Wednesday, March 31, 2010

March 31, 2010--Too Much Information

Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

For example, one of my over-the-top indulgences is truffles. The black, Périgord variety. A simple dish of pasta with a generous shaving of these divine fungi, though it can set you back $30 or more (depending on the generosity of the shaver), is to die for.

Part of the allure, beyond the earthy aroma and transporting flavor, is the still ancient way in which they are gathered. Pigs, more specifically sows, female pigs, are the preferred means by which the Périgord truffle is discovered nested in the roots of oak trees in the Dordogne region of France. Pigs are domesticated boars and the reason sows are able to discover them and dig them out is because these miraculous truffles secrete androstenol, a hormone produced by boars before mating.

So truffles of the Périgord variety play an essential role in the sex lives of boars--and sows--if truffle gatherers would allow them to not only dig them up but gulp them down. But at more than $100 an ounce on the truffle market (thus my $30 pasta truffle "supplement") they snatch them away, literally from the poor sow's mouth. But if the farmers are not quick about that they are likely to have a finger bitten off. This happens often enough that some modern day hunters and gatherers have taken to using specially trained truffle-sniffing dogs.

So what about domestication? Rather than roaming the forests with a pig on a leash, some have attempted to propagate them, which would make ferreting them out infinitely easier. And who knows, maybe drive down the price. Though I Know I shouldn't get too excited about that possibility.

Truffles have long eluded techniques of domestication, as Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825 noted:

"The most learned men have sought to ascertain the secret, and fancied they discovered the seed. Their promises, however, were vain, and no planting was ever followed by a harvest. This perhaps is all right, for as one of the great values of truffles is their dearness, perhaps they would be less highly esteemed if they were cheaper."

Yes, part of the lore is their rarity and, alas, their cost.

But not to be deterred, and even risking turning truffles into yet another readily available item in the Whole Foods of the world, science marches on; and according to a recent article in the New York Times (linked below), a team of French and Italian researches has just finished unlocking the truffle's genetic code. They have unpacked its genome.

Not in the pure interest of science of course. Why, one might ask, with the secrets of the causes of cancer still not fully know, why would these fungi-mad scientists turn their expensive attention to truffles when other more significant and life-threatening medical mysteries remain unsolved?

The answer can only be truffle mania, and the fact that the best ones go for much more than $100 an ounce.

So what have they discovered?

As one might expect, considering boars' and sows' obsession with the noble tuber, and considering that the truffle geneticists are French and Italian, it's all about sex, sex, sex.

And, incidentally, domestication.

They have found that not only is the active element in Périgord truffles intimately linked to the sex lives of the frustrated scrofa that are tortured in their hunt for truffle thrills, but the truffles themselves are quite sexually active. If true, and who am I to doubt science--we are not here talking global warming--this too might be part of their culinary appeal. After all, anything that might serve as an aphrodisiac comes at quite a dear price.

But before you get too excited, a truffle's sex life is unlikely to wind up as the subject of New York Post headlines. For the foreseeable future we will still have to remain satisfied with those devoted to Tiger Woods and Sandra Bullock's soon-to-be ex.

Until now, like many sad specimens from the plant kingdom, these precious fungi have been thought to lead asexual lives. But the truffle scientists have discovered that they have two sexes, or, to be more botanically precise, two mating types, and by exchanging the spores of both truffles propagate. And propagating, as we know from Darwin, is what it's all about.

With humans principally interested in gathering, selling, and eating truffles, and less about further evolution, this propagation is seriously threatened. Périgord truffle gathering and ingesting, these being the most prized of the various truffle varieties, has so expanded, that not only has the price risen with the demand curve (the Free Market works better here than on Wall Street) but the concomitant supply curve has plummeted. Thus the race to decode their genome. The better to propagate them.

Now that we know there are two mating types, farmers are well advised to seed oak tree roots with both kinds. This will not only hopefully lead to a restored supply but also make the truffles themselves a lot happy while awaiting their ultimate fate.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March 30 2010--Day Off

I will return tomorrow with new and startling information about he sex lives of Périgord truffles.

Monday, March 29, 2010

March 29, 2010--The Tiger Returns

In case you just got back from another planet you know that Tiger Woods returns to action, sorry, the golf wars next week at the Masters.

CBS, which has the rights to broadcast the tournament, is beside itself with excitement. They expect their TV ratings will approach American Idol numbers and commercials are selling like proverbial hotcakes.

If you are wondering how Tiger will be received, there is some insight in a recent USA Today poll which reveals that 75 percent of the public—the general public, not just golf fanatics—welcome him back and 60 percent want him to win, though only 43 percent have a favorable view of him. (Full polling results linked below.)

Clearly Americans are a forgiving people. Just as they also love a spicy scandal. Before news broke of Tiger’s off-the-course escapades, he was viewed favorably by 85 percent of us. And then of course it plummeted and he became the favorite butt of late-night jokesters, including ones who were having their own similar problems.

We loved every minute of this. Most of us, and I mean us, couldn’t get enough of Jay Leno and New York Post headlines—“Cagey Tiger” and “Tiger’s Birdies” come to mind. And of course there was the parade of porno stars and cocktail waitresses who daily titillated us. We waited eagerly for the latest tapes of his raunchy cell phone calls and equally panted and snickered with a mix of excitement and outrage when a stream of text messages was sold to the Enquirer and other publications.

Tiger even managed to push the Octomom and Nancy Grace’s kidnappers and child murderers off her nightly Headline News show.

Some of this, of course, was pure schadenfreude. The guilty pleasure of enjoying news of others’ problems, hypocrisy, and ultimate fall from public grace. Especially the rich and famous and powerful we, in the first instance, placed on pedestals.

And just as that all-too-human pleasure began to fade, and perhaps a modicum of guilt began to intrude upon that enjoyment, if the miscreant came before us and, with tears in his eyes (and it is most frequently his), took responsibility for his transgressions, confessed that he was receiving help for his “problem” either in a secular, recovery-community manner, or from a higher authority, with tears in our own eyes we offered forgiveness. Being sure, of course, to tune in to all his subsequent appearances in the hope that we would see signs of genuine contrition and rehabilitation. Or, in their absence, again take exquisite pleasure in witnessing a relapse.

This is a curious phenomenon. Seemingly universal, at least in the West. From at least early Greek times. More about this in a moment.

Talking with my 102-year-old mother about this the other day, wondering with her what is at the essence of this seemingly contradictory behavior—condemnation coupled with forgiveness--she said that people want to see news of car crashes, assaults, fires, and kidnappings for three reasons—“The other kind of news is boring, boring, boring.”

I agreed with that, having myself slowed down earlier in the day while on I-95 to crane my neck to get a better look at a car crash (there were thankfully, or not, no apparent injuries), but still I continued to think about the deeper sources for this dark attraction.

My mother said that she was looking through a recent issue of Elle magazine and read something by novelist Mary Gaitskill . Before I could exclaim—“You’re reading Elle?”—she said, “It was in an article about betrayed wives. Like Elizabeth Edwards and Eliot Spitzer’s wife, Silda.”

“Go on. This sounds interesting.”

“Well, it is. Gaitskill’s point is that often the wives being cheated on get turned into the villains while the husbands become the victims. John Edwards strayed, according to some, because Elizabeth was the bickering ambitious one in the family who pushed him to do things he didn’t want to do for himself.”

“I heard that and think it’s silly. No matter what kind of a person she might be doesn’t excuse his behavior. If he had enough of the relationship, he should have asked for a divorce.”

“I agree. But this is not what’s most interesting in the article. Here’s what I think helps explain part of what you are asking about the Tiger Woods situation. Let me read you just one sentence. Gaitskill says, ‘Perhaps it should be obvious: Adultery is a social threat that arouses raw anger and fear, which the bellicose then need to discharge rather than merely feed.’

“This for me gets closer to the truth. How things such as cheating on a wife, because it is so disruptive to families and communities, causes what she calls ‘raw anger.’ And since people are not comfortable feeling so much emotion, they have to find ways to discharge it—let it out—as well as feed it. She says ‘merely feed,’ but that still means feed. We seem to have to do both--feed our anger as well as discharge it.”

This felt profound. And useful. But it was a bit more than I was expecting from my mother who these days is more involved with dealing with specific and practical things—like health care reform issues and her own health, which continues to be remarkably good.

So I rang off, thanking her for sharing this and telling her I needed to do some more thinking about our appetite for other people’s bad news. Maybe, broadened now, to include that kind of bad news that is either a direct or metaphoric “social threat.”

The next day, another phrase from Gaitskill that my mother read to me got me thinking about Aristotle. About why he saw the tragedies of Athens’s great playwrights to be so essential to the wellbeing of their society.

He wrote that the course of a play’s tragic action should saturate the spectator with feelings of compassion, drive out his petty personal emotions, and so "purge" the soul through pity and terror. Through what he called catharsis.

Now, though I do not mean to equate whatever might be tragic about Tiger Wood’s fall with, say, Oedipus the king’s, there is still something about what Aristotle 2,500 years ago perceived to be the public’s need to be saturated with while witnessing these kinds of royal downfalls—the need to purge the seemingly contradictory emotions of both pity and terror.

Like it or not, there is the continuing strong human propensity to experience both. And in doing so to proceed with life, to heal the social fabric when it is rent by these kinds of transgressions. We need to be able to find ways to heal.

The Greeks figured it out and so have we: they had Aeschylus and Sophocles; we have Dr. Phil and Oprah.

Friday, March 26, 2010

March 26, 2010--Snowbirding: The Tattooed Girl

We had been in the surgical waiting room for two hours when she showed up. My cousin was having a heart ablation procedure and we were sitting nervously with his wife awaiting the outcome. There were some dangers associated with the procedure, and it took an effort to come up with enough small-talk topics to keep us distracted. So, we welcomed her presence.

Before she arrived I had been chatting up a 92-year-old women whose son was having spinal fusion surgery. She was taking it quite casually. “Oh, it’s nothing to worry about,” she said with conviction, “We’ve seen worse, but we’ve also seen better.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, not really knowing how to respond. “I mean, about the ‘worse’ part. Seeing ‘better’ is of course better.” Even to myself I was sounding like a cliché.

“That’s the way life is,” she nodded, “but I’ll take better any day. Today, I feel sure will be one of those.”

“Better days?”

“Exactly. And I hope for you and your family as well.” She took a small bottle of what looked like chocolate milk from a large carryall. She noticed my staring at it. We were sitting side-by-side on an uncomfortable Naugahyde sofa. “I have my whole life in here. My special foods, my medicines, my car keys, all my emergency numbers, and a couple of sweaters. In my condition, I’m always feeling cold.”

I tentatively asked, “Your condition?” My cousin shifted closer to us so she also could hear. Anything to take our minds off what might be happening in the OR next door.

“Too many to talk about.” She tapped her chest, kidneys, stomach, and right knee. It was easy to figure out that she indeed had too many conditions to want to talk about any. But she was smiling at us as she tried to unscrew the top off the bottle.

“Here, let me help you with that.” It was the girl who had recently arrived. She untangled herself from her chair, where she had been sitting on her folded-up legs, and came over to us. She looked no more than sixteen and was dressed as if she were the third Olsen sister. All hanging vests, key chains, and a slouch cap pulled down obliquely on one side. Everything patterned, nothing matching, but, in totality, quite attractive.

My couch mate handed the bottle up to her. “Thank you, honey. I have such trouble with these. It’s my arthritis.” She stiffly flexed her fingers to demonstrate. “I have to drink four a day, every six hours. It helps with my diabetes.” Another condition to add to the growing list. “If I do this, I can stay off the shots, but I still have to watch what else I eat. And of course take my pills. I’ve got a whole sack of these sugar free shakes with me at all times.” She again gestured toward her bulging tote bag.

“No problem for me,” the girl said, all cheer and generous smiles. “There are a lot of older people in my life. Like my grandmother who’s here having her gall bladder removed. I took the day off to be with her.”

“From school?” the woman asked.

“No, from my job.” Neither of us followed up, feeling that it must be an uncomfortable story for a girl so young to have had to quit school in order to work.

As the girl was standing close to us I had the opportunity to examine her more closely. Characteristic of many her age she had numerous facial piercings. In each ear she had at least four studs. There was a tiny one through her right nostril and at least one more beneath her lower lip. And when she smiled I thought I saw another halfway up her tongue. Nothing that unusual for me since up in New York it is common to see teenagers similarly, in my old-fashioned view, figuratively and literally defaced.

I could see the woman beside me peering at her. This must not be as familiar a sight for her. She reached out as if to touch the girl, her hand trembling, I assumed, from yet another condition. “That is so lovely,” she surprisingly said. I saw then that she was pointing toward a tattoo on the girl’s forearm.

“Oh, that one.”

“You have more?”

“Many.” The girl was grinning with delight. “But this one is for my father. You see it has his name here.” He pulled her sleeve up higher and extended her arm closer to the woman. “It says, ‘Phil. My Dad.’ And has these leaves all around it. Vines really.”

“That’s lovely, dear. And how unusual, isn’t it, for a girl to have one for her father?”

“He was a special man. He died when I was only twelve. I miss him every day. He was raising me after my mom left.”

“Oh, darling. I’m so sorry.”

She gently touched the woman on her shoulder. “Nothing to be sorry about. I had twelve wonderful years with him. Not all my friends can say the same thing. I could tell you some stories about that. But I don’t want to upset you. And then I have my Granny, who they’re working on right now. She’ll be fine. When my dad died she took me in and finished raising me.”

“Aren’t you lucky.” The girl nodded enthusiastically in agreement.

“And as I told you I have more tats. I mean, of these. Tattoos. Wanna see?” She had already sat down on the arm of the sofa and had her arm around the old woman. “I’m Jennie.”

The woman said, “I’m Mrs. Miller. I mean, Mary. Call me that, please.”

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Miller.” Jennie reached out to shake hands and Mrs. Miller reciprocated. “This one on bicep has my name, also surrounded by vines and flowers. See that one over here?” Mrs. Miller put on her reading glasses to get a closer look. She was sipping from her medicinal drink.

“I love the colors. It’s nice that you like flowers so much. I do too. One reason we moved to Florida was so that I could grow them all year long. Up in Wisconsin where my husband and I came from, we had such a short growing season. We were married 62 years before he passed almost ten years ago.” She dabbed a tissue under her eyes. Jennie reached across to gently take it from her.

“I have more!” Jennie bubbled. She was pulling up her trouser leg. “Here, on my ankle. It hurt to have this one done. But it’s one of my favorites. It’s a single red rose. See how the stem reached down into my shoe? I like that. That’s why I wear these high-tops.” She was wearing unlaced black combat boots.

Mrs. Miller bent forward to get a closer look. “Now, don’t make yourself dizzy. Folks with diabetes get woozy so easily.”

“For someone your age, you seem to know a lot about medical things.”

“Not so much about medicine, but, as you called them, ‘conditions.’ So what do you think? Do you like the rose?”

“I do, I do. I think it’s an Heirloom. One of my favorites. I grew them in Wisconsin. That’s one thing I miss being here. Roses. Being able to grow them. The climate is so hard on them.”

“I have more. But in public here,” she looked around and touched her stomach and breasts, “I don’t think I can show you. But I do have one here on my back.” She leaned forward and pulled up her T-shirt. She reached around so that she could get her hand back there to show off some of the tattoo’s special features. And it was quite spectacular—an image of a huge eagle with it’s wings expanded so that they almost wrapped around to the front of her body and long enough so that its tail feathers disappeared below the belt line of her jeans.

“I wish I could show you everything, but that would get me kicked out of here.” She winked at Mrs. Miller.

“Well, I never,” Mrs. Miller said with breathless excitement. “I of course know about these . . . what did you call them?”


“Yes, tats. Billy had one. My husband. But he was in the Navy during the war and all the boys got them to show they were really men and how tough they were. He had an anchor. It was done in the Philippines, I think, and was quite faded. More like a smudge. And yours? What do you think will happen to them?”

“They tell me that with the techniques and inks they use these days it should last longer than me.” She laughed at that thought.

To shift the subject, Mrs. Miller asked, “You said you work, darling?”

“Yes, I do. With everything happenin’ in my life I worked since I was a little kid. Right after my dad died. Not full time then—I did have to go to school, where I was doing very well. I loved school.” He voice softened. “But as soon as I turned fifteen, I quit and began to work full time.”

“I do understand. You seem like such a nice girl.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I do try. It wasn’t always easy.”

“How I know.”

“Well, my first full-time job was delivering groceries for Publix in Hallendale. If you can call that a full-time job. I really worked for tips. They hardly paid me anything. Then I did some waitressing in a luncheonette, and when they went out of business I got an OK job at Denny’s. I made good money there. Of course no benefits. But I was young and didn’t really care about those. Now, as I’m gettin’ older I’m beginning to think about them more.”

“Older? Why, you look like you’re sweet sixteen.”

Jennie grinned. “Not exactly. How old you think I am?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Take a guess.”

“You do look sixteen but I’ll say seventeen since you said you’re getting ‘older.’”

“You’re not even close. I know I look like I’m twelve, but I’m twenty-one. If you don’t believe me, I can show you my driver’s license.” She was reaching around to her hip pocket. She was clearly used to be ID’d.

“Of course I believe you. It’s just that you look so young after all you’ve been through.”

“And so do you, Mrs. Miller.”

“But you don’t even know how old I am.”

“Whatever it is,” Jennie responded diplomatically, “you look much younger than you are.”

“Well, dear, at my next birthday I’ll be ninety-three.”

“You see, to me you look as if you’re not a year older than eighty.” In fact, Jennie was right. Mrs. Miller was quite youthful looking for someone her age and, to quote her, her condition.

“How do you know so much about old ladies? I’ll bet your Granny is not even,” she paused to do the arithmetic, “sixty-five.”

“She’s younger than that. My people start havin’ babies real young. Not me, though, I’m building a career for myself. She’s only just sixty.”

“Really? But how nice. Aren’t you lucky. You’ll have her around for a long time. And I am happy to hear about your career. You’re . . .?”

“I didn’t say but I’m working in a home for folks with Alzheimer’s.” She smiled proudly. “That’s how I know so much about older folks. I’m a nurse’s aide. But I’m going to school at night to become a PN. A practical nurse. And after that, who knows? Maybe even an RN.”

“That’s wonderful. But for someone as young as you, isn’t working with people like that depressing?”

“Not at all. I love all my patients. They inspire me. Even when they are still at the confused stage, when they know what’s happening to them, they figure out their own ways to be happy. They like being read to, even if they can’t follow every word. I read them my favorite poems and short stories. I think they like the sound of my voice.”

“I can see why. You have a lovely voice. You could read to me any time.”

“I would love to do that one day. I don’t mean in the Unit, of course. I mean at your house. If you would have me.”

“That would be my pleasure. Maybe, one day. And what else do you do for your patients?”

“I play music for them. They even like the music I like. Not Rap, which I can’t tolerate, but jazz and even some country music. They like the classics. Dave Brubeck, Patsy Cline, folks like that. I have my IPod all loaded up with things they like and play it for them every day. For some it’s their favorite time. And, you know what else? There’s one more thing I forgot to tell you.”

“What’s that dear?”

“These.” She was pointing again at her tattoos.

“What do you mean?”

“They love my tattoos. This includes some of the patients who are pretty advanced. In a bad way, advanced.”

“I know what you mean. I had a sister who . . .” She trailed off and again dabbed at her eyes.

“They may have forgotten a lot of other things—words, faces, even some of their own family members—but they seem to remember the tattoos and . . . me. In fact, I had the eagle one put on just for them. And the rose. To me they are my flowers.”

“You are such a wonderful girl. I mean, a very special person.” Mrs. Miller reached up to embrace Jennie who slid down to her knees so she could fully return it. They rocked in each other’s arms for a full minute. Tears on both of their faces.

Soon after that Mrs. Miller got good news from the surgeon about her son. He would be fine. They should expect a full recovery and with any luck, after he’s healed, he should be pain free. Jennie’s Granny, as well, came through successfully. She would be able to go home in a few days and Jennie told the surgeon that she would take good care of her. That she was experienced with that. In fact, they didn’t have to send any aides to the house. “No need to waste any money.”

And my cousin too handled the procedure as well as could be expected; and also with any luck would be symptom free very soon and in a week or two could resume his normal life.

One final thing, before we left and before Jennie and Mrs. Miller tried to see their loved ones in the Recovery Room, I noticed them exchanging phone numbers. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jennie one day before too long wandered over to Mrs. Miller’s to visit and to read her one of her favorite stories.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March 25, 2010--Understimulated

Now, let's return our attention to jobs, jobs, jobs.

From this South Florida vantage point, I have been keeping an eye on one large scale, highly publicized jobs-creating stimulus project--the construction of an 84-mile long high speed rail project that, if it ever happens, will connect Tampa with Orlando.

Sort of connect.

I say "sort of" because the train will connect to Orlando's airport but not Tampa's. This means that travelers will need a bus or car to get to the Tampa airport and/or to get to downtown Orlando. Disneyland, of course, will have its own dedicated stop. As will four other locations. This means that the train's 168 MPH capacity will for the most part be wasted since every time it builds up to full speed it will have to start slowing down to get ready to stop.

Currently, it takes just 90 minutes to drive between pretty much any place in or around Tampa to most locations in the Orlando area. So we are not talking about any significant time savings once the tracks are laid and the trains themselves arrive from China, or Canada, or Europe, where sadly they are likely to be manufactured.

For anyone not using the train to travel the 19 miles directly from the Orlando airport to the gates of Disneyland it will be necessary to catch a bus or rent a car. I suspect, that for this reason almost no one will use the train and everyone will do what they have always done--drive.

There is evidence for this. Dade County (and the U.S. government) spent more than a billion dollars back in the 1980s to build an elevated commuter train in the Miami area, and from day one empty Metrorail trains sped alongside car-clogged Route 1 where commuters crept at 5 miles per hour. People here love their cars.

Additionally short-sighted, the current powers that be turned down a request to fund an additional high-speed route--from Orlando to Miami. That might have begun to make some sense.

Making even more sense, according to a Florida Republican congressman, John Mica, no friend of the stimulus program, would have been to fund the construction of a European-style high speed rail line in the already busy Boston-New York-Washington corridor. To quote him, "That would have the most dramatic impact, as ar as a positive result for the country." (Full article linked below.)

And the Tampa-Orlando line will cost U.S. and Florida taxpayers nearly $4.0 billion. If it is brought in on budget. And we know how likely that is.

Meanwhile, in economically depressed Spain, the latest link in their national high speed rail system opened last year and connects Barcelona with Madrid. It stretches 325 miles, trains race along at 186 MPH, and it takes two hours and 38 minutes to travel between both city centers. People are so in love with this new service--it includes amenities similar to what one used to find on airlines before they stopped serving peanuts--that increasingly they have stopped making the six-hour drive or taking Iberia Airlines.

Until recently, up to 90 percent of Madrid-Barcelona travelers went by air; but now more than half use the train and their number is increasing.

As Barack Obama said on Tuesday, when signing the health care bill, this demonstrates that America is able to take on large, complicated issues. On the other hand, a measly 84-mile-long train line that no one will use hardly qualifies.

I'm with Congressman Mica.

March 24, 2010--Joe Biden Is Right

Briefly today--

Some in the media are having fun at Joe Biden's expense. During yesterday's bill signing ceremony, his microphone was open and he was heard to say to President Obama that the passage of health care reform was a "F@#*king big deal."

And it wasn't?

It was also a political f@#*king big deal. If you've been wondering why the Republicans have been doing everything they can to derail it, even yesterday, the day it became law, taking steps to get the courts to declare it unconstitutional, while at the same time claiming its passage would be Obama's and the Democrats' "Waterloo"--if it is, why wouldn't they be gleeful instead of so upset it passed?

For the answer, check the latest Gallup Poll reported in the Washington Post (linked below).

Within 24 hours of the bill's passage, those Americans seeing it to be a good thing jumped by 10 percentage points so that now 50% are viewing it positively. And once the actual benefits kick in, and the lies about death panels and cuts in Medicare and how everyone will have to pay higher taxes (actually, only the top 2% or earners will), when the public realizes that their prescription drugs donut hole is beginning to close and small businesses will begin immediately to get up to 35% in tax credits for what they pay for health insurance for their employees, it might be that the Republicans' glee about how they will romp in the November elections will turn out to be as big a fantasy as the fears they have been working so hard to cynically engender among anxious Americans.

Wouldn't that be rich.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March 23, 2010--LBJ & BHO

One of my closest friends here owns a small business. He employs six, pays them well, and has offered generous benefits. Including health care coverage. But as the recession has bitten into his gross income, he has struggled to maintain their wages and their health insurance. In fact, to do so, he has reduced his own salary. He's that good a guy.

And although he is a staunch Republican and looks forward to what he feels certain will be a GOP resurgence in November and beyond, I was expecting yesterday morning over coffee at the Green Owl that he would at least be feeling good about the provision in the new bill that would offer almost immediately significant tax credits to businesses such as his to offset their cost of providing health coverage.

But no. He was full of spit and vinegar and thinly veiled frustration. Before I could settle in my seat at the counter he raced over and, putting his arm around me, said, "You know I still love you," I have no doubt that he does, "but that abomination of a bill they passed last night is a pile of stinking you-know-what."

"Even the provision that will be good for you? That one that will give you tax credits for what you pay for your employees' health care coverage? That's real money you know. You'll be getting a 35 percent credit--which amounts to cash in you pocket--for every dollar you spend."

"I'll see it when I believe it."

"It's in the bill and will kick in in just a few months."

"We have to find the time to debate the bill because the cost of it is going to ruin us."

"I'll be happy to debate it with you but you have to do one thing first."

"What's that?"

"Read the bill. I'll bet you haven't done that."

"It's written in such dry language."

"I know it's not a page-turner, but before I'll talk further about it with you, you have to read it or a good, non-ideological summary. Like the one you can get from the Kaiser Family Foundation." (To save him the trouble of looking it up, I've linked the KFF website below.)

His sheepish smile suggested that even that would not be something he will do. As they say in my old neighborhood, "Don't confuse me with the fact because my mind's already made up."

Later that day, with a cousin, we wondered together, actually marveled about how, as I put it, "a skinny black guy with Hussein for a middle name" managed to achieve one of the most remarkable social policy achievements in American history. Right up there with Social Security and Medicare. Something that alluded presidents from both parties for more than 100 years--from Teddy Roosevelt, who was the first to propose heath care for all Americans, to his cousin FDR, to Truman, to Lyndon Johnson, to Nixon, of and of course the Clintons. To say that Obama achieved this is because the Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress is not an adequate explanation since this was true for at least a time for all of these previous presidents.

LBJ was able to pass more legislation of this kind than anyone since Franklin Roosevelt. He had a number of unique things going for him: he became president when John Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson was able to use his legacy to rally the country behind JFK's "unfinished agenda." That was emotionally powerful. At least as powerful, Johnson just a few years before had been one of most powerful Senate Majority Leaders in history. He knew what kind of deals he needed to make to with Democrats as well as republicans to secure votes; he knew just how to twist his former colleagues' arms to get them to see things his way; and if that failed, he had the goods on everyone--from their secret caches of cash to their after-hours peccadilloes--and was shameless in using all of these attention-getting methods. In these ways he got the votes he needed to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare, among many others.

From what we thus far know, Obama had none of these at his disposal much less an inclination to use them. It appears that "all" he did was make 85 impassioned speeches about how the time has come to bring health care to everyone; meet endlessly with Republicans in private and public in an attempt to reduce their intransigence (through all the months and many, many votes he got one lone Republican vote, from poor New Orleans Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao who instantly came to "know" better); and he spent even more time with his own party's Blue Dogs and Yellow Dogs and anti-abortionists such as Bart Stupak and right-to-choose activists and the Black and Hispanic Caucuses and single-payer advocates such as Dennis Kucinich. And in the end, he got the votes of Stupak, Kucinich, and nearly every other Democrat.

I hope my friend reads the bill so we can discuss it intelligently. While waiting for that, I suspect he will learn about the tax credit available to him. I hope he receives it, maybe as a result he will be able to hire more people (and receive tax credits for doing that!) and that he'll then come back into the Owl and let me and everyone else there know that this remarkable Democrat achievement is not a pile of . . .

Monday, March 22, 2010

March 22, 2010--Medicare Fraud 101

As we move closer to real health care reform, historic legislation, it may be time to begin to think about what is involved in implementing a comprehensive approach to expanding coverage while reducing costs.

For years we have been hearing that a large portion of the nation's annual cost for Medicare is a consequence of fraud and abuse. Doctors and hospitals charging for services not provided, ordering unnecessary tests, and insurance and pharmaceutical companies stifling competition.

By one conservative estimate this amounted to up to $100 billion, with a B, in 2009. Obviously, just cutting this in half would be of significant help in reducing the ballooning cost of health care, save taxpayers money, and would help pay for the costs associated with expanding coverage to the uninsured.

All good things, and up to this point all empty political promises trotted out when our leaders want to show us that they are being tough about spending our money.

In all of the debate that has raged for 15 months about Obamacare and the health care bill working its way through Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike have spoken many words about reducing fraud and abuse. But I have not heard hardly anything about how this might be accomplished.

Specifically, how do Obama and Congress plan to get after this massive waste?

Thanks to a Website, Medicare Fraud 101 (link attached below) I now know.

The Obama plan has been proven to work in a number of trial runs and, best of all, it will cost us, taxpayers, very little to implement. Here's how it would work:

His anti-fraud approach includes hiring private auditing firms, called Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) to comb health care businesses—including doctors’ billing records—for health care fraud and abuse. The auditors, like whistle blowers, would keep part of what they help to recover.

According to the Associated Press, Medicare pilot programs, using such auditors, recouped $900 million for taxpayers between 2005-08. Not yet the billions in savings promised, but these were small scale, pilot approaches and occurred during Bush administration years when any sort of auditing of corporations or businesses was not a priority.

It is thought that the RACs will provide a huge savings to taxpayers, at minimum cost, just because of the deterrent effect alone. Think about how fear of an IRS audit keeps most of us from not cheating (too much) on our taxes!

Friday, March 19, 2010

March 19, 2010--Snowbirding: The $7.00 Haircut

I have very little hair, but what is left is precious to me. So when in New York, I do not scrimp on haircuts. In fact, I have been known—under some pressure from Rona—to make my way uptown to places such as John Sahag’s salon where I have paid much more than $100 to have my few locks “styled.” There is no volume discount—less is not less, but rather I pay the same as Richard Gere who, with his full head of hair, might very well be in that private styling room facing Madison Avenue.

I selected John Sahag after I read something inspiring about him. It sounded like he was the right one for me. If anyone could do something with my thinning fringe, he would likely be the one. And worth every penny.

Read for yourself from his Website:

After years of studying art and sculpture, John began to experiment by straightening hair out first - and then he would cut and carve shapes into that dry hair - going in and out, shaping, building, structuring hair just like an architect would go about his craft. He created bold and dynamic styles that would just flow into place, as if that style has always been there. Like you were born with it!

In my case, there was no need to do any straightening—untreated, mine hangs pretty limply on its own. But I did like the Sahag emphasis on structuring and building. Especially the building. Of that, I can surely use all that John Sahag can do for me. And if, after all his ministerings, my hair can again look, as they claim, like it was when I was born, well, that would be something.

But I know, I know . . . I have to be realistic.

Down here in South Florida, I have had to think about my hair in a very different way. In fact, since there are no hair “salons” within 20 miles of where we are living, there are more typically barbers, I have not felt the same pressure to dwell too much on my hair. In fact, to keep the sun off my head I tend to wear caps whenever we’re out and so the hair I have is largely out of sight.

During our winters in the south, Rona merely expects me to keep my hair neat. To help with that, she cleans up my neck periodically and does some light trimming around my ears. In truth, what she does every week or so is not so much different than what I pay top dollar for back in Manhattan.

But since we have a few events coming up, where wearing my cap would be inappropriate—Passover at my mother’s, for example--Rona has been nudging me to get a real haircut. Sensing my desire to avoid the subject, she asked, “Why not go back to Jay’s Men’s Barber who did such nice work on you last year?”

“I’m not sure he’s in business any more. What with the recession and his prices—he charged me $25 for a trim and didn’t even wash my hair (that was $5 extra)—when we drove by there last week it looked as if the lights were out. And a few weeks before that it looked as if Jay was alone in his shop, sitting in one of his chairs and reading Maxim Magazine.” I remembered that getting my hands on a copy of Maxim last year helped me deal with spending $25 plus tip on a very ordinary trim.

“Why are you being so frugal? Back in the City you spend more than four times as much on getting your hair styled? I don’t know what gets into you when we’re down in Florida. For example, just the other day, in Whole Foods, you refused to spend $3.95 for a bag of organic spinach.”

“Sorry,” I leapt to defend myself, “but I’m not comfortable paying that much for a handful of spinach that will only make two tiny portions.”

“But the other day we had steak at Cut 321 and they charged $8.00 for a side order of spinach.”

“But it was creamed spinach. You have to pay for the cream. And also the preparation. Also, for the gas they use, for washing the dishes and pots, and of course there’s the rent and the profit. If I’m going to make spinach at home I don’t want to pay Whole Food prices.”

“You’re getting to be impossible. But do me one favor and get your hair cut. I don’t care how much or little it costs. But get it done. Please! You know how upset your mother gets if you show up at Forest Trace with shaggy hair. If not for me, for her sake. She’s nearly 102. It’s the least you can do.”

“I hear you. But lately you’ve really been on my case about haircuts. With this hair,” I took off my cap and ran my fingers through my few remaining hairs, “who cares what it looks like?”

“Well, I do. I’m the one who has to look at it.” And with that she turned from me and strode up Atlantic Avenue.

With the retort about having to look at me, I knew I had better locate someone to cut my hair. And soon.

I am pleased to be able to report that soon arrived just this morning.

Rona had heard about a tailor who did an excellent job of altering clothes; and since we had made a successful visit to the Sawgrass Mall where both of us had found slacks at Neiman-Marcus’ Last Call, where unsold clothes from all of their stores in the southeast are gathered and put on sale at exceptionally good prices, we both had trousers that needed hemming.

So last week we made our way to Hilmi‘s in the Carnival Flea Market. A large, 35,000 square-foot barn of a place subdivided into more than 100 tiny shops separated by unadorned plywood walls. They range up and down aisles with alliterative names such as Balloon Boulevard, Popcorn Place, and Cotton Candy Lane. Some sell discount cosmetics; others ladies sleepware; another, men’s belts; at yet another you can get house keys duplicated. And in the middle of this organized chaos, tightly squeezed between a Tee-shirt booth where they silkscreen a wide rage of Yiddish expressions onto shirts and aprons, and a jewelry repair stand, at the intersection of Circus-Circus and Fantasy Fairway, sits Hilmi‘s.

We had heard about him from a cousin, an excellent shopper who insists on high quality goods and services while paying careful attention to the price of things. Though there is nothing fancy about either the Carnival or Hilmi‘s, quite the contrary, if while here we have become reasonably comfortable shopping at Wal-Mart’s for paper goods and socks and such, and sitting down for an occasional early-bird dinner at 5:30, why not, we thought, put aside our downtown pretensions and give Hilmi a try.

How bad could it be? Even if the hems didn’t turn out to be perfect, not as good as we have come to expect from our Lexington Avenue tailor, the pants we bought at Last Call were 75 percent off, and so what was there to lose? Especially at $7.50 a hem.

So yesterday, after breakfast, after waiting a week, we returned to the Carnival Flea Market to pick up our slacks.

Hilmi apologized that they weren’t ready. “I know I promised, but one of my regulars came in with a dress for her son’s wedding. She lost six pounds from worrying about the caterer, between us pounds she’ll never miss, and told me it was falling off her. What could I do for her she asked? And you know me,” which we in fact didn’t—this was our first experience with him, “I mean you don’t know me but if you did you would know that I would drop everything—your slacks for example—to take care of her. The last thing I wanted was for her to embarrass her son. He is such a fine boy and his fiancée’s family are from very fine people. So I said to her, ‘Mrs. Siegelman, there is nothing to be hysterical about. I can make a perfect fit for you. Losing a little weight from a tailor’s perspective is a much better thing than gaining. Since there is so little extra material, I would have had to put in a gusset; but in your case, no problem.’”

“You do not have to explain,” Rona is very understanding about these things, “We live close by. We do not need these pants. Actually, I don’t even know why we bought them. But he Steven said, ‘How can we not? They are more than half off.’” She shot a look at me, “I don’t know what’s gotten into him. If something is half off he’ll buy anything. I can’t tell you how many pots we have from Home Goods that we don’t need. I don’t think we’ll have room in the car when we drive back to Manhattan—that’s where we’re from--for everything he bought.”

“This too I understand,” Hilmi said sympathetically, “this seems to happen to so many snowbirds from New York,” Rona was nodding in vigorous agreement, “but there is no need for you to come back tomorrow. Take a walk around the shops here. Did you see the new one that sells health food at discount prices? Whatever you buy you don’t have to take in the car to New York with you. You can eat it while you’re here. All I need is another half hour to finish yours, which by the way is made from very nice fabric, and I will be done.”

Rona and I exchanged a look and said to Hilmi and I said, “We’ll see you in half an hour. And, Rona,” I added, “look, right here is a man who does jewelry repair. You’ve been after me for months to get the latch on my watch bracelet fixed. And also to have it cleaned. He doesn’t look busy. Maybe he can do the repair and clean it for me while we’re waiting.”

“Are you serious?” Rona whispered to me so the jeweler would not overhear her, “Didn’t you tell me the other day that that Oris watch of yours has become very valuable? You saw one just like it on the Internet, you claimed, that they wanted $4,000 for. If you want to get a watch like that fixed while we’re here we should drive up to Palm Beach. I think they have a Tourneau there.”

“This place looks nice to me. It’s so clean and neat as compared to some of the other booths. And he looks Jamaican. I think they have very good jewelers in Jamaica.”

“You’re making that up. What do you know about Jamaican jewelers? You’ve never been there and never used any jeweler at all, much less one from Jamaica.”

“That’s true, but I think I read about this somewhere.”

“You can’t fool me with this nonsense. I know what you’re thinking. It will be cheaper to get it done here. I’m sure that’s true, but still . . .”

“Let me ask him. It doesn’t hurt to ask does it?” And with that I turned to him and showed him my watch. “Do you think you could fix the clasp and also clean the band? It hasn’t been done in a long time.” Rona had subtly pivoted away so as not to be a part of the decision making and was thumbing through the Tee shirts with the cutesy Yiddish sayings.

“I can see that,” he said stiffly. He put on his magnifier glasses and peered expertly at the watch. “Yes, I can do the work. This, actually, is a very fine watch. From the 1950s I would say. Incabloc.” I must have looked puzzled, “I mean, self-winding, isn’t it? Quite rare. They only made them for a short time. And rather few of them. I’d say this must be worth a few thousand. Do you have any interest in selling it?”

“Well, no,” I said, feeling proud of myself. And too Rona, who was still pretending to be interested in the Tee shirts, “You see. I told you here’s a man who knows his watches.”

“Of course I do,” he said with a bit of offended pride, “I have been doing this kind of work for more than 25 years. Do not be fooled by these surroundings.” With his hand he made a sweeping gesture that took in a quadrant of the flea market. “I can assure you that you will be pleased with my work.”

Hearing this and now clearly thinking that perhaps I had stumbled on a person well qualified to do this relatively basic job—I was not after all asking for the watch to be overhauled--Rona turned back to him and said, “You couldn’t possibly do it now? We have a half hour to wait while Hilmi finishes hemming my pants.”

“That, madam, would not be a problem. Walk around—not that I expect you would find much, or anything, to interest you—but a few of the stalls are not entirely uninteresting. I know that you are from Manhattan. I heard you tell that to Mr. Hilmi. Most of the people who come in here are from very different places.” I thought I caught him winking at Rona, “But at least you will have something to keep you occupied while you are waiting.”

He and Rona exchanged a knowing smile and she then said, “Thank you. Also, how much will this be? To work on his watch?”

“Well, let me see again what’s involved,” he said as he let his jeweler’s glasses slide from the top of his head to the bridge of his nose. I was holding my breath. “You will pay cash, I assume?” Rona nodded. “Then it will be fourteen.”

“That will be fine,” we said simultaneously; and, wanting to get away before he had a chance to reconsider, we added, “We’ll roam around and be back to pick up our pants and the watch.”

And with that, without another word passed between us, Rona turned right toward Candy Apple Lane and the hair care stand and I swung left and headed for Magic Way and the belt stall. I could always use a $6.00 stretch belt. We did need a little time apart. Unspoken was our plan to return in half an hour and rejoin each other at Hilmi’s.

But at Morty’s I could not find a belt to my liking. Actually, I found many belts to my liking—who could pass up three-for-fifteen dollars?—but none of them could pass Rona’s muster. They were admitted cheaply made. Could anything else be true for belts at this price? Too bad.

I wandered toward Clown’s Court where I found the health food stand. In truth, it was a nut and candy shop. Not much looked appetizing and less felt healthy. Thus, I drifted north up Clown’s Court, slowing down since it was only about five minutes since Rona and I had gone our separate ways. I still had lots of time to kill.

When I got to the intersection of Clown’s and Carousel Courts, as if in a mirage, as if conjured directly from my imagination, I came upon . . . a haircutting stall!

Six hand-me-down barber chairs, at each a lady barber, and in each a gentleman at least well into his seventies. Actually, perhaps closer to his eighties. And all with much less hair than I!

These women, I thought, must be more experienced with cutting—rather trimming—hair such as theirs and mine than John Sahag is likely to accrue in ten lifetimes of styling hair on Madison Avenue.

I could see no Richard Gere in any of the battered barber chairs and none who sat waiting in a ring of side chairs that faced the haircutting action. “How does this work?” I asked one of the men reading the Sun Sentinel.

“What? What?” he said, “I can’t hear you. My hearing aid batteries are dying.” Smiling, he looked up, “Just like me.”

I was puzzled, “I’m not following you,” I said.”

Dying,” he boomed, “Like my batteries.” He tapped one of his mammoth ears with a trembling hand. “But if you’re asking how this place works, go over there—see those little cards on those hooks?—and take one of them. The ones on the left. It has a number on it. I’m 24.” He held his card up in front on my face. “And see, Lois over there,” he pointed in the direction of the barber at the first chair who had shoulder length hair that looked as if she had given it a Toni Home Permanent. Not a good sign, I thought. “Lois is terrific. The best one here. Maybe you’ll get lucky and she’ll do you. Everything in this life is a matter of luck. She’s cutting number 21. That guy over there with the stomach is 22. And that little fellow right here,” he was pointing again, “the one with the goiter, he’s 23. One before me.”

He continued, “I mean he’s not 23 but at least a hundred if he’s a day.” He grinned at his little joke. “Hardly makes sense for him to get his hair cut, if you know what I’m driving at. He’s got one foot in the you-know-what. Probably getting trimmed up for the services.” He leaned very close to me, “His, I mean.” He guffawed at that which in turn brought on a spasm of coughing. “I probably should go with him when they take him away. I got this emphysema.” I then noticed his oxygen tank. “A bad case. I’ll for sure be a goner in a month.”

Seeing my shocked look, he quickly added, “Just kidding. That’s me. Always making a joke. But if you get a move on you can be 25. The number 25 I mean. They move us along pretty quick here. If you get that number, take a copy of the AARP Magazine from right there by the numbers,” clearly there were no Maxims, “and maybe you’ll luck out and you’ll get Lois and she’ll take good care of you.”

He looked up at my nearly non-existent hair, “Though time and nature have already taken care of you. By my calculation,” he looked at his watch—I couldn’t help but notice that it wasn’t an Oris, “they’ll have you in a chair in no more than ten minutes; and with what you’ve got left up there on top,” he chucked again at his own joke, “it’ll take maybe five minutes to do you.”

This was feeling like fate to me—first the Jamaican jeweler and now this barber kiosk—and so I thought, what do I have to lose, and went over and took a ticket. Number 25, just as he said. And the AARP Magazine. I came back with it and sat next to my new friend. “The best thing of all,” he said, “it that the cut will set you back just seven bucks.”

Incredulous, I asked, “How much?” Thinking maybe he was joking again or already beginning to lose his marbles.

“You heard me. Seven smackers. Give the girl a three-dollar tip and walk out of here for ten dollars and feel he breeze around your ears. It doesn’t get much better than that.” Quickly switching gears and extending his palsied hand, he asked, “By the way, where you from? I’m Max and you’re . . .?”

“New York. I mean Manhattan. Downtown.” I very much wanted to distinguish myself from the other senior citizens slumped in the barber chairs. “Steve, I’m Steven.” I took his leathery hand in mine.

“Well, then, you’re in for another lesson about why snowbirding is such a wonderful thing. What’s a cut set you back up there, Stevie? I mean a ‘styling’? That’s what they call it, right?”

I was ashamed to tell the truth and so I fibbed, “A lot more than that. A ten is about how much I tip the girl who washes my hair.”

“Well here you won’t have that problem. And I hope you washed your hair yourself before you came here. You see those signs pasted on all the girls’ mirrors?” He read one to me, “’ Be Sure to Wash You Hair Before Getting Your Hair Cut.’ Though if you didn’t,” he said reassuringly, “That’s OK. Here they won’t be turning away business”

“Well, as it turns out I did. First thing this morning.”

During our little exchange, numbers 22 and 23 had been called. Just as I had been told to expect. “It’s looks as if you’re next,” I said.”

“That’s right,” he said while checking on progress at the other four chairs. “It’s looks to me as If I’ll have Tanya today. Which is fine. She’s quite a card. Never stops chattering away. From Russia originally. Just like me. Of course I came here 100 years ago!” More laughing and coughing. “And it looks as if you’ll have Lois. Just as I was hoping. She’s the best one.”

“We could switch numbers if you like,” I offered.

“No, but thanks. That’s very kind of you. Since this is your first time here so you should start off with the best. She’ll have you looking like George Clooney in no time. I mean the way he’ll look in fifty years. Just kidding,” he assured me, “But next time, we’ll fight for Lois.”

“Can’t you make an appointment to have Lois cut your hair? Up in New York we can ask for whoever we want.”

“That may be true up there,” he said, “How long you say you’ve been down here in Florida, son?” It felt nice at my age to be called son. “For $7.00, which you notice is the Senior RateMen’s, as opposed to Seniors I suppose, costs a whole $10.00—they don’t make appointments. Up there in the Apple, where whatever it is they do to you costs 50 bucks,” I was reluctant to interrupt to have him up his estimate, “I’m sure they’ll send a car to pick you up.”

And with that his number was called. He trundled over to Tanya‘s; and almost immediately Lois called 25 and I hopped over to her, hoisted myself into her chair, and introduced myself.

“I only have a few minutes,” I said, “I need to meet my wife over at Hilmi’s,” Lois looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language.

“I have no idea who he is,” she said while fastening a plastic sheet around my neck. “I work here ten hours a day, six days a week, and I don’t have time to wander around this place. One day maybe I’ll have a chance to do so.”

“I know what you mean,” I muttered, feeling a little guilty that I had gotten us off to a tense start. “Sorry, I only meant to say that I have to meet my wife, Rona, in a few minutes, we have a few things to pick up at one of the shops over there and if I’m late she’ll worry about what might have happened to me.”

“When she sees you she’ll think she’s married to a new man.” She was running her fingers through my hair, lifting it. It is always so dry that from the tousling it remained sticking up in the air as if in a senior-citizen punk look.

“No problem at all. I’ll have you back on your feet in just a few minutes. Where you from?”

“New York.” I left it at that, thinking maybe I would fit in better if she thought I was as from upstate.

“Manhattan, right? You feel like you’re from there. I can tell from your shoes.” I looked down at them. They were my basic Eccos. Nothing really special. “And you’re all in black. A dead giveaway. So what can I do? Just clean you up?”

“Yes, that’s what Rona would want. I’m doing this for her—she says she has to look at me—and my mother. She’s 102 and we’re going to see her in about ten days, and she gets upset about what she says her friends will think if I come to her place looking shaggy.”

“Shaggy, I promise you you will not be.” And with that she began to snip away around my ears. “I’ll even clean up all that hair in your ears if you’d like.” I nodded. “Don’t move your head. I don’t want to clip one off. Isn’t it amazing, though, how men of a certain age have more hair in the noses, eyebrows, and ears than on their heads?” She tapped the top of mine as if to emphasize her point. “Well, I have some good wire cutters here for your ears.” She must have felt me stiffen, “I’m just playing with you. Without a little humor the day drags on forever. And,” she said softly to me, “you’re a lot younger than all these others fellows.” This made me feel decidedly better.

“So there you are,” it was Rona’s familiar voice, “I thought I lost you. I’ve been wandering up and down every aisle. And of all places, here you are.” I slid down in the chair fearing what might be coming next. “I see you found a haircutter’s. This is good. And long overdue.” Would she be upset that I was trusting my hair to someone working in such a, how shall I put it, basic place?

“Meet Lois,” I said preemptively. “Everyone says she’s the best.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Rona.”

“Yes, I know. From Manhattan. I can tell. Like your husband you’re also all in black.”

“I like that,” Rona laughed. “We do stick out in a crowd. Neither one of us are very much for pastels. I have green skin and look at him. He needs black as camouflage.” They both laughed. “I’m teasing of course. He’s actually in very good shape. I mean, for someone his age.” They joined in more conspiratorial laughter.

“I’m almost done,” Lois said. She was buzz-cutting the few stubbly bristles that dotted the top of my head. To give it a cleaner look. “He handled things very well.” She was removing the sheet and brushing the remains of the hair clippings from the back of my neck. “Does he use any guck?” she asked Rona.

“Just a little. All things considered, for what he’s got there a little is more than enough.” More shared chuckles.

I slipped Lois a folded up ten plus two singles. I wanted to make a good impression. “That’s for you. Keep all of it.”

“It looks very nice,” Rona said, “Thank you indeed. Lois, right?” Lois nodded. Rona asked me to turn around. “Very nice indeed. I like what you did with the back. You made him look like Richard Gere.”

“Fifty years from now,” Max chimed in with a snort and cough from the adjourning chair. Clearly his hearing aides batteries were working again.

Smiling toward him, Rona said to Lois, “I find that the places down here take too much off.”

“That’s because they think,” Lois confided, “that unless they get a lot taken off that they’re not getting their money’s worth. But I realized that he, that both of you, are from New York. I mean Manhattan, and so I gave him a Madison Avenue cut.” How did she know about that I wondered.

“We have to run,” Rona said. “But we’ll be back in a few weeks. I’m getting to like this place.” I noticed that she had a small shopping bag. She must have bought some cosmetics while she was wandering.

I got off the chair and Rona took my hand as we walked down Clown’s Court back toward Hilmi’s. Both hems were finished and both pants fit perfectly. Thrilled, Rona gave him $15.00--$7.50 each. And my watch also was ready. The bracelet fit perfectly and the stainless steel band was so lustrous that it glinted in the fluorescent light. When it was new 60 years ago it never looked so good! Rona happily gave him $14.00 in cash.

With everything so satisfactorily accomplished, I turned toward the exit but Rona stopped me. “Before we go, take a quick look at what I bought.” She held up the bag so that I could see it.

“I can look at it when we get home.” I didn’t really need to see what she had bought at the cosmetic’s stall.

“Look at this,” she said, reaching into it. “Isn’t it terrific? It’s something you’ve been looking for since we arrived. To go with that flashy pair of red pants you bought at Last Call. The one’s you promised me you would wear only in Florida. That you would leave here for next year and not take with you to New York.”

So it was something for me. I was, then, quite curious. “Look,” she pulled it from the shopping bag, “it’s a stretch belt! I got it at a place here called Morty’s. On the way to Lois’. For only $6.00. If you like it we can get two more. Morty told me if you did he’d charge us only $15 for all three!”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

March 18, 2010--Race to the Bottom

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which helps coordinate policies for 30 of the world's richest countries, reported recently that of these 30, only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey, and Mexico have lower high school completion rates than the United States. (See linked New York Times article.)

In addition to the UK, Germany, France, Canada, Sweden, and Norway, countries doing better than us include South Korea, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.

So Slovakia is trouncing us and we're grouped with Greece and Spain and Mexico--all of which might outstrip us in educational achievement within a decade if current trends continue. And we know what's happening with them: Spain has unemployment as about twice the rate as we; Greece as a country is functionally bankrupt; and about the situation in Mexico the less said the better.

Testifying before Congress last week about the O.E.C.D. report, one of the world's leading experts on national school systems, Andreas Schleicher, said that the reason we are slipping further and further behind is not just because we have so many dysfunctional schools (which we do) but also because too many of our families, and our culture, "undervalues education."

Senator Tom Harkin agreed, asserting that we are "over-entertained and distracted." He could also have said that in addition to the distractions that we pursue as we saturate ourselves with sports and video games, we make things worse by trivializing the news when we turn political discourse into just another form of entertainment, ironically where the fake news on Jon Stewart's Daily Show is more serious and nuanced than what we get from the networks and cable channels.

The world used to turn to us to learn what to do to enhance social and economic development. In my early years as an educator, during the 1970s and 80s, a steady stream of Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans, as well as Africans, regularly came to visit our public schools, colleges, and universities. We and these institutions were the envy of the world. These visitors realized that our economic vitality, frankly our global dominance, was as much the result of our expansive and high quality public and private education system as the American form of capitalism.

They took these lessons home, build more and more schools, expanded access to educational opportunity at all levels, and developed better and better ways to provide instruction.

Now we need to turn to them to see what we can learn. For some this will mean swallowing a little pride--we teach other countries what to do, super-patriots say, and we have little to learn from anyone else. But there may be things we can take from Finland, which has the world's best-performing education system. Largely because of the way they recruit, train, and reward teachers.

And while we struggle to figure out how to help more of our young people graduate from high school--at best only between 60 and 70 percent do--South Korea which was devastated after World War II and the Korean War now boasts the world's highest high school graduation rate--more than 95 percent. What are they doing that we might benefit from knowing? We should find out.

Our long term survival in a very competitive world that values and requires all citizens to be well educated could depend on what we can learn from Poland and Slovakia. We may not like to acknowledge this, but we had better get our act together or we will be rapidly overtaken.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

March 17, 2010--"Everything Needs A Start"

At his appearance in Stongsville, Ohio on Monday, President Obama attempted to personalize the final stages of the heath care reform debate.

He told the town hall audience a story about one of their neighbors, Natoma Canfield. She couldn't be there, he said, to introduce him because she was in the Cleveland Clinic undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for leukemia. She is a waitress and until recently paid for her own health insurance. Since she had another form of cancer 15 years ago, she could only get insurance with a high out-of-pocket premium--she had to pay the first $4,000 of any treatment--and that the annual cost of her policy was more than $10,000. She was lucky to be able to buy any insurance at all. But as the fees went up and up, she was increasingly unable to pay for coverage. Just a few months ago things got so bad for her that she cancelled the policy. And then just days after that was diagnosed with leukemia. Unbelievable.

So now she is undergoing at least a month of treatment and does not know how she will be able to pay her hospital bills. Her only substantial asset is her house. It was her parents' home. They literally built it.

(See linked New York Times story for a report about the rally in Ohio.)

Over the past year, Obama and others have told many stories of this kind. His own mother died of cancer, unable to pay her bills. But somehow Natoma Canfield's story stood out, moved Obama, and he worked it into one of his final speeches before the impending vote in the House and then the Senate.

But Natoma's story not only is failing to move every single Republican in Congress, but some key Democrats as well. Not the so-called Blue Dogs who are worried about costs or those who are obsessed about abortions, but a few so-called progressives both in and outside Congress

Dennis Kucinich and Michael Moore, for example, both of whom have declared that the current version of the health care reform bill is so flawed--essentially because it does not include a public option or, for Kucinich, it doesn't expand Medicare to cover everyone--that to them it is such a bad bill that they are hoping it doesn't become law.

Here's my question to them and those on the extreme left who agree with their kill-the-bill views--Why are so many white, well-off people like you telling the rest of us that the current health care legislation deserves to be defeated? Why are so few liberals calling you out for advocating a strategy that is clearly racist and classist in its effect on working people?

When told about this opposition, from her hospital bed, Natoma Canfield spoke just four words, and they were more insightful and eloquent than the thousands we've heard from the Dennis Kucinich's of the world. She said, "Everything needs a start." A start like getting 31 million people more covered.

To Kucinich and his ilk, unless everyone is covered beginning this summer the bill is not worth passing. And since it doesn't have a public option, and thus will lead to more profits for insurance companies and medical professionals, it should be resisted. To them it's better to leave the 31 million uncovered for the foreseeable future than to assent to something less than what they see to be perfect.

And further to Kucinich and Moore I say--Easy for you to play these games with people's live--literally their lives--while you live your own comfortable lives of self-proclaimed virtue. And, I ask you, don't you even know your legislative history? You who posture as all-seeing and all-knowing. Have you forgotten that the Social Security legislation that was originally passed in 1935 has been amended many, many times by Congress in attempts to improve it? In the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Have you forgotten, if you ever knew, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended the following year so as to assure that people's voting rights were protected? And closer to home, have you forgotten Congressman Kusinich that your favorite, Medicare, which was first passed by Congress in 1965 and signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, has also been amended numerous times? And in that way it has been made better? In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Including by your own votes Congressman.

Natoma Canfiled may not have your fancy education, your comfortable life, or your seat in Congress (or have won an Academy Award), but she knows more about how things really work than either of you, Michael Moore and Mr. Kusinich. That's what she meant when she said, "Everything needs a start."

If you had any smarts at all to go with your ego and ambition, you would know as she does that if you were to help get this friggin bill passed as it is emerging it will be a start. Just that. And that you will be able to revisit it over the years and thereby hopefully improve it.

Actually, I have a better idea. Let's not leave it to Dennis Kusinich to work on improving this bill. Let's get Natoma Canfiled healed, get her out of the hospital, and then let's help her run for Congress. She lives in Dennis Kucinich's district. Perfect. Let's help her raise the money to defeat him. He's been there too long and is too much in love with himself to any longer understand or feel the needs of "average" people.

Considering the mood the country is in, this is a real possibility. And after electing Natoma Canfield we'll have one smart waitress in Congress representing real people in place of that stuffed shirt from Cleveland.

(End note--Reports are circulating that Dennis Kucinich is having second thoughts and may "hold his nose" and vote for the bill. He has a press conference scheduled for later today. Maybe he is feeling the heat from President Obama. More likely, he doesn't want to face someone such as Natoma Canfield in a primary battle. Above all else, including principle, he loves being in Congress. And the spotlight. But, in the meantime, I'll take his vote.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

March 16, 2010--U.S. to Israel: "Call Us When You're Serious"

As an American and as a Jew I write this in great pain.

Tom Friedman got it right the other day in his column in the New York Times when he wrote that our proper response to Israel after they announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem--the Arab Quarter--should have been:

"You think you can embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences? You have lost total contact with reality. Call us when you’re serious. We need to focus on building our [own] country.” (Full column linked below.)

The press focused on the fact that this announcement occurred during Vice President Biden's visit; but, as usual, chasing the gossip, they missed the larger point--the announcement was not offensive because it embarrassed Biden (he's a big boy and can handle embarrassment) but because of the arrogance of the Israeli government's policies toward the Palestinians and the occupied territories.

Thus they did not need to apologize for the timing, as they did, but rather need to rescind the policy.

Don't hold your breath.

It is time for us to disengage from the Israeli government, telling them that they are on their own, that we will not be held political hostage by the Israel lobby here in the United States nor will we allow premillennialist Christians, also here, help drive U.S. policy toward Israel, much less the rest of the Middle East. For, to be sure, it is the confluence of pressure from organized conservative, truthfully fundamentalist Jews who are more loyal to Israel than to the United States plus that from those Evangelicals who see it necessary for Israel to occupy all the lands from the Nile in the west to the Tigris-Euphrates valleys in the east (read, Iraq) in order to bring about the Rapture, the Final Days, and the Last Judgement. Just what we need.

This unholy alliance between these most fundamentalist of believers for decades has managed to hold our Middle East policy hostage while they pursue their own narrow, doctrinaire beliefs and practices. They are largely behind our expansionist polices in the region and have contributed mightily to the inflexibility of our policy toward Iran and the Arab world.

If Iran is in fact a threat beyond its borders, and one can make a non-jingoistic case that it is, the threat Iran poses is most immediately to Israel. We have stood steadfastly beside Israel as its closet friend and defender since its founding in 1948, and we continue to do so, in spite of the beginning, at last, of some tough-love talk from the Obama administration.

But Israel has heard versions of this before; but never did we, as Friedman suggests, fold up our papers and walk out of a visit when the Israel government has been at its most intransigent. As during Biden's visit last week.

The time has come that no matter the threats that they face, or imagine they face, we need right now to tell Israel that unless our relationship works in both directions--that they take into consideration the threats that we are confronting, including from an inflamed Islamic world--we will no longer stand unequivocally beside them.

At the moment they still have a version of a blank check from us. If within the next few months Israel decides to take preemptive action to reduce Iran's nuclear capacity and Iran, as one would expect, were to retaliate, we are on record as saying that we will come to Israel's direct defense. So we could easily find ourselves in a third war against an islamic country.

And, between now and then, if we do not reverse course, we will continue to stand by and mutter impotently while Israel expands its settlements in the West Bank, all in the name of security, while in fact making themselves--and us, thank you--much, much less safe.

Some ally.

Monday, March 15, 2010

March 15, 2010--Snowbirding: Andy Griffith Comes to Florida

One of the good things about wintering in South Florida is that we get to see a lot of movies. Virtually all those that eventually are nominated for best-picture because they tend to get screened late in the year so they will linger on the minds of critics and Academy members when it comes time to do the voting. This turns out to be perfect timing for us.

And so we saw A Serious Man (my favorite), Up In the Air (my second choice), Hurt Locker (third on my best list), Precious, Blind Side, A Single Man, Inglorious Bastards, District 9, An Education, of course Avatar (at the local IMAX), and even Up. This one we watched on DVD. I couldn't handle the possibility of being spotted by any New York City friends going to see a movie made for five-year-olds!

Uncrowded theaters is another plus. That is unless one of the retirement community buses shows up and disgorges 35 hard-of-hearing seniors who invariably wind up watching our film, sit right behind us, and spend the entire movie asking, sotto voce, "What? What did he say?"

With 18 screens at the Delray Regal you would think they could have made other plans--Dear John is also playing and they probably would have liked that more than A Single Man or District 9. But oh well, at $5.50 for an early-bird ticket there's not much I feel entitled to complain about.

Except for an article I spotted in the New York Times about the state of Florida Film Commission, or whatever it's called, trying to get the legislature to modify the amount of the tax rebate money Florida gives to production companies who make a feature film in the state. (Linked below.)

Many others are doing this these days--if you make a film in New York City, for example, the state and the city chip in with a 35 percent tax credit to help offset production costs, feeling that by attracting filmmakers they will create good jobs. And jobs are the name of the game these days. Especially in Florida where 1.1 million are officially unemployed and the general economy is in a state of virtual collapse. So I was expecting to see ober-generous tax credit percentages. If Texas offers 17.5 percent and New York 35 percent and Michigan a whopping 42 percent, surely Florida would put a competitive tax offer on the table.

In fact, as one would expect during hard time, the recommendation does call for an increase; but in a very unusual, very Florida way.

The current rate here is 20 percent, modest in comparison to many states, but Florida's Republican leaders, friends of the private sector as one would imagine, want to increase that by an additional 5 percent. But, and this is not an insignificant but, this would be only for "family-friendly" films. As the bill's sponsor, Representative Stephen Precourt put it, by family-friendly he means to encourage "film making akin to The Andy Griffith Show."

As a result, Bait Shop (whatever that is or was) was rejected by the Film Commission for the supplement because too much booze flowed in the script and Confessions of a Shopaholic also was banned because it included too many shoe fights. Truly. I suppose it was deemed to be too fetishistic.

Mind you, in Texas, where they just voted to include anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly in the state's required social studies curriculum and remove any mention of "the separation of church and state," family-unfriendly films such as Robocop and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its two sequels got the full 17.5 percent.

As a part-time resident in South Florida and one who has become committed to doing whatever I personally can to stimulate the local economy, including going to the movies at least once a week (though I refuse to spend more on popcorn than the cost of a ticket) and having a number of film producers among my friends who have taken advantage of the Texas and New York tax credit programs, while working my way through the 10 best film nominees, I wondered how many of them might have qualified for the Florida family-friendly bonus.

None. As in zero. Let me take you quickly down the list:

My favorite, the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, would obviously not qualify. Not only does the main character's wife dump him unceremoniously for a neighborhood friend, but it is entirely too Jewish for some upstaters to feel comfortable with.

Up In the Air has some of the same problems. Of the three main characters, only Alex, played brilliantly by Vera Farmiga, is married with children; but mainly we see her hopping from bed to bed with someone not her husband. George Clooney. This is very far from anything one would expect to see on The Andy Griffith Show. So, no extra tax credit for Up In the Air.

Hurt Locker is full of violence and, though there is a tender family scene at the end when one of the bomb squad soldiers comes home for a few weeks before being sent back for another year in Iraq, while in Iraq, in addition to defusing bombs or getting blown up (sent to the "hurt locker"), the soldiers spend most of their time cursing and, worse these days, smoking cigarettes. Therefore, no 5 percent for the eventual Academy Award winner.

The characters in Precious represent the very opposite of a "traditional family," and so this would have been an easy one for the Film Commission to turn down. It's all about child abuse and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. I'm sure if Oprah, the producer, still wanted to make the film in Florida she wouldn't have even bothered to fill out a tax credit application.

Blind Side is a closer call, but I suspect the filmmakers would also have been turned down if they had filed for the extra 5 percent. Though it is ultimately a feel-good movie (which may be half the reason Sandra Bullock was so honored this year), the family it portrays--which centers around a white southern woman who adopts a hulk of a football-playing black kid--is not I am sure the kind of family behavior the legislators up in Tallahassee want to encourage.

Avatar never really had a chance of being named best picture. Academy members undoubtedly felt that grossing more than $3.0 billion worldwide was award enough. But still it is a stunning film. Perhaps one of the two or three most remarkable films ever made. Since it cost at least $300 million to produce, one would have thought that with Disneyland in Orlando, the Florida Commission would have been eager to attract at least some of the production action and thus would have showered tons of tax credit dollars on James Cameron. But in the film there is that anti-war, ecology thing to contend with. And of course all those galloping half-naked Na'vis. Does this make you think Andy Griffith? Not exactly. So Florida took a pass and the film was made in Los Angeles and friendlier Wellington, New Zealand. A full one thousand people worked on the film. That's a lot of jobs.

A Single Man and Inglorious Bastards cases can be dismissed in a sentence--the former is about a closeted gay guy and the latter has title problems. No need to say more. The Quentin Tarantino film also has Nazi issues, but the "Bastards" alone would have been enough to get it defunded. I'm half surprised that there wasn't a big outcry about its title being displayed on movie marquees around the state. I would have expected it to run in parts of Florida with an alternative name. Maybe something like Inglorious SOBs would have worked.

District 9 is so full of violence and extraterrestrial cyborgs as to call its family-friendly credentials, and thus its tax status, into question. In addition, it is only a thinly disguised tract about the hateful South African Apartheid regime and it barbarous ways. Films that look at race issues in such a frank manner are not of the sort that Republican members of the Florida legislature would want children to see. It might encourage them to ask questions about things closer to home.

And speaking of children, the last of the ten nominated movies was Up; and, as I confessed, we watched this one on DVD. It is a pixilated film and quite stunning in its effects. On the surface it seems an ideal candidate for all sorts of tax incentives from the Florida Film Commission. In fact, according to the commission's guidelines, the only films eligible for the 5 percent bonus must be "suitable for a five-year-old," with "cross-generational appeal" (whatever that means), and offer "a responsible resolution of issues." Up appears to meet all of these criteria and then some.

But the deeper I got lost in the film, and transported by it I surely was, the more I wondered if the creators came up with their best ideas while high on some sort of mind-altering, non-prescription drug. If Alice In Wonderland is psychedelic, Up is a close second. And so do we really want to encourage our children to see something this perverted?

So what are we left with? In addition to Rebel Without A Cause having been shot in Florida in 1955 and Midnight Cowboy, the first X-rated feature film, in 1969, more recently there was Big Boob Bikini Bash (1993) and in 2003 Blood of the Beast. None, I suspect, received an official sanction much less any tax credits. And thus film making will drift to New Mexico where you can get 25 percent for anything that employs local electricians and grips and drivers and food service folks.

Or you can make your movie in Wisconsin where much of the Johnny Depp film, Public Enemies, was shot. The film crew was there for more than a month. The movie, about the life of John Dillinger, was filmed in Oshkosh, Columbus, and Madison and received $4.6 million in state subsidies, including payments that offset much of the $5,625 paid to Depp's hairstylist, $16,490 for his makeup artist, and $38,771 for his two chauffeurs. All good jobs, but, still, more than $5,000 seems like a lot of taxpayer money to blow dry Johnny's hair.

Friday, March 12, 2010

March 12, 2010--Heal Thyself

An internist who I know tells me that he can no longer eat in the doctors' lunch room. The food is still good and it remains a welcome place to hide for an hour when busy making rounds in his hospital, but he can't stand the table talk.

"If it isn't about taxes," he confided in me, "with everyone worried that Obama will raise theirs so high that they will no longer be able to practice medicine," as an aside my physician friend quickly adds, "though God knows how paying a little more in taxes would interfere with practicing medicine--these guys, and they are mostly guys, are all making high six figures--if it isn't about that it's about Medicare reimbursements and malpractice lawsuits. I never any more hear them talking about difficult or interesting cases. I even miss the talk about the basketball playoffs and Tiger Woods."

While wondering about how they and we got to this place of hyper self-involvement I received a call from another friend who last week had open heart surgery and was now feeling well enough to welcome visitors. He added, "I also want you to see this place. It's unbelievable."

We picked up some Tropicana, it was a good sign that the juice in the hospital wasn't tasting good to him, and raced right over to see him and it.

And he was right--it is unbelievable.

Nothing but private rooms on the cardiac floor, all arranged in a horseshoe so that the nurses and aides could keep an eye on everything. And they did in a variety of ways--through dimly lit windows into each of the rooms, of course via the latest in telemetry, and through what even to my untutored eye appeared to be an integrated computerized records system. While we visited, in less than an hour the social worker came by to talk about his discharge to a rehab center; a nurses aide came in to take his vitals (and then record them electronically into a computer terminal in his room); the nurse herself looked in to see how he was doing and to remind him that he still hadn't taken his pain medicine (which, when he did, she too duly entered that into the data system); and a dietitian visited to discuss what he wanted for dinner as well as to talk about his diet once he was released and again back on his own.

"Remember," she said with a broad smile, "from now on, Eggs Benedict just once a week. You have to watch your cholesterol and," she playfully tapped his stomach, "your weight. I see you've lost five pounds while you've been with us," she had noticed that on the computer screen, "and I'd like to see you keep it off. So remember, when you're here see Dr. ___ three weeks from now, be sure to come by to visit me so I can keep tabs on you."

He nodded to indicate that he would. "And there will be no charge for that," she said over her shoulder as she danced toward the door.

"I know what you're thinking," my friend said when we were again alone, "This is the way medicine should be practiced. And knowing your proclivities--your political ones I mean--I'll bet you're thinking that after they pass the Obama health care bill this is what everyone will get." He winked at me as he is not much of a fan of President Obama's.

Indeed, I had had exactly those thoughts. "Minimally the computerized record system," I said. "And who knows, if it passes, maybe other things as well. Because you sure are right, this is a terrific place; and in a better world shouldn't more people have treatment and care of this kind? I'll bet," I suggested, "you must have a version of that Cadillac medical insurance they keep talking about."

"Not really," he whispered back at me, his throat had become dry from so much talking, "Only Medicare with AARP supplemental. You just come to this place, and anyone can, and they get reimbursed for whatever is allowed. And from that they treat you this way. You're right, though we don't always agree about the politics about everyone being entitled to getting this kind of care, about that we do agree." Again he winked at me, "And note my use of the word 'entitled.' I'll bet you never thought you'd hear me using that word in this context."

"You're right about that," I said. "It must be your meds messing with your mind. Or should I say, your politics. They can look a little different when you're hooked up to all these monitors." At that he just smiled back at me.

We left shortly after that, feeling very good about how our friend was doing and about the exceptional care he was obviously receiving. And, I couldn't help by think, being on that government program, Medicare, that he can afford!

Later that day, still thinking about our unequal medical system, back down to earth, I thought, while we're waiting for the health care millennium, there are a few things of significance that we can do right now at no or low cost that would make treatment more effective and thereby save some lives. Actually, many lives. Things as seemingly trivial as insisting that all medical personnel wash their hands before touching or treating patients.

There was an article in the New York Times that afternoon on this very subject. (It is linked below.) About Dr. Peter Pronovost, who just published a book about some easy things things that can be implemented that have been proven to make a huge difference in patient care--Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals: How One Doctor's Checklist Can help Us Change Health Care from the Inside Out.

About 31,000 people a year die from bloodstream infections that they contract while in hospitals. Virtually all of these are preventable. For example, catheters are routinely inserted in patients' veins for a variety of reasons and when improperly done lead to serious, life-threatening infections. Dr. Pronovost's checklist includes things doctors and nurses should do before inserting catheters to limit these--wash their hands, clean the skin with chlorhexine, try to avoid placing catheters in the groin, cover themselves and the patient while inserting catheters, and other seemingly commonsense practices that are frequently overlooked or ignored, which in turn lead to infections and, in too many cases, death.

He cites data that shockingly show that medical staff routinely wash their hands only 30 to 40 percent of the time before working with patients and thus infection rates are high. When in circumstances where everyone washed their hands every time and followed his checklist, infection rates dropped to zero. As in none.

We don't have to wait for Congress to act, for more money to be allocated, or for more places to become as smart and caring as my friend's hospital. In the meantime, a little Purell goes a long way. And saves lives.