Wednesday, March 31, 2010

This Is Going To Hurt A Little...

Okay, time to take a serious look at our finances now that the health care reform law now exists. There's a Washington Post article that takes a realistic look at what must now follow - major fiscal reform.

Tea Party People have been shrieking about the fiscal mess that this health care reform will add to and it appears they're right. I gather the president agrees with some of what they have to say, too - it's just simple, irrefutable math.

Conservatives have been howling that government spending cuts must come first. But Obama was convinced that without health care reform cutting down that fast-increasing budget item, all the other cuts would be negated. It had to come first.

Now he's got his reform. It unfortunately cannot stop there - the next battle will have to be government spending cuts. And government needs to raise more money.

The long-term picture for this country's economy is terrifying and it cannot be blamed on the president alone. Republicans and Democrats alike have thrown money around, hiding spending, cooking books to keep the public from knowing just how far in the hole we're going.

Remember, please, that the last president waged a war without including the billions spent in the budget. And he did it while cutting revenue with tax breaks for business and the wealthy. It just doesn't add up and we're starting to stagger as we try to keep it all balanced.

The answer isn't tax cuts, unfortunately. Not just the wealthy will have to cough up more. We all will. Can we afford it? Hell, no. But we'll have to do it just the same unless we're going to continue to pile up an unsustainable debt that we'll just stick to our kids and their kids, if the country can continue to operate that long.

You don't have kids? You're not worried about the next generation? Get on board anyway. The country's accounts might just not last until you're dead, and unless you've enjoyed the past couple of years' recession you'll be wanting to get that debt down.

The president, according to this article, plans to propose some of what promise to be highly unpopular changes after the November election. And he's playing poker again, gambling that as investors begin to shy away from US Treasury bills (and he seems to feel it won't be long), he'll be able to begin the slicing and stitching that will cut our spending down while increasing government's revenues by arguing he simply has no choice.

He already has no choice. But because this is a country of people who love to hate (evidenced by some of the most hateful and childish photos of the president I would never want to imagine when I searched for "obama health care reform"), we will only pull together if we're convinced we have a common enemy.

We do. It's the deficit. Whether you agree health care reform was necessary before fixing it or not, I think we can agree the deficit is a damned scary thing.

I freak out if I can't pay my bills at the end of the month. I cut spending, I find extra work. I don't charge it, with interest, to pay somewhere down the road.

There is no credit card, no country, big enough to cover this government's debts and operating expenses within the next ten years. We need to go on a spending diet and we need to do it willingly.

This is a country that collected scrap metal and grew Victory Gardens when it was convinced it faced a common enemy. We're facing another one - and we need our most creative thinkers, efficiency experts and diplomats working hand in hand with realistic fiscal experts to win this one.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Poker Player-In-Chief

The president's meeting with Israeli leader Benhamin Netanyahu said a lot about this man we're still getting to know.

According to an international intelligence newsletter, the Israelis decided that coming to Washington in the midst of the climax of health care reform was a good strategic move; they figured Obama would be so distracted that it would ease the tensions created by that embarrassing little announcement of new West Bank settlements during Joe Biden's visit.

It didn't quite work that way.

The Israelis had a big bluff planned; they were going to take the offensive, claiming they were being unfairly chastised. They could warn that an important historical alliance was being threatened.

They don't have any chips - Israel needs America far more than America needs Israel. But they're worried that this president is friendly to Arab states and they planned to bluster a bit and bring him back into line.

Reports say the American president was very interested in Netanyahu's explanation for the diplomatic screwup and very unimpressed with his attempts to explain that there was no way he could have known that the announcement would happen just as Obama's Number Two man was speaking about hope for a peaceful Jerusalem.
And then the president played his hand.

He did something no president has ever done to an Israeli leader. He got up, said he had dinner plans and left the Israelis with his staff.

"If you come up with something new," he said, "call me."

It was brilliant. It put Israel on notice that it wouldn't be pushing this president around. It left the Israelis to try to make good on their blunder. And it reportedly freaked them out so much that they left the White House, fearful that the phone line they'd been offered in the White House was bugged.

Israeli newspapers describe their leader as returning home "humiliated".

I want to do a little dance! This is diplomacy!! This is dealing with foreign leaders with brains, not brawn. This is making it clear where we stand without threats...with some finesse. And this is clearly a guy who knows how to play poker.

The Chicago paper did an article on Obama as poker player a few years back. It's enlightening.

I'm beginning to have some hope for this administration again.

Obama The Poker Player

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

America, Meet The New Kid

Here's this morning's Daily Beast:

1.Americans' Change of Heart on Health Care

It didn't take long for Americans to come around on health-care reform: A new USA Today/Gallup poll shows 49 percent of Americans saying health-care reform is a "good thing," with only 40 percent saying it is bad. This is a marked reversal from polling from before the legislation was passed and signed, which typically showed the public opposed. Forty-eight percent of respondents also say it's just a "good first step" that needs to be followed up with more action. Additionally, congressional Republicans rate the lowest out of all the major players: 26 percent said their work was excellent or good, while 34 percent say it was poor; for congressional Democrats, those numbers are 32 and 33 percent; for Barack Obama, they're 46 and 31 percent.

I'm finding this not only encouraging, but kind of funny. So like me, many Americans in general were just not sure what this new law involved. And like me, the more they hear, the more they're inclined to think it's an adequate first step, though it needs a lot more work. And like me, they're not impressed with the terror tactics of the opposition.

This morning's professional email inbox held a letter from a Republican legislator warning that this bill will "kill more Americans than the 9-11 attacks."

If you want to guarantee turning off everyone but the most extreme, conspiracy-theory, paranoid among us, this is a surefire winner.

I am so sick of the flapping gums in DC. I don't think I'm alone in that either. I am not brain dead and I do not need you to tell me what to think.

Again, I repeat and in a very non-partisan, "this applies to you all" way: Thanks for getting something done, Congress. Now shut up and make it better.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Just What Got Passed, Anyway?

My inboxes are flooded this morning. My personal email address has thank you's from the president, an exhortation from the BoldProgressives to "hit the Blue Dogs" for their blocking of a public option, a celebration of the Working Families Party's success in helping get a local Blue Dog to vote "aye", and an email from my guy's mom checking on his recovery.

My work inbox, a nonpartisan address, has a letter from NY's governor applauding the passage of health care, a blistering attack from NOW NY on the president's executive order which they say could be used by a hospital to deny a rape victim contraception as part of her post-attack treatment.

There are letters from all the local congressional reps announcing their vote, with the funny part being that reluctant, late-to-the-game Blue Dog announcing his "yes" vote in an ALL CAPS SUBJECT LINE. He wants you to know he got your emails and phone calls.

There a note from an insurance conference pointing out the incredible importance of the health insurance industry to New York's economy. There's a vitriolic letter from the National Republican Committee Conference lambasting one of those local congressmen, referring to him as a " loyal lapdog" who put politics first and his constituents second.

It has become such a mess, such a muddle, that I doubt any of us outside of Washington fully understand what was being debated this weekend. I'm going to try to figure out the big picture.

Here's what I just found on The Daily Beast: "Health-care reform may have been historic, but many of its biggest reforms won't take place for at least a couple of years. So what does the health-care bill change right now? Crooks and Liars has assembled a handy list of immediate changes. After President Obama signs the bill, children will be able to stay on their parents' health insurance until their 27th birthdays. No child under 19 will be excluded from plans because of preexisting conditions. It will eliminate caps on how much care you can get in one year. Adults with preexisting conditions will be able to start shopping online for a plan in a national high-risk pool while waiting for insurance exchanges to get started. Small business can deduct as much as 50 percent of employees' health benefits for tax purposes in 2009 and 2010. It will fill in the "donut hole" of Medicare prescription drug coverage with a rebate. Insurers will have to post their balance sheets online, listing administrative costs, executive compensation packages, and benefit payments. And you can no longer be dropped from your insurance plan just because you get sick."

And there's a letter from Michael Moore to both addresses, explaining what he believes the new bill means. He sees it as a victory for US citizens over corporate interests and a good start on a decent health care system, but far from perfect. In fact, before endorsing it, he admitted this was one pretty weak piece of legislation. But it's a foot in the door.

Here's what the NRCC says...and I quote (eliminating the attacks on the guy who voted for it): This is..."a bill that fails to lower the cost of healthcare," ...creates " hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxes, Medicare cuts, runaway spending and unprecedented government control,"..."this toxic bill will negatively impact small businesses that are struggling to hire in the midst of a tough economic climate."

Here's Michael Moore's letter (with some of the GOP bashing cut where it adds no information - you can read the whole thing at the link): "Thanks to last night's vote, that child of yours who has had asthma since birth will now be covered after suffering for her first nine years as an American child with a pre-existing condition.

Thanks to last night's vote, that 23-year-old of yours who will be hit one day by a drunk driver and spend six months recovering in the hospital will now not go bankrupt because you will be able to keep him on your insurance policy.

Thanks to last night's vote, after your cancer returns for the third time -- racking up another $200,000 in costs to keep you alive -- your insurance company will have to commit a criminal act if they even think of dropping you from their rolls.

If it's any consolation, the thieves who run the health insurance companies will still get to deny coverage to adults with pre-existing conditions for the next four years. They'll also get to cap an individual's annual health care reimbursements for the next four years. And if they break the pre-existing ban that was passed last night, they'll only be fined $100 a day! And, the best part? The law will require all citizens who aren't poor or old to write a check to a private insurance company. It's truly a banner day for these corporations.

So don't feel too bad. We're a long way from universal health care. Over 15 million Americans will still be uncovered -- and that means about 15,000 will still lose their lives each year because they won't be able to afford to see a doctor or get an operation. But another 30,000 will live. I hope that's ok with you.

If you don't mind, we're now going to get busy trying to improve upon this bill so that all Americans are covered and so the grubby health insurance companies will be put out of business -- because when it comes to helping the sick, no one should ever be allowed to ask the question, "How much money can we save by making this poor bastard suffer?"

A Daily News poll online this morning asks if you believe America is better off today than yesterday. The No votes are edging the Yeses by six percent. But Mike Lupica wrote a stirring column lauding the fact that when push finally came to shove, the president stood on his principles, telling House Democrats that this was a moment when they could do what they came to Washington to do, vote for a change that makes things better. I believe that is the aim of this bill.

It's not a great bill, not by any measure. But it moves toward reforming a system that is going to bankrupt us. It moves toward assuring health care for every citizen which is, in the long run, not only the human thing to do, but the fiscally responsible thing to do. We cannot afford to care for the growing number of uninsured by forcing hospitals to treat them in emergency rooms. We need to create a system that reflects reality. I believe this bill is a step toward that.

According to a San Diego political commentator, the only impact this will have on us, the regular people, is creating a state-based exchange with subsidies for four years. A separate exchange will be created for small businesses.

People and families with income over 250 thousand dollars a year will pay an extra 3.8 percent tax on investment income. And in 18 years, insurance companies will pay a hefty 40% excise tax on insurance plans over 27 thousand dollars. I'm not seeing a problem here yet.

What I see as the result of this bill is a step through a door that has, until now, been closed. With the passage of this bill, there is opportunity to fine tune it, to tailor it, to create a plan that not only stops the devastating escalation of insurance costs and health care costs, but extends basic health coverage to every American.

I won't argue compassion to Conservatives. That's not what moves them. I will argue fiscal responsibility.

I listened to David Walker, the author of Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility during one of my drives back and forth the hospital last week. He's a sane man. He's knowledgeable and he knows government from the inside. He was Comptroller General of the United States and CEO of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) from 1998 to 2008. And he is convinced that, without significant reform, health care will bankrupt us. Of course, we're doing plenty of other things that will bankrupt us, too, but health care as we've been doing it is number one.

So the door is open. We've got something to work with now. And the motiviation to work on it.

Screaming about a government takeover of health care, spreading fear, will not contribute to improving this bill. Of course that's what will happen...screams, lies, doubt that horrific "death panel" garbage will rear its disgusting head, too.

I give up on hoping for civil dialogue. That's not how Washington works. But I demand progress from my elected officials, I demand the very best health care reform they can design that benefits the public, does not unrealistically enrich the corporations and reverses the growing debt load we're handing off to our children and grandchildren.

That's your assignment, Washington. Congrats on doing something. Now shut up and get to work.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Maybe We've Got Too Few Hats

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

How many times were you asked that when you were a child? And how many different answers did you give?

I was thinking about this as I read comments to my post on our overworked American nurses...thinking that it's a shame that people who are drawn to a demanding career, one which requires a certain personality, are then burned out with long hours, heavy schedules and demands that they do more with less.

That sent me down a mental sideroad and I wondered: why did we have to pick just one field?

I know the practical answers; there is training to gain expertise, there is experience which is invaluable. These are things which only come from spending time doing something, learning better ways to do it, seeing problems that crop up over and over again and figuring out how to avoid them. It makes sense.

But why just one thing? Why not just pick a theme?

It's our civilization's way: figure out what you want to do, then spend a lifetime getting better at it. Before the industrial age, there were apprentices. They learned blacksmithing or silversmithing, they apprenticed at money houses and trading companies or with healers and surgeons. It took years to get good at their specialty.

We've continued the one career style with college training, internships, young people who "climb the career ladder." And it was okay for a long time; if you were good at your job, you stayed on that ladder, often with the same employer, for your entire career.

Times have changed. I saw my dad hop from job to job and finally get bounced from a major corporation because, despite the fact that he was the best in his field, he was over fifty. He wasn't high enough on the ladder to overcome ageism.

He reinvented himself; an incredibly brave move that I didn't fully appreciate at the time. He and my mother put everything they had into running franchises they bought from one of the corporations he'd once worked for. It was a success and a failure - they made more money than he'd ever made in his career and they loved running their own business, but an economic downturn ended up drowning them and forcing them to sell.

I have always believed that was more because of my dad's personality than a reflection of the wisdom of taking the risk they took or their abilities. Dad could be abrasive, so when times were tough and he needed a little slack, he seldom got it. But his theme was business - understanding what factors were necessary to weight the odds toward success.

They ended up worrying far more than they should have had to at their ages, but they finally worked out a comfortable retirement.

My guy has done a million jobs to make ends meet and probably excelled at all of them, as that's what he does. But his theme is music. It's always been about making room in his life to create music. He knew what he wanted before he graduated high school and he's never wavered. I admire that.

What if we asked ourselves what our theme is, instead of what we want "to be"?

I've been a TV reporter, a teacher, a writer and a radio journalist. I've been a freelance PR consultant, a retail clerk and a massage therapist. I've cleaned horse stalls and organized files. My earnings history, according to the social security records, is pretty sad. But I have had a range of experiences and a chance to learn what I like to do and what I'm good at.

My overall career theme has been communications and my astrological inclinations predicted that. But if you'd asked eighteen year old me what I wanted to "be", I'd have told you "I want to own a local newspaper." I saw a romance in that that I will admit still lingers with me. But I also now know the daily ins and outs of it and am less inclined to want to do it. I have stuck with journalism, but done it in different media.

Fifty two year old me wants to be a writer, though I'm conflicted about that, too.

I'd have been a great nurse, but I'd have burned out in six months. I take everything personally. I'd have been a lousy surgeon. I might have been a lawyer but I suspect I'd have been bored stiff before I passed the exams. I'd love to have been an architect but my math skills are non-existent. I'd have been a great veterinarian but suspect I'd have soon turned my clinic into a shelter. I love to rehab old homes, rescue derelict buildings. I love farms, animals and people's stories.

How was I supposed to choose just one career? How does anyone? And why do we have to?

Thoreau proposed that we turn the current system upside down; let young people wander the world and get a sense of what they want, then let them work until they no longer can. Retirement, he believed, was counterproductive for older people who wanted to stay active and useful, while young people desperately need that time before being pressured into choosing a career that could prove to be a colossal mistake in the long run.

I like that.

So here's my proposal: let's restructure our work lives. After college (which everyone should attend if they're interested in something other than a trade), young people should have ten years to wander. Yes, they should work. They should be doing the low-paying jobs, the jobs that require no commitment. There should be a living minimum wage so they can work around the country, around the world, and figure out what interests them. There should be hostels for them in every city, places where they can live independently for low rent. One year of that time should be spent in service - either domestically or abroad.

At age thirty, time to settle down, start your career. That's when most young people get serious about their lives, anyway. Many will choose their road sooner, settle down, have a family. That's okay. They've had the freedom to choose and the space to make that choice. The rest will join them at age thirty. The system is set up to enforce that - no more hostels. Maybe even age restrictions on minimum wage jobs. Time to enter the skilled labor force as a trainee or with the skills acquired during this hiatus.

Age sixty five? Keep going if you want to. Why do we have to retire? We've had elderly presidents, elderly CEOs. If you choose retirement, there should be health care and a healthy social security benefit. But if you choose to work, there should be options that make that attractive. How about flex time? Four day work weeks?
Sweeten the pot to make older, experienced workers interested in staying and sharing their experience with the new workers. Team them up, create a mentoring program within every company.

I just read that 40 is the new 50 in the business world. In other words, at forty, you're old and the young bucks are driving you out. Stupid stupid stupid.

We're doing it wrong and we're doing it wrong all over the world.

When I get my turn at the presidential lottery (in my world, every citizen must serve in political office for one term, and may volunteer to serve one term in higher offices), that's how I'm going to do it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Typical American Hospital - Overworked

There's a medium sized hospital where I've just been visiting the past couple of days.
My guy had to spend a couple of nights and he's fine now, but it was an educational experience.

I don't handle hospitals well now - I spent too much time there with both my parents and I imagine a psychiatrist would tell me I've got some lingering emotional trauma. I'd just say I'm not happy in a place I now associated with so much sadness.

I don't hold the hospitals or the staff responsible. My experiences with my mother were sometimes remarkable and sometimes nightmarish. I remember the young nurse who ignored my mother's complaints that her "arm was burning." She paid attention when I went to get her two hours later in the middle of the night. A vein had collapsed and the IV fluids had backed up; mom's arm was three times its normal size.
Other nurses visited every day when my mom was in a coma, talking gently to her, wiping her face, smoothing her hair.

My father was lucky enough to die at home.

I've spent some time in the past year with another loved one who recovered nicely and was treated very well, but this latest visit was the first one in the midst of this economy. And there's a difference.

Nurses are working long hours, working hard and being asked to work more. The ones we dealt with in this small city hospital were wonderful; kind and caring. They treated their patients like people, not like ailments.

But I heard more than one nurse tell us that she'd be with us all day, through the night and into the following day. And I heard some RNs and LPNs discussing phone calls asking them to work an extra shift.

It's become like a police or firefighter schedule; put in an entire week's worth of hours in one long stretch, then go home.

How do they do it? And how long can they last even if they manage to stay alert, make no errors and continue to treat their patients with compassion and patience?
What's the burnout rate?

The most telling example for me was an elevator ride home late in the evening. I was joined by a young nurse who was holding a sandwich wrapped in plastic.

"My dinner," she said ruefully.

"You look beat," I said.

She nodded. "I'm completely exhausted. All I want to do is go home and fall into bed. I doubt I even eat the sandwich."

The elevator reached the lobby and we said goodbye. And I realized that this is her life; work hard to make ends meet, take care of people who desperately need care, and sacrifice yourself in the process.

Like so much else today, it's not sustainable. And no one will do anything until there's a tragedy or a massive crisis. Maybe this is one time we should be talking about the problem before the crisis.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I Love Earthships but This Is Even Wilder

My nominee for most incredible, interesting and imaginative home ever. Period.

I stumbled across it on a green homes for sale site.

Yes, there is a little voice in my conscience that wonders if it's appropriate to build a home in a former Anasazi village. But it was a dwelling. It is again. That seems far more reasonable to me than other possible uses or abuses.

But seriously - can you imagine waking up in that house? Coming home from the store and realizing that's home?

I have also been madly in love with earthships for a long time.

If you're not familiar with them, they're off-grid, totally self sufficient homes made from recycled tires, rammed earth and old bottles. They've got a unique, whimsical, organic shape to them and the many colors of bottles create amazing light play both inside and out.

There's a village of them outside Taos, New Mexico and my daughter and I stopped and took a house tour a couple of years back. Amazing. Curved walls, recycling systems for water, indoor greenhouses, lots of sunlight. This very cool one is currently for sale.

But earthships are usually found in communities and I am, at heart, anti-social. I fear that if I ever lived in my earthship, I'd find myself eventually wishing that my home actually was a ship so I could move it farther away from my neighbors.

I also adore old houses and am convinced that most homes built today don't have a tenth of the quality or character. So I'm caught between last century and the next, and I wonder why we are so stuck in building styles and materials that don't make sense.

Why are new homes built with oil and propane heat? What's the point? Why are we so slow to embrace new, greener insulations, heating systems, building styles?

Solar doesn't work for everyplace, but there's also wind, geothermal, fuel cells. But drive into a newly constructed neighborhood and you see either little boxes or McMansions, nearly all of them heated by fossil fuel. It's kind of like offering someone a spiffy new Edsel...why would you want to invest so much in something that's already ancient technology?

I like the cave, personally.

But I could also learn to love this one in Idaho. I've always been a sucker for silos.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Which Way Blow the Prevailing Winds?

I can't figure it out, I tell you. There's been a definite shift in the universal winds, a movement after months of stagnation, a scent of change in the air.

And most of it is forward motion - something I've hoped and worked for.

But just as I take a deep breath, preparing to let out an exhale that's been waiting to escape for months now, the winds shift.

Not so fast there, whippersnapper. Better shift your balance - wouldn't want you to get lazy or overly confident. To the nimble go the spoils.

Okay, I'm on my toes. I'm paying attention. I'm trying not to put a value on any of it, seeing it all as a learning experience, all of it as something that offers me something I can use.

The wind is great for new beginnings. Ever go outside after a wind storm and notice all the dead sticks, branches and leaves on the ground? That violence gave everything a good shaking and cleaned out all the dead wood, making room for growth.

Wind is exciting, too. When I was a kid, I stood out in front of my uncle's farmhouse and watched a tornado coming up the road. I was so enthralled it didn't occur to me to be afraid until he came out and yelled for me to get inside.

The tail of a hurricane blew through our town when I lived in Connecticut. After going outside to hustle Vito, our ornery cat, to safety, I stayed outside and let the wind whip me around. It was just enough to be exhilirating, not so much as to be terrifying. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

I guess I'll be putting that exhale off for awhile longer. Better just to stick with the calm, even breaths and let the wild winds do the work.

Toyota: Mistake After Mistake

Toyota, it's a small world, especially when something is shocking. Word gets around.

So after initially downplaying the danger of the Little Cars That Won't Stop, you put a good face on it, expressed remorse, admitted that the company had begun to put market share before quality and promised to do better.

Here's a little local anecdote that makes me doubt you mean it.

A housekeeper in Harrison, NY was driving her boss's Prius for a checkup this week. It started revving up as she pulled out of the driveway, she says she couldn't stop it, and it slammed into a wall. The airbag deployed, she was treated for an injured knee. Now maybe it was the car's fault, maybe it wasn't. Police say it appears she didn't do anything wrong. Here's what disturbs me:

The police contacted the company and here's how the local paper reported it:

"Marraccini (police) said his department sought help from Toyota in accessing information in the car's black box that would reveal what was going on with the car just before the crash. The company declined, and Marraccini said police would try to obtain a federal subpoena to get the information. Toyota Motor Corp. meanwhile let police know that it wanted to inspect the car, but Marraccini said "we are not prepared to release the car to them."

That doesn't sound like a company anxious to rebuild its image. That sounds like a company that wants to cover its butt.

I drive a Toyota. It's a nine year old stick shift and the check engine light has stayed on for almost a year despite a six hundred dollar outlay to fix it. It's inspection time here in New York and I will not pass with a check engine light on, so I'm going to the dealer. I'm hoping they are willing to make it right. I hope they CAN make it right.

I was a true believer in Toyota; thought they made an excellent vehicle. Those days are apparently gone and apparently no one in the corporation understands that it's going to take more than a few "Thanks for sticking by us, here's a better loan rate" ads to win back consumers' trust.

Nobody likes the thought of being stuck in a car that won't stop.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Canada, You're Better Than That

We have a visitor here in the Hudson Valley...and he's cute as hell. Marine rescue experts say he's a young Arctic harp seal, probably wandering south looking for some fish and a comfortable place to molt.

We're delighted to have him. People are lining up along the shore to watch him shove himself around the ice, roll around and generally act like a healthy, happy seal.

I'm working on a story on his visit today - I won't be interviewing him as it would be rude to impose on someone who might find a microphone in his muzzle a little stressful. But my co-worker sent me a link to a story from Ottawa that, frankly, made my stomach turn.

Seal hunting is apparently big business in Ottawa and politicians want to make it clear to the industry that they support them. So they're getting together for a lovely seal meat meal. Seal meat and its fat, the organizer admits, is awful. The only way to make it palatable is to wrap it in bacon or somehow add fat to it. But they are so dedicated to proving that they support killing seals that they'll figure out a way to choke it down.

Seal's On the Menu

And here I've been so envious of Canada, so impressed by its openness to diversity, it's honest character. Guess there's some major room for improvement.

I don't believe eating animals is defensible. I do not believe that cruelty to other creatures is excusable. And I sure as hell don't admire people who have lost their humanity to such an extent that they'll actually line up (it's a sold out event) to join in.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Roasting on a SleepNumber Bed

We went on a road trip this weekend, my daughter and I. She had to make a fast trip to Baltimore to meet with a young representative of an overseas program she wants to do next year.

"I'm in!" I announced. "Road trip."

"Really? I didn't want to ask..."

"Absolutely." I realized I'd assumed she'd welcome the company, then made sure she really was willing to have me tag along. She was.

I woke Saturday morning to her calling outside the window; she'd woken at five, drove the two hours to our house and arrived before I was up.

"I'm so sorry! I thought you'd be up!"

I had no idea how bleary I am when I'm woken from a sound sleep. It hasn't happened in a long time. It took three cups of coffee to make the cylinders click into place, but they did and I was ready.

The drive down was easy, though it took about five hours. We got there early and checked into our hotel.

"They've got sleep number beds," I told her. "This should be interesting."

We had to share a king sized bed. All the rooms with two beds were booked. It wasn't a problem; the bed was so big it was impossible to tell there was anyone else on the other side.

We explored the harbor, had our first Hard Rock Cafe experience (it's LOUD), wandered by the water and admired the dragon boats.

They were all lined up, hibernating in the cool of the early evening.

It was early. We tried to go see a movie but couldn't find a theatre that was playing anything we wanted to see. We went back to the hotel, wandered the empty plaza and looked in the closed windows of the shops. The lingerie shop had mannequins who either looked embarrassed, or like they were trying to escape.
One stood by the door, bending forward slightly, hands against the window.

"Weird," I observed.

Back in our room, we played with the bed.

The most popular sleepnumber, the brochure told us, is 35.

35 is a little hard. So I pressed the controller and the air quietly let out of my side of the bed. 25 wasn't bad.

Here's the hilarious thing about sleep number beds. They make a really funny noise when you want to make them firmer. It's kind of like a weed whacker. Not horribly loud, but just not a noise you associate with the bedroom. My daughter hit the button to make her side firmer and I collapsed with laughter. Whirrrrrrrrrrrr

She had adjusted hers to 35, figuring all those other sleep number experts can't be wrong. Then she went to brush her teeth. I hit the button for her side and jacked it up to 80.

Yes, I'm a child.

I stifled a giggle as she hopped onto the bed and said, "Man, what happened?"

She figured it out.

She finally drifted off to sleep, hopefully with her side of the bed adjusted to the perfect sleep number. And I laid there. And it got hotter.

We'd tried to turn down the heat with no success. So I tried just the fan. Then the air conditioner. And it got hotter.

The clock ticked and I laid there, my legs aching from a recent bad experience with some heavy snow and a shovel. I took a painkiller I'd brought with me. Bad move. It was Excedrin. That's for headaches. It has caffeine. I was in for a long night.

At about a three ayem I finally surrendered. There was no point worrying about sleeping. It wasn't going to happen. So I spent the hot, quiet hours visualizing all the happy outcomes to various situations in my life that I'd like to experience.
I moved from bed to chair, back to bed, back to chair. Fiddled with the heat. Opened the window. Visualized some more.

Finally, somewhere around 5:30 I fell asleep. And when my daughter woke me at 7:30, it was 90 degrees in our room.

But my sleep number was stellar.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Deep Thoughts at the Diner

We found ourselves having dinner at the local diner tonight, my guy and our friend the sensitive musician. We were celebrating a little; my guy's new songs are nearly ready for airplay and the local radio station loved it - it'll get airplay. Our friend's newest CD is done after five long and eventful years and he's rightfully very proud of it. I just got through another week. That's cause for celebration in my mind.

I love diners. I like the old, no frills, no space, no privacy diners the best, the ones that are mostly counter with a grill on the opposite side beside the coffee pot. It's genetic, I think. My father's entire family are diner devotees. Not only did we love to eat breakfast out, but on hot summer nights when the whole family was squeezed into the little Victorian house in the hills, we'd all pile into cars and go to the local diner for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee after dinner.

Diners, therefore, would make sense as a celebratory destination, just in case you're surprised we didn't go out for some gourmet extravaganza.

Plus you can get breakfast all day long. So while KB got a hot turkey sandwich with gravy and mashed potatoes and our friend got a turkey club, I got a Spanish omelette.

Then we started talking about the state of the world. Our friend's noticed an increased sense of desperation, of depression. In his latest visit to New York City, he said budget cuts have forced people to wait ten or fifteen minutes for trains and buses, increasing concerns about their safety. He saw garbage piling up on the sidewalks. He saw an elderly man riding the bus into Manhattan early in the morning. He was standing; no one offered him a seat. And our friend wondered - where was he going? To a doctor's appointment? To see a friend? To work?

We talked about the violence we see on the news. I was stunned to see a policeman beating a student who was protesting rising college tuition in California. Our friend said a photo essay he saw featured the same theme around the world: police holding back crowds. Whether they were protesters in California, hungry people in Haiti, looters in Chile, the theme was the same.

My guy takes what, on the face of it, seems to be a bleak view of it all. This is the way the world has always been, he argues. We don't seem to learn. We fight and we compete and we kill for our own interests. Human selfishness has destroyed civilizations and it may kill us all.

Our friend and I slowly sank into the floor.

"But don't see it as depressing," my guy continued. "Imagine that this existence is just a small part of your overall existence...and maybe you decided that for your best development you needed to learn about fear. What better place than this? What better time than now? And all you can do is change yourself, change the way you react to this ball of fear. Each of us can change, and that can change everything."

We were sitting a little straighter again when I saw something that made me smile.

The table near us had been surrounded by five teenagers. I'd watched a very thin girl ignore her plate of spaghetti, then twirl it around, then methodically cut the entire portion into five sections. She never ate any. It hadn't improved my mood.

But after they left, the bus boy went to the table to clean up. He bent over and picked up a dollar bill that had fallen beneath a chair. Without hesitation, he put the dollar with the pile of singles that had been left as a tip for the waitress.

So shines a good deed in a weary world.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I Confess - I Watch "Idol" - And I Have a Question

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I watch American Idol. It's a stupid show, a show that admits that presence, personality and marketability can trump talent. It makes me so angry sometimes as I watch someone with remarkable, raw talent get pushed to the side as some bland, potential pop flavor of the week is praised and wins America's votes. I want to scream when I hear, "You were a little pitchy but it doesn't matter." It should matter!

I don't vote so I don't have a leg to stand on here. I know that if I called even once, my vote would be drowned in a flood of texts and calls from 12 year old girls with unlimited texting and calling on their pink iPhones. So what's the point?

But in the years I've been watching (can it be four? I guess so - I got sucked in by KB) there's been a phenomenon that fascinates me. It's the creation of a "moment", as they put it...a performance that pulls me out of myself, makes me forget that I'm watching a cheesy reality show with a bunch of aspiring pop stars, and makes me just enjoy a great performance.

The show's most famous runner-up, Adam Lambert, had a couple of them. I still remember both his "Mad World" and "Ring of Fire" performances. I'd love to link to "Mad World" but Idol's turned it into a pay-only view. But remember that ice-blue lighting and that restrained, heartbreaking version without any of Lambert's trademark scream? "Fire" wasn't as beloved but it was a moment for me.

Adam Lambert - Ring Of Fire from norma molina on Vimeo.

It wasn't just lighting, or arrangement, or even his singing. It was a combination of all of them, a perfect synthesis of song, delivery and passion.

Strangely, I saw it this week from a very unlikely person: Lee DeWyse. Nothing against Lee; he's got a good voice. But he hiked his pants up as he was singing, he was probably nervous as hell...and yet he created a moment with "Lips of an Angel". I forgot it was Idol, I forgot he was a young guy trying like hell to become a recording star. It was just a terrific performance with no glitz, no glam, just a lot of heart.

Crystal Bowersox I love. She's a bundle of raw, no excuses talent. She IS a moment, every time she performs.

I'm also a big Lilly Scott fan. She's another no-nonsense, I'm an artist and this is how I do it kinda performer, but from a totally different school.

Then there's Siobhan Magnus, the girl with the guts to take on an Aretha song and actually make it work.

She's a tough one for me...she's clearly good and she's unpredictable and I like that.

So I think that I'm watching this season to see who's the performer who learns how to make the most memorable moments. And I'm wondering just how you do that?
I suspect it has something to do with forgetting the world and just immersing yourself in the song you're singing - making it so real that the audience joins you there. But I'm not sure. All I know is I feel it when it happens.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Gotta Love Canada

photo; nhat meyer

Did you see the Olympic closing ceremonies? I was absolutely delighted. It was one of the silliest things I've ever seen. Please don't be offended if you're Canadian, I mean that with admiration.

China gave us amazing choreography, high-tech magic and a cast of thousands.

Canada did all that, pretty much, but they added in giant inflatable beavers.

Neil Young's farewell song was perfect - but I love Neil Young. So I'm not a good judge. But I found it touching; sweet, wistful, real.

I naively thought that's where it would end. Oh no. It was just beginning.

They paraded out some of their famously funny people, (it was all just a tad flat, which kind of added to its charm), dressed Michael Buble up as an overstuffed Mountie, then had him croon through an extravaganza with snowboarders, Mounties and a pretty audio visual display. I was thinking it was okay, but not a big deal.

Then the beavers showed up. I started roaring and my guy, who is not one to laugh out loud easily, joined me. I continued to sputter as the beavers were followed by moose. Then the cutout skateboard guys were surrounded by the huge inflatable RC Mounties.

"They are just this side of hip, aren't they?" my guy asked with great admiration in his voice.

That's what I've always liked about Canada.

Look at the outfits the teams wore for closing night. America was dressed in their Ralph Lauren red white and blue, looking like a preppy rowing team. (I hate Ralph, sorry. He's the one who airbrushed a skinny model to look like a skeleton to sell his rags, then denied he did it.)

Then here comes Canada, moose sweaters and Rocket J. Squirrel flap hats with "Canada" emblazoned across the forehead. That was one happy and cute as hell bunch of athletes.

I love this about Canada: they are who they are. They make no apologies (despite what Katherine O'Hara said) and they make no pretense. They're real.

I haven't been to Canada for about ten years; maybe I've got it all wrong. But that was my sense when I was there, and that continued last night. On PEI, when we visited ten years ago, we took the kids to an amusement park that was as low tech as it could possibly be. My kids were amazed. I recognized it as the kind of small town park my parents used to take me to, way back when. The kind of thing that has been replaced with bigger, faster, more expensive in the US. My kids adored it.

The people we met seemed to be missing a hard shell that many Americans have developed. I think we in the US are very concerned about seeming cool. Maybe we're still feeling like it a genetic self-doubt left from the first Europeans to settle here?

China certainly seemed to think it had something to prove: it went all out in Beijing proving its coolness.

I think Canada knows it's cool. It's the kid in class who is totally comfortable with who he is, the kid that at first glance makes the other kids laugh, but who eventually becomes the most popular kid in school.

Canada, I have just one question. Where were the MacKenzie Brothers? I honestly thought they'd be sitting on top of that huge Mountie hat at the end, inviting the crowd to sing along, eh?

"Coo roo koo koo koo roo koo koo...."