August 6, 2009

Changes at KUT

A friend of mine recently sent an email about a gathering to protest changes in the KUT radio schedule, which includes reducing the hours of several long-time DJs, including Larry Monroe, Paul Ray, and Jay Trachtenberg, and using a syndicated show during overnight hours. I responded to him, and posted a comment on the Austin American-Statesman website as follows:

I've been listening to and supporting KUT since I moved here 17 years ago. I just got an email from KUT (which they should have sent earlier, it's true) explaining the reasons for the recent changes. They are financial and listener based.

"...listenership to our weeknight music programs has been flat for 10 years while the station’s total listenership has more than doubled. The programming that we ended, along with canceling an online podcast, will save KUT more than $120,000 a year—money that needs to be invested where more listeners can benefit."

KUT is changing the weeknight shows because not enough people were listening. Radio is not a static entity, and it's not like that comforting old paperback novel that you turn to every couple of years when you can't sleep. Without listeners, radio dies, and however great Larry's, Paul's and Jay's shows were, people took them for granted and quit listening, and new listeners didn't take their place.

The percentage of KUT listeners who are members (i.e., they give at least $40) is shockingly low, although as they have gained listeners, NPR has charged them more for news and other programs. People who give money and fill out the membership surveys affect the programming. Folks who are really interested in keeping certain shows on the air, and not just preserving the status quo for its own sake, should give, write management, and get involved. Listeners aren't contributing enough to pay for programming, so KUT is increasingly turning to corporate support to run the station.

While I like a lot of things about all the old shows, having the same three or four baby-boomer men dominating all the station's music programming for thirty or forty years is pretty monolithic and doesn't allow for new or different points of view. It's a good idea to start finding newer DJs that can carry on the best of the KUT tradition but also bring a fresh sensibility. We all have our memories of the perfect summer, but I don't expect to find a local radio station that will pretend that it's 1985 for the next 30 years, and the aging hippies can't expect to have Armadillo HQ redux forever, either. Things do change, and because they do, we can look back with fondness. The provincial, small-town, Austin-is-better-because-it-never-changes attitude gets tiresome.

I love that "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" was added to the schedule, and I try to listen every week. I don't begrudge anyone who just loves folk music, but I can't say I'm a big fan of "Folkways" or the fact that it takes up such a big chunk of Saturday.

However, I have enjoyed John Aielli's Eklektikos show, and I don't know how anyone thinks he's a moron--if anything, he's almost too didactic and well-informed for radio. Back when he used to do theme days, every day, I marveled at how he could come up with so many different ideas for tying the morning together. Sometimes I have caught him in a good mood and sometimes he's cranky as hell, but overall, I've heard a lot of great music and obscure album tracks I wouldn't have known about otherwise: Fountains of Wayne's "Bright Future in Sales," for example! While I did sometimes get tired of hearing umpteen versions of one song, it's too bad that his playlist has become so homogeneous. All those free-association riffs took listeners on quite a thrilling ride.

KUT, thanks for the memories.

August 1, 2009

Is the Fire Department a Socialist Organization?

Everyone who thinks that all American entities should make a profit, remember this: before we had our current "socialized" police and fire departments, these functions were performed for profit by gangs of street thugs who demanded payment before responding to a crime in progress or dousing a fire. In case of fire, if you hadn't paid off a particular gang or didn't pony up the cash, your home or business would burn, frequently taking the whole block with it. Whichever gang arrived first supposedly got dibs on fighting the fire (and getting the payment), but often several gangs would arrive simultaneously and battle over who was going to get paid. Meanwhile, the fire would burn out of control. This was a major factor in the 1837 conflagration which consumed Manhattan's entire downtown business district, including the merchant exchange and the post office. Some of you may recall this state of things from Martin Scorsese's film "Gangs of New York," about the Five Points neighborhood in the period surrounding the Civil War. There were numerous historical inaccuracies, including the conflation of the Draft Riots and other gang uprisings, but the general lawlessness and misery were not exaggerated.

This is sort of what happens with health care these days, only it's the insurance companies who are fighting not to pay for your care, and they don't have colorful names like the "Dead Rabbits," but soothing marketingese names like "Humana," when they should be called "Inhumana." While you and they fight over who's going to pay your doctor bills, you might get sicker and die before you can sue, or you might give up because you're too sick and tired to fight, or you might just pay up. All of these outcomes benefit the insurance company, which then doesn't have to pay. And now that they've got you on record as having an illness, they can refuse future claims or insist that these must "count towards a deductible," which is always, always the default position on a major claim.

In my experience, I have never had an insurance company cover everything it said it would, including basic care items such as mammograms (deductible), routine annual labs such as pap smears (deductible), ER visits (deductible), and even hearing tests (outright refusal). They always manage to weasel out of paying and threaten my credit history if I don't pay.

The ACL reconstruction surgery I had 15 years ago was preapproved and precertified, and I used an in-network orthopedic surgeon. In return for this, 100% of my costs were supposed to be covered after my co-pays. Instead, I got nasty letters on red paper for five years afterward, telling me that I owed more than $2,000, and threatening my credit rating. At one point, I lost a temp job because I went over my lunch break by two minutes while trying to sort out this problem for the umpteenth time.

Even though I used an in-network doctor and hospital, the insurance refused to pay for the pathologist because they claimed he was "out of network." The pathologist examines the bits that are excised and affirms that the right parts were cut, although if the surgeon has gotten it wrong, it's too late to rectify the situation. I didn't even know a pathologist was necessary until I got the bill; I certainly had no say in who he was, since I was under anesthesia at the time, so how would I have protested? I wondered if I were really supposed to rise up off the operating table in a morphine-induced stupor and ask, "Etthhkyoothe meh. Ith thath an in-nehwuk fpthologst?"

July 27, 2009

Otty Sanchez Sounds Like Andrea Yates All Over Again

There's a tragic story this week about a San Antonio woman who has allegedly killed and mutilated her own baby. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to skip the next paragraph.

Even though Otty Sanchez had been in and out of a mental hospital, she was caring for her three-and-a-half-week-old son and her sister's two children Sunday morning when she "'used a dismember the child, and ate parts of his body, including his brain, before stabbing herself in the torso and slicing her own throat,' police said Monday." She survived her suicide attempt, and is now in the hospital recovering, charged with capital murder and held on $1 million bond. Police also claimed Sanchez said that the "devil told her to kill her son and that she was hearing voices."

Thankfully, such horrendous incidents are rare, but it sounds a lot like the case of Andrea Yates, the Houston woman who drowned her five children in her bathtub in 2001. I read quite a bit about that case, and it was pretty clear from her history of postpartum psychosis that she should not have had more children after her first psychotic episode, much less have been left alone with her children for any period of time. I would say that Yates' behavior was the very definition of insanity--voices were telling her that Satan was inside of her, and she felt her children would go to hell if she didn't kill them--twisted logic, to be sure, but not anything that a stay in prison would change.

Sanchez' mental condition wasn't specified in the intial reports, although it sounds a lot like schizophrenia and/or postpartum psychosis. Unfortunately, most people are still extremely ignorant about mental illness and somehow imagine that people with sick minds can control their harmful impulses or turn off the voices in their heads. It's kind of like expecting a man with broken legs to stand upright. I don't know what it will take to convince people that this isn't possible without medication and treatment. Although in real life, the hallucinations are auditory, not visual, at least "A Beautiful Mind" tried to portray what it's like to be schizophrenic.

The comments posted below the Stateman's story were of the usual "no trial, just fry her" variety, which prompted me also to comment.

The key portions of this story are "Police said Sanchez told them the devil told her to kill her son and that she was hearing voices" and "Sanchez's aunt, Gloria Sanchez, said her niece had been 'in and out' of a psychiatric ward."

Why is a woman who is seriously mentally ill allowed to care for children? Like in the Yates case, the fault lies with the other adults who let this happen. It's like letting a blind man drive a car. She is obviously "sick," as Hook'em98 says, and needs help, not punishment. Her extreme psychosis and its tragic results are punishment enough. Do you think it's any picnic being schizophrenic and hearing voices telling you to do horrible things and then feeling compelled to do them? I can't imagine a hell worse than that. When will people realize that no one signs up for mental illness?

July 14, 2009

Whatever Happened to Civility?

I'm a longtime fan of Roger Ebert's writing, and not only do I enjoy reading his movie reviews, both before and after seeing a film, I also find his blog to be both enjoyable and thought provoking. A recent post, entitled "I Am a Brainiac," deplored the anti-intellectual climate in this country, and the harsh reaction to his panning the new "Transformers" movie. I was moved to comment on his post, and was pleased that he in turn commented on my comment.

I think there are a huge number of people who never bother to consider anything on an individual basis, but merely apply the same sort of knee-jerk approval or dismissal that their parents did--whether it's movies or art, politics or religion. Everything and everyone--respected critics and quote whores alike--gets painted with the same broad brush, and nothing is worthy of a moment's analysis or consideration. Marketing campaigns are swallowed whole. There is no debate, just ad hominem attacks or the loud yelling of some trite comment or slogan--Critic! Liberal! Tree-hugger! Elitist! Socialist!--and trying to drown out the other person. This is a bullies' all-or-nothing, kill-or-be-killed mentality.

To address Chris' comment above, I think most boys are hard wired to like conflict and explosions and fighting more than most girls--but some people, both male and female, appreciate subtlety and nuance, and see the journey as more important than the destination. I don't think that movies that pander merely to our basest instincts can ever be worthwhile art, whether those instincts are bellicose or sexual. Most pornographic movies are laughable as narratives, because they dispense with all attempts at realism or suspense in their headlong (ahem) rush to "get to the good stuff." Movies that don't have any believable characters or plot, but just hurtle headlong into explosions and car chases are equivalent--they're action porn. Unfortunately, I have met men who prefer porno highlight reels to "A Room With a View," and for them, perhaps a movie like Transformers, that makes no sense but is the equivalent of an explosion highlight reel, is just the ticket. Give me "Michael Clayton" any day--it earns its explosion.

Ebert: Porno makes the fatal error of rushing toward and dwelling upon the least visually interesting elements of sex: The rumpy-pumpy and the "money shot." These are the exterior manifestations of events that have their importance in what takes place in the mind. If there were were seduction and foreplay...but the actors don't even kiss. I find it inutterably depressing that people who are flailing at each other's genitals don't even like each other enough to kiss.

I agree with Mr. Ebert. Kissing is the best part. Gotham Chopra said in a recent interview that Michael Jackson called him before marrying Lisa-Marie Presley, and asked for advice on how to please her. The answer? "Foreplay."

June 2, 2009

Can't Christians Turn the Other Cheek?

Yesterday, the New York Times published an editorial on the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the Wichita doctor who became a target because of his willingness to perform to perform late-term abortions. He often helped women who otherwise would have had to carry pregnancies to term that would have threatened their life, health, or fertility, or whose fetuses were suffering from severe, unsurvivable birth defects. One of these conditions is anencephaly, which directly translates as "lack of a brain," but often also means a missing skull and scalp and exposed brain tissue. Perhaps abortion rights supporters should start waving horrific photos of stillborn fetuses at the antichoice protesters. I can't imagine forcing anyone to put their life on hold for months waiting for a miscarriage or to deliver a dead child. Where is the compassion?

My clearest insight into the mindset of antichoice zealots came on the steps of the United States Supreme Court in October 2001. I was minding my own business, looking at a map, when I noticed a man with a sandwich board that read "9/11 is God's punishment for abortion." This is crazy thing to say at any time, but a mere three weeks after the attacks, it was outrageous. I rolled my eyes and tried to ignore him. But he walked up to me, and this was his opening gambit: Are you a baby killer?

I thought to myself, "Oh, man, have you picked the wrong woman to argue with." I replied, "No, I have never had an abortion, but I am adopted, so I don't think I'm necessarily entitled to existence." A child cannot grow to maturity on its own; someone has to nurture it. I then asked him, "So, how many unwanted children have you adopted?" He replied, "Oh, well, that's their job." I frowned, puzzled. "Whose job?" I asked. "They," he replied.

Despite my repeated questions, the man was unable to tell me just who this mysterious "they" were, exactly. He had the time and energy to stand around all day with a hand-made sandwich board, but no time at all for the children he supposedly cared so much about. It leads me to conclude that it's all about self-righteousness for such people, not about actually improving life for anyone. According to the book "Freakonomics," there has been direct correlation between legalizing or, in the case of Romania, criminalizing abortion, and a sharp reduction or increase in crime 18-20 years later. It shows that as far as predicting criminality, there is little more certain than being an unwanted child. All I can say is that if you oppose abortion, then don't have one, and adopt as many abandoned kids as you can. But if you don't put your money where your mouth is, I have little respect for your position.

I also wonder when we have ever heard of a prison warden, guard, or doctor being shot at, much less murdered because they were responsible for executing a prisoner? Plenty of liberals feel that capital punishment is murder, and deplore the system that convicts and executes people who are often innocent, but none of them are contradicting themselves by murdering the murderers. If you are truly pro-life, you don’t murder anyone, ever, period. Jesus said “love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek,” not “get out your weapons.”

May 26, 2009

Healthcare Coverage for All Americans

Recently, I got an email from President Obama asking me to sign my name and stand with him in demanding health care reform. He also asked for personal stories about health care reform, so I wrote the following:

I had health insurance through my employer for eight years. When I was laid off, I continued the coverage through COBRA, although I had to pay the full premiums, which went up by 40% a month later. Because my next employer was given to gossiping about her employees' health issues, I did not feel I could continue COBRA through that company, and instead relied upon my previous employer. It took me another year to find a position that offered benefits, so I came within a week of exceeding the 18-month limit on COBRA. The new position ended after six months, and I again elected to continue coverage through COBRA and pay the premiums out of pocket. They were expensive enough at $340 per month for one person, but I just found out that the premiums have risen to over $600 per month! This amount is unreasonable even for a person who is earning a salary, but for a person on unemployment, it's impossible. It would be difficult to get insurance again if there were any lapse in my coverage, but I find myself faced with having to choose between food and shelter and having health insurance. Then I think about my parents, both teachers, who had to give up their health insurance 26 years ago, only to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and cancer, and I fear a similar outcome.

I know that my story is far from the most dramatic or tragic, but it is unfortunately very common. The current system punishes entrepreneurs and small businesspeople, who usually cannot afford to provide benefits, and their employees. Why do we deny basic health care to so many of our fellow Americans when this denial bankrupts thousands of families, and enriches the already wealthy? Detractors like to compare the possible reliability of national health insurance to the U.S. Postal Service, but for the sake of argument, let's say they are equivalent. Rich people are welcome to send all their correspondence via private carrier, but I at least have the option of paying 47 cents to send a letter, rather than spending $10 on FedEx every time.

If I and the other 50-100 million Americans without reliable coverage were able to pool our resources and spread out the risks across a common health insurance fund like the one enjoyed by federal employees, it would cost a fraction of what we're paying now, and open a whole new world of possibilities for all Americans.

Companies large and small would no longer be obliged to devote their resources and personnel to providing services unrelated to their mission, and would be able to compete with foreign companies. Individuals would be able to start new enterprises, or pursue careers based on their skills and inclinations, not just on which employer offers health benefits.

If there are people who are happy with their current health insurance, I do not wish to take it from them. If people wish to pay for experimental procedures or extra tests out of pocket, I would not deny them that luxury. But I think everyone has a right to basic, affordable health-care access, and it is criminal that here in America, supposedly the richest country in the world, people--including children--are suffering and dying because they cannot get regular check-ups or preventive care. Tens of millions of people like me are just holding on by our fingernails right now, desperately hoping that this will be the year that American legislators vote in favor of universal healthcare access. We're all in this together, so I beg you to do the right thing and help lift this burden.
Here is the link to add your name to the list. Please write or call your elected representative today and insist on health-care access for all. If you don't know the contact information, is an excellent one-stop resource.

April 2, 2009

Why ER is My Favorite TV Drama Ever

NBC's television drama ER is airing its final episode tonight after 15 years on the air. I have been watching since the pilot episode aired, dating back to my first apartment in Austin, and I think I can say that of all of the series I have watched or followed over the years, it is the one that has not only touched me the most, but also taught me the most.

Although the show has inspired several generations of med students, including some friends, watching the grueling process of becoming a doctor made me realize that I didn't want to become one myself, while allowing me to learn a lot about both common and unusual diseases and procedures. I found myself watching the show with the subtitles on so that I could better understand the symptoms each patient presented with, and the doctors' diagnoses and prescriptions. I remember being kind of thrilled when I was doing a temp job 14 years ago at a local hospital, and I knew what all of the orders and supplies were on the bills I was processing: CBC--check; Chem 7--check; #10 French--check. Watching ER also helped me ask my doctors more intelligent questions.

I have long felt that the passage of time is the most heartbreaking thing we humans experience. It is what brings meaning to life, to friendships, to families, to relationships. It gives us new friends and family members, yes, but also ages us, and takes from us the ones that we love. Television shows, especially sitcoms, but also dramas, often succumb to the instant viewer gratification of instantly revealing everything about a character, or creating short-lived goals or personality traits to satisfy a story line.

ER's writing team always recognized the importance of focusing on long-term character and story arcs, and rewarding viewers who stayed with the show and got to know the characters. Some doctors, like Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic), were introduced as distant and mysterious, and the show took several seasons before viewers found out exactly what had happened during the war in Yugoslavia, and why he had lost his faith in God, the catalyst being an archbishop (James Cromwell) who was an ER patient. Because this was revealed so gradually, our knowledge felt earned, like our getting to know a close real-life friend. Knowing how he had tragically lost his first family enriched the experience of watching all of his subsequent romances, and finally the birth of his son. Likewise, knowing Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney) had been through with her bipolar mother, made it easier to understand why she was fearful about becoming a mother herself. I have to give a special commendation to Sally Field, whose portrayal of Abby's mother was so carefully observed that it enabled me to recognize bipolar disorder in a family member.

Sure, there were plenty of spectacular sweeps-month stunts, in which trains derailed, torrential floods washed through Chicago, apartment buildings exploded, psychotics drove tanks through the streets, ambulances crashed, and helicopters went amok. It was as dangerous for actors to star on ER as on the Sopranos, since it seemed that every season, a character or their relative had to die in some spectacular or melodramatic fashion. But always, the characters and their struggles continued in long storylines that were consistently involving, and illuminated complicated social issues--mental illness, war, religion, gay rights, drug abuse, interracial relationships, and work-life balance.

ER has been a sort of residency program not just for fictional TV doctors, but also for an array of actors whose talent was encouraged to blossom on the show. Of course, George Clooney is the most recognizable alum, but Maura Tierney, who was best known for her comedic role on NewsRadio, turned in moving dramatic performances season after season. Visnjic even got to use his experience in a Croatian production of Hamlet in one episode. John Stamos became more than "Uncle Jesse" on "Full House," and Parminder Nagra (Dr. Neela Rasgotra) was able to go beyond the teenage soccer player of "Bend it Like Beckham." Laura Innes (Dr. Kerry Weaver) has gone on to direct award-winning episodes of ER, and I have also been reminded of how much I loved and missed Noah Wyle's* portrayal of Dr. John Carter, the dedicated doctor who begins the show as a clueless med student, but becomes the battle-scarred survivor.

My sincere thanks to everyone who contributed to this show's success over the years. Your characters and stories have touched our hearts.

*Incidentally, at a grand total of 254, Wyle also wins the prize for starring in the most episodes. Next are Laura Innes and Laura CerĂ³n (Nurse Chuny Marquez).

February 15, 2009

Oscar Party 2009

Bollywood comes to Austin this coming Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009! The show starts at 7 p.m., but come at 6:30ish to finish filling out your ballots and get a bite to eat. As usual, costumes and red-carpet glamour are encouraged!