Monday, September 21, 2009

Sorley Boy Boulevard

Point Reyes, one of the nicest places to go in the Bay Area, is about thirty miles up the coast from San Francisco. Getting there, you pass Drake’s Bay, named after Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer who brought glory to Elizabeth the First by being the first “explorer” to “discover” the place for the Queen. Amazing how the choice of vocabulary controls our thinking. I grew up in New England in an anglophile culture and still remember the adventure stories I heard about him and his ship, the Golden Hind. There were suggestions he might actually be a pirate, but that only added to his hero status. Besides, it was the Catholic Spanish he was stealing from. Who are they to play the victim?

But times change. Spain and England are, to me now, equally wonderful places. Both have gay rights I can only dream of in my own country. And I know Drake now only from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, which I take from time to time when I drive over the Richmond Bridge to Marin County. Oh yes, and there’s the Sir Francis Drake Hotel at Union Square in San Francisco.

But just as every year on Columbus Day there are a bunch of Native Americans and their sympathizers who want to change the name of Columbus Avenue to something else, and there were big protests at the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ 1492 arrival in North America, the suggestion pops up from time to time that we pitch Sir Francis to the sharks and move on.

In this morning’s Chronicle, letter writer Sean Murphy appeals to his fellow Irishmen in Marin County to remove Drake’s name from the boulevard. His reasoning is sound. Drake (aka “The Butcher”) is known for, among other things, the Rathlin Island massacre of hundreds of Irish. When Sir Francis took the island, it surrendered. He nonetheless massacred not only the 200 defenders but the 400 civilian populace as well.

Murphy suggests the name Sorley Boy MacDonnell, the “great Irish warrior” whose family suffered at the hands of Drake and his men in 1575. Thrown over the cliffs.

OK by me. Sorley Boy Blvd. trips off the tongue as readily as Sir Francis Drake. “I’m staying at the Sorley Boy” is somewhat less felicitous, but we could take this one place at a time.

Name changes are hard on old people, but one manages. I still remember Grove Street, but have no trouble calling it MLK. Cesar Chavez, not Army Street. I could even handle getting rid of the name Sather on Sather Gate and Sather Tower (which everybody calls “The Campanile” anyway). I know when they revamped it recently there was some dirt dug up on this guy Sather and people said it was time to toss him out. The university decided there was simply too much history now associated with the place and the name stays for now.

Supporters of Sorley Boy MacDonnell Blvd. will have to fight it out with supporters of Jerry Garcia Blvd., who would seem to have the edge. Jerry Garcia was a local boy, after all.

It could be disorienting, at first, driving visitors along Jerry Garcia Blvd. to Sorley Boy Bay.

As long as Pt. Reyes is there when you arrive, though, be my guest. And there is something appealing about cleaning up your history. Even if it takes 500 years.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dmitri Hvorostovsky

I saw Il Trovatore last night. When my friend Bobbi and I went to see Tosca last year on the big screen, simulcast at AT&T Ballpark, we vowed we would go again this year. This year we vowed we will go again next year, and if they can keep up the quality of these performances, I will want to go every year for the rest of my life.

I understand there are people who don’t like opera. I remember a time years ago when a colleague lectured me on how unnatural an operatic voice was. The human body was not meant to do such things. He preferred the blues.

My head is still spinning over that opinion. Nothing wrong with the blues, mind you. But not appreciating the operatic voice feels as dumb to me as not appreciating the talent of an Olympic athlete. Not appreciating the skill of a brain surgeon, not understanding a Mozart, a Picasso or a Shakespeare. It’s a skill which, when developed, makes you rise up out of your chair to applaud. An affirmation of life.

OK, so not everybody will want to include opera in this affirmation of life. Fine. But let me rave here, for a minute. I’m still reveling in the excitement I felt at the opera last night.

An even bigger reason most people don’t like opera is that the stories are so incredibly silly. About people who are all emotion and absolutely no sense. Romanticism on steroids. I’m talking about bel canto opera, Italian opera, opera of the Romantic period written for the heart (1815-1926), not Wagner, not modern opera, written for the head.

Il Trovatore is almost a satire of that kind of opera. Something Saturday Night Live would come up with to make fun of opera. The plot is formulaic:

Take a male lover (tenor, of course), add a female lover (soprano, of course), add a rival (baritone, of course) male lover. Mess ‘em up.

Manrico, a troubadour (trovatore), loves Leonora. Count di Luna wants to take Leonora from Manrico. You know before the orchestra even warms up they will fight, and somebody’s got to die.

There’s three of the big four characters. The fourth is Azucena (mezzo-soprano), mother to Manrico. But wait – the plot will surely thicken.

Turns out di Luna’s father burned Azucena’s mother at the stake for being a witch, and Azucena has devoted her life to (what else?) revenge.

Azucena’s first attempt at revenge went horribly wrong. Thinking she was throwing di Luna’s kid brother into the flames, she threw her own child instead. Her motherly instinct then led to raising the kid brother as her own. Manrico (who loves Leonora, remember), it turns out, is actually his arch-rival, Count di Luna’s kid brother. Told you the plot would thicken. The Count doesn’t know this, of course, and thinks his rival is actually the witch’s real son. Two reasons for di Luna to hate this guy, Manrico.

Manrico and di Luna are on opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War of the day (the 1820s one, not the 1930s one, obviously), so they go at it. Manrico is captured. His mother, Azucena, is captured also. Leonora offers herself to di Luna if he will free Manrico. He agrees. Leonora poisons herself. Di Luna then kills Manrico. Azucena says, “Aha! You have killed your brother. Mother, you are avenged!” Curtain.

It’s almost as if they made the story this hard to take (and there were giggles, even guffaws, all evening long) in order to create a contrast with the beauty of the voices. Sort of like medieval artists putting “beauty marks” on their portraits, blemishes which only heighten the contrasting beauty.

Enrico Caruso once said that all it takes for a successful performance of Il Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world.

I am convinced I saw that performance last night.

In time, I want to poke around in the lives and careers of Leonora (Sondra Radvanovsky), Manrico (Marco Berti) and Azucena (Stephanie Blythe), but it will be a while before I can get to them, so totally enamored am I with the di Luna character. I had to start with the bad guy.

It turns out he’s world famous. I just didn’t know him. So much greater my delight at the discovery, I say.

His name is Dmitri Hvorostovsky /Дмитрий Хворостовский. His last name is too unpronounceable, and it feels presumptuous for me to refer to him as Dmitri, so let me call him DX – Roman letter D and Cyrillic letter X.
Dark, resplendent and sumptuously textured, his voice rolls forth like some majestic force of nature.
The San Francisco Chronicle understates it by a long shot. His voice is pure magic.

I was up till 3 in the morning YouTubing this guy. It’s entirely possible I will not find a single soul to share my enthusiasm, but I am posting this anyway, just in case.

Here’s a small part of what I came upon. (I fear I am already including way too much – but I have to find time to get on with other things…)

Here’s some stuff on the man himself. A bit of his history, and the history of bel canto in Russia. How DX grew up in the “gritty industrial city of Krasnoyarsk,” became a drunk and ran around with thugs. (What’s not to love about this success story, I ask you.) Then came to Cardiff in 1989 closely chaperoned by KGB agents and won a world competition over local Welsh favorite, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. Married, had twins, divorced, drank some more, and now appears to be serious (sober since 2001) about getting his act together for the big time he’s clearly got in him.

One of the exciting bits about probing into this guy’s background is reliving the excitement of a world I once knew, a Russian cultural world that exists, along with the Western World, on its own plain, almost like a parallel universe. The YouTube selections, if you follow them, will give you a flavor of that world.

He acquired the name, the “Elvis of Opera” from the fact that he has an incredible stage presence beyond the magical one I felt last night. Something about the way he stands. Fearless looking and strong. Report after report has him infusing his roles with an energy nobody expects to find.

Look at Beverly Sills, for example, gushing over his Eugene Onegin performance at the Met with Renée Fleming.

He has his own web page, of course. And there are a large number of his concert pieces. Here are a few of the classic ones, including one from Trovatore (but you’ve got to supply the white uniform and him all alone on an opera stage):
1. Handel's “ Ombra Mai Fu”
2. Rachmaninoff's “In the silence of the secret night” (Hymn for Lorca)
3. Verdi's "Il Balen del suo soriso" from "Il Trovatore" (Note the smiles on the faces of the orchestra when he finishes.)

Just as the three tenors have taken opera to the masses, DX has given concert after concert in Russia of popular music, including Russian folk songs. Hence the sobriquet, the “Elvis of Opera.” (Elvis, in terms of popularity. I trust the resemblance stops there.)

Before you watch a couple of these, take a look at an interview he gave. Even if you don’t understand Russian, watch it, at least for a bit, and have a look at the charm this guy exudes.

And here are two Russian popular songs.

The first is a popular song of the 1960s or 70s called the Unexpected Waltz, "Случайный Вальс."
I can’t find an English version, so I’ve given a translation the old college try. Don’t hold me to 100% accuracy.

Ночь коротка, спят облака,
И лежит у меня на ладони
Незнакомая ваша рука.
После тревог спит городок,
Я услышал мелодию вальса
И сюда заглянул на часок.

Хоть я с вами совсем не знаком,
И далёко отсюда мой дом,
Я как будто бы снова
Возле дома родного…
В этом зале пустом
Мы танцуем вдвоём,
Так скажите хоть слово,
Сам не знаю о чём.

Будем дружить, петь и кружить.
Я совсем танцевать разучился
И прошу вас меня извинить.
Утро зовёт снова в поход,
Покидая ваш маленький город,
Я пройду мимо ваших ворот.

The night is short,
the clouds are asleep,
and in the palm of my hand
lies your unfamiliar hand.
The town sleeps away its troubles
and I hear the melody of the waltz.

Although we are strangers
And I am far from home
It’s as if were once again
near the place I was born.
In this empty hall we dance
just us two
Though you speak
I know not what you say.

We will grow close, will sing and whirl
across the dance floor.
I have forgotten entirely how to dance
And ask you to forgive me.
The morning calls me once again on my way,
I must leave your little town
I will pass your gate again.

The second is called На Сопках Маньчжурии (Na sopkakh Man’chzhurii - On the hills of Manchuria). It is one of Russia’s most popular songs. Different versions have developed over the years. It is a song about the Battle of Manchuria (the Battle of Mukden, to the Japanese), the final battle in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, in which the Russians lost 89,000 of their 330,000 men. The Japanese, incidently, also lost 71,000 out of 270,000, but won the war. The Japanese then took the victory as impetus to become a military power, but that’s another story.

Just for the sake of contrast, here’s a version of the original song (with subtitles) done by a kid named Maksim Troshin who died at 19. I’ve found him on Russian nationalist and anti-semitic sites. You can see how the song would appeal to the right.

And then listen to the way DX schmalzes it up (And don’t miss the audience eating it up) in the Soviet version: (Sleep peacefully, warriors. The motherland will never forget you.) I leave it to you to decide where the line is between Russian sentimentality and nationalism.

Ночь подошла,
Сумрак на землю лег,
Тонут во мгле пустынные сопки,
Тучей закрыт восток.

Здесь, под землей,
Наши герои спят,
Песню над ними ветер поет и
Звезды с небес глядят.

То не залп с полей долетел -
Это гром вдали прогремел. 2 раза
И опять кругом все так спокойно,
Все молчит в тишине ночной.

Спите, бойцы, спите спокойным сном,
Пусть вам приснятся нивы родные,
Отчий далекий дом.

Пусть погибли вы в боях с врагами,
Подвиг ваш к борьбе нас зовет,
Кровью народной омытое знамя
Мы понесем вперед.

Мы пойдем навстречу новой жизни,
Сбросим бремя рабских оков.
И не забудут народ и отчизна
Доблесть своих сынов.

Спите, бойцы, слава навеки вам!
Нашу отчизну, край наш родимый
Не покорить врагам!

Ночь, тишина, лишь гаолян шумит.
Спите, герои, память о вас
Родина-мать хранит!

(Again caveat caveat the translation!)

Night approached
Dusk lay upon the earth
Desert knolls sank in the haze, and
The clouds closed in the east.

Here, underground,
Our heroes sleep,
The wind sings a song above them
and the stars look out from the sky.

That’s not a volley flying across the field
It’s thunder. Two times
And again around all that is peaceful,
everything is still, in the quiet night.

Sleep, soldiers. Sleep the peaceful sleep,
May you dream of the fields of your homeland,
of your father’s house far away.

You perished in battle with the enemy,
your death calls us to the fight.
We will carry forward the banner
washed in your blood.

We will go forward towards a new life,
throw off the fetters than enslaved us,
the people will never forget the fatherland
and the valor of its sons.

Sleep, soldiers. Glory to you forever!
Our fatherland, the land of our birth,
will never be subjugated by its enemies.

All that is heard is the rustling of the kaoliang.
Sleep, heroes, the motherland will remember you.

* * *

There’s so much more to be had about this guy. There’s more popular Russian romance pieces
like Тёмная Ночь (Dark is the Night). (I’ll skip further translations.) There's Где-то Далеко (Somewhere Far Away). And here he is horsing around in “Tenderness,” and again, at rehearsal.

I could include a bunch of his stuff from before he turned prematurely gray, but since I think his greatness that isn’t already evident is yet to come, and I want to get back again, before we go, to opera

There's Ya vas lyublyu (I love you) from Queen of Spades, and here he is, with Pavarotti, doing “Le minaccie, i fieri accenti” from Forza del Destino. And there's a Charlie Rose Interview (It's halfway through the program, at minute 33) after the success of Prokofieff’s War and Peace at the Met in New York. DX talks about how he surrenders his own personality once on stage and becomes a different person.

Bless you if you're still reading this indulgent romp through the YouTube world. All I can say is there is so much more.

Let me stop with a curious side-note.

DX has embraced Russian music with a vengeance, and become a kind of Russian cultural ambassador, dedicated himself to familiarizing non-Russian audiences with Russian music, as the previous Charlie Rose interview indicates. Remember his interview with Beverly Sills during the performance of Eugene Onegin at the Met. And given his inclination to indulge Russians by taking on a kind of Josh Groban role and going whole-hog on popularizing the classical, and his embrace of Russian nationalist sentiment, I would have expected to find a true cultural conservative.

But then I came across this bit.

The Munich Opera House, under Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, produced what some came to call the Brokeback Mountain version of Eugene Onegin. The love story is between two men, and the famous Polonaise at the ball is danced by a corps of bare-chested gay cowboys. [This may be a little hard to access. Click on the link in this paragraph to Brokeback Mountain version..., then scroll down to 31 October, "Brokeback it is" and the click on "video trailer" in the 5th paragraph. You may have to open your Quick Time Player first.]

It was roundly booed, I understand, and some of the reviews are pretty vicious.

But here’s DX’s comment on the whole thing:
“I shall see for myself,” Mr. Hvorostovsky said. “These devoted friendships between Russian men at that time could be sexual.” Intimations of romantic feelings between Onegin and Lensky run through the source, Pushkin’s verse novel, he said: “It’s very tender, the way it’s written.”
What’s not to love about this man?

Wonder if I can change my name to Hvorostovsky?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dueling Perspectives

I once taught a seminar on the meaning of culture.

Often, when I told people what I did for a living, I got a look which said,

“How could that topic possibly be of interest to more than five or six people on the planet?”

My answer, which I usually kept to myself, was that I didn’t really care, so long as the five or six people in my seminar were interested.

I always started that seminar with a historical perspective, and that involved comparing the concept of civilization with the concept of culture.

The first use of the word civilisation came about by French thinkers developing an argument against Rousseau’s praise of the “noble savage.” “Civilized people,” these citified thinkers maintained, stood in contrast to rude, crude and unattractive people. Civilized people lived in cities and generated ideas. The rest were peasants digging in the earth with little to offer beyond potatoes.

In Germany, a bunch of petty states each too small to match the power of the French nation, the focus was on defending the language and customs of each small region, and “digging in the earth” was a positive metaphor for ‘cultivating’ one’s talents and skills.

For a long time, the French continued to talk about civilization while the Germans spoke instead of Kultur. Only in recent times have these two terms merged. Anthropologists have turned the German multiculture focus into a science, the French and Germans have kissed and made up, and most people use culture and civilization interchangeably.

I didn’t spend much time on this in class; there were too many other things to get to. But I did ask students to divide into two groups: one to develop the French view of civilization as a universal human quest, and one to develop the German (chiefly Herder’s) positive view of multiple cultures as opposed to the alien French notion of civilization. The debate that followed usually generated heat. If you are looking for trouble, you see the French as elitist and arrogant. And the Germans are romantic fools. Worse, you see in the French claim to civilization the seeds of European imperialism. And in the German romantic view, the seeds of fascist nationalism.

You can also see that, if managed right, both universalism and an appreciation for multiculturalism come out of the respective positions and you have two positives. It’s not about choosing either/or, but about tweaking each of them to make them fit together.

I taught that seminar three times in the last three years before retirement. What looked like a very small historical note to pass over quickly in a first class meeting continued to pay off, not only for the way it informed the goals of digging deeper into an exploration of culture, but because it set up the issue of perspectives and some basis for understanding how ideology and historical accident can lead you to those perspectives.

What’s happening today in America is an issue parallel to the French/German debate. We’re debating Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian political philosophy – Hamilton being the American founding father of the pitch for a strong central government, and Jefferson the voice of the little guy desiring nothing more than to be left alone to grow in his own way and follow his own dreams.

Two reasonable positions taken by honest informed people in large part as a result of personal experience with the strengths and weaknesses of each perspective. When people compare two cultures, they tend to compare the best of one (usually one’s own) with the worst of another. When Republicans (Jeffersonians) look at Democrats, they see ward bosses, greedy folk seeking entitlements they haven’t earned. When Democrats (Hamiltonians) look at Republicans, they see people born on third base wondering why the masses don’t hit more home runs.

These are only two examples of ideological conflict. I’m sure any reader of history can come up with dozens without half trying. There’s communism and capitalism, for example. The weakness of communism is how it can stifle incentive, reward the weak and lazy. The weakness of capitalism is how it can create a world devoid of compassion, for people, for the environment, for anything but capital itself.

What I think we miss, much to our discredit, is that the good points of each argument in which intelligent people can agree to disagree can lead to staleness, irrelevance and blindness. Jefferson’s states’ rights notion isn’t a bad notion, but it did lead to a defence of slavery. Don’t ask/don’t tell and separate-but-equal policies were improvements over what went before, but both turned out to be institutionalized abuse. We have no choice but to keep the conversation going, keep revisiting policies and seeing whether they still make sense, keep an open mind and a fresh sense of dedication. We need a healthy democracy.

When I read about this debate going on between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, I wonder if David Brooks is right (his article in this morning’s New York Times is what prompted this reflection) – that this is a healthy moment of debate, and we should not pay too much attention to the loudmouths on the perifery. If that’s what is happening – and it’s always tempting to believe the media are skewing the coverage too much toward the troublemakers and not giving us a balanced idea of what is happening – if that’s what is happening, these are not the worst of times.

Trouble is, I have lost faith in the American media and in Americans’ ability to keep their eye on the real issues – like the relative merits of republican virtue and democratic compassion.

Much as I’d like, I can’t help zooming in on such things as the loss of domestic partner rights in Arizona, the Senate’s decision not to give Amtrak any money unless they permit guns on trains, Nancy Pelosi’s tears of fear that the incivility of today is bringing us back to the days when Dan White shot Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, and the fact that the Democrats, bought off by insurance company profiteers, are selling us down the river on health care…

And I’m not blaming the media for this coverage, either. These are important issues. It’s just that I wish somehow as these lesser issues arise we could up our debate on the larger issues in proportion.

How do we keep focused on fundamental debates in a world of Bill O’Reillys and Larry Springers? How do we make democracy a topic over which we debate, not duel. We’re now trying to extricate ourselves from Iraq, which we stormed into not so long ago, claiming to be bringing the gift of democracy. What do we have to do to get it to work here?

I know this question is of interest to more than five or six people on the planet.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What if it is broke?

One of my favorite sayings, one which reflects America’s pride in being a practical people, is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The corrolary is implied. If it is broke, then do fix it.

The health care battle raging in Congress and around the nation is bringing home the fact that not only is our health care system broken, but so, quite evidently, is American democracy. And fixing health care, alas, doesn’t appear to be in the cards at the moment. Nor do we seem to have much chance of fixing American democracy.

In Obama’s address to Congress the other night, now forever marked by Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outburst, Obama put out the good news that the Senate was coming up with a health care plan in a week’s time.

Well, it’s out. The Max Baucus proposal, aka “Obama’s blueprint” is on the table.

And sometimes you just want to throw up.

This joker who has collected almost four million dollars in contributions from the insurance industry since 1989 comes up with what? A proposal to enrich the insurance companies. Wow. I wonder how that happened.

And Max Baucus is a democrat. One of us.

Yeah. Right.

If this were not absurd enough, despite the fact Max Baucus’ Finance Committee has a bipartisan face, the Republicans, with the possible exception of Olympia Snow, are all expected to vote against it. Which means this is the friggin' DEMOCRATIC plan!!! The one we’re going to ram through despite Republican opposition.

Man, if you ever want an example of a broken democracy, I don’t know where you’ll find one better than this.

Look at this roadkill of a plan. It asks American families to pay 13.5% of their income in monthly payments. Oh, yeah. And then co-payments. Oh, yeah. And then there will be the usual deductables. It will extend health care to 30 million uninsured citizens. Whoopee. And the other 17 million? They’re supposed to get on their knees and praise the Lord for saving us from socialism?

Because this proposal would require all Americans to sign on, it would bring in additional billions in new business to insurance companies. Quite a windfall. Billions for the insurance companies that could have gone into a pool, if we had national health care, to lower the costs considerably more and pay for the seventeen million left out in the cold with this plan. As the Los Angeles Times reports, there’s joy in the boardrooms tonight.

Reminds me – just a quick aside here – of the time The Onion had a ball last year with the $700 billion payout plan:
Three thousand guests were reportedly flown on 750 separate private jets to the Caribbean, where they commemorated the last-minute financial aid package—which saved their companies from the subprime mortgage crisis that has left thousands of Americans without homes—with 4-tons of Beluga caviar, $250,000 bottles of vintage Dom Pérignon served over precious gems, a 36-hour fireworks display, an additional loan of $200 billion to cover the costs of the gala, and a private concert for each attendee with rock legend Rod Stewart.
And is it really supposed to be 13.5% across the board? If somebody grosses $100,000 a year, he or she can afford a reduction to $86,500. But imagine your income at $40,000. That means it drops to $35,000. That missing $5000 smarts a whole lot more than the missing $13,500 for the first guy. Countries with national health plans don’t tax the less affluent at the same rate as the more affluent. But this is the U.S., and Congress runs the country for the wealthy, so this will not surprise anybody.

And while you avoid seeing a doctor for fear of the deductibles and co-pays, your employer still pays through the nose. Money you might have access to, if your employer were not saddled with the obligation to pay for health care.

But is this the best Obama can do? Shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic? Shovel more business to the insurance companies, with their 20% + administrative costs instead of copying the national health care systems around the world with their 5%?

77% of Americans want a public option. Hell, even 73% of American doctors, once thought of as the self-serving bad guys along with corporate America, want some sort of public option. Instead we have representatives of 3% of the population come up with a plan we’re calling the Obama blueprint – which excludes the public option. If you’re not ashamed of that fact, shame on you.

Senators earn $174,000 a year. If they claim D.C. as home, they pay premiums of $336.03 every two weeks for health benefits. The government then reimburses $252.02 of this. (Click on non-postal federal employees for the full data state by state). Rates vary according to state, but they are all in this ball park. Think about this. They have access to a health care plan that requires them to pay about $672.06 a month. But the government reimburses them for $504.04 of this. They end up paying $168.02 a month. On $14,500 a month income. And then they come up with plans like this for the rest of us? This is representative democracy?

In eleven U.S. states the uninsured number more than one in five. In three states, Florida, New Mexico and Texas, they number more than one in four. Yet look at how these people are represented. Texas, with 28% of the population uninsured, is represented by Senators Cornyn and Hutchinson. Cornyn doesn’t like the Baucus bill because he worries it’s really about Washington handing out more “entitlements”. (Top Story as of today – this may change on his website). Hutchinson, pictured today speaking behind a “Free Our Health Care Now” no-public-option poster, is unhappy that the Baucus bill is not bipartisan.

To be fair, the figures for uninsured Americans are highly contested. Many Americans could be insured if they would only sign up, we hear. Many of the uninsured are only temporarily uninsured. But despite it all, we’re arguing about details, not about the fact we have millions of Americans without health insurance, no matter how you cut it.

And, the citizens of these fourteen states aside (and all states have uninsured in the double digits), as the government was originally conceived, each Representative was to represent his or her constituency, but each Senator was supposed to represent the nation at large. When you see how the Senate votes, you see that bubble burst a long time ago. Partisanship and self-interest are a stark reality. Put that fact together with the fact that the Finance Committee consists of three democrats and three Republicans – 40% of the Senate, but 50% of this committee in other words. And then combine that with the fact that together they represent about 3% of the population, and you can see the cracks in the system.

For me, the bitterest pill of all was thinking about Joe Wilson. We’ve satisfied ourselves that this guy is a lout. Jimmy Carter called him a racist. His wife and kids insist he’s a peach of a guy, never mind that he wanted to fly the Confederate flag over South Carolina not too long ago, and defended his racist boss Strom Thurmond, referring to his illegitimate black daughter's revelation of her origins as "unseemly." Name calling aside, the House, for the first time in memory, censured him for his outburst, and one hopes that might lead somehow to greater civility in the body politic. I continue to place great hope in Obama, but he’s wrong. Joe Wilson choice of "liar" is nasty - all politicians slant their stories. And his style may be "unseemly." But Obama lied by omission. He claims that the bill excludes illegal aliens. And it does. But they will go to emergency rooms and be paid for by taxpayer money. We can't demand IDs in emergency rooms – too many people, many of them citizens without birth certificates, would die.

We’ll figure out one day how to keep illegals from entering the country, but who wants to live in a country that tells people having a heart attack to do it on the steps of the hospital. And who send little kids with contagious diseases back to school to infect the rest of the population, rather than treat the disease under a public health policy.

We don’t hear much about that because the Obama supporters among us are trying too hard to disassociate ourselves from the Baucus blue dog democrats and the entire wretched Republican spoiler party and we feel we have to defend Obama right or wrong.

That makes us part of the problem of brokenness.


Shame all around.

Monday, September 14, 2009

All you need is time

Yesterday, I forwarded copies to friends of an exchange I had with my friend, Dov, which included a description of the Australian health care system known as Medicare. He wrote in response to my forwarding a description of the German health care system. In this morning’s New York Times, for those interested in these international comparisons, is Roger Cohen’s attempt to put right some of the misconceptions over the French system.

It’s a fascinating time for the exchange of information on health care. Unfortunately, there are two pretty severe stumbling blocks – one, along with the information comes a ton of misinformation. And two, it’s only information if people actually read it and discuss it.

America, alas, has an awful lot of folk waving signs and marching on Washington, calling into talk shows and watching Fox news, who don’t.

Another good source of information on health care reform is Bill Moyers. He’s been running one program after another on Bill Moyers Journal on various aspects of the problem.

This week he had Dr. Jim Yong Kim on.

Just as I was wallowing with Dov in despair over the fact that Americans don’t read, don’t think, don’t bother to check their facts before speaking, this interview with Kim comes across my screen, reminding me (he’s an anthropologist as well as a medical doctor) of what Margaret Meade once said:
Never doubt the capacity of a small group of committed souls to change the world. In fact, that's the only thing that ever has.
Maybe we can do it even despite the tea-baggers.

P.S. Margaret Mead also said:
I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.

P.P.S. Sorry to continue to repeat the obvious, but anyone who wants to can even take a course at MIT on comparative health care! No kidding. Online at:

All you need is time.

P.P.P.S. All one ever needs is time.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Campillo, Sí Quiero (Campillo, I Do)

When you’ve finished cleaning your sock drawer and have some time to practice your Icelandic, go to: and listen carefully. They’re talking about a Spanish documentary, Campillo, Sí Quiero, which is about a village in Castille called Campillo de Ranas (Littlefield of Frogs).

Or you can skip all that and read about the village in the New York Times.

Get in your car in Madrid, head north on the A-1 for about 70 km., take Exit 76 toward Avenida de la Venta de Méa, take the M-137 about eleven km. till you get to Prádena del Rincón, where you turn right onto M-130. Go about 7-8 km till you rejoin the M-137 again. Be sure to take the right turn and go north and not the left turn which would take you back to where you started on M-137. Follow that for about 8 km, till you get to the GU-187. Stay on that about 5 km. till you get to GU-181. Turn right and continue on about three and a half km. till you get to GU-194. Turn left onto the highway to Corralejo (Carretera a Corralejo) (GU-194) and go about 8 km. till you get to GU-186 (Ctra a Majaelrayo). Take that about half a kilometer, turn left toward Calle Cuesta about half a kilometer and there you are in Little Field of Frogs, the gay marriage capital of Spain. If you make all the right turns it shouldn’t take you more than two hours from Callao in downtown Madrid, about 128 km. in all.

Probably best to go when there’s a wedding you’re invited to. Or arrange one of your own, gay or non-gay. Takes about 45 days to clear the paper work, I understand, so get cracking. Besides the wild boar, there are only 50 or 60 inhabitants, but there are apparently lots of B&Bs and restaurants in villages nearby.

You can see the mayor (and local beekeeper) of Campillo de Ranas, Francisco Maroto, interviewed by Teresa Viejo on the Castillian TV program Tal Como Somos (Such as We Are). People are coming from all over the place (Peru, the U.S., Eastern Europe) to get married in his town, since he decided (he’s gay himself) to take advantage of the fact that Spain approved same-sex marriage in June of 2005. The marriage featured on the program is one done in medieval costume where everybody, including the alcalde gets all dressed up in medieval drag. When Lord of the Rings fans got married, Maroto got dressed up as Gandalf. Whatever it takes, says Mayor Maroto.

This is one clever dude in the body of a cozy teddy bear. He’s stopped the exodus to the cities, the school has opened again with eleven kids after being closed for 32 years, and the old folks are rallying round their mayor in case there might be anybody who would wish him harm.

The interviewer puts him on the spot. She asks him if he’s married himself and he says no. She then tries to interview his partner, Quique Rodriguez (the local justice of the peace), sitting in the audience, but the partner refuses. Mayor says they’re not interested in getting married. Interviewer says, well if you change your mind… A real marriage-maker, this one.

She then interviews a straight couple he married some time ago with their four-month-old daughter who want to thank him for his efforts in marrying them. Most of the folk who come there now to marry are straight. They just like the place.

Seriously – you can skip the Icelandic interview since it’s just talking heads – unless, of course, you like to hear Nordics make those delicious sounds with their mouths. But watch the mayor’s interview, even if your Spanish isn’t up to snuff. The warmth of the guy, of the interviewer, the warmth of Spain comes through.

Where, I ask you, in all this, is the view that gays are a threat to the institution of marriage?