Monday, March 31, 2008


Unlike the last two entries posted here, this one is of no real consequence. It does not attempt to analyze anything worldly and has no political overtones. Also unlike the past two entries, this one will not be cross-posted on my political blog, “Home of the Free.” Fair warning: If you are expecting to read what my views are regarding the presidential race, Iraq or anything else really important, you may as well stop now - today is not the day. However, if you are looking for general insights, a peak inside my head or just something to kill a few minutes… well then, you have come to the right place.

My first journalism professor turned me on to blogging. His wife, my second journalism professor, reinforced it. Not because she was a blogger herself (she is now, but that is not relevant to this piece), but because she explained one way in which her husband used his blog. Although I had already created my blog (this one, now more than two years old) before we met, her insights to this one aspect of her husband’s blogging helped me to crystallize why I was so enamored with the medium. It’s about exercise…

To become really good at anything, it takes practice. Although natural talent does come into play, Tiger Woods was not born with a putter in his hands. It took practice and lots of it to develop his skill. From other sports superstars like Michael Jordan and Joe Montana to artists such as Robert Frost, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jackson Pollock, Maya Lin and even Fred Astair - all had natural ability that was only realized through hours and hours of practice. If at all like me, much of it didn’t feel like work - they were in love with their work as I am with mine. Indeed, with very few exceptions, everything published here has been pro bono.

That first journalism professor used his blog to loosen up; to get his creative juices flowing; a veritable stretching of his literary muscles before he would get on with the real writing - the kind he got paid for. And often, so is the case with me. In 24 hours I will have five stories hitting deadline. So far I have not laid down a single character although the leads for each story have been dancing around in my head for a few days now. But until I started this piece, my fingers had not seen any sustained keyboard time in a couple of days. Not even close to long enough to get rusty, but it has been long enough that a little warm-up couldn’t hurt. This is my pre-game routine, if you will.

But I wouldn’t do even this if I did not enjoy writing. I get why musicians are constantly playing. Natural skill and practice, however, are only two of three the key elements. The last is desire for without it, practice feels like work making the use of any talent nothing more than toil. Writing used to be that for me… occasionally it still is but I find that by simply laying down some prose just to limber up, it becomes natural once again. I rediscover time and time again what I could not feel just a few short years ago. It is at once frustrating and freeing, agony and bliss; it can often feel impossible to start yet once begun will leave me begging for a moment to close.

And then I realize why I do what I do. It is so much more than any job has ever been.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Getting Real

It would appear that John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and I have something in common. We are both self-proclaimed “realistic idealists.” I am so defined by the starry-eyed idealism of my youth tempered by real world experience gained through the years since. In his speech to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles last Wednesday, McCain said, “I am, from hard experience and the judgment it informs, a realistic idealist.” Although I think I said it first, the term is far too general to be claimed by any one person; I cede it to the public domain. I would be tickled pink if it turned out McCain read my stuff, let alone appropriated it, but I don’t think that is the case. It remains true, however, that his self-definition has struck a chord with me. It was not the first.

They used to call McCain a maverick; a renegade; a loose canon; at times even, God forbid, a liberal. Although perhaps not as rebellious as his reputation would have us believe, there is a streak of independence in his thinking and his action that appeals to me. He has not been one that could be counted on to carry the party line just because it is the party line and, again, that appeals to me. Not just because it gives some Republicans the consternation that only they can know, but also because I admire freethinkers. That does not make McCain always right - not by a long shot, but it does make him his own man. A man that has far more noble and admirable characteristics that our current Commander in Chief, AKA “Cheney’s man.”

So he has admirable traits, ok. He is not an ideologue, good. He has a backbone, which should not be confused with what Bush calls “resolve,” excellent. Bush’s idea of strength is nothing more than blind obstinacy at best and arrogant stupidity at worst. And it is that special brand of arrogance that has, so far, cost more than 4,000 American service men and women their lives, many more “ancillary” and civilian deaths, created tens of thousands of war injured (injuries that will never go away) and has put us untold billions of dollars in debt. “Staying the course” means only more of the same for the foreseeable future. There is no end in sight. And McCain’s platform, in this one respect at least, foretells more of the same.

There are other planks in McCain’s platform that represent a radical split from that of the current administration. McCain talks about “international good citizenship” and “being good stewards of our planet.” He even acknowledges global warming and the importance of international cooperation in the effort to reduce greenhouse gases. He addressed our relations with Latin America as well, saying they should be based on mutual respect, not an imperial impulse. Indeed, his appeal in many ways is in stark contrast to Bush’s imperialism… let’s just call it what it is - dominion.

Ideology aside (realistic or otherwise), there is one key factor that will hopefully determine the outcome of the upcoming presidential election - Iraq. Although McCain gives us a different and perhaps more palatable take on our continued presence in the region, he still has us there. Hillary Clinton says she will begin to withdraw troops, but I still don’t get that she thinks her vote to authorize force in the first place was a mistake and she is way too wishy-washy to make me believe she really wants out. The war is an issue that outweighs the economy, housing and much of everything else because it, in the end, encompasses it all. If we don’t cut our losses, this war will be paid for by our offspring that have not even been born yet. We can’t afford it; they shouldn't have to. You think the economy is bad now? Just wait until the chickens come home to roost.

This election is about the war. Once it becomes other than, McCain and the Republicans stand a chance. I don’t care much about whether Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright are friends and I don’t care if Clinton embellished her Bosnia story. I care about who is going to end the war. Because the war is the key issue, Clinton’s vote to authorize it and her hesitancy to admit in no uncertain terms that her vote was a mistake becomes a pivotal argument as to who is best suited to get us out. I willingly concede that there are many other issues that are of vital importance in this campaign, but all three candidates are capable - with good appointments - of dealing with them.

It’s still about Iraq. It’s still about the war. It’s still about getting the hell out. It is a time to be realistic.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Political Paradox

I suppose I should have something to say about the presidential race. I don’t know that I do. I think I have an idea of how it will fall out, but even if I’m wrong, I can only be half-wrong. Barring an unforeseen catastrophe, John McCain will be running against either Barak Obama or Hillary Clinton. At first, and before anyone knew that come-back, um… kid McCain would cement the Republican nomination, it appeared as though Clinton was destined to be the Democrats’ choice. Then, after a stunning 11 state sweep in the primaries, Obama stung the Clinton team and sent it into overdrive. Now it is looking like it will come down to the super-delegates - which means it’s anybody’s guess.

The current controversy regarding Obama and his long-time association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright should have been predicted by the Obama campaign and certainly by Obama himself. The fact that it seems to have caught his team by surprise is the real news. We all have skeletons. That they weren’t better prepared is, in my view, far more disturbing. This is the big league and it is not about just the candidate, but the team he or she has assembled. On this one, team Obama has dropped the ball. Whether the Clinton team is the recipient of a fortuitous break or this was a cleverly designed offensive play is not important right now… Obama has lost valuable yardage, especially with the super-delegates.

Even if the Clinton campaign didn’t drag this little mess to the spotlight, McCain’s would have. This is how the game is played… the stakes don’t get any higher and the tactics have always risen to the occasion. Indeed, overzealous candidates have been known to stretch the envelope well beyond what is legal to win the ultimate prize. Does anyone remember Watergate? Although this campaign has not been subject to such egregious techniques yet (as far as we know), if Clinton or McCain thought it could be done with impunity, I don’t think ethical concerns would stand in the way. And Obama should have the experience to know at least this.

The transparency and openness of his candidacy is admirable; it is a breath of fresh air in an arena that is still ripe with stale cigar smoke. It might, however, prove to be naïve. If he doesn’t at least vigorously and preemptively defend himself, the Clinton juggernaut will steamroll him. And McCain’s army is at least as well prepared. If Obama is unable to get out from under this and soon, I am afraid he will not be able to go back to his message. It is a message that is more than simply change, but rather a paradigmatic change. But the paradox is unavoidable… he will have to engage in conventional politics to deliver. Let us hope that if successful, he will not be too sullied by the game that his style of change is no longer possible.

Obama is a visionary and he has an uphill journey. He has traveled farther down that road than anyone in else in recent history. The institution stifles visionaries; it stifles anything that goes against the status quo. McCain talks about “straight talk,” but Oboma talks straight. One gets the idea that what you see is what you get. Yes, I know of the inconsistencies that he has walked into of late - conservative talk radio calls them lies - perhaps, but not unlike the damage control of many other politicians from both sides of the aisle. Obama has been walking a fine line between business as usual and what has really ignited so many of us - being sick and tired of the same old song and dance.

We have a choice between the old guard and something different. Young people are coming out in droves like never before. Pundits and polls are being proven wrong over and over again. Could it be that we have finally reached critical mass? Is it time that the government of the people and by the people is once again for the people? Can we reclaim ownership of what is rightfully ours or will we allow the spin-meisters to once again tell us what is best for us? Obama can do this, but it will take a little bit of guile - guile that I hope he forgets as soon as he occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is time to take our nation back and Obama could be the leader of a new era.

But he has to learn how to fight.

Friday, March 14, 2008

American Dreamer

And now, a few words from our sponsor…

The definition of the American Dream has changed. It used to be a rather simple goal and based on what much of the rest of the world’s residents had to look forward to, a lofty one indeed. In a nutshell, if one worked hard, one could achieve prosperity regardless of class, ethnicity or legacy. It is usually manifested in homeownership and generally by achieving more than your parents did. Up until the cultural revolution that began in the 60s, that was pretty much it. Get an education, get a good job, work hard and retire in relative comfort. Of course that dream remains for a great many, but for many more it has evolved to mean much more.

Relative comfort cannot be achieved on a modest income, it would appear. Not because a modest income is not enough to be happy, but because of what that comfort is relative to. Simply owning a home (paid-off at some point) is no longer enough. Just being able to afford the day-to-day expenses of life with a little left over for a vacation or dinner out once in a while has become passé. No, to be relatively comfortable today, once must achieve more than just the basics… one must amass wealth. The American Dream has morphed; it now encompasses far more than just comfort, relatively speaking. One must have or live like they have wealth.

In the eyes of too many, driving a late model Toyota does not denote success. That designation is now reserved for the proud owner of a brand new Lexus, BMW or Mercedes. Even a Cadillac or a Lincoln doesn’t quite reach the strata of today’s American Dream, realized. It takes more, however, a slightly used Escalade certainly indicates we are on the right path. It’s not even as much about earning money and creating wealth as it is about spending it, whether we actually have it yet or not. It’s not as much about working our way to where we want to be, it’s about buying it now and paying for it later. Equating wealth with happiness has never enjoyed so much validation and the once vibrant middle class is taking it in the shorts.

While it is difficult to pinpoint one event or movement that brought about this paradigm shift, there are a number of factors that perpetuate it. The consumerism that has marked the years since World War II is perhaps the easiest target, but consumerism alone does not lead to opulence. Coming with the United States’ rise to hegemony is a personalization of the national fortitude. We have become financially arrogant not just at the national level on the world stage, but on a personal level as well. Then there is a political ideology of entitlement for the have-nots and exclusivity for the haves - often existing side-by-side in the same party. In the meantime, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

And the American Dream continues to grow. It has been corrupted - hijacked as it were by those who have it and aren’t willing to give any of it up and by those who don’t and won’t be satisfied until they have it - all of it. The Dream has become an entitlement - right up there with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit has become a destination with readily identifiable signs as to what extent it has been realized. And the debate still rages on: Can money buy happiness? Is the American Dream for sale? The answer is yes, but not for money. It is the same as it has always been. Get an education, get a good job and most importantly, work hard. Do all that and it won’t matter how much money you make, you will have found that the American Dream is still alive and within the reach of anyone.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Spitting Into the Wind

Oh, where to begin…

New York politics, at some level, affects the entire nation. Both the city and the state are constantly under a magnifying glass and perhaps justifiably so. Even at 2,808 miles away from my home in the sleepy Sacramento suburb of Fair Oaks, the shock waves of the recent tumult can be felt. Once again a corrupt politician has given all politicians a black eye. New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has the dubious distinction of being the latest public servant to be caught with his pants down – quite literally.

The tightrope between power and service is a line all elected officials must negotiate. Although I sincerely believe the vast majority of elected and appointed officials enter public service for altruistic reasons, there are a great many equally civic-minded individuals who wouldn’t touch politics with a 10-foot pole. For those who voluntarily subject themselves to the rigor and scrutiny of public office, there must be something more. To some extent power and ego must come into play.

This is not a bad thing and certainly not all politicos are power-hungry egomaniacs. However, the lure of power and prestige cannot be discounted; it is a necessary component. If Lord Acton is correct that, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” then Spitzer’s recent trouble shouldn’t surprise us. We are rightfully outraged, indignant, even pissed-off, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Yet we still are. We still expect our public officials to behave as we are expected to. Although the headlines never read “Politicians do not break the law today,” this is in fact the norm.

With Spitzer it goes beyond simply having sex with high-priced hookers. I think many of us could forgive him for that. Some would say it's nobody else's business. And although still considered immoral in even the most liberal circles, infidelity is not illegal. We could even argue whether prostitution should be illegal. These are not factors in Spitzer’s little faux pas. His violation is of a much more primeval nature. He is guilty of hypocrisy.

We are a nation of laws. You hear our leaders say it all the time when comparing our society to autocratic and oppressive governments. They will often trumpet this ideal in conjunction with the idea that no one is above the law. When individuals who are placed in positions of power and trust abuse that trust and violate the law they have been charged with upholding, we get angry.

Spitzer is an attorney, a former district attorney and prior to governor, he was the New York state attorney general. In 2004 he was credited with busting up a prostitution ring in Staten Island. Not nearly as high class as the hookers Spitzer patronized (reported to be upwards of $1000 per hour), a mere $250 would purchase the services of a girl from the Staten Island ring. It is reported that Spitzer has been patronizing his particular service for up to six years and perhaps for as long as 10. I guess that busting up a prostitution ring is hard work… what better way to unwind than in the company of someone who is paid to say “yes.”

Now that Spitzer has been caught, he is sorry. Of course he is… very sorry he got caught. There can be no question that he knew what he was doing was wrong on so many levels. The one that is most compelling, and the one that makes this our business is its illegality. Spitzer has a reputation for being an as…, um – heavy-handed. He made some enemies along the way. It is interesting to note that he doesn’t have anyone rushing to his defense now. He was getting no love from the state assembly, which demanded his resignation within 48 hours. He famously tried to discredit his chief Republican rival Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. Guess who would lead impeachment hearings if Spitzer did not resign? Even the U.S. Attorney’s office issued a statement saying there were no deals made with Spitzer.

Like a rat caught in a trap, Spitzer is squirming. Although his wife has been silently standing by his side, one can only wonder when that will come to an end. I’ll go out on a limb here… she was not the last to know. I’m thinking she has known of her husband’s extracurricular activities for some time. I feel most sorry for his three daughters. Not only has their father fallen in disgrace, their father is indeed disgraceful. And maybe he has learned his lesson. If there is any justice, he will have a very long time to think about it.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Work Clothes

I have never been one much for convention. I could be called a non-conformist, an individualist or, my personal favorite, a rebel. It’s not that I can’t or won’t abide by the standards laid out in front of me - I can, I have, I do and I will when necessary - it’s just that when there is a choice, I’d rather find my own way. A “self-starter” in some eyes, others would characterize my natural tendencies as “difficult.” Regardless of terminology, some people are more comfortable following a clear and established path while others find peace blazing their own trail. And of course, like everything else, it is not a binary phenomenon. There are many facets and infinite gradations between each end of the continuum - never mind the odd and oftentimes inconsistent applications of this “maverick” gene.

I have punched a clock. I have adorned a suit and tie. I have had jobs where I had to wear protective gear, cold-weather wear and sun block. I have had dirty jobs and jobs where I never worked up a sweat. There have been jobs where I showed up when I pleased and left when the work was done. My favorite corporate attire? A t-shirt and jeans… sandals or even barefoot, if at all possible. My desire to be comfortable, however, goes beyond just circumstance and attire… it has much to do with making those decisions for myself because I know how best to get the job - my job - done. Although the job I have right now is much less than desirable in some key areas, in respect to fitting my natural desire to call my own shots, this one is a perfect fit.

Picture this: My day began with a phone call from a contact at Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) for a story I am currently working on. CHW runs the Mercy chain of hospitals, among many other things. That was at about 9:15 a.m. I was awake, but had not yet found it necessary to get out of bed. After taking that call, I got on the phone to my editor to inform him where my stories were, that they would be ready by the morning and, last but certainly not least, I would be writing at home today. I made a handful of calls to sources that still owed me a call, touched base with a couple of others to get some clarification, read the newspaper and had several cups of coffee.

Except for the coffee, more or less in that order.

Notice that getting dressed was not part of the procedure. I am still wearing my beat-up old sweats and a t-shirt. Shoes? You gotta be kidding! Although there are more days that I have to “go to” work than there are like today, today is not an anomaly by any stretch of the imagination. I can count on all or part of at least one or two days working at home every week. But it gets better than that; even when I do “go to” work, much of my time isn’t spent there, but out “reporting” the news. Although for the right compensation and opportunity, I would welcome a conventional job (with its requisite conventional attire), there are definitely benefits that come with a low paying job like mine.

And right now, it suits me.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

California Capitol Fellows

The following is the policy statement I wrote for the California Executive Fellowship Program. The Program awards a staff position to 18 applicants for 11 months, serving in the governor's office. Not a specific question like the application for the Assembly Fellowship (see archives, Policy Statement), the Executive Fellowship application asks aspiring fellows to write about a policy area that needs to be addressed and why. I chose to write about healthcare, but my angle is somewhat out of the ordinary.

Policy Statement
Although there are any number of state policies that could be improved through streamlining and removing layers of bureaucracy, one that is perhaps in need of reform the most is healthcare. More than just the oftentimes insurmountable levels of red tape, the healthcare system in California and elsewhere rests on a paradigm that is abjectly unfair. It pits the two most experienced players in the game, the insurance industry and the caregivers, against the least experienced, the patient. More over, the contests take place when this inexperienced player is most vulnerable - when the patient is sick or injured.

To further compound the absurdity of this lop-sided contest, it is not the medical industry or the insurance provider who must bear the ultimate responsibility for the bill. The patient is legally and ultimately responsible for the cost of his or her care. While the insurance company denies claim after claim and the caregiver demands payment, the easy target, and the one the law requires to pay, is blindsided, often in no shape to offer any defense. In effect, the patient is steam-rolled into compliance by his or her own insurance company and by a caregiver who has nothing to lose by going after the defenseless, taking the path of least resistance, as it were. And neither the insurance company nor the doctor is going to go broke or have their credit ruined - that privilege belongs to the patient alone.

Any healthcare reform must address the dynamics of this paradigm. Somehow the patient, especially the one facing a medical catastrophe must be protected from losing everything because of an unwilling insurance company and an impatient provider. The patient should only have to worry about one thing - getting better.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Jeff Healey

I don’t write about music very often. Although I am, as a writer, an artist in my own right, I don’t have the same kind of creativity it takes to make music. I wish I did, but I don’t. And perhaps there are some musicians who are equally envious of those of us who can put words together, I really couldn’t say. I do know that music has been a huge influence in my life; it has defined my generation in its own unique way and it continues to be a measure of our time in much the same way contemporary literature has.

But music is a performing art. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to sit around watching me type. Even with the relatively recent technology that allows us to record and replay music - it is still not quite the same as being there. In a very significant way, when a musician dies, so does the music. Even if it can be replicated so perfectly as to capture the exact same sound, there is an indescribable quality that the original artist brings that no one else can. Literature, paintings, sculpture and photography can live on quite easily without the presence of its creator.

Today, the music world lost another unique talent. Canadian Jeff Healey succumbed after a life-long battle with cancer. He was 41. He leaves behind his wife, two children and an unreleased album - one that Healey will never be able to perform live. His interpretation is limited to whatever recordings exist - and that is it. I was fortunate enough to see Healey open at a ZZ Top concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1981 (it might have been the Oakland Coliseum and it might have been 82 or 83, but it’s close enough for jazz, as the saying goes). He was, at the time, riding a wave of popularity that most performers never get to experience. Although his moment in the spotlight was brief, it was intense.

Healey, like a number of other notable musicians, was blind. According to Canwest News Service, “Healey lost his vision as a baby to a rare form of retinal cancer and he battled the disease throughout his life.” He sat down while he played, laying his guitar across his lap. Although he couldn’t see what he was doing, he sure could feel it, and so could his audience. Indeed, due to the unique way he played, it would be extremely difficult to duplicate his sound, never mind the life he brought to his music. Even when he performed at the fictional Double Deuce on the big screen in the film Road House, the feel he brought to his music was palpable.

Although he will never perform before an audience again, he has left the world with his recorded talent. It will have to be enough. He was a true artist and truly devoted to his music. The music world and the rest of the world has suffered the loss of a talent that can never be replicated.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

"Policy Statement"

The application for the Jesse Marvin Unruh Assembly Fellowship, one of three California Capitol Fellowships I have applied for (see previous post) requires applicants to respond to the following in a one page, double-spaced, minimum 12 pt. font policy statement.

"California is facing three major demographic changes in the coming decades: significant population growth, especially in rural areas; increasing diversity, particularly in younger age groups; and a rapidly aging populace as a whole. These population shifts have important implications for the kinds of investments the state needs to make in infrastructure and services. If you were elected to the State Assembly, how would you allocate the state's limited resources to meet California's growing and evolving needs?"

That is a lot to tackle in one double-spaced 12 pt. page. Here is my response:

Policy Statement

Given the demographic changes California faces in the coming years, the state’s limited resources must be allocated very carefully in order to meet the demands of a growing and evolving populace. This growth will be concentrated in rural areas, among a more diverse and younger age group and in an aging population overall. To meet the needs of these major areas of population growth there are three general areas in which investment would not only help to alleviate the specific issues those groups face, but also benefit the state as a whole.

The State Assembly must find a means to establish some kind of healthcare reform. Although Medicare and Medi-Cal are currently available, it is notoriously inadequate. Healthcare reform that brings everyone into the coverage pool will reduce costs and allow for improved preventative care helping all Californians live longer, healthier lives. A comprehensive medical care reform package would ultimately save the state untold dollars in reduced medical care costs from a healthier and more productive population.

California used to boast the best public education system in the world. As a result, California can claim to be the leader in so many other areas: A leader of industry and innovation; one of the world’s largest economies; the nation’s leader in agriculture and a host of other accolades. All can be credited to a public education system that was second to none. It’s time California returned to a commitment to public education that is inclusive and comprehensive. If California school children have the best education available, California will have the best educated adults.

To address the needs of a growing rural population, transportation must be given the closest scrutiny. Although many of these needs can be financed by developers and the like, the state must be very clear on the planning of current and future needs in regards to roads, making public transportation a key element. Prioritizing the transportation needs of an expanding rural population will help all Californians in regards to cleaner air and less congestion on our roads.