NO CHANGE TO THE PLUMBING

“Yes, Switzerland is very expensive,” my friend, Roshi Barbara Wegmueller, said in her not-so-warm kitchen during the weekend I stayed with her and her husband, Roland. Switzerland was some 25 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than my next stop, Montenegro. “But you know, Eve, I think we spend our money well.”

I remembered that remark Monday morning. Flying into New York on Thursday night, arriving home early Friday afternoon to a joyous canine welcome, I’ve been sick, first with a cold, now with a chronic cough that gobbles up my energy like Aussie around food. I want to take a nap every time I cough. It is not pneumonia, not one of those volcanic bronchial coughs that seem to come from subterranean layers in our body, but a chronic, exhausting hack. I decided to change tactics and, this time, see a doctor quickly. On Saturday I lead my last one-day retreat for quite a while, and I want to be up for it (see Green RiverZen for details).

I saw a very competent physician’s assistant. He and I went over the list. Did I check everything? Yup. Covid? Check. Asthma? Check. Pneumonia? Highly unlikely. Over-the-counter cough suppressants? Check. Prescription medicine to suppress cough? Tried two in the past and didn’t work. “I know you’re overloaded with patients so I’m trying to make things easy on you,” I told him.

He prescribed a few things, trying hard not to look at his watch. He was not my usual clinician and the nurse had tried hard to fit me in somewhere. But he had—what? 12-15 minutes?

I thought about our medical system. Swiss medical insurance is expensive, with lower premiums for younger people, but still nothing like ours. And it’s mandatory. No such thing as going without. I live in the only state of 50 that also requires its residents to have medical insurance. In Switzerland, the government helps pay for the insurance if that amount exceeds 8% of your income. People aren’t walking around getting anxious about whether they’ll have money for their old age, will they get the care they need. Here our worries over medical coverage drive up depression and anxiety.

What struck me, too, is that not everyone has to go to college in order to make a living. Barbara explained that if you don’t go to college (which is not expensive), you can join an apprenticeship program in a trade or occupation, work there for a few years, and when you know you really want to do this, you get even more training.

If you want to change your work later in life, you run the same course at little cost. Very little of the elite/non-elite schism so present here, the pressure to get into “good” schools, starting with kindergarten, otherwise you don’t get to the top.

You don’t bust your ass financially. Colleges and graduate schools are very reasonable, maybe 1,000 Swiss francs per year (1 Swiss Fr. now equals 1 US dollar), not posing the immense hurdles they do here for so many. Jimena’s son was accepted into UMass/Amherst, his first step towards becoming a pediatrician, and already they are concerned about astronomic tuition bills. Swiss couples don’t have to work into their 70s in order to pay off loans that guarantee their children’s education. They receive lots of refugees and families seeking asylum and offer them housing and job programs. They have a strong army.

They, too, have a gap between rich and poor, but nothing like what we have. Switzerland is a capitalist country, with powerful banks, but if you ask for these kinds of services in our country—and for our taxes to be spent in such a way—you’d be called a socialist, communist, or a heathen birdbrain. Call the Swiss socialists and you’ll be laughed off the streets.

I tried to imagine what it’s like to live in a country whose philosophy is that it takes care of its citizens. Where public kindergartens are free, and where the education of your children doesn’t break the bank or cause you to forget about retirement. Where your children have to do 2 years of national service after high school but aren’t doomed to low-income jobs because they don’t go to college.

For that to happen here, I thought while driving home from the doctor, we’d need a different understanding of government, citizenship, and the reciprocity between the two. And don’t tell me it’s a Republican/Democrat thing. We used to think of trickle-down economics as conservative, but now I think of it more as a Democrat thing. They’re not for changing any system, just for giving a few more drips of the economic spigot than Republicans. They ain’t out to change the plumbing.

“I sure hope the police are out on the city streets getting homeless people into shelters, it’s too hot to stay out, you can die out there,” said my Uber driver after picking me up from Newark Airport on Thursday evening. I’d exited the terminal and slammed by a wave of smog, heat and humidity, as if I’d landed on another planet.

The nice woman who drove me up to my friend’s house was a computer programmer who did web maintenance and technical help for non-profits and had been laid off. She’s sent in lots of resumes but was now driving an Uber to pay her rent and cover cat food. She had rented her Corolla from a rental agency, which meant she had to make money over and above the car rental and the Uber fees.

She hoped to make me her last ride. She was beginning her 9th hour of driving and after letting me off would take the hour to drive home, get there by midnight, and she was already reserved to pick up someone in New Jersey for a trip into New York City at 6:30 the following morning.

She was younger than me, and not sick or as tired as I was after a long day of flying. She had a good occupation, knew the ins and outs of things, she’d done things right. Why was life so hard for her? We drove north in the relentless heat wave; she put on the air conditioner but told me it was expensive. It was too late for traffic on that well-known New Jersey corridor, and I remembered talking with a woman many years ago who’d decided to leave her marriage. Why, after so many years?

“I can’t tell you how or why, only that I was driving up the New Jersey Turnpike in all the heat and pollution and car gas, and I spotted some flowers trying to grow alongside the highway, little yellow wildflowers, and I thought to myself: If they could do it, so can I.”

And she did.

Later today Jimena and Byron Pareja are coming over to pick up a check covering summer camp fees for a dozen immigrant children that you made possible. I told them I don’t have much of a speaking voice and they plan to bring me some of Byron’s chicken soup. Thank you to them—and to you, for making camp possible for these young immigrant children, for easing their parents’ lives as they work on the farms, for making their burdens your own.

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