Wednesday, October 31, 2007

REALLY Scary Things

This Halloween has me pondering the truly frightening aspects of contemporary life in America. Never mind witches, skeletons and goblins; here's a list of some stuff that will truly scare anyone with a brain:

1) Global warming (it may be a cliche, but this is THE issue to keep in mind)

2) Looming war with Iran (don't think so? just wait and see)

3) Health care - yours, mine, millions of uninsured Americans vs. big insurance, big pharma, big hospital conglomerates

4) The recession that's right around the corner (our economists are in denial, for the most part)

5) Religion - especially Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, but all theology is a good scare.

Be glad for scary movies and Halloween - they ain't nothin' compared to the real stuff.

This post was inspired by a clip featuring one of my heroes, Bill Maher:

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pledge Drive Blues: My Love/Hate Relationship with Chicago Public Radio

Warning: The following post may not be suitable for younger or more sensitive readers (or the rant-phobic).

I confess: I listen to public radio and I am NOT a member. There are several things that drew me to WBEZ (oooh, they don't call it that anymore...) back in the early 80's. First of all, they had many hours of jazz programming, which was not available anywhere else in the Chicago radio spectrum. They were also the local distributor for All Things Considered, which has been referred to as the gateway drug for becoming a public radio junkie. It is, all things considered, a consistently wonderful way to get more accurate unbiased news and some off the wall human interest features that I wouldn't otherwise get to hear.

In recent years I have also been drawn, like many of my fellow listeners, to This American Life, Le Show and even, on occasion, to Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me. I also listen to the venerable and eclectic Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I should probably send WHYY a few hundred dollars for that one! For the last two decades I have been a member (on and off, but mostly on) and have gladly indulged my auditory addiction to 91.5 FM.

As I write this, the station is in the midst of their autumn fund drive. I hate fund drives. I know they're necessary, blah blah blah, I hate 'em anyway. A bunch of whiny on-air wannabees shilling for contributions; demeaning for them and an insulting waste of good airtime for me.
Yesterday I heard one of them use the word "awesome" about a dozen times in a five minute period to describe the programming, the crappy gifts they give out to encourage donations and what kind of person I would be if I would only call and pledge at the dollar-a-day level. Bah, humbug!

There's also a lot of yammering during this drive about "accountability" - how the station is listener-supported and therefore responsive to the community that sustains it. My experience with WBEZ is that this is an empty platitude. Here's why:

This past year the station abandoned their long term commitment to jazz. I'm not saying that the programming was great; to me it was lacking in variety (bring back Neil Tesser!) and their format mandated playing a vocal track every 5 or so selections. However, at least I could count on hearing the most under-represented genre of music - and the one I play and love - on the radio every night. Now it's gone - poof! There was a substantial outcry from jilted jazz listeners but our protests fell on deaf ears. I even had a heated email discussion with the station manager Tory Malatia. It was all to no avail. Now, instead of music we get repeats of shows that have aired during the day (including Worldview, which IMHO shouldn't air at all) plus some unlistenable international news programs.

So, "Chicago Public Radio", I will continue to listen to the shows I like and I will not be sending you any more money, at least for the time being. I know there are hundreds if not thousands of disappointed jazz fans who have to try to tune in the faint and amateurish WDCB to get their on-air jazz fix. Accountability isn't a word to be tossed around lightly, Tory.

I can't wait for this stupid fund drive to be over!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Better Health Care for All

MLK Poster

There is something very wrong with the way we do health care in America. I'm sure this comes as no surprise to you. Unless you are quite wealthy, paying for doctor visits, prescriptions and (worst of all) hospitalizations really hurts.

I have a bare bones (no pun intended) Blue Cross Blue Shield hospitalization plan. With a huge $2500 deductible I pay around $200 a month for just myself, hoping against hope that I will never need to use the policy. In addition, I pay every cent of my visits to the doc, for any lab work I have to have done, for all of my dental and eye care and for my medications. Blue Cross does offer a small discount on prescriptions with my health plan so that does help a little.

Having reached the half century mark, my physician strongly advises that I get a colonoscopy, a test that is one of the most efficacious tools in the high tech arsenal to detect the onset of a very common form of cancer. The only thing stopping me is the $2500 price tag, all of which I will have to pay out of pocket. I'm one of the millions of under-insured Americans. I hesitate to call the doctor when I'm sick, fearing the cost. There have been a couple of instances when I had to decide whether or not to call an ambulance (for chest pains, say) and the primary reason I didn't dial 911 was that I thought I would incur huge, unmanageable expenses that would, in the medium term at the very least, do me more harm than NOT going to the ER.

I am starting to feel ill as I write this.

And what about the 45 million Americans who have NO health coverage? They're even more screwed than I am. The truth is that in the U.S. we spend more on health care than any other industrialized nation ($2.6 trillion in 2006, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) YET we rank 37th among all the countries in the world in terms of health system performance (so says the World Health Organization). Here's a fact that never ceases to amaze me:

The United States is the only "advanced" country (whatever that means) in the world that DOES NOT have universal health care.

How can that possibly be? What prevents us from seeing the most obvious solution to what is unquestioningly recognized as the most significant domestic issue facing us as a nation?


Health care is a human right. Everyone should be able to receive high quality, affordable health care services. The only way we can repair our badly broken system is to take health care OUT of the hands of profit driven health care providers and insurance companies. We will not be re-inventing the wheel by any stretch of the imagination if we simply establish a Single Payer National Health policy. A public agency, such as the very efficient one that runs Medicare, could be expanded to create a just, equitable and affordable system for ALL Americans.

There is a bill pending in the House of Representatives right now that creates just such a system. It is called H.R. 676. Very simply, it puts into place a mechanism that would ensure that:

1) Every resident of the U.S. is covered regardless of income, job status, age or health status.

2) Everyone may choose their own doctor without worrying about co-payments, deductibles or premiums.

3) All health care services are fully covered, including hospital stays, doctor visits, prescription medications, long-term care and mental health care.

Sounds idyllic doesn't it? Well, it is far from a utopian dream. There are systems just like this in place in many other of the world's "advanced" nations, including the U.K., France and Canada.


Don't let Fred Thompson and other morons of his ilk win this one. The interests of all of us normal folks must outweigh the interests of the for-profit health care industry - the HMOs, the health insurance companies, and the giant pharmaceutical companies who's marketing budgets far outstrip the amount they spend on research and development. We really do have to take this to the streets if we want to begin to heal one of the sickest aspects of our society.

Contact HealthCare-NOW to get involved.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Get OUT!

I just learned of Richard Dawkins' new effort to make atheists and atheism more visible. It is called the OUT campaign. The big red A that now adorns this blog is a symbol of my support for the concept as well as a personal statement that I identify as a non-theist.

In case you live under a rock, Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who wrote the seminal best selling book The God Delusion. He and my other hero Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith) are in large part responsible for the increased visibility of non-theism (or rationalist thinking or the "bright" philosophy or whatever you want to call it).

This information came to me through a blog I've been frequenting lately called The Atheist Revolution, which I highly recommend. The author is a very active reader and blogs regularly about all the various political, social and personal aspects of atheism. What I'm beginning to realize is that I am far from alone in my disbelief in supernatural beings. There are substantially more agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers and atheists than I have been led to believe. Just ignorance and my part - combined with the saturation of information in the media about the unfortunate pervasiveness of religious fundamentalism of all stripes.

If you would like the lovely big red A for your site, you can grab it HERE.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


I experienced deep ignominy tonight, as well as a "first" in my musical career.

I'm fortunate enough to be the main bass substitute for a very successful, high profile Broadway show here in Chicago (I prefer to keep the name under wraps for the time being). It's a great gig: lots of fun to play, great money, good people in the pit; all in all very groovy.

Today (Wednesday) there were two shows; these happen to be the last two of a week-long run I've had while the regular bassist is on vacation. I played the first show and left the theater to go for a power walk downtown. Then I planned to move my car to a spot closer to the theater so I could more easily get my basses struck and to my vehicle without hoofing it too far. I picked up some take out food and moved my car to a nice rock star spot. Everything was going according to plan.

There's a lot of time between shows on these two show days. So I had brought my iBook to work because I had some music copying to do. I went to the tea shop that has free WiFi around the corner from the theater, bought some horrifyingly bad tea and sat down to work. All throughout this extended break I kept an eye on the time. I like to get back to the pit at least fifteen minutes before the downbeat. All my instruments were out and ready to go, but I like to do a careful tuning and maybe warm up for a few minutes before the show.

At around 7:30 I was starting to think about wrapping up my work on the laptop and meandering over to the show. It took me another ten minutes to find a good spot to stop. Right around then, say 7:40, I got a call on my cell from the contractor (who also plays the gig). He asked me if I could get to the theater right away, which I thought was a little odd. Normally nobody wigs out if the musicians are not present that early. I'm thinking 8 o'clock show, everything's mellow. Maybe we're having a band meeting or it's someone's birthday (they're big on celebrations down there - any excuse for eating cake).

I'm literally around the corner from the theater. As I step into the alley on my way to the stage door my phone rings again - same dude. I'm thinking, huh, what's going on? He asks me how soon I'm going to arrive and I tell him that I'm in the alley (the subtext for me was: keep your shirt on, pal, I'll be right there). I asked him if everything was OK and he said: "The show has started! It's a 7:30 show..."

I almost fell down. I ran the rest of the way to the stage door, bolted downstairs, and made my way to the pit with a sickening feeling in my gut. I could hear the second part of the overture/ prelude over the loudspeakers. I grabbed a bass and flipped through the score to the correct page - I could barely breathe, let alone find my place! I jumped in, wishing I could be invisible.

In my nearly thirty years in the business I had never before missed the downbeat of a show. This was unthinkable. I was imagining that this is the end of my association with this show, not to mention my career in the theater altogether. I managed to play the act without further mishap. But my heart was pounding and I felt just awful.

It turned out that one of the keyboard players covered for me and that nobody "important" noticed I was AWOL for the first five minutes of the show. The conductor, contractor and other musicians made light of it so it seems like... no harm done, except to my reputation and my pride.

Just call me the late Bill Harrison.

Monday, October 1, 2007

...and Another Thing

The speaker I referred to in my previous post advocated another "technique" that made my blood boil. She advised people to ignore current events such as the war in Iraq. "Turn off CNN, Fox News... just don't pay attention"; this way you won't become "depressed" because horrible, miserable things are happening in the world. What kind of lunatic, selfish, ignoble person would recommend keeping yourself isolated from knowledge of what's occurring in the world around you?

To stay informed is not the same as obsessing about these events. It is possible to become unduly immersed in politics, but I daresay people are way more distracted (opiated?) by sports, religion and the cult of personality that surrounds us.

Knowledge is power. Keeping yourself "free" from the events of the world is an excellent formula for allowing culture and political life to be given over to morons, zealots and the corrupt. Wait - I'm describing what's already happened!

How dare anyone in a position to motivate and influence people advocate this kind of self-involved intellectual isolation. She ought to be ashamed of herself. But, I suppose if inquiry and the ability to analyze reality were part of her skill set she wouldn't be so deluded about the power of god, either.