Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Katrina Hospital Catastrophe As A Cautionary Tale Of For-Profit Greed & Model For Saving Investigative Reporting

A Memorial Medical nurse fans a patient with "DNR"
(Do Not Resuscitate) written on his gown

If you know a medical professional or an aspiring one, please urge them to read the August 30 cover story in The New York Times Magazine. This report by Sheri Fink is not just timely because of the health-care reform mess, but timeless because of the profound life and death issues that were raised when Memorial Medical Center in Uptown New Orleans became marooned by Hurricane Katrina four years ago this week. Some of these issues also are being confronted, albeit under less disastrous conditions, at struggling hospitals around the country overwhelmed by indigent and uninsured patients, while the story is a model for how quality investigative journalism can survive at a time when it is disappearing.

By the time the flood waters receded, 45 patients had been lost at Memorial, the deaths of at least 17 hastened by Dr. Anna Pou (below, left) and two intensive-care unit nurses, all well respected, who had injected them with lethal doses of drugs. Bodies were put on the floor of the hospital's second-floor chapel (below, right) because there was nowhere else to take them.

The report by Fink, herself a medical doctor, is first-rate investigative journalism: Balanced, educational, provocative . . . and heartbreaking. Yet a key piece of this tragedy is merely alluded to: What happens to locally owned hospitals attuned to the needs of their communities when they are taken over by big national chains, in this case Tenet Healthcare, for whom profits always are more important than patients.

From the lowliest housekeeper to Tenet executives ensconced in air-conditioned comfort at the company's headquarters in Dallas, myriad actions had to be taken and decisions made in the wake of the devastation.

Having now thrice read Fink's story, my big takeaway is that given the conditions, the actions taken by Memorial's staff were appropriate for the most part. They showed an extraordinary concern for and devotion to patients trapped in 100-degree plus temperatures without electricity and running water. The decisions central to the story were how to deal with terminally ill patients, some with Do Not Resuscitate orders, after any reasonable hope of rescue had faded several days on.

With elevators
out, even something as relatively simple as evacuating patients to a helipad (below, left) atop an eight-floor parking deck involved having to pass them through a small opening in a machine-room wall and up narrow stairs; in one of a myriad number of small but difficult decisions, it was decided to evacuate Rodney Scott (below, right) last. This was because at an obese 300 pounds, he might get stuck in the opening and back up the evacuation line.

Although Tenet did dispatch some helicopters, it was otherwise shockingly imperious the needs of its staff and it appears that no effort was made to airlift or float in necessities and additional staff. As it was, many patients were rescued by an armada of airboats (below, left) organized by volunteers.

Memorial was originally called Southern Baptist and had an excellent reputation as a community hospital that served a clientele ranging from the genteel to residents of a nearby housing project. After Tenet purchased the hospital in 1995, it was renamed Memorial Medical and as has been typical with the corporation's purchases -- Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia being a case with which I am especially familiar -- it was bled of resources in repeated waves of cost cutting in the service of profit taking.
Tenet is a defendant in a wrongful-death lawsuit stemming from what happened to one patient at Memorial, but the consequences felt by Dr. Pou and other members of its staff who took actions and made decisions absent guidance, support and resources from Tenet have been far greater.

This is not to say that Tenet has always skated. In 2006, it agreed to pay $725 million in cash and give up $175 million in fees for overbilling Medicare claims over a six-year period. Its hospitals also have been accused of subjecting hundreds of patients to unnecessary heart surgeries, and that's just the stuff that we know about.

What happened at Memorial and is happening at hospitals owned by Tenet and other big corporations should be a cautionary tale as the health-care reform debate plays out. But it won't be. This is because these companies have enormous influence in Washington and are expert at three things: Making money, twisting arms and shirking responsibility for their central roles in the outrageously high cost of health care.

* * * * *
Before I move on, there is a sidelight that needs illuminating:

Fink reveals that there are nine different triage protocols used at American hospitals, which helped compound the Memorial madness.

And if there ever was a reason for tidying up all emergency procedures, this is it.

* * * * *
As noted by Yours Truly here and here, investigative journalism isn't cheap, which is one reason that so few newspapers do it anymore. Another reason: With most big papers run by greedy corporations (yeah, kind of like print Tenets), few papers are willing to take chances.

Be that as it may, the 13,000-word story on Memorial cost $400,000, according to The Times mag's own editor. (That 400 large included 30k for lawyering and fact checking. The rest is broken down here.)

The story's high cost aside, it is a model of where investigative journalism could and should be headed in that a goodly part of the cost was underwritten by Pro Publica, a public-interest journalism organization that bankrolled author Fink (below, left), as well as a few bucks by the Kaiser Foundation after she had shelled out her own dough to get the story rolling.

Pretty selfless, eh? Yes and no. Fink knew she had a great story that needed to be told, which she did admirably, but certainly understood that there was a good chance that she could sell it.

I can relate as a longtime investigative editor and reporter who is a few weeks away from publishing a book online about an unsolved murder that I have worked on over the last seven years. Every cent of this project has come out of pocket.

Do I think that a dead-tree publisher will pick up my book? Who knows? But allowing this important story to see the light of day and in the process provide a modicum of justice for the victim's family and friends is what matters most.

Top photo by Brad Loper/Dallas Morning News. Others by Tony
Carns, Lee Celano, Bill Haber, Lars Klove, Paolo Pellegrin0.

POSTSCRIPT: Fink was to go on to share the 2009 Pulitzer Prize
for Investigative Reporting with two reporters from the
Philadelphia Daily News, becoming the first journalist
to win the coveted award for an online article.

Cartoon du Jour

Tony Auth/The Philadelphia Inquirer

How Do I Stream Netflix To A TV?

I've got a MacBook at one end and a Sony 32-inch Trinitron television wired through a Sony amp/receiver at the other so I can play TV audio through my sound system. What hardware do I need to stream Netflix movies?

Gloria Winters (ca 1931-2010)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Vic. Parsons

Monday, August 30, 2010

The GOP: Getting Whiter By The Day

Believe it or not, there was a time when the Republican Party enjoyed strong African-American support. It was not for nothing that it was known as the Party of Lincoln.

While that support was effectively frittered away because of Richard Nixon's so-called Southern Strategy, the GOP has attracted substantial Hispanic and Asian American support in recent years, the former because Hispanics tend to be pro-life religious conservatives and Asian Americans, predominately Vietnamese, tend to embrace the party's hard-line anti-communist stand.

But the Republican Party's jihad -- yes, it's a jihad -- against Americans who do not happen to be of the Caucasian persuasion is having the effect of making the GOP whiter by the day.

That is perhaps an inevitable consequence of a party who's leading lights today are practiced race baiters.

Look no further than Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial, not coincidentally the site of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" on the same day 47 years ago. Sarah Palin, who recently defended a radio shock jock's repeated use of the N-word on the air, is a featured speaker.

This race baiting is not happening in a vaccum, but what passed for Republican Party leadership before the great right-wing takeover has timidly taken to the fainting couch rather than call out these and other dog whistlers.

Then there is race baiting's evil twin -- the notion that if they're not like us they're not true Americans, which is the subtext of the party's embrace of draconian immigration laws and repeal of the 14th Amendment.

To say that this jihad is short sighted misses the point.

It is indeed short sighted considering that whites will be in the minority come 2050 or so and the largest blocs of new voters are Hispanics and Asian Americans. But the Republican Party today is not about tomorrow. It is about coddling its xenophobic white base even if it means fielding candidates so nutty and temperamentally unsuited to lead that once sure electoral gains are dashed.

Cartoon by Ben Sargent/Universal Press Syndicate

Don't Try This At Home


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(Macau, China -- 1986)

By Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

Saturday, August 28, 2010

America's Favorite Dysfunctional Family

Imagine if the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket had won in 2008 and then Mumbles had The Big One, throwing the presidency to the Killa From Wasilla. And then the shitstorm of recriminations that followed Bristol's on-and-off engagement to Levi Johnson, as well as the other trailer trash hijinks for which the Palins have become infamous.

Then there was Levi's apology to the Alpha Grizzly, his apology for having apologized, his run for his not-mother-in-law's old job, and the Alpha Grizzy's incessant complaints that Bristol can't get no dad gum privacy while she jets around the Lower 48 getting paid obscene amounts of money to blather to right-wing groups.

But the crowning achievement -- the ne plus ultra -- of America's Favoritist Dysfunctional Family has to be the news that the shrinking violet daughter herself will be on next season's "Dancing With the Stars."

The White House would have become . . . um, an interesting place, wouldn't it?

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Dancers for choreographer Merce Cunningham strike
modernist poses in a traditional estate garden. More here.

Photograph by Katherine Wolkoff

Friday, August 27, 2010

Don't Forget The Batshit Crazy Factor

Nate Silver, whose poll-based political prognostications usually are scary accurate, predicts a loss of six or seven Senate seats to Republicans in November, which given the gyrations of contemporary politics means that the Democrats could lose their majority.

But as good as Silver is, he and polls don't take into account the Batshit Crazy Factor -- that is how as Election Day approaches some voters become increasingly chary of casting ballots for people with outlandish ideas that if enacted would radically alter their middle-class lives.

This is why I think that there is no such thing as a sure bet in races where the Republican candidate should prevail but might be considered Batshit Crazy:

* Incumbent appointed Colorado Senator Michael Bennet was in big trouble until Republicans nominated Tea Party love muffin Ken Buck, who wants to ease
the separation of church and state and eliminate the Education and Energy departments.

* In Florida, super conservative
Marco Rubio was looking forward to having his cake and eating it too until Charlie Crist, banished from the temple by Tea Partiers because he was not pure enough for a shot at replacing outgoing Democratic Senator Mel Martinez, decided to run as an independent.

* Rand Paul, a crazier version of his wacky father, Ron, has a bucketful of
oddball ideas and is downright paranoid about non-existent highways and monetary systems and may end up costing the party one of its two previously safe Senate seats in Kentucky.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, while deeply unpopular back home in Nevada, has a good chance of holding off Sharron Angel, who has a PhD in Batshit Crazy, one element of which is that God intends women to get raped so they can bring beautiful babies into the world.

Then there's Alaska, where Tea Party member Joe Miller, who was endorsed by former half-term governor Sarah Palin, may unseat Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who of course could turn around and run as an independent, which with a three-way ballot would give her a shot at retaining the seat that she and her father before her have held since 1981.

Having put up with Palin's wackiness, Alaskans seem perfectly capable of electing someone like Miller, but I suspect that the Batshit Crazy Factor will come into play given that he wants to eliminate the Department of Education, abolish unemployment insurance, eliminate health care for the poor by scrapping Medicaid, cut Medicare and privatize Social Security.

The bottom line here is that Silver's crystal ball glazing aside, the Republicans could actually lose two seats and fail to take over two others that were once viewed as sure things.

Hypocrite Of The Millennium Award

I'm glad that Ken Mehlman finally worked up the courage to acknowledge what had been pretty much an open secret for years -- that he is gay. But as hypocrisy goes, Mehlman hit a grand slam considering that he tacitly backed anti-gay legislation when he was chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Uh-Oh Times Two


An Idea Whose Time Has Come


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

DEER APPLES (Summer 2003)
By Raymond Meeks
Hat tip to Woods' Lot

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hard To Feel Pride In Being An American

I would bleed red, white and blue for my country, but these days it's hard to feel pride in being an American.

As for as current events, look no further than
the Not Ground Zero But Nearby Ground Zero Mosque, the draconian Arizona immigration law, the shameful Shirley Sherrod affair, and ongoing wingnuttery over whether the first African-American president is a Muslim, let alone an American. Oh yeah, and terror babies.

As for long-term trends, look no further than the devolution of the Republican Party from being the loyal opposition to being dominated by fruitcakes opposed to everything, the willful destruction of the middle class at the hands of the Wall Street oligarchs, the shameless reemergence of race baiters, and efforts to abolish constitutional fundamentals that inconveniently collide with far right political agendas.

Thoughtful lad that I am, I have been searching for a glimmer of hope -- something or someone -- who can tamp down this epidemic of evil because it spirals totally out of control.

Well, I'm still looking.

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

LiLo Is A Pathetic Sack Of Excrement

Just out of rehab, Fish Face wastes no time creating more trouble. Alas, she's mighty unhappy that her reckless behavior actually resulted in prison time and is demanding a full apology from the courts.

George Weiss (1921-2010)

Photograph by Dith Pran/The New York Times

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Remco van de Sanden

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Great Egg Recall: A Perfect Storm

I am trying to keep my "I told you so" reflex in check, but the massive recall of eggs because of an outbreak of salmonella poisoning should come as no surprise.

Here's why:

* The two Iowa businesses in the eye of the recall storm have been routinely cited for violating state and federal laws.

* The businesses share the same suppliers of young chickens.

* The egg industry, as is typical of agribusiness generally, has consolidated over recent years, and fewer larger businesses control over much of the nation's supply.

* In keeping with the Bush Doctrine, FDA food safety inspections dropped 47 percent between 2003 and 2006. Things have not improved since Barack Obama became president.

As Michael Poulan writes in his masterful Omnivore's Dilemma, chickens and other industrial farm animals are walking medicine cabinets because of all of the antibiotics in their feed to keep them from becoming sick, which they otherwise would do because of the toxic, cruel and unsafe caged environments in which they live.

And don't be misled by the organic label, be it on a carton of eggs or a container of fresh salad. Organic farming has become industrialized and the major producers are owned by the very mega-corporations that control most of our food supply.

I consider myself fortunate to have worked on a farm where our chickens were free range and drug free, and as a result I cannot bring myself to buy commercial eggs. I buy them -- albeit at a premium -- from a food co-op that buys them from a small farm that I have visited.

If you can't avail yourself of this kind of opportunity, then it's caveat emptor, y'all.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Buy These Books. Or Else

Will Bunch and I worked together for about a decade at the Philadelphia Daily News, I in a variety of editing and reporting capacities and Will as the paper's chief political writer.

Will, who is now only the second senior editor in the paper's storied history, has been
endlessly supportive of me since I retired and took up blogging and book writing, and gave my new book -- The Bottom of the Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & Cold-Blooded Murder -- a very nice review at Attytood, which by my lights is one of the best blogs anywhere.

Amazon.com will be publishing the second, expanded edition of The Bottom of the Fox on or about September 1 and among the back cover blurbs is one from Will.

One good turn deserving another, Will's new book -- The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama -- will be published by Harper on August 31.

A review copy is in the mail to me, but the pre-publication write-ups have been uniformly raves.

Robert Boyle (1910-2010)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour


Paris Dagguereotype by Jerry Spagnoli

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

High-Speed Rail: A Track To The Future

Fifty years ago, you could get on a Pennsylvania Railroad train at the station in the northern Delaware college town where I live.

You could go
anywhere in North America that had rail service with relative ease. A transfer here and a transfer there, but if dropping in on your mum in British Columbia or taking in the sights in Mexico was your wont, those destinations and thousands of others were at your beck and call.

Ten years ago, there was no rail service in the northern Delaware college town where I live.

The Pennsy was long a goner and Amtrak's Metroliners would whistle past the station, and stopping was out of the question for so tiny a destination. The once immense railroad had died for a number of reasons, but the biggest was the post-World War II love affair with the automobile, the spread of suburbs and the federally-subsidized interstate highway system.

Today, there is some rail service in the northern Delaware college town where I live.

A single Amtrak train makes a northbound and southbound stop each day and the Philadelphia regional rail system sends a dozen commuter trains a day down and back up the decrepit local tracks. But there is no weekend service and what service there is during the week is clustered during the morning and evening rush hours.

Perhaps most frustrating of all, local rail service ends at my station hard by the Delaware-Maryland line, creating an asinine situation by which it is possible to take local trains from north of New York City to my station, but then there is a gap before local service picks up 20 miles into Maryland and continues on through Washington, D.C. to northern Virginia.

A common denominator 50 and 10 years ago and today is that gasoline was and remains cheap. Even at $3 a gallon, it's a bargain, while the federal tax (a mere 18 cents a gallon) has not gone up since 1993.

But sooner or later the price of gasoline is going to go through the roof, which begs a very big question: If Uncle Sam can subsidize airlines and Detroit automakers, coddle oil companies and pay for interstate highways, why can't it subsidize the next logical leap in a national rail system -- high-speed train service between major cities -- let alone increase its comparatively paltry aid to Amtrak and regional rail systems?

The answer, as Bruce Selcraig writes, is that there simply is not the will to do what governments from China to Spain, from right-wing to socialist, are doing in creating safe and reliable high-speed train networks that reply on subsidies or private partnerships, but in each instance create many thousands of jobs while relieving traffic congestion, reducing carbon emissions and dependence of oil.

What's more, Selcraig notes:

"In virtually every developed nation except the United States, although there may still be pitched political battles over immigration, foreign policy and soccer, hardly anyone argues about the wisdom of their fast trains."

Hat tip to E.D. Kain at Balloon Juice

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Bill Millin (1922-2010)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Wink

Monday, August 23, 2010

25 (Unlearned) Lessons From Iraq

Herewith my 513th (count 'em) but probably not the last post on the Iraq war:

(1.) Don't go to war for political rather than national security reasons.

(2.) Don't start a war based on dubious intelligence.

(3.) Don't falsely link a war to the 9/11 attacks.

(4.) Don't start a war without a plan to finish it.

(5.) Listen to your generals even when you don't like what they have to say.

(6.) Provide enough troops to do the job.

(7.) Don't muddle the rules of engagement.

(8.) Don't give short shrift to your troops' psychological needs.

(9.) Give those troops the proper armaments and protective devices from the start, not only when you are pressured to do so.

(10.) Don't try to hide the sacrifices that your troops are making.

(11.) Don't declare as heroes troops who are not.

Don't engage in a war without understanding religious, ethnic and social norms.

Don't engage in a war without understanding the larger regional ramifications.

(14.) Don't name as your point man a widely discredited and exiled native who is a crook.

Don't be surprised when your point man ends up siding with your arch enemy in the region.

Don't try to impose democracy at point of gun.

(17.) Don't be disappointed when paying bribes to secure allegiances backfires.

(18.) Don't be surprised when the man you anoint to lead a civilian government is a sectarian thug.

(19.) Don't use torture as a weapon, let alone as a way to try to extract intelligence.

(20.) Don't give civilian contractors sensitive assignments that are best handled by the uniformed services.

(21.) Don't assert that you are going to rebuild the nation's infrastructure and then do a job that at best is half-assed.

(22.) Don't be surprised when billions of dollars designated for do-gooding go missing.

(23.) Don't run a war without asking people on the home front to make sacrifices.

(24.) Don't sugarcoat troop withdrawals by claiming that the men and women left behind won't be in harm's way.

(25.) Don't be surprised when the country as you left it ceases to exist in a few years.

Cartoon du Jour

Bob Gorrell/Creators Syndicate

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Yokosuka, 1959
By Shomei Tomatsu
Hat tip to Woods' Lot

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Science Sunday: Music On Our Minds

It is a testament to the complexity of the brain that despite decades of research we still have relatively little understanding of why so many of us enjoy music so deeply and revel in its ability to alter our moods, trigger memories and even change our lives.

That is just fine with me as someone who has never heard a kind of music that he didn't like.

Regular readers of this blog (the cats, my next door neighbor's cats, my faithful brother and that sweet woman from England who keeps seeing UFOs) know that I adore music.

Music is pretty much a fulltime companion. It wakes me up in the morning and relaxes me in the evening. It helps me celebrate good times and weather bad times. It makes me move my body in fun and interesting ways when the Dear Friend & Conscience and I are at a concert or roll up the living room rug on a Saturday night and boogie. And I can say without equivocation that it does strange and wondrous things to my mind.

Yet for all of the music that I have absorbed since I first heard "Pop Goes the Weasel" played on a jack in the box, I don't have a clue as to how and why it does those things to my mind.

Oliver Sacks has many clues and they are on display in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, a fascinating if uneven book.

Sacks, a groundbreaking neurologist and prolific medical writer, presents a pastiche of medical case studies ranging from the amazing tale of a man struck by lightning who subsequently develops a passion and talent for the concert piano to less fortunate souls who have violently disruptive musical hallucinations or less intrusive "ear wigs," songs that play in a continuing loop in their minds. These "musical misalignments," as Sacks calls them, are seldom fully treatable, let a lone understood.

Even less understood are why some people, myself included, find such joy and even rapture in music while others -- Sacks cites Che Guevara, who was rhythm deaf, and Sigmund Freud and Vladimir Nabokov, brilliant men who didn't get even the least bit of pleasure from music -- as representative of large segments of the population.

While it is somewhat of an afterthought, Sacks argues that music therapy can benefit many patients, including those with Parkinson's Disease and advanced dementia because the memory and emotion derived from music can survive long after other memories have faded. While my own experience is limited, the DF&C is a critical care-nurse who can attest to the therapeutic power of music and wonders why so few hospitals and other health-care facilities use it. (Perhaps there would be wheelchair fights over whether the music should be Rimsky-Korsakov or Johnny Cash.)

Unfortunately, there is a slapdash element to parts of Musicophilia that is too typical of too many books these days, even from venerable houses like Alfred A. Knopf, Sacks' publisher. Some chapters are much too short and the entire book could have used a hard edit.

No matter. As an experienced writer, I find nothing more difficult to write about than music because words too often fail me when it comes to describing the richness, texture and especially mood evocations of music. While Sacks' approach is more clinical than literary, he succeeds admirably where I fail in providing a window into music in the mind.

Here are excerpts from a chapter on the incredible story of Tony Cicoria, who was at a lakeside pavilion for a family gathering on a fall afternoon as storm clouds gathered in the distance:

He went to a pay phone outside the pavilion to make a quick call to his mother (this was in 1994, before the age of cell phones). He still remembers every single second of what happened next: "I was talking to my mother on the phone. There was a little bit of rain, thunder in the distance. My mother hung up. The phone was a foot away from where I was standing when I got struck. I remember a flash of light coming out of the phone. It hit me in the face. Next thing I remember, I was flying backwards."

Then — he seemed to hesitate before telling me this — "I was flying forwards. Bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, 'Oh shit, I'm dead.' I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman — she had been standing waiting to use the phone right behind me — position herself over my body, give it CPR. . . . I floated up the stairs — my consciousness came with me. I saw my kids, had the realization that they would be okay.

* * * * *
Dr. Cicoria knew he was back in his own body because he had pain — pain from the burns on his face and his left foot, where the electrical charge had entered and exited his body — and, he realized, "only bodies have pain." He wanted to go back, he wanted to tell the woman to stop giving him CPR, to let him go; but it was too late — he was firmly back among the living. After a minute or two, when he could speak, he said, "It's okay — I'm a doctor!" The woman (she turned out to be an intensive-care-unit nurse) replied, "A few minutes ago, you weren't."
* * * * *
A couple of weeks later, when his energy returned, Dr. Cicoria went back to work. There were still some lingering memory problems — he occasionally forgot the names of rare diseases or surgical procedures — but all his surgical skills were unimpaired. In another two weeks, his memory problems disappeared, and that, he thought, was the end of the matter.

What then happened still fills Cicoria with amazement, even now, a dozen years later. Life had returned to normal, seemingly, when "suddenly, over two or three days, there was this insatiable desire to listen to piano music." This was completely out of keeping with anything in his past. He had had a few piano lessons as a boy, he said, "but no real interest." He did not have a piano in his house. What music he did listen to tended to be rock music.

With this sudden onset of craving for piano music, he began to buy recordings and became especially enamored of a Vladimir Ashkenazy recording of Chopin favorites — the Military Polonaise, the Winter Wind Étude, the Black Key Étude, the A-flat Polonaise, the B-flat Minor Scherzo. "I loved them all," Tony said. "I had the desire to play them. I ordered all the sheet music. At this point, one of our babysitters asked if she could store her piano in our house — so now, just when I craved one, a piano arrived, a nice little upright. It suited me fine. I could hardly read the music, could barely play, but I started to teach myself." It had been more than thirty years since the few piano lessons of his boyhood, and his fingers seemed stiff and awkward.

And then, on the heels of this sudden desire for piano music, Cicoria started to hear music in his head. "The first time," he said, "it was in a dream. I was in a tux, onstage; I was playing something I had written. I woke up, startled, and the music was still in my head. I jumped out of bed, started trying to write down as much of it as I could remember. But I hardly knew how to notate what I heard." This was not too successful — he had never tried to write or notate music before. But whenever he sat down at the piano to work on the Chopin, his own music "would come and take me over. It had a very powerful presence."

I was not quite sure what to make of this peremptory music, which would intrude almost irresistibly and overwhelm him. Was he having musical hallucinations? No, Dr. Cicoria said, they were not hallucinations — "inspiration" was a more apt word. The music was there, deep inside him — or somewhere — and all he had to do was let it come to him. "It's like a frequency, a radio band. If I open myself up, it comes. I want to say, 'It comes from heaven,' as Mozart said."

* * * * *
In the third month after being struck by lightning, then, Cicoria — once an easygoing, genial family man, almost indifferent to music — was inspired, even possessed, by music, and scarcely had time for anything else. It began to dawn on him that perhaps he had been "saved" for a special reason. "I came to think," he said, "that the only reason I had been allowed to survive was the music." I asked him whether he had been a religious man before the lightning. He had been raised Catholic, he said, but had never been particularly observant; he had some "unorthodox" beliefs, too, such as in reincarnation.

He himself, he grew to think, had had a sort of reincarnation, had been transformed and given a special gift, a mission, to "tune in" to the music that he called, half metaphorically, "the music from heaven." This came, often, in "an absolute torrent" of notes with no breaks, no rests, between them, and he would have to give it shape and form. (As he said this, I thought of Caedmon, the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon poet, an illiterate goatherd who, it was said, had received the "art of song" in a dream one night, and spent the rest of his life praising God and creation in hymns and poems.)

* * * * *
Some years passed, and Cicoria's new life, his inspiration, never deserted him for a moment. He continued to work full-time as a surgeon, but his heart and mind now centered on music. He got divorced in 2004, and the same year had a fearful motorcycle accident. He had no memory of this, but his Harley was struck by another vehicle, and he was found in a ditch, unconscious and badly injured, with broken bones, a ruptured spleen, a perforated lung, cardiac contusions, and, despite his helmet, head injuries. In spite of all this, he made a complete recovery and was back at work in two months. Neither the accident nor his head injury nor his divorce seemed to have made any difference to his passion for playing and composing music.
Image: "Music on My Mind" By Lena Emmertz

Friday, August 20, 2010

Gang Raping The American Diaspora

I suppose that if you live long enough you get around to seeing almost everything, but I would not have thought that I would be shopping in a grocery store in the smallish town in which I live that would have a Ramadan sale.

I should explain that the grocery is run by a family of immigrants from India and the town is home to a university with a diverse faculty and student body. This means that most of my fellow citizens would not bat an eye at a Ramadan sale or the occasional student wearing a burka on Main Street or at a football game.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the Not Ground Zero But Nearby Ground Zero Mosque controversy has pretty much passed us by, which to an extent tempers my jaw-dropping amazement over how the controversy has superseded Arizona's draconian immigration law as the third rail of American politics.

I supposed that I should be shocked that a mosque and community center in another diverse area -- Lower Manhattan -- has the hair of so many self-righteous people on fire, but I am not.

This is because as my good friend Will Bunch notes
, the controversy is not an anomaly. It is the culmination -- or perhaps accumulation -- of a deeply sour American mood exacerbated by high unemployment, record home foreclosures, two unpopular wars, a president with a funny name who has spearheaded health-care reform among other extraordinary initiatives but grows more unpopular by the day, and a right-wing noise machine led by xenophobes and amplified by Fox News that is gang raping that most treasured of American virtues -- religious and political tolerance.

And be perfectly clear that this is not a war against one mosque, as many people would have it, but a war against Muslims and others who are not kith and kin to America's shrinking white majority.

Cartoon by Ben Sargent/Universal Press Syndicate

This Post Is Not About Bristol & Levi


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(Taos, New Mexico)

By Kent Barker