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.


Doctors Without Borders
Red Cross

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


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 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.