My childhood rolls through my memories in great splashes of color, camp, and change: The first footprints of man in the dust of the moon, the power of flowers and smileys and beautiful blackness, impotent fallout shelters, inexorable smallpox and polio eradications, Newlyweds and Tijuana Brass, a voting rights act with a Capitol “V”, seven overly-prepared castaways on a three-hour tour, balled up Wonderbread, naked Barbies, Goldie Hawn’s bikini. All against a backdrop of grinding death — but not “war” — in Vietnam.
Mr. Spock and warp drive introduced the first glimmers of cool to geekdom, while a big green muppet living in a trashcan ushered in the social acceptability of uncivil discourse and compulsive hoarding.
It was all innocence and goading The Man, except for one great, irritating influence: the story of The Little Engine That Could. Or as it is known in the medical vernacular, It’s All In Your Head, and popularly, It’s All Your Fault.
You see, I grew up in a household where my foreign-born parents encouraged me to eat my vegetables through stories of poor, starving children in China — like my dad, and my aunts and uncles, surviving by the skin of their teeth (and some occasional tree bark) in war-ravaged Shanghai.
My parents had just survived monumental upheavals of history in which tens of millions of people died of starvation and violence through events they had no hand in and no control over.
By the worldview of this authoritative childhood allegory, these millions of extinguished voices merely lacked an appropriate psychologically-uplifting phrase to repeat in their hour of need.
Welcome to the world of infinite possibilities and crippling psychological barriers, where all things are possible if we merely try hard enough. If we merely believe.
This theme suffused nearly every film of my upbringing and beyond (I mean the films that came after the ones where the leading animal always died at the end). No matter how dangerous the obstacles, determined the enemy, or ill-prepared you The Hero are — if you try, you will win. If you believe, your team will prevail. If you build it, the ghosts of dead baseball heroes will befriend you and attract stop-and-go traffic to your cornfields.
Is this representative of reality? That all you have to do is TRY to change the world? That all you need is a little determination and you can create an industry of health”care” insurers to do nothing constructive but shake down the American public for billions in profits every year, and get them to pay hundreds of billions more for the paperwork you use to do it?**
I get it now. Maybe sometimes we aren’t solving problems because everyone says we can’t. (That is, everyone except the leaders and majority of the public in every other industrialized nation in the world where they are getting, in most cases, better, universal healthcare on average, and in every case, for less money.) Maybe sometimes we aren’t solving problems because everyone we come across (locally) has a good reason that we can’t.
Because the tired old engines (sick people) are too, well, tired to do it. Because the big, strong, freight engines (lawmakers and businesspeople) are too busy and important. Because the shiny new engines (the wealthy) have no idea that insurance companies’ flying monkeys are going to dismantle them and scatter their parts to every corner of Oz the minute they really need their coverage.
That maybe, when a problem seems too big and complicated, sometimes our biggest barrier is overcoming the doubters and the naysayers around us. Not that it’s going to be easy to climb the mountain on a little engine. Or go to the moon in a tin can. Or rescue our Democracy by electing the first African-American President in the history of this great nation. But the journey of a thousand steps begins with, “Yes We Can!”
And we did. Let’s do it again.
** According to a Public Citizen study, every year we spend less than half of our $2.4 trillion healthcare economy on actual care, the rest is non-care related, such as $450 billion for bureaucracy, largely due to private health insurance.