rate than ours, the greatest country on earth.
One highlight of the film was a member of Old Labour in England saying that if a government can always find money to make war, why can't it find money to help people—this drew cheers, and it wasn't even about Bush, it was in reference to post-WWII England. Another was during the widely discussed trip to Cuba that Moore made with some 9/11 rescue workers who have shamefully been denied coverage despite their selfless acts and despite Bush's phony talk about how heroes are always repaid. In Cuba, after having been denied entry to Gitmo (where the worst terrorists in the world are given universal healthcare), Moore and his crew of sickos are greeted warmly by firefighters who see the workers as brethren. Is it propaganda? Remove Cuba from the situation and it's still just fucking shameful that we don't take care of ourselves and each other.
Something I disagree with Moore about is his eternal optimism that Americans never fail to lend a helping hand and are a fair and loving lot. I see where he's coming from—he uses footage of candlelight vigils, community-wide missing-child searches and food hand-outs as examples—but in my experience, Americans are hopelessly selfish. There are three things only keeping us from universal healthcare—the first is the fact that the higher-ups in healthcare would have to settle for being millionaires instead of multi-multi-millionaires under a universal system (and so will spend some of those bucks to keep us all brainwashed), but the second is the fact that most Americans are so bitterly judgmental that the spectre of a "black welfare mom" getting free healthcare keeps us from throwing our support to that kind of system. We are hung up on deserving things, earning them, even things that in my opinion should be guaranteed—healthcare, shelter, food. What do I care if I pay taxes and someone sick or homeless, perhaps even due to their own personal failings, benefits from it? My tax money is already woefully abused; it could not wasted any more egregiously.
The third reason we're trapped in healthcare hell is that there is a uniquely American compulsion for gambling. The American Dream is a gamble, isn't it? Even though most people will merely make ends meet their whole lives, we love the idea that maybe, just maybe, we could somehow become billionaires if we're smart, industrious and lucky. Instead of security for all and prosperity for many, we'd rather roll the dice while embracing struggle for many and obscene wealth for a few.
You don't have to be a commie to embrace SiCKO's central argument, but you'd have to be sick in the head not to: In America, our motto is, "At least you halve your health."