Tuesday, August 28, 2012

truth in small tales

I don't know when, if ever, I'll ever get around to writing a story but it really doesn't matter so long as I can draw pictures and remain inspired by the stories others have written. Ever since my book of Aesop, parables have long been favorites. I hope you like this one:

The great fire and the little water

Among the Aztec people of Mexico, it is said that a long time ago there was a great fire in the forests that covered our Earth. People and animals started to run, trying to escape from the fire. Our brother owl, Tecolotl, was running away also when he noticed a small bird hurrying back and forth between the nearest river and the fire. He headed towards this small bird.

He noticed that it was our brother the Quetzal bird, Quetzaltototl, running to the river, picking up small drops of water in his beak, then returning to the fire to throw that tiny bit of water on the flame. 

Owl approached Quetsal bird and yelled at him: "What are you doing brother? Are you stupid? You are not going to achieve anything by doing this. What are you trying to do? You must run for your life!"

Quetzal bird stopped for a moment and looked at owl, and then answered: "I am doing the best I can with what I have."

It is remembered by our Grandparents that a long time ago the forests that covered our Earth were saved from a great fire by a small Quetzal bird, an owl, and many other animals and people who got together to put out the fire.

Source: "Turning To One Another"
collected by Margaret Wheatley

Friday, August 24, 2012

burning summer's end

When I came across this picture of a multi-storey Victorian traveling house I was reminded of an event I'm kind of sad to have missed. The 'Burning Man' festival begins this weekend and, believe it or not, it's the 26th anniversary of an interactive art event that happens in the Nevada desert at the end of summer. It began in 1986 when Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James constructed an eight foot tall wooden figure, carried it to a beach park in San Francisco, and set it alight as darkness fell on the Summer Solstice. The two friends were immediately surrounded by a crowd, one woman even held the figure's hand as it began to burn. The event continued to be held as a solstice ceremony on that beach, with the effigy growing larger with the passing years, until 1990 when the park police banned fire. That year the burning  ceremony was relocated to Black Rock Desert where it became a five day celebration that's been held on the playa just before every Labor Day weekend since.

I didn't hear about it until the early 90's when the number of people going there was still in the low thousands and well before the web, fb, twitter and what have you. It sounded like a lot of fun but I understood immediately it wasn't something you could just drop in on as a tourist. People make the journey to a desert in Nevada to be part of an experimental community where they'll express themselves and rely on one another to a degree that is not usually found in day-to-day life. Attending means a major commitment on several levels. The following is from a 2000 lecture given by Larry Harvey about the overall philosophy of the lifestyle and the festival itself:

Imagine you are put upon a desert plain, a space which is so vast and blank that only your initiative can make of it a place. Imagine it is swept by fearsome winds and scorching temperatures, and only by your effort can you make of it a home. Imagine you're surrounded by thousands of other people, that together you form a city, and that within this teeming city there is nothing that's for sale.

This city that arises annually and disappears without a trace occurs in an extraordinary setting. The Black Rock desert is an empty void. Not a bird or bush or bump disturb its surface. It is a place that is no place at all apart from what we choose to make of it. Think of it as a vast blank slate, or better yet, think of it as a sort of movie screen upon which every citizen of Black Rock City is encouraged to project some aspect of their inner selves. This novel use of nothingness elicits a superabundant production of spectacle. But it is spectacle with a difference. We have, in fact, reversed the process of spectation by inviting every citizen to create a vision and contribute it to a public environment. We call this process radical self-expression. What makes this self-expression truly radical is its reintegration of the private and personal back into a shared public domain.

What he had to say about our society then is just as relevant now. The event has only grown in complexity and magnificence over the years and I hope you'll get tempted to look at some of the links and pictures available on-line. I like the idea that people who participate in Burning Man are changed by the experience of art and sharing and begin to understand there's room enough in the world for a larger community where culture is created. Then again, maybe I just wish I could ride in that steampunk house.

Would you go there if you could?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

how do you feel?

I began writing this as a comment to Francis Hunt's excellent essay about the history of socialized medicine in the UK and Europe and some of the circumstances regarding why it wasn't adopted in the US. Once I got part way I realized that I had far too much to say to post in a comment and that it would be more reasonable to let him know my response was here. Hi Francis! This likely will be a bit tedious for anyone used to my sillier posts but since I already wrote a serious bit about our dangerous (albeit unwitting) reliance on electrical power, I figured why not another?

Although I wasn't what is called a medical professional: doctor, nurse, radiologist et al, I did spend more than 30 years working in the American health care system in various administrative roles. I concur with the conclusions you've arrived at regarding that system and the tremendous benefits to public well being when a country has overall health care for its citizens.

My first experience working in health care was during the boom in what are known as HMO's (health maintenance organization) in the US after the Act of 1973. It required that all companies with more than 25 employees offer federally certified HMO options along with general indemnity programs like Blue Cross that some (but far from all) companies offered their employees. It was said by a number of people I knew that a major reason preventing the US from adopting universal health care when Europe and Canada did so, was the refusal of mass coverage by powerful unions who didn't want their benefits diluted. Whatever the reason, the chance never really came again. Many of the patients we saw at that HMO had never had access to doctors as a routine part of their lives; the good thing was that most working people could afford to see physicians when it was necessary.

I went from the HMO to private practice working for a neurologist. The good news then was that almost all doctors and hospitals accepted what is known as the Medicare disbursement - Medicare's 80% payment being accepted as full payment. That had changed by the early 90's as care for the elderly became more complex and expensive with evolving technology and more and more hospitals and providers were demanding full fees. By then I'd moved to the west coast of the US and was employed at a large teaching hospital. It was also pretty obvious by then  that many of the people who had previously worked as management in the quickly off-shoring industrial sector had found new employment in health care administration and had their own ideas about cost benefit measures. I remember talking to someone in hospital registration where my mention of patients was met by her remark that 'We don't have patients. We have health care clients who have health care dollars to spend.'

As time went on I found I'd become a new kind of specialist in the American health care system - what is known there as a Managed Care Co-Ordinator Specialist. What a mouthful, eh? What most people even inside the US don't understand is that there are literally dozens of different medical insurance companies who have hundreds of different plans and benefits depending on which company they're contracted to in what state. You could not assume, for instance, that Blue Cross of One State provided the same level of treatment per diagnosis as did Blue Cross of Another State. Not to highlight Blue Cross alone, the same could be said of CIGNA, AETNA, and the rest.

For the last 15 years I worked strictly in surgical departments where I was directly responsible for obtaining insurance authorizations for what were quite often life saving surgeries. What has to be done in the managed care format is that you provide diagnostic proof (medical records etc. that include the numeric codes of the diagnosis - called ICD9/ICD10 codes that you can look up yourself if you're very bored) along with detailed written requests for the procedures the surgeon intends to perform (CPT codes - printed books that must be purchased). The insurance company will then decide whether to authorize or deny the procedure. Even if the case is authorized, the company will review the surgical report to determine just how much they'll pay after the fact. Should an unanticipated emergency arise during the course of the operation the telephone number of the company is provided to the charge nurse so the company can be advised of further costs. I've seen payments for entire procedures denied because a doctor made a previously  unplanned repair when no proof of a call could be found. One of my co-workers knew a nurse at a large insurance company who received annual bonuses depending on the percentage of cases of which she'd successfully denied payment. People in the US would be surprised to learn just how much their care is managed and even determined by medical insurance companies.

The other half of my responsibilities those last years was that I was also tasked with determining the hospital charges and billing for equipment and supplies used for the individual procedures.  Since by then I was employed in the very high tech environment of interventional radiology the price of most of the items kept in stock would raise the eyebrows of the CEO of Tiffany's. The general rule of thumb for billing the procedures was that we'd multiply the cost of the items to 400% for patients who had private insurance and 250% for those on Medicare. The hospital then had further contractual arrangements with the insurance companies that were beyond my pay level. Patients with no insurance who were ambulatory could meet with hospital representatives who would arrange sliding scale agreements depending on income. Patients without insurance who arrived by ambulance were treated and cared for until they were able to leave or placement was found. Hospitals aren't cruel places but that doesn't mean they don't have associated collection agencies either. Those places aren't nice at all.

I've never talked much here about what I was doing when I worked full time so I hope some of you have found this at least a little bit interesting. Access to medical treatment in the US has been an ongoing argument for a very long time that I feel could be best settled by offering everyone Medicare. I'm not convinced Obamacare is the best option for Americans but it's certainly better than the nothing some people have planned. Of course, I also think people should be allowed to retire earlier to make room for younger workers..

Please don't get me started about deductibles and co-pays.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

rude awakening

Snapped awake early this morning by the sudden loud slamming of the emergency fire door a few yards down the hall, the noise was our first clue that the power had failed. Naturally, the first thing you do after realizing you won't be able to make coffee or turn on the news, is to look out the window to see if other buildings may be affected or if it's just the one you happen to be inhabiting. Since it was daylight it was hard to tell. It's not the first time the electricity was lost since we came to live here (one event lasted more than ten hours) but it was one of the more mysterious episodes. Had there been a wild storm going on outside, it's understandable even if not acceptable, but this was a quiet summer weekend morning, just normally warm for the time of year.

In a neighborhood of family sized houses and small apartment buildings what usually happens is that people go outside to ask each other about what might have caused the problem. Some might even have news or funny stories about where they'd been or what they'd been doing when the lights went out. Such is not the case when you live in a high-rise apartment building, especially if you live above the fifth or sixth floor. First, since there are no windows, other than those in the apartments, the hallways are pitch dark. Naturally, the elevators won't work even if you have a flashlight to help you find them. The enclosed staircases may or may not have emergency lighting but even if they do, the walk down to the lobby won't be easy and, depending on which floor you live on, the climb back up will be worse. Should I even mention the lack of running water?

So there I was sitting in bed this morning drinking juice instead of coffee considering how reliant we are on electricity. I wondered if it was just our building or if it might be the whole city. What if it was one of those cascading blackouts similar to the one in the northeast in 2003 or the storm system across the US this summer? What if a massive solar flare had caused a modern day Carrington Event like the one that happened at the dawn of the electrical age in 1859? That time a geomagnetic storm lit up the sky with aurora borealis lights all the way to Florida and also burned out every telegraph junction in the Northern Hemisphere.

You've probably decided by now that I can get carried away by my imagination more than might be absolutely necessary but it doesn't take flights of fancy to consider how changed our world has become in this past century and a half by having easy access to electrical power. What if it suddenly went away for longer than a few hours, or more than a few days? We're all aware that the infrastructure built in decades past whether for highways, bridges, sewers, water mains, or power grids are much more difficult as well as expensive to maintain or repair these days. In regards to the North American grid, major budget cuts proposed by Republican politicians in the U.S. could have disastrous implications on both sides of the border. We're all more connected than we know.

Ah well. It didn't happen this time and our power was restored a few hours later. If it hadn't been, I certainly wouldn't be sitting here drinking my ice tea and writing as the fan blows a gentle breeze across the room.  Maybe I shouldn't worry so much. There's fun to be had even without electricity:

Holi from Variable on Vimeo.
..but it sure would be nice to have a warm bath after the festivities. 

Do you have a power outage story to share?

top picture is the Forest Spiral House in Darmstadt, Germany by Hundertwasser
(much more attractive than the building where I live)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

it's a what?

'What the hell was that?' came to both our lips this morning as we walked alongside the Eastern Passage part of our park walk. What we'd both seen was a group of large seabirds diving head first into the deep channel from high in the air. Even to a city girl like me it was obvious they were out there fishing and that these were no ordinary seagulls. Seagulls will skim the waves or sometimes dive like ducks from the surface but you never see them do anything so rash as powering straight down like WWII kamikazes. Although the flock wasn't as large as this one, the birds provided enough entertainment that we sat on a rock and watched them until they flew further out to sea. Once I got home it didn't take much google time to discover they were gannets - white birds with yellow heads, black wing tips, and an eighty inch wingspan. They aren't seen around here very often but they do nest in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Although Halifax really isn't a very big city when compared to places like Toronto, Boston, or London, in these parts it's the biggest urban area to be found for hundreds of miles (or kilometers as many people here describe distance). In the US you can go for long road trips through some pretty desolate reaches but so long as you stay on the main highways you know there'll be one of those food and fuel signs not too far away. That's not at all necessarily true on this side of the border. Canada is huge and only very well populated close to its southern edge. Things can get pretty wild once you venture away from the populous areas.

Our unexpected sight of gannets made me think again just how neat it would be to visit Newfoundland and Labrador. Up to now we haven't made any trips out of town that didn't allow us time enough to get home by the end of the day. Once we've moved (in just about a month) and settled in, perhaps we'll plan that trip for next summer. Apparently it takes 5 hours to drive from here to North Sydney on Cape Breton Island. Goodness knows it would be tempting enough to stay there for a while but the plan would be to go to Newfoundland - a six hour ferry ride to Argentia on the eastern shore. From there I haven't yet begun to imagine - never mind plan but thousands of gannets and kiitiwakes nest at a place called Cape St. Mary. Viewing the birds requires standing at the edge of a cliff (the local rule is to beware of fog and slippery grass) where you can watch them flying back and forth from their 300 foot tall nesting rock.

It sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? Yet on a scale of 1 to 10 when it comes to hiking and camping, we'd be at level minus 1. Walking is good - hiking requires much extra effort. At least we know that much. Then there's that ferry:

If you're interested in seeing a 10 minute video I found made by someone who spent two weeks traveling in Newfoundland you can see it here (it picks up after the first 90 sec). Ever since I read the book 'Shipping News' by E. Annie Proulx I've wanted to see the place myself. The movie got worse reviews than it deserved but watching it is still a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

When we go I hope Crow will be here to accompany us. He'd love cliff diving. Me, not so much.

Are there any places you dream of seeing?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

still scribbling

No, I'm not even going to try to describe what I was thinking about with this one but I hope you'll be able to see something in it that amuses you. One of these days soon I'll be getting back to painting because pictures that can't possibly come from a camera are usually the most fun for me.

Speaking of painting, I'm not sure if I've posted this one before but if not it deserves to be seen. If I did, and you remember seeing it before, I hope you like it this time too. 


Monday, August 6, 2012

old find

A few days ago while we were going through some old things that have been packed for a very long time, I came across this somewhat faded photograph of what  may be the first bordered watercolor I ever painted. The date on the picture said early 70's but back then I never signed or dated anything on the front and the painting itself was sold long ago. Still, it was nice enough seeing it again that I thought I'd share.

I should be working on more pictures right now but the days have been overly warm and clammy for weeks. Having my arm stick to my table while sweat drips onto the paper isn't my favorite way of feeling a deep connection to creative endeavors. Then there's reading the news which can sometimes have exactly this effect on me:

I hope things are cooling down where you are.