Knee Surgery


Living room with rugs pulled up, ice machine under daybed, lots of pillows for elevating legs, yellow pad on which I keep a record of my medications, small Christmas tree to be decorated ASAP

I have not written much in this blog the last couple of weeks, but it’s not just because I was overwhelmed by the election.

On November 22 I had bilateral total knee replacement surgery at the Kaiser hospital in San Leandro. This is a new facility, only a couple of years old. It’s huge, very specialized.They have relocated all the leg joint surgery – knee, hip, whatever – there.  A gigantic facility like this pre-supposes continuity of funding. Kaiser was lining itself up to be the private sector model for Single Payer — now what? We’ve got Trump promising to do away with Obamacare and Medicare.

On my way into the pre-op suite I caught a vista of at least 25 fully equipped stations, all of them empty. Maybe because this was 2 days before Thanksgiving and the surgeons didn’t want to be on call to discharge patiences on Thanksgiving. Maybe there are some days when all 25 stations are full. That would look like, and sound like, a battleground.

Many friends were surprised that I needed knee replacement at all. In the daytime, I walked around like most other people. However, I stopped running for exercise back in 2006, in Chicago. The last 3 years I’ve noticed that riding more than 15 miles on my bike – even my electric bike – causes inflammation of my knees that wakes me up at night. According to X-rays, I’ve got severe arthritis in my knees (and moderate in my hips). Then last July, in Vermont, I took a Latin Dance class from my yoga instructor. It was three nights before the burning calmed down. A couple of days later I got out a shovel to dig up the raspberries. This time I had pain at 3 am that was kind of like solar flares. The flames had blue tips. On the pain scale where they ask you to rate your pain 1-10 I’d call it a 9. Since living in Vermont requires gardening, wheeling the wheelbarrow, etc, I asked for a recommendation from my GP at Kaiser who sent me to a young surgeon (David Junwoo Lee) who said I was a good candidate for a bilateral. It was a brisk, cheerful interview.

I had never heard of a bilateral, but apparently they are doing more and more of them. Several friends said I was crazy.

At first, my surgery was scheduled for February, so that was far enough away I could forget about it. But then I got a call saying he could do it in just a few weeks, November 22nd, right before Thanksgiving. Should I cancel? My reason for choosing “cancel” would be “fear.”

For the weeks before the surgery, I intensified my exercise program. Our carpenter friend Ben built a small yoga deck down in the back yard where the sun lands early in the morning. It was very pleasant to go down there with a yoga mat and my phone, which is loaded with audio books, and do yoga.The sun shone and the various things in the garden were thriving, except for a trumpet vine that seems to have not done well being watered by laundry wash outflow.

Now, post-surgery, Joe basically is full-time helping me. He cooks, shops, does the wash, makes the bed, cleans the floor, brings in the mail, puts out the garbage bins, even answers the phone. If he can carve out 2 hours to do his email, that’s good. Gabi and her family and my brother and his family have helped a lot. Brian came over and gave advice and drove us to my first post-op doctor’s appointment. Luckily, our living quarters are all on one floor. Bathroom, bedroom, living room, kitchen – all close together, one level.

Joe and Katie Quan took care of the presentation about labor, trade and Vietnam that we had signed up for at the Zinn Bookfair on December 4 and it went well. We have found that explaining what we were doing in Viet Nam to people in the US is like peeling layers off an onion, one at a time — and you have to do it slowly. You often have to go all the way back to the economic condition of Viet Nam after the American War in order to find a piece of the story that the other person knows. If you can find someone who has gone beyond that, you’re in luck. The people who came to their presentation were already a bit informed.

It has been raining hard and the days have been dark. Every day I work through a full list of exercises to do and medications to take. I am now progressing well enough to be “off the chart.” I can walk around the house and use crutches, go up and down a few steps very slowly, and have full extension and 112 degree retraction. The PT can’t justify home visits any more.  I still rely on the pain meds, although I’m stretching them out a bit. Their main effect (other than masking the pain) is to make me very short-tempered. I read, do email, listen to music and audio books. I also try to keep up with a little computer language program, Duo Lingo, to learn some kind of Vietnamese which is mind-bogglingly different from English. I can say, “I am forever in kindergarten,” or rather, I can recognize the Vietnamese words that mean this when spoken by the audio ap. Whether I could say those words in a way that any Vietnamese speaker could recognize is still to be tested.

It looks as if we will definitely be going back to Ton Duc Thang next August. I have been in touch with Dean Hoa, Vinh, Vy, An, Nghia and Nghia Vo, and also with the Director of the War Remnants Museum. We won’t stay for 6 months; it will be more like two or three. We will apply for Fullbrights but given the new politics, we aren’t counting on getting anything.

Revenge is a meal best eaten cold

Jan-Werner Muller has a pretty good article in the current (December 1, 2016) issue of the London Review of Books, which is the publication I go to more and more often for the most useful stuff. Muller quotes Michael Moore saying that Trump was elected on a revenge vote, the “biggest fuck-you in recorded history.” But now that Trump is elected, can he govern on “fuck-you”? What does that look like? Fuck who? Probably, the people who voted for him. “Down with everything!” includes “Down with you, suckers!”

Trump ran as a populist, claiming to speak for the “real people” who have been riding the race to the bottom since the 1970s. As a populist, he mirrored and gave voice to their collective, justified and mostly ignored or ridiculed anger. Too many real people in the US suffered material and moral injuries over the last 50 years; the remedy promised by Trump is non-specific revenge. Can revenge work as an organizing principle of government? Muller says yes:

The crucial thing to understand is that populists can govern as populists. . . . The wall might not get built [the wall along the border with Mexico] but that can be made to mean something other than the breaking of a campaign promise. Trump would merely need to convince enough people that it was the enemies of the nation – globalists, Democrats, former beauty queens, whatever – who prevented the practical realization of the imperative of white self-protection. The supply of enemies is inexhaustible (p. 13).

All he has to do to stay in power is to find a parade of people to blame when his policies fail or backfire. Last week he boasted that he had “saved 1100 jobs” at Carrier (air conditioning, heating) in Indiana. In fact, it’s somewhere near 500, or maybe 800 – I’ve seen different figures. He did it by promising $7 million in tax credits to Carrier. Actually Vice-President Elect Pence, as governor of Indiana, was the person who arranged that $7 million. So $7 million for 700 jobs is $10,000 per job, paid for by the taxes owed to the people of Indiana that Carrier should have paid. And all the jobs at a nearby Carrier plant are going to Mexico. In the course of this, Trump blamed the local USW president, Chuck Jones, saying that the union should spend more time working, less time talking, and reduce dues.

Real government is not a calendar of tweets, photo ops, rallies and talk show appearances. Those are government as reality TV show, which is how Muller forsees Trump consolidating his populist base. But in the background he has all the apparatus of real government to play with:

Populists aren’t just fantasy politicians; what they say and do can be in response to real grievances and can have very real consequences. . . They define an alternative political reality in which their monopoly on the representation of the “real” people is all that matters; in Trump’s case, an alt-reality under the auspices of the alt-right.

 In the US, this will probably mean a free hand for K Street lobbyists and all-out crony capitalism; continual attempts to undermine checks and balances (p 14).

My Viet Nam article in the LERA publication, Perspectives on Work, came out and I got a copy. It’s not bad, although it was written nearly 10 months ago. They printed the title wrong, unfortunately: Facing Capitalism: One View of Labor, Education in the New Vietnam, should have been Facing Capitalism: One View of Labor Education in the New Vietnam. Apparently the editor did not recognize labor education as the topic of the article. I had asked them to send me a galley proof but the editor told me they do not do that any more.

Liberal Nihilists

The “dark matter” in this picture – the heavyweight invisible mass that seems to add momentum to every whiplash curve on this roller coaster ride – are what Muller calls “the liberal nihilists.” Some of my friends, especially in my generation, fall into this category; publicly, they are keeping their heads high, but secretly, they are afraid and fatalistic. They live in gated communities, either real or imaginary, and apres moi le deluge.

Trump’s strategy for dealing with the liberal nihilists is to keep us confused by, for example, inviting Al Gore to come visit him in Trump Tower and then threatening to appoint the chair of Exxon Mobile as Secretary of State.

In the meantime, the deadlines created by climate change will draw closer and pass. Behind the curtain of the reality TV “government” show, Trump’s buddies will try to pack their suitcases with everything they think they might need to make it through the anthropocene.

People who are not liberal nihilists: Message from USA Labor Educators and Leaders Solidarity Network to our friends in Viet Nam

This was drafted by Leanna and Hollis, discussed by the rest of us, revised and approved on 12.04. 16. These people are not liberal nihilists. Note the links to readings at the bottom.

Statement from “USA Labor Educators & Leaders Solidarity Network” to Vietnam Friends

Dear Sisters and Brothers of Vietnam,

We write to you to express friendship and solidarity at a challenging moment for the United States. Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, because of the undemocratic election rules, Donald Trump will be our next President and the Republican Party will now control the Congress and be in position to control the U.S. Supreme Court as well.

First, we assure you that our strong commitment to solidarity between labor, academic and people’s organizations in Vietnam and the USA will continue regardless of who is President of the USA.

The role of the USA in international affairs in the coming four years is completely unknown. It is likely, however, that the USA will NOT ratify the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Donald Trump represents a huge threat to unions, immigrants, communities of color, diverse/different religions, women and all who support peace and justice. As labor educators and trade union leaders, we will face many challenges in the immediate FUTURE, but remain strong in raising consciousness against corporate power and the global race to the bottom.

The kind of democracy we have in the USA requires of us local organizing and grassroots activism. We are each doing all that we can individually and collectively.

We attach a list of readings that you may find helpful in learning about the recent USA elections and its potential impact.

We send to you our heartfelt solidarity and a deep commitment to continue to work with you for a better world for the people of Vietnam, the U.S. and throughout the world.

Onward for justice and peace!

Rick Bales

Joe Berry, retired labor educator, City College of San Francisco and University of Illinois, union leader AFT 2121, City College of San Francisco

Julie Brockman, Associate Professor of School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, Michigan State University

Elise Bryant

Richard Fincher, Mediator and Arbitrator

Michael Mauer, American Association of University Professors

Leanna Noble, retired union organizer and labor educator

Katie Quan, UC Berkeley Labor Center

Kim Scipes, Associate Professor of Sociology, Purdue University Northwest

Hollis Stewart, retired union leader and labor educator

Angie Ngoc Tran, Professor of Political Economy, Global Studies, CA State University, Monterey Bay

Kent Wong, UCLA Labor Center

Helena Worthen, retired labor educator, member, National Writers Union UAW 1981


Suggested Readings:

Quick Reflections on the November 2016 Elections, Bill Fletcher,

Democrats, trump and the Ongoing Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit, Glenn Greenwald,

What Donald Trump Wants to Do in His 100 Days, Amita Kelly and Barbara Sprunt,

How Will a Trump Administration Lift Wages for the Vast Majority of Americans, Lawrence Mishel,

Revenge of the Forgotten Class, Alec MacGillis,

Labor Leaders Deserve their Share of the Blame for Donald Trump’s Victory, Micah Uetricht,

Why Trump Won the Electoral College Vote, Garrett Brown,

In Trump, Extremism Found Its Champion and Maybe Its Demise, Adam G. Klein,

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

12 thoughts on “Knee Surgery

  1. Martin, your comment raises some broad questions. The AFL-CIO itself doesn’t bargain contracts. Its a federation of member unions that actually DO sign contracts. So it isn’t selling services in the sense that the worker comp lawyers are selling services. Instead, the things you list as what the AFL-CIO is “selling” are ideas. I would argue that the place for selling ideas is not billboards or ads on TV (and god knows, unions have spent a lot of $$ on slick ads about the benefits of union membership, which probably backfire if you’re looking at them from the POV of a non-union worker or a union worker who has expeienced wage cuts or loss of retirement benefits). The place for selling ideas is a school. That’s why I’m a labor educator.

    Then we can shift into the story of what happened to the National Labor College, which got a lot of funding from the AFL CIO but shut down in 2013.

    I agree with you about money wasted on buying Democrats. Renting them, I mean.

    1. It is with great respect for your profession and values that I offer this critique. If the secondary schools has been the place to educate the populace about unionism, then, as Reuther, Meany, Sweeney, Trumka, might remark, this curriculum has been a great failure. MasterCard, Wells Fargo, and even Wal-Mart are all engaged in selling facets of the American Dream. Why isn’t the AFL-CIO? More than a just few politically opportune hand-shakes, what they needed and still need for survival is a groundswell of working people in their ranks. People who want a better life, and people who vote. Twenty years ago I proposed this public education idea to then AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, then to Rich Trumka. Obviously, the “old think” prevailed. Either the AFL-CIO learns how to use the new media, learns how to implement new ideas, or it takes one last gasp before it goes under.

  2. Corporate America is not always right about what influences thinking people. But what kind of ad would you propose? In the Bay Area, worker comp lawyers put ads in BART about worker’s rights under the worker comp law. However, they’re selling their services. Would you suggest ads saying, “The NLRA says workers in the private sector have the right to organize” — with a phone number? The AFL CIO isn’t selling services. I think that kind of thing should be taught in middle school.

    1. Thanks for your prompt reply. First, if the AFL-CIO isn’t “selling” anything then it should pull down the shutters and blow a kiss good-by to history. Of course it has something to sell, today as well as what it sold in the nineteen-forties, fifties, sixties: a forty-hour work week, steady work, worker barganing rights, employer-paid healthcare, employer-paid maternity leave, employer-paid sick-leave, employer-paid pension, in short: the American Dream.
      About ads: The AFL-CIO spent thirty years and millions of dollars trying to buy political power. What it got was decades of weak Democrats, recalcitrant Republicans, and finally Trump. It spent zilch on educating the public as to the value of their organization and its goals.
      Martin Desht.

  3. Here’s something I thought might interest you:
    Exhibit on American de-industrialization Celebrates 40th Exhibit

    Documentary exhibit Faces From An American Dream, by Martin Desht, depicts America’s economic transition from industrial manufacturing to service and information; how it re-defined the American industrial city and what it meant for skilled and unskilled workers in search of the American dream. Exhibit has been displayed at Harvard University, Dartmouth College, New York University’s Stern School of Business, Michigan State University, Queen’s University-Belfast, United States Department of Labor, and many other venues. Faces From An American Dream has been touring nationally since 1992. Desht’s book Photosonata (2015) is a collection of images, essays, and poems based on this work. Desht is a former Bethlehem Steel crane electrician. Current exhibit in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


    Martin Desht. Santa Fe, New Mexico 87508 USA

      1. Questions for you:

        Why does the AFL-CIO refuse to take their arguments to the public? When will Rich Trumka wake up from his sleepwalking through history and emerged from the mines?

        Martin Desht


        Sent: Thursday, January 05, 2017 at 7:43 PM

      2. A question I had asked twenty years ago: If corporate America thinks that placing ads on billboards along I-95 in Philadelphia and New York City is good for American business, why wouldn’t it be good for the AFL-CIO?

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