Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years On

For once, the weather matches the mood of the city: somber, remorsefully raining. Not hard, yet, but a constant reminder of the color grey.
And rain helps keep things quiet and creates reflections everywhere. We have mirrors and glass, of course, which give accurate representations in reverse of the things in front of them, but rainwater allows for the pockmarks and scars of injuries long-healed to reveal themselves in distortion.
This September 11 has been harder than any previous since the first anniversary when grief was still so strong. We could rightly be angry at a President who failed us in the most critical moment of this nation's history: the first civilian casualties of a war undeclared since 1993, a tragic loss of life we can only begin to fathom this close to the moment. A terror attack on a scale unlike any before or thankfully since.
This year, we do not have that focus of anger. We do not have the lens of hatred of a failure of a President. We have no distraction. We have no one to blame any longer.
May we now heal. But that healing requires that we pause and remember that which injured us, that which challenged us, that which awoke us from the fantasy that large oceans could protect us from such horrors.
And that makes this anniversary so much harder. It's like having a broken leg and a hangnail. You may notice the hangnail more because your fingers are more sensitive, you are more aware of it, but once the hangnail is cut, the leg throbs worse than before.
In President Obama, we have someone who has rightly reconnected us to the Muslim world, to show a face that for eight long, grueling years, was hidden behind a cowboy mask of bravado and bullshit.
In President Obama, we have someone who has challenged us to dig a little deeper in ourselves and come up with that uniquely American spirit of service not to our country, altho that is part of it, but service to our neighbors.
For 150 years, this nation had no real formal structure in place to take care of the indigent, the needy, the sick. We relied on private foundations, churches, neighbors and family to see to those who needed help. And for 150 years, we saw that this system was deeply flawed, with actual starvation going on in rural America, elderly dropping dead in our streets, evicted for back-rent, sick and dying already for lack of healthcare, the poor without a safety net resorting to begging on the streets.
As recently as the nineteenth century, nearly 75 years after independence was declared in fact, poverty in the United States including a feudal system, with poor tenant farmers paying rent to work a lord's land.
Even today, even with government programs, about 15% of people are living in poverty, and about 12% need assistance securing food every day. That's more than 30 million people. Unsurprisingly, that's roughly the baseline of people who simply cannot afford medical insurance (another 20 million, mostly young, don't want to pick insurance up). If you can't afford food, you sure as hell aren't paying for insurance.
It's going to take more, and it's going to take private works, hand-in-hand with public works, to make this happen. And that's where we come in.
The National Day of Service, passed by Congress under Bush and signed into law by Obama, is today. September 11. And while the temptation is to mourn and grieve, a higher calling awaits us: to channel that anger and grief to help others. To remember that one of the hidden tragedies of September 11 was how little we truly care about our fellow man until tragedy strikes.
You don't have to go hand the homeless guy on the corner a twenty. You can do good by doing what's right for you to do, even if it seems insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Make the world a little better, a little easier, and it all gets paid forward.
For instance, let's say you like football. You can find opportunities (that website I referenced two paragraphs earlier has a searchable database) to coach impoverished children.
Doesn't sound like it will change the world, but if it keeps one kid motivated to finish school and go to college on a football scholarship, that's one more kid who stands a pretty good chance of not ending up in a soup kitchen, meaning that soup kitchen can feed someone else even more needy.
You can become a mentor if you have mad coding skillz. Or you can take your camera and record the good deeds done by others and give them desperately needed exposure.
This isn't hard. This is easy. This isn't a thousand points of light, but millions of beacons lighting the landscape and bringing those in the dark of poverty and hunger and homelessness into our family. It's a welcome to those who struggled to get here and struggle here, and yes, maybe a few who got here under the radar benefit but so what? Those people die too, and would you rather bury the body or help them get back home, or better, get a real legitimate life here to contribute to society unquestioningly?
We don't have to be such an angry nation. We don't have to give into the venom of the right and the far left. We here in the mushy marshmallow middle can change the world, and fuggedabout those jerks who stand athwart history crying "STOP!"
We'll pave them into the field of daisies we'll plant.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

And It's....OUTTA HERE!

The stakes could not have been higher.
On a political scale from one to ten, one being a ribbon cutting at a needed bridge, ten being the absolute linchpin moment of an administration (think "Katrina"), last night's speech on healthcare was an eleven. While it wasn't bottom of the ninth, two out, bases loaded, it was certainly bottom of the seventh one out, men on second and third. Critical, but not irretrievable.
President Obama parked one in the seats. Granted, it was from a friendly pitcher but it impressed the audience nonetheless and probably wrested the momentum for healthcare reform back from the opposition.
It didn't hurt that one member of the opposing team balked, and gave him a chance to show the Republicans for what they have been for twenty years: obstructionist corporatists interested only in servicing their wealthy capitalist masters at the expense of the citizenry. Americans will put up with a lot of rowdy behavior in lots of places, even some that formerly had been places of quiet and respect, but to diss a President on national TV like you were heckling a stand-up comedian, no matter how abject the apology, is going to harm the cause faster than if you took a shot at him.
It's precisely why the GOP leadership backed off from Wilson's comments faster than a sorority co-ed from a serial killer.
Likely, Obama instigated the bad blood that Wilson (and others) felt, perhaps to trigger precisely that reaction of irrationality. Just moments earlier, Obama called out Sarah Palin and other harsh critics by calling them liars with regards to "death panels."
A digression: I've noticed that suddenly, right wing blogs have been following stories out of the UK about life and death decisions made by the National Health Service with respect to triage of mortally ill people. Interesting those stories have started to pop up in the press in England, dontcha think?
But I digress...
Here's what I think insurance companies are afraid of: once employers, particularly smaller, struggling employers who do not have the resources to wage a bidding war for their insurance pool, realize that the public option is not only cheaper but takes the entire insurance problem out of their laps, they will abandon private insurance in droves.
This is a good thing. It will force private insurers to stop taking 14 or 15% of your insurance premiums and spend it on themselves, their houses and their country clubs. It will immediately lower rates, and it will ultimately plow more money back where it should be: patient care.
The only real weapon the Republicans have is scare tactics, a strategy that had some traction over the summer, as Blue Dog Democrats across the nation started getting antsy about reform.
Well, here's a free piece of advice to any Blue Dogs reading this: your constituency NEEDS a public option. Likely, they are made up of fairly conservative working class folks, who respect an honest appeal to their sensibilities and their values.
Rather than be scared by talk of "death panels," remind them that when little Johnny down the block was crippled by illness because his parents had no insurance, or when Uncle Elmer died because the insurance company calculated it would cost too much to keep him on life support, those death panels were nowhere to be seen. And yet people died and were tragically crippled.
Which they would not have been, had they had an option for real healthcare.

Obama spoke to some of thess concerns in his speech last night:

One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones that he didn't even know about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it. Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer more than doubled in size. That is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.

The speech outlined a comprehensive plan that, while not ideal for the American public, is a damned sight better than the mishmash of private plans out there now, and would force insurance companies to hew to some form of accountability.
Who knows? It may ultimately be the kind of healthcare that countries with purely public plans, like Canada or England, would move to when their own citizenry begins to age and healthcare costs begin an inevitable march upwards in those nations, and we can claim the mantle of leadership once again in an area of social progress!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Baby, You're A Rich Man

It's 09.09.09, and that means one thing will dominate the news cycle: The Beatles.
EMI is re-releasing the entire Beatles catalogue in two versions: as recorded (meaning the earliest albums are in monoaural) and one digitally remastered in stereo. Nearly every fawning review has mentioned the beauty of the new recordings.
In addition, The Beatles: Rock Band videogame is being released. Again, the reviews are almost saccharine. 
Now, I love The Beatles. When Sir Paul was at Citifield in July, I sat second row. I mourn every December 8 and November 29, despite the proximity of the dates. And Ringo is Ringo.
I have all the albums on vinyl and all the original releases of the CDs.
So please don't take the tone of this column as being curmudgeonly, altho I am certainly known for that. This is not about hating The Beatles.
This is about hating the money-making machine around them and the dilution of the artistry that is The Beatles.
According to the press releases and reviews, the intent of the dual-release was to capture a whole new market of fans for Beatles music: Millenials who might not have known Beatles' music. The idea is, play the game, buy the catalogue.
The catalogue has been remastered and from all accounts, the sound has been sharpened and honed to a finer edge.
And there's my beef.
Those original "records" were played by kids on "turntables" that were barely moving at 45 rpm (the speed of a single for you youngsters out there), with "needles"...yes, they touched the "record"...usually weighed down with a nickle (or a few pence for my Brit readers). Or we'd listen on an "AM radio" in monoaural with all kinds of static and cross-signal interference, and would lose the station in a car passing under a bridge.
My point being, the way we heard these records was not in soaped-up distinct digital form, but in sloppy ugly tinny crappy boxes and cans.
And we went nuts! I remember standing in front of a mirror for hours, mimicking Paul and John's playing style, and George's solos, trying to get John's singing posture...a turtle on his hind legs is the closest short description...or Paul's goofy smile and whipping of his head and hair just right.
I knew the lyrics to every Beatle song from With The Beatles to Revolver within a week of getting my hands on the album. After that, I was so blown away by the artistry of Sgt. Pepper's or Magical Mystery Tour or The White Album that it took a little longer.
All on crappy Denon turntables and Tandy cassette players and Westinghouse radios!
To release these albums completely remastered without that part of the experience, actually trying to hear the music, work out the chords, follow the baseline, is to deprive the listener of the thrill of discovery. Yes, maybe that squeak of the piano seat at the end of A Day In The Life now blasts thru the earbuds at full volume with so much detail you hear the farts of McCartney, but that treat on the vinyl was buried in the track that signaled the record player to pick up the needle! What a joy it was to find!
And I don't need to hear Paul's fingers slide down the neck of his Hohner to appreciate the baseline in Taxman.
This event, this stunt, speaks to me more of milking a cash cow, like the Anthology release of twelve or so years ago, than of bringing this music to a whole new audience. Which, by the way, was represented very nicely at the concert in July. At least the Anthology had the charm of bringing us two new Beatles songs, albeit in a really creepy fashion.
But this, this is pure piracy on the part of EMI.
So I guess I have to go buy it. But not Rock Band. I don't have room for a four piece band...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Knee Jerks

Well, it turns out that, in addition to jeopardizing our fighting men and women by playing loose and fast with torture rules, Dick Cheney put innocent American civilians at risk as well.
As part of the recent trial of three would-be bombers held in England (convicted on all counts, no thanks to Dick Cheney), it was revealed that the Bush administration, at the direction of Dick Cheney's need to glorify his ego, nearly let the bombers off the hook:

Dick Cheney, the former US Vice President, nearly destroyed Britain's efforts to bring the airline bomb plotters to justice, police and intelligence experts said today.

By ordering the early arrest of Rashid Rauf, the bombers' link man in Pakistan, Washington forced British police to detain the suspects in the UK before all the evidence had been gathered, it was claimed.

Yesterday three British Muslims - Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Tanvir Hussain and Assad Sarwar - were finally convicted of plotting to blow up seven transatlantic airliners in mid-air in a co-ordinated attack intended to surpass the horror of 9/11. But the plotters were arrested before they had bought the airline tickets that would have been the ultimate proof of their intentions. Police fear that several key figures of the plot have remained free.

Andy Hayman, who was the Metropolitan Police's Assistant Commissioner Specialist Operations at the time of the plot, said he believed that the White House had grown jittery as the British updated them of the mounting evidence of a plot targeted at American cities.

Brave Sir Rob-- I mean, Dick Cheney! Not wanting to see American cities attacked once more on his watch, he decided to arrest one of the linchpins of the attacks, thus blowing the cover of an in-depth undercover investigation.
The anti-terror chief of Scotland Yard all but calls Cheney a coward in an op-ed piece in today's London Times:

Fearful for the safety of American lives, the US authorities had been getting edgy, seeking reassurance that this was not going to slip through our hands. We moved from having congenial conversations to eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations.

We thought we had managed to persuade them to hold back so we could develop new opportunities and get more evidence to present to the courts. But I was never convinced that they were content with that position. In the end, I strongly suspect that they lost their nerve and had a hand in triggering the arrest in Pakistan.

(emphasis added) As it was, it took two trials and one acquittal as well as one plotter receiving a reduced conviction and a "controlled release" (meaning he's under British surveillance constantly) before anyone was convicted of actually trying to bring down a plane headed for either Chicago, Toronto, New York, Washington, San Francisco, or Montreal.
Seven transatlantic airliners were targeted, according to Hayman. That calculates to something on the order of 3,500 people or more, exceeding the death toll on September 11, as well as the 7/7 bombings in London's Underground and buses.
You may remember the original alert...I sure do...because this was the plot that forced us starting in August 2006 to carry less than 3 oz of any liquid on board a plane, in a one-quart sealed bag.
Al Qaeda seems determined to use our airlines as weapons in their jihad. Of course, neither Cheney nor Bush will admit their fear created a dangerous situation.
But we will, and we will remember.