The dusty plains of Troy…

In this week’s “Packet,” I want to think with you about a couple of books. I have just finished listening to the Macmillan audiobooks of Robert Fitzgerald’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Dan Stevens reads both, and though his is not exactly a “household name,” you would quickly recognize him as Matthew Crawley from the early episodes of Downtown Abbey.

Over the summer, I make the round-trip drive from our cabin in the Upper Peninsula to home in Dexter about once a month. The trip gives me six or seven hours of relatively low-traffic time on I-75, ideal for audiobooks.

After almost 3000 years, the broad outlines of the classic stories are familiar, but these are poems, and they were made for listening. The familiar “rosy-fingered dawn” and “wine-dark sea” that become painfully repetitive to a reader provide happy touchpoints to the listener. The long pedigrees of the warriors break the narrative on the page, but for the listener those details give the characters history and personality. They are like flashbacks in a film, providing some detail before an important scene. In fact, as I listened, I found the experience was cinematic. As I listened, I could gaze northward to see the dusty plain of Troy with the black-hulled ships pulled out on the beach to the far left, and off in the distance toward the right were the towers of Priam’s Troy.

Take the time, make the time, to listen to this timeless story. Then, of course, you will start to think about it.

Objectively speaking, in the Iliad, Homer relates a critical episode occurring late in a prolonged, unhappy war in the Middle East. To the critical reader, the whole plot seems based on unstable foundations. The gods are deeply involved when a coalition of Greek city-states agree to follow Agamemnon, an arrogant, power-hungry leader, into a prolonged exhaustive conflict that’s further botched when Agamemnon’s insensitive behavior alienates his most important military leader, Achilles. Moreover, Achilles turns out to have an ego and temper to rival Douglas MacArthur.

Well, I thought, it was a wonderful experience to listen to the poem. Then, I embarked upon Jean Edward Smith’s biography, Bush. Smith focuses largely on the presidency of George W. Bush and particularly his decision to go to war in Iraq. God was deeply involved in that irrational and highly personal decision. It resulted in a prolonged unhappy war in the Middle East when a coalition of Western states agreed to follow Bush, an arrogant and not particularly introspective leader, into a prolonged exhaustive conflict. And the conflict was further botched when Bush’s behavior alienated his most important military leaders (many with egos and tempers), all of whom advised an early exit.

I’m becoming increasing convinced that we humans have no new stories; all we have are the old ones with new characters.


I have been working, admittedly on-and-off, on a blog piece dealing with drug prices and “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) expenditures. Only something strange happened. The more time I spent with it, the less I liked it.

Initially, it was a reaction to a Consumer Reports article on drug pricing. As I’ve pointed out before, only a small fraction of prescriptions account for about a third of all drug spending in the US. In contrast, people spend billions every year on CAM, in the form of nutraceuticals, herbals supplements, and payments to alternative practitioners. So, it was a good case. Regulate the CAM folks, and use the savings to help pay for expensive drugs. The idea sounds like a campaign speech.

But that’s not a good case. It’s self-serving. At one level, it’s “tax the bad guys that I don’t like and give the money to the good guys who do clinical trials, aka the pharmaceutical industry.” It’s also an exercise in logical behavior that could not be expected from government. Most importantly, it completely overlooks the fact that individuals are involved in all these transactions. People, most of them very ill, find out that a drug that might help with a little relief or a little more time is extremely costly. People, often misled or ill-informed, decide to buy an herbal compound or to see a CAM practitioner. Like those of us who can’t resist a quick pick lottery ticket at the gas station, they are buying a small and short-lived parcel of hope.

As I think back to State Street Junior High, 1956, “health and physical education, third period M-W-F, Mr. Chester Riffle,” meant those were the days I carried my gym bag with shorts, T-shirt, socks, jock and a towel. Health education meant learning that if you don’t dry between your toes after a shower in the locker room, then you will get “athlete’s foot.”

As an aside, medical school is not a place to learn about health. Medical school is where you go to learn to call “athlete’s foot” by its proper name, tinea pedis. Medical school is about disease, not health.

I’m glad that I didn’t subject you to a rant about drug costs and CAM. I appreciate your patience with this alternative. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a need for a book about health. What do you think?

Oh, Canada


We’re back from a visit with our neighbors to the north. I planned (and still do) a piece on drug costs, but first want to share some observations.

Once again, warm acceptance and good conversations characterized our stay in British Columbia. This visit, however, was different. Almost all of the Canadians we talked with are concerned, and frightened, about Trump’s nomination.

Everyone wanted to discuss our political situation, and tell us how much he or she was concerned about the possible outcome of the November election. Remember, Canada is our largest trading partner in the world. I hope we ALL listen to what the Canadians are telling us.