Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Letting Myself Breathe

Every year around the middle of the holiday season I start to feel a vague anxiety grow. Another year is about to turn, its history made; there’s no turning back. As much as I try to avoid it, making a list of New Year’s resolutions feels almost inevitable. I don’t like the idea of becoming a living cliché by succombing to this impulse, but, as they say, resistance is futile.

In recent years I’ve tried to keep the resolutions succinct and pragmatic. I’ve also tried to avoid the imperious voice of doom – I MUST do this or that OR ELSE. That kind of self-admonishment has not worked and I doubt that strategy is ever going to have any success. So this year I’m going to give myself the gift of one suggestion only. Perhaps if I can remember this one idea some of the time I’ll have a little more ease in life than in the past. Its worth a shot, anyway.

In 2009 I am going to try to remember to let myself breathe. I hope to allow myself the occasional indulgence in a pause, a respite, a few seconds off for good behavior. Relaxation is a skill I’ve been rather slow to develop, but I imagine that a break once in awhile might have some benefits. A breath now and then might help lower my stress level; maybe I’d be a more patient person, a more grounded musician, a more effective teacher. If I can remember to take a periodic breather (literally) perhaps my life would improve in ways I can’t even begin to fathom.

I’m looking to ’09 for a little bit of peace that little pieces of inactivity might engender. I’m guessing that sporadic periods of doing nothing might greatly improve the majority of the time when I’m doing something. Is it possible that letting myself breathe (at least some of the time) might lead to more success, more life satisfaction, more (dare I say it?) happiness?

I’m willing to take that on as an experiment this year.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Auto Attack: When Good Cars Go Bad

http://www.billsautoparts.com/images/yard3-lg.jpg

Dios mio, dios mio, porque me has abandonado?
- attributed to J.C.

Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

- Murphy's Law

I must have done something terrible to piss off the patron saint of cars, if there is such a creature. Maybe I offended Michelinaeus, the Greek goddess of tires as well. Whatever it was, I must be working off some hellified "carma", because my relationship with my former automotive ally has turned very ugly of late.

Now, I drive a jalopy. There's just no way to sugar coat it. I pilot a '96 Plymouth Voyager with just under 157K on it. My pal Sarah tells me that I'm living on borrowed time with this thing, and I know she's right. And, as they say in Hollywood, she's had a little work done in recent years (the van, not Sarah). The upside is that I pay under $40 in monthly liability insurance and I haven't had to make car payments for several years. The downside is that sometimes I run into a spate of bad luck - like right now, for instance.

It all started a couple of weeks ago when I was on my merry way to a Labor Day picnic. Just after pulling out of my garage I heard a wicked whump from the rear end of the car. It sounded like I had just deposited the rump of the vehicle on the other side of a speed bump. I pulled over and saw that my right rear tire was not only flat but had come entirely off of the rim.

I whipped out a handy can of Fix A Flat, that nasty chemical crap in a can that will allegedly re-inflate a moribund tire. The tire was in such bad shape that the fluid came squirting out of the tire faster than I could pump it in there. So I put the old donut spare on and limped over to my local tire shop.

Then, less than a week later, after playing three gigs on a Sunday, automotive lightning struck twice in the same exact spot, which I thought was impossible. The same tire (actually the new replacement tire) was DOA in my parking spot. By now you know the drill: The Fix A Flat did absolutely nothing (except elicit an admonishment from my tire dude not to use it) and I had to throw the old spare back on there. When I was finished I looked like I had just stepped out of a coal mine.

I had the tire replaced (again) and was driving downtown the following afternoon when I heard a loud flappada-flappada sound coming from the front end of the car. Shit, I couldn't possibly have another flat, could I? I pulled onto the shoulder of the highway, got out and walked around the van. No tire damage. I started to drive back into traffic when I realized that my power steering had gone out. The sound I had heard must have been the belt snapping under the hood. (This would be the third time I've had broken belts in the last six months, possibly a new world record).

The next day I had to drop my daughter off at the el to get to school. Besides the upper body workout I was getting from steering manually everything seemed alright. I dropped her off and then made the fatal mistake of stopping at the bank before going back to the 'hood to drop off the car. I parked in the lot by my Chase branch, did my biz, and came back to discover that the car would not start...in that dead battery kind of way.

With great trepidation, I opened the hood and peered inside. Right away I saw that there were no belts of any kind attached to any of the pulleys. So I called the motor club and eventually got the car towed to my second home (aka the local mechanic). He was very surprised to see me back so soon after we had changed the belts. Something was causing this to keep happening, but it was unclear what it could be.

Fast forward another week or so. I took the car to my local Jiffy Lube for an overdue oil change. While they were working I noticed that the ever-present clacking noise in the engine had become significantly worse. I'd been so preoccupied with other maladies that I hadn't observed this change. Man, it was scary loud. I'd been told that I would sooner or later need the dreaded "ring job" because the noise was most likely an indication of an essentially worn out motor.

There comes a time in the life of every vehicle when enough is enough. The horrifying sound of the engine combined with its rusting body, leaking oil, dead AC and slipping transmission has convinced me that it is time to punt.

Next: New Car Blues

Friday, October 17, 2008

Obama Video Says it All

Are you the same or have you changed?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Almost Caught in the Web: Chinese Domain Name Scam

A few days ago I received a rather disturbing email about my jazz website, the full text of which appears below:

Dear CEO,
We are the department of registration service in China. we have something need to confirm with you. We formally received an application on Octomber 10, 2008, One company which self-styled "Tenderich Technologies Limited" are applying to register "playjazznow" as internet brand and CN domain names as below :

www.playjazznow.asia
www.playjazznow.cn
www.playjazznow.com.cn
www.playjazznow.com.hk
www.playjazznow.com.tw
www.playjazznow.hk
www.playjazznow.net.cn
www.playjazznow.org.cn
www.playjazznow.tw

After our initial examination, we found that the internet brand applied for registration are as same as your company's name and trademark. These days we are dealing with it, hope to get the affirmation from your company. If your company has not authorized the aforesaid company to register these, Please contact us as soon as possible.
In addition, we hereby affirm that our time limit for dissent application is ten days. If your company files no dissent within the time limit, we will unconditionally approve the application submitted by "Tenderich Technologies Limited".

Best Regards,
John Wang
Senior consultant


This very sincere sounding email turns out to be a scam; one which I almost fell for. I corresponded with "Mr. Wang" for a couple of days and discovered that the only way I could prevent my trademark from being essentially hijacked would be to purchase the domain names myself. The implication in the original email was that his company would not approve the application submitted by "Tenderich Technologies" if PlayJazzNow.com was in fact registered to me, which, of course, it is.

I started to get suspicious and decided to do a little googling to see if anyone else had any experience with this type of thing. I wound up at this blog, which had a nearly word for word replication of the message I'd received. This is one of the great things about the internet. I realized instantly that I was but one of many people who have been contacted in this manner by some allegedly Chinese company. This company, China Public Domain, does have a legitimate looking website. So perhaps this is a not so subtle marketing tool. When I tooled around the site I did notice that there aren't any prices listed for anything, among other oddities.

In the future I will be even more wary than I already was with regard to the effluvia that winds up in my inbox. I've known for a long time that if something sounds too good to be true it probably isn't. The same might be said for things that sound too dire to be true as well.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Rant: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Warning: The content of this post may raise your blood pressure. The story told here is true. No names have been changed to protect anyone.



As someone who frequently works in downtown Chicago and has to schlep large instruments to and from my car, parking occupies a far-too-large space in my consciousness. For those who don't know, the first ten minutes of every gig is spent discussing where everyone parked and how much (if anything) each of us had to pay for the "privilege" of stashing a vehicle in the downtown area for a few hours. Often the most challenging aspect of my work is figuring out where to park and how to gain access to the venue in the most efficient allowable way. Strategies for parking in this town are as mulled over and discussed as presidential politics - actually more so, since there isn't a parking "season".

Sometimes mistakes are made. I put that in the passive tense not only to ridicule Ronald Reagan but also to soften the harsh reality that smacks one in the face when one's car gets towed by Streets and Sanitation. Yes, it happens, to some of us more frequently than others. I have been particularly unlucky in this regard, having somehow missed the "tow zone" signs too many times to count, usually because I'm in a hurry and (I'll admit) reluctant to give up the hunt for street parking and actually put my car in a parking lot. Perhaps it is my version of going on safari. Every once in awhile you get mauled by a lion, or a tow truck, as the case may be.

The tow truck drivers have been known to get a little over-zealous. My car has been forcibly removed from several spots unjustifiably. And whenever you get towed, it's the double whammy: you get a parking ticket ($50-75, depending on the type of alleged violation) AND you have to pay $160 for the tow. Then there's the ignominious task of going down into the bowels of hell to retrieve your vehicle from the auto pound.

But the important point here is that when you get towed you are presumed guilty until proven innocent. It is up to the driver to prove that he was NOT in violation of the law. You are slammed with a fine before you even have a chance to make a phone call, let alone have your day in court. It is no secret that collecting parking fines and towing fees is a major source of revenue for the city; so the chances of getting actual justice in these instances is slim to nil.

About ten days ago I was parked on a downtown street early in the morning. I'd carefully observed the posted signs and had put my car in a loading zone: no parking 8 AM to 6 PM. I returned to the spot at 7:50 to discover that my car was gone, no doubt having been glommed by Attila the Tow Man. Within an hour I was down in Dante's Inferno negotiating all the paperwork needed to reunite me with my old minivan and, of course, forking over $160.

The vehicle had been towed in violation of a "No parking 7-9 AM" regulation that supposedly applies to the street where I had parked. Only... there are NO signs stating that anywhere on that block. I was pretty sure of this but I decided to go back with my digital camera to take a batch of pictures that I could use as evidence to support my case. Friends, there really aren't any posted warnings that one might be towed between 7 and 9 AM. I took photos of the actual spot, and the immediate area surrounding the spot, as well as close-ups of the signs and the address.

For added irony, on the day of my hearing I had parked at a meter and was 5 minutes late getting back to that spot, having paid for 2 hours of parking. As I approached the car I saw both Rita the Meter Maid and the little gift she had left for me on the windshield. Ah, what's another $50 at this point? I drove to the City of Chicago Parking Violations Bureau, or whatever the hell its called, paid to park in a lot (which distressed me to no end) and sat myself down in the dreary hearing room waiting for my case to be called.

It turns out that you don't get your case heard by an actual judge. The guy making the call is an attorney contracted by the city to take care of its parking dirty work. I found him to be a small-minded toady, like a character from a David Mamet play. Captain Bringdown informed me that this hearing is just about the towing; dealing with the $60 ticket is a whole separate matter, which I could pursue on another day if I so chose. He found my evidence irrelevant because, get this, I didn't have photos of the entire block showing that there are no signs regarding the 7-9 AM restrictions. The photos only showed that I was not in violation of the loading zone, not the more global (and invisible) regulations.

Needless to say, I was fit to be tied. The only way to appeal this decision is to file a civil suit against the city, which would eat up who knows how much time require me to pay filing fees. I might even have to hire an attorney. So the deck is stacked entirely against the driver, even if he has truly not violated the law. I plan to pursue a defense against the ticket itself, more on the principal of the thing rather than to save the money. I am presently armed with photos of the entire block; up, down and sideways, plus the aerial views.

Have I mentioned that I hate everything having to do with parking downtown?

Palin Makes Quayle Look Good

It's hard to believe that anyone could make me feel nostalgic for good ole Danny boy, but...



Friday, September 19, 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Deepak Chopra on the Appeal of Sarah Palin

From: Deepak Chopra | Posted: Friday, September 5th, 2008

Sometimes politics has the uncanny effect of mirroring the national psyche even when nobody intended to do that. This is perfectly illustrated by the rousing effect that Gov. Sarah Palin had on the Republican convention in Minneapolis this week. On the surface, she outdoes former Vice President Dan Quayle as an unlikely choice, given her negligent parochial expertise in the complex affairs of governing. Her state of Alaska has less than 700,000 residents, which reduces the job of governor to the scale of running one-tenth of New York City. By comparison, Rudy Giuliani is a towering international figure. Palin's pluck has been admired, and her forthrightness, but her real appeal goes deeper.

She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses. In psychological terms the shadow is that part of the psyche that hides out of sight, countering our aspirations, virtue, and vision with qualities we are ashamed to face: anger, fear, revenge, violence, selfishness, and suspicion of "the other." For millions of Americans, Obama triggers those feelings, but they don't want to express them. He is calling for us to reach for our higher selves, and frankly, that stirs up hidden reactions of an unsavory kind. (Just to be perfectly clear, I am not making a verbal play out of the fact that Sen. Obama is black. The shadow is a metaphor widely in use before his arrival on the scene.)

I recognize that psychological analysis of politics is usually not welcome by the public, but I believe such a perspective can be helpful here to understand Palin's message. In her acceptance speech Gov. Palin sent a rousing call to those who want to celebrate their resistance to change and a higher vision.

Look at what she stands for:
--Small town values -- a denial of America's global role, a return to petty, small-minded parochialism.
--Ignorance of world affairs -- a repudiation of the need to repair America's image abroad.
--Family values -- a code for walling out anybody who makes a claim for social justice. Such strangers, being outside the family, don't need to be heeded.
--Rigid stands on guns and abortion -- a scornful repudiation that these issues can be negotiated with those who disagree.
--Patriotism -- the usual fallback in a failed war.
--"Reform" -- an italicized term, since in addition to cleaning out corruption and excessive spending, one also throws out anyone who doesn't fit your ideology.

Palin reinforces the overall message of the reactionary right, which has been in play since 1980, that social justice is liberal-radical, that minorities and immigrants, being different from "us" pure American types, can be ignored, that progressivism takes too much effort and globalism is a foreign threat. The radical right marches under the banners of "I'm all right, Jack," and "Why change? Everything's OK as it is." The irony, of course, is that Gov. Palin is a woman and a reactionary at the same time. She can add mom to apple pie on her resume, while blithely reversing forty years of feminist progress. The irony is superficial; there are millions of women who stand on the side of conservatism, however obviously they are voting against their own good.

The Republicans have won multiple national elections by raising shadow issues based on fear, rejection, hostility to change, and narrow-mindedness. Obama's call for higher ideals in politics can't be seen in a vacuum. The shadow is real; it was bound to respond. Not just conservatives possess a shadow -- we all do. So what comes next is a contest between the two forces of progress and inertia. Will the shadow win again, or has its furtive appeal become exhausted? No one can predict. The best thing about Gov. Palin is that she brought this conflict to light, which makes the upcoming debate honest. It would be a shame to elect another Reagan, whose smiling persona was a stalking horse for the reactionary forces that have brought us to the demoralized state we are in. We deserve to see what we are getting, without disguise.

The Real McCain

Meanwhile, on the other side of the universe...


Gotta Love Obama (Sometimes)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Join the WE Campaign

A few weeks ago Al Gore called upon the leadership and citizens of the U.S. to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels within 10 years. If we can put a man on the moon in less than a decade from the time the decision was made we can certainly wean ourselves from our petroleum and coal addictions during the next 10 years.





Please visit www.wecansolveit.org for more info.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Lethal Language

Gravity wants to bring me down.
- John Mayer


My father has been in intensive care for nearly three weeks. He's very sick, perhaps at death's door. I hope he recovers, of course, but he may die. So this has me thinking about death and dying and all the games we play with words to banish such discomfiting thoughts. Relief, for me, comes in the form of a reality check. I know from experience that pushing away the truth only delays the inevitable and accomplishes essentially nothing.

We are obsessed with death, just as we are obsessed with sex. We euphemize our conception of the end of life and simultaneously use a vocabulary that alludes to it. This two-pronged denial strategy is analogous to our sexual double standard - we both glorify sex in the abstract (through advertising, pornography and other forms of pop culture) and repress our actual sexuality (via ancient taboos inculcated primarily through religious indoctrination). Hmm, sex and death. Sounds like a good subject for a Woody Allen movie.

When someone dies we say that they have passed away, expired, gone over to the other side, dropped their body, made their transition, gone to their maker, returned from whence they came. We imagine that they're in a better place, they're in heaven, with the angels, with god. We hardly ever plainly say that they're dead. We wriggle and squirm at the mere thought of anything related to death - cadavers, funerals, cremation... We've created a death-centered literary and cinematic genre - horror - devoted entirely to scaring the bejeezus out of us, as if we could steel ourselves vicariously for the real thing by reading or watching.

It must be our abject fear of our own mortality, combined with the magical hope that we are somehow immortal, that makes us so squeamish about death. All religions offer the vainglorious carrot of eternal life in one form or another: heaven, salvation, nirvana, the "light" on one hand and hell, Hades, samsara, the inferno on the other. From the fear of death and the promises/warnings about the hereafter streams our obsessive need for rules of behavior. We blithely allow our gods, prophets, governments, bosses and parents to create and enforce those rules. Comply and you go to heaven. Misbehave and spend eternity in hell. It seems like a helluva bad deal to me.

Though we have so many we ways to avoid mentioning death and dying directly, we also use expressions that include aspects of it in everyday speech. Musicians love to speak of a "killer" groove. A great performance or recording is "killin'". When a comedian does well he has "killed" or "knocked 'em dead".

Another quizzical word for me is "execution". It is at once the violent ending of a life and the goal of those of us who have specialized skills. To execute well (for a musician, a visual artist, a ballplayer, a dancer, a doctor) is to have a good technique, to be able to perform deftly. If you can execute, you'll kill. Hopefully this is not true for surgeons. It does suit corporate executives, however. Those people are killin'.

While not specifically a euphemism for death, the word "grave" has interesting multiple meanings. There is a sense of downward pull inherent in it. The dead person is, of course, lowered into a grave (or, more delicately, their "final resting place"). Someone on the brink of death is said to be gravely ill. The musical marking "grave" (pronounced Italian style) means very slow. One can speak gravely, that is, in a low or descending pitched voice. A grave subject is serious or weighty. And we experience "gravity" as the earthward (or downward) force exerted on us.

Maybe it would be better to be more direct with our language. The euphemisms create a false barrier between us and the truth. We may feel the need for that protection sometimes, but denial only works temporarily. Lenny Bruce had a famous routine about ethnic slurs in which he posited that by repeatedly saying those nasty words outloud and not hiding from them, we could eliminate both the illicit pleasure some get from using them and the pain caused to the people being denigrated by them. The same may be true for death. Think it, say it, know it is final. All the candy coating in the world is not going to make it any easier to recognize that dead is dead.

When it is my turn to die, I strongly suspect that I will not be going to a "better place". I don't believe I have an eternal soul that will float up to heaven (or, more likely, down to hell in my case). I'm not riding on the wheel of samsara and I don't expect to be reincarnated as a snail or a bodhisattva. When my neurons stop firing, the entity known as "me" will cease to exist.

This recognition does not make life meaningless for me; on the contrary, knowing that my existence is finite inspires me to do the best I can, right now. If I only get one crack at it I'm going to try to make the most of it, in every way possible.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Fine Art: Wood Sculpture by Connie Berg

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Another serendipitous result from yesterday's eye-and-ear satisfying events: I met a very interesting sculptor from downstate Illinois. Her name is Connie Berg, and she creates wonderful wooden objects using, in her words, discarded "thrown away" pieces, such as parts of antique furniture, old tools, the banister of an old stairway, wooden molds and so on. I have yet to see the pieces in person but I did get to view images of these marvelous creations.

Due to the wonder of modern technology, you can too:

Connie's Wood Sculpture

Inspiring Sunday: Art, Poetry and Music

Sundays are rarely lively for me, arriving, as they do, at the end of my musician's schedule work week. I make it through my weekly church gig by depending on the talent of the singers I get to accompany (most of them, anyway) and the company of two great musician friends.

Yesterday's inspiration came from a couple of events that I was fortunate enough to attend later in the day. First, I was invited to a poetry reading at the Woman Made Gallery, 685 N. Milwaukee here in Chicago. The gallery itself is a wonder - two spacious floors filled with an amazing exhibition entitled Drawing On Experience. If that wasn't enough, I was privileged to hear the work of what must be some of the best contemporary poets, including Ellen Wade Beals, Mary Kathleen Hawley, Allison Joseph, Lauren Levato, Patricia McMillen, Judith Valente and Nina Corwin. I feel quite sheepish that I had previously been unaware of their work, as well as the existence of the gallery. I am now, in the spirit of Jimi Hendrix, experienced.

Last night I visited the newly reopened Jazz Showcase, now located at Printer's Row in the South Loop area. I have been a patron of this world-renowned venue since I moved to Chicago in the mid-70s. I heard one of my favorite contemporary musicians, guitarist/composer John Abercrombie. Mr. Abercrombie has distinguished himself as a writer, improviser and band leader in an era that has seen the ascension of some other great guitarists. As one of the inheritors of Jim Hall's lyricism, he has gone his own way as a stylist quite distinct from Metheny, Scofield, Towner and Frisell.

In recent years I have foolishly denied myself the pleasure of hearing world class jazz played live, a sin I hope to rectify in the next phase of my life. My excuses for this are as indefensible as they have been intractable. I've also been in the dark about the local visual art and poetry scenes for the last couple of decades (at least). Since I rail against ignorance and credulity in other areas of life, I'm going to have to spend some time in my personal penalty box for being so out of it, culturally.

Yesterday I witnessed creation. People are making art, poetry and music that matters - viscerally, intellectually, spiritually. My eyes and ears have been reopened, much to my surprise. And it feels really good.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Go Gore!

Al Gore - visionary? I guess so. In case you live under a large boulder, yesterday the former VP made a historic speech calling on the U.S. to eliminate the use of fossil fuels within a decade.



Is there the political will to get this done? That's the question. This morning I heard some wonk from the American Enterprise Institute thoroughly dismiss the idea that Gore's proposal is within the realm of possibility. It may not be in the best interests of the oil oligarchy currently in power, but, as Al points out, if we can put a man on the moon in less than ten years, we can certainly find a way to use solar and wind power to achieve a carbon-emission free society much more quickly than the energy industry would like. It will take tremendous technical know-how, money, people...

But mostly it will take great courage for our leaders to put this in motion. Are you listening, Mr. Obama?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Book Report: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
--Steven Weinberg



I first visited Nauvoo, IL around 1980. The town looked like the set of Little House on the Prairie, all dirt roads, buggy rides and quaint mid-19th century shops. It all seemed innocent enough, despite the gleaming white temple in the middle of town with the huge, weird statue of an angel standing guard outside. I knew nothing then about the Mormons and assumed they were just another Christian sect, akin to the Lutherans or Presbyterians. I still don't understand how all of these faiths can claim to worship the same god but disagree so vehemently on how to do so, but I suppose that's a topic for another day.

I was in Nauvoo again with my children two summers ago, as part of our driving trip following the path of the Mississippi River. This time the town seemed considerably creepier, and the kids were bored stiff there. So we sauntered around briefly, collected our brick with NAUVOO emblazoned on it, and took off. Had I encountered Jon Krakauer's frightening book Under the Banner of Heaven in the interim I would have stayed as far away from this midwestern Mormon outpost as possible.

Krakauer tells the story of the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica by Ron and Dan Lafferty, two fundamentalist Mormons. But the bulk of the book is taken up with Krakauer's astute and even handed analysis of the faith, its history and its adherents. The question he tries to answer is this: What kind of faith system would encourage two men to believe that it was god's will that they murder two members of their own family?

Very briefly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (as Mormons are officially known) was begun in 1830 by their first prophet, a man named Joseph Smith. Smith communicated with an angel named Moroni, who revealed the tenets of the new faith to him through a set of magical golden plates. (Incidentally, it is the figure of Moroni which guards the Mormon temple in Nauvoo.) It seems that the main attraction of the new faith was the notion that all individuals can communicate directly with god. Every member of the church is therefore capable of receiving divine revelations. It was one of these revelations, given to Ron Lafferty, that led to the double homicide that Krakauer examines in the book.

There are a couple of controversial points that were revealed to Smith during his tenure as prophet and published by him in The Book of Mormon. First, the LDS church believes that women must be subservient to men in every way. The only way to god for them is through surrender of their liberty, especially to their husbands. "Celestial marriage", what those outside of the faith call polygamy, is but one heinous example of this subjugation. Second, only white men can serve as members of the governing body of 15, consisting of a prophet, his two counselors and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. No women or non-whites may become members of the elite group that sets all policy and adjudicates all disputes within the church.

Both of these original tenets of the LDS faith have been challenged and, for the time being, set aside by the mainstream church. In fact, it is this deviation from Smith's revelations that has inspired the creation of the fundamentalist Mormon movement, known as FLDS. Members of a group from Eldorado, Texas affiliated with the FLDS were recently in the news regarding allegations of polygamy and child abuse.

As chronicled by Krakauer, this schism between Mormons has often been bitter and has sometimes turned violent. The history of the LDS itself is rather bloody, but that doesn't necessarily distinguish Mormonism from other religions. But the church is very guarded about its past and regularly withholds information and documents that might reflect poorly on the character of Mormons, especially the prophets and other important figures. Smith himself had a rather sordid side, but this aspect of his biography is swept under the proverbial rug by the LDS leadership. "Lying for the faith" is considered a laudatory act by Mormons, and it is practiced regularly by the leadership as well as the lay members of the church.

The FLDS seeks to restore both the racist and sexist components of Mormonism that were extant during the time of Joseph Smith. Krakauer estimates that there are roughly 40,000 people who identify as members of the FLDS, primarily living in isolated communities in the western U.S. This is as frightening to me as the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Mainstream Mormons number about 13 million worldwide, according to their official website. The LDS church actively proselytizes and the number of adherents is consequently growing rapidly. The mainstream church downplays the role of "celestial marriage" but the laws are still on the books. Many who have studied the faith believe that the LDS is biding its time until the church becomes so powerful as to be able to demand legislation allowing them to practice their religion as they see fit, at least in areas (like Utah) where Mormons are in the majority.

When people firmly believe that the voices in their heads come from a supreme being who is perfect, omniscient and omnipotent, they can and will do unspeakable things without remorse. It doesn't matter if the supernatural being is "familiar" Jesus or "strange" Allah, the results can be the same. If children are brought up in insular communities, kept ignorant of other ways of living, and indoctrinated into a faith without the ability to question and make personal choices, this creates a very dangerous situation.

The Lafferty murders, chronicled and impeccably researched by Jon Krakauer, are examples of how destructive this kind of blind devotion can be. If you want a good dose of cultural reality (and a scare that will rival any horror movie ever made), read Under the Banner of Heaven.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Declare for Nader, Vote for Obama

When the pollsters call, tell them you'd vote for Ralph Nader. If you call yourself a progressive (ie you're in favor of progress), then please don't get swept away in the Obama love-fest that has been the story of this campaign so far. The only way we can hope to shift the campaign agenda towards the issues that matter most is to let Nader be heard. Of course he's not going to get elected; he knows and acknowledges that fact. But if he polls at 10% or higher he will be invited to debates (such as the upcoming Google sponsored event) and might even get a crumb's worth of coverage in the MSM (though I'm not holding my breath for that).

Nader is the only candidate with progressive positions on such crucial topics as the environment, military spending, health care, civil liberties, corporate crime, the economy, etc. Obama has been on the reasonable side of these issues but is too willing to be pushed to the so-called p0litical center in order to get elected. He is dead wrong in his support of the FISA legislation. And while he has expressed support for a single payer health care system, he currently favors reform that allows the criminal hegemony of the insurance industry to continue. I haven't heard a peep from him on reducing federal military spending nor any innovative ideas on getting solar, wind and geothermal technologies into the mainstream.

Look, I like the guy. I met Obama when I played a fundraiser for his senatorial bid a few years ago. He struck me then as a straight shooter, someone whose word you can trust. Now I'm not so sure. Will I vote for him in November? You bet I will. But supporting Nader's bid right now is the only conscionable action I can take.

Happy Ironic 4th of July

The faux-bombing of my neighborhood has begun, so it must be the 4th of July. I am, once again, overwhelmed by the irony of celebrating our nation's independence under the present political circumstances. The erosion of our civil liberties continues unabated, primarily in the guise of increasing national security. The Bush administration is covertly preparing for a war against Iran, against the will of most Americans. The presidential campaigns are studiously avoiding such unglamorous issues as true health care reform, criminal corporate greed, the absurd military budget (public and secret), alternative energy and global warming.

I'm stunned by the blind obeisance being paid to King George with regard to the FISA bill. Our Great Mixed-race Hope even supports this impending legislation, which gives immunity to the telecom industry for the gross violations of our 4th Amendment rights. Joseph Galloway has written an editorial for McClatchy that I wish I'd written. In it he rightly condemns Congress for its lack of will to fight this latest attack on the Bill of Rights.

And the jingoism, false patriotism and flag worship keep on coming. I would really like to feel proud to be an American, the way I imagine it must have felt when WWII ended. I am grateful to live in this country, but can find very little to celebrate when so much of what is done by our government with our tacit approval is so wrong.

For last year's much more thorough rant about Independence Day, please go here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

These Words Are Free

Writing this blog is a great pleasure. Its the one activity I do solely for self-expression; no restrictions, no deadlines, no predetermined goals. I like using the written word to turn seemingly divergent thoughts into cogent sentences. When executed with integrity, words feel more direct than, say, painting or music. That's what attracts me to it - the specificity.

Blogging is not journaling. The latter has therapeutic value when used as a means of emptying the mind without hesitation. When I've written in a journal without editing, the act of pouring out words has sometimes produced unexpected and revealing results. But I can't imagine inflicting any of that on a reader, privacy issues aside. I want my writing to be personal, but it must have shape, pace and some kind of central theme. The form of the blog gives me the opportunity to organize and massage my ideas so that the finished pieces are (hopefully) readable.

A good friend has been encouraging me to do some commercial writing, by which I mean trading the words I put together for money. The idea is attractive on the one hand. Why not try to earn some cash doing something I really enjoy? But I've already fashioned a career from music, the other art form close to my heart. I generate income from nearly everything I do musically. I play many different kinds of gigs, teach, transcribe, arrange, copy and run a jazz website. About the only things I don't sell are my original compositions.

So I am susceptible to the "art for money" concept. I recently wrote a series of music reviews for jazz.com and have successfully pitched an idea for another dozen track reviews for that website. I admit that it was fun getting paid for having opinions and making the short pieces informative and entertaining. But now that I have garnered this new assignment I'm realizing that what really turns me on about this endeavor is having the liberty to write whatever comes to mind, whenever I feel like it.

Ever self-suspecting, I thought at first that I might be resisting the temptation to write for money out of fear. Maybe I don't have the skills; maybe there's too much risk of rejection. But I now believe that my reluctance stems from my strong desire to keep this means of expression safely optional. I want writing to be something I do for fun. I don't want it to become another task, another responsibility. I never want to feel that I "should" write something. It may not be rational, and it certainly isn't practical; and that in itself feels liberating.

Money is good. Freedom is better.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Obama Disappoints Me

I wish I'd written this cogent piece on why Ralph Nader's campaign is relevant in 2008. Obama's support for the FISA legislation now pending in the Senate has pushed me over the edge of suspicion regarding his "true" positions on crucial issues. Just how corporate is he going to slide? How far to the right does his campaign feel he needs to move in order to win the election?

I think, as Gregory Kefaury suggests, that Obama ought to take a good long look at Nader's positions on such issues as health care, corporate crime, the war, NAFTA, Israel and Palestine, the environment, and so on. Mr. Nader is right on the money on each of these issues and Obama is way off the mark on too many of them. His heart may be in the right place, but the reality of election politics may very well be corrupting Obama in front of our very eyes.

Chris Hedges also has an excellent piece on Truthdig on the same subject.

Monday, June 23, 2008

R.I.P. George Carlin

American culture will not be the same without George Carlin pushing the envelope. I don't think any comedian since Lenny Bruce has had so much influence, and not just on his profession. Carlin's courageous and outrageous stance on so-called obscenity, his keen observations on the English language and his high energy silliness have virtually catapulted our pop culture. Think Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Richard Jeni, Eddie Izzard, Richard Pryor, Margaret Cho, The Simpsons, South Park, hip-hop...I could go on and on.

George Carlin is not in a better place. His place was in this world and I, for one, will miss one strong mother of an ally.

"The whole problem with this idea of obscenity and indecency, and all of these things - bad language and whatever - it's all caused by one basic thing, and that is: religious superstition. There's an idea that the human body is somehow evil and bad and there are parts of it that are especially evil and bad, and we should be ashamed. Fear, guilt and shame are built into the attitude toward sex and the body. ... It's reflected in these prohibitions and these taboos that we have."

-George Carlin

Here's a wonderful version of his famous 7 Words You Can't Say on Television routine. If you're "bad word" averse don't watch it.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Al Gore Introduces Barack Obama

If you haven't yet seen it, here is Mr. Gore's inspiring speech:

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Take Action on Health Care

The California Nurses Association is co-sponsoring a National Day of Action next Thursday, June 19, 2008.

Americans across the nation will demonstrate in favor of guaranteed healthcare and in protest of AHIP, America’s Health Insurance Plans — the insurance industry lobbyists who profit from pain. Their annual convention will be met by thousands of protestors onsite in San Francisco — 12 Noon, Moscone Center West, 4th @ Howard — and simultaneously in cities across the nation.

Please join a broad coalition in advocating for genuine healthcare reform — a “Medicare for All”or single-payer system, such as HR 676.

In Chicago the action will occur at:
CIGNA
525 W. Monroe, Chicago IL
4:30-6:30 PM

Please join patients, nurses, doctors, and your neighbors protesting in memory of the victims of the insurance industry.

June 19, 2008
National Day of Action
Guaranteed, Single-payer Healthcare Now!

Click for a pdf flyer.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

R.I.P. R.F.K.

http://www.electricscotland.com/thomson/images/8.21%20Robert_Kennedy.jpg

I'm imagining a world in which Bobby Kennedy was not murdered 40 years ago today. He would have almost certainly defeated Richard Nixon in 1968. How that would have changed the course of our nation's history!

How much devastation and tragedy might have been avoided? How many fewer lives would have been lost in Vietnam? The riots at the '68 convention would not have happened. The civil rights movement would no doubt have moved along much more quickly; perhaps we would have already had women and people of color in the White House. No Watergate, no Ronald Reagan, no Iran-Contra, no Gulf Wars...

Same old story: some wacko easily acquires a gun and singlehandedly sets the political agenda for decades to come.

For me, the hope engendered by the Obama campaign brings with it a sobering fear.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

National Health Care Events

Health Care Now is encouraging all who support single payer a healthcare system (aka Medicare for All) to show up for these upcoming events:

June 19, 2008: Nationwide demonstrations at various headquarters of the nations's largest insurance agencies. Please visit their website for a location near you.

July 30, 2008: National call-in and visitation day to members of Congress. Let's encourage our representatives to support H.R. 676, the Single Payer Healthcare Act.

September 26, 2008: Washington, D.C. A Memorial Vigil to remember individuals who have died because insurance companies refused to pay for the care they needed.

We can all work with our local government entities: county, town, school boards, states, to help them see how much money they would save with H.R. 676 – if they never had to pay the hundreds of millions of dollars for insurance company premiums ever again.

Please get involved.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Don't Just Do Something, Sit There!

I had another confrontation with holy idiocy today. During this morning's sermon at the church where I work, the minister spoke about the humanitarian crises currently unfolding in China and Myanmar. She claimed not to know where these countries are exactly, and she didn't discuss either event in detail. She didn't announce a special donation that the church would be making to help alleviate the suffering of the survivors, nor did she admonish those present to make donations to Doctors Without Borders or the International Red Cross.

Instead, our pastor spent twenty minutes giving a rambling talk about compassion, somehow induced by the phrase "Our Father" in The Lord's Prayer. Then we closed our eyes and sent "love" through the ether to our brothers and sisters in China and Myanmar (wherever those places might be).

This is where the well-intentioned folk of faith and I part company. The notion that 100 or so people in a room with their eyes closed sending "love" vibrations might do any good for the millions of people affected by the recent events in Asia is simply ludicrous. The minister referenced so-called scientific research "proving" that our thoughts are able to influence inanimate objects such as water. The connection between this dubious science and our collective mental intention to send loving thoughts to people in Asia was lost on me. I have the feeling that the connection was rather tenuous to begin with, but I could be wrong.

Church folk are fond of quoting aphorisms. So here's one that I find appropriate for today's teaching:

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Intentions are not enough. Sending loving thoughts is not enough. Talking about compassion and how we are all "one" is not enough! Right action is required. When New Thought people invoke Buddhism (or its modern teachers like the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh) they too often stop before reaching the most important element of compassion: action. You can encourage people to develop gentle, kind, and loving attitudes all you want. But if you don't inspire the behavior that is necessary to manifest compassion in the world, you have NOT done your job.

Today there was no mention of what we can DO to help alleviate suffering, which I believe is the actual definition of compassion. Thoughts and feelings are transitory; sending "love" to China and Myanmar might make some of us feel better for a few moments, but it accomplishes NOTHING real or of any importance.

Tonight I heard that the U.S. government is sending a puny $500,000 in aid to China. This is an "initial commitment", the spokesperson for the administration said. Considering the we are spending billions of dollars a month in Iraq this humanitarian gesture is tantamount to an insult. But wait - is there any strategic value in sending dollars to aid the victims of the earthquake in Szechuan Province? Is there any oil at stake? No? Then I guess it really isn't in our national interest to help the people there in any meaningful way.

This is why ordinary people like us don't need to be wasting our time worrying about our intentions or sending telepathic love overseas. Take action. Put your energy where your compassion is. Make a donation to an agency that is doing the work of helping to lessen the suffering of our human family in Asia.

DONATE:

Doctors Without Borders
Red Cross
Oxfam

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Concert Review: Chicago Sinfonietta at Dominican University

I am feeling very sorry for a sizable batch of excellent musicians who perform with the Chicago Sinfonietta. I just attended their final concert of the season at Dominican University and it was, with the exception of one piece, dreadful. As a professional musician myself I know how it must feel to have to suffer through a concert as awful as this was.

I arrived too late to be seated for the first number, Beethoven's workhorse Egmont Overture, but I did hear it fairly clearly in the hallway. If I hadn't sat through the remainder of the concert I wouldn't even comment on this particular performance. But since I did witness the rest of this aural debacle I can tell you that the orchestra played every note of the piece just fine... and completely devoid of personality.

For this absence of emotional content I must blame their hapless music director, Paul Freeman. If this man ever had any sense of style or passion for music it was not in evidence this afternoon. I've never heard Beethoven sound so dimensionless. But let's leave this composition alone, since there is so much more to complain about elsewhere on the program.

The next piece, Three Songs For Bluesman and Orchestra, was commissioned by the Sinfonietta. I really hope they didn't pay much for it. The composer is a blues enthusiast (judging from his primary career as a record producer and liner note writer) named Larry Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman composes as if he has not actually heard a symphony orchestra play before. Nor is he apparently aware of the work of any of the so-called Third Stream composers, not to mention the far more sophisticated and successful writing of Duke Ellington. The soloist, blues singer/guitarist John Primer, bravely and affably sang and twanged his way through the muddy waters of this composition. It was a little difficult to tell what Mr. Primer was playing because his acoustic guitars were so poorly amplified in the house P.A. The buzz coming from the speakers was much louder than his instruments, which added an extra dimension of amateurishness to the proceedings.

Relief was finally provided in the form of an electrifying performance from pianist Leon Bates, soloist for George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Mr. Bates grabbed this piece by the throat and never let go. This was the only piece on the program that seemed to rouse the orchestra from its doldrums, despite the somnambulistic baton waving of Mr. Freeman. I only wish that there was more to this music, both compositionally and in duration. I wanted to hear more from Mr. Bates.

The second half of the concert was taken up by a high concept version of the venerable Pictures at an Exhibition. For this performance, the orchestra was situated behind a huge white screen, upon which were projected video images created by astronomer/graphic designer Jose Francisco Salgado. Although some of the individual images were strikingly beautiful, it was unclear to me how the video component was supposed to relate to Mussorgsky's music. The fact that the coordination between the orchestra and the projections came unglued several times didn't help; neither did the framing (pardon the pun) of the video imaging as a "virtual gallery". That concept seemed awfully contrived.

When the piece ended (out of synch with the video, of course) there was a long confused moment in the hall. While the audience dutifully applauded, the screen remained in position, giving new meaning to the term "curtain call". Either someone missed a cue or the screen was stuck. Finally the stage manager ushered Mr. Salgado, the maestro and the very uncomfortable looking concertmaster (who happens to be a colleague of mine) onto the stage. By that time half the audience was heading for the exits, the whole episode having provided a fittingly awkward conclusion to an ill executed multimedia extravaganza.

I wonder what this orchestra would sound like with a conductor who would inspire these musicians to actually play music?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Brilliant Mr. Fish cartoon

Obama

A Modest Conservation Contribution

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Today I brought my own brown paper shopping bags to my local food market. I thought it might be weird having the bagger fill up my Trader Joe's and Whole Foods bags at the neighborhood grocery, but she didn't bat an eye when I dumped the bags on the counter. In addition to the ecological impact, I realized a couple of further benefits: I was able to carry $80 worth of groceries in one trip (two bags per hand). Also, the guilt I have felt for using plastic so much was reduced substantially. I use as few clear plastic bags for produce as possible, often limiting the number of, say, green peppers I buy so I don't have to feel like I'm being a nuisance when I check out. My goal is to stop using those altogether if I can think of a way to do so.

For years I have despised those idiotic little plastic bags that have become ubiquitous at supermarkets. When they still offered a choice between paper and plastic I chose the former but it seems like paper was phased out at least five years ago in my area. So I've stored up hundreds of those floppy whites and periodically schlepped them back to the store for alleged recycling. But I knew all along that there had to be a better way. I've just not made the effort to find and implement it until now.

The church where I work on Sundays is selling re-usable shopping bags made and distributed by onebagatatime.com. I clicked on over there and ordered ten bags (they're kind of on the small side) and expect them to be delivered any day. When they are, it's no more plastic OR paper for me at the grocery store.

It is not like I haven't been aware of conservation. When I was in high school in the early 70's (yikes!) I recall using the same paper lunch bag all year, or at least until it was too ragged to hold my PBJ and apple. One of the reasons I chose to only sell downloadable mp3s on my jazz education website is that there is no ecological impact in terms of CDs, printing, paper, shrink wrap or shipping materials. But, for whatever reason, it took the little bag from church to wake me up to this shopping strategy.

Far be it for me to proselytize, but if you're looking for a way to do your part, this is easy. I've been driving less, drinking filtered tap water instead of bottled and recycling; adding reusable grocery bags to the repertoire is no big deal.

Friday, April 4, 2008

MLK: Forty Years Later

How much progress have we made in the U.S. when the leading progressive presidential candidate has to dis-associate himself from the truth? Chicago, Senator Obama's residence, is still a highly segregated, racially polarized city. 2008 still finds this city and this country with huge income and standard of living gaps between the middle class and the poor (let alone the gaping maw that exists between the wealthy and those living in poverty).

Woe to the jingoists who put patriotism ahead of justice. We can't be so smugly proud of our "progress" when present conditions demonstrate a lasting inequality in income, housing, education, etc. Too bad Mr. Obama can't tell the truth - that his pastor is right on almost all counts. Now, that would truly honor the spirit of Dr. King.

Monday, March 31, 2008

New Study Shows Most Doctors Support National Health Insurance

Full text of a press release from PNHP (emphasis added by yours truly):

Reflecting a shift in thinking over the past five years among U.S. physicians, a new study shows a solid majority of doctors - 59 percent - now supports national health insurance.

Such plans typically involve a single, federally administered social insurance fund that that guarantees health care coverage for everyone, much like Medicare currently does for seniors. The plans typically eliminate or substantially reduce the role of private insurance companies in the health care financing system, but still allow patients to go the doctors of their choice.

A study published in today's Annals of Internal Medicine, a leading medical journal, reports that a survey conducted last year of 2,193 physicians across the United States showed 59 percent of them "support government legislation to establish national health insurance," while 32 percent oppose it and 9 percent are neutral.

The findings reflect a leap of 10 percentage points in physician support for national health insurance (NHI) since 2002, when a similar survey was conducted. At that time, 49 percent of all physician respondents said they supported NHI and 40 percent opposed it.

Support among doctors for NHI has increased across almost all medical specialties, said Dr. Ronald T. Ackermann, associate director of the Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research at Indiana University's School of Medicine and co-author of the study.

"Across the board, more physicians feel that our fragmented and for-profit insurance system is obstructing good patient care, and a majority now support national insurance as the remedy," he said.

Support for NHI is particularly strong among psychiatrists (83 percent), pediatric sub-specialists (71 percent), emergency medicine physicians (69 percent), general pediatricians (65 percent), general internists (64 percent) and family physicians (60 percent). Fifty-five percent of general surgeons support NHI, roughly doubling their level of support since 2002.

Doctors have often expressed concern about lack of patient access to care due to rising costs and patients' insufficient levels of insurance. An estimated 47 million Americans currently lack health insurance coverage and another 50 million are believed to be underinsured. At the same time, health care costs in the United States are rising at the rate of about 7 percent a year, twice the rate of inflation.

The health care issue continues to rank high among voter concerns in the 2008 elections, placing third in a recent poll after the economy and Iraq.

The current study by the Indiana University researchers is the largest survey ever conducted among doctors on the issue of health care financing reform. It is based on a random sampling of names obtained from the American Medical Association's master list of physicians throughout the country.

In addition to measuring attitudes toward NHI, the survey also asked doctors about their views about "more incremental reform," often interpreted as state- or federal-based programs requiring or "mandating" that consumers buy health insurance from private insurance companies, legislative measures providing tax incentives to businesses to provide coverage for their employees, or similar steps.

Fewer physicians (55%) were in support of "incremental" reform. Moreover, virtually all those opposed to national health insurance also opposed incremental reform to improve access to care. In fact, only 14% of physicians overall oppose national health insurance but support more incremental reforms. Ironically, many medical organizations and most politicians have endorsed only incremental changes.

Dr. Aaron E. Carroll, Director of Indiana University's Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research and lead author of the study, commented: "Many claim to speak for physicians and reflect their views. We asked doctors directly and found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, most doctors support the government creating national health insurance."

Other signs indicate that attitudes among doctors are changing. The nation's largest medical specialty group, the 124,000-member American College of Physicians, endorsed a single-payer national health insurance program for the first time in December.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

I Suppose I Should Be Offended...

...but I'm not. I just read an article about the state of religion in the U.S. Written by SFGate columnist Mark Morford, the piece summarizes the findings of a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which polled Americans on their religious preferences. This paragraph jumped out at me (emphasis mine):

Which brings us to perhaps the most interesting stat of all, wherein 16 percent of Americans ... don't hook into any religious affiliation whatsoever, thus making them/us the fourth largest "religious" group in America — and growing fast. They are the unaffiliated, the wayward ones, not just agnostics and atheists but also the poets and the grazers and spiritualists, the mystics and the explorers and the cosmically, intellectually, divinely self-determined. (Or maybe they're all just actors and bass players and trust-funded art students. But let's try to be optimistic).

As a full time bass player and atheist, and as an occasional actor I should be looking up this Mr. Morford and challenging him to a duel to defend my honor. But I'm laughing too much to do so.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My Bout with Gout; Why Dieting is Bad for Your Health

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Over the past nine months I have suffered from a mysterious recurring pain in one of my big toes. This is not an ache: it is an intense, debilitating pain that makes all other thoughts and feelings disappear. It has usually lasted for a few days, during which time I have treated it with mega-doses of ibuprofen and rest. Then it recedes, only to reappear suddenly and without obvious cause a few months later.

This last bout was the most difficult to overcome, waking me up at night, making it impossible to wear regular shoes or to walk with any degree of normalcy. In fact, it was so bad that I actually made an appointment with my doc to see what on earth was going on. After a few minutes of squeezing, prodding and asking me a few questions he concluded that I have gout. Gout?! What am I, some kind of red-meat-eating, hard-drinking idiot who doesn't pay any attention to my health? Not at all. As a friend of mine likes to quip, I'm not a vegetarian, I just mostly eat like one. As far as alcohol goes, I may have a drink or two per month, which I don't think makes me AA material.

So I began researching the causes of this annoying illness.

From the Mayo Clinic website:
Gout occurs when urate crystals accumulate around your joint, causing the inflammation and intense pain of a gout attack. Urate crystals can form when you have high levels of uric acid in your blood. Your body produces uric acid when it breaks down purines, substances that are found naturally in your body, as well as in certain foods, such as organ meats, anchovies, herring, asparagus and mushrooms.

Normally, uric acid dissolves in your blood and passes through your kidneys into your urine. But sometimes your body either produces too much uric acid or your kidneys excrete too little uric acid. When this happens, uric acid can build up, forming sharp, needle-like urate crystals in a joint or surrounding tissue that cause pain, inflammation and swelling.

And those sharp crystals commonly invade toes, which is precisely what happened to me. Among the factors that can lead to an excess of uric acid are: genetics (a family history of gout or other forms of arthritis), obesity, untreated hypertension, high consumption of red meat and certain seafoods, heavy alcohol use, and certain medications (chemotherapy drugs, aspirin and diuretics). The only indicator there for me is obesity - it runs in my family and has been the bane of my existence for my whole life. But as I've looked further into the chemistry of gout some other potential causes have become apparent.

Going back as far as my teen years I have been on every imaginable weight loss plan. Carlton Fredericks, Weight Watchers, Atkins, Optifast... you name it, I've tried it. What the strictest of these diets have in common is exactly what I now believe is partially to blame for the onset of gout in my body.

Very low calorie diets cause the body to go into "starvation mode", in which one's body breaks down more muscle than fat and greater quantities of ketones are created. Ketones are a by-product or waste product that appears when your body burns stored fat for energy. The ketones also inhibit uric acid excretion. Persons who go on very low calorie (less than 900 calories per day), actually can cause their uric acid levels to go even higher, which increases the risk of gout.

From About.com's article on diabetes:

Ketosis is a natural process that occurs when fats are converted into energy by the body -- usually when there is not enough glucose (carbohydrates) to provide for the body's energy needs. Instead, the fat is broken down into energy, and "ketone bodies" are the molecular by-products of this metabolic process.

Ketosis may occur during fasting, after an extended period of exercise, or when a high-fat/low carb diet is followed.

So, very low calorie diets cause ketosis, one clear risk factor for developing gout. One of the diets I used about twenty years ago was the Optifast diet (remember when Oprah was pushing this one?). This was a long term fasting plan which consisted of nothing but a liquid protein that, if I remember correctly, was around 800 calories per day. I lost a lot of weight on this plan, of course.

About a decade later, after having re-gained all of that weight, I decided to try the Dr. Atkins diet for the second time in my life (I had been on it for awhile as a teenager). This diet specifically induces ketosis by only allowing the consumption of protein with little or no carbohydrate.

I believe that this history of low calorie, low-carb, ketosis-inducing dieting, along with my hereditary obesity is the main precipitating factor in the onset of my gout. If the world needed more proof that dieting is not only ineffective but also downright dangerous, I think that the link to gout would certainly qualify.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Kitchen Project - Part 1 (Before)

I love my Chicago style brick bungalow. It is the kind of house I'd always wanted to own: solidly built in 1927, it's old but in excellent condition. It has strength and character, along with a two-car garage (the best thing about having a home of one's own), a separate entrance I use for my teaching studio, and some wonderful stylistic touches that distinguish it from the many similar homes in Chicago's "bungalow belt."

But I hate my kitchen. It has been the bane of my so-called lifestyle since I moved in several years ago. I like to cook and I have children to cook for. But I've been very frustrated by this kitchen, with its one pathetic wall cabinet, total absence of counter space, a falling apart oven, a leaky refrigerator and a horrid white tile floor that seems to magnify every micron of dust. And that's just for starters.

My kitchen also has an architectural quirk that seems to be common in homes built in this era: The stairs leading up to the attic can only be accessed from one corner of my kitchen, thus rendering that area useless in terms of counter space and wall storage.

Here's a couple of shots of that wretched corner:






This is the evil appliance area, which occupies the only corner:



The doorway/hallway that leads to the dining room:



The pantry and door leading to the mudroom and the great outdoors:



Finally, a view from the dining room entrance:


As you can see, this very small room has 4 (count 'em, four) doorways and only 1 (that's one) usable corner. There has been many a time in the midst of trying to prepare a meal that I've gotten stuck holding the cutting board or a full pot with no place to set it down. I bought that butcher block on wheels so I'd have SOME place to chop vegetables and store some pans but that thing is hardly adequate.

This kitchen has had me muttering obscenities on a regular basis. I blame this room for my borderline high blood pressure and my need for several years of primal scream therapy.

So when my mother, bless her soul, offered to help me pay for a kitchen rehab I could hardly contain my passionate desire to buy a sledgehammer and start the demolition immediately.

Next time: The Plan

Monday, February 18, 2008

Tragedy at N.I.U. - Why 'Why" is the Wrong Question

Earlier this morning I read a letter from a close friend whose son is s student at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. His son is understandably freaked out and my pal is furious. He wrote to his congressman about the insanely easy availability of guns. His response is the most cogent answer I've yet heard in all the prattling that's been going on in the media since this most recent shooting.

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As a society there is NOTHING we can do about the states of mind that might cause an individual to commit seemingly random violence. We cannot monitor everyone's psychological health nor make it illegal to stop taking one's meds. It is not the responsibility of classmates, peers, family or school administrators to keep tabs on people's emotional well being. So 'why' Steven Kazmierczak opened fire on 200 students in a lecture hall at N.I.U. is impossible to answer. It is also a dangerously misguided question.

The question is this: How can this society continue to allow the gun lobby and the 2nd amendment fundamentalists to distort the painfully plain reality that these kinds of weapons are far too easy to acquire? As my friend points out, we now have all kinds of laws that purport to make public safety a high priority. In Illinois, a potential driver has to take classes, pass both a written and a practical driving test to get a certificate, then do 50 hours of practice driving before getting a license to drive. You can get busted for not wearing a seat belt. People are no longer allowed to smoke in public places.

Yet anyone with a few dollars in their pocket can legally purchase a deadly weapon with no training, virtually no delay and without any compelling and certifiable evidence that they should be allowed to possess a device that can do unspeakable harm in a matter of seconds. All of the NRA's arguments notwithstanding, the simple truth is that the easy access to guns is responsible for the current state of terror many Americans are experiencing. This internal threat is just as alarming as the danger posed by state sponsored terrorism and we ought to take it just as seriously.

'Why' is irrelevant. 'How' is the only question that can be answered and it is the crucial one for the safety of all citizens. In societies where there are more guns there are more murders. In countries where there are strict gun control laws fewer people get killed by their fellow citizens. Remember that we are not discussing criminal activity here - just the access to guns that each and every one of us has, whether or not we are sane, competent, intelligent or have a demonstrable need to own a gun.

Here's a question worth considering on a philosophical level: Can a compelling argument be made that, while driving is a "privilege, not a a right", gun ownership is just the opposite: a right allegedly guaranteed to all Americans? Perhaps we need to take another look at that Constitution of ours.

I have a son who is a student at a college in central Illinois. This tragedy could just as easily have occurred at his school; he might have been a victim. I have two other children who will attend college soon. My definition of "homeland security" includes reasonable protection for my children (and yours as well) from people who can purchase and use deadly weapons regardless of their intellectual or emotional stability. The only protection we have is on the "supply side" of the equation. Let's not let the wackos in the NRA dictate gun policy. We need the kind of protection that only strict gun control can provide.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My House Is A Mess

Things are topsy-turvy over here. I'm in the middle of week three of a kitchen remodeling project. No, I am NOT doing the work myself; I'm not that stupid. I have been taking pictures of the process, which I will post as soon as I can get some time to poke through the dozens of images to find the best of the lot.

I am fortunate to have a second tiny kitchen in the "in-law" apartment in my basement, so I don't have to live on cold soup and take out. But the main floor of my house is like a war zone. There's plastic coverings (some with zippers) over four doorways and heavy paper taped to the floor of my dining room. The furniture that was too difficult to move is wrapped in plastic, giving the room the charming look of a mausoleum.

The last couple of weeks have been intense on the work front as well. I had been spending most of my waking hours on the arranging project I wrote about in my last post. Now I am done with that...not sure if I quit or was fired, perhaps a little of each. The problem was that the music director I was indirectly working for turned out to be, um, let's just say...a problem. Since this is a family column I can't really go into detail, but I feel lucky to be exiting before fisticuffs broke out. I did a good chunk of the work, learned a few things about my limitations and about some of the questions I didn't know to ask before embarking on a job of this type. Well, we won't get fooled again.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

OPW 2.0

I'm working on a very silly project right now. It is so ridiculous that it is making me punchy. Through no fault of my own I somehow got hired to arrange and Finale copy an entire Broadway style musical. For 6th, 7th and 8th graders!

Yes, I am taking show tunes by the likes of Kander and Ebb, Sondheim et al and creating simplified arrangements for a middle school band and chorus to perform in the spring. Not only that, but there's no sheet music for a bunch of the songs, so I've had to transcribe them from CD before getting to work on the arrangements. I've been given the list of instruments to write for, which is just basic information. In addition I've been given a specific range for each player in the band (all 15 or so of them) because many of them are at fairly rudimentary levels of ability. The cardinal sin here (so I gather) is to write parts that are too hard to play.

Oh, I almost forgot. I've been given about three weeks to do all of this. Ideally, this amount of work should be done in eight, but who's complaining?

The good news (you knew there HAD to be some) is that this project will be quite remunerative. This time of year is death for working musicians, so I am grateful to have something better to do than go snow blind staring at my empty date book.

It just so happens that this week work began on my kitchen rehab. So my house looks like some kind of insane science project and I'm trying to get this work done with sawing and hammering as my background music. It is all so delightfully cacophonous!

I have written about doing other people's work before, and this transcribing/arranging/copying job definitely comes under that heading. However, I am getting to use some musical skills that have been in moth balls for awhile, specifically - arranging for band. I've done plenty of arranging for small groups, string quartets and a few big band charts, but it has been some time since I've had to write for such a large ensemble. The orchestration is pretty goofy as well, since the band consists of whoever happens to show up with whatever instrument they play. I won't bore you with the details, but writing for this lopsided group is a challenge.

My mantra thus far has been: Don't do anything interesting! I've got to keep it simple, plus there's just no time to be avant garde. It is music by the pound for sure. I'm just trying to make sure things are correct, in the right place and transposed properly. It will no doubt sound like hash anyway, given the age level, but I'm hoping that won't be my doing.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Incident at Galesburg

I haven't been feeling well for a few days. So when I left this morning to take my son back to Knox College in Galesburg I had a fleeting thought about taking some ibuprofen with me for the 8 or so hours I'd be spending in the car. Then I forgot all about it.

I delivered Sam safely to his dorm about 4 hours later, where he very subtly sent me on my way in short order. I walked up to the Gizmo snack shack and had myself a delightful cup of dark black fluid (which I hesitate to call coffee). I had almost returned to my car when the sight of an older man wearing a bright red coat caught my eye. At the same instant my left foot started sliding out from under me, causing my ankle to bend in an impossible way. I hit the pavement in a most graceful manner, not knowing what had happened for a few seconds.

The Man in Red came over to help me get up, which I had no desire to do for the moment. Another couple of kind folks came over to inquire if I was alright. Truthfully, I had no idea if I was OK or not. The pain from my ankle was hovering around an 8 but, even worse, I felt like I was about to pass out (and I hate when that happens).

It turned out that the MIR was a doctor, or so he said. He very solicitously helped me hobble the rest of the way to my car. I sat down heavily and tried to catch my breath. I had no idea what to do next. I was supposed to drive 200 miles back to Chicago but the thought of doing that made me want to pass out even more. I spent a few minutes staring stupidly at the steering wheel. It finally dawned on me to call Sam, who was in his dorm about 100 feet away. Oh yeah, this cell phone...I can use it to call for help. Duh.

As I waited for Sam I kept trying to focus on what I should do about this troublesome ankle. Go to the campus health center? Call someone (who?) for help? Drive to a hospital (whereabouts unknown)? I swear, my IQ must plummet by 50 points when I'm hurtin'. It somehow occurred to me that I could call 911 and see what would happen if I explained the situation to someone else. Fortunately I got a reasonable human on the other end of the line. She promptly sent a campus security officer over and I followed him a mile or so to the nearest hospital ER.

It was during the next 90 minutes that I starting wishing that I had grabbed that old ibuprofen bottle earlier. They did put some ice on my ankle as I waited for the ER doc. The nurse took my temperature (huh?) and asked me a few impertinent questions. I asked politely if I might possibly score a couple of ibuprofen for the, uh, swelling and the, um, PAIN. She said she would have to check with the doctor. I guess they don't want just anyone dispensing dangerous controlled substances.

I was wheeled to Radiology by a very nice man named Mark who snapped some risque pics of my naked ankle. When we got back to the ER I inquired once again about the pain meds. It had now been about 2.5 hours since the incident and my ankle was throbbing in a most fun way and had blown up to about 3 times its normal size.

Finally Nurse Ratchet dispensed 800 mg of Motrin, which I hungrily downed. I saw the harried ER doc shortly thereafter. He was 95% sure my ankle was just sprained and not fractured but I won't find out until tomorrow for sure. The radiologist had already left for the day (this is a very small hospital).

They gave me an "air cast" and tried to sell me some crutches. I had my first lucid moment of the afternoon when I remembered that my sister had broken her foot not too long ago and surely had a pair of crutches I could borrow. I probably saved about $700 with that thought. I was dismissed (released, liberated, whatever) and the nice lady who took a sizable wad of cash from me wheeled me out to my car for the trek home. Geez, it's a good thing I didn't injure my right foot or I'd be hold up in a Galesburg motel for the next few days.

Well, so much for my dancing career.